Thunderbird Strike

Thunderbird Strike LogoDeveloper: Elizabeth LaPensée
First Release: October, 2017
Version Played: iPad and PC
Available: Apple iOS | Android | PC (Direct Download)

A thunderbird uses lightning to destroy a snake (an oil pipeline) consuming the land.

This is a short sidescrolling game, focusing on the theme of oil pipelines being built on Indigenous land. There are three levels, one of which is a boss fight. Each level has a brief animation to introduce it. I initially tried the iPad version, but that was too glitchy to play. It crashed either at the end of the first level or the end of the second level introduction animation. This was consistent, so I couldn’t play beyond the first level on the iPad. I didn’t experience any crashes on the PC version, which is the one I played to the end.

I liked the general concept of the levels. The thunderbird flies into the clouds to gather lightning. The lightning can then be fired to destroy industrial items or to restore living things. There’s no damage or death for the thunderbird, so it doesn’t matter how well the player does. This is a good feature for a gamer who wants to experience it, but may not be too good at controlling the bird.

However, there were elements I didn’t like in the gameplay. There’s no charge meter for the lightning, which makes it difficult to tell when the bird needs more lightning. There is a sound when it runs out completely, but that doesn’t help much for players who don’t use sound. There is a crackling visual, but it’s subtle, and isn’t really usable on devices with touchscreens where fingers cover the bird. It is also hard sometimes to see if the lightning has hit, which was particularly an issue in the boss level where I didn’t appear to be able to do any damage at the start, and I have no idea why it wasn’t working.

I do wish there’d been a few more levels. It felt like I was just getting going when it ended (and the points on the snake map suggest this might have been the intention, as there are more points than levels).

A scene from Thunderbird Strike

Image Caption: A blue thunderbird fires lightning at an industrial vehicle. Rain clouds are above a bleak landscape with mountains in the distance. The art is 2D with outlines on the main subjects and textured fills and backgrounds.

The strongest element is the art. It’s a beautiful style, with clear outlines and textured fills. As the outline moves, the texture stays in place, which is a nice effect. The destroyable items are industrial machines and pipes. Activatable items include animal skeletons and pipeline protestors. Each level has a distinct visual theme.

The weakest area is the sound, which doesn’t fit very well with the rest of it. The spoken words are more like a retro fighting game, with announcements of “fatal strike” and similar. The music doesn’t match where it appears. For example, the first level has a stirring boss fight feel to the music. Added to this, there are no options to turn sound elements off or down.

Overall, it’s a good concept for a game. I really liked being able to repair the damage with the lightning, as well as destroy the industrial things. The artwork and animation were good. But it is a little rough around the edges, particularly when it comes to the sound design and the crashing issues with the iPad version.

Everything

Everything Game LogoDeveloper: David OReilly
First Release: 21st March, 2017
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

You are everything and everything is nothing.

This is a simulator where you can become any of the things in the game. You start as an animal (I was a sheep). Wandering around will yield guidance on how it works and new abilities will be unlocked. Alternatively, you can leave the controls and let the game play itself, because the game doesn’t need the player to guide it. This would be an odd choice in most games, but it fits the themes well. Nothing is more essential than anything else, and that includes the player.

The art and animation choices are immediately apparent. The models are low detail and the land animals don’t animate. Instead, they either roll over end to end or skitter along, like they were toy animals being pushed by a child. Some things do have basic animations, such as birds flapping their wings and plants growing. I mostly didn’t have a problem with the animations, but the blur when ascending/descending into things did cause some motion sickness. I did like that the thunder storms didn’t have bright flashes of light (I’d note for those with flash issues, some of the disasters are a bit flashy, but they can be disabled).

Once the ability to ascend/descend to different scales is unlocked, it gets a whole lot more interesting. You can descend into the grass and then the microscopic level. You can ascend to continents, planets and galaxies. As the game continues, you get abilities that mean being able to change the size and type of thing, should you want to do so. I released giant geckos on one continent and left miniature planets between cracks in a city pavement.

During all this, it’s possible to listen to the thoughts of some of the other things. These are collected and used to generate your own thoughts. Those generated thoughts range from nonsensical to the inadvertently profound.

verything Screenshot: Thoughtful Flats

Image Caption: I’m a block of flats framed against the sky and having a thought constructed from the thoughts I’ve heard. The thought reads: “Is ludicrous to go on forever, but sometimes we make them short. Remember that happens.”

The narration is from a series of lectures by the philosopher Alan Watts. They were recorded between 1965 and 1973. His lectures deal with the general nature of reality, and that divisions are something that people create, rather than an innate part of the universe. At the same time, there are also elements of the lectures that are dated. Despite talking about how divisions are culturally constructed, he still considers men and women to be inherently opposite and unknowable to each other. Trying to explain anxiety disorders in terms of a philosophical crisis also really doesn’t work. The lectures weren’t anything new to me in terms of basic concepts, but they were interesting from a historical perspective. He’s a good speaker who explains his ideas clearly.

