Summary: Summer game release slump got you down? If you don't have a backlog of major titles to work through, perhaps the solution lies in giving one or some of the many indie games on Steam a try. If you'd like to find out what's good before you start waving your credit card around all willy-nilly, you're going to love this multi-part series that introduces a new type of feature article, the Rapid Fire Roundup. Vandy lines them up and knocks them down, with more than a dozen quick takes on various games around $10 in this first installment, so check it out!
Summer is a traditionally dry period for major game releases; most weeks, we’re lucky to see a single AAA title ship out. Fortunately, the indie game scene doesn’t subscribe to traditional business strategy, almost as a rule. These low-cost, low-budget projects of passion are released in droves throughout the year, and the creators’ willingness to take risks and innovate in their respective genre make them one of the best parts of being a PC gamer. The rise of digital distribution has made it possible for independent developers of all kinds to have their games featured on virtual shelves that are seen by millions of people daily, affording them the exposure and chance at success they never could have dreamed of in the past.
Being a big Steam user, I already owned many of the games featured in the Summer Camp sale. However, through my efforts to complete every daily objective (76 tickets, what up!), I bought a lot of discounted indie games that had been updated with relevant achievements or even new themed content. Beyond the upper tier of indie games that most people already know about, there are several titles that turned out to be really fun. Many are okay or deserve a second look, but others will likely never be played beyond the 5-30 minutes it took me to complete its associated Summer Sale task… After the sale ended last weekend, I got the idea to share my impressions of these dozens of games, in an attempt to shed some light on the variety of indie goodness that is waiting for you out there.
This first part of the Steam Indie Games roundup covers fifteen titles of all shapes and sizes that are available right now on Valve’s digital storefront. Since it’s a Rapid Fire Roundup, each game gets only one paragraph -- I might never get through them all otherwise. There will be several more installments to come, so read on and enjoy!
This game is like pong on ecstasy. Everything is bright colors, flashing lights, and phat beats, the latter of which are actually synchronized with the gameplay. Every “ball” you hit with your paddle makes a sound, and if you’re hitting most or all of them, it makes a song. There are huge bonuses for maintaining a combo; once you surpass a threshold you enter into Hyper+ mode, which is even brighter and flashier. You have plenty of chances to come back if you miss, though, and eventually you’ll enter a retro black and white mode where you have an opportunity to keep the game going if you can hold a streak. It’s not a massive time sink unless you’re way into competing for high scores, but it makes a good diversion on occasion.
Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West - $10
Here’s a multiplayer shooter that has become a regular in rotation for our FiringSquad community multiplayer matches, and with good reason. It’s a third-person affair with four different character classes, each with their own weapon type and special abilities. The core gunplay is fast and satisfying, and the synergy bonuses reward those players that stick together and fight as a team. Forming such a habit is a must if you venture past team deathmatch and try out some of the many objective-based modes, such as capture the gold, conquest, and powder keg assault. You’ll love this game if you’re a fan of frantic team-based action, or even western themes in general.
AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity - $10
Aside from having a funny name (which is actually abbreviated from AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!), this game is intriguing because it’s the closest many of us will ever get to base-jumping or sky-diving. Your primary objective is simple -- fall to the ground, avoid obstacles, and land without crushing all of the bones in your body -- however the lure of high scores and star ratings make things a bit more complicated. Eventually, you’ll be “kissing” and “hugging” everything in your path, tagging objects with spray paint, gesturing toward your fans and detesters, crashing through panes of glass, and landing directly in the middle of the target zone, all in the name of racking up points. Careening through the air in first-person is a unique adrenaline rush, and one that will last a good while with the amount of content they have here.
Toki Tori - $5
Don’t judge this one by its bright colors and family-friendly premise of helping to guide the rotund chicken in collecting all the eggs in each level; it’s actually a pretty good 2D puzzle game. The challenge lies in efficiently using your limited stock of items to help you traverse platforms. You can’t jump, so you must use bridges to cross gaps, a freeze ray to neutralize enemies, and a teleportation device to pass through walls. There’s usually only one way to solve a puzzle though, which can be frustrating, but eventually that “Eureka!” moment comes along and makes you feel a lot better. If you enjoy puzzle games, don’t let the cutesy visuals put you off.
