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, Steam

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

Pix the Cat

Before Pix the Cat, the biggest surprise I’ve had at Indie Gamer Chick was OMG Zombies! by Laughing Jackal. Usually, when a game catches me by surprise by being a higher-quality title, it still doesn’t end up ranking extraordinarily high on my Leaderboard. OMG landed in the top 20, and held on for a while. In fact, it was today’s title that finally bumped it down to #21. The thing about Pix the Cat is, I think it’s an even bigger shocker. Laughing Jackal at least had a track record. The addictive and quirky Qix tribute Cubixx came from them as well. With Pix the Cat, their previous titles didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Notably mediocre was their XBLIG title Arkedo Series #3: Pixel! Pretty game for sure, but awful play control and boring, bland platforming. They also did a couple uninspired endless runners for mobile devices, including one featuring Rayman. I think I was perfectly justified in assuming Pix the Cat would be more mediocrity.

And it was. If you play the PlayStation 4 version. However, the Vita version? Whoa.

That’s what makes Pix the Cat so bizarre. On PS4, I found the controls so sloppy and unresponsive that it was practically unplayable. Whereas, on the Vita, I never felt like I wasn’t in full control, even as the game reached insane levels of speed. I actually wondered if it was in my head, but no, Cyril of Defunct Games (who clued me into Pix in the first place) experienced the same issues. Hold on though, because it gets weirder. You can use the Vita as a controller for the PS4 port, and when you do, suddenly the controls are good again. It certainly has given me pause to wonder if I was wrong about how good the PS4 controller is. And really, I think Pix controls bad enough on PS4 that it’s not even worth looking at until they fix it. So, when you see Pix’s shiny Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval, note that it’s for the Vita port. The PS4 version seems to be a tad bit tipsy, so the rest of this review will focus on the port that’s on Vita.

I probably should just have posted trailers instead of screenshots. Some games don't lend themselves to screenshots. Yeah, I'll do trailers for the rest of the review.

I probably should just have posted trailers instead of screenshots. Some games don’t lend themselves to screenshots. Yeah, I’ll do trailers for the rest of the review.

The formula for Pix the Cat is as follows: mix the movement mechanics of Pac-Man (and the timer of Pac-Man Championship Edition) with the puzzle mechanics of Chu Chu Rocket. Then, allow those two to breathe new life into the antiquated play mechanics of Snake (immortalized by the Light Cycle sequence in Tron). The end result? The biggest surprise of the year, at least from my point of view. As a cat, you must walk over eggs. The eggs hatch and become chicks (as in baby chickens, not mouthy indie critics). Then, for some reason, the object is to drop those chicks into bottomless holes. I have no idea why. Maybe Pix’s family is standing under the holes with their mouths open. Maybe the game is trying to soften up people to the idea of culling. Maybe I’ve put far too much thought into this. Anyway, the catch is that you never stop moving (like Pac-Man) and the chicks always follow you in a single-file line that you can trap yourself in (like Snake). You speed up and score bonuses by grabbing all the chicks before dropping any off in a hole. Once you drop off all the chicks, a door opens taking you deeper in the game. The object is to get as deep as you can and score as many points as possible before the time runs out. It sounds simple, and really, it is. Since stages aren’t randomized, you’ll need to rely on multiple replays, memory, and pattern recognition to post to the online leaderboard.

It really says something that the most rewarding part of Pix the Cat is just getting better at it. It feels like an accomplishment. Sometimes I would play for extended stretches of time and barely make any progress at all. But during those runs where everything clicked right, and I would make it just one level deeper than I ever had been? Exhilarating. It’s not just having a good run, but knowing you’re having run and overcoming the nerves, the sweaty palms, and an overly twitchy thumb that’s in charge of everything. I *loved* this game. Not since Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX has a scoring-based game utterly sucked me in on this level, and worked in so many ways.

Is it perfect? Nope. Even though the Vita version controls significantly better than the PS4 version, if you’re on a really good run and the speed is kicked up, there were times where I felt even the most steady-handed gamer would have difficulties making the types of turns and precision movement some of the levels required. I also felt that some of the special effects get in the way of the gameplay more than they make it exciting. Various filters are used to signify how well you’re doing. It reminds me of some NBA games I’ve watched, where they blast the most obnoxious music over the PA system. Songs meant to rally the home team, where I’ve thought “jeez, it must be hard to concentrate with that shit blaring.” In the same vein, all the filters used to make the game seem lively really just distract from an otherwise brilliant game, and I wish you could turn them off.

Oh, and those load times. Pix the Cat has some of the worst in 2014. With games like this, fast-paced, twitchy, and score-driven, immediately dumping into another run right after you finish the previous one is imperative. That “just one more go” mentality I think is the reason Spelunky has excelled to the degree it has. It’s really tough to maintain that strangle-hold on a player’s attention if load times are as excessive as they are in Pix. When you’re rolling really good, you don’t want to wait thirty seconds to begin the next round. Fuck that. My heart is racing RIGHT NOW, and if Spelunky can have me being impaled by a stalagmite one second and beginning my next run in two to three seconds, why can’t Pix? I mean, it’s not like this is Grand Theft Auto V in scale, here.

And those secondary modes, while a nice free addition, really just don’t stack up to the arcade mode. Laboratory is a decent but dull puzzler with similar play mechanics (and graphics) to a variety of iPhone games. Nostalgia is much more interesting. You have to pick up a set number of eggs, which is different for each stage. However, each stage has its own unique style, many of which are fresh and unexpected. What makes it really stand out is the beautiful late 1920s animation style (think Steamboat Willy). Both these modes would be good enough to earn my Seal of Quality if they were sold separately (as of this writing, I’ll say #134 out of 213 listed games for Nostalgia and #190 for Laboratory). What I hate is that you have to unlock them at all. Sometimes, if you’re especially off, you might want to switch modes while playing Pix. The duller Lab mode unlocks relatively quickly. Meanwhile, you need a million points to unlock Nostalgia. For the less skilled among us (cough), this can take a lot of time and practice. Since this mode offers a totally different experience from the main game, and in fact, I’ve met some people who prefer it to the arcade mode (weirdos), it really should be open from the beginning. I wish developers, indie or otherwise, would quit doing this.


Nostalgia Mode’s Trailer. Yeah, they made a trailer just for it, but it takes one million fucking points to unlock. Ugh!

Pix the Cat. What else can I say? I expected nothing, and instead I’ve given up many hours to it, and have been telling anyone who will listen to grab it while it’s still free on PS+. But if you miss it there, I promise you, it’s worth putting up money for. Like Pac-Man Championship Edition or another indie favorite of mine, Orbitron, it feels like the natural evolution of classic arcade style gaming. Where high-scores and prestige ruled the day, and where every minute spent with the title is a minute you spent getting better at it. Pix has a lot going for it. Yeah, I wish the PS4 version didn’t have that input lag, and I wish the game in general toned down some of the special effects a bit, but otherwise, this is a game that will sneak time away from you. And you won’t mind. Even the load times, annoying as they are, seem somehow fitting. It’s a game about a cat, and cats do things at their own pace. Whether you like it or not.

