This post is also appearing in a multi-part format over on IndieGames.com.
UPDATE: I added a bit about the neat Explodemon bonus that was just unlocked below.
Hello again, and welcome to another post where I talk a whole bunch about the games in the newest Indie Royale, and you listen quietly, too polite to tell me that you probably already bought this because it's a fantastic deal. This time, we have a slightly anachronistic April Fools bundle, with five awesome games on display. While the ninja packs and side deals so far have ranged from so-so to pretty cool, the headlining Royales have been doing a great job keeping me impressed for the last few bundles, and the April Fools pack is no exception.
As for systems and Steam, every game in the pack comes with a Steam code besides Explodemon, and the whole pack is available as DRM-free downloads and Desura gifts. In terms of systems, Hack, Slash, Loot is also available on Mac and Linux, but everything else is limited to the Windows only. Skip past the break to check out my take on these five neat titles.
Were you expecting some kind of cute, jokey intro? Get real. April Fools was last week. Obviously.
Defense Grid: The Awakening
Developed by Hidden Path Entertainment
There is a metric ton of indie tower defence games, and it makes sense. There's a huge demand for the genre because it's very addicting, tactically entertaining and full of all the things gamers love like shooting things and upgrades. It's also fairly noticeable that tower defence games tend to be easily divided into two catagories: tower defences that attempt to reinvent themselves and fuse genres, or tower defences that simply strive to be the best gosh darn tower defence it can be. Defense Grid is firmly in the latter category, but it's also one of the most definitive tower defence games ever made. It looks stunning, there's a boatload of content to work through and the underlying gameplay balance is near perfect. I don't want to sound like I'm overselling how great this game is, but it really deserves the critical acclaim.
The biggest leg up Defense Grid has over the distinguished competition is production values. Now I know graphics aren't everything, especially when it comes to indie games, but they just really look great. The aliens you're defending against look varied and well designed, the towers are highly detailed and the environments are often sweeping and massive. You can keep your camera at the usual bird's eye view, but the game also lets you swoop in to get an up close shot of the action. Sure, it isn't strictly necessary, but it does look awesome. Also great is the sound; the music isn't particularly memorable but it certainly suits the action, and the sound design of turrets and aliens is excellent all around. And I can't forget about your British AI companion, which is a nice addition with good acting and amusing dialogue (of course, some oft-repeated lines take away from it, especially if you're terrible at keeping cores in your base).
In terms of gameplay, it's exactly what you expect from a tower defence but polished to a sheen. Aliens are coming through a course, and they want to grab your cores and make it to the exit. Killing an alien holding a core will allow it to slowly drift back to the base, so you need to keep from being overwhelmed and plan carefully based on the map design (which is excellent, by the way). There are ten types of towers, but instead of throwing in a bunch of incrementally better gun towers, each building has an explicit and unique purpose. There's a tower that can roast groups with a flamethrower, a tower that punches through armour at a distance, a tower that slows down everything in range and lots of other niches. The game uses a simple three tier upgrade system too keep the system from getting unwieldy and allows you to concentrate on the ten main tower types. Some might prefer more customization and tower options, but I personally think the limited toolbox allows for smarter, tighter and more clever level design.
Probably the best thing about Defense Grid is the sheer amount of content included. The version packaged by Indie Royale includes the twenty default maps, the four maps of the Borderlands expansion, and throws in all eight Resurgence maps as bonuses. This adds up thirty two distinct maps to conquer, which in and of itself is an incredible amount of content. However, every map has a bunch of extra challenges that change up the gameplay. You have basic, self explanatory stuff like capped tower limits or finite resources, but you also have atypical things like the "Out of Bullets" mode, where you can't build projectile weapons, and the "Balanced Build" mode, in which you have to build one of each tower before building duplicates.There's different challenges for each map hand-picked based on the level design, and you earn medals and leaderboard ranks for each individual challenge. To sweeten the deal, the Steam version has achievements built in and will pull your Steam friends' scores for a personal leaderboard in each level ad challenge.
