I’ve never quite understood the attraction of standing in a huge queue at a convention, only to get five minutes of play time with a game that comes out in two weeks anyway. I’d much rather experience something that I can only play here, for this weekend and chat with the guys and girls who are toiling away in their basements and bedrooms to bring you these novel ideas. So I hung around the indie booths at this year’s EGX like the proverbial fart in the elevator of life that I am. Here’s my run-down of the five games I found to be most interesting, entertaining or just plain fun.
I’ll begin with one of the more unusual games I played this year. Super Mixtape is a 2D side-scrolling platformer with a twist, you play as an analogue tape who must navigate a neon landscape to reach a boom box. What made Super Mixtape so unusual was its control scheme. I played on a PS4 pad and while the left stick moves the tape left and right, the right stick rotates it whenever you’re in the air. The left and right triggers activate a jump from the left and right sides of the tape respectively. It’s very difficult to describe in words and if it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. I found it very disorientating at first, but soon picked it up and by the end of the level I was moving with ease, which in my opinion is the sign of a well-designed control scheme.
I had a chance to chat with the game’s designer, Christo of indie studio ‘Polygrammatic’ and he explained to me that the control scheme went through multiple iterations before he settled on the current one, stating that early tests of the game proved confusing for some players, in his own words “people were switching the beat to jump and pressing ‘x’ so I deliberately assigned ‘x’ to nothing.”
This leads me quite nicely into the other unique mechanic of the game, namely switching sides and switching beats. At any point you can hit the square button to flip the tape onto its B side and back again. This not only flips the orientation of the game from left to right and vice versa, but it also flips the game World from foreground to background, changing all of the platforms and making new areas accessible. Hitting the directional buttons changes the beat, activating moving platforms and generally manipulating the World to your needs. All of this is synced up with a variety of different tracks which Christo has sourced from indie musicians. He’s quick to point out how important it is for artists of different disciplines to help each other out, saying “I’m indie just like they’re indie, we’re just in different industries.” This focus on collaboration made for a truly enjoyable experience, particularly in how well the music synergised with the game.
Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Turtles in Time. These were all names on our lips as I sat down to play Raging Justice with Nic and Anna Makin, the husband and wife team who are behind this highly entertaining, ‘90s throwback brawler. The control scheme felt immediately familiar, with the standard combination of punches, kicks and grabs and it was immediately apparent when talking to Nic that Raging Justice is one big love letter to the side-scrolling beat-em-ups of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
I asked Nic whether he felt there was any pressure to pander to the clichés of those now iconic games and his response was exactly what I’d expect from such an experienced designer. “We’ve tried to work on our own memories more than other people’s and bring what we want to feel, see and play into the game and it’s always hit a positive note with people. You get people asking ‘have you got this in it, have you got that in it? Do you have a Kangaroo with boxing gloves in it because that was in ‘Streets of Rage 3?’ No, because we’re not making Streets of Rage 3, but it’s great that people bring those memories to us because we’re hitting that nostalgia, we’re making people remember.”
Raging Justice is clearly a game not lacking in self-awareness. It straddles the line perfectly between serious brawler and clever parody in a way that only a veteran of the industry like Nic (whose CV includes a lengthy spell at Rare) could achieve. The animations were nice, the combat was enjoyable, but the real reason Raging Justice stuck in my mind long after I’d returned home was because it is clearly a labour of love from a duo of developers who have been gaming their entire lives and want to pay homage to that passion.
Riot: Civil Unrest
This game contains some of the most beautiful pixel art I’ve ever experienced. Designed by Italian artist Leonard Menchiari, who experienced rioting first-hand at the NoTAV protests in Italy. Riot: Civil Unrest attempts to tell the stories and express the feelings experienced during these clashes. What triggers the crowd to behave with such anger and aggression? Often outnumbered, what does a police officer feel like during the conflict? This is a game with a point to make.
