Monday, 30 April 2012

Completed: The Ball

Another credits screen.

The Ball is a puzzle game by Teotl Studios. I remember seeing a few articles about it on Rock Paper Shotgun before it was released and I thought based on them that you played some kind of gorilla with a ball presumably, because I kept seeing images of this guy. Instead you actually play some kind of archaeologist, the game is entirely first person, and begins with a long fall into a hole and the knowledge that rescue is on the way but will be a while.
Screenshot from the official website media section

The game takes place entirely underground and the player only ever gets one item. It is a bit like the Impact Hammer from Unreal Tournament combined with a magnet. It looks pretty cool and it combined with the eponymous Ball are the tools used to complete every puzzle and fight in the entire game.

It reminds me a lot of Portal. You have one component over which you have complete control you need to determine how that combines with your current environment to progress.

You only see the sky at the beginning and the end of the game, it all takes place inside a bizarre hollow mountain full of ancient ruins. At the beginning of each section there is a pictographic sign that the narrator reads giving increasingly ominous warnings that what you are doing may bring about the end of mankind. There are also secrets in each level which give further details about the history of your location, unfortunately they were sufficiently secret that I never found most of them so I an unlikely to ever learn the full story. The snippets I did get were pretty cool talking about multiple factions in a civil war.

I wonder where I should go next?I am not sure when I picked this up, I certainly played most of it when it was part of the Potato Sack bundle which was an ARG/promotion for Portal 2. All of the games in that bundle also had a new Portal themed section added to them and The Balls felt the most fitting. The settings are quite different and it was kind of jarring to basically end up in Aperture Labs whilst inside this strange hollow mountain but the games do feel very similar. Each game providing you with a single tool that can be applied in multiple ways with your surroundings in order to progress. The chambers were pretty well designed too.

I enjoyed my playthrough of The Ball, it was pretty disjointed however, never quite reaching focus game status, meaning that I mostly did individual levels of halves of levels with large gaps in between. The story held up reasonably well despite this but I can't help but wonder what I missed by having those gaps.

Games list at time of post: 391 unfinished titles
Changes since previous post: None               

Friday, 27 April 2012

Completed: Bridge It

Main Menu screenshot

I don't normally venture into full blown simulator territory, they tend to involve realistic controls, physics and a tendency to not actually contain interesting explosions. Somewhere along the way though I was exposed to a title called Pontifex. I think it was at SGL , my computer was mostly otherwise occupied with progress bars and someone convinced me to give this game a shot. As it turns out, I found that building bridges is an entertaining puzzle. It is even entertaining to get what looks like a reasonable bridge and find that it catastrophically fails when someone so much as sneezes near it.

A failed bridgeI have never quite managed to actually go out and buy these titles, they just don't quite convince me to deal with whatever payment method Chronic Logic requires and to actually part with $20. I obtained Bridge It part of the Indie Face Kick bundle where it was added when there was about 24 hours left.

I added Bridge It to the list on Wednesday and finished on Saturday evening. I did reasonably well through to the complex levels though I admittedly supplemented my designs with some from the Internet. Unfortunately in complex my abilities collapsed, along with my bridges. I just couldn't manage to build a bridge to span the distance that wouldn't break under its own weight.

This is where I asked my girlfriend for help. She built with arches, where I had mostly focused on the power of the triangle, arches quickly demonstrated their superiority and she overtook the majority of the construction process.

We spent a good 5 or 6 hours completing the last half of the complex levels together, though she gave up in disgust at the final complex level. She was doubly annoyed that there were no elegant solutions online when she went looking, I ended up using one of the solutions she found on YouTube so I could set the game down.

A folding bridgeBridge It is apparently the most casual of Chronic Logic's bridge building simulators. It has by far the prettiest engine, but it lacks a level editor and the ability to adjust the Z axis, you are stuck with only the 24 levels it comes with (27 if you include the tutorial levels), though you can buy an additional set of levels for $5.

The game has several restrictions on any given level, there are specific anchor points for your bridge, so a harder level may only have 2 anchor points on either edge, or in the case of the final complex level, only one anchor point. Anchor points are the only way to join your bridge with the ground, otherwise you are stuck building a few metres above it, resulting in a lot of destruction when you hit the simulate button and it suddenly has to deal with gravity.

The building interface
The building interface
The other restrictions are materials and budget. The game will restrict your total budget for a level with different materials costing different amounts based how long they are and whether or not they also have crossbars and deck. A level will also specify what materials can be used and the maximum amount of these materials, so you may be able to use all the iron you want, but only 4 cables, or 10 hydraulic pieces.

