Posts Tagged‘indie’

Burning Daylight: Ascend, Naked One.

Games built by students are, for the most part, completely terrible. Many of my friends went into game development courses and the games they developed as part of them were clunky, god awful messes that never made it onto their resumes. That’s part of the learning experience though as it’s one thing to play games and think you understand how they’re crafted and a completely different thing to actually sit down and do it yourself. With the democratisation of game development and distribution tools however we’re starting to see more games from students that will likely become the foundation upon which their creators look to build their future careers. Burning Daylight, made by a team of 12 students from The Animation Workshop, is likely to be one of those games as, whilst far from perfect, it does showcase just what that team is capable of producing.

Waking up naked in a grotesque slaughterhouse, you have no recollection of who you are or where you come from. Your only clue is a mysterious tattoo on your chest. You must now escape and travel through a dystopian society in order to uncover the mysteries of your origin. The story is set in the future where life cannot sustain outside, what remains of human society, now lives in megastructures waiting for the day, when they once again can live outside.

Burning Daylight’s artwork is quite an interesting array of barren dystopian corridors, oversaturated neon futurscapes and minimalistic nature scenes. Given that the game is really just a walking simulator these different landscapes are mostly just there for you to get a sense of the world you’re in, giving you different views of what life in the the giant megastructure is like. The artwork simplistic but still above par for what I’d expect from an all student team. The animation could do with some work though as all the interactions feel incredibly stiff and unnatural. Strangely the team did a good job of making the Unreal engine feel like Unity, something about the modelling style and lack of overused specular maps. All things considered though Burning Daylight does a good job of communicating story elements through its visuals, a key concept in walking simulators like this.

There’s really no mechanics to speak of, save for a few extremely rudimentary puzzles that you’ll have to solve. That’s likely for the best too as the ones that are implemented are a little janky, both in their implementation but also in their logic. Indeed whilst I’d consider the visuals above par the rest of the game’s implementation is very mediocre. The game crashed on me once and for some reason didn’t record that I’d actually gone past a checkpoint, forcing me to replay an entire section for no reason at all. In a 45 minute game this is no real drama of course but it’s not like checkpointing is a NP hard problem.

The story is an interesting one, told mostly though the activities of those milling around in the background as you run past. It’s nothing original but thanks to its short duration it gets right to the point. There’s some overemphasis on things that don’t mean anything to the overall story, like your character being naked from the waste down for half of it, but thankfully you can ignore them. The story in the game is self contained however the Steam page paints a picture of a bigger world that I think the developers want to explore. Given the game’s success I think there’s a real possibility of that happening.

As a standalone game Burning Daylight isn’t much: a 45 minute walking simulator experience with good artwork that’s marred by its janky animations and rudimentary mechanics. However what it represents is something much more: students can now go from concept to public release, giving them real world experience that they can then leverage into something more. Whilst Burning Daylight isn’t exactly game of the year material it is a solid first try from those who’d never attempted the craft before.

Rating: 7.0/10

Burning Daylight is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 47 minutes.

Supraland: Red vs Blue.

The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.

The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.

The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.

Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.

The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.

The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.

Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.

It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.

Rating: 6.5/10

Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.

Islanders: Impeccable Placement.

It’s not often that a developer simply explaining the mechanics sells me on the game. Usually if you can’t simply show how it works through a gameplay trailer or similar I’ll switch off as even high concept games can hook you with as much. Still though I was intrigued by the voiced over trailer that GrizzlyGames put on their Steam page for Islanders, a rework of typical city builder/strategy games where there’s no resources to harvest, economies to manage or little NPCs trotting around. No instead everything is based around the buildings and how much you can make of them, something which sounds simple on first take but takes some real practice to get a feel for.

Graphically Islanders has a bright and simple aesthetic, taking inspiration from the numerous low-poly games that have made the style quite popular with the indie crowd. The simplicity is also partly born out of necessity as you’ll quickly start to crow out your little island in short order, making it a bit of a visual challenge as the game progresses. The highly saturated colours coupled with the varied biomes and procedural generation of each island means you’re not likely to get bored of the visuals any time soon. After spending my time in high end visuals from AAA developers it’s been nice to go back to a more visually simple game.

