March 25, 2012

Silent Buzzing: It's the NinjaBee Indie Royale Round-up


This Indie Royale impressions post also appears as a multi-part guest article on IndieGames.com. 

What's that in the shadows? Too late!

At least that's what it feels like with this super sneaky Lightning Pack. Hot on the heels of their fairly excellent St. Patrick's Day bundle, Indie Royale has decided to launch one of their neat thematic quick bundles for the next few days. This time the games are all from NinjaBee, a developer famed as an XBLA pioneer.

Now it may shock you, but I actually don't write about bundles all the time like some kind of bundle reviewing robot from the future. One of the other fields I'm pretty well versed in is film and in film one of the key theories up for discussion is auteur theory, or the idea that all films by the same director will have the same kind of feel, intentional or not. Fascinatingly, this also generally applies to most game developers. It certainly applies to NinjaBee, as their games share a lot of similar qualities between releases, even when working in completely different genres. The key points of NinjaBee games are simplicity, low difficulty, kid friendly atmosphere and colourful cartoon graphics. I'll definitely elaborate below, but there's a start for what to expect in this release.

My usual explanation of available platforms and options is going to be quite short this time. Ooga and Clyde are on Steam. Everything has a DRM free version and a Desura code available. Unfortunately it is Windows only across the board this time so you'll have to get a real computer, hipsters and/or nerds.

Check out past the break for some first impressions of NinjaBee's collective work.


Developed by NinjaBee

I have an unhealthy obsession with tycoon games. Whether it's because of the secret greedy capitalist inside of me, or the straight dopamine hit my brain teases when hearing a cash register noise, or just because I like controlling my own tiny empire, tycoon games are right up my alley. Interestingly, one of NinjaBee's first games was a tycoon simulator, but with a nifty sci fi twist. Outpost Kaloki, better known by the enhanced edition released on the Xbox 360 called Outpost Kaloki X, quite literally revolves around a space station and the people who keep it running.

In this take on the business sim game, you play as the redundantly named Hero, who is tasked with building a variety of space stations to serve the whims of the greater solar system. You're given a central platform to build from, a starting budget and a list of goals to meet before the somewhat relaxed timer expires. You have to bolt on various structures to meet certain levels of service for particular needs your customers have. As you build structures and satisfy other goals, you can build bigger and better buildings that provide more comprehensive service to your customers. It's very basic supply and demand economics. Ladies and gentlemen, the American Dream.


Of course, there's a bit of a bumpy road to these riches. Your station requires a certain amount of power to run, so you'll need to build quite a few additional off-brand pylons to provide the proper energy. You'll also encounter scripted events and random meteors that will bust up your burgeoning franchise and necessitate repairs. Plus, you need to cater to the eccentric demands of your original investors. Why exactly does this princess need a space pond for her space dog? It's not your place to question it, lowly peon. Make it so.

Despite really enjoying the game, I should probably address one consistent piece of criticism. Due to the simplification of the tycoon genre in Outpost Kaloki, a more cynical gamer than myself might point out that the game is just a Pavlovian response to rising numbers. By limiting stations to a particular number of slots, and by basing the entire economy off of a simple series of green sliders, the game is not exactly going to blow you away with its depth. However, I'd counter by pointing out that pushing buttons is fun! Trying to come up with the most cost effective plan is a game all on it's own, and simply throwing more money at each problem isn't always the most successful way to run a business. There's just enough micromanagement for the true fat cats among us, letting you tweak how much you're willing to invest in quality for customer appeal. It's simple, but in a way that keeps the game at a reasonable scope for the tiny development team.


There's a lot of cute additions as well, like some genuinely amusing writing and a great cartoon art style. Like most of the NinjaBee games, it's very oriented towards a younger audience, but I still think a big dumb mature adult can have a few hours of fun with it. I know I certainly did. My only real complaint? I wish NinjaBee could have ported Outpost Kaloki X from the 360. It's quite a hefty addition, including several new missions and much improved graphics. The vanilla release in the Indie Royale is all well and good, but it's a bit creaky considering the game is now nearly eight years old, which is ancient in video game years. But if you can look past things like lack of wide screen support, NinjaBee's early outing is a great simplistic tycoon game for the greedy space baron in all of us.


