Indie Workshop #1: 2x0ng Review

Welcome to a new series here on my blog titled Indie Workshop, where I take a look at some of the games of aspiring Indie developers and give them a honest review while also attempting to give them a little exposure.

This series will be very dependent upon the requests I receive from developers regarding their games, and the Indie games I can get my hands on, so they may not be as regular as some of the other features I have on my blog. That having been said, I truly encourage you all to get involved with the Indie games featured here and check out the developers – they work long and hard to bring you what potentially may be the next generation of video games, so its worth your time supporting them!

Blast from the Past – A 2x0ng Review

2x0ng is the creation of sole developer David O’Toole, who since 2008 has been creating Indie games for the PC platform, with his most popular being Xong, and its sequel, 2x0ng. 2x0ng is a amalgamation of sorts – its sort of 20% shoot’em’up, 60% puzzler and 20% adventure game all rolled into one retro package. For the efforts of just one man, it ain’t half impressive.

The main premise of 2x0ng is this; you are a robot-like being, who carries with them a squareball. Around you, scattered in each level, are several coloured blocks which when destroyed with your squareball allow it to change colour. By changing the colour of the squareball, you can then proceed to remove forcefields of the same colour. While you’re attempting to do this, a vast array of baddies will be doing their best to stop you, from a humble orb shaped being that simply floats menacingly towards you, to a octopus-like alien which shields itself and tries to occasionally blast you with light. The variation on enemy and level design is quite something for such a small Indie game.

If it looks confusing, that’s because at times, it can be.

In regards to story-line, there’s actually very little to 2x0ng, and I personally believe it plays in its favour. It makes me recall many of the first video games such as Tetris and Pacman – sure, you didn’t have any clue why the heck you were a little yellow ball going around mindlessly consuming everything, but it didn’t really matter – you did it because it was fun, and in the same vain, you destroy coloured blocks to access a portal in 2x0ng because, well, its fun. There is a slight story for the player at the end of the game as a sort of reward for managing to complete all of the game’s 16 levels, and it does a great job of rounding off the game, but apart from that, there’s little in-between, and I don’t think 2x0ng really needs it, either.

The main issue, unfortunately, is that I’ve just given you more information than I knew tackling 2x0ng for the first time. I actually had very little understanding of what to do and had to directly contact the developer in order for him to inform me that CTRL+H displays a help message. This does actually appear at the top of the screen briefly, but its easy to miss. If you’re going to set out a direct objective with little or no story, its very critical that you at least give your player-base some guidance – I died the first time because I had next to no clue what was actually going on, apart from that my square could kill enemies. For now its a little rough, but David has assured me that he plans to create a much more streamlined help system and a tutorial through which players will be able to learn the ropes – so lets hope that’s only a temporary issue.

As with many of the retro games of years gone by, 2x0ng is hard, and designed to be that way. On certain levels you’re flooded with enemies as you make a desperate attempt to escape via the portal, and if you die once, you’re forced into starting over again from scratch. While this may seem like a downside, I actually found that once I understood the premise of the game, and knew what I was doing, I couldn’t stop myself from trying again, and again, and again. You have to give kudos to an Indie game developed by just one individual that’s capable of drawing you back in like that.

One thing 2x0ng gets absolutely perfect, though, is the soundtrack. You can really tell that David has put a lot of time into the way this game sounds while you play it – it suits the retro theme of the game down to the ground and it really helps you to feel that much more immersed in the game itself – which is a mean feat when you’re trying to get immersed in a game with next to no story, but 2x0ng pulls it off with aplomb.

The game is colourful and vibrant, its quite the feast for the eyes.

In general, the game is presented quite well. It has an introduction screen (seen at the head of this blog), and the visuals are generally very pleasing on the eye. Although 2x0ng uses a vast array of colours, somehow it manages to steer clear from some of the more eye-warping ones (such as red on blue) and generally shows itself off quite nicely. The whole game is wrapped into a nice package and I really wish that a tutorial/help system had been present at the beginning of the game to give players an easier progression and to better understand what their goal would be.

