Thursday, December 31, 2015

Quick Fix: My most anticipated games of 2016

I already talked about my favorite releases of 2015, but the good and bad thing about indie games is that there's always something interesting on the horizon. Good because there's something new to discover, but bad because there are so many intriguing games and not enough time to play them all! These are (some of) the games I'm most looking forward to next year:

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Rain World
A lot of games boast ecosystems and animals. But none makes you feel part of that ecosystem like Rain World does, or makes that ecosystem feel so alive and dynamic. As the lithe intelligent slugcat, you jump, climb, and crawl through an industrial jungle where otherworldly creatures roam and intermingle. Procedural-generated animations, complex AI, and a sprawling world threatened by deadly downpours makes every moment full of tense stealth, cautious exploration, and overgrown alien beauty.
Bleed 2 is not just exciting because it's expanding on the acrobatic, slow-mo, triple-jumping platforming/shooting of the first game, but also because I didn't even realize a sequel was in the works. The first game was an underrated gem, the kind that probably didn't get the recognition it deserved and that you don't expect a sequel for. I'm eager awaiting to return to the colorful and hectic world of Bleed and Wryn.
Yes, a crafting/exploring/surviving game. But Astroneer is shaping up to be something unique and different. One, the footage of your character braving the fierce extraterrestrial weather brings to mind the man vs nature struggle of The Martian. And two, deformable terrain seems like it could offer more dynamic survival and exploration than the usual game in the genre. And the game just looks lovely, from its stylish low-poly aesthetic to its varied extraterrestrial vistas.
Between Distance, Drift Stage, and the aptly titled 90's Arcade Racer, the arcade racing genre is making a comeback. GRIP continues that exciting trend, a spiritual successor to the popular series Rollcage, and powered by Unreal Engine 4. That means gravity-defying racing on walls and ceilings, destructible environments, a formidable arsenal of weapons, and gorgeously detailed landscapes and explosions.
For all the indie games inspired by classics like Metroid and Dark Souls and others, one could only hope that eventually Shadow of the Colossus would influence one. And finally, it's happening; Prey For The Gods is promising gargantuan beasts to scale and slay, along with a greater emphasis on stealth, survival elements, and an atmospheric snow-swept landscape.
I still remember playing the original student project/prototype and two years later, Twin Souls has been refined, expanded, and evolved. With its colorful cel-shaded aesthetic, magic-enhanced stealth that grants you mastery over the shadows themselves, and open levels that encouraged different playstyles and approaches, Twin Souls is shaping up to be an exciting entry to the genre.
SLAIN
Grotesque beasts and bosses, Gothic environments packed with detail and effects, and brutally gory deaths for both you and your enemies. Slain presents it all with a gorgeous pixel art style that oozes atmosphere. Surviving its hazard-filled levels and slaying its array of inhuman foe should be a satisfying challenge when Slain releases in January.
One of my favorite games of 2014 was Inkle's 80 Days, and Nantucket looks like it'll scratch that same globetrotting itch, as you traverse the seas in search of whales, braving weather, pirates, the ever-present danger of starvation, and all manner of random events. The added depth of crew management and carefully planning your routes through the world promises to make sailing the oceans blue a challenging venture.
Objects In Space
Not many games attempt to tackle the space sim in a hard sci-fi fashion, and that makes Objects In Space's approach to the space trading sim quite compelling. Foregoing the dogfights of Elite and the upcoming Everspace for long-range submarine-esque combat, considering distance and time is as important as maintaining shields in Objects In Space.
At first glance, one might dismiss Orphan as another Limbo homage. And while the game certainly does feature a similarly silhouetted art style, Orphan is much more. A cinematic platformer about a young boy alone during a devastating alien invasion, you'll have to use every advantage to survive this relentless incursion, from stealth to the alien's own weapons and tech.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Quick Fix: My favorite games of 2015

A lot of great games came out in 2015. Perhaps the understatement of the year? From much-anticipated titles like Fallout 4, to Kickstarted successes such as Serpent in the Staglands and Hard West, to lesser-known gems or innovative projects like Mushroom 11 and Her Story, 2015 was a year where quality releases thrived and indie games in all manner of genres excelled.

