By Kieron Gillen on June 9th, 2009 at 11:03 am.
Being away means that I’m enormously behind on the indie game situation. There’s about half a dozen open tabs plus e-mails marked as IMPORTANT for me to investigate. I’ll be catching up as well as I can, but the first thing I took a look at was Ancient Galaxy. And it’s… interesting. My mental note-pad is covered with scrawlings like “Outcast”, “Early Tomb Raider”, “Quasi-Star Trek”, “System Shock” and lots of other similarly intriguing things. It’s basically an oddly late-90s feeling action/adventure – in that it swaps elegance for piling on ideas and mechanisms. It’s a very PC action/adventure, in other words. The shareware version can be got here, and there’s some more thoughts from my quick play beneath the cut…
You play a Star-Trek-esque officer, exploring an alien ruins, before uncovering Dark Secrets ™. The most noticeable initial feature is the game’s unique take on dual-wielding. Not totting two shotguns – but packing a gun in the left while you carry a proper scanning device in your right. So you alternate between poking thing with the scanning device, and opening up on the enemies. Other systems are quickly introduced – there’s a role-playing game system, where you’re able to upgrade your characters’ abilities. You can collect weapons, dismantle them aboard your space-ship, and then re-construct them. And upgrade them – if you’ve collected enough scrap metal (either by mining veins with the scanner or just taking apart whatever unwanted trinkets you’ve found) to afford the costs. There’s also crystals, which provide more oblique abilities, and can be similarly broken apart.
But most impressive of all is the cloning mechanism. If you scan fallen enemies, you can collect their DNA. Get enough, and you can use the cloning device aboard your ship to transform your consciousness into an alien body, with all its abilities. Apparently the full game has nine aliens for you to try out. I have no idea what abilities being a big lizard allowed me, but frankly, I was happy just stomping around with my special agreeable tail. The cloning device is also how the game deals with death, re-constructing yourself aboard the ship when you get blasted by those darn lizards. Your best equipment and anything you found is still on your corpse, requiring you to get close and scan it to get it all back. At least in the early parts of the game I played, this isn’t too painful – you get dropped at a checkpoint on the planet relatively nearby, plus you’re able to manufacture a lot of your basic equipment for free. The obvious comparison would be a corpse run in an MMO if it wasn’t for negative connotations of the phrase. When enemies aren’t respawning and the distance is small, it’s hardly the same.
Problems? Well, combat isn’t exactly hyper-slick. Despite the relatively lacking aesthetics compared to a modern commercial release, frame rate wasn’t exactly sterling on my moderate system. Voice-acting near the start is of the quality which gets RPS podcast threads full of people complaining about noise compression or demanding microphones or saying Alec and I have annoying voices. The game’s story is primarily told through the retro-text pop ups. It’s a little unfair – it’s in that odd position of being an indie game which looks enough like a mainstream game to be judged against it and found lacking. With the resolution turned up, I found the lighting and landscapes of the game quite seductively alien – their softness seemed to recall Outcast most of all.
Me? I found myself working through it due to its undeniable sense of vision. The combat may not be great, but the exploration was the key for me. It’s a game which while not free-roaming or anything like that, is open enough to make exploration feel like the point. And I especially liked how it dealt with the traps, forcing you to actually pay attention. The Indiana Jones-qeue rolling balls which were dropped towards me worked well with the real-physics too – the first missed me because I was just running too quickly, which added vesimilitude to what was a scripted sequence. That is, there was an alien waiting with a trap… but it was a trap which the alien fucked up. As such, the whole thing feels credible, or at least human (as opposed to the cinematic-perfect way most mainstream games would take). And the quick thinking on a later one where I switched to my rocketlauncher and used it to send the threat bouncing off the cliff was cute real physics.
The full game features 20 levels and four character classes, promising a lot of exploration – and its just over ten quid. If you’re willing to see through the indie-finish, it’s an interesting, slow paced and agreeably modernist-retro arcade adventure. I’d say it was worth a look.