Tag Archives: indiedev

The Otterman Empire – Review

There doesn’t seem to have been much to celebrate recently but that certainly doesn’t stop us from being in the mood for a good party game. The Otterman Empire from indie developers Tri-Heart Interactive is one such game. A bright and colourful co-op shooter in which you play as adorable otters, might just be the you need to keep you and your friends cheerful when times are tough.

A l(otter) heart


Set on an intergalactic space colony, The Otterman Empire places players in the shoes of a customisable aquatic warrior who is tasked with defending the planet against the evil mad scientist Dr Tiko by destroying his seemingly endless army of malevolent machines. Players can face this challenge with up to three friends in local co-op play or opt to face it alone in single-player. There are eight selectable characters to choose from, each with a unique design and diverse selection of unlockable cosmetic items to discover.

From a visual standpoint, The Otterman Empire is a pretty good all-rounder. The colour palette is bright and cartoonish, perfectly complimenting the game’s character’s colourful designs. I found all of the eight included maps to be intriguing, each one covering a distinct visual theme. These range from a futuristic sport themed space arena to the gardens of a mediaeval looking castle. My personal favourite was the game’s first map, a sleek futuristic city environment which was both gorgeous to look at and a lot of fun to explore.

Your progress through the game is mapped, if you’ll pardon the pun, by the maps you unlock through playing. Each one has three alternate game-modes to try with a potential of nine total stars to unlock – three stars being the highest obtainable rating per game-mode. By unlocking a sufficient number of stars, you gain access to the next map. In theory, this ensures the player will spend a sufficiently long amount of time in each map to get really to grips with it. but in reality, this system just becomes a bit of a slog after a while; with players forced to repeatedly go over the same maps in order to get a high enough rating to progress.

In spite of the forced repetition, the different game-modes which are on offer in each map are nevertheless pleasantly varied. My personal favourite was ‘squidditch’ a fast-paced mode which challenges players to use their jetpacks to slam dunk as many bombs into enemy spawning portals as possible. Both jetpack fuel and ammunition is replenished through sliding gaily along waterways which are dotted along maps and additionally serve as a quick method of transportation when you’re in a hurry. The other game-modes on offer are similarly unique and all require a distinct set of skills for players to master.

Not quite a party


It is a huge shame that no matter which map or mode you choose to play there seems to be only two total enemy types found throughout the entire campaign. There are stationary turrets which will blast any player unlucky enough to stumble into their field of view with a laser beam and smaller, laser-firing flying drones, which are often equally as stationary. The strategy for tackling both enemy types is the same, unload as many shots into them as quickly as you can, and this tangible lack of enemy variety causes gameplay to become incredibly stale in only a matter of minutes.

Overall, the campaign mode offers a few interesting modes to try out, but the seeming lack of effort put into enemy design and behaviour leaves the whole ordeal feeling like one big wasted opportunity. It can be tackled in both a single player or as part of a local co-op but why anyone would actually want to play the campaign in co-op, and not the far more interesting versus mode which does away with the boring robot enemies, is beyond me.

Sitting down with the versus mode and having your buddies blast away at each other’s otter avatars is an awful lot of fun! It allows you to return to your favourite maps and revitalises the more interesting game modes from the campaign. PC users also have the option of Steam‘s ‘Remote Play Together’ with which you can invite a friend to play a livestreamed version of your game through an integrated browser window. It is entirely reliant on the other player having both a fast internet connection and USB controller on hand, but does you the chance to play the game with people who are not in the immediate vicinity.

Otterly baffling


I am happy to report that since launch, the game has received numerous patches and small updates – the most significant of which was a fix for the PC version of the title, which launched with a borderline unusable keyboard control scheme. It would be nice to see some further additions to help improve the overall polish of the game.

A notable area for improvement is the audio design. Whilst most of the included original music is good, the audio design of the in-game dialogue definitely needs some work. With no actual sound effects beyond a few frequently repeated, and strangely quiet, soundbites, the character interactions of both the campaign and tutorial feel completely lifeless. Another appreciated addition would be a reworking of the game’s graphics menu, which still doesn’t include basic options like changing the window’s resolution or even just the option of playing the game in windowed mode!

The UI on PC is absolutely huge and there is absolutely no way to resize the text and buttons so that they don’t occupy large areas of the screen. Simply addressing these few basic issues would go a huge way in improving the title’s overall look and feel. It would also be nice if damage taken was more obviously communicated to the player. It’s hard to keep track of your health in the heat of a battle and there were many occasions when I didn’t even know I was taking damage until I had died.

