Tower Of Guns, and Paranautical Activity are fun, single-player shooters that I've dropped in and out of a fair bit this year. It's been a surprise, as I generally don't enjoy games that are mostly about shooting. Perhaps I am maturing? Or maybe I'm getting less mature. The answer is up for interpretation. Now they've been joined by Fancy Skulls, a similarly boxed-in gun game that traps you in randomised levels and gives you one life. I've played its beta a fair bit this week, and I keep returning to it in quiet moments when my fingers get itchy. The doctor says it's a good remedy.
Here's why I wanted to play it.
It's a simple but subtle game, and each playthrough has delivered a new insight into its world and the odd things that operate within it. There's moments of thoughtful aiming and light puzzling and planning within the surreal box of implacable floating death skulls and turrets. At the start, though, it's largely about shooting and dodging. Each level is a series of square rooms with randomly selected enemies hidden in eggs. When you're ready to fight, you walk into the room and it'll shut down, keeping you trapped in there until you kill everything or you die. You can wander a little, collecting any boxed up coins, ammo or, more welcome, health hearts, and then walk into the pulsing circle at the centre of the level.
It's a moment of exposure: you're welcoming the assault of whatever hides within the eggs, and they all attack at once. With death being permanent, and health being hard to acquire, it's tough to make that step. But you have to or it's a game about standing about, being awkward. There's a mix of turrets--that are either static and tracking, or spinning and patterned--and wandering AI to contend with.
The immediate response dictates your chances: with the eggs unpeeled and puking enemies, you could be faced with a rotating laser beam that's predictable but annoying, a strange and headless wibble monster that doesn't seem to know where you are but spits out floating beans that track you and explode, and another turret that focuses on you as well. What to pick? In that case, the stumbling monster takes precedence: the turrets are generally easy to follow and dodge, even the one that tracks you. The bean dropping AI is a different problem; the explosive beans initially just hang in the air until you're near, and then they drop and swoop around at you, never quite a direct threat, but moving in a swoosh that you can just about dodge and that makes you think you've won. And then it swoops quickly back and takes a heart off your bar.
But they can be gamed: almost all the projectiles can be shot in air, and though most explode right away, the beans can be moved around with bullets, becoming an explosive retort that you can manoeuvre around a little before firing a final shot and blowing it and any enemy up in its area.
They can also live after the round is over, and that's where this odd little game shines. It keeps you keenly aware of every potential screw up, even when the doors have popped open to the next area there's a small chance a floating git will trail after you and kill you with your back turned; I've spotted a conga line of plasma balls that were spat out of a turret continue to pass through the rest of the level, a joyful little artifact of the game's systems.
A few more rounds led me to a discovery: there's an element of precision in what initially felt a bit spammy. Every enemy has a weak-spot that's defined in some way: an eye, a sigil, a heart. The game's main gun, the revolver, can take a short while to kill anything, but if you have the time and space--perhaps you're in a turret level and the assaults are easily managed--then you can reduce the shots down to two or even just a single snap of the gun. It's not an easy thing to do when you're leaping laser beams or backing off from swiping monsters, but it's certainly a powerful tool if you're accurate enough. There's a ghost that fires a plamsa bolt and it becomes my personal mission to kill it ASAP, carefully aiming for its heart before it apparates elsewhere. The git.
Character expansion happens in lurches: you can either buy upgrades at stations, collect them as rewards, open crates, or even yank on the handle of a one-armed bandit, chancing a heart or a coin in the hope of a decent boost. They're pretty extensive as well, enabling character boosts like faster running, rewarding an accurate shot with a more powerful follow-up, even x-ray vision to see what each egg holds before you start the fight. There are also power-derived buffs and attacks that can clear a section in one mouse click, or transmute enemies from one form into another. But they also show you that the levels have a tiny bit more complexity than at first sight. After a few rounds, I unlocked a double jump power that allowed me to land on the walls that otherwise appeared to be the way the game carved out levels. From up here I could dodge certain attacks, but more importantly find further hidden rewards.
There are only nine levels, and though they mutate about half-way through, introducing malevolent trees and skittering critters, it does feel a little light on content. The variation from place to place isn't expansive, with it just getting a bit tougher rather than intelligently complex or madly varied. it could do with a few more enemies to out-think, and some interesting spaces to play within the boxy levels. Yet although it's all a little bit samey, the little pile of systems here are a lovely distraction. For just over £5 as of version 0.7, it's a distraction that's entirely worth the money, with still time for it to improve.