The difference between clever and cunning.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Indie Micro Reviews

If you’re not aware of Indie Royal and the periodic bundles their website offers they’re worth keeping an eye on. The gaming industry has loads in indie talent that can sometimes get buried under all the AAA hubbub, and the site is a great resource. I picked up a number of their recent bundles for pocket change, and we’ll be taking a look at a few of the standouts.

Mutant Mudds

Mutant Mudds (MM for short) is a 2D side scrolling platformer, a genre I’m forced to admit I don’t have a lot of experience with. My first console was an N64 and the golden age of the 2D platformer was a bit before my time. The game has a strong retro/classic feel. If you cut your gaming teeth on Nintendo’s early platformers you’ll feel right at home.

Controlling the blond bespectacled protagonist is easy to learn but challenging to master. He comes equipped with water cannon for blasting the titular Mutant Mudd monsters and a jetpack that allows a precious second or two of hover time. Understanding and exploiting the idiosyncrasies and limitations of both is key to success. 

MM’s graphics are made up of colorful and charmingly detailed but deliberately heavily pixeleated sprites. A soundtrack of catchy chiptunes accompanies the action as you hop and shoot your way through level sets with such timeless themes as “ice world” and “lava world.” The controls are extremely tight and responsive and I always felt in complete control of the character. This is critical, because bad controls would have changed the high difficulty level from tough to tooth-pulling.

Many level have you hopping between the fore and background.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the forgiving nature of modern design philosophy, but Mutant Mudds feels like a very challenging game. Even brutally so. You can sustain a mere three hits from enemies per level. Falls and most hazards spell instant death. 

While you have unlimited lives you’re rarely more than one or two slight mistakes from the restart screen. Fortunately the game isn’t strictly linear. If you find yourself completely stumped on one level there will always be several others you can attempt at the same time. Many of the more challenging levels might take dozens of attempts.

The gameplay is compelling enough that you’ll usually want to jump right back in, but after the tenth time replaying the same sequence you might, not unreasonably, start to wish for a checkpoint system of some sort. Power and progress in MM doesn’t come from leveling up or finding better weapons but from memorizing level layouts and understanding the behavior of enemies and hazards. One timed sequence stumped me to near hair-pulling frustration until I checked a video-walkthrough and learned the exact animation frame to start my jump. Once I knew that I had it mastered in minutes.

While levels are short the game still feels slow and deliberate.  The pacing is more Mario than Sonic. There are no time limits. It’s usually safest to pick apart enemy groups without exposing yourself to risk and to stop and carefully observe a hazard before flinging yourself into it. This is a game that rewards per-pixel precision and split second timing. 

Mudd Mutants are dangerous but predictable. Learn their patterns and pick them off.

Your goal in each level is to collect the giant “Water Gem” at the end. Each first tier level also contains one hundred “Golden Diamonds”. You don’t need to collect them all in a single run of the level (indeed doing so usually puts you in even greater risk) but you’ll want to get them all eventually because they’re needed to unlock three different and mutually exclusive upgrades.

You’ll ultimately be able to swap between a faster and farther firing water cannon, an extended hover for your jetpack, and a powerful vertical boost. The boost in particular is great fun. Intelligent use can allow you to skip whole sections of some levels, although there’s always the risk of ceiling spikes. 

The unlockable upgrades also let you reach the second tier of levels. These are even more challenging than the first set and usually test your mastery of some specific skill or mechanic. Collecting every Water Gem and Golden Diamond in the game allows use of all three upgrades at once and unlocks a final tier of bonus levels that demand nothing less than perfection. 

As tough as they are the levels are well designed and extremely satisfying to finally beat. There’s a clever mechanic where jump pads can launch you into the foreground or background, allowing you to enter areas you can see in the distance. The game is also good about educating you on new hazards and required maneuvers, letting you experience them in less dangerous scenarios before combining them and amping up the challenge. 

There are a few rare occasions where the game forces you to jump blind from one dangerous scenario into another with no chance to stop and see what’s next. You will then almost invariably die. You’re already dying a lot, but these deaths are the only ones that feel unfair. At worst at least you now know the second hazard is there and can play accordingly.

The ultra-tough "Grandma" levels allow you to use all power-ups at once. You'll need them.

Finally a boss fight or two would have been a nice way to tie off the game, although narrative, combat, or bosses isn’t really what MM is about. Anyone who enjoys high-challenge platforming should check this delightful indie gem out. More casual games might find themselves put off by the intense difficulty level.

Reasons to Play: Extremely tight, responsive controls. Well built levels. Charming retro graphics and sound. Precision platforming bliss.

Reasons to pass: Extremely high difficulty level. No boss fights to cap off game. Occasional unfair blind jumps.

Pineapple Smash Crew

Pineapple Smash Crew (PSC) is a top-down “dual stick” style shooter in the vein of the Cannon Fodder series. The art style is charmingly retro and the chiptunes that provide the soundtrack are catchy. Notably the game was developed by “RichMakeGame”, a company consisting of one man, or possibly a talented man-shaped robot. 

The player controls a group of four tiny-headed, meme spouting and heavily armed mercenaries, moving with the keyboard and shooting with the mouse. Your mercs always move and fight in close formation. In practice they’re less a tactical squad and more a single body with four discrete guns and health bars. 

Gameplay is fast and furious. You race your team through a series of randomly generated derelict ships at breakneck speed, blasting and exploding every robot and monster in their way and grabbing up the power-ups and experience cubes left behind. There are a handful of basic mission types, but they boil down to killing or smashing everything in a particular room. Levels have a tight time limit on all but the easiest difficulty level. Exceed it and your squad starts to suffer constant damage, killing them in short order.

