Category Archives: reviewlet

Reviewlet: Grandville

Last week Melmoth and I headed up to Birmingham for the International Comic Show, a definite highlight of which was Bryan Talbot’s Grandville. As well as the opportunity to pick up a hand-badgered copy, Bryan gave a talk on the book within the anthropomorphic tradition, starting with his original inspiration, a book of illustrations by Gerard who worked under the pseudonym of JJ Grandville. As well as old animal favourites like Beatrix Potter and Wind in the Willows characters, he covered some areas I wasn’t at all familiar with, like the early 20th century popularity of animal cartoons in tabloids, the Daily Mirror’s Tiger Tim being countered with Teddy Tail in the Daily Mail and then Rupert Bear in the Daily Express, the only one still going.

The setting for Grandville is a Steampunk version of Belle Epoque Paris, in a timeline where France won the Napoleonic War and England only recently regained independence. Our hero, Inspector LeBrock, can detect with the best of them, starting the adventure with some distinctly Holmesian deductions, but is also a man’s man (badger’s badger?) who’s popular with the ladies (sows?) and handy with his fists when needed, a bit like Daniel Craig’s Bond. An apparent suicide (in Nutwood, home village of Rupert Bear, whose father shows up in a couple of frames) leads to a deeper conspiracy, as these things do, and lots of fights, chases and a spot of “badger-on-badger action”, as the man put it.

Grandville is utterly gorgeous, as the preview images show, and packed with details. One frame is based on Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere (with a slightly different bartender), where our hero orders a Bass ale as seen in the bottom right corner of the original; the whole palette of the surrounding pages is then taken from that image. Another frame, in the apartment of an exotic badger dancer, takes the furnishings from a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt’s apartment. There are a few humans around as well, part of a menial underclass, including Spirou as a bell-boy and Becassine as a maid, long running European comic characters I wasn’t at all familiar with. There’s also a white terrier who may seem familiar to readers of Tintin, but Talbot cunningly conceals his true identity by naming him Snowy Milou.

If I was forced to criticise it in some way, perhaps at gunpoint, like if a slightly odd mugger leapt out brandishing a pistol and demanding comic book criticism instead of money, there are some slightly unsubtle political allegories, and the plot isn’t terribly original, but those are piffling trifles really, and overall I wouldn’t hesitate to award it the highly coveted KiaSA “Best Steampunk Graphic Novel With Badger Protagonist EVER” award.  It’s a fantastic setting, in many senses, so it’s splendid news that there’s already a sequel in the works, “Grandville Mon Amor”.  C’est tres bon!

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Braid

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.” So said The Doctor in Blink, but it might well have been Jonathan Blow talking about Braid, for it’s a very timey-wimey game.

Like Blueberry Garden, it starts off with the platform game staples of the cursor keys to move and space to jump. Unlike Blueberry Garden, it continues with the platform game staple of a wandering thing you have to jump over or stamp on the head of to avoid death, and ladders to climb, and moving platforms, and things to collect (pieces of jigsaw puzzles). Time starts going wibbly-wobbly the first time you die: press shift and time rewinds, enabling you to put right what once went wrong. It’s a little like having Quick Save/Quick Load keys that we’ve become accustomed to in many genres, but even better, a retrospective quick save where you decide after the fact where you saved the game. This changes the basic gameplay similar to the way Sky+/TiVo changes watching television; it’s remarkably convenient, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the platform.

I was hopping through the third world of Braid, enjoying the freedom that rewinding time gives you, not worrying that a slight slip would force you all the way back to the start of a level to re-do everything, when it began to annoy me. I just couldn’t see how to pick up certain jigsaw pieces, or how to kill a boss who needed five chandeliers dropping on his head when there were only two chandeliers available. I didn’t want to totally spoil things with a walkthrough, but a quick Google on “Braid hints” turned up a splendid page that understands that too much information would ruin the game, and just nudges you along. Literally one line was the hint I needed, I’d seen the glowing objects in the level, of course, but hadn’t twigged that they existed outside the timeline you control (the very first puzzle you have to solve depends on that property, but I thought it just applied to keys as opposed to all glowing objects). As soon as that clicked, the game transformed from “quite fun platform game” to “work of fiendish genius”, and you really have to start thinking in non-linear time. Subsequent worlds employ different mechanics; the one in which time moves forward when you go right, and backwards when you go left is a particular mind-bugger.

