Posts Tagged‘music’

Feather: Fly Free.

The biggest problem with having a game you really enjoy is that it sucks up all the oxygen for other titles. For me currently that’s The Division 2, a game that I will definitely review in the near future, but between it, our new baby and work I’ve had little time to look at many of the other top tier titles that have been released of late. So once again I turn to the indie scene, looking for more casual experiences that don’t ask much of my time but hopefully provide a good experience nonetheless. Feather, from Melbourne based developers Samurai Punk, fit the bill perfectly with its simple visuals, great music tracks and stress free mechanics.

The premise of the game is simple: you’re a bird and there’s a big island you can explore. As you fly around it you’ll find different things you can interact with, most notably the large circular totems that, when flown through, change the music to a new track for you to fly around to. There are no objectives, no enemies to fight or even an end to the game; it’s just simply a place to explore with a handful of different songs for you to enjoy. When we’ve been inundated with numerous games overflowing with mechanics, many designed to keep us coming back or to spend more money on microtransactions, it’s nice to have something that is as simple as it looks.

The graphics are a very low poly affair with little to no texturing, just plain solid colours. This simplicity is augmented slightly by the implementation of some more complex lighting effects and the inclusion of a full day/night cycle for the island. I played this on my now 3 year old XPS, which happens to rock a Geforce 970M, and initially had some issues with the frame rate not being the greatest. Granted it’s not as powerful as the desktop equivalent I have in my gaming rig but it was a little disappointing to see it struggle with something so simple. It may just be how the default configuration was set up as it does have a very high DPI monitor and running the game again on my home rig showed no issues.

The flight mechanics of Feather are pretty great; simple enough to be approachable yet there’s a few subtle things thrown in that you’ll need to master if you really want to explore the island fully. Climbing high and diving down will allow you to approach speeds that you won’t be able to normally and using space bar to hover is a necessity if you want to explore the underground cave system. Unfortunately other players (who will drop in you session from time to time, ala Journey) don’t seem to be as masterful of the controls and so interaction with them can be a little hard. I often found myself and another player going in circles trying to look at each other.

You’re probably not going to spend too long in Feather as even exploring at a leisurely pace would see you get around the island in under an hour or so. That’s likely to make the $15 asking price a little high for some, especially with no plans for the game to grow beyond currently what it is today. This is certainly one of those titles that could benefit from integration with the Steam Community Workshop as there’s already a solid fanbase who love the game for what it is. I don’t usually gripe about price and playtime but it’s sure to be a key deciding factor for many.

Feather is a fantastic, if a little short, experience. The simple premise and it’s solid execution make it a great distraction, something to play if you’ve got a bit of time to spare and don’t want something that asks much of you. However its greatest attributes may be the thing that drives some players away, not wanting to spend their money here when there are many other greener pastures to farm. Still I enjoyed my time with Feather and hope that the concept helps Samurai Punk delve further into developing titles like these.

Rating: 8.5/10

Feather is available on the PC and Nintendo Switch right now for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with 27 minutes total play time and 100% of the achievements unlocked.

Outrun: A Neon Music Player.

Just as the indie resurgence saw the rebirth of game genres from the golden age so have other mediums seen the old come new once again. The new music genres of synthpop, vaporwave and future funk are all examples of this, seeking to capture the essence of the 80s/90s music scene and revamp it for current times. With them has also come the aesthetic of the time something which Outdrive embodies whole heartedly. Indeed Outdrive is more a tribute to this music scene than it is an actual game, serving mostly as a neon-slathered music player.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You play as, I believe, a reformed criminal who’s trying to leave his old life behind him. You can’t believe that you’ve managed to find a second chance with this girl who’s taken you, and all your faults, into her life without question. Unfortunately tragedy strikes and she’s mortally wounded by your former crew and the only chance you have to save her is to hook her up to your car (really). Now you must drive to keep her alive. How long she lives for is up to you and your driving abilities.

