Monday, January 28, 2013

Plague Inc. and The Mirror Lied

Today I'm going to be reviewing two vastly different games. One is for iOS/Android, and the other is for the PC.

Plague Inc.

If you have a smartphone, chances are you've at least heard of this strategy game. It's a title released by Ndemic Creations, which only has one person--impressive, to say the least! The game has you beginning a plague that is meant to wipe out the entirety of civilisation as we know it. You can choose how your plague behaves by spending DNA points, currency you earn by infecting countries, on various attributes. You decide how your plague is spread, its symptoms, and how it reacts to medication and lab research.

To say the game is a little morbid would be an understatement, but to say it's a little addictive would be the same. B13 and I have been having a blast with this game. It requires careful planning on the gamer's part, especially in the later stages, and though it can get frustrating at times, wiping out the entirety of the population is scarily satisfying, when you're able to do it.

 Plague Inc. has three difficulty modes: casual, normal and brutal, and 7 different plague types, ranging from a simple bacteria all the way to a bio-weapon, and you can unlock different genes to customise your plague with. For a $1 app store game, it is extremely versatile and great for any type of player.

The game also features an eerie, haunting soundtrack, and a stylish interface. It's surprising, to say the least, that all of this was done by one person. There are also a couple of humorous Easter eggs that you can find if you have the right combination of symptoms.

The Mirror Lied

This little oddity (or "experimental pretention", as the game's creator likes to call it) was created by Freebird Games--the same lovely folks who made the masterpiece To the Moon. It's what I would call a post-modern fairy tale, in that nothing is as it seems and anything you take away from it will be your own to decide. It's created, again, with the RPGMaker engine, thus it is a top-down view, and shares stylistic similarities with To the Moon. Nothing is directly told to you, and the interpretation is up to you.

You play as a young girl named Leah. One day, a bird flies over the roof of your house. The game begins from there.

You can interact with just about anything in the game and collect items as you explore. The game only takes place in the house, and it would seem that time passes every time you execute an action that's integral to the plot. Keep an eye on the various pictures throughout the game.

I won't go on much further about the game itself. It's very short, lasting no more than forty-five minutes if you really stretch it out. It features beautiful, catchy music that seems to sum up the game as a whole: a childlike music box theme with a dark undertone. It's a bit confusing on the surface, but the game will give you everything you need to succeed. Take a half hour and a cup of tea and give it a play to see what I mean.

Before I go, I'd like to give a little shout out to Daniel Albu, the creator of Square Madness. He has a new game out for Androids called MemAudio. Unfortunately I only have an iPhone, and the same goes for B13, so neither of us are able to play it. If you can, though, you definitely should, and please let me know how it is!

I've been playing through Ni No Kuni in my spare time lately, so I haven't been playing as many indie games as I'd like, hence I'm reviewing an iOS game and a short one this week. If you have any other little games you'd like me to try out in the next few weeks, as usual, send me a comment or a message. I'd love to play them!


Sunday, January 20, 2013

To the Moon

Sometimes, I play a game that strikes me so much that I immediately need to talk about it. In fact, that's the main reason I started this blog to begin with: to talk about games that stick with me after I've played them. To the Moon by Freebird Games is one of those games.

I was watching the first episode of a Let's Play on Youtube, and after the first five minutes I had to stop watching it because I knew I wanted to play it for myself. I finally got around to it this week and I'm glad I did. Being that I've just recently taken up reviewing indie games, I'm a bit late coming across this one, but I suppose I'm better late than never.

 To the Moon is a story of a man named John who is on his deathbed. The story is driven by characters Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, who both work for the Sigmund Corporation. The corporation revolves around granting a dying person's wish in the form of artificially implanted memories. John's final wish is to go to the moon, and it's up to Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts to figure out how to get him there.

Firstly, for a game created with the RPGMaker engine, this is a stunning work of art. It also truly shows off what the engine is capable of, because you never once enter into a battle. It's classified as an RPG, but it's more of an adventure/visual novel hybrid with a couple of puzzle elements tossed in. I've added a couple of screenshots, both from within the first five minutes of gameplay, so as not to spoil anything. There is a startling amount of detail in every tile, giving a visual representation of the sheer amount of care and dedication that went into this game. The memory sequences have a disjointedness to them that is extremely effective; characters randomly appear and colours fade, giving the effect of a real memory. There is one section that has the lines in a basketball court drawn incorrectly because John didn't remember what they really looked like.

To the Moon game had a number of musical moments that, alone, could bring a person to tears. Give the game's Bandcamp a listen and you'll see what I mean. The music was moving and set the perfect tone for a game that was so emotionally rich. Composed in a collaboration with Kan Gao, the game's creator and director, and Laura Shigihara of Plants Vs. Zombies fame, the score is stirring. The sound presentation is well done as well, with particular attention to detail. For example, if you go upstairs while someone is playing the piano, you may notice it becomes muffled. The nature sounds are realistic and fittingly soothing.

