For all the bad press, and some really terrible games, I still believe 2013 was a good year for Xbox Live Indie Games. Hell, I think 2014 will be an even better year, once it’s all said and done. That may be a little overboard optimism on my part, but stopping to consider the quality of some of the recent releases has made me revise my outlook. Narrowing this year’s batch of games down to five top-tier XBLIGs wasn’t easy. That’s why I allowed anyone to include their Write-Ins, resulting in a vote apeice for several games (probably by the developers themselves, you sly dogs), and one vote for Uproar!, which is just, seriously, not funny.
So, without further pomp, and after an exhaustive counting of all the votes on-site (92, to be exact— not very exhausting), here are the Top Five XBLIGs of 2013, as voted by You.
It’s hard to imagine a Metroidvania on XBLIG currently that can hold a candle to Magicians & Looters. Excellent design and near-flawless balancing / pacing combine to compliment a humorous story. Castlevania it is not, sure, but Morgopolis Studios has crafted a solid indie alternative.
You will likely never own an arcade. It’s sad, but the very next best thing to that would be playing Arcadecraft. You don’t get to play the actual games, but you do get to manage what’s in your arcade and how it’ll all pan out. Look at it this way, you get all the retro bleeps and bloops, with none of the snotty kids and inevitable bankruptcy.
Sometimes, you just want to shoot things and watch them explode into hundreds of tiny, bloody pieces. For the sheer joy of firing guns and watching the world turn red around you, you have Blood & Bacon. Featuring online co-op, 100 waves of enemies, epic boss fights, and a tough (but fair) challenge, it just simply satisfies.
As an open-world, third-person shooter on XBLIG, Astralis could win its respective genre by default. It’s just not something you typically see on XBLIG. Not content to rest on existence alone, the game carries one of the best camera and control systems around, letting you explore and cleanse its unique alien environments with ease.
Winning by a comfortable margin, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone that’s played it that Silver Dollar Games‘ One Finger Death Punch wins ‘theXLBIG of 2013’ honors. Using simple controls and an even simpler objective (beat the hell out of every stick ninja that comes your way), OFDP handily checks off the most important gameplay boxes; easy to learn, difficult to master, and ridiculously fun. If you don’t own this game yet, you are missing out on one of the best on Xbox 360, period.
I’ve been debating adding interviews to the site for a long while, and I finally got off the procrastinating fence to post the first of many (hopefully) insights into the development of your (also hopefully) favorite titles on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. Foxhaut Games, the UK developers behind the awesome ‘Astralis‘ (Review here) and all-around great human beings, agreed to answer a few questions. I clapped my hands excitedly, knowing I could copy and paste someone else’s words and get a ‘free’ post out of it! On with the questions!
Hey guys. Thanks for taking the time to do this so soon after release. Astralis is a fantastic game, and also your first game, so it makes sense to start at the beginning of everything. How did the team at Foxhaut come together? What / When was the genesis of Astralis? Any inspirations?
We came together as a result of a shared appreciation for video games, and discussions regarding what might be achievable for an indie developer. Being able to create an indie game – this was something none of us had done before, despite Alec Parkin and Daniel Dobson’s experience in the games industry.
Astralis certainly has its inspirations – films like Enemy at the Gates, the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series, Army of Darkness (Evil Dead). And then there is Resident Evil, Gears of War, Quake, Doom, Duke Nukem. There is so much to celebrate within these games, such atmosphere to draw upon. We loved the action elements within them. We wanted to create something bombastic, yet we also felt from the start that the protagonist should be free to make moral choices, and this grew into the ability to actually perform ‘judgments’.
An ‘early’ Astralis trailer.
Enemy at the Gates, huh? That helps explain the Russian connection. Hopefully that means a Macropai-ed version of Jude Law or Ed Harris at some point… Ah, forget that. Back on topic. Just being on the outside looking in, Astralis, to me, changed pretty significantly over the past year. How did the idea change throughout the course of development?
Originally the project had a different name, and we had a different set of goals for how the game would play, and the visual style. Things grow. They evolve, because as you’re building, it, you understand more and more about what it should be. We think this is healthy, because the process is more like steering a car than getting on a train. You adjust, you look at the road ahead, the map, you know where you want to go, but you need to steer and make choices along the way.
We started out with a top-down view, because we love top-down games, and we wanted to be able to see the Commissar himself on screen. This grew into an ‘over the shoulder’ view, as we found that the aiming and shooting was more intuitive like this, and you were closer to the action. The Macropai get really close to you – they want to devour you, but in so doing present a bigger target, so it’s intuitive to deal with the closest ones first. It wasn’t something we anticipated, but instead driven by player feedback – our goal was to make the controls accessible immediately. They needed to feel familiar to players who hadn’t played Astralis, but already know what they like.
