First Impression: Bundle in a Box – Deep Space
Space really is the place at the moment. With video footage of the surface of Mars, NASA announcing plans to take man beyond the moon and a plenitude of relatively rare celestial phenomena being the merest few stories that have happened to cross even my casual observation, there could not be a better time to release a collection of games that also look to the stars. Happily, there is the second thematic release from Bundle in a Box, their Deep Space collection, to fill exactly that niche.
As mentioned on this very blog, their adventure-themed bundle was too bound by its genre to have appeal beyond those who like their games largely based on pointing at things, then clicking on them. With this latest collection, the theme is loose enough to encompass a variety of game styles. For the approximate cost of a can of your preferred soft drink at today’s prices, you will get a kooky mixed-up shooter-type-thing (which is one of the 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die), a C64 side-scrolling shmup reboot, a 3D space combat simulator, a more-often-ludicrous-than-not RPG-style point-and-click adventure and, exclusively to this bundle, DRM that you will actually be delighted to have installed on your computer box.
There are still a few days left to get Bundle in a Box – Deep Space, so join me as I take a quick look into each of the five games that were initially available for those who paid over the $0.99 minimum (before they added the 10-game Bagfull of Wrong bundle-in-a-bundle, bringing the number of games you get at this level to a remarkable fifteen), and by quick I really do mean it. As suggested by my choice of heading, this is a series of first impressions, in which I gave each game just half an hour to win me over. Fair? Hardly, but hopefully this full disclosure will make up for that. Incidentally, if you do not like a lot of words, you might want to shoot for the stars waaaay down the page for my summary.
Now, without any further ado…
1. Space GiraffeI had heard of the sickness before I set off on my first flight. I knew that it affects around half of those who are exposed to the altogether alien environment. Most often, this happens early on. The knowledge that nausea, visual distortions and hallucinations might occur, as well as the prior undertaking of relevant simulations, should really have prepared me for this. But as well as the theory might have been taken in, reality can usually find a way of supplanting it.
You see, I had heard tell of Llamasoft’s genre-distorting Space Giraffe. I had an inkling of what to expect. But that was not all. Back in the very early ’90s, I used to get regular issues of Amiga Format magazine, one of which came with a game attached entitled Revenge of the Mutant Camels.
In RotMC, you play the titular camel who, with the aid of a goat, was tasked to fight through waves of surreal entities (ranging from exploding sheep to flying toilets), presumably in order to avenge the camels felled in Attack of the Mutant Camels. It was a bewildering experience and one I joyfully revisited many times. Space Giraffe definitely comes from the same creative mind, able to take existing games and genres and turn them into something stylistically their own. I wish I could tell you more about the game from my own perspective, but it is not a game you can immediately master. I saw the same six levels several times, unable to master the techniques to beat them (techniques which include being able to tell with what your vessel can safely collide, such as – from what I could gather – the enemies, and what will smash it to pieces, such as flowers, and then being able to tell these items apart in the neon chaos).
This is not your simple ‘blast anything that moves’ fare. There are tactics and strategies you must harness in order to master the game, which will take more than a short play session to develop. Consequently, I am able to tell you little of how the game develops, but much of how pretty it all looks, even when it all goes to hell and you watch pieces of yourself blend with the particles already floating about the screen. There is a rich experience to be had here, for sure, and unlocking its secrets is going to be beautiful.
2. DRMWas my sickness worsening, or was the fog of the earth starting to lift, allowing me to see how things really are out here? I was not sure what to think any more. All I know is that I cannot remember seeing anything so bright in my life, but the forms seem so real. Images of a childhood continued to flash before my eyes – but was it my childhood? I have to keep fighting, else I know I shall be headed for a crash. Perhaps I am anyway. It is all the same out here. Perhaps it is simply a matter of how long I can prevent it, how long I can fight…
Many bundles pride themselves on being DRM-free (while Steam-heads bay viciously for keys, seemingly unable to operate software without Valve’s assistance). Not this one. This one boasts a hitherto unseen kind of DRM. For DRM, or Death Ray Manta to give it its full name, is an arena shooter exclusive to this bundle. It is also unapologetically brash, bright and, well, brilliant. It has the dizzying, disorientating effects of Space Giraffe, as well as its self-awareness. But while Space Giraffe takes the higher philosophical road, DRM engages in a sort of Derridean play – seeming to both offer itself as a discourse on the function of videogames whilst also being videogames, taking a simultaneous position both without and within videogames – before joining its spiritual cousin in exploding gleefully into vibrant flashes of colourful effects.
