Duskers | Review

Posted on June 3, 2016 by Robyn Robo

Duskers recently released after having spent several months in Early Access, luckily they have gone into a full release in good time and with great polish. This game skillfully blends three core elements: rogue like dungeons, tense claustrophobic space horror and puzzles. The game is split into exploration of individual ships, which function as your levels. Each is procedurally generated with a guessed at number of baddies lurking inside. Your job is to use your scrappy fleet of drones to outwit and outmaneuver those enemies to survive and piece together what catastrophe befell the universe. There are plenty of contenders, and you’ll keep a running log of all the front runners through your journeys.

All these planets, and you still can't land.

All these planets, and you still can’t land.

The game display looks like a mash up of a retro-futurist mainframe terminal dream and a DOS computer aided design interface. Your connection with the drones is fuzzy, displaying a barely lit outline of the interior of boarded derelicts. This will wash out, scramble and occasionally drop entirely like an a UHF antenna in bad weather. Your much safer off with the overhead map view, where you can see the position and activities of all your drones at once. Controlling them the only way possible: both hands on the keyboard. That’s right, this game has a command line and beside some primitive joystick like navigation of individual drones, it’s the only way you can navigate.

Schematic view of derelict.

Where you’ll be spending most of your time

And navigate you will, as ‘[na]vigate drone room’ is the essential command to move drones room to room. By stringing together commands on line with semi-colons you can order up whole sequences of events before moving to the next drone and getting it lined up for a day’s work too. Each command can be shortened to the minimum number of letters needed for it to be unique. If you’re into Cisco networking gear, you’ll love it. This game is not entirely unlike a light version of Robot Odyssey, the infamously difficult Robot building game from The Learning Company for old Apple II computers. Except maybe that death is swift, scary and permanent.

The overall ambiance of the game is spot on. Even the soundtrack is simply a collection of your drones clicks and beeps, alongside the background hums of empty spacecraft. Occasionally, you’ll hear the thrumming and screams of angry creatures trapped on board the drifting wrecks. Warning sounds will warn as ancient ships contort and lose integrity or are bombarded with space debris. The game has countless video effects, but they work into the mood instead of against it. Further, they’re mostly in the single-drone mode and won’t affect the overview screen you use most of the time. The simple seeming graphics bely that a full 3D engine is running with particle effects full bore. Despite that, I never ran into a single moment of noticeable latency or lowered frame rates, nor did the game ever crash and break the illusion. The interface is one of sitting at a spaceship control terminal, driven by an actual keyboard making it feel intensely real. It’s as spot on, with a good setup, as playing Elite with a VR headset and customized joysticks. All of this feeds into the slow, horror film pace of play.

I don’t think any other game I’ve played has ever made me jump back from my desk quite as much as this. The levels are twisty and doors or airlocks can fail at random with relatively little warning, so you have to be careful. I found it best to keep most of the doors on a ship closed off, deciding on ‘staging’ rooms to keep myself from losing more than one drone at a time. Once, using the fuzzed out video feed of one disabled drone, I was able to watch an enemy slowly walk into a room I had opened for him. With one multi-part command I closed him off from my disabled drone and was able to space him and tow my precious scout back to the ship. This game revels in something that only computer games can accomplish so well, everyone who plays will walk away with their own narratives.

Confidence of subjects may have been short-sighted.

Definitely short-sighted.

There is some ‘dialogue’ to the game. Corrupted pieces of occasionally relevant information with which you build a database of the ways in which the universe could have ended. Piecing it together is not unlike going over a conspiracy theorists cork board of delusions and after quite a bit of play, I still have no idea what really happened. I’m not even sure it matters, but at least the self assigned objectives give you something to cling on to, hoping to make it far enough to get an inkling of the catastrophe together. Reading through these is one of the few ‘breather’ moments the game really ever gives you.

