Category Archives: Indie Games

You Should Probably Play Her Story

Her Story

Tomorrow you’re going to say the last time you were moved by a game was today. Her Story is a totally strange, odd little bird of a thing that compels you to move forward through a haze with an unstated promise of clarity on the other side. And that’s the prize of it all: getting lost in the maze is just as fascinating as the truth is shocking.

Her Story is the latest from Sam Barlow, the fellow behind the equally unique and compelling Aisle and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In it, you attempt to unearth the truth behind a 1994 mystery wherein a woman is interviewed over the course of several conversations with the police regarding her missing husband.

Those interviews are broken up into little 15-second chunks (some are even shorter at three or four seconds) of FMV footage that you’ll have to search for using an exceedingly simple computer interface, one purposefully emulating the experience of using Windows 3.1 and the like. It’s a database search of all the conversations you have with this woman and is kicked off with a simple query: murder.

It’s remarkable how this fragmented memory, distributed amongst over 200 clips, works so well to push the player forward into believing they are being clever. It’s a fascinating design because to find more clips, you have to search for words and phrases into the computer. But only five are returned at a time, though many more may contain the query.

Searching for “you” or “I,” for instance, will land you with too many results. You have to really pay attention to both what this woman is saying and how she says it to find the right thing to ask for. You’ll start off casually tagging videos with things that pique your interest, but eventually you’ll have you nose to the screen and drowning in questions.

It’s a design that amazingly makes you feel like you are discovering things just as well as if you weren’t along a set of likely paths determined by Barlow. Picking up on phrases or themes that this woman seems to obsess over or land particularly heavy on or pauses after gives you such a thrill to chase.

Her Story

I can only imagine it’s what dogs must feel seeing so many cars to chase. Where are they going? What are they? Why are they? I guess I’ll just have to catch one to find out. But in this case it was seeing locations and names whizz by, my tail wagging as I anticipated in running down all of them. It’s tantalizing as it frustrating, knowing I’ll pass by so many curious invitations just to accept another one.

The fact that you’ll be piecing together across several days and stories makes the whole process cerebrally intensive and all the more rewarding when you finally understand how it all fits together. There’s a sense of inevitability across the whole endeavor, as you dip from assumption to conclusion while avoiding the truth.

A lot of that has to do with the woman’s performance. She (Viva Seifert) is endearing and disturbing and grotesque and beautiful and terrifying and warming and everything in between as she recounts her childhood, her marriage, and her husband’s disappearance. There are several clips that even in their short runtimes are some of the most…unnerving things I’ve ever seen.

Her Story

Even if you don’t play games, you should give this a whirl. Hell, watch someone else play it and tag along for the ride; it’s great in co-op, too. Barlow says, “If you can Google, you can play Her Story,” and it’s a worthwhile ride. For six dollars (on sale for five right now), just give Her Story a chance.

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Ori and the Blind Forest Review: Spirited Ablaze

Ori and the Blind Forest

The only time I ever got truly angry with Ori and the Blind Forest was when it ended. Not because it was over but because it wouldn’t let me back in. I’d spent the past six hours exploring the breathless beauty of the world crafted by Moon Studios and I’d unexpectedly been locked out of what I’d worked so hard for. But even then, it was oh so worth it.

This is certainly an overwhelmingly gorgeous game, but first you should know what lies under the immaculate skin. Ori and the Blind Forest is a side-scrolling action platformer where you play as Ori, a little white catlike…thing that was shaken loose from the Spirit Tree. Adopted by the bubbly and friendly Naru, the pair live together until the Spirit Tree takes a turn for the worse and, well, you’ll see.

Either way, Ori now has to set out to save the forest with the help of another tiny bonus spirit called Sein. As you travel across the vibrant world to restore the purity of the life-sustaining trees of the realm, you’ll find other shrubbery of varying degrees of spirituality and learn new moves.

You’ll get, for instance, the ability to run up walls and explode in a ball of energy and much more. The best thing is that in true Metroidvania style, these moves don’t just encourage you to backtrack and open up new areas but instead are both viable and necessary in combat.

Between trekking across your old stomping grounds with a new perspective on enemies and obstacles and figuring out how to best defeat new foes by integrating your fresh repertoire, you need to be on your toes constantly. It’s not that you can’t get by through just hammering away at your Spirit Flame (your basic attack that shoots out homing balls of, uh, spirit fire, I guess) but that it doesn’t serve your best interests. You will get ripped to shreds, and even if you do survive, it’s not in a state you’d want to proceed with.

Ori, you see, can collect a lot of different things. There are ability orbs that enable you to enhance your abilities among a three-pronged skill tree and there are shards that restore your energy and health and pickups that earn you bonus health and energy slots. And you’re going to need all of them because this is a brutal game.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Such as is any game that warrants keeping track of your deaths. (I managed to slip by with 162.) But the brilliance of Ori and the Blind Forest—or rather, one of the brilliant decisions unearthed in its runtime—is that the energy you use for your most potent attack and clearing paths is also used for saving your game, and if you play your cards right, restoring health.

It’s such a tight economy that, even if you wanted to skate by with the aforementioned mashing of the Spirit Flame attack, you wouldn’t want to. That would just make your next run even more difficult. This forces you to integrate your new moves into your fighting strategies to remain viable. For instance, the Bash move can hurt enemies but it can also redirect projectiles and provide you with breathing room to reassess any situation.

The game even manages to put twists on things you would otherwise just start feeling comfortable with. Instead of using Bash to attack, for instance, you’ll have to use it to navigate over boiling, almost endless pits of lava. And then, just when you get the hang of that, you have to use it to both traverse more lava and kill the same enemies that enable you to avoid a fiery death. (It reminds me of the masterful safe-danger-twist design of Super Mario 3D World.)

