This game was given to us to review. Don’t let that fool you though, this review is entirely my opinion from my play-time with the game.
Title: Skeleton Boomerang
Release Date: August 30th, 2017
There are some games out there in the indie scene that get a ton of hype during the build-up and then end up being either really amazing or awful. Then there are some that are just average and it makes you question what some of the hype was about. Skeleton Boomerang isn’t one of these games though. I think I would be correct in stating that the vast majority of you reading [watching] this had never even heard of the title. This is a shame because, and I am just going to come out and say it, Skeleton Boomerang is one of the most fun indie platformers I have ever played. It easily ranks up there with Cave Story+ and Shovel Knight. So if I can tickle your funny bone for just a bit, allow me to explain why any fan of the platforming genre should play Skeleton Boomerang.
The story of Skeleton Boomerang feels like a platforming story of old, something akin to the old Castlevania games. You play as a man simply known as Hunter, who has come to the cursed island of death god Mr. Saturday who is attempting to give independence to all the skeletons in the world, so they can burst out of their human bodies and have a good ‘ol jamboree. Plenty of milk will be had during Mr. Saturday’s wild ride. While not a very deep story, it does it’s job fine in explaining the good guys, the bad guys, and providing any motivation for their conflict. It get’s a little more interesting towards the end of the game but it is clearly not the focus here.
Although the story takes a back-seat in this game, the writing is really fun. The dialogue is mostly non-existent but scattered throughout are various signs that range from helpful tutorials to bad skeleton puns. These were a delight to read and made better by the fact that they don’t require any additional effort on the behalf of the player. This is a game where simply going near the sign will prompt the text to appear rather than needing to attack it or stopping to press a button. I prefer this with my tutorials especially as I don’t feel as though the game is stopping my momentum to teach me something I may have already learnt.
So while the story is a bit barebones, the rest of the game is not.
As a game rooted in the platforming genre, the gameplay is the most important aspect and so it is a good thing that the platforming here is incredibly tight. While games like Shovel Knight and Freedom Planet have a clear basis for their games, something we see in a lot of indie platformers nowadays, Skeleton Boomerang appears to take elements from a variety of titles instead. For example, the game feels like a Mario game in the way Hunter moves and jumps but he can’t defeat his enemies in the same way Mario does. Instead, Hunter relies on his trusty boomerang which makes the game feel more Castlevania like. It’s a good mix that works and these aren’t the only two games that I feel this title took inspiration from.
So, Hunter’s primary mode of attack is the boomerang and despite this being his sole method of attacking, the nature of the weapon allows for a lot of variety. Players could simply throw it at their opponents and catch it on the return; or instead, the boomerang can be avoided altogether and then players can watch as flies around destroying any enemy it hits and homing back in on Hunter as if he was the center of its world. And this latter option takes some skill but the game rewards the additional effort and creativity by recording combos and giving more points out for keeping up a chain. When you factor this in with a variety of boomerangs and special skills that Hunter can obtain throughout his journey you end up with a lot of options for combat that all stem around one, simple, mechanic.
Despite all my praise on the boomerang in this game there is one ability Hunter has that is better. That is rolling. Rolling feels awesome and allows Hunter to momentarily dash forward. He can do this on both land and in the air, and is a mechanic essentially taken straight from the Donkey Kong Country games. But, it’s not taken wholesale. Hunters roll can’t kill enemies like DK’s can and instead acts like a type of dodge. Hunter can roll through any attack allowing for you to speed through certain segments of levels which will be a blessing for those who enjoy speedrunning (something this game also attempts to promote by tracking your clear time). The rolling mechanic is so much fun to use that I actively wish to see it in as many platformers as possible in the future.
While the vast majority of gameplay is platforming and combat, including bosses and sub-bosses, there are sometimes when it tries to change things up. For the most part this works, such as the combo challenges or racing levels, but it also brings up my first flaw with the game. Certain levels will give you a vehicle to ride in and, with the exception of one, these can become more annoying than fun. An accurate sense of momentum isn’t there and I felt I was sometimes blasted off in one direction by a simple tap of forward. It doesn’t happen often but I did always dread those levels.
One thing I never dread though was the presentation.
