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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Indie Impressions - Gravity Ghost

Gravity Ghost

Now Available on Steam

Developed by Ivy Games

In each of the far corners of this dreamlike galaxy are the spirits of guardian animals, whimsical creatures that seem close and sentimental to a wandering soul of a young girl who explores ceaselessly through the cosmos. Floating between planets with the most graceful elegance and encountering this realm's many colorful entities, each with their own history and past of mysteries for the playful space girl to discover.

Each node on our galactic map presents the player with a single stage of different planetary arrangements, some solid, some bouncy, some composed of water for you to splash through to the other side. Each maze of differently sized planet obstacles hides one shining yellow star to obtain and bring to the exit through skillful navigation and manipulation of gravity. Different plots on the sprawling and sparkling map hold the key to important elemental powers allowing you to become light as a feather and floating at a consistent level or heavy as a rock and plummeting towards the surface of a nearby planet. Successfully harnessing the power of these natural elements guides you easily through the galaxy.

All forms of inventive mechanics are slowly brought into play as the stages progress and they seem to add just as much to the colorful and calming visual appeal as they do the fluid feel of playing, from expanding circles of light that expand as you coast around their radius revealing new items to elegant clockwork puzzles of complex moving gears.

Gravity Ghost strikes just the perfect balance of visual wonder with fresh interactivity to keep your mind, heart, and fingers all equally busy. Some levels will test your reflexes and your accuracy with concentrated shots into clusters of small planets to reach that one important star, whereas other levels feel more relaxing in nature and entice the player into losing themselves in the flow of gravity and take in the sights and sounds.

The deeper you go and the more you clear, the more stars light up the interconnected galaxy and awaken the spirit animals whom reside in each of its corners. As you complete each level and free each lost animal spirit the pathways behind you glow radiantly until eventually the entire map is alive with the twinkling of stars signifying your completed trail. The sense of satisfaction from watching your cold unlit surroundings resurrect from the ashes into a beautiful booming system of lights is a most euphoric reward.

Scattered throughout each of the different systems belonging to a different animal spirit are the skeletal remnants of the once magnificent beings, and its your task to connect the wandering spirit with its earthly remains. You can then lead these now free spirits back to the center blackhole hub where they stay giving life and color back to the galaxy, reminding us that death is not just a gloomy end but a hopeful start of new beginnings.

Gravity Ghost is clearly a game made by the free-spirited for the free-spirited, a potpourri of concepts so lighthearted anyone of any age or background could enjoy. You'll glide around effortlessly to the flow of gravity,  terraforming colorful planets to your liking and collecting bits of star to grow cosmically charged hair. Gather the remains of your spirit animals to reignite their creative energies in order to soar into the cosmos with new found powers.

The space-y and emotional atmosphere given by the music is strongly evocative of the sound in FTL, and if you were a fan of Ben Prunty's masterful soundtrack there you are in for a serious treat with the sounds of Gravity Ghost. Prunty has really outdone himself with the soundtrack and I feel like I can hear his growth as a musician into different styles since past works. We are treated with a much wider range of sounds and instrumentation beyond just the synth-y soundscapes, with natural elements presented from the strings of guitar painting colorful melody across this galactic landscape. This evolution in his style makes me insanely excited to see where his music is headed in the future.

Despite the lack of any real threat, the lack of challenges or the prospect of death I was still heavily drawn into the gameplay in a way no other game of casual nature has hooked me. It could be the fantastically vibrant and almost psychedelic visions of a spiritual and magical Outer Space, or the fact that instead of the usual throwaway plots of casual games have been replaced with a deep and effective story containing rich characters ranging from the comedic to the downright tragic.

Forget brain eating zombies, forget lazer-blasting spaceships or epic boss battles. Gravity Ghost is a game that shines in areas where gaming should be all about to begin with; light hearted fun with the freedom and expression of imagination. It's a display of pure creativity and has the power to stir powerful levels of said imagination in those who hold it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Indie Impressions - Isbarah


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Leikir Studio 

You are the goddess Iria, daughter to the ruler of a realm of otherworldly order and an inheritor of immense power. With their dimension succumbing to the chaos around her, it's up to Iria to strike down evil where it stands and prove herself a rightful successor. Isbarah plunges the player into a hellish world of ruined landscapes and foul gods, a realm once overseen by order now divided by rebellious guardians. It's a plot that may feel familiar to many on its own, but combined with the uniquely painted backgrounds of Heavenly and Hellish qualities, the rocking original score and fiercely fast-paced action Isbarah stands out in a class of Bullet Hell of its own.

