Indie game news, reviews, previews and everything else concerning indie game development.

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PAX: ‘Mark Of The Ninja’ Preview – Slipping Into The Shadows

From the violent minds of Shank comes the 2D stealth game, Mark of the Ninja. IGM had the chance to meet with Klei Entertainment’s Jamie Cheng to play through the first level of their upcoming single-player only game.

Mark of the Ninja has the same great graphical style and animation that Klei has become known for, but that’s where the similarities with Shank end. The opening cinematic sets the tone of this game and demonstrates to players that this game is about stealth and avoiding enemies – not over-the-top action. After this surprisingly non-violent opening, the tattooed ninja awakes to mercenaries invading his dojo and his Sensei in danger. This opening level acts as a tutorial and introduces the games mechanics and controls. The left stick controls movement, attack is mapped to the X-button, the A-button jumps, the Y-button uses your equipped item, and the B-button hides/unhides. There’s also the ability to freeze time with the Left Trigger, sprint with Right Trigger, and use your grappling hook with the Right Bumper. The opening level features throwing darts, but Jamie confirmed that there would also be firecrackers, smoke bombs and a spike mine in the final game.

As you can see from the gameplay footage above, Mark of the Ninja has a very deliberate pace with a focus on stealth and caution. The game is very subtle about communicating some of the stealth mechanics in the game. First there is the importance of staying in the shadows. When your ninja or enemies are in light they will actually become fully colorized. Plus, when you’re illuminated, the enemies’ line of sight is much larger and you are easily seen. To escape, you’ll have to break line-of-sight and return to the shadows. Another important gameplay mechanic is the importance of sound. How far sound travels is displayed graphically through sound rings. Sound can be used to your advantage and detriment. Sprinting may get you around quickly, but it also can alert enemies to your whereabouts. At the same time, banging a gong can distract your enemies so that you can slip by or attack them from behind.

Probably the most impressive thing about Mark of the Ninja is the way player’s line-of-sight works and how information and enemy whereabouts are displayed on-screen. I think the best way to describe this is through an example during my playthrough. During the first level, your first tattoo ability is unlocked. Jamie indicated that the player’s tattoos are very important to the story. Tattoo abilities will unlock new Ninja abilities but will never approach “ninja magic” or super-charge your killing abilities. They are simply a heightened sense of focus and observation. The first such tattoo ability allows your ninja to sense what is behind closed doors. Closed doors block your Ninja’s line-of-sight and are graphically displayed as empty rooms, but when you lean against a door enemies inside will be revealed. When you push away from a door, the last known enemy location will be displayed as a red silhouette. Klei has put a tremendous amount of thought into the mechanics of this game, which makes it already shine in its incomplete stage.

Honestly, Mark of the Ninja is my type of game. As a huge Metal Gear fan, it’s awesome to see an indie developer tackle the stealth action genre, especially a team as talented as Klei. The graphics are already gorgeous and the game was really solid and enjoyable. This game wasn’t really on my radar before PAX but now it’s one of the indie games that I’m anticipating the most. I didn’t want to put the controller down and was pretty pissed when Jamie snatched the controller away and said that I couldn’t play any further into the game. Who do you think you are Jamie Cheng! Oh right, the creator of the game.

Mark of the Ninja is set for a summer release on XBLA (my guess is that it will be part of the Summer of Arcade line-up, but Jamie had no comment and said that it was out of his hands) and is a Microsoft published exclusive. For more information about the game, visit the Mark of the Ninja blog.


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PAX: ‘Monaco’ Preview – The Great Heist


Andy Schatz’s IGF Grand Prize winning Monaco was available to play at PAX in both single-player and multiplayer co-op.  Monaco is a 2D stealth-action heist game played from the overhead perspective, but it plays completely differently in single and multiplayer.  In single player, you can be a more strategic, stealthy and methodical thief, whereas multiplayer co-op is smash-and-grab chaos.  The game is fun in both modes, but I definitely prefer to try and remain undetected rather than run around with shotguns blazing.