Ori and the Blind Forest

And it does so in such a perfectly demanding way that you can’t help but throw yourself at it again and again after even your seventh or eighth death in a row. Do you remember that level of LittleBigPlanet where you had to outrun the Skulldozer? Or the end of New Super Mario Bros. Wii where you navigate around some tricky platforms all while lava is chasing you? There’s some of that (and more) and it’s all done masterfully. This is such a tight and responsive game that it feels good to even simply try one more time.

Aside from the gameplay, there is so much to love about Ori and the Blind Forest. The story itself, established through swift movement and wordless yet complete and effective characterization and then mostly told the rest of the way through embedded exposition, is not about good versus evil but instead more nuanced than that. The motivations are clear, which leaves the results understandable but saddening nonetheless.

Oh, and is it clear yet that this is a stunningly gorgeous game? This is truly concept art come to life. There’s so much color imbued in every screen you come across. Even in the dilapidated swamp before it is restored to its properly flourishing and bright self is somehow inviting. And being overcome by deadly rising tides and quickly encroaching walls of fire is a pleasure to the eyes.

Ori and the Blind Forest

If it isn’t clear by now, you should play Ori and the Blind Forest. A friend of mine is even putting up with playing it on a keyboard (even though the platforming basically requires analog controls) to see it to the end. It looks amazing, plays even better, and tells a wonderfully heartstring-tugging story to boot. Get on your grind and start playing Ori and the Blind Forest, like, right now.

+ Remixes already original and innovative skill sets into doubly new and interesting sequences
+ Undeniably beautiful art and animation
+ Characters tell a clear and heartfelt story through their actions and motivations
+ Demands just the right amount from you within its expansive and solid framework

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Ori and the Blind Forest

Game Review: Ori and the Blind Forest
Release: March 11, 2015
Genre: 2D action platformer
Developer: Moon Studios
Available Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.oriblindforest.com/

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You Should Probably Play 80 Days

80 Days

On the route from literature to video games, few seem as poised for the transformation as Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. It’s a classic tale from a classic writer, and all of it points to a classic setup for an interactive interpretation. With a wager setting a hard time limit and an impetus to experience new locations in that timeframe, what better than this for inkle studios to take and turn into 80 Days.

Of course, that bit of inciting action wherein Phileas Fogg takes up a wager to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days with nothing more than his servant Jean Passepartout and a presumably stout mustache in tow isn’t nearly as important as the execution. And 80 Days executes on the premise wonderfully. By putting you in the shoes of Passepartout and removing the inessential or irrelevant parts of the objective, the game opens itself up to a much more interesting system of storytelling mechanics.

For instance, the original challenge was brought about by the trans-Indian railroad, a technological innovation that allowed travel from Bombay to Calcutta in three days. (There’s also the bit about an Indian princess and Thuggee cultists.) Impressive, but it locks the pair into a much more insular experience. Inkle saw fit, instead, to throw in a massively spidering web of possibilities to get from place to place and focuses on a decidedly different and steampunky world seen through Passepartout’s eyes.

At its core, 80 Days is about resource management. With time, money, and health all working against you as you singlehandedly attempt to arrange this worldly trip (like, get off your ass, Fogg, and help me), you have to spin several plates at once while the game actively tries to topple them. And you never know when something you do is going to make your life better or worse.

That is the crux of what makes 80 Days so interesting. At the very opening of the game, you are faced with a decision to either lie or come clean. And that’s where you are shown the fourth resource: your relationship with Fogg. Your decisions on this trip will either enhance or degrade his opinion of you, showing you as an unreliable mess or an uninteresting fool or a wholly self-sufficient and wise companion.

It rouses a similar feeling to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, but with the temporal pressure spread out over an entire journey rather than moment-to-moment, which strangely enough makes every branch that much more anxiety-ridden. With zombies and the always immediate goal of survival, choices often felt like less like a choice and more like a necessity. But with Passepartout, picking how to respond to Fogg and the strangers you meet on your travels feels infinitely more consequential.

80 Days

Instead of knowing your choice will result in someone living or dying, it’s more akin to real life. When you go about the daily world, you never know what decision will come back and bite you in the ass or simply pass off as another flowing, uninterrupted part of your contiguous life. The same goes with this game where the things you choose to say and do may or may not result in anything of note. You decision to hop a turnstile could just get you to your train on time or it may halt you for several days and land you on Fogg’s bad side.

This setup of obfuscated dominos could have easily been ominous or tedious, but 80 Days is rarely either, at least not in a bad way. If anything, the lazy dread that follows your solitary and potentially monumental decisions are exciting. Every situation could land you in a dozen other new places that you hadn’t planned on or could have even foreseen, but it’s never an inescapable fate. It only serves to broaden your adventure across the globe.

Part of it is that the responsibility is placed entirely in your hands. While some notes come up in your inventory and on timetables of where you can be to get somewhere today or how much a candle is worth in Africa, so much of the earned context of your journey is only retained in your head. With the people you encounter, you realize that taking note of names has the potential to payoff later. Or getting your hands on gear in Russia can help with your trek across the Pacific.

80 Days

The laissez-faire approach to information retention in 80 Days makes each journey feel that much more personal, especially as with each replay, you find or are forced into new routes and unknown territories. Or at least that’s one possibility. A huge part of what makes the game work is the writing. It’s consistently impressive and fits entirely well within the milieu of what the art and the characters establish, but it also allows you to dictate Passepartout’s character.

Choices allow you to make him as well-traveled as you’d like, opening up the potential of him to skip intel gathering in the market and instead pursue more meaningful threads like airship procurement and automata security. As your choices actively meld right back into the written words of the story, it feels as much like you writing the story as it does you reading one that already exists. Simultaneous creation and discovery.

Without a doubt, 80 Days is a game you should definitely play. For all the aliens you’ve shot as a space marine or the cities you’ve saved jumping a car off the top of a skyscraper, this tale of two men finagling their way across the world feels more like an adventure than most of those other grandiose stories combined. Genuine fear, anxiety, excitement, eagerness, and desire, and that’s before you even board the train.