Despite the classic platformer and shooter looks players will be surprised to find that Isbarah is a game that relies solely on mouse and keyboard, and while that may be jarring to some at first they will soon discover that this is not your conventional Bullet Hell and that the free-form dodging requires the precision of a mouse. Being more a classic shmup aficionado this threw me off at first, but as soon as I was linking dodges in fancy formations around complex patterns of bullets the fluidity of the controls became clear. This is not meant to be a game where you attack or oppress, but where you defend and persevere by employing quick reflexes and periods of endurance until your opponent deteriorates to a weakened state for the final strike.

Each of the arena-like stages feature a different villainous boss to fight amongst variously themed surroundings of moving platforms and obstacles, of which you hop across and duck beneath while dodging the incoming barrages of bullets. In the first wave of chaotic dodging you'll notice three large cannons floating amidst the battle, and given the fact that you have no bullets to shoot of your own the goal is to power each of the cannons once to fire upon and weaken the boss. A feeling of rewarding danger and a bit of added strategy come from the fact that your access to these important cannons is usually cut off by the gunfire of your enemy, and hastily trying to reach one could mean your life.

Things begin to get slightly more complicated with the addition of the slow motion and barrier power-ups and your fingers become even busier than before. Slow motion does just what you'd imagine, letting you take the time to fine tune your dodges and escape from danger at just the right moments. Barriers provide not only standing space from platforms but hold the ability to block enemy bullets, which becomes crucial when you're dealing with entire walls of almost undodgeable projectiles coming your way. Action in turn becomes more than just a ballet of bullets, but a battle of wits.

The boss designs bring the game to life with a range of stylish personalities ranging from the elegantly gothic to the brutal and grotesque. Designless, a darkened mass of evil eyeballs and gnarled teeth escapes from its foreboding realm whereas Walter, a sly and smooth talking sunglasses wearing skeleton burns a once peaceful forest for his mysterious Lord. The level of personality and flair put into each foe, though marred by some rough translations in their dialogue, are matched only by the intensity of their bullet patterns.

There is no room for mistakes, no room for second guessing or trial and error, Isbarah is pure arcade skill distilled into challenging displays of refined hand-eye coordination. It's likely to cause a bit of rage for those not prepared and even as someone who feels confident in their bullet dodging skills I found myself quickly dropping to the lowest difficulty a short way through. As frustrating as that sounds it plays right into the replayable arcade nature and the player will soon lose themselves in multiple plays, slamming that retry button and shooting for a slightly higher score each time.

Clocking in at eighteen individual battles and more hours than I'd like to admit devoted to retrying the three different difficulties and pushing myself over and over, Isbarah is a content rich game with the kind of replayability you'd expect from an arcade classic. A Bullet Hell with outlandishly wicked artwork and an over-the-top metal soundtrack is a hard concept to pass up on and outside of the masochistic difficulty provided, this is remarkably unique as well as an easily recommendable take on the shooter formula for those who aren't afraid of a serious challenge.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Indie Impressions - Pizzarian


Now Available on Steam (also on

Developed by Alex Jedraszczak

Being the CEO of an up-and-coming intergalactic pizza joint is no easy business, especially when you're up against the likes of conglomerate pizza pioneers like Big Pizza. Pizzarian is the story of one small pizza business and its rise into the glamorous yet dangerous life of intergalactic delivery service.

You'll be faced with managing your pizza stock and ship upgrades, with the perils of the planetary orbit and the traffic of space highways that flow with them, and with making every piping hot order of cheese-y goodness arrive to their destination in an orderly fashion.

The high-speed deliveries you make are broken up into two separate arcade-inspired sections of dodge and shootem'up action, with management of your ships and upgrades inbetween deliveries. Using hard earned money on new ships is crucial to extending your future trips and making sure you hit each delivery target with utmost precisions, and ships themselves come with a variety of badass retro references ranging from ships likened to the Vic Viper from Gradius to weapons humorously taking after the Nintendo Zapper remembered so fondly.

With such rapid forays into bite-sized arcade stages Pizzarian is the kind of game you can pick up for a few minutes at a time, but thanks to the progressive nature of growing your ship and business is also easy to zone out on for much longer.

