This War of Mine
If you reflect back on the library of 11bit Studios, it would be impossible to see a game like This War of Mine in their future. Previous to their wartime survival game, the studio was best known for their Anomaly series, something completely unlike the game I got to experience at PAX East. What 11bit Studio showed me was a dark and grounded game, not only something which wouldn’t fit into their previous library, but something which stands out from the majority of games today. This War of MIne is a decidedly new take on war in video games, the title focuses on resource management, taking the player out of the military and inserting them into the lives of civilians trying to survive in their day-to-day life.
As I arrived at the 11bit booth, I am introduced to the head of the studio, Grzegorz Miechowski. Miechowski talks about This War of Mine with passion, but there is something more, a tone of seriousness to his voice. Every developer at PAX loves their game and is excited to talk about it, but Miechowski doesn’t only believe This War of Mine is good, he believes it is important. Miechowski talks about the research his team did before starting their work on This War of Mine. He mentions the recent all-consuming warfare of places like Sarajevo, Bosnia, referencing real people they spoke to, and the stories they had to tell.
As I get my hands on This War of Mine, I am instantly struck by the game’s simple look. The design is a 2D building cutout, colored with a black-and-white pencil style. It instantly sets a gloomy ambience for the game as light spills in through cracks and holes in the battered building which is “home” for three desperate survivors.
Point-and-click controls guide your characters through the wreckage littering the screen. Stairs and ladders can be traversed, doors opened by clicking on an icon. As I explore the bombed-out building, I find certain doors can’t be opened without a crowbar, blocking my way to certain supplies. I can construct a crowbar at a workbench in the house, but before a crowbar can be constructed, my characters are in need of more basic utilities such as beds to sleep in, a stove to cook food, a filtration system for water, and weapons for protection. While all of these things are necessities, I can only create one. Instantly tough choices are rearing their head.
After building a simple bed, the day ends and night falls. During the day your survivors are confined to their home, at night you can send a member of the team out to scavenge for supplies. When out scavenging, the game turns from resource management to a stealth experience. You must work your way through the wreckage, looking for supplies while constantly being aware of other scavengers who could turn hostile.
The violence of This War of Mine is simple yet unforgiving. When you encounter enemies, you almost certainly will need a weapon to defend yourself. A knife isn’t bad, but nothing beats a firearm. The violence is controlled through mouse clicks, like most other things in the game. It doesn’t have much depth, but it still can turn visceral. After whittling my enemies’ health down to almost nothing, they ran away, hiding in corners, begging for their life. Again This War of Mine asks unassuming questions, do you kill these people or let them live?
Not all other civilians are hostile, some are looking to trade with you, others will join your party if you help them out. Gathering numbers can be helpful, as you never know when one of your survivors could meet their untimely end while scavenging, but it is another mouth to feed. This is where the game shows off its teeth. This War of Mine is a tough tight-rope walk of figuring how many people you can keep alive and what you need to save them. There’s no right answer, as there often isn’t in these situations. I am excited to see and hear more from 11bit Studios and This War of Mine.
Hyper Light Drifter
I have to be honest, coming into PAX East, Hyper Light Drifter wasn’t even on my radar. It is one of the most exciting aspects of PAX, finding games you never heard of and discovering new titles to be excited about. Hyper Light Drifter was something completely unexpected, and the game has catapulted into one of my most anticipated titles of 2014. While there are many things which set Hyper Light Drifter apart from the numerous games I saw at PAX East, there was also something completely undefinable about it. The game feels amazing, it has an “it” factor which so often defines the indie games which stand head-and-shoulders above the rest.
To describe Hyper Light Drifter’s art-style as pixel-art is an accurate disservice. The style is pixel-art, but the team has honed in on the details, giving the game an impressive amount of depth and specificity. The top-down perspective harkens back to A Link to the Past, or even the more recent Hotline Miami, but Hyper Light Drifter has a more hand-crafted feel to it. The game is an evolution in the pixel-art style. While playing with old ideas, it still manages to feel unique and inventive.
Talking to Heart Machine, the developer behind the game, they described Hyper Light Drifter as a blend between A Link to the Past and Diablo. So it is no surprise the game’s core gameplay revolves around dungeon crawling. Whether you are scaling through rocky cliffs or picking your way through dark caves, the dungeon crawler concept is alive and well in Hyper Light Drifter. The games’ multiple worlds are open from the start, creating an open-world experience, but Heart Machine said you would find the end of the worlds too difficult at first. Instead of being gated by equipment needs like many Zelda games or the Metroidvania genre, the game would be gated by player ability. There would be some skills acquired along the way as well, which might help players through tricky parts, but for the most part you would need to hone your skills in other worlds before coming back to the game’s more difficult sections.
These skills are in an inventory-like menu, and two of them can be equipped at a time. In addition to your two special skills, which use up an energy meter, you have a standard attack and a dash move. Dashing around the screen to avoid enemies seems to be one of the most important aspects to the combat. It gives the game a furious pace and adds an element of strategy as players need to pick their moments of when to strike and when to fall back.
As you take down enemies, you can collect energy from them to boost up your special skills and health to survive. Taking out enemies is easier said than done. While spending time with the game’s arena mode, I found the game demanding of skill and unforgiving of mistakes. While Hyper Light Drift will lure you in with its look and fantastically tight mechanics, it won’t play down to you. Hyper Light Drifter might be, as it was for me, off your radar, but it is time to take note. Heart Machine’s top-down action-adventure doesn’t just have the promise to be one of the best games at PAX East, but of 2014.