Posts Tagged‘indie’

Cloudpunk: I Don’t Think We’re in the Eastern Peninsula Anymore Camus.

You know, I’ve really missed driving games. I spent a great deal of my youth in seminal titles Gran Turismo and the early Need for Speeds, even playing some of the more esoteric titles like the very first cel shaded game I ever played Auto Modellista. Later on I’d spend countless hours with my mates playing Need for Speed Underground, spending most of the time customising our rides before spending what time we had left together racing or trying to beat each other’s drift scores. The want to go back is definitely still there, heck I was staring down buying a racing wheel for far too long recently, but I just haven’t dived fully back in yet. So dipping my toes back in with something that notionally straddled the “driving” genre with one I’ve gravitated more heavily to over the past few years seems like a good middle ground to start off with. Cloudpunk is that game and there’s certainly a lot to love here, from the unique visuals to the simple pleasure of simply driving around the surprisingly large world, the open world tropes that have made their way into the game really detract from the game’s solid core.

You are Rania, a young woman from the Eastern Peninsula who’s moved to the big floating city of Nivalis to escape the debt corps who chased you out of home. You’ve taken a job with a delivery called Cloudpunk; their business? Simple: they’ll deliver a package from A to B for you without any questions asked and they’ll do it faster than anyone else can. This is your first night on the job and it becomes clear that life in the city is nothing like where you come from and just making it through this first night is going to be a challenge in and of itself. You don’t have much time to think about that however as Control tells you that you have a delivery and it’s time to get to work.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a voxel based game (quick search shows it was over 5 years ago, The Deer God) so it was refreshing to see agame go back to this art style. Given that you spend a great deal of the game zoomed out though it’s easy to forget that it’s essentially 3D pixel art that you’re looking at, especially given the incredible amount of detail that the developers have packed into the game. Truly the game’s scale is really impressive, especially with the amount of diversity there is in the various details (like different levels having different styles befitting their status). Of course when you do get to zoom in close the extreme lack of detail in things becomes abundantly clear, like just how few blocks make up the majority of the items on screen. Still though it’s the best looking voxel game I’ve seen to date so hats off to the art team behind this.

As the opening plot summary would indicate this is basically a game of fetch quests, sending you between two points with the usual array of challenges mixed in. It is an open world game though, allowing you pretty much free reign of the entire game right from the get go. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded too as you’ll find tons of items, side quests and other tidbits of plot or worldbuilding scattered around everywhere. Thankfully everything is helpfully displayed on your map too, ensuring that if you want to go item hunting you won’t be spending a lot of time trying to discern one clump of voxels from another. There’s also some market mechanics although they’re never explained, but should you want to make a bucket of lims you could do trade runs once you find some arbitrage to exploit. Finally there’s a whole host of cosmetic upgrades for your character and apartment although they have absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever. All said and done there’s quite a bit to unpack in Cloudpunk and for those who simply love driving around and exploring I’m sure this is a game that’d give you quite good value for your money.

The main campaign ticks over at a steady pace throughout game, which you’re most welcome to ditch at any particular point (save for a few specific missions) to go off and do other things that interest you. All of the side missions are self-contained as well and don’t have any bearing on how the main campaign plays out. Your choices in the main campaign will have an effect on the story and the world however, although in all honesty I don’t think you can really move the needle too much in one way or the other.

After a while though the monotony does start to set in however as you’re often sent from one side of the map to the other only to find out that you’ll have to switch to another level and then traverse that to get to your destination. This wouldn’t be so bad if the driving was a bit tighter, or at the very least had upgrade options that’d make it a lot more enjoyable. To be sure there are upgrades but most of the handling ones didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I can understand that it’s part of the game’s design, hover cars after all probably wouldn’t drive like they’re on rails, but when the main thing you’ll be doing for more than half the game isn’t particularly enjoyable perhaps it’s worth looking at sacrificing authenticity for enjoyment.

