“Surely there’s no more games I helped Kickstart” I keep telling myself every time one pops up (7 more to go, it turns out). For the most part these are happy surprises, games that for one reason or another sold me enough on a concept for me to splash some cash to get them made. For the most part they’ve lived up to my expectations, even if my tastes as a gamer changed in the years since I backed them. I had yet to feel the sting of bitter disappointment in one of my Kickstarted children but Confederate Express, a game for some unknown reason I backed almost 5 years ago, gets the unenviable award of being the first to fall horrendously short of its mark. Whatever this game is it’s not the one I thought I was backing, nor is it one you should be buying.
Confederate Express describes itself today as MOBA/RTS style game where “you assume a role of a brutal exterminator trying to deliver a mysterious package”. Whilst this is similar to the Kickstarter pitch in spirit the vision is significantly reduced, now pitting you against 50 fixed levels rather than the randomised Roguelike experience that was envisioned. Indeed anything beyond the most basic of elements appears to have been thrown out, leaving us with a rudimentary experience that can’t have seen a lot of development effort over the past 4 or so years. It’s honestly quite strange as looking back over the Kickstarter page it looks like it was much further along in development than what the end product suggests.
There’s obviously been a lot of effort put into the pixel art assets that were created for Confederate Express. Each individual item is definitely of a high standard and the tile based layout system does indicate that procedural generation was on the table at one point. However these assets are just sort of lumped together in a hodge podge manner, thrown together in a hasty rush to get 50 levels out so they could ship the game and call it a day. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me to see this appear on an asset resale site as “dystopian future pixel art set” in the not too distant future. Suffice to say that the art is probably the only good thing about Confederate Express as everything else is downhill from there.
Whilst Confederate Express bills itself as a “MOBA/RTS” style game it’s much closer to a twin stick shooter in reality. You control one character and you have to dodge projectiles and enemies whilst shooting back at them. Each room is filled with a bunch of enemies which you’ll have to clear out before you can proceed to the next level. Over time additional enemy types are added in and in increasing numbers, making the levels progressively harder as you go on. All of the enemies drop gold which you can use to purchase upgrades at the shops which appear every so often. There’s nothing else beyond that though so once you’ve gotten past the first few levels you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer in terms of raw mechanics. Sure the different enemies present their own challenge, but it’s not like the core of the game evolves much.
The combat is very basic, kind of like asteroids but all your enemies are slow moving zombies. The controls aren’t exactly intuitive either with one mouse button being attack move and the other regular move. There’s also no way to have your character stand still and shoot in a direction unless there’s an enemy there, making a lot of the levels far more frustrating than they need to be. The upgrades you’ll get along the way do change things up a bit but many of them are far less impactful than they’d lead you to believe. For instance the passive upgrades are near worthless as extended range and faster walking speed don’t seem to make one lick of difference. Indeed it feels as if the other enemies actually get the same upgrade, rendering your spent cash worthless.
After completing it I was left wondering what the hell I was thinking when I backed it. Taking a look back at the Kickstarter campaign it’s clear that the game had much grander ambitions. Before each mission you’d have a world randomly generated around you and would receive a briefing of the mission at hand. You’d have your choice of different character classes, crew members and a deep weapon upgrade system. Indeed it felt like it had aspirations of being closer to something like XCOM, complete with a home base and a large crew of people you’d be using on your delivery missions. None of those elements are present in the “finished’ product. Instead you have a fixed 50 level experience that doesn’t even attempt to emulate even 10% of that aspirational goal. Not that anyone would think you could achieve something like that for $50K, anyway.
This is, of course, the risk we run as Kickstarter backers. Honestly I’m surprised it has taken this long for me to run into something this bad. Sure I’ve been left waiting for many years at a time to receive some of my pledges but by and large they’ve hit their mark (even if I didn’t enjoy them). Confederate Express on the other hand fails to meet even the most generous interpretation of the vision they put forward, instead attempting to phone it in many years after they took funding from over 2,000 backers. Am I disappointed? Not really, whatever interest I had in the title vanished in the many years between my pledge and the time I played it. Instead I’m left wondering what happened to the developers and why they decided to release such a lacklustre product into the market.
