Reviews, Roguelikes, & Research

Standard post by Tom on 21/03/2015
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It’s been a roller-coaster fortnight for me. Spending a lot of time brushing up on Phaser, learning Angular, and writing up some articles for the great new site IndieGameBuzz.com.

Combine that with my career, my marriage, and my brother’s wedding last weekend (congrats Marc and Ash!), it feels like I haven’t had a second to sit back and reflect on the progress I’ve made in my writing and programming. I feel that now I’m well into my 30s I need to focus more than ever and embrace my true passions in life. I’ve always enjoyed writing, in all forms. To be able to provide my services to friends and colleagues especially really makes me feel great about myself. And programming is the heart that pumps my veins. It’s how I make my living, and how I can express myself creatively at work. If I’m not creating, I’m not alive.

If you haven’t been there yet, please check out IndieGameBuzz and follow them on Twitter. They’re dedicated to bringing you all the news and reviews you can handle, as well as game dev tips to those aspiring programmers and artists.

Click on the images to be taken to the latest articles I’ve written for them.

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orionTrail0

With its colourful pixel art and obvious ties to Star Trek, Orion Trail by Schell Games stood out to me on the Steam Greenlit list. The game has been touted as a “science fiction space adventure” done in the style of a Oregon Trail game. Instead of a covered wagon crossing rivers you’re a ship hurtling across the galaxy, attempting to avoid destruction and chaos, or causing it.

In a rare move by the developers, they’ve actually released a demo that you can download and play. This is great, because images and marketing spiel can only tell you so much about a game. Demos used to be commonplace, but now people hide behind the guise of “Early Access“, which we all know just means “Paid Demo“. Note: I’m over-generalising of course, please don’t crucify me. Some Early Access game devs actually listen to their audience.

orionTrail2

I fired up the short demo and flew some of the missions they had to offer. Every new game gives you the choice of 1 of 3 random captains, 1 of 3 random ships, and 3 of 9 random officers. It would appear that the missions you choose at the start are also generated, each of the 3 to choose from with an end-goal usually consisting of “have as much of #RESOURCE# as possible at the end of the game”, with the resources being food, fuel, crew, and hull. Fuel and food tick down continuously, while crew and hull are lost and gained through events.

The game’s core mechanic appears to be similar to games like Dungeons & Dragons, where you roll a dice and apply a modifier depending on skill level. The skills in Orion Trail are broken up into Offense, Tactics, Diplomacy, Science, and Bravado. Each captain, ship and crew come with a set of skills that pool together to result in your collective skill level. The dice roll in Orion Trail is also a d20, which strengthens the D&D influence.

orionTrail6

As your ship traverses the galaxy from point START to point END (in Star Trek ‘continuing mission’ style, they’re always mid-journey), you’ll hit a series of random events. Judging strictly from the demo all random events use the same structure. An event is presented to you with an accompanying piece of gorgeous pixel art (or placeholder), and you’re given three choices, each corresponding to a skill level. The choices also give you a small idea of what resource risk/reward is at stake. Sometimes it’s a choice where you lose food but gain crew, a choice where you gain fuel but lose nothing, or sometimes a “lose random / win random” option. You make a choice, the dice rolls (in the form of a ship’s panel), the skill is added, and you win or lose the challenge depending on an unknown target number you may or may not have hit. The entire system is a little too random for my liking and I found myself not really caring what option I chose unless I really needed a resource. Your collective stats are also affected by more extreme dice rolls. Royally mess up a challenge and you’ll find yourself losing stat points, making future rolls harder. The flipside also applies, with a strong roll resulting in a stat increase. The Kickstarter campaign also promises Away Missions, to change it up a bit. I look forward to seeing that progress.

orionTrail4

The challenges themselves are great. I love the writing and the art, and everything has this tongue-in-cheek style about it. You can tell Schell Games are old sci-fi fans, because every trope you can think of is pandered to in a delightfully cheesy homage. The ship’s computer may become self-aware, or a cosmic being of an indescribable nature desired to be appeased like a living god.

