Monthly Archives: March 2012

Cubemen Review

I don’t like tower defence games. There, I said it, now feel free to lynch me! I don’t have a passionate hatred for them or anything, It’s just just I can’t get much satisfaction from simply clicking a few buttons and then sitting back to watch the “game” part happen on its own. I want to be involved somehow, I want to feel like I’m more than just an engineer who pops in every now and then to make sure everything’s still tickety-boo. Also, it doesn’t exactly help that the Indie community churns these things out at a rate that’d make an iPad sweatshop look inefficient. So in that context, Cubemen ended up being a rather pleasant breath of fresh air for me. It’s one of the few games I’ve played that tries to put a nice twist on the genre, or at least one that isn’t just a cosmetic palette swap or a half-assed tacked-on gameplay mechanic.

At its core, this game *is* a fairly generic tower defence title; the things you’re building all fit nicely into the industry approved archetypes: cheap DPS, AOE mortar thingy, “slow the hell down” freeze ray, flamethrower bro, etc etc. The big difference is that the things you’re building ain’t towers, they’re the titular Cubemen; little blocky dudes you can actually give orders to. They’re troops, units, infantry. Treat em’ like permanent structures and you’re doomed! That’s something learnt the hard way after struggling to last even a few rounds on the easiest map in the game.

The little guys aren’t terribly sturdy fellows, and there’s no fancy upgrades to keep em’ in fighting shape, so hoarding up money like you would in a standard tower defence scenario is a surefire way to defeat. Instead you’ve gotta be dynamic and spontaneous. If one of your dudes snuffs it, then you must be prepared to replace em’ A.S.A.P, and if the current formation ain’t working out then you gotta move them into one that does. It’s totally nullifies the “hands-off” approach that I normally find so off-putting; in Cubemen I was always part of the action and there was always something for me to think about.

The game is split into two distinct modes: the first is defence, which is your basic “build a defensive formation around your HQ then shout ‘COME AT ME BRO!’” type thing. And then there’s the 2 player (human or AI) skirmish mode, which is more akin to a cross between tower defence and ARTS. The basic gist of it is that each player defends their HQ from relentless waves of enemy “creeps” all the while trying to escort their own batch of grunts to their rival’s HQ. Skirmish also limits you a lot more on where you can place your Cubemen and how many you can build, so your decisions end up having to be a lot more long term. I personally enjoyed the Defence mode a lot more due to its faster pace of play, but both types have their own separate quirks and strategies that make each of them worthy timesinks in their own right.


If that wasn’t good enough already, the game also looks mighty fine! I’m always a sucker for some snazzy voxel graphics, and Cubemen delivers that in spades; that maps in particular have a beautiful aesthetic to them that makes me crave some kind of editor post-haste. There’s huge variety of them too, each one offering its own individual tactical possibilities that take a fair bit of careful study to divine. It actually got to the point where I’d spend a good minute or two staring at map layouts in the level selection screen, thinking thoughts along the lines of “hmmm yeah I think I’ll open up with 2 of these and put them here and here and… oh! that’ll be a great spot for one of those things, ugh but what if they use THAT?”. It’s the sort of thought process you’d normally expect to come from a hardcore RTS title like Starcraft or Warcraft, and it was kinda exhilarating to experience it in a different context than usual.

So far so good right? Well…….. I was totally stoked when I first sat down to do this review of Cubemen. “Finally” I thought “A game I can give a straight-up positive review! No major flaws I have to dig into, no ‘I like this game except for the bit where’, no little caveats, no nothing!”. But sadly my dream was not to be. In a bout of of curiosity I decided to try something. Something I’m not exactly proud of, but it had to be done. What I did was this:


What you see before you is a good ol’ fashioned Zerg rush, a tactic as old as time itself. Basically I built as many Grills (the cheapest unit in the game) as fast as I possibly could and lined them all up. The result was in an impenetrable barrier of cube dudes that crushed any approaching enemy in a hail of gunfire. Even if one of the poor buggers died, I’d have probably gained enough points by then to build 3 more! With this “strategy” you can totally dominate every defence level across all difficulties (except in 8 Units Only and Rockets Only mode) as well as get pretty close to a bunch of the online highscores. And while it probably won’t win you any skirmish matches against human players, it’s more than enough to best the AI.

