Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m not usually a fan of reaction based games, mostly because they do a great job of highlighting just how bad I am at them. Sure there’s a sense of accomplishment once I get there, but it often feels like I’ve either brute forced my way through or just lucked out. However seeing people master games like that can be quite entertaining, like watching Rocket League pros juggle a ball like it’s nothing. Ballistic falls along similar lines for me, being incredibly frustrating to play but would definitely make for good watching should someone decide to take the time to master it.
There is a vague notion of a plot in Ballistic, you being some kind of weapon of mass destruction set out to stop someone from capturing a planet (or something along those lines). What you are is a giant geodesic ball that can roll along any surface, shooting itself in any direction at incredibly high speed. Anything you come into contact with is instantly obliterated and that includes any innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way. That sets up the premise for the game: wreck a bunch of things and then find the teleportation pad to take you to the next level. Like many skill/twitch/reaction based games it’s a simple concept that’s incredibly difficult to master.
Ballistic uses the Unreal Engine 4 which means that, at a base level, the graphics aren’t bad. They’re quite simplistic, consisting mostly of highly glossy surfaces and geometric shapes, which is fitting given the Outrun-ish theme it seems to be going for. When you’re moving everything turns into a glorious blur of neon but, when you inevitably hit something you get an up close look and things aren’t as great. All the people models have to be store bought assets as they simply don’t fit the aesthetic of the game at all. The other various models (like the guns and whatnot) fit a little better but they’ve obviously been designed to not be looked at too closely. For more skilled players this might not be an issue but for someone like me, who seemed to spend more time still than blasting past, it was hard not to notice it.
The challenges the game presents you are usually pretty simple. Most of them will be a variation on move here, kill this thing and then find this other thing to complete the level. Sounds easy in theory but wrangling the ball to do what you want it to do is a challenge all in of itself. You have a couple controls at your disposal: roll, which allows you to move whilst you’re flat on a surface. Boost which pushes you in the direction of the camera and bullet time allowing you to more precisely aim your shots. You’d think that with these tools it’d be relatively easy to navigate your way around however it’s akin to trying to play billiards in three dimensions more than anything else. In order to get to a certain point you’ll have to estimate your current momentum, what you can add via boost and your time in flight before you hit there. Doing all these things whilst you’re blasting past everything at a million miles an hour is quite the challenge.
That being said once you get a handle on how things all slot together you can more accurately place yourself than you would otherwise. Mashing the boost button the second you leave a surface is most certainly the wrong thing to do, often leading you into unrecoverable situations. Nor is attaining maximum speed the solution to everything as once you get past a certain point the amount of influence you have over where you’re going is diminished significantly. In the end the challenge that Ballistic provides is one of balance: you have to figure out the right mix of everything to achieve your objective. Suffice to say it’s not the easiest game around, one that’s barely deserving of the “casual” tag it’s got itself on Steam.
Ballistic is an extremely challenging momentum based skill game, one that this writer would likely recommend for fiends who enjoyed similar games like Rocket League. The retro soundtrack is what attracted me to it in the first place and, unfortunately, the game play wasn’t enough for me to stick around for too long afterwards. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game, one that will reward those who take the time to master its momentum based mechanics. If, like me, you were seeking something a little less intense though it might be the wrong thing for you. For a specific subset of gamers Ballistic’s challenges will provide the kind of intense action they crave however, for this old gamer, I think I’ll leave my play time with it where it stands.
Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.
Atmospheric puzzlers have typically been bound to the mobile market. The bite sized puzzles lend themselves well to the platform, allowing you to work through a few when you have a moment or two spare. This often means they don’t translate well; it’s rare that you’ll want to boot up your PC or console just to play for a couple minutes. Some do better than others though and Linelight, which is only available on PC and PlayStation 4, manages to be better than most. It is, however, still a step below story based puzzler games, but that’s par for the course in this genre.
The game’s core mechanic is simple: you’re a little green light and you have to collect the yellow stars by following a pre-determined path. At first this is pretty easy, simply follow the route and you’re done. As the puzzles roll on though more and more mechanics will get thrown at you, requiring you to figure out how best to use them. Towards the end of each world you’ll then also be greeted by a sister line that will follow you around, presenting another layer of challenge. There’s also a bevy of secret puzzles laid around for you to find, all of them hiding in plain sight.
