Hodge vs The Backlog 2

Probably should have inspected before signing the lease.

So many games! I’m swimming furiously in them like the background extra in a beach film who figures this could be his big break. And yet it me does no good – I’m forever drowning in sweet digital entertainment. Maybe Huxley was right after all. But enough of this introductory banter – the GAMES.

A monster haul, this one. Below the jump you’ll find words on: The Blackwell Epiphany, KiloBite, Bullet Waltz, Civilization V, The Organ Trail, Desert Hike EX, Marble Safari and FTL’s new Advanced Edition.

The usual disclaimer applies: Unless otherwise stated, these are first impressions rather than full reviews.

The Blackwell Epiphany (Wadget Eye Games, Windows)

Scene from the forthcoming Blackwell/Richard and Alice crossover.

I’m beginning to wonder if people will begin to mistake Ron Gilbert for Dave Gilbert instead of the other way around. I kind of hope they will, because Wadget Eye’s output has been consistently stellar of late. The Blackwell Epiphany cements that trend – it’s far and away the best game in the Blackwell series, if not the best thing that Wadget Eye’s ever released. The only caveat is that you really need to have played the entire series for this one to work, so it’s not the place to start if you’ve never played any Wadget Eye stuff before (Resonance and the recently remastered Shivah are probably good ones to begin with if you want something self-contained). I won’t say any more now as there’s more words incoming, time permitting. Suffice to say that it’s worth buying and playing through the entire series just for Epiphany’s ending. Yup, it’s that good.

KiloBite (Cake Collective, Linux/Mac/Windows)

Ah, so *that's* how they build Rainbow Road.

Gah! I didn’t get along with this one at all, which bummed me out because I really thought I would. It’s basically Hexagon in 3D – yeah awesome, right? – or Master Of The Lamps for those of us on the wrong side of 35. You fly through minimalist polygon space trying to dodge the constantly spawning honeycomb-like structures which block your way, all while picking up little coloured hexagons which give you points. The hexagons also cause you to leave a rainbow-like trail in your wake, which becomes another obstacle to avoid, a la Snake. Collide with either your trail or one of the honeycomb bits and it’s game over.

So, basically Hexagon meets Snake. That sounds fantastic on paper, but in this case the two influences don’t really work together. For example, in Snake you basically have free reign of the arena, so you can plan your movements in advance to give yourself room later on – the solution space is actually pretty huge. Accordingly, when you do screw up and collid with your badly-placed vapour trail then your demise seems fair, as you’re the plonking idiot who put it there in the first place. That’s the hook that makes Snake-type games work, they essentialy pit you against your future self.

In KiloBite though, your movements are entirely in response to the obstacles placed ahead of you, so you rarely get to choose where to go (the honeycomb generates in a way that there’s usually only one safe direction to turn). As such it just feels cheap and frustrating when you’re railroaded back into one of your old flight paths. And unlike Snake where the playing area is 2D so you can see your trail at all times, KiloBite’s first person viewpoint makes it almost impossible to track where you’ve been as your trail is almost always behind you, beyond your field of vision. Muddying the waters further, the collectible hexagons are rendered in a flat colour with no depth or shading which makes it almost impossible to judge exactly where in the 3D space they are, leading to much annoyance as you frequently sail past powerups thinking you were close enough to grab them.

As a final irritant, when you die you’re forced to click and wait through a mystifying number of cruft screens before you can start again. This includes: a slow screen wipe (around two seconds), a score notification (click!), a RETRY sreen, (click!) a forced look at the highscore table (click!), a PLAY AGAIN? screen (haven’t we already done this? click!), a slow screen wipe (another two seconds), a loading screen (really? another couple of seconds) and finally a countdown into the next game (three seconds). I timed it and it’s over ten seconds worth, even when you’re blindly hammering the space bar to skip past the screens without reading them. As far as I could tell there’s no way to skip any of this guff and start a new game immediately, which is maddening in a short-form score attack game like this. There are reasons that Hexagon remains so addictive in spite of its difficulty, and its near-instant restarts represent one of them. As it stands, it’s not uncommon for KiloBite’s ‘game over’ sequence to last longer than the actual game, which is crazy.

That all sounds a bit harsh, as the game is otherwise beautifully made, and it’s clearly the product of love and dedication and not some cynical phoned-in thing. If the wait-after-dying stuff was fixed then I’d give it another go, as I have a feeling that the other stuff would grate a lot less if that was addressed. But yeah, as it is I can’t really recommend it.

Bullet Waltz (RockHong, Web (HTML5))

But can you do the ordnance Charleston?

A great idea, this – a single turret sits in the middle of a Robotron-esque arena pumping out bullets which you have to dodge. The caveat being that the bullets bounce off walls and continue indefinitely, resulting in a screen full of the buggers in due course.

Disappointingly, it’s nowhere near as frantic as it sounds, and the opening moments are positively sedate. That corrects itself as you survive further into the game, but it also means that every time you die you have to go back and sit through the dull-ish early moments again. I found the controls to be a bit laggy as well, though the game’s languid pace means that’s not the dealbreaker that it should be.

It’s definitely worth a couple of plays, but it’s one of those games where you half-expect someone else to come along and do it properly.

Civilization V (Firaxis, Windows)

Featuring a special guest appearance from the Stanley Parable's adventure line.

Yeah, it’s pretty good, isn’t it?

The Organ Trail (The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Linux/Android/Windows/Mac/iOS)

Times got so tough that everyone had to sell their faces.

