REVIEW: Ultra Aktion!

Imagine if someone took yours and my beloved Contra, replaced every character and enemy with squares and rectangles, cut the game’s length down to a third, stripped it of most of its alien / 80s dudebro charm, and released it as Ultra Aktion!12 ($1.00). In essence, that’s what you’re getting here.

And much like Contra, there’s not much to Ultra Aktion! other than said dudebro3 shooting. ‘Evil is bad / Kill evil with guns / Save world’ is the game’s entire justification (albeit satirical) for its setup. Not that it needs much of a setup. It’s pure side-scrolling shooting with a solid feel, replete with familiar Contra-esque gun powerups (the ‘spread shot’ is still God, all these years later) and blocky environs that vaguely resemble the style of those retro levels.

You can play though the rather paltry three levels alone, or with up to three others in local co-op, but there’s not much reason to. The whole thing can be completed in less than fifteen minutes, with the levels just looping back around until you run out of lives (the game isn’t that difficult) or just give up and return to the menu. Minus the aforementioned powerups, Ultra Aktion!‘s casual design doesn’t evoke much nostalgia, and plenty of other games have done far better at mimicking what makes Contra work.

Ultra Aktion! - Screen2

So it’s hard to figure who would be interested in Ultra Aktion! The game is honestly and correctly labeled as a ‘short’, which is probably meant to excuse its simpleness and brevity, but that’s not to say it should be forgiven for it. Were the aktion…. ummm, action… onscreen a little more competent or unique, it might not have mattered. As is, Ultra Aktion! is better to listen to for its chippy soundtrack than take part in its terribly uninspired gameplay.

  1. Not sure of the reason for the deliberate misspelling of ‘action’, unless developer Fun Infused Games just prefers the German form of the word…. …. maybe? 
  2. Also, no Konami code? That’s just unfathomable. 
  3. Well, duderectangle, I guess. 


At outset, APOC TOWN ($1.00) seems to be on the right track. It pairs two of my favorite things; the visual style and general feel of the developer’s previous, Loot or Die1, and those always fun and rascally-ambitious enemy types, zombies. Granted, zombies have overstayed their welcome in everything that’s videogame and pop culture, but they’re hungry for flesh and dead already, making them the perfect antagonists for any project. Yet even with that can’t-miss pairing of ideas, the game isn’t very fun. Or forgiving.

APOC TOWN - Screen

Part of that is due to the apocalyptic setting and its approach to survival. Though APOC TOWN isn’t specifically what some would call a ‘roguelike’, it very much plays and feels like one in that you only have one life to live2, with your progress reset if you should die (or fail to save your game!). Despite its simple appearance, the game is much more complicated than it looks. Rather than going around wantonly bashing in skulls3, you must constantly be scrounging around for materials and ammunition, repairing or finding new weapons (because they will break, often), and crafting what you need in order to live to see another day.

You’ll occasionally get help. Similar to Survivalist (but not nearly as deep), there’s a heavy emphasis on community in APOC TOWN, slowly building up your initial starting point into a working enclave of A.I. survivors.  You’ll recruit others to populate your home base via a handful of preset mission types (rescue, hunt, mercy…), which in turn increases your available pool of resources. You can also find help from actual, breathing humans, as the game supports up to four players online (or via system link, if that’s an option).

And playing with others seems to be the route APOC TOWN wants you to take. Surviving in a zombie-infested apocalypse isn’t easy, naturally, but to make matters even more pressing, the game dials up the difficulty every ‘day’ you and your group survive, throwing even more zombified creatures (birds, dogs, larger zombies) and mobs your way. Given the scarcity of ammo, crafting materials, and medicine, it’s a hell of a lot to account for. If you’re going on alone, the game doesn’t really allow you to survive.

APOC TOWN - Screen2

If you’re seeing this on your screen, you’re lucky.

That isn’t so much of a problem if you have friends to share the load, but with XBLIG’s notoriously-absent online community, you’re never guaranteed to find anyone waiting in the co-op lobby4. Even then, the impetus to expand your base and find better gear is lacking due to the daily repeating objectives and the unrealistic amount of resources required to do so. There’s flashes of some interesting mechanics at work here, to be sure, but it’s not enough.

The resulting game is a mixed bag of genres and ideas, some that work… versus those that really don’t. On the one hand, APOC TOWN is a challenging take on survival horror, with a good amount of depth and too many intricacies to go into in just one article. And on the other, it’s a fickle and unforgiving game that basically refuses to be played solo. The TL;DR: Worthwhile if you have friends on standby willing to help, but alone, it’s far too frustrating to stick with.

  1. With touches of State of Decay and even ZombiU, among the usual ‘zombie game’ conventions. 
  2. Well, technically, that’s not true. Though your starting character can and probably will die, horribly, and losing all of his or her stuff, you will immediately take control of another survivor back at your camp. Assuming you’ve done your job and recruited survivors, that is. No man is an island. 
  3. Not advisable, since doing literally anything depletes your agility. Be very selective when bashing in skulls, my friend. 
  4. And I never did. 

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.


EDIT 10/16: There’s been an update to the game that addresses some of the issues I mentioned above, adding enemy spawns in the corridors between rooms, as well as a few tweaks to the flow of combat, which should make things a little more varied.

  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. 

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