Weekly Update–Steam Demos

Summer break! I have lots of time on my hand again. Let’s fill it up with doing productive things, right? Make some progress, finally, on The Teutonic Doctrine. Finally get The Machinist published. (Looking closer than ever, you guys!) Play an unnatural amount of video games.

Look, if Steam keeps holding these demo showcases, someone’s got to play the games.


Gigabuster

This game is absolutely an homage to Megaman X (Megaman Zero, said other outlets, but I haven’t played that, so I’ll take their word for it). Except Megaman here is punk biker robot girl named Liz. And the whole world is a post apocalypic desert. And the bosses are various combat-oriented CEO’s of local corporations. There’s something with AI hive-minds and megacorporations involved too, but the demo only gives the basic outlines of the plot, which is fine.

Less fine were the controls, which were a little awkward and imprecise. There wasn’t a ducking mechanic and there wasn’t space to jump around shots. The levels that I played were soaked in oil which would set on fire when you shot your “Gigabuster”–which was a cool mechanic but made it nearly impossible to avoid getting injured. It would probably be greatly helped by remapping the keys and fine-tuning the movements.

Also, though, there’s not a lot to set Gigabuster apart. It’s Megaman… fine, but if I want that I’ll just play Megaman. (Although… the current ports of Megaman apparently leave something to be desired.) Currently I don’t see anything that makes Gigabuster into something I’d want to spend money on.

Ghost Song

I absolutely love whoever did the art direction on this game. The player avatar is a little wonky, maybe, but the environments are hauntingly beautiful–very Axiom Vergelike. The backgrounds are multi-layered and move and shift with your movements, there’s strange and fascinating things glimpsed that remain unexplained but which you gradually get more context to as the game goes on. The sound design was good too, with unnatural alien sounds and haunting environmental noises.

I just wish you could jump.

Or rather, I wish you could jump WELL. Your character can jump straight up, but not very high, and not far forward at all. Even when you get the dash module it’s difficult to reach most of the ledges and rocks that seem designed for a much more typical movement set.

The gameplay is really where this game falls short. The enemies are generic and slow, until they aren’t, and then there’s really no way to dodge or block them. They don’t feel intimidating, but then your gun doesn’t feel at all powerful. You don’t walk quickly and you can’t jump well.

There were some interesting hints in the story and the art, as I said, was beautiful. But the gameplay needs some serious work.


Outcore

Dang, I wish I could recommend this game.

It started out so good! It was literally your desktop, and you were literally searching through your files. The anime girl avatar was a little over-the-top, but I genuinely thought it was clever how they were co-opting stuff like MS Paint. I felt this could turn into some Animator vs. Animation type stuff.

Except… then it got into the “memory.”

The memory was a game, which was obviously supposed to be laughably simple and bad, except that just kind of made it… bad. It was boring, it was clumsy, it added nothing, and it was much less clever than the stuff leading up to it. And it made the anime girl avatar more annoying and less compelling, as she no longer seemed some sort of meta thing, but just an unusually boring and simplistic character.

It’s a shame. A real shame. It started out so good.


Midnight Fight Express

I’m not sure why this game disturbed me so much. Gameplay wise, it’s the same as the punchout arena sections from Arkham Knight. Like the whole game, is just that, running around and punching people. True, it’s heavily implied they die here, as opposed to Batman who… presumably just left them with lifelong crippling injuries, but fundamentally it’s the same. The criminals are all extremely nasty, to the point of being dehumanized, but that’s not too different from Max Payne (or, again, Arkham Knight)

I think it’s just how casually the game drops you into its premise. You’re an ordinary guy in his apartment and suddenly a drone flies up to you and BAM, you walk out and start beating criminals to death. There’s no wife to avenge, no grand purpose, no bizarre mystery to solve. A drone starts telling you to fight people, and you do. There IS a backstory about how a gang is taking over the city and looking to blow up major structures, but it’s just slapped on in what feels like a lazy fashion, especially since there’s no indication your character cares about that. Even the drone has an almost flippant air as it talks about the gang takeover. True, generally in these games, the plot is just a bare excuse for adrenaline soaked fight scenes, but c’mon. Even John Wick had a dog to avenge.

I think you could do a compelling story around an “average Joe” suddenly being accosted by a drone and told he’s a black ops agent, but only if the person had some reason to care about what was going on. “Babyface,” the protagonist of Midnight Fight Express, doesn’t seem to have any of that. He just beats up who’s he told to.

The one thing that could save this game might be if, halfway through, it turned out that the drone was lying to you–itself part of another criminal conspiracy. Maybe you were never part of any black-ops group, you were just a random psycho imagining a drone telling you to do stuff. That would be disturbing in its own way, but it would at least be clever, with potential themes for (ironically) being obsessed with violence. But from different lines dropped by characters, I suspect the game is as simplistic as it appears.


