December 13, 2011

The Holly Jolly Indie Royale Round-up


The seasonally thematic Indie Royale Xmas bundle launched today, and that means that I, and possibly you, now have four (well, technically six) new games in the old backlog. Like last time, I'll do a quick run through of the games, because that's kind of my thing.

The Indie Royale probably doesn't need much of an introduction, but just in case I'll run down the meaty points. The Indie Royale was launched as a competitor to the Humble Indie Bundle, and put together by Desura, a distribution client for indie games, and IndieGames.com, a well known indie game blog. Unlike the other pay what you want sales, the Royale charges a minimum price; however if certain generous souls pay a certain amount over the minimum, the price goes down for everyone. Also unlike the secretive Humble Inc., Indie Royale has a pretty regular release schedule of once every two weeks. And since two weeks has passed, we get to unwrap a collection of new cheap games. Skip past the break for my humble opinions on the current crop.

The Blackwell Series
by: Wadjet Eye Games

Though this collection is missing the most recent release, the Blackwell collection is making a special debut; the earlier entries in the series have been remastered with a more updated AGS engine, new voices and a brand new director's commentary, all of which is exclusive for the time being to the Royale. But no matter how many new features, you have to wonder if the base game itself is good, yes? Read on.
Special note: for sheer preview purposes, I only played through the first couple of hours of the first game in the series. Keep in mind the graphics slowly improve between instalments, although not by much.

The easiest way to explain the Blackwell Legacy is to compare it to its own legacy. The most obvious influence is the ScummVM adventures. Indeed, Blackwell's engine looks ported straight from Beneath a Steel Sky and its LucasArts contemporaries. Those games, while fairly good, always irked me because they exist on Adventure Game Logic; illogical thinking, use everything on everything, and woe to you if you missed a single clue in the backdrop. That's why, thankfully, the game shares much more in common with the Broken Sword series. I adore the Broken Sword series. I think the writing is fantastic, the story is genuinely engaging, the puzzles are logical and, most importantly, they don't impede the narrative. Blackwell (well, Legacy at least) definitely channels the Broken Sword spirit.


Speaking of spirits, what exactly is Blackwell anyway? Well, at it's core, it's a paranormal detective story about an aspiring writer named Rosa and her partner Joey. Even though the paranormal aspect of the game is well documented, I don't want to get too spoilery just because the way the narrative slowly segues into the world of spooks and mystics is fairly brilliant. But suffice to say there are ghosts, and you are going to be doing a lot of interacting with them. While not quite as brilliant a set up as the sci fi noir Gemini Rue, a more recent Wadjet Eye release, the game offers an engaging take on the ghost whisperer storyline.

I loved Gemini Rue, by the way (although it remains an uncompleted victim of the backlog creep). If you share my sentiments, you will too. However Blackwell Legacy is definitely identifiable as an earlier work by Wadjet Eye, the same way Beneath a Steel Sky feels like a primitive Broken Sword, or Frictional Game's survival horror Penumbra series feels much more amateur than their later release, Amnesia. That leads to some minor faults. My biggest concern is that the game is ridiculously talky; after I decided I had enough of the gist to write this preview, I promised myself I would save and quit at the next conversation break. That didn't happen for over ten minutes of cutscenes, with only a few minor stops for dialogue trees that really don't have much of an impact. Another minor fault is that there aren't a lot of individual screens. Travel is all done by clicking buttons on the world map, which makes the world seem less like New York and more like a series of tiny connected rooms. This is kind of nice (you don't have too many places to scour for clues), but I still miss the semi open worlds of Gemini Rue's locations.


Graphically the game is old school (those low resolution screenshots are the best I could do, I swear) but it still has the LucasArts style of charm. The music is surprisingly well executed, and the remastered voice actors are generally good enough to get the job done. Some are great (Joey's awesome 1930s detective schtick), a few are grating (a college girl's poorly impersonated Noo Yawk accent), and most are right in the middle (Rosa, who conveys some real emotion in some scenes, yet sounds like she's channelling dull surprise in others). But I'm only nitpicking. If you liked Gemini Rue at all, or if you like adventure games, this is a must have. Three fantastic adventure games? That alone made the Royale purchase worthwhile.


