Posted on 30 Oct 2017 by Jay Shaw

PlayExpo Manchester 2017 Indie Games Showcase

This year we took our first trip to Replay Events PlayExpo Manchester to check out the indies on offer. We met some interesting people, played some games, hung out with some developers and generally had a good time. Before we begin I’d like to give a big thank you to all the indie developers that took the time to talk with us and especially to those who gave us demo builds and joined our streams on Sunday and Monday.

Read on and don’t forget to check out the livestream recordings above for a look at some of the games we were lucky enough to score builds of. We’ll also gloss over the hour at the start of the day I spent geeking out over every MSX computer in sight and get right into the indie games, in no particular order:

Ersatz

Ersatz came out of nowhere for me. I saw the big vertical banner and stylish looking developer, Paris Stalker, standing beside his booth looking at the crowd passing by and took my chance to introduce myself and ask what the game was about. Paris helpfully explained that the game is a platformer where each level is based on one of the life processes (Growth, Homeostasis, etc) and where action and soundtrack are intertwined. Just as trepidation for my lack of rhythm was growing Paris is calm and helpful, talking about how important a good soundtrack is and pulling up his shirt to show off his tattoo of the button inputs for the ocarina jingles from Ocarina Of Time.

Thoroughly put at ease I sat down to play the game and was immediately struck by the excellent sense of style in the pixel art graphics. A lot of it is in bold strokes and understated colours but there’s detail too and the beat of the music is represented in the level with background objects vibrating and platforms moving in time with the music. Enemies fire shots on beat and in predictable patterns but I barely struggle through the first level regardless because I’m still a little distracted analysing the way the sound and action interact but listening to Paris’ helpful tips over my shoulder and putting them into practice where I can keeps things moving forwards. Eventually I beat the first boss, a huge goblin thing you have to defeat by dashing into its arse when it’s kneeling to laser you.

I ended my demo there at the show, partially because I felt like I couldn’t acquit myself well on a harder level and partly because I hoped to be playing more later – a request Paris was more than happy to oblige. You can check out the result of that in the video above where we struggle to defeat a few more levels of the game a couple of days later and receive some more information and tips from Paris on chat. The Horusi (enemies of the desert level, which I insist on calling berry-things for a while) become some of my favourite designs, especially the boss that provides an easily recognisable pattern but still offers up a tough fight thanks to the timing of its shots and the narrow window in which to land a safe hit. It was an exhausting demo in all the right ways, we’d been challenged and defeated numerous times but kept coming back again and again, not throwing ourselves against a wall but getting better and learning more with each attempt. It felt good to play.

Balance Of Kingdoms

At the expo, Balance Of Kingdoms caught my attention because two kids playing it were building these elaborate town/forts atop a wide platform perched atop a narrow pole in the middle of the ocean. I was immediately reminded of Worms when I saw the cannons on one town fire at the other and the platform unbalanced as houses tumbled into the water and the whole thing slipped away to declare one of the kids the winner. They both looked pleased and after the developer present (sorry I don’t remember your name!) had a quick jovial chat with them I stepped up for a go myself. First we had to clear a half-finished demo town by collapsing one of the platforms, and I took the opportunity to see just how fragile these towns were. Dumping items willy-nilly onto the ramshackle abandoned town I found it surprisingly hard to tip it over and the developer beside me was equally struggling.

Eventually the platforms went over and the rules were explained – we had 90 seconds to build a town, windmills give money every second and houses give people every second. Everything else is platforms, defensive towers, and cannons to wreck your opponent’s town. If there’s one thing I’m worse at than games that require rhythm it’s planning in advance – my town is precariously tilted before the shooting even begins and the 90 second mark sees the first volley fired and my castle tumbles into the ocean. Some sneaky spying on the dev’s gameplay had taught me a few things about how the cannons behave and how to make best use of your limited space. I lost again and turned to my opponent to ask more about the game’s content.

Balance Of Kingdoms isn’t just a two player game; a single-player campaign is planned with boss fights and several other factions each with different buildings and weapons. Vikings with gatling guns were mentioned, as cool as that sounds I’m not sure I was meant to take that as a literal faction/weapon combo for the final product. Also planned are boss fights against pre-designed forts with the single-player campaign acting as a kind of tutorial for the multiplayer mode. Also of note was the plans for matchmaking; players would choose their faction and then queue for a match, so both players wouldn’t know what their opponent was using until the match begins.