Akurra

Now THIS was a fun game! It seemed like a blatant rip-off of early Legend of Zelda games, with an islander aesthetic to give it a cosmetic distinction. And it sort of was, but it was a pure puzzle game, with each screen presenting a separate challenge, but also including interlocking elements that you needed for other screens/challenges.

Here too, there’s not much of a story, but unlike in MFE, the game just keeps everything minimalist anyway. Your character never talks, there’s no signs to read, nothing. It’s very like an early NES game, where it would never bother to tell you WHY you needed to solve the puzzles (or if they did, it’d be in the small booklet accompanying the game). You just do.

Maybe there was some sort of story with the girl you glimpsed from afar a few times. I dunno.

I liked this. I’m not sure how much I would pay for a copy, but it was fun for the bit I played.

Last Time I Saw You

This was a surprise. Firstly because for some reason I’d supposed it to be a Visual Novel, when all the promo material showed it as a platformer. Secondly because the first sequence made me convinced that it was going to be an amateurish, threadbare platformer with a quasi-philosophical touch.

But no. That was just the dream segment. Once Ayumi wakes up and starts moving around, things get genuinely interesting. There’s a typhoon threatening the town, there’s errands to run, and friends to talk to. It reminded me a little of the town sections of Persona 4, where you’re just walking around and dealing with stuff. And there are hints of something sinister going on with the forest, and with the strange girl in his dreams. Toward the end, in a very atmospheric section, you need to fight off shadow monsters in your school–which is quite a turn from the middle schooler running errands not long ago.

The main problem is that the demo doesn’t really give you a good sense of the gameplay. There was a section where a friend pitched you balls to hit with the bat (an obvious combat weapon for later), and the physics there were pretty neat. And later, when you’re trapped in the school with shadow-monsters, you get to hit the monsters with the bat, but that’s a little lacking.

Regardless, the animation was smooth, and the story had an intriguing beginning. This is one to keep an eye on.


Maestro VR

VR Games are a small market, mostly dominated by indies, which is why I always try to play a few VR demos on these festivals. And Maestro VR looked genuinely interesting, a game where you conduct an orchestra.

Turns out, though, conducting an orchestra is hard. Who knew?

You need to keep tempo with one hand, and point at the different sections of the orchestra with your other hand. That, by itself, feels roughly akin to the “pat your belly and rub your head” challenge, but THEN it turns out that the tempo will change, and that sometimes you’ll need to make large swings, and other times small swings (for the fortissimo and pianissimo sections). It doesn’t help that you need to keep tempo by precisely hitting four circles in the air, nor that you need to be very specific where and when you point at the different parts of the orchestra.

I sound a bit like I’m whining. After all, this is what actual conductors have to deal with, right? What, did I want an unrealistic conductor simulator? Did I expect a game entitled Maestro VR to be easy?

Well… sorta.

Simulators often dumb stuff down for people–the point is to make it accessible, after all. But even if you didn’t want to do that, Maestro VR really should have had a more gradual introduction to its concepts, and a more forgiving system of hitboxes. It was really cool, and felt enormously satisfying, when I’d occasionally get it right and the different instruments were coming in when they were supposed to and it was actually sounding like a piece of music… and then I’d lose track and everything would fall apart.

Probably part of it is that I’m not great about acting in the moment. Another part of it is that the whole stand, even adjusted, was way too short for me. But this one needs some dumbing down.


Plastmatic

Even from the promo images, it was obvious that this game had some heavy influences from Portal. That’s not a problem. Portal’s one of the greatest games of the past 20 years, and a lot of games have taken influence from it. (I wrote a paper on Portal, actually. I got to present it at a conference and everything)

Plasmatic had a lot of visual polish, for an indie VR game. Everything looked very clean, very realistic, very nice. The premise seemed simple, which often times is the case for puzzle games–the beginning premise is simple, and then gets complex as you add in more ingredients.

Part of the problem is that Plasmatic’s demo never really got to those additional ingredients. The demo was basically just the game’s tutorial, showing you how to rotate the modules and click the plasma balls to send them to different modules. And honestly, I had problems with that, too, since apparently you needed to twist your wrists in ways I didn’t know it could twist. But anyway, after you were done with that the game just… ended. Nothing more, that I could see. If there was another level to go on to, where you had to work with more modules and more balls, I couldn’t get to it.

I doubt I’d play more of it anyway. My wrists hurt enough already and the puzzle was not super engrossing. Sort of a pity. I like Portal

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