Monthly Archives: February 2012

Out There Somewhere Review

As someone who’s job it is to know too much about games, I really do appreciate a good surprise, and boy did I get one the other day! I went into Out There Somewhere (or just OTS, for readability’s sake) without too much in the way of prior knowledge about what I was actually in for. So when the game started off with a pretty humdrum scrolling shooter sequence, my first response was “oh no, it’s just another one of these bloody things”. But one impossible (?) boss fight followed by forced crash landing on “Unknown Planet” later, the game revealed to me it’s true colours: it’s a retro styled side scrolling 2D platformer puzzle-ish thingy! To which first response was “great, it’s just another one of *these* bloody things instead” which was soon followed by “yeah, but it’s a pretty damn good one though……”.

Your Portal Gun surrogate on this particular little outing is the also aptly named Teleport Gun. Simply fire off a shot, and wherever that projectile meets a solid object is where you’ll end up appearing. You’ve also got a standard side arm for just wastin’ alien dudes if the mood takes you, but most of the time blasting natives takes a back seat to teleporting your way through Unknown Planet’s intricate platforming challenges. The techniques by which you do so should be intimately familiar with anyone who’s played these kinds of games before; it’s all about controlling your momentum and carefully planing each movement in advance, preferably while not falling into gigantic pits of [GENERIC PLATFORMING HAZARD].

The challenges steadily get ever more complex by throwing gimmicks at you that make progression anything but simple, such as green steams of energy that’ll deflect your teleport shots at 90 degree angles (and likely into something most unpleasant). The game does a really great job of gradually introducing you to each of these facets one at a time, allowing you plenty of opportunity to practice and experiment with them in relatively simple situations rather than throwing you right in at the deep end. However, once that little intro is over and done with, it’s on in a manner somewhat similar to Donkey Kong.

I found the OTS to be fairly harsh mistress right from the get-go, one who often demands you string together chains of various different maneuvers in rapid succession (don’t they all?) in lieu of waving your almost useless health bar goodbye. All this gets even more hectic when the game starts introducing actual enemies into the mix, mainly due to the protagonist’s chronic case of Megamaphobia (an insurmountable fear of shooting a gun upwards, even if your life depends on it). But I feel like that’s all part of what makes OTS really stand out despite it’s slightly pedestrian premise. Each stage feels like it requires a good mix of both cognitive thinking and twitch gaming skills to see them through, where as most of OTS’s colleagues tend to lean heavily towards either camp (e.g. Trine 2 and Super Meat Boy respectively). What’s more, the (mostly) well placed checkpoints and ultra fast respawn speeds ensure that you don’t spend half your time staring at a game over screen instead of gettin’ stuff done.

Don’t come to OTS expecting much of a story to accompany that fancy gameplay though! Beyond the super cheesy Zero Wing inspired opening cutscene and the occasional bout of exposition from the protagonist, storytelling is almost none existent. Well, there’s a few NPC’s here and there you can have a quick chat with I guess, but in most cases all they have to talk about are some basic gameplay hints or bits of irrelevant fluff. The visuals aren’t going to tun many heads either, being pretty much your typical by the numbers 8-bit artwork that we’re all too familiar with in the indie scene. It’s by no means bad looking per se, it just ain’t nothing you haven’t already seen a million times already. The music though, now that’s something! Much like the gameplay itself, the audio is hardly breaking the mold with it’s hipster-bait chiptunes, but let’s just say there’s a good reason the special edition comes with a soundtrack!

While there’s a very small Metroid-esque exploration element going on in OTS, for the most part it’s a straight forward linear experience. You walk into an area, you solve the platforming puzzle, then you move to the next one. That’s pretty much it! There’s no way to go and try a different area for a bit and no upgrades you can grind for to make the game easier. Just to clarify, that’s not something I’m holding against the game in any way; that’d be ridiculous! I mealy want to point out that if your the sort of person who gets stuck easily in platforming games then OTS might not be for you, unless of course you enjoy watching sprites die ad infinitum.


The only truly disappointing experience I had in OTS was the game’s final two stages, which make almost zero use of the teleport-fu you spent the rest of the game honing and instead just revolve around bog standard shootin’ skills. Honestly though, in the grand scheme of things that’s a pretty minor gripe. For me, OTS was a perfectly enjoyable experience that put both my brain and my fingers through their paces; not a bad buy at £3.50. But before you mosey on over to Desura to give it a look, bare in mind it’s relatively short title too – 2 or 3 hours tops – and provides no replay value other than tracking down the deviously hidden collectibles. But that’s no bad thing really; after all, there’s a lot be said for games that don’t overstay their welcome. Stretching the teleport gun mechanic on for too much longer would have put OTS dangerously close to tedium anyway, but as it stands it dose a good job of neither making the player beg for it all to end nor leaving them wanting for more.

