Indie Game Grab Bag: Fall 2017 Edition #1

Catsby || Don’t open the doors! || Star Waker || From Shadows || Xenia || DashBored

Welcome to the first of many Indie Game Grab Bag articles! Impressions and rankings are based solely upon the roughly 15-30 minutes of gameplay per indie game which you can see in the above video.

We have six games to look at in this edition over Indie Game Grab Bag and many of them are surprisingly solid. Let’s get started!

Each game is listed followed by its rank, video timestamp, and price in USD.

Catsby || Rank #2 || 0:00 || $4.99

This game is just covered in charm. Beyond the Game Boy aesthetic, the character designs are adorable, the music is mellow, and the animations on everything are delightful. I am especially fond of Catsby’s ducking sprite. Controls are a little slippery, Catsby doesn’t immediately stop when you let go of the button, but they were easy to adapt to.

I knew this game had light Metroidvania elements, but I was surprised at just how quickly they kicked in. Branching paths show up almost immediately and within about 20 minutes I had already obtained two new abilities, a weapon, and an even better weapon from a boss. There’s a great amount of enemy variety and it’s not purely cosmetic either; snails hide in shells to defend, spiders drop down from the ceiling, fish charge at you, and so on. The difficulty is also higher than the Kirby-like aesthetic implies, but checkpoints are generously spread around to balance this out.

Don’t open the doors! || Rank #4 || 20:21 || $7.99

I’m a huge fan of claymation so this one might be my favorite as far as graphics go, which is impressive indeed considering how aesthetically strong this particular Grab Bag batch is. Usually claymation means kid-friendly, though in this case there’s a surprising amount of swearing and bloody (clay) cartoon violence. The isometric perspective might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m personally happy to see more games experimenting with it. Like claymation, I love quirky humor, but sometimes this game tries too hard to be quirky.

The intro is pleasantly snappy and quickly explains how dangerous doors have invaded the town. Unfortunately, this is immediately followed by multiple lengthy (and not-so-lengthy) conversations filled with quirky humor. The writing’s funny, but your choices only seem to affect which jokes you see and there’s just far too much of it right at the start; the charm wore thin by the time I got gameplay.

As for the gameplay itself, it controls well enough (though I had issues with my controller’s D-pad) and it mostly involves dodging obstacles and using a giant mallet to smash bugs, flowers, and just about everything else in sight. The gameplay felt basic, but this could just be a slow start. This looks to be a long game and I did gain access to bombs near the end of my run so there’s plenty of time for more involved mechanics to pop up.

Star Waker || Rank #5 || 41:26 || $9.99

Even though it’s in fifth place, Star Waker is a good game – it would have placed higher in just about any previous Grab Bag batch. As a shmup RPG this genre-blending game is certainly treading a path rarely taken by others. The default controls are mostly fine, though vertical movement is bizarrely set to Q and Z by default. Thankfully, this can easily be remapped to standard WASD movement with the mouse for 360° aiming. The gameplay itself is smooth and each level involves fighting off waves of enemies before bursting through a rotating barrier to land on a planet. You can take any of three ships into each level; I stuck with a pretty standard one, but there’s also a melee one with a drill and another with a charged cannon and increased hacking abilities to disable ships and shields. The levels I saw were all short, but they put the pressure on right away.

As for the RPG elements, I really like the skill trees. Each ship has its own skill tree which you get points for by completing objected (ex: win with at least 50% health) and there’s a shared tree which gains one point after each level. You get some hefty boosts from allocating points, but in an interesting twist many of the nodes also penalize you (ex: damage up, rate of fire down) so you can choose to really specialize or spread out points a smaller, overall benefits. On the other hand, I didn’t feel invested in the story and characters, though that was likely due to way too much flavor text in the tutorial making it drag on.

Last of all, this game is strangely divided on aesthetics. Level music is very generic hard rock (metal?) and the ship designs are boring. Conversely, characters outside of levels are expressive and drawn well and even the music is great. This game is slightly overpriced from what I’ve seen of it, but it also boasts of “almost 40 levels” so, like with Don’t open the doors!, it may just have a slow start.

From Shadows || Rank #3 || 1:13:26 || $1.99

This game was neck and neck with Catsby for me, so close that I said it was a tie at the end of the stream. At $1.99 it feels like an absolute steal from what I played of it, but I think Catsby slightly edges it out when the price isn’t factored in. You get to fight the forces of evil as either a werewolf or a vampire. The descriptions are vague, but it sounds like the werewolf is more physical while the vampire is more magical so I chose the latter. There is a day/night system where you must hide from the townspeople during the day. The system doesn’t play a major role in the first level and time fast-forwards the moment you’re safely hidden, but it does cause a minor issue in the tutorial where day breaks and villagers start attacking before you can get a good sense of how to protect yourself.

