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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Sushi Castle

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

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

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

This guy is definitely wearing Back to Karkand sandals

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

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

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

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

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

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

New LP series

The new Let’s Play format for the Indie Ocean YouTube channel commences today. The plan is to Let’s Play one good game and one bad/frustrating game in tandem. When I’ve finished each pair, I’ll move on to another pair.

First up: Let’s Play Cursed Loot and Let’s Play Random the Dungeon. Guess which is which…

Just Another Manic Monster

Xbox Live Indie Games isn’t starved for roguelikes. What it is starved for is games about hyperactive, ice-skating square heads swinging swords like obelisks in frantic drive-by slashings of kamikaze baby seals.

Initially, Mega Monster Mania gives the impression of being a dungeon crawl. There are a few of those on XBLIG, perhaps the most reputable of which is Epic Dungeon (now updated as Cursed Loot). If you loosen the definition to include games that aren’t strictly roguelikes/dungeon crawls but share many qualities with them, such as Lair of the Evildoer, the number is quite healthy. Mega Monster Mania fits best into this latter category; it has elements of a dungeon crawl, others of a traditional roguelike, and some qualities of a sugar-fuelled child convulsively beating its fists against every object in sight because it just has too much energy not to.

And that’s what really sets MMM apart from its fellows, in the simplest terms: energy.

An unusually small weapon. So to speak.

Roguelikes traditionally centre around trawling for loot through a series of randomly generated floors, the layout of which is revealed only through exploration. Mega Monster Mania does tick all these boxes, but it doesn’t stop there; it continues ticking right to the edge of the page and onto the table, giggling all the while. The most traditional games in the genre (on XBLIG, Dungeon Adventure comes to mind) are quite slow, deliberate affairs despite the rapid pace of their combat. They emphasise slogging along lengthy corridors, mapping out each floor until you find the exit or tire of looking for loot. Even Epic Dungeon, which accelerates the pace somewhat, has the feel of a steady trudge. This isn’t a criticism; that’s just the nature of the genre.

Mega Monster Mania, in contrast, is the cocky blue hedgehog of dungeon crawls. It looks into the tarry stew of the roguelike, and spices it up with the tabasco of Gauntlet. Everything happens very quickly. Enemies charge at you full-tilt whenever they see you, and many of them move faster than you do. Some shoot fireballs in various patterns. But the sense of speed comes mainly from two features.

Firstly, literal speed of movement. Your character skates around everywhere like the 80s never left us, and you will often find yourself accidentally ploughing headlong into a throng of monsters. It’s particularly noticable in the ice stages, which follow the traditional game ice route of dramatically reducing friction. Your character feels like a pinball in these levels. It’s not just you, either; many of your enemies move similarly, giving them an erratic edge that cranks up the panic when you blunder into a room that’s teeming with them.

Secondly, the control scheme resembles a twin-stick shooter. This makes sense when using a bow; you nudge the right stick in any direction to launch an arrow that way, or hold it for sustained fire. More often, though, you’ll be swinging a sword the size of a small car, and this too is done using the right stick.

Me choosing my haircut by bashing a huge grey block. Barbers are so passé.

These two features combine to give Mega Monster Mania a frantic pace. Personally, I coped with this by developing a joust-like style of combat: after popping off a few arrows from a distance to soften up my enemies, I charge in headlong, narrowly avoiding my target and carving it up with my sword as I pass, before pulling a skidding 180 to make another pass.

Action definitely seems to be the name of this game. When MMM‘s developers threw the traditional trundling pace on the junk heap, they followed it with character levelling. Of course your character needs to grow in power to cope with the increasing challenge, but this is done entirely through equipment. The game’s item drops fall into three types: usable items (a handful of trinkets that offer short-term bonuses or quick damage), money and equipment. Even your gear isn’t permitted to slow the manic pace, as new weapons and armour can only be equipped in the shop at the end of each floor. So there’s no need – or option – for inventory management, or even simply glancing to see what you just picked up. All you can do is charge onward to the exit. Once there, you can weigh up the damage, protection and bonus status effects of the gear you grabbed, sell anything you don’t want, and move on.

