Exploration games fit into two major categories: those that guide you along a pre-determined path, allowing you to wander off to your heart’s content, and those who simply drop you in a world and let you have at it. For the purists the latter is more desireable as you’re free to uncover the world as you see fit. However for those looking to tell a story the former is a much better approach as it gives you control over what parts of the story are revealed when. Cradle, though indicating that it was a more of a unguided adventure, fits into the latter category, guiding you along a predetermined path whilst revealing its story to you.
The year is 2076 and the advances in science have been numerous. Age and death have been conquered as people can now transfer their consciousness from their physical form into synthetic bodies, granting them immortality. However this technological marvel brought with it a terrible plague as some people rejected the technology at a fundamental level, causing them to violently explode. You, however, have no knowledge of this, waking up in a yurt in rural Mongolia without any memories of who you are. So begins your journey to rediscover who you are, why you found yourself in this place and what part you have to play in its future.
Cradle is a decidedly pretty game, especially from a game studio whose entire team consists of four people. It has a muted aesthetic which helps with the kind of post-apocalyptic feel that permeates most aspects of the game. On first look it reminded me of the numerous games that have been built on the Unreal engine but in fact it’s built on Unigine, a relatively unknown platform. Suffice to say it’s definitely capable of producing some top quality visuals although there were a couple unexplained slowdowns from time to time.
As I alluded to earlier Cradle is a guided exploration game, plonking you in a seemingly huge world to explore and discover. The world is littered with remnants of its past like articles, brochures and books, all of which will help you in understanding the world you now find yourself in. Interestingly Cradle wants to make you think it’s an unguided adventure however, should you play it as one, you’ll likely run up against numerous obstacles as many things have to be done in a very specific order. Additionally there’s a rather peculiar mini-game which you either need to complete, or fail at least once and then skip, several times over in order to progress the story further. Overall once you get past the idea that this is supposed to be an unguided adventure Cradle starts to come into its own, despite some of its more glaring faults.
You’ll spend the vast majority of the game travelling between two main points in the game: your yurt and what appears to be a nearby amusement park. Whilst the core of the story will be revealed to you by following the path that the “hint” system (which it really isn’t, it’s really an objective tracker) sets out for you there’s quite a lot more that’s revealed in all the various artefacts that are scattered around the place. Thankfully most of these things aren’t giant walls of text that have become common in games like this, making it a little easier to digest the wealth of information at your disposal.
The mini-game, which you’ll have to play several times over, is honestly quite confusing when you first play it. The rules are simple enough to understand but their implementation is just a little confusing. It’s not entirely clear on whether using the blocks you need to reach the goal for other things, like making bombs or platforms, will actually consume that block. After a couple tries though it’s easy enough to get the hang of it and, thankfully, should you fail once you can simply skip the game entirely. I can see why the developers included this minigame, it’s good to have a break from all the reading/talking/walking from time to time, however it wasn’t what I’d call one of Cradle’s standout features.
Whilst the whole “I’ve lost my memories and need to figure out who I am” trope might’ve been done to death the backstory of Cradle was interesting enough that I was able to let it slide. Your relationship with the woman you find, whilst feeling a little stilted thanks to the rather flat voice acting by the main character, develops rather well as both your backstories are fleshed out together. The game does feel like it ends somewhat abruptly as the main character seems to know something the player doesn’t but it does at least wrap up most of the loose ends. There is some rather lively discussion going on in Cradle’s community forum about the various aspects of the ending and, honestly, it was actually kind of nice to trawl through it and figure out what I thought the ending really meant.
Cradle is a beautiful game, both in aesthetic terms and the story it crafts. Whilst you’ll spend your time in a small area you’ll quickly find it brimming with details, building up the world which your small slice of post-apocalyptic paradise resides. The mini-games and the flat voice acting are Cradle’s two major failings however they’re both quickly forgotten as you dive deeper into the narrative that developers has crafted. For lovers of the exploration game genre there’s plenty to love in Cradle and for a first game from an indie studio it does credit to the talent at Flying Cafe.
Cradle is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 44% of the achievements unlocked.
