How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. The combat is unlike anything you've ever seen before, but the castle and platforming invokes the feeling of the Metroidvania Castlevania games through and through.
Time to beat: ~12 hours
Review Info: Skautfold: Usurper was played on Steam.
Buy Skautfold: Usurper if you like…
- Experimental and bold game design
- A solid and interesting story
- Ponderous atmosphere helped by its music
- Beautiful Pixel Art
▼ Review continues below ▼
Since I’ve started this Metroidvania Review project, there have been a few games that have been very hard to review. The subjective fanboy in me wants to go around shouting about how amazing this game is; to say nothing but about how bold the combat system is and how cool its devotion to Lovecraft themes is. But then there’s the objective analyst part of my brain that keeps grabbing that fanboy by the shoulder and rudely pointing at aspects of the game that really could use a little bit of work (okay maybe a lot of work.) That jerk analyst reminds me that even though Usurper was essentially constructed by one guy – and that achievement is astonishing – I still have to weigh it against all of its competition when making a recommendation to other people. Is Usurper better than so many of the Metroidvanias that I’ve played so far?
My heart sinks as I have to put it somewhere in the middle. But make no mistake, that isn’t me saying that I think this game is average. I personally think Steve Gal, the developer of this game, should be awarded a team of people to help him achieve the scope of his dreams. If he ever does a kickstarter or anything similar, please give this guy your investment.
Usurper is the sequel to Shrouded in Sanity, which happens to have a free version on Steam. I definitely recommend checking it out, I think it gives a good contextual background to Usurper, though it isn’t totally necessary to enjoy it. Shrouded in Sanity is a top-down souls-like game where you’re dropped into the middle of a mansion and are left almost completely up to your bold curiosity to solve the game’s mysteries. It’s sort of a “Where the crap do I go?” kind of game, but I sort of learned to appreciate that aspect as my mental maps began to fill in.
Usurper is very different from its predecessor. Besides being a sidescrolling Metroidvania, there are NPCs that tell you the general area you need to go, but most of all the Souls-like stamina management has been almost literally turned upside down. That Stamina bar has been replaced with a “Guard” meter in an experiment that I absolutely need to see more of. Guard now effectively functions as both your health bar and your stamina. This means that as you attack, you make yourself more vulnerable to death, creating a potential for an intense juggling act as you look for openings to deal damage to your opponent. There’s still a roll mechanic with very generous iFrames, and even though it takes up a small bit of your Guard to trigger, a successful roll grants you a large restoration of your dodge. This keeps the focus squarely on rewarding the player for learning the enemy’s patterns. As the game ramps up in difficulty, rolling through attacks becomes essential for keeping your guard up enough to perform your own counter attacks.
It’s a system that excites me. In a typical souls-like, enemies have to be slow and deliberate because it only takes a few hits to kill your character. With the Guard system, if you simply don’t attack you can take your time to watch your enemy’s patterns and plan your next move. This could allow enemies to execute “bullet hell-esque” attack patterns without it becoming too frustrating for the player as they die over and over again. With meticulous boss design something truly special could come out of this one design change alone.
And Usurper pulls it off! At least it does around half the time. I wish I could report that the guard system was embraced as a core mechanic that brings its experiment to difficult but satisfying levels of mastery, but more conventional Castlevania Boss design sort of bogs down some of its encounters. This is especially an issue when in the late game you get an important movement ability that stops your guard regeneration while using it, and some bosses basically make you use it for the duration of the fight. It’d be less of a complaint if you could also dodge to regenerate Guard while in that state, but you can only use your block ability, and while it prevents the damage it is considerably less useful. Two of these bosses let you move somewhere you could take advantage of your dodge, but in combination with their high HP values compared to the damage I was dealing, I started to lose patience. This made my approach to the last few bosses involve ignoring the game’s primary lesson of “don’t spam attacks.” I shouted “I love this plan” to this approach in the same way I might have ignored the advice “don’t cross the streams.” I died in two hits doing it this way, but after an hour of “Git Gud” on each boss I managed to brute force my way through it. It was frustrating.
But, every boss rewarded me with a new relic that made completing the struggle even more liberating. Instead of dwelling on the pain, I had a Castlevania to explore. And the castle is great. Like in Shrouded in Sanity there are little notes scattered around adding flavor text to its visuals, and I certainly appreciated finding more Vitae (Souls) and Yth stones (used for leveling up) as I did so. The game’s story is based around the relationship between our hero and who is essentially his greatest enemy. The stressful dynamic between the two is well-developed and fascinating, and regardless of what the game threw at me I wanted to see more of it.
