During a week where many are looking to see how the next big AAA exclusive for the PS5 will turn out – here’s looking at you, Returnal – we’re taking a moment to dive into the indie scene again with three brand new releases: Battle Axe, Buildings Have Feelings Too and Dull Grey – the latter one being another new game to play on the Vita! Let’s dive into it….
Developed by the Bitmap Bureau and published by Numskull Games, Battle Axe is a clear homage to some of the games we were playing 30 years ago. It’s out now for the Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC – our impressions are based on the PS4 version.
Although we don’t know this for a fact, we’re speculating that Bitmap Bureau got its name at least in part from the legendary Bitmap Brothers studio and that Battle Axe is derived from Golden Axe. If you take the visual style from The Chaos Engine by the Bitmap Brothers and combine that with Sega’s Golden Axe, you’ve got something that resembles Battle Axe.
You get to choose between three distinct characters – a druid, a marauder and an elf, each with their own gameplay style. From range to power, they all play differently, and all have their own personality. Whoever you choose, you’re battling against an evil sorceress named Etheldred, and the way the story unfolds is very much like how it did in arcade classics of the past – with an emphasis on hack and slash action.
In addition to regular enemies, you’ll also run into boss fights along the way, with each level set against its own visual backdrop. The graphics are done in an attractive modern pixel style that’s more detailed and better animated than the games of the past, while retaining a certain retro charm. The cast of heroes has also been well realized, and you can supply them with upgrades/items along the way when you meet traders.
Battle Axe is a challenging example of the genre though, and part of that is that it stays loyal to the classic arcade feel of trying to get as far as possible on only one quarter. Lives are a precious resource here, and running out of them means you have to start all over – surely to frustrate some players. You can make things easier (and more fun) by playing in a local co-op mode, but you can’t jump back in when you die and have to wait for your partner to complete the game solo (or perish while trying).
Additional replay value comes from the game’s New Game + mode and an Infinite mode where you survive as long as you can, but the main draw will also be the arcade experience that’s at the heart of the game. If you fondly remember games like Golden Axe, this’ll be right up your alley.
Buildings Have Feelings Too
Published by Merge Games, Buildings Have Feelings Too by Blackstaff Games has “quirky indie game” written all over it. As in games like Cities: Skylines, you’re managing a city – although this time you don’t have any of those cumbersome inhabitants to worry about. Instead, all of the buildings in the game have been turned into characters themselves, complete with visual traits like arms, legs and animations – and of course personalities.
The roster of buildings changes throughout the ages (you start in Victorian times and progress from there) and while some buildings are clearly distinct from others, your protagonist is a fairly neutral-looking building ready to manage your fellow buildings in order to make the city look and function great. To do this, you’ll designate what each building is for, being careful to make sure it doesn’t offend any of the other buildings nearby. A residential building isn’t going to be too happy sitting next to a building where heavy industry is taking place, for example, but will be very happy to have shops and restaurants nearby.
Much of the gameplay is about dilemmas like that, and solving them earns you some of the in-game currency, aptly being bricks. You’ll use these for new buildings and building designs that gradually let you grow and advance your city to bigger and more modern proportions. This is also how the game becomes increasingly complex, with more aspects and mechanics to factor in – turning it into a bit of a puzzle game at times.
The game’s biggest assets are definitely its originality and style. Ultimately I can see puzzle fans being more fulfilled by other games in the genre and I can see city building enthusiasts sticking to something like Skylines, but for a quirky take that sits somewhere in between the two genres Buildings Have Feelings Too is certainly an interesting concept full of charm.
Inspired by the works of Strugatsky, Dostoevsky and Tarkovsky, Dull Grey is certainly a different kind of narrative-driven game. It’s a multi-platform release that’s also out for the PlayStation Vita, making it part of the lineup of the handheld’s final few titles!
Whereas most visual novels are lengthy affairs, Dull Grey sits somewhere in between that genre and a short story, clocking in at just around 15 minutes for a playthrough. That’s incredibly short, but the story itself is impactful and thought-provoking beyond that playing time. Focusing on a young male in a coming-of-age type of tale, it’s about the journey you take with your mom to go and determine what your career will be.
Set against a retro-futuristic background with a bleak natural environment and oppressive government, your choices are limited: join the regime and spy on your fellow men, or pick the more noble job of looking after transportation networks – but with the drawback that it’s a mortally dangerous profession. It’s a profound choice that you get faced with several times during the journey, and one that gets and keeps you thinking.
Dull Grey’s visuals are minimalist, but are certainly striking in how they convey the mood that the narrative paints. Very different from the visual novels that are often Japanese in origin and very character-centered, this one puts your surroundings and mood front and center, not even giving you a clear visual picture of yourself or anyone else in the story. Sure, it’s very short and almost entirely devoid of traditional gameplay, but it’s something unique that we can’t quite compare to anything else in the Vita’s library of titles.