Killer Chambers

A game by Village Bench for PC and Linux, originally released in 2019.
We don’t talk about it much these days, but memorization was once a key aspect in completing many of the most renowned action games. It wasn’t enough to just master the mechanics and react quickly; a significant factor for success was foreknowledge of enemy placement and boss attack patterns. With few checkpoints – or none at all – and limited continues, failure meant repeating large chunks of the game, and this repetition aided in memorization.

Killer Chambers revives this mentality, requiring near-perfect execution in each level, with failure sending the player back to try it again. The game takes place in a series of tiny rooms where arrows and other projectiles shoot out from the walls, requiring the player dodge them. The limited confines leave little room to maneuver and even less room for error, with a single misstep resulting in the player character exploding in a spray of blood that coats the surrounding area.

You take on the role of a fellow referred to as Brave Lord. One day, as he is sitting down to dinner, a villager enters his home and tells him that the king has been killed by an unknown enemy. The brave lord heads toward the palace where he meets up with a ghost called Lord Grave who informs him that the place is full of traps to ward off those who would come for the crown. As he is explaining this, an arrow fires, killing the brave lord on the spot... but fortunately, he has a special ability that allows him to spring back to life. This is indicative of the kind of silly humor that permeates the experience as the brave lord attempts to survive the traps, defeat the enemies that have invaded the palace, and become king.

The player is able to walk, duck, crawl, jump, and perform a low hop in the form of a ducking jump, and he has a fair amount of midair direction control to better help him dodge projectiles. The player is precisely two blocks high - or one block high while ducking - which clearly communicates the amount of space he has to maneuver. Upon entering each room, a blood-filled hourglass is turned, and the player must survive an onslaught of projectiles until hourglass has drained. Getting hit by projectiles kills the player and sends him back to the start of the level, but the pattern is the same on each attempt.

At the beginning of the game, there is only one type of projectile: wooden arrows with metal tips that move at a medium speed. The tip of each arrow emerges from the wall for a brief moment before firing, giving a heavy “clunk” sound to warn the player, followed by another sound when the arrows are actually fired. These sounds help the player to get his timing right, creating something of a rhythm that informs the player when he is free to reposition himself and when he needs to dodge the next volley of arrows. While some levels offer a faster pace, the pace within levels does not change.

Patterns start out fairly easy, with just one or two arrows firing at a time, but eventually they reach the point where there my only be one safe place to stand in the room to avoid being killed. Then, in the second area, the player is introduced to slow-firing arrows which require a different timing. Then these arrows are mixed in with regular arrows to create challenges where the player must dodge the regular arrows while being mindful of one slow-moving arrow that’s still flying across the room, which creates temporary safe spaces. Later, the player is introduced to fast-moving arrows, projectiles that split when they hit a wall, projectiles that fire at 45 degree angles, lasers that stretch across the screen, and even projectiles that fire directly toward the player’s position.

The game uses projectile patterns in such a way that they have a bit of predictability that can help the player survive a few extra volleys without having the patterns committed to memory. In a clever design choice, many patterns come in pairs where a certain pattern fires off and then the same pattern fires again, but mirrored horizontally or vertically. Also, some patterns may force the player to retreat to a corner, and the pattern that follows starts in that corner and then chases him back to the other side, keeping the action lively and giving the player a feeling of accomplishment as he uses his reaction time and wits to escape… and sometimes the game screws with the player by creating an identical pattern with one extra arrow to subvert the expected behavior.

The palace is made up of five themed floors, each offering nine chambers followed by a boss encounter. This makes for 45 individual levels, but the game has a layered system that offers three tiers of difficulty for each room. By default, clearing out a room simply grants a key to enter the next adjacent room. However, the player has the option to re-enter the room to take on a tougher set of challenges, rewarding coins in return. Entering the room a third time presents the player with an even tougher challenge and a faster pace, granting gems for completion. As such, players may opt to simply move from one room to the next to complete the game, or players who opt in for tougher challenges can earn currency to purchase items and hats to help them on their adventure.

Each floor of the palace contains one or two shops where the player can spend coins to buy support items, or spend gems to buy hats. Support items come in many forms, allowing players to temporarily disable certain types of projectiles, destroy projectiles in the air, become temporarily invincible, or freeze time for a moment. Players can only take one type of item into a level, but they can stock multiples of the same item to use them more than once inside the chamber. Also, some items only affect certain types of projectiles (as noted in their descriptions). For instance, the magnet only works on projectiles that contain metal and has no effect on magic projectiles or lasers.

The only way to get more items is to earn more coins, which may be done by completing new levels on the second difficulty tier for four coins, replaying previous levels on the same tier for two coins, or replaying previous levels on the third difficulty tier for four coins. Completing a level without getting your hat knocked off also grants four coins. Items are fairly inexpensive, so players can stock up on those of their choosing, and each shop offers a different selection. Players are free to return to previous floors to visit shops or replay levels as desired.

Hats (or masks) may only be purchased by using gems, and the player only earns two gems for completing a level on the highest difficulty tier, after which he cannot replay levels to earn more. Hats cost 8-10 gems, so it can take a while to save up for them… but defeating a boss also grants eight gems, so the player can pick up a few hats during the normal course of play. Hats are added permanently to the player’s collection and may be selected between levels, and there are 12 in total. These include hats that protect the player from a single hit of damage within the level, the ability to crawl more quickly, and even a Viking helmet that lets the player stick to the ceiling, giving him an additional tool in his projectile-dodging repertoire.

Despite the player character’s uncanny ability to spring back to life after a bloody dismemberment, the game is not without penalties for death. Each time the player is killed, a purple meter fills a bit, and after 100 deaths (they add up fast!), the player is cursed and must survive a cursed room before he can return to the main game. Cursed rooms operate similarly to standards ones, and there are a limited number of cursed room patterns, so the player must simply dodge projectiles as he normally would until the hourglass runs down.

Gameplay doesn’t change significantly throughout the experience, since the player encounters the same selection of room patterns again and again, with projectile types being the major difference between them. The same cannot be said for boss encounters, however, which rely less on memorization and more on reaction time. For instance, the first boss is a stone block, and the player must lure it to dash toward him, dodging out of the way in time to cause the block to smash into the wall and damage itself slightly. All the while, arrows fire across the room, requiring the player to dodge them – or use the stone block as cover – and survive until the block is destroyed.

Killer Chambers was developed by Village Bench, a studio based in Italy. The studio is comprised of a pair of brothers, with Pietro Orlandi credited with programming, art, and game design, and Carlo Orlandi credited with art, game design, and level design. Music for the game was composed by Rob Overseer.