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.

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Rad Raygun

RR1Rad Raygun is nostalgia. It’s not merely nostalgic; it’s constructed top to bottom entirely from dewy-eyed longing for the sepia-drenched days of yore – ‘yore’ in this case being the 1980s. I know, that might not be yore enough for some of you, but considering there are documented cases of five year olds playing Call of Duty online, there’s a significant chunk of the game-playing audience for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Roman Empire happened around the same time.

If you never played on Nintendo’s original green-screened Game Boy, the endearing charm of Rad Raygun’s visual style will probably be lost on you. I enjoyed it, but I harbour no illusions that it was down to anything other than the warm ‘aww, this is how I remember platformers’ sensation. For one cosy hour, I relived the days I spent playing Asterix in the back of my dad’s car. If you don’t have these fond memories, then Rad Raygun is already losing ground. Memories of your own, that is. I’m fairly confident that you weren’t in my dad’s car, unless…Dad?

RR2

Master Chief was having a bad day.

RR isn’t the first Xbox Live Indie Game to try its hand at Game Boy visuals. Punishment platformer Slick tried it too, as did teeth-gnashingly obtuse puzzle-platformer Treasure Treasure: FFEE. Recreating the style of yesteryear is one of the things XBLIG developers like to attempt, whether it’s bleaching out the colour to simulate a Game Boy, drawing the art in primary coloured blocks to mimic an Atari 2600, or making everything as monstrously hideous and cumbersome as possible to ape an Intellivision. The difference here is that Rad Raygun actually pulls it off. It reproduces not only the visual and audio style but also the feel of the gameplay, with a little bit of modern polish subtly applied in a few places so that it doesn’t play like a complete wreck. Make no mistake, most 1980s portable games haven’t aged well.

Some of these determined concessions to faithful ‘80s-ness stray beyond stylistic affectations to impact the gameplay. When Rad leaves a room, the action will freeze as the camera shifts over to the next area. While this sort of break in the flow wouldn’t be acceptable in a non-retro game anymore, it’s perfectly valid here and doesn’t cause any inconvenience.

RR3

“It’ll probably fit in if I give it a good shove.”

The same can’t always be said of the other conscious Game Boy-isms. The jumping in particular is a bane; rather than leaping with any kind of practical arc or sense of weight, Rad sharply twitches a mile upward at the slightest nudge of the jump button, and whatever you do you will never succeed in making the horizontal distance equal the vertical. The result is a jumping sensation that feels awkward and clumsy, not to mention frequently impractical as you find yourself brazenly stuffing your head right into overhead enemies’ lines of fire.

The other influence here aside from the Game Boy is Mega Man. Mercifully RR doesn’t even begin to approach classic Mega Man difficulty, but it’s full of nods to that series – the gun arm, the robotic main character (he’s actually a distorted Game Boy, but close enough), the slide ability, even the types of enemies. I loathe and despise Mega Man games for their cheap shots, but Rad Raygun mostly doesn’t stoop to that. In fact, it’s distinctly easy for the most part. All in all the game will probably run to about an hour of play time, maybe an hour and half, so it’s not a particularly enduring experience. Fortunately, this is one of those cases where brevity is a good thing.

RR4

Call the Daily Mail! Handheld video game console destroys White House!

Rad Raygun doesn’t just imitate the games of years past, it’s also crammed to bursting with humorous contemporary references, whether it’s jingoistic fear of Communism, Rad’s mission to bring down the Berlin Wall or Ronald Reagan’s gurning face giving briefings. 80s names and events spill out from Rad Raygun like Ready Brek from a Thundercats bowl. Dependent as it is on nostalgia and referential gags, it would be easy for the game to outstay its welcome, but the relatively easy level of challenge and the short overall playtime ensure that it all wraps up just before the gags start to grate.

That’s the key to enjoying Rad Raygun, really. The bold and ridiculous 80s-ness of it all kept me smiling most of the time, and I was able to forgive its couple of awkward gameplay affectations because I’m desensitised to them from the real 80s. If you don’t remember the 80s or have enough awareness of pop culture and world events from that decade, then the largest part of the entertainment value is gone. You’re left with just the gameplay, which is a decent enough but easy and unremarkable platformer with a jumping motion that might you grind your teeth down to stumps. Rad Raygun is less an 80s-themed game than a lighthearted nostalgia slideshow with some simple gameplay inserted to keep you occupied. That’s not to say the gameplay isn’t fun, but aside from the odd detour into impromptu Tetris it’s too short and too generic to be worth recommending to anyone who lacks glasses of a suitably rosy hue.

RR4

I’m sorry but building my name in the sky goes beyond fanboy into goddamn creepy.

If you do remember the 80s, though, Rad Raygun is an entertaining use of an hour. It avoided boring me by providing enough reference gags to prevent the gamplay getting tedious, and vice versa. I can’t complain at getting 60-90 minutes of “Ha! I get it!” moments stitched neatly onto a “Aww, I remember games being like this” backdrop for 80 Microsoft points.

