Amidst all of the big holiday season releases that dominate the sales charts every October, November and December, there are also gems that get released but don’t get as much attention. Ports of games that previously launched on other systems are a good example of this, and with Carrion, Airborne Kingdom and Skul The Hero Slayer we’re checking out three of them here.
Carrion, published by Devolver and developed by Phobia Game Studio, launched in the summer of 2020 and we loved the premise – one where you could play as an aggressive alien organism that grows into a bigger and bigger ball of flesh and tentacles as you overwhelm your enemies. It was also received very well, so we were happy to see it finally get the porting treatment and heading towards the PlayStation 4.
You start out as a small alien organism that escapes its lab environment and is looking to get out and spread his own personal brand of plague while growing in size and power. Once the domain of cult sci-fi movies, it’s a premise that – in 2021 – feels oddly topical in a way. Progression is handled through Metroidvania-like mechanics that let you explore more and more of the game world as you grow stronger and gain new abilities but a well designed game world makes sure you don’t spend hours backtracking and traversing the same paths again and again.
While combat is an option, Carrion also feels like it has stealth and puzzle elements to it, and it’s most satisfying when you embrace them. Doing so is the best possible fit with the game’s horror premise, which comes across well thanks to a brooding sense of atmosphere, gorgeously detailed and animated pixel art visuals and a haunting soundtrack. In a setting like that, it’s good to be able to instill dread rather than experience it, and that’s best achieved when you don’t treat it like an action game.
An ever-changing set of abilities makes sure the gameplay remains fresh as well, and almost gives you the sense that this game is divided into chapters despite its interconnected/open game world. Everything is quite gory though, so you do need to have a certain level of appreciation for the horror films that Carrion channels. If you enjoy those, you’ll love playing Carrion – from gameplay to presentation it’s a love letter to films like The Thing.
Originally launched on PCs, Airborne Kingdom gets the console treatment as well, and as a city builder that certainly wasn’t something we would have bet money on. We’re happy to see it though, because the game looks absolutely gorgeous and puts a new spin on the genre with its floating city concept.
What makes Airborne Kingdom a good fit for consoles is that it mostly stays away from the usual frantic micro management you see in PC-based city builder – something that often results in a myriad of menus and submenus you have to keep track of. Developer The Wandering Band stays away from having to manage relationships with rival nations, enforcing a strict but fair tax regime and building up your defenses – this is a more laid back and easier to grasp take.
Balance is the name of the game here, quite literally. Everything you add to your city has a weight, and not being careful with where you place things can result in disaster. Your basics are just propellers and an engine, but you’ll soon build from that as you add homes, work on getting food for your workers and start developing new technologies and buildings. Before you know it, your floating kingdom becomes a bit of a puzzle, as you try to make sure that that new heavy addition receives a counterweight on the other side of the city.
In mid-air, resources are scarce, so you have to send people to the surface to gather food and building materials for your city. They’ll run out as well, so you also have to move to new spots, where you’ll run into other floating cities – which doesn’t result in conflict but rather gives you the chance to trade for resources and blueprints, as well as gain optional quests to pursue. These yield additional rewards, and because conflict doesn’t really exist in the game it’s a “feel good” experience where the biggest source of stress is keeping your city balanced as it expands.
Combine that with an art style that somehow reminded me of that early trailer for Mortal Engines and you’ve got a game well worth playing if you’re looking for a city builder on consoles that isn’t as complex or involved as something like Cities Skylines.
Skul: The Hero Slayer
SouthPAW’s Skul: The Hero Slayer launched way back at the start of the year, but it’s now available for PlayStation 4 as well. And in this roguelike action adventure, you’re actually on the side of the bad guys!
You assume the role of Skul, who survived a recent attack on the Demon King’s Castle while avoiding capture.Your fellow demons didn’t do so well though, so now it’s on your bony shoulders to enact revenge – not an easy feat when you consider that Skul is actually a skeleton rather than the usual muscle-bound heroes of fantasy action adventures.
The standout mechanic in Skul: The Hero Slayer is your ability to swap out heads and thus gain new abilities and attacks, something that reminded us of the PSP classic Dead Head Fred. Different skulls bring different perks with them, often making you stronger or faster – and you can upgrade them as well. The latter is also true for the weapons/items you find on each run, and because of a certain degree of randomization that is inherent to the roguelike genre there’s plenty to discover and experiment with.
What’s nice is that all of your equipment and your skulls also change Skul’s appearance, making for a much richer visual experience than you’d initially think based on the game’s pixel art aesthetics. The changes aren’t just cosmetic either, as there’s a lot of depth in how a different loadout can affect your playing style. You’ll gain different movesets, skull attributes and weapons each run, and there’s tons of possible combinations – some employing brute force while others use magic. You don’t always get lucky with what you get, but even the difficult runs help in that they force you to tread carefully and learn about patterns and enemies.
Skul: The Hero Slayer doesn’t necessarily break new ground in the roguelike genre, but it expertly combines familiar elements into a new and well-polished game. Part MediEvil, part Dead Head Fred and part <insert your favorite roguelike action adventure here>, this is an well-crafted game that deserved its console port.