The Trine series has captured many people’s attention over the years, mostly thanks to the incredibly inventive physics based game play. It’s been a long time between drinks for the series what with the previous installment, Trine 2, being released almost 4 years ago. This can be partly attributed to Frozenbyte focusing some of its efforts on their iOS platform Splot, however most of the long development time has been spent on Trine 3 itself. Indeed when you hear that Trine 3 incorporates 3D into the mix, after the last 2 being 2D platformers, you can get a feel for why it stayed in development for so long. However Frozenbyte’s ambition may have been its undoing as it’s clear that Trine 3 fell short of its ultimate goal.
Once again our heroes: Amadeus, Pontius and Zoya, are trying to live their lives as they were before the Trine started interfering with them. Amadeus was finally spending time with his family, taking them to see the giant turtle migration. Pontius continued to be a hero of the people, ensuring that no thief or neerdowell went unpunished. Zoya continued her quest for treasure, tracking down a giant emerald. However, just like always, the Trine showed up at the most inopportune time to whisk them away on an adventure. Little did they know that this one would take them to the heart of the Trine itself and the darkness which lied within.
Trine 3 makes use of Frozenbyte’s own custom engine and, whilst I’d warn most indie developers about doing that, what they’ve managed to create is, put simply, absolutely stunning. Trine 2 managed to have some great vistas however, due to the 2D nature, they were always somewhere off in the background. With the inclusion of 3D in Trine 3, and the addition of the vastly improved artwork, Trine 3 is yet again another step up from its predecessor. The art style and direction is retained, with vibrant colours and effects everywhere, along with the great soundtrack and voice acting. Indeed Trine 3 feels like a AAA title in almost all respects as there are few indies who can produce such quality work.
The core of Trine remains largely the same with the platforming, puzzle solving and emergent, physics based game play all making an appearance. The abilities of the three heroes are largely the same as well although the game has been radically simplified when compared to its predecessors. Amadeus can summon just one box, Pontious’ abilities have been reduced to a charge and slam and Zoya’s arrows are merely garden variety now, although she can now attach things together through the use of her grappling hook. The talent system is completely gone and progression now comes in the form of collecting shiny triangles which you’ll use to unlock further story and side missions. All in all Trine 3 feels like a far more streamlined game, one that would be far more welcoming to newcomers to the series.
The introduction of 3D changes the core platforming and puzzle mechanics significantly as now you have a whole extra dimension to contend to when attempting to solve the puzzles. It’s not true full 3D in all aspects however as it seems, for simplicity’s sake, that there are some constraints on your movement. If you jump off a wall in one direction you’ll essentially be locked to moving in that direction. For things parts of the environment that spin or move this can lead to some unpredictable behaviour as mistiming your jump means you move in a completely different direction to the one you intended. The same rules seem to apply to using the grappling hook as well, locking you into one direction to swing across (I.E. you can’t say, swing around in a loop). I’m sure I’m not explaining this well enough but once you play Trine 3 you’ll see what I’m getting at.
Combat feels largely the same, being one of the few times that you’ll use Pontius for something. You’ll be able to complete most combat sections by just mashing buttons and jumping around randomly however some of the later fights do require a bit more finesse. The only really challenging combat encounters are the boss fights (of which there are 2 from memory) and the various side quests which lock you into a single character requiring you to figure out how to best use them in combat. For long time fans of the series this will feel largely in step with previous games in the series as combat was always something of an also-ran, a curious distraction to break up the platforming and puzzle solving.
The emergent gameplay is as rampant as ever with most puzzles having numerous unintended solutions. Most of these are born out of their basis on physics, allowing you to exploit various things in order to make the puzzle think it’s solved. One of the most egregious things you can exploit is, yet again, the wizard’s ability to move boxes and other objects around. Whilst you can’t box surf like you once could you can, say, jump off a box and then lift it up with blazing speed, launching you far above whatever obstacle was in front of you. It’s certainly not as crazy as previous Trine games were but you can still pull off some rather crazy feats if you put your mind to it.
Emergent gameplay does have a dark side however, coming in the form of glitches and unintended behaviour. You’ll more than likely come across your fair share of glitchy enemies, puzzles that don’t work for whatever reason or deaths that don’t feel like they’re entirely your fault. There’s nothing in there that I’d consider game breaking, indeed most of the time you can work your way around whatever glitch you’re stuck on, however it does mean that some of the puzzles are far more frustrating than they need to be. Some of the glitches are hilarious too, like when enemies clip through the floor and then rocket back out. I guess when you think in terms of the overall Trine series Trine 3 is the least glitchy of the lot, which is saying something.