Time waster style games were once the bastion of Flash games hosted on sites like Newgrounds. Since the introduction of smartphones they’ve slowly transitioned themselves away from the web and instead found a comfortable home on everyone’s mobile device. Thus it seems kind of odd these days to play a time waster style game on the PC as they’re no longer the platform of choice for this genre. Still when deciding on whether or not I should get Hook on my mobile or my PC I opted for the latter, if only because I rarely find time to play games on my mobile these days. Interestingly though Hook seems simple enough that it can service both platforms without needing to make any concessions with either.
Hook has a very simple premise: you have to pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. You do this by pushing a trigger that initiates the pulling and, if you done everything in the correct order, it’ll slide all the way back. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to speak of and the base game comes with a grand total of 50 levels to make your way through. If you’re a power gamer this won’t take you much longer than an hour to accomplish although I’m sure if you got this on the mobile you could stretch out that play time over the course of weeks if you were so inclined.
Hook, like many other minimalistic puzzlers, has a very clean and simple aesthetic. I’m sure part of this was an artistic choice but later on it becomes obvious that the lack of distinction between visual elements is actually a key element of the game play. The background music is similarly simplistic, swelling and fading as you solve puzzles or make a mistake that triggers the level to refresh again. I’m sure some would like the option to change the colour palette but in all honesty I don’t think I’d bother.
As I described before the mechanics of Hook are pretty simple, pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. The puzzles start out pretty simple, literally just clicking any of the buttons in any order will solve them, but after that new mechanics start getting dropped in every 10 puzzles or so to spice things up a bit. Most of these additional mechanics come in the form of ways to block off paths however there’s also a few that break the line, forcing you to retrace the paths again. It would be easy enough to brute force the puzzles however if you make one mistake (or 3 in the later ones) the puzzle refreshes, forcing you to restart from the beginning.
There’s a pretty simple algorithm you can use to beat every one of the puzzles contained within this game although executing it may be a little easier said than done. What you first need to do is find the line that can be moved first, usually one without anything blocking it. Then you need to block off all other paths so that only it gets moved. Then from there it’s simply an iterative process to eliminate the rest of them. Using this process I was easily able to breeze through all 50 puzzles in just over an hour, something that many other reviewers have been able to do. This is probably one of those games that could benefit immensely from a level editor and Steam Workshop integration as I’m sure the community would be able to come up with infinite puzzles that would be orders of magnitude more difficult than the default set.
Hook is a great little puzzler with an unique mechanic. The puzzles, whilst not especially challenging, are rewarding enough that I felt compelled to blast through them all in one sitting. It’s shortness is something of a detraction, especially considering that the addition of a level editor and a way to share user created levels would ensure a near endless supply of content. Still for the asking price I don’t think anyone will really mind the lack of content as $1 for 1 hour of entertainment is pretty good by anyone’s standards.
Hook is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and PC right now for $0.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with a total of 1 hour playtime.
With game creation now within the reach of anyone who has the time to dedicate to it the differentiators usually stem from the strengths of their creators. Many come from a writing background, pouring themselves into the creation of a brilliant narrative that flows through the game. Others develop wild and intriguing mechanics, some that allow the players to develop their own story within a world they create. Few however find their strength in the art and graphical fidelity as out of all the things that make a game it is by far the most costly and time consuming to create. Homesick is one of those rare few indie games that brings with it astonishing visual quality that even rivals recent AAA titles.
You wake to a world that’s cold and unfamiliar. The world is barren, bereft of nearly all life and seemingly cold despite the sun’s unrelenting rays punching down through every crack and crevice. As you explore though you see remnants of the world that once was, little reminders that show people were here…once. However you struggle to make sense of the world, the books and letters are all written in code and try as you might there’s little sense to be made of them. You know one thing though, you must get out. You must find your way into the light.
