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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Sushi Castle

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

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

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

This guy is definitely wearing Back to Karkand sandals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.