The Forbidden Arts, an indie action-platformer developed by Stingbot Games, is a title that hits a specific spot for people who enjoy the colorful vibes of a 3D platformer and the classic 2D action gameplay mixed with the steady pace of exploration. There’s something about being a hero on an adventure going through various themed locations that always invites a path to move forward through your journey. Moving into unknown territory, encountering new enemies and setting your eyes onto environments that are pleasant to look at just on their own gives you more to look forward to. The Forbidden Arts qualifies as such. This game has the charm and its heart in the right places, but design choices that don’t feel as an integral part to the difficulty makes it more frustrating than it is the actual challenge it tries to present. If one can overlook its problems, there’s a jolly time to be had.
Set in the world of Chora, we find ourselves in control of main hero, Phoenix, a flame-blooded rogue who discovers the power within him. With a burning itch (presumably) to find out more about himself, he embarks on a journey to get the answers and naturally, as it so happens, a looming threat pulls him in only to see everything through. Individuals within Chora have mastered the arts being able to harness elements. Phoenix is able to tap into his powers and conjure fire in various ways to aid him. In fact, they’re essential for progress.
2D levels are the meat of the gameplay in The Forbidden Arts. Every level has a vibrant aesthetic to it despite it having a blocky appearance the level design. Phoenix must reach the end of each level to advance, but getting there is more than just walking straight ahead. Multiple routes within levels can lead to secret areas. The verticality of each level makes exploration a fun part it all. There’s a slight metroidvania vibe to the structure of each level, but you don’t require any specific items to see everything. No specific doors to unlock or abilities needed. Though each level does have its own gimmicks, from platform switches to bouncy platforms and more. The only powers needed other than your skillful dagger use is the flame abilities you’ve learned.
Under the red health bar is a green bar that shows how much essence Phoenix currently holds. Pressing X will perform the ability depleting the meter. The first power he receives is a fireball blast. There are no consumables to refill his essence whenever he pleases. Instead, scattered throughout each level are sources of fire, be it burning logs or torches, where he can absorb freely at no cost and as much as he likes by holding down ZR. Cycling between abilities is done by pressing either L or R. Other abilities include a flame shield to block attacks, for example. The end of each level usually results in a boss fight which are always fun in their own right.
Phoenix can perform a double jump by pressing B a second time. Holding ZL is have Phoenix duck, but pressing ZL when moving will have him roll in that direction. This can be useful for enemy projectiles for instance. Attack is done by pressing Y and slashing can be done repeatedly. Enemies will have their standard attacks, but some enemies will also have a more powerful secondary attack. The enemy will glow just as the action is about to happen giving the player time to react accordingly. Enemies and hazards will be in your way in almost ever part of the level and while hazards can and should be avoided at every step, the same can be said for enemies most of the time. You don’t have to fight them if you don’t want to. However, the game’s mechanics can also prove that to be troublesome at times.
The Forbidden Arts has the right ideas, it’s just the implementation falls flat on its face or into a hazardous pool with a long death animation and loading in addition to that. Checkpoints throughout each level are generous, automatically saving your progress when hitting that invisible line in different sections, and thank goodness. Players can also manually save via the pause screen, too. That’s a very welcome feature. The actually playing part simply doesn’t feel great, or even good. It’s okay at best. The mechanics on their own feel fine and don’t seem problematic, but when combining them altogether you soon realize the way they’re meant to connect with each other feels clumsy. The game becomes annoying by its own design rather than the challenge given from clever enemies or platforming.
The levels tempt you to explore them, but the act of doing so feels like a slog at times. We talked about the double jump. This can only be performed only after a first jump. Makes sense, right? However, countless other games allow you to simply fall off a ledge without jumping and perform the 2nd jump in mid-air. The Forbidden Arts doesn’t let you. Once you navigate through the levels and know how they’re structured, it becomes apparent how clunky it actually feels. Portions of levels can feel claustrophobic for both platforming and enemy placement. Phoenix can slide down walls and even wall-jump, however, some restrictions are tied to his double jump. Phoenix simply can’t jump on the same wall consecutively twice and thus he won’t slowly slide down it and instead fall. It only resets the count if he touches an opposing wall. This boils down to how the levels are structured and bypasses the ability to “cheese” by jumping on the same wall and because of that it feels unnatural and tedious to navigate.
