Monday, March 20, 2017

Indie Impressions - Danmaku Unlimited 3

Danmaku Unlimited 3

Available Now on Steam

Developed by Doragon Entertainment 


The next part of what is probably the more beloved indie shmup series to grace Steam is here, and it's fiercer than ever. Danmaku Unlimited 3 retains the core premise of being the fastest and flashiest shoot'emup offering around while offering an accessible and easy to manage experience for newcomers. It once again offers the most dazzling array of bullet patterns with the most intuitive and accessible of controls for easy and gratifying swoops between the bursts of colorful shrapnel, while upping the ante with an engaging new mechanic that rewards your most daring and tricky maneuvers. It's been a long wait since 2, but the monumental leap in quality has made it more than worth the wait.

Danmaku Unlimited's visuals have evolved from its very indie predecessors to a point of pure polish and bright, arcade bliss. The designs of ships are much clearer and the animations of their movement much smoother, the backgrounds are layers deep and have an attractive sci-fi complexity that just wasn't present in 2, and all around the whole package just feels much more professional. The screen is constantly alive with flashes of light and bursts of color, and breaking into a well-timed Trance mode has the overwhelming assault on the senses that gives the transformation an impactful satisfaction.

Any fan will be excited to hear Blankfield makes a return for more powerful and heavy themes to your score-chasing destruction. The same fast, pulse-driving, almost math rock-y heavy guitar riffage is here with an extra layer of blissful headbanging melody. Just like the game itself, Blankfield seems to have only grown in talent and musical ambition with a much cleaner and more experienced sound than before. It drives the frenetic pace of the game more than well, but I do miss the lower-quality grit of the older and more appropriately indie sound. Fans of the genre, however, will not be the least bit disappointed.

The newly introduced Graze and Spirit systems in place are fun and easy to grasp, while being incredibly deep in the long-run for seasoned players who play dangerously and want a higher skill ceiling. Your inner daredevil is rewarded as every bullet that comes close to contact with your core sparks against your ship and adds to the powerful Trance meter, bringing you closer to a satisfying power trip. This gives talented pilots even more reason to play recklessly, weaving in and out of the spinning streams of bright bullets to graze closely and collect energy for a satisfying burst of power.

Danmaku Unlimited still excels at what it does best; making you feel like an utter and complete arcade bad-ass even when you might not necessarily be one. The satisfying screen clear of bullets when neutralizing enemies, the flash of your Trance meter filling and the intense overdrive of power thereafter, and the fluid, pinpoint control of your ship as you dance between the mesmerizing patterns of bullets make Danmaku Unlimited 3 the most refreshing shmup offering around and a perfect entry point for newcomers and curious shooters alike. For the longest time Danmaku Unlimited was the one of the best shoot'emup series you could find on Steam, and 3 re-validates that entirely for a new generation.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Indie Impression - Ghost Blade HD

Ghost Blade HD

Now Available on Steam (Also on PS4, XboxOne, and WiiU)

Developed by Hucast Games

From their name alone any keen arcade shoot'emup player should recognize Hucast Games dabbles in the Dreamcast-era of what we call retro. With a clear loyalty and passion for this golden age of shmups they've set out to keep the traditions of Japanese STGs alive with an explosive and intense modern polish in both visuals and gameplay. Ghost Blade HD takes this fierce and energetic take on the shmup genre across 5 mesmerizing extraterrestrial stages, seeking to find its spot in history among the most classic of arcade shooters.

The visuals here set a standard in shmups of their own, and unlike its gameplay are not comparable to anything released in any arcade in the past. The settings range from sand-storm inflicted deserts to lush alien planets with autumn-red trees, and always pack a vibrant punch of color. With extra sharp, crispy high resolution textures and mind-boggling amounts of enemies and items on-screen at a time Ghost Blade HD also manages to capture the visuals of its roots through old school polygonal ship designs and giant-robo bosses that'll make any sci-fi anime geek's mouth water. This is a different kind of shoot'emup that is unparalleled in its visual chaos of bullets and celestial settings.

