Indie Tagged Articles RSS Feed | GameSkinny.com Indie RSS Feed on GameSkinny.com https://www.gameskinny.com/ en Launch Media Network Stay Here: An Interview With the Creators of Before Your Eyes https://www.gameskinny.com/61yxr/stay-here-an-interview-with-the-creators-of-before-your-eyes https://www.gameskinny.com/61yxr/stay-here-an-interview-with-the-creators-of-before-your-eyes Mon, 08 Nov 2021 09:54:58 -0500 Mark Delaney

Though several weeks and a few major video game launches remain on the 2021 release calendar, I can't imagine any of them affecting me as much as GoodbyeWorld Games' Before Your Eyes. It arose out of nowhere for me after I learned of it via word-of-mouth in the springtime from another outlet's glowing review.

As it turns out, that word-of-mouth would continue to spread like wildfire following its release in April. Today, Before Your Eyes is widely considered a surprise Game of the Year candidate among those who have played it. That's owed to its novel gameplay concept of webcam-enabled blinking to advance time, as well as its gut-punch of a story that seems to devastate anyone who finds it.

Recently, I was able to chat with two of the game's developers, Lead Writer and Creative Director, Graham Parkes, as well as Game Director and Composer, Oliver Lewin. During our hour-long talk, we touched on the seven-year journey of Before Your Eyes, whether its intended emotional turmoil is ever numbed by working so closely on it, and more. 

*Note: There are spoilers ahead! If you haven't played Before Your Eyes, do that first, then come back.*

Before Your Eyes is just a 90-minute game, and yet it took seven years between concept and launch on PC and Mac earlier this year. The project, Parkes told me, was born out of a senior capstone at USC by Goodbyeworld Games founder, Will Hellwarth. Hellwarth plotted the initial concept of telling a story where time advances when the player blinks in an introduction to game dev class. Parkes and Lewin joined Hellwarth to mold the concept into something playable.

Then a funny thing happened: The game, back then titled Close Your, started to win awards. First, a Developer's Choice Award at IndieCade 2014, then Best Student Game at Independent Games Festival the following year.

Together, the group felt like they had their "entry into the scene," Lewin said, and the fact that they found themselves "brushing shoulders with a lot of people that we looked up to was very inspiring. Like, I remember seeing Austin Wintory walking around, like, 'Oh, cool. One of the coolest composers there is.'"

The early successes helped keep the game afloat, at least as an idea.

"It's not like we were seven years full-time working on this," Parkes told me. "Off of those two awards, we said, 'We don't want to stop working on this thing.'" But its small beginnings meant people had to move on to some extent, find other work. "We wanted to keep it alive. So we did a Kickstarter."

The 2016 Kickstarter looked like a success — it finished about $10,000 over its base goal of $25,000 in pledges — but Parkes said the team bit off much more than it could chew, "like a lot of Kickstarter projects."

"The plan was to kind of complete it on nights and weekends and kind of, you know, do the real indie bootstrap thing with it," he added. But things always got in the way. After receiving financial investment in 2018, presumably from eventual publisher Skybound Games, the team was able to hire people on a full-time basis and commit wholeheartedly to the already four-year-old project.

Three years later, the game would launch after two name changes — the second name, Coda, was already earning buzz as an unrelated indie film, causing the game devs to ditch the name. Poetically, the project that would come to be known as Before Your Eyes once more took home some hardware from IndieCade, the 2021 Jury Prix. 

With the award show serving as unintentional bookends to the game's evolution, I asked the pair how they think about its success this year after they spent the better part of a decade working on it, especially as Before Your Eyes continues to garner Game of the Year consideration from countless outlets.

"I never expected that we'd be in a position where like, every day, there'd be emails from people sometimes that are quite lengthy," Lewin told me. "And some of them are very personal. And so we're grateful for that, as creators, you know, the generosity on behalf of some of our fans telling us why it resonated with them so much."

The developers also spoke to going down the rabbit hole of fan reactions given that Before Your Eyes is so stream-friendly, which I myself know very well, as I've made a months-long habit out of watching streamers play through the final few heart-wrenching moments.

"It's kind of a treasure trove, you know," Lewin said."Whether it's YouTube comments or the [Twitch] chat room, or just listening to streamers kind of express their opinions as they're playing. Because you learn new things, or you're reminded of things that are years old, that you kind of forgot about."

"It was a pretty magical first week, like, Twitch became kind of where we all were living," Parkes added, contrasting the launch of the team's first game with that of a movie from his filmmaking background. "Even if you make a movie, you go to a screening. It's not like you have a camera on every audience member's face. There's something about putting a game out in the world where you get to literally see the effects that your work has, like on a micro-level on people's emotions."

"I don't think we expected it," said Lewin, sharing an anecdote that captured the game's earliest, and ultimately trendsetting, hours in the public.

"Right after it launched [at 5 a.m. local time], one of us checked Twitch and was like, 'Oh, there's someone streaming the game.' And we were like, 'This is amazing. We get to watch someone play it. Let's see if there are any bugs.' Then kind of towards the end, it was like, 'Wait there's another person playing. I'm gonna go check out that person's stream.' And it was kind of non-stop, and we all just kind of got addicted." 

While that launch period was one of elation, working on such a sad game for so many years might eventually numb one to the experience they're trying to craft, but the duo explained how they were able to rediscover that somberness at various moments during development.

"It definitely comes in waves. You lose your objectivity, and then you get hit by it fresh again," Lewin told me. "Like when you do the recording sessions, you're sitting in there with the headphones on and you hear the actors bringing life to it in a way that you hadn't foreseen or been prepared for. It's like it's hitting you: 'Damn, you know, I was just in this funeral scene, tweaking things for hours, and I'm feeling sad.'"

Parkes echoed the sentiment and commended the performances from the pair of real-life friends that portray the story's parents, Sarah Burns and Eric Edelstein. "I just sort of knew that whatever I wrote, we'd go into a very kind of, you know, safe space, and we'd be able to workshop it, and they'd bring themselves to it," he said, revealing that he wrote the parts specifically for the pair.

But how does one write characters who know they will outlive their child? As a parent of two, I likened the experience to watching a horror movie, where I am blanketed by the fact that it's all for show. I can grapple with it in that moment, then return to my kids, who are fortunately healthy. But for the writer, it's a long and arduous task to deliver those crucial scenes with the necessary devastation, even as Before Your Eyes tries to let a little light in too.

"When you realize that the story is going there, you kind of, as a writer, you get a little scared. 'Am I gonna be able to pull this off?'" admitted Parkes, who added that his own time spent sick and bedridden as a kid was there for him to draw from, even as his experiences were never as dire as protagonist Benjamin Brynn's.

Though so much can be said about its inventive webcam gameplay, for me the greatness of Before Your Eyes is best represented in one late scene.

When you are about 10 minutes away from Benny closing his eyes for good, you rejoin him and his ferryman companion. The ferryman rows him through a non-denominational version of an afterlife, toward a Gatekeeper that resembles Benny's childhood pet. The ferryman, who will be judged as well based on the strength of the stories he brings to the gatekeeper, bellows out the true story of Benjamin Brynn for the first and only time.

"Gatekeeper, before you sits the soul of a child who died before he could grow old." He continues, but it's that exact moment that hit me in the gut when I first played it. It's torn me up all year, really, and it's that moment I've sought out regularly online like some sort of cathartic high. I'll find a streamer's VOD and cut to the 80 or so minute marker in the playthrough. Then I watch as they fall apart on camera, just as I did when I reviewed the game back in April.

For me, that moment is the most beautiful part, because it's when we can no longer evade the story's tragic reality. Some players can surely see disaster coming but don't yet have it all cleared up, while others are certainly less sure what they've seen to that point. But in that moment, there are no more mysteries.

"The way Graham wrote [the ferryman] is that he's also on his own kind of journey," Lewin said, "because he's nervous about his performance and his kind of big moment on stage, so to speak. And while you're kind of full-throttle, recognizing the realities and the kind of tragedies of the story at that moment, he's kind of coming into his own."

"[Voice actor Steven Friedrich] played it with no preciousness," added Graham, "no sense of underlying underlining the sentiment with that character. I do think that sometimes you kind of want to leave it up to interpretation. At that point, you just want to tell people what's going on. And that might be a moment of that, where it's just like, you know what's been happening, but you haven't maybe fully processed it, and then that line kind of helps you. It helps it sink in."

There's no alternate, happier ending in Before Your Eyes, which according to Google Trends, is not what many players hoped to hear. The story of Benjamin, through whose eyes we see from infancy until his death 11 years later, and with a host of imagined happier moments in between, ends when his unnamed terminal illness takes his life in his bedroom as he's surrounded by his family.

Why end the game on such a brutal blow, especially when the story to that point offered some branching paths and was once envisioned to feature even more of them? 

"This story was always going to end the way that it did," Parkes told me. "Most games are about empowering you. And this is about taking power away. And it is sort of about humbling yourself to the fact that you're gonna have to blink eventually, you're gonna have to die eventually."

"Tragedy is practice for what might befall us in life," he added, quoting Aristotle. Thus Before Your Eyes is, as the team sees it, "a test run for death." 

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Weird West Preview: Why We're Excited For This Occult Western https://www.gameskinny.com/te3wx/weird-west-preview-why-were-excited-for-this-occult-western https://www.gameskinny.com/te3wx/weird-west-preview-why-were-excited-for-this-occult-western Wed, 03 Nov 2021 10:37:26 -0400 Mark Delaney

The immersive sim genre is a strange one. Those who know it by name are often obsessive fans who will replay their favorite genre games to keep toying with the malleable worlds. Despite that, it remains a difficult term to define.

Weird West is an upcoming indie take on the immersive sim, but it comes from a team comprised of former AAA vets who worked on Dishonored and Prey, two of the finest takes on the slippery genre to date. So it should be to no one's surprise that it's looking quite fine itself.

After a few hours with an early build of the game, I've fired off a six-shooter of things that caught my attention in the promising preview. Here's why I'm excited for the WolfEye debut, Weird West.

The Pedigree

Weird West comes from WolfEye, but this is the small, distributed team's first game. While that necessitates an introduction, the team's past works need no such thing. Raphael Colantonio, former President and Creative Director of Arkane Studios, founded the team alongside Julien Roby, former producer at Arkane, and industry vet Binu Philip, COO.

