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.

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0 Gravity Y3030

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

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

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

Y4

Star Wars: The Parcel Force Years

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

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

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

Y4

Plenty of fuel & O2. Not representative of Y3030.

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

Y1

Fox McCloud’s self esteem never recovered from his demotion

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

Uprisings and Updates

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

Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos

Oil Magnate

This review was written for The Indie Mine, though I bought it with my own Microsoft points. Please take a look. Reproduced here with permission.

Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. For a start, it’s one of painfully, worryingly few indie (or mainstream, for that matter) management/strategy sims on the Xbox 360.

The premise is pretty straightforward. You are an aspiring oil baron who must assess different prospective drill sites, buy the land and then fill your drums with black liquid gold, all while three rivals do the same and try to outdo you by fair means or foul. If that sounds exciting, this game is for you. If not, it might still be for you as long you don’t fall asleep during the tutorial. Although there’s still the matter of… No, I don’t want to mention that.

At the outset you can choose from four ‘missions’, which are basically definitions of the victory conditions. In one you must invest a specified amount of money over time, in another you must drive all your competitors out of business, and so on. The details of these missions can be tweaked, allowing you to make the game is easy or as difficult as you choose. You can adjust how much money you start with, how long you have to achieve the objective, and just how high the target figure is.

So far, so good. It’s all very professional. You can even choose the appearance of your office from a few options. This attention to detail is reminiscent of the classic management sims, the Sim City and Civilization series.

'Firmness'... I'll leave that one to you, dear readers.

Traditionally, sim-type games don’t fit very well with consoles thanks to the clunkiness of navigating menus and maps with a controller. Playing Sim City 2000 on the Super Nintendo was like trying to eat noodles by gripping one strand at a time between a pair of fresh haddock. I’m not a fan of controlling games using a mouse and keyboard, but strategy/management games and MMORPGs are the exceptions. Here, though, it all controls quite well with the Xbox pad. The menus are simple groups of buttons that are easily negotiated with the left stick or d-pad, while the minigames that arise during certain tasks arguably handle better here than they would with PC controls.

These minigames are among the most notable features of Oil Magnate, serving to prevent the game becoming a boring stat-fest. Most commonly you will have to hold a twitching dot in the centre of a circle while drilling for oil, to represent keeping the drill on course. Should one of your wells catch fire, either by chance or thanks to sabotage, you have to run around the area using dynamite to kill the flames before too much damage is done. There’s also another minigame, but I don’t want to talk about it. No really, I’d rather not. Leave me in blissful denial for a while longer.

You’ll notice I mentioned sabotage. This is a nice feature that adds a bit of mischief to proceedings. Tired of buying, selling and drilling like a good little millionaire? Feeling pressured by your superhumanly astute business rivals? Go all Donald Trump on their asses and hire a terrorist to burn down their rigs and storage tanks, or deflate oil prices in their chosen market to cut down their profits. Oil is a dirty business, and don’t think for a moment that your rivals will be able to control their own barbaric fiscal impulses. On the other hand, you run a very serious risk of having your wells confiscated if you’re found out, so maybe you’d be better off sticking to the straight and narrow after all. The price of endorsing terrorism is being made slightly less rich. Who says indie games can’t be realistic?

Logical divisions of the world, there.

Oh alright. Alright. I’ll tell you about the other minigame. I suppose I have no choice.

The third minigame is demonstrated in the game’s tutorial video, which makes it look simple. Unfortunately, as with everything else it shows you, the tutorial video is being slightly less honest than an East End market trader enticing you with his ‘nearly new’ plasma TVs.

I was all set to award Oil Magnate a 4 out of 5, maybe even leaning towards a 5 out of 5 depending on its longevity and replay value. The third minigame made me, in my darker moments, want to give it a 1 out of 5 and tell it to be grateful for my merciful nature. If I could punch a collection of digital information in the face, I would swing a haymaker at Oil Magnate with careless disregard for the state of my knuckles every single time I see the word ‘pipeline’.

I’m getting angry just thinking about it. This minigame is simple in principle, but ferociously difficult in practice. Sometimes when you try to sell your oil stocks, a message will appear telling you that your workers need help laying a pipeline. Presumably this is how they transport the oil to the buyer, though frankly, constructing mile after mile of entirely new pipe every time you make a sale doesn’t seem like efficient retail practice. When I order a new game online, I don’t find Amazon or Gamestation building a monorail to my doorstep.

For reasons we will never understand, this is how your oil is moved in the confused world of Oil Magnate, and like any good corporate fat cat you done your scruffiest trousers and wade in to help the plebs yourself when they’re shorthanded. You must connect the end of a pipe in the bottom right of the screen to another pipe-end in the top left. You extend the pipeline in any of four directions by pressing the corresponding face buttons, making sure you weave around hillocks and the corpses of other oil barons who did this once too often. Probably.

Parachuting in to personally extinguish fires. Business as usual for a billionaire tycoon.

Simple, right? The problem is that you’re racing against an opponent who is trying to connect the other two corners for his own nefarious oil-retail purposes. Still doesn’t sound too bad; a bit of healthy competition to keep you on your toes. But your opponent is flawless; it will lay its pipe without hesitation in the perfect route, without the slightest error or pause to draw breath. You must avoid any sort of delay, since even half a second will cost you the ability to sell your oil this month.

Add to this the fact that some of the obstacles don’t seem to be obstacles at all, looking instead like just part of the ground. Further add to this the fun quirk of control that has pipes extending forward before turning; if you press X to extend left, it will go forward then left, resulting in running into obstacles that you thought you should be clear of.

I’ve played Oil Magnate for somewhere around six or seven hours so far, and out of the dozens of times the pipeline minigame has arisen, I’ve succeeded once.

You might think I’m over-emphasising one small problem, but this is very nearly a game-ruining flaw. You see, if you fail at the pipeline game and can’t sell oil that month, you haemorrhage money. Only this afternoon, one single pipeline game moved me from almost pole position to a miserable near-ruined mess in one month. I managed to slowly get out of the red (though still very much trailing behind the competition) over the course of the next few months, only to be hit by another two pipeline games in a row, utterly finishing off my oil business and costing me the game.

This has happened more than once. A lot more than once.

Compared to the pipeline fiasco, my other complaints – no save game facility and an unhelpful tutorial – are mere niggles. Oil Magnate had been a 4, maybe even a 5. Now it’s a 3, holding on by the skin of its teeth thanks solely to everything else about it being well executed.

Fast cars and immolated models. Not really representative of the content.

As I said, Oil Magnate has a lot going for it. Mostly I quite enjoy it, and maybe you will too. It has enough management sim aspects to appease an anally retentive streak, but is simple enough to be reasonably accessible to management dunces such as I. The vampire of statistical tedium is warded off by the garlic of minigame diversions. Though the tutorial misses out most of the important stuff, and the inability to save your game if you realise your dinner is burning detracts from the experience, they’re just inconveniences.

The ill-conceived pipeline minigame, though, almost derails the whole thing. It can drop you from triumphant front runner to abject game-over in a matter of seconds, not because it demands skill but because it tricks you with poor visual design, confounds you with bizarre movement control, and demands computer-like perfection to defeat the eternally flawless CPU opponent. As someone who has been playing video games on a regular basis for 25 years, I have skills. But I can’t beat the pipeline problem, and sadly Oil Magnate itself can’t quite overcome it either.  A fun game, but every moment is a countdown to inevitable disaster.

Maybe it really is going for realism.