Laika: Aged Through Blood Review – Melancholic Motorbike Metroidvania

Many years ago, when I was still a child, me and my friend would always play a mobile game called Bike Race (2012). It’s a very simple game in which you play a motorbike racer running through basic arcade levels trying to get a new best time. Despite it’s simplicity, or maybe because of it, Bike Race (2012) was an addicting experience that became very satisfying to play once mastered. The smooth acceleration of your bike and the levels built around up and down speed gain. The constant front and back flips that make you feel like the coolest dude alive. It was just a ton of fun.

So here we are, over a decade later, and the new game from developer Brainwas Gang and publisher Thunderful Group, Laika: Aged Through Blood uses the same motorbike gameplay mechanic and mixes it with metroidvania level design to create what they call a motorvania. But here they added some guns and a western theme into the mix as well.

The beginning of a melancholic adventure

Immediately, I was thrown back to when I was a child playing Bike Race (2012), with the same kind of extremely satisfying, if simple, gameplay loop. I don’t want to repeat myself, but all the things I mentioned in the first paragraph are true for Laika as well, except the gun combat adds another layer. Of course, on one hand, it adds a layer of complexity, since you can’t just run through the world here, but have to take out enemies in your way as well, but it also makes it all even more rewarding of an experience. Since now all your fancy bike tricks aren’t just style, they make you all the more lethal.

To reload you have to do a backflip. To protect yourself from damage, you need to have full control over your bike in the air, since its tires block bullets. It also means you have to aim while flying through the air and need to concentrate on two things at once, since the controls also aren’t as straightforward as you might expect. Laika has the perfect difficulty where you do need some mastery over the gameplay systems in the game to succeed, but achieving mastery is also rather easy. Meaning you feel like an unstoppable tornado of violence that can pull off all kinds of tricks with just a little bit of practice.

Take a little break between all the killing

Violence is the key word here, because despite its potentially child-friendly art style, Laika is a very violent game. Yes, there’s a lot of blood when you kill enemies, and their guts are the currency used to buy and upgrade things, but I’m really talking about the writing here. Laika is a hard-boiled western set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It starts with the death of a dear friend, and most of the story is about you trying to protect your people from a war that you’re all but guaranteed to lose. You’ll come across people who have lost everything to the hostile birds. Their families and friends, their freedom, some even their lives.

Laika gives these heavier moments the time they deserve. It’s a game that understands the importance of stillness. Riding your bike along the wasteland against the backdrop of a setting sun with a beautiful song playing is a much more effective meditation of grief than any amount of well-meaning words. Similarly, standing on top of a tower, looking over the ocean and silently listening to your friends’ words as they get fewer and fewer works much better than any cheesy, overly dramatic exchange of final goodbyes. Sadly, while these moments are very effective, that isn’t true for most of the game. This loaded emotional baggage and clear characterization only exists in these moments, while the rest of Laika is devoid of them.

This is one of the more beautiful moments

Part of this is the mission structure. Every mission, whether main or side quest, is a fetch quest. You go from point A to point B to collect some item and then either to point A or go to point C to give it to someone. That’s every mission, and it’s very uninspired mission design. Another thing that’s weird about the mission structure is that some side quests are mandatory. There are items needed to progress that are locked behind specific side quests, but despite the fact that you need to complete them to complete the main game, they’re still considered side quests for some reason, which is just confusing.

Despite some annoyances with mission design and lack of characterization, there’s this melancholic atmosphere that stretches over every second of Laika. This is in large part due to the soundtrack which might just be one of the very best of the year. The acoustic guitar female vocals carry so much emotion and beauty within them, it’s hard not to be completely engrossed by the world while listening to them. The songs are good enough that I can absolutely see myself listening to them outside of the game.

The backdrops in this game are stunning

There’s also the cartoony art style, which is rather striking. As I mentioned before, it’s close to being child-friendly, but it does have a bit of an edge. The endless wasteland is illustrated beautifully with its browns, and oranges, and yellows. There are a few uses of other colours, but it mostly sticks to those few and really makes the most of them. Despite the limited colour palette, Laika creates beautiful environments that are memorable, something very important for a metroidvania.

Laika: Aged Through Blood isn’t without its faults, but it’s a rather unique gaming experience, and one whose positives are so striking they make it easy to overlook its weaknesses.

Nairon is playing Laika: Aged Through Blood on PC with a review key. Laika: Aged Through Blood is also available on Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and Nintendo Switch.

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