We now find ourselves in that time of the year between the two major release seasons. For most this is a great time to catch up on the glut of titles that have been stampeding their way onto their platform of choice over the past few months. For reviewers like me it’s something of a double edged sword: no longer are we spoiled for choice, instead finding something that’s worth playing becomes a bit of a challenge. On the flip side though this does mean it’s the indie developer’s time to shine and it’s during times like these that I find myself playing all sorts of weird and wonderful titles. There The Light, which I stumbled across on /r/IndieDev, is a short, simple puzzler that’s gets a lot of things right, even if its a little rough around the edges.
In true walking simulator fashion There The Light doesn’t have any particular plot per se, although the world is littered with various plot styled objects that allude to an underlying narrative. Your only objective is to walk from one room to another, solving puzzles as the music builds and swirls around you. The small bits of text lying around talk a bit about how the light and the music of the island are intertwined and the visuals indicate that the island was once home to a larger civilisation that worshipped the light. But realistically I don’t think there’s a deep story to be uncovered here, it’s just there to provide a bit of flavour for the walking.
There The Light appears to take heavy inspiration from Journey both from an overall aesthetic but also from the way some of the animations work (like how the paintings light up). In terms of graphical fidelity it’s about half a step above most of the other games that use the same low-poly stylings, packing a little more detail into the models and environment. It also does a great job of getting away from the usual Unity-esque styling, enough so that looking back at my screenshots I thought it might’ve been an Unreal 4 game. There were a few places where performance suffered a bit so there’s still room for optimisation to be done.
The puzzles are, for the most part, very simple affairs of simply connecting the dots. The basic puzzles never get any harder than that so if a “joining the dots” mechanic brings back your PTSD from The Witness then don’t worry, it won’t have you curled up in a corner like that one did. The exception from this rule is the dial puzzles as I’m not quite sure how they’re actually supposed to work. I tried most of the combinations I could think of and none of them appear to make logical sense. However simply spamming them over and over eventually got them to change something that would then allow me to complete them. Looking at others playing it online it seems that most of them ended up doing much the same. I’m sure there is some kind of internal logic there but the game doesn’t do enough to surface that to the player.
The tie in between puzzles and the music is great but I think the pacing of it needed to be tightened up somewhat to make it really shine. There were long periods of walking around with not much at all happening, even when I was interacting with a bunch of different things that were scattered around the level. The build up to the game’s main song is done well enough so the potential is there it just needs a fair bit more playtesting in order to really get it all aligned perfectly. That, combined with making the later puzzle mechanics a little more intuitive, would turn this good game into something great.
There The Light is a good first release from CasualBebop, showcasing their strengths well whilst still showing they’ve got room to improve. The visuals, music and most of the puzzles are done well, easily equalling other indie developers who’ve been making games for many more years than they have. The puzzles and pacing could do with some work however as these two elements are what drag the experience down. Overall I enjoyed There The Light and it’s renewed my faith in the /r/IndieDev subreddit. Here’s hoping that CasualBebop found enough success with this game to take on another, perhaps more challenging, project.
There the Light is available on PC right now for $14.50. Total play time was 103 minutes with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
The one thing I’ve always hated about most Metroidvania games is when they show you something that you’re not able to access with your current abilities. Often this manifests extremely early on as you explore the level only to find there’s a part you can’t get to with no indication of when you’ll get the requisite ability to explore there. Quite often those areas aren’t even necessary for you to explore, just a bonus or something, so their inclusion is merely to draw you back to earlier levels. To be fair there are some examples where this is done well, the revisiting of the level being driven by story or other mechanical elements, and for those I have far more leniency. I tell you this mostly preface my thoughts on Supraland as it’s this particular mechanic, as well as a handful of other issues, that made this a game I didn’t want to play past a couple hours.
The Steam store page for Supraland proclaims, among many other things, that the story is “minimal” and that’s absolutely true. Whilst the premise is quite cool, all the characters are toys in a kid’s sandpit, the plot itself is ridiculously basic: you’re the red guys and the blue guys have shut off your water supply and it’s up to you to turn it back on. However to actually get to the blue guys you have to make your way through numerous different challenges, many of which will require you to upgrade your equipment and skills in order to do. I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a little more too the story later on in the game but it does nothing to expand upon it at all, save for having little dialogue instances between NPCs which have nothing to do with the plot at all.
