Microsoft have created a new category within the Xbox store, the Creators Collection. Here, developers can release a game that doesn’t fully integrate with Xbox Live services, in particular achievements, goes through a quicker review process, and supports the Universal Windows Platform. It’s a great way for developers to digitally ship their game across Windows, Windows phone and Xbox One without the struggles of certification.
One such game in this limited library is FoxyLand, a devious puzzle platformer from BUG Studio that harks back to the 8 and 16 bit era of games. And while the challenge of conquering these levels won’t unlock achievements to boast about, the journey is certainly worth it. FoxyLand is a splendidly designed title that certainly deserves a look.
You play as a fox on a quest to save their beloved, which can only be done by collecting gems and cherries. Depending on how many gems you collect in a level determines your star rating out of three, the challenge is to achieve three stars on each of them. The cherries are used as currency to buy cosmetic items to adorn your fox or to even skip levels you’re finding them too difficult. It’s a neat option, especially in the later stages where death is a frequent bedfellow.
After some relatively simple levels to start you off, you’re thrust into some wildly difficult ones. Traps block your path and challenge you to pixel perfect jumping and timing to defeat them. And while the levels may be short, with no checkpoints comes plenty of restarts and frustration. However, there’s some excellent design going on here, with branching paths and risk/reward moments for the gems and cherries really tapping in to the completionist pull. There are some issues where waiting too long appears to disrupt the timing of moving traps a little but it’s otherwise a masterfully designed set of platforming levels.
Furthermore, the charming 16 bit aesthetic, complete with chip tune music, is wonderfully nostalgic, with some attractive pixel art helping to bring each level to life. Although, there is a lack of level variety, which is a shame. However, despite the odd nit-pick, FoxyLand still manages to impress. The fiendish level design is challenging enough to keep you on edge and compelling enough to keep you trying, and that’s a formula not every developer is able to synthesise.
‘Charming Indie Puzzle-Platformer’ is a term that gets bounded about so often these days that it makes me a bit apathetic when a new one is announced for release. However, on watching the trailer for Hue, I was quite intrigued. At its core, Hue is another puzzle game with a standout mechanic, but is it any more than that?
Developed by Fiddlesticks, and published by Curve Digital, Hue centres on the eponymous hero’s quest to save his mother from being trapped in the ‘mono world’, with only a ‘colour ring’ at your disposable. There’s a tiny bit more to it than that, but essentially, as silly as it sounds to begin with, that’s the premise. Along the way, you’ll populate the ring with shards of colour that allow you to manipulate the game’s background to help you get through each puzzle.
The story unfolds as Hue collects a series of notes in between sets of ‘levels’; they’re not really levels in the purest form, but more a collection of puzzles that eventually end up with a guy that looks completely lifted from Spirited Away’s ‘No Face’ watching you, and then walking away toward the next unlockable colour. The notes are delivered through a very well-spoken British voiceover that plays out whilst Hue walks through an uninteresting path for around 60 seconds each time. It’s a bit of a dull way to deliver the story; the accent is so over-the-top that it takes a while to get used to it, and having Hue just continue to walk, jump and climb ladders whilst the speech is playing feels like a bit of a cop out.
This is disappointing, because the presentation of the game is generally quite beautiful, when you’re outside of the puzzles, at least. After the introductory story note, Hue awakes in his bedroom. A short moment later, you’re outside in a gloriously drawn seaside village, the camera zoomed in much closer than during puzzles, and you can’t help but marvel at the vibrant art, animation and music all coming together. It’s quite stunning, and kind of a shame that the game doesn’t continue to impress when you’re in the puzzle rooms, where it just becomes functional, and nothing more.
In the first few minutes of my game, I thought that it was going to be played out in the vein of Guacamelee; the feel of walking around the village being very similar, and when you change the background colour to unlock your first path in a cave, you expect yet another metroidvania experience. Hue, however, sticks to a very linear path, and in many ways, offers a lot of simplicity in tandem with it’s colour-changing wow-factor.