Don’t get me wrong, 2x0ng is by no means a triple AAA title, but then its not trying to be. Its humble in the most quaint of ways, and once you get over understanding what the premise of the game is actually all about, it turns into a really enjoyable affair that you just can’t seem to tear yourself away from. Its a diamond in the rough right now, with still a fair bit to do before it can be considered 100% perfect, but David is working tirelessly to make sure the game is as functional as possible, and I think with a bit of work it could really become a retro masterpiece. It has the charm to pull it off, and god knows its addictive.

I personally feel as though 2x0ng is really only at the beginning of its adventure, and that David has a real good game in front of him once he works out the kinks. Give it two or three years, and I can easily see 2x0ng sitting on your Smartphone equivalent, or being a downloadable game that everyone can enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with 2x0ng right now – god knows I finished it and had a thoroughly good time doing so – but I still feel there’s so much potential left for a really great game that will probably be misunderstood by many.

In the light of things, 2x0ng is a wonderful little mixture of genres smashed together in the most brilliant way, all by one guy that has his heart set on bringing retro gaming back into the limelight – and that’s the most brilliant thing about 2x0ng;

When I played it, I felt as though “retro” had never really gone away.

Title of Indie Game: 2x0ng
Most appealing quality?: Its die-hard nature and quirky mechanics. 2x0ng really is something a little bit different.
Most disappointing quality?: Lack of any real tutorial and the occasional glitch (to be expected with a small Indie title)
How much did I play?: I finished the entire game, and saw the ending.
How much does it cost?: 2x0ng is currently available for free.
Where can I find it?: 2x0ng can be downloaded directly from David’s website. It can also be found for free at Desura.

2x0ng is a puzzle shoot’em’up adventure game created by David O’Toole, available now on Windows, Linux and Mac. You can follow David and his progress on 2x0ng and all his other projects directly via his Twitter. An article regarding incoming updates and plans by the developer can also be seen here.

All reviewing content is used with consent of the developer.

Thanks for reading this post! If you enjoyed it, remember you can bookmark this blog or follow me direct from a WordPress account. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter here for updates.

If you have any comments, post them below or get in touch with me via Twitter.

A Night in the Woods: Don’t Starve Review

Ahhh, the great outdoors. The fresh air, the picturesque sights; free of any noise and pollution, just me, myself and I, enjoying a singular moment with nature. Well, me and that pig in the house over there. Oh, and those bees that chased me off earlier… And… Did that tree just move? Oh dear.

Let me begin by saying that rather than hold your hand on a whimsical journey through the forest, Don’t Starve would rather rip said appendage off and leave you all alone, limbless, to fend for yourself. This game is brutal, and I mean brutal as in you’re dropped in the middle of a wood somewhere, with absolutely no equipment, no tutorial, no information as to what the hell is going on, and all you’re told is this: don’t starve.

If you like a tutorial with your games, something that tells you “push A to do this” or “mash Z to fire that”, I’m afraid Don’t Starve doesn’t really indulge in your desires. Outside of the small hints the game gives you with what components you need to build certain items, the game really does expect you to go at it on your own. This is absolutely fine if you’re the sort of person that is used to playing a game like this – I’m looking at you guys out there who start a game on the hardest difficulty with absolutely no assistance at all – but for the rest of us out there who like a little bit of a casual beginning, it can be a little bit daunting to find out you’re really not getting any help with this adventure of yours.

While we’re on the point of casual, maybe we should look at this in a little more detail. I don’t mind things being difficult (I can put my big boy pants on when I need to!) but sometimes a game gives you such little direction it verges on insanity. Let me share with you a moment from my first play-through – I had little clue what I was doing, but I figured I should probably gather some of the items from the nearby environment. This carried me so far – to my 3rd day, in fact. Surviving two nights, I felt relatively comfortable to stray a little further from what I had established as “base camp”. I stumbled upon a nest, with a rather pretty egg sitting inside it. The hoarder in me told me I must have it – and two minutes later I’d discovered why it sometimes wasn’t wise to take things that didn’t belong to me. Thus came my first in a long line of deaths, and in any given AAA title, picking up that egg may have resulted in you promptly to the “continue?” screen, but not so with Don’t Starve. You die, you lose everything. It is brutal. I feel I should keep reiterating that point.

