I have to hand it to DreamHack for dedicating a section of their Anaheim, CA, show to independent video game developers. This inaugural West Coast appearance of a convention heavily geared toward online competition made room for creators demoing over 50 video games, four tabletop games and 11 student games.
Among stages and play areas set up for esports, an expo area provided a venue for the Indie Playground. This is where I demoed games and spoke with their developers or representatives. Works in progress included Cepheus Protocol and Adventures of Chris, which I cover below. Delphyq, WaveBreak, Undying and Kynseed will follow.
A video showcasing the latest build of this isometric squad-based tactical shooter was my first introduction to the game only a week before the show. Based on that video, this became a must-see demo for me. It had the appeal of a tactical squad-based shooter like Ghost Recon and a top-down survival horror aesthetic like Dead Nation.
Cepheus Protocol is a real-time strategy game by Halcyon Winds that tasks players with controlling units sent into San Francisco to deal with the spread of a destructive virus. A Defense Team protects a home base, while an Away Team is deployed to pursue objectives. The game features eight-person teams and multiple formations for tackling each challenge.
Players select units by dragging the cursor across them, choose a formation, then right click to select a destination. Individual movement is also an option. When grouped, formation selection is important. For instance, a V formation can funnel the enemy into the middle, but teammates will lower their weapons and not shoot to avoid friendly fire.
In that case, players can select a different formation. But in the middle of a firefight, players can also rotate the formation while holding down the right mouse button. This also helps cover the flank when in formation. Units will fire on enemies in front of them but if attacked from behind, enemies can grab and turn units around. If they get too close, a bar will fill and, when full, units will die and attack the team.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I was preoccupied with the area and enemies ahead of my team and neglected an attack from behind. Thankfully, controls are fairly intuitive, especially with a HUD that includes a lot of information such as icons for actions or formation selection. Combined with well-integrated mouse control, planning and reacting are equally helpful, and pivoting on one’s six is easy.
One thing that I thoroughly enjoyed and likely spent way too much time on was adjusting the dynamic isometric camera. It allows for complete control of pitch, angle and distance, adjusting zoom with the middle mouse wheel, lowering and raising the view while clicking the wheel, and rotating the view by moving the mouse. Players can view from any perspective with fluid camera movement and detailed graphics.
In fact I was distracted with how good the camera was and put my team in jeopardy. After selecting an objective with a right click of the mouse, my team ran toward it and I zoomed in on the action, oblivious to the threat that lurked off camera. It's a good thing, then, that the camera is so easy to control, as players can quickly zoom out, re-center on foes, and reposition units if necessary.
Team members, which represent classes like spec ops and medic, are armed with assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, shotguns, pistols, etc., each with a certain range. Players can order their teams to fire, but they'll do that without instruction as long as the enemy is within their sight – lines of sight appear on screen, but can be turned off if too distracting, which can be the case on occasion.
If a team needs ammo, players can grab the ammo icon and place it in front of the team. Ammo will parachute down and players can select the team and spam the refill option. It’s relatively simple. When at an objective, a team member can be placed on the objective to trigger the next scene/action. Of course, I couldn’t because the icon was over water, until I chose the pier directly beneath the icon.
As team members gain experience, their ranks and skills likewise will increase – the more they fight the enemy, the higher their ranks and the better their ability (at the beginning they’re hesitant but as they fight the virus more they’ll become more confident). Opposing them are several kinds of infected, from smaller foes to larger tank-like enemies to hulking beasts.
Enemies have different capabilities. Tall, skinny foes can leap at the team, some enemies spray caustic spit, heavier adversaries can blow up when near, and a colossal juggernaut can overwhelm. Settings can be adjusted to add a red outline for visibility of enemies, which spawn from nests that have to be destroyed. A nice option is dropping an airstrike by selecting the nest, though friendly fire is a risk.
I mostly encountered standard foes during my brief demo. They are generally quick (with fluid animation), so although you can race to your next objective, a more cautious approach is a good idea. Indeed the team can get overwhelmed if too hasty. I did manage to find a nest, but either due to location and/or proximity, could not implement an airstrike before the captain was killed and mission failed.
Your teams, conversely, have a home base they must protect. The Defense Team can be set to defend against attack, including establishing patrol points. Fast travel allows the Away Team to return as necessary. For instance, DNA samples collected by your scientist in the field are turned into the command center for points that can purchase better weapons or abilities for the team to help it fight the virus.
Halcyon Winds has crafted a living, breathing world where threats can emerge anywhere at any time. If the Away Team spends too much time in an area, the AI will start attacking other areas to keep players on their feet. The AI in fact will behave differently every time, so enemies might attack from a different area during a new play through.
Whether playing the really hard missions later on in the game, or replaying Cepheus Protocol, players will want to keep their options open. For instance, units can be controlled individually or grouped into small or large teams; and teams can be made up of different classes or a single kind like assault or spec ops. But there’s always a trade-off to consider. In the end, choices become very strategic.
There’s so much to do that a keyboard is best suited to the gameplay as opposed to a controller. Halcyon Winds in fact looks to bring the setup for MMOs over to the game because many are used to that. And while they’ve taken inspiration from games they love that are RTS, MOBA, etc., hoping it satisfies players that want a strategy game, they’re also differentiating this game from others in the genre.
The game is designed so everyone can play it differently, as opposed to RTS titles that can be linear experiences. Players select where to go on the map, and each grid will have a color that corresponds to the threat level. So a green area might have fewer foes than a red area. Players can then decide squad makeup, size and formation, and opt for a tight formation or sending units to the left, right and down the middle.
