Review: Skautfold: Usurper
Some of the most ambition I’ve ever seen in gaming has come from little indie passion projects. Fewer collaborators means a clearer line to the vision being presented, but it also means more pressure on those core creators to polish, balance, and correct their own missteps. Titles like Usurper are what hopefully emerge from these efforts, brilliant but flawed attempts at grand concepts. There are bugs, there are annoyances, there are gripes, but I’m happy to set them all aside to see more of this fascinating creation.
At the close of a very different 19th century, London finds itself beset by demons pouring from a massive eldritch citadel perched above it. With reality itself warping under the onslaught, the forces of England under Queen Eleanore launch their own attack to drive the thing away. But other forces have their own designs on the citadel, including Waltham, a parasitic entity who commands a mighty cult. Weakened from a previous encounter with the citadel’s Navigator, he resurrects and possesses the body of Saragat, a royal knight. Saragat is not about to submit quietly, though, which begins an uneasy truce between the two for the sake of removing the citadel from London.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for the narrative here, which itself starts up right from the conclusion of a previous game, Shrouded in Sanity. Prior knowledge won’t be necessary to enjoy the sniping between your unlikely heroes, or to follow the revelations about the citadel as you travel its impossible halls. The story is a decent driver here, including some unique characters, unexpected moves from Waltham, and a young H.P. Lovecraft palling around with a void demon. But the real draw is the worldbuilding and atmosphere offered by the citadel itself. Usurper is steeped hard in cosmic horror and familiar eldritch critters, while still proposing some very compelling ideas of its own.
The cleverness isn’t limited to the setting, either. Usurper seeks to capture some of that ever-present Dark Souls magic with tricky, threatening foes, slow attacks, and strategic dodging, but puts its own spin on the formula. Your attacks and defensive moves all pull from a Guard gauge that gets used up very fast, but is massively recharged with successful dodges. That means your best bet is always to get right up in an enemy’s grill and go hard, dodging into their attacks to keep your gauge high enough to keep attacking. It’s risky, because your health pool is microscopic, but Guard is also used automatically as a second health pool (or regenerating shield) when you get hit. Coupled with the creative and diverse enemies you’ll face, this keeps the combat fresh as you work to perfect your approaches and adjust to new weapons you find.
This being a metroidvania, there’s obviously going to be plenty of exploring for both new powers and new gear to help you to survive the journey. The citadel is a big place with plenty to see, but the layout does a lot to direct you where you need to go for your next boss fight and power. Scouring for loot mostly happens on your way to your destination, and then only turns up stones and vitae for leveling up or buying things, or the occasional weapon. There’s no armor or equipment besides your weapons, and no upgrades or modifications to those weapons, either. For that matter, the stat system is pretty underwhelming in how little improvement it makes for your character despite also being lifted from Dark Souls. Really most of the player systems, from equipment to spells to pets, feel rather underutilized and not worth much of your focus.
The combat and movement is still quite good despite these shortcomings, but they are representative of the flaws I mentioned earlier. Usurper clearly aims to be a grand metroidvania but can’t help but show its indie roots in undercooked systems and other places. I feel the graphics are pretty debatable, with some perfectly creative and detailed enemies set against magnificent backdrops in some areas, and other foes and environments looking like MSPaint and Photoshop filters. I’m mostly okay with it, except some walls are really hard to pick out from the equally-gribbley backgrounds which can make pathfinding tough. The sound design is at least solid, setting some fine atmosphere in the more ominous parts of the citadel.
It may be flawed, but Usurper is ambitious and satisfying in the most important ways. You are offered an adventure through a castle of mad eldritch confluences, cutting down fishmen and ythians alongside brains in jars and beings of pure shadow. Each new area is bolder than the last, and they’re all fine arenas for lashing out with your katanas and revolvers and enchanted polearms. It’s a grand setting for great combat, and when you focus down on that core experience a lot of those complaints I raised just melt away into the aether. Give this one a try, let yourself get caught up in the madness, and I think you’ll come back glad you did.