Mar 30, 2012

Traitor and the ethics of treason

Traitor sounds like such a dirty word, I know, but the dialectics of treason are, quite simply, not that simple. Take the most obvious of examples: would a person who betrayed the Nazis have to live with the stigma of the turn-cloak or be considered a hero? And is treason against a brutal regime an act of courage or cowardice? Are people entitled to ever changing their minds? Should believing in the rights of one's nation ever justify genocide?

Interesting questions indeed, and what better way to start answering them than with the help of a freeware shoot-'em-up that can be enjoyed in the comfort of your browser? No, really, I'm being serious here. Play Traitor, the shmup that Jonas Kyratzes released a few days ago, and get thinking.  Oh, and, just in case you were wondering, it's another brilliant offering and a testament to the good dev's ability to make fantastic games regardless of genre; thus a great shmup.

Now, should I actually go on and mention the open structure of the gameworld, the multitude of available upgrades, the lovably glowing graphics, the sheer size of the game offer and the brilliant plot, or let you find out for yourself reader? Guess you're old enough. Find out for yourself.

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Mar 29, 2012

A Resonance Preview

Having thrown a humbly point-and-clickable party after finding out about the imminent release of Resonance, I couldn't help but restlessly wait for the first bits and bytes of playable code. Vince Twelve, the game's designer, had after all advised me against revisiting the old demo, as it apparently had been surpassed on every conceivable level. Judging by the simple fact that said demo was quite an impressive offering the bar was raised quite a bit. And then, after much restless walking up and down, the new press-demo for Resonance was released.

Was it good? Did it live up to my expectations? Was Vince correct? All I can say is that you simply can't imagine how good this game actually is. Resonance blew me away, and if the rest of the game fulfills the preview code's promises, I'm confident it will soon be considered as one of the great adventure games and a worthy addition to Wadjet Eye Games' line-up of such gems as Gemini Rue and the Blackwell series.

Let's start off with the basics though. Resonance is an indie point-and-click adventure, with full voice-over, pixel-art graphics and a plot that goes a bit like this (and I quote the xii games site):

A particle physicist’s mysterious and spectacular death sparks a race to find his hidden vault and claim his terrifying new discovery. The player will take control of four characters whose lives become entangled in the search for the scientist’s vault. They will have to learn to trust each other and work together to overcome the obstacles in their way and to keep this new and powerful technology out of the hands of a dangerous organization.

An interesting plot indeed, but do trust me when I say that things feel way more involved and sinister when you actually play through the game. The characters are excellently written and realistically motivated, the story isn't afraid to cinematically travel back and forth in time and the game world feels both ominous and incredibly detailed.

What's more, this is one of those rare games that aren't afraid to tax the player and help with the development of them latent lateral thinking skills. Three inventories (a proper one, a short term memory one and another one for long term memories), four playable characters and some tough yet fair and excellently designed puzzles make for some truly rewarding aha! moments and for some innovative adventuring with classic elements.

The brilliant interface and the wise difficulty curve, along with some of the very best and richly animated pixel-art graphics, a wonderful soundtrack, a subtly disturbing atmosphere and impressive ammounts of polish, make Resonance one of the most promising adventures in years. Oh, and this is bound to be a pretty huge offering too. Finishing the supposedly short demo took me more than three hours...

Watch this space for the, surely glowing, review. It's bound to appear pretty soon.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Mar 28, 2012

The Sea Will Claim Everything

Game designer and writer Jonas Kyratzes, artist Verena Kyratzes and musician Chris Christodoulou had apparently been working on The Sea Will Claim Everything for quite some time, and, though their spectacular looking game hasn't been released yet, it has most definitely been announced. Consequently, I am more than excited. This will after all be the most ambitious Lands of Dream game ever released; also, the first commercial game by Jonas.

Expect further details and maybe even a preview relatively soon, but know that there's a ton of info and some stunningly beautiful screenshots already available over here. Ah, yes, the not so traditional feature list:

  • Explore the Isle of the Sun, the Isle of the Moon and the Isle of the Stars! 
  • Travel the seas! 
  • Wander through more than one hundred beautifully-drawn locations! 
  • Find thousands of tiny details! 
  • Listen to a beautiful, original score! 
  • Meet the many strange inhabitants of the Fortunate Isles, from the pirate octopus to the philosopher-lizard! 
  • Experience the pleasure of having a mouse in your inventory! 
  • Collect ingredients and create many strange potions! 
  • Help a living house heal itself! 
  • Oppose the machinations of Lord Urizen! 
  • Click on things! 
  • Find ancient treasures! 
  • Learn how to use druidic biotechnology! 
  • Read! 
  • Yes, read! 
  • Walls of text await you!

Mar 27, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

It was either 1991 or 1992 when I got my first CD-ROM. It came bundled in one of those Multimedia PC (anyone else remember the MPC standard?) kits Creative Labs used to put together, and was accompanied by a Soundblaster Pro and some CDs. Needless to say, I was blown away. Never thought a humble 286 PC could pull off such amazing feats. Besides, ignoring the dull edutainment and encyclopedic software on offer, the thing came with a pretty impressive game: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

It was a game designed and developed by adventure maestros and brave innovators Icom; the same team responsible for some of the earliest and definitely more ground-breaking attempts at a point-and-click interface. But where Deja Vu and Shadowgate innovated by evolving text-adventures, Sherlock Holmes was both a technological marvel and an altogether new way at enjoying narrative heavy gaming. It also was the very first FMV offering I had ever played and it simply amazed me. It even fooled my young self in believing that games with video in them were the future.

