March 26, 2012

An Invitation to a Gala III: The Third Movie Slump


UPDATE: Some bonuses were added to the bundle, including two more games and a bunch of music. Check out my Bonus Round post here to see the extras added.

Hot on the heels of the end of Indie Gala 2 comes Indie Gala III. And like most great trilogies, the third entry suffers from an inevitable dip in quality. While some of these games are just rough little scamps that need a bit of love and a high tolerance for flaws, you need to be a pretty forgiving person to get the most out of this pack. There's an emphasis on strategy games, so if you're a big strategy fan and you don't mind your games rough around the edges, this could be a pretty good deal for you. Emphasize on the could, of course.

For this pack you'll be limited to Steam keys and Windows machines. Of course, Indie Gala is notorious for adding in extra games and bonus music albums, so it might be worthwhile for whatever gets added. But if you're judging based on the games themselves, prepare for a bit of disappointment.

Maybe there's something that will call your name. You'll never know, unless you skip past the break.


Developed by Headup Games and Crenetic

I know "such and such is one of my favourite genres" is becoming an oft repeated mantra here at Backlog Journey, but tactical action strategy really is one of my favourite genres. I adored Commandos, loved Desperados and enjoyed Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood back in the day. Trapped Dead is supposed to be a zombie infused take on this genre, but with a few critical flaws that could very well make or break the game for you.

The game's atmosphere is intentionally cheesy, with some terrible voice acting and a hilariously bad one liner riddled script. Try drinking every time the wheelchair bound black character says "Damn!" after a sentence. Or don't, because you would die. Still, it's more cheesy then actually bad, like most zombie movies it's pulling inspiration from. The graphics and UI are also very influenced by comic books and artwork, making for a very pulp appearance.

The nice thing about Trapped Dead is that the main gameplay hits all the right beats. You control a team of up to four survivors, each with their own inventory and abilities. You have to guide your rag tag band through large levels and swathes of undead using an RTS like interface to execute cunning plans and synchronize your actions. The emphasis is on stealth based puzzle like gameplay, with each encounter forcing you to think your way through each encounter with the least number of casualties. All the basics of the niche genre are in place, making for some decent party based zombie killing.

While the similarities to Commandos is immediately apparent, the game still makes good use of many survival horror tropes as well, like severely limited ammunition and excessive gore. The limited ammo in particular adds a neat twist to the proceedings, forcing you to use environment kills and explosives whenever possible to save your bullets for worst case scenarios. While most zombies are dumb and slow enough you can beat them to death with a bat no trouble, the trouble comes in when there's swarms of the walkers. Even more dangerous is the larger bosslike variants, including a certain butcher enemy pulled straight from my nightmares of Diablo 1. With so many zombie games choosing to just throw ammo around left and right, the low ammo melee intensive approach is delightfully refreshing.

Of course, one or two less welcome elements from survival horrors make the jump over. One of the most controversial gameplay decisions, and the element that single handedly tanked the game's reputation, is the save system. Commandos is a series that's infamous for requiring hundreds of quick saves due to the trial and error gameplay required. Trapped Dead does away with any sort of quick saving and loading, moving to a checkpoint based system. Worse yet, each save point is limited to one use, and they're not exactly what you would call frequent. In a genre that emphasizes trial and error, the checkpoint based system causes a ton of frustration and aggravating repetition. I can sort of understand why they chose to handle the saving this way, as limited saving keeps you from taking too many risks. But it makes the game brutally difficult to play through, as you'll get stuck repeating a lot of the same sections while running back from yet another death. Even simply patching in a lower difficulty setting that allows for quick saving would solve most of the game's issues in one fell swoop.



The other wretched survival horror trope to rear it's ugly head is terrible controls. The AI does a good job of simulating mindless zombies, but it's be swell if the same AI wasn't controlling your characters. They are functionally useless when not under direct commands from you, and controlling a group of characters at the same time is almost a nightmare due to the way the game randomly decides to deselect everyone. Characters never defend themselves unless you explicitly tell them which zombies to defend themselves from, and they often "forget" these orders. There's also switching between running and walking, but the hot key for this seems to completely mess up when applied to more than one character. If you simply command each unit individually you can alleviate a lot of the rampant bad AI issues, but this requires a tedious amount of micromanagement.