However, during those first couple of hours unlocking the new colours, the simplicity makes it so easy that it all feels like a bit of a grind. Imagine a game’s tutorial lasting for two hours, with every few screens stopping to ask you, ‘Are you ok? Do you know what’s going on?’. That’s how I felt whilst playing through the first section; ‘Yes! I’m fine, let’s get on with it!’. Aside from a few boulders chasing you, or thwomp-like skulls dropping overhead, it’s all quite basic in the beginning and certainly not taxing. The trouble is, by the time you’ve done all of this, you start to think that you’ve nearly finished the game once you collect the last of the colours, and your false sense of security quickly finds out that the real stuff is just around the corner, and it’s a bit of a shock.
Once you’ve reached the realisation that you’ll not be done for a while, the game gets really good, if still a bit on the easy side. Once you start what is really the second half of the game (and I won’t spoil it by saying anything about the setting), the puzzles become much more inventive. Thick, object-altering spray paints and thin, deadly paint lines cause you to stop, look at the room and make a plan before you act, rather than in the beginning, where 90% of the time you could just make it up as you go, and breeze right through without any issues. Having said that, the only puzzle that made me think for more than ten minutes was the very final one, and that was just because I’d missed something obvious, which I kicked myself for afterwards.
Looking at my stats after finishing Hue, I died 90 times. Probably 10-15 of these were through making bad decisions near the end of the game, and the rest were due to difficulties using the colour wheel. Don’t get me wrong, the general control is absolutely fine; what platforming there is to do can be achieved perfectly. All of the colour-changing is done on the right thumbstick, and once I had a full circle of colours to choose from, it just didn’t register enough times for me to be completely satisfied (and maybe sometimes I let out the slightest of swears). It’s not a big complaint, though, mainly because the idea is just so great, and it’s what makes this game stand out from others.
And, ultimately, what there is of a story is reasonable, it’s sentimental enough, and resolves in a satisfying way, and even though it stuck with me a little, it doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights for me that it thinks it does, if that makes sense. Still, that glorious piano music doesn’t hurt; it’s one of the best things about the game, and when it works together with the imagery, it’s really quite something.
Hey, Fiddlesticks, I’ll gladly take a sequel, just make it a bit harder next time.
Thanks to Xbox, Curve Digital and Fiddlesticks for supporting TiX
There are certain games out there that revel in the darker side of humanity; titles like Evil Genius, Plague Inc., Dungeon Keeper, Overlord, and now 101 Ways to Die. These are titles that explore those evil ‘what if’ scenarios you occasionally play-out in your head.
“What if I created a plague that wiped out 99% of the human race?”
“What if I built a grand dungeon full of traps and torture chambers to quell any hero who dares oppose me?”
“What if I wanted to create a comprehensive book on 101 different ways to kill someone?”
Indeed that last question is answered here, and of course it’s approached in a comical and somewhat light-hearted way. In 101 Ways to Die you are tasked with aiding Professor Ernst Splattunfuder in placing a set of devices, in a multitude of different chambers, with the intension of brutally maiming and killing the mindless lab creatures known as Splatts, so you can record 101 different ways to kill them in a book.
This delightfully deranged concept very much feels like playing the opposite of Lemmings, and it’s terrifically and gruesomely satisfying. Each level gives you a limited set of devices to place which must then achieve specific types of kills on the handful of Splatts that are released into it, preventing as many of them as possible from escaping unharmed. Often you’re tasked with achieving a single specific kill that will earn you one star, with bonus objectives earning you the remaining two in a familiar three star rating system. Completing the bonus objectives can prove particularly difficult, challenging you to kill all Splatts on a level and frequently asking you to perform a kill with a specific device or even combination of devices and environmental hazards. It can get tricky early on.