Outdrive’s visuals take cues from the 80’s stylized vision of the future with bright neon glows drenching the jagged, low poly landscape. There’s also a few distinctive elements to really seal the retro-future vibe like the low-fi sun that hangs over the landscape and the 80’s styled billboards. The environments aren’t terribly detailed, something which isn’t an issue most of the time since you’re flying past them, but does mean that once you’ve driven past them twice you’ve basically seen it all. There’s really not much else to say about Outdrive’s visuals as what you see in the screenshots here are pretty much what you get.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Neon City

The game play is a pretty simple driving simulator that uses pre-generated segments that are randomly mashed together. You have to keep your speed up in order to make sure the girl stays alive, but not so fast as to hurt her. There’s going to be various objects that will get in your way, including an attack helicopter, but even the most egregious of crashes likely won’t lead to the girl dying. Indeed you can bump, grind and floor it constantly without any ill effects which takes any semblance of challenge out of the game completely. Given that it’s mostly focused on the music above anything else I’m not completely surprised but that does mean that, as a game, Outdrive doesn’t really stack up.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the kind of music that Outdrive is promoting and do enjoy the odd mindless game when I want a break from the more cerebral titles I find myself playing. However once you’ve played Outdrive for 10 minutes or so you’ll have figured it out completely and likely seen every landscape it has to offer. The music, whilst great, isn’t enough to hold the game together. It’s a bit of a shame as putting a little more effort into the overall experience would have made it so much better, rather than it just being a nice visual MP3 player.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Chopper Attack

Outdrive does a good job of showcasing the music it set out to highlight however, as a game, it simply fails to deliver anything above a rudimentary driving experience. Visually it’s impressive, capturing that retro-future feeling aptly with its bright neon glows and muted hues. However when it comes down to it the game is unchallenging and not particularly interesting. It’s a shame as more effort put into the actual game itself would have made the entire experience so much better. It’s still worth a look in if this kind of music appeals to you, as it does to me, but for anyone else this one is probably best left to one side.

Rating: 6.0/10

Outdrive is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.

Please Valve, do for Other Content What You Did for Games.

I’m a big lover of Steam. Whilst it had a rather rocky start, something that was exacerbated by the fact that I was still on dial up, since then the platform has managed to make me part with many of my dollars and I have done so gladly. Sure part of this is due to me moving up in the world, no longer being a poor uni student whose only indulgence was his World of Warcraft subscription, however Steam providing titles at a very reasonable price has also led me to spend more than I would have otherwise. So when rumours start to spread that Steam might be bringing things like music, TV shows and movies to the platform you can imagine the excitement I have at that prospect.

Steam Music UIThere’s been talk of Steam expanding beyond it’s current games and software market for some time now, ever since Valve announced the Steam Music overlay at the beginning of this year. There’s also already a few movies on the platform, like Free to Play and Indie Game: The Movie, and whilst they’re specifically about games it’s not much of a stretch to think that they’d extend the platform further. The only precedent not set so far is for TV shows however it’s not much of a stretch to see the same system working for that kind of content. There’s still a few questions to be answered about the service (When will it debut? How will its costs compare to other services? ) however if Steam can do for what it did for games for movies, TV and music you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be an incredibly positive thing for consumers.

The reason, for me as an Australia at least, is that there’s really no other alternative available to us. I was excited when Dendy Direct was announced, mostly because I’m a fan of their cinemas, however their pricing is nothing short of insane with a single season of a show costing anywhere from $20 to $40. Other services available here are either similarly priced or simply don’t have the catalogue of shows that many of us want to watch. Even if the services available here do have the shows they’re either significantly delayed or released in such a way that’s incongruent to the way they were released overseas, like Netflix original series being released weekly instead of all in one hit.

There’s always the geo-unblocking tools to get us Netflix of course but that’s really only a stopgap to a better solution.

We’re getting closer to a proper solution though as there’s been at least one notable entrant into this field that’s not completely bullshit. AnimeLab, run by Madman (the Australian anime distributor), offers up complete anime series for any and all to watch for free, including ones that are only just being released in Japan. Whilst I’m sure the free ride won’t last forever it does show that there’s demand for such a service in Australia, even within the niche interest area that is anime. I’m hopeful that this will encourage other services to start considering branching out into Australia sooner rather than later as it honestly can’t come fast enough.

FRACT OSC: From Silence to Serenity.

The soft spot I’ve had for indie exploration games has developed into a fully fledged love affair as I continually find myself drawn to games that are light on game mechanics, heavy on atmosphere and use your innate sense of game play to guide you through the experience. I think I’ve come to understand just what it is that attracts me to these kinds of games, they’re essentially the most basic form of what we can call a game. Whilst there’s been examples of this genre which have rubbed me the wrong way it doesn’t take much to convince me a new entry is worth a look in and FRACT OSC from Phosfiend Systems caught my eye with a simple premise: revive a world through music.

