Unlike the old cliché, Damsel is not a game that needs any assistance to kick ass. This confident debut from Australian developer Screwtape Studios has recently left Steam’s Early Access and manages to distil the essence of what makes the games it is emulating so well loved, wrapped up in a stylish exterior.
With a level design philosophy that will remind older gamers of titles like Bombjack, Damsel is very clear in its intention to be arcade-style fun first and foremost. A 2D action platformer, players control the titular vampire hunter as she jumps, climbs, dashes and slashes across a variety of small self-contained levels, completing tasks that usually involve sending the bloodsucking horde back to their coffins. For what it’s worth, the story is split into three episodes, presented in some stylish graphic novel cutscenes with a cartoon aesthetic and some sassy tongue in cheek humour. However, don’t expect much in the way of characterisation or plot twists here. Fortunately, these scenes merely bookend the actual levels and don’t get in the way of the gameplay, which is rightfully the star of the show.
In games with a classically simple toolset such as this, the nuances of player control come to the forefront. Luckily, Damsel is a joy to play. Players can execute double jumps, wall climbs, dash across gaps, shoot from a distance and melee enemies. The platforming all feels extremely fluid and measured within the context of the levels. At first, this expansive movement toolkit gave the impression that the game would be imbalanced compared to the shambling enemy AI. However, Damsel’s difficulty curve is masterfully executed, with a slow layering of new foes and environmental hazards forcing the player to utilise all their abilities and think strategically about how to navigate the level to maximise their score, with global leaderboards present to keep players coming back.
Whilst the enemy variety and difficulty curve deserves praise, unfortunately the same can’t be said for the level design. The earlier reference to Bombjack is apt, with most stages consisting simply of several vertically oriented levels of flat platforms to jump to, each usually with an objective guarded by an enemy or hazard. Additionally, later tiers of levels tend to recycle the same layouts of platforms, instead opting to add more hazards and harder enemies to form bottlenecks. The fast-paced nature of the game and the ability to improve on how you dispatch enemies means that it never becomes a huge problem, but a little more variety in the layout or size of these levels might have served to prop out the game’s longevity.
Ultimately, the core mechanics of movement and combat are what an arcade action game like Damsel lives and dies by. Here, the developer has excelled. In fact, the shooting and jumping are so simple yet refined that the QTE-style minigames littered throughout the levels, despite existing to introduce variety and replayability in the gameplay, accomplish the opposite. These segments tend to grind up against the fast-paced and flowing nature of the rest of the game. Having to stop every 10 seconds to hack a computer or free a hostage does introduce an element of risk and reward to the scoring system but isn’t immediately as satisfying as the rest of the gameplay. Even so, Damsel is certainly worth the price of entry and a well-made example of what can be achieved when simple fun and concise game design meet.
Review by Dylan Cook
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