Friday, January 27, 2017

Indie Impressions - Ellipsis


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Salmi Games 


The most addictive games come in the most simple seeming of packages. And simple is only what Ellipsis appears to be on the surface. A geometrical avoid 'em up of abstract neon vectors. Mazes of lazer-light obstacle courses and seas of deadly shapes unfold through stages on a flourishing map of abstract trails for you to blaze. No shooting and no attacking, this is an absolute test of reflex and accuracy as you wind through the neon corridors and avoid the complex contraptions in your path.

People who remember the Iraira Bou (Irritating Maze) style of games from Japan will see similarities in the addictive and punishingly pinpoint obstacle navigating gameplay. The movement of your small blue orb through these psychedelic fields of aggressive obstacles and enemies is incredibly precise. It's so precise it made me realize I need a better mouse, as every sudden motion and flinch of your wrist is responded to with such accurate sensitivity. The game is also playable with a gamepad but I found the needed precision to be best with a mouse as many of the later stages require such accuracy and speed that a stick just won't cut it.

The stages are quick, incredibly fast paced and to the point. Each one contains five orbs to collect, and each orb appears in progressively precarious positions. Collecting each orb isn't as easy as it seems, as the points they contain spill out once touched. Collecting four consecutively appearing orbs creates a gate, and the fifth orb that appears is optional and usually incredibly hard to reach in comparison.

A seriously sweet slice of bright and beautiful arcade chaos. The simple and minimal but enticingly colorful visual style starts with a retro elegance then quickly spirals into a chaotic neon ballet along with the growing complexity of each level. Glowing red triangles that group like a psychedelic school of fish chase you down, rotating orange turrets track your movements down with a hail of bullets, and spike-y blue bombs explode in a large radius when you get close enough. The variety of obstacles and colorful geometrical enemies is incredibly broad, I was blown away by the amount of new and inventive threats I was being killed by even far into the chaotically large and vibrant stage map.

As you complete each lightning quick stage the map expands. As it expands a living world of retro lighting and visuals opens up. Alternate paths branch and turn through a busy overworld and bright lights travel across lines like the circuits of some colorful motherboard. The completion of stages and the building of this impressive overworld map is a accompanied by an ambient droning, soft enough to lull into into a false sense of comfort before your assured demise.

Ellipsis is a formula of purely distilled arcade mechanics, the best of the best that have stood the test of time. The core of what makes shoot'emups and action games so fun to begin with, the dodging and avoiding of walls of bullets that lets the player feel like a badass. It's something I keep coming back to over and over again, because it scratches a purely reflex based itch that most games these days can't scratch. The sounds and visuals draw you into Ellipsis's addictive world, and top off an already complete package for something that is a treat to all of your senses.

Indie Impressions : Akihabara - Feel the Rhythm

Akihabara - Feel the Rhythm

Now Available on Steam

Developed by  JMJ Interactive

The electric town of Akihabara. The lights, the colors, sounds and the music that fill the city and give it the reputation of being on the fringe of modern popular culture. The arcades with their flashing screens undecipherable wall of noise, and UFO catchers packed with cute and colorful goods. The music stores blaring the latest in pop music to entice passerby's. The energy of the streets, and the mentality of a fast moving generation, wanting more but never quite having enough. Akihabara is a town meant to indulge.

And like the town, Akihabara - Feel the Rhythm knows just how to indulge. It tackles quite a hefty number of puzzle game tropes combining the toe-tapping rhythm keeping of Lumines, the logical shape matching of games like Bejeweled and Zoo Keeper, with the line-breaking color combining of games like Puyo Puyo or Tetris. Symbols are matched in pairs of four, as you would expect, but the changing of blocks is done precisely on the beat in order to keep the score multiplier going. Just like Lumines this rewards players who have a keen ear for music and a memorization of the songs being played with a much higher score and a more prestigious spot on the world leaderboards.

Classic electronic music sounds with just a touch of synth-y Japanese New Wave of the 80's, which is what drew my ears. The warm tone of the keyboard, the bright and poppy bits of piano, led by a simple Karaoke kind of metronome beat. It fits the setting more than well and shows a keen knowledge of this aspect and region of popular culture from this developer. I definitely felt an authentic, albeit older generational feel from what Akihabara was trying to convey about the atmosphere of a bustling Japanese city.

I was surprised how much music there was, and of very genuine quality. Even more surprising was finding out that these were composed by the developer himself, which given the wide range and variety heard while playing was impressive to me. Considering it's indie status and incredibly low and fair price-point I was only really expecting a handful of songs, but was pleased to see the campaign continue on for a total of ten.