Much of the game takes place between levels, as in any survival driven strategy game. Drones have abilities built in, and some number of upgrade parts you have to add for basic functionality. These include generators, sensors of various sorts, weapons and salvaging equipment. You’ll scavenge new parts for your ship and drones from the hulks you board. If you’re lucky you’ll also pick up some fuel and new drones. When you’re really lucky, if you like a ship enough and have safely cleared every area, you can commandeer it for your journey. Their are some basic resources of the world, scrap and fuel. Fuel comes in two parts: propulsive and jump fuel. the former moves you around systems, the latter between them. There are multiple systems in each galaxy & you move between galaxies with jump gates. All of these are scavenged, propulsive fuel is also replenished (by ram scoops?) when moving between systems. Between levels, scrap is used to repair your drones, and their parts. It’s also required for buying new parts from automated trading outposts that have survived past humanity’s end. You’ll find that most repairs are pretty expensive, so keep backup parts and only repair what you have to for survival. For example, I tend to build up an inventory of generators, gathering arms and tow hitches as you can’t properly scavenge without all of them. Much of the game strategy is based on this aspect of never quite having everything you’ll need to survive. You can’t revisit levels, even when you just picked up that one part you needed. As an example: I find myself switching from using stealth, to lures, to room sensors, to motion detectors for detecting hostile movement. These all work, in very different ways, for avoiding being taken out by the hostiles.


Time to upgrade (or fix) my mods!

Learning the strategy, and calm careful approaches needed for this game will take a few hours. Even then, you may have runs cut short early from an unexpected turn. This game does not take it easy on you with a learning curve, outside of the built-in tutorial. You also must be prepared to occasionally be hit with a total oddball, such as an asteroid or losing video feeds while something important goes on. The precise balance of controllable and uncontrollable events will keep you on the edge of your seat. Many enemies are quite hard to predict at first. For example, swarms aren’t picked up by motion sensors, but by the loud buzzing you can hear on a drone’s feed next to their rooms. They can also move through the vents, so the room you’re in might not be as safe as you thought. Aside from this dangerous exploring, most of the game is run from the ship schematic overview, and by using preprogrammed commands to orchestrate drone movement. You can easily give a drone a whole sequence of rooms to scavenge and tell it when to return home. I do wish their where more commands along the lines of “once the drone has left room A, close its door” but the lightweight shell style of scripting works very well in this game. It is extremely robust and well though out. All considered, this game is extremely tense and on edge. It is rare to find a game that so perfectly conveys as sense of never being safe as this. Even save scumming with a force quit will not work on this game, it’ll simply act as if you had undocked, losing you access to the level you left and any drones you left behind. Those drones are pretty cute, with their little whirring movement and sometimes cutesy names. It makes it all the worse when they inevitably get smashed up. My stockholm syndrome cried out each time.

That said, with practice, patience and a freighter full of luck, you will eventually get into the rhythm of the game. On a good run, this means you’ll be able to explore further and further on each run and really make a bond with your drones and ship before they are reduced to dust.

My recommendation is to try this game, and when you do: BE PARANOID

I played this on my Ubuntu LTS / Steam / NVidia 960 machine with a provided download code and a ‘mechanical’ keyboard.


I Want to be Human has a lot of potential but falls short

Posted on May 11, 2016 by Robyn Robo

I Want to be Human is a new game from the indie developer Sinclair Strange, over in the UK. It is a run’n’gun 2D platformer with tight jumping puzzles and Super Meat Boy like wall climbing. The game also features a soundtrack from Jimmy Urine, a member of Mindless Self Indulgence and a very unique visual aesthetic with a comic book style and featuring only white, black and red coloring. Out on Windows via Steam at the moment, with major console releases expected as well.

Let’s start with the positives for this game, the joypad controls and movement are tight and easy to pick up, enemies are varied and the electronic punk soundtrack is a joy. The intro song is great, and worth listening to on its own. There’s a lot to recommend this game on those merits. I enjoyed that the main character is a vampire wearing her now bat-boyfriend as a hat. It reminded me of Banjo Kazooie in a good way. There are plenty of levels, giant bad-ass bosses and lots of challenges and collectibles. All that said, the game suffers from common issues of a tiny development team.

To me, the most frustrating issue is frame rate. On Windows 7, with a GTX960 card, I had constant stuttering. Even the level selection area had a lot ton of it, and it seemed to be connected to certain in-game effects as some levels barely stuttered. My system is a solid mid-range gaming PC, and far more intense 2D and not games have given me no trouble at high quality settings. This is something that can hopefully be resolved with some bug fixing and performance patching. I do hope the developer sees that through, but it’s frustrating that these bugs made it through development without being caught.


