Apocalyptic Path: ToF

AP coverThe Oregon Trail is old. It’s also quintessentially American and, as such, never crossed my path when I was child. I only heard of it relatively recently, mainly in the context of the newer and more universal Organ Trail, which is about zombies. It doesn’t get much more universal than that, as ten thousand indie games remind us daily with a cynical salesman’s sneer. The essence of both games is to trek across the United States in your wagon/car, having more or less randomly chosen encounters ranging from dangerous creatures to bouts of disease. Along the way you can buy and sell supplies, scavenge, hunt for food and take on odd jobs.

Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears stuffs itself firmly into this mould and emerges as an appetising hybrid of The Oregon Trail and Fallout, offering that familiar cross-US trek but now with added irradiated wasteland antics. That’s the dream, anyway. Like most dreams it bears as much resemblance to reality as my beard bears to a colony of stoats – that’s to say a little, but not enough to fool someone free from severe cataracts.

Since I sat down here to put pen to paper (finger to key, whatever) my inner tabloid headline writer has been begging me to pun the game’s title into a different form. Perhaps ‘Fail of Drears’ or ‘Stale of Tears’. I know, I know, I couldn’t work for The Sun with that sort of pun skill. I’d be a senior editorial candidate at least. The fact, if I may so boldly claim knowledge of the fundaments of reality, is that Apocalyptic Path: ToF feels like it’s a small child in a park being reluctantly dragged into a game of football with kids it doesn’t like from school. It punts the ball in the general direction of the goal, then shrugs and wanders off.

Only people with anime hair can lead wasteland gangs.

Only people with anime hair can lead wasteland gangs.

The familiar format from The Oregon Trail and Organ Trail is very much in place, with all the accustomed trappings. Your car is now pulled by giant cockroaches and everyone dresses like they’re just killing time before the Mad Max 4 casting call, but it’s mostly the same stuff in broad strokes. Set your rate of food and water consumption to conserve resources while looking for more, but beware of hunger and dehydration. Try to keep everyone’s morale up so they don’t mutiny or decide to end it all. Watch out for sneaky traps placed by bandits, cannibals who eat your arms, and assorted other randomly-arising hazards. Occasionally bump into someone who wants to trade with you rather than gnaw on your elbow. This is as far as the resemblance goes, though. I’ve never played the original Oregon Trail but I have played Organ Trail and it was flawed but fun. Apocalyptic Path is flawed but flawed. I’m the sort who can look past flaws to see the fun beneath, but when I look past these flaws all I see is more flaws.

This would be excusable to an extent if the effort was there. I’ve played plenty of games that made so many mistakes they just weren’t fun, but that scored some points for effort. I’m not saying that no effort went into Apocalyptic Path but it was distributed very unevenly and it’s this pervasive sloppiness that really rubs me the wrong way.

The most competent part of the game, besides the overall structure which was intentionally borrowed from earlier games, is the presentation. Well, the visuals anyway. The less said about the monotone dirge of the audio, the better. Actually, the more said the better, since the ranting might drown out that ghastly noise.) The visual presentation is generally solid enough, if a bit gruesome. Not gruesome in the gory sense, but gruesome in the hideously disfigured, NES Pirates! sense. I enjoyed the general aesthetic but the player’s party of characters consists entirely of radiation-warped semi-human mutants that look ten times worse for being mashed through an 8-bit blender. The world itself doesn’t fare as badly, being minimalist but true to the visual style of the game’s inspiration. Battle scenes bizarrely take the form of a Pokémon-style duel, with your cast of characters taking turns. More on that in a moment, but for now I’ll say the resemblance is more than mechanical. The visual style is accurate to the original Pokémon right down to being in shades of grey, and although it’s a startling shift the first time, it’s actually a pleasant change from the main game screen after a while.

This is where I run out of compliments.

Strangely apt.

Strangely apt.

The very first thing that struck me as soon as I reached the game’s title screen was the interface. It uses a mouse pointer. I know the idea is to tweak and re-skin the Oregon/Organ games but spare a little thought for the fact that this one is actually on a console. On-screen points seldom work well with a controller, and the only cases where it’s really justifiable are the likes of strategy or management games where there isn’t really a better way to indicate what you want to do. Here, the actions you’re required to perform come down to choosing an option from a list and pressing A. Why not just use the stick to scroll up and down the list? Why laboriously drag a pointer across the screen? It makes no sense to anyone who’s put even a moment’s thought into making the game console-friendly, and this slapdash lack of interest in the development runs like a noxious radioactive seam throughout the finished product.

Next was the character naming screen. Your party of five have default names but, as players of XCOM: Enemy Unknown can tell you, personalising your team encourages you to care if they survive. The actual naming process was fine, as was choosing my starting set of perks, but when I immediately went into the inventory to equip my weapons I noticed that the default names were still displayed! On the main game screen, Carys and Kieren were alive and well, but in the inventory screen their seedy double lives were revealed, Carys shamefacedly admitting to being a Molly and Kieren getting stuck with the unwieldy Cig. No one should be named after an abbreviated tobacco product. It’s a purely cosmetic difference, but after an already thoughtless start the game was starting to stray out of ‘we made slightly questionable decisions’ territory and into the murky lands of ‘we didn’t give a shit’.

Whoever gets ill, we see this guy. Attention to detail is the name of the (different) game.

Whoever gets ill, we see this guy. Attention to detail is the name of the (different) game.

Add to this growing heap of rancid gristle the fact that four of your party all have a coloured health indicator but the fifth one doesn’t, and things cease to be superficial and start to become serious gameplay concerns. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have features that should affect gameplay but don’t. Much like in Organ Trail you can adjust the speed of your car. There it was a question of balancing speed and fuel concerns. Here, it’s just speed. Having varying rates of progress is just irrelevant as there’s no reason to go any slower than the highest speed (which, incidentally, wins this month’s prize for Most Brazen Misnomer – a setting called ‘breakneck’ that moves like a glacier sleepwalking through neck-deep quicksand). Again, sloppy. Start to finish, everything I saw in this game was sloppy, slapdash and poorly thought out.

