One of the things I was hoping to support with my Patreon campaign was writing about games. While I did manage to publish several Cheese Talks articles last year, only one of them was specifically about a game, and covered one I'd previously written about.
To make up a little for the lack of game focused articles, here are a bunch of thoughts on some games I played through in 2015 (this list doesn't include games I'd previously finished or episodic titles that are still in development).
I first came across Airscape when I volunteered to help test Linux builds. Without being aware that the game had won Best Use of Game Physics in Intel's Level Up competition and was selected to be showcased at GDC, PAX Australia, PAX East, PAX Prime, and the Boston Festival of Indie Games, my initial impressions were that it would be a widely loved game.
I assumed that its gorgeous graphics, orchestral soundtrack and cute characters would bring people in, and its difficulty curve would make sure it would be offering players months and years' worth of well designed challenges to explore.
It turns out, however, that Airscape: The Fall of Gravity would not receive much attention at launch from press or players. When developer Daniel West wrote a Gamasutra article talking about how he'd ticked all of the boxes for the, "Oh, you should've done X," type dismissive non-actionable retrospective advice offered to unsuccessful developers titled 'Good' Isn't Good Enough, the response he received was generally in the form of criticism of the game coupled with a veiled assertion that it's not appropriate for developers to voice concerns like this, coming from people who come across as not existing within its audience (as an aside, I'd hoped the article would generate discussion on how that kind of advice isn't particularly helpful and that there must be better ways to handle and mitigate disappointing launches, but it didn't).
With about 25 hours on either side of the game's release, I still find the game's level design to be its best feature. Even though the gravity mechanics may seem simple at first, the game presents a number of variations that allow for a consistently fresh array of movement challenges across the game's 60+ level campaign.↑return to top↑
When playing Capsized, I recall feeling that the "cutout animation" style (where each segment of a body is a separate image rotated/articulated at the joints) felt a little out of place with its vibrant cartoony style - there's a degree of expression that's typically less accessible when using with that style, and it's easy to end up giving characters a degree of stiffness that might be undesirable. I didn't find this to be a big issue at all, but I do recall feeling that that style fit with and supported Apotheon's aesthetic amazingly well.
Apotheon tells a tale set amongst ancient Greek mythology in which the gods have forsaken mankind and the protagonist Nikandreos must climb Mount Olympus to seek vengeance and redemption for his people. All this is styled as though it is a black-figure urn painting, which traditionally depict stylised silhouettes of battles and deities. The presentation is convincing and even goes so far as to include lighting effects that suggest surface texture.
The animation style also lends itself well to the game's physics based combat system, which at once manages to be both brutal and comical. Each weapon has unique speed and sense of weight, and damage inflicted depends greatly on where an enemy is hit and how much knockback they'll receive. Apotheon's weapons have also suffer durability, and there's a constant sense of weapon churn that I don't often see in games and am not really sure how to feel about (there's certainly an aspect of regret when you realise your favourite warhammer or shield has little life left and you'll be forced to fall back on something lesser). Perhaps this nicely reflects the fragility of bronze age weaponry?
Attack, defence and movement are skills that players must learn and become comfortable with early on in the game. Apotheon is challenging, but not excessively so for players who embrace the game's mechanics. I imagine that anybody trying to progress through incessant button mashing would find it unfair and obtuse, but there's a sense of mastery that the game gives when you play the way it expects you to.
The game's environments are predominantly the domain of a deity and are themed to match both in terms of visuals and gameplay. Nikandreos' godly encounters offer an enjoyably diverse range of gameplay without deviating too far from the established skill set that players will acquire through play. Though each god embodies some two dimensional persona, they still feel rounded, showing motivation, inner conflict and machinations that deepens the homage that Apotheon pays to its inspirations.
Nikandreos' journey is long and grueling, but also rich and varied. It opens with the destruction of Nikandreos' home village of Dion, and takes him to the depths of Hades and beyond the very peaks of Olympus. There is a certain rhythm to all aspects of the game, from the combat to the traversal of its varied environments. In the end, whether Nikandreos' is a hero or not feels like it's a question for the player to wrestle with. If a game can be an epic, then Apotheon definitely feels like one.↑return to top↑
I've already written at length about Assault Android Cactus, but I didn't "finish" it until this year when the game was completed for release. 140 hours in, I still find it enjoyable and try to play the Daily Drive mode every day.
The things that make Cactus stand out to me are the axes along which the game diversifies itself. Each of the 9 playable characters pushes into their own gameplay territory, and every one of the campaign's levels offers a distinct experience. Although it may not seem so at first, AAC is a systems oriented game, and the emergent complexity generated by its myriad moving parts never fails to provide an interesting and compelling experience.↑return to top↑
I streamed my first playthrough of The Beginner's Guide, but sadly didn't keep an archive. The game's narrative explores the works of an in-fiction character named Coda, presented by another in-fiction character called Davey (presumably named for Davey Wreden, The Beginner's Guide's director) as an exploration of Coda as an artist. At first, in-game Davey tells the player that Coda's works are being shared in an effort to highlight how interesting a creator Code is, but over time reveals that his hope is to also to regain contact with Coda following a rift in their friendship.
I remember feeling blown away by the level design in the game. Some of my early attempts at seriously making games involved mapping with Worldcraft (which would eventually be renamed to Hammer Editor), and while I can't claim to have any meaningful skills myself, I can appreciate that the bulk of The Beginner's Guide was the work of a very experienced and thoughtful BSP mapper with a masterful command of architecture and lighting.
The quality of the mapping is consistently high from the very outset, where Coda is being portrayed as inexperienced game developer who would be unlikely to have the nuance of workmanship that's clearly visible.