FRACT OSC Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are dropped into a seemingly dead world, devoid of nearly all colour and sound. In the distance you see 3 giant pillars pointing skyward, strange curiosities in this startlingly desolate place. When you approach them however it becomes clear that these pillars have a purpose, and that you have the capability to unlock that. Shortly afterwards the pillars come to life, surging with colour and sound, and you ascend from the depths of a wasteland to another place, a relic of another time. With your help this relic can be revived, bringing back colour and sound to a world that has been long devoid of them.

Like most games of this genre FRACT takes a highly minimalistic approach with much of the scenery being very boxy and jagged, a trademark of extremely low poly work. Typically this is done for a couple reasons, usually time and resource constraints, however I think it’s partially because the whole scene is also run through a sort of scan line filter. It’s not immediately apparent from the screenshots (although if you look at the larger versions and zoom in you can see it) but things like that have a tendency to be very expensive, render time wise. At the same time though the environment is highly reactive to your presence with objects changing shape or illuminating themselves based on your presence. Whilst it’s reminiscent of other simplistic titles like Kairo it does feel distinctly different from them.

FRACT OSC Review Screenshot Wallpaper Humble Beginings

Like other exploration games there’s no real tutorial or introduction to speak of (although you could say that the first 3 pillars function as that) and so FRACT relies on your inbuilt game sense to get you going. For the most part you’ll be solving puzzles that are based around a few different kinds of mechanics, all of which have their basis in music and electronic sound generation. Some of them have you moving blocks around, others funneling light through different points in a Pipe Dream style minigame. All of them end up with you constructing a small riff in order to finish them off, with each section having a final sequence that proves to be quite challenging. So whilst a little knowledge of how synthesizers work will be an advantage you’d still be able to figure out most of it by trial and error, albeit taking a lot longer to figure everything out.

For the most part the puzzles are fairly logical in the way they work and whenever you’re stuck it’s usually because you haven’t noticed a particular mechanic that you could make use of. FRACT relies heavily on sound cues for those puzzles which involve fuzzy elements which can be a bit misleading at times, confusing you into thinking a particular sound is meaningful. Still usually it’s obvious enough that you know you’re heading in the right direction although there are a few notable exceptions. Mostly this is to do with the final puzzles that present you with a track selection and 4 dials. Without any indication as to what’s meaningful and what’s not (hint: only one set of inputs is) it leads to a rather frustrating experience, especially since you don’t get any feedback until you’ve almost completed it.

FRACT OSC Review Screenshot Wallpaper Exploration

Whilst the puzzles are laid out in a logical order, one that you’ll likely notice if you’re not completely daft like myself, you can actually do them out of order if you know where to look. Now I’m not sure if this was an intended part of the game (and I’m leaning towards no since the only way I could get out after finish it was through the fast travel things) but I managed to do some of the red puzzles out of order by using some of the old “wall walking” tricks and finding a conveniently placed elevator. Indeed whilst this game might come under the exploration genre going off the beaten track isn’t likely to net you any benefit, apart from an achievement or two. It’s a little annoying as the game seems to want you to go down there but rarely does it reward you with anything.

You could say that there was a kind of narrative behind FRACT OSC as the way you interact with the game seems to indicate that you’re reviving a long dormant machine for your own purposes but unlike other exploration games I couldn’t find out how to make FRACT OSC end. Once you’ve unlocked everything, well I assume I got everything due to all the lights being on, there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. You can go into your studio but that just seems to be a nice little add on to play around with the pads/sequencers/basslines you  unlocked. So whilst FRACT OSC is fun to play the lack of a conclusion, at least one that I could find, does mean it feels a little unsatisfying.

FRACT OSC Review Screenshot Wallpaper Completion

FRACT OSC is an intriguing game, combining a minimalist aesthetic with some challenging game mechanics to provide a solid exploration experience. The brutal minimalism does have its drawbacks however as some of the puzzles, whilst on the surface seem intuitive, don’t provide adequate response to your input. The lack of a solid ending as well also makes all the work you’ve done feel somewhat hollow, especially if you don’t have a lot of interest in creating music in the studio afterwards. Still overall it was a pleasant experience, although one I’d probably only recommend to other exploration game fans.

Rating: 7.8/10

FRACT OSC is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total game time was approximately 4 hours with 21% of the achievements unlocked.

140: Short, Sweet, Insane.

