Level Up Winners Give a Sneak Peek at Upcoming Indies

Indie darlings of the future or unworkable nonsense? Pete delves into the 2011 Level Up winners.

Intel’s annual Level Up competition challenges professional, student and amateur developers alike to put together a prototype of a new game. The winners are then showcased with a mind to turning these relatively short demo experiences into full-fledged games. The results of last year’s competition are in, and the winners are now available for you to try out for yourself on Steam. For free!

But are they any good? Are they quasi-artistic, pretentious nonsense? Unmitigated crap? Or are we looking at the “indie darlings” of the future? Let’s find out, shall we?

Atooms to Moolecules

The Pitch: “Atooms to Moolecule is a chemistry based puzzle game. Explore the lab to see how Atooms changes into Moolecules.”

The Developer: BitSits Games

The Truth: Atooms to Moolecules is a game about connecting things together, and a spellchecker’s nightmare. Various elemental “atooms” (atoms with faces) fall onto the screen and the player must connect them together to form “moolecules”. Each element has its own number of connectors, and when connecting to another atoom, it will always use as many as possible. A moolecule is only complete when there are no “spare” connectors anywhere on the chain. To make matters more challenging, everything is affected by physics, so you’ll have to contend with atooms bouncing around and bendy chains. As well as the main objective-based mode, there’s also a sandbox mode where players can build their own lab and fill it with moolecules just for fun.

The Verdict: A cool, highly original puzzle game with a few frustrating elements. It’s tricky to make atooms connect to the other atooms you want sometimes if the screen is getting full. Some of the levels are very slow-paced and difficult to complete, too — or perhaps I’m just rubbish. It would also be nice to see it have the option of running in higher resolution, and the frame rate needs work. These issues aside, though, this has potential to be a highly intriguing, infuriating puzzler. It’d make a great iPad game, too.

The Demo: Here.

BeatBuddy

The Pitch: BeatBuddy is what we consider the first music action-adventure. Being in control of the music creature BeatBuddy you work your way through a song and bring back the music. Since all the multi tracks of each song are translated in interactive game mechanics you’re able to experience music in a different way.”

The Developer: THR3AKS

The Truth: BeatBuddy superficially resembles indie classic Aquaria, with some beautifully-drawn 2D artwork, smooth animation and exploration-heavy gameplay. The titular “music creature” swims (flies?) around caves filled with various noise-producing elements, meaning that the background music dynamically shifts according to where you are. The music is for more than simple background entertainment, though — bass drum pods fling our hero around the caverns and allow him to smash through walls, deadly gun emplacements fire in time with the music and a strange vehicle that you acquire partway through the demo only moves on the beat.

The Verdict: A very interesting idea. The demo is very linear and tutorial-heavy as you might expect, but there’s the potential for a very cool 2D exploration and puzzle game here so long as the music elements are continually and creatively built upon.

The Demo: Here.

Blackwell’s Asylum

The Pitch: “Stone cold fear washes over you on this nerve-racking escape from the Blackwell’s Island Women’s asylum. Your heart pounds feverishly from the sedatives forced upon you, your sight fails from exhaustion. As a young woman under narcotic effects, there’s no other options but hiding and sneaking past the wardens patrolling this daunting place. Have you got the nerve to live through this humane horror?”

The Developer: BlackPipe/Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment

The Truth: Nothing to do with Wadjet Eye Games’ Blackwell series of point and click adventures, Blackwell’s Asylum is a first-person horror game in a similar vein to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Heavy emphasis is placed on the protagonist’s state of mind as she staggers around strange, distorted corridors, her vision blurring and wavering under the effects of the drugs she has been injected with. Beyond brief interface and control explanations at the start of the game, no guidance is given to the player as to what they should do, leading to nearly an hour of staggering around in the dark and hiding in cupboards on the way to freedom.

The Verdict: Utterly terrifying. At times it feels a little directionless, though it’s clear the feeling of confusion and helplessness is deliberate. The strange, distorted, surrealist aesthetic, visual effects depicting the protagonist’s mounting sense of panic and stunning light and shadow effects add a huge amount to the experience, while the “hiding in a cupboard” sequences will regress anyone back to their childhood, when the unknown, imaginary horrors that lurked in the dark were the most terrifying thing in the world. The only thing that lets the experience down a little are the questionable character models and animation, though an argument could be made for their heavily-stylised appearance to be in keeping with the surrealist aesthetic the rest of the game is going for.