This should not cause stuttering

There are design choices that were made that I don’t think a larger team would have let through development. For starters, the color palette. The game uses a few shades each of red, white and black. That’s it. I think the intention is to give it a penciled, kids comic book like feel and in that regard it succeeds. The problem is in actual game play. Telling everything apart is difficult at times, which blotch of grays of reds are enemies and which are the level itself? The limited palette, heavy gore and constant effects combine to make screen mush. Even with this, it was easy enough to get through any level with a C on the first try (challenge levels excepted). How to improve my score was never made clear after any attempt, though.


Somewhere, I’m sure, a 9-year-old is giggling

A further issue is the writing. If I were still a kid living in the nineties, I probably would have found it cool or edgy. Sort of like a low quality Invader Zim. As someone over the age of 16, though it comes across as sophomoric, dull and uninventive. Not only that, but there are many basic spelling mistakes littered throughout. Since this is an action oriented platformer, it could have been excused, but there is such constant dialogue and it gets right over parts of the screen I need to see to play. Honestly, I’d prefer the game if it simply didn’t have the running commentary and dialogue between you and your bat boyfriend. The writing is there though, and pretty constant as you mow through enemies. Ironically, the game likes to try and make fun of indie games and the people who enjoy them while falling into almost every trope it mocks. If it were more self-effacing it would be funny, but it’s not. The low quality of the writing makes the jabs at other indie games sad, like you’re trying to piss off your customers.


Not with that spelling you aren’t

This game had a lot of potential for me. I like almost every category it fits in: comics, music, pixel art, punk music, and platformers. I had really hoped to enjoy this game, but simply couldn’t. Some parts of it would be easy enough to iron out. I do hope the poor spelling and random stuttering are worked out before long. The other issues are just too much a part of the game itself to ever be resolved. I respect that the developer stuck with their choices, but it comes out as mush. Graphics that stutter and run together, writing that comes across as insecure for the games’ own genre, and seemingly inconsequential level scoring. All of this leads to me not being able to recommend this game.



Stories: The Path of Destinies | Review

Posted on April 16, 2016 by Robyn Robo

“Stories: The Path of Destinies” is a fun, lighthearted action-RPG set in a high fantasy world of flying ships and sky-islands. You are going to lose, constantly, and you are going to love it. Stories is a bit like a choose your own adventure game, or the recently resurgent interactive fiction genre. It is meant to be replayed. Sessions are quick, lasting only about an hour at a time. Most of the time, though, you’ll end up making the wrong choices and perishing inevitably. That said, this is what sets “Stories” apart in the genre. Your choices define your person and your fate. After each session you can go back and read a summary of who you were and what your choices brought you.


While sessions are short and sweet, the larger concept of the game is still like that of many action-RPGs. You acquire piles of loot, level your character and buff out your stats. There is, of course, crafting. Like most of what you acquire in game, crafting resources are kept across sessions. Any new weapons you build or gems you pick up are usable from the beginning on your next play through. This is important, as new areas become unlockable as you replay levels. Swords are the craft-able item of the game, and those swords are also your only weapon. You start with just one, but there are four basic types and each has multiple upgrades for you to take it through. Each also acts as a key to unique areas in the world, so you have to choose early on between focusing on one powerful sword, or trying to get access to everything in the game. There is also a mechanic of learning “truths” in the game. This is the other major attribute beyond items and skills you carry across sessions. Knowledge about characters and artifacts that you might only run into by following one choice doggedly through to the end comes from these truths. These unlock more of the game as you go as well, or at least give you more informed choices. This is a unique mechanic to the game that leads you to playing through paths you might not otherwise have considered.


