Some of you might have got an email notification that contained a bizarre tale. I keep a blog about my weird dreams, and for some reason WordPress decided to post that one here instead of on the blog I asked it to. Yay. Disregard (unless you like utterly bizarre dreams).
The Oregon Trail is old. It’s also quintessentially American and, as such, never crossed my path when I was child. I only heard of it relatively recently, mainly in the context of the newer and more universal Organ Trail, which is about zombies. It doesn’t get much more universal than that, as ten thousand indie games remind us daily with a cynical salesman’s sneer. The essence of both games is to trek across the United States in your wagon/car, having more or less randomly chosen encounters ranging from dangerous creatures to bouts of disease. Along the way you can buy and sell supplies, scavenge, hunt for food and take on odd jobs.
Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears stuffs itself firmly into this mould and emerges as an appetising hybrid of The Oregon Trail and Fallout, offering that familiar cross-US trek but now with added irradiated wasteland antics. That’s the dream, anyway. Like most dreams it bears as much resemblance to reality as my beard bears to a colony of stoats – that’s to say a little, but not enough to fool someone free from severe cataracts.
Since I sat down here to put pen to paper (finger to key, whatever) my inner tabloid headline writer has been begging me to pun the game’s title into a different form. Perhaps ‘Fail of Drears’ or ‘Stale of Tears’. I know, I know, I couldn’t work for The Sun with that sort of pun skill. I’d be a senior editorial candidate at least. The fact, if I may so boldly claim knowledge of the fundaments of reality, is that Apocalyptic Path: ToF feels like it’s a small child in a park being reluctantly dragged into a game of football with kids it doesn’t like from school. It punts the ball in the general direction of the goal, then shrugs and wanders off.
The familiar format from The Oregon Trail and Organ Trail is very much in place, with all the accustomed trappings. Your car is now pulled by giant cockroaches and everyone dresses like they’re just killing time before the Mad Max 4 casting call, but it’s mostly the same stuff in broad strokes. Set your rate of food and water consumption to conserve resources while looking for more, but beware of hunger and dehydration. Try to keep everyone’s morale up so they don’t mutiny or decide to end it all. Watch out for sneaky traps placed by bandits, cannibals who eat your arms, and assorted other randomly-arising hazards. Occasionally bump into someone who wants to trade with you rather than gnaw on your elbow. This is as far as the resemblance goes, though. I’ve never played the original Oregon Trail but I have played Organ Trail and it was flawed but fun. Apocalyptic Path is flawed but flawed. I’m the sort who can look past flaws to see the fun beneath, but when I look past these flaws all I see is more flaws.
This would be excusable to an extent if the effort was there. I’ve played plenty of games that made so many mistakes they just weren’t fun, but that scored some points for effort. I’m not saying that no effort went into Apocalyptic Path but it was distributed very unevenly and it’s this pervasive sloppiness that really rubs me the wrong way.
The most competent part of the game, besides the overall structure which was intentionally borrowed from earlier games, is the presentation. Well, the visuals anyway. The less said about the monotone dirge of the audio, the better. Actually, the more said the better, since the ranting might drown out that ghastly noise.) The visual presentation is generally solid enough, if a bit gruesome. Not gruesome in the gory sense, but gruesome in the hideously disfigured, NES Pirates! sense. I enjoyed the general aesthetic but the player’s party of characters consists entirely of radiation-warped semi-human mutants that look ten times worse for being mashed through an 8-bit blender. The world itself doesn’t fare as badly, being minimalist but true to the visual style of the game’s inspiration. Battle scenes bizarrely take the form of a Pokémon-style duel, with your cast of characters taking turns. More on that in a moment, but for now I’ll say the resemblance is more than mechanical. The visual style is accurate to the original Pokémon right down to being in shades of grey, and although it’s a startling shift the first time, it’s actually a pleasant change from the main game screen after a while.
This is where I run out of compliments.
The very first thing that struck me as soon as I reached the game’s title screen was the interface. It uses a mouse pointer. I know the idea is to tweak and re-skin the Oregon/Organ games but spare a little thought for the fact that this one is actually on a console. On-screen points seldom work well with a controller, and the only cases where it’s really justifiable are the likes of strategy or management games where there isn’t really a better way to indicate what you want to do. Here, the actions you’re required to perform come down to choosing an option from a list and pressing A. Why not just use the stick to scroll up and down the list? Why laboriously drag a pointer across the screen? It makes no sense to anyone who’s put even a moment’s thought into making the game console-friendly, and this slapdash lack of interest in the development runs like a noxious radioactive seam throughout the finished product.
