Summer is a traditionally tepid period for game releases. Unlike film fans, who get big summer blockbusters all season long, gamers are expected to make do with old stuff or, god forbid, go outside and soak up the sun.
Fortunately while big publishers wait for Christmas, independent and downloadable producers have in recent years come out in force to fill the summer gap.
The most notable example of this is The Summer of Arcade, a festival of independent talent that Microsoft host on Xbox Live every summer.
Now in its fifth year it still supplies fantastic games but some critics argue that it’s lost steam and indie credibility along the way. They might have a point.
This year’s festival opened with Tony Hawks Pro Skater HD which while aesthetically counter-cultural, is produced by Activision, one of the biggest publishers in the world.
The game isn’t all that great either: the HD coat of paint is splotchy at best and the new engine results in laggy controls and unpredictable physics. The remake also removes features present in the 13-year-old original: local multiplayer options, the park editor and half of the soundtrack.
It’s a real shame because the game’s unique core mechanics can still be thrilling but with THPS2 is readily available on eBay, nobody should accept this prettier downgrade. 2/5
Next up was Wreckateer, from the genuinely independent Iron Galaxy Studios. It’s a Kinect game in which players launch boulders to demolish castles and fortresses, crushing the green goblins that occupy them.
It’s not far removed from a certain disgruntled poultry simulator but the 3D design makes sure it doesn’t feel like a rip off. Iron Galaxy understand the limitations of the Kinect hardware and attempt to sidestep them by working in broad strokes.
In short bursts they’re successful, with varied power-ups and shot types keeping the gameplay interesting. In these bursts Wreckateer’s cathartic chaos can be enjoyable but longer sessions expose the repetitive design, workmanlike graphics and uninspired level design. It’s one of the better Kinect games around but unfortunately that’s not saying much. 2/5
Luckily the next course more than made up for a disappointing pair of hors d’oeuvre. Created by the independent Spanish studio Tequila Works, Deadlight is an ambitious side scrolling zombie survival horror game with a aesthetic so polished, cohesive and relentlessly downbeat that it’s impossible not to become engrossed.
Sometimes this visual treat comes at the expense of gameplay, with the protagonist’s animations taking precedence over control fidelity, but this only becomes a problem in a few overly elaborate platforming sections. This minor flaw does nothing to detract from what is otherwise a memorable, exhilarating and moment filled journey with an involving, if improbable plot. 4/5
Hybrid, the penultimate festival entrant, distils the multiplayer cover based shooter in an attempt to find its essence. The most notable alteration it makes is the total removal of free movement, only allowing player to navigate by aiming to a cover point and selecting it. The player then automatically uses their jetpack to fly to that point.
This may initially seem limiting but without freedom of movement, every action becomes a conscious tactical choice. This minimalist approach creates tight territorial skirmishes where out-manoeuvring your opponent is just as vital as shooting them.
Hybrid’s maps are equally minimalist, in keeping with the gameplay, but unfortunately they tend to look bland rather than sleek. Some peripheral features such as kill-streaks don’t fit with the game’s measured approach but on the whole, this is a rewarding and unique experience that focuses on a few basic mechanics and masters them. 3/5
Closing out the festival and restoring much of its dwindling indie credibility was Dust: An Elysian Tail, a side scrolling action RPG designed and programmed by one man, Dean Dodrill.
Although a solo project, Dust is arguably the most fully featured game of the lot. It’s got an expansive hand drawn fantasy world full of interesting and talkative characters, a deceptively complex combat system, multiple quest lines and even a fully featured economy and leveling system.
Cramming this much content into a downloadable game was probably naive on Dodrill’s part (he planned to develop the game over three months, it took over three years) but the results are audacious, confident and delightful.
The combat system is not only fantastic, it represents a modernising step for the entire genre and the digital effects used sparingly over hand drawn art create a palpable sense of motion. The pacing can be inconsistent and the checkpoints frugal at times but Dust is still a fantastic example of everything an indie game can achieve. 5/5
While this year’s Summer of Arcade didn’t quite boast the flawless line-ups of years past, it still showcased some of the most exciting titles from the an experimental group of artists in an increasingly industrialised medium. At £10 each and with free demos available for your consideration, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t check this collection out.