What a boon to the world of thriller has been the term “skeleton crew.” Although it started in the military and only likely entered the civilian world in the early 20th century, its spookily suggestive nature has ensured it inspired the name of a 90s sci fi shooter, a Finnish slasher movie, and a handful of novels and short story collections in the mystery–science genre – as well as that one. You know which one I’m talking about. I’m not even going to say it.
Add 2021’s game demo “Skeleton Crew” to that… crew. It’s a dark-ish fantasy 2D platforming brawler with a Halloween vibe. Like some of the other demos we’ve touched on this summer, there is a retro shroud hanging over “Skeleton Crew,” but interestingly it doesn’t come from its design, which wouldn’t look out of place in any game released in the last 15 years. Rather it’s that mashup of platforming and multiplayer brawl.
The story of “Skeleton Crew” is, at least, a little deeper than the average old school brawler. Humanity is in constant war with the hordes of the undead. The Yeomen Eldritch Extermination Team (YEET, get it?) use lances, magic wands, pumpkins, whatever they can get their hands, to defend the dwindling human settlements. Actually, that’s kinda it for now, at least as far as this blog understands it. I think there’s some song and dance about the team’s nucleus disappearing, and presumably there’s a dark and existential threat on the horizon, but nobody’s likely here for the plot.
Wait, that might not be the case. As in “Trigger Witch,” there’s a hint of depth here, but it’s a cooler customer than that game. There is a certain degree of mystery. Notably, some text is written in past tense in “Skeleton Crew,” as if we’re witnessing events after the end has happened. It’s intriguing, but unforutnately, it’s about the only intriguing thing here.
“Skeleton Crew” does not sell itself as a narrative-driven game. One look at the trailer promises goofy fun, not psychological insight or philosophical discourse. It’s about slamming into undead critters and crushing them along a fantasy themed obstacle course. The characters have small bodies and big heads and Halloween-Gothic features and the word “butt” is thrown around. This feels like a party game, as close to the local multiplayer feel as I’ve seen in a while. The problem is, it’s not much of a party.
It’s not a pain though. The controls are fairly responsive, easy to pick up, and there’s a flash of accomplishment one feels after executing well-timed kick. Occasionally I’d get stuck somewhere if I picked the wrong hero to play, but the game world is simple to navigate, levels are easy to restart, and I could always die, return and tool around somewhere else.
The presentation is fine too. As we’ve alluded, there is a certain visual flair, which recalls both Halloween decor and chibi art. The characters – a black-clad knight with an epic beard; an ice elemental witch who can double jump; the guy from “Bloodborne” – are all right for the game. The music is Adams Family appropriate. It’s all fine, but it’s exclusively fine, even excessively fine.
About the worst thing one can say about a piece of media is that it’s just OK. “Skeleton Crew” does not make me happy, angry or confused. It doesn’t stick. It’s a time sink at best, pleasant enough to pass time but forgotten shortly after the engagement is finished.
As usual, there are plenty of ways we could be wrong. Perhaps we weren’t switching heroes often enough. Different hero characters with disparate abilities could access new areas, giving things a Metrovania-ish quality. The counterargument to that is it does not take long to get used to a particular character – the play styles are somewhat similar anyway – so experimentation never felt like natural.
Alternatively, perhaps we should have just been playing with more people, but I ain’t got friends, so that’s out from the get go.
Accordingly, my advice to the developer is going to sound a little strange. The thing I liked most about the game right now is its presentation – the visual style, the mixture of goofy horror and toothy fantasy. The thing I thought might be the most interesting was the suggestion of a deeper, darker story. So I can see this going one of two ways: Either streamline a lot of things to get me out of the hub room of heroes and busy work of saving peasants, and get me into beating zombie faces into jack-o’-lanterns to keep me engaged… or else slow things down and develop the plot to keep me hooked. There isn’t a lot of opportunity to expose plot in a demo, particularly for a gameplay-driven game, so you can guess which option feels like the more organic direction.
Figuring out who should be expectantly waiting for this game’s release is even more baffling for this blog. As we said, this feels very much like a party game, the kind that has been kicking around consoles since the 1990s. Experiencing its strengths – the sorta gross humor and slick presentation – and gliding over its weaknesses – the repetitive gameplay, the simple story and the occasionally getting stuck because you have the “wrong” hero – will be much easier in a group, perhaps one benefited by a few adult beverages. For my own part, I run a blog that covers shitty thrillers. I don’t have friends.