Pix LogoPix the Cat was developed by Pastagames
Point of Sale: Vita, PlayStation 4

IGC_ApprovedPix the Cat was free on PlayStation Plus (regular price $16.49)

Pix the Cat on Vita is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. The PS4 version needs a little work first.

King Oddball

There are a lot of Angry Bird clones in indie land. With the market so crowded, it’s tough to stand out. King Oddball tries to be different enough that people watching it will say “it’s like Angry Birds, but..” Laugh if you will, but that “but..” is pretty valuable to have in a crowded market. If you get saddled with just “like Angry Birds” and let it linger there like that, you get dismissed instantly. In the case of King Oddball, it’s “like Angry Birds, but.. you’re blowing up military vehicles with a giant stone pitching smaller stones at the vehicles using your swinging tongue.” You know, just like the Ottomans did.

I appreciate the utter insanity of King Oddball. It harkens back to the days when video games didn’t need to make a lick of sense. I also appreciate the value it offers. $7 nets you a pretty decent amount of levels plus a ton of specialized extra challenges. And calling this an Angry Birds clone is a tiny bit lazy on my part. The mechanics are totally different, with a bigger emphasis on timing and combos. You get three shots in each stage, and can earn extra ones if you kill three or more baddies, or if the rocks bounce back to the king. Well, except when they bounce back and randomly kill the king, in an apparent attempt at a quirky Easter Egg.

While we’re on that subject, another “Easter Egg” is sometimes the tongue will just randomly be smaller. It’s a rarity. It only happened to me once the entire time I was playing the PS4 version, but it was hugely infuriating when it happened. I actively wondered if I had the ability to adjust the tongue-size the entire time, and spent the next five minutes pressing every combination of buttons on the PS4 pad trying to recreate it, cussing a blue-streak the whole time. As it turns out, this is just a random occurrence, sort of the developers trolling the players. On one hand, I’m guessing my reaction is exactly what they were aiming for, and that’s admirable in an Andy Kaufman sort of way. On the other hand, it’s just plain fucking annoying. You can’t call something like that an Easter Egg. That would be like designing a car and saying one of the features is the airbag will randomly go off whenever you’re driving above 60MPH.

I genuinely had fun on with King Oddball, especially when I was carting it around on my PlayStation Vita. Games like this belong on portable platforms, where you’re free to kill anywhere between one minute to one hour or longer, quit at any time, and lose nothing. And, despite all the problems I’m about to bring up, I wanted to see King Oddball through to the end. Plus I fully intend to knock out some of the bonus challenges (stuff like clearing levels in a single shot, or using grenades instead of rocks) whenever I have time in need of murdering.

King Oddball has a lot of problems. It’s not a particularly difficult title. Most of the later stages I cleared out in under a minute or two. Maybe I had just gotten good at it, but the game fails to scale up enough. With the exception of when I was playing on Indie Gamer Chick TV (my suckiness on there I chalk up to performance anxiety), the longest it took me to finish any stage was about five minutes, for this one. It wasn’t unusual for me to string together ten or more stages that I cleared out on my first attempt, even late in the game. And then you get to the finale. It took me about a minute to finish the final stage, at which point a boss battle opens featuring a giant tank. I was actually amped up for this climatic moment. Fourteen seconds later, on my very first attempt, it was over and the credits were rolling. This is the equivalent of one of those finale fireworks on the Fourth of July being a dud. The look of disappointment on my face was later described as “heartbreaking, as if you had just learned of the existence of puppy cancer.”


This shows me playing the final stage I hadn’t cleared (under a minute to finish) and the boss fight (14 lousy seconds).

Maybe I just got lucky. There’s no real way of knowing. There’s no scoring system for the stages, like most games in this genre have. No three star ratings, or gold trinkets, no anything. They’re over and you move on. This of course means no online leaderboards, and thus no way of telling if I’m just fucking insanely awesome from all this indie gaming or if King Oddball really is too damn easy. Oh sure, you do quickly unlock a “diamond mine” that allows you to replay all the stages you’ve cleared, and where the special object is to beat the stages again without using your final rock. But this actually kind of ticked me off. I had already beaten many of the stages with two or fewer rocks remaining, and now you mean to tell me that didn’t count? Fuck that. Some of those incredible shots I made were so lucky that I could never hope to recreate them. Not even on accident. It seems like this diamond stuff should have been part of the main game itself.

The physics of the rocks, which are not uniformly round, often left me screaming in emotional agony.

The physics of the rocks, which are not uniformly round, often left me screaming in emotional agony.

So clearly King Oddball has a lot to dislike about it. But, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s also one of the most addictive experiences I’ve had at Indie Gamer Chick. That might just be on me, but sometimes I finish a game and then have to go back to do all the extracurricular stuff in it just to “get it out of my system.” King Oddball is the king of that in 2014 so far. Over the course of writing this review, I had to go back to, ahem, “check it against my notes” about five to six times. All the silly extra challenges are worth a look (except the Diamond crap). Hell, there’s even an entire second world. The way you unlock it is silly and a waste of time (why not just have it unlock when you beat the game?) but at least real effort was put into it, instead of it just being mirrored versions of the original stages. It’s an anomaly for sure: both ambitious and unambitious, King Oddball packs a ton of content, but it could have used more reasons to keep you interested. I can easily recommend it, but I can also see why it leaves many players feeling blue-balled.

King Oddball logoKing Oddball was developed by 10tons Ltd.

IGC_Approved$6.99 (Cross-Buy PS4 & Vita) noted that I could have saved $4 and picked this up on iPad instead in the making of this review.

King Oddball is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

 

 

Doki Doki Universe

Doki Doki Universe comes from famed developer Greg Johnson.  Owner of the most generic name in the universe that doesn’t contain “John” or “Smith” in it.  I suppose that’s why his most famous title, ToeJam & Earl, is so outlandish.  Somebody is overcompensating.  But really, you can see the influence to a degree, along with the situational comedy of other titles he contributed to, such as Spore or the Sims 2.  And, by situational comedy, I mean such events as adolescent, anamorphic sushi volunteering to be eaten alive by a nauseated sumo wrestler, or having to get a man turned into a toilet seat turned back human in time for his wedding.  All this is presided over by a robot named QT3, who was abandoned by his family and set to be scrapped because he lacks humanity.  However, if he can learn humanity from an alien named Jeff, he’ll be spared from the junkyard.  Oh, and if you so desire, he can travel through space while ridding a giant mound of poo.

Eat Me

I typically only say this to haters.