Ghost Blade HD presents an arcade shmup soundtrack that is nostalgic on levels I cannot articulate properly through words. Somewhere between the surreal and otherworldly compositions of Zuntata's Darius Gaiden soundtrack and the heavy, chaotic and beats of Manabu Namiki's work for Battle Garegga this soundtrack assaults the senses in secret and majestic retro ways that modern game creators and companies have been trying to tap into for a decade. It might not be something someone who didn't grow up with obscure Japanese shmups would get, but the sounds of the warm synth-y and space-y melodies couldn't make me any happier.

The action of Ghost Blade HD as with any shmup is focused on overwhelming blankets of bullets.  It's of a more twitch and reflex based nature, as opposed to the geometrical pattern memorization seen in Cave-styled Bullet Hells, with curtains of bright shrapnel flying in your direction at all times. Instead of sitting inside of small triangular safe-spots like in the aforementioned Bullet Hells, you'll constantly be on the move as to avoid the fire. Luckily, many of these bullets can pre-emptively be cancelled with careful thinking and aiming by neutralizing their source, the baddie firing them. This gives Ghost Blade HD a classic and hyper kind of perspective like Toaplan shmups, and feels to me almost like a much snazzier, modern, and crazier Tatsujin.

Even on the easiest setting the later levels become increasingly insane and unpredictable leading to many deaths, which is great for a shmup. With such an accessible and exhilarating start but such a daunting and seemingly impossible end it means that Ghost Blade HD has a high skill ceiling, and a whole lot of replayability. It's easy to hop into for a few easier levels but will take you dedication and patience to fully complete without embarrassing errors and endless continues.

The game has a relatively simple scoring mechanic that should be familiar to arcade junkies. With each enemy or crate hit and destroyed your combo multiplier rises, and as they are destroyed shiny and attractive medals pour out. The amount that these medals give you is of course raised by the multiplier, so score chasers will be making a mad dash to kill and collect. It's simple but very effective, and incredibly rewarding watching streams of loot pour from your successful strikes as you rise through the Leaderboards.

When it comes to arcade shoot'emups Ghost Blade HD is the ultimate bliss-out. The Zen-ful state of mind needed to dance between the ballet of bullets, the mysteriously obscure and nostalgic soundtrack, and the gorgeously detailed modern visuals with a touch of retro sci-fi design come together for an unworldly and addictive score-chasing package.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Indie Impression - Future Unfolding

Future Unfolding

Now Available on Steam

Developed by Spaces of Play


A passion project over 4 years in the making, Future Unfolding displays a remarkable level of dedication and ambition. With an unmistakable and hypnotic visual presentation and soothing soundtrack of earthly melodies, the game captures perfectly the majestic and unknown deeps of uncharted wildlands and the unknown heart of nature. A top-down adventure with a very broad and open do-anything approach and an addictive act in fantasy world cartography, there's no real right way to play and only the most curious of explorers will be rewarded here.

This is an experience of pure exploration and curiosity. You are dropped into the confusion of Mother Nature with little to no hand-holding, with only your senses and instincts to guide you through landscapes and the hazards of predators. Future Unfolding does not point you in any particular direction and instead leaves you with the determination to feel and chart the world out for yourself. As you set out and dash your way through the secretive and cryptic world your crude hand-drawn map will slowly fill in, pushing to to spread out in different directions and uncover more of the exciting and colorful world.

What's really amazing is how despite this lack of any real hand-holding, guidance, or tutorials the game manages to strike a perfect balance of relaxing and entertaining. There was never a moment that I felt stuck, or like there was something I had to do that I didn't get. Everything flows so perfectly well, and just when you think you've strayed far from whatever you're looking for something appears and sets you right back on track in inexplicable ways. It's mysterious and cryptic, but that certainly doesn't keep Future Unfolding from being accessible, enjoyable and fun as heck.

