Game #1: Caster
Most people associate the deluge of bad indie games on Steam with the introduction of Greenlight in 2012, but truth be told, indie games have been on Steam since 2005, a year after Half-Life 2! One of these very early indie titles is Caster, released in 2009 by Elecorn. This game is… hard to describe. Take the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog, the character design of Mega Man, and the destructible environment of Red Faction and throw it into a big open space. That vaguely describes Caster. The first thing you will notice with the Caster is his/her mobility: not only do they run fast, but they can jump very high, and these can be further augmented with upgrades. It is hilarious to see the Caster make a running jump and clear half the level. The combat is a little less impressive, in that you just throw lasers at enemies. Once you get the homing laser, everything else becomes superfluous. The weapons do play into Caster’s other big gimmick though: terrain manipulation. Every shot that hits the ground impacts it a little, and if you use the cratering weapon or just shoot long enough, you can make a big hole in the ground. There’s even a weapon that lets you raise terrain. Terrain manipulation is sometimes useful, particularly in the lava stages, but most of the time it does nothing. Enemies can usually navigate their way around a hole, and you’re more likely to fall into it than they are.
There is just one more teensy, tiny, miniscule little problem with Caster:
The game isn’t fucking finished!
After a random mission in the second chapter, you get a “To Be Continued” text box and trying to access the next mission leads to a boilerplate “check the website for updates” message. The last major update was in 2010 (there was a 2015 update, but that just added a new optional shader), so we’ve been waiting 7 years for a new update. Keep in mind that this game predates Early Access and is being sold as a full game. So what happened? Apparently, elecorn does want to eventually return to Caster, but he now works at Hidden Path Entertainment, developers of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. In other words, elecorn is trapped in Lootbox Hell. Pray for him. We need him to finish Caster. This is the closest we will ever get to Platform Masters.
Game #2: Underground Keeper
How do you update a game as iconic as Minesweeper for modern audiences? If you’re up-and-coming developer Render System, you turn it into an FPS (that’s First-Person mineSweeper.) It sounds like a parody, but it is very much real. Underground Keeper puts you into the role of… some guy, who has to clear out all the mines in a dingy underground cave. They all happen to be trapped inside walls, so you need to use a pickaxe to break the safe walls. Now, in Minesweeper, the goal is to not touch the mines, but in Underground Keeper, you dispose of the mines. How? You use dynamite.
Let me repeat: You use dynamite to get rid of mines.
Surprisingly, the game works pretty well. The controls are responsive, there aren’t any game-breaking glitches and I didn’t experience any crashes or slowdown. However, this game is let down by its art design, or the lack thereof. This is a Unity game, and while I’m not entirely sure, it looks like it was made with mostly Unity Store assets. Render System put a little more effort than most to make sure these assets were cohesive, but they still mostly consist of boring gray and brown blocks and corridors. Every 10 or so levels, the theme will change, at one point becoming some arctic tundra (which kinda betrays the “underground” theme, but I’ll take it), but the map design remains the same, and sometimes it can be a problem. For example, only certain walls are breakable and they look extremely similar to the non-breakable walls, so an inexperienced player might whack at a wall for a while wondering why it won’t break.
Underground Keeper is on the upper echelon of Unity shovelware, in that I did get some enjoyment out of it. At its core, it is still Minesweeper, but the drab visuals and absurd premise do little to spice it up. I got for about $1.25, and I think that’s about the right price for this game. After all, it could be worse: they could have just removed Minesweeper from your operating system, remade it as an app loaded with ads and then made you pay a subscription to remove them, MICROSOFT…!
Game #3: Wrack
Wrack is a first person shooter developed by Final Boss Entertainment, and right off the bat, it does a lot of things right. The aesthetic is interesting, with a cel-shaded futuristic artstyle, the soundtrack is done by Bobby Prince of Doom fame, and the controls are responsive. Wrack obviously takes inspiration from old school first-person shooters: no cover bullshit, no regenerating health, no reloading, and secrets in the stages, and unlike some other retro-inspired FPSes, the level design is open. So far, this game is sounding great. So why am I even reviewing it? Every other game I review is the drizzling shits, so what’s wrong with Wrack?
Well, it’s not so much one big problem as a bunch of small problems. For one, the gunplay is underwhelming. It works well enough, but it isn’t particularly punchy. I blame this on the combo system. As you build up a killstreak, a meter builds up, and depending on how high the meter is, you can unleash a “finisher,” a powerful attack that can clear out a room of enemies. The meter drains when you aren’t killing enemies, so it encourages you to take risks and fight them head-on. I usually play a slower, safer style, so I didn’t make use of these finishers often, but I won’t dock points just for that. What I will dock points for is the fact that you can’t use finishers on bosses. You would think that with how much work was put into the system, they’d give bosses a “spawn enemies” attack, but no, so your strategy is just “left click until they die.”
Speaking of dying, the game has a life system that just seems superfluous considering you can quicksave and quickload at any time. It just seemed like it was there because old-school games had life systems. Some of the secrets in the stages are just extra lives, which seems like a pisstake, especially considering you can enter the Konami Code to get 30 lives off the bat.
Next, the writing is not good. The story’s a pretty typical “aliens are invading, shoot them dead” plot, but there’s dialogue before stages, after stages, and sometimes before bosses, and it’s cringeworthy. Much like nearly every game that tries to be funny, the characters all talk in this smarmy irreverent way. One of the villains is an evil scientist who keeps arguing with his robot that talks entirely in beeps. I can only imagine how much more annoying it would be if it were voice-acted. Finally, the game is very short and the ending is unsatisfying. Kain beats the evil scientist in a fight that goes on for way too long, then he goes through a portal and… that’s it. The game is over. But don’t worry, we are getting a sequel… and it’s a roguelike tower defense game. FUCK!
You might end up liking Wrack. As I said, it’s not a bad game, and admittedly, some of my complaints are nitpicks, but there are plenty of better options for old-school first-person shooters for me to recommend it.
Game #4: Jumping Tank
We have reached peak lazy game design, and it’s from a game I never would have heard of if Green Man Gaming didn’t have mystery bundles. Jumping Tank comes to us from maximus.ez, and outside of the name, I know nothing about them. As the name implies, you play as a jumping tank. It doesn’t fire any mortar shells or anything, it just jumps, and for some reason, it is easily defeated by cartoon hedgehogs (not the one you’re thinking of). So you enter level one, and the goal is to hit the switch and get to the exit without touching the hedgehogs, so you do… and then you learn the “gimmick” of this game. See, maximus looked at this game and decided that instead of creating a bunch of levels for the game, they could just repeat the same stage over and over again but make the objectives different. For example, in one variant, your controls are reversed; in another, the platforms are invisible. There’s even some out of the box variants, like unlocking the door by leaving your Caps Lock on, or by muting the game. It’s actually kind of genius… if only the basic mechanics were good. As is to be expected, the tank moves slowly and the jumping is rather stiff, which is particularly brutal when the stage gimmick requires precise movement. Another one of the game’s annoying quirks is its death system. When your tank is destroyed, it remains on the field as an object. In some stages, you need to jump on this dead tank to progress. Most of the time, however, it is a nuisance. Say you die near the end of the stage; now you have a tank blocking your way.
Jumping Tank is probably objectively the worst game I’ve reviewed so far for the Roundup, but unlike, say Little Inferno, it does teach us an important lesson: you need to learn the rules of basic game design to break them. The concept is not a bad one, and attached to a better game, it could be something really cool, but alas, it’s attached to Jumping Tank.