flambergeFlamberge is still in alpha, with a running Kickstarter, but what’s available so far shows enough promise that I’d like to give it a mention.

A strategy/RPG under development, Flamberge is built around simultaneous turns- both sides in battle give their units ten seconds worth of orders, then the actions paly out simultaneously. It’s more lightweight than many similar games- eg Mode7’s Frozen Synapse- but I found that served it well, making it a relatively light, fast, intuitive strategy game.

It looks and sounds pretty good, using the faux-oldschool Sword and Sworcery look to good effect. There’s a planned plot, but only the first couple of areas are available, so there’s only a brief look at it so far.

The best way to see what it’s like is probably to check out the gameplay videos on Kickstarter or try the demo, available for Mac, Linux, and Windows; if the demo is representative of the full game, I’m sold. At the time of this writing, there are a couple of days left on the Kickstarter, which has exceeded its modest goal several times over.

– HC

Revolution 60

rev60So, hey, there’s this blog I post on? Since when did that happen?

Revolution 60, produced by freshman indie team Giant Spacekat, is one of several games that I’ve been meaning to post about for some time. Released a month or two, it’s a sci-fi-themed adventure game, following the adventures of a Special Forces team attempting to regain control of a rogue space station. While mostly linear, it follows the Mass Effect model of offering frequent conversational options which affect the outcome of the story, tied with CRPG-ish combat and QTEs to move the plot along.

The plot is the main attraction; while the developers call the game an RPG, personally, I’d say it shares more in common with adventure games. The plot itself is pretty solid; it follows the adventures of a special forces team dispatched to liberate a space station from enemy forces- naturally, things go south quickly, and our heroes are forced to do the best they can in an environment with rapidly shifting loyalties and mysterious enemies. It’s a well-told story, offering both solid characterizations and tantalizing hints of the greater world in which the story takes place.

Combat is an action-RPG affair that brings the old Megaman Battle Network games to mind. Your character and the enemy each occupy half of a grid, which you’re free to move around on in more-or-less real time; attacks hit certain portions of the grid, so learning to dodge attacks from each of the game’s handful of enemy types is a must. Each of the game’s half-dozen enemy types comes with enough attacks aimed at restricting movement or controlling parts of the grid to keep things feeling fresh. My biggest issue with the combat is that it feels like the game’s early fights are twice as long as they should be- at that point, neither you nor your enemies have a whole lot of options, so it feels like running down their lifebar is an endurance match rather than a challenge. Control can be a little laggy at times, but I never really felt like I was being cheated by it (note that I played the iPhone version; this may be better on the iPad version of the game).

QTEs weave in and out through many of the game’s systems- they’re tied to both your ‘special attacks’ in combat and ‘action scenes’ in the ‘adventure’ section of the game. They’re relatively well-implemented here; there’s generally little penalty for failure in the adventure sections (often this amounts to getting a slightly different scene, or repeating the scene until you’re successful). Some of the gestures required can be a little flaky at times, but they worked pretty well on the most part; I think the game would be awfully flat without them, honestly.

While the ‘full’ game is a bit on the pricey side as iOS games go, it’s just that- a full game that’s neither tied to microtransactions nor a glorified match-3. There’s a pretty significant demo, too. I’d strongly recommend giving it a try- it’s a solid first outing for Giant Spacekat, and shows a lot of potential for future games in the series. It’s currently iOS-only and available here.

– HC

Yeah, I’m gonna be that one guy who doesn’t hate All The Bravest.

Upon its’ original┬árelease, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest was excoriated- and rightfully so- for being a $4 app which essentially amounted to, as Mike Fahey so eloquently summarized, $46 of in-app purchases looking for a game. Most of the complaints made then are still true: it’s still a series of fixed battles that you ‘fight’ by tapping on your characters; there is no ability to select which characters or how many come with you in battle; losing all your characters means waiting three minutes per character to get them back, or spending real money on DLC items; getting access to Your Favorite Character is a matter of getting lucky on pulls from a virtual gumball machine at a buck a pop.

That being said, the ‘base app’ has been dropped down to ‘free’. At that initial price for the core app, it’s much easier to justify as a nostalgia-fueled romp through the NES and SNES-era Final Fantasy games. It’s not very long- I finished it in something like two or three days of playing a couple hours now and then- and it does preserve the look-and-feel of the older games. The actual-money-costing items are largely bonuses; they’re not required to make your way through the whole game if you’re willing to let the game sit now and then.

