The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 1

Spooky2011 now officially over it seems a good time to review the year that was, and what a year it was for PC games!  The world seemed to fall apart around us month by month, but thankfully those hard working developers large and small kept producing a vast amount of high quality video games to keep us all distracted from impending Armageddon.  There has already been a few opinions on whether 2011 was a vintage year for gaming.  Perhaps the quantity of titles masked the quality of them.  Perhaps the need, in this big-budget money driven industry, to make games that are known to be popular over games that are original and new has been to the detriment to the art form, and the fact that the vast majority of big games this year were sequels and the remainder were new stabs at tired genres would probably back that up.  Whatever the case though, I don’t think anyone can disagree that there were a lot of great games released in 2011.  I can’t remember a year in which I had so much fun.  So to round it up there’s a couple of things that happened this year that I think are worth noting over the course of a few blog posts.  First of all, 2011, the year that was….

2011: The year of Indie abundance

With the big developers sticking to what they know best (more on this later) it was again down to the independent developers to provide something new and exciting for the jaded gamer in 2011.  Although Minecraft only officially came out this year I think it’s fair to call it 2010’s game, and along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it stole the show from the AAA developers last year with the 2 being my favourite games of last year.  This year I don’t think any Indie game was quite that good, but so many came close and this can only continue to inspire a future of small, cheap, original and superb games from creative and unrestricted indie developers.

So in a very particular order of ‘quite pleased by’ through to ‘most pleased by’ 2011 produced (deep breath):

Spacechem You only had to wait until 1st January to get your first gaming fix of 2011 with this delightfully brain-twisting puzzler.  It’s hard, confusing and feels a little bit like doing science homework but if you want originality in a neatly presented package with just the right amount of narrative to give you reason to carry on then that box was ticked on day one.

Limbo Visually stunning, great use of sound, shame about the puzzles and the fact the first 10 minutes are the best part of the ……OH CHRIST!  A SPIDER LEG!

Victory Pose!Chtulu Saves the WorldFrom my limited knowledge of what ‘the kids’ are listening to nowadays I understand 2011 was all about the early nineties sound, and so it seems that gaming in 2011 had a big early nineties thing going on too.  Acronym of the year must go to SNES, and Chtulu Saves the World probably played the greatest homage to the best console ever (you can quote me on that, future historians).  Chtulu plays like a SNES RPG, like Final Fantasy IV era FF games, but gives away its year of birth through the reams of hilariously knowing writing that takes the piss out of its own genre’s foibles as well as every other genre and media form.  From the story, to the characters, enemies, weapons (there are SO MANY characters, enemies and weapons) and even the options menu this game is silly, you’ll know in the first 2 minutes whether you’re going to enjoy its brand of humour.  If you do, play it on easy, blast through the annoying combat and you can enjoy one of the funniest games of the year.  Plus at £1.99 full price on Steam and clocking in at 10s of hours of play it’s also the year’s best bargain (ignoring ‘free-to-play’ things).

SmashingAtom Zombie Smasher Insanely fun, apocalyptic, explode everything-em-up that once again proves there is no end to the different genres zombies work in.  AZS is basically a Real-Time Strategy game with a turn based ‘preparation’ layer between levels, making it sound a tiny bit like a Total War game, but believe me it is something completely different that I’m not even going to try and explain.  Look, just try the demo, it’s great.  It’s one of the few games I actually enjoy losing, there’s just something right about the game ending with your valiant efforts being all for nothing as the zombie infection spreads across your entire city.  Which is just as well because I have only ever beaten it on the patronising ‘Casual’ mode.  AZS also wins the award for soundtrack of the year, in my humble opinion.

Terraria It’s not a 2D Minecraft, but it does involve mining and crafting.  Where it differs is the complexity of things you can find and create and the structure that increasingly difficult monsters and bosses bring to the procedural proceedings.

Like a cute AlienCapsized Indie developers love a side-scrolling platform/shoot em-up and 2011 was no different, but Capsized really is as good as the genre gets.  It is beautifully drawn, has a wealth of slowly discovered weaponry, the best use of a gravity gun outside of Half-life 2 and every level is different and interesting.  You really need to play this one to the end so you don’t miss out on the low-gravity floating-island hopping of the last couple of levels.  Then play the gravity-gun only ‘armless levels’.  Just perfect.

Frozen Synapse I’ve talked about this before.  I’m still enjoying it when I occasionally hop on for a game.

Gemini Rue I’ve done this before too.  It’s ace.

Wait til his mum finds outBinding of Isaac Another game that drips with early nineties inspiration, the Binding of Isaac plays like a bastard child of the Legend of Zelda and Smash TV that was locked in the basement for the length of its childhood with nothing to do but relive its rogue-like nightmares over and over again day after day.  Providing you’re ok with the setting this is an incredibly addictive time-sink that I’m still enjoying even after finishing it once (and trying and failing to complete it about 50 times) there’s just so many items to unlock and achievements to achieve.  That setting, though?  Well, the Binding of Isaac is a cartoon game with biblical overtones whose main protagonist, Isaac, is a naked child who shoots tears and pee at his horrifying enemies who are all flys, worms or contorted caricatures of himself.  His goal is to find and kill his own mother (in self-defence), and the power ups include a dead cat, his mum’s high heels and sanitary towels, and bomb diarrhoea.  It’s, err, not for everyone, but that just makes me like it even more.

