‘I’m back! Back in the New York Grove’, sang Ace Frehley in 1978.
Shortly after, KISS took off their make-up and Ace Frehley then left the band. They had become a bit dated, silly even? So, too, the platformer. They came to be seen as undemanding, linear games; the preserve of younger kids who like the cartoon presentation of these games.
Even efforts to compete with the advent of 3D did little to halt the decline of the platformer from its market share heyday of a third of games sales to 2% by 2006, but whisper it like Ace Frehley… the platformer is back.
Sunblaze, developed by Games from Earth, is a 2D single screen platformer harking back to classic days. It’s title screen opens with a popping tune reminiscent of early Mario music and the soundtrack throughout is top notch.
You are Josie, a cute pony-tailed little girl whose father is a retired old superhero. Better than that though, Dad owns a Superhero training simulator – well of course we’re gonna try it. It is during the training session that we…err train and are taught all the basic moves in the game environment; the double jump, the dash, hang crawling, hitting things or jumping on things causes them to fall and this can break obstacles.
These are all the usual, expected staples of a precision platformer and they are introduced quickly and seamlessly. It’s a joyous start.
Then the training simulator goes wrong and you are stuck inside and have to fight your way through various colourful levels to escape back to Dad.
One of the starkest things about Sunblaze, right from the start, is how darn quick the game is in almost every respect. Sunblaze treats death in the best way, from red sauce to resurrection in a millisecond. Instantaneous and unforgiving failure is followed by instant play again without even the need to press a button.
Speedrun Death Challenge, Anyone?
There surely has to be a contest for who can rack up the most deaths in under a minute? Then when you complete a level there is no fade screen or load screen, the screen simply melts into the next level like the moment you see a magic eye image…boom it’s there and you are stood right where you were but in a different room, facing a different puzzle.
The pace is amazing, making the experience a pretty continuous one and emphasising the positive part of that, no matter how you are doing.
Pretty soon however, you start meeting those challenging levels where the game demands you put together your newly learnt moves into combinations in order to whizz around the board.
Each level (created by a friendly rainbow unicorn, naturally) needs to be solved and they become more a complex puzzle each time. There is an order of doing things, hitting jedi training robots, dropping blocks, exploding TNT, squashing laser gates, breaking glass barriers and all sorts of other things.
Pretty soon you start each level with a moment of pause to survey the puzzle in front of you and try to figure out a way to the end. As the game progresses, each new chapter introduces more hazards. There are spiked floors, poisonous coral, explosive oil drums, volcano spitters, and evil computers.
Played normally, Sunblaze is a pretty difficult game. It isn’t called a Precision Platformer for nothing. You know what you are in for when you see that the game keeps a death counter and a timer. There’s going to be competition with speedruns and lowest deaths (or as I prefer, posting a screenshots of completing a game with an unbelievably high death count).
Death comes in many forms and frequently, you can explode into residue on touching spikes, be crushed entirely by a moving block or fried in classic cartoon style of shocking your skeleton when caught in a laser gate. If it all proves too tough there are a multitude of difficulty settings that operate seamlessly.
Firstly there is a Zen Mode which is, effectively a rookie mode and gives you the whole game and story with fewer levels and a reduced difficulty, so the game can be played by a variety of ages and capabilities.
On top of that you can switch on various cheat functions that remove the game cap or cooldown on abilities such as infinite jumps or infinite dash. You can even make levels easier by giving yourself the ability to ignore volcanos and laser gates by switching on invincibility or to smash glass barriers on contact and avoid the perils of messing with squashing blocks. These accessibility options can be combined in any mode; play the standard mode and tackle a particularly hard level by switching on infinite jumps for example?
A Variety Of Deaths
Sunblaze is a great game with a wealth of accessibility. It knows what the flaws of a platformer are and if gets around them confidently. You will never be stuck for too long, you can always tweak the game parameters a little for one level of the whole game and experience much the same as someone else who plays the more skilful variant. And for those of you who want greater challenges you can try to collect the power cubes in each chapter. Do all this and there are a reputed 700 levels in the game.
All in all you can play Sunblaze from start to finish in a couple of hours using all of the easiest settings and cheat modes or you can take on the full challenge and it will take you days and well over 1000 deaths. That the game can be immensely accessible and extremely challenging at the flick of a setting and lose you nothing in gameplay gives Sunblaze broad appeal.
The plethora of Roguelites around in recent years has given the platformer a lesson in how to present death as irrelevant to gameplay or at least not a setback to progress.
Is It Worth Buying Sunblaze?
During the lockdown of the last year there has been a widely reported jump in playing video games, Platformers are in the top five genres for growth in that period with platform play growing by 25% in that time.
These days Ace Frehley is back playing with KISS, they still tour and they are back in their daft glam costumes, but what we realised is that we liked it that way after all. Sunblaze is one of a developing new breed of platformers in the line of Super Meat Boy and Celeste that realise the platformer never really left us and know how to give us what we really liked all along.
You know that feeling you sometimes catch yourself doing in a game whereby you lean hard to the left in your chair, subconsciously willing your character to make that jump, you’ll be doing that a lot here. Like any game, when you put together a series of combinations to travel with speed and fluidity across and around all the obstacles to complete the level, it is glorious when you succeed.
I literally punched the air and let out a holler when I completed things. So, if you ever liked a platformer then you should check out Sunblaze and you too can sing ‘I’m Back’.
Yay…another Roguelite. If your game isn’t procedurally generated, then you’re not with the programme.
It’s a tough deal these days, after Hades; the bar has been set high. So along comes Skul: The Hero Slayer, joining the group like a new pop-up artisan burger joint, offering Japanese corn-fed beef patties on a piece of slate, in a brioche bun and serving Argentine beer whilst they play full Bob Dylan albums… on vinyl.
