I think what attracts me most to the indie game scene is the refinement of game ideas down to their core. It’s far too typical for games to include elements from disparate genres (how many AAA games now include some form of levelling or skill tree based progression) and whilst the end result might be playable those extraneous elements usually don’t do much for the game as a whole. Independent game son the other hand, with their much more limited resources behind them, have to focus on those ideas lest the scope get out of control. Gunpoint is an indie platform puzzler that does a few things and does them well making for an enjoyable, if somewhat short, experience.
You are Richard Conway, freelance spy who’s just received his shipment of Bullfrog hypertrousers and has decided to test them out from his 3rd floor apartment. Of course since you’ve never used them before this sends to you flying out of your apartment and into the nearby corporate offices. Unfortunately for you a murder is committed nearby and the video footage places you at the scene of the crime. So begins your adventure into covering your ass and, hopefully, discovering who the real killer is.
Gunpoint is a pixel art game and does well to invoke feelings of the times when games like it were common. The story behind its creation is quite interesting as the main developer, Tom Francis previously of PC Gamer fame, put out a call on his blog for artists. He eventually settled on John Roberts as the lead artist and Fabian van Dommelen for the backgrounds and the end result is quite good. Francis also went through the same process for the background music and has achieved a similar level of success even though it’s a decidedly more modern affair.
As I alluded to before Gunpoint is a puzzler platformer with a heavy emphasis on using the environment to accomplish your objectives whilst remaining out of sight of potential enemies. Initially this is just a game of timing your moves right, ensuring that guards don’t see you and that you have enough time to accomplish your goal before they turn around. However that all changes when you’re given access to the crosslink tool, a game mechanic which allows you to rewire circuits within the building you’re attempting to infiltrate. This allows you to do all sorts of crazy and whacky things, many of which are emergent thanks to the rather free form nature of Gunpoint’s play.
In the beginning you’re given unfettered access to the entire building, allowing you to rewire anything to anything. Of course if the whole game was like this it would be a little too easy so eventually it’s broken down into different circuits which you need to unlock in order to be able to control devices on it. This necessitates using a little strategy in order to get guards to open doors for you or just to set them in motion so you’ll be able to sneak past them or take them out without risking being shot. This is probably one of the few games where I find one-shot kills acceptable although that’s probably more due to the great auto-save system more than anything else.
The upgrade system in Gunpoint takes on a dual focus with each successful mission granting one point to upgrade your innate abilities as well as a stack of cash which you can spend on upgrades. However like most games which incorporate upgrades which have potentially game changing consequences Gunpoint’s levels don’t strictly rely on you having anything of them, meaning the game can be completed without them. Indeed I didn’t spend much money at all on upgrades initially and only when I was granted a ludicrous $8000 bounty did I bother spending my cash. Even then at the end I barely used any of the additional abilities I had been granted although the upgrades to the jump charge speed and height were somewhat useful.
The story is a light-hearted affair as it doesn’t take itself too seriously (even if you choose the less silly dialogue options) and doesn’t really deal with a serious subject matter. For the style of game it fits quite well and the story sequences, which are told through walls of text, don’t distract from the main game. If you’re feeling adventurous you can also find extra bits and pieces of the story scattered around the levels in optional objectives which aren’t completely necessary but do add a little more flavour and back story. Overall it’s good but lacks any kind of depth so don’t expect a heavily story driven experience.
Gunpoint is a great puzzler experience that focuses heavily on the game play, allowing the player a degree of freedom that is rare in today’s titles. It’s quite likely that no two playthroughs of Gunpoint will be the same as the amount of emergent behaviour that is possible within each small level is quite extraordinary. It’s let down somewhat by the not-so-useful upgrade system and light on story but the heavy investment in the game play more than makes up for these shortcomings. It’s an intriguing title, one made even more interesting by the fact that it was made by a former game critic, and should you be looking for a good distraction between longer games then you really couldn’t go past Gunpoint.
Gunpoint is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve often wondered what the world of experimental indie games looks like to someone who doesn’t have a long history with games. Whilst the average age of a gamer is pushing past 35 there’s still got to be a good chunk of people who didn’t grow up in the golden age of gaming which means that many of the conventions relied upon in these games would simply be unfamiliar to them. Usually this is done in aid of getting out of the way of the user’s experience (tutorials are by far the worst immersion breakers, bulldozing through the 4th wall) and it’s something I appreciate although I recognise how this might be of limited appeal to others. MirrorMoon EP is one such game, relying on your sense of curiosity and exploration to uncover the vast world that it encompasses.
I am slowly learning to travel in space.
Time is a meaningless variable that slips through my fingers.
Stopping requires a lot of energy while moving feels almost like staying still.
Breathing is hard inside this machine.
I need to stay calm.
And with only that to go on you’re dropped on a mysterious moon, one that has a strange relationship with another nearby celestial body.
MirrorMoon EP feels visually similar to other minimalistic exploration games like Kairo favouring texture-less environments with solid colours covering every surface. As I alluded to earlier I believe that this is done in order to focus you on the gameplay above everything else and indeed since the control mechanism doesn’t allow you to sight see particularly well (more on that later) it does feel like MirrorMoon EP is doing its best to get out of your way. As a fan of minimalism this works quite well for me, especially when I find myself agape at some of the scenery which is nothing more than a couple light shafts arranged in a particular manner.