It’d also help if the upgrades were somewhat rewarding but they’re honestly not. I was pretty excited to see that there was a retro console upgrade and retro game cartridges as collectible items. Figuring that I’d put 2 and 2 together and get something cool, maybe even an achievement, I bought the upgrade. Trouble is I couldn’t tell you where in my apartment it was nor could I interact with it at all. This goes for basically all the upgrades which are simply just more voxels for your PC to render. The clothing upgrades for your character are worse still, some of them just being basic colour changes. It feels as if the game was built with a reason for you to need a truckload of lims but never got around to implementing it fully. So instead we just have what amounts to cosmetics in a single player game, not particularly worth it if you ask me.

There’s also a few items which could use some fine tuning. The physics engine sometimes gets real confused when you bump into another car and shoots you directly upward as far as you’re allowed to go. This would be an edge case issue if the hitboxes for the cars weren’t quite a bit bigger than the models themselves, making unintended bumps and skyward punts more common than you’d expect. It would also be nice to have a way to upgrade your walk speed (for the record I did try the caffeine drink, whatever it was, and it seemed to make Rania run faster but I couldn’t tell you if she really did) as walking back through the same area for the 5th time does get a bit laborious and it’d be nice to be able to rush through them. Apart from those small issues though the game is basically fault free.

The story is kind of middling although it does have a great cast of characters that are given enough screen time to build them out substantially. In the beginning it is a bit much to have everyone you meet vomit their life story at you but after a while they do start to build together into an expansive world which is quite intriguing. However the story told within that just doesn’t really hit the mark and the emotional highs it tries to put forward feel unearned. The ending is also sub-par, taking the end-o-tron 3000 approach after spending most of its time trying to impress upon you the gravity of the choices you’ve been making. I’d definitely play a sequel if the devs choose to revisit this world, though.

Cloudpunk crams a lot into one place with vast voxel environments for you to explore from the comfort of your trusty hover car. There’s been a lot of care and attention paid to the visual experience and they’ve really managed to capture that dystopian, cyberpunk future feel. However the actual gameplay is very middle of the road, with the repetitive nature of the core game loop, unrewarding progression mechanisms and so-so story making for an experience that’s good, but not great. If all you’re looking for is an excuse to drive through a neon-soaked futuristic dystopia then I don’t think there’s many better alternatives around right now.

Rating: 7.25/10

Cloudpunk is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total playtime and 63% of the achievements unlocked.

LOST EMBER: The Sins We Carry With Us.

If you’ve been reading my game reviews for any length of time it’s probably quite clear that I have a few…types that I like. Of course there’s the usual mix of must-play AAA’s and the long running franchises that I’ve become a fan of but mixed in between all that is a subset of games that I’ll dub review-bait. Basically any indie/small studio title that’s pretty looking, has a good narrative or is experimental in some way is likely to catch my eye. LOST EMBER fits into that subset perfectly and was on my to-play list last year but I just never got around to giving it a go. It seems I wasn’t missing out on too much as whilst it’s a competent game in many respects the overall experience is decidedly middle of the road; the sum of its parts not being anything greater than its whole.

The people of the Inrahsi believe that those who follow their religion faithfully are rewarded with entry to the City of Life upon their deaths. For those that stray from the path however they’re cast back down into the world as beasts, forced to roam the world once again. You are Wolf, a beast of this world who appears to have the uncanny ability to see the spirits of the Inrahsi people and to possess all other animals in this world. You’re approached by a wayward spirit who’s become lost on his way to the City of Light and seeks out your help. What follows is a journey through the memory of the world that you live in and the spirit’s journey to the life hereafter.

The hallmarks of the Unreal 4 engine are all over Lost Ember from the various particle and lighting effects to just that overall “feel” you get from Unreal games that don’t muck with the underlying engine code too much. Lost Ember is at its best when you’re playing in the wide open spaces, able to soak in the seemingly endless vistas in front of you. That facade disappears quickly when you get up close to anything however where the lack of detail in both the modelling and the textures becomes readily apparent. Some of this can be explained away by artistic choices but in reality it’s more an artefact of trying to make large environments without spending an inordinate amount of time populating in the detail (something indie/kickstarter funded devs rarely have the opportunity to do). Worse still it’s clear that a lot of the animal is hand done with a lot of the animals seeming stiff or incredibly unrealistic in their motion. Lost Ember certainly has its moments, as my screenshot directory will attest to, but it’s very middle of the road when all is said and done.

