Czech Republic :: Machinarium

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A puzzle-adventure full of flashbacks..

Asking for a game from Czech Republic I was overwhelmed by the number of games people recommended. Games like DayZ, Samorost, or Mafia were named a couple of times. Since Mafia is one of my favourite games (a game with an *incredibly* amazing soundtrack) I was EXTREMELY tempted to just play it again. However, there was one game, which was named more often than others: Machinarium. Since it was already a long time on my Steam wishlist, and the game was part of the Steam sale this was a great opportunity to finally play this game as my game from Czech Republic.

Starting the game I was shortly irritated by the headline “Flash Game”. Is this a new nostalgic studio or publisher? I definitely was more surprised to play a game developed in Adobe Flash than I was when playing a game in a DOS virtual machine during this year project. Back to the story: you would start the game as a broken robot on a junkyard. First tasks: find your missing pieces (body, arms, legs) and get an idea what’s going on. How to find your parts makes the game’s purpose already pretty clear – this game is a tricky puzzle game, with an interesting point-and-click adventure design, and an extremely cute story. The robot’s name is Josef. Compared to robots like Daleks, Mr. Handy, the Terminator, or Bender, Josef is pretty much skill-free. Josef’s only skills are to walk, to resize himself, and to eat items (or small robo-dogs) to collect them in an inventory.

The first thing one would notice is the interesting art style. The graphics are hand-drawn and remind of steampunk worlds. The focus is definitely more on the puzzle elements (finding correct combinations) than on the point-and-click elements. All elements of the game – the story, the art, the puzzles, and the characters – are created in a detailed and inspiring way. The story is told without any words, but with small comics/dialogues drawn in speaking bubbles.

For me, playing this game was a nostalgic experience (most probably because of this mixture of point-and-click adventure, the art style, and .. Flash as technology). Sometimes it felt like I am reading a wonderfully drawn children’s book. Small Josef trying to find out what has happened to him, fighting his arch-enemies – the villains, a trying to save the world. A very relaxing, but due to the puzzle elements, still challenging experience. This was probably the best game to relax and calm down after playing This War of Mine.

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Release 2009
Genre Survival, Strategy, Resource Management
Developer Amanita Design
Publisher Daedalic Entertainment
http://machinarium.net/ 

Poland :: This War of Mine

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Not everyone is a hero in war

Many people recommended different games from Poland. Most (all) of them mentioned different parts of the famous series The Witcher. I already player The Witcher, and I would totally agree. However, one game – which I haven’t played yet – I heard a lot as well was “This War of Mine”. Reading about the background story of the game already touched me. The game is inspired by wars and sieges such as the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 – 1996), when Sarajevo was besieged for more than 3 years. More than 5000 civilians were killed during this period. This War of Mine tells the dark story of war – not from the perspective of the glorious war-hero or the fighting soldier, but from the perspective of the victims: civilians trying to survive in such a raw and dark period.

You would start the game in a small shelter with three characters – Katia, Bruno, and Pavel – all of them with a different background story. The only goal is to survive. The resources such as water, food, or time for sleeping are extremely limited. It is cold, and in times of war you never know if you should open the door when someone knocks. The characters have to build objects to create different resources and try to survive day by day. At night one of them is able to scavenge the nearby places, such as an old fuel station or an empty villa to find food and material.

When encountering other characters in this game,  you never know if this is someone who would help you, or one of the characters trying to rob and/or kill you. You start becoming very suspicious about everyone and everything. Together with its dark atmosphere, this setup makes the entire game much darker. You would meet people sitting in front of graves. While you would be afraid of this person trying to rob you, he would answer sadly “Don’t worry – I’m just taking care of a friend”. Things, which are usually normal – like helping the neighbor and her baby – suddenly become a process of weighting between risk and value. And at some point you also have to decide whether you want to rob an old couple, which would be their certain death, in order to survive just one more day. And it is not only the situation outside your shelter, which is the worst part. All this anger, the fear, the war also break the characters inside this shelter at some point. After taking the food from the old couple, all characters in the house became depressed for several days. This choice broke them even though it was the only way to let them live.