To sum up, Defense Grid is a fantastically realized tower defence game based on gameplay alone, but with great presentation and over one hundred challenges to work through it's also one of the best value packed deals. If you're a tower defense fan who's missed it this whole time, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.
Hack, Slash, Loot
Developed by Gooey Blob
If developers keep using titles like Hack, Slash, Loot, then pretty soon I'm going to be out of a job. It's exactly what it says! You hack, you slash and you do a ton of looting. But I'll do my best to try to elaborate.
The roguelike was once the definition of niche; proto indie developers were tapping away at hundreds of variations on Rogue way before indie was hot. But somehow, the recent rise of indie developers has led to a bit of a renaissance. Did anyone ever think that roguelikes would become some of the most popular indie games of last year? Probably not, but here we are today with another contender for the indie roguelike crown, Hack, Slash, Loot.
Most roguelikes fall somewhere on a sliding scale between casual, easy to play outings and hardcore, brutally difficult adventures, with old school ASCII releases a la NetHack on the hard end, and newer, more forgiving fare like Cardinal Quest on the easy side. Hack, Slash, Loot definitely skews towards the easier to grasp side, but is closer to the middle of that scale than you think. It's got some brutally difficult moments and is heavily influenced by luck and random chance. Placement is more important than anything, and you need to worry constantly about bottlenecks and being surrounded. In other words, it's exactly what roguelike fans have come to expect.
The easy to grasp part of the game comes from the excellent and straightforward UI, and the simplification of the entire game. Everything is visualized in a great looking pixel art aesthetic, and the interface is entirely mouse driven with optional keyboard shortcuts. The game clearly labels everything you hover over and how you can interact with it, as well as providing a fairly detailed stat biography of each monster you highlight. Loot and healing is very straightforward too; if you see something, you can immediately see what it will upgrade and what bonuses will be added. If you like your shiny new piece, you just throw the old one away. No gold, no storage, just fire and forget loot principles. Same goes for scrolls and potions, which are used right away. There's no upper cap for your HP so there's nothing to waste. It's fast, it's simple and it might rub hardcore roguelike enthusiasts the wrong way, but newbies will appreciate the ease of use.
I'll be honest, the simplicity and fairly straightforward gameplay would probably bug me a bit too, except that the game injects some neat innovation by mixing things up in terms of classes and dungeons. There are just three base types of classes, but over thirty-two in total with most locked. These slowly unlock the more you die or finish the game, and are more powerful and more specific versions of the base fighter/archer/wizard trifecta. It's not too deep, but is quite varied and helps to ease up on the challenge level for those who need it. As for dungeons, the game comes with six default quests. Some of these simply affect your goal and what enemies you'll see, but others completely shift the style. My favourite is a battle set in a castle, where NPCs run around panicking and trying to regroup, with demons converting dead humans into slaves if you don't rescue them in time. It's still randomly generated, but allowing you to choose the flavour of dungeon ahead of time offers some great variation on the default roguelike hodge podge setting.
If you're looking for a quick, shallower roguelike you can pick up and drop over an hour or less, Hack, Slash, Loot should fit your bill. It's easy to learn, less time consuming than games like Dungeons of Dredmor and a little more challenging than titles like the aforementioned Cardinal Quest. With the great graphics and interface, Hack, Slash, Loot manages to squeeze challenging gameplay into a casual nook of a hardcore niche.
Alien Zombie Megadeath
Developed by PomPom Games
Next up in our look at the Indie Royale comes a pair of old school influenced arcade style games: Alien Zombie Megadeath and Astro Tripper. We'll start with Alien Zombie Megadeath, which is the newer of the two titles and probably the more accessible one. Sure, the name could use some work, but the underlying game itself is a great throwback to a simpler era. You'll pretty much know right away if you'll like Alien Zombie Megadeath based on how much you like older coin-op arcade games, because the title is basically a flashier, updated arcade platformer shooter.