Linelight takes an extremely minimalistic approach to visuals, favouring soft colours bathed in neon glows from all the little lines. There’s the odd particle effect here or there for when you pick up something or complete a level, but nothing more beyond that. The backing soundtrack though is decidedly pleasant, providing a lovely ambience that casually reacts to whatever is happening on screen. This makes playing Linelight quite a relaxing and zen-like experience which is probably my favourite thing about atmospheric puzzlers. Well that and their shorter lengths, something this reviewer appreciates when he’s short on time!
The mechanics are relatively straightforward with the “tutorial” for each mechanic built into the puzzles themselves. You’ll be introduced to the mechanic using a simple puzzle and after there it quickly ramps up, requiring a healthy dose of non-linear thinking. Quite a few will also require semi-precise timing in order to pull off, lest you find yourself trapped or dead. Also unless you’re probing every nook and cranny of Linelight’s puzzles you’re not likely going to trip over any of the secrets. Indeed I didn’t know there were any secrets until I accidentally managed to go in a direction that appeared to be impossible.
The puzzles don’t lend themselves well to emergent solutions but I did manage to encounter a few issues when I solved something in particular ways. For instance it appears when you get the “tail” addition that part isn’t capable of progressing you to the next section, only your front line is. Of course this only necessitated a restart to checkpoint to solve so it was no big deal. Other than that there really were no technical issues to report.
However, even though Linelight does a lot better than its peers in terms game play, I still couldn’t do more than about 20 minutes per session with it. Like all games based on a core mechanic with slight variations there’s not much to drive you on once you reach a good stopping point. I mean I still came back 3 times over a few days but past that I didn’t really feel compelled to go back. I’m really not sure what games like this can do to keep people like me coming back though.
Linelight is a great distraction that combines minimal visuals with a great backing soundtrack. The simple mechanics make for frustration free play, the puzzles whizzing on by as your little light speeds from one side of the screen to the other. It is a little lacking in the (re)playability department though with most of my sessions not exceeding 20 minutes or so. That being said I think it’s still worth the price of admission, if only for the lovely piano plinking.
Linelight is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with 84 minutes of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.
There are two distinct types of stealth games. The first are the ones built around the mechanic, designed in such a way that stealth permeates throughout the game. The second, and sadly much more common, is where stealth is added on as a mechanic at a later point. The difference between these two types of stealth games couldn’t be more stark, with the latter feeling out of place. The former however usually results in a much better experience as stealth is an incredibly hard mechanic to get right, if your game isn’t built around it. Aragami thankfully falls into the former camp, nailing the stealth mechanics beautifully.
You are an Aragami, a spirit of vengeance summoned by Yamiko, a young girl who has been imprisoned by the Kaiho. Her captors are adepts of the light, able to control it with deadly effects. Yamiko tells you that the Kaiho are oppressors of her people and have imprisoned her Shadow Princess along with her. It is then up to you Aragami to free her and take down the Kaiho army to free the shadow realm from oppression. How you go about this however is your choice, although sticking to the shadows is likely a wise choice.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Aragami was coming from Telltale as its visual style is very similar. It’s based on the Unity engine however (not Telltale’s aging game engine) and the look is generated by good old fashioned cel shading. Overall the visuals are simple and clean, with little extraneous detail thrown about. Performance on my current rig was perfect, as you’d expect, however I think it’d run perfectly fine on current generation smart phones with little change. The only complaint I’d have is that it starts to get a bit repetitive after chapter 7 or so. It does get better towards the end though as the environments get a little more varied, however.
Aragami, as I mentioned before, is a stealth game. You’re put in an area, given a goal to reach and are left up to get to the other end. Combat is non-existent as one hit from any threat will instantly kill you however you are able to dispose of your enemies, if you deem it necessary. Whilst you’ll initially have to rely on your wits to get through each level you’ll find scrolls that grant you talent points along the way. These will give you a smattering of different abilities to deal with the various situations that the game presents you with. The puzzles are pretty basic however, varying little beyond disabling barriers. Mechanically it’s a simple game but the difficulty comes in how you choose to play it.
Like most stealth veterans I immediately chose the no-kill, complete stealth route. Surprisingly though this is probably the easiest (or second easiest, possibly) route to choose as all you have to contend with there is making it through in one piece. So for the next chapter I attempted to kill everyone which proved to be a much more challenging task. Not only do you have to avoid being spotted you also have to ensure no one finds the corpses you leave behind. I eventually gave up doing it as it always seemed like someone would stumble across the bodies, no matter how well I thought I had cleared out a particular area.
