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Xbox Indie Platformers October 22, 2009

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Anybody who has read this blog knows that I love 2D platformers. I’m also really into fighting games and RPGs, but nothing is better than a good platformer. Lately there’s been an a steady stream of new platformers on the Xbox Indie Games service, and I thought I should take a moment and show a few of them.

Arkedo Series – 01 Jump!
It’s got a strange title, but Jump! is a really fun little retro platformer. There are bombs scattered around, and you have to reach them before the explode. Once you’ve collected them all, a door opens and you can go to the next level. There are no save points or continues if you run out of lives. It’s old school, baby! I really enjoyed this on, and recommend it.

Green Island
This is one of four games uploaded recently by Japanese developer DK Alpha. I don’t read Japanese, so I have no idea what’s going on in the story, but the gameplay is pretty simple. There are objects scattered around the level, and you need to collect them. You can fire out bubbles that you can climb upon. The bubbles only stop when they hit a solid surface, so it’s a puzzle to figure out where to fire the bubbles to get to where you need to go. It gets pretty interesting when your bubbles start getting blown around by fans. I haven’t purchased this one yet, but I’ll probably return to the trial and give it another go at some point.

Ninja Bros
Another one from a Japanese developer. You control (up to) four ninjas at once. If you push left, they all move left. If you push right, they all move right. You can control their jumping independantly, however. Each ninja is assigned one of the face buttons to control his jumping. The jumping feels a bit strange, since you can’t adjust trajectory once you’re in the air. It becomes obvious quickly that it’s necessary because of the puzzle nature of the game, and I got used to it. The goal is pretty simple. Get each ninja to his exit door. However, you’ll sometimes need to have one ninja help another, so the order you exit can be important. It’s a fun little game.

And finally, here’s a early version trailer for a game that’s still in development called Chris Unarmed. The developer tells me the game should be available in around six weeks. It looks fun, and difficult. I’m looking forward to it.

Review: Chains January 5, 2009

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Game: Chains
Version: Full version
Platform: Windows

Chains is a very surprising little puzzle game. I’ll admit that when I installed the game, I was expecting something like one of those flash games where you click on colored balls and they vanish, with more to take their place, until you either clear them all, or die of boredom. And at first, in level one, Chains isn’t entirely unlike those games, but I noticed something different was happening. When new balls fell into the play field, the old balls were being pushed around. Physics?!? Splendid!

As early as level two, you get to see why this makes the game so much better. The balls are filling up a tank with a detachable bottom. The bottom is held up by a counterweight, and if you let the tank fill up with too many balls, they’ll spill out and you’ll lose them. Lose too many, and you have to start over. In another level, the balls are pouring out onto two sides of a beam. If you let one side grow too heavy, it’ll lean the beam too far in that direction, so you have to clear both sides at the same time. As you might guess, this can become very hectic, and it’s alot of fun.

I did have a little trouble with the difficulty curve, though. Level four is another interesting twist. You are presented with a tube, and balls flow from the top to the bottom, and you need to keep the flow going for five minutes to win. The catch is that there are some unmovable obstructions in the tube, and the balls you are presented with come in lots of different sizes. The big ones just won’t fit. If you don’t clear them early enough (often while they’re still falling) you can find yourself getting into trouble pretty easily. I’d played the level about a dozen times, and didn’t get beyond a minute and a half, and that was on the easy setting. But I persevered, and eventually managed to get better and better until I made it through. I’m glad I did, because the levels just get better the further you get into the game.

Overall, I’d say that Chains is definitely worth your time. Grab the demo!

Review: Kivi’s Underworld December 29, 2008

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Game: Kivi’s Underworld
Developer: Soldak Entertainment
Version: Full version
Platform: Windows, also available for Mac OSX

Kivi’s Underworld is a hack ‘n’ slash game from the creators of Depths of Peril. If you’re a fan of PC role playing games, Kivi’s may immediately remind you of Diablo or Icewind Dale. All the same, if you are a pro gamer, you’d be acquainted and up-to-date with tech news like lg32ud99-w review by Gaming Rig and other such developments in the gaming world. But after playing for a little while, you’re going to realize that you’re playing something different. Where are my experience points? How do I change my armor? Where is my spellbook? Nowhere! This is a different experience, and it’s really refreshing.

