In recent years, the roguelike and roguelite genre of games have both seen massive booms in popularity. This genre includes many critical hits such as The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Spelunky and Enter the Gungeon. Roguelikes are difficult games to design, because by their nature they are hard and repetitive. Players will naturally lose many runs as they slowly learn the game’s mechanics. In order to counteract the innate repetitiveness, these games usually feature a large variety of items, characters, unlockables and secrets to incentivize players to continue playing. If a new game in the genre wants to stand out it would need to be unique from its predecessors. While Socketeer is unique, it lacks the fundamental elements that make roguelikes work.
Socketeer is a 2-D, top-down action roguelike where you take control of a small robot making its way through various space stations. Developed by Ice BEAM Ltd. and published by Alliance Digital Media, the game recently released for Steam, PS4 and Xbox One. Like some other roguelikes, the game is influenced by a retro game, which in this game’s case is called Paradroid. It takes from it not only the top-down view and setting of a space station but also the main mechanic – hacking.
Hacking in Socketeer is much more simplified and easy than it is in Paradroid. You only need to approach an enemy or an object and press the hack button. Hacking does not stop time, so you will need to be quick. You are given a series of empty circles and two buttons; if you press the right button the circle is green, and if you are wrong it will be red. This means that it should only take two attempts to hack anything. During the first attempt you should press only one button and see which circles are red and which are green, during the second attempt just replace the red circles with the second button.
As you make your way through the game you will start on level 1-1. Your goal is to make your way to a teleporter to the next level
Starting on level 1-1, you will make your way through narrow hallways and rooms, searching for the teleporter room. You will need to find keycards to unlock doors in order to enter the teleporter room. Once inside the teleporter room you only need to zactivate the tleporter and move on to the next level. From there until the end of the game every level is basically the same with the only exceptions being the one and only boss in level 5-1 and the final level: 7-1. In every level, you have very few options on how to approach it.
One approach is to attempt to stealth your way through by avoiding the enemies’ clearly defined area of detection. This is much harder than you may think because enemies move constantly and their area of detection is sometimes massive and blocks your way. You can hack into crates and other objects to hide from enemies, but any hint of movement from you will immediately alert them and they will destroy the object you are hiding in. This approach leads to Socketeer being a very slow, very monotonous game that is incredibly unfun.
A different approach is to hack one of the enemies and use its attack to destroy any other enemies and safely make your way to the teleporter. There are multiple issues with this. In Socketeer’s later levels, enemies rarely stand around on their own allowing you to safely take control of them. If you attempt to hack an enemy when another is nearby it will most likely be destroyed before you are able to. Most enemies have very low health and so you are required to constantly jump from one robot to another.
When attacking, you use your energy, and in order to recharge you must either hack into a charging station or hope that an enemy drops a battery. If you happened to be surrounded by a group of enemies there is very little chance that you will be able to survive by quickly hacking one and using it to kill the others – it’s just not possible.
It was for these reasons that I mostly used the shopkeepers. Starting in level 1-2, you will find shops with four items, and in every shop is a neutral shopkeeper that guards it. While they are harder to hack, they do have more health and are usually alone. They also wield a shotgun that destroys pretty much every enemy in one shot.
Dealing with enemies is made much easier with the help of bombs and EMPs. Bombs destroy walls which will then suck everything out to the vacuum of space for a few seconds (try not to fly out with the enemies). EMPs shut down enemies so you can hack them easily, open doors without requiring to find a keycard and fully charge a teleporter without having you hack it and manually charging it. Both of these items are very rare and are another reason to constantly take control of shopkeepers – because you get to pick up their items for free.
The final approach to playing the game is just to rush towards the exit while trying to avoid the enemies. This will most likely not work, but I had the most fun playing the game this way.
It’s for these reasons that Socketeer feels very unbalanced. It’s either too difficult because enemies group up and make it impossible, or it’s too easy because you are blowing everything up and rushing and EMPing your way through every level. Take, for example, the order of the levels. Chapter 1 (each chapter has three levels with the exception of chapter 5 and 7 which have one) is fairly simple with no special gimmicks. Chapter 2 introduces environmental hazards in the shape of lava and enemies that push you towards that lava. All of a sudden, chapter 3 is mostly about going up and down floors and windows that easily break. Chapter 3 is so much easier than chapter 2 that it makes no sense that it comes after. The only time the lava comes back is in chapter 7 where it is part of the only puzzle in the entire game.
In chapter 4 you have to watch out for proximity mines that you can’t hack and lock in on you. You can shut them off with an EMP or destroy them with a bomb or an attack. The boss in chapter 5 is simultaneously very easy and very frustrating. In order to defeat it, you must throw bombs into its mouth when it tries to suck you in. The issue is that it rarely tries to suck you in, and you first need to use bombs to destroy its shields. Furthermore, since getting close to it is very dangerous, so you will most likely try to keep your distance away from it. If you don’t have bombs, you can attempt to get it to suck the mines that spawn in its arena, but that takes so much time you might as well reset and try the game again. There is nothing special about chapter 6 other than being very long and having many tough enemies. Lastly, level 7 is just a simple puzzle where you need to control some alien eyeballs and kill them in a lava pit.
I just described the entirety of Socketeer. It took me roughly five hours to beat it for the first time and there is nothing beyond what I described other than some items you can buy. Even then, in total, there are only about 10 active and passive items you can buy and no unlockables. The most helpful active item is the shield which can block some shots. There is also a drill to destroy walls instead of using bombs, a manual teleporter to get away from enemies and into rooms more easily, and health and energy upgrades you can get. This means that there is a, frankly, ridiculous lack of items in the game. The shops themselves don’t aid this when they are so randomized that sometimes they will sell you four packs of bombs and not a single item.
In order to get money (known as salvage in the game) you have two options: the first is to destroy anything, which can only be done with a hacked enemy and so it costs energy; this is an issue because there are a limited amount of recharging stations. The second is to be lucky enough to find a hidden chest – this only requires you to solve a simple puzzle like pushing a pillar into a position – and hoping that it drops a lot of salvage.
Socketeer does not allow for different playstyles, and so it feels extremely repetitive. You can only choose one character that can only do two things – hack and run. Each level only features three or so robots to hack and only one or two have a ranged attack which is actually useful. The vast majority of the levels are pretty much exactly the same. If you get hurt, the only way to heal is to either find a recycling machine and throw a robot into it for some health, or moving to the next level with a robot and selling it for health. There is no reason to beat the game more than once other than to figure out what to do in the garden at the end (which I was unable to). The lack of items means that most of your runs will play out exactly the same.
I did have fun using an exploit I later found where you can easily get an infinite amount of bombs and EMPs by repeatedly pressing the A button on a 360 controller after picking up one of those items. This led to some runs where I just rushed through the entire game EMPing everything in my way. For me, it was pure catharsis.
I found Socketeer to be somehow both very boring and very frustrating, though that’s not the say there is nothing good about it. I did like the simple and cute art style, most of the music and the concept of hacking robots. The concept has a lot of potential, but most of it is thrown away at this bare-bones attempt at a roguelike. I would honestly have liked this game so much more if it was a series of designed puzzles. Puzzles where you were given a goal and had to figure out in what order you should hack the enemies or whether you even needed to hack them. Puzzles where the focus was on pure risk-reward decision making and not random luck. Instead, Socketeer feels like it’s just trying to cash in on a trend. I can only recommend this game to those who want to prove to themselves that they can beat any challenge.
It should be noted that the developers have anounced that the game is getting more content, so it will most likely improve in the future.
Ofir reviewed Socketeer on Steam with a code provided by the developer.