Indie games are a little bit like toddlers; every once and a while they do something really amazing, that makes you pine for the days when you, too, were mesmerised by the simplest things. But for most of the time they just frustrate you, take up far too much of your day, and crap everywhere.
It’s the unfortunate consequence of a genre that is all about experimentation. Trying new things is important - it’s how the industry progresses, but it comes at the cost of failure. Lots and lots of failure.
But it’s because of the eventual gold at the bottom of the bucket that we keep slogging on. It’s a cliché that indie games are a mixed bag, but here at NZGamer.com we aren’t afraid of a cheeky gamble. Especially me, I bloody love it (and the TAB loves me right back).
So when my editor flicked a new indie title from Simone Bevilacqua my way, I was curious to see whether it was going to be a prodigal son - or a little terror.
BOH is a 2D top down shooter, where you control an un-named adventurer through dark corridors, passages and mazes. Along the way you can collect items to protect you or make it easier to find your way. Harking back to puzzle games of old, BOH immerses itself in the world of locked doors, secret passageways and level-winning bosses. It’s a style of gameplay that paved the way in the 1980s and early 1990s, and BOH has returned for a second bite at the cherry.
While BOH’s gameplay is immediately obvious, its narrative is a little hard to discern – which is problematic for indie gaming fans looking for a quick hook. Even after playing a few missions, I was little confused. The Egyptian themed menus and the labyrinthine gameplay seemed to imply some kind of tomb-raider plot – but in reality you can’t tell. The game’s website offers possible clues referring to ‘Evil Masters’: “nobody knows who they are and nobody knows who they haunt”. The rhetoric seems plausible enough, but for the average gamer, it probably means nobody cares either.
All those elements together result in what appears to be a pretty formulaic manifestation of the stodgy ‘complete mission, kill boss, win game’ run-around. That’s disappointing, not because reviewers should be expecting every indie title to be an Homeric epic, but because the freedom of indie development means that narrative boundaries can be pushed just for the hell of it.
However, even with the lack of any obvious reason to keep playing, BOH does do some things well. Its retro feel is well done, which is something the developers obviously intended. BOH seems to revel in its extremely low resolutions and the 16bit texture maps. Even its native installation runs windowed, in Windows. Now at first blush, your average gamer is going to deride this as B (or even C) grade stuff. There’s no panache, there’s no spark, there is just a poorly rendered 2D top-down world filled with barely animated enemies and lots of dark mazes. If you have high expectations, or you game to experience a sensory overload – then BOH will probably just make you mad. But for those gamers looking for a return to a forgotten era of gaming, when multi-levelled maps were actually impressive, BOH does a pretty good job of regressing you backwards in almost every way – right down to the low-fi audio. Personally, I’m not a fan of ludditism – but you might be.
But the reason why the lack of flair is interesting is because those old top down shooters of old were pretty good at atmosphere. The human brain is a pretty powerful thing; like the blinding of Gloucester, some events have maximum impact when they happen off-stage. BOH touches on this: its narrow corridors, its dark passages and its complicated level design fleetingly grasps at this primal sense of foreboding. It was heartening to be reminded that you don’t always need cinematic space ships with psychological melodrama to feel uneasy. Sometimes some old school mystery will do.
But BOH’s grasp on this mood is tenuous; overall the game’s roughness detracts from it as a truly interesting experience. Additionally, it’s let down by its format. We’ve seen titles like this being churned out all over the internet - 2D top-down shooters are the bread and butter flash-based web games and have been so for quite some time. It seems slightly disjointed to have BOH shipped to your door, glossy manual and all – when it could just as easily have been a facebook application.
What that means is that BOH’s main selling point – its indie differentiation – is neutered by the form of its own presentation. Which is a shame, because BOH is a 20MB title that does succeed in transporting you back to a humbler, but no less enjoyable, time. And with a free trial, or 5.99 Euro for the real deal, it’s hardly a risky decision.
Ultimately, it would be unfair to deride BOH as another faceless indie failure, crushed under the jack boot of progress. Instead, it’s either a reassuring visitor from the fog of history, or an awkward window into the past.