A little bit of paradise.
…I’m going to need to begin this one with a history lesson. Little Noah was a real time strategy and town builder mobile game released by Cygames in 2015, which was later localized internationally as Battle Champs in 2016. Based on what I could find, the game was not particularly popular in the west and largely went unnoticed before shutting down in 2019.
For most mobile games, that’s where the story ends. The game dies, the source code remains on a server forever, and nobody can play the game ever again. But Cygames decided to repurpose the assets they had made for Little Noah to create a console game. Yet, rather than making a polished or expanded version of the original, the developers made something that repurposes models, designs, music, and more, but completely changes the genre. Turning the game into a 2D side-scrolling roguelike of all things.
This new title, subtitled Scion of Paradise, was announced via a Nintendo Direct Mini as a stealth drop, and did pretty well as far as I can tell. At the very least, a lot of people heard of it and it got four positive reviews on Metacritic, which is at least something.
Personally, I was interested in this game for two reasons. One, the premise of a mobile game being revived this way is both bizarre and cool. Two, I immediately saw some design DNA and tangential similarities between this game and Dragalia Lost. A mobile game that I played for 3 years and am still mourning the loss of.
…Okay, that seems like sufficient background. On with the review.
Little Noah: Scion of Paradise Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Switch
Developer: Cygames & Grounding Inc.
The story follows Noah Little, an alchemist going on a lengthy voyage to be reunited with her father, when her airship is destroyed by a storm. Her ship crashes near a set of mysterious ruins and she must venture into these depths to find the resources necessary to repair her ship. In doing so, she encounters an amnesiac cat, whom she names Zipper, and learns that there is a machine of great power at the depths of these ruins. A machine that is being sought after by a dark wizard type named Greigh, who Noah, with the help of Zipper, must stop in order to save the world.
It’s a simple adventure story with a cast of three, pretty much every plot beat could easily be surmised with the name of a trope, and the same is true with just about every theme. Change is good, destiny is a fallacy, nothing steers a ship better than friendship, and so forth. It’s basic, but it knows what it wants to be, does its job well, the English script gives an appreciated amount of personality, and offers sprinkles of lore related to a larger world. A larger world that, if the ‘to be continued’ at the end of the game is to be believed, will be built upon eventually.
That level of commitment is a bit strange to me, as it’s easy to view this game as more of an experiment than anything. An experiment in repurposing assets, rebooting an IP, bringing a mobile series to consoles, and working on a small-scale title, rather than something sprawling like Granblue Fantasy: Relink. I would also say gameplay style was experimental, but what Scion of Paradise does is pretty par for the course, but with a few quirks.
The game is a 2D side scrolling roguelike action game where Noah traverses through interconnected rooms containing goodies, shops, and trials, but mostly enemy gauntlets. Her primary weapons take the form of Lillipups, small spectral critters who Noah finds while venturing in the ruins. Noah can equip up to five of them as part of her standard attack combo, two as part of her cooldown based skills, and this system gives Noah access to a seemingly wide array of attacks.
In practice however, there really is not much in the way of variety. While they vary in range, damage, speed, and ‘eccentricities,’ Lillipups all serve the same basic function, and are very rigidly divided into a tier system. There are a total of 16 one-star Lillipups, 15 four-stars, and 16 three-stars, and there is rarely any situation where a lower rarity is better, because it deals so much less damage.
The game tries to remedy this with a spectrum of three upgrades for Lillipups, but they seem more like half measures and don’t really work all that well in practice. Strength boosts applied to duplicate Lillipups is neat, but it is driven by random loot drops. The ability to give them presents to permanently upgrade their stats is nice, but getting an extra 10% skill damage or 10% critical damage is a minor upgrade at best. And the way that Lillipups confer a passive ability once the player gets three of them is a trait that players could easily go several runs without encountering. These aren’t bad ideas, but they don’t really work in practice, so it’s easy to ignore them.
As for skills… I honestly barely used them outside of boss battles, as skills lack invincibility frames, and most of the time I tried to use them, I got blindsided by an enemy. They deal good damage during boss fights though, where attacks are easier to tell, so that’s the only place I used them. There’s also a super move, or rather burst attack, which is like a skill, but better. Noah grows five times her size, unleashes a powerful attack with a large range, gains invincibility frames, and kills pretty much everything in her path. Except for bosses, who lose a good chunk of their health bars instead. It’s incredibly useful, yet Noah can only hold two charges at once, and takes about one level to accumulate one charge. Meaning it suffers from the ‘but I might need that later’ syndrome.
While not the most refined system, it is all built upon a character who is very fun to control. Noah moves fast, has a double jump, air dash, and a homing attack, giving her a sense of agility and athleticism. Combined with relatively high attack damage, she becomes a whirlwind of destruction in the hands of a skilled player, capable of clearing rooms in 10 or 15 seconds. This sense of power and mobility is initially complemented with Noah’s fragility, as health refills are scarce and enemies hit hard when attacks land. However, this changes once the player unlocks one or two potions and potion refill stations at the start of every stage.