Some rocky tutorial moments aside, this game was unexpectedly enjoyable. As a vampire I had a ranged magic attack and a mid-range slash which I could chain with heavy melee attacks for combos. The ranged spell was especially fun to use as it periodically leeches health from any enemies it flies through. There’s also a mid-range red mist charged attack which paralyzes any enemies it touches; it’s tricky to use, but the payoff is worth it. The controls are solid all around and combat moves quickly as you cut your way through hordes of enemies. There’s also a bit of a Gauntlet feel to the whole thing as cultists teleport around between platforms and keep summoning in more demons if you don’t kill them.

Aesthetically, both the music and character designs are decent, if not particularly notable, but the background art looks nice and there is some great parallax scrolling going on. It’s also worth noting that several Steam reviews complained of bugs, but I didn’t encounter any gameplay bugs during my run.

Xenia || Rank #6 || 1:41:26 || $4.99

I hate sounding harsh, but the blunt truth is that Xenia was the only game from this Grab Bag which I disliked and there’s a sizable gap between it and Star Waker. Even though there’s nothing outright broken here, the whole experience is very bland. Enemy variety is a huge issue here. There’s technically a decent number of enemies as you fight snakes, slimes, and ticks (spiders?) in the first level, but all three of them only move left and right, die in one hit, and move at slightly different speeds. Level 2 adds in beetles and stalactites; beetles are like everything else except they take two hits and stalactites fall so early that they’ll only hit you if you’re really rushing. The third level finally changes things up a bit with flying bats and ranged mages, but by that time the game had already lost me.

The aesthetics don’t do Xenia any favors. The opening music is decent enough, but the music within the levels themselves is weak and painfully repetitive. Sound effects also seemed to occasionally fail to play when hitting chests and fake walls, though I may be mistaken. Environmental art is passable, but character and monster art is more along the lines of what I would expect from a freeware game. Animations are choppy and everything feels slightly off. Your sword’s hitbox is slightly bigger than it appears, I think enemies remain invincible slightly longer than their flickering animation implies, and the one boss I fought gave tells slightly too late to reliably get out of the way.

Though this game claims to be a Metroidvania, it certainly wasn’t one from what I saw. Both of the first two levels are almost completely linear. There are a few secret paths leading to treasure and you can choose between fighting a boss or doing a platforming section at the end of Level 2, but that’s about it. Maybe you get a major upgrade from killing the boss, but I gave up on it and just took the platforming route. There’s also a shop between levels where you can buy consumables and a few permanent upgrades so gold does serve some purpose, but light RPG elements and some secret treasure do not make a game a Metroidvania. Overall, the game really feels like it needs something more as the current experience is simply dull.

DashBored || Rank #1 || 2:03:00 || $4.99

It’s the only game in this Grab Bag which I’ve had since before the Steam Autumn Sale so of course it ended up being my favorite. I seriously love almost everything about this game so far. Tonally, it quickly reminded me of an obscure RPG called Fire God Saga (it’s good, look it up!), but if you haven’t heard of that game you can think of this as an “edgier Earthbound“. There is so much care put into so many wonderful, dumb little touches. The protagonist, Nicolas, has a class of “Loser”, you can give enemies the finger to inflict them with the “Sad” status ailment, the word “Mortigue” pops up when enemies die, and the list goes on. Best of all, there’s the perpetual feeling of something deeper lurking in the shadows, something biting, visceral and harsh, which could snap the comedic tone in half at any moment before slinking away once more.

As far as gameplay goes there wasn’t much combat near the start. What I did see of combat suggested that this game has an above average level of difficulty because even the first enemies hit rather hard. Combat is purely turn-based, but you do get abilities which do extra things with timed button presses so there is a little bit of an action element too. A minor complaint is that encounters are random and the encounter rate itself looks to be rather high, though that shouldn’t be much of an issue as long as later dungeons remain on the short side.

The game shines even more outside of combat. The spritework is great and the soundtrack includes catchy, upbeat battle music alongside surreal, atmospheric (and sometimes also catchy) environmental tracks. There is plenty of flavor text and every character so far has been memorable, witty, and, at best, morally ambiguous. My only complaint outside of fights being random rather than visible is that it took a little over 20 minutes before I reached the first save spot; players really should be allowed to save at least once at an earlier point to avoid sitting through the opening against just as a precaution against events like crashes and power outages, no matter how unlikely they may be. Minor complaints aside, DashBored has been a fantastic RPG so far and it earns its spot as #1 in this Grab Bag.

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