The Demo: Here.

DIVO

The Pitch: “This is an unusual, bright and dynamic arcade game, in which we manage the cavy in a cyber wheel! Our hero must for limited time to reach the finish point is at the level of that simultaneously avoiding collisions with enemies and collecting all sorts of bonuses, for the successful completion of levels! The game also has various elements of puzzles where we have to find certain items in order to pass this or that obstacle. Levels represent as a large tower (tower rotation depends on the movement the main character) around which are placed all the game elements: platforms, teleporters, traps, etc.”

The Developer: Logicdroid Games

The Truth: This is a puzzle platformer in the vein of — and I’m going to show my age here — Nebulus. You play the role of what looks like some sort of giant space hamster who is confined to a weird glowy wheel thing that can either roll around and jump or switch to “magnet mode” in order to stick to metallic floors and walls. Each level requires the bizarre hero to make his way to the top of a tower by bouncing around, finding helpful objects and occasionally using his wheel’s magnet ability to roll up vertical walls. It’s resolutely old-school in both its game mechanics and its difficulty, though with a modern graphical coat of paint.

The Verdict: Infuriating, but oddly addictive. The jumping physics take a bit of getting used to (and might be terrible, I haven’t quite made my mind up) but something kept me playing for quite a few levels before I wanted to move on. The game is unshamedly stuck in the ’80s, right down to the maddeningly catchy, repetitive background music — whether or not that sounds like a good thing will largely determine what you get out of this one.

The Demo: Here.

Imagine Earth

The Pitch: “Imagine Earth is a casual simulation game, where you civilize a beautiful planet and deal with nowadays problems. Master the puzzle of growing supply and demand or lead your planet to environmental and climate collapse – it’s in your hands!”

The Developer: Serious Brothers

The Truth: This is a simple civ-building game that tasks players with stimulating population growth on a small 3D planet. In order to grow the population, players must balance their civilisation’s energy, food and goods needs while taking into account the impact their actions have on the planet’s “health”. As the planet’s health deteriorates, climate change causes desertification and a rise in sea levels, so players must find increasingly inventive ways to continue population growth while minimising their environmental impact.

The Verdict: Surprisingly fun. The gameplay gets quite frantic quite quickly as you struggle to respond to each new crisis that presents itself. The 3D globe map is cool and well-implemented, too. The game does incorporate a few of mobile and social gaming’s bad habits, though — you don’t just collect income, you have to scroll round and click on each and every thing providing income to actually get the money. This leads to a lot of unnecessarily frantic clicking in a game where there’s already quite a lot to think about, and doesn’t add a huge amount to the experience. The in-game characters look like they’re all based on those “Get Free Smileys Now!” ads, too. Oh, and playing with a controller plugged in inexplicably disables mouse control completely.

The Demo: Here.

MilitAnt

The Pitch: MilitAnt is a side-scrolling, platform, shooter game developed by Xibalba Studios in which the player, as a lone soldier ant, must defend your home colony from an all-out invasion by the other bug nations.”

The Developer: Xibalba Studios

The Truth: This is a 2.5D platformer where players control an anonymous soldier ant using the keyboard, and aim shots with the mouse. The ant can equip four weapons and use up to two at the same time, one in each hand. Experience points are earned for successful kills, which may be spent on new weapons at checkpoints. The ant can also melee attack enemies and deflect bullets if he times his swings carefully. The game is largely based on 2D platform shooting, but frequently features Shadow Complex-style sections where the player must shoot at enemies in the background.

The Verdict: Nice to look at and the imaginative “world in the back garden” setting is well-realised visually, but the bizarre weapon system means that controls are fiddly and overcomplicated — and they don’t seem to support gamepads, either. On top of that, the difficulty in the demo is rather uneven, with an infuriating section partway through that requires precise jumping while being shot at from all angles — and getting clipped by a bullet almost inevitably means plummeting into a bottomless pit. You’ll also want to turn off the 10-second long background music loop almost immediately.

The Demo: Here.

Splice

The Pitch: Splice is an experimental and artistic puzzler. Immerse yourself in its microbial world and start splicing! Every level (“strand”) consists of a number of cells that you will need to rearrange into a target structure in several moves (“splices”). Exploration and experimentation are key in determining how the curious little cells react to each other. Predict the sequence of splices you’ll have to make in order to successfully arrange each strand. Re-sequence, mutate, and splice your way through this unique puzzle experience, and you’ll exercise your ability to visualize sequential series of shapes over time. Solve your way to the final strands and you’ll be left with a heady sense of mental accomplishment!”

