Wow, I'm falling behind on these Xbox indie reviews. It used to be that one, maybe two quality games would come out each week. They were also typically fairly simple games, meaning I could review a ton of them in a week with little problem. But the Xbox indie channel has changed, and changed for the better. There are many more good games actually deserving of your time, and that means reviewing them can take a little longer. But I wouldn't have it any other way. Four RPGs, two of which are tactical RPGs? An NES-styled throwback game with an Obama look-alike shooting zombies? Bungee jumping gnomes blowing up helicopters? An avatar game that's actually fun? Oh yes, all that and more can be found among the reviews after the break. It's a good time to be an indie gamer.
Storybook Tactics - 80 MS points. Confession time: tactical RPGs are my absolute favorite genre of games. And while Storybook Tactics doesn't quite fit the genre norms, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Instead of leveling up your characters, you'll constantly unlock new classes to add to your arsenal. The classes are very well balanced, with each one suited to certain situations where they can best counter another class. The battles themselves play out on grid battlefields reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics. Each character has a limited number of action points they can use per turn, often requiring the player to plan many turns in advance. There is a large learning curve involved in figuring out the best way to balance a character's action points, MP, and meditation ability to restore MP, but once the game clicks it is a huge and hugely enjoyable strategy game. With branching paths across a giant world map, and literally dozens of new units to recruit, Storybook Tactics is easily one of the best strategy games on the 360 and the best of the genre I've played all year, and that's including XBLA and retail 360 releases.
Garden Gnome Carnage - 80 MS points. Oh dear, how to describe Garden Gnome Carnage? Well, you play as a garden gnome attached to the roof of a house by a bungee cord as he throws explosive bricks at military soldiers trying to climb the house. No, that's not quite accurate because you're actually controlling the house, which is on wheels and rolls from side to side across the screen, not the gnome itself. As you move the house, the gnome will fling according with your movement and momentum. The game only gets more bizarre from there, like having a cat climb up the house to restore the house's bricks, or building up enough of a combo to play a minigame with a princess inside the house who, at the end of the minigame, sits in the chimney firing a grenade launcher at the soldiers. It's quick, silly fun in the best possible way, and almost guaranteed to leave you smiling after only a few minutes of play.
The Tempura of the Dead - 240 MS points. The Tempura of the Dead is a throwback to the NES era in both graphics and difficulty. The nation has been overrun by zombies, and it's up to the President (who looks like Obama drawn in the style of Lupin III) and a samurai to clean up the US. You can alternate between characters at any time during play, with each having their own feel. The samurai uses his sword to attack at close range and he can jump higher, while the President can attack from a distance with a machine gun and can crouch to better destroy zombie bodies. So what does all of this have to do with tempura? The deep-fried treats come into play from the game's combo system. Whenever you kill a zombie, its head flies off, and if you juggle the head in the air you deep fry it into a tempura zombie head. This activates "Tempura Fever" mode allowing you to more quickly deep fry heads to keep your combo going. It's utterly bizarre, and difficult to master, but still a lot of fun to strive for. Be warned though, Tempura of the Dead can be a frustratingly difficult game. Remember in the lots of NES action games where your character flies backward, usually into a pit, when hit by an enemy? Well, that same annoying game mechanic is used here, and still as frustrating as ever. Retro gamers will love Tempura of the Dead, but gamers who aren't familiar with the level of masochism involved in classics like Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts 'n Goblins may not have the patience to see the game through.
