A Fitting Tribute to XBLIG

Earlier this month, Microsoft quietly announced the end date for XNA and Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG). Starting from September 9 of this year, no new XNA memberships are being sold or renewed. Developers with current subscriptions now have exactly one year to create and release games on the service. After September 9, 2016, no new games will be allowed to release on XBLIG. At this point, you better start buying whatever games you may have missed out on. One year after that, in September 2017, the marketplace will be closed forever, with developers being given final payouts soon after. It’s important to note that you will be able to re-download any XBLIGs you’ve bought before that date, and continue to play them.

For anyone that follows XBLIG in any form, be it player and / or developer, the news was difficult to hear, albeit wholly expected. The indie service, the first to offer literally anyone the ability to create and publish a game on a major home console, has admittedly been winding down for the past year. Fewer and fewer titles are being released under the XBLIG banner, and the service itself has been plagued by a series of extended, damaging outages, resulting in a number of delays and issues for developers. As a result, most developers have written off XBLIG entirely, moving their projects over to PC and / or other avenues, or canceling them outright.

While there will undoubtedly be plenty of time later to debate what went right and what went wrong with XBLIG, the good folks behind Indie Games Uprising, a once-annual promotion of new XBLIG games, have just unveiled a tribute to the service. This tribute highlights developers that got their start with XNA and XBLIG, showcasing their newest (or forthcoming) games while offering a nostalgic glimpse back at some of their earlier projects on the Xbox indie channel. The full list of games and developers can be found at the link above, but the tribute page itself is a fitting monument to the oft-overlooked successes and good times that XNA / XBLIG helped foster. Whether you are a grizzled veteran or a casual observer, you owe it to yourself to play these great games before they’re gone and remember what XBLIG has meant to you.

REVIEW: Press X to Not Die

Besides the obligatory Night Trap and a half-dozen Chris Antoni horror games, I’m not well-versed in the FMV genre. I’ve never been particularly impressed with them either. They’re usually short experiences, highly repetitive, and ridiculously over-the-top in terms of both storyline and acting1. Press X to Not Die ($2.99) is all of those things. It’s also good, clean, stupid fun.

Setting the story in a nondescript suburb at the onset of a pseudo-zombie apocalypse (the type where you just know the government’s involved… and it is!), things start off with a healthy hatred of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening2 and a simple, one-button command, Press X to Not Die3.  That advice serves you well as you dodge zombie-like attackers (also a clown, and a hockey player… in full gear?) en route to various locations that conveniently advance the plot and / or invite you to watch your girlfriend shower4.

To its advantage, Press X to Not Die is readily aware of its cheesy nature and its shortcomings as an FMV game, as well as that of the entire genre. And it is in that self-aware knowledge that the game does best, phrasing its dialogue and presenting its characters all in the guise of a videogame format, giving you an adequate excuse for pressing X and / or mashing buttons to survive. The timing for these prompts is altered with the level of difficulty selected, and the game tracks your ‘score’ based on how well you do.

Press X to Not Die - Screen

Shower scene!? Denied!

To add to the immersion and mix things up, the game’s dialog changes depending on choices you make or how poorly you perform, reciting the number of deaths you’ve suffered, say, or chastising you for being a pervert. It’s a nice touch that somewhat customizes each person’s playthrough, without straying too far from its wacky pace and ‘campy’ feel throughout. There’s even a mode that gives the game a retro, pixelated look if you prefer your footage grainy (which, admittedly, sort of adds to its charm).

You shouldn’t expect longevity (probably 30 minutes to complete) or a hugely-satisfying conclusion to wrap things up (that’s saved for the sequel, natch!), but Press X to Not Die‘s tongue-in-cheek performance ultimately wins you over. It’s clearly a passion project, and with all its clever interactive bits and self-referential humor, it’s one you should happily take part in.

  1. You’re occasionally getting ‘Mark Wahlberg’ caliber acting here, and yes, that’s another rip on The Happening. Honestly, I don’t mind the guy in most other films, but here… damn. It’s just terrible. 
  2. I mean, The Happening deserves the hate, really. I can’t stress that enough. Fucking trees, man. Seriously. 
  3. Which is also.. the title… Ohhh wait… I see what you did there. 
  4. I tried to watch my ‘girlfriend’ shower twice. Purely for the purposes of this review and for science, I assure you. 

