Skeletons are brilliant. Their clickety-clacking, rattle-me-bone structures are unambiguously fun to look at, and – best of all – no matter how terrible the fate of the fleshy prison surrounding a skeleton, they always look really happy. It's always a treat to dive into a game like Skelattack that features skeletons so heavily, and even better when the game turns out to be kinda fun.
Taking control of the chillaxed cadaver Skully, you'll need all your wits about you to repel the invasion of human heroes, an endeavour which amounts to a whole lot of jumping, climbing and sword-swinging. The game's immediate feel is somewhat reminiscent of the excellent Guacamelee and its sequel, with somewhat weighty character movement but little in the way of momentum.
Skully can double-jump and climb walls, but the way you do the latter is initially unintuitive. Rather than the traditional method of pushing against a wall and hitting jump – or even the more technical Super Metroid method – you can ascend simply by pulling away with the analogue stick. Think Mega Man X, but without having to press the jump button. It's weird and takes a little getting used to. Worse yet, you'll most likely lose lives attempting to correct a descent only to jump off a wall and into hazards.
Once you nail the movement, it's a lot of fun to get around, but the game doesn't ease you into the action at all. The challenging platforming sets up a rather skewed idea of what Skelattack's extremely banal fighting is going to be like. Then you actually face an enemy and they're pretty much pathetically weak, which causes a pretty big disconnect in the game feel. What we have here is rough, tough platforming mixed with combat so simplistic that it's weird they even included it.
This dichotomy, unfortunately, defines the whole experience – Skelattack is exceptionally generous with its checkpoints, but won't hesitate to put you through some extremely demanding scenarios. Sadly, the vast majority of the challenges seem to rely on enormous numbers of instant-kill spikes all over the floor, ceiling and walls; you'll make tricky leaps between them, wall-jump past them, or – in a particularly frustrating early segment – your little bat friend, Imber, will fly you between them while pouring water disrupts your air control.
Compounding this frustration, getting killed causes you to drop some of the collectable gems you're carrying, which will remain where you died for you to collect again. Sound familiar? The problem is, re-collecting them often means getting perilously close to the spikes – and it will be spikes – that one-hit killed you in the first place, often leading to repeat deaths and real annoyance. The thing is, though, those gems you'll find yourself dropping are tied to health upgrades, which don't help against the spikes in the slightest.
It's not that Skelattack is too hard, it's just very inconsistent; spikes kill in one hit, sure, but arrows don't? Swords don't? Giant spinning blades don't? It just means we found ourselves deliberately taking hits to run through enemies rather than waste time fighting them, or didn't bother avoiding traps that weren't instant death because there are multiple checkpoints per screen anyway. We found ourselves wondering who Skelattack was actually for. It's somehow too easy and too hard at the same time, which is kind of fascinating when you really think about it.
In terms of presentation, Skelattack is also a bit of a mixed bag. It's pleasant enough to look at and you'll never confuse foreground for background elements, but it's a touch by-the-numbers. Compounding this visual flatness, there's also something a little weird going on with the framerate; it's not that it isn't locked down in terms of output, but it's curious as to what exactly it's locked down to, with the movement, animation and scrolling feeling somewhat choppy and unsatisfying. The music went in one ear and out the other, too; it's inoffensive but completely unremarkable.
All this negativity makes Skelattack sound worse than it is – the game is perfectly playable and often genuinely enjoyable, but we felt like it wasn't quite sure what it wanted to be. The interaction between Skully and Imber is cute (if a little overdone), the Metroidvania-lite exploration is neat, and the general loop of defeating bosses to gain powers is always a treat. But the game's identity crisis is a major source of consternation and means it'll linger in the memory due to irritation rather than your feeling any kind of warmth towards it.
A strange little thing, Skelattack seems to lack confidence in itself, wanting to be one of those hard-as-nails "masocore" platformers while not really committing to the tight design that defines that subgenre. As a result, it's a game that'll make you seethe with frustration not from deliberate and challenging level design, but from sloppily-constructed traps that seem to think such things are excused by a multitude of checkpoints. It's definitely not a disaster, but Skelattack leaves a lot to be desired.