XBLIG invades IndieCade

This is the single greatest pleasure I’ve had in my entire Indie Gamer Chick existence. I am so proud to announce that Xbox Live Indie Games will be getting their own panel at this year’s IndieCade event. Farewell, Xbox Live Indie Games, 2008 – 2017: A Retrospective will take part October 6, 2017 at IndieCade in Los Angeles. Tickets to the event are available now.

The 2008 launch of Xbox Live Indie Games (initially ‘Community Games’) represented a major step in the democratization of access to the console gaming audience. For the first time, individual creators had a route to getting their homebrew games onto the leading games console. How did this come about and who benefited the most? What were the stand-out games and where did the leading creators move on to? As Microsoft prepares to shut down the platform once and for all, this panel explores the highs and lows of the XBLIG ecosystem from its rocky beginnings through to maturity and conclusion.

I’ll have more details in the near future. Until then, check out IndieCade’s website and Twitter.

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ERMO

I came *this* close to giving ERMO a bad review. And it had nothing to do with the gameplay. ERMO is the first of the XBLIG IIs to take advantage of streaming in-game advertising. And it does so in pretty-much the worst way possible. ERMO is a puzzler that’s basically a stripped-down, 2D Rubik’s Cube where you’re tasked to sort blocks so they line up properly in their assigned columns. It’s not the most thrilling premise and is better suited for mobile, but at least it’s another decent XBLIG II puzzler. They could have freshened it up by including Kinect support and calling it “Tickle-Me ERMO” if Microsoft would remember what Kinect is.

Got that? Good. Let’s talk about the Microsoft Modern Mouse.

Did you know it has a metal scroll wheel?

Well I knew it had a metal scroll wheel, because I was shown the fifteen-second advertisement for it roughly two-trillion times this weekend while playing, give or take a trillion. Once you run out of energy-points (and that will happen quick, since replaying stages costs ten of them), you’re forced to either watch an ad or take a game-over screen. Which actually only sets you back one puzzle or two at most, but still, it’s sort of annoying for a fairly simple puzzle game. For whatever reason, this weekend the only ad I got was for that fucking mouse. I came to hate it and dread it so much that I gave up on playing ERMO further. My plan for this review was to slowly start turning every three words to Microsoft Modern Mouse, until the entire review was nothing but Microsoft Modern Mouse. I wanted my fans to get a feel for the authentic ERMO experience I had this weekend.

Sorry, I can’t make this look any more exciting than this.

Well, thankfully I forgot to get screen caps of the actual game, because when I went back to get them, suddenly I was getting a few different ads. Which was nice, but then it started taking away the option of watching one of the ads if I messed up a puzzle twice. I thought “why couldn’t they just give me the option to pay for a premium build without any ads or bullshit?”

Well, actually ERMO did. It just never told me about it. On the main menu, you have to hit the right bumper once to call up an options menu (it doesn’t tell you that you can do this), then press the right bumper a second time to bring you to a page that allows you to purchase ad-free mode with (maybe) unlimited continues for $1.99. Oh for fuck’s sake, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THIS WHEN I WAS LOSING MY MIND LEARNING ABOUT HOW THE MICROSOFT MODERN MOUSE HAS A METAL SCROLL WHEEL FOR THE TWO DOZENTH TIME? I’ve never known a free-to-play game with a paid mode that doesn’t scream at you before every ad or forced break in the gameplay: “you can make the pain go away for the low-low price of X” until now. It’s like one of those bashful Girl Scouts that shows up at the door and gets all excited when you tell them you’ll take five boxes of cookies but then blushes and stammers when you ask them what the price is and try to hand them the money. ERMO, you’re the Girl Scout of indie games. I’m guessing that’s not what you were aiming for, so bravo.

Notice the little icons in the bottom-right corner. No labels to tell you how to access them, because this was clearly designed with touch-screens in mind and they didn’t optimize for Xbox One. Inexcusable, guys. I liked your game, but you are better than this.

