Sequence

ScoverRPGs on Xbox Live Indie Games are a risky proposition. Some are well intentioned but awkward and/or dull (Monster King), others are enjoyable but brief (EvilQuest) and depressingly many are risible, fanservice-infested forays into the hormonal hothouse of the teenage boy market (Temple of Dogolrak 2 and its ilk). Meanwhile, some of the better XBLIGs that are labelled as RPGs don’t really qualify for the genre (Dead Pixels and BloodyCheckers spring to mind).

Sashaying flamboyantly into the midst of this latter category comes Sequence. It’s been available on XBLIG and Steam (here) for some time, but has managed to consistently defy my attempts to review it. Somehow, reviewing Sequence feels like a bigger job than usual, and it took me months to realise that it’s because the game doesn’t feel indie, or at least Xbox indie. Where I can say everything that needs to be said about Super Killer Hornet or Vidiot Game in a couple of hours of frantic typing, Sequence, like a fickle spouse, demands more attention.

In essence, Sequence is two types of game in one: it has the character-driven story, stat building, item hunting and monster slaying of an RPG, but it also has the music-based button-matching of a rhythm game. What it doesn’t have in any noticeable way is sequences, leading Sequence to join the noble ranks of XBLIGs whose titles have nothing to do with their content.

S1

You need to work on your pick-up lines, madam.

I played the demo for Sequence a couple of times before I bought the full game, and although I was intrigued by the rhythm/RPG combination, that alone hadn’t entirely sold me on it. I’m not rhythmically inclined (just ask anyone who’s seen me dance) and the game itself warns that the Normal difficulty mode might be too tough for people like me. Apparently the average person should be fine with Normal, but even Easy was difficult for me in places. I took this warning to heart, not least because other rhythm games I’ve attempted have obliterated me and then gloated over my mangled self-esteem. XBLIG’s Beat Hazard, for instance, is completely impossible for me. I can’t even get through the tutorial. Evidently I simply don’t perceive rhythm in sounds very well.

So it would need more than the promise of splicing RPGs with a genre I’m horrible at to persuade me to part with my pennies. Sequence managed it by presenting me with something I couldn’t resist: characters who actually have character. Even the finest heavyweights of the RPG genre often end up with characters who are pretty much just one personality trait with legs. Pick an RPG character, and a description of them can usually be narrowed down to one main feature – recklessness, fear of emotional dependence, evasion of responsibility, grief, idiocy, belligerence. That isn’t the case with Ki, the main character of Sequence. He isn’t an elaborately written mass of contradictions and internal conflicts like, say, Kain from the Legacy of Kain series, but he similarly defies easy description because he’s best categorised as ‘just some guy’. In fact, he’s perhaps closer to a sitcom lead character than anyone in a drama, because he has a definite attitude and sense of humour of his own but at the same time he doesn’t have a particularly outstanding character trait. I couldn’t sum Ki up for you, but I could tell you I liked him.

That’s the other component of Sequence’s use of character. While the boss enemies are usually one-note caricatures (intentionally, I suspect) the two leads, Ki and Naia, are genuinely likeable. It can be easy to like a dramatic character as a worthwhile mechanic of the story, but it’s much harder to like them as a person, because so few are actually anything like real people. Ki and Naia are slightly unremarkable and nondescript, just like real people, but at the same time this realness combines with witty, charming dialogue to make them both genuinely pleasant company. Observing their interaction was the most enjoyable part of the whole game. Writing alone isn’t enough for this, at least here in the 21st century. Ki and Naia are also well acted, which is a hell of a novelty for an XBLIG. Each independently feels like the acting captured their character, but more importantly when the speak to each other it feels like there’s genuine chemistry between the actors.

S2

I’d endorse sequence if for no other reason than the inclusion of ‘airportmanteau’ as an item.

That’s what sold me on Sequence despite my rhythmic ineptitude, and it’s what kept me going when grinding the same couple of enemies (and, by extension, songs) over and over grew stale. The mechanics of the game are solid and fun, but it’s the character writing and the way it’s delivered that pulls you in and keeps you there.

I feel like I could leave it there, but I’d be remiss in writing a review without talking about how the game actually plays. So this is how it works. You control Ki, who wakes to find himself mysteriously stashed in a tower that’s crammed with monsters, and with no guidance but a mysterious disembodied voice calling herself Naia. You don’t walk Ki around or have any direct control over an avatar of him between battles, but instead you use menus to set up his gear and check what you need to be doing next. This is usually a pretty fleeting experience, as the bulk of the gameplay is a combination of battles and skill acquisition, both of which occur through the medium of a rhythm game.