The kid done goodBastion – Last and (just) best in my little Indie round-up of 2011 is this beautiful action-RPG that’s light on the RPG, heavy on the action and absolutely dripping with artwork, atmosphere and superb narrative (and I mean literally, the narration is superb).  Considering the story sees you trying to salvage a home and search for survivors in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by genocide, war and weapons of mass destruction the game built around this dark heart just looks so nice and sweet!  The graphics and artwork are lovely.  The combat is fluid and fun, with unlocked weapons providing different tactics rather than just more firepower (except for the last couple).  And the way the story unfolds through the narrator’s Big Lebowski style southern-US drawl is charming, original and, come the final moments, genuinely neck-tingling.

One of the most exciting things about Bastion?  It built so much hype pre-launch that the game was snapped up by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for publication (who’ve published Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lord of the Rings Online and FEAR 3 among others), proving that Indie games are getting a lot of attention from big investors nowadays, and whilst Minecraft and others have proven you don’t necessarily need the backing of big publishers to make big games, it has got to be a positive sign that the most creative source for games are getting proper backing and attention.  Are publishers tiring of backing massive-budget games in the same old genres where one failure can bankrupt a publisher and endanger an entire network of developers?  I don’t know about that, but the gap between ‘AAA’ games and ‘indie’ games is definitely getting narrower which can only be a good thing for the future of games.

Next up in the 2011 round-up – Perma-death and Detective work

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Gemini Rue review

Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking: “What’s with all these Battlefield articles?!  The singleplayer story was terrible, I need something to wash the taste away but I’ve only got under a tenner to spend on a new game!  Plus I only class a game as being ‘new’ when it’s released on Steam even though it might have been out for months already.  And on an unrelated topic, why in the great Adventure game renaissance has nobody done something like the Blade Runner game?  That game was amazing!”

My, you do jump around a bit, don’t you!?  Never fear, I understand completely and have the perfect answer to all of your thought questions: Gemini Rue.

Like squinting at Blade Runner

So what is it?  Gemini Rue is a point and click adventure set in a sci-fi, future noir universe.  The game starts you off in control of Azriel Odin, a trenchcoated cop trying to pick up the trail of his missing brother in a rundown city on a planet afflicted with perpetual rain.  The Blade Runner reference is apt with the film’s dystopian style having obvious influences on the look and atmosphere of the game, there are even direct references to the photo analysing Esper machines later in the game and the story covers similar existential themes of memory and identity.  What is so remarkable is how well the game captures that atmosphere using the modest resources of the AGS engine.  It’s clear the game’s creator, Joshua Neurnberger, is a master of this sort of pixel art, and the subtle movement of the rain, characters and background vehicles really add life to the still backgrounds.

The game doesn’t all take place in the rain, though.  Half of your time is spent controlling ‘Delta-Six’, the nameless inmate of an offworld medical facility.  Between completing daily tasks for the unseen ‘Director’, and dealing with his relationships with the other inmates, you help Delta-Six construct an escape plan to get off the sinister prison-like station.

The opening scene is clearly set in my dentist's

The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time with a point and click adventure, with left-click moving your character to wherever you are pointing on the screen, and a right click bringing up a neat menu of interaction options (Eye, Hand, Mouth or Foot) and your inventory.  This is very much a point and click adventure game and not a puzzle game, though.  While there are ‘puzzles’ to solve these are usually pleasingly obvious to bypass after a moments head scratching, and are usually only served up one at a time so you know that pipe you just picked up is probably going to be the thing you need to use to get in that balcony window you’re about to try and enter.  Whilst important items are occasionally hard to distinguish from the pixellated background, the puzzles are generally simple and satisfying to complete without a lot of trudging about to carry out their solution (with one annoying exception).

All that means you can get on with playing through the superb story.  The plot moves at a satisfying pace, with action sequences (yes, action sequences in and adventure game!) breaking up the investigation/escape plan hatching, and genuine twists and turns keeping you guessing until the end.  Planetside there’s a real feeling of playing cat and mouse with the local Boryokudan crime syndicate, with your character flipping from cat to mouse and back again with each bit of plot exposition, and in the cold, bleached confines of the Centre 7 correctional facility the infinitely oppressed Delta-Six slowly takes control back from his oppressors both within and outside the prison population.   It is the best story I’ve played through in a long while, it really is the sort of thing you don’t expect to see in a video game, let alone an indie-title on a shoe-string budget.

Azriel's plot arc summarised perfectly

The only issues with the game are brought on by that small budget.  Locations are reused heavily, and there aren’t any of the branching narrative options that its inspiration so brilliantly included.  The mostly fine voice acting is also let down by awkward pauses between one person speaking and the other, and the characters are strictly limited in their interactions with the world with only plot-specific objects, people and doors rewarding adventurous clicking.  That said there is a raft of appropriate comments from Azriel and Delta-Six when you click on inappropriate items, my favourite being when you try to ‘use’ a top floor window Azriel objects “I’m not THAT desperate” in his deep, noirish drawl.

At roughly 5 hours in length you get enough for what you pay for, and I would urge you to at least try the demo and see if you can resist paying up to continue the story to its excellent, twisty conclusion.  It’s a pleasure to play a well-written, atmospheric and serious adventure game and I can only hope Gemini Rue’s introduction to the Steam library gets it the sales needed to spawn a sequel and more of this sort of thing.

8/10

Even blander than my work canteen