Flem

In Flem you play as a green clump of either phlegm, snot, or a booger. It sounds gross, but really, it’s just a round ball with two eyes and no other characterization. It could be Kirby’s less-gifted Irish cousin Patrick O’Flem and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. So I don’t get why they took the bodily fluid angle with the game. None of the mechanics feel faithful to the concept. Mucus is sticky, so the inherit ability  to cling to surfaces or walk up walls or anything would have been nice. There are two power ups. One of them lets you inflate and float around, and the other lets you launch forward. You’ll note that neither of these seem like abilities you would associate with stuff you cough up. Only the introductory level (and possibly a finale, I didn’t quite make it that far, though I made it a lot further than most people did before getting bored and quitting) has a setting that fits the idea. It takes place inside your nose, though it ends really quickly. What was the point? It seems slightly thoughtless. Some people will be turned off by the concept of playing as sentient phlegm just because, you know, ewwww. If you’re not going to embrace all-out grossness, why bother with the gross gimmick to begin with? That bugged me.

And actually, why is it called Flem when the game starts off inside a person’s nose? Phlegm is something coughed up from the lungs, not blown out of your nose. “Its definition is limited to the mucus produced by the respiratory system, excluding that from the nasal passages, and particularly that which is expelled by coughing (sputum)” says Wikipedia. And it’s also typically brown, not green. Though if it were brown it might be confused with a sentient lump of shit. Which would be as nonsensical in the setting of the game as sentient phlegm is, since Flem’s developers didn’t take advantage of the idea at all. Okay, I’ll stop whining about that now.

This is pretty much the only part that suggests you're playing as snot. It's such a wasted opportunity.

This is pretty much the only part that suggests you’re playing as snot. It’s such a wasted opportunity.

Flem is a punisher. People wonder why I keep playing these when I typically don’t like them. Well, I do like some of them, and how else will I find the ones I like if I don’t try new ones that come across my desk? Nothing particularly sets Flem apart from other games in the genre. It feels pretty by-the-books, somewhat bland and uninspired. Stages are simple get from point A to point B fare, with no collectables to add additional challenge. In later stages, you’ll get power-ups that allow you to break through certain blocks, float, or pass through other blocks. Eventually you’ll have to switch between the powers. Stages are short, with the average complete time for them being under twenty seconds. Of course, you’ll die a lot on each level before completing it, and there in lies the problem.

With the exception of Spelunky (which hates you and wants you to suffer, with love), the best punishers are really at their best when you live instead of when you die. A lot of start-up indie devs creating punishers get too focused on the dying and the difficulty and not about why people put up with the trial and error to begin with. So instead of making levels designed around novel ways to survive, they just try to kill you a lot. Guys, that’s not really all that fun. Flem takes the “lowest possible margin of error” route for level design. Narrow pathways to victory, spikes above your head that will kill you if you jump your normal height, spikes that will snare you if you activate your dash move on the wrong part of a spot that requires you to use the dash, that kind of stuff. It does have a bit of unfairness too. There are little plant things that spit out projectiles that quickly rain down on you. Sometimes you can’t see the plants at all, but their ability to spit death upon you are still active. So you’ll get to a section and then die out of nowhere because you got killed by one of those projectiles that you had no possibility of avoiding once you see it and never had a chance to know it was coming. How on Earth is that supposed to be fun?

Of course, punishers live and die by their controls, and Flem’s aren’t precise enough to cut it. Jumping has a tinge of lag to it. In a game like this, just a tinge is the difference between fun and frustrating. Movement is fully digital too, which will inevitably lead to you heel-toeing your way through some stage. Check out this screen.

Flem 1

Look at how narrow those passages are. Flem is full of parts like that.

Flem 2

It really comes down to level design. Flem’s primary way of killing you is arranging spikes or enemies in such a way that just normal movement or the activation of an ability will kill you. Use your dash mechanic to clear a gap? Well, you didn’t use it on the right spot, so you die. This might be on me, but I never got a proper feel for judging jumping distance or how far the dash will carry you. Worst of all, movement and landing physics feel slippery. In the above screenshot, the ice setting is window dressing that doesn’t really affect gameplay. All movement in Flem is slightly slippery. Some platformers can get away with that without putting the enjoyability of the game in jeopardy. Punishers can’t. The player needs to feel they are fully in control of the character, one-to-one, you and it. Any control issues in a punisher become magnified, and that’s why it’s not all that fun.

I will say this: late in the game, the level design stops feeling generic. But, by then, you’ve slogged through so much been there, done gameplay that it’s not enough to redeem Flem. I went from being excited by acing a late stage on my first attempt to finally succumbing to boredom and quitting just a few stages away from the finish line. I actually don’t know who this was made for. Fans of punishers want and expect some kind of novel hook these days. There’s just too many games that do stuff like this. Even the novelty of playing as sentient phlegm is meaningless because the character doesn’t look or behave like it. It’s only what it is because the developers say it is. The only redeeming factor of Flem is that there’s nothing offensively awful about it. The game’s developers (total class acts) display a lot of potential here and I wouldn’t bet against them having a bright future. Solid neo-retro graphics, fleeting glimpses of inspired level design, and they’ve proven they can fix stuff that doesn’t work by patching out some earlier control issues. If you think I complained a lot above, you should have seen how frustrated I was before the latest patch. So there’s talent on display here. This is their first game as a team, and even if you have a lot of talent (and I think they might), first games often suck. Flem isn’t a good game. It’s bland, it’s boring, it’s unoriginal. That breaks my heart because I’m a big fan of phlegm. Why do you think I smoke so much? It ain’t for my health.

