Pony Island Review

Pony Island is more than it seems on the surface, packed with unexpected content and surprises. As a result, there will be minor spoilers in this article. If you plan to play the game, proceed with caution!

Bright. Cheery.

First impressions aren’t always accurate, and such is the case with Pony Island by Daniel Mullins. After purchasing the game as part of a Humble Bundle on the recommendation of a friend, I found my expectations dashed to the ground as darkness seized the game’s helm, steering Pony Island into realms of horror, madness and self-aware charm, similar to one of my personal favorites, Eversion by Zaratustra Productions.

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Pony Island is, at its heart, a meta-take on game design, imagining what a video game designed by the devil might look like. As Lucifer is a little socially awkward, instead of hiring playtesters to provide feedback for his games, he captures human souls and forces them to play, eternally trapped in a state of limbo. All communication with the Devil takes place in text boxes via an in-game computer screen. The game’s text-based horror and humor are masterful, well-timed and well-delivered, drawing the player into the Devil’s twisted and self-conscious mind. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that with some help, the Devil’s game might be deleted, defeating Lucifer and freeing the playtesters from limbo.

The entire game is controlled with a mouse and keyboard, but the gameplay is comes in three different forms. Firstly, there’s the computer’s operating system, in which the player can click around, solving minor puzzles and searching for hints in Lucifer’s computer. Secondly, in order to hack into the computer and search for exploits to destroy it from within, mini logic puzzles must be solved, typically by using repeat functions and arrows to warp a key through a maze of obstacles toward an end goal. The third type of gameplay is Pony Island itself, the game of the devil’s own creation. It’s a simple runner, with a click-to-jump mechanic and a laser-beam power that shoots from a pixel-art pony’s mouth.

Any of these gameplay types could grow repetitive after a long play session, but Daniel Mullins brilliantly paces variation between each of them, ensuring that once a Pony Island level starts to grow tiresome, the story progresses and the player is quickly presented with a computer-navigation or puzzle section. For the entirety of my playthrough, I never once struggled to the point of frustration on any section, as the puzzles were fair, the jumping sections were short with frequent checkpoints, and the computer navigation sections were cleverly designed and full of hilarious trickery. My only frustrations with the game arose from the final boss battle, which was a little underwhelming in challenge after the brain-busting charm of earlier levels.

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From the horrifying realization of where your character really is, to the laugh-out-loud moments of comedic dialogue with Lucifer, to the mind-bending puzzles and obscure thought process behind the whole thing, every moment of Pony Island is brilliant. The game’s controls occasionally frustrate during the Pony Island sections, and some religiously-sensitive players might find issue with some of the content, but as per the meta-narrative, that’s the point of the whole experience. The Devil was never meant to make a game, but Pony Island – the game about his terrible game – is masterful, and a must-play. Buy it.

5 Stars

 

Ori and the Blind Forest Review

Ori and the Blind Forest by Moon Studios has been out for well over a year and has already seen the release of a Definitive Edition for multiple platforms, but I’ve only now just had the pleasure of playing it. Truthfully, the word pleasure is an understatement, as Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the most mind-bogglingly excellent games I’ve ever played, and is an absolute must-play for anyone with an Xbox One or a decent PC.

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The story of Ori and the Blind Forest is simple, but heartfelt. Ori, a glowing white spirit-creature, lives happily in a healthy forest, but disaster strikes when a hostile bird attacks the heart of the forest’s Spirit Tree. As in most Metroidvania games, the player must traverse the landscape, gaining new powers that enable them to travel further and grow more powerful, in order to restore balance to the world. Though the storyline might sound a little typical on the surface, the game’s audio and visual design elevate the experience to another level entirely, and I’d be surprised if even the most hardened cynic didn’t find a tear in their eye during the opening cinematic.

Ori’s gameplay, as with its visuals and audio, is transcendent. As the player gains powers and grows stronger through a simple upgrade tree, Ori’s controls become second-nature. Triple-jumps and complicated combos are no trouble for an upgraded player, and combined with the game’s incredible foley and visual effects, all combos and attacks are extremely satisfying to perform. All the while, gorgeous backdrops and lighting bring the world to life, tied together by a detailed and easily-navigatable 2D map: an essential tool in any Metroidvania, where a great deal of time is spent navigating the complex world maze. Ori moves quickly, so long distances are easy to travel, though there are always plenty of items to pick up along the way.

