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.
There comes a time in every game’s development when the call to ship it needs to be made. For some games this comes at the right time in their dev cycle where the incremental improvements are hitting diminishing returns. For most though it happens as the budgets start to run dry and the need to ship something forces the game out the door. Such is the case with Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna a game that, according to its Kickstarter, was meant to release its first episode some 2 years ago. That most certainly didn’t happen and the resulting game heavily points towards them needing to ship now rather than shipping nothing at all. To their credit the developer, KeoKen Interactive, has committed to providing a free DLC in the near future to make up for it but haven’t committed to a timeline.
Not that anyone would believe it even if they did.
The Earth has been plundered for nearly all of its natural resources, sending Earth into an extended energy crisis. To solve this our world leaders formed the World Space Agency, tasked with exploiting the Moon’s plentiful He3 reserves and sending the energy back to Earth. To their credit it worked and for many years the Moon beamed back nearly limitless energy, staving off the death of civilisation on Earth. However one day the energy stopped flowing and the colony on the Moon ceased all contact leaving Earth to plunge back into darkness. However one team, dubbed Fortuna, put together a last ditch attempt to get back to the Moon and restart the energy grid. What follows is your tale of making it to the Moon and figuring out just what happened to the colony all those years ago.
Deliver us the Moon has that typical Unreal engine feel to it with seemingly unnatural high levels of specularity in some places and a weird plasticy feeling to most assets. It’s not that this is a limit of the engine per-se, more it’s what will happen if you use the engine in its default state (much like Unity in the same way). That being said there has been quite an investment in developing assets for the game and it’s conceivable that the early release was due to a heavy investment for assets. Had this released 2 years ago, as planned, I’m sure it would’ve been considered among some of the top tier visuals of its peers. Now however it feels just a little bit dated, something that’s not helped by the use of (what I assume is) hand crafted animations rather than mo-cap which make everything look needlessly robotic. Since this is their first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.
Deliver us the Moon is primarily a walking simulator game with a few puzzle mechanics thrown in (ala Tacoma). That’s in stark contrast to what their Kickstarter page promised, which had aspirations of letting you roam free on the Moon’s surface to explore at your leisure. Of course anyone who expects a Kickstarter to live up to its campaign page promises is almost certain to be disappointed but I mention it to set the scene of what to expect if you decide to dive into this game. The beginnings of all the things the developers wanted to include are there but none to the level required to fulfill that vision. Combine that with the game ending just as the story starts to find its feet and you’re left wanting more with no indication of that will ever come.
Unlike other games which are built on the broken dreams of the developers Deliver us the Moon is thankfully a full playable and mostly trouble free experience from start to end. The puzzles are pretty simple affairs, typically requiring you to find a couple things within a single room and get them in the right places. Navigation around the various bases can be a bit of a chore though as there’s no HUD pointing you in the right direction and the maps on the walls aren’t the easiest to follow. Still there are some good quality of life things included that even AAA games still miss these days; like voice recordings playing in the background as you explore and already viewed cutscenes highlighted in blue so you don’t accidentally play them again. The breaks between levels are indicative of the developer’s original intent to make the whole thing episodic and indeed the levels were big enough in scale for that to be a possibility. However that’s not the game we’ve got and instead you’ll blast through most of those levels in the space of 30 minutes or so.
Optimisation of the game also appears to have taken a back seat as there’s numerous times when the game starts to struggle noticeably. This is at its worst when you’re outside on the Moon’s surface as the framerate (and subsequently the physics engine tick rate) drops through the floor. It’s not just the vehicle simulation that does it either as the performance problems continue when you’re on foot. I didn’t check if my GPU was fully utilised at the time so not sure if its bottlenecking there (indicating poor model optimisation) or elsewhere so the jury’s out on the actual root cause. Suffice to say that whilst my PC is over 3 years old at this point it hasn’t had trouble like that with much more graphically intense games.
