Last week marked another 2015 Play Expo taking place at the EventCity Centre in Manchester. On a scale of 8 times bigger than Play Blackpool, which took place earlier on in the year:
Play Manchester had a plethora of retro gaming consoles, upcoming indie games and presentations on display among so much more, as I would discover spending the weekend covering the proceedings. Looking back, it was to me the most significant and pivotal event of my so far short career, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was blown away by what I got to see and what I got to experience whilst I was there, but I was much more excited to cover what happened in those two days.
Beyond Flesh & Blood
The first indie game I proceeded to try out and quiz its respective developer of was Beyond: Flesh and Blood, an online multiplayer third person shooter developed by Pixelbomb Games extremely reminiscent of Warframe. Prior to the show, it had been on display at EGX, and had managed to make a very positive impact at the show in London, and it also faired particularly well in Manchester too, with the demo receiving positive acclaim. My first impressions of it were that although it plays out almost identically to Warframe, it’s conceptual design seems a lot more interesting. It takes on a look and style more reminiscent of either Halo or Destiny, and on a technical level, looks extremely well polished and detailed for an independently developed game. The controls were a bit easier to work with than Warframe, so I believe that in particular bodes extremely well for the final product when it is released next year.
City of the Shroud
The next game I checked out was a turn-based RPG with a heavy tactical approach named City of the Shroud. Developed by Abyssal Arts, and lead designer Keaton White who had previously worked at Capcom prior to going independent, I sat down with Keaton at the show who explained the challenges and excitement involved in piecing together a very new approach towards strategy in RPGs, and how he was able to incorporate a very different combat system than what has been seen in the likes of other games of the same ilk, such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Arc: Twilight of the Spirits, and Rainbow Moon. But as well as finding it to be a very different game, I also found it to be quite demanding, but not to the point of it being inaccessible. The game’s combat system does take some getting used to, but once the mechanics set in, it can become quite an enjoyable experience, and I cant wait to play the finished title.
Raging Justice was among the many indie game I tried out in Manchester. Similar to Street of Rage or Final Fight, it is a 2D side scrolling beat ‘em up set on city streets and in seedy bars etc revolving around beating up anyone who wants to beat your character up first. What I found interesting about this game in particular was that the techniques used to render the graphics and the character sprites seemed very reminiscent of the earliest examples of motion capture in video games as seen in titles such as the original Mortal Kombat trilogy. For a game of it’s kind, the amount of variety on offer was also quite impressive, with not only items lying around to attack enemies with, but with the player also being able to counterattack enemies who may throw things like knives or gas canisters at them.
Team Tractor Beam
I noticed at the event that games that were exclusively multiplayer seemed to be the most prominent, with many gamers huddling up to consoles to play either cooperatively or against each other. Team Tractor Beam was the first example of this that I came across. Reminiscent of another indie game I discovered recently entitled Unmechanical, it is a gravity-based multiplayer game, which features a vast number of challenges and play styles, such as a basketball mode, a team versus mode and a survival mode to name but a few. The game has variety on an unprecedented scale, giving it a great amount of replay value, further enforcing my own personal opinion, which I have come under fire for in the past, that the lifespan of an indie game has little to do with its budget, and everything to do with the developer’s own imagination respective of how they choose to handle the game’s play style.
Another game that centred around multiplayer to be displayed at this year’s proceedings in Manchester was Jump Stars; a multiplayer title with more of an emphasis on co-op as well as players Vs players, which was extremely well received by gamers at the expo, and going on to win the hosts choice of indie game of 2015. Though I’m not the biggest fan of multiplayer, it was easy to see why this game received the accolades it got; there were people gathered around the developer’s booth at the show just to watch how the game plays out, and how theoretically addictive it could be construed as to the right kind of gamer. I also had quite a bit of fun playing much to my own personal delight. The conceptual design seems very original and the variety in gameplay that the developers had managed to incorporate was on about the same scale.