As stated before, the game seems a little too random in its current state. Which means you can either have a really fun run, or a terribly frustrating one. A game I played ended after I succeeded every event, but not a single result gave me food, which I desperately needed, and my crew starved. Another mission had a similar result when I needed fuel but there was no option to increase it, only lose it. I’d like to see smarter events coupled with the random happenings. If you’re low on a resource hit me up with a challenge to either gain a lot of it, or die. It would make me feel a little more in control of my ship as opposed to watching the burger icon tick down to zero. I want to fail on my terms when a resource hits zero, even if the odds are against my crew, like a pinball machine second chance ball.

orionTrail5

The art is pixel art, because every indie game is pixel art. But I freaking love pixel art, if my website name wasn’t a give-away. The quality is solid too. Animations of the crew and the ship are fluid and funny, and the game brings its own unique style.The music is also top notch, and has been purposefully downgraded to give it that retro feel. I do enjoy selecting a captain and hearing a muffled semi-robotic catch phrase. Feels like an old DOS game from the early 90s.

I’m not sure if the developers have looked into it, but because of the quick nature of the game where a full run usually lasts under a few minutes, this game would do extremely well on mobile. The perfect game to play while waiting for the train, or on a short break from work. It’s a coffee-break game, and that isn’t a bad thing. Some of my favourite games I’ve spent hours on are considered short coffee-break games.

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Orion Trail is fun and fast, with a massive chunk of replayability value and plenty of room for expansion into the little universe Schell Games have created. The art is brilliant and the music brings forth a swell of nostalgia for both 8-bit games and classic sci-fi. If they can just turn the ‘random’ dial just a little bit back that’d be great.

Orion Trail Kickstarter

Orion Trail Greenlight

Orion Trail OST

Schell Games

 

Sunless Sea: What Lies Beneath

Standard post by Tom on 13/02/2015
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The sea has never been friendly to man.

At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.

                                             – Joseph Conrad

The fog rolls in off the coast of Fallen London, the crew are restless and eager to leave port. Above you, the chatter of bats can be heard piercing the sky. There is no day or night in the Unterzee, just the dripping of water, the low dull tones of harbour bells, and the ever-looming terror gnawing at the back of your mind. Welcome to Sunless Sea.

Sunless Sea

To put it as simply as possible, Sunless Sea a Story-Heavy Lovecraftian Naval Roguelike. This game is unique in every way. But for the sake of trying to relate to it, think of FTL in and underground ocean, then you’re on your way to figuring out this enigma of a game. You control a ship and explore the seas. Going from port to port, trading knowledge, secrets, goods, and killing monsters and pirates in between.

At the start of the game you are given a ship, and after that everything else is up to you. The world keeps a similar layout each play through, with the main cities of the Unterzee usually in the same spot. It’s the smaller islands and random events that give it that truly fresh feel when you play as a new character. You could be on the same quest as your last captain, transporting a passenger to another dock, when suddenly the passenger goes mad and pulls a knife on your crew, or is eaten by a giant crab, or simply crumbles into dust. You can never tell what you’re in for when you accept a mission in this game.

Sunless Sea

Straight off the bat Sunless Sea tells you that your first captain will probably die. Such is the nature of the roguelike-like genre. With a focus on permadeath and replayability you’ll never be playing as a superhuman Captain of an unstoppable ship. You’ll always be one step away from death, and it’s that drive to succeed against insurmountable odds that keeps us coming back. With the passing of every character you play you’ll retain some skill, some items, and some officers. This legacy system is interesting. Once your captain retires, dies, drowns, disintegrates, etc… you choose who to play as next. Do you play as a rival of the former captain? A colleague? Or a direct heir? What you choose dictates what is passed down. It’s a nice way to get slightly better each time. Work hard enough and you’ll afford an ironclad will, securing even more resources for your next doomed captain.

Combat is tough. You begin with a slow ship and a single deck gun. Warding off pirates, crabs, bats, and living icebergs (lifebergs) can prove to be deadly. It’s not a forgiving game at the start, and that can be a little off-putting. But you’ll soon discover that exploration is valued over combat prowess, and maybe burning an extra barrel of fuel to get away is in the best interest of the crew until you can arm yourself with more formidable weaponry. The game encourages you to explore the map and discover new areas until you’re comfortable enough to tackle some of the harder quests.

