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If games were judged solely on their ability to create an atmosphere, then you’d have your indie title of the year right here. There is, of course, more to a game than that, and luckily roguelite platformer Nongünz has a few more tricks up its sleeve, even if its greatest achievement remains its foreboding tone.
I can’t go further without talking about the visuals, which are striking from both a technical and artistic viewpoint. With the palette essentially limited to grayscale, backgrounds display a high-detail pixel-art style that recalls those memorable ’80s text adventures where static rendered screens gave the player a flavor of each location. The music, too, is distinctive, with its somber guitars and haunting vocal. It all combines to form a supremely oppressive gothic horror ambiance that gives Nongünz its unique character, successfully setting it apart from a thoroughly crowded genre.
You awaken suddenly, a tiny figure amongst the cracked tombstones of a decrepit, empty graveyard. It isn’t long before you figure out that your only route forward is through the huge doorway of a decaying crypt. Within its depths, you’ll fight grotesque monsters (mainly animate human viscera…that’s right) in a number of interconnected rooms. Each room is predesigned, but they’re arranged together in a different, randomly generated order for each run. And there will be many runs: Nongünz is rock-hard, and its roguelite nature means that death results in a trip back to the graveyard and a restart, with some of your previous life’s achievements, and loot, accompanying you into the next.
Not that any of this is clear from the start. With virtually no onscreen text and no obvious visual clues, Nongünz is one of those rare examples of a game that doesn’t handhold. At all. Some of the elements are straightforward enough to grasp if you’ve played something similar. You’ll blast enemies, hop between platforms, loot treasure chests, and fight your way to a boss. Other parts of the game are incredibly opaque, though; how should you use the playing card-like pickups littered throughout the levels? And what are the strange creatures you’re freeing from the depths that find their way back to the graveyard to greet you when you respawn? Far from being a negative, I found figuring out how everything worked a real thrill. It deftly demonstrated the extent modern games worry about keeping the player in the dark, leading to an overreliance on exposition, tutorials, and tooltips, sapping some of the joy of discovery.
The game drip-feeds progress really well, too. Even if, like me, you spend the first hour trying different approaches to the combat, doing plenty of dying and restarting in the process, your character’s stats increase over time, along with the rate you accumulate wealth (spent bullets are, bizarrely, the currency of Nongünz—each time you fire, a number increases, and that figure is exactly the amount your have to spend on items).
The main issue I had with Nongünz is that once you get past the wonderfully appealing aesthetic, the game’s mechanics are nothing special. That’s not to say combat isn’t fun, it’s perfectly fine. It’s just not doing anything particularly revolutionary, which is a shame when you consider that the game challenges convention in so many other areas.
Nongünz is a total oddity, but a rewarding one if you put the time in to discover its mysteries (I’ve purposely left undescribed the peculiar and utterly unexpected framing mechanism you’re treated to when you attempt to quit—I’ll leave that for you to discover). Though the gameplay itself has its limitations, there’s more than enough here to justify Nongünz’s meager price-tag. In fact, its bravura alone is well worth the price of admission.
Time spent with Old Man’s Journey is time spent in meditative reflection. There’s nothing frantic or urgent or anxiety-inducing here, and I found that change of pace very welcome indeed.
When we first meet the old man of the title, he’s in a contemplative mood, gazing out to sea from his quaint little house. From there, he sets out on a journey: initially, we’re not sure of his reasons, but as the player, you must guide his meandering footsteps as he travels through towns and over vast countryside to reach the journey’s end. You do this by reshaping the landscape ahead of him, literally moving mountains, hills, and valleys to allow previously obstructed terrain to become passable. This is achieved elegantly with the unobtrusive interface: you simply use the mouse to click and drag layers of 2D scenery up and down. A bunch of yellow lines appears as you grab onto the terrain, letting you see where each piece intersects, and so where the old man will be able to travel. As you can’t move a layer that he’s standing on, you often have to shuffle him around from one piece to another while you do your creative best to forge the path ahead.
It’s pretty simple stuff, and while the puzzling does get a smidge more complex as the game progresses (later the timing of your scenery movement becomes key), it's clearly designed mainly as a fun pastime—busywork while the game imparts its gentle story onto you. And I was definitely on board with this approach, largely because the game-world developer Broken Rules has created is so incredibly gorgeous that it’s an absolute joy to be a part of, whatever you’re doing. The colorful, entirely hand-drawn art style is never less than utterly charming, with each scene seemingly designed to have the impact of an exquisitely detailed watercolor. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the little memory vignettes that pop up every now and then. These largely static moments from the old man’s past appear when his memory is jogged by something in the present, filling in his backstory piece by piece. Each of these illustrations is to be savored: I’ve seldom seen such sheer beauty in a game.
