Happy New Freelance Year! The receipt-flakes are falling, the accountants are singing their carols, and in every house the children are leaving out tripwires and caltrops to delay the inevitable march of the merciless Father Taxmas.
Did you have a good time at Rezzed? I didn't go - humans, right? - but that's fine because we clever ones, we get all the good footage without even leaving our tunnels. And because I showed up for the mixer anyway. They can't stop me. Unknown Pleasures has spies everywhere.
It's an even wider selection of obscurities for you today, as Unknown Pleasures brings you the best unsung indie games on Steam once more. Confusing RPS staffers by saying their own names to them this week: Groundhog crimes, Bushido yo-yos, and robotic wanderers.
£19.49 / €25 / $25
Turn-based team-o-shoot actiontimes with stompy bompy robots. There are many reasons why I am not a blurb writer. BATALJ may, I fear, not be strong enough in its bready single player mode to weather the difficult early days of gathering enough of an audience to make its multiplayer meaty/quorny bits shine. Two players face off on small hexagonally divided arenas, and direct their robots to drill, shoot, and whisper cutting remarks at each other in a bid to control key spots or wipe each other out. Turns are speed/initiative based, so each unit on the board moves and fires based on their own relative attributes rather than their team. But players do give orders to all their units at once, so much of the strategy is in anticipating your opponent's movements based on which robot follows which. Clashing movement orders can cancel each other out, although I was relieved and impressed that a robot ordered to target an enemy will still try to do so even if the target's position changes afterwards.
This in itself can be exploited by cunning players, as some attacks preclude movement and others take several turns to charge. The inverse isn't true though - you can't target an enemy that's out of range even if you correctly think it will move into range soon.
The variety of robots and abilities shows some promise, and it's looking rather chrome. But it could use some more nuanced video options, a tidying up of the HUD (in particular, the massive and totally unnecessary objective text obscures a lot of the screen for no reason long after you've grasped the concept of "fight the other robots"), and more players.
Brave are ye, o indie devs, who throw your lot into online multiplayer.
£4 / €4 / $5
Casting aside my chances of being mistaken for an intellectual, I must confess that most artsy art games leave me cold. I often respect them a lot more than I like them, but if you feel similarly, you may well find that Electric Sleep reaches you like it did me.
After waking in a metal chamber surrounded by other, unreachable sleepers, you exit and explore the world across a series of heavily pixelated, largely inanimate scenes. "Explore" in a fairly passive sense - rather, you choose directions and interpretations of the scenes before you, until ... well, it depends where you go. You reach a river. Do you turn back, cross the bridge, or follow the water? And how did that make you feel?
Electric Sleep is all up in its feelings, and each replay looping after the first is recoloured literally and figuratively with a new emotion. You can explore different paths, or even repeat the same ones under different moods, wildly altering the experiences it describes. The one consistent feeling is a distinct melancholy. Somehow, even among all the greenery, there's a pervasive sense of decline and loss.
It's not a long game, but like many of the best interactive fiction games, Electric Sleep does a lot with a little.
HYPERFIGHT Max Battle
Free / Frei / Free, y'all
HYPERFIGHT Max Battle: a title that must be yelled and then suddenly quiet down, perhaps out of embarassment. It is a silly game and a super fun one. Where most 1v1 fighters got for huge character rosters and/or enormous complexity, this runs in the other direction. A tiny handful of characters, each with a mere three attacks (I think one only has two), each of which is an instant knock-out. A KO scores you a point. Five points wins you the match.
It's a textbook case of easy to learn, difficult to master, as the lack of complex moves makes moving and timing and sometimes sheer absurd fluke most of the game. Dodging is both movement and a split second of invincibility. The infuriating frog guy's power spitblob seems useless until you realise he can bat it around the screen. The kid's yo-yo attack can be used as a grappling hook. Both players can move freely in between points, to intimidate or trick each other. And the scoring system means that you can always win - second and third attacks for each character cost a point, which is lost if you lose that round, so you're basically gambling with your own score. And it's often worth it, because landing one power attack wins an instant five points.
