One of the many reasons I keep doing these reviews is that I enjoy charting the journeys of the various developers that I come across, especially the smaller indies. For some they create an IP and expand on it, like Frozenbyte with Trine or Moon Studios with Ori and the Blind Forest, whilst others like Supergiant Games continually experiment, almost reinventing themselves with each release. Carlos Coronado, who previously brought us Mind: Path to Thalamus, falls into the previous camp having experimented widely over the many years he’s been a game developer. Whilst I wasn’t able to experience one of his previous titles due to it being VR only when I saw Koral, a casual puzzler with a strong environmental message, I was very interested to see what he’d be bringing to the table.
Koral is a self-described love letter to the ocean, created by the developer whilst he was onboard a sail ship in a marine sanctuary in Northern Catalonia. The game’s core is quite simple: you’re an ocean current that can bring life back to the reefs that have been devastated by humanity’s impact on them. Along the way you’ll be peppered with facts about why many coral reefs are currently under threat and some of the positive actions that have taken place to restore them. When it’s all said and done the game will likely only take you a couple hours to get through, maybe one more if you’re looking to 100% it.
The puzzles aren’t particularly difficult although they do get awfully repetitive as they all share the same core base mechanic: explore to find the little light things and then bring them somewhere to unblock the way forward. The challenge ratchets up mostly through adding in more ways to hide the lights from you or by adding a timer to certain challenges. None of them would be out of reach of even beginner games I feel but there are definitely some that felt a little more tedious than others just because they had an arbitrary time limit placed on them, forcing you to do them over again if you fail.
The pacing could also be a little tighter as there’s numerous long sections where there isn’t any music or something particularly interesting happening on screen. Part of this is probably due to the game’s creation (more on that in a sec) but still I feel like these games live and die by their pacing, tying together the various visual and auditory components together so the game effortlessly flows between stages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled too much by games like The Turing Test which showed me just how great a game like this can be when all those disparate elements come together well.
Probably one of the most interesting parts of the game for me was the credits when it was revealed that quite a bit of this game was created with assets from the Unreal store, including the music. I mean, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that all those kinds of assets are available on there, but it certainly demonstrated to me just how far that ecosystem has come of late. As time goes on it seems the barriers to creating something worthy of playing are getting lower and lower which, whilst it has increased the incidents of shovelware and asset flips, does mean that creators are now free to focus on the much more important aspects of game development.
Koral does exactly what its developer wants it to do: it shows his love for the ocean and the want to preserve it for all to enjoy. It’s construction might not be the best, suffering from slight pacing issues and repetitive puzzles, but it still manages to get its message across. Perhaps most interestingly for me is the amount of things that went into it that were already prebuilt, I honestly would not have guessed that any of it wasn’t created for this game directly had the developer not mentioned it in the credits. So, in summary, Koral is a great distraction even with its rough edges.
Koral is available on PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 59% of the achievements unlocked.
Yeah I know, I have a type.
Take some kind of high concept, wrap it in an intriguing art style, throw in a few interesting puzzle mechanics and back the whole thing up with a semi-decent soundtrack and you’re almost guaranteed to get a look in from me. Part of my penchant for these kinds of games was born out of my time being consumed by other things but over time I’ve grown to quite like the genre and all the weird titles it seems to produce. Vane, as you’ve likely already guessed, fits that description almost perfectly and was the second title to come to me via the new Steam recommendation engine. I’m glad to say that this time around it was bang on the money, directing me to an incredibly surreal and intriguing experience that I had not come across before.
In a ruined desert, a strange golden dust transforms a free-spirited bird into a determined young child. You are not the only one to have undergone this transformation however and the world around you is littered with evidence of a world that was once far more than what it appears to be today. Your transformation sets in motion a chain of events that will reshape the world, hopefully for the better.
Vane’s art-style is quite unique with its direct influences coming from the Team Ico games of old. That’s combined with a weird glitchy aesthetic, which gives it this strange sci-fi overtone. Indeed the styling of the world is equal parts fantastic and high-tech, giving you this feeling the environment is stuck between the fantastic and the real. Given I’ve played far too many low-poly indie games of late it’s nice to see a developer take a different angle with it instead of simply using the aesthetic as a way to get out of needing to texture too much. There were a few poorly optimised areas, mostly the larger open areas when the heavy particle effects were going, but other than them the game ran perfectly smooth.