The way the game handles exceeding both the overall budget and the materials budget is rather inelegant and to be honest a bit annoying. If a piece you are trying to place would take you over budget you cannot place it. This applies even when you are copying and pasting large sections of bridge. It would be great if you could exceed the budget, but it would not actually let you pass the level until you brought your bridge back in the black. It would make the construction process a lot nice. Also if you place a piece, you cannot make minor adjustments to it, you can only remove it. Being able to move joints rather than remove and replace them would also make the interface feel a lot more smooth.

Simulation with stress
The simulation lets you see the stress along your bridge.
Hydraulics are my favourite component, typically they only appear on levels where you need to create a drawbridge to let boats through. I actually grew up near an instance of this kind of bridge, and I especially liked trying to make stupidly unrealistic versions, I never quite managed to make a bridge that sank though. At least not one that would then rise back up after the boats has passed through.

The game is not without some odd bugs, we specifically had some levels where perfectly viable solutions would not work because for some bizarre reason the truck would mysteriously phase through the deck of the bridge and fall down. The solution I used was a second layer of deck beneath to nudge the truck back on track, my girlfriend felt that this was cheating and tried to slightly alter solutions so that it didn't happen. I feel that ridiculous solutions are perfectly acceptable when dealing with ridiculous problems.

I had a great time with this game and am quite tempted to fork up the $20 to get the Bridge Construction Set, it is not quite as pretty, but it is more complicated and it has a level editor, it would be nice to try to build free of restrictions. Chronic Logic do have demos which are probably good to try before you actually grab the game.

The magic phasing ghost truck in action
I present, the magic ghost truck
Games list at time of post: 391 unfinished titles
Changes since previous post: None                                  

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Completed: Machinarium

Machinarium is a point and click adventure game where you play an oddly stretchy robot attempting to... get into a city. At least that is all the motivation you have in the beginning. Over the course of the game the creators, Amanita Design, develop your character's circumstances and goals.

There is no voice acting in the game, there is not even text based dialog, all thoughts and speech is done in the game via animated pictures in speech/thought bubbles. It makes for an interesting change, I was not aware that the main character even had a name until I looked at the wikipedia page for Machinarium.

The art is hand drawn and the designs are quirky, the game is almost entirely devoid of organic life, this is pretty much a robotic world with robotic analogues for most creatures.

It also features an in built hint system which you can always use from the inventory section. It requires playing a kind of shoot em up minigame and then gives you some pretty detailed pictorial instructions on how to solve the current puzzle.

You also never wander around with useless items because when an item no longer has any use your little robot either loses it or gets rid of it. It seems a little arbitrary at points but it reduces the need to play random item tag when you are stuck.

It was a pretty good point and click adventure though not too long. There are a couple of drawbacks, it is written in flash, the steam overlay does not work when windowed and when it is full screened you get some hefty black borders as you can see in the screenshots. Finally, there is no right clicking in the game, if you do you get the standard options menu which is always rather jarring.

Amanita Design are currently doing a humble bundle which gives you their most recent game Botanicula as well as Machinarium, 2 other games and a movie.

Games list status: 391 unfinished titles
                                                                                       Net change: 3 titles finished, 7 title added
NB: This final section now reflects the status of the list as of the post being written.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Completed: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I like how the credits have photos of the devs

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the third game in an acclaimed series. Normally I try to play series in order as improvements made to interface and mechanics can make going back to earlier games feel more clunky and less fun to play and I like to notice the references to earlier stories that took place within that universe.

Fortunately for me Deus Ex HR is a prequel and so whilst the later titles are unlikely to reference it, I didn't need to worry about receiving many spoilers for the other titles and the information available to me pre-launch indicated that it would be a great game; the TF2 items for pre-ordering also helped to sweeten the deal.

DEHR is at its core a first person shooter with stealth elements and a leveling system. The stealth elements are quite good and being both non-lethal and stealthy provides more experience and thus faster leveling, it is however significantly slower and more difficult. I am not ashamed to say that I save-scummed my way through the game, if any enemy spotted me I immediately loaded an earlier save. I truly was the Foxiest of the Hounds.
A desk in the police station
Little details are shown on desks and computers.

The story revolves around augmentation, transhumanism, conspiracy and control. It addresses what may happen to society when the rich become unarguably better, stronger, faster, smarter, etc. Addiction and control are examined through a drug called Neuropozyne which the augmented require to stave off rejection.

