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.

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qrth-phyl (Indie Games Uprising III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Studios’ new look raised a few eyebrows

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

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

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

Sex Ed at progressive schools took a turn for the abstract

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

A free Uprising III soundtrack album is available HERE

All the Nines: Uprising to the Challenge

It’s coming. In the wake of last year’s reasonably successful summer and winter Indie Uprising events comes the biggest yet: the Indie Games Uprising III, also known amusingly paradoxically as the Fall Uprising. Nine games in the ninth month, all brand new releases from ambitious indie developers, and some that have already made me gape with barely suppressed gaming lust.

The finished products haven’t landed yet, but the Indie Ocean’s pick of the bunch at this pre-release stage is City, Tuesday in which you play someone stuck repeatedly reliving the same five minutes before a terrorist attack. Profiles of this game and the others in the Uprising will pop up like mischievous gnomes over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, you can follow Uprising news on Twitter @XBLIGUprising or using the hashtag #IGU3, or at http://indiegames-uprising.com/

Once the games hit the market there will also be some unprecedentedly delicious video treats in store that you’ll find only on the Indie Ocean. Nine games, the voices of nine developers, and a big heap of my acerbic ruminations. Stick around.