The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Short Games Double Review

It's been a while since I last updated this blog, but unfortunately I haven't had as much time for gaming as I'd like. If you find yourself with a similarly busy schedule here's a few more short games that can be enjoyed to completion without committing to an epic six-month slog.

Spirits of Xanadu is a first person, minimalist sci-fi horror game. There’s a bit of shooting, a bit of puzzle solving, and a lot of subtle atmosphere. The game’s DNA owes a bit to Deus Ex, a bit to the films like The Black Hole and 2001, and a great deal to System Shock 2. If (like me) you crave being trapped in space on a ship where something has gone Horribly Wrong™ you’ll be right at home.

SoX is set rather anachronistically in an alternate 80’s, which gives artistic license to all the boxy robots, tape decks, and ship-wide smoking permit. You’ve been dispatched to investigate the silence of the research ship Xanadu, in orbit over a distant world, and bring her home. You dock to find the small crew missing, the on-board security system berserk, and the ship deliberately sabotaged.

Space Madness

There is also the small matter that you may be going insane. Eerie Kabuki masks stare at you from cupboards and corners before fading without a trace. Brief thumping sounds come from the next room over. At one point it appears to rain inside the ship, completely without explanation, stopping just as suddenly.

SoX’s horror is a bit more psychological and cerebral than many similar offerings. While there are hints of some sort of affliction among the now vanished crew there are no zombies, mutants or necromorphs stalking the corridors. Body horror is conspicuously absent, and the few traces of blood stand out all the more for their rarity. The Xanadu’s robots are creepy, but the silence and sense of isolation on the ship when everything is quiet is more un-nerving than any number of homicidal machines.

Nice to see the Daleks are still getting work.

There is a certain amount of robot shooting to be done, but this is more an adventure game than a blistering FPS or resource scarce survival horror excursion. Health regenerates and your laser weapons never run out of ammo. The Xanadu’s security system puts up a decent fight and will likely kill you a few times, but this just results in you being hauled to the easily escape-able brig.

Indeed this is the source of SoX’s only real gameplay annoyance. Every time you die the bulk of the Xanadu’s robot population respawns, including a batch right outside the brig. You’ll likely need to shoot this same group of bots a few too many times on your first playthough. Careful and observant explorers can eventually find weapons beyond the starting pistol that all but trivialize combat, and ways to deactivate large parts of the security system. If you truly find the combat intolerable there’s even a menu option to remove it altogether.

The Missing 

While you (arguably) never meet the Xanadu’s missing crew they left a host of notes, files, and audio recordings detailing the events of their mission. Picking through what these people left behind where they lived and worked and getting to know them is one of the subtle pleasures SoX offers. Each crew member is a fully fleshed out character with their own history, personality, strengths, and failings. Eventually you’ll be able to tell who sat where in the cafeteria just by examining what is on each table.

I can't wait to find the pie all this strawberry jam came from.

Graphics are sparse but effective, with detail where it’s important. Not everything needs to look like the latest installment of the Crysis series. The sound work and voice acting is excellent, especially in the crew audio-logs. 

There is a refreshing amount of interactivity to be found in the environment, reminiscent of games like Deus Ex. Food and drink can be scarfed, toilets can be flushed, and drawers can be opened to check for items of interest. Shoot out enough power boxes and you can even kill the lights for that area. These touches help bring the relatively simple geometry of the ship to life.

The Xanadu is a long way from home. Perhaps it should stay that way.

The Xanadu is not a large ship and this is not a lengthy game. While your first playthrough will likely take a few hours it is possible to speed-run the game in ten minutes or less. Indeed there is an achievement for doing so. The bulk of your time not shooting robots will be spent figuring out how to get the Xanadu’s various sub-systems up and running again. There are multiple endings, some obvious and others obtuse, so there is replay value to be found.

If you’re hungry for an excuse to dismember space-zombies, or a survival-horror gauntlet that makes you count each bullet, Spirits of Xanadu may not be quite what you’re looking for. The horror is real but subtle. Exploring the decks of the Xanadu is an absorbing way to spend a few hours, and an experience that will likely stay with you long after you finally steer the ship to its ultimate fate. 