One of the most distinctive elements of Monaco is its incredibly vibrant visuals and graphics.  The game’s colors are super saturated and give the game a cool neon glow.  The other element that does not come through in still screenshots is the game’s awesome line-of-sight mechanics and graphics. The gray floor plan of a building is revealed as you move around each level.


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PAX: ‘Super T.I.M.E Force’ Preview – We’re Dying In Anticipation

Capybara’s Super T.I.M.E Force rocked my world. I had seen the trailer and was intrigued but since I’m not a huge shooter or a Contra fan, I wasn’t particularly excited about the game. Man, how that has changed. Super T.I.M.E Force, even in this early stage, is one of the best indie games that I have played so far this year.

At its core, Super T.I.M.E Force is a platform shooter similar to Metal Slug or Contra. At the start of a level, you select a character and are immediately dropped into the action.  For the PAX Demo, you started with 3 characters: a soldier wielding a gatling gun, a sniper with a laser that can shoot through walls and a melee dude with a riot shield. After selecting your character, you’re thrown right into the action but the beauty of Super T.I.M.E Force is that you are not penalized for dying. 

In fact dying is fun because it means that the game will rewind to the start and allow you to select another character. Your previous character’s ghost recording will fight alongside you and you can even save previous versions of yourself and then go back and add on to that recording. It’s hard to explain but exceptionally fun. Hopefully the video below that I captured off screen will help people understand the flow of the game.

The levels are short and the objective is to simply get one character to the finish alive. Each death reduces your life count and the developers told me that it is possible to beat a level with just one life – it’s just not as much fun.

The second level of the demo introduced a pixilated Rambo character with a Bazooka that you could select after you saved him. The demo culminated in a very difficult boss battle, leaving me to immediately ask Capy what their plans were regarding multiplayer, the XBLA release and the number of character classes. Capy answered that they have some ideas around multiplayer, but that this game has always been a fun side-project around the office and that they would like to keep it that way for a while and have no dedicated team or timeframe for getting the title out on XBLA. My response is the same as the conclusion of their first teaser trailer, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!”

More information on on Super T.I.M.E Force can be found over on the game’s official website.


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PAX: ‘Awesomenauts’ Preview – Let The Carnage Begin

Awesomenauts

Straight from the Netherlands comes Awesomenauts; a 2D platforming team-deathmatch game (with some RPG elements thrown in for good measure). Said game is nearly done and headed to PSN on May 1st in North America and will be released on XBLA and PSN (everywhere else) on May 2nd.

The premise of Awesomenauts is simple. It’s the future and two robot armies are at war and it’s up to the Awesomenauts to tip the scales in one sides favor. Of course this whole premise is just an excuse to hold multiplayer battles so that you can blast your friends online and off.

Every battle in Awesomenauts is drop-in/drop-out. Before entering battle, you’ll have to select one of the Awesomenauts – each come comes with their own unique abilities and upgrades. Clunk is the lumbering dreadnaught, Leon is a sneaky chameleon ninja, Froggy G is quick with mad hops, Sheriff Lonestar is a good overall soldier, Voltar acts as a medic and Yuri the monkey can lay mine traps and has a jetpack! The build at PAX only had a few ‘Nauts unlocked too!

After selecting your character, you’ll have to equip/select 12 abilities for the match. These abilities are unlocked/purchased by accumulating Solar (the game’s currency). Solar acts as both experience and currency – you will accumulate it by killing enemies and can collect it throughout each level. You can purchase/unlock new abilities at your Base and players’ current level is displayed next to their name above their character.

When your Awesomenaut is ready, a giant spaceship will summon your dropship and you’ll plummet to the planet’s surface. You can move the dropship and collect solar on the way before you land inside your base. This mechanic keeps respawn times very short while still keeping players off the battlefield. The game is a hectic frag-fest with other players and computer controlled robot minions or AI-controlled Awesomenauts. Every level has several tiers and routes to each team’s base. The key to victory is overwhelming and destroying enemy turrets that act as gatekeepers and block your path into the heart of enemy territory.

