What a Pitch!

If you’ve dabbled in games development¬† at all, chances are you’ve come across Game Maker. Depending on the circles you run in you may have heard good or bad things about it – you may even have tried it yourself and formed your own opinion. Personally, like anyone else I ever remember talking to about it, my opinion on Game Maker is largely negative, and while I could see it being viable prototyping tool, I would always prefer to use something like XNA or LWJGL with a simple, ready-implemented framework.

I’ve also seen many a terrible Mario clone and other poor Game Maker game – probably a result of the application’s ease of use making it attractive to young or unskilled creatives. But I’m not spending my time typing this just to beat a dead horse, no. I’m here to introduce you to a shining example of what any tool can produce in the right hands.

Hyper Princess Pitch Review
Daughter of the Goddess of Explosions, cannon in hand and an unending supply of explosive bricks as ammunition, Pitch sets off to the North Pole with her flying, legless companion Cat Strike to give the good Mecha Santa and his robotic elves what for. What for? For not giving her any presents, that’s what.

Hyper Princess Pitch is a top-down arcade shoot-em-up in the vein of Smash TV and Operation Carnage, created by Daniel Remar and distributed for free alongside his other work, including Iji, and the fantastic Hero Core. It, like most of his games, was created using Game Maker, but you’ll see no shabby handiwork here.

As you probably guessed a paragraph ago (unless you’re skip-reading) the setting, and general wackiness of the characters play a big part in making the game so entertaining. Pitch is a likable anti-hero – even if her motivation is somewhat disagreeable – and her mother, who resides in a secret place, is an absolute riot. Pitch makes vocal remarks during gameplay of just the right frequency and variety to be entertaining rather than annoying, while her mother… uh – things explode when she talks. Mecha Santa is also pretty rad.

The graphics portray everything aptly with a bright, pixely style and no visible flaws. They’re not ground breaking by any means but they’re certainly attractive, and never bland. Explosions are very nicely drawn and animated, which is good since they’re a central feature. I don’t think I really want to play a game ever again unless re-spawning after death causes an explosion. There are rainbows, sparks, varied projectiles, colourful props and different tile-sets per level. Overall there’s a lot going on; over-the-top is the name of the game, but it never seems out-of-place

Enemies are also colourful, varied, and a little more creative than might be expected from a Christmas-themed game: shiny baubles, trains, UFOs, gun-turrets, tanks, sleds and insane, metal doppelgangers to name but a few. In some rooms you are assaulted by swarms of elves, while others contain only three or four larger enemies. Bosses are especially impressive; they’re the standard, room-filling fare, but their attack patterns are well-refined, inventive, and very interesting – more-so when final attacks are enabled for the hardest two difficulty settings. The third boss – whatever the hell it is – makes good use of the environment, advancing on you constantly and occasionally blasting the central platform with a massive laser, forcing you onto the sidelines.

That is, unless you make use of a special trick. Pitch may be all for explosions and general, long-ranged carnage, but she’s not above wrestling moves when the situation calls for them. Your main arsenal consists of an explosive-brick machine-gun, an ice-thrower (which also destroys yellow projectiles), and a slow-firing gun that fires little, bouncing bits of rainbow. These are all useful under different circumstances, but if you get in a pinch you can also hit up-down-left-right or up-down-right-left quickly to execute a block. Projectiles that hit you during a block won’t hurt, but large enemies will. Interestingly though, if a smaller enemy touches you, you’ll execute a pile-driver on it, culminating in a powerful explosion when you and your foe impact the ground. Various power-ups will aid you along the way, including obvious candidates such as power, triple and speed, hyper, and the super-rare x, y,z power-ups. Some of these override your main weapon completely, while others differ based on what weapon you have equipped. All of this can lead to a very tactical form of play, or just a whole lot of awesome-looking fun.

At this point I’d like to say that Pitch even controls well, but that’d be pushing it. Instead I’ll emphasize that she doesn’t control badly. You move her using the arrow keys on your keyboard, fire with x and cycle weapons with z. Your weapons fire in the direction you last walked in, but by switching direction while firing you can continue to fire while back-pedaling or side-stepping. This is a bit strange at first, but something I’m familiar with from some older games (don’t ask me to name any). Although it takes a while, this actually feels quite natural once you get used to it, but I still haven’t gotten the hang of the key combination for a pile-driver. Up-down-left-right, up-down-left-right. I actually like the fact that it’s difficult to execute this powerful move, but it is endlessly frustrating when you fail, especially since you have to be right next to enemies already in order for it to be effective. Wielding a hyper power-up actually enables you to perform a pile-driver at the touch of a button, but it isn’t often useful once you have a golden bricks or a rainbow laser.

