Xbox Live Indie Games aren’t exactly leading a charmed life. Microsoft hasn’t really thrown an awful lot of weight behind marketing efforts, and has even played hide-and-seek with the marketplace in the past. With the Indie Games Summer Uprising approaching, we were only too happy to get things off to an early start and take a look at Veks and Silence. It isn’t new, but if we’re going to be looking at the Uprising, it is probably worth checking out one of the stronger titles out there.
I’ll be the first to say that the in-game visuals of Veks and Silence aren’t exactly mind blowing. At first glance, they put one in mind of the early days of 3D, the Playstation 1 and N64 era. Back then, artists were still testing the polygonal waters, seeing what looked good and what needed work. However, this is an indie game of today, not a retail game of yesterday, so it can’t exactly be judged by the same standards. Comparing it to its fellow XBLIGs, Veks and Silence is actually fairly ambitious. Player characters, environments, and enemies are all fully 3D, while pieces of the environment, projectiles, and powerups are sprites. The animation quality varies. A common mini-boss, which we’ll call Big Bot, was definitely my favorite, with shots to the face causing it to shield its eyes and fire blindly, and its death marked with a head spin and pirouette. Other creatures tended to get a bit deformed in their animation, particularly the large green zombies you encounter from time to time. That said, these being zombies, a little deformation is probably called for. Your hero himself got an understandable amount of attention, with different weapons altering his walk a bit, each one having its own “reverse-fire” animation, and even a brief struggle to leap when equipped with a weapon that won’t allow it.
There is actually a reasonable amount of enemy variety, and no one can accuse the developers of a lack of originality. Aside from the standard undead rogues gallery, you’ll get cycloptic-TV-copters, Radioactive Butterflarks, and a mega-robot with not one but TWO brains. An enemy worthy of note is the Zomboss, if for no other reason than I actually know its name. There was something highly appropriate about how rotten and pruny its skin was, like some sort of organic garbage bag that is just dying to spring a leak and pour unspeakable fluids all over the place. The player character is no less unusual, essentially a fat guy in a wife-beater and boxers. His identity is cleverly disguised with a paper bag.
The environments took on a few different appearances as well. Wrecked cities, frozen bridges, junkyards, power plants… you really hit a number of different locations in your adventures. Textures are… well, textured, with a greasy sheen and bumpy appearance gracing many chunks of landscape. Visuals were a bit muddy for my taste, but again, this being a zombie apocalypse, probably you can expect a bit of ruddiness to the world in general. An observant player will also pick up on a few video game inside jokes scattered about the levels. One level, for example, is scattered with pipes and floating powerup boxes, while the cell phone used by the characters in a cut scene has a strikingly familiar UI.
The aforementioned cut scenes are an element of the graphics that stood out to me. The story is told with a slideshow of comic book styled pages, with pretty high quality, if stylized, artwork showing off the characters and the setting in greater detail. It is in these pages that you get your best looks at our hero, Silence, establishing that he didn’t even shell out the money for a GOOD bag to put on his head, opting instead for the Sale variety. You’ll also get your rare Veks sightings here, but more on that later. If there was one thing I really would have liked to see, and this is a minor and personal gripe, it would be a clearer indication of the end of level, and maybe a bit of a “level exit” animation. As it is, you simply reach a certain point and the screen divides into comic frames with assorted “Meanwhile” style annotations. It struck me as abrupt, though one of the annotations is “without warning,” so I suppose that fits.
Veks and Silence is a 2D platform shooter that seems to be patterned closely after the original Contra. Rather than the now somewhat standard twin analog method for moving and aiming, VaS assigns the various firing functions to ABXY, with the shoulders being used to activate various locks or powerups. As the game begins, you appear to have a double jump, four weapons, a bomb/grenade, and a reverse-fire available to you. The weapons are the old standbys of the genre: a fast but weak pistol, a shotgun with a wide firing pattern, a slow but powerful and accurate sniper rifle, and a powerful but difficult to use chain gun. Ammunition is unlimited, and all weapons are a permanent part of your arsenal, which is a lot friendlier than the Contra method of having one or two at a time and losing them if you get hit. Lives are limited, and you are one of those poor unfortunate video game heroes who can’t take more than a single hit without dying. The sole exceptions to this are the times when you can score a shield, either by collecting a powerup or by dying (since you begin each life with a few seconds of shield) or when you are Raging. You see, Silence evidently has some anger problems, since a bottle of whiskey or a particularly decent killing streak will give him a Rage token, of which he can store up to five. As long as you have at least one Rage stored up, you can activate Rage mode. This gives the screen a red tint, makes Silence immune to enemy attack, and doubles his weapon power. One thing I liked about this was that you could actually earn an additional Rage token WHILE Raging. I suppose, in theory, this means you could chain-rage all the way through a level, if you had the skills.
