Games with surreal vibes… and fish management.
It’s time for our monthly review roundup, which means we’ve got a bunch of weird and wonderful indie games for you to check out. This month, we’ve got everything from a horror visual novel to an aquarium simulator and a puzzler about starting your own band. Read on to find which are worth playing and which are best left uninstalled.
Manifold Garden is a clear labour of love, a project that’s taken its solo developer, William Chyr, seven years to make. Imagine spending such a portion of your life on something for it to not come to fruition in the end. I’m thankful to say this theoretical situation absolutely does not apply here.
Manifold Garden is a remarkable piece of design, one of the best-looking puzzlers I’ve played in years. Its environments are vast, psychedelic spaces of abstract architecture, with more than a hint of M.C. Escher influence.
What’s truly staggering, however, is that these levels loop infinitely. Walk off a ledge and you’ll fall forever, the platforms repeating themselves. It blew my mind the first time I experienced it, and it never got old. It’s pure sorcery. You have to witness it in person.
As if that wasn’t mind-boggling enough, you can freely alter your gravitational pull in six directions, with each orientation smartly colouring the platform to help you maintain some semblance of direction. Many of the puzzles revolve around manipulating corresponding coloured blocks in order to trigger changes in the level to let you progress. They’re simple, but well-executed.
Manifold Garden isn’t a particularly challenging puzzle experience, but it’s an awe-inspiring and memorable one. I can’t recommend it enough.
[Reviewed on PC]
Megaquarium (Nintendo Switch)
If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that you really can make a simulation game about anything. When Megaquarium released as the first aquarium simulator of its kind just over a year ago, then, it was actually a pretty tame idea – and a generally well-received one, too. Because Switch ports are practically the law nowadays, it was inevitable that it would make its way over to Nintendo’s popular hybrid console.
So how does Megaquarium on Switch hold up? It works, on a fundamental level at least. I found the framerate to be consistently smooth in both handheld and docked mode. The already simple visuals have taken a further downgrade to achieve this – arguably a worthwhile tradeoff, even if it does look a little crude in places.
The UI, however, is where things get a little slippier. There are a lot of menus to wade through in Megaquarium, and predictably, this isn’t as smooth without a keyboard and mouse. Determining appropriate combinations of fish that won’t fight or eat each other is a crucial aspect of the game, and it’s a bit of a headache to do so in this version.
That said, it’s otherwise a fairly tight and enjoyable sim. The campaign scenarios introduce you to all of its systems very gradually, and there’s plenty of freedom to customise your aquariums exactly how you please – even if they’re arguably not as interesting to build and look at as theme parks and cities. But each to their own.
[Reviewed on Switch]
Spirit Hunter: NG
With it being Halloween, we had to throw a spooky game into the mix somewhere. Spirit Hunter: NG is a horror visual novel that has you getting tangled up in a web of vengeful spirits and their curses, in order to rescue your kidnapped little sister.
It’s a lengthy experience for a visual novel, taking an hour or two to properly get started and clocking in at around 20 hours overall. While the plot is reasonably engaging, it smacks of imperfect translation and comes across as a little juvenile in its writing.
There are several points at which you are challenged and can influence the story. Oddly-named ‘Judging’ sections have you pick a reaction to a piece of dialogue, influencing your relationship with that character. The similarly peculiar ‘Crisis Choice’ sections are life-or-death (or failure state, at least) scenarios of multiple choice. These can feel largely like trial and error, with the ‘correct’ answer to each predicament feeling arbitrary. And some binary decisions are entirely pointless, with the game ignoring your decision and doing the opposite.
Spirit Hunter: NG benefits from some well-illustrated background scenes to create its setting. But assets feel overused, with not enough unique locations or character animations and facial expressions. Voice acting is also extremely minimal.
Spirit Hunter: NG is an adequately playable visual novel overall, but the standards of its writing and presentation are sub-par for the hefty price of admission.
[Reviewed on Switch]
I really wanted to like Kine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. But let’s go over the good stuff first. For starters, the concept is quirky and charming: three anthropomorphic instruments – an accordion, drumkit and trombone – meet and form a band, with dreams of making their big break.
Its presentation is charismatic, with blocky characters and levels that animate and bounce around, and a jazzy soundtrack that ties in wonderfully. Where Kine falls down, then, is in how it actually is to play.
Kine is a puzzle game with a simple enough premise: move the characters through the levels and reach a goal block. The levels aren’t even particularly big, on the whole. But the cruel genius comes from how characters move – they can roll from side to side, but each has a different arrangement of parts, such as the slide of the trombone or the bellows of the accordion. These can help by letting you move two or three spaces at a time – or more commonly, hinder, by getting in the way and restricting you from moving where you want to go.
The solution, then, involves sussing out the exact patterns you need to move in order to be in the correct orientation for reaching your goal. This is tricky enough when controlling a solo character, but later levels involve managing two or three of them at a time, all closely interdependent on each other. It’s brain-melting stuff. The level of difficulty goes beyond a pleasant challenge, and it’s hard to enjoy it as a result.
Adding insult to injury is the somewhat uncooperative camera and the din of discordant sound effects every time you try to make an illegal move (hint: frequently). While those with a penchant for the punishing should check out Kine, less adept puzzlers may wish to stay away.
[Reviewed on Switch]
Dreams are weird, eh? You’ve no doubt gone on some wacky adventures in your dreams over the years, and Yuri is testament to that. You play as a chap in cosy pyjamas exploring surreal levels by virtue of your bed on wheels.
Yuri is a platformer in which you’ll jump, roll, swing, fly and bounce your way through pretty dreamscapes. The visual style echoes the likes of Badlands, Light Fall et al, with stark silhouettes contrasting with gradients of twilight colours in the background. Nothing new, but it looks good all the same.
The platforming is very forgiving, spawning you right back to where you fell with no consequences. It’s pretty easy overall (I know I’m sounding like the Goldilocks of game difficulty here), with the ability to gather 100 collectibles in each level the only element stopping you from breezing through in no time. But the numerous moving parts like plants, insects and rocks at least help levels feel more dynamic and interesting.
I have a couple of minor gripes, including iffy collision detection with pickups and irritating vocal sound effects. But otherwise, despite it not exactly breaking any new ground, Yuri is a chilled, atmospheric platformer worth a look.
[Reviewed on Switch]
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.