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.

Hypno Vol. 1

Hypno Vol. 1 is a strange one. It takes the ‘dark and edgy’ thing that so often feels forced, then adds a mission-based structure and top-down perspective. After a while it starts to feel a little like Grand Theft Auto. The first one, back in the days before it became a colossal franchise made entirely of ego. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Hypno doesn’t have colourful visuals or a large world. Instead it opts for black and white minimalism and a compact grid of featureless squares representing a city, relying on its tone and originality to do the heavy lifting.

Without giving away plot points, the premise is that you are a bloodthirsty sociopath named Lydia who has just escaped from some sort of institution. Lydia is blind but has the ability to steal the intentions from the minds of people around her and use them to programme behaviour into others. For instance, if she ‘rips’ the intention ‘I’m going to the bar’ from Steve, she can then ‘brand’ it onto Dave and make him go to the bar instead. This is the core mechanic around which the whole game revolves. I’m sure Dave has no complaints. 

Branding soon becomes more elaborate. You have to start stacking intentions to cause a whole series of actions – make Bob go to the sports shop, buy a baseball bat, go home, use the bat to kill his wife. It’s quite grim yet also strangely compelling. For the first couple of minutes this is all there is to the game, but there are only so many times you can make people kill each other before the novelty wears off. Our pet maniac, Lydia, gets bored of aimless slaughter around the same time we do, and that’s where the missions come in.

“Oh, I’ve been wondering where I put that.”

A mysterious man calling himself Darius asks you to use your powers of hypnosis to carry out criminal jobs for him, all to further his undisclosed agenda. In payment for your services, he tips you off about opportunities for ‘fun’ uses of Lydia’s powers – getting a teenage girl to murder her stalker, or ensuring that a wife is drunk and armed when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. These are basically missions too, though they tend to be more savage and unsettling than the ones that benefit Darius directly. I’m not one to get squeamish or take games too seriously, but there is a voyeuristic tone to these interludes that leaves me slightly uneasy.

The odd thing about all this carnage is that as Hypno progresses it increasingly comes to resemble a puzzle game. The missions cease to be menial ‘walk over here and brand this person with this intention’ tasks, and instead become more about finding ways around various restrictions that are imposed on Lydia. This is where the game comes into its own, and at the same time starts to fall apart.

Clive’s only defence against the green marble attack was his extremely pointy beard

You’ll often find that areas of the map are walled off; civilians can wander in and out, but Lydia can’t. These walled off regions are usually patrolled by guards who can recognise ‘the branded’ – someone you’ve reprogrammed – and will kill them on sight. It’s never made entirely clear how this happens. Presumably the branded all cluck like chickens and clutch Paul McKenna plushies as they go about their nefarious business.

To get around this inexplicable problem, you have to brand someone to sneakily climb a building for a spot of rooftop surveillance on the guards. Once your spy finds out that, say, one of the guards is a sleazy old lothario, then you can send one branded to intercept and distract him by flirting, while another branded sneaks up and kills him. It doesn’t seem to matter who you send to do the flirting; evidently the developer of Hypno considers everyone in the world to be omnisexual and have no standards. Maybe the whole game is secretly a statement of sexual politics and we should send a copy to the government with signatures attached.

If only Skyrim’s world had looked this good

Add into the mix people who can’t be branded, a drug that reduces the number of people you can brand during a given mission and other obstructive factors, and Hypno’s missions start to test the brain a bit. With some experimentation, practice in branding the right people as quickly as possible and a little bit of luck, you can make each mission unfold just as planned and domino its way to a satisfying conclusion. 

That might sound enticing, but there’s a down side to all this. Your instructions from Darius are often quite vague, and frequently leave gaps that can have you scratching your head for a while, not because the puzzle is intricate but because the game doesn’t explain what’s happening, or in some cases even what the objective is. Like many mission based games, additional tasks are introduced part way through many of the missions, but sometimes you will simply be pointed towards targets and not given a clear idea of whether you’re meant to kill them or brand them, or something else entirely. Being given a challenging puzzle is fine, but when the challenge comes from poor explanation of the requirements, it becomes a serious drawback in enjoying the game.

If important people are entirely orange, Bob Monkhouse was the emperor of the world

It’s tough to decide on whether to give Hypno Vol. 1 a recommendation or not. It’s certainly different to any other game I’ve played on Xbox Live Indie Games, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem is that it expends its effort in the wrong places. The game goes all out to make itself shocking and brutal, and it has a good try at being unique, but it’s so busy with all this that it forgets to have a coherent structure – and in doing so it obstructs the player one too many times. If the idea intrigues you and you have the patience of a Spelunky player, give it a try. If the gratuitous grisliness and the aimless wandering guesswork of some missions don’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t bother.

