YIIK Interview with ACKK Studios

I’ve made it no secret that after playing their demos at PAX East 2016 and 2017, I’m looking incredibly forward to ACKK Studio’s highly anticipated RPG YIIK. On March 24, Andrew and Brian Allanson let me ask them a few questions about YIIK, its upcoming release, and inspiration.

YIIK is a turn-based RPG set in the year 1999 in the town of Frankton. A video is uploaded online of a girl, Sammy Pak, being taken from an elevator by something “otherwordly.” You play as Alex, a recent college grad who met Sammy, as he and his friends search for her. To quote the website, “This is a story about what happens when you look for someone who can’t be found… and the strange things you invite into your life when you go to forbidden places.”

 

 

Lifecast: Tell us about ACKK Studios! How did it all begin? What inspired you guys to create games

Allanson: We started making games as kids, and used that name back then. Me and my brother Andrew started programming in quick basic and used to make Zelda fan games exclusively.We were originally inspired by Zelda II Adventure of Link to make games, and Pokemon Red and Blue!

 

What were your earliest games like? Did you archive them somehow?

We made our fan games based on descriptions of Zelda 1 and Zelda 3 from the official Ocarina of Time strategy guide because we didn’t own those games and desperately wanted to play them. So, we made them ourselves. We really enjoyed making games that we couldn’t obtain and imagining what they would be like. They were primitive at first but after a few years they were pretty decent clones with original stories and levels with ripped sprites. We have some archived. They were made in quick basic, c++, and the games factory.

 

What inspired you guys to create YIIK? Were there any other developers or games you took inspiration from?

We wanted to make something that felt like watching the trailer from a lost N64 or PS1 RPG that never came out. Something along the lines of Mother 64. It eventually evolved, and moved a bit away from that. Wild Arms, Earthbound, and Shadow Hearts were our biggest influences for YIIK.


How long have you been working on YIIK now?

Just under 3 years.

 

According to your site, YIIK is your second major project. The first was Two Brothers, which has “mostly negative” feedback on Steam and a 57 on Metacritic. Was that discouraging in the decision to make YIIK? Have its criticisms played a role in the creation of YIIK?

The reaction to Two Brothers was complicated. It had a lot of glitches due to the engine it was developed in, so we learned right away to move onto better software. We also learned to take our time. We probably wouldn’t have continued making indie games if it wasn’t for this video here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQtxD7alDL4


What engine is YIIK running on?

YIIK is running in Unity.

 

Why did you choose to set YIIK in the 90’s?

Seemed like a fun idea at the time, mostly.


YIIK has a very unique aesthetic and soundtrack! Has it always been like that, or were there different plans for it in the beginning?

We wanted to make a “Lost N64 game” so we started developing a low poly quality. We ended up going for more high fidelity than the N64 could’ve done, but that’s where it started. The music was more traditional JRPG at first, but as the world developed the music naturally evolved with it.


Do you guys have any favorite characters in YIIK?

Rory Mancer, because he’s a really fun character to write. I’m really interested in people who are avid conspiracy theorists, and choose to live their lives in alternative ways against mainstream culture.


YIIK is currently set to come out “Early 2017.” Don’t suppose I can ask if there’s a specific date or month in mind?

Before July.


Once YIIK is done, what’s next for ACKK?

A retirement home maybe.

 

Finally, a question that’s caused a lot of debate here at The Lifecast, and I’m sure elsewhere: The title is pronounced Why-2-Kay, right? Or is it Yeek?

Why-2-Kay, as in y2k (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_2000_problem)

 

 

YIIK A Post-Modern RPG will be available on Steam, PS4, Vita, and Wii U before July! Check out ACKK Studio’s Twitter or Facebook for frequent updates.

Boston Festival of Indie Games Wrap-up!

This past weekend was the fifth annual Boston Festival of Indie Games, a convention celebrating independent tabletop and video game developers, in the MIT Johnson Athletic Center in Cambridge, MA. Upon entering the venue, I was greeted with the sight of tons of indie game devs waiting to showcase their most recent projects, and when I actually got the chance to experience what these devs were working on, I enjoyed myself way too much. But with all of these games around trying to impress, some stood out more than others to me, be it for mechanics, aesthetic, control, even the people running the booth. So these are my highlights from the Boston Festival of Indie Games 2016.

 

Now Everyone Get The F%$# Out!