Due to my own personal views I came down fairly firmly on the pro-augmentation side, I like the concept of being able to upgrade myself with abilities that are otherwise unobtainable, but the game does a good job through the story to show the risks associated with augmentation, both economically and from the perspective of mental security.

The tutorial of Human Revolution does a great job of showing the new player how easily an unaugmented person dies in a firefight as you begin as a standard issue human being. Unfortunately this is somewhat undone by the rest of the game where, save for the boss fights, there are no significant differences between unaugmented and augmented enemies, they both are serious threats if they can open fire on you, they both take about the same amount of effort to take down and they are both about as observant as each other.

I really enjoyed sneaking around, knocking out enemies and generally being an undetected hacker/thief, which should come as no surprise to my friends as this is the kind of character I play in pretty much every single game I can. If a game gives me incentives to be unseen and to hack everything regardless of whether or not I know the passcode, then I will attempt to be unseen and to hack every single thing.

A conversation with a sweet old lady
Social augs give the player more information in conversations
I liked the characters that you interact with, especially Pritchard the computer security guy who functions as the primary off-site advice and message guy and David Sarif who is the head of the company for which you work. They do a great job of developing these characters and showing them as people with their own drives and scruples.

They do a great job of having little details in the world, desks have pictures and names on them, emails between characters have the occasional misspelling depending upon the character and you get a sense of how the organisations and people operate.

The game also includes some significant conversations that are a kind of social combat, you can get augmentations to help win these fights, like a lot of the stealth augmentations, they work by providing extra information rather than making the checks easier. Some people can get by through examining faces for reactions, I found that I was relatively rubbish at that aspect. The animations for these sections were significantly better than the standard ones used for standing and talking though.

The game does include boss fights that were outsourced to another  company, they all start with Adam Jenson walking out into the open and being tricked or surprised, they feel pretty forced and are a significant change of pace. They also don't count for both the pacifist and the stealth achievements. They were the least enjoyable part of the game for me as I found that my play style did not fit them at all.

Adam Jenson relaxing at home
Prerendered cutscenes can be a little jarring
The other niggle I have is the cutscenes, they are prerendered cinematics that are very obviously running under different lighting and at a different resolution to the rest of the game which I found quite jarring as suddenly everything became significantly more blurred. I think the disconnect comes from the cutscenes being close to what is depicted in the normal game, though with a little more detailed animation. There isn't a great solution to this other than making all cutscenes in engine as I would probably have been rather irritated if they had included a 2560x1440 copy of the prerendered cutscenes as that would have made the game somewhat massive.

I have not yet completed the Missing Link DLC, it actually appears as a completely separate game on Steam and nothing crosses over between it and the main game in terms of equipment or experience, it does give a little more information about the world and characters within it, and more importantly it provides me with a little bit more of the game to play through.

If you enjoy a bit of modern cyberpunk and stealth gameplay I really recommend this title. It is actually on sale at the moment from GamersGate for $7.50 or $10 if you want the augmented edition. It is a steamworks title, so you will get a code that you then activate on Steam.

Games list status: 387 unfinished titles
                           Net change: 1 title finished, 1 title removed

Friday, 20 April 2012

Free Faerie Solitaire

Just a quick note, for those of you who are interested, Faerie Solitaire, which I wrote about earlier this week, is currently available for free from SubSoap in order to promote their infinity bundle.

If you head over to the Infinity Bundle site, the installer can be found towards the bottom of the page for PC, Linux and OS X. These are completely DRM free copies not just demos.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Kickstarter has been picking up a lot of steam lately. For those of you who have not heard of it, it is the most popular of the crowd-funding sites. It does have competitors such as RocketHub and IndieGoGo, the key features of these sites is that a project can be proposed, typically with a video either showing off a pitch or a demonstration of a prototype, and then interested parties can pledge funds. In return for pledging certain amounts rewards are promised, often a copy of the final product, along with various cool extras.

There are problems with Kickstarter, only people based in the US can create projects on it, credit cards are required to pledge funds and there is no ability to actually invest in a project in the traditional sense. If a project is unable to be completed, the only advice available is that the people running the project are expected to cancel funding and that backers may take legal action if they don't.

Kickstarter does some things very right, payment is performed fairly smoothly through Amazon and payment is only authorised at the time of pledging, cards are only charged at the end of the funding period, if not enough pledges are made to meet the initial goal then no money is taken from any of the backers.

The single best run drive I have seen was the Order of the Stick Reprint Drive, Rich Burlew did updates nearly daily during the drive each time providing a graph which gave an idea of where the project was currently up to, what would be done with further funding and involved some of the characters from the strip.

