Bleed

Hey, there’s this game on XBLIG and it looks kind of neat and the demo was okay but I’m not sure if its worth the money.  Would you review it?

Sure!  Anything for my fans.  What game is it?

It’s called Bleed.

Just Bleed?

Just Bleed.

Huh.  No funny accents on the letters?

What do you mean?

Well, I mean they could call it BleƐd with a Latin style E.  You know, to add a touch of class?  Or perhaps Bl€€D with two Euro signs.  You know, just to change things up?

Um, no.  It’s just Bleed.

Oh.  Okay.  Seems like a generic name that’s about as memorable as a cup of instant soup, but whatever.  I’m duty bound to review games when fans request them and OH SWEET JESUS it cost 400 Microsoft Points?

Yea.

Seriously?

Hey, why do you think we want you to review it?

And that’s where the conversation was left off at.  I can see why so many of my readers were requesting a review of this one.  The opening level, which I’m sure is as far as the demo goes, is a bit on the generic side.  And although the game seems like it could be pretty good, there’s enough unanswered questions that Bleed really is a bit of a high-risk investment, at least as far as XBLIGs go.  I mean, for the price of it you could get all five of the top games on my Leaderboard.  Survey any number of people and ask them if they’re willing to buy a new product one-for-the-price-of-five with the five being the top five competing products in whatever field.  People would look at you like your eyeballs just grew their own noses.  They would bill you for the seven seconds of their life you just wasted.  And if they’re going to do that, those seven seconds ought to be spent coming up with a better name for your fucking game, especially since you didn’t take seven whole seconds to think it through.

In short, the name sucks and the price sucks harder.  Are we clear on that?  Good.

Bleed is fucking awesome.

I almost didn't get to play it. The lightning effects in the opening stage nearly put the kibosh on this review. Thankfully they weren't as bad as Fez.

I almost didn’t get to play it. The lightning effects in the opening stage nearly put the kibosh on this review. Thankfully they weren’t as bad as Fez.

Seriously, this is one of the best Xbox Live Indie Games of the year.  I didn’t get that vibe out of it at first.  The opening stage is, maybe not exactly dull, but it’s not awe-inspiring either.  The corny (but delightfully well-written) story centers around Wryn, a spunky pink-haired chick with dreams of being the biggest hero in gaming history.  She decides the best way to go about becoming this is to go around killing all the previous top heroes.  It’s funny, but it’s not as cool as it sounds.  Obviously the guys at Bootdisk Revolution couldn’t use all the real biggest stars in gaming, nor did they even try to make close facsimiles.  So you won’t see Wryn bust a cap in a fat Italian plumber named Angelo, or an elfish adventurer named Lenk.  The actual bosses seem more like run-of-the-mill bosses that you would expect to encounter in a 2D platformer.  It’s a bit disappointing, like hearing about an epic sounding movie and getting all excited only to find out it’s being broadcast on Syfy and starring Billy Zane or Tim Curry.

The first thing you notice about Bleed is movement is smooth and responsive, and that the jumping is going to be a bitch.  It’s mapped to the right trigger, because shooting is done TwickS-style and thus having A jump would be impossible.  Still, I kind of wish it had been mapped to the less bulky, more analog right-bumper.  But what really is awkward about it is how double jumping works.  Instead of just flinging yourself in the air a little higher, the character launches like a jet.  You can do this twice before landing.  It reminded me of Pikachu’s return-attack in Smash Bros.  I could never do that fucking thing right either.  It’s certainly not a deal breaker, as evidenced by the blow-job I’m about to bestow upon Bleed, but it never felt quite right at any point during the 90 minute main quest.

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The jumping physics really are my only complaint.  Everything else about Bleed is really astonishing.  Levels are fast-paced, well designed, and full of twists and surprises.  Retro-nerds will get their jollies from elements borrowed liberally from such games as Mega Man 2.  The shooting really is so well done.  You have unlimited ammo and no range-limits, giving your character full 360 degree control over firing upon enemies.  The starting weapons, a pistol and a rocket launcher, are probably enough to finish the game with.  However, you earn points in every level that you can spend in a shop to unlock alternative guns.  For some reason, only two can be equipped at a time, which is lame.  Also lame is the flame-thrower, which was the first weapon I bought.  Go figure.  It’s the only weapon of the lot that I found to be ineffectual.  Everything else not only works, but experimenting with how to best use them is entertaining and rewarding.  And there are just enough guns to unlock to stretch the play time without overly padding things out.

