The Curious Expedition (Steam Early Access)

Cur1When I first heard about The Curious Expedition, it scared me. The first thing that scared me about it was the title. Something in its verbose vagueness reminded me of Sir, You Are Being Hunted which, while a decent enough game, really needs to throw its cumbersome title out of a high window into a pile of something moist and unhygienic. The second thing that scared me was the ‘roam from encounter to encounter’ format which has become almost synonymous with FTL – at least amongst a certain adulation-hungry section of the indie community. Luckily my fear was foolishly misplaced on both counts.

Maybe this is a reflection of my recent interests but in some ways The Curious Expedition has more in common with board games than with FTL. No, no, wait! Sit down. It’s ok. Board games are cool now. Just ask Wil Wheaton (when is Wesley ever wrong?). Curious (as I’ll henceforth abbreviate it in the name of sparing my beleaguered fingertips) isn’t reminiscent of board games in the way you might be thinking. It’s not jungle-themed Monopoly or some sort of horribly literal Hungry Hungry Hippos. No, Curious reminds me more of something like Robinson Crusoe or Wilderness – its series of procedurally generated expeditions can be imagined as individual games in a campaign, with failure of not only this one brief effort but the entire saga resting on how prepared you are for the roll of the dice.

Cur11

The essence of the gameplay is to go out on an expedition in a roughly Victorian imperial fashion, roaming the uncharted (except by the people who live there) wilderness in search of sacred relics to disrespectfully pilfer, and local villagers to accidentally get killed when you make them climb a stone tower without  a rope. As an Englishman, the historical aspects of this make me justly uncomfortable. Victorian England was a dick.

The eventual aim is to be the most famous explorer by successfully completing expeditions, and there are lots of ways to boost your fame in addition to just not dying. Finding the golden pyramid which is present in every region of the world is one way, but those things can sometimes be tricky to locate. En route to the pyramid you’ll probably find various shrines which you can plunder for their ceremonial masks and ancient texts (while no doubt commenting on how quaint they are and how lovely they’ll look sitting on twee doilies in the drawing room). If the locals find out you’re doing any of this they’ll rapidly shift from welcoming to wary, and then to actively resentful. Substitute ‘ancient treasures’ for ‘booze’ and this could be anywhere in Britain. (Maybe that’s what Victorian explorers are really trying to achieve. You do meet missionaries in Curious and they never explicitly deny peddling sambuca to the locals.)

Worse yet, the instant you half-inch relics from a shrine, very bad things happen. Things which mainly involve the ground exploding in one way or another. More than once I’ve let myself become over-covetous and been forced to pay the ultimate price as the very earth itself acted like I’d spilled its pint.

Cur4

The biggest obstacle, though, is dwindling sanity. You spend sanity like fuel to traverse the landscape it’s a very limited resource. Tough terrain makes you crazy much faster than a leisurely stroll, while sleeping and eating replenish you for a while. If you don’t come suitably equipped with rope, machetes and other gear to help out with the tough stuff, you’ll find your sanity evaporating at a distressing rate, and your party will end up spending most of their time barging into villages in a panic and demanding the use of their hammocks.

There are other ways to top up your sanity, but it’s hard to imagine a 21st century government promoting them. The 19th century was a different world, and no self-respecting explorer would shy away from treating mental health issues with gallons of whisky and bricks of chocolate. (Having said that, “booze is good for you and walking makes you insane” might be an election winner.)

Once your expedition is done, whether you successfully find the pyramid or have to bail early in your pocket hot air balloon, your success will be judged by how much fame you gained. You can donate retrieved artefacts to a museum to give yourself a boost in renown, but sometimes it makes more sense to sell them like the shallow corporate shill you are so that you can actually outfit your team for the next trip. Like all the most tense games, you need to do both things, but can never quite stretch your resources that far.

Cur2

They won’t be hospitable after we nick everything they hold dear.

Curious is a pretty tough game to overcome and it doesn’t pull any punches. Not only will you never have quite enough treasure to gain as much fame and as much money as you’d like, it’s also surprisingly easy to get killed in the field. If you enter an animal’s roaming range, you’ll often find it comes over to have a sniff and a gnaw on your whimpering face. Even in the very first (and thus easiest) expedition, animals can really mess you up. The exact content of each expedition is procedurally generated for replayability, so you never know exactly what you’ll run into, and it’s entirely possible to get through an expedition without spotting a single beast – but if you do have to fight one, it will tear you apart.

As with a real expedition, the key is to be as prepared as possible. Buy decoys to avoid fights, buy bullets to give you extra attacks, buy better weapons – but all of this costs money or other items in trade. Along with buying ropes and machetes and the like for overcoming environmental hazards, tooling up for combat means trading trinkets in for cash instead of fame. The better prepared you are, the less likely you’ll be to die, but the further away from your fame goal you’ll get.

The process of combat itself is a literal dice roll. You get dice for all your party members, and for any weapons you’re carrying (plus extras if you spend ammunition), and you try to make combos from whatever results you roll. Enemies will do the same and, believe me, even the lowliest beasts have far better dice than your party of explorers. I imagine that swatting a fly in the world of Curious would see it drill through your hand.