Deliver us the Moon’s story starts out by violating the first rule of storytelling by running through long exposition pieces, explaining in detail things that your character would likely already know. It extends as far as the flavour text for exploration items as well making the game’s opening moments feel like a high schooler’s creative writing project they did the night before it was due. However the game gradually starts pulling back from this as you dive deeper into the narrative and does a good job of drip feeding you enough details so you start theorising about what happened. Then, just as you start to get leads on a major plot point in the narrative, the game abruptly ends. For those poor souls who backed the game or bought it early they were then left wondering just what the hell was going on. The discussion forum is filled with threads about this and the developers have stated that everyone will get the free DLC that closes the story off, when its available. Hopefully the game sells enough copies to make that a reality but honestly I’m not particularly confident we’ll see it inside 6 months.
Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is one of the few unfinished games I’ve played that’s left me wanting to see it in its full glory. There was an obvious investment in making a lot of assets, many of which would’ve been utilised fully if the game’s vision was realised. What we’re left with is still a competent game in its own right but it’s clear that the game had aspirations of something far greater. The upcoming DLC will likely give us the story closure many of us are seeking but it’s unlikely it will realise the full vision that it developers laid out when they first embarked on their Kickstarter campaign. For what it’s worth I did enjoy my time with it, warts and all, but until the promised DLC is out I’d recommend you leave it on the wishlist.
Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.
Given my last 2 reviews have been for MMOs you can probably guess that I’ve been a little strapped for time to get around to playing other titles. It even got to the point where I was playing Destiny and WoW in the same night, something which I knew wasn’t going to be particularly sustainable if I wanted to keep my 1 review per week cadence going. So I went in search of some shorter titles and stumbled across Donut Country, another Annapurna Interactive published title, which seemed to be charming and, thankfully, quite short. Whilst I might have been drawn in by the game’s brevity the visual style, kitschy dialogue and simple mechanics made it far more enjoyable than I was expecting.
Racoons have moved into the quiet town of Donut County, taking over the local donut shop. Every time someone orders a donut however a mysterious hole shows up at their house, devouring everything in sight. The hole is piloted by none other than BK, one of the new racoon residents, who’s doing so in order to get enough points to get his hands on a sweet new drone. However once he falls into one of his own holes he finds the citizens of Donut Country trapped 999 feet below the surface and they’re understandably quite mad about his recent shenanigans. What follows is the story of how the town became swallowed up and their journey to get back out.
The single developer behind Donut County, Ben Esposito, set himself a few constraints when designing the game’s visual style: no lighting effects, textures or gradients. Whilst those rules aren’t adhered to 100% they are the driving force behind the games minimalistic aesthetic. The result is a kind of flat, cartoon like environment filled with bright, solid colours which is really quite charming. Indeed whilst there’s a lot of games with a similar visual style I’m actually struggling to come up with one that’s exactly like it as most games won’t go so far as to abandon the use of textures, nor even simple gradients. As someone who’s worked as a sole developer on a couple projects I can definitely appreciate setting yourself boundaries and working within them; sometimes there’s really nothing as liberating as working within a strict ruleset.
The game’s mechanics are simple: your a small hole which grows bigger as it consumes things (kind of like a reverse Katamari Damacy). There are a bunch of small challenges which will require you to get a little inventive with how you use a few mechanics but other than that the game play doesn’t deviate too much. That being said it’s kind of fun to try and figure out which things will fit and which ones don’t as sometimes you can get away with getting bigger things in if you know how to position them right. That being said this is a physics based game so there’s many opportunities for things to go pear shaped, with items flinging themselves wildly across the level and getting stuck in areas that you won’t be able to reach. Of course you’re only a restart of the level away from fixing that so it’s not that much of an issue.
The story is a simple affair, seemingly reflective of the developer’s own conversational style (as evidenced in their Gamasutra interview here). It’s a lighthearted commentary on their experiences in Los Angeles and it issues they want to touch on certainly come through. Overall though there’s not much to write home about, it’s simply there to set the scene for the various puzzles and to tie the whole thing together.