Ultimately, Bleed is a worthy purchase because it’s focused on generating fun.  Levels never feel too long.  Bosses never feel too spongy.  Design never feels unfair.  And there’s so many clever ideas at play here that it’s amazing they could keep them all so balanced.  Even the writing is sharp, and the big plot twist towards the end was hilarious and awesome.  Once you beat the game, extra play modes open that might squeeze more value for your 400MSP.  I still think the price is a bit insane, but Bleed is unquestionably a cut above most XBLIGs.  But seriously, what the fuck is up with that name?  I could find no connection at all with the name and the game.  Would it have been better if it had been called Adventures of Pink-Frizzy Haired Homicidal Crazy Chick?  Yes, actually it would have.  It’s sad that the awful name and prohibitive price will turn off most potential gamers who spot it on the marketplace.  It’s enough to make you cry tears of blood.

Ohhhhhhhhhh.  So that’s where the name comes from.

IGC_ApprovedxboxboxartBleed was developed by Bootdisk Revolution

400 Microsoft Points said “shave 160 MSP off the price and it might have had a chance” in the making of this review.

Bleed is very much Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

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Smooth Operators

Smooth Operators is a time sink, and I mean that in a good way.  I started playing yesterday around 11:30AM, and emerged around 8:00PM wondering exactly where the day went.  Titles like this are the alien abductions of the game world.  When you try to explain to people that you just lost eight hours of your life playing a game where you operate a call center, people look at you with rapidly blinking eyes as if you just took that last step off the deep-end.  And then you try to explain your side of the story, saying “no, no!  You don’t understand!  You have to staff out buildings and hire janitors and there’s incoming calls and outgoing calls and it’s really, really fun!”  And they just nod politely while thumbing through their phone, looking for your family’s number and wondering how they’re going to break the news.

As Brian pointed out to me back in July when this very site ran a contest to give Smooth Operators its name, the idea of a Sim Call Center is not original.  A free-to-play game called Corporation Inc has been around since at least November of 2010.  Smooth Operators is perhaps uncomfortably similar to it, but hey, some companies make billions doing this.  At least the XBLIG is both a faithful tribute and a full evolution of the concept.  Just make sure you keep an eye on your wallet in its presence.  It’s a crafty bastard.

Funny how some of the most addictive games sound like weaponized boredom on paper.

Dante, in his infinite wealth.. of knowledge, couldn’t conceive what circle of Hell has sinners forced to work a call center.  But managing a virtual one is undeniably addictive.  First you have to build an operations center.  Then you have to staff it.  There’s three kinds of duties that need to be done: answer incoming calls, make outbound calls, and back office grunt work.  A helpful meter in the upper right hand corner of the screen tells you the work load and how far each occupation has to go to complete that day’s allotment.  You also have to hire janitors, IT guys, managers, and cheerleaders.  Sudden thought: wouldn’t cheerleaders be counter productive for a call center?  All that shouting and pompom waving is bound to be distracting, especially for a job that involves talking on the telephone.  “Okay, well why don’t you tell me the nature of your computer proGIMMIE AN B! GIMMIE AN E!  GIMMIE AN C!  GIMMIE AN C!  GIMMIE AN A!  WHAT’S THAT SPELL?  BECCA!”  I wouldn’t be too happy about that, even if the people in Smooth Operators seem to like it.

There’s no real goal in Smooth Operators per se.  You just build and staff buildings to earn money to build more buildings to staff to earn more money.  So yea, time sink.  But it works, and it plays relatively well.  Shockingly, I enjoyed playing it more with an Xbox controller than I enjoyed playing the PC game it was, ahem, inspired by.  BUT, I’m not totally in love with the interface.  I don’t think it gives the player enough.  One niggling little thing that bugged me was having to click on an employee’s desk and hope they were somewhere in the building to be able to upgrade them.  The process is slow and cumbersome.  Why can’t there be a drop-down menu that has a list of every employee, so that I can attend to them that way?  Smooth Operators practically demands that you micro-manage all the dudes you hire, but as your staff increases, this becomes more tiresome.

There’s no “increase all wages” or really any helpful shortcuts at all.  I figured hiring Human Resources Managers would take care of issues like schedules and vacation time for me, but it doesn’t.  In fact, all they do is make employees work longer without them becoming less happy.  In a roundabout way, this actually made my employees less happy, as they were now clogging all the facilities and elevators in my building.  I wanted to upgrade things, but even after hiring several spendy “Project Managers” that serve to unlock goodies, unlockables just take too God damn long to get, and most of the early things they get for you are as useless as a fireproof surfboard.  What the FUCK is a potted plant going to do to increase morale when people have to wait two hours to get down one story on an elevator?  If this game were made in the United States, that potted plant would be used to bludgeon the nearest authority figure.

I guess people in Kyrksten like the increased workload and have more patience. Sigh. These are getting harder to work in.

Because of the slowness of the upgrades, and the indifference of my employees to water coolers, my moral dipped to record lows and my employees started resigning on me faster than I could appease them.  Now, if this was Sim City, I would have responded in a perfectly calm and rational manner.  Meaning I would have sent Godzilla in to kill and eat all my employees and knock the building over.  Unfortunately, there’s no Godzilla, or earthquakes, or tornado, or alien invaders, or guys named Gustafsson who prefer to live on the 40th floor.  Sigh, God damn Andreas.  You couldn’t have used words like snickerdoodle or farfanoogin?  Those would have been easier to work in.

