If you didn’t get a hold of that $5 bundle from itch.io last week that included well over 1000 games, you missed out for sure. Among them were gems like Arcade Spirits, which I’ve reviewed for the Switch previously, and other games I’ve heard great things about including Celeste. It even included some tabletop game systems and game development assets to help you get started with making games. To say that it was a steal is an understatement that would make even Humble Bundle jealous.
In an effort to actually play these games and not let them sit like the hundred or so games in my Steam library that have gone underplayed, I decided to crack out some mini-reviews with a “first impressions” format. I didn’t dedicate much time to the 5 games I selected for today’s article, and I’ll be going over key aspects and quickly saying whether or not I think they’re worth the usual price. For the record, most indie devs are worth supporting on itch.io. If you haven’t seen the site and its offerings recently you’re still probably going to miss out on a ton of good stuff.
The first game we’re talking about today deserves its high acclaim and praise in my opinion. It was created originally in a Game Jam before being expanded upon into a full release. This platforming adventure with a touching story about fighting inner demons as you climb a difficult, treacherous mountain full of strange mysteries was made by two people. The art assets like those you can see on the Instagram account mentioned in-game and in the chapter end screens are charming, sourced from MiniBoss, a studio in Brazil.
The game is set in Canada, where the two devs Matt Thorson and Noel Berry hail from, and you play a girl with a default name of Madeline. You get nothing up front in terms of story, and the game benefits from that as you slowly see the struggles this girl has gone through unfold before you. The themes of fighting inner struggles really struck a chord in me, at one point a character telling Madeline things like, “Just go home.” or “You’re not cut out for this.”.
She has moments of dialogue like, “I’m done breaking promises to myself.” and “Just breath, you can do this.”
If you think that is touching or chilling, the atmosphere makes it that much more poignant.
Graphics – Fantastic! 8/10 easily for how charming it all is. They really make the pixel style work for them here.
Music/Sounds – Incredible! 10/10 for me. It changes and fades to fit the ambient mood of each screen as needed. If you’re being chased? You feel it. Hard side puzzle that has a rhythm aspect? You can jam through it while you’re trying to figure it out and make your fingers cooperate through the sequence.
Gameplay – Wonderful! 9/10. Anyone can put together a platformer and many people have after taking a crack at Super Mario Maker. But this? It has a really special style and flavor to it. Some complexity that doesn’t lack depth. Optional challenges in every chapter that tempt you to test yourself even more. B-Sides that offer new challenges when you unlock them. And even better? It doesn’t punish you for failure. It keeps you on the current screen or sequence you’re on. Even in frustration, you want to keep pushing. In this way, it really mimics real-life internal struggles: it’s difficult and frustrating, but you want to see the next plateau.
Worth? Absolutely. For $20 on Steam this game can be yours. You can play with a keyboard but it really needs a gamepad or controller, so keep that in mind.
This game was not familiar to me, and when I booted it up I was taken aback that something so sleek and futuristic looked like it was just a runny-shooty game with an angled top-down view. I was wrong, of course, and ended up being quite surprised by the premise. Like Celeste, you get no backstory at first aside from a few hints as you boot-up into the tutorial, a simulation to train you, a new clone.
The company responsible for developing and publishing this game goes by Monothetic, and I have to say they surprised me for being a company I knew nothing about before this. The story quickly begins to unfold as you start your first life as a new clone: You read a log and find out that the whole ship is wrecked after crashing on this tropical planet. Your goal is to activate a distress beacon that you have to find, but getting there is difficult.
The one thing on the ship that does work is the cloning bay. With it, you have infinite lives, but there’s a twist. You collect DNA from your enemies and sequence them into each iteration of you. So, when you die, you put the DNA you’ve collected into a sequence, add whatever mods you have, and sequence it all together. If you get mutations from the DNA, that locks that piece of DNA in place for a set amount of lives beyond that one. Each mutation brings new abilities, passive or active, and is represented on your character avatar.
Graphics – Amazing! 9/10. The colors are vibrant and the atmosphere really conveys the futuristic, far-off planet vibe. The flora and fauna both are well-done and contribute to the unique eco-system you get glimpses of while you’re fighting it and the robotic faction both.
Music/Sounds – Great! 7/10. If you read this and heard synths in the distance, you can probably guess what the soundtrack is like. The sound design really puts you there and the music is a good touch, but it wasn’t anything that blew me away.
Gameplay – Pretty fun! 7.5/10. The premise drew me in, and I like procedurally-generated worlds and levels as much as the next gamer girl, but it didn’t leave me craving more at failure. The mechanics work well together but for what it is my computer had a hard time playing it, leaving me to feel some frustration when I died to lag. Also, be careful of falling off cliffs. It won’t kill you by itself but it can lead to some issues when you’re in the middle of a fight. That said, beating a wave of enemies that seems hard can be satisfying.
Worth? – Get it on sale. It’s also $20 like Celeste, but I wouldn’t say pay full price for it unless you really like this style of game and want to support the devs.
