ScourgeBringer. There’s a (not great) joke here, about how I’m not very good at this game. I like it, though in limited amounts. A better player than me would persevere, would thrive, and one that knows their limits better would have given up. I’m not sure where that puts me exactly. Dashing, slashing, shooting, and dying, always dying. The game is better than me, in more ways than one.

ScourgeBringer is a 2D action game, where you move through the map by clearing a room of enemies, rather than platforming (think Binding of Isaac rather than Super Meat Boy or Dead Cells). Movement is important in combat though, and most of the time you’ll stay in the air with dashes and slashes that keep you hovering in place. Position to take out enemies, dodge their attacks, and make it all one seamless motion is the name of the game here.

You are equipped with a trusty sword that can get damage upgrades through items, either dropped from enemies and Judges (bosses), or bought in shops with blood (currency) from defeating enemies. You also have a hovering tiny companion that functions as a gun. This weapon starts as your standard pea shooter, but can be replaced by upgrades on a run, transforming it into a shotgun, rocket launcher, laser cannon, or more. Your shots are limited, and reloading is through hitting enemies with your sword (or items). There are also mod slots that can make bullets pierce shields, bounce, or otherwise make it deadlier.

There’s some story here, though only little bits come out from a few NPCs and finding records of previous expeditions to this strange land. You play as Khyra, small but fierce, agile and quick. She’s got a full head of killer white hair and is all business. Khyra was trained and sent by her people to investigate and rid the land of some mysterious thing that is a blight on the land. I can’t say I know much at this point, though you can read a short sentence or two on enemies you’ve encountered and read the brief logs you (pretty rarely) come across.

ScourgeBringer has a lot familiar elements of indie games these days. Starting with the visuals and sound, areas ScourgeBringer excels at, we can rattle off a (mostly) familiar list: Beautiful pixel style graphics: check. Different worlds (biomes): check. Quick animations, flashes, small dose of bullet hell: check. A pounding rock soundtrack that kicks in with combat: very much check. (If you’ve played the excellent Nuclear Throne, you’ll recognize Joonas Turner’s work here.)

On the gameplay, there’s plenty we can check off, too: Roguelike/lite elements (random items, map, and rooms, one life, slight variation to bosses). Double jump, dash, wall run. A smash attack to stun enemies about to attack. Currency (blood) from defeating enemies (lost upon dying, except Judge blood from bosses). Shops and blessings (enhancements). Combo meter. Unlockable bonuses and skills. Frequent deaths, but always your fault. Yes. I can’t blame the game here, as I’ll get to in a bit.

That is not to say ScourgeBringer is a cookie cutter game. For one thing, it is not a Metroidvania, Souls-like, battle royale. It certainly hits a lot of popular indie game elements, but has enough of its own style and fundamentals to stand on its own.

ScourgeBringer may look like it has some platforming elements, but it does not. As I mentioned earlier, movement is key, but only in combat, the environment at times barely registering as background. Khyra can wall run, double jump, dash, and hover in place as long as she keeps slashing away. As you go, the environment and moving around it becomes more important. I’m still learning when you need to hide behind something, or how to smoothly move between enemies and cover ground with spikes, pits of acid, or the later worlds that have blocks that let bullets pass through.

One element that is different from the usual is that the dash does not give invincibility frames, unlike what you’d expect from most rolls or dashes in action games. The game doesn’t hide it either, telling you in the tutorial. The tutorial is short and to the point, guiding you through basic movement and attacks, along with stunning enemies with a smash when they are about to attack, indicated with an exclamation point. And that’s all you start off with, slowly unlocking a few additional abilities (attacking the whole screen, deflecting bullets, souped up dash) as you progress and spend the Judge blood you collect. While the dash may seem like a simple change, and one that would be annoying (certainly is at first), it changes a core mechanic and how you must approach the action.

Not that I figured that out right away. No, I had to die, after the same stupid mistakes. And while at times the action can be a little busy (it’s no Dead Cells though) or hard to follow Khyra if you smash a few buttons, the hitboxes are fair while enemy patterns and attack telegraphing is clear. I had to slow down and think, ignore the pulse-pounding soundtrack, my urge to button smash my way out of trouble.

It comes down to a choice with the dash: are you going to be quick and close enough to hit that enemy before it gets you? Do you need to accept that the best offense here is defense, dashing away from danger to strike later?

My dear reader, I know this now and yet I still make the wrong choice. I could see this being frustrating. But I have learned to change my ways, a little, and over time found that I can still play aggressively and by my usual mantra of “the best defense is a good offense.” It is, after all, a game built almost entirely around attacking and speed. I try to conserve when I dash, to anticipate trouble and slash or shoot at it before I’m down to having to make the right choice at the last second.

The Judges are big ol’ bosses with a penchant for some bullet hell-like attacks, built with patterns and sometimes weaknesses. Chances are it will take a few tries at a new Judge, but it always feels exhilarating to see it explode and drop a bunch of items before you warp into the next world.

