Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 8

This volume explores games that provides all players a good challenge

Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 8

There are plenty of amazing games that go unnoticed and are not widely played for one reason or another. Maybe it's a diamond in the rough, or the marketing wasn't there, or it could be a game ahead of its time. For this monthly series, I've asked my fellow writers on SUPERJUMP to pick a game they think is deserving of a chance in the spotlight. Let us know your favorite hidden gems in the comments.

I never made it to this boss during my play. Source Steam.

Josh Bycer

Wings of Vi (2014)

For last month’s entry, I went with a game that was brutal to play because of its tough subject matter. Now I want to talk about a game that is brutal to play because it’s just plain brutal and that’s Wings of Vi. Following the success of Super Meat Boy, and the burgeoning Kaizo market for games, there were a lot of indie platformers that tried to be the next Meat Boy in terms of difficulty, and Wings of Vi 100% fits. The story is that you play as an angel named Vi who, thanks to your friend, unwittingly releases a demon lord that causes death around the world. Armed with the world’s most awkward weapon (more on that in a minute) and your wings, you’re going to have to save everyone.

Wings of Vi combines absolutely difficult platforming with absolutely difficult combat. While you have a health bar, it will not protect you from the myriad of death traps, death pits, and deadly obstacles that you will need to platform around. Vi has a variable jump that is augmented by being able to “flutter jump” and unlocking a double jump and slide early on. A lot of the trickier platforming is based on combining your different movement tech options where any mistake will lead to your death and restart. The game feels quite like a kaizo title at times, with you having to perform multiple maneuvers in a single screen with no margin for error.

While this image is from the store page, this is the area where I raised the white flag. Source: Steam.

Developers built the game on combat as arena fights, bosses, and facing common mobs as you move around. The enemies here are nasty to fight. If you thought the Medusa Heads or Eagles from Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden, respectively, were the worst enemies a 2D game could throw at you, well… this is far worse than both combined.

Flying enemies track the player like a heat-seeking missile — depending on the angle of approach, it can be literally impossible to dodge or kill them before they connect. Your starting weapon comes as a curved energy strike that hits multiple times per swing. An individual hit will not do much, but if you keep the enemy within the attack hitbox, it will be struck multiple times for max damage. However, enemies are faster than Vi, and if they connect with your hitbox, chances are you won’t be able to escape their grasp to kill them.

The section where I gave up was when the game introduced jumping spiders that could not be killed in a single attack-combo and were noticeably faster. Even getting back to the section to fight them was filled with challenging platforming and one-hit death traps.

Just having platformer skills is not enough to survive this game. Source: Steam.

You’re going to find this trend in Wings of Vi: levels are just pain on top of pain on top of pain. What the game does is that the different difficulties actually impact checkpoints, which you can see the ones you can access and the ones you can’t as you move through a stage. On the highest difficulty, Demon, you’ll need to go several times further in order to get a checkpoint, where in the easier settings, you’ll often get one after each hard section. That is also on top of the enemies having more health and doing increased damage. After I gave up on my Demon run, I tried to find speedruns or completions to see how someone else beat the section where I stopped, but there were none. The only people who finished the game on Demon did it as a New Game+ run where they could use stronger unlocked weapons to help compensate for the difficulty.

With that said, why do I recommend such a hard game here as a hidden gem, or maybe hidden pain? Despite the difficulty and frustration, it is still a well-designed and challenging platformer. The movement tech is not clumsy or difficult to control; this will certainly make you a better platformer player if you can master it. If you’re the person who approached Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be the Guy as a challenge to conquer, then this is the game for you. And if you decide to check it out, take my advice for the sake of your sanity and blood pressure: Do not play this game on the highest difficulty on your first go.

Source: Author.

Ben Cantrell

Ashen (2018)

Ashen is a co-op & single-player action RPG that was released in 2018, which made a small splash at the time, but ultimately flew under many people’s radar, including my own. Developed by New Zealand-based A44, it’s currently available on the PlayStation Plus Extra/Deluxe subscription, Steam, Epic Games and Xbox.

So why exactly did Ashen get lost in the mix? Released in December 2018 at the end of a huge year for both indie and AAA gaming, it was likely outshone because of the number of quality releases that year (God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Celeste, to name a few). Developed with support from ID@Xbox, they also released Ashen only on Game Pass and the Epic Games Store for PC. This meant that PlayStation owners completely missed out. It’s ironic that the game is now available on Sony’s subscription catalog, having long since left Game Pass where it originated.

