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Indie Royale June Bug Bundle

Indie Royale are the guys bravely trying to play catchup to the overwhelming success of the Humble Bundles. The first real imitators on the scene, they’re easily dismissed as a rip-off attempting to cash in on Wolfire’s lucrative model. But that’s enough negativity; what they might lack in originality they make up for in quality. Where Wolfire usually have the bigger-name indie titles, Indie Royale cater more to titles you likely won’t have heard of, but that doesn’t make them any less worth your while.

The current bundle available is the June Bug Bundle, consisting of  PixelJunk Eden, Escape Goat, Noitu Love 2: Devolution, and Auditorium. Thrown in as extras for those prepared to pay a little more than the minimum are the Escape Goat soundtrack and an updated alpha version of Iconoclasts.

The first title, PixelJunk Eden, by Q-Games is only available for Steam (well, you can buy it on PSN but you won’t get that in this bundle) which might be a turn-off for some, but I’d wager the majority of PC gamers have embraced the platform by now. An entertaining and arty title, you play as a small critter called a Grimp, a portmanteau of grip and jump, because those are primarily what it does. Jumping around highly stylised gardens, and gripping to the plants therein, you defeat enemies to earn pollen, which will grow more plants for you to climb in search of items known as Spectra which are described as a “fusion of light and sound”. Collecting these will grow plants in the hub world of Eden unlocking new gardens to explore. If there’s a goal beyond fully exploring all the worlds and growing all the plants, I haven’t found it, but it doesn’t need it. The gameplay is both relaxing and addicting with a techno soundtrack that complements it well. The gardens are a visual treat, vibrantly coloured but usually monochromatic with every level focused on a different colour. The plants too are beautifully styled making exploration very rewarding. It’s not as fleshed out as a bigger title might be, but for a quick casual game I can’t recommend it enough.

Escape Goat makes its début in this bundle. Launching primarily on Desura, one gets the impression its inclusion is there to sell the platform (unsurprising as the guys who run Indie Royale also run Desura) but for those unsold on the platform a DRM-free version for windows is included. A pixel art puzzle platformer, Escape Goat sees a purple goat locked away in a dungeon for the crime of witchcraft. Quickly teaming up with a mouse who is also eager to escape, the dynamic duo set out reclaim their freedom. You find a sheep who informs you that eight of his brethren are also trapped down there and only once all nine are reunited can you all make your escape together. It’s standard jumping, timing and pressing switch puzzles for the most part, with a few extra mechanics thrown in courtesy of your magical mouse friend. The controls default to a Japanese format (zxcv and arrows instead of wasd), which is something that will forever irk me, but that’s a personal gripe and they can be rebound so it’s not worth losing sleep over. All in all, it’s not the most original of concepts (outside the quirky character choices) but still a fun title that will keep you occupied for a while.

Noitu Love 2: Devolution by Joakim Sandberg recently made its début on Steam but Desura and DRM free windows versions are also available in the bundle. It’s a fast-paced, pixel art styled, old-school beat-em-up/platformer. To me, it feels a lot like the old Rocket Knight/Sparkster titles, and that’s no bad thing. You play Xoda Rap, a ponytailed ninja girl in a green hoodie and star of the Peacekeepers League. Your city comes under attack by a robot army and you set off to defeat its leader, Darnicus Damnation. Utilising a variety of ninja abilities you must fight through swathes of enemies, interrupted periodically to fight a boss. The bosses range from robotic dragons to giant armed steam trains to rival ninjas and are all a lot of fun to fight, each requiring different techniques to effectively dispatch. Learning the techniques necessary is half the fun and you’ll routinely get your ass handed to you until you figure out the ropes of each fight. Alas, the game is disappointingly short for a single play through, but harder game modes and scoreboards for each level make for extra replay value for those who want to be challenged or who are more competitive. As part of an extremely affordable bundle though, it’s very hard to find fault with.

Last but not least, Auditorium by Cipher Prime Studios, available for both windows and mac in Steam and DRM free versions as well as a Desura version. A phenomenally simplistic game, you start with a stream of coloured particles, and by placing a few orbs which exert a force on particles passing nearby attempt to direct the particles to the destination of corresponding colour. Each time a particle hits its goal it will play a note. If the goal is hit frequently enough a small looping tune will form. If all the goals are hit enough the full piece of music will be revealed. It’s tremendously pretty, but often frustratingly hard. On more than a few occasions I’ve finished levels by waving the force fields around fast enough, but it does leave one with the feeling of “that was totally not how I was supposed to do that”. A nice casual game, it’s great as part of this bundle, but lacking any real depth I feel it might struggle to stand alone.

