Indie Roundup: Bonkies, Olija, and NUTS

Nuclear Jenga, anyone?

Photo: Studio Gauntlet

Some games are cute because they want to be, while others are cute because they have to be. Bonkies (Studio Gauntlet), a maddening but engrossing couch co-op game, falls squarely in the latter camp. The reason why your block-toting astronauts are all jetpack-wearing monkeys—and dogs, koalas, and pandas—is because if they were anything less than adorable then you’d probably murder them. The same is likely true of your couchmates: Only play with those you love, because the game will test your relationship to them.

Bonkies is a bit like Tetris, but played through a clumsy intermediary. Instead of simply having to place blocks in an orderly fashion, players must retrieve them from conveyor belts, fly them to a designated area, and then carefully rotate and stack them within outlines, sometimes using wireframe pieces or hover blocks to scaffold the increasingly unstable structure. And while there’s a single-player mode designed to teach players the ins and outs of the various block types, from rocket ones that help to thrust heavier objects to glass ones that will shatter if placed too roughly, the vast majority of the game is based upon players working together to move these blocks, as they’re too unwieldy to single-pawedly carry across a level.

The physics and time constraints are perhaps a little too precise given how insane and elaborate some of the later levels get. The frustrations of similar games like Overcooked were manageable because they came in short, frenzied bursts of gameplay, as you could still complete a level if you messed up an order or two, and if you had to restart, you’d only be losing a few minutes. By contrast, a mission in Bonkies only has one objective to complete, and any mistake can send minutes of work down the drain with no hope of recovery. Your chimps, being programmed the way they are, have no choice but to remain cheerful as their thrusters overheat and their spacesuits shatter. Except it’s far more difficult for the players to remain calm as a fragile green fusion block gets jostled ever so slightly, causing it to explode and take your whole elaborate building down with it: nuclear Jenga, anyone?

Early on in Olija (Devolver Digital), a retro pixel adventure game, your shipwrecked playable character, Faraday, stumbles upon a mystical harpoon that, once thrown, he can instantly teleport to. It’s a liberating mechanic, both in the context of the game’s lightning-fast combat, which has Faraday warping between enemies, and the aerial platforming, which often requires Faraday to use the momentum of his hurled weapon to traverse spiked pits. Sadly, all of this freedom feels imprisoned within the game’s all-too linear structure.

The Terraphage archipelago has various infested creeks, desolate beaches, and creepy shrines to explore, though not freely. Faraday can only direct his boatman to docks shown on his map, like the Royal Domain, Fallen Town, and Old Archives. The map fragment that reveals additional locations is found in that latter area, but to make any progress there you’ll have to retrieve a key from each of the other two locations. The levels themselves are even more straightforward: There’s the occasional hidden collectible, but it’s never more than a single screen removed from the main path. And because Faraday never gains any abilities beyond teleportation, you’ll never have to return to a cleared region to reach a formerly inaccessible secret—not that there’s any reason to, given that the only reward for freeing Faraday’s imprisoned crewmates is, at best, a line of thanks back in your hub “town” of Oaktide.

On the positive side, the disconnected nature of Olija’s structure allows the game to showcase entirely different environments on each island, and for the player to experiment with varied gameplay elements. The best of those experiences center around Faraday’s wordless flirtations with Olija, Terraphage’s ruler. In one area, Faraday must stealthily procure and then place a rose on Olija’s balcony; in another, a playful duel with the queen is frequently interrupted by slow, passionate gazes. Olija also does a fine job finding different horrific notes to hit, whether you’re fleeing a churning mass of shadows, scrabbling up a mountain of corpses, descending a tunnel that’s punctuated by hanging skeletons, or just traveling through a mine of soulless wretches who shuffle aimlessly and harmlessly after you. Ultimately, Olija is more of a guided tour than a free-roaming expedition, but at least some of the sights are memorable.

Once, Professor Nina Scholz of the Viago Institute meticulously documented the local squirrel population of Melmoth Forest, stymying the efforts of the Panorama corporation to build on that protected land. NUTS (Noodlecake Studios) begins in earnest 15 years later, as players take on the role of Nina’s research assistant, doing the grunt work required to help her to recreate her scientific study and once more stop Panorama from exterminating the flora and fauna of the region. Those are understandable stakes, so rather than render the forest in detail, the game’s developers instead use a stylish minimalist approach that keeps the focus on your squirrel subjects, contrasting their standout white or grey fur against a vivid palette of warm orange and cool blue outlines, depending on the time of day.

Each chapter here takes you to a different region of the forest, and more or less maintains the same feedback loop. During the day, players use their GPS tracker to locate a designated site, mount a camera there to observe it, and then, at night, play back the footage in order to look for squirrel signs. The actual surveillance of these animals is the meat of the game, gradually growing in complexity from a single camera/monitor to having three at once—which is useful, as you may need to track multiple squirrels, or locate a squirrel at specific timestamps.

If the trial and error of planting cameras in an attempt to predict and trail a squirrel’s path feels somewhat repetitive and laborious, that’s the point. NUTS wants you to understand how difficult and time-consuming it can be to do a scientific study, to see how stacked the odds are against those who would dare to protect wildlife from corporations. Rest assured that the cataloguing efforts are still gamified enough to keep things from getting too onerous. The constant repetition and readjusting of cameras also serves to attune your perspective to that of a squirrel’s, helping you to see tree hollows that might serve as useful stashes, or which trees might be scaled to offer you a new path forward. Alas, NUTS goes a little too far afield in the end, following so much in the tiny footsteps of these loveable scamps that it loses sight of the corporate malfeasance. Then again, there are worse things than getting lost in nature.

Aaron Riccio

Aaron has been playing games since the late ’80s and writing about them since the early ’00s. He also obsessively writes about crossword clues at The Crossword Scholar.

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