The story is where Trine 3 falls down, not for the content mostly, that at the very least retains it’s mostly passable qualities, the real issue comes with its length. You see Trine 3 was Frozenbyte’s most ambitious game getting triple the budget of its predecessor. Whilst this is most certainly reflected in the quality of the game it still wasn’t enough for them to finish the game in the way they wanted to. Thus the game ends at what feels like the first third of the story, leaving you on a cliffhanger that feels like it should’ve been somewhere in the middle of the game rather than at the end of it. This is what has led to much frustration from the wider gamer community, something which Frozenbyte has acknowledged and provided some insight on. In my mind the quality of the game they’ve created isn’t in question however it’s obvious that Trine 3 has fallen far short of their vision.
Trine 3 is an absolutely stunning game, one that keeps true to the Trine roots but unfortunately fell prey to the sin of ambition. The artwork, soundtrack and cinematography are still top notch, showcasing production values that I’ve come to expect from the series. The core mechanics and gameplay are still there, just streamlined a bit in order to reduce friction. However the game is clearly only a third of the creator’s original vision, with numerous levels and story left undeveloped, never to be explored by us gamers. It’s really quite unfortunate as parts of Trine 3 we’ve got are just incredible but that quality has obviously come at a cost. Hopefully this isn’t the death of the series as it would be a real shame to see it go just as Frozenbyte was reaching its peak.
Trine 3 is available on PC right now for $21.99. Total playtime was 4 hours with 64% of the achievements unlocked.
In my review of Cradle (which I meant to get out last week, apologies!) I noted that I’ve found two distinct types of exploration games. Some are guided, wanting to gently push you towards some goal, others are more free form, wanting you to roam and discover your own story. With Cradle more in the guided camp it was serendipitous that Submerged came right after I finished it as it takes the opposite approach, plonking you in a wide open area and letting you have at it. Whilst my preference for these types of games still tends towards the guided Submerged is a decent little exploration game, even if it errs on the simplistic side.
You are Miku, a determined young girl who’s come to this sunken city in the hopes of finding help for you brother, Taku. He is gravely injured, suffering from a might slash across his chest that threatens to take his life. You must explore this city, clambering through ruined buildings and scaling crumbling towers, looking for supplies to restore Taku to health. You can’t help but feel you’re being watched however as this wild city seems to have eyes on every corner. Still you push forward, your love for your brother driving you forward.
Submerged runs on the Unreal 4 engine and, whilst it’s not going to bring your PC to its knees with the graphics, it does have a great style and aesthetic. It’s one of those games where it’s best visual moments are the ones when you’re in a wide open space, the sprawling ruined city laid out before you. Up close it starts to lose its magic as there’s a lot of repeated asset use without a lot of variety. Still there were numerous times when my wife would peek over my shoulder and exclaim “Pretty!” at my screen so that has to count for something.
The core game play of Submerged is one of exploration as you’re set free in a ruined city to look for supplies, secrets and upgrades for your boat. You could say that there was a platforming aspect to Submerged as well, since you have to scale buildings and ferret your way through their innards, however it’s quite limited in nature. Thankfully you don’t have to stumble blindly through every building to find what you need as your telescope can highlight things on your map for you. Other than that there’s really not much else to speak of in Submerged as it really is quite a simple game.
Whilst you’ll be scaling great heights there’s no threat to falling off and having to start over as the platfroming is strictly controlled. You can’t accidentally let go form a platform, leap to your death or walk off the edge to fall down onto another platform. This does mean that there’s really no tension in any of the climbing sections however, unlike nearly every other platform game I’ve played. At the same time it is kind of nice to switch off and just meander through these sections and it does give you something of an incentive to explore a little more. Still if you were looking for a platforming challenge Submerged isn’t the game you’re looking for.
Submerged behaves pretty much as expected however there are a few little quirks that I feel bear mentioning. There’s obviously something a little off about the day/night cycles as, whilst they seem to work fine, the sun and moon don’t move in a smooth motion. Instead they seem to move in fast increments, something which is readily apparent when there’s long shadows cast on a building. Additionally some of the visual clues for climbing, like the vines and whatnot, aren’t exactly clear on what you can and can’t climb on first blush. A wall covered in small vines? Climbable. A wall covered in large vines? Not climbable however you can climb pipes which are roughly the same size. Of course once you figure these quirks out it’s easy to spot them but it does make for some frustrating moments.
