The golden age of 3D platformers has long since passed on, with only a few straggling titles aiming to fill the void of the classing collect-a-thon exploration games. While Blue Fire is decidedly NOT one of those games, it definitely reminds me of them, if only a little bit.
Blue Fire is Robi Studio’s first game, where you play as a mysterious warrior in the land of Penumbra. You are destined to do….something and then it’s off to the races as you’re dumped into the large open rooms of the game to hop, skip, and jump your way around this world.
Where’s The Story?
One of the first things that stuck out to me is the lack of storytelling. Coming hot of the heels of my first playthrough of Hollow Knight, the world of Penumbra feels empty and bland. The world itself is beautiful and some regions feel huge and imposing, but there is a distinct lack of ambiance in the world.
There’s also very little direction provided, whether it’s narratively or gameplay wise. The story isn’t very well explained, aside from your usual “chosen warrior that finally woke up” trope, which I wouldn’t mind if the game gave me any context clues beyond that. There’s even an NPC that doesn’t know who you are but “knows you are the one he’s been waiting for” and gives no further explanation.
The areas lack detail and character, as there’s no theming to tell them apart. The first area has some bookshelves and statues, but there’s little explanation as to what the area is or used to be. Was this a library? Why are there statues of guys doing emotes (and why do they matter)? Why does only this one room have furniture? That room has a map and a statue, but you’re telling me the map is unreadable. What’s the point?
Run, Jump, Explore
Hollow Knight’s distinct areas make you feel as if you’re in a new area. The lighting and music shift, the enemies may change, and the terrain changes as you progress. Life scuttles around in front of the camera and deep behind you, birds fly away as you approach, giving you a sense that you’re only in a small part of a large world.
Level design is something I felt was very wishy-washy. In the Void areas (which are optional challenging platforming sections that reward you with extra health upon completion), platforming was tight and required some skill to navigate. I loved these sections, and they were pretty frequent. Even the first “dungeon”, where you unlock the ability to run and jump off of walls, was pretty dynamic and interesting, although there wasn’t any sort of puzzles to make it challenging.
The overworld, however, was fairly bland and linear. Either the area was linear with little to nothing to explore, or the smaller side areas offered almost nothing beyond items that the game doesn’t tell you what to do with (I later found out you’re supposed to sell them in the main city, but I never even saw an NPC to sell from).
Some areas just had questionable design choices, which made me confused and a little frustrated to deal with.
For example, to enter the first dungeon of the game, you have to climb a series of ladders to flip a switch and unlock the door. Sure. No problem. Flip the switch, drop down, jump from the platform to the dungeon entrance and voila: you’re in.
If you want to jump from the entrance back to that platform, you can’t. It’s barely out of reach with your dash, so you have to instead jump and dash to a much lower platform, climb some ladders, and then jump back to that platform. Maybe I’m just not properly timing my jump, but I felt that it was impossible.
Entering the first city in the game, the terrain definitely changed but the area felt just as empty as the previous ones. A distinct lack of ambient life made the areas feel dull and forgettable. Even if there was something as simple as rats scuttling around in this broken world would make all the difference.
It’s a true shame that the level design wasn’t consistent, because the platforming felt very tight and well done. You can tell that Robi Studios spent a lot of time working on making platforming feel right, but the game just doesn’t get to stay consistent with it.
Slashing and Hacking Away
Blue Fire is not only a platforming game, but is also an action game. You get to hack, slash, and even cast spells as you challenge the strange looking creatures of Penumbra. Attacking and blocking (or parrying) feels great, and the animations are smooth.
But enemies attack in predictable, stiff patterns that I never had a struggle with. Enemies with swords have slow, simple attacks that are easy to dodge out of the way, and you attack so much faster than they do that combat doesn’t often last very long. Paired with a distinct lack of enemies in the world, combat is almost a non-issue. One monster every few platforms doesn’t make me feel challenged in the slightest.
There are even some rooms where you’re locked in, Legend of Zelda style, to defeat some enemies and unlock a chest. But the game just spawns two enemies, and that’s it. Too easy to dodge and there’s very little on the line.
