Review - Proteus (PC/Mac/Linux, 2012)
A beautiful and mysterious place, made just for me
It feels like Proteus was made for me. I love exploration games. I love games that use music in interesting ways. I love games with strong, abstract art styles. I love games with a strong sense of mystery. I love games that can make you think and feel without paragraphs of text or shiny cutscenes. Designers Ed Key and David Kanaga pulled all of those elements together in Proteus, and the result is nothing less than a stunning achievement.
I bought the beta version of this game some time ago (marking the first time I’ve ever bought into a beta), but I was too busy to give it the time and attention I knew it deserved. But with the recent release of the “complete” version on Steam, I dove back into the game with renewed vigor and found a unique and contemplative experience waiting for me. There are imperfections and even frustrations here, if you look hard enough, but there is not a single person to whom I wouldn’t recommend Proteus whole-heartedly. This is a beautiful game everyone should experience.
From time to time, I come across free games that are interesting and worth a play, but that don’t necessarily warrant a full review. Today’s batch, especially, contains no home runs, but I still think there’s reason enough to give each of these a shot (the last one is an iOS download and the other two are playable in your browser):
Art Game - If this art style looks familiar, it may be because it’s Pippin Barr, the prolific designer whose game Hot Coffee I looked at a while ago. You might think by the title that this is a parody of so-called “art games” - minimally interactive indie games known for their pretentiousness - but it’s actually more literal than that. You play an artist who get their work into a MoMA gallery. Depending on the character you choose, you will either paint or sculpt (there is another 2-player option I couldn’t try), and then you get to see your work in the museum and listen to people’s reactions.
The novel thing is that to sculpt, you actually play (or rather lose) a game of Tetris, and what’s left on the screen after you reach the top is a steel sculpture. And to paint, you play a game of Snake, and what’s left when you lose becomes the painting. It’s a neat idea, but I do wish there were some place for skill here (then again, maybe that’s a comment on the modern art scene). Ultimately this is worth a play for the uniqueness.
Alone in the Light - I have a weakness for games that use music in integral ways. Sword & Sworcery, Rez and most recently Kyoto have all scratched that particular itch. This game does its best, but can’t quite reach the level of quality of those other games. You play as a polar bear who must (for some reason I didn’t catch) reassemble the various shards of these little musical crystals. To search for them, you “sing,” which sends a sort of sonar out, and you can see where the next shard is. Picking up each one sounds a tone, and when you get several of the same color you restore that note and add a layer to the music. In theory it’s nice (and reminds me a bit of William and Sly), but the platforming is really sloppy and not very fun, and that’s really all there is to the gameplay. This game has a nice art style and an enjoyable use of music, but it’s hard to recommend playing for more than a few minutes.
Cosmic Nitro - This one caught my eye initially because of the great neon art style. It’s a basic Missile Command/Space Invaders type game, where you must protect a population from falling objects. Where this game differs is that, instead of shooting lasers or missiles to intercept the objects, you tap directly on screen to destroy them. When I heard this, I assumed it would be a very challenging game, since they would have ramped up the difficulty to make up for the ease of targeting. Someone forgot to tell these devs, though, because the game is incredibly easy. There are two basic modes, one with nine levels and one everlasting “endurance” mode. I beat all the regular levels, usually without my city sustaining any damage at all, and I only stopped the endurance mode because I was bored, not because I lost.
The assortment of enemy types is pretty interesting (some drop bombs, some have secondary drops, etc.), and at its most difficult it can occasionally get frantic for a few seconds, but mostly it’s just too easy to be interesting. It’s enjoyable at first (and worth a download, since it’s free), but once the allure of the visuals wears off, there’s not much reason to stick around.
Freeware Review - Unmanned
Unmanned is the work of game designers Molleindustria (creators of Every Day the Same Dream and other games tackling issues from the fast food industry to where you get the rare minerals for your smartphone), writer Jim Munroe and musician Jesse Stiles. It won the Games for Change “best gameplay” award for 2012, and also took home the Grand Jury award at the 2012 IndieCade conference.
I can now say that the game deserves all the honors it has received. It is remarkable for its novel gameplay ideas, unique split screen presentation, and the quiet way it goes about treating its subject - the life of a drone operator in the present-day Central Intelligence Agency. It is a nuanced portrayal of a complicated subject, but it is done with style, heart, and a good dose of humor. Unmanned is an outstanding work that should be part of every gamer’s vocabulary.