You’ll encounter a wide variety of puzzle mechanics whilst playing Vane as it starts off as a kind of walking-simulator-esque experience as you soar around the desert looking for places to land. From there the game evolves into a kind of puzzle platformer, requiring you to explore the level to figure out how it works, look for where you need to transform and so on. Later on the game then adds in what I’ll call the “rebuilding” mechanic which appears to reconstruct the destroyed world around you. It makes for an interesting progression in terms of mechanical complexity, gradually ramping up the challenge over the game’s short length.
None of those mechanics are well introduced unfortunately, making figuring them out a rather laborious endeavour of trial and error. There’s hints around, of course, but it can be hard to tell when the game is trying to nudge you in a direction or if it’s just something that looks like it should be investigated. Vane isn’t the first game to suffer from a problem like this and it’s one of the more challenging elements to get right; making exploration worthwhile by challenging the player and not just filling the world with random rubbish to seek out.
I’d probably be a bit more lenient on Vane if it weren’t for the absolutely god awful controls that it has. Flying is honestly a major chore and it’s far too hard to perch on something, especially considering that’s one of the core mechanics. Indeed I managed to spaz out the physics engine multiple times by flying too close to something and it not being able to figure out if I should land, bounce off or do something else. This continues with the controls on the ground which feel far more wonky than they really should be. This is most aptly demonstrated in the part of the game with a procedurally generated level, often resulting in you getting stuck on geometry or sliding around randomly as the game tries to figure out how to place you. For a game that gets so much right to get a basic thing like controls so utterly wrong really perplexes me.
The story is interesting, even if it’s so hand wavy in what it shows that you could really make anything out of it. It’s obvious that you find yourself in the ruins of a once prosperous world, one that’s ravaged by what appears to be a never ending storm. However from there everything is pretty much up to your interpretation. On a hunch I just checked and there are 2 different endings although really it seems either of them are as about as satisfying as the other. All this being said I don’t think that the story of Vane was the developer’s overall focus and, whilst it’s somewhat interesting to contemplate, it’s not really the main thrust of the game.
Vane is a weird dichotomy of excellent craftsmanship in some respects and down right negligence in others. The art of Vane’s world is an eclectic mix of old world fantasy with sci-fi overtones all built up beautifully in low poly detail. The puzzle mechanics grow organically throughout the game, ramping up the challenge gradually. However the lack of any direction with the puzzles coupled with the absolutely trash controls means that the game experience is far more frustrating than it needs to be. I’ve dealt with vague puzzle mechanics before, and I can somewhat forgive them, but controls that are that wonky just makes everything worse. Hopefully future titles from Friend & Foe Games don’t incur this penalty as what they’ve built here has the makings of something truly awesome.
Vane is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.7 hours playtime with 39% of the achievements unlocked.
I am…truly at a loss to set the scene on this one.
In my regular dive through the dumpster that is the Steam new releases page I came across KIDS and, given that it was free, I figured it was probably worth the price of admission. What followed was a surreal 20 minute experience that could be a commentary on how we interact with each other or some kind of weird ASMR tech demo.
Suffice to say it’s the first game where I’ve felt that screenshots aren’t going to be sufficient to demonstrate the rather bizarre mechanics it brings to bear.
There’s not much to say about it from an art style or graphics point of view, it’s just hand drawn black and white sketchbook art. The sound design does stand out though with all the animations being accompanied by some great foley work. There’s nothing quite like hearing the footsteps of a few onscreen figures slapping around before it turns into an ungodly stampede of the buggers trampling across your screen.
Mechanically it’s like 2D walking simulator as all you need to do is click in places to make things happen. Given that it’s only 20 minutes it’s really worth just going and playing it to see them for yourself but some choice moments are: moving through what I assume is someone’s digestive system, throwing countless figures into bottomless pits and starting a mexican wave of claps.
Like I said before, truly bizarre.
