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REVIEW: Amazing Princess Sarah

For years now, the 2D Castlevanias (and, of course, all the Castlevania-likes) have been struggling with a pretty significant part of their gameplay— how to make the constant overworld battles with whatever evil dungeon / cave / castle’s numerous foot soldiers interesting1, and keep players engaged between boss fights and story events. Lucky for us all, Haruneko‘s Amazing Princess Sarah ($4.99) might have just solved that problem, and it might’ve become one of my favorite action / platformers in the process.

The game shares some similarities with one of the developer’s earlier releases, Akane the Kunoichi, but whereas that was a more traditional platformer with traditional mechanics, Amazing Princess Sarah is a deliberate crawl, a slugfest for every inch of ground, from one end of the stage to the other. You don’t play the game as much as you just survive, as it cleverly reinvents the in-between stuff and makes the end bosses almost a secondary concern.

Don’t let the generous cleavage fool you; Sarah is one tough chick. After her father— also the King— is kidnapped by a demonic party, led by a horned boss known as Lilith, she sets out to tramp through a series of increasingly-difficult (and increasingly-longer) castles to retrieve him. These fortresses follow the platformer mold… in theoryplenty of enemies, some challenging jumps onto narrow (and sometimes disappearing) ledges, all concluding with the requisite boss encounter. In action, it plays completely different.

While Sarah has a normal blade attack that does adequate harm, her real skill lies in her unnatural strength; strength that allows her to hoist up the bodies of her slain enemies, and chuck them into oncoming threats for massive damage.2 Nice parlor trick, that. It’s also key to dealing with the unending parade of baddies, wiping out the more dangerous foes and / or trying to combo the rest to fall like dominoes. It’s hard to explain in words, but trust me, when it’s done right, it’s awesome, and really satisfying.

Choosing the right corpse for the job is important3, as most of them will have their own weight, properties, and effects. A bird can be tossed farther, but does less damage, while a bomber’s body will naturally explode upon contact. Ditto for other enemies and effects, like archers (split into arrows) and firebrands (waves of traveling flames). Depending on how you line up your ‘corpse attacks’, you can score several kills at once, helping you to level up and increase your overall health. This too, is vitally-important, as you’ll need the extra hitpoints to advance from checkpoint to checkpoint, the space between clogged with more and more enemies and hazards.

Amazing Princess Sarah - Screen

In fact, despite their epic size and decent challenge, the bosses do become secondary. Being chased by a giant spider or fighting a demon with sexy legs (… don’t ask) somehow provokes less tension than simply getting through a tiny stretch of one castle. This can either be a very good thing, or a very frustrating thing, depending on your view. While the controls are generally excellent, and the difficulty never felt unfair or too over-the-top, be forewarned— there are some tricky sequences (a vertical corridor near the end, comprised entirely of disappearing platforms and lined with archers that cause knockback, proved especially maddening).

You’ll certainly get your money’s worth, though, as you have to play through the game several times to actually ‘beat’ it, a process that will doubtlessly run you several dozen hours in length. Considering one playthrough will take you about five hours, finishing all seven(!) game modes4 to fight the true final boss will require serious dedication. But time and difficulty be damned, I say! With its clever re-imagining of basic stage design— and the inventive use of corpses— Amazing Princess Sarah is a challenging (and absolute) must-play.5


  1.  Part of that blandness with the combat is offset by ‘exploration’, and the old Metroidvania trick: slowly giving you access to new items and weapons to keep you motivated and moving forward. 
  2.  I’ve seen this compared to the idea behind Mischief Makers, Treasure‘s platformer on the N64. 
  3.  Something very wrong about seeing that line written out. 
  4.  With some neat variables to up the challenge, like your own ghost following you around the level, causing damage on contact, or ‘Drunk Princess’, a mode that messes with the camera. 
  5. This review is also featured at Indiepitome
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REVIEW: Titan Attacks

Though it’s probably safe to assume that most of us have heard of Space Invaders, it’s conceivable (given the age of the IP) that some have yet to play the game in one of its myriad versions. Bridging the time gap between a classic tribute and a slicker, modern take, Titan Attacks ($1.00) aims to acquaint you with the past, while simultaneously making you forget whatever it is you might have known about it.

The same retro hook applies— rows of enemies march defiantly downward, erasing the No Man’s Sky between you and them as time ticks on. You, of course, are limited to moving along the horizontal plane below, and need to prevent them running into you or being hit by their fire. Accuracy matters, as your shots are somewhat limited (at the start) to what they hit. Miss your targets, and you’ll have to wait briefly to fire again. It’s the classic tradeoff.

A few stages in (the game boasts dozens of waves, spread over five planet hubs, and each capped off by boss fights), however, Titan Attacks’ aliens begin to show off their new tricks, switching up the standard marching orders and changing attack patterns. This includes dive-bombing varieties, suicide runners, and heavier attacks to avoid and compensate for. More types of enemies and additional patterns are introduced as you progress, making each successive wave a tense and strategic fight.

