Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review: InnerSpace [Nintendo Switch eShop]

The feeling of wonder when you play a great exploration game is hard to match. Having new worlds and exotic landscapes revealed before you and then trying to find its secrets can be a very mellowing experience, helping all of your day’s problems melt away. To date only the first-person space explorer Morphite has delivered this general kind of play, though its focus was very different as you travelled the universe’s procedurally-generated worlds. InnerSpace, by contrast, is about exploring intricately-designed spaces contained roughly within large spheres, and instead of exploring on foot you’ll do so while flying through the air (or cutting through the water).

You’ll play through the game as the Cartographer, created through the use of ancient technology by someone named the Architect, to help navigate the dormant spaces of the Inverse in search of the secrets of a dead race. You’ll generally be trying to find the powerful demigods that remain in these spaces and to then harness their energy to open portals to other spaces. Doing this is far from an exact science, especially as you progress into the later spaces it can be a bit overwhelming just deciding what to try to do first. In almost every direction there are orbs to be collected, openings to be explored, and strange objects to be interacted with. The joy is in choosing your own path and taking this at your own pace.

To aid you in this being an enjoyable experience the controls for your means of flight are generally intuitive and will have you soaring pretty quickly. Your left stick will help you turn in any direction while your right stick will help you control your speed and rotation. With a little practice this works well enough, though since you’re always in motion sometimes lining up to hit or grab something can still be tricky. Thankfully the game is very forgiving of crashes, allowing you to simply bump off of things, though if you really manage to wedge yourself into the space it will sometimes be a bit painful to get extracted.

What will absolutely thrill some people and aggravate others is that aside from some very general help provided by the Architect at times you’re really left to figure out what to do on your own. Certainly you will learn that any ropes that you see suspending things should be cut, orbs should be collected, and every space you see should be explored. The game provides some help in finding relics by making use of the HD rumble as you get close to them but aside from those generalities the rest is really up to you. Only at one point, unfortunately somewhat early on, did I find it to be a problem in terms of how to properly deal with the first demigod. I actually had made what I needed to do far harder than it was so my advice for the game’s puzzles as well as for finding everything you need to activate and discover is to use perspective. Give some distance, observe from a different angle, and typically with patience what you seek will be revealed. Some fine philosophy and fitting in that it mirrors much of what you’ll encounter over the course of the game.

InnerSpace absolutely won’t be a game that everyone will enjoy. People seeking action and intensity will be sorely disappointed by this relatively “boring” experience that reveals itself with a slow and deliberate pace. If you are someone who feels a need for a constant beacon guiding you to your next task you will also likely find the freedom the game affords aggravating. If you’re someone who expects perfect performance it is worth noting that at times these large open spaces and details can make the framerate drag a bit. If, however, you are looking for something completely different, gorgeous, and full of a certain sense of calm and serenity there’s absolutely nothing like it on the platform.

Score: 8

  • Serenity Now!
  • The worlds are intricate and gorgeous
  • Flight controls are responsive and crashes are forgiving
  • A unique experience on the console

  • The lack of direction can be aggravating at times
  • The intricate large spaces make it prone to performance slowdown at times
  • Not an experience for those seeking action and excitement

Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: Nuclien [Nintendo Switch eShop]

When it comes to somewhat unusual games that work differently the Brain Age series quickly comes to mind. Filled with often relatively simple ideas and mechanics that tested your ability to quickly comprehend what is in front of you and then act, they may not have been a scientifically-proven means to guarantee mental acuity as you age but they were certainly challenging and could be fun. I see the new budget title called Nuclien very much in that vein, taking some very basic gameplay elements and then adding variety and time pressures to turn it into something I thoroughly enjoyed playing through its conclusion.

Conceptually there’s not too much to describe, the game is about touching the numbers that appear on the screen to make them disappear. These numbers are always between 0 and 9 and in the very beginning it will just feel like a reflex test, simply making you tap the numbers as they appear on the screen. As you progress you’ll begin to learn variations on things, like that when you see numbers in a circle that means you want to tap them in descending order while numbers in squares you want to tap in ascending order. Variations include larger blocks that will break into up to 4 small ones that will now force you to pause and recognize whether that next number you were counting on touching will instead wait behind one that is newly-revealed.

