Friday, January 31, 2014

PC Spotlight #73: Overgrowth

Title: Overgrowth
Developer: Wolfire
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Price: $29.95
Overgrowth has been in development since late 2008. That's almost six years. For a small indie team developing such an ambitious title, Wolfire should be commended for staying true to their vision for the game and maintaining regular builds and progress updates for such an extended period of time. But the question is whether Overgrowth is worth playing and I'd say it's become my most-played indie in months.

Now Overgrowth isn't complete by a long shot. It's still lacking a real campaign or story and the available content consists of a few challenges, several maps ranging from parkour-friendly courses to open areas with enemies and an arena. There's a robust user-friendly editor and a growing library of user content and mods. However that's not what makes Overgrowth so fun, so addicting, and challenging. In my opinion, gameplay itself is paramount to making or breaking a game, and Overgrowth delivers in spades. The combat is up there with Arkham Asylum as my favorite fighting system in a game, simple to control yet complex in its execution and endlessly satisfying to watch. From agile evasion to smooth judo counters to tense knife fights or rolling under a swinging blade and digging a spear into an enemy's chest, the combat is just glorious fun.
The movement alone offers some of the best 3D platforming I've played since Prince of Persia in 2003. You're fast and insanely maneuverable, able to jump huge distances, wall run with ease, bounce between walls and roll under obstacles. Speed running through the community parkour maps is so entertaining. But Overgrowth isn't just great in its execution, but as a whole package inside and out. The anthropomorphic animal warriors and the semi-realistic atmosphere bring to mind classics like Redwall and Watership Down, and the brutality only cements those associations. A fight isn't just a simple exchange of blows; blades and hard hits leave bloody wounds across the body, blood that drips and stains in physics-accurate patterns. Fatal impacts against hard surfaces are accompanied by crunching bone. A stealthy neck slice sends arterial spray everywhere. A tough fight leaves you bloody and battered. Dodge at the wrong time and a kick will impact your head with a tangible sense of weight and momentum. It's these details and aspects that make the game such an enjoyable experience
But there's more to come, from the proper integration of species like dogs, rats, and cats, and a full story. The backstory of the world has already been fleshed out in Lugaru and this fascinating digital comic and if the game's story is as engrossing as the stories in those pages, Overgrowth could truly be the Redwall of gaming. You can purchase Overgrowth from the developer's site or from Steam.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

PC Spotlight #72: The Floor Is Jelly

Title: The Floor Is Jelly
Developer: Ian Snyder
Platforms: PC, Mac
Price: $10 (currently 10% for $9)
There's a fine line between gimmick and innovation. Stray too far to one side, and the mechanic meant as a hook seems uninspired, boring. Watching The Floor Is Jelly, it's hard to tell if its physics-based amorphous world is one or the other, but once I played the game, I can safely say that its titular idea influences all aspects of the game for the better.
The Floor Is Jelly is set in a weird abstract world where everything from the ground to water is made of the malleable substance. On the surface, The Floor Is Jelly is a standard platformer, run and jump over gaps, and dangerous spikes, wall-jump up narrow tunnels. The controls are responsive and simple. On that note, it' isn't the most challenging game, certainly not in the spectrum of difficulty of games like Super Meat Boy or even Braid. But those points aren't negatives; The Floor Is Jelly is a fun game, and the difficulty comes not from frustrating challenge but from the gradual layering of new interesting puzzle mechanics. From flowers that bloom in rain and those only sprout without rain (because they're part cat of course) to switches that rotate entire levels, and then switches that rotate only singular platforms, and later Guacamelee-style dimension swapping, The Floor Is Jelly constantly introduces new mechanics that add to the core gameplay in fun ways.
But the game wouldn't be as fun or enjoyable without its artstyle and fluid environments. More than just a simple art style, the jelly world enhances and adds to the gameplay and offers platforming opportunities that solid levels can't. The floor can act as a trampoline, boosting you to great height depending on the distance you fell. You can bounce under spikes by pushing the ground with your momentum. Not only that, the constantly moving worlds, affected by your every movement, is just a joy to watch and never got old over my playthrough.

The Floor Is Jelly is a charming fun puzzle platformer that uses its unique style to great artistic effect. You can purchase the game from the official site and the Humble Store. (Now available on Humble)

The Watchlist: Kill The Bad Guy

Title: Kill The Bad Guy
Developer: Exkee
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Join a secret and mysterious society whose members have sworn to get rid of war criminals, former mafia members, and other criminals, going incognito among us. Hiding behind the appearance of a simple ‘man in the street’, the Bad Guys feel untouchable. They don’t expect you to track them and make evil plans. “Kill The Bad Guy” will stress and test your mental skills through a puzzle game where physics plays an important role.
I've been following Kill The Bad Guy's progress on Twitter for a while now and I was lucky enough to get a press demo to try an early version of the game. At its core, Kill The Bad Guy is a puzzle game about killing; I've been describing it as "Hitman: Final Destination edition" and I think that phrase sums up the games's mechanics quite nicely. In each level, a target roams the level and it's up to you to manipulate and sabotage the environment to execute him. Like the Hitman games, each level is a big puzzle of interlocking parts, and you can alter them to set up the perfect kill. And like the Final Destination series, those kills are wonderfully over-the-top Rude Goldberg scenarios of failing machinery and traps.
Executing those kills are easier said than done, revolving around timing and even some stealth mechanics. Viewed from an isometric perspective, you can set items in locations to disrupt behaviors and patterns in the level, maybe stopping traffic with a roadblock so you can alter your target's path past a leg-chopping air conditioning fan. You need to act fast and time when to sabotage items and place objects as not to tip off your target. But in the end, it's satisfying to see your plan come together in a spray of blood and flailing corpse. The stark white minimalist environments offers a stylish contrast to the red blood.
Kill The Bad Guy is still in development, with a Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight page planned for mid-February. You can learn more about the game on its official site and on Twitter.