The claustrophobic and nerve-wracking traffic in Pizzarian is, as you'll soon find out, not much different from the real world. The rage inducing flow of slow moving trucks and various jerks cutting you off shows no end, and the only way to survive is to be a jerk back. Cutting off all four corners of another driver is, while a dick move, the surest way to prove your space superiority and earns you the highest boost to your "Cool" meter. The road rage runs high as you rush to swerve and cut off any unsuspecting opponents of the road while the warm buzzing of nostalgic chiptunes drives your high-octane car dodging.

Once you've survived the quick and heinous traffic section you stop off at your first selected planet in a very Xevious-like top-down vertically scrolling shoot'emup section, where instead of shooting enemies with bullets you try to accurately fire steamy hot pizzas into the homes of your loyal and waiting cosmic customers. The deeper into the galaxy you go to visit these hungry planets the more planets you discover, appearing on your map for future runs to extend your trip and allow for even crazier pay to save up for those super sweet ship upgrades.

The game super charming, and too addictive for how simple it is. The fact that the pizzas you deliver cost you your hard earned money that you could be using on upgrades makes every shot at every customer that much more crucial, and the stunts you pull off for increasing your "Cool" meter and in turn gaining more cash for upgrades so much more rewarding.

With a great retro style featuring multiple color schemes, some seriously groovy 8-bit music (I've had the map system music stuck in my head for a week), and a great sense of humor Pizzarian is a game with tons of variety packed into one nostalgic arcade trip. And even if you aren't a super retro enthusiast, it offers some of the quickest blasts of condensed fun for a ridiculously modest price making it the absolute perfect coffee break game.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Indie Impressions - Pix the Cat

Pix the Cat

Now Available on Steam (Also on PS4, Vita)

Developed by Pastagames

Nothing beats the bond between a video game cat and their army of rescued ducklings in this trippy descent into the never ending layers of a television screens circuits - the pixelated blue mascot running, sliding, and kicking its way through each exceedingly flashy and bright stage of navigational chaos.

The game starts you out being greeted by our adorably rotund cat hero and his or her admirable bedroom of awesomely geeky references to the likes of Where the Wild Things Are, Godzilla, King Kong, and Ultraman. This nostalgia inducing bedroom acts your base of operations and where you'll be choosing from the four very different modes, starting with the very important main Arcade mode where you'll ease into your new digital life of aviary rescue.

The rules seem simple enough; navigate a seemingly never ending series of Pacman-like mazes while collecting the carefully placed eggs within its labyrinthine halls of neon twists and turns. For each egg collected an awestruck duckling trails behind in a line, eventually adding up into one long chaotic conga-line. Hitting the tail of trailing ducks ends your combo and loses you the line you've collected which severely reduces your score (this is about where I ragequit every time), so planning your route quickly and on the fly is especially important as you gain momentum with each success.

Once ducks are collected they need to be returned to their rightful targets on the current floor, which with the time limit taken into consideration becomes a mad dash against against the clock forcing you to pinpoint the quickest route to collect each one while avoiding running into your trail or walls. There are plenty of small tricks to toss into your routine once you've got movement down including wall slides and quick dashes around corners when your turns are timed to perfection. In the end what you have is one of the most hyperactive combinations of classic Snake maneuvering combined with the flashy, fast and addictive pathfinding of Pac-Man Championship Edition DX with even more split-second precision required.

Aside from the immense feeling of satisfaction, reaching different landmark scores in each of the three wildly different Arcade levels (from Beginner to the appropriately named Dessert stage) will net you some pretty sweet rewards in the form of new music jams to jam, new announcer voices ranging from rad to hilarious, tons of adorable concept art, and of course the different obtainable modes.  Though score is your main driving force in perfecting your zig-zag routes throughout each stage, this vast amount of awesome and usable unlockable content is sure to keep you going even deeper.

Arcade seems to be the real meat of the game, and all of your endeavors in other modes are just practice for when you come back to it and compete for the highest score on the boards in classic arcade fashion. Laboratory mode gives a sleek and almost even more cartoon-y look to the game and features a much more logic driven play style, facing you with a very limited amount of moves in each puzzle oriented level.

There's the vintage flavored Nostalgia mode, where Pix himself bares an uncanny resemblance to the late, great Felix the Cat and faces a variety of action and puzzle stages in classic black and white. Last and certainly not least is the hectic multiplayer Arena mode, where you and friends can duke it out in an action packed local four player match of cat jousting action.