It's impossible to play everything or highlight every interesting, fun, unique experience, but I can point the ones that were my favorites. The games that I kept coming back to, that lingered in my mind when I was away from my computer, that impressed me with their mechanics or art design or any other permutation of elements:

So here we go, in no particular order or ranking:

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There's something almost magical about how text alone, simple strings of characters and spaces, can bring a world to life in your mind and tug at your imagination. The wordsmiths at Failbetter are masters of prose and breathed dank, damp, inky-black life into the Lovecraftian/Gothic seascape of Sunless Sea. As master and commander in this quite literally alien place, you set out on grueling journeys into unknown waters where mind-rending horrors lurk in wait for woefully confident fools such as yourself. Confident that loot and glory await out there in the darkness, of discoveries beyond comprehension, a legacy for your bloodline. And all those exist, but more likely...terror, insanity, cults and cannibalism, unfriendly gods and terrifying denizens of the deep. Failbetter creates all of those possibilities and more with their expertly crafted prose and atmospheric top-down visuals.
Ori and The Blind Forest doesn't reinvent the wheel, or innovate the platformer. But what it does do is deliver what is easily the most gorgeous, most fluidly-animated, vibrant platformer I've played in years. From mist-choked forest to caverns strangled by thorny vines, from crystal clear lakes to flaming ruins, every location in Ori is flush with color and life and little details. The exploration, acrobatic combat, challenging platforming, and excellent music are all satisfying icing on a beautiful cake.
Personally, I've been somewhat burned out on the explore/craft/survive genre for a while. Minecraft was great fun due to the endless wonders of its sprawling worlds, and The Long Dark's focus on unforgiving wintry realism is a nice change of pace, but those were about it for me. But Subnautica is something special. The alien ocean feels fresh, a unique place unlike any other environment I've explored before in a game, and exploring its colorful but deadly depths imposes interesting challenges that other games in the genre can't.like oxygen management and pressure. Discovery and exploration is the focus here, and each new crafting formula and tool lets you push a bit more, a little bit farther downward, thanks to bigger oxygen tanks, air-channeling pipelines, fins, submersibles, guidelines and beacons, and more. 
The thought of blending a command line interface and a survival horror game seems like an odd mishmash of ideas that would never work. But like how Crypt of the Necrodancer combined roguelike and rhythm game in stellar fashion, Duskers merged sci-fi horror and text-based gameplay to create an always tense and surprisingly strategic experience. Alone in a universe gone silent, you must scavenge derelict vessels still crawling with alien entities and active defenses. To that end, you send out drones, remotely controlled through the aforementioned interface, to scour ships for supplies and clues. Failing equipment and minimal maps means danger can lurk around any corner, and each drone lost means fewer supplies for you. Myriad gadgets - from hacking and cloaking to scouts and generators - allow you to devise improvised tactics to explore each vessel, and the command line interface forces each tactic, good or bad, to be methodical and deliberate.
Klei proved themselves to be masters of the stealth genre with Mark of the Ninja, but Invisible Inc is not only a fantastic stealth game, but an innovative one, combining the strategic, methodical nature of turn-based gameplay with cautious desperate sneaking. A wealth of agents and skills opens the door for a plethora of tactics, but at its core, Invisible Inc is all about careful sneaking around sight cones, avoiding patrols, stealing important data, and infiltrating secure facilities. Invisible Inc is a masterpiece of stealth gameplay and a blueprint of how to do stealth right in an unorthodox way.
No other game that I played this year stuck with me like SOMA did. Horror games and I don't always mix well - in fact, I still haven't been able to finish Amnesia - but SOMA's thought-provoking and horrifying narrative compelled me to brave its terror-filled corridors. Haunting moments abound, moments that send a chill down your spine not just because what's happening onscreen but also because of their unnerving implications. But SOMA doesn't just excel because of its narrative. Excellent pacing that knows just when and how to build slow-burn tension, an unsettling atmosphere anchored by the groaning of pressure-crushed metal and sounds of inhuman things roaming the halls, and the designs of the twisted abominations found within SOMA's environments make for one hell of a horror game.