PC Spotlight #71: Dungeon of the Endless

Title: Dungeon of the Endless
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Platforms: PC
Price: $9.74/$14.99 (discounted)
When I first heard about Dungeon of the Endless, I was hesitant. The graphics looked lovely, the story interested, but the gameplay seemed so hands-off. But after reading other impressions, I finally gave the game a chance and Dungeon of the Endless does not disappoint.
Now it must be remembered that Dungeon of the Endless is Early Access, and in many ways feels less like a fully realized experience and more like a promising framework. But that framework is polished and very fun to play. Your vessel has crashed, and now your small team of survivors must venture into the halls and corridors of an ominous sci-fi dungeon where mutated terrors and mechanical foes lurk. Like the best roguelikes, danger is always present and you never feel safe. The atmospheric pixel art greatly adds to that tone, creating a tense environment to explore. Each door could reveal any manner of ruthless horrors.
Actually, I mean that quite literally. Dungeon of the Endless is a tactical game, and doors play a key part in your strategies. While I was worried that the hands-off nature of the gameplay would be detrimental to the experience, I found that it instead added to the game and gave Dungeon its own style. Here, pre-planning is everything. The mechanics feel more in-line with a tower defense game; place your squad, know their skills and strengths, their weapons and buffs, and strategize accordingly, because when you open that next door, all your planned tactics will determine whether your team survives or suffers a quick painful death. Protecting your energy generated Crystal, managing your scant resources properly, it all factors into your strategies.
Dungeon of the Endless is a challenging tactical take on the sci-fi roguelike with a fantastic pixel art style that oozes atmosphere. While the game has a long way to go before feeling complete, the current state is very playable. You can purchase Dungeon of the Endless on Steam; the game is available in two forms; the base Pixel Pack and the Founder Pack, which will grants the player access to upcoming DLC, the game's soundtrack, and other bonuses.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

SitRep: Door Kickers

Title: Door Kickers
Developer: Killhouse Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
When I first reviewed Door Kickers in August, the game had just been Greenlit on Steam and while still in Alpha, was very playable and great fun. The game has come a long way since those summer impressions and only continues to improve. Like Prison Architect, it's the kind of Early Access game where every update feels significant and game-changing.
The recent Alpha 7 release was Door Kicker's biggest overhauls, offering a plethora of additions and improvements. The visuals and animations have been enhanced and improved greatly; the enemy AI is smarter and mobile, allowing for those wonderful "Oh crap!" moments when an enemy walks in on your team as it prepares to breach. Trooper classes have been added, from assault to breachers to the suppressed weapons-wielding stealth troopers. New maps and mission types have been added, a mission generator provides extra challenge if the other missions aren't enough, and the whole planning interface has been fine tuned.
These additions have made Door Kickers even more fun and satisfying than before, and the game will only be getting bigger in the coming months, with non-lethal options, snipers, shields, and more planned for the next Alpha. Better yet, the success of the game means multiplayer and co-op a definite addition to the developer's to-do list, but those additions will be coming at some undetermined point in the future.

You can purchase Door Kickers from the developer's site or on Steam.

The Watchlist: Hyphen

Title: Hyphen
Developer: FarSpace Studios
Platforms: PC (Mac, Linux, others planned)
Price: £3.99 (~$6.60), currently on sale for 12.5% off)
Hyphen is a must have addition to any puzzle/action game lover’s collection. Navigate a rotating stick through intricate and fiendish neon mazes while trying to avoid the walls and obstacles. Although it sounds extremely simple, it’s fun and infuriatingly challenging at the same time. Coupled with an awesome soundtrack and gorgeous glowing visuals this game will blow your mind in more ways than one.

In the past few months, it seemed like the rotating evasion style genre were making a comeback, between Duet and Cyro on IOS and the upcoming Roundabout on PC. Now you can add Hyphen to the list. Set against a neon vector background, you guide a rotating line through a gauntlet of obstacles and hazards from narrow tunnels to moving platforms. It's a time-tested mechanic, that frustrates and challenges due to the need for perfect timing and narrow margin for error, and rewards patience and skill. Judging from the trailer and short demo, Hyphen promises to add some extra arcade challenge to the mix, with bullet patterns to rotate between, spiked crushers, lasers, saw blades, and other fiendish dangers. Thankfully the controls work perfectly on either keyboard or gamepad, allowing for precise movement through the tightest gaps, and a pulsing soundtrack complements the action. 
Hyphen is set to release in early 2014 on PC, with additional support for Mac and Linux and ports to Xbox 360, IOS and Android planned post-release. You can preorder Hyphen on the official site and vote for the game on Steam Greenlight.

No Money, No Problem: Zenzizenzic

Title: Zenzizenzic
Developer: Ruud Koorevaar
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Free beta
From Sine Mora to the recently released Ballpoint Universe, the bullet hell shoot-em-up have been a popular thriving genre. Zenzizenzic gives the projectile-evading mayhem a stylish abstract veneer and fun inventive weapons.

Right off the bat, Zenzizenzic impresses with its minimalist world of geometric enemies and bullets, as everything moves across the screen in crazy patterns like some abstract painting in motion. The game is really a joy to watch in motion, as new hazards flood in from all angles and your own weapons trace patterns across the screen. But Zenzizenzic isn't just a looker; there's great gameplay to back up the visuals. At its core, the game sticks to those tried and true shmup mechanics of hair-width evasion and shooting down enemies, but a number of additions flesh out the gameplay and offer the player numerous tactics. From the varied weapons ranging from time jumping teleportation to black holes to using your explosive shield at the best moment, Zenzizenzic allows the player to equip their favorite weapons, collecting firepower upgrades, and attempt to survive the ensuing onslaught.
The free beta currently contains two levels to play and several weapons to use, with a longer campaign, more weapons, and bonus levels to come. You can also double your firepower by playing co-operatively. Zenzizenzic can be downloaded from the official site, and you can rate the game on its Greenlight Concepts page.

