Avalis Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Demon Lord’s elite troops. Apparently.

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

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

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

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

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My Cat vs Zombies Ep I

When I saw My Cat vs Zombies Ep I listed in the new releases a few weeks ago, I pointed and laughed. I did, literally – I turned to the other person in the room, flung out my accusatory finger and made a “haw haw, what’s this rubbish?” kind of noise. I may also have rhetorically exclaimed something like “who would think that’s a good idea?!” or “what’s wrong with these people?!”

The title and cover are absolutely despicable. On Xbox Live Indie Games, the word ‘zombies’ immediately gives me indigestion. 90% of the time it’s like a rickety old flickering neon sign advertising bargain bandwagon rides (boarding hourly from outside the Creative Bankruptcy Motel). Expanding it to anything ‘versus zombies’ is an improvement in the same way that falling into a sewage processing facility is an improvement over faceplanting in a urinal. It’s more ambitious, but that’s not necessarily a welcome quality.

‘Cats versus zombies’ would be like falling into a sewage processing facility with the greatest hits of ABBA playing in the background. On their own, cats/ABBA are fine, but their sickly sweet presence is almost insulting when it’s tacked on to a horrible experience in a cynical attempt to dilute your misery. The final touch, making it ‘my cat versus zombies’ and having a LOLcat-style cover that was thrown together while waiting for a bus just adds a smear of self-indulgence, like a man in a huge foam Stetson singing along to ‘Dancing Queen’ off-key while the mingled excretions of a major city close over your despairing head.

So yes, I felt thoroughly justified in my pointing and laughing, secure in the knowledge that my obnoxious behaviour was positively genteel by comparison to this game’s many crimes.

Well the developer can point and laugh right back at me, because My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is pretty good.

The London Underground pre-apocalypse

The world has been overrun by zombies, as you might expect. What you probably wouldn’t expect is the immunity of cats to the zombie-propagating virus, and the consequent rise of cat colonies in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath the world’s cities. There’s a definite touch of Fallout 3 to the setting. You’ll journey entirely through tunnels, crossing disused stretches of track and stumbling across little isolated enclaves of survivors. There are also rumours of a larger, secure cat city known as Whiskertown, which put me in mind of the awed curiosity I felt whenever someone in Fallout 3’s wilderness mentioned Rivet City.

I also felt touches of the old SNES RPG Shadowrun in places, particularly when I was asked early on to deliver a shipment of hallucinogenic catnip to a junkie. The bleak ad hoc communities remind me of Fallout, but the slide into despairing depravity has Shadowrun’s fingerprints on it, intentionally or not.

In gameplay, My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is essentially a twin-stick shooter. Move with one stick, aim with the other, shoot with the right trigger. The emphasis on taking missions from NPCs, exploring the maze of tunnels for loot and making the most of relatively sparse supplies of ammunition give the game a more action-RPG feel than the control scheme would suggest. Fallout 3 rears its head again here in the form of perks that you can choose from each time you gain a level, mostly giving you either a damage boost or extra health.

In spite of all this, the game is far from serious. In conversation, characters are represented by amusing or cute photos of real cats, and the names of the perks make liberal use of the internet’s various cat memes. I never laughed aloud, but the tongue in cheek tone works fairly well and gives the game some personality.

I should shoot you right now for wearing those glasses

Aside from the largely uninspiring visual design (par for the course among Xbox indies), my only real complaint is the length. I wasn’t watching the clock, but I estimate that I finished My Cat vs Zombies Ep I in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and that included quite a lot of leisurely exploration. That still isn’t bad for 80 Microsoft points, and this game is clearly intended as the first in a series of episodes, but I’m no fan of the episodic release format. It irritates me when I have to stop playing just as a game is hitting its stride.

Still, if wanting more of the same is my biggest gripe, I’d have to say My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is a winner. Not a big winner – maybe a local raffle winner rather than a lottery millionaire – but certainly worth a play for its charming post-apocalyptic RPG adventure. It’s just a shame that everyone with any taste will be sent screaming in the opposite direction by the gut-churningly awful title and cover art.

We will fight them on the hills, behind the huts, and in the patches of slightly different grass

Update  16/1/2012: this game has been lowered from 240 MSP to 80 MSP.

It’s rare that an XBL indie title deviates from the dreary norm of shameless trash and apathetic twin-stick blast-a-thons.So when I play one that does dare to be a bit different, I want to give it credit for that, if nothing else. Fortunately, KGB: Episode One happens to also be quite good at what it does.

KGB is a first-person shooter – a painfully over-represented genre in full retail games, but almost entirely absent from the indie side of things, at least on the Xbox marketplace. I know too little about Microsoft’s development kit and programming in general to comment on how challenging it is to develop an FPS on a budget of whatever change you have in your pocket, but judging by not only the dearth of these games but also the horrific quality of the few there are (which I will revist another time), it must be quite tricky.

Mike, you're in an FPS. Your ride was never going to survive long.

It’s only fair to give KGB credit for its ambition. It isn’t a nigh-unplayable, pale shadow of Wolfenstein 3D (I’ve played one of those), a sob-inducingly dire sci-fi wreck (played one of those too) or a horde-survival game (a few of those) – and that was the thing that really impressed me when I first dabbled in the trial version. KGB genuinely sets out to be a straight-faced, honest to goodness real first-person shooter. You can choose your loadout at the beginning of the game, which is pretty much a miracle. The scope of this choice is limited but perfectly valid, and leagues ahead of most of the competition. You carry one gun, and your choice of loadout determines which one you start with, from a choice of a scoped assault rifle, an unscoped version, a light machine gun, and an RPG launcher. Personally I favour the scoped AR, but if I change my mind later I can easily switch; in true modern FPS fashion, you can swap your weapon for any of the ones dropped by your enemies. Indeed, this is quite necessary at some points, as an RPG launcher is the only way to eliminate a mounted machine gun nest. More on that in a moment.