Collectively, the team's penchant for immersive sims and games with deep systems is on display early and often with Weird West, and as this is a genre that lives and dies primarily on level design, I'm excited to see this team put their expertise to use on a more focused scale such as this.

The Environments

As the game opens with the death of your son and the kidnapping of your husband, you'd think Weird West is set to be a bloodsoaked vengeance quest, but it doesn't have to be. Just like Dishonored and Prey before it, Weird West gives players hub-like levels full of enemies, but also ripe with opportunities.

Do you create a distraction then sneak in the back door? Do you pick off enemies one by one, hiding their bodies in the tall grass? Maybe you set off a chain reaction that gets all the enemies in one spot only to shoot out a lantern near an oil slick, allowing you to burn them all away.

Level design is what those Arkane games do best (truly better than anyone, in my opinion), and Weird West looks to recreate some of that magic even from an angled perspective. It looks different, but it's still so satisfying to take one's time with an encounter and get things exactly right.

The Combat

Going hand-in-hand with those elaborate environments is the combat, which, after a tutorialized introduction, really opens up to reveal the extent of your abilities. Unlocking major new powers thanks to Weird West's occult leanings adds a surreal twist to it all, but even the good old-fashioned shootouts provide excitement.

That's because enemies, even in this unfinished build, act with a killer instinct. It will be wise to sneak around for as long as you can in Weird West. Every time I blew my cover in a dense area, I was quickly overcome by a swarm of enemies, some of whom wasted no time flanking me with shotguns.

The almost RTS-like UI will keep you informed of your aim and damage, but it's purely up to you to stay on your feet by planning ahead — and acting swiftly when the plan falls apart. 

The Setting

Though I've placed it here in the middle of this list, I'd say the setting is actually my favorite part of Weird West so far. I'm a sucker for when two genres collide (It's a heist movie and a Christmas movie? Reindeer Games rules!), so the blend of mysticism and westerns in both thematic and aesthetic elements has been nothing short of eye-popping.

The central enemy faction wears burlap over their heads like twisted serial killers, cannibals roam the land, and even fiercer monsters are hinted at for the full game. Weird West does a lot with surely far fewer resources than some on the team are used to, and this is most evident in the world-building. It feels expertly crafted as the dark centerpiece to a game already doing a lot right.

The Music

Even before I properly started Weird West, I had my suspicions that it was going to be interesting. Part of that is because of the pedigree I mentioned. But another reason for that is the music. The trailer embedded above gives a good taste of it. It brilliantly captures Weird West's dual sensibilities: the walk-tall western and its touches of occult mysticism.

I love it so much that as soon as I booted it up, I reached out to ask the team that provided the code whether we could expect a soundtrack release (no word on that yet, by the way). WolfEye's website mentions that audio is a point of emphasis, and in the team's debut game, it shows.

The Hints of More to Come

In my demo time with Weird West, I was able to play through the story of bounty hunter Jane Bell, but the full game will offer five playable characters, each with their own tale to tell. This approach ensures variety, and also seems to suggest some crossover.

I'd love it if, by the end of Weird West, we can look back and recall how each of these characters, seemingly living disparate lives in the early going, actually affected each other's stories directly and indirectly. With more monsters to discover, more anti-heroes to emerge, and more tragedies to befall the characters of Weird West, I can't wait to see how it all comes together.

Weird West arrives on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox platforms on January 11, 2022.

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Unpacking Review: Making a House a Home https://www.gameskinny.com/2usri/unpacking-review-making-a-house-a-home https://www.gameskinny.com/2usri/unpacking-review-making-a-house-a-home Mon, 01 Nov 2021 13:00:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

It's been said that moving from one home to another is among the most stressful events a person can experience in their life, even ranking ahead of things like divorce or having a child. Therefore, a game that is essentially just about moving shouldn't be as stress-reducing as Unpacking ultimately is.

With an intuitive and forgiving central mechanic that turns the stress of moving into a surprisingly immersive puzzle game with few wrong answers, Witch Beam's pixel-art indie is my new favorite game to turn to when all I want is to do unwind.

Unpacking Review: Making a House a Home

In Unpacking, you unpack. On the surface, it's that simple. In each level, you're given a room, or set of rooms, in a house full of cardboard boxes and most furnishings already in place. You open the boxes one by one, put away the contents in a way that makes sense, and move on to the next room.

The game begins in 1997 in a children's room, and in time, you'll come to understand you're following one character through their life. From adolescence through college, in and out of relationships, and eventually deep into adulthood, this unnamed, unseen, unvoiced character is a unique kind of protagonist, one whom you learn about entirely from environmental clues.

Unpacking their belongings thus tells an understated story, and I came to appreciate early and often how smartly Unpacking performs this feat. In the earliest level, the character has a stuffed pig among several other such toys. As they grow up, perhaps some toys don't make the trip to their dorm or their first apartment, but you come to understand the importance of the pig and why it survives every transition when little else does.

A small bedroom with moving boxes, a computer, and a pink pig on a bed.

In its subtle delivery, the diorama-like levels become museum exhibits to a life you watch from the sidelines. You'll have a direct hand in how and where things are put away, and there aren't many wrong answers.

You can't stack the pots and pans in the home office, of course, but do you display your favorite books or stuff them away in a spacious cabinet? Do you neatly divide the GameCube games from the DVDs, or do you just shovel them onto a bookshelf with your leftover knick-knacks from childhood?

This process is remarkably meditative and allows for a real flow state to be achieved as you become more familiar with where things should be put away and how you'd like to present yourself to the world. It's seriously peaceful, aided by retro visuals and calming music on a long loop.

Admittedly, while Unpacking's pixel-ish style look is gorgeous (it reminds me greatly of the Backyard Sports series), I did have a hard time identifying a few items on occasion. Like the soft, static visuals, the original musical score invites quiet sessions where you can experiment to make the perfect house or just toy with the items like a modeling figure that can sit, stand, or dab.

In my favorite instance of the central mechanic, you'll come to better appreciate what it means to share a space with someone.

When we do it ourselves, we maybe can't see that transition happen so plainly, but as the unseen hand guiding the character in Unpacking, watching two worlds collide in a shared apartment becomes an infinitely fascinating look at what it means to give up some of yourself for another person.

A living room with moving boxes, a tv, and a yellow dress.

You may have wanted to use a shelf for your books, but what if your partner had plans to keep their potted plants there? Will your colorful disarray of mugs and dishware ft in with the neat-freak set of perfectly placed and matching plates? How might you share a physical space without losing too much of yourself?

These are questions to ask and not answer, and I like it that way. It's interesting both in the moment and in between sessions with the roughly 4-5 hour play time. As a married father of two, I find myself looking around with new eyes at how we've all managed to allow others to reinterpret our living space in ways we'd not have thought of ourselves.

Things can lose their zen-like powers when later levels open up to large, two-story houses with six or more rooms, but even then, if you can focus on one room at a time, you'll get there. As a nod to reality, sometimes the boxes you'll have in a room will contain things for other rooms too. Emptied out a full bedroom and still missing a shoe? Check the bathroom.

These minor details make Unpacking so very charming that even the more complex houses don't ever scare me off entirely. It's just sometimes, as in real life, I can merely throw my hands up at a mess and say I'll get to it later.

Unpacking Review — The Bottom Line

A small kitchen with a drawer open and kitchen utensils.

Pros

  • Unique and surprisingly tranquil central mechanic
  • Lovely visuals and music set the mood
  • A story told creatively through static environments

Cons

  • Occasionally difficult to determine what some items are

Unpacking is something I play when other games are too stressful or busy to suit my mood. It's a concept I'd never have thought would make for such a rewarding experience, but beyond its simple premise is a story of interesting people and gameplay that inventively combines the homemaking of The Sims with the light-puzzling of a point-and-click.

It'll be most appreciated by players who already like that sort of stuff, but I believe its more relaxed tempo can be a brilliant way to unwind if real-world stressors can't be undone by more bombastic games.

[Note: Humble Games provided the copy of Unpacking used for this review.]

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Chorus Preview: Almost on Key https://www.gameskinny.com/jeons/chorus-preview-almost-on-key https://www.gameskinny.com/jeons/chorus-preview-almost-on-key Fri, 24 Sep 2021 14:34:20 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Some of the best musical compositions ever made subvert expectation, melding the recognizable with the unexpected. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a change in meter or a layering of effects that makes it memorable. Maybe it’s a complex instrumental arrangement or time signature.

It may seem strange to begin a preview of Fishlabs’ upcoming space shooter, Chorus, talking about music. Still, as the name suggests, its development process was directly informed by the ebbs and flows of melody.

This isn’t a rhythm game, to be clear, but there is a tempo to its combat that feels like a musical ballet of bullets, lasers, and rockets, underpinned by a refrain of narrative mystery that exudes the supernatural.

Oh, and its actual soundtrack is pretty terrific, too.

So far, Chorus feels like it could be a hits compilation of multiple genres if it ultimately hits the notes right. That remains to be seen, though I’ve come away from a recent hands-on preview build of the game excited to see more. 

Chorus Preview: Almost on Key

Chorus takes place in a universe that could be called post-apocalyptic, where the usual vectors of famine, disease, and war have pushed humans to the brink, causing them to look for answers and direction in anything that will give it to them. Those things are found in The Circle, a cult that promises to set things right and achieve a new “harmony,” as members of the development team put it.

Of course, things don’t go as planned (or perhaps they go exactly as planned), and The Circle takes full advantage of its powerful position, subjugating the inhabitants of the galaxy to nothing short of tyrannical rule.

Calling to mind shades of Anakin Skywalker post Revenge of the Sith, a powerful “Chosen One” named Nara acts as The Cult’s arbiter of terror, using her preternatural abilities and a sentient ship called Forsaken to quell rebellions and destroy worlds. But the galactic harmony is off, and something pushes Nara to ultimately rebel against The Circle, placing her directly in their crosshairs.

The traumas from this era of her life seem to be at the core of the game’s narrative. Nara can’t escape what she’s done, and her internal conflict plays out through dialog segments between her and Forsaken, as well as in her own mind. It’s unclear where the story is headed ultimately — or how the inclusion of the alien Faceless and their space-temples ties in outside of bestowing Nara her powers, called Rights — but so far, it reminds of both Hellblade and Control in its presentation.

Considering the development team consistently refers to the feeling of Chorus as “shamanistic,” I’m interested to see how deeply the final build delves into these concurrent themes of trauma and mysticism.