Right off the bat, the presentation for Skeleton Boomerang impressed me. The game uses pixel-art to capture its world and it becomes very obvious that the game’s creator was primarily a graphics designer before this. All the characters feel bouncy and energetic. Despite not saying a line of dialogue, Hunter feels very charismatic and shows a variety of expressions that helped to make me bond with him. But, what really takes the cake from a visual standpoint are the levels themselves. Nearly every stage in Skeleton Boomerang feels unique with new tilesets and backgrounds to accompany them. While most games stick to one world theme and run with it, Skeleton Boomerang is constantly changing things up. At one point you are on a snowy mountain and then the next you’re fighting a skeleton samurai on a Japanese pagoda. It is all highly detailed and very impressive.
While on the topic of stages I need to point how utterly superb the level design is in this game. Everything flows so naturally in a stage and I never once felt cheated or confused by what I was doing. Skeleton Boomerang is one of those platformers where every level brings with it a new mechanic for players to mess around with. It lets you understand it at the beginning and then ramps up the difficulty later on. What’s more, when these mechanics are revisited in later levels they often come packaged with a twist of some kind that creates a new experience for the player. I never once felt like I was repeating myself which is amazing for a platformer with as many levels as this one.
Another aspect of the stage design that is impressive is how it handles its hidden collectables. Collectables are a common trait in platformers nowadays that encourage exploring and replayability but many games achieve this by being as obtuse as possible. Yoshi’s Woolly World, as an extreme example, can hide some of its secrets in invisible clouds which you would only notice if you walked over them (and many of which you wouldn’t normally). This is bad design, but Skeleton Boomerang does a good job of making its collectables, blue necklaces, well telegraphed and also well hidden. Sometimes the necklace is shown to the player but the way to get to it is blocked-off, other times you can see it but can’t access it until a later trigger is met and other times it is hidden off-screen but a subtle, yet noticeable, piece of stage design will clue you in that something around is amiss. It was truly marvellous to see a game get its design almost 100% correct.
Almost 100% though, it is not all perfect. If I had to complain about some parts of the game it would be the pacing of checkpoints and food items in the game. Stages can sometimes be long, up to about 6-8 minutes, and this can be a nightmare when there is only one checkpoint and it is three-quarters of the way into a level. You could slip in a level and die, only to find yourself taken all the way to the beginning of the level, resetting all progress outside of the hidden collectables. I’ll admit, it happened more times than I would’ve liked and this isn’t helped by the lack of food items in this game. Food is mostly hidden in a level in a similar way to classic Castlevania and this can be a nightmare at times. You don’t have a lot of health in the beginning and as enemies don’t drop health you are forced to rely on these hidden food items and they do not appear that often and when they do I often don’t need it. Their placement in a level is often questionable unless they come before a mini-boss. But, just like checkpoints, there are too few of these in the levels and I feel it needed more balancing.
Let’s move away from the visuals to talk about the soundtrack which will rattle your bones with how energetic and enjoyable it is. The music uses a soundscape similar to the work of Jake Kaufmann and it works to remarkable effect here. With many games I end up plugging in my earphones and listening to a podcast instead but not with this one. Here, I listened to every song the game had as it was often varied, energetic and got me more excited to play the game. The sound-effects are also satisfying and relay all the information it needs to in a way that doesn’t take away from the experience, only enhances it.
The presentation certainly feels alive and it acts as the perfect backbone to this entire game.
My verdict is obvious, heck I spoilt it in the opening, but Skeleton Boomerang is a game I highly recommend playing. It is on Steam and launches tomorrow [August 1st, 2017]. There are plenty of reasons why Skeleton Boomerang is a game worth your time, I just discussed a bunch of them in this review, but ultimately the most important factor to me is a simple one. Skeleton Boomerang was fun. I enjoyed practically every minute of it and even on the hardest bosses I never got angry, rather I felt satisfied after I defeated them. I kept wanting to play more and that’s truly the mark of a great game. It may not try to invent the wheel but this game certainly isn’t the skeleton of another. It’s not trying to revive some forgotten gameplay style or pay homage to any specific series but rather, is an amalgamation of all the best parts of level-based platformers and that is more than enough for me.
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