DRM is, simply put, fun. And it knows it. From the flashes of text that appear as you destroy each enemy that range from the encouraging through to borderline creepy, to the seemingly endless supply of cinematic Manta puns, to the ever-present subtitle telling on you to an unseen authority figure as you unleash mayhem on waves of droids and turrets, dodging mines and collecting so-called ‘space tiffins’ that offer power ups good for one level, everything about it is unabashedly fun. You can tell that a lot of work has gone into making it appear so effortlessly enjoyable.
With so many games, even other retro-styled indie titles, striving to offer sweeping emotional experiences, it is good to be reminded that you can, every once in a while, let all that grown-up stuff go, find a space just wide enough to spin wildly about with your arms outstretched and let the dizzying rush become everything that you are for one all-too-short moment.
DRM captures the essence of that perfect moment, and makes it videogames.
3. The WrecklessAnd when the crash came, it came hard. The universe is a savage beast, vengeful toward those that do not honour it properly, and here it was letting me know it was not so easily tamed, nor a trifle to be played around with. What on earth— No. That was the wrong word. There is no such familiarity of expression here. No colloquialism to which one can easily hang. Everything seemed strange. Language was breaking down, just as were the established rules of physics. Out here, we are all of us returned to that mewling, puking infantile state. How can anybody ever really be qualified for this?
We take a lot for granted in our video games. Put a controller or a keyboard and mouse at our fingertips and suddenly we are a death-defying treasure hunter able to leap four times our own height across pits of spikes, the one-man army that can take down a sinister organisation without needing so much as a toilet break, the sole logistics manager in charge of every infrastructure across an entire city or, indeed, the greatest interstellar fighter pilot throughout the known universe. Then along comes a game like The Wreckless to give you a firm slap across all four cheeks and kick you down into the dirt so you can face up to the reality that you are likely not quite any of those things.
That, at least, was my experience. I thought I should start with the tutorial and I very much recommend that you do likewise (however horrific the voice acting, which I am assured features across all sixteen missions). This will take you through the few very basic things you need to know how to do: learning how to start, how to stop, how to steer and how to blow stuff up. Of these things, I can only honestly say that I got the hang of the first and the last. Some fifteen minutes spent cursing my inability to control the ship and I had finally passed through the hoops, stopped in all the right boxes and made enough things go boom that the game decided I was ready to try this out in a formal operation. Were it an actual driving test I would certainly have had to wait for my ride home.
I think the biggest problem was that while I was having to deal with an extra dimension, I had not – to my knowledge – been given any additional thrusters to deal with potential z-axis travel. In order to go up, you have to point the ship the way you would like it to go and charge the forward thruster. Meanwhile, you have to relinquish any control over your momentum in one of the other axes. Momentum takes you a long way in a space game that tries to employ more realistic physics (albeit with a curious but life-saving seeming absence of collisions and that ubiquitous ‘explosions in space’ phenomena). I also could not find a way to roll the ship so, in spite of being out in space, this vertical axis seems well-defined. If you are travelling vertically and a ship you are aiming at has a different vertical momentum, you have to take your eyes off it in order to adjust yours to keep up with it, in which time you can so easily lose sight of it, or find that now you have to adjust speed in a different direction, which again may necessitate looking away from your target. It felt counter-intuitive and I could not get my head around this control system in the short time I played. Maybe it would come to me given some practice, but I found myself giving up any attempt at the chase and hoped that I might get a few lucky shots in as I drifted in whichever direction I could muster.
In spite of all this, I passed this first mission with flying colours, obtaining all three objectives. I can only assume that the AI-controlled members of my fleet were exceedingly efficient as I was going all Space Oddity. It was, on the whole, a frustrating experience and my feelings on leaving the game were of having had quite enough of drifting alone in space.
4. Dark ScavengerMy teachers had always said I lacked direction. When I signed up for the space programme, I had hoped I would prove them wrong. Every step of the process was a small victory. Even submitting the application form was showing them that I could set my sights on something real. “If only they could see me now,” I had thought, and soon it was to become my mantra. As the hopefuls became fewer and I continued to stand among them I replayed it over in my head. When I was the one picked for this mission, the swell of pride must have sent ripples to each of my former doubters. But you know what they say about pride, not that it makes much sense out here. How can you be said to be falling if you cannot tell which way is up? The voices in my head are not those of my loved ones, my family, my friends, but of those teachers’ all-too-familiar words. If only they could see me now.
This was the screen that marks the very opening of Dark Scavenger. After a brief flash of the most irrational irritation at its seeming sneer toward my previous predicament, I realised that I could quite easily get into this character. Not much sooner could I do that than I was thrust into combat against some sort of eldritch space horror. And this was only the tutorial! Having thus grasped the basics, I was introduced to the three other main characters of the game, and its basic storyline, which is roughly as follows. Having been rescued from near-certain death in the inky blankness of space, you find yourself in the company of a band of bizarre alien bodies who call themselves ‘dark scavengers’, who can convert items they find into useful equipment. However, the ship needs fuel and so you are tasked to find the resources required to get the ship back up and running, but in stepping out onto the nearby planet’s surface, you are met with near-constant hostility.