Possibly the most crushing blow to the game’s fun value, though, is the difficulty. I left this to last because I can already hear shrieks of ‘it’s meant to be difficult!’ Yes, I know it is. Its spiritual precursor, Organ Trail, was difficult too. The unpredictability of encounters combined with the very limited resources meant that some runs through the game could be breathtakingly unforgiving. There were two important differences there, though. Firstly, occasional good events; and secondly, a sense of player agency.

I’ve spent some time with Apocalyptic Path now and the random events are brutally unfair. I’ve had maybe two positive encounters in my entire time with the game so far. Everything that ever happens is damaging, whether it’s disease or battles or mechanical damage to the car, and almost all of it is completely beyond your control. Don’t go into anywhere that has enemies because you probably can’t kill them, unless you chose the Sheriff class at the outset, giving you a couple of ‘rat sticks’ for weapons as one of your starting perks. No other choice of class can survive even the easiest early-game fight, in my experience. Nor can you pick up weapons as you go along, at least with any degree of reliability. I have yet to ever find a weapon in a random encounter, only in shops, and even then the only ones I’ve seen are those basic ‘rat sticks’ which by the time you reach the very first shop are already becoming pretty useless. Not to mention that the distance between the starting point and the first town/shop is such an epic slog that it makes the extended Lord of the Rings look like crossing the room.

Ralem used Apocalypse Path. It's not very effective...

Ralem used Apocalypse Path. It’s not very effective…

The game is ferociously stacked against you with a relentless deluge of setback after setback, afflicting you with deaths and crippling resources losses entirely at random and, crucially, with nothing you can do to prevent it or even try to mitigate the damage. There’s no way to prepare for the worst because you have to go so damn far before you can find any supplies at all, and the only modification you can make to your party is to adjust their food and water intake, and equip weapons. Did I mention that you can’t unequip them? Yep, there’s just no option for that. Sloppy.

That’s Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears in a nutshell. I’ve abused the word here but it’s the most apt: this game is sloppy. From the clumsy choice of interface, to the name and equipment oversights, to the hideous imbalance in gameplay, the entire thing feels like it was thrown together by someone who was distracted. It feels like the game never had the developer’s full attention, and as such it hangs together in an unsightly congealed clump that I can’t possibly recommend you try to swallow. I have granted some forgiveness to bad games that were made with good intentions and lots of effort. I can’t speak for the intentions of Apocalyptic Path’s developer, but I can say turn off the TV and pay attention to the game next time. If there’s any effort here, I can’t see it.

Rad Raygun

RR1Rad Raygun is nostalgia. It’s not merely nostalgic; it’s constructed top to bottom entirely from dewy-eyed longing for the sepia-drenched days of yore – ‘yore’ in this case being the 1980s. I know, that might not be yore enough for some of you, but considering there are documented cases of five year olds playing Call of Duty online, there’s a significant chunk of the game-playing audience for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Roman Empire happened around the same time.

If you never played on Nintendo’s original green-screened Game Boy, the endearing charm of Rad Raygun’s visual style will probably be lost on you. I enjoyed it, but I harbour no illusions that it was down to anything other than the warm ‘aww, this is how I remember platformers’ sensation. For one cosy hour, I relived the days I spent playing Asterix in the back of my dad’s car. If you don’t have these fond memories, then Rad Raygun is already losing ground. Memories of your own, that is. I’m fairly confident that you weren’t in my dad’s car, unless…Dad?

RR2

Master Chief was having a bad day.

RR isn’t the first Xbox Live Indie Game to try its hand at Game Boy visuals. Punishment platformer Slick tried it too, as did teeth-gnashingly obtuse puzzle-platformer Treasure Treasure: FFEE. Recreating the style of yesteryear is one of the things XBLIG developers like to attempt, whether it’s bleaching out the colour to simulate a Game Boy, drawing the art in primary coloured blocks to mimic an Atari 2600, or making everything as monstrously hideous and cumbersome as possible to ape an Intellivision. The difference here is that Rad Raygun actually pulls it off. It reproduces not only the visual and audio style but also the feel of the gameplay, with a little bit of modern polish subtly applied in a few places so that it doesn’t play like a complete wreck. Make no mistake, most 1980s portable games haven’t aged well.

Some of these determined concessions to faithful ‘80s-ness stray beyond stylistic affectations to impact the gameplay. When Rad leaves a room, the action will freeze as the camera shifts over to the next area. While this sort of break in the flow wouldn’t be acceptable in a non-retro game anymore, it’s perfectly valid here and doesn’t cause any inconvenience.

RR3

“It’ll probably fit in if I give it a good shove.”

The same can’t always be said of the other conscious Game Boy-isms. The jumping in particular is a bane; rather than leaping with any kind of practical arc or sense of weight, Rad sharply twitches a mile upward at the slightest nudge of the jump button, and whatever you do you will never succeed in making the horizontal distance equal the vertical. The result is a jumping sensation that feels awkward and clumsy, not to mention frequently impractical as you find yourself brazenly stuffing your head right into overhead enemies’ lines of fire.

The other influence here aside from the Game Boy is Mega Man. Mercifully RR doesn’t even begin to approach classic Mega Man difficulty, but it’s full of nods to that series – the gun arm, the robotic main character (he’s actually a distorted Game Boy, but close enough), the slide ability, even the types of enemies. I loathe and despise Mega Man games for their cheap shots, but Rad Raygun mostly doesn’t stoop to that. In fact, it’s distinctly easy for the most part. All in all the game will probably run to about an hour of play time, maybe an hour and half, so it’s not a particularly enduring experience. Fortunately, this is one of those cases where brevity is a good thing.

RR4

Call the Daily Mail! Handheld video game console destroys White House!

Rad Raygun doesn’t just imitate the games of years past, it’s also crammed to bursting with humorous contemporary references, whether it’s jingoistic fear of Communism, Rad’s mission to bring down the Berlin Wall or Ronald Reagan’s gurning face giving briefings. 80s names and events spill out from Rad Raygun like Ready Brek from a Thundercats bowl. Dependent as it is on nostalgia and referential gags, it would be easy for the game to outstay its welcome, but the relatively easy level of challenge and the short overall playtime ensure that it all wraps up just before the gags start to grate.

