Game reviews: Kingdom is big and beautiful but somewhat frustrating, and Mushroom 11 is simply mind-bending
The 2D side-scroller has hidden depths but Mushroom 11, a symphony of blobs and puzzle-solving, taxes the powers of description
There's a retro revival going on in the game world, and it's not just nostalgia. Independent developers are taking classic eight- and 16-bit graphical styles, mixing them with creative flair and sentimental love, and presenting them to gamers as their own distinct art form.
Yes, art, for anyone sneering right now. Kingdom is a prime example, a Windows, OS and Linux game that harmonises minimalistic aesthetics with simplistic gameplay mechanics. On the surface, it's a 2D side-scroller, but beneath, it's a large-scale real-time strategy adventure where you're a ruler out to create a kingdom.
At the start, your randomly generated king is entrusted with nothing more than a fistful of coins, a handful of workers and maybe a hint or two, before being sent out into a mysteriously large world to stake his claim. The twist being, like many a modern-day monarch, you have little power. Your character can only move left or right, and decide where to spend your cash. The fate of your realm is truly in the hands of its people.
Balance is key here, and the type of ruler you are ultimately decides your destiny. Do you train massive armies to lay siege to all that surrounds? Fortify and defend your territories? Explore the realms for resources, risking attack? Each choice comes with its own clever consequences, and you can easily lose the entire kingdom through a wayward arrow.
It's only when you start to truly rule that Kingdom loses its lustre. Simply put, the bigger your kingdom, the harder to keep track of, especially when it's all side-scrolling from one end to the other. Collecting gold, head-counting subjects, even calling villagers back when night falls - all eventually become repetitive, time-wasting, frustrating tasks.
The game isn't without merit - its beautiful visual may be noticeably traditional in its 2D bit-heavy approach, but is also cleverly infused with thoroughly modern levels of depth, in everything from the shaded countryside beyond your land to a horse's reflection in the water.
Kingdom isn't completely without flaws, but it's a fascinating melange of different influences and interests.
You know what the hardest thing is about writing game reviews? It's not the everyday Call of Duty/Grand Theft Auto rip-offs that everyone can understand. No, it's trying to describe in simple words just what the hell games like Mushroom 11 are about.
Granted, I just wasted a paragraph on that, but still. In this game you control a glowing orb-like ring, and with it, you push around a gooey, blobby green thing through Rube Goldberg-like, nightmarish, subterranean levels.
You got it, right? Fine, let's break it down. On the surface, Mushroom 11 is a simple puzzle game for the PC, Mac and Linux - your standard side-scrolling adventure, where your character solves a series of brainteasers through complicated obstacle-course levels.
But your character is just the mouse pointer, that glowing ring I mentioned. And with it, you push around the green blob - an amoeba-like goo-thing with the ability to break apart and regenerate at will. Starting to get it now? This isn't simple case of running from one end to the other. You have to squeeze, slide and squish through a series of increasingly difficult challenges, and your blob's role as a liquid form is key to success.
Sometimes, there are gears needing turning on one side, while something else holds the gate on the other. At others, elevator buttons need pushing upstairs, while part of your blob enters its doors down below. And nearly always near the end, a big-boss beast that can only be taken down by the right amount of frontal and flank attacks.
How does one achieve all this? Plenty of trial and error, to be fair, but also a wily way of controlling your blob. It's a slow and steady process that at first sees you breezing through the easy introductory levels, and then later pulling out your hair as you begin to realise that the most obvious solution isn't a solution at all.
Frustrating? Sure, but name a puzzle game that isn't. Fun? You bet, especially when you begin to truly master the art of the blob and all that it can achieve. Like cult favourites Portal and World of Goo, Mushroom 11 takes time to truly appreciate, and rewards with the kind of obsessive playability so rare among modern games. And if you still don't get it, well, I tried.