KIDS feels like the kind of game you used to find on places like Newgrounds or Albino Black Sheep. It’s a surreal experience that doesn’t really have a premise or a story to tell but it’s intriguing all the same. If I didn’t think it’d horribly scar children in some way I’d say it’d be a great little title for the iPad as the interactivity had a very tactile feel to it, even behind a mouse. In all honesty I have no idea if this game will appeal to you but for 20 minutes of your time I don’t think that’s a huge investment to find out either way.
KIDS is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes.
Sometimes I just want to play something dumb.
That’s partly the reason I keep playing Call of Duty; it’s the definition of “turn off your brain” kind of entertainment. But this also extends to experimental games their either throw convention to the wind (like the entire frustration game genre) or just those whose premise is silly enough to entice me. So is how I came across Snakeybus, a new take on the game which made Nokia phones the brand to have back when I was in high school (errbody wanted that snake action). You probably won’t play it for long, nor will you have to try especially hard to get most of the achievements, but it was pretty much exactly what I needed: a silly, short game that provided some good distraction between the myriad of AAA titles that have been banking up on me.
The premise is simple: you pick up passengers, deliver them to a destination and based on the number you deliver your bus gets longer. Initially this poses no challenge but you’ll quickly end up with a bus so long that you’ll be tripping over yourself in no time. So begins the challenge of figuring out strategies to ensure that you can make your way around the map without running into yourself whilst still being able to pick up and drop off passengers. Unlocks come fast as they’re just based off the number of times you play any level or some random currency that you get awarded far too much of. In a nutshell this is a game that does what says on the box and doesn’t make any attempt to stop you from playing it out as quickly as you want.
Snakeybus has simple graphics and each level has its own unique style. The initial level is kind of what you’d expect for your run of the mill indie title, but the later levels include one with cel shading, an outrun styled Miami and even a rotating space structure. At the time of writing performance was unfortunately pretty poor given its simplistic graphics although it appears that the developer has been feverishly at work attempting to rectify the problem, netting everyone a 20%+ performance improvement. The game could also use some more and varied sound tracks to go with it as it becomes repetitive quite quickly, even when you’re only spending a few short minutes in each session. Overall Snakeybus’ graphics are passable which, honestly, is exactly what you’d expect.
The core mechanic is pretty fun and quickly becomes quite the challenge, even in levels where you’d expect to have quite a lot of freedom to move around. Strategies in one level will likely not work in others as their layout will dictate what you can get away with. The above screenshot for instance is all about managing which side of the road you’re using because, if you don’t and snake around everywhere, you’ll have no room to move. Other levels though, like the space one, work best if you weave around like you’d do in the original snake game. Honestly I originally just tried to make sure I took the longest route I possibly could before working out that each level had its own strategy.
Of course part of the attraction of games like this is unintentional shenanigans you can get up to with a less-than-great physics engine implementation. The below screenshot is just one example of me getting into a situation which honestly should have been game over but the physics engine couldn’t really figure out if I was stopped or not. So instead it ended up with this weird tangle of buses all on top of themselves, seemingly flitting in and out of existence before righting themselves again. This cuts both ways of course as there were many times when my bus was only just barely stopped and the game cut me off. Whilst this is technically an issue really it doesn’t detract from the game play. In reality it’s a core part of it.
Snakeybus is the kind of title you play when you don’t want a game that asks too much of you. It’s B-grade implementation, OK graphics and numerous rough edges are all part of the charm of games like this. Sure every single part of the game could be done better but it doesn’t need to be. Snakeybus exists to explore the core game mechanic and little more beyond that. In that mission it succeeds in spades, providing a fun little distraction that you’ll likely play for a couple hours before putting down for good. In the end it’ll come down to whether or not you’re willing to part with a few dollars for something as silly as this. For this old gamer it was very much worth it.
Snakeybus is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 92 minutes with 88% of the achievements unlocked.