It's a bit busy at first, and the fact that the game is tackling so many styles in puzzling creates an atmosphere of madness at first. But as you become familiar with the shapes provided in the blocks of each distinct song, it becomes second nature, and very rewarding. Fans of Lumines who are okay with a bit more of an involved thinking process and less of a Zen-ful approach should definitely take note, because there really hasn't been anything since it to keep the style of rhythm-based puzzle solving going.

Akihabara - Feel the Rhythm delivers a worthy entry in the genre and adds more than enough of its own personality and flavor to keep those within its demographic coming back for more of its great music and authentic atmosphere.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Indie Impressions - imprint-X


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Morgondag 

In a cold and oppressive futuristic world ruled by material and technology. Intellectuality, individualism, and expression are outlawed in favor of physical gain, and strange mechanical overlords exert control over the minds of humans who dare to think on their own terms. From the two-person development team behind RymdResa, Morgondag have perfected their beautiful simplicity into a fine art;

imprint-X is a puzzle game with an incredibly unique premise.  Like the traditional metal puzzles of Japan, mechanical simplicity is utilized to create a formula of exploration with endless possibilities. Various mechanically sealed cubes must be activated through a series of cryptic buttons and eventually with well placed timing. Through a bit of hand-eye coordination, muscle memory, and sometimes sheer trial-and-error it's up to the player to discover the trick to activating and opening each progressively intricate contraption.

Opening these mysterious and alien cubes is an act of peculiar curiosity. Seeing button shapes, lights, and indentations that beckon your touch but give no indication of their purpose. Not until that curiosity takes over, and every possibility poked and prodded at that things become clear, and in turn very satisfying to execute.

As this sense of personal exploration goes on the boxes slowly unfold with each series of correct presses. With each flap unfolded and each tab extended more and more strange and unexplained contraptions appear, and fold back into themselves as the final correct combinations are attempted for a satisfying completion.

The surreal and celestial setting around you pulses with cosmic color and sound. The ambient soundtrack builds in complexity alongside the puzzle-boxes you unravel, and the inter-galactic light show dances in tandem with the beat. Hard puzzles that soon require precise timing are now even more pulse-driving and difficult to focus on as this chaotic ballet of sound and visuals assault  your senses.

imprint-X is one head trip of a game. It's more of an experience than a game, I suppose, like some kind of cosmic Christmas morning gift unwrapping ceremony with freaky extra-terrestrial relatives. Each box is stranger and more perplexing than the last, and each beckoning button more satisfying to push with each success. Superbly trippy, ultra addictive, and a serious pleasure to look at and listen to.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Indie Impressions - Hive Jump

Hive Jump

Now Available on Steam

Developed by Graphite Lab


In a corrosive, primal, psychedelically toxic world of spores and insects. One not too different from how one would imagine the Sea of Corruption told of in Ghibli's classic NausicaƤ, a group of hardened yet gaudily colored space marines are tasked with ridding the badlands of deep and twisting Hives of an oppressive insect species. Kinda sound like something you've seen? Well.. the story isn't too important here anyway, because Hive Jump will have you incapacitated with flashing lights, intense action, and plenty of bug guts, anyway.

Hive Jump is a sci-fi roguelike with an emphasis on volatile and intense multiplayer action. It also has an emphasis on big, satisfying to use guns. And lots of them. The variety of weaponry in Hive Jump,  the customization they come with in the form of upgrades, and the satisfaction caused by their force of impact and the crunchy explosions which send the currency flying across the screen play center role in keeping you engaged and hunting for satisfying to collect bug Goo.

It's also absolutely gorgeous. Hive Jump creates visualizations that I've probably never seen achieved with such a distinct pixel-art style particularly through its incredible usage of lighting. Every bullet flying down a frozen hallway, and every fire-y explosion of a grenade lights up the surrounding surfaces and backgrounds with sense-assaulting lights, colors and sounds.The bosses are impressive, majestic and grotesque behemoths that cover a good portion of the screen. With complex and dazzling bullet patterns, fighting these gigantic insect beasts reminded me of the sacred Ohmu species from the aforementioned NausicaƤ and makes me wonder if it was an influence.

The forward-pushing, cave clearing, dungeon crawling nature of the formula here was spot-on, exactly what I expected from a beautiful pixel-art roguelike at first. That was propelled into in absolute addictive phenomena the moment I thrust myself into the chaos of online co-op. Hive Jump supports online and local multiplayer for up to four players, which was an inticing premise to me for a roguelike and probably one of the central and integral features here. Once I found a nice, quiet overseas friend with the matchmaking we dove into the Hive over and over to collect that sweet Goo and upgrade our weapons. Then we'd take our upgraded weapons and do it again just to see the carnage. This repeated several times until I realized my entire night had gone by and I was actually happy for it.

