Scratching That Itch.io – Four Short Horror Games for the Season

I admit to being unable to commit to a game some nights, even if I’m hip-deep in the plot and I’m super excited about it. Bouts of wanting to check something else out will creep in on occasion. That almost always translates into having to start up another game which can lead to having another six to 100 hours of gameplay to complete. If that chain continues, my backlog starts to look a lot more formidable than it already is; a task that in and of itself seems impossible if you take a glance at what I’ve stored up to play.

Recently, I’ve been checking out some smaller games on itch.io, a website that prides itself on hosting indie game developers from all levels and genres. Some of the games have gone on to bigger and better things- “The House Abandon” episode from Untold Stories started here, for instance- so there is a lot of potential and folks trying to make it into the business of creating games. Not only that, but a lot of the games tend to wrap up within 15 minutes to an hour, perfect for scratching that need to check out a new game without having to commit to an entire campaign to do so.

In honor of the end of the Halloween season coming up (I mean, it never ends for me but for regular folks), I pulled aside a few titles from the site to check out and found a few that I enjoyed, whether it had to do with their potential or the actual final product. Bearing in mind that most of these games were created either for 48-hour Game Jams or other contests, the fact that folks are putting out pieces like this astonishes someone like me who has almost no experience in the game development field.

Maria1.jpgThe Missing Parts of Maria Gwodzek
senokos
2016
Horror Visual Novel
Run Time: ~20 Minutes
URL: https://senokos.itch.io/maria-gwozdek

Everyone’s had a time in their life where they wished things were different; a time where things seemed hopeless and if just one thing changed, it would feel like things would improve dramatically. What would you have given in that moment to ensure that you would land that date that would cure your loneliness or find that perfect place to live so that you could start a new life? The Missing Parts of Maria Gwodzek explores that premise, placing you in the shoes of Maria as she tries to find her way out of her mess of a life- and what she is willing to give up to get what she wants once she gets too deep.

Maria2.jpg
Created for the Asylum Jam, a 48-hour game development project, in 2016, the game feels a bit short- but what it does with that time has some gravitas. While Maria’s lot in life feels excessively disparate with the rapid description to set the game up, the empathy involved in the few choices of the novel got me thinking, and I was a bit surprised about what I was choosing by the end. The most striking part of the whole game lies in the visual presentation. Everything has a black-and-white minimalistic style to it with pops of two distinctive colors that feel more prominent as the story progresses.


Conclusion: The game feels like it could have been more effective as a longer novel, but it makes the most of its time and has some really interesting ideas. It’s well worth taking a half an hour and checking out.

SearchParty1.jpgThe Search Party That Never Came
Dizlen
2019
Stealth Survival Horror
Run Time: 15-30 Minutes
URL: https://dizlen.itch.io/the-search-party-that-never-came

Being a Final Girl or Guy in a slasher film is probably a bit tough. No one can help you, there’s a seemingly unstoppable murderer stalking you, and escape feels so close but so far. Slip up once, though, and that’s all it takes for you to wind up on the wrong side of a sharp object.

SearchParty2.jpg
This is the situation you’re thrown into in
The Search Party That Never Came. There is no real plot to speak of, but your objective as a would-be victim finding themselves in a warehouse district of sorts is to escape from a chuckling madman with a chainsaw as he searches the area for you. While the game starts out with a bit of a jump scare, it actually does a bit more with environmental lighting and sound effects to create tension as you try to figure out how to escape than I expected it to. It’s a bit rough graphically and design-wise, but seeing as it was a university project by the creator, Search Party feels like a passion project hearkening back to the early Playstation horror library and the few technical missteps are more charming than annoying, as they could have been.

Conclusion: This won’t leave you scared sleepless after its over, but the amount of potential and a clear love for the designs of the genre make this a pretty neat game to take a dip into, atmospherically and aesthetically.

Emulator1.jpgThe Emulator
T Allen Studios/Studio Snowspot
2018
Adventure Survival Horror
Run Time: ~30 minutes
URL: https://t-allen-studios.itch.io/the-emulator

The night before Halloween, Sean has lined up a dinner with his girlfriend, Sarah, and her parents. He arrives at the house, nervous but ready to spend a night with the Rourke household but as he arrives at the door, something seems… off. The power is out and even though dinner is still steaming on the table, there is no one to be found. It isn’t long before Sean finds a receipt for something from the Deep Web called “The Emulator”. While he isn’t sure what it is exactly, his night stuck in his girlfriend’s house will quickly shine some light on the situation.

