December 14, 2011

Live Free or Die Humble

I've covered two of the other ones already, so I'd be crazy to skip out on the granddaddy of them all, the Humble Indie Bundle. The Humble Bundle is undoubtedly the top dog in the indie bundle scene, and for good reason: they offer all star big name indie games, they do the charity thing, and their commitment to support Steam, Windows, Mac and Linux adds up to a high quality product, especially considering the price.

Humble Indie Bundle 4 is upon us, and with it comes five big indie games, with two other awesome releases as beat the average bonuses. We've seen how the other bundles have fared, skip past the break to see how Humble Inc. manages to hold up. Keep in mind these opinions are from only an hour or two of gameplay (I'm only human!); generally that's enough for a good basic impression, but if I miss something major, that's my excuse.

Developed by: Final Form Games

I'll preface this with a warning and a compliment. First, the warning: I don't like bullet hells at all. I like to think I'm a skilled video games player, but I'm just not skilled enough for what most bullets hells throw at you. It's just one of those genres I can't manage to master, like real time strategy, fighting and hardcore competitive FPS games. The compliment: I still think Jamestown is really great, and does a fantastic job of making the game accessible, interesting and well worth your time.

Jamestown only has five levels, and each level isn't that long. So it's kind of astounding that the game manages to feel brimming with content. There are five distinct difficulty levels, four different kinds of ships to master, a ton of challenge maps that change the way you think about the levels, and bonus unlockable modes to keep you busy. The separate difficulties are particularly appreciated; the game keeps track of what levels you've finished on which difficulty levels so it's easy to slowly master a level until you're satisfied with moving on. The game encourages this, locking later levels until you try some of the higher difficulties first. That lead me to try modes I would never even consider, and I felt tremendously satisfied when I did. Even better is the coop mode; it can be played with keyboard, controller or mouse, but it's local only. Even with two players the game gets exponentially more amusing.

I won't deceive you; the gameplay is stock typical bullet hell, despite an effort to innovate with the Vaunt powerups. But the presentation is fantastic. The game is low resolution, but manages to evoke the same sort of look as Metal Slug; extremely detailed enemies, great explosion and bullet effects and a wide variety of graphics and locations. And the setting? Many indie games tend to try and fuse two different genres or settings. So far we've learned that some succeed (sci fi noir) and some fail (Jurassic WWII) but luckily Jamestown is a firm success. The game is a wacky fusion of New World colonialism and sci fi, with Mars standing in for North America. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of a single other game that uses Spanish conquistadors teamed up with enslaved Martians as the main villains. So congrats for having the best use of Mars as a setting since Worlds of Ultima. It gets more hilarious the more you consider it; being a not-American I'm not terribly familiar with US colonial history, but the places, people and architecture are all directly ripped from history. The game's loading screens even allege that the game is taking place in the 1700s. Right.

I honestly can't praise the setting enough. The second I flew into the first level and saw the redcoats scrambling with their laser muskets to defend Jamestown, Space Virginia from the Martian threat, I cracked a smile. It's such a goofy game, but also a real blast.

As a parting bonus, here's a tip: use your right click special. Seriously. I didn't discover it for two and a half levels.

Developed by: Gaijin Games

There was a frankly embarrassing predecessor to this site, and one of the only articles I wrote was on the Potato Sack bundle. Naturally, I talked about Bit.Trip Beat, and I really didn't like it. I loved the sound design, but the rest of the game just wasn't interesting enough to keep playing. The next instalment, Bit.Trip Runner (and I'm sorry, but I'm not writing it in caps for the rest of this article), goes a long way towards bringing the rest of the game up to the wonderful standards of the sound design, and is probably one of the best realizations of the rhythm genre in a long time.

I'll talk about the sound design first, because it's still the best part of the game. Most rhythm games tend to kind of have a problem with sound mixing. It's not a big deal because it's usually not very noticeable, but when all of the sound effects are working in conjunction the improvement is dramatic. The entire Bit.Trip series nails this connection between soundtrack and sound effect. Every time you conquer an obstacle, the beeps and boops of your jumping compliment the catchy chiptune soundtrack, instead of interfering. Collecting multiplier power ups expands the instrument tracks, adding new rhythms and melodies and giving the adventure an epic feeling. Everything is in tune, and the results are sublime.

As for the rest of the game, it manages to be quite an improvement over the flashy Pong gameplayvoxel visuals contrasting with the 4bit player character makes the game far prettier, and the shorter levels makes the game far easier to pick up and play.

Don't get me wrong: the game might look like a platformer, but it truly is a memorization and timing game. Of course, that makes it share a lot with twitchy based platformers, like Super Meat Boy or N+, that rely on the very same twitch memorization of levels. It's also fairly difficult at times like those two games too. Gaijin simply takes these games that shared a lot with the rhythm genre, and fully transplants it into a proper musical experience. While there is always a place in my house for my stack of Rock Band instruments, Bit.Trip Runner manages to go in the complete opposite direction; instead of making a rhythm game into a party toy, the folks at Gaijin Games take the rhythm structure and turn it into a very fun gaming experience.