Cloning Clyde
Developed by NinjaBee

In this stop on our little tour of NinjaBee's gameography we have Cloning Clyde, which is largely known for being among the first titles way back when Microsoft launched XBLA. Remember those days when people thought Microsoft was crazy, and gamers wouldn't go for short $10 games? What a time. But simply knowing of Cloning Clyde because it came first is selling the game short; it's actually also a great platformer with some decent puzzle elements, and genuinely amusing writing. Like most of the games in this bundle, you'll want to try and use an Xbox controller, however the keyboard controls are fairly serviceable in this particular game.

You take on the role of Clyde, a dim individual with a strong desire for twenty bucks and no common sense to keep him away from it. You're brought to a lab for testing purposes, where a mishap with a cloning ray sends the factory into complete chaos. Now saddled with dozens of clones and no twenty bucks to show for it, you need to escape the lab via a network of teleporters that all seem to lead to platformer puzzles. Though the platforming is certainly the central hook for the game, the clever writing and dialogue incorporated via signs left by another Clyde is quite amusing. The graphics are similarly fun as well, complete with more nudity than I would ever have thought to see in an E-rated game.


The main mechanic, as you smart people have already figured out, is cloning. You encounter several Clyde clones as you teleport from level to level, and by tapping a key you can assume control over any of them. This leads to a strong focus on self-coop, where Clyde stands on a switch to catapult Clyde to a lever that frees a crate full of Clydes who all escape through a vent. However, there isn't a lot of focus on puzzles, with level design emphasizing platforming and exploration. Assisting this exploration is a machine that mushes up Clyde's DNA with various other objects. Like a nauseating take on Mario's many hats, Clyde can become part sheep, or part rock, or basically anything you can shove in a machine. Through these experiments gone wrong, NinjaBee incorporates a wide variety of segments and set-pieces designed for a variety of control styles. Add in other neat bits like sheep riding and combat, and you have the solid foundation for a platformer.

Thankfully for the Clydes, Clyde Prime had an action figure somewhere in his hospital gown, allowing NinjaBee to throw in some collect-a-thon elements. For a serial completionist like me, including lots of bonuses and stats for tracking these pick-ups, as well as counting how many Clydes you have freed from each level, is a pretty awesome perk. NinjaBee also adds in par times and extra challenge levels for those perfectionists out there, and with tons of levels to work through I could definitely see a person spending quite a bit of time on this game tracking down all the collectables.


All and all, Cloning Clyde is a solid title, and definitely paved the way for the current main XBLA style of platformer. Lots of short levels, lots of extras to work through in the pursuit of 100% completion, and some neat takes on classic platforming elements. I can definitely see how it built up such a cult audience on the Xbox, because Cloning Clyde is leaps and bounds beyond what you'd expect from a launch title on an unknown service. While the PC port isn't so great, limiting the resolution and removing all of the co-op and multiplayer modes, the game is still quite an enjoyable platformer to kill time with. So far so good, NinjaBee!


A Kingdom for Keflings
Developed by NinjaBee

It's pretty clear from the selection of games so far that NinjaBee's bread and butter is indie action puzzle platformers and simulation games. A Kingdom for Keflings pretty clearly falls into the latter category, but in a way that's wholly different from Outpost Kaloki. If Kaloki is supply and demand distilled into a kid friendly business sim, Keflings is living off the land mixed with a hearty dose of Paul Bunyan, hold the ox. The interesting thing about A Kingdom for Keflings is that it is yet another NinjaBee title more well known for its association with Microsoft, in this case its role as one of the earlier Xbox Avatar games on the market. Though some might think the game loses a bit of the whimsy when you can't stomp around your town wearing a giant $3 Master Chief helmet, Keflings has a solid gameplay base that goes beyond a simple tech demo for Microsoft's avatar market.


In A Kingdom for Keflings, you play as a (mostly) benevolent giant who has decided to help his tiny Kefling friends to build a kingdom. It's actually quite similar to Black and White in a sense, except with a bit of Minecraft or even Dwarf Fortress built in. There's not a lot of direction to the game, Your giant can rip apart the natural world for resources, but you can also train your Keflings to mine ore, chop down wood and so on. This automation serves well by letting you concentrate on constructing new houses and buildings for your fledgling town. Each building is composed from a blueprint of rooms and parts. Your giant can order the construction of these parts from the harvested raw materials, and then you heft them into place using your muscular bod. It's the sort of resource mechanics you'd see in games like Dwarf Fortress or even the Settlers series, but the construction of buildings is almost just like the crafting in Minecraft or city planning in most city sims, requiring you to place out your parts as directed by your book of blueprints.