Then again and to my defense, Sherlock Holmes, despite its 256-colours limitations and ancient compression technology, sported real actors, solid writing and proper-looking sets. Come to think of it, it was probably among those select five FMV games mankind doesn't have to be ashamed of. What's more, it played excellently and quite a bit like a board game. It even featured three unique cases to solve; all of them fondly remembered.

Now, to the news. The good news! Well the good news is that zojoi, a team headed by Dave Marsh of Icom fame, is attempting to actually bring back the entire Sherlock Holmes series (all nine episodes of it) complete with remastered videos, new interfaces and -if things go really well- even new footage. It will be bringing them back to the PC and Mac, but also on mobile platforms, provided of course we all help out a bit with its Sherlockian Kickstarter. Here's the pitch video to get you all excited and sleuth-y:

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Mar 23, 2012

Wing Commander Saga Released

The time for all stary-eyed space heroes has arrived! Wing Commander Saga, the excellent fan remake I raved about a few posts ago and the space-sim that Rock Paper Shotgun brilliantly reviewed only yesterday, has finally been released. Head over to immediately and grab the best simulation of battling space cats in, err, space of the decade. It's absolutely freeware, massive and downright impressive. Oh, and if you, like me, can secure some sort of joystick you'll spend the next 20 or so hours in gaming heaven.

Mar 20, 2012

Waveform Review

Waveform, the soothing indie game I previewed some time ago, is an elegant and incredibly simple to play offering that has just been released for the PC (with a little help from Steam), though I'm pretty sure it would make a killing over at them touch-based mobile devices. Now, don't take this wrong reader; I don't consider Waveform simplistic or shallow - far from it. I'm just pretty confident its unique game mechanics would greatly benefit from touch controls.

Anyway. On to the game proper. Waveform has you using the mouse to control the wavelength and amplitude of a light wave that looks and behaves suspiciously close to a sine wave. Moving your mouse cursor right or left will modify the former and up or down the latter, thus hopefully plotting a route that will help your circular avatar thingy avoid obstacles and grab a ton of points. It's this simple really or, as some would wisely point out, a triumph of minimalist design.

Happily, said simplicity doesn't mean that the game is boring. It means instead that this is one traditionally easy to learn yet hard to master offering. Also one that actually affords gradually building up its complexity with a steady introduction of new gameplay elements, new mechanics, new enemies and new ways to treating them, meaning that you will definitely have something fresh to look forward to every few levels. And there's over 100 well designed of them.

Not all is perfect though. Especially as things get more hectic the controls can feel a tad unresponsive. Oh, and despite the variety on offer and even them hidden levels, said things can actually get repetitive, especially when you are frantically trying to play through the game for a review... Then again, and in what can only be considered a showcase of spontaneous dialects, it remains both fun and addictive; a bit like Tetris actually. What's more, Waveform is indeed something one has to definitely try in order to experience an oddly relaxing yet essentially arcade game. 

As for the game's graphics, well, they are all spacey and slightly psychedelic and nice, and help that overall feel of a properly polished game. As, of course, does Waveform's amazing soundtrack. And the ton of little touches, black hole levels, achievements and extras that the devs have kindly packed in this rather lovely and bravely original game.

Verdict: A refreshing and actually successful attempt at a spectacularly innovative arcade game. Definitely worth a try, if only to experience how something truly new feels like.

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Mar 19, 2012

The Journey Down interview

SkyGoblin is much more than a brilliant name; it's a brilliantly named indie adventure-loving ensemble that has already given us one stunning freeware game, is frantically working on The Journey Down (HD) and is apparently more than capable of coming up (and -importantly- masterfully realizing) unique ideas. Here's the interview with multi-tasking artist, developer and producer Theodor Waern:

Let's start with the basics, shall we? Who are the people responsible for SkyGoblin? And why SkyGoblin?

We are two artists (me and Henrik), and two programmers, Mathias and Markus. We've been making games together as a group for over six years now. Me and Mathias have been fooling around with games together pretty much our entire life though. As a group we've built a bunch of different things. Our major project the past three years or so though has been our free-to-play mmo "nordgame". But we've also worked on a bunch of smaller advergames etc. to stay afloat commercially.

In the beginning of our time together as a group we were actually, for a short period, focused on making mobile games. Among them, we made (but never finished) an awesome little game called Baron's Gold. The premise was that a bunch of nasty sky-living Goblins had stolen the flying baron's loot, and you had to get it all back. This is from where the name SKYGOBLIN stems.

I take it you are adventure lovers that will be focused on adventures. Am I correct? Are there any non-adventuring projects waiting to be hatched?

We love games, but we also love stories. I think this is why we have a bias toward working on adventure games. They are simply a great mix of everything we love to work with. As for future projects though, I see no reason why we couldn't venture into all sorts of genres. We love gameplay design and have a lot of strange ideas we'd love to try out if we were given the opportunity.

The already brilliant visuals of the freeware version.

On to The Journey Down then; the original, freeware release. How would you describe it?

I'd describe it as a good flowing adventure that leaves a warm feeling of friendlyness and a thick feeling of there being something bigger and more sinister going on under the surface.

What were you aiming for?

Well, I aimed on making a game that featured all of the good things from the "golden era of point 'n' click" and none of the bad. People often have rose tinted memories of their old favorite games from back in the day. Fact is, they weren't perfect. They had tons of flaws. To be frank, the genre was still not really thought-through. Unintuitive interactions and illogical solutions were everywhere to be found. I like to think I pretty much succeeded in weeding out those issues and instead focused on those core things that truly make the genre fun.