The core mechanic of Islanders is intriguing: instead of it following the usual city builder or RTS trope of giving you a main base and then letting you loose to harvest resources instead you’re given a handful of buildings. Each building you place will give you a certain number of points, something you can maximise if you understand what gives them bonuses. Just blindly plonking down buildings in places that give you the most points isn’t actually a bad strategy to start off with, however you quickly realise that if you want to go after the high score you’re going to have to be a lot more strategic about it. Each of the different island biomes has different mechanics available to it and you’ll need to understand each of them in order to maximise their effect. Further to that there’s numerous late game buildings that have synergies that you’ll need to build towards and that’s when the real challenge starts to set in.

You’ll likely want to set up various areas that are dedicated to a certain kind of synergy like say an area for houses, another for mansions and an area for all your farming/brewing/logging activities. This is because those buildings not only have synergies with themselves they also have strong disaffinity with each other’s late game buildings. This is something that became painfully obvious to me after I’d clustered as many buildings together in one spot only to realise that the late game buildings were effectively useless, preventing me from going on any further. Thankfully there is an out for this but you’ll want to use it strategically lest you abandon all the good work you’ve done and, by consequence, many of those delicious points.

The mechanic I’m referring to is the ability to travel to the next island. The game does confirm with you that you want to move on but it never goes into the why of it. If you’re like me you’ll likely just hit the next island button the second it becomes available, a viable strategy in some cases, however you’re likely better placed to hang onto it until you get yourself into a corner. You see Islanders will go on for as long as you have a building (or + sign, which allows you to get more buildings) in your inventory. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t get to the next lot of buildings and you’ve got a next island available you can continue afresh there. The game will then reset the target score to just 20 above your current, giving you free reign over the next island. Whilst this isn’t always an option understanding this is what helped me go from the 8,000th ranked player to around the 800th. I’m sure there’s even deeper strategies than that but honestly, I’m happy enough with that.

Islanders does have a good amount of polish on it although you can still pull off some shenanigans with building placement if you fiddle for long enough. The platforms seem to be the easiest ones to mess around with as I was able to embed a few water platforms in places where there was no water. You can do this by finding a place where it’ll let you place it and start sliding it against one of the invisible walls the game puts there to help you with placement. Done right you can slide along them for quite a ways, giving you a lot more options than would otherwise be available. I didn’t find any other issues during my playthrough so hats off to the developers for testing it thoroughly.

There are a couple improvements I’d like though. An undo button, even if it was just for the last thing you placed, would be nice as a small quality of life improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I placed a building awkwardly only realising I could’ve done it better if I moved the camera a little bit. It’d also be nice to have a mode that allowed you to rearrange things, possibly with a higher requirement on points for each level, as it’s quite satisfying to place a building just right and have all those little tokens tinkle away onto the score board. Thinking about it more most of the things I’d like to see in the game are just things that’d make me want to play it for longer, not so much things that need to be fixed.

Islanders is a fantastic twist on the typical city builder game, stripping away the mechanical complexity and replacing it instead with skill mastery. The visuals are simple and wonderfully colourful, a trend I’m very much happy to see continue in casual titles like this. The mechanics are simple but take some time to master and even then you’re still at the hand of RNGesus. I may have only played a couple hours of Islanders but I can see it being a good distraction every so often, especially when I’ve only got one hand free (the other holding my daughter, get your mind out of the gutter).

Rating: 8.25/10

Islanders is available on PC right now for $8.50. Total play time was 2 hours with 73% of the achievements unlocked.

When the Darkness Comes: The Search for Something That Doesn’t Exist.

There’s an increasing number of games that are made by developers as part of their own process of self reflection. For some this comes as a catharsis, a want to unburden themselves through their artistic expression. For others it is to mourn and pay tribute to those that have passed. I haven’t yet however come across a game which explored the actual process of self reflection itself which is what When The Darkness comes is to its creator. As a concept I find it thoroughly fascinating, even if the resulting execution makes for a so-so experience due to its bargain basement creation and lack of compelling narrative.

When The Darkness comes starts out in a similar vein to The Stanley Parable, with the game’s creator speaking to you about the game and how it’s basically over and you should leave. It then proceeds to dive into a series of vignettes, each of them exploring a different concept with each one becoming more abstract than the last. Depending on the choices you’ve made you’ll see different levels, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of the developer’s self exploration process such as: trying to understand the concept of meaning, how hard it is to escape past trauma and getting lost in your own thoughts without a path to find your way back.

