Playing the Best Indie Games at Gamescom 2015
It's not all mega-budgets and maximum bluster at Germany's massive gaming conference—there's a wealth of wonderful indie titles on show as well.
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The stats are in, and the stats are impressive: 345,000 people from 96 countries turned up at this year's Gamescom, held last week in Cologne, including no fewer than 806 games industry companies ranging from the most massive of triple-A publishers to the smallest indie developer. And while it was one of the big-budget games that won the overall "best of Gamescom" award, EA's Star Wars: Battlefront, I got my hands on a fair few intriguing indie releases-to-come during my brief time at the enormous Koelnmesse complex.
The sole indie game that I sit down in the company of, but do not actually get to play, is Shadow Warrior 2, currently in development at Poland's Flying Wild Hog studio and published by the ever-reliable Devolver team, based in Texas. The sequel to 2013's Shadow Warrior reboot, the gameplay that designer Paweł Kowalewski showed off was bright, breathless, and bloody, player character Lo Wang slicing and shooting his way through a swathe of demonic foes in great style, from a first-person perspective. There are both solo and (up to four-player) co-op modes for the game's campaign, and procedural generation provides environmental diversity in non story-specific areas. Released in 2016, Shadow Warrior 2 fits into the growing box of what not-so-many-people are calling "double-A" games—titles that are independently made, but aim for experiences comparable to the work of much bigger teams backed by moneybags publishers. See also: No Man's Sky, Volume, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture.
And also Hellblade, a so-called "independent AAA game" being made by Cambridge (UK)'s Ninja Theory, the studio behind the likes of Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and DmC: Devil May Cry. Like those titles, there's plenty of close-quarter combat in this new game, but instead of building combos and producing spectacular finishing moves, protagonist Senua takes on hellish-looking opponents one by one, their appearances twisted by her own mind, tormented as it is by psychosis brought on by events we're not yet quite clear about (but it involves some Viking pillaging of her Celtic village).
Fighting controls are all on the face buttons of a PS4 pad, with strong and swift attacks, block and dodge options available, but while that sounds simple there's plenty of nuance to the system, as parrying becomes an essential move in unlocking an enemy's defense, and quickly rolling away from a potentially lethal blow needs to become second nature to survive. Swordplay is brutal and ugly, the clashing of blade against blade sparking with drama. I play a preview build of the game for around 15 minutes, during which time environmental puzzles present themselves—one requires the correct alignment of sunlight through a treeline to create the visage of a god, who calls Senua onwards, into an ever-darkening forest. Clues in the world around her can be located using trigger-controlled heightened senses—think Batman's Detective Mode, without its screen-consuming garishness.
What I see of Hellblade is hugely atmospheric, palpably dripping with tension in places, and Senua seems to be a very different hero from those we're used to playing as: she's coming apart as we push her forward, her unraveling mental health influencing how she (and, by turn, we) see everything around her. The skies darken as her mood dips, stormy weather signifying tumultuous thoughts within. Dominic Matthews from Ninja Theory sits with me as I play, and is keen to stress how—while the game is just that, a game, and meant to be an enjoyable experience—the studio has also taken on board lots of professional advice regarding how to depict Senua's deteriorating psyche. The Wellcome Trust is involved, so it's unlikely that any in-game articulating of mental health problems is done for gimmicky, exploitative effect. Hellblade is out sometime in 2016, and already looks like a truly unique offering amongst third-person adventures.
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Eitr is rather more in the vein of what some people perceive an indie game to be—in so much as its looks are influenced by the pixel art of yesterday's 16-bit titles. Gameplay wise, though, this isometric-perspective action-RPG takes cues from the devastatingly tough mechanics of Dark Souls and its surrounding series, your controllable shield maiden charged with discovering the root of a worldwide infection that's turned humanity into all manner of foul beasts. Like Hellblade, it leans on Norse mythology for some inspiration, the final game featuring nine varied Nordic realms. The one I see features a bleak, cold, terror-filled forest and some equally treacherous catacombs, the demo ending with a boss fight against a gigantic "Again Walker"—the literal English translation of "draugr," undead creatures than players of Skyrim will be familiar with.
Like the Souls games, your stamina needs constant attention—should it be sapped through exertion you won't be able to dodge incoming projectiles or health-halving physical attacks. Enemies don't necessarily move fast, but they can quickly overpower the player if they don't respect, and manage, their abilities—taking one foe on at a time is the way to proceed, slowly and safely. It's all the work of a two-man team based in London. Both developers are sat in on the gameplay preview, and are thoroughly amiable fellows, enjoying the attention their game's receiving without letting it go to their heads (it looks like beer helps keep their smiles beaming, but to be honest, such is the love for this game that they could be teetotal and feel the buzz just as well).
I meet one of the devs again the day after my look at the game, as he's about to test Dark Souls III. That the makers of this demanding RPG are fans of From Software's famous franchise is no surprise; but that they might have a debut title on their hands that's every bit as disquieting and dastardly difficult certainly is. And given that it's the work of first-timers, Eitr might just be the most special indie game on show at Gamescom, and it's coming to PC and PlayStation 4 in 2016.