Generally at any given time you need to either gain enough item drops to craft something useful or gain experience for levelling, both of which come from fighting the tower’s legions of beasties. Each floor of the tower has three enemy types available, and you can choose which type you want to confront each time you leave your safe room. They have different powers, different patterns and, crucially, different item drops. The unfortunate side effect of this is that you will end up battling each enemy type numerous times, and once you’ve got a handle on which skills are most useful against an enemy, it becomes repetitive and almost mindless. Still, rhythm games repetitive by nature and tend to rely on the quality of the music to sustain them. Here, although each enemy consistently uses its own song every time you fight it (and some songs are used by more than one enemy type) the music is catchy and compelling enough to make this a pleasant, rather than arduous, experience. I’m the sort of person who repeatedly listens to favourite songs anyway, so replays of Sequence’s engaging tunes weren’t too heavy a burden. Credit for the score here goes to Ronald Jenkees, whose music can easily be found on YouTube. He also sells CDs, if you really take a shine to his work. Oddly enough, being linked on Twitter to this song from Sequence was the main reason I paid a second visit to the demo (which then led to a buy).

S3

Clearly Seymour mainly fed you his unwanted stationery.

Combat occurs on three panels, which you can switch between freely. The all focus on matching directional presses with the arrows that are descending the screen. The first panel is defence; the arrows that fall in time with the music represent your opponent’s attacks, and pressing the corresponding directions defends against those attacks. The next panel is abilities; when you activate an ability (using a thumbstick and shoulder button) a set pattern of arrows falls in this panel, and to successfully use the ability you need to match the directions. The final panel is your reserves of magic power; arrows fall basically at random, and each one you match recharges a bit of your magic power which you can then use to activate more abilities.

The catch is that you can only view and act on one panel at a time. If you want to regain magic power, you have to risk taking hits. If you want to use an ability, you have to take hits and miss out on magic regen. It’s a very simple idea really, but it works well. Everything you do is a question of cost versus benefit. Nor are you able to cheese it and just fend off attacks for ten minutes, waiting for an easy moment to cast a spell. The duration of the song is also the duration of the battle, and once that sweet music fades out, the fight is lost. Ki doesn’t die or anything so dramatic, but it is an inconvenience to have wasted the time and effort that you put in. This can be frustrating when you were sincerely trying to win, but it has the interesting effect of forcing you to play less cautiously, take some risks and fight in a way that isn’t just effective but also quick.

Learning new abilities and crafting equipment from item drops follows a similar pattern.  Only one panel this time, but you have to match the directions with a certain degree of accuracy in order to succeed. This could perhaps have been made a little more interesting, but it works well enough.

S4

Hey, keep those sunbeams away from me! I’m trying to be misanthropic here!

As someone with the rhythmic aptitude of a watermelon, some of the mid-game battles seemed remarkably tough. The obstructive interference that each floor’s boss can throw into your routine grind-fights also served as a mighty pain in my arrhythmic behind. As a whole though, the mechanics worked well enough that I enjoyed them for almost the whole length of the game before I started to feel a touch of tedium. The novelty would have worn off a lot sooner if not for the likeable characters and their charming dialogue, plus the ever-present mystery of exactly what this tower full of monsters is actually about.

If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I recommend playing Sequence’s demo twice. Once to get the tutorial section, and then again to actually play a bit of the game (you have Microsoft’s 8-minute demo time limit to thank for that necessity). Even just the tutorial will give you an idea of the tone and quality of the character interaction. If it doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe Sequence isn’t for you, and that might be the hardest thing about writing this review – not describing the gameplay or accounting for my enjoyment of it, but trying to guess who would or wouldn’t like it. I avoid rhythm games but I like Sequence. I dislike menu interfaces but I like Sequence. I have no sense of rhythm but I like Sequence. I can’t guess whether or not you’ll like it too, but I can tell you it’s worth trying for yourself. Only by stepping into that tower with Ki and Naia can you know for sure, and believe me that if you do find you like it, you’ll be glad you listened.

Murder for Dinner

I’ve been told I’m like Sherlock Holmes. I’m not sure whether that means I’m observant and insightful or just an arrogant sociopath. I like to think it means I have peerless detective skills, so I seized the opportunity to test them in Murder for Dinner.

The first thing I detected was the spirit of Agatha Christie sneaking around the party, eating everyone’s canapés. This is definitely a classic-style mystery with an enigmatic host, a cryptic gathering of seemingly unrelated people, shady characters, secret misdeeds and clues aplenty.

The second thing I detected was the total absence of dinner from Murder for Dinner, so frankly I don’t want to think about what spectral Agatha was really eating. Fortunately the other part of the title is pretty accurate. There is certainly murder here, and it falls to you to work out who did the dark deed. To aid you, you have only your eagle eyes and your razor sharp brain. Well, those and your thumb. For once we get the chance to find out how it feels to be Hercule Poirot (with a bit more thumbing).

It’s easy to see why Poirot spent so much time at high society functions. The elegantly appointed house, rolling (if compact) lawns and enticingly impenetrable outbuilding consummately set up the evening of intrigue. Apart from a persistent chug in the game engine whenever NPCs are close by, the visuals are good for an XBLIG title, with character models that remind me of something from the N64 Zelda games if they’d been set in 1920s Buckinghamshire – all exaggerated moustaches and elaborate garb.