MirrorMoon EP is an exploration puzzler and the first world you find yourself upon serves as an introduction into the numerous mechanics that are built into it. Your viewpoint is locked however so whilst you’re in first person mode you can’t look up or down, nor even to your left or right. Instead you have to move yourself around like your entire body is encased in concrete, fixing your vision firmly forward. This, coupled with the incredibly small sizes of the world, means that your sense of location and direction is severely limited however you’re able to unlock a large set of tools that will help you find your way around and some of them are quite novel.
As the name of MirrorMoon EP alludes to you’ll quickly find out that there’s another “moon” nearby that, once you’ve discovered the right tools, you’re able to interact with. Initially it doesnt’ make a whole lot of sense, the first one allows you to rotate it around to see different features, however it becomes apparent that the moon you’re manipulating is in fact a duplicate of your own. Then using the tools you have disovered by randomly bumbling about you can then use it to guide yourself, allowing you to unlock more and more secrets. Eventually you’ll solve the puzzle and be treated to some more vague on screen text but after that you’re given access to the real game and it’s quite something.
This is your console for exploring the vast space that is contained within MirrorMoon EP. Like pretty much everything else in the game details on how it operates is scant but after clicking around you’ll eventually figure out what everything does. The screen with numerous dots all over it is a map of all the other moons you can visit and each of them contains an unique puzzle for you to solve which, once completed, will allow you access to a glowing orb. Should you be the first person to find that orb then you’re granted with a special privilege.
You get to name that moon.
Now with the massive number of planets available I get the feeling that they’re all procedurally generated so some of them are going to be amazing and others are going to be quite dull (I believe I visited one that was completely dark and the orb was right in front of you). The names are also persistent and you’ll be able to tell if someone’s named a planet by the name being something other than THX/89 or something of a similar format. I managed to haphazardly visit another person’s planet without realising it but soon after found myself seeking out all the planets I could in order to solve them before anyone else did.
Whilst is a pretty novel and interesting mechanic it unfortunately gets boring quite quickly as whilst the planets are usually different in some way a lot of the time it’s just a jumble of various mechanics mashed together procedurally. Once you’ve seen a dozen or so planets you’ve likely seen them all and so what initially seems like something with infinite replay value quickly fades into repetition. I do like the idea though and for some people I’m sure this would be infinitely interesting (kind of like Kerbel Space Program in a way) but for me I just couldn’t be bothered after a while.
Now I’ll have to admit some fault here as whilst I managed to complete the first “side” easily (and got the achievement to that effect) I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to finish side B in order to get a complete understanding of the story. It does seem quite interesting, especially with the references to the “anomaly” and how the machine interacts with space and time, however the intentional vagueness of both the game and the story have curtailed my efforts to dig up any substantial meaning from it. I could just Google it, like I did for Kairo, and I probably will if I don’t find out anything more soon.
MirrorMoon EP is an interesting game, one which is heavily shaped by your own experiences with it. The unapologetic, minimalistic nature of it will definitely be a turn off for some however the heavy focus on the game play to the exclusion of nearly everything else is something that MirrorMoon EP pulls off exceptionally. Unfortunately I feel like it’s replay value is somewhat limited due to its procedural nature and the intentional vagueness of both story and gameplay may have lead to me giving up on it prematurely. Still MirrorMoon EP stands out as yet another shining example of the indie exploration/puzzler genre and is definitely worth looking into.
MirrorMoon EP is available on Steam and OUYA right now for $9.99. Total game time was around 2 hours with 40% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s been a rough few months for Microsoft’s gaming division with them copping flak from every angle about nearly all aspects of their next generation console, the Xbox One. I’ve tried to remain mostly neutral on the whole ordeal as I had originally put myself down for both consoles when they both released but that changed when I couldn’t find a compelling reason to get both. Since then Microsoft has tried to win back the gamers it alienated with its initial announcements although it was clear that the damage was done in that respect and all this did was helped to keep the loyalists happy with a choice they were never going to make. Since then it’s been all quiet from Microsoft, perhaps in the hopes that silence would do more to help than anything else they could say at this point.
However a recent announcement from Microsoft has revealed that not only will Microsoft be allowing independent developers to self-publish on the Xbox One platform they’ll also be able to use a retail kit as a debug unit. Considering that traditionally development kits were on the order of a couple of thousand dollars (the PlayStation3 one was probably the most expensive I ever heard of at $20,000 on release day) this announcement is something of a boon for indie developers as those looking to do cross platform releases now don’t have spend a significant chunk of change in order to develop on Microsoft’s console. On the surface that would seem to be a one up on Nintendo and Sony but as it turns out Microsoft isn’t doing something truly notable with this announcement, they’re just playing catch up yet again.
Sony announced at E3 that they’d allow indie developers to self publish on the PlayStation4 however you’ll still need to get your hands on a development kit if you want to test your titles properly. This presents a barrier of course, especially if they retain the astronomical release day price (I wouldn’t expect that though), however Sony has a DevKit Loaner program which provides free development kits to studios who need them. They also have a whole bunch of other benefits for devs signing up to their program which would seem to knock out some of the more significant barriers to entry. I’ll be honest when I first started writing this I didn’t think Sony had any of this so it’s a real surprise that they’ve become this welcoming to indie developers.
