Impressions From The ‘Indie Underdog Pack 2′
Just recently, a second Indie Underdog Pack launched with five games to pick up for just $3.99. Unlike most bundles, the IUP bundle aims to provide promotion and opportunities for lesser known indie games that would often otherwise be ignored. They’re all about publicity and profit for the underdog developers who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance. You’re not going to be getting Bastion in here anytime soon, but the games they dig up are often pretty fantastic and full of wonderful ideas.
While the last bundle assembled under the Indie Underdog name was quite a nice little package, it had a bit of trouble getting off the ground due to many differing factors. And while I usually like to focus on the games themselves, it bears mentioning just how improved the overall bundle experience is compared to the first IUP package. The payment process is a little easier, the download process a lot smoother and there are Desura codes across the board. There’s also lots of bonus content planned from the start, which unlocks based on sales or can be instantly unlocked for paying at least $8. This ranges from more games, some chiptunes albums and even a comic with a super secret decoder ring. And don’t forget about 10% of the proceeds going to the ASPCA, in keeping with the underdog theme.
But perhaps you’re curious about the games themselves. I wouldn’t blame you, they’re a little obscure and less well-known. Luckily, that’s why we’re here with some first impressions of the games.
Tesla: The Weather Man
Developed by Thoughtquake Studios
“Tesla! Grab onto my shoulders! We’re getting out of here,” cried George Westinghouse, as the pair backed away from Thomas Edison’s army of evil robots. Together, they leapt from the second story window as Nikola Tesla figured out a way to stop Edison’s plan. And so begins Tesla: The Weather Man, a historical platformer without too much fussing over the accuracy of the historical part. By now we all know just how awesome Tesla is thanks to The Oatmeal, but Thoughtquake Studios was the only ones with the foresight to look at Tesla and go, “that would make a sweet game.”
And it does! Tesla: The Weather Man is a platformer with a heavy helping of puzzle elements. You control Tesla, who is equipped with a power glove capable of harnessing lightning and more. With help from your best friend/magic ear voice/narrator Mark Twain (yes, that Mark Twain), you need to traverse landscapes, gather raw materials and fight off Edison’s robots. The warning at the beginning of the game notes that this is a work of fiction, but it doesn’t quite explain just how absurd this work of fiction is.
Now, there are a few problems in this game that often show up in amateur platformers. The collision detection can be a bit wonky at times, especially on slopes. The graphics are nice hand painted backdrops and figures, but they don’t exactly mesh together in a coherent art style. Sound design, on the other hand, is top notch. There’s not a lot of music, but the voice acting is above and beyond the average indie title, giving every historical figure the exact caricaturization you would imagine for them. It compliments the absurd story perfectly.
Aside from the occasional spot of weird jumping, the gameplay is about as innovative as the man himself. Your main form of attack is lightning, but obviously you need exposure to the heavens before the proper electrons and protons can connect. Your glove gets a variety of other powers as well, like levitation and the ability to summon rain. These powers are used for a variety of open-ended puzzles. There are also minerals to collect, which earn you research points and allow you to soup up each of the glove’s powers. Want homing lightning strikes? The ability to turn off gravity? Bullet time? You can pick and choose from a ton of possibilities, each of which change how you solve the puzzles. They even throw in a few game breaking abilities just for fun, albeit with proper warnings.
It seems altogether appropriate that a game about Tesla, science’s greatest underdog, would show up in a pack about indie underdogs. But fortunately the game behind the man is a ton of fun, with plenty of innovative ideas and new features to your basic puzzle platformer.
Developed by Panthea Games
Drains is one of the more interesting and intriguing premises for a game in the pack, and also probably the most heavily story based one. It tells the saga of an underwater kingdom subjugated by a tyrant known as the King of the Seas. He seals the Great Drains, the outlets of the world that prevent the world from flooding, causing a bit of distress for Gobi and his fellow overlanders. Gobi, diving helmet in hand, sails out to attempt to negotiate with the undersea dwellers, but is sunk by a magic sword. From here the game follows his journeys across the ocean floor alongside the Drain Master’s daughter, unclogging the drains to save his people.
The game has an utterly beautiful art style, with lots of detail and work put into the models. The undersea world is heavily influenced by ancient Chinese structures, so there is a major classical Asian influence across the buildings and ruins of the drains. The soundtrack is similarly influenced as well, and also quite beautiful. Capping it all off is a solid story. It does tend to follow the traditional reluctant hero narrative, but the setting and premise give the basic storyline enough heft to be interesting.
Of course, the inner plumbing of the game isn’t quite as solid. Drains is played from a side scrolling perspective, but it’s a fully 3D plane. This is a somewhat awkward perspective for simple tasks like walking up a narrow set of stairs, and doesn’t always make for good platforming. The controls only hamper this, as the keyboard control scheme is an awkward WASD set-up that cannot be rebound. Using a controller helps mitigate these issues a bit, but the game is somewhat insistent that you use a D-pad over an analogue stick. But this weird angle is most noticeable during combat, when it becomes very difficult to aim your attacks. The game desperately needs some kind of lock-on targeting system, because more often than not I took a ton of damage because the enemy was standing just slightly off of the cardinal D-pad directions.
So it doesn’t always control well, but the atmosphere and artwork of Drains alone were enough to convince me to work past the control scheme. It really is a stellar game in the audiovisual experience, and full of fun ideas. With a revised control scheme or a lock-on system, the game would be a truly remarkable hack and slash. As it stands, it’s an interesting but occasionally frustrating experience.
