Once a year, the indie developers of Australia head down to Adelaide, city of unusual murders (and churches) to show off their efforts in the Indie Games Room, an institution at the anime/gaming convention AVCon. As the marketplace changes, so to do the games on display, and this year not only were almost all the games intended for either PC or tablet, but there were a great many incredibly original and clever games to check out.
It was easily the best showing the Indie Games Room has ever had, as well as the most diverse, and we’re really hoping to get our hands on the final versions of some of the games shown as soon as possible. We went hands-on with most of the games available there; here are five that really stood out.
Ortus (Elvidian Entertainment)
According to the team, by the time the credits roll on Ortus, it’s entirely possible to have only seen 2% of the script. Since successfully hitting its $20,000 Kickstarter goal in December last year, Elvidian Entertainment have developed Ortus into a fine looking free-to-play browser RPG with a heavy emphasis on dialog and choice. We had a chance to look at a handful of scenarios near the start of the game – we woke up in an old woman’s house, and ended up making off with all her stuff after threatening her (lying didn’t work).
On the way out the door we encountered bandits who intended to rob her. We had the option of asking to join them, but instead decided to fight them. They yielded, and we offered to let them go if they gave us all their stuff… and when they gave us all their stuff, we killed them anyway. Irreverent murder seemed to be an option in most of the encounters we had, actually – at another point a man ran to us begging for help, and we opted to kill him rather than listen to his plea. It was hard to judge what the full game was actually going to entail, but we were definitely impressed at how much influence our dialog choices had on how our five minutes of play panned out.
There were a few games at AVCon that seemed to be influenced by Minecraft’s simple style, but Sapience’s mix of oxygen rationing, RPG-style levelling and Doom-esque shooting made it stand out. Set on some sort of space-faring vessel, Sapience gives you a constantly depleting oxygen level and asks you to go and deal with a whole bunch of monsters. It wasn’t the most original game in the room, perhaps, but Sapience managed to blend 1994-era action (although unlike Doom you can look up and down and aim for headshots) with resource management, an experience system, and all the creepy-crawly spaceship stuff that never quite went out of vogue.
We’ll be interested to see how the system works when stretched out over the course of an entire game – there were still quite a few bumps to iron out in this version, but the concept is great.
Taijou (Tijital Games)
It’s an indisputable fact that bullet hell shooters are the very best games, right? Taijou brilliantly melds bullet hell insanity with platforming, resulting in a game demo that killed us over and over and over again. Taijou doesn’t mess around. It worships at the altars of games like I Wanna Be The Guy and Super Meat Boy (not to mention Deathsmiles, Mushihimesama, et. al.), and you’ll need to get very, very good at it to finish it. We only played through the opening sections, shooting away at basic bat enemies and a simple boss or two, but the game’s strong design shone through (although we’re anxious to find out how it plays with a controller plugged in). The game is due to enter open beta very soon – it’s worth checking out if you can enjoy dying repeatedly.
Expand (Expand Team)
How do you explain a game like Expand without diminishing its charm? At a base level, you’re guiding a small box around constantly morphing levels. The shape of the path ahead shifts; the whole screen changes when you reach a certain point, white paths being swallowed by surrounding darkness, new avenues opening up. Text pops up on screen and a quietly sad melody plays underneath it all, and despite the abstract nature of the whole thing a palpable sense of an emotive narrative undertone emerges.
It seems to be a game about the distance people put between each other – perhaps I’m reading into this too much, but in many ways it felt like a clever visual representation of messy break-ups, of parental abandonment, of all of life’s relationships where one person is giving far more than they’re getting back.
Expand was one of the best indie games at AVCon in 2011, and this year it was a bit more polished – the level design has a smarter flow to it, the controls felt a bit tighter, and the musical score really put the action into a clearer perspective. Over a seven minute demo, we got to see a few different styles of level design and action, weaving our box through levels and avoiding insta-death red walls all over the place. It’s a hard one to describe, but Expand is extremely interesting.
Flatland (SeeThrough Studios)
Flatland was the most interesting game of the show. A game about, of all things, shapes at war with each other, it featured incredibly satisfying and interesting combat mechanics. You’re a triangle, and your points are your main weapons. Rush a hexagon enemy and hit it on a flat side, and you’ll hopefully break it. If the break you inflict goes through the core, the hexagon will die. The same goes for all the different shapes you encounter.
In the demo, our fight against the huge final boss was a desperate struggle of attrition that we ended up losing after two minutes; when we reloaded the last checkpoint, we killed it with a single perfectly placed blow. The same goes for you, which means you can be chipped down to almost nothing and keep on fighting, or bow out after a single blow. It’s quite unlike anything else we’ve ever played, and damn enjoyable (albeit a little frustrating on times).
The idea, it seems, is to release the game episodically. The full episode that was shown at AVCon is actually available to play online right now, or you can pay to sign up for the Alpha over at their website.