Verdict:


The saddest thing about The Otterman Empire is that the game is almost good. Whilst there has evidently been a lot of love and passion behind the title’s unique art-direction, quirky writing and superb community management over the years; a number of baffling design missteps and a lack of overall polish unfortunately prevents me from being able to wholeheartedly recommend this title. It isn’t an inherently awful option if you’re craving a local co-op fix, but many would-be players will likely find that the game’s current issues are just a little too hard to swallow.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

Dark Light – Early Access Review

Dark Light, a new game from developer Mirari&Co, was released into early access last month. With the prospect of a future console release on the Nintendo Switch and numerous content updates ahead of it, I was very interested to take look into this title and see if Dark Light had set off on it’s perilous early access journey to a promising start or whether, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.

It’s dangerous to go alone


Dark Light transports players to a brutal yet beautiful cyberpunk world. Set after a reality-warping apocalyptic event which sent the remnants of humanity scurrying to hide underground, the player is tasked with suiting up and venturing outside to explore a dangerous world of distorted city ruins, maze-like sewer systems and hellish industrial zones.

From a visual standpoint, it’s safe to say that Dark Light is breath-taking. Every facet of the world around you positively exudes an overriding atmosphere of decay. Despite being presented from a side-on 2D perspective the environments you explore have a real feeling of depth, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of a detailed foreground which accompany the intricate backdrop sprites. Although the colour scheme may be a little drab, being comprised mainly of muddy greys and dark greens, the use of bright neon lighting throughout the otherwise dark levels helps add a nice splash of colour and throughout my playtime I often found myself stopping to soak in just how gorgeous some of my surroundings really were.

You aren’t just left to explore these lavish environments alone either, throughout the game you are accompanied by a friendly drone which, in addition to serving as vessel for the game’s tutorial, assists you by providing useful information and illuminating the path ahead through its built-in torch. The further you progress in the game, the darker environments become and the more you begin to understand the importance of this solitary light source. Some of the more powerful late game enemies are even wholly invisible outside its rays.

Dark(er) souls


The majority of gameplay in Dark Light follows a consistent gameplay loop. Starting with a basic pistol and sword, you are left to explore the map, killing enemies as you go to shards and new gear. These shards are used back at the starting area to upgrade your energy and life force. Increasing your life force allows you to take more hits before going down with energy acting more like a traditional stamina system being slowly depleted when you use your attacks or abilities. Exploring is quite the challenge however and with your earned shards being immediately lost upon death it’s worth thinking twice before heading out. Luckily there are frequent “portals” which allowing the player to save or fast travel at the cost of respawning enemies, similar to the famous bonfire save points of Dark Souls.

This creates a great feeling of danger and suspense while you’re exploring, with the player constantly having to balance the risk of losing what they have earned so far with the potential rewards of the higher-level enemies which are more frequent further away from the starting area. Combat itself is enjoyable and intense, with the player juggling between dodge rolls, firearm attacks, close-range sword strikes and useful throwables like grenades or turrets. Attacks look smooth with very satisfying animations and the wide variety of available weapons, most of which substantially altering the flow of combat, helps keep the combat mechanics from becoming stale after long periods of play.

From shambling zombie-like beings controlled by strange parasites, fleshy mutants to the devastating boss fights this wide variety of weapons is accompanied by a wide variety of things to use them against. The gory death animations combined with the on-screen damage indication give fights a visceral edge and the satisfying burst of shiny collectibles spewn by corpses provide a satisfying conclusion to combat which is sure to leave eagerly anticipating your next fight. I am also glad to report that whilst each area’s final boss fight provides a monumental challenge they still manage to feel like a good test of the player’s skill rather than anything cheap or overtly unfair.

In addition to combat, gameplay also includes elements of light platforming. Although Dark Light‘s system of using double-jumps and rolls to hop between vertical or horizontally placed platforms is nothing ground-breaking, it is certainly well done and helps provide an additional challenge for players to master. As in fights, platforming is for the most part fluid and well animated with the exception of the rope-climbing animation – which unfortunately stood out due to its unnatural stiffness.

Left in the dark


On the subject of unnatural stiffness, some lines dialogue and item descriptions contain small grammatical errors or odd wording choices which break both the player’s immersion in the game world and the flow of dialogue. Similarly flow-breaking is the game’s music. Despite what music there is being of great quality and notably complements the overall atmosphere well, the frequent looping of the music and general lack of variety in the tracks lends itself to a feeling more droning and monotonous than particularly atmospheric.

