Light vs. Darkness: How Smash Ultimate’s Adventure Mode is Essentially Two Different Games

I heard a lot of horror stories about Smash Ultimate’s adventure mode before I played it for myself. I heard it was too long, too much of a grind, with not enough variety and features to make the game feel worthwhile. As the slowest way to unlock characters, there isn’t much of an incentive for players to gravitate to this mode unless they truly want a mechanically crunchy single player experience. I had my concerns given how much criticism I’ve read or heard for World of Light, but I decided to try out the game anyway. I found myself agreeing with a lot of the criticism I’d heard at first, but then something happened: I hit the adventure’s second act.

I had no idea that there was more to World of Light than it seemed on the surface, but the shift in tone and gameplay style that happens around halfway into the adventure makes the game feel significantly different. So different was my perception of this second act that it actually changed my outlook on adventure mode. It feels unfair to review the entire mode as negative because of the first half, but it also feels unfair to review the entire mode as positive because of the second. I think for me, the best approach to sharing my opinions on World of Light is to treat it as two distinct experiences, with the caveat that you have to finish one in order to obtain the other.

In this review, I’ll share my thoughts on the first act of the game: the mechanisms, the exploration, and the distribution of rewards. I’ll do the same for the second act, highlighting in particular the differences between the two that led me to enjoy that version of the game a lot more. And finally, I’ll be discussing the intersection between them and my thoughts on the decision to structure the mode in this way.

One last note before we jump in: any discussion of the second act of World of Light will inevitably lead to spoilers. If you’re still wanting a spoiler-free Smash Ultimate experience, I’d recommend not reading anything about the second act until you unlock it for yourself.

smash ultimate world of light map
The World of Light map – this is the fully unlocked version where all of the various spirit barriers have been removed.

THE WORLD OF LIGHT
The story of World of Light is simple enough. A being of light called Galeem (it took me WAY too long to realize the pun there) captures all of the Smash Fighters and makes evil puppet copies of them, infusing these puppet bodies with the spirits of all the other video game characters caught up in Galeem’s blast. Kirby managed to survive the attack (yet somehow there are still Kirby shadow puppets?) and he must journey around the world rescuing fighters and spirits both from their prisons. Only with the power of the full Smash cast behind him can Kirby free the spirits and stop Galeem’s assault upon the world.

Mechanically, World of Light consists of two main parts: an overworld map where you find and manage spirits, and then spirit battles where you take on an enemy using the classic Smash Bros gameplay. On the map you can move around on established paths, find spirit battles, solve puzzles, and engage the various reward systems of the game such as leveling up spirits, purchasing items from stores, and investing skill points into your party. In spirit battles, you equip spirits that give you special advantages, with the opponent’s abilities based on the spirit inhabiting the puppet body. These abilities are sometimes clever references to the game of origin, while other times they seem generic. During my last play session I fought a Ryu with some variation of “attacks with [X] body part do more damage” in three separate battles.

This brings me to my first issue with World of Light: the pacing leaves a lot to be desired. The adventure starts off on a linear path with only one direction to go, but after maybe five or six spirit battles you hit your first significant choice and it really opens up the map. There are multiple paths which intersect, crisscross, and creates roads to different areas on the map. This may make it seem as if the experience is an open one, and in some ways it can be, but there are many points on the map which are blocked by the need for a specific spirit in order to progress. These spirit barriers don’t block entire areas – rather, they maybe protect a single treasure or one fighter to unlock. You can clear out nearly an entire area except for one tiny part which you’ll need to come back for later, and the lack of a fast travel system for the world map means that you’ll be walking that whole distance. A small pain, but we’re just getting started. Take a look at this image:

smash ultimate city of spirits

Just in this small town on the map, how many spirits am I dealing with? I’m seeing ten in the town proper and one up on the bridge, but while I may have to fight two of them to get to that treasure chest on the right, it seems like I could ignore the majority of these battles. However, I have no way of knowing whether or not any of these spirits are required to overcome one of the progress barriers I discussed above. They could all be useless, but there’s a chance that one of them might be able to ferry me across the water or rebuild broken bridges or clear out boulders. I have to fight all of them just in case one turns out to be the spirit that I needed back in the wooded area that I already cleared out except for one locked fighter. Not every fight in the game is mandatory, but they feel mandatory because you don’t know which ones are necessities and which ones are skippable. That bogs the pacing down because you are given incentive to go out of your way to fight every single spirit you see.