This attractive lady introduced me to the harshness of Don’t Starve’s world.

One thing that Don’t Starve delivers in spades is subtlety. On my current play-through, I spent a good deal of time just wandering without any specific base, munching on anything I could find to stop myself from spiraling towards that inevitable fate of starvation. One of the things I had chosen to eat was a variety of mushrooms I’d found laying about – they were colorful, and they looked like they’d do my character a whole world of good. In fact, they healed me by an acceptable amount and helped to fend away the hunger that bit longer, plus it wasn’t like I could afford to be picky. It wasn’t until a few days in I realised my sanity was steeping towards the side of dire. It was only then I realised that the mushrooms, while restoring my HP, were slowly making me go crazy. In an absurdly intelligent manner, Don’t Starve teaches you a lot not only about the world Winston, the protagonist, inhabits, but also about the one we’re living in right now. Don’t always take things for face-value, it might wind up screwing you over at a later date.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of the game, while “don’t starve” is essentially the main goal of the game, you also have a HP bar and a sanity bar. Losing all of your health inevitably leads to your death, while your sanity bar draining means things begin to blur and you slowly steep further into insanity, to the point of hallucinating. Its a harrowing experience, but it makes the survival aspect of the game that much more brutal (you knew it was coming, folks).

The clock (very top), sanity bar (top), hunger bar (left) and HP bar (right) are really all that matters in the world of Don’t Starve.

One of the risks with a survival game like this is that fingers begin to get pointed – the comparisons to Minecraft, Terraria, and other games of a similar style begin to get thrown around ad nauseum. However, there’s something just that little bit special about Don’t Starve; its that special kind of strange and weird – the most beautiful kind. Pigs live in houses and you’re forced to live in the woods. There are nods to “people that have come before” dotted all around, such as skeletons, and regardless of how full the world actually is, you never really stop feeling helpless and abandoned. Its magical, really, in a twisted sort of way. Minecraft might have creepers and the occasional spider, but literally everything in this world is trying to kill you, and honestly, most of the time it doesn’t do a half bad job of it either.

Now I know at this stage you’re probably wondering if it really is as hard to survive in this game as everyone makes out – the answer is yes. One thousand times yes. The reason I’ve been using the word “brutal” religiously throughout this review is because it is the one word I can honestly think of that fits the world of Don’t Starve better than any other.

If you’ve gone into the game head first and don’t set up a basecamp soon? Well, you might last 5 days if you’re lucky. Got a little bit of knowledge after dying a few times, realised a fire pit is quite critical to survival? You might last 15. But the magnificent thing about Don’t Starve is that it doesn’t just throw one challenge at you and once you’ve overcome it, that’s endgame. Every time you think you’ve got it cracked, the game throws another curve ball your way. Its ruthless, but damn, is it fun. There’s a learning curve to the whole thing that just makes it an excellent experience, because dying doesn’t mean you’ve lost – it means you’ve learned more for the next time you play.

Yeah, even your own fires can bite you in the ass.

In a world of games that take you by the hand and lead you through every single tunnel-vision level they have in their repertoire, Don’t Starve is truly a breath of fresh air and isn’t afraid to push the boundaries. This is a game that exhumes so much ruthlessness and depth that it really is the first game I can say that dying is a learning process. You lose absolutely everything when you die, and although your physical possessions and progression are gone, the experience you’ve gained is not. In a word so desperate to end you, experience is really all you’ve got to keep you going, and y’know what? That’s beautiful, because the depth keeps you going with that experience constantly. Two hours into the game I managed to get my hands on the science machine, and really felt like I was beginning to get somewhere. Then the game dumps a set of new challenges on me, and I discover I’ve only really scratched the surface, even though it feels like I’ve been trying to survive forever.

