January 06, 2012
The Ringing in the New Year Indie Royale Round-up
After an anxious period of waiting, the folks at Indie Royale have launched their New Years bundle, hot on the heels of Bundlemania 2011. In my last Indie Royale round-up I called them a competitor to Humble Inc, but that was a poor choice of words (according to the head of the Indie Royale himself, at least). But even though both coexist peacefully in a field of indie loving gamers, Humble still clearly has an edge when it comes to sheer support for a product (i.e. soundtracks/bonuses/OS support/activation keys). While it's pretty clear the Indie Royale is still not quite up to Humble levels of service, bonuses and sheer quantity of games yet, it's certainly improving with every new bundle.
The facts: you get four never before featured indie games, all of which are now Windows and Mac compatible (Linux users, feel free to continue to be curmudgeonly). Three of them are Steam activated, and three of them can be registered on Desura. Nuclear Dawn in particular can only be activated on Steam, but all the others have 100% DRM free downloads available. But most importantly, how are the games that are included? Skip past the break to find out.
Developed by: InterWave Studios
Nuclear Dawn is a Source mod turned full featured release, just like previous Royale alumni Dino D-Da... aw, no, get back here. Come on, sit down, let me finish. Nuclear Dawn, despite its complete and utter lack of dinosaurs, is actually a really good game. It's not perfect, but it certainly does a lot of things right that other grown-up Source mods forget about.
One of my favourite things, although it's not exactly a huge bullet point, is the classes. Unlike my biggest... concern about Dino D-Day, Nuclear Dawn only contains four classes and each one is functionally identical across teams (There is a distinction between teams, but that only applies to the commander; more on that in a second). The classes are all well defined and thoroughly equipped, with various specialized kits for each sub-role. Instead of throwing in new, ill defined classes into the mix with each update, the classes feel balanced and fun.
But for the major draw: do you remember the Commander role in Battlefield 2? Interwave Studios remembers. Nuclear Dawn is, at its core, that mode turned into a massive game. Two teams of sixteen players each attempt to rudely blow up the other team's base. The catch is that each team has a commander, who has a RTS eye view of the battlefield and can order around squads of units to secure objectives. Of course, each unit is actually a player on the server; they get a little marker informing them of their objective, and are provided bonus points for fulfilling it. Mr. Commander can assist with the usual array of RTS special abilities like healing, damage boosts and artillery strikes. The Commander also constructs building and turrets, just like in a full featured RTS game. There's minor differences in how the zones of control work between teams (short ranged wireless receivers vs. long range laser pointers), but both teams have a wide array of turrets, teleports, supply depots, power generators, spawn point buildings and research labs to kit out your teammates.
It's all very slick, and on paper it works flawlessly. Commander directs players, players get rewarded, everybody wins. Even if you have a bad commander, you can start a mutiny vote to replace him with a more suitable candidate. Of course, a team based shooter lives and dies based on how well the players work as a team. Over the course of my playtime both during the free weekend a few weeks back and the night the Royale launched, the player base wasn't particularly stellar. Often I would join a server with an empty commander chair on one team, which led to said team being stomped due to not having any of the ridicuous commander abilities. There was a lot of lone wolf gameplay going on, with few players actually contributing to the objectives and a lot of running, dying, repeating ad nauseum. When I got a good squad, and managed to stick with them, it was great. Unfortunately this was a rare occasion for my playtime.
Another minor annoyance is that death is frequent and CoD-like: the respawn times are just a wee bit too long and life expectancy is just a wee bit too short. I expect that's due to the difficulty in healing without a commander watching over you, combined with the cheap deaths from the commander's direct damage attack. I'm probably just terrible at the game, but it does seem like there are far too many ways to die that are not preventable. The commanders can send blankets of fast killing poisons and drop very difficult to kill turrets at will. It doesn't break the game, but it can get frustrating for a new player.
I think Nuclear Dawn is a pretty stellar indie take on the Battlefield formula, and it would probably be great fun with a group of friends. Playing with randoms is bound to be hit and miss, but the underlying game is solid. The commanders are a touch overpowered, but the class balance is great and the maps are really quite fun, with lots of secrets and alternate routes. It probably won't replace your team multiplayer shooter of choice, but it's definitely nice for something to dip into with some pals.