Actually, that’s my only minor gripe with Hyper Princess Pitch, and it hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of the game past the first five minutes or so. There’s enough variety, challenge, humour and content here to keep you busy for quite a long time, and it’s all delivered for free, not even requiring an installation. Level design is solid, and non-linear, as you usually have two doors to choose from at the end of each room. The difficulty curve is perfect, and the game comes with a large selection of difficulty settings, each of which unlocks a new pro tip upon completion. I can almost complete the last regular difficulty setting, and I’ll probably still draw enjoyment from the game until I can complete it fully. There is a hidden difficulty setting harder than that, but you need to have some pretty l337 skills to even get through the front door.

I highly recommend Hyper Princess Pitch. It’s hard not to recommend free games, I know, but if you remember Smash TV, enjoy retro arcade shoot-em-ups, or just want to cause a lot of cool explosions without any complicated premise, you should check this out. If you want a simple, challenging arcade experience, and have fond memories of limited lives and real GAME OVERs, you have to check this out.

Shank

Okay, I officially started back at uni today, and this is the last Humble Indie Bundle Review I’ll be writing for a while. The only game remaining after this is Cave Story+. I’ve already played Cave Story, so I need to find time to play the whole thing through and really see the difference before I can comment. This review? Well, it’s Shank by Klei Entertainment.

Shank Review
Shank is a 2D, cartoony, ultra-violent beat-em-up. I’ve been trying to think of a decent game to compare it to but no other 2D game seems to cut it. If Devil May Cry and Kill Bill had a lovechild that came out something like Alien Hominid, that’d be pretty close. The plot is very Kill Bill-ish with the main character, Shank, trying to track down the killers of his girlfriend (actually old friends of his) years after his own near-death; the graphics and ability to pounce on enemies are what reminded me so strongly of Alien Hominid; the combat system is the main focus of the game, with pulling of combos and constant fluent attacks being integral to your success, and this felt very Devil May Cry, even though the focus is different. We’ll get to that later.

Shank is a badass: he’s got a knife, a chainsaw, twin pistols, he’s strong, fast, always angry, he swears a bit, and is maybe just a little over-enthusiastic about killing and maiming every animal, mineral and vegetable between himself and Cesar [now redundant spoiler warning]. Is he likable? Is he doing the right thing? Who cares. The point is, you have lots of killing and maiming to do if your aim is to partake in this game, so turn away immediately if you’re not into violence.

Gameplay is split into separate campaigns for single player and local co-op (which works very well with two 360 controllers). For single player mode there are Normal and Hard difficulties – I’m ashamed to say I shied away from hard as there are no checkpoints during each level and this quickly became frustrating to me. In co-op mode player’s can revive each other with about a third hp, and you don’t out-right loose until both are down at once, which on the whole makes it a lot easier for everything but boss fights or screens packed with enemies. There are less free-running type areas in co-op levels than in single player, and co-op also makes intuitive use of co-operative mechanics for taking down bosses (these are virtually a requirement, though you could grind down their health with basic attacks if you wanted to be boring).

Graphics in the game are a little mixed up. Some of the screenshots I have are truly stunning, with advanced techniques being used to give a real visual flair to the 2D, heavily stylized scenery and characters. However, cut scenes often suffer from jarringly ugly character drawings. On the whole though it’s nice to see a game doing something artistic, and it is very successful during gameplay. Shank’s movements are very smooth, which is important in this type of fighting game, enemies are bright and varied, blood flies, limbs contort in unpleasant ways – you couldn’t really ask for more.

If there’s one thing more jarring than the cut scene graphics though, it’s the voice acting. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the cut scene graphics live up to their gameplay counterpart, the sound effects in the game are pretty good, the music is top-shelf material, but the voice acting is just…dire. Still, this isn’t a movie, and the plot isn’t that great, so it’s easy to just sit back and laugh at the cut scenes in the same way you can laugh at the ludicrous amounts of gore and immense amount of punishment people in Shank’s world can survive.

Speaking of punishment, Shank can use a total of three weapons at any one time. At the beginning of the game these will be the aforementioned twin-pistols, chainsaw and knife. That’s right, you start with a chainsaw. Throughout the game you will unlock a number of other weapons and can switch your heavy weapon and ranged weapon mid-combat to tackle different situations and enemy variations. Unlike in Devil May Cry where different attacks and combos rely on button timing and direction presses, combat in Shank relies on chaining together different weapon types into one long attack. I could, for instance, swing my knives at an enemy, then hit the ranged button to whip them into the air and juggle for a while, or mix in some strokes with the machetes to add extra damage while keeping up my rate of attack. There are a lot of buttons used in playing Shank, so I won’t describe the full control system.