Donut County is a fun little distraction, combining simplistic art work with lighthearted dialogue for an interesting experience that’s really like no other. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a game idea that was born out from Peter Molydeux; something completely left of center that pays little heed to the creed and conventions of modern game design. After chewing my way through too very heavy game experiences over the last couple weeks I was incredibly glad to cleanse my palate with something a little lighter. So if you like me are experiencing a little fatigue with the AAA barrage that comes this time of year then Donut County is most likely the game for you.
Donut County is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with 104 minutes of play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
“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.
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.
Sometimes I forget what drew me to a game. You see I maintain a list of games I’d like to review when they come out, saving me (sometimes) from having to trawl through the new release to see if there’s anything that catches my fancy. Of course some games stay on that list for quite some time and the reasons as to why they made it there are lost in time. Such is the tale of The First Tree, a game which, in my head, was completely different from the actual experience. As an interactive story it certainly hits home, but there’s definitely room for improvement from indie dev David Wehle.
The First Tree follows the recounting of the narrator’s dream with his wife. The dream follows a tragic story of a mother fox whose cubs have gone missing. However like all dreams the world the fox passes through is interspersed with elements of the narrator’s life, bringing back memories of the past. The dream is a journey through the narrator’s life, his relationship with his dad and what that all means to him.
From an aesthetic perspective The First Tree makes use of the highly popular low-poly/simple texture style that’s become quite popular among this style of game. The execution is quite simple as well with the mass re-use of numerous assets being very noticeable, especially in particular levels. Animation is also quite simple as well, appearing to be hand done. All this being said though it still managed to slow my PC down a bit after I cranked everything up to max. Whether that’s an optimisation issue or not I’m not sure but there have been a couple updates since I finished my playthrough. After saying all this though The First Tree does manage to pull off the simple visual style well, providing you a perfect visual background to the game’s narrated story.
The First Tree is predominantly a walking simulator style game with the narrator drip feeding you bits of story as you explore the various environments. There are platformer and puzzle elements included but they’re very basic, all done in aid of getting you to explore a bit more. As you explore you’ll encounter points of light which you can collect, areas to dig up that trigger dialogue sections and other collectables. However all these mechanics are background to the game’s story which is told in retrospect through a conversation between the main narrator and his wife.
Before I jump into the story though it’s worth mentioning that some of the platformer and exploration parts could have been a little better done. The light collectables are 2D sprites which are really hard to get a visual fix on which makes collecting them a challenge (especially if they’re in mid air). Considering that only 28% of players who own this game have gotten 50 stars I get the feeling I’m not the only one that found that a little frustrating. This ties into what I felt was a lack of rewards for exploration as there’s no obvious reason for collecting the stars (although at the end it’s revealed to you). If the story elements were paced a little better this would have been less of an issue, however.
You see whilst The First Tree’s story is engrossing (especially when coupled with the great backing soundtrack) it struggles to pace itself out well. This isn’t a particularly easy thing to do, indeed the only similar game that I can think of that pulled it off was The Turing Test, but The First tree has long gaps without narration or music. Sure, I can appreciate that sometimes just having the foley sounds can be relaxing, but to me it usually meant I’d obviously been exploring for far too long without finding anything. To the developer’s credit though it did get better in the latter levels, although that may have been due to me finally starting to understand the developer’s logic.
The story hit pretty close to home for me, having just gone through similar events in my life this year. The narration could have been a little better as the delivery of the bulk of the lines felt like they lacked the emotional investment that I think they needed to really have an impact. It’s possible that this was meant to be more “realistic”, since the story is being told in the middle of the night and after the narrator woke up from a dream, but most people are able to sound semi-normal after a couple minutes of conversation. All this being said though the game’s 2 emotional climaxes did manage to bring a few tears, so there’s something to be said for that.
The First Tree, whilst far from perfect in many respects, does manage to deliver a competent story that avoids many of the pitfalls that its peers have fallen into. The core game play mechanics are simple and don’t get in the way of the story but could use some more polish. The sound track is fantastic and it’s unfortunate that the game’s pacing means that it disappears more often than I’d like. The story will resonate strongly with those who’ve suffered loss, even if the delivery from the main narrator could use a little work. Overall The First Tree is an adequate story first game, one that I’m sure fans of the genre will enjoy.
