Thoth is beautifully designed, compulsively fun, and almost completely fails at its own stated objective.
The twin-stick shmup is the latest creation of Jeppe Carlsen, best known for his work as lead puzzle designer on the superb Limbo and Inside. You control a small dot. The left analogue stick moves you around the screen, while pushing the right stick in any direction fires a stream of bullets that way. You move slower when you shoot, encouraging you to balance offence and defence, and part of the game’s main challenge is learning when to run, when to gun, and when to do both at once.
Your targets are colored blocks. Touch them and you die. Shoot them enough and they die. Except they don’t. Instead they turn black and starry, and chase you round the screen with renewed aggression. To complete a stage you have to shoot all the enemies until they reach this state, meaning stages have a tendency to ramp up in difficulty as you progress through them. Oh, and they heal if you don’t kill them outright, meaning you have to make sure you’re in a position to eliminate each block entirely before you begin an assault.
The minimalist visual design belies how frenetic and complex the gameplay is. Which is mostly a fancy way of saying that Thoth is hard. Really hard. I died more times than I’d care to admit on the first stage alone, and it only got worse from there, as the game ramps up and Carlsen introduces more and more sophisticated enemies and mechanics. Each of the 64 stages lasts only 30 seconds or so, but they’re broken into blocks of four, and dying reverts you back to the first level of that set.
Those separations aren’t arbitrary though. Each segment of the game is focused around a new mechanic, introduced in the first stage and developed, twisted, and expanded upon in the subsequent three. For example, an early set introduces blocks that shoot out other tiny blocks once you kill them. Later additions include circles that constantly expand over the screen after they’re destroyed, or pairs of blocks attached to each other by cords that are also lethal to the touch.
This is really where Thoth shines, and I suspect a lot of that comes down to Carlsen’s work at Playdead on Limbo and Inside. This may be a shmup, but it’s built like a puzzle game, and the challenge of each levels is often figuring out the appropriate strategy as much as it is actually executing it. For example, on some levels there are barriers that appear and disappear as you defeat enemies, requiring you to figure out exactly where you need to be for each kill to make sure you don’t end up hemmed in, adding a whole new level of planning and positioning to the game.
If the puzzle mechanics are Thoth’s brightest gameplay innovation, its soundtrack is its most striking design choice. It’s a moody, electronic score that could have been ripped straight out of a John Carpenter film. I’m not certain, but I think I even heard a few screams dotted around the place. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but after you’ve died for the 20th time on Level 46 and are sinking deep into a pit of existential despair, you begin to understand the horror movie sonics. They’re a fitting reminder that this is a cruel, uncaring game, uninterested in your petty complaints, perfectly happy to slaughter you again and again until you get it right.
Which is simultaneously the game’s biggest problem. Because unlike, say, Dark Souls, which is difficult by design, Thoth’s challenge seems disproportionate, ill-suited to its own aims. The PR blurb promises it “eventually induces a trance-like state in the player,” an aim seemingly borne out by the minimalist visuals and repetitive, pulsing score. But entering a “trance-like state” requires that your actions become instinctive, almost automatic, emotion and reason slowly receding to the back of the mind. It usually takes high-quality drugs, meditation, or a Gaspar Noé film to achieve the desired effect. In requiring complex puzzle-solving, and being so damn difficult, Thoth never lets that happen.
Don’t get me wrong, challenge is fine. But Thoth’s loop of death and rebirth and death, over and over, the difficulty ramping up to infuriating levels, left me far from a trance. Every death was frustrating, more ‘hurl your controller across the room’ than ‘slip into a gentle trance’. It’s fun, it’s compulsive, and it’s immensely satisfying when you finally break through the fourth level in a set. Until then, it leaves you wanting another go around, to best the game this time, to inch closer to the next four-level block.
Thoth is irresistible once it gets going, but it never left me tripping. Then again, maybe I just need to take more acid next time.