Also, one of my primary goals in making the game was making a game that I would love to produce. And boy did I love to produce TJD.

Did you expect its overwhelming critical success and all those awards?

After having done quite a lot of testing on a rather large bunch of people, I knew I had something good going that worked on people in general and seemed to strike the right chords. I had certainly hoped to win some of those awards, but hadn't deared wish for that many.

Why did you decide to go with an African aesthetic?

I was raised in a home full of African masks and musical instruments, it has been with me all my life and it is something I've always wanted to explore. Besides it looks cool and has for some reason not really been featured that much in games.

The 2D beauty of the HD remake. 

What are you the happiest with? Is it the lovely graphics? The plot? The music? The dialog? The puzzles?

To me the greatest experience a game can give you is its ambiance -the vibe you get from playing a game. I am very happy with the vibe of TJD. Needless to say, the vibe is a result of everything combined. As an artist I was never really happy seeing my art mashed-up and go low-res the way it did in the original. Also, me making nice art was not news to me, me making good puzzles and story, this was something new. Also me actually producing the whole thing is something I'm very happy with. I will never again under-estimate the title "producer". It's easy to think of this as the role of someone who doesn't do any of the real work. But fact is, the producer is the one who makes sure it actually gets done. Needless to say, that's pretty important.

And why did you decide to go with a commercial remake?

Lots of reasons. My primary reason though was that I realized I desperately needed to turn TJD into my day job if I was ever going to find the time to actually keep on working on it. In becoming a father, my free time for working on hobby projects has now dwindled down to a steady zero hours per day. Making chapter two commercial was a no-go, there's way too little following. I figured the only way to make this work was to revamp chapter one on a bigger scale. Make it more accessible and raise the appeal further. More platforms, speech and more puzzles all add up to a better game, reaching a bigger audience. Hopefully we can make chapter one work commercially, so I can continue doing chapter two as my day job. If not, I'm just going to have to keep it tiny, and work on it on my own, which clearly works, but will wind up being crummier, and take five more years instead of the rough half-year I expect it to take if being produced here, at SKYGOBLIN.

What's new in the, uhm, new The Journey Down?

Most importantly, speech. It adds a TON of ambiance and depth to the characters. I'm not against reading, but theres's no way text can portray emotion the way a real voice actor can. It makes a huge differece in bonding with the characters. Secondly I'd say story. We've added quite a lot of backstory and new characters, puzzles and locations to make the game a longer, fuller experience that really does make the game worth playing even if you've already played the original. On third place I'd say the HD art. I personally -having painted it all- love finally seeing my background art the way I intended it to be. Sure, the original 320 resolution is cute and retro-y and all, but it still doesn't really do the artwork justice. Finally you can see all the detail and effort that has actually gone into creating this world. On top of that we have re-animated all characters 100% which also makes a huge difference. The original animations were desperate at best and I never really felt they were on par with the rest of the production. Now they are.

When should we expect it?

Depending on when our different distribution channels get a move on, my current guess is mid April, for the PC and Mac release. iOS and Android will follow some time during summer.

It's still episodic isn't it? How many chapters should we expect?

Yeah, this is still only the first chapter of four. It starts and ends where the original does, but we've squeezed lots o' new stuff in between.

Impressively and besides the PC, you are (as mentioned) also releasing it for Mac, iOS and Android. A wise choice indeed, but how difficult is actually porting the game over?

Fortunately we made the decision quite early in the process to make an effort to get the game out on as many platforms as possible. Having this in mind, we built our engine, Gobby, around this very premise. This has (so far) made the effort relatively pain-free. Getting it running on Mac was pretty much a piece of cake. Our Mac build is currently as up to date as our PC build and frankly also seems a bit more stable, for some reason.

Our main challenges on handheld so far have actually rather been interaction-wise. Some handsets are TINY, which has forced us to re-design quite a lot of hotspots and puzzles, to ensure that the player will actually be able to perform the desired interactions. I don't doubt for a second though that we will hit all sorts of technical obstacles before we actually have the iOS and Android builds up and running 100%, but all in all it is looking very promising. One potentially scary thing is performance though. One would think that a 2d point 'n' click title would be relatively non-demanding but with TJD this isn't really the case. We have tons of frames, lots and lots and lots of frames of animation that all need to be loaded into memory, fast. Getting that flow smoothly on all devices will no doubts be a challenge.

Do you feel that mobile platforms are well-suited to adventures?

Certainly. But the games need to be built for it to suit the format. Honestly, with a well designed UI, I have a hard time imagining any format working better for point 'n' clicks than tablets.

And what about the general state of adventure gaming? There's a renaissance going on, isn't there?

It certainly seems like it. With the sudden boom of affordable tablets and other handheld gaming devices, point 'n' clicks and similar puzzlers are bound to start flourishing again. Also, Android Market and the App Store are ideal places for small studios to launch experimental, high-risk games without having to bother with publishers, which at least in theory should allow for more interesting and quirky titles to reach the masses. If they'll (we'll) manage to get anything sold though, is a different matter entirely.

Also, Double Fine certainly put pnc's back in the spotlight again with their Kickstarter campaign, proving that there are indeed tons of people out there who are craving these kind of games. How us noname developers tap into that market though is anyone's guess. Being seen is incredibly difficult.