Another unique aspect of this game is the outstanding narration. The narrator’s lines are simple and witty, but keep you interested and grounded. There is a narrator who follows your actions, not unlike Bastion. This narrator keeps things light and fun with puns, pop-culture references and by giving a game with sometimes limited conversation depth a channel for character development. The narrator is just as happy to make fun of you for smashing barrels as he is happy to make fun of you for choosing a fate ending in a ridiculous death. Of course, both of those things will happen. This reminded me a lot of Bastion at first, but the tone and style of narration is very different. Honestly I felt it was better done, as Bastion was sometimes too careful not “lead” with its narration and didn’t give its lead as much character as it could have.


The narration works because of the short, tightly scripted sessions of “Stories” that make your gameplay choices relevant and easy to follow. You won’t get lost in text heavy conversations following some deeply incomprehensible background story on your first go. The major choices are made immediately clear between levels, even when their consequences aren’t. While between sessions you start with just “choose A or B” you slowly build up a panoply of choices, and each leads only to other certain choices. They aren’t multiple ways to achieve the same goal that just end up re-converging like in many level based games. They diverge wildly, save a friend or don’t, and if you don’t, that entire possible branch of the story is gone. The developer, Spearhead Games, is on to something here, and it’s an impressive work.


Spearhead is a fairly new, independent studio. This is their third release so far, and looks to be their most ambitious. Based in Montreal, their founders worked on earlier Assassin’s Creed games as well. This is unsurprising given that Ubisoft Montreal is responsible for most of that series. Like all hip new indie studios since the 80s, Spearhead started by making a puzzle game. This was an action-puzzle game called “tiny BRAINS”, released in 2013 on the PS4. Their second game, ACE, is a cyber-robot-soccer game. It’s still technically in pre-release on Steam but seems to have been started well before Stories. All of this is to say that these are developers who are not new to releasing, publishing, or the platforms they’re publishing on.

Stories: The Path of Destinies is also a simultaneous PC and PS4 release. This shows through in the gameplay, with its controller based style. The controls are fairly tight, and made good use of most of the buttons on my 360 controller as well on PC. I found the game fluid, easy to pick up and learn. The combat is fun, with immediate feedback on player skill after every battle. The combo system is ranked, and almost automatic, you can get through the first session possibly by simply mashing A, but unless you pick up blocking, dashing, and other skills, you’ll eventually get beaten to a pulp. Each battle is ranked, with points for style, combos and dodging blows. This is a unique mechanic that keeps the fast paced battles fun, with something to reach for in each one, rather than feeling like a repetitive grind for experience points. There are tons of skills to level up for combat. You acquire these by remembering them, rather than magically knowing new things as in most games. Your character was a retired swashbuckler and used to know a lot more. The skills tree is also fairly wide, varied and reasonably deep. Gaining solid progress will require playing the game for quite some time. Further, as you replay again and again, enemies will get tougher and new types of enemies will appear. On subsequent sessions with your character, those new enemies will also appear much earlier in the game. This keeps you on your toes for each play through and avoids having the challenge disappear in the early game of subsequent sessions.


After having said all that, the graphics and music of the game have a lot to live up to. There are cel-shaded graphics keeping everything in the game bright, pretty and light. The game favors a colorful aesthetic that keeps it fun to look at. There are very unique settings as well, jumping across sky ships, wandering the edges of floating islands that move, with massive amounts of layers and animated parts. There is a lovely feeling of depth, you can often see above and below your character to get a hint on what’s coming up, or what you can’t quite unlock yet.  Those unreachable areas and background art lend a sense of size and scale to the levels so you don’t feel too fenced in. The characters themselves are anthropomorphic animals, keeping the game feeling light and fairy-tale like. For example, you are a clever rogue, and of course a fox. You’ll run into wise toads, angry ravens, purring cats and flighty rabbits. Some of the characterization feels right out of Aesop.

ice    sky_ships

When it comes to sound, the narration is what really stands out in the game. There are of course subtitles too if you can’t follow it. The music however, while dynamic and professional is not overwhelming. It’s the standard classical-light of video games, a common style choice for the genre and games as a whole. It sounds like a nice string-heavy chamber orchestra, but is obviously synthesized with every note perfect. While it worked just fine, I don’t find myself humming the tunes of the game out loud or even really remembering them. I found the sound effects to leave a similar impression. Swashes buckle, swords clang, enemies grunt and boxes crack. They’re fitting, present, but not overwhelming. Overall, as I’ve said, the audio fits into two boxes: the narration is beyond superb and a standout part of the game, but the music and sound effects are simply functional. Nothing came across as grating to me though. Given Spearhead Games’ smaller budget, it’s a win.


