Shardpunk: Verminfall Review – Ratapocalypse Now
Shardpunk: Verminfall is an impressive label that attempts to check several pseudo-cultural reference boxes at once. The “punk” evokes retro-futurism; its prefix, “shard”, serves to distance this particular variety of punk from more mundane punks, such as steampunk or cyberpunk. This punk world, presumably dystopian, seems affected by “vermin” that caused some sort of “fall”, evoking Warhammer Vermintide vibes. It’s an implicit promise of exciting things you can expect to encounter while playing.
Reality always differs from marketing, as almost everything about this game is either derivative or dry. The few good ideas it has been buried under the pixelated rubble of influences from several legacy legendaries. The developer explicitly states XCOM and Darkest Dungeon as chief role models for Shardpunk: Verminfall. Lowly Pathway also provided some important pointers.
Non-linear path to the rat-free world
In Shardpunk: Verminfall, the world has already succumbed to an invasion of giant humanoid rats. Leading the team of four people, you’ll be attempting to bring the robot automaton to the imperial palace and beyond, in search of reactors that can fry the vermin using the activation codes carried by the said automaton. You will pick your own path in a manner similar to FTL or Slay the Spire, choosing the travel nodes that lead to a singular, final location in each of the three chapters. The objective of most levels/nodes is reaching the safe zone at the end, but there are some exceptions, such as chapter finales.
Before you embark on that desperate trek, you must select the team from a pool of candidates, most of which are locked for the first playthrough attempt. Every member has a unique weapon and a distinct set of abilities you’ll evolve during the campaign. Choosing between sniper, various mid to close combat specialists, medics, and others are not really important, as every “class” is rather OP compared to ratmen footsoldiers. There is also a choice of automaton – two of them offer various support abilities, and one is designed for pure combat.
Inspired by XCOM
Shardpunk: Verminfall is all about tactics and resource management. Traversing the square-shaped grid, you will move your guys towards the safe zone, making sure you avoid falling headfirst in the ratmen ambush. Every level is packed with lootable consumables, often requiring separating the team in pursuit of the loot squares. Grenades, stimpacks, crafting materials, and fusion cores (rare, multi-purpose resource) are finite, but the ammo and innate abilities of every character are unlimited. You are, however, constricted by cooldowns and heat. Every weapon can be fired twice before overheating, requiring venting before subsequent use. Risking bodily harm by firing a hot gun is simply not worth it.
The basic principles of moving, firing, taking cover, and using abilities are the same as in XCOM. The modernized ones, not the legacy games from the nineties. During your turn, you have two standard action points for every character. Every action, such as venting or firing spends one point, but there are combat abilities, such as katana rush, that refresh AP to some extent after a successful strike. It’s a really simple and effective system that practically became standard for turn-based tactical games as of late. Every kill earns XP, but leveling your guys and their kit is done between missions.
Way too easy on normal difficulty
The vermin comes in various flavors of combat ratmen. In the beginning, you will mostly encounter basic melee rats, easily countered with overwatch. Then the shotgunners will make their acquaintance, using the overwatch of their own, facilitating using of grenades and flanking maneuvers. Later on, you can expect rat snipers, poison throwers, brutes, and all sorts of different elites. Your ever-evolving arsenal of weapons will provide more and more efficient means of pest control, swinging the challenge pendulum vastly in your favor near the end. Yes, Sharpunk: Verminfall is easy, perhaps too easy at the default difficulty level.
Resting after the battle uses the system that is a carbon copy of Darkest Dungeon camping. The guys will huddle around the campfire, licking their wounds, talking to relieve stress, cleaning weapons for combat bonuses, craft consumables, and so on. You can perform a limited number of actions in each resting phase, but after buffing up the squad, you’ll gradually need less. Stress mechanics, essential in Darkest Dungeon, has mostly superficial significance here. Individual tension accumulated during the mission is easily purged during the rest phase. Negative quirks, suffered after reaching the stress threshold, seem not to carry over to follow-up missions.
Radar Rat Race
Like I said before, Shardpunk: Verminfall is generally very easy, but that problem is easily remedied by opting for a hard difficulty. The thing you cannot amend, unfortunately, is the general monotony of the experience. Almost every level plays and feels the same, the only difference being the occasional new breed of rats. The loot is exclusively related to consumables. Forget about the shiny new rifle or a piece of armor – those things simply don’t exist here.
At some point, sooner rather than later, you’ll lose all incentive to stray from a path and take risks. As you gradually evolve your fixed weapons and abilities, new tactics will emerge, but due to the heavy disbalance in favor of your squad, they will become less relevant. Instead of walking over razors towards culminating crescendo, you casually stroll to wimperland. The narrative is also pretty much non-existent. Apart from a few cutscenes, there’s zero dramatic content or personality in Shardpunk: Verminfall.
The game is dry as the mummified rat, no two ways about that. I suppose, it still can appeal to the fans of small-unit tactics, but with so many better options out there, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by choosing this one.
- The systems inspired by XCOM and Darkest Dungeon work well.
- Visually unappealing retro aesthetics.
- Almost every mission plays and feels the same.
- Narratively speaking, the game is dry as a bone.