Instead of controlling a single character that you spend hours tweaking and equipping, Kivi’s is built around unlocking lots of unique characters that each play differently. Switching to a new character can completely change the way you play a level, and you’ll need to play each level again to fully experience everything. Upon completing a level, you earn points based on your performance. These points can be used to upgrade your stats that effect all of your characters at once.

The combat system is simple, but includes plenty of strategy. Each character has a unique activated ability, and a special passive ability. Additionally, you will find special powerup items around the levels that can be used to give your characters temporary boosts, replenish health, or attack enemies. Even early in the game, combat is fast and furious. Saving your powerups until you need them, and conserving your mana until need your special abilities is crucial to success.

The game has a great presentation. Screenshots do not do the game justice, because they’ve done a really good job with character animations and particle effects here. (Check out the Youtube video below.) The default graphical settings are tweaked low so that the game will run on a large range of computers, so make sure you increase the resolution and turn on the effects. The sound effects and music are excellent too. My favorite thing is the voiceover while tells the story between levels. We need more voice acting in PC games!

I’m really happy with Kivi’s Underworld. I’m impressed with what Soldak has managed to put together in such a short time period. This is a great game, and an excellent value. Grab the demo now!

Top 10 Xbox Live Community Games

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It’s the end of the year, and that means top ten lists of all sorts of things are popping up everywhere.  In that spirit, here’s my list of the top ten XBLCG games released so far.

  1. Blow
  2. Blow is a puzzle game that reminds me of games like Lemmings, The Incredible Machine, or Eets.  It’s one of the best games I’ve played this year, and if you like puzzle games and own an Xbox 360, it deserves your immediate attention.

  3. Johnny Platform’s Biscuit Romp
  4. As you might know by now, I’m very partial to platformers.  JPBR is a single screen platformer, with a total of fifty-five levels.  That’s quite alot of gameplay for two hundred Microsoft Points.  I thoroughly enjoyed the game and hope that the creator gives us a sequel.

  5. Biology Battle
  6. This game draws alot of comparisons to Geometry Wars, and rightly so.  Biology Battle is a very high quality dual-stick shooter that is alot of fun to play.  It has high quality visuals, great audio, and a nice sense of humor.  While the game is fun in single player, it truly shines in multiplayer.

  7. Word Soup
  8. While I’m not normally a big fan of word games, this game has easily earned a spot on my list.  My wife and I have spent many hours passing a controller back and forth trying to beat each others score.  (She wins most of the time.)

  9. CarneyVale Showtime
  10. Here’s the big winner of this years Dream Build Play competition.  As soon as you fire it up, you’ll notice that it is polished to a glow.  The creators have paid alot of attention to the details here, and it really shows.  I’m surprised this one didn’t get picked up for release as an Xbox Live Arcade title.

  11. Ultratron
  12. I’m a big fan of the titles from Puppygames.  This is a port of their game of the same name.  Just like the original, it’s a great game and having access to the Xbox 360 controller only makes the game even better.

  13. Duotrix
  14. Here we have a falling blocks based puzzle game where you have to control two play areas at the same time.  As you might imagine, this can become pretty intense, pretty quickly.  Add in powerups and powerdowns, and you have a very interesting game.  Watch out for that mystery powerup!

  15. Artoon
  16. Artoon is a platformer that is sort of a modern reimagining of Q-Bert.  You control Art, and he is constantly bouncing, and you need to control him to make him bounce on platforms in the correct order and the correct number of times to keep your score multiplier going.  Each world has a different visual presentation, and makes the game feel like you are playing through different pieces of digital artwork.

  17. Classicard
  18. I really like playing spades and hearts. I’m not terribly good at either, but they’re fun. Classicard has both of those, plus euchre, knockout, and some other games I’ve never heard of. It’s a very solid single player game, but even better it includes up to four player gaming on Xbox Live. This is very well made and an incredible value.

