God, so many good games were released in 2018.
Alright, maybe not good. Unique at best. Alright, maybe not unique. Cynical at best… or just shit. Look, the point is that a lot of games were released as usual, and we haven’t had enough time or patience to cover all of them, and that’s what The Indie Investigation is for: To catch up on the releases that slipped between our grubby fingers.
In this particular installment, me and fellow writer Zachary Kauz will be looking at titles that we may have missed out, and see whether they’re worth talking about to some extent. We’ve got it all! Excessive overeating! Murders on a ship! Robots, explosions, and Tarantino! It’s like the world’s worst Robert Rodriguez film! Let’s not waste any more time, and get into it.
Pig Eat Ball – Waka Waka Waka – Dev: Mommy’s Best Games
With Pac-Man mostly tucked aside as a legacy act, it’s a pleasure to have a developer take his basic playstyle and furiously contort it the way Mommy’s Best Games have. It’s a trite comparison in of itself, given only because Pig Eat Ball is too unique for comparison beyond its basic structure. The game forces players to constantly alter their approach to the frantic pursuit of pellets.
Where Pac-Man seems to be a mere void where pellets lose any form of matter as soon as he ingests them, pellets stack up in Pig Eat Ball and increase the player’s size. This requires you to strategically barf them to improve your speed and progress through certain corridors. Pig Eat Ball’s irreverent tone is reminiscent of a known Indie game archetype. In fact, if Pig Eat Ball was a living entity it would search for fleeting Puck Man machines worldwide just to scratch the P out. It retains the demeanor of Newgrounds era titles like Alien Hominid with its presentation relying on the simple joy of lobbing as many visual non-sequiturs at players over anything else.
Yet amidst all the absurd imagery establishing Pig Eat Ball as a Nathan Fouts game, there is a present need for players to calculate their approach to each level. Each bite-sized stage offers compulsive replay value for the sake of improving your time, and they range from blatant Pac-Man pastiches to odd Arkanoid revisions to chaotic collectathons that don’t compare to much else. Pig Eat Ball’s core gameplay is versatile enough to open up freedom in level design, translated over to players through the presence of a level editor expanding replay value twofold.
Pig Eat Ball is another refinement of the instant gratification retro revival titles can offer, with just enough innovation present to rejuvenate deceptively simple mechanics. Its microdose level size allows each new mechanic introduced across its 8-hour campaign to immediately make an impression. If you’re in the mood for a collectathon that’s just as substantial as it is immediate, Pig Eat Ball is your game.
Return of The Obra Dinn – The Cary Meleste – Dev: Lucas Pope
Step into the sketchbooks of a murder scene! Relative even to the storybook qualities mystery games retain, Return of the Obra Dinn looks and feels the part. Designed top to bottom in 1-bit monochrome, the title derives a lot of character from its idiosyncratic visual design. The briny tint dominating landscapes impresses itself on players instantaneously through its fixed first-person perspective. It’s as if players are playing the game on the world’s most sophisticated TI-84.
The game requires you to reverse engineer the fates of a gaggle of disgraced sailors. Memories unfold in reverse as you piece them together in your notebook, initially deprived of sailor names and how they possibly could have ended up in their sorry circumstances. Return of the Obra Dinn capitalizes on players never quite knowing what they’re in for, eager to shock and confuse players initially before allowing them to piece together the dire situation.
Obra Dinn masterfully strikes a balance between providing information to players on its own terms and offering intuitive constraints to make players draw their own illuminating conclusions. The ongoing mystery is partitioned off into sections of a timeline, only progressing further when players have identified three sailors and their attachment to the crew’s demise.
Not every answer is concrete forcing players to gamble with their decisions for the sake of speculation. There’s a constantly hanging sense of indecision reigning over players reflecting a conglomerate lost to history and a nervous historian furiously documenting it from a distance.
Obra Dinn can be a nerve-wracking game to play, but there’s always a sense of satisfaction brought by progression, a similar duality to Lucas Pope’s preceding effort Papers Please. Committing to a piece of identification sparks the brain and encourages players to wade into choppier waters. An internal form of psychological horror is brought about by the dark mystique that gradually unfolds across Obra Dinn. An eerie logic puzzle that engrosses for the entirety of its methodical journey.
Milanoir – Pulp Friction – Dev: Italo Games
Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch
I have absolutely no idea how to intro or segue into this, so let’s just get talking about Milanoir, a shooter so Italian that every word that comes out of the characters mouth turns into a stromboli in mid-air. Controlling the likes of Piero through a kinda top-down camera overlooking the cozy streets of Milan, you’ll be blasting your way through various low-level thugs, all in the theme of a 70s Italian action movie.
Weirdly enough, Milanoir reminds me most of Wheels of Auerelia, a weird 15-minutes-a-pop choose-your-own-adventure game that went by faster than you could appreciate it. Milanoir almost works in the same fashion, except it’s because the flow of gameplay is actually faster than what the game makes you think it is.