Braid is beautifully styled, with visuals like a painting. It even has a plot about, would you believe it, a lost princess; finish a world and, in a stunning turn of events, it turns out the princess isn’t in that castle. Just as the gameplay twists the standard Super Mario fare, though, so does the story, with books in lobby areas peeling back layers and looking at time, loss and regret. If that sounds a bit too arty for you, though, you can pretty much just ignore it and get on with the puzzles, or even the simple joy of rewinding time and going “beeeeoooowwwww!”

Braid ran perfectly smoothly on the laptop, and £9.99 is a more than reasonable price. It’s a very close-run race between Braid and World of Goo for “game of the pack”; I’d say World of Goo *just* edges it, but they’re both wonderful games that, in the world of ever-increasingly budgeted blockbusters, show there’s joy, innovation and real quality out there in indie-land. Two thumbs up, one of which travels into the past while the other remains in the present timeline.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Everyday Shooter

In some ways Everday Shooter is so Old Skool it would spell “Old School” properly; it’s a shooter in which your “ship” is a blob, on each level you fly around a single screen, you have three lives and die when you touch pretty much anything. In other ways it’s as much of an “art-game” as The Path; the author describes it as “…an album of games exploring the expressive power of abstract shooters. Dissolute sounds of destruction are replaced with guitar riffs harmonizing over an all-guitar soundtrack, while modulating shapes celebrate the flowing beauty of geometry.” The combination of the two works rather well.

You move your ship with the cursor keys and can fire in one of eight directions using WASD, or a combination thereof. True to being an “album of games”, you’re on each level for the duration of its background song with the objective of firstly surviving, and secondly scoring points by collecting blobs left behind after destroying certain enemies. Each level has a different “chaining mechanism” that enables you to cause much explosion-ism for great justice (and scoring opportunity). The points you earn, as well as being a simple measure of score, also allow you to purchase extras, such as more lives and graphical filters.

One of the real strengths of Everyday Shooter is that you can pick it up and play straight away, and put it down after five or ten minutes feeling like you’ve actually done something, a little like the golden age of arcades only without needing so many 10p coins, so it was ideal for a bit of holiday gaming. It ran well on the laptop, and at £5.99 is pretty reasonable. Overall, an eight-way shooting thumbs up.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Gish

Gish is yet another game featuring a 12-lb ball of tar as its hero. Honestly, developers, can’t you come up with something original? Here’s an idea just off the top of my head: there was a conflict around the middle of the 20th century, where most of the World had a War (for the 2nd time, as it goes), surely there’s scope for some kind of shooting-based game there? Anyway, at least there’s a twist to Gish that sets it apart from all the other tarball based games: you have a human ladyfriend who gets kidnapped, and you have to get her back!

You may not think a ball of tar is ideally equipped for such a rescue mission, lacking as it does opposable thumbs (any thumbs, in fact, not to mention hands, arms or limbs in general), but Gish has three rather handy abilities: he can extrude spines, enabling him to stick to surfaces, he can increase his density and he can become slick. This allows a variety of actions, such as sticking to, and climbing, walls and ceilings, smashing blocks and enemies, and sliding through narrow spaces.

Gish is a very kinetic game, there’s a real sense of movement in the character and its interactions; your default jump isn’t very high, but when you land you compress slightly, and if timed correctly and you jump again when compressed you jump a little higher, compressing more on landing, enabling you to build up to more impressive leaps. Gish also has a surprising amount of personality for a ball of tar with yellow eyes and fangs.

After a simple opening level introducing you to the basic control mechanisms and a fairly straightforward squish through some sewers, I started to get a little frustrated as the game got a bit trickier. I’d tend to get past sections with trial, error and random key mashing, die further on in the level, and have to re-do the earlier bits with more trial and error. I suspect I just need a bit more practise to get various techniques down and repeatable; it’s another game I hope to get back to with a bit more time (if only Steam did sales on Time). No technical problems on the laptop at all, it ran very smoothly, and very reasonable at £5.99. It even includes some player vs player modes like “sumo”, and “football” featuring opposing blobs of tar attempting to manoeuvre a football past the other side to score a touchdown, which look like they could be quite fun with a few people. Overall: a blobby tar thumbs up. Just please, developers, no more platform/puzzle games based around balls of tar with structural altering abilities! Here’s a tip: some fellow called Tolkien wrote an obscure book almost nobody’s heard of, I reckon a Game in which you Played a Role in that sort of setting could sell like hot cakes.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Blueberry Garden

Blueberry Garden won the Best Game prize of this year’s Independent Games Festival. It’s an “interactive fairytale” in which you control an odd en-beaked individual (possibly Raymond Luxury-Yacht, though there’s no guide to confirm whether it’s pronounced “Throatwobbler Mangrove”) on his travels around a hand-drawn world.