I certainly wasn’t interested in buying All The Bravest when it first came out, and I didn’t end up putting any money into the free version at all. It does bring back all the characters I grew up with, though, and for free it was a nice way to hang out with them a little bit more.

– HC

Pay to Win

For free users, tiny slimes; for paid users, gigantic dragons.At first, Puzzle and Dragons seemed like something pretty cool- a mobile game which, roughly, combines something like Pokemon with a match-3. Form a party of elementally-themed monsters and explore dungeons with them; fight enemies by matching tiles. Monsters have special abilities that can be triggered with time, and can also be made more powerful by combining them with other monsters. Monsters come in one of five different elements- matching three or more tiles of a given element makes every monster of that element in your party attack, and may do more or less damage depending on their target’s element. The obligatory twist to the match-three gameplay is that rather than simply swapping a tile with one next to it, you’re given the ability to grab a tile and then drag it around for a few seconds, meaning that with speed and foresight you can put together a couple matches in a single move, or build ones larger than would otherwise be possible. With a variety of elementally-themed dungeons to visit, each providing a set of missions with a fixed series of battles, it seemed a pretty solid game.

I played it off and on for a couple days. As seems standard for microtransaction-based games, it featured two currencies- coins, which are earned with every dungeon run and are used for ‘normal’ tasks like combining monsters, and Magic Stones. Magic Stones are earned slowly; you appear to gain one every day, and clearing all missions in a dungeon for the first time gives you one as well. The latter can be spent to refill your stamina, continue if your party falls in battle, and gambled in a virtual gumball machine for new monsters.

That last bit is the sticking point.

After a few days, I’d assembled what I thought was a pretty decent party- strong enough, certainly, to complete the dungeons I’d run without a whole lot of trouble. The monsters you win at the conclusion of normal missions, however, are fairly generic, common types- weak slimes and goblins with the occasional mediocre warrior or decent Ogre thrown in. To get rare monsters, you need to drop a couple magic stones in the aforementioned gumball machine- something I’d done as frequently as I could. The first couple times, I got interesting, unique monsters that were akin to the fire-breathing dragon I’d started with in power; a Naga with the ability to stop enemies from attacking, a Golem with the ability to reduce incoming damage, a Knight with decent stats. My fourth spin, however, yielded the Hell Golem Mk. III.

Before every mission in the game, you’re compelled to bring a ‘helper’ along; a monster recruited from another player, either a “friend” or one of a handful picked at random. I’d observed in the past that an abnormally large number of these folks had suspiciously high-level nonstandard monsters, but I’d always chalked it up to folks who’d been playing longer than I was or had put all of their resources into building up a single character rather than spreading them around.

Hell Golem Mk. III was ranked five stars, denoting the rarest and most powerful tier of monsters. While specific five-star monsters are nominally the rarest in the game, getting five-stars from the slots couldn’t be that unusual, given the number of similar examples I’d seen helpers come with. Hell Golem Mk. III started at level 30; my highest-level monster was at level 15. Hell Golem Mk. III, like the other five-stars I’d seen as helpers, was significantly more powerful than the rest of my monsters put together.

Seeing my carefully-assembled party so totally outclassed by a virtual die roll pretty effectively killed my desire to keep playing the game. Why bother leveling my party up, when simply spending Magic Stones was so much more effective? I tried running another mission anyway, with the Hell Golem on point. Having effortlessly steamrolled it, I sighed, hit ‘home’, and deleted the app.

I’ve said before- perhaps not in this space- that this sort of nonsense is the bitter fruit of the race-to-the-bottom that is app pricing; I draw a direct line from the inability to sell a game on the App Store for more than $3 unless it has the words “Final Fantasy” in the title to reliance on microtransactions and ‘encouraging’ investment of real money into the game. In this case, the advantages that could be won with a fistful of Magic Stones and a moderate amount of luck were so great that building a party the ‘normal’ way seemed a waste of time- and without the need to strategize and work my way up that ladder, there didn’t seem to be any purpose to playing the game at all.

Maybe this is an argument that, despite previous evidence, it is possible to strip too much gameplay out of something- or at least that it’s possible to go too far in providing a real-money end run around it.

– HC

Nostalgia’s great, but…

So Nintendo has announced a direct sequel to the SNES classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, taking place in the same world and- the video available implies- almost the same map.

I’m really not sure how to feel about this.

Like most 90s kids, I have very fond memories of the original A Link to the Past. In its’ day, it was an amazing game- like Super Mario World before it, a quantum leap beyond what the NES was capable of in size, depth, and complexity. It was a great game and I’m not denying that for a second.

