Archive for the ‘Indie Games’ Category

On Holding a Gaming Tournament/Event
October 2, 2011

So the evening of the 1st of October, 2011, I held an Indie Gaming Tournament for a small group of acquaintances (residents of my dormitory). From this event, I’ve gleaned a few things regarding organizing gaming tournaments, and deciding which games will be best for play. I will outline some of the guidelines one should consider when deciding to hold such an event themselves for their friends and how such an event could be newbie friendly.

The first thing to decide when planning a tournament is the professional level. By this, I mean that you should ask yourself how important a participant’s background in gaming is. For example, a highly professional tournament would be a game such as Starcraft, Counter Strike, or even Mario Kart. In games such as these, where a fanbase and a professional player base is already established, a participant’s background in such games greatly affects the outcome of the tournament. If you have a Starcraft tournament, for example, the player that’s already Master league on his own would definitely have the strong advantage compared to the first time players or even the medium level players. This tournament becomes fairly one sided in favor of the player who has already spent that much more time on the game than anyone else.

As a result, when you decide your professional level, you decide your participant-base from the start. A highly professional tournament will involve players that are confident in their ability in that game, while a highly unprofessional tournament will involve players that need not be confident in their ability because not many others will be as well. An example of a highly unprofessional tournament would be that involving a game or genre that has a very small fanbase. In North America, genres such as roguelikes, shmups, and puzzle-platformers are good choices and even in the more popular genres, if the game is unlikely to be well known, it is a strong choice.

For my tournament, I chose to go the highly unprofessional route and included a variety of games from independent and largely unknown developers. Here, we come across the second question to ask when planning a tournament. This is the most obvious question as well, namely, game choice. Which game will you be playing? Will you play just one or multiple? But the questions don’t stop there. By asking these questions, you are ultimately asking the larger question of “Who do I want to be playing in this tournament?” This is even more important in a professional tournament than an unprofessional one because your game choice will limit certain players over others. For example, a Starcraft tournament will not attract the Counter Strike junkies and a Mario Kart tournament will not attract the Super Smash Brawl players. Of course, a multi-game tournament eliminates some of that burden. If you have a tournament that is played with multiple games, you can incorporate more people. And thus, the question still remains, who do you want playing in this tournament? If you want masters of a certain game, you aim for a more depth based tournament, while if you want everyone, even the novices, to play, you aim for a breadth tournament.

Once you are done deciding which of depth and breadth in participant base you prefer, the games you can choose become more limited. If you chose depth, you are more or less limited to single games with a strong player-base in either the game itself or the genre it is associated with. A professional depth racing tournament, for example, would play Mario Kart while an unprofessional depth racing tournament would play a lesser known game such as Proun. If you chose breadth, on the other hand, you are now limited to multiple games in varying genres. A professional breadth tournament could include Starcraft, Smash Brawl, and Counter Strike to cover the RTS, 2D fighting, and FPS genres while an unprofessional breadth tournament could do the same three genres with less played games such as Achron, Tekken, and Soldat.

At this point, breadth tournaments have additional concerns, specifically, the genres or games to include. Because a breadth tournament is not bound by a single game, there needs to be a variety of games that attract the audience you are looking for. A professional game has a slightly easier time because the games are so high profile as it stands. For a professional tournament, a new set of players is added with each additional game, so the most significant question is a matter of balancing the genres for an even spread. An unprofessional game has a harder time. Because an unprofessional tournament is meant to discourage mastery, the less popular genres must be chosen to fully include all players of all skill levels.

The tournament that I held was a highly unprofessional, breadth tournament, designed to make sure that no player had an advantage by being exposed to any of the games beforehand. Given this stringent requirement, the game choice was limited to games solely from independent developers. Another requirement for my tournament was cost, a common issue with breadth tournaments because the organizer is expected to provide the games. As such, freeware was a definite requirement with the potential of a couple games that were paid for, but had local multiplayer. In addition, the tournament required some measure of comparison between the players. This meant that the selection was once more narrowed down to fairly short, time-based or score-based games, once again limiting the genre choice.