Gladiabots – AI Combat Arena
Gladiabots is a game that features autonomous bots in a simulated arena that you are meant to program with various commands to complete various tasks. Those tasks can include basic gladiatorial combat with guns, capture the flag, etc. The tutorial had me completing the tasks and watching videos in the moments where I was waiting for it to finish so I could move to the next one. The premise is intuitive enough but it just wasn’t something that really drew me in. I know there are people that really love these types of games, but it just didn’t make a good first impression on me.
Trying the first level, I just felt very apathetic to the whole thing and decided to move on to the next game on my list. It isn’t bad, but there are other games with similar premises that involve coding and programming robots that are more captivating for someone with my taste. Personally, I would just as soon spend some time with an idle clicker to waste some time.
Graphics – Very smooth! 8/10. A bit bland, but optimized and sleek. All in all, you can see a lot of work was put into the graphics and I can appreciate that.
Music/Sounds – Good. 6/10. Nothing to write home about. Standard robot combat sounds and background music that didn’t really capture my attention or make me want to bob my head.
Gameplay – Okay. 5/10. Again, just not my taste. It doesn’t involve any actual gameplay, just putting a program together for your AI to follow that you edit with trial and error. The premise behind the game didn’t really fuel my desire to keep playing, but that might be because I’m not much of a competitive spirit.
Worth? – Honestly, no. For $15 I would sooner buy a bundle at Humble Bundle or on Itch.io. If you like this style of game, watch a video of the gameplay and make sure you want to shell out that money. No doubt the dev deserves it for the effort, but be sure that it is your taste.
If you like Dwarf Fortress but want something with a little more polish, this might be the game for you! I quite enjoyed my time figuring out this game. It has enough similarities to one of my favorites, Rimworld, that I wasn’t fumbling the whole time trying to wrap my brain around it. However, the things that reminded me of Dwarf Fortress had me trying to back into that mindset, including the integration of Z-levels, which Dwarf Fortress has but Rimworld doesn’t.
It follows a more fantastical setting with a few twists that set it apart further from Dwarf Fortress than just the addition of actual graphics and some mechanics spliced in from Rimworld. Those twists include two races to choose from (with more to come) with different features, something called “void crystals” that I didn’t explore before deciding I would have to come back to this game for a harder look later on, and more RPG elements like actually leveling up skills and equipping your settlers with gear for their professions.
As I said above, I had a good time with this one and I will be returning to it another time when I’m craving a colony simulator. I imagine the updates to come will make this game that much better, but I have a hard time saying that it is “better” than Rimworld, as some people speculate. To be fair, the comparison just isn’t there. It is a similar premise but the setting and the mechanics are different.
Graphics – Great! 7.5/10. Nothing spectacular, but definitely made with love. The pixel art style is used well here for the sake of focusing on the gameplay, and I respect that. The color choices make the world vibrant and so far it all makes sense. The different races are also a good touch here.
Music/Sounds – Good. 6/10. The music needs a little more before I’ll feel like it really stands out, feeling like any other game set in a fantasy world. The sound design is fine, but nothing especially grabbed me.
Gameplay – Very fun! 9/10. This is where the game excels and the devs focus their effort. For all the reasons above, this really makes it worth keeping your eye on. It isn’t perfect, but if they listen to the fans and make updates accordingly, I imagine it will be that much closer to perfect in due time.
Worth? – If you like the games it compares to, it’s a no-brainer. Especially for just $10? Grab this one now and wait for updates later.
Extreme Meatpunks Forever
When I read this game’s tagline, I knew I had to play it. “Gay disaster mech pilots killing fascists.” I’d say that’s really all you need to know, but that’s not what I’m here to do. If you look at Heather Flower’s itch.io games, you can get a feel for her style (especially if you read the Meatpunk Manifesto, which I recommend). Personally, I want to be her friend.
That style looks rough on the surface, but when you just read the lines and see the messages in the story, it has this charm that you only see in queer media. That is, media made by queer folks. Gay disasters, as she puts it herself. The premise of the game is that you play your choice of a cast of various queer characters in a world that has a burned-out Sun run by fascists. The fighting is done all in mechs made of meat and flesh that you connect to via a spike that goes into your spine in a way reminiscent of The Matrix.
The writing is my favorite part of this game, for sure. It has impact and weight and it gave me chills on several occasions. More than that, the messages are relatable and the humor is enough to make you chuckle and shake your head. These characters are written by one person but they are real people.
Graphics – Good. 6/10. I reckon a lot of folks will dock this game for the graphics style it has, and likely many won’t agree that I scored this the same as others in this list. However, I’m thinking comparatively. Obviously, the graphics aren’t why you’re playing this game but they’re certainly charming.
Music/Sounds – Good. 6/10. I didn’t really pay attention to the music in this too much because I was more focused on the writing, but what I did hear was very fitting to the tone of the story and the world.
Gameplay – Fun! 7.5/10. Nothing revolutionary, but the concept of a simple arena game using some unique abilities gets better when you’re imagining pushing fascists in mechs off cliffs.
Worth? – For $10? I say support the creator. That said, she has a sequel coming out soon that you might consider buying instead while you watch someone else play this game on YouTube. But seriously, read her manifesto linked above and you’ll understand why I say you should support her work. It’s very punk rock and that raw passion/fury is not something you see all the time in game development.