Finally and to let you work on actually crafting games, what does the future hold for SkyGoblin?

Hopefully our near future holds a successfull launch of chapter one of TJD, followed by us immediately getting down and dirty with the actual implementation of chapter two. We actually have quite a lot of chapter two worked out, it just hasn't been... produced. Frankly I hope to pretty much be able to focus on TJD until we finally wrap the whole thing up, but odds are we will have to break off a little now and then and work on other projects to keep us afloat. Financially solely living off of TJD seems pretty unlikely. Don't get me wrong, I expect people who play the game to love it. That however doesn't mean we will be able to reach out and make enough sales to live off of it during the entire production. Such is the tough world of self publishing. So likely we will be doing all sorts of haphazard contract jobs in between, somehow patching our economy together, as we have the past five years or so. We are used to it by now. Zero security, but it allows us to work with what we love.

After TJD, who knows? We have a million ideas and would love to see them all realized. Which one we end up playing with is too early to speculate about at this stage. It's pretty safe to say though that it wont directly involve mask-clad rasta people.

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Mar 16, 2012

Wing Commander Saga - Preview & Interview

My Wing Commander memories mainly involve scheming. Well, scheming and fighting exciting space-battles while daydreaming the way only a space-opera can force (male) teenagers to daydream, but mainly scheming. Getting the original game, installing a Soundblaster Pro, accessing the Secret Mission packs, being given a copy of Wing Commander II and eventually even upgrading to a 386SX wasn't that easy. Not for a kid my age. Not without scheming. And begging, and pleading too of course, but mainly scheming. I even considered believing in Santa Claus for a moment, but, no, it was scheming that allowed me to experience Wing Commander in its almost full glory.

But, I do believe that's enough on my early teen years, as the future of the mostly ignored space fighter sim genre is actually looking much brighter. The indie, freeware project that's been going on for the past decade and will most definitely revive the Wing Commander universe, Wing Commander Saga, will very soon be made available. How soon? Watch this impressive trailer and you'll know:

Pretty fantastic, innit? And you should know by now that it's only a few days away. Then again you should (but, frankly, couldn't) also know that I've been playing with the almost final version of the game for the past few days and am more than enthralled by it. I do believe my jaw actually dropped a couple of times too.

Wing Commander Saga, you see, is so much more than a simple fan remake. It is a polished, feature-heavy, brilliantly designed behemoth of a game, that could have easily been a commercial release. The game does after all sport over 50 missions, 2 campaigns, 60 voice actors, dozens of Terran and Kilrathi spaceships and roughly 70 cutscenes. And some massive battles involving proper fleets.

What's more and despite using the smart but relatively ageing Freespace 2 engine, the game looks absolutely stunning and should run smoothly on any PC. The high-res models, the beautiful star-fields, those glorious nebulae and an inspired art direction make Wing Commander Saga's space battles the most spectacular of the series. Happily they play excellently too, even if you (like me) eschew the more traditional joystick in favour of keyboard controls. Everything you knew and loved is there in its evolved and refined version: travelling from nav-point to nav-point, on the fly changing of weapons configurations, deploying decoys, giving orders to your wingmen; the lot. You'll even be able to transfer power between shields, weapons and engines à la X-Wing.

As for the missions themselves they cover everything from patrolling and escorting to attacking and defending, and are masterfully scripted, story driven and, for lack of a better word, incredibly fun. Fun enough to keep me playing for a disturbing number of hours. To my defense, destroying Kilrathi hasn't felt this good in ages, and as the game is set some time* before the events of Wing Commander 3 you'll be getting a lot of that, all wrapped-up in a lovely plot and supported by an equally lovely soundtrack. (* Update: The prologue takes place roughly 6 months before the events in Wing Commander 3 while the main campaign begins right before Wing Commander 3 and concludes with the ending of the Terran-Kilrathi War.)

Enough with what I thought about Wing Commander Saga though. It's pretty obvious I loved it and so will you the moment it gets released (most probably here). For now let creator and founder of the project Anton (a.k.a. Tolwyn) further enlighten you via this handy interview:

What is Wing Commander Saga?

Wing Commander Saga: The Darkest Dawn is a space flight simulator game, which recreates the vast universe of the famed Wing Commander series. Just like the original games, WC Saga offers a compelling mixture of sci-fi and World War II history, all told through the perspective of a skilled pilot that the player can relate to. We created a highly immersive plot line grounded in the Wing Commander universe which offers compelling characters in thought provoking situations - the very thing that Chris Roberts and his team did so successfully with Wing Commander.

How long did you spend on creating this shining behemoth of a space battles sim?

It is kind of odd to think that it took us exactly 10 years (to the day) to complete the project. It has been a wild and bumpy ride. The project had been pushed back several times over the years because we kept adding new features to the product or refining existing assets. Right now, I am looking back and am amazed at how far we have come - it is a great feeling to see this thing I have been envisioning all these years finally take form.

Weren't you afraid of such a herculean task?

We quickly learned that the process of creating a computer game is much more difficult than we initially thought. The project kept growing because we wanted gamers to experience a wide variety of missions while staying true to the feeling of Wing Commander. There was an intense desire to keep adding new elements, assets & features, which was very seductive. Many of the features we added (like the autopilot) were really great ideas too, so we did not want to let those go. The end result should be highly enjoyable for the players, and that's the audience we need to please.

Click for a more detailed look at the game's HUD.

Care to introduce us to the team?