Fortunately the game has been updated at least once since it was thrashed by the critics, fixing some of the worst glitches, but leaving behind the annoying design decisions. The most hardcore fans of Commandos-like games might be able to overlook the flaws that mar this decent strategy game, but it's the lack of proper saving that kills it for me. Besides that critical issue, Trapped Dead is a fairly ok slow paced tactical title. It's not a glowing recommendation by any stretch, but it's an interesting title for strategy fans none the less.


GREED: Black Border
Developed by Headup Games and Clockstone

GREED: Black Border is a curiously capitalized Diablo clone. Now, being a Diablo clone is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of my favourite games are essentially Diablo clones. Diablo clones have a pretty great reputation these days, because they take one of the most popular gameplay structures ever and refine it. But curiously enough, Diablo in Space is never really a concept that took off properly, with only a couple of mediocre cracks at it. GREED: Black Border is a much needed solid crack at a space hack and slash packed with loot.

The game actually looks pretty great, with neat enemy designs and very detailed space station set-pieces. The energy beams and explosions all look bright and sharp. The character art is pretty high quality as well. Overall it's a good looking title, especially for an indie game. The setting and style is fairly generic of course, and you won't be wowed by the variety of enemies (Zombies and robots? Could they not work in Nazis?) but it's a common setting being used in a unique way. The bosses are similarly cool, and tend to alleviate the issues with dodging thanks to their massive size.


I can see why the game wasn't exactly well received. Controlling with the mouse only is awkward and clumsy, especially in a game so focused on long range combat. The loot drops are few and far between. There are rooms that seem to infinitely spawn enemies, leading to frustrating deaths by swarming. The detailed backgrounds can be a bit cluttered, and enemies are not well marked unless you've already targeted them. The dodging is sluggish and kind of useless, as it's more likely to make you miss rather than your enemies. It's also hard, and it's repetitive.

However, I really like it for some reason. Even if it just feels like a clumsy control scheme for a top down shooter, it's a lot of fun to hack and blast your way through enemies, and the level up system and active-passive bonuses make customizing and advancing your character a lot of fun. You can pick from three categories of bonuses; one is your standard active ability but the other two are special buffs that can be added and removed at will, and boost some aspect of your abilities at the expense of others. It's a neat system, and adds a certain level of customization to the proceedings you normally don't see in these kind of games.

The controls are a problem, and unless you have a lot of experience using ranged weapons in Diablo you're going to have a hard time adapting to the mouse driven targeting scheme. But if you can work past the control woes, the game is actually a fun hack and slash in small doses. If you don't mind a bit of mindless robot/zombie blasting, this might be up your alley.


Future Wars
Developed by Headup Games and Radon Labs

Future Wars is Advance Wars, but on your PC. Next game, please.

Aw, fine. I'll elaborate. But I'm not lying when I say that I can't think of much more to add. It really is an off brand Advance Wars, down to identical units and rules. Percentage based damage system? Check. Diminished unit abilities based on damage? Check. Revenue generating cities that can only be captured by infantry? Check. Defeat all units or capture the HQ? Check. Red team vs. blue team? Check. Terrain bonuses? Check, and for bonus points they also give the exact same bonuses. Even the units are identical in terms of stats and types. You have your Troopers (Infantry), Guardians (Heavy Inf.), Patrol vehicles (Tanks), Hoppers (APCs) and so on. I literally did not find a single unit in all my time with the game that didn't have a direct counterpart to something in Nintendo's handheld title. The numbers are all the same, including cost of units, movement range, damage and armour bonuses. It literally borders on being a straight port.


On one hand, the idea of taking an existing game and directly cloning it makes me a bit grumpy, because that's pretty lazy design. On the other hand, there is no PC version of Advance Wars. For those of you without a Gameboy Advance, this is your chance to finally try it.

If you're unfamiliar with Advance Wars and therefore confused by all my grumpy bleating, here's the basics for Future Wars. You and an opponent each have an HQ and a smattering of cities on opposite ends of a grid based map, with neutral territory in the middle. By using your factories, you need to build units to overcome and capture your enemy's cities, factories and eventually their HQ. You can get a variety of units, each of which have certain strengths and weaknesses. The main tactical portion of the game revolves around using unit advantages and favourable terrain to overcome your opponent of equal strength, and therefore destroying their war machines with minimal damage to your own.