Max and the Magic Marker
Developed by: Press Play
There's a lot of past behind this game. It's been released on the DS, WiiWare, PSN, iOS, Windows Phone 7 and finally here on PC and Mac. But now that it has finally reached my platform of choice, how does it hold up?
You play as Max, a precarious little eight year old with a wacky imagination and the tool to take advantage of it. There's not a lot of depth to the story, with the major succulent points summed up right there in the title. There's a purple Roman Grimace who hates you for bringing life to his purple form, so you're chasing him down, but he and his vacuum cleaner tend to show up at checkpoints to suck up all the art out of your marker like a Ghostbuster hired by a cost cutting school board.
As for the gameplay itself, it's a basic platformer with a neat drawing mechanic. It's fairly original; despite my best efforts I can't think of another example that used the same draw, run, jump mechanics. You have the same ink limited mouse controlled pen you see in other games like Your Doodles Are Bugged! or Kirby Canvas Curse, but having full control over Max speeds up the game's pacing and creates some pretty ingenious moments. The learning curve is also pristine; I slowly figured out more efficient ways of accomplishing the same goals. I moved from using simple planks and stairs to creating elaborate gondolas hooked into crevices, huge protective hamster balls and complex tree like structures to reach distant floating platforms.
Technically the game is sound. The graphics are very slick thanks to the cel shaded aesthetics and it runs quickly and smoothly thanks to the Unity engine. My favourite part of the look is the pause feature incorporated to allow for more time to draw elaborate structures. Instead of simply pausing the game, the view shifts from the "imaginary" world of the game to the stark reality of Max's scribbles and back again. It's a very cool transition.
So all in all, the game is good. It's even great. I probably won't play a lot more of it though, and for what I think is a petty reason: this game is aimed squarely at the kids. There are a few brain stretching collectables to find, and the puzzles occasionally require far more thought and dexterity then I gave them credit for. Making elaborate structures is pretty fun. But in the end, it doesn't quite reach that illusive all-ages Pixar level of entertainment. That's not by any stretch a bad thing; I think far too many modern games are aimed at teens and twentysomethings, and there's not nearly as many great kid's PC games out there like I had. But if you're basing your purchase on whether or not you'll enjoy it as an adult, well, it's definitely a nice bonus alongside the other games in the package, but I wouldn't have bought it on its own for myself.
Fractal: Make Blooms Not War
Developed by: Cipher Prime
I am too stupid for Fractal. It's unfortunate, but it's true. Fractal is the lastest game from the same developer as one of my favourite puzzle games, Auditorium (which, by the way, you can totally play right here right now). The difference is that Auditorium was a sequential puzzle game with a set solution for each level, slowly introducing new elements and puzzle pieces as you progressed. Fractal is more akin to Tetris or Bejeweled due to the random board placement and emphasis on combos. It's also really really difficult for me to wrap my head around. Obviously your mileage may vary, but this game is nowhere near as accessible as the aforementioned standard examples.
Essentially, you have to make hexagons (bunches) out of tiny hexagons by adding new hexagons to the board, pushing the already present hexagons into splody combos and such. Various power-ups get added to the mix, as well as different colours and board layouts as you progress in the campaign. In addition, you also have timed arcade survival modes, and a slew of puzzle missions to solve. The main game itself is fairly slow paced; there are no time limits or restrictions beyond a limited number of pushes so you can carefully plan every move in advance.
Or not. The only real fair criticism I have for Fractal is that it doesn't pass my patented "faffing about" test. In any puzzle game, if I can do better just clicking randomly on my screen like a crazy person instead of considering my moves carefully, there's probably either a problem with unintuitive gameplay or luck based combos. In Fractal's case, I would without a doubt say the former is the problem. There is little instruction beyond some writing in the backgrounds of the screen, which range from helpful hints like "Make Bunches" to non sequiturs like "Math is Sexy". Not exactly the most helpful tips for learning the game.