Things like swimming, the ‘roadie run’ unlimited sprint, and being able to kick while you’re reloading – these were all things that emerged as new ideas as the game grew. And then there is the ‘save beacon’ system, being able to save anywhere once the immediate area around you is secure, by planting your save beacon in the ground, once you’ve earned enough points to place it again. That felt a bit like the way a rock climber places spikes in the cliff at regular intervals, so that if they do fall, they don’t actually die! Again, it wasn’t something we planned, but rather discovered as being fun.
The save beacon was definitely a cool feature, and I like that analogy; makes me want to go mountain climbing again! Sorry, off topic, I know. It’s not really covered extensively in the game, but it seemed like there’s a larger backstory / mythos to the Astralis world. Is there any story bits that you feel players should be more aware of? How did you settle on the concept, and why are there so many Russians in the future of space exploration?
The Interstellar Military Commission is hinted at during the opening scene, near the crash site. It is broadly responsible for mankind’s expansion into the galaxy and colonization of planets, and highly communist! Astralis explores a dystopian post-solar expansion with parallels drawn from the Soviet Union in the eras of Stalin and Khrushchev. A Commissar wields political as well as military power, and this is something we haven’t seen explored within a video game.
Russia has historically demonstrated their interest in space flight, exploration beyond Earth, and at times even led the way. So in Astralis, the IMC, the Empire, it’s an extension of this goal, an exploration of an Orwellian society that has grown beyond our own solar system. An extension of the ‘soviet manifest destiny’.
Justice on Tellaryn IV is swift.
Were there any ideas / gameplay elements that had to be cut from the game? Anything you would like to add, or expand upon, either in potential DLC or in an all-new game?
We want to talk about DLC – it is controversial. We’ve all seen ‘downloadable content’ that actually exists on the disc! And it just gets unlocked. We think that’s criminal. You bought the disc, it’s already yours. Why should you be made to pay again for something that is yours? Real DLC, where you’re actually being given new data, should you pay for that? The answer will depend on the developer, and what players choose to do. No one has to buy horse armour if they choose not to.
In Astralis, we are planning to provide all updates for free – this is how XBLIGs work – It doesn’t cost the developer any money to update their game, instead it is an investment of time and effort. We have an update planned, yes. It will be free – our way of saying thank you to the community. But it is a surprise – we can’t talk about the details until it is complete, and in your hands! Updates are a vital part of the indie movement.
Gah! I’m impatient when it comes to DLC! Not even a hint? Fine. How did you settle on XBLIG as a release platform? What are your opinions on XBLIG and indie gaming, now, and in the future, both on Xbox 360 and Xbox One?
XBLIG led the way for indie games on console. No other console platform has as many releases, or is as open. We believe in openness – when Astralis was released, it happened because other developers, not Microsoft, judged it as being worthy. That is democratic. It is really important, because… well, let us take YouTube. Imagine you make a video, but before you can put it up, someone at Google has to view it, and decide if it is ‘ok’ for it to be available. Sound crazy? But this is how it is on other console platforms at the moment. It isn’t necessarily because they want it to be this way, more a legacy of how business was done when games couldn’t be available as downloads.
XBLIGs are historic, because it is the first time that indie developers got their hands on the ball, so to speak. I think gaming needs this and more of it. Let indie developers make games, release them, and then players can decide. There will be more content like this, and gaming will grow, just like YouTube.
With the Xbox One – we are very curious about what it will mean for indies – the promise of ‘every console can become a devkit’ is fundamentally democratic. If you’re going to buy something, you should be able to run code on it if you want to. Be part of an ecosystem where indie games are welcomed, plentiful, and all games are listed together. We’d like to point to Digital DNA’s games as examples of XBLIGs that have been bigger than many XBLA titles, sometimes by millions of copies, at an arguably more compelling price point. An open market is a good thing for gamers!
Here, here! I couldn’t have said it better myself! Thanks again for taking the time, guys, and best of luck!
Long the theory and premise of almost every science fiction story ever told, we are definitely not alone in the universe. As our technology advances, and humanity yearns to stretch its corruptible arms across the greater heavens of interstellar space, we will finally learn the truth, for better or worse, and where we stand in the then much-larger food chain. According to Astralis ($1.00), the future of space travel is decidedly Russian (Putin doesn’t mess around), and has us meeting face to face with some very tough alien adversaries in the form of the Macropai.