I guess it’s fitting. Like Girl Scout Cookies, ERMO is perfectly palatable, if bland. Some of the levels are downright insulting in their simplicity, like the ones that require you to shuffle the blocks in a specific order that could very well be the easiest stages in any puzzler, ever. They might as well of made a video version of Simon Says with the most unenthusiastic caller imaginable. “Simon Says to, uh, do whatever you’re doing now I guess.” Throwing in levels with other ideas, like landmines that you can’t allow to line up with each-other, adds some challenge, but not nearly enough. The format for ERMO probably would lend itself to more mind-bending fare with the right level designers. As it stands, ERMO is about 50.0001% okay and 49.9999% boring. That technically wins it my seal of approval, which I’ll begrudgingly present it. But seriously, guys, optimize for the platform! No game in the history of forever has you open up the options menu with the right bumper. And why the hell doesn’t the game pop-out of the television like the girl in The Ring and beat you over the head with a baseball bat saying “you can make this stop for $1.99 anytime you cheap asshole!”?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go track down a Microsoft Modern Mouse. I’ve been craving one all weekend. No clue why. Maybe I’m the victim of subliminal advertising or something.

ERMO was developed by Nonostante Games
Point of Sale: Microsoft Store (because Xbox.com STILL doesn’t have links to Creators Club games)

$1.99 (or free with ads if you’re a masochist) is bummed that this ended up winning the IGC Seal of Approval because I had to give up my “should you play ERMO? Errrrrr, no” joke that would have killed in the making of this review.

ERMO is Chick-Approved by the skin of its teeth and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

kubic

Three reviews in 24 hours. I guess XBLIG really is back. As a fun fact, kubic is not only the first Creators Collection game to win my seal of approval (spoiler), it’s actually the first game of 2017 to get it, period. That has more to do with the fact that I’ve barely done any reviews over the last two years. Back in the day, I used to crank out between five to eight reviews on a weekly basis. That’s not as impressive as it sounds when you realize that most XBLIGs were so short that the reviews typically took longer to write than the games did to finish. And yea, I’m stalling a bit here. That’s because I don’t have a ton to say about kubic. Well, I guess it’s annoying that it does that “too cool to capitalize” thing that always makes me worry that someone will find my blog for the first time, see the lack of a capital K in this review’s title, and assume I’m the lazy and/or illiterate one. Wait, is it still okay to make jokes about literacy or is that a micro-aggression now? What about laziness? I’ve been meaning to look it up but I keep putting it off.

Maybe this started life as a Crystal Castles level creator.

The basic idea behind kubic is take Tangram puzzles and splice them with M.C. Escher-style optical illusions. You’re presented with an example of the shape you’re trying to copy and various scrambled-up pieces to do it with. You can’t rotate or otherwise manipulate the pieces, which in theory should make the game too easy. And.. actually yea, it makes it too easy. Of the 69 (pause for immature laughter.. not judging, I did it too) puzzles, only the last dozen or so gave me issues. I mean, besides the awful interface. Kubic is a quick-and-dirty port of a mobile game and it shows. Even when you know which pieces go where, getting them into place is a slow and frustrating process that might require multiple attempts to get the game to cooperate with your intent. Actually, truth be known the cursor used on the Xbox One port is far more precise than using your fingers on a phone or tablet. Five minutes with kubic on my Galaxy was enough to make me want to throw it against a wall. I didn’t, because the Samsung people keep insisting that violates my warranty.

Levels 49 – 56 spell out “MC Escher” which would be much cooler if they were actually all in the same row.

But otherwise kubic is fine. It’s not great. It’s not memorable. But it’s a perfectly decent waste of a couple of minutes. And it’s yet another XBLIG II launch title that’s free. You early Creators Club developers really need to stop this. If a farmer gets free manure every day for years and then suddenly has to pay for it, they’ll instead end up looking to get their crap elsewhere.

kubic was developed by Pixel Envision Ltd.
Free to play on Xbox One. Xbox.com still isn’t listing Creators Collection games so here’s the link from the Microsoft Store

kubic is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. And if you’re reading this anywhere but IndieGamerChick(dot)com, you’re reading plagiarized work. Please go to my actual site, Indie Gamer Chick. This is my work, I deserve the page views for it.

