Unknown Pleasures: Another Five Great Indie Games

Black fire girl magic

Healthy eating is for suckers. Here we are, at the height of a long overdue spring, and everyone here has a persistent cold. In May, no less. I’ve even been going outside, and just last night I ate a vegetable. Well, there’ll be no more of that. Instead, a steady diet of Unknown Pleasures will surely cure all ills.

Triumphantly returning to gorging on discounted pasties and cakes this week: nested heartbreak, non-awful high school comedy, and Argentinian dance-fights.

Cliff Empire
£5.99 / $8.99 , Early Access

Humanity has something something apocalypse, something probably nuclear I think, something thing noise words and now confined to living in orbit around Earth. Okay great, now we step in, and it’s our job to build a little settlement across a handful of small but extremely tall icy pillars towering over the toxic planet.

Cliff Empire is both like and unlike other city builder games. You plonk down a storage area and little drones start flitting about delivering resources to help build, keep your little people (a mere number, here, but an important one) going, and turn ore into manufactured goods to be sold to a big cargo ship that warps in on a cool little stargate you also built (you did build one, right? Oh dear). Resources don’t seem to be fixed, but are extracted and processed at a steady rate depending on how many farms, fisheries, factories etc you have.

Once things are stable you can expand to other pillars, but you also need to keep the environment in mind. It may already be an icy wasteland but it could get even worse, and we did kind of ruin it once already.

I love the stark aesthetic, with the near-monochrome settlements all crisp and clean in the foreground, the enormous and pretty scenic views out of focus, and the pace is pleasant and relaxing. I particularly dig the very dark nights coupled with the option to make the cursor an enormously powerful spotlight. FEAR ME, LACKEYS. I SEE ALL.

El Tango de la Muerte
£3.99 / $4.99

El Tango de la Muerte (Spanish for “everyone knows that Sin, come on”) is a rhythm action game, but a surprisingly unique one. It works a little differently to most, as instead of hitting notes or moving particular parts of your body, you’re pressing directional buttons to move about the dancefloor. This is the tango, after all, and consequently emphasises the dramatic movement and use of space, some deceptively tricky irregular beats, oh and sometimes instead of dancing you’re fighting to music, and if you miss too many steps you’ll get shivved.

For you see, it has a story too. And a jolly fun one, set in 1920s Buenos Aires, with all the melodrama you might expect. The art is reminiscent of the Canadians from South Park, with cut-out characters scuttling oddly about and tilting when they talk, which works well with the movement during the dances.

It’s rather short, but it’s a good laugh, the music’s great, and when else are you gonna play a game set in Argentina, let alone a period drama? I stumbled a fair bit with some of the sliding moves as getting the exact distance/timing never quite clicked, but I probably just need more practice.

£15.49 / $19.99

An absolutely gorgeous puzzle game about a nameless, voiceless Hero who casts aside his bloody sword and takes up a pen. As his whole world is drawn in ink, he can use the pen to create simple shapes that help him solve puzzles and retrieve his prized stamp collec… sorry, his girlfriend.

If you’re on a coal-fired laptop you might think this is ideal simple fodder that’ll run on anything, however! Inked is a story within a story, whose artist will periodically look away from the story to his room, neglected after some kind of emotionally devastating experience that he’s obviously using his art to work through. There’s a lot of anger there and it’s not yet clear how healthily the game will resolve that, but I was very intrigued. It helps that the puzzles are, well, fine. They’re not particularly difficult (a plus for me, and anyone else who tends to respond to getting stuck by just playing something else), but they’re paced alright, and though it might seem shallow, the understated music and very attractive art are a reward in themselves.

Monster Prom
£9.29 / $11.99

Monster Prom (American for “end of year dance taken far too seriously”) could have gone horribly wrong. I mean, the game, not the concept of a prom full of vampires and … well. It’s a dating sim about picking a monster, then building up your stats and hopefully relationship(s?) with other monsters at school, with the goal of asking one to the prom. Or you can choose to go on your own, regardless of whether anyone is interested.

It’s a very hip sort of game, full of lighthearted references to feminism and politics and modern internet culture, which is where some games fall flat on their face, but Monster Prom handles it all with such a light comedic touch that it does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s silly and over the top but never smug, performative, or self righteous, and it made me chuckle regularly. There’s even, I think uniquely, a multiplayer mode, where you and the up to three friends that I too definitely have can go a woo-in’ all at once. Sadly I have not tried this, because my many friends are intimidated by my extreme charm. [Alyse Stanley played the multiplayer mode for her full Monster Prom review, which went up earlier this evening. -Ed]

Put it this way: On my first go I ended up the Flame Princess-esque lover and consigliere to an ambitious, moderately evil gorgon who, with my support, also became a powerful crime lord. This is everything I have ever dreamed of.

Another quick parental note: though not gratuitous, it is very sweary.

Space Battlecruiser
£3.99 / $4.99

Unfortunately I can't embed the trailer here, and the stills look rather underwhelming. This is unfair.

Space Battlecruiser (English for “stop this”) is a shooter about a battlecruiser in space. Probably, anyway – who really knows the difference between a frigate, cruiser, destroyer and all that? Nobody, that’s who.

In contrast to the typical fighter, your ship is a big, lumbering old thing, too slow to reliably dodge many attacks, but chunky enough to shrug off a hail of fire as long as you patch up now and then. And of course, you have some damn big guns.

This isn’t the full on capital ship combat sim we’ve all wanted since the last serious attempt, but it’s a great middle ground between the zippy little blaster and ponderous titan styles of spacefight. You’re slow but can still dodge a bit, vulnerable but can take a pasting if you’re careful, powerful but not overwhelming. The constant low thrum of your humble flak cannons, the middling but handy lasers, the welcome challenge of timing and aiming your artillery just where a foe will turn into it. It’s satisfying stuff, even if it is a tad easy.