Awesomenauts is already an entertaining multiplayer experience and features a great variety of soldier classes with an cool toon-inspired art style. Keep an eye out for this strategic and hectic multiplayer game in May.


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PAX: ‘Cognition’ Preview – Oozing Surprises

The first thing that will immediately strike people when they see Cognition for the first time is the game’s art style. Cognition uses 3D characters and objects placed on gorgeous 2D hand drawn backgrounds. This combination is quite striking and allows for some unconventional mechanics and unexpected moments. Multiple camera angles, first person puzzles, and lens flare effects were just some of the surprises in Cognition’s opening prologue.

Cognition is a point and click adventure title from Phoenix Online Studios, the team that has released 4 of the 5 free episodes to King’s Quest: The Silver Lining. Tremendous fan support has allowed the team to craft their own adventure. This new episodic game features Erica Reed, an FBI agent with the super natural ability of post-cognition. Basically, she touches stuff and can see how shit went down. Cognition is expected to be 4 episodes long with each episode encompassing approximately 4-6 hours of game time.

The prologue opens at a cemetery where Erica’s Brother has been taken by a serial killer that targets siblings. It’s a dark and foreboding place that sets the tone for this adventure game. This isn’t King’s Quest folks; Erica lets loose a few swear words in the monologue alone. The game features a minimalist HUD and the controls have been designed with touch devices in mind.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The prologue walks you through the basic controls and mechanics of the game and shows off Erica’s Post-Cognition abilities nicely. It culminated with a Saw-like trap where Erica must bleed herself to enter the mausoleum where her brother is kept. Her brother is strapped to some kind of torture device and Erica must user her abilities to solve a puzzle. The developers told me that there will be branching storylines, but it only changes the specifics of the situation; not the final destination of the story. Erica can successfully save her brother from the Killer’s trap or not. Even if you successfully save him, he will later die from his injuries. The prologue ends with your brother’s death and the killer narrowly escaping after Erica successfully sets him on fire. The first episode picks up three years later and will feature a different serial killer known as the Hangman.

*END SPOILERS*

Expect the first episode of Cognition entitled “The Hangman” to be released this summer on PC/Mac and iPad. For more information, check out the game’s official website.


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‘Gateways’ Preview – A Portal To Fun

Gateways

It’s not every day that a platformer actually impresses me. When I initially started to do my bit as part of the indie press, I ran into a constant barrage of platformers: some good, some great, others bland. This influx of platformers — which, lets be honest, is a genre favorite — is sometimes what leads (or attracts?) other gamers away from the indie scene; it is this idea that every indie game is a platformer, a bland Mario knockoff with about as much character as a cardboard box. Fortunately, with Super Meat Boy and Lumi and a host of truly remarkable platformer games, indie devs have brought about a greater interest — and, in turn, a greater tolerance — for this incredibly simple, yet tasteful genre that possibly marked the first gaming experience for a large number of us.

In any case, I’m a stranger to Smudged Cat Games, even to the seemingly well-received The Adventures of Shuggy. But this whole 2D retro pixellated style — at least the one carried by Gateways — is right up my alley. These are the kinds of games I originally came into this scene for, but strayed from in fear of getting sick of them. So, naturally, the first question I had to ask myself was about what set Gateways apart from every other indie platformer out there. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were a number of answers, and that the game is indeed fun. It follows the story of Ed, an inventor whose experiments have run amok. Your main objective is to guide Ed out of his lab.

Gateways is a lot like Portal. I don’t want to demean its originality, the developer’s creativity, stir anyone’s panties into a bunch, so on and so forth. I just mean that, simply put, you have a “Gateway Gun,” and this gun creates little gateways, or portals, as you traverse the one large map of the game, filled with its multitude of brain-bending puzzles and twists. This portal mechanic is a welcome mix into the platformer genre, one that you may have encountered before in other games. But Gateways takes it even further by offering a number of power-ups. In lieu of having actually experienced every single power=up (this is a preview, after all, and the game is far from release), the developer’s explanation should suffice:

“After the basic gun, you acquire a gun that creates two gateways of different sizes, passing through one way shrinks Ed to half his size, and the other way makes Ed grow to twice his size. Then, you find a gun where one gateway doesn’t just connect to the others location but also its time, allowing Ed to travel back in time and encounter earlier versions of himself. Finally, the last gun manipulates gravity, so passing through allows Ed to walk along walls and on ceilings.”

