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.
A lot of retro styled games rely on the aesthetic to conjure up a sense of nostalgia for us long time gamers, hoping to link us up with experiences past in the hope that some of it will translate across. Back when that idea was still new I have to admit that it worked quite well although as time has gone on the differences between modern retro titles and their ancestors have become more stark, removing that sense of nostalgia completely. There are few games that manage to capture both the aesthetic and the essence of what made those games so memorable and I’m happy to say that I now count Shovel Knight among them.
You are Shovel Knight, a brave warrior whose weapon of choice isn’t exactly mainstream. You’ve seen many adventures always with your most trusted compatriate, Shield Knight, by your side. However one day, when exploring the Tower of Fate, you both fall under the power of the Dark Amulet. When you awaken Shield Knight is no where to be seen and you give up adventuring while you mourn her loss. However The Enchantress, an evil and powerful witch, has arisen in your absence spreading her evil across your land. When you hear she has unlocked the Tower of Fate once again you resolve to pick up your shovel once again and to rid your land of the darkness that now grips it.
Shovel Knight is visually reminiscent of the action adventure games of old with many of the visual elements being readily recognisable. Indeed the rendition was done so well that I figured there was no way it was using some kind of modern engine as everything really did have a retro feel about it. The end credits revealed it does use Box2D for its physics which has obviously been tuned to give it a much more retro feel. The music and foley also feels like it’s right out of a NES title, retaining that lo-fi quality and signature sound that games of that era had. If I’m honest it feels like the most honest recreation of an old pixelart game to date, eschewing any modern improvements in favour of keeping that nostalgia feeling alive.
In terms of gameplay Shovel Knight again feels awfully familiar, taking the tried and true mechanics from games of ages past and adding in a little of its own flair. The combat feels much like the Zelda games of old where you’ll be jumping, dodging and swinging your weapon wildly in order to defeat your foes. There’s also the tried and true platform sections, many of which rely on you using the various relics you’ve acquired in order to progress past them. You can also upgrade/modify your character in order to suit your playstyle, enabling a multitude of different ways to progress through the game. Lastly, if that isn’t enough for you, there’s dozens of achievements and challenges for you to complete, some of which require a great deal of skill to accomplish.
In the beginning the combat feels a little weird which I can pretty much wholly attribute to my use of the keyboard. You see just like the games which Shovel Knight takes inspiration from it was most certainly designed with a controller in mind as the keyboard setup is most certainly not intuitive. However once I got past that hurdle I actually felt that it was quite forgiving, especially after you got up a couple of the more broken items (the Phase Amulet especially). Indeed after the first couple bosses I found that I could usually cheese my way through them after a single death, something I definitely couldn’t say about say Zelda back in the day.
That being said the platforming, whilst being well thought out and challenging in the right ways most of the time, had more “fuck you player” moments than I’d like. These are things that you can’t plan for (like enemies appearing out of no where) or the introduction of new mechanics without an indication as to what they do. This is somewhat in the spirit of the game as a lot of titles from early nineties didn’t do this either, however that doesn’t stop these things from sucking out some of the fun in an otherwise great game. The rather generous recovery mechanic makes up for this a little bit although that can sometimes lead you into a horrible spiral of dying simply because you’re trying to recover your gold.
What is quite impressive about Shovel Knight is the sheer amount of variety that’s in the game. Every level has its own distinct theme with numerous different types of enemies and mechanics, meaning that no 2 levels feel quite the same. Sure there are some things you’ll learn in early levels that will come in handy later on but for the most part each level will be an experience in learning how to deal with the various challenges at hand. This then feeds into the bosses and the wandering encounters in the overworld, each of which has its own unique mechanics which you’ll need to exploit.
Actually thinking about it more this is probably one of the better examples of how to design to a pick up/put down style platform (the 3DS in Shovel Knight’s case). Each of the levels can be over in 10~20 minutes, even less for the wandering boss encounters or the other loot extravaganza levels, and all of them have their own style. Usually this would be something of a negative however in Shovel Knight’s case it actually made for a rather well paced game, one I invested a lot more time in than I would have otherwise done previously. Sure it wasn’t an exceptionally long game by any means but I still far more engaged with it than I have done with many of my previous reviews.
The story of Shovel Knight is fairly simplistic, usually being not much more than something to provide some witty dialogue between you and the boss you’re about to fight, but it’s more than enough to keep the game going. It really only comes to fruition in the last hour or so of gameplay and in that respect it does tie everything together quite well. However Shovel Knight isn’t a game you should be playing for the story as its mechanics are by far the strong point.
Shovel Knight sets the standard for titles that want to capture that feeling of games from ages past, faithfully recreating everything in a wonderful take on the old school action adventure. The graphics, music and sound all feel like they were ripped out of a long abandon title and then given life in a modern game environment. The gameplay, once you get past the initial teething phase, is very well done even if it can feel a little too easy at times. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the whole Shovel Knight experience but, thankfully, it doesn’t detract too heavily from it. If you’re a long time gamer like myself you’ll find a lot to love in Shovel Knight and I’d heartily recommend giving it a play through.
