May 04, 2012

Indie Gala IV: The Voyage Home

UPDATE AGAIN: A new game was unlocked. I've got the scoop.

UPDATE: Music has been added to the bundle. I'll list the tracks below.

In my round-up of the Indie Gala's third bundle, I was somewhat less than impressed with most of the games. There were a few good highlights, and some of the bad parts looped right back around to so-bad-it's-good territory, but generally speaking it was a bit of a misstep in my opinion. Shortly after the end of that bundle, Indie Gala launched a new bundle with just two baseline games and two beat the average bonuses. Of course, there was a promise of more to come, with five new games just unlocked. That leaves us with nine games to work through, so I suppose I better get busy.

Every game in the pack activates on Steam with two exceptions, which I will mark when we get there. First up past the break is the baseline games, then I'll delve into the beat the average bonuses.

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution
Developed by Kot-In-Action
Platforms: Windows, Mac

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution is a great top down shooter with a lot of cool things going for it. It also made an appearance very recently in the IndieFort, which if you're a good little follower of my blog you've already read about. I don't want to seem lazy, but I really don't have much more to add beyond what I wrote last time so I'll just copy and paste what I originally wrote for those just dropping in to Backlog Journey for the first time.

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution is a game with a long and varied history (thanks to @sbenrap on Twitter for the interesting interview). Originally part two of a freeware episode one, it's gone through revisions, updates, tweaks and modifications since the original release. I distinctly remembered playing it way back when it was part of the Humble Indie Bundle 3, but I didn't much care for it at the time. One very mild pet peeve I have are games that show a bit too much of the backend, and Steel Storm felt like each level was running off of a dedicated server. But still, that was then and this is now. I don't know if I was just doing it wrong, or if it's all the dedicated updating work Kot-In-Action has done, but Steel Storm: Burning Retribution is a pretty great top down shooter. It's flashy, it has a good weapons system and it's quite fun to play, especially with a game pad.

First, let's go over what I really like. The game looks awesome, with excellent flashy lights for the weapons and cool cel shaded graphics for the many bad guys you face. The environments are detailed and quite varied, and the game runs incredibly smoothly even with a lot of pizazz on the screen. The angle is quite unique as well, finding a balance about halfway between a traditional top down shooter and a third person car combat game. The weapons are all slowly unlocked throughout the campaign, and you can pick and choose what to equip based on the situation at hand using a booth at the entrance to each level. The weapons all look excellent as well, particularly the special attacks. A giant honking laser? Sounds good to me.

There's a few glaring issues I feel like I should bring up and it all seems to centre on the level design. The levels are just not well crafted, and too many of them require utterly pointless back tracking. I'd have no issue if the game respawned the enemies and forced you to fight your way back to whence you came, but aside from a few half hearted weaklings you're mostly retreading through empty corridors. Why? The second half of the second level has you fight to the end, flip a switch, unlock a gate, fly back through nothing, flip a switch and then fly all the way back to the exit gate. It just doesn't make sense.

Still, this certainly isn't a dealbreaker, as most of the time the backtracking never adds more than a minute or two. Honestly, the fluid and fun combat more than makes up for it. As someone who always liked cruising on a Ghost in Halo games, this feels like someone blew those segements up into a fully loaded vehicle shooter. It gets even better in cooperative missions with a few other players zipping around and exploding things. You don't have any friends and you hate people? There's a great deathmatch option as well. Overall, I had way more fun with Steel Storm: Burning Retribution than I remembered, and I wish I'd given the game a second chance earlier. If you're looking for a bit of mindless vehicle shooting fun with a few friends, Steel Storm is a solid choice.

You can download the first episode here, and also try a Burning Retribution demo on Steam or Desura.

ARES Extinction Agenda
Developed by Extend Studio
Platforms: Windows

ARES Extinction Agenda is a game with some very clear influences in mind; it strives to take the gameplay of Mega Man and Metroid, and then modernize it. You play as ARES, a state of the art robot sent in to the Junk Sector, a collection of satellites that have come under attack by unknown adversaries. Your main goal is to rescue important hostages while fighting your way through the wreckage, the hostile security robots and the giant boss machines. In all honesty, the storyline is adequate but not really anything special. It's an excuse to shoot robots, which is just fine with me.