101 Ways to Die falls into that same pit that point ’n click titles so often do, with developer logic not translating to the player. Some levels are baffling, asking you to perform kills that seem impossible or too dependent on luck. However, as you go about placing your maiming, burning, slicing, flinging and exploding devices, and watch the Splatts spawn from their fixed points and path-find their way to the exit, things do begin to reveal themselves.
There’s clearly thoughtful and clever design at work on each of the levels. The set of devices you’re given are more than enough to achieve all the objectives and earn you those three stars. What seems insurmountable at first can often be broken down with a little trial and error and study of how devices work together, as well as the paths the Splatts take and the timing of their spawns. And as you learn more about how the physics and devices work with each passing level, you’re soon equipped enough to go back and annihilate those Splatts that avoided your traps the first time around.
However, the challenge soon ramps up further, with the introduction of modified Splatts that can, for example, run faster or take more damage. This complicates things and forces you to rethink your tactics. Timing becomes more important, as does choosing the right devices for the right Splatt. It turns from reverse Lemmings to a more sinister form of Mouse Trap, and the satisfaction grows alongside the challenge. However, by this point the cracks in the experience have also grown.
101 Ways to Die’s audio is woefully underdeveloped. Sound effects are few and far between, with only the odd splat and boom heard as Splatts meet their doom. No music accompanies the slaughter either. There was an opportunity here to add some extra character to the title. Grunts as the Splatts marched across the screen, some more screams and yelps, along with better sound effects from the devices and an upbeat tune, would have all done wonders for the overall presentation. We also encountered a handful of bugs, with devices disappearing randomly and even Splatts dying from no cause or even whilst they were spawning. Additionally, levels are unlocked based on the amount of stars you have and the cost proves a little steep, often presenting us with a locked level because we had missed a couple of stars. It was a disappointing pause on otherwise well-paced progress.
There’s no denying the dark, comical aesthetic and gruesome concept works; the satisfaction of setting up a perfect obstacle course of death is delightful. However, the poor audio presentation really hurt the atmosphere, and the occasional bug and star grinding also hurt the overall enjoyment. Still, if you’re looking for a physics puzzler with a dark twist, 101 Ways to Die will scratch that itch gloriously. It could certainly have been better but what’s here is still fun.
Thanks to Xbox and Vision Games for supporting TiX
Extreme Exorcism has a deceptively simple premise. Eliminate the phantasms appearing on the screen, within your 3 allocated lives, to reach a set score and unlock the next arena in which you must eliminate further phantasms: simple, concise, deceptive.
You see, Extreme Exorcism utilises a mechanic which, although similar to certain indie games, is utilised in a new and unique way.
Picking one of four individual pixel based protagonists, you are dropped into the first arena with a poltergeist infected chair. Dotted around the level are pick up zones, where randomly generated weaponry spawns, anything ranging from a sword or a baseball bat up to automatic machine guns, rocket launchers and a special Exorcism ability. From this plethora of destruction you can equip up to three of these items simultaneously.
Despatching the phantom furniture resets the level but now, instead of hunting an armchair apparition, you are instead hunting yourself. While you were battling the first spectre, the game tracked all of your movements and any attacks you conducted. So now you must eradicate with extreme prejudice your earlier embodiment while avoiding any attacks that you previously performed.
With each new ghostly version of yourself recounting each movement and attack that you have performed in your previous attempt, things get complicated as you manoeuvre around multiple incarnations of yourself to hunt down your very last spawn. This is made possible, as the phantasm of your last run is topped with a distinctive crown.
Furthermore, as you may imagine, once you get beyond 10 runs, your screen becomes overwhelmed with ghostly apparitions of your former selves, which is where the Exorcism ability comes into its own.
This unique and infrequent ability not only kills anything that comes within its large radius of attack, but also wipes them clean from history. Position yourself correctly, where you know previous manifestations will pass, and you can reset your enemies back to a handful of paths, or if you are extremely tactical in how you approach each successive attempt it is possible to reset back to a single adversary.
