Hodge Vs. The Backlog

Named, naturally, after my love trousers.

Or maybe that should be frontlog, as these are mostly games that I just bought. In any case, the arrival of a rare free Saturday gave me the opportunity to spend some time working through my gargantuan list of unplayed titles. So, in a delightfully indulgent binge, I spent some quality time with: musical-noir adventure Dominique Pamplemousse; 2D Thrust-with-guns-alike Luftrausers; feted pixel-art brawler Nidhogg; indie adventure/crafting mashup Echo Of The Wilds; eighties amusement management dasher Arcadecraft; and turn-based hoof racer Qvadriga. And I’m happy to report that for the most part I had an splendidly fun time.

I’ll point out that I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with most of the games, so these should be taken as first impressions rather than full reviews. Oh, and rare free Saturdays permitting, I’m hoping for this to become a semi-regular thing.

Dominique Pamplemousse (Deirdra Kiai Productions; Windows)

Still nicer than my place.

Yeah, this was great. I bought it ages ago but never got to playing it until just now, the coverage of Squinky’s IGF win in the category of Excellence In Audio jogging my memory. And it’s a little gem. It plays like a traditional graphic adventure but it’s really more a digital novel, the head-scratching limited to a couple of gentle timing puzzles. That’s in its favour, as the story is what matters here. It’s the standard noir detective yarn about a bankruptcy-bound P.I. taking on one last client and all that entails (complete with obligatory AHA THE REAL VILLAIN reveal) but it’s charmingly self-aware about it, happily poking fun at itself for most of its ninety-minute play time.

Despite the 1940s black-and-white look and crackling gramaphone soundtrack, the game is set squarely in the present day. Contemporary references abound, from the use of Autotune in pop songs to the spiralling cost of education. However, the game’s central theme – of remaining true to yourself in the face of those who would have you conform to their standards – is a timeless one and it’s well delivered here.

The script is well written, if deliberately camp, but the real stars are (of course) the amazing claymation visuals and dynamic soundtrack. The graphics are stunning – while the characters exhibit only minimal animation, they’re all beautifully designed and perfectly suited to their personae. And the sets, mostly hand-crafted from cardboard and similar materials, hint at hours and hours of painstaking work, all of which has paid off in spades.

If anything, the sound is even more impressive. A musical score plays constantly, changing in accord with Dominique’s location, while all the characters are voice-acted. Short lines are delivered in regular voice, but when a character has something of import to say they’ll wait for an appropriate spot in the music and begin singing along to it. The whole thing is seamless, very reminiscent of the old LucasArts iMuse system but much more accomplished.

The only criticism I’d offer is that Squinky has opted (either by choice or by budget) to personally handle all of the voice parts, and while for some characters that works well (Prudence, the insufferably rich client who calls for Dominique’s help, is performed to perfection), it’s sadly not the case for all of them. And the decision to perform all the singing deliberately off-key in a braying, cartoonish warble… well I didn’t mind it, and it certainly suits the overall character of the game. But let’s just say that it’s probably an acquired taste.

That’s the only negative that springs to mind, though. Dominique Pamplemousse is a masterful achievement for a one-person team who, as far as I can tell, basically made the game for fun. I can’t think of another game which is even remotely like it, and while that uniqueness has brought with it its detractors (it’s sadly reminiscent of the game’s central theme that some people have chosen to dismiss it purely because of what it is), it also ensures that the game will be remembered long after most of the current wave of faddish indie pixel-art procedurally generated rogue-like-like-likes have been long forgotten. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Love Trousers Luftrausers (Vlambeer; Linux, Mac, Windows, PS3, Vita)

'I BELIEEEEEEEVE I CAN FLY', etc.

I was never a fan of those old Thrust/Gravity Force type games, but I got along with this immediately. A large part of that is the removal of the punishing nature those games held in high esteem. Where Thrust would mercilessly destroy you for drifting a single pixel off-course, Luftrausers is much more forgiving. Colliding with an opponent saps your energy but is rarely life-threatening unless you blunder into a pack of them, in which case your demise is well deserved. Even plunging into the sea gives you enough time to correct your error and emerge phoenix-like back into the fray. The action is frantic but never overwhelming – not quite bullet hell. Bullet limbo maybe? It is bastard hard, but in a way which gives you plenty of room to breathe. You get to choose your battles here.

The upgrade system is worth mentioning too. The upgrades I’ve encountered so far aren’t really upgrades per se, they’re more like modifications – they give, but they also take away. Like the laser weapon, which increases your damage-dealing ability but also greatly decreases your maneuvrability when it’s firing. So they’re not really power ups, more a chance to dive under the hood and tweak some variables, changing the game as you see fit.

Typically of Vlambeer, the music is brilliant. I don’t know if it’s linked to your progress, but there’s a rousing section of music which only appears after you’ve been playing for a while – once the game’s begun to really throw stuff at you. It complements the action perfectly, in that victorious-in-the-face-of-impossible-odds way. You feel like you’re conquering the world, even if in reality you’re having your bum shot off.