Flem LogoFlem was developed by Henchman & Goon
Point of Sale: Steam (also on PlayStation Mobile)

$5.39 (normally priced $5.99) noted that phlegm is sometimes green if you have the flu, but it begs the question, why didn’t they include power-ups known to increase phlegm’s potency? Flu, bacteria, cigarettes, etc in the making of this review.

A review copy of Flem was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. A full copy of Flem will be purchased by Cathy with her own money on April 28, 2015 when the game is released on Steam. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ. Update: the copy was purchased on April 29 and was 10% off. The purchase price was adjusted in the review.

White Night

This is the latest challenge from the gang at the Indie Game Riot, who matched my White Night purchase price ($14.99) as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation. I buy the game, they match the price, everyone benefits. Except my brain, because given their selection of games for me, I’m starting to think they hate me.

In the interest of fairness, I should concede that I almost certainly never had any chance of liking White Night right from the get-go. This is for a couple of reasons. I never got into horror games. As a child, my parents didn’t let me play M rated games. I guess they didn’t want me to grow up cussing a blue-streak or making obscene jokes. The results speak for themselves. By time I was an adult, I had epilepsy. Horror games are meant to be played in the dark, with all external lighting turned off. That’s the biggest epilepsy no-no there is. But, White Night was mostly done-in for me by relying on fixed camera angles. I hate those. My first Resident Evil was #4. Also known as the one that ditched the fixed camera angles in favor of, you know, anything but fixed camera angles. You’ll notice almost nobody talks about the first three Resident Evils as the pinnacle of the series. Resident Evil 4 was so good it made the first three retroactively bad. More outdated than natural aging should have made them, and that’s almost entirely on the fixed camera angles. I get the point of them, especially in horror games. Like a theme park dark ride, they direct your attention in a specific direction to optimize the terror when something scary comes into view. The problem with that is, it compromises optimized gameplay for stylized storytelling. Games aren’t movies. Gameplay should always be paramount.

And, in the case of White Night, the graphics style does not mesh well at all with the fixed camera malarkey. This gets proven nearly every time something is introduced that’s intend to drive the plot in some way. There’s a scene in the second chapter where you’re in a dining room (I think it’s a dining room) and the game’s plot takes over: a ghost girl who needs your help. She appears suddenly and then walks through a door. When she does, the cinematics take over so you can see her walk through the door. You then return to the fixed camera you were at, and it’s almost impossible to figure out which door she just went through. The game is drawn in black and white graphics and the gimmick is most of the game is shrouded in darkness.

White Night 2

Here’s an example of how the puzzles in the game don’t work in a logical sense. See the statue casting a shadow on the grave marker? There’s a key hanging where the shadow is. It’s not an Indiana Jones type of thing where moving the shadow of the statue activates a mechanism that reveals the key. No, the key is apparently just hanging there (you can even feel it before you move the statue) but you can’t actually claim it until you move the statue and can see it. Oh COME ON! It’s right fucking there. It’s just so damn silly that it breaks immersion right off the bat. This is literally the prologue to the game and the concept is already ruined. Sigh.

It doesn’t work as a play mechanic or a storytelling device. Hypothetically, the player character saw the ghost and knows which door she went through. That’s why it’s scary. Because holy fuck that was a ghost! But the player can’t tell which door she went through, so the plot grinds to a halt once again while you stumble around slowly, lighting matches to illuminate dark areas and clicking every object hoping to make the god damn slow-as-radioactive-decay story unfold just a sliver more. This breaks immersion, because in a cinematic experience (like White Night strives to be), the guy who, again, just saw a fucking ghost crying for help and walking through a door, would know which door she went through and follow her. In the game, the players are left to stumble searching for the door that the character himself saw. Are we scared yet? No, really, we’re just bored.

Oh, and by the way, the door she went through? It was locked.

Other technical issues get in the way. Even the simple act of clicking on shit to examine wasn’t handled well. The game kicks off with a car crash that injures the main character. I’m not sure if he spends the whole game limping around, but at the point I quit (which, granted, was very early in), he staggers with all the urgency of a murderer being dragged to the gallows. The limping animation leads to making lining up with stuff that you need to click a needless exercise in frustration. I’ve slammed the examine when the magnifying glass appears on-screen, only the dipshit you control was still dragging his leg in the animation and thus by time the game acknowledges that you hit a button, the character is no longer in position to examine the thing in question. Normally I would label this “lag” but it’s not really lag. It’s just bad design.

I don’t want to call it “Style over Substance” because that implies the game’s creators made a conscious decision that the gameplay could be mediocre as long as the art work was striking (and it is). I think White Night is a victim of the development team knowing how to play their own game and forgetting that you develop games for everyone else. Like an expectation that players will play the game the way the game’s creator does. For example, save points are notoriously spread far apart. In theory, this is done to heighten tension, making players practically pray they that come across one so that all the progress they’ve made isn’t lost. In practice, players just make a tiny bit of progress, return to the last save point they found, then venture back to make a little more progress, rinse, repeat until they stumble upon a new one. Thus 10 minutes worth of gameplay takes an hour to complete. I’ve never seen a game where that’s an option and most players opt to just risk making it to checkpoints. That’s especially true with White Night, because the game unfolds so fucking slowly, with miserable play control, that fear of having to repeat the tedious activities is more terrifying than any jump-scares or creepy atmosphere the game can throw at you.