F%$#

When it comes to Now Everyone Get The F%$# Out, by the fantastic Starcap Games, I’m very well-acquainted. I’ve already played the game various times whenever I go to this great thing in Boston called Game Over, and when I saw it was going to be at FIG, it was one of the first booths I went to. Prior to FIG, only Kennedy and I had played NEGTFO, and now a lot of us here at The Lifecast like it. It’s a card game about getting people out of your dorm so you can study for a final, and you do this by forcing things like a live band or hard drugs onto your opponents to make the partiers go into their dorms instead of your own. You have actions to do special things like reuse cards from the discard pile, and instant actions which let you do something (normally counter a card your opponent plays) at any time. It’s an insanely fun game that gets even more fun with more people, and I play it every time I get the chance to. On top of that, the one running the booth, Pat Roughan, is super cool. Absolutely be sure to check this out; it’s honestly one of my favorite tabletop games. Now Everyone Get the F%$# Out! is available on Amazon and, though currently sold out, will have more in stock later! You can follow Starcap Games on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

Mech Deck

Mech Deck

Now, let me tell you about a game that I absolutely cannot wait for: Mech Deck. Now, at this point, it’s no secret that I love me some good old fashioned mechs. Be it eastern, western, Gundam, or MechWarrior. I love mechs. I mean hell, my tag online is MechaManDan. This board game was the coolest one at FIG. It sucks that it wasn’t at the showcase and that I was media. Because if I wasn’t media and it was in the showcase, I would have absolutely voted for it as best game. It focuses around free-for-all mech combat. Normally, you draft for parts to your mech, but in the effort to save time, we were given pre-built models. Your parts are split into the torso, legs, arms, and back. Arms are generally weapons, body supplies energy you need to move and do certain tactics, legs give movement perks, and the back, well, I don’t really know, since my back piece was immediately destroyed by our own Greg by the end of the first turn. Each mech has weapons with varying ranges, and when you get within range, you can attack. Combat is resolved by each side rolling 2 6-sided dice, with the higher number determining whether or not the attack goes through (attacker wins ties). Each individual mech’s piece is not just that one piece, though. Every arm, leg, jetpack, body, etc. is each their own part, and are held together through magnets. Meaning for each part you get for your mech, you get to make a piece that truly represents what you have, as opposed to a vague placeholder. Different terrain gives different effects, like defense bonuses or damage. You’ve got a lot of other things to affect your combat as well, like your pilot and their abilities, your Battle Fervor, or as we started calling it, your “Anime Meter”, which you can spend on special skills, and more. This mecha battle royale is insanely fun, and I personally can’t wait for it to come out. Mech Deck is still in development, but you can follow it on Facebook here and Twitter here to keep track of its progress!

GUNGUNGUN

gungungun

GUNGUNGUN, developed by Mystery Egg Games, is a platforming, arcade-style arena shooter. The premise is quite simple: You’re running around this arena, trying stay alive as long as possible, and you do so by shooting everyone who is trying to shoot you. You control your character with the right stick, aim the gun with the left, and shoot with R2. As you kill things, you can use different guns, but they act more as temporary powerups that total upgrades. The controls are incredibly tight and responsive. The main character has a perfect weight to her, and every single gun is satisfying to shoot, and even more satisfying to hit with. In addition to that, each gun feels different from the others in terms of how the shooting feels. Jumping is solid, movement is fluid, and everything about the game just… Works. The music is awesome, it looks really nice, and it’s HARD. It’s super challenging to get a good score in this game. I remember the longest I lasted in one game was about 2 or 3 minutes, and that’s after playing it a bunch of times to get the feel of the game down. But this difficulty is genuine and fair. Every time I died, I felt like it was my fault and not the game’s. GUNGUNGUN is the kind of game you pick up multiple times in a day to try to beat your high score because it’s so addicting. GUNGUNGUN is currently on Steam Greenlight and has recently passed 50%, so please, if you can spare the time, please help greenlight this game for Steam. You can follow Mystery Egg Games on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

Kung Fu: Shadow Fist

Kung Fu

VR has always interested me, but up until this weekend, I had never really used it. I played Swingstar at PAX East on a Gear VR, and it was awesome, but I never really experienced a fully VR experience until Boston FIG. Kung Fu: Shadow Fist, developed by Digital Precept LLC, is officially my first “full” VR experience. I’ve got to say, it was pretty damn cool. I strapped on that HTC Vive and let me tell you, that entire experience was freaky. I loved it. Anyway, Kung Fu: Shadow Fist is a VR arcade-style beat-em-up. It’s still in early phases of development, but from what it is so far, I’m looking forward to its release (and my inevitable inability to play it because I’m too poor to afford an HTC Vive). You’re put into this environment where you’re put up against these crash test dummies, and then you give ’em the ol’ one-two. Swing your fists while holding those surprisingly comfortable HTC controllers and then you’ll beat ’em up. Raise your arms to block your face to block, and you can press the huge button in the middle of the controller to do a shadow step, which stops time and puts you right next to an enemy. That’s about it for controls. While playing the game, my reach did feel a bit short, and the sense of depth in the area was a little off, which made me miss some punches. Though that may also just be that I’m not used to VR, but it is something to be aware of. While I do think it is in need of some polish, that doesn’t stop it from being a really cool VR experience, and just being a genuinely fun game to play. It’s definitely worth looking into if you have a Vive. Kung Fu: Shadow Fist is currently on Steam Greenlight awaiting approval, so when you have the time, please help greenlight it for Steam. You can follow Digital Precept on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

