One of the benefits of having both a PS3 and an Xbox 360 is that Rick and I truly have access to some of the best the indie gaming world has to offer. I guess all we really need now is a Steam account and we really would be in indie game heaven.
Since we’re in the middle of a bit of a lull between big releases and Rick’s attention to The Witcher 2 has drifted due to its punishing difficulty and non-hand-holding design (“it feels too much like work sometimes”) Rick and I decided to finally check out a couple of popular indie games. While they are different types of games for different consoles, they do feel similar in a few key ways, which is why I’ve chosen to review them together.
I suppose the theme of this edition of Backseat Game Review is “less is more”. Both Fez and Journey owe much of their charm and enjoyment from their simple design and uncomplicated approach to gameplay, despite being very, very different games.
The product of Montreal, QC based Polytron Corporation, Fez is probably best described as a 2D platformer in 3D. Clearly, that’s a serious contradiction, except that it totally makes sense once you see the game in action. You control Gomez, a tiny white marshmallowy man in the titular headwear who happily resides in a cheery 16 bit 2D world. Suddenly there’s a galactic disturbance of sorts and Fez discovers that his 2D world now posesses a third dimension and it is up to him to collect a bunch of cubes and mini-cubes in order to return cosmic order.
This seems like a very straight forward platforming adventure plot. Which it is. But, for players who choose to scratch beneath the surface, there are also confoundingly complex puzzles and secrets littered throughout the game, including code breaking and riddle solving. They even put secrets into the music that you can only discover by running it through a spectrogram.
The soundtrack itself consists mostly of drone-y ambient techno, reminiscent of early Tangerine Dream or something along those lines. Gameplay is frighteningly simple: you can jump, climb and in a couple of instances, swim. But, what makes the game so unique is the way it forces you to play with perspective as you turn your environment around. The environment itself is built in 3 dimensions, but other than turning the world, you move in 2D. Meaning that a jump that looks too far away is suddenly a simple step when viewed from a different angle.
Although the basic game can easily be completed in a lazy weekend, the depth of the puzzles and codes involved necessitate deep delving for the true rewards, making the game an absolute bargain at about $12 CAN.
That Game Company‘s Journey, on the other hand, doesn’t even really fit into any clear gaming genre. It’s not a platformer, there’s no shooting… there isn’t even dialogue. What it is, is a meditative experiment in virtual experience, emblematic of That Game Company’s “artistic” approach to game design (see Flower, Flow, etc). There are no puzzles as such, but thorough exploration is encouraged and rewarded, although not 100% necessary in order to appreciate the game.
Like Fez, the art design in Journey is simple in striking, although the style is completely different. Fez is colourful and detailed, quirky and evocative. Journey is sweeping, majestic and at times magical. You control a lone, nameless traveler, probably on some sort of pilgrimage, although that is intentionally never made clear. The game opens with you wondering the desert, interacting very simply with the environment to find the next waypoint.
During your travels you may find yourself joined by a random online player who you can invite to join you, follow doggedly or ignore altogether. The game does reward you for cooperating by allowing you to power-up by intermingling with a companion, but you have no way of communicating with them other than the one tone “chirps” programmed into the game. I enjoyed this twist online play, which was friendly and encouraging, unlike so much of online gaming culture. Rick and I even found ourselves becoming protective of our equally nameless companion when he became injured and you do feel a certain comradeship with the various players you encounter when their names are finally revealed at the end of the game.
The music is alternately soothing or stirring, making Journey much more of an emotional experience than a physical or mental challenge. I did find it a little short (probably 5 hours max), making the $15 seem a little expensive. But, if you consider the price an investment in the future of indie games, it’s a price I would gladly pay twice.
I highly recommend both games for both hardcore and casual gamers, not something I can say very often.