Damsel review — As frustrating as it is fun

Damsel tries to be a lot of different games all in one vibrantly illustrated package. It’s got the sprawling, intricately designed levels of a Metroidvania, the break-neck precision platforming of Super Meat Boy, the constantly stacking point system of arcade classics, and…quick time events? With this many disparate elements bundled on top of one another, Damsel falters occasionally; after all, having so many things on screen screaming for your attention is a quick way to grow cross-eyed. But Screwtape Studios still manages to build a fun arcade experience out of it all, even if it trips over itself in its attempt to capture the magic of so many genres.

You play as special agent Damsel, “the first and last line of defense against the seedy world of corporate vampires” the game’s Steam page summarizes. These bloodsuckers in suits and their equally seedy corporation, Red Mist, have been peddling a synthetic blood drink to their ilk made with a suspicious (and no doubt illegal) new ingredient. Non-vampire residents of the city have also been disappearing. But I’m sure the two are totally unrelated. It’s up to you and your crew to break into their facilities and stop whatever nefarious plot they’re cooking up.

Gameplay can be summed up in one word: frenetic. Each level is spearheaded by a single main quest, but scattered throughout its sprawl are half a dozen sidequests you can pursue to rack up points. There’re vampires to shoot, coffins to destroy, hostages to rescue, computers to hack, safes to crack; it’s almost as if the developers didn’t know exactly what they wanted in their levels, so they just went with everything. In typical arcade fashion, there’s also floating skulls littered around everywhere and collecting them adds to your score multiplier. Other characters admit to not really knowing why they’re there, “but they seem important.”

Combat is kept pretty simple, boiling down to just pointing and shooting with a single gun, but its starkness allows it to blend seamlessly with the game’s meticulous platforming. Any more weapon configurations or trimmings of traditional shooters, and engaging with enemies on multiple levels would become too complicated to keep up its frantic pace.   

Similarly ingeniously, you can’t hope to spray and pray your way through each level. Killing a hostage means game over, and they’re not immune to your bullets; blood barrels of health also attract a powerful vampire when shot from afar, requiring you to get close before destroying them or risk getting overwhelmed. This requirement for such careful gunplay combined with Damsel’s precision platforming gives combat a unique rhythm as you get into its more complex levels. You also start each level with one hit point and health is sparse, adding a layer of delirious tension, especially to your first actions.  

Unfortunately, the momentum Damsel builds as you catapult around each level is swiftly shattered by quick time events to perform actions like unlocking saves, hacking computers, and freeing hostages, which are often required to complete the level. Worse still, enemies can still hit you during these moments, and there’s no way to exit them voluntarily. One, in particular, diffusing time bombs, proved particularly frustrating, as it required clearing out an area of vampires (many of which have long-ranged weapons) in a ridiculously short amount of time.

Damsel’s level design seems equally ill-thought out at times. It’s vertical structure and 2D graphics often leave you falling onto platforms you can’t entirely see, yet vampires can attack you from the millisecond your feet touch the ground, giving you no time to correct your course. I still don’t know what killed me on a few of my runs; it happened too lightening fast for me to see. Damsel also has the tendency to add gameplay elements without any accompanying tutorial to explain what they do. I expect a bit of trial and error in any arcade game, but, for instance, finding out the red lasers are deadly (unlike the blue ones) three-fourths of the way through a level can suck the wind out of a player’s sails.

Smartly, Damsel allows you to ramp up or tone down difficulty as you see fit. Hothead mode adds the extra pressure of keeping your skull multiplier from falling or else you lose the game, and chillout mode takes out the option of dying completely. An additional arcade mode requires you collect all of the skulls within the levels you’ve already completed, putting the emphasis on platforming and traversing the level quickly rather than combat.

While Damsel may struggle to commit to a genre, Screwtape Studios went all in on the game’s art style and it shows. Personality bleeds through every character, even its myriad enemies, and I vote more games should show their cutscenes via comic book strip visuals. Its vampires gave me a distinctly dopey Plants vs. Zombies vibes despite being corporate bigwigs; “We are sorry. Come to the rooftop. We are friends now. We won’t kill you,” a note from them read. Its color palette and design, on the other hand, reminded me of the grungy yet playful attitude of a Hot Topic. And while the frenzied action didn’t give me much of a chance to gaze lovingly at the backgrounds, their intricate and varied designs invoke a diverse cityscape brimming with life.

If Damsel didn’t get in its own way trying to be too many genres, I think it could be a really great game. It’s got the attitude and unique look with its distinct art style and its combination of platforming and shooting is truly a fun way to wile away the hours. A bit of editing would have done Screwtape Studios well, but, as it is, experiencing what Damsel does get right requires a healthy dose of patience.

Damsel is currently available for Windows PC via Steam.

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