The Away Team and Defense Team both can be customized. Players can build an entire team with one class, like spec ops, or choose one or two snipers only. The home base and its defenses, such as turrets, likewise can be built by the player. One way to accomplish this is to take down bounties – or minibosses – like the juggernaut in order to earn in-game money for spending on upgrades.
Bounties are important because the game has no microtransactions. Everything is bought with in-game money earned while playing. Taking out a bounty like the juggernaut can net a reward like $60,000 for buying weapons, defenses, etc. Earning bounties and experience like killing infected also raise ranks for better target acquisition and overall combat. Also helpful is conducting virus research via the scientist.
Besides focusing on gameplay, the developers wanted players to care about the characters. The lead writer, whose game-related novel provides a backstory to Chelsea (patient zero) and explores why Capt. Winter joined the CERC (think CDC), crafts a story of how Winter is sent to combat the virus and Chelsea, who is using the infected to take control while trying to resist the alien infection within her.
Steam early access for the PC game starts May 15 and includes a free roam mode on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. This mode is basically an open world chess match battle against the virus, which should play differently with each attempt. The full release is planned for Q4 with a different game mode(s), storylines and (replayable) missions in areas like Alcatraz, the Presidio and downtown.
Cepheus Protocol has been in development by Halcyon Winds for 1-1/2 years with 20 people working on the game. I came away impressed with the vision of the developers and with the demo. I'm not an RTS fan (or PC gamer), but this had an arcade feel despite how deep it can be, meaning controls are intuitive, the HUD and gameplay are well integrated and it's just plain fun to play. I can't wait to see how this evolves.
Adventures of Chris
I've been following this game's development for a while now so was eager to demo the game for myself. The side-scrolling platformer by Guin Entertainment (lead developer Chris Guin, to be precise) is inspired by '90s TV children's cartoons and sports a similar aesthetic and sense of humor that, along with clever gameplay, help this creative title stand out from the crowd.
Conceived as a story-driven, character-rich, hand-animated '90s-style cartoon, the game follows an ordinary overweight nerdy kid in 1995 (modeled after the developer's own childhood) as he and other children are abducted, taken to Transylvania and turned into toys. Chris can change into a balloon and uses his new superpower to try and free the other children and, ultimately, save the world.
Chris learns how to control his power in the Kingdom of Lost Balloons, and discovers that the world is filled with supervillains like the kind that you might have seen in Darkwing Duck, Captain Planet or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are in settings like Los Angeles, Mexico, Chile, Malaysia, Tokyo and the Great Barrier Reef, accessible when Chris floats up and off the screen.
In the demo I visited Malaysian swamps (including a sunken temple) with flying fish and mosquitos (there's a mosquito boss), some of whom spit acid; Tokyo rooftops with bats and ninja cats that hurl stars (the villain there is a big ninja cat, basically); and the underwater reef teeming with jellyfish, predatory fish, crabs and sea urchins that shoot spines (a large urchin is the villain).
Apparently two of the settings I visited are among the more difficult. And my journey was no piece of cake, though I'm not the best platform gamer out there. Thankfully controls are fairly nimble and responsive, with basic moves like jump and crouch simple to pull off. Helpfully, Chris can inflate to reach higher areas for exploration, a tactical advantage or to avoid danger.
For example, Chris can float above flying fish, underneath ninja cats prowling rooftops (using his hands to move along the eaves), or around mosquitos and bats. He can float among the clouds, or underwater as he's pulled by a sub while avoiding jellyfish, hungry fish and prickly urchins. Of course navigating such platforming elements can present a challenge.
Whether it's platforms above swamps, eaves underneath rooftop foes, underwater tunnels or an elaborate system of ducts/vents, players will need to judge when to inflate or deflate, or how to control the sub, to avoid the various threats of each setting. My judgement and timing leave something to be desired, but such obstacles can provide a rewarding challenge with a little practice (and help, in my case).
Also helpful against foes are special skills, such as a powerful punch or fireballs; specialties like a super bounce (to jump high), a dash kick, or a super punch (where Chris rockets forward – a powerful move that comes later in the game); and a bunch of spells (i.e. fire, ice, lightning). The regular punch and fireballs are easy to pull off and effective, with the latter also helping light dark areas.
All told, players can acquire a significant roster of attacks, as well as upgrade health, magic and helium. The latter is possible in the Bakery when visiting the Kingdom of Lost Balloons: a strawberry shortcake upgrades health; keylime pie, magic; and a cola float offers additional helium. Chris can also purchase shirts – a red one, for instance, provides armor.
For an even more custom experience, players also can change difficulty mid-course by using the menu button, selecting options and choosing the difficulty of their choice. Once players unlock everything there's still more to do as they can use those abilities and upgrades upon revisiting different parts of the world where new opportunities have opened up.
The Kingdom also includes a Library with books that have been collected from different levels. A secret treasure/prize awaits those players who find them all, but they're also filled with lore, explaining the backstory of all the villains. Levels also include collectible flags of the countries Chris visits. Books and flags figure prominently because the designer enjoyed them as a child.
Adventures of Chris has a charming design and creative gameplay, and my time with the demo reinforced my excitement for this title. The varied settings, their impact on gameplay, and the compelling action including platforming make for a consistently entertaining experience. It's a thoughtful concept and a fun journey that I look forward to hearing more about.
For more photos from the show floor, visit here.
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