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. 

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.

0 Gravity Y3030

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

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

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

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Star Wars: The Parcel Force Years

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

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

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

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Plenty of fuel & O2. Not representative of Y3030.

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

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Fox McCloud’s self esteem never recovered from his demotion

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

Origin X

I don’t understand Origin X. That’s not to say I don’t comprehend how the game is played or what I’m meant to be doing, but even as I carefully strove to ensure the survival of my planet I found myself continually muttering “I don’t get it”. To be understood and yet remain deeply confusing is quite an achievement, but not of the sort that pings and awards you points.

The idea of Origin X is to populate planets in a solar system. This is simple enough to grasp. Having selected a planet, you place housing for people to live in, build mines so they can work and earn you money, and construct food supplies and storage so they don’t die horribly in the grim throes of starvation. This is no sim game, though. You won’t build and carefully manage your colonies in Origin X. It’s all very simple, just plonking down one from a list of half a dozen structures, and watching the population and food numbers at the side of the screen. Disappointingly, the colonists themselves aren’t represented by anything beyond their figure on the HUD.

Considering other Xbox indie games, such as Lexiv, at least represent the population as scurrying dots, it’s a shame that Origin X doesn’t make the effort. It leaves the colonies feeling dead and sterile, and when you absent mindedly allow people to starve to death there’s no sentiment about it at all. You don’t see fewer and fewer dots wandering around the houses and mines; you just notice a number diminishing. This might be more excusable if the game engaged with the player in other ways, but this indifferent detachment is pervasive throughout.

Gigantic fireballs are bad for your miners

Privation and exposure to the savage cosmic winds that flay the surface of these barren planets aren’t the only dangers for the colonists. Surprisingly enough, bone-melting heat and Plutonian frigidity also aren’t very good for their health, so you have to make sure none of your inhabited planets drift too close to, or far from, the sun. The mechanic for maintaining a comfortable temperate environment is one of the most awkward in the game, and yet perhaps the one you will use most. This is where the already slightly stale Origin X starts to become Irritation X.

Unlike many sim, management or strategy games, Origin X doesn’t cast you as an invisible overlord guiding events from afar. Instead you control a comet that flies around the solar system, and you must physically visit any planet that you want to manage. As a celestial body you exert a gravitational force that affects any planet you approach, pulling it towards you. This is the means by which you must ensure planets stay at the ideal distance from the sun. Unfortunately it is so imprecise and unreliable that it’s more harmful than helpful. Bear in mind that you must physically fly to a planet in order to build anything on it – with your comet’s gravity in constant effect, visiting a planet immediately dislodges it from its position. You can’t perform any management tasks without endangering the entire world as you accidentally start it plunging into a star or drifting into deep space. Nor can you simply stop its movement by positioning yourself on its opposite side. That could cause it to reverse its direction towards equal danger, or twist it off to one side, or not have much of a noticeable effect at all. This tiresome ordeal is exacerbated by a map that occasionally takes it upon itself to be completely black for no reason, so you have no idea where you and your wayward world are in relation to the sun.

I once played a game of Origin X in which I spent three quarters of my time chasing around after my main planet, trying to drag it back to a safe position, only to make things worse and worse until everyone died. It wasn’t lack of skill that caused the demise of an entire civilisation; no amount of dexterity could suffice to wrangle a manageable effect from the erratic and uncooperative gravity-steering system.

Xx5ithVaderzzz misunderstood the game

Although this planet positioning nightmare ordeal is the main cause of defeat in Origin X, it’s not the one that officially ends your game. Even after everyone is killed off by living half a mile from the surface of the sun, your game will continue trundling along. There’s no hope of regaining lost ground; no matter what I try, I’ve never managed to start a new population once the original one has died out. You’re not a deity, and can’t create people from thin air. The title Origin X is a little ironic, not to mention inexplicable, since originating anything is completely beyond your power.