Games built by students are, for the most part, completely terrible. Many of my friends went into game development courses and the games they developed as part of them were clunky, god awful messes that never made it onto their resumes. That’s part of the learning experience though as it’s one thing to play games and think you understand how they’re crafted and a completely different thing to actually sit down and do it yourself. With the democratisation of game development and distribution tools however we’re starting to see more games from students that will likely become the foundation upon which their creators look to build their future careers. Burning Daylight, made by a team of 12 students from The Animation Workshop, is likely to be one of those games as, whilst far from perfect, it does showcase just what that team is capable of producing.
Waking up naked in a grotesque slaughterhouse, you have no recollection of who you are or where you come from. Your only clue is a mysterious tattoo on your chest. You must now escape and travel through a dystopian society in order to uncover the mysteries of your origin. The story is set in the future where life cannot sustain outside, what remains of human society, now lives in megastructures waiting for the day, when they once again can live outside.
Burning Daylight’s artwork is quite an interesting array of barren dystopian corridors, oversaturated neon futurscapes and minimalistic nature scenes. Given that the game is really just a walking simulator these different landscapes are mostly just there for you to get a sense of the world you’re in, giving you different views of what life in the the giant megastructure is like. The artwork simplistic but still above par for what I’d expect from an all student team. The animation could do with some work though as all the interactions feel incredibly stiff and unnatural. Strangely the team did a good job of making the Unreal engine feel like Unity, something about the modelling style and lack of overused specular maps. All things considered though Burning Daylight does a good job of communicating story elements through its visuals, a key concept in walking simulators like this.
There’s really no mechanics to speak of, save for a few extremely rudimentary puzzles that you’ll have to solve. That’s likely for the best too as the ones that are implemented are a little janky, both in their implementation but also in their logic. Indeed whilst I’d consider the visuals above par the rest of the game’s implementation is very mediocre. The game crashed on me once and for some reason didn’t record that I’d actually gone past a checkpoint, forcing me to replay an entire section for no reason at all. In a 45 minute game this is no real drama of course but it’s not like checkpointing is a NP hard problem.
The story is an interesting one, told mostly though the activities of those milling around in the background as you run past. It’s nothing original but thanks to its short duration it gets right to the point. There’s some overemphasis on things that don’t mean anything to the overall story, like your character being naked from the waste down for half of it, but thankfully you can ignore them. The story in the game is self contained however the Steam page paints a picture of a bigger world that I think the developers want to explore. Given the game’s success I think there’s a real possibility of that happening.
As a standalone game Burning Daylight isn’t much: a 45 minute walking simulator experience with good artwork that’s marred by its janky animations and rudimentary mechanics. However what it represents is something much more: students can now go from concept to public release, giving them real world experience that they can then leverage into something more. Whilst Burning Daylight isn’t exactly game of the year material it is a solid first try from those who’d never attempted the craft before.
Burning Daylight is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 47 minutes.
The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.
The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.
The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.
Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.
The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.
The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.
Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.
It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.
Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s not often that a developer simply explaining the mechanics sells me on the game. Usually if you can’t simply show how it works through a gameplay trailer or similar I’ll switch off as even high concept games can hook you with as much. Still though I was intrigued by the voiced over trailer that GrizzlyGames put on their Steam page for Islanders, a rework of typical city builder/strategy games where there’s no resources to harvest, economies to manage or little NPCs trotting around. No instead everything is based around the buildings and how much you can make of them, something which sounds simple on first take but takes some real practice to get a feel for.
Graphically Islanders has a bright and simple aesthetic, taking inspiration from the numerous low-poly games that have made the style quite popular with the indie crowd. The simplicity is also partly born out of necessity as you’ll quickly start to crow out your little island in short order, making it a bit of a visual challenge as the game progresses. The highly saturated colours coupled with the varied biomes and procedural generation of each island means you’re not likely to get bored of the visuals any time soon. After spending my time in high end visuals from AAA developers it’s been nice to go back to a more visually simple game.
The core mechanic of Islanders is intriguing: instead of it following the usual city builder or RTS trope of giving you a main base and then letting you loose to harvest resources instead you’re given a handful of buildings. Each building you place will give you a certain number of points, something you can maximise if you understand what gives them bonuses. Just blindly plonking down buildings in places that give you the most points isn’t actually a bad strategy to start off with, however you quickly realise that if you want to go after the high score you’re going to have to be a lot more strategic about it. Each of the different island biomes has different mechanics available to it and you’ll need to understand each of them in order to maximise their effect. Further to that there’s numerous late game buildings that have synergies that you’ll need to build towards and that’s when the real challenge starts to set in.
