If you’ve ever wanted to plow through hundreds of deep ones on the back of a machine gun-toting mech only to hop out of it, teleport around, and fire off a death ray while radiating poison and generating a lightning storm, you now have your chance. It’s moments of boisterous insanity like that which give Tesla vs. Lovecraft its moments of shine. Those moments are, strange as it may sound, far too numerous, rendering the experience into a numbing grind even as it presents you with flashy baubles at every turn. The essential conceit is precisely what it says on the tin: this twin stick shooter places beloved inventor Nikola Tesla against the monolithic horror author H.P. Lovecraft in a blaze of weaponry, explosions, and undersea nightmares.
I feel I have to address something, for our culture in general more than this game specifically: we need to stop treating H.P. Lovecraft and his works as cute. They weren’t. His writings were works of a disturbed mind, painting the world as an amoral torment where understanding truth could only lead to pain and insanity. Lovecraft himself was a tremendous racist and anti-semite, whose beliefs were so backwards that even as a sheltered man from New England in the early 20th century he was considered an alarming bigot. I am one of the biggest fans of his works that there is, but it is intellectually dishonest not to grapple with these complexities. We must face the contradictions of someone who expresses so much genius and so much ignorance with the same penstroke. We need to stop making Cthulhu plushies, and we need to present Lovecraft as the nuanced and often unapproachable man that he was.
That doesn’t influence my feelings on this game profoundly, because story took a back seat to gameplay to the point where it is nearly non-present. Through the course of a scant few cutscenes presented via still images and some questionably voice-acted lines, we understand that H.P. Lovecraft is up to something mysterious, causing wave after wave of eldritch abomination to pour into our world, leaving Nikola Tesla to mow through them with ever-increasing ferocity. Even this limited concept could have been interesting pitting optimistic technological innovation against nihilistic ritual magic. The dearth of material on the story left me disappointed, however. The concept is more of a backdrop for the twin-stick gameplay, and it never took the chance to step forward and explore its own potential.
That gameplay is entertaining, but simplistic. Much like the story, there are many ideas contained within this game which could have made for a unique and memorable experience, but they end up being poorly developed, instead making the game a fun distraction. The controls are typical of the twin-stick genre, allowing you to move and shoot in separate directions. These are complicated by an early upgrade you receive in the form of a teleport. The teleport maneuver allows you to move through enemies and barriers and skip over small gaps in the ground. In tense moments you will find yourself running away to pull your enemies into an area only to teleport away, leaving yourself much more room to play with. Given the dozens of enemies on screen at any moment, you spend the majority of your time on the run, playing defensively with judicious use of the teleport. This move has limited charges and runs on a cooldown, so you will need to be careful with how you use it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much nuance with the teleport. The tactic I just described is basically the only way you use it. Eventually, you get upgrades that damage enemies you dash through, but the onslaught of foes means your best bet is to keep moving, and either way you only have two real options.
Apart from movement, weaponry and power-ups are a huge part of the experience. Scattered around the level are new weapons which get progressively more powerful as you gather them, moving up from the starting pistol into electrically powered laser weaponry. Most of these are small variations of one another, and you will soon find that your preference falls into one of two wide categories: shotguns and assault rifles. The power-ups are more interesting. These limited powers allow you to deal more and different types of damage. You can send out a richocheting ring of ethereal air, slow and damage enemies with a static cloud, or set down temporary barriers with a comically enormous weight dropped down on your enemies. Once again, the number of enemies on screen makes these less than compelling. You will find yourself popping them quickly and mindlessly to mow through the nearest wave of enemies, only to go back to your well-practiced routine of teleporting around and holding the trigger button indefinitely.
The power-ups you will use most consistently are the five mech parts, which grant you temporary use of a powerful health boost and dual chainguns. Your dash also smashes every foe into a fine paste, meaning that for a few moments you will change into a walking avatar of death in all directions. Once you are finished, pieces begin to respawn, and the power of the mech makes those pieces your primary goal.
