Edmund McMillen has released a new flash game, apparently his last this year (don’t worry, No Quarter is still coming out this year, along with Super Meat Boy), called Spewer, where you play a Hamster with a bit of indigestion. As is McMillen’s wont, the game is a little bit gross, but loads of fun, having you use your vomit as a way to traverse the terrain, be it flinging you across the level with a plume of puke flying behind you, or filling up a hole so you can swim across. I’m just glad there aren’t any chunks in it.
There’s one question that hovers nebulously over Zeno Clash like the Sword of Damocles, ready to drop and sentence it to commercial and critical death. It’s one I can answer happily, with an elbow to the face, and uppercut to the chin and a kick while they’re on the floor. Yes, the combat in Zeno Clash works. Often, it does more than merely work, and you’ll end up feeling like the star of a martial arts B-movie as you make quick work of a group of four or five other combatants. It’s a good thing, too, as for the majority of the four hour single player story, you’ll be using every hard bit of your body on rat-men, bird-men, mole-men, elephant-men and what I think were pig-men. They weren’t all anthropomorphic, but most were. Although one of them obviously didn’t really understand the concept, and just put a pot on his head. That’s not anthropomorphic, that’s just good sense. Pity he’s unconscious and bloody at my feet, then.
Zeno Clash is mental. It’s by and far the most bonkers game I’ve ever played, not just because of the denizens of the world, or the fact the sky changes colour at the drop of a hat, or that you’re never quite sure whether you’re in the present or the past. There’s something very fleshy about the world, where everything from the (handily) pulsating fruit that you eat to regain health to the buildings themselves seem to be molded out of the same stuff as the people. It’s not just that; what you see of the world itself seems to be a microcosm of what is really there, just a tiny, focused look at this world ACE Team have created. This is in part due to the often quite obvious linearity of the levels, highlighted most memorably when you see the characters climb up and over obstacles that you yourself have no way of overcoming. It’s ok, though, because there are faces to punch. Zeno Clash is quick to remind you of what it is, with Street Fighter-esque VS screens coming up before every fight. They prepare, amuse and entertain you, and while they may break the illusion, it was never all that enforced anyway.
The game is short, but it gives off the impression that it’s been trimmed heftily, creating a streamlined experience that only begins to grate near the end, when you begin to revisit similar fights to some earlier scenes. This is only a minor frustration because the rest of the game has been so startlingly original. The Corwid, a forest dwelling people who have chosen a life free from reality and reason, are a particular highlight, because each is so brilliantly strange. One eats people, because that is what he feels he needs to do. One is eaten, because that’s what he needs to do. Another thinks it’s best to be invisible, so if he doesn’t want to be seen by a particular person, he cuts out their eyes. There’s a great moment when you find a particularly interesting Corwid who walks in a straight line, stopping at nothing. Manouvering enemies into his path only to watch them crushed beneath his massive feet was particularly satisfying, if only because he seemed so incidental to the level.
Similarly, the few boss fights that are thrown at you are generally fun, with the final act being slightly less so. Flying squirrel bombs is a term that’s been bandied around the game, but they really do define the general tone behind it. An interesting dynamic is created between dealing with the explosive nut-hoarders, or sniping at the guy throwing them at you. The fact that guy is on a giant giraffe/elephant/dinosaur and huge mutated whale respectively only adds to the absurdity of it all. And it is absurd. They plot is vague at best, with huge chunks in the narrative missing. There is little reason for where you’re going and there’s little motivation apart from ‘run away or die’. Something so basic works to begin with, but really it’s just a vehicle for your tourism in this strange world. Kneeing people in the head is great fun, but what you remember from Zeno Clash are the locations and the characters.