Regardless, things won’t always be linear narratively. Some missions and subquests present choice-based decisions, where actions can have rippling effects throughout the story. In one preview mission, I could briefly ally with a pirate faction to help escort refugees through Circle space, or I could destroy them on site. Letting them live proved helpful in the immediate term but disastrous in a later questline.

The semi-open world of the game will indeed play into this as well. Locations are self-contained within the larger galactic map (think hubs), but they’re vast, open, and peppered with sub-areas. You’ll have the freedom to explore these places — with asteroids, mining installations, warp gates, and small cities — to uncover hidden items and currency, as well as take on side missions.

The core of any space shooter, though, is the flying and shooting itself. So far, both take a bit of getting used to, even if they excel the more you play. Banking, in particular, is non-existent, which leads to a strangely restrictive inertia during flight. Its absence creates a discombobulating effect in and out of combat, where the camera compensates for it but doesn’t immediately re-orient when coming out of a turn.

This can be fixed with the press of a button, though it’s cumbersome to pull off in a dogfight against dozens of ships, where you’re dipping and diving at a rapid pace. The development team said that there is an auto-orientation feature to take care of this on its own, but it didn’t seem to work as well (or as quickly) as it should in my preview time.

The most interesting and unique aspect of movement, however, is the ship’s Drift ability. This allows Forsaken to glide in a single direction while firing in another. On paper and in practice, it reshapes the strategy of space combat and leads to some unique and compelling tactics that make you feel like a maverick space pilot.

Forsaken can also barrel roll, loop, dodge, and boost to evade fire and comes equipped with three weapons — a Gatling Gun, a laser, and a rocket launcher — all of which come in different rarities with different buffs and traits that you can unlock throughout the game. Ammo is unlimited, too, which adds to the semi-arcadey feel Fishlabs seems to be going for (it’s nice not seeking out ammo resupply after every encounter).

Shooting itself is tight and responsive on controller, though slightly floaty using mouse and keyboard. I appreciate the latter, as it allows for more precise crosshair movement without as much maneuvering, where turrets feel like they’re on a swivel. But a lack of inversion controls for mice specifically (they exist for controller) kept me from truly giving the input method a more extended test.

There isn’t a lock-on mechanic here, as there is in other games like Star War: Squadrons, though its absence didn’t make dogfighting any more difficult since there are symbols at the edges of the screen to keep track of target ship locations (again a la Squadrons).

The missing function did, however, make targeting stationary objectives like turrets and enemy hangars more cumbersome, especially when the camera was tilted at a 45-degree angle. Coming to a full-stop or bumping into structures was a common occurrence in these situations.

Nara also has abilities that aid in combat, such as what’s essentially a teleportation skill called Rite of the Hunt. This allows you to keep up with fast-moving targets or warp to specific objectives to get out of the line of fire.

It’s a neat ability that is almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card that stops short of being a full-on cheat code… when it works. After a few hours of play, I’m still unsure of when or how often it can be used despite being briefed on how it should work in-game.

Despite some of my overall reservations, Chorus has potential and more systems at work than I’ve covered in this preview or was able to experience going hands-on.

The story so far is compelling if nebulous. The environments are pretty and convey the vastness of space, though I hope there's more variation. And the combat is fun and exhilarating once you come to grips with it, but a lock-on system would be nice.

That's a lot of caveats, sure. And I am concerned that some hurdles in the combat department could dissuade some players from sticking with Chorus. There's a definite way it wants to be played. I'd be lying if I didn't admit understanding some of its mechanics is frustrating. But I'd also be lying if I said I didn't have fun. 

How this all comes together in harmony remains to be seen, but we’ll find out soon enough. Chorus releases on December 3 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X|S, and Stadia.

[Note: Fishlabs provided the copy of Chorus used for this preview.]

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The Artful Escape Review: Coming-of-Stage https://www.gameskinny.com/28vkt/the-artful-escape-review-coming-of-stage https://www.gameskinny.com/28vkt/the-artful-escape-review-coming-of-stage Wed, 08 Sep 2021 12:00:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

A few weeks ago, I polled people on Twitter regarding Wes Anderson because I was wondering how they feel about the quirky director. Most respondents came down with positive opinions, but what I didn't say then was that the poll was intended to inform this review.

The Artful Escape feels a lot like a Wes Anderson movie. Its characters speak with a strangeness that, to them, is nothing but sincere. The jokes are dry and sometimes a bit highbrow. Everyone is dressed as if they're enrolled in prep school.

But this space rock-infused coming-of-age story does not merely seek to play off the director's signature style. It takes all of those quirks and throws them through a nebula of magnificent colors, characters, and heart, coming out the other side something new and memorable in its own right.

The Artful Escape Review: Coming-of-Stage

Francis Vendetti lives in Calypso, Colorado, a quiet town that holds perhaps just one notable characteristic: it was home to the late folk-rock hero, Johnson Vendetti, a character who is clearly meant to look and sound like Bob Dylan. Francis is propped up by the town as the second coming of their local legend, but the young man isn't so sure.

While musically gifted like his uncle, Francis is just about buckling under the pressure put on him by family, friends, and even strangers. Posters for his first gig more prominently feature a picture of his uncle, who is dead, than it does Francis, who is the headliner for the show.

For Francis, the expectations are monumental, and so on the eve of his big show, Francis tosses and turns until he finds his subconscious drifting off to a trippy sci-fi world full of rocking aliens, adoring fans, and the freedom for any young person to become who they want to be, not who they've been told to be.

While the game's almost papercraft visual style is immediately awesome, it's when Francis' mind travels to this extraterrestrial world that it really becomes mind-blowing. The Artful Escape is among the most visually striking games I've ever played — certainly earning the superlative in the category for 2021 at least.

In its 2D style, The Artful Escape ventures to numerous alien worlds, with no two locations ever displaying the same look, yet none are ever less than jaw-dropping. Aided by the way players can riff on Francis' guitar at will virtually always, awakening rowdy denizens and glowing flora alike, this is a game that will leave players with their mouths agape at the style of it all, but there's plenty of substance too.

Francis' adventure is a pretty traditional coming-of-age story. It's written by the writers with an apparent anxiousness, one determined not to let the story get lost in a whirlpool of colors and shapes. It's pretty clear early on where Francis' story will go, and yet I still loved every minute of it.

Featuring a cast of voice actors that includes some familiar names like Carl Weathers and Jason Schwartzman, this is an Annapurna joint through and through. The rookie studio Beethoven & Dinosaur is led by a former touring artist and space rocker, and the understanding of and love for that world shines through in every lyrical line delivered and every psychedelic scene unfolded.

The Artful Escape is a power fantasy, but not like those many other games give you. Armed only with a guitar, players will battle aliens in jam-bandy tournaments modeled after the electronic party game, Simon. In between, they'll jump, glide, and slide across alien architecture and vibrant exoplanet terrain alike. 

In neither case does the game challenge players much at all. Messing up an instance of this "Simon Says" gameplay is forgiven right away as opponents simply replay their riffs until you play it back right. Fumbling a platforming section teleports you instantly to mere feet from where you were.

It's evident The Artful Escape is more of a mood piece than something designed to challenge most players, but because it's drenched in style and often pretty funny too, I didn't mind the lack of traditional gameplay too much.

Perhaps the easiest aspect of anything considered gameplay is also the best part, and that's choosing dialogue options. Everyone in The Artful Escape talks like a lyric book spilled onto the floor. Often silly, more often epic, Francis' choice of words is meant to instill in him the self-confidence and self-identity he was so sorely lacking in Calypso.

In this alien world, Francis is unshackled by the expectations that were eating away at him. As you piece together his "origin" story for all to hear across the cosmos, Francis will chant your hand-picked name and details like they're magical spells fending off dark spirits. On foreign planets among amorphous blobs of alien life, Francis is the electrifying showman he wants to be, and god damn, does it feel awesome to have a hand in his coming-of-stage tale.

While the game looked lovely on my Series X and is enhanced for the platform on day one, it did suffer one recurring issue that I expect is present on all platforms: occasionally a line of dialogue would be missing audio during a conversation. It wasn't a huge deal, but given how much I enjoyed the characters and story, it was jarring each time it happened.

The Artful Escape Review — The Bottom Line

Pros

  • Remarkable visual style
  • Funny, memorable characters
  • A sweet story of self-confidence lost and found

Cons

  • Occasionally missing audio during conversations
  • Gameplay in any traditional sense is often hardly there

Though it's a relatively short and easy game, The Artful Escape is also a charming, witty spectacle from start to finish in its six or so hours of playtime. I loved Francis' story and the far-away lands he visits on his quest to believe in himself and write his own future.

I can foresee some players scoffing at the entire project for its particular brand of humor, but expect it will be adored by drama kids, garage rockers, and general outcasts all over. The Artful Escape plays like a psychedelic jam band and tells a story like someone spiked Wes Anderson's Darjeeling tea with a few drops of acid.

[Note: Annapurna Interactive provided the copy of The Artful Escape used for this review.]

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Mayhem Brawler Review: The Streets are Only Sort of Annoyed https://www.gameskinny.com/pmotn/mayhem-brawler-review-the-streets-are-only-sort-of-annoyed https://www.gameskinny.com/pmotn/mayhem-brawler-review-the-streets-are-only-sort-of-annoyed Thu, 19 Aug 2021 10:35:12 -0400 Thomas Wilde

The first time you see Hero Concept's Mayhem Brawler, you might think it's a fan game for Streets of Rage 4. Frankly, that's not an unfair assumption. There's a lot about its presentation and gameplay that makes it come off like it wouldn't exist if SoR4 hadn't done so well. 

That's fine, really. There's always been a small but consistent thread of '90s nostalgia running through indie game development — The Takeover, Fight'N Rage, River City Girls, etc. — and Streets of Rage 4 was always going to hit that scene like a bomb. Mayhem Brawler has, at the very least, chosen its role models correctly.

Mayhem Brawler Review: The Streets are Only Sort of Annoyed

That does make it a hard sell, though. While Mayhem Brawler isn't a one-to-one match to SoR4, it's nowhere near as polished. It's bogged down by a number of petty annoyances, and it's not up to SoR4's high standards, even if I had more fun than I expected running through it with a couple of buddies.

Mayhem Brawler is worth a look if you've played a bunch of other beat'em ups lately and you need just one more to fill that punchy niche in your heart, but there are a lot of other games I'd recommend before cracking into this one. 

