Tag Archives: Indie Games Uprising III

REVIEW: Smooth Operators

Before you blow off Smooth Operators (80 MSP), convinced that living and breathing the call center lifestyle is not for you, ask yourself how many cities you built and ran into the ground, how many sims you deliberately walled off from the outside world while watching them squirm, or how many worlds you’ve minecrafted into a blocky paradise; your answer is probably ‘quite a few’. That need to create something on your own is fully represented and open to you in Smooth Operators, even if its choice of careers doesn’t immediately breed excitement.

There are similar games available elsewhere that do roughly the same thing, but the (somewhat) brief rundown is as follows; Build and manage a call center, accept contracts, expand. Do well, and you’ll complete challenges, gain unlocks and cash bonuses. Fail to meet the quotas set by your clients or keep your workforce happy, and expect to pay a penalty at the end of each day. And yes, you sick bastard, you can try to torture your peons into submission by cutting their salaries or forcing them into offices they don’t belong. Demolish the restrooms if you so wish. Wanton mismanagement is entirely legal, and occasionally fun (I had nine resignations in one day).

So needless to say, the early days of my first call center didn’t go well. Partially I was to blame (I tried to go too big too fast), as the game really only allows baby steps. I quickly realized this was for my protection. The limited cash and capacity to build (and thus expand my workforce) meant I was constantly struggling to meet the quotas, incurring fines and slowly bleeding my cash reserves as I tried to tear down and rebuild to better fit the client’s needs. Smooth Operators‘ tutorial gets the basic gist of the game across, and the in-game descriptions of each object and person help, but I was still sometimes lost on how to get a rolling start or to unlock more upgrade and building abilities.

Words on a screen can only do so much though. There’s never any experience like first-hand experience. My dad loves that line, and if ever a saying applied to a game, it’s here. So I cut my losses and hit restart. Version two of my call center did much better, striking a better employee balance and a focus on steady efficiency (starting and thinking small). And lo and behold, as the client’s workload increased, I was able to handle it, building a nice reserve and a happy workforce. Soon I was running a labyrinth of offices and a hundred different managers, janitors, IT guys (their repair work is hilarious) and call specialists.

Once your company is consistently in the black, and the day to day operations and issues become less immediate and more about careful growth, the game hits its stride, giving you access to building upgrades (each office can be spruced up to increase productivity) and the option to educate your workers, which is win-win for everybody’s bottom line. The visual leap of transforming from a small, fledgling brick house into a fancy, bells & whistles mega-corporation is awesome and worth the blood and sweat to get there.

But by the higher day counts, 55 or so, you reach a level of self-sufficiency (yeah, fine, sooner for you experts out there :p), and this is the point where sims like Smooth Operators tend to drag. You hit a comfortable plateau, a boatload of money, where your job as ‘omnipresent overseer mother’ isn’t as needed, and like a chick leaving the nest for the first time, you’re both filled with pride to see your creation fly on its own, and saddened that this means you’re past the more exciting times of the game. I found myself leaving it to run on its own, stopping only to see the daily report or do a few mundane changes. You can still grow further and accept more clients, but it just adds to your money pile.

Smooth Operators is nonetheless an addicting (it’s digital crack) sim game with incredible depth. It stumbles slightly in its initially-overwhelming list of to-dos and fix-mes, hits an excellent middle ground and pace, then just plays itself after awhile. This is after you notice you’ve sunk hours into it, and will continue to do so gladly, turning your paltry 80 MSP investment into a fun and healthy return.

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REVIEW: Gateways

I think we’re all in agreement that Portal was a great game, and (if indie games are the barometer) quite the inspiration to a number of developers. I’ve dished out plenty of admonitions right here on the site, to studios that have either lifted the storyline wholesale for their own use, or shoehorned the idea into their game when it didn’t even require it. Smudged Cat Games‘ Gateways (240 MSP) is probably the most blatant offender of them thus far. Scientist-type ‘Ed’ finds and uses a ‘gateway gun’, which is Valve’s portal gun in every way but name.