The single player story is not the sole offering. Challenge levels are also on offer, with multiple levels of increasing difficulty and variety available. Leaderboards will be kept once the game is live, charting how long each section took you, but really it’s a rather smart move by ACE Team. While the main game is thoroughly enjoyable and accomplished, there is very little incentive to go back, bar a few reward-less achievements that you didn’t pick up first time around. The combat, though, is visceral and addictive, and it would be a shame not to be able to just revisit the game to crack some skulls. Challenges provide that, and even though each ‘floor’ of the Tower has a set amount and type of enemies, what you can do to them varies wildly, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of punching the weird flightless bird things into each other. The Challenge Rooms provide longevity, and enough reason to go back to Zeno Clash after the story is over. Leaderboards may be incentive to some, but the draw of the fighting is far more likely to bring you back.
Zeno Clash is surprisingly accomplished for a first-time Indie title. There are a few minor flaws, but the fact that I remained thoroughly entertained throughout the main game, and enough to go back to each Challenge level multiple times is a testament to the fact that they really don’t matter. The final act can get slightly flakey, but that’s only because the rest of the game holds it to such a fine standard. The voice acting can grate a little, but for the most part it’s wildly better than most Triple-A titles, not least because of the variety of voices, from Father-Mother’s dual chorus to Golem’s deep boom. You should play Zeno Clash just to experience its world, even if you’re not enticed by the satisfying crack of elbow against face.
Scarygirl Released; Octopi, Jellyfish and Rabbit-men Rejoice!
Scarygirl, the wonderful looking cartoon platformer by ludicrously accomplished illustrator Nathan Jurevicius, has been released, today, for free, in your web browser. This means that you can play it without even going through the annoyance of even downloading it. This also means you have absolutely no excuse not to play it. What, you’ve got work to do? That’s not an excuse, that’s an occupation. Or something. Just go play it, it’s worth it for the intro video alone. Still not convinced? What if I told you it was a wonderfully accomplished, perhaps slightly too imprecise with the controls but worth looking at anyway because of the gorgeous visuals platformer? I don’t think you’re in a position to remark on my convoluted descriptions. Fine, look at this trailer then go and play!
It seems Webcomics are all the rage at the moment. Dead Space had one, Mirror’s Edge another, and I’m sure there are countless others that I can’t think of off the top of my head. Zeno Clash, indie darling and oddball extraordinaire, is the latest to colour their universe with some pretty pictures and clever dialog ahead of its April release. They’ve managed to keep it interesting, non-plot specific and somewhat amusing, what with it featuring squirrel death. I really hate squirrels. I think it has something to do with them stealing all my winegums when I was at school, and mutilating my apple juice. It’s really unsporting, and very rude. The images are below, but you can also find them high-res here.
The website for Max Payne 3, the second sequel to the frankly brilliant original Max Payne, has gone live, declaring it will be coming out this winter. It’s in development by Rockstar Vancouver, and appears to be taking Max out of New York and placing him somewhere… ‘else’. That this ‘else’ is ‘a city full of violence and bloodshed’ is only fitting really, as Max himself is also filled with violence and bloodshed. They kind of go hand in hand, those two. Of course, after the events of Max Payne 2, where literally everything goes to shit for him, he’s definitely going to be traumatised enough to grow a beard and move somewhere else. Maybe we won’t have any Captain Baseball Bat Boy hijinks, but hey, maybe there can be other mascot-based hilarity.
The fact Remedy aren’t developing it is a worry, but the fact that Rockstar are does go some way to assuaging such feelings. They’ve got heaps of money and clever technology, not least Euphoria, and while it’s not the acclaimed Rockstar North team, it’s bound to at least be somewhat enjoyable. I just hope they realise that Max Payne isn’t really about the slow motion deaths and walls of dead riddled with bullet holes, but it’s the atmosphere and noir-esque feel of the game that really made it so fun. If they keep the comic-book style narration, then hopefully they’re on the right track. The main worry I have so far is the lack of ‘PC’ at the bottom of the website teaser image. They do know it started here, right?