The entire drive was done in a way that was both transparent and motivating and it was clear that Rich was keeping in mind the costs of the rewards he was promising in that he was getting quotes during the drive and not announcing rewards if he was not yet certain on the costs. I have not seen a drive run quite as well since and I think that the charts the charts that Rich produced showed how this helped keep a fairly consistent rate of pledging through the drive.

The only criticism I have of the OotS drive is that Rich never updated the Project home page and given that he had added so much content to the original drive it would have been helpful to note this on the front page.

My profile on Kickstarter makes my interests pretty clear, I have backed mostly gaming and comic related projects. The ones I am currently backing/keeping an eye on are:

Shadowrun Returns: I am a big fan of the Shadowrun setting, I like the fusion of cyberpunk and fantasy and being able to play in a setting where there are whole nations of elves that it is acceptable for me to hate. I like the fairly high lethality in the setting and the balance between magic and machines.

Unfortunately the most recent game to bear that title Shadowrun, was an FPS released in 2007 which disregarded and contradicted significant parts of the Shadowrun lore and setting, had an interface which was built around a 360 controller even on the PC and required Vista and Games for Windows Live. It was before Microsoft dropped the crazy idea that they could have a subscription version of Games for Windows Live too.

The only other released Shadowrun titles were for the Sega Genesis and the SNES, both being console platforms I've never owned.

I am looking forward to seeing what they do with Shadowrun Returns, Jordan Weisman was one of the people who originally created the setting. I like the genre of game they are intending to create and am pleased that they are planning on releasing a level editor with the game.

Between this, which is admittedly being set quite early in the SR timeline, the 2050s, and Shadowrun Online which is a browser game set in the 2070s it is going to be an interesting year for Shadowrun fans.

Smart Controllers: This is the first Kickstarter I have backed that probably won't hit its goal. It is a Bluetooth dual analog stick controller, created on the Arduino platform.

It is intended primarily for use with smart phones and tablets, I think the design is attractive and I like the idea of a controller to which you can upload your own code. I don't honestly know how you are meant to use it with a smartphone though. It is currently in its final hours.

Pebble: Speaking of Bluetooth devices that you can upload your own code to. Pebble is a kickstarter for e-ink Bluetooth watches that connect to smart phones. A Pebble will be able to interact with apps and display information whilst you are running, control playback of music, display SMSs, caller ID and other notifications from your phone and will be released with an SDK allowing third parties to develop apps and alternate watch faces for it.

This is currently the most funded and fastest growing kickstarter drive ever having already hit over 4 million dollars pledged. Actually, if I can convince enough friends/family I would like to reduce costs a little bit and change to an Office Pack or higher pledge. =)

The Banner Saga: The Banner Saga is a hand animated turn based tactical game based on Viking culture. The video and basic proposed story sounds really cool and is being produced by developers who used to work at Bioware.

The art style is really attractive. I love the animation and I have to admit I kind of laughed when watching the motion capture parts shown in the pitch video.

It is in its final days and the devs have released a video revealing their final stretch goals, it seems pretty likely that the game will now be scored with a full orchestra which promises to be impressive given the music played in the background of the video. It would be really cool if they hit the $700,000 needed to add Player-Owned Cities into the multiplayer.

Roll20: Roll20 is a project that only recently came to my attention, it seems fairly similar to other tabletop clients I have seen and tried but the key differentiating factors I can see are:
  • It is web-based, which means no fiddling around with a server app and no poking holes in your firewall to allow your friends to connect.
  • Roll20 has built in video chat for up to 10 people, I think that video chat would really help when you are playing remotely, it is pretty easy to drift off when using just voice chat, especially if people are being slow with their turns and I am at a computer.
  • Importing from the web is built in to Roll20, the demo video shows off grabbing tokens and background music via a search as well as from your own computer. The legal issues make me worry a little about this but it is a really awesome concept and should help reduce the content creation burden that a GM has. It can be tricky since once you have a battlemap and background music option there is a kind of obligation for the GM to use them.
Fortunately my friends are able to get together once a week to do some pen and paper gaming and so don't yet need this. Unfortunately later this year my girlfriend is going to be headed to Sweden for several months and something like this may allow her to continue to play whilst over there.

I have been really impressed with Kickstarter so far, it will be interesting when projects on this or perhaps competitors start being able to also offer equity to the more serious backers. In the next 18 months either Kickstarter will continue to grow and see more major players trying to utilise it for riskier ventures or we may have some high level failed projects that dampen the general enthusiasm for it. Either way it will be pretty interesting.