The First Tree is available on PC right now for $7.99. Total play time was approximately 1.7 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m not usually a fan of reaction based games, mostly because they do a great job of highlighting just how bad I am at them. Sure there’s a sense of accomplishment once I get there, but it often feels like I’ve either brute forced my way through or just lucked out. However seeing people master games like that can be quite entertaining, like watching Rocket League pros juggle a ball like it’s nothing. Ballistic falls along similar lines for me, being incredibly frustrating to play but would definitely make for good watching should someone decide to take the time to master it.
There is a vague notion of a plot in Ballistic, you being some kind of weapon of mass destruction set out to stop someone from capturing a planet (or something along those lines). What you are is a giant geodesic ball that can roll along any surface, shooting itself in any direction at incredibly high speed. Anything you come into contact with is instantly obliterated and that includes any innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way. That sets up the premise for the game: wreck a bunch of things and then find the teleportation pad to take you to the next level. Like many skill/twitch/reaction based games it’s a simple concept that’s incredibly difficult to master.
Ballistic uses the Unreal Engine 4 which means that, at a base level, the graphics aren’t bad. They’re quite simplistic, consisting mostly of highly glossy surfaces and geometric shapes, which is fitting given the Outrun-ish theme it seems to be going for. When you’re moving everything turns into a glorious blur of neon but, when you inevitably hit something you get an up close look and things aren’t as great. All the people models have to be store bought assets as they simply don’t fit the aesthetic of the game at all. The other various models (like the guns and whatnot) fit a little better but they’ve obviously been designed to not be looked at too closely. For more skilled players this might not be an issue but for someone like me, who seemed to spend more time still than blasting past, it was hard not to notice it.
The challenges the game presents you are usually pretty simple. Most of them will be a variation on move here, kill this thing and then find this other thing to complete the level. Sounds easy in theory but wrangling the ball to do what you want it to do is a challenge all in of itself. You have a couple controls at your disposal: roll, which allows you to move whilst you’re flat on a surface. Boost which pushes you in the direction of the camera and bullet time allowing you to more precisely aim your shots. You’d think that with these tools it’d be relatively easy to navigate your way around however it’s akin to trying to play billiards in three dimensions more than anything else. In order to get to a certain point you’ll have to estimate your current momentum, what you can add via boost and your time in flight before you hit there. Doing all these things whilst you’re blasting past everything at a million miles an hour is quite the challenge.
That being said once you get a handle on how things all slot together you can more accurately place yourself than you would otherwise. Mashing the boost button the second you leave a surface is most certainly the wrong thing to do, often leading you into unrecoverable situations. Nor is attaining maximum speed the solution to everything as once you get past a certain point the amount of influence you have over where you’re going is diminished significantly. In the end the challenge that Ballistic provides is one of balance: you have to figure out the right mix of everything to achieve your objective. Suffice to say it’s not the easiest game around, one that’s barely deserving of the “casual” tag it’s got itself on Steam.
Ballistic is an extremely challenging momentum based skill game, one that this writer would likely recommend for fiends who enjoyed similar games like Rocket League. The retro soundtrack is what attracted me to it in the first place and, unfortunately, the game play wasn’t enough for me to stick around for too long afterwards. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game, one that will reward those who take the time to master its momentum based mechanics. If, like me, you were seeking something a little less intense though it might be the wrong thing for you. For a specific subset of gamers Ballistic’s challenges will provide the kind of intense action they crave however, for this old gamer, I think I’ll leave my play time with it where it stands.
Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.
Atmospheric puzzlers have typically been bound to the mobile market. The bite sized puzzles lend themselves well to the platform, allowing you to work through a few when you have a moment or two spare. This often means they don’t translate well; it’s rare that you’ll want to boot up your PC or console just to play for a couple minutes. Some do better than others though and Linelight, which is only available on PC and PlayStation 4, manages to be better than most. It is, however, still a step below story based puzzler games, but that’s par for the course in this genre.
