31 Oct 2011

Back in Block: Voxatron

It wasn’t too long ago that I gazed upon Voxatron with the eyes of a small child, taking in the lights and colours and musical beats and wondering what it would be like to sample such retro delight. Thankfully, fate stepped up to the plate, the Humble Voxatron Debut was announced and I purchased the alpha version (and thus all subsequent updates) for a snip of the future RRP.

Besides the price plummet there are two advantages here. Firstly, I don’t need to remember to purchase Voxatron once it hits the netwaves. Secondly, I get to see and feel it in action right now.

After a full playthrough of this twenty level version of the game, I find myself in two minds about the experience. It’s beautiful and bold in its presentation and there is a certain old school charm; the way enemies flock to you like vultures on carrion, the bip-bip-bip of your pea shooting limbs as minotaurs and hippo-things crumble to voxels. However, that may be why it hasn’t instantly grabbed me. Voxatron is pretty much as I expected it to be. There have been few surprises.

Having said that, it’s thoroughly pleasing to play. The environments are varied and there are a couple of trickier boss fights that give a taste of how the game may expand on the traditions of arcade shootering given half a chance. There’s also the destructability which, if not a surprise, is certainly an interesting little hook. Everything in the world deteriorates with blaster fire, collapsing trees and pillars if you knock out the supports. You’ll even explode on death, taking revenge on those who ended you and severely pockmarking the world - this provides no advantage, but has a tendency to look fantastic.

Certainly, I have no right to judge it having only played the demonstration and there is a part of me which suspects that Voxatron reserves a couple of tricks up its sleeve. It also comes with a level editor which immediately extends its appeal and is bound to result in a wave of community-generated madness in wake of the game’s release.

As mentioned, Voxatron is pay what you want via the Humble Bundle for the next two weeks. You get the alpha now, full game on release.

26 Oct 2011

REVIEW: Ignite

Please be aware: This review reflects only the single player portion of the game.

What I like most about Ignite is the boost button. I think it’s the one on the dashboard they labelled TEAR REALITY ASUNDER. That’s what it feels like. When you call for nitro in this game you’re essentially passing the steering wheel to the devil himself. The screen contorts and blurs and one errant twitch of the thumbstick will have you scraping the wall at 150mph. The thrill is immense, whilst it lasts.

Ignite is a funny old thing, really. In some ways it reminds me of the original FlatOut, which held a similar wild enthusiasm for speed and destruction, but it doesn't really break any rules when trying to present the same brand of unhinged arcade racing. In fact, it doesn't even feel that unhinged when you don’t have the capacity to TEAR REALITY ASUNDER.

To start with you'll be offered some straightforward races against a few stupider-than-thou AI opponents. If you lose to these guys, I'm assuming the game just quits and uninstalls itself from your system, because to do so would mean that you’d likely never seen a gamepad before, probably never heard of ‘the internet’ and certainly shouldn't be left alone with a computer.

After this the learning curve climbs, but not all that much. You’ll whizz through it without too much hassle, unlocking cars and tracks with your successes. Within the three main car types - muscle, street and race - you'll gain access to new paint jobs that come hand in hand with bonus attributes to help you gain the lead in races.

The twist? You can lose a race and still win it. That is to say, race wins are determined on points gained from smashing, speeding and drifting your way around each track, not simply by your finishing position. Leading the pack helps, but it's not the be all and end all if you finish in second place with five thousand points in hand, whilst the guy in front has only made a couple of hundred. Points count as deductibles of your time and these are tallied up at the end of each race.

The reason for this? Presumably it gives more aggressive, slower drivers the opportunity to win big by bothering all the other cars and smashing up the scenery. But unless you're talking tricks and spins and big air, which this game explicitly isn't, then where's the fun to be had in not taking pole position? I'm unsure on this point.

After experimentation, I found it rather simple to lead each race on both points and time by picking a roadster with a destruction bonus and knocking down every piece of signage I could find. No other style or car type earned me a fraction of the points that this method did and - because points convert to nitro - I maintained the thrill of being at Beelzebub’s side the whole time. Good for me, bad for Ignite, because something’s clearly awry when your toolset consists of one sledgehammer and a bunch of inflatable mallets.

The point scoring does get in the way of the actual racing. Keeping track of it and trying to understand why you might be behind when everyone else isn’t means your mind is kept from enjoying the thrill of the chase. And because you’re given two variables by which to judge your lead, you’ll often have little idea of whether you should be threatened if you’re either lagging behind or lacking in points. It’s an odd experience and means you can never accurately gauge the competition.

For all its colour and noise there's unfortunately very little here to get excited about. It’s a pretty game and there are moments of genuine spine-tingling speed, but all too often the game seems to be holding you back, tying you to its EXCITING! NEW! CONCEPT! which, on closer inspection, isn’t that exciting. It’s still good old fashioned fun if you’re willing to accept the flaws, just don't go into it expecting the next Burnout.

Ignite is released on 28th October and will be available to purchase on Steam. (€14.99/$19.99/£12.99)

25 Oct 2011

Mechanical wonder: The Iconoclasts

Another day and another piece of indie magic in which to lose myself. IGF entrant The Iconoclasts sparked my interest, not only because I happened to be in the mood for checking out some pure and gleeful platform gaming, but because an alpha version of the game is already available to play and I just couldn't pass it up.

I was expecting a short snippet of action in demonstration of the basic game mechanics, or a rough prototype with the art assets in place prior to the actual gameplay being fleshed out, but I was amazed to discover just how polished this long unfinished gem actually is.