Lost Ember is effectively a walking simulator, not really requiring much from the player in order to progress to the next section. There are some levels which will require you to possess a certain animal in order to progress but every time that animal will be right there next to the puzzle, making the challenge of figuring out what to do rather moot. There is an exploration aspect to it as well with a bunch of collectibles and “legendary” animals to find but apart from getting an achievement or two there’s really no reason to track them down. Checking out its Kickstarter page it’s clear that the gameplay was supposed to be mostly second to the narrative but what they’ve delivered here is pretty far from that original vision.

The exploration, for instance, is absolutely not worth your time at all. The collectibles are either “artefacts” which are random things that are partially related to the memory that you’ve just seen/about to see but they don’t include more than a sentence or two about them. For instance one item, which would be pretty central to one of the main characters, is given a single sentence simply restating what was said in one of the memories. At the very least the collectibles should give you something you can’t get elsewhere to make seeking them out worthwhile. Collecting the mushrooms is 100% pointless as far as I can see as the game doesn’t give you an indication of whether or not anything will happen should you collect all of them. Finally the “legendary” animals are simply glowing versions of the ones you already had access to, giving no benefits or deeper insights into the story.

The game also could use a couple layers of polish as there’s some unrefined edges that make themselves apparent far too often. The controls feel mushy and unwieldy most of the time making it rather annoying to control the majority of the animals. This is exacerbated by the camera which gets a real mind of its own in certain places and will routinely clip through the level, especially in tunnels or when you’re underground. The platforming controls are also incredibly wonky, often taking several attempts to get them to register what you’re trying to accomplish. Many animals will also get stuck in animations for seemingly no reason at all, some will even get stuck in animations that seemingly affect your input keys as well. The levels are also not 100% vetted as there’s numerous places where you can get yourself into a situation which you can’t get out of (save for hitting a checkpoint). All of these issues are fixable of course but we’re 5 months post-launch now so I can’t say my confidence is high to see them remediated anytime soon.

The main issue I have with Lost Ember’s narrative is that it’s all delivered via endless exposition from your spirit companion and the various cutscenes. The Kickstarter page billed it as a joint exploration that led to a deep bond between you both but in reality all it boils down to is your spirit telling you what you’re seeing. You, as the Wolf, have absolutely zero to do with anything that the story is putting forward and the relationship you have with the spirit is really only skin deep. Now to be fair there are some emotional moments later in the game but they don’t feel like they’ve been earnt, instead relying on cheap narrative tricks to make you care about the characters put forward in the game. All said and done it’s a very mediocre story, made all the worse by the fact that the overall game experience does nothing to add to it.

Lost Ember certainly started out with all the best intentions but it’s lack of polish, uninteresting core game loop and mediocre story make for a rather lackluster experience. On the surface it has all the elements of something that I’d thoroughly enjoy: pretty (even if simplistic) visuals, light gameplay mechanics and a focus on storytelling. But whilst all those elements are there none of them are interlinked with each other, nor is any one of them a standout in its own regard. To sum it all up: Lost Ember is neither good nor bad, it’s just rather forgettable. Fixing up some of the core gameplay issues would push it more towards the good end of things but there’s some serious rework needed if it could ever be considered great.

Rating: 6.0/10

Lost Ember is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $42.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.9 hours playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

The Pedestrian: I Was Strolling Through the Park one Day…

Way back at the very first PAX Australia (which was, gosh, 7 years ago now) I remember roaming through the indie booth and stumbled across FRAMED. I’m ashamed to admit that I never actually got around to playing it even though I was thoroughly intrigued by it’s panel puzzle design that was unlike anything I’d seen before. Since then there’s been a few imitators but none of them really caught my attention. That was until I stumbled across The Pedestrian in the Steam recommender and it’s combination of the panel puzzle design and absolutely fantastic background art design. That was enough to get my attention and keep my curiosity for a little while after however unfortunately I didn’t find much to keep bringing me back after just an hour or so of play time.