You’ll likely want to set up various areas that are dedicated to a certain kind of synergy like say an area for houses, another for mansions and an area for all your farming/brewing/logging activities. This is because those buildings not only have synergies with themselves they also have strong disaffinity with each other’s late game buildings. This is something that became painfully obvious to me after I’d clustered as many buildings together in one spot only to realise that the late game buildings were effectively useless, preventing me from going on any further. Thankfully there is an out for this but you’ll want to use it strategically lest you abandon all the good work you’ve done and, by consequence, many of those delicious points.
The mechanic I’m referring to is the ability to travel to the next island. The game does confirm with you that you want to move on but it never goes into the why of it. If you’re like me you’ll likely just hit the next island button the second it becomes available, a viable strategy in some cases, however you’re likely better placed to hang onto it until you get yourself into a corner. You see Islanders will go on for as long as you have a building (or + sign, which allows you to get more buildings) in your inventory. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t get to the next lot of buildings and you’ve got a next island available you can continue afresh there. The game will then reset the target score to just 20 above your current, giving you free reign over the next island. Whilst this isn’t always an option understanding this is what helped me go from the 8,000th ranked player to around the 800th. I’m sure there’s even deeper strategies than that but honestly, I’m happy enough with that.
Islanders does have a good amount of polish on it although you can still pull off some shenanigans with building placement if you fiddle for long enough. The platforms seem to be the easiest ones to mess around with as I was able to embed a few water platforms in places where there was no water. You can do this by finding a place where it’ll let you place it and start sliding it against one of the invisible walls the game puts there to help you with placement. Done right you can slide along them for quite a ways, giving you a lot more options than would otherwise be available. I didn’t find any other issues during my playthrough so hats off to the developers for testing it thoroughly.
There are a couple improvements I’d like though. An undo button, even if it was just for the last thing you placed, would be nice as a small quality of life improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I placed a building awkwardly only realising I could’ve done it better if I moved the camera a little bit. It’d also be nice to have a mode that allowed you to rearrange things, possibly with a higher requirement on points for each level, as it’s quite satisfying to place a building just right and have all those little tokens tinkle away onto the score board. Thinking about it more most of the things I’d like to see in the game are just things that’d make me want to play it for longer, not so much things that need to be fixed.
Islanders is a fantastic twist on the typical city builder game, stripping away the mechanical complexity and replacing it instead with skill mastery. The visuals are simple and wonderfully colourful, a trend I’m very much happy to see continue in casual titles like this. The mechanics are simple but take some time to master and even then you’re still at the hand of RNGesus. I may have only played a couple hours of Islanders but I can see it being a good distraction every so often, especially when I’ve only got one hand free (the other holding my daughter, get your mind out of the gutter).
Islanders is available on PC right now for $8.50. Total play time was 2 hours with 73% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s an increasing number of games that are made by developers as part of their own process of self reflection. For some this comes as a catharsis, a want to unburden themselves through their artistic expression. For others it is to mourn and pay tribute to those that have passed. I haven’t yet however come across a game which explored the actual process of self reflection itself which is what When The Darkness comes is to its creator. As a concept I find it thoroughly fascinating, even if the resulting execution makes for a so-so experience due to its bargain basement creation and lack of compelling narrative.
When The Darkness comes starts out in a similar vein to The Stanley Parable, with the game’s creator speaking to you about the game and how it’s basically over and you should leave. It then proceeds to dive into a series of vignettes, each of them exploring a different concept with each one becoming more abstract than the last. Depending on the choices you’ve made you’ll see different levels, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of the developer’s self exploration process such as: trying to understand the concept of meaning, how hard it is to escape past trauma and getting lost in your own thoughts without a path to find your way back.
