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.

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