I played Don’t Starve for a fair amount of time before dropping this review, and regardless of that I feel as though I’m doing it a disservice because I’m not really sure how much experience is really “enough”. The game rewards your efforts at survival with new characters, packed with their own traits that makes surviving that little bit more interesting, and every corner you turn around, there’s a new pitfall waiting for you.

In the end, I suppose everyone will have a different experience with Don’t Starve. Its a game that is relentless to the core, but rewards those who keep persevering regardless. From the first time I took an egg that didn’t belong to me, I realised this was a game that wasn’t going to take it easy on me – and that sometimes its rewarding to have your ass kicked.

Don’t Starve will eat you alive – and you’ll love every single minute of it.

Should I play this title?: Yes. Don’t Starve offers up a unique challenge and a depth I’ve not seen in video games in quite some time. Although if you’re not a fan of difficult games, it might not be for you.
Most appealing quality?: The feeling that you’re never anywhere close to finished. Nobody likes a game that’s over before its even begun. Don’t Starve will be rewarding time and time again.
My personal rating: 9/10. A cheeky 1 point knocked off because I feel the only thing that could make Don’t Starve potentially even more fun is co-op mode – two friends working together (or potentially fighting) for a stark lack of resources is an incredible opportunity that I unfortunately feel was missed here.
Price at time of writing: Don’t Starve is currently available at 20% off in the Steam sale for a reduced price of £9.59 – snatch it up while you can. Normal price is £11.99.

Don’t Starve is a survival adventure game by Klei Entertainment, available now on Windows, Linux and Mac.

Thanks for reading this post! If you enjoyed it, remember you can bookmark this blog or follow me direct from a WordPress account. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter here for updates.

If you have any comments, post them below or get in touch via Twitter.

Azubu Korea Closes It’s Offices

Just heard news that Azubu Korea have stated they will be closing their offices and as such laying off all of their employees as of today (June 28th). They have stated that they will continue to support Team Azubu (StarCraft 2) via its German HQ, although it is currently unclear how much longer other aspects of the company may exist for (streaming, media services, etc.)

While I am not an avid follower of StarCraft, I wish the employees of Azubu Korea the best of luck; it really does suck that the rug has been pulled right out from under their feet with less than 24 hours notice.

– FA.

Cubes Are A Man’s Best Friend; Thomas Was Alone Review

When I set my controller down after a play-through of Valve’s massively successful Portal 2 sometime in the summer of 2012, it bemused (and to an extent, amazed) me that so much story could be packed into a box. A box has no emotion. No feeling. No place in the realms of “story”, and yet, incredibly, Valve had got me. The box I refer to, of course, is the infamous Companion Cube. A square with a love-heart that doesn’t have a single line of text or audio throughout the Portal series, and yet incredibly manages to be one of the most successful icons in gaming today.

Simplistic yet powerful when incorporated into the story of the Portal series.

I’d like to begin this piece by saying that I’ve played many games that can claim to have far more “developed” characters than what a cube may be considered to be. Take Infinity Ward’s latest effort, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, as an example; a game that featured some of my favourite characters of any FPS I’ve played, and they still couldn’t manage to hold a torch to a singular cube.

Its with some level of disbelief, then, that when I sat down to play Mike Bithell’s 2012 game Thomas Was Alone a few weeks ago, that I found myself engrossed in a story based solely off the journeys of not one, but an entire group of cubes.

Beginning life as a Flash game in 2010, Thomas Was Alone is a story based upon a computer mainframe. Within this mainframe, the AI, or artificial intelligence, has gone on the fritz, and given life and personality to multiple cuboids. What follows is a platforming adventure quite unlike any other. Centered around the antagonist (I never thought I’d be calling a cube that) “Thomas”, each cube has their own powers that make them unique. For example, Thomas is a relatively average cube that can jump a medium height, but cannot fit through gaps that the smaller cube “Chris” is capable of fitting through. However, Chris is only able to jump half the height of Thomas, and requires Thomas’ help throughout the game to help him reach higher ledges. “John”, by comparison, is a tall, yellow rectangle that is able to jump much higher than Chris or Thomas, but is incapable of fitting through most gaps the game presents him with.

