Do you remember playing pretend as a kid? The fantastic worlds you’d invent around yourself and the fun you’d have being anything you dared to be? Do you remember the first time you broke the self-imposed rules of pretend? Like why settle for being a rogue when you could be a rogue who shoots lightning or settle for being a person at all when you could be a lizard or something to that effect. With the world (and lightning) at your fingertips, you dared to be anyone or thing you could imagine yourself as. It was empowering, but more importantly to your younger self, it was fun. Delightful, even, to dream of a world with limitless possibilities. Nobody Saves the World, the latest game from Drinkbox Studios (the Guacamelee! games and Severed), seems predicated on that moment—and then some, actually. Age yourself up some and slap a crude, but not gross, sense of humor on those imaginary adventures and you’re closer to what this game promises. If I could sum up my time with Nobody Saves the World in a word, it’d be “ridiculous,” and while it occasionally misses the mark, I mean that in the best possible sense.
In Nobody Saves The World, you are Nobody, a pale and pantless being who wakes up with no memory of who they were. Before long, they find a wand belonging to a powerful wizard named Nostramagus that allows Nobody to shape-shift and become any number of somebodies at the behest of Nostramagus’ power-hungry apprentice Randy the Rad and other characters who doubt him. And boy do they have reason to doubt them because Nobody does not impress. They don’t look particularly human and can barely hit harder than a toddler. Over the course of a few dozen hours however, you and Nobody get to explore the forms granted by this shape-shifting wand, becoming everything from a horse to a slug and even an egg. At one point, Nobody became a ghost and by the end, they can even become a dragon. The possibilities in Nobody Saves the World are limited, but they didn’t need to be endless to be fun.
The game’s shape-shifting ability is its biggest selling point and I’m happy to confirm that it’s good as hell. Different forms do different damage types and get their own active and passive abilities that help you whoop “baddies” and cross off any number of the (astonishingly) dense number of dungeons across the game world. The forms are good fun, never playing so distinctly from another that you feel there’s even remotely a learning curve, but playing uniquely enough that you will begin to understand the time and place to pull out one over another. The depth of the experience comes from learning how best to mix these forms and abilities, because as you level yourself and them up, you will be able to cross abilities over between them. The dodge your Ranger learned could come in handy for a less agile class, for example, or you can give your Rogue a whirling blunt attack from your tankier Bodybuilder that can knock foes away.
You level by taking on quests as these forms, which range from “use x ability on y baddies” to more direct calls to cross over skills, giving the player an idea of the different combinations they can make. These latter quests are a great tease of the depth of this system and I enjoyed falling down its rabbit hole one too many times trying to build the perfect tanks, ranged classes, jacks-of-all-trades and whatever lies between them all.
These combinations are key to solving the game’s “puzzles” and keeping gameplay as fresh as can be, though at times even those combinations can only do so much. The dungeons in the game are procedurally generated, meaning there’s little room for tighter design. Instead, Drinkbox adapted and implemented a ward and modifier system that ratchets up the difficulty of the dungeons as best they can accomplish. Wards are shields that break when they take a certain damage type, of which there are four (Light, Dark, Blunt and Sharp) in the game. Modifiers are ascribed to most of the dungeons and can be anything from regenerating wards to enemies healing at the same time that you do. The most ridiculous (there’s the operative word again) of these that I encountered set any damage dealt or received to 9999. The wards and modifiers are occasionally smart adaptations that make for a welcome challenge, asking me to care more about speccing my forms. Nobody Saves the World is an action-RPG after all. At other turns, however, they feel fairly one-note. Once you’ve figured out a build against them, which shouldn’t take long, the dungeons stop being even remotely complicated and you just mow everything down, or in some places just run past enemies if you can.