The graphics of Supraland are heavily stylized and simplified, giving it a very cartoony feel. The developers have managed to avoid the typical Unreal engine game feel, keeping the use of specularity to a minimum. There’s a heavy use of depth of field which is supposed to give you the feeling that you’re a very small being in a large world. To some extent this works however it can have the effect of simply making everything disorienting like in the screenshot below. The issue here is, of course, perspective as whilst the game touts that it only has a tiny map of 9m2 that’s somewhat meaningless if you’re scaled down in size. So try as you might to make it feel like a small world with tiny people it’s going to end up feeling just like normal anyway, no matter how much you try to use depth of field or tilt shifting to change that.
Supraland bills itself as a combination of games like Portal, Zelda and Metroid which is horrendously disingenuous as it’s much more akin to the run of the mill indie puzzle platformers we’ve seen many of over the past decade. To be sure there are elements that you could say are borrowed from each game: the platforming from Portal (although that’s a stretch), the semi-open worldedness of Zelda games and the reexploration mechanic from Metroid. Realistically it’s just a bog standard first person puzzler with a tacked on RPG progression system. There’s really nothing wrong with that but the appeal to authority of titles with much greater pedigrees is what’s getting me. Honestly I was going to write this off as just your average indie puzzler until I reread the Steam page but now I feel compelled to point out all the faults given that it thinks it’s a combination between 3 of arguably the most influential titles in the puzzler space.
The combat is simple and implemented poorly. There’s really no nuance to it at all with enemies just running directly at you or standing dead still whilst they shoot from you at a distance. There’s also no way to block so you’ll likely end up dying to the first enemies since their melee range is the same as yours and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from hitting you. Once you get the gun you can basically just kite everything around but in its default form it’s annoyingly slow. Not that you’ll be wanting for upgrades for long though, even with rudimentary exploration you’ll be unlocking the upgrades in no time flat, even with the requisite barrel running task that serves no other purpose but to burn more of your time. But let’s not judge the game based on the one attribute which it doesn’t trumpet the most, let’s take a look at its puzzles and exploration.
The puzzles are incredibly simple, most of which you’ll solve pretty much straight away without too much of a thought. Others are easily solvable with emergent behaviours that the developer hasn’t taken into account, like being able to bypass entire sections of the game by walking on terrain that hasn’t been properly walled off. This only gets more ludicrous the more mechanics you have access to, giving you all sorts of means to break the game and bypass core game mechanics. This would be fun if it weren’t for the fact that it also means that there’s a certain level of gank to puzzles you can’t bypass, necessitating replaying certain puzzles over a few times in order to get them to complete properly.
Exploration is rewarded, although most of the time it’s just a few coins hidden around a corner or somewhere else rather obvious. The other parts are, of course, hidden behind mechanics you don’t yet have access to, something which will necessitate you trudging all the way back through the levels in order to get back to it. There is a rudimentary fast travel system however you can’t access it from a map (I don’t believe there is a map, actually) and it takes a good 20 seconds for it to travel you somewhere. This makes retreading ground a pretty annoying experience and, given that most of those hidden rewards are just basic upgrades, there’s no real compelling reason to do so.
It’s for these reasons that I didn’t find myself drawn back to playing Supraland after the first night I sat down with it. The fact that most of the work was done by a single developer is commendable but the marketing of it could not be further off the mark. The game is simplistic in all the wrong places, making combat a chore, puzzles easily waltzed through and the prospect of going back to retread old ground something I don’t think any sane player would want to do. Of course the reviews on Steam paint a much different picture and so it’s quite possible I’m on the wrong side of the fence for this, but in all honesty I simply cannot see what others find enjoyable in this game.
Supraland is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 2 hours with 27% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s not often that a developer simply explaining the mechanics sells me on the game. Usually if you can’t simply show how it works through a gameplay trailer or similar I’ll switch off as even high concept games can hook you with as much. Still though I was intrigued by the voiced over trailer that GrizzlyGames put on their Steam page for Islanders, a rework of typical city builder/strategy games where there’s no resources to harvest, economies to manage or little NPCs trotting around. No instead everything is based around the buildings and how much you can make of them, something which sounds simple on first take but takes some real practice to get a feel for.
