Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Epic Dungeon

The best roguelike on the indiechannel so far.

I'm a gambler and my favorite stat is luck. It's all about the gold and I was stockpiling it. But my supply of health potions was dwindling. Fortunately I found a store around Depth 3 but the trader's prices were steep. I left everything behind for a few precious potions. What use is gold if you're dead?

At around Depth 6 I picked up this odd looking quarterstaff. It would certainly be better than the simple dagger I was using to fend off those pesky spiders and bats. If nothing else the weapon had some reach.

Once I touched the weapon though a strange weakness passed over my body and I could barely lift the staff off the floor. I tried dropping the cursed thing but my hand refused to obey my mind's command. This didn't bode well. I spent some time on Depth 7, circling the corridors, practicing with my feeble weapon in the hopes I would gain some semblance of skill with it.

It was to prove futile, as a pack of wild dogs finally got the best of me on Depth 10.

Epic Dungeon is the first game to be released as part of the Xbox Indie Games Winter Uprising. A response to treatment the Xbox Indie Channel has received from gamers, developers, and Microsoft themselves. What will this uprising lead to?

But more importantly how does Epic Dungeon play?

Quite good actually. Even though a few seconds into the game, I was about to fly into a rage concerning the lack of diagonal movement. My thumbs felt constrained, attempting to translate my mind into a mode of action that the game did not allow. After a few minutes however my thumbs were properly trained and I understood the game's need for a strict four way movement pattern. (Apparently you can move diagonally, maybe I wasn't pushing hard enough.)

The game is simple to pick up and play. At least for someone familiar with the Roguelike ;) My practice of skipping the instructions screen before the first play did not prove detrimental to my experience of the game. At intervals throughout the game, friendly little popups appeared at the top of my screen telling me what all the buttons on the controller do. After my first playthrough I did check out the help system and found it to be simple but informative, very nice.

Throughout the dungeon you might meet fellow crawlers and perhaps even some locals. They are represented symbolically by a question mark on the map, the standard quest depictor. Press the button and,

Short textual quests, with the possibility of a reward if you answer correctly? But what is correctly? I chose the way of the gambler and it worked out most of the time. These mini quests are a nice break from the action of the dungeon crawl which can get a little frenetic at times, especially when you are surrounded by multiple monsters and the screen starts flashing red, urging you to drink a health potion.

After a few short playthroughs as a gambler I decided to switch to the Shaman. Epic Dungeons Wizard archetype (and the type I usually play). The Shaman has a freezing AOE attack that allowed me to make it out of Depth 50. This was only my third playthrough of the game and it took me about an hour and a half. So I've beaten the game, not something I expect to do with a roguelike on the first day of playing. But Epic Dungeon isn't your typical roguelike.

For one thing it's not quite turnbased, the dungeon's monsters move on their own terms and if you need a few moments to think about your situation you will need to pause the game. Or just open up your inventory and use a teleport scroll to port to the nearest shop, and load up on health potions.

Combat in the game is pretty standard, simply walk in the direction that you wish to attack and if there's an enemy in your way you will swing your weapon. Besides the standard attack, there are four unique special attacks. Each one mapped to a button. As you level you can increase the number of times you can use these attacks in sequence, up to a maximum of ten. I've only used two special attacks in a playthrough, managing to chain all four together would probably be pretty difficult but I'm sure it can be done.

You probably already know that the game's art direction is influenced by the 8-bit. This style influences the modern gamer greatly, its visuals and sounds having been deeply imprinted into our minds at an early age, and connotated by many emotive aspects.  It's obvious that Mark, the sole developer behind the game had fun with the art. There are a lot of nice details here, animated traps, and scroll effects among other things. I really enjoyed the detail put into weapon and armor types.

I just wish the game lasted longer, maybe for Epic Dungeon 2?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sketchy Tower Defense

Normally I don't review games based on my impressions with the trial but I haven't made contact with the developer of Sketchy Tower Defense, Pixel Troll Games And as such I have no review token to redeem :(

But I have loaded the game multiple times and played through the first level to extreme satisfaction. The game is currently high on the top downloads list on the XBOX and if the rest of the game is as good as the trial, I think it could climb even further up the list.