I never tried it with a keyboard as the 360 controller seemed to make a lot of sense here. I found the controls to be fairly fluid, though I often just resorted to button mashing when no specific tactic was called for, so combat did become a little stale as I got to the end of them game. Bosses were a highlight, and fairly inventive, but I found too many of them were just massive, muscle-ridden blokes at the heart of it.

There is a sequel in development – due out soon I think – and I can see why. Shank is explosive fun in single player, and I had a lot of fun completing the co-op campaign with a friend too. If you’re a completist you can try your hand at hard mode or try to unlock all the costumes. Fortunately, it seems like Klei are learning from their mistakes and working to make Shank 2 much more fun on the combat-system front, so maybe I won’t just be able to get by on button-mashing when/if I pick up the sequel. I say if, because honestly, I’m not sure I will. Shank was fun, and I’ve never really seen a 2D beat-em-up quite like it, but as I say, the combat was getting a bit monotonous towards the end, and I wasn’t trilled by the story either.

I Dids a Picture

Humble Bundle Review #10! I’m still allowed to put up screenshots, right SOPA? In that case, I’ll be reviewing Crayon Physics Deluxe for the remainder of this post.

Crayon Physics Deluxe Review
Crayon Physics Deluxe is an improved version of Petri Purho’s original prototype, Crayon Physics. Players must move the ball in each level through one or more stars in order to collect them and complete the level. To do this, they may push the ball and add physics objects such as blocks, ropes and joints to the world by simply drawing them with a crayon.

Drawing most any shape will create a block. This will remain the shape you drew it, but once you release the mouse it will begin to clip against walls and other objects in the world. Drawing a small circle will create a joint which attaches itself to whatever you drew it on. Joints independently act like hinges, so blocks will swing from them, but you can group them up to firmly join objects to each other. Drawing a line from one joint to another will create a rope which becomes flexible and binds the two joints together in exactly the way you’d expect. You can draw as many objects as you like to complete each level, and can also nudge the ball left or right at timely intervals to help it along. With these tools in hand you should have little difficulty in completing the majority of levels. Physics are fairly dependable so the game is pretty easy to pick up and play, though I did encounter a few annoying glitches such as ropes clipping through sharp edges, and everything was a little light and floaty for my liking.

While drawing things and having them come to life in this manner is a fairly solid mechanic, and quite satisfying at the best of times, it is also mechanic at high risk of being seen as a gimmick. Besides that, Crayon Physics immediately reminded me of ten or so different physics games I’d played on flash portals in the last few years. Which came first I shall not try to discern, but I went on and gave Crayon Physics a good go despite my reservations about its genre.

Aesthetically the game is pleasing, though you could argue it lacks depth. Drawing in rough crayon lines on yellowed paper, amidst a variety of child-like scribble helps you enter a more child-like frame of mind, and the crayon as a tool encourages a rougher, less neat and tidy play-style, which definitely helps you avoid trying to be too tedious with your solutions. The maps from which you select levels can also be scribbled upon, though this has no advantage and is merely a toy. I have one main complaint about the graphics, and it’s one that I’m afraid has a huge impact on the game in my opinion: too many of the levels are constructed of naught but rectangles and other boring shapes. I feel like much more could have been done with the aesthetics of the levels to make the game as a whole more interesting.

Another flaw is the level design itself. It really doesn’t feel like enough time was put into level design. You’ll come across the occasional visual flair or interesting obstacle – a doodle of a dinosaur or a giant whose head you need to hinge back in order to progress – but most of the time it’s just floating rectangles and a big void between the ball and the star. Because of this, almost every level in the game can be solved in the same way:

Spoiler Paragraph

Draw some sort of vessel around your ball and attach it to a  weight with a rope. The weight must be pinned to a wall and the rope must pass through some guides so that your ball will reach the star. When all is prepared, release the weight and watch your ball zip through the level like a bat out of hell.