Cuphead wins best indie game of the conference, officially, and seeing it running in the public area on a ginormous screen crystallizes just how wonderful this 1930s animation-inspired action-platformer looks. I can't wait to play it when it's out for Xbox One and Windows next year—but I don't at Gamescom, as time is super tight and the fantastically addictive Action Henk is calling. Made by Dutch studio Rage Squid, it's a super-fast obstacle-course racer which puts the player in control of a washed-up and overweight 1980s action figure, the titular Henk, who for some reason or another is sprinting and leaping his way around tricky tracks made up of building blocks and other bedroom detritus. It's all about two things: a good start and the maintaining of momentum. It's also the closest thing to a brilliant new Sonic the Hedgehog game you're likely to get right now, given SEGA's disinterest in doing right by its famous mascot.
It's deliriously simple, and clicks from the first turn—but as I flicked through levels of varying difficulties, acing some immediately and having to repeat others to even register a slow time (attempts are instantly reset with the pressing of a button), I couldn't tear my eyes away from the screen. I had to shave those milliseconds off my previous time. I had to nail that jump just right to gain the gold medal. I had to play more, more, more. Alas, Gamescom is not the place to sit in front of just a single game for several hours per session (I get just 20 minutes), but as soon as Action Henk is released for home consoles—its publisher, Curve Digital, is aiming for a simultaneous cross-platform release (including Wii U!) very soon; the game is already out through Steam—you know where you'll find me. At home, dribbling, gawping at this, red-eyed, desperate to go that bit quicker, locked into the dangerous cycle of just-one-more-go, a wreck of a man, a shell, broken by physics. Oh Rage Squid, you magnificent bastards. You are my undoing.
'Action Henk' launch trailer
Also forthcoming from Curve is Hue, a cute-looking but challenging puzzler that uses the color wheel to overcome its multitude of obstacles: think Playdead's Limbo meets a Splatoon accident. Objects pop in and out of the background depending on what color the scene behind our diminutive hero is, changeable in a second, allowing them to be pushed, pulled, or simply passed by. Lasers and spikes threaten instant death and must be avoided at all costs. Hue is really one of those games that is easier to play than describe, but I felt myself becoming smitten during my short demo. It's being made by some BAFTA-winning talent, and that quality shines through within just a few levels: the mechanics soon become second nature but the solution to any given situation does not always leap out at the player immediately. The game's coming to a wealth of platforms in early 2016, and might be a meditative companion of choice for when the day's greys need to be bled away.
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Hue is full of death for its pint-sized protagonist, should the person controlling him go wrong badly enough (I do, a couple of times, and seeing his little body crumple isn't pleasant), but it's got nothing on the body count of Mother Russia Bleeds, an old-school side-scrolling cooperative beat 'em up in the gushing vein of Streets of Rage and Final Fight made by French studio Le Cartel and published by—it's those guys again—Devolver.
This is a powerfully violent experience, playable by up to four people at once (friendly fire damage is optional, but the screen gets so busy that it's probably best that you choose not to smash the shit out of your pals), and certainly not for the squeamish. Fallen foes are straddled and their faces pounded until their skulls pop and spill brain tissue across the floor. An array of weapons—from pipes to guns to fire extinguishers to knives—can be picked up and used. Special, powered-up moves deliver instant kills, player characters lifting adversaries high to break their backs or squeezing their heads until they explode like melons. Previous Devolver hit Hotline Miami has nothing on Mother Russia Bleeds' insatiable appetite for digital viscera.
It is a little shallow, based on what I get to play—one stage, mostly in a nightclub full of weird pig-faced bloaters, neatly suited gangsters, and background blowjobs—but there's no denying the tremendous fun to be had when going at Mother Russia Bleeds with mates. And what it lacks in gameplay depth, Le Cartel's creation makes up for in aesthetic appeal, the game's chunky pixels spraying deliciously across the screen as Boris, Ivan et al plough their way through an alternative 1980s USSR bursting with psychedelic trips and uneasy sonics. It's not for everyone, but for someone weaned on arcade brawlers it's a throwback that ticks most of the right boxes, personally. Whether they'll stay ticked for the game's entire duration remains to be seen, but for a swift session, sure: this is doing it for me. Mother Russia Bleeds comes out for PS4 and PC in 2016.
A number of other indie titles did catch my eye, if not my grip, at Gamescom 2015. There was Deliver Us the Moon, a semi-realistic lunar adventure that puts the player in the shoes of a lone astronaut as he or she must complete a vital-for-all-mankind sort of mission that, no doubt, will involve puzzle-solving. It's being made by the Dutch team at KeokeN and doesn't have a release date yet. Swedish developer Simogo's Year Walk was on show for the Wii U—annoyingly I didn't grab the chance to play it using the GamePad due to there being a line, but having been such a success on iOS it stands to reason that the creepy puzzler will work well on Nintendo's home machine. Forma.8 is also be coming to the Wii U—I've played a preview of it, downloadable from the eShop (or, at least, it was), and it has the player controlling a tiny probe on an atmospheric, 2D alien world. It's got great potential. So too does the procedurally generated adventure Cloud Chasers, by Blindfug Studios, in which a father and daughter team up to cross a desert in pursuit of a bunch of rich bastards who are set on stealing the world's water. Of course, this is but scraping the surface of the indie treats on show—but you'd need until next year's Gamescom to play them all.
But Action Henk. Mate, it's all about Action Henk. Give me more of that and it's goodbye productivity. Can't wait.
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