Eerie and haunting, Black Lake is our favourite of the bunch. A lush, spooky forest where spindly-legged monsters stalk is the setting, and a quest to track a fox through the woods is the task. The protagonist – a hunter’s daughter – carries a lantern that lies at the core of a simple stealth mechanic. When lit, you can see further afield, yet the monsters will come for you. Switch the lantern off and you’ll be absorbed by the dark. The actual tracking mechanics are simplistic, built around following paw prints and scent trails, but there are hints as to the shape a fuller game might take. The hunter’s daughter can pluck plants from the ground and stumble across her father’s broken bear traps, hinting, perhaps, at a crafting system, while the accordion she carries can be used Zelda-style, to magical effect. The final sequence is beautifully surreal, as she uses music to repair the broken dreams spilling from the foxes mind into the forest.
The White Birch
Perhaps the most conventional game we played, The White Birch also suffers the most from being a prototype. Poor clipping and floaty jumping don’t serve platform games well, so it’s testament to the aesthetic vision behind the game that we’d still like to see more. It’s not just the look that recalls Ico, with the washed-out minimalism of its sun-bleached stone, but the mechanics too. There’s a simple physical logic behind the platforming, as the spindly-limbed hero uses her own weight to tip a vertically oriented bridge by leaping atop it. The White Birch tells the story of a girl’s ascent up a giant, seemingly endless tower, and there’s mystery here that – should the game be finished – will take multiple playthroughs to uncover.
A sparking toybox, Autonomus lets you build strange robotic helpers from pieces found in a Tron-like computerised landscape. Your freeform goal is to harvest energy from nodes and other robots in the randomly generated environment. This, coupled with the freedom with which you can assemble your creations, makes for some wonderfully emergent chaos. We tried to build a robot using the head from a turret, for instance, only to find it didn’t know how to move. This spectacular failure on our part wasn’t helped by the rather placeholder visual language that lets you reprogram your creations, but it’s still a tribute to the way this open-ended sandbox is already adept at generating unpredictable chains of effect. Later, we sent a more successful creation to harvest energy, only to find ourselves in a tense escort mission in which we hurriedly reassembled troops from the fallen on both sides. In a sense, Autonomus feels more like an alpha than a prototype: there’s a full game here, and we’d just like to see a see a steady influx of new environmental features and robotic parts for the electric playground.
A management sim built in two weeks was always going to lack depth and complexity, but Spacebase DF9 has a secret weapon: its cast. There’s the sense that Double Fine is adding a dash of soap to the space opera here: click on your citizens (all named for sci-fi characters) and you’ll find them grumbling about the general state of the station as well as each other. The humour’s broad but amusing, as engineer Mare Worf, who at the time of writing has contracted a nasty combination of Space Syphilis and Cosmic Chlamydia, can attest. There’s a powerful sense of building out into the unknown too, as you construct bridges through the depths of space to reach derelicts and find the citizens and building supplies inside.
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