I realized two things about Nobody in these dungeons. The first was that the game was absolutely built around co-op play, which you can do with a friend online, and was likely balanced a little lower than that for your run-of-the-mill solo player like myself. While I didn’t get to try the co-op out, I’m just going to suggest that you do it. The game’s fun enough when one person is making ludicrous builds, and two might just break it in a really hilarious way; it’s just begging to be played with a teenage sibling or cousin.The second was that the shape-shifting could only do so much to complement the lack of more tightly designed experiences. While it was fun taking whatever form I wanted, without explicit intent, they felt a bit aimless.
Nevertheless, I found combos that did the trick whenever I hit a wall, and players are free to experiment with different builds that I’m sure will find success since Nobody feels pretty flexible. Finding these winning classes felt good, but couldn’t really replace the feeling of overcoming a good old fashioned puzzle. Nobody is fashioned like a Zelda game, but because of its proc-gen nature, winds up really missing out on that quintessential part of the equation. Drinkbox has a good track record of puzzles in their previous games too, making their relative absence in Nobody quite noticeable. The whole time I was solving the wards and equipping skills to buff against damage types, I kept hoping the game would’ve maybe committed to fewer dungeons and a more traditional and engaging approach, especially as I got deeper into the game and the levels played much the same as they did at the outset.
Despite my growing frustration with the dungeons limitations, the titular world you’re saving is refreshing and nonsensical. The overworld’s a crude fantastical farce, like a teenager’s fever dream of a D&D campaign where fantasy expectations meet bleak human realities. For example, there’s a bunch of traditional biomes like a desert or forested area, and then there’s a town beset by mutants because it’s right next to a leaking nuclear power plant. There’s a crypto joke in another town and at least one quest makes fun of journalists. Just about every word an NPC utters is some setup or punchline to some pretty obvious jokes, but they got a chuckle out of me anyways. Randy, Nostramagus’ aforementioned apprentice, is a sort of recurring rival who can barely keep pace with you, mostly due to his ineptitude, but also definitely because he’s asthmatic. He literally has to pump an inhaler after chasing you into dungeons only to get thrashed because he’s an absolute idiot. It’s only a shame that characters don’t have real arcs over the course of the game in order to make stronger impressions, but otherwise they are cool bits of levity and charm whenever you run into them. And good news: the game is absolutely packed with one-bit players like this.
Continuing the cartoonish crudeness, you will find mana upgrades that look like barely legally distinct fairy sprites from The Legend of Zelda games. The twist here is that the fairy giving you your reward occasionally looks like the shadiest dealer with the shittiest weed you’ll ever smoke. On more than one occasion some of the dungeons I went through took place in some giant thing’s innards too. This kind of gross and pseudo-edgy aesthetic feels ripped straight from some ‘90s/;00s flash animation but smartly cuts back on those inspirations a few notches. Nobody Saves the World never fully surrenders itself to this tone, instead leaning into the inherent silliness of the game’s premise and going for the obvious joke rather than the nastier one. It works really well, making for a game I genuinely found funny and how could I not when one quest asked me to don my horse form and fall in love with “a stallion.”
I would’ve really loved Nobody Saves the World as a young teenager, and today, as an adult, I still really like it. It has that exact tone I only found after years of wading through media trying to find what “worked.” Nobody gets that humor doesn’t need to be highbrow in order to work, and that sometimes you just want to indulge in a modest fantasy slacker comedy, a feat that feels nigh impossible for games. From that foundation, Drinkbox builds a world that is familiar enough to want to dig into, and playful enough to want to stick around for. Nobody is ambitious but not too in over its head, funny to boot and grounded in an idea that understands the joy of defining conventions. It may miss a bit of the formula that’s made its influences as strong as they were, but it’s got style and confidence and those are swings I’m glad connected. Most of all, it reminds me of the fun I used to have playing pretend, and even though I’ve stopped, games like this one help keep that sense of adventure alive.
Nobody Saves the World was developed and published by Drinkbox Studios. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X version. It is also available for the PC and Xbox One.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.