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.

Super Killer Hornet

Super Killer Hornet is shooting by the numbers. That’s a joke. You’ll get it later.

The game feel like it should be controlled with one of those chunky old analogue joysticks, sticky from the sugar-saturated hands of a thousand fumbling twelve year olds. That’s my arty writer way of saying it feels like a 1990 arcade game.

The graphics are pretty straightforward, with adequately (but not extravagantly) detailed sprites and some very SNES-ish explosions that would have made Jaz Rignall gasp “ooh, pretty” back in the day. Not much in the way of backgrounds though, so it ends up looking a bit spartan (in the sense of minimalist, not the sense wearing only underpants). The music is better, and can be selected at the start of each level – a small but welcome touch.

The core gameplay is similarly…er…’streamlined’. Tap A to rapidly fire a spread shot; hold A to let rip with a sustained laser barrage that is more powerful but slows your movement in a classic power/survivability trade-off. That’s the idea, anyway. In practice you can spare your thumbs the dreaded RSI risk of constant tapping by just holding X instead, for the same effect. Nor does the power/speed trade work; the beam is quite wide so enemies mostly won’t get close to you, and the slower movement speed actually makes it easier to dodge incoming shots. This has been consciously built into some other games (Redshift) but it seems accidental here.

Yep, that will definitely kill a hornet

So far, so routine as retro vertical shooters go. Fortunately, Super Killer Hornet throws in something of its own to liven up the bare bones shooting. Remember that ghastly term that hung around the early-mid ‘90s like the inexplicable smell of cabbage in a pensioner’s living room? You know, the one that clutched test tubes full of wretched creations like Mario is Missing. That’s right, Super Killer Hornet flirts – in the most chaste and evasive way – with the lingering dread spectre of ‘edutainment’. This game, this retro arcade shooter, incorporates mathematics. Weirdly, that’s actually the best thing about it.

While blasting your way through the descending swarms of alien spacecraft, you will occasionally spot a mathematical function – a ‘3 X’ or a ‘7 +’, that sort of thing. If you collect that, a number will appear a few moments later. Collect that too and you’ll have almost a whole simple equation, maybe ‘3 X 9’ or similar. Plough on through the mayhem without being killed and soon three numbers will appear, one of which is the right answer to the mathematical problem. Grab that answer and…well, what happens next depends on the game mode.

Should have grabbed that 1. Easy money.

The two modes on offer use the maths element differently. Arcade mode is the one that leaves me yawning. You have a limited number of lives and the maths function just acts as a score multiplier. If you’re someone who is motivated by beating your previous scores this mode might hook you like a lecherous fisherman. Personally I find high score chasing only fractionally less appealing than filling in a tax return, so I lost interest in Arcade mode after five minutes.

The second mode, Black Label, is the one I choose to spend time with. It gives the maths element a purpose beyond making a meaningless series of digits at the top the screen change more quickly. I have no idea what the title Black Label refers to, but it’s an enticingly decadent name for a timed challenge. The Arcade mode’s meagre allotment of lives is traded for infinity, but don’t get drunk on the dizzying possibilities just yet. In place of finite lives, the game slaps a huge timer across the screen, unrelentingly ticking away every second until your ignominious demise. Your salvation comes in the form of mathematics; each complete equation extends the timer and buys you a little more life.

Get off! On arithmetic dogfight night, your embrace means nothing to me.

I quite enjoy this mode, and although it’s not interesting enough to sit and play for protracted sessions, it works quite well in short bursts. The use of contrasting brainwork – the observation and reflex of combat stapled onto the logical process of arithmetic – is surprisingly refreshing. I’m not accustomed to using my brain very much in this sort of game, and certainly not in this way. There’s also a nice side effect, in that when you die any incomplete equation is wiped clean, so even though you have infinite lives you can’t afford to be reckless. Death does have a cost, it’s just not as tangible and immediate as in Arcade.

I can’t in good conscience give Super Killer Hornet a recommendation, nor can I bug spray it into oblivion. With the Arcade mode alone I’d say this was too slender a package to be worth your time (shame on anyone who sniggered at ‘slender package’). With the addition of the Black Label mode there’s enough here to give both score chasers and score avoiders their 80 MSP worth of fun. Even with its unusual mathematical additions to gameplay, the Super Killer Hornet experience is just too bare and minimal to get the full seal of approval. It’s fine, but whether just ‘fine’ is enough for you will depend on your taste.