It's a really fun basis for a game, and definitely worth a look if you've never experienced this particular brand of turn based strategy. Future Wars definitely gets the mechanics right, and doesn't look half bad to boot. The graphic style is fairly unique and interesting, and the between level interludes are occasionally amusing and seemingly self aware. The end of level breakdown (also pulled from Advance Wars) is very detailed and oriented towards replayability for medals and kudos. The only technical snafu is the lack of widescreen support, which is utterly ridiculous for a game released in 2010.

In the end, Future Wars is a good game. I mean, it got there by cloning an already good game, but that doesn't prevent it from being a good alternative for PC players who skip out on most of Nintendo's consoles. If you already have the originals, or you find the idea of cloning a game reprehensible, you'll be a bit irked by the similarities present. But otherwise you have a perfectly competent PC rendition of a Nintendo franchise. Now if only someone would do it for Mario.

You know the drill now. Beat the average bonuses from here on out. Scram, deadbeats.


Grotesque Tactics: Evil Heroes
Developed by Headup Games and Silent Dreams

I played Grotesque Tactics a long time ago, and it seems that in my absence from the game they have created a Premium Edition. I don't know what changed between the original and the Premium Edition besides the title screen and Steam cheevos, but the vast majority of what I remember stayed intact. Grotesque Tactics has a decent gameplay system coated in good but cluttered graphics and a hit or miss storyline with some problematically crude humour. Like most of the other games in this bundle, this is a serious case of Your Mileage May Vary.

Storywise, the game is a parody of RPGs. The generic Evil Church is attempting to conquer the land of Glory, and only the semidivine Holy Avatar can stop him (other possible you-will-die drinking game; every time "semidivine" is said). He's recruited suicidal swordsman Drake to become his official commander. Coincidentally, Drake is the character you play as. Unfortunately, since the Evil Church has otherwise decimated every hero the country has to offer, your hands are a bit tied when it comes to picking for your party. Drake must recruit a party from the dregs of society, regardless of their competence or general low moral fiber. Along the way, he'll encounter every JRPG stereotype known to man. How wacky!


The core gameplay of Grotesque Tactics is solid and even enjoyable. The main part of the game generally plays out like someone mashed the battle systems of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy Tactics together and simplified it; you wander across a map working towards loot and quests, and whenever a monster appears the game instantly shifts to a turn based grid battle. It's seamless, with no shift in perspective or loading screens in between. The battles are generally simplisitic, but with some cool elements thrown in. Your party is made up of a variety of misfits and rogues, each of which have special abilities and unique gear. Battles play out like most turn based strategies, with each unit moving based on their speed. There's no facing system or complex weaknesses, but terrain is the main influence on your attacks.

The most interesting addition to the system is the obsession meter, which fills as you take turns and do damage. It functions mostly like a standard limit break, but with a neat twist. Each character's obsession is some kind of fatal flaw with all the perks and downsides that comes with it. For example, Drake will inspire the party with his rousing speeches, adding bonuses, but become depressed when self doubt about himself, inflicting him with the depression status ailment. Holy Avatar will recount a massive ego stroking story that puts everyone to sleep, friend and foe. A warrior called West becomes stronger, but proceeds to attack everything in sight. The importance of managing obsessions makes each party member a ticking time bomb, which I think is a very neat addition to the standard formula.

The main problem most players are going to have is the humour. It's certainly not my cup of tea, and it's not particularly clever or winking. Most of the references are so obviously beaten over your head ("I once met a guy with pointy ears and green clothes, but he only saved one princess over and over!") and the pokes at RPG conventions deserve a meh at best. The writing is also full of grammar and spelling errors. In fairness, the developers are not native English speakers, but in a game that hinges on the writing simple things like capitalising sentences make a difference.


But that wasn't my main issue with the game. I don't want to sound oversensitive, but this game is pretty crude and not so much in a funny way. A lot of people cite the uncomfortable treatment of women which I'll elaborate on, but my issue was the extended riffs on Drake's depression. As someone who's been pretty deeply affected by depression amongst those close to me, it hit a sour note. I mean, I get that Drake is supposed to be the stereotypical emo swordsman, but attempted suicide as a punchline is a step too far for me personally. The fact that the game seems to have it in for women is a serious issue too. Again, I don't mind a few jokes here and there about female stereotypes (Women! Amirite fellas?) but Grotesque Tactics throws not one but three virgin maiden characters in the mix whose soul motivation is to have Holy Avatar's babies. Literally every single line they speak revolves around this. I might be out of touch, but "women exist only to fawn over men" is just an uncomfortable punchline to sit through thirty or more times.