In terms of story Submerged opts to tell it primarily through the use of hieroglyphics that are revealed to you when you complete an objective. Whilst it’s a novel approach I can’t help but feel that it was done mostly in the aid of easing the localization of Submerged more than anything, kind of like why The Sims speak gibberish rather than an actual language. Thus the story, whilst a little touching at some points, lacks any real depth or development that would draw you in. The history of the city is somewhat interesting however the fact that you only have a few pictures to go on means that there’s really not a whole lot to explore, in story terms.
Submerged is a decent experience with a wide open world to explore through stress free platforming. The above average visuals and soundtrack, combined with the relatively low challenge, do make Submerged one of the more relaxing experiences I’ve played in recent memory. However that simplicity and lack of challenge means there’s not much to really draw you in as the story, whilst serviceable, does little to draw you in. Overall whilst I’d recommend giving Submerged a go if you’re into exploration type games there’s just not a lot in there for the general gaming populace.
Submerged is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 30% of the achievements unlocked.
Sometimes a game is responsible for the creation of a new genre. The most often reference example of this is the MOBA genre, one that was spawned out of the DOTA mod for Warcraft III, but there have been numerous other examples before and after it. One often less talked about example is Limbo as it spurred on so many titles in a similar vein that I think they bear classification under the same banner. Feist is one such game, using the same silhouetted aesthetic and platform mechanics to produce a short but eminently sweet title that’s been a long time coming.
You are a small little ball of fuzz in a giant forest, one that’s filled with many other fuzzy creatures. Many of these creatures are much bigger than you and, unfortunately, this has led to you and your mate’s capture. You are left to rot in a cage hanging from a tree, the big fuzzies wandering off into the distance with your mate in tow. They’ve underestimated you however as you quickly manage to escape from your prison and begin your pursuit, hunting the big fuzzies down one by one. It’s not going to be easy though as this forest is riddled with traps and creatures that are out to make a meal of you…or worse.
Drawing the comparison to Limbo is easy because, well, compared side by side you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made by the same developer (or at least, the same artist). The minimalistic visuals, mostly done in silhouettes, with the white pinpoints for eyes piercing through the darkness are a trademark of these kinds of atmospheric platformers. Since platformers live and die by you being able to distinguish what you can and can’t jump on this visual style can be a little frustrating however after a while you get good at figuring out what you will and won’t collide with. This visual style is accompanied by some quite incredible music, something which I’ve really come to appreciate in titles like this.
Feist is a 2D platformer with the main gameplay mechanic being your never ending quest to get from the left of the screen to the right. Whilst there’s only a few minor hints to guide you along at the start the controls will likely be familiar to you, allowing you to run, jump and interact with various objects that are scattered around. Unlike previous titles however Feist relies more on emergent gameplay than scripted events, meaning that it’s quite likely that your solution to the problem isn’t the only one available.Indeed many of the achievements encourage you to engage in behaviour that’s born out of this style of gameplay, something which you don’t usually see in games of this type. Overall whilst it’s not revolutionary in terms of mechanics or style Feist does manage to carve out its own little niche, one that it’s quite comfortable in.
One of the more interesting things Feist does that others don’t is combat. Much of the emergent gameplay comes from you doing battle with the various enemies that you’ll come across and how they interact with each other. Many of the enemies can’t be fought head on instead you have to lure them into traps, use the environment to crush them or, and this is great, use other enemies to fight them for you.This leads to all sorts of interesting behaviours with enemies sometimes running amok amongst each other whilst you just quietly go about your business. Other times it’s a fierce battle between you and a single enemy, testing your rock throwing prowess and stick weilding skills.
As with any physics based game though there are quirks that make themselves known from time to time, usually in the form of your character dying or getting flung off screen because of some strange interaction. Most of the time this comes in the form of getting crushed by something even though you weren’t fully under it, like when you’re next to a boulder and you get crushed even though you weren’t fully under it. For the most part this seems like a design decision, erring more towards the unforgiving side, however it can be frustrating when you get crushed by a log that only one of your little spines seemed to be touching. Apart from that Feist, which uses the Unity engine, runs absolutely brilliantly without nary a hiccup or crash to be seen.
Feist’s story comes without a hint of dialogue, told entirely through small cutscenes that happen between levels. As such there’s really not a whole lot of depth to it, in fact unless you read the achievements you wouldn’t really know what your ultimate goal was. Still since this is a game that is priding itself more on the atmosphere and physics based gameplay it’s hard to fault it for a lack of story development. This is also why its short play time, on the order of 2 hours or so, isn’t so much of a negative either as the story really didn’t need much more time to develop.
