Monday, January 2, 2017

Indie Impressions - Steredenn


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Pixelnest Studios


 It starts with a loud boom and a fire-y explosion, the steel body of your fleet's capital ship smoldering in the blackness of space as fighters scramble, taking off into the heat of the oncoming battle. Steredenn sets the stage quite abruptly and nicely with this scene of destruction, with an instantly eye-catching and nostalgic pixel art style that captures the intergalactic action in a gritty and old school Macross sort of way.

We see the distincly, deliciously crisp and crunch-y pixel art style used in a lot of different genres, notably from roguelikes like Crypt of the Necrodancer to run'n'gun shooters like Super Time Force Ultra, but how often do we see explosive and authentic balls-to-the-wall arcade shoot-'em-up action utilize these snappy and memorable retro flavored visuals? And more importantly; does it deliver?

Your journey through eight stages of increasingly chaotic randomized waves and eight well choreographed boss battles are a real test of endurance, and your goal will be to repeatedly push yourself through this series of intergalactic struggles to eventually perfect your run and maybe even make it to the end of your first loop. With some obvious love for the classics and a clear devotion to recreating a pure and classic shootemup romp on par with the likes of Gradius or R-type, but with more unpredictable action than muscle-memory, 

Steredenn is an absolutely worthy successor to the horizontal shmups it takes its cues from. Aside from living up to that classic formula of easy to jump into score-chasing action, it shakes things up with randomly generated stage progression and weapon drops to keep each playthrough fresh and interesting.
Players are able to hold up to two different weapons and must carefully decide which one to ditch when coming across new and more powerful equipment to utilize. From grenade launching drones to damage absorbing shields or passive auto-fire upgrades there's plenty of strategic combinations to play around with, but in the end nothing beats shredding apart a crowd of enemies with an enormous space-drill.

The music is serious headbanging material and exibits all of the signs of a classic STG soundtrack, from the ominous and slow building synth-heavy title screen to the energetic and adrenaline pumping guitar riffs during the heat of battle, I was instantly reminded of the iconic first stage BGM from the aforementioned R-type.
This rebellious and gritty space trash vibe combined with the tight controls and high impact action gives Steredenn a very nostalgic and similar atmosphere to the legendary Jets n' Guns, but the random generation of levels and weapons strewn about gives a much more hectic, arcade-y and action focused playstyle that stands out on its own. There isn't as much focus on progression, therefore putting an emphasis on unpredictable and quick experiences each time in an accessibly randomized rogue-lite fashion that make each playthrough unpredictable and at least partially driven by luck.

All of the action looks gorgeous and is just so damn fun to play, as any good shooter should be. With such a unique visual style and a pixel art style that is something especially rare for the genre, addictive highscore chasing, an appropriately heavy soundtrack and some seriously clever weapons that manage to also be really satisfying to use, Steredenn is the kind of innovation we need to keep the real spirit of shmups alive and new generations possible.

 Steredenn is a new kind of arcade shooter that focuses not on the standard formula of muscle memory or scoring mechanics but on the joy of experimentation and the excitement of discoveries that come with it each time. It incorporates core roguelite mechanics into the shmup formula extremely well, presenting the player with an array of randomized decisions in the form of upgrades leaving you wondering if you really made the best choices after each miserable and impending death. Leaderboards and daily challenge runs complete the package and keep you regularly coming back for more in order to test your mettle against your friends and the rest of the world.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Daily Indie - Day Three : Don'Yoku


Now Available on Steam

Developed by  Dark-Spot Studio


Just a quick reminder that you should try Don'Yoku.

Remember when shoot'emups and bullet hells were actually as brutal, 'manly' and badass as their difficulty, and not exclusively about magical shoujos?

Don'Yoku is a rare breed of manly shoot'em up action with a very traditional arcade flavor, the last of its kind in an already struggling genre that seems to be dominated by formulaic Touhou knockoffs.