That’s the key to enjoying Rad Raygun, really. The bold and ridiculous 80s-ness of it all kept me smiling most of the time, and I was able to forgive its couple of awkward gameplay affectations because I’m desensitised to them from the real 80s. If you don’t remember the 80s or have enough awareness of pop culture and world events from that decade, then the largest part of the entertainment value is gone. You’re left with just the gameplay, which is a decent enough but easy and unremarkable platformer with a jumping motion that might you grind your teeth down to stumps. Rad Raygun is less an 80s-themed game than a lighthearted nostalgia slideshow with some simple gameplay inserted to keep you occupied. That’s not to say the gameplay isn’t fun, but aside from the odd detour into impromptu Tetris it’s too short and too generic to be worth recommending to anyone who lacks glasses of a suitably rosy hue.

RR4

I’m sorry but building my name in the sky goes beyond fanboy into goddamn creepy.

If you do remember the 80s, though, Rad Raygun is an entertaining use of an hour. It avoided boring me by providing enough reference gags to prevent the gamplay getting tedious, and vice versa. I can’t complain at getting 60-90 minutes of “Ha! I get it!” moments stitched neatly onto a “Aww, I remember games being like this” backdrop for 80 Microsoft points.

If you’re Rad Raygun’s target audience you’ll like it, and if you’re not you won’t. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you want out, just follow the smell of broadband and dubstep to the exit. Otherwise, pull up a pogo ball and try to avoid making eye contact with Erasure.

0 Gravity Y3030

Y coverIt’s been difficult to craft a review of 0 Gravity Y3030, partly because the game is itself dishearteningly tough and partly because it’s hard to know what to say about it. The concept sounds, on paper, simultaneously intriguing and dull. ‘Go and pick up junk that’s drifting around in space’ (to paraphrase) might not be the world’s most thrilling blurb, but it reminded me of the generally solid anime series Planetes and that was enough for me to decide right on the spot that I was going to play it.

Well, I say ‘play’ but something like ‘operate’ might be a more apt choice of verb. Y3030 feels less like a game than a shift at work, which is pretty much what it represents – a day in the life of someone who hauls miscellaneous space debris around. As a sort of deep space housekeeper you guide your little one-man rig around the vicinity of a confusingly tangled space station, picking up crates and other miscellany that need retrieval for one reason or another, then using your meagre earnings to splash out on luxuries like breathable air.

The most striking part of the experience is the sensation of being in space. This is something very rarely implemented with much conviction or success, and while I have several years too little NASA employment history to verify whether Y3030 is accurate, to my layman’s senses it does a better job than most of making me feel like I’m moving around in a zero gravity vacuum.

Y4

Star Wars: The Parcel Force Years

That’s really the selling point of the game. It doesn’t promise a rollercoaster ride of adrenal highs and despondent lows, or a frenetic scramble to overcome daunting odds. It promises space, and that’s what it delivers.

Unfortunately, space movement is exasperatingly slow and fiddly, so it doesn’t make for the most compelling entertainment. If you’ve ever sat in a doctor’s waiting room and thought the only thing that could improve the dizzying deluge of giddy exhilaration was an impression of weightlessness, then Y3030 is the game you’ve always wanted. I don’t want to be too hard on Y3030 for this, though. I suspect the playing experience here might be too uneventful for some audiences, but if you’re a patient sort or just enjoy a simulation of drifting around in space, Y3030 hits the target. Even so, it’s hard to recommend the game even to those with the patience of a professional paint-drying observer, for an entirely different reason.

The biggest flaw with Y3030 isn’t its slow, deliberate pace or its uneventful proceedings; it’s the difficulty. There are two things keeping you alive out there in the vast, impassive blankness of barely colonised deep space: oxygen and fuel. As the former runs low, your vision clouds over until the claustrophobic end closes around you. If your fuel runs out it’s much the same experience as you drift unable to propel yourself, just watching the O2 gauge gradually tick down to zero and cursing your inability to carry crates fast enough.

Y4

Plenty of fuel & O2. Not representative of Y3030.

You see, what will always get you killed is basically shortage of cash. You earn money by retrieving the specified items of debris, then periodically you stop by the local space-7/11 for some oxygen and fuel. Or rather, some oxygen or fuel. You always need both, and always have enough money for just one. However hard you try to make the other resource last until you’ve carried out a few more jobs, it’s just too difficult. Faithful though the weightless vacuum movement might be, it’s frustrating and wearisome to control. This might be only a tiny blemish by itself, but add to it the labyrinthine clutter of identical shafts, cubes and general space station brick-a-brack that constitutes your main environment and suddenly the slightly awkward movement controls become an irritating handicap to navigation. Then factor in the strictly limited resources to create a final unforgiving experience that will penalise you not only for your own errors but also for simply failing to have spent the necessary years training as an astronaut. You will find yourself dying depressingly over and over in the unflinching void as you struggle to complete your intrinsically imprecise and slow-moving tasks with surgical precision and pit-stop rapidity.

Y1

Fox McCloud’s self esteem never recovered from his demotion

Maybe with peerless mastery of your craft’s uncooperative motion and a photographic recollection of the ideal route to each pick-up, you might be able to make your supplies last after a few retries, but you’re unlikely to ever reach that level of expertise. The slow and largely uneventful pace of the game means that after a couple of dozen runs through the first five or six missions, you’ll be weary of the whole endeavour. Numerous replays are necessary as you painstakingly make tiny refinements to your approach in an attempt to sustain yourself a little bit longer than last time, but if the very first play is dry then repeats rapidly become tiresome – ironically the only thing Y3030 does rapidly.

March to the Moon

I refused to believe that March to the Moon was a shooter until I played it. It doesn’t look like one, and for a while it doesn’t feel like one either. Be in no doubt, though: March to the Moon is resolutely a game about shooting swarms of enemies as you trudge stoically up the screen. Fortunately, this isn’t all it is.

The thing that really threw me was how much of an RPG the game appears to be at first glance. You control a person who walks through various quest-like environments fighting rats, goblins and aliens. You have access to a variety of spells which you unlock and upgrade as you gain levels through experience points. It’s almost as though someone set out to make a simple, traditional console RPG of the type that seldom works well on XBLIG, then suddenly decided shooters are better but didn’t want to waste all that work.

The premise is basic. You are a person who, Morrowind-style, has been asked to exterminate some pesky rats that are infesting a cellar. That’s about it, really. Once the cellar is under control you find more and more layers of infestation leading into the sewers and even space, and the rats will swap places with aliens and robots, but it’s basically the same mission just getting more and more difficult.

