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‘Pizza vs. Skeletons’ Hands-On Preview

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Only in the indie space do we see games like Pizza vs. Skeletons. Bright and humorous, as well as off-the-walls, it’s a 2D action game that stars a 10-foot tall pizza. It has a knack for catching you off guard by design; delicately crafted to avoid the mechanical monotony so common in its space, it’s an adventure that re-imagines what it is in almost every level. Sometimes you’ll save puppies. Other times, you’ll ski. Or butt heads with gigantic skulls. Or just bash skeletons because, hey, that’s fun.

You just can’t pitch this game to a major publisher. This will never be a blown-up, $60 retail title. It’s too free-wheeling, too idealistic. It’s too … different.

I’ve had my paws all over a pre-release build for the last week or so, and I’m OK with saying that it’s looking every bit as awesome as its name implies it will be. Sure, it might not have any ultra-familiar trappings to draw connections to, but that’s kind of the point: this thing is bananas, man. It’s as far-out as a quasar.

Take the mechanics, for example. In the game, you control a house-sized pizza that can roll, stomp, and jump. Rolling requires a simple tilt of the device. Tap the screen and the pizza jumps. Tap again while in the air and the pizza unleashes a devastating stomp.

Rolling automatically obliterates enemies into plumes of grave dust — provided they aren’t hoisting an over-sized, pizza-skewing spear in front of their bodies. If this is the case, a physics-bending jump and stomp will do the trick. As you play, you’ll start running into a few enemies that twist this basic combat model. There’s a flying skeleton that requires a bit more touch, as well as other minor iterations on this specific idea.

If that was the game, I’d still be as into it since, you know, you’ll be controlling a giant, grimacing pizza on a quest to kill all the skeletons ever. But that’s not all there is. Pizza vs. Skeletons is like a conga line of levels and different systems, each one bolting onto the back of the last and making the stream stronger and crazier.

In the first chapter, you’ll be introduced to a skiing mini-game that doesn’t task you with killing. Instead, the objective is to hit the ramps perfectly in order to collect the most currency possible. Later, you’ll be balancing the pizza on the top of a huge skull while crossing a pit of spikes, pummeling telltale Angry Birds structures into oblivion, or even bouncing on rocks in a timed adventure that has you knocking skulls off of the tiny platform you’ll be forced to work with.

There’s a lot more, and I won’t spoil it all. I will say, though, that nothing I’ve been doing is striking me as particularly interesting. Everything in the game exists in the service of fun, kinda like a Rock Band. You’re just playing to act out weird power fantasies, and that’s cool.

Also, while there’s a level of schizophrenia inherent in this kind of design, Riverman ties all of the bits and bobs together into a coherent whole; the sound design is as kooky as the game, and the art direction? It’s like something Tim Burton would do if he could (a) draw and (b) chill out every once in a while. The game is bent, but lightly so; its style and its tone fits well with the oodles of off-the-wall content.

There’s a good story about this game’s design in this week’s show. Riverman is composed of two brothers, Jacob and Paul Stevens. Jacob, the art dude, dreamt up the scenarios. Paul, the programmer, then had to figure out a way to not only make it work technically, but also make them fun.

The prototyping phase took awhile and the duo had a lot of back and forths on the subject of dreams vs. the reality of having to make solid, fun-to-play content within the technical parameters of the game.

“There are a few levels that have the theme of your sort of crushing a structure in a way like how you fling birds in Angry Birds at something and destroy it. We thought could we make that fun as a pizza? Well, if you actually physically control your character and just crush, say, the Great Pyramids, that could be interesting." Paul told us earlier this week.

“Jake’s ideas probably come from a totally different place than mine do. In mine, I was thinking what’s fun being a huge, powerful character? Crushing structures."

Another fun thing that comes hand-in-hand with the conceit of driving around a huge pizza is topping customization. As you beat levels, you earn currency which can be dropped into extra vegetables or meats, new faces, new glasses, and even hats. Each is lovingly animated, and most are pretty hilarious. I’ll go on record here and say that nothing comes close to being as cool as a 10-foot tall pizza with a top hat.

I’ve held back my progression in the game so I wouldn’t get too review-y in this, but I think it’s pretty obvious that I’ll be embracing the game with open arms when it hits a little later this month on the 16th. We’ll be bringing you more around that time, too.

For now, though, keep your eyes on this and Riverman. The studio has never attempted a game this ambitious, this out-of-the-mold, and it seems like it has hit a new stride in the process. I’m excited, and I think you should be, too.

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