Cheap and cheerful: the best of Indie gaming

steamTHERE’S a problem which many students (and graduates!) face when it comes to gaming. It’s @^&*$ expensive. When you’re looking at a good £25 (even though it’s almost 2 months old) for the latest Football Manager, £50 for the latest in the Call of Duty series, £40 for GTA V… the list goes on. When you calculate the cost of a system as well as this, it genuinely surprises me when I see any student with an XBOX displayed proudly in their room.

There are alternatives though! If you’ve got a decent enough PC or laptop, you can play most of those games there. It’s a bit cheaper to buy the actual games, and you don’t have to buy the console. Obviously, to get a good experience you need a very good system, but there are alternatives. I’ve never really been a fan of most of the typical action games, but on the off-chance I might be, I downloaded THE PC gaming system: Steam. It’s completely free to download, and there’s no obligation to buy anything.

They have a lot of games on their store, always expanding it, and it’s also a great way to discover new games instantly. Their search features have pretty much inspired me to become a proper ‘gamer’… even though (and I’m not going to lie), I click “Sort – Lowest to Highest” during the sales and buy the prettiest looking ones. Especially when there’s sales on (which is pretty much constantly this time of year), you can buy some games for as little as 70p (yes, seriously).

Cheaper games usually fall under the “indie” category. They’re the ones that Steam will put a 90% discount on – and send you a handy email if it’s on your profile’s wishlist – when it rolls round to the sale season. Coincidentally, the Autumn sale (often the biggest one due to Black Friday/Thanksgiving) is set to start today, so get downloading!

When me and Joe sat down and started to talk about our favourite games, we actually came to the conclusion that these cheap and cheerful games were often better than our experience of the blockbusters. We’ve written a must-have indie wishlist – they’re all so cheap there’s no excuse for not playing!

VVVVVV

vvvvvv

Although you might think the title makes no sense, as soon as you get into the game it’s obvious (and quite clever): it’s the spikes.

VVVVVV is one of the simplest games I’ve ever played. Cute, 8-bit graphics and soundtrack, WASD (and space!) movements coupled with the extremely simple plot really make this game such a great one to play. So many games these days seem to have plots within plots within universes within plots, it’s refreshing to play a game without having to think too much.

Each ‘level’ within the game focuses on a mission to rescue a member of your space-crew, during each one you have to travel through different courses and avoiding (or utilising) different obstacles to reach your objective. They get harder each time of course, and there’s minigames within the big one (time trials and do-this-without-dying), but you don’t have to. The other great benefit is that because it’s basically one big maze, there’s so many different paths to explore so the game feels a little different every time you re-play it.

It’s one of the cutest games I’ve played, and in the few hours it takes to finish (4 is my record!), you really fall in love with the little guy.

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone

Once again, a simple premise leads to a game you just can’t put down. This time, you take on the character of the eponymous ‘Thomas’ – a rectangle – and follow his story as he discovers the world he inhabits in the game. It really is as simple as you think , there’s some WASD movements and a couple of jumps, but the plot that goes with it is so poignant, clever and well-thought out.

Later on, you discover more rectangles (including a pink one called Laura – no wonder why I love this game), who each have different abilities. The narrator (both text and voice) tells you bits of the plot, and creates gorgeous characterisations and interactions between them. They’re literally rectangles, but they love, hate, feel jealous, and it’s fair to say you get fairly attached to them.

As you pick up the rectangles, you progress onto more difficult levels, each one meaning you have to think about how to get to the end a bit more. It’s still not very difficult though, and I hardly ever actively struggled with it.

The aim? Well… there isn’t one really, but you still get sucked into the story of each level, making the rectangles move and jump, to discover more of their world.

Bit.Trip

Bit TripI’m cheating a bit here. It isn’t exactly one game, but a series. Bit.TripBit.Trip RunnerBit.Trip Void… the list goes on, but they’re each as addictive as the last. I’ve only got Runner and Void, but the others are on my list to buy as soon as possible!

Another 8-bit all-rounder, this cheap-and-cheerful series presents you with a simple character (in early games just a cross), who you just move around using arrows. Occasionally there’s an E key just to throw you off, but the aim is simple; kill things, or jump over things. When you throw in the cheery soundtrack and the way you get so close to the end of a level before dying and having to start over again, it’s one of the most fantastically addictive games ever.

The Bit.Trip games are probably the most difficult games I own – the levels (which are already challenging at the start) get harder as you go on and I guarantee you’ll end up hitting something in frustration before going back to try again – but that’s the idea, right? Right?

Bastion

BastionBastion is an action role-playing game shown in a pseudo-isometric perspective. The game is set in the fantastical realm Caelondia that has just been destroyed by ‘the event’. It tells the tale of The Kid who, after being rescued by Rucks (the games narrator), goes on a quest to create a safe haven for himself and any other survivors called ‘The Bastion’. The gameplay itself is based around very fast pace and tight combat.