Out of all the games to out emphasis on multiplayer however, Friendship Club turned out to be my favourite. Developed by Timmybibble, and extremely reminiscent to another game I checked out at Play Blackpool, Porcun Pine, it has no emphasis on co-op whatsoever, instead focusing on an every-man-for-himself style of play. Up to four players must dodge enemy attacks and try to hit the other three players to emerge as the last man standing. It’s just as challenging and demanding as Porcun Pine, and is an extremely fun game to play; but also having a dark and quirky sense of humour thrown in for good measure.
At the back of the success found by this game since its release on Steam, Liverpool-based developers Milky Tea, the developers of the hit indie kart racing game Coffin Dodgers were also present to showcase the title in Manchester, amidst their hopes of eventually porting the game the PlayStation 4. I reviewed this game earlier on in the year, and my biggest concerns were of the control scheme, but I played it on the format that was on display at the show, which was Alienware, and I found it easier to cope with this time round. I believe if the PlayStation 4 version is developed to conform to the same control scheme, then I see no reason it wouldn’t do just as well critically on home consoles; if not better, if the game is indeed given a graphical makeover, as the developers are hoping.
Pan-Dimensional Conga Combat
It was next that I engaged with an extremely interesting indie developer; James Monkman of Retro Gaming CD. He and his development company had been making games on older systems such as the Commodore 64, the Atari STE and the Atari Jaguar since 2009, and were at Manchester to showcase their next game coming to more modern systems; Pan-Dimensional Conga Combat. The game is like a cross between Snake, the classic mobile game, and Smash TV, whereby the player must use the analogue stick to guide a spaceship with a tail on the end, using the tail to fend off enemies until a trap door opens up in the middle of each stage allowing the player to advance. It’s certainly one of the more unique arcade-style games I’ve seen since the genre started to make resurgence amidst the rise of indie developers that has happened over the last few years. Monkman also had an incredibly interesting insight into what mentality he enters whilst developing games, and what he believes a good game could or should consist of. Since I wasn’t around during the arcade era, it was especially interesting to me to hear this guy’s experiences, and it’s partly because of that I believe he is going to go places eventually. I believe if he keeps up what looks like very good work on his part, he will end up making a massive impact within the indie scene.
Super Adventure Pals II & 88 Heroes
Another indie developer that had quite a diverse group of individual creators among their ranks were Massive Monster, who had two games on display at Play Manchester; Super Adventure Pals II and 88 Heroes. Super Adventure Pals II, which has already been greenlit by the Steam community, is an action-adventure RPG platformer with heave influence from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, with a much more cartoon-like visual style and a seemingly greater emphasis on the RPG element. It looks great, and from first impressions alone, it is extremely satisfying to play. My biggest hope for this title is that there is an open world incorporated into it, which I believe would make the game infinitely better than what it is; if indeed there hadn’t have been an open world incorporated into it in the first place.
The other game on display at their booth, which though linear was extremely addictive in my opinion, was 88 Heroes. It’s a 2D side scrolling action game with a visual style reminiscent of the 8-BIT era, which revolves around 88 separate playable characters resolving to save the world from an evil villain named Dr H8. Each character has their own different superpowers as well their own limitations, and players must strategize accordingly. It was created by a much more old-school gamer employed as Massive Monster, who favoured that visual style and method of gameplay over more modern play styles perpetuated since the third generation of gaming, and I thought it was quite interesting for the developer to have that level of diversity, and how these different ideas could be brought together in the future.
The game I found to be the most interesting, as well as the most enjoyable at Play Manchester however was a tower defence game named Kaiju Panic. Reminiscent of the likes of Warcraft III and Plants Vs Zombies, but with a graphical style extremely reminiscent of the SNES classic EarthBound, I was blown away by how much potential it could have; especially if the developers, Mechabit (another developer based in my home town of Liverpool), decide to build upon what they already have with this game, and to make it bigger and better. I am going to give this game a much more comprehensive review before the year is finished, but after playing it briefly for the first time, I’m very much looking forward to it. If I had to pick a winner for indie game of the year to be displayed at the Play Expo, despite the amount of great games I got to see first hand at both Manchester and Blackpool, I would plump for Kaiju Panic.