Graphically Islanders has a bright and simple aesthetic, taking inspiration from the numerous low-poly games that have made the style quite popular with the indie crowd. The simplicity is also partly born out of necessity as you’ll quickly start to crow out your little island in short order, making it a bit of a visual challenge as the game progresses. The highly saturated colours coupled with the varied biomes and procedural generation of each island means you’re not likely to get bored of the visuals any time soon. After spending my time in high end visuals from AAA developers it’s been nice to go back to a more visually simple game.
The core mechanic of Islanders is intriguing: instead of it following the usual city builder or RTS trope of giving you a main base and then letting you loose to harvest resources instead you’re given a handful of buildings. Each building you place will give you a certain number of points, something you can maximise if you understand what gives them bonuses. Just blindly plonking down buildings in places that give you the most points isn’t actually a bad strategy to start off with, however you quickly realise that if you want to go after the high score you’re going to have to be a lot more strategic about it. Each of the different island biomes has different mechanics available to it and you’ll need to understand each of them in order to maximise their effect. Further to that there’s numerous late game buildings that have synergies that you’ll need to build towards and that’s when the real challenge starts to set in.
You’ll likely want to set up various areas that are dedicated to a certain kind of synergy like say an area for houses, another for mansions and an area for all your farming/brewing/logging activities. This is because those buildings not only have synergies with themselves they also have strong disaffinity with each other’s late game buildings. This is something that became painfully obvious to me after I’d clustered as many buildings together in one spot only to realise that the late game buildings were effectively useless, preventing me from going on any further. Thankfully there is an out for this but you’ll want to use it strategically lest you abandon all the good work you’ve done and, by consequence, many of those delicious points.
The mechanic I’m referring to is the ability to travel to the next island. The game does confirm with you that you want to move on but it never goes into the why of it. If you’re like me you’ll likely just hit the next island button the second it becomes available, a viable strategy in some cases, however you’re likely better placed to hang onto it until you get yourself into a corner. You see Islanders will go on for as long as you have a building (or + sign, which allows you to get more buildings) in your inventory. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t get to the next lot of buildings and you’ve got a next island available you can continue afresh there. The game will then reset the target score to just 20 above your current, giving you free reign over the next island. Whilst this isn’t always an option understanding this is what helped me go from the 8,000th ranked player to around the 800th. I’m sure there’s even deeper strategies than that but honestly, I’m happy enough with that.
Islanders does have a good amount of polish on it although you can still pull off some shenanigans with building placement if you fiddle for long enough. The platforms seem to be the easiest ones to mess around with as I was able to embed a few water platforms in places where there was no water. You can do this by finding a place where it’ll let you place it and start sliding it against one of the invisible walls the game puts there to help you with placement. Done right you can slide along them for quite a ways, giving you a lot more options than would otherwise be available. I didn’t find any other issues during my playthrough so hats off to the developers for testing it thoroughly.
There are a couple improvements I’d like though. An undo button, even if it was just for the last thing you placed, would be nice as a small quality of life improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I placed a building awkwardly only realising I could’ve done it better if I moved the camera a little bit. It’d also be nice to have a mode that allowed you to rearrange things, possibly with a higher requirement on points for each level, as it’s quite satisfying to place a building just right and have all those little tokens tinkle away onto the score board. Thinking about it more most of the things I’d like to see in the game are just things that’d make me want to play it for longer, not so much things that need to be fixed.
Islanders is a fantastic twist on the typical city builder game, stripping away the mechanical complexity and replacing it instead with skill mastery. The visuals are simple and wonderfully colourful, a trend I’m very much happy to see continue in casual titles like this. The mechanics are simple but take some time to master and even then you’re still at the hand of RNGesus. I may have only played a couple hours of Islanders but I can see it being a good distraction every so often, especially when I’ve only got one hand free (the other holding my daughter, get your mind out of the gutter).
Islanders is available on PC right now for $8.50. Total play time was 2 hours with 73% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s rare these days to see concept pieces that have no ambition beyond simply existing. Most are at the very least teaser pieces designed to get you enticed into backing them on Kickstarter or buying the full title. Indeed I thought as much when I first saw What Never Was, a solo project by a developer called Acke Hallgren whose day job involves designing open world environments for AAA titles like Rage 2 and The Division, but it seems I was wrong. What Never Was stands as a piece for the developer to keep their skills sharp, all the while telling a short but interesting tale about a granddaughter going through the process of sorting through her granddad’s possessions.