Combat has some interesting twists in that your guns aren’t actually very strong. It can take concentrated fire from the entire squad and draining the regenerating ammo bar to drop many mid and late game enemies. Superior firepower and tactical depth are provided in the form of a host of grenade style deployables, hurled with the right mouse button. These range from destructive grenades and rockets, to support items like healing fields and defensive shields, to more exotic fare like teleporter beacons and lasers that can punch through walls. Each character can only carry one item at a time. 

The best place to shoot an enemy is from around a corner.

The emphasis on these remote one-shot weapons is what sets PSC apart from most twin-stick style shooter, and much effort was clearly put towards making their use and control feel natural. When you fling a deployable item the camera zooms out, allowing you to rotate and guide the device in mid flight before triggering it with a second click. You can (and should) move your squad at the same time. Deftly splitting your attention between using a remote turret to blast a nest of enemies while maneuvering to safety feels just about perfect.

Deployables are scattered plentifully through the environment and dropped by enemies. Leveling up your squad lets you choose to unlock one of two new randomly selected items. Your selection then has a chance to spawn alongside all your other unlocked choices. It’s all quite random, with no guarantee you’ll be able to find or even unlock a particular item. It’s up to you to make use of what the level generator gives you on a room by room basis.

PSC isn’t a particularly deep game. By design it’s well suited to quick bursts of frantic fun, playing a mission or two at a time. This is great in the early and even the mid-game, when levels take only a few minutes to complete. Unfortunately it starts to break down as the game wears on.

The size and difficulty of later missions start to push them out of the “bite-sized” range. While PSC’s enemies aren’t particularly smart they become exponentially tougher and more numerous, sometimes taking a ludicrous amount of damage to kill. I would often find myself exhausting an area’s supply of items before its population of enemies. 

Bosses are protected by modular layers of guns and armor, each of which can be destroyed.

This is especially annoying when fighting PSC’s modular bosses, who seal you inside the room with them to fight to the death. Once you’ve used up all your grenades and shields and whatnot these fights are reduced to circle strafing around the boss over and over until your guns finally wear them down or the level timer kills you. Having additional power-ups spawn in continually would have helped a lot.

Experienced mercenaries become more damage resistant, but are still ultimately expendable. If slain they’re replaced with raw level one recruits. (Unless you’re playing on hard where they’re not replaced at all.) It’s possible to lose an entire veteran squad and have to press on with a bunch of squishy noobies. 

Losses can easily lead to more losses, creating a self-reinforcing death loop. It would have been nice to be able to use the cash you earn on missions to resurrect dead mercenaries, or at least train up new recruits to near the squad’s average level. As it is money just functions as a sort of score, or to buy cosmetic hats. 

For a game developed entirely by one man (soundtrack excluded) PSC is a significant accomplishment. Tuning and balance is tricky enough with an entire play-testing department. The game plays smoothly, never crashed or bugged out on me, and is perfectly suited for a quick five-minute action break. It’s just unfortunate that the pacing starts to grind.

Reasons to play: Fast paced action. Interesting use of grenade types and mechanics. Rocking chiptunes.

Reasons to pass: Punishing time limit on all but easiest difficulty. Gameplay gets repetitive after a few missions. Boss fights become a chore. 

They Breath

They Breath is a quick play and a strange one at that, almost more of a demo than full game. It only took me about 45 minutes to complete. A disproportionate amount of that was on the game’s final encounter, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The premise and gameplay is simple. You play as a frog, controlled from a 2D side view, descending down into the depths of a flooded forest. You can move in any direction and tap the spacebar for a little burst of extra speed. That’s the extent of your abilities and the information you’re given on how to play. 

As you work your way down through the flooded forest you’ll quickly discover a bizarre ecosystem based around oxygen. O2 functions as both a time limit and your health and requires constant replenishment by collecting the bubbles drifting up from below. You’re not the only creature in the water though.

Gameplay is strictly linear. Waves of creatures of various types swim onscreen. Each interacts differently with you, each other, and the vital supply of oxygen. Since you’re a frog and not a killing machine you survive by evading and manipulating creatures as you come to understand more and more about the sunken ecosystem. Once every creature in a wave is dealt with, one way or another, you resume your descent. If you suffocate or meet a worse fate you simply restart at the beginning of the wave.

Those aren't moose.

They Breath quickly becomes a sort of wordless, interactive biological horror story. I won’t do you the disservice of spoiling the twists, but I enjoyed them. The sparse but ominous music and ambient sound design help create an eerie atmosphere.

The game makes for a good case study in teaching the player mechanics without cumbersome tutorials, intrusive onscreen text, or somebody yelling orders at you via radio. Nothing is ever explained, only demonstrated. It’s up to you to figure out the relationships between the different creatures and how to deal with them through experimentation and observation.

The final encounter of the game is memorable and even subtly horrifying, but took me almost as long as the rest of this very short game combined. Most players will need to repeat it anywhere up to a dozen times. A smoother difficulty curve would have been better for They Breath’s pacing and prevented frustrated. It’s also possible and even necessary to swim off-screen during much of the game, and the camera should really zoom out during the later encounters with larger numbers of creatures.

Reasons to Play: Fascinating wordless horror story. Good case study in teaching the player mechanics unobtrusively. Cheap.

Reasons to Pass: Very short. Aggravating final encounter. 


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