Castlevania: The Marple Years

I imagine some might dislike that, but I found it charming. It works in the context. Each NPC has their role to play and they play it to the full in both appearance and character, from the weary old soldier to the gossiping duchess. Every one of them has their own secret, and piecing these hidden pasts together is the most satisfying part of the experience. While frustratedly combing the cellar one more time for missed clues, it was the desire to find answers that sustained me. What were those two whispering about? Why is she so anxious about that innocuous trinket?

Beyond the feel of walking amidst dangerous secrets, though, the way if feels to be Poirot according to Murder for Dinner is tranquil and a little repetitive. I’d always credited the legendary literary detectives with a prodigious intellect, but as it turns out the key to solving mysterious murders is actually to walk around the area ceaselessly, prodding at things until one of them suddenly becomes significant. That’s where Murder for Dinner lets itself down a bit. Dialogue can’t be directed and items can’t be picked up or used, so what it all boils down to is pressing A by objects in the correct order. A particular piece of domestic clutter will have no significance until after you’ve spoken to specific people, whose dialogue won’t necessarily give you any indication that this object is relevant. Talk to someone, see if your journal updates, then do another circuit around the house, A-ing everything. Find the right object. Talk to someone else, check your journal, do a circuit.

Reynald hoped his old strangler’s cramp wouldn’t implicate him unduly

In that respect, the game is a little disappointing. Being required to choose the correct line of questioning or show the right item to the right person might have made all the difference in helping this feel like a genuine mystery, particularly if some strand of logic ran through it. As it is, your involvement in unravelling the tangled web is minimal, and that starts to show through once the initial glow of ‘holy crap, I’m solving a murder!’ wears off.

Having said that, whether it’s a disappointment will depend on what you wanted. You see, Murder for Dinner is just disguised as a game, like Sherlock Holmes masquerading as a priest in Scandal in Bohemia . In actuality it’s a short story that gives you the means to soak up the atmosphere of a traditional high society murder evening by being there.

The pill bottle was the last man standing in kitchenette Battle Royale

Personally I enjoyed the time I spent with Murder for Dinner; maybe an hour in total. It kept me engaged and although I was occasionally frustrated I was seldom bored. With my contribution limited to pressing A in the right places to advance the story I can’t see myself replaying it any time soon, but I don’t regret paying it a visit. It’s a shame that the mystery didn’t need me to solve it and instead solved itself as I watched; had it been any longer than it is, the lack of meaningful interactivity might have started to get boring.

As it is, the atmosphere, the simple but engaging web of lies, and the freedom to wander around the house keeping your eyes peeled for clues make it worth the price of admission for an hour or so of Agatha Christie clue-hunting, at least for those of a contemplative disposition. Adrenaline junkies might want to give it a miss, but they’re probably too busy leaping off gantries and chest-bumping each other to read reviews anyway.

Ancient Trader

Who doesn’t love rock/paper/scissors? The gradual build up of tension, the misdirection and sleight of hand, the elaborate strategies and sudden reversals. What better choice of traditional game could there be to base a combat system around?

Placed loosely in the strategy category of the marketplace, Ancient Trader feels like Sid Meier’s Pirates! If it was a board game. Equipped with only a sailing ship and bizarre clothing, you head out to sea in search of the Ancient Guardian. It’s not entirely clear what the Ancient Guardian is, except that it eats sailors and is full of treasure. Presumably it’s also insanely dangerous. There must be easier ways to make a living than trying to kill it with playing cards. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason the old Gambit card-flinging trick didn’t appear in Moby Dick.

Yes, playing cards, more or less. As you take turns moving around the world map, trading goods between various ports, you will frequently run into miscellaneous sea monsters or fellow piratical ne’er-do-wells. Combat with these foes boils down to rock/paper/scissors with cards. You have three cards representing your attacks, and the enemies have two or three or their own. Each card has a numerical value, which you can upgrade at ports in exchange for hard currency, and the highest number wins.

The rock/paper/scissors element comes in with each type of card getting a +2 bonus over another: green beats blue, blue beats red, red beats green. The categorisation of the game as ‘strategy’ might lead you to believe there’s some depth to this combat system but it’s all illusory; it mostly comes down to just choosing the appropriate colour. There’s also a frustrating degree of luck involved; if the enemy leads with a card that you can’t counter effectively, then you’re immediately put at a disadvantage for the rest of the battle. It’s an adequate combat system, but it’s a little too simple and it means that the key to success is just buying upgrades as quickly as possible to ensure you have stronger cards than everyone else.

Don’t make me go baccarat on your ass

To that end you’ll want to trade, and fast. When you start a game the map is mostly concealed by cloud. It doesn’t take long to discover some ports though, and that’s when you can stock up on whatever is cheapest and run it to somewhere that pays better money for it. Not a deep system either, and it’s streamline for maximum ease, with each port’s asking price for cargo displayed right there beside it in huge digits that must terrify the citizens.