If you’re Rad Raygun’s target audience you’ll like it, and if you’re not you won’t. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you want out, just follow the smell of broadband and dubstep to the exit. Otherwise, pull up a pogo ball and try to avoid making eye contact with Erasure.

EvilQuest

Like Random the Dungeon, Chaosoft’s RPG EvilQuest contains exactly what its title suggests. It’s not every day you get to play as a character known throughout the world as ‘the Bastard’ and wander the land, kicking old men to death in windmills.

Don’t get over-excited. EvilQuest doesn’t set you free to steal and slaughter as you see fit, Fable-style. In the grand old tradition of RPGs, it’s all very linear. It does deliver on its promise though, by being a solid, enjoyable adventure with overtones of malice to lighten the mood.

It’s made clear from the outset – with much sombre pomp and a fun battle scene that harks back to 16-bit era – that our protagonist, Galvis, is not  nice man. He has ravaged the world, but fell to the army of a kingdom he invaded, and now he must start again from scratch. As a character, Galvis reminded me a little bit of Darth Revan from Knights of the Old Republic. He has a similar recklessness to his evil, killing people gleefully and then asking with wry amusement, “Well what did you expect?” It’s a gimmick of sorts, certainly, and we don’t get Shakespearean depths of characterisation, but it’s surprisingly refreshing to watch Galvis be undilutedly evil, and the dialogue certainly provokes  few chuckles. He isn’t justified by doing evil things to an even more evil enemy; he doesn’t reluctantly do good deeds to further some abstract ‘evil’ goal that otherwise never shows its face. He’s a bastard. To everyone. All the time.

Black trees, check. Grey earth, check. Full moon, check. Evil adventuring is a go.

Gameplay-wise, EvilQuest doesn’t do anything very new, but it does provide an enjoyable entry in a genre we don’t see much of anymore. Prior to its release, reports heralded it as an indie Zelda, but that’s not really accurate. Its real-time combat has touches of Zelda, but mostly it’s more like the Super Nintendo action-RPGs of Squaresoft and Enix – games like Secret of Mana, Terranigma and Illusion of Gaia. It has a simple, manageable magic system, uses experience points and levels to improve your character, and doesn’t delve into puzzle solving beyond finding the correct teleporter to move onwards. Zelda it is not, but the precedent is no less distinguished for that. It’s your skill and your gear, rather than your knack for lateral thought, that will see you through here.

Another point in the game’s favour is its imposing boss fights. Some are very straightforward pattern-learning affairs, but several are more challenging, and all are dramatic battles with sizeable beasties. The occasional encounters with squads of the king’s troops are a nice touch, too. They prevent the feeling of Galvis being detached from his main goal, as often happens with grand RPG quests.

There are a few things that I could complain about, but it would be churlish to do so. I spent more on yesterday’s loaf of value-brand bread than I did on EvilQuest, so remarking that one or two of the background melodies can become grating seems rude. None of my minor quibbles are enough to impact my enjoyment of the game. Well…maybe one.

If I were to gripe unrestrainedly about one thing in EvilQuest, it would be the wonky collision detection. It’s pretty common for an enemy to inflict damage without touching you, and for your own weapon to pass through your target harmlessly. It’s not constant, but it is quite frequent, and there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. The thing that stops this being controller-chewingly infuriating is the overall low difficulty of the game. Aside from some of the later boss fights, EvilQuest is a relative cakewalk for anyone with RPG experience under their belt. If it was a tough game, the uneven collision detection would be more of an ordeal.

Don't blast that lightning so hard, you'll wake the bird.

Ok, two niggles actually. The other one is the repetition of enemies. You’ll pretty much fight the same half a dozen pallette-swapped enemies throughout, and by the time you get to the final dungeon the sight of a bat or an archer will make you sigh. The collision detection issue sometimes makes their attacks feel a bit cheap, but for the most part they’re fine and only become a problem if they manage to swarm you.

Let’s be clear, though: the game’s general ease isn’t a complaint. It’s still enjoyable and never gets a chance to become frustrating, and for the princely sum of 80 MSP (60p/$1) its 3-4 hour running time is quite respectable. Besides, it doesn’t have much competition on the indie channel. The only other examples that come to mind are FenackStory and Lootfest – the former’s story is entirely in Japanese, the latter has no story at all, and the two games could be completed back-to-back in an hour. In comparison, EvilQuest provides good value for your tiny investment, and is certainly an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon or two.

EvilQuest does what it sets out to. It provides a few hours of fun action-RPG adventuring in the style of ye olde Super Nintendo. Its few flaws are minor, and easily shrugged off since the game does so much right. Go on, be a bastard. It feels good.