Spurred by Liegh Alexander’s recent post on SexyVideoGameLand, and a few choice words from our interview with Edmund McMillen a while ago, I’ve started to think about just what Indie means now. I don’t think it’s nearly as clear cut as it has been in the past, and the rate at which it is growing and diversifying is only making it more difficult to classify. Of course, there’s always the fear that by lumping something into a genre you diminish its own voice, but that’s an discussion for another day. Instead, I’m interested in exploring the attitudes and perceptions of what constitutes exactly what makes a developer or game ‘indie’ and what makes it just ‘independent’.
There’s a few different approaches to this discussion, and they’re all valid. ‘Indie’ could just mean a small team, a few people with little money but lots of vision and talent, making something brilliant, original and creative that lights the communities on fire, like 2DBoy (love you!). It could mean something made by a developer without a publisher, funded by them so they reap all the profits, like Introversion. It could mean something thrown up on some sort of distribution service like Steam or Xbox Live, so it’s given the audience it wouldn’t normally have, but at the same time sacrifices a portion of the profits, like The Maw or Pixeljunk Eden. The point is there are many different ways you can get your game out there, and there are many different types of developer who have all been called ‘indie’ at some point or another. The things they have in common is that they are largely independent, and their games are all creative and different from the AAA titles.
I think there is a separation between how developers see ‘indie’ and how consumers see it. Talking to McMillen, he claimed that ‘Working with a publisher I’ve learned a lot about what really goes on behind the scenes. Even if you’re indie, you’re really not indie; you’re Independent. No longer indie. Super Meat Boy Wii isn’t indie… it’s Independent.’ The difference between ‘indie’ and ‘independent’ is one of money; if you can afford to pay all the fees associated with a big release, then your game slips away from ‘indie’ and into ‘independent’. From the other side, we don’t, for the most part, know how these games are made. We just know about who makes them, and perhaps in a few cases, get to play the game during its development to help out with beta testing. Thus to the community the games are characterised by how they play, and how they look. You expect the games to be a little buggy, or if not merely quite limited in how long they take to play and how they look. Something like Spelunky only retains your attention because of its procedural nature coupled with its addictive and sadistic death mechanics. If it had been 3d and covered with bloom, no matter how much fun and clever it was, it would no doubt lose its ‘indie’ tag.
So it would seem it’s a case of ‘lo-fi’, as Liegh Alexander puts it. Low production costs and small teams mean the game is simple yet enjoyable, and often revolves around a core mechanic but not much else. While this would seem true of the majority of games recognised as ‘indie’, there are exceptions, such as Flashbang Studio’s 8 week games. They have a reasonable sized team and the games they produce are often wonderfully original and fun to play, but have often a surprising amount of polish and graphical charm, yet retain the feel of an ‘indie’ title. A game about an Aptosaurus dreaming of a Brontosaurus with a jetpack could only be made as an indie game, because no one would want to make it for anything but pure enjoyment. So perhaps instead the ‘indie’ name applies to the concept of a game rather than the production values.
You don’t see many FPS or Strategy games coming out of the indie scene. The few that I can think of off the top of my head (Gravity Bone, Zeno Clash, Stalin Vs the Martians) depart heavily from the conventions of the genre, be it aesthetically, mechanically or satirically. They take the norm and play with it, coming up with something entirely different from what was there before. The rest tend to head towards platform and puzzle territory, sticking with clever physics mechanics, things which will work on a 2d plane. I keep coming back to the word ‘simple’, and, fundamentally, that is the common characteristic of an ‘indie’ game. There are, of course, exceptions, but for the most part an indie game is about a simple mechanic executed in interesting ways. World of Goo, the recent poster-child for the indie scene, is the perfect example of this.
You build things out of goo balls. That is, in essence, the entirety of the game. The fact that 2D Boy did such a brilliant job of playing with that concept to keep it fresh and exciting all the way through it’s many chapters is a testament to their accomplishment as developers. There isn’t really a whole lot going on in the game, and you’re often only focused on a few key points on your structures, but the simple nature of the game keeps you entertained in a far more relaxing way than the vast struggles of an RTS like Empire: Total War or the adrenaline fueled rushes of an FPS like Far Cry 2.
