We tested our survival skills - and our patience - in the challenging new roguelike-like game, Skyhill, but this is a title that doesn't only offer frustration.
The list of games that are about butchering zombies and mutants is exhausting. If a game wants to stand out on this list it has to offer something unique. With that in mind the question we need to answer is whether Skyhill does enough to stand out, or is it just another of those titles that you scroll past and never think of again.
The third world war is raging, but the main character doesn't seem to be suffering through it too much. At the start of the game he is staying in a beautiful penthouse suite in the rather posh titular hotel, Skyhill. The suite is equipped with the latest biohazard protection systems to keep its guest safe. However, his calm evening is interrupted by a news broadcast telling everybody to stay inside because an attack from the enemy is at hand. A bomb falls shortly after this message appears on the TV, and you're able to see this through the massive windows of the penthouse suite. But even after the shockwaves have passed, the dangers aren't over. Outside the door you hear horrendous and terrifying animal-like noises telling you that nothing will ever be the same. You are running low on supplies and if you stay inside this room the only thing waiting for you is a slow death. To survive there's only one thing you can do - open the door.
The concept of the game is very simple. Your goal is to get out of the hotel and since you're currently on the 100th floor, there's a long way to go. Staircase after staircase and floor after floor you have to descend towards freedom. Every floor is built the same way with one stairway and two rooms for you to explore. But each time you open a door you risk standing face to face with a mutant waiting for its next victim.
Our first thought was that the repetitive nature of the concept would make things dull, but we never felt bored - not as a result of the layout anyway. Every time you start a new game the hotel is randomly generated with a new combination of rooms, mutants and resources. That way every time you play the game it's a new experience and you can start afresh in the hope that the next playthrough will be more successful than the last.
The only time we felt boredom creeping up on us was actually when the game should be at its most intense - when you're fighting. These fights play out very simplistically. You equip one of your weapons and then you and the mutant take turns hitting each other. Your hits are placed automatically with just one click per hit, or you can use the more advanced settings that show you where you can hit the mutant, how much damage the different attacks will do, and how high the chances are of a successful connection. The combat system could benefit from a bit more depth, either in the form of more variation, a revised design, or more player involvement. We caught ourselves sighing when enemies popped up because it just slowed down our eager search for that one piece of fruit we needed for our fruit salad. The fights ended up being an interruption rather than something exciting.
Even though Skyhill is a roguelike-like it has a lot in common with the survival genre as well. To survive the descent you really have to manage your resources and think about your every move. You start off with an empty backpack and every action you take costs one hunger point. When you run out of hunger points it's your life force that begins to dwindle. Therefore you can't just run down the stairs and hope for the best. This adds a strategic element to the game and motivates you to search everything in your path. Anything from the small metal parts through to the notes you read can change the outcome of a game.
We've already written "simple" a couple of times. But that doesn't mean that the game is easy. We started out on the normal difficulty, but after a couple of failed attempts and a lot of frustration we had to face facts, and we dialled down the difficulty to easy. The further down the hotel you make it, the bigger and badder the enemies become. It took us a few - five - tries to figure out a clever strategy. The game really put our patience to the test but not to point where we wanted to give up. Time and time again it gave us hope, kept us interested, and made us want to try just one more pass. This hope came in the shape of perks that were gradually unlocked as you made your way down the stairs. These perks offer up different strategic approaches and this keeps the game fresh for longer.
We also need to mention the visuals. You could easily picture this game in the horror genre, played out from a first-person perspective, a 3D world where you'd slowly descend the stairs in a dark building, constantly on edge because of the fearsome mutants. But instead of using this approach Skyhill sticks to 2D and its unique and beautiful visual style. Instead of using cheap jump scares the developers Mandragora uses simple effects such as enhancing the shadows and putting on some tense background music to build a characteristic look, creating tension throughout.
The game impressed with its well-judged simplicity, but the truly amazing thing is how this game, despite being fairly straightforward, actually creates a lot of depth, something which makes you want to play and discover more even after you've completed the game. Through notes, paper clippings, pictures, cassette tapes and diary pages, a story is told. It's a story that made us question everything that went on inside the hotel, that made us connect with the main character, and also made us return for more answers. Depending on which notes you discover while you play, the ending of the game can change. We won't reveal how, but we will tell you that these endings are worth looking for and trying to figure out.
We weren't sure what to expect of Skyhill, but we must admit that the game surprised us, and we kept going back for more. So to answer to our original question regarding whether it does enough to stand out from the crowd: it most certainly does. Skyhill isn't scared of being unique or different. It doesn't boast an open world, hundreds of quests, or over-the-top cutscenes. It dares to be uncomplicated and it stays true to its nature all the way through - for better and for worse.