I would forgive people for thinking that Homesick was simply a demo project for a new engine as it’s honestly by far the best looking indie game I’ve ever seen. The attention to details is astounding from things like the rooms with wallpaper peeling off to the fully working (but out of tune) piano. Looking at Barrett Meeker’s (the creative director) history in animation and effects it’s not hard to see why as he’s worked on such titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. If I hadn’t taken these screenshots myself I would’ve written them off as carefully crafted renders but the game really does look this good when you’re playing it. Of course there were some sacrifices made for this beauty, namely the extremely simplistic animations and accompanying sound effects, but it’s hard to deny that the graphics are anything but amazing.
Homesick is your (now) bog standard walking simulator where you’ll move forward at a relatively slow pace that encourages you to take in your surroundings, look at everything and essentially be a tourist in the game’s world. Each room has a set of puzzles that you’ll need to figure out in order to progress and, interestingly, they all share the same end goal. However that doesn’t detract from the challenge at all as figuring out how to accomplish said goal can sometimes involve a myriad of steps, not all of which will be obvious at first glance. Once you finish a section it’s off to the dream world which will allow you to progress to the next section.
The Kickstarter for Homesick described the puzzles as “hard, yet fair and sensible” and for the most part that rings true. The game provides absolutely not tutorial to speak of so for the first 10 minutes or so you’re on your own to figure out how everything fits together in this world. Thankfully whilst all the rooms are interconnected they’re not dependent on each other, meaning that each new puzzle is self contained and does not require any backtracking. There is a couple times where you can miss an important clue which will get you stuck (hint: make sure you look at all the filing cabinets carefully) but other than that you should be able to work things out eventually. My favourite by far was the blocks puzzle but I won’t say much more lest I spoil the fun.
Whilst the game is extremely pretty it does suffer from a few areas that could’ve used a little bit more polish. For some reason there are certain places where I’d get a lot of slowdown, usually when turning past a corner in some of the first rooms. There’s a couple other places where this happens too which leads me to believe there’s some unoptimized geometry hiding somewhere. There’s also a couple glitches that require a game restart to overcome, like an issue (which was said to be fixed but still happened for me) where holding a certain item would overwrite your entire inventory. Thankfully I didn’t lose too much progress but it was still a frustrating experience.
The story of Homesick is what you make of it as for the vast majority of the game you really have no clue about anything. Once you unlock the ability to decipher the riddles you can go back through the entire game and read everything which does give you a good sense of the world before your time in it. With games like these, ones where much of the story is locked behind globs of text hidden everywhere, I find it hard to get emotionally invested in the story and Homesick was no exception. I do admit that when I started to slowly unravel the code of the world I was a little excited but that wasn’t enough to drive me to slowly walk back through everything just so I could read some things.
Homesick is a stunner of a game with graphics that will remain unchallenged by the indie scene for a long time. Once you dig beneath the surface though what remains is your typical walking simulator game, with all the requisite puzzles and hidden pieces of text to flesh out the world. Whilst it’s worth playing for the graphics alone I really can’t say that there was much more that drew me in, mostly due to my resistance to reading large walls of text after I’ve slowly trotted my way through everything. Still I’m sure fans of this genre will find a lot to love and would not hesitate to recommend it to all the indie fans out there.
Homesick is available on PC right now $14.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.
PC ports of mobile games have mostly been of low quality. Whilst many of the games make use of a base engine that’s portable between platforms often those who are doing the porting are the ones who developed the original game and the paradigms they learnt developing for a mobile platform don’t translate across. There are exceptions to this, of course, however it’s been the main reason why I’ve steered clear of many ported titles. The Silent Age however has received wide and varied praise, even after it recently made the transition to the PC and so my interest was piqued. Whilst the game might not be winning any awards in the graphics or game play department it did manage to provide one of the better story experiences I’ve had with games of this nature.
You’re Joe, the lowly janitor of the giant research and development corporation Archon. For the most part your life is pretty mundane except for the wild and wonderful things that your partner in crime, fellow janitor Frank, tells you about. One day however you’re called up to management and, lucky for you, it’s good news! You’re getting promoted, taking over all of Frank’s responsibilities because you’ve shown such dedication to your job (with no pay increase, of course, you understand). When you go down to inspect the place where you’ll be doing your new duties however you notice something strange, a trail of blood leading into one of the restricted areas. Following that trail starts you on a long journey that will eventually end with you saving the world.
