Mega Man X with melee attacks instead of a blaster—that's the platforming of Smelter at its most basic level, which I learned from a demo at Bitsummit (opens in new tab) last weekend. Japanese-based developer XPlus was showing off the game for the first time at the Kyoto indie festival, and there were a couple things that differentiated it from the many other 2D pixel art platformers I saw and played over the weekend.
Despite many many games being influenced by Mega Man X over the years, few have quite this authentic a touch. It's in the similar sprite scale, the feel of the dash, the way you clear gaps by dashing off a ledge and jumping at the last possible moment. Smelter gets that look (chunky sprites, early 90s anime art) and feel just so. The really big differentiator, though, is that when you finish a level, you head out to a world map where you do more than pick your next stage: You start playing a base-building strategy game.
Unfortunately, the strategy portion of the game was disabled for the Bitsummit demo—the developers decided it was just too much to try to show people in short play sessions at a busy event. But I got a quick look at it and some information on how it would work from developer Brian Otten, who estimated players will spend about 60 percent of their time in Smelter expanding their territory in strategy mode, taking over new areas and building up their forces. It took the dev team lots of iteration to make the strategy side not only fun, but well integrated with the platforming that makes up the rest of the game.
For example, every level will have a challenge room that rewards rare resources important for building things in strategy mode. But you may need to unlock new abilities (or simply play with a keen eye) to find them, so there will be a reason to replay levels. And you'll also be able to grind levels for a more common resource to fuel your strategic expansion.
Unlike the average platformer, where you earn new abilities by defeating bosses or finding them in levels, in Smelter they're tied up in the strategy mode. "Forges are located throughout the Rumbly Lands (strategy overworld)," Otten elaborated for me over email. "To reach these, you need to expand your base. By doing so, you will be able to get various Attack, Movement and Defensive upgrades which would then give you more skills in the platforming portion."
There are also stat buffs, like increased HP, you'll get from doing sidequests, and expanding the territory you control is how you'll unlock new platforming levels, too.(opens in new tab)
In a couple platforming stages I got to play with two of Smelter's three ability sets. One loaded my character down with thick rock armor and gave my attacks heavy pummeling power, like Fantastic Four's Thing stepping into a boxing ring. The second set gave me lighter, faster, longer-range attacks good against weaker enemies. You can swap between them on the fly during a level, and you'll have to. The rock armor, for example, let me hold down and jump to rocket up higher than I could normally leap.
Each set will have specialized unlockable skills via the strategy mode, as mentioned above. One example Otten gave me was unlocking the ability to dash in the air (Smelter's standard moves only allow for a ground dash). A few hours into Smelter, I imagine you'll be doing a lot of Mega Man-style switching, picking the right powers for the right situation.
Smelter already has a Steam page (opens in new tab), with a release date of May 2020. Otten told me that the team hopes to have a new demo, this time showing off the strategy mode, ready for this year's Tokyo Game Show in September.