Next was the character naming screen. Your party of five have default names but, as players of XCOM: Enemy Unknown can tell you, personalising your team encourages you to care if they survive. The actual naming process was fine, as was choosing my starting set of perks, but when I immediately went into the inventory to equip my weapons I noticed that the default names were still displayed! On the main game screen, Carys and Kieren were alive and well, but in the inventory screen their seedy double lives were revealed, Carys shamefacedly admitting to being a Molly and Kieren getting stuck with the unwieldy Cig. No one should be named after an abbreviated tobacco product. It’s a purely cosmetic difference, but after an already thoughtless start the game was starting to stray out of ‘we made slightly questionable decisions’ territory and into the murky lands of ‘we didn’t give a shit’.
Add to this growing heap of rancid gristle the fact that four of your party all have a coloured health indicator but the fifth one doesn’t, and things cease to be superficial and start to become serious gameplay concerns. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have features that should affect gameplay but don’t. Much like in Organ Trail you can adjust the speed of your car. There it was a question of balancing speed and fuel concerns. Here, it’s just speed. Having varying rates of progress is just irrelevant as there’s no reason to go any slower than the highest speed (which, incidentally, wins this month’s prize for Most Brazen Misnomer – a setting called ‘breakneck’ that moves like a glacier sleepwalking through neck-deep quicksand). Again, sloppy. Start to finish, everything I saw in this game was sloppy, slapdash and poorly thought out.
Possibly the most crushing blow to the game’s fun value, though, is the difficulty. I left this to last because I can already here shrieks of ‘it’s meant to be difficult!’ Yes, I know it is. Its spiritual precursor, Organ Trail, was difficult too. The unpredictability of encounters combined with the very limited resources meant that some runs through the game could be breathtakingly unforgiving. There were two important differences there, though. Firstly, occasional good events; and secondly, a sense of player agency.
I’ve spent some time with Apocalyptic Path now and the random events are brutally unfair. I’ve had maybe two positive encounters in my entire time with the game so far. Everything that ever happens is damaging, whether it’s disease or battles or mechanical damage to the car, and almost all of it is completely beyond your control. Don’t go into anywhere that has enemies because you probably can’t kill them, unless you chose the Sheriff class at the outset, giving you a couple of ‘rat sticks’ for weapons as one of your starting perks. No other choice of class can survive even the easiest early-game fight, in my experience. Nor can you pick up weapons as you go along, at least with any degree of reliability. I have yet to ever find a weapon in a random encounter, only in shops, and even then the only ones I’ve seen are those basic ‘rat sticks’ which by the time you reach the very first shop are already becoming pretty useless. Not to mention that the distance between the starting point and the first town/shop is such an epic slog that it makes the extended Lord of the Rings look like crossing the room.
The game is ferociously stacked against you with a relentless deluge of setback after setback, afflicting you with deaths and crippling resources losses entirely at random and, crucially, with nothing you can do to prevent it or even try to mitigate the damage. There’s no way to prepare for the worst because you have to go so damn far before you can find any supplies at all, and the only modification you can make to your party is to adjust their food and water intake, and equip weapons. Did I mention that you can’t unequip them? Yep, there’s just no option for that. Sloppy.
That’s Apocalyptic Path: Trail of Fears in a nutshell. I’ve abused the word here but it’s the most apt: this game is sloppy. From the clumsy choice of interface, to the name and equipment oversights, to the hideous imbalance in gameplay, the entire thing feels like it was thrown together by someone who was distracted. It feels like the game never had the developer’s full attention, and as such it hangs together in an unsightly congealed clump that I can’t possibly recommend you try to swallow. I have granted some forgiveness to bad games that were made with good intentions and lots of effort. I can’t speak for the intentions of Apocalyptic Path’s developer, but I can say turn off the TV and pay attention to the game next time. If there’s any effort here, I can’t see it.
RPGs on Xbox Live Indie Games are a risky proposition. Some are well intentioned but awkward and/or dull (Monster King), others are enjoyable but brief (EvilQuest) and depressingly many are risible, fanservice-infested forays into the hormonal hothouse of the teenage boy market (Temple of Dogolrak 2 and its ilk). Meanwhile, some of the better XBLIGs that are labelled as RPGs don’t really qualify for the genre (Dead Pixels and BloodyCheckers spring to mind).