Ever since my rather devastating experience with Super Meat Boy I’ve been pretty adverse to twitch based platformers, mostly because I don’t want to give myself RSI or an aneurysm. Whilst I may have made a brief foray back into the genre with They Bleed Pixels there have been numerous others I’ve left by the wayside because of the sense of dread I get when I play them. However I am a sucker for minimalistic takes on game ideas and 140, spawned by the man who was the gameplay director for Limbo, strips away much of the typical platforming experience and then amplifies it with its own brand of unique mechanics.

140 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You’re a square, but only when you stand still. You’re a circle, but only when you’re moving. You’re a triangle, but only when you’re flying. The only instinct you have is to move from the left side of the screen to the right, backed by an eerie and haunting sound. Things start to change as you pick up these strange little baubles that dot the landscape, reshaping that sound into a pulsating beat which the entire world reacts to in time. This world isn’t completely safe though as there are many things that would seek to stop your journey forward, but even they are slaves to the rhythm that weaves through everything around you.

The art style of 140 is probably the most ferocious example of minimalism that I’ve seen to date. Things that you’d  usually expect to see in even minimalistically styled games like gradients, shadows or shading simply don’t exist here with everything being solid colours. This is not to say that it’s a visually dull game however, far from it, more that when something is done to this level of simplicity it’s anything but random, it’s a carefully calculated experience that’s designed to get you focused on the game play. In that respect it does well as you’ll do little more in the short time this game will keep you.

140 Review Screenshot Wallpaper BOSS FIGHT

The main game mechanic of 140 is 2D platforming, seeing you leap from section to section and often failing, seeing you transported back to your last checkpoint. However the twist with 140 is that the entire world reacts to the background music which you build up by collecting the little orbs and then bringing them back to a platform. Every time you do this the world around you will change, either wholesale by transporting you to another place or by bringing another part of the environment to life. This opens up new opportunities for you to progress but also ramps up the difficultly level, forcing you to reconsider how you’ve been playing up until that point in order to incorporate this new mechanic.

The enemies and boss fights are also pretty intriguing, taking the same music driven idea and incorporating it into battles that have the signature trademarks of other genres (like bullet hell, for example). They’re a fun distraction from the rudimentary platforming, often forcing you to think radically differently in order to complete them. The final challenge felt like something of a cock block though and whilst I got close to completing the game the somewhat random nature of it (yes I know there’s a pattern but since it doesn’t repeat from the start on death it’s a real pain to figure out) seem to catch me out every time I got close to the final puzzle.

140 Review Screenshot Wallpaper New Beats

Unfortunately there’s not much more I can say about 140 as it’s an experience that you have to play for yourself to really appreciate. At the beginning it feels a little too simple, lacking pretty much anything to keep you interested, however that quickly changes as the music ramps up and the world starts reacting to it. It’s also a very short experience too, clocking in at just over an hour, which makes it well worth a look in if you’re  seeking something radically different from the gaming norm.

Rating: 8.5/10

140 is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total game time was approximately 1 hour.

Legitimate Piracy.

If you were to plot my rate of piracy related activities over time it’d show a direct negative correlation to my salary. My appetite for software, games and music hasn’t really changed over the years but as my income has grown I found myself preferring to pay for something if I can, especially now that many services out compete the pirated product in terms of features and convenience. I’d be lying if I said guilt wasn’t part of it too as whilst I didn’t have the money to give back at the height of my piracy days I feel like I’m beginning to make up for it. Still I constantly find situations where I need to turn to less than legal avenues to get a product I want, usually one I’ve purchased anyway.

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Indeed this happened quite recently with my purchase of the new Daft Punk album. My long time Twitter followers will tell you that I went rather…hyperbolic when I heard their new album was due out this year and I make no secret of the fact that they’re my favourite band, bar none. Of course that translates to me wanting to give them as much of my money as I can and so I plonked down the requisite $50 preorder for the vinyl version of their album (mostly as a talking piece) which also included a digital download of their album. Now considering that it was going to be available everywhere digitally on day 1 I figured I’d get an email with the code in it and the album would take its merry time getting here.

I received no such email.

My copy of Random Access Memories showed up yesterday, almost a week after the official launch date and nearly two weeks after Daft Punk made it available for streaming through iTunes. I had a couple options available to me at this point: I could simply wait until mine arrived, listen to a stream (requiring an iTunes install, something I don’t want to do) or find another way. My other way was to find an upload on Grooveshark, which was obviously not authorized and was taken down a day later. I got to hear the album at roughly the same time as everyone else though which was basically all I wanted but I couldn’t help but feel like I had been cheated somewhat just because I tried to support the artists as much as I could.