So after I lost over half my employees, including most of my janitors and IT guys, I surveyed the remains of my once beautiful office building.  Trash scattered everywhere.  Computers smoking.  Employees swearing at the slowness of the elevators.  Mangers swearing at the employees.  Cheerleaders cheering the one IT guy left who didn’t quit.  Money drying up.  Tasks being unfulfilled.  I thought to myself “really?  I spent the last eight hours of my life doing this and this is all I have to show for it?”  After a brief period of reflection, I did the only thing that seemed rational at the time.  I turned my Xbox back on and spent another eight hours doing the same thing.

Fuck you, Smooth Operators.  Fuck.  You.

Smooth Operators was developed by Andreas Heydeck

80 Microsoft points have no idea what a Bengan is or why it would help upgrade things in the making of this review.

Smooth Operators is Chick Approved!  Find out where it landed on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Other Smooth Operators reviews: Clearance Bin Review, TheXBLIG.com, and more to come.

Looking for cheat codes for Smooth Operators?  Look more carefully 😉

The Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time: Part 5

And finally we wrap things up with the top five titles you can get on Xbox Live Indie Games.  Of course, you could buy the other twenty to go along with these.  Check out the previous parts, starting with part one.  Remember to click the name of each game to read my review.

#5: Antipole

Developed by Saturnine Games

Sort of like: Bionic Commando, only with better controls and God-like powers over gravity.

Why I liked it: Antipole takes a passé genre, the platform-shooter, and invigorates it with a clever hook: the ability to reverse gravitational pull.  The result is a game that is steeped in tradition, but feels fresh and original.  You’ll even encounter some homages to gaming’s past, like a boss fight that will be familiar to fans of Super Metroid.  Antipole has some of the most clever platforming-level design on XBLIG.

How it could have been better: I don’t think Antipole ever reaches its fullest potential.  For the most part, the gravity features never extend outside the most obvious uses.  I don’t know if you could do more with it, but what is here is very basic (and very spectacular).

Who will like it: Manufacturers of red trench coats, would-be superheroes, Michael Jackson.

Who won’t like it: Galileo, Sir Issac Newton, the guys who have to clean ceilings.

#4: Chester

Developed by Brilliant Blue-G

Concept: Take a basic platform-shooter and include the ability to alter the presentation in ways that affect the gameplay.

Sort of like: Mega Man mixed with Nicktoons.

Why I liked it: Chester had the potential to be one of those annoying collect-a-thons that grew old for me around the time Donkey Kong 64 came out.  But Chester avoids that by providing one of the most original gameplay hooks I’ve seen in a while.  The idea is that you collect various backgrounds as you make your way through the game.  Using the bumpers, you can change the entire art style of a level on the fly.  Doing so might also change the strength of your character, or the enemies, or the frequency of which special items are dropped.  You also collect new forms for your character, all of which have different modes of attacks and special abilities.  Combine all that with what is probably the most stylized and breathtaking art of any XBLIG, and the end result is Chester is a winner.

How it could have been better: The conditions for unlocking some of the cool stuff really requires too much time and effort.  I’ve never looked at Xbox Live Indie Games as a source for games that can (or should) take ten or more hours to complete.  With all the crap to find or buy that Chester has packed in it, it will probably take several multiples of that.

Who will like it: Schizophrenics, Ralph Bakshi, Stalwarts.

Who won’t like it: Unemployed Cheetos mascots, grammar teachers, Green Lantern.

#3: Dead Pixels

Developed by CSR Studios

Concept: Zombie apocalypse gone old-school.

Sort of like: River City Ransom (NES) with guns.  And zombies.

Why I liked it: Having never been a huge fan of zombie games, I have to admit that I was pretty leery of Dead Pixels.  Shooting zombies?  Whoopee!  8-bit graphics?  Wow, you don’t ever see that on XBLIG!  But actually my snotty sarcasm was unjustified.  Dead Pixels is amazing.  It’s one of the few zombie survival games I’ve played that actually puts an emphasis on the whole “survival” part.  Yea, you have guns, but they’re limited in ammunition, and you can only buy so much from stores.  Sure, there is a huge variety of items and weapons, but the more you carry, the slower you get.  Yes, you can engage a mob of the undead, but maybe sometimes it’s best to just leg it.  These all combine to make a zombie game that doesn’t feel like a glorified gallery shooter, which has always been one of those things that bug me about zombie games.  They’re more about the body count.  Dead Pixels, on the other hand, is simply about making it out alive.

How it could have been better: A wider variety of settings and enemies would have been nice.  It does have a tendency to feel a little samey after a while.