Though Ed isn’t content to take on a talkative sidekick and work with the standard portals. He wonders aloud why he’s being led to different parts of the facility to find his experimental weapons, bopping escaped monkeys on their domed-helmet heads, but the story never takes off. It’s just an impetus to drive the different gun types and equipment you’ll use.

They’re the real story in the game anyway, adding clever puzzle ideas and gateway attachments that Portal could only ever dream of, from the mod that shrinks or grows Ed to fit the environment, to one that bends gravity and rotates the whole level, or the time portal gun, that allows you (and plenty of ‘you’ clones) to be in multiple places (and on multiple switches) at once. The way they all work together is flawless.

The lab you find yourself in is one giant, seamless level, with areas and secret nooks filling in as you explore, Metroidvania-style. The mapping feature is tremendously helpful in Gateways, not only serving to track Ed’s location, but as an objective marker (a red arrow always points you to the next goal) and a record of unfinished business; for five orbs, the game’s scattered (and limited) currency, you can find out whether a puzzle is solvable with your current setup. If not, the map obediently marks it and tells you once you’ve found the requisite stuff.

And with puzzles popping up at every bend and intersection, you’ll work for each inch of ground covered. It’s definitely not meant for the easily frustrated; Gateways makes you look foolish time and time again, despite some obvious (well, in hindsight) solutions. This is lessened somewhat, in that you can literally buy yourself out of any puzzle that gets too… puzzling, provided you’ve saved up enough orbs. It’s not the most dignified way to play, but there’s no shame if the option is there. Later in the game, when you unlock the use of all the guns at once, ushering in multi-part puzzles that will stagger the stoutest of brains, you’ll give in as I did.

Oh yeah, this shit’s crazy.

So there is a downside, and, oddly enough, it’s that the puzzles are too good. The amount of effort it took to build them is duly noted; I considered it a victory just getting to the last puzzle (about five hours playtime). And after (spoiler!) watching the solution video, there’s no way I was even going to attempt it. You can’t purchase your freedom regardless of orb count. The last few puzzle rooms in general were stubborn, lasting over an hour from ‘hmmm….’ to ‘ah-ha!’, but that final one takes it, hands down. 98% completion is good enough.

Though don’t let my defeatist attitude sway you. I still consider it one of the more unique, exquisitely-constructed games around. Gateways handles its puzzles and open-world progression as skillfully as any arcade or retail game I can think of, and then some. It’s not only the best game to come out of the Uprising so far, it’s one of the best XBLIGs available. Do yourself one of the biggest favors you’ll ever do for yourself and plunk down the MSP for the game, play it, then come back and thank me.

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Review on Indie Gamer Chick

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REVIEW: Diehard Dungeon

From that opening shot of an arrow ripping through your chest to the McClane-inspired title, the implication is that you’re going to perish in Diehard Dungeon (80 MSP). And you will. That it is a roguelike, and really up to the whims of chance as to how fair (or brutal) the game is to you, is all part of the package you immediately accept when you sign up.

Following in the bloody footsteps of other roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac and fellow XBLIG Sushi Castle, the game takes dungeon crawling, a deep reverence for the old school Legend of Zeldas, a ‘one life to live’ policy, and mixes in loot and powerups,  all of it randomly-generated and set to a nice soundtrack.

You still find keys to unlock doors, hit switches, and occasionally get buffaloed by overwhelming odds or a bad draw, but the game strays a bit from the expected hack & slash (shoot & slash, here) and traps setup. There’s some choice in how you proceed at times, and that variety also extends to the gameplay.

There’s the Pac-Man minigame that has you putting out fires with the treasure chest (chests being known for their fire-extinguishing prowess, of course) in order to gain a fresh ability, or other, scattered chests in the levels that grant you a number of spins on a slot machine, which can improve your health, drop treasure, or add a new skill. Your ‘Companion Chest’ you rescue early on is more than just a storage-based sidekick, too, growing in power the more loot you collect, soon able to attack enemies on its own (you’re more or less its bodyguard at the start).