I think the simplified level design has been the main barrier to my enjoyment of the game. I was already tearing through the levels before I discovered that trick, and once you discover that each level becomes not much more than a chore. For me the game grew tedious very quickly and the music, though great in itself, began to get on my nerves. Then you notice another snag…

Crayon Physics Deluxe spreads its many levels across eight islands. You start on Island 1 and unlock more islands as you collect stars. However, the last Island requires no less than 120 stars to unlock. Completing every level on every other island will not earn you 120 stars. In order to do that you need to complete about half the levels again, and convince the game to tick three check boxes in order to get another measly star for each level. First, you need to complete each level using only one block to get the Elegant check. Second, you need to complete each level without pushing the ball, using any joints or ropes, and without drawing objects beneath the ball, in order to get the Oldschool check. Lastly, and this is an odd one, you need to go to the solutions page of the level, select one of your solutions, and actually tell the game that the solution was ‘Awesome’ in order to get it to tick the Awesome check box. Some of these tasks are just not possible on certain levels, the names are deceiving, and the system is never pointed out to the player. The Awesome check box? That’s just plain weird.

For all its flaws I did have some fun playing Crayon Physics Deluxe. Amongst the levels there are some which offer more of a challenge, some interesting scenery and solutions. I was particularly pleased, for example, with my simple solution to the lighthouse level (I’d say elegant, but it doesn’t meet the criteria apparently), and the insanely lucky path taken by the rocket pictured below. If you enjoy this sort of game or you’re just curious, you should check it out – I won’t force my distaste on you – but this was my least favourite of the Humble Bundle Games so far.

It’s Hammerfight!

Second Humble Indie Bundle Review of the day. This one’s a good-un; it’s Hammerfight!

Hammerfight Review
Quite an odd one this, and certainly one of the most interesting games I’ve played in the last year. You pilot a small steampunk helicopter-like craft in a 2D world, and engage in battles against other pilots, monsters and machines using a selection of ludicrously outsized medieval weapons including swords, axes, flails, maces and picks.

In Hammerfight you move your craft with the mouse. There’s no other choice, and I don’t think it’d work well with any other common gaming peripheral anyway. Beyond movement, your core actions will all rely on physics. You go into battle dragging your weapon (or weapons) of choice behind you – they hang from an axis on the side of your craft and you can swing them about through clever movement of the mouse. This gives combat a real physical aspect that forms the basis of why Hammerfight is so enjoyable. Beyond that you can switch weapon selection with the mouse wheel, combine them by clicking the left button, and drop or even throw weapons with the right button. Mouse sensitivity must be calibrated to a suitable level when you first launch the game, but I recommend you head straight to the options menu and adjust this manually, or use a variable dpi mouse and up the sensitivity, because both me and my friend found the default movement too sluggish.

Speaking of menus, I think this is a good opportunity to get one of Hammerfight’s major shortcomings out-of-the-way. User interface in Hammerfight, beyond the ingenious control system, is awful, poorly designed, horribly made, and very confusing. Interfaces can pop up above interfaces and become very confusing. Worst of all it’s inconsistent. You’ll encounter several choices during the game’s story arc, with two different interfaces for making the decisions. You’ll also encounter a terribly confusing pair of shops which exist within the same space and have entirely different interfaces. Even the main menu is weird. Hell – selecting a game mode to play is weird, and I didn’t even realise you could go back to the hall to change your weapons for the entire second half of the game, so I was stuck with whatever I could steal from enemies. Some of the choices you’ll encounter in the story arc simply involve left or right clicks, which leads me to the other major shortcoming of the game.

The story is deep, complicated, buried under tons of text, and ultimately only detracted from my experience of the game. After a short while I got fed up, took to skipping the historical sections and skim-reading dialogue. Click, click, click to skip through the dialogue quickly. You could say this was my fault, but I almost missed some of the left-right click choices because I was happily clicking away, only slowing down if it seemed like something interesting was happening. It’s a shame because the world that Hammerfight is set in genuinely seems interesting, but I think you need to give the player a reason to be interested before you start piling on the history, rather than starting with history, and then interrupting the gameplay frequently to add even more depth. Once you start skipping the reading like I did, the story mode disappears quickly, and ends at a rather strange juncture, so I can’t recommend the game if you’re looking for a thrilling adventure piece.

I do recommend Hammerfight though. I recommend it highly. The gameplay is truly solid, especially for one on one combat. Levels in the story arc will throw you into a number of scenarios. Some of these are one on one, some of them are interesting mini-games like Hammerball, and some of them pit you against swarms of enemies that you’ll have great difficulty facing off against without experience. Under any circumstances though, swinging your weapon of choice around with the mouse remains satisfying beyond description. Unlike every other game I’ve played, you have a physical connection to your weapon akin to holding it in your own hand. Facing off against the first Sophit really feels like a mid-air duel with a terrifying monster, and slamming enemies into a wall with a hammer, or executing them with the pointy side of your axe while they lie helpless on the ground truly feels violent. Destructible environments, destructible machines and creatures really help to build on the feeling of carnage too. In arena fights you’ll find you have to look out for debris falling from the ceiling whenever an enemy or poorly aimed throwing weapon strikes it.