Emulator2.jpg

Shortly after the plot kicks in, the player is tasked with finding a way to survive. The Emulator proves to be pretty open-ended with this objective, offering a number of ways to escape and put an end to The Emulator and its influence. While it has a limited soundtrack, this game’s aural and visual standard is fairly high. In a fun homage, you can set the graphics to PSX resolution at the start of the game (though I found the notes and dialogue a bit hard to read in that mode). As a pursuer, though, the Emulator appears to take on the form of some object in the house that, once approached, will spring to life, shifting Sean’s POV into red hues until it is outrun. Juggling this amidst searching the house for any way to survive is subtly tense and gets the player’s gears turning about what method they are going to use to get out. With multiple endings and a relatively simple-AI, The Emulator’s only real problem is that if you muck around in the Options screen a bit, you will most likely restart your current run by accident due to the interface.

If this is what the team can do with a week to a month or so worth of work, I’d love to see what they could do with more time and budget.

Conclusion: If you want a challenge that will get your mind working and has an interesting mythos set-up the more you explore, this is a fantastic way to spend a part of your night.

VHS1.jpgV.H.S. – Video Horror Story
pinataMAN
2017
Stealth Survival Horror
Run Time: ~10 minutes
URL: https://pinataman.itch.io/vhs-videohorrorstory

Some indie games don’t give you a premise- even more so when they are short and working as a prototype for a particular mechanic. What V.H.S. does is dumps the player into an environment, teaches them the controls, and lets them play around with their surroundings while avoiding death. Opening in an office building of sorts, V.H.S. places you in the perspective of a video playback (indicated by the ever-constant PLAY status displayed in the upper left corner) and invites you to escape a small office building with just a flashlight and the camera’s technology in hand. By using the shoulder buttons on your controller, you can slide the frequency on the camera left and right, an important mechanic as one frequency lets you see objects that define your surroundings like desks, chairs, and computers. The other frequency allows you to see the unearthly horrors that are stalking the area.

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This game- which is really more of a demo than anything- is incredibly short, offering a small playground to toy around with a very unique mechanic with little to no consequence. The deaths in the game could have been handled as obnoxious jump scares but are actually a bit creepy. Even thinking of this as a prototype that was completed in 48 hours, the game looks and sounds professional, even implementing controller support.

Conclusion: The runtime may stop most folks from spending the time with this game, but it’s worth a look, even if just to check out the neat gameplay and the relatively surprising ending. Please be aware, though- there is an epilepsy warning due to strobing lighting effects at some points.



Whether these games strike your fancy or not, it may be worth taking a look at the site to see if there is something that might. Aside from these bite-sized offerings, there are some full sized games on there and a ton of games that aren’t horror related. Seeing some of the other titles, I’m glad I’ve had a few friends who have recommended the site to me to browse around. For me, seeing some of the efforts from folks who are trying to make their own games or join development teams feels invigorating. It’s like having a friend who’s really excited to show you their work, and each of the games that I’ve seen has some kind of commentary from the developer about their process and aspirations. Even the forums for each of them seems to be more about constructive feedback than the usual comments you’ll see on platforms like Steam.

If you’re looking for some quick scares or some interesting game design work, feel free to check these out! If you have any suggestions for games to check out otherwise, I’d be more than happy to take a gander at some other games that folks have experienced on the site and would like to talk up.

Whatever you decide to do today, though- be safe, have fun, and Happy Halloween!

PAX East 2019 – Top 5 Most Anticipated Games

PAXEast19LogoHey, folks! Welcome to the first of a series of posts concerning my three days of exploration at PAX East in Boston last weekend. While I don’t want to capitalize too much of the blog’s bandwidth to the convention, there were a lot of great things to talk about and experiences that I wanted to document so hopefully, you’ll find some fun information and insights in the next few entries to the 3PStart archives!