Ashen is a ‘Souls-lite’ that refines and streamlines the essence of what made FromSoftware’s seminal release so special. It's a fantastic entry point into the Souls-like genre. There’s no leveling or stats to worry about, no skill trees or other complexities. This is a pure action RPG designed with the purpose of simplifying the formula yet retaining the essence of what makes it special.

Source: Author.

It’s in the presentation and design that Ashen really shines. The open world, divided into seven distinct realms, is stunning. It's filled with a mix of gorgeous vistas, gloomy dungeons and sprawling cities. For a Souls-like, the story has a refreshing tone of optimism. It’s a tale of a world awoken from a cataclysm, tasking players with the daunting task of rebuilding it all from scratch.

After a brief intro, we first emerge in a place called Vagrant’s Rest, which begins as a small home encampment in a sleepy forest. Over time, as players complete more quests, a range of NPCs move to Vagrant’s Rest and build it into a thriving town. Each new NPC constructs a house or shop, providing another place to level up and equip new gear. It's satisfying to see the place grow up into a bustling township. Revisiting Vagrant’s Rest to see its progress is one of the game’s biggest highlights.

Source: Author.

Ashen's music is brilliant, full of moody ambiance that highlights the expansive feel of its vistas. There’s a liberal amount of open space on the map, but also lots of dark and claustrophobic dungeons. It’s here that the game’s combat shines, simple yet satisfying. There are the typical light and heavy attacks mapped to the shoulder buttons, exactly as in Dark Souls. Along with a basic mix of single and two-handed weapons, there’s the ever-present stamina bar as well. If stamina runs out, it’s game over as there’s no way to dodge or counterattack. The delicate dance of dodge, attack, retreat, and repeat becomes critical to survival.

This need for constant vigilance keeps the tension high, particularly when you’re far from a respawn campfire, or deep in a pitch-black dungeon. Like Dark Souls, returning to a campfire beacon respawns all the enemies in the vicinity except the bosses. Using campfires sparingly becomes paramount. Killing enemies will drop Scoria (souls), which are then used to buy weapons and other upgrades, provided you survive the journey home.

Source: Author.

Indie studio A44 has done a wonderful job with Ashen. This is a game worth exploring for any Souls-like fan, or anyone curious about the genre. The studio is now working on Flintlock: Siege of Dawn, which looks to bring much of Ashen’s DNA to a more expansive world in early 2023.

Of course, Ashen isn’t a perfect experience. There are some fluctuating difficulty spikes which can get frustrating, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a Souls-like. The co-op mode and AI teammate’s effectiveness can sometimes be hit-and-miss. Also, there’s a questionable frame rate on the PS5 version, which runs exactly as it did on PS4. For this reason, I recommend playing on a well-specced PC if you can. Despite this, Ashen is a hidden gem that deserves the spotlight once again.

Antony Terence

Ancient Quest of Saqqarah (2008)

God-tier voice acting and stellar graphics aren’t your usual words of praise for a match-3 puzzle game. But Saqqarah is no ordinary match-3 title. Here, you’re on a quest to fulfill an Egyptian prophecy and seal an evil god in his tomb.

Bright blue Khufu comes along for the ride, offering advice and tips as you work towards restoring temples devoted to the Egyptian pantheon of gods. The cheery ape is just one of many pleasant surprises, voiced by Michael McConnohie of Diablo 2 and World of WarCraft fame.

Source: YouTube.

The game progresses as you clear levels across the aforementioned temples, with each one offering a unique method of lighting up its darkened pieces. Isis keeps things simple with its match-3 formula while the pattern-seeking Thoth and the rotation-based Sobek levels shake things up. While these changes keep Saqqarah’s gameplay fresh, being forced to light up specific parts in time means that multiple strategies can tackle a level.

Tiles immune to regular explosions and chains preventing regions from lighting up add even more variety to a well-rounded package of mechanics. Trust me, the levels where Osiris and Bast put you in charge of placing these tiles on the board can feel near-impossible in their difficulty.

Bonus levels let you build on Khufu’s skills, accessible once you clear off a set number of tiles in a level. The ensuing blitz of magic effects looks incredible even today. Seeing tendrils of blue electricity cackle across Saqqarah’s colorful tiles is as excessive as watching a digitally de-aged Marvel actor on-screen. 500-plus levels and 3 major expansions mean Saqqarah has the potential to keep you company for a long time. With unique win conditions and challenging puzzles, Ancient Quest of Saqqarah deserves to be on every puzzle fan’s radar.

Thanks for reading, come back next month for another entry and more great hidden gems to check out! You'll find all previous Hidden Gems stories here.


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