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.