Mini-Review Roundup #11

My backlog of indie gems practically grows by the day, so let’s cull the herd a bit! Today;’s roundup promises to be a real treat, because each of these titles offers something a little special. Not all of them make it work, of course, but at least they’ve kept it interesting! All five of today’s selections came to me via Curator Connect, so we can applaud the brave souls behind them for offering them up upon the altar of amateur criticism.

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BLAST-AXIS

It’s a shame there aren’t more attempts at the six-degrees-of-freedom genre that Descent pioneered, though if they turn out like this, maybe it’s for the best. Technicolor creepies have invaded the many mines, tunnels, and metroplexes of Phobos, and you’ve got a hot little junker that’s ready to blast them. Armed with a chainsaw, beam cannon, and all sorts of ordnance you can find, you’ll descend into muddy, confusing levels, battle unremarkable foes with unsatisfying weapons, and struggle with a needlessly obtuse UI. I don’t want to dismiss this one entirely out of hand but the entire game experience just feels terrible, from the sluggish controls to the incomprehensible map overlay. Any lesson in game design you could take from Descent was missed here, so I heartily encourage you to seek out the original over this sorry attempt. Oh, and it crashes a bunch.

FINAL VERDICT: Barf

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JUMPGRID

Sure, I bet you’re real good at shooting things. But how good are you at dodging them? JUMPGRID gives you control of a teleporting orb… thing, locked to a grid of nine nodes. All you can do is teleport between adjacent nodes to dodge the litany of glowing, pulsating, and revolving hazards that sweep across the screen. These aren’t modest little obstacles, either. You’ll be warping past huge pylons, shifting lattices, and interlocking networks of blocks and pistons. And while you’re at it, you’ll need to grab the eight cubes around the edges of the grid to open the warp to the next stage, in a sequence of 100 challenges. There’s a significant learning curve here to your instant transmission power and the pace of the game, but adjustable speed and multiple modes will help you ease into your finger-cramping groove. Plus the soundtrack is absolutely killer.

FINAL VERDICT: Mind-blowing

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Mittelborg: City of Mages

I do love managing things, and an enchanted city on the fringes of reality sounds like a real cool place to manage. Turns out Mittelborg is home to the Tree of Order, lynchpin of existence, and as the new chancellor it falls to you to protect it. Threats to the city come in the form of tempests, multi-day storms that can result in beastman raids, magical onslaughts, or calms where you can harvest ether or send expeditions out to the far realms. Assigning mages and reinforcements to different parts of the city is how you’ll survive these daily disasters, all the while upgrading different buildings, brewing potions, making event decisions, and following the string of quests that unfold the story of the previous chancellor.

All of this would indeed be real cool, if it were an actual risk management game with any sort of depth. You’ll have like one tempest between the tutorial and your first upgrades that might cut things a bit close, but once you get a few mages and your ether production up, you’ll be immortal. Tempests are entirely predictable and damage can be completely mitigated, so all that’s left is sleepwalking through the missions. Oh, except they’re so poorly designed that you can softlock your progression by exploring all of the outer realms before getting a particular quest. According to the developers, I can die and start over with a new city and the same quest, but even if that wasn’t the worst idea in the world I was pretty well over this pale imitation of a game anyway.

FINAL VERDICT: Fie Upon Ye

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Moss Destruction

I don’t ask a lot of indie games, but the core gameplay has to have something to keep me hooked. Moss Destruction clearly takes inspiration from plenty of roguelike giants like Nuclear Throne for its structure, but there’s none of that frantic shooting or tight control that makes for a memorable experience. Instead, you tromp around featureless halls in a very basic mech, plinking at enemies with a simple laser gun until you find something more interesting. Every level has a weapon crate and a portal to the store where you can buy meta-progression items like a dash or passive bonuses, except you won’t be seeing much of the currency used there. Once you find that weapon crate and decide which extremely familiar weapon you’re taking, there’s not much point in sticking around the level.

Especially when enemy spawns go absolutely nuts after like a minute into each level. There might be some kind of loot or XP bonus for sticking around, but the combat isn’t interesting enough to get me to do that. After five very samey desert levels I found a boss spewing shots everywhere and killed it, despite the hit detection on your mech being crap for dodging bullet hell messes like that. The next level was a bit more interesting with open fields and maze-like passages, except the narrow areas were filled with rocket launcher guys that one-shotted me, despite all my health and armor upgrades. That’s not a real good way to keep people invested in your roguelike, but if that was really a consideration then I’d assume the actual shooting would be more fun.

FINAL VERDICT: Bzzzzt

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PLAY DOG PLAY TAG

As Steam grows, so too does the selection of games that really make you wonder why they exist. I’m not talking about middling, pointless games, I’m talking about the ones that defy human reasoning by their very concept. Take PLAY DOG PLAY TAG, for example, a competitive multiplayer joint where you are one of four dogs on a walk with your owner, in search of a thieving bear who stole all your bones. To wrest these delightful treats from your tormentor, you charge up your owner and launch them like a mass driver, exploding whatever they happen to hit. That includes the thief, other dogs, and any buildings in your way.

These five-minute matches descend into absolute chaos very quickly, but chaos with important strategy to consider. Obviously whacking the thief for bones is important, but whacking other dogs makes them spill most of their own bone reserves, so aggressive tactics can be rewarded. There are other owners to pick up too, though, which confer special powers like sprinting, hucking fireballs, and freezing the entire map. You’ll only have one cityscape to tear around in search of bones but honestly it’s enough for a wild-ass party game like this. I didn’t exactly go into PLAY DOG PLAY TAG expecting much, and I got a charming little bit of madness with a surprising bit of depth.

FINAL VERDICT: Wow

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