It's not like the game is completely impossible, it just completely skips the easy to learn part of the old adage, and gets straight to the hard to master bits. I slowly started to figure out which moves were good, which were bad and how to get the really crazy combos. I mean, I still floundered a lot; for example, as soon as I wrapped my head around having two colours at once, the board is split in half with a hole in the middle completely changing how the perimeter of the puzzle should be used. I definitely fared better in the puzzle mode, which required a nice mix of careful planning and trial and error, and utterly failed the time crunch arcade modes before setting a high score by, you guessed it, faffing about.
Presentation-wise, the game is excellent. Despite being advertised as a rhythm puzzle game, there's really no gameplay connection to the music, but it still compliments the game in a very cool and meaningful way. For example, the music pumps louder and faster the better you perform, but becomes wonky, low and desperate as you run out of pushes before speeding right back to normal when you miraculously pull a win out of a bad situation. The sound design gets a huge thumbs up from me; I may have been expecting a little more integration into the gameplay, but it definitely lives up to the quality present in Auditorium.
Overall, Fractal stumbles as a casual puzzle game by not even remotely managing to be casual. But if you want a deeper alternative to the Bejeweleds of the world ("Common trash!" you snort into your tea) then Fractal may just be your ticket.
Developed by: Radian Games
The Indie Royale is proving to be a great source for top down shooter "reimaginings", which is definitely a boon and an curse. The problem I find with this is that there's only so many ways to present a top down arcade shooter before fatigue and sameness sets in. Super Crossfire has great visuals and an excellent soundtrack, but so does Really Big Sky and Scoregasm and Beat Hazard and the Space Invaders remake and a dozen more to boot. They're all different for sure, but they're all very much in the nonstop shoot aliens category, with only minor gimmicks and control schemes providing the distinction. Yes, I know the difference between twin stick shooters and side scrolling shooters. But it's all superficial in the end.
That being said, Super Crossfire does have great visuals, it does have an excellent soundtrack, and it is really really fun. The main hook for Super Crossfire is the ability to warp between the top and bottom of the screen with a right click. You can use this to dodge a swarm of bullets, hit weaker enemies in the rear to take them out first, or just to actually kill enemies who block every frontal bullet. Is it a genre changing masterstroke? Nope. Does it add to the game in a meaningful and positive way? I'd say so. It's another way of handling dodging and movement and brings some variety to a genre that really needs it.
It's far closer to its Space Invaders heritage than most indie space shooters, but Super Crossfire also manages to implement a cohesive campaign structure to the game in the form of five chapters of thirty waves each. Each wave layout is specifically designed so the enemy abilities often synergize (i.e. a ship that fires a rapid spread shot might be protected in the rear by a shield generator). The hand crafted placements go a long way towards making the game design in Super Crossfire feel like everything has a purpose, something most arcade shooters lack. Each wave becomes a puzzle to solve; you can generally use brute force to win, but planning your solution carefully offers finesse, satisfaction, survivability and most importantly bonus points.
Super Crossfire, despite my misgivings about another space shooter, is definitely the highlight of the bundle for me. The design is just superb, and the difficulty is almost perfect. There's a few forgettable elements like an upgrade system that doesn't really seem necessary and the fact that it's really hard to distinguish the hitbox for your ship. Still, the semi puzzle based gameplay of Super Crossfire manages to hit all the right beats to really distance itself from the glut of space shooters.
On a closing note: Super Crossfire doesn't activate on Steam. Before you Steam fanatics flip out, just download the standalone version and add it to Steam as a shortcut. The overlay will work, as will chat, screenshots and the like. The Royale folks like to feature at least one non-Steam game per bundle, and I for one think that's a great way of bringing attention to lesser known gems. So stop being dopes.
You may have noticed a running theme: three of the four games are ported over from iOS or similar systems. Obviously, that kind of sets the tone for the entire bundle here: none of the games are must have deep Skyrimic experiences, but for around $5 there's a lot of quick mindless fun to be had. All in all it's a solid package; just don't expect anything deeper than what you'd find for your phone. Well, assuming your phone can play Nuclear Dawn. I think this metaphor is getting away from me. Here's a link to buy it yourself.
As for me, be sure to check back for more fun backlog playing and reviewing, and be sure to take a peek at my Twitter account. There's a giveaway or two happening over there sometime soon, so you'll want to stick around for that if you're a person who likes free games. Which I'm guessing you are, because come on.