Enemy AI in Hammerfight is solid. I was constantly impressed by the way AI opponents acted as I fought against them, and as a programmer I can’t imagine it was easy to get them to act the way they do. Worms and Sophit act dumbly, as you might expect creatures to do, but while the AI pilots were more impressive, fighting creatures was a lot of fun for me. Overall there is a lot of variety spread through the story mode and unlockable game modes in Hammerfight, and all of it is interesting. There are a lot of weapons for you to combine and experiment with. You can carry two main weapons at once, as well as an array of armour, an arsenal of throwing weapons, and even vials of poison or explosives.

Graphics aren’t too thrilling on the whole in Hammerfight. The people especially are rather ugly. The weapons and enemies, however, look really cool, as do the explosions and various other effects. At times I felt there was too much going on though. You can often get into a state when blurring, explosions and other effects obscure your view so much that you can’t actually see your own ship. You may notice I’ve had difficulty taking clean screenshots for this game as they’re all littered with motion blur and such. It’s something you need to get used to though. You need to be prepared for the explosions when you strike an enemy and retreat to a portion of the screen that is clear. Motion blur is subtle and enhances the feeling of movement in-game, and honestly, I think the effect overload might be somewhat beneficial to gameplay after all.

I really can’t recommend you try Hammerfight enough. While the story is bleak, the interfaces are terrible, and the experience may be short lived, there’s a lot of variety, and the combat system will change your perspective on all of the dull button-pushing you’ve done till now. To think that the most real, most, visceral, violent feeling in-game combat I have ever experienced has come not from a Wiimote, PSMove or Kinect, but from a simple mouse and an indie game.

Shields Holding at 60%

Let’s get another couple of Humble Bundle Reviews out today to close the gap some more. First up is Gratuitous Space Battles by Positech Games.

Gratuitous Space Battles Review
Gratuitous Space Battles is a different take on the strategy genre: You pitch a fleet of customisable ships, with customisable formations and orders against a similar fleet of enemy ships, hit go, and watch the lasers, phasers, missiles and plasma fly. You can do naught but watch during the following battle – watch, and scream or cheer as ships explode one by one, so you better do your job right at the start or you’ll be sending your men to certain death. Each mission limits the amount of money and crew available, and can impose certain restrictions through spatial anomalies. Additional modules can be unlocked at fleet HQ using honor won from completed challenges. You get more honor for completing challenges with fewer resources used. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Gratuitous Space Battles in a nutshell.

The apparent main flaw with the game’s design then, is glaringly obvious: Nobody likes to sit and watch helplessly as their entire force is decimated by the enemy. In an RTS, even when victory is clearly beyond your grasp it remains satisfying to frantically issue orders to retreat or orchestrate a final push towards that tiny glimmer of hope. It’s more distressing still to watch your troops doing the wrong thing mid battle and know that you have no way to correct them. Indeed this was rather a hinderance to my enjoyment of Gratuitous Space Battles when I first started playing, but to my surprise this feeling of helplessness quickly dissipated as I gained experience and mastered the tools available to me.

By the time you’ve completed two or three missions it’ll be easy to spot the weak spots in your formations, pick out the orders that are sending your defenceless frigates to the front of the pack, and even identify the lack of shield or armour penetration in your array of armaments. The game’s detailed graphics and the over-complicated post-battle statistics won’t help you to master this though, and missions remain a matter of trial and error throughout the game as you aren’t given any information on the enemy forces other than the numbers and types of their ships. Ship designs can vary so much that the design of enemy ships is critical to finding a winning strategy, and though giving you a full spectrum of details on the opposing force may have spoiled the game, I can’t help but think some clues would have been helpful. Regardless, from my experience victory seems to rely on creating a balanced fleet and ordering them to stay close to each other using Formation, Protector, and Escort orders. Vulture and Co-operative orders help to ensure that enemies are taken out efficiently, and there are numerous other orders you can give out for more in-depth strategies. One thing I felt was missing was the ability to set specific waypoints for ships at the start of the battle. Without the ability to do this you will have difficulty predicting the direction your ships will set off in at the get-go, furthering the trial-and-error nature of the game.