PlayStation 4 Vs Xbox One
Play Manchester also offered an extremely interesting insight into the direction in which the mainstream video game market is heading, and how the balance of power seems to be shifting evermore in Sony’s favour. I found a multitude of PlayStation 4 consoles at the event, some showcasing a lot of games that I hadn’t even tried prior to the proceedings, such as Not a Hero, The Talos Principal and Earth Defence Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair. With almost every PlayStation 4 console I came across, there was an exciting gaming experience installed on their respective hard drives to compliment them, such as Rogue Legacy, Super Stardust Ultra, Shovel Knight and Titan Souls; with the exception of a couple that had much less enjoyable games on them like The Swapper and Hohokum.
However, searching for an Xbox One in Manchester to me was like a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Though many of the indie developers present at the show expressed great interest in porting their games to the Xbox One, and with Kaiju Panic already ported to it, it was actually easier to find a Wii U there; which spoke to me how close the competition is between those two systems, and affirming my belief that the Wii U is a better console. 2016 is going to be a pivotal year in deciding out of either Microsoft or Nintendo, which company will come out on top of one another, and who will become the closer challenger to Sony and the PlayStation 4, but way it goes, Sony look to still be staying on top, and not budging any time soon.
Deviating away from the subject of current generation gaming, there was also a wide variety of retro consoles on display at the event, ranging from a Super Mario Kart booth hosted by the world time trial champion, as well as even pinball machines; arguably one of the springboards to conventional gaming as we know it. With many 80s PC consoles on display, I tried the Sinclair ZX Spectrum for the first time, playing the hit game Manic Miner. It offered a very interesting insight into how these types of consoles could be considered graphically superior to what was on offer in the way of homes consoles at the time, such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision and Colecovision, and how they would go on to cover the European gaming market amidst the Video Game Crash of 1983, which almost systematically ended the industry.
One in particular cabinet that I found at the show was that of Puckman. I theorized that it may have been easy for many gamers present at the event to look at it as being a cheap Pac-Man rip-off but what many of them may not have known is that Puckman was the original Japanese name of the title. It was changed amidst the developer’s fears at the time that arcade vandals would have the audacity to change the P on the cabinets to an F. This was one of two prevailing theories that were conceived for the longest time; the other one actually being more believable. For more information about this, I’d recommend watching the 19th episode of Necro VMX’s YouTube series Urban Legends of Video Gaming. Necro VMX, or John Sierra to give you his real name, is undoubtedly one of my biggest writing influences, if not my biggest, so I’m eager to plug his content wherever possible.
Dark Souls III: First Impressions
One of the most anticipated events at Play Manchester this year, eagerly awaited by a plethora of gamers at the proceedings, was the playable demo of the upcoming instalment to From Software’s immensely popular series, Dark Souls III. I became one of the first people in the country to try the game out in a playable form. Even waiting in the queue, I was amazed by just how much of a following this game has managed to build up ever since the released of Dark Souls II last year, with the commercial and critical momentum continuing upon the release of Bloodborne last March. My own personal experience with the however, was considerably less optimistic.
I had no expectations that From Software would decrease the difficulty of the next game, or even add a difficulty mode for the more casual players, like they should have done with every other game of the same ilk they have developed over the years, but the difficulty of Dark Souls III to me takes the cake. Playing this game, and once more surrounded by veterans of the series, I felt like a child going to school for the first time; helpless and at a loss for how to go about what it was I needed to do. I died the first time within five minutes, and that was even when I was being as cautious as possible, and to not attract more than one enemy at any one given time; but even fighting one enemy roved to be too much of a hassle.
On the plus side, however, I had to give praise to the amount of graphical detail and conceptual diversity that has clearly gone into this game, and how legendary Japanese gaming artist, Hidetaka Miyazaki has managed to outdo himself. He excelled in this respect when he created Bloodborne, but he seems to have brought a lot of the conceptual ideas from that game to the third Dark Souls game in my opinion, and it makes for something extremely impressive to look at. I’m holding out no hope that there will be any kind of fair difficulty settings made available to people who may want to get into the franchise, but don’t want to be marred down by it’s level of difficulty. That is what I believe the next step will be towards From Software advancing their respective series’ even further within the industry. I believe if they keep making games that are as hard as this, the franchise will still have its devoted fan base, but it won’t be as big as what I believe it could be.