Pix as a character is just way too damn cute and suave in a creatively simple way, a way that the most iconic and memorable of gaming characters are portrayed. He's one of those video game personalities you don't easily forget, and stands out as a classic and memorable character just as much as the gameplay itself. Even cuter, possibly, than our retro mascot are the lines of saved ducklings and their attitudes matched only by the badass-ness of their savior cat, and in a game with such an overwhelmingly sharp and cool style they're just the icing on the cake.

The varied visual themes of each stage provide some serious eye candy for something of such a simple nature. Subtle changes from complex motherboard patterns to cold steel monochrome textures breathe life into the twisting mazes around you, as the eggs and ducklings you collect change with it. Crazy multicolored squares light up in rhythmic sequence like some kind of insane Disco Dancefloor set to hyperspeed, all the while the heavy and bass-y beats of Xavier Thiry's soundtrack pulsate in your eardrums. Despite its retro nature, Pix the Cat is a real assault on the senses.

Every dumb little mistake you make is for the better in Pix the Cat, because this is all about practice, endurance, and getting better all the time. With each new invigorated and admittedly rage-inducing restart of a level you come back with a clear vision in your head of what caused your downfall the last time and your new found perseverance will carry you to even higher scores, and in turn even crazier and harder modes. With the addition of a Ghost mode to play against your own past runs or runs of the developer, there's a whole plethora of ways to practice and continue bettering your score for what is the most endlessly replayable game around.

If Pix the Cat were an actual arcade cabinet at a pizza parlor I'd be flat broke by now and already exchanging my life savings for fistfuls of quarters. When it comes to modern arcade score-chasing obsessions, Pix is as good as it gets

Friday, January 23, 2015

Indie Impressions - Goscurry


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Demigiant

Goscurry is one hell of a difficult game, a game so difficult you even have to accept a warning at the beginning agreeing to submit yourself to the oncoming challenge.

As hopeless as that may seem the game constantly conveys to you one simple uplifting message; "Don't Panic". This is much easier said than done as panic is your worst enemy in Goscurry, the first sign of hesitation being your instant downfall. Flashing texts across the rooftops of a slick retrofuture city of minimalistic neon buildings bearing distracting, sometimes encouraging messages and what seem to be references to The Beatles ("You Are 'Not' the Walrus") and Pink Floyd ("Crazy Diamond").

Here you'll find the hypnotizing and maze-like pathway following mechanics of a game like Super Hexagon combined with the obstacle dodging action of titles from the likes of Bit.Trip Runner that all require a serious amount of focus and finger gymnastics. A long stretch of winding and unpredictably twisting road that procedurally builds itself before you, infinitely until your inevitable death. Many hazards litter the abstract urban road ahead forcing you to jump, dash, and dodge your way to a badass highscore you can really be proud of.

Reaching certain target scores in any respective mode unlocks new cities of different flourishing colors to discover and rush through, as well as giving you a higher rank in your overall achievement score. Ranking up earns you slick new rides to drive and fly with. The more insane of players may even earn all 20 ranks giving them the legendary and sought-after Psycho ship, which when used will speed up the game and raise your score no matter what the mode.

The modes you'll be working your way through come in five flavors to train and excel in, starting with the relaxing Training mode which involves no obstacles and lets you focus on honing your movement. Once you've got movement down you move right into Hard mode which spices things up with the aforementioned obstacles, and then Pro which fixes the camera position forcing you to consider the ships angle on each turn.

Build enough confidence and it's time to venture into Freak mode, which keeps the speed set to maximum from the get-go. Last but not least is the unlockable Paranoid mode, which ups the ante by tossing in purple obstacles that require smashing through.

As incredibly addictive as Goscurry is, I feel like what really drives your adrenaline here is the catchy as can be electro-beat soundtrack from master musician Isak Martinsson(who is currently working on the wonderfully creepy adventure game, Fran Bow), equally as hypnotizing and entrancing as watching the flow of your stylish little rocket ship through each mind-bending stage of twists and turns. An excellent audiovisual combination assaults your senses and is the driving force in your speed and focus as you reach further and further for that final stretch of road.

Goscurry is a game that gets right to the point, avoiding all of the pre-fun bullshit, all of the fluff and filler of other games and diving right into the fun and mayhem. Just zone out, follow the twisting path of the line ahead, and lose yourself to the beat of the music as it electronically charges your mind and body putting you into that nostalgic state of euphoria needed to find the flow.

