Thursday, October 15, 2015


Small note: This game was generously gifted to me by my friend Melissa. Thanks so much for sharing this game with me, Melissa, and for making this review possible!

The moment I saw snippets of a Let's Play of Undertale, I knew I'd have to play it.  I had a feeling this was a game I'd want to experience fully. Absolutely nothing would prepare me for what was to come.

At its surface, Undertale looks like an unassuming, quirky, old-school RPG with heaps of charm, humour, and personality.  The battle system is unique, boasting the typical attack/flee/item formula of most RPGs, but with some new features: ACT and MERCY. ACT allows you to take specific actions with the enemies, and MERCY allows you to either flee or spare the enemy. Undertale, you see, doesn't require you to kill or even battle its monsters. You can complete the game without landing a single attack on an enemy. Also, the player is forced to dodge attacks in a bullet hell-style minigame. The enemy will fire attacks of various kinds and you will have to dodge them with a small red heart, which represents your player character. The game is also rife with fun little puzzles. None of the puzzles are too terribly difficult, especially after playing through the game once. Boss battles are satisfying, regardless of outcome, and reasonably dramatic.

The music, which is always a high selling point for me, is practically perfect--it's genius, really. It's self-referential--you'll notice the same leitmotifs popping up here and there with remixes and other melodies threaded with new ones. Each song fits its context perfectly. There is a lot of chiptune music that is backed by strings or other instruments, hearkening to the game's classic feel with a new twist. The soundtrack also features touching piano melodies, goofy themes for bumbling characters, the occasional disturbing low-frequency tune, and a few sweeping epics. I recommend listening to the soundtrack in the context of the game before listening to it solo.

It's difficult to talk about aspects of the storyline without spoiling anything, so I will omit that entirely and say that you simply need to play this game for yourself--Undertale needs to be experienced to be understood, and deserves the attention it requests. The game can be beaten from start to finish in about 5-7 hours, but I recommend playing through twice--10-14 hours altogether.

This game is very complex, and nothing is quite what it seems. There is an unsettling quality to the game that's hard to describe. I'm not sure if it's in the retro-styled graphics, the music, or something else, but there always seems to be something bubbling under the surface, even amid the lighthearted moments. The game itself is humorous; it never takes itself too seriously, all the while subverting and poking fun at typical gaming conventions. The fourth wall is frequently broken.

If you enjoy this game, you will certainly play it twice, and you'll enjoy going back to see the hints of foreshadowing, as well as Easter eggs. If the game interests you, I urge you: stop at this article, and don't read anything else until you've played it through at least twice. This game has a ton of layers. In some ways, it reminds me a little bit of Journey--ways that aren't evident if you haven't played.

I loved this game and I don't think I'm finished with it yet. It was an expertly crafted experience--fun, quirky, and just the right amount of heaviness. I can't stop thinking about it.  I honestly believe that every game developer, whether indie or AAA, can take notes from Undertale. The fact that this game was Kickstarter-funded and received over ten times the requested amount is a testament to the excellence that was produced here. It is transcendent of video games and offers a story that cannot be told through any other medium. My only regret about the game is that I didn't hear about it when the funding was underway.

Undertale is available on Steam for $10, and I really can't recommend it enough. If you want to talk to me about it, please get in touch with me--especially if you want to talk Journey parallels with me! If you want to leave a comment, please avoid any plot spoilers.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Atlantic Canada: The RPG livestream

This is another very brief post to give a shout-out to my friend and fellow indie games blogger, Chad, who runs Fring Frang. Chad is going to be doing a Twitch stream of Atlantic Canada: The RPG, and will be speaking with the game's creator, Don Levandier. The stream takes place this coming Thursday evening at 7 PM Atlantic time.

Check out the Facebook event to be reminded, and I hope you'll join me in watching! My Twitch username is apillini, so feel free to send me an invite, as well. I don't do any streaming yet, but I hope to do so at some point in the future!

I'm slowly trying to re-introduce myself to writing for this blog, as I really love the indie games community and want to draw attention to new and interesting games when I can. I have also been hard at work with one of my own. Please keep an eye open for more posts soon.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


I haven't been terribly active with this blog of late because I've been busy with other things, but I wanted to write quickly about a Kickstarter project that has recently been launched.

A little while ago, I found a post on Tumblr describing a zombie apocalypse game that centred around men being the sole people infected. Sketchy Panda Games took this premise and applied a 1950's aesthetic, and they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of this game.