Now, that does sound a little complicated, in all honesty. The initial gateway mechanic is expectedly fun, but I always develop a sense of anxiety when I realize later in-game puzzles will be, well… hard. Of course, that anxiety is part of the fun — the “how the hell am I going to figure this game out?” sensation really does bring out the best in the gamer, because it often forces you to think outside the conventional box. Likewise, that “aaaahhh!” moment where you discover the answer to a puzzle that’s been destroying you is a moment like no other.

Gateways

And Gateways is friendly to the gamer compared to other platformers. It has a map, which tells you where your next objective lies, where you are, where there are solvable/unsolvable puzzles — which, I should mention, are distinguished by your obtaining of orbs and spending them. These orbs are scattered throughout the level and there are plenty of them, but I think you would still have to choose wisely as puzzles cost 10 orbs to distinguish solvable from unsolvable (meaning you need to complete another objective or puzzle before taking that one on) and another 30 or so to watch the solution of the puzzle. In any case, it’s most fun to try and solve the puzzle yourself, regardless of how long it takes, but it’s nice for the gamer to have the ability to watch the puzzle solved for them — at a reasonable cost, of course. There are various save points and help points strewn across the map as well to help you record your progress and clue you in on the use of weapons, commandsand so forth. Point being, essentially, that Gateways wants you to solve the puzzles and it wants you to enjoy yourself while doing so.

I appreciate Smudged Cat’s take on the puzzle-platformer. Gateways seems very promising and its slated release for PC/Xbox makes me wonder which one I’ll choose — it’s great as a sit-down mouse & keyboard kind of platformer, but it seems primed for a controller. Its demo is a strong indicator of what’s to come: a memorable puzzler with depth, something that is often missing in a sea of seeming clones that is the platformer genre.

You can find out more information on Gateways over on the official website.


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‘Voxterium: Revision’ Preview – Voxels In The Air


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Avast! ‘AirBuccaneers HD’ Preview – Off The Port Bow!

As a kid I had a fairly solid idea of what I *thought* multiplayer video games would be like in the future. They would be all about cooperation on a grand scale – players working in harmony with one another as cogs in some grandiose social machine. Like a tank crew, each player would do their part to ensure the continued effectiveness of their team as a whole, with the most efficient team being declared the winner at the match’s end. Yes, that’s right; I thought multiplayer games were going to turn into Commie simulators.

You may have noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, things kinda went in the opposite direction to my Soviet fantasies. Games became far more about personal glory rather than teamwork, with only high tier players even acknowledging the existence of their allies. But that’s what gave me an instant affinity towards Ludosoft’s AirBuccaneers HD, a game where I can finally live out my dreams of coordination and unity. Also, it’s about combat blimps, which is totally badass.

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As expected for a title that’s in a early alpha state, the thing’s pretty clunky right now. Controls are slightly awkward, certain mechanics don’t function quite right and the graphics are rather underwhelming. But even in this relatively early build, one thing above all else is abundantly clear: this game is so damn fun*!

*Provided there’s enough players around.

The basic idea is that each team serves as crew aboard a small armada of cannon equipped blimps, which are all styled as pirate ships and viking longboats. While one player acts as the ship’s helmsman, the rest of the deckhands run around taking care of other vital tasks such as loading different kinds of ammo, spotting enemy vessels, laying air mines, lighting fuses, aiming said cannons or even boarding nearby ships for a bit of hand-to-hand combat.

