Our record in Killer Chambers is 112 deaths in one room. It’s not something we’re particularly proud of, but it helps to illustrate just how granite-hard Killer Chambers is, and how often you will be biting its dust. It’s a kind of puzzly cousin to masochistic platformers like Super Meat Boy, N+ and Celeste, and it will chew you up and spit you out.
The premise is dirt-simple. You play Brave Lord, a gentleman in a top hat who was dining nicely on some chicken when the King’s castle was invaded by a ‘Gentleman Ghost’. He’s merrily massacred everyone, but has come a cropper with you, as you have a magical hat that ensures you respawn every time you die. The Gentleman Ghost won’t stop trying to kill you, though, as he chucks traps in your way as you attempt to reach the King.
The path to the King is littered with rooms – the Killer Chambers of the title – and they’re the ones you’ll have to survive. They’re almost all incredibly tiny, barely bigger than your character, and soon enough arrows will begin to fly out from the walls. You’ll move, jump, bunny-hop and crouch to avoid them, but most of the time you will fail and bite one. The room restarts, the pattern of arrows are the same as before, and you soon start mumbling like an amateur ballroom dancer as you memorise the path to survival: ‘left-right-jump on the platform-crouch-bunny hop’.
There’s an hourglass that counts down the seconds until the chamber is complete. Survive until then (congratulations) and you will get a key that unlocks the next chamber. If you’re overcome with ambition, you can replay the level at two harder difficulties that will gain you coins and gems, or you can move onward on a Zelda-like map. There are new chambers to outlast, but also Fendrel’s shop, where you can spend your coins and gems. It’s well worth doing so, as there are some killer items here, mostly falling in two categories: those that nullify traps, and those that protect you from being hit, although later shops will offer hats that speed you up, amongst other buffs. In almost all instances, these power-ups last you until you die, so they’re best saved until a chamber’s completion is within fingertip’s reach.
At the end of the map is the boss room, which mixes things up. They ditch the hourglass, and instead you’ll have to puzzle out how the boss can be harmed. Die and the boss heals back up, so it’s about stringing together a decent run while also killing the big-bad. Succeed here and it’s another floor, and another set of chambers ending in a boss.
While the general structure stays the same, the conventional arrows switch out for fast arrows, slow arrows, cluster-bomb-like berries, mauls that curve in an arc, and others. Spikes and other avoidables come in, too. There’s a wealth of ways to die.
Killer Chambers isn’t completely happy with you bursting into gizzards as much as you please, however. A Curse meter sits in the top-left, and if you die enough then you’ll be cursed: forced to complete an extra Lovecraftian chamber before you can progress. These have an odd difficulty level, more savage than the initial levels – meaning that they’re a real pain as you’re learning the ropes – but much easier than the latter levels, so they’re mostly a nuisance by that point. The curses never felt enjoyable and they chucked increased challenge at the less adept, which always felt like a wonky way round. As a result, they’re a bit of a dip in Killer Chambers’ all-round enjoyment.
And enjoyable it very much is. Coming into Killer Chambers, we were sceptical of it being a one-trick pony, bog-standard pixel shovelware and brutally difficult for the sake of it – but it’s a sly dog. It’s extremely funny, for one, which was a surprise. Between the levels, you’ll banter with the Gentleman Ghost and belittle him whenever you’ve got the chance, and it’s well-observed. For a game this intense, it’s a welcome release between levels and motivates you to progress.
Then there are the levels, which are never unfair. The arrows always follow a pattern, and Killer Chambers almost resembles a rhythm action game as you find the heartbeat of the room. If there’s a criticism, the hourglass takes a touch longer to finish than we’d have liked: if there were more, shorter chambers to complete, then progress would have been faster and more regular, making it better paced. You can get further than you’ve ever done in a chamber, only to be outdone by a new salvo of arrows, and it can feel disheartening.
Undoubtedly, Killer Chambers won’t be for everyone. You have to feel emboldened by incremental progress, and not everyone will care for that. Banging your head against the same chamber for 112 deaths isn’t everyone’s idea for a night in, and that’s perfectly fine. To calibrate, we never got on with Super Meat Boy, but this felt like repetition would get us through, while Super Meat Boy often felt like we needed abilities we just didn’t have. It’s also not got much of a narrative to speak of – which Celeste did so well, of course – giving it less momentum than it could have had.
Killer Chambers on Xbox is a brutal teacher, killing you over and over again, splattering the walls with your innards as you learn the patterns of its rooms. But when you do learn and succeed, well, it’s a mighty feeling. It can be added to the ranks of rewarding hardcore platformers, then, just a notch below Celeste and Meat Boy – lofty heights that we never expected from this little pixel-art platformer. If your resolution is to challenge yourself a bit more this year, Killer Chambers is a worthy opponent.