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A dragon dungeon in Nobody Saves the World Image: Drinkbox Studios

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Nobody Saves the World is the RPG that gets grind right

A perk tree full of non sequiturs is well worth exploring in Drinkbox’s delightful dungeon-crawler

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Nobody Saves the World is gonna throw a lot of weird stuff at you. It’s a Drinkbox Studios joint, after all, a go-to name for zany video game humor. Still, nearly all the little asides, ironies, and deadpan details had me chortling out loud and pointing at the screen like a misbehaving second-grader.

When my stage magician character summoned his familiar, I prayed it would be the white tiger, not because it’s so powerful, but because it turns into a luxurious rug when it dies. A kindly witch sent me on a fetch quest and thanked me profusely for saving her sick husband — then immediately blamed me when a villager asked where the hell all the medicine went. A tavern mercenary with a rigid, constipated expression introduces himself as “the one-punch monk,” who can annihilate any rat with a single blow. I forgot all about him after this encounter, and realized I never figured out how to survive his fist. That might be the joke; I’m not sure.

But the most delightful surprise that this mirthful, meaty RPG delivers is its concise, coherent, steady dopamine drip of a gameplay loop. Nobody Saves the World gets grind right. Its pivotal stages are gated by completing a repeating series of granular objectives, and those dungeons are staffed by enemies of increasing strengths. But never did I find myself in the resentful position of grinding out a level increase so I could overwhelm the opposition with a mere attribute score. The stuff I was working up to, and for, was interesting, and I went into the next dungeons as much to see it in action as to defeat whatever sub-boss was in there.

In Nobody Saves the World, you’re the literal Nobody — a featureless, vacant-eyed anthropomorph who backs into the hero job after the kingdom’s arch-mage goes missing. Nobody is a shape-shifter, thanks to the magic wand they immediately recover while dull-witted NPCs argue over who’s in charge now. For the remainder of the game, players will unlock various forms that sound like they came out of a developer’s bull session where no idea was rejected: Bodybuilder, dragon, and mermaid (a hideous one, at that) go along with more traditional roles like Rogue, Guard, and Ranger. And then there’s the Horse, an appropriately ornery form that’s tricky to wield.

Cosmetically, all these might be non sequiturs, but thanks to Nobody Saves the World’s simple, balanced combat — four types of damage, enemies randomly vulnerable or immune to one type of it — every form always paired well with another’s combat perks, attribute scores, or even their means of traversal. And Nobody’s benevolent system of grind and reward always had me trying new powers or revisiting different attacks. Getting to the next big chapter often required marking off a series of more sundry goals from each character’s respective to-do list. So, pretty much everything I unlocked was made useful through a prolonged stretch of combat, which is a breath of fresh air, considering there are trunk lines of Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed perks that I have never touched in more than a decade.

For example, I may not have preferred the Horse’s blunt-damage backward kick — it required me to face the Horse away from a threat, then hold my right trigger to keep it faced that way. But needing some quick stars, which gate the bigger dungeons, I found I was closest to completing a few missions on the Horse’s schedule. Along the way, I discovered that Horse can attack simultaneously in two different directions if you give it the Ranger’s volley-of-arrows attack. And with Ranger’s “poison-tipped” perk, Horsey can inflict even more pain. The arrow attack might drain off mana (and Horse, being a horse, has a lower mana bar than other forms) but I picked up another perk that let me recover more of it simply by breaking containers with my primary attack.

Advancing the big picture with smaller, focused, (and most importantly, repeating) goals helps keep Nobody Saves the World’s progression from being too rigid or linear. Lots of RPGs and games with perk trees aspire to non-linear progression, only to have that ideal undone when players discover that advancing sequentially is still the most efficient, least-time consuming way to beat the game. Nobody Saves the World’s mix-and-match system, plus the baddies’ collection of wards and vulnerabilities, kept me tinkering with my builds, which is fun in and of itself. My main build exemplified and optimized my preferred playing style (it’s in the Rat, actually), and then I had one or two others to deal with whatever task or dungeon was immediately at hand. On the dungeon after that, I was rummaging through my menus like a fly fisherman knowing that the perfect lure was somewhere in his tackle box.

The dungeons are mostly procedurally generated (some beginning and ending areas are necessarily standardized), but in ways more than just their layout. Enemies within will often have different vulnerabilities or immunities, usually requiring players to switch to a different form of damage (light or dark, sharp or blunt). These parameters can change if you fail a dungeon and re-enter it. Unfortunately, this can result in the one substantive complaint I had with Nobody Saves the World: a frustrating difficulty spike that comes with being mobbed by multiple enemies, with different weaknesses, requiring fast switches. There’s a weapon-wheel for changing forms, but as a frenetic battle plays out in the background, it can be hard to see exactly which character you’re choosing.

a conversation screen showing a dumpy looking Mana fairy carrying a jug full o’ mana Image: Drinkbox Studios

That said, I thought I detected the game easing down on the baddies’ wards and buffs if I failed a site multiple times. Very early on, I was stuck in one location (The Eldritch Gourd, an enormous rotting pumpkin) and struggling to combine the proper attacks to deal damage. While the icons that betray an enemy’s vulnerability can be hard to discern on such a busy screen, an unsatisfying clanking noise always lets you know if you’re doing it wrong. After a few deep breaths and a half hour of grinding elsewhere on the map, I returned to the Gourd and found that few of the monsters had any wards, and I chomped through them with the Rat on auto-pilot.

In Nobody’s overworld, players should routinely feel like they are overpowered, chewing through any enemy horde of equivalent or lower level. The underworld then steps in with a head slap, reminding me that I haven’t actually stumbled upon some game-breaking secret sauce, without killing my hope that I actually will someday.

Where Nobody Saves the World finds its sweet spot is when a dungeon rolls up a stout but understandable challenge, requiring a couple minutes of considerate loadout tinkering and then enough fast-twitch gamepad skills to make every shot and strike count. The white-knuckle finishes to these boss fights aren’t a sign your idea barely worked; they’re proof that great video game design, in the hands of an interested and entertained player, can take a happy menagerie of rejects and salvaged parts and make them work together brilliantly.

Nobody Saves the World was released on Jan. 18 on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X and is available on Xbox Game Pass for all platforms. It is also available on Windows PC via Steam. The game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a code provided by Drinkbox Studios. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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