It’s a tenner well spent and has immediately assumed the mantle of my quick-ten-minute-fix game of choice. Though, if I’m honest, based on my first couple of plays I don’t think it quite reaches the lofty heights of Locomalito’s brilliant (and cruelly overlooked) Guarodan, a game which Luftrausers feels frighteningly similar to (despite the completely different controls). That’s hardly a criticism though – more a recommendation to go and play both of them.

Nidhogg (Messhof; Windows)

*Always* when I wear the good suit.

Wow, it actually got released.

This is everything I expected it to be, that is to say mad and brilliant. And yet perfectly tuned, the result being a game which is as deep or shallow as you want it to be. Much fun can be had simply running along, occasionally pausing to deflate your opponent with a well-timed skewer. But the combat runs much deeper than that, with the high/low parrying system allowing for more nuanced play for those who take the time to master it. To my mind it’s picking up where the old PvP beat ’em ups of the 8-bit micro era left off, things like Barbarian and IK+ whose lineage was cut short when the Street Fighters of the world muscled in with their hidden combos and assymetrical characters. Not that any of that is a bad thing, of course, but this is a good thing too and I’m glad to see it back.

Arcadecraft (Firebase Industries; Windows)

I wonder where they go to the toilet.

I was in two minds about trying this one. It bears all the outward hallmarks of something which has been designed to chase a particular demographic rather than something which has been designed to be inherently fun. Not that those two things are mutually exclusive, but I firmly believe that you’re more likely to capture an audience by designing something fun than the other way around, and this feels a lot like it’s been done the other way around.

But I happen to be a tragic example of the demographic being chased here (I recently came close to openly weeping upon playing an original Robotron 2084 cabinet for the first time), so it didn’t take long for me to abandon my flimsy principles and put my money where my mouth isn’t.

And my fears turned out to be well-founded… well, sort of. I was hoping for something in the vein of Bullfrog’s Theme Park but this one is firmly in the Diner Dash mould, being mainly about racing around and maintaining your machines rather than running the management side of things. There’s not actually that much to do apart from waiting for your machines to fill up with cash so you can empty them, so it’s a mostly sedate time. Casual, maybe, but happily firmly on the ‘relaxing’ side of casual.

The interface is pretty awful, though. You can’t zoom in or out, and the default zoom is set so that the arcade doesn’t quite fit onto the screen all at once, so you’re constantly having to scroll a tiny amount to see what’s going on. Getting information on a particular machine is maddening, having to move to the machine and manually bring up a dialog box which very quickly becomes tedious – displaying the most pertinent information as a caption or tooltip on the machine itself would be much frendlier. And there’s no mouse support so you have to move your cursor around square-by-square, which isn’t as cumbersome as it sounds but is still needlessly silly when there’s a perfectly servicable pointing device sitting idle on your desk. It also crashes when you alt-tab out to the desktop (which to be fair is appropriately retro, but not really in a good way).

But for all that, it’s not actually too bad – just a bit fiddly and lightweight. And a commendable amount of work has gone into the design of the little machines – each one is a parody of a real arcade game and they become available to buy at the same time the originals did, which is a fantastic way of evoking the period. There’s also references to things like grey imports which is a level of detail I didn’t expect. All of this goes a surprisingly long way towards filling the gaps in the game’s design – during the moments when I was waiting idly for something to do I could always scroll around and admire a cabinet or browse the (very well done) in-game list of machines and try to pick the real-life games which have served as inspiration.

However, all of this is meaningless to someone who isn’t into the arcade games of the eighties. It’s preaching to converted (unlike, say, King Of Kong, which was a fantastic watch for anyone, Donkey Kong fan or not). Which brings me back to my original misgiving – that this is basically just fan-service for crusty old nostalgics. But as far as fan-service goes it’s decently made, and provided that you don’t go in with the grandest of expectations you could get a few enjoyable evenings out of this one. I intend to return to it after my initial session, which is basically my acid test for gaming these days, so I guess that counts as a recommendation.

Qvadriga (Turnopia; Windows)

Horse Stories.

Like Nidhogg, this was in development for so long that I was slightly gobsmacked to discover that it was actually out – I’d been anticipating it for years (I inexplicably left it out of my looking-forward-to list at the start of the year). And like Nidhogg, the game I played is exactly the one I expected. And better than that, it captures the sleazy, exploitative, unscrupulous nature of its subject perfectly.

It’s basically Championship Manager crossed with those silly horse-race betting games you used to see at amusement arcades, the ones with little plastic horses on stilts racing around like slot cars on a miniature track. It’s definitely a niche thing and it proudly inhabits that niche, making no gestures towards courting a (gasp!) casual crowd. Its confident enough in its appeal that it’s happy to wait for the more curious to cross the nightclub floor and approach it, rather than gregariously ply the room with drinks and tacky one liners.

