June 08, 2012

Indie Gala V Part 3: The Top Tier

So you've already got twelve games, but it's not enough! Well, if you pay at least six dollars, IndieGala throws in four more games and a bunch of music. Not too bad at all, no? Again, keep in mind that this is to benefit charity, and you can skew your donation to wherever you want it to go. Also keep in mind that I've previously done reviews of the tier 1 games and tier 2 games, so be sure to check those out too.

So far we've had twelve games with a few gems and a few duds mixed in. How are the final four games going to stack up? Find out past the break.

Disciples II: Rise of the Elves
Developed by Strategy First

Last time a Disciples game made an appearance in the Indie Gala, I explained a bit about the confusing structure of this game's expansion packs. Basically, Disciples II: Dark Prophecy is the base game. Gallean's Return is the base game, plus three extra missions for each of the four races. Rise of the Elves, on the other hand, is the base game with a whole new race added (take a stab at which one it is), but without the bonus missions from Gallean's Return. Unfortunately, there's no way to combine the two expansions into one definitive version. Follow me so far? Good.

Seeing as I already covered the basics of gameplay the last time I looked at the series, I'll just do a condensed version here. You hire heroes, load them up with a party of units, truck them around maps, have them kill baddies, capture resources and conquer cities. It all plays out through a turn based 4X like map system, with the battles themselves following a more traditional turn based RPG combat system between the two groups involved. The battles can be a little slow, but they look cool, they're fun to experiment with in terms of group make-up and the auto-battle/instant resolve options go a long way towards resolving my previous issue of slow paced battles.

The other nice thing is that the inclusion of elves offers a brand new hierarchy of units, and probably one of the more interesting ones in the game. I didn't really discuss unit upgrades in my last review, so let me explain here. You have five or so units to pick from, but most leaders can only support a maximum of four in their party. Once a unit gets enough XP, it evolves into the next tier of unit. However, in order for the class to level up, you need to have built the proper building in your captial. Now the interesting aspect of this is that you can build different buildings to change which career track your units go down. Prefer AoE magic? There's a building for that. Want different mages? Send your archers down the path of wild magics. It's a pretty simple system, but the joy of seeing your unit level up and get twice as powerful is quite a great reward.

Another aspect I enjoyed about Rise of the Elves is the Elf campaign. The nice thing is that it starts out a little more complex than the other races, and it gives you access to the full tech tree a little faster than the other races do. It's also got one of the more interesting plots of the five, although in general the storyline takes a massive backseat to the gameplay.

So if the missing bits of Disciples II was bugging you after buying the Indie Gala IV, that's all fixed for Indie Gala V. It may not be indie per say, and it's certainly dated, but it's a solid fantasy TBS right up the alley of those who enjoy other strategy games from the era.

Puzzle Kingdoms
Developed by Infinite Interactive

Puzzle Quest was a much needed breath of fresh air in the match three genre. It took the most basic of casual game mechanics and turned it into something that could actually pull more hardcore gamers in with the promise of stats, level-ups and loot. Now, from the same creator, comes Puzzle Kingdoms. While both games do use the central concept of match three as a combat mechanic, they do so in very different ways. Puzzle Quest is all about the single combat, while Puzzle Kingdoms is more focused on character builds and armies.

In Puzzle Kingdoms, you are presented with a huge world map of more than a dozen kingdoms. Though only one is unlocked at a time, clearing each one will exponentially unlock more of them to conquer. Your character needs to travel to the centre of each kingdom, where the screen zooms into a layout of castles, ruins and towers. At this point, the army you have selected for this fight travels to the many towers on the map, fighting the armies they find and using the gold from their winnings to pick up reinforcements. Once you clear the map, things zoom back out and you have access to the resources the kingdom offers, like a recruitment mini-game or a dungeon crawl puzzle.

Combatwise, you enter battle with four soldiers of your own choice. Each one requires a certain number and colour of energy to attack, which you gather by, well, matching three. Once you get enough energy for a crossbow attack or whatever, you can either unleash it or attempt to power up additional units for a more devastating combo attack. Any energy not used by your units becomes mana for a wide variety of spells you can equip. It's a great structure, and the focus on powering units means that it is far more critical to look at the puzzle from every angle as only certain colours will have any use at all.

My one complaint is one that showed up in Puzzle Quest as well. The AI seems scientifically designed to piss you off. No matter what you move or how you play, it seems that the AI can effortlessly cause huge flowing cascades of combos on every other turn due to blind luck with falling pieces. It's not impossible to overcome, but it does get grating. I get that this is probably just me not being good enough at the game, as making sure your enemy doesn't score energy is just as important as making sure you do. But there is a certain degree of luck here, which can be frustrating with the limited resources of each battle.