Swords and Soldiers HD - $10
This game is part of a unique sub-section of the real-time strategy genre, where all the action happens on a side-scrolling 2D plane. You start out at one end of the level, with your enemy at the other, and the usual objective has you eliminating all of their units and/or buildings. You collect resources and spend them on units such as melee fighters or archers, then watch as they automatically make their way down the line (which rarely forks into multiple paths), attacking any enemies they encounter. Aside from working as quickly as you can to simply overwhelm the opposition, there is some strategy involved with the offensive/defensive magical abilities you can wield from your position as the omniscient commander, such as healing and lightning spells. Clean, artful graphics and the humorous writing make this one as fun to behold as it is to play.
This newly-released tile-based puzzle game comes from the same studio that put out Lead and Gold, but it’s much more story-driven and family-friendly. The adventure spans more than 60 levels across four continents/environments, including lush jungle, icy tundra, and harsh desert. They all look pretty amazing, no doubt thanks to the new game engine’s DirectX10 requirement. The puzzles themselves involve guiding Hamilton on the correct path across rickety walkways while collecting as much treasure as you can, before grabbing the golden key and making your way to the exit door. You also control his pet bird with the mouse, scooping up treasure and flipping switches that are far out of reach of our explorer. Competing for high scores and fastest times on Steam leaderboards is the icing on this delicious cake.
SpaceChem - $15
This is by far the most complex and intellectually-stimulating puzzle game on the list, which might be good or bad news, depending on what you like. If you can’t get an idea from the screenshots, let me tell you that I played it for a couple hours and I barely grasp the core concepts… You’re basically programming a machine that performs rudimentary chemistry experiments -- binding or separating molecules to create compounds, fusing molecules together to create a different one, etc. with the end goal of transforming raw materials into valuable chemicals. Eventually, you’ll even have multiple machines working together, but I’ve got a long way to go to get there. It comes with 50+ assignments, but you’re unlikely to ever run out of stuff to do, thanks to the built-in level editor and community portal for custom content.
Alien Breed: Impact - $10
I’m a big fan of isometric arcade shooters, and that’s what the Alien Breed series is all about. It has fancy-schmancy 3D graphics and the controls work well enough, however that’s about where the list of Pros ends… There are only 5 levels in single-player, 3 of which can be played in a barebones cooperative mode. Everything is scripted, so it becomes very repetitive, very quickly. You can collect different weapons and upgrade them by spending credits, but they’re so expensive that you’ll be near the end of the level by the time you can afford any of them. The online matchmaking is terrible and the very low player population only exacerbates that. There are two other games in this series, but the fact that its sequel was the only full game available for free in the Summer Camp prize booth doesn’t bode well for potential improvements.
Dwarfs!? - $10
Here’s a unique 2D strategy game where you don’t directly control your minions, only suggest what they do and react to what trouble they get into when they’re acting on their own. The main game mode has you digging out a slice of mountain filled with caverns that may contain treasure like minerals and gold, or dangers including monsters and lava. If your dwarven laborers inadvertently let loose a torrent of liquid, you have to move quickly to contain it before it wipes out your entire operation. Hire guards to protect your workers and defend your home base from intruders. If you survive, your score is tallied based on how much treasure you found, enemies defeated, etc. There are also other game modes including, my favorite, tower defense. It’s exactly what you’d expect, only you are able to carve your own path for the monsters to tread when you start out. Very fun game.
Magicka - $10
One of the higher-profile indie games on this list, Magicka has become quite the phenomenon in the past year. Its success is well-deserved, as the point-and-click action is defined by a unique spell-casting system that is as powerful and responsive as you are nimble and creative. You get eight different elements -- such as fire, water, earth, arcane, and shield -- which you combine in any number of ways to produce different spells that can be executed as a projectile, in an area of effect, or even on yourself! Some elements cancel each other out, or interact with each other in common-sense ways; for example, trying to handle lightning while wet is dangerous, so you should use fire to dry yourself off first. The hilarious story mode and co-op challenges are plenty fun in themselves (especially those from the Vietnam expansion), but the new player-versus-player mode is outstanding. A must for fans of multiplayer mayhem.