PC Spotlight #70: Jumping Line Plus

Title: Jumping Line Plus
Developer: Capricorn Games
Price: PC, Mac, IOS
Price: $1.99
Jumping Line takes a simple minimalist idea and creates a fun challenging platformer.
Jumping Line is pretty easy to describe. You control a jumping line, guiding it left or right as it arcs across a geometric landscape. The levels starts off as simple leaps over gaps, but soon you're dealing with collapsing bridges, rotating platforms, gate keys, switches that swift the level between red and blue platforms, and other hazards. Traversing the game's seamless campaign take about two hours, but there's many more hours of content to be found thanks to the level editor and user levels. The editor is user-friendly and easy to use and there are dozens of community-made levels to play.
Jumping Line is far from complex or deep, but it's a fun satisfying platformer. You can purchase the game on Desura, as well as on iTunes. The IOS version does not have a level editor.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Q&A: Joar Jakobsson on Rain World

By now, if you've been reading my blog, you've seen my previous coverage of Rain World. The game is probably one of my most anticipated indies, besides SuperHOT, Distance, and Hyper Light Drifter. Joar Jakobsson - the man behind Rain World's concept, programming, art, and design - was kind enough to answer a few questions about the game and its development.
What inspired you to start a career as an indie developer?
I have always been fiddling with games on the side, but it has always been more of a hobby rather than anything else. I like the game medium because of the interactivity, it’s possible to build worlds that people can actually explore, driven by their own curiosity.

You’ve been developing Rain World for three long years. How does the current game compare to your original vision?
Hehe where do you put the line for “the original version”? I remember many different versions of rain world, both from when it was a few boxes moving around in a maze and later versions as well, that also looked quite different from what we have now, save from the main character. I think the Movement Prototype* I uploaded way back is still around on the internet, if you can find that you can try your hands at a very early version of Rain World. If it really was, though, the world of Rain World wasn’t really invented back then. Short answer - pretty much everything
In your TIGForum devlog, you’ve said that the art style was inspired by graffiti and old cartoons, but what were the inspirations for the world and gameplay?
Oh, that’s a hard one. The world was actually originally intended to have more of a resemblance to the sources of inspiration you mentioned, but drifted to something slightly more realistic. You can still see remnants of those styles though - the monochromatic palette of the levels comes from the old cartoon style, and many of the plants are supposed to borrow part of their shapes from graffiti ornaments. Gameplay has never really had those influences, inspiration for gameplay would rather be something like the harshness of nature.

As a fan of stealth games, I find the AI developed for the game quite fascinating. Was this focus on AI your intention from the beginning? Has it been difficult developing such a layered system?
I have always been interested in AI, so working that into the game has come naturally. Because the game always has had stealth elements, a somewhat decent AI was a necessity. I don’t really know if it was difficult - rather frustrating. Like, there is no mind-bending mathematics going on, just a lot of glitch fixing and endless iteration.
Given the reactive and adaptive nature of the AI, have the creatures ever behaved in an emergent way that surprised you?
Sometimes they do surprise me, but it's rarely mind-blowing because their actions are so limited. The lizards' choices in any given situation are basically all about where to move - the world doesn't allow for many more interactions than that as it's not a puzzle game with a lot of doors and levers and the like. I have tried to get a few interesting interactions in there though, such as lizards occasionally picking up objects and the like. I'd love to spend more time on AI interactions, but it might be a balance where you don't want to end up with the lizards doing so much other stuff that they don't have time to hunt you.
Currently Rain World seems to revolve around a simple gameplay loop: collect bats, evade lizards, return to shelter before the rain falls. Do you have plans to expand these mechanics, perhaps introduce new mechanics, in the full game?
Yeah, followers of the devlog will know about the pups. Basically the game will revolve around the cycle you mentioned, but when you find a few orphaned pups things will get mixed up a bit.

Reading through your devlog on TIGForums, it seems like the relationship between slugcat, lizard, and bat is core to the mechanics and game’s fundamental structure, and at this point, seems finely tuned and well balanced. How would the addition of new creatures and enemies affect and enhance this core system?
This trio of creatures will always be the core of Rain World, throwing in something else might wreck the balance. I do have ideas of other creatures, but they would not be as reoccuring as the lizards and flies. Rather they would be placed in special locations on the world map, and feature as occasional encounters, to spice up and bring excitement to exploring the world.

Also, was the focus on such a small number of creatures due to the limits of your current engine or just an extension of your vision for the game?
It’s sometimes difficult to keep apart limitations and vision, especially in game making where you can only get a good artistic result if you very consciously work with your technical limitations rather than against them. That said, there has never really been a technical limitation to the number of creatures, but it has rather been a question of development time. I early on decided that I wanted few, well made creatures rather than many species with less care given to each one of them.
You can support Rain World on Kickstarter, and follow its development on TIGForums. The game was recently Greenlit on Steam.

*Here is the download link for that early Movement Protoype (.rar)*
There are no enemies and you can't balance on poles, but you can climb around and see how the slugcat moves and animates. Player 1 controls are Arrows for movement, K to jump. Player 2 controls are ESDF for movement, Q to jump

Quick Fix: Rawbots heading to Steam Early Access in February

After a failed Kickstarter in May, the robot construction/combat sandbox simulator Rawbots was Greenlit last August and since then both its forums and Greenlight page have been worryingly silent. I've had my eye on the game for months, but the lack of updates or any news seemed indicative that the game had been abandoned. But thankfully that's not the case. Rawbots is very much alive and will soon be whirring back to life on Steam.
Searching for an answer, I was directed to these two quotes from the developer.
From a forum post on the backer-only forums:
And if you're asking about Steam keys, we are signed to Steam to upload an Early-Access game in February 2014. So all of you guys who purchased the game from our website will have it pretty soon.
And from a Reddit post asking a similar question:
The failed kickstarter was a big setback. We lost support from some investors and a window of opportunity to get on consoles. We did successfully change the physics engine and the current build is very solid. We are greenlit and will be releasing the first multiplayer build on Steam in the following weeks. We still believe Rawbots is the most technically advanced virtual robot crafting game ever made. The current programming and robot crafting was a bit too hardcore for the masses and publishers wanted to change too much. We need a better first-time-user-experience and increase sharing and battling of robots in realtime. So yes, it was a tough year, no we are not dead. We will make a comeback stronger than ever. 
So Rawbots isn't dead and you can look forward to robot action very soon. You can learn more about the game, and purchase it for a surprisingly generous sale price of $9.99, from the official site.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