Above is an image from Homestead, the first level of the game. I've made it to Wave 27 so far and will try later to beat this mark. The game is obviously named for its visual style, there is something pleasing about the handdrawn aesthetic isn't there?

The appearance of paper on an electronic medium makes any game that uses this aesthetic stand out instantly and draw the user in. There are quite a few sketched games currently available on the XBOX Indie Channel, and even another handdrawn? tower defense game. Sketchy Tower Defense is definitely my favorite thus far.

Sketchy Tower Defense allows me to play not against the game but against myself, even now I am considering strategies to allow me to progress past Wave 27 on the first level.  It's possible that there is an end to each level that I have yet to reach. This would slightly disappoint me. But given the nature of Tower Defense, limited enemy types, limited weapons. At some point the game would just have to increase enemy speed and toughness ad infinitum until the tower is inevitably destroyed. But this is what leaderboards are for, if you're into that sort of thing and I think we might be.

The limitations listed above are not set in stone however, allowing the user to draw their own enemies and weapons would infinitely expand this game. Allowing the user to share their enemies, weapons, and levels would be nice :)

Indeed there is a game on the XBOX Marketplace that allows for a bit of this sketchy goodness,

Below is an image from Border Wars which allows for user drawn content,

But if handdrawn games are really your thing, perhaps you need to stray a bit from the XBOX and venture into enemy territory, namely the iPhone and SketchNation,

The developers of Sketch Nation are working on allowing users to sell their games created with Sketch Nation as individual games through the Appstore. An impressive feat to accomplish. And one that the gatekeepers of our indie channel could definitely learn from.

Back to the topic at hand,

The game features single player, co-op, and a pvp style. In Co-op each player controls a sketcher and can build whatever they like, provided they have the coin to do so. Coins collected by one sketcher are equally distributed between each sketcher. In the PVP style the game board is divided into two sections, one for each sketcher and the game is played through normally. Last sketcher standing style. Perhaps in an update the PixelTroll could include a Ramparts style PVP game.

I have a few minor quibbles with the game of course. There are no explanations for what the various weapons you buy actually do. Did PixelTroll expect us to use trial and error to discover the game's meaning? I'm still not sure what Air does even after using it, and finding out that the pit traps are one time use was a bit disappointing but I'm sure over time I will figure out the best strategies for all the different objects we can place.

The future definitely looks good for Sketchy Tower Defense and the hand drawn genre.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010


In case you've been asleep for the past 50 years, the image above is from Tennis for Two. An early variant of what would later come to be known as Pong. Below is a screen from BlurBalls, Pong circa late 2010 developed by BlazingForge Games and now available for download from the Xbox 360 Marketplace.

There have been a number of Pong variants released to the Indie Channel, most of them first attempts by new and usually solitary gamemakers. BlurBalls is a bit different. According to the developer's website 
Blazing Forge Games, seven people had a hand in the game's creation which is definitely a deviation from the norm.

Getting more people involved in a project is definitely a good thing, indeed it is the only thing,

 "The salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all."

But I digress, did this localization of multiple minds/bodies produce a new and interesting gaming experience? This is what we are after are we not?

BlurBalls is definitely aesthetically pleasing, the visual and auditory components of the game are solid. The bright style of the game reminds me of Geometry Wars, perhaps the devs were trying to capture some of that retro evolved magic that made Geometry Wars so succesful.

In the screenshot above and below you can see the game supports multiple balls on screen at once and multiple paddles, up to 24 paddles actually. Most of those would be controlled by the game's AI as the game only supports up to 4 players each needing a separate controller. Setting up 20 additional AI paddles is a bit time consuming, the game forces you to manually select each AI paddle position and type of which there are many.  

It doesn't appear as though the game allows a single controller to control two paddles either. Given the dual nature of the thumbsticks this could definitely be implemented. Although in most dual control games I find myself having trouble splitting my mind to accomodate the style. But I think Blurballs could do with a foosball/table soccer kind of setup. There's a table soccer game on the marketplace that uses this style but again, my thumbs have trouble separating themselves into two unique individuals.