Somewhere Out There is available on Desura at £3.50 for the standard version and £4.99 for the “Voskhod” version ( A special edition featuring a Hint Manual and OST).

Good

Classy soundtrack.
Excellent level design.

Bad

Too much pure combat at the end.

Advertisements

Conquest of Elysium 3 Review

Man, writing a harsh review really bums me out ya know? Especially when the game in question happens to be a Heroes of Might and Magic-esque turn based strategy sim. I really love em’, but almost no one bloody makes them anymore! I should be treasuring each and every one of them dammit! But that aside, to make a game of any genre the developers have to work their asses off at great personal expense for extended periods of time, so it’s never much fun trying to tell the general public that all that effort was in vein.

And a what a monumental amount of effort it must have been to make Conquest of Elysium 3! Some dudes out there obviously spent a lot of time coming up with with its elaborate fantasy world, complete with cool unique mechanics and resources for each playable race that all ties into some grand mythos that’s hidden away somewhere inside all the swads of statistics and class descriptions. Now, if only they’d focused a little more on designing the “game” part in all this, then we might actually have something real special on our hands here. But as it stands, I’m sad to say that Conquest of Elysium 3* is a godawful mess.

*Let’s just call it CoE3 from now on, ok guys? My sentences are wordy enough as it is.


For one thing, the presentation is downright dire beyond belief. I realise this game probably didn’t have a six figure budget (if any at all), but that’s no excuse for it to be chock filled with all these ugly unwieldy menus and simplistic sprites, and that’s only when the screen it’s busy being almost entirely blank anyway! Funnily enough the game’s music is actually pretty great in comparison, to the point where I actually began to wonder if it was all just taken from some royalty-free audio collection. The sound effects on the other hand have more in common with the game as a whole; that is to say, they’re crude and somewhat irritating.

But that’s enough about how awful it makes my eyes and ears feel, what’s it like to actually play? Well, upon attempting to create your first empire in CoE3 you’ll quickly discover two rather pressing issues: 1) Building new units for your army costs a fairly significant amount of resources (e.g. 50 gold) and 2) In most cases you start out with diddly frickin’ squat of resource gain per turn (e.g. +1 gold). So, you can either mash the “next turn” button until your resource counter reaches a useful value *or* try and use what little forces you start off the game with to claim some resource rich locations. Although the latter option is ever so slightly less boring the the former, it’s also a tad risky given that enemies have to do little more than gaze in the general direction of your now unguarded HQ in order to knock you out of the game.


So, did you manage to claim a farm or something without your only units being obliterated? Yes? Congratulations! Now you’ve got to use what’s left of your measly forces to defend that land from unrelenting armies of bandits, monsters or -more often than not- mundane indigenous wildlife. Because obviously should a wandering herd of deer take residence in one of your provinces, armed conflict is of course the only rational solution. People’s lives are at stake after all!

Strangely, the AI players seem to be completely above such worldly worries. While I’m busy twiddling my thumbs until I have enough resources to actually do something, they’re casually sauntering around the world map without a care in the world. Perhaps they know something about the game that I don’t? That wouldn’t surprise me actually; only and artificial intelligence would have the inhuman patience to decider the 30,000+ word arcane tome that is CoE3’s instruction manual. I should make it clear, I’m not complaining that the game is too complicated or anything; I love complicated! It’s more that it’s just so………. awkward.

The battle system is by far the worst offender; in one way or another the devs have somehow managed to cram in just about every RPG element I can think of: equipment, spells, resistances, immunities, formations, summoning, crafting  etc etc. But those are all good, tried and tested mechanics of course, so what’s the problem? Well, when push comes to shove, the gloves come off, your troops are under fire and a violent response is just simply the only option…….. it turns out you’ve got naff all control over any of it. Engage another force in battle and the game’ll simply decide a bunch of totally randomised moves for your troops to make and then provide you with a gigantic turn by turn log of how the battle played out.


The amount of data the game bombards you with during these segments is just so overwhelming that it’s rather difficult to discern anything even remotely useful from it. In particular, it makes it bloody impossible to tell whether or not any given fight will be total suicide mission or not. Will my 10 Crossbowmen be able to defeat a force of 5 Archers, 2 Snakes and one awfully confused Moose? Who knows! Cus’ even if you were somehow able to contemplate the dozen or so variables that govern a unit’s combat prowess, you’d still have to factor in the fact that every single move your units make is completely randomized!

In the end, the whole game ends up feeling like a total crapshoot rather than the tactical nirvana players are likely to be looking for. It’s a sad outcome for sure, as beneath all this junk there’s a ton of really cool ideas just begging me to stop writing all these nasty words. But a quality video game isn’t merely a heap of cool ideas, that’s just ambition. In the end, it’s the actual execution of those ideas that really matters, and that’s something that CoE3 fails at miserably.