Of course doing that becomes a lot easier if you invest a few points in the right talents, one of which allows you to completely remove bodies. There’s enough scrolls about the place that you could easily max out most of the useful talents in a single play through. Of course there’s a few quality of life ones you probably want to go for first, like the one that reveals where all the scrolls are. Others like the invisibility one are quite useful for just blazing through otherwise laborious sections, something that becomes a life saver later on in the game. There’s definitely a good amount of replayability in Aragami because of these talent choices, something which I’m sure the completist crowd will enjoy.
Aragami is mostly mechanically sound, however there are a few quirks which can trip you up if you’re not careful. It’s clear there’s certain places you’re not supposed to be able to shadow step to, but you can if you get the angles right. Things like tree branches, leaves or other semi-odd geometry provide ample places for getting yourself stuck or completely bypassing an otherwise mandatory challenge. Additionally the invisibility power, with its upgrade to make you apparently completely silent, doesn’t seem to work that way 100% of the time. There were a couple times I ran past someone only to have them alert the entire place I was there. Whilst I can understand that happening if I ran directly into them I can remember not even being near them when it happened on more than one occasion. Overall these issues aren’t massive, but are annoying when they happen.
The lack of variety in the layouts and mechanics does start to wear on you after a while. Around the halfway point I found I could really only play a chapter or two before getting bored. Towards the end things started to get a little more interesting but the first 3 hours or so felt like they dragged on quite a bit. Since the game announces to you just how many things you’re going to have to do (get 5 talismans! yay!) it instantly makes you feel like you’re on an extended fetch quest. Couple that with trying to find the scrolls and you’re probably not going to enjoying yourself that much. Indeed I think the middle couple hours could’ve probably been removed without much impact to the game or narrative.
The story is, unfortunately, quite mediocre. It’s clear pretty early on what the twist is going to be which is only made worse by the weirdly out of place dialogue. The writing wouldn’t be out of place in say, a modern anime or something similar, but Aragami seems to want to be taken seriously. However that’s just not possible with the way the main characters interact with each other. Towards the end things start to work out a little better but since there’s really no build up it’s all quite hollow. It also appears that there must’ve been a big rewrite of the story at some point as the final lines, which allude to the game’s previous name Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows, reveal information that had not been spoken of or alluded to at all. Considering this is Lince Works’ first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.
Aragami is a competent stealth platformer with beautiful cel shaded graphics and a great backing soundtrack. Taking the notion that the no-kill, full stealth route is the hardest and turning it on its head is a great twist on the regular stealth idea. Aragami is however let down by its repetitiveness and lacklustre story, a mistake many first time indie game developers make. Still for those of us who enjoy a good stealth-first game there are few titles like Aragami and fewer still from indie developers. If you’re looking for something to bridge the gap between the next bout of AAA releases and need a stealth fix then Aragami might just be for you.
Aragami is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time and 67% of the achievements unlocked.
Creating a game is an exercise in compromise. On the one hand you have your vision for what you want the game to be, whether it be a sweeping epic or a simple puzzle game, on the other you have the amount of resources at your disposal. These are often at odds with each other and the resultant product will likely not be the full embodiment of the original vision. This is fine, however, as the white whale of perfection has killed so many titles, many before they saw the light of day. Toren, the first game from the nascent Swortales, is a game that has remnants of a greater vision scattered through it which the spectre of compromise laid off to one side.
You are the moonchild, born of the night and destined to climb the Toren in search of your purpose. The sun never sets in this world, basking it in an endless sunshine. This is the will of the dragon who, for reasons unknown to you, refuses to allow the sun to set. As you climb the Toren your guide, a mysterious figure who appears to be long dead, reveals to you the secrets of this world and why you are doomed to repeat this cycle again and again until your true purpose is discovered. It is then up to you to discover the real history of this world and your part to play in its future.
Toren isn’t exactly cutting edge when it comes to graphics with the vast majority of the assets feeling like they’re a generation behind current trends. Part of this is due to the Unity engine, which has a definite stylization characteristic to it if you don’t wrangle the engine appropriately, but other things like the stiff (most likely hand cranked) animations lead more towards this coming from the studio’s inexperience. On a tablet or other portable device such graphics aren’t out of the ordinary however Toren is currently only available on PC and PlayStation 4, platforms both capable of much more than what Toren offers. On the flip side the soundtrack that backs Toren is absolutely amazing which makes me think that they paid far more attention to that than anything else. Such is the battle of compromise.