Confederate Express fails to deliver on the goals it set by a long margin, so much so many Kickstarter backers will likely be wondering why the hell they backed it in the first place. The game as it stands today (and likely forever more if the updates are anything to go by) is a pale shadow of what was promised, lacking any of the features that likely attracted a pledge in the first place. There’s definitely been a lot of love poured into the assets used but even those are presented as a jumbled mess. Honestly even though the game is short I couldn’t in good conscience recommend that anyone buy it, even if you manage to catch it on mega sale. Such is the risk that Kickstarter represents and this time, unfortunately, it has not paid off.
Confederate Express is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked. Game was backed at the $10 level on Kickstarter.
Games, as a whole, have come a long way when it comes to giving the player real control over how the narrative develops. Gone are the days of the simple binary choices, instead we’re treated to branching dialogue trees and emergent gameplay mechanics that allow us to craft our own narrative experience. Often these choices are tied into the concepts of ethics and morality, giving you choices between good and evil (or somewhere inbetween). It’s rare that story choices will have an impact on the game mechanics themselves though, something which Frostpunk (from the creators of This War of Mine) does exceptionally well. Whilst a scenario based city builder likely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea 11 bit Studio’s latest release stands out as one of 2018’s more intriguing titles to date.
The world has been plunged into a new ice age, freezing the oceans and forcing many to abandon their homes. We’ve known about this for some time however and teams of our best scientists and engineers were sent north to figure out a solution. Their hope lied in the Generators, massive coal burning behemoths capable of generating the heat required to keep a colony alive. However, upon arrival, you find the generator cold and lifeless, the teams you sent months ago nowhere to be found. It seems you, as the captain of this expedition, are all that stands between your colony and a bitterly cold end. Are you up to the task of making the hard decisions to keep your colony alive? Or will you, like the others before you, perish in the unrelenting winter that now grips the world.
For a game with such a bleak and dystopian setting Frostpunk is a gorgeous game, both in terms of the graphics but also in terms of the UI and other 2D design elements. I initially had some performance issues with it which I tracked down to it rendering at 4K resolution by default. I’m not entirely sure what caused this but after adjusting it to a more sane resolution (1080p) everything ran extremely well. There are numerous little touches which really sell the experience, like the differing amount of snowfall on the roofs of buildings or the way snow melts away when you plonk down a new steam hub. The lighting and particle effects are top notch too, making the city at night time a particularly pretty thing to look at. Honestly when I first saw this I wasn’t expecting such a visual marvel so hats off to the devs for that.
Frostpunk is a city building survival game with a bit of a twist: it’s scenario based. Unlike many other city building games, which are typically open ended with win conditions you can achieve at your own pace, Frostpunk sets out a goal for you to accomplish in a set amount of time. Whilst not every playthrough will be identical due to the RNG elements they will always play out the same, allowing you to get better at a particular scenario through multiple playthroughs (or through, you know, Google). For the first scenario, the only one which I completed, this means setting up a colony to survive in an ever increasingly cold environment. You’ll have to provide food, shelter, medicine and heat to everyone in your colony whilst also keeping a close eye on hope and discontent. This by itself would be challenging enough however the random events that occur will mean you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which direction your colony will take and what kind of leader you want to be.
Things start off relatively simple: you just need to keep everyone alive. The steady decline in temperature though will force you to start making some tough decisions early on and this will start to shape your path going forwards. Many of the early decisions are tough choices between doing the “right” thing and something that will greatly help in your colony’s survival. Of course survival isn’t everything and whilst you might be able to easily keep everyone alive you’ll quickly find yourself with an unhopeful lot of malcontents who want nothing more than to overthrow you. Herein likes the core challenge of Frostpunk: carefully balancing each part of the equation to ensure that everyone makes it through yet another day, including yourself.