Like I said, ARES is clearly built to be an indie Mega Man/Metroid combo. The enemy varieties, level design and slightly slower paced mobility all come straight from the Blue Bomber, while the upgrades, backtracking in previous levels and giant bosses are more up Samus' alley. It's a combination that works very well; removing the Metroidvania exploration aspects keeps the game focused on combat and platforming, while adding in upgrades and new abilities encourages revisiting previous levels to max out your efficiency.

The key element in this combination is how ARES modernizes both games to be a bit more intuitive. First of all, ARES can fire in all directions by aiming with your mouse or control stick. There's no need for the careful positioning of Mega Man, as the bullets can fly in all 360 degrees.It's a major change that makes the combat a little more freeform than the rote memorization of Mega Man and pulls it closer to a looser Metroid. The change in controls might be the most game changing alteration, but the graphics and soundtrack are likely the most noticeable. The graphics are all nice cel shaded models, giving the game a slight cartoonish look while keeping the intricate robot designs of its predecessors. The soundtrack is a completely fantastic high energy set of tracks from Hyperduck Soundworks, and nearly overshadows the game itself. The final bit of modernization is the upgrade system, which lets you soup up your particular favourite weapons, a bit of modern customization not often found in a retro throwback.

Overall ARES is a pretty decent retro remake of older classics a la Mega Man. If you're not so much a fan of said classics, you might not really like the tense difficulty, occasionally sloppy controls or the lack of mid level saving. It's also not long, which means it doesn't overstay its welcome. ARES is a nice, short, fun retro platformer if you're jonesing for a throwback. A bundle is probably the best way to pick it up.

You can try a demo of ARES from their home page, or on Steam.

Alien Shooter
Developed by Sigma Team
Platforms: Windows

I took a peek at Zombie Shooter way way way back in the first Indie Gala, so it's worth going over some very clear differences. That game had zombies, and this game has aliens. Does it make a huge difference? Not really. It's still got the same low-fi graphics, the same light RPG elements and the same commitment to large scale hordes of enemies. It's all just rougher.

One thing Sigma Team is slightly infamous for is pretty bad graphics. I don't want to sound mean, but that's just how they're designed. It's a facet of the game that often turns people off from purchasing it. I'll admit it even turned me off from checking out the games before; I thought that the graphics looked like sub-Crusader: No Remorse quality and moved on to other games. But little did I realize that I was wrong, there's a pretty interesting base behind the games. The shooting aspect is more or less like any other isometric shooter, but the RPG elements and volume of enemies gives the series a unique flavour.

It's actually almost surprising to me that there's a four year gap between Alien Shooter and Zombie Shooter, because both of them are so similar. They've got the same self contained levels, the same gear to buy between missions and identical mechanics for almost every gameplay aspect. There's a clear progression of scope and complexity from Alien Shooter all the way to Zombie Shooter 2, and since Alien Shooter is on the bottom of the food chain the simplicity can be a bit disappointing. Your character is limited to either a male or female nameless protagonist, and the RPG elements are largely just stat increases, disposable pick-ups and new weapons to buy. It's not quite up to the complexity of later entries in the series (which I'll get to in a moment) but it is a good way of doling out weapons and upgrades.

Another example of a unique aspect more fully developed later on in the series is the enemies. No, they're not all that varied as palette swapping is pretty prevalent. They're also not so creative, as most of the creatures follow the Alien school of design. But oh wow, is there ever a whole bunch of them. While Alien Shooter doesn't quite support the same volume of baddies, there's still well over fifty on the screen at once. I can't think of any other game where firing round after round from your grenade launcher is a wise use of ammo, but here it's borderline required. The one downside is that the AI is extremely stupid, often getting trapped in corners and around bends. But sometimes everything just clicks and a horde of aliens rush forward to gnaw off your face.

