Friday, November 4, 2011

Humble Voxatron Bundle Impressions

The Humble Bundle is a great idea. Indie game devs allow buyers to pay any price for their games, and the revenues are split between the devs and not-for-profit organizations (I'm not sure if this changes with each bundle, but the current bundle donates to the Child's Play charity, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation) however the buyer wants. Money gets donated to some good causes, gamers get some neat indie games for typically less than they usually sell for, and while the devs probably don't make as much of a profit, they definitely benefit from their time in the spotlight. So, long story short, you should go buy the humble bundle!
Before I get into my impressions of the games, I should probably mention what games are even part of the bundle. The bundle this time consists of three games. No matter what, when you purchase the bundle, you will receive the alpha version of Voxatron. If you pay over whatever the current bundle average is (around $5 last time I checked), then you will also receive the games Blocks That Matter and The Binding of Isaac, both of which are also available on Steam for $5 each. There is no DRM, so you can install these games anywhere you want as often as you want, and all three games are cross platform, so you can get it regardless of whether you're running Windows, Mac, or Linux. There's even an option to get Blocks That Matter and The Binding of Isaac added to your Steam account. Now, onto the actual games!

Voxatron is brought to you by Lexaloffle, and has gameplay that I would describe as a dual stick shooter. I say this so vaguely because I tried to play it as such, but wasn't quite able to fully control the character. Maybe I was just doing something wrong, because I didn't search very hard for something to tell me the controls, and mostly just tried to figure them out as I played. It's ok though, I had fun. Voxatron is (as you may have guessed) voxel based, and virtually everything is destructible. Shoot out the base of a tree, and the rest of the tree crumbles to pieces. There are minotaur-esque enemies that will demolish anything that stands between you and them, which is very helpful for when there are goodies on top of a pillar and you need the pillar destroyed. When you die, your character explodes and takes out a large portion of the room with him (there's also a pickup that will mirror this effect, without the you dying part). There's even a block weapon that lets you add back to the environment and get to hard to reach places.

Overall, Voxatron reminds me greatly of 3D Dot Game Heroes (which most of you probably haven't even heard of, but should check out especially if you like Zelda games), but with more freedom and destruction. And really, probably any voxel based game would give me the same impression of retro pixelation in a 3D game. That pretty much sums up the feel of Voxatron (and 3D Dot Game Heroes) in a nutshell. Sometimes I even forgot that I had the ability to jump, because I just assumed that the game was solely in 2D.
Next up, the available game modes. There is an editor that lets you create your own voxel-structures for other people to play on and destroy, but I haven't tried it out yet. I also haven't yet attempted the arcade mode, which I assume simply gives you a few lives to try and rack up as high a score against endless enemies as possible. I've been playing the adventure mode, and while there is definitely a sense of progression, there isn't any story to speak of. Also, I've found that the game gets very difficult very quickly, though this may be due to my not having really learned the controls. There definitely has been a lot of trial and error involved in figuring out what various power-ups and enemies did, as well as what each room had in store for me, but death hasn't been a big deal, as you just get reset to the start of the room you died in (plus when you die you do get to see everything in the room explode).

However, although the penalty for death is largely negligible, it resets you to the same conditions that you were in upon entering the room. This means that it's entirely possible to continuously die in a particularly difficult room and respawn in the same room with only a sliver of health. It's also entirely possible that the devs foresaw this issue and put in preventative measures that I simply haven't encountered yet, or will put in preventative measures later on in the development process (a reminder, Voxatron is currently only in the alpha stage of development).
And that's pretty much all I have to say about Voxatron for now. It has a surprising amount of polish for a game in the alpha stages, and also a surprising lack of issues. The destructibility of the environment adds another level of fun to the dual stick shooter, and overall I'd say that Voxatron is well worth the price of entry (which, again, is ANYTHING you want!). As a final note, by buying the humble bundle, you also get all future updates to Voxatron for free, so you won't have to pay anything more when the game is finished.

The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac is brought to you by the creators of Super Meat Boy. You play as Isaac navigating his basement in order to escape his religious fanatic mother, who is intent on killing him as a sacrifice to God. The gameplay in The Binding of Isaac is very similar to that of Voxatron, crossed with a healthy dose of Zelda. Isaac moves with one set of arrow keys, and uses his tears as weapons, firing them with some other controls. This part is vague again because I already owned The Binding of Isaac before this humble bundle happened, and have since forgotten whether it uses WASD and arrow keys or the mouse, or what. Whatever it was, it works well. The Zelda element comes from the dungeon layouts, each randomly generated floor of the basement has the typical 2D Zelda grid map, and typically has a new item for Isaac to use, a shop, and a boss.