My first post cuts right to the heart of what I think folks are waiting for: the games I’m looking forward to the most after perusing the massive PAX floor. Now I’m going to warn you- the idea of waiting in line for an hour for a game was completely unappealing to me so I may have seen some snippets of some promising high-profile games like Days Gone but there was so much to see. With my interests being as they are, I was more drawn to the smaller booths on the floor, as well. You’ll find plenty of coverage on those larger titles elsewhere, I’m sure, and hopefully, my list here will shine some light on a few games folks may not have heard of and will find themselves anticipating like I am!

With that, feel free to check out my in-a-particular order list after the cut to see the five games I am most excited to see come to my gaming screens over the next year or two! Continue reading

Mobile Mini-Reviews – With an Open Heart, Sharp Wits, and Neon Blood

One hill I am willing to die on is that mobile gaming gets much less credit than it deserves.

Don’t get me wrong. Much like other platforms like Steam where smaller developers can occasionally throw whatever they want into the marketplace with varying quality, it can take some sifting to find some of the gems hidden in the digital mineshaft. Even then, those gems are a matter of taste and might not appeal to everybody.

With much I use my phone in waiting rooms and while I’m trying to accomplish other things, I’ve come across a few games that met with some personal criteria I had set up- a defined ending, for instance- which I would love to share with folks who might be struggling to find some way to cut their teeth on the offerings at their fingertips.

HungryHeartsTitleHungry Hearts Diner: A Tale of Star-Crossed Souls
GAGEX Co., Ltd
Genre: Simluation
HungryHearts1In a small village just on the border of a large city in Japan in the Showa era, a diner sits steeped in antiquity and small-town conversation. The owner of the diner has fallen ill recently, however, so his wife has taken over the duties of cooking, meal planning, and keeping the diner in business for the locals. Every small town’s citizens have a story, though, and a small eatery is a perfect place for them to open up. After all, food can bring up memories and emotions just as well as any other stimulus can.

Taking the role of the elderly wife, your job is to keep people in your diner happy and fed while improving the diner and its menu. With particular customers, you will be able to suss out their favorite dishes and what food will help them open up, relating their stories and troubles to you in small cutscenes once their affection has risen enough. The more you create your available concoctions, you will also be able to create other dishes which will earn more money and cater to your clientele even more.

HungryHearts2At its core, Hungry Hearts is a ‘tapper’ game, which won’t appeal to everyone. The game does have the occasional option to watch an advertisement to gain more experience or money, but they can easily be skipped. It is free-to-play as a base, however, and the trappings only obscure the heart of the game underneath.

Where this game excels is in its stories, characters, and atmosphere. Hungry Hearts captures the village feel that it is going for with exquisite results. More than once, I felt a tug of emotion at the writing and interactions between the people of the town, many of whom have stories that interact with one another despite their not interacting directly. Each unique character has their own full story to be engaged with and the endings are almost entirely well worth the investment. In between stories, the game was also incredibly relaxing with an ambient soundtrack and charming visual style that I found myself addicted to.

If you don’t mind dealing with some of the usual free-to-play inconveniences and you need a game to wind down with, you would do well to seek out Hungry Hearts.

PartiaTitlePartia: The Broken Lineage
Imago Software
Genre: Strategy Role-Playing
Partia1
Taking place on the continent of Partia in the kingdom of Grana, you play as the younger of two princes slated to sit on the throne and rule over the people. The people of the land, however, clearly have their favored candidate of the two, whether it is the responsible and headstrong eldest or the slightly rebellious and more approachable second-born. Some of those people, however, will do whatever they must to ensure that their candidate of choice ascends to the throne.

With no qualms of being derived from the likes of Fire Emblem, Partia concerns itself more with political intrigue and strategic choices over knockdown brawls. Divided into chapters, the game takes you through the moves made by those who desire power as you gather a group of allies willing to fight by the prince’s side. Following the mechanics of Fire Emblem to a near-perfect T, characters level up, receive weapons with particular durability, and can be lost forever if they perish in battle.

Partia2The game isn’t without its obstacles. Without exploiting the arena in town between chapters, you will lose a lot of your allies so grinding is a bit of a must. The translation in the build I played was also a little choppy in areas, though easily navigable. The team has released patches since, however, so it may be a slightly different experience to play now.