The game itself doesn't provide much in the way of player agency, and in my opinion, it doesn't need to. It feels like The Beginner's Guide focuses on exploring the relationships creators have with their works and their creative selves, and how those can be powerful along many axes. Given the kind of impact that The Stanley Parable's success had on Davey the developer, The Beginner's Guide comes across as perhaps being an attempt at a catharsis.
It's difficult to call The Beginner's Guide an enjoyable experience, but I'm glad to have spent my time on it, and I hope all those who worked on it have healthy, rewarding and enriching relationships with their work (including GranPC, who gifted a copy of the game to me). It's hard to know if that's the case though - late last year, a prominent game site ran an article that included The Beginner's Guide in a list of notable new IPs from 2015, but recommended that players complete the game within Steam's refund window. When pressed, the author responded with clarification that feels even more problematic than the veiled recommendation of obtaining a refund after finishing a game - that it is valid to interpret the in-fiction presentation of the Davey character sharing Coda's work without consent as an indication that The Beginner's Guide itself is made from misappropriated content.
While much of The Beginner's Guide is undoubtedly inspired by real world experiences and feelings, to view it as anything other than an original work is quantifiably wrong and not within the bounds of viewer's interpretation. If this weren't the case, recommending refunds would still not be an appropriate way to address the problem - if one saw a violent film and believed they were viewing actual criminal acts being performed, having film critics recommend grabbing a refund from the cinema as some form of absolution for accidentally supporting that kind of thing is mind boggling to contemplate.
Coming back to my feelings about the game itself, I could smell the toxic nature of Davey's relationship with Coda from the beginning of the game, and the narrative's descent into this was a little harrowing. For the majority of the in-fiction games, the level design was what I connected most with (in-part due to my own history with Half-Life mods and creating that kind of content - Robert Yang's blog post about The Beginner's Guide speaks really nicely to the kind of personal resonance this game can have with someone who has worked in that space), though the faux-multiplayer and house cleaning sequences did touch me - particularly the latter ending with the sense that there was more to explore.
I feel like I'd like to say more, but perhaps The Beginner's Guide speaks best for itself (I did have some musings on subjective experiences vs creative intent on Twitter that you can read if you really want).↑return to top↑
Broken Age is a game that I haven't yet sat down to distill my thoughts on. It's the game that brought Double Fine to my attention and would eventually lead me to becoming a key member in the community. Between running Game Club, Bad Golf, becoming a volunteer moderator on the forums, and so on, it's hard for me to think about Broken Age or the DFA as a whole without stopping to ponder the impact of those activities on my life.
As an adventure game, Broken Age stands out for having some amazing artwork, animation, music, voice acting and writing. As a Tim Schafer adventure game, it feels like it stands apart - the games that he's known for riff heavily on some popular culture elements, and much (not all!) of the humour found within plays on that, whether it be pirates or summer camps or Día de Muertos or heavy metal imagery or dysfunctional college dorm-mates or biker culture. Monkey Island, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Brütal Legend, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle feel grounded and instantly accessible thanks to the cultural baggage that they carry. Though each game has its unrealistic and zany elements, they all feel like they follow their own rules.
By contrast, Broken Age feels more whimsical and it's harder to grasp the foundations and principles upon which the world is built. This is also part of the game's charm, but I think I can see the perspective of those who weren't expecting the Double Fine Adventure to result in a game like this.
I found many enjoyable moments throughout Broken Age, but the parts that stand out to me the most after having had some time away from the game are the knot puzzle, the peach puzzle and the wiring puzzles.
The knot puzzle feels like something new - I can't think of anything beyond some moments in Tales of Monkey Island (which are far more simple and have a decidedly directed feel to them) that attempt to get the player to solve a problem by proxy. The knot puzzle is programmatically generated on the fly to prevent memorisation or walkthroughs from helping, and it resets itself whenever the player makes a mistake. The most enjoyable part about the knot puzzle is that the path to the solution is present and logical (so far as adventure game logic goes), but easily overlooked by players who're focused on looking for the right inventory item to use. Unfortunately, a state bug made the knot puzzle reset when a player took a certain course through the game, and while it was possible to recover from that, it served to make the puzzle more confusing for those players that encountered it.
The peach puzzle is lovely in that it's a fairly simple problem, but the game is full of false leads to prevent players from stumbling on the solution from the wrong direction. In most adventure games, the "rub everything on everything else" approach is something that many players can fall back on to discover solutions and puzzles via brute force. The peaches that the player can acquire are usable in a wide variety of situations that aren't the puzzle that the peach is intended for, although a number of those do offer some hints that should click when the player does stumble across that puzzle. Super nice work.
Finally, the wiring mechanic is great, though hampered a little by some visual cues that aren't friendly to colour blind people (that said, I think I enjoyed working through them more without spotting those cues). Players are tasked with discovering correct wiring patterns by reverse engineering pattern symbol references found elsewhere in the game to rewire and operate some automatons. Like the knot puzzle, the wiring puzzles are randomised to make sure that they retain replayability. Most of the pattern references are hidden in plain sight, making them feel like a reward for being observant. The total number of patterns isn't clear to players, and so as more patterns are discovered, what might've seemed like a standalone puzzle becomes part of an interesting sequence.
I don't think that I can say that Broken Age is my favourite adventure game, my favourite Double Fine Game or my favourite Tim Schafer game, but I can say that I am very proud to have played some small roles in making it a reality (I was a Kickstarter backer and I was invited to test the second part before release).↑return to top↑
I've just clocked 200 hours in Crypt of the NecroDancer since I picked up the pre-release alpha in May 2014. It's difficult to describe just how well the notion of a rhythm based roguelike works in practice. It's the same kind of gameplay and decision making that can be found in countless turn based dungeon crawlers, but it's thrown on its head by having to make those movement and combat decisions within tight timeframes (in the same way that speedchess often changes the style and characteristic of play from normal chess).