Similarly Nintendo has a pretty similar level of offerings for indies although it wasn’t always that way. Updates are done for free and the review process, whilst still mandatory, is apparently a lot faster than other platforms. Additionally if you get into their program (which has requirements that I could probably meet, seriously) you’ll also find yourself with a copy of Unity 4 Pro at no extra charge which allows you to develop titles for multiple platforms simultaneously. Sure this might not be enough to convince a developer to go full tilt on a WiiU exclusive but those considering a multiplatform release after seeing some success on one might give it another look after seeing what Nintendo has to offer.
Probably the real kicker, at least for us Australians, is even despite the fact that indies will be able to self publish on the new platform after testing on retail consoles we still won’t be able to see them thanks to our lack of XBLIG. Microsoft are currently not taking a decisive stand on whether this will change or not (it seems most of the big reveals they want to make will be at Gamescon next month) but the smart money is on no, mostly due to the rather large fees required to get a game classified in Australia. This was supposed to be mitigated somewhat by co-regulation by the industry as part of the R18+ classification reforms and it has, to some extent, although it seems to be aimed at larger enterprises currently as I couldn’t find any fee for service assessors (there was a few jobs up on Seek for some though, weird). Whilst I’m sure that wouldn’t stop Australian indie devs from having a crack at the Xbox One I’m sure it’d be a turn off for some as who doesn’t to see their work in their own country?
I’m getting the feeling that Microsoft has a couple aces up its sleeve for Gamescon so I’ll hold back on beating the already very dead horse and instead say I’m interested to see what they have to say. I don’t think there’s anything at this point that would convince me to get one but I’m still leagues away from writing it off as a dead platform. Right now the ball is in Microsoft’s court and they’ve got a helluva lot of work to do if they want their next gen’s launch day to look as good as Sony’s.
Stripping away certain aspects of a game is the norm for independent developers as your limited resources constrain what you’re able to accomplish. Whilst on the surface this sounds like it would make for an inferior game often it results with a game that makes incredible use of its bare essentials, creating an overall experience that’s on par with much larger titles. Then there are those that eschew nearly all aspects of traditional games in order to focus on a single aspect. Notable entries include games like Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving, Auralux and, I’m most pleased to say, the new exploration game Proteus.
Like other exploration games Proteus is one where the narrative is primarily driven by your curiosity. Upon starting the game you’ll be greeted with your own little island (which I assume is procedurally generated so each one is unique). There’s no voice telling you to walk to it, nor any other indication that you should even go there, but of course there’s that little voice at the back of your head telling you to proceed forward. Should you do so the next hour of your life will be dedicated to exploring a world that undergoes wild amounts of change and, eventually, so do you.
Proteus is unique in terms of graphical style, straddling the boundaries of pixel art and early 3D first person shooter games. What I found particularly interesting was despite the bare bones nature everything was instantly recognizable, from the various types of plants and animals to the various bits of other miscellanea that covered my island. I’ll be honest and at first I just thought it was the developer being lazy but the more I played the more I began to appreciate the simplicity as that kind of refinement doesn’t exactly come easy.
There’s no real game mechanics to speak of, the whole point of Proteus is simply for you to explore the island that it has created for you. Whilst the island isn’t particularly huge there’s definitely enough to keep you interested, especially with all the various animals that react in different ways to you approaching them. There’s also a weather system that changes from time to time which, again, changes the island. But this is all just a lead up to the best part of Proteus and it only happens at night.
What could be considered plot spoilers follow:
I remember seeing this for the first time very clearly. The sun had gone down and little lights began to appear everywhere. Up until then I had wondered what the overall point of the game was as whilst it was cool to explore a procedurally generated island there wasn’t much more to it; no purpose, no story. But then the lights began to move in a strange way, they seemed to be all moving towards a single point on the island. Curious I walked towards it and they began to speed up with more and more lights appearing out of nowhere to join them.
The lights began congregating at one location, forming into a kind of vortex centered on a point in the middle of island. I walked towards it and they spun faster still, swarming around me until they erupted in a blinding flash of light. Afterwards I saw it was day time once again but the island had changed. New life had sprung up around me and the world looked very different. I realised then and there what had happened, I had been transported forward in time to the next season.
And so this process repeated itself several times over, each time when night fell I would wait anxiously for the lights to reappear in order for me to advance to the next stage. Eventually winter came to my island and it instantly became a desolate wasteland, home to no perceptible life. I wandered my island aimlessly looking for a sign, something to show that was still alive but alas there was none. I again waited for night to come but the lights never appeared so I kept exploring, hoping that I’d find the solution to a problem I felt I had created. It was then that my slow descent into the clouds began and eventually my eyes closed and my island journey came to an end.
Proteus wins my praise for the simple fact it went from a slightly confusing experience to an incredibly magical one by the use of simple mechanics that forced me to build my own narrative. If Auralux is the essence of real time strategy then Proteus is the essence of an exploration game as it does away with pretty much all extraneous elements in favour of the exploration mechanic. It’s short and bittersweet and definitely not for everyone but if you’re a fan of creating your own narrative or exploring games that strip away all things in favour of one aspect then Proteus is definitely worth a look in.
Proteus is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 1 hour.
2012 was the year I decided to ramp up my game reviews significantly, aiming to get at least one done per week. I got pretty close to that goal managing to get through a grand total of 48 games last year, well over the double previous year’s tally. I have to say that I really enjoyed the whole experience as I often found myself going outside my comfort zone in order to find something to review and the number of indie games I’ve played this year is more than all the years prior put together. Now that 2012 is firmly in the rear view mirror it comes time for me to reflect on all the games that I’ve played and crown one of them Game of the Year 2012.