The random events that you’ll uncover play into this mechanic as well, many of which will lay to waste any carefully laid plans you might have. For instance in my first mildly successful playthrough I did what any human being thinks they’d do in such a situation: I tried to save everyone. This saw my colony’s population double in a very short amount of time, putting an incredible amount of stress on the meagre reserves I had accumulated. This was further compounded by the unavoidable storm event which shut down all my food production and wreaked havoc on my coal production facilities. The end state was dozens of people dying every day due to starvation, cold and trying to save the coal mines from complete collapse. My choice of wanting to do the right thing by everyone ended up dooming them all to die and so began my next playthrough: the one where I prioritised survival of the few over the many.
This playthrough wasn’t without its challenges of course but armed with the knowledge I’d gain from failure I felt much better prepared. Indeed it was interesting to explore different options for solving the same problem like using coal thumpers instead of mines. This allowed me to have them right next to town with good heat coverage, vastly reducing the amount of sick people the mines generated. This also opened up a lot more space for me to build other ancillary services in, making expansion that much cheaper. Of course there were also some other things I did which I hadn’t considered before like building multiple research centers to speed up technological progress. The final path through the storm still wasn’t a cakewalk however, the generator only being able to sustain overdrive for maybe half of the duration (even with all the upgrades) but it was enough that I didn’t end up in the frozen starvation ridden hell I had created before.
Like most games in this genre Frostpunk will lay out a good set of basics for you but from there you’re on your own. The tech trees (including the law ones) offer up multiple ways of solving problems with many of the later ones making up for the questionable choices you may have made earlier on. At first glance some options look better than others, like the buildings that seem to produce more output per person than others, but in practice they might be anything but. Indeed my first playthrough that put tech supremacy over anything else was a dismal failure, forcing me to consider a different approach. In the end it seemed like a steady trek up the tech tree, focusing on upgrading current infrastructure first before pursuing new solutions, ended up being the most viable approach. I’m sure I could get another 2 or more playthroughs out of the first scenario alone by just exploring the number of options available.
The story of Frostpunk, whilst following a kind of set path, is mostly one you’ll craft yourself. Nearly all the choices you make will have a direct impact on how the game plays out, creating a narrative that will be uniquely your own. It’s one of those games which I think will make great discussion pieces for a long time to come as we regale each other with how we overcame each of the challenges the game presented to us. It is, however, an exhausting and bleak narrative which is why I haven’t been back to it after finishing the first scenario. I don’t regret my time with it at all but I’m certainly not foaming at the mouth to get back into it.
Frostpunk is a harsh, unforgiving experience that rewards players who experiment, fail and try again. Its gorgeous art direction brought to us by 11 bit Studios own in house Liquid Engine was a surprise delight, something I certainly wasn’t expecting from a game like this. The game mechanics, which are deeply intertwined with the narrative elements, makes for a confronting affair; challenging you to make decisions that will be difficult to live with. Like many similar games though it’s an exhausting experience, one that will keep drawing you back but is easy to close the lid on once you’ve achieved victory. Frostpunk then goes down as one of my surprise delights for the 2018 gaming year, providing a great bit of distraction between the AAA release storms.
Frostpunk is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.
Rewind the clock a decade or two and co-op games found themselves in something of a dark age. Most publishers were attempting to get players on the multi-player bandwagon, driven by increasing Internet penetration and a want to keep players engaged for longer on big name IPs. Titles like Left 4 Dead and other small squad based games breathed new life into the co-op playstyle and the indie renaissance brought with it the innovation to keep players interested. For many of the games co-op is an add-on, something to be enjoyed if you and your friends have the time to play together. Fewer are the games in which co-op is a hard requirement like it is for A Way Out. The premise, a co-op prison break, was enough to interest me with the developers (those who brought us Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) sealing the deal. Whilst it falls a few steps short of my must-play games for this year it was certainly an interesting experience, if only for the fact that my wife and I shared a good few laughs while playing it.