I felt no guilt going to slightly nefarious sources to get my Daft Punk fix but honestly I shouldn’t have had to. There’s nothing special about the code they sent me that requires it to be physical and it’s not like emailing people who preordered a code to plug into a website is an unsolved problem either. The pirates in this instance were making up for the failings of others, providing a service to everyone regardless of whether they’d made the purchase or not. Now that I’ve got my real copy I have no need for it but it still gets to me that they’re providing a valuable service, one that I didn’t have to pay them for.

Sure in the larger scheme of things its a small gripe but it’s things like this that highlight the reason that piracy exists and will continue to exist for a long time to come. The effort required to fix them is quite trivial since the pirates don’t do this as their full time job and the companies providing the service just need to hurry up and out compete them. If Valve can get digital distribution right then I see no reason why others can’t, but until then I’ll still have to rely on my slightly nefarious friends to make up for their failings.

Piracy Doesn’t Harm Sales? Fancy That…

We Australians do love to pirate things. Those of us who live here can tell you why: we’re either gouged extensively on the same products sold overseas or we’re subject to incredible delays. The Internet has helped to remedy both these things however with the former being solved by having access to the same shops that everyone else does and the latter eliminating most long delays. Still, even though we’ve come this far, we’re still subject to the same scarcity that just doesn’t need to exist with certain goods, especially ones that can be purely digital.

Our tendency towards piracy hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rights holders overseas but all they’ve done in response is send scorn over our way. There’s been a couple shining examples of what they should do, like the ABC offering episodes of Dr. Who on iView before it shows on TV (that’s no more for this season, unfortunately), but few seem to be following their lead. It seems that, at least for the near future, Australia will be viewed as nothing more than a pirate haven, a drain on the creative world that does nothing but take.

Or will it?

Game of Thrones

Any avid TV watcher will be aware of the blockbuster series Game of Thrones which just aired episode one of season 3. Whilst the numbers aren’t in yet it’s shaping up to be the most pirated show ever yet again with Australia making up a decent portion of that. You would think then that its publishers would be aghast at these numbers as the current executive thinking is that every download is somehow a missed sale, robbing them of untold millions that should be in their pockets. However an interview with HBO’s President of Programming Michael Lombardo reveals that they’re doing just fine in spite of it and in fact are kind of flattered by it:

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told EW. “[Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.”

Last month Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the actor who plays Jaime Lannister in the show, said that although people watch the show online, he hoped they would still go out and buy the DVD or Blu-ray. And guess what? According to HBO, they do.

“The demand is there,” Lombardo said. “And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales.”

I think you could knock me over with a feather after I read that.

There’s been a lot of research done into whether or not piracy, with respect to the online kind, is an overall negative influence on creative industries like TV, music and video games. Preliminary studies have shown that music pirates tend to spend much more than their non-pirating counter parts and that appears to extend to other industries. Lombardo’s revelation that the rampant piracy experienced by their flagship series didn’t hurt their DVD sales fits in with this idea as well and it’s incredibly gratifying to see people at the executive finally admitting that piracy isn’t as big of an issue as they’ve made it out to be. Of course he’s well aware that such a position isn’t popular, even within his own company, but at least the seeds of dissent are starting to take root and hopefully it will continue on from there.

History has shown that attempting to eliminate piracy is a fool’s errand and the only reliable way to combat it is to provide a product that is competitive to what they offer. Valve, Netflix et. al. saw this for their respective industries and their success is a testament to the fact that people will pay good money once the price is set at the right point. Companies who attempt to fight this are going to find themselves routinely outclassed by these upstarts and it’ll only be a matter of time before they find themselves on the wrong side of a bankruptcy hearing. So other executives should take note of Lombardo’s stance and consider taking the same view of their own right’s portfolios.

 

1992-2013: So Long MiniDisc, You Will Be Missed.

It was the year 2000, a time when Napster was still nascent and the Internet was still that esoteric play ground for nerds or those who dared to trudge through the horror that was GeoCities. By this time I was already fully set in my geek ways with my very own computer in my room that I’d while away countless hours on, usually on Dune 2 or Diablo. Of course the way of the geek isn’t exactly cheap, my new computer had set my parents back a rather pretty penny or two, and they had said in no uncertain terms that I was no longer allowed to spend their money any more. It was time for me to get a job.