At a stretch, I guess the hardest of the hardcore strategy fans *might* be able to some semblance of entertainment in this almost impenetrable mess of poor design decisions if they tried real hard. But even if you did somehow fall into that extremely specific niche, you’d have to be certifiably insane to shell out CoE3’s asking price: a full £20! Given the overall quality of this title, such a fee is quite frankly outrageous, hilarious and depressing, all in roughly equal measures.

If after reading this you still feel the desire to play Conquest of Elysium 3, you can purchase it for £20 over on Desura. May god have mercy on your soul.

Pros

High quality background music.
Unique abilities for each race.

Cons

Awful presentation.
Convoluted, awkward gameplay.
AI controlled battle system.

Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions

Before I begin, let put your mind at ease friend! There’ll be no Mass Effect 3 spoilers to be found in these here passages. Firstly, I’m not a jerk. Secondly, I’m a big fan myself, so I know full well how vital every twist and turn is to the overall Mass Effect experience! Well, at least I though I did anyway. One of the first things the demo asks you – and I gather this feature remains in the full version – is whether you want to have the AI make all the dialogue choices for you, supposedly so you can focus on the combat.

While I question why anyone would want to play an RPG in such a fashion, it’s not as crazy a proposition as it would have been in ME1 or 2. If this demo is anything to go by, then the combat in ME3 is a significant improvement over that of the two previous incarnations, both of which I’d lovingly describe as “passable” even on a good day. Most noticeably Shepard is way more mobile than ever before; able to perform cheeky combat rolls as well as a some smooth parkour when the situation demands it. Plus, the commander no longer suffers from the dreaded space asthma, so can now partake in brisk jogs that last more than two or three seconds without needing to take a little nap mid-combat.

He or she (I’m gonna keep switching between the two from now on, just for giggles) has also finally got over his debilitating phobia of touching weapons not mention in her class description. So, much like it was in the first game, every type of gun is now available to all classes to use as they see fit. Grenades also make a triumphant return from ME1, with a different flavor unique to each class. Unfortunately said grenades ain’t mapped to a specific button in the console versions, and instead eat into your (still quite frankly ridiculous) limit of 3 hot-keyed skills at any one time.

Also unique to each class is the long awaited melee attacks. Contrary to what most ME3 promotional material may suggest, it turns out these attacks can be used whenever you damn well please and are not mealy a context sensitive stealth kills. But as there’s no way to accurately “lock-on” to enemies, I often found myself using these attacks to brutally pummel thin air, all the while being slowly eviscerated by the nearest goon. That’s ok though, cus’ they all look super badass even when you miss. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters right?

Other than those bells and whistles, the core combat mechanics remain more or less the same as they were before: you and two other dudes with laser guns hide behind things and then shoot some other guys, whom themselves are doing much the same thing. Leveling hasn’t changed much either, the only notable difference being that skill “evolutions” are now offered at much lower levels than they were in ME2. The demo does suggests they’ve brought back in a loot system of some kind too. However most of those features locked out, so I can’t really give you any details on how that stuff works just yet.

Changes to the visuals seem fairly significant by comparison; character textures in particular are noticeably sharper than before and thankfully don’t seem to suffer from the Unreal Engine’s™ patented “texture-pop” technology. Unfortunately this is where the tone of this preview turns a little gloomy, so stop reading now if you don’t want a total buzz kill. So, after playing the demo on all thee major platforms (PC, PS3 and Sega Game Gear) I can safely surmise the following: the PS3 version is SO not ready. I realise the PS3 version of ME2 wasn’t exactly silky smooth either, but at least I could look at it without feeling ill! The frame rate is the the real deal breaker, from start to finish it was so abysmally low that I’m actually dumbfounded EA let this demo even see the light of day for fear of a PR disaster.

While that might sound like just a nerdy little nitpick, in this case I assure you it’s a very serious problem. If you don’t believe me, just imagine trying to line up a head shot or get engrossed in an emotional cutscene when the whole game looks like a child’s flip book. Given that the PS3 is my console of choice, I’m personally considering bringing my PC version Shepard out of retirement rather than having to put up with farce for even a moment longer. At the very least I’d recommend any PS3 gamers pull their pre-orders until you know for certain whether this issue is something that’ll actually persist over to the full version. But hey, the fixed the screen tearing issue! That counts for something right?

I should make it clear that I’m not saying the Xbox 360 version is without fault either, it has its share of jank. It’s all within reason though, so no need for the Microsoft faithful to turn up at EA HQ with torches and pitchforks just yet. Unsurprisingly the PC version is (provided your rig’s up to the task) goddamn immaculate in its own right, and defiantly remains the platform of choice if you prefer your space marines looking extra spiffy.