  19. Bloc
  20. Everything I wrote about Bloc in my review is still true.  It’s a good game.  A recent update from the creators have made the game even better.

Review: Bloc November 19, 2008

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Game: Bloc
Developer: Metacreature Games
Version: Full version
Platform: Xbox 360, Community Game

Long time readers might remember that I used to write the occasional review of indie games that I enjoyed. Well, that feature is back. Today’s game is Bloc, one of the launch games in the Xbox Community Games program.

At first glance, Bloc looks like a dual-stick shooter, like Geometry Wars or Robotron. But as soon as you fire it up, you’ll realize that’s not what’s going on here at all. Instead of firing in the direction you aim the right thumbstick, you fire by pressing one of the colored face buttons, and your ship launches a missile of that color. You destroy enemies by hitting them with their matching color. The trick is that you rotate your ship with the triggers or bumper buttons, and that might mean you start firing in a direction you didn’t expect.

And that’s the innovation in Bloc. Instead of thinking “press up to fire up,” you have to “press red to fire red.” But my brain just can’t do it! I’m so terrible at this game, and yet I just keep coming back. I think that’s a sign that the creators have done something right. If you’re like me and just can’t get your brain wrapped around the colors (and believe me, I’ve tried), you can go into the options and turn on “Color Assistance.” It adds the letters A, B, X, and Y, onto the appropriate colors. I’m guessing this mode was added to help colorblind players, but it helps me a ton.

Also, for added silly fun I recommend getting out your guitar controller, and giving that a go. You have four color buttons, and your fifth fret button rotates your ship. You control with the dpad on the guitar. It really changes the game up a bit.

I’ve had alot of fun with this game, and I recommend it. The demo is up on Xbox Live now. If you have an Xbox 360, go give the demo a try.

Review: Kingdom Elemental January 3, 2007

Posted by Jesse in : Game Reviews , 5 comments

Game: Kingdom Elemental
Developer: Chronic Logic
Version: This is a review of the full version of the game.
Recommendation: Try it

I bought this game without playing the demo. I almost never do that. But it’s from Chronic Logic (the makers of the fantastic Gish), who I trust to show me a good time, and it was getting all kinds of acclaim, including placing well in a couple of GameTunnel’s Best of 2007 categories. I don’t regret that purchase for a second. This is a fun game.

It’s like a cross beween Starcraft and Master of Defense. (Which are both games I’m glad that I own.) You start each level with a limited budget, which you can spend on placing some units onto a battlefield. Then, when you’re ready, you signal the start of the round, and then you have to face off against several waves of enemies with the units you hired.

The units types are pretty diverse, and once you get the hang of controlling them, the game feels like playing a massively multiplayer roleplaying game, but now you got to control the entire group. You’ve got your “tank” unit, the warrior, who can’t do much damage, but can sure take a pounding, and can taunt the enemies to keep them away from your weaker units. There’s the archer, who conversely does tons of damage, but can’t take much of a hit at all. Priests can heal your other units, and if you upgrade them, can bring your units back to life after they die. Druids can give a couple of major buffs to one unit, and bards give minor buffs to everyone. Necromancers instill fear into an enemy, sending them fleeing, as well as summoning a warrior skeleton from fallen foes. My favorite class is the ridiculously powerful, but incredibly expensive wizards, who can pull meteors down onto the enemies heads, summon pets that do incredible damage, and can create a magic shield around any unit, making them virtually invincible. (There are a couple of other units, but these are my favorites.)

Since there are so many different types of units, there are alot of different ways to play the game. You can build a balanced team, putting your warrior types up front, with healers nearby, with a couple of damage dealers in the back. You could go completely aggressive, with all heavy hitters, and try to take the enemies down before they get you. You could be conservative, and use enough healers to keep all of your units alive. You can try to outmaneuver the enemies with your fast moving units, while plinking them down slowly. There’s lots of options, and I love that.

One complaint I’ve read a few times is that the game is too difficult, even on easy. I disagree, but I think that’s because I understood what the developers were going for. You need to find the perfect strategy for every difficult battle. Just throwing out a few warriors, archers, and priests isn’t going to be enough to win every battle. But I love working on perfecting a strategy, and recognize that it’s not for everyone.

