July 11, 2012
Game Dev Bundle Dev'd Some Games For You
The long in development Game Dev Bundle, put together by some enterprising Redditors, has made its debut. Unlike some of the bigger players, this truly does feature like an indie effort; featuring indie games submitted and curated by select members of the community, it features a lot of offbeat and relatively unknown titles that none the less are still worth checking out.
Luckily for those worried about the rapidly expanding bundle shaped hole in your wallet, the Game Dev Bundle is strictly pay what you want; paying over six dollars unlocks a stellar bonus games and some additional treats, but the basic bundle is designed to fit budgets of all sizes. Still though, try to be generous; the profits are split evenly by the developers, hosting costs and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Unsurprisingly there's no Steam keys here, but on the other hand you do get direct downloads and Desura unlocks across the board, which is a fairly impressive coup for such a grassroots effort.
So how about those games? Well, there's a lot of new to me stuff here, plus a couple of old favourites. Skip past the break for more.
Developed by Blanket Fort Games
Hmm. I don't want to start on a sour note, but I can't count myself as a fan of Influence. There's a lot of things to like about this high concept lo-fi RTS, but I found there was a few too many issues with the gameplay which kept me from really getting into it. It's stylistically gorgeous, no doubt, with a wonderful simplistic art style rather evocative of overlooked indies like Eufloria. The soundtrack is excellent as well, but on a whole other level. Every time you capture a neutral or enemy id, a note is added to your tune. By the time you win the game, you've got an entire unique melody under your belt that you can listen to, enjoy and save for later. That's pretty cool.
Now, there's a lot of people out there that are far more intelligent than I am when it comes to game design, and they're probably going to roll their eyes at my next statement, but my main concern with Influence is how fun it is. I'm all for artistry, deeper meaning and new ways to interact with the medium, but at the end of the day fun is the language I critique. In Influence, battles are dictated by a mad Hunger Games scramble between you and the other egos to influence as many neutral centralized ids to your colour and way of thinking. The issue is that in just thirty seconds you'll know whether or not you can win the game, and within a minute there's only you and one other opponent remaining, so the player with the most ids almost always wins. No struggle, no back and forth wars of attrition. Just numbers.
Now, the overarching metagame affects this a bit. For one, you can customize the stats of your ego to be faster, more resistant or quicker to turn, which allows for a bit of tuning to your strengths. Multiplayer influences things even more; by picking a colour you choose an ideal. If you meet any players with the same ideal online, you're teamed up. So if you're a big fan of Truth, like minded honest people become your allies. This is a very cool idea, which was unfortunately scuttled for me as I was the only player online at any point. Hopefully an influx of players from this bundle will give me a chance to try out this feature, as online seems to be the ideal way to enjoy the game. Great visuals and downright innovative soundtrack mechanics are wonderful, but the battles themselves don't quite work as well as you would hope.
Developed by Rat King Entertainment
Pitman is a wonderful little roguelike that seems heavily influenced by board games, particularly those splendid little tabletop games where you build the board slowly out of tiles. You are a dwarf who just loves exploring, finding artifacts, digging too deep and unleashing Things That Should Remain Below. You begin in a fairly cramped room with a bit of loot scattered around and not too many crannies to explore. Running into the edge of the board allows you to lay down a new tile full of crannies, which you can then explore and loot and such. Occasionally there will be monsters too, so finding better gear and levelling up your skills is essential for survival. When you run out of tiles in your deck, the last one placed will contain a ladder to your next floor.
The board game design extends well beyond the tile system. Equipment is made up of cards, all of which take up exactly one spot in your very limited inventory. The equipment, spells, potions and food that comes on cards are generally one use or wear down quickly, which means they're very disposable by design. This may rankle hoarders, but new cards are dropped furiously so the idea is that you store what you must, use what you can and leave behind whatever you don't truly need.
It's a truly addicting game, and one of the best approaches to the casual roguelike problem I've ever seen. While many casual roguelikes only focus on eliminating or reducing core elements of the genre, Pitman also co-opts board game tropes to give the game an easy accessibility most roguelikes can only dream of. If you're a roguelike fan or a board game geek like myself, Pitman has a very good chance of becoming a new coffee-break obsession.
Developed by E McNeill
Auralux is another high concept lo-fi real time strategy game, only this time it uses a somewhat more familiar model. Each battlefield is made up of a series of suns, generally your own and two enemy ones with a smattering of neutral footholds in between. Each sun produces little dots of energy which can either be reabsorbed into your sun for upgrades and repairs, or sent off into the wild to capture neutral suns and storm the enemy bases. It's a concept I've seen various indie devs toy around with before, but Auralux is probably one of the best and simplest executions of this design.
Now, the key thing that Auralux has and Influence lacked is that the tide can turn in each battle rather easily. Battles in Auralux are somewhat lengthy wars of attrition, where strategy and planning really do matter. Attacking too soon could be disastrous and wipe out half of your units, but holding back means that the neutral territory might get gobbled up. Even better is the way you need to play to the AI's strengths and weaknesses. Since everyone starts equally in most maps, the key to winning for me was to synchronize with the actions of my opponents. See your rivals duking it out over a key zone? Swoop in and crush the survivors.
