Sep 152014

Well, I made it to the Boston Festival of Indie Games again this year, and just as happened last year I basically got sucked into the show floor and never made it out. I got my hands on some interesting games though, and as a service to you, dear reader, I now report my experiences.

I love games that involve grappling and swinging, so I was immediately drawn to Mark of the Old Ones, which attempts to join this gameplay to the Lovecraftian themes that are not overtly racist. The player character is a little bundle of stuff that instantly reminded me of a koosh ball. Little strands can shoot off of the ball and stick to some surfaces, and doing this repeatedly is the only way to move around. The movement mechanics felt good, which doesn’t always happen in this sort of game, and some useful indicators helped make every movement situation a little more interpretable.  The game, which had successful Kickstarter and Greenlight campaigns, should be entering beta soon. I was told the whole game has been roughed out and most of the levels have been completed. Hopefully there’s time to add a little detail to the environments because at least the demo level I played felt a little spare. Still, I’m excited to see how this one turns out.

The other game I played with a spherical protagonist was Gemini, which appears to be the outgrowth of a student project at NYU. The player has control over a little ball of light here and can only move it left or right using controller triggers. The ball of light has a twin; moving while close to the twin increases altitude while moving far away causes the player’s ball to sink. In the level I played, the goal was to move upwards, activating light orbs, until the pair pierces the clouds into what looks like a new world. The controls were intuitive, the AI for the companion ball was well-designed, and with a big assist from the music the whole thing evolved a very zen feel. Under the circumstances, I felt the demo level was a touch too long and I will probably feel the same if the game just continues to hit that single note in different colors. If there’s a good emotional range, though, this level would probably be a good size.

Screenshot from Gemini

Screenshot from Gemini, from the website

A similar sort of zen approach informed GNOG, a sort of toy-game about interacting with giant monster heads. Certain features on each head are interactive, and they can be turned around to reveal an interactive interior. I enjoyed the demo, but something about it felt a little off. As it transpired, interactive points were either on the way to progress or were just dead ends. What the game could really have used were some kind of “side-quest”, clusters of 1-3 objects that worked together and made some interesting change to the environment that wasn’t necessarily productive but was interesting. As it was, everything either moved the level along or was just dead. The plan is to bring this one in about a year or so to PC and iOS, which will probably be the better fit. Some polish is needed here, but there’s a fair amount of promise.

The same could be said of Blood Alloy, which is a side-scrolling run-and-gun game that allows for some really amazing action. The demo that was available was basically just an arena level with waves of aggressive enemies, but it had plenty of space to show off the wall-running, shoot-and-slice action. What’s holding this back , and it’s admittedly something that was an outgrowth of the environment, is that the learning curve is clearly pretty steep. What the character can do is pretty awesome, but getting her to actually do it is perhaps overly complex, especially since the nature of the demo required the player to essentially figure out all the tricks right away. The aiming method for the gun was also not a great match for the controller, which made reticule movement too sluggish and sloppy, or the size of the enemies, which put too high a demand on precision. With a little tuning and polish, though, this could be a really impressive action game.

On the other end of the complexity spectrum, but sharing some similarities in aesthetic, was Unbroken, an endless runner hack-n-slash coming to iOS soon. The game had simple, solid controls similar to Punch Quest for attacking and blocking. Character development takes place between runs, which are quick, so this should make a decent idle-play title. I liked the pixel-art aesthetic and I’m looking forward to grabbing it when it comes out.

Airscape: The Fall of Gravity, starring a cute little octopus on an adventure through a world where the down direction is variable, also seemed fairly close to release. I got to play through some ground levels that involved some moderate-speed running and jumping, and some water levels that involved a somewhat tricky swimming mechanic. Cute as it looks, this seems like it will get pretty challenging.

Another cute-looking game I got my hands on was Treasure Adventure World, an open-world side-scroller about a kid with an awesome hook-hand and a bunch of different hats. The goal here is to make something like a Zelda game where acquiring new abilities opens up new areas for exploration and treasure hunting. The website says 2014 is the target but the game felt further out than that; a boss-fight seemed poorly balanced and glitched out after a character death. The early-game portion I demoed worked pretty well, however, and did some fun things with the character’s movement. I also appreciated the spirit of the game. This one can be pre-ordered at its website.

I managed to spend a little time with the cute-but-really-not-cute OBEY, a somewhat asymmetric king-of-the-hill game in which cute bunnies vie for control of a giant robot gun tower they can use to kill their cute bunny friends. This one is pretty far from release, and only some of the systems were implemented. Even so, as a sort of stealth game where I tried to crawl my bunny towards the tower I found it was pretty fun. Eventually the game will implement a control system that gives it its name, where the bunny in the tower will have the ability to command the other bunnies to do things for it in exchange for not being destroyed by a giant gun tower. This might be one to keep in mind for later.

Albino Lullaby screenshot, from the website

Albino Lullaby screenshot, from the website

The most unique-looking game I played was Albino Lullaby, a first-person horror game with a marker-drawn aesthetic. The demo level I played was mostly exploration, with some very light puzzle-solving and, later, some wonky stealth. The environment was, for the most part, really well made and achieved the sort of “creepy-horror” vibe the developers said they were going for. It also featured a really fascinating moment where a huge interior room was dramatically rearranged. So, despite the few rough patches I think this could be really interesting. The game is planned to have three episodes of which the first is expected to land in February. The game has an active Kickstarter to fund its marketing campaign, if you’re interested.

I got a good look at Tumbleweed Express, the most literal rail-shooter ever made, in that it is a game about a train from which you shoot things. The player has control of a turret in the train’s caboose, while cargo cars have automated turrets, giving the game something of a tower-defense feel. The game’s cel-shaded look and absurd enemies gave it something of a Borderlands vibe, and in the levels I observed the sheer number of enemies and general chaos made it feel almost like a shmup. The game has been a multi-year spare-time project of its creators, who currently have a Kickstarter to fund completion and an active Greenlight campaign going.

There were a couple of other wild west themed games on display, but I particularly liked Flamingo!, a Mexican-standoff strategy game. Only the multiplayer component has been implemented so far. In this mode, two players  have four gunmen (who can shoot from 1 to 4 times) to place on a randomized screen. If a gunman shoots a bank he gets money; if he shoots another gunman, he gets that gunman’s money. Whoever has the most money wins. It plays fast and the design is pretty tight. The developer I spoke to said they plan to implement a one-player “puzzle” mode and AI opponents as well. The scale here is small but I thought Flamingo! was very good at what it was trying to do.

I’ll close with two games that were entertaining twists on venerable ideas. Breaker’s Yard is a twin-stick shooter set in a vast junkyard, which features a unique dynamic weapons system. As he runs around the yard the player constantly picks up powerups of which he can hold two simultaneously. Some replace the base shot with drills or chainsaws, others cause 3-way shooting or wavy shots that cover more ground. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s good old-fashioned fun. Similarly, The Forgettable Dungeon is a fairly standard roguelike with a 3D pixel look following the aesthetic of 3D Dot Game Heroes. A similar kind of character customization also seems to be in the cards. It was a good bit easier than the typical roguelike, no doubt in part because of the 4-player cooperative play, but it still had a pretty hard final boss to face. Given the speed of the levels and the amount of fun that can be had flinging items (and each other) in all directions this might prove to be most fun in local co-op game.

Well, that’s most of what I managed to get my hands on, but by no means most of the games that were on display at FIG (I haven’t even dipped into the tabletop stuff!). If this keeps up I’m going to have to demand that they expand to two days next year.

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