Humans are strange. For whatever reason, we like to cause ourselves torment by playing incredibly challenging games that are dubbed as "brutal." From Software made a living creating games in this genre, and their work has inspired plenty of others, including the indie studio Ludus Future, who has created the savage hack 'n' slash Demon Skin. I've spent the last few days exploring this tough dark fantasy game, at the cost of my calm composure, to come to the conclusion that this title, while bringing a lot of solid features to the table, more often than not is its own worst enemy.
The storyline for Demon Skin is set in a fantasy world plagued with well... demons, and it puts you in the shoes of a member of the Order of Wanderers - an ancient organisation of beings with superhuman divine powers capable of fighting back against the hordes of evil. After witnessing and attempting to stop a dark ritual that aims to restore a powerful and deadly relic, our Wanderer is caught in a flow of energy that turns him into a demon. The story sees us travel across a hostile world with the aim of finding the artefact to restore the Wanderer back to his former appearance, even if it means cutting through vast numbers of undead, demons and monsters along the way to do so.
As a brutal hack 'n' slash, a lot of the gameplay will see you slicing or smashing demons to pieces with several different types of weapons, but considering the game is a side-scroller, the combat isn't all that diverse. Aside from just aimlessly swinging away, the main selling point are the three stances that allow the Wanderer to hit enemies in three different ways; from above, below, and head on. Switching between the three is as simple as moving the mouse up and down to shift the targeter, and it does allow you to cook up some pretty neat combos, block easily, and even exploit weak points on enemies with armour, for example, however, aside from sprinkling in a dodge mechanic, that's basically the extent of combat.
The enemies on the other hand are a little more varied. A lot of the run-of-the-mill foes are skeletons or zombies, many of which will be wearing various sections of armour protecting them from attacks of a particular stance, and each come with a health bar to whittle down to defeat them. There are also unique foes that offer even more of a challenge. One of the first that you'll come across is a yeti type creature that has sweeping attacks, ground slams, and a hefty health pool that makes for a tough, and savage combat encounter, but you will also face giant spiders, flaming demons, and even powerful humanoid beings.
Aside from the combat, there are also a few platforming encounters you'll have to work through that see you leap and roll out of the way of environmental hazards, but these suffer from the same issues that plague the combat, in that it feels very sluggish. This is quite a common theme for hardcore games, particularly the Dark Souls series, but as a lot allow you to move in third dimension, you have the option to use movement to your advantage much more, whereas in Demon Skin, it can be hard to truly utilise movement, especially against enemies that have long-reaching attacks.
In general, this is the biggest issue I have with Demon Skin. The slow pacing, whether it's in fights or platforming often takes a lot of the excitement out of the gameplay, which is pretty crucial for a game that will kill you a lot. And, it is a shame because there is plenty of progression and loot available to make you a more capable and deadly fighter, if you can come to terms with the heavy-feeling mechanics.
From simply being able to pick up new weapons off the ground to add to your inventory (some of which might even have special powers) all the way to spending skill points to upgrade your damage, health or stamina (which allows you to make more attacks before needing to recover), Demon Skin has quite a range of progression. There are also the shards of the relic that you'll need to recover over the storyline that will change the appearance of the Wanderer by adding to his bone armour, but this is more of a cosmetic change above all.
The point is, considering Demon Skin is quite short, the progression available and the idea of its stance-based combat system make for a unique experience. The problem is that it struggles to keep the player engaged, especially since every time you die, you have to return to the last checkpoint. This means you will be replaying portions of levels a lot as you will die frequently, either by the blade of a sword or by some environmental hazard such as bodies of water or spikes coming out of the ground. For what it's worth, if you like causing yourself torment then Demon Skin is going to be right up your alley. But, don't expect a hack 'n' slash experience that rivals the SoulsBorne series.
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