I recommend you go grab the demo. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Gameplay movie (from YouTube):

Review: Mr. Robot January 2, 2007

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Game: Mr. Robot
Developer: Moonpod Games
Version: This is a review of the full version of the game.
Recommendation: Buy this game without delay!

This is a game I’ve been waiting a long time to play. On October 18, 2005 the guys from Moonpod started started posting development information into their dev journal on gamedev.net. (It’s over here if you’d like to read it.) From the moment I saw those first concept sketches and screenshots, I’ve been really excited to get my hands on this game. And now I have it!

The game was released upon the world in late December 2006, which sadly was too late to make it into the running for any of the end of the year game awards, which is a shame, because the game is fantastic. Without a doubt, this is the best indie game I’ve ever played, and I’d be willing to put it on the same level with some of the big budget non-indie games I played this year. Really, I’m not kidding. But I guess I should stop gushing about how much I liked it, and actually tell you about the game.

In Mr. Robot, you play as Asimov, a small, friendly, hard-working maintenance bot. He’s eager to impress his boss so that he can be promoted into a more specialized job, and gain the respect of his peer robots. (Such as Zelda, who Asimov might have a bit of a crush on, the strong bully Samson, and the brooding super-intelligent Raistlin.) But not long after Asimov is activated and begins getting to work, some strange things start happening.

On the starship Eidolon, which is where the game takes place, everything is controlled by a main computer program called HEL. The main job of HEL and all of the worker robots on board the ship is to protect the safety of the passengers and crew, who are all spending the long trip in stasis pods. When HEL starts issuing orders that don’t make alot of sense, and it’s discovered that some of the humans on board might be in danger, it falls to Asimov and his friends to figure out what’s going on.

Mr. Robot has two gameplay modes. In the first, and the one you’ll probably spend the most time in, you control Asimov by arrow keys and two action keys. (Control and Shift, by default.) In this mode, the game is very much like a platformer with puzzles. Asimov doesn’t have any weapons to defend himself, so you’ll have to be careful to stay away from other robots. (Most of which are electified and will damage Asimov if they touch him.) Most of the puzzles involve figuring out how to get across a room full of dangerous objects and other robots. Sometimes this is as simple as pushing boxes around so that you can jump onto platforms, and sometimes you’ll have to improvise, like standing on top of another robot’s head (the only part that’s not electrified) and riding him around.

The second gameplay mode is called Ghost Hack. A ghost in Mr. Robot just refers to a computer program that can be used to hack into another computer system. The robots in Mr. Robot each have one installed, and at the beginning of the game you’ll just have access to Asimov’s. But you’ll get more as the game goes on. In Ghost Hack your ghosts are very similar to characters in a computer roleplaying game. You can equip each one with different weapons and armor. And each one has different skills, similar to the spells you might find in an rpg like Final Fantasy. Zelda is really good at healing, Raistlin is good at damaging, Asimov is more well rounded, and the big brutes like Samson don’t have any at all.

The game also comes with a level editor. While I haven’t had a chance to play with it, and therefore can’t tell you anything about it, I’m hopeful that after the game has been out awhile, there will be a nice set of user created adventures, similar to what you can find for Neverwinter Nights. That would be super sweet.

I recommend you go grab the demo right now. Make sure you have plenty of free time, though. I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it.

Here’s the trailer, which was posted to YouTube:

Review: Eets December 13, 2006

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Game: Eets
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Version: This is a review of the full version of the game.
Recommendation: Buy this game right now!
Try it!Buy It!

In my review for FizzBall, I mentioned that Professor Fizzwizzle was my favorite indie game of last year. I received an email from a reader asking what my favorite indie game of this year is. I think I’m going to have to cheat and declare it a tie between Titan Attacks by Puppy Games (it’s been on my list of games to review since shortly after I started the website) and Eets by Klei Entertainment.

Several months ago, I saw a screenshot of Eets and downloaded the demo thinking that my wife might think it was cute. I started playing it, and I was caught completely unaware by how great this game is.