Okay, so Doki Doki might pile on the “absurdity for the sake of absurdity” brand of humor a little too thick, but actually, it all is really quite sweet.  Gameplay consists of choosing a planet to land on.  Each planet has some human-condition theme to it.  It might be jealousy.  It might be bullying.  I thought this was going to be obnoxiously heavy-handed.  Instead, the over-the-top dialog and comical stupidity of it makes the delivery of the morality digestible.  Basically, you’ll walk around the planet collecting “hidden” presents (that are often in plain sight) and conjuring up art-assets to solve the problems for each world’s residents.  Every planet has a set number of tasks to complete.  Once you finish those, you can go around trying to please or anger the population to earn more presents, which will either be experience points, new art assets to summon, or new decorations for your home planet.  It’s sort of Scribblenauts, without the typing, done as a series of fetch-quests.  But, unlike Scribblenauts, I found the whole thing really rewarding.

Doki Doki Universe plays out like a simplified personality tester.  It’s not subtle about this at all.  Sometimes, when making a decision, the game will declare in bold letters some attribute you have, based on your choice.  If I told a rock that his name is Rock because he’s a rock, the game declared that I was a realist.  What else are you going to name a Rock?  Dwayne?  Also, between planets, there are multiple little moons that feature a handful of questions that further test your personality.  I tried to answer them as honestly as I could.  After finishing each quiz (which are between 3 to 5 questions in length), the game will give you an assessment of your personality, and explanations for how they came to that conclusion.  You can then return to your home planet to get a more thorough explanation that sums up all the questions you’ve answered.  The game determined the following things about me, which I crossed-checked with friends and family to see how accurate they felt it was.

Sorry, no follow-up questions allowed.  Like I wasn't able to find out if the Grim Reaper toy had actual governance over the mortality of other toys or just make-believe powers.  So I chose the RC Car.

Sorry, no follow-up questions allowed. Like I wasn’t able to find out if the Grim Reaper toy had actual governance over the mortality of other toys or just make-believe powers. So I chose the elephant.

  • I enjoy wild and silly humor and visual comedy.  100% agreement.
  • I am a creator of art (not remotely accurate), and seek to enrich the world.  The creator of art thing was debated upon.  Is the stuff I write at Indie Gamer Chick a form of art?  If the answer is no, the art thing is completely inaccurate.  Everyone felt the enrich the world part was fair though.
  • I like stories set in the distant past or future.  Change is exciting.  Another direct hit.
  • In stories, I look for strong plot over emotion.  We all agree, that’s not remotely accurate.
  • I search for beauty in the world around me.   100% agreement.
  • I have a good memory and I’m good at finishing things.  My memory is great when it’s not messed up by having seizures.  The finishing things part?  I have like twenty reviews and editorials I’ve started but never finished here.  I think that means “wrong.”
  • It also noted at various times that I’m motivated by money (check), have an excellent sense of rhythm (wrong), stand up for others (check) but never in a mean way (some XBLIG developers might disagree with that).
  • In total, we figured it was about 50% accurate.  Which at least beats my level of accuracy when playing Remote Viewer.

    In total, we figured it was about 50% accurate. Which at least beats my level of accuracy when playing Remote Viewer.

So basically horoscope-accurate.  In fact, I’m sure the blind horoscope test will apply to pretty much anyone playing Doki Doki Universe.  The blind horoscope test is where a room full of people are given the same horoscope, but told each person is getting a unique one based on their birthday.  Typically, between 75% to 90% of the room will say the horoscope is “mostly” accurate in describing them.  So while I was playing Doki Doki Universe, as my boyfriend watched, he often said “wow, scary accurate” to many things.  When something is a hit, the reaction it generates is typically pleasure and awe, which causes your average person to not dwell upon the stuff that is grossly inaccurate.  No, I’m not particularly artistic, nor am I rhythmic.  But then again, I’m not sure if I expected different from a game that decided to test my personality by asking if I would wear an octopus as a hat.  Which, for the record,  I wouldn’t.  A scarf?  Maybe.  But not a hat.

Beyond the personality crapola, my biggest complaint is that occasionally you’ll pick an item to conjure up for a local, but it will spit out an entirely different item and call it a “BACKFIRE!!”  You can count on this happening at least once, maybe as much as four times, on a single planet.  It doesn’t really impede progress, since you can’t game over, so it just because a brief, annoying waste of time that could quickly be overcome.  It serves absolutely no point in the game (unless you believe my buddy Bob, who pointed out that sometimes you don’t always get what you want in life.  Yea, but this isn’t life.  It’s a fucking video game.  Give me what I want).  I also never really came remotely close to running out of the energy (called Dust-Bunnies) that you use to create the objects.  In order to earn the trophy for using them all, I had to use the otherwise useless “find the hidden treasures” power about fifty times in a row.  Doki Doki Universe is not a game you should approach if you’re looking for a challenge.  I had Christmas presents that gave me a tougher time trying to open than Doki Doki gave me trying to get every trophy.

This is one of the DLC Levels. You can get all six extra planets for $3.98.  If you're into the personality tests, you can get all 24 extra of those for $2.98. The $24.99 "Limited Edition" pack is a total waste of money, with many of the features unrelated to actual gameplay.  Skip it, buy the extras separate.

This is one of the DLC Levels. You can get all six extra planets for $3.98. If you’re into the personality tests, you can get all 24 extra of those for $2.98. The $24.99 “Limited Edition” pack is a total waste of money, with many of the features unrelated to actual gameplay. Skip it, buy the extras separate.

But it was really fun.  What I found most satisfying was the relationship between QT3 and a small red balloon on the home planet, which is actually named Balloon.  It was the most genuine, heart-string-pulling gaming relationship I’ve seen in quite a while.  Very moving, very loving, and it reduced more than one or two tough guys into blubbering crybabies.  I was way more interested in what was going on between them than I was with QT3 and his girlfriend that shows up at the end.  That whole bit reminded me of Snoopy Come Home, where everything revolved around Snoopy’s reunion with his previous owner, Lila, but when they finally met up it was still sweet, but kind of disappointing.  Really, my biggest regret with Doki Doki Universe is that Balloon didn’t accompany QT3 on all his adventures.  Instead, you’re supposed to catch up between planets.  I didn’t mind though.  I loved the innocence of their dynamic.  For a game with numerous shit jokes, it kept things between them pure, sort of like Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, only without the mental illness overtones.  So I really recommend Doki Doki Universe.  It’s the first really good game available on PSN for PlayStation 4.  Don’t worry, PS3 and Vita owners can play it as well.  No having to sell a kidney on the black market to be able to play this one.

Doki Doki logoDoki Doki Universe was developed by HumanNature Studios

Seal of Approval Large$14.99 (plus $6.96 worth of DLC) also found out that this doesn’t make the most exciting game for live streaming in the making of this review.