PS3 concerns aside, the action segments of ME3 are shaping up to be a pretty solid in my book. I feel like they’ve addressed a lot of the core problems that made ME2’s combat a little tiresome, namely the lack of variety and rather laborious pace of play. That said, I very much doubt it’ll be the shooter revolution that EA’s wants you to think it is, but I can’t say I blame em’ too much for marketing it that way. The “video game featuring bald man holding a gun” industry is pretty competitive these days ya know!

As for the big question on many an ME fan’s lips, e.g. “OMG! Have nerf storyline make Gears of Mass Effect 3?!?!11” I just don’t have a bloody clue mate. All the conversational segments in the demo seemed pretty alright to me, and the voice acting still sounds top notch. But for the most part this demo was all combat, all the time. Looks like we’ll just have to wait till March to find out if all that juicy space drama goodness made the cut or not.

Snuggle Truck Review

Ahhhhh physics and sweet jumps, patron saints of addictive indie games the world over. If you’ve ever played Trial Bike, Joe Danger or any of their countless brethren (statistically, you must have right?) then you’ve heard all this before. Utilise your mastery of the acceleration button and tilt mechanics in order to fumble your way across a devious 2D assault course in the quickest time possible, preferably without landing your vehicle arse over elbow. However the snuggly part of Snuggle Truck comes from the need to account for your truck’s precious cargo: a collection of cute cuddly animal toys. Let your ride get a little off balance or land too hard after using the aforementioned sweet jumps and the poor critters get sent flying, resulting in a game over if such an incident leaves your trunk empty.

“Wait a sec dude” I hear my literary caricature of you saying to yourself, “Truckin’ a haul of adorable toys a really frickin’ weird concept to base a game around”. Yes caricature, it’s totally weird! But it’s like that for a good reason. You see, Snuggle Truck is in fact the artist formally known as “SmuggleTruck. Those fuzzy wuzzy little animals? Those were meant to be Mexican immigrants that you were smuggling over the border. The whole game was supposed to be a satirical lampoon of the US immigration system, which was about as well received as you might expect. Apple and Valve didn’t really see the funny side either, resulting in the more family friendly tonal shift we see now (although peculiarly the truck still looks awful shady).

While the rather gutsy political aspect is completely MIA now, thankfully the gameplay is more than capable of supporting the title by it’s own merits alone. It’s not going win any awards for originality you understand, but what it offers is simple fun and plenty of it. Each one of the 40+ courses provides 5 different performance medals for you to collect, which gives you plenty of reason to keep coming back to the same stages several times. Although some of them do get pretty hard later on, so you’ll often find yourself restarting after even the slightest slip-up if you wanna get the best score. That might sound a little frustrating, but each stage is so mercifully short that you never feel like your losing much progress every time you hit reset. Mastered all the included tracks? No problem, as of writing there’s good 10k or so community created levels each with their own set of 5 challenges. Mastered all those too? Get help. Or you could start making your own tracks using the level creator’s intuitive drag ‘n drop interface! Then get help.

The game’s only real stumbling block is it’s lack of variety. With only two power-ups and and 3 near identical environments, you’ll have seen pretty much everything this game has to offer within your first couple of minutes with it. While some of the crazier user created levels can provide a bit of extra spice, for the most part they’re all just slight variations on the same themes anyway.  But for only £4, what more can you ask for? It might be a rather simplistic title, but it’s a neat little package with enough content to last a good few hours at least. So if you already dig these kinds of physics racers then Snuggle Truck will be a decent time sink for you that’s good value for money if ever I saw it.

You can purchase Owlchemy Lab’s Snuggle Truck for £4 from Steam, or get it for free on the iPad/Phone App Store. However if you’re after the original uncensored “SmuggleTruck version then you need to head on over to Owlchemy Lab’s official site.

Good

Decent amount of content for the price.
Simple but fun.

Bad

Very little variety

Ido Yehieli Interview – Nephews and Niches

[Today we sat down with indie developer Ido Yehieli, creator of the tactical dungeon crawler Cardinal Quest, where we had a little chin-wag about such topics as the gaming generation gap (or lack thereof), price perception, indie visibility in the digital age and the things that make the genre of Roguelikes his jam]

IGM: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us today; It’s always a pleasure to hear directly from a developer! Just to get us started, could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you’re currently working on?

Ido: Sure. I’m an indie game developer currently living in Vienna. I am making 100% of my modest living off of my games. I have been working as a professional programmer for 10 years now, and on March 1st I quit my job at a small local game development studio to start making Cardinal Quest, which was released on august 11th for Windows, Mac & Linux, and will be released soon for iOS and Android.