Who will like it: People unaware that The Zombie Survival Guide is not an actual zombie survival guide, that one stock character that has his shit together in every single fucking piece of zombie fiction ever created, barterers.

Who won’t like it: Hoarders, the Commerce Department, zombies.

#2: We Are Cubes

Developed by 1BK

Concept: You’re a cube and you shoot spheres, because fuck spheres, am I right?

Sort of like: Tempest crossed with Pang.

Why I liked it: I was born in 1989, so the Golden Age of Arcade Gaming was pushing up daisies long before I came around.  I need games like this to make me ponder what I missed out on.  Featuring absolutely lightning-fast gameplay with remarkable wire-frame style vector graphics, We Are Cubes is a neo-retro game that does it right, taking traditional mechanics and using them in original ways that retain a familiarity about them.  It strips gaming down to its core: twitchy, reflexive, fast-paced fun in its purest form.  If this had come out in 1982, it would be remembered as one of the all-time classics.

How it could have been better: The multiplayer modes are pretty weak.

Who will like it: L-7s, neon enthusiasts, teachers trying to find fun ways to explain cell division to students.

Who won’t like it:  People who use the circle when they play Tic-Tac-Toe, things that don’t have corners, Kevin Flynn.

#1: Escape Goat

Developed by Magical Time Bean

Concept: Help a wrongly-convicted (or least I hope so) goat bust out of the clink.

Sort of like: Solomon’s Key.

Why I liked it: I’ve been playing XBLIGs for a year now.  After 240 games, nothing has remotely touched Escape Goat for overall quality.  The two most important factors to me in games are always play control and level design.  Escape Goat is the best in both of those areas.  Play control?  Escape Goat is without peer on the platform.  Level design?  The puzzles are clever, whether they’re logic based or dexterity based, they are so smart and so intuitively constructed that you never feel lost.  And they’re accessible to everyone, not just brainiacs.  It never made it to #1 on my site, because sometimes you don’t know a good thing when it’s staring you right in the face.  I realized that tonight.  While Dead Pixels changed my perceptions on how conventional gameplay mechanics can be retooled for the modern era, and We Are Cubes made me regret that I didn’t grow up in an era where a quarter bought you a chance at glory on a high score table, the one game that will stick with me long after the Xbox 360 is put out to the pasture is Escape Goat.  It is the greatest Xbox Live Indie Game ever made.

How it could have been better: Escape Goat features the Mega Man-ish ability to choose the levels in any order.  Although this works fine, it means that the difficulty can never truly ramp up, and thus there really is never any true head-scratching stages.

Who will like it: Satyrs, Thor, the Sorting Hat.

Who won’t like it: The guy in this video, Steve Bartman, actually the Sorting Hat now that I think about it.  Fucking thing doesn’t even have hands.

The Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time: Part 4

We’ve reached the top 10.  Which are featured right there on the sidebar of this very site.  So much for building anticipation.  Oh well.  You can read parts 1, 2, and 3.  Here are games #10 through #6.  Click the names to read my full review.

#10: Star Ninja

Developed by Bounding Box Games

Concept: Throw bouncy throwing-stars at pirates.

Sort of like: Angry Birds, only better.

Why I liked it: Star Ninja was an early review on this site, but it remains my personal barometer for the potential of Xbox Live Indie Games.  If I had to bet on which of the 240 previous games I’ve reviewed had the greatest chance to be a major world-wide commercial success, it would be this.  It does the “aim & fire” action-puzzler genre better than Angry Birds, and it also features better characters, puzzles, humor, and graphics.  If Bounding Box Games can get this on iPhone, it could very well be the next big runaway hit.

How it could have been better: It’s not always clear what is something that the ninja star will bounce off of and what it will get stuck in, so building the stages out of a more distinctive material is probably necessary.

Who will like it: People who take the “ninja” side in the pirates or ninjas debate, the guys at Disney making a movie where Steven Seagal discovers Flubber, Splinter.

Who won’t like it: Butters, Honus Wagner, Oroku Saki.

#9: Cthulhu Saves the World

Developed by Zeboyd Games

Concept: Help Cthulhu get his mojo back in this comedic 16-bit RPG.

Sort of like: H. P. Lovecraft as read by Mel Brooks.

Why I liked it: Although Zeboyd’s technical masterpiece was Penny Arcade, I thought the writing in that was often mediocre.  In Cthulhu, the idea that you’re playing as the Great Old One kind of wears thin quickly, but the overall story and humor remain strong through-out.  In that sense, it made a hypocrite of me, because I’ve always said gameplay is king.  Penny Arcade plays better, but Cthulhu Saves the World is the better game.  Not that CStW is a slouch in the gameplay department.  The battles are fast paced, the insanity system is fun, and it packs bonus content like developer commentary and an original second quest, all for $4 less than their recent title.

