A screenshot from the game Tesla Force. It is a floating stone Island, lit largely in purple and blue. Red Lovecraftian creatures roam and enormous glowing crystals break up the stone edifices.

Tesla Force has one of the most immediately disarming structures to a twin stick shooter I’ve played. In a good way, mind.

Picking up from the also wonderful Tesla Vs Lovecraft, Tesla Force reimagines the game as a more open, customisable, less guided experience. With co-op. I really like it but yeah, it certainly caught me off guard at first.

There’s a familiarity there, sure. If you’ve played Tesla Vs Lovecraft then you’ll be instantly at home with the menagerie of beasties, the mech/on foot/mech rhythm and the large array of weaponry, upgrades and whatever you can acquire. It’s all really solid, filling the screen with bullets and colourful explosions hasn’t gotten old yet and I’ve been playing this on and off for ages and ages now.

The surprising part is just how much freedom 10 Tons have built into the progression and how generous it is.

Sure, you’ll be exploding monsters into pretty colours in order to collect gems in order to spend gems to buy more ways of exploding monsters into pretty colours and repeat – fairly standard stuff – but unlike 10 Tons previous twin stickers, Tesla Force is (for want of a better phrase) a roguelike.

Each playthrough has you work your way through a procedurally generated map, moving from node to node until you reach the inevitable final boss. The first few rounds limits the choice of routes the player can take but a few upgrades later and the map is positively sprawling. So far so roguelike! I mean, it works doesn’t it? So, why not!

However, with the exception of the boss nodes, the stages don’t actually end. I can keep playing each one, rinsing them for gems and pretty colours until I decide to leave. As I say, it’s disarming at first. Even the lootiest of looter ARPGs tend to have a point where the player has exhausted things to do in a stage and they’re forced to move on yet Tesla Force leaves that up to the player.

Of course, there’s a wrinkle! This is a videogame after all and they’re tricksy things at the best of times. Once I begin the first stage, a countdown begins – the ominously named death clock – and each time the countdown reaches zero, the game gets a little bit more difficult, harsher, more abrasive. So the longer I spend on a stage, the more things get tricky, the more the stage will require more firepower, more health, more skill to survive.

Sure, I can keep grinding stage after stage but the longer I spend doing that, the more difficult the later stages are going to be. The more difficult the stage I’m grinding is going to be, never mind.

Whereas this would be a pretty oppressive system in most games, when combined with the brevity of each stage and the huge amount of skills and upgrades available to buy with your gems, it’s the other one. It’s remarkably freeing and lets me control the difficulty from stage to stage. If I fancy an easy ride? Get in, complete the objective, move onto the next node until done. Fancy testing myself? Stick around. No matter what happens, I’ll be collecting gems to spend on more upgrades or weaponry, each completed stage hands me a new weapon or ability to add to my arsenal, each game over nudging me closer to another unlock. In Tesla Force (as with a number of other recent roguelikes) a game over is an interruption, rather than an end.

There’s always progress and it’s hardly stingy, there isn’t an unlock that doesn’t make some tangible difference to the game and there is a lot to unlock. I’ve been playing for ages now and haven’t even got round to giving any of the other characters you can unlock a shot. I’ve been far too busy buying more weapons, more abilities, more slots to pop abilities into, more firepower, more time in the mech and on. I’m sure I’ll get round to giving them a go soon but y’know, I’m having loads of fun as it is. No rush!

Tesla Force is a wonderful game. I’ve been playing it on PS4 (and more recently on the Switch) and it’s not got any less enjoyable for all the (many!) hours I’ve pumped into it. In fact, I think I’ll just sneak another go in now whilst no-one is looking.