Thursday, October 13, 2016

PC Review #153: Thumper

Title: Thumper
Developer: Drool
Platforms: PC, PS4
Price: $19.99
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Would it be hyperbole to say that Thumper is the most intense, most satisfying, and most draining test of reflexes since Super Hexagon? Much like Terry Cavanagh's infamously challenging arcade game, Thumper is equal parts simplicity and excess, easy-to-understand but challenging-to-master gameplay within a sensory overload of movement, color, and sound. If Super Hexagon was hypnotic in its shifting twisting geometric minimalism, then Thumper is 2001's mesmerizing mind@!%$ given metal life.
From the first section of its nine levels to its last hellish stage, Thumper hurls you into a kaleidoscopic tempest, your chrome beetle racing along twisting tracks and claustrophobic tunnels as eldritch beings of light and metal twist and unfurl within the void. It's a visual gut punch of an experience, that I can only imagine is enhanced to eye-bleeding levels in VR. But even with headphones and a regular screen, Thumper's intensity is peerless.

Imagine those classic inputs of a Guitar Hero or Rock Band - tap and hold to the beat at the right time - and you can grasp Thumper. Strip away the speed and visual chaos, and Thumper is as easy to understand as those games. Thump down on markers, turn and grind against the turns, hover over spikes and through rings. Even as more elements and nuances are introduced, the game remains a mechanically lean test of focus and reflex.
Success in Thumper is draining, exhausting, exhilarating. Like some cyberpunk birdcall, you answer the music's beat with every shockwave of your thumps and spraying sparks of grinds, until you're conditioned to react to each signal and tone with practiced skill. Success requires you to act on the fine line between focus and near-clairvoyant intuition, that zone and flow that the best in the genre let you enter.

Success in Thumper is tactile and physical in ways that few games can tout. You feel every thump, every slam into a turn, every missed beat. Your fingers hurt, you feel your heart thumping in your chest, your vision is locked on the road ahead, you twist and duck in sync with the serpentine track. Thumper is a chemical reaction in game form; every action has a reaction, that flares and explodes and flashes and shatters in response.
I've never been able to get into the music/rhythm genre. Even my favorite - Crypt of the Necrodancer - is enjoyed more for its clever roguelike design than its music game elements. But that's only a testament to Thumper's masterful design and audiovisual hellscape. It's one of those special games that can cross genre lines and even appeal to those who wouldn't normally be interested. Moving to the rhythm has never been this relentless and satisfying.

Thumper is available to purchase on Steam, Humbleitch.io, and Playstation.

Monday, October 10, 2016

PC Review #152: Thoth

Title: Thoth
Developer: Carlsen Games
Platforms: PC, Mac
Price: $9.99
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Your typical dual stick shooter is all about chaos. Victory comes from overwhelming non-stop firepower and evading waves and hordes like a madman. Erase your enemies from the screen as fast and fiercely as possible. From Geometry Wars and Assault Android Cactus to Binding of Isaac, relentless offense is the best defense. Not firing only gives your enemies time to surround and corner.

Thoth is nothing like that. Sure, you have an effective means of attack - a dual-stream of bullets - and can weave and dodge with ease, and there are fierce enemies that crowd the screen, but relentless firepower will only hasten your destruction.
Much like Carlsen's previous effort 140, Thoth is an exercise in minimalism. It's dual stick shooter distilled, from your single attack to the stark aesthetic and single-screen rectangular arenas. Your vessel is a mere circle, your enemies an array of other shapes. There are no upgrades or power-ups or loadouts or other complexities of the sort.

From this foundation, instead Thoth laser-focuses on the gameplay and exploring its mechanics. It's a game without a tutorial, where you learn through play rather than text. Your movement and shooting are the tools that teach you how enemies behave, and thus every new enemy and mechanic evokes a moment of tension, another unknown variable to master and overcome.
But once you do understand the varied actions of your geometric foes, you realize that Thoth is not exactly a shooter. It's a puzzler, and shooting and movement are how you solve these spatial conundrums. When to shoot, where you shoot from, which enemy you shoot at, in what order, all must be considered. Your circular ships moves faster when not firing, and each enemy requires sustained fire to drain them from existence, so positioning and timing are perhaps the most important aspects to assess while playing Thoth.