How it could have been better: Zeboyd didn’t realize fast enough that random encounters are a thing of the past.  If you could combine Penny Arcade’s gameplay with Cthulhu’s story, it would have been the #1 game on this site.

Who will like it: People who can spell “Cthulhu” without having to check Wikipedia, Metallica, unimaginative Scribblenauts players.

Who will dislike it: The Roivas family, Hastur the Unspeakable, Megazord.

#8: Miner Dig Deep

Developed by Substance Games

Concept: Dig for precious metals that you use to buy equipment that you use to dig for more precious metals.

Sort of like: Dig Dug – Enemies + Minecraft = Heroin.

Why I liked it: You’ll either grow to like Miner Dig Deep or you’ll hate it immediately.  For months, I had people telling me that I had to play Miner Dig Deep, but they wouldn’t tell me why.  It was suspicious, and a bit ominous.  After a while, I caved in (no pun intended) and bought it.  Then, six hours later, I emerged from a dazed stupor after I accidentally beat the game.  Thank Christ it had an ending, or I would still be playing it.  If you want an actual explanation of why I liked Miner Dig Deep, I can’t really offer you any reason other than “I honestly don’t know.”  The gameplay is repetitive, grindy, and the game is nothing more than a time sink.  Its appeal exists on an almost primal level.  Or maybe it’s a Freudian thing relating to me just wanting to get drilled.

How it could have been better: As I stated, you can beat the game, and then it gives you the option to start over or keep digging up your currently map.  I wish it offered something more.

Who will like it: Geologists, people attracted to shiny things, Solomon.

Who won’t like it: OSHA, environmentalists, canaries.

#7 Chompy Chomp Chomp

Developed by Utopian World of Sandwiches

Concept: Eat-or-be-eaten party game.

Sort of like: Bomberman meets Pac-Man.

Why I like it: With the exception of Worms, I’ve never really been into party gaming.  Chompy Chomp Chomp must have something going for it, because I spent hours playing this online and off, with friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances.  Chompy keeps things simple enough that anyone can pick-up-and-play it.  Vast improvements have been made since the original build, fixing problems with spawning, and thus negating frustration.  With more fixes planned, Chompy has the potential to climb up these rankings.

How it could have been better: A lot of the stages are just no damn good for the type of game offered here, making it too easy to get cornered.  Try to figure out for yourself which ones don’t work before playing this with friends, because they can really kill the mood.

Who will like it: Social butterflies, hospitable hippos, the Donner Party.

Who won’t like it: Dieters, vegans, Katniss Everdeen.

#6: LaserCat

Developed by MonsterJail Games

Concept: Guide a cat around a castle in search of keys.

Sort of like: A 1980s PC -styled Metroidvania.

Why I liked it: I guess I’m a sucker for exploration-based platforming.  LaserCat takes a minimalist approach to this concept.  You have no offensive options at your disposal, there are no secondary items to collect, no cut scenes to sit through, and the whole game takes about two to three hours to finish.  It sounds limited, but LaserCat’s focus on pure gameplay works.  This is one of the most enjoyable experiences on a modern console.

How it could have been better: In order to collect keys, you have to answer trivia questions, some of which are non-nonsensical riddles.  This was done to meet XBLIG’s unwritten minimal shittiness quota.

Who will like it: Subscribers of Cat Fancy, Eleanor Abernathy, YouTube.

Who won’t like it: People with ailurophobia, Saturday Night Live, Mumm-Ra.

Continue to the Final Part

The Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time: Part 3

Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2, here are the best Xbox Live Indie Games, #15 through #11.  Click the names to read the full reviews.

#15: Blocks That Matter

Developed by Swing Swing Submarine

Concept: Solve puzzles and reach an exit by collecting blocks and then linking chains of four of them.  Oh, and it’s a platformer.

Sort of like: Mario mixed with Crafting mixed with Tetris.

What I liked about it: My top 25 might be a little bit on the brain-bendy-heavy side, but I can’t help it.  I’ve seen so many examples of very good puzzle design on the XBLIG platform and yet it I’m still always surprised by how smart they can be.  Blocks That Matter ups the ante by adding a clever hook (pausing the game to arrange platforms) that uses a trendy mechanic (material harvesting) to go with good (if somewhat unintuitive) play control and highly intelligent level design.  This won the grand prize of Dream-Build-Play 2011, and it deserved it.

How it could have been better: While movement and jumping physics are spot on, the controls for opening up the menu and placing blocks on the board never feel natural.  I’m not actually sure how they could do better, but that’s why they’re the game designers and I’m the.. point out what’s wrong.. person.

Who will like it: Blockheads (as in fans of blocks), miners who take the daily Sudoku down into the shaft with them for their breaks, Johnny 5.

Who won’t like it: Blockheads (as in people who skipped to #14 as soon as they read the word “puzzle”), miners who take whiskey down into the shaft with them for their breaks, Slimer.