I had fumbled my way through a few times to the second world after defeating the first Judge, and weakened (no full health or ammo at beating them) for my first forays. I could see the progress though, as I soon expected to make it up to the first Judge, and then to consistently (but not always) beat it and make it further in the next world. I whooped with joy when I beat the second Judge, somehow finding a sweet spot where I took little damage and bashed and shot my way to the end. It is certainly possible to defeat anything by just executing well, but for me I find the key lies in doing well getting up to the Judge: having a good amount of health, special attack and gun locked and loaded, and not falling prey to simple mistakes which leave Khyra battered before the real fight even begins.

All this is to say the game is built on skill, more than run away combos and the like. As you progress and unlock abilities like screen-wide attacks, saving blood upon death, extra health, bullet deflection, and more, it gets a bit easier. You get more tools. But likewise, later stages up the ante in enemy health, attacks, number, and each different world changes it all up with new enemies and environments. You have to learn, and usually the hard way at the wrong end of a fast (or slow!) energy orb lobbed your way.

There are a fair number (almost 30) of upgrades along the way, which vary between small, but helpful (starting with blood to spend) and a few that can change how you play (bullet deflection). Progress is not very fast for the unlock tree, and so you are left to your own devices. The way to get more blood, items, unlocks, and just plain make it further is by simply getting better.

I have mixed feelings on this overall progression. It is not the most punishing, and the game has some helpful options to ease the difficulty, like extra health items (yes, please), or an NPC dropping a bunch of items at the start if you’ve just had a bunch of bad runs. But I also don’t feel a strong pull to keep going, rather dipping back in for just a little at a time. I’m not turned off by having to start back at the first world each time (runs aren’t long initially), but neither am I excited to try out something new or avenge my previous death as much as you’d expect in this genre. And that’s fine, I don’t need every game to keep me up late at night to try and get just a little further. It continues to grow on me, the better I get, the further I go, and the more I want to test my abilities and push further.

After some time away with other games, I came back for a few runs to capture some gameplay for this review. I expected some rust and to not make it far, but instead I found myself dodging the first Judge’s giant fist attacks, jumping and dashing to then land a flurry of blows. When I would usually try to get in one more slash and end up not being able to dodge in time, this round I was moving fluidly (but not perfectly, as I took a couple of hits in my excitement). I capped off the quickest I’ve beat the Judge by positioning between its giant bullet attack and deflecting them upwards for massive damage and a swift end:

In the next world I thought I was headed for an all too brief run as I played a bit loose and careless, nearly draining all my extra health from the previous stage. At last, just before I had to face the next Judge, I found the blessing room…which had a full health and ammo replenishment option. Yes, please. Unfortunately I met my demise in the next set of stages, playing too close to the pools of acid and mistiming my smash attacks with the many bullets in the air. Looking back, it had all felt much easier than even just a few times previously. I had the basics and the feel, it was now just a matter of executing and pushing on, performing that dance in the air through ever tougher odds.

Where does that all leave us? The early going can be tough, but offset by learning the moves and early unlocks as you beat mini and regular bosses. Still, this game will quickly test your mettle with a steep early learning curve. It is challenging, but I wouldn’t say unfairly so. I’m not great, taking a couple of hours of tries to beat the first world, and a few more for the next (out of 5 or 6 total). I haven’t unlocked all of the skills or the challenge modes.

I keep coming back for more. Rather than try to play for hours on end, I like picking it up for a quick run or two, that might only last 5 or 15 minutes. I know I can do a little better each time, sometimes getting a few lucky upgrades (like lots of extra health or a laser gun filling the screen with bouncing beams of death) or just being in the slash and dash zone. Getting to the end of the game will take longer, but it fits the short burst of action, rather than a longer Dead Cells (or Monster Train) play. Taken by the initial feel and style of ScourgeBringer, as I’ve progressed I’ve been drawn more and more to the challenge and reveling in newfound skill.

After a year and a half in Early Access (I caught the last month of it), ScourgeBringer released on October 21st, including a Linux version. The transition from Early Access saw a nice revamp of the unlock system, where previously each branch was locked behind a main boss, really hampering early progression. There were also additions of story elements, new shops, tweaks to difficulty, more blessings, and lots more.

The Linux version has worked flawlessly for me, no problems and a smooth experience in Steam. I’ve used a controller, though keyboard and mouse is nicely supported as well. The developers are actively making changes and supporting the game. Planned upcoming changes include further adjustments to the difficulty (some sort of auto adjusting system) and requested features like being able to view your run stats. It is great to see developers continuing to tweak difficulty for those of us that aren’t instantly god-like at a game. While it can be difficult to make a fun, fair, and challenging experience for expert players, I think that is all the more difficult at the lower levels.

Knowing it is only my own ability keeping me from getting further, which improves at a steady rate, has kept me going. I don’t give up easily, and ScourgeBringer does enough to egg on that need to improve, a few runs at a time. I’m not sure how long I will last, but I haven’t hit a long plateau yet. If you like a challenge, this will be right up your alley. And if you don’t…the action is good but demands skill. Skill you can learn, one dash (and death) at a time.

ScourgeBringer is available on GOG and Steam for $16.99.

(A special “thanks” to FedEx for delaying delivery of my Valve Index, or else who knows how long until this review would have been done. And more on that soon…)