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Bounden and Fun with Strangers

Bounden

Scientists and journalists share a single very importing and wholly defining quality: curiosity. (It’s okay; I have degrees in both fields, so I can say that.) The former want to know how the world works and the latter want to know, well, pretty much everything. It feels like a hair-thin divide that decides where these investigators go in their education and life.

The strange commonality extending from that is that both professions often spend an inordinate amount of time alone with their thoughts. Scientists and engineers have their equations and scratch paper of harried work to keep them company while journalists and writers surround themselves with committed word. Strangely enough, though, half of a journalist’s job is to talk with people—to ask them questions and take a verbal dive into another’s mind.

The reality is that half can (and very often) reduce to a rough 10%. Staring outside your apartment window, sitting at a coffee shop, dabbling an outline in a park. It’s not as if the writing process invites others to join in on it. It usually feels like having a one-sided conversation with yourself. So it’s not surprising that we often jump at any opportunity to mingle, whether with friends or with strangers.

Enter Bounden. Released earlier this year in May, Bounden comes to us from Game Oven, the same studio behind Fingle, one of my other favorite institutionalized invitations to talk to new people. It has the basic premise of building a systemic foundation for getting two people to dance together. You hold between you and your partner a phone and—without letting go—maneuver yourselves and the phone to match positions on a rotating sphere displayed on the screen. (The motion sensor stuff was actually what delayed the Android launch.)

It’s pretty fun, even when you play by yourself. I made it through the first few songs flying solo and had a jolly good time, and I’m sure the people walking into the library had a laugh as well. But obviously, the joy is playing with a friend. However, the problem with a writer’s schedule is that when you need to do work (read: play games) with someone else, mostly everyone else you know that isn’t a writer is in an office from 8 AM to 5 PM.

Luckily, there are tons of people out there that can help. These are the strangers of your life, and they may be ready to jump in and play something like Bounden or Fingle or whatnot with you, but the willing part is somewhat more difficult to bubble up to the surface. Luckily, the trained journalistic tendencies to finding the right questions to ask at any given moment come in really handy here.

Bounden

I went to the local mall since I figured it was summer, maximizing the chances of people on holiday and college kids hanging around. It was a rough go at first. Finding the right kind of person is a challenge in and of itself. The easiest ones to figure out were the ones that gave you the stink eye as you got closer. The harder people to suss out were the ones that were just kind of sitting around. Were they waiting for someone? Were they about to start a shift or just got off of one? Maybe they were tired? Eventually I let the sitting dogs lie. Or sit. Whatever.

This quick education led a quick and rapid succession of rejections. Some were kinder than others. Some were more fear-filled than I would have liked, but I do suppose I’m an odd-looking fellow at 6’3″ with a palm tree-shaped coif, so that might be on me. But then I got my first nibble on the line, my hour of baiting the river finally paying off. A borderline high school/college fellow leaning against a wall, playing with his phone, left there as his girlfriend went into a store.

“Hey there. How’s your day going?”

“Um, pretty good.”

“Interested in playing a new Android game?”

Bounden

Pretty simple and open gamble. The trouble came when I had to explain what the game was. “So this is a game called Bounden. It’s about dancing.” The immediate haze applied to his eyes told me I was losing his interest, but a little follow-up was just enough slack on the line to keep things going. “What were you just playing?”

In that moment, I learned that people still play Angry Birds. But by then, I had fired up the tutorial, had him put his thumb on the screen, and we were well into it. He kept telling me about his love for the furious fowl as we spun and spun, eventually turning into a comparison of his experiences with League of Legends and DotA. It was a surreal experience as eventually people came over to see what we were doing.

With the crowd (can four people make a crowd?), he eased away from playing another song, though I’m sure he weighed that option with dutifully following his girlfriend through another department store pretty heavily. He did, however, admit it was a lot of fun. So I turned to the onlookers and asked if there were any takers.

Bounden

They dispersed, but a woman came up and asked what was going on. Late twenties, maybe early thirties. I described the game to her, and at the mention of the word “dancing,” her eyes lit up. I went on to say that the game was developed in concert with the Dutch National Ballet, and she just said, “Let’s play.”

Even as we went through Grass, the first real song, it was remarkable how smoothly she went through the motions. Myself included, I’ve found that many new Bounden players move with a certain style, which is to say none at all, equivalent to walking up well-lotioned stairs with magnets and rebar for shoes. “Wow, you’re good at this,” I said.

“Oh, well I guess it’s because I have some experience.” Raising my eyebrows, I look at her. (Sometimes silence is the best way to get someone to talk.) “Yeah, I used to do ballet.”

“Used to?” I started up Twirl, a song named rather aptly for all the twirling you’re likely to do. It’s difficulty level even reads “Advanced Twirling.”

“Well, I was part of a small company in Miami, but, you know, I got injured. Now I just teach.” This was said even as we spun and twirled and Twister’d our way around the same 20 square feet of mall tile.

A lovely person with an interesting story. That perhaps describes the majority of the people you see out in the world. A mantra one of my teachers used to tell us (and you’re probably familiar with it) was that everyone knows something you don’t. Whether it’s about their life or some insight into your own, they have something new to say.

It’s vastly more interesting to find out what that new thing is rather than go over the same old thing. Bounden facilitates that discovery. It’s a hard thing to speak personal truth when you’re locked eyes with someone, but holding this game between you, a proxy for social revelations, you might find a bigger truth. Curiosity isn’t the fuel for just scientists and journalists. It’s for everyone.

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Early Edition: Action Henk

Action Henk

While I’m not entirely sure about action figures sporting exposed beer bellies, I am quite positive that RageSquid’s Action Henk is shaping up to be a rather fun time. Having entered Early Access just under a week ago, Action Henk actually made its initial debut as a two-month experiment for an event back in 2012. Its gestation has been well spent, as it is a game to keep your eye on.