Developed by Stolen Couch Games
Ichi is a one button game that seems tailor-made as the ultimate phone game, but fortunately for those of us who haven’t bought into the iOS wave it also works as a great PC title. The basic idea of Ichi is that you have a ball and you need to bounce it off of walls and angles to collect the coins. From there, everything you do in the game is influenced by a single mouse click. A click will rotate certain triangles to redirect the ball, it will cause others to disappear and reform, it can make the ball leave a weak wall in its trail, and plenty more. The most impressive thing about Ichi is its devotion to introducing new mechanics rapidly and endlessly. While most puzzle games figure out a few central mechanics and stick with it, Stolen Couch Games keeps adding more and more to the puzzles.
Aside from the objects you can influence with your single-minded control scheme, Ichi also features plenty of other things to mess around with your mind. There are warps to pass through, splitters to double your ball’s chances of picking up coins, breakable walls and lots and lots of spikes. Obviously running into a spike is a game over, so you often need some quick reflexes and a sharp mind to figure out the proper clicking order. Perform well and you get an A, while messing around and taking longer lowers your overall letter grade.
It’s typically not a challenging game, and most puzzles can be solved pretty quickly after thinking over the mechanics and getting that little spark of intuition. But there are a few puzzles as the game goes on that can be pretty bloody-minded, and there’s also hundreds of user-created levels to access and load.
Overall Ichi is probably a title you’d rather play on your phone. But even on a PC, it’s a great little time waster that’s more intelligent and creative than most phone puzzles. The mechanics are full of surprises and features, and they never really stop coming. If smart, fast paced puzzles are your thing, you might want to clear some time for Ichi.
Clone Wolf: Protector
Developed by Jarnik
Wolf’s village has been burnt down by the forces of evil, which is a real shame. With nothing left to live for but morsels of food, Wolf straps on a sword, a shield and his mighty beard, and travels the countryside to get revenge and right various wrongs. At first he doesn’t stand much of a chance, being a carpenter, but sheer bloody-mindedness wins him the help of a crotchety old lady and her amulet. This lets him clone himself, and you probably see where this is going.
Clone Wolf: Protector tasks you with defending villages from evil and such by cloning yourself and setting those clones to work in carpentry and swordplay. Holding down the attack key mitotically generates more Wolfs, and you control the lot of them at once. Obviously this means plenty of multitasking and chaos in store for you, but the cloning process gives you a very brief period to position your clones as you see fit.
It’s an absurd gameplay mechanic, but it kind of works. Managing and controlling all of your clones at once is extraordinarily difficult, but that’s kind of the point, really. Wolf is not really a fighter, and things can go off the rails quickly if you stop paying attention. Luckily you get moments of downtime during the day, which you can put to good use with Wolf’s hammer skills by building palisades and repairing houses. Generally with good planning or a bit of luck with positioning, most monsters won’t give you any trouble so long as you tap the attack key and hold your ground. Most, but not all.
The greatest part of Clone Wolf is easily the boss battles. These are giant monsters with a handful of weak points, which bypass your defences and try to crush everything. To beat them, you need to use carts and ledges to bounce up and stab the enemy. Some bosses get so large that they have tiny Shadow of the Colossus style footholds all over them, so you’ll often end up with a dozen tiny Wolfs bouncing up and down the screen filling monstrosities, slashing weak spots and dodging fireballs all the while. While the basic gameplay is fun and innovative, if not particularly difficult, but the bosses battles are just incredible.
At first I was a bit skeptical of Lone Wolf simply because the combat seemed a bit simple and easy once you got the hang of managing your many clones. Boss battles, on the other hand, throw that out the window and give the game an awesome slice of that beloved Shadow of the Colossus gameplay. The audio and visuals may look as grounded and as retro as they could be, but the gameplay of Clone Wolf is quite unlike anything else I’ve tried.
Developed by Discord Games
Would N+ be as difficult without the whole gravity thing weighing it down? Would Super Meat Boy work from a top down perspective? 48 Chambers aims to answer that question with a resounding yes. It’s a fast paced, unforgiving, spike-laden platformer with an aerial view and an addictive, if a bit punishing, scoring mechanic.
In 48 Chambers, you need to race a ball through the titular chambers as quickly as possible, while avoiding all of the usual twitch platformer perils. There are spikes, keys to collect, doors to unlock, gunfire to dodge and rotating buzz-saws to manoeuvre around. Your avatar isn’t exactly quick, but you do have a somewhat limited boost to squeeze by the time sensitive traps. Through a combination of boosting as often as possible and grabbing the green additional time collectables, you have to reach the end of the level before time runs out, with every extra second contributing to your final score.
Camera angles aside, the one major change to the twitch formula for 48 Chambers is the limited lives. Though it seems a bit insane to insert a limited life pool into a twitch platformer, it works perfectly. You begin with three lives, and can earn more through good performance. Run out, and you’re back to the menu; no checkpoints or continues or any of that hand holding stuff. It’s a tense bit of game design, but it allows you to come back from the brink through sheer skill and concentration. The level layouts never change, so the game becomes built to play over and over to get that perfect high score. I normally think of a leaderboard as a superfluous addition, but in 48 Chambers it was the main reason I kept playing over and over.
Maybe you don’t want that kind of challenge? The game was just recently updated with a Casual mode that removes the limited life pool. Sneering at how easy this sounds? Try it on Hardcore, when you’ve just got the one life. Whatever you choose, it’s clear that 48 Chambers is a game with a great design, a perfect difficulty curve and an addicting structure. Give it a shot and see how you stack up.
While I’ve got nothing but respect for the Humble Bundles of the world, it’s nice to see an indie bundle that relies solely on gameplay innovation and word of mouth rather than big names. These games are every bit as engaging as the superstars of the indie world, and the developers definitely deserve to be rewarded for it. Support the little guys, and go pick up the Indie Underdog Pack.