As always here’s a list in chronological order of the games I reviewed during 2012:
Now people who’ve been here a while (and have read my Guide to Game Reviews on The Refined Geek) will know that my review scores tend towards the infamous 7 to 10 scale rather than 0 to 10 but from time to time I’ll venture below that curve for games that really deserve it. Notable mentions that did this include Lone Survivor, I Am Alive and (drum roll please) this year’s winner of lowest score received: Dear Esther. My review of that game was probably one of the most controversial reviews I’ve ever written as I had people telling me I simply “didn’t get it” all the way up to saying that it wasn’t fair for me to judge it as a game because it wasn’t. Sadly nothing of what anyone sad to me could change the horrific experience I had with Dear Esther and it gives me an undue amount of pleasure to give it the Wooden Spoon as worst game of 2012.
Whilst 2011 saw me give a notable mention to Gemini Rue for being a stand out indie game of that year I can’t feel like I can do the same this year: there’s just so many deserving titles and unlike Gemini Rue nearly all of them got the praise they deserved. Indeed the reason I found out (and subsequently played) so many indie titles this year was because of the attention they were receiving in the larger video games press and if it wasn’t for a few kind words from some of my trusted sources many of these indie games might not have seen a review here. Whilst I’ll stop short of giving an award to the indie game scene (because that’s incredibly lame) I will say that I’m looking forward to what the indie scene brings forth in 2013 and beyond.
One game that I’d like to give an honourable mention to, since it is by far my most played game of 2012 by a long shot, is Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2). Whilst I starting playing it back towards the end of 2011 I really didn’t get that into it until just after I wrote my initial review of it but after then my play time in it snow balled considerably. This was helped a lot by the fact that a cadre of my competitive gaming friends joined along with me which fuelled my addiction to it to perilous heights. Today I’ve played over 600 games and ranked up well over the same amount of hours playing, watching and talking about DOTA 2 and Valve deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for making this game what it is today. It’s not my game of the year since it’s more like a meth addiction than anything else, but that doesn’t detract from its accomplishments.
I’ll be honest, choosing my game of the year (even with the beautiful hindsight granted by having a big list of games I’ve played right there to look over) was tough. Whilst there were a lot of good games there were no amazing stand outs like there was the year previous. Going by review scores the best game of last year for me was Journey and whilst I was very tempted to give it that honour, like IGN has done, I couldn’t shake this feeling in the back of my head that there was another game that was more deserving but I couldn’t figure out which one to pick. The answer came to me, funnily enough, in the middle of a New Years eve party in the early hours of the morning and I still agree with that decision today.
My Game of the Year for 2012 is To The Moon.
If for the simple fact that I’m fighting back tears right now isn’t proof enough that this game had a massive impact on me To The Moon is one of those games that eschewed game play in favour of telling a beautiful, gripping story. Sure the game play was flawed and the disjointed pacing was one of the reasons that it didn’t score better than Journey but if just thinking about it can cause that kind of reaction in me then I know it had an impact that few games have had. I could continue gushing about it for hours if I wanted to but you really need to experience it for yourself as it’s an incredibly personal experience, one that will stick with you for a long time.
I had debated whether or not to continue my 1 review per week deal this year as whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and opportunities it has granted me (2 games this year were sent to me for review, a 100% increase on last year!) it does take a fair bit of time to get through them. However considering the amount of DOTA 2 I’ve managed to fit in the past year I figure that cutting back on that in favour of more games will see more deadlines hit more frequently meaning more regular reviews for you, my readers. I won’t make any grandiose promises about reviewing more games this year than last but I’ll guarantee I’ll try my hardest to get one out a week and continue to pillage the vast reaches of all game genres and developers.
P.S. What was your game of the year? I’m really keen to know.
They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and if there’s any truth to that then Notch, creator of Minecraft, must be feeling awfully flattered. Whilst there’s only been a few outright copies that have looked to capitalize on Minecraft’s success there’s seemingly an endless number of games that have drawn inspiration from it. From games like Terraria which translated the idea into 2D and then added its own flavour to others which have taken the block/mining/building idea and put some kind of twist on it. Blocks That Matter is the latter, being a 2D puzzler that uses the idea of mining and placing blocks as the main game play component.
Blocks That Matter puts you in control Tetrobot, a small white block with arms, legs and a drill who’s capable of mining blocks and placing them anywhere on the map. You’re the creation of 2 struggling game developers who, instead of working on their latest title, were working on you. This drew the ire of a mysterious individual who kidnaps the developers and forces them to complete their game. You are their only hope for rescue and in order to make it to them you have to navigate your way through various puzzle areas in order to reach a portal that will transport you closer to them.
Whilst there’s nothing particularly amazing about the graphics of Blocks That Matter I did find it quite visually pleasing, mostly because of the neo-retro aesthetic that’s consistent throughout the entire game. There’s a definite homage to the classic platformers with many of the tile sets bearing a striking resemblance to the games that inspired them. That being said whilst it might be inspired by several different games of yore Blocks That Matter still has its own distinct style about it and I certainly never found myself thinking I was bored with it visually.
As I alluded to earlier Blocks That Matter draws inspiration from Minecraft for one of its main mechanics but it also combines aspects from another game to give it a challenging bent. Whilst you’re free to mine and collect certain types of blocks (a selection which gets expanded as you progress) you can’t simply place any block wherever you want. There are 2 simple rules to placing blocks: the first is that it must attach to another block or a wall somewhere, meaning you can’t just place them in the middle of the air. The second, and by far the most challenging aspect, is that all the blocks must be placed in sets of 4 meaning all the shapes you can create are in fact are tetrominoes (the pieces found in Tetris).
