Comparisons to Dead Cells might come easily, but platforming slash 'n' dash ScourgeBringer feels less like a modernised Castlevania and more like an answer to the question: “What if Samurai Gunn had a single player story mode?” This is a question that nobody, save the developers of this gun-toting room clearer, seems to have asked. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
You’re a sword-wielding child of the end times, trapped in the shifting stone passageways of a monolithic podium that has laid waste to Earth. Your closest buddy is a robot cylinder who hovers over your shoulder like a fairy godparent. A fairy godparent who shoots bullets. You’ve got the double jumps and wall-running of a hard-nosed pixel platformer, and the slash ‘n’ shoot speedfighting of any number of combative roguelites. You venture through a randomly arranged selection of rooms that will eventually become recognisable for their danger zones and safe spots. And in these rooms you dispatch floating devils, jellyfish, bats, bots and stone demons, who come at you tirelessly with their own bullet-patterns and chomping teeth. There are boss battles. Oh boy, there are boss battles.
It’s tough. Most of your trouble, if you’re like me, will come from training your hands not to instinctively rely on the satisfying dash button. Or rather, to train yourself to dash pointedly away from trouble. There are no soft-hearted invincibility frames here, as any Prepare To Die ‘em up might grant you. It makes a point of telling you this early on. If you want to avoid bullets or bites, you’ve got to get offside and use other abilities to create openings and take out the trash demons before they make life difficult.
Gunshots from afar can destroy weaker demons, giving you some breathing room. Repeated slashes of the default kind will mop up a mid-tier bad dude in a hot second. While a heavy slash will interrupt and stun any enemy about to unleash an attack. A big exclamation point appears above enemy heads when they’re about to spit bullets, for example, and cracking them with the heavy slash in this moment knocks them back and gives them a dazed look, the swirling cartoon eyes of Tom after Jerry bonks him with a frying pan.
All these exclams and speedy counters make the 2D platformer combat feel ever so slightly Batman Arkham in its prioritising. Your dash isn’t a phasing Dark Souls roll, it is a “get away” button as much as it is a “get closer” button. It took me a couple of hours to appreciate the subtle craft of this decision. During a fight, you’re constantly and unconsciously gambling whether a dash toward an enemy bloated with exclam readiness will let you reach said bullet vomiter in time, or whether you will end up dashing straight through a spreadblast of its unbeatable bullets. There are other abilities you can unlock from the game’s skill tree, like a ground slam, a bullet reflecting slash, or the ability to stun enemies by knocking other baddos into them, which sees you pinging devils around like snooker balls.
There are gunbot upgrades you can buy from vendors dotted around the dungeon. There is a man who sells health packs and (for some reason) cucumbers. His weapon shop cohort sells miniguns, grenade launchers, and boosty mods that grant your sword do double damage, or your bullets a certain stunniness. I haven’t seen everything there is to see in these shops. Partly because in early hours you barely have enough blood (the game’s currency is blood, naturally) to buy stuff, and that has trained me to mostly ignore the shops. There’s a third fella, who trades weapons and mods for chunks of your health bar. A merchant for those with more nimble fingers than I. Because this game can be quite a brute.
It sometimes feels over-bullety, too mashy on the thumbs, too busy on the eyes. It can be hard to track where you’ve gone on the screen amid the bullets, the exclams, the smoke puffs of defeated devils, and the flashing whip of your own katana. The trouble might be that I’ve recently enjoyed the clean, points-scrounging masochism of Disc Room, whose attitude boils down to a sublime “dodge this” simplicity, with surprisingly few button presses needed. ScourgeBringer is a couple of steps up the ladder of complexity and I’m coming straight in without a palette cleanser. They feel so different, even if they are clearly games for the exact same type of person. Happy, pixel-grubbing hand-rubbers who love to die as much as they love to unlock obscure achievements. Just like Disc Room, this too has some decent accessibility options, including a slider for game speed and enemy bullet speed, along with other options. Since swallowing my pride and ticking the “more HP drops” tickbox, I’ve been having a much better time. I am still dying with shameful regularity, but the chaotic scraps are, by degrees, coming to feel more dancelike.