These tasks aren’t quite as straightforward as they may sound at first, though. For one thing, the cannons have no cross hair or other such aiming aid, so firing on enemy ships requires you to be constantly accounting for each ship’s speed, height and trajectory in order for your shots to hit anything meaningful. Yes, sometimes it can become a tad frustrating when you miss your mark ten times in a row. But this trial and error approach also creates a rising sense of tension that slowly builds up every time your aim inches ever closer to that optimum firing angle, a sensation that’s only heightened when you realise your counterpart on the opposing ship isn’t too far off the mark either.

And that moment when you manage land the killing blow before he does? Man, it’s honestly one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a multiplayer game. The glory ain’t just reserved for the gun crew, though. As the captain, correctly outmaneuvering a rival skipper while giving your gunnery boys a clean shot is just as good as landing the blows yourself. And so too is plunging head first into the melee a part of a boarding party or any number of other tasks that further the war effort in your team’s favor. When everyone plays their part, everyone reaps the reward…….. comrade.

/> While the visuals still have a long way to go on a technical level, that doesn’t stop the large scale multi-ship battles looking absolutely glorious! Just think of it: a half-dozen or so ships sailing through the clouds, each filled with soldier dudes working feverishly towards a single goal while cannonballs and rockets fly across the battlefield like a medieval fireworks display. All this, interrupted only by the occasional roaring battle cry as one of the vessels descends to the earth in a gigantic fireball alongside the bodies of her vanquished crew. It’s a sight like no other, one that I reckon could make AirBuccaneers HD a must-play multiplayer experience once it goes gold.

The only thing that’s really capping its potential right now is the player count. Even more so than most multiplayer shooters, AirBuccaneers HD requires a relatively decent number of players on each side for it to really come into its own. From my experience with it so far, I’d say that number’s around 8 or so players on each team. That might not sound huge, but being a relatively low-profile alpha game, it’s rare to see more than a handful of players online at once outside of the occasionally prearranged showdowns with the developers. You can play with fewer players if you really want, but I’ve found that those games tend end up as zero sum slogs that’re no fun for either team regardless of who “wins”.

I assume there might be some AI bots or something in the full version, which would go a long way to mitigate this issue if they’re smart enough to put up a decent fight. Regardless, in its currently unfinished state, AirBuccaneers HD is already an absolute blast to play, and manages to provide a special kind of gratification you just don’t get very often in video games. Shooter fans with a heavy cooperative bent better keep a close eye on this one and make sure to give it a whirl when it finally hits. Hell, play it right now while it’s still free! The more scallywags, the merrier!

You can currently join in on the AirBuccaneers HD Open Alpha over on the official site. Alternatively, you can pick up the original Unreal Tournament 2004 mod here.


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‘Gratuitous Tank Battles’ Preview – Tank Beats Everything!

Gratuitous Tank Battles

Gratuitous Tank Battles is here (well in Beta form at least) and is on track to be Positech’s deepest strategy game yet. For those of you who are unfamiliar with GTB, it is the spiritual successor to Gratuitous Space Battles (GSB) and is a  tower-defense game where you can play as both attacker and defender. My biggest complaint about GSB was that it was all about designing and issuing orders to your space ships. The battles looked awesome, but there really wasn’t much to do during the battles other than enjoy the fireworks. GTB solves this problem. Like other tower-defense games, GTB allows you to change your strategy and adapt in real time. You can still sit back and enjoy the great explosions and visual effects, but there are always more mechs, troops, and turrets to deploy, deconstruct or command.

GTB is looking to be the deepest strategy offering from Positech Games yet. One of the best things about GTB is that you can hop right in and play, but after beating the first few missions you’ll realize that the game’s AI is pretty devious and that in order to succeed you’re going to have to design your own units and improve your strategy. The level of customization in this game is overwhelming. You can design your own units, create your own maps, save your game strategies, challenge folks online and more. Needless to say, there is plenty of content to sink your teeth into – I would call the GTB Beta more of a Release Candidate than a Beta. This thing is chock full of features.