I can’t give a fair look at Mega Monster Mania without commenting on the visual style. This was the first thing that struck me when I started playing, thanks to its oddness. Initially I couldn’t decide whether it was intentionally distinctive or just lazy. Your character is a square, with some hair and a pair of eyes to indicate that you’re meant to be looking down on the top of someone’s head. No visible limbs or animation, just your little square guy and enemies that are often (though by no means always) similarly geometric. It was a little baffling at first, but once I got used to the style I actually quite liked it. These visuals combined with the rocket-propelled pace of gameplay give the game a quite distinctive feel that cements it in my memory much more firmly than its forgettable title does. Besides, colourful yet minimalist seems to fit MMM‘s general demeanour.

Sadly, Mega Monster Mania hasn’t managed to shed the main failing of the roguelike dungeon crawl: repetition. Even the best of this genre fall prey to the eventual feeling of battling through yet another floor full of enemies, opening chests and swigging potions, and MMM is no different. Its pace helps to stave this off, but the trade-off is the lack of depth that would be provided by customisation through levelling – the method by which others like Epic Dungeon fight to hold our attention.

Clearly a reputable wholesaler.

Unlike most of its counterparts, MMM hasn’t really bothered to implement a save system. A save would be good. On the opposite side of the scale, no save at all could work – have each adventure be a fresh one, pushing as far as possible into the dungeon from the beginning. The problem here is that the game sits uncomfortably between the two. It remembers which floor you reached and lets you keep your equipment, but your items and gold are reset to basics (ten potions, no other items, no gold). The lack of gold is particularly troublesome; a few floors down, you’ll need every potion you can get, and the game doesn’t play very fair in cutting you down to ten with no way to buy more just because you decided quit and come back later. Even your character’s appearance has to be selected anew, and while this is entirely cosmetic and simply a matter of selecting one from a handful of options, it’s still an unnecessary inconvenience.

The other major problem with the game is the clumsy item selection system. For the most part the controls are minimalist, and effective for the rapid battles. Flick between weapons (which you will mostly only have two of) with RB, and attack with the right stick. Easy. Unfortunately, there are several usable items in your inventory, and these are selected by the same method as weapons – you cycle through them with LB. Considering how quick combat is, having to tap the button four times to reach a potion or bomb can get you killed. Not to mention the hassle of memorising the sequence of items so you don’t have to risk your life glancing away from the action to check whether you’re about to drink a life-saving potion or give yourself a speed boost right into a monster’s spiked face. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could work around it by selling off items we never use (in my case, the aforementioned speed boost) but, unlike equipment, these consumables can’t be sold.

No motion blur here. Thanks, Xbox.com! Ahem.

These flaws aren’t fatal though. Mostly they’re minor niggles, and even the awkward middle-ground semi-save is only a noticable problem if you frequently leave and return – and you probably won’t. It’s not that sort of game. It’s one you’ll play in occasional bursts of an hour or two. As to the other problems, the use of consumable items becomes key to your success as you progress further, and you’ll soon learn which ones you use most and be able to select them on the fly. A lot of the time you’ll be able to tell when you’re about to enter an area crawling with enemies, and can have a plan in mind to use a certain item before quickly switching to another. I’m not excusing the clumsiness but it doesn’t ruin the game, and it’s hard to think of a better to way to implement it that wouldn’t necessitate letting go of one of the sticks in the middle of chaotic combat.

Taken as a whole, Mega Monster Mania comes recommended. It’s easy to learn and easy to play, but not easy. It provides the procedurally generated exploration hijinks of a dungeon crawler, but streamlines everything and cranks up the speed to an alarming pace. Its odd visual style is quite charming once you adjust, and if you have a friend who fancies tackling a high-speed loot trawl with you, there’s a two-player mode, though it seems to be local only.

If you have the slightest interest in charging through dungeons full of enemies in search of treasure, you should give Mega Monster Mania a try. And if you’ve tried the likes of Epic Dungeon or Dungeon Adventure and found them a bit sedate, this might be right up your street. With even the full game costing a mere 80 MSP, you really have nothing to lose by giving it a go.