While the game’s chase-scene challenges prove to be quite difficult, Ori can save the game in any safe area, provided that his Soul Link meter is fully charged. It’s a wonderful addition to the game, and results in the player only needing to backtrack or replay an area if they failed to set a proper checkpoint for themselves. The game’s progression is well-paced and addicting, and while the game can be finished with 100% completion in only a few hours, the entire experience is so memorable and beautiful that the short completion time is completely tolerable.

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Ori and the Blind Forest is fantastic, from beginning to end. The controls are spot-on, the sound design is gorgeous and rich, the visuals are striking, charming and varied, and the overall experience is tied together beautifully with a heartfelt story and addicting game progression. If you’re running a decent PC and are a fan of Metroidvanias, 2D platformers or classic action adventure games, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Buy this game.

6 Stars

 

Hug Arena Review

PICO-8, a fantasy console created by Lexaloffle, deviates from the modern definition of a console, dissociating itself from high-end hardware, complex control schemes and expensive peripherals, in favor of simple game-creation and sharing. An all-in-one development system and emulated console, PICO-8’s harsh graphical and coding limitations force developers to streamline and minimize assets in their games. Once PICO-8 is installed, hundreds upon hundreds of free games are instantly available in the form of virtual cartridges, courtesy of Lexaloffle’s vibrant development community. One cartridge in particular that I’ve grown quite fond of is Hug Arena by Benjamin Soule, a simple arena fighter with an interesting hook: instead of attacking or killing enemies, they must instead be hugged, and forced to love the player.

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Hug Arena is extremely simple to play. The arrow keys control movement, and a hug can be performed on enemies within a specific radius with a press of the Z key. It’s a simple control scheme, but when five or more enemies are on the screen at once, the game’s difficulty skyrockets. Certain enemies shoot projectiles that must be dodged before going in for a hug, while some will opt instead to chase the player. A love-bar at the bottom of the screen decreases as hugs are performed; love can be regenerated through the passing of time, or by cozying up to previously-converted enemies. As screens are cleared and the levels progress, the player can upgrade their power, speed, or love bar to more easily take on tougher enemies.

A standard play session of Hug Arena generally lasts 5-10 minutes, unless the player is well-seasoned and able to quickly progress to later levels. While its sound design and graphics are quite stark, the game is nonetheless a joy to play, as it nails its concept so cleanly and simply. To top off the experience, as with all games running in PICO-8, with two taps of the ESC key, the player is able to view and rummage through the game’s code, which provides quite an insight into the game’s development process.

Hug Arena isn’t deep, but it’s a great game to pick up and play for a quick challenge. As PICO-8 carts are free with the download of the virtual console from Lexaloffle’s website, I highly recommend making the $15 purchase, especially if you’re interested in PICO-8, or game development in general.

3.5 Stars

 

My Horse Prince Review

Otome is a bit of an oddball genre, encompassing romance games that feature the concept of a reverse harem. Generally in Otome, a female protagonist is charmed by multiple men, who fulfill the roles of romantic archetypes. While the heavy-handed tropes of the genre might be daunting to first-time-players, parody titles such as Hatoful Boyfriend have proven that Otome’s melodrama can be accessible to newcomers if a little humor is introduced. Now, five years after Hatoful Boyfriend first landed on PC, My Horse Prince by Usaya has arrived on iOS, fusing the romance of Otome with basic clicker mechanics to create a whole new world of romantic confusion.

However, in My Horse Prince, there is only one lover up for grabs. Are you ready to fall in love?

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Yuuma the horse is one of the most hilarious and bewildering characters I’ve ever encountered in a video game, romancing the player with sweet talk and increasingly erratic acts of love, all while strutting about in his equine form. The female protagonist of My Horse Prince forges a bond of love with Yuuma throughout the course of the game, but almost as if to mimic the player’s experience, she spends her time in a confounded dream-state, confused and frustrated by her inability to separate delusion from reality. All the while, it’s unclear as to whether or not their love is meant to be, or if it’s simply a horrifying mistake.

The game’s art style is typical for an Otome game, with the main characters drawn in manga-style, and tertiary characters scrawled as hasty doodles. The animation is chuckle-worthy and smooth, and cutscenes are particularly well-drawn. Unfortunately, My Horse Prince’s gameplay is painfully simple, amounting to an exercise in repetition and patience. After speaking kind words to Yuuma to build up his stamina, the player then clicks on items to build up the love meter at the top of the screen. To recharge the dialogue option, an ad must be watched, after which the process can be repeated. Once the love meter is full, a cutscene plays, and the next chapter begins. However, the heart of My Horse Prince isn’t found in its gameplay, but instead in the bizarre story, detailed cutscenes and hilariously self-aware writing. Every moment of grinding was worth it, just to find out what sort of hijinks Yuuma might get up to next, and what sort of insane plot points might ensue.