In Mayhem City, magic, monsters, and superhumans are all an accepted part of everyday life. When there's a problem, it's handled by Stronghold, a team of empowered police officers that seem to keep the peace through the use of incredible violence.

Its members are Trouble, a bearded dope with claws and a history of excessive force; Dolphin, who is what happens when a pro wrestler and a shark love each other very much; and the social-media-savvy and telekinetic Star.

A disturbance at the docks results in Trouble, Dolphin, and Star busting a smuggling operation, which then leads them to a plot where an unknown force has stolen a deceased superhuman's body with plans to turn her powers into a bomb.

It's an urban fantasy/superhero mashup told through the lens of American comics, with between-level cutscenes shown as hand-drawn, interactive still panels. The conceit is that you're playing through several issues of a comic called Mayhem, with plot branches presented as a choice between two upcoming pieces of cover art.

The gimmick is cool for an arcade game, and the levels are short enough that it gives Mayhem Brawler a fair amount of replay value as you explore all of its stages. The art design also goes out of its way to give every character and environment a lot of individual personality.

It doesn't quite all work, and part of it is just down to international confusion, I think. Mayhem Brawler is clearly supposed to be set somewhere in the United States, but Hero Concept is headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey, and clearly did not have an American do a localization pass on the script.

Some of the jokes are surprisingly funny, like Star's angry Twitter followers (she's trying so hard to be a good role model but her fans are not having it), but others end up as total non-sequitur or don't make any sense at all.

Like that. I have no idea what that's supposed to mean.

 

The rest of the problems are due to a truly peculiar storytelling choice. All three of the playable characters are experienced super-cops, who constantly refer to past events, old enemies, and supernatural politics like they know the audience has the Lonely Planet guide to Mayhem City open in their lap. You can generally put things together from context, but much of the story ends up feeling like you started a trilogy with its second book.

It plays out like what the American comics community sometimes calls "continuity porn," where it's pitched towards long-time readers and impenetrable to anyone else. And while that's a fairly good way to convey how it felt to read superhero comics in the '90s, it's just strange in a standalone video game.

You Have the Right to Remain Extremely Punchable

The actual gameplay of Mayhem Brawler should be instantly familiar if you've played any '90s, or '90s-styled, beat'em up. You've got a standard attack that leads into a combo string, a rushing attack, and a slap that grabs onto an enemy by moving into them.

Like Streets of Rage 4, every character has a special attack, which gives you a healthy number of invincibility frames on activation. But unlike the aforementioned title, this is governed by a meter under your health bar. That meter refills rapidly if you take damage, and can also be regenerated with pickups like coffee.

The special attack can be used to break enemy grabs and combo strings, and also serves as a weird sort of a comeback mechanic. If you're getting your head handed to you, you probably also have a full special attack meter, which gives you a little extra breathing room right when you need it most.

Slightly irritating is that as you move into the mid-game, every other enemy seems to have a grab and/or "vortex" combo string. On your first run through Mayhem Brawler, you'll get grabbed much more often than you've got meter to break it with, which gives the game the same deliberately unfair feeling as old arcade games.

You can also block, but I haven't found it particularly useful in a casual run. The attacks you'd most want to use it against don't seem to be blockable, and the rest of the time you'd be better off doing the old arcade beat-'em-up dodge and weave. 

The enemies do have a lot of personality, which is a highlight. Hero Concept's gone out of its way to vary up its formula, so instead of being rushed by six clones of one guy, or palette swaps with different names, many of the rank-and-file enemies have distinct differences in their design. 

You'll meet and beat up all sorts of lycanthropes, vampires, Blade-wannabe "half-bloods," spirits, genies, hired gunmen, and small-time wizards in streetwear. Among other things.

Armed enemies only drop their weapons once they're knocked out, but in exchange, the weapons in Mayhem Brawler are surprisingly powerful.

A baseball bat or crowbar only lasts for three or four hits, but that's enough to take out a standard enemy or shave a nice block of health off a boss. Guns are weaker per hit but inflict a status effect that causes a target to take bonus damage for a few seconds afterward.

I do like how Mayhem Brawler handles that kind of thing. Both players and enemies get icons over their heads when their statuses change, so you can tell at a glance if, for example, an attack is uninterruptible, or if an enemy has an invincible wake-up option. It's one thing I'd definitely appreciate being added to other beat'em ups, since it takes a lot of guesswork out of figuring out a strategy. 

The stages are inconsistent, though, which gives Mayhem Brawler an uneven difficulty curve. The genies in particular are dramatically overtuned, with a body splash that seems to hit half the screen at once for an easy 25% damage.

It's also irritating that you're constantly dodging bullets, and that guns are consistently much less powerful in your hands than in an enemy's. 

When I tried Mayhem Brawler on my own, I wasn't impressed due to all these petty annoyances. When I played with a few friends, though, I was surprised by how much the experience improved. While a few stages are still meat grinders, it's clear that the whole game was designed with co-op in mind, and solo play was an afterthought at best.

Mayhem Brawler Review — The Bottom Line

Pros

  • A fun, mostly functional arcade brawler
  • 3-player co-op
  • 3 unique characters with their own arsenals of moves
  • Better-written than you might expect
  • An entertaining and short multiplayer game

Cons

  • Not much fun solo
  • Strange balance issues
  • A few janky animations
  • Some of the jokes absolutely do not land

Mayhem Brawler isn't bad. It's a perfectly serviceable spin on the arcade beat-'em-up, set in a strangely built but interesting world. It's even genuinely funny at times, although the script could use some punching up. If you want a cheap indie for your next couch co-op session, you could do a lot worse.

Hero Concept's made a good setting and a passable game. A theoretical Mayhem Brawler 2, with less irritating combat, could be killer.

Its biggest problem is, simply, that Streets of Rage 4 exists. The only people to whom I could genuinely recommend Mayhem Brawler are those who've already beaten SoR4 to death and want to move on to something else. I'm not going to serve you a hamburger when you ordered steak, and I'm not going to recommend Mayhem Brawler over SoR4.

[Note: Hero Concept provided the copy of Mayhem Brawler used for this review.]

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Black Book Review: Witching Hour https://www.gameskinny.com/7xqry/black-book-review-witching-hour https://www.gameskinny.com/7xqry/black-book-review-witching-hour Thu, 05 Aug 2021 13:00:01 -0400 Thomas Wilde

Clearing Black Book's campaign should be worth some kind of academic credit. It's so uniquely steeped in Russian mythology that it automatically generates its own CliffsNotes and encyclopedia for you as you play.

It's hard to pin Black Book's exact genre down. It's a digital card game with RPG elements, but it also has an exploration/conversation element that mixes in a little bit of classic '90s adventure game. If you would've liked Slay the Spire or Roguebook more with a 20-hour narrative mode attached, Black Book is your particular jam.

Black Book Review: Witching Hour

Black Book is a creepy walking tour through the 19th-century Russian countryside at night, where you're constantly perched on a razor's edge between being a full-on villain protagonist or a vaguely contrite anti-hero.

What I appreciate, though, is that this isn't anywhere near the typical Western fantasy environment. With new releases like this and Cris Tales, we're finally starting to see more video games that go further outside the typical Tolkien-by-way-of-Gygax pastiche.

It's a lot to take in. Black Book has that issue you run into with some urban fantasy and weirder RPGs, where it's generating its own terminology so fast that it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. Even though that "terminology" is just keeping various Russian words intact, like "koldun" (witch) and "zagovor" (spell, prayer), I had to take notes as I played.

To Hell and Back

Vasilisa is an orphaned girl who has the potential to become a witch. She planned to ignore that and get married, but then her fiance suddenly turned up dead.

To get him back, Vasilisa goes back to her old mentor Egor and takes up his role as a koldun, a practitioner of witchcraft and demonology, as well as his Black Book. The Book in question contains many spells and is marked with seven seals, the first of which is already broken. If Vasilisa can figure out a way to break the other six, she can wish for whatever she wants, including the resurrection of her fiance, or so the old story goes.

While she searches for the information she needs, Vasilisa serves as the new witch and "knower" for the local peasants, where she chases off demons, fights ghosts, and deals with the occasional curse. Her primary quest is always in the background, but much of Black Book is what happens to her while she's making other plans.

Upstairs, Downstairs

In general, being a witch in 19th-century Russia isn't a heroic job. Vasilisa gradually accumulates a stat called Sins that reflects her morality, which is increased whenever she commits a crime or consorts with evil spirits. It decreases whenever she does something kind.

However, Vasilisa also has a bunch of demons under her command who have to be given something to do at all times, or they'll torment her instead, which inflicts significant mechanical penalties. That means you have to set them out to do petty acts against the countryside, each of which gives you cash on completion but also earns you some startlingly high number of Sins.

It's not so much a balancing act on a karma meter as it's a question of how evil you want Vasilisa to be. She's not getting out of this clean however you play it, but you can invest in ways to minimize the damage. That means you'll make less currency and have fewer skill points to spend on valuable combat capabilities.

It's an interesting approach to the typical video game morality scale, which too often splits between sainthood and petty dickishness. Vasilisa is always on a dark path regardless of how you choose to play — the scene at the start of the game where she gets her powers involves a short trip to Hell, where she's greeted like a promising new talent — but you can try not to lean into that.

A Little Bit of Everything

The combat in Black Book takes the form of a card game, played by taking pages out of the titular book. You're limited by how many cards you can play in a turn, rather than a finite pool of some resource, but the game draws a distinction between normal and "key" cards that can occasionally limit your options.

It's easy enough to start, but the further you get into the Book, the more options you unlock, generally in the form of additional modifiers for spells. I still don't feel like I have a really good handle on how the various systems actually work, but Black Book's has a forgiving learning curve... for the most part.

There are a couple of boss fights that represent a sudden and unfortunate difficulty spike, one of which nearly made me start the game over. (Fortunately, the game keeps an autosave for you right at the start of each new level, which meant I could go back and form a new plan with minimal difficulty.)

You can also customize your loadout from the main menu at almost any time. You do have to pay to get cards back out of the Book, but just getting rid of them is free, which helps to keep your deck streamlined. That, in turn, means you're almost always hurting for cash, which is a peculiar incentive to keep your pet demons harassing the countryside for you.