Doki Doki Universe is Chick-Approved and Ranked (pretty dang high) on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Aqua Kitty

It’s strange how Defender, one of gaming’s iconic titles of the Golden Age of arcades, hasn’t been cloned to death by modern indie developers.  I’m cool with that.  Having played an endless supply of uninspired-inspired neo-retro games, I’m not keen on seeing Defender done wrong.  Still, how did Defender fall through the cracks?  Here’s a game that was predicted to be a huge bust, but went on to become the seventh-best selling coin-operated game ever.  Maybe it’s because it was eclipsed by Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.  Or maybe because Defender’s track record since its original release has been mediocre at best.  It got one of the laziest sequels of all time (which was called “Stargate” because of some legal posturing by Williams.  James Spader was unavailable for comment).  There was an unofficial sequel by Midway that nobody I’ve spoken with has ever played.  There was an all-but-forgotten update to the format on Atari Jaguar of all systems, which means it probably sold like six copies.  And finally, there was a 2002 3D remake for sixth-generation consoles that quickly found its way into clearance bins.  Your average child actor has a more graceful flame-out than Defender has had as a franchise.

You know, for a spry young whippersnapper with a reputation for hating classic games, I sure do seem to have a love for Defender.  I even have a Defender homage in my top 25.  Then again, Orbitron: Revolution only mimics the flight and shooting mechanics of the arcade classic.  You’re actually not defending anything.  So I guess it’s not really Defender.  More like Aggressor.  Was there a game called Aggressor?  No?  Well, there ought to have been.

Aqua Kitty on Xbox Live Indie Games.  AKA the really good version.

Aqua Kitty on Xbox Live Indie Games. AKA the really good version.

If you’re looking for a modern Defender-based indie, Aqua Kitty is probably a closer knock-off.  I still prefer Orbitron’s faster pace and modern graphics.  But let it be said, Aqua Kitty is a damn fine game.  You’re a cat in a submarine that must defend little aquanauts while shooting wave after wave of enemy.  And the cat smokes a pipe, which means he’s one cultured pussy.  But, other than the setting and a couple of power-ups, this really is Defender.

Despite being a bit on the bare-bones side, Aqua Kitty is really well produced.  I played both the XBLIG and PlayStation Mobile versions.  I prefer the XBLIG port, which plays faster.  The Vita version has the advantage of being mobile, but it seems clunkier in both framerate and controls.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a pretty good game.  But I would go with the XBLIG port.

It’s not perfect by any stretch.  What really bugs me about Aqua Kitty is the total lack of ambition.  Defender is an old formula in need of renovation.  Aqua Kitty does some things to smooth that over, but it’s just not enough.  Turbo shots?  Good idea.  But only have one type of turbo shot?  Not so ambitious.  Power-ups?  Good idea.  But having only three power-ups, one of which is a bomb, one of which is a health-up, and one of which adds flankers to your ship?  Not so ambitious.  Plus, the flankers are time-limited.  This was presumably done to preserve the difficulty.  Given that the screen gets utterly spammed with enemies and projectiles in later levels, this was unnecessary, as those guys really aren’t that effective at combating it.  So where’s the wild, more modern weapons and items?  Nowhere to be found, and that’s a shame.

The PlayStation Mobile version.  Which, as it turns out, I could have got for free a few weeks ago but I mistook it for another, less epilepsy-friendly title.  Instead, I ended up paying more for this version than I did for the superior XBLIG port.  Smooth, Cathy.

The PlayStation Mobile version. Which, as it turns out, I could have got for free a few weeks ago but I mistook it for another, less epilepsy-friendly title. Instead, I ended up paying more for this version than I did for the superior XBLIG port. Smooth, Cathy.

Don’t let that all discourage you.  Aqua Kitty is probably the best pure Defender clone in years and a genuinely good game.  Near-perfect difficulty curve.  Distinctive enemies.  Cutesy themes.  Solid play-control.  What’s not to love here?  I’m not sure why the inferior PlayStation Mobile is priced $0.50 higher than the XBLIG version.  Some kind of temporary insanity brought on by the awesomeness of a pipe-smoking kitten perhaps.  Happens to the best of us.  I saw the pipe-smoking kitten and totally blacked out.  The next thing I know, I’ve got a tattoo and I attempted to marry my Wii U.

xboxboxartAqua Kitty was developed by Tikipod

IGC_Approved240 Microsoft Points (XBLIG) and $3.49 (PlayStation Mobile) were unaware of the existence of a Defender song until some bastard sent it to me.  It shall never leave my head now in the making of this review.

Both versions of Aqua Kitty are Chick-Approved, and the XBLIG version is ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.  Even the developers admitted to me that they prefer the XBLIG port.  Go with that one.

I turn 24 on Thursday.  Want to get me a gift?  You can donate to Autism Speaks via my friend Kyle Lock’s charity event on July 12Heck, don’t wait.  Donate now.  His goal is $200.  Autism Speaks helped my childhood in ways you can’t imagine if you don’t have autism.  It’s a great cause. 

Limbo

Probably spoilers in here.  Just a warning.

People are always asking me what I think of certain indie games that existed before I started Indie Gamer Chick. The two most commonly asked about titles are Fez and Limbo. I couldn’t finish Fez because of my epilepsy, so Limbo is the only one I’m really qualified to speak of. (UPDATE: I did end up reviewing it!) But seriously, it’s like a daily thing.  “What did you think of Limbo?” As if Limbo is the be-all, end-all of console-based indies.

I liked Limbo. I really did. I also feel the game is fairly overrated. When you strip out of the visuals and bleakness, it’s just a good, but not great, platformer. A trend I’ve noticed is that a lot of people only played through the early part of the game. When you first enter Limbo, you can be left shell-shocked by the dark tone, spooky visuals, and the fact that one of the first things that happens is an awesome, intense encounter with a giant spider. It perhaps gives the false impression that all those emotions will retain their impact through-out the game. They don’t. At least for me, I found myself desensitized to the whole concept not even half-way in. Once Limbo started focusing more on twitchy-platforming instead of physics-based puzzles, I started finding myself almost bored. It never fully becomes a chore, but once it starts becoming a platforming cliché, it does sort of burn out.

I filled in the blanks by pretending that the game starred Schroeder from The Peanuts.  Here he is, learning of Charlie Brown's final fate.

I filled in the blanks by pretending that the game starred Schroeder from The Peanuts. Here he is, learning of Charlie Brown’s final fate.

Also, it was hard to get worked up about the setting when the game was using the all-deflecting “it’s an art game” shield, which pretty much guaranteed an ending “left open to interpretation.” Never been a fan of that. Especially when the game was abstract to begin with. So I guess the idea is the kid, or kids, are dead. How they died or when or where or why is never explained. Theories range from a car wreck to falling out of the tree house to being murdered. I guess from a marketing point of view, it works, because at least people are talking about the game. But I found the ending unsatisfying, because it offered no closure at all. When you invest hours into a game hoping to get some kind of explanation for all the fucked up happenings and the payoff is more questions, it almost feels like the director himself didn’t really know where to go with it. I’ll call this the “Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes Effect.”