“Stories: The Path of Destinies” is a lovely, lighthearted game. It’s a very unique interactive-fiction twist on the action RPG genre. The witty narration, tight gameplay with combat ranking, and meaningful impact of choices on the story make for something very refreshing and unique. This was a brilliant design choice for the style of game, but I could see why it’s not plausible to do in larger settings. There are many fresh ideas to be found in this game, the developers obviously have thought a long time about what they’d like to see in the genre. “Stories” carves out a unique niche by its approach, and look forward to seeing more from Spearhead Games.


Hyper Light Drifter | Review

Posted on April 7, 2016 by Robyn Robo

Hyper Light Drifter is an incredible and intense experience. It pulls at you with war, death, illness and loss, but it never says a word. A surreal game without any written nor spoken dialogue. The game isn’t easy either, I would say it is one of the most difficult in its genre. This grinding frustration makes the game all the more worth it when you finally do defeat one of the bosses.

Recently released from a 2013 Kickstarter, I received my digital copy of Hyper Light Drifter. The project was originally presented with a 2014 release when I signed up. The Kickstarter proved enormously successful and raised far beyond its original goals, leading to an expanded game being released on many platforms. Alex Preston, who started the studio “Heart Machine”, to make this game cites numerous inspirations: these include The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Diablo, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and, surprisingly, his own illness.Read More


Slain! | Review

Posted on March 31, 2016 by Robyn Robo

The new platformer / smash’em’up “Slain!” is the first release of its developer Wolf Brew Games. “Slain!” was KickStarted exactly a year before its release to a figure just shy of $20,000. It is currently out on Windows, Linux and Mac via Steam, with releases planned for WiiU, Xbox One, PS4 & Vita in June. The game is a retro style platformer with some light puzzle elements and very much in the style of many older “hardcore gamer” games. It has more in common with Castlevania or Ghouls & Goblins than it does with Super Mario World. This means it doesn’t really feel, play or look as you’d expect if your experience of “retro” really means “Nintendo 16-bit era”. The graphics aren’t shiny happy and you’ll kill everything you run into with a bloody glee. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s fantastic to seen something along those lines. Beyond just the graphical difference of goomba stomping and swords, those games had serious differences in their play and controls.

HighlandsTower (from the press kit)

Lovely pixel art

To start with the best points, the game’s art is phenomenal. The pixel art is detailed and fresh, showing that plenty of time was taken on it. Further, levels have several layers of parallax and on screen effects. Sadly, despite trying every graphical quality setting I couldn’t get the on-screen mess, splatters and glow to tone down, making it hard to play through at times. That “mess” is mostly 3D layers, effects, blood, parallel overlays. It’s not a bad choice and fits in solidly with the graphics being almost exactly what I’d expect of a well-designed PS1/Saturn-era game, but it is impossible to tone down and can make it hard to see what I need to see in order to avoid instant death. The underlying pixel art, and some touches, such as seeing the floating medusa heads before reaching the “Hive” is fantastic and reminiscent of top notch games in that art style. A lot of the pixel art in the parallax layers is great as well.

The music is well done, there are great and varied metal tracks throughout. I do wish there were more pauses though, the music is always on full blast regardless of your character pausing, fighting, or beating up a mini-boss. The sound effects do mix in well. Largely, I suspect the developers simply didn’t have time to add in more variety to the backing tracks. The music lends a serious element to the game and works well for slicing and dicing your enemies.

Unfortunately, the dialogue works against that. The writing is extremely basic, peppered with the use of instant messaging shortcuts such as “tho” and “btw”. Unfortunately, this wrecks the “mood” of the game. Further, much of the dialogue in the game is fairly light hearted. Not only does most of it just not hit my funny bone, it also cuts against the serious feel of the game’s graphics and music. This takes you out of the immersion. This is the start of the many problems with the game.

Dialogue capture

“Ugh, MOM, five more minutes!”