For all that the game has ceased to be frustrating to me, I still find myself a little bored when I’m watching the battles unfold. The presentation does help with this; graphics and sound are flawless, even if the ship designs are standard fare. Lasers fly from cruiser to cruiser, fighters swarm in the space between, missiles arc around in pursuit, and hulls light up with explosions. Shields, sparks, smoke, damaged hulls – all are represented flawlessly and with the right sounds as accompaniment. Some of these effects make it difficult to tell what is going on, while others are perfectly clear. Pop-up numbers and messages on the battlefield should help you identify the effectiveness of weapons though, and you can select your own ships to see detailed information on their current state. Largely useless, but equally amusing, is the panel at the top of the screen which scrolls through comms from your ships, reporting hull breaches, shield strength, and kills with some hilarious, highly quotable lines. There aren’t many different lines to been seen here though, so that won’t keep you laughing for long. Fortunately you can slow down and speed up the battle at your will, so you can hurry along to the key strategic points to see if your adjustments were succesful, and then watch the battle at whatever speed you see fit. I’d say the game is still played best with a friend sitting next to you though if you don’t want to be utterly bored.

Orders and ship design details may make Gratuitous space battles seem intimidating at first, but in the end there aren’t many options available to you for each. Orders come down to where you want your ships to be in relation to each other, and general ideas they should try to follow, such as attacking damaged ships, focussing fire in co-operation with friendlies, or retreating when damaged. When designing ships you’ll find you generally always need engines, some crew, shields, armour, power generation, and weapons fit for purpose. It’s almost never beneficial to create a jack-of-all-trades ship, so decide whether you want your ships to be targeting fighters or frigates and cruisers, breaking down shields or tearing through the armour and hull of enemy ships. Though fielding a balanced fleet is always a safe strategy, I’ve found missions where sending in a swam of my armoured, shieldless frigates – dubbed Knights – works very well. I later created a Knight Mage variant with lasers for destroying cruiser armour, and fielding a mixed group fo the two ships is pretty damn effective. Besides that I’ve made fighter-repairing True Carriers, long-ranged Anti-Cruiser Cruisers, and weaponless, shield-heavy Bruisers to soak up damage out front. In this way ship customisation is a very successful feature of Gratuitous Space Battles, and one that is a lot of fun to experiment with. Experimentation really is the key to success, and definitely the key to overcoming the apparent complexity of the game.

Gameplay is broken up into separate, unrelated missions, or you can go online to face off against other players. I haven’t tried the latter, but while playing the missions I couldn’t help but think something was missing. A persistent campaign or galactic conquest mode would have been perfect for this type of game – forcing you to allocate resources sensibly across your empire rather than arbitrarily imposing limits on each mission. Oddly enough, there’s actually a DLC for that. I haven’t tried it out, but here’s a link to a review of the DLC by someone else.

In the end Gratuitous Space Battles has far exceeded my expectations, but still leaves me feeling somewhat empty as I watch battles unfold without my intervention. I recommend you try it out if you can grab it for a good price. Maybe grab a friend too, some beer and snacks, devise strategies together and watch the mayhem unfold in glorious 2D. At least the battles are actually fun and pretty to watch even if you can’t do anything about those lasers sweeping across your hull and burning your crew of 256 to ashes. You’ll get kicks out of forwarding ridiculous strategies and staring in awe as they actually succeed, and there are some pretty funny weapon descriptions to read over in fleet HQ.

Maybe this game just isn’t for me. I can certainly see it being a lot of fun if you had the time to truly master its intricacies and take it online, but I’m a student, and have not the time for that. I’m also a doer, not content to sit and watch, which is why I like my strategies real-time.

Tentacles at Dawn

So this makes Humble Bundle Review #7 then? I’m over half way there! I doubt I’ll get them all done before university starts again properly, but I can always try, right? One step at a time – now it’s time to write down my thoughts on Jamestown by Final Form Games.

Jamestown Review
Jamestown is a shmup-come-bullet-hell set on 17th century Mars, where British colonists are engaged in conflict with an alliance of the Spanish and the native Martians (which appear to be a race of tentacled monsters who are not much more advanced than the humans in this universe. The game blends elements of old and new shooters with a decidedly steam punk aesthetic, and a refreshing dose of red martian soil.

Jamestown’s story spans five levels, which can be played separately, with access to the game’s shop between missions, or all in order by purchasing access to Gauntlet mode from the shop. The shop also allows you to purchase challenge packs and new ships using the money you’ve earned by playing the game. Gauntlet mode apparently gives you more cash than playing missions individually, and the story plays out in exactly the same way, except that you have only two continues with which to play the entire series of levels.