As an extra bonus the updated alpha version of Joakim Sandberg’s Iconoclasts has been included. As an alpha, it’s probably pretty unfair to critique it, so I’ll let you enjoy it as the surprise bonus content that it is.

For the asking price (£3.21 minimum at time of writing) this is an astonishingly good value bundle. Noitu Love 2 alone typically retails for £3.99 and would be more than worth it. To add to it a very solid puzzle game and a couple of artistic casual games makes it a must-have. Do yourself a favour and buy the Indie Royale June Bug Bundle.

Get Back in the Kitchen: Women in Gaming

Gaming has long been a boys’ club, this much is widely accepted. Games are given to boys growing up, whereas girls get to play with their dolls. They are marketed at men; badass dudes setting out to rescue the sexy yet helpless girl with lots of violence along the way. But the trend is changing, statistics suggesting that 47% of all gamers are women, and yet, as an industry – and indeed as a community – we rarely welcome this fact. E3, the biggest game expo in the world, continues selling everything through the medium of booth babes year in, year out, managing to alienate the entire female audience in one fell swoop.

Even when someone has the audacity to suggest that hey, maybe we could all get along, or maybe narratives that aren’t overwhelmingly sexist stereotypes could also be fun to play, the backlash is always astonishing. The sheer amount of malice that can come from some gamers when you suggest that broader appeal games could share a shelf with ultra-macho hack’n’slash or war simulator titles has to be seen to be believed.

Earlier this year, Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler was on the receiving end of this backlash. In an interview taken almost five years ago, she confessed to not being much of a gamer and felt that reduced-action options for those gamers who enjoyed narrative more than blasting through crowds would be a nice addition so that people like her could enjoy the medium. This seems like a reasonable suggestion, after all it would in no way affect those who still wanted to kill and maim their way to victory, while offering an alternate option for people like herself who wanted to enjoy gaming but found themselves lacking the wherewithal to finish titles. With her words taken thoroughly out of context and further quotes fabricated entirely a picture showed up on the internet alongside the cruel nickname “Hamburger Helper”. Quickly circulated around the usual places, 4chan and Reddit’s gaming forum, thousands of angry gamer guys set out, pitchforks brandished, to make life miserable for poor Hepler. She spent several days bombarded with hate mail and even death threats for something she’d said 5 years prior because she embodied “everything that’s wrong with gaming”. Never mind the fact that she is a writer and would have no say in gameplay design decisions, or the fact that in reality she was in no way involved in the writing for Mass Effect 3 (something she was accused of ruining), no, this writer, who happened to be female and have minimal gaming experience was single-handedly destroying the games industry. I can’t help but wonder what if Jennifer had been a man quoted as saying such things. We’ll never know, but I suspect the worst that could have happened would have been that he was dismissed out of hand. I think “everything that is wrong with gaming” is this ridiculous mob mentality hell-bent on destroying everything and everyone who doesn’t conform to the mob’s demands. There’s plenty of room for developers to make different products for different audiences, and even to include options within products to make it accessible to a bigger audience; there’s no justifiable excuse for sending death threats to a person who doesn’t want to spend their life making products tailored solely to one small audience.

And now just this week, the undesirables of the internet once again seized the chance to make life hell for the latest woman to speak out on the issue. Anita Sarkeesian of blog hoped to use Kickstarter to raise funding to create a series of videos to raise awareness of the issues surrounding gender in gaming. A noble cause, and one worth supporting, one might think. The internet hate machine had other plans, however, and she has been met with much the same response as Hepler.

In a much more positive twist this time, though, Sarkeesian received an overwhelming outpouring of support as well. Smashing her fundraising target of $6000 in no time she has now reached a staggering $150,000, over twenty-five times her goal. Unfazed by the haters, she’s now aiming to make twelve videos in total with a much higher production quality, having started with the expectation that she would only make 5. Hoping to spark discussion about female representation in the media and video games especially, we may yet hope to see female game characters with more personality than their chainmail bikinis.

As positive as it might be, I think it’s unlikely to change the attitudes of the gaming community at large. That’s something that will need a lot more work by a lot more than one person. It’s up to all of us. When you see someone in chat spouting racism or sexism, the easy response, one a lot of people will probably take (and I know I’ve been guilty of this too) is to ignore or mute them. Sure that’ll give you peace of mind for five minutes but they’ll only go on to do it elsewhere to someone else. Next time you see someone giving anyone else a hard time for being different to them take a stand, shout them down, tell them it’s not okay. You might be pleasantly surprised to find mob mentality works both ways. If you take the first step and tell them to knock it off, you can find others will back you up quite readily. If we can make this the norm, we might all be able to enjoy our chosen hobby a great deal more.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project is Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and at the time of publication has 9 hours remaining to pledge support.



Spiral Knights: Free to P(l)ay.

