Category: PC

Over 4 Years later, Starbound is out today

Starbound is finally, finally, finally, FINALLY out. Let me give you some perspective on my overuse of the word finally. The last time I played Starbound was in the early beta testing period in January of 2014. When I pledged my support to the game’s crowdfunding campaign it was April 2013. When I first heard rumblings about the game it must’ve been late 2011 or early 2012. Over the last 4+ years I’ve casually watched the game’s progress reports roll in, eagerly awaiting this 1.0 release.

It’s come so far from “Terraria in space” and I’m so happy for the gang at Chucklefish. The trailer above, set to Curtis Schweitzer’s magnificent soundtrack, feels like the perfect bittersweet send off as the game launches into retail release. I hope to dig into it myself in streams and videos over the coming weeks.

Done Playing: Tetris Twist (Browser)

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I’ve been a little fixated on Tetris lately so I gave the announcement of Tetris Twist more than my passing oh-they-made-a-new-one reaction. It’s also free and browser-based and built in HTML5 so there’s no need to install a dubious plug-in. That makes for a pretty low barrier to entry. Unfortunately, the biggest “twist” in Tetris Twist is the mobile gamification built around the classic gameplay, despite not being playable on a mobile device. I present the evidence:

Exhibit A: a sprawling world map of bite-size stages
Exhibit B: a 3-star rating system based on score
Exhibit C: excessive ads

What this amounts to are 90-second sessions of Tetris bookended with a commercial or sometimes a blank box where a commercial should be that requires you to refresh the entire page. This goes on and on in chunks of 20 stages, each based around a new city with a new gameplay element. The first “world” introduces score cells that sometimes force you to fill up the well with junk on purpose to reach and clear them. The combination of pre-set garbage lines and score cells adds just a little strategy to the familiar game of Tetris.

There are promises of intriguing mechanics like Gravity Mode and Hourglass Mode that I’d like to see but they’re buried behind constant commercial breaks and a finicky new control scheme. Also very mobile-centric, the default controls use only the mouse and two buttons to play. Left click drops, right click swaps out your Hold piece and there is no rotation control. Instead, the silhouette of your rapidly sinking piece “sticks” in different configurations as you move the mouse around. It enables faster play and makes risky T-Spins effortless but it fails when the speed ramps up or precision placement becomes critical. Lo and behold there are classic keyboard controls which the game never points out but the mouse is what it was clearly designed around.

Like so many other free-to-play iterations on classic franchises (I’m lookin’ at you Plants vs Zombies Adventures and SimCity Social), Tetris Twist has me torn up. I liked playing it, even with the funky new control scheme, but the constant interruptions and brief stages turned me away before I could get to the interesting new parts. But you don’t have to take my word for it, Levar, because it’s free! Try it for yourself and let me know if it gets any better after Stage 40.

Done Playing: PONCHO (PC)

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PONCHO is one of those ultra-mysterious indie games I first latched onto at the Independent Games Festival back in January. Tantalizing as it was, the problem with falling for an indie game early on is never knowing exactly what you’re going to get. I assumed the preview build I played was only a taste of an expansive, fleshed out world but it turned out to be the whole thing, sans a little polish. I’d hoped for much more time for the gameplay and story to “breathe” but find myself a little deflated and yearning for more. Still, I’d rather take my chances on something new and unfamiliar than just another action game with level grinding tacked on. That’s where PONCHO excels, with its wonderful pixelart visuals and parallax effects, nonexistent combat, existential hints of a bigger story, and of course, its signature gameplay mechanic.

I still think the intro makes for both a great tutorial and a stunning setup, one I don’t want to spoil with any more details. Suffice to say, once the dust settles you wake up into a post-human world of self-sustaining robots as the titular poncho-clad automaton. Poncho’s only motivation is to find out what happened to the mysterious Maker whose final words echo through that opening scene. To do so means exploring 9 stages that scroll both left and right and are packed with puzzles and secret pickups. This is the “open world” that the game advertises, allowing you to return and explore any stage once you find the exit.

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For reasons unexplained, Poncho can instantly swap between Z planes — background, middleground and foreground — at the touch of a button. This lets the designers build platforming puzzles that tweak your spatial awareness in ways I’ve not experienced in a “2D” game before. Yes, not even in Fez; PONCHO has a dimension-jumping feel all its own. All you need is clear line of sight and you can jump forward and back as the three planes ripple in and out. It remains a satisfying and mesmerizing feeling as the pixelized world whips in and out of sight, changing scale and transparency as you leap around. There’s even a subtle distortion to the music when you move behind foreground objects.

From the moment it opens the whole experience is made into something bigger than the sum of its parts thanks to Jack Odell’s splendid soundtrack. With a powerful, lo-fi explosion the simple title screen takes on dramatic importance, layered with a melancholy synthwave melody. It’s not always so dramatic but even the lighter pieces have a forlorn vibe with mechanical beats and simple, lonely synths. It culminates in “The Tower”, a powerful, bitcrushed dirge of synth organs that accompanies one of the game’s most daunting sections.

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While I absolutely love that PONCHO has no form of combat, the mechanic that introduces the game’s challenge can be quite frustrating. The good ol’ moving platform gets a three dimensional upgrade in PONCHO, moving in and out instead of horizontally or vertically. At first they’re not bad but all too quickly they’re stacked side by side and used to build unexpected and confusing pathways. There are also platforms and barriers that move with you between planes but it always came down to blind luck as to whether, on the tenth try, they moved in the direction I need them to.

There are moments when the moving platforms feel perfectly balanced. They’re used to great effect in the lead up to the final level and really make you feel like a platforming genius. Leaping across gaps while simultaneously transitioning through the layers is a great sensation but these moments are rare. In contrast, in the very next section of the final level — a terrifying climb up The Tower — it’s possible (and very easy) to fall almost all the way to the bottom with a single mis-timed button press.

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For a game this short it’s disheartening to see so many moments that could have been clever and fun turned frustrating. For me, PONCHO shines the brightest when you’re simply navigating its ruined, reclaimed world and poking your head around its many clever corners. A few more stages of this simpler exploration before the moving platforms take focus would have helped me. Instead, I came to dread the sight of them and it was only thanks to a launch week patch that adjusted their timing that I was finally able to finish the game.

Frustrating as some of the platforming was I was still sad to see there wasn’t more PONCHO to play. The lo-fi music and vibrant, layered, pixel visuals combine to create a world I’d love to hang out in for more than a handful of hours. It’s an experience worth having but there’s not nearly enough of what I loved — and a little too much of the stuff I didn’t — to justify the $15 price.

[PONCHO is developed by Delve Interactive and published by Rising Star Games. At launch it is available on Steam and PlayStation 4 for $14.99.]

Prison Architect Pardoned from Early Access on October 6th

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My god, it’s finally happening: Prison Architect is going to be a really real, for-real final released video game as of October 6th. This year! Prison Architect always looked really great but after being burned by Don’t Starve and its early access changes in 2012 I kept my court-ordered distance for a while.

I eventually got Prison Architect for about $8 on a Summer sale or in a bundle and fairly quickly logged 40 or so hours with it. But I never got too attached to my prisons because I assumed they’d be broken by an update or wiped completely when I came back to them. Such are the tribulations of getting in early. I last played the game almost a year ago now so I’m sure the “wealth of new content” promised in the upcoming release version will be immense. Gosh, has it really been nearly three years since I first saw the game? Crazy.

Ahead of the release, you can get a look at the game’s new content as Introversion takes center stage at the upcoming EGX gaming event in the UK on Saturday, September 26th.