The project has been on and off since its previous incarnation as Ivory Springs back in 2009 and, on the game's website, designer Joakim Sandberg has stated that the latest version makes this playable preview copy seem "quite inferior". If this is a reference to how The Iconoclasts actually plays in the alpha then I don't know what to think; it's hard to see how this experience could be honed to a finer point. But we do know, at least, that the cartoon graphics have been upgraded to HD which should lend the whole thing a slightly more commercial fronting.

The game is set in a colourful fantasy world and the visual stylings are distinctly animé. You take control of a young lady named Robin, recently orphaned after her father died. She now lives alone in a beautiful, bright - but restrictive - rural settlement. Technology here is controlled by the government, tinkering is outlawed and this puts Robin, daughter of a famed mechanic under quite a bit of scrutiny.

After a brief explore and an early boss fight you'll be confronted by the black-suited antagonists and the plot thickens from then on as you set about blasting the wildlife and using a contraband wrench to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The dialogue is fast, funny and enhanced by some expressive character animation. The music is toe-tappingly upbeat. To be honest, it's just nice to see a fun, light-hearted platform game joining the rest of the IGF entries when so often it can appear to be a dry, artsy contest.

Obviously the portion I played can't be said to be representative of the final product, but as far as I can tell, things can only get better. I haven't been this enthused by a platformer for a long while.

The Iconoclasts has not been set a release date, but you can pick up the preview copy here.

24 Oct 2011

First look: Manastorm - Lust for Guts

I was going to write about something fairly low key today, like a knitting simulation or a platformer involving a sleepy field mouse, but then, whilst perusing IndieGames.com for news stuff, I happened upon this:

Manastorm - Lust for Guts is an excellent example of why wizards should never cohabitate. It's also how I imagine every Magic Circle christmas party eventually turns out, after they're all hammered and arguing over which of them could kick Derren Brown's head in the best.

I like it a lot. It looks loud and fast, which is something that deathmatch gaming hasn't really maintained since Quake III kicked the door down in 1999 and demanded that we should all worship it, and only it, as the pinnacle of multiplayer murdering in the first person format.

What caught my eye in particular was:-

- The blood
- The fire
- The rock summoning
- The more blood
- The aerobatics
- The exploding people
- The lava balls

It's as if God returned to Earth to smite us all but gave up after everyone started to dick about with his awesome spells.

It's a bit rough around the edges, animation-wise, but this is a game still very much in development and besides, how are you going to notice any graphical discrepencies when you're bouncing around the map like a rubber ball? A rubber ball filled with blood.

An early alpha version of Manastorm - Lust for Guts by Team Rock IT is available for download here on the developer's site, but it's LAN only so there isn't a hope in hell of me being able to give it a whirl.

23 Oct 2011

Rockin' Stroll: Proteus EP

"I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
And felt compelled to frag them all;"

The immortal words of Wiliam Wordsworth there, quoted from an early revision of his landmark poem, Daffodils (working title, UDM1), which provides a fascinating insight into the mind and desires of this great man. It was altered before final publication, of course, in a decision that many felt was telling of his disillusionment at the evolution of deathmatch gaming and the changing attitudes within the surrounding community. So, in his twilight years, he took to filling his mind with aspects of virtuality that didn't involve shooting things in the face. Like pretty flowers.

For this reason, Wordsworth would have bloody loved Proteus. The work of Twisted Tree Games (designed by Ed Key, soundtracked by David Kanaga), it is a game of "pure exploration and discovery" as noted on their website. This is absolutely the most effective way of describing it.

Proteus features no weaponry, no hostile creatures; the intention is for the player to wander and watch and listen. When you arrive in this world, your eyelids will gently part and you are encouraged by the absence of any instruction whatsoever to make your way to the shore of a distant land. It's boldly ambiguous.

It's also delightfully retro, but doesn't play the token nostalgia card in the same way that many indie developments do. It really looks the part. The water glistens invitingly and the clouds which cover the top of the highest mountain billow and swell as they threaten to engulf you. It looks as if it was thrown out of the early nineties, but there is something hidden behind its pixellated make-up that speaks of reality.

This is where the desire to explore comes from; the awareness that there is more to this experience than can be assumed from its simplistic initial appearance.

Primarily it's a musical experience with a soundtrack that reacts to your movements. There are no goals to reach, no puzzles to solve, but as you walk you'll hear the alterations in your physical environment, where ambient rhythms mix with the flora and fauna of the world. It's subtly compelling in the way it manages to maintain the thrill of discovery without any kind of virtual back-patting.

Once the initial version of Proteus is released it's going to be hard to pinpoint an audience to recommend it to because it simply doesn't fall into any standard category. Simply saying “if you like having a bit of a stroll then you’ll love this" probably doesn't cut it. Regardless, I think Proteus will be a game that a good deal of people will find instantly refreshing and the lucky ones will completely lose themselves to.

The Proteus EP is planned for release before the end of the year, with a more expansive 'LP' version to follow at some point thereafter. The price has not yet been confirmed. For updates check the website, here.

22 Oct 2011

Orgy of delight: 2012 IGF Pirate Kart

It's that time of year again. The deadline for submissions to this year's IGF main competition has come and gone and the Pirate Kart is one entry that stands proudly clear of the standard crowd of sensible, innovative and artistically viable pieces of entertainment software.

