Spooklands ($0.99) is so interesting because of its simplicity. As a one-touch arena shooter where firing also controls movement, the game invests in this mechanic, and proves to be an extremely satisfying challenge because of it. And boy is Spooklands tough. Because each shot winds up moving the protagonist around, managing this becomes key. Certainly, it was a challenge in Toast Time ($2.99), the obvious comparison to this game, but that game at least had gravity as a constant mitigating factor.
In Spooklands, your location is a constant concern, because there’s nothing else controlling it. You have to constantly keep it in mind. It gets easy to get pinned against walls, so making a conscious effort to not be trapped, to get out when necessary, is important. The characters also move around with little friction, like slipping around on ice, so it’s easy to be on the wall again. And if enemies start coming out of that wall the main character is up against, well, hopefully there’s nobody in the direction you’re now moving toward. Each shot is crucial in this game.
This makes the simple mechanics of the game mean so much. It’s simple enough to pick up on how everything works, and the game is always just about that one-touch operation. But, it’s a constant struggle to try and stay in a good position. It’s one of the more strategic games I’ve played in the arena shooter genre, in part because it’s forced upon the player. Many dual-stick shooters eventually reveal that smart strategy and positioning are key, but because movement is separate from shooting, they become treated as separate things, and sometimes just smart shooting will solve problems that intelligent avoidance could also do. But because every shot has a purpose, and a potential drawback, Spooklands winds up being more cerebral than it has any right to be.
I enjoy that the game has two separate shots, because it allows for further strategizing. The charged shots will be your main method of inflicting damage, because they pierce through enemies with little extra movement cost, if any, and can get bonus points for combos. However, the single shots are perfect for panicked situations with enemies coming from multiple sides, and when moving needs to happen quickly. Even the special weapons play in to this risk-reward dichotomy: they’re in the center of the map, always, and are usually worth getting, but getting to the center always requires special effort and is never without risk. The regular shots are plenty powerful, but clearing out massive hordes with greater ease is certainly a welcome option to also have.
Even the game’s progression system strikes a perfect balance. Unlocking each of the three arenas takes a small bit of work and practice, but will come in due time. Seeing the bosses in each level? That’s gonna take a while, and some special runs. So there’s plenty of reason to replay each arena once unlocked, along with the progression of unlocking more special weapons.
Spooklands does a lot more with its concept than it really has any right to do – the game is spectacularly designed, and a ton of fun to play, even while fighting for every last point. This is a must-play arena shooter.