Finally, I’d like to give some honorable mentions to games that seem awesome that I just didn’t get enough time with to write well about. First up is Tailwind: Prologue, a shoot-em-up game kind of like a bullet hell, but not really. The gameplay takes place while you’re falling down and permanently shooting, and you need to get behind the enemies to destroy them. It really breaks the standard shmup formula to do what it does, and is a super interesting game that I want to play more of. The other game is a board game that has been highly, highly acclaimed called Dragoon. It’s a strategy game in which you play as a dragon trying to take over the land and collect as much gold as possible to win. You’ve got to capture areas, destroy others, and do whatever you can to collect gold and take control. Sadly I was only able to play one turn of the game before the venue started closing, so I wasn’t able to get much of a feel for it, but from what I saw go down, it seems awesome.

I think the best part about the Boston Festival of Indie Games is that there wasn’t a single bad game that I played there. All of the games that I played, even the ones not mentioned in this article, were good, fun games that I would absolutely play again. The experience overall was really fun, and I am absolutely going to be returning next year to see what new content all of these creative developers can think of.

The 5th Boston Festival of Indie Games

This weekend we here at The Lifecast went to the 5th Boston Festival of Indie Games–or FIG for short. Not only was this my first FIG, but it was my first event as a member of the media/press, making this event all the more memorable for me. Not that I needed that for this event to be memorable by any means, because there were a myriad of amazing indie games–both tabletop and video–to play. The event was hosted by the MIT Johnson Athletic Center in Cambridge (which neighbors Boston) and hosted thousands of indie game developer teams and players who came to find out about all the new and upcoming indie games: Here are the titles I had the opportunity to play.

 

Cheer Up

cheerup

Upon entering the venue, we were greeted by Cheer Up–a simple but hilarious tabletop game. One person draws a question card–alongside the question, it’ll say what kind of cards the players need to use to answer it. A detail (D card), thing (T card), or action (A card) and in what order they need to go. The player draw 2-3 of the cards they need and use the cards to answer the question. The person who drew the question then draws a rule card to mix things up a bit–things like swapping cards, maybe you have to do something while you answer your question, etc. Hilarity ensues, and it absolutely did when we played a few quick rounds. Although a black and white printable version not featuring the cute face of the dev’s dog Niko is available for download on their site for free, the full, color version that we played isn’t available yet. We talked a bit with the dev who said he’s hoping to put it on Kickstarter soon–hopefully early October if everything goes well–and we definitely had a fun time with it, so we’ll definitely be on the lookout for it. I also need to thank the dev who was giving out free coasters just as I was thinking I needed some in my new apartment just the day before–so I think that was one of the funniest moments of the whole festival for me.

 

Now Everyone Get the F%$# Out!

fuckout

Developed by Star Cap Games, I’m actually no stranger to Now Everyone Get the F%$# Out! (henceforth FOUT.) There’s a monthly gaming event here in Boston called Game Over. It’s mostly a few fighting game tournaments, but there have been set ups for Rockband, Magic: The Gathering,  and other tabletop games in the past as well–including FOUT. Although I haven’t been to every Game Over since they started the event, I do go to as many as I can and I’ve made it a point to always look for where this game is set up. I always have so much fun playing it. Inspired by a wild house party thrown by the dev during her sophomore year of college when her roommate was desperately trying to study for a final she had the next day, FOUT is a game where you and your fellow players are trying to get people out of your dorm party so you can study. Everyone has a number of people in their room, and you’re given cards with party items (EX: bouncy house, pet rock, pizza, etc.) and each of those items has a fun rating. The higher the overall fun rating of your room, the more people there are. The person with the highest fun rating is the party animal, who gains people in their room at the end of each turn. The person with the least is the nerd, and they lose a person at the end of each turn. Of course there are items and event cards that can mix things up, as well. The aim of the game is to get everyone the f%$# out of your room so you can study. According to their facebook page, all the copies available of FOUT were sold at Boston FIG, but there are plans for making more.