The team behind Wing Commander Saga was small from the start, but what we lacked in numbers we made up for in dedication and talent. These guys really stretched their creative muscles and put in ridiculous hours to make sure that this project stayed true to the Wing Commander canon and spirit (although we may have taken some artistic license here or there) and made it out of my dreams and into reality. I've worked with some people who were easy to get along with, some others who were more difficult. We've been through hard times, through tough times, but we've all kept together--because we love Wing Commander and have produced WC Saga as a celebration of a great series.

What would you say is the most impressive feature of Wing Commander Saga?

Features don't make games great. What makes them great is the love poured into them, great game dynamics, and solid storytelling--and we've done our best to make sure Wing Commander Saga has all of that. We, as designers, wanted to ensure that the entire experience is exciting: the game makes you feel that you are not just watching the action but actually stepping into the role and experiencing what it is like to be Sandman.

How well does it tie in with the original Wing Commander series?

It should tie in very well storywise. It has several references to the old series, to novels, to other stuff about the Wing Commander universe. Our approach to game design draws mostly upon elements from Wing Commander, but we also analyzed other great titles like Freespace and the X-Wing series. We have tried to learn from all of these sources about what makes for action packed and diversified mission design and I can see that it's really making a difference. I feel that the final product will be great. For example, sizeable fleet battles are things that WC fans have largely only been able to read about, or have inferred in the games... until Wing Commander Saga. The largest fleet action-type battles you have actually been able to play until now were in Wing Commander: Prophecy, and the fan project Wing Commander: Standoff deserves props for taking Prophecy’s engine and putting together some good fleet action.

What does the future hold? Any future projects we should be looking out for?

It's been a fantastic experience to create something in homage of a great series. A big thank you has to go to our fans for their extreme patience over the long development period, as well as to Chris Roberts, Origin, and EA for their generosity in allowing Saga and other Wing Commander fan projects to be released and distributed.

Pulling off something like this is a lifetime achievement. We couldn't easily repeat it, nor would we want to. But who knows, maybe we will start developing a new indie game very soon.

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Mar 15, 2012

Play SF issue #1

It did face a few delaying difficulties, but the first issue of Play SF has finally been made available and science fiction gaming is ready to celebrate; apparently strike back too. Now, you could stay here and read my previous post on this lovely gaming magazine or sit around while I go on and mention that the mag looks stunning and covers everything from X-Wing and X3: Albion Prelude to Star Wars Galaxies and Tribes: Ascend, but I do believe it would be much wiser to have a look at the preview of the mag instead. 

Better yet buy yourself a copy (or even subscribe for six issues) reader.  It's a pretty excellent offering really and a novel idea expertly realized.

Mar 14, 2012

Waves: the calm review

It's been over a week since the last time I loaded Waves and did thus have all the time one could ask for to calmly look back at the game. Hadn't I been so wise in my decision to wait before writing this review all I'd be able to come up with would be something along the lines of best game ever, which would frankly be silly. Or at least over the top. Monkey Island 2 hasn't been bested yet. Neither has Manic Miner.

Besides, I can see clearer now. The destructive addiction is most probably over and I have even stopped dreaming of glowing platonic shapes. I will thus say that Waves is merely the best twin-stick arena shooter I have ever played and, believe it or not, I loved arena shooters ever since I first played Robotron. And have  constantly been reminded of their greatness with a little help from Smash TV, Geometry Wars and my favorite single-stick shmups included in the Bundle of Wrong.
Waves, now, was actually good enough when played with the humble mouse and keyboard combo to force me to buy an Xbox (eeerk, I know) controller for my PC; an act bordering on sacrilege while simultaneously trigerring a revelation. Those newfangled console controllers are pretty amazing beasts aparently! And they can make games like Waves even better. They can actually make them brilliant. And elegant exercises in moving, shooting and on-the-fly tactical thinking.

Having played with Waves for over 30 hours (quite an achievement for a game without a single line of plot) I have come to deeply appreciate what Squid in a Box and the ever talented Rob Fearon have managed to pull off. Waves is a beautiful and expertly designed game, sporting excellent controls, intricate yet easy to grasp scoring mechanics, psychedelic graphics, smart smart-bombs, a ton of impressively varied game modes, a brilliant soundtrack and some lovely touches of anarchic humour. It's even got achievements that will force you to play it in truly imaginative ways.
Oh, and as beating a friend's high-score can be too enjoyable to be considered healthy, please do join me in having some Waves fun on Steam. You must have by now understood what a fantastic indie offering it really is.

Verdict: A gloriously addictive psychedelic drug without any side-effects whatsoever. It will though give you neon nightmares. Grab it and let it grab you back.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Mar 12, 2012

Future Lovecraft - a book review

Future Lovecraft is not some sort of temporally distanced relative of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Far from it. It is, instead, a book. A proper book, that can also be enjoyed in that newfangled e-book format. A book that has absolutely nothing to do with games, besides the fact that most gamers do seem to have heard of Cthulhu, and a book that's been published by the Insmouth Free Press.

What? No games? Why am I writing about it then? Well, I read it, enjoyed it, was intrigued by the idea behind it and thought I'd let you, oh passionate reader, know. Also thought it would make for a welcome change of pace.

Future Lovecraft, you see, is an anthology of contemporary short stories and poetry inspired by the works of Lovecraft and set sometime in the distant future. It is thus a collection of science fiction literature with a cosmic horror twist, and an approach I always thought would work. Lovecraft's materialist outlook and alien universe were, after all, begging to be explored by spaceships; his elder gods were patiently waiting for adventurous explorers and postapocalyptic fiction could always use Nyarlathotep.