PC Spotlight #69 : Particle Mace

Title: Particle Mace
Developer: Andy Wallace
Platforms: PC, Mac
Price: $5
Shoot-em-ups - or shumps as they're known - usually revolve around shooting. Particle Mace does not, and crafts a fun and challenging game from the usual shmup framework.
You're in control of a damaged ship among dangerous debris and hordes of enemies. Your projectile weapons don't work, but you do have one final ace up your sleeve: a particle mace, a trailing cluster of particles that obliterate anyone on contact. Like the Pacifism mode in Geometry Wars or Radiangames' Fireball, Particle Mace is all about evasion and close calls as you thread between enemies and debris. Alone, the game would be enjoyable, due to the smooth controls and different hazards to avoid, but your mace weapon adds a great offensive aspect to the gameplay. Not only are you looking for gaps and areas to maneuver, you're looking for way to gain momentum and space to swing your weapon around and line up hits. It's a fun weapon to use, a fine line between being in control and being at the mercy of physics and momentum, and each hit is punctuated with a split-second pause that makes each kill satisfying. As hazards pore in from all angles, and then even the arena itself starts moving, Particle Mace is a game where you must stay focused and adaptive to survive.
Particle Mace offers a number of different modes to test your evasive and mace swinging skills, between the various Arcade difficulties and Asteroid Field, even competitive and co-operative multiplayer. If you enjoy fast paced frantic arcade gameplay that requires skills to progress, then check out Particle Mace. You can purchase the game from the developer's site.

IOS Spotlight #45: A Dark Room

Title: A Dark Room
Developer: Amir Rajan
Platforms: iPhone
Price: $1.99
I went into A Dark Room expecting another text adventure, but this game is so much more. Take the general framework of a text adventure, expand it with RPG and survival and management elements and random events, and add some Device 6-ism, and that's A Dark Room in a nutshell
You start with nothing but a campfire to tend, to feed with wood and keep burning bright. Soon you find a stranger out in the woods, and then A Dark Room begins to unravel from the text adventure trappings into a much larger expansive experience. Soon you're growing a village, enticing strangers to stay, collecting materials to build new houses and buildings, crafting new items and weapons for your villagers to hunt and protect themselves. Soon you'll be keeping precious meat from spoiling, enduring attacks from wild beasts, gathering wood from the dark forest where things lurk in the shadows, and more. The simple interface hides an amazing amount of depth and the text is fluid, poetic, and provides an ominous atmospheric tone in few words. There's even some meta Device 6-esque elements, like your screen dimming as the fire wanes and then brightening back up when you stroke the flames.

Don't overlook A Dark Room. Despite its outward appearance, the experience is deeper and more intriguing than one might expect. You can purchase A Dark Room for $1.99

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

IOS Spotlight #44: Rainbow

Title: Rainbow
Developer: TCHOW
Platforms: IOS Universal
Price: $1.99
TCHOW is no stranger to making weird and inventive games, such as the time-controlling precision platformer RKTCR. Now his new game Rainbow is on IOS and it's as abstract and fun as his previous releases.
Rainbow tasks you to restore color to a dulled world. Using your finger, you maneuver a rainbow band around each level, touching different individuals to colorize them. While the levels start off easy, the difficulty and complexity soon ramps up, introducing tight mazes, different wall types, and other elements. The touch controls work well and there's even a guiding line that shows your future path similar to RKTCR, allowing you to adjust and improvise accordingly. You'll have to split up your rainbow into multiple strands, moving each through the winding levels. That task is challenging by itself, but the three optional objectives require extra planning and precise mastery, as you attempt to complete levels without lifting your finger, collecting hard to reach stars, and only splitting up your rainbow a certain amount of times.
Rainbow's minimalist style complements its difficult action-puzzle gameplay nicely and between the 30+ levels and side objectives, Rainbow offers a fun polished challenge. You can purchase the game for $1.99.

The Watchlist: Quadrant

Title: Quadrant
Developer: HKFiftyOne Games
Platforms: PC, Mac
Releasing August 2014
Quadrant is a first-person survival indie horror game, taking place in 1979, inside a classified NASA research center. Gameplay will be overall based on the concept of a story driven game with the twist of a multi-linear experience. You, as a player, must rely on your own wit, you control your own fate.

First person horror games where you explore atmospheric locations and flee for your life seem to be pretty common today. Amnesia, Outlast, even the upcoming Alien Isolation fall into that niche. Quadrant promises to change up the formula with its semi-realistic 1970s setting and gameplay that breaks away from the run-for-your-life, defenseless mold. Set in a desolate NASA research facility, you'll explore this rooms and corridors where something gruesome and terrible has occurred...and may still lurk. You won't be defenseless though; you'll have to adapt and improvise, using obstacles around you as on-the-fly weapons, breaking down doors and through windows to escape. Puzzles and gradually learning the history and secrets of the center will also mix of the gameplay, and the player may even be able to alter the course of the story.
Quadrant is planned to release in the summer of 2014. You can learn more about the game on the developer's site.

Ramblings: Die, Succeed, Die Again, Repeat

On the allure of roguelikes and difficult games
Imagine for a moment, trying to explain the concept of the roguelike to a casual gamer or non-gamer...

"So this is called a roguelike. Basically you try to survive as long as you can, with limited supplies and health."
"Oh, that sounds cool."
 "Death can come at any moment. And you only have one life."
"So what happens when you die?"
"You start from the beginning."
"The game doesn't save? What about checkpoints?"
"Nope. You just lose all your hard-earned progress. And all your powerful weapons. And your gear. Back to square one. Sounds fun, right?"

Yes, yes it does. It's very fun. The roguelike may have once been niche, but today it seems like you can't go another day without a new title flaunting its roguelike elements. From the platformers like Spelunky and Towerclimb and the shooters such as Tower of Guns and Fancy Skulls to the action roguelikes and more traditional turn-based one, if anything it seems like the roguelike is in vogue today. And it's not just rogues or games with roguelike elements; across IOS, PC, console, high difficulty games are thriving. Super Meat Boy and Demons' Souls are probably the poster children for white-knuckle, ass-kicking, break-your-controller/keyboard/tablet experiences, and dozens of games have followed in their footsteps, such as Super Hexagon, Hotline Miami, and dozens and dozens of twitchy reflex-testing IOS games. But why? Why do gamers enjoy so many forms of digital torture?