In broad strokes Toren would be called a 3D puzzle platformer as it has characteristics of both, although there are some hints of greater aspirations for this game hidden throughout half finished mechanics. To start off with you’ll be exploring and stumbling across different puzzle elements which is mostly just setting the scene for the later reveals. Later on the platforming element is introduced which starts off simply and does introduce some rather interesting elements. Finally there’s some semblance of a combat system although it’s extremely simplistic, basically only serving as another aspect to the other puzzle mechanics. All in all it’s got the makings of a much larger game that hit with the cold hard reality of deadlines and deliverables but still manages to cobble together a fairly decent game experience out of it.
The puzzles are incredibly simple, mostly just requiring you to find something and put it somewhere else. The platforming is very similar as your objective is, most of the time, clearly visible with an easy path to reach it. Toren makes the mistake of having a fixed camera for everything which means the platforming sections are an exercise in frustration most of the time as you try to figure out how your controls should be reacting given the current camera angle. This also flows onto some of the puzzles which require you to cover an emblem on the ground in salt, something that’s rather difficult to pull off when your character doesn’t react in the way you’d expect them to. Suffice to say I think it’s a passable experience although there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in terms of mechanics and their execution.
The experience is heavily marred by its numerous technical issues, not least of which stem from the horrendous control scheme. I did the right thing at the start and plugged my controller in, as I was told to however that, for some reason, resulted in the camera always pointing upwards so I couldn’t actually see my character. Switching to keyboard and mouse made that issue go away but the default keyboard layout is nonsensical and it’s obvious that the controller was programmed first and the keyboard controls shoe horned in afterwards. Couple this with the extremely basic hit detection (which powers nearly every interaction in the game) and Toren feels like it’s lacking a certain amount of polish required to take the experience to the next level.
Whilst I’m speculating heavily here I’m quite sure that the majority of these issues stem from Toren having much greater aspirations than its final incarnation has. For example there’s a kind of inventory system in there and you’ll pick up a few items along the way. However it’s not like you have to go out of your way to find these items and they’re given to you know what to do with them. The “chainmail” for example protects you from small monsters but you get it before you even see your first monster, let alone know they can do damage to you. It feels like Toren was meant to be more of a RPG than an exploration game however it was never able to reach this goal due to the constraints they faced in implementing it. This is somewhat reflected in Toren’s short length as well, although that’s not a negative in my book.
The story is, to be blunt, frustratingly vague at the beginning although it does manage to redeem itself over the course of its 2 hour play time. It might not be original, nor very emotionally engaging, however it does manage to set everything up well enough that the final pay off is somewhat satisfying. Developing the story further however would likely require a much longer playtime, which would require even more work to accomplish, so given the bounds Toren works within it does manage to achieve an impressive amount. If you’re a story first gamer though you might not get that much out of Toren as you would say a more story focused title.
Toren is a game that’s scarred by its ambition, attempting to reach for much greater heights than it finally ended up achieving. Whilst the final product is most certainly playable, and for small sections quite enjoyable, its below par graphics, simplistic mechanics and frankly horrendous control scheme mar the better aspects of it significantly. The soundtrack is by far the stand out component of Toren although I can’t help but feel that the game would be that much stronger if some of the effort dedicated to crafting that was directed at the game play and story development. For a studio that’s never released a game before it’s a good first attempt however I hope they take the lessons learned from Toren and apply them to their future titles as there’s every opportunity for them to make a great experience if they do.
Toren is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99 and $14.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 75% of the achievements unlocked.
Puzzle-platformers are the corridor shooter of the indie scene; they are the genre that nearly everyone attempts in their quest to become the next big thing. This means that, for the most part, original ideas are few and far between and often those that are truly unique fall flat on their executions in one way or another. It’s rare that any of these style of games executes all elements well, especially for indie developers who usually have to make sacrifices in one element to support another. Ori and the Blind Forest however makes no such trade offs with every aspect of the game setting a new standard for what the tried and true puzzle-platformer genre can deliver.
Ori is the child of the Spirit Tree, the great entity that provides life to the forest of Nibel. However one day Ori was ripped from the safe arms of the Spirit Tree during a storm and was lost deep in the forest. Thankfully though Naru, a creature of the forest, found Ori and raised it as her own, teaching her to gather apples and build bridges. Then one night the Spirit Tree set the skies on fire, hoping to find its long lost child and have them return home. Those cries went unanswered and the forest began to wither, the elements that supported it no longer being nourished by the spirit tree. Ori now wanders the forest alone, seeking out the Spirit Tree in the hopes of restoring the forest.