So that's about it. It's a good game surrounded by generally poor writing. If you can sit through it, skip it or even enjoy it, you've got a decent Japanese style tactical RPG game, which is a genre that needs way more PC love. I'm just not a fan of the jokes, which are a pretty big part of a parody game.


Twin Sector
Developed by DnS Development

Twin Sector is a physics puzzler. It's not a particularly bad one, or a particularly good one. It just kind of exists. You play as Ashley Simms, who is strong, empowered, not safe for work and, as the surprisingly long intro cutscene states, the greatest person who has ever existed (seriously, the inspiring rant by the general is the gift that keeps on giving; every time you think it'll wrap up, it gets better). You've been in cryosleep, now you are not, and looks like you should go and and fix the generators and stuff because everyone will die. Your bland robot computer friend Oscar guides the way through a series of bland corridors and physics puzzles in which you use cool gloves that are totally not like the gravity gun in Half Life 2 to solve said puzzles.


The gloves are easy; left click makes things come closer and can also drag you up through the air like an invisible grappling hook, and right click makes everything fly away like you just shot it with some kind of gravity gun and can also be used to throw you around. Innovative? Sure, I haven't seen this kind of mobility used in many games. Fun? Not really. There's a few serious problems with these gloves that had me frustrated within the first two levels. The pulling yourself up thing is downright impossible to aim without repeated attempts, and the precise controls required for stacking debris in certain puzzles is just too much to ask.

One weird quirk is falling damage. In a zippy puzzle platformer all about telekinetically flinging yourself around, falling damage is an unwelcome guest. There's a reason Portal doesn't have falling damage, and that's because it would be way too easy to accidentally kill yourself and go back to the checkpoint (of which Twin Sectors has far to few of). Trying to boost up to a ledge, missing, falling, dying, loading, retracing, trying, failing again is just not a fun time. The point of the falling damage is to use your right click boost to land softly on a long fall, but the physics are temperamental and prone to wackiness leading to a particularly frustrating fifteen minutes in which my boost kept catching a pipe in the elevator shaft I was in and rammed me into the ceiling (it's the same physics that powered Oblivion so... yeah).


Atmospherically? The story is intriguing enough in terms of mysteriousness. The run down cryo facility looks exactly like any run down cryo facility should; kind of dull, and a bit like a dirty bathroom. The immersion is also constantly breaking, at least in the tutorial, as the game constantly freezes your character, throws up the cutscene black bars, delivers a single line of dialogue about right clicking to throw objects (we've all played Half Life 2 by now, game) and then resumes. One thing the game does surprisingly well is sound design and loneliness; the game constantly suggests that you're not alone in the facility, and throws in eerie surprise noises to throw you off guard. I can't say I played far enough to find out, but the spookiness was neat. The voice acting is pretty bad, with only Ashley rising to the prestigious level of hit and miss. Luckily, she is the only character you hear often besides the computer.

This review might sound a bit flippant or silly, but I really don't remember anything interesting to say about Twin Sector. It has buttons and stuff to push. The physics are silly. The opening cutscene is a bit funny with the hilariously stiff animation and marvellous speech, and the rest of the game occasionally surprises with a neat idea. But mostly it's just awkward jumping around and save reloading. It's probably the weakest game in the pack, which is not a good position for a beat the average bonus at all.

Hope you enjoy neutralization!
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Well, if you're morbidly curious, you think I'm an idiot, or you're just in it for the music anyway, you can check out Indie Gala and pick up a bundle of your own. They do seem like nice people, and it is for charity. But with my completely objective game critic hat on, it's a rough bunch of games. In the crowded bundle market, a bundle like this is a let down. Let's keep our fingers crossed for those bonuses.

If you dig the bundle reviews I'm doing, or you want to keep informed about other reviews and pieces I'm doing elsewhere on the internet, check out the Backlog Journey on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. In particular, be sure to keep an eye out for my take on the Indie Underdog pack and the upcoming Be Mine 2.

UPDATE: I did a separate post on the Indie Gala bonuses over here. Be sure to check that out too!

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