The premise of the game is pretty easy to understand: you’re a little man trapped inside the various signs , drawings and other wall coverings that are part of our everyday life and you want to travel through them. It starts off easy enough, you just need to run from one side of the screen to the next, but you’ll quickly find yourself needing to rearrange panels in certain ways to make sure you can progress. Initially this is just a simple task of not dead-ending yourself but it’ll quickly turn into a problem of figuring out which order events can happen and when they need to happen. It’s kind of hard to explain via text but you’ll immediately understand the premise when it’s first presented to you.

The Pedestrian’s graphics are, put simply, wonderful. A lot of attention has been paid to the smallest of details like the metal grains you can see on the outside of galvanised metal pipes, the various textures of the different kinds of signs you find yourself in and even the vast detail in areas that the camera whips past in just a few seconds. That kind of dedication to detail is, to be honest, quite astonishing and reflects the high level of craftsmanship that’s gone into developing this game. It does make you wonder what kind of person loves the minor details of the mundane world so much that they want to make a game that’s ostensibly honouring it in this way. Possibly someone who’s able to see the joy in the little things… 😉

The puzzle mechanics build up over the course of the game, starting as a simple platformer (with an extra step or two) but quickly adding in more and more mechanics as the levels go by. There are some really clever ones in there, like the puzzles where you have a hole through the card that you go through, but for the most part they’re the standard 2D puzzle tropes that you’ve seen before. The rearranging frames part is the game’s main claim to fame and it uses it to good effect, often making you wonder just how the heck things are meant to go together and forcing you to just try things out.

However past a certain point I just lost interest in seeing more puzzles as, whilst the game does add more mechanics and challenge, I just didn’t feel motivated to go back. Part of this could be because of the lack of story, although there seems to be some narrative around somewhere if the achievements are to be believed, as once I’d lost interest in the puzzles themselves there wasn’t anything to fall back on. That’s saying something given the fact that I think the game is probably only 2 hours long total, and really I could probably slog through it, but I just don’t feel like going back to it. Perhaps if I’d played it through to the end in one sitting I’d be singing a different tune.

The Pedestrian is a well crafted game with it’s beautifully realised renditions of the everyday world around us. The mechanics are a solid blend of the traditional and the new, slowly building the challenge as you tick over each of the levels. However for me it just failed to capture my attention much beyond the first hour, the repetitive nature of the puzzles and lack of any other driving factor (such as a story) making it far easier for me to put it down than to pick it back up again. All this being said I still think The Pedestrian is worth playing for those who enjoy these kinds of games, and those with perhaps a little more patience than I.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Pedestrian is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 78 minutes with 40% of the achievements unlocked.

Speaking Simulator: GREETINGS, FELLOW HUMAN.

You really have to marvel at the thought process of developers who make games in the frustration genre. I’m sure a healthy portion of it is done “for the memes” as kids say these days but at the same time you need to figure out how you’re going to make something that’s a) funny, b) somewhat approachable so people just don’t give up on it straight away and c) actually masterable in some way so the streamers have a goal to shoot for. I’ve seen many, many games that meet 2 out of 3 of those criteria crop up in the Steam store and you’ll likely never hear of them because they’re missing one of those 3 key pieces. Speaking Simulator manages to tick all those boxes, managing to keep the comedy up the entire time whilst also giving you the impression that, should you try hard enough, you could very well 100% every one of the levels.

Not that I’d want to though, of course.

You are our representation in the human world however we’re not ready yet to conquer them so you must blend in. We’ve discovered that humans communicate by wagging their tongue and flapping their lips so you too will do this in order to convince them that you are DEFINITELY NOT A ROBOT. Unfortunately, there were some corners cut on your safety features. If you make errors your systems will overload and your AI will be forced to relieve pressure by triggering one of the various array of facial explosions and mechanical glitches. Since you are a perfect AI however this should not happen and we shall conquer the humans in no time at all.

Speaking Simulator has that distinct default Unity game feel to it with a healthy dose of b-game styled art thrown in for good measure. All of the visual effort has gone into your face, with good reason as it’ll be the thing you’ll be starting at for most of this game. Everything else in the game is very bare bones with minimal animations or work on the background environments. Of course you’re never really playing these kinds of games for the visuals and what Affable Games has done here fits in with the overall theme of this particular genre.