Positioning becomes much more critical when you realize that the arena itself is linked with the enemies you face. From changing the available space to swapping the barriers that divide the stage, killing an enemy can hinder rather than help if done at the wrong time and place. Mindlessly firing without considering your location will more than likely see your ship trapped and cornered. Across the game's 64 levels, you're constantly introduced to twists and elements, forcing you to adapt regularly and wringing surprising variety from a seemingly simple format.
Although...it may be a misnomer to say you kill enemies in this game. Enough bullets, and your colorful foes become structures of negative space, empty portholes into endless abyss beyond the arena, that pursue you even more aggressively. It's yet another puzzle piece to consider while dodging and weaving. Thoth's otherworldly droning soundtrack complements the imagery of that cold void wonderfully,

Much like the abyss hidden behind its minimal aesthetic, Thoth's distilled approach to the dual-stick genre hides a unique action puzzler behind the veneer of hectic shooter. You can purchase Thoth on Steam and Humble.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Screenshot Saturday - 10/8/16

Title: Dystoria
Developer: Tri-Coastal Games
DYSTORIA, a 6-axis space shooter with an 80’s arcade vibe. DYSTORIA is a diabolical zero-g space labyrinth in which you are trapped as an experiment. DYSTORIA combines a unique style of 6-axis gameplay with action packed space battles, stunning visuals and mind-bending level design all backed by an original 80’s style synthwave soundtrack.
Title: Earth's Dawn
Developer: Dracue Software
Packed with super-fast sci-fi action, Earth’s Dawn offers 2D side-scrolling gameplay in a beautiful hand-drawn style. Combat is intuitive, but deceptively deep with combos, finishers and rankings after enemy encounters all adding depth to the game, while RPG-style skill trees, equipment crafting and character evolution open up things even further.
Title: Type Knights
Developer: Type Knights team
A casual RPG with simple text commands controls
Title: Grave Danger
Developer: JB Gaming
Grave Danger is a 2D sidescrolling adventure game about utilizing unique characters to solve puzzles and stay alive. Run, jump, float, shoot, and scythe your way through puzzles involving teamwork and precision! Alternate between each hero: Dante the cowboy, Elliot the wizard, and Malice the reaper.
Title: Slime-San
Developer: Fabraz
Slime-San was minding his own business, sliming around in a peaceful forest when suddenly…A giant worm appeared and gobbled him up! Now deep within the worm’s belly, Slime-san has to face a decision: Be digested by the incoming wall of stomach acid... Or jump, slide and slime his way through the worms intestines and back out its mouth!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

PC Review #151: Clustertruck

Title: Clustertruck
Developer: Landfall Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4
Price: $14.99
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Clustertruck is an exercise in simplicity. Strip everything away, and you're left with a frantic game of first person platforming across a dynamically shifting path. It's how developer Landfall Games builds upon that foundation that Clustertruck truly impresses, delivering a chaotic rush of aerial acrobatics, insane wrecks, and unpredictable levels.
In this self-described "truckformer", every stage begins the same way: you, on top of a truck, amid a convoy of similar trucks driving forward. For a split second, all is calm...and then Clustertruck's brand of chaos ensues. Drivers weave and crash, trucks tumble and jackknife and barrel onwards with reckless abandon. Somewhere up ahead lies your goal, and you must navigate these high-speed pile-ups to reach it. That alone would be a satisfying challenge, as you leap off trucks in mid-air, wall-jump off siding, and truck-surf through the chaos. The dynamic nature of the convoys makes success a matter of a keen eye and fast reflexes, as you use any truck-based surface to maintain your forward momentum.