The rest of Black Book is a peculiar sort of investigation game, where you can search for clues and unlock encyclopedia pages to figure out the various mysteries that Vasilisa encounters. This can range from a weird whodunit in a salt mine to figuring out what type of demon has possessed a villager, and it's pretty good about not just feeding the clues to you.

When you manage to figure out the right answer to something from context or research, it's a satisfying win, making one of the better detective-work games I've played lately is... the 19th-century Russian witch simulator. Huh.

Black Book Review — The Bottom Line

Pros:

  • Accessible if complex take on digital card games
  • Not just another Tolkien/Gygax fantasy adventure
  • Morality system that forces you to make hard choices almost constantly
  • Solid if quirky translation that tells a peculiar story

Cons

  • Consequences are often counterintuitive
  • Challenge level can spike without warning
  • Some difficult-to-grasp systems
  • A few crashes to desktop

Black Book's all over the map in terms of genre, and it's made no effort to simplify its translation for non-Russian audiences. It's uniquely bleak, and it's got more than a couple of brick-wall fights that force you to rework your deck with sharply limited resources.

It's hard for me to put a precise score on that kind of thing. I'd be happy to recommend it to anyone with a card-game addiction, it's got a few things going for it as far as being an RPG, and if you're interested in learning about Russian mythology, Black Book is practically an educational tool.

However, it's also janky, inconsistent, and not great about explaining its systems. I wouldn't say that it's exactly unpolished — I get the feeling that Black Book is exactly what it was intended to be — but it feels like the sort of game that, back in the day, would've shipped with an inch-thick manual, which you don't have.

Call it a high 7, low 8, and don't be afraid to give it a try. It is, at least, unusual, and that's worth something all by itself.

[Note: HypeTrain Digital provided the copy of Black Book used for this review.]

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Last Stop Review: At the Junction of Magic and the Mundane https://www.gameskinny.com/0tcqh/last-stop-review-at-the-junction-of-magic-and-the-mundane https://www.gameskinny.com/0tcqh/last-stop-review-at-the-junction-of-magic-and-the-mundane Wed, 21 Jul 2021 12:00:01 -0400 Mark Delaney

For me, there's no seal of quality as trustworthy as the Annapurna Interactive logo. By my count, no other publisher delivers such a consistently impressive body of work at the rate of Annapurna.

Developer Variable State's long-awaited follow-up to 2016's Virginia continues this industry-leading trend. Last Stop feels, in many ways, like Annapurna: The Video Game. It's got all the hallmarks of the arthouse label: a unique, twisting story, cinema-quality original music, a cast of characters that seem like no one else in games, et al.

But none of this is to say Last Stop is stale. It's absolutely unpredictable, and it's compelling enough to merit playing in one long go. That's not to mention it's an all-around more tangible tale than the team's debut effort. With Last Stop, Variable State proves it's no one-hit-wonder and cements itself as a name to watch.

Last Stop Review: At the Junction of Magic and the Mundane

Last Stop tells three anthological stories in modern-day London, but not before opening with a purposely confounding flashback that hints at strange science fiction leanings. It promises the human dramas that are to unfold thereafter are merely a twist away from becoming something much different.

For each of the game's three main characters  John, a single dad with full-on dadbod; Meena, a ruthless and unapologetic workaholic; and Donna, a self-liberated high schooler  themes of secrecy and the masks they each wear in their lives are prevalent throughout.

Players can choose in which order they unravel each character's story within reason. Completing each character's first chapter, for example, will open up the trio of Chapter Twos, where players can once again play them out in any order. I found I enjoyed the story most by playing them left to right in the selection screen each time. The game's "Previously On" sections deliver an exciting TV-style quality I've tended to love in games like Alan Wake before it. 

While the story is billed as an anthology, it doesn't take long for the once disparate threads to begin to tangle. This first happens in satisfyingly subtle ways  "wait, isn't his neighbor also her coworker?" — before tangling into a three-pronged narrative whirlwind that culminates in a (probably) polarizing finale.

For what it's worth, I loved it.

Meena, wearing a grey shirt, standing in a red room.

I feel each story is more or less as compelling as the others, though if I had to pick a favorite, it'd be Meena's, as her duality as a workaholic secret agent and failed parent and wife make for a fascinating blend of the mundane and the exceptional. Meanwhile, John's story deliberately pulls from a movie trope, only to not really subvert it in any way, going down a familiar path to its conclusion, albeit through the still-unique filter of the stories' convergent overarching finale. 

Each story stands on its own well, presenting a different genre even while they revolve around pretty normal people caught up in extraordinary situations. The way they come to a head is exciting, because although it's apparent early on that their separate lives will collide in due time, how they get there and what happens next is really what makes Last Stop worth talking about.

As usual with such story-heavy games, its merits live and die by the strength of that story even as they're hard to talk about without spoiling things. Think of Last Stop as something like Crash meets The Outer Limits, with a bit of Indiana Jones later on. It's not like anything else you've seen in games, and for that reason, story-focused players should make time for it.

Donna, wearing a red vest and black pants, crouching behind pallets alongside another man and woman

Playing Last Stop feels like many a narrative adventure game from the past decade. Players will make frequent dialogue decisions, hastened by a timer, and interact with the world from an endless supply of cinematic camera angles, sometimes pouring cereal, other times pouring over files during a B&E.

You'll hardly ever make choices though, as scenes mostly go where they're meant to no matter what you say  at least until some tough final decisions. In many cases, you could feasibly not reply at all and the game would play itself in between more exploratory scenes.

It looks really good, too, using a stylized and maturish Pixaresque blend of colors and smooth textures. Thanks to some hyperactive eyebrows, characters emote well enough to deliver their lines, but their expressions and animations are a bit wooden and harken back to the days of Telltale's faulty processes, which does sometimes hinder the filmic intentions of Last Stop.

More of a saving grace is the game's audio, which is absolutely stellar in every way. Last Stop is voiced expertly, even as none of the names jump off the credits as familiar to me.

The original music is composed by Lyndon Holland, who previously scored Virginia to what I'd call perfection. Here the inspirations are less obvious than Holland's borrowing from Twin Peaks five years ago, but the results are no less enchanting. He's simply a brilliant composer and a perfect match for Variable State's penchant for deliberate, dreamy weirdness.

Last Stop Review — The Bottom Line

John in khaki pants, blue blazer, and red tie standing in a lit elevator outside a dim room.

Pros

  • A fun, eclectic blend of anthological tales that come to a head inventively
  • Brilliant music and voice acting 
  • Paced to perfection as episodes you'll want to binge in one sitting

Cons

  • Lackluster animations betray some of the game's cinematic intentions
  • Some leaning on narrative tropes

Last Stop feels like a more palatable follow-up to Variable State's ponderous premiere, but one that is made without sacrificing all of the burgeoningly signature weirdness of the small team.

Though the story takes risks, it manages to rein them in a bit, as not to drown its players in metaphor, something the team once seemed happy to do in 2016. Questions go unanswered and some mysteries are once again meant to idle in the player's mind, but in all, Last Stop is more popcorny than I expected but no less entertaining.

[Note: Variable State provided the copy of Last Stop used for this review.] 

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Steam Next Fest: 8 Great Indie Demos to Download Now https://www.gameskinny.com/e4zi8/steam-next-fest-8-great-indie-demos-to-download-now https://www.gameskinny.com/e4zi8/steam-next-fest-8-great-indie-demos-to-download-now Fri, 18 Jun 2021 16:57:14 -0400 Mark Delaney

Steam Next Fest is back for another round, and that means the popular storefront is currently hosting hundreds of demos for players to try out. It's the closest we can get to something like an E3 showfloor, and honestly, without the long queues for games and longer queues for lunch, it's really not so bad.

While we can't claim to have played all 500+ indie game demos taking part in the digital festival, we did play dozens of them and settled on spotlighting eight that we came away excited about.

The Big Con

Girl with aquamarine hair and pants walking down a sidewalk in front of shops.

Players of a particular age will appreciate The Big Con for its decisively 90s aesthetic. Ugly carpets, video rental stores, and a vanishing middle class give way to the game's protagonist, Ali, needing to pickpocket her way to clearing her mother's debts.

This adventure game is visually striking and both funny and sad at different intervals, like looking through a 1995 yearbook.

Road 96

Kid wearing glasses playing an arcade cabinet in neon light.

If politics and games are your thing, maybe a world that mirrors our own in some uncomfortable ways could be fascinating. If so, the many-branched narrative tree of Road 96 should capture you.

In it, players take on the role of a teen fleeing for the border to escape what seems to be an oncoming storm of trouble from the next possible governing body. Commenting on our world through one not the same, but not unlike ours either, makes for a compelling setting.

Terra Nil

Red ship hovering over forest and wind turbine next to a river.

Strategy is a big umbrella, so it's hard to say fans of the genre, in general, will enjoy Terra Nil, but it's worth a shot because it's unlike any other "city-builder" I know. That's because you are actually tasked with building the world back up from ruin, returning nature to the hills, rivers, and valleys of a once lush land.

The visual effects of replacing the world's beauty have a strangely Tetris-like satisfaction, like getting everything just right can feel so good.

My Time At Sandrock

Girl standing in empty garden plot with town in background.

Farm sims are extremely in right now, and the team at Pathea is back with its bigger and prettier follow-up to My Time At Portia. If you liked it before, My Time At Sandrock feels like it returns a lot of what you loved the first time only with more townsfolk, a bigger starting area, and a whole new desert-like region to discover.

They Are Here 

First-person view walking along path through cornfield at night.

I've long lamented the lack of any proper alien abduction horror, so They Are Here was actually the first demo I tried during Steam Next Fest. While the 10-minute sample is a bit on rails, it gets the atmosphere and innate terror of an alien lifeform so very right.

This is a genre that games have weirdly failed to do much with, so I hope the full game is just as creepy as the demo.

Rainbow Billy

Billy in a spacesuit in vibrant red and yellow landscape drawn like Cuphead.

It's a surprise this colorful indie isn't from Cartoon Network. The blend of 2D and 3D art is immediately captivating, and the story seems to set up a similar tone to Adventure Time, where things are just a bit subversive but still friendly enough for all ages.

It also seems to have a fun exploratory nature to it, where the titular hero travels the world by squishy steamboat.

Chasing Static

Outside a diner at night in a rainstorm.

Fans of retro horror simply must download this one. Using a PS1 visual style but presented in first-person, Chasing Static is an interesting mix of old- and new-school horror design principles.

