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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Apocalyptic Path: ToF

AP coverThe Oregon Trail is old. It’s also quintessentially American and, as such, never crossed my path when I was child. I only heard of it relatively recently, mainly in the context of the newer and more universal Organ Trail, which is about zombies. It doesn’t get much more universal than that, as ten thousand indie games remind us daily with a cynical salesman’s sneer. The essence of both games is to trek across the United States in your wagon/car, having more or less randomly chosen encounters ranging from dangerous creatures to bouts of disease. Along the way you can buy and sell supplies, scavenge, hunt for food and take on odd jobs.

Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears stuffs itself firmly into this mould and emerges as an appetising hybrid of The Oregon Trail and Fallout, offering that familiar cross-US trek but now with added irradiated wasteland antics. That’s the dream, anyway. Like most dreams it bears as much resemblance to reality as my beard bears to a colony of stoats – that’s to say a little, but not enough to fool someone free from severe cataracts.

Since I sat down here to put pen to paper (finger to key, whatever) my inner tabloid headline writer has been begging me to pun the game’s title into a different form. Perhaps ‘Fail of Drears’ or ‘Stale of Tears’. I know, I know, I couldn’t work for The Sun with that sort of pun skill. I’d be a senior editorial candidate at least. The fact, if I may so boldly claim knowledge of the fundaments of reality, is that Apocalyptic Path: ToF feels like it’s a small child in a park being reluctantly dragged into a game of football with kids it doesn’t like from school. It punts the ball in the general direction of the goal, then shrugs and wanders off.

Only people with anime hair can lead wasteland gangs.

Only people with anime hair can lead wasteland gangs.

The familiar format from The Oregon Trail and Organ Trail is very much in place, with all the accustomed trappings. Your car is now pulled by giant cockroaches and everyone dresses like they’re just killing time before the Mad Max 4 casting call, but it’s mostly the same stuff in broad strokes. Set your rate of food and water consumption to conserve resources while looking for more, but beware of hunger and dehydration. Try to keep everyone’s morale up so they don’t mutiny or decide to end it all. Watch out for sneaky traps placed by bandits, cannibals who eat your arms, and assorted other randomly-arising hazards. Occasionally bump into someone who wants to trade with you rather than gnaw on your elbow. This is as far as the resemblance goes, though. I’ve never played the original Oregon Trail but I have played Organ Trail and it was flawed but fun. Apocalyptic Path is flawed but flawed. I’m the sort who can look past flaws to see the fun beneath, but when I look past these flaws all I see is more flaws.

This would be excusable to an extent if the effort was there. I’ve played plenty of games that made so many mistakes they just weren’t fun, but that scored some points for effort. I’m not saying that no effort went into Apocalyptic Path but it was distributed very unevenly and it’s this pervasive sloppiness that really rubs me the wrong way.

The most competent part of the game, besides the overall structure which was intentionally borrowed from earlier games, is the presentation. Well, the visuals anyway. The less said about the monotone dirge of the audio, the better. Actually, the more said the better, since the ranting might drown out that ghastly noise.) The visual presentation is generally solid enough, if a bit gruesome. Not gruesome in the gory sense, but gruesome in the hideously disfigured, NES Pirates! sense. I enjoyed the general aesthetic but the player’s party of characters consists entirely of radiation-warped semi-human mutants that look ten times worse for being mashed through an 8-bit blender. The world itself doesn’t fare as badly, being minimalist but true to the visual style of the game’s inspiration. Battle scenes bizarrely take the form of a Pokémon-style duel, with your cast of characters taking turns. More on that in a moment, but for now I’ll say the resemblance is more than mechanical. The visual style is accurate to the original Pokémon right down to being in shades of grey, and although it’s a startling shift the first time, it’s actually a pleasant change from the main game screen after a while.

This is where I run out of compliments.

Strangely apt.

Strangely apt.