When planning a tournament with requirements as stringent as these, it is recommended that the search begin early. If possible, it is definitely recommended to get advice from those more experienced than you and to take recommendations from definite non-participants. I started planning two months in advance and ultimately managed to find enough games to support several rounds of gaming with a standard double elimination bracket. The games I used are on the bottom of the article and I might even review a couple of them in the future.

Fortunately enough, I was able to entertain most of my participants with these games and add a little bit of diversity to their interests in gaming. And I feel satisfied at just that.

 

Gear (Digipen)

Redivivus (Digipen)

Proun (Joost)

Super Crate Box (Vlambeer)

Nation Red Demo (Kaos Studios)

No Time To Explain (tinybuildgames)

Jamestown (Final Form Games)

Spelunky (Mossmouth)

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Blocks That Matter: What Happens When Admiration Meets Creativity?
August 24, 2011

Hello all, I’m trying out a more casual reviewing style today with Blocks That Matter

Game: Blocks That Matter
Genre: Indie, Casual, Puzzle

Blocks That Matter is a Casual, Indie, Puzzle game by the two Frenchmen at Swing Swing Submarine. It details the story of the robotic creation of two indie game developers Alexey and Markus (referring to Alexey Pajitnov and Markus Persson, the creators of Tetris and Minecraft respectively) after they had been kidnapped. This robot, named Tetrobot, travels through the various levels by collecting and repositioning matter to get around. What this boils down to is an intelligent mixture of Minecraft, Tetris and Block Dude (the old TI-83 game).

So what does this recipe present to us? What ultimately happens is that Blocks That Matter embraces that aspect of the genre that isn’t afraid to make its puzzles difficult. The controls are, in actuality, extremely simple and all of the mechanics are covered very early in the game. Indeed, the only ability advancement that happens in the last 25 or so levels are that you get the ability to harvest more types of blocks. As a result, the learning curve, in terms of control, is almost minimal. For a puzzle game, this simplistic approach is greatly preferred  because the game should be competing with the difficulty of its puzzles, not the difficulty of its controls. I must say though, the starting control setup was incredibly awkward for me and though you can easily change your controls, I felt that this problem could have been easily remedied with some foresight.

The mechanic itself is a fairly novel idea. In Blocks That Matter, resource blocks are collected by breaking them and reintroduced to the terrain once collected, a la Minecraft. The catch is that they can only be introduced in sets of four, and only if each block is touching another when being reintroduced. As such, the blocks can only be reintroduced in Tetris shapes. When this form restriction is combined with the properties of certain resources (some blocks are affected by gravity and some aren’t, once again a la Minecraft), it makes for interesting puzzles and solutions that require some thinking out of the box. Of course, once you figure out all of this, it comes down to using the right permutation and trick at the right time.

Blocks That Matter, as a result, is a fairly standard puzzle game. It came up with an interesting and creative mechanic, has simple controls, and a strong and balanced difficulty curve. Aesthetically and musically, the game is also simplistic and even slightly repetitive. The aesthetic style definitely makes the game feel casual and approachable, as does the music and everything is instantly recognizable as one thing or another. Overall, the audio and video of the game are well done and encompasses this light and cheerful atmosphere befitting the game and its genre.

It’s not as if the story is especially well done either. Of course, seeing how the characters developed was interesting, and noticing that the two game developers had personalities befitting their genre of choice was cute, but it was just that, cute. The story is inconsequential and though it provides an objective and a goal, it’s not a goal that seems to be particularly important. All in all, the story, dialogue and narrative are strong and creative, but it doesn’t make the game stand out.

So what makes this game different? In my opinion, this game has an iteration of one of the ideal difficulty adjustment mechanisms. In most games, difficulty settings are there to impose arbitrary restraints on the player to make the game “seem” harder. More enemies, for example, is one of those arbitrary limitations.

Blocks That Matter does two things that make its difficulty adjustment very potent. The first is the fact that increased difficulty means optimizing your playstyle. Every level in Blocks That Matter contain a treasure chest and a potential star rating. The treasure chests are usually located in a location off to the side, independent of the main puzzle and are not required to finish the main story. To obtain them though, you need to manage your resources carefully so that you can still complete the level after getting the chest. The star rating is an efficiency rating. You can only get a star rating if you end the level with the appropriate number of blocks in your possession (this number being the most efficient number of remaining blocks).