The Silent Age comes to us care of the Unity platform however you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was an old school flash game that had been revamped for the mobile and PC platforms. It shares a similar aesthetic to many of the games from the era when Flash reigned supreme with simple colours, soft gradients and very simple animations. On a mobile screen I’m sure it looks plenty good although on my 24″ monitors the simple style does lose a little bit of its lustre. Still it’s not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination but you can tell which platform it was designed for primarily.
Mechanically The Silent Age plays just like any other indie adventure game with your usual cavalcade of puzzles that consist of wildly clicking on everything and trying every item in your inventory to see if something works. The puzzles are really just short breaks between the longer dialogue sections which, interestingly enough, are all fully voiced. There’s a small extra dimension added by the time travel device, allowing you to travel to the past or future at will, but it’s nothing like the mind bending time manipulation made famous by some other indie titles. Other than that there’s really not much more to The Silent Age something which I ended up appreciating as it meant there wasn’t a bunch of other mechanics thrown in needlessly. It’s pretty much the most basic form of an adventure game I’ve played in a while and that simplicity was incredibly refreshing.
The puzzles are pretty logical with all of them having pretty obvious solutions. There’s no real difficulty curve to speak of as pretty much all of them felt about on par with each other, although there were a few puzzles that managed to stump me completely. Usually this was a result of me missing something or not recognizing a particular visual clue (a good example being the pile of wood in the tunnel under the hospital, it just looked like background to me) so that’s not something I’d fault the developer for. Some of the puzzles were a little ludicrous, requiring a little knowledge about how some things could potentially interact, but at least most of them wouldn’t take more than ten minutes or so of blind clicking to get past. Overall it wasn’t exactly a challenging experience which I felt was by design.
The PC port was a smooth one as pretty much everything in the game worked as expected. The 2D nature helps a lot in this regard as there’s a pretty good translation between tapping on the screen and using a mouse cursor but I’ve seen lesser developers even manage to ruin that. There was one particular problem which caught me out several times however which was that my mouse, if it strayed outside the bounds of the main window, would not be captured. So every so often I’d end up clicking on my web browser or whatever else I had open on my second monitor at the time, closing the game down. A minor complaint, to be sure, but one that’s easily fixed.
The story of The Silent Age is one of the better examples I’ve come across recently, especially for a mobile title. Whilst it’s not exactly the most gripping or emotionally charged story I’ve played of late it does a good job of setting everything up and staying true to itself internally. Of course whenever you introduce time travel into a story things start to get a little weird depending on what model of causality and paradox resolution you ascribe to and The Silent Age is no exception to this. However they manage to stay true to the rules they set up which is more than most high budget films are capable of. Overall I’d say it was satisfying even if it wasn’t the most engaging story.
The Silent Age is a succinct story told through the medium of video games, one that manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that have befallen its fellow mobile to PC port brethren. The art style is simple and clean, reminiscent of Flash games of ages gone by. The puzzle mechanics are straightforward, ensuring that no one will be stuck for hours trying every single item in their inventory to progress to the next level. The story, whilst above average for its peers, lacks a few key elements that would elevate it to a gripping, must-play tale. Overall The Silent Age was a solid experience, even if it wasn’t ground breaking.
The Silent Age is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $9.99, $6.50 and $6.50 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 2 hours of total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
Many games have sought to catch some of Telltale’s success by emulating their trademark brand of story-first games. For the most part this comes in the form of copying the core mechanics, usually with regards to the dialogue choices and the quick time based action sequences. Few however have attempted to emulate the cel-shaded comic book style as most of them have their own art direction that they want to pursue. D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die appears to be an almost blow for blow recreation of the Telltale style, down to the art direction, however the similarities really are only skin deep. Whilst I admit I decided to play this to lambaste it for its almost shameless imitation the actual experience was something I didn’t expect, a rare occurrence for this humble writer.