Yea, sometimes the questions are more fun than the answers, but in the case of Limbo, you’re playing characters that have no characterization at all. The boy has no back story, no dialog, no personality, no facial expressions, or anything else going for him. The girl is no different. You’re forced to fill in the blanks yourself, but most of the symbolism is in the background and can be easily missed on account of you playing the game. Because the actual gameplay starts to dull towards the end, Limbo really doesn’t lend itself well to replaying to look for the clues that you missed.

Limbo’s ending. I apologize for comparing it to Burton’s Planet of the Apes. That’s a low-blow.

I don’t mean to be too negative here. Sometimes Limbo is brilliantly designed from a gameplay perspective. The bits with the spider early on are one of my all-time gaming highlights. Unfortunately, Limbo pretty much shot its wad in the first twenty minutes. Nothing that followed the sequence where you’re hopping in the spider’s cocoon came remotely close to the thrills and chills that section offered. All that’s left is solid physics-based platforming that I almost wish was in a more cheerful setting, because too much dark shit can get exhausting. But hey, dark is in right now. Any product that aims to be joyful is setting itself up for failure. If an indie game isn’t so bleak that you want to bury your face in your hands and cry, the developer must be mentally ill. Or possibly not mentally ill enough.

boxartlgLimbo was developed by Playdead

IGC_Approved1200 Microsoft Points honest to God can’t believe they just ported this thing to iOS. There is no fucking way this can be played well with fake virtual buttons in the making of this review.

Limbo is Chick Approved

Jacob Jones & The Bigfoot Mystery and Quell Memento

Puzzlers are the absolute toughest games to write a review for.  I’ve spent hours staring at my monitor trying to figure out how to describe these games in an entertaining but informative way.  Good games mind you.  But still puzzle games.  It’s a genre that doesn’t lend itself well to the types of reviews I write here.  If I didn’t love them so much, I would probably quit covering them.  They do the lowest page views too.  And yet, they’re an absolutely essential part of gaming.  I would be beside myself if I couldn’t have a puzzler on my handhelds.  It just seems like it would be wrong otherwise.  I’m also not looking for games to sit down and play through all at once.  That’s why this review took so long to go up.  Because I played these games the way they ought to be played: little bits at a time.  To do otherwise is to maximize a puzzler’s potential for stagnation.

Then I realized I had promised these reviews over a week ago and had still not come close to completing them.  So I embraced the stagnation, like a naturist who thinks showers are for conformists.

Not all the puzzles in Jacob Jones require anything resembling brain power.  This puzzle, over half-way in, took me all of twenty seconds to solve.  In fact, I sort of solved it on accident while I was trying to figure out which moves to make in my head.  Um, I don't think it was supposed to happen like that.

Not all the puzzles in Jacob Jones require anything resembling brain power. This puzzle, over half-way in, took me all of twenty seconds to solve. In fact, I sort of solved it on accident while I was trying to figure out which moves to make in my head. Um, I don’t think it was supposed to happen like that.

First up is Professor Layton and the.. excuse me.. Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery.  Sorry about that, but let me explain how I can make such a mistake.  The game is a set of various logic/math puzzles that are strung together with an utterly nonsensical, raving insane storyline.  The same type of puzzles you would see in the Layton series.  Similar hint system too.  And a  similar “find stuff in the backgrounds to help you buy hints” setup.  Plus, pretty much an identical scoring system for the puzzles.  Or a notepad you can overlay on top of the puzzles.  You know, Lucid Games, in some cultures they cut off your hands for this sort of thing.

The two big differences are in the art style (which looks very similar to Costume Quest) and the episodic setup Lucid is going with.  Here, $3 buys you the first chapter of the game, which gives you 25 puzzles to work on.  This is a very good idea.  I’ve owned all Layton games, but the only one I played through all at once was the first one.  Mostly because the game was such an anomaly that the novelty held up.  For the four sequels, it did start to drag a little.   So breaking up Jacob Jones was a masterstroke.  It doesn’t become “that game that I played so much it got boring.”  They should space out the chapters three months at a time.  Give players just long enough to forget how the story bogs down at the end of each episode, and how the puzzles are not really all that original to begin with.

The real problem is the game is more about the story than the puzzles.  With the Layton series, the story is just there because having 150 random, unrelated puzzles in a package would be a tough sell.  Well, more so than your average puzzler.  Ultimately, I find the Layton games as well written as glorified place-holder stories can be.  But they work because it’s more about the puzzles.  That’s why it’s so funny to encounter a random character on the street who will only give you the clue you need if you can solve a riddle for them.  It’s so stupid, yet charmingly so.  In Jacob Jones, the opposite is true.  The game is over-saturated with dialog.  Not awful dialog, mind you.  The writing can be sharp at times, even if all the characters but Jacob himself are flat-out unlikable.  But the attraction should be the puzzles, or at the very least, an equal blending of both.  In Layton, some of the puzzles can be tricky to the point of being boring.  Nothing in Jacob Jones is that difficult, and instead boredom comes in the form of scenes that feel like they just fucking refuse to end.

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery was developed by Lucid Games ($2.99 can't believe they introduced the bigfoot as a main character this early into the series in the making of this review)

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery was developed by Lucid Games ($2.99 can’t believe they introduced the bigfoot as a main character this early into the series in the making of this review)

Regardless, I do highly recommend Jacob Jones, especially to you Sony diehards who’ve never owned a DS and thus missed the Layton series.  It’s not an original idea.  In fact, it’s about as blatant a clone-job as you can get.  I’m actually stunned that my good buddies at PSNStores.com could interview Lucid Games without once bringing it up.  Talk about failure to address the elephant in the room.  In this case, the elephant is holding a bloody machete and standing over a pile of dead cheerleaders.  How can you NOT bring it up?  But the puzzles are well made and very satisfying.  The “find the soda cans” hook for the backgrounds is a huge step above Layton’s “just poke randomly and hope you stumble upon a coin” setup.  And sometimes the dialog is genuinely funny.  I probably won’t fully review the remaining chapters, but I think unless they’re outright broken, you can pencil all of them in for my seal of approval as well.  Probably.  I mean, it’s a pretty hard formula to screw up.  Especially when someone else has so beautifully laid it out for you and your job consists of tracing the lines.

Every time you submit a puzzle to see if you guessed correctly, the game does overly-dramatic close-ups on Jacob (pictured) and whoever is asking the puzzle.  It's supposed to look like "gee, I hope I got that right."  Instead, it looks more like "I wonder if they realize it was me who farted?"