Aberford looks to be an incredible game, with an alternate history and a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. Please give it a look!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mountain is a charming, relaxing oddity

Far too often do we think of games as fast-paced, jarring challenges, bringing us loads of fun but, sometimes, some unnecessary stress, too.
My mountain at the beginning: beautiful and majestic, with
a giant bench sticking out of the side.

Mountain doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's nothing like that. When you bring up the "pause" menu and view the controls, "nothing" is honestly listed underneath. Starting off your adventure with the game, you quickly discover that you have no control over your environment. You can rotate your mountain and spin it rapidly to get a different look at it, and you can play melodies that will speed up the flow of time. You can also zoom all the way out into space to get a farther look at your mountain. At this time, music you play will have an ethereal, far-off quality to it.

Slowly, your mountain will collect various objects--garbage cans, light bulbs, giant coins. This is seemingly random, and perhaps it is. You do have some control over how your mountain will look by drawing pictures in response to questions the game asks you upon creation, but how exactly these drawings affect your mountain is unknown. The game boasts 50 hours of play with a concrete ending, so you can get some finality. Every now and again, a musical note will play, and the mountain will make some kind of statement or observation about its surroundings. Usually, it comments on the state of the evening or the beauty of the sky. Sometimes, a lower note will play, though, and the mountain will express loneliness or sadness. This may be just a coincidence, but the more I play, the more of the latter I seem to notice. If the sad moments do increase, it makes the mountain seem human--it begins innocent and free of blemishes, happy and talking about how beautiful the day is, then becomes more cynical as it gets older.

Highlights of Mountain include the lovely little chant that comes every time the sun rises in the game, the green fireflies that light up the sky on summer nights, and the surreal weirdness that comes from being a sentient mountain in the middle of a galaxy, slowly collecting pieces of the universe that surround you.

My mountain more recently. I love its little line
of trees. As you see, the bench is still there.
So is a giant lightbulb, a film reel, a cup of
coffee, two asteroids, and a garbage can.
Mountain is an exercise in patience and silence. Too often, we feel the need to define games as possessing of certain criteria. We all need to re-think the concept of "games", stop trying to define them and enjoy them for what they are: a method of play. If you want rules and a failing point, then here's one for you: take 15 minutes, alone with your thoughts and Mountain, and allow yourself to just be. If you can't, you lose. You lose a million points. And you get a game over. How's that?

Mountain is merely $1, and you can play it on a number of platforms, so it's very accessible. If the idea of a "relax-'em-up" game that doesn't require a lot of attention or challenge appeals to you, it's definitely worth the dollar.

I've had a lot going on in my life lately, so it's nice to have a game that has no required minimum play and doesn't ask a lot of you. As much as I love Animal Crossing, my town hasn't had a lot of play due to my focus being elsewhere. I love that I can turn Mountain on and have it playing in the background while I do my homework or read an article. When I'm away from it, I actually find myself missing the unpredictable serenity of my mountain.

If you want to read more on Mountain, here's my favourite article about it (I've read quite a few, to be honest). I posted a link to it on my Facebook page, and my mother, who has also recently gotten Mountain, said "it does remind me of how difficult and important it is to just be". You don't have control over your surroundings, so just let it happen. A nice reminder.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Museum of Simulation Technology and Catlateral Damage

Thanks to Tumblr, I've found two game demos that are both unconventional and very fun. Both games were made with Unity, as well, which ties these reviews together somewhat. As well, neither of these games are in their final version, but are both in the process of being built, so I am reviewing their demos.

Museum of Simulation Technology

This is a really cool game that requires you to use forced perspective to move objects around and get to the exit sign at the end of the level.

Sadly, the game's demo is not currently available from the website. I found it while browsing through Tumblr, however, and the link remains there, as far as I know. I hope the developer, who is a team of only one, continues to work on it. It's really fun and unique!

My full version wishlist for this game:
- I would love to see a "wide open sandbox" level with multiple items you can fiddle around with at will
- An adventure mode would be neat, using the museum levels as a tutorial to prepare you for a more challenging quest

Catlateral Damage

"Play as a cooped-up cat where your paw is your only weapon and mischief-making is your only directive."

That one sentence, taken from the game's website, describes the game with absolute perfection. You're an adorable little jerk of a cat who runs around your human's apartment, knocking items off with reckless abandon. Your aim is to gain 10,000 points in 2 minutes--a surprisingly challenging goal to achieve.

