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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Demon Turf is a Great 3D Platformer that Gets Extra Mileage from a Different Approach

I managed to cover a lot of different games in 2021 (and even launched a page to collect all of my indie game reviews!), and consequently, don’t feel the need to write any sort of loose-ends wrap-up piece like I have in years past; I’m not sure there would be enough games or ideas to fill it out. However, there’s still one big game I played last year that I want to cover, a late release that I played towards the end of the year and wound up being one of my favorite games of the year: Fabraz’s Demon Turf.

Demon Turf is a game that I had been excited about for a while. I hadn’t followed any of Fabraz’s earlier games, but I’m always on the lookout for new and upcoming 3D Platformers to try, which is where I first came across it. My excitement only grew upon trying the early demo when it came out on Steam, and then even further after it came out early last year that Playtonic (makers of Yooka-Laylee, among other projects) would be picking it up as one of the first three games in their Playtonic Friends publishing division. Both of those pointed to good things, which got me a little worried that I might be overhyping it.

As it turns out, my concerns were totally unfounded! Demon Turf wound up being my favorite 3D platformer since… probably A Hat in Time? In just every way it’s delightful, but it also manages to squeeze a lot out of its indie game scale; and along the way, it tries a bunch of interesting twists on genre formulas that make the entire thing feel that much fresher.

So let’s start with the basic set-up: Demon Turf is about a young demon girl named Beebz, who’s a bit of an outcast in the underworld and plans to rectify that by taking on the Demon King. But to challenge him for the throne, she’ll need to first take over the territories of four other demon gang leaders who serve under the King, which you do by beating all of a world’s levels and then challenging them to boss battles.

It’s a pretty standard 3D platformer set-up at its most basic level. Each level gives you a major, end-of-level collectable, a la Mario’s power stars or Sonic’s emblems (here, it’s batteries), and there are a variety of optional secondary collectables that can get you a variety of unlocks (in this case, sweets). You start in the main hub world, Beebz’s home of Forktown, and from there, travel to one of four smaller world hubs, each of which has seven levels leading off of them like spokes; one easy level lets you into the world’s main square, from which you can tackle the remaining six levels in any order. Collect the battery at the end of every level and you open the boss door.

It’s all pretty standard stuff for this type of game, but Demon Turf pulls it all off well. And really, that extends to the other fundamental mechanics. A lot of work has clearly gone into refining the movement in this game, and it all really shows, as Beebz controls incredibly smoothly.

You get a fairly wide variety of movement options, which each have their clear and consistent uses and tradeoffs. Those new abilities overcome apparent obstacles by giving you a new way to navigate the space and open up new areas, rather than just unlock gates. There are clear visual indicators to call attention to what you’re using and limits like how many jumps you have remaining. The camera (an ever-lingering problem in 3D platformers) is responsive and easy to adjust, and there are a variety of ways to pay attention to and subtly adjust your placement in the space of the world, even mid-jump. It’s a lot of hard work in game design that becomes immediately obvious the second it isn’t working, and it can be easy to lose sight of all of that effort when it’s all this well done.

The big new thing mechanically that stands out is Demon Turf’s checkpoint system. Instead of a fixed set of checkpoints set by the developers, Beebz gets three checkpoints of her own at the start of the level, which she can set down at any point and return to (on death, or using a “return to last checkpoint” option if you just need to backtrack). Independently of anything else, it’s a small but interesting little twist. Worried about one section of the level? Just drop a flag there, no worries if the developers expected that to be the hard part or not.

It might not sound like much, but it really is its own system that you come to understand better, as you get a feel for how long levels are and where might be the best points to return to. And while it intersects with some of the game’s other systems in fun ways (more on that later), even on its own, it presents a lot of compelling choices for the player. Do you place a flag just because an upcoming section looks difficult, or do you give it a try and risk being sent further back? If that section is legitimately difficult, do you drop a flag right before it, so you can immediately jump back into it and try again when you fall in a pit? Or do you wait until after you complete it, leaving yourself to redo the whole stretch leading up to it every time you die, but meaning you only need one successful run to progress. You could also save yourself the choice and just do both, but that leaves you with just one checkpoint to cover the entire rest of the level, and what if there’s another, harder part later? But maybe you’ve been having a good run up until now and haven’t needed to place any flags, so you can spare it. Or maybe you’ve gotten a feel for the game’s level design, and have a feeling that there won’t be much left after this part, so it’s a risk you’re willing to take. On the whole, it’s a lot of fun as you learn to game it out!

If there’s any mechanical weak spot, it’s probably the combat? Beebz gets a giant, magical hand attack that she can use to shove enemies around. Enemies hit by this move slide around like they’re on ice, and will die from any of the things that will kill the player (falling in pits, hitting spikes, etc.). Of course, “weak spot” is a relative term; I feel like I’ve tried other games with a similar combat mechanic, and this is the least it’s ever bothered me. The attacks are fairly easy to grasp, usually work as expected, and the few times it doesn’t, are easy enough to work around. In the end, I was more than happy to finish all of the combat-related side quests, I just preferred using all of the other platforming moves a lot more (which is honestly probably what you’d want out of a platformer anyway).

