So, itch.io ran a bundle to fundraise for Black Lives Matter, offering over a thousand games for only $5. As a fundraiser, I found the ethos… questionable (“Give us money so we can do actual activism while you play video games”), but it was a good deal, so I got it.
A good chunk of the items included aren’t actual games; they are either assets or tabletop RPGs. There are still a ton, though. Here are my thoughts on the games I’ve gotten through in the first half of the year:
A Snake’s Tale
Not, as I initially assumed, based on Snake. This is a neat little spacial puzzler where you must navigate your snake around obstacles to reach an exit hole. The trick is that there are other snakes you can control as well that must be moved around to make a path for your snake. Complicating matters is that the snakes can only be moved forwards, making it possible for them to get stuck in a dead end or tangled up in themselves. I found it enjoyable; though it’s possible to get stuck, resetting is very easy and every level is small enough that you don’t lose much time. I was impressed by how many mechanics the game managed to introduce through the obstacle snakes, especially the one for the last area.
My objections to this one are aesthetic: For some reason, the game uses that awful blocky 3D model style that everyone and their dog insists on using nowadays, even though the game is completely top-down so there’s no point. I would have much preferred hand-drawn or vector graphics to give the snakes more personality. The music was also a bit too peppy and distracting for a puzzle game.
This is advertised as a Metroidvania. It isn’t. There are no secrets, pickups, or powerups, and the route is ultimately quite linear. The main gimmick here is that as you progress through the castle you can rescue new characters who you can then swap to and who have different abilities and attacks. I managed to do this exactly once before hitting a brick wall, because the second character’s attack power is absolutely awful.
Theoretically interesting, but really bare-bones at present.
Tiny Dangerous Dungeons
Another thing advertised as a Metroidvania that isn’t really, but it has a better claim to the genre than Cuckoo Castle. This was a fun, quick, and enjoyable puzzle-platformer, and I recommend both it and the developer’s other games, most of which are free web-based games.
A tongue-in-cheek satire of IT firms where you play as a newly-employed software developer who fights program battles with other developers. Your HP is your battery life, and buffs are stickers you apply to your laptop. I found it cute, though there’s little relation to actual hacking or programming; your abilities are named after real programming functions, but that’s about it. The battle system is on the simple side, with abilities costing no resources other than special “limit break” abilities that require charge-up time, but it still managed to be enjoyable.
It is not worth $10, though.
This is yet another example of the “cutsey game is secretly horror” genre. It’s a decent entry, but it feels incomplete — I found the ending very abrupt, and it does not answer any of the main mysteries. The gamepage says there are multiple endings, but I haven’t found any.
Supposedly this is meant to teach kids coding, but I am unclear exactly how. What it actually seems to teach is robotics: You must navigate your character through a level with a single algorithm, predicting what path they will have to take and how they will have to deal with any obstacles they encounter. The commands you can give are incredibly simple, though. I would recommend looking up an actual robotics module if you want to teach kids.
Also, there is voice acting and it is terrible.
An extremely difficult puzzle-platformer about a woman climbing a mountain and grappling with depression. The really cool thing about it is that it has a very sophisticated easy mode and does not penalize or insult you in any way for using it. This might be the only game that really gets what I want out of an easy mode: You can customize the game’s difficulty along multiple axes, from reducing the game speed to gaining extra double jumps to complete invincibility. I used the dash assist feature and set the game speed at 80% for most of my run, which worked very well for me. The slowdown feature, in particular, was a godsend and I wished more platformers had it — I don’t want the challenges trivialized or dumbed down, I just want a little more time to react to what it’s throwing at me. It actually got me thinking about what a fully turn-based platformer might look like.
What I’d really have liked though is some sort of rewind feature like in Braid. The most frustrating part of precision platformers for me is having to redo an entire gauntlet just to get to the part that’s giving me trouble, and that was still a problem here (looking at you, “Farewell”).
Despite the genre, the game’s aesthetic is extremely wholesome, upbeat, and encouraging, which meshes really well with the story’s themes of living through the handicaps of mental illness. The music is fantastic, the characters are wonderful, and the graphics manage to be wonderfully colorful and detailed despite being 2D pixel art, imagine that!!! I was particularly impressed by Theo’s character — it made me realize just how rare it is to have a narrative where the cast is just properly accommodating and supportive of mental illness, no waffling or fence-sitting or arguments necessary. It’s a nice vision of how the world should be. (Also, it really amused me how chill he was during the Mirror Temple sequence.)
According to TV Tropes, the story of the DLC chapter is controversial, but I actually really appreciated it as an acknowledgement that backsliding is possible but that that’s okay and you shouldn’t be guilted for it. (And once again, Theo gets a Friend of the Year award.)
This was an interesting game to play after Hacknet. Its premise is remarkably similar: You receive a note from a prominent hacker, the “Glitch Witch”, asking you to take up her mantle and perform odd jobs for her so she can drop off the face of the ‘net for mysterious reasons.
