Sunday, February 15, 2015

Indie mini-reviews: Splice, Cubot and The Old Tree

Good day to you, internet. While I've largely spent the last couple of weeks playing either AAA releases that I've already reviewed (Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Dying Light) or lower-profile fare that I'll review eventually (Grow Home, Castle in the Darkness), I've recently invested a bit of time in a handful of indie puzzlers on Steam. I wouldn't say that any of them quite warrant a full, official write-up, so I suppose now's a good time to defrost the old blog. Let's talk indies.

First is Splice, recommended enthusiastically by GameCritics homie Brad Gallaway. Though I hadn't heard of the game, ten seconds of research taught me that it's by Cipher Prime, the same Philly-based (!) studio behind Auditorium. Like that game, Splice uses a minimalist interface to present players with an alien scenario; half of the game's battle is just initially figuring out what exactly you're looking at, how you interact with it, and what the game wants you to do to proceed. The answer is better explained by playing it for yourself, but the best answer that I can give is that you're connecting what appear to be cells in a Petri dish in such a way that matches an outlined patterned, moving, extending, and duplicating them as needed, and where the game allows you to.

I like that there are clearly multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, and I really dig the audiovisual presentation, which looks like someone took the Fringe opening credits as inspiration for a full game. (Having said that, there are no graphical options for the PC version, and I'd have liked to see a sharper image and a higher framerate, though it's not as essential for a low-key puzzler like this). This game came to my attention because it's just recently been ported to PS4, but apparently it's been kicking around on Steam and mobile devices for a few years now. It's creative and provides several solid hours of "frustrating one moment, rewarding the next" entertainment. Recommended.

Second is Cubot, which I came across while browsing the recent releases list on Steam. This one costs two bucks and comes with very positive reviews, and while it's certainly a low-maintenance affair (the options menu even has a glaring typo), it's a perfectly serviceable puzzler about rolling blocks of various properties around small grids. All cubes in a level move simultaneously, and each abides by a different set of rules. Some roll two spaces in a turn, some roll backwards, and so forth. The idea is to get each block onto a space of a matching color at the same time.

It's straightforward and doesn't make me ask, "How on Earth did they come up with this?!" like Splice did, but it's reasonably well-designed, unintimidating and even somewhat relaxing. It's the sort of thing that's easy to play with one eye while you've got the other eye on a movie or TV show; I spent an hour or two with it last night while watching The Theory of Everything. It's only $2 on Steam, so that's a rather easy sell if you ask me.

An even easier sell, because it's free, is The Old Tree. This one is available on Steam for no charge and will take no more than 10-15 minutes to complete. It's a point-and-click puzzler with bizarre, slightly whimsical 2D imagery in the style of something like Machinarium. I didn't like that game; while I initially found it charming, its puzzles grew too obtuse too quickly. That isn't a problem with The Old Tree, which is about a strange, tentacled alien hatching and gradually ascending through a series of bizarre scenes (none of which I'll relate, because it's such a short game and thus describing even one of the scenes would spoil a huge portion of it).

The puzzles are perfectly digestible (some might even argue that they're too easy), and it does that usual indie game thing of portraying the player character as a small, timid being in a big, scary world; note the use of oversized bugs. It's all lovely to look at, though, and while it doesn't have much of a plot, it may serve as a sort of test run for the developer's more advanced ideas. The Old Tree is free and won't take much of your time, so while it's not amazing, there's no harm in checking it out.

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