On top of the standard cargo, ports have a couple of other functions. Each port sells upgrades to one of your cards, and these are essential to success. The faster you can buy upgrades the more chance you have of surviving your travels around the map. Fall behind in upgrading and enemies will continuously rob you, keeping you still further behind.

From time to time someone at port will offer you a mission, perhaps to run cargo to another town within a time limit or to exterminate a particular sea monster. These can be a handy source of cash, but delivery missions can be infuriating if enemies attack you constantly en route to steal your money and miscellaneous goods. Maybe that’s why my pizza is never on time.

I have the power to disperse fog! I am a Planeteer!

Some ports also sell special items that don’t do anything in themselves but when combined reveal the location of the Ancient Guardian. Track down the beast, beat it to death with your cards, and the game is over. In principle this is the aim of the whole game, but in practice it feels like almost an afterthought. Having spent so long running errands, buying upgrades and fighting off predatory sirens, smacking down the Ancient Guardian with your maxed out cards can feel like a formality. I feel a bit sorry for the poor beast, going to all that trouble to build a terrifying reputation only be slain by the speediest salesman with the best Magic: The Gathering collection.

For a game based around showing your enemies some cards, Ancient Trader has a remarkable sense of style. The setting is half 17th century European colonisation of the New World, and half fantasy. All of this comes across in the old treasure map style of the visuals. Stark brown and red hand-drawn beasts from the margins of medieval maps writhe across a background of age-yellowed parchment. Well, I say ‘writhe’ but I mean ‘glide statically’. For all the attention lavished upon the visual presentation, the game contains basically no animation. In a way this fits the theme and doesn’t seem too out of place when you’re moving from space to space as though on a board, but it didn’t take long before my eyes glazed over and I stopped paying attention to anything except the colours of the cards at the bottom of the screen. Still, presentation is one of Ancient Trader’s strongest points and probably the feature that pulls in the punters. I know it’s what snagged my attention. Well, that and I’m a sucker for games about pirates. 

The people of Ruby are screwed if that 6 blows over

On its lower difficulty settings, the game is painfully easy. Your rivals rarely even attempt to obtain the special items to find the Guardian, so there’s really very little danger of losing. I find that the hardest setting is the place to be. Enemies will be a bit too strong and your rivals will be unrelentingly ferocious, constantly attacking you to steal your precious funds, but it’s the only way of preventing the game being an effortless frolic to victory.

The problem is that once you know how to play and how to go about winning, one game plays out much like the next. There are a handful of maps but aside from the locations of the towns it makes very little difference which one you use. Having an option for randomly generated maps could have made a world of difference in giving Ancient Trader some longevity but, as it is, one game on each map is quite enough for the game to wear out its welcome.

It’s a shame; the charming presentation and the novel offer of lightly strategic exploration have promise. Sadly the repetitiveness, the simplicity of the combat and the lack of challenge once you understand how to work the system make this Ancient Trader run aground a few hours too soon.

Compromised

It doesn’t seem fair to call Compromised a twin-stick shooter. I’ve played quite a few twin-stick shooters since discovering Xbox Live Indie Games, and Compromised doesn’t really fit it. It isn’t shallow or repetitive. It doesn’t star either zombies or neon wedges. It isn’t about defending yourself in a static arena. No, Compromised isn’t really a twin-stick shooter in the sense that we’ve come to think of them. It’s an oppressive science fiction exploration shooter that happens to use two sticks for control.

I was reasonably impressed with Compromised from the outset, and it only gets better. The game looks good, if gloomy. It’s not going to wow anyone with 3D facial animations or anything, but it doesn’t need to. Sprites of various sizes and designs flit gracefully around crumbling future-industrial tunnels and subterranean cavern complexes that feel reminiscent of the ‘real world’ sections of the Matrix trilogy. Lumbering drill arms burst through the walls and release clouds of small enemies that clump and swirl like particles of smoke. Missiles boom like Satan slamming doors in hell, dropped energy cores twinkle in the darkness, and occasional boss enemies loom and rip the world down around you.

I don’t resort to the over-used internet superlative ‘epic’ very often, but at times Compromised really does feel epic. Most of the game sees you speeding through winding tunnels where you’re harried by small, quick enemy fighter craft, but it’s punctuated by frantic arena battles that sidle back into more familiar twin-stick territory for a little while as you fend off escalating waves. I’m not a big fan of arena-based twin-stick action, but fortunately these sections tend to feature rapidly changing enemy times and come to an end before they get too repetitive. If you run into a couple in succession they can get a little tiresome, particularly if they’re long, gruelling battles with sparse checkpoints, but they never become boring.