The Kid can dodge, attack and parry with impunity as he combats a interesting array of creatures that range from violent foliage to ‘scumbags’ (giant blob monsters). The RPG mechanics come from fragments of the old world that The Kid can use to upgrade his weapons and unlock spirits that give him bonuses. Overall the game is fantastic through and through. It plays brilliantly from start to finish and the sheer depth shines through as you gradually unlock everything which encourages some serious experimentation. The presentation also holds its own, the game is given a pastel-like art style which is simple yet can lead to some seriously beautiful moments.

The story is very well written and can be rather poignant at points – especially at the end. A special mention to the narration – the man who does Rucks’ voice acting is superb and the way it reacts to your actions is a charming gimmick that doesn’t wear out is welcome, mainly thanks to -as previously mentioned- the great writing. I finished the game twice and loved it right to the last moments. It is an utterly fantastic game and a must play.

FTL: Faster Than Light

FTLFaster Than Light is an odd beast. Its half space simulation where you control your ship and its crew as you travel through space (shown in a top-down perspective) and half ‘rogue-like’ as your adventure is randomly generated, turn based and has permanent death. As a result, it is a very difficult game as you have no idea what will happen, within reason, as you jump from sector to sector. Will there be an enemy ship? A shop? Or a random event, told in text, where you have to choose what to do that may give you money or just kill one of your crew members and cripple your ship?

As a result, the game can be very difficult as you balance your crew, your resources and your ship in order to survive alongside the random things that can occur. FTL’s presentation is simple, its all shown in a top down, 2D pixel art that isn’t pretty but it does the job solidly. It also lacks any story, but the adventure you have whilst playing is a story in itself. The game creates ‘water-cooler’ moments like the time when you saved a crew member from zombies or destroyed a ship during a solar flare.

The game feels organic and unforced with its story. FTL is hard – I have never finished it – but it is certainly a fun game to play, providing you can deal with its sudden harshness.

Braid

There are few games that one could define as ‘art’ but Braid is one of them.

Braid

On the surface it doesn’t seem that way as its a puzzle platformer that is very reminiscent of the older 2D Mario games (there is even a “Princess is in another castle” joke) with some time manipulation. However, the combination of pastel coloured art-style and elegant music leads to a fantastically beautiful game that is just a joy to watch in motion.

The general gameplay isn’t particularly challenging as its just running and jumping over very easy enemies. But the actual challenge comes from solving the puzzles in order to finish the level and get as many puzzle pieces (the sole collectable in the game) as possible. There are some mind melting puzzles in this game that require you to use a your cognitive abilities and knowledge from using the time manipulation – whose properties change from level to level – in order to be completed.

When I first played the game, I hit my head repeatedly on some of the more fiendish puzzles but when I finally bust through the barrier after a long hard think, the elation I felt kept me playing. Finally, I would be amiss to not talk about the story. It is told in rather post-modern way; it goes from middle to end and then bends back to the beginning at the finale. And what an ending! Not to delve too deep into hyperbole but the ending is genuinely mind-blowing and forces you to look upon your time spent in the game in an entirely different light. I’ve played through the game twice and the ending always leaves me gob-smacked. Everyone should play Braid.

DEFCON: Everybody Dies

DEFCONThis is perhaps the oldest indie game on the list, yet the most esoteric. DEFCON is a real-time tactical strategy game with a massive twist: You play as a general hidden in a bunker who is in control of the nuclear arsenal of your chosen continent. The game-play is rather simple, you place nuclear misses on your chosen continent, then place your radars and finally sort out where you want to put your navy/aircraft. Then, as the game ticks down from DEFCON 5, you gradually do more and more things, such as engage in naval warfare, until it gets to DEFCON 1.

This is where you can finally unleash your thermonuclear arsenal on the opponents cities, or (and this is where it gets rather statical) you can attempt to weather the nuclear storm and then nuke your antagonist when he is depleted his energy. It is shown through a large statical display of the world -a homage to the climax of the film War Games- which grotesquely detaches you from the aim of the game.

Every time you nuke a city it pops up a little message saying something like “Tokyo Hit: 4.5 million dead” and you gain points, yet every time you are nuked you lose points. Like the nihilistic title suggests, the person who wins is the one who has had the least casualties. It is a profoundly depressing game, yet thoroughly enjoyable in a rather odd way. Its dirt cheap these days and can play on just about anything so I highly recommend it!

Honourable Mentions

To write about all the indie games we’ve loved would be ridiculous. And the review would go on forever! We might be back with a few more come the Christmas/January sales, but for now, if you’re struggling for some more games, here’s our “honourable mentions”: Trine (and Trine 2!), Fractal: Make Blooms not War, Terraria, Super Meat Boy and LIMBO.

Happy gaming!