The game’s core mechanic is simple: you’re a little green light and you have to collect the yellow stars by following a pre-determined path. At first this is pretty easy, simply follow the route and you’re done. As the puzzles roll on though more and more mechanics will get thrown at you, requiring you to figure out how best to use them. Towards the end of each world you’ll then also be greeted by a sister line that will follow you around, presenting another layer of challenge. There’s also a bevy of secret puzzles laid around for you to find, all of them hiding in plain sight.
Linelight takes an extremely minimalistic approach to visuals, favouring soft colours bathed in neon glows from all the little lines. There’s the odd particle effect here or there for when you pick up something or complete a level, but nothing more beyond that. The backing soundtrack though is decidedly pleasant, providing a lovely ambience that casually reacts to whatever is happening on screen. This makes playing Linelight quite a relaxing and zen-like experience which is probably my favourite thing about atmospheric puzzlers. Well that and their shorter lengths, something this reviewer appreciates when he’s short on time!
The mechanics are relatively straightforward with the “tutorial” for each mechanic built into the puzzles themselves. You’ll be introduced to the mechanic using a simple puzzle and after there it quickly ramps up, requiring a healthy dose of non-linear thinking. Quite a few will also require semi-precise timing in order to pull off, lest you find yourself trapped or dead. Also unless you’re probing every nook and cranny of Linelight’s puzzles you’re not likely going to trip over any of the secrets. Indeed I didn’t know there were any secrets until I accidentally managed to go in a direction that appeared to be impossible.
The puzzles don’t lend themselves well to emergent solutions but I did manage to encounter a few issues when I solved something in particular ways. For instance it appears when you get the “tail” addition that part isn’t capable of progressing you to the next section, only your front line is. Of course this only necessitated a restart to checkpoint to solve so it was no big deal. Other than that there really were no technical issues to report.
However, even though Linelight does a lot better than its peers in terms game play, I still couldn’t do more than about 20 minutes per session with it. Like all games based on a core mechanic with slight variations there’s not much to drive you on once you reach a good stopping point. I mean I still came back 3 times over a few days but past that I didn’t really feel compelled to go back. I’m really not sure what games like this can do to keep people like me coming back though.
Linelight is a great distraction that combines minimal visuals with a great backing soundtrack. The simple mechanics make for frustration free play, the puzzles whizzing on by as your little light speeds from one side of the screen to the other. It is a little lacking in the (re)playability department though with most of my sessions not exceeding 20 minutes or so. That being said I think it’s still worth the price of admission, if only for the lovely piano plinking.
Linelight is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with 84 minutes of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.
There are two distinct types of stealth games. The first are the ones built around the mechanic, designed in such a way that stealth permeates throughout the game. The second, and sadly much more common, is where stealth is added on as a mechanic at a later point. The difference between these two types of stealth games couldn’t be more stark, with the latter feeling out of place. The former however usually results in a much better experience as stealth is an incredibly hard mechanic to get right, if your game isn’t built around it. Aragami thankfully falls into the former camp, nailing the stealth mechanics beautifully.
You are an Aragami, a spirit of vengeance summoned by Yamiko, a young girl who has been imprisoned by the Kaiho. Her captors are adepts of the light, able to control it with deadly effects. Yamiko tells you that the Kaiho are oppressors of her people and have imprisoned her Shadow Princess along with her. It is then up to you Aragami to free her and take down the Kaiho army to free the shadow realm from oppression. How you go about this however is your choice, although sticking to the shadows is likely a wise choice.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Aragami was coming from Telltale as its visual style is very similar. It’s based on the Unity engine however (not Telltale’s aging game engine) and the look is generated by good old fashioned cel shading. Overall the visuals are simple and clean, with little extraneous detail thrown about. Performance on my current rig was perfect, as you’d expect, however I think it’d run perfectly fine on current generation smart phones with little change. The only complaint I’d have is that it starts to get a bit repetitive after chapter 7 or so. It does get better towards the end though as the environments get a little more varied, however.