The game's visual style is cute and more importantly readable. When you're having to make multiple moves per second, how identifiable the game's elements are becomes super important. Each zone has a distinctive visual style and set of enemies (all of which animate to their own dance moves). When the final zone was added at the game's completion, it felt a little out of place, but as the months have passed, it's grown on me.
The music is fantastic as well. The game has three soundtracks that accompany Cadence, Melody and Aria respectively, giving each character's playthrough it's own tone and style for the same environments. There's an option to use custom music, but it almost feels like a crime to make use of it (unless it's to use the Transformers: The Motion Picture soundtrack with my Optimus Prime player skin, of course).
I'm counting "finished" as having completed the main campaign with the initial player character Cadence, but the game's narrative continues onward as Cadence's mother Melody and grandmother Aria (currently I'm still working on completing the game with Aria). Beyond the three core characters (assuming that the game's story ends there), there is also a broad range of other characters who each offer their own gameplay styles. For example, Dove can't damage enemies, Bolt plays at double time and Dorian can only use/kick bombs rather than the range of weapons available to most of the other characters.
All of the game's moving parts are readily readable/understandable. Every individual enemy's movement and attack patterns are simple and observable, and it's the emergent complexity of combinations of different enemies in different room configurations that provides variety and challenge.
Crypt of the NecroDancer's rhythm elements are interestingly forgiving. The beat precision that the game requires is very loose, although when playing and making those movement decisions, it can often feel like there's not enough time to make the best choices.
I think this is where the game shines though - most roguelike games embrace the notion of accepting one's situation and trying to deal with the consequences of chance or mistake, and Crypt of the NecroDancer is no exception. It's easy to mess up, but it's easy to feel rewarded and empowered by recovering from those mess ups.↑return to top↑
Enough is a short interactive story that follows the journey of Mani, a newly sentient life form as she explores and discovers the wonderous worlds that exist both around her and within.
With each page of text, the player is presented with a new view of the world around Mani. Mani will follow the mouse cursor, and subtly interact with the environment. The effect is a little like that of a pop-up book, but more freeform and expressive in a way that supports the protagonist's journey of exploration and discovery.
Without any idea of what to expect, I found Enough to be a touching modern fairytale of self discovery that moved me in ways I wasn't prepared for.↑return to top↑
For me, Expand is hands down, the most interesting experience I've had from a game all year. I don't feel like I can say much beyond what I wrote in my GamingOnLinux article at the game's launch other than that Expand feels like it transcends the boundaries we often place between "art for art's sake", commercially viable art, traditional gaming experiences and alternative gaming experiences. Expand is an expressive and evocative work that I found to be far more moving than I had expected. I really hope to see more from both Chris and Chris in the future.↑return to top↑
Hand of Fate is another game that I backed on Kickstarter which ended up leading to opportunities to become more than a backer. Early in 2015, I was contracted by Defiant Development to assist with community support after having spent some time assisting players on the forums.
The game itself is a turn based dungeon crawler with real time third person melee combat. On top of the dungeon crawler phase is thrown the aesthetic of a fantasy tarot deck.
As the player explores, cards are turned over to reveal encounters. When the player acquires new items, they're represented as cards. When a combat encounter occurs, an enemy card is drawn from the dealer's deck, say a 5 of Skulls, which will settle on the ground in the 3D combat environment as five skeletal warriors climb up out of it. The whole effect is striking and compelling.
Players build encounter and equipment decks based on the cards they have unlocked, but to me, the game doesn't come across as being a "card game". Instead, the deck customisation feels more like card themed RNG tuning than actual deckbuilding.
Keeping track of resources like food and health become a big part of play, and like many roguelikes, Hand of Fate comes across as being punishingly unfair when the metaphorical cards don't fall in your favour. Hand of Fate does what it can to reward players regardless, by allowing for card unlock tokens to be collected at the end of successful and unsuccessful runs.
The card unlocking mechanic allows the game's narrative manifests in a brilliant and unexpected way. In most dungeon crawlers, the story is packed into and experienceable as a single successful run. Hand of Fate uses sequential chains of cards to weave narrative threads between successive runs. Successfully navigating a card that represents an encounter involving being ambushed at a mysterious alter unlocks an encounter card that involves druids enlisting your aid to defend them at that alter whilst performing a rite, which in turn unlocks another card that furthers that plot thread.
Combat has its interesting moments as well. I hear that it's inspired by some of the brawling in Batman games, but not having played those, it's hard to appreciate those influences. Hand of Fate allows players to queue up attacks and movements in a way that discourages button mashing, especially when tactical responses and counters are often required. A combo counter increases the damage dealt and the range that the player will "jump" to attack a nearby enemy. When the rhythms are right, it's a super powerful feeling to leap into the fray and lay about with calculated and deliberate strokes.
Hand of Fate has had a number of free and paid DLC releases since the game's launch, and the studio is now shifting gear to focus on Hand of Fate 2. I find myself very much looking forward to seeing how the sequel tackles the strengths and weaknesses of the original game and wish my friends at Defiant the best of luck!↑return to top↑
Invisible, Inc. (formerly known as Incognitia) is a sci-fi turn based strategy with a short timeframe and generated levels. Set in a corporate espionage dominated dystopian future, players must take control of Invisible Inc., a fallen corp that must regroup and regain its power before its AI Incognitia's backup battery expires.
Invisible, Inc. feels like a child of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Syndicate (the original Syndicate, not that new thing) with some roguelike aspects thrown in and a heavy emphasis on replayability. In-mission gameplay is focused on stealth gameplay, and the kind of patient, deliberate map control that XCOM: EU seems to encourage is eliminated by inherently weak player agents and a steadily ticking alarm counter. As the alarm counter climbs, additional hacking defences, cameras and security guards are brought into the level to keep players on their toes.
