The Humble Voxatron Debut, a bundle of indie games, isn’t really all that humble, when you get down to it. For two weeks, users are able to name their own price for a bundle of top-tier indie games that includes the first-ever alpha release of Voxtatron along with the full versions of The Binding of Isaac and Blocks That Matter. And now that we’re entering the final weekend that the bundle’s on sale, we thought it might be time to tell you whether it’s worth it.
The actual results of these bundles is something worth bragging about: despite letting customers go as low as “nothing” with their named prices, the Humble Voxatron Debut has raised just shy of $800,000 as I write this, and past Humble Bundles have cleared the million-dollar mark. Historically, about a third of that money has gone to the developers, which is still hundreds of thousands of dollars, a fair chunk of change for these – dare I say it – humble game studios. It is a novel way of selling indie games in a way that they can get noticed, without a huge marketing budget.
The proceeds from the Humble Bundle get split up between the developers and a handful of geek-friendly charities. When you purchase the bundle, you set where your money goes: if you want it all to go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Child’s Play, you can do that. If you think it should all go to the developers – or even just one developer – you can do that, too. But by default, Humble Bundle automatically does an even split. Minecraft creator Notch is topping the contributor list with a $2,000 purchase.
All the games included are cross-platform, so you’re in the clear to participate in the Humble Voxatron Debut even when running Mac OS X or Linux. The Humble Bundle is even nice enough to include a Steam key for those so inclined (though it’s worth noting that as an alpha, bundle headliner Voxatron isn’t eligible for Steam). And I should mention that to unlock The Binding of Isaac and Blocks That Matter, you need to beat the current average contribution.
So here’s the skinny on the games included as we enter its last four days of sale:
The Binding of Isaac
- Developers: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
- MSRP: $4.99
- Kind of Like: Jhonen Vasquez Presents Robotron 2084
If I had to describe The Binding of Isaac in one word, it would be “merciless.” The game’s story, as presented in the opening cinematic, shows Isaac’s mother systematically abusing her child at the behest of the voice of God. When God finally tells her to kill her son, he escapes to the basement under his house – which is apparently the gateway to Hell and filled with strange monsters and treasure.
It only gets more brutal from there: Isaac begins the game (and every level thereafter) crying in the fetal position on the floor. When he stands up, an inscription on the floor reveals the game’s primary control scheme: Move around with WASD and shoot in eight directions with the arrow keys in a manner very much reminiscent of Robotron 2084. You use one of the many, many magic items you find with the spacebar and drop bombs with the shift key.
It took me a few minutes to recognize that Isaac’s main projectile weapons are his own tears.
But that doesn’t mean that the game is dark. Quite the opposite, actually: the game has an appealingly super-deformed cartoon style that manages to somehow stay cute even when the walls are covered in the blood and viscera of the eldritch horrors you’ll be fighting. Oh yes – there will be blood.
The Binding of Isaac is a throwback to a time when video games didn’t hold your hand. The game will punish mistakes, and the game revels in throwing harder and harder challenges your way while continually giving less health and pick-ups. When you die, there’s no save point. It’s back to the beginning for you. Every. Single. Time.
And from the word “go,” you’ll face headless zombies that spurt blood from their necks to glowworms that grow giant sets of gnashing teeth when they spot you. That doesn’t even begin to describe the named bosses, who each come with a semi-unique matchup screen that gives them the encounters an appropriate amount of gravitas.
The randomly-generated dungeons themselves look a lot like those from the original Legend of Zelda. You’ll traverse lots of cave walls and pits and infernal landscapes, with atmospheric music to match. Interestingly, it seems like the game switches up the layouts on you depending on performance: someone who dies a lot (like yours truly) will find more loot and fewer monsters.
There’s a definite action RPG element to The Binding of Isaac, too. Isaac has four key stats: speed, range, defense and attack. But there aren’t any experience points – over the course of Isaac’s adventure, he collects money, items, tarot cards, pills and magical weapons from the rooms he loots that can affect those stats positively and negatively. More weapons, items, and monsters are unlocked the more you play, meaning that there’s almost always something else to get.
These magical items are whimsically named, with most some kind of reference to Internet culture and other video games: a laser you fire from your mouth is called “Shoop Da Whoop,” and a tiny fly familiar that stays at a distance is called “Forever Alone.” In a very nice visual touch, most items you pick up are reflected on your character. You may find yourself with a giant head that improves damage. But that also means you might find yourself fighting Satan himself wearing high heels.