Vincent Moretti is freshly incarcerated and sent to jail for murder. In jail, he meets thief Leo Caruso who had been arrested for grand theft. A group of thugs sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo, but Vincent intervenes. While the two recover in the infirmary, they get to know each other and Leo requests Vincent’s help to steal a file from the office. Vincent complies. After the theft, Vincent senses that Leo is planning on a prison break and offers to help so he can escape too. Leo initially refuses, but begrudgingly agrees to collaborate when Vincent reveals he also has a grudge with Harvey. So begins their quest to hunt him down and exact the vengeance they crave.
Considering that this is Hazelight Studios first game (although not their first title as a team) the quality of their visual work is quite impressive. Whilst it might not reach the dizzying heights that say Far Cry 5 did it still does manage to do a lot with what its got. For people like me who are playing the game on a single console (original PlayStation 4 for reference) there are definitely some sacrifices being made in order to support the split screen parts of the game. Mostly this comes in from the lack of detail when you get up close which can become quite noticeable in the in-game cutscenes. I haven’t done a blow by blow comparison between my screenshots and the same from PC but I can hazard a guess that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate, given that the Unreal 4 engine is powering everything.
A Way Out is a split screen co-op game where you’ll be tasked with all sorts of different challenges, most of which will require you cooperating with your partner in order to complete. Some of these take the form of the usual co-op puzzle affair, like you holding down a switch to keep a door open while they go through, to some unique and interesting puzzles which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. All the scenes are also littered with things for you to interact with from people (providing dialogue and story background) to objects which may or may not be related to the puzzle at hand. All the challenges will have multiple ways of approaching them, something which is not always readily apparent. There’s stealth and combat sections as well which will quickly make you realise that even the biggest TV will feel cramped when half of it is gone. If it sounds like there’s a lot to this game then you’re right and one the game’s weaknesses is the lack of focus on the elements which mean the most to the overall experience.
The core puzzle solving mechanics are well done, making good use of the fact that you’re required to work together. Most sections play out in a similar way: you’re given your object, a little spiel about how you might go about it and then are let loose in the room to figure it out. That room will usually have a bunch of things for you to look through although, honestly, most aren’t worth your time. Whilst its nice that some of the NPCs have a background story none of them will ever help you with anything, nor will learning random things about your environment. Indeed the objective you’re given is pretty much all the info you’ll need, all you need to do is find the requisite items and execute the right sequence. If you’re a seasoned gamer you’ll likely breeze through most of them however if, like my wife, you’re not exactly the gaming type things can get…well…
You see my wife, bless her socks, whilst having a solid history of titles she’s enjoyed (Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft and Until Dawn to name a few) she doesn’t have the same twitch reflex muscles that someone who’s invested over 200 hours into Destiny might. So there were quite a few puzzles where we’d fail in spectacular fashion, often with quite hilarious results. To her credit though towards the end she started to perform quite well, even saving my ass a couple times during the shooting sequences. This is, of course, one of the joys of local co-op and A Way Out does ensure that mismatched experience levels are catered for relatively well. Suffice to say if you’re thinking of giving this game a go the only thing stopping you was the experience of your chosen co-op partner I don’t think you have that much to worry about.
Combat could really have used more attention as the shooting feels clunky and unrefined. It’s your typical third person, cover based shooter with infinitely regenerating health but even I was struggling to reliably take down enemies. There’s also not a great deal of room to experiment with the different weapon types as you select one to begin with and there’s only a few places where you can change your selection later on. Combining this with the 50% loss of screen real estate, which makes enemies just that much harder to make out, and the shooting sections are more of a chore than they need to be. I’ll lay the blame for this partly on the fact that there are so, so many mini-games in A Way Out that it’s not surprising that some aspects received a lot less attention than they should have. Given the pedigree of the developers I had expected a relatively high amount of focus on the core elements they wanted to make good. Maybe the combat just wasn’t one of them.
A Way Out is a mostly trouble free experience although it does still have a few issues that will crop up from time to time. The above screenshot is a great example of what happens when the physics engine gets confused, rocketing my wife straight up after she rolled into a crate. The cover system is also a little finicky, sometimes not responding in the way you’d expect it. Thankfully these issues are both minor and uncommon so they don’t mar the overall experience too much. We did avoid a great number of the mini games however so it’s quite possible there’s all manner of bugs hiding in places I simply didn’t look.