When it comes to upgrading during a run, the biggest sources of power come in the form of stat boosting crystals and accessories that are automatically gained rather than equipped. Most accessories tend to just be damage related boosts, but my absolute favorite are the ones that add secondary attacks to the five-hit combo. They turn a rapid flurry of elemental attacks into a rapid flurry of elemental attacks with arcing electricity, explosions, and icicles flying in five directions. It results in these chain reactions of chaos that I just adore, and help add a sense of thrill when a new accessory is near.
On that note, I probably should talk about the breadth of content here, as a roguelike, Little Noah is pretty sparse. Each run involves a linear trek through 9 stages across 15 variants and 7 bosses out of a pool of 7. The game only took me about 4 runs across 5 hours to clear the final boss for the first time. And after beating it, there is not much else to explore or do beyond a few challenges, farming to upgrade the airship, and trekking back through the same ruins.
The core of the game is there. Noah is a fun character to control. The combat is fast and frantic in a good way. A single run is nice and short at roughly an hour. And the persistent upgrade system, while not the most inventive, confers a lot of power to Noah and gradually changes the way the game plays. But there is not enough meaningful variety in Lillipups, not enough environments to explore and… no way to really differentiate playstyles. Heck, even the alternate playable character, Zipper, still feels just like Noah.
Instead, the only thing to really do after a point is to try the game on higher difficulties. You don’t just have a hard mode, you have Hard, Very Hard, Very Hard+, and Very Hard++. All of which are more numeric changes, do not offer any new bosses or areas, and can all be mixed with Hell mode. An additional difficulty modifier where Noah dies if hit by a single attack. It’s basically the Hell And Hell mode from the Devil May Cry series, which is where they probably got the name.
Despite recognizing this difficulty, I gave Hell mode a couple shots out of sheer ruthlessness, and discovered an exploit involving the in-game save system. The game only saves when the player enters a new non-boss level or when they die. However, players can create a revival doll as an airship upgrade that revives Noah once per run. The game does not save as this doll is consumed, so when the doll is used, players could just reset the game and retry from the start of the last area. It is a far more forgiving way to go about things, but after testing this system at the worst time, I wound up dying on the final boss before I could finish Hell mode on normal. Afterwards, I decided that was enough and got started on writing this review.
Next, let’s talk about the presentation. I mentioned earlier that the game recycled various assets from its 2015 mobile incarnation, but they could have fooled me. The semi-chibi 3D models have an almost doll-like quality to them, and feature distinct designs that make it easy to immediately recognize which enemy is which. It’s good character design over graphical fidelity, and considering how cute these designs are, I’m glad they were brought back here.
The recycled music is also high quality, but it seems ever so slightly off compared to the rest of the game. Rather than leaning into the more playful aesthetic, it sounds like a fairly rote and dramatic RPG score. Good for what it is, but not quite meshing with everything else. Though, that’s not a huge issue, as Scion of Paradise is pretty much a game meant to be played while listening to a podcast or watching a video essay on another screen. At least, that’s how I went through it.
The menus are simple, clean, yet also resonate with a sense of charm and playfulness befitting the game. The icons of the Lillipups, the artwork for every single accessory, the framing of Noah and clear arrangement of her stats, and even the level-based map system. It’s all pleasant to look at, snappy to use, and goes to show just how solid the foundation of this game really is.
The environments though? Those leave something to be desired. Despite running the visual gamut, they don’t really have any story to tell and, with platforms just sort of floating in the air, don’t feel like tangible places. You have forests, caves, more caves, ancient ruins from a once great civilization, a sun-drenched cyberspace, a cave with a magical tornado in the background, and… I don’t even know what.
It’s all strange environmental design, but what’s worse is that it all goes to waste. Not because of anything the artists did, but because somebody decided to coat these gorgeous 3D vistas with some aggressive blurring. Everything 10 meters away looks like it is coated in vaseline, and there’s no option to disable it. I admittedly got used to it while playing, but searching through my screenshots really made me realize just how bad this is.
You could say that this vaseline filter is to make the player focus more on the combat, but… it really isn’t necessary. Enemies flash when attacking, attacks are accented with purple, they appear as red markers when off-screen, and there are already loads of other visual information on screen with Noah’s attacks. It’s not even a performance issue, as I highly doubt that the Switch would struggle to run a game like this at 60 frames per second. It’s a good-looking game… that is deliberately holding itself back.
As an experiment, I would call Little Noah: Scion of Paradise a rousing success. The title is a brief and fun little action game that does what it needs to to a tee, and has the foundational elements of a great game. Sadly, it lacks the same replay factor that other roguelikes have to offer, relying more on difficulty over variety, and feels like a precursor of something greater. It does just enough different and enough well that I would offer it a recommendation, but more than anything, it got my hopes up for a Little Noah 2.