In an era of PS Plus, Humble Bundles, GOG.com and Steam sales, the backlog of games is ever growing (as I’ve mentioned before) and it’s very possible that there’s treasure hidden in that pile. Yahtzee’s remark (in his Broken Age review) about Driver being a game he wouldn’t have played if it had been forced on him, made me think about some of the great games I’ve found in unexpected places, such as Renegade Ops, Limbo and Thomas Was Alone. My plan for February was to play one new game a day.
(One thing to note; February was possibly one of the best months to run this experiment due to the quality of the PS Vita line up!)
1) Saint’s Row IV (PS3) – A Christmas present put on hold by the release of the PS4. Having only experienced the 3rd of the series that I loved every minute of, I followed all of the press for this and couldn’t wait any longer. As games go, I think of Saints Row as the fun cousin of GTA, emphasising fun over authenticity, without losing any quality in the story. I played this all the way through to the end, and I’ll work my way through the DLC when I get through the other games.
2) OlliOlli (PSVita) – OlliOlli is something I first saw a long time ago and it immediately reminded me of the wonder of playing Tony Hawk on the GBA. The game itself has an initial learning bump, mostly due to the controls, that you overcome to run through all of the levels. Each level takes a couple of tries before you complete it (at least on the easiest setting), and with enough challenges on each level to give you some reason go back and keep retrying. The challenge mechanic means that you don’t feel like you’re grinding (sorry – I didn’t want to use that word but I couldn’t think of an alternative) but rather you just keep trying and retrying.
3) Skulls of the Shogun (iPad) – I downloaded this on a weekend when it was £0 with no idea what it actually was and it’s been the untouched icon next to my daily Tapped Out on the iPad since then. A turn-based strategy involving moving your little guys to a location they can hit the enemy and then doing some hitting. Once I started playing, I quickly came to the conclusion that this game wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of the anxiety that comes from a little guy riding into the range of the enemy, giving them half a whack and then waiting for the return hit to knock them dead.
4) Tiny Death Star (Nexus 10) – Something that’s been sitting on my Android tablet for a while. It definitely drops you in without too much background or tutorial, but the fundamentals are easy to pick up. Initially I thought it was something I’d go back to from time-to-time (read daily) but the grind of running a lift to new floors eventually got to me to the point where I removed it for good.
5) Monster Hotel – A PlayStation Mobile freebie. Possibly a bit of duplication after Tiny Death Star, but micro managing monsters was definitely more annoying than lifting people to each floor. A well executed plan let down by the scrolling often overshooting the target, especially while carrying a monster to a new destination, and the overlapping thought bubbles complicating knowing what each monster wants.
6) Rock Boshers DX – Another PlayStation Mobile freebie. This gets bonus points for the Spectrum style loading and the 8-bitness of the whole deal. Overall, not a bad game with a proper retro feel; simple controls, escalating difficulty and living on a knife edge defined by the collision detection.
7) Bike Rider DX (PS Vita) – And another PlayStation Mobile freebie. A great start to an idea for a game, but I think the missing component was any form of pressure or fear of loss. I think this could become a much stronger game if the challenge was increased or if you lost more when you died.
8) Quiet Please (PS Vita) – The last of the PlayStation Mobile freebies I played and I’m glad I left it until last. A classic “adventure” style game where you have to silence all the noises in and around the house by finding and using items scattered about. Simple pixel graphics mixed with a difficult to define charm make this one of the gems I was hoping to find. I did get stuck on the first playthrough, but stubbornly I gave it another go, believing I’d just get stuck again and managed to finish it. Really worth a go, especially for the charisma of the little brother, and something I’d love to share with more casual gamers as an entry level adventure game.
9) Crazy Market (PS Vita) – A F2P game I grabbed from the PS Store a while back but didn’t try. Basically you get the chance to be a check out operator (although I have strong ranty feelings about the self-service tills that are appearing in stores) and you have to scan products, type product codes and return dogs and babies to their owners/parents. The game fits the classic F2P mould with an in-game coin based currency, boosts you can buy, and a limited number of lives that refresh (30 minutes per life to a maximum of 3) to limit your playing without extra spend. I actually found the game to be quite enjoyable and it fitted in at the time when I only had time to play during tea breaks amidst swathes of DIY.
