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Helskate's a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater-meets-roguelike with good ideas, but its Steam Next Fest demo left me feeling like it can't land its combos yet

 The protagonist of Helskate, a skating game meets roguelike, swerves towards a cocky-looking villain wielding a spectral bird.
The protagonist of Helskate, a skating game meets roguelike, swerves towards a cocky-looking villain wielding a spectral bird.

I was pretty excited about Helskate—though after trying its Steam Next Fest demo, I'm not sure it's really pulled its disparate parts together in the way it needs to. Not yet, anyway—it's a pre-early access glimpse at what its devs have been cooking, so there's still room for improvement.

I had a big soft spot for the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (THPS) line of skating games when I was a tyke—part of the draw was chaining together a sick combo, getting into a flow state, and ripping through a level like a god on wheels. A solid THPS stage guides you from one area to the next, giving you patches of playgrounds to sow together with your tricks.

An array of abilities to use in Helskate, a skating-game-meets-roguelike by Phantom Coast.
An array of abilities to use in Helskate, a skating-game-meets-roguelike by Phantom Coast.

Helskate is absolutely a THPS game with combat stuck to the deck—the controls are almost identical. The only spanner in the wheels is that you're being attacked by demons. Your R1 and R2 shoulder buttons (you should probably be playing this on a controller, it's a THPS game) are replaced by swings of a katana.

You'll also unlock tapes, stickers, and gear that grant you special abilities. For instance, one upgrade let me fire swarms of homing missiles whenever I did an indy grab. Other effects are passive, like a damage buff to your next attack whenever you pull off a specific grind. This all sounds pretty tubular in theory, dude. Radical, even. Though the reality left me feeling unsure of what Helskate actually wanted me to do.

The problem I ran into is this: THPS is all about flow, but roguelikes are typically about weighing risk and reward, managing a limited supply of health while you brawl through a level with defence on your mind. Even action-heavy roguelikes such as Hades demand you balance aggression and evasion.

Helskate wants you to tear asphalt, but it also wants you to stop and fight some guys. You get a dash and a lock-on function that lets you zag away from your tricks to deal with some demons, but any attempts to weave brawling with skating left me with a headache. I couldn't just leave the demons alone, though. More than once, some giant bird monster would lunge from off-screen and smash me into bits while I was doing a Christ Air. And that's just bad park etiquette, really.

As it stands, enemy telegraphs struggle to scan. There's floor markers and warning beams, but the little buggers crop up in strange places—and for the most part, they're silent. Solid sound design would've gone a long way to giving the player some more situational awareness but alas, I quickly found myself having to knock over enemies before I could focus on pulling combos, which sort of feels like admitting defeat. Helskate can't just become a chain of decent THPS levels that you can play once you've done some decent action-skater combat—because that's two games, not one.

An image of the death screen in Helskate, where the protagonist is yanked to hell by a chain with the words
An image of the death screen in Helskate, where the protagonist is yanked to hell by a chain with the words

Part of this could be a skill issue. While I still have a bit of muscle memory left from the good ol' days, the THPS formula is fast-moving by nature, so if you're not fluent in manuals you're going to suffer. There's potentially a lot to enjoy here if you can blitz through Downtown with your eyes closed and want an extra challenge, though. I'm just not sure if comfort with Helskate's core controls would address its current design bummers.

I can't shake this feeling that indie dev Phantom Coast is trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. Working enemies into the fabric of THPS is a good idea, but there's too much of an emphasis on avoiding damage. If you try to play fast and aggressive, pulling off big combos out the gate, you'll get demolished. There's no real incentive to nail the longest, sickest chain while killing enemies.

Helskate does, however, make me feel like there's a version of the game that spins those plates well. Perhaps getting a high score should be your primary way of healing—and that could become your go-to move once the game enters early access February 15 and we get a better idea of its progression mechanics. It could even be something the devs pivot to in a later revamp: early access is early access, after all. Still, a demo is an elevator pitch: and right now, Helskate feels like it's umming and ahhing.

I don't want it to, mind—because I do think there's a nugget of a good idea here. Everything else about Helskate screams potential, and I'm a fan of its acid candy aesthetics already. I just want its mechanics to drag me into that classic THPS flow without having to play demon clean-up detail first.