Super Meat Boy
Developed by: Team Meat

Super Meat Boy is one of the 16 games I managed to complete before I started this site, so I was worried that I wouldn't get to talk about it. Luckily it finally made it into a bundle, so I get my second chance to gush over my favourite rescue-your-girlfriend-made-of-bandages-from-a-fetus simulator.

And gush I shall. Super Meat Boy is one of my favourite games, even though I'm not amazing at it. The game manages to be very accessible even for the unskilled masses simply through good game decisions and technical design. The levels are all very short, usually no more than a screen or two in size. This ensures they never overstay their welcome; when each level is only a minute or so long, death doesn't become as much of a deterrent (the utter lack of loading screens greatly help this too). The low penalty for messing up helps to diminish some of the rage that builds after every death, keeping Meat Boy fun instead of frustrating.

Of course, you'll still rage. The game is hard, but almost paradoxically it's fair. The cheap deaths are few and far between and it's always immediately obvious why you died and what you can do to improve. It's a nice little cycle of repetition with constant improvement, kind of like the feeling I mentioned in that old Jamestown review I did a few paragraphs ago. Of course, there are some annoying exceptions. Some of the more random elements (meat seeking missiles and it's derivatives) tend to be annoying to deal with when playing legitimately, and far too easy to cheese if you figure out which corners to cut; the final boss of the fifth chapter is one of the most anticlimactic bosses because of this.

Quibbles aside, Super Meat Boy is easily one of the best 2D platformers of this console generation. Sure it's rude, kind of icky and pretty immature. It's also pitch perfect gameplay. If you haven't tried it before, you're in for a treat.

Sidenote: I don't really know where to fit this in, but the soundtrack is one of the best soundtracks for a game ever. No exaggeration. In my little personal pantheon, only Bastion comes close (I actually owned the soundtracks for both before I bought the games). I could (and I do) listen to the score on loop all day, and I generally don't even like video game music. I'm listening to it right now, cause it keeps me awake and blogging.

Developed by: Klei Entertainment

Little did I realize when I name-dropped Shank in my Eets review that I'd be reviewing that very same game within the next 24 hours. In said review, I called Shank "well-received" because I honestly didn't know anything else about it beyond the fact that you shank dudes. Turns out there's not much beyond that, but that's expected; it's a beat-em-up. I'm a pretty huge beat-em-up fan, and a strict Final Fight/Streets of Rage veteran. After playing Shank for a while I couldn't believe what I was missing out on. Shank manages to take the mindless amusement of early beat-em-ups, infuse an addictive combo system, and gives it an excellent fluidity, flow, and agility that makes it, in my eyes, the ideal evolution of the stagnant beat-em-up genre.

You're Shank, a man out for revenge against your arch nemesis, The Butcher. The story is as generic and done to death as they come, but luckily it doesn't really overtake the experience, only compliment it. The cutscenes are all 2D animated and fully voiced, which is a seriously nice change of pace from the overdone comic book style cutscenes designed to save money. Also, the game occasionally opens a panel onscreen, showing events that are occurring as you shank the shanking shanks out of the bad guys. It's a neat gimmick, and definitely keeps the game moving along without getting in the way. The in game graphics are similarly styled, with a very crisp and smooth 2D art style that suits the game well. There are lots of little things that just make the game look cool as well; the minor platforming and wall running that you encounter isn't even remotely challenging, but damn it sure does look awesome when you leap off a billboard onto a guy.

But since the game doesn't really focus on story, I shouldn't focus too much on it either. The most important element is how well the beatings work, seeing as that's the whole point of the beat-em-up. The beatings, I'm happy to say, are sufficiently amusing. Shank has three major weapons (light, heavy and ranged) as well as a bunch of situational special moves like grapples and pounces. The moves all flow into each other, leading to the kind of fluid combos you don't normally see in the more primitive entries of the genre. The combat becomes fun because you're always on the lookout for the next great move: shank, shank, shank, chainsaw, pounce, shoot ahead of you, shoot behind you, double tap the poor fellow on the ground, jump, chainsaw through the air, grab, shank shank shank in the face, repeat. One of the common complaints I noticed on a cursory jog through some reviews is that the combat is repetitive. Sure, you can stand in the corner and just spam the shoot button, but do you have to? The fun of the game doesn't come from the killing of fools, but the creativity in coming up with new ways to kill the fools, while increasing the combo counter.

