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The April line up of Free Games With Prime includes Tales From the Borderlands, DubWars, Steamworld Dig 2, Kingsway, and Tokyo 42. All the games are available now to Twitch Prime subscribers and are yours to keep, forever and ever, even if you cancel your subscription.
Twitch Prime offers ad-free viewing, emotes, and "game loot" every month, like the Fortnite cosmetics and heroes it rolled out last week. But the Free Games With Prime program brings it in line with, for example, the Humble Monthly Bundle, and moves it from a nice bonus for Amazon Prime subscribers to—with allowances for individual opinion, obviously—worth the price of admission entirely on its own. That's $13 per month, by the way, or $99 per year.
Telltale's Tales From the Borderlands is excellent, Tokyo 42 and Kingsway do some interesting things, and Steamworld Dig 2 was very well received—we didn't review it but it's currently carrying an 85 aggregate on Metacritic, and the original was a blast. DubWars I don't actually know anything about but it seems to be doing well for itself on Steam. On the whole, it's a pretty solid collection of games.
To grab your free games, first ensure that your Twitch account is connected with your Amazon account, then hit up twitch.tv and log in. Click the crown icon at the top of the game, scroll to each game, and click on it. You'll need to have the Twitch Desktop App installed to get your games for some reason, but otherwise that's it. You've got until the end of the month to claim your freebies. Find out more about how it all works at twitch.amazon.com.
Welcome to our round-up of the best Metroidvania games. That slightly awkward portmanteau refers to a hybrid genre inspired by Metroid and Castlevania. They tend to be 2D platformers that have you exploring dungeons, defeating bosses, and picking up items that unlock new zones of the map. Within this simple format there is plenty of room for variation and, it turns out, lots of gorgeous art.
A few of the games on the list have been lovingly crafted by small teams and even individuals over the course of a decade or so. Others, like Dead Cells, experiment with fusing the metroidvania with other genres to create a powerful hybrid. Whichever games you pick, expect lots of 2D platforming and some tough boss fights.
Ori's warmly animated world and slightly tearful opener barely hint at the incredibly tricky platforming challenges that follow. PC Gamer's Philippa Warr has compared this to a teddy bear that wants to punch you in the face—it's a cute and beautiful-looking game, but damn tricky. The pleasant soundtrack puts you at ease while the game rarely does.
One of the very best modern examples of the form, Axiom Verge is set in a dark, Giger-esque alien world populated by mysterious giant mechanical beings and, of course, a slew of bullet hell boss monsters. New paths open up as you discover fresh alien gadgetry, like a trenchcoat that lets you phase through walls, and a device that lets you control a small alien bug to crawl into new cave systems.
Combat is simple—blast the alien things flapping around each level—but there are loads of weapons to discover, and plenty of secrets if you’re determined enough to glitch or blast your way through secret walls. It’s a sinister and slightly unnerving game with some genuinely dark moments, but that makes it a fitting tribute to the lonely hostile corridors of the original Metroid games.
This one takes a while to get going, but once you have a few upgrades it’s a spectacular hand-drawn metroidvania with a snappy melee combat system. Hollow Knight borrows its melancholy apocalyptic atmosphere from Dark Souls, and also its currency recovering system—if you make it back to the place you died you can reclaim your last life’s earnings.
Hollow Knight looks gorgeous, and it’s full of interesting bug characters that sell you new gear and give you extra quests. The bosses are challenging and the dodge-and-slash combat is a serious test of skill once you’ve unlocked a few moves and started running into the game’s more serious enemies. The world is beautifully put together, too, and you learn more about the fate of the city as you dash, skip, and double-jump into new zones.
You’ll notice that many of these games are set underground in endless cave systems. Owlboy is set in a floating cloud kingdom. As said Owlboy, Otus, you have to flap around the world in a slightly cumbersome manner befitting a character who is regarded as an idiot by his village. You can teleport friends into your claws as you fly around. Different pals come with different abilities; some will fend off nearby enemies with projectile attacks, others will help you to access new zones in true metroidvania fashion. It’s tricky to say much about Owlboy without spoiling the story, but suffice to say it’s an emotional ride depicted in lovingly detailed pixel art.
Blast your way through a military compound with machine guns in this futuristic Metroidvania. It’s billed as a “2.5D” game, which means you run and jump on a 2D plane, but can shoot into the background as soldiers and battle robots. You play as an ordinary man called Jason Fleming who gets lost on a hike and stumbles across a high-tech group bent on starting a civil war in the US. The game escalates from there you strap on their armour, raid their armoury and start blasting their mechs. The game was originally released on XBOX Live Arcade, but lives on Steam now as Shadow Complex Remastered.