For one, there’s no cloud save. Your saves are stuck to a single system, no good in case you often switch between OS installs or machines. In fact, the save system simply isn’t all that well thought out. The game auto-saves at each major level, but not at each checkpoint. There is no easy way to manually save or check where your last save is, so be prepared to play through some small or not so small sections all over again without expecting it. If there is a save icon or screen, I missed it. A full-on save screen would be appreciated, even if it can save almost instantly. The checkpoints are extremely frequent and do allow for any meaningful progress to be maintained while you’re playing, and there is no life limit since you’ll die almost as often as Super Meat Boy. These checkpoints help keep the game from being frustrating for the wrong reasons, but with the shaky save system it’s just not enough.

Of the bosses, some of them are extremely repetitive, especially in the first level where you can simply bash through all of the mini-bosses if you time the first swing right. There are occasional AI glitches, for example the Thorn Beast boss simply stopped moving, letting me kill it easily. Further in, the fire hounds stopped moving too, although they at least kept shooting at me. Some moving platform puzzles didn’t sync up right, meaning they could be easy to get across or extremely hard depending on your timing. One “skeletress” simply didn’t attack me while I hit it from another, moving platform. Basic enemies, for example skeletons and the rat-claws can simply be bashed through and most of them have extremely simple movement, never jumping, maintain a constant speed and floating enemies bouncing off walls at predictable angles. Outside of certain bosses, the initial difficulty isn’t quite enough for a game of this nature. Most of the bosses had very basic attack patterns, opting to simply swing away at your character instead of being animated into doing something more interesting.

The simple bosses are good considering the awkward controls. While only three of the Xbox buttons and two shoulder buttons are in use, but instead of weapons switching with R2 and L2, the directional pad is sacrificed for weapon switching. For a retro platform this is a disappointment, and the pre-game configuration didn’t seem to be able to fix it. I couldn’t get the game to play at all with my Steam controller [Update: managed to get this working, but using the bottom most buttons and top most shoulder pads together is no fun], and the controls are mostly not configurable. Since this game supports SteamOS, I found that very concerning. I found the keyboard control layout to be okay after learning it, but different from most games’ usage of the bottom row for no obvious reason. In the end I stayed with my trusty Xbox 360 gamepad.

Attacks are fairly simple, there are three weapons, each has two swings. You get all of them after the first level and two during the first level. These weapons affect monster types differently, which is nice. The main swing always has a button-mash combo, the other decapitates basic enemies for Mana on their final hit point. You do get two “spells” that use up mana, and in return give you a ranged fireball and a screen-wide explosion. In theory, combined with the enemies that require well timed attacks and restraint on the combos, this is a great system. In practice, I found most enemies could be smashed through and the timing to be frustrating. That said, I think the control problems are something that mostly require tweaking. Further into the game enemies became more difficult on average and it’s okay to only need somewhat careful timing & memorization on mini-bosses. Assuming they patch in more configuration of the controls, this part would be acceptable. The movement back and forth or while jumping is okay, jumps are not in the “fluid” Mario style, but the choppier older platformer style that allows for pixel perfect precision. As there are plenty of lava-floor scenarios in this game, it was a good decision and works well, even if it doesn’t look fluid.

The floor isn't lava, it's blood, with tentacles in it.

The floor is lava.

The game’s configuration menus are extremely awkward. Audio can be configured within the game, but is the only thing that can be. All of the graphics, resolution & controls that can be changed are configured pre-game. This pre-game configuration pops up every time, the game never launched directly into play for me. Further, after that screen, my mouse cursor refused to hide on either Linux or Windows, leaving a cursor on top of the game at all times. I’m not sure if this is something the developer can fix, or an underlying problem with the platform they chose to write the game on. The developer seems aware of many of these problems. They released a note on the Steam page promising the following:

 “As of this week we will be using an updated SFX professional. We don’t have a timeline on the SFX re-haul but it will start this week. As soon as we know the date it will be delivered we will let you know!

The first patch is going to take care of: bugs, in game text, control pad, transition screens in game and we will also be looking at Keyboard lag and menu bugs, again this is in the works but don’t have an exact date. We will let you know as soon as we do.