Now, in the previous paragraph, I listed off the gameplay mechanics that you appear to have. Knowing only about those mentioned, I was having a phenomenal amount of difficulty with the game. The platforming is a little sluggish and slippery (our portly hero isn’t the most nimble creature under the sun), and it was a pain having to walk and aim at the same time. Nonetheless, I made muddled along, mostly relying on the bad-accuracy-mitigating shotgun to make up for my poor aiming skills. Then I reached a point where I simply could not reach a platform. Try as I might, I couldn’t jump high enough. For a moment I though I’d reached a point in the level they hadn’t intended me to, but out of curiosity, I checked the menus and found the “Controls” and “Tips” screens. I now realize why tutorials, while annoying, are essential. It turns out, the problem I was having was related to one of the more clever gameplay mechanics in the game. Your agility is directly related to your currently equipped weapon. Pull out the pistol and your walking speed increases and your jump gets higher and longer. Shotgun and Sniper limit you, and the chain-gun takes away your jump entirely and won’t let you fire and move. Knowing this, I switched to my pistol and suddenly found that not only could I reach the platform ahead of me, but I actually had a fighting chance at dodging the constant projectiles spraying out of the turrets. The control and tips screens also uncovered the ability to “aim lock”, making your character stand still while aiming, and “sniper-lock”, causing him to auto-target the biggest or nearest threat. Once I incorporated these concepts into my style, the game was much less of a struggle.
I would have liked to see the game tighten up the platforming a bit, and the boss fights tended to frustrate me. The Zomboss for instance, as indicated by a sign on the board, is one of those “feed it a bomb to hurt it” enemies. This is all well and good, but I took me nearly an hour to figure out what sequence of events puts his mouth into bomb-range. It turns out that the primary method involves him eating his fellow zombies, which was tough luck for me, since my first order of business was to clear off the zombie dispensers.
Rounding off the gameplay is a survival version of each level, unlocked by defeating it, and a high score system. There are thirteen levels in all, so you get decent amount of game for your money, too. If they could tighten up the platforming and maybe incorporate a little bit more tutorial into the early levels, I feel this would be vastly improved.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the sound in this game. The sound effects are adequate, and the midi-style music is actually pretty good, but there was one aspect of the audio that bugged the heck out of me. During gameplay, you are almost constantly assaulted by laughter. It wasn’t clear to me if the enemies were laughing at me or if I was laughing at the enemies, but whichever it was, it got old fast. Eventually I was able to tune it out, but in the beginning I found it downright baffling.
I kind of got a kick out of the story in this game. You play as Silence, a video game hero whose game is canceled. You seem to have entered semi-retirement until a zombie apocalypse kicks off and the call goes out for you to get off your butt and save the city… which you promptly don’t do. As a matter of fact, you don’t seem particularly concerned at all about the end of the world, content to flip through the channels and slaughter the occasional undead horde, until you get a call from your old partner, Veks. She recruits you into a scheme to assault Hate Brand, the evil company that seems to be responsible for pretty much everything going on in the world. You’ll notice that at no point in the prior sections did I mention playing AS Veks. Despite the fact that she gets top billing, Silence is perpetually a few steps behind the eye-candy end of this partnership. It is a fact that the character himself eventually draws attention to.
This isn’t the most cleanly executed Contra-style gameplay I’ve experienced, but there are a few ideas that I really feel worked well, like the weapon-agility connection. There is the kernel of a fun game here, and if they had the sort of budget and timetable to allow them to tweak it to perfection, I think that Veks and Silence could have been exceptional. As it is, Veks and Silence is a standout among indie titles. It packs an awful lot of game into its 400 point price tag.
7.0 / 10: Though not without its flaws, Veks and Silence packs some clever game mechanics and even a laugh or two.