Lighting matches doesn't protect you from the more aggresive ghosts, but they'll be removed as threats by electic lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches "look dangerous" and thus your character won't push them, because of course he won't. I mean seriously, you fucking pussy, you're being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. You're locked in the house. It's just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a "puzzle" is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you're left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

Lighting matches doesn’t protect you from the more aggressive ghosts, but they’ll be removed as threats by electric lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches “look dangerous” and thus your character won’t push them, because of course he won’t. I mean seriously, what a pussy. He’s being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. He’s locked in the house. And it’s just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a “puzzle” is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you’re left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough, and then when you find it, it doesn’t work. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

There’s not a single concept that White Night has that I feel works the way it was probably envisioned. The game gives you matches that you must use to stay in the light. You can carry 12 at a time. If you run out of matches, you die. If you can’t get a match lit in a dark area fast enough, you die. That can be problematic when you’re trying to light a match but the character is either caught in an examination animation or even a movement animation that you can’t even see. I’m guessing it’s done to be realistic, because real people would struggle to light a match in a haunted house where ghosts will fucking kill you if you aren’t able to spark the thing up. THIS ISN’T REAL LIFE! It’s a game! And besides, when the ghosts actually kill you, the death animation looks more like a mildly annoyed person trying to shoo a housefly away, not a scared-shitless person having the life force sucked out of them by a god damned mother fucking GHOST! And why the hell are the ghosts in the game instakills? And why are we even doing the ridiculous save stuff? And why in the blue fuck are matches in limited supplies? White Night has a very old, first-gen 3D horror mentality. It ignores all the major advancements in-game design that have come about over the last twenty years. A lot of people say Resident Evil 1 was scarier than Resident Evil 4. Fine, maybe it was. But horror games control better today than they did in the PS1/Saturn era. Can’t we find a healthy middle ground between good gameplay and real scares?

That’s the real shame here. White Night might actually be a really scary video game. I played it in a room with four grown men and my mother. We all had a couple “fucking game got me!” BOO moments. But typically those resulted in me dying, followed by dying several more times in a row. Then more dying. You die a lot. This is mostly because, for some reason, when a ghost spots you the movement gets even weirder and more limpy than normal. If a ghost catches you, you die. You can run away, but while doing so, you have to compete with horrible play control and the possibility that the fixed camera angles will change. Again, because of the all white and black style and the darkness versus light gimmick, the layouts of rooms are confusing at best. Often, it’s not even worth attempting to runaway.

Going off the percentages of players getting achievements for completing the second chapter, a shocking amount of people quit playing White Night at some point on the second stage, and I’m amongst them. This game is awful. Look, even scary games are supposed to be entertaining. While the game is interesting to look at, a game shouldn’t make it so easy for players to give up and quit. White Night frustrates with archaic fixed angles, clunky movement, bad play control, confusing layouts, a slow, somewhat uninteresting and far too vague story, and annoying instakills that make you replay all the annoying things. No, as someone who completely missed the fixed-camera era of horror gaming and HATES that style, I probably never stood a chance to like White Night. Was this review fair? I feel it was, because if you’re in the same boat as me, with no nostalgic affection for that style, White Night is clearly not for you. Playing White Night is practically a war of attrition, and it is in that sense only that it succeeds. I wave the white flag.

White NightWhite Night was developed by O’Some Studio
Point of Sale: Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

$14.99 said “who’ya gonna call?” like a schmuck in the making of this review.

Cosmochoria

Cosmochoria is not finished yet. I don’t mean it’s buggy (though it is). I mean literally, the game is not finished. The final boss fight and a proper ending have not yet been included as of this writing. It’s weird to me to review a game that isn’t complete. But, Cosmochoria costs money ($9.99 to be exact), and you can purchase the early, near-complete build I’ve put over twenty hours into right now. What does $10 dollars get you? A glitchy, often slow grind-a-thon that left me cursing in frustration and annoyed with myself for breaking my “no Betas” vow.

Also, it’s a lot of fun. I mean, duh. I wouldn’t have put twenty hours into a game I thought was garbage.

Cosmchoria’s concept sounds like it belongs more in a big, blockbuster 3D space epic. You’re a little astronaut that plants seeds on planets. Once you’ve planted X amount of seeds (depending on the planet’s size), the planet becomes terraformed. Terraformed planets restore your health and give you a special treasure. The map is randomly generated, giving you 50 planets. The act of planting seeds, or other “building” options feels a little like an RTS or time management game, but really, Cosmochoria feels more like the evolution of late 70s/early 80s coin-op action titles. Gameplay is super-fast-paced, which juxtaposes the slow grind of acquiring money and leveling up your character. A variety of stats can be built upon (don’t upgrade your movement speed past 3 out of 5. Just, fucking trust me on that), but getting good enough to feel strong and able-bodied feels like it takes too long. Weirdly enough, once I passed a certain point, before my stats were half-way upgraded (buy an upgrade that doubles the money you collect to speed this up), I was suddenly able to make massive progress and finish building my character in just two rounds worth of play. That tells me the upgrade system was like the dragon with dandruff: not scaled properly.

Terraformed planets always get occupied by Cheech & Chong. At least that's what it looks like.

Terraformed planets always get occupied by Cheech & Chong. At least that’s what it looks like.

Give me a second while I figure out if that joke makes any sense. I think it does. Hear me out. Like, if a dragon has dandruff, it would shed scales instead of flakes, right? Dragons don’t have hair. Well, most don’t. European ones don’t. Okay, so that joke won’t make sense in China, but then again, dragons don’t exist so I can make up any rule I want about them. If I say they have dandruff, they have dandruff. If they have dandruff, that means their scales are bad, or not proper. So the joke works. By that, I mean it makes sense, not that it’s funny.

I’m now told jokes are supposed to be funny too. Sorry. I’ll try harder next time.