None of that really blew me away, nor did the slow and deliberate pace. The levels progress in their forced vertical scrolling at a very methodical plod, which works perfectly fine but doesn’t create a particularly dazzling first impression. Where March to the Moon blindsided me and really raised its game was in the skill system.

All-punctuation baby names never really caught on

Unlike shooters in general, there’s a lot of freedom here to build your little warrior exactly the way you want to, including badly. You choose one career path at the outset, from which you can choose several skills to assign points to. After you’ve gained a few character levels you can choose a second career path to add to the first, giving you a whole new set of skills to acquire. This makes a huge difference to the way you play the game, as some paths are combat centric, some focus on passive buffs, some involve summoning creatures, and various other functions. You’re free to choose whichever you like, and although picking up summoning and healing will leave you inconveniently unable to fight properly, it’s refreshing to have the chance. Like the aforementioned Morrowind (which I wouldn’t have expected to reference in an indie shooter review) you’re at liberty to mess up your character build without the developer slapping you on the wrist, and when you figure out a build that works for you it feels more satisfying as a result. It’s your build, that you created to suit you.

Engineering degrees had changed since Jon’s day

March to the Moon’s developer wasn’t cavalier about including this freedom. Unlike the now-excessively-referenced Bethesda classic RPG, your ill-advised rat-hunting Summoner-Healer build isn’t irreversible. Once you realise that relying on your pet wolf to fight for you is liable to get you repeatedly hacked in the face, you don’t need to wearily restart the game. Those of us who lack strategic forethought can consider ourselves lucky – March to the Moon’s skill point assignment is fully undoable. You have to keep the career paths you chose, but any skill points you assigned within them can be removed and reassigned. Stuck with a dragon familiar that isn’t pulling its weight? Get rid of it and put those points into a direct attack skill instead. Finding your heal ineffective? Undo it and try out a buff.

The true benefit of this system isn’t simply that it’s forgiving; it also offers the ability to tailor your approach to every level. The game actively encourages replaying levels to gain additional experience and strengthen your character for the battles ahead, but grinding for experience isn’t the only way to overcome a tough level. You might find that a couple of your dependable skills aren’t proving that effective against a particular slew of enemies, but rather than having to just take it on the chin and slog away at grinding, you can give yourself a whole different set of skills for as long as you like, then change them back (or to something different again) later. It is an inspired design decision.

Medieval telemarketers pulled no punches

I have only two real criticisms of March to the Moon. Firstly, the soundtrack caused much gnashing of teeth and wailing. It improves after a few levels, but the music is mainly rhythm, and more than one level is scored entirely with a piercing, repetitive military drum track that felt like the relentless thudding of someone hammering a stubborn tent peg into my forehead. It actually genuinely gave me a headache. Eventually I resorted to periodically pausing the game and leaving the room, just to get away from the water torture-esque relentless tapping of that sadistic drum. This soundtrack alone has done more damage than any other feature to my enjoyment of March to the Moon.

Secondly, the difficulty curve is all over the place. If you’ve ever tried to draw by hand while riding in a 4×4 along a rutted farm track, you will by happy coincidence have sketched the difficulty curve of March to the Moon. It springs whimsically back and forth between surmountably modest difficulty and bone-searing savagery. Many levels require a few replays to accrue some more health and stronger powers, but every now and then you’ll hit a level than demands an hour or more of grinding the same five minute section over and over. Sometimes even rebuilding your character doesn’t help all that much, and even when it does, constructing and testing half a dozen builds just to pass one level can begin to wear thin.

Going designer baby shopping at Walmart may have been a mistake

Some might want to tack on a third criticism, so I’ll mention it even though it doesn’t really bother me. The visual presentation is pretty uninspiring, with drab backgrounds and amateurish character sprites, and I know for some people this is enough to condemn a game to the bin.  For me it doesn’t really matter, though; I still play old games that would make a gangrenous tonsil look like sunset over the Himalayas.

March to the Moon is definitely a curio. A shooter that looks like it should be an action adventure, with a skill system that is detailed enough to embarrass some RPGs and customisable enough to inject strategy into a genre that isn’t known for it. It’s a grower, that fails to engage at first but quickly peels off layers of itself to reveal surprising complexity that makes it not only worth playing but worth replaying. There’s a lot to enjoy here, provided you can squint past the dingy amateur visuals and stuff your ears with enough small animals to block out the relentless snare drum soundtrack as you March to the Moon.

Null Battles

First person shooters have become so ubiquitous, so close to the default game genre, that I have to fight off a weary sinking sensation whenever one crosses my path. Now and then they defy my torpid scepticism and turn out to be fun – Section 8: Prejudice and Battlefield 1943 spring to mind – but for the most part I’m sick of the damn things. As with so many genres, though, the hope for diversity and bold reinvention lies in the indie side of development. The early build of Shootmania Storm on PC has already begun injecting new life into the flaccid multiplayer FPS, and the Xbox 360’s Null Battles is joining that crusade.

The closest real world experience I can think of to compare to playing Null Battles is something like leaping between giant magnetic Lego bricks in zero gravity. Each match takes place in a room full of large geometric shapes, usually randomly laid out (though this is customisable from the options menu – including the coveted treasure of a genuine level editor). From your team’s base halfway up one wall, you leap out into the arena where you will automatically adhere to the surface of whichever platform you touch. The platforms being 3D shapes, this often means suddenly finding yourself upside down or otherwise bizarrely orientated. It also means that as you spring from surface to surface in the chaos of combat, your perspective will flip and whirl in a way that makes it very difficult to aim reliably. Fortunately, this is where the fun comes from.

Null Battles feels a little like the adversarial FPS games of yesteryear, emphasising energetic lunging and spraying rather than hiding behind a wall and making precision headshots. It also reminds me slightly of the aforementioned Shootmania Storm in that it simplifies weapon selection down to a minimum, and relies on the frenetic pace and unique twist to keep it engaging.

The collaboration between Genesis and Daft Punk confused audiences

You have two weapons: a laser-type gun for ranged combat (assigned to RT) and a standard short-range sidearm (assigned to LT) that acts more like a melee attack than the usual backup pistol. There is no ammunition but, as in Mass Effect, your ability to rain brightly coloured destruction upon your opponents is limited by the build-up of heat in your weapon. Continuous fire will cause the gun to overheat and leave you in the humiliatingly disastrous position of being completely defenceless for a few seconds. In a game this fast paced, having to spend vital seconds running around and whimpering like an alarmed hamster (or an unusually resolute sheep) can be fatal.

