This week, Zero Punctuation reviews two offerings from this year's XBLA Summer of Arcade.
After Limbo one year and Bastion the next, I've come to look forward to the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade the way a child in a small town can look forward to when the carnival arrives so he can spend all his money and learn a harsh lesson about reality and spiders. It's like a little opportunity for some indie games about big-headed children exploring grim environments to come within earshot of AAA console gaming and be allowed to stand in the corner of the banqueting hall occasionally ducking the odd chicken bone.
And yet I have to say I'm disappointed by the showing this year. It started badly when the first release was an HD remake of Tony Hawk: Pro Skater. How does that invoke the indie spirit of the XBLA? Tony Hawk's head isn't even particularly big and he could hardly be said to be exploring a big scary world, he's just farting about on a bit of wood being paid too much money to not get a proper job. (Yeah, alright, glass houses.)
But since then, it's only been downhill. First a Kinect-only game then a zombie apocalypse game, but let's take a closer look at them anyway. Maybe they figured out how to make Kinect fun. And zombies original. And maybe I'm about to poo out a Cadillac Escalade.
The Kinect one is Wreckateer, a physics game in which you fling a set number of projectiles with various different properties at loosely constructed buildings at the expense of small round green sods. And this might strike you as familiar if the front page of the iPhone app store has ever been hurled past your front window so that you caught a glimpse of it for one-tenth of a nanosecond. Yes, it's Angry Birds but in full 3D, except with the suicide sparrows replaced with good honest traditional rocks because this is the XBLA and we don't tolerate that quirky mobile device nonsense.
At the encouragement of two guys who look like they were rendered in the late 90s, you have to operate an imaginary ballista with hand movements and stances that would make you look like you're preparing to catch a rugby ball from someone being attacked by a crow. Unlike Angry Birds though, you also make course corrections mid-flight by slapping the missile like... like there's something directly in front of you, say, at around waist height that for one reason or another you want to give a good hard spanking.
I will say this, I think Kinect is the least obnoxious he's ever been in this game. He's still wearing a lampshade and burping at my gran, but at least he's not hammering nails into the soles of my feet. I think because it never tries to call upon quick reflexes. You have all the time in the world to position yourself for the right firing angle, and more importantly the Kinect has all the time in the world to figure out where in the room you have moved to and how many limbs you currently possess. Which is not to say that I and my spine wouldn't prefer to play it with a normal controller or indeed on a mobile device for about eight thousand levels and counting.
See, I do like to play Angry Birds and what I like about it is that I can whip it out while I'm waiting for a file to process or for a lady to reach orgasm and just kill a few moments, and I thought the same thing when Fruit Ninja Kinect came out. The sort of game I'll dig out and liven up the bus ride is not the same sort of game I'd turn on my electronics and sit through fifteen opening screens for. Especially not when it expects me to dance about like a spazz, that's something upon which the public transport authority holds a very dim view. Or at least that's what the guy behind me said.
And the other thing I like about Angry Birds is picturing the face of the person who carefully assembled each level brick by painstaking brick as I smash it up and laugh at their tears. And there's something kind of janky about the physics in this that takes me out of it. I can't get hard if the rubble keeps fading away when it hits the ground, it makes me think I'm smashing up ghost castles, and there's no satisfaction in evicting ghosts, they just go walk through someone's wall and live there instead.
But on the subject of dead things hanging around smashed up buildings, let's move on to our second game, Deadlight. This is a game that looks like someone at Castle XBLA (who I imagine resembles J. Jonah Jameson) said, "Where are the indie spirited unrelentingly-grim platformers? Take this checklist and find me a game with more ticks than a mangy dog!" It's like something that the XBLA spontaneously generated one day when it had enough titles rubbing together. So it's a linear silhouette platformer like Limbo that controls kind of Shadow Complex-y with the merest hint of 'Splosion Man and a story channelling I Am Alive narrated by a bloke with a voice like he smokes entire rolled-up carpets. Oh yes, and it's set in a zombie apocalypse which is the point where the indie-o-meter starts ringing bells and emitting confetti.
The game opens with a hairy tramp named Randy standing over the corpse of an attractive woman, which sounds like a promising beginning, I know, but the actual plot turns out to be about Randy-Pandy searching the ruins of Seattle for his wife and daughter by parkouring it about the place and shooting zombies. Or avoiding zombies, the game can't seem to decide which one it prefers. Sometimes I'd flee from bastards only to get rugby-tackled by back-up bastards I was supposed to shoot. Sometimes I'd blow all my ammo clearing out an area to find they were guarding fuck-all and that the game was politely asking if I'm ready to do the big dramatic escape scene it's got all planned out. There was a bit near the end where a lengthy unarmed sequence led into a shooting sequence, but the game didn't tell me that it had sneakily given me my guns back in the transition. So I died fifty million times trying to sprint my way through Bullet Boulevard with a white flag in one hand and my bollocks in the other.
With wonky controls and a visual style that makes figuring out the actual platform layout from the background debris akin to looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures, it's a very trial and error game. Limbo was like that, but it made me too depressed to get angry at it. Deadlight just frustrates me and it's almost insulting in the way the story hasn't an original concept and thinks it's a lot cleverer than it actually is.
Okay, I guess I'd better give an ending spoiler warning at this point so attach distressed bats to both your ears if you don't want to hear it but honestly you don't have to be Jonathan Creek to have this shit figured out from near enough the outset. If I mentioned that no other character ever admits to having seen Randy-Gandy's family since the outbreak, that he occasionally hallucinates them as if, say, his subconscious mind is trying to tell him something that he doesn't want to confront, and that he keeps finding collectable ID cards that all bear the names of famous murderers just to give you absolutely no credit whatsoever; then you can probably connect the dots yourself. Yes, we're dancing that old chestnut, the Memento mambo. The Silent Hill samba. You'd think you'd remember doing something like that, wouldn't you? I mean, it's not like forgetting to leave the milk bottles out.
Once ate a man's head: Ben "Yahtzee' Croshaw
The only supressed memory my subconscious tries to confront me with is the time I walked in on my dad in the bath
I destroy and destroy but it never fills the void in my soul
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!