While the levels progressively get more challenging in the 4 initial areas where the game really kicked in the challenge that made it satisfying for me was in the last area that isn’t unlocked until you’ve completed every level in the others. In the final zone the game’s last trick is revealed and it can really begin to strain your concentration and ability to think quickly. Now alternating screens will introduce the white background color to the mix and the rules you’ve been getting used to up to this point are inverted. That wouldn’t be as hard to deal with if each screen didn’t then shift between the two rule sets, with the game constantly challenging you to keep a hectic pace while not losing track of what order you need to tap things in. There’s also a Time Trial mode but since I didn’t even try it out until I’d completed the rest of the game at that point I found it quite easy, though you could always try to improve your times.

There’s no question that the game’s presentation is pretty thin, and that with the simplicity of the concept this will either be something you’ll latch on to like I did or completely disregard as boring. I’d say people acquainted with the Brain Age games would probably be more inclined to enjoy it while people who never really understood why people played them should likely just assume it won’t be for them. There is an opportunity to upgrade yourself with coins you accumulate as you go but aside from trying to help people who are struggling get a bit of help I’m not positive how big an impact they had on things aside from ensuring you keep pace with the slowly-increasing level of difficulty.

While the road to the game becoming more challenging was a bit tedious my brain found the rapid pattern recognition and rule application of Nuclien very satisfying over the course of the few hours it took to complete everything. This is in no way a high-concept game, it is simply the full exploration of a relatively simple idea. If you’re looking for something a bit different that will test your ability to quickly recognize numbers and patterns it can be quite an engrossing activity while it lasts.

Score: 7.5

  • Feels like a stand-alone game from the Brain Age series
  • A great mental exercise
  • An extremely budget-friendly price

  • While each area has its own rule set and gets progressively harder this is not a very high-concept title
  • The sight of numbers everywhere may be both overwhelming and underwhelming to people

Interview with Jonathan Deutsch of DUFGAMES About Black Hole

Already in the Switch’s somewhat short lifespan it has been blessed by a number of twin-stick arcade-style shooters. The first Switch title by DUFGAMES, Black Hole, should be added to the list soon. I recently got to spend some time picking the brain of one of DUFGAMES’ co-founders, Jonathan Deutsch, about the upcoming title, their company, and life as an indie developer for the Switch.

True to tradition we'll open with the classic elevator pitch question. How would you describe Black Hole to help get people excited about it?

JD: Black Hole is a short and challenging twin-stick shooter in space. Fly through themed black holes, collect boosts and gold while defeating the many enemies coming at you trying to destroy you. Upgrade your ship with meaningful and rewarding upgrades, unleash your hyper attack on anything coming into view and defeat the mighty bosses at the end of each world.

Looking over footage of the game I'm getting feels for a twin-stick shooter meets Asteroids but with boss fights thrown in as well. What games would you say were an inspiration to your efforts?

JD: I played a lot of Crimsonland and Super Stardust HD and they are my personal favourite in that genre. While they didn't come up as goals for the development I thought about them a lot and they probably had some influence on the ideas for Black Hole, even if only subconsciously. Super Stardust HD is probably closer to the final game with the asteroid destroying parts in it.

What would you say was the target level of difficulty you were aiming for with the game? 

JD: The game is targeted at people that already know their way around in the twin-stick genre. While the first few levels are fairly easy and there are multiple difficulty modes, it picks up rather quick, giving the players more of a challenge. It may not be hard as nails, but it will take the players some time to learn the mechanics and enemies and how to best beat a level. I used myself and my skill level as a measuring tool. I can barely beat the game on hard mode myself but that's fine as I think it will provide many fun hours trying to beat fully the game.

With arcade-style games there's always an expectation that there's not necessarily an end but with 40 levels listed I'm assuming it is possible to "beat" it? Or from that point does it just repeat or crank up the difficulty until you die?