We are of course looking at the combat system and some other additional issues, but do not have specifics or timelines as final decisions have not been made.”

This is good, as it shows the developer cares and is aware of at least some of the issues I pointed out. Still, if they were aware of these issues, they probably should have held off on the release itself. I am hoping that some soon to come patches will put this game into a recommendable spot, but I cannot recommend it fully at this time. “Slain!” Is not a long game, not inherently bad for an affordable indie title. That said, combined with the frequent checkpoints, I could see someone decently good at these types of platformers & okay with slogging through its rougher spots beating it in a day.

Overall, especially with something of a glut of games available today, I can’t recommend this game. It is genuinely gorgeous, and has good music, but the gameplay at its heart fails to pull together.

Dead Again - Slain Logo

You’ll see this a lot


Space Grunts | Review

Posted on March 28, 2016 by Robyn Robo


Space Grunts is a lovely little game available now on Steam for PC/Linux/Windows, the Humble Store, Apple’s App Store & Google Play. For this article I reviewed it on Linux. The game was released cross-platform at the end of February. The one-man development team, Orange Pixel, has a track record of creating simple cross-platform action games. This game is similar to those in of its action-oriented screen shaking chibi-pixel style. It is unique, however, in of that it’s a turn based rogue like with a light strategy bent.

Like its predecessors’, Space Grunts is a straightforward game at face value, with three moderately unique classes to choose from, dropping you right into alien stomping action. As a full-on rogue like it features a wide variety of items, enemies, traps and variations on each. The dungeon is randomly generated, only saving your progress at the beginning of each level, but your ‘save’ is deleted if you die. Further, the current level regenerates upon loading a save. This means that save-scumming is pretty much impossible, which lends some credibility to the global leaderboard. If you can’t crack your way into that, there’s also a daily challenge with its own, daily, leaderboard. The game is glossed and polished extremely well, setting it apart from many in the genre.

In addition to the general polished feel, the game sets itself apart with the action heritage of Orange Pixel’s other games. While Pascal Bestebroer’s (Orange Pixel’s sole full-time developer) other games may not normally be turn based, they are all solid mobile adaptations of existing genres. Their past games have included Gunslugs, a run ‘n gun, Heroes of Loot, a twin-stick dungeon crawler & Groundskeeper, another run ‘n gun. All of these appear to have tapped the same team for art and music as well. Similarly, Space Grunts can be played quickly and is good for a jam session on the go. While this is unlikely to get you into high score territory, it’s fun and refreshing. The controls are simple, inventory management and character development are very light and mostly automatic. You can play with a joypad, keyboard, mouse and of course on mobile devices’ touchscreens. Played quickly, the game feels more like an old top-down shooter, such as Alien Breed, than a rogue like. Gameplay immediately reverts to a slower turn based rogue-like, however, when you’re faced with a challenging room.

Levels in the game are, thankfully, split into sealed rooms. Each room requires you to open the door before the monsters, turrets and NPCs come alive. This allows players to pace out the action and approach each room as its own unique puzzle to be beaten. A perfect puzzle-like assessment is impossible as a monster’s health is unknown at start and slightly random without an extra, turn limited, in game item. This means that there is an additional element of chance beyond just the loot drops and enemy movements, which I found refreshing over number-crunching.


Why not both? Poison and healing spores.

With perma-death and no saves for old characters, you’ll be starting fresh frequently. The game doesn’t make this difficult and accepting that is part of the fun. Each play through is a chance to get further in the dungeon, or see a new hidden area. There are plenty of types of areas too, each occupying several levels and having unique challenges to it. Some are hidden behind destroyable architecture in the game, others caused by activating a found item. Lots of things are breakable, dropping loot or exploding in unique ways, even rooms can be reshaped by explosions. Despite the wide variety, I’ve yet to see an area that is simply unbeatable. It’s conceivable you may find an acid covered floor you can’t cross without boots and be unable to proceed. Some destructible elements are fairly unpredictable too, such as crystal flowers that can either heal your or irradiate a room. That said, I haven’t seen an area which careful tactics, experience and critical thought can’t manage. This is a hard balance to achieve with random dungeons, and again that polish is where the game shines.


