Skeleton Boomerang Review
The 2D platformer genre tends to tug on my nostalgia strings a bit, and indie developers across Steam flock to the genre, thinking it an easier platform for an entry-level game. But the problem is that this is one of the toughest genres for making your game stand out from the crowd, and nostalgia alone won't compensate for poor gameplay. Skeleton Boomerang is Artisano’s first title to be released for retail. Publisher ANIM ACE, who helped bring the game to market, have also only just got into the industry with their previous release earlier this year, Aliens Go Home Run receiving fairly positive reviews from buyers.
In Skeleton Boomerang, you play as a hunter, armed with a trusty boomerang. Initially I was drawn to the game from watching the trailer on the store page; the chiptune soundtrack transported me back to the yesteryear of retro games.
However, the fun stopped there. It’s always a worrying sign for me when you go to install a game, and the estimated time to download is 1 second. I’m not even on the fastest of internet connections, but hats off to the developers for making a 63MB game. Size may not always matter, but Skeleton Boomerang's tiny install rang a few alarm bells for me.
As my computer strained to open that 63 MB file, I was greeted by an emulator-sized window, and whilst you can scale the resolution to go “fullscreen” in the albeit limited options menu, I still had ominous black bars along the side of my screen, almost taking up more space than the game itself. It’s obvious, or at least I hope it is, that the developers were aiming to again pull on those nostalgic heartstrings a bit more. We’ve moved on from those days where we had a limited viewing window, and this being forced upon you just came across as an annoyance more than anything.
Another technical aspect which left a sour taste behind was the poor control system. Platforming games are usually played optimally on a controller and trying to use the keyboard will sometimes result in less than positive results. It's clearly on the Steam store page that Skeleton Boomerang has “Full controller support”. Unfortunately that isn’t the case, and I spent a good few minutes on the menu screen trying to figure out why my controller wasn’t working. After fumbling around swapping USB cables around I found that that in order to navigate the menu you actually need to use the D-Pad. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t even remember the last time a game used the D-Pad on the PC. Maybe this was another tip of the hat to the bygone days when analogue sticks weren’t a thing, though. But hey, I got it working and was in the game!
The start of the game gives a very brief introduction to the character, but nothing that explains much of the plot, nor why the player should care about this skeleton-hunting warrior. I really wasn’t expecting much in terms of plot, as usually platformers aren’t strong on the narrative front, with rare exceptions such as Braid and Owlboy. After all the messing around with the controller though, I was more than happy to have this brief introduction.
Upon starting a new game you are really left to figure out what to do on your own. There is no tutorial system or easy-to-navigate options menu to explain controls or what the heck you are actually supposed to do. The initial screens when starting are on a world map, much like you see when you are exploring the open world in JRPGs such as Final Fantasy. The open world is free for you to explore within the constraints of certain boundaries; moving out of these boundaries will require keys that you find by completing the platforming levels.
After stumbling upon the first accessible level, you are then ported straight into the 2D platforming portion of the game. Again, there we no controller prompts at the start of what I would assume to be “Level 1”, so I went in just assuming controls. But wait, a signpost, this is going to tell me what to do! Yeah, kinda....it does tell you what to do, but not how to do it. Helpful.
Trial and error led me to finding the correct buttons and being able to progress. The controls still felt foreign to me though. The most baffling one is moving the character around with the D-Pad. That’s just not something we’ve become used to over the past few years. We have an analogue stick that’s used for moving in 99% of other games, why is Skeleton Boomerang the odd one out? It also doesn’t help that you need to aim your boomerang with the same D-pad. It would have made much more sense to move with one joystick and aim with another in a twin stick manner. Maybe the developers were trying to capture that retro feel again, but really, you can still make us feel like we are playing a retro game, but without taking us back twenty years to re-learn how to handle a controller again.
Even with the trouble of getting to grips with this different way of handling the movement, the actual latency on jumping or using my weapon were disturbingly noticeable. Response time in platformers need to be as tight and low as possible to allow for pinpoint accuracy when it comes to jumping from platform to platform. Sometimes I would be pressing the jump button, and my character wouldn’t even respond to the action, and this led to a frustrating amount of horrific deaths for my boomerang frenzied friend. The latency problem was not a problem when using the keyboard however. You either deal with the same old problem of using a keyboard for the platforming, or find a way to combat against the latency.
Enemies, or skeletons, that you encounter are dispatched using your boomerang. Your weapon has two different styles of attack. One lets you control when and how quickly the boomerang comes back to you, while the other will just let the boomerang return to you at its own pace. Each style of attack serves its own purpose over the course of a level. The majority of monsters you encounter can be dealt with in a single hit, whilst others require a few more to meet their demise. Taking damage from these foes will reduce your health counter in the top left corner; you can easily replenish this by picking up the bones of your downed victims though.
The game's description also encourages you to work for high scores, however I’ve not actually encountered a situation in the game that really allows any sort of opportunities to get a high score. Levels aren’t timed, and enemies drop the same amount of bones regardless of how you kill them. The only way you could alter your score is by the volume of enemies you take down in a level. This is a viable route, as sometimes you will find yourself on one health bar left frantically trying to find the next checkpoint or end of the level. As the game doesn’t have any sort of leaderboard system, the only way you utilise these points is by upgrading your boomerang throughout the game, which leads to some interesting gameplay mechanics. My favourite has to be the ability to have multiple boomerangs around you at once in some sort of “spinning boomerang death trap of doom” device. You can also unlock more hit points through the same mechanic.
Boss encounters are where Skeleton Boomerang ramps up in difficulty. The first boss encounter with a T-Rex style skeleton really challenged me and had me on the tipping point of rage quitting more times than I would like to admit. It really didn’t help that I was getting cramp in my hand from the poorly designed controls, the response time problem was still causing me issues, and the boss gameplay mechanics were challenging enough as it is. I’m not going to give it the ol’ cliche of “it’s the Dark Souls of platformers” because yes it’s hard, but again, much like back in the day, games were just harder back then. Things just weren’t handed to you on a plate - we're looking at you, Crash Bandicoot. I would have personally enjoyed the challenging gameplay if it was just that, but the technical gripes held it back more than anything and ultimately prevented me from enjoying it to its fullest potential.
Graphically, Skeleton Boomerang looks basic at best. It has got a classic retro look to it, but none of the sprites are anything to phone home about. The backgrounds are dark, bland, and uninteresting. It’s just a very basic-looking game, which doesn’t hit any of the high notes in terms of its art style. You just have to look at other 2D platforming games to come out in the past couple of months to know the standards that this genre of game should be hitting.
As mentioned previously I really enjoyed the soundtrack. It is by far the game's biggest redeeming feature. The chiptune retro sound is highly catchy, and one that will be playing in your head for hours on end after you stop playing. If I were not reviewing the game, I would have probably dismissed it much sooner but for the soundtrack.
In the end, Skeleton Boomerang didn’t do enough things right to allow me to enjoy the game. The control system is the most glaring flaw and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible. I actually believe the gameplay would be average if I could just play the damn thing without needing to go to physical therapy after a few hours of playing. The platforming genre is an oversaturated market already, and you don’t want to be wasting your time on a below average game when there are many more excellent platformers out there.