Ori and the Blind Forest is exceptionally beautiful with an amazing combination of 2D and 3D artwork that seamlessly blends together. The lavish use of glow and lighting effects elevates what would otherwise be a flat environment to a whole new level, giving Ori this kind of dream-like aesthetic that’s simply a joy to behold. Combine this with the absolutely amazing soundtrack and sound design and you have a game that’s, put simply, one of the best looking and sounding games I’ve played in a very long time. My only regret is that I didn’t play it on my new gaming PC (I was on holiday with the family and had my now aging ultrabook with me) as this beauty comes at a cost, although it was still readily playable.
At a gameplay level Ori and the Blind Forest is a puzzle-platformer with a host of additional mechanics thrown in that help differentiate it from this now crowded genre. Sure you’ll still be jumping from platform to platform a lot, trying to figure out how to use each of the abilities you have in order to get the next section, however interspersed with that are combat sections, resource decisions and a myriad of areas to explore that will reward you in many ways. This is then all backed by a three tree talent systems that’s broken down into combat, utility and new abilities that allow you to customize Ori to fit your preferred playstyle. All of these elements are blended seamlessly together so you won’t be slammed with a wall of possibilities the second you start the game. Suffice to say it’s a comprehensive list of features, something you don’t often see in indie titles.
The platforming is done exceptionally well, something I’m loathed to admit given how many times I failed on various platforming sections throughout the game. It starts off being very forgiving, with jumps being short and the punishment light, however it slowly escalates to the point where each jump needs to be almost perfectly executed in order to make them and failure will result in you going back to your last checkpoint (which you have to create yourself). For the most part everything works as advertised however there’s a few, let’s call them quirks, of how things work which can catch you out if you forget them. The one notable example I can think of is if you glide, then climb, then jump again (this all requires you holding the shift key down) you won’t then automatically glide again, something which will often result in your untimely demise.
The puzzles follow the platforming pretty closely, starting off straightforward and routine in order to introduce the mechanic du’jour and slowly ramping up the difficulty as you progress through a section. You likely won’t find yourself stuck on any one of them for too long however the time it takes you to actually solve them may vary a bit depending on how good your twitch reflexes are. Still apart from one particular section I didn’t feel like the puzzles were overly difficult or unduly punishing to the player and should you invest most of your points in one of the particular talent trees I’m sure the vast majority of the puzzles would’ve been a lot easier.
The talent tree and character progression system is also well designed giving you the choice of three different branches to choose from each of which has a specific set of benefits associated with it. It’s gated slightly in terms of further upgrades often requiring a campaign unlock to progress past them however this is more to encourage you to spend your points in the various branches rather than hoarding them for when you get that particular unlock. Indeed the levels come often enough that even after you unlock the next stage you won’t be waiting long to get that ability you’ve been lusting after and, should really want to powerlevel your abilities, there’s hidden ability point orbs all over the map to help you get across the line.
It’s not often that I can say that a game has a near-flawless execution as it’s quite hard to avoid some form of niggling issue or strange quirk but Ori and the Blind Forest has managed to attain that level of polish over its four year development cycle. Indeed apart from the one platforming quirk I mentioned earlier there’s really no other technical fault to speak of however there is one particular section of the game (the final “boss” section) which I take issue with. The instant-death punishment that sends you all the way back to the start of the section, coupled with an extremely short time to gauge what the next section requires you to do, means that you’ll likely end up dying repeatedly to things that you could simply have no way knowing were coming. It is perhaps the only black mark I will count against this otherwise exceptional game but it’s sections like that which have made me stop playing games completely in the past.
Bringing this all together is the absolutely brilliant story which, whilst simplistic, is delivered in such a beautiful way that it instantly draws you in and refuses to let go until the ultimate conclusion. I can’t remember a time when a game made me care about the main characters so quickly and then made me empathize even further with characters I either hated or found annoying. The finale is incredibly satisfying to, closing the story out and avoiding the temptation of leaving it open ended for a potential sequel. The fact that I’ve teared up several times recalling the various plot points as I write this review is a testament to the effect it had on me as it really is quite a beautiful story.