Lack of trying hard wasn’t an issue for Cosmochoria. It goes overboard in trying to be quirky, aloof, 4th-wall breaking. While there’s a plot in place and a nifty little twist ending, I never got too deep into it. The writing isn’t particularly memorable, and the arcade-style action doesn’t exactly lend itself to the meta-storyline it was aiming for. That’s fine. The action here more than makes up for it. There’s a nice variety of enemies and a wide range of ways to fight them. So why do I wish I had more ways to fight them? You can only bring a single gun (guns are also unlocked with money) on any campaign you make, and there’s only three kinds of offensive-oriented bases you can build. A wider variety would take the edge off of the repetition, which does wear a bit thin. It would also lead to more complex strategies. Cosmochoria is a bit on the dumb, stupid, overly-simple side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very capable of loving simple-dumb, and its #91 ranking on the IGC Leaderboard as of this writing ain’t too shabby. But it feels like this is more of a proof-of-concept than a fully realized game.

Enemy and especially boss designs aren't exactly inspired. This one looks more like an advertisement for deodorant.

Enemy and especially boss designs aren’t exactly inspired. This one looks more like an advertisement for deodorant.

Most of my issues with Cosmochoria got patched out while I was playing the game, so my relevant complaints are fairly limited right now. The controls are adequate, though selecting specific tasks off the menu ring sometimes felt sticky and unresponsive. The utter clusterfuck of enemies attacking you all at once deep in the game can be overwhelming. And there’s annoying little slime-blob baddies that are only a couple of pixels off the ground and require you to point downwards to kill them. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you remember that all action takes place on spherical surfaces and thus you have to be close enough to risk taking damage to defend yourself against these little bastards. Then again, almost all enemies announce their presence to you by damaging you in a way that you never had any potential of avoiding. The damage they cause is often miniscule, but it adds up quickly when you have over a dozen different enemies attacking you all at once. This all while you’re trying to plant seeds or set up bases. There’s clear-all bombs that wipe the screen clean (without giving you money or points for the enemies that die) but they also clear out any bases you’ve laid down. Well, in theory. Sometimes I would panic, detonate a bomb on a planet I had a ton of bases on, the bases would disappear………. and then keep firing at enemies. Huh?

Actually, the “Huh?” inducing glitches benefited me as often as they hindered me. There’s a nifty exploit where you can stop your character’s movement dead in its tracks while in space simply by pausing the game and unpausing it. Without this, I don’t think I would have beaten the game as easily as I did. I can’t imagine playing the game without it, though I’m guessing it will be removed in later builds. Or there’s the one time I happened upon one of the dragon bosses, which had gotten stuck in one of my Easter Island-like statue bases and died without causing me to so much as break sweat against it. And I lost track of how many times enemies clipped their way through the planet geometry and were stuck indefinitely, which I think prevented similar enemies from spawning and attacking me (or at least it seemed that way). This was awesomely beneficial. Cosmochoria isn’t stable, and it probably won’t be for quite a while, but the charm and enjoyability are undeniable.

Some of the glitches are totally meaningless. Like this one. Before you can plant seeds on a planet, you have to plant a flag first. You only get one flag per planet. Only this time it gave me two. Weird. Didn't hurt or help or do anything. But it also shows how unstable the game can be. Totally random mechanical glitches happen constantly. Like, almost every play session.

Some of the glitches are totally meaningless. Like this one. Before you can plant seeds on a planet, you have to plant a flag first. You only get one flag per planet. Only this time it gave me two. Weird. Didn’t hurt or help or do anything. But it also shows how unstable the game can be. Totally random mechanical glitches happen constantly. Like, almost every play session.

I liked Cosmochoria. For all its buggery, there’s something quintessentially gamey about it. I think the development team behind it would have thrived in the golden age, where glitches became features and those who could exploit them ruled the arcades. They would have turned out stuff like Robotron or Defender. Maddening action titles that were anything but fair, but you still had to play them because they’re so entertaining. I actually whine a lot about games that aren’t fair, which means Cosmochoria makes a hypocrite out of me. If you strip out all the glitches, you’re left with a game where enemies hit you before you even have a chance to realize there is an enemy present. But, it’s fun. So I guess the rule when making an unfair game is, you probably shouldn’t do it. BUT, if you do it, at least make sure it’s fun. Cosmochoria is fun.

And glitchy.

And annoying.

And frustrating.

And unsophisticated.

And unbalanced.

And unfinished.

But fun. Fun is all that matters. It’s gaming, people. That’s what we’re here for, remember?

Cosmo logoCosmochoria was developed Nate Schmold
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$9.99 avoided picking up the sword like it was made out of plutonium in the making of this review. It glowed. It might have been.

Cosmochoria is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Axiom Verge

Well, that didn’t take long. It was only 68 days ago that Shovel Knight dethroned Journey for the #1 spot on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Journey had sat as king of the throne for 1,048 days. And there’s MANY more amazing looking indies coming in 2015. I tell you, we’re in the Golden Age of Indie Gaming, and ain’t it sweet?

Axiom Verge certainly had an advantage over Shovel Knight. Metroidvanias are my favorite gaming genre. They factored hugely into my gaming upbringing. Meanwhile, I can probably count the number of times I’ve even held an NES controller on one hand, and I certainly didn’t grow up playing Capcom’s NES library. So maybe it was fate that finally a Metroidvania would take the crown here at IGC. Then again, I think it speaks volumes about its quality that I was (and still am) gaga over Shovel Knight despite having no heart warming childhood stories about the time I ran through Duck Tales in a single life or the hours I spent designing fantasy Mega Man bosses. Shovel Knight holds a special place in my heart, and it does so simply by being an incredible game.

But, Axiom Verge has beaten it. And handily at that. It is the best independent video game I’ve ever played.

I've seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

I’ve seen a lot of tributes to the Kraid fight in Super Metroid. This one outshines the rest.

Think of Axiom Verge as the evolutionary Metroid. The same basic concept and play mechanics are present. The same enemy placement sensibility, where each corridor has the same enemies that you encounter one after the other. It’s so close that if you re-skinned the lead character Trace with Samus Aran sprites, put bubbles around each door, and replaced a drone you acquire a couple of hours into the game with the Morphing Ball, you would swear this really was a Metroid game. It’s that seamless.