I never did find 10 golden keys in a playthrough (the game’s secondary objective), so I can’t speak for what the end treasure chest holds. Surviving and escaping the dungeon was good enough for me. Doing so unlocks ‘Champions’ mode, activated at the start of a game session if you so choose. It’s more of a neat trophy run than a tangible reward currently. You’ll see other players’ names and characters that made it out alive and opened the final chest (with either positive or negative effect) as you play an otherwise normal game.

Diehard Dungeon‘s other mode, Mayhem, is an ‘under construction’ twin-stick shooter with global leaderboards, starring the Companion Chest from the main game. You get three minutes to kill as many enemies as possible, building up a combo meter by avoiding attacks. It’s not front-loaded with content yet (hence the ‘under construction’), and probably wouldn’t rate as high without the leaderboard support, but it is a rather nice surprise in and of itself. It’s gives the indie press an excuse to fire highscores back and forth at each other, which is always fun.

You either dig roguelikes or you don’t. Diehard Dungeon won’t change your mind, despite being more action-y and ‘reserved’ in doling out its punishment. I enjoyed it. The only beef I have with the game is a temporary one; a periodic ‘pause’ in the action as the game shares data between players for the leaderboards. A patch should be up in a few weeks, addressing this and other issues or visual quirks. Also in the cards are updates, totaling about 50% more content; new areas, bosses, enemies, and abilities, as well as some extra ‘Mayhem’ stuff.

Joining Uprising alum qrth-phyl on the early winner’s podium, tricktale‘s Diehard Dungeon pays tribute to a classic within the confines of a more modern genre, and solidifies itself as one of the better examples in turn, with excellent gameplay and an aesthetic that is distinctly indie, distinctly XBLIG, which is what the Uprising is all about.

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REVIEW: Sententia

Sententia (80 MSP) is an art game, and even if it gets nothing else right, it doesn’t apologize for that fact. Nor should it. Whenever anything in the interactive medium tries for something more, either by pushing an esoteric theme or taking its gameplay on a road less traveled, I tend to get defensive, exalting the tiniest details and forgiving (or even neglecting to mention) the bigger faults.

Sententia is one of those times I’m tempted. I truly did enjoy the ‘idea’ of the game, which charts the life of a ‘special creature’ from child to adult, armed with the foreknowledge that he can create his own path through the world. In dialogue and occasional quotes, it touches on issues we’ve all pondered at some point, specifically in never forgetting your youth or imagination, and fighting for what you believe in. It has its moments. It also has some glaring issues that cannot be swept under the review rug.

An odd mashup of styles, the game alternates between its story / existentialism, platforming / light combat, and puzzle-solving via single-screen ‘stages’. In a twist, you ‘fight with words’, using them to defeat adversaries, and they you. The puzzles in the game are platforms that must be linked using your ‘imagination’, matching the number of ‘connections’ shown on each node. In theory, you see, this should be a good game. Once in action, though, it quickly goes to hell.

The problem starts in the clunky puzzle ‘building’; placing links is mostly fine, but removing connections can be a hassle. Rather than a toggle, there should have been separate buttons for each function; the middle steps are slow and unnecessary, breaking the momentum. When I’d rather quit to the menu to redo a puzzle than manually-deselect each connection, it’s a problem.

Then came the ‘punishformer’ jumps and disappearing platforms, often forcing you to leap from the exact edge of a disintegrating block in order to be successful. Other steps you find are simply illusions, leading to countless deaths as you trial and error your way into ‘learning’ the correct path. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’re usually under fire from hecklers during these tougher slogs. You can now multiply your countless deaths by ten, all due to the terrible enemy layouts, their heartless AI, and their constant, cheap respawns.