The less developed RPG mechanics, the dull environments and the graphical quirks (try running in one direction and facing the other) make Alien Shooter a bit of a rough game. But it certainly did pave the way for the far more varied Zombie Shooters. And the sequel of course, but that's a discussion for later.

Heads up, everything from here on out requires you to beat the average. Back it up, cheapskates.

Disciples II: Gallean's Return
Developed by Strategy First
Platforms: Windows

I'm pretty sure that Strategy First only broadly barely sort of fits the increasingly murky definition of indie developer, but as a diehard fan of slightly aged games I can't say I mind the trend of older games showing up for the Gala. Better yet is when there's an older game that I'm pretty unfamiliar with. Enter Disciples II.

I've always preferred Age of Wonder, and I was also a Heroes of Might and Magic fan, but I never really got into this series so forgive me if I get this wrong. As I recall, Disciples II was released first, and then followed by two expansion packs each containing half of the base game and extra missions. Eventually these two standalone-ish expansions were combined into Gallean's Return, the version you now see in this bundle, with Rise of the Elves being a totally separate game and a story for another day. So this package consists of ten levels for each of the four races, a base campaign and a short three level story follow-up. Regardless, the game is a classic turn based strategy very much in the HoMM or Age of Wonder style, but with enough key differences to throw me off guard.

The main gameplay is pretty much classic TBS. You begin with a capital city and a handful of resources, and through careful management and brute force you can slowly overcome the other three factions and take control of their capital. Like HoMM and other TBS games, you build leaders to travel around the maps, and then stock the leader's army chock full of units. The neat thing about Disciples II is the way army size doesn't really come into play. Each unit fills a single slot which means the ridiculous arms race that HoMM often devolved into doesn't show up here. You have just five units and your leader, and units improve to higher classes with xp, not with gold or luck.

The combat is extremely simplified compared to the grid battles of HoMM or the completely insane tactical skirmishes of AoW. You arrange your regiment into the front and back rows of three slots each. Battles are turn based a la Final Fantasy. It's a bit simple for my taste, as your units generally don't have much in the way of special abilities beyond "hit bad guy", "hit bad guys" or "heal". But the simplicity means that battles are resolved really fast. It's a shame the rest of the game isn't as fluid, as leaders are locked for the rest of the turn after combat which means the flow of the game is a bit janky. It's a minor annoyance, but it feels like your units just aren't versatile enough and the long loading between turns is a bit grating.

Still, Disciples II is definitely one of the big name TBS games from the turn of the millennium for good reason. It's got a ton of fun content to work through, nice (albeit dated) graphics and excellent and easy to learn tactical gameplay. It's an easy game to recommend for people into other games like HoMM, AoW or even non fantasy titles like Civilization.

Developed by Nimbly Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac

I can't say I'm much for multiplayer games, especially the usual deathmatch style of competition. It's partially because I'm just a friendly person, partially because they tend to be a bit difficult to break into and mostly because I'm pretty wretched at FPS games. But every so often some clever developer comes up with a new style of multiplayer game that tries something unique and different. Altitude is definitely one of these. It's got all the usual deathmatch modes, but the style of gameplay couldn't be more different.

Altitude is a game of dogfights. You and a server full of other players each pick a style of plane, and then take to the crowded arenas to prove whoever is the better combat pilot. Each class of plane comes with two weapons, and there's a variety of gadgets to pick up on the field and deploy during dicey dogfights. The planes are zippy and easy to control, but it's not effortless as climbing too quickly will cause your engine to stall, putting your poor plane at a perilous disadvantage. The game becomes a contest of who can keep their plane in the most advantageous spots, and who is better at slipping in between the cracks and tunnels that litter the battlefields.

The various spins on deathmatch were my favourite modes, but Nimbly went above and beyond to add a few extra modes beyond the usual fare. Plane Ball is a spin on one flag CTF, in which your team needs to carry a ball to the opposing sides net. While you can run the ball just like any flag, you can also "kick" it to bounce off walls and pass to a faster teammate. Base Destruction was another unique highlight, in which your team is required to pick up a bomb gadget to nuke the other side's base, while defending your own. If you've ever played Battlefield BC2's Squad Rush mode, this game mode creates very similar hectic defence moments, but wrapped up in the unique perspective of Altitude's gameplay style.

