The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a screen warning that it doesn’t “hold your hand.” So many games make this claim anymore that it’s starting to come across as kind of snotty and condescending. Ethan Carter’s lack of hand holding isn’t in the difficulty sense, like Bloodborne or 1001 Spikes. You can’t die, and there are no real stakes besides extending the delay of the unfolding story. Instead, it doesn’t hold your hands in the sense that you’re given no instructions at all. No tutorial, no hints what the game’s primary mechanics are, or what your end goal is. So, in my first attempt at playing Ethan Carter, I ended up missing the first four of ten “puzzles.” The fifth one is neither a puzzle nor possible to miss (I think). The first one I actually stumbled upon and solved was the sixth one. Of ten. This is the kind of not-hand-holding that a sadistic swimming instructor with a growing body count would believe in.

Ethan Carter is an aimless wandering simulator that occasionally gets interrupted by an interesting plot. I’ve never been into Lovecraftian type of horror, so when I found the story to be good, I was a bit surprised. However, I missed nearly the first half of it, so I decided I would break a personal rule of mine. I try to avoid using walk-throughs when I review games. Now, I had stumbled upon a couple of the puzzles, but I didn’t realize they were puzzles or would unlock the plot. The game doesn’t imply any of that. When I solved the graveyard sequence, I decided to just start over from the beginning and have someone send me a list of the general locations of the puzzles. Just having that list and the knowledge that there were puzzles to complete totally changed my enjoyment of the game. It was okay. Okay is better than “God I’m bored out of my fucking skull.

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

I hate doing this with any game, because it’s 2015 and nobody should give a shit about graphics anymore unless they are mind-blowingly awesome. I don’t know if the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite that good, but it’s probably the most gorgeous indie up to this point. To put it in perspective, my mother walked into the room while I was making my way through a forested area and asked what movie we were watching. Movie. Until she said that, I hadn’t stopped to appreciate how damn good-looking Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. Now, that story wouldn’t have happened if I was in many of the areas of the game, especially ones that take place in a mine, or ones where there’s rushing water. The cave section looks like any other cavern level in a first-person game, and rushing water has that creepy uncanny valley effect, slightly life-like but undeniably off. Probably the most off-putting thing about the presentation is you don’t feel even close to a real person. You feel like a camera hovering six above the ground. The lack of humanity in the player-character made it nearly impossible to ever feel immersed. Which is a shame because the world created is photo-realistic at times and that kind of goes to waste.

I’ll go spoiler-free on the plot as much as possible. It’s pretty obvious early on that some kind of twist ending was coming, but Ethan Carter still manged to fool me with it while still feeling like I wasn’t cheated by the context. It wasn’t like Braid’s “deep” twist ending where, spoiler alert on a game eight years old: the main character of Braid was part of the Manhattan Project and felt guilty for creating nuclear weapons, with the world of Braid being his escapism to alleviate his guilt. Yea. I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t blurt out “where in the fuck did that come from?” when they experienced that ending. But Braid is popular and pretentious allegories pulled out of thin air are all the rage in Indieland, so I expected Ethan Carter to end on one. It didn’t. The ending was satisfactory in a Twilight Zone sort of way and felt real. I guess you can’t ask for anything more.

SPOILER WARNING – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID

Not that the story doesn’t occasionally devolve into raving lunacy. The most random happening involved an encounter with an astronaut. I think it was meant to be a jump scare when it first appeared, but it was so random that all I could do was laugh. This eventually led to a section where I was floating through space in a scene I swear was ripped straight from that God awful piece of shit movie Contact. Even after finishing Ethan Carter, I’m not entirely sure what the point of that part was. The studio behind this game is named Astronauts, so maybe this was meant to be an in-joke for them. Another failed attempt at scares occurred in the cave area, where you’re being stalked by a ghost while searching a maze for five dead bodies. I wasn’t aware that this was considered the most terrifying section of the game by most people due to “jump scares” that happen during it. This is because I found all five dead bodies and solved the puzzle in it without ever having the ghost catch me. In fact, I only caught a glimpse of it once and heard it two other times. Given that Ethan Carter’s form of horror is based more on atmosphere and characterization, I’m surprised it would even try to do jump scares. I think I enjoyed the experience more than others did as a result. Jump scares are something anyone can cause with a plastic bag full of air and a floor that doesn’t squeak when you try to sneak up behind someone. Lowbrow and easy. Creeping people out with an unnerving atmosphere takes skill, and Ethan Carter pulls it off.

