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Reviews: Shadowgrounds, Anomaly Warzone Earth, NightSky, ARES

Game: Shadowgrounds
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 74
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Atmospheric, top-down shooters

Burn them with fire.

Shadowgrounds is one of those indie games you wish received the polish of a full budget. The premise is an alien invasion of the human colony on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. What is great about Shadowgrounds is the atmospheric top-down shooting which combines elements of Smash TV/Binding of Isaac with survival horror. What this means is that you will frequently face hordes of aliens, but you lack the infinite ammo that would typically reduce the experience to holding down the fire button. There is also a strong sense that the game started out as a “shadow simulator” given the uncharacteristically amazing dynamic shadows generated by your flashlight.

With a dozen weapons with differing upgrade options and a good mix of alien types that never become trivial, Shadowgrounds makes a surprisingly strong entry in its own hybrid genre. It is just a shame that the designers felt it necessary to close up every loose end in the game’s conclusion.

Game: Shadowgrounds: Survivor
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Even more atmospheric, top-down shooters

Seriously though, make these "real" games.

With Shadowgrounds: Survivor, Frozen Byte took the formula of the original and tweaked it in some of the right ways, and some of the wrong ways. As a prequel to the original, Survivor follows the paths of three separate survivors of the original attack on their way to evacuation. Each of the three characters is essentially their own “class,” with access to only a handful of the weapons of the original game. It makes for a more focused experience when you don’t have to choose between 12 weapons to exterminate an incoming enemy horde, so that actually works out. What also works out is the inclusion of a lot more human blood and body parts in the background, cementing my belief that this franchise could possibly see success remade as a perhaps B-level game.

What I felt didn’t work though, was the inclusion of experience points. While the original game had an upgrade system based on drops from enemies, I never really felt the need to kill every alien around. With XP though, the entire tone of the game changes to where you find yourself hunting down every last straggler to make sure you hit the XP cap for each level. Instead of “surviving,” it felt a lot more like “hunting.” Aside from that, the game really does feel like an improvement on the original.

Game: Anomaly Warzone Earth
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Slick, tower defense on wheels

If only a game was as fun as it looked.

The big buzz surrounding this indie title was the term “reverse tower defense.” While it is technically accurate that the enemy is the one with towers in a maze of city streets, Anomaly plays a lot closer to “tower defense on wheels” than anything else. You control an immortal commander that runs around on the ground, capable of placing one of four different types of effects on the battlefield to support your convoy: repair zones, smoke screens, decoys, and airstrike zones. A press of the button will bring up your map screen where you can change the route of your convoy, buy or upgrade units, or switch their order. The game itself is one of the slickest I have ever seen, as far as graphics and interface goes.

While there are varied alien tower types and plenty of tactical placement of your special powers, Anomaly suffers immensely from the fact that there is an optimal convoy configuration that never makes sense to deviate from. Basically: tank, shield, missile, missile. While some of the alien towers will force you to move away from your convoy and still others will force you to drop powers in only a few areas, the banality of the convoy configuration itself makes the destruction of the alien towers a forgone conclusion. I almost think the game would be a lot deeper if you had no control over the convoy composition – it would change how you deploy the special powers, at a minimum.

Game: NightSky
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 78
Completion Time: ~4 hours
Buy If You Like: 2D physics indie puzzle games + jazz

Only thing more elegant than the visuals is the soundtrack.

In NightSky you control a metal sphere that has to roll its way past a number of 3-screen sets of physics-based puzzles. On some screens you have abilities like a super-speed up, a super-friction move, and even reverse gravity. These powers come and go, along with some more esoteric ones like being placed inside of a hollow-out RC car, or not being able to move at all while controlling the release of wheels, hammers, and other physics-based items as your only source of motive force.

There is nothing too groundbreaking going on in NightSky, but I must say it has one of the best jazz/environmental music in any indie game I have ever played. Combined with the gorgeous artwork that makes us each level, NightSky actually made for an amazingly relaxing game experience in the hour or so before going to sleep. There is a little bit of depth with some secret areas and hidden stars to collect, but this game is just long enough on its own to whet your appetite for more of what these designers are cooking.

Game: A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda
Recommended price: nothing
Metacritic Score: 68
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Bad side-scrolling shooters

Like spiderweb-flavored cotton candy.

What a terrible game. ARES is a side-scrolling shooter in the vein of Megaman, but anyone who actually played Megaman (or any side-scrolling shooter) will immediately recognize how utterly vapid the gameplay ends up being. Most enemies die without even doing anything that needs avoiding, and the boss encounters require no real strategy. It is almost as if the designers looked at an ingredient list of classic NES games, and then just tossed them all in a pot and called it a day. Pro-tip: if you want platformer-esque gameplay, you might want to ensure that your game includes jumping mechanics that don’t rely on a non-renewable resource, i.e. grenades.

What makes things worse to me, is how obvious the designers were in trying to pad the game. Each robot you destroy leaves behind a smattering of three different types of parts. Collecting these parts enable you to make health packs, grenade types, and upgrades to your weapons. Thing is, enemies will literally respawn two feet to the left or right of off-screen territory, giving you a not-so-subtle indication to go ahead and farm them for parts. Which might be fine if A) they didn’t essentially self-destruct once coming into view, B) they had attacks you needed to avoid, or C) bosses didn’t roll over and die without you ever really knowing what you were supposed to be doing, even on Hard mode. Graded performance *might* get perfectionists back again, but the lack of any compelling gameplay whatsoever limits that particular population to the most extreme of the OCD. And even then, they would probably have more fun counting toothpicks.

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