You play as Sarah, the granddaughter of Howard James Wright who recently passed away. He was an adventurer, always trekking through the world in pursuit of ancient relics and meticulously documenting his travels in the various books that he authored. You’ve taken on the task that everyone dreads when a relative passes: cleaning out all their belongings. You quickly discover though that there might have been more, a lot more in fact, to the travels your grandfather took and many of the relics he’s left behind are not quite as they seem.
What Never Was is built on the UE4 engine and, like many indie titles built on the platform, has that distinct Unreal engine feel to it. Considering that the vast majority of the visuals were done by the single developer behind it though they’ve managed to achieve a decent level of detail and polish; the single level environment bristling with details for you to investigate. Coupling that with the full voice acting for every bit of dialogue you’ve got a very complete experience, even if the play time won’t run you much past an hour if you get it to 100% completion.S
The game is essentially a one room puzzle, one that most seasoned gamers won’t find too challenging. The real attraction is from clicking on all of the bits of memorabilia around the room and hearing your character reminisce about how those things played a part in their life. The one quibble I have is that the game doesn’t tell you when you’ve finished hearing all the bits of story from a particular item which often means you’ll have to keep clicking it even after you’ve finished the dialogue train to make sure you heard everything. Other than that there’s not too much to talk about except the story itself.
The way the story played out I had fully expected to track down the developer and see that a full version of the game was incoming as What Never Was does an incredibly good job of setting up a world that a larger story could play out in. So I’m somewhat disappointed to see that there’s nothing in the works as this small room does an exceptional job of making you want to see more. I won’t go into more details as the game is really worth taking the 30 mins or so to play to see it for yourself.
What Never Was is a great example of a concept come to life, giving the player just enough details to want more before wrapping everything up. It being the work of a single developer makes it even more impressive as it obviously a labour of love that they just wanted the world to see. The real disappointment is that it is likely to stay a concept as I see nothing to indicate the developer wants to work on it further. It’s a real shame as I’m sure even another small vignette or two like What Never Was would we warmly welcomed by many, myself included.
What Never Was is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
The indie scene loves a breakout hit; especially those that either defies or creates a genre. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a fantastic example of this creating a new genre of documentation review based games like Cart Life, This is the Police and Va11-Hall A. This always then begs the question as to how they’ll follow up the breakout hit: iterate on the formula, try something completely different or pursue a passion project. Pope appears to have gone for option 2, wanting to challenge himself with a lot of creative constraints to build something quite different to anything else he had done before. The result certainly achieves that, enough so that I didn’t even know it was done by him until I saw the developer name on the Steam page. I can certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship brought to bear here however putting a good 4 hours into the game I don’t feel much compulsion to go back.
The good ship the Obra Dinn disappeared some six months ago, taking with it 200 tons of cargo and all of its crew. One day however it strangely turned up in port, bereft of any crew. You are an insurance assessor, tasked with boarding the ghost ship and figuring out what happened. Your tasks are simple, identify the crew, how they perished and who was responsible for it. What follows is a tale of endless tragedy that befell the crew of the Obra Dinn, their journey seemingly cursed from the start to fail. That is of little concern to you however, you are merely there to document everything and report back to your superiors. You may never be the same again, though.
Obra Dinn utilises a 1 bit colour palette in the vein of computers from another era. You can even switch between different models of computers, although all that really does is change the 1 colour you’ll be staring at. It’s still a 3D game though so the effect is a really unusual one. Indeed I’m struggling to think of another 3D game that utilised dithering to achieve shading so from a visual perspective the game is truly unique. This also gives rise to some really interesting visual effects, like when the background fades away to an image (like the screenshot below). I’m typically a very visual person when it comes to games but what Pope has achieved with the Obra Dinn is quite astonishing, even with just 1 colour to work with.
The game play takes the form of an investigation whereby you’re tasked with figuring out who died (or didn’t) when and who or what was responsible for it. You do this by reliving the last moments of most of the crew through the use of your pocket watch. Reliable information is incredibly scarce and so you’ll have to rely on various other things in order to make your judgement calls. This can be things like someone’s position on the ship, their race, their relationship to others or even where they were. When you make 3 correct guesses the game will confirm them for you, preventing you from simply spamming the options and hoping for a hit. If this sounds like a challenge it most certainly is, one I’m not ashamed to say got the best of me.