Cringe-inducing, hilarious, and utterly unique, My Horse Prince is a must-play, especially as it’s free to download. Though its core gameplay is weak, the screwball storyline and zany animations tie the whole experience together into the most delightfully confusing game I’ve played all year.

4 Stars

 

Developer Spotlight: Spread Shot Studios

Today, Platformalist’s Developer Spotlight is on Spread Shot Studios, a 2-person studio from San Francisco, currently developing the multiplayer bullet hell title Space Jammers.

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The game looks great, Sorob! Can you talk for a minute about who you are, and what you’d like to achieve with Space Jammers?

Sorob Raissi: My name is Sorob Raissi, and I’m originally from Orlando, Florida but moved to the West Coast last year. I used to work in the military simulation industry as a 3D artist and level designer. I’m now working on 2D games and have been learning programming along the way, since I never got a formal education in that department. Frank Meijer (PR at Spread Shot Studios) expressed some interest in helping out with the campaign a few months before I launched the Kickstarter, so we’ve been planning release strategies together since then. He is based in the Netherlands, so we make sure to Skype at least once a week.

With Space Jammers, my goal is to set a benchmark for the company in terms of the tone, quality and features that gamers can expect in the future. I want the games coming out of Spread Shot Studios to be as inclusive as possible, with multiplayer features.

The game’s story revolves around a rock band comprised of alien pirates, trying to fund their musical tour. Are you musically inclined?

SR: I don’t think so …

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The screens for Space Jammers look pretty impressive, running at a solid 60fps with a ton of sprites on the screen at once! Could you talk for a minute about some specific challenges you’ve encountered in developing a bullet hell game, and some tricks you’ve discovered in order to combat these challenges?

SR: This game was originally developed on an outdated Android tablet, and later for OUYA, so performance was a bare necessity from the start. The biggest bottleneck I encountered first was maintaining so many objects on the screen. Since I want to keep all the action on one screen, I simply don’t run code in objects that fall outside of the viewable game. This style of managing all objects in the game became the most practical performance enhancer.

Could you talk about what inspires you? Creatively, artistically, and what generally motivates you to put out solid work?

SR: I’m driven to make better versions of games or genres by trying to fix holes or mistakes, to make something better or special. Because I grew up in the nineties, my work comes out through that lens. I feel like games have gotten unnecessarily complicated, for how commoditized they’ve become. I want to eventually try to make games more approachable for people.

I noticed a sprite in your promo material that bears a striking resemblance to Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Is this an intentional reference?

SR: I dunno, but it’s a pretty good show.

Your website mentions that Spread Shot Studios aims to provide experiences that cater to both casual and hardcore gamers. How do you hope to achieve this?

SR: Some of the mechanics I include aim to help those who would struggle with this type of game. For example, bullet time which slows down everything except the player if they are near a bullet. There are plans to port to mobile as well, which will likely end up with much simpler input and gameplay mechanics for casual players. In the long term, I want to make games that use alternate interaction methods that take advantage of what people already know how to use. Not everyone understands gamepads.

If you could send a message to your past self, when you first started working in the game industry, what advice would you give yourself?

SR: Start making games sooner!

Favorite snack while developing?

SR: Scooby Snacks.

Most-used software during development work?

SR: Aseprite.

Favorite game of all time?

SR: Diablo 2.

Favorite console of all time?

SR: SNES.

If you could be any character from Space Jammers for a day, who would you choose?

SR: The one with the straw in his head, so I could “drink your milkshake”!

Any shout-outs you’d like to make? Indie games you’d like to recommend? Anyone I should follow on Twitter?

SR: @wizard_fu – Developing Songbringer, a procedural roguelike Zelda-style game.
@asquaredgames – Developed Sleep, a mysterious story-driven metroidvania game.

If you’d like to support Spread Shot Studios and get Space Jammers at a discount, check out their Kickstarter, follow them on Twitter, or wishlist the game on Steam!

High Risers Review

Kumobius games are something special, exuding a spark of inimitable joy that’s hard not to enjoy. Time and time again, the team nails tight controls, balanced challenges, and a pleasing art style. Bean’s Quest and Bean Dreams are iOS classics in their own right, so naturally, when I noticed that Kumobius had released a little twitch platformer, I was instantly intrigued.

