I rarely enjoy top-down arena shooters, but THOTH is a rather unusual game for this genre to say the least. With no scoring system, no text or instructions, and 64 handcrafted levels plus quite a bit of post-game content, this is a game which seeks to constantly surprise players as it continuously changes up and expands upon its mechanics.
THOTH is full of surprises, but the most significant surprise is introduced in the very first of its 64 levels. The basic setup certainly appears familiar enough at first, if rather abstract. A large rectangular arena fills the screen and on the left is a white circle, it moves with the left analogue stick and rapidly fires bullets in the direction you press the right analogue stick (mouse and keyboard controls exist too, but are not recommended), and on the right are two large red squares which are recognizable as enemies from the way they slowly move towards your circle. Shooting a square makes its color start to shrink and gradually be replaced by a star-filled void and if you stop shooting it the color gradually expands to refill the square; it’s a regenerating health system which may have an unusual presentation and may itself be an unusual thing for an enemy in a game of this genre to have, but it’s not the most surprising thing about this enemy. Rather, the real surprise lies in what happens when you have shot an enemy enough to completely replace its color with void as, rather than disappearing or otherwise dying, it becomes a faster and completely indestructible void square.
Even with all the abstract strangeness, there is a solid gameplay structure here. The 64 levels which make up the main campaign are evenly divided into sets of four. A new mechanic or enemy type is almost always introduced on the first level in a set and then expanded upon until the next set. The final level in each set also serves as a boss fight of sorts as it usually involves fighting a larger, tougher version of an existing enemy or a large number of smaller foes. Getting hit even once sends you back to the start of the current set, but every level can be finished in a matter of seconds so it’s not actually a particularly harsh penalty even if you die at the very end of a set.
The void system lies at the heart of the level balance as every gain comes with a loss and vice versa. Each level immediately ends once you defeat every enemy so you’ll inevitably need to deal with the more aggressive void forms, but the order in which you defeat enemies makes a significant difference. Bullets go straight through void enemies so it becomes easier to focus your own attacks against the remaining enemies as more of them are transformed into their void versions. Larger enemies can act as shields for smaller enemies while they are alive, but they in turn can be particularly threatening once they are defeated so the ‘best’ order to take out enemies is entirely up to each player’s own preference. Your own ship also has a trade-off to consider as it moves slower while its shooting; refusing to ever ease up on attacking quickly results in being cornered by void enemies.
Every new mechanic in THOTH is connected to this system of balance in some way. Strings of dotted lines appear in many of the levels and they don’t affect enemies, but they toggle between being harmless outlines and being deadly hazards every time an enemy is defeated. Some enemies carry smaller squares within them, which they launch towards the player upon entering their void form; the small squares are the closest thing enemies ever get to having any sort of ranged attack and they will continue to slowly drift through the arena after their initial launch. Stationary circle enemies pose a particularly interesting challenge as they have a gradually expanding hazard aura which shrinks down when they are attacked, but once they are turned into their void form they expand at a slower, but unstoppable rate so it’s often best to hit this enemy when its aura starts to get too big, but to allow it to recover its health afterward unless no other enemies remain. Whenever something new is introduced, the best way to learn about it is inevitably to defeat an enemy or two.
The main campaign is great, but it can also be finished in about an hour and doesn’t have any incentives for replaying it other than a few achievements based on not dying so the post-game content is going to factor in heavily when determining if THOTH is worth its $9.99 asking price or if it’s better to wait for a sale. To begin with, there is a two-player mode which can be treated as a hard mode version of the single-player campaign (I didn’t even realize it was a two-player mode when I first selected it). In this mode, when one player is hit their circle transforms into a nightmarish, screeching void glob which relentless chases around the remaining player at a fast and gradually accelerating speed, making for a significantly more dangerous take on the existing content. As to the actual post-game content, it is divided into four challenges which must be completed in order. The first two challenges are a set of eight procedurally generated levels followed by a set of 16 procedurally generated levels, each of which must be completed in a single life without checkpoints every four levels like in the main campaign. There seem to be quite a few levels which can appear within these procedural sets, though I did run into a few repeats during my attempts. After the procedurally generated levels are completed, there are two sets of ‘lava levels’ which serve as the true hard mode of the game as these two sets are each comprised of half the levels in the main campaign, but touching any surface at all results in death, there are more enemies, and you need to go through all 32 levels in each lava level set on a single life.
The significant challenge of the post-game content may be appealing to some, but I think it’s too much of a difficulty spike and one which comes from a questionable design decision at that. I was not actually able to complete the set of 16 procedurally generated levels in my time with THOTH so I cannot write about the lava levels from firsthand experience. That said, harder versions of the original levels sounds like a fantastic edition, but needing to go through 32 of them in a row with no checkpointing sounds like an abysmal exercise in frustration. They’re already harder versions through their actual designs and taking away the checkpoints contributes nothing beyond artificially inflating the difficulty; deliberately poor checkpointing should be left to the achievement hunters. For that matter, the sets of procedurally generated levels and the lava levels are so conceptually different from each other that, aside from the lava levels being the more difficult of the two, it feels strange to have to complete one in order to unlock the other. A better way to have done with would have been to have kept the checkpointing the way it is (nonexistent) for the procedurally generated levels, have the first set of lava levels unlock after finishing the main campaign, and add in checkpoints after every four or eight lava levels with achievements for completing of the 32 level sets without dying. As it stands, the post-game content feels like too far of a leap in difficulty from the standard campaign simply because of the unforgiving checkpointing.
Aesthetically, THOTH is an abstract masterpiece. While most top-down arena shooters have energetic music to get players in the mood for dodging around at lightning speeds and blowing up hundreds of enemies, THOTH has a droning, screeching soundtrack filled with otherworldly noises. The music and sound effects are utterly alien and deliberately unpleasant, creating an oppressive and hostile atmosphere. The lack of writing in the game further contributes to this feeling of interacting with something otherworldly and the enemies seamlessly flow between appearing as flat squares one moment and three-dimensional cubes the next. Even the level numbers, which appear in the background of every level and count down as you progress, are stylized to such a degree that I didn’t realize they were numbers at all until a few dozen levels in. THOTH is not a scary game, but it excels at using every element of its aesthetic to shape a deeply unpleasant, otherworldly experience.
If you’re looking for an innovative twin-stick shooter, THOTH breathes new life into the genre by refusing to follow the same formula as so many other entries. The main campaign is short enough and the post-game’s approach to checkpointing is frustrating enough that I can’t recommend buying it for its full asking price unless more generous checkpoints are added in the future or if you don’t mind the current lack of checkpoints in the post-game content.