Is it fun to play the game like this? Hell no, it’s super boring! So what’s the problem then, can’t you just ignore it and play the game “properly”? Well yeah, for some people that’ll be easy as pie, but for others it presents a bit of a problem. Chances are you’ll want to build some Grill units regardless of what your playstyle happens to be. But where do you draw the line? How many is too many? At what point are you “cheating”? Maybe you should just forbid yourself from using them at all? In essence, you end up having to establish your own personal honour system just to keep the game “fair” which, for me at least, makes Cubemen exceptionally uncomfortable to play.

Don’t get me wrong here, I still wholeheartedly recommend Cubemen for anyone looking for a hefty strategy fix. It’s a fun, clever title that puts a unique spin on an incredibly stale genre, and for that it should be lauded. But for people such as myself, the constant lure of an “easy way out” will be too much to bare and end up ruining the wonderful experience this game has to offer. I guess for £3.99 it’s not something worth pulling your hair out over, but before you take the plunge, I’d recommend you at least have a little think about where you stand on playing games “honestly”.

Cubemen is currently available from Steam for £3.99.

Good

Cool art style.
Large variety of maps.
Great twist on Tower Defence.
Lots of tactical possibilities.

Bad

Nothing to stop a Zerg rush on most modes.

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Vessel Review

Physics based 2D puzzle platformer. There, I just described about a billion [citation needed] different titles within the Indie scene. I mean, I can’t be the only one who’s feeling a little burnt-out on these things by now, right? At this point if you’re gonna make a game that so neatly fits such a generic description, it better damn well do something quite special if it wants anyone to even give it a second thought. So thankfully for the people over at Strange Loop Games (and my own sanity), Vessel more than manages to justify its own existence through innovation, visual appeal and some classy audio.

You play genius inventor Arkwright, whose claim to fame is the creation of “Fluros” a series of liquid based machines that now serve as manual labour in various industries across the land. The rest of the “story” is delivered through very short journal entries that, for the most part, have very little relevance on the gameplay. Most of the time the entries just boil down to “Whoa, looks like malfunctioning Fluros are totally messin’ up [industrial location] real good. Perhaps I should mosey on over and sort that shizzle out!”. For a little while it felt like this simple tale was about to get suddenly rather serious out of the blue, but sadly such a u-turn never materialised until (literally) the last minute. It’s no real biggie though, as the core gameplay more than makes up for any perceived lack of narrative.

The puzzles mainly revolve around manipulating the different types of Fluro, whose particular brand of OCD behaviour is determined by what liquid their body is comprised of and what kind of Fluro “Seed” was used in their inception. For example, one type of Fluro might have a thing for obsessively pushing every button it can find, while another type will relentlessly hunt you down to the ends of the earth so it can deliver a body slam to your head. Both of these examples can be adorably harmless when made out of water, or terrifyingly un-harmless when comprised of molten lava.

In most cases you’re tasked with using the Fluro’s predictable behaviour to “trick” them into activating mechanisms that open up a path to the next puzzle or unlock some new puzzle solving equipment. With the exception of a few unnecessarily confusing sections, I’d say the difficulty level of these tasks is fairly average. They’re *just* difficulty enough to make finishing them feel like an accomplishment, but not so much so that you’ll be stuck on the same one for hours on end. Even if you do run into trouble, most of the challenges can be figured out after a bit of whimsical experimentation.

There’s a bit of platforming going on too, but 90% of the time it takes a backseat to puzzle solving. This is largely for the best, as it’s easily Vessel’s weakest and most frustrating aspect by far. Throughout my playthrough the controls often felt very imprecise and awkward, resulting in far more untimely deaths that I would have liked (i.e. any). Now add to that the fact poor little Arkwright can’t take so much as a larva Fluro to the face before booting you back to a loading screen and you’ve got yourself a less than compelling platformer experience.


You’re gonna have to put up with it for a good while though, as Vessel is exceptionally long by Indie standards, clocking in at roughly 7-8 hours for a full completion. Obviously as it’s a puzzle game, that length of time could be significantly longer or shorter depending on where your IQ sits. However even if you’re a puzzle prodigy, Vessel should provide you with a fairly significant amount of content to consume. Admittedly a lot of the environments do recycle the same core elements over and over, but they all get re-arranging in such a way that I never felt like I was solving the same puzzle twice. The only parts that really felt like unnecessary padding where the rather useless upgrades, whose only purpose seems to be acting as carrots-on-a-stick for finding the games ubiquitous hidden collectables (YAY!) that unlock them.