 

Fall of the Last City

fallofthelastcity

Marred by a very lengthy explanation of the game that ultimately didn’t do us much good, this was definitely one of the more fun tabletop games we played at FIG. Set in a post-apocalyptic world and developed by Christopher A. Barney, Fall of the Last City was surprisingly the most competitive game I think we played at FIG. Using paths, bases, and soldiers, the aim of the game is for the last city to be taken over. You and your fellow players will try to create paths to get to the city, and take its resources and citizens to join you and help you get soldiers. Where this game shines, however, is in its alliance system. In a way that reminds me very much of the Nonary Game in Virtue’s Last Reward, when you cross path with another player, you have the option to challenge them. When in a challenge, you can ally or fight. If both players ally, then you exchange alliance tokens and you can freely use each others paths, and you both get resources from the city. If one person chooses to fight and one to ally, then the player who chooses to ally will lose a base and a number of soldiers. If both players fight, then the one with the fewest soldiers on hand loses those soldiers as well as a base. Having alliance tokens helps you win at the end of the game, so you’d think that everyone would just want to ally all the time, right? Wrong. Reducing the number of soldiers your enemies have–not to mention taking one of their bases–is a very alluring idea, so it made for lots of strategic and competitive fun during the game. This game has a lot of complex rules that take a bit to get used to, but once we got the hang of it, it was a very enjoyable game.

This game was originally intended to be an Ingres-esque board game on Google Glass, the dev explained to us, but as Google Glass became increasingly less popular, the idea of making it a tabletop game appealed more and more. Wanting it to be something Mad Max-esque and something more physical–something that wouldn’t require a large team of artists, but rather, something the dev could make with his hands–the idea eventually evolved into what it is now. Fall of the Last City isn’t available for purchase currently, but the dev explained to us that he hopes to have it on Kickstarter by the end of the year if everything goes well.

 

Kung Fu Shadow Fist

kung-fu

The first Vive game that any of us had played, Kung Fu Shadow Fist is a VR game being developed by Digital Precept. It’s a simple game where you use the Vive to fight off dozens of training dummies–a VR version of an arcade brawler. There’s no complex gameplay, the devs explained to us, and it’s a game focused on the speed of your hits. You don’t need to be a martial artist to play this, either, because you can slow down the speed of the game if you want. The game is meant to feel like an 80’s action movie where you’re fighting off a lot of bad guys, and rather than fighting one guy with 100 HP, the game wants you fighting 100 guys with 1 HP, they added.

Sure enough, it was exactly that. A really fun VR arcade brawler. My only complaint was that the shadow step mechanic, which is used to rapidly move you from one spot to another, still felt really unfinished since I never felt sure about where it would land me and at what speed. You can play this game without that mechanic however, and aside from that, was really fun. It’s currently in its early alpha stage and on Steam Greenlight.

 

Perception

perception

This was the game I had by far been looking the most forward to. I’ve made it no secret that Bioshock 1 and Infinite are my favorite games of all time, and this game is being produced by a team led by the lead level designer of Bioshock 1 and design director of Bioshock Infinite, Bill Gardner, and his new team, Deep End Games. Set in Gloucester, MA, Perception is a first-person horror game in which you play as a blind woman, Cassie, as she tries to find her way through a haunted house using nothing but her limited sight and echoes. While she’s there, however, she starts hearing things, and it quickly becomes clear to her that she’s not alone. Lots of research was put into the idea of using echoes to find your way through the area, Gardner explained to me, because it’s an idea he had been considering for years but wanted to confirm it was a real thing that people can and have done–and it is. Gardner explained to me how he even met up with a teacher from World Access for the Blind who explained it in full detail to him so he could fully capture it in Perception.

Just as the Bioshock games have a focus in their beautiful, detailed narratives, so does Perception. It’s very clear that (for obvious reasons) this game takes narrative inspiration from the Bioshock games, as there are tapes–audio diaries–you can find and listen to throughout the house and listen to that helps tell the player about the previous owners of the house and piece together what happened. Gardner explained to me that he wants to make sure that the narrative is clear in Perception, as there seemed to be a bit of confusion regarding the ending of Bioshock Infinite–therefore, he’s trying to step up from Infinite and make this narrative as wonderful as he can. Also similar to Bioshock, this game has a very rich, detailed area that it takes place in that’s practically a character itself since you find yourself so invested and interested in this house and what possibly could’ve happened to it.

This game is much like a game of cat and mouse, he explained to me. As mentioned before, Cassie isn’t alone in the home. There’s something else with her–a Presence. And when the Presence appears, you have to hide. As mentioned before, Cassie is blind and finds her way around by echoes. When you tap something–when you make an echo–an otherwise dark room will be clear to you for a few seconds Or, if there’s something in the room that makes sound (EX: a ticking clock) you can see things using that echo. It’s about your relationship with the space, and you’ll familiarize yourself with it, Gardner said. If you make too much noise, the Presence could come out, so there’s a level of risk involved with using the echos which only adds to the constant suspense looming in this game. I can’t wait to play this game once it’s complete, because there aren’t many games–let alone demos–that got me feeling the same sense of dread and nervousness that you feel in Perception. As a horror game, Perception has already very much succeeded.