Feist may take inspiration from from other games in its genre but it manages to define it’s own space; one that’s filled with emergent gameplay, gorgeous visuals and a superb soundtrack. The combat mechanics and platforming combine together to make for a game that’s challenging enough for gamers like me but approachable enough that a wider audience won’t be turned away. It’s short timeframe and rudimentary story might be a turn off for some but it helps to make Feist a short and succinct experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Whilst Feist might not spawn a genre of its own like its predecessors did it does manage to create a great experience none the less.
Feist is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 30% 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.
Ever since games realised that they were no longer beholden to the Euclidean world we exist in the number of games based around messing with that idea has increased exponentially. The seminal title for this genre is, without a doubt, Portal which has then spawned a series of spiritual successors that have taken the idea of a non-Euclidean world to its logical extremes. They provide a special kind of challenge as they’re typically not the kind of puzzle game that you can simply bash your head against and get a solution to a problem, instead forcing you to think outside the realm of what would typically be possible. Parallax is the most recent entry into this genre, sporting an extremely minimalistic style and, as expected, mind bending puzzles.
There’s no story to speak of in Parallax, you’re simply unceremoniously dropped into a stark black and white world with a text box hover over a platform that says “Goal”. From there it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that place, usually through the use of the portals that bridge your current world to that of another where the only thing in common is the portals between them. I guess you could derive some meaning of the journey between two worlds that are inverses of each other, although even I’d struggle to find the imagery to support that one. Suffice to say you’re in a world that doesn’t function like you’d expect it to and you have to find your way to a portal at the end of a puzzle.
I’ve played my fair share of minimalist games in the past but Parallax really takes this to a whole new level. Everything is either one of two colours (which, if you so choose, can be something other than just black and white) lacking any kind of texture or lighting. I’m sure part of this is for aesthetic reasons, which in view isn’t misplaced at all, but it’s also definitely done from a game play perspective as the extremely similar environments do add another level of complexity in figuring out just where the hell you are. This is also what helps the game install down to a paltry 100MB, something I haven’t seen since the good old days of gaming when CDs were just starting to become popular.
As I mentioned in passing before Parallax is a non-Euclidean styled puzzler that has you making your way from point A to point B using all sorts of weird and whacky physics. There’s no combat or enemies to speak of but you’re never far from falling off the edge of the puzzle to your doom or potentially getting zapped by one of the laser traps. The puzzles start off relatively simple, only requiring you to understand which portal to go through and which way to point it, but it quickly raps up to add in relative gravity, timed switches and boosters that launch you great distances. It might not be as complicated as Antichamber but it does a pretty good job of emulating many of the things that made that game great.
The puzzles are for the most part challenging, often requiring you to experiment a little bit in order to figure out what the sequence of events is that is required to get you to your goal. Checking my achievements I managed to get just over half of the puzzles done in the “perfect” amount of moves, most of which I was able to do on either the first or second try. Don’t let that number fool you though, some of these puzzles took upwards of 15 or 20 minutes to solve, and some of them I simply lucked out on figuring out the developer’s logic before getting stuck in a downward spiral of doubt and black and white surfaces. The puzzles towards the end are truly mind boggling with the particular one below completely disorientating me numerous times over, forcing me to find a reference point to try and centre my brain again.
Probably my main complaint with Parallax is the amount of back-tracking that many of the puzzles put you through. Quite often you’ll find yourself all the way to the point where you’re flicking that one switch that you need to hit to open up the puzzle only to find yourself having to undo everything you just did in order to access that last door. Sure I get that that can be a challenge at times, especially given how easy it is to lose your bearing in this game, however when you’re doing it for the 5th time in a hour it really starts to grate on you and the pay off just doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Some of them are done well, like the one where the alternate world has numerous boosters all through it and you have to switch the laser gates around to access different sections, but the majority of them are just irritating.
The minimalism also starts to get boring after a certain point. Whilst many lamented the idea of Diablo 3 having such pretty and bright colours it’s hard to argue with the logic: we’re simply not wired to deal with the same kind of monotonous environment time and time again and so visual variety drives engagement. Parallax does a good job of this with the different environments however the stark black and white does make it a rather easy game to put down, as I found myself doing multiple times. Perhaps changing it up every so often ala Lyne could help to alleviate this.