What is to be commended is that the game captures the spirit of the early Fire Emblem games with a bit of an overhaul on the presentation side. The battle sprites are simple but effective, and the portraits and other art evoke the styles of games like Shining Force and the GBA entries of the Fire Emblem series. A lot of heart and passion for the genre appears in the short time you will spend with Partia which, as of this writing, rings in at $3.99 to purchase. There are also two sequels available, and while I’ve only just started the second game, improvements already appear to have been implemented.

MidnightShowTitleThe Midnight Show
Takster Games, LLC
Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
MidnightShow1It’s 1985. You’ve arrived at the Orpheum Theatre where some of the hottest new films are playing and the staff is way cooler than you’ll ever be. If you don’t feel like taking in a show, you could always hit the arcade and try to win some prizes from the crane game there. For such a rad looking place, though, it seems awfully empty. Something feels just a bit off about that, doesn’t it? Maybe if you look around a bit, you’ll figure out what’s going on and why you can’t seem to leave the way you came in.

I may be biased given my love of horror, the 80s, and point-and-click adventure games. The Midnight Show, however, was probably one of my favorite mobile games to get through and play. It unfolds like any other point-and-click game does, but with the in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek tone, it feels right at home with games like Maniac Mansion (which is has a great poke at) and other LucasArts adventures.

MidnightShow2If I had one qualm, it is a bit short. This isn’t a major issue, though, as it doesn’t overstay its welcome longer than it has to, telling a tight story with a few atmospheric moments and just enough puzzles to make you think and explore a bit to proceed. My “qualm” probably lies in the fact that I wanted a bit more of the universe once the game closed up shop. Call me selfish, I guess.

As with the other two games here, the presentation is strong. While I loved the visuals, the soundtrack is where the game really hooked me with some strong 80s synth that found me sticking around a bit longer in places than I probably needed to. If you’re a fan of the music of the era, you’ll be hard-pressed not to relish in the soundscape a bit. Kudos to Wice and ALEX, who are credited as the featured artists.

Looking at the game, I don’t see a price tag on it anymore so it may just be free to download- which is a steal for the experience. The Midnight Show is well worth the price of admission, however, price tag or not, and it should be checked out if you have any interest after reading this.

I play quite a few persistent games that I could easily recommend, as well, and may write a bit about them in a future post. Having a game that has a defined beginning and end can be tough to find in a quality package and an affordable cost. Hopefully, this will point out some options to folks who might not be fans of mobile games to give a chance to!

Have any recommendations or thoughts on these games if you’ve checked them out? Any feelings on mobile gaming you’d like to share? As always, drop me a line here in the comments or on Twitter!

Blink and You’ll Miss It – PC – The Final Take – 2016

title
The Final Take
PC
Hush Interactive/Forever Entertainment S.A.
Genre: Survival Horror
2016

Sometimes, brevity is the kindest form of reference.

No, that’s not a saying. I just feel like it’s apt for some situations. In some cases, the less you say about something, the better. Sometimes, you have to refrain from saying something negative. Other times, there just isn’t enough to draw from to say much at all. In the case of The Final Take, it’s a bit more of the second reason than the first.

Given I just finished this game in a sitting, I wanted to at least pop some notes down so that if other folks run across this title, they may at least have some impressions before picking it up.  
Continue reading

Octopath Traveler – Prologue Demo Impressions

Octopath HEader
I’ve been trying to keep my list of games that I’m anticipating this year short, but ever since it was announced, Square Enix’s Octopath Traveler has been near the top of my list.  Never mind the slick ‘retro’ visuals, but when you incorporate the Romancing SaGa-esque party gathering and a combat system that calls to mind Bravely DefaultOctopath already has the mechanical trappings to pull me in.

Back in September of 2017, the first demo for the game was released on the Nintendo Switch’s e-shop.  It offered up experience with the introductions of Primrose and Olberic, two of the choices for your main protagonist once the full game is available.  I played through that demo pretty fervently and liked what I saw- Primrose’s introduction was engaging and well-written, though the demo felt a bit short.  After that demo, Square Enix offered up a survey to help improve and strengthen the game before release.