Some of the characters from Thomas Was Alone. That’s right, I said some.

Stick with me; I know this is sounding bizarre.

So I know by now you’re thinking “Hang on Avenged, these are just cubes that jump around platforms. How on earth can there be any sort of personality behind that?”, and without the expert narration of comedian Danny Wallace, I’m almost certain that Thomas Was Alone would be half the game it turned out to be. The mechanics are fine, the game-play is great, even the background ambiance is perfectly okay; in-fact nothing in Thomas Was Alone is particularly bad, but its Danny Wallace’s amazing voice acting that bring the characters to life. Chris is no longer a stumpy red cube, but is instead a know-it-all that believes Thomas is a big-head. Later in the game you meet a character named “Claire”, who, at first sight is simply a large, blue square. You soon learn however, that Claire is capable of moving through water – something the other cubes cannot. This brings a whole new edge to Claire as a character, as she believes herself to be a superhero, able to save her fellow cubes from the perils of the water by ferrying them across.

Claire in all her glory.

What turns Thomas Was Alone from your typical 2D platformer to a true work of art, then, isn’t the art style. It isn’t the audio direction. In honesty, even the game-play, while addictive and interesting, isn’t really anything we’ve not seen before. It is the characters, and the bonds you will inevitably form with them throughout your adventure (and you will, trust me) that truly creates an unforgettable experience. Whether its listening to the inner workings of Chris as he valiantly tries to look better than “that guy” Thomas to impress a fellow cube, or watching Claire chime away as she ferries her fellow cubes from point-to-point, gloating mindlessly to herself, it is this aspect that truly allows Thomas Was Alone to transcend its peers and become a platformer that deserves to be experienced by players of all ages.

They say that big things come in small packages, or in this case, a band of unlikely cubes. It may not have grandeur landscapes or a soaring soundtrack, but when you’ve got charm and grace by the bucket-load, is all that really necessary? Take the time to welcome a few more cubes into your life, and you never know; they may just become your companions too.

Should I play this title?: Yes.
Most appealing quality?: The characters are memorable and incredibly well filled-out.
My personal rating: 10/10. A flawless platforming game while it lasts.
Price at time of writing: £5.99 [Steam]. Worth every penny, although I have seen it for cheaper.

Thomas Was Alone is a 2D Platforming game that is available now on PC, Mac, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.

All content is used with the consent of Mike Bithell.

Editorial: Violence in Video Games; The Media Storm

Hey guys, Fully Avenged here. Today I wanted to discuss a topic that I’ve followed very closely for the past couple of months/years. Its a pretty sensitive topic and something that I’m well aware is a very difficult thing to write about, but please keep in mind the opinions expressed inside are entirely that of my own.

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Whenever I think about video game violence and the media attention it has managed to grasp in recent years, I can’t help but think back to the first time I personally came into contact with a video game that may have been deemed “violent”. For me growing up, most of the big video games at the times were akin to Crash Bandicoot or Spyro, the sort of game that took stabs at violence, but in the cutest and most ridiculous manner possible. For me, violence never really jumped out because it never really existed on that level.

My first encounter of true – and I use that word loosely – video game violence, then, would have been Rockstar’s 1997 classic Grand Theft Auto. At the time, I struggled to see anything in it rather than over-the-top humor and general comical value. For those a bit too young to have played this gem; it was top down, and everything was essentially a square. You were basically a square blowing up/running over/shooting other squares.

This was the grand-daddy of “computer game violence” when I was growing up. (Source: Rockstar Games via Wikimedia Commons)

Grand Theft Auto isn’t the only Rockstar game to drum up significant controversy either; in 2003, Manhunt became infamous for causing shockwaves throughout the world, with several countries deeming the game much too violent to be played by its citizens. A mixture of stealth-based game-play and brutality, even to this day Manhunt is often nodded to when the topic of video game violence is brought up by the press.

