The next indie platforming hit?
If you’ve ever looked at early ‘90s first-person-shooters and thought, “I wish this tech was applied to a 3D platformer,” then boy do I have a game for you. Demon Turf’s eye-catching visual hook is its combination of 2D sprite work in a fully 3D platformer. This immediately brought to mind two questions for me. Is there substance behind the bold artistic choices? And would a 2D sprite be able to convey the tactile feedback necessary for a fluid and satisfying 3D platformer?
The story of Demon Turf follows Beebz as she sets off on a quest to take down the big bosses of various demonic factions, and in so doing claim their turf. Each turf has its own general theme: a beach, a futuristic city, etc. But even within these themes, levels are extremely varied. For example the beach area features not only sand and underwater segments, but a factory level that exists purely to pump poison into the ocean. Levels bounce between extremely linear and more open and exploratory. In each one, the goal is to reach a battery which must be collected to access a given turf’s boss fight. Hidden in each stage are optional sweets that can be redeemed for optional character upgrades and other bonuses.
All of Demon Turf’s characters and enemies (outside of some boss characters) are composed entirely of 2D sprites. Characters are drawn from multiple angles and flip between them as the camera changes perspective. It is a style that feels very similar to something like Doom, though obviously in an extremely different context. The environments themselves meanwhile are large fully 3D playgrounds with tons of visual variety. What makes these environments work as well as they do is your moveset. Demon Turf understands the importance of movement and momentum better than a lot of indie 3D platformers I’ve played. Beebz has a simple moveset, but one that can be strung together in a lot of different ways. This opens up Demon Turf’s level design to some fun shortcuts for creative players, and it seems as though the developers actively encourage finding and making use of these exploits. For example, Beebz can do a sort of dive roll out of a spin jump, and I realized in one stage that when Beebz hits a slope and begins sliding, it resets her wall jump. By coming out of a wall jump and going directly into a dive roll back towards the slope, I could essentially infinitely climb a piece of geometry and skip a section of the level. This didn’t break the level but it did cut a significant amount of time off the progression. That being said, I did wind up going back anyway to get a collectible I had missed. As the game progresses, Beebz’s moveset is augmented with additional items such as a grapple hook and a Sonic the Hedgehog-style spin dash. Perhaps the most interesting feature unique to Demon Turf is its checkpoint system. There are no pre-set checkpoints (except during boss fights); rather the player can set a checkpoint whenever they please. The catch is that you only have a limited number of checkpoints to place in each stage, and you can’t go back and get rid of old ones. So after every difficult platforming challenge you’ll question whether to drop a checkpoint, or see if you can make it a little further. It is an interesting way to provide a somewhat adaptable difficulty, and challenge-seeking players will no doubt want to complete stages without using a single one.
I initially had some concerns that 3D platforming with a 2D sprite may cause some depth perception issues as most of Beebz’s hitbox is essentially invisible, indicated only by her shadow on the ground. While it took a little getting used to at first, I generally felt like I had a good sense of where Beebz was at all times. The only instance where I did feel this element of design became an issue was in combat. Combat in Demon Turf is based around stunning enemies with a spin attack or jumping on their heads, then using ranged attacks that push them back into walls of spikes or off the side of the stage. However I had some difficulty lining up jumps and spin attacks between two flat characters; other times I realized too late that my own hit box had gotten too close to the spikes, causing an instant death. The combat system in general feels somewhat tacked on to otherwise great 3D platforming. It never felt appropriate to take a break from exciting platforming to stand in a small area, slowly pushing enemies into spikes, before I’d be allowed to continue on. The slight awkwardness of hit detection only served to highlight this weakness. Boss fights, on the other hand, tend to fare a bit better. These feel less forced into the middle of stages and more intentionally designed. They also make great use of the new abilities Beebz gains in each area. While still not as good as the platforming itself, the bosses are generally well structured, and feature a great combo of 2D and 3D art to make up the giant enemies.
As for the Switch port itself, it is largely good news with a few caveats. The distinctive visual style and most of the more interesting visual features such as volumetric lights and rampant parallax occlusion maps are present and accounted for. While this may look like simple cartoons plastered onto basic geometry, there are a lot of fun visual tricks taking place just below the surface. That’s not even to mention the soundtrack which has a grungy, strange, urban techno style. Think Splatoon but weirder, with maybe a bit more of a disco vibe. The presentation is excellent and the Switch mostly delivers on it. Some low resolution textures do make it pretty close to the camera before finally popping to full detail, but your attention is generally focused a bit closer. The more serious problem is that of frame rates, particularly during some more hectic moments. The worst of these I encountered was during a boss fight in which you needed to use a new item to chase him down a course as he tossed projectiles back at you. The pure chaos of the scene caused a sustained drop in performance that made the already fast-paced action a bit more difficult.
Demon Turf is at its best when it is providing complex platforming challenges. Its movement system is intuitive yet adaptive enough to provide plenty of options and satisfying shortcuts for adventurous players. It stumbles a bit through its combat but ultimately always comes back to platforming. Boss fights, while not incredible, are better than other combat encounters and showcase some incredible art. The performance on Switch is largely great, but when it hits a snag it tends to do so at the worst possible time. But for the rest of the time it’s a great looking, great sounding, and great-playing 3D platformer. This is one of those games where despite some flaws, you’ll find yourself returning to old worlds to clean up every last collectible as you work your way up the demon ladder.