Following on from Meroka’s encouraging article regarding the stigma surrounding Free-to-Play gaming, here’s why you should be giving Spiral Knights a try!

With a massive rise in Free-to-Play games it’s difficult for individuals to stand out, be long-lived and become profitable for the developers. So what makes a good Free-to-Play game? Accessibility, the chance to earn all content in the game without spending a real life penny. Community, a structure that allows players to interact, socialize and work together. Value, because if you are spending money to enhance you game play experience, it’d best be worth it. And new content, lots and lots of new content. Keeping players interested and involved in-game makes it more likely for the developers to generate more money from their customers. and because doing the same thing over and over again just gets boring.

Spiral Knights has been running as a Free-to-Play MMO for over a year now, and as far as it goes I’ve managed to rack up roughly £50 of spending in it over that time. And I can honestly say I feel like I got my money’s worth. Why spend that much on a Free-to-Play game? Allow me to elaborate over the course of the article, make a cuppa’ if you like.

Boosh and or Ka-kow!

If you’ve not tried your hand at Spiral Knights before, the styling is rather cutesy in an androgynous kinda way. Your custom Knight and a community of others have crash landed on a mysterious construction known as the Clockworks. Stranded, but not the first adventures here, you’re tasked with finding out what happened to Alpha Squad and reach the Core to find the strange power source that could potentially get you and all the other Knights back home.
The aim of the game is to descend down through the Clockworks by way of elevators through twenty-nine levels of increasingly hardened monsters. You fight with various swords, guns and bombs. It’s generally quite a treat.

Your main source of currency are Crowns, you earn Crowns by killing monsters, smashing boxes and by selling minerals and materials. You can then use them to buy recipes and gear from Vendors or try the Auction House and see what other players are selling that might be interesting or useful to you.
Heat is the Spiral Knights equivalent of experience. But instead of levelling up your character, Heat is distributed evenly between all of your current equipment. The more equipment you need to level up, the longer it will take to complete all their levels.
Prestige is a reasonably new feature that ranks you and every other player in the game. The more missions you complete, the higher rank you are. This only really serves to stroke a players ego, but it’s all in good fun.


It’s well-known that a large aspect of every MMO is its community. The nice thing about Spiral Knights is it’s pretty difficult to be a dick, easy to be a beggar, but not so much a dick.. Largely the game isn’t PvP apart from it’s fantastically structured mini-games, so chances of some higher levelled character butchering you while you’re bidding for your favourite accessory is out of the question.
Spiral Knights encourages you to fight alongside other players on your adventures, the enemies might be harder, but mostly you gain more heat and coins by fighting in groups, which is all shared equally. There’s even benefits to reviving your downed team mates by stealing their heat to level up your own equipment.

Where Spiral Knights makes in money is in Energy. Players are given 100 free Mist Energy that fills itself up automatically over 24 hours. Players use can use Energy in several different ways as a secondary currency, mostly by using 10 to travel down each layer of the Clockworks. But it’s also used for unlocking extra sections within levels, reviving yourself if your team mates are unable and it’s also used for crafting, which will advance your equipment up into the next Tier.
On these alone it becomes clear that you’ll eventually need more than 100 Mist Energy to allow you to decend into the harder levels and craft better equipment. This is where Crystal Energy comes in. Wondrous, marvellous Crystal Energy. It can be bought in-game by a handy Trade system where by the players themselves decide how much the energy is worth in Crowns, or you can get your wallet out and buy the energy with your own hard-earned real life cash.

This is a great system because it means you get to decide how much you want to invest into the game play, as well as being massively accessible to anyone who doesn’t want to pay for their Five-Star equipment and get months worth of genuinely great game play.
Until the expansion, Operation Crimson Hammer, it was entirely possible to earn every scrap of content in the game by grafting hard and being smart and restrained with your free Mist Energy. Although it’d take you weeks to be able to afford the crafting recipes and Crystal Energy needed, you won’t have to pay a penny for it and you’ll be able to appreciate a game that actually has a lot of mileage in it. But then there’s always the option to spent a little money, it’s actually pretty reasonable, and give your characters equipment a much needed boost.

I’m just as poor as everyone else, don’t bother asking me for anything ;p

And what do you get for your money besides cool gear? Well, by supporting Three Rings and their developers it gives them the opportunity to regularly put updates into the game. Of course it’s in their best interest to keep the gamers happy so they spend more money. And they do it well. In the last year that I’ve been playing this game, it’s come a long way. There’s been all kinds of costumes, accessories, new quests, events, features, story content and improved functionality. Spiral Knights just gets better as it goes along. And it’s thanks to the customers that it continues to be a successful game.