How much you enjoy Null Battles will probably be determined by how much you demand precision performance. If you’re the sort of person who derives enjoyment from painstakingly training yourself to shoot microscopic dots in their microscopic heads after aiming for only a tenth of a second, then Null Battles might annoy you. That’s not to say there’s no place for skill here, but the randomly generated terrain layout and haphazard convulsion of gravitational direction lead to a more messy and manic play style. You can’t train yourself to make crack shots reliably because you can’t memorise the randomised maps, and when you move you can’t count on being the same way up half a second later.

Halo 4 really felt the budget cuts

If, on the other hand, you appreciated the frantic, unfettered chaos of ‘90s deathmatching, or you just like the sound of it, Null Battles could give you much more than your 80 Microsoft points’ worth of fun.

Unfortunately Null Battles bears a heavy burden. Like many multiplayer-focused indie games, particularly on the Xbox, it runs a constant risk of suffering from lack of community. There are options for both local and online play, with options for up to four teams for real carnage, but the only way you’ll play other human beings is if you arrange a session with friends. Fortunately the AI picks up the slack here. Much as in Take Arms, the AI participants are reasonably competent and don’t behave too conspicuously unlike real people. That’s even more the case here than in Take Arms, as the erratic nature of movement around the maps means that even human players don’t behave like real people.

Disney’s Knights of the Old Republic III

For some players, just the knowledge that there aren’t genuine gooey biological brains behind the figures they’re shooting in the face is enough to put them off. Weirdly, the same people will happily play Modern Warfare 3, which frequently also doesn’t involve much in the way of brain-driven opponents.

For those who have indie-playing friends or, like me, don’t mind playing against bots as long as they put up a fight, Null Battles is a perfectly sound purchase. It will never dislodge the big-name titles but it’s not intended to. As a 60p diversion with a novelty twist, it offers easily enough customisation options, headless chicken panic and disorientating chaos to justify a purchase. Will I be playing it a year from today? Perhaps not, but I am playing it now, and that’s enough.

Origin X

I don’t understand Origin X. That’s not to say I don’t comprehend how the game is played or what I’m meant to be doing, but even as I carefully strove to ensure the survival of my planet I found myself continually muttering “I don’t get it”. To be understood and yet remain deeply confusing is quite an achievement, but not of the sort that pings and awards you points.

The idea of Origin X is to populate planets in a solar system. This is simple enough to grasp. Having selected a planet, you place housing for people to live in, build mines so they can work and earn you money, and construct food supplies and storage so they don’t die horribly in the grim throes of starvation. This is no sim game, though. You won’t build and carefully manage your colonies in Origin X. It’s all very simple, just plonking down one from a list of half a dozen structures, and watching the population and food numbers at the side of the screen. Disappointingly, the colonists themselves aren’t represented by anything beyond their figure on the HUD.

Considering other Xbox indie games, such as Lexiv, at least represent the population as scurrying dots, it’s a shame that Origin X doesn’t make the effort. It leaves the colonies feeling dead and sterile, and when you absent mindedly allow people to starve to death there’s no sentiment about it at all. You don’t see fewer and fewer dots wandering around the houses and mines; you just notice a number diminishing. This might be more excusable if the game engaged with the player in other ways, but this indifferent detachment is pervasive throughout.

Gigantic fireballs are bad for your miners

Privation and exposure to the savage cosmic winds that flay the surface of these barren planets aren’t the only dangers for the colonists. Surprisingly enough, bone-melting heat and Plutonian frigidity also aren’t very good for their health, so you have to make sure none of your inhabited planets drift too close to, or far from, the sun. The mechanic for maintaining a comfortable temperate environment is one of the most awkward in the game, and yet perhaps the one you will use most. This is where the already slightly stale Origin X starts to become Irritation X.

Unlike many sim, management or strategy games, Origin X doesn’t cast you as an invisible overlord guiding events from afar. Instead you control a comet that flies around the solar system, and you must physically visit any planet that you want to manage. As a celestial body you exert a gravitational force that affects any planet you approach, pulling it towards you. This is the means by which you must ensure planets stay at the ideal distance from the sun. Unfortunately it is so imprecise and unreliable that it’s more harmful than helpful. Bear in mind that you must physically fly to a planet in order to build anything on it – with your comet’s gravity in constant effect, visiting a planet immediately dislodges it from its position. You can’t perform any management tasks without endangering the entire world as you accidentally start it plunging into a star or drifting into deep space. Nor can you simply stop its movement by positioning yourself on its opposite side. That could cause it to reverse its direction towards equal danger, or twist it off to one side, or not have much of a noticeable effect at all. This tiresome ordeal is exacerbated by a map that occasionally takes it upon itself to be completely black for no reason, so you have no idea where you and your wayward world are in relation to the sun.

I once played a game of Origin X in which I spent three quarters of my time chasing around after my main planet, trying to drag it back to a safe position, only to make things worse and worse until everyone died. It wasn’t lack of skill that caused the demise of an entire civilisation; no amount of dexterity could suffice to wrangle a manageable effect from the erratic and uncooperative gravity-steering system.

Xx5ithVaderzzz misunderstood the game

Although this planet positioning nightmare ordeal is the main cause of defeat in Origin X, it’s not the one that officially ends your game. Even after everyone is killed off by living half a mile from the surface of the sun, your game will continue trundling along. There’s no hope of regaining lost ground; no matter what I try, I’ve never managed to start a new population once the original one has died out. You’re not a deity, and can’t create people from thin air. The title Origin X is a little ironic, not to mention inexplicable, since originating anything is completely beyond your power.

The thing that will actually finish your game is alien attacks that steal all of your cores. Cores are glowing white blobs that orbit one of your planets, and aliens periodically try to steal them. That’s all I can tell you about it, as that’s all I know. The game doesn’t explain any of this – what the cores are, what they do, why aliens want them, or why losing them all is the end of the game. All it tells you is that you must protect the cores. In fact, it’s entirely possible to continue defending the cores without any colonists at all, through a combination of ramming them yourself and building automated turrets on the planets to shoot for you.