Put simply, the Pirate Kart is a selection of over 300 games by over 100 separate indie devlopers. Each title was either unsuitable for an independent submission or lacked the polish to go it alone, so here they are, available for all to take a chance and dive into a swathe of nutty half-ideas and creative abominations.

There's a lot of shit there - naturally. This is to be expected of a collection open to submissions from any Tom, Dick or Harry with something to prove. There's also a lot of toilet humour, which is lovely, but very NSFW. I advise you wait until you get home to sample delights such as Hoody Attack, or Space Phallus, or Wee - which has you playing God's own Eve as she attempts to remonstrate Adam for pissing on her every morning.

Aside from this sort of stuff you'll see the standard clones (of which Snake and Asteroids feature heavily) and a few odd non-games that don't quite fulfill the standard expectations of interactive entertainment.

Regardless of the quality of each individual game, as a collection it's an exciting thing to be able to explore. The list is set out concisely in the main program window and you can sort as you please; by title, by author or entirely at random. There's even a 'Play Random Game' button which performs as expected and lends the sense of mystery to proceedings as you shuffle through the productions at your leisure, usually only spending two or three minutes with each one.

Of course, every now and again there's an idea or a look that sticks and it's hard not to become involved. For my money, here are a few that I would recommend you try out if you fancy a bit of direction prior to getting your hands/brain dirty with the rest of it:-

FuhFuhFire by Robert Yang
"Fire! Fire! We're all going to die!"

The inimitable Robert Yang gives us a game which draws equal measure of mirth and terror as players are tasked with rescuing seven elipsoid victims from a raging fire in a building of some sorts.

Twankility - Forced Meditation by Andrew Gray
"You are a fluffy cloud. You slowly fly through the sky."

It's an experience that will last approximately two minutes and, after that, you won't want to play it again, but it did make me laugh at least twice when so many other games in this collection try so hard and fail. If you like inanity, you might like this.

Operation Lodestone by Leon Arnott
"To think - we have reached a point in military history where our weapons must become dumber to penetrate our enemy's defenses."

It's not the most original concept, but it kept me playing long enough to be worth recommending. There's a story, but I paid little attention. A super missile powerful enough to obliterate entire cities is at your disposal. To guide it, you'll need to place some magnetic towers along its route. It's a puzzle game and I got some kicks from it. That is all.

IGF Pirate Kart 2012 is a whopping 1.5GB but downloads speedily enough via BitTorrent. Find a link, here.

Beats of Rage: Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf

After a day or so of seeing Gaddafi's big, dead face plastered over every news source and being exposed to the tedious righteous yammering of the gutter press in relation to this fact, let's have something a little more pleasant, a little calmer...

Here's a nice new bit of freeware courtesy of Cactus that sees you, The Eskimo, climbing a mountain via a series of crumbling platforms reminiscent of Super Mario's soggy donuts. (That's what they were called, right? Only, I just Google checked the name and only the obvious explicit results were returned.)

Anyway, its rather pleasant actually and there's a catchy pop song playing in the background for you to jump along to and...

Oh dear, I've turned into a FUCKING WEREWOLF and the band are shouting at me in a politically contentious manner and now I have to kill people.

I guess the name should have given it away. Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf is a short sharp jab in the cortex. The screaming soundtrack (courtesy of Fucking Werewolf Asso themselves) is essentially your game timer, the levels starting and stopping with every verse/chorus that passes in this snotty electro-punk charmer. And each level is a new format with different goals (as disclosed by the download's accompanying documentation). It's a feast of genres, all involving the struggle of one - probably quite misunderstood - psychotic werewolf eskimo man.

It works completely, of course. It's mental, but it's engaging off the bat. The experience is as much about noise and lights and fucking people's senses as it is about having a jolly good time. And I had just that.

Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf is available for free, from here.

19 Oct 2011

First look: Overgrowth

If you were thinking that the madder half of crime fighting duo Sam and Max was the only hyperkinetic-bunny-thing to grace gaming, then you would be wrong. Just plain wrong.

is the latest project from Wolfire Games. It's been in development for around three years now and I seem to drift across further coverage of it every couple of months. Each time I see it, I can't help but feel the need to kick some rabbits to death. Ha! I was playing on that whole 'games affecting perceptions of reality' thing that is so incredibly current affairs...

Anyway, look here - fighting lagomorphs!

Wolfire claim it to be the spiritual sequel to Lugaru, released in 2005, which was in the same vain but happened to be rather difficult to control from what I can remember. Regardless, with Overgrowth, the developer is promising 'better graphics, better physics, more characters, more moves, great mod support, and co-operative multiplay' in comparison to their previous offering.

I'll vouch for the graphics at least. The above video and every other piece of footage showing ongoing additions to the alpha build just look staggeringly good. The impact of fat feet upon fur seems to have been nicely realised and the dynamic reanimation every time an animal receives a solid kick in the head is strangely satisfying to watch.

I'm going to try to get my hand on the alpha build as soon as I'm able.

Worth noting: As with many other indie developments at the moment, those who pre-purchase receive updated playable previews until the game receives full release. If you don't want to foot the $29.95 to do so then the least you can do is check out - and salivate over - Wolfire's YouTube channel which details the individual updates of each weekly release.

Overgrowth has no solid release date yet.

18 Oct 2011

Computer games make children ‘mental’ warns elderly person with qualifications

Children who play computer games are far more likely to grow up ‘bonkers’ than those who enjoy less modern forms of entertainment, a woman almost twice the age of the ZX Spectrum has warned. Dr Cynthia Langley is the author of a new report which provides further evidence in support of her theory that computer games are to be feared by pretty much everyone, not just the over 50s.