Our stream, embedded above, is a surprise hit for us. We were already a little tired at that point and several games in for the day but the wacky physics and simple but deep gameplay re-energised us into playing the game for far longer than planned. Strategies were optimised, bricks were hastily dropped as counterbalance and cannons were accidentally flung into the opposing town thanks to hilariously bad placement. At one point a cannon even does a backflip.

All Contact Lost

Big thanks to the developers, 1st Impact Games for the exclusive demo build of the game.

All Contact Lost was drawing a decent amount of attention at the show and I had to walk past it twice while looking at games nearby because there were people waiting to play. L showed up late in the day and told me about an awesome first person shooter he’d played and we went back to check it out. The developers were talkative and friendly, two students in the first year of university (if I remember correctly) but they’re keeping a small whiteboard with kill scores on it. L has scored 210, and there’s a couple of scores over 100 but most players seem to have fallen between 20-40. I’m not expecting an easy game but my competitive spirit has been summoned. I’m determined to get a good place on the board.

The developers ask me if I enjoy horde mode games and I’m perfectly candid when I say I find them boring, having previously been put off the genre completely thanks to games like Gears Of War that not only managed to pioneer the genre but make it as naff as possible right out of the gate. I’m eager to play anyway and settle down to fiddle with the sensitivity on the mouse provided to make sure I can do my best. The setting and rules are explained: I’m on the moon, there are alien insects hell-bent on eating my face and I’ve got a small building with rooms that dispense health and ammunition as well as a door to act as a bulwark. Upgrades come ever two levels and I can pick two each time from a selection of weapon, armour, turrets, and walls. Each upgrade changes your gear and the defensive perimeter to give you a better chance of survival.

L informs me he died around wave 11 so I have my goal. I’m going to try to get at least that far. I’m tired, dehydrated, and in quite a bit of pain at this point and I warn the developers that I’m probably going to suck at their game. Immediately I start playing it like my current go-to FPS Insurgency, I’m taking quick shots at the incoming ant-like bugs and prioritising threats based on proximity. For the first few waves things are going well and it kind of feels a little bit like a 3D Space Invaders. The waves roll on, walls are erected and my weapon changes from small assault rifle to light machine gun and finally an extremely powerful semi-auto railgun. The pre-alpha demo glitches and damage indicators remain on screen, the cracked visor effect appears with the final suit upgrade and my vision is severely limited with my attention naturally drawn to the only clear point off-center.

I don’t hold these glitches against the game and I’m a little thankful that the tension has ramped up. By wave 11 the enemies are coming in such large numbers that their corpses are clogging up my firing lines and some are getting through by crawling through the field of corpses, using their dead comrades to absorb my shots. More than once I miscalculate my position and end up cornered – the railgun saves me time and time again as the screen is nothing but a blur of colour strobe-lit by the exploding railgun rounds. My mind has turned off at this point, I’m no longer consciously picking targets, instead my eyes and mouse hand have taken over and settled into firing as fast as the railgun will allow at anything that looks like an insect. Everything looks like an insect, I’m cornered and outnumbered 100 to 1 and sometimes worse but again and again I manage to somehow come out alive, even if only barely.

I wish I could say I remember the entire experience but frankly I only remember the stress and determination to take this as far as possible. There’s 30 waves total and I’m dead set on getting to the end. By wave 25 the developers and people standing behind me are taking bets on how many bugs I’ve killed with estimates ranging from 700 to 1500. I don’t think it’s possible to have taken out so many and I’ve not been keeping count so I keep quiet and concentrate on not dying. By wave 28 the developers tell me I need to die on wave 29 otherwise we won’t see the score. I’m determined to take it down to the wire though and only leave 5 insects alive, knowing that the automated turrets will pick some off before they can kill me. A single alien is left alive at the end of wave 29 when I take my hands off the controls and sit back to watch it murder me.