There aren’t many set goals in the game, as it focuses more on being a sandbox. There is the tutorial to complete, though it’s somewhat more lengthy and involved than most things labelled as tutorials. I enjoyed the ending and the unique area for the tutorial. Broader goals are to complete the catalogue of different things and listen to all the narration. I hit a few issues with collecting all the things, as some of the things disappeared from my universe. This can be solved, as each area can be reset to its starting point, which brought them back.

Everything Screenshot: Rolling Unicorns

Image Caption: I’m a herd of rolling white unicorns on a purple alien world with giant bacteriophages. The white circle at the top is the game interface.

I enjoyed wandering around to find the things and listening to the lectures. It was interesting to see a game with world/universe simulator themes, but not from a perspective where the player is a deity looking down on the playing area. The player is an ordinary thing in the universe and manipulates it from that position. Time does not go faster or slower based on global game settings, but by becoming things with different perceptions of the passage of time. The exploration side appealed to my love of walking simulator games, as there were a number of environments to explore.

However, there are some weaknesses. The vehicle behaviour has some issues, which means cars get stuck running down the river instead of on the road. An area has train viaducts, but the trains run on the grass next to them. Also, some scales are a little sparse on things. This is particularly true of the larger scales. It would have been nice to see some gas giants and a wider range of stars. The range of options to customise the experience was mostly good, but an instant alternative to the ascend/descend blur would have been a useful accessibility feature.

This game will appeal to players looking for an experience to wander around in. It’s not a game for players looking for strong narratives or structure. Note that it does discuss themes like death, and some things have thoughts that are suicidal or self-hating, so it may not be the game to play when needing a break from that.

Feesh

Feesh LogoDeveloper: Terrifying Jellyfish
First Release: 2nd February, 2016
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

You are a microscopic feesh in a feesh-eat-feesh world.

The original version of this game was coded in two days, though the version for sale has other updates. The basic premise of the game is simple. The tiny feesh has to eat smaller feesh to grow in size, whilst avoiding being eaten by bigger feesh. Some have special skills, such as producing child feesh. Some are more aggressive than the rest, such as the sharks that will track down the player feesh.

Arcade mode is the main one I played. After reaching a certain size, the feesh evolves into a different type. My main criticism here is that this doesn’t unlock the new type permanently. I’m never going to be good enough to play through all the different creatures in one game, so it’d be nice if I could start with a later creature. That way, I’d have a chance to eventually play all the available types.

Shark attack mode has extra sharks and doesn’t last very long. I couldn’t do multiplayer as I only have one keyboard/mouse, but it’s a local versus mode. Chillout mode is like a screensaver, where all the feesh do their thing without any player control.

I liked the way the other feesh are doing the same thing as the player feesh. Sometimes one of those feesh will end up growing very large, as they successfully manage to eat loads of tiny feesh. It creates the feel of a working ecosystem, where the player is no more important than any of the other feesh. Eaten feesh respawn elsewhere, so there will always be other feesh around to continue the game.

Feesh Screenshot

Image Caption: The player feesh is in the centre. It’s a grey teardrop shape with three white eyes at the rounded end and a hexagon at the pointed end. It has two larger fins and a number of other lines sticking out of it. Several smaller black feesh surround the player fish. Two sharks are approaching from the right.

The art style is fairly minimalistic with a whimsical flair. The main feesh, and some of the others, look like microscopic creatures. Others, like the shark and crayfeesh, are based on larger fish and sea creatures. It’s not scientific, but it clearly isn’t supposed to be. You’re a feesh and the world is very silly. I’d note there are some flashes of light at times, though it’s more of a gradual increase in light rather than a strobe effect.

This is the sort of game for playing a round in odd moments. It doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, but what it does have is nicely done. It’s cute and I enjoyed the feel of the art and the funny descriptions of the feesh. It’ll be interesting to see how the developer tackles larger projects. Hopefully that sense of whimsy will be carried though.

Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

Three Fourths Home LogoDeveloper: [bracket]games
First Release: 20th March, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Kelly talks to her family on the phone as she drives home through a storm.

This is a simple interactive story. The main story is the drive, though the extended edition also includes an epilogue and some extras. The art looks like monochrome cutouts, with the background shifting to reflect the conversations. It’s a simple and effective style. My main issue is the text was grey on white with rain cutting across it, which is not very readable.

The player chooses dialogue options during the drive to change the direction of the conversation. Choosing an option makes that what happened, such as deciding what happened when Kelly left home earlier in the day. There shouldn’t really be anything to go wrong with gameplay this simple, but the player has to hold down one of the trigger buttons for the entire game. When the button is held down, the car drives forward and the conversations continue. When it’s released, the game pauses. This is not an accessible design decision, as it can cause wrist and hand problems. I did like the way everything froze in time when it paused, but this could have been done with a single press to start the car and another press to stop it.

