Splinter Zone

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Mokkograd for PC, originally released in 2017.
In Splinter Zone, there’s no plot to get between you and the action. You play as a woman who runs through a series of levels blasting enemies into meaty explosions, jumping over pits, avoiding obstacles, facing off against some tough bosses, and occasionally stopping to shake the water out of your hair. Armed with only a blaster and your reflexes, you destroy enemies to build up your score, avoid taking damage to build your combo, and collect experience points to increase your firepower.

The game is heavily influenced by the Mega Man series, from the movement of the player character, to many of the level designs, and even the series’ trademark scrolling screen transitions. But, where Mega Man allows players to select between a number of levels, slowly making progress toward some end goal, Splinter Zone sees players faced with a random selection of themed levels, and getting killed earns a quick trip back to the title screen.

Modern indie games have adopted numerous elements from the roguelike genre, with procedurally-generated content, procedurally-arranged levels, and permadeath. However, most of these offer a concession that the player earns something that will assist him in a future run, even if it’s just the knowledge of how to make more progress toward the endpoint.

In Splinter Zone, there is no apparent endpoint or escalation of difficulty. In fact, there are no obvious markers of progress at all, outside of the player’s score and the occasional secret level. Players begin the game in one of 36 random levels, and reaching the end of the level reveals a teleporter that takes them to another random level, and occasionally drops them off at one of six boss encounters.

If the player is killed, he is returned to the start of the game… but there really is no start point; it’s just one of many random start points. Gameplay is no different for a player who has just started the game, versus one who has mastered the controls and leveled up his firepower to its maximum. There is nothing new to see once you’ve experienced all 36 levels and six bosses, and nothing to mark this accomplishment.

That said, the game offers compelling combat and level design, and a variety of themed areas. Nothing in the design suggests that the game couldn’t simply have been offered as a traditional action platformer with six themed areas and six boss encounters, aside from the fact that the game would have been on the short side (although still longer than many similar genre entries from indie developers). The boss encounters even begin with a lengthy pause, suggesting that some introductory story element was intended, but instead the player and boss merely stare at each other for several seconds before combat begins.

Destroying enemies causes them to drop glowing orbs that are automatically pulled toward you, adding to an experience meter at the top of the screen. When you reach Level 2, your offenses are supplemented by a hovering orb that follows you and fires when you do, thus doubling your firepower. At Level 3, a second orb is added, and at Level 4 (the maximum level), some of your bullets angle upward and downward, increasing your destructive range. A counter at the top of the screen indicates how many shots you can fire before you must to pause to reload.

At any point, you can also enter Hyper mode, which slowly drains your secondary meter all the way back to zero while temporarily granting you double damage and infinite ammo without the need to reload and banking your score. Once you do this, you are back down to your single shot once more and must slowly build it back up, which takes quite a long time. Furthermore, taking damage from enemies not only removes some of the your health, but immediately drops your weapon by one level, doubly punishing any carelessness.

This puts players into a constant battle of attempting to build their firepower to become more effective at dispatching enemies, and trying to effectively engage enemies when their firepower is reduced, which offers a bit of risk and reward. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid an enemy than destroy it, but those few precious experience points may double your firepower and let you take down a tougher foe in the next area.

Killed enemies occasionally drop health, and you can earn heath by entering Hyper mode. There are also some tougher alternate routes that lead to health restoratives or secret levels… but there are also lots of things that can kill you instantly. So, even if you’ve had a perfect run and full firepower, a single misstep can end your run immediately. Insta-kill traps include include bottomless pits, lava, and spikes.

Some areas are more combat-oriented, while others focus more on platforming. It takes a little while for the player to get up to full speed – especially in areas with ice or conveyor belts – which can result in making shorter jumps than intended, and each themed area has its own set of obstacles that require the player to exercise his platforming prowess. These include underwater areas where you move slowly and jump high, intermixed with areas where you move between solid ground and underwater areas, changing speed as you go, and sometimes doing this in areas where the walls are lined in spikes.

Some areas see the player jumping between color-coded platforms that appear and disappear each time a jump is made. And there are several areas with limited zones of reversed gravity – again, often lined with spikes – where the player must hop between platforms, wrap around them, and even fall upward through the ceiling, all while avoiding enemy turrets that move along the top and bottom of the room. Avoiding instant death is tough enough, but you have to keep your health meter up too.

Memorization is required to some degree, as some enemies can attack quickly with very little chance to react, and there are some surprising environmental challenges, such as buildings that fall down a few seconds after you land on them, but given that players encounter levels in a random order, they will encounter everything the game has to offer in a short span.

The six boss battles are varied, and each is themed to one of six environments. These include a villain in a mech suit that can jump high, a robot that can jump into the background and fire missiles, a hovering crystal, and some sort of huge furnace.

For players who are struggling to make progress, a cheat menu is available. You’ll still be killed by environmental hazards, but you can increase your damage output, reduce or eliminate damage taken, add rapid fire, remove the need to reload, or even play through the whole game with no enemies.

Splinter Zone was developed by Eric Merz under his Mokkograd label, and he is based in Mainz, Germany. He previously created some smaller projects in the form of Mop’s Tower and Noisekiller. Music for the game was composed by Svetlana Tovarisch.