Sashaying flamboyantly into the midst of this latter category comes Sequence. It’s been available on XBLIG and Steam (here) for some time, but has managed to consistently defy my attempts to review it. Somehow, reviewing Sequence feels like a bigger job than usual, and it took me months to realise that it’s because the game doesn’t feel indie, or at least Xbox indie. Where I can say everything that needs to be said about Super Killer Hornet or Vidiot Game in a couple of hours of frantic typing, Sequence, like a fickle spouse, demands more attention.
In essence, Sequence is two types of game in one: it has the character-driven story, stat building, item hunting and monster slaying of an RPG, but it also has the music-based button-matching of a rhythm game. What it doesn’t have in any noticeable way is sequences, leading Sequence to join the noble ranks of XBLIGs whose titles have nothing to do with their content.
I played the demo for Sequence a couple of times before I bought the full game, and although I was intrigued by the rhythm/RPG combination, that alone hadn’t entirely sold me on it. I’m not rhythmically inclined (just ask anyone who’s seen me dance) and the game itself warns that the Normal difficulty mode might be too tough for people like me. Apparently the average person should be fine with Normal, but even Easy was difficult for me in places. I took this warning to heart, not least because other rhythm games I’ve attempted have obliterated me and then gloated over my mangled self-esteem. XBLIG’s Beat Hazard, for instance, is completely impossible for me. I can’t even get through the tutorial. Evidently I simply don’t perceive rhythm in sounds very well.
So it would need more than the promise of splicing RPGs with a genre I’m horrible at to persuade me to part with my pennies. Sequence managed it by presenting me with something I couldn’t resist: characters who actually have character. Even the finest heavyweights of the RPG genre often end up with characters who are pretty much just one personality trait with legs. Pick an RPG character, and a description of them can usually be narrowed down to one main feature – recklessness, fear of emotional dependence, evasion of responsibility, grief, idiocy, belligerence. That isn’t the case with Ki, the main character of Sequence. He isn’t an elaborately written mass of contradictions and internal conflicts like, say, Kain from the Legacy of Kain series, but he similarly defies easy description because he’s best categorised as ‘just some guy’. In fact, he’s perhaps closer to a sitcom lead character than anyone in a drama, because he has a definite attitude and sense of humour of his own but at the same time he doesn’t have a particularly outstanding character trait. I couldn’t sum Ki up for you, but I could tell you I liked him.
That’s the other component of Sequence’s use of character. While the boss enemies are usually one-note caricatures (intentionally, I suspect) the two leads, Ki and Naia, are genuinely likeable. It can be easy to like a dramatic character as a worthwhile mechanic of the story, but it’s much harder to like them as a person, because so few are actually anything like real people. Ki and Naia are slightly unremarkable and nondescript, just like real people, but at the same time this realness combines with witty, charming dialogue to make them both genuinely pleasant company. Observing their interaction was the most enjoyable part of the whole game. Writing alone isn’t enough for this, at least here in the 21st century. Ki and Naia are also well acted, which is a hell of a novelty for an XBLIG. Each independently feels like the acting captured their character, but more importantly when the speak to each other it feels like there’s genuine chemistry between the actors.
That’s what sold me on Sequence despite my rhythmic ineptitude, and it’s what kept me going when grinding the same couple of enemies (and, by extension, songs) over and over grew stale. The mechanics of the game are solid and fun, but it’s the character writing and the way it’s delivered that pulls you in and keeps you there.
I feel like I could leave it there, but I’d be remiss in writing a review without talking about how the game actually plays. So this is how it works. You control Ki, who wakes to find himself mysteriously stashed in a tower that’s crammed with monsters, and with no guidance but a mysterious disembodied voice calling herself Naia. You don’t walk Ki around or have any direct control over an avatar of him between battles, but instead you use menus to set up his gear and check what you need to be doing next. This is usually a pretty fleeting experience, as the bulk of the gameplay is a combination of battles and skill acquisition, both of which occur through the medium of a rhythm game.
