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.