Being a filthy traitor to my generation, I didn’t actually play the Oregon Trail when I was a kid – the clapped out Apple IIs in our classrooms gave us Carmen Sandiego, Create With Garfield and the obligatory home-made-in-BASIC Lemonade Stand clone, but the cholera-tainted hopes of America’s fortune seeking travellers were off-limits to us regional Australian folk. When I finally did play it (when it was made available as a playable web game a few years back), I was surprised at how well it held up, dated technology allowing. Its ruthless mixture of random (mostly awful) events and permadeath land it not a world away from games like FTL, and the harsh colonial setting is a perfect fit for those mechanics.

It’s not too surprising then that it’s become the subject of an ironic, retro parody (that’s if Organ Trail even is ironic and/or retro – I can never tell anymore) complete with added zombies. That sounded like a fine idea to me so I chipped in for the Kickstarter many moons ago, but it’s only now that I’ve sat down and played it.

The problem with a parody game like this is if the parody falls flat then you’re basically left with a variant of the original game. Which is fine, but a variant needs to provide a reason to play it over the original, either by adding some new aspect to distinguish itself or just by being better. Unfortunately, The Organ Trail’s humour never extends beyond putting zombies in the game in the first place, and everywhere else it’s a weak shadow of its inspiration.

The basic format of The Oregon Trail is retained. Your party of five have to drive from the east coast of the US to the west, dealing with pitfalls and setbacks as they go. For all intentions the game is turn-based; you click on the screen to make the car travel for a short period of time, after which you encounter a random event. This usually boils down to an encounter which alters your inventory somehow – you come across some abandoned food, or you get a flat tyre forcing you to use one of your spares. Or it could be that one of your party falls ill, or you run into a pack of zombies triggering one of the arcade sections.

It’s a pretty slavish copy of the original – almost certainly too slavish when it comes to the trading screens, which perfectly capture the dour, ‘HOW MANY TYRES WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY??’ feel of 80s edutainment games. You can trade for consumable items like fuel, food and tyres – it’s relatively complex but it’s never deep, and since the main game proper is completely random it feels like nothing you do here makes any real difference.

Even worse are the frequent arcade sections which crop up – little top-down shooter games where you’re swarmed by zombies. The clumsy aiming/shooting controls have clearly been designed with touch devices in mind, but if anything I found them even more awkward to use on my Galaxy Nexus. These sections are laborious, mandatory and unskippable and sadly make up a large chunk of the game.

And shifting the game’s world from a historical setting to a silly horror one completely robs the game of its gravitas. In the original Oregon Trail, every random mishap is an evocation of the lives of the people whose story the game is telling. It doesn’t hugely matter that the game is random or cruel because those qualities greatly help in getting that story across. It’s classic mechanics-as-narrative – these people had shitty, unfair lives.

Strip away that historical context however, and it becomes obvious that the game’s basically a lottery. And with no real setting or narrative to give that lottery any meaning, it’s impossible to get invested in it. And I guess that’s the biggest problem I had with Organ Trail: rather than feeling like the fun parody that it should be, it just comes across as a clone of the original – but with all the heart and drama ripped out of it. I can’t remember the last time I played a game where the characters feel so obviously like the named variables they are.

However, I do applaud the devs for having one the best names I’ve ever seen. Bravo, good folk! I hope I have a better time with your future endeavours.

Desert Hike EX (Twinbeard, Web (Flash))

'Hey, I know! Let's play I-spy again.'

But wait – what’s this? It turns out I do get the Oregon Trail parody I always wanted after all. The equally splendidly named Twinbeard, who were responsible for the jumpingly wonderful Frog Fractions (which you should go and play right now if you haven’t, because frankly it’s way better than this shit) and the inexplicably fun FMV game Kickstarter Simulator created this for last year’s SFIGJam.

And it’s brilliant. Not just because the humour is note-perfect but because it also strips away everything from The Oregon Trail which isn’t needed by the joke. And it knows that it’s a joke, and accordingly keeps itself brief. Look, just read everything I wrote about Organ Trail above and then invert it and that’s what Desert Hike EX is like. Except better.

I’m loathe to say any more because I’m fearful of ruining it and it’s amazing and you should just go and play it.

Marble Safari (Todd Luke, Web (Flash))

The blatantly buggy state of gaming today.

I played this for ten minutes and I thought it was great, even though I hadn’t a clue what was going on. I was ramming giant beetles in the arse while dodging weird snake things that were trying to eat digest me. Then I ended up underground somehow and some literature-hoarding dude got grumpy and threw me out. Oh, and I had my own flying saucer. I’m almost certain that I’m missing 90% of what’s actually going on, but it’s fun and it’s free and it gets an unreserved thumbs up.

FTL Advanced Edition (Subset Games, Linux/Windows/Mac)

Although annoyingly, the pilot chair still squeaks.

Ooh, I had trepidation about this one. Expansions broadly come in two categories: There are the ones which add extra levels or areas to the game (like say, the Elder Scrolls expansions Shivering Isles and Dragonborn), and then there are the ones which fiddle around with the game’s systems (like Binding Of Isaac’s Wrath Of The Lamb or Civilization V’s Brave New World). I always feel a sense of foreboding with the latter because there’s always that risk of fixing what isn’t broken, and given how much I like love fucking adore FTL I was doubly anxious about this one.

I needn’t have worried. The best commendation I can give to FTL’s Advanced Edition is that I hardly noticed that it was there. That’s in spite of some fairly extensive retooling going on, with a new alien race (who do funky things with oxygen), powerful new systems like hacking and mind control and a bunch of new encounters, some written by Chris Avellone and delving deeper into the murky moral choices that the original game only fleetingly flirted with. But it still feels exactly like FTL always did. The only addition which really stands out for me is the ability to set and restore your crew’s layout, which is so impossibly useful that it justifies the expansion alone. Apart from that, having played the AE for a few weeks I couldn’t tell you for sure exactly which parts are new – it all just feels like it was always there.

In other words, it’s still one of the greatest games of all time.