The bog standard Unity visual flair is strong in this one although the developer did go to the effort to ensure that each level had its own visual concept that embodied their vision of the concept they wanted to explore. Some of them are quite interesting, like the one where you have to follow a path that you can only really make out if you’re walking right on the edge of it or when you have to leap from tower to tower and they only illuminate after you land on one. So whilst it’s not going to win any awards for eye candy it certainly gets points for its strong visual concepts that play directly into the game’s storytelling.
The game makes a point of telling you it has no meaning, both in how it advertises itself and numerous times over in the game proper, as well as saying it’s not something that anyone should play. Of course that’s all total bollocks as I’ve played games that truly had no meaning and ones that were never meant to be played and they are completely different beasts than something like this. I say this because I feel like it’s an overdone idea now and it feels disingenuous to the player to blurt such nonsense when it’s obvious that’s not the case. Critically it doesn’t add anything to the game’s experience either I feel as it seems like many of the things shown here are inspired by real life events that the developer has lived through. With that in mind it’s quite laughable to say that this game has no meaning as all the things it put forwards shows it does.
There’s a small narrative that ties parts of the game together although honestly it’s pretty loose and doesn’t do much to bind it all together. Given that this is mostly just an exploration of different concepts that’s not too much of an issue but I do feel like the whole experience would be a lot stronger for it. For me games always feel elevated when they’re put together as a cohesive whole and when they’re just a jumble of parts it’s just not as compelling. For what it’s worth though the story elements that are in the game are done reasonably well, they just fail to tie everything together like you’d expect. With that in mind I’d say that the developer definitely has the skills to do it, they choose not to invest their effort in it this time around. Instead they focused on each vignette individually rather than the whole.
When the Darkness Comes is an interesting exploration of different concepts through various game mechanics and visual styles. Its greatest downfall is the lack of an overarching narrative that could’ve tied the experience together better and no, the idea that the game has no meaning isn’t enough. Given that it’s free and short if you’ve never played this kind of high concept game before I definitely think it’s worth exploring. It may not be one of the highest scoring games I’ll play this year but it’s at least an interesting one and it’s certainly whet my appetite for what they may be working on next.
When the Darkness Comes is available on PC right now and is free to play. Total play time was 47 minutes with 34% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve very much come to enjoy the new breed of city building simulators like Frostpunk and They Are Billions. I think this is mostly due to their more relaxed pace than other games I typically play, allowing me to plod along at my own pace, only spending a little bit of time here or there to fix the minor issues in the mostly automated systems. Of course part of the fun is also figuring out just how those automated systems work and, most importantly, what makes them break. Dawn of Man, from the developers who gave us Planetbase, is another title in this vein and whilst it might not have the same brutal mechanical complexity that its predecessor did it still provided me with quite a few hours of enjoyable playtime.
You’re in charge of a tribe of people at the very dawn of early civilisation. You start in the stone age with all the trials and tribulations that comes with it: the availability of food limited to what you can find and hunt, stored resources don’t last long and working in the winter is a game of life and death. It is your job as the invisible hand behind this colony to guide them from their primitive origins and get them to the Iron Age…alive preferably.
Like Planetbase before it Dawn of Man has that Unity-esque look and feel to it that many indie games do. There isn’t a huge amount of detail packed into each individual asset, made more to be looked at from above rather than up close and personal all the time, but for the kind of game this is the visuals are more than appropriate. The lack of detail is also helps ensure that the simulation engine has enough grunt to keep everything running smoothly without running into noticeable performance hiccups. I didn’t notice any performance degradation during my time with the game so it appears to be well optimised for its task. Suffice to say though you’re probably not going to be playing this game for the visuals, you’re in it more for the emergent storytelling that the engine can provide.
Dawn of Man is like pretty much any other city builder that you’d care to point to as most of the basic tasks are the same. You’ll need to provide basic resources to your colony in the form of food, water and shelter all of which you have varying means of acquiring at your disposal. Beyond that you’ll also need to accumulate knowledge points, a kind of currency you’ll gain for hitting various milestones that can then be spent at the tech tree. To advance to the next age you’ll need to unlock that age’s key technology and it’ll come at a hefty price so you’ll need your colony to be somewhat advanced to make it. Beyond that the only other real challenge is the occasional raid from other humans or possibly even a couple animals but, beyond that, there’s not much more to the game. At least at the base level anyway.
