Endless dunes, savage storms, ancient secrets, giant monsters - depictions of deserts are common in video games. The three games on feature today are a varied lot, differing in genre and style, but each has some connection back to the desert and its mysterious atmosphere.
Watch the games in action:
Agelvik - 2022 - $4.99
As you may have guessed from their conspicuous absence from my lists, I'm not a fan of the trend of spooky games that currently dominate the indie space. But I do have an appreciation for the eerie, and Lulu's Temple, our first game, is a great example.
At its heart, Lulu's Temple is a basic platformer - run through a pyramid, collecting keys to unlock doors while avoiding monsters and traps. The central gimmick is light, and the lack thereof. Normally I can't stand game mechanics that limit the player's sight, but Lulu's Temple does it extremely well. The player carries a torch and can light torches in the pyramid for more light, but it will never be enough - use only that light, and you will blunder into hazards in the dark. Fortunately, your little explorer can hurl his torch ahead to light the path before him, and he even has a little scarab helper to fetch it for him.
Mastering the torch is key to finishing Lulu's Temple. Aside from flinging the torch to ignite distant light sources, you'll also use it to trigger traps and solve certain puzzles. But being apart from your torch carries risks - some monsters will exploit your vulnerability and only attack you in the dark, while others can grab your dropped torch and run away with it.
The most remarkable part about Lulu's Temple might be how creepy the game is, despite - maybe even because of - its MSX throwback graphics. The slightly dissonant music and sound effects are appropriately ominous, and the monster designs are properly weird. Whether it's the glow of red eyes in the darkness above you or the guttural battle cry of a giant scorpion bearing down on you, there are plenty of memorably spooky moments.
Joshua Missile - 2015 - $14.99
A young woman named Arra awakens in a box in a vast wasteland with only one clear memory - her father telling her to find and destroy a legendary artifact before it causes any more trouble. So begins The Amber Throne, an indie RPG that is not based on Earthbound. I know! It's like spotting a triceratops on your way to the grocery store.
The Amber Throne is sort of a semi-open world game. Arra has certain storyline objectives to complete, but the player gets a fair amount of leeway in how she reaches each one of them. It's an intentional design choice, as the narrative is based more on atmosphere than on a hard linear plot. On her journeys, Arra will encounter various tribes who have a history with the titular Throne and learn what became of them, while also learning of an inhuman force that already controls much of the world and has designs on the Throne.
I should mention this, as it's something that legitimately surprised me when I first played The Amber Throne: There's RPG Maker code buried somewhere under all the hand-drawn art. I hope that doesn't color your opinion too much. While the game features some familiar RPG Maker elements (particularly in the sound effects and menus), The Amber Throne transcends a lot of its limitations. Aside from its graphical design, the combat system - while still pretty old-school - has some interesting quirks. Enemies will react to certain attacks, changing their stats or attack patterns. Winning some of the harder fights depends on figuring out which attacks to use on which enemies to limit their strengths.
Bolverk Games - 2021 - $19.99
Somewhere in the desert lies an ancient lost city, a place of advancement and reason brought to ruin by a technological disaster. The denizens are long gone, but some of their creations have managed to remain active. One of those creations - a robotic scarab called Glyph - has been tasked with its kin to revive the city and undo the disaster.
Glyph is a 3D platformer collect-a-thon. The basic gameplay loop should be familiar to anyone who remembers the heyday of such games - complete levels to unlock new levels while slowly advancing toward the endgame. Each of Glyph's levels contains keys that must be collected to finish the level along with coins, gems, and artifacts used to unlock new hubs and levels on the overworld.
Mechanically, Glyph is pretty straightforward. Your little robot bug has a pretty standard suite of moves, including a double jump, short-range glide, and a ground pound that pops Glyph into the air for yet another jump. But the basic applications of these moves will only get you so far - completing the more technically difficult levels requires understanding how to break those mechanics.
An example: Unlike most games, where the player character needs to be standing on firm ground to jump, Glyph has a jump that is "charged" by touching any safe surface and can then be immediately used. This lets the player pull some interesting moves, such as rolling straight up the side of a tall object or bouncing from one parallel surface to another. Touching a fair surface also recharges your glide, which can then be used to turn 180 degrees in midair or tapped for a quick velocity boost. Mastering these quirks is key to finishing the more difficult stages.
Glyph is a pretty substantial game at that, with a lot of levels to tackle. Expect to take anywhere from 5 to 15 hours, depending on whether you head straight for the final level or tackle each level in turn.
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