Monthly Column – May 2019 Top 3 Curiosities
Do you like pixel art? Of course you do!
And so do I, apparently, because all of May’s top underrated but excellent indie game releases feature distinctive pixel art:
by Mars Ashton
A college teacher of game art at Lawrence Technical University who’s also a prolific writer on game design, Mars Ashton is a bit of a developer’s developer, so taking a look at this one-man project is an interesting and frankly unexpected view into his approach.
Programmed in Flash, Flux is essentially an interactive story with a bunch of a mini-games floating around in it, from side-scrolling beat-’em-up to motorcycle typing game. While I would have liked to have seen a bit more connection between the evolving story between the mini-games, Flux is still loaded with pixel art perfection, minimalist ambient synthesizers, effective narrative design and some fun action sequences.
Given Ashton’s game art background, there’s also a lot of emphasis on color and design. Flux is an early ‘90s cyberpunk game in both theme and art design, with your protagonist sporting a wild, neon blue haircut and getting around via a sleek motorbike, and Ashton has included multiple color palette options, all of which serve the late ‘80s pixel art mirrorshades aesthetic.
Despite its lack of console cowboys and hacking simulators, it very much had me thinking of Neuromancer – both the seminal William Gibson novel and the 1988 RPG adaptation by Interplay Productions – not only because of its look, but also because of its feel.
Like the original novel, there’s references to the fallout (both personally and politically) from low-grade political and corporate warfare, and like the game, there’s as much joy to be had exploring the neighborhood surrounding our protagonist’s home (complete with corgi-petting simulation) and talking to its various characters as its mini-games.
I also found the text message interactions between the main characters to be compelling enough in and of themselves that had Flux taking a more purely narrative-driven approach along the lines of something like Killing Time at Lightspeed and ditched the sword fights and motorcycle rides altogether, I’m not sure it would have even suffered much.
by Made from Strings
Ostensibly, Moonlight Fall is a story about a boy who lost his parents in a car accident. That’s what the introductory animation (and the promotional copy on the game’s Steam page) seems to indicate, anyway.
I wouldn’t know about that, because I haven’t actually finished the game yet, so I’m not sure how it all ties together in the end.
What I do know is that – for me, at least – what Moonlight Fall is actually about is wandering around in a bird mask, taking pictures of cryptids, exploring caves and visiting hidden shrines.
Like so many recent pixel art games (especially Courier of the Crypts, featured in last month’s column), this one excels in lighting and weather effects, and as you progress through its wordless story and solve its environmental puzzles, you’ll learn to not only light lamps and candles but also summon rain and wind and even alter the time of day.
It also excels in its mood; the woods, caves and lost temples you’ll explore in Moonlight Fall feel familiar but strange. With a journal of your experiences with the land and its strange creatures, it’s a little like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden crossed with an opium dream.
It isn’t scary – this isn’t a horror game – but it is consistently eerie in a beautiful way that encourages exploration and playful poking around.
by Pixel Accountant
Everpath is subtitled “A Pixel Art Roguelite,” and the developer behind this one-man project goes by Pixel Accountant, so it’s safe to say that they like pixel art, too.
Everpath has an evocative visual feel that owes more to ‘80s-era RPGs for the PC than 8-bit console games and a thematic flavor that’s more European than JRPG: forests here are dark, scary and monster-haunted, and you won’t find yourself cavorting with friendly fairies in sun-dappled glades. (Many of the weapons and special abilities are borrowed from Medieval Germany as well).
Mechanically, it’s a procedurally generated action RPG with light, easy controls and unforgiving hordes of spiders, slimes, bugbears and trolls.
It isn’t perfect; typographical errors abound, and occasional collision issues ended up occasionally trapping me between room corners and pixel-perfect copses of dreary trees or statues.
But those complaints are more than forgivable considering that Everpath is also perhaps the most addictive game of its kind that I’ve played since Lovecraft’s Untold Stories.
Also worthy of note: a couple of totally free games focused on the theme of flight, and both of them very atmospheric (pun intended).
by Boxcastle Games
Boxcastle Games is another development coming out of the University of Utah, much like the producers of the excellent Hard Light Vector (featured in my March column).
Like that team – and that game – the developers behind Sky Shepherd show a real knack for breathtaking vistas suspended in dizzying depths of sky, but this time the flavor is less cyberpunk and more Moebius-inspired steampunk.
You’ll pilot a light-weight glider, accompanied by a flock of…I don’t know what they are. They sort of like like a cross between a parrot and a jackalope. Anyway, you’ll guide them through gorgeous cloud-soaked vistas, avoiding dangers and sending them off to solve environmental puzzles.
But the real appeal here is just the joy of flying through the airy landscapes. Flight feels a lot like the travel sections in Heaven’s Vault, both in terms of the delicate, floaty steering controls and the rush of gliding alongside cliffs, behind vast waterfalls and over craggy peaks.
by Suspension Games
Based on appearances alone, the premise of Lonely Skies would seem to be “FAR: Lone Sails but with an airship,” but this little offering from Suspension Games has more to offer, at times ranging from grappling hook puzzle platformer to slow-motion shoot-’em-up, to varying degrees of success.
I preferred the quieter, more atmospheric moments that really captured the loneliness of keeping a jalopy of an airship floating above giant ruins and floating forests – and was completely flummoxed when enemy blimps first showed up – but despite some clumsy action-driven moments, this is a charming, moody piece well worth a quick look.