Block Dropper

I owe Block Dropper this: it made me realize how different I am from the little girl who started this blog. If I had played this in August of 2011, I would have been quite annoyed by it. It’s a horrible game. For lack of a better description, Block Dropper is an arcadey-physics game where you play a block that hops around a platform collecting other blocks. When the blocks land, they’re hypothetically supposed to cause the floor to collapse. I say hypothetically because sometimes it didn’t. It’s sort of a problem when the physics don’t work in a game based entirely around physics. At one point, a stage began and a tree that was on the ground casually fell over as soon as the timer started.

I guess you’re supposed to catch the blocks before they land, but it’s almost impossible to use the shadows to figure out where they’re at or what direction they’re going. The vast majority of blocks I acquired by picking them off the floor.

And that’s how I knew I was a different person now. 2011 Indie Gamer Chick would have flipped her controller in the air and screamed profanities at how she was out a dollar. 2017 Indie Gamer Chick started laughing. I laughed until my vision was blurry with tears and my sides were in pain. I mean, it was just such glorious shit. Nothing was ever consistent. Sometimes levels started and the floor started collapsing immediately. Sometimes I would attempt to collect a block and the game treated it like it was part of the floor, I guess, because I could push myself up against it from every angle and not be able to pick it up. Then, after walking away for a second, I would walk back to it and collect it with no problem, assuring the lulz would continue. This lasted for about fifteen minutes, and ended when the game did. Yep, it takes about fifteen minutes to finish. Did I mention this is normally priced $4.99?

There’s also a local-only (like all Creator’s Collection games, there’s no online play) versus mode that in-theory could go on forever. Whoever collects the most blocks in two minutes wins. Except the game drops clocks that increase the length of the game. So hypothetically, if neither misses any of the clocks, you could be stuck playing this endlessly. It got to the point that my Dad, who likes *everything*, was shouting “STOP GRABBING THE FUCKING CLOCKS!” Mind you, the game had only been going about a minute by that point. I’m not joking.

Given the fact that there was almost no world left every time I finished a stage, I saved the world in the same way Superman saved Metropolis in Man of Steel. I’m still technically a hero though.

So yea, another XBLIG II that feels more like an unfinished proof-of-concept. On the positive side, two of the levels are “boss battles” that actually feel sort of clever. The problem with them was falling off the stage is not grounds for failure. So, for the final boss, I would stand on the target boxes, wait for the boss to fire at me, then casually step off the side of the platform to respawn elsewhere while the damage registered. So yea, even these encounters were dumb and broken, but at least they were interesting. If the developer continues to tinker with this idea, I think a better idea would be to drop (no pun intended) the normal stages and just make eight boss fights. Maybe some would wince at the idea of boss-rush game with poor handling and inconsistent physics. Me? Hell, I liked Shadow of the Colossus, right?

Block Dropper was developed by Tresiris Games
Point of Sale: Microsoft Store

$0.99 (normally $4.99 LOL ) was further amused by pretending the block was Thomas from Thomas Was Alone in the making of this review.

Whispers in the Dark

It took about thirty seconds of playing Whispers in the Dark to realize this wasn’t going to be my happiest gaming experience. A first-person puzzler where you play as a camera hovering five feet off the ground in a world where the concept of diagonality (a word I invented about three seconds ago) doesn’t exist. I’m not sure why I chose this as my first XBLIG II to review. First-person games on XBLIG tended to be about as fun as when my parents forced me to have a funeral for my Chia Pet (who knew you had to water them?). However, I like both whispering and darkness. The thought never occurred to me to combine the two. That’s why you guys are the game makers and I’m the whatever the fuck you call this shit.

So the idea is that in 1974 two kids are found wearing glowing runes. Then in 1996, the sister dies but her body goes all Obi-Wan on everyone and just disappears. Then in 1997, the brother apparently speaks his last words at his own funeral before his body also blinked out of existence.

“Hey, did you hear something?” “Probably just air escaping from the body.” “It sounded like last words to me!” “Was it a Soliloquy?” “I don’t think so. The second sentence had only six syllables.” “I think you’re thinking of a haiku.”