Ori and the Blind Forest is the game to which all puzzle-platformers will now be compared as it executes near-flawlessly in every aspect. The graphics and artwork are simply stunning with the dreamlike aesthetic providing an amazing backdrop for the beautiful soundtrack and foley work. The core game mechanics are rock solid, requiring you to push your own limits if you want to succeed and progress to the next stage. These characteristics would make it a great game in its own right but the story that binds everything together is what elevates this from being a great game technically to an exemplary title that will be used as the reference point from here on out. I could gush more but honestly you’ll be better served to stop reading now and grabbing yourself a copy of this absolutely brilliant game.
Ori and the Blind Forest is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with approximately 8 hours of total playtime.
Indie games are typically a tradeoff between several different aspects that were once considered to be critical for a game to be successful. The typical approach is to tone down graphics, mechanics and even interactivity in favour of better storytelling. This is what attracted me to the indie scene in the first place as I find it easy to write off larger faults in the game should it be able to tell an engaging narrative. However sometimes there are little gems of indie titles that manage to do well in more than just one area, executing more than just a good story. Mind: Path to Thalamus is one such indie game, being able to deliver an experience that’s above many higher budget titles yet still retains the same aspects that make indie titles so charming.
You are stuck in a surreal and desolate world, one devoid of any other humans and that seems to react to your very presence. Some of the places are familiar, reminding you of places that you used to visit as a child, whilst others seem to have risen up from your deepest nightmares, shaking you to your very core. There’s only one thing that keeps pushing you forward: you must reach the Thalamus, no matter how painful the journey to it is. Can you suffer through the mistakes you made in order to find redemption? Are you even worthy of it? These are the questions you’ll answer as you journey towards the ever elusive Thalamus.
For an indie game Mind: Path to Thalamus is incredibly beautiful with the wide variety of different environments providing a great array of eye candy. Part of this is due to it using the Unreal under the hood, an engine that’s renowned for being able to produce great visuals, however the artwork is above that of many other indie games of similar calibre. This goes hand in hand with the soundtrack that accompanies the visuals, swelling at all the right points in concert with your character’s emotions and dropping to deathly silence, reminding you that you’re alone in this world. The screenshots I’ve taken really don’t do it justice, it’s an exceptionally well crafted experience.
The core game of Mind: Path to Thalamus is that of a puzzler, done in the now traditional indie style of not telling you exactly how everything works but giving you enough visual clues in order to be able to figure it out. The various mechanics change throughout the game however they’re introduced individually so you can get a feel for what their triggers are, how they combine and what bits and pieces of the environment you should be on the lookout for in order to be able to progress to the next section. Overall the puzzles are pretty simple, if you’re struggling it’s typically because you’re doing something the wrong way, however there’s enough challenge that they feel like an organic part of the game rather than a brick wall designed to pad out the play time.
This is probably why Mind: Path to Thalamus has such great visuals as they really are key to the overall game experience. Pretty much every time I found myself stuck on something was due to me not noticing or forgetting about a particular game mechanic, usually one that was just introduced to me not 1 puzzle ago. The last few puzzle stages kept me busy for a good couple hours as they use every mechanic to their fullest, forcing you to figure out what sequence of events you have to go through in order to unlock the next piece. It was well timed however as the final dialogue sections, which are scripted to repeat after a certain time, only did so right before the final scene showing that the developer has paced Mind: Path to Thalamus out extremely well.
For the most part Mind: Path to Thalamus runs well with no graphics glitches or broken gameplay elements to speak of. It does however seem to crash randomly on occasion, something that didn’t seem to have any one particular cause. Some sections that would crash at one point would inexplicably play through fine afterwards. They didn’t happen often however the checkpointing system seems to get confused when it happens and will send you back to the start of the chapter and not the current respawn point you’re at. It’s not a big deal, especially if you’ve already worked out all the puzzles, but it was a slight frustration when I was elbows deep in the story.
What sold me on Mind: Path to Thalamus originally was one of the trailers that showed some of the opening scenes of the game which had some extremely gripping voice acting. Whilst that same level of passion isn’t carried throughout the game the story is delivered well by the sole voice actor. Usually out of order narratives annoy me but Mind: Path to Thalamus does in it such a way that several story threads are built around you and only towards the end is the relationship between the two revealed. It wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster however it was a solid story on regret, redemption and the highly illogical process we all go through when we’re grieving. Suffice to say I’d rate it above many other story-first games that I’ve played in recent memory although I wasn’t exactly in tears at the end of it.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is a fantastic example of what the indie development scene is capable of producing, from the gorgeous visuals right down to the engaging story. Whilst a story-driven indie puzzler might not be everyone’s cup of tea I feel Mind: Path to Thalamus would stand well just on its mechanics alone, with the inventive mechanics requiring more than passing glance to understand fully. It might not be a perfectly polished gem however Mind: Path to Thalamus expertly delivers on the goals it set out to accomplish and is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.