This isn’t an easy discussion to close. The perceptions of the indie scene are changing constantly, and depend almost entirely on where in the situation you stand, whether developer or consumer, it would seem it doesn’t boil down to any one thing. Money is a factor, mechanics are another. How many people make the game has a greater effect than it would appear at first. You can’t even say that when you put all these things together you have a sure-fire formula for what constitutes ‘indie’. Sometimes certain things matter, other times they don’t at all. In the end, it’s one of those situational things that moral philosophers always bang on about. Those liberal bastards.
This is a whole new tact for Steam: a pre-release sale that only lasts 24 hours. Zeno Clash, the oddball melee-heavy fps from developers ACE Team, is reduced from £14.99 down to £7.49 (that’s $19.99 down to $9.99 for our US readers.) for 24 hours only, which means that at 8pm (GMT) tomorrow (Friday the 20th) it’ll go back up to 25% off the full price until release. I’d guess this is a clever ploy to get a rather large amount of people who had a little interest in the game grab a copy while it’s on the cheap, but I doubt anyone is going to be complaining.
It’s an interesting concept though, as the ‘impulse buy’ doesn’t really apply, as you’re not getting the product you want. It’s like running into your nearest gaming retailer and ordering a dozen games while drunk. It’s not really something you’d do. Either way, you are getting the game cheap, which, judging on how interesting the game looks from the trailers, and from all the good little tidbits we got out of ACE Team in our interview with them, well worth a purchase. You can purchase it through Steam, or through the Steam website, here.
Different Kind of Pitchfork for This Mob – Loud Crowd
I’m sure this is the sort of thing Kieron Gillen has happy dreams about at night; a rhythm game about dancing which features the likes of Cut Copy, Santogold and Ladytron (and a whole bunch of other Pitchfork front page stuff) while keeping a very comics-esque aesthetic. The fact it’s all browser based, free to play (with micro-transactions down the line) and is very addictive to play is surely only icing on top. Of course, I had to make the most ridiculous looking afro-sporting, jumper-wearing, belly-protruding dancer possible, just to get all these people to stop dancing for me. Pity it didn’t work.
Loud Crowd is developed by a mix mash of people from Harmonix (the guys behind the first few Guitar Hero games, and the subsequent Rock Bands) and Turbine, MMO veterans of Lord of the Rings Online fame. That means the rhythm games are fun to play, and the online backend works, for the most part, pretty smoothly. It’s particularly important in something like this, where beats are king, and if you have the slightest lag you’re going to fail. For the most part it works wonderfully, but occasionally I did have a few combo-breaking lag moments.
There are two games available at the moment. One is a hit-the-arrow-keys-in-sequence dancing rhythm game, and the other is a DJ scratching one, driven by whatever music is playing, but mainly focusing on you collecting dots while avoiding combo breakers. Both games work cleverly, and have multiple difficulty settings that allow you to wrack up more points. The most clever thing about the whole site, though, is that the music never stops. There’s no artificial track start when you begin a dance section; it just formulates your moves depending on whatever song is playing at the moment, and you go along with it. It makes the whole thing very seamless, and without those forced breaks, it takes a song you don’t like to stop you playing, which is very clever of Conduit Labs (the developers), but dangerous to how much work you get done as a result.
There’s also a social interaction side to the whole thing, allowing you to talk to other players, dance for them and charge up your battery to allow you to go into Blast Mode, that lets you complete a challenge without playing it, unlocking clothes, tracks and… stamps? Apparently you can stamp other players to demonstrate how you think of them. Or something. I didn’t even figure out that section for a while. You can also request tracks with the in game currency you accumulate, and semi-customise your avatar.
It’s very barebones at the moment, but Conduit Labs have stated that they want to create the game with the community (in a recent interview with GameSetWatch), rather than just push out a finished product that people might not like. The game is currently in a beta stage, but it’s definitely very playable, and it will be very interesting to see how it evolves.