Action Henk actually gins up a fair amount of nostalgic gaming sensations, mostly because of its simplicity, though its aesthetic certainly helps. You play as an action figure named Henk and you are to traverse obstacle courses comprised of toy car tracks, wooden blocks, and an imaginary lava floor turned all too real in what appears to be a kid’s room. And for all the challenges to overcome, you are only equipped with the ability to run, jump, and slide on your butt. (You gain gadgets, too, but we’ll get to that later.)

The game’s framework is structured very similarly to something like a Trials game. You pick your figure (variations of the standard Henk or Betsy, the only other playable character in this version), pick your course, and set out to get a bronze, silver, or gold medal. As you earn medals, you unlock more levels as well as the ability to challenge the aforementioned Betsy to unlock her.

Along the way, there are checkpoints, though they’re really only useful when you’re learning a particular level. When you actually get going, the game is wholly about momentum. If you can, you’re better off jumping entirely over small inclines. Sliding down hills on your tush is the best way to build up speed, but sliding otherwise will slow you to a stop.

In the beginning, it’s all about maximizing technique. Instead of holding the jump button, you just tap it so you can catch the top of the decline for even more sliding surface. It’s a mostly addictive exercise, restarting eventually becoming easier than quitting, settling you down for just a few (dozen) more attempts.

The fun (and frustration) really builds when you start racing medal ghosts, learning tricks for shaving off fractions of a second and trying them out yourself. It’s incredibly satisfying when you cognitively understand a somewhat advanced move and then finally pull it off somehow better than the ghost, pushing you to try one more and really tinker with the mechanics of the game.

Action Henk

It all really opens up, however, in the second block of levels when the hookshot gets introduced. It always points forward and towards the ceiling at a 45-degree angle, and with the press of a button, it fires off and sticks until you let go or you hit another surface. It’s quite the interesting tool because instead of you min-maxing the surfaces laid out for you, you now control a device that effectively generates momentum for you.

It really trades height for speed if you use it right, slinging straight with rapid hook releases instead of taking a single, massive swing over an unjumpable chasm. It turns the lax portions of the early stages where you simply run into exciting segments of interaction and engagement. Combining the technical precision offered by its initial simplicity with the freedom of the hookshot is a brilliant move.

But the really crazy thing happens towards the end of the second block of courses (and the completely incomplete WIP chunk where medals and the like haven’t even been implemented): the game gets tricky. Difficult, even. Instead of just figuring out how to get the most speed out of an obstacle, you are figuring out how to just get past it. It’s nice to see a game not afraid to be frank with its deviousness.

Action Henk

In fact, at the end of the WIP levels, there’s an Ultimate Test that is supremely punishing. The first jump, for instance, took me well over a dozen attempts to clear, and that was after the previous few dozen trying to figure out how to even do it. It not only requires incredible precision but a deep understanding of how the game works (and what feels like the teensiest bit of imagination). Someday.

Action Henk, however, is very much an Early Access game. It might even better be called an Earliest Access game. In addition to the entirely experimental block of levels, it also only features those other two tiers. In all, it probably takes about half an hour to run through all of them. Perhaps not master or even do well on all (or any) of them, but you can see everything the game has to offer in under an hour.

For $9.99, that may seem a bit of an absurd offer. And it totally is, but the potential here is significant. After I spent an afternoon running train on its diminutive offerings, I woke up the next day and played it again. It’s a setup that hard to resist, putting the opportunity to master something so close but forcing you to work for it.

Action Henk

Action Henk is set to be in Early Access for six or so months, during which it’ll add more levels, characters, and gadgets. If that intrigues you, then go for it. Personally, I’m interested in seeing where this ends up.

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Shovel Knight Review – Digging It

Shovel Knight

It’s not quite right calling Shovel Knight throwback, though it certainly borrows a lot from the games of yore. Instead, it successfully cherry-picks the bits that you like to remember, cutting the fat of the parts you’d rather forget, and injecting it with a few modern concepts. The resulting mishmash is something that aesthetically fits in the past but stands tall anywhere.

Developed by Yacht Club Games, Shovel Knight started out as a Kickstarter project with the absolute intent of paying homage to the historic 8-bit games of founder Sean Velasco’s youth (and, presumably, many other people’s childhoods as well). It blew well past its $75,000 goal at $311,502 and now we have the successful release of a 2D side-scrolling platformer featuring a knight with a shovel.

In any given level, your goal is to go from one side of the screen to the other, using your shovel to bash enemies in the face, dig up treasure, and bounce off the top of heads, pillars, and pretty much anything, really. This is where the game draws its most direct comparison to the NES DuckTales, the bouncing mechanic directly analogous to Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick. (I suppose, though, that the eight bosses of the Order of No Quarter are rather Mega Many.

The difference, however, is that Shovel Knight makes it so much more than simply bouncing. It is your lifeline in many of the more difficult levels (read: any level), inspiring a puzzle game sensation as you try to figure out how to bounce over spikes, up bushes, and onto enemies in a single move. More often than not, however, you will be making these discoveries of survival tactics as you are doing them.

This is, without a doubt, a punishing game. The second level, for instance, has you already jumping against foregrounds only lit for 0.3 seconds when lighting strikes with single space columns to jump to while ghosts chase you as you try to shovel a skull over to a platform so it can sink enough for you to progress. You will die a lot, but it never quite feels dirty like many genuine 8-bit platformers can.

Much of that rewarding demand of precision can be attribute to the fact that the game handles just so god damn well. This is where it harkens back most heartily to yesteryear, an age of gaming where one button was dedicated to jumping and the other to attacking, and both had to work perfectly or the entire game was worthless. Shovel Knight can often be systemically more complex than any game from NES days and still it hits that level of mechanical quality.