Before each level, and after the last there are sections in which the game’s story is told through text, and static, painterly pictures. The images are nice, and with the story they give you a deeper insight into the world in which the game is set, but ultimately I don’t think they added much to the experience, or really compelled me to play on. They can easily be skipped if you’re replaying the game, or simply not interested. There’s a purchasable farce mode in the game’s shop which changes the text displayed during these sections, is mildly amusing, and perhaps more interesting than the original story. There are also white-on-black chapter descriptions at the beginning of the levels, which are reminiscent of old books and sci-fi films, and, on occasion, are very funny.

Jamestown can be played with 1-4 players acting as a team, and you can use any number of mice, keyboards, or Xbox controllers to achieve this (I haven’t tried a regular joy pad, but this may work). There are a lot of difficulties to select, so you can match the difficulty to the number of player’s and their abilities with ease, or pump it all the way up to Judgement for a real challenge. If you play single player you’ll have two lives to lose before a credit is taken from you (a single bullet to the centre of your ship means death, as in any good bullet hell), but if you play multiplayer, the game uses a system whereby you only lose a credit if the whole team is down at once. Team members are revived a set amount of time after they died, which appears to scale based on the number of players, or can be revived early by collecting tokens dropped by certain enemies (usually big ones). I have to say, this system works really, really well (bold well!), and playing the game with even one friend adds so much to the experience. There are eight ships to choose from with the reasonably priced Gunpowder, Treason and Plot DLC, each of which is slightly different, most notably for its special ability. For example, the Beam ship can fire an uber powerful beam straight ahead to animate foes, where as the Gunner ship is able to fire its main guns in any direction. When playing together in different ships this adds a tactical element that I’ve never before witnessed in a shmup, and I highly recommend you get the DLC for the extra options. You’ll be screaming “vaunt“, “help“, and “don’t bloody die” at each other every other minute, especially if you take on the game as a gauntlet.

I found the game played best with a joy pad, but keyboard controls work almost inseparably well unless you’re playing gunner. Mouse controls are a little awkward to get used to, but if you have sensitivity adjustment buttons on your mouse like I do, and can get used to doing this on the fly, you gain a significant freedom of movement bonus. Using a mouse also works exceedingly well if you’re playing gunner, as you can aim much more accurately than you can with a joy pad. Overall the gameplay’s difficulty is fairly balanced between ships and control mechanisms – though neither I nor my friend could work out what good the bomber was.

The graphics and audio in Jamestown are thoroughly polished in line with the rest of the experience. Though far too detailed in general for me to consider true pixel-art, as I have seen it refered to as, the graphics are certainly perfect on a per-pixel level, and the pixels are somewhat visible, helping to aid the retro feel of the game. As with the gameplay I think they are the perfect fusion of old and new, and the theming speaks of this too with visions of steam-powered tanks and ships blasting lasers across the skies of mars. The soundtrack is impeccable, and is completely indistinguishable from that of a high-budget film soundtrack. If I recall correctly there’s even a chip-tuney rearrangement of some of the music in the credits for another retro nod. The main score is classical styled, though I noticed some really driving percussion when I was playing yesterday, and the soundtrack definitely helps to contribute to the sense of urgency you’ll experience when you play the game.

Gameplay is spot on. I’m floored by how perfectly made this game is. At first I was distraught at the fusion of shmup and bullet-hell gameplay (these are superficially similar, but imho completely different genres), but with careful memorization of the threats in each level, and cool cooperation with a partner, the mechanics gel flawlessly. I say “a partner” because that’s how I’ve found the game best played; party play is fun, but for the best level of tactics, and the least on-screen distraction you’ll want to go at this with just two players. On harder difficulties you’ll face an impossible array of bullets unless you know what you’re doing. Your job is to learn the threats that need eliminating first, and leave only enough alive that the bullets on-screen are manageable. Too many bullets? If you’ve been collecting th gold dropped by enemies you can activate Vaunt, which gives you a temporary shield encompassing a moderate area around your ship. This allows you to absorb bullets, even protecting your teammates within the bubble, and afterwards you can maintain a combo by constantly collecting more gold. This combo gives you additional points and weapons power, but will end if you run out of gold or get shot down. If your combo is ended by your termination, you will not receive the points you earned during it. In Gauntlet mode, points can grab you extra continues, so this is a very important tactic.

I’ll wrap this review up, since it’s gotten awfully long. This game is fighting VVVVVV and NightSky for the place in my heart as my favourite Humble Indie Bundle title so far. It’s a really refined shooter. You won’t find anything new if you’re not into this sort of game, but if you like shmups or bullet hells, or you’ve never given them a fair chance then this one is about as well made as they come, offers a solid, thoroughly enjoyable challenge for a single player or a group of friends, and is dirty cheap. My only disappointment? Final Form Games doesn’t seem to have made anything else yet.