There is also an issue regarding the game’s short length. Containing a good selection of weapons and enemies but only a handful of areas and end-bosses the complete package from start-to-finish took me around four hours to complete, including the time taken to complete some additional level grinding to help me more easily tackle some of the harder bosses. Considering how much I enjoyed my playtime; I was quite sad to see it end just when I was truly getting into the flow of the mechanics so a good few hours more gameplay would certainly be appreciated.

Verdict:


With a stunning art-direction, exciting combat mechanics and solid platforming it’s easy to get lost in the world of Dark Light. Promisingly for an early-access title all the apparent issues, at the time of writing at least, are easy to remedy. The developer has already committed to introducing new areas and bosses to pad out the runtime and the game is already frequently receiving substantial quality of life updates. Dark Light successfully captures the most important elements of the souls-like and metroid-vania genres whilst introducing just the right number of new elements to create an experience that is in equal parts pleasingly familiar and excitingly original. If you’re a fan of either genre, Dark Light is certainly one to pick up now or, at the very least, keep a good eye on until release.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

StarCrossed – Review

The last time we covered StarCrossed was when we sat down for a lovely chat with Francesca Carletto-Leon, the game’s narrative designer, and discussed her mission to create a co-op game that brings people together in more meaningful ways. With the game debuting on the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One last week and lockdown ensuring the majority of us have far more time to spend interacting with members of our own households, there’s never been a better time to grab a controller, kick back on the couch and defeat some baddies – together.

Shooting stars


StarCrossed takes two eager players to the Nova Galaxy in order to try and protect the mystical Harmony Crystal from a plethora of intergalactic nasties and their legions of ghoulish minions. There are five playable characters for players to choose from, each possible character combination is accompanied by a specific set of charming character-to-character interactions which are presenting in the game’s visual-novel style cutscenes. Although fairly basic, the plot is nevertheless engaging and provides a few much needed moments of rest between high-octane segments of gripping gameplay. There are a couple memorable moments per character and the overall theme of friendship and unity is sure to leave your heart suitably warmed by the time the credits roll.

The heart-warming plot is accompanied by a set of cutesy magical-girl inspired visuals. The full-size detailed sprites used for the various characters in their selection screen and cutscenes are excellently drawn with an instantly recognisable StarCrossed style which blends elements of high-fantasy, fairy-tale lore and traditional sci-fi. The 3D combat sprites used in gameplay are equally stunning, watching the neon lit minimalist renditions of the characters dancing around your screen as you play feels just right and helps evoke the nostalgic feeling of a traditional arcade game. The occasional use of 3D animated background rather than traditional 2D background sprites is a nice touch, adding an interesting degree of depth to scenes.

The music, whilst not incredible, is still a pleasant listen and provides a soothing accompaniment while you play. Similarly, the occasional voice lines are delivered with great enthusiasm and the good casting choices compliment the character design. Although voicing the entire script would be understandably out of the question because of its long length, just a few more special attack lines would be a nice touch and help prevent the audio from becoming a little repetitive.

Fun for all the family


Gameplay in StarCrossed is unapologetically co-op oriented. Controls are mapped like a standard space-shooter but with a pretty significant twist. Players attack not by firing individual projectiles as you would probably expect, but rather by bouncing a shooting star between them, manoeuvring the star to collide with enemies in order to cause damage. Players can also press a button to spin kick, increasing the star’s speed and damage. This requires quite tricky timing and in my experience proved to be a lethal distraction from dodging the large number of enemy projectiles which are often on screen at the same time. Players also have a unique ultimate attack, which is charged when damaging enemies and unleashed for extremely high damage.

The surprisingly steep difficulty curve and the constant introduction of new enemy types and variations keeps things engaging and ensures that players master communicating and coordinating with each other to survive, connecting well with the plot’s overarching theme of unity. Unfortunately, the frequent reuse of enemy types feels a little repetitive at times but luckily the robust auto-save system and a spattering of memorable boss-fights sprinkled throughout the campaign prevent things from ever becoming truly frustrating.

Switch it up


Designed from the ground up for local co-op, StarCrossed has a plethora of options to help you play together. Friends can split play between the keyboard and a USB controller or close friends can huddle up together for the more intimate “split controller” mode which splits controls between a single controller. The keyboard bindings are sufficient but a little fiddly and I would highly recommend playing the game on any controllers you have available. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers are supported on PC but Steam Big Picture Mode managed to do a decent job at mapping the various controllers I managed to dig out for testing. Just be aware that your mileage with this feature may vary.

