(DEMON SKIN is out April 13th on PC. Distributor provided review copy.)
DEMON SKIN is an indie game made with a limited budget and tremendous passion. I admire those projects, and it’s never fun to give one a bad review. As with films, almost any game that gets made is a minor miracle. Sometimes though, they just don’t work as well as they do in our dreams.
Set in a dark fantasy world that borrows liberally from DARK SOULS, ELDER SCROLLS, and Norse mythology, DEMON SKIN is a sidescrolling platforming-Metroidvaniaesque-Soulslike game that has very little originality to its name. I daresay that anyone who’s played anything in the genre from the last ten years will be able to call out where the game is going from the very beginning.
You play an (at first) nameless and forgotten soldier who has forgotten their name. The land festers with the forces of darkness, and only the Order of Wanderers – warriors with superhuman powers – can fight back. The trouble is, something has gone wrong, and the last remaining hero has turned himself into a demon. To restore their humanity and save the world in the process, they’ll have to travel far behind enemy lines to recover a stolen artifact and restore peace.
It’s all very familiar, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Goodness knows the genre is mined out pretty hollow by now. But DEMON SKIN doesn’t even try to break free from its well-worn genre trappings. It’s exceedingly heartfelt, but it’s just not enough.
Most, if not all, problems in DEMON SKIN are technical. While the animations are solid and the backgrounds often surprisingly beautiful, the actual gameplay and platforming sections are dire. Not just familiar, though they certainly are that as well; they’re often grating, confounding, and just plain not fun to play.
Combat focuses on three stances: high, medium, and low. Each does what it says on the tin. Early on, enemies will attack you directly with little to no care or protection. But the further you progress, they will wear armor with specific openings and weaknesses. Likewise, larger beings will require more movement and dodging, but these fights are sadly few and far between.
What’s worse is that the standard combat mechanics aren’t particularly inspired, either. For much of my time spent with DEMON SKIN, I discovered that simply repeating one attack was often enough. Enemies just didn’t block anything if you got one swing in. I figured this to be a bug initially, but the situation remains the same as of publishing.
To its credit, DEMON SKIN comes with around thirty weapons to play around with, and if you do feel like mixing up attacks, there are some fun animations and combos to discover. But even as your demonic warrior grows (including growing a skeleton armor!), it never feels like the action picks up the pace alongside it. What feels sluggish at the beginning feels just the same by the end.
What does work is the solid levelling system. It doesn’t do anything beyond the basic promise (there are only three stat trees), but it doesn’t need to. In fact, there’s a certain comfort in a straightforward mechanic that lets you focus on how you like to play.
I played DEMON SKIN with both a controller and keyboard and found both experiences clunky. The controller was the more preferable of the two, but there seemed to be a strange lag in input no matter the platform. Sometimes jumps just won’t take as they should; a roll will load the animation a frame or two too long, little things that grow into bigger problems.
And yet, I can’t help but feel like this is nitpicking what’s otherwise a decent enough indie title. It’s certainly short enough not to offend for long, and at €14,99 on release, I can’t imagine anyone feeling slighted by the content. For that money, you get a serviceable action title that’s still looking for its footing. The story is barely coherent, and it’s often hard to gauge just what you’re supposed to be feeling. But I’ve seen worse narratives in games with hundreds of times larger budgets.
So if anyone at Buka Entertainment is reading this: I look forward to DEMON SKIN 2, or whatever your next project will be. This isn’t a home run, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t be.