I have also been working on a new strategy game called Auro: The Golden Prince with the two guys from Dinofarm Games. You can read a bit more about what Auro is all about here. It is mainly focused on Android & iOS, but will also be out for Windows, Mac & Linux. It’s currently in alpha testing and hopefully 1.0 will be released sometime in the Spring. Also, at the same time my partner Ruari O’Sullivan is working on Cardinal Quest 2.

IGM: You come from a pretty strong programing background; do you find it difficult to juggle that with being a gameplay designer too?

Ido: It’s a challenge. But I actually started programming only because I had to program in order to make my games, so the game design is actually the interesting part for me. I am hoping to focus on it more in the future, and optimize my design to not require a ton of programming work.

IGM: Would you drop the programing side of things entirely if you could?

Ido: No, I would actually drop the business & marketing part if I could, though, or at least the administrative/bookkeeping part. It’s important to me to be as involved as I can in as many ways as possible. My “dream team” would actually be only me and 1-2 other people and ideally we would all have at least a bit to do in all aspects of game making. Even though in that case it is important to have one person in charge of any single discipline, e.g. one main designer, one main programmer, one main graphics artist, basically one person with a strong vision that has the final say in his particular department (you could have one person be the “head” of more than one discipline, but the important part is that it’s not design-by-committee).

IGM: Dungeon crawlers would look to be your go-to genre. Is there anything specific about that style of game that really appeals to you?

Ido: What appeals to me is a set of characteristics that just happens to be embraced by Roguelikes. What I like to focus on are the challenging games that are not challenging because they depend on your reflexes (e.g. Super Meat Boy), and by that I mean turn based & hard. In Roguelikes, you can get away with making the game hard because it’s randomly generated, so playing the first few levels over and over again doesn’t become boring.

For example, a randomized Advanced Wars or Fire Emblem type game would also interest me, I just happened to start with Roguelikes. in fact, I really want to make a turn based tactics game and will probably go in that direction in 2012. I love Advanced Wars and X-Com, but the current cream of the crop of that genre are so flawed that I think it’s very possible for an indie like me to still make a turn based tactics game today that’s better than anything else out there.

IGM: A significant amount of the difficulty of Roguelikes traditionally comes from the complexity of their RPG elements. But Cardinal Quest, and by the looks of it your current project with Dinofarm, cut off the fat and take it down to the basics. Is there an element of genre commentary going on there?

Ido: I think that if you look at Rogue, you will find it a lot more similar to my games than it is to Angband, ADOM or ToME4. For me “RPG elements” have nothing to do with why I enjoy Roguelikes, and in fact they tend to get in the way. I would have probably even removed levelling up in Cardinal Quest today. The games I like in the genre are a lot more focused on solving hard problems with the hand you were dealt, e.g. Brogue or Crawl, which have a lot of complexity but don’t focus on the RPG elements at all for it, instead they focus on having the players make hard decisions. Desktop Dungeons, Spelunky and Borgue are much bigger inspiration for me than any RPG out there.

IGM: For me at least, part of the appeal Roguelikes is a sense of nostalgia for PC games (such as Rogue itself) that I played when I was a nipper, and I know I’m far from alone in that respect. Do you reckon future generations will still be able to embrace Roguelikes even without the nostalgia factor?

Ido: They already are! There are many teenagers playing Cardinal Quest. I think it’s mainly about making sensible game design choices, as for young people “retro”/8-bit is just a visual style. Look at the games my nephews (aged 13) play: their favourite game is Minecraft and they play a lot of 2D games too (I think Terraria is another favourite, but there’s plenty of others). Also, they play a lot of games on flash portals and iOS which tend to be more like older games in terms of visuals, so it’s not really foreign to them. They also have a PS3 and a modern PC that they play new AAA games on, but it’s hardly the only type of games they play.

I recently read a post by Jeff Vogel where he was saying how indies can go back to forgotten games and genres, ones that have been dropped by the AAA industry since they might not appeal to the lowest common denominator like the latest flashy FPS or MMORPG would. It’s because these games have plenty of fun in them, and there are plenty of unfilled niches out there with players that just don’t have much choice these days. The big guys are not interested in selling to the niche that still enjoys stuff like turn-based strategic war games and I am sure a lot of these players aren’t just old fogies clamouring for the golden ages.

But new players are seeing these games for the first time and enjoying them for what they are; it’s because the stuff that made them good back then is still there. Another example is Tim Schafer’s new Kickstarter campaign, which had $1,272,964 pledged after about 1 day for an adventure game that no AAA publisher will ever dream of funding. Publishers don’t care about a game that takes $400k to make and will bring back 2x as much in profits, they want to fund games that cost $50m and bring back $500m. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good place to be at as a self-funded indie.