At first that makes the whole management/strategy side of the game seem redundant. The problem is that reaching a population goal seems to be the only way to complete a level. The success and failure criteria are unrelated, and that just adds another unwholesome globule of frustration to an already awkward and confusing experience.

Origintown was populated entirely by agoraphobes

Notice that I said reaching a population goal seems to be the only way to complete a level. That ‘seems’ can be applied to everything I say about Origin X. I’m all in favour of doing away with condescending tutorials that laboriously steer you through every element of a game down to the most obvious basics, but some guidance would be nice. The only things Origin X tells you are that you have to protect the cores and make sure the planets stay at a safe distance. Everything else has to be figured out as you go. What are cores? Why do they only orbit one planet? What are these buildings? What do they do? How do I get money? How do I move the planets? How do I fight off the aliens? How do I succeed or fail? What the hell is going on?

That is Origin X in a one-word nut shell: “What?!” Nothing is explained or even outlined, there’s no tutorial or instructions of any sort, and you are left alone to work out the entire game on your own. Even now, I might be missing something. I’ve put multiple hours into Origin X and think I finally understand how it works, but I can’t be certain. It’s also worth noting that, uncomfortable though it is for me, I haven’t got past the first level. I don’t like to review a game when I haven’t at least played most of it, but however many hours I put into Origin X I just can’t keep the planets in a safe orbit for long enough to sustain population growth. Sooner or later everyone dies, and then I just sit and let the aliens steal my cores to bring on the blessed relief of a game over.

George W Bush longed to press ‘A’

When a game is so confusing and poorly realised that it takes hours to feel remotely confident that you even know what’s meant to be happening, and on top of that is so poorly designed that hours and hours of play are too little to enable a 25-year gaming veteran to complete level 1, I think “back to the drawing board” is a dizzying display of understatement. I like the idea of Origin X – part simple management sim, part basic real-time strategy, and part alien-ramming minigame. Sadly the whole package is such a mess that I can’t possibly encourage anyone to play it. Between the totally absent game information and the scream-inducingly unmanageable mechanics, Origin X totters right to the very brink of being effectively unplayable, and has the cheek to affront us with bleak presentation and a glitch map while doing so.

Weep for the missed potential if you care to, but make no mistake: the only thing that Origin X originates is its own deletion.

Uprisings and Updates

The Indie Games Uprising III is over now, and there’s plenty to review once I’ve spent enough time with the remaining games. In the meantime there are some quick look videos on The Indie Ocean’s YouTube channel.
I can tell you right now, though, that one of the Uprising games has displaced a regular diner at my Captain’s Table of the finest Xbox Live Indie Games. Congratulations to Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos, which offers us a management sim smooth, professional and addictive enough to rival the classic likes of Theme Park. And for only 80 Microsoft points! That’s almost offensively good value. If you’ve ever got even a moment’s enjoyment from a Theme, Sim or Tycoon game, go and take a peek at Smooth Operators.

Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos

City Tuesday (Indie Games Uprising III)

Out of the entire Indie Games Uprising III, City Tuesday was the game I was looking forward to most. It seemed poised to do everything that the finest indie games on any platform often do – challenge assumptions about what can be done with games as a medium, express something philosophical or emotional, evoke a mood and intrigue the brain.

I tried to not to hope for all this when I sat down to play. I studiously avoid hype for anything that interests me so that I won’t be greeted with crushing disappointment when I experience the reality. That’s why I haven’t played Skyrim. It couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

In the case of City Tuesday, it helped that the promotional material didn’t make it clear how the game would work. It could have been a platformer, a puzzler, a point and click adventure – there was no telling. As it turns out, City Tuesday is a game of two parts.

One part is a terrorist attack on the anonymous city, and this part reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the N64. Not aesthetically or in gameplay style, but in its approach to preventing the bombings. Streets, parks and buildings teem with people, all going about their everyday business. They walk the dog, go to work, eat, drive around and chat to each other. At the same time, terrorists move among them, planting bombs that all detonate at the exact same moment, wiping everyone out. The bombers are no fools; they hide their explosives in places that are hard to access: behind locked doors, buried under concrete, or stashed in someone’s car. If you don’t disarm these bombs by the end of the day, it all ends and…you start over. That is your power, and the reason that only you can save the innocent people of the city. You are unbound by time.

Including renting it from Blockbuster

On subsequent attempts, the day plays out the same as the first time. If you’ve ever played Majora’s Mask or seen Groundhog Day (or the earlier but more obscure 12:01 for hipster points) then it will make sense to you. You relive the same day, with the same people doing the same things, and through observation of their routines you can begin to work out how to tweak the pattern – and finally neutralise the bombs.

I love this part of the game. It’s a brave attempt to do something that isn’t often seen in games, and for the most part it does it well. I floundered around for a few minutes because the game explains very little about itself, but once I got a handle on how things work I began to really enjoy it. I can think of one or two changes that might be beneficial – in particular, forcing the player to disarm all the bombs in one go, Majora’s Mask style. Some events that occur during the day will make certain bomb locations inaccessible, but, once a bomb has been defused it remains defused even when the day starts over from the beginning. Personally I feel it would have been both more challenging and more interesting to reactivate every bomb upon restarting the day, so that the player has to not only work out how to resolve each individual threat but also slot them all together into an overall sequence so that all are disarmed in one flawless, heroic run.

But watch out for naked men on trains

I said the game is in two parts. The other part is the black sheep of the City Tuesday family. It’s not bad, not by any means, but it’s also nothing special. The whole of City Tuesday is divided into three stages. Stage 1 is a tutorial. It’s a short series of simple single-room puzzles; not particularly interesting or challenging, but that’s to be expected from a tutorial. Awkwardly, it actually doesn’t teach you very much, and at least one part is too cryptic to be helpful (a remark about security being unable to stop you that only makes sense once you already know what it means). We can disregard this tutorial as not part of the main game, leaving us with Stages 2 and 3 as the main body of City Tueday.

Stage 3 is the larger scale rewinding bomb hunt I discussed above. Stage 2, sadly, is basically a longer version of the tutorial. It is again a series of single-screen puzzles, most of which are very simple. There is one that made me think and actually forced me to go away and come back later, once I understood more about how the game’s concept works. The interesting ideas introduced in this puzzle, however, are never repeated. Standing alone it is enjoyable but too short and sorely under-used. The other screens in Stage 2 are pretty straightforward. Identify how to reach the bomb, then go and get it.

