SHELTER

It was in the rapids that I lost my first cub.

There was no warning, just the sudden sense of shock as a vast wave swept through our pack, submerging us all in a rolling tide of water. Darting to the shore, I immediately counted my remaining children, silently noting a missing face. Waiting for a few moments, I clung to the hope that it had perhaps gotten itself stuck on some kind of branch or stone and would soon appear, so we could continue on as a family… However, there was no choice but to continue trekking through the wilderness – if not for progression’s sake, but for the hungry four that trailed, squealing at my feet.

Shelter is not in any form a conventional game release. Developed by independent studio, Might and Delight – best known for 2012’s Pid – it is, essentially, a badger life simulator. With no emphasis on controls or direction, the game places you into the role of a mother badger (or, sow), who must care for her five, individually patterned cubs that dance playfully around their earthy sett. Digging roots and catching smaller prey, you must keep your family fed as you travel the land, fending off danger and always keeping a close eye on the safety of your pack.

The true aspect that instantly attracted me to Shelter was its beautifully simple art style. Rendered in a very basic, I-hate-to-say-retro ruggedness, the game relies heavily on its immersive world and bright, organic patterns that certainly draw you into an atmosphere of pure, untouched nature. It becomes very clear how much Might and Delight opted to focus on character and personality throughout this experience, creating a game that feels almost as if you are playing through an intricate landscape painting – whereas, say, a studio that had tried to emulate realism in its graphics would have fallen far short of the mark, leaving us with a cold, artificial copy.

Shelter is a world that drinks deeply from your sense of concern and nurturing, quickly cementing a strong bond to your pack, without the need for introduction or additional information that most modern games rely so heavily upon. An atmospheric, acoustic soundtrack drips and fades along your journey, complimenting each subtle note of season, whilst also inspiring fear and dread with every passing danger. It is these small, immersive details that all combine so perfectly into an experience that can become heavily entwined in emotion throughout play. The huge sigh of relief as you finally manage to pounce on that elusive fox you’d been stalking, giving your cubs that little, extra boost; the careful, measured steps through the undergrowth, terrified of the hawk that circles above – the little moments and spikes of sentimentality that shape every minute along the way.

This is not by any means a long game – I counted roughly four or five stages in total – however, it certainly warrants the time spent exploring and indulging in its rich, lively environments. The gameplay itself could perhaps be compared to one giant escort mission, but it is important to note that the cubs are by no means a burden upon you, rather travelling companions that you honestly feel indebted to protect. In full circle, I began this review detailing the death of one of my own, and it was a hard blow of loss that far surpassed any other title I have played of similar ilk.

Beside being a great new addition and real victory for Steam’s Greenlight, Shelter inspires an appreciation of the hardships within nature and, ultimately, motherhood itself – a must play for any who wish to escape the decaying, urban shadow that haunts so much of our lives, for a small glimpse into the untouched circle of the animal kingdom.

Buy it on steam here or from the website here

Visit Might and Delight’s website here

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SKYRIM: DRAGONBORN DLC

Ever since Bethesda’s much anticipated release of Skyrim in 2011, one key question has been haunting our collective mind: “When are they going to let us fly a dragon?” Fast forward 2 years and it would appear that we have finally reached a compromise. Well, kind of…

The third DLC in the Skyrim roster, Dragonborn returns our chosen hero to the familiar, ash-soaked island of Solstheim – previously depicted in Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon expansion in 2003. On arrival it is discovered that the land has been plagued by a mysterious uprising of ash creatures and has fallen under the will of a second, ancient dragonborn: Miraak. Using a collection of new shouts and the arcane knowledge found within a set of powerful ‘Black Books’, Solstheim’s freedom and the fate of Tamriel lies in your hands.

If you’ve read my previous post on the Elder Scrolls, it’s pretty apparent that I am a big fan of the series and have a fair amount of background knowledge on each title – Morrowind in particular. Needless to say I was pretty excited with the announcement that Bethesda were set to recreate the architecture and atmosphere that I had previously grown so fond of, and they honestly did a very good job of it – ignoring their insistence on blanketing everything in a thick layer of snow, that is. Finally, all those classic armours, items and landscapes in vastly updated graphics – there was even the promise of no Cliff Racers to drool over! So what could possibly go wrong with a setup as flawless as that? Well, uh, quite a few things actually.