This game made me really think a lot. Would you steal the last food from others to survive? Would you let your neighbor die just because you are too afraid of a trap? Would you rob an old couple to be able to have food for you and your friends for one more day? Bruno died. Katia got extremely depressed and shortly died after him. Pavel left our shelter and was shot the next morning. This war definitely did not only break my characters. Another screen for the Hall of Pain. Playing this game was not fun, but definitely an important experience.

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Release 2014
Genre Survival, Strategy, Resource Management
Developer 11 Bit Studios
Publisher 11 Bit Studios / Deep Silver
http://www.11bitstudios.com/games/16/this-war-of-mine

South Africa :: Pixel Boy and the Ever Expanding Dungeon

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Shedding some (neon) light on the dungeon…

Finding a game from South Africa was not a challenge. Choosing one instead was. The association “Make Games South Africa” (http://makegamessa.com/) is a vivid forum of motivated game makers and was immediately helpful by pointing me to interesting games. A first link-list could be found on their Steam page (http://store.steampowered.com/curator/5025202-makegamesSA/). This list is full of all sorts of games. Violent bunny games, sci-fi horror games, dark dungeons, and more violent bunny games. Many games are developed in Johannesburg or Cape Town. All of these games are pretty young and were published between 2013-2015. The South African game developer association seems like a vivid and growing community. More games (also many free ones) can also be found on https://itch.io/c/39646/south-african-games-on-itchio. Intense colours, top-down view, pixel graphics, and a good prize at Steam Sale (0.99€ instead of 4.99) made “Pixel Box and the Ever Expanding Dungeon” a very attractive choice for my game from South Africa.

The game starts with a very unique narrator-voice telling me how to play the game (or rather commanding me how to play the game). The tutorial is very well and interesting designed. For every new command, they have designed a separate room in a dungeon. The commands and how to use them are displayed on the floor in shiny blinking red. After the tutorial you start the actual game in a town (which reminds nostalgic-me a lot of Game Boy top-town Pokemon towns) where you would encounter other characters, some puns, and jokes. This is the starting point for the different dungeons, all of them procedurally generated, full of different monsters (chosen by the mob maker 9000), items and keys to collect,… and colours. Elements you would collect in the dungeon can be used for crafting new items, weapons, and armours.

The game itself is a rogue-like game. Since this is the first rogue-like game in my article-series, I’d like to shortly describe this genre. Rogue-like games are inspired by or similar to the prime father dungeon-crawling-DOS-game “Rogue” from 1983. Rogue was one of the first games, where items, monsters, and dungeons are randomly and dynamically (procedural) generated. Dying in the dungeons means usually losing a lot of items (in the case of evil Pixel Boy: ALL :-( ) and starting over at the entry again. (So while playing Pixel Boy I suddenly found myself stuck playing 1984 DOS Rogue again. Just another awesome dying screen inspired me also to create the page of the Hall of Pain with my “favourite” game-over screens I’ll see during my project.)

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Back to Pixel Boy! The art style of Pixel Boy is really interesting and colourful. While the dungeons are styled in a dark and dull way, the monsters and the entire combat is designed with intense, contrasty colours. Many styles are mixed and an intense fight feels like “disco disco”. The soundtrack of the game is fantastic. Even though many reviewers would especially praise the option to turn off the narrator’s commentaries, this is definitely one interesting and unique part of this game.

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Release 2014
Genre RTS, Shoot ’em up
Developer Giant Box Games
Publisher Giant Box Games
http://store.steampowered.com/app/263080/ 

France :: Alone in the Dark

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Polygons in the dark…

France is a leading country in the video games industry and known for developing MANY excellent video games. So I was actually pretty worried that I would have to decide among an entire list of French games. But when I asked my French friends what game I should play they all answered immediately “Alone in the Dark“. I found a version (also for Mac) on www.gog.com for 5$. Alone in the Dark was released in 1992 and is considered as a breakthrough title because of the innovative use of 3D-graphics and as the first survival horror game. It is named on several “games-you-have-to-play-before-you-die”-lists and if not – it definitely should be.