Just like a few years ago when burgers became artisan…roguelites are everywhere at the minute and there is no sign of let-up. Don’t worry, I’m here to help you know which waygu and which way not to go.
One Large Retro Pixel Art 2D Roguelite, Please
Skul is a pixel art 2D platform roguelite. The graphics and the way the text scrolls one generated letter at a time is very much like an old Nintendo Entertainment System or SEGA game.
The whole look of the game is retro styled and has an early Zelda feel to it. The usual roguelite elements are here. You die lots and keep nothing with you except for small incremental trait improvements which are split into three options, magical attack, melee attack and critical damage chance.
Gradually a combination of mastering the attack styles of enemies and the compound difference of incremental trait advances starts to pay off; you can go further, do more and so the game scales.
The premise is that the heroes of the world have united to finally conquer the demon kingdom and have imprisoned the Demon King, defeating and capturing monsters and wraiths of the underworld in the process. All except you that is… You are Skul, the tiny little skeleton sent on a final desperate mission to expel the Heroes and rescue the Demon King. You do so by journeying through RNG rooms that you have some control over.
Before entering the next room, you are presented with a choice of two rooms from one that delivers a skull, one that delivers money or one that delivers a power-up item. You get this reward when you clear the room full of enemies, but the level of reward, common, rare, unique and legendary are randomised. There is also a blank room which is simply a random pick of any one of the above. This allows you to somewhat control what you get in reward at the end of each room on your run.
Throughout levels there are shop doors to pass through that offer the chance to spend money on a variety of RNG items in each of the categories and a free skull is often offered to you.
You also have the end of level doors marked in red where you fight mini-bosses in the shape of caped heroes or one of six end of section big bosses.
Back To The Grind?
So far everything is pretty standard stuff for a roguelite, it’s done very well, but nothing special. The trick (and difficult bit) of making a successful roguelite is to avoid the improvement seeming like too much of a grind. There is nothing worse than being thrown back to the beginning for the 80th time, hating the idea of having to do those rote early levels yet again. One of our developer podcast guests recently described a lightbulb moment for him.
It was understanding what the central appeal or mechanic of your game was and to not limit it, but give lots of it to the player. That, after all, is why they are playing it. So, a roguelite has to constantly offer you demonstrable character improvement to keep the player in that feeling of ‘this time know I can get further…one more go’.
How does Skul do at this? There are two things that let it down. Whilst the rooms are procedurally generated, the enemies within rooms are not RNG; they are the same ones in the same places, following the same movements each time and there is limited variety in rooms.
There could (and should) have been more on offer here to make replaying them seem like less of a pointless grind in getting to whichever level you are currently powered for. The other problem is that in the early stages of the game, progress is very slow and the difficulty is punishingly hard. You can easily die fifty or sixty times with little progress beyond the early sections and seemingly scant character trait improvement.
Rotate Your Skuls
These issues could cripple Skul, but they don’t, because what lifts Skul: The Hero Slayer out of what would have been a mediocre entry to the genre at best, is an amazing mechanic that is the core attraction of the game. The ability to swap your skull and pick up another with radically different merits and powers.
There are about thirty-five skulls you can be given but you can only use two at any one time so, there are choices to be made. Each skull will be focussed on either speed, physical attack, magic attack or a balanced one of all elements. Within that there are different tiered skulls that give your play a different level of deadliness in attack and variety.
There are common skulls: rare ones, unique ones and legendary ones. These can and do pair with increasingly power with items that you pick up that complement the characteristics of speed: power or balance more so than the other skulls. The right combinations can result in your character becoming a devastating whirlwind of retribution on the heroes invading your land.
Oh yes… and if the difficulty is too hard there is a rookie setting that halves incoming damage, which 20 % of players choose to switch on – ooufff clearly tough then.
At first it might feel that you are at the mercy of getting an early unique drop of a rare or legendary skull to have any hope of progress, but as your character increases trait power with each run the common skulls become very playable and both the common and rare skulls can be upgraded to become as powered as a legendary one.
This means that not only are there a vast range of playstyles open to you with these RNG skull drops, but as your character levels your ability to use almost any of them effectively also increases, making for an enormously different experience of play each time. Perfecting them and settling on a preferred playstyle is fun and you can very much single-mindedly focus on this from a restart, keep only physical skulls and always choose/buy the physical upgrades.
You can also crush all other found skulls into bones to use as a currency to upgrade your Skul. Make these decisions early on based on the first skull given and you can rapidly compete with a legendary skull, you need not wait on the RNG to gift you one. This is only really possible when you have enough compound trait progression though.
This bewildering choice of gameplay styles and power-up make the early rooms playable on a repeat basis because you are forced to learn several different playstyles, hitting from distance, melee, special moves that are directionally dependent and ones that aren’t, the list goes on, all dependent on the skulls dropped for you in the early rounds.
Games do not usually make you learn more than one or two play-styles, but here there are a vast array of combinations and these changes, if you upgrade; remember that you can only ever hold two skulls at a time. This semi-forced variety is a magical mechanic to the game that takes some learning, but is richly rewarding.
All of this combines to produce amazing combat that you can easily control and master to clear dozens of enemies from different directions with wonderfully satisfying and increasingly powerful attacks and combos. It is something that looks like chaotic luck, but isn’t.
Skul: The Hero Slayer Review Summary
You will probably get about 40 hours out of Skul: The Hero Slayer and it is worth every penny of a relatively cheap price point. This isn’t a perfect roguelite, but it is a good one with a marvellous core mechanic that defines the game and lifts it beyond the small problems it has. Being the bad guy has never been so much fun.