Music is reminiscent of Silent Hill and it even begins in a diner, much like the classic from Konami. It's effectively scary too, and I genuinely say that about few games anymore.

Severed Steel

Player character infirst-person view falling backward while shooting handgun at enemy.

John Wick already got a game, but this is a much closer John Wick simulator than that strategy title. In first-person, players can wallrun, slide, dive through glass, and shoot in slow motion taking out waves of enemies while dripping with style like Jeff Goldblum circa Jurassic Park.

---

While you're here, don't forget we also dove deep into LudoNarraCon earlier this year too, where we already fell in love with demo-ready games like Lake and Unpacking, both of which have demos during Steam Next Fest as well.

Those are the handful of indie games we loved that have demos available now during Steam Next Fest. Have we missed your favorite? Let us know, and we'll give it a try! 

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Wolfstride Preview: Black and White Mech Fights https://www.gameskinny.com/j98q3/wolfstride-preview-black-and-white-mech-fights https://www.gameskinny.com/j98q3/wolfstride-preview-black-and-white-mech-fights Tue, 15 Jun 2021 10:26:47 -0400 George Yang

Wolfstride is an upcoming turn-based RPG game about mechs from Ota Imon Studios and Raw Fury. It was revealed back in 2020, and it was recently showed off at E3 2021.

Wolfstride is definitely an interesting game to look out for when it eventually releases. We even named it one of our most-anticipated turn-based RPGs of the year. I was able to play a brief demo build of the game and I came away intrigued by what I’ve seen so far. 

In the demo, you control a character named Shade, who unsurprisingly, dons a pair of cool shades. Immediately, the two aspects that stood out to me were the music and the art direction. Both are absolutely fantastic.

The song that plays in the main hub area is a great rock guitar tune that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Persona 5 dungeon. The overall art design of Wolfstride employs a black and white comic book style in its menus, battle animations, and character portraits. 

Shade himself looks very similar to Kamina from the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann anime, especially since Shade has the same sunglasses as the character. Wolfstride is really a pleasure to look at and listen to.

Good, ol' Fashioned Mech Battles

Wolfstride's gameplay revolves around turn-based mech battles, and you have certain actions at your disposal that either take up MP or AP. The action line at the bottom of the screen consists of squares that you can move along to get closer to your opponent. MP is primarily used for moving and going towards the middle squares in the line, and it can offer you bonuses like increased damage output.

AP is used for both attacking and defending. Certain skills use a set amount of AP, so you have to strategize what skills to use. Skills have varying properties —like Knockout Punch. It can only hit an opponent if they’re right in front of you, but it also has the ability to push them several squares back. Another example is Reload, which is a defensive skill that allows you to reload bullets. Defensive actions like Reload use up AP just like any other skill.

To beat an opponent, you must destroy the chest area of their mechs. The mechs have separate HP bars for each part of their body, such as the arms, head, and chest. While the chest is the primary objective, taking out other parts first has its advantages. For example, taking out the right arm can shut down your opponent’s ability to use a certain attack skill completely. Destroying the head impairs the mech’s ability to target specific body parts.

Back at the hub area, you can purchase new parts of your mech using money earned from victories, as well as repair any damage you sustained from the previous fight. These new parts can have positive effects like simply increasing base damage. However, some might have drawbacks, too. Some may increase HP but also decrease your ammo capacity. It's a system that welcomes strategic planning as you build the best mech for your playstyle. 

It's Just a (Wolfstride) Demo!

Though it's just a demo, I wasn't able to get a clear picture of the game's story. I was just dropped off in the middle of the hub with barely any context, so it's hard to say how the narrative will play out.

There’s also a big difficulty spike between fighting the first mech and fighting the second. The demo emphasizes practicing on the first mech battle to earn more money and buy new parts, but hopefully, that’s not an indication of drawn-out grinding during the main game. We'll just have to wait and see. 

In the full game, it seems like you’ll be able to explore the setting, Rain City, in a greater capacity, and you’ll seemingly be able to talk with residents and forge relationships. Unfortunately, the demo doesn’t provide access to that part of the game, so I am definitely curious to see how that all plays out later.

---

Wolfstride draws a lot of its nostalgic air from the era of Japanese mech-battle TV cartoons, which has been done before. However, the art style and music will certainly help the game stand out from the crowd.

The battles are strategic enough without feeling like they’re dragging on, and the degree of mech customization is fun so far. The demo only gives a small taste of what’s to come, but hopefully, with a few difficulty tweaks and more content, I can give Wolfstride a more accurate assessment down the road.

If you like the kind of setting and aesthetic that Wolfstride employs, then by all means give the demo a shot when it launches on PC on June 16.

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12 Minutes Release Date Announced at Xbox E3 2021 https://www.gameskinny.com/s4m5j/12-minutes-release-date-announced-at-xbox-e3-2021 https://www.gameskinny.com/s4m5j/12-minutes-release-date-announced-at-xbox-e3-2021 Mon, 14 Jun 2021 17:22:51 -0400 Josh Broadwell

We finally have a 12 Minutes release date thanks to the Xbox/Bethesda showcase at E3 2021. Publisher Annapurna Interactive announced 12 Minutes will release August 19 on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. It will also be available through Game Pass on day one. 

A man and his wife are celebrating a romantic evening together when suddenly, a police officer breaks in. He accuses the woman of murder, arrests them both, and beats the man to death. Then the man wakes up again, 12 minutes before his death, only to repeat things again.

12 Minutes is a time-loop game where a man relives the trauma of his death endlessly until he finds a way to break free and find a solution to the hell he's trapped in.

Luis Antonio (The Witness) makes his development debut as the solo developer behind 12 Minutes, while James McAvoy (His Dark Materials), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and William Dafoe (Spider-Man, At Eternity's Gate) voice the three main characters. Stay tuned for more on 12 Minutes

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Eldest Souls Release Date Brings Souls-Like Indie to PC, Consoles Soon https://www.gameskinny.com/w2jcz/eldest-souls-release-date-brings-souls-like-indie-to-pc-consoles-soon https://www.gameskinny.com/w2jcz/eldest-souls-release-date-brings-souls-like-indie-to-pc-consoles-soon Mon, 14 Jun 2021 15:58:59 -0400 Josh Broadwell

Following years of development and several previews, Fallen Flag Studios announced an Eldest Souls release date of July 29, 2021, during the E3 2021 Future Games Show. Eldest Souls will launch on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.

Fallen Flag describes Eldest Souls as a Souls-like indie game, "a challenging, pixel-art boss-rush game with a focus on fast-paced brutal combat." Like any good RPG, you're goal is killing the gods.

There's a good reason though. The Old Gods brought devastation to the world, turning the environment into a wasteland of desolation. You'll encounter only bosses during Eldest Souls — no trash mobs or grunt enemies roam these lands.

However, there are NPCs to find and side quests to complete when you aren't busy customizing your combat style. We checked out Eldest Souls a couple of years ago and were impressed with it even then, so we're looking forward to the game's full release. Stay tuned for more on Eldest Souls over the next month. 

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Mortal Shell: The Virtuous Cycle DLC "Coming Soon" https://www.gameskinny.com/65q3w/mortal-shell-the-virtuous-cycle-dlc-coming-soon https://www.gameskinny.com/65q3w/mortal-shell-the-virtuous-cycle-dlc-coming-soon Fri, 11 Jun 2021 19:34:10 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Mortal Shell, the action RPG from developer Cold Symmetry, is getting a full-fledged DLC called The Virtuous Cycle. The announcement was made during the IGN Expo and was accompanied by a short cinematic trailer showing what appears to be Solomon, the Scholar taking on Brigands in Fallgrim outside of the Eternal Narthex.  

Beyond the announcement, there's not too much information about the upcoming DLC. It's "coming soon," according to Cold Symmetry, and we know that it will launch on all platforms, including PC, PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. 

Hopefully, we'll hear more about The Virtuous Cycle DLC sooner rather than later, but right now, that's all we have to go on. Currently, there's no firm release window or date for the expansion. There's also no word on how much it will cost when it does release. 

Mortal Shell released in 2020, and it wears its FromSoftware inspirations on its sleeve. It received a free update in October of 2020, called the Rotten Autumn update, that added new shaders, music from band Rotting Christ, and a photo mode. 

We said of Mortal Shell in our review: "Far from being a pretender, Mortal Shell is a sometimes exceptional entry to the genre. Its stumbles are noticeable only because there is so much to enjoy." Stay tuned for more. 

[Source: IGN]

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Black Skylands New Early Access Date Announced in Beautiful New Trailer https://www.gameskinny.com/khfwg/black-skylands-new-early-access-date-announced-in-beautiful-new-trailer https://www.gameskinny.com/khfwg/black-skylands-new-early-access-date-announced-in-beautiful-new-trailer Fri, 11 Jun 2021 18:02:45 -0400 Josh Broadwell

Black Skylands' new PC Early Access date is July 9, Hungry Couch Games and tinyBuild announced during the IGN Summer of Gaming expo. The open-world action-shooter blends polished pixel art with crafting, sky combat, and so much more as you explore a gorgeous world in the grip of a vicious evil.

Earth is a mass of floating islands in Black Skylands, and people roam the skies in factions trying to survive and prosper — mostly. There are those who plunder and destroy, such as the Kains' Falcons bandit gang. The Falcons attack the Earners faction, destroy their ship, and murder nearly everyone in their way, including the father of Eva, Black Skylands' protagonist.

Check out the lovely animated Black Skylands trailer below

Eva sets out on a journey of vengeance, but as determined as she is to bring the Falcons down, she also wants to rebuild her life. Designing your ship "from the deck up," expanding your base, and gathering the resources to stay alive form a core part of Black Skylands, Hungry Couch said in a statement.

Forests, jungles, snow-capped mountains, idyllic farms, and more all fall under the shadow of your ship as you explore the vast, open world, and your ship is more than just a home. Aerial combat plays a significant role in Black Skylands.

We checked out Black Skylands earlier this year and said that in its current build, it's "an inventive top-down open-world action game that mixes indie charm with mainstream aspirations." Check out more of our impressions ahead of launch

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Salt and Sacrifice, the Sequel to Salt and Sanctuary, is Coming in 2022 https://www.gameskinny.com/5n02h/salt-and-sacrifice-the-sequel-to-salt-and-sanctuary-is-coming-in-2022 https://www.gameskinny.com/5n02h/salt-and-sacrifice-the-sequel-to-salt-and-sanctuary-is-coming-in-2022 Fri, 11 Jun 2021 17:57:48 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Salt and Sanctuary, the 2016 2D Soulslike, is getting a "sequel." Developer Ska Studios announced that Salt and Sacrifice will be coming to PC, PlayStation 4, and PS5 sometime in 2022. It's unclear if it will come to Xbox platforms. The announcement was made through a reveal trailer during the Summer Game Fest kickoff event. 