You are David Young, former detective with the Boston Police Department and recent widower to his beloved wife; Little Peggy. The tragic incident that took his wife away left him with an amazing gift, the ability to travel back in time to see the past as it happened. He can’t do this at will though, only through the use of objects that hold some significance to the past, but those mementos are what he needs to achieve his real goal: to find “D”. Before she died Little Peggy told David to look for D and so David left the BPD to pursue this elusive character in the hopes he can unravel the mysteries behind her murder.
As I alluded to earlier D4 emulates the Telltale style of games by using cel-shading to make everything look like a cartoon. Like most games that make use of this stylization it works well for the most part however every so often the 3D world just doesn’t interact well with with it, leading to some rather weird moments. Probably the biggest stand out of this is the incessant bubble gum blowing that the main character does which just looks silly, especially when his lips don’t move the whole time he does it. It also doesn’t look too great up close, something which becomes painfully apparent when the game zooms up on a character’s face for whatever reason. Overall though the visual quality feels above average, even if I include the venerable Telltale games in the mix.
Like nearly all games of a similar style D4 is an adventure/puzzler, putting you in various cordoned off rooms with dozens of objects to interact with to solve the current objective in order to progress to the next section. It may not seem like a lot at first however once you get to the end, which displays your completion level, it becomes clear that there really is quite a lot hiding in every room of D4. These additional objects are usually things that will flesh out the backstory of the various characters in D4 whilst some will unlock non-gameplay impacting collectibles like new clothes for the characters. There’s also a quick time event based combat system which gets engaged during high tension moments, something which most gamers lament but actually felt relatively well implemented. Finally there’s skerricks of a RPG style progression system in the game in the form of stamina (used when you interact with objects), life (lost when you fail a quicktime event) and vision (used to identify things you should interact with) all of which can be improved with the right clothing or finding a certain collectible. This all adds up to a game which, if you so wish it, has quite a lot of replayability about it or can simply be played from start to finish for the story without a care for the rest of it.
The puzzles are pretty straight forward since there’s no inventory to speak of, meaning that they can all be solved by simply clicking on enough things and stumbling through the right dialogue options. If you’re paying attention you can skip quite a lot of the fluff however doing so can rob you of important pieces of backstory that help to flesh out your character’s motivations and those of others around him. For the most part though if you take the typical “click on all the things” approach that most of these kinds of games encourage then you’re likely to stumble across all the pertinent plot points without too much worry. Even if you miss them you can go back and replay the episode again which won’t take long if you know exactly which buttons to press.
Mechanically D4 plays well for the most part however the quick time detection seems a little off at some points as the achieved “sync rate” can be a little random. I’ve had times when I completely fumbled it and got 100% whilst other times I’ve done it perfectly (or so I thought) and gotten 50%. This mostly happened on the diagonal ones so I figure there’s something a little wrong in the detection algorithm for that particular quick time event. There’s also almost no way to tell how to “stay in character” with the dialogue options in order to get 100% sync as most of them seem in line with what David would say, just some are more or less dickish than others. There might be some kind of hint or mechanic that I didn’t fully understand that makes this a lot clearer but unfortunately for me I just didn’t figure it out.
D4’s story starts out incredibly weak as it has a really confusing blend of elements (supernatural powers, a detective with amnesia, a person who acts like a cat for some inexplicable reason) that don’t seem to gel well together. However over the course of the first 2 episodes that come with the initial game most of them start to make sense and the story really starts to pick up as you uncover more clues to the events that happened prior to the game. Like most episodic games it feels unfair to judge the game based on just a fraction of the whole story but D4 at least has one of the stronger foundations on which to build upon so it will be interesting to see where the developers take it from here.
It would be so easy to write off D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die as a simple Telltale clone however the game comes into its own over the course of the first two episodes. Sure it may not be the graphical marvel that many other games might be, nor is its quick time event system completely satisfactory, but it does provide a rather enjoyable experience. Whilst the director doesn’t know how many episodes the story might have suffice to say there’s easily enough build up for at least a full season and hopefully those episodes are forthcoming sooner rather than later. If you’re a fan of the Telltale style of games then you won’t be disappointed with D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die.