A Dying Flame
Blue Fire has a distinct visual appeal that is what originally hooked me. Paired with the vibes of a Hollow Knight-like Metroidvania in a 3D Legend of Zelda type world, I was sold from the start. But the game feels like it was split too far down the middle and missed the best parts of both of those games: Exploration, Storytelling, and combat. If Blue Fire had stuck to a more traditional 3D platformer and focused on a larger platforming game, that would have been killer. Or, if it had gotten deeper into the Metroidvania roots and added some more challenging combat, maybe I would have been more satisfied.
I don’t really want to recommend Blue Fire unless you’re really captured by the visuals and want a similar vein to Hollow Knight before Silksong releases. For me, I’ll probably wait. But I will 100% keep an eye out for whatever comes next from Robi Studios, because they’re definitely a studio to keep an eye on.
Did your ordinary German soldier in 1943 who was fresh out of school at 18 know he was one of the bad guys in WW2? I’m a bit confused about The Happy Little Virus. Normally in games you play the hero, sometimes the bad guy, but when you do it’s clear. I think I’m the bad guy in this…
The game is played in imagined circuit boards, in a kind of Tron way, where you are in the grid, on the motherboard of a computer or in the servers. You play a virus…so a bad guy (right?) and there are companies to choose from to ‘attack’ on the menu screen.
One is for Guide Dogs and the other is a Cancer support charity… we’re hacking and stealing from these people? We’re definitely the bad guys! Right? Perhaps we are fighting corruption or abuse? No, there are suggestions that rich people want guide dogs because they are trained to poo on command. You are sent to hack and steal from various addiction, wildlife and support charities. We’re definitely the bad guys.
Happy Little Dalek-like Creature
In The Happy Little Virus you control a small Dalek like creature in a 2.5D shooter and you have to run through circuit boards, which are effectively corridors. You gradually collect weapon power-ups through the course of the game and your progress saves after each level.
The early levels are just corridor shooters and lack a zing about them to draw you in, but if you persist the game does develop a bit. You are presented with wider levels, giving you choice about how to tackle opponents. Enemies (the good guys) are similar Dalek shaped creatures but represent anti-virus software and sometimes can reproduce in hubs on some levels.
You (as the virus) can take over these hubs and replicate yourself a few times. This gives you a form of extra life in some of the more challenging levels. Levels also develop a variety of additional features. You can regain health from circuit board resistors and there are firewalls, which act as little laser gates that can be activated on and off sometimes. If you are smart you can use these to your advantage making some of the faster anti-virus Daleks career into them as you sidestep like a matador.
Sound & Visuals
The music and sound effects are not up to much, it’s there, but pretty rote and unobtrusive. The colours however are vibrant and look good, with bright greens making borders and circuit connections and some levels using luminescent lighting to provide a different type of challenge than just more enemies. The gameplay curves nicely in difficulty although the final level is something of a chaotic overwhelming challenge.
There are a variety of different weapons on offer through the game and they are quite inventive, you don’t just shoot things, although of course in a robot shooter, you do have a laser. You can blow a blast on a diffuser that shatters opponents – only at point blank range mind you, you can blow bubbles that capture enemies and bounce them off into space and off the board and you can gather up the shattered bodies of your enemies into a debris whirlwind and fire them at your enemies.
The more enemies you face, the more cluttered your narrow play area and corridors become with these shattered bits of anti-virus robot. This can be a help to you as it slows down the advance of your enemies allowing you to retreat a little and gather yourself; but it can also hinder you by rendering your long range laser redundant with too much debris in the way to hit the intended ‘good guy’.
The weapons then work best at a variety of distances and best against certain types of enemy. This all means you need to become pretty good at switching between weapon types and picking attack and retreat as weapons cool down. all-in-all it’s a pretty good fire system and definitely the strength of The Happy Little Virus.
If the combat is well constructed the level design and gameflow is less impressive. Although the difficulty is well planned and scaled, the essence of the game does not change very much and this makes play somewhat repetitive and slightly irritating. On top of this the constant messaging is just odd and awkward.
There are about 25 levels in all and they are grouped into rough themes, culminating in destroying and stealing from organised religion. It doesn’t feel like there is a narrative, rather that you are being subjected to the developers prejudices. If you can ignore this, it will take you about five hours to complete Dalek Training school.
The Happy Little Virus is a reasonable FPS puzzle game and is available on Steam. It has some good design in weapons and a reasonably well planned difficulty curve, but the messaging falls flat and the game is a bit repetitive and lacking fun after a short while; kind of in the way that Candy Crush is a challenge but isn’t actually fun.