Really, I can think of nothing else that speaks as great a volume as that when it comes to praising Axiom Verge: that you could believe this was an authentic Metroid game, made by a team of veteran designers working for gaming’s most prestigious house. But it wasn’t. One guy made this. And it’s better than any adventure the house of Mario has given their super heroine. Whoa!

Sacrilege, you scream. Look, we (or at least, people with similar taste to me) whine about how Nintendo turns out samey games. Every Zelda has the hookshot, the master sword, a boomerang, etc. Every Metroid has the Morphing Ball, the Grappling Beam, the Wave Beam, etc. Nintendo can get away with this because we keep eating it up year after year. I’m guilty of it too. Now here comes along a game that could be a Metroid, but it does things different. No Morphing Ball, the Bionic Commando grappling hook instead of the Grappling Beam (you can grab pretty much any platform instead of designated grappling sections once you acquire it), no bubble doors, new gun concepts, new enemies, a deeper story, but the same core gameplay. This is exactly what we’ve been asking for. For years. It’s the twist in the formula we’ve all been hoping for. The logical evolution of the Metroid mechanics.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practical invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there's still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

The platform Trace is standing on here is practically invisible. The game has since been patched to make it and others like it stick out more, but there’s still some minor visibility issues in Axiom Verge.

And then comes the Glitch Gun. It’s not really called that. It has some stupid name like data disruptor. Just call it the Glitch Gun, everyone else does. Probably inspired by the types of graphic abnormalities that happen when you haven’t sufficiently blown on your NES cartridges enough, it’s sort of a more proactive version of Samus’s visor from Metroid Prime. When you shoot most enemies with it, you “hack” them, making them glitch out. This might make them simpler to slay, or it might make them useful, even able to open up hidden rooms. The gun will also interact with the environment, creating or destroying blocks, opening up new pathways, or unveiling secrets. It’s very clever and mostly well done. However, later in the game, once the gun is upgraded, I struggled somewhat in consistently clearing out the most advanced glitch blocks, often phasing some in while making others phase out. It’s a small niggling complaint, but it almost always happened when I was trying to clear the blocks out. Beyond that, the biggest mistake I think the developer made with the Glitch Gun was not giving it to players right out of the starting gate. It’s what sets Axiom Verge apart from its heritage more than any other play mechanic. You want to flaunt that stuff right off the bat. If someone has a flying car, I don’t want him to show it off to me by taking me on a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Even if it’s a nice ride, I want to see the car fly! And I want to see the Glitch Gun in Axiom Verge right from the start.

Actually, since I’m complaining about things right now, I should point out that I don’t love the graphics. The world Tom Happ has created for Axiom Verge hits similar notes to other games in this genre, but it lacks liveliness and color. The story explains it to some degree (my insane fan theory: Murky and Lurky are behind this), but the starkness of the color is kind of exhausting. And it occasionally gets in the way. It’s often hard to distinguish between the foreground and background. The problem is Axiom Verge is too married to the limited color palette of the 8 bit era. Although I’m quite fond of neo-retro games, I think developers should remember that you shouldn’t handicap your own game in the process of paying homage. Cheat the rules occasionally. Use shading and color techniques not available on classic  platforms, but do so in a clever way so that people don’t notice. Axiom Verge looks very convincing as a classic game, but that often works against it more than it helps it.

The controls are smooth. If there’s a problem with them, it’s that there’s just so much shit to do. By the end of the game you’ll be using pretty much every button on the controller, and unless you’re one of those freaks that can rub their head and pat their belly at will, you’re bound to slip up. I also felt the lack of ability to shoot at a downward diagonal angle while moving made the search for hidden rooms a bit more tedious than it had to be. I had to stop and shoot straight down, move a couple of spots forward and do it again while on the hunt for hidden stuff. It took me twenty-six hours to finish Axiom Verge, and you could probably shave at least an hour of that off just by giving me the ability to fire downward while running. Oh, and the dead zone for the right stick is too small. Combine that with my tiny hands and I kept accidentally bumping it, interrupting the game to select a new weapon. The dead zone should just stop short of maximum range, since it’s unlikely anyone is going to just nudge the stick to pause the game and choose a different gun. Then again, that might have been my fault. I have extraordinarily clumsy hands. Really clumsy. Dangerously clumsy. The last guy I gave a hand job to now goes by the name Sally.

Exploration and meaningful backtracking are the backbone of Metroidvanias. Something I’ve noticed about indies is they often just don’t fucking GET IT with that. Yea, you force players to go backwards, but when you do, you have to make it interesting by including hidden goodies along the way that were previously out of reach with the weapons and items you had access to the first time you were in that area. Huge props to Tom Happ for grasping this. There is so much hidden crap in Axiom Verge that I don’t think I went ten minutes between any pick-up. Even when I would occasionally get lost trying to figure out where the next event would take place at (some kind of Metroid Primeish GO HERE beeping spot on the map would have helped), I was stumbling upon so many goodies that I never got annoyed with it. By time I knew the game was getting ready to wrap up, I decided to take a stroll through all the previous stages just to see what I missed. Shockingly, it was a lot. Even in places where I was certain I had gotten everything, I was wrong. And I didn’t even get a 100% item pick-up, despite having 96% of the map explored. Holy fuck. As much as I’m grateful, I have to wonder if Tom has some kind of mental disorder that led to this. Dude is like a demented Easter Bunny.