D4 : Dark Dreams Don’t Die is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $14.99 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total playtime of 3 hours with 42% 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.
I used to be spoken for when it came to short time waster puzzlers as none to could topple the venerable 2048. You see it’s not so much that the game itself is that challenging or intriguing (although I will admit it too me far too long to get my first 2048 block) more that I had seen others get really high numbers and I wanted to do that to. So, whenever I found myself with 5 minutes to burn there I’d be, combining blocks together, trying to get my score higher. Since changing phones however I’ve lost my score and this has opened up the opportunity for another contender to take its place. Unium, with it’s deceptively simple concept, is one I’ve lost a decent amount of time to over the past couple weeks and could very well be a contender for my time waster of choice.
The objective is simple: you have to fill in all the black blocks on the screen and can only do so by drawing a line. If the line crosses itself it’ll turn black and you can only cross another line perpendicularly, meaning any corner square is essentially fixed as you left it. There are well over a hundred different grids for you to try your hand at with a limitless supply of new puzzles now being delivered through the Steam Workshop, created via the in game editor. As a concept it’s very easy to grasp however the puzzles, even when they look simple, are anything but requiring either a lot of trial and error or a laterally thinking mind to complete.
Graphically Unium is very simple with the colour palette limited to just the gradient between black and white. For games like this simplicity in the presentation is something I’ve come to appreciate as it means that details aren’t lost in seas of colour or other visually confusing elements. Apart from that there’s really not a lot to say about it how it looks as once you’ve seen the first puzzle you’ve seen all the game has to give you visually. The minimal soundtrack in the background is a nice touch however, even if the menu sounds seem like they were sampled at bitrate far below what they should have been.
The puzzles start off pretty simple, showing you the basics of how to fill in all the blocks and throwing you a few curve balls every now and then to get you thinking differently. Once you’re past the initial set of easy puzzles however things start to get really interesting as you’ll often not be able to just figure it out as you go along. Indeed it’s past that point when Unium starts to show its chops as a real puzzler as the puzzles no longer accommodate a range of solutions, instead only allowing a few ways for the puzzle to be solved. I have to admit that there were a few puzzles that stopped me dead cold for quite a while although now I figure I’ve cracked the secret for puzzles like this (for the most part).
The two most important aspects I found for solving any of the harder puzzles was the start and end of the line and the direction in which you were solving the puzzle (which could be roughly described as clockwise or anticlockwise). There are some puzzles that, unless you pick the right start and finish positions, are simply unsolvable as those two blocks have unique properties that the rest of them don’t. The direction has less of an impact as any puzzle should be solvable in forward or reverse, however I often found that if I was tackling a problem in one direction switching it to the other side would usually trigger an insight into how the puzzle was meant to be solved. That might just be how my brain works however but it’s definitely something I’d recommend trying if you’re struggling.
Unium is a great little puzzler, presenting an extremely simple concept that’s easy to grasp yet incredibly challenging to master. It might not be the most visually interesting game around however it’s minimal aesthetic means you’ll be keenly focused on the problem at hand rather than ogling all the pretty colours. The now limitless stream of puzzles is sure to give Unium staying power far beyond its original station and I’m sure there are going to be some incredibly frustrating puzzles coming out of the community. If, like me, you were looking for a replacement time waster then you won’t be disappointed with Unium.
Unium is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $1.99, $2.49 and $2.49 receptively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.4 hours total playtime.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a good story first pixelart game come my way. It seems the indie scene has begun to move away from them as they seek out more profitable ground in zombies and survival simulators. That has left something of a void behind, leaving only those with a real passion for this particular style of games behind. So whilst I may not be spoilt for choice like I once was I can’t deny that the quality has definitely gone up a notch or two, especially from my favourite publisher in this genre. The latest title from Wadjet Eye Games, Technobabylon created by the developers at Technocrat Games, is no exception to this providing the kind of deep story and fanciful pixelart that has become a signature of all their published games.