Utilising her education to have a look at things and make decisions, Dr Langley has concluded that the imaginations of young people are easily corrupted by interactive video images - images that their parents are often unable to prevent them from seeing without having to get up and turn the television off.

One subject observed by her research team, Yvonne Presley, described a time when her parental instinct was unable to respond to a frightening encounter with the imagination of her 10 year old son.

"He was playing something or other on the TV with all them lights and colours when he suddenly said, 'F***, I’m dead!'. When I asked him where he had learned the 'F' word, he pointed at me and said, 'You', which is worrying because I’m pretty sure I’ve never been in a computer game before.

“And, after all that fuss, I discovered that he wasn’t actually dead."

Langley also thinks this sort of occurrence to be conclusive proof that children above and below the age of 10 are finding it increasingly difficult to resist simulated genocide.

"Our studies have shown that if you lock a small child in a cargo container with only an XBox 360 console machine, a copy of Saints Row and a packet of crisps, they'll inevitably pick up the game controller and embark on a sickening odyssey of violence in order to entertain themselves - sometimes before they’ve even had a go at the crisps.”

These results seem to support a recent discovery that crisps are a bit salty, but do in turn suggest that video games make you both fat and stupid.

"Apparently one of these so called 'games' offers children candy for murdering mad hobos, but steals their cake if they don't surrender their bodies to a local crime kingpin,” says Dr Langley.

“I don’t know where I heard that, but it's true”.

In response to these findings, one person who has played a video game said: “I never thought about it before, but if sunshine can melt a kid's ice lolly then what’s to keep computer games from melting their brain?

"Or their face?”

More stupidity, here.

And some sense, here.

17 Oct 2011

REVIEW: Alien Zombie Megadeath

I recently commented on how often developers feel obliged to force uninspired storylines upon their games in an attempt to give some sort of substance to proceedings. Most of the time it doesn't add anything at all, which was my point, particularly when the focus of play is purely on the destruction you can wreak between cutscenes. It's hard to give a crap about individual character relationships when you spend most of your time massacring entire species. Which is why I applaud the approach PomPom Games took in introducing the player to this finely realised game world:

'You are a lone Spaceman doing something or other. Driving around in your spacecraft, visiting random planets.

They are the Alien Zombies. Intent on the destruction of all Spacemen doing stuff... in space.'

Bravo. It's as if they wrote that intro simply to emphasise the fact that it wasn't needed at all. And I also appreciate the insinuation that, if the aliens weren't zombified, they might have been a decent bunch of guys.

Alien Zombie Megadeath is very much a game about wanton slaughter. It's also about earning points and madly shifting between numerous horizontal platforms to avoid contact with - and death by - an array of colourful foes.

This is trad arcade in many ways. You don’t need to have been playing games for most of your life to take one look at the screenshots here and realise exactly what it is you would have to do were you playing it yourself. Move and shoot, shoot and move, pick up those crystals, power up and blast the hell out of legions of space slime. Easy.

There are eighty levels of varying difficulty, most of which will have you clearing each screen of aliens. Variations that pop up from time to time consist of bomb disposal, space baby rescue (really) and good old fashioned survival, along with the odd boss fight. Further levels and designs for your spacesuit are unlocked as you earn medals from specific achievements within battles, but you’ll rarely find yourself having to replay to perfection in order to proceed through the game.

In this respect, AZM is accessible enough for a casual gamer to dip in and out of, but big and tough enough for the hardcore to spend a lifetime completing and unlocking everything that the game has to offer.

It would be easy to pass off AZM as a throwaway, nuts and bolts shoot ‘em up at first glance, but that’s not the case. A wealth of enemy types keep you thinking on your feet and there are enough entertaining additions (jet packs, anyone?) and game types to keep it from becoming a desperate space-slog. It may not be spectacularly pretty, but bright colours and distinctive creature designs mean it’s generally simple to keep track of all but the most frantic of shootouts. To compliment this, the controls are particularly responsive and work well enough on either keyboard or gamepad.

I'm not saying the game will rob you of your sleep, but if you're a fan of arcade shooters, AZM is robust and entertaining and there should be enough content here to keep you going for a very long time.

Alien Zombie Megadeath sees release on 18th October 2011 and will be available for purchase via Steam (£7.99)

16 Oct 2011

REVIEW: The Bridge

The Bridge is a bit of a looker. That was my initial thought as I was prompted to play an active part in the introduction of our slumbering protagonist. The hand drawn visual style is an obvious look for an indie platformer, but it works beautifully here. On instruction, I shook the world around our unnamed hero, presumed to be M.C. Escher, and a piece of fruit soon fell from the tree bows above his head. It was a rude awakening, and an instant introduction to the game’s foremost mechanic - the perception and control of gravity.

Making references to previous titles as points of comparison can be both lazy and insulting, but I do feel it important in recommending this title. Braid, And Yet It Moves and Limbo are the most obvious direct links to how this game looks, plays and feels thematically. The artistic design and the smarts required to solve some of the obstacles you'll come across exhibit echoes of all of these games. And The Bridge’s world maintains the same dreamlike quality that hints at something sinister beneath the cutesy surface.

You might not know exactly what it is you're getting yourself into when you make your first foray into the highly illogical environments presented by the game, but I'm going to be intentionally light on the specifics of how puzzles are solved. A good deal of the thrill in beating The Bridge is learning its rules for yourself and then going about bending them to your own advantage.