As the unnamed and faceless Commissar, you’ve been sent to investigate the recent production troubles on a terraformed world far away from home, and find those responsible for the stoppage. You are essentially Judge and Jury and Space Marine all rolled into one badass package, which perhaps explains your exalted title. Unfortunately for all involved, those troubles are not of the human variety. Flying aliens have overrun the entire colony, placing nests near every major artery and complex. Most of the workers have perished, and the military (and its supplies) is scattered. Guess who’s just been promoted to de facto exterminator, comrade?
And exterminate you must. The entirety of Astralis is an open-world laundry list of cleanup objectives, mopping up one alien mess just to move on to the next. The helpful minimap and marker keep you on the path, with plenty of optional exploration to find ammo dumps, alternative weapons, and deserters to judge. Whatever route you travel, you’ll fight for every patch of ground you take. Your enemies are a smart bunch. Their resilience increases according to size (bigger guy = bigger trouble), and they come with some serious (and literal) teeth, attacking in packs and retreating to recoup health when damaged.
Almost a character all by itself, the environment on Tellaryn IV is among the most beautiful on XBLIG, with foreboding structures, gorgeous vistas, and a dynamic weather system that literally changes the color palette as you traverse, howling wind and heavy rains popping up without a moment’s notice, making an otherwise hostile alien world seem strangely all the more natural. While there’s no direct impact on the gameplay, it’s those little details in world construction that you silently appreciate.
Though it plays like almost any third-person shooter on console, the fact that it does is a testament to the controls and attention that went into the camerawork. For me, I never had to tweak the sensitivity, and I never once felt the action wasn’t perfectly framed. The shooting feels solid, and, regardless of weapon choice (shotgun, sniper, plasma rifle, etc.), incredibly effective. The challenge, too, is expertly balanced. Combat is combo-driven, with points / multipliers awarded for kills, which then translates to a save beacon you can place anywhere within the world. On Normal, you can fully enjoy the game without too much trouble, but the tentacled monstrosities really become a menace on the higher difficulties, where ammo conservation and a steady, tactical approach are vital.
And you thought they smelled bad from far away?
Some minor quibbles. Given the world and surrounding set pieces, it’s a missed opportunity that Astralis doesn’t explain its universe a little more. Instead, it quickly ushers you from objective to objective, and any exposition given during the judgment conversations is kept largely superficial. Even the judgments themselves feel basic, with no real weight behind your decisions other than what you invent on your own. Points are handed out whether you forgive or punish. These are small nitpicks at best, mind you, and probably good news for the TL;DR set that abhors anything with a complicated plot, though I would’ve preferred more story.
Still, from the action / adventure viewpoint, the game is top notch. Easily the best third-person shooter available on the service, it’s worth so much more than the $1 it asks for. It’s like playing a really great N64 shooter during its heyday. And in a lot of ways, Astralis should be remembered as a landmark XBLIG, not just for its ideas, presentation, or its visuals, but as another title that turned the corner from simply being another independent game, or a copy of an existing property. Instead, it’s a game that shows what small teams with talent and dedication can produce, and their joy in creating and sharing that project reminds us why we pick up a controller to play them.
With XNA and XBLIG as a brand on perpetual deathwatch, even those that haven’t abandoned the service aren’t expecting much in the interim between here and demise. Turns out that obituary is premature, and the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. There’s plenty of ambitious projects still coming down the pike. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Astralis.
The simplified version of events would be to label it action / adventure. Yet one look at the above trailer tells you Astralis doesn’t do anything simple. Open world shooters are rare enough on the service, let alone one with a dynamic weather system, a distinctive look, and a respectable 3D camera (action is over-the-shoulder) that doesn’t get in your way when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
You play as the Commissar, after your ship makes an unscheduled detour on a backwater planet called Tellaryn IV. And there’s little doubt the patch of ground you’ve crash-landed on is a hostile environment. The wind kicks up debris, storms swirl in and out. The real threat is more physical, of course, and the Commissar will make use of a diverse set of weaponry. This includes your typical shotgun and assault rifle variants, a sniper rifle for ranged encounters, but also ups the explosives and tech, adding grenades and a plasma rifle. Combat is the primary focus, with numerous alien monstrosities on which to test those weapons.
Ugly bastards, ain’t they.
Playing in an open format means doling out missions, and various NPCs around the world will fill in story gaps and volunteer you to complete their dirty work. The Commissar looks to have choices in those conversations. You probably shouldn’t expect ‘Mass Effect levels’ of depth and character growth, but it’s still nice to have the option instead of blindly clicking through text to skip ahead. These slower moments, paired with exploration, should compliment the shooting nicely.
Astralis is still a few months off, yet it’s impossible not to be excited by its potential. It’s certainly going bigger and bolder than your standard XBLIG fare, and I have every confidence the guys at Foxhaut Games will pull off something great with the material at hand.