We say "sequel" because it appears Salt and Sacrifice is taking a page out of the Demon's Souls to Dark Souls playbook. Based on what Ska Studios has shared about the game so far, it doesn't appear to be directly related to Salt and Sanctuary narratively, and though it seems to carry over mechanics from the first game, it also seems to greatly expand upon them in compelling ways. 

Players will take the role of a marked inquisitor, a pariah of sorts in the Altarstone Kingdom. The inquisitor's purpose is to hunt down and destroy mages, but just not any run-of-the-mill mage. These are terrifying, sometimes towering behemoths that feel right at home in any Soulslike

Take a look at the trailer below. 

According to Ska Studios, there will be eight classes to choose from in Salt and Sacrifice. Though that's the same number available in Salt and Sanctuary, the classes in Salt and Sacrifice carry different names and, presumably, different characteristics and abilities. They are Highblade, Paladin, Assassin, Cleric, Dualist, Fighter, Ranger, and Sage. 

Like Salt and Sanctuary, Salt and Sacrifice will include "drop-in drop-out" online cooperative multiplayer. 

Ska Studios says there will be 20 types of mages (bosses) to take down in Salt and Sacrifice, and the map will be even more varied than before, featuring "eerie villages, tomb temples, and swamp kingdoms." Of course, there will be a number of skills and abilities to choose from through the Runic Arts system, though those weren't specified in the initial release. 

There's still a lot we don't know about Salt and Sacrifice, but stay tuned over the coming months as Ska Studios is sure to provide more information leading up to launch in 2022. 

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Asmodee Announces Two Indie Co Op Games in Ember Knights and Innchanted https://www.gameskinny.com/69i2a/asmodee-announces-two-indie-co-op-games-in-ember-knights-and-innchanted https://www.gameskinny.com/69i2a/asmodee-announces-two-indie-co-op-games-in-ember-knights-and-innchanted Wed, 09 Jun 2021 13:12:21 -0400 Jonathan Moore

Though publisher Asmodee may be best known for taking popular tabletop games like Catan, Arkham Horror, and Munchkin from the table to the PC and other platforms, they also work with many indie developers on original IP. The latest games in that lineup are heavily focused on multiplayer co op. 

Ember Knights is the first on the docket. While the thumbnail for the announcement trailer below may make the titular Ember Knights look cute, it's clear they're mean fighting machines, using swords, bows, magic, and anything else they can get their hands on to take down their foes. 

Described by Asmodee and developer Tiny Titans Studios as an "action multiplayer roguelite dungeon crawler" (whew), Ember Knights' procedurally-generated action plays from a semi-top-down perspective a la Enter the Gungeon and Hades.

Tiny Titans promises that players will have plenty of weapons to choose from, be able to upgrade abilities, and fight a variety of bosses in procedurally-generated 

The game supports up to four players in both local and online multiplayer. Ember Knights will enter Early Access sometime in the fall, though a firm date hasn't been pegged down just yet. It will eventually release on PC and consoles. 

Innchanted, from developer DragonBear, is also a rather cute-looking adventure, but instead of focusing on combat, it focuses on management, where players test their skills running an inn and cooking up potions for patrons. Of course, there are baddies under the control of an evil wizard to "deter," because what would running any business be without rivals? 

Innchanted is played from a semi-top-down perspective, too, but is much more reminiscent of games like Overcooked, right down to its art style and overall design. It also supports 4-player co op for local and online parties and is geared more toward kids and families.

Asmodee CEO Pierre Ortolan said that the publisher is glad to work with Tiny Titans Studios and DragonBear to publish two new that focus on multiplayer co op. 

We’re ecstatic to be publishing these creative and colorful titles from two extremely talented studio. As we’re expanding our roster of titles with new worlds to explore and stories to tell, it’s only fitting that these two new games are charming co-op experiences that also encourage more players to join in and enliven the experience for everyone.

As we team up with Tiny Titans Studios and DragonBear Studios, we look forward to gamers finding their own partners to bring along for their own in-game adventures. These two games reward sound and quick decision-making, their multiplayer co-op focus delivering fun and engaging experiences to share with your friends & family!

Stay tuned for more on Ember Knights and Innchanted as we learn more and their respective release dates near. Ember Knights can be added to Steam wishlists here, and Innchanted can be added here. Further, Ember Knights currently has a free Steam demo that provides an early look at the game. 

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Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Review: The Best Family Game of 2021 https://www.gameskinny.com/aqkj4/alba-a-wildlife-adventure-review-the-best-family-game-of-2021 https://www.gameskinny.com/aqkj4/alba-a-wildlife-adventure-review-the-best-family-game-of-2021 Wed, 09 Jun 2021 10:00:02 -0400 Mark Delaney

With morality shaded in gray and an arsenal of weapons under their rule-of-cool attire, the anti-heroes at the center of most video games today heed the call only because they're forced to by some catalyzing betrayal or tragedy. Then, they strike down their enemies with a similar penchant for violence.

Alba isn't like other video game heroes. For one, she's a young girl, not a grizzled half-tuck with a skill tree full of throat punches. All Alba has is a smartphone, a notebook, and a map. She's no reluctant hero either, because more than anything, what Alba has is a fierce determination to do right by her community and environment.

Her indefatigable spirit is as contagious as her ever-present smile, and it's this call to action that makes Alba: A Wildlife Adventure the best family game of the year.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Review: The Best Family Game of 2021

Alba is everything most sandboxes aren't, and that begins with its modest size. As Alba, you can walk, skip, and stroll across the perimeter of Pinar Del Mar in about seven minutes. This isn't a sandbox meant to occupy your every waking hour for weeks on end, though it is quite an enjoyable game that shows you what to do, then lets you do it at your own pace.

Alba is still a game that could take you weeks to play, but probably only because you've fallen for its photo mode, which doubles as the main gameplay mechanic. Imbued with a penchant for birdwatching by her abuelo, Alba spends her vacation with her grandparents snapping photos of local animals, cleaning up the nature reserve, and petitioning the mayor to tear up his deal with a shady land developer who wants to build a mega-hotel amid the close-knit island community.

Over the course of about an in-game week, Alba must use her eternally burning fire inside to bring about a similar passion from others before it's too late to protect the island's natural appeal. For some, it will be Alba's healing of sick birds and squirrels that drives them to sign her petition. For others, it may be her charming photos of eagles, dolphins, and dogs. With each person, the message is clear: look what we may lose if we don't protect it.

Each good deed is gamified, but just barely. To pick up trash, pet the dog, and heal an injured animal, it's always the same one-button prompt, which, while simple to a seasoned player, makes Alba incredibly inviting to inexperienced or younger adventurers.

In that context, there's really nothing like this game. It gives players an open-world manageable in size filled with community service as the motivator. In a world where wholesome games have carved out their own niche, Alba is among the few that truly embodies the spirit of doing something for the right reasons and in the right way.

The music and art of Alba complete the game's spell. An original score by Lorena Álvarez captures the spirited but breezy atmosphere of the game, while the simple environments still provide a dazzling vista no matter where Alba points her camera. Though there's no voice acting, Alba can talk to whomever she wants and will usually get a few lines of dialogue from them each in-game day. As a day's main quest is completed, characters will signal that you can head home to advance time, but there's no penalty for not doing so. 

Alba never pressures players to keep moving, and even if you do want to rush through the three-hour story to see how it ends, the game smartly lets you loose on the island for the final day before you head home, which becomes an endless mode where you can take all the pictures and greet all the friends you want.

More than any other game I've played, Alba captures the magical optimism of childhood. Adults can be cynical, weathered by jobs and bills, but for Alba, like for a lot of children, the world is still full of wonder, and she feels big and brave enough to change it for the better. The most wonderful part of Alba: no one tells her she can't — and so she does.

I loved this game so much when I first played it on Apple Arcade last December (it even made my top 20 games that flew under the radar list), and it's mostly just as lovely now that it's on consoles. However, it's worth mentioning that those not playing on iOS (or presumably Switch), will lose just a bit of the game's charm in two ways. For one, the photo mini-game tracks your real-life movement on iPhones and that's lacking on consoles.

Related to that, the save and share features of the in-game photography seem to do nothing, at least on the Xbox version I played. On iOS, you can save lovely galleries of your pictures, but right now, it simply doesn't work on consoles, best I can tell, even though the options are still there.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure Review — The Bottom Line

Pros
  • An adorable story told with a ton of heart
  • Memorable characters all over town
  • Photo mode takes center stage as its own integral story mechanic
  • Audiovisual design that is both breezy and beautiful
  • Relaxed, easy to learn mechanics
Cons
  • Photo saving and sharing buttons seem not to have made the jump from mobile to console

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is blatantly and immediately adorable, but as the brief story unfolds, it reveals a much greater purpose: a call to action from its players. The people of Pinar Del Mar don't patronize Alba, they support her earnestly, lift her up as she, in return, lifts them up. Alba believes she can, so she does. It's the sort of children's — especially young girls' — empowerment story video games have seemingly never done before but now so obviously needed.

It's a story not just of passive admiration but impassioned activism. Alba is an exemplar of the game's core tenet: we are the heroes we're waiting for.

[Note: Ustwo provided the copy of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure used for this review.]

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Pathway Finds a Path to Nintendo Switch https://www.gameskinny.com/k3g0r/pathway-finds-a-path-to-nintendo-switch https://www.gameskinny.com/k3g0r/pathway-finds-a-path-to-nintendo-switch Tue, 11 May 2021 13:48:09 -0400 David Carcasole

Pathway from developer Robotality originally launched on PC in 2019, and soon, Nintendo Switch players will be able to carve out their own path as the game makes its way to the hybrid platform on May 27, 2021. 

The release will be the complete version of Pathway, with all previous expansions, including the most recent Adventurer's Wanted and Hardcore Mode expansions, making the trip. To get players excited about jumping into this nazi-killing turn-based adventure, the developers have released a new trailer for the game on Switch.