The story is complex and brilliantly crafted. Playing through a second time will reveal parallels and ties that you wouldn't understand on the first playthrough. In typical indie game fashion, it has a way of immersing the player into the story in ways that other media, typically films and books, cannot. Games like To the Moon reveal, to me, that video games are the future of storytelling. I believe that games are one of the most powerful storytelling tools we have now, but they're often overlooked as trivial entertainment.

Which isn't to say, of course, that it wasn't an entertaining game! While it left me weeping for a solid ten minutes after the credits had finished rolling, there was plenty of humor. For example, Dr. Watts initiates a battle scene with a squirrel. Just when you think there may be some battle elements to the game after all, you are accused by a young girl of abusing animals. Both Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalene have amusing character quirks, such as Dr. Rosalene's food-related interjections ("for walnut's sake!"). John's favourite food is pickled olives, which, consequently, is my favourite food, too. During one of the scenes I just couldn't take it anymore and had to go to the fridge to get the remaining half jar to scarf down.

The game clocks in at somewhere around 4 hours long. Come prepared with some tissues for the end, because this game will not go easy on your emotions. You will probably cry. I hope it casts its spell over you, too.

The game won a well-deserved award and a sequel is, apparently, in the works, following the next patient on Dr. Watts' and Dr. Rosalene's adventures. The ending of the game suggests that there may be several more "episodes" to look forward to, each following new patients.

You can bet I'll be reviewing another of Freebird Games' titles in the near future. I was very impressed and impacted by this beautiful, sad, intricate and funny story. No amount of words I can give it will do it justice. Play it through and see what I mean. The game is available on Steam and on its website for $10, but you can also download a one-hour long demo for free.


Sunday, January 13, 2013



This week, I wanted to take a step backwards and review a game that started a game company--thatgamecompany, to be precise. After playing their three headlining titles, flOw, Flower, and Journey, going back to take a look at their earliest game was eye-opening.

If you liked Flower, this game will tell you where the majority of it came from. While Flower portrays the dreams of flowers, Cloud is its human equivalent, portraying the dreams of a young boy in a hospital. He's tired of the confining walls and the medicine he has to take, and creates an escape in his mind by dreaming about becoming friends with clouds.

The gameplay is quite simple, and, as is now the norm for thatgamecompany games, it builds its foundation on a principle of non-violence, instead relying on emotional cues. I only experienced a slight problem with the controls, finding them a little trying on my first play. B13 didn't express this problem, though, saying he found the game quite easy to play and intuitive. Looking back on it, I was more focused on the point-A-to-point-B aspect of play, rather than the real task at hand: relaxation. Other reviewers have talked about it being one of the most relaxing games they had ever played, so I'm sure I wasn't going about it the right way.

Gameplay consists of freely flying high above the water, collecting bright white clouds. You can store the white clouds to build taller ones, combine white clouds with dark grey ones to create rain, turn light grey clouds into white ones, and draw patterns in the sky.

B13 considers the game to have a mixture of flOw and Flower-style gameplay, with view-from-above elements that flOw later developed, and the drifting-on-the-wind elements that Flower came to represent. The game's soundtrack is, very recognisably, composed by Vincent Diamante, of Flower fame. The music was one of the biggest highlights for me, featuring a very moving series of songs that attach the player emotionally to the little boy.

After Cloud was released, thatgamecompany was formed. Cloud received an overwhelming response, crashing the server of the website it was being hosted on, and receiving a million hits. The game also won a grant, which is, likely, part of the reason thatgamecompany is still alive and well today. Cloud caused people to re-think the direction of video games, and to consider that it, too, is a credible art form. The immense response to Journey, so many years later, shows just how well they are succeeding in this regard.

thatgamecompany has discussed remaking the game, and though it would be great to see what they make next, I can't help but hope they do remake it. I think Cloud came a bit before its time; the control scheme is reminiscent of the Playstation 3's Sixaxis controls. The graphics are lovely but simplistic and would probably benefit from a makeover, though the art and style should stay the same. The still images are well done and add a level of depth to the game, and though most games would opt for a cutscene instead, I feel the still images work well for this game.

All-in-all, Cloud is a lovely game and should be played to be properly enjoyed; no amount of talking I do about it will do it justice. It's immersive and, yes, it too is an experience. It's a reminder that games don't have to be violent, challenging, or mind-bending. They can simply be.

Lately I've been considering doing LPs for this blog, mainly because me playing through SCP-087 has to be seen to be believed (spoiler alert: I scream. A lot.), but also to showcase a few of the games we play. I'll be doing some research on how to make an effective LP.