It’s a difficult game to sum up because your tolerance will largely depend on your capacity for punishment: there are plenty of satisfied customers who are glad for a game that makes no bones about its lack of compassion for the player. And there’s nothing quite like the feeling of victory after squeezing past a boss with only half a heart of health remaining. But there are also going to be those who get frustrated and put it down forever after their third time dying after stepping into a fire pit right after finishing off a tricky boss (yes, it happens).
Final Word: A fun retro-style action shooter with a wicked sense of humor, but only those with patience, fortitude and an itchy trigger finger need apply.
Blocks That Matter
Blocks That Matter has a deceptively simple premise. Playing as a tiny drilling robot, you’re placed into a two-dimensional subterranean world with the goal of getting to the exit portal. But rather than running and jumping your way to victory, you’re upgraded in the very first level with the ability to build structures from the blocks you drill through.
There is a plot to Blocks That Matter, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. Alexey and Markus, heroic indie game developers have been kidnapped by fans who want them to finish their next game. Enter the heroic Tetrobot, who begins the underground quest to rescue them and defeat the evil ambitions of the Slime Army that threatens the world above.
As you may expect, there are a few catches with this setup. You can only build with four blocks at a time, and only in the familiar Tetris piece shapes – in a sly nod to its obvious inspiration, a character makes a reference to the robot protagonist being programmed in accordance with “Pajitnovian physics,” after Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. You can’t drill while jumping. Some blocks fall when there’s nothing supporting them. If you take two hits from a Slime, the level resets. There are blocks you can’t drill, only destroy. And so on.
Every level has a finite number of bricks, and it seems obvious that the developers have a particular solution in mind for most of the puzzles you encounter. For the advanced player, every level has a bonus Block That Matters hidden in a treasure chest, itself placed in a hard-to-reach corner of the level. Your reward for picking up that bonus? A trophy, referencing a great puzzle game of the past. You can even destroy any eight blocks that all sit in a row in a manner that’s, well, Pajitnovian. This game is not subtle about its influences.
Frustration sets in when you just can’t see the solution to the puzzle in front of you. And because resources are limited in every level, destroying or misplacing the wrong block can result in having to start all over. Since this is a puzzle-platform game, that means that solving one level can involve doing the same tricky jump and solving the same tricky spatial reasoning problem over and over until you get back to the part where you got stuck.
I haven’t mentioned the graphics or music to Blocks That Matter yet. But that’s because neither are especially memorable. Tetrobot and the slime enemies are well-animated, but not exceptionally so, and the world is appropriately bright and cheerful, but the bar never really goes above “serviceable.”
Final Word: A worthy, if unexceptional, tribute to puzzle games past and present that’s best played in twenty-minute stretches.
- Developer: Lexaloffle
- MSRP: Unknown, still in alpha
- Kind of Like: That next-generation Smash TV sequel you’ve always wanted
Even in its unfinished state, arcade-style shoot-em-up Voxatron shines with potential. Humble Voxatron Debut customers are eligible for access to all future releases, and that may turn out to be an amazing deal.
Voxatron gets its name from the voxels (sort of a three-dimensional pixel) that every item in the environment is made out of. It’s not the first voxel-based game by a long shot, but it’s the first and highest-profile in a long while. It gives the game a unique look, but the advantages are more than skin-deep.
Everything in Voxatron is constructed of voxels, which means that everything is destructible. In a memorable early level, two giant minotaurs spawn and charge at you – and when (if?) you dodge, they smash right into the doorway you came from, leaving voxel debris everywhere. The savvy player will lead them into the middle of the room, where you can trick them into knocking down giant columns with goodies and power-ups at the top.
Like The Binding of Isaac, the game uses a twin stick-style setup for shooting in eight directions. But in Voxatron, when you start firing in one direction, you’re stuck facing that way until you let go of the trigger. That’s convenient when strafing a group of enemies, but less so when surrounded.
In a manner reminiscent of classic arcade shooter Smash TV, some items drop items like sushi that are worthless except for bonus points, but you’re also going to get some really big guns. Even the deaths are satisfying: when Voxatron himself loses all three hearts, an immensely satisfying explosion takes out everything in the immediate vicinity.
There’s a main arcade mode, challenge maps, and even a fairly decent level editor in this early version, and who knows about the goodies in the full release.
Final Word: It’s too soon to pass a real judgment on a game that’s still only an alpha, but its unique look, destructible environments, and fast-paced action could make this the next Geometry Wars.
In conclusion, you may have noticed that I didn’t actually assign any scores to these games. That’s because the major point of a review is to tell you whether or not a game is worth purchasing. And when you can get all three games here by just donating the $5.25 average or more, the answer to that question as we enter the bundle’s home stretch is a resounding “yes.” And the fact that as I was writing this, Gish and a few other mini-games were added to the bundle? Well, that’s just gravy.