The Happy Little Virus provides the sort of frustrating challenge that trying to bounce a tennis ball on the edge of the racket does, you want to go again because you know you can do better, but you also know the experience and result isn’t going to be much different and when you finish you probably won’t ever do it again, unless you’re a bad guy and then nothing you do makes sense.
Riot: If one peasant like you can’t do anything, perhaps a hundred peasants can
Me: Hey! Who you calling a peasant?
These are the first lines in the Readme.txt that accompanies the download of Riot from Itch.io. I don’t think I’ve ever been abused so early on in a game. Riot was made during the Brackeys Game Jame 2021, and received a fair amount of praise upon submission. This off-hand, jaunty attitude runs all the way through Riot. It opens with a pirate sea shanty and a bunch of faceless characters being hurled by trebuchets (a catapult to you non-historians) into the wall of a fort and exploding.
I’m not sure why these little fellas explode but there we are. It’s slightly comedic and sends the message….we’re here to have fun. I haven’t seen that many medieval games in 2021, and I would be hard pushed to list the best medieval games for PC. But I’m thinking I’d probably include Riot.
Reverse Tower Defence
Riot is a sort of reverse Tower Defence or a simplistic reduction of an early Total War game, where you play as the attackers and you get given hundreds of them to throw into the breach. You must begin a short distance from the settlement, you are always attacking a small circular settlement, which will be increasingly well defended; towers, turrets and double walls all making more frequent and dense appearances as each level passes.
You choose a spot to attack from and press the left mouse to begin deploying your men. They appear and immediately and lemming-like, charge at the nearest building to begin attacking it (which seems to mean clubbing it with their fists). You end up with a long line of synchronised running guys all heading for the palisade.
The goal of each level is to break into the fortified medieval style village and storm the ‘Town Hall’ at the centre, although it looks little more than a barn. In compensation for the increasing fortification of each level you are afforded an increasingly large mob of peasants to deploy, an ability to place trebuchets and eventually the addition of ‘bombers’.
The medieval trebuchet will only engage action if some of your men are attacking a structure and then it will fling a single fella through the air to land on top of the building roughly every five seconds or so. The unfortunate volunteer seems to like it as the little flung men ‘wheee’ with excitement, they land however, with the visible splat of a pancake and motionlessly slide off the structure like Wylie Coyote hitting a rock wall. The bombers on the other hand appear to be flaming mummies that run straight to the nearest building and explode like some sort of bandaged, possessed suicide bomber.
There is an element of managing your resources to Riot as the trebuchet costs 15 peasants to place, but does not seem to deplete your reserves with the men it flings (there’s an exploit here) and the bombers costs 5 peasants. The only other strategic element is where you choose to drop your mob, because this matters. We’re not talking Terra Invicta level of strategy here, of course.
The little fellas are programmed to charge at and attack the nearest eligible structure and when they destroy it they charge the next nearest one from there. So where you place and launch attacks from matters.
This all sound wonderful fun and it is, but…
Whilst classes of men might differ the overly simplistic AI your peasant mob is endowed with is does not. For example, having breached a wall they do not head for the next wall or the tower blocking the way to the town hall…no they just start to attack the next segment of wall, because it is the next nearest eligible structure. All the while the towers defending the cities are bombarding your idiot crew. Even if you reserve men and dispatch them later when a gaping breach in the wall has been made in front of you they will still head off at a 50° angle and attack a pointless barn off to the right.
You will shift around the gap trying to find the sweet spot to stop them running that way and then all of a sudden the men you lay start running off at a 50°angle to the left now.
Best Medieval Game 2021 Nominee: Riot
The Trebuchet’s just follow suit and so do the bombers. It is frustrating and there are few more annoying things in a game than controls which result in an action you did not input or want and there being little you can do about it.
This does promote a disengagement with the game in the latter third, which is a shame, because I began by thinking this was reasonably fun.
Riot offers 12 levels of increasing difficulty and can be completed in an about two hours. There are not many decisions to make or much variation in play; make a choice of where to start, release the mob, watch for results, move and repeat. Simply calling Riot a medieval game is doing it an injustice. I mean, I did compare it to Total War not long ago.
