Indie Gaming Gallery #3

Video Games

Indie Gaming Gallery is a semi-regular feature where I attempt to support independent game development by highlighting some outstanding titles that you should definitely check out.

Ancient Trader

Ancient Trader [XBLIG]

It requires a bit of searching, but you can occasionally find a real gem in the unfortunate ghetto of Xbox Live Indie Games. Ancient Trader is a simple turn-based strategy game that’s aesthetically inspired by old world cartography and cryptozoology. Players compete to be the first to track down three artifacts and defeat the powerful Ancient Guardian.

At its core, the game is mechanically similar to the old DOS game Drugwars; the goal is to buy goods (tea, spice and fruit) for a low price at one port and sell them for a profit at another. Players must explore and uncover the map to discover the most profitable transactions, but the prices never fluctuate. However, the journey is not without peril, as players can be assaulted by sea monsters and competing traders. Combat is similarly straightforward: a game of rock-paper-scissors augmented with numerical values to settle ties. Allowing a choice of weapons gives the illusion of chance, but playing rationally makes the battles almost entirely deterministic. Players can upgrade their vessels with stronger cannons, larger storage and faster hulls.

Whereas the gameplay is simple and sufficient, the presentation is lovingly crafted and absolutely joyous. The sepia-stained maps of fictional islands look as if they were hand-drawn by 16th century explorers. The various sea monsters are inspired by the scribbled horrors imagined in the “here be dragons” regions of ancient atlases. Minor features are animated with care: waves sway, flotsam bobs, breezes fill sails, clouds waft. The menu iconography is simple, clear and consistent with the period setting. Fourkidsgames has done a tremendous job of developing this uncommon aesthetic style, and the game is consistently delightful and polished as a result.

Whatever Ancient Trader lacks in strategic depth, it more than makes up for with its charming presentation. If you’re as fascinated by ancient cartography and the exploration of the New World as I am, I strongly recommend checking it out.

Hook Champ

Hook Champ [iPhone]

There are a multitude of platformers available on the iPhone’s app store. The vast majority of them rely on some kludge to work their way around the device’s touch interface, often opting to clumsily emulate a traditional control pad. However, every once in a while a game comes along that embraces the iPhone’s idiosyncrasies. Hook Champ by RocketCat Games is one such game, and a personal favourite.

The goal of the game is to direct protagonist Jake T. Hooker as he escapes from a sepulchral heist. Jake’s primary mode of transportation is his trusty grappling hook, which players can deploy by touching the screen and retract by releasing it. As you become accustomed to flying through the air in this fashion, the sequence of touch and release becomes delightfully rhythmic. Should you miscalculate a maneuver and fall, you can slowly run across the ground in order to locate a convenient ledge. However, keeping up your speed is essential, as Jake is being chased by a rancorous apparition known as “The Curse”. Of course, the thrilling feeling of speed conveyed by successfully maintaining a fluid swinging motion is sufficient incentive in and of itself.

Jake can spend his misappropriated gold on a number of grappling hook enhancements, special equipment and fancy hats. This of course provides some incentive to replay and explore previous levels. Upgrading the grappling hook enables a much smoother swinging motion, which in turn makes the whole game more fun. This is a somewhat curious choice; why not make the controls this excellent from the start? The unlockable shotgun and rocket boots provide limited horizontal and vertical bursts of speed respectively, and are activated by two small buttons on the bottom of the screen. This equipment adds welcome variety, but mapping them to a meagre portion of the screen makes them difficult to deploy with precise timing.

My largest annoyance with an otherwise excellent game is a significant late-game difficulty spike. Only the most dedicated players will be able to make any progress through the unforgiving Bull Idol stages, where a floor of lava ensures that every mistake is deadly. Since there are already time trials and global leaderboards in place for the hardcore audience, I can’t imagine why the developers sought to exclude casual players from the later levels.

Plain Sight

Plain Sight [PC]

When I’m trying to proselytize my friends to this game, I describe it as “quick-draw robot sword-fighting with Mario Galaxy physics.” That’s usually sufficiently intriguing to pique anyone’s interest, but Plain Sight is more peculiar and interesting than even that brief description lets on.

The game’s multiplayer deathmatch has an unusual set of rules: you spawn with one point, and must slay other players to steal their points. Points makes you bigger and stronger, but also make you a more visible and attractive target. Here’s the rub: your points only get banked and added to the scoreboard when you trigger self-destruction. Catching other players in your explosion multiplies that score. These mechanics give the game a strategic risk/reward dynamic: should you bank your points now, or take advantage of the extra strength to accumulate more? Should you target a lucrative point-laden player, or elude him to avoid increasing his multiplier?

The aerial combat in Plain Sight is a breathtaking experience. Swords kill in one hit, so the emphasis is placed on movement and reflexes. As I mentioned earlier, this game builds on the orbital gravity mechanics of Mario Galaxy. Each platform has its own gravitational field, so the meaning of up and down is entirely relative. Holding down the left mouse button charges a dash attack, which is used both to lock-on to other players and to quickly change direction while airborne. Combine jumping, charging and low gravity and you can soar through the sky indefinitely. Beatnik Games tuned a thousand subtle details just right to produce a wonderful sense of speed and flight.

If you’re looking for something new to play over the Labour Day weekend, I hope you’ll consider checking out these terrific independent games.

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