In classic Pong, I enjoy visualizing the angle of return, the vector that the ball will take as it bounces off of my paddle and heads back to my opponents side of the court. This is the sole strategy of Pong. BlurBalls destroys this singular version of the game instead forcing you into a stream of instant decisions and a lock of vision to your home court.

When I first tried the game,  I thought that those swaths the balls cut through the court were actually having an impact on the mechanics of the game, or that the walls of the court were transmutable, able to be demolished after obtaining a powerup. Alas, there does not seem to be any powerups in the game and most everything you see in the screens above is simply eyecandy to use the local vernacular.

The game can get quite chaotic and on the larger screens with multiple AI Paddles, you might find yourself not really in the action at all, instead you simply watch the AI play out this futuristic ball game. But I think on a simple court with 4 controllers and 3 friends, you could set up a nice game of doubles.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Once and Future Gamer

Well, it has been quite a bit of time since my last posting. This is not to say that I have not been religiously checking the indie games tab on the marketplace, but that perhaps the games released there are not up to my extremely critical standards.

XBLIG are still my games of choice, despite being banned from the club that produces them, and despite the service's catering to the demographic that enjoys senseless violence, gratuitous sex, and mindless button mashing. Why bother taking the time to try every game that appears you might ask? Because you never know.

You never know if that simple 2D shooter produced by one person in two weeks will keep you entertained for months, or if the endless variations of dating simulators will somehow breed a previously unknown genre of game.

Boxart, screenshots, and horrible reviews might dissuade some gamers but there are many of us out there who are willing to try any game in any genre on the slight possibility that it might offer something new to the gamer who now has thirty plus years of gaming experience.

I wouldn't call myself a modern gamer. Most new titles seem derivative and shallow. The indie channel takes us back to the beginning, when games were programmed by one person or a few people in their spare time, with monetary gains only given as an afterthought.

"Fool" you say, "Money has been at the core of all human progress since the beginning."

Perhaps it has, I suppose I could call myself a postmodern gamer. And throw all conceptions away, beginning anew.

Why is there so much shovelware? Is this a rhetorical question?

It is difficult to make a decent game, and it is rare indeed when a gamemaker creates something decent on their first try. But our indie channel is filled with these first attempts from fledgling gamemakers. We were expecting mountains of shovelware from the beginning.

Previously, these early efforts of the makers would never have seen the light of day, banished to a lone computer or some obscure site on the outskirts of the internet. With the games hidden in this way, the makers might never receive feedback on their creations, which is so crucial to all the makers future efforts.

So how do we allow fledgling makers to showcase their initial creations and generate the crucial feedback, and at the same time maintain a decent gaming standard on the indie channel marketplace?

We could create a separate space on the dashboard for beta versions of indie games. A sort of underground, only visible to those who have signed up to use it. In this space early versions of the makers games could be freely sent to other makers and testers, generating the feedback. And when the game is deemed decent enough, sent to the marketplace. This might sound like the CreatorsClub/AppHub to you but there is one major difference.

The determining factor that takes a game from the underground and sends it to the marketplace is that of quality.

"Ludicrous! No game would ever make it past a quality standard, that is too subjective of a metric."

This quality control could be tested by allowing peer reviewers to psuedo review games based on quality. By adding a poll to a games AppHub page, with a simple yes or no box for quality, we might begin to determine if a quality control makes any sense. And if we should consider actually implementing a quality control standard.

It is virtually guaranteed that a quality control would stop the shovelware moments after the control was implemented. But might we also lose out on those games that at first glance appear to be shovelware, and only shine after being experienced? Well, this is the reason for the creation of the underground space, so that many can use the makers creation and determine if they shine enough for public consumption.

In this way the games could be regulated while still maintaining a facade of independence and equality for the channel, anyone who wished could join the underground space, although space might be limited and granted on a temporary basis. This would require major changes to the Xbox Dashboard which is apparently extremely hard to do ;)