Dragons are probably one of the most recognizable and terrifying elements of medieval/fantasy lore, but their role in games is almost always that of a big boss you must defeat. HOARD is a game that lets you play as a dragon and partake in all of the traditional activities they’re famous for: flying around, breathing fire, burning villages, kidnapping princesses, collecting a giant pile of gold, etc. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed arcade type of gameplay, which you can partake in on your own or against other players. The primary game mode is a time trial that has multiple dragons collecting as much treasure as possible in 20 minutes. You upgrade your abilities, ransack wagon trains, defend yourself from thieves, knights, and other dragons, and destroy wizard towers to plunder the precious gems within. You know you’ve got it made when a village is so frightened, they actually send the gold to you in tribute! Absolute blast to play.
Jolly Rover - $10
I didn’t know what to expect of this one before I fired it up, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a point-and-click adventure game in the spirit of the LucasArts titles from around 20 years ago. The graphics are better and there are voice-overs for all the dialogue, but it’s got the same style of problem solving and exploration with light-hearted humor strewn throughout. It’s a lot more accessible, too, with a built-in quest tracker and hint system, but they can be disabled if you prefer a challenge. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but I already like Jolly Rover. Definitely check it out if you’re into classical adventuring.
Super Meat Boy - $15
This old-school 2D platformer is brutally unforgiving. That defining attribute probably draws just as many people to it as it drives away, but I think it does both to me, depending on my mood. There are hundreds of levels that start out hard and just get harder as you progress through five different lovingly-crafted and equally dangerous) environments. Many more community-made maps are also available from the in-game content portal. The underlying story is as entertaining as it is ridiculous -- your nemesis is a fetus in a jar, dressed in a suit, FFS -- and there are plenty of secrets and unlockables. Provided you have the skill to navigate some of the most diabolical level design you may have ever seen and the will to try, try, try, try, try again until you finally pull it off, Super Meat Boy is very fun and rewarding. And like the game itself points out every time you launch it, don’t bother playing without a controller.
Garshasp: The Monster Slayer - $10
Garshasp is a classic example of an indie developer becoming a bit too big for their britches. There’s a unique setting in established Persian mythology and some good ideas for gameplay, but the execution is just terrible. You cannot control the angle of the camera at all, so what began as an attempt to create a “cinematic” presentation ended up frustrating me at every bend. Whatever aesthetic vision the director had for this third-person hack-‘n’-slasher means nothing when it gets in the way of actually playing, especially when you’re expected to do some platforming or fighting in tight corners. The save points are spread way too far out, which makes dying a real pain. Worst of all, it’s just boring… The combat is kind of cool at first, but you’re just mashing the same one or two buttons over and over, sometimes performing a finishing move on a stunned enemy (the animation for that actually got me stuck in a wall once). Then you’re fighting the same enemies over and over, the same bosses that require the same quick-time event finisher, etc. Needless to say, this is one of those games that fails miserably to live up to its epic cinematic trailer, and I couldn’t wait to uninstall it.
Defense Grid: The Awakening - $10
Though promoted heavily during the Summer Camp sale and other recent Steam events, Defense Grid has been a favorite of mine for more than two years now. It’s a fully-featured tower defense game, with 10 different types of upgradeable towers and an 8-hour campaign. The task of strategically defending your base from invading alien hordes is a fairly straightforward one, but the challenge comes from doing so as efficiently as possible in order to earn a high score. (If you’re not into competing on the leaderboards, you can at least try to get all the gold medals.) In addition to the various genuinely-challenging bonus modes spread across the 20 unique levels, there are a dozen extra maps available as DLC to keep you occupied for a good long while -- I’ve actually racked up 100 hours on this game. Do not miss it if you enjoy strategy and/or TDs.
Look for Part 2 of Rapid Fire Roundup - Steam Indie Games, coming soon to FiringSquad!
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