You see as you relive the last moments of the crew’s life you’ll get to see the story of how the ship met its fate. Following this thread until the end probably lasts a couple hours or so when the game will indicate to you that you’ve seen everything and should get on with solving the puzzle. This will of course mean revisiting a lot of the memories, looking for clues and trying to figure out what information you can glean from where. For some this is going to be a great experience, following the chain of clues to find that one nugget that lets you seal away a fate or two. For me though? It became a chore, not least of which was due to the annoying way in which you have to go to find the memories in order to review them. I did give it the old college try though, solving 15 fates total, but after that point, knowing all there was to know of the story, I didn’t feel like there was much left for me to enjoy.
Perhaps my brain is currently wired for short term gain, thanks to the almost embarrassing amount of hours I’ve put into Black Ops 4 even after panning it, but I couldn’t help but feel much like I did when playing The Witness. The level of care and attention to detail is obvious but I just couldn’t find the joy in there that others seemed to. To be sure this is a game the creator wanted to make, not something that was driven by community or by a large customer research team. There’s beauty in that, and I wholeheartedly support developers attempting this if they have the means, but it also seems to have a trend where craftsmanship can sometimes overpower enjoyment. The usual line I’d quip here is that this game isn’t for everyone but then really, what game is?
The Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastically crafted game from Lucas Pope, showing the kinds of creativity that can blossom in the face of severe constraints. Everything about how the game was built is unique from the art style to the unique investigative mechanics to the wonderful sound and music design. However beyond the first couple hours, where the story drives you forward, the game peters out considerably and I could only manage to stick with it for another couple hours before putting it down. Credit where credit is due though there are a lot of people out there who are finding much to like about this title and an astonishing 31.5% of players have managed to fully complete the game. So this may simply be a case of this game not being for me but if the idea of playing a time travelling insurance assessor is apealing then it might just be for you.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.
There comes a time in every game’s development when the call to ship it needs to be made. For some games this comes at the right time in their dev cycle where the incremental improvements are hitting diminishing returns. For most though it happens as the budgets start to run dry and the need to ship something forces the game out the door. Such is the case with Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna a game that, according to its Kickstarter, was meant to release its first episode some 2 years ago. That most certainly didn’t happen and the resulting game heavily points towards them needing to ship now rather than shipping nothing at all. To their credit the developer, KeoKen Interactive, has committed to providing a free DLC in the near future to make up for it but haven’t committed to a timeline.
Not that anyone would believe it even if they did.
The Earth has been plundered for nearly all of its natural resources, sending Earth into an extended energy crisis. To solve this our world leaders formed the World Space Agency, tasked with exploiting the Moon’s plentiful He3 reserves and sending the energy back to Earth. To their credit it worked and for many years the Moon beamed back nearly limitless energy, staving off the death of civilisation on Earth. However one day the energy stopped flowing and the colony on the Moon ceased all contact leaving Earth to plunge back into darkness. However one team, dubbed Fortuna, put together a last ditch attempt to get back to the Moon and restart the energy grid. What follows is your tale of making it to the Moon and figuring out just what happened to the colony all those years ago.
Deliver us the Moon has that typical Unreal engine feel to it with seemingly unnatural high levels of specularity in some places and a weird plasticy feeling to most assets. It’s not that this is a limit of the engine per-se, more it’s what will happen if you use the engine in its default state (much like Unity in the same way). That being said there has been quite an investment in developing assets for the game and it’s conceivable that the early release was due to a heavy investment for assets. Had this released 2 years ago, as planned, I’m sure it would’ve been considered among some of the top tier visuals of its peers. Now however it feels just a little bit dated, something that’s not helped by the use of (what I assume is) hand crafted animations rather than mo-cap which make everything look needlessly robotic. Since this is their first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.
Deliver us the Moon is primarily a walking simulator game with a few puzzle mechanics thrown in (ala Tacoma). That’s in stark contrast to what their Kickstarter page promised, which had aspirations of letting you roam free on the Moon’s surface to explore at your leisure. Of course anyone who expects a Kickstarter to live up to its campaign page promises is almost certain to be disappointed but I mention it to set the scene of what to expect if you decide to dive into this game. The beginnings of all the things the developers wanted to include are there but none to the level required to fulfill that vision. Combine that with the game ending just as the story starts to find its feet and you’re left wanting more with no indication of that will ever come.