REVIEW: Crypt of the Serpent King

Despite some stellar-looking titles in the bunch, I haven’t always enjoyed Rendercode Games‘ releases. They’ve occasionally been more about style over substance. But, generally speaking, each new title has been slightly better than the last in terms of its playability1. Crypt of the Serpent King ($1.00) is the developer’s swan song on XBLIG, and while it feels like the culmination of Rendercode’s work on the service, it’s still lacking in some spots. Important spots.

Crypt of the Serpent King - Screen

This dude is pretty and ugly. Pretty ugly.

Crypt is best described as a first-person hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, with some light RPG mechanics. Traversing a series of labyrinthian and randomized floors (don’t worry, the minimap fills in as you explore), you’re tasked with finding a certain number of keys to unlock a boss room, fighting dozens of baddies in-between. The RPG aspect comes in the form of gaining experience, used to level up your personal attributes such as health, melee attack power, and speed. Finding gold in chests scattered throughout allows you to purchase new weapons between stages, choosing from melee (sword, halberd2, etc.) and a pair of ranged bow options.

Depending on the level of difficulty chosen, you’ll find less food (recovers your health) and gold, which should force you to play conservatively and purchase new gear wisely. Then again, dying in Crypt isn’t as roguelike as you might think; you keep all experience and gold you’ve found even after death3, mitigating any disasters that might befall you. On the reverse side, ‘Hardcore’ mode attempts to please masochists, taking away the map and the chance to heal.

There’s enough variety in the enemy and boss types, to be sure, but the same can’t be said for the way you approach each of these fights. Essentially, so long as you start your attack animation and ‘walk into’ your foe by the time you’re swinging whatever weapon you have equipped, you’ll deal damage and avoid taking any yourself. This makes all basic encounters a cinch, and reduces every boss fight to a simple, repetitive exercise of attack and retreat, attack and retreat.

Crypt of the Serpent King - Screen2

Less tense than it looks.

And ‘repetition’ is the operative term in Crypt of the Serpent King, as each level looks and plays out exactly the same, regardless of the randomized layout you’re given4. There’s only a handful of room / hallway types, and the visual ‘sameness’ that greets you at every door opened and every corner turned begins to wear out its welcome by a few stages in. Add to this the increasing key requirements (each floor tacks on another missing key) and the requisite backtracking that implies, and you’re all set for tedium.

To be fair, messing around with different weapons can be fun, and Crypt of the Serpent King‘s art and enemy design may be impressive, but ultimately, the varying difficulty levels and only slightly-changing layouts can’t do enough to mask the game’s more serious flaw of repetition. As is, it’s merely a pretty and passable dungeon crawler that’s capable of more.

  1. There’s definitely been improvement if you’re counting from The Monastery (terrible) up to Assault Ops (decent) and onward, which I am. 
  2. My personal favorite. Excellent range, and the piercing attack is quick enough to stop most of the enemies’ attack animations. 
  3. Depending on who you talk to, this can either be a very good thing, or a very bad thing. 
  4. Enemies come in pairs, and are only ever found in ‘key rooms’, which basically takes away any tension or surprise that random exploration might have supplied. Even with the dull combat, random enemy placement would’ve helped to mix things up further. 

REVIEW: Space Battle

Both from a visual and a purely mechanical standpoint, there’s nothing new to see in the bland-sounding Space Battle1 ($1.00); it’s an amalgam of every twin-stick shooter set in space that you’ve ever played2. And not necessarily the good parts of said shooters either. Developer Chris Antoni’s take on the genre feels more ‘me too’-ish than anything else, and the dour, spartan backgrounds do little to help matters. On the surface, it’s entirely predictable.

Space Battle - Screen

The offline action takes place over sixteen challenging— albeit same-y— solo levels. The initial stages one-up themselves, adding a new enemy type until eventually you’re fighting off hordes of every type. It gets hectic. Unfortunately, it never feels all that thrilling. You get the standard ship upgrades, granting you additional shots or boosting your movement. You get a powerup that freezes enemies in place. And that’s about it. Even the overused, gimmicky, ‘bullet time’-esque slowdown that occasionally triggers when you’re near enemies or dodging laser fire can be more trouble than it’s worth, suddenly disorienting you and limiting your view.