Mind: Path to Thalamus is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 48% of the achievements unlocked.
In the past the only genre of game that could get away with being intentionally difficult to play was survival horror. The reasoning there was that it built tension, mimicking the feeling of panic you would feel should you find yourself in the same situation as is on screen. However the past couple years have given rise to a genre of games, all of them from independent developers, that hinge on the idea of being incredibly frustrating to play. It’s hard to understand the comedic effect that this usually has, typically resulting in a whole bunch of emergent game play characteristics that become the game’s main attraction. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one such game, combining incredibly obtuse controls with ragdoll physics that results in much hilarity.
You’re an octopus, one that’s managed to integrate himself into normal society to the point that everyone thinks you’re just a regular guy. Indeed even your wife and kids don’t know your secret, blissfully unaware of the chaos that seems to ensue wherever you go. There is one person though that knows who you are, a chef called Fujimoto, and he’s made it his only goal in life to reveal you for who you are and, most unfortunately, cook you up and serve you. What follows is the tale of you trying to integrate into society whilst attempting to flee Chef Fujimoto’s attempts to turn you into moderately priced sushi rolls.
Octodad reminds me of the educational games I use to play as a kid, having a distinctly cartoony style that uses heavily stylization. Initially I thought it was a Unity game as I’ve seen a couple other games with similar visual styles (kind of like how Flash games tended to look similar) but it’s actually a homegrown solution meaning the visual style is very deliberate. Whilst it’s not going to win awards I definitely like it and feel that it’s very fitting to the game. It also has the added bonus of making Octodad playable on pretty much anything which is great considering what a wide appeal the game itself has.
As I alluded to earlier Octodad relies on the unpredictability of the controls to generate the majority of the challenge. Primarily you’ll be doing things that would be considered trivial in most games, picking up an item, moving an item, walking through a hallway of precariously placed objects, however you’ll likely be unable to do that without knocking something over or accidentally picking something up. This wouldn’t be an issue however anything out of the normal will attract the attention of nearby humans and, should you continue your flailing, the jig will be up and it will be back to the ocean for you.
The controls take a bit of getting used to as you have to constantly switch between modes in order to get things done. The first mode is where you can pick up and move objects about, simple enough you say, however the controls don’t translate like you think they would. Then when you switch to the movement mode all the rules you learnt in the other mode go out the window and now you’re on an eternal quest to put your feet in the right position whilst not knocking anything over. Thankfully the devs included snap points for a lot of the main objectives as otherwise there’d be hours of frustration in order to get things to work just right.
Whilst the unpredictability of the physics engine is a feature, not a bug, there are a some unfortunate glitches which can be a tad annoying. You can get yourself into positions where the camera seems to forget where you are and no amount of movement spamming seems to bring it right (reloading a checkpoint will, however). There’s also no way to tell what surfaces you can and can’t adhere yourself to and even when you can the amount of gripping power you have seems to vary wildly depending on the situation. I will admit that the latter seems intentional to an extent but sometimes it felt like the game was punishing you for no reason in particular.
I was pleasantly surprised by Octodad’s story as whilst it’s lacking in depth it certainly isn’t lacking in heart. The subtitles for your lines are great, making you empathize with a character that, in all honesty, has no business being in the position that he’s in. It’s also acutely self aware of the absurdity of its own situation, thankfully not to the point of overdoing it like a lot of games tend to do. It’s the kind of story that I feel would be great for someone with kids as they’ll love the absurdity of Octodad’s flailing arms whilst learning a few things along the way.
Octodad: Dadliest catch is a charming indie frustration title that breaks away from many of the traditional game norms in favour of its own brand of absurdity. The game mechanics might not be complex, nor the puzzles particularly challenging, but it is a great deal of fun to play. The are some minor technical hiccups that mar the otherwise solid execution but they’re not game breaking and indeed you’d almost consider some of them part of the game itself. There’s a lot to like in Octodad: Dadliest catch and I’d definitely recommend a play through.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $14.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie dev scene seems to go through periods of obsession with different genres. In the past it was with platform puzzlers as it seemed that every other week brought to me several new titles attempting to put their own twist on the tried and true genre. More recently it seems to have shifted to survival horror as many seek to replicate the success of DayZ. So when Contrast, a platforming/puzzler from Compulsion games, I felt a distinct twinge of nostalgia, harking back to the indie renaissance that was built on games such as this. Like many from that time it’s taken the puzzler/platformer genre and placed its own unique style on top of it resulting in a game that’s quite interesting, even if it has its faults.