Unlike other games which are built on the broken dreams of the developers Deliver us the Moon is thankfully a full playable and mostly trouble free experience from start to end. The puzzles are pretty simple affairs, typically requiring you to find a couple things within a single room and get them in the right places. Navigation around the various bases can be a bit of a chore though as there’s no HUD pointing you in the right direction and the maps on the walls aren’t the easiest to follow. Still there are some good quality of life things included that even AAA games still miss these days; like voice recordings playing in the background as you explore and already viewed cutscenes highlighted in blue so you don’t accidentally play them again. The breaks between levels are indicative of the developer’s original intent to make the whole thing episodic and indeed the levels were big enough in scale for that to be a possibility. However that’s not the game we’ve got and instead you’ll blast through most of those levels in the space of 30 minutes or so.
Optimisation of the game also appears to have taken a back seat as there’s numerous times when the game starts to struggle noticeably. This is at its worst when you’re outside on the Moon’s surface as the framerate (and subsequently the physics engine tick rate) drops through the floor. It’s not just the vehicle simulation that does it either as the performance problems continue when you’re on foot. I didn’t check if my GPU was fully utilised at the time so not sure if its bottlenecking there (indicating poor model optimisation) or elsewhere so the jury’s out on the actual root cause. Suffice to say that whilst my PC is over 3 years old at this point it hasn’t had trouble like that with much more graphically intense games.
Deliver us the Moon’s story starts out by violating the first rule of storytelling by running through long exposition pieces, explaining in detail things that your character would likely already know. It extends as far as the flavour text for exploration items as well making the game’s opening moments feel like a high schooler’s creative writing project they did the night before it was due. However the game gradually starts pulling back from this as you dive deeper into the narrative and does a good job of drip feeding you enough details so you start theorising about what happened. Then, just as you start to get leads on a major plot point in the narrative, the game abruptly ends. For those poor souls who backed the game or bought it early they were then left wondering just what the hell was going on. The discussion forum is filled with threads about this and the developers have stated that everyone will get the free DLC that closes the story off, when its available. Hopefully the game sells enough copies to make that a reality but honestly I’m not particularly confident we’ll see it inside 6 months.
Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is one of the few unfinished games I’ve played that’s left me wanting to see it in its full glory. There was an obvious investment in making a lot of assets, many of which would’ve been utilised fully if the game’s vision was realised. What we’re left with is still a competent game in its own right but it’s clear that the game had aspirations of something far greater. The upcoming DLC will likely give us the story closure many of us are seeking but it’s unlikely it will realise the full vision that it developers laid out when they first embarked on their Kickstarter campaign. For what it’s worth I did enjoy my time with it, warts and all, but until the promised DLC is out I’d recommend you leave it on the wishlist.
Deliver us the Moon: Fortuna is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 57% of the achievements unlocked.
A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.
Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.
Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.
At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.
Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.
The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.
Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.
There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.
The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.
Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.
Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.
For many decades games were a simple land of fantasy, made up of tiny blocks of pixels that crudely replicated the real world. As the medium improved so did the stories that came with it, exploring greater and more mature themes. Then with the democratisation of development tools the stories started becoming incredibly personal, often directly reflecting the life experiences of their creators. Indeed I’ve played many games which I felt were something of a catharsis for their creators, a part of their coping process for dealing with tragedy (That Dragon, Cancer and The First Tree come to mind). On the surface Inked would seem to be one of those titles however I don’t feel it is, the story of tragedy instead born out of a want to develop a tortured artist character. This, coupled with a few missteps from a game design perspective, means that Inked falls short of some its aspirations whilst still managing a few interesting firsts, at least from this writer’s perspective.
You’re put in control of the Nameless Hero, a samurai warrior who’s on a quest to save his one true love. Upon rescuing her however she is immediately taken away from you by your creator, an artist named Adam. It’s clear that there’s no love lost between you and Adam, he seemingly delighting in torturing you at every opportunity. However you are able to turn his weapons against him, gaining control of the ink that forms your world and bending it to your will. With your love taken away there’s only one thing left driving you: revenge. The journey to the temple where your creator resides won’t be easy and there’s no telling what twisted things Adam’s mind will create next.
