After almost a year of ignoring the service (no thanks to the dashboard update), I finally went back to the Xbox Indie space to binge on demos and dollar games. There are quite a few excellent and interesting games there. Here are three of them that stood out.
This is parody of The Oregon Trail. A group of three travelers are heading west, and along the way, they have to face a bizarre assortment of obstacles ranging from rapids and avalanches to zombies and giant squids.
Its style is instantly endearing with vibrant and colorful character sprites that look like they were pulled out of an Atari game. The edges of the screen even curve outwards like an old TV or arcade cabinet. The style helps sell the absurdity since the crazy monsters look just as retro—nothing feels out of place.
While it advertises itself as a procedurally generated adventure, every run follows the same general path. You always start in a field, you always fight bandits in the same place, you always find a cave or pyramid at the same place, etc. It’s the minor things that are procedural: what is in the cave (giant bats or ammo), what is in the pyramid (zombies or aliens), which two members of your crew will fall in love, what will the pattern of rocks be when fording the river. Even if the plot is always the same, the details are different.
Thankfully, its general structure is well paced and always feels like a grand, fun adventure. The writing is hilariously dry, asking you with a seemingly straight face if you want to ford a river or try to jump it or featuring exaggerated death messages like “The laser blast burned a hole in Frank’s chest. His organs came pouring out.” The slight randomness is enough to keep things feeling fresh for multiple runs, and you’ll inevitably tackle this trail multiple times because the game is quite hard.
When my randomly named, randomly generated character is randomly picked to go on excursions that always by random chance result in horrible monster attacks, still he always comes out alive. And then that 8-pixel stick figure grows into a badass hero. And when he’s gored through the face by a vengeful buffalo after confessing his love to Frank, it’s just that much more tragic. The stakes are raised even higher for the next group of travelers.
This title effectively encapsulates the goal and tone of the game. You play as a little girl home from school who just wants some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, your dad is watching TV, your mom is talking on the phone, and your neighbor is mowing the lawn. In other words, everything in the house is making some kind of noise. I initially assumed that I would be doing horrible things to shut up my family and neighbor, that the game would contain an ironic level of violence considering its pixel style and young protagonist, but this never happened. You don’t kill anyone, you don’t hurt anyone. Everything you do (for the most part) is something a normal girl would do to quiet down the house.
Quiet, Please! is a very small game. The environment is limited to just your house and yard, and it’s not even a very big house (for a game, it’s actually a very realistically sized house). At its core, it’s an adventure game, but not of the point-and-click variety. You wander around and use one item with another item, but there’s no inventory and you have direct control of the girl.
What’s most impressive is how sound and down-to-earth the logic is for every puzzle. What should you do if the attic is too dark and there’s no light switch? The solution is obvious, and when you find the right item, you’ll know it immediately. Because of this sound logic, the puzzles are pretty easy, yet the game is still challenging since you have to complete puzzles in a specific order. Important items are often hidden behind other puzzles. This encourages exploration, and there’s actually a nice sense of progression when you get access to new rooms. It’s like a Metroidvania game condensed down to thirty minutes and set in the real world.
Like Quiet, Please!, Without Escape is an adventure game with an appropriately small scope. You wake up in the middle of the night to an empty house and a strange sound. As you investigate your home, things get weirder and weirder until you discover the truth behind what’s happening.
As far as Xbox-indie-horror-point-and-click-adventure games goes (an oddly prevalent sub-sub-genre), Without Escape is both a rousing success and a frustrating failure. Its puzzles are obtuse, but your house is so small it’s easy to use an item everywhere until it works. The worst part of the game is that it hides important items in dark corners of the screen, and the cursor won’t change unless it sits on a hotspot for half a second, which means not only are you pixel hunting everywhere, but it’s the most mind-numbingly slow and methodical pixel-hunting of any adventure game I’ve played. This game desperately needs a “hot zone” hint system—that’s an innovation no adventure game should be without.
What salvages Without Escape is its atmosphere. The game is very clearly split into two parts. The first part turns an ordinary, non-descript house into an unsettling cage. The central mystery is intriguing, and the game does a great job building suspense and making the benign creepy. All that work pays off when the second part goes completely nuts. This change is the best part of the game. It really earns its tonal shift into full-blown horror. Unfortunately it ends just as it is beginning to get truly nightmarish.
Overall, Without Escape is a satisfying adventure game, but that satisfaction sits on a razor’s edge thanks to the tedious pixel-hunting. It has more than its share of flaws and frustrations, but what it does well it does so well that it makes up for everything else.
// Notes from the Road
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