The pacing is also complicated by the rewards for your effort. There are tons of types of reward in this game: money and consumables, new fighters to join your party, skill points to improve those fighters, and spirits whose functions vary from battle companions to progress-barrier-breakers to unlocking entire new mechanisms like shopping or training. Every battle technically gives you something for your trouble, but it won’t take many battles for a number of those rewards to feel meaningless. I stopped caring about most new spirits within an hour or two, and I’ve never touched any of the consumables except for the snacks that level up spirits. The only rewards that felt impactful were those that unlocked significant mechanisms like the gym or a new shop, and unlocking a new fighter to join my team. Unfortunately, these types of unlocks feel rare because of how massive World of Light is – even though there are 42 characters that you can find as Kirby during the first act of the adventure, they are spread out to the point that you don’t encounter them particularly often. Entire dungeons or unique areas of the overworld may only hide one or two characters.

There’s another type of progress barrier that we haven’t discussed yet: spirit power. Fighters in World of Light can equip spirits to themselves which enable them to have different advantages in battle. These mechanisms are actually quite complex. Spirits have a rock-paper-scissors style relationship in their typings, where attack spirits beat grab spirits who beat defense spirits who beat attack spirits. But in addition to typing, spirits also have a power level based on their ranking. Spirit ranks are novice, advanced, ace, and legendary, and each rank has a higher maximum power level than the one below it. If you meet a legendary on the map and your strongest spirit is an advanced, the likelihood of you actually being able to fight that legendary is quite low. This means you’ll need to explore around and defeat some other spirits until you are able to purchase or defeat one that will make you powerful enough to take on these legendary opponents.

smash ultimate sigma spirit
Sigma is a powerful Ace rank attack spirit, so a fully trained Ace rank defense spirit is probably needed to handle him.

There’s another layer to spirits in the form of their support abilities. Primary spirits affect your typing and your power level – support spirits give abilities with a variety of affects from increasing the power of certain moves to granting specific items to granting immunity to stage hazards. This last part is particularly important; the likelihood of winning a match with a lava floor is effectively zero until you have a support spirit that cancels out that hazard. So this makes three possible progress barriers in the first chapter of the game: not having a spirit that can negate an obstacle on the world map, not having a spirit with a high enough power level, and not having a spirit with the right support ability. These three factors together lead to quite an amount of backtracking, as you’ll basically need to explore all of the easily accessible areas of the map and then circle back around to get to the ones you needed a specific spirit to unlock.

The aspect of World of Light’s first act that I did enjoy were the dungeons – special areas with unique challenges that generally ended in a boss battle and included one or two character unlocks. These areas sometimes incorporated puzzles to solve that served as a nice break from the backtracking gameplay of the overworld map. In the Power Plant, for example, you had to pick up batteries that powered bridges and create the appropriate path to where you were trying to go. The limited number of batteries meant you couldn’t power the whole complex at once, and having to think through the correct pattern was a simple but effective mental challenge to break up the monotony of spirit battles. In another dungeon, you have to activate switches in order to create a path over molten lava, rescuing Peach in the process before defeating the boss enemy Giga Bowser, which then unlocks Bowser as an additional fighter for your party. The dungeons made World of Light’s first act more palatable for me, but they were pretty small compared to the overworld – I spent a lot more time slogging through spirit after spirit on the bridge outside of the dungeon than I did actually enjoying the dungeon puzzles.