#14: DLC Quest

Developed by Going Loud Studios

Concept: Satire of the game industry’s over-reliance on up-selling additional content for games you already paid for.

Sort of like: Super Mario Bros. mixed with Idiocracy.  You’re not sure if this is really a comedy or a bleak look into our future.

Why I liked it: DLC Quest mixes parody with an amusement park ride.  It’s not about what you do, but rather just taking in the experience.  The game only lasts anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, enough time to make its point.  The jokes work, and we know they do because these are the exact same gags we think about when we kid around about the subject matter.  DLC Quest is a send-up, but one made because it feels your pain.

How it could have been better: It really couldn’t have been better.  The things people request most, like more gags or a longer length, would have just made it worse.  DLC Quest did it’s bit and walked away before the joke stopped being funny.

Who will like it: You must pay $1 to unlock this line.

Who won’t like it: Anyone who didn’t laugh at the previous line.

#13: Aesop’s Garden

Developed by Excalibur Studios

Concept: Extract weeds from your prize-winning lawn.  That actually sounds like something children spin on the chore wheel, but trust me, it’s fun.

Sort of like: The Adventures of Lolo, only more so than Crystal Hunters.

Why I liked it: Aesop’s Garden mixes 8-bit aesthetics with some absolutely stunning puzzle design.  Maybe I’ve over-saturated this list with logic-puzzlers, but when judging the top games on the basis of quality, you have to go with the games that are designed the smartest, and the funnest.  Aesop’s Garden probably is the best of the “hard-puzzler” breed on XBLIG.

What could have been better: The controls are touchy as hell, leading to all kinds of unnecessary deaths.

Who will like it: Green thumbs, Nebuchadnezzar II, people who can declare they enjoy hoeing without giggling to themselves about it.

Who won’t like it: Weed-Whacker advocates, migrant workers, Eve.

#12: Pixel Blocked!

Developed by Daniel Turong

Concept: Create patterns using a block gun.  Sigh.  I hate games that sound more boring than they really are when you write about them.

Sort of like: Picross mixed with Bust-a-Move (that’s Puzzle Bobble outside of the US).

Why I liked it: Pixel Blocked! was one of the first games I reviewed, and it stuck with me long after I finished writing about it.  Then the developer drastically altered the game mechanics, and it got even better.  It was the first (and so far only) game to be ranked in my top-ten list, fall off the list, and then return back to it.  The finished product is a very sharp puzzler that is probably the most professionally designed of any XBLIG I have played so far.  Dare I say it, Pixel Blocked! is primed for acquisition from a major developer.

How it could have been better: Although they are unnecessary towards making progress, the game offers some rewards that are borderline unobtainable.  These are typically related towards speed-runs, which have no place in logic-based puzzlers.

Who will like it: People with an abundance of grey-matter, people who don’t have an abundance of grey-matter and wish to grow some, people who have recently destroyed their grey-matter when they decided to give that whole paint-sniffing craze a try and now have buyer’s remorse.

Who won’t like it: People who don’t know what grey-matter is, people who think grey-matter is the stuff between your toes, people who tried to color their grey-matter purple by shoving a magic marker up their nose.

#11: Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

Developed by Zeboyd Games

Concept: Sequel to the previous Penny Aracde RPGs, only this time it’s 16-bit, and on Xbox Live Indie Games.

Sort of like: The Far Side meets Final Fantasy.

Why I liked it: Games that try to look and feel retro often rely on archaic game mechanics and don’t take risks with the established formula.  Rain-Slick 3 takes everything Zeboyd knows has no place in modern gaming and chucks it out the window.  The battles are fast paced, the mechanics are hugely customizable, and the dialog can be very funny.  This is probably the most enjoyable “retro” RPG I’ve ever played from a technical perspective.

How it could have been better: The dialog can be very funny, but it often falls flat, and the banter between the characters can drone on and on forever.

Who will like it: LARPers, Walt Disney’s head, people who always wondered where the guys in RPGs keep all those fucking potions at.  Their pockets?  Where the fuck are black mage pockets at?

Who won’t like it: Tim Buckley, the rest of Walt Disney, that noise that happens when you get a random encounter in games that is now out of a job.

Continue to Part 4

The Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time: Part 2

Continued from Part 1, here are the best Xbox Live Indie Games, #20 through #16.  Click the names to read the full reviews.

#20: Alien Jelly

Developed by Collective Mess

Concept: Sci-fi logic-puzzler where you move a group of gelatinous aliens around a maze.

Sort of like: Cuboid (PSN) as directed by Tim Burton.  Only it doesn’t suck, unlike everything Tim Burton has done over the last decade.

Why I like it: I know logic-puzzle games are not extraordinarily popular.   I would say they are an especially tough-sell on XBLIG, but Alien Jelly really shines brightly with great graphics to go along with some absolutely brilliant (and difficult) level design.