There are plenty of emotionally affecting moments as the old man’s journey runs its course, some large, some tiny and fleeting, and for the most part, each of these landed with me. Often they come from those memory vignettes but sometimes arise from brief interactions between the old man and the characters he meets along the way. The folksy orchestral score, present throughout, also contributes significantly to those meaningful emotional moments. There’s payoff at the end, too, which I did find genuinely poignant.
If you’re after something action-packed, well I’m surprised you’ve made it this far into the article. Old Man’s Journey ambles along at a steady pace, taking its time to show you some moments of pure loveliness along the way. Sure, there are minor annoyances, like when the camera is too eager to move to a new scene before the old man can keep up, leaving him obscured behind the scenery. Or when certain elements of the landscape aren’t quite as responsive as they should be.
The irritations are few, though. Mostly, Old Man’s Journey is simply a delight.
What if, after the human race inevitably destroys itself in a few years, the Earth is subsequently fought over by warring factions of mutant parasites who go into battle riding the planet’s various leftover animal species, and an army of humankind’s robot appliances who have become militarized to defend the honor their deceased former masters? That’s the fun premise behind Post Human W.A.R, a quirky turn-based strategy title that’s recently seen an early access release.
The game has each player deploying a number of units, then taking them to fight the enemy over one of a number of varied hex-based battlegrounds. Each faction has unique units, and deciding which ones to use depends on the scenario—quick, flying units are best to storm an enemies base, whereas long-range, resilient units may be better for defending against an enemy onslaught. The game comes with a tutorial, offline practice mode, online multiplayer, and a three-pronged campaign, one for each of the three factions (angry domestic robots, monkey controlling parasites, and, um… other animal controlling parasites). For a game that has yet to receive a full release, it’s pretty full-featured. It’s stable too—I never experienced any bugs or glitches during my time with it.
What stands out is the high level of polish throughout. From the charmingly animated sprite-based graphics to the off-kilter sense of humor, this feels like a well put-together game. There’s great attention to detail, like in the amusingly written between-level videos, and the little jubilant animations each time a unit gets a kill. But what kept me playing long after the novelty of the setting had worn off was the surprising tactical depth the game affords the player. With unspent deployment points used to buff in game units, there’s a real tactical nuance to how you tackle each scenario and a steep but rewarding difficulty curve that challenges you to keep coming back to think of new ways to triumph.
There’s no getting away from it: you’ll be doing a huge amount of clicking in Spaceplan, largely because it’s the only way you can interact with anything in the game. Yes, this is a clicker, with a focus on a twee, gentle, pseudo-hard sci-fi story. Unlike most games of this type, the story is intriguing enough to keep you playing until the end (that’s right: there’s a proper ending, too).
You start the game in a tiny ship orbiting a barren, nameless planet. Your mission, at least in the beginning, is simple: find out what the hell is going on. What is this apparently dead planet you’re orbiting? And how will you generate enough power to produce the appropriate potato-based scientific equipment to find out? The clean, spare interface shows a view of space in the center, with your ship, little more than a dot, continually in orbit. On the left of this is your Thing Maker (build menu), and on your right, the Idea Lister (upgrade menu). To begin with, all you can do to generate power is click a button repeatedly, but in time, you’re able to build items which produce energy passively over time and research ways to increase their effectiveness. Most of your options for power generation are potato-based, in a nod to the movie The Martian which is so ridiculously overplayed that it circles back around to being funny. Another example of Spaceplan’s humor: there’s a ‘scientifically accurate mode’ that can be toggled in the menu, with literally the only change bring that energy is measured in joules rather than watts. “Everything else is totally accurate, trust me,” it says, as it lets you get back to building power-generating Spudalites.
It’s all one big grind, of course. The more effective you become at producing energy, the more energy you actually need to produce before you can advance to the next part of the story., But it’s this story itself that is the clever element, its talk of alternate timelines and time travel successfully detracting from the repetitive nature of the gameplay. I was happy to keep generating more power just to reach each story beat, especially since the next big reveal is always positioned so tantalizingly closely. The amusingly blathering narration by your onboard computer, too, is welcome, as is the better-than-average synth-heavy score, which provides a surprisingly atmospheric backdrop.
As mentioned, there’s an ending too, which does provide a suitable payoff to justify the hours of clicking you’ll need to put in to see it. And for less than three dollars on Steam, there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon.
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