Cur8

Fortunately the challenge is all in the gameplay and not in the interface. The whole thing is controlled with smooth and easy mouse use. It’s also in a constant state of being refined and improved thanks to its Early Access status. A couple of months ago the combat system was a little obfuscated and difficult to follow, but now it’s populated with handy tooltips which even a delirious Victorian explorer can understand. Developer Maschinen-Mensch is doing good work on not only providing plenty of content but also making the whole playing experience as smooth as possible – an admirable goal (and frustrating rarity) in Early Access.

Curious also excels itself in presentation. The music is generally good and reflects a certain whimsical mood of adventure (though one or two pieces can grate after a while) and the visuals have a faintly Secret of Monkey Island-ish pixel art style, though modernised and displayed in lavish colour. The tiled area map around which you navigate is pleasant enough (though wisely emphasises clarity over flashy presentation) but the zoomed-in scenes which accompany each encounter are well drawn and charming.

Cur12

Okay, who packed jaunty waistcoats instead of C4?

In fact, ‘charming’ is probably the best word I could use to describe The Curious Expedition. That’s not to say it’s flawless – the difficulty of an expedition can vary quite widely depending on luck with the ‘random number generator’ and combat is perhaps a little too brutally punishing. I also can’t help feeling a little uneasy about the setting. It’s a lighthearted faux-Victorian romp and not committing any crimes, but as a descendent of the pillaging British empire which this game affectionately parodies, I can’t help feeling a niggling disquiet that when this stuff really happened it was nowhere near this cute or amusing. I kind of feel like I should be scowling with ancestral shame, not frolicking in the digital jungles. That’s not a flaw with the game, just be aware that those of a culturally sensitive disposition might occasionally squirm at the real history there.

In any case, the niggles I do have about the game are minor and don’t do much to impede my enjoyment. It’s also worth a quick reminder at this point that it’s still a work in progress. The Curious Expedition would be easy to recommend if it was a full, final release; the fact that it’s still technically a unfinished but feels basically complete boggles my mind. Between the slick presentation, the tough yet rewarding gameplay, and the replayability afforded by its procedurally generated content, The Curious Expedition has a lot to offer.

Cur6

Really? How…CURIOUS. *smirk*

Again, ‘charm’ is a key word here. The game has a tone and a feel all of its own, and you can’t help becoming drawn into the adventures of your intrepid party of explorers, wincing when someone dies or wearily rolling your eyes at the way one particular NPC is always the one who falls and breaks a limb (seriously, there usually seems to be one member of your party who just can’t do anything right. We need a new hiring policy). That charm is present throughout, and it elevates a game which would already have been competent and enjoyable to new tier of quality.

I can’t promise that The Curious Expedition will suit everyone, but I have a lot of fun with it and I have better taste than other people, so you should probably go and have a look.

The Curious Expedition is available on Steam Early Access here for £10.99 (UK), $14.99 (US), or your regional equivalent. 

Update: New Expeditions

It’s true, it has been approximately the half-life of argon since I last updated anything on the written (and original!) incarnation of the Indie Ocean.

Basically, I always feel pretty drained when I get home from a hard day sculpting pancake statues, draining canals with a straw, or whatever it is I do for a living right now. I can record and edit a video in typically under an hour, then leave it to render while I do something else. A written review, on the other hand, generally takes 3-4 hours to write, edit, format and post.

Shipwreck. The wreck might have something to do with the gigantic homicidal crustacean you brought aboard in your hand luggage.

Shipwreck. The wreck might have something to do with the gigantic homicidal crustacean you brought aboard in your hand luggage.

Having said that, I prefer doing the written stuff. I enjoy it more and find it more satisfying. Dare I say I think I’m also better at it. So the upshot of all this is that I’m going to try and knuckle down to a review every couple of weeks. Chances are, it’ll be whatever I’ve been playing lately, so it’s likely to be a combination of PC indies, console indies, (real) roguelikes, and occasionally mobile ports of board games. In your face, consistency!

Do I have any particular games lined up? Why yes; yes I do. Look out for Shipwreck; at long last the first real Zelda-alike on Xbox Live Indie Games (previously the closest we had was FenackStory which got an A for good intentions, a C for execution, and a kick in the face for length).

FenackStory. I reviewed this already, and typing the review took about 500 times as long as finishing the game.

FenackStory. I reviewed this already, and typing the review took about 500 times as long as finishing the game.

Continuing with the Zelda-apeing theme, you can also expect to catch a fleeting, sasquatch-like glimpse of some degree of comment about Lenna’s Inception, a quasi-procedural-ish action adventure game which uses visual assets that are different from, but strikingly reminiscent of, Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy.

Lenna's Inception. Went through a lot of changes before they cast DiCaprio.

Lenna’s Inception. Went through a lot of changes before they cast DiCaprio.

The gist here is that the written Indie Ocean is back in business, and if that means reviewing WazHack 75 times and posting rambles about how much I didn’t hate the ending of Mass Effect 3, then so be it. (Don’t worry, that was a lie. Except the bit about Mass Effect.)

See you soon, indie investigators. …Indiegators– Indievestig— Whatever.

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.

Sequence

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

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

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

S1

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

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

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

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

S2

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

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

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

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

S3

Clearly Seymour mainly fed you his unwanted stationery.

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

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

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

S4

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.