Shovel Knight

It’s important to note that sentiment permeates the entirety of the game. It does not attempt to simply steep in referential humor or gameplay as its sole success but instead makes the key references as inspirations towards gameplay and design. This means it’s not afraid to mix it up with more modern considerations.

For instance, when you die, you are zapped back to the last checkpoint, but a rather sizable portion of your gold is dropped as big bags of collectable money. You have the chance to get it all back, but in a Dark Souls-ish twist, if you die again before doing so, it’s all gone. For good. And given that you likely died unintentionally, it’s going to be tough getting it back.

Of course, dying may just not be in your game plan, and in that case, you can simply destroy the checkpoints. It’s a brilliant scheme where the player more or less chooses his own safety net frequency. When you destroy them, you get a hefty reward, but the checkpoint is rendered inert. It’s absolutely brilliant, rewarding skill and punishing hubris.

Shovel Knight

The rewards, however, are quite worth it, earning new secondary weapons and upgrades. The weapons range from a fireball wand to a very Castlevania-esque throwing axe, each one deserving of a period of discovery, learning the what and how of their operations. It’s an old school notion of initial inscrutability, but it’s also part of the charm of the game, forcing you to explore both the physical and the mechanical spaces.

And then the surface-level success of Shovel Knight is also there. Its visual rendition of the nostalgic 80s and 90s is pitch-perfect, somehow surpassing those that settle for pixel art and nothing more. Granted, the animations and color pallet of the game easily surpass the NES’ capabilities, but the otherworldly combinations of purple and green and strident reds reminds you rather faithfully of what it was like when substitute colors took the place of natural hues.

Oh yeah, and the soundtrack is pretty killer. While we often say the core of a retro-inspired game is far more important than its skin, what we see and hear is vital to the experience as well. But in Shovel Knight‘s case, it succeeds both on the surface and far below where exemplary game design and modern innovations sit atop a choice best-of selection of what we’d prefer to recall from the days of single-digit bits. You should most definitely play Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight

+ Takes a simple mechanic and expands it into an interesting and expandable set of gameplay scenarios
+ Fun world full of intriguing characters and villains
+ Difficult without being frustrating
+ An exceptional blend of old platformer ideals and modern design inspirations
+ Looks great and sounds even better

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Shovel Knight
Release: June 26, 2014
Genre: Side-scrolling platformer
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Available Platforms: PC, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://yachtclubgames.com/shovel-knight/

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Heavy Bullets – Hands-on at E3 2014

Heavy Bullets

Heavy Bullets, while bearing the aesthetics of just another first-person shooter, is quite unique. Sure, you point a gun at things, shoot said things, and watch them die, but one-man developer Terri Vellman has added a fair number of wrinkles that make his game stand out. The question, of course, if whether they are valuable additions.

Entering Early Access on Steam just a couple weeks before E3, Heavy Bullets now has a website replete rather descriptive copy, not least of which includes an incredibly inviting tagline: “Armed with a simple yet stylish revolver and six devastatingly plump bullets, you must reset the security mainframe to restore order and reap the rewards of a job well done.” In reality, you wander through procedurally generated levels with a gun that can only ever fire comically large rounds.

The thing, however, about these bullets is that they are retrievable, which is good because for much of the game, you’ll only ever have six of them. Once expelled, they’ll happily bounce around until you go and pick them up—or abandon them in favor of living to fight another day. This adds a fantastic turn to the traditional FPS where straight dumping often serves you better than precision aiming.

Outside of that, everything about the game is randomized. You’ll wander overwhelmingly tall 80s neon walls in an effort to reach ladder after ladder over the course of eight levels, the internal structures framed as a maze with locked doors, turrets, and strange enemies all intent on stopping you. From the layout to the turret rotation to the enemy placement, it’s all random, feeding into the roguelike appeal of permadeath.

And you’ll learn about death quickly if you don’t have quick and deliberate aim. Most enemies go down in a single hit (there are bosses out there) which makes the straightforward chargers easy to dispose of, but the turrets require faster reaction time and the snakes require greater awareness. I’m pretty sure I was bitten by every snake I encountered. Those assholes.

Throughout the levels, you’ll find various kiosks. Some are banks and some are vending machines, dispensing health and upgrade items. The banks allow monetary carryover between lives while the upgrades allow you to modify your mechanical and simplified play. For instance, a spiked helmet counterattacked anything that made contact with me. Running shoes most obviously boosted your walking speed. And by purchasing (or finding in a chest) a backpack, you can carry two upgrades.

Heavy Bullets

While still in Early Access and under development, there are obvious concerns for the game. Most notably, it’s a tad repetitive, relying on the singular bullet retrieval shtick far too much. Visually and mechanically, it barely lasts even the short eight levels. This holds especially true of the artistic design, which is intriguing as a polygonal throwback, but becomes tiring as all you see are pink, blue, and turquoise walls.

I will say, however, that combat requires a concerted effort and vigilance that evokes a familiar sensation akin to playing Receiver, a game Vellman heard about only after going into Early Access. And when you are in a room full of chargers and turrets, dodging bites and bullets while trying to collect any of your six expended rounds, it can be a titillating experience.

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Indiecade at E3 2014

Indiecade at E3 2014

While actually attending E3 is quite the trip, leaving it is almost equally exhilarating. I don’t just mean finally departing LAX, leaving the city of millions of broken dreams in your jet engine’s wake, but finding any sort of solace amidst the endless din is both comforting and exciting. Whether it be in a parking lot full of Airstream trailers or a hotel pool that seemingly everyone knows about and ends up at by dawn’s first light, respite is welcome.

Oddly enough, refuge can be found on the show floor itself. In the South Hall where the third party developers and strange booths regarding television ownership and whatnot reside, there’s a borderlands. Quite literally that’s where the Borderlands booth is, but outside of the darkened ring of madness and lights and interminable trailers showing on egregiously large projector screens, you can see. You can see what this place is in its true form.