The thing that will actually finish your game is alien attacks that steal all of your cores. Cores are glowing white blobs that orbit one of your planets, and aliens periodically try to steal them. That’s all I can tell you about it, as that’s all I know. The game doesn’t explain any of this – what the cores are, what they do, why aliens want them, or why losing them all is the end of the game. All it tells you is that you must protect the cores. In fact, it’s entirely possible to continue defending the cores without any colonists at all, through a combination of ramming them yourself and building automated turrets on the planets to shoot for you.

At first that makes the whole management/strategy side of the game seem redundant. The problem is that reaching a population goal seems to be the only way to complete a level. The success and failure criteria are unrelated, and that just adds another unwholesome globule of frustration to an already awkward and confusing experience.

Origintown was populated entirely by agoraphobes

Notice that I said reaching a population goal seems to be the only way to complete a level. That ‘seems’ can be applied to everything I say about Origin X. I’m all in favour of doing away with condescending tutorials that laboriously steer you through every element of a game down to the most obvious basics, but some guidance would be nice. The only things Origin X tells you are that you have to protect the cores and make sure the planets stay at a safe distance. Everything else has to be figured out as you go. What are cores? Why do they only orbit one planet? What are these buildings? What do they do? How do I get money? How do I move the planets? How do I fight off the aliens? How do I succeed or fail? What the hell is going on?

That is Origin X in a one-word nut shell: “What?!” Nothing is explained or even outlined, there’s no tutorial or instructions of any sort, and you are left alone to work out the entire game on your own. Even now, I might be missing something. I’ve put multiple hours into Origin X and think I finally understand how it works, but I can’t be certain. It’s also worth noting that, uncomfortable though it is for me, I haven’t got past the first level. I don’t like to review a game when I haven’t at least played most of it, but however many hours I put into Origin X I just can’t keep the planets in a safe orbit for long enough to sustain population growth. Sooner or later everyone dies, and then I just sit and let the aliens steal my cores to bring on the blessed relief of a game over.

George W Bush longed to press ‘A’

When a game is so confusing and poorly realised that it takes hours to feel remotely confident that you even know what’s meant to be happening, and on top of that is so poorly designed that hours and hours of play are too little to enable a 25-year gaming veteran to complete level 1, I think “back to the drawing board” is a dizzying display of understatement. I like the idea of Origin X – part simple management sim, part basic real-time strategy, and part alien-ramming minigame. Sadly the whole package is such a mess that I can’t possibly encourage anyone to play it. Between the totally absent game information and the scream-inducingly unmanageable mechanics, Origin X totters right to the very brink of being effectively unplayable, and has the cheek to affront us with bleak presentation and a glitch map while doing so.

Weep for the missed potential if you care to, but make no mistake: the only thing that Origin X originates is its own deletion.

Uprisings and Updates

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

Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos

Hypno Vol. 1

Hypno Vol. 1 is a strange one. It takes the ‘dark and edgy’ thing that so often feels forced, then adds a mission-based structure and top-down perspective. After a while it starts to feel a little like Grand Theft Auto. The first one, back in the days before it became a colossal franchise made entirely of ego. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Hypno doesn’t have colourful visuals or a large world. Instead it opts for black and white minimalism and a compact grid of featureless squares representing a city, relying on its tone and originality to do the heavy lifting.

Without giving away plot points, the premise is that you are a bloodthirsty sociopath named Lydia who has just escaped from some sort of institution. Lydia is blind but has the ability to steal the intentions from the minds of people around her and use them to programme behaviour into others. For instance, if she ‘rips’ the intention ‘I’m going to the bar’ from Steve, she can then ‘brand’ it onto Dave and make him go to the bar instead. This is the core mechanic around which the whole game revolves. I’m sure Dave has no complaints. 

Branding soon becomes more elaborate. You have to start stacking intentions to cause a whole series of actions – make Bob go to the sports shop, buy a baseball bat, go home, use the bat to kill his wife. It’s quite grim yet also strangely compelling. For the first couple of minutes this is all there is to the game, but there are only so many times you can make people kill each other before the novelty wears off. Our pet maniac, Lydia, gets bored of aimless slaughter around the same time we do, and that’s where the missions come in.

“Oh, I’ve been wondering where I put that.”