The story of A Way Out takes a really, really long time to get going enough that my wife wasn’t particularly interested in picking it back up after our initial 2 hour session. I did manage to convince her to come back to it and, whilst the second half is a lot better, it’s probably still a bit too drawn out. Additionally given that a great deal of the story is told in retrospect a lot of tension is taken out of many of the critical plot points. Given the fact that the strongest part of the game, the final hour, is the only part that’s not told in retrospect I have to wonder why it was presented in that way in the first place. All things considered A Way Out’s story is probably best described as interesting but forgettable.
A Way Out brings another unique perspective on what co-op games can be, eschewing the current trend for drop-in/drop-out play. Hazelight Studio’s first release is of a very high standard, especially considering that it’s available on all major platforms. The game is bristling with detail something which is both one of its strongest points and also its greatest weakness. Certain parts of the game that could have used a little more love, like the stealth and combat, don’t feel as polished as they need to be. The mini games and other parts are nice but I’d trade most of them out for more focus on the core elements of the game. Finally the story suffers in its delivery, only finding its feet once it casts off the shackles of its retrospective narration. All this being said I don’t regret giving A Way Out a go and I’m sure more gaming couples could find something to love in it.
A Way Out is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.
Once upon a time I found myself elbow deep in the world that was games on Kickstarter. It was the time when many old IPs found new life on the platform with multi-million dollar pledges becoming the new norm. But it was also a place where many smaller, indie titles sought to find validation in their ideas with varying levels of success. Whilst I haven’t backed anything on the platform in years I’m still treated to a small trickle of titles which, back in my backing heydays, are finally starting to come to fruition. The latest of which is Light Fall, a game which, I assume, I backed due the metroidvania phase I happened to be going through at the time. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone but for those who enjoy a good, hard core momentum platformer it’s certainly one to chuck on the list.
In Numbra, one misstep is all it takes to meet a quick end. This harsh world is colossal and ancient; the entire continent permanently shrouded in darkness, lit only by the moon. Its inhabitants live and abide by a simple law: the strongest survive, while the weak are crushed. That did not stop the Kamloops, a small and peaceful Nation, from leaving their homeland for Numbra. Exhausted from the constant wars between rival nations and trapped in the middle of an everlasting conflict, the Kamloops left everything behind. Everything but a hope for better days, a hope for peaceful solitude. Alas, something vile stirs in the dark night of Numbra. Mysterious crystals have appeared out of nowhere and scraped the entire landscape. Houses and entire villages are being razed to the ground. With the world crumbling once again, will the Gods answer their people’s plea one more time?
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Light Fall was a high end Flash game as its visuals certainly take a level of inspiration from that style. Under the hood it’s powered by Unity which is quite surprising, showcasing just how versatile that engine can be. It might just be me but some small parts of the visual flair also felt like they were inspired by the work of Supergiant Games with some of the effects (like flames, for instance) having an uncanny resemblance to them. Regardless of where the creators drew their inspiration from the resulting art style is quite beautiful, the silhouetted figures contrasted by bright glows lavished with lighting and particle effects. There are some points where your character gets lost in the background however, the small figure blurring into the visual onslaught. They are thankfully rare however, the developers taking care to avoid heavy visuals in areas where timing is key. Performance, as you’d expect, is also good and I can’t imagine Light Fall would struggle even on the relatively meagre power of the Nintendo Switch.
Light Fall is a modern 2D platformer with all the usual mechanical flairs we’ve come to expect from this genre. It’s partly momentum based, allowing you to skip through massive sections of the game if you’re able to keep the pace up. Its main differentiator is the Shadow Core, a box which you can summon which performs a variety of functions. Initially it’s just a box that you can place somewhere in the environment, giving you an extra step to reach new places. As you progress you’ll unlock the ability to use it as a weapon and summon it either below you (saving you from a fall) or in front (useful in gaining height). At the same time the levels will begin to throw new and varied challenges at you, some of which can be bypassed entirely if you know what you’re doing. The idea isn’t particularly unique it’s application in this momentum/twitch based platform is and whilst it can be frustrating at times once you learn its ways navigating the game’s various challenges becomes quite satisfying.