Wait, was he dead before the funeral? Or was it his sister’s funeral? Why would they have it a year after she died? Did she die on December 31, 1996 and get buried a couple of days later? Wait, if she disappeared, why would there be a funeral? So it must be his funeral. Where he apparently spoke his last words at. Was he being executed? Was he euthanizing himself? Is this a metaphorical funeral? Like that time when I attempted to beer-batter Lucky Charms and Brian told me “Whatever. It’s your funeral, Cathy.” You see, people don’t typically speak at their own funeral. That’s the beauty of funerals. The corpse has to actually yield the conversation to other people, and in exchange for that people pretend like they didn’t hate them.

Anyway, he disappears too (I hope the attending priest was quick-witted enough to yell TA DAH!) and wakes up in what I, based on the gameplay, can only imagine is Hell. Whispers in the Dark is *terrible* to actually play. It’s the movement. It’s so laggy and sluggish that I can only imagine the game is being streamed to my Xbox via telegraph. I don’t understand how this happened, considering that the graphics are so ugly that star-nosed moles would be able to talk shit on them if they would get with the times and upgrade their relic Xbox 360s.

“Hey fuck you Indie Gamer Chick! You’re just jealous that we’ve only bricked one of our 360s so far!”

It’s a real shame too. As a proof of concept, Whispers in the Dark isn’t bad. The idea is you solve puzzles by collecting runes and combining two of them to cast spells. Hey Doodle God, see, this is a video game. I mean, wait, don’t see. I’ll find a better example. But seriously, there’s an idea in here that seems fun and refreshing. There’s no combat, though stationary robots that apparently lack peripheral vision occasionally show up to audition for the role of “most useless security robots this side of Volume.” And there’s a large number of combinations you can use to cast spells to solve puzzles with them. But, not all combinations actually cast something, which only serves to contribute to the “unfinished proof of concept” issue. But hey, unfinished, under-polished digital-trainwrecks. Oh XBLIG, it’s like you never left.

“Holy fuck, she wasn’t kidding.”

I never did get resolution for the story. The further I played into Whispers in the Darkness, the worst the lag became, to the point that the game was nearly unplayable and I quit about an hour in. So yea, it’s pretty awful. But, it’s actually free. In fact, a lot of XBLIG II launch games are. As bad as this is, I’m going to stress once again to those behind this game and any free games out there: your time is worth money. Throw a buck on your games and use the revenue for better developer tools or game programming lessons, or just have fun with it. But put something on it. Hell, if people like me are going to be saying your game sucks either way, you might as well be getting paid for it.

Whispers in the Darkness was developed by Voszcura
Free to play off Xbox One & Windows 10 Marketplace. Not sure why Xbox.com doesn’t have XBLIG II games yet.

XBLIG II: The Revenge

“Hey Indie Gamer Chick, did you hear? Xbox Live Indie Games are back!”
-Roughly 20,000 emails, Tweets, and naked skydivers.

Yes, I heard. So Xbox One now has “Creator’s Collection.” Self-published games that don’t have access to achievements, online play, or, for the most part, talent. I kid. Hey come on, XBLIG is back. You’ll permit me to be a little retro-evil, won’t you?

I’ve spoken a lot about Xbox Live Indie Games in the recent past. With the shutdown of the previous generation imminent, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for it. I wouldn’t be Indie Gamer Chick without XBLIG. Without the community accepting me, embracing me, and inspiring me to be a better game critic. And then the community all went their separate ways, and I started reviewing everything but XBLIGs. I mean everything. I snuck-in a review of novelty gumballs into a game review for fuck’s sake.

So XBLIG is back. XBLIG II. And yes, that’s what I’m calling it. Creator’s Collection is a stupid name. CC for short. “Give me 5 CCs of barely functional indie games, stat!” I’m sure it’s not going to be the same as it was in 2011. Different slate of wide-eyed, optimistic dreamers. A different gaming scene. Indies are now a larger part of gaming culture. And, frankly, I’m not the same person I was in 2011 when I started reviewing games.