I purchased To the Moon this morning and hope to be able to play it through the next week or so. As always, if you have a game you'd like me to play, let me know.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Square Madness and Idle Idol Head

It turns out that one of the cool things that comes with tweeting your indie video games blog is the fact that occasionally, you get in contact with other indie game lovers or makers. In this instance, I got ahold of a dev by the name of Daniel Albu, who makes Flash, HTML5 and Android games. He has an extensive portfolio, as well as an impressive list of awards, but today I'd like to specifically discuss his recent HTML5 game.

Square Madness

I really enjoyed this game. Its design is simplistic, yet stylish. You play as a rotating black square, and your aim is to collect other black squares while simultaneously avoiding red squares. The smaller black squares, which are more difficult to obtain, give more points than the larger ones. As time goes on, the pacing of the gameplay gradually increases, but not to the point that it's ever terribly noticeable. It is well-paced enough that it is never fast to a stressful degree.

I actually found this game to be quite relaxing to play. One of the things I and fellow thisindiegameblog contributor B13 noticed was that it was easier and more enjoyable to play to avoid the red squares than it is to play to collect the black squares.

Case in point, I played to collect the black ones, and he played to avoid the red ones. My high score was somewhere around 1180. His, well...
Needless to say, he put me to shame.
If you continue to play this game long enough, you enter a sort of state of flow, meaning you can become completely focused and absorbed in the gameplay. The music and sounds were a nice addition, never too distracting or loud.

What I liked was that the game was simplistic enough that it didn't require a tutorial, but not mind-numbing in its simplicity. It's a good game to simply play, and since it's HTML5, it's very accessible. It's good to play if you're looking for a distraction, or if you're looking for something to help you focus.

Idle Idol Head

Firstly, I have to give bonus points (not that I give out any points at all, but you know) for the title.

Almost a year ago, when I played Journey for the first time, I had the pleasure of playing alongside fellow first-timer MrConkin. It turned out, when I did a Twitter search, that the user had a handle of the same name, and I've been following him on Twitter ever since. He also has a blog, where I learned he is a game developer. I don't mean for this to sound creepy, but I've been following his work ever since out of sheer curiousity.

Recently, I looked to see that he had posted Idle Idol Head up to Newgrounds, so I went over to give it a play.

The game begins with a quirky, fun cut scene with crisp, colourful graphics and fluid animation. You play as a deity named Moai, who is shorter than the others and wants to grow taller so he can ride roller coasters and get chicks. A character by the name of Rapa offers to help Moai. If he collects all the switches, shaped like Easter Island heads, Rapa will make him taller. And the adventure begins.

The character below Moai looks somehow... familiar...
You start out simply playing through levels to collect the switches, but then you can acquire other gameplay methods to help you collect different coloured switches. Once you collect all the switches in one level, you can progress to the next. If you manage to pass the level without dying once, you will get a star.

There are 30 total stars that you can receive in this game, and other than beating levels without dying, you can also perform tasks for other characters to
get them. Thankfully you can replay levels from the main menu, since Newgrounds saves your progress, so if you died on the first run-through of a level, you can re-play it to collect the star later on.

The gameplay consists of navigating Moai through a series of walled-in areas. You must avoid the walls, or else you will die. Running into just about any surface will kill you, though there are three different power-ups you can attain: flowers will turn you yellow and light your way, pools of water will turn you blue and also help you water plants, and fire will turn you red and help you melt snow. These different gameplay mechanics
contribute to the difficulty level of some of the puzzles.

In addition, the game has a gravity system that gives some weight to Moai as a character, and adds depth to the gameplay. He can be physically influenced by wind, allowing it to change his direction.

My favourite part about this game was the unique gameplay, coupled with its colourful style. The game was challenging enough that I was unable to collect all 30 stars on my first playthrough. Despite playing the whole game from start to finish, I still find myself wanting to go back to collect the rest. If I had one complaint about the game, it would be that some of the shout-outs to other games are a bit too obvious and break the fourth wall a bit. I liked the game's design and characters enough that having obvious shout-outs was a bit jarring. There's a shout-out at the final level, though, that was subtle and really well done. I won't say what it is, because I found it a pleasant surprise after playing through.

Both Idle Idol Head and Square Madness, interestingly enough, had similar styles of avoid-the-obstacle gameplay. It was by pure coincidence that I ended up reviewing them side by each, but they are satisfying for different reasons.

I have updated the blog a bit with a new link about "Funding the Dream" for indie games that need a little help along the way. Also, under "about thisindiegameblog", you'll find  a bit more about the blog, plus brief bios for B13 and I. As always, if there are any games you'd like us to play and potentially review, send them our way.