The animals of the forest that whisk you away for rides and lead you to unexpected destinations, wise and talkative elder spirit creatures who share prophetic bits of speech, as well as other unknown magical forces that light up the world all guide your navigation through this magical and natural trek and eventually to pink triangular nodes that activate to your touch. Finding and activating three of these peculiar floating pyramids completes the trifecta and places a welcoming marker on your growing map, and gives you the ultimately satisfying task of playing cartographer to fill out your self-charting map and reach this ominous new landmark and complete the area. Where it leads you and what else is in store would just be a spoiler, and this is a trip I recommend experiencing yourself.

The expanse of forest thick with autumn red and lush green trees, the winding pathways of meadow and flowers so bright and colorful they make an almost psychedelic effect. Round blue lakes and ponds scatter across the lush landscapes, rippling occasionally with the movement of fish swimming close to the surface. It's a gorgeous and natural setting with earthly colors and a whimsical colorful playfulness, and it all seems very true to life at first. That is until discovering the pyramids of neon light that activate to your touch, or the writhing balls of strange miasma that transport you to different darker realms which interconnect for obscure shortcuts. All in all Future Unfolding has a gorgeous and breathtaking visual style that I can guarantee you haven't seen in a top-down perspective before, and creates a mesmerizing sort of magical realism only found in the darkest heart of the woods.

The vibrancy and lifelike movement of the art and animation are matched only by the elegance and grace of the soundtrack that guides your journey. The very fitting hypnotic and dreamy synth chimes and twinkles atmospherically to your every action, and ambient tones rise and fall with the movement and action. Ominous rumblings set a tense mood as hostile elements inhabit the area, and overall the entire soundtrack works meticulously in the background to set and transition each setting and mood appropriately.

There's a certain unbridled sense of wonder and excitement in the discovery of new anomalies throughout the colorful and living world of nature surrounding you. Pushing through thickets of trees to explore for secrets deep in its cover, and happening upon the many strange and exciting landmarks and happenings doesn't get old. Winding through secret trails to stumble upon large and mystical white beasts who share their humble bits of wisdom with you. Strange symbols in the dirt summon a dark fog that beckons you to follow it to a decrepit glowing tree that transports you to dark underworlds. Many of the woods' lifeforms communicate with you in cryptic and unpredictable ways. This mysterious and dreamlike world of uncharted nature holds many loosely connected secrets to discover, and only the most in-tune with its earthly roots will be keen enough to uncover them.

Future Unfolding is an experience not comparable to any others in the interactive media category. The closest thing that comes to mind is perhaps exploring the mysterious island in Proteus of the earlier hey-days of indie gaming when these sort of artistic game projects were first finding their identity. It's that same idea of abstract and open-ended composition that leaves most of the "gameification" up to the limits of the player and their imagination, a whole dreamed up new world for you to explore and create your own narrative within. Games like Future Unfolding only come once in a blue moon, and when they do it's important to seize the opportunity. Highly recommended to experience at least once.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Indie Impressions - DYE


Now Available on Steam

Developed by Bat Country Games 

The color of the world is draining and with it the creativity and imagination it inspires. Soulless and undead Necrolights sap all of the vibrant terrain-painting sprites known as Pigments of their life giving power and its up to you, Hue, to restore them to their former glory. DYE is a retro platformer with vivid and addictive level design and an incredibly high skill ceiling that appeals to casual and hardcore platformer players alike.

