After completing two out of its three chapters, I could no longer persevere through Damsel. And not because it was difficult, but because of how many frustrations playing it entailed. Damsel constantly frustrated me with its odd design choices, unintuitive controls and pointless progression. As a 2D platformer, it looks very appealing at first sight, with colourful cutscenes presented in a comic-book style. But even after just a few levels, many of its numerous shortcomings begin to surface.
By choosing the Campaign mode, you take control of D (short for Damsel), a female vampire hunter. This mode takes place across three chapters with 25 missions per each. And each chapter is presented as a cover of a comic, with an issue number serving as the number for that particular chapter. Once you complete a chapter, the next one becomes unlocked. D is also supported by Swan, a female operator who provides her with mission briefing. As well as a nerdy scientist who looks very much like Otacon from Metal Gear Solid.
Every mission begins the same way: D receives her task from either of her compatriots and prepares to exterminate vampires. This is presented as static images moving downward from left to right, like in a typical western comic. And presentation remains Damsel’s strongest point, though it does lose its charm eventually. That said, the story and dialogue don’t feel inspiring and I didn’t take a liking to any of the characters whatsoever.
Once the mission starts, you proceed based on the given task. These can range from simply collecting purple skulls to killing all of the vampires or saving hostages. Other tasks, like disarming bombs and hacking terminals, are introduced at certain intervals. But “disarming” and “hacking” are loud words because all you do is either press a button in quick succession or… just press a button. In a nutshell, this means that you must reach a specific area, press a button, then move to another area and press the button again until the “Mission Complete” screen appears. These tasks may seem great on paper, but their execution lacks any creativity or depth.
Most levels also require you to fight against vampires and Damsel doesn’t shine in this regard either. To kill vampires, Damsel has a firearm and a stake at her disposal. You can direct fire in any direction, horizontally or vertically, whether on the ground, in the air, or hanging from a ledge. Oddly enough, you can’t shoot diagonally, which would often be very useful. If you’re close to an enemy, she will melee them instead. And if you press “down” + B (on Xbox One) while in the air, D will impale an enemy with a stake from above.
There’s also a dash ability for avoiding enemy attacks or dashing right through them to cause damage. This also works sort of like brief teleportation and allows you to dash over traps, such as spikes, without taking damage yourself.
That’s pretty much it when it comes to combat. There are no other weapons, no abilities to learn – no unlockables, period! Damsel is a completely barebones experience, and even that’s being too generous. What about revolvers and shotguns? Or condoms filled with holy water to throw at enemies? It all feels like a missed opportunity and the game is definitely lacking in terms of combat options.
Enemies do come in a variety though. There are regular vampires, same vampires with assault or sniper rifles, and big buff vampires who rush towards you at first sight. Then there are also annoying flying vampires who shoot projectiles in often unpredictable directions. It’s all great at the start, but past the first chapter, Damsel doesn’t introduce anything new. And there are no bosses or aberrant enemies to surprise or challenge you at almost any point in the game. It does get more challenging around halfway through, but it’s more about trial and error and learning enemy locations, rather than getting better.
Unfortunately, environments don’t possess the same kind of variety. Often, you will play through the same level multiple times with a different task attached. It gets repetitive very quickly. Upon completing a level, you’re graded based on the collected skulls, killed vampires, saved hostages etc. As well as the time it took to complete the mission. Each level plays out in pretty much the same way, it doesn’t really matter how well you did unless you wish to see your name pop up on the leaderboard.
Every couple of levels, the game will throw a Challenge stage your way, but these are hardly any different than regular missions. And here we are, from what initially looks like a stylish 2D action-platformer, it quickly turns into a monotonous chore. But even beyond this monotony, Damsel features a number of frustrating design decisions.
To start off – jumping – which is very sensitive. Most of the time, you’ll jump either way too high or too low, often missing the intended target. Hostages will often be off-screen and are susceptible to friendly fire. If you shoot an enemy with a hostage behind it, chances are the last bullet will hit and kill the hostage. And if that’s the case, you must start the mission from square one. Unless you untie the hostage beforehand, in which case they somehow become invincible.
All hostages have a random name. And I must admit that one memorable moment resulted from me saving a female hostage by the name of Finkle. If you’ve seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, then you likely realize the correlation. “Einhorn is Finkle”, “Finkle is Einhorn”, “Einhorn is a man!”. That’s beyond the point, but it did provide a brief moment of hysterical laughter.
And lastly, if you get too close to a bomb, the timer will trigger, leaving you with 15 seconds to disarm it. Meanwhile, enemies will continue attacking and if D is hit, you must start the process over. And if the bomb detonates, it’s back to the beginning of the level.
If you somehow get through the tedious Campaign mode, then there’s also the Arcade mode and the Damsel Dash mode. In the Arcade mode, you play through the same campaign levels consecutively, only with three lives. If you die three times during a level, it’s back to the beginning. In essence, it means that you must complete 25 missions in a row, without dying more than twice on any of them. This mode compensates for the low difficulty of the Campaign, but doesn’t offer anything new otherwise.
Damsel Dash is weird. It’s very much like the Arcade mode, but starts on the 11th level immediately.
Within such a competitive market of 2D games, creating a viable competitor is a daunting task. But Damsel misses several simple and relatively easy-to-implement features, which would’ve greatly enhanced gameplay. Soon, the charm of the comic cutscenes wear off and all you are left with is the monotony of its gameplay.
Between the lacklustre story, the frustrating controls and the non-existent character development, Damsel is just not fun to play. After a dozen short levels, I was already tired of killing the same enemies with the same weapon and completing the same tasks. I didn’t feel rewarded for saving hostages, disarming bombs or breaking into safes. And enemies were nothing more than an obstacle in the way of completing any given level.
Unless some significant features are added in the future, in its current state, Damsel on Xbox One is mediocre at best.