Besides, Lovecraft himself did pen some excellent and very proper sci-fi stories, including the brilliant In The Walls of Eryx.

So, is this anthology any good? Does it fulfill its promise? Yes, yes it does; for the most part at least. You will find a couple of truly brilliant short stories in there and more than a few that, though not masterpieces, will definitely make enjoyable and even interesting reads. Stories definitely worth your time, if only to let them show off their original and odd takes on familiar ideas. 

Then again, there's also the poetry, which I frankly couldn't (and wouldn't) judge. Let's just say that I really can't see sonnets on ominous fungi and old ones replacing Edgar Allan Poe anytime soon and leave it at that. Then again, I did only read three of the included poems and those were the shorter ones.

Anyway. You probably already know whether you care for this sort of thing... You can find out more about Future Lovecraft (and obviously purchase a very reasonably priced copy) here. Let me just say it's brilliantly illustrated and that it did keep me some lovely -and varied- company. 

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Mar 9, 2012

Waveform will make you Happy

A unique and great idea is, quite obviously, the first step in designing and creating a quality, innovative game. Problem is that actually building upon said idea in order to implement it in such a game is a much more arduous and difficult task than it sounds. The world of indie gaming is, after all, filled with interesting prototypes and unrealised ideas, and that's why Waveform is shaping up to become something very special indeed.

It's a game that, at its core, is built around the elegant and surprisingly fun mechanic of controlling a sine wave, by intuitively manipulating its wavelength and amplitude with a mouse. Only it's not merely a mathematical wave. It's a lightwave that you'll have to masterfully navigate in order to avoid enemies, grab bonuses and, well, make merry and achieve a highscore. Sounds confusing? Well, it really isn't and the following trailer should be more than enlightening:

Does look quite beautiful, doesn't it? Surprisingly it also is an incredibly feature rich, varied, rewarding, entertaining and addictive game. Now, I wouldn't want this post to turn into a review (you'll have to wait for one when Waveform actually gets released), but the ten or so days I've been playing with its beta have been pretty much incredible; on the arcade indie gaming front at least. It's unlike anything I had seen and a true triumph of design.

Waveform by fledgling indie studio Eden Industries and its 100 levels will very soon be released for PC via Steam. While waiting for the Gnome's Lair review you can follow it via facebook, twitter and its website.

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Mar 8, 2012

Competition Time / Blackwell Quadrilogy

Remember that cuddliest of Blackwell competitions I ran some time ago? Good. Well, it seems that one of the winners failed to show up and grab the prize and -lacking any meaningful way of contact- I've decided I wont be waiting any longer. This of course means that Gnome's Lair is having another give-away! Hooray! 

Simply leave a comment on this very post (make sure I have some way of contacting you) and you might just win one Steam copy of all Blackwell games. Yes, that would indeed mean that you'll be able to play the excellent Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence and Blackwell Deception for free. You have till Monday.

[UPDATE]: The competition is over. Also Frank Powers has won and will be contacted asap! Hope to have more goodies to share soon. Oh, and don't forget to give the Blackwell series a try dears. It really is amazing!

Mar 7, 2012

Go Kinky Island, GoGo!

Kinky Island is most definitely not a game about alien invasions and will not replace Mass Effect 3. It is, or more accurately will be, an indie point-and-click adventure with a sexy twist. Actually, it will be a game about sex. Just like the original Larry. Or, well, obviously inspired by the Land of the Lounge Lizards but set on the aptly named Kinky Island.

Basically, Kinky Island will be a game created with the ever-handy and very freeware AGS development tool. It will most obviously be a pretty naughty offering too (rumours speak of -wait for it- full frontal nudity), sporting quite a bit of humour, lovely pixel-art graphics, traditional gameplay, over 30 locations, 20 fully animated characters and some hopefully interesting puzzles.

Problem is the game was supposed to happen ages ago. Its intriguing, not particularly safe for work and most playable demo has been around since 2006 and can still be downloaded from the AGS forums. But, after that cheeky peek at a smart and properly sexy game and for almost five years nothing much seemed to happen; until, that is, the original team decided to revive, expand, improve, polish and eventually publish the project.

What's more and as this new attempt at Kinky Island will be a vastly more ambitious take on the naughty, humorous point-and-click sub-genre, the game will apparently be commercially available. Provided, that is, you too dear reader help it out via its IndieGoGo campaign. You will find there a ton of exciting goodies and all the relevant info you might ever need.

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Mar 6, 2012

Da New Guys Review

Adventure gaming has covered a staggering variety of themes, plots and characters, has toyed with a multitude of ideas and has come up with some truly wild stories, but has never dabbled with professional wrestling. Well, not until Da New Guys: Day of the Jackass (and admittedly it's less known prequel) it hadn't, for the latest Wadjet Eye Game and Icebox Studios release does indeed enter the ring of b-grade professional wrestling (with its eyebrow emphatically raised) and points and clicks its way to gaming victory.

Now, truth be said, ever since I reached the mature and enlightened age of 10 I've discovered that wrestling is simply not for me and moved on. It was far too silly and not funny enough to keep me interested, a fact that makes the achievements of Da New Guys: Day of the Jackass all the more important, as it effortlessly and despite an overburdened schedule kept me glued to the monitor for hours. Also, I laughed. 

