Category Archives: Reviews

The Basement Collection

As it is in any artform, the first thing an artist is recognized for is very rarely the first thing they’ve “done.” A lot of  game developers start off by publishing smaller flash games for free on sites like Newgrounds, and Edmund McMillen, the mastermind behind Super Meat Boy & The Binding of Isaac, is no exception. The Basement Collection gathers all of Edmund’s best freeware games from 2006-2009 into a packed collection stuffed with updated graphics, alternate soundtracks, commentary, easter eggs, and art. While this release will probably only be played by fans already familiar with Edmund – it’s an excellent compendium of work that showcases the talent of one of the best developers in gaming today.

Seven games are featured here including the original flash prototype for Meat Boy. While the original Meat Boy features a lot of the core components that would define its later release like its heavy difficulty and enemy free platforming, the controls are clunky compared to the perfected ones of its sequel. Coming from someone who has beaten Super Meat Boy 100%, the relative simplicity in the level design of the original in comparison to its major release counterpart makes the game frustrating to play especially when dying over and over is caused more by bad controls than difficulty.

Although Meat Boy is the most instantly recognizable game in the bunch, it’s also the flimsiest and, thankfully, the only game here that feels included for posterity’s sake. Time Fcuk, a trippy puzzle platformer about a guy facing his (literal) inner demon that with gravity shifting and dimensional hopping puzzles, and Spewer, a physics base platformer about a small worm whose vomit manipulates the world in different ways (it’s not as juvenile as it sounds), both showcase Edmund’s amazing talent for level design. Although the thematic content of Time Fcuk is stronger than Spewer’s, both games are incredibly well thought out and could hold their own as standalone games.

Coil and Aether, two other games in the collection, are the most artistically minded out of the bunch.  While Coil is an interesting diversion that really stands out from the other games, its appeal rests largely on its unique approach. It’s an abstract, experimental meditation on death, but there’s not a whole lot to it. Aether, on the other hand, is definitely the biggest accomplishment here and the less said about it, the better. It explores the idea that deep rooted anxieties are never easily fixed, but challenging them will broaden your worldview more than you ever thought. It’s the most honest and personal game here, and it’s the game that gives me the most promise about Edmund’s potential.

Triachnid and Grey Matter are the last two games that round out the collection, and they’re good but not amazing. Triachnid’s hinders purely on convoluted controls (which I guess is the point), and they’re such a struggle to use that it will make the game unplayable for a lot of people. Grey Matter is a standard arcade style “shooter” that is probably the most difficult entry in the collection, but there’s not a lot in it to differentiate it from other games like it.

Regardless, The Basement Collection is an absolutely essential purchase if you’re a fan of Edmund’s other work. Yes, you can still play all of the games here for free on Newgrounds, but the extra goodies and the cheap price make it well worth purchasing. Although some of the extras do feel needlessly self-indulgent or come off as unfocused rambling (Edmund answers the same question about Coil in the Q&A section about five times), it’s good to know that The Basement Collection wasn’t a half-assed cash in.

If you’ve seen him in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie or read an interview with him anywhere else, you’ll know Edmund McMillen is an extremely generous guy that gives to his fans as much as they give to him.  For only $4, The Basement Collection is an absolute must have. Dude, get it.

Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Developer: Edmund McMillen & friends(!)
Platform: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC

Rocksmith

Music games have a bad rep and it’s not because they’re poorly made or they aren’t fun to play. Although you can’t stab a dragon in the face before turning into a werewolf in real life like you can in Skyrim, you can still pick up and teach yourself to play a real guitar instead of playing a simplistic imitation like Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Because of this and because learning to play guitar is a rite of passage for so many, music games get a lot of flack. Despite its appearances, though, Rocksmith isn’t a game that teaches you how to be a shallow imitation of a rockstar. It’s a piece of learning software that teaches you actual guitar.

Using a USB peripheral that plugs into your guitar, Rocksmith acts like an intelligent amp that can register and distinguish every note you play. It’s an awesome technological innovation that knows when you’re playing a song right because it can read the notes being played. Unlike other music games, Rocksmith’s goal isn’t to emulate the “rockstar” feel or burden you with unnecessary challenges – its main goal is to teach you how to play guitar. Although you can’t “fail” a song or a challenge, Rocksmith has a sensor that gauges your level of skill by the amount of notes and phrases you play correctly. The worse you do, the less notes there are to play.  The better, the more notes and chords appear until you’re playing the song in full. It’s a clever design that keeps the player from getting frustrated while still teaching them the skills necessary to be a better player.

While I’ve run into a few issues with the game incorrectly reading a note I was playing or not reading a note at all, careful tuning can often fix this. Depending on the guitar you use, you may have to come up with a few quick fixes to make it work (I have to tune the “e” a bit flat everytime I play), but I haven’t run into any major issues. A recent update just came out that now supports bass, and it works just as well as the guitar. You will need an actual guitar or bass (you can use your guitar to play bass, as an alternative) to play this, but again – this is largely a learning peripheral so if you don’t have these instruments already, then there’s no point in purchasing this game. Acoustic guitars may require additional equipment to work, but again – it all depends on the guitar.