Relax. Don't Panic. Be Brave!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Indie Impressions - Tengami


Now Available on Steam (also available for WiiU, iOS)

Developed by Nyamyam

Tucked away within the confines of a treasured pop-up book featuring a vivid far eastern landscape and natural entities of the surrounding wildlife; Tengami is a casual but moving journey with very few, if any, words yet still manages a majestic story told merely through imagery.

The experience is described by the developers as something they envisioned being played "in bed before going to sleep or in the afternoon on the sofa with a hot beverage", and I felt that description was very apt. As I played from my shabby studio apartment on a cold and rainy day with some hot tea completing each relaxing chapter I felt a particular sense of warmth, a certain kind of satisfying radiance. I almost forgot about the cold, grey city surrounding me that I call home.

As you move through each beautifully vibrant page of an old Japanese pop-up book that act as chapters to the story, you are faced with earthly obstacles that stand in your path. Finding the solution to uncovering the brighter path ahead of your wintery beginnings involves puzzle-solving of a very organic kind, puzzles that feel less like interacting with a game and more like interacting with nature itself.

All around you rivers, temples and old wooden bridges pull out from tabs in pop-up book fashion, revealing the beaten path ahead which beckons our unknown hero on his mysterious adventure. In a snowy forest a wild pack of wolves howls in unison to the sound of wind chimes you control in a game of 'Simon Says', a strange and ancient bell changes the seasons at your will altering the land to reveal new key items to collect, and an old broken wooden boat must be reconstructed with fragmented pieces pulled from the ocean waters among swimming fish.

The wonderfully natural atmosphere of the game is complimented by the twanging of Shamisen or Koto and calming sounds of wooden flute, all drawing you into a zen-like state of deep calmness. The usage of colors makes everything incredibly pleasing to look at and each visual theme is very evocative of its respective season.

Spring environments have a lush green with blue flowing rivers, and Fall stands out with its vibrant pinkish-orange hues much like a sunset, with Winter bearing a harsh mixture of white and greys with frozen rivers that no longer flow. The settings all glow with a distinct array of colors that evoke the same shifting of emotions our real-world seasons stir in us.

Tengami exists outside of the boundaries of any particular demographic, being something that is just as enjoyable to the youngest audiences as it is to the oldest. If you aren't too caught up on games needing to be difficult or long, or "hardcore", then this is by far the most memorable and comforting trip into a Far Eastern world of mystique.

Enter and witness nature and the changing of seasons conveyed through a colorful world of picture book pages, flip through the dusty old pages of Tengami.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Early Access Preview - Malebolgia


Now Available on Steam Early Access

Developed by Jochen Mistiaen


Soft sprinklings of piano overwhelmed by the haziness of a roaring snowstorm, a melancholy scene of blurry white as our protagonist sits listening under the dome of an ancient structure. As we enter into this hellish palace however, the player realizes something is different; something ominous and evil.

You awake in a familiar and darkened library of a palace, the demonic statues peering down from before you as the crackling of a fireplace is heard. At first little is known of the surroundings we've become enshrouded by other than the need to explore and escape it. As you scour the dark hallways portraits and statues of former inhuman residents sit proudly on shelves and grotesque, surreal paintings line the walls. One thing is being made clear to the player; this palace is not of any realm within human knowledge.

Venturing deeper into the heart of this ghastly mansion of antique oddities you come across various personalities who seem to be old acquaintances that have anticipated your arrival. They speak to you in cryptic messages bearing skeletal faces with no skin, claiming to wear their "masks of flesh" no longer. According to these dark personalities, this hellish realm is your home and where you belong.

Will you succumb to their wishes and remain a piece of the palace enshrouded by snow and demonic mysteries, or will you escape the overshadowing blizzard with your life and defeat the chaotic souls that rule the pits of this Dante Alighieri's "Inferno" inspired Hell?

For a combat system that seems so simple, it offers a lot of variety in how you strategically approach each foul demon of Hell encountered in this strange palace. Tapping attack gives you quick but weak swings with your metal spear in rapid succession, whereas pressing forward in time with a swing performs a heavy lunge attack. As useful and strong as the lunge attacks are they leave you wide open to counters and should be saved for a final blow. Pressing back in time with a swing creates a quick back-step maneuver that the player will be forced to rely on to time and escape deadly blows and create the perfect opportunity for a counter attack.