You are an astronaut, just chilling and travelling through space when alien zombies begin to attack you on a series of thin platforms that can be easily and conveniently passed though. Using your gun and a wide array of power-ups, you must blow them up before they overwhelm you. Adding to the formula is the scoring system, which scores you points and increases your multiplier. In a twist, you don't score points by bringing megadeath to alien zombies, but instead from collecting the crystals that fly out from their exploding bodies. This creates a risk vs. reward system, as it's easy to kill the alien zombies from the other side of the map, but doing so loses you a lot of potential points and hinders your multiplier. However, getting up close means it's easier to find oneself surrounded and on the receiving end of a hot plate of megadeath. Each level has four medals to earn based on a variety of goals, and the medals are used to unlock future levels. You'll need to brush up on those chaining skills if you want to earn these medals, as the prerequisites for some of them can be sky high.
There are a ton of levels on the world map, and even though each one operates on the same basic scheme (bring megadeath to alien zombies), there's a lot of variety in the various missions. Some missions include extra objectives like space babies to protect and ferry across the battlefield, while others feature bombs to dispose of before a short time limit. My personal favourite levels were the ones with the jetpack, which frees you from the earthly chains of the platforms and allow for a rampage from above.
It's certainly not a very hard game, and none of the levels will particularly challenge you for the bare minimum goals. However, the medals do require a lot of skill to snag, making the game extremely easy to pick up, but fairly challenging to master.
In this game (and Astro Tripper as well), I much preferred using an Xbox 360 controller. The game seems designed with a controller in mind, and supports the 360 pad without any further tweaking. It also comes with local shared keyboard co-op, which was actually really enjoyable. Alien Zombie Megadeath is probably not going to wow you, but as a fun little distraction it certainly has a great old school arcade charm.
Developed by PomPom Games
Astro Tripper is the second of PomPom Games' arcade inspired titles, this time a polished remake of their original PC (and later iOS) game Space Tripper. Out of the two, it's hard to say which one I liked better. Both have great, tight controls, both rely on scores and combos and both involve an awful lot of shooting. Astro Tripper is definitely the better looking game, but it's far less forgiving than Alien Zombie Megadeath, which can be frustrating. But hey, Indie Royale includes both, so you can decide for yourself and let me know in the comments!
Astro Tripper is a horizontal scrolling shooter with a few important twists. First of all, you can move in any direction, but you always face the side of the screen. Secondly, you have a button to slam on the air brakes and flip your direction, so you can quickly turn around to face sneaky attacks from behind. Thirdly, you've got two weapons you can change to at will: a straightforward blue laser, and a double laser that fires above and below you, but leaves your middle exposed. These lasers can be upgraded with drops, but they upgrade on separate tracks allowing you to pick and choose which setting to boost. Lastly, each level takes place in one arena. You can move anywhere as long as you aren't blocked by a wall, but falling off the edge is an instant death.
Speaking of instant deaths, there are plenty to be had. The time limit alone was the bane of many a boss fight for me, but it's hard in traditional ways as well. The game operates on a one hit equals one death policy, which is pretty reasonable. Except dying restarts the entire level from scratch. And you only have three lives. And losing all of them boots you back to the main menu. Ouch. Sure, you can restart at the beginning of a chapter, but each chapter encompasses multiple levels and some of the levels are just really tough to get through on their own, let alone sandwiched between two other tricky missions. Even playing on easy won't save you since the setting only affects your laser's power, not the sheer volume of enemies. It's a fair challenge of course, and it never really descends into cheap death trickery. The game just demands a lot from your twitchy skills.
In terms of controls, again the gamepad was the superior choice. I left the firing key on a face button, but remapped the flipping and weapon switch controls from the buttons to the triggers which seemed like the ideal control scheme. It's definitely a challenge, and even a bit frustrating at that. But ultimately it's also a rewarding challenge for those who can best it. It's a visually stunning game with beautiful effects, great enemy design and some very fun levels. Just make sure you don't go in expecting a cakewalk.