At first glance it seems a fairly conventional platform game, you move with the cursor keys and jump with space, but you soon get the feeling you’re not in Miner Willy’s Mansion or Vorticon VI any more, Toto, with the distinct lack of enemies you have to carefully jump over to avoid losing a life. In common with The Path, Blueberry Garden is about exploration and discovery, but where The Path is dark, disturbing and heavy on the death, Blueberry Garden is fresh, whimsical and much more interested in fruit (so far, at least; I’m presuming you don’t fall into an inescapable pit of doom and despair further into the game). Something else Blueberry Garden has in common with The Path is relatively high system requirements: a 2GHz dual-core processor and 256MB graphics card are suggested, and the laptop did struggle with it. The game was just about playable but slowdown and stuttering did spoil things slightly, so I didn’t fully explore the garden, though I did start to make a fairly impressive tower of a giant pencil, block of cheese and a tomato…

Again it’s not something I’d go out of my way to pick up, but if I had to go exploring and the choices were a nice garden with some blueberries or The Forest of Death and Blood (“is there a story behind that name?” “why yes, everyone who goes there dies of death and blood”), the garden would edge it, and at £3.99 it doesn’t even need to last two hours to achieve Sherbet Dip Dab hourly cost parity. Overall: a blueberry-stained thumbs up. If, of an evening, I’m tempted to plunge into the sound and fury of Angry Internet Man forum debates over the bitter controversy of the day, I might go and wander around Blueberry Garden for a while instead; I suspect it would be far better for the blood pressure.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: The Path

Difficult one, this. If I’d come to The Path totally cold I really don’t know what I would have made of it; as it is, there were several good articles and interesting debates over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun around the time of release. The Steam page says: “The Path is a game about growing, about changing, about making choices, about accepting the consequences of these choices. A game about playing, and failing, about embracing life, perhaps by accepting death.” I say: it’s not exactly a game, more an “interactive experience” or “downloadable installation piece” or “experiential user-controlled unstructured narrative conveyance” or perhaps “Neville”, if you prefer. Once again one of the RPS collective does it full justice in a Eurogamer review, and perhaps the key phrase I’d slightly out-of-context-edly extract from that is: “It’s totally no fun. It’s interesting, but there isn’t a fun bone in its mopey body.” Not really what I was after when unwinding of an evening; still, I fired it up for a bit of a wander around the forest, and hit something of a problem in that the laptop couldn’t cope very well and juddered through the introduction (the systems requirements do specify “no integrated graphics”). Turning all the graphics options down rendered it almost playable, but it still juddered and stuttered during interactions, which robbed any atmosphere that was building up. I’ll try and give it another go on my main PC sometime, perhaps at two in the morning when sleep deprivation is starting to kick in to give it more of an unreal vibe (not an Unreal vibe, though, I’m not sure a voiceover of “MULTI-KILL!” and “RAMPAGE!” would entirely be in keeping with the spirit of the game).

I’m glad something like The Path is out there, pushing boundaries, exploring the meaning of games n’ all that, but it’s not something I’d go out and buy, though £7.25 seems reasonable enough if it’s your bag. That’s one of the nice things about the multi-game pack, it gives you the opportunity to try things you wouldn’t normally bother with (even if only to confirm your preconceptions). Overall: the stuttering idea of a thumb in a forest at an indistinguishable angle.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Darwinia

In Darwinia you pitch up in a computer world under attack by a nasty red virus, and are tasked with helping its creator save the native Darwinians. It has strong RTS elements, but scales things down so you only control a few units, and increases your part in the action so that rather than just clicking your squad and clicking an enemy to get them to attack you directly control laser and grenade fire.