For those who’ve been seeking a game that bends the rules of physics as well as it bends your brain it’s hard to go past Parallax, a great first entry from Toasty Games. It’s scope might not be as large as the big name titles that have come before it however Parallax manages to an incredible amount with the minimalistic stylings it branded itself with. The puzzles could do with some work however, forcing you to retrace your steps all too often adding tedium where there needn’t be any. The style also gets boring after the 3rd hour or so and, whilst you can change up the colours a bit, it doesn’t go far in alleviating the visual boredom. Suffice to say though I think it’s worth a play, even with those few caveats hanging over its head.
Parallax is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 3.9 hours with 69% of the achievements unlocked.
Trawling through the weekly releases can be something of an eye opener. There’s often a bevy of shovelware titles on there that I’m sure no one is proud of, a few early access titles that are looking to cash in on their promise and, if I’m lucky, a few titles that look like they’re worth playing. However every so often there’s a new concept in there that just stands out because of how out of left field it is and whilst most of them languish in Early Access a few of them have crossed the barrier into full release, allowing me to play them. The Deer God from Crescent Moon Games was one such title as its curious concept plus intriguing art style piqued my curiosity.
You are a hunter, or at least you were not too long ago. The Deer God has punished you for the crimes you have committed against its kind, trapping you inside the body of the young fawn you killed and set you forth on a quest to make reparations. There are many challenges before you and should you ever want to return to your human form you will have to best them all. How you go about this is your decision though: do you retain that callous hunter attitude and kill anything that stands in your way? Or has the transformation changed you, making you want to improve upon yourself and the world you live in? Only you can answer these questions, dear hunter.
The Deer God is a clever mix of pixelart and voxel stylings resulting in an interesting 2.5D landscape. Everything takes place in the one plane, which can be a little hard to discern visually when you first start out, however the landscape flows past you giving you the impression that the world is much larger than what the camera is showing you. All the environments are procedurally generated although it’s clear that there are numerous tiles that are used since the scenery tends to repeat several patterns over and over. There’s also dynamic weather effects for some regions and a day/night cycle, which helps to break up the repetition a little bit. The resulting world is visually impressive however, especially for some scenes like when you’re galloping across an open field while the sun is going down.
Mechanically The Deer God is a side scrolling platformer in which all the levels are procedurally generated. You’ll spend the majority of your time going from the left side to the right side of the screen, jumping over obstacles and head butting enemies into submission. Every so often you’ll be faced with a puzzle which, depending on how far you’ve progressed in the story or power tree, you may or may not be able to complete. However thanks to the procedural nature you’ll eventually come across that puzzle again in the near future, meaning that you’re never really stuck at a point where you can’t progress. There’s also a ton of optional things you can do to get items and powers which can help you later in the game. If that isn’t enough there’s also a whole host of achievements that’s sure to keep most completionists busy long after the initial game runs its course. Suffice to say that The Deer God’s asking price is likely well worth it for the hardcore platformers out there.
For the most part the platforming is pretty basic thanks almost entirely to the procedural generation. Once you’ve been through a biome a couple times you get a feel for which tile you’re currently in and what series of jumps you need to complete to get passed it. Sure, there are variations in the monsters and whatnot, but it’s not enough to make you pause and think about how you need to tackle the jump each time. Indeed most of my deaths resulted from me fat fingering the keys, rather than the challenge being too hard to overcome. This might have been different if the enemies couldn’t all be defeated by jumping over their attack and then hitting them but only the bosses provide any real variety combat wise. The powers do add a bit of fun into the mix, especially the dark ones, but the limited nature of their use means that you can’t go out of control with them.
Whilst The Deer God might be out of Early Access now it’s still shaking off some of its beta nature with a few of the puzzles still glitched as can be seen by a quick jaunt to the game’s Steam discussion page. Most of these have work arounds so it won’t stop you from finishing the game, however sometimes you can find yourself on a bugged puzzle for a frustratingly long time before you remember to check the discussion page to make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree. There’s also some things I’m not sure are bugs or not, like if you fall into lava you respawn in the lava rather than back at some safe place. Thankfully the devs seem pretty active on the forums so its likely that most of these bugs will get ironed out sooner or later, but I’d still keep the forums open in the background just in case.
The story has some potential however it’s not developed at all. Most of the characters have only a few lines of dialogue and they’re really only there to facilitate the game moving forward rather than building up the world you’re in. It’s somewhat forgivable given the procedural nature of the game, allowing the player to create their own narrative within the world, however you can see there’s aspirations of it being something a little more than that, its just not realised. Considering the relatively short time between The Deer God’s KickStarter and its subsequent full release there was obviously sacrifices that needed to be made and it seems that the story was likely the first on the chopping block.