In the beginning this doesn’t present too much of a challenge, especially once you figure out certain ways to construct things that will allow you to recover the majority of your blocks whilst getting one of them into the position you needed it in. There’s also some areas where Blocks That Matter shows off some emergent game play aspects because of this as if you manage to save enough blocks you can effectively get yourself anywhere on the map without too much trouble. This idea of block conservation becomes key in later levels as many of the puzzles will be incredibly difficult unless you have a certain number of blocks spare.
This becomes even more important when you’re given the skill which can destroy any type of block (useful as there’s many block types that you will simply never be able to drill) as long as they’re in a row of eight or more. Quite often you will be able to make rows with a certain minimum number of blocks, however should you simply rush into it you’ll end up wasting blocks that you didn’t need to. Finding these little block advantages isn’t necessarily required if you’re just trying to get to the end however should you want to mine the block that matters (the little treasure chest shown in the bottom left hand corner in the screenshot above) every block counts as most of the time you’ll need all of them to get to it.
For the most part the puzzles are challenging and rewarding upon completion, especially when you manage to get through them the first time through. However I feel there’s a critical flaw in the way most puzzles play out. You see it’s quite possible for you to get yourself into a situation where you will not be able to complete a level (like being trapped under undrillable blocks). Don’t worry you can suicide yourself and restart the level, all good right? Well whilst that does get around the sticky problem of having to playtest everything so thoroughly that the players can never truly bugger themselves up it does mean that challenges you once completed get undone, forcing you to replay that section of the level. When you make a simple mistake right at the end of the level having to replay it all from the beginning isn’t that fun, especially if that “mistake” was misplacing a block which you could no longer recover.
The puzzles also start to get a bit samey after a while, even with the additional upgrades that add different game mechanics. There’s just over 40 levels in the adventure mode and another dozen or so in the bonus section but by about the halfway point you will have seen most of the tricks. From there on it’s just a matter of making your way through them, conserving blocks and figuring out which types need to be saved and which can be turfed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s a lot of people who will enjoy that kind of challenge, but it certainly lost me by about level 34 or so, to the point where I didn’t bother playing through until the end.
The story is also a little strange as it takes the 4th wall, smashes it into pieces and then proceeds to dance on its bloody corpse for the rest of the game. The characters are Penny Arcade style spin offs of their creators being 2 independent game developers which mirrors Swing Swing Submarine’s actual development crew. It’s a rather light hearted affair and really only there to give you some modicum of motivation to keep doing what you’re doing but I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward during any of the plot points thanks to that 4th wall chicanery.
For a game that’s essentially a mash up of nearly every game that my generation grew up on Blocks That Matter does a great job of creating its own unique experience using all those elements without feeling like a cheap imitation. The puzzles are challenging, artwork unique yet familiar and the overall experience is smooth and trouble free. The story and having to repeat challenges ad nauseum are where Blocks That Matter lets itself down and whilst there’s no easy way to fix the story the addition of a quick save system would go a long way to making those long, complicated puzzles towards the end much more enjoyable. For fans of puzzlers or just those of us who grew up on all the titles that Blocks That Matter pays homage to there’s a lot to love in this game and is worth paltry price of admission.
Blocks That Matter is available on PC and Xbox right now for $4.99 and 240 Microsoft Points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 4 hours played and 28% of the achievements unlocked.
4 hours played, 28% of the achievements unlocked.
With this whole 1 review a week deal thing I committed to at the start of the year I often find myself getting towards the end of a week without having a game fully completed for review. Most of the time its because a game will overrun the amount of available time I have to complete it (like Borderlands 2 did for this week) and then I’ll usually do a mad rush looking for a recent release that has a shorter game time in order to make deadline. Yesterday’s review of McPixel was one of these such occasions and whilst I’d like to say that I came across it due to it being the first ever project to be Greenlit onto Steam I instead found out about it due the hubbub it made on the various game sites I frequent.
Of course I found out about this afterwards when I went to post my review to the Steam community boards for McPixel. What surprised me though is unlike many of the other discussion boards which usually focus on issues, improvements and just generally talking about the game I found a thread¹ with over 100 comments wondering why this game was brought to steam in the first place. Whilst there was no shortage of people defending McPixel it certainly seemed to be an argument that split the community right down the middle. That seems rather strange as Greenlight is predicated on the fact that the community wants that game to come to the Steam platform and it raises some questions about how it will function going forward.
Steam Greenlight, for the uninitiated, is a crowd approval system developed by Valve in order to tap the collective desires of their customer base. Put simply it allows developers to put one of their games which is not currently available on Steam up on the Greenlight site and should it prove popular enough by votes from the larger Steam community it will find itself on the platform in short notice. For unproven and independent developers it’s a great way to use their community in order to leverage onto the biggest digital distribution platform around and I’m firmly with (I feel) the majority who believe its a good idea. McPixel’s addition to the Steam catalogue via this process seems to have set a fire underneath a part of the community, something which you wouldn’t expect given the nature of how it came onto the platform.