The very first thing that struck me as soon as I reached the game’s title screen was the interface. It uses a mouse pointer. I know the idea is to tweak and re-skin the Oregon/Organ games but spare a little thought for the fact that this one is actually on a console. On-screen points seldom work well with a controller, and the only cases where it’s really justifiable are the likes of strategy or management games where there isn’t really a better way to indicate what you want to do. Here, the actions you’re required to perform come down to choosing an option from a list and pressing A. Why not just use the stick to scroll up and down the list? Why laboriously drag a pointer across the screen? It makes no sense to anyone who’s put even a moment’s thought into making the game console-friendly, and this slapdash lack of interest in the development runs like a noxious radioactive seam throughout the finished product.

Next was the character naming screen. Your party of five have default names but, as players of XCOM: Enemy Unknown can tell you, personalising your team encourages you to care if they survive. The actual naming process was fine, as was choosing my starting set of perks, but when I immediately went into the inventory to equip my weapons I noticed that the default names were still displayed! On the main game screen, Carys and Kieren were alive and well, but in the inventory screen their seedy double lives were revealed, Carys shamefacedly admitting to being a Molly and Kieren getting stuck with the unwieldy Cig. No one should be named after an abbreviated tobacco product. It’s a purely cosmetic difference, but after an already thoughtless start the game was starting to stray out of ‘we made slightly questionable decisions’ territory and into the murky lands of ‘we didn’t give a shit’.

Whoever gets ill, we see this guy. Attention to detail is the name of the (different) game.

Whoever gets ill, we see this guy. Attention to detail is the name of the (different) game.

Add to this growing heap of rancid gristle the fact that four of your party all have a coloured health indicator but the fifth one doesn’t, and things cease to be superficial and start to become serious gameplay concerns. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have features that should affect gameplay but don’t. Much like in Organ Trail you can adjust the speed of your car. There it was a question of balancing speed and fuel concerns. Here, it’s just speed. Having varying rates of progress is just irrelevant as there’s no reason to go any slower than the highest speed (which, incidentally, wins this month’s prize for Most Brazen Misnomer – a setting called ‘breakneck’ that moves like a glacier sleepwalking through neck-deep quicksand). Again, sloppy. Start to finish, everything I saw in this game was sloppy, slapdash and poorly thought out.

Possibly the most crushing blow to the game’s fun value, though, is the difficulty. I left this to last because I can already hear shrieks of ‘it’s meant to be difficult!’ Yes, I know it is. Its spiritual precursor, Organ Trail, was difficult too. The unpredictability of encounters combined with the very limited resources meant that some runs through the game could be breathtakingly unforgiving. There were two important differences there, though. Firstly, occasional good events; and secondly, a sense of player agency.

I’ve spent some time with Apocalyptic Path now and the random events are brutally unfair. I’ve had maybe two positive encounters in my entire time with the game so far. Everything that ever happens is damaging, whether it’s disease or battles or mechanical damage to the car, and almost all of it is completely beyond your control. Don’t go into anywhere that has enemies because you probably can’t kill them, unless you chose the Sheriff class at the outset, giving you a couple of ‘rat sticks’ for weapons as one of your starting perks. No other choice of class can survive even the easiest early-game fight, in my experience. Nor can you pick up weapons as you go along, at least with any degree of reliability. I have yet to ever find a weapon in a random encounter, only in shops, and even then the only ones I’ve seen are those basic ‘rat sticks’ which by the time you reach the very first shop are already becoming pretty useless. Not to mention that the distance between the starting point and the first town/shop is such an epic slog that it makes the extended Lord of the Rings look like crossing the room.

Ralem used Apocalypse Path. It's not very effective...

Ralem used Apocalypse Path. It’s not very effective…

The game is ferociously stacked against you with a relentless deluge of setback after setback, afflicting you with deaths and crippling resources losses entirely at random and, crucially, with nothing you can do to prevent it or even try to mitigate the damage. There’s no way to prepare for the worst because you have to go so damn far before you can find any supplies at all, and the only modification you can make to your party is to adjust their food and water intake, and equip weapons. Did I mention that you can’t unequip them? Yep, there’s just no option for that. Sloppy.

That’s Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears in a nutshell. I’ve abused the word here but it’s the most apt: this game is sloppy. From the clumsy choice of interface, to the name and equipment oversights, to the hideous imbalance in gameplay, the entire thing feels like it was thrown together by someone who was distracted. It feels like the game never had the developer’s full attention, and as such it hangs together in an unsightly congealed clump that I can’t possibly recommend you try to swallow. I have granted some forgiveness to bad games that were made with good intentions and lots of effort. I can’t speak for the intentions of Apocalyptic Path’s developer, but I can say turn off the TV and pay attention to the game next time. If there’s any effort here, I can’t see it.