After nearly 50,000 survey responses, another demo was released a few days ago on June 14th.  Dubbed the Octopath Traveler Prologue Demo, it offers a larger sampling of what’s to come in the full game.  Offering up a three-hour dive into the beginning of the game, the demo allows you to choose the protagonist that suits your fancy and work through their opening scenarios as well as some of the preliminary areas of the game’s world of Orsterra.  While I still have an hour or so left to my demo, I wanted to get down some of my impressions regarding how my experience has been with the demo so far.

From the character select screen, I chose to follow the story of Ophilia, a cleric from the Frostlands who ends up starting a pilgrimage due to a twist of fate concerning her monastery.  While the set-up isn’t the most original plotline, it does offer a lot of information regarding Ophilia and the characters she is related to, along with the town and people within it.  The church is clearly a strong and positive facet of the area, and Ophilia appears to be a respected figure among the community.

Given that everyone has a special talent that they use in the overworld, this respect for Ophilia and her station plays in nicely to her ability known to ‘Guide’.  Much like Primrose’s ‘Allure’ skill in the original demo, Ophilia can approach certain NPCs and interact with them with an alternate action that will request the character accompany her- which they will if she is of a high enough level.  While in battle, she can then ‘Summon’ them, which will bring them in as a temporary party member who will attack, heal or perform other actions before disappearing after a few turns.
Not only is this a unique feature, but it really helps the common issue that healer types have when they start a game solo in that battles usually feel like they take too long given their focus on magic rather than physical offense.  My usual issue was addressed pretty early on, though I’m interested to see how relevant it is once you’ve leveled up to the point of having a full and competent party.

After an hour or so, I reached the climax of Ophilia’s scenario which also involved the requisite boss battle.  While the battle was difficult, it was nothing I felt overwhelmed by.  Having a townsperson to summon- who would randomly heal Ophilia and attack- left me more time to strategize how to exploit the boss’ weak points.  Given the turn-based nature of battles, exploiting weaknesses is important.  If you attack an enemy with its weakness, there is a chance of inflicting a ‘break’ which will demolish their next turn card and lower their defense until they recover.

The other tactic in battle is akin to Bravely Default but does it much more effectively, at least in my opinion.  Each turn, you gain a ‘Burst’ point.  Once you’ve accrued enough of these points, you can charge attacks.  With normal attacks, this means issuing a number of normal attacks equal to the burst points you use (a maximum of four at a time).  When used with a special attack, it multiplies the power of that attack instead.  Pairing these bursts with breaking your enemy is the best way to make battles turn in your favor and that fact that it’s easy to raise your burst level makes strategizing feel a lot more manageable.  To be honest, I didn’t gel as much with the battle system in Bravely Default as I would have liked, but if it has been more like this, it would have felt a little less cumbersome.  I know the battle system in Bravely was highly regarded by a lot of gamers, though, so the streamlining may not be a clincher to everyone else.

Outside of that battle, I’ve gotten Ophilia to the next town and met another of the protagonists, a scholar name Cyrus.  Upon speaking with him, the game informed me that to have him join, I would need to play through his prologue.  This is where I feel like the game took a misstep.  It’s not because I’m not interested.  Going into another 45 minutes or so of each character’s backstory and playing through their prologues feels like it really breaks up the action.  While I’m sure the stories all tie together into the main narrative, as well, if the full game handles this the same way, this sort of tanks the replayability of the game and makes it feel less like I picked a primary character.  It feels more like I picked a starting point.  It’s still interesting but leaves a strange taste in my mouth about the whole choice in the first place.

Despite that qualm I have with the game, I’m honestly still jazzed that the release date is coming up fast.  The game is gorgeous and the music is just as much so.  While I’m not entirely sure on what the overarching plot is going to be yet, the plots I’ve gotten to look at for Ophilia and Cyrus (and Primrose, if things haven’t changed much from the original demo) have gotten me intrigued in how they will tie together ultimately.  I’m glad that it seems like data from this demo will be able to be transferred to the full game and while a little bit of the content feels like padding, I’m still satisfied with how much I’ve experienced over the course of two hours.

If anything changes in my third hour, I’ll definitely update.  Right now, though, I’d have to say that I think Octopath Traveler is living up the hype it’s been gaining.  Have any of you played it?  Do you have any thoughts?  Feel free to let me know in the comments or over on Twitter!

Octopath Church