To combat the added aggression, you can now upgrade your ship between levels, with cash dropped by the aliens or earned in the occasional bonus waves. This new currency quickly becomes indispensable, allowing you to add additional guns, buy smartbombs to bail you out when you’re backed into a corner, or increase your fire rate, among others. Money too, is limited and hard to come by, which makes your upgrade route just as important as your skill in battle.

Titan Attacks - Screen

This increasing difficulty and attention to detail means Titan Attacks is no slouch. Your game is only saved at the intermission between hub worlds, putting the burden on you to monitor your progress and stats. Keeping your shields stocked and holding some cash in reserve is essential, as dying near the end wave or at a boss fight will frustrate.

Ultimately, it’s worth the trouble. This XBLIG version of Titan Attacks comes long after the PC / Steam release, though it does have the nifty advantage of weighing in at a much cheaper price than those earlier iterations. With the classic formula turned on its head, and plenty of stages and features dipped in a contemporary frosting, Titan Attacks does more than enough to convince you to revisit an old favorite.

REVIEW: Blood & Bacon

First-person shooters are suffering a crisis. Where once XBLIG was happy to see a FPS, going so far as to forgive bad design or controls just for the sake of playing one, now the problem is over-saturation. Too many trying to copy too much, bouncing from military shooter to zombie wave shooter. Too many falling short of the accepted norm, skimping on content or releasing unpolished messes. Too many recycled ideas and endless pseudo-sequels. Then, like a blood-red bacon… ahem, beacon, of hope, enter Blood & Bacon (240 MSP).

This game is an antibiotic for what ails indie FPSes. No half-baked concoction, no stiff controls, no detrimentally-repetitive waves, and perhaps most importantly, no zombies. Well, no traditional zombies. Instead it’s undead livestock, refreshing enough to feel different, and dead enough not to upset animal rights groups. Yes, it’s a wave shooter (with a 100+ ‘Days’ to fight through), but only in name and format. Trust me, you haven’t played a wave shooter like this.

Nor have you seen this much blood. When the screen gets busy (and it will, with you versus hundreds of enemies possible), so does the exploding viscera. Blood & Bacon is on a liquid-only diet, the self-professed bloodiest game on Xbox Live. It’s hard to argue against that boast. It helps that the weaponry on tap is geared towards said carnage, running from the typical shotgun and rifles to an uzi, grenades, and one very ‘effective’ gun that you earn later on that is best saved for larger crowds.

Rounds and the roster of baddies start off simple, and gradually increase in number and challenge. Enemy types shuffle in and out, never quite the same combination, continually changing the approach and challenging you to mix tactics. Powerups to boost your speed and / or killing potential, as well as ammo and self-revives, prove to be invaluable. By the time you reach the first multi-phased boss, and the even sinister-er Princess Blubbergut (…the experience is memorable, and defies explanation), you’ll have left Easy Street behind and wandered into a rural quagmire, no one there to hold your hand.

Well, save for the online co-op, which is where Blood & Bacon reaches its fullest, Left 4 Dead-est potential. Teamwork here is not a suggestion but a necessity, working together to lead and dispatch tougher, armored foes, and tackle the higher levels. Careful management of the health pumps and keeping your partner standing takes precedence. Victory is not handed over lightly, but the sheer satisfaction that comes from beating a particularly tough wave or exhausting boss fight, alone or with a friend, far outweighs the struggle.

Blood & Bacon - Screen

Definitely not for the squeamish.

That hard-fought progress is what keeps you coming back, complimented by the smaller things that build the larger whole; story elements, the excellent voicework and soundtrack, controls / camerawork, and plenty of interesting (and well hidden) easter eggs to be found. Simply stated, there’s nothing here that upsets or feels unfinished, and any faults you may find will be temporary. With the promise of patches and free DLC support (a new map, enemies, have been mentioned) for many months down the road, you can rest easy knowing the game will be updated and expanded upon.

When it’s all said and done, Blood & Bacon stands as nothing less than the resurrection of the wave shooter, all pork and no gristle, full of the exacting attention and care you don’t typically see in indie development. It’s even more impressive to say that after several hours of playtime, I still haven’t had my fill of things to do or see. The game brings with it a new look to the first-person genre on the indie channel, making more than good on great expectations and raising the bar for other developers. An absolute must play.

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EDIT 9/1: A ‘lite’ version of the game, re-titled B&B Fatfree, has been released for $1. Comprising the first ’50 days’ (of the full 100) of the game, it still contains all of the greatness I stated above.

REVIEW: Jimmy Vs. Zombies

Poor Jimmy. He had it all. A successful band, a brainy girlfriend, and an awesome guitar. Too bad that ‘evil spawn’ Nathan envied that shiny music-maker, so much that he conjured up a spell to make the dead rise from their graves, purely to steal that fabled axe. Such is the story behind Jimmy Vs. Zombies (80 MSP) a modern day parable for not coveting thy neighbor’s guitar, or something.