This game was Kickstarted in May 2015 and is currently available for pre-order on Steam. Gardner indicated that he was hopeful about an early 2017 release date, and hopefully, an eventual physical release date. There was a lot of time and love put into this game that you can see (or hear, rather) in every inch of this game. This was, by a large margin, the finest game I played at Boston FIG this year.

 

Tailwind: Prologue

tailwind

Tailwind: Prologue immediately stands out with its creative concept: It’s a shoot-em-up game being developed by Cipher Prime. Rather than being a typical shoot-em-up that relies on finding a sweet spot to shoot from and moving forward, Tailwind throws it all on its head by reversing everything: It’s a shoot-em-up about a falling ship that focuses on movement and melee attacks. The dev called it “An aerial ballet.” Gameplay was very tight and from the few minutes of this game I played, I could already tell it’s a very unique experience. Visuals were gorgeous, colorful, and minimalistic. As the dev explained, they took aesthetic inspiration from games like No Man’s Sky and Fire Watch. This game was originally a Humble Original exclusive during April. Unless you were lucky enough to get it then, there’s currently no other way to get it currently, however, the dev explained that they’re currently looking into ways to add a multiplayer option and campaign mode.

 

Inariinari

One of the most visual games I played, Inari is an upcoming mobile title devloped by Spectrum Studios about a fox god whose shrine is destroyed. When the shrine is destroyed, so is the light shard–which you must now find pieces of throughout the game. A very solid 2D platformer, the devs explained to me that they wanted to make a mobile game that was aesthetically appealing, had solid gameplay, and a good soundscape. There’s a particular focus on the beautiful soundtrack which was developed by Zhao Shen, who helped make this game all the more immersive. There aren’t that many immersive mobile games out there, the devs explained to me, so they wanted to make a mobile game that had that sense of freedom-as though you’re soaring–and immersion. When I tried the demo, sure enough, it was a very gorgeous game with a wonderful soundtrack, and although the gameplay was very basic, it was also very tight and very solidified. This game shows a lot of potential–especially now that mobile games are starting to become a much bigger market.  The game is currently in a private beta that’s still taking sign-ups, but if everything goes well, should be out in early 2017 or Spring.

 

Maze Racers

mazeracers

This was a pretty interesting game–it felt really finished, and honestly like a game that you’d find on the shelf of the board game section of a major retailer. Developed by FoxMind Games, Maze Racers is a simple game: Using pieces of foam and your board, create a maze for a ball to get from point A to point B that your opponent has to figure out. The board is magnetic and there are magnetic strips at the bottom of the foam pieces, so everything fits really well–additionally, you’re given a little cylinder the same width as the ball so you can make sure it fits. Once one person’s maze is done, your opponent has a minute to finish theirs before you switch. The first person who can solve their opponent’s maze by getting the ball from start to finish and back again is the winner. It was simple, creative, and like I said, already seemed very finished. The game is currently available for purchase on Amazon.

 

Dragoon

dragoon-game

I didn’t get to play a full round of this game because the festival was beginning to close down, but I played it long enough to know that I enjoyed it very much. I’m clearly not the only one who enjoyed it, because it’s won awards at FIG in the past–which immediately got my interest. Developed by Lay Waste Games, Dragoon is a 2-4 player game in which you play as a dragon trying to hoard treasure and take over villages and towns. A simple, but charming concept. Each round of turns has 3 phases: Populate, Action, and Tribute. During populate, new villages and towns up for the taking appear. During action, each player takes their turn–they can move, play cards to cause events, take gold, towns, and villages, etc. And during tribute, you and your fellow players collect the gold from your villages and towns. The first player to 50 gold wins.

There’s currently a special edition of the game up for pre-order now on the site that ships in October–it’s the version I played at FIG, and I’ll vouch: It’s a very well put together game. It seems like a game that would work very well if it were also mass produced and sold at major retailers since it’s very easy to jump into and have a lot of fun with.

 

My Verdict: The Best Games I Played

city

Although some games were better than others, I didn’t play any bad games at Boston FIG. Every game brought me some kind of enjoyment, and I left the festival very thankful for that. I had a great deal of fun at Boston FIG, and I’ll certainly try to come back to it next year as well. There were a great deal of game devs already at the festival, but I’d love to see this event become even bigger–perhaps getting so many devs that it becomes a 3-day event that requires a convention center–very akin to PAX East. I think it would work especially well that way because PAX focuses on triple A titles, and though there are plenty of indie games, yes, wouldn’t it be amazing to see an entire convention center of nothing but indie games? The festival seemed all too short, so if nothing else, I wish it had gone later into the evening than it did.