Weapon of Choice

There are a couple of types of game that I’m always surprised not to see on Xbox Live Indie Games. One is screen-by-screen action RPGs like the old Zelda games; the other is Contra-like platforming shooters. There are a couple but they’re generally either quite light on the shooting or just not very good. Weapon of Choice gears up for a hefty bout of Contra’s massed carnage but also coats it with a layer of Alpha Squad’s lightheartedness just in case earnest destruction is too much for your frail disposition.

The basic gameplay is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well. You are a soldier ploughing through enemy forces, blowing up everything that moves like a pre-politics Schwarzenegger. One hit will finish you off, so you have to be agile, and quick on the right thumbstick. It’s unusual to see a twin-stick control scheme in a side-scrolling platform shooter, but it makes perfect sense. Enemies will come from all directions, and the levels frequently offer several routes to explore that might see you clinging to the ceiling with your bizarre robotic spider backpack or leaping between unsettlingly organic outcrops, so precision control is a lifesaver.

‘Unsettlingly organic’ is a good description for a lot of the visuals. Right from the first level you’ll stumble across (or under, or into) writhing, chitinous beasts the size of trains, or eye-pocked maws big enough to pick bicycles out of their teeth. Brightly coloured, smoothly animated and bursting with occasionally unpleasant detail, Weapon of Choice is easily an upper-rung XBLIG in its presentation.

There’s more to fun than looking pretty, though. If there wasn’t, then cathedrals would have all the best parties.

Maybe I’d even go as far as ‘upsettingly organic’

From the outset the game spoils us with a wealth of options. There are six difficulty settings and several characters to choose from even before we unlock more. Your choice of character is far from superficial here, as each has their own special weapon that functions uniquely with primary and secondary fire modes, and also a power that activates during a double jump, such as a brief decoy or a short float.

Xerxes Remington, for instance, lugs around a jet engine that he uses as a gun. Its primary fire mode acts more or less like a high-powered flamethrower, but its secondary mode cranks up the engine’s output, increasing its range but also launching Xerxes backwards if he shoots while jumping. Each character has a short file that you can flip through to get an idea of how their special weapon works, and scraps of biographical info if that’s your thing.

Chantarelle Marmalade uses a gun that is more of a flailing quasi-chainsaw; Moses Longhorn unleashes robotic satellites that hover around and fight for him. Each character’s weapon is completely different from all the others, and comes with two distinct modes for different situations. All the characters also have the same back-up weapon, but it’s no mundane sidearm. An assault rifle on the surface, activating the secondary mode sends the gun out to roam around as directed on a sort of prehensile cable. Make no mistake, the weapons are the focus of this game, and the source of both success and sometimes failure if misused. There’s a reason the whole game was named after them.

Genetically engineered cows transformed the dairy farming industry

The roster of characters also does more than provide a selection of distinctive play styles – it serves as a ‘lives’ system too. Your chosen character has one life; if they die, you choose another character to drop in and take their place. The catch here is that you won’t be able to use your original character again unless you can carry them, whimpering like a scolded kitten, all the way to the end of the level. Once out of the level they heal up and can be swapped back in the next time you get killed – though then they’ll have to return the favour by carrying their fallen buddy home.

It’s an interesting system. Weapon of Choice gives you a chance to avoid actually losing a life if you can adapt to a different character’s play style well enough to survive the rest of the level. The game makes you earn your boon, and it works astonishingly well. Just to throw a bit more of a dilemma into the mix, you will occasionally see entirely new characters lying wounded and in need of rescue. If you can get them out, you’ll effectively gain a bonus life for this playthrough, and will have a new starting character to choose the next time. You can only carry one ally though, so if you’ve been killed already you’ll have to decide between saving your old favourite or taking a chance on the unknown soldier you’ve just stumbled across.

The aliens eyed his floating lightchair covetously

Eventually I realised that discovering new characters in this way has one more interesting consequence. It doesn’t just give you a 1UP for this playthrough; it gives you one more life for every playthrough thereafter. As you play the game on the lower difficulty settings and find more characters, it makes higher difficulties more manageable by effectively enlarging your stockpile of lives. But each death means you have to change the way you play, and you might end up stuck with a character you’ve never managed to get the hang of. It’s a beautifully elegant system, and for me it’s the real highlight of the game.