Seriously though, this has the visual aesthetics of a Toaplan classic like Batsugun, the heavily rockin' soundtrack of a Raizing romp like Battle Garegga (think Dimahoo), and the tight and realized scoring system of a modern cave title a la DoDonPachi. That's a seriously impressive balance to achieve, and if you have any idea what I'm talking about so far you should probably just pick up this game right now.

Don'yoku; the last of the 'manly' shooters! 


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Daily Indie - Day Two: Trigonarium


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Kimmo Lahtinen


Slick and responsive twin-stick shooter with a bright, colorful, and psychedelic visual style and a very intuitive and addictive dashing mechanic. Each dash ends with a powerful burst obliterating any nearby baddies with an extremely satisfying explosion, and is crucial in the most chaotic of moments.

The sound design kept my ears perked at all times just as any authentic arcade experience should, with distinct bleeps of power ups being collected and the tinkling of small crystalline enemies spawning from their red-glowing silhouette. Trigonarium is a twin-stick that just bleeds with awesome and nostalgic atmosphere.

The gameplay starts off slowly in usual twin-stick fashion with smaller enemies casually lurching around you from each corner, but as time goes on and score conditions are met the frequency and intensity of waves increases into a seriously chaotic clusterfuck of colorfully calculated craziness. The arenas begin to transform and screen-filling bosses show up to occasionally greet you. Things get tense to the point where you're counting down every second until your next Dash move is charged to plow your way forcefully to that crucial power-up that just spawned across the map.

Trigonarium is an incredibly charming and inventive, extremely fun to play twin-stick and is criminally underpriced given the amount of fun I've squeezed out of it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Daily Indie for the New Year - Day One: Space Hole

Hey everyone! Sorry for the radio silence, I had a series of computer problems interspersed with real life interruptions. I'm back though, and finally have a new PC so I can get back to seeking out, discovering, and then bringing your attention to more obscure and under the radar games coming out in the underworld of Steam.

To get back into the groove of things I'd like to do a Daily Indie Spotlight for the duration of the current ongoing Steam sales to help shine some needed light on underrated and underplayed indies you can grab on sale. Until the last day of Steam sales, I'll be looking back at some titles I've recently missed that I think are very under-the-radar and seriously deserve your attention for being original, creative, weird, and just plain fun. It's Holiday time and things are busy so I'll keep these nice and brief, until I get back into the motion of things!

First on the list:

Space Hole

Now Available on Steam ($0.49 on Sale, $0.99 normal)

Developed by Sam Atlas


Super Monkey Ball, or Marble Madness for the old fogeys, in a terrestrial setting drenched in stylish indie rock and geometric oddities to roll around in with your bubble-encased space ship. It's as weird as it sounds and I love it.

The control you have over the rolling is very fluid much like any of the top marble-rolling titles out there and I never felt like I was fighting with the controls especially with a gamepad. The strange and out-there galactic setting along with the engaging and weirdly outside-the-box level design, not-too-easy-but-not-quite-impossible stages of varying colors and shapes to navigate make this really satisfying to play and visually really fun to look at especially given the price. Many of the later levels become a bit frustrating displays of trial-and-error but the execution is almost always ingenious and original, full of excellent ideas that sometimes just take a few tries before really working and keep you retrying on even the oddest seeming solutions.

The soundtrack is a big plus just for following in the vein of the rest of the game and trying something new, will probably be grating on the ears for those not keen on 'indie rock'. Like so many of the indie garage bands remembered from my middle to high school days the music is an instant hook that's catchy, fast, and melodic yet heavy. It even gets pretty psychedelic and trippy at times fitting the surreal imagery of rolling your space ship through the galaxy a la Katamari Damacy.

Fun, addictive, just the right amount of challenge, super affordable (Seriously the game is a dollar, or 50 cents on sale!) and overall really weird in the best ways possible. Indie as it should be.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Indie Impressions - HEKTOR


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Rubycone 

The hallways of a mysteriously decrepit and deranged research facility beckon your escape, but the weakening of your mental state refuses to make navigating your way to freedom an easy task. The voice of a mysterious girl describes to the player acts of unspeakable injustices from within the confines, and your descent into the sanity depleting design of this strange complex leads you on the hunt for more information. Why are you here, what is the purpose of this wretched place, and who is this girl leaving you notes telling of a sketchy employment situation gone horribly afoul?