The score comes in: 2103. I only feel like I took out half that number and have to admit that I actually had a lot of fun playing a horde mode for the first time ever. Excited by my victory I forget to ask for a demo build and have to sheepishly contact the developer the next day so we can do the streams above. The glitches I encountered while playing have been fixed, enemies are faster and more aggressive, ammunition counts are lower, and the railgun feels like it fires slightly slower. It’s a much tighter game thanks to these changes and presents a solid challenge for us on stream. The speed at which the developers made fixes and changes based on play at the expo is seriously impressive and we yet again have a lot of fun playing. The developers join us on stream chat too.

We’ve stayed in contact because All Contact Lost shows a lot of potential. There’s an upcoming single-player campaign mode, a survival style sandbox mode, online multiplayer, usable turrets, and more planned. The campaign won’t be coop but a free-roam sandbox will have cooperative play so there’s more than the horde mode for squashing moon bugs (called Acari) with your friends. When multiplayer is implemented we’ll be playing more with the developers so stay tuned for more on this surprise gem.

Razed

I first spy the colourful Razed while playing another demo at a neighbouring booth and resolve to check it out. I soon learn the game is about a pair of exploding shoes that’ll explode your character if they run out of energy. You can survive longer by running fast but all your abilities drain energy too – don’t have enough in reserve and you won’t be able to jump. Razed starts gentle and I’m burning through the first few levels while talking with the developers about the interesting mechanics; Razed almost feels like a racing game because you use the right trigger to accelerate and let it go to slow down. Cutting through a narrow hairpin turn lined with insta-death spikes feels like threading a supercar through Silverstone in a semi-serious racing game.

Everything save for the walls are instant death. Falling, touching spikes, swinging balls, lasers, drills, and more comprise the multitude of hazards that take me out time and again but thanks to instant restarts and short levels (usually around 10-20 seconds long) it never gets frustrating and I make decent progress without having to pay too much attention – everything’s clearly telegraphed in game and I’m playing almost on instinct, autopilot if you will, where conscious thought is only required when something goes wrong. It’s a relaxing experience.

Late in the demo the developer I’m chatting with informs me that no one else has taken a route I’m on all day. To me it was the obvious route, logic had already discarded the intended route through the level and the developer informs me I’ve actually done a few unintentional things so far. A jump that bypasses a moving platform, a tricky hop to bypass a rough corner, zipping between moving lasers to grab extra power-ups, and finally taking the route others had ignored. I also discover a bug and the developer takes notes beside me.

When we receive our demo build for the game there’s already evident changes. A drawbridge that presented problems on the show floor has been redesigned and I’m convinced some of the earlier levels had changed too, alternate routes seemed more apparent while a couple of jumps seemed to have been tweaked but that may just be me misremembering the levels from my original session with the game. You can see some of our exploits in trying to find faster routes and upgrade points in the video above. Razed ended up being a surprise for me, it’s not my kind of game at all, but I found myself hooked on the slick gameplay and dev enthusiasm. I highly recommend checking it out when it’s released.

Glo

Another game L told me about before I found my way to the booth. Glo is a platformer with a hard to sell without experiencing it twist; everything is dark. You play a small cube with an aura of light and can shoot flares to illuminate distant areas and defeat enemies but otherwise you’re feeling your way through elaborate platforming challenges in almost complete darkness. Responsive controls, double jumping, and a wall-jumping/sliding mechanic provide the main traversal options available to your little cube. I’d recommend checking out the stream above for a better idea of what the game is like because words just don’t do it justice.

Sadly my demo on the show floor was brief. The flat-keyed laptop keyboard and my propensity for fat-fingering that key style at the best of times didn’t gel well with the game but the developer, Chronik Spartan was very accommodating in giving us demo codes to check out the game with the controller I had at home. You can see the entirety of our home play in the video above.

Glo isn’t just a game built on a unique gimmick riding it for attention. It’s a genuinely smart platformer with masterful level design that puts the lessons taught by legends of yesteryear at the forefront. For example, every level is a tutorial but you never know it, you’re always just playing and working your way through the challenge but genius design sees old layouts coming back with new mechanics, layering challenge onto skills you’ve already mastered. Today we study the first Mario Bros and Mega Man X to see how level design can teach but it’s easy to imagine Glo being held up right alongside them in a few years time. I say that with no hyperbole whatsoever – Chronik Spartan is on par with the masters.