If the replayability of assorted difficulties and a multitude of characters aren’t enough, there are at least three (that I know of) story strands to explore. The route you choose to take in the first couple of levels will determine which plot you follow, which levels you visit and what the ultimate fate of humanity will be. It’s a lot of responsibility for the sort of person whose idea of precision marksmanship is ripping the propulsion from a Harrier and stuffing it in an alien’s mouth.

Jet engine, meet face. Still fractionally more finesse than MW3 TDM.

This replayability is important, because Weapon of Choice really isn’t very long. Higher difficulty settings will take longer to battle through, but the levels in each plot strand number maybe half a dozen at most. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about seeing different endings, exploring every level or challenging yourself with tougher replays, then Weapon of Choice might not be worth the asking price. For someone like me though – a chronic replayer of games even when there’s nothing left to discover – the combination of different routes and retrievable characters are a powerful lure. Even without those the hectic, over the top, manic carnage of the amped-up cartoon Contra gameplay is enough to draw me back for a quick blast through from time to time. If you like games about shooting things, and especially if you like them to be unique as well as explosive, this should be your Weapon of Choice.

Birth Order

Xbox Live Indie Games has made itself a haven for various things, not all of them good. It’s particularly infamous for the malformed abominations churned out by certain apathetic developers with a taste for easy money. Among the more worthwhile types of game that have made the indie channel their home are retro 2D shooters and genre-twisting experiments. Birth Order grabs at both of these and hopes for the best.

I never really got into scrolling shooters the first time round. The likes of R-Type were mighty names that loomed on the fringes of my gaming awareness but never crossed my path. In that sense, I come to XBLIG shooters as a combination of fresh-faced shooter newbie and wizened gaming veteran. To my eye, Birth Order manages to do a lot of things right and I applaud its efforts.

From the outset Birth Order plays its cards close to its chest. The short tutorial explains the basic shooting mechanic well enough – enemies are marked with an image of one of the face buttons, and you must press the corresponding button to shoot at them. Your weapon auto-aims at the relevant enemies, leaving you free to focus on dodging incoming fire and deciding which enemy types to prioritise. Weirdly, this is the only thing the tutorial shows; all the other features and quirks have to be worked out for yourself. None of it is particularly baffling, but it’s an odd choice to have a tutorial that explains nothing except the one thing that doesn’t really need explanation.

Feeling star-struck. Ho ho.

Beyond the tutorial you find yourself on a game board, which is where the ‘Huh?’ moments begin. Each space represents a level, and you must survive these levels to pass beyond them. The entire board is hidden, except for a small area surrounding you, and another area that’s surrounded by locks. It’s mentioned in passing that you’re hunting your brother, but this has no connection to anything the game has told you so far. No explanation is given as to why you want your brother dead, or why he’s surrounded himself with locks then scattered the keys all over the world. Well, I suppose maybe you don’t want him dead. I’ve assumed you do, but maybe it’s just your birthday and this is some kind of large-scale treasure hunt that your sibling concocted for you. That would explain the Birth Order title. Either that or he’s demanding that you reproduce – but we don’t want to go there…

I’m blue, my brother’s red, it was never going to be a happy family life

The other odd feature that’s never really discussed is cards. It doesn’t take long to notice that enemies occasionally drop what appear to be playing cards, and it’s absolutely imperative to pick these up whenever possible. Your card collection can make the difference between success and failure, not just overall but in each individual level. Cards are accessed from the map/board screen, and have a variety of effects. Most will give you a bonus effect for one level, such a shield or a drone that grants you additional firepower. With no way to tell which levels will be tranquil walks in the park and which will be auditions for Ikaruga, you have to guess based on gut instinct, and it can be frustrating to use your last shield card on a level that a sleepwalking five year old could have completed playing only with their feet.

Other cards are more permanent. They might expand your ship, lay waste to a section of the board or bestow some of the mysterious stars that you’ll collect throughout the game (it’s not clear what stars do, but they’re shiny). Perhaps the most important form of card can only be obtained from the bosses that roam the board like belligerent drunks looking for a fight with the birthday boy. Assuming you can take them down (which often requires a card or two, at least for me) you’ll gain a key card which removes one of the locks around your brother’s treehouse—er, I mean evil lair.