It's a laugh single player, but two friends messing around with this could have a fantastic time.
£11.39 / €12.49 / $15
Heavens. It's RPG Maker. Although The Culture has largely given up on tedious game engine factionalism, I must confess that I do harbour some distaste for RPG Maker. It's just... it seems custom built to lead devs into the same design traps. Few of its graduates feature here, so I'm glad to recommend Dungeon Dreams.
You're an Adventurer in a standard JRPG fantasy land, but one in which that's a recognised, defined job. Like most in your industry, you've come to Ecallia to delve into the local dungeon for profit and self-improvement. There's literally a local dungeon - the town is built on the weird economics and culture of hunting an apparently inexhaustible supply of monsters and artifacts. It's not about stopping some Great Evil. What exactly would happen if someone ever made it to the bottom and its trapped rebel god is unclear. Instead, it's about making a living. Which you can also do by pootling about town doing odd jobs and chatting to people instead.
It's a "meet the NPCs" game as much as a "Sin replace this with something disparaging about JRPG combat" game, and I'm really charmed with it. It's a life sim about living in a town, not doing chores, and even the flirting and romancing-up-to-marriage side bits are free of the usual tackiness - at least one shopkeeper will firmly tell you you're being a boorish nuisance and flat out refuse to trade with you if you keep trying. It's pretty funny too, and even the grind felt sort of ... optional? I mean, I don't need heaps of money or more stats. I'm not stuck unable to play the game further until it's satisfied that it's wasted enough of my time. I just want to get a bit better at this job.
£15.49 / €16.79 / $20
Every week I accost at least one person in Lidl. "I hate radishes, they're terrible" I say, "but this one looks alright. You should eat this radish". This week's radish is board games, or rather, video games styled after board games. I will not elaborate.
Heretic Operative makes, I think, a mistake by locking everything behind experience point unluck stuff to begin with. Each game has you moving about key points on the board - a fantasy, or possibly speculative fiction setting roughly comparable to the Modern Period in Western history - as a heretical magic user dealing with some manner of plot, which is driven by a sinister cult. Your choice of starting character and a specific cult have a big effect, but far bigger is the choice of plot. Typically, the cult will start out strong on one part of the board and expand outwards, directly or arbitrarily through unseen influence on regular civilians, and ideally as their influence grows you too will be successfully recruiting more agents, gathering resources and knowledge, and honing your magical or martial skills to kill off the cult and stop the coming evil.
The key is managing your actions points - extremely limited for the most part - and resources like money, influence, and rumours. Events kick off at the start of each turn in each location your agents occupy, and each also offers different means to recruit people, seek powerful items and spells, or exchange resources. Combat happens when you share a space and turn with a hostile, and is entirely dice based, and simple to grasp (it helps that the rules are clear and the dice are depicted visually, interestingly). Agents can also acquire trauma and particularly corruption the more magic they toy with, attract the attention of the inquisitorial church, or die quite uselessly.
It may depend on the scenario chosen, but some plots can snowball very easily, and figuring out exactly what's needed and how to efficiently move about the board to get hold of what you need makes for a harder game than its soft artwork suggests.
Your Future Self
£4 / €4 / $5
Games in which the player character IS the player wander through hazardous terrain. Why am I so tall? Why am I not wearing anything purple or red? That's not how I talk! Oh, the talking. That's the tough one. Your Future Self goes all in with this, as it asks you to direct yourself to have a conversation with a version of yourself from the future. Specifically, to talk yourself out of a crime that killed thousands of people.
To this end, you pick three lines, or rather tones of approach - rational, empathetic, and assertive. Youtwo's receptiveness to each varies, and you both have a number rating in each, though it's not clear to me what exact influence all this has. You're in a loop, intentionally so, as you're not going to get it right the first time, and indeed it quickly becomes clear that it's not just a case of getting the correct sequence by trial and error - there's a lot more going on than you're told at the outset, as the people instructing you never really explain themselves, and Future Sin's story paints a very morally complex picture. And, well, why would she lie? Especially to me?