The bog standard Unity visual flair is strong in this one although the developer did go to the effort to ensure that each level had its own visual concept that embodied their vision of the concept they wanted to explore. Some of them are quite interesting, like the one where you have to follow a path that you can only really make out if you’re walking right on the edge of it or when you have to leap from tower to tower and they only illuminate after you land on one. So whilst it’s not going to win any awards for eye candy it certainly gets points for its strong visual concepts that play directly into the game’s storytelling.

The game makes a point of telling you it has no meaning, both in how it advertises itself and numerous times over in the game proper, as well as saying it’s not something that anyone should play. Of course that’s all total bollocks as I’ve played games that truly had no meaning and ones that were never meant to be played and they are completely different beasts than something like this. I say this because I feel like it’s an overdone idea now and it feels disingenuous to the player to blurt such nonsense when it’s obvious that’s not the case. Critically it doesn’t add anything to the game’s experience either I feel as it seems like many of the things shown here are inspired by real life events that the developer has lived through. With that in mind it’s quite laughable to say that this game has no meaning as all the things it put forwards shows it does.

There’s a small narrative that ties parts of the game together although honestly it’s pretty loose and doesn’t do much to bind it all together. Given that this is mostly just an exploration of different concepts that’s not too much of an issue but I do feel like the whole experience would be a lot stronger for it. For me games always feel elevated when they’re put together as a cohesive whole and when they’re just a jumble of parts it’s just not as compelling. For what it’s worth though the story elements that are in the game are done reasonably well, they just fail to tie everything together like you’d expect. With that in mind I’d say that the developer definitely has the skills to do it, they choose not to invest their effort in it this time around. Instead they focused on each vignette individually rather than the whole.

When the Darkness Comes is an interesting exploration of different concepts through various game mechanics and visual styles. Its greatest downfall is the lack of an overarching narrative that could’ve tied the experience together better and no, the idea that the game has no meaning isn’t enough. Given that it’s free and short if you’ve never played this kind of high concept game before I definitely think it’s worth exploring. It may not be one of the highest scoring games I’ll play this year but it’s at least an interesting one and it’s certainly whet my appetite for what they may be working on next.

Rating: 7.5/10

When the Darkness Comes is available on PC right now and is free to play. Total play time was 47 minutes with 34% of the achievements unlocked.

Dawn of Man: From Sticks to Steel.

I’ve very much come to enjoy the new breed of city building simulators like Frostpunk and They Are Billions. I think this is mostly due to their more relaxed pace than other games I typically play, allowing me to plod along at my own pace, only spending a little bit of time here or there to fix the minor issues in the mostly automated systems. Of course part of the fun is also figuring out just how those automated systems work and, most importantly, what makes them break. Dawn of Man, from the developers who gave us Planetbase, is another title in this vein and whilst it might not have the same brutal mechanical complexity that its predecessor did it still provided me with quite a few hours of enjoyable playtime.

You’re in charge of a tribe of people at the very dawn of early civilisation. You start in the stone age with all the trials and tribulations that comes with it: the availability of food limited to what you can find and hunt, stored resources don’t last long and working in the winter is a game of life and death. It is your job as the invisible hand behind this colony to guide them from their primitive origins and get them to the Iron Age…alive preferably.

Like Planetbase before it Dawn of Man has that Unity-esque look and feel to it that many indie games do. There isn’t a huge amount of detail packed into each individual asset, made more to be looked at from above rather than up close and personal all the time, but for the kind of game this is the visuals are more than appropriate. The lack of detail is also helps ensure that the simulation engine has enough grunt to keep everything running smoothly without running into noticeable performance hiccups. I didn’t notice any performance degradation during my time with the game so it appears to be well optimised for its task. Suffice to say though you’re probably not going to be playing this game for the visuals, you’re in it more for the emergent storytelling that the engine can provide.

Dawn of Man is like pretty much any other city builder that you’d care to point to as most of the basic tasks are the same. You’ll need to provide basic resources to your colony in the form of food, water and shelter all of which you have varying means of acquiring at your disposal. Beyond that you’ll also need to accumulate knowledge points, a kind of currency you’ll gain for hitting various milestones that can then be spent at the tech tree. To advance to the next age you’ll need to unlock that age’s key technology and it’ll come at a hefty price so you’ll need your colony to be somewhat advanced to make it. Beyond that the only other real challenge is the occasional raid from other humans or possibly even a couple animals but, beyond that, there’s not much more to the game. At least at the base level anyway.