Museum terrorists are more sporting

This is City Tuesday’s big weakness. Two of the three stages are effectively little more than tutorial, then when the game hits its stride and begins to unfurl into something more majestic in Stage 3, suddenly it’s over. It feels like ­City Tuesday is a quarter of a great game. If there had been another two or three stages after Stage 3 that played in a similar way, and revisited or built upon some of the ideas introduced earlier on, this could have been one of the best games on the Xbox indie channel. As it stands, I really enjoyed City Tuesday once it got going, but was left hollow and disappointed by the whole thing suddenly jumping ship and calling a halt after what is, to all intents and purposes, level 1.

I still recommend City Tuesday. When it actually gets on with doing what it’s meant to do, it is a very good game that would stray into brilliance with a couple of tweaks. Even in its truncated form it’s easily worth 80 Microsoft points to get a glimpse of what’s possible in indie games. It’s just a crying shame that City Tuesday is content to remain only a glimpse – an introductory trailer for a grander project that doesn’t exist.

qrth-phyl (Indie Games Uprising III)

My very first, instinctive gut reaction when I read down the list of titles included in the Indie Games Uprising III and saw qrth-phyl was to facepalm so hard that I dislodged a couple of molars. Never, ever, ever, EVER, EVER release a game with a title that makes your audience’s brain emit smoke and label the game forevermore ‘that one with all the random letters’. Key marketing basics #7: have a name that people can at least try to repeat from memory.

Insane, nonsensical title aside, qrth-phyl makes some bold claims for itself, touting adaptive design – that is, the game changes depending on how you play it, so not only is different each time, it’s different in a way that’s tailored to your playing style. In practice this manifests mainly as difficulty fluctuations. Think a less sinister version of the AI Director in Left 4 Dead. Do well and the next level will be harder; do badly and it’ll go easy on you. This variety is absolutely essential to any hope of longevity here, since it rapidly becomes obvious that qrth-phyl is basically Snake. Not Hideo Kojima’s snarling super-commando but the antique game that was packaged as standard with every mobile phone ten years ago, and was geriatric even then.

Despite its hyper-retro foundations, qrth-phyl is one of the more original games I’ve played recently. Many indie games claim to be a modernisation of a classic while in fact being barely more than a fresh coat of paint, but this one really is. It works as a series of short stages, each a variation on the basic Snake format. Some take place on a flat plane, but with the addition of the ability to flip to the opposite face of the plane. Others are set on a cube, with the snake manoeuvring across its various surfaces.

You’ve thwarted me for the last time, Rubik!

The main variation, though, comes in the three dimensional levels, wherein your snake winds its way through a cubic room collecting dots and trying not to collide with itself or occasional obstacles. This could easily have been a grisly gameplay fiasco if it had controlled like the average 3D XBLIG, but Hermit Games have managed to strike that most delicate balance here. The snake’s controls are smooth but not slippery, and responsive without being twitchy.  This makes all the difference; it prevents these levels getting frustrating or feeling like a cheap pocket change basement project. It may be exactly that, but it doesn’t feel like it, and that makes a world of difference.

Sadly, the fluid controls are offset by a visibility issue. qrth-phyl actually has one of the better 3D cameras I’ve seen lately, particularly by indie games standards. It doesn’t do anything awkward, strain against the player’s directions or twist in disorientating ways. The problem with the visibility isn’t that the 3D camera is bad, it’s that there’s a 3D camera at all. Being able to see the whole of your growing tail was vital to Snake’s fairness as a game. Here you catch glimpses of your tail but often don’t know where most of it is, and sometimes this is all it takes to end your game.

Universal Studios’ new look raised a few eyebrows

Even in the more 2D levels this can be a problem. The cube levels, for instance, have your tail wrapped around the cube onto multiple faces, so at times you have no idea you’re about to crash until it’s too late. Even the simplest level, the original flat plane, suffers from this to an extent as you’re required to flip over to the underside blindly.

It isn’t a game-ruining problem so much as a nigglingly persistent one. It’s always there, gnawing at the edges of the fun. Fortunately the rest of the game is competent enough to compensate. The thing that keeps qrth-phyl from being an easy recommendation, though, is the repetitiveness. Like Hermit Games’ previous release, Leave Home, the adaptive design of qrth-phyl doesn’t deliver on its promise. It gets closer to that dream than its predecessor ever did – my 25-ish playthroughs of Leave Home were all essentially identical – but it isn’t enough to sustain prolonged interest.

There’s no denying that this first release of the Indie Games Uprising III is brave and distinctive, and I can’t praise those qualities highly enough. It’s also quite fun for the odd brief play session if time is short. There are plenty of people who love this sort of quick-fix game that they can dip in and out of – it’s an itch that still exists but that mainstream games no longer bother to scratch.

Sex Ed at progressive schools took a turn for the abstract

Ideally qrth-phyl would find its home as a mobile game, providing short bursts of entertainment on the move, but sadly it’s chosen to Leave Home (ho ho) and finds itself slightly out of its depth. At 80 Microsoft points it’s worth buying just for its inventiveness alone, and it will be fun for an hour, or longer if you’re in love with simple games, but when you switch your TV on and sit down at your Xbox in the coming days and weeks, you might find you need something a little more meaty than this snake.

A free Uprising III soundtrack album is available HERE

Acid Drift: Solar

I was never the biggest fan of Eilte as a whole package. I liked the concept, and the feeling of wandering space with only my own skills to determine whether I lived or died, but it rapidly became repetitive and boring thanks to the endless parade of identical space stations requiring nothing more involved than buying and selling crates of third-rate confectionary.

Xbox Live Indie Games has already corrected a lot of Elite’s weaknesses with Final Rift but that is far from the only XBLIG that reminds me of the classic wireframe space roamer. We’ve already had Project Delta (a review for another time, me-talking-about-stuff fans!) and now in the grim unseasonal downpour of summer 2012 we get Acid Drift: Solar, a game that contains no corrosives, drifts or suns, but successfully reminds me of both Elite and Project Delta without shamelessly copying either.