Said fools are a problem though. The game definitely suffers from a lack of enemies. There are dozens of skins, but they're all basically copy and pasted versions of either little guy, big guy or dog with a few minor variations (little guy with machine gun, big guy with machine gun, beige dog). While the combat is interesting enough to keep things fun, more distinct enemies could only improve the fights.

Shank gets a lot of love from me for the style, loses a bit for the formulaic design of the enemies, but then gets it back in a big way with the combo system. Stylistically it feels like someone finally made the El Mariachi trilogy into a modernized beat-em-up. But the fluid, dynamic combat is definitely the best part; this is exactly the direction I'd like to see the genre go in the future.

Minor points: There is a separate coop campaign I didn't get a chance to try (though it is local only), and the game is infinitely better with a gamepad. Despite the warnings, I beat Super Meat Boy on a keyboard. I don't think I'd attempt the same here.

Developed by: Nifflas/Nicalis

Another blast from my not too distant past. No, I'm not referring to the fact that this was already featured in an Indie Royale (though that is just a tad disappointing). I'm referring to my original IndieGala review, in which I claimed that Saira, from the same developer, was the better of the two. I definitely stand by that statement, but I'll concede that NightSky is probably the more interesting game. Why would I say that? Because NightSky takes one very basic and seemingly inane conceptyou are a round balland goes completely nuts with it.

The sheer number of curveballs the game throws at you is astounding; After every set of puzzles I wondered what the game would do next, and NightSky would deliver. In one scene you might have to roll between three platforms suspended by a chain, in another you might have to jump onto a wheeled cart and steady yourself, and my personal favourite one, where your tiny orb self becomes the motor of a car, and you need to use antigravity to flip the car around to the exit. It's impressive that it keeps innovating over and over, considering there's ten-ish chapters with an average of fifteen levels each, with each level introducing some new gimmick encompassing multiple screens. Not to mention an alternative campaign, which is a remix of harder puzzles with less prodding from the helpful tutorials.

Visually, the game works fairly well. There's absolutely no alternative resolutions beyond fullscreen, stretched and windowed, which never helps the visuals. But so long as you don't play on stretched, the curvature of the very rounded world looks fairly smooth and interesting. The all black Shadowrama palette is definitely a unique style that works well with the soft glows (although it's rapidly becoming overused).

My only two complaints are minor. First, the rapid switching of what your buttons do is somewhat disorienting. The S key changes functions on an almost screen by screen basis, and it's up to you to figure out what's different. It's not a dealbreaker, but the changes are often chaotic and disorganized, which doesn't really help the game's already loose structure. The second is the very trite story; indie games have a certain reputation for semi-pretentious soul searching narratives with obscure meanings and interpretations, and NightSky hits most of the clich├ęd beats. This doesn't detract from the fun puzzles, but instead of considering what the sphere represents like the game wanted me to, I just kind of rolled my eyes and then rolled to the next level.

But neither of those issues are particularly intrusive. NightSky is an excellent puzzle experience, with an astounding amount of versatility on a simple mechanic. While it's probably not going to be the big bullet point for the Humble Bundle, it's definitely a well designed puzzler for all things spherical.

Now we get to the beat the average bonus. Pay more than the average cheapskate, and you get these two additional games.

Gratuitous Space Battles
Developed by: Positech Games

Gratuitous Space Battles is another example of exactly what it says on the tin: lots of space battles with little point. It's definitely a strategy game, but I can't really call it a RTS or a TBS. The game itself is more of a admiral simulator. You are given a bunch of parts and designs for ships. You need to insert various pieces into the open slots on a ship design, making sure that everything balances out between cost, crew needed, power needed, weight, defences and sweet laser beams. There's a ton of different parts that can be unlocked by performing well in battles to gain currency, and the parts can be used to make many specialized ship designs, like a squadron of cloaked bombers or an EMP frigate devoted to wrecking the enemy's targeting systems.

After you generate a stack of meticulous blueprints, you are given a budget of money and the layout of an enemy fleet. You then place your own designs into action. When satisfied, you hit the start button and watch the lasers fly. The battles are completely automated; you just sit back and watch the show, although you do receive a lot of text based radio chatter from your pilots about how the battle is faring, and you can click on individual ships to see how the systems are holding up. On one hand I really like the hands off approach, as my biggest issue with RTS games is controlling my army, but on the other hand it can be frustrating watching a squadron go on a suicide run when there's a much more viable target just a little further away. The AI isn't too bad though, and thankfully it can be tweaked before the battle begins. There's a ton of depth and tweaking in the prebattle system, letting you design the best possible fleets while striving to do so with the lowest budget needed.

An extremely cool feature is the campaign mode. The campaign is basically a procedurally generated extremely simple 4X game; Master of Orion this isn't, but the core 4X values make an appearance. Once you construct all the ships you want, you divvy them up into squads and send them to take over the galaxy. Visiting an unknown system pits you up against an enemy squad, however the squads are all lifted from the saved fleets of other users. It's a very Spore-like integration of multiplayer, and you can see the battle history for every fleet you face. Once you beat the squad, the system is yours; you can then build up loyalty and extract resources to repair, expand and do it all over again.