Even after all this, I still had so many weapons and gadgets to unlock and try, so many more upgrades to unlock, so much more goo to collect. Each consecutive night was spent hunting for new comrades to drag into the depths with me. Hive Jump has a seriously effective way of dragging you back in and making you think about it when you're not playing, especially with a good partner or team to stick with.

The challenge rooms take a much needed turn away from the monotonous randomness of the standard roguelike fair, pitting you against challenging and well-designed platforming sections that feel more akin to addictive classics of the SNES era in exchange for new upgrades and extra loot. These were a very nice distraction from the randomized dungeon delving, and a great opportunity to score much needed upgrades.

A campaign mode is now available after a long road to the final release of Hive Jump which adds a layer of strategy and progression to the game that offers even more incentive to jump into increasingly difficult Hives. It features a tactical, turn-based overworld map that gives you control of building bunkers, setting traps, and using your hard-earned Goo to reinforce them all with more troops. This mode can be tackled with as many players as you wish, but it's especially nice to have around for solo sessions when you want more motivation than just incredibly paced action.

The music is as infectious as the venomous insectoid lifeforms your team will be mowing down. The visuals are a wild and neon ballet of bright bullets and colorful insect plasma. The weapons all feel heavy, bad-ass, and ultimately satisfying to use and the action is as addictive as it gets. Hive Jump isn't just another roguelite, it's an evolution of the genre.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Indie Impressions - She Remembered Caterpillars

She Remembered Caterpillars

Now Available on Steam

Developed by jumpsuit-entertainment


The spirit of nature is both the giving and the taking of life, the color of growth and the greyness of decay. Just as natural as it is for things to be born and develop into full beings, it is natural for them to wither and die. There's nothing necessarily negative about this cycle, as touched on in She Remembered Caterpillars, as death creates space and circumstances for new and possibly stronger life to be created.

This cycle is communicated through the story of a father explaining this hard to grasp routine of life and death to his daughter, and through the colorful and addictive gameplay. As small snippets of the story are told to us through bits of dialogue, our eyes are treated to a visual feast of vibrant organics and the small creatures who inhabit them named "Gammies".

She Remembered Caterpillars first and foremost is an absolute treat for the senses. With a gorgeous and colorful hand drawn style that looks like something out of a bestselling picture book, and a powerful sound design that evokes the mysticism of a forest untouched by human exploration. From the whimsical and almost fantasy-like usage of organics to the usage of the small and cute spores who act as spirits of nature itself, She Remembered Caterpillars gives a playful yet raw atmosphere of the more mysterious side of the natural world. Each screen is an entire work of art, and each work of art is the stage in which you navigate your small and color coded spore species.

Bridges can only be crossed by Gammies of the same color, and gates can only be passed by Gammies of the opposite color. And where things really get complicated is where you can combine Gammie's colors to make a new color that can pass through bridges any of its base colors but is still sectioned off by gates of another color. It's actually very hard to put into words and as I attempt to try I realize that this is a game that has to be "felt" to really get the full picture with, as you learn with every mistake how to utilize the combination of colors to properly navigate the vibrant fungal forest and sanctuary of spores.

Though the two games are wildly different in execution, I couldn't help but think of Pikmin while playing She Remembered Caterpillars. Perhaps it was the adorable and iconic 'Gammie' creatures that play a part as guardian spirits of this fungal world, or the focus of color co-ordinated logical thinking, or the fact that it all takes place in a living and breathing natural world that acts and reacts as a part of the game itself. Whatever it was, I felt a special sense of nostalgic mysteriousness from a time where gaming seemed more unpredictable, fresh and new to my young mind.

Some games are made to be experiences that leave a lasting impression, and some games are made with the intention of purely being fun to play. She Remembered Caterpillars is a rare occasion where both are achieved.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Indie Impressions - Cold Vengeance

Cold Vengeance

Now Available on Steam

Developed by  Renegade Sector Games



Cold Vengeance is a gun-blazing action-arcade romp through  a deliberately polygonal, block-y and hazy look to it that makes it reminiscent of late 90's 3D action games for the N64, PSX, and Saturn. This retro-flavored and post-apocalyptic appearance in tandem with the forward moving, almost on-rails nature of the shooting bring me back to what I loved most of the era.

An Americana lovechild between Fist of the North Star post-apocalyptic wasteland sensibilities and Sin and Punishment gritty rail-gunning low-poly N64 age badassery, the intuitive weapon combining of the iconic Gunstar Heroes with the forward-pressing level progression of Shock Troopers all wrapped in a hilariously satirical romp rife with action and macho-fueled patriotism that only a post-2016 America could truly be deserving of.