But Clustertruck's levels aren't asphalt straightaways. Across themed worlds that range from steampunk to sci-fi, these levels are mad gauntlets of hazards and chasms and multi-tiered environments. Massive hammers smash trucks into the void. Lasers and barriers force you to evade with precision. Huge drops send you plummeting to roadways far below, aligning your descent to land atop more trucks. Gravity wells send trucks and yourself flying across levels, long soaring seconds of airtime that often challenge you to leap from truck to truck.
It's this variety in dangers, terrain, and level design that turns Clustertruck's already-intense style of first-person traversal into a wild test of platforming prowess. Every level and region introduces something new, be it a shift in how levels are designed or some new obstacle, sometimes for only a single stage.

Death is frequent but rarely frustrating, since instant restarts and relatively short stages let you quickly get into a flow of "try again and improve" on even the most hectic levels. But once you've survived the game's 90 levels, what other challenges could await a truckformer-ing master? Speedrunning and earning points by pulling off tricky maneuvers is one avenue, but more importantly is the collection of skills and abilities waiting to be unlocked, that completely change your approach to your levels.
Slow-motion alone grants you more precision and air control to deftly dodge and stick landings, the grappling hook lets you latch onto trucks and the scenery to zip forward, and unlocks like the jetpack and double jump drastically increase the distances you can leap. Additional unlocks turn the game into a truck-filled version of SuperHOT where time is linked to your movement or add additional explosions and danger for a score multiplier.

It's choosing your loadout of unlocks that flip Clustertruck on its head. Leaping from truck to truck is crazy enough, but hooking on a truck as it tumbles through the air then slowing time to leap off the truck with perfect precision to reach the end of a level is another level of satisfaction. It combines the fast-paced traversal with an element of experimentation that changes how you look at the level architecture and truck placement. Trucks in mid-air are grapple anchor points, a tunnel lets you bounce a truck spawn pellet down the track, and so on.
Clustertruck takes such a simple premise and just wrings every possibility from it, as truck-surfing evolves into daring leaps over missiles as those trucks fly across huge gaps. If the developer's levels are this insane, one can only imagine what kind of gauntlets the community will create through the in-game editor.

Clustertruck is available on Steam, GOG, and the Playstation Store. The game is coming to Xbox One soon.

Friday, September 16, 2016

PC Review #150: Flat Heroes

Title: Flat Heroes
Developer: Parallel Circles
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Price: $14.99
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The wave of local multiplayer games have been washing onto the PC and consoles shores for quite some time now. From Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn to Push Me Pull You and Overcooked, there's no shortage of titles in that vein. A few offer modes and gameplay for the solo player - Towerfall Ascension and Inversus to name a few - but Flat Heroes offers the best of both worlds, a finely-tuned evasive platformer featuring a sizable amount of modes for both single and multiplayer.


Flat Heroes is one of those games where its polish and style is evident straight from the menu, as its clean minimalist screens smoothly shift between menus and level selections. The set-up is simple: an acrobatic square, in ever-shifting single-screen gauntlets, don't get hit. Of course, that last part often isn't so easy. For solo player, you start in Waves mode, distinct stages and boss fights that wrings smartly-designed challenges from the game's varied hazards. From screen-filling rectangles that threaten to crush you against the walls, to swarms of homing rockets and bubbles, to ricocheting triangles that streak across the screen in a frenetic hailstorm of color, each hazard is a new test of your platforming prowess. 

Thankfully, your square's agility is more than enough to handle Flat Heroes' dangerous onslaught. With simple hops, wall clinging, and air dashes, you can leap and tumble through levels with ease and precision. The controls are perfectly balanced to always make you feel in control, but with enough fluidity to feel reckless and tense as you just barely dodge over incoming swarms or outrun a laser grid.
Flat Heroes rewards your progress through Waves with new color palettes and more importantly new game modes that cleverly twist the core foundations precise evasion and agile movement. Battle is a geometric take on deathmatch where you dash through enemies, while Runner and Catch are Flat Heroes' versions of capture the flag (with a slight dual stick shooter angle as Runner lets you shoot projectiles). Each is a hectic rush of close calls and exploding squares, and can all be played against the AI if friends aren't around.