And yet, it only took me about two seconds browsing the first selection of XBLIG IIs to take me back to that moment many summers ago, holding $100 worth of Microsoft Point cards, gazing upon the marketplace for the first time as a game critic instead of a game consumer. I figured it would be fun for about a week or two, until something else came along. Six years later, here I am. And XBLIG is back. And I’m still known as “the girl who reviews XBLIGs.”

I’m coming home.

Shephy

I can’t believe Shephy is a honest-to-God contender for the worst game I’ve ever reviewed. It makes no sense. It’s a harder-version of Solitaire with sheep, so I should have liked it. I mean, I like playing with myself.

Um, let me clarify that statement. I like playing with myself with sheep.

I mean, I like the idea of playing with myself with sheep.

No wait, I mean to say while helping breed sheep.

With each other, not with me.

I don’t think this is coming out right.

So yea, Spephy is based on a 2013 physical card game that is allegedly popular in Japan. I was tempted to buy a physical copy to compare for this review, until I saw how much is being charged for it on Amazon. Nearly fifty-fucking-bucks! Outrageous. Anyway, I say allegedly popular because it’s actually not a very good game, mechanically speaking. Think of it as a cross between Solitaire and a punisher. You start with one sheep card and are dealt five “event” cards. Event cards either help you to multiply your sheep or force you to kill or downgrade the ones already in “the field.” Over the course of the game, you have to combine the cards in the seven-cell “field” into higher ranking cards. You have three rounds to eventually get a single 1,000-rank sheep card onto the play-field.

And it has to be the 1,000 rank card. If you run out of rounds and have seven 300-rank sheep cards (the second-highest card you can get), you’ve lost the game even though you actually have 2,100 sheep represented on the play field. Even though the point is you’re supposed to be competing against a rival herd of sheep that reaches exactly 1,000 after you’ve played round three. So you can get a higher number sheep in your flock and still lose to a lesser amount of sheep based on bullshit rules. Fuck that. We already have that in America. We call it “The Electoral College.”

Let’s face it: most people are going to see this picture and buy the game based on it. Hell, *I* bought it based on this pic. At least I have reviewing the game as an excuse. What’s yours?

Dumb concept and design is sort of the order of the day. There’s a card you can get that forces you to destroy seven different sheep cards on the play-field. The play-field which is exactly seven cells large and can’t get bigger. So yea, there’s a game over card. You must play every card in every round. There’s three exceptions to this: there’s meteor card that kills three of the cells’ worth of sheep, but it’s removed from the game after its first use. There’s a sheepdog card that allows you to discard any card in your hand. Finally, there’s a card that lets you remove any card in your hand from the rest of the game so that it doesn’t show up in later rounds. That sounds great, until you remember that there’s a card that is an instant loss. So, no matter what, you have to use one of the two discard cards on it, and since the sheepdog card is only delaying dealing it for another round, the only logical thing you can do is wait to draw the “remove from the game” card and apply it to it. It’s a prime example of why everything is wrong with Shephy: it’s just not a thoughtful, tightly designed game.

And there’s far too many over-powered negative event cards to overcome. In about 25% of the games I played, my opening draw of five cards either was dead on arrival because no matter what card I played, my lone sheep would die, or I had one card I could play just to get to the next card and then I was dead. Twenty-five percent! That’s a lot of stillborn games over the course of the ten hours I put into this. Yea, sometimes you can have that happen in Solitaire as well, but only 0.25% of Solitaire games are unplayable and 8.5% to 18% are unwinnable. Now yes, there’s a running gag with me where I have remarkably bad luck when relying on random-chance in games I review, but even considering that, being dead with no possible opportunity to use strategy at least once out of every four games is kind of shit deal. And stuff like the instant-death card only serves to emphasize how little consideration strategy or complex game theory factored into the design of Shephy. The same problems apply to the positive cards. There’s one card that allows you to select one of the sheep cards in the field and place three sheep cards one-rank lower than the chosen card into empty cells. There’s then a card that allows you to replace existing sheep with ones a rank higher than their current one, excluding all sheep of the highest rank you have. So, if you have a 10-ranked sheep, you’ll get three 3-ranked sheep, which you can then turn into three 10-ranked sheep. These two cards were made for each other, to the point that using them together is basically the only plausible strategy for them.