Gameplay on consoles work like this: You use the right stick to manually aim a wavering pointer around the screen, which never automatically aims at anything unless it’s a sign that can ricochet bullets to instantly kill enemies. It’s frustratingly difficult trying to keep a bead on all the enemies in an arena, or at least, it would be if you realized that the game doesn’t tell you that you can automatically lock on to any enemy in your line of sight.
This turns every single battle in the game into a pathetically easy chore, even the bosses, in all their gimmicky glory. That only leaves us with the story to dwell on, and truth be told, it isn’t that interesting. Piero is an unfathomably annoying character to control, and not just for the actions he takes part in throughout the story. He’s obnoxious and brash, and by the end of it all, he’s still obnoxious and brash, learning nothing from the horrors he’s committed.
In the end, I won’t say that Milanoir is a bad experience, it just feels lacking in places where it shouldn’t be lacking. The combat becomes trivial as soon as you realize that you can lock on to everything with a button press, Piero is just a prick to play as and watch, and the story has the pacing of an OAP trying to take a piss. Sorry Italo Games. I won’t deny that you tried.
Lazy Galaxy: Rebel Story – Pass Effect – Dev: Coldwild Games
Platform(s): Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Next on the list is a title closer to home, the bullet hell shooter from Latvian developer Coldwild Games. In it, you control the long-inactive robot H-34-RT, who after a long time in maintenance hibernation, wakes up to find the civilization that created him has been wiped out by the O’Xelg. Stunned by the news, he quickly overcomes it and decides to take the fight to the O’Xelg, along with a few former P.O.W’s helping him out as well.
Gameplay is quite similar– Along with being directly inspired by– Steredenn, a recent bullet hell rogue-like that was bloody great, and while it’s fine to be directly inspired by a certain game, what’s confusing is that I don’t know where the comparisons lie. I mean yeah, there’s the one item you’re allowed to pick after every boss, but aside from that, the inspiration is hard to see.
Levels feel like Steredenn-lite, but there’s never any truly outrageous sh’m’up battles taking place. The gimmick revolves around building a three-man team out of the prisoners you free in-game, but you don’t have a choice as to who you free, nor do you have any insight as to what they can provide for your team. From there, you can choose a formation from your team: A long target with concentrated fire, or a wide target with a more spread-out attack., with the former being the objectively better choice.
Lazy Galaxy: Rebel Story isn’t too taxing, but then it’s never enveloping either. It’s always these rudimentary clashes that end far too quickly since H-34-RT and his buddies have more HP than I have cups of tea in a week. Even if you lose all three of your guys at any stage, you can just restart the game immediately from where you left off with H-34-RT and two new guys at any stage, so the lack of agency is absurd.
There’s nothing inherently terrible about what Rebel Story sets out to do, it’s just that there’s nothing immediately riveting about the experience it gives the player. You’re in and you’re out in less than two hours, and whatever rogue-like implementations there are in-game is too small or trivial to waste repeat playthroughs trying to find. If you’re desperately looking for a new sh’m’up to play, then by all means, pick this up, but don’t expect anything that’ll grab you by the throat.
Dimension Drive – Split Hairs – Dev: 2Awesome Studio
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Finally, a game that didn’t technically get originally released in 2018, but something I wanted to talk about anyway: Dimension Drive! A split-screen sh’m’u’p where you control both screens at the same time for maximum score! The plot’s pretty generic, it’s just aliens being aliens as per, so instead, let’s talk about the gimmick.
You have a ship on the left side, which you use to eliminate any ships trying to destroy you first, but there’s also a tunnel on the right which you can shift into at any time, which will also house enemy ships. What this turns into is a hectic eye-challenging affair where you constantly have to switch focus on lanes to make sure that as well as eliminating everything in sight, you also don’t spawn into a wall or hail of bullets.
It’s fun as hell! It’s really, really bloody difficult due to there being two different games of DoDonPachi going on at the same time, but it’s still really fun. Full attention has been paid to the mechanic of Dimension shifting, and how said mechanic can interact with levels and enemy placements. Eternal proof that sometimes, procedural generation of enemies isn’t how you make a game constantly exciting.
That being said, it would’ve been nice to see the heat turned down for some levels. The stages where they employ gimmicks with the level design is fine, but the constant running back to a mini-boss with an unavoidable laser does take the piss. These types of mini-bosses feel like the game is collectively shrugging its shoulders and giving up, and it’s a pain to see.
Visually, it’s a bit drab as well. There’s nothing wrong with the old space-age aesthetic, but there’s no life to any of it all. It all feels truly two-dimensional, and not in the obvious ways either. Environments look so boring, and blend into the background more often than you’d think. Nevertheless, these are small blemishes on what is an exception twist on the sh’m’up formula, and I look forward to seeing what else 2Awesome Studio have in store for players.
With this Indie Investigation out of the way, that means that almost all of 2018 has been documented and talked about. Now we only have to wait and see what 2019 will bring, and with the 1st of January on the horizon, we look forward to whatever developers will bring to the tab– What do you mean it’s the 3rd of January already?
The reviews of Pig Eat Ball and Return of The Obra Dinn were based on their PC versions. The reviews of Milanoir, Lazy Galaxy: Rebel Story, and Dimension Drive were based on their Xbox One Versions.
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