Developed by Curve Studios
Let's get this out of the way first. I've been cruising Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and the general internet population, and it seems like there's a lot of confusion between Explodemon and Twisted Pixel's 'Splosion Man. Part of this is brought on by the crummy rip-off by Capcom's mobile division, part of it by the similarities between both characters (they explode!) and part of it by other small touches. It's unfair to dismiss this game just because of the similarities, especially since Explodemon came first. I'm also sure that Curve Studios is absolutely sick of being compared to 'Splosion Man, and I don't blame them. However, I think the underlying fundamental differences between these two games provides a good frame of reference to demonstrate exactly how Explodemon plays. Unlike 'Splosion Man's twitch platform style. Explodemon is much slower paced, there's a ton of combat and it is essentially one long extended riff on old SNES action platformers, particularly the Mega Man X series.
Much like the Blue Bomber, Explodemon is a robot guardian who used to operate on a semi-futuristic world, in this case the peaceful planet Nibia. Unfortunately for the planet, this guardian had no ability beyond exploding, and he exploded often and loudly. Since he had no control over its explosions, and no real common sense, Explodemon was locked away forever in a cryo chamber. When an alien invasion begins with the other guardians missing in action, a stray missile frees Explodemon, either saving or dooming the planet.
One area the game excels at is humour. The dialogue is snappy and genuinely funny, the cutscenes have a great sense of timing even without voice-overs and there's something inherantly amusing about playing as a defective psychotic ersatz Mega Man. Would most action games be improved if the developer replaced the most basic weapon with self destructive explosions? Apparently so! Looking beyond the humour, it's clear that Curve's cleverness extends to the smart level design, which is packed with secret areas and extra challenges to explore. They also excel at giving the game a unique visual flair, with nice pyrotechnics, clean cel shaded graphics and some excellent use of animation and bullet time for the explosion combos.
In terms of style it's very much like your average SNES futuristic robot platformer where work your way through each level, using all sorts of athletic feats like sliding and wall jumping. Of course, you'll run into enemies that must be exploded, or gaps that need just a little bit of an extra boost to get across, which is where your primary function comes into play. Your explosion power is unlimited beyond the few seconds of reloading, and can be used to jet around the level, move crates around quickly, ram into enemies and smash up breakables. Curve does throw in a few variables, like an upgrade system that boosts your awesomeness up to 1000%, a neat mechanic where your explosion's effectiveness is influenced by your health meter and the ability to chain explosions into attack combos. Throw in a few traditional boss fights against your former companion Absorbemon and an excellent retro soundtrack, and you've got a title that's an excellent SNES tribute and a great game to boot.
Overall, it plays almost exactly like if someone thought Mega Man X would be better if he just exploded all the time. It's funny, the game design is great and the platforming is a ton of fun. Explodemon is definitely an excellent throwback to add to your collection.
But wait! Also in the package is an Explodemon prototype, which was the base version of the engine Curve used to shop the game around. It's actually surprising how many familiar elements made it into the full game, like most of the art style and enemies, Explodemon's erratic way with words, the combo explosion combat system and even whole sections of levels.
It looks rough but it is content complete and just as much fun as the main game. For anyone interested in the game development cycle, it shows a rare inside look at how a prototype is developed. For me personally, I liked how it shows just how important a good gameplay hook is when it comes to great indie titles. There are so many great indie games with cool gameplay hooks like Explodemon that just don't get the funding or support to fully polish it, and it's heartening to see that Explodemon managed to find success with its great fusion of retro throwback and innovative ideas.
And there's the April Fools bundle all wrapped up. If you want your own copy, you should check out that little bit of technomancy I pasted in below and pick it up. Who knew there was an Indie Royale widget this whole time?