There is a core of frustration game in Speaking Simulator (mostly related to the tongue mechanics) however it’s more akin to something like Bop It! or Whack-a-Mole as you’re constantly tweaking a bunch of different things in order to say the next word. It starts off with you just needing to click buttons with your tongue (which is very hit and miss) and moving your mouth around. However from there you’ll unlock your eyes, eyebrows and whether your expression is happy/sad/neutral. You’ve got about 8 seconds to say each word and should you not manage to say something in time or, should you miss a cue, whatever part of your face you were meant to manipulate will start malfunctioning. This only serves to make it even more challenging as you might not be able to be sure if you’ve moved everything into the right position, triggering even more chaotic facial expressions.

At the start it’s actually pretty fun and not particularly challenging. It’s even pretty fun to mess up a couple times just to see what will happen, although sometimes the consequences can be rather annoying (nothing like continuous lip smacking to set the mood, amiright?!). However it quickly becomes quite the challenge, so much so that I ended up only playing a mission or two most times because it was just such a mentally exhausting experience to manage all the different mechanics. It is pretty rewarding though when you manage to pull off a couple words in a row quickly but that quickly wears off as you have to adjust a dozen things just to get the next one out.

This is definitely a game that could heavily benefit from multiplayer. Whilst you could kinda do it now (one person on the tongue and the other on…well all other bits of the face) I think there’s a great party game hiding in here for up to 5 people, each one controlling a different aspect of your robots face. I’m not sure if that’s something that’s on the dev’s TO-DO list but I know a couple of my friends would love to give this thing a crack if that option was ever made available.

With these kinds of games it’s always hard to tell what’s something that’s in need of patching/fixing/polish and what’s been deliberately left like that as part of the game experience. There’s definitely a little more work to be done on some of the UI elements as they tend to blend into the background a bit, making it hard to know what you need to do next. There’s also a log ticking over in the top right hand corner but you’ll barely ever notice it, which can lead to you not being completely sure if you’ve actually completed a move or not. Having the text from there pop in saying “perfect!” or “good!” or something DDR like would go a long way. I could complain about the lack of precision in some things but honestly that cuts both ways as quite often there were times where I got something right when I really had no reason to. Overall it’s pretty much in-line with what you’d expect for a game of this genre.

Speaking Simulator is a great example of what this genre can be: fun and challenging but not in such a way as to deliberately punish the player. The dev team has focused all their efforts on what matters: making a robot face contort and bend in all sorts of whacky ways for our enjoyment. That means that the rest of the game is very basic but that just means you’re clearly focused on the core game play. If you’re just after a lark or are a fan of the frustration game genre then there’s really no going past Speaking Simulator.

Rating: 8.25/10

Speaking Simulator is available on PC right now for $17.50. Total play time was 2.5 hours with 63% of the achievements unlocked.

Undefeated: Simple, Spammy Fun.

I’ve found myself stumbling across a lot more work from game developer students of late and I have to say I’m continually impressed at the work they’re putting out. To be sure part of it is because of my own history in trying to make games with mixed results although I do contend that they were crafted over a decade ago, long before Unity and its community were in existence. Still the fact that students make games is only part of it as it’s more about the quality of what they’re putting out which bears mention. Undefeated is a fantastic example of this as it manages to do what a lot of other, bigger budget titles fail to do: make being a superhero just plain fun.

Undefeated’s premise is simple: there’s a city in trouble and it’s up to you to save it. Initially this takes the form of beating down the hordes of rank and file bad guys who are getting in your way, stopping to help citizens in trouble as you do so for good measure. From there it turns into a kind of superhero anime where you’ll have to level yourself up through the ranks so you can take on the ever increasing threats to the city (mostly in the form of boss fights). In all honesty I went into this thinking I’d have yet another trash heap to review but, to its credit, Undefeated managed to get me hooked no less than 5 minutes into the game.

Visually Undefeated is quite simple, retaining that default “Unreal engine” feel that many games built on the platform have when they use assets from the store. The UI does appear to have been given some love though, mostly to give it that very distinct Japanese UI design that lovers of JRPGs and other such titles seem to favour heavily. This simplicity means that the game runs buttery smooth and will quite likely do so on pretty much any platform you care to throw it at. However it’s not the visuals that makes this game, it’s the rapid pace and careful selection of mechanics that makes it so gosh darn fun.