Similarly to other games we’ve already talked about, some feedback from our stream has already been taken into account for the final game; the wall jump has been made more forgiving based on our observations (which can be heard in the video above), aiming remembers the direction you last pointed to make jumping shots more accessible, and the first boss spawn has been altered to be “less twatty.”

Glo is well worth your time if you enjoy platformers. A mostly blackened screen may not be something you’d expect to be so engaging but Glo proves you don’t have to be able to go fast or even see the whole level to have a great time.

Nippon Marathon

We received an email about Nippon Marathon before the expo and knew we had to check it out. There’s a piece of art with four characters; a lobster man, an anthropomorphic dog with no pants and a scarf that says “I <3 Joe”, a woman in a pink unicorn kigurumi, and an old man dressed up as a schoolgirl called Xenbei. It’s bizarre in that special way Japan tends to manage so effortlessly except it’s not Japanese. I had to play it.

At the expo, developer Amy was immediately welcoming and seemed perhaps more enthused to play the game than even I was. Another developer was nearby playing Razed at a neighbouring booth and wearing a Charmander kigurumi. After asking me how competitive I was, Amy had Charmander (Andy is his real name, but my mind insists on associating him with Charmander now) join the game too, warning me he’s rather good at it. Before we started though I had so many questions because everything was so bizarre, their booth had a huge flag-like banner on the wall with the characters emblazoned on it (I’d later jokingly offer them $5 for it, and would have happily paid £50 for it if they’d countered the offer) in an art style reminiscent of some Kadokawa anime. There was also an inflatable banana on the table with the game’s name on it.

“What was your inspiration for the game?” Pretty bland as far as a first question goes, I could have asked “WTF?” or just made the confused Jackie Chan gesture and the meaning would have been the same. I was told that Takeshi’s Castle was a huge influence, along with general craziness. I hadn’t even played at this point and I didn’t doubt it at all. Nippon Marathon feels authentically Japanese despite being made by a studio based in the Midlands and that’s because the developers actually spent some time in Japan, they evidently took the culture to heart – and not just the crazy stuff but the charm and atmosphere too.

I have to know more about the dog man too; thanks to the character select screen I now know he’s called Snuguru Maestro so I question Andy about him. Turns out he’s based on a real pet and the scarf is a bit of an in-joke because real-life Snuguru loves Joe, the studio’s playtester. Knowing the story just makes him more awesome and I repeatedly select only Snuguru for every single race we have.

Nippon Marathon plays like a mix of Takeshi’s Castle and Mario Kart – you’re four people racing on foot, anyone who falls behind is eliminated and obstacles will send you sprawling, flying, and tumbling at the slightest provocation. Pick-ups are placed in rapidly cycling boxes like Mario Kart and provide the racers with an oversized piece of fruit in their hand that they can then either use or eat for a speed boost. Using the items is brilliantly experimental at first; tapping the button Snuguru launches a melon up high and a crosshair marks the ground right near my feet, the melon arcs around like a boomerang and takes his legs out from under him before exploding messily between the other racers, scattering everyone. A pineapple results in a floaty super jump great for evading obstacles or crossing large gaps. And a mushroom provides a booby-trap that can be dropped to slow other players or eaten to flop on the floor after a second or so.

The single course in the demo build takes the racers through a fishing village, past docks, over a river, down a cliff, up some cliffs and waterfalls, up temple steps to a finish line beneath a Torii. All the while you’re bombarded with a series of obstacles – rolling barrels and cyclists meet you head on, crates and planks provide the need to manoeuvre, and careless workers spin long poles for maximum comedic effect when you inevitably collide with them. Oh, and there are adorable Shiba Inu that will chase the first person they see until they knock them down, providing both a hazard and something you can attempt to direct to trip opponents.

It’s exactly as mad as you’re imagining. It’s one of the running challenges from Takeshi’s Castle turned up to 11 and then made even crazier with the addition of random slot machines and impromptu interviews about pandas and other topics which the audience then judge the answers to based on popularity. Dialogue choices are first-come-first-served and result in mash-up sentences that are always hilarious and often nonsensical. One of my personal favourites I’ve seen so far have been “Vegetarian Eel with vegan. Octopus.” in response to being asked what kind of meal you’d be. Sentence structure is optional and logic is discouraged.