For Glory - 80 MS points. For Glory is exactly the game I have been wanting to play, possibly for years now, and never knew it. It is a simple hack and slash RPG where you march along a completely linear path attempting to slay as many orcs, slimes, and other creatures as possible. Each creature slain gives you glory, which acts as your currency for upgrading your character. However, what I found particularly interesting about For Glory is that you cannot actually upgrade your character until you die. Upon your character's death, you are taken to the shop menu inside the castle where you can use your earned glory to buy new weapons, armor, and accessories that grand you passive abilities. And then you leave the castle to begin it all over again with your new equipment. Though I'm sure this sounds entirely repetitive, I found it oddly compelling. Each new life brought with it an entirely new hero, complete with a randomly generated name, inviting me to interpret a story into a game where, in truth, there is almost no story provided for the player. Each play though became more personal because of the names given to my in-game avatars, with each one of them having a unique adventure before meeting their untimely yet inevitable demise. If there is a fault in For Glory, it is the fact that there is no way of saving the amount of glory you have earned, forcing you to start completely from scratch each time you play. Not that it takes long to amass enough glory to reach some of the more powerful equipment, but a save function would still have been a worthwhile addition to the game. Even so, I cannot help but recommend For Glory as a simple RPG that manages to perfectly capture the addicting mindset of "just one more try."
Miasma - 400 MS points. In Miasma you play as a squad of rebels fighting against a world taken over by one massive corporation. In battle, there is a surprisingly deep tactical system in place. Each character has a limited number of action points they can use per turn, with actions like moving, shooting, and using healing items all eating away at your total. Sometimes this means that you will only be able to move or shoot on a given turn, so using the terrain to your advantage is key to survival. Squad members automatically crouch behind environmental objects when moved near them, and can even use cover to sneak around enemies to get a better flanking angle. Then there are attack and defense bonuses depending on your range and angle, as well as the option to shoot explosive barrels to turn an enemy's cover against them. Each of the three squad mates also has their own specialty. There's the sniper with a stunning EMP ability, the stealth expert who can temporarily cloak, and the medic which is fairly self-explanatory. Between missions you can also upgrade attributes like hit points, attack power, and the number of action points they can use per turn on each of your squad members from a shared pool of experience. The downside of the game is that it ends too quickly. There are only 6 missions that culminate in an abrupt ending (though thankfully not quite at a Hydrophobia level of abruptness) that makes it very clear the developers have a Miasma 2 in mind. Once the game is completed you can bring your upgraded characters back through the story to upgrade them further, or enter a survival mode that pits your characters against waves of enemies for a high score. These type of survival modes are standard fare in a lot of genres, but tactical RPGs aren't typically one of them, and it actually works quite well. Miasma also looks fantastic, easily besting many Xbox Live Arcade games. If you're a tactical RPG fan and was burned by lackluster games like Operation Darkness and the XBLA Vandal Hearts sequel, or even if you know what those games are, then you should download Miasma with confidence. But if you're not a genre die-hard, then I'd recommend downloading the trial version first.
West - 80 MS points. West is a short turn-based RPG that is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, its story deals with some very weighty and mature themes. For example, within the first 10 minutes you bear witness to the senseless death of a small child and the communal town grieving afterward. On the other hand, there are odd attempts at humor throughout the game. Enemies are named after puns like the "lucky duck" (a duck with playing cards) and "baseball bat" (a bat carrying a baseball) or are outright bizarre like the "disco elk" or a tiger wearing a suit and tie simply known as "Mr. Tiger." These enemies do go along with the game's overarching themes about nature versus technology, but the inconsistency in tone can be jarring. Similarly, the visuals are hit or miss, with some character sprites that look ripped from a high quality SNES game while others look like they were drawn in MS paint. West is still a good RPG for the 360, especially when you consider it was made by an up and coming 19 year old developer, but it doesn't quite reach the heights of the stronger Xbox indie RPGs like Breath of Death VII or Aphelion.
Iredia: Atram's Secret - 80 MS points. Iredia is edutainment done right. The game is brilliantly designed to educate kids about our hearing, specifically in reference to deafness. What makes it so successful is that it doesn't just throw facts at you, but turns them into gameplay elements. One level has you crawling through a model of an ear to see how an inner ear works, while another level has sounds taking physical form, and you need to adjust degrees of hearing loss to make platforms appear and disappear around you. There's even a level that teaches rudimentary sign language to show you the right path through. Each level ends with a brief quiz of what that level was teaching, but even these don't hinder the game. As you play you genuinely learn the answers, rather than having them simply told to you, so answering the questions is an exercise in applying what you have learned rather than simply reciting it back. Iredia was clearly designed for a younger audience, but that doesn't mean it was dumbed down like so many kid games have been in recent years. The platforming levels are still very well designed and fun in their own right, with the educational aspect a bonus on top of that. I have to admit, when I was in 1st and 2nd grade there was a kid in my class who was deaf, and I wish I had this game back then to better understand him. This is an educational game done right, and should probably be a required part of elementary school curriculums across the country.