Are there any projects on Kickstarter you are currently backing or keeping an eye on?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Completed: Faerie Solitaire

I picked up a Faerie Solitaire in one of the indie bundles in a Steam Christmas sale a couple of years ago. It's a card based puzzle game with a faerie theme. I must admit I would probably never have looked at this game were it not for the sale. The developer SubSoap has recently been promoting their game on Reddit and are currently running an infinity bundle where you can by all of their current and future games on Mac, PC, Linux and Android for a single price.

The core game
Each level has predetermined set of cards on the field, with the rest of the deck below. There is one active card and the player can replace it with a card from the playing field that is either 1 higher or 1 lower than the active card (Kings and Aces are adjacent forming a closed loop). Getting cards this way generates a streak, at any time the player can replace the active card with the top card from the deck, doing so ends the streak. There are also wild cards that operate in a similar way, they can be seen on the right hand side, using them allows the streak to continue.

Collecting all cards in a stack is worth cash, collecting all stacks is worth a bonus $200, when a level is completed either by collecting all stacks or running out of cards in the deck, the total cash collected is multiplied by the longest streak. This cash is used to buy buildings that give you power ups.

The story
The game does have a story which is about a young boy attempting to rescue faeries. It has no mechanical bearing on the game whatsoever. When you complete a stage you get a sentence or two of story and after you finish several stages you get a cutscene consisting of a moving camera but still images. It helps tie the game together but is not very remarkable, at the end it has some pretty blatant sequel baiting.

It was a good time waster, individual levels generally took about 1 to 3 minutes to complete, but there are a lot of levels to play through, it is a game I think I could conceivably get my mother to play and enjoy.

Games list status: 389 unfinished titles
              Net change: 1 title finished, 5 added

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Completed: The Blackwell Legacy

The Blackwell Legacy is the first game in the Blackwell series of adventure games. The Blackwell Legacy is pretty short, it took me less than 2 hours to complete, and that was including reloading a late game save to see a minor variant ending.

The art style of the game is a fairly retro pixel based one which deliberately evokes that older Lucas Arts adventure game feel.

The puzzles themselves were fairly satisfying without being too simple nor so abstract and strange that the player either needs a guide or to somehow think in the same way as the author as to deduce the correct set of bizarre steps.

One feature I particularly liked was Rosa's notebook, once the game gets started, Rosa starts making a note of clues and conversations in her notebook and to solve some puzzles and get further clues you can use notes with each other. It reminded me of Discworld Noir, which was the first adventure game I saw this in.

The game also features two commentary tracks, one from just after the author made the game and another created 5 years later. I didn't play much of the game with them on, it is a lot of talking and there are spoilers after all, but it is interesting hearing the contrast between the two. Especially where the younger author wants to keep some things mysterious and then the older author spills the beans.

Over all I had fun with this and I would like to thank BaloogyMcBoy for recommending it be the next game when I was trying to decide what to play. One minor note for those that care, despite the patch notes, the achievements do not currently work in Steam.

Finally I would like to quickly apologise for going dark for over a week, it due was a combination of uni work and a lazy long weekend.

 Games list status: 385 unfinished titles
Net change: 1 title finished

Monday, 2 April 2012

Completed: LIMBO

LIMBO is a critically acclaimed title that first gained prominence on XBLA. I remember hearing a lot about it from various blogs, gaming related podcasts and wanting to try it for myself.

It is a creepy, sadistic puzzle platformer. The game has a very particular style, everything in the foreground is only depicted by their silhouette and the game is avoids the use of colour, speech and explanatory text.

You are a little boy who wakes up in the woods and needs to find their way out, or possibly to their sister. It has been some time since I started the game.
LIMBO has a great sense of style.
I called LIMBO sadistic and I mean that, you will die many many times whilst playing. The game uses the silhouetted foreground to hide traps, it has some traps that look identical to previous traps but have a reversed solution, meaning that at least one, if not both traps will kill you the first time you encounter them. Even when a solution is clear it may rely on relatively tricky timing. Fortunately the check-pointing is very generous and you only ever returned to the start of the current puzzle.

LIMBO pulls no punches on your characters death, you will see the little boy drown, get stabbed, shot, crushed and cut up, complete with the remains of him twitching or limbs falling off. Always with not even a whimper from the boy. I think that is one of the creepiest aspects of the game.

In short, LIMBO is atmospheric, stylish, creepy and a fair amount of fun.

 Games list status: 386 unfinished titles
Net change: 1 title finished