Getting into these games is always a bit of a challenge as figuring out how the various systems interact with each isn’t always obvious, nor does the game really tell you much beyond the basics in the tutorial. Typically this is usually where I’ll restart my first game a couple times over, usually as it becomes clear I’ve backed myself into a corner I can’t get out of. For Dawn of Man though I didn’t end up doing that, instead I was able to find ways out of every dire situation I found myself in. Now I don’t know if this is because I’ve played quite a few more titles like this since I played Planetbase all those years ago but it definitely felt like there were a lot more outs in Dawn of Man than I’m used to having.

I say all of this because it means there’s no funny story of me failing miserably and killing everyone, apologies! 😉

Dawn of Man follows the usual trope of keeping things simple in the beginning but adding incremental complexity as you progress through the game. Progression in this sense is pretty linear as new tech is really only unlocked when you move to a new age and you’re only going to move to a new age once you’ve stabilised your colony in the current one. Of course I was playing on the first scenario so I’m not sure how this would play out in the challenge modes, most of which seem to have another built in layer of complexity in order to ramp up the difficulty a bit more. Further to that the game has Steam Community support so I’m sure there’s likely to be many mods and improvements that’ll add all sorts of interesting nonsense to the game in the near future.

For my colony the primary challenge typically came from being out of a particular resource which would stall my progression. The first of these was tannin, required for making leather which I needed for various upgrades and things to improve my colony overall. What I usually found was that, although those resources were available, the work zones I had put down weren’t getting filled with people to complete the work, there were even people showing as underutilised. The way to get around this it seemed was to put down multiple work zones for the same resource rather than having one stacked with the same number of people. Looking through the forums on this I’m not the only one who’s struggled with this kind of challenge and indeed it seems most of the games real challenge comes from the AI wigging out and doing something completely unexpected.

I had quite a few instances of this in my game, the funniest (well, looking back it now anyway) was when half my colonists were walking around starving themselves to death. For some reason there’s certain tasks that the AI will prioritise over eating, to the point of people working themselves to death before they’ll take 10 minutes to get a meal. I eventually worked out that the problem, and honestly this shouldn’t even be a problem, was that the food I had on hand still needed to be “cooked” even though it had been already. Certain other foods can be consumed instantly and, when they’re not around, it seems the AI prefers to try and keep them working than take the required time to cook. It’s a bit of an edge case, I’ll grant you, but there’s dozens of other emergent behaviours (like the AI not respecting hard resource limits you set) that you’ll have to figure out lest they become the downfall of your colony.

Dawn of Man does tend to hide a lot of information behind dozens of menus, many of which aren’t readily accessible. A lot of good information is shown on the various tabs you can put on screen but for some things, like which colonists are idle and which ones aren’t, need quite a few clicks to get to before you can see that information. Similarly, whilst some information is packed together well (like resource limits on the places where those resources are produced) others, like milestones and knowledge point tasks, are on completely different menus. This isn’t something that’s beyond fixing and at the very least I’ll bet that someone from the community will fix it up with a mod in the not too distant future.

Once you get past the basics with Dawn of Man though there seems to be a couple tricks that enable you to basically do whatever you want. For me I found that wool, which is effectively an unlimited resource, sells quite well with traders and so I was routinely clearing them out each time they came by. This is especially good considering that you can buy tech unlocks from them, something I always ended up doing as I’d routinely have 200+ units of wool just lying around. At that point I really was just running out the clock on the game to unlock all the tech and get the last milestone though. For me though that was enough as I was plenty satisfied with the time I had spent in the game by then. More serious players will likely find a lot of enjoyment in the challenge modes and community mods but for this old player I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

Dawn of Man is another competent city builder from developer Madruga Works, one that’s likely to provide many hours of entertainment to those who love this genre. It certainly felt a lot easier than other games in this genre have of late, although that could quite possible be because I’ve played a number of them over the past few years. Still if you’re after a casual, low stress city building experience then I think Dawn of Man will be right up your alley.

Rating: 8.0/10

Dawn of Man is available on PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 8 hours with 28% of the achievements unlocked.

The Gardens Between: The Joy We Shared.

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.

Rating: 8.5/10

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.

Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna: Humanity’s Last Chance.

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.

Rating: 7.0/10

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.

Donut County: 🦆🦆🦆

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.

Rating: 8.0/10

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.

Confederate Express: I Would Not Have Backed This.

“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.

Rating: 4.0/10

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.

Light Fall: Where Eternal Darkness Reigns.

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.

Rating: 8.0/10

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.