Game Review: Play through the occasionally frustrating adventures of a 16-bit superhero in ‘Grapple Force Rena’

The Sega Genesis is best-remembered for Sonic the Hedgehog and its lineup of sports games, but one of the backbones of its library was a particular sort of platform game. Unlike the straight left-to-right play style of a Super Mario or its various imitators, these games — Vectorman, Ristar, Rocket Knight Adventures, Earthworm Jim, etc. — were more likely to drop you into an arena full of challenges, then leave you to find the exit on their own. It was less an obstacle course, and more of a sandbox. Even Sonic games tended to be like that, although their sheer velocity tended to confuse the point.

Grapple Force Rena reminds me of that particular style of game, in that particular window of time. It’s a mostly-one-man production by Portland, Ore.-based designer Tim Ashley Jenkins, made with Construct 2 and published by GalaxyTrail, the designers of the similarly-16-bit Freedom Planet. At time of writing, Rena has a demo that can be played in any browser via its website, or it can be purchased for PCs running Windows or Linux via Steam for $14.99.

In a nondescript, slightly self-parodying fantasy world, a girl named Rena finds a pair of bracelets that allow her to shoot a tether that can be used to pick up or latch onto distant objects, even things that should be too heavy or dangerous for her to hold. They only seem to work for her, which naturally indicates to Rena that she’s now meant to be a hero, and protect her village from all dangers.

Eventually, that danger shows up in the form of robots called Hollow Men, which show up, led by a notorious bandit, to try and sack the town. Rena, overjoyed at being able to start her intended career, sets out to protect her town, thrash the bandit, and eventually, to discover where her bracelets came from in the first place.

Each level of Grapple Force Rena sets you down in a new environment with a specific goal: reach a certain area, defeat all enemies, collect all of a certain object, solve a particular puzzle, etc. Past that, they’re often surprisingly open-ended, with a lot of ways to proceed.

Part of that open-endedness is Rena’s mobility. With the push of a button, you can fire a tether at any time and in any direction, which either yanks objects over to Rena so she can hold and throw them, or latches you onto a wall or ceiling. The tether, if you attach it high enough on a vertical surface, lets you scale it, or swing off an overhead vantage point to bridge a chasm. Rena’s only real method of offense is, in fact, to grab objects and enemies with her tether, then throw them at walls or other enemies for a KO.

From the start of the game, Rena is extraordinarily mobile, even for the main character in a platforming game. In addition to the grapple, you can also slide down and bounce off walls Mega Man X-style. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like obstacles in Grapple Force Rena even have a developer-intended solution, because it’s so easy to get around anyway. Yes, I could ascend the far side of the room, make a series of tricky grapple shots, and eventually swing over a chasm to my destination, but I could just as easily scale the wall below it with my tether and get there anyway. It’s an entire game made out of what feels like sequence breaks, because nothing short of an actual floor-to-ceiling wall can keep Rena from getting around it.

The game starts slowly, with a few slow-moving robots to pick up and toss around, but gradually introduces more obstacles, gimmicks, enemy types, and scenarios until it reaches its conclusion, which is one of the best-designed final levels in recent memory. It’s not some get-it-over-with conclusion that was thrown out in a week because the team was in a hurry to ship the game; Grapple Force Rena’s final stages actually feel like a deliberate summary of what’s come before them. This is one of those things that, in a perfect world, would always be the case. The final stage of a video game ought to be a test of all the skills specific to that game that you’ve had to develop to get that far in the first place — but in practice, a lot of conclusions get phoned in. Rena‘s doesn’t.

That being said, it’s not without its little frustrations. Grapple Force Rena isn’t a particularly difficult game, but it’s got a host of small problems that drag down the whole, most of which have to do with its emphasis on perfectionism. The game is made to be repeatedly replayed in search of better ranks on each level, so it’s full of a lot of cheap hits and tiny irritations that feel like they’re meant as “gotcha” moments. They’re there to be memorized for your next run, not reacted to.

If you’re just playing at your own pace and not stressing over your performance, this is a solid weekend’s worth of retro-styled fun, like a game I’d have rented from Blockbuster in 1993. You can even turn on regenerating or infinite health in the options menu, just to smooth your progress. If there’s a competitive bone in your body, though, and I have several, Rena ends up being surprisingly challenging. You need to get damn near perfect at a stage to get anywhere near an A rank, let alone an S, and that means finding your way through a gauntlet of enemies and traps that are there to whittle you down one incidental, barely-avoidable hit at a time.

Grapple Force Rena does fit neatly into another interesting recent trend, though, with its emphasis on idealism and hope. Without trying to spoil much of anything, Rena starts the game as a young would-be hero who wants nothing more than to stand up and protect everyone around her, and the game doesn’t go out of its way to try to break her of that habit. In fact, that belief is more or less rewarded; the people trying to convince her that her dreams of heroism are stupid are all either wrong or villains. Rena’s adventure does teach her that the world’s more complicated than she thought, but not that she’s wrong.

It reminds me a bit of Wandersong, which had a similar emotional arc for its protagonist. A lot of games tend to deal in cynicism, but I’d be okay if we saw an upswing towards heroes who may take a few hits, but who aren’t actually treated by their stories as if they’re naive children, simply because they genuinely try to do the right thing.

In general, though, Grapple Force Rena is an all-ages, decent adventure with a few rough spots that’s well worth anyone’s time. It’s a perfect encapsulation of a particular style of game from a particular window in time, and if you grew up on the weird platform games of the early to mid-1990s, you’ll feel instantly at home from the moment you start stage 1-1.

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