Steam Heroes - 240 MS points. Steam Heroes is a puzzle game that comes close to reaching the status of games like Puzzle Quest, but falls just short of that ambition. The core puzzle gameplay is that of your typical Bejeweled clone, where you move tiles to match three or more of the same color. Each puzzle in Steam Heroes is set up as a boss fight in an RPG, with your party of three characters gaining power from the colors you match in the puzzle. Blue increases your attack power, red your defense, and yellow your ability to heal. All of these actions, and the actions of your opponent, are performed automatically in real-time, with your puzzle solving used more as a way of augmenting the action rather than directly participating. If you manage to fill all of your character's charge bars, then you can press the X, Y, or B button to unleash a special ability corresponding with that character's color. This is all very solid play mechanics, however the game falls in terms of the game's context. The story mode is simply made up of a linear progression through 12 of these puzzle battles, with only a few rushed lines of dialog between them.
Seizonrenda - 400 MS points. In reviewing Seizonrenda I am almost compelled to simply write "Super Stardust HD for the Xbox 360" and call it a day. Though admittedly, Seizonrenda doesn't have quite the same robust feature set of the PSN shooter. Like it's PS3 predecessor, this is a twin-stick shooter taking place in orbit of a planet as you blast asteroids and alien ships. Being able to move 360 degrees around the planet in any direction is definitely an interesting effect, and helps it stand out from the wealth of twin-stick shooters already present in the marketplace. However, I found that Siezonrenda does not have quite the replayability to earn its price tag. Primarily, this is because there are no power-ups or alternate weapons of any kind. Sure, you have bombs and a boosting ability, but even as the waves of asteroids grow you are stuck with the same pea shooter laser that you began the game with. Without that variety or sense of progression, even as I saw the wave number increase I felt little sense of progression as I continued to play. It's still a fun shooter, but having already played a similar and superior version of the same thing I'm more cautious about recommending it.
SFG Office Brawlers - 240 MS points. SFG Office Brawlers is in tight competition with AvaGlide for being the best Avatar game available from the Xbox indie games. Unlike some of the shameless cash grabs that came before it, SFG Office Brawlers is a true 3D fighting game. The story mode has you fighting your way past different officer personell, like a mailroom worker or the cafeteria chef, each with their own unique weapon and fighting style. For example, one office worker uses a chair for quick jabs, while the mail room worker throws envelopes as a projectile attack. Once you beat an opponent, you can choose to use their fighting style in future battles. There's also a more standard fighting mode that lets you go at it against random opponents, and of course a two player multiplayer mode to fight your friends. The controls could afford to be a bit more responsive though, as there seems to be a brief split-second lag between pressing a button and performing an attack. It doesn't take too long to adjust your playstyle to compensate, but in a fighting game timing can really matter. It's a good fighting game for those who just want to beat the crap out of other avatars and their friends' avatars, but it will likely be relegated to a diversion between rounds of another game rather than being the focus of gaming sessions with friends.
Inertia! - 80 MS points. Inertia is a platformer built around bending the laws of gravity. You have two buttons: you can jump, and you can negate all gravity around your character. Negating gravity essentially means you will continue in whatever direction you were already heading when you pressed that button, hence the game's title. It works quite well, and levels will have you using it to bounce off of walls or fly across chasms to reach new platforms. Inertia is a pretty short game, though this seems to be by design since there is also a speed run mode to give you an extra challenge. Finally, there is a reverse mode, though it seems rather tacked on. Inertia is quite fun, but it's a little short and possibly too easy to abuse your gravity manipulation abilities to make the levels easier than they should be. But if you're going for speed runs, then Inertia will have you perfecting levels for quite some time.