August 16, 2021

Andreas Betsche

Skill Is Only A Rumour Until You Master This Balinese Temple Runner 

August 16, 2021 | Andreas Betsche

Go to the temple, they said. Face your inner demons, they said. Challenge yourself and find peace, they said. We entered the sacred proving grounds of Escape from Naraka and encountered many different feelings. Peace was just one of them.

The temple welcomes us in deceptive beauty.

At first, however, we were overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this game. Escape from Naraka presents its fantastic temple environments in pretty 3D graphics, especially with surprising with their phenomenal lighting. Narrow corridors alternate with open, almost dizzying climbing passages, then we dive again through flooded canals and ascend icy mountain peaks. As you can see, Escape from Naraka’s setting is visually really varied and takes the temple premise to new heights!

In vain, it is even more gratifying that Indonesian development studio Xelo Games is not afraid to fall back on Balinese-Hindu mythology and architecture elements as their primary design element. The game’s hallways are plastered with statues, relics and bas-reliefs depicting various aspects of the island’s cultures, all giving in to the developer’s sheer dedication to making a genuinely Balinese video game.

No this is not your usual Bali tourist destination.

As beautiful as the temple is from a visual perspective, it is at the same time twice as dangerous gameplay-wise. Pickled with deadly traps, we must escape this architectural hell hole to save our Balinese homeland from destruction. Luckily, our protagonist, whom we control from a first-person perspective, is highly versatile in movement, so we jump, dash and slide at a neck-breaking speed through passages full of spikes, swindling heights and moving platforms. Death lingers everywhere, and we will face it many times during our playthrough.

Not only the level architecture wants to kill us, but there are also several deadly foes waiting to put our escape to a fatal demise. Be it a hammer-swinging Ganesha, a flame-throwing giant boss Hanuman or statues that only move when you turn your back on them – the temple’s magic does not want you to escape Naraka, and players will not succeed if they don’t plan and pull off some perfect movement.

This “little guy” is just waiting for us to turn our backs on him.

Escape from Naraka looks and feels best when played at full speed, giving in to the game’s precise platforming and movement to increase the flow. Every time we die, we break that flow and realise that Escape from Naraka is also trial-and-error, and it is simply impossible to solve some parts of the game for the first time without biting the dust. This system can be frustrating because you might have to repeat certain areas over and over again. But it is also rewarding, giving you the feeling of really mastering the game, learning from your mistakes and overcoming challenges that seem impossible at first. Thanks to primarily generous checkpoints, smooth movement and fast loading times, too many deaths seldom felt like an absolute dealbreaker.

In its scope, Escape from Naraka isn’t a huge game, and the seven levels can be completed in about 2-3 hours. However, the game’s replayability is enormous, and it was designed with speedruns in mind. Every level has a scoring system, based on your run time, how many secrets you discovered and whether or not you received any damage. A leaderboard system is in place to keep players motivated. Thanks to unlockable skills like an ice spell, air dashes and a time-rewind feature, the movement is more diversified than it looks at the beginning.

For some jump passages we need good nerves and quick reflexes.

Don’t be mistaken: Escape from Naraka isn’t an easy game, and especially the later levels demand swift reflexes and high states of persistence. In exchange, players receive a challenging and polished speedrun and platforming experience that looks exceptionally stylish when played at full pace. Escape from Naraka might also be the most beautiful 3D game we have seen from Southeast Asia yet, benefiting from Nvidia’s graphic features ray-tracing and DLSS. On top of that, it might be the most Balinese gaming experience you can find out there. Not only does it transport local culture visually or from a narrative point of view; Escape from Naraka might also have the most remarkable implementation of traditional Gamelan tunes in a video game soundtrack.

Sure, not every room in Escape from Naraka feels 100% well balanced, and especially the later levels can be pretty unnerving. Still, the overall impression appears so focussed that you can see and feel Xelo Games design philosophy behind every pixel. Being their debut title, this is also the more impressive, wanting us to expect their next game with exciting anticipation.

Our mantra: don’t end up like this guy!

Escape from Naraka is thoroughly recommended to everyone with the endurance to tackle challenging games and all players with a soft spot for Bali’s architectural and mythological beauty. In the end, this temple trip’s not just about finding peace and harmony but also facing contrasting emotions such as anger and frustration. This game manages to give us both in a balanced way, and that’s probably its most outstanding achievement.

Escape from Naraka is available on PC (Steam). This review is based on a free review copy provided by the developers.

Andreas Betsche

Andreas Betsche founded Virtual SEA in early 2016 after researching Cambodian mobile games for his Master’s thesis. He has a background in Southeast Asia studies and has worked and lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since he has been actively playing games since the early 90s, combing both worlds in Virtual SEA brought together both of his passions.

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