I grew to love its story. The plot is problematic for some, because it fails to grab you immediately. This happened to me too. For the first several hours, when friends asked me about it, I said “you’ll want to buy this for the gameplay.” But once the story gets rolling, I actually did care. Quite a bit. I just don’t think the game handled the delivery of the story well. Part of that comes down to the lack of voice acting, because, once again, the game is married to being old school. Oh woe be it, if only we had access to the types of space-age technology that would allow voice acting in video games. Oh wait.

Notroid.

I called this the Ghostbuster gun. You’ll see why.

But, I did grow fond of lead character Trace, and skeptical of whether or not the mysterious giant mecha baby heads that drive the plot were friend or foe. I just wish it had been told better. Having said that, there’s a couple “okay, that was cool” story moments that are integrated into the gameplay that were very risky to include from a creative standpoint. They worked, grabbing my attention and leaving every gameplay moment that followed feeling like the stakes were higher, with tension added that was totally authentic. Axiom Verge might have one of the most interesting sci-fi gaming storylines I’ve ever seen. Saying it gets off to a slow start is an understatement, and I’m guessing many players will be so underwhelmed by it that they’ll blow off the remaining dialog, but they’re missing out.

I loved Axiom Verge. I can’t believe how much I loved it. I never expected to walk away from it having enjoyed it more than any of Nintendo’s entries in the Metroid series. Axiom Verge isn’t a Metroid game. It’s a tribute to Metroid. My expectations were set to “respectable tribute.” Not “better than the originals”. But it is. And yeah, I’m a whippersnapper who was in my twenties when I played Super Metroid for the first time, so I’m not nostalgic for those SNES and GBA classics. You know what? I think even those who would burn me at the stake for saying Axiom Verge is better than Super Metroid (and it is) would have to at least stop and think about whether I’m right or not. It’s that good. It’s for real. It’s the best indie of all-time, at least in this Chick’s book.

Special Note: I am friends with Axiom Verge producer Dan Adelman, whom I previously interviewed on this blog. My friendships with game developers do not and will never influence my opinions on their games. My friends are my friends because I give them my unfiltered, often blunt opinions on their games. Ask my friend Marc. They expect nothing less from me. As for me, I would never be friends with anyone whose friendship is conditional, based on me liking their stuff. That’s not the way real friends treat each other. But my readers deserve to know who I’m friends with, so I’m letting them know.

Axiom Verge logoAxiom Verge was developed by Thomas Happ
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4

igc_approved1$17.99 (normally priced $19.99) has a father who screamed at her for including the hand job joke in the making of this review.

Axiom Verge is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

A review copy of Axiom Verge was provided to Indie Gamer Chick prior to the game’s release on March 31. Indie Gamer Chick has since purchased a copy. All games reviewed by Cathy are paid for by her with her own money. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.

Haunt the House: Terrortown

Haunt the House: Terrortown is sort of like that old GameCube title Geist, only it’s not a first person adventure, you can’t possess people, and the game doesn’t fucking suck. It’s not great either. Like Geist, the concept seems like it should lend itself well to a video game, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with it. Unlike Geist, the game doesn’t attempt to pad out a shallow, low-mileage concept. Haunt the House can comfortably be finished in under an hour. That includes the free Christmas-themed DLC. No, this doesn’t mean it qualified for Short Subject Saturdays. Being able to hypothetically finish something in under twenty minutes doesn’t make it short subject. You can beat Mario 64 in under fifteen minutes. Tell me with a straight face that makes it short subject.

Haunt the House 1

There’s actually a lot of objects to inhabit in Haunt the House, though I’m not certain how some of them are supposed to scare people. In the DLC, you can possess a bulb on the Christmas Tree and make X-Wings attack it like the Death Star. What the fuck? How is that scary? “Oh shit people, GEORGE LUCAS IS HERE! RUN!”

I guess I enjoyed Haunt the House. I mean, there’s just not a lot to it. You enter objects, you make them do something scary. As people become more terrified, you get the ability to make objects do even scarier things. To win, you have to get people so pants-shittingly scared that they flee the stage. It’s actually very family friendly, which is probably why I didn’t fall in love with it. It’s a children’s game, with just enough play time to hold their attention for an hour. I tested this theory on Brent, a friend’s ten-year-old. And then I became one of those people. You know, those people who can’t tell what forms of entertainment will be enjoyed by which age groups. The ones that buy Barbies for thirteen-year-olds, or complex LEGO sets for five-year-olds. At ten years of ages, even Brent was too old to really get an appropriate lark out of Haunt the House. I forgot that kids these days have access to shows like Walking Dead, and their video games are an orgy of terror and violence. I thought maybe I had been wrong about the kids will love it stuff, but then I tested it on seven-year-old Kelvin. He thought it was jim dandy awesome. Also, I’m using the terms like “jim dandy” and “kids these days” to describe anything. Christ, how did I get so old and out of touch so quickly?

Can adults enjoy Haunt the House? Sure, but they’ll mostly just complain that it’s too short, too shallow, or too kiddy. I liked it, but I wasn’t exactly disappointed when the game ended in less time than it takes to watch an episode of House of Cards. Hell, I even found a game-killing glitch in that short time. On one stage, one of the women you have to scare was somehow stuck running a loop on a staircase. She would get to the top of the stairs, then teleport to the bottom and run up it again. There was no way to get her out of it, and it rendered the game unbeatable. The only work around was to quit out of the game and come back. When you do this, all your progress is retained but the woman will be somewhere else on the stage. Just keep her away from the stairs. And other issues abound. When a person is terrified to the point that they’ll leave the stage, sometimes they don’t exactly take the best pathway to do so. It reminded me of Carlton’s freakout from Fresh Prince. The AI has one job: leave the fucking house. It should be more efficient at doing so.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase.

This is the spot where the girl got stuck in the staircase. Or did she? Maybe developer Tom Vian was trying to show the theory of space and relativity, showing that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you could end up causing an endless loophole of misery and repetition. This is actually one of the best uses I’ve ever seen for gaming to explain the laws of theoretical science and natu.. oh never mind, it was just a glitch.

