Anyone who plays a lot of games – and I mean a lot of games, not just a few games a lot of the time – will likely tell you that it’s rare to see anything that feels really unique. Developers chase trends for a reason, the upshot of which is that over a given period a lot of new releases will borrow heavily from one another or from existing IP, and it all begins to feel like a rich soup cooked in a really big pot. Satisfying at first, certainly tasty, but there’s so much of it that it will have started to go off by the time you’re halfway through the French stick. Also, the idea that “unique” always means “good” can be a bit of a misconception. A statement which needs clarifying before I fully give the game away about Laika: Aged Through Blood.
I’ve been playing a preview build of this game and it’s left me with a very skewed set of conflicting opinions. For one, I absolutely know that this will appeal to plenty of people out there. It’s a post-apocalyptic, motorcycle-based side scrolling adventure featuring a cast of highly evolved mammals struggling to survive in a harsh, Mad Max-style world lorded over by the Birds, anthropomorphic gulls and crows. From the screenshots I was expecting a plucky protagonist quick with a quip, and a fairly standard story.
This illusion was shattered when, in the first few minutes, you come across one of your friends, a cute dog named Poochie, crucified in his own entrails. You’ll later meet Jakob, Poochie’s companion, who explains in detail exactly what the Birds did to him before they killed him. It was incredibly unsettling, as is the little whimper Laika gives when she’s killed (she’s a coyote, by the way), or the way enemies kind of burst in balloons of blood and feathers when you kill them.
I don’t mind violence in games. In fact, most games I play are built on a core of violence and explosions. I also get that this is a deliberate choice for Laika: Aged Through Blood. But cut with the cartoony Western / cutesy animals aesthetic it just made me feel really uneasy. Unfortunately, the gameplay didn’t do an awful lot to balance it out.
The core concept of Laika is that you have a motorcycle, and can use it as both a vehicle and a shield. Levels are laid out like BMX tracks, with huge ramps to trick off and steep drops to gather speed. Holding the left trigger accelerates the bike, while holding X will perform a drift turn so that you can head back to the left of the screen. The bike is bulletproof, so timing a drift right can deflect bullets, and position yourself during jumps makes you impervious to gunfire. You can also hold down the right trigger to activate Bullet Time and line up your next shot, which is often essential, as you barely have time to think when there’s more than one enemy firing at you and you’re in the middle of a jump.
And this is my original point: there’s no doubt people reading this who are super excited to play it just based on the vehicular combat and gratuitous animal torture, and that’s fine, you weirdos. But I also found Laika to be incredibly frustrating. There are multiple checkpoints, and so you never have to reply much on death, but the slightest mistake will see you shot, and even if Laika brushes her cute foxy nose against the ground, regardless of speed, she’ll explode like a water balloon and you’ll need to replay that section. As so much of it is skin-of-the-teeth hard, this can be an issue.
Again, though, the hardcore aspect will appeal to many – and I’d even say the levels have a speed run quality to them, as so much of it is about timing, positioning and forward-thinking. Until the boss fight that is. A massive machine known as the Hundred Hungry Beaks must be destroyed before you can go home and bury your friend, and it’s both simple and tedious. All you really have to do is ramp off it over and over again, shooting out its heads from above as you do. Unfortunately, your gun only holds two rounds and so even if you land every one you’ll be ramping off it about ten times or more.
Weirdly, upon killing the boss, the screen becomes saturated in a red mist that makes it almost impossible to see what’s going on and – even though the machine is destroyed – you have to do the entire fight again, without being able to see its health bar. I literally have no idea why this is a thing, but it turned a boring fight in to two boring fights and I really can’t understand the thinking behind it.
It may well be story-related, but either way, after that you return to the Village, a hub in the desert where you live with your little doggy community and Puppy, your daughter. And it’s here that my mind really started to boggle. Firstly, you’ll need to hold the trigger down and ride through the entire opening credits, which is just Laika riding to the left while a (admittedly beautiful) song plays over it. It’s a very odd sequence, though, that seems to want to evoke Marston’s ride home from Red Dead Redemption, but which does it at the wrong end of the story and with nothing worth looking at while you do it.
When you get to the hub, Laika walks so incredibly slowly and everything is so far apart that I found myself getting actually angry. It’s as if the developers of Laika: Aged Through Blood are deliberately trying to push the player’s patience. The world is bleak, fine, but the gameplay doesn’t have to be.
This is only a preview build, though, and there’s much more to Laika, for sure. The story is intriguing, hinting at some ancient power Laika possesses which will be revealed later in the story. And the world itself has potential, if you’re a fan of such grimdark universes. But right now it feels like Laika: Aged Through Blood is unique for some of the wrong reasons. The vehicular combat is great, if a little frustratingly hard, but the framework around just doesn’t quite hold up.
Laika: Aged Through Blood is coming to PC, PS4, and Xbox One in 2023.