NYR: XNA on the Hombre

Realising I had the potential to finish a lot of games in a very short period of time I took a look at what was in my Xbox Indie Game selection and delved into whatever looked like it would only take me two to four hours to finish – either because there was not much left to do or because it was a nice bite-size game.

I went through four titles in about two weeks: Asteroids do Concern Me, Miner Dig Deep, Brand and Light’s End.

To be honest I could probably write whole articles on at least two of these so expect this one to be fairly long. Shit, I’ve just lost about 50% of my audience with that statement; better divide this up into chapters.

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Asteroids Do Concern Me 

I think I may have drunkenly purchased this purely because of its name and then never played it. I’ve no idea when I picked it up (most likely in 2010 when it was released -Ed) or how much it cost me (80 Microsoft Points – Ed) but it was a delightful little distraction for the thirty minutes I spent with it. The game is a Jetpack Joyridestyle game in which you use one button to keep your vehicle buoyant, boosting past hurtling asteroids in your quest to collect points. In addition to this no-nonsense game there is a hilarious story mode narrated with some tongue-in-cheek aplomb; it has something to do with a space hero taking on a sentient super-computer. The story-mode alone was worth it but the additional hardcore challenges were the icing on the cake.

Brand XBLIG

Brand

Again I have no idea why I own this but I do remember at least booting it up and enjoying it for about twenty minutes before hitting an extremely nasty difficulty increase that made me abandon any further attempts. Brand is a Castlevania clone; there is a world map to navigate and an increasingly difficult host of monsters (represented by palette swaps and only four different character models) to deal with as you delve deeper. The controls feel a little clunky with the main character possessing light, hard and dash attacks which don’t always feel like they connect properly.

What sets Brand apart is its premise. You are given a simple sword that you must enhance using either an alchemist, wizard or blacksmith; each refinement requires you to complete missions, be it killing a certain number of enemies or finding a specific enemy. On completion you leave the dungeon and then apply the buff or special ability. Special abilities will combine to create fusion attacks that are not apparent until you stumble across them. For example, you can elect to upgrade your sword to create a wall of fire, and if you also have the ability to also cause random critical hits then the firewall will turn into a nuclear explosion that is devastating.

The game also shares the feel of Dark Souls in that if you appreciate the mechanics you will come to realise that the attacks aren’t clumsy but very deliberate. You are not allowed to just strike an infinite amount of times to kill enemies but must time attacks specifically and learn how long they take to cool down. The more you level up your weapon the more you level up as a player.

The final catch is that you cannot upgrade indefinitely and once your sword reaches a certain level you must then attempt a series of challenges to see if it is good enough. If you fail you get to name the sword and can retry the final challenge as many times as you want. The replay value comes from realising which combinations work and which upgrades work best for your desired tactic.

This flitting of tactics between micro (how to defeat the next enemy) to the macro (how to make sure that your sword is sufficiently competent to tackle the final challenge) is well-balanced and makes Brand worth a punt.

Light's End XBLIG

Light’s End 

Light’s End was bought during my initial enthusiasm for Xbox LIVE Indie Games. I remember talking to Dylan about this before Arcadian Rhythms even existed.

The game is a very simple one with the main trick being that you switch between different characters to advance the story. This mechanic is a main plot point as well; the story behind it is that you are a soul which can possess and control anyone you find yourself in.

About three years ago I started playing it at some random point in the middle of the night and only made it into the first couple of screens. The problem was that the first couple of characters introduced – Crystal and her father – are utterly irritating and seem to be written by a Point Horror novelist (am I showing my age? Do Point Horror books even still exist?). There is also a rather clumsy omnipresent narrator, apparently attempting to make us ask questions about fate and choices.

I am happy to say that it does get better after those few screens. For one, there is a great deal of dialogue written in terms of which particular person is talking to another and it becomes interesting to use different people to interact with the NPCs – although that does not feel like the correct term for these characters as everyone you encounter is playable. There are also some interesting points where the player is prompted to manipulate events through forcing certain people, who wouldn’t otherwise interact, to talk to each other and therefore turn events in your favour. This is a much better way of exploring the themes of the game than an overbearing narrator and it did make me pause to think.

The art style might actually be the game’s undoing. I found it charming in its made-in-Paint-badly manner and after an hour or so I looked past it and noticed things like the little flashes of personality in the way a beggar walked. Others are going to find it intolerable, to the point of it making the game unplayable. For those who persevere there is enough here to appreciate.

Miner Dig Deep XBLIG

Miner Dig Deep 

Like Light’s End I bought Miner Dig Deep as my early enthusiasm for the Xbox LIVE Indie Game scene emerged. I recall one Christmas involving nothing but Corona, Gears of War horde mode, blended Christmas dinner and Miner Dig Deep.

It is probably among the happiest two days of my life.

If Miner Dig Deep had represented what all games on XBLIG would turn out to be then the service would have been amazing (though make no mistake there are still some phenomenal offerings on there, including anything by Radiangames).

The game’s premise is simple: you are a Miner and you have to dig and dig deep. On your way to digging deeper you must collect ore and then return to the surface and spend it on oil for your lamp and upgrades to improve your digging and exploring capabilities. The power that the player wields is best described as a bell curve.

In the beginning you have a rubbish pickaxe and a lamp that barely illuminates anything underground and rapidly runs out. You learn that you can get yourself completely stuck by digging more than two segments down (the height that your miner can jump) without giving yourself a proper exit strategy; do that and you will have to recall your player to the surface and lose all the ore you collected. You learn the lethality of falling boulders (if you die you are returned to the surface without all of the collected ore and a little ‘oh no!’ yelp) and the danger of remaining underground without light and enough space in your bag.

The initial thrill of returning to the surface with a thousand gold to spend on ladders (which allow you climb out of pits when placed) and other upgrades will give way as you learn that excavating the earth too much in one area will cause a cave-in and possibly kill you, forcing your little Miner further into the ground for better resources. You will find yourself needing larger satchels and better lamps with a larger light radius to venture further into the depths. Soon you will have the ability to drop mine shafts that will allow you to travel hundreds of meters up or down in the space of seconds. As your little man’s capabilities increase so do the subtle challenges like invisible sinkholes, permafrost and ever-harder soil.

Every time you feel like you have learnt everything there is to know about Miner Dig Deep it reveals something else and with every enabler (grappling hooks, drills) the game just gets a little harder until, in the final segments, it starts taking those advantages away.

The shift between the upbeat music of the surface and the cheerful but somehow isolating tunes of the underground perfectly encompasses this brilliant game of exploration. The best part? There is no killing; the verbs are destructive but wield them too much, become too greedy and go further than you are really capable and the game will punish you. This is a game about patience and understanding when to apply restraint.

I could carry on writing about Miner Dig Deep but really I am wasting your time now. Best Xbox LIVE Indie Game? Definitely. One of the best games on this generation of consoles? For sure.

To say this is a masterpiece is not an understatement and I advise everyone get this game now.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this round-up, please take a look at some of the rest of the New Year’s Resolution series.