IGM: Yeah, it’s great to see that kind of enthusiasm around! It’s funny you mentioned Advanced Wars earlier too. I thought a lot about that game when I was playing Cardinal Quest, and about how long it’s been since there was a game that gave me that kind of experience. Do you think stuff like Firaxis’s take on X-Com will help revitalise those experiences too? Or will being on a publisher’s leash always compromise that?

Ido: I think they might really come up with something interesting, but at the moment I remain cautiously optimistic. The thing is, those games to a large extent do not appeal to the “core market” and by adapting them to it, I am afraid it might take out some of the edge that the genre has (e.g. difficulty, and being able to lose). But we will see.

I think it’s not a factor of publishers directly as much as it is having a budget in the 10s of millions (or sometimes even more). That means you really do have to sell millions of copies to make up for it, and you don’t generally sell millions of copies to a niche. For that, you need to appeal to the most common players who are for the most part people who would rather watch TV than play games. I think it is part of the reasons why there are pretty much no challenging single player games anymore, at least among mainstream games; everybody has to be able to win, and everyone should be able to see all the content. These games are not about gameplay the way Chess or Go are, they are about consuming content.

IGM: I remember you experimented with a lot of different ways of promoting Cardinal Quest. There was a pay-what-you-want event, a free download day and you even offered extra copies to people who called out publishers over their dodgy DRM (which I though was hilarious by the way!). Do you think those promotions had a big impact on overall popularity of Cardinal Quest?

Ido: They had some impact for sure, because I noticed sale spikes after them. But it wasn’t that huge of an impact, at least not directly. It got me more visibility though, which was the best part.

IGM: You’ve talked in the past about how hard it is for indies to get that “visibility” when the mainstream media is latching onto the top 1% “super indies” (e.g Phil Fish or Jonathan Blow) while leaving the other 99% out in the cold. Should the 99% be fighting for more attention, or is the onus on the media itself to spread its net a bit wider?

Ido: I think both, we are all fighting to get more visibility and some developers that “have it made” certainly make an effort to draw people’s attention to other less known developers. I think a big part of the problem also has to do with journalists that just fill up the “indie spot” with Minecraft or World of Goo instead of trying to really search out more obscure titles, simply because that’s the easy way out. The developers themselves should also continue to claw their way up there, but right now it’s more like trying to become a part of the few that share the spotlight rather than trying to make the greater public become more aware of anything beyond the top 5 games of the year (if even that).

IGM: Do you think digital distributors (e.g steam and desura) need to play more of a hand in raising indie visibility?

Ido: I think you actually see quite a lot of indie games on those, at least if you are interested in indie games to begin with. Of course they advertise the biggest games more, but I don’t think the situation is so terrible, at least not from what I’ve experienced.

IGM: I only ask because I was really intrigued by your article on Dinofarm’s blog about how Bundles and Steam Sales Aren’t Good for Most Indies.

Ido: I think a lot of people got a much more extreme notion from that article than what I intended. I think Steam & Humble Bundle are great. However, among all the good stuff about them there are also some downsides, and I was trying to bring up those downsides because I see most people ignoring them. Namely that they lower people’s expectation of how much an indie game is worth.

In the app store I think it is even more extreme. In fact, I think iOS & Android stores are a lot worse than Steam, with stuff like the horrible & nonsensical categories. It’s almost impossible to find good games on it even though they exist. Apple & Google really need a curator that knows something about games to fix up the issues of searching and sorting over there and separate the good from the bad. But they don’t care it seems, and in fact they seem to actively encourage the race to the bottom. Basically, the only way for me to get a good mobile game is to ask a friend for a recommendation.

IGM: Stuff like the iPad not even having searchable game categories (as of writing) certainly seems to back that theory up!

Ido: Have you seen the categories in the android market? “casual” – as if there are non-casual games on it? It’s clearly made by someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care about games. I think the mobile (and “social”) market is going towards a crash; it will be 1983 all over again. They are just flooded with utter crap and people will learn that you can’t expect anything good over there and will stop playing/buying games on those platforms.

[Ido’s Cardinal Quest is available for PC at around £6 from BMT Micro, Gameolith and Desura. You can also play the free ad-supported version over at Kongregate!]

Cardinal Quest Review

As much as I’d love to call Cardinal Quest a Roguelike, that’s a bit of a loaded term for those who know it well. It conjures up memories of arcane mechanics, hundred page instruction manuals and my 8 year old self desperately trying to get past the 3rd floor when he *should* have been studying for that important English test.  Ok, so maybe that last bit might be exclusive to those of a certain age, but without a doubt it’s still a somewhat dubious moniker that I’m not surprised the developer is keen to shake off.