Let us take a step back, though, to consider something first; in the 90s, running over people and leaving bloody smears on the floor may have been considered a little “close to the bone” for certain audiences. Even as recent as 2005, video games like Manhunt are contemplated as being far too grotesque in its violence for any person to possibly want to play. However, despite this, many of the biggest AAA titles released relatively recently have their main theme seated in violence and, more specifically, the brutality of war.

Gears of War, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield – these are the obvious games that everyone points to whenever the topic of violence is brought up. However, there are far more titles than this which incorporate violence in their game-play today; in fact, I don’t think I can list a game without any violence in it that I’ve played in my recent back catalog. While violence may be considered “taboo” today, it seems that now, more than ever, every single game wants a slice of the action; quite literally.

So what exactly am I getting at with this blatant display of violence throughout the years of video games? The point I’m trying to make is that just because violence is more prominent in video games these days, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t always been there.  I am a stern believer in the fact that in recent years, video games have become a scapegoat for violence throughout the world. In the 80’s and 90’s, it was music (for those who don’t know, listening to rock and metal music definitely meant you were Satan in disguise and therefore must be purged), while in the 2000’s, that responsibility has shifted to video games.

The problem stems, partially, at least, from the fact that video games are such a massive part of culture these days. While video games used to be a pass-time for specific people, where it was typically associated with adolescents living in their mother’s basements, these days video games are a much more accessible part of society. Parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles can all get involved with their Wii and their Nintendo DS, and one of my favourite games of the moment, League of Legends, frequently breaks five million concurrent players. While this is fantastic news for the developers, it also means its far too easy to begin pointing fingers when the brown stuff hits the fan;

“This young man attacked another young man and he played Call of Duty, therefore this must be the root of the issue”.

Its truly a sad time when you can say that this is a “common” excuse for violence.

Excessive? Yes. Gory? You betcha. Realistic enough to be used in a court-case? Apparently so.

Back in April, I read a story that was featured on Kotaku that was perhaps one of the most convoluted and ridiculous blame-games I’ve ever seen in my entire life. In a shocking story, a 14-year-old teenager attacked a fellow teenager, slashing his throat so deep it exposed his windpipe. Coincidentally, the two boys met online in 2011, when they played Gears of War 3 together. Supposedly a “sour relationship” built, and when the teenager lashed out, Gears of War was the fall guy for everything that proceeded. Admittedly, two teenagers of this age should not be playing a rated 18 game and this raises moral issues, but we’d be stupid to believe that nobody under the age of 18 actively plays these games or that a simple connection of “meeting over a game” can be blamed for such a inhumane attack.

This, then, leads me to an inevitable conclusion; violence in video games may not always be a good thing regardless of how much it may bring to the impact of the game itself, but to believe that simply playing a video game like Call of Duty can trigger such a reaction in one person that they would go so far as to kill a human being without motivation is a complete leap of imagination that I think too many media outlets are allowed to get away with these days. Regardless of whether a murderer played Mario, Call of Duty or Pokemon, there is almost always something deeply rooted in the human psyche that causes this behavior; sadly these people just happen to be gamers too.

Does this mean that video games are the root of all evil as some media outlets claim, and the violence perpetuates a reaction that is frequently dangerous and unpredictable? Possibly. But I know one thing for sure – there’s no smoke without fire.

So please, next time you read some jumped-up article regarding how violent someone was made by a video game, just consider one caveat; in the first week of sales, Black Ops 2, the latest in the Call of Duty franchise, sold well over 11 million units. How many of those people do you think turn out to be violent, and how many continue to live a happy, normal life free of the senseless violence you so often hear about in these stories?

Many thanks for reading, and please keep in mind that, as previously stated, this blog is entirely my own opinion. I welcome any and all comments.

– FA.

[Source: Kotaku, Throat-Slashing Blamed on a Gears of War Relationship Gone Bad]