Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Small Games of 2012 (Part 2)

Pardon me, it took a bit longer to get through some of these games than I anticipated. Well, really, that's not entirely true. My gaming life has been taken over by another game recently, but I'll address that one soon enough in a separate post. Here's a link to part one if you wish to go back and take a look. For now let's get back to the other small games of 2012 that I played:

Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment)

Mark of the Ninja is a game of stealth. It borrows heavily from other stealth games while implementing clear visual mechanics to create a remarkably good game. You play the role of a ninja, with the story told through beautifully animated cutscenes. As you traverse through the world on your way to various objectives (sometimes it's to secure an object, other times an assassination) you rely on stealth to get accomplish your goals. What makes the game work so well is that the mechanics are implemented so well. Each patrolling guardsman has a vision cone (just like in the original Metal Gear Solid) so you know exactly how far he can see, each footstep you take emits a ring of sound so you know exactly how loud you are, and each light shows you exactly whether you are able to be seen or if you are tucked safely in the shadows. The game gives you a whole arsenal of weapons and tricks that encourages multiple playthroughs. Want to get through without ever being detected? Utilize your distraction items. Want to be a ruthless murderer? Sneak up on a guard and slit their throat. Mark of the Ninja is a great little game that gets stealth just right. It's available for PC and Xbox 360.

Skrillex Quest (Jason Oda and Skrillex)

Now here's a game out of left field. Skrillex Quest is a free-to-play browser game that's surprisingly good. Your character, "P1", is on a quest to save the world by removing the glitches. You see, the glitches are there because there's dust on the cartridge. The entire game is a great deconstruction/amalgamation of old videogames. With a great 8-bit aesthetic, the game crams so many references it's difficult to keep track of them all. At one point it's straight up the original Legend of Zelda, at times the original Dragon Warrior, then there's a bit of Goonies II (the semi-sequel to the movie that was only ever a videogame), and even some random 80s movie references (I know I caught some Neverending Story dialogue in there).

Designed by Jason Oda, who also did the amazing parody Perfect Strangers game (also free-to-play in your browser) not too long ago, the game is basically a marketing vehicle for dubstep artist Skrillex's latest album (who makes a cameo in boss form near the end). The game is set to the song "Summit", which is actually pretty good. The game only takes about 15 or so minutes to play through. I highly recommend giving the game a whirl, you can find it here.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (Capybara Games)

Now for something similar yet very different. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP uses a similar retro 8-bit look to Skrillex Quest, but instead of an action game, gives us an old fashioned point-and-click adventure. I'm divided on this game. I absolutely loved the visuals - and the music, by Jim Guthrie (who the game seems to want to continually remind you did the music), is really well done.

The way the story and dialogue are delivered are fun as well. The game starts out by having an 8-bit cigar smoking man introduce us to the "experience" we are about to undertake, very much in an homage to Half Life's G-Man or the X-Files' cigarrette smoking man. Then we're off on the adventure, with the dialogue delivered in a sort of ironic self-awareness, employing the royal "we" (sample dialog goes like this: "We continued on our epic quest, though we were feeling hella tired"), and with characters named "dogfella" (a dog) and the lumberjack "logfella". My problem with the game is in the puzzles themselves. Maybe I'm just not skilled in point-and-click adventures but I often had to consort a walkthrough in order to get through the game. It's not that the puzzles themselves were necessarily difficult, it's that their presentation was difficult. Occasionally there appeared to be a puzzle when there really wasn't, thus wasting my time needlessly clicking around when there wasn't anything to be found. What it comes down to is that I really just didn't like the "game" aspect of the game. It's a shame too, because the rest of the experience was really good. It's available for PC and most tablets.

FTL: Faster than Light (Subset Games)

FTL: Faster than Light came out last year, but I didn't pick it up until about a month ago. Sometime last year all my favorite game blogs and reviewers started to gush about this game and its addictive properties. I didn't pay it much mind at the time because of the type of game that it is: a roguelike. If you're unfamiliar with roguelikes, Wikipedia describes them as "a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement". I'm typically not a fan of roguelikes, I find them too hard and not very satisfying as they're typically based around how long you can survive before dying, and not about any sort of plot or character development. I generally prefer my games to have some sort of story. But I decided to pick up FTL when it went on sale on Steam and I've been hooked since.

The premise is that you're piloting a little spacecraft, trying to navigate through space to reach the end and warn your people about some sort of incoming invasion. Rather than dealing with Star Wars-like dogfight combat you instead are in command of all the various subsystems of your little spacecraft. One of the designers said he was inspired by Star Trek where the captain yells out orders like "man the torpedoes, divert power to the main engine, seal the hull breach!" In FTL you're constantly juggling your resources while trying to survive. Every time you "jump" into a new system you are met with a randomized event. Sometimes it's space pirates, sometimes a friendly merchant, sometimes a ship that needs help, sometimes nothing. The randomness of it all is what makes it fun, though occasionally frustrating. I've had a game end in as little as three minutes, I've also had a game go as long as an hour. FTL: Faster than Light is really a great little game and very worth picking up. It's available on Steam/PC for ten bucks.

The Year of the Indie Game
It feels like there's a shift happening in games right now. There's a surge in small indie games and it seems that people are taking notice. After the recent Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco I read several online journalists remark that they could notice a change at the conference, that the small indie games were being taken more seriously than ever before, and that the gulf between small game developers and big AAA title corporate behemoths was becoming much more noticeable. The quality in small games is quite high, with these games often delivering interesting and creative experiences, while the AAA game industry is pushing out the same old stuff (mainly shooters) and suffering for it (the recent "Tomb Raider" sold over 3 million copies but the company behind it is saying the game was a failure - maybe they need to rethink their priorities). Maybe that's why Sony is specifically courting a lot of indie developers for the new Playstation 4 which should be out later this year. While I still dig playing those big budget AAA titles, there's a lot of good competition being offered up by the small guys. Hopefully I've helped you find some good ones.

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