Hektor is a rare breed of psychological horror gaming, one with impeccable pacing and constant flow. Never feeling slow, never sluggish, tedious or breaking the pace, it keeps you one-hundred-percent on your toes and pressing ahead without the will to ever look back.

The story and the mystery surrounding the fates of the facilities inhabitants is told through the discovery of notes left behind by past workers, and cryptic visions from elements of this bleak environment. The voice acting is fantastically done and part of what keeps the player so immersed in the harrowing events unfolding through the snippets of writings uncovered and a real sense of urgency, confusion and terror can be heard with each increasingly dire development of the story.

Moving through the story of Hektor takes you through a range of odd environments and surreal imagery. Starting with the harsh reality of the trashed and abandoned research complex and slowly evolving into more vibrantly obscured visions of lush red curtains and fancy tiled floors as if you've stepped right into an episode of Twin Peaks, but which of these surroundings are merely a figment of your imagination?

The beautifully orchestrated soundtrack is instantly chilling and ominous, worming its way through your ears and into your mind where you can feel every sharp note of the violin effecting your psyche. The echoing of unnerving metal scrapes in the distance, the buzz and crackle of old and failing light fixtures all work together to create a heavy atmosphere that constantly builds tension only to all explode in your face with every twist of the plot and your pysche.

Hallucinatory visual effects that plague our character creates a chaotic and fittingly confusing effect, and your only solace is the scarce Benzodiazepine pills scattered throughout the facility. This in part is what gives Hektor such a uniquely bizarre and frantic situation for a horror game, and a unique concept not seen since the likes of the legendary Eternal Darkness in terms of how much your mind is being screwed with. The wavy and twisting effect of your ravaged mental state making you feel as though you are losing your vision, causing you to squint and focus your attention on the distortion of the screen even harder until that one disturbing/shocking moment takes you off guard.

Not only does neglecting to take your pills bring about the mind altering hallucinatory effects, but stirs the vengeful and twisted souls of past test subjects of this cruel place. Always ahead of you if you rush and forget to scavenge for pills but never too far behind if you lose your way and slow down, the threat of seeing one of these sanity depleting and terrifying creatures is what drives your carefully paced search for escape and answers.

The random and deliberately confusing nature of the ever-changing hallways around you and the constant transformation of the mysterious facility is an incredibly innovative mechanic for the genre. The straight-forward and almost repetitive nature that plagues most modern horror games gets a much needed spicing up and the cold, gray, lifeless hallways we're so used to from the genre now feel much more alive, more sinister and unpredictable.

Hektor is one of those elusive and unforgettable horror titles that manages to keep me consistently glued to the screen, only to severely regret my undying attention at the harrowing realization that I'm not alone in these dark and desolate hallways. The creepiness is in full force thanks to a genuinely mind-bending atmosphere, nothing ever feels forced and the scares are all derived from the mysterious unknown factors and macabre questions swimming around your mind. Even more impressive is that this elegant and disturbing journey into a twisted facility was hand crafted and coordinated by a team of five very dedicated people working from various locations across the globe.

Amongst the droves of same-y horror titles and their cheap thrills, Hektor stands out as one of the few sublimely twisted experiences with a hallucinatory touch and just the right amount of mindfuckery causing you to question the reality of every last step you took. Where have you really been and what really happened, where are you going and will you ever get there?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Indie Impressions - Blackhole


Now Available on Steam

Developed by FiolaSoft Studio

Much like many of the well-known indie darlings of the past decade Blackhole puts the player in control of a highly memorable and relatable slouch of a protagonist, a coffee-fetching assistant of an astronaut who is mostly taken for granted by his all-important world saving crew of scientists. As anyone whose been around sci-fi tropes long enough can probably guess, disaster strikes our important blackhole-seeking vessel and the crucial members aboard are dashed across a foreboding unknown entity between dimensions consisting of everything from rocky cosmic caves to strange primal jungles.