Shovel Knight is available on the PC, Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Wii U right now for $15, $14.99 and $14.99 respectively. Total game time was 6 hours with 27% 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.
Ever since my rather devastating experience with Super Meat Boy I’ve been pretty adverse to twitch based platformers, mostly because I don’t want to give myself RSI or an aneurysm. Whilst I may have made a brief foray back into the genre with They Bleed Pixels there have been numerous others I’ve left by the wayside because of the sense of dread I get when I play them. However I am a sucker for minimalistic takes on game ideas and 140, spawned by the man who was the gameplay director for Limbo, strips away much of the typical platforming experience and then amplifies it with its own brand of unique mechanics.
You’re a square, but only when you stand still. You’re a circle, but only when you’re moving. You’re a triangle, but only when you’re flying. The only instinct you have is to move from the left side of the screen to the right, backed by an eerie and haunting sound. Things start to change as you pick up these strange little baubles that dot the landscape, reshaping that sound into a pulsating beat which the entire world reacts to in time. This world isn’t completely safe though as there are many things that would seek to stop your journey forward, but even they are slaves to the rhythm that weaves through everything around you.
The art style of 140 is probably the most ferocious example of minimalism that I’ve seen to date. Things that you’d usually expect to see in even minimalistically styled games like gradients, shadows or shading simply don’t exist here with everything being solid colours. This is not to say that it’s a visually dull game however, far from it, more that when something is done to this level of simplicity it’s anything but random, it’s a carefully calculated experience that’s designed to get you focused on the game play. In that respect it does well as you’ll do little more in the short time this game will keep you.
The main game mechanic of 140 is 2D platforming, seeing you leap from section to section and often failing, seeing you transported back to your last checkpoint. However the twist with 140 is that the entire world reacts to the background music which you build up by collecting the little orbs and then bringing them back to a platform. Every time you do this the world around you will change, either wholesale by transporting you to another place or by bringing another part of the environment to life. This opens up new opportunities for you to progress but also ramps up the difficultly level, forcing you to reconsider how you’ve been playing up until that point in order to incorporate this new mechanic.
The enemies and boss fights are also pretty intriguing, taking the same music driven idea and incorporating it into battles that have the signature trademarks of other genres (like bullet hell, for example). They’re a fun distraction from the rudimentary platforming, often forcing you to think radically differently in order to complete them. The final challenge felt like something of a cock block though and whilst I got close to completing the game the somewhat random nature of it (yes I know there’s a pattern but since it doesn’t repeat from the start on death it’s a real pain to figure out) seem to catch me out every time I got close to the final puzzle.
Unfortunately there’s not much more I can say about 140 as it’s an experience that you have to play for yourself to really appreciate. At the beginning it feels a little too simple, lacking pretty much anything to keep you interested, however that quickly changes as the music ramps up and the world starts reacting to it. It’s also a very short experience too, clocking in at just over an hour, which makes it well worth a look in if you’re seeking something radically different from the gaming norm.
140 is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total game time was approximately 1 hour.
Prior to the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d heard of Rocksteady Studios. Primarily this would be because they only had one title to their name before that, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, which wasn’t badly received but at the same time you’d struggle to find anyone who’d played it. Their following two instalments using the Batman IP however catapulted them to fame and their success led to them being acquired by Time-Warner shortly before the release of Arkham City. However the most recent instalment in this series, Batman: Arkham Origins comes to us not from the venerable Rocksteady but instead Warner Bros Games Montreal, a development house that’s familiar with the series (as they worked on the Wii-U port Arkham City). Combine that with the Joker no longer being voiced by Mark Hamill and fans of the series were decidedly nervous as there was no telling how this game would pan out.
Arkham Origins takes place long before the world that was established in the previous two games, going back to the beginnings where Bruce Wayne is just beginning his journey as the caped crusader of Gotham City. He’s been at it long enough to attract the attention of some of the city’s more nefarious criminals and this has resulted in Black Mask, a notorious underworld dealer who’s eluded conviction due to the numerous businesses he runs, putting a bounty on Batman’s head. He has also invited 8 different assassins to go after the bounty including many of Batman’s long time rivals. Of course Bruce can’t sit idly by and potentially let others be put in danger for his sake and so begins a long Christmas eve spent putting the beat down on Gotham’s worst.
Visually Arkham Origins is a small step up from its predecessor with the primary limitation of them progressing any further being the fact that it’s still being released on the current console generation. In all honesty though it still looks fantastic with all of the environments having an incredible amount of detail in them. I’m also somewhat thankful for this as my PC hardware is starting to get a little long in the tooth and whilst Arkham Origins looked great there were times when it began to noticeably slow down. However that wasn’t a frequent occurrence, even in the outdoor scenes where you could see far off into the distance.
Just like the 2 Arkham titles before it Origins keeps the core game play and style the same whilst adding in additional challenges, enemies and tactics to keep it feeling fresh. You’ll still spend most of your time beating the every loving crap out of various different types of enemies, the challenge ratcheting up every so often with the introduction of new types of enemies requiring different techniques to take them down. However you still have the option of being a silent predator at times, swooping through an area and taking out multiple enemies without being seen. Finally the core puzzle mechanics make a come back, albeit with a new mode to make things a little more interesting.