The small things matter most. I like the malleability of your character’s air time, the way you can direct yourself mid-fall (a platformer staple). I like deflecting a trio of shots back into the face of an enemy, I like that you can hover in the air indefinitely by slashing and slashing, your sword doubling up as a sort of sharp parachute. I like when your friend Peppy the cloaked stranger shows up in an empty chamber and hands you a machine gun. I like the way it has implemented the age-old design of having identifiable bad dudes, all with their own nasty specialism, assailing you at once.
Again, this is nothing new, but it’s so well-balanced here it is worth a bit of praise. The rooms are full of enemy types that require hyper assessment and priority wavering. “I need to stun that hulky boy before he spits a hundred bullets,” you might think. “I need to destroy those gun spiders, shoot those bioflappers from a distance, I can deal with the electrobats last.” But of course you’re not really thinking any of this. It’s happening with the unconscious speed of firing and misfiring neurons. You slap, dash, crack, and smash your way through rooms in a tumult of panic. And only as it becomes quiet and doors open to new areas, do you stop to count the hearts left in your health bar. Only two left. Thump-thump, go the whizzy motors in your gamepad when you reach these dregs of life. Thump thump. I like that too.
There are also hollow rooms that challenge you to take on multiple waves of enemies with little cover, and these I like a lot. Normal rooms contain two waves at most, but these altars to bullet damnation are hell chambers of spitters and wallbots. Survive and you get a Christmas stocking’s worth of buffs and goodies. It’s not quite the risk-reward masterstroke of Dead Cells’ cursed chest. But it is a great way to incentivise the player to sharpen their skills and lock them in to a long-term scrap where even everyday demons can steadily gut you down to that thump-thump of health bar deficit.
It does feel a bit tight-fisted at the default level of difficulty. I expected a more gentle difficulty curve. This is a roguelite after all, they tend to offer new strategies and abilities quicksharp. But this was a bit slow to get rolling. You can upgrade your character between deaths using blood orbs that drop from bosses (big knuckleheads with set patterns of attack and bullet hell blind spots). It took me some time and a whole lot of dying to get the orbs necessary for the more helpful upgrades.
This softens after the first couple of hours, as incredibly useful powers become available on the skill tree. The Fury attack for example is a huge anime-slashfest that hits everything in the room between very long cooldowns, and it felt to me like this should have been in the game from the start. Then there are the mods. These slip into your weapon, granting 200% damage on certain enemy types, for example, or bullets that bounce gleefully off surfaces. But the default starting gun has no free mod slots. Meaning you often end up coming across useful mod treasures you can’t use. An early bummer that could be avoided if the starting gunbot had its own free mod slot.
There are a lot of other bones it doesn’t throw. There are no Spelunky-esque shortcuts to later levels (at least none that I’ve found, I haven’t bought everything on the skill tree nor reached the final boss). There’s no healing between worlds, as you might expect. Where Dead Cells lets you slurp on life-giving HP juice in a power-up chamber after every level, ScourgeBringer spits and tells you you’re lucky to meet Peppy the gun gifter. In essence, it offers the same advice to its boss-bruised player as London does to its cyclists. “If i did not want to die, I would simply not get hit”. I’m being unfair. ScourgeBringer is a well-put-together piece of video game craftsmanship. London is hell.
In the end, I do think it is too "hurt me plenty" for me, only just. The sensation of being slapped right back to the start every time and having to repeat the opening level is as likely to produce a frustrated sigh as it is to inspire a “one more go” mentality. In this case, new minibosses have started to appear to offer some variety. But I'm probably bowing out, at least for the time being. That's okay. I can appreciate the knuckle-cracking attitude of improvement-by-death while also being ready to lay down my demon razor and die no more. You win this one, ScourgeBringer.