Naturally, the game transitions perfectly on to the Nintendo Switch because of the immediate availability of two controllers. The colourful visuals are an excellent fit for the platform and StarCrossed stands out as one of the, if not, the best co-op titles available for the Switch. On the other hand, Steam‘s ‘Remote Play Together’ feature is a big win for the PC version of the game, allowing the otherwise local coop only title to be played pretty seamlessly online – without the other player even needing to own the game! Outside this, the console and PC versions are otherwise identical so you can be confident you will get the full experience no matter which version you pick up.

Verdict:


Cute and colourful, StarCrossed is overall a confident co-op title with a set of excellent visuals, good writing and a diverse cast of playable characters. Its few shortcomings only become apparent when the more repetitive segments begin to overstay their welcome. Nevertheless, the title succeeds in crafting a charming memorable experience which will certainly succeed in its aim to bring you closer to those you choose to share it with.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

Contigo Games’ Francesca Carletto-Leon talks gaming, girls and the gender binary – Interview

StarCrossed is an arcade space shooter developed by Contigo Games and published by Whitethorn Digital. The game has two players dodging projectiles and bouncing a shiny star between one another, lining up shots to defeat wave after wave of enemies. It’s a charming mix of Pong meets Tohou Project, and certainly a breath of fresh air for fans of the bullet-hell genre. To learn a little more about StarCrossed before you read on, you can visit the successfully funded Kickstarter page or watch the trailer below:

Following the games’ recent release, I sat down with Francesca Carletto-Leon, co-founder of Contigo Games and narrative designer of StarCrossed,for a chat regarding the title’s stunning art-style, the influences behind her cast of diverse space-faring sprites, the impact of her work as an educator and her opinions on the current state of the games industry.

Fun with friends:

What made you decide early on to build StarCrossed from the ground up as a co-op title?

“The answer is pretty simple; we’re big fans of cooperative games and want to see more of them! Games made specifically for 2 players are quite rare. Personally, I find it quite difficult to find games to play with my partner. We love local multiplayer games but often feel like they’re designed to be played with a group of people and we’re not having the optimal player experience.

I believe there is something intimate about playing a game with someone. We’re sharing a goal and learning how to cooperate. Communication is important and we adjust our play to accommodate another participant. Our goal as a studio is ‘to create games and playful expereinces to bring people together’. StarCrossed was intended to fulfil this purpose.”

A story to tell:

Implementing visual novel style cut-scenes must have meant a lot of extra writing and with all those words, what kind of story is StarCrossed going to tell?

“During development, we actually cut StarCrossed’s Story Mode multiple times. As a part-time, self-funded, and remote team we were finding it difficult to create a large independent project. In our desire to have the game finished, the team had a lot of difficult conversations about scope and Story Mode, which was daunting and by far the more complex part of the game, was scrapped. However, as we began showing the game publicly, we realised the importance of including a Story Mode to explore the characters, their relationships to each other, and the universe of StarCrossed. It was a ton of work but I’m so glad we were able to make Story Mode happen and I hope our players enjoy it!

The plot of StarCrossed is what players have come to expect from the magical girl fantasy-genre; a group of chosen heroes must band together to defeat evil and save the universe. We wanted the story beats to feel familiar. What makes the story engaging to players is seeing the situation presented through the different lenses of each character. Each combination of characters has their own unique dialogues and, sometimes, additional scenes with our cast of supporting characters and villains. Each time you play, the dialogues change depending on the selected characters, so it ended up being quite a bit of writing!

The final StarCrossed script is actually over 20,000 words! It’s a novella!”

Eye candy:

The art-style seems to be a blend of fantasy and futuristic sci-fi. It’s eye-catching and adorable, but what ultimately do you hope to express with the way the game looks?

“Fantasy and sci-fi are both settings that our team really enjoys! We wanted the game to feel stylish and magical, but also contemporary and relatable to players.

If we’re digging deeper into our thinking, we see StarCrossed’s aesthetic as a reimagination of these established genres, which are often male-centric and standardised by cis white creators. Think about your favourite fantasy stories. What would they look like if marginalised people were involved in their creation? Just to state very clearly, I’m not saying these works aren’t vitally important and valuable, they totally are! But, we need to understand how much these genres could expand in the hands of different creators. There is no reason to not be inclusive in our design of fictional worlds.

Starcrossed‘s style and characters are cute and sparkly but the gameplay grows to be quite challenging. We’ve noticed that players make quick assumptions about the content of the game due to its visuals. Feminine games are often dismissed for being easy or ‘casual’. We hope to challenge those stereotypes.”

The aesthetic has also been clearly influenced by Japanese Magical Girls, what inspired you to bring this popular manga genre to a video game?