Getting into these games is always a bit of a challenge as figuring out how the various systems interact with each isn’t always obvious, nor does the game really tell you much beyond the basics in the tutorial. Typically this is usually where I’ll restart my first game a couple times over, usually as it becomes clear I’ve backed myself into a corner I can’t get out of. For Dawn of Man though I didn’t end up doing that, instead I was able to find ways out of every dire situation I found myself in. Now I don’t know if this is because I’ve played quite a few more titles like this since I played Planetbase all those years ago but it definitely felt like there were a lot more outs in Dawn of Man than I’m used to having.
I say all of this because it means there’s no funny story of me failing miserably and killing everyone, apologies! 😉
Dawn of Man follows the usual trope of keeping things simple in the beginning but adding incremental complexity as you progress through the game. Progression in this sense is pretty linear as new tech is really only unlocked when you move to a new age and you’re only going to move to a new age once you’ve stabilised your colony in the current one. Of course I was playing on the first scenario so I’m not sure how this would play out in the challenge modes, most of which seem to have another built in layer of complexity in order to ramp up the difficulty a bit more. Further to that the game has Steam Community support so I’m sure there’s likely to be many mods and improvements that’ll add all sorts of interesting nonsense to the game in the near future.
For my colony the primary challenge typically came from being out of a particular resource which would stall my progression. The first of these was tannin, required for making leather which I needed for various upgrades and things to improve my colony overall. What I usually found was that, although those resources were available, the work zones I had put down weren’t getting filled with people to complete the work, there were even people showing as underutilised. The way to get around this it seemed was to put down multiple work zones for the same resource rather than having one stacked with the same number of people. Looking through the forums on this I’m not the only one who’s struggled with this kind of challenge and indeed it seems most of the games real challenge comes from the AI wigging out and doing something completely unexpected.
I had quite a few instances of this in my game, the funniest (well, looking back it now anyway) was when half my colonists were walking around starving themselves to death. For some reason there’s certain tasks that the AI will prioritise over eating, to the point of people working themselves to death before they’ll take 10 minutes to get a meal. I eventually worked out that the problem, and honestly this shouldn’t even be a problem, was that the food I had on hand still needed to be “cooked” even though it had been already. Certain other foods can be consumed instantly and, when they’re not around, it seems the AI prefers to try and keep them working than take the required time to cook. It’s a bit of an edge case, I’ll grant you, but there’s dozens of other emergent behaviours (like the AI not respecting hard resource limits you set) that you’ll have to figure out lest they become the downfall of your colony.
Dawn of Man does tend to hide a lot of information behind dozens of menus, many of which aren’t readily accessible. A lot of good information is shown on the various tabs you can put on screen but for some things, like which colonists are idle and which ones aren’t, need quite a few clicks to get to before you can see that information. Similarly, whilst some information is packed together well (like resource limits on the places where those resources are produced) others, like milestones and knowledge point tasks, are on completely different menus. This isn’t something that’s beyond fixing and at the very least I’ll bet that someone from the community will fix it up with a mod in the not too distant future.
Once you get past the basics with Dawn of Man though there seems to be a couple tricks that enable you to basically do whatever you want. For me I found that wool, which is effectively an unlimited resource, sells quite well with traders and so I was routinely clearing them out each time they came by. This is especially good considering that you can buy tech unlocks from them, something I always ended up doing as I’d routinely have 200+ units of wool just lying around. At that point I really was just running out the clock on the game to unlock all the tech and get the last milestone though. For me though that was enough as I was plenty satisfied with the time I had spent in the game by then. More serious players will likely find a lot of enjoyment in the challenge modes and community mods but for this old player I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.
Dawn of Man is another competent city builder from developer Madruga Works, one that’s likely to provide many hours of entertainment to those who love this genre. It certainly felt a lot easier than other games in this genre have of late, although that could quite possible be because I’ve played a number of them over the past few years. Still if you’re after a casual, low stress city building experience then I think Dawn of Man will be right up your alley.
Dawn of Man is available on PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 8 hours with 28% of the achievements unlocked.
5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.