When I finally reached the end of World of Light, I was relieved but cautiously so. It was clear from the number of fighters that remained to be unlocked that I still had more to do, and I imagined that what awaited after I defeated the wicked Galeem would be more of the same. I fought the fiend that I anticipated was not the final boss and defeated him after a couple of tries. When the dust settled and the cut scene for the second act began, I sighed as I prepared myself to begrudgingly play through a second edition of World of Light’s monotony. Instead, I was introduced to something new: the World of Darkness.

smash ultimate world of darkness map
The World of Darkness map doesn’t quite do justice to how much content is here, immediately showing how it is distinct from World of Light.

THE WORLD OF DARKNESS
And here it is at last, the second act. After Galeem’s defeat, the semi-Lovecraftian Dharkon takes over his forces and continues to imprison the spirits of the world. You begin the mode on a central platform that branches in three directions – each path leads to a small area with a simple navigation challenge, a fighter to unlock, and a battle with Crazy hand. At the end of each path is a lengthy dungeon, significantly larger than the ones encountered in the World of Light. These dungeons are the real meat and potatoes of the World of Darkness, but we’re already seeing some other distinctions that I want to point out before we dive in.

It’s important to note that the overworld in the World of Darkness lacks all of the progress barriers that we saw in World of Light. While the paths are more narrow and don’t flow seamlessly one into another like the previous world, they’re open in the sense that there’s nothing gating you into one area over the other and there’s nothing stopping you from completing one area in its entirety once you get there. In World of Light, you’d have to find a specific spirit elsewhere on the map to destroy a boulder or defeat a legendary enemy or outmaneuver a specific battlefield hazard; in World of Darkness, you already have all the spirits you need to progress the game, so there’s no backtracking or having to save a particular part of the area until a later time. You can visit the areas in any order you wish, and do so as a single complete experience.

If you’re wondering where the challenge comes from in these barrier-free areas, it comes from navigation puzzles and from the spirit battles themselves. At this point you should have all the basics covered: powerful spirits of each rank, multiple support spirits for tricky combinations of hazards, and a good variety of all three primary types. So at this point the spirit battles can up the ante, combining enough hazards that you can’t cancel them all or giving you more difficult victory conditions to overcome. If you have to choose between canceling out the opponent’s curry status or the lava floor, which one will you choose? Would you rather have to deal with strong winds or earthquakes on the stage? Now that you’ve mastered the basic skill of canceling hazards, you’ll need to actually deal with some of those hazards and the challenge comes from determining which one you can handle the best.

smash ultimate zelda dungeon
My favorite dungeon in the game by far – and not just because it’s a Zelda level.

The true substance of World of Darkness lies in the dungeons. There are only three (compared to eight in World of Light) but the areas are much larger and the mechanisms that drive them more complex. Take my favorite area in the game, the Zelda world pictured above; in this dungeon you have three distinct areas which each represent a part of the Triforce, with a piece of the Triforce locked behind three different fighter unlocks. Throughout the region there are owl statues which give you hints about how to reach these unlockable characters or how to find treasure chests. Often you’ll pass up something significant that a later owl will teach you to utilize properly – in my case, I found a ring of torches that served as a giant clock well before I found the owl statues that told me the times I needed to set on that clock. Having a series of smaller puzzles contained within one larger puzzle mechanic gives the dungeon a feeling of consistency while also making each subsection within it unique.

One thing that makes the World of Darkness feel more rewarding than World of Light is the pace of unlocking characters. World of Light has 42 characters spread out between the massive overworld and eight dungeons – character unlocks come quite slowly as a result. World of Darkness has only 27 fighters overall, but they are contained within only three dungeons and one tiny overworld. The result of this is that even though the adventure’s first act has a numerically higher number of fighters, the second act feels like it has more because you obtain them more quickly within focused, contained areas. These dungeons have 7-9 fighters compared to 1-2 in the dungeons of World of Light. Finally, each dungeon ends with a major boss, meaning that every one of them is key to progressing the game.