Being a sequel of sorts to 2004 indie darling Da New Guys, Day of the Jackass is a traditional point-and-click adventure sporting some decidedly non-traditional protagonists and a delightfully dry sense of humour. It plays with its plot, distorts its setting and actually comes up with an enjoyable story that serves its gameplay well.  Brain, you see, the worst and most irritating brawler in wrestling has won the title belt and gotten himself promptly kidnapped. It is thus up to his mates, tough-guy Simon and soft-spoken Defender, to rescue him.

This of course is easier said than done, as this game not only looks old fashioned, but actually plays the old fashioned way, meaning that, yes, it is indeed tough. Da New Guys took me hours to beat and, unlike most recent adventures, actually demanded I consulted a walkthrough and even used a pen to note and sketch stuff. It can actually be difficult to the point of frustration and at times overtaxes ones ability for lateral thinking.

Still, after the first relatively subdued yet difficult act of the game is over, Da New Guys reveals what it's really made of and that's a huge variety of taxing, innovative, fresh and fun puzzles. Yes, they are tough, but not all games need to cater to all tastes. What is after all the point of being indie if you are afraid to take a few risks?  

As for the game's graphics, well, they too are a matter of personal taste. They are far too idiosyncratic to please everyone, but they definitely have a certain charm, are very well animated indeed, and do grow on you. Besides, we adventurers do appreciate consistency, depth and production values and Da New Guys is bound to please the hardcore gamer hiding inside you and me reader.

Oh, and it's got a lovely soundtrack and sports some excellent voices too. The included achievements and unlockable art should also be considered signs of care and affection for a truly unique project.

Verdict: A great adventure game that successfully and hilariously challenges the hardcore point-and-clicker.    

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Mar 5, 2012

Anna joins the adventure Renaissance

The adventure gaming renaissance seems to be an undeniable fact and exciting projects are being announced -or even released- left and right. Not that adventure games were ever dead mind (as this very blog has been helping prove for over six years now), but following Telltale's successes, the works of Jonas Kyratzes and the spectacularly successful Double Fine kickstarter, one can't help but feel truly excited. Quality gaming , you see, has always been important...

Anyway. What I wanted to talk about is forthcoming indie adventure Anna by ambitious Italian developers Dreampainters. A truly intriguing project if you don't mind me saying so and one that doesn't seem afraid of innovation.

Anna, will, first of all, be a fully 3D first person adventure that will apparently use an FPS-inspired interface utilizing the WASD/mouse combo. The game will be a relatively short affair, yet one that will offer three different endings, thus earning more than a few replayability points. What's more, the rather traditional  inventory-sporting adventure mechanics, will be further enriched with some sort of mental state mechanics, meaning that depending on the dynamically determined metal status of the player the locations themselves will change.

Interestingly, the plot will follow an authentic and presumably dark Italian folklore tale; one that has been directly recorded by the dev team via first hand accounts from several village elders and historical documents. Oh, and Anna and its impressive graphics will be released exclusively for the PC. You can find out more about it over at the Dreampainters blog.

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Mar 2, 2012

Bundle in a Box News

Remember that announcement of mine back in January? Excellent! You'll then be happy to know that Kyttaro Games has some Bundle in a Box related news to share. Just follow this particularly handy link and find out that our bundle will include seven games, support indie devs in a pretty novel way and even feature a totally original game. Hmmm, apparently there's more to find out, but I think I'll let you read for yourself reader...

Mar 1, 2012

The Steve Ince Interview

From Beneath a Steel Sky, Broken Sword and Revolution Software to So Blonde, The Whispered World and Juniper Games, Steve Ince has been there to help adventure games evolve and show everyone else just how crucial the role of a games-writer can be. Without further ado then, here's the gnomic interview with the writer, artist and game designer responsible for more than a few (adventure and non-adventure) classics:

I understand you started working on games as an artist on Beneath A Steel Sky. Is this actually true? 

Yes, although there were better artists and animators already working there.  The image below is one of my paintings.  I also animated a number of other sprite anims, including the steam in the power room.

But what drew you to it? Was it the apparent quality of the game? The genre? The medium itself?

I was based in Hull at the time and Revolution had its offices there.  Someone I knew told me that Revolution was looking for an artist and I got an interview.  After some test pieces and a meeting with Dave Gibbons I got the job.

I didn’t actually know any specifics about the project or even that Revolution were based in Hull, so it was a really fortunate set of circumstances.

You've also had a rich history in the Broken Sword series all the way from producing and drawing concept art for the original, to doing almost everything for Sleeping Dragon and managing the remake. Any thoughts on the series? Any particularly interesting anecdotes perhaps? Any, uhm, news?

Firstly, I didn’t do “almost everything for Sleeping Dragon”.  While I had a hand in a number of areas, the vast majority of the work was done by a team of talented people, as is the case with all the Revolution games.  It’s always a pleasure working with such people.

The best thing about the Broken Sword series is the way that it’s still vibrant after all this time, which reflects the care and attention that the team put into making it.  It’s also been a great experience for me in my growth as a game developer/designer/writer – so much of my career has been involved in the series it’s hard to imagine I’d be the person I am without my involvement with these games.

I have no news to tell you at this time.

Could you briefly describe the design and production process of Broken Sword III? What were the key choices that had to be made? Were you happy with its reception? Any regrets? Any particularly proud moments?

Like most adventure games, it started with the germ of an idea, which was then built upon through a number of iterations that developed the structure of the story and gameplay in parallel.  Once the high level structure, plot and gameplay objectives were in place we were able to detail up the various sections through a further iterative process.