Reasons to play: Atmospheric, creepy, sharp writing, and good replayability.

Reasons to pass: Very short. Slightly annoying death/enemy respawn system.

Guns, Gore, and Cannoli is a 2-D side scrolling shooter with highly polished gameplay and attractive, cartoony, hand-drawn animation. Both art style and gameplay owe a lot to the colorful Metal Slug arcade series. It’s the best lighthearted, gangster themed shooter set in a zombie apocalypse you’ll play this year. 

GGC benefits from a strong sense of place, set firmly in an enjoyably exaggerated roaring twenties. As mob enforcer and made man Vinnie Cannoli you arrive in town to conduct some “Legitimate Business”, only to discover the city overrun by hordes of hungry undead. The simple setup sees Vinnie blasting his way through lovingly detailed seedy docks, speakeasies, tenements, and more. 


The game is a lean, pure experience. There are no leaderboards, point totals, character advancement, or progression systems. All possible fat has been trimmed out. The core gameplay is more than strong enough to stand on its own without such fripperies.  

The cartoony environments are lovingly detailed.

You fight your way from left to right, wielding a slowly growing arsenal of generally era appropriate weapons and explosives. Vinnie can jump, crouch, and kick to fend of smaller enemies while re-loading. Tremendous care has clearly been paid towards ensuring jumping, movement, and shooting feels just right.  The occasional platforming section and movement/timing based puzzles are a joy instead of an exercise in hair pulling aggravation.

GGC is punishing on higher difficulties but never unfair. This is a game un-afraid to deliver bracing, deeply satisfying challenge. Checkpoint and health pacing feels just about perfect. Vinnie can take a few hits but the game is balanced around the expectation that you’ll be dodging damage, not face-tanking it. While memorizing the level layout and enemy spawn patterns will give you some advantage good reflexes and quick decision making are more important. 

Mooks, Goons, and Palookas

Vinnie battles a diverse array of zombie types, each with their own weaknesses and attack patterns. Swollen butchers shuffle forward hurtling meat-cleavers, detonating in a cloud of cartoonish gore that damages everything around them. Zombified soldiers wear helmets that block headshots while spraying tommy-gun fire in a downward arc. Infected rats boil towards you in giant swarms, prompting a hasty grab for the flamethrower. Combat is absorbing and never repetitive.

Gangster flick aficionados may spot familiar (if decaying) faces.

Aside from zombies you also face rival Mafia enforcers and military soldiers. Human opponents fight more defensively than the undead, using firearms and cover. Their presence helps vary up the combat and keep it from becoming stale. In a nice touch humans and zombies will attack one another on sight, which makes sense and creates some interesting tactical situations when both factions are on-screen at once. 

Enemy AI is robust for a 2D shooter. More agile zombie types have no trouble navigating a path to you if one exists. Human opponents recognize grenades and move to avoid them. Far from idly waiting to be killed they’ll employ explosives and poison gas canisters of their own to flush you out.

Boss fights represent major difficulty spikes and are can get quite brutal. Each will likely kill you a few times as you try to understand their movement and attack patterns. Fortunately checkpoint placement is more than fair, especially on the multi-stage final encounter. 

No true mobster can carry on a conversation without the use of their hands.

Tying it all together is a simple but functional and admirably coherent story. Characters are broadly drawn and entertaining without dipping into obnoxious or offensive territory. The well animated cartoon cut-scenes are a high point, and as you would expect characters talk a lot with their hands. 

GGC’s campaign is unlikely to run you longer than 4-5 hours the first time through. Unfortunately once the credits roll there’s not much left to the game but to replay it on a higher difficulty (which I did). Co-op is limited to local only, which is awkward at best, but don’t let these minor issues discourage you from playing this meticulously polished indie gem. 

Reasons to play: Meticulously tuned, deeply satisfying 2-D shooter gameplay. High quality hand-drawn animation. Very high level of polish.

Reasons to pass: Just one short campaign. Local co-op only.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Short Games Triple Pack

The immersion of an epic length game can be very rewarding. Unfortunately life is deeply unfair and we often find ourselves without the dozens of hours and big blocks of uninterrupted time necessary to properly enjoy a mammoth RPG or other all-encompassing experience. What’s a time pressed gamer to do? 