It naturally raises a lot of questions about the self, morality, and causality, without lecturing or singing and dancing too much. The focus is more on the mystery of what's going on and how to resolve it. But I am intrigued. The perhaps inevitable moments where your choice and what you actually say in game seem completely at odds are easily brushed aside for such an interesting story, and the concept is a real gold mine. Your Future Self taps it well.
If I was talking to my past self in a time loop I'd definitely talk her into an unlikely piercing or chopping off a finger or something just to see what happened. It'll be fine, she deserves it anyway.
£18 / €20 / $20
Dilligent news beagle Dominic was not enamoured of RICO, but I must say it's been a welcome change of pace here in the mines. Shooters are common but good FPSeses make surprisingly rare appearances. RICO is not, however, as story led as its trailers and intro make it seem. Indeed, it's a quite spartan game structurally. You're a cop where "cop" means mass murdering Schwarzennobend, tasked with clearing out buildings full of gunmen who are evil because unlike cops they have lots of guns and ... huh.
You kick down all the doors and shoot everyone in a manner best framed as SWAT 4 by way of Max Payne. Cover shooting is out, charging and sliding and whacking people in melee is in. There's very little strategy and tactics are largely confined to the co-op mode, in which simultaneously kicking your way into a room triggers several seconds of bullet time (single player has it happen on every breach, which is both necessary and oddly undermines things very slightly). It looks light and vibrant. There's a slightly comical slapstick tone, which I'm actually grateful for as it does away with any discomfort at the prospect of hyperviolent copaganda its trailers suggest.
Weapon points are unlocked by completing missions and bonus objectives, and used to buy better guns, but you can get a pump action shotgun almost immediately so why bother. Its way of totally sealing the rooms until you breach them is a bit odd, but works as a countdown as it ticks them all off your list, and makes the occasional moments where the rules are forgotten and a hostile shoutman ambushes you much more effective.
One of the loading screens says "Kick doors. Shoot men". They know what they're doin'.
Aurora Dusk: Steam Age
£7 / €10 / $10
A tricky one to convey, this. A litle bit town builder, a large bit statty crafting survival RPG, a little bit tower defence. Sort of clunky but in a way that I could see more than I could feel.
Fleeing unstoppable monsters with your fellow refugees, you build a series of temporary settlements for various reasons, with the goal of eventually building a town with the technology to stop the behemoth leading the horde. Trees, stones, and skins can be smushed together into workbenches and buildings, which refine them further into better gear, cash, or soldiers. I, too, was born when someone pressed some planks into some leather and a a silver coinpurse. Mana, recharging constantly, lets you spawn fresh plants and animals to immediately crack over the head. Why not just summon meat? Don't ask me, I'm a spearwoman, not a scholar.
You could, instead, let your comprades do a lot of this. They're curiously semi-independent, and get on with their own felling and building and enthusiastically hurling themselves at zombies around you. You'll typically have to nudge them towards sensible ends, as they often prioritise finishing buildings for you. You're not in charge, but you sort of lead. It's strange, and taken as a pure strategy/building game about efficiency and planning and winning, likely very annoying. But as a light crafting/fighting affair, my time with it passed quickly with a little self-indulgent roleplay. I don't think this is quite the magical formula, but it borders on the kind of macromanagement builder game I've wanted for ages.
It shows its budget for sure, though, in its UI and animations. Some may be bothered by them a lot more than I was.
Pick of the week: My suspicion that I'm overcompensating for so many other RPG Maker games being terrible is just about suppressing my urge to name Dungeon Dreams. So with that said...I think Your Future Self deserves it.
It's difficult to get into without giving away some of what makes it interesting. There is some repetition, but it's kept under control. The interlacing and flicking effects are optional. It does a lot to keep itself playable, and its mechanical conceits, with picking the 'right' answers and so on, depite being prominent on screen, take a comfortable back seat to the narrative.
A topical game about politics, identity, and causality. Even if you don't get into the story or the characters somehow alienate you, it's a thought-provoking experience handled very well.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just realised I hadn't worn those shoes before so could probably have a go at passing them off as a business expense.