The effects are solid, and there’s room for a little tactical variation – I tend to favour timid sniping but am not averse to ploughing into a reckless melee, where multiple sources of damage can really mess you up, but those beautiful point blank broadsides make it all worthwhile.

There’s a strategy layer too, as you salvage … salvage from wrecks and spend it on upgrades and new weapons, and choose specific sectors to attack in order to disrupt and weaken an enemy war economy. Fairly lightweight, but that’s all the structure it really needs.

This has been another very close contest – you won’t go far wrong with anything here – but ultimately the only reason I had for not making Monster Prom Pick of the Week is that it’s interactive fiction yet again. But here it is.

The key to never having a bad date ever: don't 'date', just spend time together and talk. It's not the people that make dating awful, it's the imaginary rules and expectations and bizarre calisthenics. This is also how I met most of my excellent friends in adulthood.

Call me predictable, it’s fine. But when a dating sim makes jokes about dating sims and they’re actually funny instead of agonising, somebody did their job right. “Dating sim” is arguably a misnomer if anything, it’s really all a vehicle for fun dialogue rather than the usual overwrought story crossed with a sex pest encouragement programme.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get working on the next batch of games, and a massive bowl of chips.


  1. aircool says:

    I’m pretty sure that’s a Joy Division album…

    • Guzzleguts says:

      Oh boy, I bet they never thought of that. Wish I could see their embarrassed faces.

  2. caff says:

    Yes! More Unknown Pleasures. I live for this column, particularly after “Watch Me Jump” 2 weeks ago.

    El Tango’s video is somewhat hilarious, but I’m hopeless at Rhythm games. I think it’s because my brain is wired with an offset breakbeat jungle track that likes to kick in alongside the game music.

    Inked sounds good though. Being wary, I always look at negative Steam reviews and one person complained about Mouse and Keyboard controls being fiddly, do you know if that is the case?

    • Sin Vega says:

      I must admit I didn’t really try out the keyboard controls for it. A fair few indie games are optimised for a controller first, so when I’m doing a lot in a row I tend to default to that. Something I should consider changing in future, so ta for asking.

      I’ve had a quick ten minute go on Inked with a keyboard/mouse and nothing jumped out as notably bad. It isn’t quite as smooth as a couple of analogue sticks though, so I can see where it might get a bit fuss during some of the narrower jumps. The tiny graphics and perspective and irregular edges probably don’t help.

    • alienryes says:

      I love the concept, art style and story of this is game. I would truly love to love this game but the controls are just too fiddly, especially when you have to complete a section within a certain time. I find myself retrying over and over and sometimes succeeding just by sheer luck. Sometimes I felt quite pleased with myself for finding a solution to a puzzle and then one twitch in the wrong direction and I’ve died and am almost back to the beginning of the puzzle. In the end I spent a lot of time feeling punished rather than rewarded. Nonetheless it is a lovely game to look at.

  3. Skabooga says:

    Space Battlecruiser (English for “stop this”) is a shooter about a battlecruiser in space. Probably, anyway – who really knows the difference between a frigate, cruiser, destroyer and all that? Nobody, that’s who.

    That’s easy – frigate is what you yell when you stub your toe.

  4. April March says:

    El Tango de la Muerte means, of course, Death Bogey.

    Argentina does have a small but burgeoning indie game scene, so it’s not that unlikely to play a game set there. Reversion was also set in Buenos Aires. But a tango adventure in 1920’s Buenos Aires – yeah, that’s rare. Could someone like me, who is literally unable to play Crypt of the Necrodancer, play it?

    • Robert The Rebuilder says:

      Would that be ‘Bogey’ as in ‘Incoming bogey at 5 o’clock’ or ‘Boogie’ as in ‘Boogie Nights/Fever’?

      • Dave Mongoose says:

        Or perhaps “I was blowing my nose and a massive bogey came out”?

    • Sin Vega says:

      I’ve no idea, I haven’t played crypt of the necrodancer. If you have a lot of trouble with rhythm games it might be a bit frustrating, but I’m afraid I can’t really be the judge of that.

  5. Raoul Duke says:

    I find it hard to imagine being at a low enough point in my life to purchase and play a ‘dating sim’.

    • Disposable157 says:

      You might really enjoy it! Try getting out of your comfort zone! It might lead to a fun time :)

    • Ghostbird says:

      If you don’t like romance then that’s a valid choice, but if it’s just that you’ve never tried one or you’re worried about your gamer credentials then I’d encourage you to branch out.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Romance (the real concept) is fine, but my strong impression is that these are games largely aimed at barely pubescent teens who are also deeply into manga and anime also aimed at barely pubescent teens. Am I wrong?

        • Sin Vega says:

          No, most of them are the exact kind of shite you describe. But why on Earth would I pick those as the best five games?

    • spacejunkk says:

      I wonder if this is what non-game-playing people see when they look at games. People playing at being muscle-bound warriors, brilliant detectives or particle physicists. You’re not those things. Grow up. Go outside. Etc.

      It’s not my thing either, but come on. Judge not.

  6. Avioto says:

    Sin Vega is slowly but surely destroying my bank account..

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I feel my wishlist growing exponentially every week. All the games that will await me in 30 years when I retire… if I retire, I guess, I’m a millennial after all!

  7. Dzhulian says:

    The Cliff looks like the sort of thing I’d really like to play on my ipad.

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    Lo says:

    Is it just me or is Sin’s writing even more brilliant on the sniffles?? :D