Which brings me to the first of the two primary complaints I wanted to highlight in this review; while I think that the story is one of the best driving factors of the game, the dramatic timing is a bit off. Characters banter back and forth in a similar fashion to many other games with a character portrait and a text box, but it feels almost… rushed. The starkest example of this is when you defeat a boss, before the boss’ death animation is even finished the two protagonists are immediately talking about where to go next. It gave me dramatic whiplash, and shifted the tension of the monstrosity I just defeated into a casual occurrence, as if to say “welp, that was a thing, what’s next?” Some of this timing bleeds into the gameplay as well, making some of the telegraphing a little too short or hard to see. There were a couple of times I died and I had no idea what got me until I fought the boss a few more times and became more familiar with its attacks. Some more deliberate story telling techniques could go a long way toward making Usurper sit with the best of the Castlevania games. Even something as simple as what Aegis Defenders does with its vocal sound effects during conversation could help the presentation and be done on the cheap. But I can imagine this game emoting like Ghost Trick or Iconoclasts during its dialog sections – maybe without the silly – and it’d be something amazing. I understand something like that could take weeks – even months – of work to animate, but that’s part of why I said at the beginning of this review that I’d love to see people throw money at Pugware for the effort.
The other thing I wanted to bring up is something I think I might be kind of building a reputation for; I want to nitpick the stat system a little bit. I always question the need for a complex leveling system in any Metroidvania. You’re essentially trading the genre’s best feature of finding goodies through your exploration for what has a very high potential for being less interesting. After my experience with the final boss I came to appreciate the stat system a little more since it let me change up my build using its generous respec options, but then something like Hollow Knight has a similar system without making it ostensibly about locking into specific builds. For most of the game there’s no reason not to pump everything into increasing your Guard meter, (that is at least not until it kind of becomes a trap when your guard can’t regenerate.) It sticks out as a bit of a glaring dominant strategy, in my opinion. Maybe removing at least that one stat from the system – and making it upgrade through discovered power-ups instead – would be better for most players.
In general stat systems make it difficult to balance encounters toward the ideal of a tight and fun challenge vs a frustrating insurmountable boss simply because your math variables weren’t applied to the right formulas. I understand that the inspiration comes from Dark Souls (which might be my favorite game by the way), but that game pulls it off by having incredible variety in movesets, as well as complimentary (and often mitigating) systems, including but not limited to the game’s online features. It’s a balancing act that’s probably beyond the scope of a small team indie project. Salt and Sanctuary pulls it off decently well, but still has balance issues. Valdis Story has a great leveling system, but it functions substantially different and still has more traditional metroidvania power ups to supplement. I think taking a few pages from the aforementioned Hollow Knight might be a more feasible approach towards perfecting how the player builds their character. (As an aside, I think combining the Guard System with Hollow Knight’s heart style health system and crunchy animations when you take damage would be a fantastic approach to making it great.) But as I’ve said, complaining about the stat system is more of a nitpicking thing; I don’t think it breaks the game by any means, at least not with the generous respeccing option.
The trouble with critiquing a game is that so many words can be said about the negative that it’s nearly impossible to balance it out with the positive. I love Usurper. It’s flawed, it’s often frustrating, but I was never bored. I love its atmosphere and characters. I want to see more. I want Pugware to continue what they do, and I’d love to see them get more support to give their games the polish they deserve.
I don’t recommend this game to people who lose patience when learning how to play a new game idea. But I am happy recommend this game to everyone else.
Guard system adds an interesting twist on what would otherwise be a Souls-Like game, creating something unique and challenging, but also slightly flawed
Platforming is fun and functional, though some powers - like Wall Jumping - can be a little weird to get used to
The castle has many ways to reach your otherwise linear destination, with many rewarding secrets to find
Minor puzzles here and there, but not a focus
If the presentation was upgraded, this would match some of the better storytelling in gaming
Pixel art is beautiful, though some animations could use a little work in terms of timing to give the graphics more weight
Soft piano music is relaxing and well done, though maybe not always appropriate for the atmosphere
A host of different modes and ways to build your character could keep you coming back to this for a while, though the generous respeccing system might detract from actually replaying to try different builds
Want a second opinion? See what other reviews say:
All Time: Mostly Positive
(74% of 214 Reviews)