Even if the brain teasers don’t quite click with you, I hope you’ll at least be able able to appreciate the lush visuals that make up Vessel’s steam-punk world. It’s a never ending sea of gorgeous whirring gears and bronze pipes, all presented with a very liberal usage of parallax scrolling that gives the game an almost 3D appearance, yet manages to avoid the usual background/foreground confusion that plagues other games with a similar art direction. The liquid physics that govern the puzzle solving are also rather wondrous to behold in their own right. I honestly had a lot of fun just watching the physics engine get to work while I was messing around with it. That is, doin’ stuff like trying to fill the whole screen up with water or seeing how many Fluros I could make before my PC started throwing a hissy fit (spoilers: a lot!). There is however one little issue with the game’s visuals that sticks out like a sore thumb: Arkwright’s animations are exceptionally crude, especially when he’s interacting with the games many cranks and levers. If anything, it reminds me more of low budget flash games rather than something I’d otherwise want to put alongside Braid or Limbo.


While there’s sadly no voice acting in Vessel, the game does features an absolutely stellar soundtrack by Coldplay collaborator Jon Hopkins (thanks procrastination Wikipedia!) full of smooth yet funky synth jams that dynamically change depending on what’s going on in the game world. I know this gets said way too often in reviews but…. this soundtrack’s probably worth getting even without the game part! There’s also a few sound effects worthy of praise too, like the soft “clunk” when you accidently headbut the ceiling or the strangely soothing sound of Arkwright’s footsteps on a wooden floor echoing down a hallway.

In all, Vessel is a unique, fun puzzle game that has the misfortune to be part of a catastrophically over-crowded scene. I’m not entirely convinced it’ll be something we’re still talking about a few months down the road, but if you’re not totally fatigued by these kinds of games just yet, then it’s more than worth your time to check this one out. I know that £12 might seem a little bit pricey for an indie game these days, but given Vessel’s rather hefty duration and distinctive brand of puzzle solving, I’d say it’s more than earned that price point.

Vessel is currently available for £12 on Steam.

Good

Very long.
Fun liquid physics.
Well-designed puzzles.
Great music and sound effects.

Bad

Messed character animations.
Poor platforming elements.

AirBuccaneers HD preview

As a kid I had a fairly solid idea of what I *though* multiplayer video games would be like in the future. They would be all about cooperation on a grand scale; players working in harmony with one another as cogs in some grandiose social machine. Like a tank crew, each player would do their part to ensure the continued effectiveness of their team as a whole, with the most efficient team being declared the winner at the match’s end. Yes that’s right, I thought multiplayer games were going to turn into Commie’ simulators.

You may have noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, things kinda went in the opposite direction to my Soviet fantasies. Games became far more about personal glory rather than teamwork, with only high tier players even acknowledging the existence of their allies. But that’s what gave me an instant affinity towards Ludosoft’s AirBuccaneers HD, a game where I can finally live out my dreams of coordination and unity. Also it’s about combat blimps, which is totally badass.

As expected for a title that’s in a early alpha state, the thing’s pretty clunky right now. Controls are slightly awkward, certain mechanics don’t function quite right and the graphics are rather underwhelming. But even in this relatively early build, one thing above all else is abundantly clear: this game is so damn fun*!

*Provided there’s enough players around.

The basic idea is that each team serves as crew aboard a small armada of cannon equipped blimps, which are all styled as pirate ships and viking longboats. While one player acts as the ship’s helmsman, the rest of the deckhands run around taking care of other vital tasks such as loading different kinds of ammo, spotting enemy vessels, laying air mines, lighting fuses, aiming said cannons or even boarding nearby ships for a bit of hand to hand combat.

These tasks aren’t quite as straightforward as they may sound at first though. For one thing, the cannons have no cross hair or other such aiming aid, so firing on enemy ships requires you to be constantly accounting for each ship’s speed, height and trajectory in order for your shots to hit anything meaningful. Yes, sometimes it can become a tad frustrating when you miss your mark ten times in a row. But this trial and error approach also creates a rising sense of tension that slowly builds up every time your aim inches ever closer to that optimum firing angle, a sensation that’s only heightened when you realise your counterpart on the opposing ship isn’t too far off the mark either.