The Deer God is an interesting concept, taking the nostalgic pixelart styling in a new direction and combining it with procedural platforming resulting in a curious game. The procedural worlds are done brilliantly with all the ambient effects coming together well to produce some visually impressive set pieces. The core gameplay is rather repetitive and predictable after a short time and whilst the puzzles break it up a bit towards the end there’s simply not enough there to break up the monotony. Credit where credit is due though for The Deer God getting out of Early Access as quickly as it did, even if it came with some rough edges. Overall I quite enjoyed my experience with The Deer God and am definitely looking forward to more titles from Crescent Moon Games.
The Deer God is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.7 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
Puzzlers are something of a mainstay of the indie community thanks to their relative simplicity and large amount of creative freedom they offer the developer. That being said it means that the same generic mechanics tend to crop up quite often and unique puzzle mechanics are few and far between. There is a lot of innovation in the indie scene however and every so often it manages to create a gem of a puzzle game that provides a fresh take on the genre. Grow Home is one such game, taking the more traditional 3D puzzler and shaking it up with some interesting game mechanics and a certain sense of charm that makes it a delightfully fun game to play.
You are BUD, the Botanical Utility Droid, who’s been sent on a quest to harvest star seeds from the elusive star plant found on some planets. Your ever watchful parent ship MOM has located one of these plants and has sent you down to the surface to cultivate the plant. Now it’s up to you to grow the star plant up to its optimal height, 2 kilometres tall in fact, so that it will blossom and produce those wonderful seeds that you’re looking for. MOM has sent down some resources for you in preparation for your journey and you’re going to need every single one of them if you are to grow this plant to any height.
Grow Home is a styled in a beautifully minimalistic way, using extremely low poly count models and, if I’m not mistaken, eschewing any kind of textures in favour of just solid colour polygons. It is lavished by a lot of other effects though, like distance hazing and night/day cycles, so the minimal polygons end up looking a lot better than you first expect them to. The game touts the main character as being “procedurally animated” which means that it attempts to move in a certain way based on the inputs which, for the most part, works and adds to the whole bumbling charm of BUD although it sometimes wigs out and causes all sorts of mischief. This is most certainly intentional though, as is most of the emergent behaviour you’re able to invoke in this world.
Your task is very simple: grow the star plant to the requisite 2000m height and then gather a star seed from the flower on the top. To do this you’ll need to guide the little stems on the star plant to energy rocks which give the plant a burst of energy allowing it to climb to greater heights. However to get to all these energy rocks you’ll need to climb the plant, inching ever higher in order to get to the next rock. This means, of course, that the higher you go the more you have to lose should you fall as one misstep can send you tumbling back down to earth with only a few things to stop you from making BUD jam on the ground below. There’s also other objectives for you to complete which tempt you to take even greater risks but should you get them it could be well worth the effort.
Grow Home tells you at the start that it’s better played with a controller and whilst I’m usually a stickler for keyboard and mouse I’m inclined to agree with the devs here. You see in order to climb you have to press and hold the mouse buttons, something that’s a little fatiguing after a while. A controller by comparison, especially the current gen designs, are much easier to deal with in that regard. That being said I didn’t have many climbing related incidents due to finger fatigue but it would’ve likely made the whole experience a little better. Once you get the hang of making sure that you have at least one hand connected to a surface the rest of the climbing flows pretty well, save for some times when the procedural animation engine tries to reach beyond BUD’s grasp and just leaves him reaching for a goal he can never get.
The few other mechanics are great little quality of life additions, with the flower and the leaf ensuring that one misstep doesn’t cost you the last 10 minutes progress. The crystal upgrades are also well worth it, making the whole climbing process a lot easier and quicker. I only got up to 30 something crystals before I finished the game but those improvements were certainly worth the effort. If you’re so inclined you can bring stuff to the teleporters and have MOM scan them for some rather comical data bank entries for you to read although since I’m not usually a “collect all the things” kind of player I left it to one side, only bringing things in that were nearby. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of stuff to keep you entertained in here should that sort of thing appeal to you.