How it could have been better: The camera was terrible, leading to all kinds of problems with perspectives and depth-perception.

Who will like it: Puzzle fans, Sci-Fi fans, you know what?  Fuck it, let’s just save time and say “nerds.”

Who won’t like it: SETI personnel, Martians, Travis Walton.

#19: Flight Adventure 2

Developed by CAVOK Games

Concept: Pilot a P-51 Mustang across a beautiful landscape in this shockingly detailed flight simulator that is officially licensed by Boeing.

Sort of like: Take your pick of any flight sim out there.  It’s like that.

Why I like it: I’m not into this genre.  At all.  But Flight Adventure 2 absolutely hooked me.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s anything but newb friendly.  Yet the game has no actual “goals” in the strictest sense, freeing you to not feel any pressure to perform.  It’s just about flying around and enjoying the sights.  But it’s done in a very impressive way.  It was released before the file size limit for XBLIGs was increased to 400MB.  I’m actually scared what these guys could do with the extra space, considering that Flight Adventure 2 had incredible draw distance, mostly realistic physics, and even online multiplayer (with a tacked on and somewhat dull race mode).  It’s also worth mentioning that this is Brian’s favorite XBLIG by a vertical mile.

How it could have been better: More landscapes, planes, or modes.  I sure hope Flight Adventure 3 is on the way.

Who will like it: Amateur aviators, armchair pilots, people with pteromerhanophobia.

Who won’t like it: People with pteromerhanophobia, Germans, The Big Bopper.

#18: TIC Part 1

Developed by RedCandy Games

Concept: A mechanical robot man thingie tries to save the environment from evil oil drillers.

Sort of like: Any non-threatening, Nintendo-esq platformer.  For some reason it reminded me of Super Princess Peach (DS).

Why I like it: XBLIG is populated by platformers that want you to suffer, but TIC is a tender loving game that would rather you enjoy the experience instead of cursing the day the spike was invented.  The production values are nothing short of spectacular, but the smooth gameplay and excellent level design really put this one over the top as one of the best of its genre on the format.

How it could have been better: As the name implies, TIC: Part 1 an incomplete game.  It’s been a year since I played the original and there has been no word on when Part 2 can be expected, which does sour the experience.

Who will like it: People who try to live “green”, Greenpeace, The Jolly Green Giant.

Who will dislike it: Sarah Palin, Texans, Hoggish Greedly.

#17: Minigame Marathon

Developed by Battenberg Software

Concept: Fast-paced minigames that you try to complete in as minimal time as possible.

Sort of like: Nintendo’s WarioWare series done with old-school game concepts.

Why I liked it: WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ was undoubtedly my favorite Game Boy Advance game (and I would consider calling it the absolute best game I’ve ever played.  Feel free to ponder that for a while), and Minigame Marathon is as close as I’ve seen an XBLIG come to that.  But while WarioWare focuses on absurd themes and juvenile humor, Marathon looks to gaming’s distant past for inspiration.  Bite-sized versions of Pong, Frogger, Breakout, and their kin are sandwiched together in a game that’s potently addictive.

How it could have been better: In split-screen multiplayer, the graphics get too scrunched down, rendering some of the games nearly unplayable.  The game features online leaderboards, but not multiplayer, and that’s a shame.

Who will like it: People with short attention spans, speed-run enthusiasts, people with short attention spans.

Who won’t like it: Fans of the color blue, Pheidippides, Rosie Ruiz.

#16: Orbitron: Revolution

Developed by Firebase Industries

Concept: Try for combos as you shoot down enemies while under a huge time crunch.

Sort of like: Defender if it was remade today like Pac-Man Championship Edition.

Why I liked it: Orbitron: Revolution has professional-level graphics, a true rarity on XBLIG.  But that has nothing to do with why I like it.  The gameplay is pure white-knuckle, high-pressure, score-driven, golden-age era fun.  It really is like Defender, only with a time limit and without any little dudes to rescue.  I never liked those guys much anyway.  The constant rescuing of them really harshed my mojo.  Orbitron is currently priced at 80MSP, but the price goes up to 240MSP on July 9, so get it now.

How it could have been better: Each wave of enemies spawns in different positions on the board, and sometimes achieving a high score is dependent on having a wave spawn in a way that is just perfectly set up to string together a combo.  Success in Orbitron is not totally dependent on luck, but that unquestionably factors in, perhaps too much.

Who will like it: High-score fans, Eugene Jarvis, guys who have Buckner & Garcia’s “The Defender” on their iPod.

Who won’t like it: People who like the ability to reverse, guys waiting for Radarscope: Championship Edition, Darth Vader.