And that moment when you manage land the killing blow before he does? Man, It’s honestly one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a multiplayer game. The glory ain’t just reserved for the gun crew though. As the captain, correctly out maneuvering a rival skipper while giving your gunnery boys a clean shot is just as good as landing the blows yourself. And so too is plunging head first into the melee a part of a boarding party or any number of other tasks that further the war effort in your team’s favor. When everyone plays their part, everyone reaps the reward…….. comrade.

While the visuals still have a long way to go on a technical level, that doesn’t stop the large scale multi-ship battles looking absolutely glorious! Just think of it: a half-dozen or so ships sailing through the clouds, each filled with soldier dudes working feverishly towards a single goal while cannonballs and rockets fly across the battlefield like a medieval fireworks display. All this, interrupted only by the occasional roaring battle cry as one of the vessels descends to the earth in a gigantic fireball alongside the bodies of her vanquished crew. It’s a sight like no other, one that I reckon could make AirBuccaneers HD a must play multiplayer experience once it goes gold.

The only thing that’s really capping its potential right now is the player count. Even more so than most multiplayer shooters, AirBuccaneers HD requires a relatively decent number of players on each side for it to really come into its own. From my experience with it so far, I’d say that number’s around 8 or so players on each team. That might not sound huge, but being a relatively low-profile alpha game, it’s rare to see more than a handful of players online at once outside of the occasionally prearranged showdowns with the developers. You can play with less players if you really want, but I’ve found that those games tend end up as zero sum slogs that’re no fun for either team regardless of who “wins”.

I assume there might be some AI bots or something in the full version, which would go a long way to mitigate this issue if they’re smart enough to put up a decent fight. Regardless, in its currently unfinished state AirBuccaneers HD is already an absolute blast to play, and manages to provide a special kind of gratification you just don’t get very often in video games. Shooter fans with a heavy cooperative bent better keep a close eye on this one and make sure to give it a whirl when it finally hits. Hell, play it right now while it’s still free! The more scallywags the merrier!

You can currently join in on the AirBuccaneers HD Open Alpha over on the official site. Alternatively you can pick up the original Unreal Tournament 2004 mod here.

“Don’t get me started on the Penguins” Tiy talks Starbound.

[Set your eyeballs to “read” as we sit down with veteran Terraria developer Tiy, here to talk about his latest project: Starbound! The procedural generated space RPG boldly going where, reportedly, killer space penguins have very much been before.]

IGM: For the uninitiated’s benefit, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and give us the basic lowdown on Starbound?

Tiy: Hi everyone, I’m Tiy the lead developer of Starbound. I’ve worked on and managed a bunch of games. Starbound is both my dream game and my attempt to take the wonderful gameplay and aesthetics of some of the classic games I grew up with and combine them with the depth of modern titles.

IGM: You’ve described Starbound as a mix of Diablo, Metroid, Borderlands, Castlevania and Pokemon. While I expected most of those, that last one really caught me off guard! What kind of Pokemon influences are we going to see reflected in the gameplay?

Tiy: I really like the fact that in Pokémon each of the enemies you encounter in your journey can become an ally or a tool for the player to use. Also, the idea that the player is out there to explore and catalogue their findings. We’ve drawn inspiration from both of these ideas in Starbound. I also like the concept of fostering some kind of attachment between a player and the creatures in the game.

IGM: Borderlands seems to really stand out on that list too, considering it’s a relatively recent IP compared to the other “classics” you mentioned. What was it about that title that struck a chord with you?

Tiy: The procedural generation of Weapons! It’s an idea that’s appeared in a bunch of games but largely only in regards to a weapons stats or requirements. Borderlands was really the first game to make the weapons feel and function differently. It meant that, rather than forever just choosing the weapon with the highest stats, players could chose weapons based on how they felt. It also goes a long way towards keeping the game fresh, which is why the idea of producing content on the fly in order to create a never ending experience is the foundation of Starbound.

IGM: The screenshots we’ve seen of Starbound (so far) have had what looks to be a fairly low-key and streamlined UI. Will the game be like that when it’s in motion too, or are we going to see more overt RPG business like hit points and stats flying across the screen?

Tiy: There will be (optional) hit points, as well as a few other RPG tropes, but we will be keeping the minimal UI intact as we want as much of the screen real estate as possible focused on the action. We’ve put major work into ensuring the whole UI is super intuitive and making sure it’s only there when it needs to be.