They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

END OF SPOILERS

The writing is not bad at all. The cut scenes have pretty decent voice acting. Ethan Carter does almost nothing wrong in terms of plot and storytelling. It’s the method of delivery that I feel doesn’t serve players properly. It goes back to the “hand holding” thing. What is so wrong with pointing players in a direction? Shadow of the Colossus is similar to Ethan Carter in the sense that you have a vast open world with specific areas you need to discover. You’re not told how to discover them, or what to expect when you get there. You hold your sword up and it points the direction, and that’s it. Nobody would accuse that of being an example of hand-holding. So that opening “we don’t hold hands” bit almost feels accusatory against players. “Oh, you didn’t find the stuff we obscurely hid? What, you expect directions? What kind of pussy-whipped casual gamer are you?”

Maybe the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a glorified tech-demo, as some of my readers on Twitter suggested. While there are a couple creative puzzles, most of them come down to finding items and returning them to their locations. A few times you’ll be required to look at a few different dioramas and place them in sequential order. If the puzzle design had matched the art quality, Ethan Carter would have been something very special. I do reject the notion that Ethan Carter is an “experience” more than a game. It’s a game, and a perfectly fine one. I don’t think it will withstand the test of time, or be particularly memorable. As technology gets better and games that look like this become more common place, its relevance will fade. Ultimately, I did enjoy it when I played it “my way”, with general instructions to the locations of the ten puzzles. Others enjoyed it without those, liking the sense of discovery. Others still got sick aimlessly wandering around without any clue what they were doing and quit. I can’t help but wonder if Ethan Carter would have benefited greatly by giving players two options: to play the game with or without direction. If they had done that, all discussion of the game would have been centered around its merits instead of its abstraction. Ethan Carter can stand on its own merits. It’s a quality game, even if it’s so militantly against holding hands that it comes across like a six-year-old afraid of catching cooties.

Ethan logoThe Vanishing of Ethan Carter was developed by Astronauts
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$19.99 walked away from Ethan Carter feelings like her eyeballs were gently massaged by the graceful hands of God himself in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

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The Last Tinker: City of Colors

UPDATE: When I played the Last Tinker, after completing the two tutorial tasks, I didn’t have enough money to advance the plot of the game and had to grind money for thirty minutes. It turns out, I had triggered a rare glitch that led to me not having enough money to proceed. The guys at Loot Entertainment and developer Mimimi Productions finally were able to replicate what I had unwittingly done. I have an uncanny knack for finding the worst glitches in games. Because the slow pace of the game was unquestionably my biggest gripe with the Last Tinker, and the pace I played was dictated by the extremely slow start (caused by a glitch), the Last Tinker has jumped over 100 spots on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

As a kid, Banjo-Kazooie represented a defining moment in my life. While the original PlayStation (and Crash Bandicoot specifically) was the first game that I wanted, Banjo was my first gaming obsession. I received it on July 11, 1998, and I could not put it down. I bring this up because I think there’s a strong possibility I would have had the same reaction to The Last Tinker: City of Colors if I had been a nine-year-old when it released. It’s a family friendly adventure that parents can safely let their children play without warping their minds. Then again, my parents banned me from playing most M rated games, and I think I might be a certifiable psychopath if the way I treat my Sims is any indication. Plus I use the word “fuck” so much that my dog thought that was her name for the longest time.

Actually, the comparisons to Banjo probably aren’t good ones. In terms of gameplay, Tinker reminded me a lot more of another Rare title: Star Fox Adventures. All jumping is done automatically, combat is button mashy, you rely on semi-controllable AI helpers to solve puzzles, and the pacing is so slow it can be measured by the cycles of the moon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least if you’re a young’in without the accumulated experience of dozens of games that do what Tinker does, only they did it better. UPDATE: the rest of this paragraph is not accurate, as I had triggered a glitch in the game that caused these pacing issues. However, I fully expect the speed of progression to test the patience of anyone older than, say, twelve. The opening bits of the story and tutorial can take hours to get through. It simply shouldn’t take so fucking long to get into the meat of the game. And the way it feels artificially padded only serves to frustrate more. Initially, your goal is to raise money to enter a race. Players are led to believe that completing two “learn the mechanics” tasks will earn them enough money to enter. It doesn’t. Not even close. Instead, you have to walk around smashing crates and jars. I actually had smashed every crate up to this point and it still took me an extra thirty minutes of walking back and forth, smashing the same crates over and over again until I had enough money. It’s completely unnecessary busy-work and it’s incredibly boring. What were they thinking?

Update: The two tasks described above should be enough money to enter the race.  I had triggered a rare glitch that caused me to not get the money for completing one of the tasks. They are correcting the glitch. It’s almost impossible to accidentally recreate it. Ain’t I lucky?