The game borrows another quirk from popular shooters, but this one is from shooter goliath Call of Duty. As you down tangos, you earn XP to level up and unlock new styles of plane and new perks. The perk system allows you to customize your plane for specific situations, and lets you pull off a few surprises against the opposing team. The perks are well balanced, and allow you to play to your strengths. Good at movement, but not at shooting? Grab a perk to add targeted missiles at the reduction of raw power.

It's not perfect. For single player minded folk, there isn't much to be had here besides custom matches with bots. It can be a bit difficult to find a good server at times as well, but fortunately with the inclusion of the game in the Indie Gala the population has spiked considerably. If you like unique multiplayer experiences and fast paced side scrolling aerial acrobatics, Altitude is definitely a game you can drop some time into.

Really Big Sky
Developed by Boss Baddie
Platforms: Windows

Let's be honest here; if I had a nickel for every fast paced stunning looking twin stick shooter I get in a bundle, I would have a handful of nickels. There are way too many indie twin stick shooters that come out in these bundles, and you would go insane trying to play them all. It's hard for me to recommend each and every one of them, because your time is a precious resource and you probably want to play a variety of games, not just the same ones over and over. That being said, Really Big Sky is probably my top pick of the lot, right alongside Beat Hazard and the stuff from Radian Games.

The key difference between the average twin stick shooter and Really Big Sky is that the game is also a horizontal side scrolling shooter at the same time. Your ship will be rushing right at uncomfortably high speeds, which gives the game a far better sense of urgency than a standstill freeform Asteroids lookalike. You'll rush through gas clouds, zip through broken bits of machinery and, the coolest part, drill through entire planets. The shooting is pretty typical twin stick fare, but occasionally it kicks up the difficulty into bullet hell territory, particularly around bosses. It took me a while to get used to the controls, and you will die early and die often. But each death lets you upgrade your ship just a little bit, meaning better and flashier gear for your next attempt. It's a bit addicting, and I had to pry myself away to write this after five "just one more" games in a row.

It also looks really fantastic. Oddly enough for an indie game, Really Big Sky needs a nice computer to run with all engines revving. However, it scales really well. I took all these screenshots on medium quality, which was the highest I could set it and still get 60 FPS, but the effects still look gorgeous. It's all topped off by a great soundtrack and a wry commentator. You probably didn't realize that a British person calling you a tit was the motivation you needed to get better at games, but yeah. That's exactly what you need.

There are a ton of fantastic twin stick shooters out there, but Really Big Sky is definitely one of the better looking iterations and one of the best shooters to pick up and play. There's a ton of modes to unlock, a lot of variety even within single modes and games never last more than a handful of minutes. If you missed it during the Indie Royale prerelease, and you like the genre, it's an easy recommendation for me to make.

Alien Shooter 2: Reloaded
Developed by Sigma Team
Platforms: Windows

Well well, this seems familiar. Surprise surprise, Alien Shooter 2 is the much improved sequel to the game I wrote about so very long ago. The nice thing is that the game improves on Alien Shooter in nearly every way, taking several cues and systems from Sigma Team's companion series Zombie Shooter and doubling down on the RPG elements. While I still think Zombie Shooter is the more enjoyable experience, Alien Shooter 2 blows the first one out of the water.

There are still aliens, and you still shoot them, but everything else is delightfully revamped. The graphics, while still the typical Sigma Team style, are a big step forward; the environments are much more varied and cohesive, while the aliens have a bigger diversity beyond simple palette swaps. The RPG mechanics are better, with proper inventory systems and the ability to level up stats with XP instead of money. There are eight different characters to begin with, each with different starting loadouts and ludicrous backstories, and eight perks to change how you play the game. There's even a storyline that basically serves to make you feel like you were just thrown into the middle of an Alien pastiche, complete with NPCs that fight along with you. Overall it's bigger and better in pretty much every way.