We could try free-to-play clickfest Facebook games. We could also jam burning coals into our ears. As an alternative I offer three very different games. All three offer real gameplay with the most modest of time demands.

Crypt of the Necrodancer combines a simple rhythm game with a top-down, 2D roguelike. 

An undead wizard has stolen your heart (not romantically, the actual organ). As a result you can only move to the beat of each level’s song. Enemies each have their own movement and attack patterns controlled by the beat as well. The result is literal dance-fighting.  

The game is extremely accessible, controlled with only the directional keys and clearly designed to be played with a dance pad as well. Moving to the beat multiplies gold dropped by enemies, used to buy things from shops and as a high-score. You can simply stop moving, (indeed doing so makes fighting some enemies much simpler) but your gold multiplier drops the moment you miss a beat.

Floor tiles light up to let you know when a beat multiplier is in effect.

Looted diamonds can be spent after each death to buy a few permanent upgrades or unlock new potential loot. As CotN runs are short and prone to ending violently this offers a nice sense of progression. Unspent diamonds are lost on starting a new run, so unlocking the more expensive items requires you to survive at least a few levels. 

Levels are short, consisting of only a few rooms. Each is unlikely to take more than a few minutes, even if you pause to dig around for secret items and clear all enemies. Indeed if you’re still loitering in a level when the song ends you’re unceremoniously dumped into the next. This does much to keep the pace breezy and the game moving forward.

Shopkeepers sing along to the music,.

Survive a modest brace of levels and you’re treated to a boss fight. CotN’s bosses are surprisingly creative and one of the strongest elements. One encounter features conga lines of zombies controlled by a giant angry ape. Another plays out as a real-time game of chess, with you battling an entire team of enemy pieces on your own. 

CotN can be quite challenging. Expect to get trampled by a mob of tough enemies a lot in later zones before you can acquire a toe-hold of useful items and weapons. Even with a good weapon and some armor you’re never more than a few missed steps from death. Since most CotN runs aren’t more than fifteen minutes death isn’t as punishing as it can be in many roguelikes.

Later levels can begin with a brutal rush of enemies.

The soundtrack is excellent, as one would hope for a game based around rhythm and music. The songs for the early zones are a bit more thumping, but all are worth listening to and work for purposes of the game’s core mechanic.  

For a game still technically in alpha Crypt of the Necrodancer plays smoothly and (most importantly) is tremendous fun. The moment to moment gameplay is great and the combining of two relatively simple ideas into a whole works beautifully. The addition of a co-op mode even tentatively pushes CotN into the territory of a viable party game. 

Reasons to play: Clever core mechanic. Accessible gameplay. Thumping soundtrack.

Reasons to pass: High difficulty. If you lack a sense of rhythm. 

The Fall is a dark, 2d adventure/puzzle game with light combat elements. The premise is unique and intriguing. You play as ARID, the onboard AI for a suit of advanced combat armor.  You come online literally falling from orbit towards an unknown planet. Kinetic energy shields narrowly save you from becoming an impact crater, but your human pilot is worryingly unresponsive. With nothing else to go on you set out to locate medical aid and any clue as to what’s going on.

The world you find yourself stranded on is a dark and gloomy place. The largely subterranean environments are stark, with most things viewed only in outline. Something bad clearly went down before you got here, judging by the sheer number of decaying human and robot remains to be found. 

Environments are dank and somber, with spots of color and light standing out all the more.

Puzzles are generally logical, although you can sometimes just resort to trial and error. So long as you remember what abilities you’ve unlocked and what you’re carrying you shouldn’t get stuck for long. Even with your flashlight beam highlighting critical hotspots in the environment some are frustratingly hard to spot, and missing these is what held me up more than anything else. 

Combat is sparse and largely trivial. There are basic cover and even stealth mechanics, but don’t come into The Fall expecting a true Metroid-like experience. The brief action sequences still make a nice pallet cleanser between the more dialog and puzzle heavy sections of the game. 

Opportunities to stealth-kill enemy bots are rare, but do exist.