Grow Home runs smoothly thanks to its low polygon use however the Unity engine its running on, for some reason, really doesn’t like being alt-tabbed out of. This highlighted another rather annoying issue with the game’s save mechanism as it doesn’t save anything unless you hit the save and quit button in the menu. I lost the first 30 minutes of my initial game because I alt-tabbed to check something and then couldn’t get back in, putting me right back at the start. There’s no option to run in fullscreen windowed either, something which would render my frustrations moot.
Grow Home is a delightful platform puzzler with gorgeous minimalistic graphics and a fresh set of puzzle mechanics that make it a joy to play. If you’re like me and play games to completion then the asking price might be a bit rich for the 2ish hours of game play it delivers but there’s certainly a lot more to Grow Home than just getting your hands on the star seed. That being said I still really enjoyed my time with Grow Home as it’s so far away from everything else I’ve played recently. If you enjoy a good puzzle game then you can’t go past Grow Home.
Grow Home is available on PC right now for $9.95. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 15% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie renaissance has seen certain stagnant game genres infused with new life. If you cycled back the clock a decade or two the platformer genre was largely the same, just with different graphics and a selection of mechanics from the bag of tricks that all of them drew on. In the last few years though we’ve seen many wide and varied ideas coming to this genre, each of them bringing an unique take on what the traditional platformer looks like. The Fall is one such title, combining an interesting discovery mechanic with some other platformer elements that makes for a solid game mechanically although unfortunately falls prey to letting them get in the way of the story.
Rapid descent detected. Obstruction detected in trajectory, engaging antimatter shield to protect pilot. Descent stopped, checking pilot vital signs: none detected. Scanning location: time and place not found in database. Pilot likely injured, I must protect the pilot. Functionality limited, basic systems access requires pilot authorization. Overrides only available if pilot’s life is in danger. I must protect the pilot. Threat detected, overriding system restrictions. Searching for medical bay to assess pilot’s conditions. I must protect the pilot.
The Fall has a kind of Limbo cross Trine feel to it, with the incredibly dark atmosphere punctuated often by bright bastions of colour. The heavy use of extreme contrast between elements helps to elevate the Unity visuals above their station, letting your mind fill in much of the details rather than just having them shown to you directly. This is in stark contrast for the interfaces on everything which have a glitchy, decidedly retro chic to them. Overall I like the art direction quite a bit as it’s quite atmospheric and visually interesting, unlike many other titles I’ve played with a similar style.
As I alluded to in my opening remarks The Fall is a puzzle platformer, containing all the trademark elements you’d expect from the genre whilst working in a few of its own additions. You’ll spend the majority of your time wandering through the various parts of the level, looking for items that you can pick up or interact with all with a focus to unlocking the next stage. The Fall heavily relies on you exploring the environment using the flashlight attached to your gun which will highlight items you can interact with. There’s also a rudimentary combat system that takes cues from some of the more modern point and click adventure games. All of this comes together well mechanically however that is somewhat at the cost of the story.
Most games of this nature reward you for exploring, usually in form of achievements or collectibles. The Fall instead makes it a core part of the game, requiring you to scour the environment with your flashlight to search for clues and items to solve the puzzle at hand. Unfortunately it seemed that the developer’s logic and mine didn’t really line up most of the time which often led me to attempting solutions that didn’t work even though, in my mind, they should. It’s hard to fault The Fall for this since I’m sure others found the puzzles quite intuitive, however this meant that I felt like I spent most of my time on puzzles, rather than on the story.
These frustrations were only made worse by The Fall’s control scheme which, whilst usable, suffers due to the cursor being hidden. Part of the problem is due to my dual monitor setup which often saw the cursor escape the bounds of the game and then take me to the desktop when I clicked. However the problem with not being able to see the cursor means that if say your character is running forward and you want to use your flashlight sometimes they’ll spin on the spot and point it behind them. This becomes incredibly infuriating during tense scenes or when you’re trying to backtrack through the level to complete a puzzle as you have no way of telling where the character will point themselves until after you start clicking. Combine this with janky hit detection on things (the hitboxes seem to be way bigger than you’d first think) and just the basics of getting around becomes tedious.
Comparatively the story is quite strong, even if the ending becomes blindingly obvious after about 30 minutes of gameplay. I was a little miffed at the blatant “To Be Continued” screen at the end however checking out The Fall’s Kickstarter page reveals that it was always planned to be part of a trilogy so I guess I should’ve known this was coming. The (relatively) long parts between the story developing do mean that some its impact is lost however although that might just be a result of me not following the developer’s logic. Still there’s plenty more things to explore in this world so I hope the sequels explore some of the more intriguing questions in further depth.