But don’t get me wrong, Cardinal Quest is still “like Rogue” in a lot of the ways that count: lo-fi graphics, no narrative to speak of, turnbased combat, randomly generated dungeons and all that jazz. But there’s one key difference that sets it apart from the mob: it’s not hard. Well, it is HARD, as in “you start the game surrounded by bloodthirsty fiends with nothing but some tatty rags and a stick to your name“ hard. But what isn’t difficult about it, and this’ll come as a bit of shock to Rogue fans, is actually figuring out how to play the damn thing.

Everything’s been streamlined to such an extent that it becomes a master class in minimalist design. Within seconds of booting up Cardinal Quest you can be exploring, looting, slaying and all that other good juicy stuff; all without the need for a “d”irectory of “k”eybindings “t”ied to “p”oorly “c”hosen “v”erbs. You simply pick one of three classes (either the ubiquitous fighter, wizard or thief) to determine you starting stats, and then you just jump right into the action.

There’s no numerical mana system system to worry yourself silly about as everything just works off of cooldown timers. Obtaining actual spells is even easier; they simply drop as randomised loot! Even inventory management -the bane of RPG gamers worldwide- is barely even a factor. Mealy walking up to a piece of loot will cause the game to auto-equip it if it’s a decent find, or auto-sell it on the spot if it’s a hunk o’ junk. Now if only Skyrim was so accommodating……..

And no, before you ask, Cardinal Quest is not a dumbed down Roguelike-lite aimed at simpletons. On the contrary, its got the depth of many of its competitors, the only difference is it’s not actively trying to drown you in it.  Much of the game’s strategy element comes from the fact you can only equip up to 5 abilities at any given time, which is far fewer than you’re likely to obtain even in a short play session. This limitation obliges you to assemble a small “deck” of spells that’ll act as your lifeline against the unrelenting hordes, with a small handful of potions working as emergency backups should the dragon drops hit the fan.

Once you’ve assembled your repertoire suddenly Cardinal Quest becomes a game of asset management, one where every button press is a calculated balance of risk and reward. A single missed opportunity can spell doom for your valiant hero, while a well executed spell combo can lead to Beelzebub himself cowering beneath your fancy +1 Dire Footwear of the Wolf. In essence, its got a helluva lot more in common with Advanced Wars than it does its direct competitors like Dungeons of Dredmor.

I know the whole “It’s a different game every time!” rhetoric is a little overused, but to some extent it’s actually true in Cardinal Quest. Your total lack of control over what skills your avatar acquires will demand from you a certain level of versatility. Maybe your stalwart fighter only finds pansy debuff spells, forcing you to adopt a mage’s mindset? Maybe your wise and might wizard acquires nothing but stealth skills and a collection sharp pointy things, turning him down the path of a shadowy backstabber? Maybe your devilish rogue finds……. nothing of use whatsoever, thus doesn’t last very long in a cesspit full of demonic hellspawn? I think If Cardinal Quest had a tagline, it would be “adapt to survive” or more specifically “adapt to survive ever so slightly longer than you did last time”.

Easier said than done though, especially since it sometimes feels like the UI isn’t quite up to the task of keeping you informed of your situation. With half a dozen or so spells being thrown around like confetti at any one moment, the speed at which information flies across the screen and the distinct lack of a combat log makes it fairly difficult to tell what on earth happened on your previous turn. It’s an issue that only gets worse once the difficulty ramps up and enemies start wielding ever more varied abilities of their own.

“That Kobold over there, did he teleport just now? Or was he invisible last turn? Did I remember to cast enfeeble him? Did he remember to cast enfeeble on ME? Is he Charmed? Confused? Constipated? WHATS HIS DEXTERITY SCORE? IS HE ATTACKING ME? WHO EVEN AM I??? AAAAHHHHHHH!!!”


But beyond that little headache, gotta be honest here, I’m struggling to find much fault with Cardinal Quest. Not because it’s perfect you understand, but because I’m not sure you can really add much to it without compromising the simplicity that makes it so endearing in the first place. Sure, some extra mechanics would be totally rad, but wouldn’t that just defeat the whole point of it? Would extra classes, more music, a bigger verity of skills and flashy graphics really add more to the experience than they detract?

It’s a conundrum I don’t really feel fit to answer, all I can say with any confidence is that you should go give Cardinal Quest a look……………maybe. When it comes down to it, it’s still very much a Roguelike at heart. It’s still gonna kick your ass and expect you to ask for more. It’s still going to conform to D&D tropes that’ll be indecipherable to the uninitiated. It’s still going to plant you in ludicrously unfair scenarios just for giggles. But most of all, it’s still gonna be a total turn-off for an awful lot of gamers out there. If it sounds like something you can handle, then by all means give it a whirl. For me at the very least, it was something special. It made me think long and hard about whether simply adding more and more layers of mechanics really equates to a better game. What’s more, it was actually fun.