Still, the game’s ‘Online War’ mode offers up a few interesting wrinkles to try and offset the rest of the otherwise familiar package. Rather than make things just a one-on-one duel, Space Battle mixes together parts of RPG-style progress grinding and card deck building, letting you put together an armada of ships (culled from the game’s single-player enemies) and purchase additional card slots and upgrades with currency earned through winning fights. The game allows you to tweak said loudouts beforehand, then sets you loose in a galaxy hub screen and offers up to 31 players online3 to match decks with and battle against.

Space Battle - Screen2

In theory, this should make for exciting combinations and battles, but your options are limited to a handful of choices and upgrades. Essentially, it boils down to picking the upper tier cards (earned randomly from wins) and maxing out your own ship’s stats. Building an impressive deck is slow, too. The cost to buy additional slots is high, making the process more of a grind than it needs to be, and with hardly anyone around playing XBLIGs online (a side effect of a dying scene), you’ll have to make do with the A.I. more often than not.

All in all, though, it just feels like a retread of past twin-stick shooters. And that’s not the vibe you want your game to be saddled with. Despite the interesting idea behind the online play (an idea you likely won’t get to appreciate in its intended form), Space Battle looks and plays too generic everywhere else to hold your interest for long.

  1. Seriously, Chris, I enjoy your games, buddy, but you’ve got to think of a better title than Space Battle for the next one. Literally anything would be better. Eyeballs in Space, maybe, or Chuck’s Fantastic Space Adventure. I mean, I don’t know what somebody named Chuck has to do with it, but you get the idea. Something else
  2. And if you’ve played a decent amount of XBLIGs over the years, you know that ‘twin-stick shooter set in space’ is a rather common idea amongst indie developers. I guess it’s a rite of passage. 
  3. Wishful thinking. I never found a single soul to do battle against. 

REVIEW: Game of Horror

Love it or hate it, plenty of indie titles have gone after the ‘jump scare’ market on console and / or PC, to varying degrees of success. XBLIG has been no stranger to the craze, but, when done right, it provides plenty of legitimate terrors… at a legitimately cheap price point. You can go ahead and add NeuronVexx‘s Game of Horror ($1.00) to that ‘done right’ list, if only for its gleeful willingness to quicken your pulse with each passing second spent in its pitch-black mansion.

Game of Horror - Screen Confirmed: not a nice guy.

While the game is less a machine for easy jump scares1 than it is a slow-burning sense of dread at what waits for you on the other side of the door, Game of Horror does a great (albeit familiar) job of ratcheting up the tension without making things too complicated. Your objective is straightforward; some serial killer nicknamed ‘The Eviscerator’2 is tossing people into a maze-like mansion and throwing away the proverbial keys, then hunting them down for sport. Should you find said keys (think Slender-like collectathon) to unlock a series of doors and survive, you’ll be granted your freedom.

Oh, but did I mention your search and the path you take is randomized on every attempt? Starting in a very Resident Evil-ish main hall, the game closes off each portion of the mansion behind a themed door (Clubs, Hearts, Diamonds, etc.). Each area contains a handful of rooms, offices, and storage closets, with you searching all the drawers and cabinets3 along the way. Exploring one section for a key grants you access to the next, etc. etc., all while ‘The Eviscerator’ silently— and continuously— stalks you.

There’s very little music in the game, which makes the idea of that relentless pursuit and its scares that much more terrifying, hearing the approaching killer’s breath through its mask, say, or the jiggle of a door’s handle being turned. You don’t have any real means of fighting back, either. Your only options are to duck behind furniture, shut off your flashlight and pray it doesn’t see you, or try to ‘block’ the door from being opened4. You can be ‘caught’ twice, with the third time being fatal and resetting your progress.

And so it goes, until you either escape or chicken out and curl up into the fetal position in the corner (…I chose the latter). Granted it’s nothing original, but it’s unnerving and not for the faint of heart, as the description states. And that’s really the only endorsement this game’s prospective audience needs. I still can’t understand why anybody would readily commit to scaring themselves for entertainment, but Game of Horror is absolutely up to the challenge.

  1. Don’t worry; you’ll still get plenty of those. 
  2. It’s… cute, right? Yeah, you don’t earn that title by being the affable sort. 
  3. The game helpfully ‘fills in’ objects you’ve searched already, ensuring you won’t easily backtrack or waste precious time second-guessing your work. 
  4. Word to the wise, this option isn’t very reliable. Mash on the button prompt all you want, the killer getting in seems like a 50 / 50 chance either way. 

Reviews and News for Xbox Live Indie Games


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