Nippon Marathon stole the show for all of us, if we were to partake in the asinine tradition of saying something “won the show” then Nippon Marathon is it, hands down. It’s some of the best fun we’ve had with a game of any kind in a long time and exudes charm. Developers, Onion Soup, told us they’re planning on adding another course based on Tokyo at some point in the future and we discussed character counts and maintaining appeal with a larger cast, Kickstarter rewards, and the possibility of adding a crap mermaid as another racer. Now then… San! Ni! Ichi! Hajime!

Wulverblade

Sadly, we don’t have any gameplay footage of our own for Wulverblade but it stands out as an excellent addition to the sparse belt-scrolling beat-em-up genre (think Streets Of Rage and Double Dragon). As the developer explained to me, the game is couched heavily in English history and even features footage and information on ancient sites and other objects of interest from our fair isle.

Wulverblade is equal parts homage and successor to the genre it’s part of; it features large sprites and two player cooperative gameplay with simple to execute special moves such as dashes, uppercuts and even calling a pack of wolves to savage everything on screen. Set in 120AD the game follows the exploits of three heroes opposing the encroaching Romans, and other nasties. The heroes are classic beat-em-up fare; the big guy hits hard but is slow, the smaller guy is average all-round, while the woman is fast but hits weaker than the other two. I tried all three and Caradoc, the balanced guy, suited my style of play well but Brennus (big guy) and Guinevere (the lady) felt great to play too.

In gameplay Wulverblade feels like a mash-up of the best bits of a half-dozen classics. Golden Axe and Knights Of The Round are perhaps the most heavily felt but Chronicles Of Mystara, Sengoku, and Double Dragon are all felt to some degree. Enemies surround you and some light tactics are required, throwing objects, executing stunned enemies, grappling a lone enemy, and careful positioning will usually come into play in each fight. On normal difficulty the game provided a fair challenge and never felt overwhelming. The end of demo boss fight felt like a one-on-one duel with parries, dodges, and exchanges of blows that make you feel both powerful and fragile at the same time.

Wulverblade is already out on the Nintendo Switch but will be coming to PC soon, hopefully this year or early next year.

Sigma Theory

Sigma Theory is a turn based strategy game set in a kind of cold war. A new technology, the titular Sigma Theory has been discovered and scientists are a hot commodity for the world’s nations. You take control of one of ten nations covert intelligence services and have to recruit agents, send them on missions and manage their day to day objectives. Your overall goal is to grab scientists and and research upgrades on the tech tree but there’s far more to it.

My demo with the game starts with a brief introduction to what’s going off and then tasks me with taking charge of MI5 operations, the only one available in the demo but the developer assures me that all the nations will be playable in the final release. I’m presented with a list of possible agents and have to convince them to join; recruiting them isn’t as simple as hitting a button, you have to read their bio and understand their motivations. If the agent you want is a thrill seeker they’ll probably refuse if you promise them money but if you tell them they’re in for an action packed adventure they’ll be more willing to join up.

Your agents also have two major fields that determines their usefulness; traits and knowledge. One of the agents I recruit has geographic knowledge of Germany and has the knife fighter trait so I start out by sending him to Germany while I just scatter the other 3 recruits around the world to countries I think can spare a scientist or two. Airport security means my agents can’t take weapons with them when they change country and only have a knife on hand when they arrive. A bit of scouting reveals my agent in Germany can make contact with a scientist there so I decide to forgo weapons and make a quick move on my first prize.

The infiltration goes off without a hitch and my agent has to escape with the scientist I’ve just bribed into joining England’s cause. They’re heading for the trains but are intercepted by an enemy agent who just happens to be in the area – the other nations are all conducting their espionage operations alongside yours – and my knife wielding agent engages the enemy. Unfortunately he brought a knife to a gun fight and promptly earns himself the KIA tag. The scientist is gone too, abducted by a rival nation.

I still have three other agents on the map but I’m more curious about what could have happened so I ask the developer about what I could’ve achieved. He tells me that the scientist could’ve been assigned to a research project on the tech tree and opens it up to show me. He highlights the immortality technology and explains that if I’d researched that tech I would’ve had to make a decision about how to use it. I could keep it for my own nation to gain an advantage, or make it open source for the world to benefit, I could even keep it secret and trade it for a captured agent or diplomatic situation later. See, Sigma Theory isn’t just about meeting your goals, it’s about how you affect the world via your actions and choices.

