Thursday, June 16, 2011

Free Games Profile - 5 Games I've Been Playing That Cost My Favorite Price.

Not so long ago, I posted on my Tumblr a list I'd seen somewhere else about awesome free games. I like awesome, and free is right in my price range at the moment, so I've checked out a few of these in the last week or so, to answer the question: Do you get what you pay for, or are there good free games out there? One of the games is a pretty complete alpha of an inexpensive project, one is a free-to-play, also known as “freemium”, where you get a feature set for free, but there are additional options/content available for purchase. Yet another takes the structure found in Mafia Wars-type games and turns it on its ear to produce something very interesting. The last two are complete, finished and free, no strings attached.

The first game I want to talk about is also the oldest. Cave Story, originally called Doukutsu Monogatari, was developed by one man over five years, a labor of love. The PC release is an old-school platform adventure that is most similar to Metroid, with weapons that level up when golden triangles are collected. The story follows a robotic (or maybe cyborg) soldier who wakes up in a cave with no memory and stumbles into a village of friendly creatures who are under assault by a mad scientist and his hench-things. The action is familiar in an old-school way, very difficult in spots and the story progresses in unexpectedly interesting directions. The version of the game translated from Japanese to English became so popular that a remake of the title with enhanced graphics was made for the Wii, and a 3D version is coming to the 3DS. This one is a lot of fun, and there are several endings and bonus levels to discover.

The surprised looking Lunchbox is named Balrog. I just wanted to type that.

In the same vein of free platforming action game is Spelunky, with retro graphics and random level generation, Spelunky is fun, but it makes no claim to be fair. The cave explorer is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, complete with hat and whip, and in the opening levels there is a golden idol which can be collected that triggers a rolling boulder trap when touched. You start with a limited supply of basic tools, 4 ropes which allow climbing up into areas that you can't jump to, and 4 bombs which allow blasting through floors and walls. Other items can randomly be found through the levels as you collect treasures, fight monsters and attempt to evade deadly traps. There's a lot to discover in this game as well, secret areas, occasional NPCs to interact with, and in a nod to Temple of Doom, even sacrificial altars to Kali.

Snakes... why did it have to be snakes...

The free Alpha release of Desktop Dungeons reminds me of a cross between Realm of the Mad God and classic roguelike dungeons, only on a smaller scale. Every dungeon is a single screen large, you start out with the possibility of four races and four basic classes to choose from with special abilities, and if you can level up enough to defeat the boss monster in the dungeon, more features unlock with every win. The game is random, very difficult, even less fair than Spelunky in some cases (sometimes it really isn't possible to do much of anything as every monster you can reach kills you in one hit.) However, individual tries at the randomly created dungeons don't take very long, so a lot of dying and restarting makes this one addictive. Also of note, this game has altars to various deities who your character can choose to worship. The gods give piety for completing certain actions, and penalize piety for others. For example, a warrior god might grant piety for every monster killed, but penalize for casting spells. After several days spending more time than I'd like to admit on this one, I've beaten the dungeon only three times, once each with a warrior, thief and cleric.

This game has no business being this addictive. I may drop the $10 for the finished game.

Another free game that I've actually been playing for a while now but only recently got back into is the fantastic Echo Bazaar. On its surface, Echo Bazaar looks like a Facebook game. You get a number of turns that refill slowly with time, you train skills by repeating actions over and over until a higher level of skill unlocks a new action to grind and train on. There are several things that separate Echo Bazaar from the pack of games released by Zynga for Facebook however. First, though you need to connect through Facebook or Twitter, Echo Bazaar is separate from the social networks aside from the ability to tweet short ads for the game for bonus actions once daily, and the ability to interact with friends and followers who also play. The setting is a Victorian London that fell deep beneath the Earth, claimed by the dark Masters of the Bazaar. Hell is literally so close they have an embassy, and demons and strange creatures walk alongside grubby urchins and gentlemen and ladies in a twisted and vaguely Lovecraftian setting dripping with mystery. Echo Bazaar also tracks decisions made in the course of telling your story, and makes those choices relevant enough that each player's experience is unique. My personal character is a debauched rake and hedonist, using a silver tongue and his wits to seduce, gamble and write poetry in society while searching for the Ultimate Game, a poker game with the Heart's Desire as the prize, and the Immortal Soul as the stake.

A game with secrets and souls as currency, be a thief, thug, scholar or some combination of all these.

The last of the free games I've been messing with recently is one of a category of games recently made available on Steam. I'm a big fan of free-to-play MMORPGs and multiplayer action games that make their money from a dedicated fanbase willing to part with a little cash in order to get something extra. I like the model a lot, in some ways this is the basis for Echo Bazaar. How much I like the structure, however, depends on how much content is behind a paywall. If the game has only a small amount of free content and makes me cough up cash for the full game, it isn't “Free to Play,” its a demo, and I feel cheated. A good way to get around this is to make most of the purchasable content earnable in-game over a long period of time. A few well-known games deserving of their own articles do this, including Dungeons and Dragons Online and League of Legends. Steam just put up access to Champions Online, Alliance of Valiant Arms, Forsaken World, Global Agenda: Free Agent and Spiral Knights.

I've been burned by F2P games before, this one seems worth the time investment.

I started on my “play to evaluate” on Spiral Knights, as I want to give each of these a fair shake on their own merits before judging them. Trying to play them all at once would ensure at least one game doesn't really get played nearly long enough to get a proper review. I started with Spiral Knights for two reasons, one, it was the most different of the five titles in presentation from other games I've been playing recently. The second reason lies with the developers. Three Rings is an independent studio that practically introduced me to the Free-to-play concept with their game Puzzle Pirates, that released in 2003. I wanted to see what these guys could do with a more ambitious project. Spiral Knights is best described as an Action-RPG like Legend of Zelda, but with a robotic, almost Lego, feel to the characters and multiplayer dungeons and towns. The game is very pretty, controls smoothly and is a lot of fun in party. The currency to enter a dungeon, resurrect when dead or craft items is “energy,” which can be refilled with time, real money, or tanks can be bought using in-game currency. Bonus! It passes my litmus test for “is this really free?” I looks forward to pushing into content and seeing where the content boundaries before it really makes sense to pay are.

I anticipate I'll revisit this topic many times as I do a LOT of gaming, and don't have a whole lot of budget for it, so finding my diversions without opening my wallet beyond WoW and Gamefly subscriptions takes up the time not spent writing, reading, looking for work or doing tabletop RPGs. I'll find the best and the worst that money doesn't have to buy, and come back and report on my findings.
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Astronomy Pirate said...

I like having a life, so I might avoid these games... not that I don't waste enough time gaming already... oh wait... I already have Realm of the Mad God open... well damn...

Chris C. said...

A lot of these sound really cool. I'll be especially interested to hear your continued impressions of the Steam games (and anything else on this topic, really). I'm always interested in the "best . . . that money doesn't have to buy."

Alpha said...

Thanks for the quality post, I'll be looking into Echo Bazaar.

The Angry Lurker said...

I'm a bit of a Zynga whore at the moment but you have opened my eyes to others.

Zombie Ad said...

I'm all about the free stuff! :)

Kelly said...

Those sound like some deceptively simple, yet addictive games. I think I'll look into these games. Great review.

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