It’s immediately apparent that Thoth was made by the same guy who created 140. Jeppe Carlsen’s unique aesthetic is front and center in Thoth, giving it that same air of surrealist minimalism that made 140 so stylish. Unlike his previous game, however, music isn’t the focus this time. Instead, it’s a simple twin-stick shooter.
Well, I say “simple,” but it’s actually quite complex. Thoth is a twin-stick shooter that trims the fat of its brethren and gets straight to the good part. Instead of fighting your way through wave after wave of enemies before things start getting interesting, it dives right in and makes things nail-bitingly tense, switching up the rules constantly all the while.
The game does this through a variety of small tweaks – such as your movement speed being reduced while you’re shooting – but it mostly comes down to one significant factor: enemies do not die. You slay them, certainly – every shot drains the hostile shapes of their color until the empty void of space is all that remains – but they stay on the field, continuing to pursue you, until you manage to drain them all of color.
Traditionally, slaying foes takes them out of the game, thus providing some much-needed breathing room. In Thoth, no such thing exists. Every single stage demands the utmost thought and precision. You can’t simply cut a path forward; you have to actively maneuver through hostile territory to survive, deciding when to stop shooting to gain more mobility and risk letting the enemy regain some health and when to throw all caution to the wind and go for the final blow.
On paper, it sounds easy enough. You’re seldom dealing with more than a few foes at a time as opposed to the hordes you face in most other twin-stick shooters. The first set of stages lulls you into a false sense of security as well. It’s just you and a few blocks. No problem. Except they take a lot of hits to defeat and quickly regain health when you stop firing on them. And they seem to get faster when you take them out. Sometimes they even multiply, sending out bits of debris to litter the field as you whittle them down or as they die. Then you die just on the cusp of finishing the fourth stage and end up being thrown back to the very first one, because the game only saves after every set of four levels.
All that becomes clear in a matter of seconds of starting Thoth, and it only gets more intense from there. The first set of levels is by far the easiest, but it still manages to create a very tense experience. It may be just plain ol’ twin-stick shooter action, yet Thoth is able to make it feel far more intense than its peers. The rest of the game only doubles down on it by throwing a bunch of new gimmicks your way. In the second set of levels, for instance, barriers confine you to certain parts of the arena, greatly limiting your mobility. In another, enemies start being tethered to one another, covering the field in a mess of chains.
And those are just the tame examples. One of the last sets of levels I finished was especially devious. Whenever you kill an enemy, they drop a clone of your white dot that flashes until you slay another foe. Then you end up taking control of that clone. You need to be cognizant of where you slay each enemy and when, therefore, as you can easily end up getting yourself killed by unwittingly teleporting yourself into a group of adversaries. The set I’m currently contending with has a circle of dots that expand and retract with each kill. Don’t think I need to elaborate on what makes that so difficult. Not every set of levels plays with the mechanics to such an extreme degree, which is about the only ounce of breathing room you get.
I’ve taken to playing Thoth in short bursts, as such. It eventually becomes too much. Between having no room for error, the constant tension of always being a hair’s breadth from death, and the unnerving score that undercuts the action – a series of long, suspenseful notes of electronic music – Thoth instills an incredible amount of stress with very little. I haven’t touched in a few days because I needed a break after having finished Thumper recently (another very tense, stressful game), but I’m eager to get back in.