Progression is achieved by racking up a sufficient score to unlock the next level and with 5 levels per stage and 8 stages in the game; you have 40 levels to conquer in total with each successive stage having a more complex layout than the last. If you are like me though, you will continue until all 3 of your lives are lost which will place you higher on the leader boards associated to each stage.
Alongside the Arcade mode, which can be played with up to 4 players local co-op, you also have 50 increasingly difficult challenges, imposing trials that will test every ounce of your ghost hunting skills. Finally there is also a local team deathmatch which pits you against your friends to find out who reigns supreme in their ghost hunting skills.
As you rank higher and higher for each stage, new weapons are unlocked, and while these weapons are typically more powerful, they also tend to have unique and more complicated firing paths which tend to make each successive incarnation more perplexing and fraught with dangers.
Extreme Exorcism is first and foremost a platformer, but Golden Ruby Games have managed to lock in a mechanic that, while simple, is completely addictive and fun.
If you enjoy platform action puzzlers, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Thanks to Xbox and Golden Ruby Games for supporting TiX
With clever references to particle physics and some amusing dialogue and characters, Schrödinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark offers something a little different from its usual puzzle platforming ilk, channelling a little Psychonauts personality to make it stand out from the crowd. However, some poor level design and heavy repetition does eat away at the charm.
You play as Schrödinger’s Cat, a wise-cracking agent summoned by the head of a particle zoo to help them recapture escaped particles that are running amuck. It’s a colourful, amusing and clever setup that ties everything in to the particle physics theme brilliantly, although the dialogue is a little on the nose about it. Mostly, however, it’s funny and charming enough to drive you forwards, as you travel through the zoo using quarks to capture gluons, leptons, bosons, etc.
The gathering and then combining of quarks provides the tools you need to navigate levels and capture particles. Quarks come in four different types: Up, Down, Construction, and Destruction; with each assigned to a shoulder button. Combining them in different sets of three creates one of 12 possible tools, such as helicopter blades to fly Schrödinger’s Cat a short distance, a flimsy ledge to temporarily stand on, a missile to destroy specific scenery, or a net to capture particles. Creating these tools from the limited quarks you’ve gathered and finding creative ways to overcome obstacles is a compelling challenge, and the crux of Schrödinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark’s experience.
On levels where quark numbers are limited and the level’s layout challenges your quark management, the experience is terrific. There are multiple tools to achieve similar things, such as the helicopter blades and temporary ledges for gaining height, and finding the best ones for a situation whilst preserving quarks to give you options further along in the level is a great puzzle built from the mechanics. However, between these meticulously designed levels are randomly generated ones for you to carve your way through inelegantly. Additionally, some odd choices in background colour can make finding the white gluon particles a chore.
It would be easy enough to forgive the odd poor level if it wasn’t for the slow pace and repetitiveness that kicks in after the first couple of hours. As you meet characters from the particle zoo, they clue you in on how to capture particles and use quarks, as well as sending you on fetch quests to gradually open up more of the zoo so you can find a way into the control room. It becomes a bit of a Metroidvania experience, although the item or character you’re chasing may change, the quark combining navigation stays the same and loses it intrigue through heavy repetition. Additionally Schrödinger’s Cat’s one liners soon grate, as his initial charming scamp personality turns to frustrating smart aleck.
It’s a real shame, as the mechanics, setting and dialogue between characters is very clever and scientifically accurate and appropriate, and certainly the puzzle platforming is a fun challenge to begin with, but the title runs out of tricks a little too early and makes the second half of the game dull and frustrating. Fortunately sign boards at the beginning of each level tell you the number of loose particles within that level, narrowing the search when you’re hunting for specific particles, and quick respawns after death as well as a quark combining guide on the pause screen hint at the other well designed aspects of the game.
Schrödinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark is a smart and enjoyable puzzle platformer for the most part, but eventually it falls into a trap of frustration and repetition. Your millage with it will very much depend on your tolerance for the one liners, samey paltforming and quark puzzles, and your interest in the science behind it all.
Thanks to Team 17 for supplying TiX with a promotional copy