Between Autocraft and Space Engineers and a whole lot more, the vehicle building genre is alive and well in 2015. But did any one execute it better or more enjoyably than Besiege? Besiege is a medieval toybox at your fingertips limited only by your imagination and creativity, since the building interface is so simple and intuitive.  Its plethora of pieces and parts let you construct formidable siege engines and catapults...but why stop there? Tanks. Transforming mechs. Multistage rockets. Rolling platforms festooned with cannons and sawblades. Airborne bombers. The possibilities are endless and the playgrounds are just so cool, presented in a stylishly diorama-esque aesthetic that crumbles under the might of your creations. 
Another blend of genres pulled off with style, Hand of Fate combines the thrill of a text adventure/dungeon crawler, the strategic deck-building of a card game, and the loot-based action of a brawler. Each successful run adds new cards to the decks, both yours and the nefarious Dealer's, expanding the pool of events, enemies, weapons, and gear; even late in the game, that means there's always new to discover and drive you to play again. And while the card dungeons are fun to traverse, the melee action is just as fun, featuring such varied gear and skills as lightning imbued hammers and area-of-effect ice magic or enemy-slowing armor and powerful blades that set the undead aflame.
While SOMA devised its horror through its themes and setting, Dark Echo presents its horror-exploration/puzzling in total darkness. Sound is sight here, each step and noise revealing the world in a manner reminiscent of The Unfinished Swan or Daredevil's radar vision. Dark Echo's atmosphere rests solely on its minimalist visuals and exceptional sound design: footsteps reverberating through shallow pools and mossy undergrowth, the heavy groans of iron doors and locks, the guttural growls of things hunting you in the pitch blackness. Yes, you're aren't alone in Dark Echo, and the way such a seemingly simple game is able to offer stealth, puzzles, and tense exploration speaks volumes to its elegant design.
Sublevel Zero was probably the surprise of the year for me. I'm sure, at one point or another, you've played a game and thought "Why didn't I play this weeks/months/years ago?", Sublevel Zero released in October, and as soon as I started playing it, I regreted not getting the game earlier. I never played Descent or any of the 6DOF titles that followed in its thruster wake, but playing Sublevel Zero, I understand the thrill and tension of the genre. Boosting down twisting serpentine tunnels, navigating cavernous quarries and caves and tight claustrophobic halls, unleashing an onslaught of lasers and plasma and rockets on the relentless robotic foes that could attack from any angle. The roguelite angle meant every moment was fraught with tension, every battle could be your last, and the simple crafting mechanic allowed for a versatile arsenal of satisfyingly powerful weapons.
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So hope you enjoyed that, 10 of my favorite games of 2015. Truthfully, I could easily add another dozen or more games there, such was the amount of interesting and excellent indie games that came out this year. Here are some honorable (but no less enjoyable) mentions:
  • Mushroom 11 - An innovative puzzle-platformer where you control an amorphous fungus that can mold and shift into any shape, and constantly introduces new puzzle elements
  • Elite Dangerous - My first space sim, and what an incredible introduction to the genre. It's like having your own personal Interstellar at your fingertips
  • Infinifactory/TIS-100 - The two brain-breaking puzzlers from SpaceChem's Zachtronics. The former evolved SpaceChem's assembly line formula with a z-axis and sci-fi setting. the latter distilled it into pure programming conundrums
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer - Roguelike meets rhythm game, with an incredible soundtrack, tons of content, and simple yet challenging gameplay
  • STASIS - An isometric sci-fi horror adventure game with a grimy industrial atmosphere and gory setpieces that would make Ridley Scott and David Cronenberg proud
  • Sorcery 3 - Inkle continues its fantastic interactive fiction by expanding the structure into an open world across two timelines and an astounding amount choices and events
  • Guns, Gore, and Cannoli - Colorful hand-drawn art and animations gives this fun over-the-top run-n-gun action game a ton of charm