The main platformer sections of the game are pretty straightforward most of the time. The levels, in general, progress from left to right, providing a pretty straightforward path towards the end. For the majority of the game the checkpoints are where you need them to be so deaths don’t set you too far back. However the game doesn’t do a great job of introducing new mechanics to you, especially for the core abilities you have. This is most notable when you’re trying to do the challenge puzzles which, especially early on, require you to make use of the new mechanic in order to complete them. There was one in particular which required the use of the “summon block below me” which I didn’t know about until I went looking for videos on how to complete it. Past the first hour or so this issue disappears but it does make the game’s opening gambit more hostile to new players than it should be.
The main increase in challenge, at least for about half of the game, comes from more complex puzzles requiring more intricate uses of your power. Many of the puzzles have the obvious solution but this is usually more reliant on your skill as a player rather than exploiting the mechanics. Then there’s the second, less demanding solution that requires a bit of trial and error to figure out. For instance there’s one section where you have to fall through a section of lasers. There’s a platform there and, if you stand on it, you can ride it down and constantly summon the shadow core to block them out. However if you simply jump down there and summon the shadow core once it’ll follow you most of the way down, blocking the lasers for you without any further effort. I’m not entirely sure how many of those solutions are intentional but it definitely felt like there was always an easier way to solve the problem than what I saw on first glance.
Unfortunately in the later parts of the game the challenge mostly comes from spreading out the checkpoints further, requiring you to complete longer and longer puzzles to progress. The trouble with this is that many of them are impossible to solve on first go, requiring multiple retries in order to get past them. This becomes annoyingly apparent in the final boss fight as it has 4 phases, 3 of them which introduce new abilities and change existing ones. There’s also no way to accelerate the boss fight either, meaning any stuff up puts you right back at the start, leaving you to endure all the phases over again. I’m all for a good challenge but repetition of this nature isn’t something I find reward in completing. At the very least give me an out after say 30 minutes of trying and deny me an achievement or something. I’d rather that than having to waste upwards of an hour on the same bossfight.
Light Fall also has some hitbox issues which aren’t readily apparent, mostly because they result in instadeath which seemingly comes out of nowhere. Some enemies and mechanics have hitboxes larger than you’d expect, leading to your death when you’d otherwise expect to live. Also any mechanics which move your character in some way will result in death should you accidentally summon the shadow core in front of you. This is most noticeable in the final boss fight where I died several times to it, not knowing how or why died. These aren’t game breaking, especially if you’re aware of them, but it does add a small layer of frustration to an already challenging game.
The story, which should get credit for being well developed and fully voiced, didn’t manage to grab me. I definitely appreciated the background narration, giving a little more flavour to the world that I found myself bouncing through, but nothing about the characters or plot really grabbed me. The final reveals towards the end also felt a little rushed, with numerous points revealed and then resolved in the space of an hour. It’s not entirely forgettable with a few choice moments here or there but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I recall my time with Light Fall.
Light Fall is a solid first title from Bishop Games showcasing their unique brand of talent in this genre. The art style is reminiscent of the Flash games of yore, albeit with a better flair for lighting and modern effects. The platforming itself is well polished with only a few small niggling details needing further attention. The majority of the game follows a good difficulty curve although it struggles later on, resorting to simply making the checkpoints longer to make the game harder. The final boss is probably the biggest misstep in the whole game, requiring a lot of repetition and luck to make it through. The story, whilst well crafted and fully voiced, doesn’t leave much of an impression. All this being said though Light Fall is certainly a game that fans of this genre will enjoy and is a great opening salvo from this indie studio.
Light Fall is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 6 hours play time and 42% of the achievements unlocked. Game was backed on Kickstarter at the $10 level.