Stefan Bachmann, game designer and coder at Robotality, said that Pathway makes complete sense on Switch. 

We're super excited to bring Pathway to the Switch. From day one we thought the game would be a perfect fit for the console. It took a lot of work to bring the game's real time-lighting effects and pixel art to Switch, but we're incredibly pleased with the results. In our opinion, this is now the best and most complete version of Pathway with all the post-release updates, so there's no better time to jump in!

To celebrate Pathway coming to Nintendo Switch, you can currently pre-order the game on the eShop for 20% off the launch-day price. It will be $12.79 instead of the regular $15.99. 

We reviewed the original release of Pathway on PC, which you can check out ahead of the release for Nintendo Switch here

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Black Skylands Preview: An Ambitious Open-World Pixel Art Adventure https://www.gameskinny.com/ntr5n/black-skylands-preview-an-ambitious-open-world-pixel-art-adventure https://www.gameskinny.com/ntr5n/black-skylands-preview-an-ambitious-open-world-pixel-art-adventure Tue, 04 May 2021 15:09:46 -0400 Luke Shaw

Set in a skypunk fantasy world full of airships, pirates, floating islands, and giant airborne beasts, Black Skylands is a mix of genres that manages to work despite its patchwork nature. It's an ambitious project for indie studio Hungry Coach Games, but all the ingredients for success are baked in.

We were able to go hands-on with the latest Black Skylands playstest on Steam and came away with positive impressions. Here's what we thought. 

Limitless Horizons

In Black Skylands, you play as Eva, a girl from a farming community who wants to explore the wide world beyond her Fathership, the floating paradise where she lives with her father and brother. Soon after a short segment introducing players to the game's farming and settlement building mechanics, your home is attacked by pirates and razed in front of your eyes.

You fight back, learning how to shoot enemies a la' Hotline Miami with Skylands' fun aim deviation if you spam fire. You're then introduced to the hook that drives the demo and the early game: your brother has gone off into the sky to fight the pirates on their home turf, and you'll need to take an airship out into the great beyond to find him. Taking the first steps into the sky lets you drink in the gorgeous pixel art on display.

For a demo of an Early Access game, Skylands already looks extremely polished, with flocks of fauna flying overhead as giant sky-faring whales casually float below. It's clearly far beyond your average retro-aesthetic, with lush detailing everywhere, and the only complaint is that the top-down characters are not quite as bold or instantly recognizable as they could be, which often leads to missing certain things here and there, such as important shopkeeps.

Piloting in Black Skylands is wonderfully tactile, and stocking your ammo and fuel involves grabbing crates from stores and physically carrying them to your hold. Fuel cans must be purchased, filled up, and then emptied into your ship's motor. Managing your ship's repairs feels unique, too, and operating its guns is done with the left and right mouse buttons. On top of that, you'll need to keep an eye on your firing arcs and how much fire as the guns can overheat. 

Grand Theft Airborne

Cooling overheated armaments and repairing damage to the ship can only be done by letting go of the steering wheel and manually moving to the damaged area or affected gun and expending time (and often resources from the ship's hold) to fix the issue. While aerial combat is mainly you fighting against smaller ships and propeller-suit-wearing pirates (at least so far), it can get fraught as you try and orientate your ship's firing arcs while avoiding gunfire, rockets, stationary mines, and clouds of noxious gas.

Transitioning from ship to island is achieved by diving off the deck of your ship and latching to firmament with a grappling hook. The hook is a great tool in combat, as well, letting you zip around or pull enemies in for a melee attack or close-range shotgun blast. You are equipped with a dodge roll that takes you through projectiles, allowing you to dance through bullet-hell style waves of attacks and avoiding swarming melee grunts.

There are plenty of weapons to choose from, running the gamut from pistols to shotguns to submachines, and each is fully moddable with upgrades found at vendors and in loot boxes. There are also mods to craft for your airship, and buildings you can create and upgrade back at the Fathership, which makes the game feel familiar to recent Assassin's Creed titles. 

Islands in the Sky

It may sound odd to say, but Black Skylands is very clearly trying to parrot some of the trends found in AAA open-world games, but with the kind of top-down, retro stylings that are so favored by indie studios. It sounds like an unlikely combination, but it's a good fit.

The small opening story quest ends the demo, but there is scope to carry on exploring the rest of the open world. Each island is occupied by a host of enemies, and clearing them all lets you stake a claim on the island, giving you new resource options and access to new vendors.

Black Skylands releasing in Early Access makes sense for a drip-feed of content. The map is limited right now, but there are clear plans to expand outside the demo area. The islands on offer currently present a good mix of top-down platforming, combat, and exploration with some minor secrets to find. 

With the scope it has for constructing buildings on your Fathership, upgrading you weaponry, armor, and airship, and the vast expanse of the sky to explore, there's a great foundation here. Controls are a little finicky at times, and the distance and reliability of your grappling hook take some getting used to.

It will be extremely interesting to see where the developers take Black Skylands next, especially if new challenges and sky biomes are added. This is one to keep your eye on. 

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Scourgebringer PS Vita Review: Finishing Strong https://www.gameskinny.com/rtr1v/scourgebringer-ps-vita-review-finishing-strong https://www.gameskinny.com/rtr1v/scourgebringer-ps-vita-review-finishing-strong Sat, 01 May 2021 09:00:01 -0400 David Carcasole

Scourgebringer, developed by Flying Oak Games, has been out in the wild since October 2020, but it has only just this month migrated onto PlayStation platforms, including the one platform where it feels most at home: the PlayStation Vita.

Scourgebringer is the other deeply challenging roguelike that's made its way to PlayStation consoles since early April, and Flying Oak Games delivers an experience well worth mentioning alongside the best of roguelikes on any console.

On PS Vita, however, the developer takes it a step further with clever use of the platform’s features, making Scourgebringer on Vita an absolute must-own for anyone still rocking Sony’s handheld phoenix.

Scourgebringer PS Vita Review: Finishing Strong

It’s amazing how a change in environment can affect our experience with something. Even though Scourgebringer released in October 2020, and I enjoyed the game on other platforms, the difference between my first experience of it and my experience on Vita is almost like night and day.

Scourgebringer suits the PS Vita’s form factor so well, and though it’s definitely the smallest version of the game, nothing feels small or understated about it.

The many colors of Scourgebringer pop beautifully on my OLED model PS Vita, and the screen size feels just right, rendering each room without losing any important environmental storytelling details or minimizing important text. It's an important element to consider, since, like other roguelikes, Scourgebringer’s story is discovered over the course of multiple runs and fed to the player through droplets of dialogue from past explorers.

The jumping-off point is that you, Kyhra, are tasked with saving your people from certain death and putting an end to what seems like biblical levels of judgment. Once you enter the monolith, though, that’s when the mystery truly begins. 

The story, however, is ultimately not the focal point of Scourgebringer. The gameplay is the star of the show, and it shines brightly. Scourgebringer is by no means an easy game, but the combat is so addicting it’s difficult to ever put it down.

Throughout the game, you constantly receive random buffs and item drops either from NPCs, by clearing a room full of enemies, or by completing challenges within the different levels. As with every roguelike, Scourgebringer has a number of important and not-so-important buffs. Here they're called blessings, and each run is greatly affected by what you have available to you. You don’t need the best blessings to make it deep into Scourgebringer, but some make things much easier. The only constant to remember is, you can't get hit -- ever. 

And this is where Scourgebringer’s challenge starts to show. Almost every room you explore in the monolith is chock full of well-designed demons, devils, robots, bugs, and all manner of creatures hell-bent on killing you dead.

You start the game only able to endure six hits before you die and start again, though you can increase it to a max of 10 by unlocking higher starting health through the skill tree. It's vital to unlock certain skills early on like Lethal Club, which lets you send enemy bullets back at them. Thankfully, the most important skills are near the beginning of each branch, and even if it's unlocked, you can still read the skill's description, so you can have an idea of where you want to invest your skill points.

Despite the challenge, Scourgebringer is hardly frustrating because I was genuinely having too much fun to care. It helps that the upgrades you receive make it feel like the game wants you to succeed, and supportive NPC characters providing the odd pep talk, as well as plenty of status buffs, don’t hurt either. 

Kyhra’s mobility is Scourgebringer’s key. There’s a certain precision required to master Scourgebringer’s gameplay. Whereas I initially thought controlling Kyhra's dash might slow down the speed of combat, clever and timely use of their gun and fury attacks keeps the pace fast and fluid, creating an immense level of creativity in how each combat encounter plays out. 

All of this sounds great, but what makes Scourgebringer unique on the PS Vita?

Flying Oak goes the extra mile on Vita with how well they use the platform's toolbox. The back touchpad is used for Khyra's gun and fury attacks, and swiping or tapping your fingers to activate them is extremely intuitive. Though something like that may seem like a small change, it’s this change that makes Scourgebringer a must-own for anyone with a PS Vita; it's an experience unlike any other. 

Scourgebringer PS Vita Review -- The Bottom Line

Pros

  • Excellent combat and core gameplay loop
  • Clever and intuitive use of the PS Vita's features and form factor
  • Wonderful pixel art design and engaging soundtrack

Cons

  • This particular experience is only available on a niche platform, one that most won't be able to acquire
  • The occasional frame dip traveling across rooms

If the wonderful design, intuitive controls, engaging combat, and addictive core loop weren’t enough to make Scourgebringer a fantastic roguelike, there are a few other aspects that give the game an invariable charm.

There’s a large focus on blood within the story and world of Scourgebringer. Blood is your currency, blood acts your skill points, and the blessings you get are from blood, all working in concert to give the impression that Scourgebringer is in some way influenced by Bloodborne. And the music that cracks like a bolt of lightning in every room is reminiscent of the intensity of the Doom soundtrack. Whether or not Flying Oak Games took inspiration from these titles, they feel like intentional nods from one game to another, and it's very charming to see.   

Altogether, there is a lot to love about Scourgebringer. On the PS Vita, there’s even more to love because like so many other indie games, it feels at home on Sony’s handheld. The ease with which combos can be created and how multipliers work to keep the game's frenetic pace is unmatched thanks to the controls on PS Vita non-existent on other consoles. 

In short, Scourgebringer is the latest game best played on PS Vita. If this is the last game to release on the PS Vita, the console has surely gone out on one of its strongest notes it possibly could have.

[Note: Flying Oak Games provided the copy of Scourgebring used for this review.]

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