Game review: Into the Pit for Steam

You ever have a guest who overstays their welcome? They finished the wine and drank all your bourbon as well. Now they’re looking like they might go through the kitchen cabinets to find something else to amuse themselves with, and you just want to say “Well you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

That’s what Into the Pit feels like. It’s an absolutely gorgeous game with great music, art style and gameplay that should have been a 5 star contender. From the moment it opens with a short cutscene establishing the main character’s quest to find their missing cousin, the bold use of bright colors mixed with pixelated shadows make an impressive impact. In short order, the game guides said character to the eponymous pit to rescue not only their hell-bound cousin, but also all of the villagers who followed the town’s alderman on a false promise of finding riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Diving into the pit itself, the player is given weapons, a pair of magic “guns” bound to their right and left hands, as well as a talent that might be something like a chance to regain health after dispatching demons or being coated in poison so that enemy melee attacks will harm them in turn. From the center hub of each floor, there are four  areas that must be cleared to unlock another level down, leading eventually to the fifth floor where a boss fight is waiting. The dungeons are labeled, so you know what kind of rune is available to harvest, or whether there’s an imprisoned villager to rescue, or just a pool of health to recover a bit from the tougher rooms. To escape each room, a set number of mystic keys must be destroyed. Lots of early rooms will only have one or two, but deeper floors in the pit can go as high as four keys. (Oh, and lots of keys have a hidden ambush mechanic, teleporting in a large number of enemies as a form of defense. As a rule of thumb, if an area looks clear, it’s probably an ambush ready to punish player overconfidence.)

Player death is handled by harvesting blood runes. Collecting ten will power up the “Cheat Death” perk, so if you die, you come back with half health. Then the price to activate the perk goes up, and each death gets a little more expensive. You can’t bank blood runes, but after some practice runs, you probably won’t need to worry about using that “free” life until getting to the boss room.

To be sure, that first five-floor run is where Into the Pit feels most confident about its direction. Just to get the next two rune keys, you have to beat all five floors and rescue three villagers. You also don’t have much in the way of support runes to start off with, so whether you can whack the boss is determined by what powers you can level up plus your own skill at old school FPS games. I was admittedly a bit rusty and unused to the gliding kind of movements that the game seems to draw from Heretic and Hexen, so I needed to get loaded up on Curse powers before finally taking down the boss. (Curse make enemies take damage every time they fire an attack, and the boss fires missiles like an anime mecha boss. He practically killed himself for me. Oh, also, the boss is immune to bleeding damage, so don’t bother building that up, at least not on this dungeon.)

The variety of weapons and powers allow for a lot of experimentation in playstyles. Perhaps you might go with the Shotgun and Fan spells for close range chaos. Or maybe use the Hawk and Needle powers for long range sniping tactics. Perhaps a mix of long and mid-range? The RNG nature of the game means you might not get the exact mix you were hoping for, but few runs offer a truly bad combination. (It can happen, and you will know exactly what doesn’t work for you by just stepping into the first room to fight some demons.)

Adding to this is the status effects that can be added and leveled up by completing rooms and selecting higher tier rewards at the hub’s central alter. In addiction to Curse, there’s Bleed, which causes enemies to lose more health if they run after you. Bleed also has a further upgrade called Vampirism, which has a chance to recover a few hit points with every attack. Combined with Grim Reward, which has a chance to recover health when enemies are killed, and tougher rooms start to feel a little less dangerous. (There are support runes to unlock that reward health for picking up rune motes and destroying mystic keys, so while the game never feels easy, it does become more forgiving of player mistakes.)

But there’s also Freezing powers to slow enemy movement, Enfeebling to weaken enemy attacks and reduce the dame they do to you, Chaos powers like planting exploding seeds in enemies, or Strength powers that add more range to attacks or increase their damage per shot.

It’s during these initial runs where Into the Pit positively glows. It just feels good to run around the vividly colored but darkly grim levels, tapping frenetically on the right and left triggers to produce showers of magical firepower. Demons explode in a Doom-like burst of bloody chunks, and the music rises and falls in time with the heat of each skirmish. Beating the first boss felt real good, like I’d just unlocked the secrets of being a mage badass.

Once the first dungeon is completed, the game has what it thinks is a clever twist, in that after completing each dungeon by itself, rune keys can be combined to access even more dungeons, and those feature a mix of demons and biomes from both the prior areas. Which could have been cool if getting to the bottom floor revealed a new boss who was a mix of two other bosses. But no, it’s just the same bosses over and over. The grind sets in pretty quickly, but instead of XP, it’s a grind to find villagers. Better support runes are locked behind set numbers of rescues, and the enchanter who can upgrade those runes needs to see twelves villagers return before they’ll even talk to you.

Even then, things were going fine for a bit. I got into a routine of clearing out four floors and heading back to the surface to stock up on some gold, fire, and insight runes, the currencies needed to buy support runes and upgrade them. (If you die on a run, you lose all the runes collected in that dungeon. It’s a nice risk/reward mechanic, at least at first.) With spending money secured, I’d make another run back down to the boss to save the last villager of the dungeon, listen to the evil Alderman taunting me for being too weak, and then collect a few more insight runes.

Then the game just flat out gave up on content. The support rune shop has nothing left to sell. The enchanter won’t level up the runes beyond the third tier. The character’s cousin, so chatty in the opening dungeons, just stops writing. The Alderman begins repeating the same taunt across multiple dungeons. There’s nothing to do except fight the same demons, the same bosses, all for no rewards. It’s frustrating because then even new enemies turn out to just be reskins of the same few demon types from the first three dungeons. Once I realized that, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed.

Into the Pit starts out strong, and if you’re a fan of old-school shooters mixed with randomly generated dungeons, it can probably work for you. But by the end, what could have been a game of the year contender just winds down like an old watch with a faulty spring. Long before the last boss fight, it feels like working on a treadmill in front of a blank wall. Sure, you can do it. But it’s just not as engaging as it was in the early areas, and there’s nothing to buy or earn to incentivize the grind.

So, as much as it pains me to do this, I’m giving Into the Pit 3 stars. The strength of those first three dungeons had me feeling certain it would earn a confident 5 star score, but the grind of mixing and matching keys to find forty-five villagers just sucked too much fun out of the game. So I’d only recommend this to folks who love grinding for the sake of the grind, and also possibly gluttons for boredom.