Milkstone Studios made a name for themselves back in the XBLIG scene on the Xbox 360, with their own quirky takes on games which were popular on other platforms. From The Binding of Isaac influenced Sushi Castle to Slender-a-like White Noise, what Milkstone have always lacked in originality, they make up for with some of the smoothest, most polished indie experiences around.
Pharaonic is their second major release since making the jump to current generation technology, after the really rather fun Ziggurat. As the name suggests, it’s an Ancient Egypt themed title, and as such the visuals are bright, colourful and steeped in Prince of Persia style artwork and architecture. What Milkstone have attempted here, though, is quite brave: A Dark Souls combat experience, complete with timed parries and varying strengths of attacks on the shoulder buttons, but presented on a two-dimensional plane. It sounds like it should be a restrictive disaster, but thankfully, it really isn’t.
You move through the game exploring areas from left to right, with doors and paths branching off into and out of the screen. When you take these alternate routes, the view dynamically shifts so your character is always in profile on the screen, and your movement is always lateral. This allows for some real depth of exploration, whilst keeping the controls simple, tight and responsive. You can obtain maps of each area, and these help to visualise the genius of the level design. You really feel like you’re exploring large areas which connect logically, and it nips nook and cranny exploration in the bud whilst allowing hunting for treasure, and the opening of short cuts back to places of interest.
True to its Dark Souls inspiration, combat is deadly, at times frustrating, but always satisfying. When you chance upon an enemy, whether human or beast, you time your blocks, back steps and rolls carefully, looking for openings you attack. At the start of the game, before you’ve had chance to pump many points from leveling you’re character into your various RPG stats, you have very limited stamina, and each of these actions outlined above depletes it. You have to be very careful to always leave yourself a little for dodging out of harm’s way, or – if you’re particularly confident – using a whole chunk of it on a strong attack to finish your opponent off. If you run out of stamina, you can’t dodge or block your enemies, and when they hit they hit hard. Your health vanishes at an alarming rate, and those going in with a hack n slash mentality are going to get annihilated.
Continuing the grand Dark Souls tradition, if you do die you return to the last checkpoint you activated, allowing you to refill your healing potions. However, all enemies killed will respawn, and you’ll have to collect your ‘memories’ from the place your died to regain some of your experience, which is vital for leveling your character. Accompanying the nice visuals and satisfying gameplay is a suitably Egyptian-sounding musical score, and nice tangible effects of slashing blades and crushing staves.
So how does all of this come together? Very successfully, I’m happy to say! Pharaonic is all about the experience of ruthless combat across interesting locales in a world where history and mythology intertwine. The controls are suitably responsive and there’s something deeply satisfying about brutally slaying an opponent with the perfect timings of block and counter-attack.
All in all, the whole thing is very ‘Milkstone’ – a polished, well presented indie title which looks good and plays great, even as it wears its inspirations on its sleeve.
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