So, how well does it work at teaching you how to play? At the start of playing this, I had absolutely no experience with guitar. I’ve tried learning how to play through books or with online resources, but they gave me more questions than they answered.  I really can’t stress enough how awesome this game is at teaching you to play guitar.  While I’m still nowhere near an expert level, it’s very encouraging to see the progress I make each day broken down into very apparent terms. Rocksmith features a handful of “arcade” games that each emphasize the practice of a certain technique, like a galaga type game that needs you to string the right notes to hit each target. Like so many other things in this, these games distract you from the monotony of practice, and after the nth round – you’ll find yourself 10 times better at playing than you were before.

Rocksmith does fall short of being a “video game,” though, and the visuals are drab and uninspiring. While there are a lot of cool pedals and other things to unlock that you can use in a “free play” mode, the venues you play in are barely indistinguishable from one another and it feels meaningless to unlock them. Despite this and despite the fact that this game won’t make you feel like a rock star, it will teach you to be one. Purists may still sneer at those learning to play guitar with a video game, but in a world where so many people argue against the value of video games already – Rocksmith is an amazing counterargument that is absolutely worth the time and money.

Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Developer: Ubisoft
Platform: XBox, Playstation, PC
Reviewed on: XBox

Superbrothers – Sword & Sworcery EP

Superbrothers – Sword & Sworcery EP is a point-and-click adventure game mashed with an atmospheric album that uses unconventional storytelling, pixelated graphics, humor, poetry, a killer soundtrack, and philosophical puzzles to bring together a rare, transcendental experience in gaming.

Superbrothers – Sword & Sworcery EP is about a lone warrior who unlocks an ancient evil in the pursuit of treasure and must forsake everything to defeat it. Ok, so it’s not the most original premise, but this isn’t a game that needs a detailed plot to work.  It takes the triple AAA approach to video game writing and puts it in a small, indie package that deconstructs its approach with hyper-sensory visuals and perfect sound design.

The music for Sword & Sworcery EP was done by artist Jim Gunthrie (who also did the soundtrack for “Indie Game: The Movie”). It’s a soundtrack that’s moody and meditative, but never dark, and it’s one of the best I’ve heard for a game in a long time. (Despite this, it’s unfortunately not one I would listen to on its own. Jim Gunthrie’s music is still pretty cool, though.)

On the downside, there is a heavy social network element tied to the gameplay that allows you to tweet your progress, and there are several moments in the game that promise more rewards for using it. I never noticed anything different with it, though, and it just seems like a cheap way to market the game. Without spoiling it, there’s also a couple puzzles that involve “meta-gaming” and are a pain to deal with.

Superbrothers – Sword & Sworcery EP was originally released last year on iPhone & iPad, and was just recently ported to PC.  Like Braid, Limbo, and other games like it – Superbrothers’ Sword & Sworcery EP represents a trend in video games that prides a quality experience over cheap gimmicks and artificial extenders, and strives to bring the format into the well-established notions of art. This is not a game you should pass on.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Developer: Superbrothers
Platform: iPhone, iPad, PC
Reviewed on: PC

Fez

Over four years in the making on a development cycle that almost saw the game scrapped completely on more than one occasion, Fez is finally out and it has every potential to become a classic. Putting a clever twist on the classic 2D platformer formula, Fez shifts its world into entirely new perspectives by giving you the ability to rotate the screen left or right 90 degrees allowing you to jump, climb, and reach areas that otherwise might not be available from any other point of view. It’s a mind trip that plays itself out in consistently clever and new ways.

Fez’s goal is to collect 30 gold cubes and 30 anti-matter cubes. While the gold cubes in the game are usually found in pretty standard places, the anti-matter cubes require solving a convoluted series of puzzles whose solutions are not readily apparent. Obtaining the anti-matter cubes requires more thought and intuition than most current games will ever ask of a player, and it’s this old school frame of design that will most likely turn a lot of people off from ever playing it. As much as I loved this, getting 100% required me to look at a guide religiously on more than one occasion. There were times when the puzzles were too difficult and convoluted (I’ve seen multiple accounts of people filling entire notebooks with clues to figure them out), but it’s still nice to see a challenge of this level in games again.

There are only a couple ways to die in Fez, and there are no “real” enemies to fight. Some of the platforming is tricky, but I never ran into anything that was too difficult. The soundtrack is never distracting and its calming ambiance is the perfect stimulant to spend hours pouring over the same areas over again and again looking for that last secret. This is a game that’s completely committed to exploration and discovery.

Fez has a lot of elements that shouldn’t work, but do. It will only appeal to a very select group of people, but a game like this isn’t looking for wide appeal. It’s a game with a retro aesthetic that simultaneously manages to redefine what games can be. You should definitely play it.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Developer: Polytron Corporation
Platform: XBLA, PC, MAC, PS3, PS4
Reviewed on: XBLA

(You can see the development of this game in the documentary, “Indie Game: The Movie“)