I was apprehensive at first after the horror stories I had heard from friends working in various fast food restaurants and other entry level jobs but the motivation to be able to have my own capital, money that I couldn’t be told what do to with, was far too tantalizing to give up. As luck would have it I landed in what was then geek heaven of Dick Smith Electronics and whilst it wasn’t all roses from day 1 it certainly was the perfect place for me, allowing me to fiddle with gadgets endlessly without having to shell out the requisite dollars.

Sony MZR55 MiniDisc Player

Then one day a particular gadget caught my eye, the Sony MZ-R55. For those who aren’t familiar with this magnificent little beast it was one of the first MiniDisc players from Sony that you could truly consider portable as most of the models prior to that were rather large and bulky, even if they were “portable” in the true sense of the word. It’s size didn’t come cheap however as whilst CD players had become a commodity item at that point, with even the most expensive and lavish units costing under $100, the MZ-R55 was retailing for $500+ even with my ludicrous cost price + 10% employee discount. The price didn’t phase young me however, that MiniDisc player would one day be mine and that day did eventually come.

It wasn’t just geek lust after the size that attracted me to MiniDiscs it was the audio quality coupled with the amazing ability to have tracks I could skip to that pushed me over the edge. My MP3 collection had just started to take shape and I wasn’t impressed with the quality I got when they translated to tape. Recording on MiniDisc however, which was done by a pure optical TOS-LINK connection from a SoundBlaster Audigy card, proved to be far superior in every respect. Plus having a remote and a rechargeable battery proved to be the ultimate of convenience features and my little MZ-R55 saw use every day.

The player also earned a special place in my heart when I journeyed to Japan in 2001. You see apart from myself and a close friend of mine there were no other MiniDisc users that I knew of and I certainly didn’t sell many of them at work. In Japan however they were far bigger than CDs and there were even terminals where you could choose a selection of tracks and then have them burnt to a MiniDisc while you were waiting. That wasn’t what won the MiniDisc a special place in my heart however, no it was something far more special than that.

The trip was part of a school excursion arranged my Japanese teacher and part of that was a home stay with a family. I was billeted with a family of 3 girls and their mother. My host sister’s name was Akiko and I spent 5 days in their house speaking horrific Japanese, enjoying their company and even putting on a “traditional” Australian barbecue at their house. At the end of it all, during a tear soaked farwell that had all of the home stay families gathered together to see us off, she handed me a single MiniDisc with all her favourite songs on it. I had been fairly stoic up until that point but it was then that I lost it and spent much of the rest of the trip listening to it. Maybe that’s why I love Utada Hikaru so much.

And then today news reached me that Sony was stopping production of all MiniDisc systems next month.

You’d think that I’d be upset about this but MiniDisc had been an also ran for some time now; I had already mourned its death a long time ago. Instead when I heard about that today all I remembered was that amazing piece of technology that found its niche in a couple places, one of them in my home. Sure it had its share of problems and no one in their right mind would spend as much as I did in order to use them but it was like the vinyl of my geek generation, it just felt all over better. Whilst other manufacturers might continue to make MiniDiscs and their associated systems Sony was the original and them shutting down production signals the end of its era, even if it had technically happened years ago.

For those of us who had MiniDisc players we loved them to bits, sometimes literally with later models that had a tendency to shake screws loose. They were a stop gap technology that was the first to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world without having to resort to analogue means and the format itself was something of a technical marvel to with the discs being almost archival levels of quality thanks to them being based on Magneto-Optical technology. I really could go on for hours about how good they were and all the fond memories I had with my MZ-R55 but I’m already emotional enough as it is.

Here’s to MiniDisc. You might not have been the raving success that the WalkMan was but you were everything that it was and more to me. You won’t be forgotten, that I can assure you.

Splice: A Melodic, Soothing Puzzler.

Cipher Prime studios have something of a reputation when it comes to making casual games that have a bit of auditory and visual flair to them. I first came across them in late 2010 when I snagged an indie bundle from them, mostly for the other titles that were included in the bundle. However Auditorium, a physics based puzzler that combined a gorgeous light show with some sublime music, managed to captivate me in a way I never thought a casual game like this would be able to. The infatuation was unfortunately short lived what with the torrent of titles that were released soon after as is custom for the holiday period. However since my first encounter with them all that time ago I’ve kept in the loop on Cipher Prime’s exploits and their latest title, Splice, managed to capture my attention once again.