Cold Vengeance is entertaining and funny as hell, it's a nostalgic blast to play, a trip to look at, and it takes it's influences from the best-of-the-best using a formula from the golden-age of games that has stood the test of time.

A part of an ongoing series, the game is a sort of spiritual successor to the developer's previous top-down retro action adventure, Venusian Vengeance, which though I admittedly haven't played is now at the top of my to-play list just because of the awesomely over-the-top action satire in the plot here in Cold Vengeance.

What I love about Cold Vengeance is how well each setting is communicated through such a raw polygonal style, every level really feels like a retro-flavored adventure that only the raddest of 80's and 90's action movies could deliver. The streets are as cold and oppressive as anything else in post-2016 America, and you really feel like it's your sole duty to rid the country of the authoritarian goons of the Canadian Army who now threaten your country's freedom.

The variety of areas keeps you on your feet and kept me hooked into the game to see where I was headed next, greeted by even more outlandish locales than the last. From fighting scorpions in painted red deserts, to mind-controlled apes in wild and primal jungles, fighting from psychedelic log-rafts in a surreal color-gradient forest and even animatronic dinosaurs in an amusement park.

The music is very lo-fi but also with strangely captivating melodies, like so many of the sounds you'd hear from old Japanese arcade cabinets. The sound effects, also, have a memorable grittiness like something you'd hear from an old Genesis game. The Hollywood movie satire through the dialogue of our masculine protagonist is consistently hilarious and beautiful, with moments like Sgt. Jon Dagger declaring stoically that he's already in a committed relationship... with America. There's also even an achievement which I believe may be referencing Guitar Wolf's "Jet Generation", which would explain the very punk rock and DIY nature of the game.

One thing I'd really like to see added to the already slick gameplay of Cold Vengeance is some form of a dodge or dash mechanic. Sometimes charging through the alleyways of a dead America while grenades pour out of the windows of abandoned apartment complexes can get a little hectic, and Sgt. Dagger just isn't quite nimble enough for me to maneuver out of harms way.

Even after a good four hours of playthrough, I had only beaten one route of the game with many alternate levels from alternate routes greyed out of my progression. The amount of secret areas and hidden detours really give Cold Vengeance a lot of replayability and give players more than enough reason to charge through the adventure again.

This was a seriously unexpected gem for me, and I know it will be for like-minded retro enthusiasts too. It's a shame many will likely be turned away by the crude throwback style of the visuals but for those with their curiosity piqued by the appearance, absolutely take the plunge because it's a fun and chaotic trip with a lot of weird variety.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Indie Impressions - Crowtel Renovations

Crowtel Renovations

Now Available on Steam

Developed by SinksAdventure 


Crowtel Renovations has its humble beginnings as a quaint and colorful yet simple and straightforward action platformer on, where it was already a satisfying romp through a dysfunctional hotel starring an incredibly likable scarf-wearing crow. Since then developer Sink has retrofitted the cute indie gem and given it a fantastic new story mode now with multiple playable characters (frog!), squashed some literal and metaphorical bugs, and added plenty more surprises in the gameplay to see and probably die to.

The whole game is a wonderful potpourri of cute, fun and very clever ideas both in gameplay and appearance that never fail to put a smile on the player's face. From the little sign-in sheets your cute crow character signs to save a checkpoint to the chilling and possessed air-conditioners hiding mischievous little spirits waiting to pop out and surprise you. Each transition of an area really feels like another step into a progressively unruly hotel thanks to the wonderfully simple but effective backgrounds.

D-Do I really have to hurt these cute little guys?

The obstacles you come across are always ridiculously clever, beautifully simple, and very accessible outside of the bosses which in classic retro platforming fashion feature difficult patterns that need to be memorized and probably tried a few times. They aren't anywhere near something like Megaman in terms of difficulty but are very similar in their charismatic design and engaging attack patterns. Every little set-piece and every transition tells a part of the story, and every quirk in every level really feels like part of the adventure.

It's also easy to notice that the developer of Crowtel really has down the characteristics of animals as portrayed through the colorful guests and visitors of the Crowtel hotel. The Health Inspector Cats are appropriately nosey pricks, Bunny likes to poop way too much, and Rat is a lazy and reckless jerk who likes to slam. This incredibly adorable and effective portrayal of animals acting in human roles gave a welcoming, old school, almost classic Japanese feel not unlike the cartoons and picturebooks I remember as a child, and this nostalgia is a very good thing!

Crowtel Renovations already has a spot in my heart next to other personal indie platforming favorites like the Momodora games and (Ok I'll mention it) Kero Blaster or Cave Story. The levels are fun, the characters are memorable, the art is stylish, and everything works together really well for an overall fantastically adorable and funny story. There isn't much more you could ask for.

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.