I swear, this is NOT what it looks like.

I swear, this is NOT what it looks like.

I wasn’t sure if Tinker would recover from the disastrous opening. The only shinning spot early on was where it really did manipulate my emotion by having your best buddy, a mouthy little critter that looks like it was lifted from Viva Pinata, get punched in the nose. The game transitions to night, where you watch it lay in bed, having an unhappy dream and quivering. Then a little ghost color spirit thing talks about how your buddy isn’t doing so well. Then they show it quivering while it sleeps again. Hold on, there’s something wrong with my eyes. They appear to have some kind of leak. Wait, am I crying over this? Just a few minutes ago I was pissed that the game was dragging its ass like a dog with worms, and now I’m genuinely saddened by this little paper mache goat thing getting a little smack in the nose? Hell, I spent the last hour punching every friendly NPC way harder than that, just for the lulz. Now, I’m shedding actual tears.

Well played, Last Tinker.

And really, from this point forward, the pace does pick up. Not that it gets off to a great start. The first real stage takes place in a fortress where you have to sneak past guards, in a scene that feels as if it was lifted directly from the opening stage of Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. In fact, it’s so close to that game that it feels awkward. Forced stealth sections are the kidney stones of gaming, in that it feels good once you pass them, but only because enduring them is pure agony. Thankfully, that’s the last section where the tedium outranks the enjoyment. While nothing after this will surprise you or leave you thinking you’ve played something truly inspired, Tinker is an overall very decent game.

It’s also worth noting that the graphics are striking. When I played The Last Tinker on Indie Gamer Chick TV, a lot of people commented on how damn colorful the game is. Perhaps it’s because we’re used to indies being painted so bleakly that they’re responsible for a 20% increase in cutting among gamers, but seriously, The Last Tinker really stands out. It’s been a while since a game has come along that’s so cheerful that you can’t help but notice it. Yet, this is exactly the kind of game that Rare would have put out during their Nintendo 64 heyday. The story (a thinly-disguised tale about racial tolerance), characters, and setting all would feel at home on Nick Jr. or PBS, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I can’t pretend I’m The Last Tinker’s target audience, but I liked it enough for what it was. It does a LOT wrong. The pacing is horrible, the controls merely adequate, the combat is repetitive, the enemies can be too damn spongy, and it’s even a bit unstable. They had to include a respawn option in the pause menu because it’s possible to get yourself stuck in some sections of the game, like in the screenshot below.

I have no idea how I got here, but I'm stuck. For what it's worth, this is the only time I need to use the respawn option.

I have no idea how I got here, but I’m stuck. For what it’s worth, this was the only time I needed to use the respawn option.

I don’t know if The Last Tinker’s mistakes completely off-balance what it does right. I can only speak for my own experience. And I liked it. It didn’t make me revert to a giggling, happy-go-lucky child like Super Mario Galaxy did, but it never really had the potential to. And again, this game wasn’t made for cynical gaming veterans. I suspected The Last Tinker would be an excellent “ease into gaming” title for younger children. But, I wanted to know for sure, so I secured some copies to hand out to parents with children aged 5 to 12.

My hunch was correct. Reader John Berger‘s kids (a ten-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter) enjoyed it. I included the full text of his mini-review below the trailer, but here’s the paragraph that mattered the most.

“As I type this, my son has beaten the game and is going back through it to get all of the upgrades and do everything to get all of the PlayStation trophies. And even though my daughter was with us and hasn’t played it (we let my son play it while we watched and helped), she wants to play it on her own.  Each time I asked them what they thought of the game up to that point, her response was an enthusiastic, “I LOVE IT!”

Fellow-critic Brad Gallaway wasn’t as forgiving towards the gameplay as I was, but his five-year-old son also loved it.

“The action is simple and straightforward enough for him to grasp, and the basic tasks weren’t a deterrent to him at all. While my eyes were glazing over with boredom, he’s so new to gaming that he has no idea how rote and uninspired the game can feel at times. And really, that’s just fine because it’s clear to me that Tinker was not aimed at the experienced gamer, and I’m quite happy to have age-appropriate software available for the young ones.”
It's also a great way to expose children to the horrible way adults endlessly run pop-culture references into the ground.

It’s also a great way to expose children to the horrible ways adults endlessly run pop-culture references into the ground.