Alongside the turn based strategy gameplay, a hacking mechanic allows for doors, safes, cameras and so forth to be unlocked or disabled by Incognitia at the cost of power, which provides some light resource management gameplay as well.
Missions are focused on getting in and getting out as quickly and quietly as possible. Agent losses are massive blows, and with the game's short, 72 hour timeframe, the number of opportunities to gather more resources, equipment and agents always feels like it's barely enough, giving every successful run at a decent difficulty level a sense of being obtained by the skin of your teeth.
Invisible, Inc. manages to maintain a sense of risk and tension at all times, but still provides players with the tools to recover from poor decisions whilst simultaneously raising the stakes and challenging the player to make the best of the resulting situations.
The plot and pacing of Invisible, Inc. are both really well executed, and it's another great example of storytelling in a roguelike-ish game.
Invisible, Inc. has since had an expansion DLC released called Contingency Plan which extends the base campaign and adds in some more hacking abilities, equipment, agents and objectives.↑return to top↑
Like The Beginner's Guide, The Magic Circle touches on game development and explores the relationships creators can have with their works, but its approach toward and treatment of the subject matter is decidedly different. Instead of a guided tour of a disparate collection of tiny games with little direct interaction, players take on the role of a tester playing The Magic Circle, an in-fiction remake of an acclaimed vintage text adventure that is plagued by scope creep and stuck in development hell as its creators struggle to deal with their personal and interpersonal issues.
A mysterious character within the game guides players towards "hacking" enemies and objects to collect, swap/combine their characteristics and abilities in order to solve puzzles and "finish the game" when its distracted developers could not.
For the most part, players are free to roam and explore The Magic Circle's environments at their own pace and without distraction. The presence of the game's creators doesn't come across as overbearing. They enter, say their pieces, and then leave the player to progress onward, with a lot of context provided through optional in-fiction "commentary nodes" and notes left by the in-fiction lead level designer.
There's a lot within The Magic Circle that's poignant and thoughtful. It feels like it wants to encourage players to understand the demons that creators must wrestle with, and perhaps to consider what it would be like to make a game themselves. The plot has the hallmarks of a tragedy, but at the same time there's something uplifting about it.
The Magic Circle resonated strongly with me, and I'm super glad to have played a small role in helping out with resolving a couple of issues blocking the Linux release.↑return to top↑
The juxtaposition between Invisible, Inc. and MASSIVE CHALICE as turn based strategies with polar opposite approaches towards time constraints is something that's given me a cause to smile over the past year. While Invisible, Inc. uses its 72 hour timeframe to emphasise tension and tight pacing, MASSIVE CHALICE uses its 300 year timeframe to evoke a sense of a grand purpose with incalculable sacrifice.
In MASSIVE CHALICE, players take on the role of an immortal ruler who must guide generations of heroic bloodlines through battle to stave off the Cadence's inexorable corruptive encroachment upon the kingdom's last bastions. MASSIVE CHALICE's plot is presented as a final stand and a huge gamble as The Massive Chalice charges across three hundred years to deal a blast that will rid the world of the Cadence.
With an initial average life span of 40 - 60 years, heroes in a player's vanguard are only likely to get to see three or four battles in their lifetimes, and many of the game's key decisions come down to when to retire a hero from battle to breed and pass on their skills and experience to subsequent generations. There's something that borders on macabre and poetic about knowing that your heroes will die of old age if they don't die in battle.
If a hero does die in battle, there's a chance their fallen weapon will become a relic that can be passed to other members of their bloodline. Relics themselves acquire experience through skills and by the end of the game become powerful forces that can turn the tide of any battle.
After playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the combat in MASSIVE CHALICE took some getting used to. I initially found myself questioning the lack of an "overwatch" ability, but after playing for a while, I came to learn that my use of overwatch in XCOM: EU was something of a crutch. While overwatch does provide some interesting tactical opportunities to use reactionary fire within a turn, it primarily ends up playing the role of a default "safe" option, narrowing the possibility space that a player is willing to explore and reducing the downsides of a unit's inaction. Contrary to a lot of grumbles that people outside of MASSIVE CHALICE's player base seem to have, it seems to me that the lack of an overwatch ability in MASSIVE CHALICE deepens the game's strategic play.
The thing that stands out to me as most impressive about MASSIVE CHALICE's turn based combat sequences though, is the diversity of tactical roles that each enemy type has. The Cadence are presented as kind of elemental forces, each themed by some form of entropy which governs their aesthetic as well as their style of damage and behaviour. For example, Wrinklers are time oriented and their attacks increase a hero's age, at best costing them years during which they could gain experience points, and at worst causing them to die of old age on the battlefield. Twitchers feel like they represent divergent causality or quantum uncertainty, and can swap position with a hero, turning a tight formation into disarray. Lapses' attacks cost heroes' experience points. Ruptures' detonate themselves in a shower of armour damaging corrosive acid. The list goes on. While the AI controlling the enemies is fairly simplistic, the emergent complexity of enemy and terrain obstacle arrangement has provided me with a lot of enjoyable, challenging and interesting experiences.
Outside of battles, players must manage research/construction and the fate of the heroic bloodlines. Each bloodline must be nurtured and managed to breed out negative traits and encourage positive ones. The game's RNG is geared to make sure that players rarely end up with the perfect heroes. Brad Muir, MASSIVE CHALICE's lead designer cites Donald Rumsfeld's quote about going to battle with the army you have rather the army you want as being inspirational. Ignoring the quote's original connotations, much of MASSIVE CHALICE is about inviting players to make the best of what they have - going into battle with a vanguard of half-blind peanuts who couldn't hit the broad side of a broad thing and coming out victorious is a much more interesting and compelling experience than going into battle with a vanguard of the most perfect heroes possible.