Voice acting. What is this weird joke Bethesda have been carrying on through their audio? If all their previous games have set the Dunmer with a deep, rough drawl, where has the inspiration suddenly emerged to equip all our blue-skinned friends with what I can only deduce as a dodgy attempt at a Yorkshire accent? Previous characters throughout Skyrim have certainly been victim to a serious lack of emotion, but Bethesda managed to cross the line into obscurity when they made this production choice final. Disregarding that, the island’s denizens are fairly well crafted, if a little two dimensional.

Ah, but now it is time to explore this Miraak character we have been hearing so much about; this demonic, overwhelming energy that has engulfed the land in darkness. Emerging from the void in a particularly engrossing cinematic, we are treated to a James Bond-esque monologue, detailing his evil plan and why you are too puny to step in his way, fully clothed in flowing, dark robes and one of Dragonborn‘s new Cthulu inspired masks. All in all, Miraak is pretty well placed as a villain, encompassing those dreaded feelings of ‘he’s actually quite intimidating’ and ‘I hope he doesn’t come for me’ in a nice little package. What Bethesda are really pushing for here is that knowledge is power and, as it turns out, Miraak is pretty knowledgeable – he’s even been cheating a little bit with the help of a devious God. This wisdom, though, can equally be acquired by yourself in travelling through the winding passages of the Black Books.

These sections right here are easily the most interesting and original out of the entirety of the DLC. Upon reading each book, the player is transported into the realm of Apochrypha, which is mainly composed of bubbling, tentacle-infested water and, well, books. Each section forms a labyrinthian maze of literature to explore, all the while fending off attacks from the shade-like Seekers and fish-headed Lurkers. Every aspect of this new feature screams Lovecraftian design and horror and no reference made is at all hard to miss. On completion of each Black Book, the player is allowed to acquire one of three unique perks or powers which are certainly very welcome, if a little overpowered. As of writing my current character is level 51, so in terms of necessity there is little – but thank you for the little escape!

If you’ve read this far just to hear my original claim about riding dragons, then I do believe you are in luck. Yes, in Dragonborn you can now, ahem, ‘fly’ one of those winged beasts – but, not exactly in the way that statement should imply. Using ‘Bend Will’, a new shout that allows you to turn enemies into allies, the player can mount and use a dragon in combat, however you are confined into a particularly disappointing sequence of circling the battle area, with commands limited to ‘attack that’, or ‘land here’. It was a bold concept for Bethesda to push out if they had no intention of fulfilling their word on the matter, however understandably so: with so much landscape and detail to render, there would’ve been doubtless performance issues had the player been allowed to roam freely.

In terms of the plot, you would not be mistaken in feeling a little bit of deja vous. The side quests are fairly unique in part, but we’ve come here to fight that Miraak bloke, haven’t we? Already in place is the expectation of fighting your way into the big, final showdown against the nasty, old boss who’s been hounding your progress for ever so long. On playing, however, I was surprised to see that Bethesda chose to, essentially, take the Alduin route and just roll out another ‘you can only reach this place by dragon’, ‘you will not get the glory of winning it alone’ story. In a series that prides itself on intricate lore and detail, re-using tried and tested formats is fairly enjoyable, but certainly not at the peak it could have been.

I’m aware that this review has maybe appeared a little bleak, but that shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent – Dragonborn is unquestionably a worthy DLC and certainly worth shelling out for if you are a fan of Skyrim and its universe. But, as is with all things Bethesda, it has its numerous bugs and defects that should not go undetected. If, like myself, you play this title on a computer, then I strongly recommend checking out the huge number of community-created mods that patch up all the leaks Bethesda left behind. These can be found through the Steam Workshop, or, for a lot more power and depth, it is advised to use the Skyrim Nexus, which can be found with full instructions here. Solstheim itself forms a decently sized addition of explorable land to the vanilla game and introduces a good number of new enemies and items to tinker with, so should not be passed up just because of a few minor shortcomings – for those familiar with Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the much-needed makeover given to those horrid little Rieklings. Overall, let it be said that I fully endorse this DLC, if just to snatch a glimpse of the ashlands once again – a safe and enjoyable purchase.