IGM: Procedurally generating each planet’s inhabitants sounds really fascinating! What range of different behaviours can we expect from these creatures? Will some be friendly?

Tiy: Some will definitely be friendly! Many creatures in Starbound have a whole range of behaviours that only appear in certain planet generations. They also have a huge range of modifications and skins that are mixed together to create a unique visual variation of the creature. We want the inhabitants of each planet to be surprising and varied.

IGM: Do you have any favourite examples of crazy stuff Starbound has thrown together in testing so far? I’ve heard people mention killer penguins!

Tiy: Oh don’t get me started on the Penguins… They’re a particularly rowdy sentient race. I was once ambushed by a raiding band of space pirate penguins whilst exploring a crystal planet. That was fun.

IGM: On the official site you said you wanted Starbound to have the “depth of a modern title” is there anything specific you’re aiming for with that ideal?

Tiy: Whilst many classic games had extremely tight game play and beautiful visuals, often you’d experience everything the game had to offer in a single play through. As technology has progressed and budgets have increased games have become increasingly deep experiences where the player can get lost in a game world, be it a multi-faceted single player experience or social multiplayer one. Sadly I think the cost has been that classic gameplay being somewhat left behind. We’re aiming to combine the two and produce a title with modern depth and classic gameplay.

IGM: Procedural open world games tend to shy away from any narrative other than the one the players make for themselves, but by the sounds of it you’re trying to integrate an actual scripted storyline into Starbound! Is it proving challenging trying to bring those two concepts together?

Tiy: It’s really not so bad. If anything the sandbox experience makes the story missions in the game all the more poignant. The sandbox play also serves as a great way for the player to prepare for story missions, whilst the story missions serve as a great way to present the player with direction so the player is never left in the world (unless they want to be).

IGM: Are the storyline missions going to be rewards onto themselves, or will some unique loot and/or game features be tied to story progression?

Tiy: I can’t talk too much about this just yet, but story missions will certainly have big rewards attached to them that players can take into the world.

IGM: Considering Starbound has a futuristic setting, does this mean combat is going to mainly focus on projectile weapons?

Tiy: Not at all, melee combat plays a huge role in Starbound and has its own mechanics, strengths and weaknesses. We’re making sure both melee combat and ranged combat are very balanced and in complement with each other.

IGM: Almost everything we’ve heard/seen about Starbound so far has related to either planet side or space station gameplay. Is that stuff going to be the main bulk of the game, or is there a chance of some deep space exploration/combat in there too?

Tiy: There won’t be any space combat at release, but it’s something we’re interested in for an update. We want to make sure we put out an amazing experience on the Space station or whilst exploring planets for the first release.

IGM: As we’re planet hopping around Starbound’s universe, are we going to be seeing lots of relatively small environments or is every world going to feel gigantic in its own right?

Tiy: Worlds do differ in size, but even the smallest worlds are relatively huge. Each world will also consist of multiple environments. It’s entirely possible to get lost in a single world for a long time if you desire.

IGM: Will we be able to lose hours of our lives focusing our efforts on just a small handful of planets, or will exploring strange new worlds be the main path to a satisfying experience?

Tiy: It really depends on the kind of game you want to play. If fostering a single world is your thing, you’ll certainly be able to do that. However exploring new worlds will supply you with more and more powerful equipment and a much larger range of experiences. You’re also able to combine the two by taking a world as your homeworld and exploring the universe to find increasingly better ways of expanding it.

IGM: I’ll be honest, it’s been really hard to come up with questions that you haven’t already answered somewhere else. Even for an Indie, you’ve been incredibly open about this project right from the get-go! What made you decide to take such an approach with Starbound?

Tiy: I think games are becoming less a single product and more a social experience. Customers are buying not only into the game, but into the community, into spending time with their friends doing something they enjoy. And it makes sense that those players would like to help shape the experience. I try to be as open as I can be because that desire to shape the game is extremely valuable. Also, I don’t see the need for smoke and mirrors, if you’re producing a genuinely good game there’s nothing to hide!

IGM: Ok, this last one might be a bit of a simple mundane question, but I just can’t get it out of my head! Are the 2D environments going to “loop around” on themselves? i.e. If I keep walking in one direction will I eventually end up where I started?

