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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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.

S1

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.

S2

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).

S3

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.

S4

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.

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.

Null Battles

First person shooters have become so ubiquitous, so close to the default game genre, that I have to fight off a weary sinking sensation whenever one crosses my path. Now and then they defy my torpid scepticism and turn out to be fun – Section 8: Prejudice and Battlefield 1943 spring to mind – but for the most part I’m sick of the damn things. As with so many genres, though, the hope for diversity and bold reinvention lies in the indie side of development. The early build of Shootmania Storm on PC has already begun injecting new life into the flaccid multiplayer FPS, and the Xbox 360’s Null Battles is joining that crusade.

The closest real world experience I can think of to compare to playing Null Battles is something like leaping between giant magnetic Lego bricks in zero gravity. Each match takes place in a room full of large geometric shapes, usually randomly laid out (though this is customisable from the options menu – including the coveted treasure of a genuine level editor). From your team’s base halfway up one wall, you leap out into the arena where you will automatically adhere to the surface of whichever platform you touch. The platforms being 3D shapes, this often means suddenly finding yourself upside down or otherwise bizarrely orientated. It also means that as you spring from surface to surface in the chaos of combat, your perspective will flip and whirl in a way that makes it very difficult to aim reliably. Fortunately, this is where the fun comes from.

Null Battles feels a little like the adversarial FPS games of yesteryear, emphasising energetic lunging and spraying rather than hiding behind a wall and making precision headshots. It also reminds me slightly of the aforementioned Shootmania Storm in that it simplifies weapon selection down to a minimum, and relies on the frenetic pace and unique twist to keep it engaging.

The collaboration between Genesis and Daft Punk confused audiences

You have two weapons: a laser-type gun for ranged combat (assigned to RT) and a standard short-range sidearm (assigned to LT) that acts more like a melee attack than the usual backup pistol. There is no ammunition but, as in Mass Effect, your ability to rain brightly coloured destruction upon your opponents is limited by the build-up of heat in your weapon. Continuous fire will cause the gun to overheat and leave you in the humiliatingly disastrous position of being completely defenceless for a few seconds. In a game this fast paced, having to spend vital seconds running around and whimpering like an alarmed hamster (or an unusually resolute sheep) can be fatal.

How much you enjoy Null Battles will probably be determined by how much you demand precision performance. If you’re the sort of person who derives enjoyment from painstakingly training yourself to shoot microscopic dots in their microscopic heads after aiming for only a tenth of a second, then Null Battles might annoy you. That’s not to say there’s no place for skill here, but the randomly generated terrain layout and haphazard convulsion of gravitational direction lead to a more messy and manic play style. You can’t train yourself to make crack shots reliably because you can’t memorise the randomised maps, and when you move you can’t count on being the same way up half a second later.

Halo 4 really felt the budget cuts

If, on the other hand, you appreciated the frantic, unfettered chaos of ‘90s deathmatching, or you just like the sound of it, Null Battles could give you much more than your 80 Microsoft points’ worth of fun.

Unfortunately Null Battles bears a heavy burden. Like many multiplayer-focused indie games, particularly on the Xbox, it runs a constant risk of suffering from lack of community. There are options for both local and online play, with options for up to four teams for real carnage, but the only way you’ll play other human beings is if you arrange a session with friends. Fortunately the AI picks up the slack here. Much as in Take Arms, the AI participants are reasonably competent and don’t behave too conspicuously unlike real people. That’s even more the case here than in Take Arms, as the erratic nature of movement around the maps means that even human players don’t behave like real people.

Disney’s Knights of the Old Republic III

For some players, just the knowledge that there aren’t genuine gooey biological brains behind the figures they’re shooting in the face is enough to put them off. Weirdly, the same people will happily play Modern Warfare 3, which frequently also doesn’t involve much in the way of brain-driven opponents.

For those who have indie-playing friends or, like me, don’t mind playing against bots as long as they put up a fight, Null Battles is a perfectly sound purchase. It will never dislodge the big-name titles but it’s not intended to. As a 60p diversion with a novelty twist, it offers easily enough customisation options, headless chicken panic and disorientating chaos to justify a purchase. Will I be playing it a year from today? Perhaps not, but I am playing it now, and that’s enough.

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