It’s a smart choice. Those who summon up the courage to take a chance on this one are in for a terrific evening. The busy management screens might seem initially overwhelming, but they soon reveal themselves to be pussycats, the real complexity taking place on the track. Here the ‘play a card’ mechanics and turn-based movement make it feel almost like a board game, until you realise what a logistical nightmare that boardgame would be to play. Not this, though – with all the dice rolling and housekeeping abstracted away from you, you get to focus instead on the choices, all of which are risk/reward in nature: Moving to an inside lane might advance your position but will also increase the likelihood of your chariot capsizing as it turns; ramming an opponent might cripple their cart and put them out of the running, but it might backfire and cripple you instead. It’s effectively a game about dice rolls, but it’s up to you to weigh up the risks and choose which dice to roll.

That’s where Qvadriga’s brilliance lies, really. Thematically it’s a game about gambling on races, and that gambling aspect has been incorporated into every component of its design. Everything in this game is a gamble, from whipping your horses to replacing your whole team and starting from scratch. Each decision has that undercurrent of seeing just how far you can push it before you fuck yourself. Which you frequently do. Great fun.

Echo Of The Wilds (Caiysware; Windows)

Cut your own damn tree.
Well, I guess that after having such a good run of quality stuff there had to be a downer in there somewhere. And this, sadly, is it. I downloaded the demo after being blown away by the absolutely beautiful pixel art and what seemed to be a potentially novel mix of graphic adventure and survival horror. But after only a few minutes of struggling with it, all that early enthusiasm had evaporated.

Right from the start, the game seems to delight in telling you that you can’t do things. Presented with a title screen bearing three options. Attempting to choose any but the first resulted in a message saying that I had to finish the tutorial before I choose anything else. Fair enough, but why give me a choice if I don’t have one? Why not go straight into the tutorial and present the options later, if that’s how I’m supposed to play it? That might seem like a tiny point to quibble over (and it is), but unfortunately it’s an early indicator of what the entire game feels like.

After enduring the unskippable tutorial (pro tip: apparently you use the left arrow key to walk left) and sitting through the unskippable cut-scene which appears every time you start a new game, I desperately wanted to see more of that beautiful world. No such luck. Every time I walked to the edge of the screen I got a patronizing message saying that I had to do something else first. I HAVE to chop this wood now. I HAVE to go to sleep. It felt like the game was punishing me for being interested in it. After the first day (which is basically the tutorial all over again – being ordered to do specific things and being chastised when I tried to do anything else) it finally opens up, but it doesn’t get any better.

The same cumbersome interface from the menu is used in the game proper, and it’s incredibly laborious. For example, item management is featured prominently, but the game doesn’t point out which items are useful objects and which ones are just background decoration. So the only way to even find out if an item is usable is to manually walk over to it and try to pick it up. If it’s usable, an intermediary interface box appears where you can move it to your inventory. If it’s not usable, then the game pops up a dialog box describing the object. The dialog boxes do that thing where they spell out every sentence word by word, and you can only click to make them go away once they’ve finished animating. So if you try to pick up an object thinking that might be useful but in fact it’s only background detail, you then have to wait for the game to tell you that it’s useless before moving on to the next object – where the pointless charade begins again. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a great deal of my time with this game was spent waiting for dialog boxes to appear so I could make them go away again.

It gets worse. The ‘A’ key is used to pick up objects and advance the text (when the game allows it), so it’s fairly well established as the ‘use’ key. Except that once you’re in the inventory screen, the previously un-used ‘S’ key becomes the ‘use’ key, and the ‘A’ key is bafflingly re-mapped to ‘drop/cancel’ – the diametric opposite of what it was before. As I constantly needed to to flip in and out of the inventory, this resulted in much frustration I constantly dropped stuff by accident. It’s the kind of interface that makes you want to review Grim Fandango and Skyrim’s cases and grant them unconditional parole.

Between the interface madness and abundance of unskippable sequences (lengthy cut-scenes are presented upon both starting and losing the game as well as – and I’m not making this up – moving in-game from screen to screen) I struggled to find anything of substance, either in the story or the game itself. The token stab at a plot is the standard glitch-horror stuff with nothing lurking behind the jumpscares, and the mechanics never advanced beyond harvesting things and cobbling them together with the clumsy crafting system. To be fair, I can’t have spent more than twenty minutes with it, so it may well open up later on – I don’t know. I gave up on it when I discovered that inventory space is so limited that I literally ran out of room on the first screen.

With all that in mind, the game’s vaunted “157 items, including food, resources, tools, clothes, gear and furniture” sounds more like a chore than an invitation. But if you’re still game, developer Anthony Case has excellently made a demo available, so you can have a go and judge for yourself. Maybe I’m just bonkers. I’ve certainly been called worse.

It’s a shame, though. It really is a beautiful game.