It can often feel like a player's bloodline decisions are separated from battle, with the key impact being in the stats that future generations of heroes end up with, but they are brought to the fore in the final mission where a new mechanic is introduced which allows all of the player's past bloodline decisions to impact directly on the outcome of the game. It is a fantastic resonant masterstroke that still amazes me. Unfortunately, with player skill levels varying wildly, it is possible for players who are playing below their skills to entirely miss this, and after having witnessed a couple of players who did so, I feel like the default difficulty could be tuned to be a little harder.
The game's low poly style is an art direction choice that I really enjoy. There are points where Derek's concept art feels stronger than the final art in the game, but that's not uncommon in the industry. The end result feels consistent and fun for everything except maybe the kingdom overview screen, which feels like it lacks some of the flair and detail of the character art.
MASSIVE CHALICE is another game that I'm glad and proud to have supported on Kickstarter.↑return to top↑
Murder is a short story presented in the form of a sci-fi point and click adventure game in which players take on the role of a police officer investigating a string of inexplicable murders.
The game touches on themes of identity, sentience and autonomy, and I found it to be a compelling and enjoyable experience.
I picked up Murder because I'd really enjoyed Peter Moorhead's previous work Stranded. Stranded resonated with me more than Murder, but the comparison feels unfair. Together, they are different kinds of works that only share the similarity of being linear short stories - a format that I'm glad to see used.
I'd like to say that I'm looking forward to Peter's future work, but following a large amount of harassment from people outside of Murder's audience about it "not being a game," or being poorly made, he has decided to retire from game development. To me, this is tragic.
Update: I've since been glad to discover that after some time off, Peter has returned to making games and has a number of work-in-progress projects on itch.io.↑return to top↑
Ninja Pizza Girl is a narrative oriented side scrolling runner/parkour platformer game that touches on bullying, depression, peer pressure and responsibility. Its yet another game that I'm glad to have supported on Kickstarter, and knowing that that support has helped a small Mother-Father-Daughter family studio move up into larger scale games is super nice.
NPG is all about getting the protagonist Gemma hitting the right rhythms, and when you're moving with the right flow, the game gives a really enjoyable sense of momentum. It feels hard to recover gracefully from a misstep though, and when unkind characters appear to throw Gemma off, the impact of being thrown out of the game's groove feels exacerbated. That said, maybe that disruptive nature is a good reflection of the kind of impact that bullying can have - nothing destroys an otherwise happy day than something like that.
Since I last played, Ninja Pizza Girl has had an update which looks at addressing some movement consistency issues among other things.↑return to top↑
Outland is a game that I didn't discover until the Linux port arrived last year. It feels like it straddles a few genres, sharing some similarities with cinematic platformers (it has some quality that reminds me of Flashback, but I can't quite put my finger on it), bullet hell shmups and metroidvania platformers.
The game's key feature is the ability to switch between "light" and "dark" modes which allow the player to cause damage to enemies of one type while becoming immune to enemies and projectiles of the other. This manifests itself as an extra layer of complexity above some fairly technical platforming which requires swapping mid-movement to avoid death or to make a light or dark platform collideable.
Player attacks are predominantly melee based, but have a large range which makes maneuvering during combat feel flexible and fairly easy to work with. I do feel that it would have been interesting to explore more combat options that didn't cost momentum, but I enjoyed the game regardless and it's hard to feel like that's particularly problematic.
The game has a nice mix of technical platforming, bullet hell movement challenges and weakness-pattern based boss fights, and from beginning to end, the game was a delight to play. My progress was slowed dramatically at the end, when the final boss fight turned out to have less generous checkpointing compared to prior bossfights, and a string of bad luck and bad decisions kept me from succeeding. When I eventually completed the game though, it still felt like a very rewarding experience even though I think the story had lost a bit of mindshare by the time I got to the end (I only have vague memories of what the actual plot was).
One thing in particular that stood out to me as a really nice touch was a premonition sequence early in the game that let the player experience a number of abilities that would not be unlocked till later in the game. Giving the player a chance to feel powerful and contextualise the rewards of meeting their goals feels like a really neat way of bundling incentive and foreshadowing together.↑return to top↑
Parallax is a minimalist 4 dimensional puzzle game involving portals, switches and player oriented gravity. The game manages to carry an air of elegance across its 32 level campaign. Parallax has a super smooth learning curve that keeps things feeling achievable as the game moves into some nicely challenging territory.
I don't really have much more to say about Parallax other than that I'm really looking forward to replaying at some point in the future.↑return to top↑
Poker Night 2 is the sequel to Telltale Games' 2010 Poker Night at the Inventory, which in turn is a spiritual successor of sorts to the studio's first game and only original IP, Telltale Texas Hold'em. Poker Night 2 mostly follows Poker Night at the Inventory's model of pitting players against notable figures from other games in a poker match, this time expanding to include characters from film/TV franchises and adding an "Ohama hold'em" mode in addition to the previous games' "Texas hold'em" gameplay.
The players' opponents this time around are Sam from Sam & Max, Claptrap from Borderlands, Ash Williams from Evil Dead (whether he should be considered a game character or a film character is unclear - Ash has appeared in several Evil Dead games, but this incarnation hasn't been directly lifted from any of them in the way that the characters from Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Sam & Max, Tales of Monkey Island, Team Fortress 2, Portal and Borderlands have been) and Brock Samson from The Venture Bros. (who is definitely based on the character from the TV series).