An Xbox controller is recommended, but not essential. The game tempers its pacing enough that rash moves are rarely required and if you're losing repeatedly because of pixel perfect jumps or close encounters with grinning boulders then you're likely being too aggressive in your puzzle solving.

And let’s remind ourselves of the aforementioned influence here - the work of M. C. Escher. That needs little explanation and from the screenshots you’ll see on this page, I defy you not to be itching to involve yourself in this world, to experiment with its limitations. Here, up becomes down, left becomes right, down becomes both left and right and... well, you get the picture, but in spite of how confusing this could be to someone who just wants the ground to stay wherever the hell they left it, the game does a great job of not becoming a confusing mess of directional woes. It manages to avoid being obtuse to the point of frustration.

There's little narrative to speak of so there's no ultimate goal from the outset, but the world is fully realised in that it provides an evolving hub from which to visit the different levels of play and you’ll realise as you explore and increase your abilities just how to make the most out of your surroundings. You’re not out to rescue the princess here, you exist to progress.

That's not to say that there isn't an overriding theme. The character you play is inherently spectral; he is drawn into the lands he explores, and the periodic messages that drift onto the screen provide a kind of poetic justification of your actions within the world.

Playing through the main body of the game will likely not take you longer than a couple of hours, but there are a couple of additions to keep you coming back once you've hit the end screen. Firstly, there are achievements to be had, if you happen to like having your successes verified by pop-up text. Secondly, once completed, you'll gain access to beefier versions of the original mind-bending levels. Believe me when I say that these will keep you scratching your head for a good deal longer, although I felt they didn’t quite match the purity of the original experience.

The Bridge is good, solid indie fare. Having an eye for the abstract and a brain for the patently absurd is not essential, but you will need a modicum of patience if you're new to this kind of puzzler. That said, it's forgiving enough for those who just wish to relax into a game which does so many things right in portraying exactly what it is that makes Escher's work so incredibly absorbing.

The Bridge has not yet been given a solid release date, but is likely to hit the PC early next year. Pricing has also not yet been confirmed.

13 Oct 2011

First Look: Voxatron

Do you remember when voxels were declared to be the next step in the rendering of expansive 3D environments? You do? And then do you remember, very shortly after, when they weren't? Me too. They looked terrible, didn't they? They made every game seem slightly out of focus, as if smudged by any number of artless, godless hands.

Video gaming nostalgia often denies games you once held dear from looking any good when viewed from a modern perspective (with the obvious exception of Deus Ex, which looked just as awful back in 2000 as it does now).

But look at this! Voxels weren't all that bad!

Voxatron by Lexaloffle Games brings voxel tech back into the limelight, sticking it through the retro filtration machine that all good indie games must go through on their way to becoming lovable cult hits.

Featuring both action and adventure combined with fully destructible environments it really does look very pretty in motion, if slightly dizzying with all those lights and colours.

As you see there, the alpha is to be released shortly and looks to be a nice little psychadelic romp. Plus, those tunes are BANGING. Is that right, how I said that? Well, never mind.

12 Oct 2011

First Look: To the Moon

You might think it common for me to perform cartwheels at the merest mention of a prospective indie release, but this isn't true - I just like to write about whichever games excite me the most. By this measure it took me no time at all to decide on putting up a quick post about To the Moon, the soon to be released adventure game from Freebird Games.

They're a developer I've no previous experience of, but advise on their website that their "focus is to create familiar yet alternative [takes on] the classical RPG experience". That's fine by me, I figure the world has plenty of room for a few more Chrono Triggers before it finally boils away into space. If you feel the same way, To the Moon's charms will surely provoke all sorts of delightful feelings in your belly.

Many games cause me to make a brief note to follow their progress, but very few actually cause me to stop and stare and repeatedly watch promotional footage. To the Moon is one such game.

The premise is instantly arresting. The game will follow two doctors who have the power to alter the memories of a dying man in order that he may recall his most desired fantasies before his clogs are finally popped. I'm already hooked and the trailer below is almost all I've seen in demonstration of its substance:

Funny, attractive and designed to evoke all kinds of nostalgia - what's not to love? The above footage also poses plenty of questions about how the game will play out. There is to be no combat and Freebird clearly want to keep it from being so bluntly labelled as a 'game', but what seems clear to me is how well classic JRPG stylings fit the theme. And the writing appears to be spot on.

So, one to watch with peeled eyes, and I'll certainly be providing my thoughts on it once it sees release on 1st November this year.

11 Oct 2011

REVIEW: Retention

Two ponderous indie adventures, both focusing on recovery from physical and mental trauma, in one month. Anyone would think this site had an agenda; a reflective, soul searching agenda.

Retention is a little hard for me to describe, primarily because it’s barely a game in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a sequence of events, a scattering of snapshots. You click through pictures - memories - laid before you and ten-and-a-half minutes later the experience ends. Did you do it in the correct way? Did you win, or perhaps save the world? The interpretation of any of the eight endings available is misty at best.

Ambiguous doesn’t even begin to describe this game. But let me have a go.

Before play begins you’re given a prologue that explains the protagonist’s position. Here is a man who lives his life without a moment to spend looking back at what he’s experienced. He never stops. As such, he has no memories, or at least he attributes very little value to his memories. After taking a tumble from his bicycle one day he loses everything and, in an effort to hold onto his past, it’s up to the player to help him correctly rediscover the events of his life.