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GTB takes place in an alternate reality where WWI never ended and still rages on well into the future. There’s really no story to speak, but this interesting setup does seem to influence the game’s visuals and setting. Speaking of which, the visuals are a natural upgrade of what GSB offered. The biggest graphical improvement is in the units themselves since there is more animation this time around. Soldiers scurry along, Mechs walk and swivel and everything still looks just as jaw-dropping when it blows up. There is also more variety in the environments (you can only do so much in space) and some awesome night and snow effects that really add to the package.

The best thing about GTB is the fact that you can play as attacker or defender. Playing as a defender is pretty standard Tower-Defense mechanics. It’s a much deeper experience, but the basics are the same. I spent the first few hours playing as a defender – until the amazing adaptive AI starting kicking my ass. I decided to switch to Attacker and instantly felt like I was experiencing something completely new. As an attacker you have a whole new set of units to play with (tanks, mechs, and so on instead of just stationary turrets) but you also have a different set of strategic options in front of you as well.  

Attacking is complex and rich with possibilities. You’re not just placing stationary units, you have to factor in unit speed and the multiple paths that litter most of the maps. This duality really makes GTB feel like two different but related games. Defending is all about gritting your teeth and destroying every unit – it’s full of tension and stress. Attacking is more of a rush. I quickly found that saving up my supplies to create a massive and overwhelming number of units satiated my inner desire for destruction. I almost laughed like some sort of deranged genocidal maniac, but my wife was home so I contained myself.

GTB is already a fantastic game that eclipses GSB. It’s great to actually have something to do during battle. For those of you who are thinking of passing on GTB

More information on Gratuitous Tank Battles can be found on the game’s official website.


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‘Metagolf’ Preview – Golf Meets Platforming

Metagolf

As strange a concept as it may seem, Metagolf presents an enjoyable and unique game of golf, despite being a 2D sidescroller.

When you load up Metagolf the first thing you’ll notice are the bright visuals. The art style can only be described as a childish cartoon, though it’s quite pleasing for the eyes. Right away you’ll be able to change the colour of your character and give them a name. Then, you can choose the level you wish to play and edit the options to your liking. That’s all there is to the menu, simple and functional.

The idea of a sidescrolling, 2D platforming golf game may sound odd, but it is far simpler in execution. Your character can run around freely and when you choose to actually hit the ball just aim with your mouse, hold down your mouse button and release when the power bar is at a desired level. This is the simple core of Metagolf‘s gameplay. Its simplistic physics and 4-player local multiplayer make the game something easy to pick up and play.

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One annoyance I found was when you start a course not knowing where the ball is. It can be frustrating and get in the way of actually playing golf. Even when you finally find it, you then have to find the pin with no tips whatsoever. It gets easier the second and third time you play a course, but could certainly be fixed.

An easy fix to this would be for developer Michaël Lievens to create more smaller-sized levels, as they were among the easiest and most pleasurable to play on. The simple golf mechanics on the small levels make multiplayer competition much like real golf, strategic and fun.

There are certain puzzle elements that have you controlling your ball through buttons that move platforms or create gravity. It’s a fun way to show off the physics, and some of the best parts of Metagolf.

Metagolf Springs

While it’s currently in beta and still 7 months from seeing official release, Metagolf is already fully playable. While there were a few graphical issues and player physics feel pretty loose during platforming, the game is in surprisingly good shape for a beta.

I personally found that the default settings should not allow players to push the ball using the character. It somewhat took away from the feeling of playing golf, as did the inclusion of ball addicted animals. This is simply a personal preference and I’m thankful that Metagolf includes easily adjustable options to cater the game to anyone’s needs.

Metagolf Animals

Thus far the game has 14 playable levels, a tutorial to learn how to play, and a level editor for creating your own courses. The game lacks a lot of the extras found in many games today, including online play, but does seem to be easily moddable and an overall enjoyable multiplayer romp. Of course, everything I’m saying pertains to the beta, so many improvements and extras are bound to arrive before its release. For instance, a campaign mode for unlocking courses is already in the works.

You can find out more information on Metagolf over on the official website.