Like all of Cipher Prime’s games there’s no plot or characters to speak of in the world of Splice. You are simply presented with puzzles that have a definitive solved state, although how you get to that point is, of course, left completely unclear. In Splice the main game revolves around attempting to match the sequence mapped out on screen with the various microbe looking tubes in a limited number of moves. This starts out simply with the puzzles being simple pattern matching exercises but the difficulty and lateral thinking required escalates quickly as you progress through Splice.

As always Cipher Prime delivers on their trademark visual style combining modern lighting effects with a distinctive modern styling that makes Splice a joy to look at. I think the minimalist approach is what gets me here as there really are no extraneous elements on screen making the puzzle at hand the centre of attention. This when combined with the soothing and unrelenting backing track makes for a very pleasurable overall experience even when you’re seemingly stuck on a puzzle that you just can’t get past. Cipher Prime really has mastered this style of game and Splice just seems to be their latest demonstration of how much they’ve mastered creating puzzlers in this fashion.

The core of the game is divided into 7 sequences, each of which contain 7 strands of an individual puzzle. As I alluded to earlier the mechanics in the beginning are quite simple being as close to a traditional puzzle as is possible in this format. However after the initial sequence new mechanics are thrown into the mix that challenge you to rethink your strategies. Additionally Cipher Prime also cranks up the non-linearity of puzzles quite dramatically after each sequence as well, forcing you to reconsider the obvious approach in favour of something a little more non-traditional.

The first of such mechanics is the split which allows you to split a segment, and anything attached to the end of it, in half. This makes for some interesting creations as when you’ve got a rather complicated structure on the end of a split it will duplicate the entire thing, usually leaving you with a tangle mess that’s no where near close to the solution to your problem. Most of the time though that initial mess is required to complete the puzzle which is where the heavy use of lateral thinking comes into play. You can also completely ruin a solution with a split in the wrong place but that’s why they included a reset button at the top.

The second mechanic to be introduced is the spawn additional segment, pictured above. It’s incredibly simple in its function, it just makes another segment at the end. Whilst most of the time its obvious where this should go this mechanic combined with the split can make for some rather intriguing puzzles. It goes hand in hand with the third mechanic which is the bomb segment. The bomb will destroy itself and anything attached to the end of it which is usually required at the higher end puzzles to cull the additional segments created by complicated splits. The final mechanic is simply the one that allows you to leave segments floating around, in essence letting you know that you might be given more pieces than you need.

Individually the mechanics are curious but nothing particularly revolutionary, providing a simple challenge that doesn’t take too much time to complete. When combined together however they can provide quite a deal of challenge to even seasoned gamers like myself. Whilst there’s a bit of a trick to working out whether or not you’re heading in the right direction (hint: try counting the number of segments you have, the number you need and then work it out from there) even once you’ve figured it out you’re still no where near the solution in some cases and you’ll often have to spend quite a while rearranging the pieces in order to solve it.

Although its not like their other physics based games where emergent game play meant that there was sometimes unlimited solutions to certain puzzles I did get the distinct feeling that most puzzles had more than one solution. The solution pictured above is just one example where I’m not completely sure that was the one that was intended as whilst it works I came to it in a really roundabout way. I guess since one of the achievements is to complete a puzzle with 1 splice left over the multiple solutions aspect is probably an intended part of the game rather than an artefact of its mechanics.

The one criticism I’ll level at Splice is its comparative value to other games. The core of the game is quite short being only two and a half hours long (although the epilogue might add another hour or two onto that) and for $10 it would be at the higher end of the price spectrum for a game of this nature. It’s a minor nitpick to be sure but its something to consider if you like to get more bang for your buck in terms of time played.

Splice is another great game from Cipher Prime studios combining an intriguing puzzle game with their trademark minimalistic visual style and smooth auditory backing. It may be only a short game buts one that’ll captivate, frustrate and entertain you all at the same time. Indeed nothing is more satisfying than going up against what seems like an nigh on impossible puzzle only to have solved it minutes later. If you’re after a distraction from the usual throng of mainstream games or just enjoy a good puzzler then Splice is definitely for you.

Rating: 8.5/10

 

Splice is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was around 2.5 hours with 63% of the achievements unlocked.

Botanicula: So Much Joy.

The Humble Indie Bundle has been my source for many independent games that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. The pay-what-you-want model works spectacularly in the instance and I’ve always paid a lot more than the average so I get all the extra goodies. It was then without a second thought that I ponied up for the most recent release which was primarily for the release of Amanita Design’s Boatanicula, a curious little platform game that just beams with cutness from every angle.