When you said “swarm of Bs”, this wasn’t what I expected

I don’t know what happens once all the locks are gone, because I’ve never got that far. Birth Order is hard, let’s not be coy about it. The weird part of the difficulty is that it’s so erratic. The exact layout of the board and the contents of each level are randomised each time you play, so although the game does broadly start get harder as you go along, sometimes the first few levels will be surprisingly brutal just thanks to the randomisation factor.

Despite its quirks of unpredictable difficulty and lack of explanation, Birth Order is easy to recommend to those of you who enjoy 2D shooters. Even those who don’t might find enjoyment here anyway thanks to the replacement of shooter standards with button-matching and card-collecting elements. At 80 Microsoft points, Birth Order is both one of the better XBLIG shooters and one of the more successful gameplay experiments.

If you ever figure out why we’re meant to kill/hug/impregnate our brother, let me know…

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.

Sushi Castle

Regular readers might have noticed that I like a bit of randomly generated exploration. Whether it’s Cursed Loot, Mega Monster Mania, Lair of the Evildoer, Dead Pixels or the newly released Spelunky, the phrase ‘randomly generated’ (or ‘procedurally generated’) sets my heart a-flutter like I’m a chaste maiden in a period novel. It doesn’t always work out, but the sheer animal magnetism is always there.

Sushi Castle, just released by Milkstone Studios (the developer of the delightfully antagonistic Infinity Danger), grabs pretty much everything I like about randomised dungeon crawling and throws it all together. In the manner of a roguelike, you have one solitary life in which to explore as much as you can of a series of randomised floors, killing everything that moves and picking up everything that doesn’t. There are a couple of catches, though.

The first catch is that the actual control works like a twin-stick shooter. None of this turn-based walking into enemies to damage them. Instead you open fire and circle strafe like it’s Infinity Danger all over again. The second catch is that in place of huge quantities of largely interchangeable loot, you instead pick up a small number of very different items that modify your abilities. Where many dungeon crawlers have you switching from Ragged Loincloth +1 to Reinforced Pantaloons + 3 as you pick up a modest junkyard’s worth of miscellaneous brick-a-brack, Sushi Castle doesn’t.  It eschews equipment in favour of one-offs that are usually found in special rooms only once or twice per floor, like the Ninja Cloud that enables you to fly and the stodgy snack that gives you a health boost but makes you walk like you have EA’s DLC catalogue strapped to your feet.

This guy is definitely wearing Back to Karkand sandals

The upshot of all this is that while many randomised dungeon crawlers promise replayability yet offer only repetition with minor variations, Sushi Castle is genuinely hugely replayable. The differences between playthroughs aren’t just a matter of fractionally different stats on your Orcish Linguini Spatula of Flaying but real, tangible changes that alter the way the game plays out. This also forces you to be adaptable. Sometimes you might be a damage sponge with a ton of health, while other times you’ll be a glass cannon with high damage but no means of defence. Sometimes you’ll rely on bombs to deal serious damage, and other times you’ll have to make use of your manoeuvrability. You have to be able to play in a variety of styles, because you never know how your character will end up developing.

The game’s greatest strength is its most conspicuous weakness. Some attempts can feel doomed from the start if you can’t find the right items to unlock shops, or you keep picking up stat reductions through sheer bad luck. The game’s scrolls and sushi have randomly assigned effects that can be very positive but also sometimes very negative, and it’s frustrating to have an otherwise successful playthrough suddenly fall apart because you unwittingly used a scroll that filled the room with live bombs.

The shoulder-mounted panda, a common sight in the Shogunate armies

This isn’t a huge problem though, and the benefits of this truly unpredictable approach to dungeoneering outweigh the drawbacks. For only 80 Microsoft points, there’s a lot of play time in Sushi Castle. In principle, you can play it indefinitely without having the same experience twice. I’ve already got my money’s worth out of it with hours of play time invested, and I’m still seeing new items popping up all the time. Just to add delicious icing to the cake, Milkstone Studios plan to add new features when they reach specific sales landmarks. It’s an interesting approach that is increasingly common in indie games, and personally I find it far preferable to demanding more money in exchange for negligible additions.

Oh, one more thing. I have to mention this or my journalistic credibility badge will be repossessed and used to fund nefarious criminal activities. For better or worse, Sushi Castle is Edmund McMillen’s Steam hit The Binding of Isaac. There are a few differences – the ability to fire diagonally, some of the bosses and one or two enemy  types – but 90% of the game is lifted directly from Isaac and just re-painted. The way the game generates everything in general, its item room/shop/gauntlet room set up, its bomb/key/special item system, the enemy types, the item effects – the majority of these things are exactly the same. Sushi Castle would be stretching the acceptability of being ‘inspired by…’ to its limits. Having said that, if your computer can’t run The Binding of Isaac, or you hate Steam, or you just prefer to play from your sofa rather than a rigid office supplies chair, this might be the game for you.