This isn’t a simple case of storytelling through a linear set of prompts. From this point onwards you’re presented with hundreds of pictures, three at a time, often with no tangible relationship from one to the next. Well, apart from cats. There do seem to be a lot of cats.

You start at the end - or rather, you seem to work your way backwards from the time of the accident. However, you can choose to view the photos in any order you like and you don’t appear to be required to select them all, only those with significance in the particular story you’re trying to tell.

Something is definitely going over my head here. I’ve played it five times and only on my last turn did I succeed in grouping together a coherent set of memories. The rest of the time I failed in exactly the same way. ‘I can’t remember who I was...’ says the game and there’s little I can do to correct that. Even when I did succeed in recovering everything, I still had no idea how I arrived at victory.

is a strange one then. It’s like nothing I’ve ever played before and I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve played it still, despite sinking about an hour of my time into its strange world. It’s both baffling and mesmerising, but I can’t say that I didn’t in some respect enjoy my time with it. Just leave your preconceptions at the door, along with your sense of logic, and you’ll probably be fine.

10 Oct 2011

Brooming Marvellous: Dustforce

You know what I've always wanted to do in a game? Have a bit of a sweep. It really appeals to my domestic side, like feeding the cat. And when you do ever get to feed cats in games? Never. It's a damned shame.

Dustforce is an acrobatic platformer and it satisfies at least one of the above urges (I'll let you guess which one). Created by Hitbox Team and due for release later this year, they dropped a prototype demo off at indiePub about a year ago which allows you to sample its dust-busting ways first hand.

It is strange how cathartic sweeping up those 2D planes actually is - in spite of the frantic and death-defying platform thrill.

I've played the demo through now and it's a promising piece of work. It's also worth noting that since the release of this teaser the team have recreated the game entirely in an updated engine, with reworked art assets and an altered control code (which was a little unresponsive in the preview build) so there's little reason not to be looking forward to this. Although I guess it still remains to be seen whether it'll take the Meat Boy route of reducing players to fist-chewing levels of anger.

I'll cross my fingers and hope. In the meantime, watch this:

Who ever said computer games never taught kids anything, eh? You, boy! Tidy your room! And don't you dare forget to brush the ceiling!

REVIEW: Orcs Must Die!

Any game whose name fits the format “[insert species] Must Die!" is clearly not one to be holding its cards close to its chest - whichever race it happens to be casually discriminating against. This is not the quiet child, sitting in the corner, carefully studying its textbooks whilst the other kids laugh and play. This is the obnoxious brat, the one dancing on the tables, picking his nose and flicking its contents at his peers. You may think that’s a bad thing, you may take an instant dislike to him. But he's not really a brat, he's just acting up for the attention. He's as smart as the kid in the corner, but he just wants to be loved.

Orcs Must Die! is that child. It's supremely, almost unbearably goofy, but also well aware of its underlying strengths. And it’s bloody wonderful.

The current trend for tower defence games is to place the player within the action, to provide them with an avatar and encourage them to get their hands dirty instead of floating around somewhere in the ether, endlessly building and rebuilding blockades and gun turrets. Here, you can shoot. In this game, your default inventory item is a repeating crossbow with unlimited ammunition. This is cause for celebration.

OMD! embraces its action stylings without apology, allowing the player to place defences whilst they merrily skip about the place, firing wildly and watching lumps of gore fly hither and thither across the screen. It doesn’t care that you want to employ optimal defence patterns, Grandad, it just wants you to have fun. How can you possibly deny it that?

As with anything these days there has to be a back story to justify the premise and, aside from it being borne of the standard fantasy fare, there’s enough good humour (although little actual good humour) in the telling that it remains fairly inoffensive throughout the course of the game. You play the part of an apprentice guardian tasked with defending the gateways to ... Oh, Hell, it doesn’t matter. You need to fight off wave after wave of orcs and other beasties in a varied succession of levels without letting a predefined number of them reach your base (or bases) before the final attack ends. That covers the basis of play entirely.

Your methods for getting this work done involve traps, the aforementioned weaponry and your own personal cunning. The traps, in particular, are a joy to utilize. Spikes, blades and spring boards can all be used to thwart the green tide. Hot tar slows the enemy down to allow them to group together before stepping forward in bloody symphony into whichever sadistic device you’ve summoned into the world. Archers and guardsmen can be placed to aid your cause and will act independently of your own actions. To list the rest of the items at your disposal would be to swamp this review, but rest assured there will be something for you, whoever you are.

My favourite trick? Placing gunpowder barrels on spike traps as an explosive contingency plan. There is no greater joy than watching a final gang of orcs slip past you when you’ve one of these at your back. I’ve laughed like a maniac so many times whilst playing this game that I have to wonder if its not me that should be stopped.

In order to place traps and other helpful objects you’ll need to earn money from murdering enemies. If you string a bunch of kills together then you’ll receive an extra bonus that increases your chances of reaching a higher grade - rated in skulls - when the level ends. Skulls act as currency in upgrading traps outside of play, making your favourite devices more effective or cheaper to place. It’s a system that really rewards return plays because you won’t be expected to pass any of the levels with flying colours on the first attempt. The emphasis here is on experimentation. Well, that, and bloody murder.

