Last month, I was gifted the opportunity to play Chuhai Labs’ excellent pixelated golfing adventure Cursed to Golf. It’s an awesome marriage between rogue-like and golfing and is a seriously fun time even though the two concepts seem like they would be eternally at odds with each other. Cursed to Golf was published by Thunderful Games, a massive indie publisher that’s helped to put out the likes of Hell Pie, Lost in Random, and Deadly Premonition 2. The publisher was nice enough to reach out to me to demo a few of their upcoming releases at PAX West 2022, allowing me to experience 3 of their awesome titles- Planet of Lana; a side-scrolling puzzle platformer, The Last Hero of Nostalgaia; a comedic souls-like action adventure, and Worldless - a Metroidvania side scroller.
Planet of Lana
Of all the games I played at PAX West 2022, Planet of Lana is by far the most breathtaking visually. When I approached the Thunderful booth, I couldn’t help but notice a massive banner representing Planet of Lana’s art style was on display over the demo stations. It showed a vast, beautiful green landscape, with a large open sky filled with fluffy white clouds and rolling green hills. Standing among these green hills was a small child, with closely cropped brown hair, clad in a white tunic. Next to this child was an adorable little black creature, resembling an inky black cat, standing in stark contrast to the gorgeous greens and blues behind it.
At first glance, one might mistake this banner for a massive painting, as there are plain signs of brush strokes and paint blending throughout the picture. If you were to make this assumption, you would be correct - Planet of Lana’s backdrops are all hand-painted, and you can appreciate it immediately. Any second of the 30-minute demo I played could be frozen, printed, and hung in a museum, and no one would be any the wiser that it came from a video game. I was truly astonished at the quality of the visuals on display.
The game itself has very little instruction, though it doesn’t particularly need it. The small child mentioned above is the player character, and the black cat creature is their helpful companion. Beautiful, atmospheric music plays as you make your way through the beginning of the stages, talking to your little friend in a delightfully charming gibberish language, to which your friend will respond in turn. Beyond this, the game prompts you to explore your surroundings, side scroll, platform, and solve puzzles. Many puzzles are solved using the help of your companion, as you can direct them to different places on the level to do different actions. Whether it’s chewing through cables to let platforms swing or standing on certain trigger points to open doors, your little friend quickly becomes invaluable to completing the puzzles presented to you.
The controls are solid, simple enough to quickly grasp while still maintaining the challenge in understanding jump arcs and how the game handles object physics. The puzzles are enjoyable, with enough difficulty to feel like you’ve outsmarted the level while being easy enough to solve without banging your head against the wall. The gameplay is satisfying, easy to understand, and most importantly, intriguing.
Planet of Lana quickly establishes that all is not as pleasant as it seems. Strange, black, oozing tendrils and formless monsters roam the map, wordlessly reaching towards the protagonist with their long tentacles, their intentions unknown. I missed a jump in the middle of my play-through of the demo, falling dozens of feet onto the hard rocks below. I landed with a sickening crack as my legs folded underneath me and my cutely designed protagonist violently whipped backward, then lay still. It was visceral and seemingly very out of place for such a beautiful and light-hearted game. While Planet of Lana has the initial impression of an interactable painting, there are serious Limbo vibes following the entire experience, making it both intriguing and mysterious. I’m really excited to see what dark places - if any - this gorgeous story takes me when the game releases in 2023.
The Last Hero of Nostalgaia
I was hooked on the idea of The Last Hero of Nostalgaia from the moment I watched the initial trailer, and I was very excited to sit down and give it a try at PAX West 2022. The land of Nostalgaia is sick, with the beautifully rendered HD 3-dimensional world being taken over by a curse reducing everything to ugly, pixelated, 2D graphics. It’s up to you, the last hero of the land, to reverse this pox and restore Nostalgaia to its former, beautifully-rendered glory. There’s only one problem - Nostalgaia hates heroes. The cynical, snarky, insulting narrator of this story worst of all. What follows is a hilariously irreverent love letter to the best and worst aspects of gaming, and it had me laughing out loud at multiple points throughout the mere 30 minutes I spent experiencing its glory.
The Last Hero of Nostalgaia is a Souls-like third-person action game, and it plays very similarly to other games of this genre. Hard-hitting enemies are around every corner, so you must roll, dodge, block, parry, and attack strategically while circling around and out-maneuvering your opponents. Along the way, you’ll find mini-bosses scattered throughout the level along with bigger bosses whose health bars span the entirety of the bottom of the screen. There are bonfires in which to save your progress, multiple different weapons and stances to allow for varied and custom play styles, and different armor with different buff stats to help you. It plays as a fairly standard Souls-like action game, but it feels like an exceptionally well-polished addition to the genre. The controls are tight, the hitboxes are well implemented, and it has enough entry-level difficulty to be fun but not frustrating. It has a similar level of polish to Elden Ring, which is an impressive feat in itself.
Where The Last Hero of Nostalgaia really shines though, is in its humor. Irreverence is the name of the game here, with every aspect taking the piss out of modern storytelling conventions and gaming as a whole. It was described to me as “Stanley Parable meets Dark Souls,” and that is genuinely the aptest description I have ever heard.
The narrator is a snide, sarcastic Brit that hates your guts and doesn’t want to see you succeed. He will change the story in an instant in order to add more enemies, create an ambush, or taunt the player. The player character is the most pixelated character in the entire game, being made up of the most basic pixel wireframe imaginable. This is made all the more hilarious by the character creation screen, complete with a full suite of sliders and customization options, including an “endowment” slider. The problem is, manipulating these sliders changes absolutely nothing. Your pixelated stick figure does not change in any way, shape, or form. It’s ridiculous and adds to the irreverent tone.
The Last Hero of Nostalgaia is a hilarious self-aware comedy game with an interesting premise and seriously solid Souls-like gameplay. I’m looking forward to being berated by a rude narrator and getting my ass kicked by demon soul monsters. It releases on Xbox and PC October 19th, 2022.
Worldless is a 2D Metroidvania developed by No Name Studios. The game's setting is left intentionally vague, so instead of being a solid set and setting, the world and characters of Worldless are stylistically undefined. The world you traverse is colored with hues of greens and blues, with luminescent platforms and backdrops forming into the terrain. The player character is in and of themselves difficult to define, as they are made mainly of shapes and wisps of light.
It’s difficult to really define how Worldless looks, other than breathtakingly otherworldly. The world feels oppressive, yet beautiful. Totally alien, yet surprisingly familiar. As the player makes their way through this wonderfully mysterious place, a gorgeous ethereal soundtrack follows you as you go. You run, jump, dash, and climb your way through each area, encountering multiple enemies and engaging in Wordless’s unique combat system.
What sets Worldless apart from other metroidvania games is that its combat isn’t the traditional run-and-gun side-scrolling affair, opting instead for a turn-based system. As I was playing, I was reminded in a way of the time-based combat of Square Enix’s Chrono Trigger. You have a bar that fills up, and once full you can attack and do damage to your enemy as the bar depletes. What attacks will cause damage depends on what enemy you are fighting, what upgrades you’ve gotten, and what attack the enemy is weak against. When the bar depletes, you’re able to block and perry oncoming attacks, dealing damage or defending from taking any damage.
It’s honestly quite challenging to put the experience of playing Worldless into words. The art style is hard to describe, but inexplicably beautiful and original. The platforming is solid, with fluid, gorgeous animation accompanying the movements of the player character. The combat is interesting and distinctive due to its turn-based nature in a genre that rarely incorporates it. It really is an experience best had first-hand, so keep an eye out for it coming sometime in 2023.
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