words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Paris Stalker for PC, originally released in 2017.
Ersatz is a rhythm-based action platformer featuring a monochromatic protagonist jumping, dashing, and slamming his way through hazy musically-supported environments. The representative music genres – including house, trance, synthwave, DnB, and techno – tend to be beat-heavy, giving the player some insight into world around him, as each level features a bpm measurement, and enemies and objects move, act, and change in accordance with these beat patterns – and build upon the music with sounds of their own – allowing the player to use the timing to dash between waves of projectiles or escape a platform before it suddenly becomes electrified.

The player has a small array of moves with which to tackle a number of challenging environments. First off, he can move to the left or right, and his movement speed is quite slow compared to other platforming heroes. He can also jump, and when pressing DOWN in midair, he can slam downward, allowing him to attack enemies from above, activate switches, and break destructible objects (although playing with a game pad means occasionally pressing DOWN by accident). He can slide under low-hanging obstacles, and he can dash while ducking, standing, or jumping.

Gameplay centers heavily around use of the dash maneuver as the player can only dash three times in succession before his energy is depleted. The dash meter refills at a moderate rate over time and is represented by a solid bar with three nodes. Once a node is filled, the player is free to dash again. However, if the player manages to destroy an enemy while dashing, one node on the meter is automatically refilled, allowing for situations where the player can string together a series of attacks to dash quickly from one side of the room to the other.

Since the dash is the player’s primary means of attacking enemies, the fastest way to navigate the environment, and the only way to cross large gaps, it is absolutely imperative that players be mindful of the dashes remaining in the gauge. Running out of energy at an inopportune time could leave the player to fall into a pit, get caught between waves of bullets, or be smashed by some danger approaching from behind.

The player has a health gauge that is made up of six units, which is very forgiving compared to most platformers, and even then, getting killed simply returns the player to the start of the room rather than sending him back to the start of the level. At certain points – and always before bosses – the player encounters a “slam pad”, and stomping on this pad restores a single unit of health. Stomping it repeatedly will restore the player’s health to full. However, each life lost and each bit of health restoration comes at a price…

Throughout the experience, a timer is constantly counting upward, and rankings are offered based on the player’s completion time. When the level begins, there is zero time on the clock, and an “S” ranking icon appears next to the timer. However, as the seconds click away, so too does the color drain from the ranking icon. Once enough time has passed, the “S” rank disappears and is replaced with “A”, and then “B”, and so on, down to “E”. Each time the player restores one unit of health, two seconds are added to the clock, and each time the player is killed, 20 seconds are added.

Many games offer ranking systems, or optional timers for speed runners, but few constantly display the player’s ranking during gameplay. Of course, the timer is an artificial constraint in terms of progressing through the game, as completing a level with an “E” rank still allows the player to move to the next… and players should expect to see low rankings even in the early going.

Rather than starting things out easy and then ramping them up, players can expect to earn low rankings even while they’re still coming to grip the game’s mechanics. In each level, new players can expect to get to the end boss in five or ten minutes, depending on their skill level, but each new level presents previously unseen challenges, with new obstacles and enemy types that first time players can’t possibly be prepared for. New level elements and enemy designs are not made apparent to the player or built upon previously established mechanics or behaviors, as is typically done.

As such, the design supports players stumbling frequently in the opening minutes of every level, thus draining away the seconds and making a high rank all but impossible. The player’s low movement speed – and the need to overcome a small amount of inertia – means that even when the player recognizes danger, he may not be able to move fast enough to escape it. This diminishes the player’s agency and slows his already diminished pace, which is doubly damning as the game’s primary function for failure is lost time (frequent checkpoints mean there is little loss of gameplay during levels, however). Thus, the player’s first experience with any level is failure, as the only way to play successfully is to complete the level and play it again with the acquired foreknowledge.

The place where these design decisions become most apparent is during the game's numerous boss encounters, with many levels featuring two or three bosses each. Boss behaviors are not apparent upon first encountering them, so players will inevitably die a few times. Then, once the boss enters a new phase of attack, the player will die again as he learns the new pattern. Again, the slow movement speed means that it’s impossible to avoid many incoming attacks until you’ve memorized when these attacks will occur.

You can, of course, dash away quickly from incoming attacks, but your dash maneuver is also your attack – and a means of escape when employing hit-and-run tactics – so burning a dash also means one less opportunity to strike the boss, further extending the battle, as bosses tend to take a lot of hits to destroy.

New level elements are introduced throughout the experience, such as slow motion underwater areas with bubbles that hold the player and currents that push him around, and factories that have switches to open doors, conveyor belts, and slamming machinery that must be avoided… and later used as a means of environmental navigation. Environments tend to be a bit hazy, with some hazier than others, and some of the color choices lead to low-contrast scenarios where it can be difficult to make out the player or enemies against background elements.

The game offers three modes in the campaign with new gameplay styles in each, as well as an unlockable Journey mode that tasks players with defeating a set of levels as quickly as possible, with a bonus for completing the series in under an hour. The game also features a boss rush, leaderboards, and a reward for players who achieve “S” ranks on all levels.

Ersatz was developed by Paris Stalker and published under his ALL iN label, a studio based in Manchester, United Kingdom and founded in 2014.