You are the captain of a spacecraft and you’re set free in a small chunk of galaxy to do whatever you want – as long as whatever you want is either trading, mining or fighting. Space is crammed to bursting with mineable asteroids, to the point that I start to wonder how it can legitimately be called ‘space’. There’s more rock than space, but I suppose ‘Dad, I want to go into rock when I grow up!’ doesn’t sound quite so impressive, unless your dad is Angus Young.

When the game starts, you have a barge. It has a cargo bay the size of a toddler’s shoe and slightly less weaponry than a ham sandwich. The game wants you to be in no doubt that this clump of cardboard and bin liners isn’t going to get you anywhere. Look at the name. Other ships are called ‘fighter’, ‘gunship’, ‘frigate’ – yours is ‘barge’. Not even ‘cargo barge’, just barge. The ability to name your ship as in Sid Meier’s Pirates would be a welcome touch, but our slum-dwelling barge captain isn’t afforded even that dignity. Instead he must slink around the galaxy avoiding conflict with anything larger than a kitten, scraping pebbles from asteroids until his cargo matchbox is full, then selling them for pennies at the nearest planet while swaggering captains of industry snigger and push him into hedges.

The 2012 Olympic committee took their stadium seriously

Or that seems to be the plan, anyway. One of the loading screens states categorically that a barge can’t beat a battleship, but once you figure out the trick to the combat system, I think it probably could. I’ll try it and update the review accordingly. I certainly managed to put a fair few heavy duty military vessels out of commission with my little wireframe USB stick of a ship.

Combat and mining in Acid Drift are handled as minigames, while trading is a straightforward transaction menu. At any of the asteroids that rudely clutter every inch of space you can press X to initiate a brief button-matching session to garner resources which you can then sell on at any of the game’s handful of planets.

Alternatively you can buy the resources of your choice at the market and haul them to a planet where they’re in demand. The trading screen conveniently shows you the selling price at all other worlds, so there’s no brain work involved. Annoyingly for an aspiring trader, you have to select your destination planet while still docked. You can try roaming around on your own but you’re unlikely to find the right patch of space, and you’re unable to change the locator arrow while on the move. Presumably you have to buy your locator arrows at a little kiosk in the spaceport, staffed by a disillusioned old man who just wants to be left alone to wither in peace. Or maybe I’m thinking of Heathrow.

Pimp My Ride was under-qualified for its space spin-off

Combat is the most exciting of the minigames, but it has a pretty straightforward tactic that I figured out within two fights and mastered within five. It’s a sort of one-on-one Space Invaders. Your ship and the enemy face each other across the screen and let rip with your space pixel guns while sliding from side to side. It’s a pleasantly inventive way of handling combat, but it doesn’t take Darth Revan to notice that you can win at least 90% of the time by sidling slightly ahead of your enemy until it gets nervous and sidles back, then repeating until explosions occur. It’s hard to describe but trust me that it’s simple and works on every type of ship. I noticed this in my first or second battle, and now you will too. Enjoy.

Although you take out most (if not all) types of ship with your basic peasant barge, buying new ships makes things a lot easier. Every ship in the game is for sale, and you get a discount for trading in your current ride. Well, the game says you do but you actually don’t. I’m pretty sure you could take the ship showroom to court for that kind of chicanery. Stan would be proud.

This early section is a bit of a slog. With small cargo capacity, neither trading nor mining is particularly profitable, and while you can make some money tussling with pirates it takes so long to wear them down with your barge that it feels like your hull will rust before you make enough money to buy lunch. When you do eventually manage to offload your pauper’s wagon in exchange for something with a bit of style, the game hits its stride and it’s pretty fun as long as this samey space fighting/trading thing is up your street. That’s not sarcasm; it’s up my street and I know there are other people on this street with me.

Tetris just got real

Sadly, after maybe an hour, perhaps less, the game hits its second slump. You’ve got to your ideal ship (I stopped at a destroyer because I didn’t fancy the lack of mobility I’d suffer in a battleship) and you know how to make money at a reasonable rate. All that’s left to you is to chase the two ultimate goals listed in the planetary menu. One is quite easily affordable by the time you get a good ship, but the other requires quite a lot of grinding for cash. Even with a cargo hold the size of St Paul’s and firepower that would make Goku whimper in embarrassment, making this immense sum of money takes patience. It’s unfortunate, then, that the ending is the most anticlimactic event in gaming since the release of the Virtual Boy. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. There’s nothing to spoil.

You have two aims to work towards, both listed in the planetary options: retire to a mining colony or retire to a private moon. Of course the moon is the real ultimate goal here. After a lifetime spent trading, fighting and scavenging in my now battle-scarred (presumably) destroyer I eventually managed to accumulate just barely enough money to buy my very own natural orbital satellite. With a swelling feeling of pride and anticipation filling my chest, I moved with portentous slowness down the menu to the final climax of the game, and anxiously nudged the A button.

‘You retired to a private moon’ said the game.

I’d expected a brief paragraph describing my retirement, or a picture of the moon in question, or even just a rundown of my stats – enemies killed, resources mined. Something. Anything. What I got was one short sentence on a stock deep space background; the same background used for the close-but-no-cigar mining colony ending. Even Goolin managed to muster an insipid ripple of fireworks. Here, nothing. I bought the bloody moon! The sentence might as well have been ‘the game is stopping now’ for all the sense of fulfilment it delivers.

Shepard’s friends hated his boring shopping lists

Most of Acid Drift: Solar is a generally enjoyable, if brief and shallow, space trading and combat escapade. If you enjoy the Elite variety of game at all, you’ll probably find some fun here. If you’ve never played a game of that type, this is as good a place as any to start. The orange wireframe visuals are hardly lavish, but they have their own style and feel, which is more important than maximum graphical sheen. Combat is unusual enough to be fun for a little while, and wandering around space as you please is as liberating as the fairly small game world allows it to be. Unfortunately the game’s simplicity costs it longevity, and the imbalance of the beginning and end is discouraging. If the opening trudge doesn’t put you off, the final grind might – and if it doesn’t, you too might feel a little resentful at the ending’s refusal to match your hard work. The apathetic conclusion doesn’t detract from enjoyment of Acid Drift’s gameplay, but when you’ve spent half your time with the game just working gruellingly towards that one distant dream, something slightly grander than ‘fine, you’ve done it, now piss off’ would have been nice.