A new platformer from Ukuza, published by Konami, Skelattack promises to turn the usual rules of platformers on their heads. You see, instead of being a human warrior, battling your way through a dungeon to steal anything that isn’t actually nailed down, in this game you play as one of the denizens of the dungeon, having your peaceful home invaded. And what do you do if some stinky fleshbags kick their way into your crib? Why, you give them a good kicking. If you fancy heading to a world where the people are painfully thin and the action is hot, you’ll want to come on down to Aftervale.
In Skelattack you play the part of Skully, a skeleton with a surfeit of personality which is shown in every frame of animation, from the slight frown as you swing your sword to the sad little collapse into a pile of bones when you meet an inevitable end.
Skully is accompanied by his best bat friend, Imber – a feisty one who is also animated beautifully. In fact, I’m going to take a moment here and just acknowledge how good looking this game is. If Tim Burton made a video game – one about skeletons in a dungeon – it would look like this. It is fantastically well-designed, both in terms of the visuals of the characters (both friendly and not), and across into the audio; the music is sublime. The drum solo when you start Skelattack has entered my all time Top 10 musical bits from games – it is that good. The way everything in Skelattack moves is breathtaking as well, with silky smooth animations and Skully, in particular, being a delight to behold. Whether he’s crouching to swipe a bad guy or just jumping about the place, he always looks great.
So, we can see and hear that the presentation is top notch. There are no voice-overs, which seems a shame, but it wasn’t long before I realised this is actually a smart move. You see, everyone will have their own idea about how Skully and Imber should sound, and this way it’s not jarring.
The story of the game is that Skully is a new resident in Aftervale, the place where dead people end up if they die in the dungeon. This is due to the power of the Blue Flame (no, not the land speed record car) which reanimates anyone who dies inside its glow. As the story goes on, you will find out more about the history of the Blue Flame and where it came from, but for now all we know is that, because of its influence, we never permanently die. Instead we are reborn at the last Mortal Coil we passed, which co-incidentally are depicted on screen as blue flames – but not capitalised, if you are with me. There is usually at least one of these save points in every chamber, with the exception of boss rooms, when there’s generally one just outside. You know, video game tropes and all that.
The Blue Flame, then. Even humans have heard of its power, and so the King has sent his troops into the dungeon to steal it. This is bad news for Skully and his friends, as without it the dungeon will finally truly die. Therefore Skully, who was on the cusp of his Rememberance service where the dead remember who they were in life, and what it was they did, has to drop everything and get after these pesky humans. If only to teach them a lesson.
As the game begins, Skully and Imber are limited to pretty much just harsh language as they explore. As you’d expect, it isn’t long before Skully finds a blade, and with it the game opens up. Luckily, Skully already has a double jump, and this will prove invaluable in the forthcoming adventure, letting him wall jump and leap between platforms in order to progress. So far, so cliche, right? Well, if it’s good enough for Mario, I’m sure it’s good enough for Skully.
At certain points in the game you do also get to control Imber, either on her own, exploring passageways that are too narrow for Skully to fit down, or, in certain special areas where the wind is strong enough, she can even pick Skully up by the head bone and carry him into the air. Imber’s controls are pretty easy to get to grips with, but she has a flight model that seems to have been modelled on Flappy Bird; navigating narrow spaces, especially if there are nasty spikes around, is very much a case of hit and miss. You soon get used to her particular physics, however, and will be flapping about the place in no time.
Skully’s controls are a little harder to come to terms with, sadly. For a skeleton, he’s remarkably agile, with his jumping-about-the-place skills still very much in evidence, despite the lack of anything like muscles to actually provide the motor force required. As we touched on, Skully has a double jump, and this is very easily understood. If you jump at the height of his first jump he goes higher, at the horizontal limit he goes further, and so on and so forth. The issue I have is with the wall jumping. Now it may be my aging digits letting me down, but I cannot get Skully to wall jump reliably. He always seems to just cling to the wall, and slowly slide down, rather than springing off it with gay abandon the way I want him to. In fact, in order to check it wasn’t my creaky reflexes getting in the way, I handed the controller to my 9-year old son; a young lad who lives and breathes platformers. He did a lot better than me, but in his words – “The wall jumps are a bit weird“. This is a bit of a fly in the ointment, as so many sections of Skelattack require absolute precision, and the controls frankly just don’t seem up to it.
Combat is a bit of an issue as well, as regular enemies are just a case of ‘stand still and hit them with the sword until one of us falls over!’, with no real skill involved. Skully has no block move, no dodge move, and this is felt when it comes to the boss fights. Some are easy, like the first boss, Biff Bear Bane, who is lumbering and slow. Skully can literally run rings around him, getting a whack in with the sword every now and then. From then on, the bosses are a lot harder, and the Assassin in particular is a pain, teleporting about the place and firing daggers everywhere. Beating these guys usually comes down to a clutch moment, when either they are going to die or Skully is.
Skully does get stronger on his journey, but this is no Metroidvania game. Usually, the power-ups you receive are required to access a new section, but might then never be used again. Take the second upgrade I received, the Boom-a-Rib. Skully can pull out one of his ribs to be used as a boomerang, either damaging enemies or destroying a certain type of block to open the way. This is used once, and I can honestly say that after I had opened the path I needed, I never used it again. This is because it’s a lot better to use your limited magic power of healing, rather than throwing bones about the dungeon.
Luckily, as you go, you’ll find items that can be used to trade with people back in Aftervale. The blacksmith wants rare metal, which he will use to upgrade your sword, while the mage can teach you new magic for the cost of some of the in-game currency. I have no idea what these are, but they look like shards of crystal, and giving them to the mage will result in stronger healing spells being learned, for instance. You can also buy Bone Broth, and every helping you consume makes your life bar a little bigger. Bone Broth can also be found in the field, and is well worth looking out for.
The collectibles this time around – because we have to have collectibles – are library pages, which can be picked up and then perused, providing a nice backstory to the rest of the game. One word about Skelattack’s currency though: if you get hit, you will drop a portion of the crystals you are carrying, a la Dark Souls. If you can get back to where you died, you can reclaim them, so not too bad. The problem comes if you get to a boss section with a lot of crystals in your pocket. If you die to the boss, you drop the crystals, but when you get back into the boss room they are gone. So use ’em or lose ’em is my top tip. Thankfully, getting back to Aftervale to spend them is easy if you use the tunnels, a fast travel network that can be expanded by finding skeletons in hard hats; speaking to them enables new areas to be reached.
Skelattack on Xbox One is an utterly charming game, oozing personality and featuring brilliant music, but it’s not without its problems with regards to the gameplay. I think it’s a testament to the world that has been created that even after dying for what feels like the fifty millionth time trying to jump through a narrow gap surrounded by spikes, you will never want to give up or stop playing. When the game works, it works brilliantly, and even when it’s frustratingly hard, and you’re sure that it’s not your fault that you keep dying, you never want to give up and chuck it in. Skelattack is a great game that is just missing that last little bit of polish to make it an essential play. If you like games with heart, if you’ll pardon the phrase, you’re not going to go far wrong with Skelattack.