Saturday, December 26, 2015

PC Review #136: Sublevel Zero

Title: Sublevel Zero
Developer: SIGTRAP Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Price:  $14.99
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The six-degrees of freedom subgenre of shooters had an illustrious start thanks to the Descent franchise, but in recent years, the genre has laid relatively dormant, not yet rising anew like the space sim and CRPG outside of minor titles such as NeonXSZ and Kromaia. But while the Kickstarter success of Descent Underground offers some competitive 6DOF action, Sublevel Zero blends the genre with the looming tension of a roguelike, to stellar results.
The story merely serves as a framework for the action. Reality has been crumbling for centuries, parts of the universe vanishing from existence and appearing elsewhere or not at all. The secrets to discovering why space-time has been torn asunder and saving the ravaged universe rests inside a mysterious facility.

Finding that secret won't be easy. Throughout cramped technological tunnels and lava-lit caverns where it's easy to lose your bearings to cavernous crystalline quarries, mechanical threats lurk at every turn. Enemies range from drifting slow-firing drones to wall-crawling tanks, and you can't take any lightly. Permadeath looms over every new room and every unknown corner, so each encounter must be tackled like it could be your last. An aggressive offense is the best defense here: deftly weaving between projectiles, boosting past enemies to spin around and unleash a storm of energy as they're turning to lock onto you,
Agility and speed will only get you so far in Sublevel Zero, and a vast arsenal awaits you. Autocannons and miniguns that fire out bullets at a lightning pace. Railguns, flamethrowers, devastating shredder shotguns. Grenades and homing rockets. Each weapons has unique stats - Marksman class being more accurate, Relentless having better firing rates and damage - and by combining two weapons, you can create a new weapon that inherits those two. This simple crafting system expands your array of weapons even more, unlocking powerful firepower like the ion beam, plasmacaster, homing missile swarm, magnetic explosives, and more.

Each weapon feels powerful and satisfying to use, tearing through the levels in overwhelming streaks of colorful energy. You never know what weapons you might come across, so improvising with what you have on head is key to survival. One minute, you might be a sniper taking out enemies from a distance with a railgun; later, you'll be softening up drones with lasers before boosting in to finish them off with a shredder blast.

But all those weapons wouldn't matter if Sublevel Zero's movement was as fun and responsive it is. Thrusting down its serpentine tunnels or flipping around a junction or retreating from a relentless ground of enemies is always satisfying and you always feel in control.
Sublevel Zero combines the claustrophobic tunnels and hectic action of Descent with the looming tension and unpredictable nature of the roguelite, each playthrough delivering reckless flights down tight corridors and relentless firepower. You can purchase Sublevel Zero on Steam, Humble, and GOG.

Quick Fix: Screenshot Saturday 12/26

Title: Monarch Black
Developer: Mirrorfish Media
In Monarch Black, players become a butterfly to explore ever changing abstract environments and do battle with swarms of laser firing insects. Fly unconstrained through drowned cities and snowy forests to find glowing pollen grains. As you progress you'll unlock new weapons and capabilities to evolve your avatar and fly deeper into this strange and beautiful world. Because the levels and power ups are randomly generated, no two playthroughs are exactly the same
Title: Fantasiam
Developer: Belmin Kozli─ç
An RPG set in Slavic mythology with focus on puzzles and exploration
Title: Shattered Might
Developer: Livid Interactive
A colorful action-platformer where the player seamlessly switches different warriors
Title: Stranger on the 103rd Floor
Developer: Sopcen
You play as a thief, infiltrating buildings, avoiding guards and using gadgets to get through areas. Each gadget can be customized using items like timers, sensors, sticky stuff, triggers etc. and new items can be crafted by picking up parts from either enemies or found lying around the levels. The environment is destructible too allowing you to drill or blast your way through walls to get to your goal. Adding these elements together should hopefully result in lots of ways to get through each situation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