Tiy: Yes! We’ve been doing this for a while now. The engine is also capable of producing infinite planets (!?).

IGM: Thanks very much for talking with us about Starbound! Is there anything you would like to say to our readers before we finish?

Tiy: Just thank you for all the wonderful support, remind  you that you can always reach me via email/Starbound chat/forums and that I’m going to make sure the game lives up to expectations. The Starbound community rocks!

Keep up with the development of Starbound over on the official site!

Journey Review

[This article was published in the April issue of Indie Game Magazine]

A small glint on the distant horizon, that’s all it took. It was all but a little glimmer in the corner of my eye, and it was all the justification I needed. Without hesitation I jumped from the tower I’d spent the best part of 5 minutes trying to scale. If this was any other game, any game other than Journey, I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to do it. But I just couldn’t help myself; I wanted to know what was there dammit! I wanted to see everything this game had to offer, I wanted to discover something new; the sensation had become addictive! It didn’t matter whether I was going to actually find anything out there in the barren wastes, what matter was that, for once, a game had made me care about a little sparkle off in the distance.

Now, please forgive me for making a shockingly obvious statement that I bet turns up in just about every review of this game: Journey is about just that, a journey. But it’s not the usual kind of journey we see in video games, it’s not the kind that’s been tightly scripted down to every last second by the developers. No, it’s a dynamic experience, it’s your journey. There are no maps, no waypoints and no giant arrows in the sky pointing you in the right direction. You’re just a hooded figure that’s been plonked into a desert, now figure the rest out for yourself!

Alright, here’s where it gets a little tough for me to do my job. I really don’t want to get into specifics about what Journey actually “is” as such, or anything that happens while you play it. As an experience, it’s extremely dependent on exploration and discovery. So if I say much more than I already have, I’ll end up compromising your enjoyment of it on some level. In fact, I’m gonna recommend that you totally ignore the trailer I’m contractually obliged to embed just below this paragraph! And those screen shots? Uh… just ignore them too. Ok, you know what? Just stop reading this article right now. Go play Journey instead. Seriously, don’t bother reading the rest of this thing. I really won’t be upset, I promise!

…………

What? You’re still Here? Hmm ok, I guess you need a bit more convincing huh? Well then, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. I guess if I really had to categorise this thing, I’d say it was a “Platformer” but only in that progress tends to involve jumping between stuff a lot. Don’t get me wrong, Journey is still worlds apart from the Italian plumber and his buddies. You won’t be boppin’ any monsters on the head for one thing, and the skill level required to reach the ending it is minimal at best. Although I suppose there are “enemies” that deal “damage” of a kind…..Ugh! Even just mentioning small things like that makes me feel I’m saying too much!

Okay, how about something less specific? Visually, Journey is incredible. It’s a beautiful, beautiful game without a doubt. But it’s not a high-tech kind of beauty; it’s not super high-res textures or astronomical polygon counts that make it so attractive. It’s something way simpler than that, something far harder to define. I could take the lazy route and whip out old Mr. Thesaurus at this point, but that just wouldn’t do Journey’s glistening vistas any justice whatsoever. So instead, just rest easy in the knowledge that the whole “games aren’t art!” argument just got a whole lot weaker.

Admittedly, though, there’s a bit of an issue when it comes to variety. Almost every environment is simply a different variation on the theme of “stone ruins half-buried in sand” so it does end up feeling a tad samey after a while. But you know, when every screenshot feels like it should be framed and mounted in a museum, you tend not to get too fussed about that stuff.

There is what you might consider a “storyline” linking all the locations together, but it’s told through a series of highly abstract cutscenes in which not a single word is spoken. If I’m quite honest, I still have very little clue as to what most of it was really about. Not that it actually matters mind you! The real memorable stories in Journey, the ones with the most emotional impact by far, will be of your own making. Stories like the one I opened this article with, for example, which are only possible because Journey never overtly demands you to go somewhere. Instead, it gently guides you along the critical path using subtle visual cues and other such fancy tricks, most of which you won’t consciously notice unless you’re looking WAY too hard for ‘em. And while the levels might seem huge, they’re actually just as small any other game’s, if not smaller! But thanks to Journey’s hands-off approach to navigation, it’ll never feel that way. Somehow there will always be that same sense of raw exploration, even when you know full well you’ve already charted every corner of the landscape.