You’re immediately greeted with a game that looks a lot like the Earth Defense Force series of games but plays a lot more like Prototype. The basic premise is you’re a superhero that can fly, has super strength and is lightning fast. This means that you’ll be zipping from point to point, beating the living heck out of something before moving on. It sounds simple but the execution is spot on, giving you this feeling of being completely unrivalled as you tear your way through streams of enemies. The two mission types follow the same trope, either having you blow up a bunch of stuff or flying through rings. There’s also minor events which will spawn every so often, usually just another bunch of bad guys which you can take out in a couple hits.

Then there’s the boss fights which are where the game’s challenge really starts to kick in. Instead of you having a health bar it’s actually the city and the challenge comes from stopping the boss from doing damage to the city whilst you try to pummel them down. Each one of the bosses is another big step up in difficulty from the last one, with every one bar the first requiring at least some kind of strategy to take them out. It’s at that point where the game starts to struggle a bit as the shine wears off and the game’s more egregious errors start to come through.

Of course they’re the kind of things you’d expect from a small group of students working on their very first title. The controls can feel a bit janky at times, your character not responding exactly how you’d expect him to. Hit detection could also use a bit of work as it doesn’t seem to be 100%, especially with the boss fights (like trying to put out fires). The camera also routinely loses your character when he’s zipping around certain things which can make some challenges far more difficult than they were intended to be. The control scheme is also somewhat unintuitive, although I’ll admit to not having played a great deal of Eastern titles so it could feel a lot more natural to those who do. Overall these are all fixable things and they’re easy enough to ignore to enjoy a good chunk of the game.

Undefeated is a fantastic example of the results you can get when you focus on the fundamentals of what makes your game fun. Sure the graphics aren’t the greatest and there’s a bunch of rough edges that need polishing but the core game play is just, well fun. The fact that a handful of students from Japan were able to recreate the fundamental game loop of some bigger AAA titles is honestly quite astounding and I hope the team that put this one together has a serious look at building out a fully fledged title.

Rating: 8.25/10

Undefeated is available on Steam now for free. Total play time was 33 minutes.

Discolored: Lifeless.

Games that play with colour, whether it be from the basic idea of restoring it to your world (ala Gris) or the more advanced mechanical based ones like Antichamber, have held some significant fascination for me. I’m not quite sure what it is though as it’s not like I’m obsessed with colour in other aspects of my life. So you can likely see why Discolored caught my attention when I was trolling the Steam discovery engine looking for a game to review this week. Whilst the concept was enough to draw me in the execution however is sub-par, it’s simplistic mechanics, lack of any story and general lack of polish made for a rather unsatisfying 75 minutes of game time.

The game’s plot is extremely simplistic; telling you that there’s a diner somewhere that’s lost all its colour and you’ve been sent to investigate. The game doesn’t have any further dialogue or items in the game that’d point as to why that might have been the case, nor does completing any of the puzzles reveal any further insight about that. Now I’ve played my fair share of games that tell stories through unconventional means but Discolored seemingly wants you to believe it has one without actually putting any effort in to develop it. This only makes the game’s ultimate conclusion even more confusing as it offers up no explanation nor real conclusion to your time spent there.

The game’s graphics are…ok, something which usually is neither here nor there but looking at the developer’s webpage it’s clear that he’s capable of producing far better art and assets than what has been included in the game. I can likely hazard a guess as to why: simplicity on the graphics end belies the complexity he likely encountered when trying to code for enabling/disabling the different colours. That’d explain why most of the surfaces are completely flat and untextured and why most of the assets themselves are very basic. Still given the fact that the colour mechanic itself is basic and not particularly interesting I’d honestly say he would’ve been better served toning down the mechanic and focusing on the visuals and story a little more.

Discolored’s mechanics focus somewhat around the idea of restoring colour to the world but for the most part it’s your run of the mill puzzler. None of them are particularly difficult but you’ll likely hit a few walls where you and the developer’s chain of logic part ways. This isn’t helped by the fact that the hit detection is a bit wonky and 90% of the time when I was stuck on something it was when I had clicked on a particular object and it did nothing, necessitating me finding the right angle to actually get it to work. You’d also think that switching or combining different colours would be a major mechanic that the game focuses on but it isn’t, only coming into play a couple of times before the game runs its course.