When Phoenix gets hit by an enemy or hazard in the air, he’s left vulnerable without any action to attack or jump, resulting in hopes that you land on a safe platform. The hitboxes of his dagger attacks are seem very strict. You can slash multiple times on ground, but only once in air. None of this feels smooth. This is super apparent when attacking tiny bixies for the first time. When your health is low, sometimes a defeated enemy will drop a heart which will refill some of your health. Sometimes not. When you wish to defeat an enemy and it feels like you’re trying to thread a needle on a moving train, it becomes a nuisance. We also found numerous times we had to reload saves due of bugginess. At times after performing magic arts, Phoenix is rendered still without being able to move or perform any action. Or Phoenix’s animation of climbing vertical vines will get stuck and cause him to move horizontal in the air.
Ledges usually don’t allow you to hang on to them, which would have been useful. However, it does become one level’s gimmick as the walls provide too slippery to slide or jump on so you have to rely on a high jump ability to reach ledges instead. Again, it’s a workaround to a level’s design making combining elements feel as if it wasn’t fully thought through. Why is it a mechanic for only one level when they all have the same blocky aesthetic? It’s a nice idea that provides no context as to why these mechanics shift around. It feels as if things were implemented because it just works. The mechanics leaves open gaps to gameplay. There’s questionable limitations to actions despite being on the right track. Responsiveness is the key to being the adhesive to polished gameplay and it’s simply not applied here.
If you do want to make it more bearable, Gold Pieces are hidden throughout each level (10 in each). These rewards are given to an NPC who can rebuild certain structures allowing you to take on a challenge level (themed to the locale) to earn upgrades to health and magic. Reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda, a “piece” will float down and be rewarded to the player once completed. The NPC can be found in the hub areas. The hubs are an interesting twist to the 2D formula as they’re 3D environments will full camera control, allowing for some minor exploration, though they generally serve as a means for connecting levels. They’re a nice break between levels and just like them they too are themed to its own biome; deserts, swamps, snowy, caverns, etc. There’s great variety here.
An easy-cheesy lemon squeezy 4 Gold Pieces can be found in each hub area. These are neat to navigate in between each level, however they’re so barren and empty that it feels like more could’ve been done to make them stand out. The Gold Pieces are all easily obtained within a couple minutes of searching that the environments only feel like a backdrop to advance. The hubs are all connected to each other and is easy to navigate between worlds. It does feel odd, however, that a path forward whose requirements are yet to be met will prompt a message mentioning a zone you’ve never heard of and the tasks you need to complete despite the path having no blockage preventing you to go through. It’s a rather minor complaint. The means for retrieving Gold Pieces in each hub area should’ve been similar to the 2D levels. You’re simply removed of all physical and magical abilities in the hubs save for a single jump. Why not use double jumps, attacks or my newly acquired magic abilities to reach a platform or destroy a wall to find these Gold Pieces instead? These environments are nice to be in, but lack any depth. They’re not large, but still seem bigger than they need to be if the 2D portions are the heart of the game. Otherwise you’re taking extra steps that you don’t need to.
There’s still charm to The Forbidden Arts and at times it’s cute. The music is also good. It’s all acoustic guitar and has an indie genre folk vibe to it. The sound can be samey going from different environments all with their own climate and visual identity, but it’s not a negative. There’s voice acting as well and the cutscenes do a fine job at telling the story, though the voice acting is hit or miss. For example, a villain who has made their presence came off unconvincing and not much of a threat, a little too quiet and the music taking priority of their lines on top of that.
The game does run well. Take control of that camera of what feels like a smooth 60 fps; upwards.