Gratuitous Space Battles is a very unique beast; I'm unaware of anything else like it. The ship building is extremely nerdy yet also very deep and robust, while the online features are fairly innovative and clever. I wouldn't recommend this game to just anyone, but you should definitely give it a shot since we both know you're going to beat the average for Cave Story anyway. Speaking of which...

Cave Story+
Developed by: Studio Pixel
Rerelease by: Nicalis

Note: Just to be clear, the only reason Quote is yellow in my screenshots is because I accidentally set the difficulty to easy. He's still red on other difficulties. This took me forever to figure out.

I'm in the minority here, but I don't really get Cave Story, and I haven't since I first downloaded the freeware version three years ago. I don't hate it, I'm just indifferent to it. I definitely understand the hype, though; as the Cave Story+ launch trailer puts it, "it's the best SNES game ever made." They're almost right, but I'd say it's one of the most important games that's come out in a while. This is basically the crowning moment of the Metroidvania genre, one of the only truly original stories in modern video games and an impressive feat that the game was even made, much less a ridiculous success.

For all the (probably imaginary) people out there who don't know what a Cave Story is, it's basically the ultimate indie Cinderella story. The developer, Pixel, was a Japanese programmer who slowly designed/programmed/wrote/composed the game entirely by himself over five years. He didn't have any sort of plan or goal in mind, he just wanted to make a game like the classic ones he played in his childhood. By making this homage to the classics, he ended up making one of the most original games released in years. In a system where sequels and revamps are the order of the day, Cave Story stands out as almost wholly unlike anything else.

You're Quote, a mysterious kid with a sweet baseball hat/headphone combo who seems to have forgotten everything. From there, you need to begin exploring the cave you find yourself in, and slowly accumulate weapons, upgrades and story elements. Wait, what? The game's plot is a very slow drip, with a lot of hidden scenes and moments, that requires you to go out of your way to piece the details together. If you're careful (or you use a guide) you can discover more about the island you're on, who exactly you are, who this Doctor fellow is, why he keeps sending baddies after you, and what's up with these rabbit people hanging around. While it shares a lot with Metroid (missile tanks, health containers) it also works a lot like Super Mario 64, as in you have a hub world that connects you to lots of self contained levels that offer a fairly clear path, but also contain a lot of secrets. Then there are wholly original elements, like the way your guns are upgraded by enemy drops, but downgraded when you take damage. The game, and the story in particular, manage to subvert basically every trope in the book, and there are lots of different ways for the story to proceed, depending on your actions.

Honestly, those last two paragraphs are probably pointless. Cave Story is a game best left to discover on your own. However, I want to take a look at what's added by the + symbol in this paid version of a freeware game. Certain hardcore Cave Story fans are a notoriously fickle bunch. Basically, for the militant fans, the only good thing was the original release by Pixel, everything else tends to betray the original developer's intent or lack emotion (costing more than free doesn't help). However, let me speak to those protective fans for just a moment. Cave Story+ is exactly what you want. The upscaled graphics are great, staying very close to the original 320x240. Plus they're optional and the original graphics are included. Same goes for the music; the new arrangement is very close to the original. But again, optional. The meaty bits you should want is the fantastic bonus content. A new level developed by Pixel himself. A bunch of new modes including an alternate campaign. The tantalizing promise of future content updates. Mod support. A much more stable framerate and control scheme. Plus, you can finally pay for something that brought you so much joy, and reimburse the poor hard-working guy who gave it to you. Is all of that worth giving up because you prefer the floaty jump from the original?

As for the rest of you, Cave Story is something that everyone should try. It's such a unique game that really can't be compared to anything else, despite trying to be a classic homage. Maybe you won't be blown away, but you have to appreciate anything that tries something so different and succeeds so well.

Which brings us to a close, until the inevitable bonus games are added in a few days. I'll be back then, and possibly sooner with a rundown of the LittleBigBunch bundle coming soon. And don't worry, some backlog will be accomplished too. To stay on top of my blog, you can follow me on Twitter or subscribe via Blogger. And, of course, I always welcome feedback. Let me know how I did with the Humble rundown; I always appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! I'm really happy with this latest Humble Bundle myself since it's packed with games I'd been meaning to buy.

    I've only played NightSky so far though and I pretty much agree with where you're coming from. The changing of what buttons do without any warning is probably my biggest issue with the game. I'd like some sort of on-screen notification that the changes were happening rather than just a little red x when I try to do something :P. Ah well, it's still pretty great.

    It's kind of hard though! I'm stuck in the 6th level at the moment. :P


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