Sequence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clearly Seymour mainly fed you his unwanted stationery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

March to the Moon

I refused to believe that March to the Moon was a shooter until I played it. It doesn’t look like one, and for a while it doesn’t feel like one either. Be in no doubt, though: March to the Moon is resolutely a game about shooting swarms of enemies as you trudge stoically up the screen. Fortunately, this isn’t all it is.

The thing that really threw me was how much of an RPG the game appears to be at first glance. You control a person who walks through various quest-like environments fighting rats, goblins and aliens. You have access to a variety of spells which you unlock and upgrade as you gain levels through experience points. It’s almost as though someone set out to make a simple, traditional console RPG of the type that seldom works well on XBLIG, then suddenly decided shooters are better but didn’t want to waste all that work.

The premise is basic. You are a person who, Morrowind-style, has been asked to exterminate some pesky rats that are infesting a cellar. That’s about it, really. Once the cellar is under control you find more and more layers of infestation leading into the sewers and even space, and the rats will swap places with aliens and robots, but it’s basically the same mission just getting more and more difficult.

None of that really blew me away, nor did the slow and deliberate pace. The levels progress in their forced vertical scrolling at a very methodical plod, which works perfectly fine but doesn’t create a particularly dazzling first impression. Where March to the Moon blindsided me and really raised its game was in the skill system.

All-punctuation baby names never really caught on

Unlike shooters in general, there’s a lot of freedom here to build your little warrior exactly the way you want to, including badly. You choose one career path at the outset, from which you can choose several skills to assign points to. After you’ve gained a few character levels you can choose a second career path to add to the first, giving you a whole new set of skills to acquire. This makes a huge difference to the way you play the game, as some paths are combat centric, some focus on passive buffs, some involve summoning creatures, and various other functions. You’re free to choose whichever you like, and although picking up summoning and healing will leave you inconveniently unable to fight properly, it’s refreshing to have the chance. Like the aforementioned Morrowind (which I wouldn’t have expected to reference in an indie shooter review) you’re at liberty to mess up your character build without the developer slapping you on the wrist, and when you figure out a build that works for you it feels more satisfying as a result. It’s your build, that you created to suit you.

Engineering degrees had changed since Jon’s day

March to the Moon’s developer wasn’t cavalier about including this freedom. Unlike the now-excessively-referenced Bethesda classic RPG, your ill-advised rat-hunting Summoner-Healer build isn’t irreversible. Once you realise that relying on your pet wolf to fight for you is liable to get you repeatedly hacked in the face, you don’t need to wearily restart the game. Those of us who lack strategic forethought can consider ourselves lucky – March to the Moon’s skill point assignment is fully undoable. You have to keep the career paths you chose, but any skill points you assigned within them can be removed and reassigned. Stuck with a dragon familiar that isn’t pulling its weight? Get rid of it and put those points into a direct attack skill instead. Finding your heal ineffective? Undo it and try out a buff.

The true benefit of this system isn’t simply that it’s forgiving; it also offers the ability to tailor your approach to every level. The game actively encourages replaying levels to gain additional experience and strengthen your character for the battles ahead, but grinding for experience isn’t the only way to overcome a tough level. You might find that a couple of your dependable skills aren’t proving that effective against a particular slew of enemies, but rather than having to just take it on the chin and slog away at grinding, you can give yourself a whole different set of skills for as long as you like, then change them back (or to something different again) later. It is an inspired design decision.

Medieval telemarketers pulled no punches

I have only two real criticisms of March to the Moon. Firstly, the soundtrack caused much gnashing of teeth and wailing. It improves after a few levels, but the music is mainly rhythm, and more than one level is scored entirely with a piercing, repetitive military drum track that felt like the relentless thudding of someone hammering a stubborn tent peg into my forehead. It actually genuinely gave me a headache. Eventually I resorted to periodically pausing the game and leaving the room, just to get away from the water torture-esque relentless tapping of that sadistic drum. This soundtrack alone has done more damage than any other feature to my enjoyment of March to the Moon.

