Monthly Column – June 2019 Top 3 Curiosities
Some months, my picks for underrated and overlooked indie games fall together with a unifying theme: pixel art, say, or oppressive horror.
Not so much with June’s selections, but on the plus side, there’s a little something for everyone, whether you’re into frenetic shooters, tense tactics or pleasant puzzles:
by Cavern Head
It’s like Frozen Synapse only somehow even more stripped down and minimalist! The concept of Partial Control is that you’re on a spaceship full of cyborgs, all of whom have had their brains hacked by a mysterious signal, but luckily enough, you alone still have limited power over your brain and your actions.
Practically speaking, this means you run on autopilot until faced with a decision. That’s still better than the rest of the crew, though, who have basically reverted to mindless killing machines.
This plays out a bit like the aforementioned Frozen Synapse, in that you spend a lot of time predicting what your room full of enemies will do next, but since you can only pause to make a decision if your target is killed or you run out of ammunition, you’ll be putting a lot of thought into predicting your own actions, as well.
In theory, it sounds a bit like “Choose Your Own Adventure,” but in practice, each room on the ship plays out more like a chess puzzle, especially since you can also use the pauses between decisions to manipulate the environment (and even enemy cyborgs) to your advantage.
It’s got some translation and typographical issues, not to mention an approach to graphics that’s somewhere between sparse minimalism and barely there at all, but mechanically speaking, Partial Control takes “real time tactics with pauses” in a direction I’ve never seen before.
by Grave Danger Games, Meridian4
Night Lights is actually a remake of a similarly titled series of online Flash games, but the concept and art have been been expanded upon for a proper commercial release.
It’s a platform puzzler with light as a central mechanic. As a little robot, you can position lamps and lights, turn them on and off and even plug a light bulb into your head – and the environment changes when it’s illuminated, creating new paths and puzzles that become impenetrable again under the cover of darkness.
It’s garnered comparisons to a few big name puzzle platformers, but those are arguably surface characteristics. Yes, the little robot looks and moves like Gomez from Fez, and yes, the game does use a stark and memorable color palette like Limbo – in this case, the environments are all moody blues grays broken up by brilliant triangles of yellow and orange light – but but Night Lights is very much its own thing.
It’s also a bit more exploratory than most games in the genre, allowing you to solve levels and backtrack to grab extra items, giving it a much less linear feel than you might expect.
Altogether a clever puzzler that’s difficult enough to generate some real head-scratching moments but sweet and charming enough that you can’t stay mad at it.
by Kaio Meris
Zero Strain has a lot of the things you’d expect from an ultra-modern space shoot-’em-up.
There’s the high concept – in this case, something about exploring alternate dimensions to help a space station fight off an apocalypse – delivered by anime girl exposition between levels.
There’s also the focus on multiple controls and schemes: you have a “Boost” for dodging and attracting power-ups, plus three special weapons – a scheme borrowed from MOBAs – that charge up the more enemies you take out.
Weirdly, though, despite the added complexity and visual chaos, Zero Strain feels almost like a classic arcade game. With 360 degrees of motion within limited spaces – cross the barriers and it damages you, though hitting a wall isn’t instant death – it plays less like a sped-up R-Type and more Tempest on a lot of different drugs, not all of them complimentary to one another.
It’s also extremely difficult, with an uptempo jazz score just making everything feel even more nerve-wracking, so expect to swear a lot. Just be grateful that despite its arcade game vibe, you don’t have to keep feeding money into it.
What were you favorite indie game releases in June 2019?