Reginald Van Winslow from Tales of Monkey Island returns in the supporting cast, though GLaDOS from Portal takes on the dealer part of his role from Poker Night at the Inventory. Though not a playing character, Max returns as well, this time wandering around the venue and providing a bit of extra flavour to Sam's dialogue.
Although poker itself isn't a particularly exciting game for me, Poker Night 2's structure and character interaction makes it enjoyable. Not being personally into Borderlands or Evil Dead, neither Ash nor Claptrap offer much in the way of enjoyable banter for me. Brock and Sam (and Max, when he makes appearances) are where most of the game's amusing content lies.
Poker Night 2 landed close to some important dates in Sam & Max history, sitting somewhere within a year's span of the 20th anniversary of Sam & Max Hit The Road, the 25th anniversary of the first Sam & Max comic book release, and a bunch of other notable milestones (when you've been around as long as and have had as many incarnations as this dog and rabbit duo have, every year is an anniversary of something!). For this game, Sam's character model had been lovingly recreated to better match the way that Sam & Max creator/owner Steve Purcell draws him.
With Max less-present, Poker Night 2 gives range and presence to Sam's character that's rare to find within Sam & Max's assorted incarnations, and it's one of my favourite aspects of the game.
I'd picked up Poker Night 2 when it first became available for pre-order, and in spite of Steam's insitance that I've only spend 16 hours on it, have probably racked up over 100. The reason why I've included it in this list is because after nearly 3 years, I finally managed to win the final "bounty item", which required the completion of three (I assume, random) challenges.
Though I have thoroughly enjoyed Poker Night 2 (and will probably continue to), there is one large aspect that I find disappointing. At the time that Poker Night at the Inventory was released, there was talk about the Inventory being a fictional location where game characters went to unwind. The notion was that all sorts of activities went on at the Inventory, of which poker was just one. To frame the franchise's identity as "Poker Night" rather than "at the Inventory" pulls in that scope and decreses the chances of us ever being able to play backgammon or Scrabble or Hungry Hungry Hippos with an eclectic cast of characters.
I'm no longer as invested in Telltale's properties as I once was - many of us who were early and ardent supporters of them as they attempted to revive and give life to otherwise stagnant IP have drifted away over the years. Their company focus now squarely rests on things that don't interest me, and I don't see them pursuing content or practices that are likely to lead me to return to the fold, but if there were another Poker Night game, I think I'd pick it up.↑return to top↑
3D platformers have never been my sort of thing, and I found myself enjoying the narrative, characterisation and aesthetics more than the game itself. The blending of adventure game-ish mentalities into a 3D action platformer feels like a winning combination for those who appreciate that sort of gameplay, and it's not hard to imagine why the game is so widely regarded as being excellent.
I found the game's structure to be interesting. The amount of foreshadowing and presence of plot elements throughout the game feels impressive.
I had previously come across a bunch of grumbles about it being uncool that Psychonauts ended on a cliffhanger that demanded a sequel. When I got to the end of the game though, I found something more akin to the end of the original Back To The Future film (which was written without the intent for a sequel to be made). It's the modern equivalent of riding off into the sunset in a western - the implication is that the protagonists go off and happily continue their adventures ever after. If that's no longer seen as a valid way to end a story, that's a little depressing to me.↑return to top↑
I started Puddle back in 2013, but only managed to sink 20 minutes into it thanks to the crazy overworked situations I'd ended up in around that time. I appreciated the effort put in to riffing on variations of its core principles, though I did come away with a bit of a sense that maybe there were more mechanics introduced and explored than benefited the game.
The contrived narrative that followed and connected all the different liquid types presented in the game was amusing and gave a little extra character/sense of light heartedness to Puddle, but it felt like that narrative pushed in some levels that didn't feel like they fit very well (I'm looking at you, level where you don't actually control a liquid).
Puddle has a good range of challenging gameplay, and a level editor that I'm yet to explore.
All up, I'm glad to have played it. When taken as a whole, it was definitely an enjoyable experience.↑return to top↑
I'd played the original Q.U.B.E. game through back in 2012, and had been impressed by its minimalist story, simple style and interesting puzzles. I particularly enjoyed its openness to interpretation and that its airs of mystery were ambient rather than directed.
When I heard that a re-release was being worked on, which brought in some experienced writers, I was curious about the kind of treatment it would get. Instead of embracing the original game's approach, a cliche you-have-amnesia-and-don't-know-who-to-trust narrative was placed over the top of the original level progression presented as radio voice overs.
That isn't necessarily bad, but it does feel like it moves the game away from the things that I personally appreciated about its original incarnation.↑return to top↑
When I first came across Sanctum 2, it didn't really catch my eye. I had some friends who played it, but since it didn't have Linux support at the time, I never gave it much attention.
When I got access to a work-in-progress Linux port and discovered that it was "sci-fi Orcs Must Die" (as I described it to my partner Mim), I was all over it. At that time, Linux port had significant bugs that meant that many surfaces lacked collision, letting players fall through what would normally be the ground and off into infinity. In spite of this, I still managed to play through the first third of the game, carefully placing down my towers before hopping between them in some kind of pretend the floor is lava game mode.
I'm not very well versed in the "tower defence" genre, so I can't say what's normal. The only exposure I've had so far has been Orcs Must Die and Defense Grid (and maybe Anomaly, but I think that's a role reversal that eliminates the elements that define a tower defence game), and I've found more enjoyment from the more direct, hands-on feel given when able to run around environments during waves and feel like I'm having an impact on what goes on.
In addition to placing down defensive towers, players also have the opportunity to place down the mazes that mobs traverse as well, adding an additional strategic layer on top of what I understand to be traditional for the genre. This allows for a much more expressive and freeform experience, especially during co-op matches where different players' apporaches can end up supporting or conflicting with each other.