Secondly, the difficulty curve is all over the place. If you’ve ever tried to draw by hand while riding in a 4×4 along a rutted farm track, you will by happy coincidence have sketched the difficulty curve of March to the Moon. It springs whimsically back and forth between surmountably modest difficulty and bone-searing savagery. Many levels require a few replays to accrue some more health and stronger powers, but every now and then you’ll hit a level than demands an hour or more of grinding the same five minute section over and over. Sometimes even rebuilding your character doesn’t help all that much, and even when it does, constructing and testing half a dozen builds just to pass one level can begin to wear thin.

Going designer baby shopping at Walmart may have been a mistake

Some might want to tack on a third criticism, so I’ll mention it even though it doesn’t really bother me. The visual presentation is pretty uninspiring, with drab backgrounds and amateurish character sprites, and I know for some people this is enough to condemn a game to the bin.  For me it doesn’t really matter, though; I still play old games that would make a gangrenous tonsil look like sunset over the Himalayas.

March to the Moon is definitely a curio. A shooter that looks like it should be an action adventure, with a skill system that is detailed enough to embarrass some RPGs and customisable enough to inject strategy into a genre that isn’t known for it. It’s a grower, that fails to engage at first but quickly peels off layers of itself to reveal surprising complexity that makes it not only worth playing but worth replaying. There’s a lot to enjoy here, provided you can squint past the dingy amateur visuals and stuff your ears with enough small animals to block out the relentless snare drum soundtrack as you March to the Moon.

Zandri’s Revenge

I was looking forward to playing Zandri’s Revenge because the visuals remind me of Avernum and I have a nostalgic fondness for isometric RPG/adventure games.

Red text on a blank black screen said ‘Player 1 press A’.

Red text on a blank black screen said ‘Player 2 press A’.

You can’t even reach the title screen without two players. I am one player, and I don’t have a handy second player living under my bed.

Don’t buy Zandri’s Revenge. The whole idea of making a forced two-player game on a service that reliably has less of a community than the Colston Bassett branch of the McDonalds Nutritional Appreciation Society is ludicrous beyond the power of words to describe.

Next.

Miasma & Miasma 2

It’s years since the PS1 was at its height, but even now I keep going back to Front Mission 3. Partly that’s because I haven’t seen everything in its branching stories yet, and partly it’s because I haven’t found another game like it since. I’ve played other turn-based strategies, turn-based RPGs, and other turn-based games that are based on turns (or perhaps turning bases). I never really took to Advance Wars, Disgaea made me sob with boredom, and Agarest: Generations of War was fun but confusing. I never expected that it would be an Xbox Live Indie Game that would remind me most of my beloved Front Mission 3. Enter Miasma and its recent sequel, Miasma 2.

All games of this sort need some form of implausible plot. Here it’s the domination of the world by a mind-controlling corporation called Vilhelm Industries, or VI (which launched me back to 1998 with every mention of ‘VI soldiers’. Something about ‘VI’ ticks the ‘VR’ box in my brain. Damn you, legacy of Hideo Kojima). As usual in any evil corporation/government/empire situation, there is a rebel group controlled by the player. I always think Shinra and Avalanch, but there are at least ten thousand other examples. VI manages to be all of the above evil bodies in one, so it needs a particularly vigorous rebellion to offset it. What it gets is the adventures of a bald man, a serious man and a woman who tends to wear a business suit for no reason, spread across two games.

Standing next to a red barrel? Have you never played a game before? Amateur.

The original Miasma had been on my radar for a while, and the recent release of its sequel prompted me to go back and buy it, because I have a thing about playing/watching series in chronological order. I encountered it quite early in my Xbox indie dabbling, but was put off by the combination of the price and the inaccessibility of the demo. Being new to indie games, I didn’t want to gamble great wodges of points on games I might hate, and turn-based strategy games don’t lend themselves to Microsoft’s prescribed eight-minute window for demos. I backed away but kept it in mind for a revisit. Fortunately, that dilemma is gone now. Although the demo still gives barely any idea of the game, the point-wodgery has been cut down to just 80 MSP. That’s no gamble at all. As it turned out, both of the Miasma games have a lot going for them.