I end my turn and an official from the UK government pops up with some demand or other – I honestly don’t remember what he wanted but I remember telling him to get stuffed because I didn’t want to get tangled up in whatever he wanted. Instead, I’d set my own goal of preparing for a proper attempt at getting a scientist. My agent in the US does some recon, makes contact with the black market and buys herself an assault rifle. I send her looking for a scientist but she comes up empty and I end the turn, resolved to abandon her weapon and move her on to another country to try again. Instead, an eastern European contact offers me a meeting in a couple of days. I never make it there because I can’t figure out where he wanted to meet because I’m an idiot that doesn’t read everything in detail.

My agents scout around for several more days and largely repeat the previous failures; one more dies, another is recognised by authorities and has to flee the country then gets arrested in another, and my final agent makes an attempt at stealing a scientist without proper preparation because I’m apparently incapable of learning from prior mistakes. In the space of about a week all my agents are burned or dead.

If all this sounds like I had a bad time I can assure you I didn’t. Reading the agent bios and event descriptions was a lot of fun, they’re well written and accompanied by excellent art and the extra levels of depth like having to talk to your agents and understand their motivations in order to recruit them make it a more engaging experience than something like XCOM. I may have failed miserably at being the head of an intelligence agency but I’ve learned two valuable lessons: Sigma Theory is a game I want, and Sigma Theory‘s developers are adept at telling a good cold war tale despite player actions being able to take it in a whole bunch of different directions.

Hyper Sentinel

You may not know this but I am a gigantic fan of the Uridium games. This is important because Hyper Sentinel is made by Andrew and Rob Hewson, a father and son team, the former of which is the designer of the original Uridium and several other legendary games of the microcomputer era. Also important to note is that Hyper Sentinel is basically Uridium with fancier graphics. Rob and I geek out a little about his father’s work while he explains the game’s three modes; arcade, survival and boss rush before starting me off on arcade mode.

It’s instantly familiar – I’ve got an agile ship with twin lasers and the ability to boost and change direction. My objective is to destroy targets on the hull of a large enemy ship and avoid getting shot down. I’m instantly absorbed as old skills slowly reawaken and ground targets fall like dominoes. Quick application of the booster lets me chase power ups towed by enemy ship formations and I’m soon sporting bigger weapons and other temporary power ups on a regular basis.

Boss encounters at the end of each level ramp up the difficulty a fair amount; they’ll often start with a basic pattern but when damaged they’ll often modify their behaviour to add an extra attack. One boss that surprised me was a large gunship type enemy that would run away and shoot ahead of you while you boosted to catch up. Approaching slowly would give it more shots but give you more reaction time while boosting in would give it less shots and let you get behind it faster. After a few cycles of this it begins shooting behind it as it runs away, an expertly timed change that lets you fall into the rhythm of pursuit and then pulls the rug out from under you. I almost die battling it but come out on top. A few levels later and the same boss is back but accompanied by a smaller boss comprised of several parts that I’d also previously fought on its own.

The skill requirement isn’t extreme on normal difficulty, your ship is nimble and projectiles are easily seen so avoiding contact with them is an easily learned skill. You’ve also got the ability to flip direction from left to right and vice versa which provides a moment of invulnerability as the ship performs an automated Immelmann turn. You’re rarely overwhelmed but you’re never out of the action either, it’s a balance Uridium 2 on the Amiga managed to get almost perfect and Hyper Sentinel feels like the Hewsons have been refining that legacy and distilling it into its purest form.

Before I know it I’m hitting level 7 of 12 and I actually want to stop, not because the game is bad but because it’s so good and I don’t want to spoil the whole experience before I can buy it for myself. I’ve been eyeing a cassette and its box on the table since I sat down, as a huge ZX Spectrum fan it’s irresistible so I ask Andrew about it. Turns out it’s the collectors edition of the game; it’ll set you back £30 but you get a USB drive disguised as a cassette tape and accompanying box styled after a Speccy release circa the mid 80s. There’s more than the game on there too; interviews, scans and art, dev diaries, three demos for other games and more are packed onto the little black faux tape. Andrew hasn’t even finished explaining and I’m already resolved to buy one.

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