Players are offered a range of towers, weapons and perks, which offer different abilities and tactical roles, and are obtained via an experience based unlock system. There's an added level of replayability that can be found through mixing and matching these (not just within your own loadout, but also among co-op partners' choices). For example, some players may opt for perks and weapons that support tower dominant play, while others may prefer to choose tower loadouts that work best when the player is doing the majority of damage enemies.
At the time of writing, I've finished the main game, but still have a bunch of DLC content to work through. The conclusion of the main storyline feels like it has rammifications that would have resonated more if I'd played the original Sanctum game (which I haven't), and I can't help but feel that I would have better appreicated the game if I did have that background. The story presentation is minimalist and good, but feels a little bit dissonant at times, with pacing feeling off as urgency and emotional intensity of between-mission comic sequences don't carry any real presence through into gameplay.
That said, I still super fond Sanctum 2 to be very enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to workthing through the DLC missions when I have time and co-op partners to play with!↑return to top↑
Shovel Knight is a retro styled action platformer inspired by NES titles like Super Mario Bros 3, Mega Man, DuckTales and Castlevania 3. For me, Shovel Knight evoked fond memories of playing Wonderboy in Monsterland late into the night when my parents thought I was asleep.
Shovel Knight is more than a love letter to the 8 bit era though. Many of the games it pays homage to were cutting new ground and exploring genres and mechanics that were unknowns at the time. They've gone on to become well lauded classics, but are still very grounded in the past and we overlook their rough edges to see their achievements. While Shovel Knight's aural and visual styles come across as a super faithful, its plot, pacing and characterisation are unexpectedly contemporary and a little subversive.
There's also a less-is-more aspect to Shovel Knight where some characters' relationships and attitudes are left open to interpretation, leaving something that not only has the chance to resonate with broader audiences, but also comes across as being less superficial and more meaningful. This is most evident in the treatment of Shovel Knight and Shield Knight's relationship, which focuses on commitment, devotion and respect rather than love explicitly. Regardless of whether one reads this as a romantic relationship or not, their deep connection is shown to have a strong foundation that would typically not be explored in the treatment of a more traditionally presented romantic relationship.
Shovel Knight has been updated with a free expansion that I'm yet to play, which adds a new campaign where players take on the role of one of Shovel Knight's adversaries. Yacht Club Games seem to have plans to continue adding side-campaigns to the game and I'm looking forward to checking out how Shovel Knight continues to evolve in the future.↑return to top↑
I'd received Civ: BE as a gift back in 2014, but was never really able to play it. I multitask a lot, and with the game muting on loss of focus, every time I started a game, I'd alt+tab to work during the AI turns and wind up forgetting it was running.
The patch that accompanied the Rising Tide DLC release changed the game's behaviour, and I was finally able to sit down and play through a game (which I foolishly did in one sitting - I did manage to get a good amount of work done alongside it though!).
Most of my playtime with the Civilization franchise is with Civ II, which I probably lost thousands of hours to when I was younger. Civ: BE takes most of Civ's identity and skews it with a sci-fi bent. Elements like the tech tree have been reimagined to increase the sense of possibility space that Civ understandably keeps limited to match humanity's progression across history.
Civilization: Beyond Earth's setting and narrative invites comparison to Civilization Alpha Centauri, and though Civ: BE feels like it inherits more traditional Civ aspects instead of carrying forward Alpha Centauri's narrative focus, unit customisation, or strong characterisation of faction leaders. That said, while playing, I did feel the same sense of excitement at exploring Civ: BE's behaviours and mechanics that I got from playing Alpha Centauri, and perhaps that's the most meaningful takeaway.
The game's endings are interesting, but it seems super weird to have them spoiled in the game's marketing materials and in-game "Civilopedia". Civ: BE's quest system feels like it's a solid enough way to guide players towards endings, and having victory conditions need to be explicitly outlined and roadmapped is something I just can't wrap my head around.↑return to top↑
Last year I was invited to test The Stanley Parable's Linux builds prior to release. I'd not played the game before and had done my best to steer clear of spoilers.
At its core, The Stanley Parable is a mocking and challenging commentary on game culture presented in the guise of a curated, narrated experience with little player agency. It's poetic that it was so enthusiastically embraced and celebrated by the industry and community it pokes fun at, and it's easy to imagine that its meteoric rise to success must have been a surprise for its creators.
It's The Stanley Parable's superb tongue-in-cheek narration that carries the game (which isn't to say that the game's other aspects aren't well made), with Kevan Brighting delivering unexpected and impressive range - effortlessly switching from genuine elation to veiled passive aggression to dry sardonic commentary and seemingly every point along every axis in between.
I'm glad to know that The Stanley Parable has become a part of our culture, but I feel sad knowing that its success has been harrowing for its creators, and that it hasn't broadened acceptance of works that explore unusual or different aspects of what games can be.↑return to top↑
The Stanley Parable's demo feels like it provides both an example of The Perfect Demo and a demonstration of how a good demo's scope can require significant effort.
The Stanley Parable Demo is effectively a standalone game that imitates The Stanley Parable's tone and style. Initially, the player on a tour through a series of environments framed as being the factory where The Stanley Parable is produced as a precursor to the actual demo. The narrative then goes on a series of tangents as the demo fails to show itself, and then ends.
The bulk of this comes across as hyperbole used to mock false expectations of game development and the anticipation/hype that surrounds releases.