Whilst I’m sure that Inked isn’t the first game to use a pen drawn aesthetic I’m struggling to remember any that had a similar art style. It’s not all hand drawn like Forgotton Anne or Chuchel, instead it’s a full 3D game (with physics and all) that utilises pen styled textures to give it that sketchbook aesthetic. Honestly it’s done so well that the parts which aren’t done in this way are incredibly jarring, lacking the same love and care lavished on the pen and paper style. The monotone colour schemes also make it a lot easier to identify puzzle elements which could otherwise have easily blended into the background. I hope this becomes Somnium Games’ trademark style for future titles as it’s quite distinctive and could be easily extended to bigger, more ambitious titles.
From a game play point of view Inked is a simple platform/puzzler game with a few key mechanics. You’re able to create and destroy a number of different objects, some of which will also perform actions like blowing things over or setting them on fire. Most of the puzzles are physics based and, as you’d somewhat expect, can often be solved in emergent ways by using things in ways they weren’t intended to be. This is limited somewhat by the fact you don’t get all your powers right away but after about halfway through the game you have enough tools at your disposal to get away with some really whacky things. The levels also change the puzzle dynamic as well, like one where gravity is about 1/0th of normal or another where the floor is ice. It certainly falls in the category of “easy to understand, hard to master” although for all the wrong reasons in my opinion.
Probably the most glaring fault is the fact that the game is done in an isometric view but your movement doesn’t align to it. Instead for all directions the game will require you to move in you’ll need to hold down two movement keys which makes some of the precision platforming in this game extremely frustrating. Not only that it’s also not entirely clear at times where solid ground ends and a bottomless pit begins, making some of the most simple puzzles a rather frustrating experience. This only gets worse when you’ve got puzzles that have a timer on them, forcing you to execute awkwardly imprecise jumps and simply hope that you make it through this time. The hitboxes are also quite a big bigger than you’d think, especially on things that instantly kill you.
The last few items are things that I think can be easily addressed, giving some elements a little visual flair and making the timer on some puzzles a little more generous, but the movement system really is Ink’s achilles heel. Sure you could probably remap the controls but then you’ve got the problem of the movement on screen not aligning to what you’d expect it to be. Bar reworking all the levels completely I’m not sure how Somnium Games can address this. It’s a right shame as had the developers spent a little more time thinking about how they should tackle the problem of cardinal movement in an isometric system I may be signing a different tune. Alas, at least for this title, it was not to be.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
This is not to say that the story is the game’s saving grace, far from it. Part of it is likely due to the so-so voice acting which feels stilted and flat, lacking any real emotional depth until the game’s final scenes. The story itself also feels kind of trite. I mean sure I understand what they were trying to present, an artist driven to madness by grief, but that’s a character that you’d likely want to be sympathetic to. I think the main issue here is we’re not given enough time away from Adam and his perspective to build that empathy as we’re simply his tortured play thing for the entire time. The reason I mention other titles like this is that since those games come directly from real grief it was much easier to be sympathetic to the main characters. Inked feels much like Dream Daddy in that sense, a story created from the outside of someone else’s experiences rather than from it.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Inked might be far from a perfect game but you’d struggle to find any first time indie dev that was. The artwork is absolutely phenomenal as it manages to translate that pen and paper, hand drawn aesthetic to a fully realised 3D world. This is no small feat and I’m sure others will attempt to recreate and pay homage to it in the not too distant future. However that’s where the good ends as the base game makes a few odd choices which drastically hamper the game’s playability. Couple that with a so-so story delivered by seemingly uninterested voice actors and you’ve got a game that struggles to meet the goals it set out for itself. Still I hope it finds enough success so that Somnium Game’s can continue onto the next big thing, taking the lessons learned here along with them.
Inked is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 6.1 hours with 77% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s no denying that the original Monument Valley set the bar for what a mobile game could be. Its minimalistic visual style has since been replicated by dozens of other titles but none have come close to matching it in terms of overall experience. Indeed even when compared to games on dedicated platforms it still ranks up there as one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in recent history. Of course I was devastated last year when I saw Monument Valley 2 was released on iOS and not Android, leaving me wondering when it would be out. Out of luck I was browsing the app store and, happily, I discovered that the sequel had been released. What followed was perhaps the best 2 hours of my gaming life this year in one of the strongest sequels I’ve ever played.