A great feature of the demo is the fact that you can run it in a Unity-supporting web browser, so you don't even need to download anything. Handy!

As of posting, this game is currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight, so if you enjoyed it, please vote a yes for it!

My full version wishlist for this game:
- A non-timed mode, so you can just run around and cause as much havoc as you want
- Kitty noises, because of reasons
- Bigger levels with longer time limits

Best of luck to both of these developers in finishing and promoting these innovative games.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Depression Quest

This game is not fun.

Nor is it particularly enjoyable at all.

That's the point altogether, however.

Depression Quest is a unique second-person choose-your-own adventure-style narrative. You play the role of a twenty-something person who is unsure of where his or her life is going. You have a job that you hate and a project that's going nowhere. You have a girlfriend, named Alex, a dedicated student who loves you very much.

As you follow the story, you learn that the character you are embodying is clearly very depressed. The aim of this game is to follow the life of someone living with depression: to enter his or her mind and to follow the daily struggles and stresses. It's meant to increase awareness and help people understand why people suffering from depression act the way they do. Finally, it's meant to help eliminate the stigma surrounding depression and mental illness.

This game takes its subject matter very seriously and the story is tastefully told. Ultimately, what you do is up to you. I played through twice to see the different endings. The first time, I made the same decisions that I personally would have made. The second time, I made some different ones, resulting in a very different ending. There are 3 other endings that I did not see, making 5 in total.

The story evolves based on your choices. You may notice, as you make choices, that some of them are in red and stricken through the middle. You are unable to make those choices if you become too depressed.

Because its subject matter is heavy and has been written with utmost precision and care, this game is also very triggering if you have experienced depression in the past. If you are currently experiencing depression, I recommend playing with caution. Please be sure to heed the description of the game at its beginning.

The game is a a sensory experience as well, with a soundtrack playing in the background that will adapt depending on how you play. Colours will fade away the worse your depression gets, and static will build up both on images, and in the music.

The game was created by a small team of developers, and has won a number of independent game awards, including Best Narrative. I have also learned that it was given the Steam Greenlight very recently. The game was crafted with Twine, which is a text-based game creator, and will be the first Steam Greenlight title to be created with the engine.

If you are able, I would encourage you to donate to the game's developers. While you're able to play for free, donating will send some of the proceeds toward iFred, an organization seeking to educate people about depression and remove the stigma associated with it, as well as help pave the way for other games by these same creators. Even a few dollars would be helpful, I'm sure.

My only complaint about this game is that it would have been nice to have non-gender specific pronouns for Alex, and maybe even the ability to name your partner yourself. That's very minor, however, and I was still able to completely immerse myself. It might have made the game more relatable. I realise that this may have been a limitation of Twine's capabilities, but nevertheless, an observation.

This game deserves a lot of recognition for its accomplishments and for its importance in the realm of gaming and bringing awareness to people who are suffering. Like I mentioned before, it's not a fun or enjoyable game, but it is an introspective on the lives of people living with depression.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Gone Home

I finally sat down with an enormous mug of tea and turned all the lights off to immerse myself in Gone Home. Whenever I took a break for whatever reason, I'd come back to my own little world in the dark. I do recommend playing the game like this--it will involve and, perhaps, slightly unnerve you.

I've heard a lot of good things about Gone Home in the last several months, and while I'm a bit late on the uptake, I'm glad I took the opportunity to play it. Hot on the heels of being awarded Best Indie Game and Best PC Game at the 2013 Spike Video Game Awards, Gone Home is a hot topic among gamers.

There's been a lot of controversy on this game, mostly regarding whether or not it's a game and whether it's designed for "core gamers" or whatever. My advice? Stop trying to put labels on things and just sit back and enjoy the experience. And, if you don't enjoy the experience, don't get so angry about it. It's a waste of energy.

I'll get off my soapbox now to talk a bit about this beautiful game.

You play as Katie, who has just returned home from a year abroad. Your parents have moved into a new home, inherited from your uncle Oscar, and you're going to visit for the first time. As you arrive late at night, you find your parents gone and a note on the door from your little sister, Sam, telling you not to come looking for her. What follows is an exploration of the house to reveal the mysteries within, with your sister Sam narrating the events that have unfolded in their lives over the last year. You make a lot of discoveries about your family. Some are more startling and more quiet than others.

