Thoughts on Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils (Steam Next Fest 2022 Demo)

It’s time once again to indulge in a whole lot of video games—indie games, that is. Steam’s Next Fest is currently ongoing, and goodness gracious, I have quite a few games to cover (20+). The screams dwelling within to take on far, far more than I can chew is again asserting its presence. What better way to start than with Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils, a game developed by Colorgrave, responsible for 2020’s Prodigal (a personal favorite of mine).

Quick structure disclaimer: Given this (and all the others) is only a demo, I won’t be too in-depth with my coverage, and will only reflect on the good and the bad. No overly long personal history or filibuster. No nonsense. That said, I will provide a synopsis for the game below.

Game Summary

Help Belle the acrobat and Chime the living bell recover her kidnapped boyfriend from her rival Bonnie, who has suddenly returned with strange new abilities and a crew of trouble making, graffiti loving skeletons! It’s up to Belle to take Bonnie’s new crew head on and get her boyfriend back!

Steam page

The Good

In the words of former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé: “The game, is fun.”

Without question, there is a considerable amount of polish and care taken in formulating the mechanics and level design of Curse Crackers. Even beyond the bare minimums, Belle herself takes full advantage of her acrobatic title through movement capabilities. She can jump and fling herself great distances with ease, so long as the player is aware of it. (More on that later.)

A considerable amount of attention was likely placed on speedrunning. Belle herself has a specific maneuver where she’ll shoot herself forward a considerable distance, and this can be repeated to one’s pleasure. The levels themselves, generally speaking, are also open and easily navigable. How fulfilling it is to carve out a specific path and blaze alight like an approaching comet, akin to the kind of adrenaline present in, say, Sonic the Hedgehog.

I’m sure this will end well.

This is more appreciable by how smooth the controls handle. Save one thing that I’ll discuss soon, there was absolutely no issue in getting Belle to behave as I wished her to. Intriguing it is to consider how Colorgrave would go about this, seeing as Prodigal was a lot more rigid in its movement. Fortunately, Curse Crackers flows as needed and more, with a variety of different tactics to navigate levels for those more creatively minded.

Finally, the overall artistic merit remains a considerable plus. Prodigal already established the finesse and quality of pixel art capable from the team, but Curse Crackers has far more flow (thus far). The game is trying to go for a “GameBoy Color” feel with the color scheme and aesthetic, which is achieved beautifully. Expressive and vivid in its desire to build both old and new, it manages to bridge the balance without any hassle.

Most specifically, however, I must provide kudos to just how active this game feels. Characters move around so naturally, in particular enemies, bosses, and Belle. With so wide an arsenal of jumps and launches, Belle manages to capture the essence of her circus roots by contorting herself appropriately. Such emphasis on detail, spliced within the frenetic nature of gameplay, is wholly appreciated.

Balloon bell.

The Bad

This first point is actually something I’ve criticized this team for before. Upon booting up the file for the game, one is immediately treated to a sweeping, epic-like chronicle of history up to that point. Talk of dragons and scales manifesting into humanoid figures waging war with one another. Then it cuts to a rather benign point, with Belle sleeping in her home and being awoken by someone outside (a Shantae reference, perhaps?).

Throughout the demo, one can come across seemingly inconsequential collectibles that permeate “deeper importance.” Swords hidden in colorless rooms; pages of indecipherable text; mages with little significance to Belle’s plight. One comes into contact with these things and are forced to simply assume that it will all make sense… eventually.

It’s clear that Colorgrave is adamant in creating a looming, larger story in the foreground for players to piece together on their own. Many areas, slightly out of sight, likely house some sort of clue for what may eventually become more relevant. Or maybe it won’t. My fear is that their ambition to make something so large will come to dilute the already charming energy of a straightforward adventure.

Practice in the home!

To clarify, I am not suggesting they they shouldn’t focus on developing secret lore behind the action of the game. I only hope that it doesn’t end up alienating players with a sense of frustration that nothing will come of collecting all of these currently useless things. My first encounter with the sword in the colorless room had me curious; coming into contact with the dozens of other things found via careful exploration left me more exasperated. “Okay, I get it. Lots of secret stuff for later.”

Somewhat on a similar vein is the manner of presentation of new information. A few things are admittedly nitpicky, but for the status of a demo, it tends to accumulate more aptly. To start with one such thing, sometimes advancing text will provide wholly new text and sometimes it will just advance a line. This threw me off a few times and made it kind of hard to focus on what characters were saying. Text scroll would be nice, or perhaps just consistency in dialogue advancing.

Perhaps less whiney in nature, I also found it hard to really connect with the more apparent story and characters with the nature of its introduction. Belle and her surrounding cast are simply introduced—they already know one another and do little to provide droplets of info to give the player context on how they know each other. Often times, I would come across characters and think to myself, “Hello, person. Who are you again?”

Hello, person. Who are you again?

There are some indications of background sprinkled into information, particularly from… uh, tutorial character, that give context on Belle. She used to be in the circus, therefore providing reasonable assurance of why she’s so acrobatic. But few others have this same benefit. Curse Crackers would benefit greatly from some measure of build-up or introduction, allowing the player to connect to new persons through necessary information.

To wrap this up, the tutorial leaves out a lot of information about the game’s deeper mechanics. It provides information on jumping, running, calling back one’s bell, crawling, and using items. It does not specify that one can use the bell to bounce oneself, press down-jump to do a higher jump, the aforementioned super propel launch, among others. Almost as though the team is challenging the player to experiment and figure it out for themselves.

While I have little issue with this, personally (self-discovery is generally satisfying for me), others may call foul. Perhaps expanding the tutorial to include an “advanced tactics” wing or more content would be more beneficial to those of all skill levels. Many of the secret areas discoverable in stages require some knowledge of these more creative movements to access. I could see it as more “fair” to at least provide all players the tools to create, while challenging them to build.

What shall you do with this tool?

That “super propel launch” is also the one part of movement that remains finicky to me. To activate it, you must hold diagonal-down and jump, but within a certain timeframe (that is, quickly, but not too quickly). Difficult to get this down consistently, I think it’d be better served if it was mapped to a trigger button (I play on controller). Maybe one of the shoulder buttons? Or perhaps I missed something else and that’s actually possible…

Conclusion

While I have issues with the way the game is introduced and how excitedly it lays down the pieces of a bigger whole, it remains a very fun experience that it well worth trying out. I look forward to the full release (whenever that may be) and seeing how Colorgrave goes about all the trinkets of something more. I have full confidence if Prodigal is any indication.

Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils has a demo you can play now on Steam. (Link under “Game Summary.”)

If reading this compelled you to give me a dollar, feel free to tip me on Ko-fi.

Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.

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