I don’t base my reviews on how anyone else feels about a game, and I’m not starting here. The Last Tinker: City of Colors has more problems than a math quiz. For me at least, it was never better than decent. However, it was consistently decent enough to earn my Seal of Approval. But, if you have young kids? This is probably the type of game that you would have played as a kid. The type of game that can lead to your children being confirmed gamers for life, and I can think of no more powerful a statement to make about a game aimed at that age group. Use the Last Tinker to hook ’em while they’re young. Hey, it works for the tobacco industry!
$14.99 ($19.99 without a PlayStation Plus subscription) lost count of how many times I accidentally typed “The Last THINKER” in the making of this review.
The Last Thinker Tinker is Chick approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.
Here’s John’s full review.
Just for reference, my son is 10 and my younger daughter is 8. All three of us were playing/watching at the same time.
In short, the blending of the game styles of “Ratchet & Clank”, “Banjo Kazooie”, and even “Okami” — with the color brilliance of all three notched up quite a bit — made it a fun game to watch. (I let my kids play it while I sat with them.)
For the most part I let them try to figure out how to progress, although there were a few times where I basically had to order them where to go. (“No, dad, that’s not where we have to go!” “Yes, it is, so do it!” “Oh, you were right.”) A few of the solutions weren’t very obvious, even to me, to where I had to find a “let’s play” video to find out how to progress.
But otherwise, my kids love it.  As I type this, my son has beaten the game and is going back through it to get all of the upgrades and do everything to get all of the PlayStation trophies. And even though my daughter was with us and hasn’t played it (we let my son play it while we watched and helped), she wants to play it on her own.  Each time I asked them what they thought of the game up to that point, her response was an enthusiastic, “I LOVE IT!”
Just to try to get some balance, I asked if there was anything about the game that they didn’t like, and I told them that I need them to be honest about that. Neither of them had anything bad to say about it. So, it was definitely a hit with the kids.
I do kind of agree with you that it doesn’t feel like it’s meant for adults. But considering that it’s along the same gameplay lines as “Ratchet & Clank” and “Banjo Kazooie”, I think this is good enough for adults who just want to wind down and play something that’s not too demanding. After all, you could argue that the LEGO games aren’t really geared towards adults either, but I’ve bought every single one of them.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch

I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I think I’m the only writer out there that truly “gets” Octodad. A lot of people think it’s a quirky indie adventure game based around unworkable play control and a wacky hijinks story of an octopus trying to blend in undetected in a relatively normal society.

But it’s not.

No, my friends. Octodad is really about the grim realities of living with Parkinson’s disease.

Hear me out on this.

In Octodad, even the most mundane tasks are an exercise in frustration. Let’s say you want to, oh, open a door. In real life, you reach out and turn the door knob. It takes a second, if that. In Octodad, you have to slowly move your jittery tentacle into position, which can take a shocking amount of patience-trying effort. Then you have to click the door knob. Then you have to actually pass through the door without accidentally closing it again, or tying yourself in a knot around the hinges of the door. There were times where it took me several minutes to walk through the threshold of a passage. I wish I could say this only happened once. But it happened again and again. The whole time shaking like I had just slammed twenty pots of coffee.

I trash every wedding at a church I go to as well. Not because I have trouble moving though, just for the lulz.

I trash every wedding at a church I go to as well. Not because I have trouble moving though, just for the lulz.

Whimsical adventure game? No. A dark look into the demoralizing reality those unfortunate among us have to face on a daily basis.

And then there’s the family. The ones that never notice he’s an “octopus.” I’m sure they completely failed to realize that their father trashed the entire kitchen just trying to get a cup of coffee. Or tramples all the flowers trying to pull a couple of weeds out of a garden. Or utterly destroys an entire grocery store trying to grab a soda. No, this isn’t a family in denial. This is a family who doesn’t want Daddy to feel different. Because, if they get him down, it might destroy him emotionally. Not something you want to do when already he’s being destroyed physically.

No?

Okay, how about alcoholism?

Yea, I’ll just move on.

Not a single movement or action in Octodad isn’t a pain in the ass to pull off. Those watching me play on Indie Gamer Chick TV thought it was hilarious. Meanwhile, I went through so many different emotions that I’m sure I created a new, Octodad-based form of bipolar disorder. Sometimes I was swearing like a sailor, so angry that nobody in the room with me would have been surprised if my head suddenly exploded. Other times I came close to burying my head in my hands and crying over how utterly useless I was at moving around or interacting with anything. I’ve never been a fan of any game that’s challenge is based on how God-damn difficult it is to control, but Octodad takes that to a whole new level. Using both sticks, the triggers, and the X button to both walk and interact with objects never felt intuitive for me. Some people are better able to get the hang of it (hell, there are speed-runners that finish the whole fucking thing in twenty minutes, the freaks), but for me, it just always felt broken.