 

Favorite Video Game: Perception

The most realized, professional game I played at FIG, Perception seems like it will be a fantastic game once it’s complete. It’s creative, clever, suspenseful, and gives the player such an unparalleled sense of fear I haven’t felt from a game in quite a while. If you haven’t already been keeping an eye on it, you should be now.

 

Favorite Tabletop Game: Dragoon

Although I didn’t get to play it for long, it became immediately clear why this game is so beloved. It’s a very creative concept with solid rules and it’s really easy to have fun with. My only nitpick with it is that I wish it could host more than 4 players.

Furi – Intense Combat, A+ Soundtrack (Early Impressions)

OH MAN. Here we go, guys. Furi is a game where many of my favorite things intersect. First, you have a neon-dipped, fast-paced game based around satisfying controls and combat. Next up, a somewhat vague story driven by characters who sincerely kick ass, in more ways than one. And finally, to round out this list of things, a shorter list: a killer synth-based soundtrack with collector’s edition vinyl, and immensely difficult gameplay.

I should preface the rest of this review by saying that I’m not used to difficult games by any margin. I’m pretty sure Bloodborne and Hotline Miami rank among the hardest games I’ve played. I don’t know if that says anything about me as a person, but I like to take it easy in my games. You know, go along for the ride.

Furi is having none of that. Even during its tutorial level, Furi pushes gameplay that’s challenging to most people. The fights are long and frustrating at times, and my only qualm here is that a checkpoint after a boss has lost a certain amount of health, maybe two-thirds, would be nice. Furi offers an easier difficulty for those who don’t want to put up with the normal one, but you sacrifice the ability to earn achievements and unlock harder difficulties. You also lose the ability to unlock their speed run mode.

There’s something that keeps me coming back to Furi even as the difficulty ramps up. There’s no feeling quite like decimating a boss in their final stage without getting hit, and it’s something that comes with practice. Even in my limited play time so far, I can see myself improving. And we’ll get to that in a bit.

To set the scene, where I’m at, anyway, you’re an unnamed silent protagonist breaking out of prison with the help of some other unnamed dude wearing a purple bunny hood. To gain your freedom, “The jailer is the key. Kill him, and you’ll be free.” After every battle, you learn more about your guide, and about why you were locked up in the first place.

This boss features Carpenter Brut’s “You’re Mine”, composed for the game. (via PlayStation Blog)

Gameplay and Handling

If you’re going to make a boss-rush bullet hell game, you need to nail the responsiveness of your controls. And congratulations, The Game Bakers, you’ve done it. Moving around is satisfying, as it should be with twin-stick games. You have a parry which will heal you when successful, a slash attack, and a dash at your disposal to get yourself out of tight situations and inflict damage. Parrying an attack at the last second activates a “perfect parry”, which knocks the boss down.

There’s some advanced tech in the movements as well, where you can charge a slash while dashing to avoid enemy attacks.While I find a lot of these are situational, it’s pretty nice to know. Along with healing after a successful parry, there are green projectiles that turn into health orbs when shot. They’re few and far-between, and it can sometimes be riskier getting to them than staying put.

There are a couple mechanics which make the long fights more manageable. One which I find breaks up the monotony of endless dodging is that after knocking out a boss’s shields, combat shifts to a close-quarters fight. Additionally, when you take a full bar of life off a boss, your current one is entirely healed. Conversely, the boss gets this advantage as well, and if you fail in close-quarters, the boss heals up their shields, too. This is another area where I’m critical of the choice. It seems unfair sometimes, as parrying while in close-quarters or during the shield phase doesn’t heal all too much, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Between the bosses, there’s a fair amount of exposition. These are like walking simulators with some story and background. I’m not a huge fan of walking through them so slowly. The great thing here is that there’s an auto-walk option, so you can sit back and enjoy the cutscene leading up to the next boss.

There isn’t much but talking and walking. (via The Game Bakers)

Difficulty and Frustration Factor

While I’ve already covered how difficult the game is, I haven’t quite covered how infuriating some battles are. There’s a lot to watch out for, and a lot to focus on. Sometimes due to the colorful nature of the game, projectiles and ground attacks blur together. And while it makes for interesting visuals and some pretty hard stuff to dodge, unfortunately it makes it so I can’t sit for hours and work my way through. I can do 45 minutes at most without getting sloppy– dodging directly into damage, parrying poorly, and giving up too much of my precious life bar. And unfortunately there’s nothing I can do to combat this but get better at rushing the boss and taking breaks.

I don’t want to, though. I want to be able to sink hours into the game without tearing my hair out, and to prove to myself that not only can I get good, but I can actually withstand the difficulty a game puts in front of me without falling off in how effective I am at fighting. I feel like the real fight here is to not set the difficulty to an easier one. And trust me, that temptation is alive and kicking even as I write this.