Generally at any given time you need to either gain enough item drops to craft something useful or gain experience for levelling, both of which come from fighting the tower’s legions of beasties. Each floor of the tower has three enemy types available, and you can choose which type you want to confront each time you leave your safe room. They have different powers, different patterns and, crucially, different item drops. The unfortunate side effect of this is that you will end up battling each enemy type numerous times, and once you’ve got a handle on which skills are most useful against an enemy, it becomes repetitive and almost mindless. Still, rhythm games repetitive by nature and tend to rely on the quality of the music to sustain them. Here, although each enemy consistently uses its own song every time you fight it (and some songs are used by more than one enemy type) the music is catchy and compelling enough to make this a pleasant, rather than arduous, experience. I’m the sort of person who repeatedly listens to favourite songs anyway, so replays of Sequence’s engaging tunes weren’t too heavy a burden. Credit for the score here goes to Ronald Jenkees, whose music can easily be found on YouTube. He also sells CDs, if you really take a shine to his work. Oddly enough, being linked on Twitter to this song from Sequence was the main reason I paid a second visit to the demo (which then led to a buy).
Combat occurs on three panels, which you can switch between freely. The all focus on matching directional presses with the arrows that are descending the screen. The first panel is defence; the arrows that fall in time with the music represent your opponent’s attacks, and pressing the corresponding directions defends against those attacks. The next panel is abilities; when you activate an ability (using a thumbstick and shoulder button) a set pattern of arrows falls in this panel, and to successfully use the ability you need to match the directions. The final panel is your reserves of magic power; arrows fall basically at random, and each one you match recharges a bit of your magic power which you can then use to activate more abilities.
The catch is that you can only view and act on one panel at a time. If you want to regain magic power, you have to risk taking hits. If you want to use an ability, you have to take hits and miss out on magic regen. It’s a very simple idea really, but it works well. Everything you do is a question of cost versus benefit. Nor are you able to cheese it and just fend off attacks for ten minutes, waiting for an easy moment to cast a spell. The duration of the song is also the duration of the battle, and once that sweet music fades out, the fight is lost. Ki doesn’t die or anything so dramatic, but it is an inconvenience to have wasted the time and effort that you put in. This can be frustrating when you were sincerely trying to win, but it has the interesting effect of forcing you to play less cautiously, take some risks and fight in a way that isn’t just effective but also quick.
Learning new abilities and crafting equipment from item drops follows a similar pattern. Only one panel this time, but you have to match the directions with a certain degree of accuracy in order to succeed. This could perhaps have been made a little more interesting, but it works well enough.
As someone with the rhythmic aptitude of a watermelon, some of the mid-game battles seemed remarkably tough. The obstructive interference that each floor’s boss can throw into your routine grind-fights also served as a mighty pain in my arrhythmic behind. As a whole though, the mechanics worked well enough that I enjoyed them for almost the whole length of the game before I started to feel a touch of tedium. The novelty would have worn off a lot sooner if not for the likeable characters and their charming dialogue, plus the ever-present mystery of exactly what this tower full of monsters is actually about.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I recommend playing Sequence’s demo twice. Once to get the tutorial section, and then again to actually play a bit of the game (you have Microsoft’s 8-minute demo time limit to thank for that necessity). Even just the tutorial will give you an idea of the tone and quality of the character interaction. If it doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe Sequence isn’t for you, and that might be the hardest thing about writing this review – not describing the gameplay or accounting for my enjoyment of it, but trying to guess who would or wouldn’t like it. I avoid rhythm games but I like Sequence. I dislike menu interfaces but I like Sequence. I have no sense of rhythm but I like Sequence. I can’t guess whether or not you’ll like it too, but I can tell you it’s worth trying for yourself. Only by stepping into that tower with Ki and Naia can you know for sure, and believe me that if you do find you like it, you’ll be glad you listened.
Rad Raygun is nostalgia. It’s not merely nostalgic; it’s constructed top to bottom entirely from dewy-eyed longing for the sepia-drenched days of yore – ‘yore’ in this case being the 1980s. I know, that might not be yore enough for some of you, but considering there are documented cases of five year olds playing Call of Duty online, there’s a significant chunk of the game-playing audience for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Roman Empire happened around the same time.
If you never played on Nintendo’s original green-screened Game Boy, the endearing charm of Rad Raygun’s visual style will probably be lost on you. I enjoyed it, but I harbour no illusions that it was down to anything other than the warm ‘aww, this is how I remember platformers’ sensation. For one cosy hour, I relived the days I spent playing Asterix in the back of my dad’s car. If you don’t have these fond memories, then Rad Raygun is already losing ground. Memories of your own, that is. I’m fairly confident that you weren’t in my dad’s car, unless…Dad?
RR isn’t the first Xbox Live Indie Game to try its hand at Game Boy visuals. Punishment platformer Slick tried it too, as did teeth-gnashingly obtuse puzzle-platformer Treasure Treasure: FFEE. Recreating the style of yesteryear is one of the things XBLIG developers like to attempt, whether it’s bleaching out the colour to simulate a Game Boy, drawing the art in primary coloured blocks to mimic an Atari 2600, or making everything as monstrously hideous and cumbersome as possible to ape an Intellivision. The difference here is that Rad Raygun actually pulls it off. It reproduces not only the visual and audio style but also the feel of the gameplay, with a little bit of modern polish subtly applied in a few places so that it doesn’t play like a complete wreck. Make no mistake, most 1980s portable games haven’t aged well.
Some of these determined concessions to faithful ‘80s-ness stray beyond stylistic affectations to impact the gameplay. When Rad leaves a room, the action will freeze as the camera shifts over to the next area. While this sort of break in the flow wouldn’t be acceptable in a non-retro game anymore, it’s perfectly valid here and doesn’t cause any inconvenience.
The same can’t always be said of the other conscious Game Boy-isms. The jumping in particular is a bane; rather than leaping with any kind of practical arc or sense of weight, Rad sharply twitches a mile upward at the slightest nudge of the jump button, and whatever you do you will never succeed in making the horizontal distance equal the vertical. The result is a jumping sensation that feels awkward and clumsy, not to mention frequently impractical as you find yourself brazenly stuffing your head right into overhead enemies’ lines of fire.
The other influence here aside from the Game Boy is Mega Man. Mercifully RR doesn’t even begin to approach classic Mega Man difficulty, but it’s full of nods to that series – the gun arm, the robotic main character (he’s actually a distorted Game Boy, but close enough), the slide ability, even the types of enemies. I loathe and despise Mega Man games for their cheap shots, but Rad Raygun mostly doesn’t stoop to that. In fact, it’s distinctly easy for the most part. All in all the game will probably run to about an hour of play time, maybe an hour and half, so it’s not a particularly enduring experience. Fortunately, this is one of those cases where brevity is a good thing.
Rad Raygun doesn’t just imitate the games of years past, it’s also crammed to bursting with humorous contemporary references, whether it’s jingoistic fear of Communism, Rad’s mission to bring down the Berlin Wall or Ronald Reagan’s gurning face giving briefings. 80s names and events spill out from Rad Raygun like Ready Brek from a Thundercats bowl. Dependent as it is on nostalgia and referential gags, it would be easy for the game to outstay its welcome, but the relatively easy level of challenge and the short overall playtime ensure that it all wraps up just before the gags start to grate.
That’s the key to enjoying Rad Raygun, really. The bold and ridiculous 80s-ness of it all kept me smiling most of the time, and I was able to forgive its couple of awkward gameplay affectations because I’m desensitised to them from the real 80s. If you don’t remember the 80s or have enough awareness of pop culture and world events from that decade, then the largest part of the entertainment value is gone. You’re left with just the gameplay, which is a decent enough but easy and unremarkable platformer with a jumping motion that might you grind your teeth down to stumps. Rad Raygun is less an 80s-themed game than a lighthearted nostalgia slideshow with some simple gameplay inserted to keep you occupied. That’s not to say the gameplay isn’t fun, but aside from the odd detour into impromptu Tetris it’s too short and too generic to be worth recommending to anyone who lacks glasses of a suitably rosy hue.
If you do remember the 80s, though, Rad Raygun is an entertaining use of an hour. It avoided boring me by providing enough reference gags to prevent the gamplay getting tedious, and vice versa. I can’t complain at getting 60-90 minutes of “Ha! I get it!” moments stitched neatly onto a “Aww, I remember games being like this” backdrop for 80 Microsoft points.
If you’re Rad Raygun’s target audience you’ll like it, and if you’re not you won’t. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you want out, just follow the smell of broadband and dubstep to the exit. Otherwise, pull up a pogo ball and try to avoid making eye contact with Erasure.
It’s been difficult to craft a review of 0 Gravity Y3030, partly because the game is itself dishearteningly tough and partly because it’s hard to know what to say about it. The concept sounds, on paper, simultaneously intriguing and dull. ‘Go and pick up junk that’s drifting around in space’ (to paraphrase) might not be the world’s most thrilling blurb, but it reminded me of the generally solid anime series Planetes and that was enough for me to decide right on the spot that I was going to play it.
Well, I say ‘play’ but something like ‘operate’ might be a more apt choice of verb. Y3030 feels less like a game than a shift at work, which is pretty much what it represents – a day in the life of someone who hauls miscellaneous space debris around. As a sort of deep space housekeeper you guide your little one-man rig around the vicinity of a confusingly tangled space station, picking up crates and other miscellany that need retrieval for one reason or another, then using your meagre earnings to splash out on luxuries like breathable air.
The most striking part of the experience is the sensation of being in space. This is something very rarely implemented with much conviction or success, and while I have several years too little NASA employment history to verify whether Y3030 is accurate, to my layman’s senses it does a better job than most of making me feel like I’m moving around in a zero gravity vacuum.
That’s really the selling point of the game. It doesn’t promise a rollercoaster ride of adrenal highs and despondent lows, or a frenetic scramble to overcome daunting odds. It promises space, and that’s what it delivers.
Unfortunately, space movement is exasperatingly slow and fiddly, so it doesn’t make for the most compelling entertainment. If you’ve ever sat in a doctor’s waiting room and thought the only thing that could improve the dizzying deluge of giddy exhilaration was an impression of weightlessness, then Y3030 is the game you’ve always wanted. I don’t want to be too hard on Y3030 for this, though. I suspect the playing experience here might be too uneventful for some audiences, but if you’re a patient sort or just enjoy a simulation of drifting around in space, Y3030 hits the target. Even so, it’s hard to recommend the game even to those with the patience of a professional paint-drying observer, for an entirely different reason.
The biggest flaw with Y3030 isn’t its slow, deliberate pace or its uneventful proceedings; it’s the difficulty. There are two things keeping you alive out there in the vast, impassive blankness of barely colonised deep space: oxygen and fuel. As the former runs low, your vision clouds over until the claustrophobic end closes around you. If your fuel runs out it’s much the same experience as you drift unable to propel yourself, just watching the O2 gauge gradually tick down to zero and cursing your inability to carry crates fast enough.
You see, what will always get you killed is basically shortage of cash. You earn money by retrieving the specified items of debris, then periodically you stop by the local space-7/11 for some oxygen and fuel. Or rather, some oxygen or fuel. You always need both, and always have enough money for just one. However hard you try to make the other resource last until you’ve carried out a few more jobs, it’s just too difficult. Faithful though the weightless vacuum movement might be, it’s frustrating and wearisome to control. This might be only a tiny blemish by itself, but add to it the labyrinthine clutter of identical shafts, cubes and general space station brick-a-brack that constitutes your main environment and suddenly the slightly awkward movement controls become an irritating handicap to navigation. Then factor in the strictly limited resources to create a final unforgiving experience that will penalise you not only for your own errors but also for simply failing to have spent the necessary years training as an astronaut. You will find yourself dying depressingly over and over in the unflinching void as you struggle to complete your intrinsically imprecise and slow-moving tasks with surgical precision and pit-stop rapidity.
Maybe with peerless mastery of your craft’s uncooperative motion and a photographic recollection of the ideal route to each pick-up, you might be able to make your supplies last after a few retries, but you’re unlikely to ever reach that level of expertise. The slow and largely uneventful pace of the game means that after a couple of dozen runs through the first five or six missions, you’ll be weary of the whole endeavour. Numerous replays are necessary as you painstakingly make tiny refinements to your approach in an attempt to sustain yourself a little bit longer than last time, but if the very first play is dry then repeats rapidly become tiresome – ironically the only thing Y3030 does rapidly.
I refused to believe that March to the Moon was a shooter until I played it. It doesn’t look like one, and for a while it doesn’t feel like one either. Be in no doubt, though: March to the Moon is resolutely a game about shooting swarms of enemies as you trudge stoically up the screen. Fortunately, this isn’t all it is.
The thing that really threw me was how much of an RPG the game appears to be at first glance. You control a person who walks through various quest-like environments fighting rats, goblins and aliens. You have access to a variety of spells which you unlock and upgrade as you gain levels through experience points. It’s almost as though someone set out to make a simple, traditional console RPG of the type that seldom works well on XBLIG, then suddenly decided shooters are better but didn’t want to waste all that work.
The premise is basic. You are a person who, Morrowind-style, has been asked to exterminate some pesky rats that are infesting a cellar. That’s about it, really. Once the cellar is under control you find more and more layers of infestation leading into the sewers and even space, and the rats will swap places with aliens and robots, but it’s basically the same mission just getting more and more difficult.
None of that really blew me away, nor did the slow and deliberate pace. The levels progress in their forced vertical scrolling at a very methodical plod, which works perfectly fine but doesn’t create a particularly dazzling first impression. Where March to the Moon blindsided me and really raised its game was in the skill system.
Unlike shooters in general, there’s a lot of freedom here to build your little warrior exactly the way you want to, including badly. You choose one career path at the outset, from which you can choose several skills to assign points to. After you’ve gained a few character levels you can choose a second career path to add to the first, giving you a whole new set of skills to acquire. This makes a huge difference to the way you play the game, as some paths are combat centric, some focus on passive buffs, some involve summoning creatures, and various other functions. You’re free to choose whichever you like, and although picking up summoning and healing will leave you inconveniently unable to fight properly, it’s refreshing to have the chance. Like the aforementioned Morrowind (which I wouldn’t have expected to reference in an indie shooter review) you’re at liberty to mess up your character build without the developer slapping you on the wrist, and when you figure out a build that works for you it feels more satisfying as a result. It’s your build, that you created to suit you.
March to the Moon’s developer wasn’t cavalier about including this freedom. Unlike the now-excessively-referenced Bethesda classic RPG, your ill-advised rat-hunting Summoner-Healer build isn’t irreversible. Once you realise that relying on your pet wolf to fight for you is liable to get you repeatedly hacked in the face, you don’t need to wearily restart the game. Those of us who lack strategic forethought can consider ourselves lucky – March to the Moon’s skill point assignment is fully undoable. You have to keep the career paths you chose, but any skill points you assigned within them can be removed and reassigned. Stuck with a dragon familiar that isn’t pulling its weight? Get rid of it and put those points into a direct attack skill instead. Finding your heal ineffective? Undo it and try out a buff.
The true benefit of this system isn’t simply that it’s forgiving; it also offers the ability to tailor your approach to every level. The game actively encourages replaying levels to gain additional experience and strengthen your character for the battles ahead, but grinding for experience isn’t the only way to overcome a tough level. You might find that a couple of your dependable skills aren’t proving that effective against a particular slew of enemies, but rather than having to just take it on the chin and slog away at grinding, you can give yourself a whole different set of skills for as long as you like, then change them back (or to something different again) later. It is an inspired design decision.
I have only two real criticisms of March to the Moon. Firstly, the soundtrack caused much gnashing of teeth and wailing. It improves after a few levels, but the music is mainly rhythm, and more than one level is scored entirely with a piercing, repetitive military drum track that felt like the relentless thudding of someone hammering a stubborn tent peg into my forehead. It actually genuinely gave me a headache. Eventually I resorted to periodically pausing the game and leaving the room, just to get away from the water torture-esque relentless tapping of that sadistic drum. This soundtrack alone has done more damage than any other feature to my enjoyment of March to the Moon.
Secondly, the difficulty curve is all over the place. If you’ve ever tried to draw by hand while riding in a 4×4 along a rutted farm track, you will by happy coincidence have sketched the difficulty curve of March to the Moon. It springs whimsically back and forth between surmountably modest difficulty and bone-searing savagery. Many levels require a few replays to accrue some more health and stronger powers, but every now and then you’ll hit a level than demands an hour or more of grinding the same five minute section over and over. Sometimes even rebuilding your character doesn’t help all that much, and even when it does, constructing and testing half a dozen builds just to pass one level can begin to wear thin.
Some might want to tack on a third criticism, so I’ll mention it even though it doesn’t really bother me. The visual presentation is pretty uninspiring, with drab backgrounds and amateurish character sprites, and I know for some people this is enough to condemn a game to the bin. For me it doesn’t really matter, though; I still play old games that would make a gangrenous tonsil look like sunset over the Himalayas.
March to the Moon is definitely a curio. A shooter that looks like it should be an action adventure, with a skill system that is detailed enough to embarrass some RPGs and customisable enough to inject strategy into a genre that isn’t known for it. It’s a grower, that fails to engage at first but quickly peels off layers of itself to reveal surprising complexity that makes it not only worth playing but worth replaying. There’s a lot to enjoy here, provided you can squint past the dingy amateur visuals and stuff your ears with enough small animals to block out the relentless snare drum soundtrack as you March to the Moon.
First person shooters have become so ubiquitous, so close to the default game genre, that I have to fight off a weary sinking sensation whenever one crosses my path. Now and then they defy my torpid scepticism and turn out to be fun – Section 8: Prejudice and Battlefield 1943 spring to mind – but for the most part I’m sick of the damn things. As with so many genres, though, the hope for diversity and bold reinvention lies in the indie side of development. The early build of Shootmania Storm on PC has already begun injecting new life into the flaccid multiplayer FPS, and the Xbox 360’s Null Battles is joining that crusade.
The closest real world experience I can think of to compare to playing Null Battles is something like leaping between giant magnetic Lego bricks in zero gravity. Each match takes place in a room full of large geometric shapes, usually randomly laid out (though this is customisable from the options menu – including the coveted treasure of a genuine level editor). From your team’s base halfway up one wall, you leap out into the arena where you will automatically adhere to the surface of whichever platform you touch. The platforms being 3D shapes, this often means suddenly finding yourself upside down or otherwise bizarrely orientated. It also means that as you spring from surface to surface in the chaos of combat, your perspective will flip and whirl in a way that makes it very difficult to aim reliably. Fortunately, this is where the fun comes from.
Null Battles feels a little like the adversarial FPS games of yesteryear, emphasising energetic lunging and spraying rather than hiding behind a wall and making precision headshots. It also reminds me slightly of the aforementioned Shootmania Storm in that it simplifies weapon selection down to a minimum, and relies on the frenetic pace and unique twist to keep it engaging.
You have two weapons: a laser-type gun for ranged combat (assigned to RT) and a standard short-range sidearm (assigned to LT) that acts more like a melee attack than the usual backup pistol. There is no ammunition but, as in Mass Effect, your ability to rain brightly coloured destruction upon your opponents is limited by the build-up of heat in your weapon. Continuous fire will cause the gun to overheat and leave you in the humiliatingly disastrous position of being completely defenceless for a few seconds. In a game this fast paced, having to spend vital seconds running around and whimpering like an alarmed hamster (or an unusually resolute sheep) can be fatal.
How much you enjoy Null Battles will probably be determined by how much you demand precision performance. If you’re the sort of person who derives enjoyment from painstakingly training yourself to shoot microscopic dots in their microscopic heads after aiming for only a tenth of a second, then Null Battles might annoy you. That’s not to say there’s no place for skill here, but the randomly generated terrain layout and haphazard convulsion of gravitational direction lead to a more messy and manic play style. You can’t train yourself to make crack shots reliably because you can’t memorise the randomised maps, and when you move you can’t count on being the same way up half a second later.
If, on the other hand, you appreciated the frantic, unfettered chaos of ‘90s deathmatching, or you just like the sound of it, Null Battles could give you much more than your 80 Microsoft points’ worth of fun.
Unfortunately Null Battles bears a heavy burden. Like many multiplayer-focused indie games, particularly on the Xbox, it runs a constant risk of suffering from lack of community. There are options for both local and online play, with options for up to four teams for real carnage, but the only way you’ll play other human beings is if you arrange a session with friends. Fortunately the AI picks up the slack here. Much as in Take Arms, the AI participants are reasonably competent and don’t behave too conspicuously unlike real people. That’s even more the case here than in Take Arms, as the erratic nature of movement around the maps means that even human players don’t behave like real people.
For some players, just the knowledge that there aren’t genuine gooey biological brains behind the figures they’re shooting in the face is enough to put them off. Weirdly, the same people will happily play Modern Warfare 3, which frequently also doesn’t involve much in the way of brain-driven opponents.
For those who have indie-playing friends or, like me, don’t mind playing against bots as long as they put up a fight, Null Battles is a perfectly sound purchase. It will never dislodge the big-name titles but it’s not intended to. As a 60p diversion with a novelty twist, it offers easily enough customisation options, headless chicken panic and disorientating chaos to justify a purchase. Will I be playing it a year from today? Perhaps not, but I am playing it now, and that’s enough.