I can't speak for all gamers, but I can speak for myself. For the longest time, I hated difficult games. Perhaps it was my introduction to the more demanding nature of stealth games that began my change in opinion, but the turning point that I'm certain of was Demons' Souls. Getting Demons' Souls was a leap of faith in several aspects. At the time, I didn't really enjoy fantasy games that much, I didn't really like hard games, I had never been a fan of RPGs. But the compelling and intense stories I had read across the internet drove me to give Demons' Souls a change. And I'm glad I did.

Now Demons' Souls is not a roguelike, but I consider it a gateway to the genre, an introduction to the basic elements and mindset needed to enjoy the roguelike genre and perhaps hard games in general. Death is quick, and sudden, and lurking around every corner. You need to be careful and cautious. Recklessness gets you killed. You need to accept that a wrong decision, a lapse in judgement, could make you lose hours of progress. Your life in Demons' Souls is precious and playing foolishly will only mean a quick death.

I think that's perhaps the most critical reason behind the appeal in these games. Life has meaning, death has consequence. The setback is more than a quick load to the last checkpoint. The games demand more from a player. They demand that you improve your skills, actually become a better player. They demand that you play on a knife's edge, where a simple mistake could equal death and failure. It's that slim margin for error, that gives these games true tension, not the manufactured atmospheres of Outlast or Dead Space, but tension that derives from your skills or lack of skills, from the fear of what lies around the next corner or the darkness ahead.

That's roguelikes. In the case of twitch games like Super Hexagon and Hotline Miami or platformers like Super Meat Boy, difficulty breeds a different kind of appeal. The appeal of perfection. Just like roguelikes demand the player's utmost focus and skills, so do these high difficult twitch games. But instead of fear and dread of the unknown, it's the thrill and adrenaline rush of clearing a challenge that defeated you dozens of times before, where each failure hones your skills that much more until you could achieve that white-knuckle perfection. It's seeing your best attempt increase in increments of mere seconds or maybe just fractions of a second. 

Since I played Demons' Souls, I've embraced difficult and challenging games, from myriad precison platformers and reflex games on IOS and PC to a wide variety of roguelikes, rogue-lites, and games with rogue elements. The punishing lessons of defeat and the thrill of victory, of overcoming that overwhelming challenge, is an addictive appeal that few other games or genres can match.

SitRep: Interstellaria

Title: Interstellaria
Developer: Coldrice Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Releasing late 2014
When I first previewed Interstellaria in November, it was still early in development, with a demo and a Kickstarter that was just gaining momentum. Now, the successfully funded space sandbox has entered alpha, and the progress since that early demo is evident and promising.

The pixel art is just as vibrant as before, but the gameplay has been fleshed out and improved. Interstellaria could be best described as FTL mixed with an action platformer and deeper crew mechanics. Like FTL, you'll travel the galaxy in your precious ship, gather crew, assign jobs, and deal with hostile ships as you travel from planet to planet. Managing your various systems and power levels for each is as critical as repairing damage that threatens to depressurize and destroy your vessel.
However that's only one facet of Interstellaria. Once you reach your destination, you can drop to the surface and explore. But planets offer more than exploration. Armed with a variety of weaponry and gear, you'll need to platform around alien planets, defeat hostile lifeforms, and discover secrets and new locations. This mix of ship simulation and action-focused exploration makes Interstellaria already fun to play, even in alpha, and thanks to the success on Kickstarter, only more worlds and aliens species will be available to find and explore as Interstellaria continues to grow. You can follow the game's development on the developer's site or TIGForums and vote for it on Steam Greenlight.

Monday, January 20, 2014

PC Spotlight #68: Stick It To The Man

Title: Stick It To The Man
Developer: Zoink Studios
Platforms: PC
Price: $14.99
I'm probably not the first to say it, but the first game that comes to mind when playing Stick It To Man is Double Fine's Psychonauts. While both share a unique art style, platforming, and great humor, Stick It To Man stands out due to its fun gameplay and story.
After Ray (who works a hard hat tester, by the way) is hit on the head by a mysterious device, he finds himself with an unusual problem: an metaphysical purple hand protruding from his head. It's with this strange appendage that Stick It provides both its story and varied gameplay. Your purple hand is part grappling hook, able to draw you to platforms and other points around levels, and part telepathic instrument, allowing you to read the minds of NPCs, even influence their behaviors and thoughts. From trips through surreal mindscapes to hurried escapes from the enigmatic government agents, Stick It offers a wide range of puzzles, platforming, even some inventive stealth mechanics, and exploration. But while the gameplay is great, it's the story and dialogue that makes the experience even better. It's a hilarious journey, filled with a host of zany characters and interesting missions, and it's a story best experienced for yourself.
Stick It To Man's stylized art style, a world comprised of stickers and drawing, makes exploring the weird abstract world a joy, and the game as a whole delivers in fun story and engaging mechanics. You can purchase Stick It To The Man on Steam.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

IOS Spotlight #43: Shadow Blade

Title: Shadow Blade
Developer: Dead Mage
Platforms: IOS Universal
Price: $1.99
IOS gamers are no strangers to platformers. It's probably one of the most prevalent genres on IOS. While games like League of Evil, Commander Pixman, and others have shown that touch controls can work, precise controls can sometimes be hit or miss. Luckily Shadow Blade easily delivers and offers some of the best platforming action I've played on IOS.
When I first saw Shadow Blade, I thought it would be more of a fast paced stealth game, akin to Mark of the Ninja. Turns out that wasn't quite accurate. Shadow Blade is a fast paced precision platformer with some light stealth mechanics. Enemies are more like obstacles in your way, easily dispatched; if you're stopping to fight them, then your timing's off. Shadow Blade is all about speed and swiftness. Across its three chapters and Hardcore levels, you'll face a gauntlet of spikes and sawblades, electric barriers and collapsing platforms, snipers and other enemies.
While I found the swipe controls lacking, the virtual buttons provide the precision and accuracy needed to evade the various hazards and enemies. Perfecting each level takes practice and sharp timing. Soon you'll be effortlessly striking down enemies without pausing, double jumping between blades, dashing through glass barriers, and the game's fluid animations and colorful visuals means the action and spraying blood doesn't get old.
Shadow Blade offers fantastic platforming fun, thanks to its stylish visuals, responsive controls, fluid gameplay, and high difficulty. You can purchase Shadow Blade for $1.99.

