Mini-Review Roundup #7

We’re back this week with another batch of Curator Connect catches, some of the indiest titles to wash in with the tide. Three platformers and two top-down games fill out the ranks, with only one of them really being any sort of worthwhile. We’ll be talking a lot about the key features of successful games, seeing as how most of these offerings are missing one or more of them. I can only hope this ends up being helpful feedback for someone out there, since the best way to improve is to learn from the mistakes of the past.

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Nullysun

NightSky has long been one of my favorite games on Steam, a simple game about rolling a black orb around fantastic landscapes and solving physics puzzles. I love it because it’s a perfect mix of tight controls, interesting challenges, and excellent atmosphere, and it does it all with basic graphics and few frills. I bring this up to show just how low a bar Nullysun would have to clear to be enjoyable to me, and how it misses every mark trying to get there. The first chapter (if you can call it that) consists of you rolling a black ball atop a bunch of black MSPainted circles to get to a pink circle. Sometimes there are bear traps that will kill you in the way. That’s it, that’s all you get for about ten levels, featureless landscapes and braindead challenges.

Then you graduate to the big chapter, which is suspended on featureless gray bars in the sky. Here you’ll deal with Super Meat Boy buzzsaws, try to navigate using a musical cart and an anti-gravity box and a rocket, and sometimes avoid pushing blue cube creatures into the buzzsaws. Sometimes you have to collect gems, too. Sometimes the levels are really short and have silly gimmicks. Sometimes the levels are really long gauntlets of buzzsaws that kill you over and over. Sometimes little aliens show up in inscrutable cutscenes to do things. But there’s one thing you can count on all the time, and that’s the controls being sticky and imprecise and teeth-grindingly frustrating to wrestle with. I spent half an hour slogging through the levels looking for something worthwhile in this one, and it’s just not there. Even if better games in the same exact genre didn’t exist, you’d still want to hold out for an actual good came before rolling onto this one.

FINAL VERDICT: Balls

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The Neon Boy

I kinda wish Super Meat Boy had gone on with a bunch of direct sequels, partly because it might have spared us from the loads of challenge platformers that have tried to follow its success. SMB worked because it had tight controls, incredible mobility, and extremely clever levels. In contrast, The Neon Boy has the first one, a little bit of the second, and none of the third. Cleverness is replaced by more saws, more spikes, and longer levels which only multiply the frustration, not the challenge. It’s a shame, too, because I was pretty on board with this one before it turned on me.

There’s technically a story, you’ve been converted to a neon construct by nefarious scientists and trapped in test chambers full of deadly traps. You can double-jump and cling to walls and that’s about it, but it’s enough to hop over sawblades and make your way to the exit of each level. The levels are structured just like SMB, with 20 levels to a world, and the first world serves as a fine introduction to the challenges you’ll be facing. Each level is short and has key features to negotiate and everything works. Then you get to the last level of the world and for some reason it’s not only far harder than the previous ones, it’s about ten times longer. Challenge platformers are fine when you can die and retry jumps every few seconds but having to get whole minutes into a level just to practice tricky jumps is a dealbreaker. Shame they had to go and spoil such a promising game, but perhaps the developers can puzzle out more entertaining challenges in their next game.

FINAL VERDICT: Ouch

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The Outlaw, The Drunk, & The Whore

They certainly picked themselves an eye-grabbing title, but sadly nothing in the game itself is quite so bold. The three titular characters have died ignoble deaths in the Old West, but the Devil has brought them back for one last gold heist. For some reason, that involves trips out to the woods, swamps, and deserts to kill wildlife and Native Americans until a hellportal opens up to the next arena. There’s no narrative to any of it, just blasting random things and collecting random things for your big, obnoxious stat page that permanently covers half the screen.

Each of your bandits has their own style of play, the outlaw with his quick pistols and bowie knife, the drunk with a big, awkward shovel and pea shooter, and the lady of ill repute with a weak fan and an enormous shotgun. It’s competent arena action but slow-paced and clunky, with little challenge to offer until you get surrounded and bullet-helled to death. Calling one of the characters a whore is about as clever as the writing gets, too, so expect plenty of self-aware deprecation and slightly uncomfortable overtones. Alternatively, you could skip this one entirely and look for a more engaging western or arena shooter to spend your valuable time on.

FINAL VERDICT: Naw

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Keyboard Warrior

Not every idea is a good one. Keyboard Warrior takes its concept on the literal route, forcing you to type letters and words to fight and heal. That works great for something like The Typing of the Dead, but unfortunately this is a platformer. So, in the middle of navigating platforms you might need to type HIT to bash a flying enemy, or mash HEAL while also trying to escape from a pit of spikes. With some smart level design this could perhaps work, but in the opening minutes of the game you’ll have to ride little rock-people across a field of spikes while enemies leap after you, and find your way through a maze of fans full of, that’s right, enemies and spikes.

It doesn’t help that the first level is bog-standard rectangular hills and grasslands, and the enemies are just balls with eyes. Also your character is… um… well, he’s square, and kinda turnip-colored, and he drags a keyboard behind him that he wings around when you have the wherewithal to type HIT. I guess it’s suppose to be funny but I’m not in on the joke, and getting juggled by purple ball-things atop a bed of spikes over and over doesn’t put me in the mood to laugh. Really I don’t know why anyone would design a platformer where you constantly have to take your hands off the controls, but if you’ve ever wondered how that would work out, now you know.

FINAL VERDICT: Bwuh

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DON’T DIE!

So here’s a head-scratcher for you: A game that plays on a narrow, vertical screen, with mouse-driven touch controls, that ISN’T a mobile port. Maybe the folks behind DON’T DIE! plan to go cross-platform but for now it’s here on Steam, and while it would be a way better experience on a phone it still works just fine. You control a determined little head lost in shadowy, featureless rooms. The only way out is to click and drag your noggin to a key and then to a door, but of course there are zombies (or their heads) to complicate matters. Each level is simply a one-screen puzzle challenging you to outmaneuver the zombies to snag the key and escape, and they managed to cook up 100 of these.

Fortunately it’s not just a bunch of undead to outwit. Levels introduce items like time-slowing potions and swords that let you handle the hordes in different ways, and late in the game you’ll have to face deadly turrets as well. Locked to a single screen as they are the puzzles are never questions of how to solve, just questions of executing the solution. You can do a lot with the faux-touch controls, scooting your face at lightspeed along walls and around corners by dragging over unwalkable areas. Some levels seem designed with this in mind, allowing you to complete them in less than a second. It would doubtless work better on a phone or pad but for what it is, you can waste a good thirty minutes on some solid death-defying puzzling.

FINAL VERDICT: Whee

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