JD: I'm no fan of never-ending arcade games. While many players enjoy the possibility of endless increasing difficulty and skill I find it more appealing to give the player a certain goal to play towards.

That's why I prefer games like Crimsonland and Stardust to something like Geometry wars.
So yes, there will be 40 levels after which you will have beat the game, but there are three different ships and multiple difficulty modes to keep you coming back for at least a few times. Also achievements.

How big a role in success would you say the upgrade system is? Do you think it's better for tuning for each individual player and their style or weaknesses or would you say there's a more set path to success?

JD: I like player progression of any kind in any game. Towards the end of Black Hole you should be able to max out every upgrade so you can't deviate too much from the "path to success" and you will need almost all the upgrades to beat the game. There aren't many different "builds" if you want, but you can decide where to put your points. And it feels like you earned that particular upgrade. It is more important to gather up more points than which upgrade you choose exactly. I have my own upgrade path I usually like to stick to, though. :) But all others are viable as well.

I noticed in your feature list for the Switch version you list both motion and IR controls? Do these play out more like a "nice to have" so people have options or do you think they're viable for people who want to get their best scores and times?

JD: I don't think any control scheme other than using both sticks will be better for this type of genre because of the precision and speed it provides. So both are more "nice to have". With motion controls it's definitely possible to play through the game, especially if you use both Joy-Cons separately: Tilt left for moving, tilt right for aiming. It'd be cool to see people playing that way and it is one heck of a fun to share the Joy with a second player. :)

IR controls are really just there because we can. Almost nobody else uses this feature and I thought it was a shame and wanted to put it to good use. Sadly it is rather difficult to control the ship reliably but it is still fun to do and try out. Bravo to those hardcore players who will beat the game that way.

Aside from the fact that it is now noted to be the fastest selling console in its first year what drew you to bringing your game to the Switch?

JD: I think the philosophy of the console is something that fits the game rather well. Who really has the time to play 2-3+ hours in one session? (Ok, lots of gamers probably) But the game is designed to be beat in about an hour and you can suspend the game after every level. It is really fast to pick it up and play only for a couple minutes if that's all the time you got.

Also the low price of entry for the dev console was really compelling and who DOESN'T want to release their game on a Nintendo console? With the lower dev price Nintendo seemed to cater more to the Indie developers than they have in the past.

What resources and level of support have you had from Nintendo along your journey?

JD: I can't tell you any specifics but the overall experience has been very positive and the resources and help they provide will make anyone be able to get their game on the system if you put in enough effort. If I didn't find the information I needed myself I could always find someone to ask and get answers.

What has the path been for this company to get to this point?

JD: Both of us are gamers at heart but also creators so making our own game was something we always wanted to do. But it's difficult to start from zero AND sustain yourself. So our company does something completely different. (Websites mostly) In our free time we always built prototypes and tried new ideas. But never really finished anything. Even if we would have, we aren't a super indie studio that pushes out a smash hit. So one big problem was visibility.

When the OUYA was announced it provided a really cheap point of entry for console development and, if timed right, you were one among only hundreds and not thousands or tens of thousands. Unless you take three years longer than planned with development. Then you missed that window. Still, we completed the game and released it for the OUYA and as soon as the Switch was announced (with a low priced dev console) we immediately tried to get our game on it as soon as possible.

You've seemed to dabble in a number of different styles for your projects, what drew you to a twin-stick space shooter?

JD: We never really were genre bound. We always worked on stuff that thought was fun for us at the time. Side scrollers, platformers, RPGs, browser games. We kinda just stuck with this one and it's something that works really well on consoles. The original idea was somewhat different. The working title was "Space Dodger" and had you only dodging various colored discs coming at you with different movement patterns. When we fleshed out that prototype some more it was became clear really early that only dodging wasn't as fun as shooting back.

How would you characterize the independent game development scene where you are in Germany?

JD: Oh, well... I have neither met or even heard of many German indie developers. The only one that comes to mind is Lanze Games in Hamburg, working on their game Pixel Princess Blitz. I backed them on kickstarter and it seems a very ambitious game but I have a feeling they will see it through. For me right now the scene seems kind of hidden. Just like most movies "usually" are made in the US, I have the feeling most games "usually" are made there as well. Maybe if we develop more in the future we will get to know more people.

