Some game designers want to rush a product to a deadline in order to please upper management. Other developers are passionate craftsmen who aim to build an experience that will stay with the player in a profound way. Stupefying and utterly frustrating the player is technically a lasting impression, and is the kind of joke on the player that the developers of Struggling are going for.
Back in the early to mid 2010s, there was a slew of extremely awkward indie games released that experimented in anti-game design. This Dada-esque movement could be best described as “fumblecore;” games that had intentionally difficult controls while presenting simple scenarios, and usually a very sardonic the tone.
Surgeon Simulator and Octodad are perfect and well known examples of fumblecore games, and Struggling appears to be a title cut from the same cloth. Fumblecore is a sub-genre that has come and gone; but does that make Struggling passé? Is there more to this bumbling, fumbling 2D action adventure game; or is it blatant fodder for streamers?
Developer: Chasing Rats Games
Publisher: Frontier Foundry
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: September 8, 2021
Price: $14.99 USD
Struggling sets itself up with an unusually developed premise for a game that is seemingly a joke on the player. In ye olde ancient times, there was a prophecy of two great heroes who would save the outcasts from their oppression. One hero would be brawny and brave; a master of combat. The other hero would have been a brilliant philosopher, who’s knowledge would enlighten the world.
The only problem is that these heroes never showed up. As it turns out, the prophecy never specified that the saviors would be born thousands of years later in a nightmarish dystopian future… And that they would be an incoherent Siamese conjoined twin with only two arms and not much else.
This living clump of tumescent flesh is Hector and Achilles, aka: Troy. Together, they form the most disappointing and repugnant protagonist anyone will ever play as. Troy is a lot like the creature from the movie Basket Case; but isn’t evil, and is endearing due to their unwavering determination. They are so pathetic that it’s hard to not be impressed by their moxie as they press forward.
Like any fumblecore game, Struggling is intentionally designed to be difficult to control. This is a physics based 2D action game, so relying on momentum is key to making progress. Gaining enough inertia comes down to manipulating Troy’s arms independently using both analog sticks, and gripping onto surfaces with the triggers.
It’s easy to get the finger equivalent of tongue-tied while crawling along surfaces, since it can be easy to confuse which hand is mapped to which stick or trigger. Almost all hazards are one-hit deaths, and if Troy’s limbs merely graze anything dangerous, he will lose that arm.
Thankfully, Troy is able to regenerate lost limbs like a starfish. Not that it matters since usually getting an arm melted or sliced off will typically be followed by a momentary loss of control, which leads to an absurd death. Checkpoints are not always placed in the most convenient areas either. Expect to have to redo several sequences that are not challenging; just time consuming.
The point of making a gameplay like this is to make the experience as ridiculous and comedic as possible. Struggling is absurd to watch and play. It’s easy to forgive how frustrating some sequences can be when the game has a jabbering mutant, flopping and flailing around on the floor, grunting and moaning like an abattoir full of mentally handicapped children.
Just being flinging and slumping Troy around would have gotten pretty old very quickly. Struggling manages to have a decent amount of gameplay variety, where the defective protagonist gains some abilities or a stage specific gimmick is introduced.
One level will have Hector and Achilles separate, and eventually are able to detach arms and hurl them. Some stage gimmicks include operating heavy machinery, and even an action packed dirt bike sequence. Struggling does try to mix things up, but surprisingly, this is a long game. It’s so long that it becomes exhausting, and the joke of playing an intentionally hard to control game stops being funny.
The game is not much to look at. It looks like a Flash game with its flat colors, and low-cost limb-based articulation for all animation. The 2D art would look fine for a web animation from the mid-2000s, but it just fails to impress today.
The art style is also on the bland side. If it weren’t for the gruesome and visceral imagery, there would be nothing memorable about the graphics. Designs lack believable structure, and are completely insane. Most of the time it looks amateurish, but at the same time the imagination has to be commended.
The soundscape is completely forgettable outside of the shrieking and mutterings of the heroes. The gushy meat smacking sounds of Troy plopping on hard surfaces is both satisfying and hilarious. The lack of real music is likely intentional, and is done to emphasize on the wet slapping sounds of flesh and bellowing groans of Hector and Achilles.
Struggling is very likely intended to be played by streamers and not gamers, but it’s worth experiencing once. Replay value is far too low to ever pick it up again after completion, and it’s not worth trying to find all the hats.
The longer Struggling is played, the more the novelty wears thin. After a while, players will begin to question why they are playing such an obnoxious game, and will probably think about doing anything else. In their attempt to make a complete joke of a game, the developers forgot that it had to be fun too.
Struggling does not have to be suffered alone. There is a local co-op option where either player will control Achilles or Hector to further emphasize that Troy is actually two beings. Playing in this mode is not so much chaos, but does simulate the true struggle that Troy has to endure constantly. The game is almost unplayable in co-op, and is seemingly included as a joke.
The gameplay in co-op is like tug-of-war, but the rope has tied both players together, and they are already in a deep mud pit and can’t get out. Struggling is a novelty game and nothing about it is meant to be taken seriously. Having a mode like this is fitting, and does show the developer’s willingness to commit to their joke.
Nonetheless, Struggling is fairly priced for what is being offered. Making it to the end does come with a hilariously ironic twist to the prophecy that is set up at the start, and the pay-off is worth the headache of the constant retries and getting Troy’s arms tangled.
There is an audience out there for something like Struggling. The variety of set-pieces do show an attempt to break up the monotony of fumbling, but the journey is much too long. Trial and error scenarios are too frequent due to the gameplay, and the real struggle is having the patience to redo many simple tasks.
Struggling was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a review code provided by Frontier Foundry. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.