“Before we really solidified StarCrossed’s visual identity, we knew the game was going to be a cooperative local multiplayer game. When we began looking into designing the setting and context for the game’s mechanic, we were excited about the idea of making a game with feminine aesthetics. For many members of our team, Magical Girl shows and comics like Tokyo Mew Mew, W.I.T.C.H., and Sailor Moon were an important part of our childhoods. These are stories about young heroines who are tasked with saving the world, but are also growing up and dealing with the drama of being human! Between battling aliens and monsters they also deal with heartbreak and complex emotions.

The Magical Girl genre is centred around themes of teamwork and collaboration. In most examples, strangers from different backgrounds come together to achieve a common goal. These stories are about young girls being powerful and finding strength in being together. Anyone who has been a teenage girl knows that friendships at that age are terrifying and it’s common to feel alone. You’re also grappling with internalised misogyny that dictates girls are sneaky, bitchy, not to be trusted, so it’s so important to have media that shows girls uplifting each other and collaborating in positive ways!”

Following on from this, does the game aim to subvert the Magical Girl genre and, if so, how does it differ from other genre subversions we’ve seen before?

“We purposefully wanted StarCrossed to borrow common Magical Girl tropes, so we started from what we knew and expanded from there. It was important to us that we keep the playfulness of the genre and have our characters explore not only their new magical powers, but also their emotions. In Story Mode, each character navigates their relationship with their partner, with themselves, and with the universe.

We made it a goal to create an inclusive Magical Girl story, which includes people of colour, non-binary people, and body diversity. This is our way of subverting the genre and building upon the existing core themes.”

Star-crossed lovers:

Are the relationships between characters entirely platonic? To put it another way, can we expect to see some romance emerge as the story progresses?

“The romance in StarCrossed isn’t overt, we intentionally wanted there to be a bit of nuance to the relationships. If you’re reading the relationship as romantic, it’s definitely there.

We wrote StarCrossed to be a gay space romance!

This was actually something we struggled with, so it’s a good question! Our team had many discussions about how explicitly we were showing romance between characters, keeping in mind that these characters are representing players. Since this is a game about negotiation and cooperation, the consent of both players is important and we didn’t want to force a relationship the pair of players might ultimately be uncomfortable with.

When demoing at events we see lots of couples come to play, but we also see parents and their children, platonic friends, and strangers. Having the characters enter a relationship that doesn’t mirror that of the players, and which they did not choose, can create discomfort. At the same time, we absolutely love when players want to pair and ship our characters! The design of the game is totally encouraging that.

Ultimately, we didn’t want to make a statement that the height of all relationships is romance. Close platonic friendships are just as meaningful and powerful as romantic ones!”

2019 has been an amazing year for non-binary representation across the world of TV and gaming. It’s great to see that ​StarCrossed ​ will feature non-binary characters but do you think AAA developers should aim to be more inclusive in their projects?

“The obvious answer is yes, absolutely. There’s absolutely no reason to not be inclusive in our storytelling. We are designing fictional worlds of our own creation and they reflect on our values. If you’re not being inclusive in your cast/characters and worldbuilding, you’re blatantly saying you don’t care about certain people and their stories.

I believe the way we achieve this as an industry is to diversify our workforce. Offering opportunities to marginalised developers is immensely importan, but we also need to make sure they are thriving and supported once they are here. ​Harmful workplace practices like crunch​ are rampant in the games industry and ​are inherently ableist​. Developers of colour and marginalised genders also experience burn out and ​leave the industry more frequently due to inflexible work spaces​.

As consumers, we can encourage change by supporting the work of marginalised developers and games with inclusive content. Throw your dollars at these awesome people and projects!

What to take away:

Finally, you have a great deal of experience as an educator. Did your experiences influence StarCrossed – even though it’s a video-game, can players still expect to learn something from playing?

“I have to challenge the “even though it’s a video game” because I work in educational games as my day job! Interactivity and gameplay loops are extremely conducive to learning and I believe all games teach us something. Games exercise our brains, improve our reflexes, and provide players with a safe place to explore extreme situations!

StarCrossed is a game centred around collaboration. Players practice communicating and trusting one another. Frequently, we’ve astounded parents by getting two young siblings to play together nicely after a day of wandering an expo floor fighting over controllers and who was better at playing games. The parents look at us like, “How did you get them to stop arguing?”. Game design is so powerful! It can influence our relationships and communication styles.

We hope that StarCrossed can offer a playful space where people come together and feel good about collaborating.”

Where to play:

Grab your friends, team up and get sparkly!

If you want to help bring greater diversity to the world of videogames, and have some great fun with your friends while you’re at it, you can support StarCrossed by picking up a copy of the game on Steam using the link below: