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I’m starting to dread the Game Developers Conference. The number of email pitches that we journalists get before the annual tradeshow in San Francisco is simply overwhelming. Forget trying to read them all, much less replying.
Unfortunately, much of this is due to the growing throng of independent developers who descend upon the conference each year — the same people who need the media coverage the most.
Despite countless demos, meetings, and events created around showing us these indie games at GDC a couple of weeks ago, I only managed to get my eyes and hands on a small handful — and among those, the five below are those that I’m most excited to play again.
Platform: PC (Steam)
Release date: April
Monochroma has that convention-passerby-stopping look — where a quick glance at its stunning, minimalistic graphics will certainly make you pause to examine it more closely.
I had a similar rubbernecking experience at an older Electronic Entertainment Expo with the then-unknown indie darling Limbo. It’s not a bad comparison, because one of Monochroma’s developers described his game to me as “Limbo meets Ico.” Tell me that isn’t a way to any gamer’s heart?
The Limbo aspect is immediately obvious: Both games are two-dimensional, puzzle-oriented platformers with primarily black-and-white visuals (Monochroma has a splash of red for accents as well). In Monochroma, the world is a little more industrial and a little less dreamy, as it tells a more grounded tale of two brothers who start off playing by themselves in a field but eventually discover a factory that produces robots that are supposed to help build homes — but may serve a more sinister purpose.
Little brother, however, hurt himself in an accident at the start of the game, and big brother must carry him around — hence the Ico comparison with a constant companionship in a mysterious adventure game. The two bodies play into the puzzle portions — big brother can’t jump as high with the little one on his back, but you may need the two together for extra weight (say, to activate a pressure-sensitive switch). The older one can leave the younger behind temporarily but only in the light, as darkness frightens him. So this two-person dynamic makes the obstacles in Monochroma a bit more head-scratchy, but it shares a lot of the same vibe as Limbo otherwise.
Rollers of the Realm
Platform: PC (Steam)
Release date: Late summer
“Pinball meets role-playing game.” Depending on your tastes, that may be even more magical sounding than “Limbo meets Ico.” It’s a strange concept that I wasn’t ready to embrace at first, but after getting a brief demo of Rollers of the Realm, I was intrigued enough to want to see more.
This pinball game has an overarching story, and you play through its chapters with different characters that represent your balls. (Sorry, there really isn’t a better way to put that.) A ranger, for example, is a pinball that actually shoots at targets as it bounces around the field. A rogue is dextrous, allowing you to nudge the pinball to affect its trajectory. A spellcaster can summon things like hailstorms, which translates into a multiball in pinball terms. A knight gets a shield, which helps saves itself from “dying” from falling in between your paddles down the central sewer.
Yes, Rollers of the Realm is an odd one, but it’s an interesting take on pinball.
Q.U.B.E. Director’s Cut
Platforms: PC (Steam), Wii U, Xbox One
Release date: April (PC, Wii U), end of 2014 (Xbox One)
Q.U.B.E. has a distinct Portal vibe, with two-handed puzzle-solving in futuristic, sterile 3D environments, but it has a distinct personality of its own. With different gloves, you can manipulate colored blocks in an otherwise whitewashed world. You can pull and push blocks, for example, to act as platforms and springboards to help you reach new areas.
The original Q.U.B.E. (which stands for Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion) is two years old now, but the Director’s Cut is due out this year for several platforms. It adds a fascinating story element, where you wake up inside a gigantic alien ship and must solve its puzzles to disable it before it can bring harm to Earth. You’re connected via radio communication to someone back home who’s helping you through this impending disaster, but that will cut out for long periods at a time due to the moon’s revolution getting in the way. The added air of mystery and the tense sense of urgency add a lot of flavor to the clever gameplay.
Among the Sleep
Release date: Summer
Despite one developer’s best efforts to keep me from playing this demo (by purposely letting other people cut in front of me, and just me, for some unknown reason), I was able to get a few minutes in via the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset — and I liked what I saw.
You play a baby — a literal 2 year old — who escapes his crib to crawl around a dark and quiet house that’s full of shadows and creaky doors that seem to open on its own. It’s haunted-house scary, with the psychological spookiness greatly amplified by your vulnerable state, a nightmarish interpretation of your home, and the seemingly lack of … anyone.
Where Among the Sleep really got me is when I crawled through a vent and out the other end to come out underneath a bed. I saw a pair of tall boots, making it look like an adult was just quietly sitting there on the edge of the bed, right above me. But as I approached, those empty boots fell over, with no one wearing them. Turned out no one was there after all, but it was still creepy as hell.
Platforms: iOS, PC (Steam), Wii U
Release date: Now (iOS, PC), April (Wii U)
I still can’t get over the fact that, no joke, a studio named BeautiFun Games is making a dark platformer about “the existential dread lurking within us all.”
Somber mood aside, Nihilumbra has some interesting gameplay, especially for touch-based interfaces. As you play, you can select certain colors to “paint” portions of the screen with specific game-altering characteristics. Red, for example, burns enemies. Blue makes a slippery, icy surface that can help you slide heavy objects around. Brown is sticky and holds foes in place, and green makes surfaces bouncy, for extra jump height. You have to figure out what color to use in what situations to get past obstacles and to solve simple puzzles.