I didn't play The Binding of Isaac for very long, for two primary reasons. First of all, as you might expect from the creators of Super Meat Boy, the game is extremely difficult. Isaac only has three hearts at first, and it is much easier to get hit than it is to find any health replenishing items. Also, since dungeons are randomly generated, the items that Isaac finds can vary wildly in usefulness (though of course it's always possible that in my short time playing I was just never able to really discern an item's true use). Unlike Voxatron, death means starting a new game from scratch, without any items or upgrades you may have painstaking gathered. I have heard that the difficulty is adjusted based on how well or poorly you do, but I found myself having a hard time making it past the first four or five floors.
The second reason I didn't play The Binding of Isaac for very long is because it's really dark and gruesome, despite the cutesy art style. Again, this is somewhat to be expected given Super Meat Boy, but The Binding of Isaac takes it a level farther. There's the whole aspect of Isaac attacking with his tears, and items he picks up can add to this, such as the coat hanger, which Isaac jams through his head to cry faster. Enemies at least on the earlier levels are either flies or grotesque humanoids. The entire story is clearly Old Testament levels of insane, and I have read that there is some serious Oedipal/Freudian stuff near the end of the game. Honestly, it just makes me a bit uncomfortable to play The Binding of Isaac for long stretches, and it's definitely not a game that everybody will enjoy. Try at your own risk?

I do want to leave off with a positive comment about The Binding of Isaac though. The feel of the game didn't work for me, but if it had, then there is definitely plenty to content to go through in the game. As mentioned before, the dungeons are randomly generated, so you will never be stuck playing the same levels over and over. There is something like over 100 different items for Isaac to find and use (and at least the earlier dungeon floors only had one item per floor), I think close to twenty bosses to encounter, not to mention hidden endings and unlockable playable characters with different stats and abilities. If The Binding of Isaac turns out to be your flavor of fun, there is enough of it to keep you occupied for a long time.

Blocks That Matter
Blocks That Matter is a puzzle platformer brought to you by Swing Swing Submarine. The story focuses around Alexey and Markus (according to Wikipedia, these are references to the creators of Tetris and Minecraft), two successful indie game devs who have been kidnapped. The player must take control of their latest creation, the Tetrobot, in order to rescue the two. The story is very silly (in one of the levels, Alexey and Markus realize that their captors had used toy guns to threaten them), and that permeates through the entire game. Alexey and Markus frequently comment on the Pajitnovian physics the Tetrobot was programmed with (read: Tetris physics), and when the environment switches to a winter themed one, they express surprise at how cold it got until reminded that the game does take place in Sweden (so really, the earlier non-winter themed levels were the weird ones). The Tetrobot itself looks like a laundry machine with arms and legs, and the drilling animation is suitably cartoonish and adorable.

Gameplay revolves around the Tetrobot harvesting certain types of blocks and then switching to puzzle mode to place them back into the world in tetrominos to successfully navigate through each level. I got far enough to gain the ability to wipe out horizontal lines of eight blocks (see: Tetris), and there are definitely further upgrades to the Tetrobot's abilities that I haven't seen yet. Like in Minecraft, each block type has various features, though in the bit I played it wasn't really necessary to be super strategic about which block type is placed where, though new block types were starting to be introduced more frequently. Each level also has a treasure chest typically stowed in some hard to reach location (a lot of which will require coming back later with new abilities), and if you manage to harvest the chest before leaving the level you'll be rewarded with a 'block that matters'. For example, the first one that I got was the Super Mario Bros coin block, and later on I got the Tetris blocks. I'm not quite sure how they've managed to come up with enough blocks that matter to award the player one for every single level, but it makes for a fun collectible item, and does teach the player a bit about the history of blocks in video games.
That about covers it for the story and gameplay of Blocks That Matter. I really enjoyed playing the game, the platforming was easy to pick up, and the block harvesting and recycling mechanic is definitely something I hadn't seen used in a puzzle/platformer before. The mechanic is handled extremely well, and is both a lot of fun and reasonably challenging. In particular, since blocks must be placed in groups of four, but don't need to all be the same block type, it becomes a whole new puzzle to figure out how to place the blocks to get exactly what you need. It's very easy to strand yourself if you're not careful, since Tetrobot can only harvest blocks by jumping into them from below a la Mario or by running into the from the side with a drill (and can't drill while jumping), but blocks can be placed anywhere as long as there is an anchor point to a wall or floor, but there is a level reset button and the individual levels are all short enough that starting one over isn't a huge deal.

I do have one minor issue with Blocks That Matter, which is that the default controls feel very unintuitive for me. The arrow keys move Tetrobot and the space bar also jumps, but the drill function is assigned to F, while the primary block placing keys are W, E, R, and T. Luckily, switching to puzzle mode pauses the game so you can place blocks in peace, so fumbling with controls typically won't get you killed or anything. Using a gamepad is possible, but I haven't tried those controls yet. And there is the fact that I didn't play the game for very long, so I didn't have a chance to really get used to the controls either. This is about the only complaint I have with the game for as far as I have currently gotten, so that's good too.

And that about wraps up my thoughts for the humble bundle! Long story short, each one of these games alone would be worth a purchase (with the noted reservations for The Binding of Isaac), the bundle lets you get all three for $5 (another reminder that normally on Steam, Blocks That Matter and The Binding of Isaac each cost $5), and you help to support some great causes! There are ten days left to take advantage of this awesome deal, and there are no downsides, so what are you waiting for?

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