It’s not quite clear who, or more importantly what, you are when the game starts but all you know is that only a small girl, Didi, can see you. In fact this bond seems to be somewhat mutual as you can’t see anyone else but her and the shadows of others that are in the room with you. You and Didi seem to share a bond however as she’s always getting into mischief, usually with your assistance, much to the chagrin of her mother. Still, Didi’s mother tries hard to support her, hoping to rise to fame as a wonderful singer and actress. Everything starts to change when Didi’s deadbeat father comes back into the picture, promising to make everything right.
The art style of Contrast feels like you’re in the mind of a child with many typical elements, such as houses, having a very whimsical nature to them. It’s all heavily inspired by the art deco movement of the 1930s and 40s with many of the environments having a really distinct BioShock-esque feel to them. They do feel a little dead and empty however which I do believe was done deliberately however it means you feel compelled to not stay in one area for too long, even though the game tries to encourage you to explore. Potentially this could have been solved by adding in more light sources that had shadows walking past it which wouldn’t seem out of place and would make everything feel a little more alive.
As I alluded to earlier Contrast is a platform/puzzler that has an unique mechanic to spice things up a bit. The puzzles are all fairly basic in nature, usually consisting of getting yourself from one place to another or moving an item into another spot that’s not exactly obvious when you first start out. Contrast’s twist however is that when a wall is lit up you can “shift” into it, becoming a 2D shadow on the wall that allows you to move in ways that would be impossible otherwise. This leads to some rather intriguing puzzles where you’re always looking for where the source of light is and how the shadows you can create will help or hinder you in your goal.
There’s also a set of collectables called “Luminaries” which are hidden in various locations throughout the game. They function as an exploration mechanic as well as a kind of in-game currency to progress past certain obstacles. Their presence isn’t fully explained however, although Didi is aware of them for some reason, so the motivation to collect them really only comes about if you’re a natural explorer or you happen to see one that isn’t far out of your reach. Indeed there was only once when I didn’t have the required luminaries on me to immediately continue a puzzle and then it took me less than a couple minutes to find the requisite number.
Unfortunately whilst this mechanic is indeed novel it suffers heavily from glitchy behaviour. True flat surfaces with light projected onto them appear to work quite well however anything with a ridge or a bump in it, like the numerous columns that dot the landscape, have a tendency to shift you back out of the shadow plane. It’s hard to tell if this is expected behaviour or not as you can walk through them, some times, and you can also blast past them again only randomly. The shadow detection itself can also get a bit buggy as Dawn’s hitbox appears to be significantly bigger than the character model, leading to some puzzles either being more complicated than they need to be or being trivialized.
Indeed there were quite a few puzzles where I figured I’d be restarting from the checkpoint again only to find myself standing on air next to the ledge I was trying to jump onto. Whilst I was somewhat appreciative of this at the time it does mean that the game doesn’t function as you’d expect leading to some rather undesirable behaviour. Worst still there are many places where you can find yourself caught in the environment for some inexplicable reason and while I never had to reload to get unstuck it certainly didn’t endear the game to me when it happened.
Contrast’s story, whilst clichéd, does help to smooth over some of the more rough edges of the game. The majority of the voice actors are great with the notable exception of Didi who’s lines seem to be heavily disjointed between sentences. The music is quite good, suiting the art deco environment aptly. Whilst it might not have the depth of other indie titles it certainly has a little bit of charm to it with everyone being able to identify with the idea of giving someone a second chance.
Contrast is a unique concept, filled with brilliant ideas that are unfortunately hindered by a less than ideal execution. The story, music and scenery are all above average, crafting a whimsical art deco world that’s incredibly delightful. However the core game mechanics suffer from inconsistent behaviour and glitchy collision detection turning the otherwise novel idea of moving through shadows into a laborious experience. Lovers of indie puzzlers will find a lot to enjoy in Contrast however I think that’s the limit of its appeal, at least in its current state.
Contrast is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $14.99, $14.99, $21.49 and $14.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 68% of the achievements unlocked.
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.