The real highlights, though, are the boss fights. There are a several, sometimes at the end of a level and sometimes in a level all to themselves. The bosses here aren’t just big enemies that require a lot of firepower to bring down. They’re gargantuan mechanical beasts that launch devastating attacks in patterns that you must observe and learn, with specific weak spots that have to be targeted, and several increasingly powerful forms that you must defeat in turn before you can finally breathe easy again. For the major bosses, the camera usually zooms way back and has you manoeuvring a tiny speck around some sprawling monstrosity. In all honesty, I’d have to say Compromised has some of the best boss battles I’ve played in years. They’re tough and sometimes frustrating, but you can always see how you’re meant to proceed, you can always think of a new strategy, and with enough persistence the titans always come crashing down. When they do, you’ll feel like you’ve felled a fierce god. Compromised has the sort of bosses that people would still be reminiscing about if it had come out in 1995.

These were the moments that made me feel I was playing the sort of game that I started playing games for in the first place. Compromised has a slightly Super Nintendo or PS1 feel to it, but that’s not to say it’s retro. Admittedly I was infatuated with the SNES-era Mode 7-style spinning of the burrowing drill arms, but Compromised doesn’t feel like an undiscovered relic of the good old days. It feels like the sort of game I used to play, simply because of how it handles itself. It doesn’t clutter things up with lengthy exposition but does at least provide some sort of story to give you a reason to fight. Too many indie shooters give you nothing more than ‘shoot this stuff because it’s there’. There are several well-balanced defensive and offensive abilities, including a devastating but hazardous gravity bomb, activated through judicious use of collected energy cores. Your little spacecraft can be upgraded, and any upgrade cores you’ve picked up carry over after you get killed, so if you’re really stuck on a particular level you will actually gradually get stronger each time you try it. There are two recharging default abilities as well, missiles and bombs, which are crucial to success. The whole thing feels painstakingly balanced and very carefully crafted, and it’s that quality that makes Compromised feel like games I used to play: the game gives a sense that it was made by people who are proud of what they do, rather than slinking into the room apologetically like most XBLIGs.

Not that it’s perfect, of course. Don’t get the wrong impression from my lavish praise. While the difficulty is challenging yet surmountable, it’s also uneven. There are also one or two badly designed areas: a series of crushing contraptions on the first level that simply can’t be avoided by any means, and late-game chase level that depends far too much on trial and error. Note to all developers: exhilarating chase levels cease to be exhilarating if you have to start over every twenty seconds. Chases need to maintain momentum, and to that end maybe it’s better to make them slightly too easy than slightly too hard.

The story is a bit of a loss as well. Having some sort of context for our combat is very welcome, but the cryptic mentions of ‘Se-Da’, ‘Stem’ and ‘BIOC’ that intrigued me in the early game are never really resolved. The plot comes and goes without ever revealing what’s going on, who we are or what we’re fighting. As someone who notices to game music and listens to it in his free time, I feel I should also mention that while Compromised’s music is quite good and feels appropriate for the grim science fiction environment, it’s not always in the right place. Some of the most frantic scenes in the game are accompanied by mellow tracks that don’t really fit the action on screen. It’s not a problem – a lot of the time the music is drowned out by the combat anyway – but it’s an odd choice.

All in all, Compromised impressed me hugely. It may not be perfect, but it looks good, generally sounds good, and plays delightfully. If you really don’t like shooting at things with your thumbsticks then maybe give it a miss, but I’d encourage anyone else to at least take a look, and take my word for it that the demo shows you the least of what the game is capable of. Between its carefully designed player abilities, its well-balanced challenge and its alarmingly huge boss battles, Compromised should be a flagship for all the things that Xbox Live Indie Games can do right. I might have to create a top ten list just so I can put Compromised on it.

Avalis Dungeon

I’d rather not think about Avalis Dungeon, but I made my choice and must live with it. At least it was a reasoned decision with logical consequences, which is more than I can say for anything that happens in Team Shuriken’s insubstantial adventure failure.

Probably the first thing that will strike you when you play Avalis Dungeon or even glance at its cover is the recurring theme of under-dressed faux-anime women. A lot of the time there’s a vaguely S&M tone too, with various ‘enemies’ and ‘characters’ inexplicably being chained to things, and convulsing in a vaguely suggestive way when struck down by your long, sturdy spear.

Accusing Avalis Dungeon of being a shameless attempt to grab the ‘frustrated teenage boy’ market is like accusing William Shatner of being a hammy actor. Actually, it pretty much is the indie game version of The Shat. It’s cheesy and over the top, and consciously tries to play up its deficiencies to the point of caricature. Unlike Shatner, Avalis Dungeon’s efforts never manage to distract anyone for even a moment from the fact that it’s pathetically awful.

The amateur anime underwear model cheesecakery isn’t Avalis Dungeon’s biggest failing. It’s the thing I resented most – the assumption that I, the XBLIG-buying consumer, will lap up anything that contains some kind of semi-lifelike representation of exposed female skin – but it wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the complete absence of any form of logic to the ‘puzzles’ and ‘battles’. This game is about trial and error.