The key choice that defined how we approached the design and implementation was that of going with direct control 3D, which came about after the direct control version of BS1 worked so well on the GBA.
The game received a number of award nominations and was given best PC game by The Independent (UK newspaper) so I’m more than pleased with the reception it received.

No real regrets, but in hindsight we perhaps should have taken a different approach to the crate puzzles.  Although, considering the small percentage of the overall gameplay they constituted, I do think some people made more of their significance than was really the case.

What about In Cold Blood? It was quite a departure. Do you feel its innovations were succesful?

Yes and no.  I think that overall it was a strong game with a good story.  But I do think that the difficulty ramped up too quickly at the beginning and the artwork and camera angles didn’t always make it clear what was taking place.  Some people loved it while others were less enamoured.

What do you enjoy the most when designing games? What are the major challenges of such an endeavor?

I love the interactions between characters and working out how to make that work in the best way as gameplay.  Adventures, of course, are one of the best types of game in which to maximise this.  The biggest challenge is not letting the characters run away with things – it must always be driven by the actions of the player.

Do you have a certain way of designing games?

I like to work from a broad view in order to get a grasp of the game’s vision and then work up the details from there.  Usually, this is a very collaborative process, which is a huge benefit because everyone involved gives perspective on other people’s ideas and helps to refine initial ideas into more complete puzzles and gameplay.

How about the challenges of writing for games? Or working on dialog and English translations as you did for The Witcher 2 and The Whispered World?

Game writing is an evolving aspect of developing for games.  It’s part of what I enjoy about game development – there’s no time to sit back and take it easy.  The way we view the role of dialogue is changing along with the development of character and voice acting.  We’re doing things now we could only dream of back in the 90s.  The chance to think in terms of character story arcs, sub-plots, sub-text, etc. just wasn’t an option back then.

When I work on games like The Witcher and Whispered World, I’m asked to give a little polish and life to the translation.  The translations are often very good but they can be a little dry and lack the necessary character voice to give the actors something to get their teeth into.  The biggest frustration is being unable to change the number of lines in a conversation.  What works fine in another language in three lines will often work better in two lines in English, say.  This means I have to be creative about how I tweak the three lines to work best.

Sometimes it’s about adapting the lines in a way that the flow of the scene is more natural or better paced.  Sometimes I have to almost look through the translation to the sense of the original scene.

Care to share a few words on your book about writers in video games? 

Writing for Video Games was published in 2006, which seems quite a time ago, now.  I was approached by the publisher who read an article of mine online and liked my style, which is always very flattering.  The book covers a broad, high-level look at writing for games and tries to place the writer in the context of game development for those who are unsure how this works.  It is not about teaching people how to write but how writers can look at their own skills and adapt them to the games industry.  For writers already in the industry some of the book will be stuff they already know and have experience with.

And did you draw upon your writing experience when working on And Then There Were None? It was a grossly underrated I believe and one adventure I sincerely loved.

I had a very minor role on this game.  I was simply asked to do some minor script editing to ensure the British feel of the English used.

You've also worked on So Blonde. The only one of your games I haven't played. Well, should I?

Everyone should play So Blonde.

I’m pleased with the story, characters and dialogue on this game and the Wii/DS version.  The main character goes through a genuine development arc and although she starts out as a whiny spoilt teenager she quickly grows into someone much more self-sufficient.

You've been walking down the independent route via Juniper Games for quite some time now, but what exactly is Juniper Games? And why did you decide to go for it?

Juniper Games is really just a label under which to develop some personal projects, not all of which have come to fruition yet.  It’s not a company or a studio (yet) but it enables me to compartmentalise my projects somewhat.  It’s a way of separating my freelance writing and design work from self-developed projects.

Mr Smoozles Goes Nutso was the first Juniper game and a pretty brilliant arcade adventure too. Are you happy with it (and I do mean both from a creative and a commercial point of view)?

Thank you.

Creatively, I’m happy with it, commercially, not so much.  It got a lot of great reviews and was even Game of the Month at Game Tunnel, but people just didn’t buy it in the numbers I’d hoped they would.
I’ve been toying with the idea of creating an iPad version with voices but so far the tools aren’t available for me to convert it easily.

And now you are working on some games aimed at children, right? 

I’m developing ideas for Star Sweet and Honey Heart, which is going slowly because I need to get a number of things working right before I can push on in earnest.  However, the videos got some great response from people and kids loved them, so I’m really encouraged by this and may well be able to release a demo of sorts in the next few months.

Whatever happened to The Sapphire Claw: Serpent Eyes? 

It’s currently on hold.  I want to return to it at some point but I don’t know when that will be.

Any thoughts on adventure gaming and its current state?

If you look at the broader spectrum of adventure games – casual adventures, new platforms, etc. – the adventure genre is in a great state.  I think that the trick for developers is to create new games with a wide spread of platforms in mind.  Revolution has proved that the touch-screen devices are perfect for adventures.  Double Fine has proved that there are plenty of people willing to crowd-fund the development of quality adventures.

What about the future of gaming. Could we expect something artistically interesting? 

I hope so.  I have ideas of my own but when I’d get the chance to take them further I don’t know.  I’d like to do something that utilises my recent experiments in digital painting.

Do you believe that games could matter they way other mediums do in politics, culture etc? The new intro to Broken Sword was, after all, deeply political.

I don’t see why not.  We might need punchier, shorter games to have the impact that a hard-hitting film would have, but there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be done.  The trick is in making the game fun at the same time as delivering a deep message.

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