Combat, as always, is fast paced and meaty with every hit you land having a really satisfying feel to it. I always seem to start off feeling rather uncoordinated, getting my combos interrupted all the time by just not noticing the incoming attacks, but it doesn’t take long before I’m hitting huge multipliers and laying waste to everyone. One thing that has always irritated me is the initial lack of a way to take out large groups once you’ve knocked them all down as whilst you can do a ground take down on them all too often that results in you losing your combo string as it seems you can’t counter whilst in the middle of one. Later on of course you’ll unlock some better ways of dealing with them and after that combat starts to feel a lot more fluid.
However one criticism that I’ll level at it, and this has been true of all of the series, is that as you progress through the story the number of different things you can do during combat start to become a little overwhelming. Pretty often you’ll find yourself facing a knife wielder, a guy with a riot shield and probably a tough enemy that needs to be stunned before you can do anything. These require no less than 3 different methods of taking them out and when combined with the dozen or so quick fire gadgets you end up having to remember so many things that you’ll eventually just settle on a couple. They all become somewhat moot however with the introduction of the shock gloves and then all you have to focus on is getting enough charge in them so then you can lay the smack down on everything around you.
The stealth sections feel like they have remained largely unchanged although this could be primarily due to the fact that I didn’t invest many points in that skill tree until very late in the game. They’re still fun and somewhat challenging, especially the ones that have unique mechanics like the Deadshot encounter, but if you were looking for a markedly different or revamped experience you’re not going to find it. There’s also the possibility that I just wasn’t paying attention to some of the prompts and missed some new opportunities but I didn’t really have any problems accomplishing anything (unlike say in the Mr Freeze battle in Arkham City).
The detective mode/puzzles remain largely the same albeit making use of some of the new mechanics granted to you by the various gadgets that weren’t present in the previous titles. There’s also the addition of the crime scene mode which you use to reconstruct crimes to figure out details about how they happened and to track down the people responsible. For the most part it works well however it’s not made entirely clear when you have to move to a new section to continue the investigation, or what the expected behaviour is, so at first it was a little confusing. Still since it’s largely the same mechanic it still functions well even if it doesn’t feel as fresh or different as other aspects of the game are.
However the real problem with Arkham Origins is that whilst it retains the essence of what made the Arkham series so good it’s also marred by numerous bugs and glitches, many of them that are completely game breaking. The screenshot above depicts one of them where upon using certain abilities with knock back you can cement enemies in a wall or other object. They then become unreachable and whilst I was able to dislodge them after trying every gadget I had (I eventually found I needed to get them on an edge and then attempt to stun them so they’d fall backwards out of the box) it was an incredibly frustrating experience. This is not to mention one part in the Penguin’s ship where all the external doors just simply refused to work, making the opening noise but not allowing me through. This broke my trust with all the game mechanics so I spent the vast majority of the game wondering if I had completed a challenge successfully or if I had just encountered another game breaking issue. I’m not alone in thinking this either as my searches into the issue revealed the list of bugs is scarily long and even after it’s been out for this length of time there’s no patch in sight.
This, combined with the fact that Arkham Origins isn’t too much different from City in terms of overall play style, is probably the reason why there’s been such an abysmal reaction to it. I did my best to avoid any reviews prior to playing it however I unwittingly found out that Destructoid gave it 3.5 out of 10 and whilst I don’t agree with that score overall I understand the reasoning that went into it. Whilst I feel that Arkham Origins isn’t a bad game overall it is certainly the weakest of the series, showing very clearly that Warner Bros Montreal has a lot to learn before they can deliver a title that can be considered on par with the rest of the Arkham series. Whether or not they’ll get the chance to do so in light of the current reaction to Arkham Origins though remains to be seen.
As for the story I felt like it was a great introduction into the relationship between Batman and the Joker as whilst their relationship has been explored in depth in other mediums it was great to see how the rivalry began. The bucket list of other characters thrown in as assassins was unfortunately less well done as it just felt like a convenient way to throw them in without needing a coherent reason for them to be there. This was only exacerbated by the fact that they either had long, drawn out encounters (like Enigma) which just weren’t that fun to pursue or they were so short (like Anarchy) that you really didn’t have time for them to develop.
Should we judge Batman: Arkham Origins without the knowledge of the titles that followed it previously it would be easy to heap praise on it. The combat is engaging and satisfying, the exploration into the relationship between the Joker and Batman is intriguing and the world is filled with detail that few games manage to achieve. However it’s lineage set a high bar for it to live up to and the fact that it’s not different enough from Arkham City, combined with the numerous game breaking bugs, means that Arkham Origins is the weakest of all of the titles. I certainly enjoyed my time in it but there’s no mistaking that the developers behind it have their work cut out for them if they want to live up to the Rocksteady brand.
Rating: 7..0 / 10
Batman: Arkham Origins is available on PC, Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and WiiU right now for $59.99, $78, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 13 hours of play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.