It does involve an insane amount of clicking and dragging, and the battles can sometimes drag on just a bit too slowly, but overall I rather enjoyed the simplistic take on real time strategy. With plenty of maps, there's plenty of different strategies to use and scenarios to solve, and all of the scenarios are well designed and interesting. If you're looking for a casual strategy game, Auralux is an excellent choice.
Girl with a Heart
Developed by Bent Spoon Games
Now here is the jewel of the bundle. Girl With a Heart likes to defy classification, but I feel pretty safe calling it a visual novel if you want to pin a genre on it. You are a girl named Raven, a member of a society that lives off of darkness. For once, it's the creatures of light trying to invade your town and drown the entire underground world withing bright stinking sunny days. I might sound flippant, but the game treats this very seriously. It's a terrible war about distrust and fear of the unknown. Fortunately Raven might be able to stop it, despite her incredibly young age. Will she? That's up to you.
The game unfolds with an incredibly dense amount of dialogue and choice, the kind many AAA games only wish they could replicate. You might not realize it at first, but many minor decisions, answers or even stray thoughts can have lasting consequences on the narrative later. The best example was my own run of the game; during one conversation I was carelessly questioning another character while writing down a couple of notes. Suddenly I realized I had mentioned a fact that I had promised to keep to myself. This had severe consequences down the line, and I wished dearly I could have taken it back, which was amazing. How many games punish you for a slip of the tongue?
There's a couple of segments of walking back and forth that could even charitably be called platforming, but aside from that it's dialogue, questions, discussions and conversation puzzles. But as far as dialogue focused games go, Girl with a Heart well exceeded expectations. It's a game that favours logic and stoicism but needles your emotions and empathy at every turn, and does some truly unexpected things with narrative and player interaction. Combine that with a very unique story backed with great writing, and you have a seriously underappreciated gem.
Developed by Bit Barons
It can be hard coming from the gravitas of Girl with a Heart to the irreverent puzzling of Astroslugs, but regardless the latter holds up as a rather decent puzzle game. It's not an unfamiliar premise; you are given a series of shapes to draw out that you must fit into a playing field. The trick is to get everything to fit perfectly with no leftover spaces, which is no small feat. If you find most puzzle games are just too easy, Astroslugs is quite a brainteaser. It's like having a complicated tangram puzzle on your desktop, perfect for super logical yet infuriating bouts with the geometric world.
Sure, there's a premise about slugs, but it largely doesn't influence the puzzles or the mechanics. Essentially you are an astroslug, and you need fuel to power your ship and blast intro space. Unsurprisingly, slugs make for a cute yet gross art style with vibrant animated backdrops, deadpan visual humour and an excellent soundtrack. But the only real effect your this has on gameplay is the difficulty. Harder puzzles means you get more fuel for your ship, so in theory you can get to your goal more quickly if you've got the savvy puzzle skills for it.
You probably won't though. These puzzles are hard, but in a good way. I spent well over an hour agonizing over the tougher ones, only to get that magical satisfying little eureka moment that brings it all together. If you love brainteasers and other tough puzzles along the same lines, Astroslugs gives you everything you want wrapped up in a very slick presentation.
Developed by tametick
Cardinal Quest is a rather excellent simplified roguelike that I'm rather fond of. So fond of, in fact, that I've written about it before not once but twice.
Between those two posts I've covered it fairly thoroughly, so here I'll be brief. The key feature is the way Cardinal Quest cuts out all the middle management of a roguelike, focusing on making it fun. For example, equipment is all automagically picked up, compared, equipped and sold without you lifting a finger. This lets you concentrate on the custom skill system and the rather fun combat that comes out of it.
If you want a more traditional roguelike, Cardinal Quest is one of the simplest ones out there that doesn't drastically change the formula. It just offers up the addicting roguelike action with none of the complications and some much needed variety. It's well worth grabbing if you've missed out so far.
The Sun is Deadly
Developed by Rat King Entertainment
This is the bonus game you get for paying over six dollars, so make sure you do! The Sun is Deadly is Rat King Entertainment's contribution to the wonderful Indie Buskers movement from a little while back. Since I covered it pretty thoroughly back in the day, I'll just direct you over here for a more detailed review.
However, since I wrote that piece they've expanded the game quite a bit with fixed up mechanics and new levels. Indeed, every single complaint I made in the original review has been addressed, and I mean every single complaint. The mechanics make more sense, the balance has been tuned and the bugs are all ironed out, making the already excellent proof of concept into a fairly amazing little stealth game. If you missed the Buskers' little performance, make sure you grab The Sun is Deadly now.
Also be sure to check out their site, where a particularly handsome blogger is quoted. Since my last piece is out of date, I'll just add that The Sun is Deadly is the exact kind of game I love to see from the indie community. It takes a premise that would be unlikely to see the light of day and builds an innovative experience out of these wonderful ideas. If you're on the prowl for a great stealth game, The Sun is Deadly is an offbeat and satisfyingly snack sized take on the genre. How's that for a pull quote?
The Game Dev Bundle runs for the next two weeks. If these games look up your alley, go grab it from their site.