That last bit tends to score a few points in my book.

Good

RPG mechanics without the fuss.
Different every time!™
Simple yet tactical.

Bad

Hard to keep track of what’s going on.

SOL: Exodus Review

“Back in my day sonny, vidya games about space ships blastin’ each otha’ were the bee’s knees young whippersnapper“ Is what I’d love to be saying right now. Unfortunately, I’d be lying though my teeth. The heyday of classics like TIE Fighter and Wing Commander was a little bit before my time. Instead, I had the sad privilege of watching the space combat motif die a slow and painful death at the hands of cigar smokin’ marines and other such more accessible topics.

But that’s not to say it went out with a whimper! There were some pretty sweet swan songs such as Freelancer and Homeworld 2, many of which left a huge impression on me as a young gamer. So I always get a little bit exited every time a new space combat romp pops up; desperately hoping it’ll let me relive those magical moments of Star Wars fantasies made (semi-) real. I know this opening blurb might seem like a bit of a digression, It’s just I want to make something perfectly clear before I start getting all crabby: I really wanted to like SOL: Exodus.

And at a glace, it looks like there’s plenty there to like! Awesome looking space ships? Check. Industrial grade hammy dialogue?  Check. Unnecessarily complicated HUD? Check. Gorgeous, colourful interstellar backdrops (i.e. the exact opposite of real space looks like)? Double check! Man, when that Battlestar Galactica inspired tribal drum music first kicked in, I was totally pumped to let loose on some intergalactic scum. I had all the right tools for the job too: missiles, afterburner, machine gun, laser canon and……..and…uh…. not much else really.

Well ok, there’s also a neat little strafing mechanic, a ubiquitous hacking minigame and a monumentally negligible upgrade system, but that’s honestly all there is. No loadout customisation, ship selections, wingmen commands, shields, scanners or anything like that.  For the whole game you’ve got one ship with one missile launcher, one afterburner, one machine gun and one laser cannon. That’s your lot. Although, I guess you could say you’ve got a few wingmen here and there too. You *could* say that. I certainly wouldn’t. I’d say there’s a couple of green dots on my radar that wander around the battlefield doing very little of anything in particular.

But that’s ok right? Shootin’ stuff in a video game just flat out rules, even if your arsenal is a bit on the thin side! Theoretically yes, but SOL’s half baked combat ensures that you’ll never get even the slightest inking of satisfaction from any of your kills. Enemies mindlessly plod along at about ten miles per century, making dogfights feel more like a point n’ click adventure as you blow away endless waves of the exact same hapless spacecrafts over and over. Lock on to an enemy, afterburn into gun range, line up shot, shoot, repeat, repeat, repeat. Hell, sometimes you don’t even need to bother shooting them at all! The pea-brained AI’s reliance on the good ol’ “fatal collision course with the nearest solid object” maneuver sees to that well and good.

As you can probably imagine, repeating these combat scenarios ad infinitum can quite accurately be described as “not fun”. In fact, it’s the absolute worst kind of “not fun”: Boring. There’s just so little content available in this game, and it’s stretched so damn far it truly beggars belief! It’s not that I want it to be an absurdly complicated space sim or something; I’m not asking for EVE Online here. All I’m asking for is literally anything that would add some kind of variety to SOL. A few additional guns, an extra craft or two, a properly fleshed out narrative, more than one type of missile; seriously, anything would do. On top of that, more than a measly 8 missions probably wouldn’t go too amiss either.

That’s not to say the game’s over in a flash. Nooooo, far from it! You’ll be able to squeeze just under 4 hours out of those 8 missions. 4 painfully monotonous hours of tiresome combat and praying to god that the ships you’re protecting don’t spontaneously combust out of the shear embarrassment of it all. Wait, did I forget to mention the protecting ships part? Oh. Well you see, all 8 stages of the campaign are escort missions, because everyone bloody loves escort missions. But what’s better than an escort mission? How about an escort mission with no checkpoints whatsoever! That’s right, fail to leave your capital ship unmolested for even a few seconds and the game’ll send your ass right back to enemy fighter wave #1. Yay!

Maybe on some level this minuscule amount of unpolished content is acceptable, but £7 is NOT that level. Think about it, that’s close to £1 for each mission in the game, and that includes the tutorial! Not exactly a sound investment. But still, I live in hope that one day there’ll be something special that finally rekindles my passion for all things space shootey. That “something special” is most definitely not SOL: Exodus. SOL: Exodus is just a bad video game.

Good
Hammy, high quality voice acting.
Cool lookin’ space & spaceships.

Bad
Very little content
Monotonous
Unsatisfying combat