There are four distinctly colored crystal worlds where these Pigments reside, each with a sprawling and initially grey overworld of locked gateways leading to dangerous trials of skill and reflex. Our round and determined little protagonist slides, dashes, and glides through each maze of hazards with Kirby-like grace saving the isolated and trapped Pigments, restoring colors to the level and to the hub-world with each one. These range from difficult to maddening in their fast-paced and classic Super Mario Bros.-like obstacle avoidance, and even give the option of a harder difficulty on completion for true gaming masochists

As it should be with run 'n jumpers as challenging as DYE, the controls are pitch perfect. From the movement to the control you have in mid-air while aiming for that small platform or moving cart, the only factor I could really blame for each repeated loss was my own flimsy and overacting fingers. Reaching a calm and almost Zen-like state while heading into a challenge for the next dozen of tries was a necessity, especially when going for the necessary hard-to-reach Pigments needed to open new parts of the hub.

Your eyes are treated to an incredibly sharp and crispy pixel art style that is reminiscent of many of the forefathers of the masochistic precision platformer genre. With deceptive trickery akin to I Wanna Be The Guy, punishing and fast platform action like La Mulana or Cave Story, and even a little bit of rewarding exploration similar to the classic Knytt Stories this is obviously a labor of love that will visually appeal to anyone with a taste for colorful and lo-fi indie sidescrollers.

DYE is a fantastically creative platformer. The melodies and background music that paint the atmosphere around your adventure are warm and nostalgic, ranging from ambient and soft tones to bright and energetic electronic beats.  The different gradients of color streak across the screen in a satisfying way that rewards players when they finally succeed in a particularly acrobatic feat for an overwhelming vibrancy that eventually fills the worlds of the accomplished like a trophy.

It's a game I can find little to no faults with in its platforming perfection, outside of some challenges being just a little bit too difficult for me to wrap my brain and my fingers around. These few and far situations were entirely my own fault though, as this is created with the intention to give anyone with the right amount of determination and persistence a fighting chance.

Like the legendary indie platformers before it, it sets a new precedent for challenging games with a high-skill ceiling that can push even the most seasoned veterans harder and further than they've ever gamed before. DYE is so incredibly addictive, and no matter how many times I die (dye?) I'll keep coming back to color its world some more.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Indie Impressions - Shadows of Adam

Shadows of Adam

Now Available on Steam

Developed by Something Classic Games 

In the modern world of jRPGs very few titles seem authentic anymore. Heavy marketing tactics and shifts in demographics have caused shock, awe, and commercial appeal to take place of genuine storytelling that is heartfelt and relatable on a universal level. With things like Chrono Trigger and Suikoden II's style of emotional narrative a thing of the past, we now rely and look to the indie market for a more human take on the formula the way we remember and love it. Shadows of Adam offers us a glimpse into the past, back to a time where these creative aspects were priorities and not afterthoughts.

One of the greatest strengths in Shadows of Adam is the gorgeously detailed yet simple and retro pixel-art that fills the screen. The characters are given a certain visual personality that you don't often see in retro styled games through their wonderfully diverse and creative designs. Considering how low-fi the 16-bit designs of the characters are they manage to each have a very distinct style of fashion or armory, which sets them apart and makes the story much easier to follow. The backgrounds of each setting you adventure through are of exceptional quality, with crisp natural settings and ominous, dank caves all giving a genuinely old school and nostalgic jRPG backdrop.

The game also has incredible sound design for an indie pixel game, and really evokes the same sense of chaotic intensity I got from the epic battles with Lavos years ago. The loud crackling of lightning, the whoosh and roar of a burst of flames, and even the nostalgic Squaresoft-esque crystalline tinkling of a savepoint are all meticulously engineered for a classic yet dramatic effect. Warm and melodic chiptune tones make up the retro throwback soundtrack and set a mood that is dreamlike as well as memorable, calling back to a style of soundtrack composition that was progressive and appropriate to it's setting and pacing.

The writing is done in a provocative way that leaves many early details out, creating an initially mysterious and sometimes confusing atmosphere. Our heroes scour the thick and twisted Tangle, but it isn't until the revealing of it's monstrous and grotesque boss that we are introduced to why they were sent from their village and exactly what the strange source of dark energy they hunt for really is. With many twists and unexpected turns Shadows of Adam is a lengthy 10ish hours of fantasy narrative that as any good jRPG should has lots of humorous and lighthearted side-quests that introduce very strong and unique character building.