With improvements Riot might become something more interesting, it has character, charm and appeal. I do love the menu soundtrack, but overall Riot is a nice idea that starts well and does not really develop.
Somewhat spoiled by poor AI, Riot still has enough about it to make a decent, lunchtime distraction; a surprisingly relaxing and unstressful one for a game named Riot.
Squirrels…Shifty buggers I always thought. Stashing things, hiding, staring at you and running off abruptly like you caught them saying stuff about you or making some sort of plan to get you. I was looking forward to this NUTS review and playthrough. A pleasant squirrel surveillance puzzle game; a chance to have them endeared to me.
Cream chinos – check.
Blue shirt – check.
A chance to be David Attenborough for this NUTS review. Nope…a chance at revenge.
Last year a squirrel defeated me. No ordinary squirrel mind you, clearly the local Ninja Warrior champion. He kept invading the garden and stealing the bird food.
I tried lurking at windows to shoot him with a super soaker, I tried making squirrel baffles that meant he couldn’t climb onto the bird table. I hated him… he beat me time after time and every time he just used to sit there staring at me through the window, eating the food. NUTS was going to be military grade training for me in tracking and understanding the enemy.
Three Years In The Making
NUTS was originally a short demo created in 48 hours for Global Game Jam in 2018. So much good comes out of that annual event in encouraging developers to just go ahead and make that idea with the specific goal of perhaps starting them down the road to completing something. NUTS is a great example of that journey. Published by NoodleCake it has taken three years to get from that short demo to the full game you see today. You can still download and play the original demo from Itch.io. Jonatan van Hove (Joon in the listed designers), the original Icelandic designer has left it there for posterity.
NUTS is a beautiful, calm game, that bears a lot of similarities to Firewatch. In both games you operate in a remote location of natural beauty with only a more experienced colleague in telephone contact with you as the other human, who offers guidance and tasks. Here your job is to save the Melmoth forest from developers by proving that the area is a significant squirrel habitat and that they live here.
Lights, Camera, Action
After a brief set up you are into the game and it’s pretty simple, with few command options. You pick up cameras and place them to track squirrels, then you return to the caravan, hit record and watch the playback in the morning to see if you captured any on film. If you did you go out and move the cameras to try and ultimately find out where these squirrels are coming from and going to. That’s it; you play on your own, set cameras and scrub video for stills of them to print and fax to your boss for the next mission.
That’s all you do for the whole game. Review over… go photograph some squirrels.
I am aware that this sounds implacably dull and cyclical gameplay, but it really isn’t. It is remarkably engaging. You can be cautious and place cameras quite close together and be certain of tracking their route, you can try to find high wide angle positions or examine the land and take your best guess as to where they might go from where you saw them last. This approach is most rewarding as you scrub the video the next morning to see if you were right.
It’s great when you cut down the chase with a well deduced guess in placing the camera and, surprisingly it’s also quite joyous when you are totally wrong and stare at empty video for 90 seconds and realise you’ve been had…the cunning blighters.
Sure, there has been some criticism of the needless walking back and forwards but you find new routes, new possibilities for your cameras and the sprint function dramatically cuts down the retreading of steps or the return walk to the caravan. It honestly never bothered me one bit.
Let’s Talk Aesthetic
NUTS takes a different slant on look as well as gameplay. At first I am reminded of those stories of kids turning orange from drinking too much Sunny Delight day after day.
Well NUTS looks like it fell into a vat of Sunny Delight and you are wandering around playing the game through a diving mask filled with Sunny Delight. The entire game is presented in stark pastel shades of green, purple and yellow. Again though, this works and it is a clever choice that gives this game a very pleasing aesthetic. Imagine they made your standard glossy natural looking forest, the game would appear a lot duller and perhaps the gameplay intrigue would not be enough to save it.
In addition, the abstract colour palette makes Melmoth forest and the game in general both pleasing to the eye and memorable. It also allows the game to take something of a minimalist approach to surroundings. I don’t know how they do it, but what I noticed while putting together our NUTS review is the environment is entrancing – and the design of the levels makes this visual approach work for highlighting and negotiating different terrain in a way it just wouldn’t if it were plainly shown as a grey rock and green tree in clear definition.
I got about five hours of pleasant gameplay for this NUTS review, and the only replay value are tapes left lying around from when your boss was surveying the squirrels some time ago.