Sunless Sea

To put it bluntly, if you don’t like to read while you play, get out now. This game is not for you at all. Fallen London is a world of ten thousand tales, and you’ll be reading your fair share when you play Sunless Sea. Everything you do will almost always have a mysterious tale attached to it, and it’s up to you whether you want to see how far the rabbit hole goes. Take it from me, it goes deep. You’ll come across interesting people, who may or may not have your best interest in mind. At one point I was given the option to triple my supplies by a “generous benefactor”, and unlike normal RPGs where free items are free items, this game instils a sense of suspicion into you. I wanted to know exactly why he wanted to give me these free goods, how “free” were they, and what favours I would need to pay in return. In the end I was low on supplies and had little choice. So far I haven’t been approached to hide any dead bodies yet, but with this game I know something like it is just around the corner.

The world is delightfully Lovecraftian. It’s set in the Victorian age, and everything that seems relatively normal has a sense of whimsical chaos about it. You’ll discover a frozen fortress surrounded by squatters, an entire island that uses rats for currency, enormous Egyptian Sphinx monuments in the middle of the sea. You’ll never guess what is just ahead of you, lurking in the darkness. Failbetter have crafted a living world over the last 3-4 years with their browser game Fallen London, formerly Echo Bazaar. This world coexists with the browser game and you can even connect the two together, unlocking unique items to find as you scour the Unterzee.

Sunless Sea

With the locket of a lovely lass in my jacket pocket, and a comatose ferret at my side, my captain set out in search of his father’s bones, lost at sea. He had seen enough haunting memories to last a lifetime being a veteran of the ’68 invasion of Hell. Sunless Sea is a game that you can fall into and become a part of. But you need patience and imagination to even attempt it. This is no action game full of aliens to blast or zombies to hack. This is a game that queries whether you should hire the alien as a cook, and if it is wise to ferry the zombie across the channel to the Tomb-Colonies.

Do you trade? Do you explore? Do you seek out giant crabs to fire cannon upon and feast on their entrails? It’s up to you. There are ten thousand tales in Fallen London, make this one yours.

Sunless Sea is available to purchase on Steam, GOG, and directly through FailBetter Games. All purchase links can be found at http://www.failbettergames.com/sunless/

Darkest Dungeon: Fanatic Feudal Frustration

Standard post by Tom on 05/02/2015
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Darkest Dungeon

Successfully funded through Kickstarter on March 2014, Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios hit the Steam store on the 3rd of February. It promised to be a challenging gothic roguelike with the mental health of your characters as important as the physical. The game they’ve delivered so far has been exactly that. While your characters suffer wounds, diseases, and other standard RPG ailments, they also suffer from stress. In the world of Darkest Dungeon, stress is in abundance.

When you’re brought into the gothic world, you are given limited control of a small hamlet in an area owned by family. You appear to be the last of the bloodline, and these lands are corrupt, in need of purifying. Overrun by ruffians, the undead, and even worse eldritch horrors from the darkness.

Darkest Dungeon

Your predecessor had discovered something beneath the castle foundations. Something that man should not have found. Through the etched doors hidden from humanity it looks as though all manner of beast and demon had been released onto the lands.

From your starting hamlet you recruit wandering mercenaries and adventurers to help you reclaim your family’s lands. The recruits come in various classes ranging from crusaders to grave robbers and lepers. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each new character comes with four abilities from a pool of seven. Meaning you may get two plague doctors, but they’ll have a different set of attacks to use.

When you’re ready to embark into the dungeons, or along the wooded paths, among a handful of areas, you put your party of four together. As the game plays like a 2D side-scroller, placing your characters into their slots requires a little thinking. You’d want to put your healers at the back right? And your crusader at the front? Most of the times yes, but that’s where Darkest Dungeon shows its true strengths.

Darkest Dungeon

Each ability must be cast from a certain spot, and may only hit (if it hits) enemies in other specific slots. For example. There is a large attack by the Hellion class, but it only hits the 4th enemy in the line, if there are less than 4 enemies, it hits no-one. The highwayman character has a very strong pistol shot, but only if he’s the first character in the line, and since his other pistol attacks need him to be in the back rows, it’s a question of which ability you want to rely on. Tactics come into play a lot more than “hit this guy till he’s dead kkthnx”. Luckily mobility is also a factor. Many skills allow a character to lunge forward or feign back, setting them up for another ability on their next turn. But be careful, there are enemies that can shuffle your ranks around as well, and sometimes you’ll find that your healer is useless because that bastard of a skeleton mage pulled her to the front rank. You’ll find yourself wasting valuable turns just to rearrange your troops, and a wasted turn can mean the difference between life and death

Outside of combat the dungeon crawling aspect is minimal. Rooms are linked by corridors, and once you’re in a room you choose the next room to aim for. So a lot of the movement is in those corridors that hold traps, treasures, and baddies.