Every time you submit a puzzle to see if you guessed correctly, the game does an overly dramatic close-up on Jacob (pictured) and whoever is asking the puzzle. It’s supposed to look like “gee, I hope I got that right.” Instead, it looks more like “I wonder if they realize it was me who farted?”

Up next, Quell Memento.  This is one of those rolling-a-ball-in-a-maze puzzlers.  I’ve played dozens of these since gaming hit cell phones, and there’s even been a recent one to hit Vita called Chronovault.  Well, saying it “hit” Vita might be a bad choice of words, since the game missed the mark completely.  It was, quite frankly, awful.  The touch-controls were poorly handled and the level design was overly long and dull.  Right out of the gate, Quell Memento proved to be a better realization of the concept.  Puzzles are all single-screen affairs, and movement is simple and accurate.  It also has a clean but distinctive and pleasant art style.  I can’t stress enough how important accessibility is for you potential puzzle developers out there.  Nobody is going to buy your game because of amazing graphics or expansive 3D worlds.  They just care about the puzzles themselves.  You’re not making the next Skyrim.  You’re making a game that appeals to only those who wish to test themselves, and the likelihood of you wooing non-puzzle fans to your game is slim.  So design your game to appeal to your base.  It’s rare that a puzzle game becomes a break-out hit, and when it does, it’s never because of the art style.  The only time art matters is when it’s ugly to the point of being a turnoff.  Otherwise, it’s always about the puzzles themselves.

In that spirit, Quell Memento succeeds because it does more than just “get ball to exit.”  Some stages are still that.  Others have you lighting up all the blocks, or positioning a ball in a way where it causes crystals to reflect.  It certainly keeps the game fresh throughout.  But, while some of the puzzles can be clever, I really didn’t find Quell to be all that difficult.  I breezed through most of the levels in just seconds, clearing many on my first attempt.  Part of that is on me and just simply having played so many of these type of games.  But part of that is, this sub-genre is inherently simple.  If you make a mistake, just don’t repeat the same moves.  Unlike something like Lolo, there’s only so many different ways you can move the ball.  While many of the solutions are self-evident, those that aren’t become apparent immediately after your first mistake.  I’ll admit right here and now, I did use the hint system for Jacob Jones once.  I never had to for Quell.  The difficulty never really ramps up all that much either, leaving the final stages lacking in a climatic feel.  While it never fully crosses the line to being too easy, it does dip its toes in it a little bit.  Also, the system in place to give the game replay value by awarding you trophies for completing stages in the fewest possible moves isn’t all that significant either.  Again, once you know how a stage is finished, it’s simply a matter of subtracting the wrong moves.  It doesn’t require you to be a genius to figure out.

This is one of the light-reflecting puzzles, which I found to be the easiest of the lot.  You can immediately identify where the ball (or balls) have to go to properly reflect the light.  But the really insulting thing is, the entire first part of it actually marks the ground with an X.  Guys, it's not THAT difficult to figure out.  Anyone who needs that type of hand holding would never have bought this to begin with.

This is one of the light-reflecting puzzles, which I found to be the easiest of the lot. You can immediately identify where the ball (or balls) have to go to properly reflect the light. But the really insulting thing is, the entire first part of it actually marks the ground with an X. Guys, it’s not THAT difficult to figure out. Anyone who needs that type of hand holding would never have bought this to begin with.

Quell Memento was developed by Fallen Tree Games ($4.99 said their logo is more like "Fallen Branch" games, but branches fall all the time so I guess that would be a silly name in the making of this review)

Quell Memento was developed by Fallen Tree Games ($4.99 said their logo is more like “Fallen Branch Games” but branches fall all the time so I guess that would be a silly name in the making of this review)

So did I like it?  Yea, a little bit.  That’s really all I ask of from games, to enjoy them.  So it gets my approval.  But the breezy puzzles nearly mute that amazing “TA DA!” feeling I crave from these types of games.  I wasn’t interested in the story in the slightest bit, and I really didn’t go back to find all the hidden gems (one in each level, though I use the term “hidden” very loosely as most of them you can’t help but stumble upon).  You can’t help but like it, because it’s well produced and charming.  It won’t bend your brain too much, but perhaps that does make it more accessible for those non-puzzle loving fans.  Of course, they’ll skip right past it anyway because puzzle games are skateboarding giant emus on parade.  That makes no sense at all, but everyone quit reading one word into this review when I started the first sentence with “Puzzlers.”  I can pretty much say and do whatever I want from here on out.  I think Half Life is slightly overrated.  I have a Sonic the Hedgehog tattoo nobody knows about.  I hate children.  I periodically let the air out of my parents tires.  That penis that someone drew on Brian’s forehead while he slept?  That wasn’t Bryce.  It was totally me.  And nobody will ever know because when it comes to puzzlers, nobody seems to give a shit except me.  Well, me and the skateboarding emus on parade.

My friend Kyle Lock of Vintage Video Game TV is doing a marathon to raise money for the Lung Cancer Research Foundation.  Be sure to check it out starting tomorrow (Friday, June 14).  He’ll be giving free games away and raising money for a good cause.  And hey, as a smoker, I might end up needing their research someday 😛 Donate here and watch the stream here.

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery and Quell Memento are both Chick-Approved and will be ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard on July 1.

IGC_Approved

Thomas Was Alone (and Benjamin’s Flight DLC)

Early on in Thomas Was Alone, I really didn’t get the hype for it.  “THIS is the game all the cool kids are talking about?” I tweeted, somewhat baffled.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The game was alright.  But my fans had been trumpeting this one since it launched on PC last summer, promising me that it was a platformer unlike anything I’ve played before.  To a degree, they were right.  You just can’t tell right away.  Thomas Was Alone is one of those slow-starters that wakes up at seven but doesn’t get out of bed until eight.

At heart, Thomas Was Alone is a minimalistic platform-puzzler with the hook being an eccentric storyline that gives personality to the squares and rectangles you control.  Again, it’s something that didn’t grab me at first.  It came across as artsy-fartsy, bordering on pretentious.  But, about a third of the way through, it started to grow on me.  Who would have guessed that it was possible to give such distinct traits to fundamental shapes, with no animation sprites or anything resembling humanity?  It does it so well that I would think one could consider Thomas a candidate for strongest writing of the year.  But I have to disqualify it for that, on account of a couple groan-inducing references to the Cake is a Lie and the Arrow to the Knee.  God damn it so much.  Is there some kind of code on the indie development scene that I’m not aware of?  Like a secret handshake or something?  Two guys go up to each other at a developer conference, lock pinkys, touch ring-fingers with the other hand, say “The Cake is a Lie!” and then fall down laughing until it hurts because that will NEVER EVER grow old or stop being funny ever no matter what?  Well it’s not funny and it hasn’t been for years.  No matter how many ways you guys try to make it work, it never does.  You’ve beaten this dead horse into dust, and now you’re just beating your fist on the blood-soaked ground underneath it.  STOP IT!!