I must admit that I felt uneasy, moving my squadrons of baton-wielding cops around a group of unarmed civilians, edging closer to them as they back off, the occasional rock or shoe flying towards me. But this is the whole point and Riot: Civil Unrest is certainly no jaunty little micro-management sim. This game is a deadly serious simulation of a riot. I’m given the option to charge the rioters head on and start bashing skulls, but when I do, the crowd reacts violently and vastly outnumbered, my police are quickly overwhelmed and suffer heavy casualties. The fact that these locations are real (Indignados (Spain), Arab Spring (Egypt), Keratea (Greece) and NoTAV (Italy) are all currently playable maps) makes for this oddly unsettling feeling when playing. As gamers, we’re very used to taking a black and white moralistic view on the characters in a narrative. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good etc. Riot: Civil Unrest is a game where there are no good guys and no winners. As the police you’re brutally oppressing a democratic movement. As the rioters, you’re inflicting violence on guys who are just doing their jobs. It’s very poignant and transcends the boundary between game and art.
I spoke to one of the game’s designers, Luke, who explained that the final game, which is due out in January, will ship with a level editor. I wondered whether or not that was risky, especially considering that this is a very politically-charged game with a potential for people to abuse or corrupt its vision but as he explained “if people post completely stupid things on Steam, perhaps racially offensive or other nasty things, that’s just not what the game is about and we will of course be moderating it.” As such, I look forward to seeing what the community can produce because while Civil Unrest has many deep systems, I found myself thinking that it is most likely the community coming together, with their own experiences and stories, which has the potential to make this a really special interactive experience.
Have you ever felt as though those pseudo-medieval fantasy games are a bit too heavy on the story? Do you just want to kill stuff? Then ‘Strength of the Sword’ is the game for you. It is essentially a series of arena fights culminating in a boss battle. The controls are immediately familiar, locking onto targets and swiping at them with a choice of light and heavy attacks, a dodge mechanic and the ability to block. Much like other games in the genre, the challenge comes in understanding the patterns and moves of the enemies, observing their movements and understanding when to engage, when to back off and when to stand your ground.
I caught up with members of Ivent Games, the tiny Bulgarian studio who are developing Strength of the Sword for UK publishers Team 17 and talked a little about the inspiration behind the game. They sighted ‘Severence: Blade of Darkness’ as a big influence. As a game which is quite well known for its difficulty, I can see the DNA from it in Strength of the Sword’s attempts to make combat both difficult and satisfying. What the game boils down to is a heavy focus on sword combat and it works very well within the context. This is a strong early showing from a clearly talented team.
Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide
Of all the games I played in the indie section, this was the one that felt the least indie. Coming from Swedish studio ‘Fatshark’, it would be easy to dismissively describe this game as ‘Left 4 Dead: Warhammer.’ After all, it is a 4-player co-op affair in which you linearly explore the Empire city of Ubersreik, overrun by hordes of man-sized rats known as ‘Skaven.’ Speed and co-operation are the key to survival in this beautifully dark hell-hole. But there is more to Vermintide than just an homage to Left 4 Dead, as developer Victor Magnuson said, “we love Left 4 Dead. From the get go we wanted to do a game ‘in the genre’ of Left 4 Dead, in their interpretation of cooperation. The only way to really do it is to take the approach where if you go off alone, you’re in bad shape, you can’t survive on your own.”
This focus on teamwork was evident in my play-through, I took the role of Kerillian the elven waywatcher who is essentially a rogue class with dual daggers and a longbow. Towards the end of our run we became overwhelmed in a huge courtyard and I was separated from my team, the dwarf ranger went down and there ensued a desperate scramble to revive him as myself and a witch hunter attempted to hold the hordes at bay with our artillery whilst the fourth member of the team helped him to his feet.
It’s difficult to say for certain whether or not Vermintide will manage to keep up the frantic pace over a larger campaign whilst still maintaining the fresh feel of such mechanics within the setting of the Warhammer Universe, but for what it’s worth, my time with the game was some of the most fun I’ve had with a first-person shooter in a long, long time, owing in no small part to the excellent implementation of the medieval weaponry within the game’s engine. Slicing apart endless numbers of Skaven felt substantial and satisfying. This is definitely one to watch for in the near future.
Well that’s it from me, but I’d love to hear from any other gamers who were at EGX. Please do leave a comment and let us know what piqued your interest this year.