There’s this little guy, called Eets. He’s collecting puzzle pieces, and needs your help. Unlike the heroes in most games, you don’t get to control Eets directly. Instead, you modify the environment around him by carefully placing various toys and by clicking on the other objects around him. And Eets is an emotional little fellow. His emotional status effects how he moves through the level. If he’s sad, he is far more cautious and unwilling to jump. If he’s angry, he throws caution to the wind and jumps a great distance whenever he encounters a gap.

There are several objects that you can interact with in the environment to help Eets along. There are Prankster Whales who will inhale any object in front of them (including Eets!) and then send them flying through the air. There are clouds of chocolate chip cookies that can fire chocolate chips from a gun placed on their heads. Explosive carts will explode, blowing holes in walls and floors and sending nearby objects flying. Ejection carts will pick up other objects and send them flying when you click on them. This is just a small sample of the objects in the game. There are many more.

What I liked:
There is so much that I liked about this game. I love the Prankster Whales, the exploding pigs shouting “Freedom!”, the Marshomechs, the Merch. (Oh my God! It’s the Merch!) I like that there are sometimes multiple solutions to the puzzles. For example, with the explosive effects you can sometimes punch totally new paths into the levels that weren’t there before. That kind of emergent game play really means a great deal to me.

What I disliked:
When I installed the game on my wife’s computer, we had some trouble getting the text in the tutorials to appear. It made it a little difficult getting started.

Games it reminded me of:
The obvious connections are Lemmings and The Incredible Machine. It’s a platform based puzzle game, so it might draw some comparisons to games like Professor Fizzwizzle, but the controls are so completely different that they don’t have much in common. (But that’s okay, I love them both.)

This game is brilliant, and was worth your immediate impulse purchase when it cost $19.95. But now they’ve dropped the price to $9.95. I can’t come up with any reason not to buy this game. Go buy it right now!

Review: Fizzball December 7, 2006

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Game: Fizzball
Developer: Grubby Games
Version: This is a review of the full version of the game.
Recommendation: Try the demo

What happens when you mix Katamari Damacy with Arkanoid? You just might get something that resembles Fizzball, the newest release from Grubby Games. If that name seems familiar to you, and it should, it’s because that’s the company that bought us Professor Fizzwizzle. (Which is, in my opinion, the best indie game of last year.)

In Fizzball, the Professor (and his robotic friends) discover that all the people have fled the islands, and the animals are mysteriously vanishing. Luckily, the professor has a new invention that just might be able to help. He calls it a fizzball. It starts out small, and looks like a simple bubble. But when it comes into contact with something smaller than it, it will pick up the object, and then increase in size. At first it can only pick up butterflies and apples, but pretty quickly it’s big enough to pick up cows and horses. Once all of the animals are safely gathered together, the professor can take them to an animal sanctuary he has constructed, where they can be safe from whatever is causing them to vanish from the islands.

The gameplay is essentially very similar to Arkanoid. You control the professor, riding back and forth on a track at the bottom of the screen. When the fizzball comes down, you simply place him in the way, and the fizzball will bounce back up the screen. If you miss, the fizzball will fall out of play, and you have to start over. When you run out of fizzballs, you’re all done. In addition to collecting animals, you can also break open crates, which often contain money, or items that will make your fizzball grow in size. Sometimes they also contain powerups.

Some of the powerups are simple things, like speeding up or slowing down the movement of the fizzball or inreasing the size of the barrier the professor uses to keep the fizzball in play. Some of them, however, are incredibly powerful. There’s a bulldozer powerup that will make the fizzball smash through any obstacle that gets in its way. This is very handy to get to animals that are sitting behind a pile of crates or a fence. There’s a gravity well powerup that makes the fizzball attract any nearby object, making it so that you just have to get somewhat close to objects instead of having to come directly into contact with them. If you get both of these powerups at the same time, you’ll absolutely fly through the level you’re playing.

But it’s not quite that easy. Somebody has left barrels of toxic waste laying around the island, and if you break those open, it’s bad news for everyone. And once you get a little ways in to the game (the end of the second island) you’ll encounter some enemies that will actually try to hurt you. They have laser guns, and if you get hit, you’ll be stunned and unable to keep your fizzball in play.