The first game, Miasma: Citizens of Free Thought sees an amnesiac protagonist leading a cell of the rebel group CiFT (an acronym that doesn’t quite work – Citizens…if Free Thought? …into Free Thought? …ignoring Free Thought?). The cell has been cut off from the rest of the organisation and they have to kind of make things up as they go along. The combat, which forms the bulk of the game, is turn-based but immediate. When you give a character an instruction to move, attack, or use an item or ability, they do so immediately but no one else moves. Then after you’ve done everything you want to do, all your enemies move. You get a damage bonus for attacking from the side or behind, and periodically you can use abilities like healing and disabling EMP pulses. It’s not complicated, but it does require a bit of thought to make sure your surprisingly fragile characters aren’t wiped out.

Four pellets to the face, and one pellet pops out to buy milk.

The sequel, Miasma 2: Freedom Uprising, changes this up a bit. It goes for the turn-based-but-simultaneous approach, where you give all your orders, the enemy commander gives all their orders, and then everyone moves at once. This took some getting used to after the first game, but it works well enough. It’s certainly more challenging, because you can’t guarantee that an enemy won’t move out of range or do something to counter your attack, like shooting you in the face while you’re still heaving your sniper rifle to your shoulder. It also means you can’t focus down enemies in the same way as previously. You can’t hit a mech or tank with everything you’ve got at once to take it out before it can act. In a way, this seemed to remove a lot of the strategy because too much depended on luck. In other games that use this system, like Flotilla, it can be very tactical because it requires you to try and cover all the angles. Here, though, you’re always hugely outnumbered so there’s no way of preparing for multiple eventualities.

I have mixed feelings about the altered combat system, then. Miasma 2 does have distinct improvements elsewhere though. The other component of both games, between combat, is conversation. In Miasma, this is handled through dialogue boxes against a slowly drifting shot of a building. I was fine with this – again, it reminded me of Front Mission 3 and its long text conversations in static rooms – but I can see why many people might not be, particularly those who aren’t wizened old game fogeys distrustful of any technology that speaks aloud. (Skynet!)

I like to imagine those options are all being shouted simultaneously.

Miasma 2 replaces this with a more palatable first-person wander around CiFT’s base, giving you the option to talk to whoever you choose, in whatever order you prefer. You can choose to chew the fat or just get down to business sorting out their upgrades. It’s a pleasant change of pace from the combat sections, and certainly more engaging than the static conversations of the first game. Having said that, the developers could do with working on their writing skills. When a character says almost out of the blue, “Hey, will you go to bed with me?” it’s more comical than emotional or interesting. It’s also a little jarring after having a near-identical (though actually better written) conversation with the same character in the first game.

The second game also suffers being almost continuously glitchy. Both games have their share of glitches, but while the Miasma has the odd one here and there, Miasma 2 is riddled with them. Characters models vanishing so you have to guess where they are, an enemy tank spawning in the same location as a friendly tank so the two merge and you effectively lose one of your most powerful units. A multitude of other oddities, too.

“I can’t shoot them, the ground isn’t red!”

This is symptomatic of the biggest problem with Miasma 2. It feels like the developers over-reached themselves. They clearly had ambitious ideas for improving on the first game, and while some of those ideas paid off, the price was functionality. That’s not to say Miasma 2 is bad or broken, but it is far too buggy and its increased interactivity depends too much on writing that isn’t up to the job. That’s why, advancements or not, I recommend the original Miasma over the sequel.

The Miasma games have kind of a Mass Effect phenomenon going on. The first game is slower and wordier than the sequel, but it’s also more competently executed. The second is more ambitious but maybe can’t quite pull off everything it aimed for, and whether its modified combat system is an improvement or not will depend on your taste. Regardless, both games are good, and worth playing if you have any interest in turn-based semi-RPGs. They aren’t long, but at 80 Microsoft points each they’re long enough. If you don’t like turn-based grid battles, these games might not be up your street. Even if you do, be prepared to humour their glaring flaws.

Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

If being a game critic teaches you one thing, it’s that there’s wisdom in that old philosophy that there’s always someone with better skills than you. However bad the games you’ve played are, there is always one that’s worse. I thought it was Goolin or House of Cockroach or some other dire black hole of quality and credibility that my memory has suppressed for my own safety. But I guarantee you, I have never felt such a potent sensation of despair and loathing as I did while playing Rock Bottom. This game is the final conclusive proof atheists have been searching for; no cosmic creator could sit back and consider his work done while this monstrosity exists. It is the severed testicular vessels of a leprous yak, baked until decomposure and then served on a bed of dried vomit in the shape of Shia LaBeouf’s face.

Give me a second to wipe the bitter tears from my eyes. For a second there, I began to think that when I next looked at my Xbox I might see that scrotum-vomit-LaBeouf cornucopia in place of Rock Bottom. I know, I shouldn’t have got my hopes up.

Seriously now, I have played some shitty, atrocious games that have made me angry, confused and afraid. But never, never, have I felt a sense of such abject impotent horror. I dread the prospect of future archaeologists finding this and realising humans made it. They will write us off as more backward than the most gorilla-featured Neanderthal. I’m embarrassed for our species.

Okay, okay, I should tell you why.

Where do I start? I could start by mentioning that even though it’s a point-and-click game, and therefore facing stiff competition in the Uneventfulness Relay and the Excessive Dialogue Marathon, Rock Bottom manages to be one of the most boring things I’ve ever experienced. And this is coming from someone who’s spent five hours in a hospital lobby waiting for an x-ray, with nothing to entertain him but the sight of pensioners shuffling to the bathroom.

I don’t mind the inherent dullness of point-and-click games. I quite like them. But this… There’s basically no game in this thing. There’s almost nothing you can interact with in the entire game. You click on exits from rooms, and then on whichever person is in the next room. This subjects you to conversations the length of the entire Shakespeare canon, composed entirely of strained jokes and gruesomely forced attempts at ‘zany’ humour. Your ‘character’, Wilson, starts off in prison searching for a toilet roll that he calls his ‘scroll’, which has been taken by his cellmate who wants to trade it for some glitter because glitter is the prison currency.

The dialogue is some of the worst I’ve ever heard or read or suspected might exist. I’ve seen shopping lists that had better dialogue. And it just goes on and on and on. Clearly the ‘developer’ (for want of a more appropriate term) wants to write a sitcom, film, play, comic or satirical pamphlet but couldn’t break into the industry and decided to unleash a grisly salvo of his resplendently fecal gifts upon the unsuspecting innocents of the Xbox Live indie community. Honestly, I would have been less offended if he had just taken a shit on my head. At least that’s a compulsory bodily function; there’s no excuse for choosing to excrete this.

The miserable dialogue is dragged from the ditch in which it was languishing and thrown into a landfill crammed with used sanitary products by the diabolical voice acting. One or two of the performances are merely bad. The voice of Sweepy is a revelation by virtue of being almost mediocre for a total amateur who’s never spoken before. The main character, though, is high school drama bad. He’s failing high school drama bad. Worse than Who’s the Daddy? if you can believe that. The performances aren’t helped by being recorded on bargain bin microphones that pop, crackle and slur even worse than mine. This is the final, refined, edited and polished version? It’s abysmal.

Did I mention that the dialogue is really long? I did? Well just for emphasis: the horrific dialogue is really fucking long. Jesus goddamn Christ, I could have given birth in the time it takes for one conversation to finish. And I’m male.

On the bright side, the art is pretty bad. Um…yeah…that’s the highest compliment I can think of.

Rock Bottom is, without hyperbole or histrionics, probably the worst thing I have ever played in 25 years of video gaming. OTT metaphors aside, every single moment I spent with it took an effort of will to resist quitting to the dashboard. This game is atrocious, and if I never see its name, screenshot or cover art ever again it will be centuries too soon. If the developer ever bumps into me in the street and lets slip that he made this, I will punch him right in the fucking mouth with every ounce of strength I possess.

I will not forgive this. Silver Dollar Games have lost their crown as worst XBLIG developers, and playing Goolin for a year sounds like a Caribbean holiday right now. Get away from me, Rock Bottom. Just fuck off.