We know about Poland's biggest games but the tide there is rising for everyone, and the indie scene has been gathering steam for a while. Devolver's Carrion is a case in point: I saw this last year at a conference in Poland and now loads of people are talking about it after seeing it at E3. It looks great. With that in mind, I returned to Polish conference Digital Dragons this year, determined to share with you the indie games I saw there.
Someday You'll Return
Someday You'll Return is a game about a father searching the woods for his missing, grown-up, daughter, but it doesn't take long to realise something is amiss. The woods are darker than they seemed and there's something wrong about the relationship between father and daughter - there's something wrong about the man.
What unravels is an intriguing psychological horror, but what really excites me is where the game comes from. It's the epitome of indie: the work of two people from the Czech Republic, working away for four years - time and space that has allowed elaborate systems to be implemented, which would get the axe, for the sake of development brevity and maybe sanity, elsewhere.
Things like climbing mini-games and usable mobile phones - even hands which bruise and collect dirt under the fingernails. Things like sophisticated crafting systems which have you constructing and manipulating realistic equipment to make an array of usable items and potions. Things like pulling rotten batteries from equipment to swap with the fresh batteries from another, or whipping pliers out to deal with keys broken in locks. "Adventure 2.0," writer and designer Jan Kavan called it when we talked. "It is not a walking simulator."
Furthermore, the forest you explore is real - an amalgamation of the Czech woods the game's makers grew up exploring. There are real landmarks there and the attention to detail is superb - it looks like the real thing. To think only two people (three, as of recently) have made it is amazing. But then, considering Kavan is also a professional cellist with a PhD in interactive music, they're clearly very capable.
Perhaps their four (now six) hands can only do so much and maybe there will be hiccups over the 10-or-so hours the game will take. But if Someday You'll Return can be as distinct an experience as it looks, when it comes out hopefully early next year, it could be special.
I still can't say the name until I've had about five attempts - but how gorgeous the game is! It looks like a big old book from medieval times, in which cute rabbits and dogs, in period-appropriate armour, face each other in battle. And as they do, the story of their battle writes itself on the page above.
Inkulinati is a head-to-head strategy game played in two dimensions, all fighters sharing the same horizontal line - a bit like Darkest Dungeon if you've ever played it. The "Ink" part of the name ties into the overarching idea of a scribe penning what you see in the book, and ink is also a key resource in battle.
You have a hero character and they summon fighters by spending ink, and you replenish a small amount at the end of each round. You can boost this by standing fighters on ink blots, though you will of course be challenged for them by fighters from the other side. Fighters have strengths and weaknesses, and the winner of the match is the one who takes the other hero down.
There's a surprising amount of nuance for such a simple-looking game, and it's stuffed with charisma. It beggars belief that only four people have made this in their spare time. Whether they've made enough to keep people playing for many hours, I don't know, and I worry the targeted late 2020 release date is far away, but Ikulinati is a head-turning hoot already and I'm excited to see more.
Counter Terrorist Agency
For a game which looks like menu-soup, Counter Terrorist Agency gets surprisingly tense. CTA is made in the vein of 911 Operator, the game about being on the other end of an emergency service line - it even has the same publisher - only here, you're dealing with potential terror attacks.
You track suspects around the world, tapping and hacking their phones and emails, and eventually arresting and interrogating - even assassinating, if the operation calls for it. You listen in as targets talk, following and uncovering their chain of command until you pinpoint who is in charge and how to bring them down. The tools available to you depend on how many points you have to spend - points which are earned for successful investigating - and which skills you have unlocked. Sometimes even those aren't enough, as targets in out-of-reach places can be immune until they come frighteningly close.
Case in point: the French lady behind the plan to detonate a bomb at a football cup final in Paris, which I think was supposed to be the Champions League final. I couldn't get to her until she flew to Paris to carry out the attack, which she only did at the climax of the mission - when the mission-fuse, if you like, had almost burnt out. I was terrified that if she landed, she would get to her goal before I could act, and the game sensed this. It offered me a solution: would you like to shoot down the passenger plane she is travelling to France on? I would prevent the attack - but at what cost?
CTA is a smart and exciting game. It also crucially sidesteps the thorny issue of casting terrorist characters, and infringing on the memory of real-life terror attacks, by randomly generating them.
Imagine a real-time strategy game where you can't see your units moving around. That's Radio Commander, and it's got the coolest purpose-built controller for shows (see the picture). Instead of clicking on units and moving them around, you talk to them over radio, issuing spoken commands. Where are you? What do you see? Move here. Engage. Report. That kind of thing. It's just like being a commander in the Vietnam War, which is a heck of a coincidence, because that's where Radio Commander is set.
It's surprisingly effective, being kept in the dark, especially when you know your soldiers have engaged the enemy. Waiting for their report is a very nervy affair. All you can do is stare at your map, at your units' last known location, and hope.
The sparse design also encourages you to pay attention to all radio chatter, and it's here Radio Commander tries to inject character and story, even going so far as to give you dialogue choices, as soldiers shoot the breeze and mull the merits of war. It's a nice touch, and voiced pretty well, and I appreciate the game trying to say something.
Hungry Baby: Party Treats
Anything by Digital Melody gets me excited because I love Timberman, the wood-chopping high-score mobile game. Seriously: play it. And Digital Melody has been turning out superb games like it for years. Hungry Baby is the latest, although it's a little different, not least because it's made exclusively for Switch.
Hungry Baby is a wonderfully unpredictable and brutally hard party game for four people. The name comes from you being a character based on food you feed to babies, although it's mostly of the inadvisable high-in-sugar kind. The default game mode involves getting into the baby's mouth first but it is outrageously hard to do.
It's hard because you never know when the next grid-square you tread on will kill you. Suddenly a circular saw might appear and slice you up, or a giant paw might come down from the heavens and squish you to a ketchuppy pulp, and there are many more ways to die besides. The only real way of planning a safe route is to watch other players walk first, or to go very slowly, but you won't want to do either because it's a race.
Other game modes mix the formula up, pun intended, cleverly, and the whole package is as bright and cheerful as a baby toy. Hungry Baby is out now on Switch.
The Serpent Rogue
This one is peculiar. It's a Middle-ages sandbox where you play god and tamper with species' DNA. You're a character too, a plague doctor of some kind, and you're tinkering with genetics through a kind of alchemy.
You could make chickens get younger every time they eat, for example, or you could go all-out and raise an army of dead chickens to do your bidding. But it's not just modifiers like age and vitality and hunger you can play around with, it's also a species' intentions. Extrapolate this and you get to a scenario where - and this is possible in the game apparently - you can cure the world of alcoholism.
The Serpent Rogue is still a project in its infancy - it's only been in development for a couple of months - but it already has an appealing Cel-shaded look and enough modifiers to intrigue a passer by. With months more work behind it, I can only imagine the world-altering possibilities it will offer. This could be a huge hit among tinker-happy streamers.
The Serpent Rogue has no release date I can see.
The organisers of Digital Dragons kindly paid for flights and accommodation.