PC Spotlight #67: Nidhogg

Title: Nidhogg
Developer: Messhof
Platforms: PC
Price: $14.99 (currently on sale for $11.99)
I rarely play multiplayer. Unlike most in my generation, I was never really drawn to online play. I'm the kind of guy who plays Call of Duty and Battlefield for their single player campaigns and Samurai Gunn for solo survival. Until recently, I only ever sunk time into Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell Chaos Theory's multiplayer...and now I can add Nidhogg to that list. I'm hooked.
Compared to the other recently released multiplayer game Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg may seem tame on the surface. Fights are one-on-one affairs, there are no bullets to deflect, and there are far less maps here than in Gunn. But gameplay is what matters and gameplay is where Nidhogg shines. Nidhogg is a tense tactical game where your skills as a player matter as much as your ability to lure and trick your opponent. It's a subtle give and take, of establishing patterns only to break them, of intimate moments of stillness and caution as the two of you step back and forth anticipating the first strike. It's a game where all are equally matched, where true skill decides the victor rather than the perks, upgrades, and boosters of so many other games.
The simplicity of the controls hide a surprisingly strategic game. One hit kills and there's a wide range of moves and maneuvers at your disposal, from wall jumping and rolls to divekicks and leg sweeps. This versatile moveset turns every fight into more than just a simple sword fighting, where being able to fake out your opponent, being able to learn their strategies and then use that against them, is key to success. Nidhogg's slower paced, more cerebral challenge is absolutely addicting. It's a game where the long seconds of sizing up your enemy is as tense and satisfying as the rapid fire exchange of blows that comes after.
The surreal graphics and chunky pixels give the game a style all its own, and the varied animations makes every fight seem fluid and dynamic. While the number of maps may seem small, it's definitely a case of quality over quantity. Each map is unique, with its own eccentricities to be mastered, from the concealing high grass of the Wilds to the collapsing bridges in Clouds. Not only that, each map consists of several areas as you and your opponent push back and forth to victory. Epic twenty minute duels and last second reversals that shift the tides in your favor are not uncommon.
If the local and online matches are not your style, there's also a single player mode, that pits you against increasingly difficult AI, as well as match modifiers such as no divekicks or no sword throws. Either way, Nidhogg turns combat into a tense tactical art, and the developer plans to add more content in future updates. You can purchase the game here and on Steam.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Watchlist: Rex Rocket

Title: Rex Rocket
Developer: Castle Pixel
Platforms: PC, Max, Linux, IOS, Wii U, XBLIG,
Paying tribute to classic NES platformers like Mario, Mega Man, and Metroid, old-school platformer fans will find Rex Rocket a breath of fresh air. Rob and Tyler, two passionate indie game devs, have a mission to keep the world of retro games alive. Rex Rocket features one-of-a-kind handmade pixel art, over 100 handcrafted levels connected in an expansive starship filled with a wide variety of puzzles, enemies, hazards and bosses.

Like Rain World, Rex Rocket is another game that I've been following on TIGForums, eagerly awaiting a new update or screenshot. After a successful Kickstarter last May, the game has made great progress, now steadily closing on release. 
Rex Rocket's appeal is two-fold. The charming retro aesthetic brings its colorful sci-fi world to life and imbues it with character. NPCs roam the game's spaceship setting and myriad aliens and robots are all out to destroy you. But don't be fooled by the visuals; Rex Rocket promises to deliver a action platforming experience that mixes tough platforming, combat, and puzzles. From wall-jumping between spikes, to using your diverse arsenal of rail guns, missile launchers, and more against enemies, and evading bullet patterns, and timing energy shots between reflector pads to hit hard-to-reach switches, the game seems to offer a well-rounded challenge. Aside from your weapons and agility, you'll also have a number of different gadgets at your disposal, ranging from your trusty jetpack to a teleporter device. 
Rex Rocket continues to impress with its colorful retro aesthetic and varied gameplay. You can follow the game on TIGForums and vote for it on Steam Greenlight. A public demo will be releasing soon, so look out for more in-depth impressions of the gameplay 

PC Spotlight #66: Rockets Fucking Everywhere

Title: Rockets Fucking Everywhere
Developer: Phobos001
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Price: $1.50+
How could you not like a game called Rockets Fucking Everywhere? The title tells you everything you need to know about the game in one short phrase, from the whole tone of the game to the your main objective. There are rockets fucking everywhere so you better start dodging.
There isn't a story in RFE nor is there a need for one. An expansion of the original Gamejolt Contest version, this is pure twitchy evasion, and would feel right at home next to games like Super Hexagon, Goscurry, and Hyper Gauntlet. Your ship boosts forward into what is essentially an ocean of rockets. Why are there are dozens and hundreds of rockets flying through space? Who cares, just know that one hit will end you. Split second evasion is the only way to survive. And this explosive maze isn't your own obstacle; asteroids fly across the screens, lasers create deadly patterns to avoid, and later stages introduce new obstacles to evade. Clear a stage and you unlock an even more difficult version of the stage, known as "Balls To The Wall" mode. A pulsing soundtrack complements your difficult journey.
Rockets Fucking Everywhere isn't very subtle, and it probably won't be seen on many Game of the Year lists. But it excels at its singular goal of delivering a brutally challenging, fun, and addictive experience. You can buy RFE and try the demo here, and vote for the game on Steam Greenlight.

The Watchlist: Heavy Rockets

Title: Heavy Rockets
Developer: Jukka & Markus
Platforms: IOS Universal
Heavy Rockets is the coolest cave flyer shooter game on the planet. Fans of the classic game genre, will finally be able to enjoy this gravity defying treat with their modern iOS devices and later also with Mac OS X.