On the other hand, like most of the other games in the series, it was a standard world with a fairly straightforward design. While the game had a plot, there were precious few characters and nothing particularly compelling about the world’s setting. Nostalgia is nice, but beyond that I don’t see anything terribly compelling about a return to A Link to the Past’s Hyrule over an original take on the world.

Is there really anyone chomping at the bit to go back to Misery Mire and fight that giant goddamn blob of eyes again? More to the point, anyone who wouldn’t already pick up something with “Zelda” in the title?

I’m usually more than willing to excuse companies for wanting to revisit their successes and port and re-release their old games- heck, I love the fact that I can now play many of my childhood favorites on my phone- but this really does feel like an attempt to capitalize on nostalgia rather than creating something new.

– HC

Danmaku Unlimited

The titleI’ll be honest and say that it’s been a while since I’ve really followed the doujin scene, for various reasons. I’ve stopped following most of the gaming message boards I used to hear about them on, and the indiegames.com feed focuses much more heavily on western projects these days. While I still feel the danmaku itch occasionally, I usually scratch it by means of Cave’s back-catalog. Still, when I first heard about the two Danmaku Unlimited games, I was happy to see something fresh.

Donmaku Unlimited and its sequel Danmaku Unlimited 2 are a pair of doujin-style shmups for the iDevices. Although they’re a bit on the easy side compared to many of their contemporaries, they’ve got decent graphics combined with solid mechanics and controls into a very nice overall package.

To get the front-matter out of the way: visually, both games are solid if unremarkable; they’ve opted for the generic planes-and-spaceships sci-fi motif rather than the moeblobs that have plagued danmaku shmups for the last decade or so. The audio in the first is mediocre, but the second introduces a soundtrack worth digging out headphones for. Both games control using the familiar drag-anywhere-to-move-your-fighter method used by Cave’s iOS ports and Taito’s Space Invaders: Infinity Gene; it’s missing the ‘dead zone’ at the bottom of the screen that the Cave ports include, but it’s otherwise solid. It is a bit more generous than Infinity Gene, however; you won’t have to worry as much about enemies ambushing you from the bottom of the screen, and onscreen buttons are kept to a minimum. The second eliminates onscreen buttons entirely, using up or down swipes with a second finger in their place. It’s a little awkward at first, but feels very natural once you get the hang of it. DoDonPachi’s influence on both games is clear: both feature ships wielding both a wide, ‘bullet’ spread and a narrow, more powerful beam weapon.

The meat of most danmaku games comes to their scoring systems; the DU games use a combination grazing and combo system. At the top-left of the screen is a multiplier- this starts at 1x and builds up by increments of .1 as you graze enemy bullets. Grazing many in succession yields a combo; large combos both yield bonus points and build up the multiplier more quickly. Your multiplier is reset to 1x if you die or bomb, and decays rapidly if it’s over 100.0x or you take too long to defeat a boss. Also in play is a system similar to the Hyper mode of the latter DoDonPachi games- destroying enemies and grazing bullets builds up a ‘trance’ bar which, when filled, can be triggered to increase your offensive power and the value of point items dropped by enemies for a limited time. Finally, there’s a Shikigami no Shiro-esque system in play as well, whereby destroying enemies when you’re near bullets or other enemies yields a multiplier up to 16x. I haven’t determined if this is additive or multiplicative with the multiplier yielded by grazing; potentially, it could provide huge stacked bonuses.

Danmaku Unlimited 2 tweaks most of these systems. The game features two modes: Classic and Burst. Classic is similar to the original, save that your multiplier is now connected to collecting certain itmes rather than building up graze combos. Burst Mode changes things up a bit- your standard secondary laser is replaced by giant beam with the ability to destroy enemy bullets and change them into multiplier-boosting items. This beam is charged by collecting a third new type of item from destroying nearby enemies. I’m quite fond of the change- instead of offering screen-clearing bombs that you’re penalized for using, Burst Mode gives you a secondary ability which you’re rewarded for learning to use effectively… It’s something that I’d like to see in more shmups.