The campy sense of humor throughout the various cutscenes is surprisingly clever this time around, if a bit predictable, though it knows its genre very well fitting perfectly into its almost retro sci-fi setting. The most prominent character in the game aside from our coffee delivering outcast of an anti-hero is the malfunctioning A.I. who is fittingly snarky, now begrudgingly partnered with our unlikely lower ranked hero to fill him in on all the technical jargon he doesn't seem to understand. Her humorous quips may be hard to describe.. cringeworthy will be what comes to mind for some players, but what at first feels like hamfisted comic relief slowly evolves into something a bit more human as the relationship between our stranded, misunderstood protagonist and the marooned ship's cynical, sarcastic A.I. blooms into something of a more serious nature.

Through witnessing the hardship of his desolate and hopeless situation, the A.I. known as Auriel seems to grow an understanding of how the human mind and psyche works and her dialogue goes from groan inducing wise-cracks to interesting speculations on how the human mind works, at one point noting "You humans are very simple creatures. Someone praises you, and all of the sudden you work much harder." These sharp turns in mood during the brief but important narrative bits of Blackhole really took me by surprise, and as far as story in platformers go it really drew me in. The high level of quality in the various dialogue driven cutscenes are a seriously nice change of pace in the indie game field, with well done voice acting and character development that give the game almost movie-like qualities.

Blackhole's open and branching hub world is big enough to get lost in for hours, but the short and sweet nature of each challenging level across the hub make the game perfect for quick runs and the inevitable retries are abound with each one making it perfect for that "One more try!" situation. Each of the individual stage warps found throughout this large unknown space known as "Entity" have the seemingly simple task of finding the important Selfburn orbs needed to re-power your wrecked spacecraft, as well as various parts and crew members. Stages generally contain four or more Selfburns to collect but only one is required in most to activate the exit and complete it, though the ultimate sense of satisfaction comes from twisting and turning your surroundings to navigate your way through hazards and collect each one for the top grade. As a result coasting through the game with a minimal number of orbs is possible for those who want a more relaxing experience, but serious challenge seekers will be able to wrack their brains on those same levels for much longer finding solutions for the remainders.

Each and every rotation of the level's sides transforms the playing field, opening up and creating entire new possibilities within the same screen from the re-arrangement of the twisting passages. Previously unreachable pathways will now lie on their side allowing you to jump to their edge and continue whereas large patches of previously blocking your path now hang above allowing you to pass safely under and grab that last out of reach collectable. Even once you've got a good grasp of how the stage rotation works and how to use it in your favor to grab faraway Selfburns the game begins to outwit and outsmart you, throwing in cruel tricks by baiting you into jumping against walls that will rotate you into your doom at just the last moment. At certain points solutions seem impossible until you learn about your surroundings, such as using the buoyancy of a pond of water to leap to the other side of a large gap. A lot of it comes down to a case of trial-and-error, getting tossed into the most unsavory of situations and learning from the countless deaths what not to do.

The soundtrack to Blackhole is alive with diversity, and it reaches far beyond the cinematic and space-y sci-fi qualities you expect from the opening cutscenes. As you venture deeper into the almost psychedelic purple caves of the first "Entity" that exists between worlds the music becomes more electronic and upbeat with a classic, warm, blippy quality you'd expect from nostalgic Sega days. As you alternate dimension and enter the green and barbaric jungles the music shifts into a tribal and percussion heavy beat, rife with beautifully natural sounds of wooden flute. The range in musical taste offered is just as wild and varied as the hybrid gameplay itself, combining audio and visuals as impressively as it does its platforming and puzzle mechanics.