Spend too long in a dungeon, looting graves, fighting horrors, losing torchlight, and your characters will start to feel the demonic presence and depressing nature of the dungeon take its toll on their minds. Stress isn’t just a feature of this game, it’s the driving mechanic. Your characters will lose their minds if you let it happen to them, most of the time it’s inevitable. Hopelessness and paranoia take over the minds of your adventurers, but in the darkest corners of the dungeons, sometimes valour offers a flicker of hope.

Darkest Dungeon

You will churn through characters like a hot knife through butter, which is something you just have to accept. The game has a very steep curve at the start and you’ll need every nugget of gold you can find. This means you’ll be abandoning quests a lot, just to bring back the gold. Since healing a player from stress is not only time consuming but expensive, you’ll also find yourself willingly letting adventurers go and just swapping them in for new blood. It’s a part of the game I feel could use a bit better balance, but once you figure out the mechanics of it you accept it as part of the journey.

The game looks and sounds amazing. The art has been crafted with love. It has a unique hand-drawn dark comic style, with a thick dark stroke around very earthy tones. There are no bright happy colours in this world. The world of Darkest Dungeon is a depressing, unforgiving place.

Coupled with the art is foreboding music that lingers in the background, rising to a crescendo during combat. During the quite periods you can hear groaning of beasts, the rustling of the wind, and low bell tones to set the mood. On top of it all is the narrator whose dry quips and commentaries add a great atmosphere to the game. He narrates the action as it plays, like he is reading from his memoirs.

The UI has some issues in the town, screens will open on top of, or even behind each other. And the lack of proper keyboard shortcuts can get a little on the annoying side of things. But these are minor issues that I’m sure will be patched at a future date.

Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is a great game with a ton of replayability. Much like other roguelike-like games out there you will have times of great joy, but also great frustration (get used to seeing the word “dodge” a lot in combat). But I’m hooked on it, and you will be too.

LINKS

Kickstarter

Steam Page

Website

2015: The Quest for Normalcy

Standard post by Tom on 01/01/2015
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2014 was a year of “not much”.

Whenever someone asked me what I was up to. It was not much. Nothing really. Same old same old.

It was a shit year of broken self promises.

But, to be fair, that’s nothing new.

I turned 31 yesterday. I remember wanting to write and develop games when I was 18.

Have I? Eh… kind of.

I have my moments, my spurts of genius. Those creative days where I feel like a true artist at what I do. But those days became less common in 2014, for a couple of reasons.

One was the loss of a good friend. Now I don’t mean he died or anything. But he left my daily life through some unforeseen actions. He was a brilliant driving force for creativity. A wall to bounce ideas off of, and just a general person I could talk to about anything. We dug the same things, and it’s good to have a person like that around. But that changed a little over a year ago and I haven’t really recovered from it.

2014 was a top year for my two demons. Depression and Procrastination. The amount of shit you can see on the internet with sites like Reddit and Tumblr (and uh.. 4chan) is stupid. Every second I wasn’t on those sites I wanted to be on them, just to see what I missed. Some useless video or image about a current event made into a Sean Bean meme.

And when I wasn’t furiously racing to see the latest crap, I was in such a funk I didn’t want to see or do anything. I sunk low, really low. Managing to pull myself together enough to put on a brave face at work.

I want 2015 to be a fresh start. Like the drunk who quits alcohol as his new year resolution my odds are stacked against me, but I’d rather be trying than just giving up straight away. I want to grab 2015 by the face, and the balls, and the spleen, and make it love me.

An experiment with HTML5 in HaxeFlixel

Standard post by Tom on 09/04/2014
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I’ve been looking for a crossplatform solution lately, a solution that can export to HTML5, Android and iOS. Being a Flash developer I’ve been building successful apps with the powerful Adobe AIR crossplatform system, but one of the platforms it doesn’t support is HTML5. Not the best platform, but one that is gaining a lot of traction, and is being heralded as the future of the web. As much as I prefer the power of Actionscript coupled with AIR sometimes you can’t fight the trend, and it makes it especially hard when Adobe themselves just don’t seem to care about their own product.