EIGHT↑return to top↑
StarCraft 2 is an unusual one. There's a level of commitment (from both sides) that episodic titles represent which is easily overlooked. I'd picked up Wings of Liberty (the first installment of SC2) as a way of paying homage to the enjoyment I've had from the original StarCraft game and its expansion Brood War. I was aware that Blizzard as a company and as a studio had shifted away from the previous Blizzard titles I'd cared about, but I figured that it at the very least, I'd be able to get some multiplayer enjoyment out of it with friends who were planning to pick it up, and that with the announcement of an offline mode, I wouldn't be at the mercy of Blizzard's server uptime.
Wings of Liberty itself felt a little weak, but showed lots of room for improvement. After reflecting on this with Assault Android Cactus developer Sanatana Mishra recently, it occurs to me now that there were a number of key departures from the things that made the franchise inherently interesting.
The key thing that stands out is its method of storytelling. In StarCraft, the game's story was primarily exposed during missions, presented as part of and alongside gameplay in a way that made StarCraft the game and StarCraft the story intrinsically entwined. Cutscenes came across more as supporting vignettes that added an extra sense of richness to the plot rather than being a vehicle for moving it forward. This shifted a little in the expansion, with Brood War's cutscenes showing cinematic plot moments, but the bulk of storytelling still happened during gameplay.
By contrast, I feel that StarCraft 2's plot can be read entirely from cutscenes and between-mission character dialogue, making its missions feel comparatively hollow. SC2's cutscenes focus on primary characters and key plot moments, discarding an opportunity for world building via cinematics in favour of giving fancy camera angles to moments that would have occurred during missions in the original game. This feels like it lead the game's writers to present every piece of exposition or out-of-mission character interaction as a setpiece, and it's hard to get any sense of change in plot density or significant of events when everything feels equally overstated.
StarCraft 2 also puts more emphasis on hero characters than the original game. For the most part, it avoids WarCraft 3's hero XP/leveling focus, but it still manages to often pull the game back from feeling like the kind of real time strategy that StarCraft is recognised as defining the genre for (though I don't believe that the hero characters are present in multiplayer or skirmish matches - I never really ended up playing those much). That said, there are a number of shorter hero focused missions which provide some interesting experiences, but they feel like fleeting moments rather than a solid core around which the game is anchored.
Across its episodes, StarCraft 2's plot feels less cohesive than the original game's. In StarCraft, narrative threads between each race's campaign helped build a sense of a unified story. StarCraft 2's bridging parts feel gratuitous and weak by comparison (with an air about them that some might call "fan service" - although I feel that that's a super dismissive and demeaning way to address someone's choices for handling a canonical work), and although I enjoyed Zeratul's missions/visions, they really don't feel like they support the overarching story in the way that the writers intended.
StarCraft 2's episodic nature also feels like it prevents its ending from resonating well. With each installment trying to have its own story arc and resolution, StarCraft 2's broader plot is resolved through an epilogue that to me, very much felt like a tacked-on attempt to bring closure that hit every beat that it had to and didn't really do anything interesting or break any meaningful ground.
When I reflect on StarCraft 2, I find myself feeling that each installment started stronger than the last, but ended up delivering progressively more underwhelming experiences as a whole. Legacy of the Void's opening was hugely moving for me, as the unhomed Protos attempted to reclaim their homeworld, and faced the outcomes of that effort. The ending of LotV's story arc, feels like it almost becomes something meaningful, but with it baked into a cinematic that felt like its direction was more about delivering a flashy visual experience than the resonant emotional one I'd have expected.
Combined with Blizzard's attitudes surrounding LAN play, offline modes and other bits and bobs, after completing StarCraft 2, I found that the strongest feeling I had was one of relief at not feeling a sense of ongoing investment in any of Blizzard's properties.↑return to top↑
Violett was the first Double Fine Game Club game of 2015, and the last new game that I'd play as part of that community (at least before we went on hiatus). While the game has some significant room for improvement with regards to feedback on player actions (which arguably enhances the sense of feeling alone in an alien environment), its general difficulty was something I found enjoyable, and a bit of a breath of fresh air after many accessibility focused adventure games I'd been playing around that time.
The game's plot is a little Where The Wild Things Are or Alice in Wonderland-esque, following the journey of a rebellious young lady who feels unloved and under appreciated and travels to a fantasy world by way of a magic trinket that may or may not be their imagination. I'm always unsure of how to feel about these sorts of stories. On one hand, promoting the power of imagination is great, but sometimes they feel like they can carry some unhealthy messaging about conflict resolution and relationships.
The story itself has minimal presence, and characters' interactions are displayed as icons in speech bubbles that represent topics, leaving a lot of specifics of attitude and interplay open to interpretation by the player. The diverse environments are impressive and evoke a beautiful world hidden within our own. Unfortunately, the game doesn't manage to convey a cohesive narrative, and the disparate locations often feel disconnected and unrelated. The individuals populating the world have a decent amount of character about them through animation and non-verbal vocalising, but it's difficult to infer motivations for them or the protagonist, leaving the game feeling more like a sequence of arbitrary puzzles and tasks than a meaningful and deliberate journey. Though I enjoyed the game, I can't help but feel that I'd have enjoyed it more if there was just a touch more plot presence and characterisation.
For the most part, the game carries its aesthetic well and the music helps carry the air of a magical, wonderous place. There is a little dissonance between the 3D character models and the fabulous hand painted backgrounds though, making lighting differences and footslide stand out.
It appears that Violett has had a facelift in the time since I played, with a remastered version boasting a pair of new "levels" (not sure whether that means two new scenes, or two new collections of scenes), and a focus on improving controls and mechanics.↑return to top↑
Thanks for reading!
2015 was a year of many changes, and I'm glad to be able to say that prioritising finishing games (as opposed to finding them interesting and putting them aside until I have more time) is something I was able to accomplish.
If you've played any of these games yourself and would like to discuss/compare your experiences, you can can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published on the 8th of February on my Patreon page.