The game doesn't really have a particular goal, there's only one semi-random map and zero antagonistic elements to ruin your Kefling's hopes and dreams. All you have to do is build a castle and crown one of your Keflings the ruler of the land. It's not like it's going to be easy, as you need to build basically every other building before that, but you have nothing working against you except your own resource gathering limits. Even with the relatively shallow goal to work towards, the game is mostly just relaxing and fun to toy around with. The only real issue is the relative friendly nature of the game. There's no antagonist, or even antagonistic elements; you won't run into a situation like my poor Towns adventure where everyone starves to death. With this lack of challenge, it's a lot more obvious that the game is more or less a grind for resources. Whether or not this bothers you depends on your preferences as a player. I personally find grinding for new buildings and items to be fairly engaging and fun, but many players would disagree and find the game more of a chore.


Unlike Cloning Clyde and Ancients of Ooga, A Kingdom for Keflings works equally well with keyboard controls or a native Xbox 360 gamepad. In fact, my favourite control scheme was to just use the mouse for every action. Keflings is also the most polished game in the pack in terms of bugs and PC port polish. I encountered absolutely zero issues throughout my time with the game, and Ninjabee has added quite robust options for PC gamers in terms of resolution and graphics. I only wish they had kept it up for Ancients of Ooga.

Like every other game in the pack, A Kingdom for Keflings works great as a kid friendly introduction to settlement building sims. Players used to more complex sims like Black and White or the Settlers series will probably baulk at the general friendliness surrounding the game, but it's a delightfully simple indie take on a normally complex genre, just addicting enough to make raising your kingdom a worthy goal. It could use a bit more of everything (something that the sequel does very well) but the foundation of the game is quite fun on its own.


Ancients of Ooga
Developed by NinjaBee

Ancients of Ooga is the most recent release in the pack, and also a spiritual successor to Cloning Clyde. It's very apparent this is the case too, as both games share many mechanics and have the same sort of gross-out humour. However, NinjaBee and Bacon Wrapped Games makes a lot of tweaks to the formula, some that help the game a lot, and some that tend to diminish the gameplay. At the very least, the 2D platformer in a 3D space aspect means that you'll definitely want a controller for this one.

The first most obvious change is the setting. The primitive jungle world of the Ooganis could not be any further from the steel walls of Cloning Clyde, and the rival Boolis are certainly no match for the robotic security systems. Ancients of Ooga follows the story of the Oogani revolt against their Booli enslavers. Ooganis are divvied up into several different tribes, each of which forms the backbone for a set of levels and each of which can use certain powers.


The character switching from Cloning Clyde is back and more emphasized than ever. Your in game character is actually an ancient ghostly spirit, summoned to lead the Ooganis back to glory. With your ghostly presence, you can possess any Oogani devoted to your cause and guide them through the level. Other elements from Clyde sneak in as well, like a rudimentary combat system and many pick-ups and items to cart around. Ancients of Ooga does expand on the importance of items a lot though, with most levels requiring a certain number of objects to complete the chapter or to sacrifice on an altar to unlock new paths. Your Oogani can also swallow these items, leading to a variety of effects and mishaps. The focus on items, backtracking, unlocking powers and finding secrets makes each level somewhat like a very tiny Metroidvania.

Stylistically the game is pretty juvenile, which makes sense as most of NinjaBee's work is intended for all ages. Ooganis burp out fire, puke up items, make fart jokes and other wonderful literal examples of physical comedy. Still though, more than one reviewer has noticed a seriously strong thematic connection to the Oddworld series, and they're not wrong in my opinion. Ancients of Ooga definitely looks, sounds and feels like a indie spin on an Oddworld spiritual successor. The humour is also fairly similar, so if you're familiar with the level of weirdness and grossness in Oddworld, you'll definitely know exactly what to expect here.