Eets
Developed by: Klei Entertainment

From the producers of the well received Shank comes an earlier entry from their catalogue. Eets is the "cult puzzle action" game hinted at in the first preview of the Royale, and I can see where it gets the cult appeal. A lot of people compare it to Lemmings, and I see what they mean; it probably deserves the label more than Your Doodles Are Bugged did. But what isn't often mentioned is how the game is essentially an indie remake of The Incredible Machine. If you bring up the beloved Rube Goldberg simulator of my childhood, you tend to attract my attention. So how does Eets fair?

In Incredible Machine (and Eets as well) you have a toolbox of things that can affect the world, and you need to place them and press start to spring your machine into action. A nice improvement Eets brings to the formula is the interaction brought in after the pieces are set; the player needs to click on the various elements to activate them, bringing a sense of timing to the table. The Lemmings elements are represented by Eets himself, a temperamental little white something or other that shares the same love of diving from ledges. Guide Eets to the puzzle piece by affecting the environment (and his mood) and you beat the level.


I suppose I should bring up the Wacky Wackiness that Eets is infused with. Eets the creature looks like a weird spawn of Pac-Man and and an albino Wobbuffet, and the rest of the world is also suitably foolish. Choco Clouds! Punisher Whales! Scared Berries! Sneezy Sows! The list goes on and on. This makes for a very unique aesthetic, which is appreciated and eye catching , but also seems unintuitive. In Incredible Machine, a fan is a fan. Plug it in, and it turns on and blows air. In Eets, you have things like the Sneezy Sow, which, when pelted with chocolate chips from your Choco Cloud Cannons, gives birth to a tiny flying pig that explodes on impact. In fairness, the tutorial is very good at introducing these elements slowly, but the wackiness for wackiness sake is an element that doesn't always work for me.

As for bugs, I had three separate instances of Eets getting stuck in the scenery, requiring annoying minute adjustments. Engine wise, the game also runs at an aggravating 1024x768 with no widescreen support (which doesn't do any favours for the nice cel shaded graphics). But all in all Eets serves as a decent indie remake of The Incredible Machine, but with a love it or hate it surrealist aesthetic.


Dino D-Day
Developed by: 800 North and Digital Ranch

Oh lordy. When I write these impressions I always try to stay positive. Even if I don't really care for the game I like to try to go the constructive criticism route; I want to explain how a game could be better rather than dump all over the bad points. But I can't do that for Dino D-Day. Because Dino D-Day is just a wretchedly bad game, and possibly the worst class based shooter I've ever played. Time for a list.

Good things about Dino D-Day
  • The presentation is excellent. Old timey war tunes on the menus, the propaganda addresses over the loudspeakers and the fake news reports from the Front on the loading screens all capture the alternative history aesthetic perfectly. Plus they're pretty funny to boot.
  • That's it.


When the best part of the game is the loading screens, you're in trouble.

Bad things about Dino D-Day
  • Server connection crashes. Four of them in one hour.
  • Poorly designed maps. If half of your classes are bulky dinosaurs, probably not all that smart to make half of each map tiny rooms and halls.
  • Lack of players. There were only two servers with around nine people each while I was playing. Considering there are 15,000 bundles sold as of this writing, that's not good at all.
  • Glitchy deaths. This is a lot more subjective, but I encountered a lot of very cheap deaths, including some where no player was credited but the other team got a point.
  • My personal worst part: Bad classes. The human classes are all based on specific named characters that you're supposed to identify with and like, but the game doesn't do nearly enough to give them purpose and backstory; it seems like the developers want to go the same route as the TF2 Meet the Team videos, but they don't actually follow through. But the humans are at least miles above the dinosaurs, which are clunky, clip all over the environment and kind of useless in combat. The only class that looks interesting on paper is the velociraptor, due to being an agile clone of the Left 4 Dead hunter. But in practice the only tolerable dinosaur class is Trigger (and his Axis counterpart), the Allied mascot with a Gatling gun on his back, and even then you're better off playing a human. How on Earth do you make playing a dinosaur lame?
  • Misguided updates.It's unfortunate, but the developers seem totally unaware of how to fix the game. Instead of making the dinosaurs fun, they add more dinosaurs. Instead of balancing the current classes, they add more dinosaurs. Instead of adding new maps, they add a new map where the central focus is controlling a large dinosaur.