A mysterious man calling himself Darius asks you to use your powers of hypnosis to carry out criminal jobs for him, all to further his undisclosed agenda. In payment for your services, he tips you off about opportunities for ‘fun’ uses of Lydia’s powers – getting a teenage girl to murder her stalker, or ensuring that a wife is drunk and armed when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. These are basically missions too, though they tend to be more savage and unsettling than the ones that benefit Darius directly. I’m not one to get squeamish or take games too seriously, but there is a voyeuristic tone to these interludes that leaves me slightly uneasy.

The odd thing about all this carnage is that as Hypno progresses it increasingly comes to resemble a puzzle game. The missions cease to be menial ‘walk over here and brand this person with this intention’ tasks, and instead become more about finding ways around various restrictions that are imposed on Lydia. This is where the game comes into its own, and at the same time starts to fall apart.

Clive’s only defence against the green marble attack was his extremely pointy beard

You’ll often find that areas of the map are walled off; civilians can wander in and out, but Lydia can’t. These walled off regions are usually patrolled by guards who can recognise ‘the branded’ – someone you’ve reprogrammed – and will kill them on sight. It’s never made entirely clear how this happens. Presumably the branded all cluck like chickens and clutch Paul McKenna plushies as they go about their nefarious business.

To get around this inexplicable problem, you have to brand someone to sneakily climb a building for a spot of rooftop surveillance on the guards. Once your spy finds out that, say, one of the guards is a sleazy old lothario, then you can send one branded to intercept and distract him by flirting, while another branded sneaks up and kills him. It doesn’t seem to matter who you send to do the flirting; evidently the developer of Hypno considers everyone in the world to be omnisexual and have no standards. Maybe the whole game is secretly a statement of sexual politics and we should send a copy to the government with signatures attached.

If only Skyrim’s world had looked this good

Add into the mix people who can’t be branded, a drug that reduces the number of people you can brand during a given mission and other obstructive factors, and Hypno’s missions start to test the brain a bit. With some experimentation, practice in branding the right people as quickly as possible and a little bit of luck, you can make each mission unfold just as planned and domino its way to a satisfying conclusion. 

That might sound enticing, but there’s a down side to all this. Your instructions from Darius are often quite vague, and frequently leave gaps that can have you scratching your head for a while, not because the puzzle is intricate but because the game doesn’t explain what’s happening, or in some cases even what the objective is. Like many mission based games, additional tasks are introduced part way through many of the missions, but sometimes you will simply be pointed towards targets and not given a clear idea of whether you’re meant to kill them or brand them, or something else entirely. Being given a challenging puzzle is fine, but when the challenge comes from poor explanation of the requirements, it becomes a serious drawback in enjoying the game.

If important people are entirely orange, Bob Monkhouse was the emperor of the world

It’s tough to decide on whether to give Hypno Vol. 1 a recommendation or not. It’s certainly different to any other game I’ve played on Xbox Live Indie Games, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem is that it expends its effort in the wrong places. The game goes all out to make itself shocking and brutal, and it has a good try at being unique, but it’s so busy with all this that it forgets to have a coherent structure – and in doing so it obstructs the player one too many times. If the idea intrigues you and you have the patience of a Spelunky player, give it a try. If the gratuitous grisliness and the aimless wandering guesswork of some missions don’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t bother.

Ancient Trader

Who doesn’t love rock/paper/scissors? The gradual build up of tension, the misdirection and sleight of hand, the elaborate strategies and sudden reversals. What better choice of traditional game could there be to base a combat system around?

Placed loosely in the strategy category of the marketplace, Ancient Trader feels like Sid Meier’s Pirates! If it was a board game. Equipped with only a sailing ship and bizarre clothing, you head out to sea in search of the Ancient Guardian. It’s not entirely clear what the Ancient Guardian is, except that it eats sailors and is full of treasure. Presumably it’s also insanely dangerous. There must be easier ways to make a living than trying to kill it with playing cards. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason the old Gambit card-flinging trick didn’t appear in Moby Dick.

Yes, playing cards, more or less. As you take turns moving around the world map, trading goods between various ports, you will frequently run into miscellaneous sea monsters or fellow piratical ne’er-do-wells. Combat with these foes boils down to rock/paper/scissors with cards. You have three cards representing your attacks, and the enemies have two or three or their own. Each card has a numerical value, which you can upgrade at ports in exchange for hard currency, and the highest number wins.