Dragonborn is available on Steam, Xbox 360 and Playstation

Buy it on Steam here

Visit the offical website here

10,000,000

‘Action’, ‘RPG’ and ‘Indie’ are three genres you have probably seen banded about a little too much recently – and there is no exception in the case of EightyEight Games’ debut PC port, 10,000,000, which washed upon our digital shores earlier this year.

Taking note of its iOS origins, I plunged into 10,000,000 with grave expectations of disappointment. “Just another failed crossover”, I began to tell myself as I flicked between screenshot after screenshot of crudely pixelated dungeons and monsters, “There is no way I am about to earn my money’s worth of enjoyment”. Well, uh, it would seem I was wrong. 8 hours overall playtime wrong, in fact.

A very simple game with little need for instruction, 10,000,000 actually does manage to work on a number of levels above its classification. On one hand you have the blatant RPG elements of grinding for experience and upgrades, the other a basic three-in-a-row matching puzzle, which earns the resource for the former. So, where does all this elusive ‘Action’ fit in, I hear you cry? Running atop it all is your tiny, fedora-equipped self, forming what is essentially a progress bar rife with chests to plunder and a variety of monsters to swing at. Whenever an obstacle is in your path, the correct tiles must be matched in order to continue, i.e. swords and staffs will deal damage, whilst keys unlock. Bearing in mind that your enemies are as eager for you to fail as you are to succeed, gameplay quickly becomes fast-paced and intense as that back wall – your only form of death – edges ever nearer.

Of course, there are a number of items to collect along your journey (food, for instance, gives you a little bump forward, allowing for last minute recuperation), however the main goal lies in the game’s title: 10,000,000 points must be achieved in order to gain your freedom. The developers’ original intentions aside, this is where we begin to break the fourth wall a little, and it certainly wasn’t hard to see links between our protagonist’s endless struggle and my own in playing this title. With every attempt I grew both stronger and more confident, all the while pushing for a higher score; that one step closer to victory.

It is important to note here that 10,000,000 carries the high addiction rate of most successful mobile titles and, already being a big fan of similar puzzle classic, Bejeweled, it certainly captivated my attention for the time that it lasted. This is a game that is very comfortable within its genre and will by no means make any move on trying to change that. All in all, a fun, challenging title that is extremely humble in both its motives and its pricing – worth checking out for any lover of its ilk.

Visit EightyEight’s website here

Buy it on Steam here

Buy it for iOS here

STACKING

Double Fine Productions are very much renowned for making games with a hell of a lot of character – most notably in the form of Psychonauts, which has received almost cult status amongst those who have played it. Stacking is certainly no exception to this rule.

Set within the dawn of the industrial age, you are placed in control of Charlie Blackmore, a small Russian doll setting out to free his family from child labour – orchestrated by the secretive and evil ‘Baron’. Using your ability to stack into dolls of larger sizes than yourself, there are a range of logic puzzles and challenges to overcome in a variety of different ways, with a multitude of different dolls. Each doll, it is also important to note, has its own unique ability which can be used to aid your quest – or even to just have a little bit of fun.

The first thing I really noticed about Stacking was how stylised it is: absolutely everything has been tailored to fit within the time setting, down to the costumes, environment and sounds, and all with a brilliant sense of humour running throughout – especially within each doll’s characteristics. There is a lot of fun to be found (and side challenges, known as ‘Hi-jinks’) in demonstrating a unique doll’s ability upon a selection of others – for example, clearing rooms with flatulence, or shouting out childish insults. However, as much as Stacking can make you laugh, it also makes you think. Set within this Victorian era, there are still very noticeable class divides, and in controlling dolls of higher status it is obvious as to which are more accepted within certain areas, or indeed allowed to pass through them.

As much as I can recommend this game, it is important to note that, being classed as adventure/puzzle, it is essentially a series of Find & Retrieve quests which can (more often than not) leave you feeling a little bit lost within each richly-furnished world. For each challenge you are allowed 3 hints to aid you, but with no setback in doing so. In comparison to another puzzle-based game – say, Machinarium – hints and tips are purposefully hard to access, forcing you into really assessing a situation before attempting a solution. With this in mind, Stacking can become repetitive after some time – mostly so when an area is actually complete, but there are unique doll collections to still be found.