The pacing of play must also be commended. A couple of times each level you’ll be given respite for as long as you want prior to another onslaught. These free periods are blessed relief when you’re under pressure and allow you to spend as much time as you wish to take what the game has taught you and put it into action. Despite its difficulty, OMD! promotes playfulness. If you don't like where you've placed certain traps or even if you want to redesign your entire playground of death, go ahead and make the changes at this time. You won't be penalised for your error. This isn't a hardcore game for the most part, but it does reward wily thinking and you'll learn as much by discovering what doesn't work as you will by what does.

At some point during your experience of OMD! you’ll wonder whether the game will ever stop expanding. I haven’t even touched upon the range of elemental spells at the guardian’s disposable. I haven’t mentioned the unlockable Nightmare mode at the end of the main campaign. And what about the research-trees that allow purchasable upgrades to increase cash flow and ability effects for a cash sacrifice mid-game? How on Earth can they pack so much into one tightly formed package? It’s honestly a wonder.

My only complaint arises from what is arguably the games strongest design feature. At times there may be too much freedom to express your bloodlust, especially when five or six different enemy types are beating down your door. It’s an odd gripe, I’m aware, and in my experience never fully manifested itself as a genuine annoyance, but for less patient players I imagine that the range of weaponry and traps available in the later stages can become slightly overwhelming when searching for the best solution to a particularly tricky green-bellied problem. If trial and error really isn’t your thing, then it would be the only time you would catch me questioning whether this game was worth a purchase.

For everyone else, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s easy to learn, pleasantly addictive and incredibly rewarding in its unfettered diversity. You may get stuck, you may pull your hair out, but you’ll likely always be back for another go. Above all, this is a game about discovery and, despite it being determined to act the fool, I have found it consistently surprising in its efforts to please.

7 Oct 2011

Late to the Party: Brink

Today I managed to pick up Splash Damage's most recent online creation, Brink, for a snip of its RRP. I'd had a vague interest in it from release, but I'm always hesitant to check out new multiplayer IPs unless the price is right. Today my curiosity got the better of me. FACT. That and it was only a fiver. I'm interested to find out, though, will I discover a hotbed of multiplayer shootering, or has everybody already fled the Ark? The fact that CeX are buying in sealed copies to sell on for cheap suggests to me the latter, but I took the gamble.

What follows is an account of my first hour's experience with Brink.

Golly. Golly and heck. Double bloody golly and heck. This wasn't worth it at all. Not the money, not the hour I spent trying to find a game and not the headache I've received from the persistent mouse lag that refuses to agree with what FRAPS is logging my framerate as. It wasn't even worth creating my grizzled, Pete Postlethwaite tribute character to play with and that's something I never imagined myself saying.

The story mode, which you are supposed to be able to play online, is essentially broken. Or at least I think it's broken, because I got kicked pretty quickly from every server I connected to. I managed to play at one point for about a minute before I realised that there was likely only one other human occupying the same virtual space as me. And the game said: I don't want you to have friends and booted me.

The wasted time hasn't made me angry though, I just feel a little depressed. I feel sorry for the game when it relies so heavily on human intelligence to make it fun. It will never rise again, it will never regain its moment in the spotlight.

I did play a couple of AI supported campaign games, but there's no pride in shooting wave after wave of enemy thug when they all stand bunched up and ready for the killing. The most enjoyment I did extract from my experience was seeing if I could ever catch one of them with a hand grenade. Let me tell you, it's nigh on impossible. Those guys are like cheddar cheese to a stick of chalk. The moment you throw a grenade they tidily disperse to the exact distance at which they won't get hurt. Pinning one of them down to take the blast was my greatest achievement within Brink's world.

But it's hard to shake this feeling of pity. I feel sorry for Splash Damage and I'm disappointed that the game has been abandoned by the people. I can see the potential. Like a rusting wreck, I can see that once, long ago, it's corridors were filled with players, obviously not having the best of times, but at least maintaining some level of enjoyment from fragging their fellow man. Now it's deserted, at least campaign-wise, and I have no desire to play it again.

I did take a look at the server browser in the hope of snagging one sorrow-free piece of the action, but there were only two games of sixteen players and both of them were full. I guess that's where the hardcore reside, polishing their grenades and sharpening their knives whilst cursing the rest of gaming-kind for deserting this once promising arena of death.

Were it a kitten I would take it in, feed it, love it and protect it for rest of its long life. But its not, it's a game, so I'll just pop it on the shelf alongside Gods and Generals, US Most Wanted and Armed and Dangerous and forget about it. Blimey, that was a lot of conjunctives.

4 Oct 2011

Riding to Work: Remembering Half-Life

It seems clichéd to suggest that the opening sequence of the original Half-Life is still the benchmark by which I gauge all FPS introductions, but it is exactly that. Yes, it was lengthy, but it was also marvellously underplayed for a genre in which, at the time, the best you could hope for was a quick cinematic about alien end-times and a token blaster pistol as a sidekick.

Here, you were provided a crowbar - a simple crowbar - placed at your feet not less than five minutes after the alien hordes gatecrashed the 'We Are Humans, We Like to Live' party here on Earth. Imagine that. Imagine taking your usual work commute and then, moments after finishing your breakfast you find yourself embedding a hunk of iron into the skull of an attacking xenomorph. What a treat that would be! You'd hit your lunch hour without an ounce of clock-watching.

The train ride, meeting and greeting your fellow scientists and the ultimate experiment... This initial succession of scenes is the first thing many gamers saw from Valve and, more than anything else, it provided a lasting impression of why they were a developer that deserved your time and attention.