Is it fun? Yea. Is it on the wrong platform? Yea. I know it came out on PlayStation Mobile, but really, it belongs on Wii U or 3DS. Is it over priced? Ohhhh yea. $4.99 is too much for a game with this little going for it. But if you’ve got wee ones or you can grab it for under $2, Haunt the House isn’t bad by any means. Had I realized Haunt the House was a game best suited for the under-nine set, I wouldn’t have played it. Haunt the House wasn’t designed for me. It was made for children. I’m a sophisticated adult. One who hides clips of a Japanese children’s television show in every review she does, but, um, what were we talking about?

Haunt the HouseHaunt the House was developed by SFB Games
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$4.99 yelled at kids to get off my lawn in the making of this review.

Haunt the House is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Default Dan

Default Dan is a novelty platformer, the hook being the game does the opposite of traditional gaming tropes. Coins kill you. Power-Ups kill you. Pitfalls don’t kill you. Springboards can’t be jumped off of. Spikes act like springboards. Sounds wacky and weird. And it is, until you realize that really it’s just any other platformer with the enemy and traps being reskinned. The only such gag that kept getting me were the coins. My brain, like the brains of all gamers, is wired to be like “OH, COINS! YOINK!” Even an hour into the game, my mind would wander just long enough for me to get snatchy with the coins and die. Otherwise, the gimmick gets old really quickly. Even the story, which flips the roles of a Bowser lookalike and a princess didn’t really work for me because the princess looks too, well, psychotic. Actually, she looks like a grown-up version of Elmyra from Tiny Toons. Which, yea granted, she’s one step below Annie Wilkes in the “chick you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room alone with” scale, but still.

Anti-capitalist hippies!

Anti-capitalist hippies!

Default Dan is a decent platformer. It takes only a couple of stages for the gimmick’s novelty factor to wear off. That’s an occupational hazard with comedy games. For Default Dan, really, the concept should have been done as a little three or four stage free flash-game, while the developers put their efforts towards something with a little more meat behind it. Strangely, it doesn’t quite feel like they got the most out of the idea. The boss fights, for example, feel just like any old boss fight in any platformer. You would think they would make the gimmick “you have to get the boss to kill you” or something to beat it. Really, the only difference is the boss throws power-ups at you instead of projectiles, but they’re the same power-ups you’ve spent the last few levels avoiding. Again, it’s all just a glorified reskinning and it feels like it doesn’t go far enough. They should have just gone balls-to-the-wall nuts here. Mushrooms that make you small instead of big (as it is, they just kill you. Really, Mario Lost Levels already fucking did that). Bosses that you have to let kill you. Ice levels with spectacular play control. What’s actually here is downright tame.

Thankfully, Default Dan does have some decent level design. Nothing exceptional, but the stages scale well, add new mechanics through-out, provide a relatively fair challenge, and the game ends before it wears out its welcome. If you want more after the credits roll, there’s a second quest with tougher stages, or you can challenge the leaderboards for previous levels (the second quest’s stages did not have working leaderboards when I played this). The controls are solid, if slightly unresponsive. The collision detection is the biggest strike against Default Dan. Most of the enemies are beaten by jumping up into them. You have to be square under them for it to kill them. Otherwise, you die. Against the final boss, there were a couple of instances where I would hit her and it would register as hitting her, but then I would immediately die because of either how I was positioned when I hit her or because it switched from her “can be hit” sequence to her “invincible, can’t be hit” sequence while I was still midair and touching her. Yea, that was a bit of a run-on sentence. Sorry.

I had an idea for how Default Dan could have been a little more substantial: some kind of mechanic where you switch between the conventional gaming and the opposites stuff. So like, sometimes the coins help you, but then other times the coins kill you. Maybe have like an evil witch cause the game to switch back and forth between the two.

I had an idea for how Default Dan could have been a little more substantial: some kind of mechanic where you switch between the conventional gaming and the opposites stuff. So like, sometimes the coins help you, but then other times the coins kill you. Maybe have like an evil witch cause the game to switch back and forth between the two.

So, kind of mixed bag for Default Dan. The concept did catch my attention on the Steam marketplace. But, the novelty isn’t really strong enough to carry a $5.99 game whose main quest ends in well under an hour. The bosses are boring and don’t really defy convention, which is a big disappointment in a game whose sole hook is defying convention. But, there’s some inspired level design here, enough extra challenge to keep players happy after the credits roll, and a couple laughs to be had. It doesn’t reach its potential, but I had fun with Default Dan, so it wins my seal of approval. And not just by default.

Default Dan logoDefault Dan was developed by Kikiwik Games 
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$5.99 conceded that for an ice stage to have markedly better controls, the rest of the game would have had shit controls, so it’s probably a good idea they didn’t use that one in the making of this review.

Default Dan is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Hyphen and Love

Two-for-one special today. Two games I probably shouldn’t have played in the first place, as I’m not the type of person who enjoys games that have nothing else going for them besides extreme difficulty. As my father put it, some people break bricks with their bare hands, while others plop on the couch and watch the Karate Kid.

First up is Love, which I think beats an XBLIG by the name of Dark as the biggest violator of the Google Rule I’ve ever encountered at IGC. The Google Rule states that when you type a game’s name into Google, a link that points to the game should be within the top 5 results. Call it a hunch, but I suspected that there were more than five sites that dealt with the subject of love ahead of the game. I did search. “Love” by itself has the game’s steam page as the 175th result. I’m actually kind of surprised it came up that quickly. Now granted, “Love Indie Game” resulted in the 4th link pointing to the game’s Steam page. But I stand by my point. It’s a lazy, uninspired name. I’m of the belief that if a game’s name is generic, with little thought or effort put into it, most gamers will assume the game itself will be generic, with little thought put into it. I have no idea how much thought was given to the gameplay, but what is here is pretty generic.