The Never-starting Story

For a while I wasn’t sure what to call this game. A string of characters I can’t read is problematic, even in the privacy of my head. Fortunately, I found an answer while clearing out my hard drive. Though officially titled フェナックむら ものがたり this game’s save data is labelled FenackStory, so that’s what I’m going with.

FenackStory is one of the handful of Japanese-only Xbox indie games. I gather from an assortment of hazily-remembered sources that Microsoft’s console gaming colossus is more of a yappy little terrier in Japan. There are some good articles out there on the impenetrability of Japan to western games, and the Xbox seems to have fallen foul of that. The console just doesn’t sell very well there, and as a result there aren’t very many games in Japanese on the indie channel. One particularly idle evening, I was craving a fix of a Zelda-like top-down adventure game, and I thought Japan was the most likely source for one. Thanks to its box art of a character who looked like Link if he’d been drawn hastily in MS Paint, FenackStory got my attention.

My initial assumption was broadly right. This game wears its Zelda aspirations not only on its sleeve but all over its face. If influences were clothes, FenackStory would be wearing a Legend of Zelda t-shirt, carrying a triforce-shaped wallet in the pocket of its Goron brand jeans, and hiding its own forgettable facial features behind a creepy Link mask.

I think she's saying "It's dangerous to go alone. Take this."

Don’t get me wrong. While FenackStory‘s role model is obvious, it succeeds perfectly well at doing what it sets out to: being a low budget Zelda clone that will set you back a mere 80 Microsoft points. The puzzle types will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a top-down Zelda game – hitting switches to move statues into position, throwing pots, finding the right item to open up a new path. Similarly, the combat is very familiar. Swing your sword (upgradable a couple of times to shoot projectiles) at the enemies confined to each room, and equip a secondary item of your choice for a magical effect. There are even winged shoes that allow you to run faster while holding RB.

The game’s plot is incomprehensible without knowledge of Japanese, but the gameplay doesn’t suffer for it. Whatever the story is, it’s clearly only a justification for our wannabe-Link protagonist to wander through some dungeons. It doesn’t take long to work out that certain characters heal you and save your game, and none of the puzzles are difficult enough that your inability to read the accompanying signposts will hamper you.

I don't care how weak it is, I refuse to shoot you in the eye.

FenackStory starts off with a brief stroll through a village, then a couple of introductory dungeons comprising discrete rooms that unLink can pass between but enemies can’t. So far, so Zelda. I was actually having a pretty good time and thinking my 80 MSP had been well spent. After these introductory dungeons, there’s a boss. Like most first bosses, it’s pretty straightforward. Dodge its attacks and hit it until it dies. I came embarrassingly close to dying, but killed it on my first try. That’s fair for a first boss.

And this, I’m afraid, is where it all falls apart. I slapped down that first, easy boss and…the credits rolled. The short sequences of rooms populated by weak enemies and simple puzzles were not introductory dungeons. They were the entire game. I expected FenackStory to be short, as an indie game costing less than a box of value bran flakes. What I didn’t expect was for it to last barely longer than it takes me to eat a bowl of the aforementioned milk-sodden brown shards.

Play the trial, by all means. It’s pretty fun, if easy. Go on, give it a try. Let me know when you’re done.

I think it says-- Oh wait, I used that one. Er...oh look, no chickens!

Welcome back. Did you manage to get out of that first short castle dungeon? I know I did. Congratulations, you have completed 50% of the game within the eight minute trial period. Now play the trial again, and this time imagine that at the end you spend a minute or so running left and right to hit a large enemy.

Congratulations again; you have now, to all intents and purposes, played the whole of FenackStory.

I don’t want to be too hard on this game. It does what it sets out to well enough – it’s a low-grade but fun clone of the old Zeldas. I did have a good time with it. It would be churlish to complain at an 80 MSP game lacking the hours and hours of content you’d find in a real Zelda adventure. There’s no denying, though, that even at this tiny price, a mere 15-20 minutes of play isn’t enough. And that’s including the two or three minutes I spent trying to work out what the items in the shop might do, and then trying them out on enemies. It’s also including some degree of backtracking to make sure I visited every room and opened every chest.

Normally I’d comment on the visuals and sound, but there doesn’t seem to be much point. With even just three dungeon-then-boss sequences, FenackStory would be easy to recommend as a cheap, short Zelda-alike. As it is, even 80 MSP seems a bit steep for a game that is barely more than a tutorial level.

No wonder he looks annoyed. Those switches are the size of his whole body. I hope he's been hitting the gym lately.

I really want to recommend FenackStory, but I can’t in good conscience actually advise anyone to buy it. There just isn’t enough there, and that is a woeful shame. Still, if you have 80 MSP to spare that you’re happy to use for 15 minutes of entertainment, go right ahead. I’d like to think we might be encouraging the developer to make a longer sequel. Certainly the Xbox indie channel needs more of this sort of adventure game – just please, give us some that last a little longer than a more leisurely than average dental brushing.