‘Yeah, that’s a video game alright.’
So every now and then, my editors will surprise me with a code for a game I’ve never heard of before – Some of them, like ‘Rock of Ages II‘ and ‘Attack of the Earthlings‘ are extremely enjoyable, and easily get a hearty recommendation. Some, like ‘HEVN‘ and ‘To Hell with Hell‘, less so.
But this time, it’s different – ‘Damsel’ is one example of a game I really, really like, but can’t justify a glowing review. Let’s explore that.
‘Damsel’ is the comic-book inspired side-scrolling shooter starring a shotgun-toting vampire slayer named “Damsel”, who looks like the kind of character you’d get if you let an edgy teenager design a Metroidvania protagonist. The individual levels are punctuated with short comic strips which act as story sections, adding some tenuous connective tissue between levels. They’re fully drawn, competently composed, visually enjoyable little strips that do a great job of adding a visual personality to the game – There’s just the problem of what story they actually convey, because there kind of isn’t one, even though they clearly were intending for one to exist.
The story I experienced – the first of three campaigns currently available – was a story that was seemingly made up on the spot by a person who’d never written a story before. It’s like you cornered someone in a lift and forced them at gunpoint to tell you a story about vampires. It can be summed up as the following:
“…And then there were vampires in the warehouse and that a bomb so she went in and killed the vampires but then there were more vampires outside and they were holding people hostage so she jumps out the window and shoots the hostages by mistake but then the level reset and she shot the vampires and then she won.”
It’s not so much a story as it is an excuse for each level to exist… But it’s completely needless this way, since each level is almost exactly the same, bar the 2 or 3 things you’re actually being marked on, there’s literally no rhyme or reason to what the story actually is. It’s not like we’re progressing through a narrative, with themes and events – We’re not even doing the ‘Call of Duty’ thing of progressing towards a single objective, like invading Berlin or killing a terrorist. It’s just meandering events that exist towards no overall narrative and don’t engage at all – The stark contrast between story sections and gameplay sections is apparent, with literally no story elements in the game itself (There are no named characters in the levels, all hostages look the same, all the challenges are the same), it leads to me thinking that this might as well be a game with no story whatsoever. The story only exists to give the comic strips between levels an excuse to be there.
With some effort put into the narrative, some unique NPCs and some in-game dialogue, the levels themselves might actually work very well. The problem is, the narrative is in a strange half-way position of existing, but only so much as to be a detriment. Not enough Class-A drugs to get you high, but enough to get you arrested. That sorta thing.
…But all of that is just piss in the wind, because here’s the thing – For brief and shining moments, the actual game itself, as clunky as the flavour is, absolutely kicks ass.
Seriously, I was absolutely taken aback by how good this game is – It has occasional moments with the perfect flow of adrenaline, as you combo a melee attack into a jump across a chasm, picking off an enemy with a downward shot which also propels you out of the way of a projectile. It’s adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding, cock-slapping action. The developers, intentionally or not, have created a core combat that is as satisfying and as intrinsically enjoyable as any DOOM ever was, in my eyes.
The game’s a side-scrolling 2D shooter, where you navigate a series of samey levels shooting left, right, up, and down, using a dash move to pass enemies and punching them when you get up close. Some enemies go down in one hit, some take 4 or 5 – Some try to hit you, others have guns. There are hostages and time-bombs and security cameras and hackable terminals, and each level is just a splattering of them randomly placed around a level, with one of them being the objective. The same level could be used twice, once with ‘kill all enemies’ being the goal, and once with ‘destroy all the terminals’ being the goal. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it goes on for just long enough.
It’s such a shame, then, that the game seems so ashamed of this high-speed gameplay, and tries to break it up as much as possible – Be it with the short hacking minigames, or the levels that abruptly end based on a time limit, or when you mistakenly shoot a hostage – Thankfully, the pick-up-and-play time is as fast as possible, so it’s easy peasy to jump right back in, but I can’t help but question what lead the developers to stop the sprint every 12 seconds to fiddle with a hacking minigame, as all it does is put a giant ‘STOP’ sign in front of the lightning-speed gameplay and practically gives you whiplash in the process.
Put shortly, this a video game. It’s the kind of video game that someone who has never played a video game might describe to a group of developers, it’s not high art and there are certainly a few issues that throttle what could have been a fantastic experience, but overall I’ll say I enjoyed my time with Damsel. Perhaps with a few tweaks, it could have been a surprise hit – But the short moments of high-octane action and the enjoyable visual style do give this vampiric game some bite (sorry).
The official score is 6/10.
While better than a good few indie efforts, Damsel’s clumsy execution completely throttles its most unique points – Remove the minigames and write a story with some structure, and we could be looking at an easy 9/10.