There’s nothing out here. Only people who fell to the battle of E3 lie here, slumped against walls and paying five to six dollars for shiny, plastic pizza. To the left is a befuddling sight. Apparently the United States Army has set up an obstacle course here, dumbed down for the physical likes of video game fans and journalists it has the appearance of an introductory RC car navigation course. But scanning further, there’s perhaps an even more confounding discovery.

Indiecade E3 2014

There’s a mass of couches, abstract art, and, more importantly, people. In fact, people that are actively engaged in whatever it is they’re doing in front of over two dozen laptop and television screens (and tabletops). It’s a rare sight indeed, as your day is often consumed by huddling in lines with jaded press, going through appointments for coverage and not for joy or interest. Not that what we see under the triple-A guise isn’t good, but it’s rare we get a surprise.

That’s why this little wagon circle is so important. While not everything here is a winner, they’re nearly all refreshing. Whether with a dose of irreverence or indecency or an unabashed disregard for logic and sanity, we are reminded that many creative pursuits often go unnoticed as well as under the radar of focus tests and bureaucratic homogenization. In the open parts of my schedule, I often hid away in this bustling microcosm, and here are some of the things I found.

Tetrageddon

Tetrageddon

“The internet is my homeland!” That’s what developer Nathalie Lawhead has at the end of her Twitter bio, and it almost entirely and succinctly encapsulates the experience of playing Tetrageddon. It is far from a traditional game as it subverts the idea that it should work logically and intuitively. Instead, it opts for a landing squarely in the Ow My Brain land of mental overload.

Tetrageddon is a collection of nine minigames, but it’s really more a cohesive peek into a perfect display of absurdism. More accurately, it’s a brilliant estimation of what would it be like if you soaked up the Internet into a sponge, squeezed it out over cheesecloth, and took what fell through and put it into a game. Some games make more sense than others like one about abducting rabbits via UFO while others involve playing tic-tac-toe against a hamster at the gates of hell.

You can actually experience the game now either through your browser or via the App Store, and if you’re so inclined, you can also muck about with the code since it’s an entirely open source project. Play it. It’s vital you understand what it’s like to not understand what’s happening.

Paparazzi

“Frantic” is how I would describe Paparazzi, a little multiplayer game from Pringo Dingo Games. It’s one paparazzo versus one celebrity, one trying to gain as much cash as possible from his snapshots and one trying to retain as much dignity as possible by remaining elusive. Played on a single screen, one player dashes about as the celeb via a controller and one clicks away on a mouse trying to get him in their sights.

It is deliciously mad. As the celebrity, you can only really slowly trundle about and then press a button to dash, but the walk is so painfully slow and the dash almost comically fast and ridiculous in how far it shuttles you in one go that you never quite feel in control, but in a good way. It encourages you to keep moving, more so than even the camera clicks following in your footsteps.

Crowds of people move up and down over the place as the screen scrolls, helping you obfuscate your movements, as do large static structures like buildings and oversized club speakers. It helps the celeb but hinders the paparazzo, stopping him from making any money. But the viewport of the camera reticle is quite sizable, so combined with the lack of punishment from frantically mashing away at the mouse and the controller respectively, it’s quite the devilishly frenetic and fun game. Check it out on Kickstarter.

T.R.E.E.

T.R.E.E.

Developed by a single person under the studio name 6 O’Clock Games, T.R.E.E. is actually more of an art experiment than a game. There are certainly game-like qualities to it (it tracks how many fruit you’ve collected, for instance, but for no particular reason), but it’s really just about seeing how people interact with a singular instance of digitized nature.

Unsurprisingly, the game is all about a tree. You, as a player or curator or whatever you want to call yourself, go about either adding or removing branches. Then, as time passes, these branches grow and leaves sprout and fruit will grow. From the first day, I just saw an average little suburban-sized tree sporting a few dozen branches going every which way. By the end of the last day at E3, it had become a redwood-sized behemoth with an incredibly artistic and wholly unnatural fractal subset of branches.

While in early stages of development, the ambition to grow it is there. For instance, by placing the tree in a city background, the city will react to the growth of the tree, mimicking its health and responding to its vitality. It’s an eventuality, though, much like its release on its various platforms.

Road Not Taken

Pitched to me as a puzzle game influenced by Don’t Starve, my interest was almost immediately piqued. It turns out there’s quite a bit going on underneath the chipper veneer of Road Not Taken. It’s a puzzle game with an adventure game with a relationship simulator with roguelike tendencies. It’s startling how much is crammed beneath its happy surface.

The passage of time is measured in lifetimes and your actions in grid-based ambulations. Your goal in any given screen, as some oddly magical wizard-type thing/person, is to unite all children with their parents. By pressing a button, you pick up anything around you on any cardinal direction, and with another press you hurl them in that direction. It sounds simple enough, but moving with things in your mystical grip uses energy, and bottoming out on that energy will result in your death.

90-percent of people die in the tutorial, according to this Polygon piece. This is a substantially hard game, largely because it’s procedurally generated, so there are no set solutions for any given puzzle, just a possible solution. And as you add elements like creatures that mirror your moves and those that move opposite you, it gets increasingly complex. Then you toss on the crafting mechanic, which can occur inside and outside of puzzles, which are wholly combined into one giant over world and not discrete screens, it gets to be a bit brain-sweating.

Oh yeah, and you can forge and destroy meaningful, impactful relationships back in town. Sorry about your free time.

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Transistor Review: Functional Programming

Transistor

When I finished playing Transistor, I immediately started it up again, much like it did with Supergiant’s other game, Bastion. It is a sleek, beautiful, and satisfying experience with touches that just ooze the studio’s signature (as much as a signature as you can have after one product) embellishments. But more than that, it’s the foundation that supports the fancy, artful veneer that makes it so good.