Compared to World of Light, World of Darkness is a shorter and more contained experience. The overworld is quite small but the dungeons quite large. Where World of Light had an open overworld and narrow, linear dungeons, World of Darkness takes the opposite approach and funnels you quickly to the dungeons which then have more complicated navigation mechanisms in the form of mazes and puzzles. Each dungeon in World of Darkness is packed with unlockable fighters and ends in a boss battle, so every action you take feels like you are making progress as opposed to fighting a series of unnecessary battles hoping you find the one you need to get the game moving. The second act, in my view, is the superior experience – but my view is only one possible interpretation of the game.

smash ultimate marx creepy
Some things look a lot different depending on your perspective.

FINDING THE WORLD OF BALANCE
So if Smash Ultimate’s adventure mode is essentially two different games, which game is better? Is it worthwhile to push through World of Light to reach the second act? My experience is one possible interpretation of the modes. ‘World of Light’s overworld plays at openness but in reality has too many roadblocks to allow free exploration. The rewards are overly separated and the dungeons, while offering a breath of fresh air, are too sparse to be meaningful. This turns the mode into an agonizing grind of spirit battles. Conversely, the World of Darkness has a sharper focus, it’s linear overworld quickly funneling you into dungeon experiences which are larger and more rewarding than the ones in World of Light. These dungeons effectively use puzzles to offer a change of pace from spirit battles while also pushing those battles to the limit, and ending with a boss battle at the end of every dungeon makes the mode feel more driven.’ That’s my story, but can you look at things a different way?

‘World of Light offers an open world full of possibilities. There are rewards at every corner but you can’t just get them all at once – you have to work for them by learning the mechanics of the game, which you can only accomplish by visiting other areas first. You start with nothing and have to work your way up to bigger fights and more freedom of exploration, and it feels really satisfying when you return to an area with the tools you need to succeed. Bosses and fighter unlocks feel separated by a lot of time but for that reason they are more meaningful. In World of Darkness, the linear progression removes my freedom of choice. There are so many fighters in such small areas that getting them no longer feels special, and I barely have time to spend with my newly-unlocked fighter before I get another one added to my team. The dungeon puzzles feel gimmicky and aren’t really part of why I play Super Smash Bros; I much preferred the larger number of spirit battles in World of Light, because they gave me what feels like true Smash gameplay.’

It’s easy to see how the distinctions between World of Light and World of Darkness could effect two different players in vastly different ways. I think for me, the clearest way to compare the two modes is to look at other games they are similar to. World of Light feels like a Metroidvania – you start with few tools at your disposal and can never fully explore an area the first time that you go there, but you can reach new places by returning to old locations with the new tools you’ve added to your belt over the course of the game. Conversely, World of Darkness feels like Zelda or a JRPG – each location gives you the tools you need to navigate that area completely and features a balance between navigating the area and combat challenges, each one following a similar and familiar structure. Recognizing that each act of the adventure mode has a strong resemblance to the style of other games makes it a lot easier for me to understand why I prefer one over the other – I am more familiar with and more comfortable in a traditional JRPG structure than in a Metroidvania game, so of course World of Darkness resonated with me more.

Smash Ultimate’s adventure mode feels quite different before and after the ending of the first act. Whether it’s worthwhile to play that far in will depend largely, I think, on your preferences. I didn’t truly enjoy World of Light until I reached the darkness, but for some players the early parts of the game are the ones where the mode will shine. Knowing yourself and knowing what you want from the game goes a long way towards enhancing the experience of adventure mode. I stated earlier that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to label adventure mode as good because of World of Darkness, or as bad because of World of Light. In reality, I think the experience falls somewhere in the middle. Adventure Mode has some positive features and there’s potential for greatness there, but the mix of two very different approaches makes it so that there will likely be few players who truly enjoy the mode the whole way through.

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