Priestess? Presumably functional clothing is the devil’s work.

Your character, the ‘priestess’ Athena who seems to believe that the path to holiness involves forsaking all worldly undergarments, is exploring some miscellaneous dungeon in search of an Evil Thing. In a cross between Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks and old first-person dungeon crawlers like Eye of the Beholder, you see the world through Athena’s eyes while navigating in unwieldy lurches that require you to choose a course of action. At the outset, for example, you have three choices of route – ahead, left or right – and must press the corresponding face button to select one. It’s deep and involving stuff, clearly. Still, as someone who owned (and still owns) a lot of gamebooks, this could hold a certain appeal. Unfortunately Avalis Dungeon laughs in the face of those carefully constructed adventures.

The Demon Lord’s elite troops. Apparently.

The outcomes of your choices here are nonsensical. When you encounter an obstacle or enemy you have to press a face button to attempt one of several actions. Faced with a half-naked mermaid, do you cast a fire spell, cast an ice spell, or just ram your spear through her face? It doesn’t matter how much logic you apply to your decision, the correct answer is completely arbitrary. In some situations a fire spell will be ‘too slow’ and get you killed but an ice spell will not. RPG fans might think there’s an elemental weakness theme here – that firey enemies can be killed by ice, or icey/watery enemies can be killed by fire. But no. There’s no reason to any of it, just arbitrary whim. The only way to progress through the game is to guess, and if you guess the wrong option you start over and guess anew. Similarly, a corridor blocked by bladed pendulums can be passed successfully by jumping over them, despite the on-screen picture showing quite clearly that there’s no space to do that.

Ariel gets cross when you don’t leave the money on the bedside table.

Who is this intended for? To whom is this blind guesswork fun? There’s no sense of engagement; nothing obliterates immersion quite as effectively as having the game make no sense. There isn’t even any sense of achievement when you finish the game, because you didn’t achieve anything. You guessed often enough to hit upon the correct answers by chance, and did this over and over until the end. It’s futile and pointless. Maybe the persistent semi-nudity is meant to distract from the non-existent gameplay, but all it does is accentuate the problem. Instead of feeling merely stupid and pointless, it feels stupid, pointless and cheap.

Avalis Dungeon: it’s not a game because there’s really no playing involved, and even if you just want amateurishly drawn semi-nudity you’re better off trying Google. Don’t give Team Shuriken your 240 Microsoft points. Even buying your avatar a selection of ugly matching accessories would be a better use of your money, and you won’t feel like you need to bleach yourself afterwards.

Oil Magnate

This review was written for The Indie Mine, though I bought it with my own Microsoft points. Please take a look. Reproduced here with permission.

Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s one of painfully, worryingly few indie (or mainstream, for that matter) management/strategy sims on the Xbox 360.

The premise is pretty straightforward. You are an aspiring oil baron who must assess different prospective drill sites, buy the land and then fill your drums with black liquid gold, all while three rivals do the same and try to outdo you by fair means or foul. If that sounds exciting, this game is for you. If not, it might still be for you as long you don’t fall asleep during the tutorial. Although there’s still the matter of… No, I don’t want to mention that.

At the outset you can choose from four ‘missions’, which are basically definitions of the victory conditions. In one you must invest a specified amount of money over time, in another you must drive all your competitors out of business, and so on. The details of these missions can be tweaked, allowing you to make the game is easy or as difficult as you choose. You can adjust how much money you start with, how long you have to achieve the objective, and just how high the target figure is.

So far, so good. It’s all very professional. You can even choose the appearance of your office from a few options. This attention to detail is reminiscent of the classic management sims, the Sim City and Civilization series.

'Firmness'... I'll leave that one to you, dear readers.

Traditionally, sim-type games don’t fit very well with consoles thanks to the clunkiness of navigating menus and maps with a controller. Playing Sim City 2000 on the Super Nintendo was like trying to eat noodles by gripping one strand at a time between a pair of fresh haddock. I’m not a fan of controlling games using a mouse and keyboard, but strategy/management games and MMORPGs are the exceptions. Here, though, it all controls quite well with the Xbox pad. The menus are simple groups of buttons that are easily negotiated with the left stick or d-pad, while the minigames that arise during certain tasks arguably handle better here than they would with PC controls.

These minigames are among the most notable features of Oil Magnate, serving to prevent the game becoming a boring stat-fest. Most commonly you will have to hold a twitching dot in the centre of a circle while drilling for oil, to represent keeping the drill on course. Should one of your wells catch fire, either by chance or thanks to sabotage, you have to run around the area using dynamite to kill the flames before too much damage is done. There’s also another minigame, but I don’t want to talk about it. No really, I’d rather not. Leave me in blissful denial for a while longer.