It should be evident by now that KGB really makes an effort. This extends into the other areas of the game too. The visuals are among the best I’ve seen in an XBL indie title. It’s not going to floor anyone whose opinion of a game’s quality is determined solely by how shiny the visuals are, but it’s impressive stuff for a no-budget release that was probably created by one person in their bedroom. Although it lacks the detail, variation and general professional quality to fully support the comparison, I’m going to go ahead and say that the game that KGB‘s visuals remind me of most is Battlefield 1943. It has perfectly adequate grass and trees, and a more than servicable water effect in its occasional small pools.

The enemies are limited to a range of maybe four character models, but that sets KGB way ahead of its rivals. More importantly, these enemies spot you from a decent (but not excessive) distance, shift between standing and crouching while engaged in combat, and lob the odd grenade. Hell, in true Call of Duty/Halo style, some of them chuck far more grenades than any fashion-conscious mercenary should really have room for in their sleek 21st century combat pantaloons.

The rest of the presentation isn’t as impressive, but still well above average for the indie junk heap. The music is a tolerable lone-guitar chug while wandering around, then squeals and shifts up  a gear with a suitable sense of urgency when an enemy spots you. The exploration music changes in some areas too; there’s a misty minefield region where the aforementioned chug is replaced by a far more accomplished atmospheric acoustic number that I could happily have listened to for the rest of the game.

But this is all icing, of course. However nice the decoration, it’s the crumbly cake of the gameplay that matters. I’m happy to report that KGB evades the (sometimes seemingly inevitable) fate of being a dry, bitter, wasabi-and-walnut monstrosity, and instead reveals itself to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon Victoria sponge. Engagements with enemy forces are understandably less fluid than in full retail games, but perfectly adequate. You can aim down your sights – and when you do, the gun actually raises to your eye rather than just flicking to a scope view. Some full retail games from long-established development houses can’t manage that feat (Perfect Dark Zero, go and stand in the corner).

The aim of the game is quite simple: you are Mike, and you’re dropped off in a troubled wilderness region to soften up the entrenched enemy forces before the main assault. This isn’t revealed through text, incidentally; the (admittedly basic) premise is imparted to you via voiceover during your helicopter drop-off. That’s one more area in which this game surprises by aiming squarely at the genre of ‘genuine modern military FPS’.

Mike’s mission boils down to killing anyone he sees, searching camps (scattered little huts) and setting fire to certain locations (amusingly represented by patches of darker grass). Although this doesn’t give you a lot to go on with, it does the same job as the plot of almost any modern FPS: it justifies you running from place to place while shooting people.

It’s not all gleeful thumbs up and high fives for KGB though. I’m going to disregard the unfair criticisms like ‘it’s not as pretty as Battlefield 3’ and ‘it doesn’t have proper loadouts’. It’s an indie game; there’s no point making straight comparisons to full retail games. It does, however, have its own problems that could have been avoided.

Argh! Fire extinguishers, my only weakness!

Firstly, sometimes enemies see and shoot you through solid rock. Not the edge of a boulder, either; bullets come flying straight through a great outcrop. It’s not a major problem and mostly doesn’t occur, but it is noticable.

Secondly, machine gun nests are more awkward than they really need to be, in several ways. Even though you can see (and seemingly shoot) the soldier manning them, they can only be destroyed by hitting them with an RPG. The game does flash up a message informing you of this, but only after you’ve already had to deal with two of them. For my first couple of hours with the game, I just kept running past these nests because they seemed to be manned by oblivious immortals. Even once I guessed the solution, I thought I was wrong because it’s easy to miss while appearing to score a direct hit. This is solved by quickly strafing so you can see the arc of your rocket, but it’s still an inconvenience. The nests also aren’t animated at all; the soldiers manning them stand stock-still, and the only clue that you’re being shot at is the damage indicator, since the mounted guns produce neither bullets nor any sort of sound.

Finally, and most irritatingly, there seem to be no checkpoints. The need to start over from scratch every time explains why I’ve played for maybe three hours total and not got all that far. Still, this is fine. Being an indie game it’s probably quite short, so playing from the beginning each time makes sense. My grievance isn’t with that; it’s with the no-checkpoint respawn system. Mike the unspecified agent has an unlimited supply of lives but each time he dies he has to walk all the way from the beginning of the game again. Enemies don’t reappear (mercifully) but it’s a hassle nonetheless. The only reason I can see to force this upon the player is to artificially lengthen the game, and it irks me. The play area is quite large and consists of a series of reasonably open spaces, so when you walk all that way only to accidentally step on a well-concealed land mine and have to do it all again, it does cause the teeth to gnash somewhat.

All in all, though, KGB: Episode One comes highly recommended. It attempts something I’ve rarely seen in XBL indie games: it makes full use of whatever miniscule, one-man budget it has to get as close as it can to a full, up-to-date FPS experience. Between the exceptional visuals for an indie game, the largely competently executed gameplay, and the attempt to provide some form of cinematic scene-setting through voiceovers and a dramatic opening scene, KGB Episode One manages to excel and distinguish itself enough to shrug off most of its noticable niggles. The frustration of repeatedly re-treading the same ground does cost the game playability that it can’t afford to lose, but its overall quality sustains it and makes it recommendable for those curious about dabbling in an indie FPS, particularly at the next-to-nothing price of 80 MSP.