Oh boy, then there’s the co-op. It’s totally seamless; no matchmaking, server selection or any of that junk. Simply play it for long enough and then *poof!* a companion will suddenly appear alongside you. It’s quite a surreal experience to say the least, one that doesn’t really aid you in any significant way, gameplay wise at least. It sure is fun though! The first time it happened (and many of the times afterward) complete whimsy took over me and my partner almost instantly. We both ended up spending a good couple of minutes jumping around some ancient ruins together, constantly mashing the “sing” button to play jaunty tunes and make our randomly assigned emblem flash on screen. I should add that this is the only form of communication the game actually allows between players; you don’t even get to see their usernames!

Yes, it’s a slightly ridiculous and mechanically rather pointless approach to multiplayer, but I honestly can’t understate how quickly you can form an emotional bond with your new companion. But I guess that’s a lot easier when you don’t know that their internet handle is actually TokeTokeRevolution91. But anyway, there’s nothing quite like sussing out a puzzle alongside a fellow wayward soul, or even helping them find one of the game’s many hidden collectibles; it brought me together with other players in a way I never thought possible. And let’s not forget the heart-breaking moments where life outside the game forces you to go your separate ways, causing your BFF to die before your eyes, never to sing with you again.

As I said before, it’s these kind of dynamic, unpredictable and unscriptable micro-adventures that’ll really stick with you the most. In fact, If you were the kind of person who likes pretentious and wholly unnecessary analogies (which I am) you might say that Journey isn’t so much a pretty painting, but more like a really spiffy paintbrush. Just hold it in your hands and do what comes naturally, then you too can create your own personal masterpiece by………by applying paint to……the….uh…canvas? Jesus, I don’t even know where I’m going with this thing anymore.

It just ain’t easy to put into words how I feel about this game, you know? But that’s exactly what makes it so special in the first place. It’s the kind of experience that’s only possible in this medium of interactive entertainment we all love so much. I’m not saying it’s the “ultimate game” or whatever. I’m sure if you were to look at it from a purely mechanical perspective, then yeah, Journey ain’t all that special really. It’s fairly short too; a scant 3 hours if you’re not fastidious about collectibles. Normally that’d be a bit of an issue at a £10 price point, but in this case it seems absurd to boil it down to a simple “hours per £1” value proposition. This game is just SO much more than that! For me at least, every moment of it was magical, and I’d happily pay another £10 to wipe my memory so I could experience it all again. So, provided you’re not dead inside and/or someone averse to the artsy side of gaming, then think of Journey as a unique, interactive poem that’ll jettison you through the whole emotional spectrum across 3 incredible hours.

Ok, I did my bit. Due diligence has been served. Now, just go play it, alright?

Journey for the PS3 is available now for £10 via the PlayStation Network.

Good

Stunning visuals
Moving soundtrack
Emotional multiplayer
Raw exploration
Simply magic

Bad

A little on the short side
It ends

Escape Plan Review

Black and white: the cardinal colours, the alpha and the omega, nothingness and everything incarnate, an absence of light and absolutely nothing but light. Also, quite possibly the most painfully overused theme in the entire Indie gaming scene. Yes, we get it Mr Pretentious Video Game, you’re so artistic and nonconformist, well done! Gold star! But if there’s one positive thing I can say for sure about Escape Plan for the PlayStation Vita, it’s that somehow it finds a way for my cold cynical heart to appreciate the whole grey-scale concept again. I guess that’s because it’s not *just* black an white on display here, it’s the numerous dynamic shades that exist between the two. The game fills every inch of the Vita’s spiffy high-res screen with grubby looking gradients and smooth shadows that, combined with some clever perspective tricks, give it an almost 3D level of depth that even high budget games that use the full color spectrum (i.e brown and dark brown) struggle to achieve.

The actual storyline of Escape Plan is vague at best. Lil and Laarg, our two oppositely proportioned protagonist are trapped in some creepy slaughterhouse/insane asylum/laboratory mash-up owned by the evil Bakuki, who is attempting to……to……. do something nasty to them? Yes, even after completing the whole game, that’s really my entire understanding of the narrative. But whatever, your job is to make sure they somehow get out of this Saw-like nightmare alive by using gestures on the touch screen to coerce these fine fellows towards each level’s exit. Of course it’s not quite that simple, because just about every object between them and salvation has some sort of nefarious designs on the poor guys. Even something as innocuous as a stray brick is enough to result in someone’s soggy innards splattered across the walls in a fairly gruesome (if not slightly slapstick) fashion.