The second aspect, which is closely related to the first, is that the difficulty level can be adjusted without having to manually adjust it. All it takes to choose one level of difficulty over another is to simply decide not to do something. Because the treasure chests and stars are all part of the levels, if one decides to forego these bonuses while playing that level, there is absolutely nothing to fiddle with.

All told, Blocks That Matter is an interesting game, and for $5 on Steam, it’s well worth the investment. With 40 story levels and 20 bonus levels (unlocked by completing the story with treasure chests and stars) and potentially some free updates, there are more than enough MineTetrisBlock DudeCraft puzzles to keep one occupied for at least several hours, and more if you have a completionist streak like I do. Will it leave a lasting impact on you? No. Will it force you to use your brain for entertainment? Yes. And really, isn’t that all you want from a puzzle game?

Gameplay: 3.5*/5
Aesthetic: 3.5/5
Music: 3.5/5
Story: 4/5
Synergy: 3/5

Overall: 72/100

Bastion: Action-RPGs Can Still Tell an Engrossing Story
August 19, 2011

Hello all. It’s been a while but I’ve decided I’m going to try writing for this blog again. I’m trying out a few new styles for my gaming reviews so if you have any comments or criticisms, feel free to say so.

This review is in a more traditional reviewing format and I’ll be reviewing Bastion, an XBLA game that was ported to PC on Tuesday, 8/16/2011
Enjoy

Game: Bastion
Genre: Indie Action-RPG
Length: 4~6 hours. 15+ for Full Completion
Price: $15 on Steam (+$5 for Soundtrack)
Overall Rating: 98/100

Developer Description
Bastion is an action role-playing experience that redefines storytelling in games, with a reactive narrator who marks your every move. Explore more than 40 lush hand-painted environments as you discover the secrets of the Calamity, a surreal catastrophe that shattered the world to pieces. Wield a huge arsenal of upgradeable weapons and battle savage beasts adapted to their new habitat. Finish the main story to unlock the New Game Plus mode and continue your journey!

Gameplay
Let’s get the bad news out first. In terms of gameplay, Bastion isn’t anything special. It’s a very standard Action RPG, hack-n-slash type with repeating monsters in a series of zones. As a result, if you’re not a fan of hack-n-slash games, the gameplay of Bastion won’t interest you. But, Bastion does make up for its generic gameplay with fairly frequent upgrades and weapon introductions, adding a bit of variety to the game as you run around mowing down monsters. Considering that the game is 10 hours long, the amount of variety in level design and monster types, as well as the customizability of the weapons and passive abilities is more than enough to make the fairly standard genre compelling enough to keep you on your feet throughout the whole game.

As a work of the Action RPG genre, Bastion is masterfully crafted. In terms of control, the game responds beautifully, offering no hitches in terms of bugs or glitching as the game progressed. Movement is fluid and natural, using the standard WASD or Diabloesque mouse click, as well as gamepad support. The difficulty, disregarding the fact that it’s adjustable, scales appropriately as the game progresses. Monster types become more varied, their HP and speed increases, and soon start developing special abilities just to make your life harder. For a hardened gamer though, the difficulty is on the easier side, but the addition of a Shrine where you can add a variety of special abilities to the monsters for additional XP and money makes the game sufficiently challenging.

As a whole, in terms of gameplay, Bastion is a strong example in the Action RPG genre, making up for its fairly mild genre choice with variety in terms of weapons, monster types, and terrain types. 4/5

Aesthetic
Now we get to some of the better things I have to say about this game. Aesthetically, Bastion has three main components: the level, the background and the cutscenes. The levels in Bastion are in isometric view. If anything, this was my one problem with Bastion’s aesthetic. I understand that the isometric view gives a sense of depth that the orthogonal projection can’t achieve but it makes for a slight difficulty in moving in straight lines as the WASD keys aren’t too good at making 30° turns. Then again, I also attribute this problem to the fact that it was a port to PC from XBLA, but it still annoys me that I had to wiggle my way through narrow passageways in order not to fall. Aesthetically though, the levels were wonderful to walk through as watching the passageways build themselves or crumble underneath your feet never gets old.