PC Review #135: Flywrench

Title: Flywrench
Developer: Messhof
Platforms: PC, Mac
Price: $9.99
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Almost two years ago, I wrote about the allure of difficulty, how the looming challenge of roguelikes and hard-as-nails platformers offer a unique kind of satisfaction by demanding the utmost focus and skills from the player. How each failure sharpens your skills until you finally pull off that white-knuckle, honed-to-perfection finish. Flywrench encapsulates that perfectly, in a stylish psychedelic package.
In each stage, you guide a rectangle through claustrophobic gauntlets of gates, projectiles, rotating barriers, and more. Your default movement is a simple floating descent; flapping and flipping round out your moveset. While you only have three movements, they compliment each other, letting you pull of acrobatic evasive maneuvers with ease. You're always in control, especially once you master the feeling and physics of the movement. Learning how to time your flaps and flipping or the amount of upward movement you'll gain from each flap, and maintaining your momentum are all crucial to weave between the tricky array of hazards that Flywrench throws at you,

But evasion isn't the only thing you have to worry about. Each movement is color-coded - default being white, flapping is red, and flipping green - and you can only pass through same-colored barriers. This adds a slight puzzle element to Flywrench's precision flapping, as you figure out the best route through each level, when it's best to flap, flip, or float, when you need to act to build momentum or bleed off speed to fly around a corner at the perfect angle.
You might not reach the finish on your first attempt, nor your second or third or perhaps even your thirtieth. But Flywrench throws you right back to the start a split-second after each failure and like with the best in the genre, soon your losses start to feel less like losses and more like learning. With each reckless collision with a wall, you learn to slow down a second earlier to gracefully reverse direction and keep moving. Each crash into a spinning barrier trains you to flap earlier or later to better maintain control, or to flip now to ricochet at just the right angle to careen through a narrow passage a hair's-breadth from danger. Each loss improves your mastery over the controls, until perhaps you can enter a level for the first time, study the hectic arrangement of lines and color, and pull it off in a single flowing maneuver.

The aesthetic and music certainly make tackling Flywrench's challenges much more enjoyable. The game is pure spectacle of color and motion, as you leave a fluid trail of red and green and white in your wake, distorting the background with each movement. The soundtrack, with music from artists like Daedelus, Dntel, and Goodnight Cody, perfectly complements the arcade action. You might even find yourself flapping and flipping to the beat.
Rounding out its sizable selection of 170 levels with time trials, leaderboards, and even a level editor to craft your own gauntlets, Flywrench offers hours of content for the fans of the genre. Tight responsive controls, a colorfully minimalist aesthetic, and a rapid-fire pace that demands honed skills makes for an always tough but satisfying arcade experience.

You can purchase Flywrench on Steam.
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The game is currently on sale for $6.49 (35% off) during the Steam Winter Sale.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Watchlist: Clustertruck

Title: Clustertruck
Developer: Landfall Games
Platforms: PC
Releasing early 2016
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Reach the end of each level without falling off trucks driven by terrible drivers
Jumping. A whole stampede of trucks. Tight tracks and levels littered with obstacles. That formula is the DNA of upcoming first-person platformer Clustertruck. It's definitely a simple formula, but sometimes that's all you need for some chaotic over-the-top fun and Clustertruck looks like it delivers that in ample spades.
Your goal in Clustertruck's levels is easier said than done: survive till the end. You're riding on the back of a massive truck convoy as it recklessly careens through the stages, crashing, tumbling, and jackknifing in glorious pile-ups. And through it all, you need to deftly run and leap through the physics-based vehicular chaos.

Planning your route through the mayhem would be tough even if that's all Clustertruck threw at you. But the levels themselves are just as hectic, ranging from dense forests and boulder-strewn deserts to multi-tiered crisscrossing roadways and passages between towering towers that threaten to crush you as they draw inward. Destructible structures crumble and litter the ground with debris. Laser grids slice the air and rotating obstacles offer only the narrowest of gaps to pass through, forcing you to time your leaps. Thankfully, you have trusty slow-motion to activate at those tense moments when you need to stick a landing or precisely angle your descent.

