Published: 20 February 2015
Editor's note: This review is based on an Early Access version of Fancy Skulls, the build available as of 2015-02-20
Fancy Skulls is a "rogue-lite" first-person arena shooter developed and published by tequibo on the Steam Early Access program. I seem to be on a trend lately of that kind of genre, as especially with Ziggurat, I really enjoyed myself. Unfortunately, I can't really say the same of Fancy Skulls. It feels very waify and insubstantial compared to other games, and the change in pace is just part of it.
The combat feels very waify and insubstantial a lot of the time
Most arena shooters keep up a certain pace with the game by keeping you having to be tactical and quick with your movement, usually with a lot of enemies, or a lot of bullets to dodge. Indeed, Fancy Skulls markets itself as a fast-paced tactical shooter. I can certainly see the tactical bit, as you do have to mind your positioning. I wouldn't really call it fast-paced though: as I was often able to simply find a good position and fire from that, only occasionally moving if I had a melee enemy rush me, or if flying enemies changed the angles. It definitely has some skill to it, that combat system, but fast-paced? No, not really, especially not compared to something like Wickland or Serious Sam.
That's not to say it's bad though, it's merely "functional". It does what it needs to, without any particular gameplay flourishes that stand out. You have some rooms that incorporate challenges a.la something like Ziggurat, and while I appreciate that the challenges in this case are actually challenging, I wouldn't call them very inventive, and to be honest with the difficulty of some of them, and how much you can live and die on the procgen with what monsters you get, I found myself avoiding those rooms more often than not.
The combat itself, though, lacks a certain je ne sais quos. There's no real pace or a feeling of danger and impact in the hits. It just seems .. very waify, insubstantial. Some of this goes down to the sound design, which is just Atari-esque bleeps and boops to me, but most of it comes down to the lack of any effect beyond that sound affect to shots. I was never knocked back, shuddered, or anything like that, just a flash and a bloop, not always just the flash. It makes the projectiles feel very insubstantial indeed. This is easily something the game could improve on, and I hope it does, given the chance to improve with Early Access. Such things also make for further complexity with the game, as a game depending on positioning would mean that a shot shooting you out of position would be an appreciable threat.
I have to commend the rather interesting art style
It really is the art. If you asked someone what Fancy Skulls was, it's the art.
It has a very stark aesthetic with a weird eastern-European postmodern thing going that I found pretty neat. Yeah, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but I have no shame in saying the reason I picked up Fancy Skulls to begin with was the art style, and it's done very well. It's very sharp and well-presented, though if I had any criticism of it, its that it lacks some variety when it comes to the environment, which are likewise minimalist, but when I say variety, I mean that the rooms themselves don't have much variation, not even different set decor or anything.
I wrestle with this criticism a bit. I'm basically criticising a minimalist art style for "not having enough" and I'm all too aware that is a bit of a contradiction. At the end of the day though, the art style is the servant of the game, it is not the game itself, and a lot of it is missing a lot, it feels like, in terms of variation.
Mechanically, Fancy Skulls is nothing all that new or fresh
The game plays like a sort of mix between Eldritch and Ziggurat, with Ziggurat's room arena mechanics, and Eldritch's more survivalist/minimalist pickups and such. You get powerups much less often than many other arena shooters here, but I actually found that fine, as it kept the game decently difficult. You have a few different enemies, basically a few varieties of turrets, flying enemies, and melee enemies, and they were alright, but there wasn't much change between them that I found, unfortunately. You get a few different weapons that are a little greater variety in the fact that they are at least more different from each other, such as a raygun which is a beam, or a cannon that is pretty much exactly what you would expect.
I think the main thing that sticks out, upon further reflection as I write the review, is that while the art style itself is very fresh and inventive, or at least different, the mechanics themselves, aren't. And how different that art style is only makes it all the more apparent to me how much the mechanics themselves are the same. It's a game that could really take off with some sort of unique or at least rarer mechanic that ties into that weird aesthetic somehow, but right now, it is merely competent.