Monthly Column – December 2019 Top 3 Curiosities
Between catching up with all of 2019’s best indie games and dealing with the dreary doldrums of winter, it can be a lot to take in.
This month’s column features games that might have passed you by in the barrage of year-end lists, and they’re all on the lighthearted side to put a spring in your step and a little bit of warmth to ease the seasonal affective disorder (and seeing your credit card bill after the holidays).
Oh Jeez, Oh No, My Rabbits Are Gone!
by Studio Nevermore
You can’t get much more lighthearted than a game with a bunny-petting mechanic, but this game’s got a lot more going for it than floppy ears and nervously wiggling noses. Based on the title and concept – a girl’s rabbits go missing in the night, so she has to travel across the land rescuing them all – I was expecting a schmaltzy puzzle platformer.
Instead, Oh Jeez, Oh No, My Rabbits Are Gone! is lighter on the action and a lot heavier on the puzzles. Because you can give the rabbits commands – and because they’ll generally keep moving in one direction unless they’re blocked – this game is a bit like Lemmings and even the Oddworld series.
Despite the cutesy nature of the game (and it is cute, even going so far as to require you to pet frightened bunnies or feed them treats before they’ll calm down enough to take directions) it’s surprisingly challenging, requiring lots of careful planning to get your rabbits to stand on the right pressure plates, ride the right pulley-driven platform and hop into the right tree stumps in the correct order, all while avoiding the terrifying, shadowy anti-rabbits.
All right, fine, the anti-rabbits are also pretty cute, but this is still a solidly designed and compelling puzzle game with well-designed levels, an interesting map to explore and a pleasant, pastoral pixel art vibe to it.
Conceptually speaking WarpThrough is a bit on the darker side – the world has been overrun by monsters from another dimension – but it’s hard to be too frightened by monsters that look like frightened spoons, sad ghosts and spooky chocolate chip cookies (not to mention that one of the good guys is a monster-fighting pug).
Heavily inspired by single-screen arcade games like Bubble Bobble as well as more modern games like Super Crate Box, this one nails the combination of simple concept, responsive controls and fast action: just wait for a dimensional portal to appear on each level and make your way to it, punching out any monsters that get in the way.
The clever bit is the way attacks work: punches have to charge up from a standstill, so you can’t attack while moving. This makes timing and positioning extra important, especially as the screen fills up with monsters.
It’s a smart twist on an old formula and makes for a pretty addictive experience on its own, but with a story mode, new characters to unlock, an endless arcade mode and weekly high score challenges, Roofkat have added plenty of additional reasons to keep coming back for more.
by Mana Tea Games
Somewhere between a game proper and a virtual pet – or one of those mobile cat-collecting games – Unfamiliar puts you in the paws of a magical cat that can travel into surreal storybook worlds. Wander around, enjoy the quiet music and cat purrs, unlock new areas, gather plants and do some light crafting.
There’s not much more to it than that, and none of the crafted items – hats, amulets and decorations for your treehouse – affect anything in-game. But while this experience is slight, it’s also a relaxing distraction, sweet without being cloyingly so, and its minimalist graphics approach and superb feline animation make this feel like a real cat wandering through an Eric Carle pop-up book.
Extra credit to Mana Team Games for absolutely nailing that little trill that cats make when jumping onto or off of an object.
December also saw the release of several free games that are also worth a look. Be warned, though, they aren’t as sweet or lighthearted:
by Meatball Parm Games
A contemplative puzzle game suffused with a quiet sort of mysticism, Whimsy elevates your standard inventory puzzles, sliding blocks and object rearrangements with dreamlike, fairy tale strangeness.
More timeless atmosphere than postmodern surrealism, this game stands out for its ancient, otherworldly and vaguely Scandinavian aesthetic (despite the occasional intrusion of contemporary dialogue) and an internal dream logic wherein strawberries and spiders function as the hearts of spiders and mermaids, respectively.
by Geta Games
A literally and figuratively dark game set just after World War II, Manic combines rural horror with bloody action. I was especially intrigued by the way that Geta Games blends the human horror and trauma of war with more vague, potentially supernatural horrors, all via simplistic 8-bit graphics and a muted color palette of dull grays punctuated by dark maroon spatters of blood.
A variety of weaponry, from re-purposed sticks, crowbars and rakes to machine guns and flamethrowers, offers multiple approaches to combat, and enemies range from zombie-like hordes to challenging boss fights. An impressive little offering, all the more because it’s free.
A Long Stroll
by Nanasi Project
Nanasi Project takes an entirely different approach toward the after-effects of World War II with this simple RPG Maker offering. A walking simulator in the true sense of the word, A Long Stroll simply features an elderly woman walking through rural Japan, with gradual shifts in the pixel art imagery and evocative sound effects indicating the intrusion of old memories upon the present.
A tiny but emotionally resonant piece of interactive art.