Is it beatable today? Surely something has surpassed it? I guess that's debatable. Other opinions are available, but after the impact that this experience had on an entire generation of gamers it's hard to beat that thrill of the medium being explored in such a wildly different manner. You travel through the opening sequence of something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, over ten years after the fact, and it plays out like a child's puppet show in comparison to this.

3 Oct 2011

REVIEW: Trauma

Trauma did seem to come and go without a great deal being said about it, at least as far as I was aware, so having recently acquired it through the excellent Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle, I felt it appropriate to brew a large pot of coffee and give it a whirl this evening. A nice, slow whirl.

This is a game I can relax into. I mean, the undertones are pretty dark - you certainly won't be giggling you're way through it - but there's a pleasant floating quality to the gameplay and a sense that whatever pace you happen to take it at is just fine and dandy. So as I passed through it - and I do mean 'passed through' - I almost felt as if I weren't playing the game, but that the game was playing me, leading me onwards with a succession of gentle prods to uncover its secrets.

This casual, wandering aspect is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. The game is instantly engaging because of its sense of mystery and the simple point and click method of play, but it also lacks the depth of character required to keep it from being anything other than a pleasant time-killing Flash game. Which is odd because, as you progress, you appear to be exploring the dreams of a young woman who is recovering from quite severe physical and psychological difficulties.

Once again, it's not a laugh a minute.

Advancement in the story is achieved by navigating through polaroid snapshots of several strange and hallucinatory worlds. You'll piece together clues to the girl's past whilst solving simple puzzles and finding ways to end the dreams, but it never really becomes emotionally engaging. I was aware of the struggle of the protagonist in the vaguest of ways but, instead of sucking me in and taking me deeper into her personal tragedy, it maintained a level of surrealism that always held me at a distance.

I don't dislike the game. I think it's an attractive and unusual treasure hunt, but I couldn't honestly say anything kinder than that and it did leave me feeling slightly empty once I'd uncovered all of its secrets.

Have a go, you might like it, but don't expect it to pose any questions greater than, say, "Where the hell is that final item?"

2 Oct 2011

REVIEW: The Binding of Isaac

Feast your eyes on this, the new game developed in part by Edmund McMillen; indie hero, father of Gish, mother of Meat Boy and author of that largely unsexy game about ladies’ private parts. This time we enter the world of Isaac and if your bible is well read, you'll either appreciate the reinvention of this twisted tale or, I'm sure, abhore it. Personally, I think it's an original and suitable setting for the game, but I’m not in a position to judge whether it could be perceived as a middle finger to those of certain faiths.

Quick précis? Little Isaac's mother hears the voice of God, and it demands that she purify her child of all his sins. One thing leads to another and the booming voice above eventually asks that she end her son's life in a typically grizzly demonstration of her belief in the big man. To escape his knife-wielding mother, Isaac enters the basement of the house through a trapdoor in his bedroom floor. From then on, he becomes involved in a bloody quest to kill the nutty bitch, arcade shooter style. Naturally.

The Binding... is in many ways like a top-down take on Spelunky; all randomly generated rooms, item shops and enemies. For this reason, it appears infinitely replayable, even as I enter my thirtieth turn in its grizzly underworld. There are no second chances here - you have but one life with which to make the endgame. Really. Have I beaten it yet? No. But I'm not done trying.

It can be a cruel and vicious game, punishing the player in its thirst for variety. You may pick up an item that causes insta-death, or you might come across room after room of monsters with nary a power-up in sight. Sometimes you'll be locked and loaded from the get go with a handful of bombs and a damage buff you've picked up in the second or third chamber. It's never predictable and there is always that sense of unwrapping a gift each time a new game is fired up. Will it be a glistening jewel when I begin again, or a box of steaming poo? To be honest, just like in real life, either way is fun. You make of it what you can, even when lady luck does happen to boot you in the balls.

The game consists of layers of dungeons that you'll descend through as you progress. The maps on each level are non-linear so you get to choose where it is you’d like to go whilst exploring, but you’ll always need to face one super-baddie in a particular room before you’re allowed to reach a lower stage. It’s a simple goal, but you’re constantly weighing up the odds of survival, checking the map to see whether you should get the level boss over with, or risk some more basement rooms on the off chance some newly discovered loot will turn you into the teary-eyed murderer you always wished to be.

Isaac kills with tears, it’s true. He also wears his mothers heels to gain range and can, on occasion, call in a missile strike from above. The combinations of passive perks and power-ups are practically limitless. You’ll unlock more and more as you progress through the game and, as you become accustomed to them, you’ll also be learning the strengths and weaknesses of each enemy you encounter. It’s a great little hook and ensures that with each death both your practical experience and your ability to survive increases. It’s another step in maintaining the 'one more play' player attitude that this game thrives on.

If there is anything to pick at in criticism it would likely be the configuration options, notably the control scheme. Although the game has recently been updated to support joystick use, that support only extends to instructions on downloading JoyToKey, a third party button-binding app which isn't ideal when you're after plug and play with a standard Xbox controller. Considering Super Meat Boy implemented joypad support so well, this surprises me, and I will always be more willing to play a game like The Binding of Isaac whilst slouching in a chair, madly bashing buttons, rather than sitting upright at a keyboard.

This, though, doesn’t take away from the fact that McMillen has once again displayed his talent for creating absurdist pantomimes within compelling cartoon worlds. The Binding of Isaac is full of filth and depravity, but with enough comic value to negate any serious sense of doom and gloom. For the price of a pint of ale, you’d be crazy not to pick this up.