The Developer: Cipher Prime

The Truth: Splice is an initially-bewildering puzzler where players must rearrange cells by clicking and dragging them into different locations. Every cell dragged has a different effect, and experimentation is the key to solving the game’s puzzles — particularly if you want to discover the “Angelic” solutions, which use fewer than the allotted number of moves. As the game progresses, special cells start appearing which can be right-clicked on to have various special effects.

The Verdict: This one won’t be for everyone as it explains absolutely nothing to you at the outset and just gets more confusing from there. Those who enjoy abstract, experimental puzzlers that are a bit different from the norm will dig it, though, and the minimalist audio-visual aesthetic is hypnotic and relaxing.

The Demo: Here. This is the only one of the Level Up games that you can pre-order — currently Steam is offering 10% off its usual price. Try the demo first, though.

ThunderWheels

The Pitch: “ThunderWheels is a racing game with a classic top-down perspective plus third and first person view, realistic physics and really fun circuits! It has a very powerful WYSIWYG Terrain Editor and advanced physics. You can create all the tracks you want, edit your vehicle physics, play against AI or make a competition with you friends (up to four players in one PC!).”

The Developer: G-Boot Games

The Truth: It’s Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off-Road. Or, depending on how old you are, Sprint. If you’re too young to remember either of those (GET OFF MY LAWN) they’re top-down multiplayer racers that incorporate single-screen tracks with frequent accident blackspots as they cross over and weave around themselves. ThunderWheels adds realistic physics and the option to play in 3D first- or third-person mode to this mix, and there’s apparently a track editor in there too, though I’ll be damned if I can find it anywhere.

The Verdict: Needs work — the interface is appalling, the physics make it a little too difficult, the on-screen displays don’t give anywhere near enough feedback to the player and the tracks don’t make it clear which way is the “right” way — but this otherwise captures the feeling of ’80s and early ’90s top-down racers quite nicely. With its strong focus on user-created content this has the potential to develop quite an active little community. Kudos for including local multiplayer, too.

The Demo: Here.

Trash TV

The Pitch: “Two Televisions, Signal and Static, fight to escape the recycling centre. Using a wide array of guns to solve unique puzzles in this platformer.”

The Developer: Lawrence Russell

The Truth: Trash TV is a puzzle platformer featuring a retro “pixel art on an old CRT TV” aesthetic — complete with interference and a “rewinding VCR” effect when retrying — and minimal use of sound effects. The player must negotiate a series of puzzles by making use of weapons creatively. The demo primarily focuses on the use of a “sticky gun”, which fires mines that attach to scenery or enemies and then detonate after a couple of seconds. If the player character is standing near one of these mines when they go off, they get blasted in a particular direction, allowing them to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.

The Verdict: There’s a ton of potential here. The aesthetic is a nice twist on the increasingly-overused “pixel art” look, and the gameplay is creative. There’s no hand-holding whatsoever, though, so the player is very much on their own to work out how the world works. Those not prone to experimentation will get stuck within approximately five seconds of starting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Demo: Here.

The White Laboratory

The Pitch: The White Laboratory, created by Tao, is a sandbox style tower defense game about reusing the onslaught of shaped geometric blocks in an abstract world. It explores shapes and combinations for making modular defense towers, whose material are obtained from dead bodied of the enemies. In the laboratory, you will experiment with permutations and survive the invasion just out of those block pieces, no tricky level upgrades.”

The Developer: TAO

The Truth: The White Laboratory (or simply White Lab) is a tower defense game with a twist. Instead of buying and upgrading towers, you scavenge your defences from the incoming enemies, who are all black geometric blocks. Each enemy has a chance of turning into a white block when it is defeated, meaning you can then drag it around and use it to build with. Different blocks do different things — cubes simply block enemies, spheres shoot at things, cylinders rotate. You can snap these blocks together as you see fit to set up your level’s defences.

The Verdict: An incredibly creative take on a stale genre. It’s Lego Tower Defense, essentially, with a clean, white, Portal-style aesthetic. Experimenting with the different blocks’ effects when combined together is a joy, and so long as the full game features a wide variety of different block and enemy types to use, this looks like one to watch.

The Demo: Here.

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