I think everyone's favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur.  I would love to get more of her story.

I think everyone’s favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur. I would love to get more of her story.

Anyway, mostly strong writing.  However, it ended without giving me a sense of closure for the characters that I had grown fond of, or anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion for the overall story.  It just sort of ends.  And don’t look for the DLC to provide the comfort of an ending either, because it doesn’t.  I guess Thomas Was Alone’s finale is supposed to be open to interpretation or something, but I was left disappointed.

You know what?  I don’t play platformers for their stories.  If they’re decent or better, that’s just a bonus.  For this genre, gameplay is king.  In which case, Thomas Was Alone is at best a knight, bordering on a rook.  After a mind-numbingly dull start, the level design picks up momentum about one-third of the way in.  By time you’ve reached the finish line, you’ll have played some of the most inspired levels seen in platforming in a long while.  But, the ratio of slog-to-awesome is not so great.  A good portion of levels revolve around stacking your characters in a way to make a staircase for the less jumpy in your squad.  A handful of these would have been just fine.  But sometimes you’ll have to build the exact same staircase five or more times in a single level.  It’s tedious busy-work that needlessly cramps the game’s whimsical style.

When Thomas Was Alone’s level design is good, it’s really good.  So good that my ear-to-ear grin was in place because of just how clever a world was designed and not because of the narration.  Quite frankly, after a way-too-long tutorial sequence with levels and platforming so basic that it makes Atari-era stuff like Pitfall! look advanced, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was.  Then I would be hit with some pretty ingenious stages that involve timing, precision platforming, and thinking outside-the-box.  I loved these moments.  I’ve always said I’ll take those “ta-da!” moments in puzzlers over the best headshots in shooters or game-winning shots in sports games.  Thomas doesn’t provide a lot of those moments, but when it does, it’s special.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I'm not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn't, that would be quite a good idea.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I’m not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn’t, that would be a good idea.

Don’t worry, puzzle haters.  There is nothing here that will bend your brain or make you have to consult GameFAQs.  At most, Thomas will ask of you to apply some forward thinking and course plotting.  Most of the puzzles revolve around what order you guide the blocks to the goal of each stages.  Victory is achieved through having all blocks in their unique exit doors at the same time.  Once you have a feel for the abilities and limitations of each block, figuring how to get them to the doors comes naturally.  Actually, it almost becomes instinctual.  It’s so rare that a puzzle-platformer does that to me that I can’t help but be impressed.  It also helps that the controls are smooth and the main game never asks more of a player than can be reasonably expected.  I don’t consider myself especially skilled at platformers, but I must be getting better.  I figure I died probably around a dozen times over the course of the game’s one-hundred levels.  Thomas Was Alone gives a trophy out for dying 100 times, but by time I had finished the game, I still hadn’t earned it.  I’m pretty proud of that.

I’m not here to give the game an undeserved blowjob though.  There’s plenty of problems with it.  I’ve described some above, but the one that gets me the most is the difficulty curve.  Or lack thereof.  Other critics have noted how perfect the curve is.  It makes me wonder if they played the same game as me.  Even late in Thomas Was Alone, I encountered stages that offered no challenge at all to finish.  The sixth world (really the seventh world, since the world numbering starts in the zeros) especially stands out.  I wasn’t timing it, but it probably took between ten to fifteen minutes to complete while possessing the most basic and dull stages since the opening tutorial.  Just weird that this would pop-up over half-way through.  But stages like this are all over the place.  I guess the excuse for these (and the overly long fish-in-barrel stages that start this thing) is they’re there as place-holders to drive the story.  Well that’s a shitty excuse.  A platformer should never let proper storytelling get in the way of proper pacing.  People probably should buy the game for the game.  I mean, it’s a pretty good game.  So while I enjoyed the story, I almost resent the fact that the vastly superior gameplay was in part sacrificed for it.  The result is a curve that appeared to be drawn by someone laying in a hammock during an earthquake.

After finishing the final stage, you’re treated to an extremely brief ending, and then the credits roll.  I was disappointed not just by the ending but by the last level.  Thomas Was Alone goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, which left me wanting more.  After stewing on it overnight, I decided to grab the overpriced DLC pack.  My intent was to get my craving for more Thomas out of my system.  Mission accomplished, but not in the way I intended.

The DLC levels are so horrible and mismatched with the main body of the game that I actively questioned whether developer Mike Bithell had entered his emo phase in life when he designed them.  Thomas Was Alone was a quirky logic-puzzle-platformer.  The DLC levels alternate between back-to-basics platforming (that you have to pay extra to suffer through) and punisher-stages designed with nothing else in mind than a huge body count.  What a stupid decision on developer’s part.  These levels do not remotely have the almost childish innocence the main game does.  It’s also the first time the controls didn’t feel right.  Benjamin, the star of the DLC, possess a jet pack, but the only use they could come up with for it was navigating narrow corridors of spikes.  The controls here are so touchy and the margin for error so low that any possible fun that could be had gives way to frustration and boredom.  Benjamin’s Flight has twenty stages, and while the cutesy story is present, I can honestly say that I didn’t find one single stage of this pack to be worth paying any amount of money for.  It might be the worst level pack I’ve ever purchased.  I just don’t get why the tone changed so much.  It would be like announcing that they’re going to make a new Dark Knight movie, only this one will be a buddy comedy and Batman is being recast as Adam Sandler.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC.  I nominate this for "worst stage in a good game" ever created.  It's repetitive and insanely long for what it offers.  Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC. I nominate this for “worst stage in a good game.”  It’s repetitive and insanely long for what it offers. Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

So here’s where I stand: Thomas Was Alone is pretty decent, but it takes a while to get that way.  I wish the developer had focused more on ingenuity.  When the levels in Thomas are clever, it’s one of the best of its breed to come out in a while.  There’s just enough meat here to call it a must-buy.  At the same time, the story ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied, and the game only has enough “this is amazing!” moments that it ultimately feels under-realized.  You can’t count on the DLC to drown-out those thoughts, because it feels rushed and sort of half-assed.  So different from the feel of the main quest that I was a little surprised to learn they came from the same guy who had awed me just yesterday.  If I had my way, Thomas Was Alone would be alone, because I would bury that DLC in the desert next to unsold Atari carts.

Thomas LogoThomas Was Alone was developed by Mike Bithell

IGC_Approved$7.99 with PlayStation Plus discount (normally priced $9.99) plus $3.49 (Benjamin’s Flight DLC) said “hey now, Red Kryptonite has caused all sorts of problems, so don’t go there” in the making of this review.

Thomas Was Alone is Chick Approved, but for God’s sake, skip the DLC unless it’s free.  And even then, you’re not missing anything by ignoring it. 