Yea, I figured out the world belonged to sheep when I found out how popular Twilight was. By the way, Shephy’s tutorial is the worst I’ve ever seen for a physical-game-to-video-game adaption. I had far more questions by time I was done with it than answers.

Usually, I tend to review video-translations of physical games that were solid games to begin with. This is the first one I’ve played where the original game was so bad that it had almost zero chance of winning me over as a video game. For the digital port on Steam and Switch, extra modes were added that change the gameplay or the win/fail conditions. But, you’re still using the same base game, which was broken to begin with. The seven “stages” of the story mode somehow remove even more options for strategy or individualism. One of the stages tasks you with starting with a 1000-rank sheep and eventually making your way towards having a single 1-rank sheep on the field. Certain cards are eliminated from being part of this game, and the concept sounds alright. Well, actually, no. Because the game also eliminates the third round. There’s only two cards that allow you to get lower-ranked cards, and one card that can become a copy of any card. There’s seven sheep ranks. So, the actual means to get to the victory are already in place and unshakable: you have to use those 3 cards together over the 2 rounds. The only strategy is in keeping the cards that wipe out all the sheep from, well, wiping out all your sheep. But there’s almost no strategy involved in that. You’re at the mercy of just getting the cards in a specific order that will allow for the one and only one specific method of winning. That’s awful game design.

This is one of those rare games where I have nothing good to say about it. Even the user-interface is beyond atrocious. Show of hands, who here has played Solitaire? It’s a game responsible for millions, if not billions, of wasted productivity hours. And it got there by having a simple interface. Click the card you want, drag it over to the card you want to place it on. Shephy is based on Solitaire, so there’s no way they could screw up the controls, right? Wrong. You can’t do the most obvious thing, clicking the card you want, dragging it to the cell you want or the card you want to use it on. Oh no, you have to left-click the card you want, click the cell or card you want to apply it to, then press the up-arrow on the keyboard to make the move.

Are you fucking kidding me?

This is a pic of “Challenge Mode”, which is exactly like normal mode only the game doesn’t end once you have one of the 1000 rank cards. It ends after three rounds. There’s no online leader-boards, but now that I think about the highest you can possibly get is 7,000. I only played this mode once and my score was 5,006. I think I’m okay with that.

Oh, and while learning the game, you’ll want to know what each card does. But the text is really small, so  you’ll want to zoom in. That should be as easy as using the right-click on a card, right? Nope. You have to right-click a card, make sure it’s highlighted in blue (sometimes it doesn’t do it), and then press “V” on the keyboard. Why not just allow people to highlight a card with the left-click and then use the wheel or the right-click to zoom? So yea, they didn’t optimize it for PC play. It’s actually sort of remarkable how badly they botched what should have been the most self-evident control scheme they’ll ever encounter in their development careers. This isn’t a complex real-time-strategy game or some kind of stat-driven RPG where a complex series of button-commands are called for. It’s a crappy game of solitaire that has pictures of sheep humping on some of the cards. How the fuck do you screw that up?

So that’s Shephy. A terrible video game port of a terrible card game. The fact that there’s extra modes added or that the developers went above-and-beyond crafting a bat-shit insane story for this mess would normally be admirable, but here I find it sort of annoying. Why were they writing an elaborate story line to go along with this instead of optimizing it for PC? I can’t blame the video game developers on the game play mechanics, since those are what ultimately doomed Shephy, but there’s no excuse to not tailor the control scheme for use with a mouse. But, ultimately, gameplay is king. Shephy is at best frustrating. At worst, Shephy is as sleep-inducing as counting some sort of fluffy bovid animal.

Shephy was developed by Arc System Works
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch

$4.99 would have rather been spent on a video game adaption of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along in the making of this review.

Keeping this review (relatively) sheep-pun free is one of my proudest achievements. You’re welcome.

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