In the distant future of 2087 the world has changed dramatically with the wonders of science working their ways into our everyday lives. Genetic engineering is commonplace with children and adults shaped by gengineers, allowing them to sculpt their perfect human form. The story takes place in the City of Newton, the ultimate expression of a science based society that is controlled by a benevolent AI called Central who handles the daily machinations of the city. Many now choose to spend their days in the Trance, a fully simulated reality where ideas flow freely, consciousnesses meld and drift apart and, of course, anything goes. It seems like a picture perfect future but there are many actors that would upset the balance or turn it in their favour.
Technobabylon brings the standard pixelart affair making no use of modern graphics tricks to jazz up the visuals. It was interesting to see so many different rendering options available through the setup program however none of them seemed to make much of a difference to the graphics on screen. I’ll admit I only played with a few of them, mostly to see if I could get it out of the 4:3 aspect ratio it runs in (you can’t) so there’s potentially a setting in there that makes everything look amazing. Still Technobabylon has its moments where I was thoroughly impressed with what they managed to accomplish (the final 3D-ish scenes are a good example of this) with the pixelart medium, something I’ve come to expect from the games Wadjet Eye publishes.
Technobabylon is your typical pixelart adventure game, taking it’s cues from the multitude of titles of yesteryear and those from the renaissance period that pixelart games have recently enjoyed. At it’s core Technobabylon is a puzzler, challenging you to find the right thing to combine with the other thing, which dialogue options to choose to get someone to say the right thing and figuring out what you need to click on to make something happen. Like most modern incarnations of this genre Technobabylon has an improved and simplified inventory system making it a lot less of a bother to try item combinations than it once was. Unlike some previous titles though there’s no combat to speak of and any situation that may result in your untimely demise will simply respawn you right where you left off. So overall no real surprises here in terms of mechanics as is pretty standard for many games in this genre.
The puzzles are pretty well done for the most part, ensuring that you soak up every skerrick of a clue to make sure you can progress to the next stage. Some of them require you to have a little bit of knowledge of how some kinds of systems would work (say for instance what security mechanisms a hand print scanner would employ) but for the most part you should be able to figure them out based on clues in the current room/level. I will admit that I got stuck about a half a dozen times, reaching for the walk through guide (which I honestly wish all review copies would come with) to get me past a section I just couldn’t seem to figure out. The puzzles I figured out on my own though were quite satisfying, especially when I felt I figured something out that the developer obviously thought would stump me for a while.
I can’t remember what the engine was that Technobabylon mentioned it used at the end however it suffers from probably one of the most annoying bugs I have ever come across. Should you use SHIFT + TAB to open up the Steam chat window whilst playing the game all the dialogue boxes from then on flit past, as if you’re holding down the space bar or left mouse button. This issue will persist for as long as you remain in the game and can only be fixed by exiting out and coming back in again. I first noticed this with A Golden Wake (although it was triggered by ALT + TAB) which, I’m guessing, uses the same engine. It’s not so much a critique of the game per se, the developers fixed numerous issues that I saw during my playthrough before release date, more something that budding indie devs might want to be wary of.
As is trademark for nearly all Wadjet Eye games Technobabylon carries with it a fantastic story, one that’s steeped in futurism and radical ideas about what technology can bring us. All the main characters are given plenty of time to develop their back story which are expertly intertwined with each other. Most characters have oodles of non-critical dialogue options which serve to build out the story. Even better still is the fact that the vast majority of content within Technobabylon is voice acted so you’re not going to be stuck reading walls of text for hours on end. The only fault with Technobabylon’s story is that it lacks a really deep emotional hook to draw you in, something like the opening minutes of Ori and the Blind Forest, which would really seal the deal on this otherwise great story.
Technobabylon is a great example of the modern pixelart adventure game, bringing along with it a great story that’s just oozing futuristic tones. It might not be the most revolutionary games, playing it safe by keeping the mechanics simple and the puzzles accessible, however the experience it provides is above many of its competitors. If, like me, you had been left wanting for a good adventure game for some time then you really can’t go past Technobabylon as it’s sure to provide you with many hours of enjoyment.
Technobabylon is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 7 hours. A copy of Technobabylon was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of review.
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.