Aragami, as I mentioned before, is a stealth game. You’re put in an area, given a goal to reach and are left up to get to the other end. Combat is non-existent as one hit from any threat will instantly kill you however you are able to dispose of your enemies, if you deem it necessary. Whilst you’ll initially have to rely on your wits to get through each level you’ll find scrolls that grant you talent points along the way. These will give you a smattering of different abilities to deal with the various situations that the game presents you with. The puzzles are pretty basic however, varying little beyond disabling barriers. Mechanically it’s a simple game but the difficulty comes in how you choose to play it.
Like most stealth veterans I immediately chose the no-kill, complete stealth route. Surprisingly though this is probably the easiest (or second easiest, possibly) route to choose as all you have to contend with there is making it through in one piece. So for the next chapter I attempted to kill everyone which proved to be a much more challenging task. Not only do you have to avoid being spotted you also have to ensure no one finds the corpses you leave behind. I eventually gave up doing it as it always seemed like someone would stumble across the bodies, no matter how well I thought I had cleared out a particular area.
Of course doing that becomes a lot easier if you invest a few points in the right talents, one of which allows you to completely remove bodies. There’s enough scrolls about the place that you could easily max out most of the useful talents in a single play through. Of course there’s a few quality of life ones you probably want to go for first, like the one that reveals where all the scrolls are. Others like the invisibility one are quite useful for just blazing through otherwise laborious sections, something that becomes a life saver later on in the game. There’s definitely a good amount of replayability in Aragami because of these talent choices, something which I’m sure the completist crowd will enjoy.
Aragami is mostly mechanically sound, however there are a few quirks which can trip you up if you’re not careful. It’s clear there’s certain places you’re not supposed to be able to shadow step to, but you can if you get the angles right. Things like tree branches, leaves or other semi-odd geometry provide ample places for getting yourself stuck or completely bypassing an otherwise mandatory challenge. Additionally the invisibility power, with its upgrade to make you apparently completely silent, doesn’t seem to work that way 100% of the time. There were a couple times I ran past someone only to have them alert the entire place I was there. Whilst I can understand that happening if I ran directly into them I can remember not even being near them when it happened on more than one occasion. Overall these issues aren’t massive, but are annoying when they happen.
The lack of variety in the layouts and mechanics does start to wear on you after a while. Around the halfway point I found I could really only play a chapter or two before getting bored. Towards the end things started to get a little more interesting but the first 3 hours or so felt like they dragged on quite a bit. Since the game announces to you just how many things you’re going to have to do (get 5 talismans! yay!) it instantly makes you feel like you’re on an extended fetch quest. Couple that with trying to find the scrolls and you’re probably not going to enjoying yourself that much. Indeed I think the middle couple hours could’ve probably been removed without much impact to the game or narrative.
The story is, unfortunately, quite mediocre. It’s clear pretty early on what the twist is going to be which is only made worse by the weirdly out of place dialogue. The writing wouldn’t be out of place in say, a modern anime or something similar, but Aragami seems to want to be taken seriously. However that’s just not possible with the way the main characters interact with each other. Towards the end things start to work out a little better but since there’s really no build up it’s all quite hollow. It also appears that there must’ve been a big rewrite of the story at some point as the final lines, which allude to the game’s previous name Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows, reveal information that had not been spoken of or alluded to at all. Considering this is Lince Works’ first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.
Aragami is a competent stealth platformer with beautiful cel shaded graphics and a great backing soundtrack. Taking the notion that the no-kill, full stealth route is the hardest and turning it on its head is a great twist on the regular stealth idea. Aragami is however let down by its repetitiveness and lacklustre story, a mistake many first time indie game developers make. Still for those of us who enjoy a good stealth-first game there are few titles like Aragami and fewer still from indie developers. If you’re looking for something to bridge the gap between the next bout of AAA releases and need a stealth fix then Aragami might just be for you.
Aragami is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time and 67% 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.