Speaking of broken, I heard from many fans of the game that the PS4 version is noted for being unstable. I noticed this a few times myself. In one section at an aquarium, you have to lead your daughter through a maze of jellyfish exhibits using only a lantern. Once you get past this, the girl is supposed to notice one of the scientists her father is scared of and ask for the lantern back, allowing you to walk up the stairs. Well, when I played, that part never happened. Even though we walked all across that area, she never hit the specific spot on the floor that promoted the next part of the story to continue. I walked around, trying to activate it, but it wouldn’t happen. My viewers who had completed the game were confused. I was angry. I restarted from my previous load and it failed to happen again. The second time had the added bonus of the daughter pinning my character up against the wall where I was unable to wiggle myself free. This did activate a prompt, though not one in the game. The prompt was in me, and it activated “lose my shit” mode. Controller thrown, console turned off, and Octodad could choke on its own suckers and die.

Actual screencap from the spot that glitched out on me. I had to turn off Octodad and turn it back on to get the girl to do what she was supposed to do. Most of my viewers insisted the PC version was nowhere near as frustrating as the PS4 version. But, I paid for the PS4 version, so that didn't really help me all that much. They really need to fix this port.

Actual screencap from the spot that glitched out on me. I had to turn off Octodad and turn it back on to get the girl to do what she was supposed to do. Most of my viewers insisted the PC version was nowhere near as frustrating as the PS4 version. But, I paid for the PS4 version, so that didn’t really help me all that much. They really need to fix this port.

When stuff like this wasn’t happening, it wasn’t rare for me to somehow get an arm tied up in an object, or get stuck between two objects, or wrapped around something and unable to untangle myself. By default, the game sets you to be transparent. I found this to be hugely unsatisfactory. It made figuring out the position of your arms difficult to determine. Without transparency, you’ll have your character obscure the view (especially since the controls necessitate the game being based on fixed-camera angles) and struggle to see stuff you’re reaching for. There’s just no comfortable way to play it, but I feel transparency is the harder way to go. The main “challenge” is actually supposed to be going about the day without making anyone suspect you’re really an octopus in disguise. A lot of this involves not causing any property damage (ha) or doing stealthy stuff (HA!).  I usually play whatever indie I’m reviewing on whatever the default difficulty is, but I gave up on that shit here and set it to easy mode, which disables the ability to get caught. Shameful? Unquestionably. But, as my neighbors who have seen me skinny dipping in my pool will attest to, I have NO shame.

BUT, I did want to see how it ended. I’ll admit, I liked the story and the characters. Especially Octodad. He clearly loves his new wife and children and wants to be a good father. Well, except when I play as him. I tried to murder my family with an axe during the tutorial, but it wouldn’t let me. Anyway, it’s a strange juxtaposition, as the octopus is posing as a human, but he’s also very sincere and sympathetic. I actually think they missed out on having more dramatic, heartfelt moments. The daddy is very expressive and able to jerk a few tears out of you when need be, but Dadliest’s Catch is primarily focused on humor. It does humor very well, and there are multiple laugh-out loud moments. I wish I could say the torturous gameplay was worth playing to see it all, but it’s not. Not even close.

Ironically, this is also what my room looked like after an hour with Octodad.

Ironically, this is also what my room looked like after an hour with Octodad.

Viewers will note that I had to have someone else play a flashback sequence on a ship. Unfortunately, I had a seizure while playing Octodad, which was my fault, and not the fault of developers Young Horses. As someone who lives with epilepsy, I always assume a risk when I play games, and sometimes that risk becomes reality. But it’s a good thing I did. A golfing buddy of mine named Jerrod volunteered to finish the section for me. After handing me back the controller, he said “you’ve really spent a couple of hours with this? Wow,  you’re way more patient than anyone gives you credit for.” I’m not really. There were multiple times where I almost quit. And despite getting a few belly laughs from the dialog or the background humor, I never once, even for a split second, enjoyed any aspect of actually playing Octodad: The Dadliest Catch. It is a game, after all. I can get humor from any source, including other games. I play games to enjoy an interactive experience. Octodad fights the concept of enjoyment every step of the way. I’m pretty surprised that it’s as popular as it is. Well, not really I suppose. It’s an indie game with an absurd concept, self-depreciating humor, funded through Kickstarter, and anyone who complains about the controls is just being a crybaby. It was practically preordained to get glowing reviews before it even released. I tip my hat to the developer for actually making me tear up a bit for the big family hug at the end. But this was one of my least favorite experiences playing a game in 2014. Octodad has one big heart but no legs to stand on. Which is ironic because it really should have three hearts and eight legs to stand on.