Are there any more seasoned indie developers out there who inspire you?

JD: Although only being a two man team ourselves I'm amazed by other one or two man teams working on totally awesome games like Braid, Celeste or Axiom Verge. They are so much bigger than what we have created and yet they finished these beautiful pieces of art almost all by themselves. I wish I had the means (read: time) and dedication to make something that great.

What are your plans moving forward?

JD: We will watch how well Black Hole is going to be received and depending on feedback add more to the game, work on a possible Black Hole 2 or try a totally different game. We already have some new ideas.

We will also try to get Black Hole on more platforms like Steam, Xbox, iOS, Android. It would be great to be recognised as an indie game studio and produce many games in the future.

Anything else you’d like to share?

JD: I'm a video game music enthusiast and while it will probably be overlooked by the average gamer I think that our original soundtrack for the game is one of it's strongest points. To this day I still find we did a fantastic job and haven't gotten sick of it at all after all these years.

I wanted to take a moment to thank Jonathan for taking the time to share his thoughts and observations as well as Ryan Williford for coordinating! No final date has yet been set for Black Hole but it should be coming to the Switch soon!

Review: World to the West [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Those with an adventurous spirit and a taste for indie titles have have some reasonably good successes so far on the Switch. The stand-out titles Ittle Dew 2+ and Blossom Tales have each provided very different takes on the Link to the Past top-down adventure formula. Rain Games’ World to the West is now throwing its own hat into the ring, providing another variation with 4 characters to control and each with their own unique set of skills. Conceptually playing as a sort of hybrid of a classic Zelda title and Lost Vikings, it will challenge you with a variety of puzzles over its runtime that require coordinated cooperation.

On this journey you’ll alternative take command of Lumina the Teslamancer (as a Teslagrad fan this was a cool touch) with the power to teleport and shock, the diminutive Knaus who can burrow under things and skate over ice among other things, the mind-controlling Teri who can command animals and traverse gaps with her whip-like scarf, and Lord Clonington the strongman who bash foes and climb certain walls. Over roughly the first half of the game you’ll be slowly introduced to each of them and roughly taken through the paces to ensure you have a grasp of their abilities and their use. The game then transitions into a space where you’ll need to make careful use of each character in turn as they make their way through the adventure.

Though there’s certainly some action in the game for the most part it is focused on both exploration and puzzle-solving. That’s why being oriented with each character is so important in the beginning so that you’ll immediately be able to identify which characters will be suited to getting by certain scenarios and obstacles. One part of the challenge will typically be moving each character through the landscape and to a totem pole in the vicinity of the challenge. These are used to quickly change characters and to move around the map, but characters can only access totem poles they’ve already visited. Thankfully to help minimize the pain of covering the same ground a few times there are often opportunities in the landscape suited to the skills of individual party members.

Aside from the sometimes tedious task of moving each of your characters into position there are times where you may feel like you can accomplish a given task with the wrong character. For the most part it is clear who is best suited to getting into a certain area but in particular when what you need is a chain of characters’ actions to successfully solve a puzzle you’ll need to be sure to work through things carefully to avoid needless backtracking to switch around. Totem poles are generally placed well to avoid this but with so many means of moving around per character it sometimes isn’t hard to get a bit lost and the map is too zoomed out to be much help when this happens. A small point but worth noting since they can be aggravating.

Overall while its pacing can and excitement can wane at times World to the West is an engaging and creative take on the top-down adventure. There are some very unique and inventive puzzles to solve, light combat sequences peppered about, and plain satisfying gameplay when it all comes together. If you’ve been looking for your next adventure fix World to the West is a trip worth taking.

Score: 7.5

  • Four characters of varied abilities keep things fresh
  • Some satisfying puzzles that require coordination to solve
  • A colorful art style
  • There are times where what you need to do next isn't necessarily clear
  • Covering the same ground multiple times can get tedious while trying to get everyone in place