Botanicula puts you in control of a quintet of characters, all of which appear to be either a seed or young form of some kind of plant. The opening scenes paint a picture of a tranquil, happy life of all these disparate species coexisting together on a giant tree. However a spider like entity threatens every living thing that dwells within it, sucking the very life out of every thing that it touches. The quintet’s hope lies within a single seed that they’re endeavouring to plant before all life on the tree is inevitably wiped out and the adventures that entail along their journey.

There’s something to be said for games that make the most of their chosen medium and Botanicula is one that does this to perfection. Every panel is abosolutely gorgeous, brimming with vibrant colours and soft glow effects that are very visually appealing. Unlike point and click adventures of times gone past Botanicula doesn’t make interactive sections obvious by colouring them differently which, whilst slightly irksome at the start, gave all the scenes an even visual feel without any jarring distractions. This is only surpassed by how the scenes evolve as the player interacts with them, bringing ever more life into them the more you dared click.

Coupled with this gorgeous visual art is an equally impressive arrangement for the music and foley. Instead of using typical sound effects Botanicula uses the human voice for nearly everything and I’m pleased to say it does so to great effect. There’s something joyous about clicking around on the various plants and insects only to have them respond with a cheerful sound or have the character’s speech be a long sentence of nonsense that’s aptly portrayed by a thought bubble above their head. I think this was by far my favourite aspect of Botanicula as I’ve never had so much fun listening to people make funny noises.

At its heart Botanicula is a point and click adventure with all the puzzle solving gooddness that comes along with it. Like all good games in its genre the puzzles start off pretty easy, usually being simple hunt and peck type deals with an over-arching goal of collecting x of something in order to progress to the next level. Afterwards they start to ramp up in the difficultly level slowly eventually getting to rather complicated puzzles that even left me guessing for a good amount of time. For the most part they’re pretty enjoyable and quite satisfying when completed but there are a few issues that plague them.

Now I’m not sure if this was because my desktop resolution was larger than Botanicula was able to display (as evidenced by the black borders around the screenshots) or something else but interaction with it was sometimes a little gummy. Whilst it was quite responsive to regular clicks on interactive objects anything that required some kind of movement with the cursor was plagued with unpredictable motion. One such puzzle was to get push a nut out a hole in order to knock a key down and attempting to do so was not an exact science with the nut reacting unpredictably. I can see how it might be better on a tablet when you don’t have a cursor to contend with but with a mouse and its ever-present presence on the screen I found myself having to come up with other solutions when precision movement was required.

Apart from that however the puzzles were pretty much all good with the only stumbling block being myself. For the most part it was lack of attention that usually caught me out, sending me on a wild goose chase for 10~20 minutes while I tried to find the last thing to progress to the next level. I did use a walkthrough guide a couple times when I started to get frustrated but for the most part the game was easy enough to get through whilst still providing a good challenge.

After playing through Botanicula I came away with two very distinct feelings about the game’s target audience and where they should be headed in the future. Whilst adults will find much to enjoy in the world of Botanicula I can’t help but feel that this game would be so great for kids as everything seems to fit the bill for this being an amazing game for them. The vibrant colours, extraordinarily cute characters and playful soundscape seem perfect for something to delight kids with.

Botanicula also feels like it would be very much at home on a tablet like an iPad or Android equivalent. Indeed my one gripe, the iffy mouse pointer control sections, seems like it would be a non-issue on a tablet platform. This also plays somewhat into it being a great game for kids as well as I know many parents use their iPads to keep the kids quiet on long journeys. To their credit Amanita Designs has said that an iPad version is already in the works and I’ll be very eager to see how it fairs in comparison to its PC cousin.

The story of Botanicula, whilst simplistic, is ultimately sastifying. Even though there’s no actual dialog you still get a feel for all the character’s personalities and quirks. The conclusion is predictable but it’s still worth seeing through to the end just for the fun of it.

Botanicula shows the reason why I continue to spend money on the Humble Indie Bundles without putting much thought into the games that I’m buying. My hit rate with unresearched titles has been quite high and I’m glad I can count Amanita Design’s latest release amongst them. If you’re a fan of point and clicks or just well executed games then Botanicula won’t disappoint and I couldn’t hesittate to recommened it.

Rating: 8.75/10

Botanicula is available on PC, OSX and Linux right now for $9.99. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3.3 hours played, 75% of the achievements unlocked and a final score of 108/125.