To keep us on our toes this week, Microsoft decided to turn off the Xbox Live Arcade pipe. And with the PSN Store remaining offline until yesterday, you might think that it's all tumbleweed in download-ville. Well, as Dave Gahan might roar, wrong.
The Xbox Indie scene continues to provide unexpected delights from enthusiastic types hoping for a big break. After the must-buy trio of Sequence, Upbot Goes Up and Blocks That Matter during May, The Avatar Legends is a hugely ambitious RPG work-in-progress that's worth keeping an eye on, while the endearingly rubbish-looking Hedge Wizard turns out to be far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
And WiiWare's recent fallow period came to an end last week with the swish arrival of FAST: Racing League, a pretender to the F-Zero throne, while the underestimated DSiWare store continues to pump out quality offerings like Mighty Milky Way. It might be sad to see the passing of the import scene, but when you've got quality indie offerings cropping up every week, that niche is well and truly serviced elsewhere.
Mighty Milky Way
- DSiWare - 800 DSiWare Points (£7.20)
With Shantae: Risky's Revenge and Mighty Flip Champs already in its locker, WayForward has a knack of reminding us why it's worth bothering to dutifully log onto the DSiWare store.
In this classy chunk of inexplicable goodness, you play a 'green-skinned cutie pie' who can destroy or create planets on a whim, and who appears to be on some sort of mission involving jumping into black holes. Each to their own, I'm not judging.
Known to her friends as Luna, this loveably dysfunctional alien (she's not actually a pie) can run around the circumference of each planet and then dive off into space, and dispense 'planet candy' when she needs to create a new planet to gravitate towards.
If this isn't making any sense, that's to be expected, especially as the game itself struggles to make the basic concepts clear. But fiddle around with its slippery innards long enough, and this oddball, globe-trotting, gravitational puzzle-platform thing hits an unexpected groove.
Over the course of Luna's journeys, you find yourself battling good friends such as electrified force fields, nefarious space monsters and skinny layouts presumably designed for pie-averse aliens.
The further you go, the more hazards await, and the more colourful your language gets. One day they'll be forced to put blood pressure warnings on these things.
FAST - Racing League
- WiiWare - 1000 WiiWare Points (£7.00).
Presumably, if Nintendo mothballs the F-Zero series for long enough, technology can finally catch up and we can live out our reckless racing dreams (before crashing and burning like a futuristic James Dean on the first corner). Until then: FAST - Racing League.
Until you actually get your hands on Shin'en's glossy WiiWare effort, it promises you the world - and you believe it. Blazing speed, flawless visuals, smooth, responsive tilt controls and neat phase-shifting mechanics make it the new poster child for Nintendo's much-maligned download service.
It even promises depth, and boasts 21 race challenges, along with four-player split-screen racing and a challenging league-based career structure. What's not to like?
Despite checking every possible box, the one thing Shin'en apparently forgot to get right was playability. Right from the start, your AI opponents scorch past you at the first opportunity and appear immune to even the slightest error. The first time you fail to hit a boost pad cleanly, they leave you for dust and keep on going; by the time you've finished the third and final lap you're lucky to get nil points.
You'd imagine practice would make perfect, and to a certain extent it does. You'll get the measure of the black and white phase system and remember when to toggle the d-pad to gain maximum boost speed. You'll even get better at picking up boost tokens and consistently beat your own lap time, but getting good enough to win a race takes an extraordinary amount of effort.
Thanks to this vertical learning curve, there's no smooth route into the game, which ultimately means playing the same tracks over and over until you finally crack it - or just crack and go do something more rewarding. If you posses superhuman racing skills, FAST - Racing League is the game for you. The rest of us can mull over what might have been.
The Avatar Legends
- Xbox Live Indie Games - 240 Microsoft Points
Under normal circumstances, the addition of the word 'Avatar' to an Xbox Indie title is the gaming equivalent of ramming red hot poisoned needles under your fingernails. Remarkably, Barkers Crest's latest spares its audience such a cruel fate.
The Avatar Legends is a half-decent RPG in its own right. I won't lie; the by-the-numbers fetch quests and wobbly, one-note combat hardly belie its low-budget indie status - but that doesn't stop it from being a mildly enjoyable button-masher.
The game's saving grace is largely the emphasis on sharp dialogue and, by extension, its ability to motivate you to wander off and do things that wouldn't otherwise waste your time on. It's not a bad-looking game world, either, though the fact that's it's populated with Avatars never feels like a plus point.
Creative types can also fashion their own twisted RPG adventures and share them with unsuspecting friends. Barely being capable of creating a slice of toast, I can't comment on its usability, but I have it on good authority that it's intuitive and allows you to create characters, dialogue, quests and environments from the ground up.
The six-player online multiplayer, though, wasn't exactly working as expected when we tested it, so it's a case of buyer beware on that one. Apparently you can't have everything in life for two pounds, but if you don't mind its rough edges, love XP grinding and have a creative spirit, there's fun to be had in the bargain basement.
- Xbox Live Indie Games - 80 Microsoft Points
Hedge Wizard scoops a double award this week: firstly for having comfortably the best title, and secondly for being developed by a studio called Zombie Bonsai. Just as well the game lives up to this lofty promise.
The idea of this little puzzle nugget is to gather gold for a lazy wizard, while also trying to prevent the village from being flooded, burned down, eaten by zombies, or other impending disasters.
Preventing the imminent death of the local populace involves cunning and a smattering of magic, and the wizard helps you on your way by dispensing collectible spells around the environment.
A fire, for example, will need to be blown off course before it fries the village, while course-correcting a raging flood may gain you access to helpful spells or save people from dying - or both. With time always against you, it becomes increasingly important to activate the spells at just the right moment - and in the right order - to avert danger.
Fortunately, you can also manipulate time and can either rewind a few steps to try something a different way, or crank things up to get the job done quicker.
But while the rubbish visuals give it a throwaway appearance, Hedge Wizard's frantic multi-tasking formula quickly casts its insidious spell over you.
Hamilton's Great Adventure
- PC (Steam) - £7.19
It could have been so different for Indiana Jones. He could have befriended a helpful parrot and spent his time solving fiendish co-operative puzzles, and thus avoided fridge-nuking ignominy.
He could also have dodged the army of CGI monkeys by visiting far-flung temples in an understated manner like Hamilton. He could have quietly gone in search of keys, treasure and miscellaneous doodads, traipsed over collapsible platforms, and asked the faithful Sasha to just fly over to that switch and whack it with her curiously dextrous beak.
Indy would have enjoyed Fatshark's cheerful and adept brand of puzzling, with its 'family-friendly' learning curve yet progressively fiendish level design, and hummable tunes.
With 60 wry and crafty levels awaiting, his quizzical eyebrow would have been working overtime. Instead, we're happy to settle for the grunting anonymity of Hamilton and invent a few one-liners of our own to fill in the blanks.
You might not give Hamilton's Great Adventure a second glance as you thumb the Steam racks, but do not be fooled by its generic, casual exterior. It's always the quiet ones you have to watch.