After playing Dark Souls III, my opinion of it remains largely the same every other game like it that From Software has developed; a game that is popular among a set group of fans, but not for everyone, although there doesn’t seem to be any good reason it can’t be for everyone if they’d just make it more accessible.
The Art of Gaming
The show ended with another presentation focusing on the art that goes into video gaming today, and what has gone into it in the past. The panellists at the presentation were the David Rowe, who developed box art for many home PC games, and then went on to do the art work for the television show Knightmare (who I’d previously met at Play Manchester), Matt Dixon, who provided artwork for the hit game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Tim Smith, who had done artwork on many hit PlayStation games, such as EyePet and Conflict: Desert Storm, and who them went on to provide artwork for the hit mobile indie game Monument Valley.
Each of the artists brought to the table their own experiences within the gaming industry, as well as their experiences within with other forms of media, which made for an extremely diverse and varied discussion, and how they each individually owe each level of their success to the gaming industry, and how it had also influenced them as artists to keep striving to be better than what they may be, and advising young aspiring artists who were in attendance at the presentation to do the same. There was a Q&A session at the end whereby audience members, including myself, asked a series of questions of the artists on subjects such as how their own personal opinions of the games they worked on influenced their work, and how indie developers are working to bring more diversity within their games through conceptual design.
David Rowe had been at Play Blackpool to offer what I thought was a marvellous insight into how video games could have been considered an art form back when the industry was starting to evolve and take shape into what it is now, but both Matt Dixon and Tim Smith also gave a series of extremely interesting opinions into how they think it will go on to influence games in the future, and how the idea of video games as an art form will continue to be perpetuated, and it should remain as such. I had a particularly interesting conversation with Simon Dixon about the subject of art in indie gaming, and how he was fascinated with how diverse it is, and how even though gaming hardware is much more advanced now than what it has ever been in the past, developers still opt to create games visually reminiscent of what gamers saw back in the late 70s and early 80s.
I hope that come Play Blackpool 2016, another similar presentation will take place with even more varied video game artists to offer an even greater insight into the subject, because on both occasions, they have been a great pleasure to sit through, and an even greater pleasure to cover on the blog.
The highlight of my own personal time in Manchester However, was the opportunity I got to bring you all my first ever video interview with the creator of the arcade classic Q*Bert; Warren Davis. Warren Davis had come all the way from California to give his own presentation entitled The Six Sides of Warren Davis, whereby he talked about his illustrious gaming career, whilst he was developing Q*Bert alongside Jeff Lee, and then going on to talk about some of his later works throughout the second and third generations of gaming, such as Us Vs Them, Joust 2, the arcade imagining of Terminator 2 and Revolution X; the arcade rail shooter featuring the glam rock band Aerosmith. After the presentation, I went to the press area and interviewed Davis, asking him of his opinions of what direction he thinks gaming is going and will go, as well as asking him of some of his own experiences of the second generation of gaming.
I apologize in advance for the poor sound quality. Even though we were in the press room, there was still a lot of background noise, so I have subtitled the video for those who may not be able to make out what we’re saying. Nevertheless, I hope you all enjoy our interview:
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped organize the proceedings at Play Manchester, and to thank David Rowe, Matt Dixon, Tim Smith and the many indie developers I interacted with for bringing their games to this year’s proceedings, but I would also especially like to thank Mr. Warren Davis for giving me the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with a legendary figure within the gaming industry, and to wish him the very best of luck on the new game that he is currently developing.
I would also like to thank everyone who took the time out of their day to read this article. Play Manchester was undoubtedly the biggest moment in my career so far, as well as one of the best weekends of my life, and I’m thrilled to have been able to share this experience with my readers, as well as lived them for myself.
Scouse Gamer 88