The indie uprising continued in full force this year, with numerous download-only titles bagging incredibly high review scores.
Not all caught the attention of critics and gamers alike though, and so this round-up gives a small handful a second chance to glimmer in the limelight. We’ve thrown in a few big budget games you may have missed too. Hey, we’re all for equality here.
Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved – Xbox One, Xbox 360
We feel sorry for Harmonix. We really do. See, it wasn’t long after Fantasia was announced that Microsoft finally caved in and began to sell the Xbox One without the Kinect. Turns out people didn’t want a glorified webcam prying into their living room. Who would have thought it, eh?
Although Fantasia obtained positive reviews it would appear that pre-orders were so low that some retailers didn’t bother stocking it at all. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks after launch that we spotted our first copy in ‘the wild’. It gets worse – not only did it fail to enter the UK top 40, but also the top 40 Xbox 360 chart. Considering even incredibly obscure stuff manages to break the lower echelons of the Xbox 360 top 40, we’d wager that copies sold during launch week struggled to break double figures. We’re speculating of course, but it stands to reason.
At the time of typing Fantasia can be picked up for around £20 and will likely swiftly plummet to the magical £10 mark. Those with a Kinect would do well take advantage of that alluring price tag. Bringing the worlds sorcerer Yen Sid has created to life is a joy, while the chance to unlock additional mixes mid-song is a neat idea. From Elton John to Gorillaz, the track listing is pleasingly diverse too.
While it may not have sold well, Harmonix can still take solace in knowing that Fantasia will be remembered as being one of the best Kinect titles. At least by the few who played it, anyway.
Volgarr the Viking – Xbox One
As much as we wanted to review Volgarr, the fact that we aren’t very good at it scrubbed that plan. Harsher than a Norwegian winter, it puts both memory and reflex skills to the test.
Although tough, it’s all the better for it. Every death heeds a valuable lesson; learn from these mistakes and on your next attempt you’ll get a little further. Controls are precise and enemy placement pixel-perfect. Sure, you’ll curse when you die for the umpteenth time but you’ll also dust yourself off and try again. For us, that’s the hallmark of impeccable design.
The aesthetic design is likewise pleasing. Every reviewer seems to have their own opinion on which 16-bit classic Volgarr resembles. In our eyes, Tatio’s Rastan Saga from 1987. In terms of how it plays however it has more in common with Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. It’s the power-up system we have to thank for this – Volgarr starts with a simple sword and spear combo, gaining shields and armour from chests that often require a spot of risky exploration to discover. One hit is all it takes to lose these items, and so keeping hold of them for lengthy periods proves to be a highly rewarding challenge in itself.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments – PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
It took Ukrainian developer Frogwares more than a few attempts (seven, to be specific) but they finally managed to make a compelling adventure starring the renowned sleuth. Perhaps the potential of extra sales generated by the BBC series – of which this has no connection – made them more determined to deliver the goods.
Polygon in particular was smitten with Sherlock, giving it an 8.0. “Crimes and Punishments is easy to recommend to fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation or adventure game fans just looking for something different. It may not provide much in the way of deductive challenge, but it succeeded more than any mystery game I’ve played in genuinely making me think. I have to believe Holmes would approve.”
As we said ourselves, it’s one to consider once the dust has settled on this winter’s big name releases.
Styx: Master of Shadows – PS4, Xbox One, PC
Just like the above, Styx: Master of Shadows was published by Focus. Unlike the above though it wasn’t lucky enough to receive a retail release, instead launching on the download services for just over £20.
If the name Styx rings a bell chances are you’re one of the few who played the underrated PS3/360 RPG Of Orcs and Men. This is the spin-off prequel starring goblin thief Styx. In Of Orcs and Men he provided the brains – a scheming so-and-so able to sneak past guards and such thanks to his small stature – while his green-skinned Orc associate provided the brawn. Whereas Of Orcs and Men was a reasonably straight-laced RPG, this takes inspiration from the likes of Splinter Cell, Thief and Hitman. The mechanics it features may be well worn but they’re used to good effect, putting in a surprisingly fun spin on the usually po-faced stealth genre.
It’s hardly a big budget affair and there are some rough edges that would have benefited from a spot of spit and polish, but given the price tag these problems are easy to look past.
Chariot – PS4, Xbox One, PC
Online play? Lobbies? Matchmaking? Chariot knows not of these things, favouring good old couch-based co-op gaming instead. We just hope your couch is a comfortable one as Chariot takes more than just a couple of evenings to beat.
It’s a physics based platformer in which the two main characters – a princess and her suitor – are tasked with finding a resting place for a recently departed King. He comes along for the ride through the royal catacombs, taking the form of a ghostly spirit. Fussy, temperamental and a bit of a coward, he also wishes the chariot also be filled with loot as you make your way through the labyrinth-like levels. Jewels and gems help to highlight the direction of the exit(s), while also proving a good reason to stray off the beaten path.
By attaching a rope the titular chariot can be pulled up hills, slopes and ledges. Now comes the fun part – jumping on top of it for a rollercoaster ride into the great unknown. Should the chariot roll away and vanish off the screen for too long then it’s back to the last checkpoint you go. This is one of the few means of failure – the enemies encountered cause no harm as they’re simply out to steal your loot. The longer it takes for you to fling them off the chariot, the more they take. As a consequence, it then takes longer to save up for the various chariot upgrades. This does affect the sense of progression somewhat but don’t let that put you off. There’s a huge adventure to be had here, and a surprisingly humourous one at that.
Super Time Force – Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Fans of Treasure’s 16-bit classics would do well to try out Capy Games’ time travelling shooter. Time is the key element here, thanks to the ability to rewind the action. Also: the stages are set throughout history, varying from a prehistoric world to a Mad Max influenced dystopian future.