There’s just nothing really about Discolored that stands out as a reason for you to play it. The mechanics aren’t inventive or novel, the graphics are below average, there’s not a skerrick of a story to be had and the soundtrack is so forgettable that I can’t even really remember if there is one. I was kind of hoping for a new take on the “restore colour to the world” trope but found a very basic puzzler that does little to make you want to keep playing.

I went into Discolored without any expectations really, just looking for a game to tide over the blog between the larger reviews. What I found was a below par game that, given the credentials of the developer, could have been a lot better. The only standout feature is that it’s short so you’re unlikely to waste a great deal of time stumbling through the ham fisted puzzles, gawking at boring graphics or trying to remember if there was a soundtrack or not. To the developer I have this to say: build a game around your strengths. It’s obvious you’ve got skills in 3D artwork, start from that basis and work up.

Rating: 5.5/10

Discolored is available on PC right now for $11.50. Total play time was 75 minutes with 84% of the achievements unlocked.

A Short Hike: Reception at Hawk’s Peak.

It’s that time of year again when the big name publishers start dumping title after title on us in an unrelenting wave until the end of the year. In the past this just meant I had a good amount of review fodder available, able to dump a good number of hours into each game as they came out. Now though? Not so much and so I still find myself on the hunt for short, typically indie titles to bridge the one game per week routine whilst I whittle away at 1 or 2 of the big name titles. This week’s title is A Short Hike, a title that came to me via the new discovery engine and is an interesting blend of exploration mechanics with light story elements that make for a wonderful casual experience.

You’ve gone to visit your aunt at Hawk Peak Provincial Park and, like any good remote location, there’s no cell reception at her hut. You’ve been expecting a call from someone though and so, on the advice of your aunt, you start the trek up to Hawk’s Peak summit. Along the way though you’ll meet a lot of interesting characters, all of whom have come to the park for varying reasons. Of course you can’t simply just climb to the top, no in order to make it to the very top you’ll need to complete a series challenges, often with the help of others. You also don’t need to rush to the top either as there’s plenty more to the park than just it’s summit.

A Short Hike has a unique visual style that’s reminiscent of isometric games of yesteryear. It’s deliberately down-res’d with the number of pixels on screen being artificially capped at around 640 x 480 and then upscaled to your screen’s resolution. This means that on the surface it very much has this retro feel to it but there’s also this undercurrent of other things that give away it’s modern underpinnings. Initially I was a little annoyed with it, the low resolution initially making it a little confusing visually, but it didn’t take long before I got used to it and then it’s really quite enjoyable. The visuals are also backed up by a great soundtrack which is only let down a little by the stock foley work. Still in terms of general craftsmanship A Short Hike is definitely up there in terms of quality.

Whilst the main goal of A Short Hike is to reach the summit really the main aim of the game is to just explore the park. The main mechanic is the golden feathers, a mechanic inspired by the stamina wheel in Breath of the Wild. Each feather allows you to do a mid air jump, run longer distances and climb any surface for a limited period of time. The game is designed in such a way that most places are accessible with a minimal amount of feathers and so the additional ones usually open up shortcuts that weren’t available to you before. Once you’ve got 6 or so you’ve basically got access to the entire island, including the summit, although I admit that having a few more does make it a lot easier to reach the summit as that final stretch doesn’t leave much wiggle room for mistakes. As you climb up you’ll encounter a bunch of NPCs, most of whom will have a quest for you or a small amount of flavour dialogue. This simplicity makes it easy to get into and enjoy the act of exploration.

Your view of the park is constrained a little bit more than what I’d like but this does make the world feel a lot larger than it really is. Initially this does make it a little hard to figure out exactly where you are in the world, especially considering that the camera is on rails and can sometimes whip around in an ungodly fashion that’s sure to disorient anyone. Still despite these two shortcomings it’s still very enjoyable to make your way around the park, getting familiar with all the locations and figuring out how best to make your way around. Once you’ve got a few feathers under your belt the island really starts to open up and it doesn’t take much to get anywhere. It’s at that point you’ll likely make for the summit which then gives you a really good opportunity to see more of the world.

