forced_spawnershrine.jpgForced, which is currently available via Steam early access and due for full release later this month, is the first game from BetaDwarf Entertainment.Their photo-enhanced timeline does a better job of explaining who they are than I ever could, so instead I'll just tell you about the game. In short, it's a cooperative multiplayer action RPG for up to four players. In long, I've never needed to work so closely with other players in a video game before, to the point that if someone asked me to play Forced without being in the same room or using voice chat, I would refuse.

The story is fairly basic. You and your compatriots were chosen to be gladiators and must fight through a series of trials in an attempt to win your freedom. Along the way you are helped by Balfus, the floating spirit of a previous gladiator who floats around at your beck and call. I haven't beaten the game, but so far the story seems rather light, mostly a framework to hold the trials together. The voice acting won't win any awards, either, but you spend a lot more time listening to your friends' voices than to any in-game voices anyway, so it doesn't really matter. Besides, what the game lacks in depth of story (early on, at least) it makes up for in engaging gameplay.

There are four playable classes, and your party can only have one of each at any given time. If you're playing with four players, that means each player must play a different class. Each class has a different play style; long range attacker, fast melee attacker, slow melee attacker, or tank. Within a class's overall play style, however, there's a good amount of room for customization through active and passive abilities. The tank, for example, can focus on soaking up damage, supporting allies and healing, or go for a more aggressive play style involving controlling enemy movements. Before starting each trial, players have a chance to prepare by change out their equipped classes and/or abilities.

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Each trial is a mix of puzzle solving and action. Some are more heavily balanced towards the former and some towards the latter. The puzzles can be solved only through use of Balfus, your floaty spirit mentor. He stays in one spot unless commanded to either come to a player's location or follow a player. If he passes over a shrine or certain other objects, he can activate them. Sometimes he gains a new property temporarily, such as healing anyone near him or turning into a bomb that explodes on contact with something; other times he destroys an enemy spawner or causes some other local effect. There are a lot of ways to use Balfus, and all of them are vital to success.

Balfus's greatest strength is also your party's greatest weakness -- he can be called over by any player. Clever positioning and good communication can enable players to quickly and efficiently utilize him to good effect, but lack of communication in even one instance can result in the entire party dying. And you generally have to do all this coordinating and communicating while beset by waves of enemies, which adds to the challenge. In cases where you don't have to worry about hordes of enemies, it's because the puzzle itself is devilish. Even when beset by hordes of enemies and a constant need to keep Balfus moving, however, the trials feel tough but doable.

Overall, I would say that Forced is well balanced, as long as you don't want to play alone. There is a single-player mode, which I tried before I played multiplayer, but by the third trial it was clear that the game wasn't made with solo play in mind. Trying to do it solo, even with the game scaling back the difficulty, is a challenge of a different sort riddled with frustrations that are easily avoided by having even just a second person to help out.

Although Forced is currently in beta, it's available on Steam as an early access game for Windows, Mac, and Linux at $11.99 for one copy or $35.99 for four copies. It's currently slated for full release to Steam and Wii U on October 24, at which point the game is expected to rise to its regular price of $15.