This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Axiom Verge and Stealth Inc 2.
You know what I miss from the olden days (by which I mean two years ago)? The Xbox Live Summer of Arcade! We had a little ritual with the Xbox 360 and I, where they would parade a little handful of indie games around with a bit of pomp and ceremony, and I'd take them one by one and grind them into the dirt until they cried. How we laughed. Those times are over now, 'cause even if the Xbone did something similar with a new fistful of indie games like an unwanted buck-toothed child with an oversized dented head smashing action figures together in his urine-drenched sand pit, it just wouldn't be the same. Maybe 'cause the new console generation's entire purpose in life is to convince us that the ability to make shiny graphics a whole 10% shinier means it is their solemn duty to throw all previous gaming history in the bin and start afresh with an interface that has been shitted up to competition standard!
So what of the indie games that are coming out exclusive to the new generation of consoles? Let's review a couple before the revolution comes and they're dragged out into the street to be shot alongside their aristo masters.
First of all, Axiom Verge on the PS4, a metroidvania shooter platformer that takes the Shovel Knight route of accurately reproducing the NES style in all its "low-res, vibrant primary colours, bleepy-bloopy headache like a cold power drill right between the eyes" glory. And there's something particularly obscene about playing a retro-style game on the PS4; it's like eating Coco Pops with a spoon made out of the Papal ferula.
When I say "Metroidvania", that's with a huge thunderous "Metroid" and a tiny vestigial "vania" hanging off it like a small dog with its tail caught in the wheel arch of a speeding van. The story follows a young scientist named Trace, named after the thing that the developers did to Metroid to create this game, ha-de-ha; who gets caught in a lab accident and you know how it goes with lab accidents; heads, you gain superpowers; tails, you get transported to a mysterious other dimension. In this case, it was tails, unless the incident also gave Trace his absurd sideburns. His quest is to save the alien world from an encroaching blight that intentionally resembles NES graphical fuck-ups, but this problem won't be solved by punching the little brother who spilled orange juice on the cartridge.
Axiom Verge doesn't just wear its Metroid influence on its sleeve, its sleeve is Metroid because it killed Metroid and put on its skin. Personally I've always preferred "vania" to "Metroid", 'cause the latter is more about dull claustrophobic environments where the scenery is a higgledy-piggledy mess of tiles even before the graphics fuck up, and the most you can hope for as you move from area to area is for the colour scheme to change to a different hue of eye-gouging vibrancy. And I hate the way that secrets are so often hidden behind single tiles all equally as out-of-place as every other tile in the wall until you just have to systematically bomb all of them like you've bought an Advent calendar on December 23rd and need to get it up-to-date.
Axiom Verge apes a lot of Metroid's mechanics but grants them somewhat more expedience. For example, instead of bombs, they give you a giant fuck-off drill which immediately gives you the starring role in the wall version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You have a smaller form for navigating narrow passages like in Metroid, but you can throw it to hard-to-reach places instead of having to muck around with fiddly bomb jumps like a fat swimmer trying to propel himself with farts alone. And the samey-ness of the environments meant that after a while, every new powerup meant that I had to explore the entire map again to find all those hither-to sealed-off passages I couldn't precisely remember where I'd seen, like a tour bus driver with a busted GPS.
But I'd say the game's fun enough to compensate. Exploration is one half of Metroidvania's appeal; the other half is going back to where all the starting enemies bullied you and took your lunch money, and appointing yourself the god of death with your new overpowered weapon. Thinking of you, Lightning Gun! Axiom Verge delivers that, so while it has a lot of trough to go with the peak and the aping of Metroid is so shameless as to be almost respectable, one of the games in the two-for-one review has to be the good one, so I might as well give it that.
So let's move on, now that I've completely given the game away, to Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones! It just came out for Xbone and PissPour and eventually Steam, although apparently it's been on Wii U for a while which I suppose explains why I haven't heard of it until now. And yes, it's Metroidvania again. If Axiom Verge is wearing the skin of Metroid, then Stealth Inc. 2 has done something similar to Abe's Oddysee, or at least wants to, but only got as far as rubbing its shin with a blunt potato peeler.
You are a small cloned midget in a large corporate facility who was created to be murdered for unspecific testing purposes, and must go through numerous puzzle-esque challenges to escape while saving as many of their fellows as they can. This is one of those games that I realized pretty early on I don't like, but can't put my finger on any one major reason. Perhaps it's the complete absence of stakes. Rescuing clones feels like rather an empty gesture when they're so evidently disposable. We could just find the clone machine, stick the outlet pipe out a window and hold down the lever until we've "rescued" as many as we feel like. Or perhaps it's the graphics that put me off which despite high-resolution, full range of colours and 3D model characters, somehow manages to look flatter than Axiom Verge.
Stealth Inc. 2 reminds me a bit of Talos Principle with its sectioned-off puzzle areas and its wearing of the increasingly threadbare "I want to be Portal" hat that the games industry has been passing around for years, and the weighing down switches and laser beam puzzles the games falls back on when they can't think of a core gameplay mechanic, except in this case they did! And it's right there in the title: "Stealth"! Visibility is indicated by the colour of our character's eyes, and then it's indicated again by some off-putting text across the middle of the screen, because apparently a message has to be drilling its way into our very bones before our dunderheaded minds can detect it. And then, stealth forcefully established, the game becomes mostly about weighing down switches and laser beams, as well as obnoxious trial and error death traps as a timer counts remorselessly overhead so that at the end of the level, you can see how well your time compared to that of several people who, if they sat opposite you in a food court, would cause you to feign taking the keenest interest in a sandwich ever experienced by man.
And all throughout, the villain is sending you text messages calling you a twat. This is beyond antagonizing the player; this is, "players murdered our parents and this was our last chance for revenge". And you know, even with the text messages, I was still rooting for the villain. He wants to murder the protagonist so he can be Employee of the Month. It's not much of a motivation, but it's the only one anyone seems to have. Hell, I'm playing as the guy and I'd murder him just to jump the queue at the vending machine!
- Give the dog a clone: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- For a while I thought it was called Axiom Rouge and I'm not sure what that would have been like except that it would involve Parisian whores
- Bloody games industry revolution pencilled in for after GDC