After all that (and if you’ve stuck around), add to this a final puzzle that offers no hints as to its solution, no previous example in the game on which to base its logic, where I had to sheepishly ask for help (a sincere thanks to Tristan at Clearance Bin Review) in order to finally move past it (see comments below for help), and you’ve got a game that wasn’t ready for publication, let alone a prime spot in the Uprising. What you’ve got is a twenty-minute concept that stretches out to an hour or more because of bad design.

Still, and I must stress this, Sententia is worth at least a look. Don’t worry, there isn’t some misguided plea or ‘support the arts no matter what’ speech coming. What I am saying is brief and to the point. Play the game if you’re a developer, and play the game if you’re a consumer. There’s a lesson for anyone here.

Games are and should be a passion first, but they are also a product. High Concepts and putting your heart into a project are great, but they can only take you part of the way. Fun and proper balance have to do all the heavy lifting, or your idea, as sound and unique though it may be, will buckle. Sententia is the result of placing too much burden on an idea.

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REVIEW: qrth-phyl

For the longest of times (up until its release, actually), qrth-phyl (80 MSP) defied a full explanation. Also pronunciation, which continues to elude us all. From the cryptic trailer and description, you glean almost nothing except the now-confirmed suspicion that you’d be collecting dots. For what purpose or greater good, it was not said.

That purpose is now clear(er). qrth-phyl contains that classic arcade goal of getting the highest score, though calling it a glorified ‘snake game’ is not only incorrect, it’s slightly offensive. qrth-phyl is familiar yet distant, with a certain care that extends beyond the typical indie developer. hermitgames is not the typical indie developer. It immediately recalls the studio’s previous XBLIG, Leave Home, and qrth-phyl continues in carrying out that style with aplomb.

Dot collection is the chief gameplay component. Doing so extends your snake. You continue to grow. Do not run into yourself while circling the levels.  Yes, you’ve done this before. It isn’t exactly a thrilling concept on its own, but with a new perspective and art on its side, that idea feels fresh once again in qrth-phyl.

It’s challenging (and fun) navigating the different layouts, shifting from a 2D plane to full 3D and back (the 3D camera here is just about the best I’ve encountered). There are some tricks to the old dog too, such as point combos for scooping dots in quick succession, or a powerup that shrinks your size and changes the excess tail into collectible dots. It works in reverse as well. The larger green dots give you more points, but also spawn laser traps. In tight quarters, these can be game-enders. Worse still are the corruptions.

These ‘corruption’ moments, when they occur, alter the level in real time, throwing up roadblocks and extending barricades in an attempt to rain on your parade, usually succeeding. Damn adaptive difficulty. qrth-phyl marks the rare occasion where you should shoot for average. Do too well, and the game thinks you’re the bee’s knees, taking it upon itself to ‘toughen’ things up for you.

Play through the game, and you’ll unlock the ‘Elements’ item in the notes section. These Out and In rooms are the ten single stages from the main game, ‘sequence’, but in a separate menu. The ‘elements’ work as quick little one-offs, one life to collect as many dots possible, It tracks your completion of each room and high score, which stacks and builds up your corruption percentage just as playing the main game does. What happens when that level reaches 100%?

Ah, well, nothing. At least that I saw. I’m not sure what I expected or wanted, a thumbs-up made entirely of cubes (would have been nice), but alas, nothing. I can’t hide my disappointment in finding the end of the rainbow was just the end, though it’s hardly a huge setback. I also wished for a peer-to-peer leaderboard during some of my high score runs, as that would have been a perfect fit, but again, the main game is easily able to make up for these absences (and I’ll always have Twitter to brag to).

It might be a little misunderstood, or maybe you were expecting a bit more (like me), but as the opening shot to the Uprising III, qrth-phyl is a more than capable lead-off hitter. As an arcade type, it does exactly what it should— short, thrilling (yes, really) gameplay and the eternal chase for a high score. It starts off as a homage to games gone by, and becomes the quintessential ‘snake’ game in the process.

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