That criticism aside, it’s an interesting game. It’s a quiet story of family relationships. Kelly has been away from home and not kept in contact, so she’s got a lot to talk about.

Game screenshot

Image Caption: The top part of the screen has cutout-style art. Dark grey corn is in the foreground and background. A car drives along a road in the midground. In the distance, there are lighter grey power lines. White rain cuts across the image. The lower part of the screen is white, with the text: “Mom: What does that mean?” in grey with white rain cutting across it.

Mom is very critical of Kelly. It’s easy to see why Kelly avoided contacting home. Though it may come from a place of concern, it’s still done in a way that isn’t good for Kelly.

Kelly’s younger brother is Ben. It’s not stated directly, but he appears to be autistic. He has difficulty gauging the emotional reactions of the rest of the family. He’s very focused on certain interests. This might come across as a little simplistic in representation, but Ben’s stories help add some depth. He tells one story during the drive. The extras include a few more of these stories, which have themes like a sister going away forever and family problems. It’s made clear that Ben is noticing what’s happening and does care. He’s just having trouble expressing it. I did like that his interests included creative things, and changed over time, rather than assuming autistic people have one true interest forever and that interest has to be maths.

Dad had an accident at work that led to a leg amputation. Talking to him can reveal some of the issues he’s facing, such as pain management and trauma from the accident. There’s some discussion of alcoholism.

Kelly is partly shaped by the player choices, though there are things in her history that can’t be changed. The epilogue works well to expand on Kelly’s life, as it deals with the time before she came home. She’s very self-critical, in a way that doesn’t match up with reality. For example, her thoughts on her assignment are far worse than the actual assignment and teacher’s comments in the extras. A nice touch in the epilogue is the player can decide if Kelly’s partner is a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Mom does not comment on that, outside of being surprised that Kelly is dating.

It’s a short game and can be played multiple times. There are different branches through the conversations, though not to the point of it entirely changing the story. The ending is set and it’s not a happy one. This is also my main comment when it comes to the disability representation. It’s not that I had a big issue with how the characters were portrayed, as they came across realistically. But this is ultimately a tragic story, which tends to be typical rather than the exception when it comes to disabled characters. The game also lacks accessibility options, such as darker text and alternatives to holding down the drive button. Those things combined mean I liked it well enough, but not enough to go through the hand pain it causes.

She Remembered Caterpillars

Game LogoDeveloper: jumpsuit entertainment
First Release: 17th January, 2017
Version Played: PC (Steam)
Available: Steam

A girl is determined to save her father from death using the power of fungi.

This is a puzzle game based on navigating little fungus people (gammies) to launch pads, so they can fly away. Getting there involves crossing caterpillar bridges and other obstacles. The gammies are marked by a colour and a shape, which dictates which obstacles they can cross. The design of the puzzles is clear. Using colours and shapes gives a backup for anyone who can’t use one or the other, which is helpful for colourblindness or not being able to see fine detail very well.

The difficulty of the puzzles increases slowly. New mechanics have a simple level to show how they work. However, the text instructions for how things work are sparse. This won’t be a problem for most players most of the time, but some players may need a little more guidance to get started.

Progress through the game is split into acts, which slowly take the player higher up a structure. Each act has a distinctive art theme, which reflects the feel of the story at that point. I loved the style of the art. It’s hand drawn and whimsical, in a twisted fungal kind of way.

The story is told through text, which appears at the start of the levels and acts. It floats between memories of the girl and her father, and trying to save him using the gammies. Other uses of fungi are also hinted at, suggesting a world where fungal things are integral to everything. It’s a non-linear approach to storytelling that I see more often in short stories than games, and it fits very well here.

Gammies fly away

Image Caption: A raised structure of pathways is surrounded by mist. The structure has an organic feel in muted earth tones. Bright caterpillar bridges in blue (with circles), red (with squares) and purple (with Ds) join the sections. Three gammies fly helicopter-style from fungal launch pads. This is what happens on finishing a level. The gammies are little fungus people with faces and colours/shapes to match the bridges.

The progression of the art and story was balance well through the acts. The puzzles were mostly spaced well, as each act introduces a few new things. The exception was act seven, which saw a change in scenery, but no new mechanics. This was the weakest act for me, as the gameplay felt like it was staying on a level rather than advancing. That’s not a strong criticism though, as mainly I felt the game kept things fresh with new gameplay elements.

I enjoyed the game and would recommend it. The shape and colour concept of the puzzles was interesting, and it was very relaxed as there was no time limit. The art and story were great. Everything combined together to create something unique. It took me around five hours to complete the puzzles, but could take more or less time depending on skill. Though this is generally a cute game, note that the story does involve death and medical procedures. Lame is used as an insult at one point.

[A copy of this game was received from the developer for review purposes]