I guess the biggest stumbling block for me (excluding the bugs, which we'll get to in a minute) is the relative ease of the game. Cloning Clyde, while fairly easy, took a fair amount of timing and skill for some of the trickier moments. Ancients of Ooga is extremely forgiving and more centred around puzzles, which are generally quite easy to figure out if you throw every switch and look closely at every item. It all adds up into a experience that would be fantastic for a younger audience, but makes it tricky to hold the attention of more seasoned players. However, the inherent fun of collecting everything and getting 100% is still there, and it's probably the most ambitious of the games in this pack.

One weird point: while playing for this post, I ran into some serious bugs in terms of levels and powers. In the Steam version of the game, the levels would unlock in the incorrect order, making weird moments when Ooganis would refer to events that didn't happen, and butchering the proper order for unlocking new worlds. This wasn't game breaking, but later the game also started randomly relocking powers and moves. For example, I would get the ability to run through thorns, but would lose it in the next level which required an Oogani to race through a massive field of thorns. Trying the Desura version hit me with the same issue, but magnified (I spontaneously lost the ability to attack, rendering the third level impossible). However, the standalone installer worked perfectly. So if you're playing the game and things seem irregular or out of order, definitely try installing one of the other versions available in the pack.




Band of Bugs (Bonus Game)
Developed by NinjaBee

While the bonus games in Indie Royales are almost always interesting extras, it isn't often you get a fully loaded complete bonus game in the pack as well, and even less often that the bonus game winds up being a highlight. But the last awesome Indie Royale had Lair of the Evildoer thrown in, which was one of my own highlights, and this lightning pack brings us NinjaBee's quirky take on the tactical RPG. Considering the very sad and pronounced lack of proper tactical RPGs on the PC, I am more than happy to see a company like NinjaBee take a crack at it.

This might start to sound a bit repetitive, but like every single game in this pack, Band of Bugs serves as a great reinterpretation of a complex genre to make it friendly for kids. And like most of the other NinjaBee games, your own enjoyment out of Band of Bugs will largely hinge on whether you mind the simplicity. Some of the more nuanced features of the genre get left out, but the core tactical RPG values are generally intact.


The included campaign in Band of Bugs centres around the training of a young bug named Maal, who finds his homeland threatened and must fight through many ferocious battles to protect his insects. It's fairly simple, and fairly short at around twenty missions to unlock. Some of the later missions certainly grow in complexity, adding in additional sides to battles and working in minor capture the flag elements, and there are medals to earn based on performance. Still, the campaign is bite sized enough that you could probably work through it in an afternoon.

The main quandary with Band of Bugs is the general lack of strategic depth in certain areas. The game does feature a lot of tactical options for units, including multiple weapons to choose from and many special abilities like magic and shouts. There's also the standard tactics aspect of proper facing and attacking your enemies from behind for better criticals. The critical hits and attack chances are even represented by a neat visual gauge, eliminating the need for some of the more superfluous numbers and keeping the interface clean and simple. When I moan about strategic depth, I mean things like experience points and equipment and the like. Your units are set at a certain ability load-out and experience level in each mission, and the lack of these tactical RPG staples definitely contributes to that simplistic feeling.


However, the game does very well in terms of multiplayer with a variety of modes and maps. Even better is the level editor, which allows for lots of tweaking in terms of maps. While this feature was probably more revolutionary on the Xbox 360, proper tools for custom levels is never a bad feature in a game. Also available is several free downloadable packs from the NinjaBee website including an all new campaign and lots of extra bonus scenarios. These carry a fee on the 360 version, so it's extra nice to see that NinjaBee made the effort to bring them over from the console market and host them for free to boot.

It's not going to consume hundreds of hours of you life like Final Fantasy Tactics does, but Band of Bugs is a neat casual take on one of the more hardcore genres. The general tactical shallowness hurts the replay value a bit, but the excellent support for more levels, environments and campaigns more than makes up for it. Band of Bugs is a great bonus game for the pack, and definitely stands out as a highlight for me.

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If my sage words have tickled your fancy, you can buy your own Indie Royale Lightning Pack for the next 60 hours or so, so you should go go go if you want in.

Also be sure to keep an eye out on Twitter for another giveaway thanks to the generous folks at IndieGames.com, and also to keep track of all my handy bundle posts. I've got at least two more in the works, with murmurs of a third. It's a busy time for bundles, that's for sure.

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