Although I’m not going to complain about this too much in my capacity as an unremarkable shmupper with the deteriorating reflexes of a man in his early 30s, both Danmaku Unlimited games seem fairly easy by comparison to many of their competitors. Although you start with a limited number of lives and continues, you’re given more as you play through the game on a fairly generous basis, and both allow you to take several hits before you die as well. The touchscreen controls give you far more control over your speed and direction than more traditional D-pad-style controls; once you’ve acclimated to them, you’ll have far better control than you would from a keyboard. Looking through the global high-score list, it looks like there’s a maximum score that many players of the original Danmaku Unlimited have hit. The second is better, but it’s also pretty clear that ‘serious’ players are thin on the ground, even if only because I was able to land in the top 25.

All in all, though, I’m pretty happy with the Danmaku Unlimited games. They’re both solid, high-quality doujin-level efforts with solid mechanics and a control scheme that makes me wonder why more PC shmup developers haven’t embraced the mouse. I’d strongly recommend that fans of the genre give the two a try- free demos of both games are available on iTunes.

– HC

A Valley Without Wind

I missed Arcen Games’ A Valley Without Wind when it was originally released, but seeing stories about A Valley Without Wind 2 come across the indiegames.com RSS feed piqued by interest. Consequentially, I decided to give the original a try.

Reality has shattered, creating a new world out of broken pieces taken from different times- Ice Age plains abut abandoned contemporary cities and robotic junkyards from the far future. This new world is also filled by the Wind, which seems to scour the very souls of everything it touches. The survivors of this catastrophe have gathered together in a few settlements, beset by evil Overlords and their minions but protected by mysterious intelligent stones. These stones have created Glyphs to aid the survivors, which allow humans to resist the wind beyond the guardian stones and grants them a variety of magical abilities with which to explore the harsh world beyond the settlement.

A Valley Without Wind is difficult to categorize- it’s essentially a combination of Metroid and Diablo, with elements of a lightweight city-building sim. You’ll spend most of your time exploring a series of randomly-generated continents, seeking the resources you’ll need to destroy an evil overlord and his lieutenants and building up outposts of survivors as you go. The game is a platformer, like Metroid or the latter-day Castlevanias, although it’s a more exploration-centric game than either of those- you’ll be scavanging for supplies in a huge world, not finding abilities to unlock new areas. As you explore, you’ll come across materials that you can use to craft more powerful attacks and unlock new missions and enemy types; you’ll earn the power to place buildings that strengthen you and weaken your enemies; you’ll learn about the cataclysm that befell the world, the wind, and the mysterious stones that protect your settlement. While it’s certainly easy to get sucked into the largely pointless excercise of exploring the world’s every nook-and-cranny, A Valley Without Wind does provide a decent list of short-term, concrete goals. This makes it very easy to pick up and play for half an hour, and also very easy to pick up and play for “half an hour” only to find that half a day has passed.

The biggest drawback of the game is the sameyness of a lot of the world- while areas are randomly generated, they’ll start to look awfully similar after a while. The game goes on forever; defeating the Overlord of a certain continent merely unlocks another, with stronger enemies. Although the first few new continents will unlock new spells and crafting materials as well, that only continues for so long and only offers up so much variety.

The visuals are another major source of controversy; although they’re passable, they never really rise to “good” and more-than-occasionally dip down into “ugly”. This is a game that was produced with a shoestring graphics budget, and that is very clear from playing it. I found myself wishing that they’d opted for the chunky faux-SNES style so common among indie games rather than the very rough-edged attempts at more advanced graphics that they’ve put together instead.

Finally, the tutorial could be a lot better, and it took me a couple hours to grok what I should be doing and how. The game attempts to introduce everything at once, which is both difficult and overwhelming, and makes the game feel more complicated than it is. I spent the first couple hours with the game lost, but eventually picked up on many of the points that should have been better-explained.

All that being said- I’ve put about 30 hours into A Valley Without Wind over the last few months, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. The sequel is also available; I’m looking forward to giving that one a try, too, but I’m holding off until I’ve played through a bit more of the original. A Valley Without Wind is available on Steam for both OSX and Windows; a huge demo is also available, both from Steam and the Arcen Games website.

– HC

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

Over the course of the last couple weeks, I’ve played through the iOS port of the third episode of the Penny Arcade game- officially named “Penny Arcade Adventures: ON the Rain-Slick Precipice OF Darkness 3“, and hereafter referred to as “Rainslick 3” because holy crap that’s a mouthful. It was decent, but unfortunately I’m not nearly as impressed by it as I hoped to be.

