There are just far, far too many top-down action games right now, and even if most of them play reasonably well and don’t set your bank balance back too much, you can only play so many of these retro homages before you get tired of it all.
Binding of Isaac was certainly at the right place and right time when it achieved the overnight success that it did, but the numerous lookalikes and clones which have followed since are far too many to even list. Just in the past couple of weeks alone we have seen releases on Xbox One of Skelly Selest and Hellmut The Badass From Hell, released in such close proximity to each other; both games being top-down action shooters set in the fiery backdrops of a retro stylised hell.
The similarities are obviously pure coincidence, but it is also a testament to just how utterly saturated the genre has become. In fact, the genre became quite saturated when it peaked during the ‘90s, and at this point the innovation is spread really thin now. Skelly Selest, despite its very familiar gameplay styles, still has a lot going for it. For one thing, it at least goes out of its way to distinguish itself from the competition – including that of Hellmut.
There is some vague semblance of a story in Skelly Selest, all told using rather undecipherable Shakespearean English (you’ll probably be fine if you can tell your thees and thous apart), but there’s really no point paying attention to the story since the game throws the tiny skeletal protagonist right into the action. Skelly Selest is meant to be an arcade-style arena action game at its core, and the skeletal warrior comes armed with a close-range weapon for melee attacks and a long-range weapon for projectile attacks. Basic movement aside, there is also a dash/dodge button which you should probably get accustomed to using frequently if you wish to make any substantial progress. There are a range of power ups and other pickups too, but these only provide a brief change in gameplay. For the most part the core gameplay mechanics are rather basic, and even quite cumbersome, especially the combat system which nearly always feels handicapped even with the provision of powerups.
An arcade-style score chasing game absolutely needs an instantly appealing core gamplay system to hook the player within seconds, and to make them keep coming back for more out of gameplay addiction. Sadly, Skelly Selest on Xbox One is simply lacking this appealing hook as the core gameplay, while not fundamentally broken, just feels tiresome and unenjoyable given the demanding and frantic game design. As a game, Skelly Selest gets hectic in a matter of seconds, with a huge variety of enemies which tend to cluster together in packs to attack collectively. While there are a variety of enemy types with each having their own attack style, it almost feels like the enemy AI is programmed to relentlessly home-in on the player without any change of pattern. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but a little variety in enemy intelligence and aggressiveness could have helped pace the action better.
Variety is the spice of life, and Skelly Selest offers this in the bucket loads, with its numerous gameplay modes and unlockables. These are mostly of a cosmetic nature (costumes and beastiary entries) but some introduce new modes of play. The basic game modes basically involve clearing waves of enemies, but other varieties include a Binding of Isaac style room exploration to find hidden items and such, and some modes are really off kilter such as the card game for which you need to collect cards during normal gameplay. There’s a ton of little trinkets to collect and unlock during each of these modes, and while most of the replay appeal comes with improving your score, the added incentive of unlocking new items is a welcome cherry too.
Visually, Skelly Selest is a really cool looking game with highly detailed 8-bit graphics put to great use to create a dark yet vibrantly colourful game world. Although the enemy designs tend to be on the minimalist side, they all animate quite smoothly and meld nicely with the brooding backdrops. Musically, it’s a standard chiptune affair which can be great, but in the case of this soundtrack most of the tunes get grating rather quickly, as there’s really nothing catchy or memorable about them.
Skelly Selest tries its hardest to distinguish itself in what has become an oversaturated genre, and for the most part it succeeds thanks to its stylised 8-bit presentation, wealth of unlockable content, and an impressive selection of modes to tinker around in. That being said, when you get right into the core action you quickly realise that Skelly Selest is ultimately all flash without any compelling gameplay substance.