In the beginning you would choose your protagonist: Emily or Edward Carnby. I chose to play Emily. The first minutes of the game feel like a detective story. The story takes place in 1924. Emily’s uncle Jeremy hanged himself and she wants to go to his “creaking old mansion” (named Derceto) to eventually find a note explaining his decision. Some hints already lead to suspect a hidden drawer in the piano where she hopes to find the suicide note. Then the game starts with an intro. Polygon-Emily enters the mansion (whoops – the door closes as if by an invisible hand) and walks up (and up and up) the stairs to the attic. First, looking at the graphics and hearing the story I expected some kind of point-and-click detective adventure. BUT as soon as the actual game begins, there is no clicking or any mouse interaction at all and it is clear- this game is different. The controls are pretty unusual, the cameras are fixed with dramatic angle-changes, and the gameplay is not entirely clear. So you would move her polygon-body through the room until the music (great music) changes and a dinosaur/bird-thing would jump into the room from the window. Emily dies and a random zombie drags her to her grave. The game ends with an extremely cool outro-scene and the typical “Game Over” message.

Lucky me saw this pretty cool outro-scene many more times. This was most probably one of the shortest game experiences I had. Ever. And this would happen again. And again. (And again.) So this is how it feels if stories from H.P. Lovecraft meet DOS game: horrifying frustrating. Survival game mode = save the game every minute. After getting used to the controls and finally also discovering the “fighting” mode and how to use weapons, I was able to concentrate on the story, the atmosphere, and the puzzles. Entering room after room (saving and saving) you would immerse more and more into this polygon-world. And even though we are probably already extremely used to fancy and realistic 3D graphics, the 3D art in this game was the aspect I appreciated the most. One can feel all the effort and care the developers put into this game, developing the innovative 3D technique in an atmospheric and engaging setting.

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Release 1992
Genre Survial Horror
Developer Infogrames Entertainment
Publisher Infogrames Entertainment
http://www.gog.com/game/alone_in_the_dark

New Zealand :: Path of Exile

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A lot of splatter, stories, … and 1320 skills

The first game from New Zealand recommended to me was Path of Exile (POE). Shortly after reading some first keywords related to this game such as “hack-and-slay”, “similar to Diablo”, and “Fantasy+Action heaven” I was already happily immersed into the POE universe. Path of Exile is a giant, multi-user online free-to-play action hack-and-slay splatter roleplaying game with a GIANT skill tree. Seriously – after playing so many games, I thought I’ve seen everything. But this skill tree is just.. overwhelming. According to the website the skill tree/web/forest contains about 1320 skills. So I’ve decided I would fight my desire for achieving the 100% and would just do some first missions to write this text. The game was developed by a relatively small team of developers, who all have a passion for ARPs. So they had the mission to create an ARP game, which they always wanted play and succeeded. It was successfully co-funded by the crowd with a crowdfunding campaign run on their own website.  

You start the game on a boat and can choose from different classes (witch, ranger, shadow, templar, marauder, or duelist). You cannot change appearance or sex (witch and ranger are female). After choosing your class you would start the game waking up on a shore. You’d pick up your weapon and start your first nice conversation with another survivor – who immediately gets killed by a zombie thing. And this is already a preview for the entire scene and story of POE. It’s pretty dark and full of splatter with a nice story.

As in most multi-user games, the first sentences in the chatbox you’d read happen to be full of trolling. So I started to discover the island with my pretty weak witch girl. After fighting the first zombie it felt like I was the queen of world. Just a few seconds later I discovered the first horde of undead and found myself right back at the first spawn point. So I was pretty happy finding my first piece of armor – a mighty pot to keep my head save. This is also the point where you realize that you will be more dependent on your skills than your armor. And levelling and levelling. Even though I only wanted to get a first idea of the gameplay, I just wanted to “complete this last small quest to level one level up..”. The gameplay is similar to Diablo, but the environment and the story immerse players into an entirely new world. To me, playing the first few quests of this game felt like this typical wonderful after-work-hack-and-slack-meditation. And the most wonderful fact – it’s totally free so you can also use is for after-not-work-meditation. And it’s worth every penny you don’t have to pay.

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Release 2013
Genre ARP
Developer Grinding Gear Games
Publisher Grinding Gear Games
http://www.pathofexile.com/