The best Skeldefense is a good Skelattack.
Skelattack is a brutal, unforgiving and exacting test of your reflexes, patience and fine motor control which is thinly disguised as a cutesy indie action platformer. So much so that I went looking for a difficultly setting. ‘A game this cute shouldn’t be this hard’ I thought, naively.
You play as Skully the skeleton and, with the help of you bat friend, Imber, you have been quested to save your afterlife home from the deadliest of enemies – humanity. On the day of your ‘skeletons-get-their-memories-back-from-when-they-were-alive’ ceremony, a group of humans attack Aftervale and it’s up to you to platform your way through a series of distinctive worlds to save the day, all while trying to piece together your memories from your time in the mortal world.
The first thing you’ll notice when you boot up the game is the absolutely gorgeous art style. It’s a hand-drawn, gothic affair, with vibrant, colourful and detailed characters and environments that you could stare at for hours, think Cuphead meets Pixar’s Coco. It’s what makes the game so endearing. You want to get through this bit of punishingly difficult platforming so you can see what visual delights are waiting for you in the next room. This is especially true during boss fights which push you to pull together everything you’ve learned up to that point and are the most challenging part of the game. But you’ll keep coming back, attempt after soul-crushing attempt so that you can pass on to the next level and see what Skelattack’s art style has done with the concept of a woodland world or a lava kingdom.
On the topic of environments, each one gives a different gameplay experience with new enemies to face and platforming elements to master. The first level is a dark and claustrophobic sewer, strewn with mousetraps and humans to fight. It’s occupied by some friendly rats who’ll help you on your quest if you can hunt down their stolen food supply.
As a contrast, the second level is in the Greenery, which is open and bright, with lots of plant life, including the sentient mushrooms whose home you’re trying to save. This environment gives you (hopefully non-sentient) mushrooms to jump on for a height boost and new wildlife enemies, like beetles, mosquitoes and giant venus-flytraps to face. Disappointingly, the combat isn’t anything particularly special and the different enemy types don’t lead to a different combat experience. You just need to get close and mash the attack button, there’s no strategy to it.
I won’t spoil any of the surprises for the later levels but it’s worth persevering to the last level which plays like a final exam for the game. It mashes together every enemy and platforming element you’ve faced so far to present you with a twisted climbing frame of death. Once you’ve made your way through that and faced the final boss, you feel like a true master of the underworld.
The basis for that feeling of mastery is the difficulty of the game. It is so hard. So hard. You’ll need to do some pixel-precise platforming over blocks that will insta-kill you and some boss fights that dish out damage from every direction, making The Orphan of Kos from Bloodborne look like an old lady with a rolled-up newspaper. Sometimes that difficulty is hair-pullingly frustrating and, to be completely honest, I had to put the game down and go away for a bit to let the rage simmer down before going back and trying again. Fortunately, the game has a generous checkpoint system and loads up after a death almost immediately, which limits the potential for frustration. Overall, the high difficulty level leads to a great sense of achievement when you eventually manage to get past the spikes, lava and flame monsters by nailing that wall jump on the 82nd attempt.
Part of the difficultly when you first pick up the game is caused by the platforming controls. You only have access to a jump, double jump and wall jump throughout the game so it’s important that you can nail those controls exactly when you need them. To initiate a wall jump, rather than pressing the jump button when you land against a wall, which I’m personally used to, you instead push the stick away from the wall. So, when you need to navigate up a pair of parallel walls like some kind of reverse Father Christmas, you need to carefully time pushing the stick from side to side and avoid the urge to press the jump button. Those controls were the cause of many of my early deaths but once I got used to them I found I was dying from platforming less. Like 10% less. It’s still a punishingly difficult game.
Skelattack is a beautiful and endearing indie game with a soul borrowed from a FromSoftware game. It’s gorgeous, challenging and so compelling. When you put it down, it won’t be long until you pick it back up for another go. It is let down by some awkward controls and uninspired combat but on balance, I came away with some really positive feelings for Skelattack.