Video Game Reviews: Indie and Niche Titles

January 26, 2012

Arts & Entertainment

By David Mott–

Whether you need something new to occupy your time during break or need a stocking-stuffer gift your friends don’t have yet, consider an indie game.  The year’s been full of small-studio games that have fallen through the cracks or otherwise been overshadowed by bigger-budget releases, despite their creativity and clever design.  Independent doesn’t always mean good, mind you, so I’ve taken the time to round up some of the year’s best niche titles:

Minecraft’s exploration and building are second to none in the indie gaming scene, but if you’re itching for more crafting and combat, Terraria will interest you.  Terraria plays like a hybrid of Minecraft and a Metroid title;  the game is in two dimensions rather than three, limiting building and exploration possibilities somewhat, but making up for it with an impressive selection of monsters and items, and several different “biomes” and cavern types to explore (with considerably more to differentiate them than Minecraft’s biomes). NPCs actually do something in this game, like moving in if you’ve built a room for them and selling you items.  Fighting with monsters and bosses is reminiscent of later Castlevania titles, with an impressive array of weapons and items to use in melee or ranged combat. Originally released in May this year, a recent update added enough new content to qualify as a free expansion, including a wiring system for making traps and other mechanisms, and a Hard Mode complete with several new bosses.

Do you have the knowledge, but not the aiming skills, for Counterstrike?  Frozen Synapse is a fascinating little strategy game; you and your opponent give your small squads of soldiers a set of orders at the start of the game to maneuver through an area, and the game stops for more orders once they discover each other, allowing you to adjust your strategies with every new development.  Tactical thinking is crucial, as you’ll need to anticipate the enemy’s movements and take consideration of lines of sight, entryways, and cover points to succeed; for example, holding still, facing the target, and being behind partial cover (a window, for example) will all improve a soldier’s odds and reaction time against an enemy coming around a corner.  A varied unit selection keeps the strategy deep, with some soldiers using weapons such as a rocket launcher that can blow open walls, allowing alternative points of entry or just killing someone in the blast radius.  Frozen Synapse features asynchronous online multiplayer (allowing players to submit their turn without waiting for their partners to come back and respond), as well as a single-player campaign.

Think cover and tactics are for cowards?  Serious Sam 3: BFE is a new shooter that, like the rest of its series, disposes of modern-day conveniences like cover and regenerating HP and instead focuses on the simpler pleasures of first-person shooting: you, an unnecessarily large gun, and waves and waves of baddies chasing you as you backpedal furiously and return fire.  The game starts off a little slow, but gradually and inexorably ramps up the intensity with each new weapon you find; monster behavior and variety keep the experience interesting, with plenty of evadable enemy projectiles and charging kamikazes to exploit.  Level design is classic to a fault; there are plenty of wide-open areas to maneuver through and secret ammo caches to stumble on, but if you get lost, finding the right way to go can be a bit of a pain.  Graphics are pretty good, but nothing mind-blowing.  Online co-op supports up to 16 players, which tends to result in a chaotic (but fun) storm of projectiles.

Roguelikes are an odd, old genre of game – the combination of turn-based RPG combat, overhead perspective, randomly-generated dungeon-crawling gameplay, permanent death, ASCII art, and intense difficulty might seem to be held together through tradition alone, but the combination works surprisingly well in games ranging from the original Rogue (from which the genre gets its name) to newer favorites like Crawl: Stone Soup and NetHack.  Dungeons of Dredmor is a recent title that seeks to bring the roguelike genre into the modern age, and a big part of how it does this is by including something roguelikes usually consider optional, that being actual graphics.  Dredmor’s sprites and general art style resemble those of older LucasArts adventure games, providing a slightly cartoony dungeon that’s a joy to explore, complete with catchy music; its writing, shown through descriptions and monster battle-cries (including “I smell a promotion!”) is consistently amusing, and the game has humorous touches throughout, including the existence of smeltable plastic ore and a valorous “HEROIC VANDALISM!” announcement whenever you smash a statue of the dungeon’s resident lich.  Gameplay-wise, its addition of multiple difficulty levels and the ability to toggle permanent character death on or off are much-needed contributions to the roguelike genre, turning an otherwise inhospitable learning curve into an enjoyable exploratory experience; the easiest difficulty will be preferable for newcomers, and veterans will find a challenge in its hardest one.  Its skill system is at once simpler and deeper than those of other roguelikes – you pick seven skills at the start of the game out of a selection of 36 (most of which are fairly interesting in and of themselves, including three separate crafting skills), and can enhance one each time you get a level up.  If you’re interested in this genre of turn-based action RPG, Dredmor is the best introduction you could have to it.

Want tactics, shooting, trap-building, co-op, AND RPG combat?  Dungeon Defenders has you covered.  Strictly speaking, there’s no one thing it does that is revolutionary; combining combat and tower-defense was done in Sanctum, its item drops and character growth are in the style of Diablo, and its artistic style owes some credit to World of Warcraft.  However, it does a fantastic job of combining these elements and making them work together.  Dungeon Defenders’ twist on the usual tower defense formula, is that instead of simply placing towers from the sky, you are controlling a hero who runs around summoning towers and, if so inclined, can go fight the monsters him/herself. Furthermore, you can choose between four classes for this hero, with different combat abilities and building choices between them.  (The Squire, for example, is a durable melee fighter; accordingly, he builds towers that can take a beating but don’t have much range, such as the spring-and-spike-loaded Bouncers.)  The game’s visuals are occasionally beautiful and consistently charming.  Loot and character growth are consistent across games, allowing you to focus on a particular stat or set of stats, and a varied assortment of maps has the difficulty settings to keep up with you and your friends.

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