Is Indie Royale's Alpha Collection ready for prime time?
When I think of alphas nowadays I tend to recall Minecraft, a game eminently playable in its alpha state. In reality, alphas (and even betas) are not like that: they’re more proofs of concept than full games. Alphas are not feature complete, but represent where the game’s going.
In this case, Indie Royale’s Alpha Collection #1 has given us three alphas. It’s an interesting concept for a bundle: we gamers are used to buying four to six games in a bundle where we’ve heard of three of them and own two. That’s not the case here: as someone pretty plugged into indie gaming, I didn’t know these games existed before the bundle was announced. There’s something to be said for that level of novelty, but it also represents a risk: who’s going to buy three games they’ve never heard of? In reality, it works more like Kickstarter than a traditional bundle: you get a few unfinished games, but really what you’re doing is preordering and supporting continued development.
I’m going to start with 3079: my favorite of the bunch, but also a game in definite need of some alpha love and care. 3079 is best described as a story-centric total conversion of Minecraft. It’s more complicated, of course: it feels most like if Doom and Mass Effect made out in Minecraft’s lush scenery. There’s first person shooting, hellbeasts out of the mid nineties, a plethora of customizable weapons, level ups, merchants, some simple building mechanics, and perpetual war. All those things tossed together sounds like the most awesome game ever conceived.
And for the first five minutes, you’re going to agree. 3079 begins with a breathless free-fall from space onto a planet plagued by war between what seem to be at least a half dozen factions, falling through asteroids and getting mauled by demons straight out of Doom. You wake up on the planet with no guns, surrounded by the wreckage of civilization. Massive ships fly overhead, and there is assuredly a firefight a hill over that’s going to quickly encroach on your position. Soon you’ll be forced to set off across alien terrain in search of a gun, a friendly face, and enemies with faces for you to cave in.
3079 has moments where you think you’re playing an absolutely stellar game: that space free fall, waking up in a ruined town, finding a massive firefight between multiple factions, the dread as a ship casts a long shadow over you. These are great moments. They’re better than great moments: they are procedurally generated wonders, happenings that remind me why I like video games so much in the first place.
There are problems though, befitting a game still in alpha. Remember how I said the game had a lot in common with Minecraft? I didn’t mean that in that it allows building (though it does, a little bit) or it has the same aesthetic (though it definitely does): I meant it in the combat. The guns and movement have a distinctly Minecraft feel. This is unfortunate because the combat is 100% the worst part of that game in my book. Everything in 3079 feels alternatively loose and tight: loose in that you’re not quite sure your actions are effecting the game world, and tight in that everything feels slow and cramped.
That said, of these three games I have the highest hopes for 3079. Its moments of loveliness far outweigh its problems, and furthermore they are more emblematic of the ideal 1.0 experience. I imagine that the first things the developers thought of were those brilliant moments, and the last they thought of was the nuts and bolts of the combat system. And it’s not even that bad, either: it just needs a few coats of polish. And that’s what alphas are for, and it’s why I’m definitely interested in where 3079 wants to take us.
Following 3079 is Towns, a game with a lot of potential but still with a lot to prove. In terms of design it’s going for Dwarf Fortress by way of games like Majesty and Settlers and maybe even a little Recettear in concept: you’re building a town that will enable heroes to explore the dark depths below. You’re doing this by macromanaging all the tasks at hand: you will indirectly assign your villagers to build buildings, mine resources, and become soldiers to help fight off the hordes of evils in the world.
Well, wait, hold up. Heroes aren’t in the game yet. So most of the RPG elements are out the window. Additionally, the interface, while nowhere near Dwarf Fortress’ nigh impenetrable soup, is still pretty complicated. It wants you to do a lot of things, and for the most part it wants you to figure out not only how to do them but what those things are. This isn’t bad if you love old school strategy titles. It’s what you did in those games. But, as someone with slightly more modern sensibilities I was given pause numerous times by figuring out just how to do something. This is only compounded by the lack of direct control you have over your minions. Sure, you tell them what to build, but they will more often than not prioritize your orders in a completely ridiculous way, leading them to mine for hours while all you want them to do is carry stone up and build a house. It’s one thing for an interface to be complicated, but if I’m going to have to work hard to figure out how to do anything then I want to be able to do exactly what I want.
That said, it’s hardest to comment on Towns, because it feels like it’s going to play much differently once the RPG ideas are added into the pot. Right now it’s a cool little town against the world sort of simulator, but once your village becomes a destination for hero characters? Well, then thing are going to change. I don’t know how they will, but I’m excited to see that happen. It’s the game that needs the most concrete improvement to be a capable title, but it’s also one where I’m most confident it will get that work.
The final game, Wyv and Keep, is also the most complete: while it’s quite possible the entire experience cuts off at an arbitrary barrier after the levels I played, the ones I have played seem altogether feature complete. That said, your appreciation of Wyv and Keep will be almost 1:1 with your appreciation of The Lost Vikings, and I never enjoyed that game particularly much.
Wyv and Keep is a cooperate puzzle platformer where you play as two treasure hunters exploring jungle temples. I can’t imagine much benefit for playing it multiplayer over single player, because the entire experience is slow-paced crate moving and thinking. In fact, I can see working together as detriment. This is a game that requires you to perform very deliberate actions, moving crates through tightly constructed puzzles; another player would just muck it up, I think.
Here’s the thing: I prefer puzzle games where things happen to make me feel clever. I love games like Braid because I am always making progress: its rare where I find a moment where I have concretely screwed up and have to start over. Unfortunately, this is Wyv and Keep’s favorite moment. I had to restart nearly every puzzle two or three times because I’d invariably push a crate off a ledge and be unable to proceed with the level. Wyv and Keep‘s lack of a way to either rewind time or correct your mistakes (a pull button would solve this problem) makes it a frustrating exercise in trial and error instead of in solving Wyv and Keep’s clever puzzles.
So the question becomes: is the Indie Alpha Collection worth your time and cash? It definitely is from the perspective of supporting indie developers, but whether or not you’ll end up with even one high quality game is up in the air. For every game like Minecraft which proceeded way past alpha there’s dozens of games that struggled to get beyond this point. Game development is an artistic process, not a linear progression, and while these games might make all the upgrades necessary to become excellent, it’s also likely that they become abandoned and die slow deaths from a lack of support. We can’t be sure, and that’s the issue that will give money-conscious gamers pause. However, from where these games are, I feel like all these games are well on their way to compelling full versions.