Flat Heroes's minimalist platforming is currently on Early Access, with more modes and levels planned in future updates. But as is, the game already shines, through its responsive agile gameplay and slickly-designed aesthetic. You can purchase Flat Heroes on Steam

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Watchlist: Astroneer

Title: Astroneer
Platforms: PC
Fall 2016
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A game of aerospace industry and interplanetary exploration
Between Starbound, Elite: Dangerous, Evochron Legacy, and of course the upcoming No Man's Sky, those looking for procedurally-generated space exploration have a wealth of games to scratch that itch. Astroneer is another game to watch, promising gorgeous low-poly landscapes to explore and survive. 

Alone or with friends, Astroneer's worlds will be a challenge to conquer. While there's no combat, there will be hazards, and often the greatest one is nature itself. Looming clouds of dust on the horizon mean a sandstorm is coming your way, bringing strong winds that can tear your structures apart. Unstable terrain can cave in as you dig underground. Acid rain and other inclement weather, as well as dangerous flora and fauna such as hungry sand worms entrenched in the dunes, make surviving in Astroneer a taxing endeavor.
But not an impossible endeavor: through research, crafting technology, and planning, your traveler will be able to brave the storms and other dangers. Guidelines and tethers help you not get lost as you explore and keep you from getting blow away by the storm gusts. Using terraforming technology, you can carve barriers and shelters from the deformable terrain and tunnel deep into a planet's depths.

Research is important not just for survival but for profit. You're not braving these conditions and dangers for fun, but to extract materials and make money. As you gather funds, new equipment becomes available, from rovers and trailers to crane-armed diggers and automated rail systems, to spacecraft that allow you to leave one world and travel to countless others.
Astroneer is slated to release on Steam Early Access this fall. You can learn more about the game on its website and Twitter page.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

PC Review #149: Anarcute

Title: Anarcute
Developer: Anarteam
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Price: $14.99
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A quick glance at Anarcute, and one might assume it's some kind of RTS or strategy game. How else can you control and direct such a large crowd of rambunctious rioters, especially when the two other games in development about protesting mobs - RIOT and Okhlos - hewn to the tactical design. But Anarcute isn't like that; in fact, it's a breezy arcade-y action game that feels like part puzzle game, part shooter.
The set-up is simple: evil world-dominating corporation, police force in the city streets, take down the bad guys. That last part is where Anarcute shines. Starting as a single animal protestor, moving through each level's streets allows you to gather up others and grow your one-fox/frog/giraffe/etc-protest into a dozens-strong mob. The tight maze-like stages and pre-set enemies gives Anarcute the sense of a fast-paced puzzler; you need to choose the best approach through the streets, deciding which enemy and hazards to tackle in the best order to build your mob while losing the least amount of protestors. There's even a slight stealth aspect, as you avoid enemy line of sight until you have a large enough group to take them on.

Loosing protestors is something you want to avoid, because the size of your mob is more than just a visual effect. Your mob acts essentially as a ship in a shoot-em-up, each individual acting as a point of health and being to able to carry items as ammo. Early levels may just have you facing single cops and lasers, once rooftop snipers, armored foes with area-of-effect attacks, and rockets enter the mix, Anarcute becomes an evasive shooter. Using your mob's dash to dodge attacks, unleashing hailstorms of debris, charging up your shockwave to gain some breathing room. The game's mechanical bosses put those skills to the test.
The size of your mob also enables powerful abilities, from being able to knock buildings like an unsteady jenga tower or blast enemies back with a stomp to temporary invincibility and buffed attacks. These abilities tie into both the puzzle aspect and the action, as building your mob up to defeat well-guarded areas is key, as is keeping your larger mob alive with well-timed dodges and use of your abilities. Tokens earned through the campaign also unlocks perks and upgrades that can add a fiery touch to your stomp or allow thrown objects to bounce into additional enemies, among others.

While Anarcute isn't the most taxing game in terms of difficulty, it has enough moving parts - keeping your mob alive, assimilating more protesters, avoiding enemies until your mob is big enough, using abilities, dodging, attacking, and so on - to make it a reasonable challenge. The aesthetic may be colorful, cartoon-y, and vibrant, but Anarcute is surprisingly involved and briskly-paced beneath its veneer of cute animals.
Anarcute is available on Steam, Humble Bundle, and Xbox One.