10) Flappy Bird (iPad) – Based on a tweet from Tim Moss, and a background buzz of mentions at that time in the month, I thought I’d give Flappy Bird a try. The most accurate description I’ve heard is “crushing”. I got a high score of 3 after 10 goes, then deleted it. In the days following that, it really become a burning topic in the game industry, but I’d already left it behind.
11) QWOP (Nexus 10) – I first saw this in a GDC Experimental Games Workshop session and thought how hard could it be!? Then it popped up in a Android Humble Bundle and I thought I’d grab it and give it a go (try the online version here). It’s basically a game where you control a runners thighs and calves by using the Q, W, O and P keys to race along – I was already wondering how the control scheme would move from keys to screen? The fact is, the original was damn hard but still quite hilarious to play and the Android port is a much more polished but just as devilish version. Using the touchscreen to control the legs means it’s much more challenging on a tablet than a phone, just due to the reach for your thumbs. And I’m awful at it. I got better with practice, but better means getting 4 metres along rather than 1 – I’m unlikely to complete the 100 metres and very unlikely to ever be ready for the hurdles.
12) Rage HD (iPad) – A freebie downloaded long ago and left unplayed, but considered for deletion every time I need to find some space on the iPad. A simple on rails shooter, the gameplay is mostly smooth and easy to pick up. Having played the PS3 version, the visuals match my memory and despite the on rails nature, I found it a really enjoyable game. The money scoring mechanic initially confused me, as I expected an end of level shop to upgrade my weapons, but it’s just a score. And I really want better guns.
13) Surge Deluxe (PS Vita) – A colourful join the dots game with a lot of pressure. One of the few games I can think of that I’ve bought based on the studio’s previous work, without it being the next in the series. Quite good fun, but the music reminded me of Velocity, while I’m still awaiting the arrival of Velocity 2X.
14) TxK (PS Vita) – The definitive version of the Tempest games from Jeff Minter, heavily hyped and with a cult following even before launch. I’d only played Llamatron on the Amiga before, and I think it was before my time. I think it was the Genesis blog post that really got me interested. My initial play sucked until I trained my left thumb to only go left and right, but I still had issues on following the path on levels where the lines overlap. (The beginner’s guide also helps!) One of the features I love is the Restart Best option where the game tracks your best ever life count at the start of the level so you can start anywhere you’ve already played and play on, and if it’s too hard, skip back a few levels and then play it forward, trying not to die even more than usual, so that you have more lives on your future retries.
15) Ben there, Dan that (Steam) – I discovered Dan Marshall’s Gibbage blog almost 2 years ago and I’ve been following @danthat on Twitter ever since. I like his style of comedy and I’ve wanted to try his adventure games for a long time. With regular price drops on Steam, I thought I’d try Ben there, Dan that. During the first full scene in the apartment I laughed out loud 3 times which is a rarity in most games. As with most adventure games, there’s still a lot left to do on this one.
16) Dead Nation (PS3) – A Housemarque classic that was frequently mentioned in a lot of the press around Resogun, and which I’d put to one side (my PS3 says I downloaded it in 2011). However the Trophy Advisor on psnprofiles.com highlighted that there were quite a few of the easier trophies available there. That said, I started on the Grim setting and found an incredibly difficult game that felt very tense while still initially achievable. It feels different to my previous experiences with Housemarque games like Super Stardust and Resogun, since they’re more classic shooters that you restart from the start, whereas Dead Nation is a more linear experience where you continue from your furthest point.
17) Skylanders Swapforce (PS4) – I considered this as a Christmas present for my 5 year old son, versus the similarly toy oriented Disney Infinity, but I skipped both due to the cost. However a recent price drop at one toy store gave me a second chance. The PS4 version is non-stop gorgeous and at the start I thought it a bit too easy but since then the complexity level has massively increased and the increasing number of battle arenas is taking its toll on the small army of figures I also bought, since you need a new character when one dies off. I think we’ll be playing this for a long time yet.
18) Uplink (Steam) – From the Introversion Humble Bundle. I’ve been a long time follower of Introversions development, most recently Prison Architect, and when the Humble Bundle appeared, there was no need to think. Uplink was the first game that I unlocked on my Steam account that has remained dormant since HalfLife 2. An interesting hacking game, starting slightly complicated on the laptop due to high resolution and low mouse speed, but after a while I managed to start getting the hang of it. This is one that I think would play even better on a tablet, which is great because there’s an Android (which I also have via a Humble Bundle – yay) and iOS version – one for the plane on the way to GDC.
