It’s 8am and student Karn Bianco is the first awake and working on the final day of the game jam. It’s his game that I’m down to review today, so I wander over to take a look. We’re both still a little bleary.
I don’t know anything about what he and journo-turned-developer Lewie Procter have been working on. Bianco clicks to start a new game and…
Honestly, it’s wonderful. I’m taken completely by surprise.
Maybe they’ve both got a little bit lucky having drawn me as their reviewer, and it just so happens that what they’ve done hits all my particular buttons. But I don’t think so. I think I’m just seeing something that is genuinely very, very good.
There are two main areas where shooter-in-a-box “Just Like Real Life” absolutely shines, and a whole raft of smaller supporting sections that push the whole package into being something I’ve found really special.
The first is, quite simply, the central shooting mechanic. You take control of a shimmering ball of white light that gently spits out small round bullets in a steady stream towards the top of the screen. There are no buttons – you just move the mouse around and the white ball responds like it’s your cursor.
Your “enemies” are gently pulsing balls of blue light. They’ll destroy you if you touch them, but they never attack – they just move around the gently scrolling space background, bouncing off the walls until they are destroyed by being hit by two of your bullets.
The really clever part? Your bullets, which kill if they touch you, bounce off the walls. Twice.
It sounds underwhelming, but that one factor transforms the game mechanic from “competent” to “gripping”. It means that you can never stay still, and that even though you are only ever firing forward, you have to also be aware of what’s behind you; your own bullets hit the top of the screen, bounce down, hit the bottom of the screen and bounce back up before disappearing.
Just crossing from the left to the right of the screen, even with no enemies nearby is now a challenge: you have to wait for a gap in the stream before you can move – but in those seconds you’ve stayed still looking for the gap, you’ve sent a column of bullets bouncing off the ceiling directly back to your exact location – so on you move. It’s subtle, but very powerful, making the game gently relentless right from the moment you start, even before the difficulty starts ramping up as the levels progress.
Which is where the second really special part of the game is most appreciated – the sound.
Seriously, how exciting is it to be talking about the quality of the sound in ANY game, let alone on in a 48-hour game jam game?
The backing soundtrack is a gentle piano piece, similar in feel to the menu music from the original Sims game. It’s also been created specifically for this game by game music composer Michael Bowerman (embow-music.co.uk) who offered his services for this game jam.
It’s lovely; smooth and soothing and assured and provides a welcome counterpoint to the tense central game mechanic. Which is great – but that’s not what’s special; what IS special is how Bianco and Procter have implemented the supporting sound effects around this piece.
They asked Bowerman to provide a selection of single piano notes sound files, in the same key as the main melody, meaning that when played on top of the backing track they will never sound discordant. They then made it so that every time an enemy is destroyed, one of these notes is played at random.`
This clever, considered trick changes the whole experience of the game. You’re adding to the soundtrack as you play. It’s never quite the same twice, and it never sounds wrong.
It’s joyful . And there’s still more.
The cherry on the top for both the music and the mechanic is the power-up. There is only one: a rubbery ball that floats slowly across the screen, bouncing sleepily away from bullets and walls until you collect it by moving over it.
At this point, you become temporarily invincible while bullets erupt from your sphere in every direction in a constant rush, and for the next five seconds the screen is turned into something that is pure bullet-hell.
It looks dramatic – and it sounds wonderful.
The activation of the power-up is signalled by a twinkling two-note melody, and then a cascade of sound as every onscreen enemy is pinged and destroyed, sending out their individual death-note to mix with all the others in a wash of harmony.
Then the screen empties and usually at this point, you level up, a new wave starts (adding in randomly-placed walls to bounce your bullets off at unpredictable angles), your bullets get faster, your score multiplier increases (there is a score multiplier) and you’re off against another wave, more challenging and rewarding than the last.
I hope you can see why I like the game. I’m not making it up; it’s really lovely.
I haven’t even mentioned the online score table (seriously).
Or the Plasticine-themed animated title screen. Or the credits and help screen and their weird, quirky touches of humour.
For Procter and Bianco to have quietly brought it all together in 48-hours, to me, just seems amazing. But it’s not really the technical achievement that impresses; it’s the thoughtfulness of the implementation throughout. It feels coherent and surprising and, above all, fun.
The game isn’t perfect (there was a game-destroying bug in the review build I played) but the effort and attention feels like it’s in all the right places, to create something really accomplished.
It also feels like, based on this effort, Karn Bianco is a young developer to watch carefully.
And Lewie Procter? Well, if this game has his design fingerprints over it then, just maybe, he might be in the wrong area of the right industry?
This has been an amazing game jam. Thank you everyone.
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