As with anything that attempts to tap into the wisdom of crowds not every decision that is born of that process will be unanimously accepted by said crowd. Thus it was inevitable that McPixel’s release would be met with some less than stellar sentiment. The thread I stumbled across then was a kind of two sided echo chamber with the supporters, who were likely involved in getting the game Greenlit in the first place, rallying against the other side who derided it for the confusing game play and seemingly crude production. Strangely enough Sos, the developer behind McPixel, cites these very characteristics as things that previously stopped McPixel from appearing on Steam in the first place when he tried to get it on there through the official channels.
What does this mean then for Greenlight as a service? I’m not entirely sure, if I’m honest as realistically it’s not an uncommon thing to encounter with Internet based communities. I think it’s probably telling of the wide range of gamers who are present on Steam and whilst Greenlit games will be a good indication of those who support that title it’ll be less obvious how the wider community will react to it. It’d be interesting to see the numbers of support vs not interested as that’s captured within Greenlight (although whether people actually click that button or simply ignore the game is another question entirely).
In all honesty the reaction shouldn’t have come as a surprise but I definitely wasn’t expecting it, especially for a game that was met with such universal approval everywhere else. Whilst the first game that was brought to Steam via the community might not have attracted an unanimous approval rating it certainly hasn’t been met with universal criticism so there is still a lot of value to be derived from Greenlight. It will be interesting to see if this dual echo chamber effect comes into play on other Greenlit titles as it certainly has the potential to do so.
¹At the time of writing I was unable to get into the Steam community boards in order to link to the thread directly.
Keen readers have noticed that my last couple months worth of game reviews are following a trend. Quite a lot of the titles are from independent developers and the vast majority of them have been shorter, simpler titles who’s play time doesn’t exceed more than 4 hours. I’ll be honest and say that the reason behind this is mostly because I’ve been thoroughly enjoying countless hours in DOTA 2 but it’s also because we’re in that lull that happens in the middle of the year where AAA titles have already been released or are due to be released soon. For me this lull used to be filled with MMORPGs and replaying old titles but the indie scene doesn’t care as much about marketing cycles as their publisher backed brethren do and that means I’m usually flooded with all sorts of interesting titles to have a crack at. Unmechanical is one such title that just happened to cross my path late Friday evening and based purely off the fact that it reminded me of Machinarium I felt it was worth a look in.
You play as small, propeller headed robot just casually going about your business with what I assume is your family of other propeller headed robots. Out of nowhere a pipe, very reminiscent of the ones in the Mario Brothers series of games, abducts you away from your family who seem to be blissfully unaware that this is going on. You then wake up in a cave deep underground which you then spend the entire game attempting to get out of.
Unmechanical is quite visually pleasing thanks in part to its development on the Unreal Developer’s Kit which it will constantly mention during the non-game events. It felt very reminiscent of Trine in that regard even though Trine uses its own in house engine but the visual styles seemed very comparable. The graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge and they have most definitely been heavily optimized for the 2D game play but the heavy use of stylization, modern lighting effects and vibrant colour palette mean that Unmechanical is always a pleasure to look at.
Physics based puzzle solving is the core game mechanic of Unmechanical. There’s nothing particularly unique about this particular mechanic, nearly every game with a physics engine these days incorporates some kind of puzzle solving element in it, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. For the most part you’ll be picking up objects, moving them around and even doing a couple timed events that require precision placement in order to get everything working just right. In terms of the actual mechanics its pretty seamless as I never had any of the puzzles break on me but I did feel like there was a more subtle issue that could cause some people to get frustrated with Unmechanical.
Unmechanical is an incredibly simple game and this is by design. There’s no dialogue to speak of nor is there much in the way of explanation given for many of the things happening on the screen. This is fine however it also means that the way that most things work in this world are based around typical gaming conventions. Now depending on what kind of gamer you are some of these will be obvious and some will not. For me many of the puzzles made sense the second I saw them however there were a few where I had no idea what Unmechanical wanted me to do, leaving me to move wildly around trying to move everything in sight to see what would work. This could very well be part of the challenge but its one of those design choices that could very well lead to people dropping the game long before finishing it. I guess its not a fault per se, more something you need to be aware of going into it.
What really got me about Unmechanical though was just how good it was at telling a story without a whiff of dialogue. The screenshots don’t really do it justice and I won’t go into details about the actual story itself but suffice to say that there are enough visual clues to lead you to draw your own conclusions about the situation the main character is in, the world that surrounds it and ultimately the decision you make about how your journey ends. In essence the story can be as intricate and complex as you like or you can ignore it completely and just enjoy the puzzles. Both of these play styles would be rewarding in my view.
Unmechanical then was one of those pleasant surprises that I get every so often when I take a risk on buying a game that I know almost nothing about. The game mechanics might have been decidedly simplistic but the visual style and storytelling captivated me, enough so that I can’t bring myself to write it off as just another physics based puzzler with decent graphics. The heavy reliance on gaming conventions might make it something of a chore for some but for those who’ve got a few years of gaming experience under their belts I can’t see you struggling that much and indeed I believe there will be something in Unmechanical for nearly all gamers to enjoy.
Unmechanical is available on PC right now for $9.99. Game was completed in approximately 2.3 hours with 40% of the achievements unlocked.
If survival horror is one of the game genres that I tend to rate poorly because of my internal bias against them then real time strategy is the genre that I find myself rating consistently higher for the same reasons. This could be some kind of survivor bias that led me to drop many RTS style games early on in their lives before I could make it to the end to review them (Company of Heroes comes to mind in this regard) but it’s probably more due to my gaming roots being firmly planted in this space having whiled away many hours on the RTS classic, Dune 2. You can then imagine my intrigue when Auralux, a game from independent developer E.B. McNeill, claimed to be the very essence of RTS, cutting away all the peripheral elements until the game was refined to its core.