Shadows of Adam is the spark to reignite that flame in every classic jRPG enthusiasts heart. For every kid who spent their weekends renting and obsessing over beating those sprawling, complex adventures in everything from Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest and grew up wanting more of the classic adventuring. If you're the kind of person who feels that something is clearly missing from today's modern offerings of mostly cheesecake rpgs, Shadows of Adam is a genuine and authentic glimpse back into a time where imagination and creativity took priority in the form of great storytelling, engaging character development and a one-of-a-kind crafting of fictional worlds.

Indie Impressions - Vaccine


Now Available on Steam (Also on PS4, XboxOne and WiiU)

Developed by Rainy Night Creations 



The dimly lit old hallways of a broken and rustic mansion-like home set the stage for an experiment gone wrong. A strange virus turns regular human beings into twisted creatures, thirsty for the flesh of their once friendly counterparts and only one vaccine exists among the hordes of turned zombies. It's a story we've heard before many times and a genre we've seen perfected already, and Vaccine seeks to shake the scene up a bit with the procedurally generated levels and items made popular by the roguelike genre. 

What were once long and involved journeys of narrative filler are now quick and adrenaline pumping runs through a 30 minute or less roguelike horror adventure. It might not be the same engaging story or refined gameplay we know from Resident Evil, but Vaccine creates a frightening DIY vibe of its own that is worth the trip.

It also has the difficulty of a genuinely old school and retro survival horror game. Everything you loved and loathed about the classics is here, from the clunky and cumbersome tank controls to the hard to manage limited item space that required planning. Every challenging and confusing imperfection in the game's design is almost definitely deliberate in order to keep in fashion with the originators it pays its homage to. Rainy Night Creations has the aesthetics and atmosphere of a 90's era survival horror down pat, and gives us an authentic trip down memory lane in both visuals and frustrating challenge.

Later enemies become seriously deranged and grotesque, and much harder to take down and dangerous. Anything you come across that isn't a zombie or a rat basically will require some serious firepower and a decent amount of ammo. The knife isn't really good at much other than conserving ammo, and even when confronting zombies I had to continually back up to avoid early and embarrassing deaths. From rats and bats, to zombies and.. freaky crawling flesh dudes, Vaccine has plenty of grotesque oddities to die to.

When it comes down to it luck is your greatest ally in Vaccine as the trick to having a truly excellent run is having good enough chances to find the randomly places items as early as possible, because honestly if you run into one of those flesh-y crawly creatures without ammo or a gun you can kiss your ass goodbye. This isn't uncommon with games of a procedural 'roguelite' style, and it isn't to say that Vaccine doesn't still require some skillful gunplay and careful consideration with stat distribution.

An addictively quick "coffee-break" take on the survival horrors of old. The rogue-lite twist of having a whole mansion that is procedurally generated along with the location of important key items and equipment keeps each quick playthrough exciting and unpredictable. Many of your runs for the life-saving vaccine will end quickly and humiliating as you die to stupid mistakes and oversights, but when you make it further and finally reach that destination it couldn't feel more rewarding. Vaccine is a clever execution of a very ambitious idea, and it deserves a play from veterans of the survival horror genre.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Indie Impressions - Loot Rascals

Loot Rascals

Now Available on Steam (Also on PlayStation 4)

Developed by Hollow Ponds


When I'm looking to play a new game or engaging in almost any form of electronic entertainment, I'm looking to momentarily escape reality to explore new worlds. A lot of the time I'm trying to tap into the same strange and indescribable creative energy held as a child. Naturally, the colorful Saturday morning cartoon look and presentation of Loot Rascals drew my eyes in a way most games of today don't really. Not anymore, anyway.