The story is very light on, told through little scraps of dialogue between you and other characters in the game. There’s no real depth to many of the interactions, with them either being setups for quests or just commenting on the park itself, but there’s enough in there to give you the feeling that this is a well loved place. The small parts of the main storyline are pretty heartwarming too which just adds to the overall nice feeling that A Short Hike has.

A Short Hike is a wholesome exploration adventure, one that doesn’t ask much of the player but delivers a lot in return. The crudely rendered but artfully developed world is a lot of fun to explore and with the narrative kept light and brief there’s not much to distract you from doing just that. There’s a few small drawbacks, namely the constrained view and camera that could be a little better done, but overall the game and the world within it is realised well. If you’re suffering from epicness fatigue from all the AAA titles coming out of late then maybe it’s worth taking the time for A Short Hike.

Rating: 9.0/10

A Short Hike is available on PC right now for $11.50. Total play time was 76 minutes with 37% of the achievements unlocked.

Gravitas: I’ve Been Waiting so Long For You.

Portal is mostly remembered for its mechanics, and rightly so given how revolutionary they were at the time, but its storytelling was just as influential. Nearly all of the games that seek to capture some of Portal’s mechanical magic will also attempt to put their own spin on the omniscient AI who’s running you through experiment after experiment, with or without the added sarticial element. Gravitas, whilst not really innovating or providing anything particularly new from a mechanical perspective, did manage to make its story lighthearted and universally appealing. In this age of endless soulless clones of every popular title it’s somewhat refreshing to see one that’s given some good thought to the kind of experience they wanted to player to have beyond just the simple mechanical level.

Gravitas puts you in control of a mute protagonist who finds themselves on their way to a space station that’s home to the Gallery of Refined Gravity. There you meet the Curator, a small floating robot who’s spent an unknown amount of time building all sorts of puzzles that involve manipulating gravity and he very much wants you to experience them. So begins your journey into the weird and wonderful world of an AI who’s been left to their own devices for far too long.

Developed on the Unreal 4 engine Gravitas’ visual style is pretty basic favouring simple textures, basic lighting elements and uncomplicated level design. It’s certainly not a bad looking game but it does feel like the majority of the assets have come from the Unreal store, which isn’t a bad thing per se, it just makes the game feel somewhat generic. Still I don’t think the main focus was on the mechanics however, with the story elements being much more fleshed out. Overall Gravitas’ graphics aren’t terrible and don’t distract from the experience.

Mechanically Gravitas is your typical platform puzzler that relies on a certain trick mechanic, in this case being the use of a “gravity glove” that allows you put down columns of manipulate gravity that pull things, including yourself, towards them. Puzzles consist of most of the standard tropes for this genre: getting blocks from A to B, moving things around so you can get to the next room or blocking off deadly obstacles so you can pass through. If you’ve played any of the multitude of games in this genre then none of the mechanics will be much of a surprise, or challenge, to you and you’ll likely be able to complete most on the first pass.

However it’s the story and its performance by the voice actors is what makes Gravitas worth playing. Whilst the narrative isn’t anything new it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, striking the right balance between its satirical and sinister parts. It’s also well paced with the only real breaks in the story coming when you’re working your way through the puzzles. Given that most of them can be solved pretty quickly this means the story keeps going on at a steady pace throughout the game’s short play time.

Gravitas is one of those rare short indie games that gets the storytelling right, ensuring that the core gameplay loop doesn’t get in the way unnecessarily. The mechanics are simple and unchallenging, ensuring that you’ll maintain a good pace through the game. It’s short play time works to its advantage too as much longer would see a lot of the comedic elements wear thin and the basic game play would then become more of a chore than anything else. Hopefully the success that Galaxy Shark Studios has found here with its first title will give them the confidence to try something more ambitious next time around.

Rating: 8.0/10

Gravitas is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 51 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.

Koral: The Beauty of Our Seas.

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.

Rating: 8.0/10

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.

Vane: Where The Wind Takes Us.

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.

Rating: 7.5/10

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.