Octodad logoOctodad: The Dadliest Catch was developed by Young Horses

$14.99 tried to auto-correct “tentacles” when I misspelled it to “testicles” in the making of this review. I hope like hell that doesn’t give them an idea for the sequel.

 

Sportsfriends

Move over Dark Souls. I’ve found something way more challenging than you could ever hope to be: finding three other people willing to play local-only, multiplayer-only indies with me. I swear to God, I think crossing the Sahara with a pair of honey badgers eating my legs off would be easier. Thankfully, my mutant superpower (that’s right, I’m a mutant. Don’t act surprised) is the ability to guilt anyone into doing anything for me. It’s way better than having metal claws. “Brian, I could really go for a hotdog from 7-11 right now.” “Oh for God’s sake, it’s 2:25 in the morning and you don’t even like 7-11’s hot..”

UNLEASH THE PUPPY DOG EYES

“.. did you say you wanted one or two? I’ll get two just to be safe.”

It’s fucking awesome. Sadly, my friends have acquired immunity to this, at least when it comes to playing indies. They always manage to find themselves busy, or sick, or in a traffic accident, or accidentally shooting their pinky toe off. Psssh, some friends.

Thankfully, Sportsfriends is a party game, where the minimum skill level doesn’t need to be quite as high. In fact, I think one of the best ways to tell how good a party game can be is by how accessible it is for people who would rather saw off their own tongue than spend their free time playing games. So I hit up my parents and a couple of my business partners. They said no. I unleashed the Puppy Dog Eyes. They asked if they should bring pizza.

Super Pole Riders, which was the surprise hit of the day.

Super Pole Riders, which was the surprise hit of the day.

The field was as follows.

Cathy: 24-years-old. Somewhat noted for being a bit of a gamer. Except when people disagree with her reviews, at which point she is clearly not a gamer and how can anyone not see that? SPECIAL QUIRK: eats M&Ms by shoving the whole pack into her cheeks and sucking the shell-juice through the gaps in her teeth.

Oscar: 64-years-old. Known to sire snarky game critics. Back in the early days of home consoles, when they were still considered a bit of a novelty, he would buy the new ones, play them once or twice, then never touch them again. Though he actually did buy a Vita, so if Sony is curious, that’s where one of the other eleven that sold went. SPECIAL QUIRK: is incapable of cooking food that isn’t so hot that it makes your shoes smoke.

Melinda: 45-years-old. Despite her daughter being obsessed with games, she never actually touched one herself until the Wii came out. Today, she actually plays a lot of iPhone games and has three-starred every level in every Angry Birds game. SPECIAL QUIRK: misspelled her own middle name for at least seven consecutive years.

A.J.: 65 years old. My Godfather. How often does he play games? He still refers to all consoles as “Ataris.” That should give you a clue. SPECIAL QUIRK: His kids carry the names R.J. and S.J. Because A.J. is a J.A.

Christian: 47-years-old. One of my business partners. He has a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox One. His cool as shit seven-year-old son Gabriel also has a 3DS, and ran through a few levels of Zelda: Four Swords with me. Christian occasionally shows up at my house just to help me play a two-player game I’m reviewing at Indie Gamer Chick when nobody else has time. Cool guy. SPECIAL QUIRK: Didn’t kill me when I replaced his business cards with ones identifying him as “Christian: Blood Angel.” (slang term for a shady angel investor)

Reggie: 39-years-old. Hates me calling him “the Regginator.” Has a PlayStation 3 that he uses for everything but gaming. Though he does have a decent assortment of games on his Galaxy tablet. SPECIAL QUIRK: He’s the only person that can get away with calling me Kitty Cat. I don’t even let Brian do it.

Why five other players? Well, because there’s a game in Sportsfriends that takes place not on the screen, but in your living room. Which is probably where your screen is, come to think about it, but work with me here. In this game, you and other players must brawl each-other in an attempt to cause your opponents to move their controllers too much. I had two thoughts. One: I should totally sue the developers for plagiarism, since wrestling over the television remote was clearly inspired by every TV viewing session in the Vice household.

“I want to watch American Idol!”

“No, we’re watching American Pickers!”

“Hey, put on American Bandstand!”

“For fuck’s sake A.J., how many times do we have to tell you, that show has been off the air for twenty-four years now and Dick Clark is dead!”

