No Budget Gaming – Big Stories with Little Prices

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Remember the days when killer app, triple A video games were cheap? News flash- they never were, and in these desperate times, Steam beckons the impoverished gamer the way honey beckons a hungry bear. But as with any honey comb, it is easy to get stung- vaporware swirls about the “five dollars or less” button like a swarm of killer African bees. What is a gamer on a budget to do?

This week, I managed to dig up Choice of Robots, a text based game, Life is Strange: Episode 1, a much beloved, Square Enix backed adventure game that somehow went completely under this Telltale fan boy’s radar, and Trove, a free to play Minecraft-esque MMORPG.

Photo Credit: Choice of Games

Choice of Robots is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” title that revolves your player character’s attempts to build a robot, find funding, and navigate relationships between man and machine alike. The game is bare bones to the extreme- no audio, no pictures, just the letters on the screen and the choices it gives you. That said, bare bones does not mean bad for Choice of Robots. The game’s writing is tight, candid and to the point, with a machine gun flurry of choices right from the gate. These are not just banal “kick puppies or don’t” decisions either; at multiple points I was floored by the options presented to me.

One of my favorites moments came during Chapter 3, when I was confronted with having to choose how to best explain to my robot companion (I named him Screwball) the significance of another major character’s death. By the way, these were all within my first two hours of gameplay. Choice of Robot’s greatest strength is its ability to evoke guttural emotion from its decisions and their fallout, something I haven’t sincerely felt in a game since The Walking Dead: Season 1. That said, its minimalist nature did not go unnoticed by me. There were times when I would have loved to hear character’s voices, or see an image of my robot creation. If you are not an avid reader, you may have a hard time making it through the game’s mountains of text.

Then again, if you can enjoy the latest 300 page sci-fi novel on the robot rebellion, you can easily enjoy this game and its price tag. As an added bonus, Choice of Games has several other similar, well-regarded text games all less than five dollars each. What a steal!

Photo Credit: Square Enix

In terms of style, Life is Strange: Episode 1 is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Choice of Robots– strong voice acting, decent graphics, and licensed music. While the two games should only be compared as apples and oranges, at first blush Life is Strange makes Choice of Robots look like something out of Windows 98.

The first episode of this “point, click and make hard moral choices” series models itself after Telltale’s most recent efforts (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, etc.). If you enjoy those, you will likely enjoy this too. That said, Life is Strange throws a new element into the mix- time travel. The game’s hipster hero, Max, has the ability to rewind time to see different outcomes for her decisions or to solve puzzles- up to a point. The game will put a limit on how far back you can jump, adding a sense dread as you’re torn between two different but reasonable options, or a ticking clock as you dash to solve a puzzle.

I had a great deal of fun seeing all the different ways scenarios could play out, and weighing the short term payoffs with the long term consequences. The game’s aesthetic is also refreshing, taking a break from troubled broody men to center on a likable female protagonist with a realistic portrayal of high school ups and downs.

Then again, I was a filthy hipster back in the day, so maybe this game just hits me where I live. Your mileage may vary, especially with the games now infamous and frequently mocked “totally radical” dialogue. That said, the dialogue was not enough to dissuade me from finishing off the episode and had me interested in playing the rest of the series. If you’re looking for something along the line of Telltales recent works, but with some mechanical and stylistic twists, Life is Strange: Episode 1 is worth your 500 precious pennies.

Photo Credit: Trion Worlds

This week’s final game, Trove, is not a game of narrative choices like Choice of Robots and Life is Strange, but functional ones. Developed by Trion Worlds, this straightforward freeware MMORPG lets you customize your character, gear and layout, as well as construct buildings and a home base a la Minecraft. The similarities to Minecraft are intentional, though sadly, not beneficial for Trove. The game mashes together bits and pieces of not only Minecraft, but World of Warcraft,  along with Diablo 2 and 3. The result is game that is fully functional, but feels soulless, and unable to emulate the fun of the games it patterns itself after.

Gameplay is simple and straightforward. Click enemies to death, get new loot, rinse, repeat. The loot system is simplistic, classes do not feel distinctive or fun to play, and the world building systems are not as intuitive as, all together now, Minecraft. Everything works, it just doesn’t feel good. Although, there is one important caveat. The game is free – or rather “free to pay”.

Despite my critiques, the game wasn’t terrible. It just felt like a C student copy of an A student’s work. I can imagine Trove’s perky aesthetic and simplistic gameplay would be great for kids. I can also imagine the addictive grindfest nature of MMOs and the game’s “free to pay” business plan would be a nightmare for the parents of those kids. In this twenty-something gamer’s humble opinion, there are better ways to spend your freeware time.

That’s all for this week. Have a request for what genre or category of games I should look at next week? Leave it in the comments below. Until next time.

Feature Image Source: Life is Strange/Square Enix

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