When a game (and its protagonist) is called Damsel you’d expect it to interact with, or at least mention, the problem of the damsel in distress trope, illustrated in Anita Sarkeesian’s famous series of video essays. Not only does Damsel not speak to this fairly significant piece of contextual information, but it seems blissfully unaware of its existence. There are no damsels in Damsel (other than the protagonist).
Damsel tells the story of Damsel, a vampire hunter in a world where vampires live as some kind of underclass to humans. Think Blade but- well, just think Blade. The game is an action platformer, in which you jump about platforms shooting vampires, rescuing captives and collecting floating skulls. Unfortunately, it’s just not that fun.
This gameplay is Damel’s biggest problem – platformers should be past-paced and frenetic, and Damsel clearly wants to be as well. However Damsel herself is so delicate, and it’s so easy to fail each mission (to a degree that it often feels rather unfair), that the only viable way of playing is by slowly working through each level. The controls feel rather sluggish, so you can’t always escape danger even when you see it in time, and the mise en scene is rather cluttered, meaning you often can’t see incoming projectiles or bound captives you shouldn’t shoot.
Of course, difficulty is subjective, and a quick retort to complaints of it would be something along the lines of “git gud”. But challenging games like Dark Souls or XCOM Enemy Unknown never feel unfair because you always know why you failed, and learn from next time – most of the time you die in Damsel you’re scratching your head at what actually killed you, or how you were supposed to know there was a delicate hostage just off-screen in the direction you were shooting.
In addition the levels are incredibly repetitive – there are quite a few of them, but only a handful of different locations or objective types, meaning you’re often in the same locations completing the same objectives. Even when the story suggests you’ll be doing something new, you never do. There are no progression mechanics either, which would go some way to mitigate the repetitive nature of the game.
This is a real shame, because Damsel has many elements that put it so close to greatness. Each mechanic feels just one step from being fun, and it’s just hard enough to be a challenge (although lots of this difficulty is for the aforementioned unfair reasons) When you really get a grip on the controls it becomes a lot better to play – you can chain jumps and dashes to effectively fly, which is a really enjoyable way to skirt around enemies and traps – but you’re still always one second out from being hit by a flying projectile that was camouflaged in the background.
The levels are strung together by a sequence of comic book panels (to call it a story would be an overstatement). These are clearly intended simply to provide some context to what’s happening – there are no real narratives or characters, and it begins in the middle of action with no preface on the world or story. This would be okay, except the game’s website provides more information on the game than the game itself, which is an annoying tactic some games when they create a world but can’t be bothered to find a way to put it in the game.
The lack of a proper narrative (or characters), while understandable and justifiable, becomes a bit of a strange choice when you remember the game is actually named after the protagonist. All we know of her is that she works for some vampire genocide agency and likes shooting guns – would it have been so hard to give her some motivation or personality?
To its credit the game does have a neat art aesthetic although, as previously mentioned, there’s a lot going on in each level. The way its creatures and assets are designed reinforces the comic book style of the ‘cut scenes’, which gives it a nice visual cohesion.
Damsel has the core of a good game but, like the Earth’s core, it’s many, many miles away. At its most basic it has solid mechanics, but each is just a little off in one way or another, and so they never come together. The real damning element is its repetitive nature, though – a gamer will feel incline to drag themselves through intense challenge if they think it’ll pay off, but rarely will they be okay with grinding through the same challenge again and again.