The game, mechanically, is fairly solid. It’ s got an oldscool feel and visual flair that works in its’ favor, while the underpinning ‘systems’ borrow from some of the 16-bit era’s better ideas. Combat mixes the oldschool Final Fantasy turn-based system with a visible ‘initative’ bar and the ability to delay enemy turns or create ‘periodic’ effects, which works fairly well; they’ve put a few interesting twists on a solid foundation. Characters are developed with a class-based system, similar to the Job systems seen in some of the old Final Fantasy games- each of your four main characters has a default ‘class, which grants stat bonuses and abilities, and you’ll eventually gain the ability to equip up to two additional ones. It works pretty well, although I found that once I had a setup down, there was very little reason to ever change it up. I thought the challenge level was decent- I wiped several times through the game, but the penalty for doing so is light, so it didn’t feel terribly onerous to change up my strategy and try again. The other side of that coin, however, is that each area contains a certain set of predefined combats which don’t appear again- although there is one area where respawning enemies appear, on the most part, you don’t have the option of grding levels as a recouse if you get stuck. This didn’t bother me personally, but may be a sticking point for other players.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of smaller issues with the game that bugged me. While the plot is fine for what it is, the writing is florid in a way whch just makes my eyes slide right over it sometimes. The writers- I’m not sure if it’s wrtten by the PA folks themselves or someone from Zeboyd- frequently seem more interested in showing off their vocabulary than actually telling a story in an interesting way. There’s quite a bit of reuse of old PA gags; nearly every one-panel gag character they’ve come up with appears at least briefly, whether as a full character or a random enemy. Rex Ready? Dr. Jacob Crunchner? The Broodax? Karapyss the Crabomancer, and his companion Professor Necro-Dead? You’ll bump into all of them as you go through the game. While there are worse things than having shout-outs to the old strips (and I admit that I was glad to see the criminally-underused Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood), I can’t help but feel that relying so heavily on callouts to Penny Arcade the comic prevents Penny Arcade the game from forming its’ own mythology. I also suspect that non-readers will be a little put off by the onslaught of old injokes and callbacks, but at this point the PA folks may have given up on attracting them to the game in any real numbers. The fact that there are neither repeatable nor random combats gives me the same on-rails feeling that many modern games to; playing Rainslick 3 definitely feels more like a scripted series of minibosses than exploring an open world.

There’s no nice way to say this: the game did not run well on my iPhone 3GS. The graphics are unevenly-scaled in a way which makes the faux-16-bit style that they’re rendered in look tremendously ugly, I had numberous issues with the game crashing, and the interface is incredibly clumsy on an iPhone screen. Maybe it’s better on later-generation phones (or iPads), but if you’re interested at all, I’d strongly recommend the PC/Mac version. I don’t know if it’s better, but frankly I’m not sure it could be worse without being borderline-unplayable.

I don’t mean to be too down on the game. The mechanics are solid, like I said, and none of the issues I’ve mentioned above prevented me from finishing or enjoying the game. That being said, I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend the game to anyone who wasn’t a fan of the comic. You could certainly do worse if you’re looking for an oldschool-style mobile RPG- but you could probably do better, too.

– HC

Silversword, picked up!

I AM GROOTIt seems that the iDevices don’t see much ‘full-size’ development; even well-established companies seem to tend toward bite-size offshoots of their popular series. This is part of the reason I was happy to see Final Fantasy Dimensions pop up, even if the combined price and mediocrity of the game has kept me away from it. That being said, there are some full-size games hiding out there.

A friend- whose indie tabletop RPGs you should totally check out– pointed me at Silversword a few weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying it tremendously ever since. An original game based heavily on the 1980s-era Bard’s Tale series, Silversword has you controlling a party of adventurers in one of the last settlements on an island colony beseiged by evil forces; as you can imagine, this involves a lot of delving into monster-infested caverns and abandoned crypts filled with the restless dead.

Silversword’s look and feel cleaves very close to its’ oldschool roots; although you’re exploring a polygonal world in a new story, everything about the game strongly resembles the games it’s based on. The class selection, the spell lists, and even the screen and menu layots resemble the games that it’s based on (perhaps a little too much in the latter case, as inventory management can be a bit of a pain on a tiny iPhone screen). That being said, it offers a more modern difficulty level- there are certainly areas where you’ll need to grind a bit or where not paying enough attention will kill you, but it doesn’t quite reach the “one wrong step means death, even right out of the gate!” level of many of the games it’s based on.

It’s a nice, solid ‘full-size’ RPG, and while the price is high for an iPhone game, you’re getting a lot of content for that. If you’re looking for a real RPG on the iDevices, I’m ready to call Silversword a must-buy. Check it out at the App Store here.

– HC