And wouldn't you know it, my fascination with Loot Rascals' roots in childhood and animation proved appropriate upon discovering that the game enlists the skills of animators and artists who had worked with everything from the dreamlike Hohokum to the adventurous fantasy Road Not Taken, and even for channels including Cartoon Network and BBC Scotland. A humorous intergalactic story of survival and a daring rescue of the coveted 'Big Barry' from the clutches of a cosmic entity is brought to life by the talented hands of this impressive collaboration of artists, and I couldn't have been more intrigued by the prospect.

The random layouts of colorful alien worlds, the sci-fi setting and marooned spaceship survival plot, the colorful sense of humor and the psychedelic extraterrestrial residents of this dangerous planet brought me back to times of creative and imaginative animations and obscure videogames I grew up with. While all incredibly original in its designs I couldn't help but see the zany top-down style and think of the out-of-this-world hip-hop space adventures of Toe-Jam and Earl, and though some of the talent behind Loot Rascals did animation work for Cartoon Network and even Adventure Time the almost grotesque nature of some of the anomalies encountered made it feel more like Ren and Stimpy's chaotic Space Madness episodes, which of course is a very good thing.

Loot Rascals' action takes place on a hex-based grid map, but it isn't slow and plodding like you'd expect a turn-based combat system to be. In fact it's actually quite fast paced as you dash around bumping into various enemies to get into brawls for their important equipment cards. Touching the same space as one of the many strange lifeforms of the planet will initiate an auto-battle, but the gimmick here is the day and night system which changes every few moves and alters their aggressive state. Aggressive enemies attack first, defensive enemies are attacked first and the determining factor of damage done is overall attack value against defense value, so planning and organizing your Loot Cards right is the difference between life and death.

How could I forget those cards. Perhaps the more addictive, ingenious gameplay mechanic of Loot Rascals and what sets it apart from the droves of similarly composed roguelikes. Doing away with a typical dungeon-crawling equipment slots is a 2 by 5 grid of slots for 'Loot Cards' foraged from the corpses of alien foes. These cards add a base value to either your attack or defense but also come with unique bonuses that pertain to specific set-ups and locations on the card grid, rewarding strategic and thoughtful placements.

More importantly than attempting to explain these mechanics with needlessly complicated sentences, I'd like to stress that the gameplay in Loot Rascals is accessible and easy to jump into for even the most casual of roguelike and roguelite players. Despite its rich and original strategic card elements it is most certainly a game the player will feel their way through, as opposed to needing to painstakingly learn.  Its mechanics become simple and clear through the sheer enjoyment of exploration and just a bit of trial-and-error, and the ultimate reward of discovery is always more than worth it.

Playing new roguelikes I generally stop and move on to the next whenever I get stuck or hit a roadblock, which is pretty dang often. With so many in the genre and so many that mostly feel the same, it's easy to get bored and want to see the next offering. This was not at all the case with Loot Rascals, its otherworldly designs had me hooked and the detailed Saturday morning cartoon style cutscenes between levels had me pressing to see more of the world and story. Everything is so humorously and wonderfully animated, the pacing of the game is perfectly fast and fluid, and the music is like some cosmic clash of Jean-Jacques Perrey retro electronics and Super Bomberman 5 Pop-y cartoon synth complete with spooky sci-fi Moog and Theremin.

After 6 solid hours of playtime I've still only just barely made it to the entrance of the the third floor. I keep piling more hours onto the game, however, and every run is still so radically different and wild that I never feel disappointed or like I'm restarting to make up for anything like in other roguelikes. I'm simply playing because it's fun, because it inspires my creativity and makes me feel good and that's a rare feeling with these games in recent years.

Loot Rascals is an incredible joy to play not because it's fun and the systems within are addictive, but because it's just so lighthearted and feel-good. It manages that perfect balance of weird and cute that could make even the most die-hard Nintendo fans blush while telling a story that is so awesomely surreal, so hilariously over-the-top in ways the most old school cartoon and sci-fi comic geek could appreciate.