Imagining itself as a cross between a run & gunner and a zombie wave shooter, Jimmy Vs. Zombies brings to the table much of what you’d expect from the pairing (2D art, co-op, zombies, fire / plasma gun upgrades that last a limited time), and a little bit of something you wouldn’t; Grandmother Tower Defense (yes, setting up a defensive perimeter around a wheelchair-bound grandmother).

It’s not quite run & gun, though, more a stand-in-place & gun. Stages take on the appearance of being fully-explorable but are really just glorified arenas that last a line of eight continuous waves. The later rounds tend to go on a little longer / get a little crowded, but your chosen zombie killer has some backup in tow (deployable turrets and mines). The threat isn’t strictly limited to the standard zombie types (walker / acid spitter / brute) either, as bat variants can become an aerial nuisance. A watchful eye and careful use of weapons / allies is needed to hold back the staunchest group of walkers.

Smart play is good for business. Building and maintaining a high combo during the waves will net you more cash, with the money earned able to be put towards permanent prizes in the ‘shop’, like extra health, continues, or costumes for the two main characters, Jimmy and Andrea. Other neat extras, like an additional character or a Survival mode (a quick way to earn massive cash, FYI), help extend and give purpose to the playtime. And it is fun, for a short while.

Jimmy Vs. Zombies - Screen

Strangely, the game undercuts the player that chooses to play alone. While it’s probably best (and more fun) to play with a friend, it’s evidently balanced with that local co-op in mind, as solo slayers will find it quite literally an impossible task, at least without fully-upgrading the health and fire rate of either character first. Even then, the zombies vastly outnumber you, and you’ll need to make every shot / turret / mine count after you’ve reached the third or fourth stage.

That kind of difficulty is made worse by the lack of any interesting particulars (minus protecting the grandmother; that bit was novel, if unexplained). The idea behind the game is somewhat sound, but the execution is flawed. What’s left isn’t enough to get anyone excited. At best, Jimmy Vs. Zombies is a roguish gamble for solo players, or a repetitive shoot em’ up for two friends to spend a few sessions on.

REVIEW: S.D.G.T.

Regardless of what its name actually is / will turn out to be, S.D.G.T. (240 MSP) should stand for ‘Supremely Difficult (but) Genuinely Thrilling’. Yes, that title would then lack a certain je ne sais quoi, but nothing else encapsulates my experience with it so completely.

The story is there really isn’t one, unless you’d like to infer (hostile aliens are involved). All the same, you’ll be fulfilling contracts (by gathering minerals) and wiping that alien menace from the galaxy like any good space shooter would, one day at a time. As a stationary tower in the deep reaches of space, tasked with defending your base and gathering materials simultaneously, you’re nothing without a good blaster at your side. You start with just two turrets, with purchasable slots (up to 7) to add on to your arsenal.

S.D.G.T. - Screen

As the days and waves progress, you’ll naturally need to kit out every available space if you hope to stand a chance. For each gun type you equip, you can spend credits to upgrade its output and drain on your reserve power, decreasing cooldown time, adding to capacity, etc. And, if you so desire, those turrets and upgrades can be resold (recently familiar, isn’t it?) to make way for its new and improved version, or a completely different weapon.

You’re allowed to carry one specialty perk, activated once per round, that can give you the edge in a tight contest (burst shield, damage multiplier, and the like). Completed contracts have their own choice in a permanent stat boost, ranging from health / shield modifiers or percentage upgrades to mineral / credit gathering, to giving your turrets increased damage. Finishing a contract on time also results in a credit bonus.

Enemies come in multiple forms and patterns and together, constantly exhausting your efforts, with shielded foes diverting your fire away from the swifter advance parties, cloaked threats, etc. Occasionally you’ll be ambushed. The tell-tale sign is obvious; once the music drops off, expect the aliens to hit you with a serious assault. When these moments happen, the mix of tension and focused determination needed on the player’s part makes for a winning formula.

Weapon variety truly is the spice of life in S.D.G.T., as too many of one type or an older model can and will make the difference between that continued life and utter defeat. Unfortunately, that dividing line isn’t always apparent, and it is this razor-thin line that you can cross, sometimes unwittingly, that knocks the game down a few pegs. Likely you’ll face frequent restarts (I know I did), trying to find that sweet spot in gun balance and upgrades that will push you into the next day. And keep in mind, this is all happening on the Beginner setting, the easiest of the three choices.

S.D.G.T. - Screen2

Issues with the difficulty aside, the game comes to a halt past Day 49, with a placeholder informing you of an additional 16 days to be published in a future update (as discussed in the preview article). As I left it, I had yet to finish off all of my contracts, or gain access to the final tier of guns. It’s impossible to critique content that isn’t here, and there’s certainly no reason to believe that K2 Games won’t make good on its promise, though you should consider this point prior to purchase.

S.D.G.T. is a decent TD-lite / stationary shooter, marred only by its willful insistence on old-school difficulty tricks and the current absence of an end game. If you thrive when the odds are stacked against you and won’t mind the frequent experimentation with loadouts, you might’ve found your nirvana. If you don’t fall into that category, exercise caution.