I recommend Sushi Castle because it’s good fun, it’s generally executed well, and the way it handles randomised dungeon crawling means it’s still entertaining after hours of play. For the price, you won’t get many better deals. It’s just a shame that all of its qualities are actually something else’s qualities recycled, with no voice of its own.

Zandri’s Revenge

I was looking forward to playing Zandri’s Revenge because the visuals remind me of Avernum and I have a nostalgic fondness for isometric RPG/adventure games.

Red text on a blank black screen said ‘Player 1 press A’.

Red text on a blank black screen said ‘Player 2 press A’.

You can’t even reach the title screen without two players. I am one player, and I don’t have a handy second player living under my bed.

Don’t buy Zandri’s Revenge. The whole idea of making a forced two-player game on a service that reliably has less of a community than the Colston Bassett branch of the McDonalds Nutritional Appreciation Society is ludicrous beyond the power of words to describe.

Next.

Vidiot Game

You know what I love? Stuff that’s not Vidiot Game. I wake up every morning in the warming rays of something that isn’t Vidiot Game and spring out of bed knowing with heady certainty that my day will be enriched by a persistent absence of Vidiot Game. Well, apart from that one day when I played it – the day when indie developer GZ Storm took the Jigsaw Killer-like step of making me appreciate the comfort of my daily life by exposing me to gruelling misery.

The game, such as it is, takes the form of a sequence of apparently randomly selected mini-game segments. Or it would if these segments required actual play, but fully half of them don’t. Like Baller Industries’ malodorous offal heap Rock Bottom, GZ Storm’s Vidiot Game seems like a showcase for the developer’s  attempts at scriptwriting (in this case, sketch show writing) that has been released as a game only because TV networks wouldn’t return their calls.

It’s depressingly obvious from the sniggeringly forced tone of artificial wackiness that Vidiot Game is meant to be funny. The humour here is that same sort of humour that you have to suffer if you spend much time around teenaged cousins – the “I’m so random, random things are funny, I like random things that are random, and being random”. It’s the Seth MacFarlane-wannabe zaniness that doesn’t understand why absurdity is funny, and equates just crowbarring unrelated objects into nonsensical situations with being uproariously funny – the sort of ‘humour’ that causes my soul to heave a weary, disillusioned sigh whenever I’m subject to it.

Spin the Wheel of Abject Despair! Where it stops, no one wants to know!

It might seem unfair to harp on so much about the tone of the game, when the gameplay should be all that matters. I quite agree – or would, if it wasn’t for the fact that there is next to no gameplay contained in Vidiot Game. It’s a montage of strained strangeness occasionally punctuated by a multiple choice question or a few stilted seconds of clunky interactivity. Even so, I couldn’t in good conscience completely write off Vidiot Game simply because I don’t find it funny. It’s conceivable that if you’re fourteen and you’ve watched one too many episodes of American Dad you might get a chuckle out of this. Shame on you, but fair enough I suppose.

More depressing than a real scratch card, despite the absence of the possibility of failure.

The biggest problem, though, is that even after you’ve sat through your allotted portion of tiresome zaniness and managed to wring some semblance of play from one of the game’s segments, it doesn’t matter. Whether you succeed or fail has almost no relevance to anything, and because so many of the (marginally) interactive sections are multiple choice scenarios with arbitrary answers that require blind guesswork, there’s no satisfaction in success or disappointment in failure – just a flat, monotone “whatever”. Without any real gameplay or actual fun content to back it up, Vidiot Game relies too heavily on its humour. Even if you find it utterly hilarious, there’s barely any game here. Lesson #1 in making a game: make a game.

I don’t bear GZ Storm any ill will. Whatever else their game is, it isn’t lazy or a cash-in. They clearly had something in mind that they wanted to attempt, and they did it in their own style. They get some credit for that, even if it pains me to say so. The game itself, though, is a nauseating trek through a slideshow of scenes that were probably assembled by picking nouns from a hat. I don’t know whether Seth MacFarlane was consciously the inspiration here, but I blame him and his carnival of mediocrity, Family Guy, for the spread of this sort drooling, malformed abomination. I curse you aloud, MacFarlane and Vidiot Game. A plague on both your houses.