Damsel, from Australian indie outfit Screwtape Studios, is a simple game in concept: playing as the eponymous Damsel (who is anything but in distress), you run around short, sharp platformer levels shooting vampires with your trusty shotgun. That’s pretty much the entirety of the game, but it works wonders; Damsel is very much a game about pick-up-and-play action, and its good at getting its claws in.
Armed with a shotgun, a double jump, and an air dash, your goal is to kill as many vampires as possible while collecting purple skulls that dot the level (think coins in Super Mario). Most stages also have a slew of other, optional objectives: rescuing hostages, hacking computers, destroying security cameras, and the like. The faster and more efficiently you can do all this, the bigger your score at the end of he level.
It can be overwhelming at first. Vampires are plentiful, and some of the more annoying ones have a habit of killing you while you’re otherwise distracted. Good scores depend on being able to quickly pick up skulls in sequence, without breaking your chain by waiting too long between one skull and the next—but been you’re just learning the ropes, trying to figure out your way around each new level, those broken chains are the norm.
But when you figure out the ideal route and execute it flawlessly, Damsel is like a whole other game. It’s like a dance; a perfectly choreographed sequence of jumps and gunshots as you pick up every item, rescue every hostage, and eradicate every vampire without missing a beat. So, in true arcade game spirit, much of the appeal lies in figuring out those perfect lines through trial, error, and lots of practice.
Naturally, Damsel gets harder the further you get, with new enemy types and hazards regularly introduced. In the first couple of stages, the only vampires are slow, bat-wielding ones, but before long you’ll run into Nosferatu lookalikes that throw bones around, hulking vampire behemoths that charge you with a deadly tackle, and particularly deadly flying succubus-like things. You’ll also have to deal with time bombs, spikes, lasers, flame turrets… these are some violent vampires. A few levels have a magical relic that makes all nearby vampires invincible into you destroy it.
The later levels also add more complicated and numerous objectives. Rescuing hostages is generally straightforward—you just stand next to them and mash a certain button—but hacking computers and safes requires timed button presses. Cameras sometimes require creative platforming before you can live up a shot, and getting caught leads to extra vampires spawning. Most of these can be avoided if you just want to finish the level, but getting the good scores means finding the best, most efficient way to complete every task within the level.
Health pickups, while not an “objective” as such, bring another element of risk and reward. You only have one hit point initially, but you can earn more by destroying marked barrels. However, doing so also increases the health of any nearby enemies, and summons a powerful foe—usually one of the aforementioned succubi, who live to float in the air and shoot projectiles at you. Most of the time, I found myself losing my newly-earned health in the process of dispatching the monster that came with it.
All that, coupled with a limited stock of lives, mean simply finishing Damsel‘s arcade mode is challenging enough—I think the furthest I’ve ever gone is level 17 (of 24). Fortunately, there’s also a campaign mode that’s more approachable; the levels are the same, but you can retry as much as you need, and save your progress.
At this stage, campaign mode lacks any sort of overt narrative—apparently that’s something that’s planned for the final release—but simply knowing that Damsel is an agent in a mysterious vampire-hunting organisation is enough to go on. I’m looking forward to that, but for now, the simple arcade action is enough to keep me coming back. Judging from the menu, there are plans to add at least two more campaigns set in different locations, and I look forward to seeing what new locations and challenges come with those.
For the most part, Damsel runs smoothly, but early access games are always going to have their bugs and things to iron out. The first few times I loaded up the game, it booted straight past the main menu into arcade mode; I just thought that was the whole game, until the time it actually did load the menu and I found the joys of campaign mode and graphics settings. I’ve also had the occasional issue of the jump button taking a moment to register, leading to some unfortunate and unfair deaths. I don’t know if this is a controller issue (I’m playing on an Xbox 360 pad) or what, but it can get frustrating, especially on trickier levels where timing is crucial.
I’m sure these issues will be ironed out, though, and the Screwtape Studios folks have been hard at work since Damsel‘s early access launch with regular updates. The whole point of early access is to discover and iron out issues like these, and I’m glad to see that happening.
As it is, Damsel is a thoroughly enjoyable score-focused arcade platformer, full of kinetic energy and vampire-killing fun. The ongoing bug-squashing efforts bode well for the future, and I can’t wait to see what the final product will look like.
Damsel is developed and published by Screwtape Studios. It’s available now on Steam Early Access.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.