Once you have a handle on these elements, you fall into a semiconscious replay of doing the following things: running away, shooting everything in sight, maybe picking up a powerup which you blast through immediately as you grab the mech parts, blasting through everything again, and repeating until the level is over. There are a few bosses scattered throughout the game’s arenas, but they largely function as HP sponges, giving you more of a reason to dodge than usual but otherwise leaving your strategy unchanged.
Something that does help to offer variety are the perks and levelling systems. During each section, you will level up as you defeat enemies, granting access to level-ups which change your stats and abilities. Some of these are minor, such as increasing health or supplementing movement or reload speed. Others offer more drastic changes, like increasing the number of bullets in every shot, causing you to radiate poison damage, or striking random enemies with lightning. Each level up, you can choose between two of these at random, so the actual variation in gameplay strategy is often minimal. Luckily, the other levelling system gives you more ways to manipulate this gamble.
As you travel through levels, you can collect aether crystals which unlock permanent upgrades. The more reliable way to gather them is by completing the various challenges which unlock routinely, challenging you to change your game up for special bonuses…at least in theory. These challenges all consist of things you are either doing anyway, like defeating a certain type of enemy, or have no control over, like beating a level with a specific perk activated. I never paid attention to them myself, and found that every once in a while I would get a massive infusion of aether crystals for some reason.
The unlocks are more exciting, however. Those permanent changes can give you more teleport charges, let you reroll the random perks, or allow you to start with free perks or powerups. The most important change is increasing the likelihood of epic perks in gameplay. Those massively powerful new abilities are where the real fun comes from, and it’s a treat every time you get to see one. These can remove all limits on your teleport, give you a powerful death ray that eliminates enemies instantaneously, let you create temporary clones, and more. Because of the variety and power they add to the experience, I found myself saving every aether crystal to maximize the chance of seeing them come up.
Tesla vs. Lovecraft’s graphics are functional. They are limited, making characters out of blocky textures and giving you a few backdrops of city streets or dark forests. Nothing really stands out in terms of design, but it is impressive how well you can tell what is going on, even with mobs clashing with different power-ups and abilities at all times. As chaotic as this game is, I never lost track of where I was going or what was happening on screen. The audio is similarly decent but not memorable. Enemies have monstrous shouts played over a few tracks of vague “ominous” all sprinkled with the constant sound of teleports and your ever-firing weapon. Whenever you enter the mech, the track changes into dubstep, which may or may not be an intentionally clever comment on Tesla’s electronic legacy.
The levels cycle through a few premade backgrounds with different filler: whether you are in the city with the buildings on the left or the city with fences, the short and repetitive levels fail to leave any real impact on you. The additional survival mode, which challenges you to survive as long as possible, grants some extra replay value, but I don’t see why you would play this multiple times except as a distraction from something else.
Enemy design does not help much. You do have to keep in mind whether you are fighting fire vampires, which leave dangerous mines in their wake, or larger enemies which might charge you. Some fire projectiles, some merely swarm you, but none of it makes a real impact on your choices. Whoever the enemies are, they are so numerous that you will find yourself kiting and firing, occasionally burning some power-ups, until the level is done.
There were moments when I found myself really enjoying this. When I had the right perks combined with the right weapons, I became a magnificent force for destruction as my enemies were eviscerated in all directions. The short levels and variety in power-ups and perks makes it easy and desirable to try out a level a few more times to get it right, or load up the next one to see what it has to offer. Tesla vs. Lovecraft is a worthy distraction to let you shoot some deep ones, but never quite lives up to even its own concept. The fundamentals are strong, and I am interested in seeing what else this team has to offer. As for going back to this now that I have made it through all three zones, I don’t see why I would.
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/
Tesla vs. Lovecraft
Tesla vs. Lovecraft is imbued with a frenetic, bold energy that I only wish its designers had committed to more strongly. While there is fun in the premise of knocking back waves of Lovecraftian horrors while teleporting around them and maximizing Tesla’s devices, none of these concepts ever truly hits the mark. The result is a distracting but ultimately mindless exercise in repetition, which fails to ever become truly interesting.