Indie Roundup: Cyber Shadow, Curse of the Dead Gods, and Maquette

Cyber Shadow is every bit as challenging as its pedigree suggests, but the game takes care to space out its most demanding segments.

Cyber Shadow
Photo: Yacht Club Games

As the cyborg ninja at the center of Aarne Hunziker’s Cyber Shadow (Yacht Club Games), your goal is to slice through robotic foes across 11 chapters, all while contending with various obstacles, such as spike-filled pits. This action platformer, then, owes a sizable debt to Ninja Gaiden, as well as to other 8-bit sidescrollers of yore. But to commend the game purely in terms of retro fealty risks glossing over the considerable precision and craft that Hunziker, the sole member of Mechanical Head Studios, has put into each gorgeously pixelated gauntlet. The game is set in an exaggerated cyberpunk future, and each of its levels presents you with new mechanics, from enemies that send electric bolts between one another to a sky laser that targets you the moment you step out from under a roof’s cover.

Cyber Shadow is every bit as challenging as its pedigree suggests, but the game takes care to space out its most demanding segments. The really punishing stretches (beyond, perhaps, a really irritating second chapter) train you well enough to breeze through the parts that follow and, mercifully, checkpoints arrive much sooner than you might initially expect.

The game is at its most thoughtful when tempering the infamous difficulty of its forerunners without diluting it. There are no real penalties for death, with each checkpoint allowing you to purchase health or a temporary item in preparation for the path ahead. And the piecemeal approach to your growing ninja arsenal lets the game subtly tutorialize, allowing you to hone each new skill that’s handed to you until it’s time for them all to come together as the game kicks into high gear. Perhaps inevitably, the opening levels are a little rudimentary, but the game’s virtuosic brio is such that you will find yourself instantly hooked. Scaife

Greed is the end-all, be-all of Curse of the Dead Gods (Focus Home Interactive). It pervades every inch of this rogue-like action game from developer Passtech Games: It’s the treasure-hunting motivation for each of your runs through a series of Mesoamerican temples, a necessity in combat, and an ever-present curse that will stop an expedition cold if you can’t mitigate the corruption that you’re dealt every time you take a reward.

What sets Curse of the Dead Gods apart is the way in which it requires players to be greedy while also punishing them for it. The game rewards you for staying in the light, where you take less damage and can see traps, but urges you to rush into the darkness, swapping out your weak torch for a powerful weapon, and killing enemies in quick succession to fill your gold-multiplying “greed meter.” Getting hit breaks that combo, and yet the only way to restore your stamina in combat is by making last-second dodges and parries. Without enough gold, you’ll have to essentially mortgage your soul to purchase upgrades, making blood offerings that fill your corruption meter, activating random, game-altering curses. It sounds manageable, which is how the game gets you, for even if you dodge every spike trap, electrical landmine, poison fountain, and skeletal attack, simply progressing to the next chamber causes corruption.

The developers at Passtech Games hide a critique of greed in plain sight by easing players into the game, making us think that we can recklessly accumulate corruption without consequence. Instead of one long dungeon to overcome, there are three distinct temples: the blood-soaked stone sacrificial halls of the Jaguar, the blue storm-powered corridors of the Eagle, and the toxic green caverns of the Serpent. Mimicking the same predatory practices as a credit-card company, the introductory tiers of each temple give players a sense of comfort, enough to coax them into accruing more corruption (or debt) than they should, but not so much to bog them down in curses (or bankruptcy). As the temples get longer and filled with elite enemies, players have to unlearn those habits and resist the siren call of that greed, lest they succumb to the almost-certain death sentence of the game’s fifth and final curse. Riccio

The highly metaphorical Maquette (Annapurna Interactive) derives its name from an artist’s scale-model rendering of a larger project they’re working on. In this case, that project is the relationship between artists Michael (Seth Gabel) and Kenzie (Bryce Dallas Howard). The game’s first-person gameplay puts you within a series of nested, recursive memory-palace maquettes in which you can manipulate the scale of objects by moving their corresponding pieces. A cube, for example, that’s too large to lift at its normal size can easily be moved to a new position by adjusting its smaller, dioramic representation, but while this well serves the unique blend of puzzling, it often seems stretched to fit the game’s romance.

Despite being centered around the concept of shifting perspectives, Maquette fixates entirely on Michael’s recollections, and the puzzles do little to reflect on the artists’ relationship, or turn introspection into action. (You may wish that the developers at Graceful Decay had taken a page from Braid, which built its story and mechanics upon turning back time, such that both elements fed off one another.) The rare exceptions hint at the more immersive game that could’ve been, as when one of Michael’s observations (“I asked myself whether we were ever a good fit”) is put to the test alongside a key that players can endlessly attempt to resize before resigning themselves to the conclusion that it will simply never open the nearby lock.

Thankfully, Maquette’s puzzles compellingly pick up the story’s slack. Most solutions require you to use objects in different contexts, like resizing a wedge shoe as a ramp, or maneuvering gems through the various scale models so that they can open gateways of corresponding colors. That’s a far more creative enterprise than the one offered by the flimsy plotting, which introduces objects into the game less as an occasion for emotional resonance than to serve up more superficial pleasures, such as one egregiously underlined double entendre: “That shoe’s a wedge, get it? Like the wedge driving these two apart?” The game’s narrative just can’t match the depth of the recursive gameplay. In that sense, then, Maquette models the very antithesis of the plot, as the only way to grow is to leave a stifling relationship behind. Riccio

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