The background art for each level is also very well drawn and highly immersive. Taken individually, they’re already beautiful sceneries and lush landscapes but they don’t detract from the core gameplay. The background landscapes are only noticeable when you think to notice them, but they still add their feel to the level, keeping the atmosphere of each location true to itself. The cutscenes are in a similar vein as the background art. Beautiful hand drawn stills depict every scene with vibrancy in the color palette, but crushed just enough to give that heavy feeling of a post-apocalyptic world. As a final note, the character designs are integrated very naturally with this world, making them feel natural to the aesthetic, but unnatural to the apocalypse. And if you think about it, that’s what survivors should feel like, unnatural in a post-apocalyptic world.

All in all, the aesthetic of Bastion meshes together very nicely. It’s distinct style, evoking a surreal dream, is attractive and clearly helps to define the atmosphere in the game. 5/5

Story
Now, since the developers themselves said that Bastion redefines storytelling in games, you would expect the story to be phenomenal right? Well, the game definitely lives up to expectations.

The hero of this story is you, The Kid. You wake up to find yourself floating on a rock in the middle of nowhere. You go around a bit, find your old weapons, and arrive at The Bastion, a floating fortress with an old man that tells you to help him build this fortress up and make it fully functional. As you travel around, helping to build this structure, you find a variety of equipment to help you on your task.

It’s a fairly typical RPG start, and not many games can avoid using this start to a game. The real meat of the story is presented in the exploration of the world around you. Even though this is a story about you, the protagonist, it’s even more a story about the world you live in. It’s a story about the people who disappeared and the civilization that once was. But all the while, you’re exploring this strange new world that emerged from the Calamity.

Ultimately, the story is centered around choice. The customization available to you being only a small portion of that. You follow a linear main story, yes, but you have a huge arsenal of methods of approaching. Each weapon plays a  little bit differently, each passive ability helpful in different ways, each difficulty adjustment deadly in different ways. So, in true western RPG form, you can fully imbue yourself and your play style in to the protagonist.

The emotional progression in the game is also deep and engrossing. From the crushing solitude of a post-apocalyptic world to the sense of joy upon meeting survivors to the immense sadness of seeing the old world so destroyed, with all its people gone, the emotional impact that this game has stays with you. 5/5

Music
I left the best part for last I feel. There are two aspects to the audio in this game. The first is the music itself. As if to fully explore the idea of a post-modern frontiersman, the music is a combination of electronic drum and bass, acoustic Western, and Eastern Asian traditional (developers call it acoustic frontier trip-hop). The mark of good music is when it blends naturally with the setting and the atmosphere that’s been presented, and Bastion has good music.  The eclectic musical choice is what gives the game such a strong support. The strong drum and bass beats which come up during combat and heavier locales is contrasted by the calm folksy Western style of an acoustic guitar in the Bastion. The occasional vocal tracks that act as the main themes for the supporting characters are also refreshingly calm and entrancing, giving light to the sadness of the Calamity. As musical integration goes, Bastion’s music fully supports and enhances the game both aesthetically and functionally.

The second aspect of the audio, and the most lauded aspect of the game I feel, is the voice acting. The voice acting of Bastion is what ties this game together into a masterpiece. Throughout the game, there is one narrator, with a ‘disturbingly sexy voice,’ that tells the story as you progress through the game, while also narrating your actions in real time. His role in the entire game is monumental and it is through this adaptive narrative that the story is told. The inclusion of this narrator is what truly separates this game from the others of the same genre. Without this narrator, it would be impossible to have such an overarching and descriptive story, which in turn deteriorates from the game, pushing it into the corner as yet another ARPG. In effect, this narrator is what keeps everything in context and pushes you along as you progress through the game. Of course, it’s an added bonus when he says something different whenever you do something in the game, never repeating a line throughout the entire experience. 5*/5

Synergy: 5/5

Overall: 98/100
Bastion is a 4~6 hour game that can play for up to 15 or more hours if you aim for full completion. It’s $15 on Steam, with the soundtrack up for $10 ($5 now because it’s on sale). Though it’s a traditional ARPG, the amount of varied content makes up for the mild genre choice especially given that the variety is throughout such a short time. The story, aesthetic and audio of the piece synergize wonderfully, accentuating the emotions and atmospheres accordingly and adding humor and wit to a serious and compelling story.

Grim Oceanus