If you thought last week was a good week for indies, the penultimate week before Christmas has offered up an even stronger assortment of titles across multiple genres. We have the great tower defence/shooter genre covered from the world of Touhou, which can be enjoyed by fans of the series and wider audiences alike. You can find beautiful, ambient, space-puzzle solving in Starman as well as super hardcore platformer trials in Okunoka. Conduct Together! delivers some surprisingly solid arcade-style puzzling for either one or two players, and Viviette is a brilliantly deceptive, story-focused horror experience. A good week indeed.
Here they are…
The world of tower defence kicks us off this week with GensokyoDefenders, a decidedly different direction for the long-standing shoot 'em up series, Touhou. A blend of style from both genres, it creates an addictive and rewarding experience. As expected, you’ll fight off hordes of enemies, allocating budgets of coins to create obstacles. You’ll also, however, take control of one of the playable characters to get stuck into the fight yourself, with a range of spells and different rates of fire available for each.
The obstacles at your disposal mainly take the shape of traps, with a good array of options available. You can also select the aforementioned spells, however, which can stun and holt enemies in their tracks, giving them more time to work their magic. Defeating enemies can also provide you with upgrades, strangely in the form of UFOs, which boost your magic meter. The great thing is that coin doesn’t carry over between levels, which allows you to go nuts with your cash and get as many traps/spells going as possible without worrying about budgeting for later stages. There are a lot of ways to handle each level, which makes experimenting to find your favourite combinations all the more satisfying.
Fans of the series will no doubt find the use of the Touhou IP to be exciting, though its aesthetic doesn’t add much if you’re not familiar with that world. Luckily, all of the cutscenes are skippable, allowing you to get stuck into the great gameplay straight away. The graphics are a little basic, however, and the anime style presented in said cutscenes doesn’t wholly translate to the overworld very well. Overall, though, the blend of genres works nicely and the sheer array of variables will provide you with a good time testing out what works best for you.
No, not the popular Bowie song, Starman is a wonderfully simplistic puzzler with a heavy focus on its relaxing atmosphere and puzzling problems. You’ll find yourself thinking outside of the box, using said box, a light orb, and other things in an array of intriguing and creative ways to progress. You take control of a lone astronaut, a simple white figural design, exploring an entirely noir world alone. Despite this isolated aesthetic, the game manages to feel alive and beautiful, giving the illusion of a wider universe outside with some breathtakingly brilliant background designs.
The gameplay, while simplistic, is great. You command Starman’s movement with the 'A' button, interact with elements using 'B', and the rest is up to you to figure out. The control is, unsurprisingly given its simplicity, flawless, with no getting stuck on walls and great responsiveness from Starman himself. The puzzles become increasingly creative, giving variety to later levels. The only issue lies in its length; clocking in at a max of three hours, you’ll breeze through it in no time.
That said, for a lazy afternoon slumping on the sofa and hiding from the frightful winter weather, Starman is ideal. Its beautiful black and white visuals, wonderful ambient space-inspired soundtrack and chill gameplay make it delightfully relaxing. If you can get over the short length and are looking for a unique puzzler with great style, then the Starman, ‘waiting in the sky’, is your man.
If, however, you’re looking for a challenging platformer this week, then OkunoKA has you covered. You play as Ka, an immortal being, who is approached by two fairy-like friends to save their world from the evil Os who are transforming all inhabitants into machines. This premise likely sounds familiar, as OkunoKA definitely leans into its key influences of Rayman Legends and the original Sonic the Hedgehog when it comes to plot and visual style.
Where OkunoKA stands out is its design. Its instant respawns and an emphasis on securing the fastest play for the best grade (another Sonic-esque trope), make it as addictive as it is tough. We’re not kidding about the difficulty; it certainly lives up to other, similar masocore games. Ka handles well, with polished physics, smooth wall jumping and power-ups introduced at a healthy rate to allow you to get to grips with the basics first. The disparity comes from rewards being given for rapid completion, despite the time that you’ll need to take to assess your surroundings at the start of each stage. This means, if you want the best score on every level, you’ll be playing through at least twice, not counting all of the times you’ll likely perish.
Presentation wise, OkunoKA is a handsome-looking game, with bright colours, creative-looking creatures and tidy backgrounds. The music is also great, helping to make the game that much more charming. All in all, OkunoKA isn’t recommended if you’re new to the platforming genre, or if you’re looking for a game to breeze through in an afternoon; instead it provides a genuine challenge that might be better suited to experienced players. Its addictive nature and smart physics make it a great compliment to your indie collection... If you think you’re hard enough.
While at first glance, Conduct Together! may seem like just another mobile port, there really is the feeling of a considerable amount of effort having been put in here. Conduct Together! may be simple, but its delivery is strong and its gameplay engaging. Where other mobile puzzlers become repetitive and end up feeling rather "samey", the train puzzles here develop organically, with a progression that feels nicely earned and fortunately manages to mostly avoid monotony.
This is reflected in the multiplayer component, the ‘together’ side of Conduct Together! With each Joy-Con controlling different trains, it can become frantic and silly quickly, adding a fun of depth. If the single player mode is a high-speed underground train, requiring quick, skilled thought to make it work, the two-player mode is Thomas the Tank Engine - silly and endearing. Many will find the single player mode to be the more enjoyable experience, as managing to control multiple trains and avoid crashes to earn a three-star rating is a welcome challenge.
Conduct Together! boasts a lovely jazzy soundtrack that could be taken straight from a bar in New Orleans. It works alongside its fun, child-friendly atmosphere, though the dark underscored piano that plays after a crash is hilariously morbid. The visuals are equally child-friendly and colourful, though nothing groundbreaking. If you’re looking for a puzzler to keep you entertained sporadically, and just so happen to like trains, you’ll enjoy Conduct Together! You’ll find an enjoyable, if fleeting experience here, whether you choose to conduct together, or alone.
A hidden, horrifying gem, Viviette brings a ghastly top-down horror experience to Switch, paired with a 16-bit skin. Its focus lies in exploration, finding items, and overcoming tricky puzzles in order to progress deeper into its frightening story. Said story takes place in an appropriately (and occasionally absurdly over-the-top) spooky mansion, though to go into depth with its plot may flirt a little too closely with spoilers. All you need to know is that you play as an unreliable narrator, trying to recall the events that led him to a hospital bed. The plot only seeps further into the darkness from there.
The horror-themed mansion explorer may sound similar to a certain zombie themed IP and yes, Viviette clearly owes a great deal of its tone and narrative to Resident Evil. You’ll solve puzzles based on information and items found elsewhere and are largely left to your own devices, bar the odd hint. This may cause less-patient players to become frustrated, leading to the old ‘where do I go and what do I do?’ complaint. However, nothing is exceptionally difficult to figure out if you tackle every optional and interactable element, and the reward of the excellent story is worth the odd head-scratching moment. You’re also rewarded with multiple endings based on items found and choices made, making the replay factor strong. A minor but irritating complaint comes from the death system, which savagely takes an unbearable amount of time to get you back into the game, and back to your last save point.
Viviette manages to provide some genuinely chilling moments and serves to get under your skin, largely thanks to the excellent, eerie sound design. Doors creak, loud bangs make you jump, and the rising ambient soundtrack is employed perfectly to dial the scare factor up to 10. The familiar, SNES-like graphics serve to throw you off your guard, reminding us so much of Final Fantasy III and Secret of Mana, masking the true horror below. Viviette is excellent, providing something different that takes the best elements of many different games to become something unique. Despite some minor gripes, it’s a brilliant single player experience.
Will you be giving a thumbs up to any of these games with a purchase this week? Let us know in the comments below.