It’s high time to shine the spotlight on four recent releases that stood out to us for a variety of reasons. Here are Gearshifters from Red Phantom Games, The Alien Cube by Alessandro Guzzo, Growbot by Wabisabi Play and Sands of Aura by Chashu Entertainment.
Gearshifters review (PS4)
First appearances can be deceiving, and that’s certainly true for Gearshifters from developer Red Phantom Games. It came out for PCs and consoles last month, and we played it on a PS4 after early screenshots convinced us we were going to like it. And we did, although it wasn’t for the reasons we originally thought.
Based on screenshots alone, we thought that Gearshifters was going to be like the classic top down racers of the early 90s. Games like Super Cars, Nitro, and Jupiter’s Masterdrive. But while there’s a strong visual resemblance, Gearshifters isn’t so much about racing as it is about making deliveries while under attack – and you just happen to be in a fast car equipped with weapons while doing so.
Gearshifters actually plays a lot like a classic arcade shoot ’em up, which is a really refreshing take on that genre. Violent gangs patrol the streets rather than having aliens patrol the skies, and because of the change in scenery you can also choose to do damage by ramming them instead of using your mounted weapons.
Over the course of the game, you’ll upgrade your car and weapons too, and there are so many options that Gearshifters ends up feeling a bit like a roguelite when you go in for yet another run right after you get overwhelmed by gang members. They’ll all use different tactics to take you down as well, so you have to learn and adapt – perhaps even by changing the way you play rather than just changing your loadout. This is especially true for boss fights, which have the added dimension of time pressure because you need to defeat them before running out of road.
At the end of the day Gearshifters is a wonderful and addictive crossover game that blends top down racing, car-based combat and the classic arcade shoot ’em up into a refreshing new package. It’s a little low on gameplay modes and we would’ve liked drifting around corners to dynamically turn this horizontal shooter into a vertical one and vice versa, but you have to keep a wishlist for a possible sequel.
The Alien Cube review (PC)
The Alien Cube, which is exclusive to Steam and was developed by Alessandro Guzzo, is a testament to how impressive small (solo) productions can be these days. It tells a story of ‘cosmic horror’ (think Lovecraft) and mystery, in which you receive a letter that claims you’re due an inheritance – which ends up being a starting point for a journey into gruesome visions, the occult and a secretive cult that’s connected to a strange object.
The game’s narrative plays out from a first person perspective, but feels closer to a walking simulator than a typical first person horror game, often forcing you to complete simple puzzles in order to progress. This emphasis becomes especially clear when you try to use the jumping and crawling mechanics – neither one manages to install a sense of agility, or a successful attempt at stealth.
Rough edges are to be expected in a solo production though, and The Alien Cube’s wonderful sense of atmosphere more than makes up for it. Alessandro Guzzo’s work with the CryEngine is very impressive, and at certain times in the game it can stand toe to toe with even some of the AAA games out there. The game’s environments all have an air of mystery to them, and should definitely appeal to fans of Cthulhu-inspired fiction.
You’ll also notice that this is a smaller scale production through voice acting that only sporadically comes up, but the actual story is well written and worth seeing through. A very impressive game from a small developer that we can’t wait to see more of.
Growbot review (PC)
We remembered playing and enjoying a demo for Growbot during the (digital) 2020 edition of Gamescom, so when the full version launched recently we couldn’t wait to play it. It’s a classic point and click adventure that’s PC-only for now, was developed by Wabisabi Play, and is being published by Application Systems Heidelberg.
To be fair, when we say “classic point and click” we’re not referring to the Sierra/LucasArts era of adventure games, but rather to more recent titles like Machinarium and Samorost – indie darlings that we fondly remember. Like those titles, Growbot oozes with charm, much of it coming from an adorable little robot that’s our protagonist. As Nara, your task is to save the space station you’re on, and the ones on it, from the destructive habits of another ‘growbot’.
You’ll find out what motivates this angry growbot at the end of a 3 hour story, but the gameplay and charming aesthetics are bigger draws than the actual narrative. A lot of the gameplay revolves around well designed puzzles and your typical case of wandering around scenes looking for objects to pick up and maybe combine with other objects. When an objects needs to be combined with something else the UI will tell you about it first, which streamlines the experience and lets you focus on the puzzles – which make Growbot feel like a puzzle adventure.
There’s a nice bit of diversity to the puzzles as well, though many feel somewhat disconnected from the narrative. This is no problem at all if you enjoy puzzle games, but if you’re in it for the story then it’s always better when puzzles feel like an integral part. They’re all well designed though, and visually mesh rather seamlessly with the rest of the game as well – which means it all looks like a fairytale/storybook kind of tale, which is great for children to engage with as well (though they might need your help with some of the puzzles).
At its price point, Growbot is definitely on the short side, but it’s an absolutely charming tale with a visual style that consistently delights over the course of its puzzle-filled narrative.
Sands of Aura launched in Early Access
Sands of Aura, which is currently in development at Chashu Entertainment, recently launched into Early Access on Steam, and it’s a game that we wanted to play as soon as we read its description, which talks about an open world adventure in a sand-filled world. This one comes without sand worms, but the description also mentioned ‘souls-like’ combat, though here it’s presented from an isometric perspective, which isn’t super common within the crowded genre.
It’s a double-edged sword to describe your game that way, we feel. Calling something “souls-like” will immediately attract a crowd, but at the same time it feels like you’re setting an unusually high benchmark up for yourself, which is where people will inevitable compare your game to the ones that helped coin the phrase to begin with.
It’s easy to see why they went with the description though. Sands of Aura features really challenging combat, very limited stamina and an important role for defensive maneuvers as central parts of an epic story where it’s your task to bring light back to a world that’s been overrun with darkness. But as you sail across the large sand dunes in this desolate world and explore locations where you anchor, the game (in its current Early Access) state literally feels like a sandbox at time – one that needs a bit more narrative direction in order to be truly compelling.
The combat itself also needs a fair bit of polish, considering the game’s been in development for over four years. It definitely doesn’t feel as visceral and responsive though, often giving you a sense that it’s rather laggy. Perhaps this one was launched into Early Access a bit too early, unless you like being with a game from an early time on. The fact that Sands of Aura isn’t scheduled to launch until 2023 means there’s plenty of time for polish to iron out its kinks, and hopefully we’ll see it blossom and realize its potential. There’s an interesting world to explore here, it just needs more of a reason for us to want to do it.