Gone Home is not a horror game. I cannot stress this enough. You will get tricked into thinking it is by watching trailers or even by playing through it yourself. It is not a horror game. You may get a bit unnerved by it in some instances--particularly since Gone Home does play off a lot of classic horror tropes. It was, originally, an Amnesia mod at first, after all. Gone Home subverts the flickering lightbulb trope and actually points the lights out directly as having faulty (but safe) electrical wiring. My personal favourite was walking into a bathroom to find a bathtub stained with red--and a bottle of red hair dye sitting right next to it. It is almost a deconstruction, but it's so innocently and playfully done that it's more a lighthearted play on your expectations than anything. It's not all innocent, though. There is a lot of struggle at the core of this game, including one theory that I will direct you to, but I will urge you not to read it unless you've played through the game at least once. I'll add that game creators The Fullbright Company have confirmed this theory to be true.

This genre subversion could be done for one of many reasons, but I'm of the belief that it was done to put you directly in Katie's shoes. She's in a new house for the first time, both of her parents are gone and her sister has posted an unsettling note on the door.  Of course Katie would assume the worst, and of course the surroundings of this new and decidedly creepy house would send chills down her spine.

Even though you don't ever meet any of the characters, their stories are very human and relatable. You have the younger sister, Sam, who is telling a sort of coming-of-age story. You have Terrence, the father, who appears to be a failing author. Then you have Janice, the mother, a park ranger who is feeling distanced from her husband. Lonnie is a character introduced by Sam, who doesn't have a voice of her own other than the notes she has written to Sam. Oscar is the deceased former owner of the house--your great uncle--who apparently "went psycho" before he passed away and is said to be haunting the house. You, as Katie, are less fleshed-out in comparison. All you know about Katie is that she is a straight-A student, an overachiever with trophies, ribbons and old homework assignments punctuated throughout the house. As you explore the house, you learn more about each character and why they are absent from the house.

Finding little notes, letters and documents throughout the house is made that much more believable when you notice the setting of the game: 1995. Audio cassettes and VHS are littered throughout the Greenbriars' home, as well as handwritten and dot matrix printed letters. Sam and Lonnie run a zine that they print themselves with their own art and label-makers, and Sam's own short fiction can be found throughout her belongings. Lonnie has made a number of mixtapes for Sam to enjoy, and a small part of the gameplay involves you finding these tapes and playing them while you search the house. You won't find burnt CDs, Blu-Ray players or cell phones filled with text messages in this game. You will find a believable and era-specific paper trail.

At its core, Gone Home is an exploration game that shows you pieces of each character's individual story and allows you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence. The obvious difference to this is Sam's story, which is told explicitly to you by Sam herself as you make your way through the house.

The game has striking, detailed graphics that reveal interesting details about the inhabitants of the house. The music is also very good, reminding me of my own time in the 90's with its angry female-fronted punk rock, and the sound effects and lighting are immersive and moody. Below you'll find a trailer for the game, which keeps in as much of the mystery as is fitting. The voice acting is phenomenal--some of the best voice acting I've heard in an independent title.

The focus on the dark underlying themes in Gone Home is a little blurred, which adds to the realism of the game's story and setting. Reading the article revolving around the Transgression above will reveal just how underlying that theme is. The game is, at its core, a very real and intricately connected series of stories that will make the player wonder what happened after the game's end. While there is room for a sequel, it would, most likely, have to operate under a different engine, and have a different tone.

The story made me cry at the end, but not for the reasons I was expecting. This game was deceptively hopeful and unexpectedly triumphant. I don't want to spoil the love story, so I'll simply say it's a refreshing alternative to your typical boy-meets-girl with some very real struggles--another part of what makes the story so human.

As a little bonus, my name is Katie, so whenever Sam was addressing the playable character in story, I felt as though she was talking to me directly. That just made the game ever-so-slightly more awesome for me.

I will agree with others who say that the price is a little high for the amount of playable time from the game, but it's something I'll get over pretty quickly. I do wish the game was, at least, a little longer, or had a bit more extra content, but hopefully the extra price is paving way for more games from this company in the future.

Congratulations to the Fullbright Company for this achievement. They took away Best Indie Game and Best PC Game for Gone Home at the Spike TV VGAs on December 7, 2013. This is a huge leap for indie gaming, and I'm glad I was finally able to play this worthy game.

If you appreciate an involved, intricate story, I urge you to give this game a play.