There are very few people who love dinosaurs more than me, but this is just a nearly copypasted clone of Day of Defeat, but with dinosaurs, except the dinosaurs aren't very fun. There were fleeting moments of greatness; rushing up with my team to take down the T-Rex, ducking in and out of cover when its back was turned; I'll admit I savoured that moment when I whittled down its health to zero just when things looked hopeless. But those are very few and very far between. The developers have ambitious plans, and I can respect that. But as it stands it's still an unfinished product that feels like a mod, and not a great one at that.


The Oil Blue
Developed by: Vertigo Games

I was worried that the taste of prehistoric bitterness would suck out my joy and wonder when I shifted from Dino D-Day to The Oil Blue. Luckily I managed to be pleasantly surprised by this very underrated business sim, Jurassic disappointment be damned. The Oil Blue stands out as the one game that doesn't have Steam support, and the one game that made everyone go "huh" when the bundle was unveiled. To say this is niche is the grossest of understatements. The Oil Blue wishes it was popular enough to even be considered niche. The creator of the game tweeted that, as of this post, the Indie Royale had sold 35 times as many copies as he sold in the one and a half years of release. This means, for those of you playing along at home, that he sold about 425 copies in 18 months, for an average of 23 copies a month or 0.7 copies per day (math is fun).

It's a shame, really, because there's an addictive business time management sim in here. You are a foreman of a drilling op. You skirt from island to island and reclaim the abandoned drilling equipment left behind, and flip between each of the machines to drill oil to sell to the greedy masses. There are four different kinds of machines each requiring varying degrees of upkeep to keep running smoothly, and you'll find a random smattering of equipment on each island. Mess up, and you'll lose out on precious time and oil, and possibly break your machine enough to require repairs. Succeed in your task and you level up to gain extra perks before trekking to a new island to do it again.


Astute readers will probably notice that the game shares a lot with the glut of casual time management games that have appeared in recent years (literally, hundreds of them). The Oil Blue fortunately avoids the simplicity of those casual games by making all of the machines distinct and varied to maintain; picture the mini-games from Hacker Evolution, except you're trying to run four copies of Hacker Evolution at once. Throw in a simulated stock market and a lot of ways to upgrade the machines and it's clear that The Oil Blue manages to make you actually feel like a rig manager, something lots of sims manage to forget to include. It's not too hectic, but things can happen very quickly and it requires good timing to keep the oil flowing and the cash piling up.

I'll wind things down here, mostly because I want to go play more, but as a guy who really likes the occasional business management game I can say that this tiny indie gem manages to hit all the important points for a successful simulation game. I'm glad I discovered this, and also glad that the developer is finally getting some widespread exposure. While the Blackwell series is clearly the star of the show, The Oil Blue definitely flew under the radar as an excellent and unexpected addition to the bundle.


To sum up: Blackwell is excellent, Eets is entertaining, Dino D-Day has fantastic loading screens and The Oil Blue is very surprising. But all of that aside, this is six games for less than a dollar each. If you're even remotely interested, you can go buy the bundle and check out these games for yourself.

You can always follow me on Twitter to get updated whenever I post a new entry and also see some foolish behind the scenes pondering. I'll be back again hopefully soon with some updates on the games I've been playing lately. Enjoy your bundles!

5 comments:

  1. Great rundown. I bought the bundle but have only tried Eets so far. Oddly it was Dino DDay that attracted me but as a fan of Gemini Rue I'm looking forward to investigating Blackwell now!

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  2. Same here. I'm a hardcore adventure fan, bought it for the title I recognized, and should I ever wade through the backlog, I shall enjoy Blackwell, I'm sure.

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  3. Some will probably find your assessment on Dino D-Day a little more critical than it should be but it needed to be said regardless. It isn't without potential obviously but it needs to get there first.

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  4. @Jacob

    I honestly felt kind of bad posting my critical review, and even worse now that I know there's a good chance that some of the devs have probably read it. I'd love to see it get totally revamped, I'm just not sure the studio can do it, and if there's even enough of a benefit to justify the cost/work that needs to be put into the game.

    The premise definitely has potential, and I'll admit I didn't put enough focus on the atmosphere. The dozens of propaganda posters they've made for each update are hilarious, and also very accurate parodies of real posters, which I think is awesome. I just wish there was a decent game to go with it.

    But thanks for your comments!

    ReplyDelete
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