Operation Crimson Hammer was launched on February 29th of this year as an optional DLC. Being a big fan I had to try it. It came with a five new levels in different difficulties as well as exclusive gear at a price of £3.99. I have to say I wasn’t impressed, the new gear looks nice, I liked the new boss fight. But I don’t believe it was worth launching it as a separate add on at cost to the players. Especially when Spiral Knights have launched similar content in the past for free that I felt was inclusive and useful to alot of players. Not only did this restrict players that were unable to purchase the DLC online, it stopped players who already had the DLC from putting the exclusive items in the Auction House for other Knights to buy. Bad form.
I realize that the cost is trivial to most, but I’d use the same wording to describe the new content in the DLC. Not enough new enemies, no innovative or challenging objectives, just more of the same. It’s just not worth it.

Despite this, to say I got a 395 hours worth of enjoyment out of Spiral Knights over the last year, as apposed to maybe the two or three days I’d get from a big console title. Yes, I’m content with thinking I got my money’s worth, while supporting Three Rings.

Free to Play on Steam here, and by no means buy the DLC here.



Lamenting the Stigma of Free-to-Play

“So yeah, I’ve been playing this new game, it’s really fun, you should try it, it’s free!”

“No thanks, I’ll give it a miss.”

“What? Why? It’s free, all it’ll cost you is time and bandwidth just to try it.”

“Those games are always won by the kids with the richest parents.”

That’s paraphrased from a few different conversations I’ve had, but the general theme is always the same; if it’s free it can’t be any good and it can’t possibly be anything other than Pay-to-Win. The counterpoint I usually hold up at this stage is the wildly popular Team Fortress 2 from Valve. Already a cult hit, the game moved to a free-to-play model almost a year ago. All non-cosmetic items in the game can be earned without ever spending a penny, and Valve’s dedication to balance among the game’s items mean almost nothing will give you an advantage, anyway. Sounds good, right? You’d think others might have adopted this model for themselves. They have. Plenty have.

Dude riding a levitating dugong? Free.

Valve, despite their sterling reputation for it, didn’t even pioneer this concept. The earliest example I’m familiar with of Free-to-Play, Pay-for-Hats is League of Legends. As a game I’ve covered before, I’ll jump straight to the business model. There are 99 champions to choose from to play but on any given week only 10 are available. You can permanently unlock a champion with currency in-game or, if you so desire, with real money. Each champion also has a number of alternative outfits available, which you can purchase with real money, and there’s also a few extra non-essential metagame things you can buy to make your life easier. So there’s nothing that’s absolutely integral to the game that can’t be earned for free.

Spiral Knights, in spite of recent DLC controversy, initially launched using a very similar model two months prior to TF2’s transition. My own personal vice, Super Monday Night Combat, uses an almost identical model to League of Legends. In my recent review of Moon Breakers I noted that while the accessibility of free content could use some rebalancing, it’s still all available to those who would put in the time.

Jelly King? Totally free!

So, in the light of so many demonstrably fun and balanced titles, irrespective of whether you’ve flashed the plastic or not, why are gamers, broadly speaking, still so opposed to the idea that a free product can be a good product?

While League of Legends may have been arguably the first to “do it right” so to speak, it was by no means the first to use free-to-play as a business model. There’s a long history of MMOs marketed as free-to-play and these have historically run the gamut of downright awful through to merely mediocre. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reasoning behind this, but these games have broadly speaking been of Korean origin. Keen followers of MMO games will likely have heard the term “Korean grindfest” thrown around. These are the ones I mean. Bland, slow-paced, mostly centring around the “kill 10 boars” type of questing, with no real effort to engage the player’s interest. The principal selling point being that unlike the big hitters out there it won’t be setting you back up to £10 per month, it’s completely free to play! Once upon a time, this would have been a unique selling point, drawing in a crowd just for the chance to get something for free. Those who stuck with it would find themselves inclined to invest, with exp boosts available to minimise the grind and a whole armory at their disposal for the right amount of money. These are the titles deserving of the moniker Pay-to-Win. Drop some cash and your character can have a glinting mithramantium sword, or that shiny diamontanium armour, then go hop into a game with those less fortunate souls.

These guys? They're free too!

The times, though, they are distinctly a-changin’. Developers, as they are wont to do (indies particularly), have seen where the Koreans went wrong and built upon that formula to create something a lot more friendly to the end-user, especially those with little or no money to burn. For the consumer, however, it’s a case of “once bitten, twice shy” and a lot of consumers have been bitten. Those wounds are going to need some healing before we see any degree of success in this area. The best any of us can hope to do is give them a shot. At the risk of repeating myself here, it’s free! Worst case scenario, you don’t enjoy it, wasted some time, but at least you took the time to try something new. In the best case, though, you might find something you absolutely love, purely by accident because you were open to trying new things.