The prologue/tutorial is quite in-depth, introducing you to the various elements of the game, but I was somewhere towards the end of it when I had to shut down and couldn’t easily find a save option (might just be me, though). Next time I started it up the game crashed just after building a second unit (probably more to do with the crufty Windows install on the laptop than the game itself, it ran pretty smoothly with a couple of the options turned down), and with limited time I didn’t get back to it again. Still, from what I saw there’s plenty of game there for a most reasonable £5.99; it was released a couple of years back, and I remember PJ spoke most highly of it at the time. Another one I’m looking forward to returning to in a spare moment; an electronic thumb up, in between battling a virus.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Crayon Physics Deluxe

Crayon Physics Deluxe does exactly what it says on the tin: you draw stuff with Crayons, it’s subject to Physics, and it’s Deluxe. The object is to navigate a red ball into a star, and the method is with whatever you can draw: weights, ropes, pivots, hatstands, marmots, members of Alec Douglas-Home’s 1963 cabinet…

It’s a very well realised game, technically ran absolutely fine on the laptop, but it never quite clicked for me. I think I have two main shortcomings: a lack of crayon-based physical imagination, and a lack of drawing ability (not that you need to produce masterpieces, but even my blocks and rectangles were a bit wonky), which results in a combination of not really being sure how best to approach a level, and then having some difficulty executing those plans I do come up with (I just can’t get Reginald Maudling’s hair right). Perhaps the mouse is a bit of an obstacle, and either an iPhone version or some sort of graphics tablet would work a bit better with the central drawing motif of the game. At £15.99 it’s pretty expensive for an indie game, I don’t think I’d personally be too tempted at full price. Overall, a slightly ropey crayon drawing of a horizontal thumb.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: Mr Robot

Due to the unseasonal clemency of the British summer I didn’t get a chance to fully explore several games of the pack, so a few fairly brief impressions: “Just like that, ahh.” “Oooh, Betty.” And now a few brief thoughts on the games: Mr Robot is a charming isometric puzzler that, at a dramatically lower resolution and with fewer and more garish colours, could be from the 8-bit era (in a good way; Knight Lore and Alien 8 are quoted as inspirations). You’re a little service droid on a spaceship where the humans are in cryogenic storage, overseen by HEL 9000 the central AI. I’ve only played the first few screens (HEL 9000 still appears to be in full possession of its electronic faculties, and I don’t think it would be a massive spoiler to predict that might not last too long) so can’t make any grand pronouncements, I haven’t even collected any party members or seen the “Ghost Hack” abstract RPG, but it’s definitely a game I’m looking forward to getting back to. It ran absolutely fine on the laptop, and £5.99 for the whole game seems most reasonable. A provisional robotic thumbs up.

Indie Pack Reviewlet: World of Goo

Another not exactly first impression, as I bought World of Goo on the Wii back in January. One of the potential annoyances with packs of games is if you already own some of them, and although you can sometimes “gift” extra copies of games on Steam, that’s not the case with any of the indie pack. On top of Audiosurf if I already had the PC version of World of Goo, or it wasn’t a very good game, it might have raised the irritation level from “small piece of grit in shoe but only for a minute until an opportunity arose to sit down and empty shoe” to “small piece of grit in shoe but in circumstances where much walking is required and it would be considered rude to expose your be-socked feet to all and sundry like perhaps a guided tour of a large workplace with dignitaries”, but as it is I’ve been loving getting Goo-y again (as a metaphorical actress may or may not have said to an entirely hypothetical bishop).

Once again I’d direct you to John Walker’s lovely Eurogamer review for a full assessment of the game. I’d agree that the Wii version of the game ever so slightly shades the PC version by virtue of how well suited the Wiimote is to the control system (though the mouse has a slight edge for precision), plus support of up to four players simultaneously, but it’s the slimmest of differences, a mere few extra chocolate shavings atop the magnificent baked cheesecake of goodness that’s common between the two platforms.

Having finished the game on the Wii I didn’t compulsively play through the PC version, but it was always a joy to drop into for a quick level or two; apart from anything else it reminded me how great the music is, from the first joyous “pompompompompompom”, and being available from the author’s website you can even play through it in Audiosurf.

Technically, no problems at all, it ran absolutely smoothly on the laptop. It’s the most expensive of the pack at full price, £16.99, but well worth it. Three thumbs up, comprised of goo balls, floating on red balloons.