Continue to Part 3

The Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time: Part 1

As promised, I’ll close out my first anniversary celebration in style.  Here we go, the Top 25 Xbox Live Indie Games of All-Time.  According to me at least.  For the sake of this not taking up too much space, and because I’ve been having trouble finding time to write this out, I’m breaking this up into five parts  If you’re looking for the very best Xbox Live Indie Games has to offer, this is where you should start.  As a reminder, you can purchase all 25 games on this list for less than the price of one single disc-based release.  25 amazing games for the price of 1?  How can you say no to that?  You can click on the titles to read my reviews.  You can also visit the Leaderboard to see what the remaining twenty games are.  I really kind of did this in the wrong order.  I suck.  This list doesn’t.  Let’s roll!

#25: Crystal Hunters

Developed by DreamRoot Studios

Concept: Collect crystals while avoiding enemies in this top-down logic puzzler.

Sort of like: The Adventures of Lolo (NES)

Why I like it: Crystal Hunters is an intelligently designed game.  Puzzlers on XBLIG sometimes forget to properly scale the difficult level, dumping players off in the deep-end early on.  Crystal Hunters eases players into the mechanics of the game.  Make no mistake though, the difficulty scales up hugely towards the end.  If you like mind benders, this sucker will go all origami on your brain.

What could have made it better: The play control is pretty touchy.  The graphics are small in resolution.

Who will like it: Mensa types, eggheads, grizzled old prospectors.

Who won’t like it: Dummies, the recently lobotomized, girls named Crystal Hunter.

#24: Lair of the Evildoer

Developed by Going Loud Studios

Concept: Fight various undead enemies while trying to escape the lair of an evil genius in this twin-stick shooter.

Sort of like: Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES) if it was a rogue-like.

Why I like it: Lair of the Evildoer is an intense, though very clever shooter.  Games that feature randomly-generated levels tend to feel generic, but Lair of the Evildoer is overflowing with personality.  With a wide variety of enemies, weapons, and customizable stats, this is probably one of the most intelligent shooters on the platform.

What could have made it better: It was practically begging for co-op.

Who will like it: Shooting fans, zombiephiles, Austin Powers.

Who won’t like it: Shag carpet salesmen, actual evil geniuses, human resources managers.

#23: Wizorb

Developed by Tribute Games

Concept: Old-timey brick-breaker with some RPG elements peppered in.

Sort of Like: Arkanoid set in Middle Earth.

Why I liked it: In my original review, I absolutely scorched Wizorb.  And I regret that I wrote that review the way I did, because I failed to articulate that I really did like the game.  I’m not exactly a fan of the genre, so the fact that Wizorb held my interest until the end is kind of a miracle.  The only other brick-breaker that has done that for me is Shatter on PlayStation Network.  The charming 8-bit graphics that are without a tinge of a modern influence are among the best of their breed on XBLIG.  Wizorb is really special.

What could have made it better: The RPG stuff is mostly smoke and mirrors, so I wish they had gone further with the concept than they did.

Who will like it: Retro gamers, Breakout enthusiasts, demolitionists.

Who won’t like it: Bricklayers, union contractors, people who would rather be the Elforb instead of the Wizorb when they play Dungeons & Dragorbs.

#22: Johnny Platform Saves Christmas

Developed by Ishisoft Games

Concept: Yuletide puzzle-platforming.

Sort of like: The Game Boy version of Donkey Kong.

Why I liked it: The sequel to Johnny Platform’s Biscuit Romp (#36 on the Leaderboard at the time of this writing) combined fast-paced platforming with some clever level design and puzzles.  There should be more games like this on XBLIG.

What could have made it better: Both Johnny Platform games feature a useless lives system that halts progress and forces replaying previously beaten levels for no reason whatsoever.

Who will like it: Platforming fans, people who like puzzlers that don’t require an IQ north of Albert Einstein, Ralphie.

Who won’t like it: Children on the naughty list, the Grinch, people waiting for Johnny Platform’s Hanukkah Brouhaha.

#21: Lexiv

Developed by Andrew Gaubatz

Concept: Build cities using words and parts of speech.

Sort of like: Scrabble and Sim City had a beautiful baby that is potentially a genius and occasionally shits on you.

Why I liked it: Lexiv is probably an acquired taste that requires a love of word games mixed with a deep fondness for simplified Sim City-esq strategy and maintenance.  Despite being a very rough build (I would safely call it a beta), you can see the potential.  I could see Hasbro licensing this and branding it as Scrabble City.

What could have made it better: Every stage begins with “L-E-X-I-V” as the starting word that you have to build on.  This is incredibly stupid because X and V are not the most versatile letters.  I actually hate V more than X.  V’s are the wisdom teeth of Scrabble.  When they show up, they cause nothing but pain and are in dire need of extraction.

Who will like it: City planners who play crossword puzzles, crossword fans who aspire to be city planners, those little shits that make the Scripps finals.

Who won’t like it: Pepole hoo relie to munch un spel chek, the dude who was planning to make “Words of Warcraft”, Charlie Brown.

Continue to Part 2

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