When rewinding time your present self remains, effectively doubling your firepower. Especially during boss battles it’s critical to strategically position your handpicked heroes – each of which comes clutching a different weapon – to whittle down the bosses’ huge health bars before the timer runs out. Initially the time limits seem impossible but as the enemy attack patterns and level design become familiar you soon learn when and where to use one of the valuable rewind tokens.
Experimentation often comes into play, particularly when choosing which characters to take into battle. Each has a unique method of attack, including a robed individual clutching what’s blatantly lightsaber. Capy Games clearly doesn’t fear Disney’s lawyers. A few good all-rounders are present too and can always be relied on to save your hide in the nick of time. Another honourable mention goes to the pleasingly daft mission objectives, which include a trip to the future to retrieve the latest internet plug-ins so your boss can watch cat videos online. Similar references to internet culture are rife throughout.
Super Time Force can easily be beaten in an afternoon, but what an afternoon. We wish we could rewind time to enjoy it anew.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze – Wii U
Each and every major Wii U release has been more prolific than the last, ending with the glorious combination of Super Smash Bros. and the amiibo figurines. As the first big name Wii U release of 2014 Retro Studio’s ape-filled escapade is easily the least prolific. There’s no shame in admitting you had forgotten it was released this year. Even we had to double check.
When Tropical Freeze was announced it did prompt eyes to roll, with reason being that many were hoping Retro was working on a new Metroid Prime. The rolling of eyeballs wasn’t totally unjustified – after Super Mario 3D World this relatively simple 2.5D platformer did seem a step backwards for the Wii U. Nevertheless Tropical Freeze helped to boost system sales, shifting 130,000 copies in just eight days. With tighter controls, two new characters and grunt of the Wii U providing some stunning set-pieces, many critics agreed that it was on par with 2010’s much loved Donkey Kong Country Returns, if not better.
This finely crafted platformer deserves a place on your shelf alongside the likes of Bayonetta 2 and Mario Kart 8. Just don’t expect a smooth ride – in some places it’s harder than a frozen banana.
Never Alone – PS4, Xbox One, PC
The newest game in this round-up, snow-covered adventure Never Alone was released just last month and heralded as being a late GOTY contender. Rich in Alaskan folklore, it’s a mostly serene experience with thought provoking puzzles. There are some unexpected education elements to it too, thanks to input from actual Alaskan Natives.
The 10/10 handed out by Eurogamer was certainly nothing to be sniffed at. “It would have been easy for this to have become just another cheap, educational game. It would have been easy to phone it in and bank on just being different enough to justify itself. But Never Alone is so much more than that. It carries the sensibilities of its inspirations, and it feels and looks just as it should. There’s some irritation there, but like the best folk tales, Never Alone is all about sharing the game with someone else”, they said poignantly.
AirMech Arena – Xbox 360
This free-to-play RTS from Ubisoft must have had a lengthy planning period as even at launch the balancing was tight to the extreme. The visual style holds plenty of appeal as well, with the giant robots in particular bound to please fans of Transformers cartoons old and new. There are even subtle Gundam references within the mech designs – Carbon Games clearly aimed for worldwide appeal here.
The titular AirMechs are used to ferry tanks and robotic troops around the battlefields; the heavier the unit, the longer they take to transport. AirMechs can also engage the enemy directly – robot mode for ground troops and airborne mode for enemy AirMechs. This is where the PvP elements come into play. Each AirMech’s weapon is finely balanced – the mini-gun, for instance, takes a few seconds to spin up but can drain a health bar within a few seconds when at full pelt.
It was the co-op survival mode we spent the bulk of time playing. At first the fact that the waves of AI enemies never change pattern from one match to the next seemed like a faux pas. It soon emerged though to be a stroke of genius. Because the waves never change it’s possible to plan ahead and strategically place tanks, troops and gun turrets. Along with a comprehensive tutorial – in which each lesson takes the form of a ranked challenge – this makes the learning curve a surprisingly gentle one. With dozens of unit types to experiment with it’s not something that’s mastered in mere minutes, that’s for sure.
In an ideal world AirMech Arena would have made its debut on Xbox One and PS4. Not only would this have helped it to turned a few more heads, but it would have undoubtedly fixed the frame rate issues that soil the overall experience. Even so, this is easily our favourite FTP title on Xbox 360, toppling previous favourite World of Tanks.
Cosmophony – Wii U, Mobiles
Whereas most rhythm action titles feature a broad selection of tracks in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, eShop release Cosmophony favours the musical talents of just one artist – DJ Salaryman.
When taking into consideration that the reward for proficient playing is the chance to listen to one of Salaryman’s drum and bass tracks uninterrupted, it stands to reason that this isn’t going to please all and sundry. This doesn’t make Cosmophony a bad game, of course, but it does make it an acquired taste.
Similarities can be had with Harmonix’s Amplitude and Frequency. It’s a much simpler experience however – all that’s required of the player is to simply manoeuvre out of harm’s way while firing projectiles at incoming threats. Failure comes at a higher price here though as one chance is all you get. Thankfully, there’s a practise mode in which it’s possible to rewind and fast forward to play through and potentially master trickier sections. It can take a while to find a control system that suits – the triggers, analogue stick and the d-pad can all be used for manoeuvring – but once you eventually find a system that works you’re soon absorbed into ‘the zone’.
Browsing the Wii U eShop is much like buying a bottle of wine – when contemplating to break the £4 barrier you face entering risky territory. For us, Cosmophony made that risk worth taking. It’s a little too limited to be considered an eShop essential but it’s still leaps and bounds over the majority of budget priced eShop offerings.