Happily, the game does not take itself even remotely seriously and the hostility is as much a vehicle for hilarity as the bizarre characters met at each turn. What followed was a hugely enjoyable half hour. Largely, the interface is based on the aforementioned system of point-and-clickery, yet the game’s style is clearly far more inspired by RPG dungeon crawlers and graphically-enhanced text adventure games such as the classic Dungeon Quest (which also had the distinction of not taking itself entirely seriously). As with most RPGs, upgrading your equipment is key to your survival and eventual success. In Dark Scavenger, this takes the form of taking items acquired in each scene back to the ship, where the three aliens can convert it to either a weapon, a usable item or a summonable ally. It is not always clear at a glance what the best strategy might be as they can craft some surprisingly effective items from seemingly useless objects. But the inverse is also true. Immediately I can see there is replayability to be had in trying out different combinations of the items found.
While it is difficult to say for certain from my brief foray into the game, it seems decisions you make in the game have an impact beyond that which is immediately apparent (such as not being able to acquire a particular item) and repeat characters can recall how you treated them previously. The difficulty comes in not necessarily being able to predict the result of an action (particularly that of summoning Falsen to assist you in battle, who is as likely to hug your adversaries as to deal them great damage with a dropped piano – it really is that kind of a game). There is much to explore and to try and, beyond trying to beat the game, you can treat it as a sort of casual playground and simply see what happens if you try out some of the more unusual options.
All that said, I know this game will not be for everyone. The jokes are piled on pretty thick and not every one can be a winner, but for an often comical casual gaming experience, there have been far worse.
5. ArmalyteI continue to drift at a constant speed, unable to alter my trajectory, knowing that any moment could be my last. As all that was familiar fades my mind starts to seek patterns. Occasionally it tricks itself into thinking it recognises a cluster of passing debris. I recognise it as a sign of desperation, the mind’s way of trying to hold on to life. Sooner or later, my body will eventually do the same, trying to grasp onto all that it knows, yet ultimately there is no way back. It was good while it lasted. For a while there, I feel I showed the world that I could be something. I was for a short while their greatest hope, but I am not their greatest tragedy. Tomorrow, all I may be is the lining of litter trays. But, later, when what we were seeking to do has been accomplished, the distant memory of those childlike fumbles as we first toddled into the stars.
Armalyte has made a jump through time, all the way from the Commodore 64, to join this bundle, having been rebooted by retro-gaming revivalists Psytronik a few years back. Having not played the original, I cannot comment on the quality of the transfer, but I can say that it is visually slick with an immensely driving soundtrack that becomes a great backbone to the on-screen action.
Not that I got to see a lot of it, mind. Side-scrolling shmups fall just outside of my very narrow gaming prowess, and in my quick crack at it I only barely got to meet what I expect is the first level’s final boss. Once I accidentally discovered that shooting the shield power ups that litter the levels converts them into more powerful upgrades, I got a little better at it. I improved a little once again when I found I had a powerful secondary weapon in the form of some sort of laser cannon. I had hoped I might find some other easy way to improve myself with the game, but none of the other buttons did anything I could fathom (one changes a letter in the HUD from A through C, but the consequences of this elluded me). I am sure there is some documentation somewhere that explains all of this, but I could not find it (NB: I did not look particularly hard).
My own shortcomings aside, this is, all in all, a great 16-bit retro experience that harks back to a time when even a ‘shoot all the things’ style game had to have a convoluted and highly detailed back story (mainly, I expect, because games came in boxes back then and something had to be written on them). In the end, even I was having a great time of it. I expect one day to be able to offer a review of the second level.
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This concludes my collection of first impressions of the five titles that make up the non-bonus element of the Deep Space bundle. All in all, this is a solid collection bar the seeming exception of The Wreckless that I found a little too frustrating to control to get to enjoying in my time with it. The Bundle in a Box team may not be the most prolific, but you can tell their focus is on quality rather than quantity. Even if you do not feel like checking out anything else in the bundle, you should definitely give Rob Fearon’s DRM a go. For the time being, you will not get it anywhere else. With the Bagfull of Wrong - a collection of Rob’s other games – now also included, there is all the more reason to add this bundle to your collection.
Now, all going well, I will be able to get back to you before the bundle ends to let you know if you should make the step up to beyond the current average (still below $5, barely the equivalent of a fancy latte) and give a first impressions review of the three extra titles that will be yours, alongside a wealth of other extras, if you do. [Spoiler: You definitely should.]
Get it here.