However, the vast majority of the game is fantastic. The graphics are great, the soundtrack is surprisingly excellent and the huge possibilities for builds of heroes, units, spells, items and relics gives Puzzle Kingdoms an almost trading card game mentality. If you're a fan of Puzzle Quest, but you've just ran out of quests, Puzzle Kingdoms is a whole new spin on the same basic formula, and plenty of fun as well.

Ninja Blade
Developed by From Software

Word of warning: I absolutely could not get this game to work on my PC. Every time I started the game, it ran at less than 1 FPS. Apparently, this is a common error for people using a 64 bit OS, and can only be fixed by removing all USB devices. Unfortunately, that would be impossible to do for me. But since it doesn't affect everyone, I decided to fire up the demo of the game on the Xbox 360 and work from that. Obviously, this may not be representative of the final product you get with the bundle, but it's the best I've got.

Here's the thing though; I wish it worked on my computer because I actually kind of want to play it. Ninja Blade is a game of From Software's doing, otherwise known as the studio behind both Demon's and Dark Souls. It comes across as their own way of taking a crack at the Devil May Cry/Ninja Gaiden format, but with the crazy turned up. Sure, it's not Bayonetta crazy, but it's up there.

You are a high tech ninja who has been training for years to fight the carriers, a group of humans and animals infected by Alpha Worms. Guess what? There's a whole bunch of these carriers in downtown Tokyo. Apparently the Japanese government knew this day would come, and for some reason decided that the best response to a full scale epidemic is a team of six ninjas. I suppose it makes for good action game fodder, but I would think that perhaps that funding could have come up with a better plan.

Regardless, here we are. The basic gameplay is pretty standard hack and slash business; you've got a variety of weapons and attacks to chain together and kill monsters. The combat is fluid, and it certainly looks cool, so generally that aspect of the gameplay holds up. The big deciding factor here is going to be how much you like quick time events, because they account for roughly 30% of the demo. There's mitigating factors, like the fact that the game does warn you ahead of time with a smash cut zoom to your ninja's eyeball. But overall, you will be mashing A, B, X and Y to progress through increasingly ludicrous stunts. While I get annoyed when QTEs are shoehorned into a game where they don't fit, they do fit here. It's all about the ridiculous action sequence, so the game is built around expecting QTEs as a major aspect. Still, you mileage may vary based on your own QTE philosophy.

I can't say how well the game is built for keyboards with the PC version. Since the menus neglected to change the prompts from the Xbox buttons, and one menu screen actually mapped the A button to the A key and the B button to the B key, I assume there might be some issues.

Overall I did enjoy the rampant silliness that is Ninja Blade. There are other games that do the same kind of hack and slash better, but nobody quite captures the image of a ninja falling 10,000 metres through the sky with neon-lit Tokyo in the background, hacking up bat-people to slow the descent. If over-the-top is the way you like your ninja games, then here's the game for you.

SBK X: Superbike World Championship
Developed by Milestone

This game is from the same developers as the surprisingly good WRC World Rally Championship from the previous tier. Somewhat less surprisingly, it turns out that SBK X is a pretty good racing game as well. I have to say that the bikes aren't nearly as fun to race as cars, but the game still manages to be a fun simulation of a motorsport I have zero knowledge of.

Like in WRC, you can enter different modes which range from lightweight arcade physics to near sim levels of difficulty. However, even in arcade mode, the game sort of can't help but be a bit dull. Unlike WRC, the tracks are all laid out in winding loops within a stadium, meaning there's very little surprise to the layout and the backgrounds of flat grass and the audience are pretty boring to look at. Then there's the issue of realism, as apparently most SBK races go for over twenty laps. To keep this from being an issue, the campaign mode simply begins two or three laps from the end and automatically drives you to the middle of the pack. And unlike arcade racers, this is the kind of racing where you only advance in places slowly and not very often. In fact, a gold medal performance in a campaign race would be advancing from 12th place to 9th. Not exactly packed with glory.

But all of that is just the inherent problems with making games out of racing events, which can never really compare to games that are explicitly anti-real. Mechanically, the game is solid. There's less overall guidance than in WRC, but each track does have a general guiding line that will teach you when to brake, turn, speed up and slow down. It was a mechanic I rather liked, so I'm glad it's in this game too.

There are a few other very minor issues in here, like the lacklustre create a character mode that will let you pick unseen details like your face, but not major things like gender. The between level campaign dialogue is also a bit cringing at times ("You wouldn't want to disappoint me out there," purrs the sexy team secretary). Still, if you can get past the relatively flat tracks and master the turning skills, you'll find that SBK X is a very competent racer. The license and realism holds it back, but it's clear that the team at Milestone is pretty skilled when it comes to making a solid driving game.

What about the tunes?

Like previous Galas, there are plenty of tracks to download as well. Check them out, perhaps in a round of Beat Hazard?

And with that, my epic review trilogy comes to a close. You have about two and a half days left as of this publishing, so if you want your Indie Gala then hop to it.

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