Clustertuck will include 100 hazard-filled levels across 10 different worlds, but if those aren't enough, there'll also be an endless mode to truly test your skills and even a level editor to design your own hellish highways.
Clustertuck is expected to release around April 2016. You can learn more about the game here and see a plethora of footage on the developer's Youtube page.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

No Money, No Problem: Ludum Dare 34 Edition

It's December, the time for Christmas cheer and a few thousand Ludum Dare jam entries. The theme this year is actually two-fold - "Growing" and "Two button controls" - and hundreds of developers have explored the themes in countless ways.

With almost 3,000 entries, it would be impossible to play them all, so here is a selection of twenty games that grabbed my attention with their mechanics, looks, or both.

If you like these or just want to browse the submissions yourself, you can find the entire collection of Ludum Dare 34 entries here.

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Zunus - PC, Mac
A 2 button space trading miniature. Buy, sell, dodge pirates, fling asteroids and get berated by your gran.
Reap - PC
Your ship breaks up on the rocky shores, but luckily you've made it to the island! Every action drains your energy, but the sleep you get each night revitalizes you
Forklift Man - PC, Mac
You are Forklift Man! He can rapidly grow his limbs at his will. His amazing superpower must be put in good use among various challenges and puzzles.
Cubyrinth - PC
Cubyrinth is an atmospheric Puzzle/Exploration game. The level is constructed like a Rubik's Cube, where every sections can lead you anywhere if you choose the right button to press.
Concrete Jungle - Browser
Guide the plant to sunlight above its dark and dingy habitat.
Mobsferatu - PC, Mac, Linux
Take your place in an angry mob while you climb through Nosferatu's Tower seeking revenge, avoiding traps and looking for other folks to join your crusade and your crowd will grow.
SAAM - PC
Play as a Crewmember 341 who is waking up in their cryo-stasis pod on a ship called Trieste. You will be assisted by S.A.A.A.M. (System Automation, Assistance, and Analysis Matrix). Will you do what it wants you to? Will you be obedient?
We have some funky geometry for you, again. All you gonna get is two buttons and lots of deadly spikes.
CICP - Browser
aka the Center for Interplanetary Pest Control
2DOOR - PC, Browser
The game is about following the right path, guided by the form and sound of illuminated doors. Choose the right path and pass through all 6 chambers.
Alien Pathogen - PC
Alien Pathogen is Top-Down Sci-Fi Horror Shooter. Mars 2315 , Alien Pathogen control Facility - Extraterrestrial decontamination Unit.
BoltStorm - PC, Linux, Browser
Boltstorm is a game about a Knight that ventures into the dungeon to save his fellow knights, but instead he gets trapped and is attacked by merciless executioners!
Abyssal Zone - PC, Mac
Abyssal Zone is a puzzle game similar to Sokoban.
Button Simulator 2000 - Browser
You've been unemployed for a while, and by the time you applied for the job online you would have taken just about anything. The advert said "Wanted - Grower to maintain crops and ensure high yield. Must have experience using HappyTime GrowMaster 2.0 HyperTerminal growing machinery."
Stargazer - PC
Enter into a mysterious icy world on the brink of its end. Solve puzzles and unravel the story of men and stars.
Growees - PC, Browser
Help mother nature to overwhelm the wild industrialization!
Double Kick Heroes - PC, Browser
Double Kick Heroes mixes a shoot'em up with a rhythm game! You must survive on the highway to hell by killing zombies with your gundillac! Struggle throught the 4 levels of total madness and escape from this nightmare! Only the power of Black Metal can save your band!
Breathe - PC, Browser
Four hundred years ago, in an ancient forest of somewhere in Japan Ni-tsu was left by her family in an very old temple. She started a deep meditation journey in order to fulfill her loneliness and to reach the highest state of illumination, however evil spirits won’t let her in peace. 
We invite you to help Ni-Tsu in this journey of self-illumination!
Unicell Manager - PC
You are controlling inner workings of a unicell organism, which is growing bigger and bigger, eating plancton, fish, and people...
In a world created by sound, play as a boy with synesthesia as he fights the ever growing darkness with music and his fists, painting the world in color with every damaging blow. Choose between 3 tracks and destroy the monsters before the song ends, or else they will overwhelm you. Turn up the beats and enjoy the visual experience.