While it may not be as deep or flashy as the Dark Souls series, Malebolgia is clearly striving for the same kind of slow and calculated approach to long and brutal encounters with single diabolical creatures ranging from slow, lurching ghouls to terrifying and majestic chimeras. Endurance is the key to your survival as you go toe-to-toe with your enemy blocking, bashing, and taking only the most ample of opportunities to lunge and make your final strike.

Malebolgia has a striking visual style and while many will find the minimalistic, archaic design of the palace to be drab it provides a deliberately moody and heavy atmosphere all around you. The muted and dull colors with black and white checkered floors bring out the distinct red found in various books or curtains, all looking like something out of Twin Peak's dreamlike "Red Room" scenes.

The chilling ambiance of the background music fits the harsh imagery, sounding like something straight out of the torture chambers of a medieval castle. The monsters are brought to life with ghastly grunts and haunting chants from later magical enemies that ring in your ears as you attempt to focus your energy into dodging beams of their evil energy.

Malebolgia is a game that clearly puts an emphasis on atmosphere in the end, and it succeeds in providing a genuinely strange and creepy encounter many times over. The combat provides just enough engagement through your exploration of the surreal surroundings to keep you on your toes and wondering in fear which frightening creature will be around the corner to greet you next.

With an already considerable amount of love and care put into patches and overall polish to the look and feel of the game, this is proving to be another one of the finer examples of exciting Early Access experiences to be a part of. Malebolgia's halls are already a deranged pleasure to explore and clearly hold even more potential for odd secrets and other cryptic strangeness, I'm eagerly anticipating what other surprises Jochen has in store.

Early Access Preview - Onikira: Demon Killer

Onikira: Demon Killer

Now Available on Steam Early Access

Developed by Digital Furnace Games


In the blood-steeped lands of feudal Japan exists a history rich with gruesome folklore of oni and yokai, creatures of our minds creation that lurk in the darkness and haunt mortals from beyond. Onikira: Demon Killer takes a bold step into the darker side of Japanese tradition and mythology, pitting you against the dark energies of hellish realms that threaten to creep into the world of the living and feast upon the souls of the unsuspecting.

The gritty, heavy visual style of the game and its usage of dark demonic imagery and lots of blood red hues gave me strong vibes of the PS2 era Shinobi and evokes that same kind of obscure attraction to the Japanese underworld felt from that series. The gameplay itself takes cues from only the greatest of action games with an addictive grading system strongly resembling Devil May Cry's, insane almost endless aerial combos reminiscent of Bayonetta, and brightly colored red and blue orbs for replenishing your health or energy that fans of the Onimusha series will be familiar with. In the end, this is a developer who wears their influences on their sleeve, and some mighty fine influences these are.

The music is dark, heavy, and fitting. The percussions beat with the strength and power of a taiko drummer, the eerie and almost gothic sounding riffs of the interspersed guitar tearing in and out. When I hear the evil and ominous melodies in Onikira with their Eastern overtones I am instantly reminded of some of the best music from Mortal Kombat, particularly of the 3 and 4 era, and this is a very good thing when it comes to the subject matter dealt with in such a game.

Currently Onikira features two very lengthy, sufficiently challenging (though a hard mode would be nice for the old schoolers!), and detailed levels and one outstanding boss battle. If the boss fight we're shown here is any indication, the game has some huge ambitions when it comes to monster designs and the bosses will hopefully continue in this giant titan-like structure that gives the current encounters such an epic feel.

Aside from hacking and slashing your way through the first story based levels available currently there's a combat arena facing you against waves of increasingly difficult enemies, and is the perfect place to hone and perfect your skills while testing your ability against the rest of the world with the included Leaderboards.

Just like these great hacknslash titles of the past, Onikira: Demon Killer has some of the sharpest and most responsive action around. You can slice your enemies with a barrage of normal attacks, toss them in the air with a heavy attack and continue your onslaught with a follow-up air combo. Freakish oni heads float above shooting lazers at you while you use the dash ability to dodge the beam and keep the combo meter going. Boss battles are already beyond epic in scope and show huge ambition in size, and the weapons you're given to slay these grotesque creatures with are already a serious blast to experiment with.

So far this is an already satisfying action slash 'em up with some incredible influences and only a few non-gamebreaking rough spots, and if you're as optimistic as I am about its future there's no better time to get involved than now. Digital Furnace have nailed the feel of a dark and demonic feudal Japan, and I'm excited to see what content is in store for the future.