:C

 

VVVVVV

Once again I find myself at odds for a title. I promise I’ll try to post something more interesting than game reviews soon. This will make Humble Bundle Review #6, VVVVVV by Terry Cavanagh, whose website and blog I shall be trawling at once when I’ve written this review – trawling like a ravenous pigeon searching for pastry crumbs on a busy high street pavement, I might add.

VVVVVV Review
Wherein I tremble on the verge of typing every v I happen to require five more times than is necessary.

In VVVVVV you play the captain of a spacecraft which recently crash landed in the proximity of an abandoned research facility of some sort. Your crew was scattered across the area by a malfunctioning teleporter when they tried to escape as the ship went down, and it is your task in the game to track them all down so that you can repair your ship, and leave. To do so you must skillfully employ your talents of moving left, right, and inverting gravity to traverse a large, and frankly obscure environment, overcoming various passive-agressive obstacles as you go.

I’m never thrilled by the concept of manipulating gravity when I see it touted as the premise for a (usually indie) game. I’ve written this paragraph five times now and this is the first time I’ve not been reduced to foamy, frothy ranting. However, VVVVVV pulls it off very nicely indeed. Rather than use gravity inversion as a gimmick and excuse to make an otherwise sub-par game because you’ve come up with some spec of innovation, VVVVVV has reduced its mechanics to the point at which gravity inversion is pretty much all that’s left, then really polished itself up and built on this concept to become a great success.

Excellent level design is key to this success. Since there is no jump button, and you can only invert gravity when you’re standing on solid ground, level design really has to be spot on. It is, and there are some interesting ideas that have come from this limitation. Good examples of this are the small number of occasions on which the player is required to invert gravity and navigate to the end of a long tunnel of spikes, only to stand on the opposite ceiling and do the same again to make it over what would otherwise be a small jump. Spikes, and pretty much anything else, stationary or mobile, that is drawn in a different colour to the room you’re in will kill you, and send you back to the last checkpoint you passed. This is another area in which the level design pays off. Checkpoints are so frequent that you won’t find yourself frustrated by having to redo previous obstacles in order to get back to the one you’re struggling on. You’ll still likely get frustrated on the later levels mind, but this is tempered by the early introduction of harder, optional routes along which lie Shiny Trinkets.

There are twenty trinkets all in all, and you’ll be able to go back and get any you miss at any point in the game, so there’s no stress there. I’d advise you to get them as you go, however, as they help to train you and give you an idea of the things to come. I don’t usually bother with collectible items in games, and some of these were really hard to get hold of, but I figured there might be something in it for me, enjoyed the challenge, and got them all in the end. A particularly difficult one of these can be found in one of the aforementioned spiked-tunnel obstacles. The tunnel I had to navigate to get the screenshot below was one of the most sadistic things I think anyone has legally done to a large audience since Justin Bieber was signed, and I almost had tears streaming down my face when I finally succeeded.

Graphics in VVVVVV are a simple and charming affair. I won’t describe them – why would I when there are screenshots all over the place. Colours are bright and environments are varied enough to be interesting and even sort of atmospheric. Coupled with the amazing soundtrack by Souleye, which I’m listening to now for the second time in a row, the game has an awesome aesthetic that would make any Modern Wall of Duty, or AAAAAA title go and cry in the corner until its next iteration’s release. The soundtrack just ended again, but I’m up for another play-through yet! One noteworthy feature, before I move on, is the Analogue mode, a filter which simulates a bad analogue connection and can be seen (minus bizarre frame falling) in all but one of these screenshots. I really enjoyed playing with analogue mode on, but I’m afraid I had to disable it for the last two shiny trinkets, as it is rather distracting.

I really hate you for some of those trinkets Terry Cavanagh, even though I actually had a lot of fun through my clenched teeth. It’s about time I brought this overlong review to a close. VVVVVV is a rather short game, so I had intended to write it a very short review. For all its shortness though, this is one of the most fun modern platformers I’ve played in a long while – managing to be both innovative and enjoyable to the extreme.I guess the quality, and the fact that I felt caught sort by the end of the game were what left me enough motivation to go and get the remaining shiny trinkets though, and even though this was an enjoyable experience, I think it might have dragged if it was even twice it’s length.

In summary, VVVVVV is a top-notch game that you should play regardless of your apprehensions. It’s not going to eat up a ton of your time, and if you’re really troubled by some of the challenges involved, there are built-in aids for disabled gamers. Graphics, sound, and story are charming, but it’s the gameplay that shines.