Aside from gameplay, Demon Turf has a fun and unique visual style all its own, with a colorful, cartoonish version of the underworld and its inhabitants. It actually uses a “2D-models in 3D-worlds” approach, similar to what Heaven’s Vault* did, giving them the ability to take advantage of more expressive, traditionally-animated sprites (which can look great even with a less complex style) for their characters and effects while also looking natural in the more basic 3D shapes of their environment. I was worried that style might not translate to a genre that more heavily depends upon things like positioning and spatial awareness, but again, they offered a lot of visual cues to make it feel natural.

*Which kind of makes for a funny contrast, given how otherwise completely different these two games are visually and tonally.

A smooth and fluid movement system and a strong visual style is a rock-solid foundation for a 3D platformer. The level design is similarly strong, but it’s also an area where the game does things a little differently than most similar titles in the genre, and in a way that makes things interesting. In particular, Demon Turf has an approach that feels especially economical; I imagine some of that was born out of a desire to stretch the work of a small dev team, which can’t dump endless time and money into their efforts like big budget titles. But the way it was done feels particularly unique, and makes the end result feel even more enjoyable.

First, there’s the physical build of the individual levels. Back in that piece I wrote about A Hat in Time and in the follow-up I did for the DLC worlds, I broke down the basic different approaches to levels 3D platformer games can take in their design. Towards the end of the piece, I mentioned that those styles are more basic building blocks than fundamental opposites, and that there’s nothing stopping a designer from combining styles (indeed, some of the styles share some notable similarities).

Demon Turf mostly uses linear platforming-based levels for its 28 standard levels, with a starting point and a series of challenges to overcome to reach the goal. But it also provides a number of shortcuts and side rooms to the main route, giving you a little room to explore. And to incentivize that meandering, more exploratory approach, the game litters in the aforementioned collectable sweets, with 3 cakes in each level. They’re reasonably well-hidden*, which provides some challenge while also never really slowing you down too much, and the cakes themselves can be exchanged for useful things like new moves and movement perks. It also means that you get to take in the whole level a little more on your first run, poking through nooks and crannies

*The game also gives you an in-game compass to help find them, which I worried would make these searches too easy, but it was generally fine. You have to check it with a button press, so it’s up to the player to deploy rather than a constantly-up radar or something, and it’s vague enough to not give everything away immediately. Honestly, it’s best use might be as a general sanity check to make sure you haven’t blindly wandered past something when you go through an extended stretch without finding anything. And in the event that you have missed one of them, your placement of checkpoint flags can make it easier to double back and search certain areas.

Of course, the game also rewards you for completing each level in a certain amount of time. And so in exploring for sweets and learning the level, you get a lot of practice on its challenges and ideas for shortcuts. So, when you finally finish the level, you see a trophy with a time challenge that’s pretty reasonable, usually low enough that you can get it if you don’t dawdle and keep your deaths to a minimum.*

*This is one of those areas I mentioned earlier, where strategic checkpoint placement is important! See, placing each flag requires you to stand still for a few seconds, which is obviously bad for speedrunning. But if you’re only going for a trophy rather than a world record, none of these time limits are so tight that stopping for a moment will ruin you. But what can really mess up your efforts is dying in the middle of the level and being sent all the way back to the start.

So, if you know from your first playthrough the one or two obstacles that will give you trouble, you can place your flags optimally, so that even if you die a few times, you aren’t rerunning much of the level. And maybe you can even waste that second flag immediately after for safety, if you have the time and aren’t as worried about other sections. No time limit is high enough to let you keep retrying a part indefinitely, but it does mean that you don’t need to have a completely flawless run to get the trophy on every single level, and you can even personalize it to your own ability a little bit. It adds a nice level of challenge to the game, and it also means that going for 100% completion isn’t an act of masochism.

So right when you finish that first run, and you know this level as well as anything, and the game gives you the option to immediately retry and score a best time… I mean, why not? These are fun levels to play, after all, and speedrunning them feels different enough from the first playthrough. If you prefer, you can almost think of it like the second star in a Super Mario 64 level or something. And for those that want their challenges to be even harder, there’s a worldwide leaderboard that shows up on each level completion, so you can see how you stack up and push for even better times (if that’s your thing).

Once you’ve cleared out all seven of a world’s levels and open up its boss fight, Demon Turf drops its next big switch-up from the standard formula on you. Each of those four world bosses opens up by giving you a new movement power-up and making you do a brief bit of platforming with it to get to the actual arena for the battle, at which point the new move serves a key role in helping you win the fight.