You’ll notice I mentioned sabotage. This is a nice feature that adds a bit of mischief to proceedings. Tired of buying, selling and drilling like a good little millionaire? Feeling pressured by your superhumanly astute business rivals? Go all Donald Trump on their asses and hire a terrorist to burn down their rigs and storage tanks, or deflate oil prices in their chosen market to cut down their profits. Oil is a dirty business, and don’t think for a moment that your rivals will be able to control their own barbaric fiscal impulses. On the other hand, you run a very serious risk of having your wells confiscated if you’re found out, so maybe you’d be better off sticking to the straight and narrow after all. The price of endorsing terrorism is being made slightly less rich. Who says indie games can’t be realistic?

Logical divisions of the world, there.

Oh alright. Alright. I’ll tell you about the other minigame. I suppose I have no choice.

The third minigame is demonstrated in the game’s tutorial video, which makes it look simple. Unfortunately, as with everything else it shows you, the tutorial video is being slightly less honest than an East End market trader enticing you with his ‘nearly new’ plasma TVs.

I was all set to award Oil Magnate a 4 out of 5, maybe even leaning towards a 5 out of 5 depending on its longevity and replay value. The third minigame made me, in my darker moments, want to give it a 1 out of 5 and tell it to be grateful for my merciful nature. If I could punch a collection of digital information in the face, I would swing a haymaker at Oil Magnate with careless disregard for the state of my knuckles every single time I see the word ‘pipeline’.

I’m getting angry just thinking about it. This minigame is simple in principle, but ferociously difficult in practice. Sometimes when you try to sell your oil stocks, a message will appear telling you that your workers need help laying a pipeline. Presumably this is how they transport the oil to the buyer, though frankly, constructing mile after mile of entirely new pipe every time you make a sale doesn’t seem like efficient retail practice. When I order a new game online, I don’t find Amazon or Gamestation building a monorail to my doorstep.

For reasons we will never understand, this is how your oil is moved in the confused world of Oil Magnate, and like any good corporate fat cat you done your scruffiest trousers and wade in to help the plebs yourself when they’re shorthanded. You must connect the end of a pipe in the bottom right of the screen to another pipe-end in the top left. You extend the pipeline in any of four directions by pressing the corresponding face buttons, making sure you weave around hillocks and the corpses of other oil barons who did this once too often. Probably.

Parachuting in to personally extinguish fires. Business as usual for a billionaire tycoon.

Simple, right? The problem is that you’re racing against an opponent who is trying to connect the other two corners for his own nefarious oil-retail purposes. Still doesn’t sound too bad; a bit of healthy competition to keep you on your toes. But your opponent is flawless; it will lay its pipe without hesitation in the perfect route, without the slightest error or pause to draw breath. You must avoid any sort of delay, since even half a second will cost you the ability to sell your oil this month.

Add to this the fact that some of the obstacles don’t seem to be obstacles at all, looking instead like just part of the ground. Further add to this the fun quirk of control that has pipes extending forward before turning; if you press X to extend left, it will go forward then left, resulting in running into obstacles that you thought you should be clear of.

I’ve played Oil Magnate for somewhere around six or seven hours so far, and out of the dozens of times the pipeline minigame has arisen, I’ve succeeded once.

You might think I’m over-emphasising one small problem, but this is very nearly a game-ruining flaw. You see, if you fail at the pipeline game and can’t sell oil that month, you haemorrhage money. Only this afternoon, one single pipeline game moved me from almost pole position to a miserable near-ruined mess in one month. I managed to slowly get out of the red (though still very much trailing behind the competition) over the course of the next few months, only to be hit by another two pipeline games in a row, utterly finishing off my oil business and costing me the game.

This has happened more than once. A lot more than once.

Compared to the pipeline fiasco, my other complaints – no save game facility and an unhelpful tutorial – are mere niggles. Oil Magnate had been a 4, maybe even a 5. Now it’s a 3, holding on by the skin of its teeth thanks solely to everything else about it being well executed.

Fast cars and immolated models. Not really representative of the content.

As I said, Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. Mostly I quite enjoy it, and maybe you will too. It has enough management sim aspects to appease an anally retentive streak, but is simple enough to be reasonably accessible to management dunces such as I. The vampire of statistical tedium is warded off by the garlic of minigame diversions. Though the tutorial misses out most of the important stuff, and the inability to save your game if you realise your dinner is burning detracts from the experience, they’re just inconveniences.

The ill-conceived pipeline minigame, though, almost derails the whole thing. It can drop you from triumphant front runner to abject game-over in a matter of seconds, not because it demands skill but because it tricks you with poor visual design, confounds you with bizarre movement control, and demands computer-like perfection to defeat the eternally flawless CPU opponent. As someone who has been playing video games on a regular basis for 25 years, I have skills. But I can’t beat the pipeline problem, and sadly Oil Magnate itself can’t quite overcome it either.  A fun game, but every moment is a countdown to inevitable disaster.

Maybe it really is going for realism.