The version included in the Indie Gala is the Reloaded edition; unfortunately, the enhanced edition of Alien Shooter 1 was not included, which is a strange decision. Still, I'm glad Alien Shooter 2 got the enhanced treatment, as it adds more levels, an additional mode and a much needed simplification to the level up mechanics.

Let's get back to what I was saying about number of enemies. Alien Shooter 2 adds even more aliens on screen at a time—the Steam page claims 10,000 per map, which seems pretty accurate—which goes back to what I was saying about that special something that Sigma Team games have. I mean, by any stretch these games shouldn't be all that memorable or unique, but something about the sheer number of baddies and the deep ammo pockets of your character makes the game way more fun than I would ever expect. I don't know, there's just something about shooting two hundred facehuggers in a narrow hallway while slowly being backed into the dead end. It's tense and incredibly fun.

I still prefer zombie shooting, but Alien Shooter 2 is a pretty excellent improvement from the first game and a fitting companion to the undead offshoot.

Did you know that Indie Gala incepted a bundle within the bundle this time around? Yes, the pay what you want Lunar Pack from Boss Baddie (minus the Project Tormishire tracks they've since been added) is included as a bonus for paying above the average. So this part of the post can double as a review for that bundle. Score.

Developed by Boss Baddie
Platforms: Windows (DRM Free)

Where did Wake come from? It's an earlier game from Boss Baddie (you know, the Really Big Sky guys), and it's utterly fantastic. It's a Metroidvania game in spirit, but with an intensity very much like the original Prince of Persia. You are a tiny engineer on a boat that needs to escape. Why do you need to get out so bad? Well, your ship is sinking, everything is on fire, the power keeps cutting out, machine guns are going rampant and overall you're pretty screwed.

The whole sinking thing is definitely the most interesting aspect of the game, as it adds a soft time limit to the adventure because, well, drowning. The level slowly fills with water which can completely change the approach you have to each room. Crates will float up and open or close new routes, fires will be extinguished and you'll be able to swim to inaccessible halls. Of course, you very well might drown which makes the race to keep ahead of the water critically important. Even without the water aspects, the entire game is very freeform and open ended, allowing for many different routes through the ship. It would be impossible to explore everything without drowning, so the game fills the space with a wide variety of routes to take.

The graphics are pretty critical when it comes to setting the mood. It's mostly pixel art, but the entire game is made over with heavy post processing effects and unsettling use of particles. It seems like a bit of a predecessor to current indie darling Lone Survivor, with intense darkness and tons of smoke. It adds a sense of claustrophobia to an already incredibly claustrophobic experience. As an extra little bonus, the pretty excellent soundtrack is thrown into the download for a bonus.

There are things that keep the game from being a perfect experience. Loading between screens is a bit of an obnoxious pause, especially for vertical transitions. The total lack of saving can be annoying too, and there's no way to pause as the ESC key just terminates the entire game. But it's a very unique premise for a Metroidvania; it's tense and fairly scary at times. Wake is probably my pick for the highlight of the package.

Random point, but the 360 controller support is fantastic. It even uses the rumble.

Lunnye Devitsy
Developed by Boss Baddie
Platforms: Windows (DRM Free)

Lunnye Devitsy is a lot like Wake, but also is entirely different in every way. Both are Metroidvania, but aside from that it's much more cheerful and relatively risk free for drowning. You are a tiny alien, and you've fallen off the moon. It's a downer, but luckily there are six well hidden ways to get back to your home. You'll need to jump around the landscape and pick up various power-ups to figure out a solution to your predicament.

The art style is pretty great. It's a lot more abstract than Wake, and it significantly tones down the post processing in favour of minimalist silhouettes. It's a style that works very well for the game at first, but leads to the main problem: the world feels a bit empty. The power-ups are few and far between and you can often wander for a while before finding anything interesting. Worse still is the dead ends. And like Wake, the game utterly lacks any form of saving, and it doesn't even include an options menu, instead asking you to do config file editing.