I’ve looked at Phaser as a pure HTML5 framework, and I’ve actually been impressed with the performance shown by the game samples I’ve made with it.

After getting the thumbs up from me, I moved away from Phaser, and this week I’ve been looking at Haxe, OpenFL, and the HaxeFlixel Framework.

HaxeFlixel

Now, HaxeFlixel doesn’t fully support HTML5 export yet, with documentation citing only ‘experimental support’. So I took an experimental look. I chose to persist with HaxeFlixel instead of rolling back to OpenFL because HaxeFlixel is designed as a game framework, with built in physics controllers, advanced Math and Tweening abilities, it’s the perfect framework for game developers. I noticed a lot of similarities with the Phaser Framework I was playing with last week, which is no real surprise as both Flixel and Phaser were existing Flash frameworks before people starting jumping ship from the slowly sinking goliath.

And the results from my experiment? Positive.

It isn’t optimized, and slightly buggy, but HTML5 export is definitely possible with Haxeflixel. So possible in fact that I built a breakout clone today. This was built using the current “dev” branch of HaxeFlixel on GitHub, so the improved HTML5 support over the “master” branch is still being worked on.

Before you click the link, keep this in mind

– resizing the window will resize the game, which will break the “replay” button at the end

– It may be slow and chuggy on mobiles not being optimized, but mobile play does work. EDIT: Not on iOS devices it seems. “Experimental support”!

– Like my other games in the last week, this is a simple prototype with only basic game elements.

That being said, click the image below to be taken to the game.

breakout

Desktop, Android, iOS, and hopefully very soon HTML5, HaxeFlixel’s future as the number one crossplatform solution is looking bright.

Breakout assets provided by http://kenney.nl/

‘Innovation’ revisited

Standard post by Tom on 07/04/2014
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The passing of the torch. Flappy Bird’s reign as ‘king of clones’ is coming to an end.

The heir apparent? 2048. A simple, addicting, fun, and easy to replicate puzzler.

Here are the current top apps on iTunes, you see Flappy Bird holding its own, but slowly drowning in a sea of ‘latest fad’, and one breakout clone. (Breakout is damn fun).

2048

 

@BenBrocka: “The iOS App Store is at the forefront of 

innovation and high quality design”

‘Innovation’ in the mobile market

Standard post by Tom on 02/03/2014
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The Flappy Apprentice

 

When a new game is released on PC or console there are bound to be some imitators, it just comes with the territory. A rival company takes note on what makes a game so popular, and decides to have a crack at it too. But because of the nature of console games, and their lengthy development processes, the end result is usually a similar genre but a new game completely. There’s too much risk making a blatant copy of the latest AAA title. Why pay 60-100 dollars for a game that is just a copy of the last 60-100 dollar game you bought?

But Mobile games? That’s another story.

We’re playing games that were made within a month, a week, sometimes even a day. They’re simple games designed to be played for quick bouts at the bus stop, on the train, waiting for a doctor, standing in line at the coffee shop. They’re coffee break games, for the most part anyway.

And since quick to play usually means quick to make, you’re going to see imitators everywhere. As soon as a single game becomes popular, or in todays case, “viral”, the App Store and Google Play become inundated with not only similar games, but downright carbon copies with different assets.

The most prominent example being Flappy Bird, as the original creator pulled the game, leaving a void at the peak moment in the games viral popularity. Given the simple nature of the game and the quick turnaround with Google Play, we began to see copies within a day of the viral explosion that Flappy Bird experienced. These clones, which run anywhere between free and a couple of dollars, are so cheap to make and cheap to buy, that it actually makes sense in the mobile market. Why waste time making an original game when you can ride the coattails of a popular one?

This is a mentality that needs to stop, but won’t. Not in todays mobile game market. There are so many games being churned out that it doesn’t allow for really unique and actually fun games to shine. Their luminosity is muted by the grey seas of by-the-numbers clones.

What can we do as mobile developers to stop this?

Nothing, not to stop it anyway. It has become so bad that only a radical shift in the nature of the purchasing power of the consumer needs to be the driving force behind change. The only thing we can do is attempt to influence this change with unique and exciting titles, but that’s a risky and costly venture.

Until any change happens, we’ll have to ride out a storm that looks like this, have you played Clash of Clans? Then you may find every single one of these games a little too familiar.

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