Up close and personal with the first jailer. (via The Game Bakers)

Soundtrack

Despite all the shortcomings I have with difficult games, the one thing that keeps me going is the soundtrack. Initially I heard about the game browsing on YouTube. I can’t remember what led me there, but I saw a new track with Carpenter Brut’s name on it. I wasn’t a hard sell, Carpenter Brut is among one of my favorite synthwave artists. He sits among several others that are well-known for their music: Danger, Lorn, Scattle, and Kn1ght, to name a few. It’s available for purchase on Bandcamp (here!) as either a digital album or a collector’s edition vinyl, which is limited to a run of 800. Excuse me while I stare out my window and wait for it to arrive, please.

It’s worth the exorbitant shipping price, you gotta believe me. (Image via Bandcamp)

In Conclusion

If you enjoy difficult games, or even just a challenge, do yourself a favor and add this one to your collection. I can’t urge you enough, without being entirely repetitive, about how much you should play this game. Even if you have to do it on easy mode, do it. There’s no game I’d recommend more from this year so far.

Stardew Valley: A Better Harvest Moon Experience than Harvest Moon

The first game I had on the Gameboy Advance was Pokemon Ruby. For many months, it was also the only game I had on the Gameboy Advance. After I had thrown about 300 hours of my life into it I started to think, “Wow. Maybe I should look into getting another game or 2 for this.” Lucky for me, my best friend at the time had been playing this “Cool new game!” called Harvest Moon: More Friends in Mineral Town. Being only 11-years-old at the time, I thought it sounded stupid and I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around how she was having so much fun with it. That is, until I played it myself. It had a very addictive quality to it—there was so much to do and you wanted to do it all. I couldn’t put it down and at the time I never quite pieced together what about it made it so charming. That is, until I played Stardew Valley.

Stardew Valley is a country-life RPG/farming simulator game made by ConcernedApe (Eric Barone) back in February of this year. More than being simply Harvest Moon inspired, Barone has said in multiple interviews that the original idea for Stardew Valley was to be something like his perfect Harvest Moon game.

The inspiration taken from Harvest Moon is clear right from the start of the game, as it shares a similar premise to most in the franchise: You’re growing bored of modern life and you’ve suddenly inherited a farm. Now go be a farmer. The originality this game has it also clear from the beginning of the game, however, as it does something that no other Harvest Moon game does despite many fans wishing it: It allows you to customize your character entirely, which is a very nice touch and only deepens the feeling of this game being so personal.

Image Source: Game Informer

Perhaps the best thing about Stardew Valley is the freedom this game allows you. Although the game encourages you to be a farmer (by, well, giving you a farm) there are plenty of other options available to the player: Mining, fishing, forging, and adventuring, for instance. Right off the bat, this game sets you loose in a world with dozens of new things to try and in any order and for however long you please. This freedom ensures that no two players will play this game exactly in the same way and adds a layer of interest to this game and discussions on it. There’s no linearity in this game whatsoever: You do what you want when you want.  As for gameplay for these different activities, it’s kept very simple and minimal—as it should be in a relaxing game like this.

If the sense of freedom in Stardew Valley isn’t the best part of the game, then the characters are. The idea of Stardew Valley is, “You’ve moved into a farm in a small town. Make a living.” so naturally, making friends comes with that—you can even get married in this game. (And for bonus points, all the marriage candidates—both men and women—are available to you regardless of your gender) All the characters are written to be both incredibly unique and incredibly realistic. The more you talk to them and give them gifts, the friendlier they’ll be toward you (as measured by the hearts in the game’s menu) and their dialogue reflects that. All the characters have different events that can be triggered when they like you enough, as well.

The events are easily the next biggest highlight of this game—every character has very unique events, all which help you learn a lot more about the character. At the same time, all of the events seem pretty realistic, and like something you’d do with a friend in real life. Non-marriage candidates don’t have as many events as the potential marriage candidates, in fact some characters only have one event, leaving much to be desired in their character development. As characters grow to like you their dialogue will change to reflect this much more friendly atmosphere you now share with them, but that still only leaves the player starving for more time with them and to know more about them.

Image Source: Stardew Valley wiki

The only major problem in the character writing in this game comes from after you get married. After you get married, you can no longer get the other marriage candidates any farther than 8 (out of a possible 10) hearts full in the menu. (If it’s not already obvious, 10 meaning that you maxed them out.) Not only this, but if you want to give any of them gifts for any reason, including their birthday, your spouse—regardless of who it is, what day it is, of anything—will get angry.