Punches are thrown. Teeth are lost. The cops are called. We ultimately always settle on some awful NBC comedy before we all go to our respective rooms to sulk. Sportsfriends turned THAT into a game and they owe me royalties on it.

Second, a full contact video game sounds fun if you’re young and spry. I might have the young thing going for me, but after a couple of neck and back surgeries, I’m anything but spry. So I decided that I would make them play the full contact video game and take bets on which pair would end up going the longest time without speaking to each other afterwards. Vegas had my parents as the odds-on favorites, but having worked with Reggie and A.J., I know they’ve brickwalled each-other over lesser things than a concussion and a broken wrist and slapped $20 on them.

Sadly, we never got a chance to play it. On PlayStation 3, “Joust” hints that the game is optimized for use with Move controllers. Four of them, to be precise. Teehee, give me a second.

GWHAHAHAHAHAHA!

I’m sorry, but you guys actually thought someone out there actually would own four of those ping-pong-ball on an off-brand Wiimote controllers? The same controllers that Target couldn’t clearance out at $5 with a game bundled with them because nobody would be caught dead holding them?

Thankfully, Sportsfriends is also on PS4. Except we don’t yet have four controllers for it either. We did go to Target to buy them, but they were sold out of all but one. Even after poaching the controller from the PS4 at our office, we were left with three. So I settled for trying to get the guys to use the decidedly less optimized PS3 controllers. I still wanted to see the boys fight to the death, but when I showed them a video of what they were about to partake in, they all refused. Reggie said “I dunno, Cathy. This seems like some kind of scam by Sony to cause broken controllers and drive accessory sales.” I asked the developer if that was true. He smiled and dismissively changed the subject. Okay, no he didn’t.

Oddly enough, Joust is the game on Sportsfriends that the majority of people have been hyped to play the most. It’s had a lot of good reports from various trade shows. Yet, I’ve encountered a lot of people who want to play it but can’t. And it’s almost never because of lack of enough controllers. It’s an issue of space. Playing it will typically require, at the very least, rearranging furniture. Even then, for many, there just isn’t enough clearance to play it without risk of injury or damage to property, especially if your friends are hyper competitive. To put how big a problem this is in perspective, even one of the game’s programmers doesn’t have enough room at his place to play it. If you live in an apartment, forget about it. But hell, I have a pretty dang big house and I question the feasibility of being able to pull it off. So, we skipped it.

Sportsfriends has three other games. First up is Barabariball. The best way to describe it is “Smash Bros. as a ball game.” Playing 1-on-1 or 2-on-2, players are on a platform, and there’s a ball. You must brawl with your opponents while trying to throw the ball off their side of the platform and into the water. You score a point when the ball fully sinks beneath the waves. You can do multiple jumps in a row, so if the ball winds up in the drink, you can dive in and save it. If you sink beneath the water, there’s a penalty you have to wait out before respawning. You can set the game to go by a time limit, a set number of points, or a combination of both.

Super Smash Bros. Ball

Super Smash Bros. BrALL

I really enjoyed Barabariball, but I think I would have liked it a lot more if I had been playing with more skillful people. Sportsfriends positions itself as a party game, and the best party games are ones that can be enjoyed by anyone of any skill level. Chompy Chomp Chomp is the all-time champion in that regard. Barabariball can have the most complex strategies if you have the right people to play with. I had my parents and business partners, none of whom are regular gamers, so rounds quickly degenerated into wild button-mashing with about as much finesse as a three-toed sloth on roller blades. Of the three games I could play, Barabariball probably has the highest ceiling for enjoyment, but it’s also the toughest for non-gamers to enjoy. The team I was on won easily every single time, and I was even able to shut-out Daddy and Christian (the two most skilled players besides me) single-handedly while having nobody control my partner. If you have regular gamers to play with, this is probably the one you’ll spend the most time with. If not, you might actually want to skip this one.

Next up is Super Pole Riders. No, it’s not based on the Pole Riders event from Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. It’s another ball game. Here, each player has a pole that they must use to propel themselves into the air to smack a ball tethered to a line. Teams must swat at the ball until they’re able to score it in the opponent’s goal. On paper, this sounds like the most complicated game, and I figured my gang would struggle even more with this than they did with Barabariball. But actually, this was the big hit of Sportsfriends with my group. Everyone quickly got the hang of it, and pretty soon, while teaming with my mother, we found ourselves flinging each-other over the team of Reggie and A.J. using some pretty awesome double-team tactics. The guys quickly caught on and soon they were doing it too. We had some pretty dang competitive rounds. Mommy and me then watched as Daddy and Christian also quickly got the hang of it. A quick survey on Twitter confirmed that this is the favored game by the majority of Sportsfriends owners, which kind of surprised me. I figured it would be Barabariball. My theory is, you’ve seen games like it before. Super Pole Riders is a truly insane idea that you would have to be mad to come up with.