The rock/paper/scissors element comes in with each type of card getting a +2 bonus over another: green beats blue, blue beats red, red beats green. The categorisation of the game as ‘strategy’ might lead you to believe there’s some depth to this combat system but it’s all illusory; it mostly comes down to just choosing the appropriate colour. There’s also a frustrating degree of luck involved; if the enemy leads with a card that you can’t counter effectively, then you’re immediately put at a disadvantage for the rest of the battle. It’s an adequate combat system, but it’s a little too simple and it means that the key to success is just buying upgrades as quickly as possible to ensure you have stronger cards than everyone else.

Don’t make me go baccarat on your ass

To that end you’ll want to trade, and fast. When you start a game the map is mostly concealed by cloud. It doesn’t take long to discover some ports though, and that’s when you can stock up on whatever is cheapest and run it to somewhere that pays better money for it. Not a deep system either, and it’s streamline for maximum ease, with each port’s asking price for cargo displayed right there beside it in huge digits that must terrify the citizens.

On top of the standard cargo, ports have a couple of other functions. Each port sells upgrades to one of your cards, and these are essential to success. The faster you can buy upgrades the more chance you have of surviving your travels around the map. Fall behind in upgrading and enemies will continuously rob you, keeping you still further behind.

From time to time someone at port will offer you a mission, perhaps to run cargo to another town within a time limit or to exterminate a particular sea monster. These can be a handy source of cash, but delivery missions can be infuriating if enemies attack you constantly en route to steal your money and miscellaneous goods. Maybe that’s why my pizza is never on time.

I have the power to disperse fog! I am a Planeteer!

Some ports also sell special items that don’t do anything in themselves but when combined reveal the location of the Ancient Guardian. Track down the beast, beat it to death with your cards, and the game is over. In principle this is the aim of the whole game, but in practice it feels like almost an afterthought. Having spent so long running errands, buying upgrades and fighting off predatory sirens, smacking down the Ancient Guardian with your maxed out cards can feel like a formality. I feel a bit sorry for the poor beast, going to all that trouble to build a terrifying reputation only be slain by the speediest salesman with the best Magic: The Gathering collection.

For a game based around showing your enemies some cards, Ancient Trader has a remarkable sense of style. The setting is half 17th century European colonisation of the New World, and half fantasy. All of this comes across in the old treasure map style of the visuals. Stark brown and red hand-drawn beasts from the margins of medieval maps writhe across a background of age-yellowed parchment. Well, I say ‘writhe’ but I mean ‘glide statically’. For all the attention lavished upon the visual presentation, the game contains basically no animation. In a way this fits the theme and doesn’t seem too out of place when you’re moving from space to space as though on a board, but it didn’t take long before my eyes glazed over and I stopped paying attention to anything except the colours of the cards at the bottom of the screen. Still, presentation is one of Ancient Trader’s strongest points and probably the feature that pulls in the punters. I know it’s what snagged my attention. Well, that and I’m a sucker for games about pirates. 

The people of Ruby are screwed if that 6 blows over

On its lower difficulty settings, the game is painfully easy. Your rivals rarely even attempt to obtain the special items to find the Guardian, so there’s really very little danger of losing. I find that the hardest setting is the place to be. Enemies will be a bit too strong and your rivals will be unrelentingly ferocious, constantly attacking you to steal your precious funds, but it’s the only way of preventing the game being an effortless frolic to victory.

The problem is that once you know how to play and how to go about winning, one game plays out much like the next. There are a handful of maps but aside from the locations of the towns it makes very little difference which one you use. Having an option for randomly generated maps could have made a world of difference in giving Ancient Trader some longevity but, as it is, one game on each map is quite enough for the game to wear out its welcome.

It’s a shame; the charming presentation and the novel offer of lightly strategic exploration have promise. Sadly the repetitiveness, the simplicity of the combat and the lack of challenge once you understand how to work the system make this Ancient Trader run aground a few hours too soon.