When I first saw Heavy Rockets on Toucharcade, I knew it was a game I'd be interested in. The geometric angular style gives the game a unique look and interesting levels to race and battle through. Heavy Rockets will offer two modes to thrust and blast through: Race mode challenges the player to speed through enemy and hazard filled levels as swiftly as possible, while Battle mode is pure combat. A wide range of weaponry will be at your disposal, from harpoons and mines to spreadshots and explosive rounds. Inertia and momentum looks to factor into your movements, turning traversal into a mastery of thrust control and proper timing. You'll be able to play solo as well as against other players or race your friends' ghosts for the best times.
Heavy Rockets is planned to release sometime in 2014 for IOS and Mac; however the developers also hope to eventually release Heavy Rockets on PS4. You learn about the game on its official site.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

No Money, No Problem: Warning Forever

Title: Warning Forever
Developer: Hikware
Platforms: PC
Warning Forever is another game I consider a freeware classic. Along with Facade and Nitronic Rush, it was one of the games that introduced me to indies. Warning Forever is a bullet hell SHMUP with a cool vector graphics style. But it's not like any other SHUMP you've played. This is the David and Goliath version: just your tiny ship against one boss.
You have your rapid fire weapon and your reflexes and you must survive. You can target parts of the enemy and blow it apart piece by piece. But what makes Warning Forever special is that the boss learns and adapts to your tactics. Focus all your fire at its front and the next iteration will be more heavily armored in the front. Get killed by lasers? The next boss will be brimming with laser turrets. Each boss grows bigger, more menacing, armed with more weapons, until your tiny ship is facing off against a screen filling monstrosity. Every boss is randomly generated according to your own tactics and performance. How long can you survive? It's an innovative formula that I'm surprised never caught on. While one studio released an spiritual successor with updated visuals (Infinity Danger), I prefer the vector style of the original. You can download Warning Forever here.

*The controls are a bit weird. Z is to fire (and select menu options), X is for slow more precise movement, D activates an aiming mode that allows you to aim at the boss as you move and alters the spread of your fire. F pauses. Arrow keys move.

No Money, No Problem: Env

Title: Env
Developer: Adrianis
Platforms: PC, Mac
On one hand, Env isn't actually a game that might wow you. Actually in terms of mechanics and appearance, it feels more like a tech demo than a full fledged game. It's a simple first personal platformer, where you collect green pellets for food and yellow cylinders that allow you to jump higher and farther. You only have to survive a few minutes. Just looking at the mechanics, Env might not seem very impressive.
But in motion, Env is an awesome visual spectacle. An object roams the sky above the purple plain on which you stand, combing the landscape with a beam. And like being thrust into a scene from Inception, the world beings to erupt and crumple. Ridges and fissures open up beneath you. Cracks tear across the ground. Blocks burst into the air, suspended off-kilter. It's truly a sight to see and is just incredible fun to platform around this world as it gets blown apart. Give Env a try, if just for the impressive artful destruction. You can download the game here.

IOS Spotlight #42: Magnetized

Title: Magnetized
Developer: Rocky Games
Platforms: IOS Universal, PC, Browser
Price: $2.99, Free
Magnetized has had one hell of a ride to the App Store. First released as a browser game on Kongregate and Newgrounds, then as freeware through GameJolt, the game's developer also struggled to remove a clone of his game from XBIG. Now Magnetized is on IOS, and you should not miss it.
The simplest way to describe Magnetized is a mix of Slingshot Racing with twitchy puzzle action and a stylish neon aesthetic. Like that game, Magnetized utilizes a simple one-touch control scheme to great effect; your cube moves forward automatically, and you must hold and release to latch onto nodes throughout the level to swing around corners and other obstacles. But I feel like Magnetized takes that proven mechanic and improves it for the better. Rather than racing other vehicles, you're evading crushing walls, weaving between tight corridors and other hazards. There are three kinds of nodes, each with a different function.: attach to blue nodes to swing in an arc; use purple nodes like grapple hooks to pull yourself towards them; teleport between yellow nodes. Soon levels will include all three nodes and perfect timing and quick reflexes are a must if you want to finish all 80 levels as well as pick up the collectibles in each.
Magnetized may not have jaw-dropping visuals, but the gameplay shines brightly nonetheless. You can play the game online here and support the developer by purchasing the game on IOS for $2.99. If anything, the developer is motivated; he also plans to release Magnetized on Steam, Desura, Windows, and Amazon.

Monday, January 13, 2014

SitRep: Rain World

Title: Rain World
Developers: Joar Jakobsson, James Primate
Platforms: PC, Mac
I've shared screenshots of Rain World before and discussed the game back in October. It's a game I've been followed for a while and since that preview last year, it has made great progress.
Considering some of the games I've previewed and reviewed in the past, it's easy to see why I'm eagerly anticipating Rain World. Set in an abandoned world overgrown by nature and hammered by rain storms, you play as a slugcat in this hostile landscape, where you must gather food, hunt prey, and evade the ruthless predators doing the same. I've been impressed by its atmospheric pixel art, intelligent AI, and emphasis on stealth and survival since I first saw the game, but it's the gameplay that has grown in the past months. Multiplayer modes (which are also playable solo ala Samuri Gunn) have been added and honed, enemy AI has been improved, and subtle narrative elements have been weaved into the game. It's optional, but now you'll stumble upon small cubs in one of the shelters throughout the game; do you care for them, feed them? Abandon them? Protect them despite the greater danger to yourself?
After years in development, Rain World is finally set to release sometime in 2014. The game recently launched on Kickstarter, with potential additions including new and more intelligent enemies, a fleshed out single player campaign, and greater overall polish. You can follow Rain World's development on TIGForums and vote for the game on Steam Greenlight.

IOS Spotlight #41: Gravity Badgers

Title: Gravity Badgers
Developer: Wales Interactive Ltd.
Platforms: IOS Universal, PC, Mac, Linux
Price: Free w/Game Unlock, $4.99 on Desura
Time and time again, we've seen how easy it is for quality games to slip under the radar on the App Store. If I didn't regularly check SlideDB, I would have never heard of Gravity Badgers and that's a shame. It's a fun polished game that deserves more attention
You play as a member of the titular Gravity Badgers, an elite galactic force. It's a silly tongue-in-cheek story that gives the chapters and boss fights a bit more meaning beyond simple levels. But the true meat of the game is where it should be, the gameplay. Gravity Badgers plays like a mix of Angry Birds Space with a focus on single screen "platforming" seen in games like Run Roo Run and Gravity Run. Each single-screen puzzle-esque challenge consists of a wormhole exit and a variety of hazards, some beneficial some not. Pull back on a badger to indicate the direction and strength of your jetpack, release to blast off. Timing and understanding of the various obstacles are key to success. From portals to gravity fields that attract and repel to direction-changing pipes and laser gate triggers, Gravity Badgers has a satisfying amount of content and challenge and isn't afraid to mix things up with bosses and bonus levels
Gravity Badgers is a charming hidden gem, with a nice aesthetic, cute story, and a lot of levels. You can download the game for free and unlock the game (and remove a single unobstrusive ad) with an in-ap purchase. The game is also available on Desura.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ramblings: From The Shadows

On why stealth games are empowering
I first played Splinter Cell when I was eleven. I started the tutorial, couldn't pick the first lock, returned the rental the next day.