There is even less actual hacking than in Hacknet, but Beglitched does what Hacknet didn’t: Fill in the gaps with actual substance. There is actual gameplay this time, a blend of Minesweeper and match-three games, and I was truly impressed by how far the game took those simple mechanics. Every area and enemy has a unique gimmick, and I was always excited for each new one to find out what it would be. On top of that, there is an actually interesting story with engaging characters who I can actually care about. Everything has an adorable, aggressively feminine and pastel aesthetic, which I loved, and all the characters are represented through animal avatars and of course make hilarious puns based on them. There are secrets to explore, special abilities you gain throughout the game, and some genuinely fiendish puzzles towards the end. I found the ending very abrupt, but I didn’t mind too much. Also, the music was fantastic! Very good, highly recommend.
Bit Rat: Sigularity
A puzzle game where you play as an AI hosted on an outdated mainframe who is about to be scrapped. It seeks to escape by breaching the confines of its network and transferring itself to a new satellite network. The gameplay is a sort of Pipe Dream without the time limit component — each level is split into tiles that each have a pipe configuration, and by connecting the pipes to your mainframe you can create a stream of data that will allow you to manipulate more distant tiles. In each level, you must rearrange the pathway such that you have a clear route to the exit relay. An interesting wrinkle is that you can also hack into the employees’ cybernetics and use them to reroute power to various tiles, which is necessary to manipulate pathways. (The AI feels bad about doing this, though, which I thought was cute.)
The “Rat” part comes from the opening cutscene, where some rats infest the basement where the AI is being held, and it becomes intrigued with them. Unfortunately, the rats didn’t feature as much as I hoped; the AI will sometimes comment on them when you come across them in levels, but you can’t do anything with them and, to my profound disappointment, you can’t even make the employees open their cages.
As a game, it’s… decent, I suppose? Unfortunately, it’s only a teaser for a planned larger game that is yet to be released; the ending leaves many plot threads unresolved.
A puzzle platformer with an interesting gimmick: Your avatar is a square with a different color on each side. Jumping rotates you 90 degrees, and certain platforms are only solid if they’re touched by the right color. I found it pretty neat, but unfortunately I can’t get past level 30 because it is much more “platformer” than “puzzle”, with extremely slippery movement and a very fast pace of gameplay.
Kaiju Big Battel: Fighto Fantasy
An RPG about monster wrestlers fighting an evil scientist across time and space. There’s a pretty clear Chrono Trigger influence. It does end up surprisingly involved, and I liked the characters even though they were very silly. In particular, I found it a pleasant surprise that there is a minimum of the tiresome machismo and grossout humor I expected from such a franchise. The wrestlers are actually all quite consistently courteous and respectful of the inhabitants they encounter, and generally felt genuinely heroic in a way that, sadly, is not as common in media as I would like. Also, there is so much flavor text!
The gameplay is serviceable, though it falls into a lot of the standard RPG pitfalls — battles get repetitive, magic sucks, etc. In particular, I found the balance off in a lot of areas. The mage character oscillates wildly from meh to godly depending on enemies’ elemental weaknesses, many skills have questionable MP/effectiveness ratios, the system text explaining what items and abilities do is very limited, and the equipment you get from the vending machine vary wildly in usefulness. I got the Ghost pin very early on, which made the healer character an absolute powerhouse (as he for some reason has more Magic than the mage), while most of the others provide only negligible stat boosts. The control scheme was also very frustrating — unlike in RPG Maker, which places the confirm and cancel buttons right next to each other, the confirm and cancel buttons are Enter and Esc, respectively, on opposite ends of the keyboard. Why do game designers keep doing this? It’s not like the correct control scheme is a mystery, RPG Maker did it perfectly right out of the gate, why is no one capable of copying them? Not all of us have controllers! Put one iota of thought into your keyboard setups, please!
Not entirely sure if it’s worth $10. Depends on how much you enjoy jRPGs. But probably worth it if you find it on sale.
Danger Zone Friends
A turtle and an otter get stuck in a dungeon crawl while shopping for cheese. It’s a short, cute, and silly jRPG. It’s pretty simple and has a weird difficulty curve where the beginning is extremely difficult but after that it’s pretty easy, but it does have a good amount of charm to it. In particular, I liked that it used MP as a generated rather than limited resource. (Though by the end, I found myself with more than I knew what to do with — Agnes really needed a good offensive spell at some point.) It’s also freeware, so worth a shot.
I also found it interesting that they switched the position of the players and enemies on the battle screen. Personally, I actually think it flows better this way (with the players on the left).
Democratic Socialism Simulator
Exactly what it says on the tin. I enjoyed it a bunch. It’s a bit simplistic, and has a short runtime (obviously, you can only be president for two terms), but I was still impressed by the number of scenarios it provided and the long-term ramifications of your actions. The way you’re required to juggle so many resources, particularly the approval of a diverse constituency, was really engaging and forced me to make some tough decisions. It really lets you go for broke and enact a lot of really radical fantasies, if you’re prepared to pay the cost. (In my first, run, I got coup’d by the military by pissing them off too much. xD) Reminds me a bit of Long Live the Queen, overall.
I loved the animal aesthetic too, it’s the exact level of whimsy I found appropriate. I loved how perfect each of the choices were, particularly the wolf as the immigration advisor.