Blackhole has quickly and easily earned a place in my heart as one of the indie classics that just gets everything right. The incredible precision applied to platforming, the clever problem-solving that rewards the player with a huge feeling of accomplishment while never pushing too hard offering versatile and long lasting difficulty for every type of player and level of dedication. The precise action, fresh style, original concept, and the lovable indie heroes of games like Dustforce and Super Meat Boy all with the memorable, fun and campy yet impressively well executed plot of an unexpected hero trapped between worlds now given the chance to prove himself to his superiors and save the day. Blackhole is quite easily one of the more outstanding indie ventures in recent years, and it does deserve to missed by anyone with a penchant for challenging platformers with fantastic art.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Indie Impressions - Shelter 2

Shelter 2

Now Available on Steam

Developed by Might and Delight 


When Shelter first released in 2013 it took players by surprise with its melancholy tale of maternal struggle in the animal kingdom, told through incredibly vibrant picture-book styling and riddled with heart-wrenching moments. With the appearance of a long teased sequel, evolution has taken place and the series makes a daring leap from the confined and contained linear path of the first into much wider and open-ended horizons. Shelter 2 brings us back on a trip through the shifting of the seasons in a natural landscape that breathes with life, ditching the more narrative driven path for an open adventure that encourages free exploration of the many plains, rivers, and forests of this habitat.

The shift into an open-world style of gameplay feels as natural in Shelter 2 as the setting itself, and puts a higher emphasis on the previous hunting mechanics from before for our carnivorous Lynx family. Starting out on small prey such as rabbits and other critters then working your way up to large and powerful deer when your cubs are large enough which must be brought down with a well placed jump, the bounty of the forests reaches far and wide as you search through snowy woods, swamps thick with reeds, and rocky plains with little vegetation.

The astounding hand-painted style that had fans in awe from the first game really shines now with an open approach to level design from the colorful stretches of leaves, grass, and winding blue rivers reaching out miles before you leading to mesmerizing patches of intricately colored trees and mountains. Ever bit of natural detail and lush wonder of the previous title is transcribed gorgeously into this new, ambitious foray into a massive land with little in the way of boundaries or limitations.

Given the open-ended nature and longer progression Shelter 2 is a slow-burning gem compared to its predecessor which shined bright and fast like a shooting star. Instead of shorter scenes the player is now free to roam the wide and open land at their own accord with very little in the way of limits or stress on time. Aside from keeping your four lynx cubs alive and healthy by paying attention to their behavior and the vividness of their color, your goal is simply to exist and explore being a part of the ecosystem around you.

The only threat you face in the game comes in the form of surprise attacks in the dead of night from packs of rabid wolves, which admittedly caught me by surprise and got my heart racing as I feared for the life of the cubs I had just spent so much of my time doting on. Only the swiftest of Lynx mothers will be able to avoid these attacks and carry their cubs to safety, mostly ending with the harrowing realization that one of your cubs has disappeared while trailing behind you in the chase.

Swedish musicmakers Retro Family make their triumphant return with another effective soundtrack of fitting folk tunes. Just as before there's a wide variety of melodies here to accompany the different areas of the game and the range of emotions fitting each one, acting as a huge driving force to this wordless story. With uplifting acoustics in the brightness of the spring to the heavy and ominous percussion in the cold dead of winter where wolves loom in the dark, the music is what really crafts the atmosphere surrounding Shelter 2.

Might and Delight themselves come from humble beginnings, from smaller indie games that place a higher value on artistic design than anything else and work from a considerably lower budget than most.. and what they did with Shelter 2 should impress the pants off of anybody, effectively taking all of the fantasies and all of the "what-ifs" players presented while playing the first game and turning them into an open-world reality. While most smaller indie studios would scoff at the idea of turning their artistic pet project into an open-world experience with serviceable hunting mechanics, Might and Delight went for it and actually pulled out with very satisfactory results.

In the end the imagery and the message is much more positive than before, with a concluding scene that is much less about death and more about life, creation, and thriving as living beings. The openness of the world and lack of "game-y" objective might linger a bit longer than previous players anticipate, but with a real appreciation for the art, the music, and the positive message being portrayed Shelter 2 is rewarding in the end and the kind of experience you remember in the same way you do a childhood picture book.