You may miss them as you progress through each of the six levels. You don’t need them to complete the game, but given a large part of the game is the narrative then it certainly adds to the game to seek them out.
Let’s Go NUTS
All in all, NUTS is definitely worth a pecan. It’s basically a giant game of hide-and-seek and has a great feel to it all round. It’s a good example of simple ideas done well – work. So go check it out and bathe yourself happily in this luminous squirrel conundrum. The story is strong, the gameplay straight forward, but engaging and you’ll have a good time discovering what these squirrels are up to.
The discovery is going to make me treat the one in my garden with a little more respect…I might even give him some nuts.
This isn’t really a game… this is a secret recruitment program for the Japanese whaling Industry. If you complete this game your download IP location is given to the Public Security Intelligence Agency in Tokyo; then a strange man in black shades and black badly smelling rubber overalls sidles up to you in the milk aisle asking you how handy you are with a harpoon and if you want to join the fleet? I can’t quite verify this because the game is not as straight forward to finish as I imagined.
The game opens up with a beautiful menu screen of a vast colourful setting sun as you rise and fall on the swell of the sea, backed by a great electronic beat; It all bodes well. ‘What lives below’ is currently a demo and the developer has created what they describe as four boss fights, taken in a first person perspective.
You begin on the wharf of a tiny island with one mock Tudor house and a small boat reminiscent of Jaws; you just know that at some point you are going to whisper to yourself, ‘you’re gonna need a bigger boat’.
The procedurally generated ocean swells are big, vast and combined with the changing lighting and weather it does a good job of creating a dangerous, brooding and malevolent environment. It all makes you feel alone and vulnerable, this is reinforced when you meet the first sea monster and it leaps vertically 40 foot out of the sea.
The four fights on offer see you hunt an electric humpback whale, a giant brooding octopus who might even pick you up and throw you around if you don’t keep moving, an oversized (incongruous) eagle and a bloody great Godzilla sized sea turtle.
They will all try to destroy you by smashing or shoving you under the waves and it gets quite intense and chaotic in battle at times.
Initially in seeking the monsters they stick to a generated route (except for the octopus who is clearly a sedentary obese octopus) but the moment you do them the slightest damage the creatures pursue you and the frantic battle is on. To succeed you need to do a variety of things, stop the boat from bursting into flames, repeatedly harpoon the monsters to wear down their health and deal with additional dangers like avoiding lightning strikes.
You can’t do these things at the same time as you might in a standard fps. In this sense you have to manage your situation, rather like Command and Conquer or Company of Heroes, frequently taking care of the needs of survival (repair and steering) trying to give yourself time to fight in-between these moments, all whilst under attack; It is challenging.
The difficulty is set reasonably high. It’s fair, but there is a sense of ‘Live, Die, Repeat’ about this; when you die you start again back at the island, have to hop on the boat and go find the sea beasts again. And you will die a lot to begin with as you adjust and find your strategy; that is as it should be in a demo presenting boss fights; these are meant to be the difficult bits of a potential full game, but it might be frustrating at first.
Then there is the weapon, you only have a harpoon and there is something slightly repetitive about this, despite an alternate fire mode which simply electrifies it. Currently this harpoon feels a little flimsy, there isn’t much noise or punch to it and you don’t feel you are using a significant weapon here. Things are also a little difficult to control overall because the ocean swell is so great.
During your adventure, you move quite considerably on the boat in terms of field of vision and it makes it hard to get off accurate shots against the monsters, so it’s just as well they are huge. These things are all just minor gripes though and the developer, keen for feedback, is perfectly able to improve on them based on what we can see already on offer.
What lives below has garnered lots of positive attention, surpassing 2000 downloads in its’ first week on Itchio; a sizable achievement for a young developer. They have just gained a Steam development page and it is amazing to think that this is the work of one 19 year old in just eight months. It looks good, is something different in style, has some impressive ocean physics and shows a tremendous amount of potential.
Currently you’ll get a couple of hours play out of it and it will be interesting to follow the development of the wider levels, weapons and story building. So head on over to Steam, follow it there and download this boss demo on Itchio to give it a go. It is free to download, but you’ll regret not giving them a donation once you play it.
…and if you do well at it, you’ll find me wearing shades and a black suit, serving you at the sushi counter with a car outside waiting to take you to harpoon training.