Fall releases are right around the corner, so Zero Punctuation takes this last chance to look at a few recent indie titles released on Steam.
You know what, fuck the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade taking me for granted just because it's plopped out a few decent indie games in some grudging annual ceremony like some flighty high-priced courtisan who can only work summers because she spends the rest of her years in a bubble bath eating chocolate biscuits, and in my futile efforts to woo this unfeeling fat cow as she gave more attention to her own burbling farts, I've ignored that good-hearted, if ever so slightly scabby lady who works all year round to feed her numerous struggling indie-game children. Yes, it's Steam, that classy PC game lady named after the substance that emerges from all her slackened pits after a hard day assembling bundles.
The next AAA releases (in this metaphor represented by top of the range robot prostitutes with the heads of supermodels and multicoloured vagina-lasers firing from their armoured Optimus Prime bodies) are still snoozing under a tarpaulin at the time of writing, so I might as well pass the time with a quick round of recent Steam releases I've been playing this week. Why not join me, assuming your monitor isn't steamed up from how erotic this opening paragraph got?
Unmechanical is a game belonging to a difficult to pin down genre. Steam seems confused, it's listed as platformer despite the fact that you're airborne. I guess we'll just have to pull a Grand Theft Auto and call it "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet clone" until someone comes up with a better name. Although Unmechanical is far shorter and linearer as you fly through a claustrophobic environment solving physics puzzles.
The game could have benefited from the developers asking themselves what their gameplay was supposed to test about the player, because a cursory examination would have come back with the sole answer: Patience. If I've already demonstrated understanding that I need to drop a rock in a pool to displace the water level, making me backtrack through three rooms to pick up six more rocks one by one with nothing trying to stop me in between is just busywork, which is to gameplay what colouring-in is to the education syllabus. I know it's indie and all that, but if you've had to resort to padding in a game whose length would already embarrass a tadpole's todger, then maybe that's the sign you should come up with another level or two before calling wrap-up. Still, visuals are nice, call it a C+.
Apparently it's now accepted fact that Orcs Must Die, a quality they share with cane toads, Nazis and people who don't flush public toilets. But I guess that title wasn't as determined as it sounded, 'cause now Orcs Must Die 2 and there doesn't seem to be any less of them.
This call to fantasy genocide is fairly uniquely a tower-defence game from a third-person perspective in which you play a lone hero of suspect intelligence and moral fibre who would be played by Bruce Campbell about twenty years ago, and Jack Black today. Which fits because there's a lot about Orcs Must Die that reminds me of Brutal Legend. They both take a traditionally supervisey sort of genre but allow you to get stuck in if you're bored and more strategy games should try that. I'd probably enjoy Football Management games more if you can summon Brian Clough to jump in and start setting about at your slack-arse centre forward with a 2x4. Brutal Legend bulked itself down with unnecessary complexity but you could hardly accuse necessary kobold extermination of that. It's just a hallway, a horde, unlimited pointy objects and ever the twain shall meet.
And another thing Orcs Must Die 2 has in common with Brutal Legend is that I feel I should enjoy it a lot more than I actually do. I like the style and the soundtrack and wiping out more ugly green things than the clean-up crew at a congestion convention but I tend to weary of it quickly. The difficulty ramps up a little too fast, perhaps to highlight the new co-op mode, or maybe it's just the frustration of monsters running past me rather than stopping to have a good honest punch-up. It's something I start taking personally after a while. It's like trying to make friends at primary school all over again.
But let's move on to The Book of Unwritten Tales, a fantasy point-and-click adventure game. Now, how can they be unwritten if someone made an adventure game about it? Clearly this proves that I am smarter than everyone involved in this game was. Maybe they couldn't write them down without realizing they were about as original as the fucking missionary position. There's a war going on between the forces of good and evil (re: the forces of attractive and not-attractive), and everything hinges on whoever gets magical MacGuffin du jour first. But you're supposed to overlook the cliché because it's a comedy game and cliché's alright as long as you keep ironically rolling your eyes like someone's jammed the workings of an electric mixer into the back of your head.
I think I figured out why I've gone off traditional adventure games in my old age; it's because they're supposed to be this great story-telling genre but they're paced like a wet weekend at the amputation clinic. They might start off with a thrilling introduction or vignette, but eventually everything has to come to a screeching halt so you can dawdle around a handful of rooms for an hour picking up random knick-knacks like an incredibly bored, unambitious burglar. And maybe that doesn't apply to every adventure game, but it bloody does to this one!
Puzzle design is horrendously uninspired and usually falls back on 'find three objects for a bloke'. On more than one occasion, I found the three objects for a bloke and he immediately sent me off to find another three objects! I'm not the bloody Home Shopping Network! It's times like this that made think that adventure games should all move towards the Hitman: Blood Money model and give us options. Maybe we could try to figure out the extremely specific sequence of actions required to neatly solve the problem or maybe we can just start garrotting people until the situation sorts itself out.
But as I said, The Book of Demonstrably-Written Tales is nothing if not self-aware, wearing its comedy game armour set for the full +50 defence bonus against unarmed criticism, but fortunately for me does nothing to defend itself against criticism of its comedy which leans far closer to the miss than the hit. A joke ideally delivered is being slapped in the face with a fish by a man who runs in and out of the room giggling, and the comedy in this is more frequently akin to a fish gathering flies in the middle of the kitchen floor while the same man stands nearby morosely pointing at it with an outstretched arm, and the fish is wearing a Viking helmet because FANTASY GAMES, AM I RIGHT?
So at the end of all that, it seems like nothing really set my gusset aflame this week, but isn't that just part of the beauty of the Steam service? "Come one, come all!", says she. "It doesn't matter if you don't fit any demographics or you don't use shitty motion control hardware we're desperately trying to wring money out of or you're not fucking Tony Hawk. We'll take you warts and all and find you a niche, even if it's a very warty niche!" And it's only by simmering all that together that the really interesting stuff bubbles up.
So here's to you, Steam! In these slow summer months, you and indie gaming are a true friend to- What's that? Oh, Sleeping Dogs just came out? Well, fuck this noise.
Steamin' for a reamin': Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Maybe I should become a critic of things that take a really short amount of time to experience, like individual ice cream tubs
And they all lived happily ever after
So the Escapist Expo is still in September and you should still totally come, but also in October, I've got a second novel coming out! It's called Jam, and you should preorder it from Amazon and tfaw.com . It's about an apocalypse, with jam in it!