Castle Invasion, Life of Pixel (Second Chance with the Chick), and Super Skull Smash GO!

I figured it’s time for another kick at the PlayStation Mobile can.  While my previous efforts to didn’t turn up any original games that I could point to and say “see, PlayStation Mobile is off to a decent start”, I figure it’s worth a second look.  At least it would be, if games weren’t priced like this.

PSM Store 2

Or like this.

PSM Store 3

Or this.

PSM Store 1

Okay.  Just to be clear, you guys want people to actually buy your games, right?  And you also realize that you’re on PlayStation Vita, where a PlayStation Plus subscription can net you AAA games for free?  Or where standard discounts can get you some really great games for around that price?  Hell, you’re also competing directly with Android phones, where you can get some of the best games of this generation for $0.99 or less.  You should make some effort to be competitive.  You already have no demos, making your games high-risk to consumers.  Why make them so out-of-bounds high risk that nobody in their right mind would take a chance on them?  I would gladly fork over $3 for what looks like an FMV fishing game, because that sort of quirky weird shit is right up my ally.  $5?  That would be a tough sell for actual fans of FMV fishing games, which is a large and robust fanbase to alienate.

So instead, I grabbed Castle Invasion for a measly 49 cents.  And I definitely got what I paid for.  Simple concept: shoot dudes before they reach the castle wall.  Gallery shooters like this are a bit relicy (that’s a word as of right now), but I figure there’s all kinds of neat twists developers can slap on them.  Not here.  Dudes run at you, and you shoot them.  Stronger dudes run at you.  You shoot them.  Faster dudes run at you.  You shoot them.  Sometimes you use arrows, sometimes you use spears that can penetrate multiple enemies, but otherwise it’s the same shit over and over again and it’s boring.  Not only that, but it had a tendency to crash.  Spring for the extra penny and sink your money in a gumball.  The flavor will last about 90 seconds, which makes that a longer-term investment than Castle Invasion.

Castle Invasion. The most excited thing since buttered toast.  Which I don't find to be particularly exciting.

Castle Invasion. The most excited thing since buttered toast. Which I don’t find to be particularly exciting.

Up next was Life of Pixel ($1.99), which has been patched.  I played it last month, and found the graphics to be authentic, but the control was sketchy and the level design focused a little too much on leap-of-faith gameplay.  That’s mostly fixed now.  Controls are silky smooth, double jumping never failed, the frame-rate never dropped, and some of those leaps-of-faith are now a thing of memory.  Some.  There were a few sections of the game where you simply have to leap blindly and hope for the best.  Some call this “trial and error.”  Bullshit.  The “trial” part suggests you have a fighting chance.  Blind luck is not a fighting chance.  It’s fucking blind luck, and there’s still a lot of it in Life of Pixel.  I call this “gotcha gameplay.”  And I’m sick of it.  It pops up too much on the indie scene.  Yea, I know games used to be like this, but that doesn’t mean they still have to be.  And I’ve got a solution.

I’ve arranged for every indie development kit, across all platforms, to come bundled with a man named Roberto.  Now, Roberto will pretty much stay out of your way.  Just leave some bread and something to drink out for him, but otherwise you shouldn’t notice him.  Unless you start to put “GOTCHA!” moments into your game.  Unavoidable deaths, blind leaps, hidden traps that are impossible to see or avoid, etc.  When you attempt this, Roberto will come out of hiding, place a pot on your head, and bang the pot sixteen times with a five-pound, stainless-steel soup ladle.  After this, he’ll remove the pot, look you in your now vacant, concussed eyes, and scream “GOTCHA!”  Then he’ll slink back into the shadows and allow you to undo the mess you just made of your game.  I think this idea is a good one.

I fucking HATED HATED HATED this level of Life of Pixel, which featured more blind jumps than Lighthouse International's annual hurdles race.

I fucking HATED HATED HATED this level of Life of Pixel, which featured more blind jumps than LensCrafter’s annual hurdles race.

Despite Life of Pixel being my inspiration for the Roberto Policy, I have to say that the game is vastly improved.  By that, I mean it’s playable, and hey, even a little fun.  They even included a soundtrack that, gasp, somewhat matches the classic gaming eras that were the inspiration in the first place.  I mean, it was downright boneheaded to not include such soundtracks in the first place, but I’ll let it slide.  I did just give the team at Super Icon  multiple instances of brain damage by testing the Roberto Policy on them.  They deserve a break.  They also deserve an Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval.  They took a shitty, broken game and made it fun.  That’s a sign of a developer with true talent, and I salute them for it.

Roberto, pot their head one last time.  Just out of principle for making me eat my words.

Finally, Super Skull Smash GO!  It’s a retro-style puzzle-platformer that was priced at $3.29 last week, but it’s down to $2.79 this week.  Is that a good price for it?  Hmmmmm not really.  I can get better games on my iPhone or on XBLIG that offer more play value at half the price.  Is it a bad game?  Not at all.  You play as a dude who has to hop on skeletons, grab their skulls, and smash them against a giant, golden cross.  Glad to see Yale’s fraternal initiation turn into a full-fledged video game.

Super Skull Smash GO

I would call the graphics fossilized, but considering Super Skull Smash GO! stars a bunch of skeletons, I’m guessing that was the point.

Despite the primitive graphics, Super Skull Smash GO! is a fairly clever puzzler that keeps throwing new twists in until the end.  Having said that, the collision detection is too sensitive, and the jumping physics are a little heavy.  By far the biggest thing I had to struggle with was jumping through narrow corridors and repeatedly fucking up because the spot you can jump from or to is so small and unforgiving.  Plus, lining up a skull to throw at just the right height can also be troublesome.  The game seems to have issues with following parameters.  I’m not going to be too hard on it for that.  I can relate.  I have the ankle monitor to prove it.

I still recommend it, because it’s a fun little game with puzzle design unlike anything I’ve ever played.  And hey, I’ve now found two original PlayStation Mobile games that are priced to afford and worth your time to play.  It’s a step in the right direction.  I do wish developers would be smarter about how they market their games.  That overhead airplane fighter game thing above, Blue Skies.  For all I know, it might be a good game.  It looks like it’s based on some classic games that a lot of people would be interested in.  You know, the type of games you can routinely buy on platforms like PSN, XBLA, and Virtual Console for under $7?  This is one of those “what were they thinking?” moments.  Without the benefit of demos (and hell, most PSM games don’t even bother with trailers on YouTube), all PSM games are a risk to consumers.  How many people will take a $7 for one game risk when the same $7 can net them multiple games, some of which they’re bound to like.  I got two pretty decent games in Super Skull Smash GO! and Life of Pixel for $5.28.  That’s $1.71 less than the risk of buying Blue Skies and hating it.  Fuck that.  That kind of money buys a lot of gumballs.

Super Skull Smash GO! and Life of Pixel are Chick Approved

IGC_Approved

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