September 30th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
Disclaimer: These are not full reviews, and shouldn’t be treated as such. No final scores will be given, as these are extended opinions of a few hours of play at most, and may not give every aspect of the game a fair shake. Feel free to disagree, heckle, kvetch or even just discuss things reasonably in the handy comments section below.
Once more unto the breach. Another two lesser-known, budget-priced indie games snatched from the overflowing backlog, and put on The Chopping Block for dissection and, ultimately, judgement.
Today’s Targets: Shepherd Slaughter by Blindhack Software and Zombie Football Carnage by Milkstone Studios. Both are for Windows PCs only, and both carry an RRP of around $3-4. Both are also in the massive Indiefort Championship bundle, which is just entering its final day.
Shepherd Slaughter is a roguelike. You’ve got a magical macguffin to assemble, and bits of it have been scattered around a far-off land and hidden away in ten dungeons. You’ve got almost no equipment, just one life to do it in, and the entire continent is crawling with hundreds of monsters. Good luck!
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of roguelikes in general, whether they be traditionalist, action-oriented, 2D, 3D or anything inbetween. The core experience of delving into increasingly dangerous labyrinths and tunnels, seeking glory, loot and character progression is an addictive combination, and that’s largely what Shepherd Slaughter gets right. There’s the heart of a good game in here, but it’s wrapped in production values that do it no good at all.
I have nothing against ugly games, or even games without graphics at all. Brogue is a masterclass in design, showing that you can practically drown the player in useful, pertinent information without using a single sprite. Despite using animated sprite graphics, Shepherd Slaughter‘s main issue is that it conveys almost nothing clearly. The sprites themselves are crude beyond reason, almost reminiscent of the Atari 2600 era, where enemies were so abstract that the manual had to explain what you were even fighting. While it’s possible to learn what each enemy in this game looks like, it really takes a lot of time to clearly differentiate an Orc from a Goblin.
The other main issue with the game is the core combat engine is possibly a little too simple. Enemies tend to walk directly towards you, and you hit the button to swing your melee weapon (which looks like you’re just waggling it randomly in front of yourself) which knocks your enemy back and does damage. Then you do it again and again until it dies. Ranged combat is effectively identical, only with a projectile instead of a waving damage-field. There’s just no subtlety or weight to it. This isn’t helped by the apparent complete lack of sound effects. There’s some generic RPG adventurin’ tunes burbling away in the background, but not a single clanging sword or monster growl to be heard.
There’s some interesting extra elements, such as a survival/defense mode where you’re guarding a flock of sheep (hence the title), but even that’s a rather limited single-screen affair, and the building interface you’re given to help fence in your wooly friends is bare-bones at best. There’s some good concepts here – the world is large, the dungeons complex, and the environment destructible through the use of the right tools – but the crude graphics and awkward combat hurt it badly. So, moving on…
After several rounds of Zombie Football Carnage, I don’t think I’ve seen a single zombie. Sure, I’d killed mummies, robots, hellhounds, floating eyeballs, golems, dinosaur heads with motorcycle wheels and some other seriously weird creature designs, but not a single zombie, despite them featuring prominently on the box-art. Odd indeed.
Also odd is the choice of using an American Football theme on a very basic arena shooter. Any comparisons to the classic Mutant League Football are immediately crushed. The entire game is a wave-based survival shooter, where you run around the screen blatting increasingly tough sets of monsters using a homing, auto-targetting projectile football, which can be comboed into multiple rapid hits by tapping the fire button again just as the ball hits its mark. You also have a dodge move that lets you pass through enemy groups without harm, a charge attack that does close range AoE damage, and can pick up a variety of single-use offensive and defensive powerups.
The decision to have a global leaderboard is undermined by almost every design decision in the game itself. Enemy waves are randomly chosen, and the difficulty of them wildly varies depending on enemy types, with a horde of slow-moving melee enemies being a cakewalk, and a randomly spawning mob of projectile-spitting critters being almost impossible to avoid damage from. Item hand-outs are similarly random, and can either be game-winning or completely useless.
The final nail in the coffin for anything approaching a balanced scoreboard is the persistent upgrade store which lets you spend money accrued across all playthroughs to boost all your stats, weapon power levels and more. These are permanent, and without any penalty to score, no matter how much you grind, and no matter how much you repeat. The production values on this one are high, and the spritework is charming and imaginative, but Zombie Football Carnage really doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be.
At $4, Milkstone are probably asking for too much. The game is a refugee from the faltering Xbox Live Indie Games store, where it was originally priced at just a single dollar. Back on home turf, it had the likes of I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 to compete with, and within the same price bracket. On the PC, you can get the likes of Alien Shooter 2 – a game which offers a modicum of depth on top of some cataclysmic monster-grinding carnage – for just a dollar more, and there’s a whole raft of polished Flash and Unity games that you can play for free on Newgrounds or Kongregate with more depth and smarter design.
The Verdict: Sad to say, but I just can’t recommend these two. In both cases, there are better games available both as freeware and commercial offerings. Shepherd Slaughter has a solid underlying design but is held back badly by the overly-simplistic art style and low production values all round, and while Zombie Football Carnage has great art and presentation the game itself is haphazardly thrown together. It feels like a quick attempt to push out a game on XBLIG – it might have been able to survive there, but not on PC. Keep an eye on IGM tomorrow for yet another game on… The Chopping Block.