I do like Lunnye Devitsy, but after the intensity of Wake it felt a bit too empty and simple. It's definitely cute, and the multiple routes to the ending adds a degree of intrigue and variety to subsequent playthroughs. It's just pretty clear that Boss Baddie learned a lot from this when they returned to the Metroidvania genre for Wake, which makes it a far more evolved and unique experience. Lunnye Devitsy is definitely worth a look, particularly if you like Metroidvania games, but overall I wasn't hooked by it for too long.

DeadEnd: Cerebral Vortex
Developed by Membranos
Platforms: Windows (DRM-free)

What is it with indie games and brains? More than a few trippy game developers have decided to use the most complex organ as a backdrop for whatever psychedelic experiece they've cooked up. This is certainly true for DeadEnd: Cerebral Vortex, a maze game set in the untrustworthy landscapes of your shattered psyche.

But before we get to the good trippy stuff, what exactly is the game? well, it's a maze game, which is a genre that doesn't exactly see a lot of love these days. From a first person perspective, you wander the grid based mazes looking for fragments of your soul, as well as other helpful power-ups. The big twist is that your sight is unreliable, with fake walls and hidden hallways that are only revealed when you get closer.

Unfortunately this surreal lack of proper information is going to irrevocably turn some people off of the game. I don't blame them, as there were times I was getting a bit frustrated and thoroughly lost, wandering blindly hoping a new route is revealed. Particularly annoying are the later levels with the switches to invert the walls, as it overcomplicates the already expansive levels and makes it near impossible to keep straight in your mind. Obviously that's part of the appeal, but it can also be a huge downside.

But the allure of new environments was more than enough to keep me going, and I was not disappointed. The game has atmosphere coming out of its ears. Each chapter of four levels has a completely unique look and style, and even within the levels there is a fair amount of variety. From a mournful motituaty that vaguely resembles an insane asylum to snow filled sewers that fool you at every turn, each level looks uniquely unsettling and seems to hint at an overarching tragedy that plunged you into your own brain.

The weird control scheme contributes a lot. It may look like a FPS at first, but the controls are less Portal and more Legend of Grimrock. You move by facing a new square and clicking, leading to a more plodding pace through the unsettling environments. It seems very weird and constraining at first, but I quickly warmed to it once I realized how much the controls helped the atmosphere.

It won't be for everyone, but DeadEnds is quite a trip into the brain, less psychedelic and more unsettling than the average indie brain adventure. It's a great icing to the already appealing Indie Gala cake.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Gala without music! Alongside the Project Tormishire tracks that round out the Lunar Bundle within a bundle, there's a ton of other music to have too.

  • The Really Big Sky OST
  • Giraffage - Pretty Things EP
  • Giraffage - Comfort
  • The Flashbulb - Opus at the End of Everything
  • The Flashbulb - Arboreal
  • I'm Cwazy - Dubstep'n'Stuff EP
  • Kr1z + F-777 - ReMotion Vol. 1

I think this Indie Gala fixed a lot of the problems of the last bundle by stepping things up in terms of quantity and quality for the games. The baseline bundle is a nice standalone value and the beat the average bundle is definitely worth the current asking price, particularly if you missed out on the previous bundles with ARES, Really Big Sky and Steel Storm. Plus, the promise of more music and potentially more games to come means more potential value for you, and more work for me. If you're convinced, go grab it.

If you already have most of the games or they don't really interest you, consider checking out the Lunar pack for Wake alone. It's really excellent and certainly deserves to be far more well known than it currently is.

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  1. Good read! Thanks for giving Steel Storm a second chance :) I am working on DLC mission pack at this time (new maps), which will serve as a prequel to Steel Storm 2.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! Good to hear there are more maps coming, and Steel Storm 2 sounds great so far. As a big fan of old school FPS, I'm interested to see the new direction. Tomes of Mephistopheles looks really fantastic as well, I'll have to scrape together enough for a preorder eventually because first person dungeon crawlers are right up my alley.

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