Exploration is a joy, taking things one room at a time. Some levels are fairly linear while others amble about with hidden bosses, and dead-ends. Some rooms seem to have pre-programmed archetypes. For example, there are rooms made entirely of flame grates firing in random sequences, almost always with an item in the middle. Being able to learn how best to navigate each room and when to use your items is essential. The items are almost never permanent, minus some stat upgrades and detectors. This makes almost everything ephemeral and takes some of the bite out of a character’s death, which in this case is probably a good thing. Characters dying so quickly, it’s reasonable that there’s no way to make permanent progress ‘developing’ them.


I’m not showing what level this is from, because it’s embarrassing.

There are, by the way, only three main character types. Each has a unique variation on three main attributes: strength, tech and luck. These are respectively the character’s brute damage and hit points, ability to fully utilize new items, and likelihood of finding items. The characters’ types of “captain”, “strongarm” and “techjunky” don’t quite translate into the rogue/fighter/mage roles you’d expect. They do come close, though. All character types start off with the same three weapons, but are able to use each to different effect. There’s only four main weapons in the game, the three starters plus a crowbar mostly good for opening crates you find later on. Weapons can be upgraded via random drops, and there are limited use weapons such as mines, RC robot bombs and flame throwers. Other drops run the gamut of possible upgrades, one off ammo-burners, regeneration items, time stoppers, teleporters, practically anything you can think of. Ammo packs and health packs are used immediately, so it’s sometimes wise to skip around the health packs for backtracking within a level.


Always wanted a Space Cube

There is some permanent progress to be made in the game. In addition to leaderboards and daily challenges, there are data cards revealing backgrounds on each enemy, a Moonbase Log updated as your characters proceed further into the dungeon and meet NPCs, statistics about your gameplay, three unlockable ‘skins’ that are actually more powerful characters, and plenty of achievements to reach. These synced across systems for me in Steam, I can’t vouch for Google Play but I assume it uses the cloud sync there as well. Proper support of ‘cloud saves’ has been on the uptake in games, and it’s lovely. I only wish there were ways to sync from Steam to the mobile app stores and vice versa with games like this. All of those extra numbers and items, in addition seeking the final boss of the dungeon, gives you plenty to rank your game mastery against.

The graphics are a solidly modern take on pixel art. Which is to say, pixelated but not retro. The effects and fog-layers are often high-resolution and 3D, glowing light sources and reflections abound. Your character even leaves little ephemeral foot prints. Effects and animations in the game run constantly, somewhat masking its turn based play. I see the style of the characters & mobs as anime influenced, with that big-headed chibi look to them. This look is in tune with the restraints of mobile screen sizes but still reasonably fun to look at on a bigger PC monitor. The music is similar, good, easy to listen to, but not overwhelming. A series of slick bubbly techno-ish tunes played over the ambient noises of machines in the dungeon and sound effects. The music neither grated on my nerves, nor made me pause to listen. I’d say only slightly better than average in this regard but it fits the game well and doesn’t sound like stock effects.


Glowing, reflective, shininess

Despite having a one-man development team, Orange Pixel maintains proper community forums. They are very active on those and release frequent bug fixes and updates to their games. I have to say I’m impressed. I’ve seen plenty of better funded developers not do nearly as well by their fans.

The game also doesn’t “feature” in-app-purchases. Once you’ve bought it, you have the full game, regardless of platform. Prices vary between mobile and PC, which is frustrating even if it is standard practice. The PC version is the most expensive, at $9.99, while the Android and iOS versions are $3.99. It is nice to see Android & iOS at the same price point.

Are you a fan of Nethack or Rogue like games? If so, are you looking for something mobile friendly, more accessible and modern? Then this is a fantastic choice. If you were let down by “Steam Marines”, or if you want more of the same, definitely consider this game. Space marine alien stomping is one of my favorite themes and Space Grunts pulls off the ambience of it well. The graphics are slick, the music fitting and the gameplay tight. It isn’t a rich, beyond-expectations game, but it is clever and well made. It feels absolutely worth the price. Especially if you like the genre or want to try something new on mobile. Orange Pixel has been around for a while now releasing these well packaged, small games. Their experience and style shine through.


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