Transistor is, as previously mentioned, the second release from Supergiant Games. The developers have returned with a remix of what made their freshman product Bastion so distinctive: an isometric view, a unique and voiceless hero, moody and charming voiceover from Logan Cunningham, and a deliciously beautiful and colorful world built so richly and completely that it’s impossible to ignore.

This time, however, they tell the story of a woman named Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank, and entirely digital realm governed by the same rules and regulations as would run a computer. She pulls a sword from a body only to discover it embodies the voice and, ostensibly, the consciousness of a person. It is the Transistor and soon becomes her partner and her voice as she prepares to engage with an ominous foe called the Camerata.

There’s a great deal that the game reveals as it progresses and turns this already intriguing premise into one of revenge and mystery, almost in a neo noir fashion. But the delivery of the story loses some of its steam as the flavor text you discover through terminals and logs of text quickly become far more interesting than the main event but infinitely slower to get through. The plot starts off quite nicely, throwing heavy impetus at you as problems and urgency pile up like bruises in a moshpit.

As you meet more characters, however, it starts to feel like the events of the story happen and you are meant to care more about it than they or even Red does. It’s a little disappointing since the world of Cloudbank is so well realized and interesting, begging to be explored and mined for tasty morsels of backstory, but in the end, Transistor‘s story sits closer to the bewildering side of the table than the memorable.

That is but one side of this multifaceted game, though. Its core sits as an action game, centered around combat and strategy, and it excels so incredibly far and above what you might expect from it. It looks an awful lot like going around and whacking things with a sword, but the Transistor actually enables Red to freeze time and plot her moves out in advance.

Transistor

While you can go about and stab Processes (the game’s nomenclature for enemies) to your heart’s content, you probably won’t find much success. At any given time in combat, you can stop time and move around the battlefield and queue up Functions (read: abilities) without being impeded by silly things like taking damage. You can undo or redo or simply sit and think as much as you want before you engage. Well, so long as your action bar can support your moves.

Doing so, however, will leave you vulnerable and unable to do anything for a few seconds. This forces you to consider the balance of inflicting damage and taking cover and always thinking a step ahead of where either you or your enemies are. And given the varied combinations of Processes you encounter, you will always have to predict and discover what that advantage really means. It’s an incredibly satisfying cycle of enemy engagement.

Not utilizing your brain and trying to just pound through foes will result in an unconventional and severe punishment as each time you go down, you lose one of your Functions. Like, completely. You can’t use it until you make it to the next save point, rendering perhaps your primary and most successful strategy totally worthless because you can’t even try it.

Transistor

This, though, is not a negative, as much as it might sound like it. You see, as you collect Functions (another benefit of the Transistor, turning citizens of Cloudbank into discrete abilities), you can either equip them directly onto a face button for usage or you can combine them with a previously equipped Function, resulting in a new attack.

For example, Jaunt is normally just a dash move, allowing you to dodge attacks. Spark just dumps out explosive nuggets. Throw Spark onto Jaunt and you then shoot out bombs in your dashing wake. Bounce fires off ricocheting projectiles while Help calls in a friend to aid you in battle. Put Help on Bounce and now you have a 50-percent chance that Cells, the floating collectibles that appear after you defeat and enemy and threaten to become new ones, won’t even spawn.

The combinations are deep and almost entirely useful, which means that the strange punitive measures of taking away what you’ve earned and learned to use and rely on is really an encouragement for you to explore new options and find new Functions to appreciate. It’s partly the sense of discovery but also the idea that strategies and advantages and disadvantages are always appearing and disappearing, gaining and losing relevancy, as you play the game that makes the combat so appealing.

Transistor

It also helps that the game is so gosh darn pretty. It’s flush with super saturated and bright colors and fantastical vistas that make you wish you could live vivid walls forever. Things glow and move and bounce and roll with such character and liveliness that it’s nearly disarming. And combine that with the unreal music—catchy and haunting and comforting all at once—that plays such an integral part of the story and you have a sensory treat in every possible regard.

Then there are the small touches that are easily glossed over but are seemingly quintessential to a Supergiant game. Much like in the way Bastion worked within a wholly recognizable and particular idiomatic speech, Transistor tells you to “come closer” to things worth inspecting. It sings with personality in its comments on online forums and becomes interactive in its polls. And if you’re worried about Logan Cunningham being a one-note performer, his turn as the Transistor’s voice is totally fresh but equally compelling as before.

For as tepid as the actual story was, Transistor found its way through its layered and incredible foundation of deep and fulfilling combat and its unbelievable aesthetic, bringing to life a mysterious but infinitely intriguing world of digital denizens and functions and processes. It has its problems, but Transistor more than makes up for them with its overflowing and overwhelming strengths.

Transistor

+ Gorgeous visuals and chilling, brain-addling music
+ Deep and complex combat and ability configurations
+ The world of Cloudbank is endlessly exciting to think about
– Story falls short of what it promises in the beginning and perpetuates through its worldbuilding

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Transistor
Release: May 20, 2014
Genre: Turn-based action
Developer: Supergiant Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Singleplayer
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://supergiantgames.com/index.php/transistor/

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Sportsfriends Review: Sporting Friends

Sportsfriends

Sportsfriends is built on the simple premise that you don’t need to play video games to have a good time with them. And in that regard, it succeeds. It is an absolute blast to play regardless of innate or earned skill level with a controller because it reduces everything down to its basest form. From input to strategy, it allows depth without complication. Just be sure to have some friends on hand to help.

Sportsfriends is actually a compilation of four different local multiplayer games with the gestalt release funded through Kickstarter from back in December of 2012. Rounded up by Danish indie collective Die Gute Fabrik, it includes their own Johann Sebastian Joust, Noah Sasso’s BaraBariBall, Bennet Foddy’s Super Pole Riders, and Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra. Tied by a single thematic thread, they all focus on the idea of face-to-face competition. The most obvious (and the headliner) takes the face-to-face part quite seriously.

