“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I shall endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
The abyss, hell, or whatever else you want to call it, is meant to be a miserable place of torment and sorrow. Dante Alighieri was pretty formative in shaping our understanding of hell, with that most famous quote of his above (though most people only really know the last line), being a big part of it. Then you’ve got the fever dream paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, right through centuries of art and cultural depictions to arrive at the modern era, where hell is in everything from the best bits in the Constantine film, to a surprisingly good and deeply underrated effort to adapt Alighieri’s poem in the video game Dante’s Inferno, to the extreme and crass take in Agony. For centuries the promise of hell – that it extends beyond the most extreme experiences that we can imagine – has appealed to a certain kind of artist. It’s rarely done well (hell is offensive by nature but commercial art cannot be allowed to offend, and that’s a difficult balance to resolve), but it nonetheless inspires the imagination quite unlike anything else humanity has had to tap into.
Made in Abyss looks like a different take on the underworld. However it looks, though, it won’t take you long to realise that this game has some hellish tricks of its own.
Made in Abyss is based on an anime of the same name, and to get this disclaimer out up-front, I’ve never seen a minute of that anime. Does that put me at a disadvantage when it comes to looking at the game? Perhaps, though the “story” side of things is brief and quite shallow on the plot, so I was able to follow along without feeling like I needed to care about the characters. The other half of the game seems to be entirely original and as far as I’m aware largely unrelated to the anime itself. Either way, all you really need to know is that there’s stuff down the deep hole that takes you through the layers of the Abyss (laid out not unlike Alighieri’s vision), and you’re playing as the expendable human resources that are sent down there to get them.
How this plays out is as an exploration-heavy action JRPG, in which resource gathering is the key mission. There are a couple of spanners that are thrown into the mix, however, and they do highlight how Made in Abyss was always going to be a challenging game to get right. Most of the things that are clearly in this game for good, thematic reasons, undermine how enjoyable the game is to actually play.
Take for instance the curse system. In the lore of the Abyss, once you go down, coming up becomes a health hazard. It’s a little like scuba diving, in that to a certain depth you can go down fine. It’s what the pressure does to you on the way back up that can be a concern (if you do it too quickly). In Made in Abyss, likewise, going down causes you no harm. Heading back up the hill you just descended, however, can cause a curse to kick in, and the effect of those things can be brutal. Now, I do appreciate why this needed to be in the game (beyond staying consistent to the source material). Made in Abyss depicts a hostile world where even the relative safety of what’s behind you (knowing that you were able to at least survive it) is denied to you.
To quickly compare to Dark Souls/Elden Ring/Nioh/whatever by way of example – when I am fighting a difficult enemy, I will generally backpedal as much as I can. That way, if the enemy does defeat me, when I respawn I can get to the location of my dropped souls before I tackle that enemy again. That’s effectively denied to you in Made in Abyss, because in most cases, going backwards means going uphill, and that means curses. In this game you are constantly forced forwards, to continually confront danger, and very rarely given any sense of a reprieve.
So I understand why the developed did this. The problem is that in a game like Abyss, exploration is important too, and nothing is more irritating in this game than realising that you missed something up half a mountain. It’s not always possible to observe these things before it’s too late, so navigating your way around the curse becomes an irritating part of the experience.
So too are three gameplay quirks that you’ll hear people complain about over and over again when talking about Abyss. Firstly, the enemies spawn incessantly, so exploration can become a war of attrition very quickly. Secondly, there’s a weapon durability issue with the things breaking quicker than even Nintendo’s developers thought they could get away with in Breath of the Wild. Thirdly, there’s a strict weight limit in terms of what your character can carry, and given they’re often given tasks to gather resources, this can often feel far too restrictive.
All of these are features, rather than flaws. The Abyss is not meant to be a pleasant, easy place to explore, and hordes of enemies, as well as limited means to fight back and being burdened down quickly are all justifiable within the context of “well, this is the Abyss!” It’s just that they don’t make for an inherently entertaining experience. At a time where “difficult games” means slickly playable things like Monster Hunter and the Souls things, Made in Abyss can come across as positively pedestrian by comparison.
It doesn’t help that the game’s a matter of art direction and design over technical brilliance (the vistas and character designs are spectacular, but up close they do look dull). It also doesn’t help that the character designs and interactions are going to be annoying as all sin to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the anime. Made in Abyss developers shoot themselves in the foot over and over again, but then they also didn’t really have a choice. This thing is true to a very specific vision, and there’s a nobility to that. If the developers had delivered something with the exploration quality of Breath of the Wild and combat of the standard of Bayonetta, it wouldn’t have been Made in Abyss. Without even needing to see the anime, I know this feels like an authentic Made in Abyss title, and as limited as the appeal for that might be, the developers deserve credit for it.
I can’t imagine the niche for this game will be too big, but even as someone who doesn’t know the anime, I found myself enjoying the unique take on hell that Made in Abyss throws at players. Once you learn to play it within its rhythms, rather than expect it to be something more conventional, it has a charm all of its own.