Taking part in a different corner of the Monument Valley universe to the one Ida inhabits Monument Valley 2 puts you in charge of Ro, another keeper of the world’s geometry. However her story is not one of tragedy and reviving a world left barren, instead it is of Ro, her child and what it means to grow up in this strange world. The journey is one they start out on together but eventually, as it always is for members their race, is one where they must part ways. The infinite mothers of the past are there to help guide you but ultimately it is up to you to carve your path through the world’s geometry and care for the monuments.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that ustwo games had retained the same art style as the original but the differences between the two are night and day. Whilst the overarching style retains the same minimalistic aesthetic, with the signature elements of simple shapes and bright colours, there’s a much greater use of shading, lighting effects and more overall “modern” design elements. The developers have also been much more adventurous when it comes to experimenting with the visual style they created with a much greater variety between different puzzles. Backing all of this is the impressive soundtrack and foley work, all of which is tied directly into how you interact with the puzzles on screen. Usually I scoff at games that tell me to reach for the headphones but in the case of Monument Valley 2 you’d be doing yourself a real disservice if you didn’t. It is so, so rare to find a game that manages to execute all these elements together so well. Rarer still are sequels that manage to improve on a formula that they defined before (I can only think of Inside as another example). Once again ustwo has demonstrated their mastery in crafting experiences like this.
The same non-Euclidean puzzle mechanics return for the sequel, making up the bulk of the Monument Valley 2’s game play. Each level plays out in much the same way as well with the puzzle’s main mechanic being introduced early in a simple form before it’s exploited in more varied and complex ways. The experimentation in visual style extends directly into the puzzles as well as the designers have been free to integrate more wide and varied visual elements with which to play. There’s also the rather fun addition of letting you drawn your own spirograph thing at the end of each sequence, a simple thing but one that brought an immense amount of joy to me. I think the best way to describe it is that it is the original but improved in nearly every way, something few sequels manage to get right.
For players of the original or veterans of the non-Euclidean puzzle genre though there’s not likely going to be much challenge to find here. I remember the original having numerous head scratching moments, some requiring me to put the game down for a bit to mull over my approach. This time around there was none of that, each of the puzzles being solved pretty much directly without much fussing about. I’m in two minds about this as, on the one hand, the reward from completing a challenge is (to a point) tied directly into the effort required to solve it. On the other there’s something to be said about puzzles that are designed in such a way that the pace of the game, and by extension its narrative, are maintained (like in The Turing Test). That is perhaps the only true negative I can level at the game, if you could call it that.
I did have some slight issues with touch recognition again with some interactions not working exactly how I’d expect them to. Again this could be a hardware level thing and this being Android small things like this are somewhat expected. For reference I am using an original Google Pixel and I did give the screen a thorough cleaning after I identified the issue first time around. That certainly made it better but there were still times when touches didn’t seem to register properly. However these weren’t constant so my overall impression of the game wasn’t tarnished much. It certainly didn’t wipe away the huge smile I had on my face the whole time I was playing.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Monument Valley II is one of the greatest examples of the basic writing principle “show, don’t tell”. All the information you need to understand the story is shown to you on screen and some of the things are so subtle that when you notice them a whole narrative blossoms in your mind. For example when you send your child off she’s young, her footsteps moving in double time to yours in order for her to keep up. Your world then turns to grey and the soundscape changes to a set of cutting, piercing noises that show every moment is a burden without her in your life. After then however colour slowly begins to return to your world as you know she is on a journey of her own making. Then when she returns you see that she’s no longer a child anymore, she’s a woman, now ready to take the responsibility you’ll bestow on her. Few games manage to communicate such complex emotions through such a simple medium with so little dialogue. After playing through numerous games recently with such a derth of narrative playing something like this reminds me of why I love narrative-first games. To ustwo I’m thankful for being reminded of that as it’s far too easy to forget sometimes.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Monument Valley 2 is a true gem of a game, one that extends itself far beyond the confines of the original. The art style has been improved in ways that I could never think of, the unbridled creativity of the level designers shining through in each level. The mechanics remain largely the same and will likely pose little challenge to those who played the original. However examining each of these parts individually feels like I’m doing the game a disservice as the overall experience is so much greater than any one component. Really for a game this good and of such short length there’s little more to say than this: go play it, you won’t regret it.
Monument Valley 2 is available on Android and iOS right now for $7.99. Game was played on a Google Pixel with approximately 2 hours of total play time with 100% of the achievements unlocked.