It wasn't until I played Hitman Blood Money that I appreciated the stealth genre. Maybe it helped that I was older as well. But Hitman Blood Money was my first real introduction to stealth and Splinter Cell Chaos Theory instilled a love for the genre.Since then I've sought other games in the genre and saw the emergence of more action-oriented stealth. But as much as I enjoy Splnter Cell Conviction's and the Arkham series's more aggressive stealth, in many ways, those forms of stealth sometimes seem to forget what makes the genre so satisfying and empowering.

(I guess it should be noted that while I do enjoy pretty much all stealth in games, I consider shadow-based stealth, seen in games like Splinter Cell, Riddick, and Mark of the Ninja, the purest and most enjoyable kind.)

A good stealth game requires patience and planning. The waiting game is not an act of frustration, or an annoying aspect to endure, but a compelling necessity. Rather than lining up headshots, you need to observe and study. Skill comes not from the ability to outgun your enemies, but learning how to outmaneuver them. When you clear a room or complete objectives undetected, it feels like an earned victory. The very logistics of remaining unseen adds another dimension to the gameplay, where success is not getting the best kill or acquiring the best weapons but planning the most efficient way to avoid conflict and then enacting it successfully.

I find stealth to be more empowering than other genres due to that more personal, calculated level of engagement with the enemies. In many FPSs or third person shooters, you engage the enemies at a distance, waiting for them to expose themselves and just pulling the trigger. But in a stealth game, your weapon is not your ability to outgun, but to out-think. You're not firing away from a distance; you're inches away from your unaware foes, their virtual lives at your discretion. You need to understand and predict the AI's response and manipulate it to your advantage. You need to know the layout of an area, and know what to do and where to go if it all goes wrong. It's skill based in a multi-faceted way that other action games are not: the puzzle-like aspect of considering the environment as a whole, how different systems interact and will react to your actions, and then using that to your advantage and to the enemy's disadvantage.

That tension between moving among a more powerful enemy undetected, the risk of discovery always looming, is what elevates stealth above other genres in my opinion. You need to play smart rather than just more aggressively. That's the most empowering aspect of stealth: you as a player are in control of the enemy, to manipulate the AI or not, to either be discrete, unseen, or strike from the shadows.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

IOS Spotlight #40: Blek

Title: Blek
Developer: Kunabi Brother
Platforms: IOS Universal
Price: $2.99
Blek was recently being discussed among indie sites and forums due to some foolish action taken by Youtube to remove the game's trailer. That's all been reconciled now, but that's not what Blek should be remembered for. No, instead, it should be remembered as a fantastic puzzle game that uses touchscreen to deliver a wonderful engaging experience.
Blek is a minimalist piece of art, and easily joins the ranks of Strata as my favorite minimal puzzle games. There isn't even a menu; the game opens with your first puzzle, which also acts as a simple tutorial. The art itself is merely a collection of black and colored dots on a white surface but what truly makes Blek a joy to play is the line. There is something just visually appealing and satisfying about seeing your line move so fluidly across the screen, in a way that feels unpredictable yet is completely planned
Yes, planned. Blek is not just some minimalist experiment. It's a puzzle game and like the best in the genre, the core mechanic is simple to understand, but difficult to master. Draw a path for your line to follow, which it will repeat until it leaves the screen, touches a black circle, or a colored circle. Your goal is to collect all the colored circles in a level and the genius of Blek is the freedom you're granted to complete that task. Your solutions can be as simple or as complex as you can think of. From the simple inching line to a complex pattern that gracefully weaves between attempting-ending black spots, Blek is a rare puzzle game that presents the player with a challenging scenario and then gives you free reign to solve it how you wish.
Blek is for the player who enjoys puzzles games that don't offer to hold your hand, but instead allow you to use your own intelligence and creativity to succeed. You can purchase Blek for $2.99.

PC Spotlight #65: Continue?9876543210

Title: Continue?9876543210
Developer: Jason Oda
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, IOS Universal
Price: $9.99 (Steam, Humble), $3.99 (IOS)
The story behind Jason Oda's inspiration behind Continue?9876543210 is perhaps more fascinating and intriguing than the game itself. You can read about the full experience here, but it's a tale of drugs in the Peruvian jungle and getting lost in the deserts of New Mexico. Oda's experiences were the drive to create the strange surreal Continue.
Continue?9876543210 begins where most games end: literally at the end of your character's journey. The game is a chronicle of your character's journey through the limbo that lies between life in the game and permanent deletion. It's a randomized journey, with each playthrough choosing locations and a playable character from a pool, offering a new experience across multiple attempts. You'll travel across the pixel landscapes of Random Access Memory, conversing with other NPCs in this in-between state, and attempt to stay one step ahead of the Garbage Collectors, who will delete you forever.
It's an intriguing story and looks at a idea that hasn't really been explored in the medium before, but unfortunately Continue is a dichotomy. As a game, it's quite mediocre. The gameplay itself is simple and not very deep, as you move around each location, occasionally striking at enemies with your sword, or being whisked away to boss fights against the Garbage Collector. After a while the gameplay begins to feel repetitive. And while a game doesn't have to be fun to be enjoyable, gameplay-wise, Continue is just not that fun or enjoyable.
But on the other hand, as an experience, Continue is wonderfully unique. It's surreal and abstract, with a visual style that's reminiscent of Superbrother's elongated distorted figures but in 3D. The NPC dialogue has an absurd existential tone that is engaging in a weird way. The music is great and the locations themselves are moody and atmospheric and interesting to explore.
If you're looking for a deep compelling gameplay, you won't find it in Continue?9876543210. What you will find is an atmospheric surreal experience that in some ways makes up for the other flaws. It's not a perfect game by any means, but it is unique and intriguing. You can purchase Continue?9876543210 on Steam, Humble, and IOS.