Johann Sebastian Joust

Sportsfriends

What is there left to say about Johann Sebastian Joust? You’ve been hearing about it since forever and probably even played it at a PAX or E3. It’s well known for one as being a video game with absolutely zero visuals given or needed through any electronics. It’s also well known for being one hell of a good time.

Between two and seven players hold either DualShock 3, DualShock 4, or PlayStation Move controllers and attempt to, for the most part, not move. Or at least that’s how you stay in the game. To win, you’ll have to knock other players out, which requires you to push, pull, trick, intimidate, and psychologically abuse everyone else. You see, the controllers are there to monitor your movement, and based on the tempo of the music being played (Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg concertos), you are permitted a certain leeway to your ambulations.

Sportsfriends

Move too fast, and your controller will go off and you’re out of the game. It’s a brilliant setup to get video game fans and non-gamers alike playing a video game while moving about. It’s definitely a throwback to the idea of folk games where there are minimal rules and the indeterminate interactions between players are the real game. Playing JS Joust is an endeavor to strengthen your cheeks because you will never not be smiling. Seeing your six-foot-five friend run like a child from an actual child is just natural beauty in motion.

And while it’s still fun play one on one, the game excels in a mass of at least four players. That way subterfuge can still play out without the target fully aware, or at least not able to fully anticipate and defend from it. It also opens the floor to the most chaos, which is inherently the most exciting part to human interactions.

Hokra

Sportsfriends

Hokra is perhaps the sole weak point of the Sportsfriends collection simply because it absolutely requires four players. In it, you assume the role of one of four squares split between two teams. The goal is to fill up your own blocks with color by keeping a ball within your opponents’ blocks. By bouncing and throwing both the ball and your opponents around, you control the game.

It’s very simple but incredibly intuitive. Even those that have never played a game before understand the idea of maintaining both possession and territory to win, especially because the criterion for victory is so highly visible. The problem is that because it’s so simple with little to no randomness or integration for interactions outside of its predefined framework, it becomes a tiring exercise rather quickly.

Chasing after the ball and moving to keep yourself between the ball and an opponent happens over and over again, but your movements are so deliberate and tepidly slow that you can generate a mental model of every possible outcome long before it actually plays out. And then you lead into predicting the entire outcome of a match soon after. Hokra is a fun excursion, but not one I’d revisit very often. That way, all those predictive models stay fresh rather than tired.

BaraBariBall

Sportsfriends

Having first played it nearly two years ago at an indie dev house party during Fantastic Arcade, expectations for BaraBariBall were already in place. It is once again a very simple game: you have to get a ball to the bottom of one half of a watery pit without throwing yourself in as well. Dunks in are worth a point but suicides at the bottom of the abyss take away a point and you need to get those points to win.

Between the three different characters, you can run, jump, punch, kick, and special attack the ball and opponents alike. The progression of players is always interesting to watch here because it starts out so simple. Get the ball, throw it to the bottom, and defend it as it lazily heads down. But then they start to learn the limits of their character, including multi-jumps and recovery times and the like. And they start to employ strategies to maximize those limitations, first their own and then others.

It’s fascinating because very quickly everyone comes up to the same level of understanding of the game. BaraBariBall is so good at teaching through consequences because both the positive and negative outcomes of any remarkable action are immediately recognizable in a score increase or decrease. It succinctly ingrains what is bad and what is good and encourages players to do good while forcing opponents to do bad. Not only that, but it easily throws those tactics into camps of solo and cooperative strategies without so much as a word. BaraBariBall is something worth playing anytime you have even just one friend over.

Super Pole Riders

Sportsfriends

While the most overtly sports-oriented, Super Pole Riders is also somehow the strangest of the quartet. It features goals, a ball, and even pole vaulters, but in combining all of that, it comes out to be a fantastically strange, deep, and altogether entertaining competitive affair.

In it, you compete either solo or with a buddy to smash a ball that traverses back and forth on a rope from one end of the screen to the other. Once you get the ball into the opposing goal, you get a point. The catch is that the ball is something like 15 feet off the ground and the only way you can either get up there or otherwise manipulate it is to use a pole, vaulting, whacking, and kicking your way to victory.

It’s an incredibly foreign sensation at first, what with the flaccid, floppy nature of the pole making it hard to maneuver or predict but also how it impacts your vaulting. But very quickly, it all becomes natural (or as natural as it could be, which is still not very, but at least the input cause-effect chain is easily absorbed). From toppling over from one side to the other or getting that extra bit of air in launching yourself or the ball across the screen, the game is wide open to your abuse of its physics, which makes both precision strikes and happy accidents (and disastrous attempts) all the more fun to see unfold.

Sportsfriends

Super Pole Riders undeniably requires the most effort of any of the Sportsfriends games, but it also feels the most earned of any victory. Learning the nuances of both the interactions as well as the strategies combine to become a prideful win. Hokra is too predictable and BaraBariBall is a bit systemic (and JS Joust is just too crazy), but Super Pole Riders hits that magnificent blend of known, unknown, and shenanigans.

Conclusion

With the assumption that you have friends, Sportsfriends is an easy recommendation to make. Across the four games it contains, you have such an incredible and diverse set of experiences to share with your buddies. Push and shove in the game as you push and shove on the couch, or clear it all out and make room for objective-based physical abuse with Johann Sebastian Joust. They offer a simplicity that makes it accessible to anyone but they contain the educated design of much more complex games so as to keep you entertained. Definitely get in on this Sportsfriends action.

+ Slow motion tackling your friends in Johan Sebastian Joust
+ Denying a goal in BaraBariBall
+ Having a noodle war in Super Pole Riders
– Figuring out the outcome of a match long before it actually plays out in Hokra

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Sportsfriends
Release: May 6, 2014
Genre: Multiplayer
Developer: Die Grute Fabrik
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Linux
Players: Multiplayer offline
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://sportsfriendsgame.com/

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