Most of this games problems lie around the same area. As mentioned before, there’s a lot to do in Stardew Valley and you’re free to do it in any time and order you so please. That said, most of it can be completed within ~50-60 hours. It’s around that time, around the ~30-40 hour mark, that you’ll start feeling bored of the game since you’ve likely discovered all the surprises and events by the time. By this time, you probably know exactly what your favorite townspeople are gonna’ say on certain occasions. You’ve probably done most, if not all, of the achievements you wanted. You’ve probably tried everything this game has to offer by this time, and the game starts to lose its freshness very quickly.

Barone realizes that this is a common complaint with the game, though: Earlier this month, he announced that he’ll be working on patch 1.1 which will give you more dialogue with your spouse, create more events with non-marriage candidates (and even add 2 marriage candidates), add more secrets and surprises to the game, and even add a multiplayer version of which we still know nothing of. Arguably the most notable thing he said he was in the process of doing was getting a console release of Stardew Valley.

In the spirit of (most) Harvest Moon games and Animal Crossing (from which it also takes a lot of inspiration) Stardew Valley should absolutely be on a handheld console—more specifically the 3DS because the layout could be transferred easily (I imagine you can just put the menu and the backpack on the bottom screen). Being such a personal game, playing it on a hi-def TV with a PS4 would feel too grandiose for the modest and charming world of Stardew Valley.

Image Source: Steam Community

With having so much to do and total freedom in when and how you’ll do it, it’s no wonder that Stardew Valley is such an immersive and addictive game. It’s a game that you can play entirely how you want, and beyond being incredibly fun, is also incredibly relaxing. It’s major flaws come in its little late-game content and the occasional bug—usually nothing major, however, there has been multiple cases of people (including me) losing their save data on more than one occasion toward the game’s beginning. As long as you back up your saves though, this isn’t an issue.

As it was intended to be, this game truly feels like an improved Harvest Moon game–so much so that it shouldn’t be called a Harvest Moon game since they have many major things that set it apart. (EX: The lack of linearity and customization options Stardew Valley has) An incredibly solid, well-crafted game, and downright charming game, I’d give Stardew Valley an 8/10: Something I’d absolutely recommend to anyone who needs to relax for a bit or enjoys Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing-esque rpgs.

Pony Island: Not Your Typical Puzzler

Pony Island is an interesting little puzzle game. You find what seems like an old arcade machine with an AI that is alive in many respects. You’re greeted with a bubbly, happy splash screen. The AI speaks to you. It’s a setup that’s been seen before, in many games. And yet, this time it feels very different.

Ah, yes. Exactly what you’d expect! (Image from Indiegames.com)

The game starts out as a runner. You’re controlling a pony with the goal of just getting to the end. After a couple levels, though, Pony Island ramps up the satanism by a lot. And by that, I mean you become the herald for someone trapped in the game, trying to break free. Pony Island transitions into this section of the game very well. I think that for a game jam game like this, it pulls off getting into the meat of the game really well.

So, you’ve met this person via a chat interface inside this arcade machine’s computer. You’ve talked for a while. Another AI introduces itself, with seemingly more evil intentions than the first. Its main goal is to keep you in the game, to keep you playing. The first person says it’s due to errors in the game’s code, and that they’ll help you get to the faulty bits for you to fix them.

Coding looks exactly like this, I promise. Complete with ponies.
These puzzle sections are what you’re really getting at via the levels. (Image from Kotaku.)

As far as puzzles go, the coding is easy enough to figure out. There are certain tiles that will progress the cursor to the next line, to the previous line, move it between columns, or make it repeat from a certain point. The running sections are what’s difficult– turns out it’s kind of hard to focus on jumping, shooting a laser from a pony’s inorganically moving head, and dodge projectiles. Yes, sometimes all at once. This was my only frustration. It made it difficult to progress, and running through the same beginning section of one particular level was boring after the first fifteen attempts.

Pony Island doesn’t stand out in terms of gameplay. It’s very standard, and the puzzles have an interesting spin. I’d go so far as to say that while it is a video game, its main purpose was to be a medium to tell the story. As you play the game, you begin to realize that the AI with evil intentions is, spoilers, Literally Satan™. It’s designed the game to capture lost souls who may decide to play it, you included. It’s spent time reinventing the game and trying to draw in bigger crowds, even as you play. It breaks the fourth wall, but not in that awkward way that some other games would. For me, at least, it drew me in and kept me in. I didn’t even question the part where I killed Jesus.

Satanism, ho!
Yeah. It happened. (Image from Encyclopedia Dramatica.)

In summary, Pony Island is a really, really solid game, and probably one of my favorite indie titles to come out this year. While the indie scene was being overshadowed with Undertale stealing the spotlight for many Game of the Year awards, Pony Island managed to hold its own enough to garner some attention for a little while.