For further comparison points, Heavy Bullets was also rambled about here.
Ah, Steam’s Early Access system. It has an infamous reputation for hosting a bunch of games that were never truly done that could be viewed to have ripped people off for failing to deliver a finished title. However, some Early Access games lived well in the space and eventually released as a full build. The reality is that the situation was different depending on the developer, and we’ve seen quite a range of titles from Early Access.
Some of those titles include Heavy Bullets—a game made by Terri Vellmann and published by Devolver Digital, which presented a neon, capitalist FPS where every bullet counts—and Fancy Skulls—a strange and mysterious shooter with abstract art.
Both Fancy Skulls and Heavy Bullets have a lot in common with each other. They both took a minimalist approach to 3D art, are roguelike shooters with a first-person perspective, and hold plenty of secrets as you go through each level. They were also both developed in Unity and released in their earliest forms in 2014. But there is one key difference between them: Heavy Bullets survived the Early Access system, and released its full version to the joy of all. Fancy Skulls, on the other hand, never left Early Access, and has languished ever since.
So, let’s take a moment to compare and contrast these two similar games, and ask ourselves: why did one game thrive, while its similar companion did not?
Fancy Skulls had a simple setup. You are a mysterious being with a gun that must navigate various rooms to try and find a way to ascend to the next level. In those rooms is a circle in the center, and once you touch it, enemies spawn. Beat them to leave the room and continue the cycle until you get out, searching for secrets and items along the way. For the story, the developer gave the following summary on Kongregate: “you are the immortal creature who tries to escape from a threasure, where it’s an exponate.” [sic]
The gameplay has an interesting tension and release cycle. I always tip-toe up to the circle, then poke it suuuuuper quick before backing up and fighting the enemies around me. Once I’ve killed them all, I can relax for a moment, then move onto the next room and do it all again. It’s kind of cathartic, honestly.
And that gameplay cycle feels good. There are some rough edges—it’s an Early Access game, after all—but overall, I like shooting stuff. I especially like how enemies explode when they die, leaving abstract chunks of their flesh/parts (some of these enemies are machines, some are not) on the ground. Hell yeah.
Speaking of, the look of this game is also very cool. There’s a low-poly style to the enemies, and even the simple shapes used creates a cool environment. The soundtrack is also ambient noise, adding to the minimalist vibe.
I always had a soft spot for Fancy Skulls—and not just because I’m half-decent at playing it. I like its abstract art, as well as the tense, interesting gameplay, so I was disappointed when the game never really got finished. The developer, tequibo, never even officially commented on why the game was left incomplete. And that’s a shame, because I wanted to see what the full version would look like!
Thankfully, Heavy Bullets is at least a finished product. So let’s explore it for a bit.
In this game, you have a limited number of bullets in your gun, so every single shot counts as you scramble to kill enemies and pick your ammo back up to deal with the next threat. It’s an interesting system, if a bit frustrating at times, and it becomes a bit of a pretty rad resource management experience I may not be good at this game, but I at least respect it.
One thing that’s very different from Fancy Skulls is that Heavy Bullets has theming through its anti-capitalist message. The place where the game takes place, Highrise Hunting Grounds, doesn’t care how many employees die fixing their security bots—they’ll just keep throwing people at the problem until it gets fixed. The sign for the company is also painted with graffiti that’s random each playthrough, reflecting how disgruntled the employees are with their shitty company.
The resource management system also grants a very different feel from Fancy Skulls, though it’s tied into a similar tension and release cycle. You go from room to room, activating encounters (though through opening doors instead of touching a circle). Kill the enemies, move onto the next room, repeat.
There’s also a similar minimalist aesthetic here, though with an amazing looking neon palette. The music, by Doseone, is more intense than Fancy Skulls, with a nice electronic sound. The game’s Steam page defines it as “stealthy yet savage,” which describes this game very nicely. All in all, I’m a fan of this one.
What other ways are Heavy Bullets and Fancy Skulls similar? Well, both have implemented shopping systems important for advancing. Both have a geographical, simple aesthetic that I can really appreciate. The shooting in both games feel pretty good—annihilating my enemies feels pretty badass. As they’re both roguelikes, you have to go through the entire game without dying in order to reach the true ending, with the expectation of learning about the game’s mechanics, their enemies, and their systems on repeated playthroughs. And man, is that rewarding.
As for why Heavy Bullets thrived while Fancy Skulls did not, the answer to that is fairly simple: Heavy Bullets ended up getting backing by a publisher, Devolver Digital, and Terri Vellmann was contractually obligated to finish their game. On the other hand, Fancy Skulls was made by (as far as I can tell) a solo developer named tequibo, and had no such pressure. Maybe Fancy Skulls didn’t make enough money for them to work on it further, or maybe they simply moved on with their life.
Whatever the case, Fancy Skulls is still stuck in Early Access limbo, seven years after its initial release.
(Also, sidenote: tequibo is now making NFTs and blockchain art on Twitter, which really bums me out. Talk about never meet your heroes…)
But how do games get this kind of publisher aid, anyway? Well, it seems to start and end with Terri Vellmann, the developer. Heavy Bullets was originally made for the 7 Day FPS Challenge, which put his name out there in the gaming world.
This was Vellmann’s first commercial project, and while I couldn’t find any information as to why Devolver Digital signed on to publish Heavy Bullets, it is known that Devolver did (and still does) have a knack for working with creators of strange games. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the two forces teamed up.
In addition to this, Heavy Bullets didn’t need much more development time until it reached its 1.0 update and left Early Access; it only took from May to September of 2014. Vellmann described the game as “close to finished,” in his first update on Steam.
(In the editor’s opinion, it didn’t seem like much of a risk to take in Devolver’s eyes.)
Contrast this with Fancy Skulls. It was only tequibo’s first game at the time (his second project, box life, wouldn’t be released until 2016), and was/still is more of an alpha build, a shell of what the game could be. It would need a lot more time and work to get to the 1.0 stage, and though tequibo did put effort into it for a while, the game was eventually abandoned. It’s a shame things ended like this, but sometimes, that’s just how it goes.
So there you have it: Fancy Skulls and Heavy Bullets. One dead Early Access product, and one that survived the system. They’re interesting games to compare, that’s for sure. And a small part of my heart is still holding out for a final release of Fancy Skulls, though the logical part of my brain is pretty sure that ain’t happening anytime, ever.
Ah well. I hope you enjoyed reading about these two titles, at least. Perhaps I’ll return to these developers in the future—I’d love to write a review of boxlife and High Hell. But for now, let me know what you think the games I talked about today—I want to hear your input on them! Did you play them back in 2014?