Also, they need to totally make it into a real sport.

Finally, there’s Hokra, which is the only game of the bunch that requires four players split into teams of two. It’s also the simplest of the bunch. From a top down view, each player is a square that must grab the ball and simply hold it in their scoring zone for as long as possible. The first team to fill up their scoring meter wins. I guess I’m the weirdo of the group, because I enjoyed Hokra the most of the three games. It’s so simple and so very fun. It feels like a game from the late 1970s that somehow went undiscovered until now. There’s no complex techniques to learn. You simply bump into other players to steal the ball. You tap X to dash when you don’t have the ball, and press X to pass when you do. It’s competitive video gaming boiled down to its most basic mechanics, then refined until perfect. Games of Hokra are super fast-paced, short-lived, and generally result in lots of smiles, laughter, and screaming at each-other.

Despite absolutely adoring Sportsfriends for its masterful craftsmanship, I do have a couple nits to pick. Like everyone else seems to have noted, there’s no online play. Sportsfriends is local only. After my first attempt at playing this last week with three random fuckwads who decided before we even started that they would hate it, I started a mini-riot on Twitter by complaining about the recent trend of multiplayer-focused games with no online components. Sportsfriends, Towerfall, and even the HD re-release of one of my favorite under-appreciated games from my childhood, Cel Damage. This touched off a lot of bitter responses from developers talking about the cost and ultra-high difficulty of optimizing games for online play. I’m not often talked down to by the indie community, but on this day, people were pretty condescending to me about it.

Yes, I fully comprehend the cost and difficulty of getting your game online. Unlike most people complaining about it, I have gone out of my way to learn the ins and outs of making this work. Hell, I invited developer James Petruzzi to do an editorial explaining it to my readers the same way he did to me. There have been other editorials in recent weeks, like this one by the designer of Super Pole Riders explaining why you don’t want to see Towerfall online. I must have been linked that dozens of times last week. People couldn’t understand why, after so many people have explained why it can’t be done, people still complain. Especially me, because I should know better. I was called ignorant and naive.

It doesn't matter how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose. And even that doesn't make all that much difference.

Seriously, couldn’t you see this as a real game? If this isn’t in the Olympics by 2028, I’ll be so disappointed.

We live in an era where consoles are built around online functions. Online multiplayer for a game that is multiplayer-only is absolutely expected by the majority of console owners. Especially on the PS4, a system that most people are having difficulty locating themselves, let alone know enough people who own one to bring controllers with them. If you want to throw the party yourself, three extra controllers will run you around $200 with sales tax on that platform. And no, no matter how fun it is, Sportsfriends (or any game for that matter) isn’t worth that by itself. I’m sorry guys, but we live in an era where everyone owns a cellphone and has the ability to talk with their voices to anyone they know at any time, yet they choose to send texts to each-other. The standards of social interaction have changed. It’s noble of you to try to create a game that unites people together like in the good old days. But if you can’t understand why people still complain about the lack of online play, you’re naive one, not me.

My only other complaint is I wish there had been more games. But that’s really not that big. Any of these three games by themselves would rank pretty high on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Combined? It’s a great package and a great value. There’s no A.I., so if you don’t have a means to get a local party together, don’t even consider a purchase. But all three games are incredibly fun, control smoothly, look neo-retrorific, and you’ll talk about your play session long after the party is over. On a personal note, everyone in my party has had a really tough time lately. We lost our dear friend and partner Kevin to cancer two weeks ago. This was the first time we’ve all been together just to hang out and have fun as a group since his passing. It was really cool. A great way to heal together. I usually try to end these review with a gag or a punchline. Instead, for Sportsfriends, I’ll say this: we all kept saying how much Kevin (who wasn’t a gamer by any means) would have loved to been there playing with us. He totally would have, and he would have been laughing and yelling with us. It was a really great time for all of us, and it wouldn’t have been as cool if I wasn’t doing this Indie Gamer Chick thing. I love you and miss you Kevin, and I totally would have knocked your ass into the water.

sportsfriends logoSportsfriends was developed by Die Gute Fabrik

IGC_Approved$14.99 said it doesn’t matter how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose. And even that doesn’t make all that much difference in the making of this review.

An early access review code was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. Sportsfriends was then released before the publication of this review and a full copy was then purchased by Indie Gamer Chick.

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

 

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