"Don't neglect the Sack!" insists Damian Schloter, the creator behind hack-n-slash dungeon-crawler Slasher's Keep. "The Sack Smack™ is an integral part of the combat as it allows you to kill enemies instantly," he says. The hero's bulging inventory sack can be swung to shove enemies into conveniently placed chasms and spike-studded walls, but it's an easy feature to miss.
Slasher's Keep is a minefield of traps and hazards but fortunately, thanks to the sack attack, this lack of workplace safety can be exploited. The goal is simple: kill or be killed, explore the floor, and find the ladder up to the next level.
Living in a slasher’s paradise
My first run at Slasher's Keep was a cruel reminder of the perils of impatience. I began by sprinting into rooms swinging like a pinwheel with no regard for blocking enemy attacks or, as Schloter reminded me, using my inventory sack offensively. Light attacks can be executed quickly with the left mouse button while heavy attacks require holding and releasing it. After several shameful deaths I reined in my enthusiasm long enough to realize winding up a good heavy strike was worth the wait.
Blocking is worth slowing down for too. "The parrying is also a tough thing to communicate as it turns out," says Schloter. "Players tend to go with established conventions and disregard the whole aiming at the enemy weapon thing."
It did take me several deaths to realize that holding down my right mouse button and staring deep into the eyes of my enemy was not cutting it. In order to effectively parry, you hold right-click to block and look in the direction of the swing. After catching on, the process of weaving together light attacks, heavy attacks, parries, and sack smacks turned combat into an alluring dance where my partners were either human-sized mole rats or glassy-eyed goblins.
Schloter's approach to armor is as irreverent as his choice of enemies. The cobbled-together pieces of clothing you find have names like Dangerous Brigandine of the Distinguished Gentleman and often result in a character with the fashion sense of an eclectic trick-or-treater. It's not worth getting attached to any of these accoutrements because when you lose your head to a particularly agile mole rat all of your personal effects go on the chopping block too.
Although dying will force you back to the lowest level with a 25% penalty to your accumulated stats and cash, it's also part of the metagame. On every floor above the first there's an item chute which lets you chuck your spare gear back to the bottom to be picked up after your inevitable death. "It's generally wise to think of future-you when you have good gear you're no longer using," says Schloter. "A high-level weapon will make short work of low-level enemies, so try and toss something nice down the hatch when you can."
The art style is as goofy as the sack-swinging combat. Enemies and items are 2D objects that rotate so they're always facing the player. Characters are made up of chunky black line art and cel shading but the designs are detailed, with stern expressions and emphasized muscles that remind me of superhero comics. The serious faces are constantly subverted by the mismatched outfits and handwritten menus.
Littered around the keep are pinup posters of orcs, my personal favorite being the green-skinned and completely hairless fellow with a sword tied around his waist. I can only hope there is some in-depth lore later to explain orcs' offbeat taste in sexy material.
A castle keep without feature creep
The tone is very tongue-in-cheek but Schloter's approach to development is considerably more serious. Slasher's Keep was fully playable when it released on Early Access in February but Schloter is using the time before release to add new items, skills, and additional polish. He's active in the Steam community discussions, whether threads for bugs, advice, or requests for new features. "Most of my feedback comes from the Steam community forums. They've been very helpful in finding bugs for me to fix. Now that I've gotten rid of the most egregious ones the balance is shifting a little more towards suggestions."
Some requests are no-brainers. A popular one was the ability to invert the y-axis. Others, like controller support, have to have their value weighed before Schloter is willing to commit. "As a solo developer I have to be particularly mindful of the workload of new additions and then see how to make them work within the confines of the game's architecture. That said, the suggestions have been great and do give me good ideas about what to implement and where to put my priorities."
Schloter has received plenty of requests to add multiplayer. With a realistic and refreshing attitude, he doesn't mince words on the subject. "Multiplayer on the other hand is not a simple addition and would basically be like making another game on top of the one I'm already developing, so that's not going to happen."
After hearing about the weaponized inventory sack, I had to ask Schloter about its origins. "I had a different combat system in place at first," he explains. "It involved slashing by dragging the mouse across the screen. It did work but felt cumbersome and made the whole game very slow and tedious. So I added the new system as an option, which then ended up replacing the old one completely. It works a lot like the one in Dark Messiah which involves kicking people into spikes.
"Since I was already committed to showing all the gear on the player character, a kick meant I would have to draw textures for every pair of pants and boots in the game for however many frames the kicking animation needed. Instead I opted for the inventory sack which the player character already held in his left hand on the character sheet." Ever pragmatic, he adds, "It's also an excuse for not putting shields or dual-wielding in the game.”
Slasher's Keep does have plenty potential for improvement during the rest of its stay in Early Access. I ran into small annoyances like tripping over the cluttered remains of barrels which didn't seem like they should collide with my legs, and Schloter highlights the needs for a better tutorial for parrying and sack-smacking. Yet in spite of the petty grievances I had while repeatedly dying and re-trying floors one through four, its vibrant art and cavalier approach to the fundamentals of RPG combat make Slasher's Keep a game worth playing already.