What I liked:
Just like with Fizzwizzle, the guys at Grubby Games put alot of work into adding special little touches to the game. When your fizzball collides with a tree, apples or acorns will fall from the branches. When you run into an animal that’s too big to pick up, they’ll respond to it. For example, dogs will bark, ostriches will hide their heads in the ground, and chickens will lay eggs. The soundtrack is also really nice, and fits well with the mood of the game.

What I disliked:
While I enjoyed playing the game, after about a half hour of playing, I was ready to stop. I guess I’m just not very into Arkanoid style games. Of course, I was glad to come back later and play a little more. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have a big sense of accomplishment when I beat a level. Perhaps I’m just not the target audience. I gave my young step-sister a chance to play it, and she was absolutely hooked.

Games it reminded me of:
The obvious choices here are the previously mentioned Arkanoid and Katamari Damacy. (Though the latter is only in spirit. That’s a totally different style of play.) The mouse control will be easy to pick up for someone who is used to Luxor or any of the games like it.

I suggest you grab the demo, and give it a whirl. While it isn’t the kind of game that I would normally buy for myself, I think it’s very likely that I’ll be buying a few copies for family members as gifts, since this are perfect for the kids, as for fathers, there are great gifts as funny t shirts for men that are even sold online. I think it’ll be a big hit, especially with the younger members of my family. It’s a very well made game, and I’m excited to see what the guys at Grubby Games come up with next.

Review: TalisMania August 14, 2006

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Game: TalisMania
Developer: Popcap Games
Version: This is a review of the trial version of the game.
Recommendation: Try the demo

A week or so ago, I saw a message on the indiegamer forums that Popcap had just released a new game. That is always great news for me to hear, because I love a bunch of Popcap games. (Dynomite, Zuma, and Heavy Weapon being my favorites.) And since I had some time to kill while setting up my new development machine, I happily snagged the demo and got to playing. (I played in story mode.)

My first impression is that the graphics are great. I really love the way the characters look during the “cutscenes” between levels. But then, if there’s one thing Popcap is known for, it’s great looking, well polished games. Honestly, I wish their artists would do the graphics for my games.

In the story, King Midas has turned everything around him to gold, and he’s feeling remorseful. He’d now like to use his new power to benefit others. Luckily he has a staff of talented builders, and if you raise the necessary money, they’ll create buildings for the people.

On the game board are two (or more) energy points, and you need to connect them by rotating them and the connector pieces that make up the rest of the game board. The connections can be made of bronze, silver, or gold. The more tiles you use in the chain to make a connection, the better your next round will be. And at the end of each level, if you’ve used enough silver and gold, you’ll get a bonus and your workers will create some especially nice buildings. As you progress to more difficult levels, you’ll have to worry about special tiles, with mythical creatures such as Medusa or minotaurs showing up. If you don’t use them as part of your chain, they’ll make life harder on you by wreaking havoc on your game board.

Between levels you’ll sometimes get to play a bonus round, where a Greek god or goddess will challenge you. If you win the challenge, you’ll win a special statue for the villagers.

What I liked:
As I said, the graphics are great. The sound is also perfect. I also enjoyed the gameplay mechanics, especially when the mythical creature tiles started coming into play.

What I disliked:
Since there’s no time limit, you can take as long as you like to try to find a perfect chain and always get a great score. This leads to a lack of difficulty since I can just win by trial and error. Guys in the indiegamer forum brought this up, and apparently that’s exactly what the Hero game mode is for. Unfortunately my time limit ran out before I thought to give that mode a try. Maybe that mode shouldn’t be locked away, or should be unlocked sooner.

Games it reminded me of:
The idea of connecting end points reminded me of games like Pipe Dream, although obviously the gameplay mechanic is quite a bit different. It also has similarities with another game I’ve played lately, called ConFuse Box.

If you’re a fan of puzzle games, especially brain teasers that reward you for pouring over the board to come up with a perfect plan, this game could definitely be for you. Grab the demo and give it a go.