There's nothing worse than seeing a game fall short of its potential, and this week, what could have been an exciting and innovative contender has been brought low by a basic title that absolutely nails the fundamentals. Execution is king, and imaginative concepts are nothing without raw gameplay to back them up.
As usual, click the links or banners to visit the Xbox Live Marketplace and queue up the trial versions.
- Developer: Mad Micro
- Get Trial/Buy: 240 Microsoft Points
First person shooters have met with mixed success on the Xbox Live Indie game service. The small file size restrictions and relatively rudimentary programming tools available have only really allowed developers to create basic arena shooters; functional but no different to any number of dual-stick SHMUPS in terms of gameplay.
However, L.A.R.A. has taken a brave stab at delivering a full-fat, fully-featured FPS experience... and succeeds.
The story, such as it is, proves to be an excuse rather than a premise. Robots are loose. You have to kill them. And then kill more of them. For reasons. But this unimaginative start point provides the springboard for a surprisingly excellent shooter that packs a whole mess of considerate touches.
Mad Micro have clearly laboured long and hard to make sure that L.A.R.A. caters for FPS fans with familiar and responsive controls. A small selection of reloadable guns and grenades lie easily to hand, each of which feels meaty and powerful to use. Your robotic foes splinter into shards, shatter and crawl under the weight of your firepower, connecting you to the game world in a satisfyingly visceral way. Nifty aiming mechanics allow you to lean out of cover and around corners, a feature that even many modern shooters fail to include, and it would have felt right at home on the N64 alongside (though not competing with, let's not get ahead of ourselves) Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. The action is simple and slick, relying on monster closets, respawning foes and finding switches to get the job done.
However, I mentioned the N64 for good reason. Excellent animations and surprisingly capable lighting is balanced by perpetual fog and low-resolution, recycled texture work, though L.A.R.A. still manages to look reasonable considering its humble roots and negligible price. Though enemy variety is at a premium and the lack of mid-level saves can result in a few aggravating restarts, the action is solid and enjoyable enough to warrant a wholehearted recommendation.
L.A.R.A. is a visceral and fully-featured throwback to the classic shooters of ages past. If you're longing to be trapped in some labyrinthine levels with a some big guns and killer robots, be sure to put the trial through its paces at the very least.
Brand should have been our Indie Game Of The Week. Its sensational premise offered us the world and nearly delivered, but the experience has been stymied by its own awkward design choices.
Let me explain. As a lowly blacksmith's apprentice, players are tasked with powering up a sword for the king of the realm who will need to use it to defeat a powerful demon. To do so, you'll descend into three persistent dungeons and battle its denizens for bounty, which can then be spent on powerful upgrades for the titular brand. Merchants dispatch you on quests that lead you deeper and deeper each time, and choosing the best upgrades before the deadline expires will give you a better chance of defeating the evil menace once and for all. It's an astounding framework that encourages replayability and experimentation - brought home with crisp graphics, avatar support and excellent soundtrack. What's not to like?
Well, sadly, the core gameplay isn't up to much. Brand is built around repetition as a core gameplay element, but the tiny selection of enemies (I counted four in total) amplifies the lack of variety a thousand fold. The 2.5D platforming combat is also brusque and basic; hampered by its reliance on the floaty and imprecise avatar toolkit. Enemies line up for the slaughter, unable to break your block or move pass their fellows once you've identified and exploited the horrendous flaws in the AI. Brand just isn't much fun to play, and doesn't provide the engaging experience that the premise rightfully deserved.
Brand should have been brilliant, but poor variety and mediocre combat relegate it to the upper leagues of mediocrity. I fervently hope that Nine Dots Studio will refine the excellent framework into a truly essential title: the game that it could have been.
Ninjas! These stealthy assassins have rather fallen from grace of late, replaced by our obsession with zombies and space marines. However, Kablammo Games have decided to give the scourge of the Samurai another day in the sun. Assuming the role of fledgling ninja Katana Boy - or a couple of alternate unlockable characters - you'll jump, grip, slice and shuriken your way through a series of short platforming challenges that involve killing a certain number of enemies or locating a hidden exit. The ability to cling to platforms is a nice touch, and one that allows you to plan some truly sneaky attacks.
Unfortunately, Katana Boy isn't exactly Ryu Hayabusa when it comes to acrobatic shenanigans. Movement speed is sluggish and unresponsive, compounded by finnicky attacks and enemies who delight in juggling you without mercy. But the short campaign packs weight where it counts (bolstered by unlockable medals), resulting in a brief yet enjoyable diversion to your usual gaming schedule.
Kablammo Games plan to bring Katana Land to the PC, but I personally believe that it would work much better as an iOS/Android app. The compartmentalised gameplay and simple, cartoony art design just isn't particularly engaging on a monitor or television, yet would be perfect for a few minutes of play on the morning commute. Kablammo, if you're reading this, there's a bright future for you on the App Store.