There’s a couple things I like here. First, it’s a definite change from the usual video game formula of “use the boss fight as a way to test mastery of a new mechanic that you’ve been training with for the entire world” (you know, the type of thing you might see in a Zelda dungeon or something), which makes it stick out in a way that kind of took me by surprise when I realized it. And it allows Fabraz to also include time trophies for boss fights and keep a similar dynamic to the main levels; you probably won’t set any speed records your first time, but returning later when you have a better grasp on the new move will make the trophy much more attainable.

But I think it also generally serves a good gameplay purpose; as I mentioned earlier, the combat in Demon Turf is fine for a 3D platformer, but the game’s real focus is, you know, on the platforming. Introducing the new abilities for the new boss lets them keep that focus. The developers don’t really need to make the actual boss combat super challenging or keep thinking of new twists they can add to make each encounter tough and fresh. Instead, the biggest difficulty of the fights usually comes from learning and applying your new skill (which you will then get to apply in subsequent levels), and the actual, still relatively basic combat portion can be the reward for navigating everything else.*

*This isn’t to say they make the combat parts easy, necessarily; there’s a wide range of difficulties to the combat encounters you see across the regular levels of the game, and the bosses usually line up with the higher end of it. Just that it’s not a huge step up in difficulty or uniqueness from what you would find in the normal levels; the new abilities are instead what provides the bosses with that special extra touch.

The other big benefit to getting the ability is that the boss fight is technically not the end of the world, just the middle. See, you need 50 batteries to start your confrontation with the Demon King, and four worlds with seven levels still leaves you 22 short. Instead, each boss opens up “return trips” for each level; the entire world gets a slight shift in its aesthetics, and the individual levels completely reroute, often making use of the new move that you unlocked during the boss fight.

That last shift is the game changer, for me. Rerouting through an existing level isn’t normally something new, but locking it behind a new movement option gives designers a lot more room to work with, and makes it a lot easier to ensure an interesting return trip that won’t bore players. Some of the levels get truly radical re-imaginings, but even the smallest changes still end up making heavy use of your new skills. And while it’s not enough to make it feel like a completely different level, at the very least it absolutely feels like a new and distinct version of the level, the type of thing you might get in the different missions of your traditional Mario games. I’ve found that to be a difficult task to pull off when dealing with the more linear level design like this, which makes it all the more impressive that Demon Turf pulls it off so well.

Of course, the levels are generally at least a little recognizable, so Fabraz throws another twist in to keep players on their toes: the return trips drop the three cakes in favor of fifty lollipops. These sweets can be spent on different things than the cakes, usually cosmetics rather than movement-related things (so missing out on them is less of a big deal). Despite the far larger number, they’re usually not that much harder to find than the cakes, given that you usually have a pretty decent grasp of the level by now and there are a few other design choices to help the player along (they’re usually in clusters, so they stand out a little more; plus you still have your sweets compass to find any stragglers).

And of course, every return trip level has its own speedrunning trophy, so all of the dynamics from the first time (i.e. “you already know the level well”) hold through. It’s all enough of a difference that you can move on to the next world and then backtrack to the last world’s return levels (and use the first run as a refresher for the speedrun), or just clear out both versions of each level before moving on (since each time through is different enough that you don’t really get tired of them until you’re done). On the whole, it gives the player a lot more to do than it might appear at first blush.

It also helps that there are a ton of sidequests to do in and around Forktown. Some of it also involves knowing the other environments well (you get a quest to take in-game photos of certain things in each of the four worlds, which you can largely hit on the return trips). But a lot of it is just straight-up new stages that don’t quite fit the format of the 28 base levels. There’s an arcade where you can unlock stages inspired by other famous 3D platformer levels, each with their own twist. There’s a wide variety of challenge runs built around exploring the different mechanics even more. You even get a number of levels built around combat and “demon golf” (a special event that shows up in some worlds where, just as it sounds, you need to use your attacks to maneuver a large ball into a hole).

None of these bonus levels are quite as long or repeatable as the main levels, but they’re all generally a good time to play through. Particularly the challenge and homage stages; you get the sense that they were set apart not due to a lack of quality, but mostly because they didn’t fit the specific style of design that the team ended up going with for the 28 main levels. The other stuff is different enough that I can see non-completionists maybe ignoring it (I liked them all enough to do anyway, I don’t really think there’s a downside to them other than not being as platforming focused as the main content), but those other two types of bonus levels are definitely worth seeking out if you’re enjoying the main gameplay.

(Also, our old friend Niko makes a cameo!)

In all, I really enjoyed my time with the game, and it made for an enjoyable case study to examine the things that make it both fun yet different from everything else. If you’re a big fan of 3D platformers, Demon Turf is absolutely a must-play, but even if you’re only sort of interested in the genre, I would say it’s one of the ones worth checking out. The fundamental gameplay and level design are just too solid to pass up. And while it isn’t too radical in any one design element and is more focused on refining those core tenets to perfection, just the simple reordering of those basic elements leads to a dynamic that feels fresh and unique, and certainly informs the rest of the game’s design in ways that are worth checking out.

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