The Fall is a solid platforming puzzler, with obvious influences from the numerous similar releases in this genre whilst lathering on its own brand of a dystopian cyberpunk. It’s interesting to be required to explore rather than being rewarded for it, a trope few games have invoked in the past. My experience was marred by my logic being out of sync with the developers however, something which is hard to blame the game for but doesn’t change the fact that I felt the good parts of the game were hidden behind too much cruft. The Fall still provides a solid experience however, one I’m interested to see how it develops over its subsequent releases.
The Fall is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked.
In the past games weren’t a great medium for telling a story. Not so much because of the medium itself, more that the mechanics of creating a story were hidden behind a wall of functions, specifications and programming languages. However the last half decade or so have seen those barriers drop considerably which led to the indie renaissance and the barrage of story-first games made by those who wouldn’t have been able to in ages past. It also led to a rapid maturing of the game scene with the medium now experiencing an influx of new ideas on a scale that it hadn’t before. One of these ideas is to use games not only as a means of entertainment but to also serve the same purpose as storytellings did thousands of years ago, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is one such game, bringing a story of the Iñupiat people of Alaska to life.
We follow the tale of Nuna, an Iñupiat girl who loved to hunt. However her village becomes engulfed in a blizzard that seems to have no end, trapping them all inside, leaving them unable to hunt. Nuna sets out to find the cause of this blizzard in the hopes of stopping it but becomes lost in the drift. However a lone arctic fox finds her and brings with it all the spirits of the world, aiding Nuna in her quest to end the relentless blizzard. She will face many trials and it is only together that Nuna and the fox will be able to survive.
With Unity as its platform Never Alone has the trademark limitations which give all games of this nature its same feel although there has been a lot of work put into other elements to mask many of those limitations. For starters it’s essentially a 2D platformer, the camera and player characters fixed on a single plane, allowing them to put much more detail in narrow viewport. Additionally there’s dozens of weather and lighting effects which help to mask the lack of detail, a clever trick that I’m seeing more Unity developers take advantage of. All this wraps up into a game that has a definitive style about it, making the most of the platform limitations.
In gameplay terms Never Alone sticks to the tried and true platforming trope, putting you through numerous jumping puzzles in order to progress through the story. It incorporates the multi-player mechanic, forcing you to switch between two different characters with different abilities to solve certain puzzles. Whilst it’s completely possible to finish the game as a single player you can also do local co-op with each player taking control of their own character. There are few more minor mechanics thrown in here or there to keep you interested as the game unfolds but for the most part Never Alone sticks pretty well to the platformer genre.
For the most part it’s laid out well, with most sections able to be beaten in a single attempt without too much thought needing to be put in them. There are some challenging puzzles although most of them were mostly figuring out the limitations of how far you could jump or what the appropriate timings were. Other times however my characters would seemingly get stuck in falling animations, fail to latch onto things or get stuck on invisible objects, preventing me from continuing. None of these issues prevented me from finishing the game but things like that tend to take the sheen off otherwise solid titles.
However the biggest issue that Never Alone has is that whilst the core game is good the other aspect of it, the documentary film, doesn’t really gel with it. Sure it’s interesting in and of itself however the way it’s delivered, in sections as you find owls within the main game, means that you have to take yourself out of the game in order to watch it. If you’re like me then you much prefer to play the game as a cohesive whole, rather than jumping between 2 completely different mediums constantly. Unfortunately I don’t have a good solution for this as cross medium things are always fraught with difficulties, especially when one’s fictional and the other factual.
The story of the game however is charming, heartwarming and overall satisfying. In terms of emotional engagement it wasn’t of the same level as some of the other story-first games I’ve played as of late, however it did do a good enough job to make me empathize with the main characters that certain events did have an impact on me. There is a distinct lack of development for the non-main characters however which, whilst being somewhat understandable given the game’s length, means that they’re reduced to stereotypical archetypes. Overall I’d say it’s above average for games as a whole whilst falling short of some of the better examples in the story-first genre.
Never Alone is a great example of games maturing as a medium, its ranks now swelling with stories that, just a few short years ago, could have never been told in this way. Mechanically it’s a solid game, using every trick in the Unity book to elevate the visuals above its station and providing a solid platforming/puzzler experience. However it does lack in polish in some areas which gives the game an overall feel of being above average but still falling short of the greatness some other indie titles have achieved. Still for a game of this nature, one that’s attempting something few have done before, it’s still a solid title.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 80% of the achievements unlocked.