US: 6 Oct 2015
The concept of a point-and-click adventure/roguelike hybrid sounded strange to me. What does permadeath and a randomly generated map have to do with the scripted interlocking puzzles and narrative progression of a point-and-click adventure?
However, I like strange, and I like experiments, which is what drew me to want to check out Skyhill.
So, what does happen when a point-and-click adventure and a roguelike have a baby?
Well, I think the answer is something like: survival management.
Skyhill finds a man trapped on the 100th of a mutant infested skyscraper. Our protagonist must find his way down to the ground floor to escape, of course, which means he is going to need to get armed, and he is going to need to make sure that he keeps himself fed as he scrounges for the supplies necessary to build the weaponry that he’ll need to face the mutants.
This is a roguelike, since once you die in combat or to poison or by starving to death, that’s it, you’re dead. Time to start over. It is also a roguelike because the 100 floors of the skyscraper are randomly generated, so that each time the player attempts to descend to the bottom of the hotel, he or she is confronted with a new layout, new places for monsters to spawn, and new places where items spawn.
Now randomly generated maps and fluid item spawns would seem to fly in the face of the point-and-click adventure because item manipulation and combination is what traditionally serves as the central means of driving such games forward. In order to unlock a door or fix a shorted circuit box, one needs to be confident that the game will consistently supply the items needed to resolve that problem and that the solution to a problem will lead to the next step in solving the game as a whole.
Skyhill‘s “puzzles” take the form of gathering the right items to complete recipes that will provide the protagonist with better weapons, medicine, more nourishing meals, and upgrades to his stove, work bench, bed, and the door that protects the the room that he sleeps in.
Since there are no gated events in the game, as there would in a traditional point-and-click adventure, this randomization and item combination essentially becomes a game of survival management. You must gather what you can with the broader goals of being well armed, being as safe as possible when you sleep, keeping well fed, and staving off infection (poisoning) always in mind and as the means to “continue forward.” Specific goals are generally gateways that lead to a steadily progressing narrative in point-and-click adventures. However, here broad goals that have to do with constant maintenance all funnel the player to the singular goal of the game, eventual escape.
There is a kind of narrative here, as well, that is told through randomly spawning notes, photographs, and computer files. Pieces and chunks of information about the protagonist and the world that he lives in are doled out over time. Telling a linear narrative in a game in which what kinds of rooms the protagonist finds himself in, what kinds of enemies he confronts, and what kinds of items change what kinds of challenges he can reasonably resolve at any given moment seems impossible. Thus, this non-linear approach seems more reasonable than attempting a plot that begins at point A and ends at point B.
So, does the experiment work? Yes and no. The roguelike tension of just staying alive is compelling as always. The plot as it is doled out has its moments, though I think that one note that I received early may have given away a major plot twist way too earlyin the game—at least, if I am interpreting it correctly (I haven’t, yet, completed a full run of the game without dying). The combat is nothing to write home about, click and attack, click and attack. Hits are based on percentiles.
It is the sheer randomness of the whole thing that will either work for you or leave you cold, though. A lot of modern action roguelikes (or roguelites), like The Binding of Isaac depend on the idea that while the player dies often, that player will get better at playing the game, which will offset to some degree the luck involved with getting good item drops on one run and bad ones on another. Here, the game’s random generation and probability governed combat mean that being “good at” the game doesn’t really offset some situations.
Just before writing this, I failed a run in which I made it down nearly 60 floors of the building. I had upgraded much of my home base. I had crafted a pretty good weapon. I was managing my hunger quite well. However, I had been poisoned. While I was sweeping through floors of monsters and keeping my belly full, I just could not find any antibiotics, the one item needed to craft an antidote. It was tough luck for me. My life just kept ticking away, and there was no skill or planning that would allow me to do anything but expire.
All that being said, I haven’t given up on Skyhill. I’d like to beat it at least once, and I have found myself picking it up to play it in between playing other games. The game probably is best suited as a kind of time filler here and there, more than anything else.
I am obsessed with The Binding of Isaac and have come back to it every few weeks or months since its release several years ago. I doubt that I will feel the same about Skyhill a few years from now. However, it does still have some charms worth my time at the moment, and, one way or the other, it is an interesting experiment in hybridizing two very different genres.
// Moving Pixels
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