Crossing to PC from its Xbox origins, Stacking is definitely an interesting and humourous title to explore. This game is as much about discovery as it is about the actual puzzle-solving – if you are not inclined to seek out each detail and doll within a level, then there is no real excitement to be found, as the true beauty of Stacking lies in its subtlety and the way the environment reacts to a specific action or doll. If, like myself, you do find yourself drawn into Double Fine’s elaborate windows into the industrial era then, by all means, please go out and experience this game! However, those of you who are looking for a fast-paced, thrilling adventure, I’m afraid that you’re reading the wrong review.

Visit Double Fine’s website here

Visit Stacking‘s website here

Buy it on Steam here

SECTION 8: PREJUDICE

If I had to describe Section 8: Prejudice in comparison to other games, I would probably say that it is a mash-up between the design elements of Halo, the upgrade leveling of Call Of Duty and, of course, the fast-paced, arena combat of Unreal Tournament – on which its engine is based. To many people, that combination of inspiration would sound absolutely brilliant, which is why it is such a shame that this 2011 release from TimeGate Studios ended up so very abandoned.

In terms of a single player campaign, you’re not going to get much out of Prejudice. Consisting of a couple of levels of ‘kill this/take control of that’, it’s got a repetition and ease that gets monotonous very quickly  – but, that being said, this is a frag-fest at heart and rather than nitpicking its faults, there are actually a lot of stylish, exciting additions that set it apart from being just another Unreal clone. Weapon and armour design could be seen as reasonably generic for a ‘future combat’ scenario, but nonetheless the style and aesthetics do seem very smooth and in no sense uninspired – there is a definite Halo feel, which is never a bad route to take.

With every kill you are effectively gaining experience for both your character and your weapon, unlocking future upgrades, such as grenades, ammo-types and tools that can give you an advantage on the battlefield, as well as being able to customise your loadout to form a certain class of soldier. In terms of movement, you have both a rechargeable jetpack and advanced sprint, helping navigation within the map and the ability to attack from a variety of different angles and paths, e.g. quickly scaling structures and environment for effective sniper spots. Both of these abilities work extremely well and are certainly a nice touch to the genre, however the advanced sprint has a delay in its use, which can result in it only kicking in after a few minutes of running, which can be slightly frustrating, especially so when you are rushing back to defend a command post.

TotalBiscuit gives an excellent insight into Section 8‘s gameplay, as well as expressing his own disappointment with its seemingly empty servers

Obviously focusing on multiplayer, Section 8: Prejudice contains a variety of online gametypes, which range from survival mode to territory gaining. My personal favourite has to be Assault, in which one team must defend its control points from being stolen by the opposition. When there is only one point remaining, however, the game switches to sudden death, meaning that any killed players cannot respawn. This certainly adds a nice twist of intensity, which I feel is lacking from a lot of games in this style – when you can constantly re-enter the battlefield, where’s the punishment of death?

On the note of respawning, this is certainly something that TimeGate has developed very well. Instead of your standard ‘appear back at base’ routine, Section 8: Prejudice lets you literally drop into any point of the map, plummeting through the air to your destination. Anyone familiar with the old MDK games might draw similarities between these drops and its stage introduction levels, with the danger of being killed whilst airborne due to enemy turrets and weapons. However, in the same vein of the weapon upgrades, additional armour boosts can be fitted to protect your soldier, allowing you access to much more heated sections of the warzone.

Overall, Section 8: Prejudice is a very cool, exciting title which can easily be enjoyed by any fans of deathmatch and arena styles of play. The weapons do seem to lack the sound and sense of impact you might find in other games, but that is hardly a complaint, considering the low price and replayability of this title in particular. I’m still in the early stages of playing Section 8, but I don’t see myself getting bored anytime soon. If it wasn’t for the lack of other players, I can definitely see this becoming a new favourite, extremely reminiscent of the Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 deathmatch setups that inspired it.