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High Risers is as simple as they come. The player must climb a massive building, but is unable to stop running. Tap to jump, and use the building’s walls to keep yourself from falling out of the tower, climbing as high as possible. The gameplay itself isn’t very deep, but the controls are so tight that I found myself experimenting with different play styles for my own enjoyment. It’s possible to climb the building slowly with a one-thumb technique, but by using two thumbs or four fingers, the character can blaze up easier stretches of the building with ease. However, once you reach floor 100, the character begins to run faster and the building gets noticeably more dangerous.

As in other Kumobius games, the graphics in High Risers are top-notch. Backdrops are rich and pleasant to look at, and each unlockable sprite is charming and loaded with personality. There’s not much to speak of when it comes to the game’s sound design, but it gets the job done and is never intrusive. High Risers is free-to-play, so if you’d like to send Kumobius a few dollars to show your appreciation for the game, additional background art and playable characters can be purchased for a couple dollars each. Alternately, each upgrade can also be unlocked through the use of coins, which can be collected in-game or by watching ads, in the vein of Crossy Road or Rodeo Stampede.

High Risers exudes a simple, addictive charm, and with its non-intrusive free-to-play model, it’s an easy recommendation. The game won’t keep you occupied for hours at a time, but it’s a great little time-killer for a lunch break or bus ride. Not to mention that if you haven’t checked out Bean Dreams or Bean’s Quest, High Risers is a great introduction to the unique charm that Kumobius nails so well.

4 Stars

 

Roofbot Review

Roofbot by Double Coconut and Koreez is a tricky game to review. On one hand, it’s cute, well designed, highly atmospheric and satisfying to play. On the other hand, its in-app purchase model left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, tainting my experience with the game.

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Roofbot is an isometric grid puzzler, in which Roofie the Robot cleans up his roof by dropping colored objects into their respective holes, eventually finding his way to the level’s exit. The game’s hook lies in its tile-dropping mechanic, which adds an element of strategy and difficulty to the game. When Roofie moves to a new tile, the previous tile drops away, leaving the player to find a specific path that will allow them to progress. As a lifelong Q-Bert fan, this mechanic had me hooked from the start, and with the addition of fans and warp tiles, the game gets better and better as the levels progress. From top to bottom, the graphics are stylized and pleasing to the eye, with the protagonist cutely sporting a spinning green flower on his head, occasionally taking selfies and playing the ukulele. Roofbot’s backdrops are somber, futuristic, and highly immersive, topped off with a calming, albeit repetitive soundtrack. My only qualm with the presentation is the robot’s name – Roofie – which could be interpreted as a cringe-worthy drug reference. I truly hope that the reference was unintentional.

I was quite enjoying my time with the game, until I reached Level 40, when I made an unfortunate discovery. There’s a hint button in the top right-hand corner of the user interface, which can be tapped when the player is in need of a suggestion. As the game encourages players to tap the button when they’re struggling, these hints become part of the natural flow and progression of gameplay. By the time I reached Level 40, I had only used four or five hints, but I grew curious about one detail: every time I used a hint, a counter on the hint button dropped by one. I grew suspicious as to what might happen if I used all my hints. After all, Roofbot is a paid game, so they wouldn’t lock hints behind a paywall, especially after introducing these suggestions as an acceptable course of action when the player is stumped or struggling. Or would they? So, in the interest of discovering the truth, I mashed on the hint button until my hints ran out. Once I hit zero, I pressed the button again, and lo and behold:

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An in-app purchase screen appeared, confirming that the developers had locked additional hints behind a paywall. To add insult to injury, the price tag on these hints is quite high, starting at $1.39 for 2 hints, all the way up to $69.99 for 120 hints. I’d happily drop a dollar or two on upgrades to the game, such as new characters or additional levels in a future update, but for hints, which I’ve been trained to use freely? No thank you, Double Coconut.

At its core, Roofbot really is an excellent puzzle game, but its frustrating monetization scheme holds it back from greatness. If the game was free to download, in-app purchases for hints would be an understandable inclusion, but premium titles ought to be fully playable without additional paywalls. Should the developers at Double-Coconut rectify this monetization structure, I’ll happily rethink my review. But in its current state, I can’t recommend downloading Roofbot for $2.99, unless you can breeze through its 100 levels without using up your hint quota.

3 Stars