Old School Destruction

Oh how I wish this was a game about demolishing a decrepit educational establishment. The heady thrill of lining up the wrecking ball, the management sim aspects of ensuring you have at least one worker not on a coffee break at any given time – what’s not to love there? Certainly it would have more to offer than the reality of Old School Destruction.

OSD, as it dubs itself with the pushy jocularity of the maldorous bore regaling you with ‘humorous’ accountancy anecdotes at the bus stop, is sort of a twin-stick shooter. Tell me, what are twin-stick shooters primarily characterised by, other than their use of both sticks? Some form of action, right? Stuff happening? Not here. Those of you who lament modern games’ tendency to include activity need no longer spend your free time sighing wistfully over memories of spending hours watching a broken Pong machine go about its delightfully inanimate business. You now have OSD to fill that gaping chasm in your life.

Things get off to a horrendous start, with the longest loading times in the world. Holy shit. We’re talking Morrowind on original Xbox loading times, here. Long enough for you to make and eat a BLT without encroaching on your play time. In Morrowind it was only barely tolerable on the basis that it was a game intended for PCs, running on a console that cried at the mere thought of trying to load its Jupiter-sized game world. Here, it’s an indie game that certainly doesn’t seem strikingly huge, running on a current-gen console, with visuals that would make a PS1 smirk derisively. The only excuse I can see for this gargantuan loading time is that the developers are frantically stalling in the hope that you will quit before reaching the gameplay, and no one will ever discover their secret shame.

No, Dave, not Spin the Bottle. Now is not the time.

I sat through this lengthy wait, clutching ever more sceptically to the hope that it meant there would be something really impressive coming. Surely if it takes that long to load, it must have a load of content. Well…I don’t know. It might be the longest game on the face of the earth; I played for as long as I could bear to, but I really don’t want to find out how long this abomination lasts.

If it played in some sort of normal, coherent fashion it might be a mediocre and forgettable roaming twin-stick shooter. But it doesn’t. Somehow it manages to mess up this simple control concept. You thought you’d seen some pointless control decisions in these games, right? The ones that require you to pull the trigger to fire in addition to aiming with the stick, for instance? Redundant, certainly. But at least they function. OSD…does not.

Move with the left stick, aim with the right. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that’s the end of the part that makes any sense. You see, the right stick doesn’t control the simple direction of your aim, but instead moves crosshairs around the screen. You aim at an enemy by placing the crosshairs over them. It reminds me a little of Syndicate, in that it would probably be much easier to control with a mouse. Awkward, but not necessarily insurmountable.

Oh, the misery of this war-torn...er...series of hexagons.

But wait. It’s not over.

The reticle sticks like glue to your target. This probably seemed like a clever way to overcome the imprecision of twin-stick aiming, but clearly whoever implemented this system never bothered to actually use it. It’s possible to detach your crosshairs from a target, but it isn’t easy. You chose your target, and now you’re stuck with it unless your aim unglues itself on a passing whim. Like a senile terrier, the reticle latches onto anything that comes near it and won’t let go until you wrench it away with the force of a titan.

While OSD doesn’t (or didn’t, in the time I was able to endure it before ruining my controller with my tears) fling screen-filling hordes of enemies at you like most twin-stick shooters, there are often a number of foes attacking at once. These are spawned from generators that need to be destroyed but do eventually stop churning out cannon fodder, like the locust holes in Gears of War. As enemies approach and you manoeuvre to stay clear of them, the wisest choice of target changes from moment to moment. The enemy who was leading the charge is now at the back, while another is almost on top of you. Well, tough shit. Should have thought of that earlier.

Just to rub salty faeces in the septic open wound, the gluey reticle is indecisive. Some enemies sprint straight at you and the game advises you to use a melee attack against them. That’s fine. But when I can see them coming a mile away, surely it’s in my interest to pick a couple off before they reach me? No? If it’s possible to make the crosshairs lock on these runners, I never managed to pull it off. Maybe that’s a conscious design choice. So what we have is either inept programming or poorly considered design. What a treat.

Dave, look out! I just saw some grey movement over there behind the grey, next to the grey!

I like games, and I’m pretty forgiving of flaws. There are numerous much-maligned games that I quite enjoy, simply because I’m able to overlook their odd control scheme, their hideous graphics or even their excessive loading. Not this time, though. When I exited the game because I couldn’t take any more, I could feel my face grimacing and I noticed myself making a disgusted ‘urgh’ noise.

Old Scool Adventure is horrible. It has many more flaws than I’ve mentioned here, flaws that would count as serious mark-downs against another game, but here they are actually the high points. The control scheme should have been listed alongside rains of blood and the four horsemen as a sign of the imminent apocalypse. Even in the supremely unlikely event that you’re willing and able to keep playing OSD through your torrent of tears and sporadic retching fits, I can’t see anyone repeatedly sitting through a loading process that lasts longer than the complete run of the X Files.