The hook is, you have 100 lives to finish the game, but to take the sting out, you can lay a checkpoint any time, any place. Otherwise, the design is very minimalist. No enemies to kill. Just dodge, jump, wait, jump, jump, jump, dodge, jump, wait, jump up the trampoline, dodge, wait, jump, repeat. It’s been done to death, and unless you either have exceptionally inspired level design (Love doesn’t) or a novel hook (ditto), you’re going to bore most non-masochistic players. And the whole dropping checkpoints thing can screw you royally during some stages. Like one where you hop on platforms that you then steer. If you set a checkpoint and then die, the platform stays where it’s at, and you fall to your death again and again until you run out of lives. Then again, only an idiot wouldn’t figure that out and lay down a checkpoint during this section. Cough.

Not one of my proudest gaming moments.

Not one of my proudest gaming moments. (Screenshot is of Love)

And there’s Hyphen by developer Marc McCann of FarSpace Studios. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been friends with Marc for quite a while. But being my friend doesn’t really help devs when it comes to me reviewing their games. Do I display bias? Only if you count applying Neosporin to them after I nail them to the cross. What are friends for?

Hyphen is a spinning-stick game, similar to the Irritating Stick, which was later expanded upon by Nintendo in a series of Japanese-only games for the Game Boy Advance and GameCube called Kuru Kuru Kururin (which I was told after I wrote this also came out in PAL regions. That doesn’t help us Americans much). Maybe I’m spoiled by that series, but Hyphen feels like such a step backwards for the concept. Like Love, you can place your own checkpoints down, though there’s a limit on how many you can use each stage. That’s pretty much all it does different. Sigh.

This obstacle is used semi-frequently in Hyphen, and it's annoying as all hell every time.

This obstacle is used semi-frequently in Hyphen, and it’s annoying as all hell every time. (Screenshot is of Hyphen)

Hyphen is designed with one thing only in mind: drive players mad. The challenge is so incredibly extreme, with so little margin for error, that I just couldn’t get into it. And again, the formula for this series has been around long enough that anyone making an indie based around it simply must either add new ideas to the concept or have extraordinary level design. Hyphen does neither. In fact, it takes away some conventions in a way that only serves to make the game more frustrating than it should be. Like not being able to make the stick rotate faster. At times, there are projectiles fired at you, and not being able to speed up the rotation means you have to manually dodge those projectiles. But, you don’t always have enough clearance to do so.

I lumped these two games together because they both demonstrate the lack of what I call “Glorious Victory.” It’s my term for the idea that one of the most rewarding aspects of super-difficult games are those rare times where you clear a stage on your first attempt. We’ve all had such moments. Imagine being multiple worlds into Super Meat Boy. You reach a stage after burning approximately two and a half trillion lives, and then by the grace of God, you finish a stage on your first attempt. You jump out of your seat, looking around you as if to say “HOLY SHIT, DID ANYONE ELSE JUST SEE WHAT I DID? FUCK ME, I’M AWESOME!”

Many players live for such moments. But if a game is designed around blind leap-of-faith platforming or trial-and-erroring where the errors are almost certainly unavoidable, you deprive players of those opportunities without giving them anything positive in return. For example, look at this leap that Love wants you to make.

2015-03-14_00006

You can’t see where the spikes are below you. You have no idea what you’re leaping into. You don’t know if you’re supposed to just fall straight down, fall to the side, or what. Not dying here on your first attempt is based completely on random chance.

2015-03-14_00007

When random chance factors in, that takes the glory away from not dying on your first attempt. You didn’t make it using your skills. You just lucked out. There’s no glory in luck. So many indie devs simply don’t fucking get it! They think it’s about the dying. No. Punisher gaming is at its best when players don’t die.

Hyphen is guilty of this too. Like in this spot of the game. Sometimes Hyphen has bombs scattered throughout the map. When the bombs blow, they scatter projectiles. Now, the point of Hyphen is to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. You’re on a timer. There’s a sense of urgency. So when you see the bomb, a player’s instinct will naturally be to move past it and get away from it as fast as you can. So here I am moving past the bomb.

2015-03-15_00004

And here I am getting trapped in a section where I have no clearance to dodge out of the way just as the projectile from the bomb is about to kill me.

2015-03-15_00005

This “GOTCHA!” moment is going to probably kill the overwhelming majority of players on their first attempt at this stage. I would actually be surprised if there was a single player who made it past it on the first attempt. Now granted, some people like games like this, and you can still get satisfaction when you finally beat a stage. But because you’re going to certainly die from that projectile, the possibility for a “Glorious Victory” is taken from players. Gaming at its apex should have as many chances at being exhilarating as possible. Marc just took one such chance away from players, and gave them nothing in return, except for frustration.

There are players out there that don’t complain about this type of level design. But I think the majority of players probably would prefer games to be skill-based, not luck based. Deaths in gaming should because the player failed, not because the game gave players a no-win situation. Jesus Christ people, did you learn nothing from Star Trek? The Kobayashi Maru test wasn’t fun for anyone!

Love was developed by Fred Wood. Point of sale: Steam. $2.99 didn't love it in the making of this review.

Love was developed by Fred Wood. Point of sale: Steam. $2.99 didn’t love it in the making of this review.

Hyphen was developed by FarSpace Studios. Point of Sale: Steam. $7.99 said that price is an outrage, a practical stick-up in the making of this review.

Hyphen was developed by FarSpace Studios. Point of Sale: Steam. $7.99 said that price is an outrage, a practical stick-up in the making of this review.

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