Auralux, like many independently developed games, has had to make choices as to what needed to be included in the game and what should be excluded. For Auralux this means that there is no story to speak of, you are simply a sun orbited by little dots who needs to take over all the other suns in the area whilst competing with 2 NPC suns who are doing the same thing. The introduction to the game is also quite thin on the ground as well but considering that there really isn’t that much to explain it actually suffices quite well. Your missions start out easy but as time goes on they get increasingly more difficult but you’re also blessed with some additional options to make your time with Auralux much more enjoyable.
The graphics of Auralux are incredibly simple with the most complex item on the whole screen being the suns that dot the landscape. It’s akin to many other ambient titles where the minimalistic graphics combined with the soothing background music make for a very pleasing game experience. The simple graphics are also due in part to the fact that Auralux is also available on Android and whilst many handsets are capable of producing much more elaborate visuals than what Auralux has that narrows the potential market for this game significantly. All that being said it’d probably look a whole lot better on a smaller screen so I’m probably being a bit harsh in that regard.
As I alluded to earlier the core game of Auralux is incredibly simple. You start off with a sun that produces little dots that you can use to take over other, unoccupied suns or to upgrade your own if its capable of doing so. Those same little dots are also your battle units and you can use them to take over other suns owned by the other players. That’s essentially it and the rest of the game is played inside your head as you work out the best strategy to overcome your foes and inevitably take over the entire board with your glowy blue goodness.
Initially the odds are heavily stacked in your favour with you usually starting from a position of power strategically. This serves as the tutorial of sorts as whilst the game play is refined down to the absolute basics its still very easy for you to get into a position that you can’t recover from. The games are also slow and methodical at the start, encouraging you to take your time with each move and consider the best path of action before committing all your available units to it. It’s a good introduction to the idea but it eventually starts to wear thin as you sometimes have to wait for a significant amount of time to pass before you’re able to progress to the next stage.
Thankfully the developer behind Auralux realised this and after a few levels you’re able to unlock “speed mode” which allows you to play the exact same game sped up significantly. This turns matches that would last 10~20 minutes into 5 minute affairs something that is definitely required considering how long it can take to build up and move your army around the map. Once I unlocked the mode I didn’t play it any other way and still managed to eek out a couple hours worth of game time and I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by doing so.
The bulk of the game stays in either the stacked in your favour or equal footing level of difficulty where you can get by with relatively unimaginative strategies. The last quarter or so puts you in situations where the odds are clearly stacked against you, usually either starving you of resources compared to your competitors or putting you in a really non-strategic position. These maps are the ones that require an incredible amount of strategy to conquer and I can say that these maps took up the vast majority of my total game time.
Something that I feel is key to understanding this game (that is only made clear to you in one of the tips that’s quite easy to miss) is that whilst the AI appears to work differently on different levels it is in fact identical across the board. Now it’s not strict as far as I can tell, it will make different decisions when two options are basically equal, but the way it operates stays the same no matter the map you’re on. Considering the matches are essentially a free for all (or more realistically a 2v1) the game then is usually to get the 2 computers to fight each other so you can quietly build up an army and devastate them before they can retaliate.
Indeed the only advantage you have as a human in this game is the fact that you’re able to think non-linearly. The screenshot below is an example of this as the AI has the terrible habit of putting all of its available units on the front lines leaving its production at the rear incredibly exposed, letting me swoop in to get it. Now if you play like the AI does you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose as the AI is very aware of when 2 of its opponents are duking it out and will take advantage of this so the way to win most games is to wait for an opportunity like the one below and make yourself an unattractive target for the other AI. There may be other ways to win but this was the only way I found to win consistently and even then I’d sometimes lose because both the AIs figured out I was an easier target then the other AI, devastating me in a short time.
Whilst the metagame might not be as rich as other RTS titles it’s still thoroughly enjoyable when you manage to pull off an incredibly risky maneuver that gives you the game winning advantage. It’s true that this is probably the simplest game that you could still reasonably call a RTS and whilst that’s an achievement in itself it also means that the variety of game play possible is also limited. The replayability of Auralux isn’t particularly high if you approach it like a traditional game but for a timewaster on a phone I can see it having quite a long life.
Auralux then is one of those curious indie games that, by necessity, strips back all extravagances in favour of a solid core game mechanic. Auralux does it well and I’d struggle to find anything simpler that could still be realistically called a RTS, even from 2 decades when games had to be simple. Whilst I might’ve cursed its name for the apparent randomness and the AIs ganging up on me I came to realise that it’s all part of the higher order strategy required to conquer your opponents. For RTS fans and casual gamers alike there’s much to love in Auralux and I’d heartily recommend a play through.
Auralux is available on PC and Android for $4.99 and free respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with about 3 hours of total play time.
I’ve always loved space simulators, even before I discovered my passion for all things space related some years ago. For the last 2 times I’ve found myself between Internet connections at home I’ve always found myself playing through the campaign of Freelancer at least once just because there’s something so incredibly satisfying about the experience. Few games have close to generating that same feeling even though there’s been quite a few that tried (DarkStar One and Evochron Mercenaries come to mind). Sol: Exodus is a recent title in the space sim genre and it came as part of one of the Indie Bundles currently going on steam. From what little I had heard about it Sol: Exodus looked decent enough to warrant me giving it the once over.