But our little chums needn’t fear, gimmicky motion controls to the rescue! Poisonous gasses leaking out a broken pipe? Plug up the gap with your finger! A helium filled Lil floating towards a wall of rusty nails? Tilt the Vita to veer him away from danger! Laarg confronted with a fatal drop? Well, first you scare the sheep into position, then you distract the guard by taping on the wall……then….uh…. Ok so not all of the solutions are quite so straight forward, but you get the idea. For the most part the gestures required a fairly intuitive; stroke diagonally across the screen for movement, stroke downward to make Laarg do a butt stomp, tap objects to move them out of the way, that kinda stuff. It might sound a little simple, but it can give you a really satisfying sense of agency in the game world, like you’re some kind of friendly poltergeist clearing a safe path.

Most of the 78 or so puzzle rooms can be completed in a matter of seconds once you’ve figured out where all he hazards are, making it a perfect companion for the on the move gaming that the Vita’s supposedly all about. That said, most of the early stages are mind-numbingly simplistic, and it’s not until about the 30% progress mark that things really start picking up the pace. It’s totally worth trudging through those early bits though; the later sections really start pushing your reaction times and logical reasoning, making them pretty gratifying to solve. But in all honesty, morbid curiosity was my biggest motivator in Escape Plan. You see, this is possibly the most goddamn creepy game I’ve played since the terrifying Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Seriously, just about everything in this game is hideous and unsettling in the best possible way! Our beloved heroes for instance, are best described poorly constructed sacks of bodily fluids prone to exploding in a gory mess at the slightest provocation. Something that’s made even more grim by the giant death counters branded onto their chests that show how many times they’ve died under your “care”. If that wasn’t bad enough, they both “speak” via bouts of disgusting moans and squeals which still make me feel a little bit ill when I think about it. Oh, and bare in mind all this is all this nastiness is going on to the tune of classical riffs and sitcom-esque laughter tracks that paint the starkest possible contrast imaginable. But do you know what makes the whole thing even more disturbing? As a duo, Lil and Laarg are kinda…….uh…..adorable? I guess? Man, this game……

Now, for the rest of this article I’m going to refer to the Vita’s godforsaken rear touch panel as the Bum Tickler™ as there’s no “official” silly name for it just yet. On paper the Bum Tickler™ is quite possibly the worst idea ever. In practice? It’s only………*almost* the worst idea ever. There’s a few clever uses for it here and there, such as pushing background objects into the foreground and what not. But problems start arising when it comes to getting your score at the end of each level, which is partly dependant on how few times you “gesture” on either one of the touch screens. Now, think for a moment about how one actually holds a Vita. You know, with half your fingers spread across the Bum Tickler™ and probably wriggling around little every now and then? So yeah, don’t expect to see a decent rating very often unless you have itsy bitsy hands or a staggering level of self control. Ugh, and don’t even get me started on the puzzles that require you to use the damn thing with any level of precision. Developer dudes, we don’t have eyes in our palms ok? There’s no way for us to see what’s going on back there!

The game’s other big stumbling block is the dreaded replay value, scourge of puzzle games since time immemorial. Once you’ve solved those 78 puzzles – which’ll likely take less than 3 hours – then that’s it, ya done with Escape Plan! Yes there’s trophies and the customary hidden collectibles, but in terms of actual bona fide content, you’ve seen all there is to see. And while I realise that launch games on any new system tend to be a little on the pricey side, I still can help feeling that the £10 price tag is perhaps a little bit of a stretch for such a brief experience.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little out of left field though. Although it might not be the most cost affective title in the Vita’s launch lineup, its showcase of the touch screen functionality and deranged tone without out a doubt make it the most interesting one by far. But perhaps more importantly, it sets the bar for Indie games on Sony’s new platform fairly high right from the get-to. Fledgling Vita indies take note: for now at least, this is the one to beat!

Fun Bits Interactive’s Escape Plan is available for £10 on the PlayStation Vita via the PlayStation Network Vita store. 

 

Good
Grey-scale graphics look great.
Beautifully unsettling atmosphere.
(Mostly) good use of touch controls.
Puzzles are short and sweet.

Bad
Early stages too easy.
Rear touch panel poorly implemented.
Little replay value.