19) Threes! (iPad) – This one suggested by Alex Evans on twitter (@mmalex) and further pushed by the wonderful gameplay gif (as seen here at toucharcade.com). A simple concept, well presented but I’ve not yet learnt the trick. I’m averaging a score of 1000 per go, which I was quite proud to maintain, but having seen @kazhiraiceo, a parody twitter account, scoring 67,000, leads me to believe I can do a lot better.
20) Antichamber (Steam) – Included in the Humble Bundle (#11) that overlapped this month of trying games. Antichamber was something I’d previously seen but didn’t quite understand when I first saw it. It’s a long time since I played an FPS with mouse and keyboard so it took a few minutes to get back into it, and straight away I was dropped into a surreal black and white world with flashes of over-saturated colour. The puzzles are engaging and each is telegraphed in a different way with a clue somewhere nearby. The mapping and logo system help give a sense of the level of completion but the counting down timer means that you feel you need to keep moving forwards and exploring new places.
21) Space Marine (PS3) – Big white guy running around with big guns shooting big orks? I’d heard this was a bit of an unexpected gem which is why I chose it from my PS Plus backlog. There’s a lot of elements that hark back to the Warhammer universe in the characters and races, dialogue and details. The environments are full of all of these amongst the epic scenery. There’s a couple of minor negative things, like a big flashing save indicator prior to every large encounter, and the clunkiness of a character in a space suit that looks heavier than a family car. Overall though, it felt like a futuristic God of War depending a little more on guns than melee, and I continued playing until I completed it.
22) The Room (Nexus 10) – From one of the Humble Mobile Bundles. I managed to get through the first box while making and drinking a cup of tea, before getting pretty quickly stuck on the next one. A very beautiful game with incredible detail, but somewhat infuriating when you hit a brick wall.
23) Fuel Tiracas (PSVita) – One of the free PSM games from last year that I must have overlooked. It’s a simple tap-the-right-place-at-the-right-time-to-fill-the-gauges game, very well polished with a well designed difficulty scale. This was great fun until I hit my natural speed limit and it felt like I was fighting just to stand still.
24) Shadow Blade (iPad) – I think this was another Tim Moss recommendation. The gameplay is quite fluid as long as you can keep the ninja moving, which I found challenging, yet again due to the distance from the edge of the screen of the iPad case that my thumbs had to travel. I gave it half an hour, cleared the first section, but quickly lost interest when it got overly complex due to the controls.
25) Dead Trigger 2 (iPad) – This was at the forefront of the store when I was browsing through for ideas and I thought since I’d missed the first, and it was used as a poster child for rendering quality, I’d give it a go. I had more thumb on iPad issues, although the controls are quite simple, if a little sensitive. The gameplay is kind of fun, but I spent too much time twitching and looking at the floor or ceiling.
26) Device 6 (iPad) – The third in a row of games from the same engine, but a very different proposition. With an intro similar to a British 60’s TV show, the style is established early. I don’t want to give too many spoilers since it’s a game about discovery, but it’s a new way to approach an adventure game. I’m definitely going to go back to this, but next time, with a piece of paper by my side for my notes.
27) Battle of Puppets (PS Vita) – A PlayStation Mobile title that I grabbed based on this blog post. A simple opera-inspired strategy game where you build attackers for your army and they march directly towards the enemy, scrapping with anyone they meet on the way. Once I found enemy archers stall the motion of whoever they hit, I pretty much ruined the game for myself by just using archer rushes.
28) Gunhouse (PS Vita) – Another PS Mobile title grabbed based on a blog post. And like Battle of Puppets, there’s a very strongly defined art style. For the first few attempts , the tile matching game was confusing – it’s nothing like the Tetris or Match-3 games that my brain is wired for, but it’s really enjoyable ending up with weapons that you can use to assault the approaching attackers, before getting another go.
So what did I learn?
Well first, I did manage to find some gems; something new, OlliOlli, something very old, Ben there, Dan that and something unexpected, Quiet Please.
I also discovered that thumb based tablet gaming mostly aggravates me, mostly due to the lack of control feedback. I’ve been a big Vita fan and the fact is, I’ve always preferred playing with a controller. This has lead me to look at stand alone Android controllers or possibly a NVIDIA SHIELD™ as a future option.
I also know there’s still more games I’ve heard about that I want to try: FTL, Papers Please, Gone Home, Brothers – so maybe I’ll give this a go another month later this year.