Sol: Exodus takes place 500 years into the future where humanity has devastated our home planet and we have instead become a space bound race. You play as Commander Michael David, a well trained space pilot who’s been tasked with protecting the last hope for humanity: a series of science vessels designed to scout out potential planets for settlement. Just as the scientists relay the exciting news that they’ve found a planet that would be suitable your fleet comes under attack by a religious zealot group who are hell bent on ensuring that humanity stays bound to space. You and your command ship survive and this begins your journey into bringing them to justice whilst also bringing about humanity’s salvation.
The graphics of Sol: Exodus are a mix of very nicely done spacescapes coupled with rather rudimentary level models and textures for everything else on screen. Now I won’t be unduly harsh on the developers behind Sol: Exodus because of this, there’s only so much you can do with such a small team, but it bears mentioning that the art work isn’t anything stellar. Couple this with the almost pixel art level renditions of the character portraits and the game feels like it was released around the same time as my go to favourite Freelancer more than it does for a title of the present day. Still the backgrounds are usually quite pretty so they win back some points for that.
The main game mechanic of Sol: Exodus is good old fashioned space dogfighting with a couple mini-games thrown in to break up it a little bit. It functions pretty much as you’d expect, you have a targeting system that paints target after target for you to gun down and you can do so with either your homing missiles (which have a limited supply) or you can try to mow them down using your unlimited ammunition gattling gun using the provided aim ahead reticle. Apart from that there’s not that much more to it (apart from the mini-games which I’ll get into later) and for the most part it works well save for a few little quirks I think need to be mentioned.
Like all space games with dogfighting in them (apart from games like EVE Online where you’re movement is almost irrelevant to the combat) you’ll spend a great deal of time chasing enemies from behind, sending torrents of bullets and missiles after them. The AI is unfortunately somewhat rudimentary and whilst they provide a decent challenge, especially the later elite ones, they are quite dumb and will gladly fly to their deaths by ramming into any obstacle that happens to be near by. This could be your ship, an NPC ship or anything that has collision detection on it. Whilst it’s not really possible to get them to fly into stuff by baiting them into it you’ll be likely witness to dozens of them driving their crafts into inanimate objects just for the hell of it. It’s amusing but a sign that the game AI is only half baked.
The mini-games I’ve referred to usually take the form of a scramble pad that pops up which displays a whole lot of random characters. After a couple seconds 3 letters will be highlighted and then you’ll be presented with a list of similar codes and the code that was just displayed, leaving you to chose the correct one. In all the times the game came up I only stuffed it up once but that came down to the font of the game having quite similar characters for 1 and I. Once you choose the right code you can then perform some function on the device you just hacked, usually disabling something or downloading blueprints.
The blueprints function as a sort of unlock that allows you to take down the larger capital ships that you’ll come across from time to time. Once you have the blueprints parts of the craft will become highlighted in red with a big “Weakness Point” dialog hovering over the top of them, showing where you need to start hammering away. You don’t seem to need to hit all the weak points in order to take down a craft though so if you’re strategic about it you can take them down quite quickly. It’s a pretty cool, if completely unoriginal, idea although it does feel quite samey after you do it a couple times.
There’s also an incredibly simplistic upgrade system that gives you the choice of upgrading your weapons, giving you more missiles and allowing you to fire the canons longer before overheating, your armour or your afterburners.Out of the 3 upgrades the most useful is, of course, the weapons as whilst the armour upgrades are handy you in fact don’t really need it as you can repair at your capital ship at any time during the mission. There are missions when your capital isn’t there but once you get to them you’ve probably already upgraded your weapons to max and then you can easily spare some points for armour upgrades. The speed boost upgrade seems rather useless as the default one is pretty much sufficient as long as you use it wisely.
The upgrade points come to you when you complete a mission and should you hit on an extra objective you’ll get 2 instead of 1. Unfortunately this isn’t made clear to you before the mission and whilst you can kind of guess what the objective is there’s really no way to know what you should prioritize if you’re hungering for those upgrades (or achievements, but you can just read them in the steam profile). I think there was only 3 missions where I didn’t manage to get the extra upgrade points, so it’s probably moot anyway.
The story is pretty uninspired being a rather generic space opera kind of deal with a dash of religious commentary thrown in just for good measure. The characters are given little back story or development and whilst it’s fully voice acted (commendable given its indie nature) there’s nothing really notable about the performances. Suffice to say if you ignore the story completely I don’t think you’d really be missing out on anything and the fact they committed the cardinal sin of leaving the ending open (they even said TO BE CONTINUED at the credits screen) leaves me the only option of saying you’re probably better off for doing so.
In the end Sol: Exodus feels like a good starting point for a space simulator game, one that could be so much more than it currently is. It’s incredibly short, even by indie standards, and there’s no multiplayer to speak of, something which would have made the short campaign length more understandable. Granted Seamless Entertainment are a small studio and should be commended for getting to this point but the fact remains that Sol: Exodus isn’t much more than an afternoon’s distraction and feels like it would be much better suited to the iOS/Android platform than the PC it resides on. Maybe we’ll see more from the developers in the future where they use all the investment in Sol: Exodus to produce something that has a lot more meat to it than their latest title does.
Sol: Exodus is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2.5 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.