Visit the website here

Buy it on Steam here

BOTANICULA

If I could only use one word to describe this game, it would simply be ‘beautiful’. Other terms could also be ‘clever’, ‘challenging’, ‘funny’ and ‘personal’ – but, especially ‘unique’. Botanicula, the newest development from Amanita Design (best known for their award winning Machinarium), is truly one of a kind in both its emotional value and its ingenuity.

A true point and click adventure, you are given control of 5 little bugs on a journey to save their home from an invasion of parasitic spiders which are, very literally, sucking the colour and life out of the world around them. Instantly you are treated to a vibrant range of personalities and worlds to explore, solving various puzzles in order to progress to the next steps of our tiny heroes’ story. Yes, as is with most games in its genre – and most games in general, mind – this is essentially a long series of item quests, leaving you to seek out a multitude of hidden objects and solutions scattered around the environment. However, there is a brilliant sense of depth and personality within this title, and I found myself wandering through each stage with a childlike sense of awe and curiosity, prodding each little detail with my cursor and grinning madly at the effect it would cause. For me, Botanicula brought to life a deep feeling of discovery and innocence; a tiny window into an organic, surreal world, inhabited by an encyclopedia of strange and wonderful beasts that populate each leaf, branch or tunnel along the way.

Although only taking about 3 hours to complete in full, Botanicula does require a serious level of care and observation. With each creature you discover, an animated card is placed within your inventory, not only allowing you to relive your experiences with the more memorable ones, but also in an attempt to actually find them all – a challenge which is not easily completed, especially so in a single playthrough.

What this game really offers is an adventure through the imagination; a brilliant blend of art and logic that does not disappoint at any point during its progression. Whilst the puzzles certainly push you to the limit of lateral thinking, I quickly found myself emotionally attached to my insect friends, guiding them in each step of the way. At one point during play, one of the characters was very suddenly eaten by another creature, leaving me in a complete state of shock and horror! It was  only when he was spat out again a few minutes later did I restore any sense of calm, but I was honestly shaken at the core – just for the sake of these 5 tiny beings.

All in all, I highly recommend Botanicula for the level of escapism it provides, as well as the full extent of which creativity, humour and personality have been invested so entirely. It has certainly been a long time since I have ever been so deeply involved within a game and I absolutely enjoyed every second that I was allowed to experience this intricate universe that Amanita Design have so perfectly created. A genuine 10/10.

Buy it from Steam here

Visit the website here

STEAM GREENLIGHT – THE NEW PLATFORM FOR INDIE DEVELOPERS?

Valve sure has been busy recently, what with the highly anticipated release of Source Filmmaker (click here), working to provide a secure Linux service and, of course, the irresistible siren that is the Steam Summer Sale (it just takes your wallet and stamps all your money into the ground – like a school bully, except you’re actually really pleased about it). However, all of those could be completely individual, standalone posts – what I’m really here to talk about is Steam Greenlight.

In the past, if a small developer wanted their game to be sold on Steam, they’d have to fill out an application form (like this one) and wait about for that all important ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – but, all that is about to change. Steam Greenlight intends to switch all that responsibility to us, the community, in a fancy new voting system which, I imagine, will borrow heavily from its well received Workshop success. Indie developers will now be able to submit their games/demos/screenshots at any stage of production, allowing for voters to pick and choose who they would like to see in the marketplace. This, of course, is a brilliant change to the old system and really creates a lot more opportunity for any upcoming or existing projects to become accessible to a much wider audience – around 40 million, in fact.

Greenlight’s development is an honest reveal of what Steam has always been about – acknowledging the shifting interests within games and allowing for companies, big or small, to be a part of it. Other portals, such as Indievania (click here), will be able to merge and advertise to the masses what they have to offer. However, with any form of freedom, issues will arise.

Duplicates, false submissions and the possibility of virus-laden software may be found within the flood of new applications – or, as Rock, Paper, Shotgun pointed out, ‘a billion joke listings for Half-Life 2: Episode 3 will instantaneously appear’ (article here), which obviously brings to mind the question of ‘how will Greenlight be moderated?’. I emailed Valve with questions concerning this, however have had no response as of yet – I guess we’ll all have to wait and see for ourselves.

Steam Greenlight is intended for release in August this year.

Visit the Steam Greenlight page here

Catch the Steam Summer Sale here