One of the core themes of the game is that ARID is locked out of most of the combat suit’s functions. As a work around she can over-ride these locks if she needs a particular function to preserve the life of her pilot. Perversely you quickly discover that, to unlock new abilities, progress through the game, and ultimately save your pilot, you must constantly, deliberately put ARID and her pilot in mortal danger. 

The logical gymnastics this puts ARID though contributes heavily to her character development. To fulfill her programming, she’s forced to blatantly violate it. This occasionally taps into a streak of subtle but potent dark humor as ARID takes the most direct and destructive route through the arbitrary and absurd tasks other characters throw in her way. 

ARID may be military hardware, but she is more than a mere machine.

While the game’s puzzles are functional it is the characters and dialog that make up The Fall’s strongest element. With no living humans about (aside from ARID’s uncommunicative pilot) the cast consists entirely of robots and other Artificial Intelligences. Far from being written as just metallic people their actions are often inhuman and un-nerving from the point of view of a more meat-based sentience. 

A critically damaged fellow combat suit mildly agrees ARID should cannibalize it for parts, since she has a greater chance of surviving. This isn’t presented as an act of noble self-sacrifice by either party, but just the logic thing to do. Even something as basic as gender identity is difficult to apply. While the combat suit has a clearly male physique it’s impossible to think of ARID as anything other than female after hearing her speak. 

In keeping with our theme The Fall is a short game. Unless you get seriously stuck it’s unlikely to run you more than 3-4 hours. The story concludes with a somewhat unsatisfying ending that leaves a lot of questions unresolved, but The Fall is only part one of an intended trilogy. 

Reasons to Play: Foreboding atmosphere. Satisfying, logical puzzles. Intriguing set up and characters.

Reasons to Pass: Short play time. As act One of Three, raises more questions than it answers. Awkward but trivial combat.

Luftrausers is a 2-D side-scrolling shooter with an old-school arcade vibe. There’s no real campaign, story, or linear missions. Just endless waves of enemies over a featureless ocean, a high score to chase, and a few progression systems. 

Death is merely an excuse to try again. When inevitably shot down by the bullet-hell like spread of enemy fire you can be back in the air with a new plane configuration in seconds. The only true penalty for destruction is losing your combo multiplier and shot at a new high score. 

Battleships require concentrated fire to sink and fill the sky with projectiles.

A constant stream of kills is necessary to build the combo multiplier and get a worthwhile score. Basic strategy encourages building the multiplier on swarming small planes before trying to tackle a high value target. Conversely you only repair damage when not firing, which is not conducive to racking up kills. Walking the razors edge between keeping your combo going and staying in the air makes for frantic second to second gameplay.

Each launch challenges you further with a brace of quantifiable mini-objectives that do much to keep gameplay from growing monotonous. These missions provide a sense of accomplishment and progression and often encourage new styles of play. An easy mission might task you with simply downing a certain number of enemy planes in a single life. A more challenging one might require sinking a battleship while on fire or while in free-fall. 

Short term missions add additional challenge to the arcade action.

Accomplishing these mini-missions and racking up sizable combos contributes towards unlocking new engines, hulls, and weapons. These parts can be freely mixed and matched, allowing for some fascinating combinations with truly unique kinds of play. One configuration might boost your armor and render you immune to collision damage, making it more practical to ram enemies than to shoot them. Another might let you dart out of the ocean to sweep the skies with a laser beam before sinking back safely below the waves.

No one weapon or configuration excels at fighting every enemy type. Much of Luftrauser’s appeal comes from experimenting with different parts and learning how to exploit each combination’s strengths and weaknesses. Some might lend themselves to a particular playstyle more than others, but all are fun to try. 

As you unlock new parts dozens of configurations become available.

A suitably martial soundtrack enhances the action. The music actually changes slightly depending on your plane configuration, which provides another convenient excuse to experiment with all the combinations.
Luftrausers makes for an ideal five-minute break game. The frantic core action combines well with the parts and missions systems to add welcome variety and a sense of progression.

Reasons to play: Well tuned arcade action. Swappable plane configurations offer depth and variety. 

Reasons to pass: High difficulty. Short, repetitive core gameplay. 

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.