Daisuke Amaya’s seminal indie metroidvania is available on PC as Cave Story+, which features the original 320x240 visuals and the updated version. You play an amnesiac boy who wakes up in a cave full of rabbit folk called Mimigas. They are being picked off by the malign creations of a mad scientist, who you need to chase across 15 levels. It’s a big game, especially considering it was made by one very dedicated creator with a clear love for the 16-bit era. An absolute classic and a must-play if you love metroidvanias.
From one solo creator to another. Joakim Sandberg spent many years painstakingly designing, animating and composing for Iconoclasts. The result is a cheery and colourful metroidvania starring a friendly mechanic called Robin. This is a relatively shooty one featuring more than 20 bosses, but the worlds are packed with chatty characters. It’s worth picking up to see what seven years of one guy’s life’s work looks like.
Approachable, and not too difficult, the Steamworld Dig games deliver a gentle hit of Metroidvania action supplemented by lots of Terraria-style digging. You can pickaxe your way through the levels, but this isn’t a sandbox. You have to tunnel your way to new zones and grab new gadgets to upgrade your hero, a steam-powered cowboy robot in the first game and a blue woman in flying goggles in the second. The sequel has more varied environments and a bigger world to explore, so that’s the best place to start.
Dead Cells straddles the line between Metroidvania and roguelike, which makes it a warped child of Super Metroid, Castlevania and Rogue. You battle through randomised dungeons, starting from the beginning each time you die. As you chop up enemies in beautifully animated exchanges of sword-blows and bow attacks they drop cells that you can pour into your character.
This persistent element eventually gives your guy the sturdiness to reach new zones you haven’t seen before, fulfilling the typical metroidvania exploration pattern. Dead Cells is a game about blasting through dungeons as quickly and efficiently as possible. When you arrive in an area a timer starts on a hidden treasure door somewhere on the level, if you can find it before the timer expires, you get access to a room full of special items and sweet cash. Dead Cells is a high pressure game compared to others in this list (bar Ori and Hollow Knight), but if you like action and great pixel art Dead Cells is a good option, though it still has some time to mature in Early Access.
The Nintendo Switch was the biggest thing to happen to indie games in 2017. The console is selling like hotcakes and Nintendo has done a better job inviting independent developers this time around, so a wave of predominantly PC indie devs have invaded Switch. Last year, we spoke to a few of those devs about the console's appeal and the potential consequences of its indie gold rush. With more and more indies porting from PC to Switch this year, I reached out to the devs behind a few of the system's most prominent indie newcomers to get a clearer picture of how the console is actually performing for them and how it compares to Steam.
The big question is this: with Steam more overcrowded than ever, are the wide-open fields of the Switch a better alternative? The zeitgeist certainly says so. You can't read an announcement nowadays without finding "Switch please!" in the comments. Hell, tons of people who already own games on PC are clamoring to buy another copy on Switch just so they can bring it with them on their commute. And it's not hard to see why: the system's handheld mode is a perfect match for so many indie games.
"The perfect on-the-go game is something where you don't necessarily need to have a lot of manual coordination," says Tyler Sigman of Darkest Dungeon developer Red Hook Studios. "We thought with Darkest Dungeon being a turn-based game, it would be a perfect fit for that. It's kind of structured as a really good handheld game even though that was never the goal. And it's nice that it's at home on the big screen, too. Kind of an ideal Switch game, accidentally."
You can play any game on the go, sure, but the ideal is a game you can stop quickly and just as quickly pick back up. I can't imagine playing Half-Life on a plane, for instance. Thanks to the popularity of certain genres and the tighter scope that comes from a smaller team, a lot of PC indie games just so happen to offer the modular, bite-sized experiences Switch thrives on. But has that affinity translated into sales?
"We basically tried not to have any expectations," Sigman says when I ask him about Darkest Dungeon's Switch sales. "We hoped for a lot with Steam because that was what our business was built around and we were running out of money when we launched. With Switch, it was a little more frontier-y. We weren't building the business plan around it. Worst case, it doesn't sell well and we're not out that much. It's been a really nice surprise and now will factor into our thoughts a lot.
"Comparing to Steam is always tough because we had a massive Early Access launch. The timelines are years apart. There's a lot of different ways to ask the question. Steam is still the vast majority of revenue but we've been really happy with Switch sales. So far, Switch has been about seven percent of our lifetime revenue. Which is a really great start—like really, really good. We had a spike at launch and it's slowed down a lot, but even though it's slowed down, our dailies on Switch were higher for a time than our Steam dailies. Any time anything is even close to Steam, it's pretty exciting. It's been out for a month and two days and it already accounts for seven percent. That's much bigger than expected. I'm very curious to see how things go with discounts."
Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy developer Team Meat was also surprised by their Switch turnout. "I figured the sales would be slightly better than the Wii U version, which was poor," he says. "I figured it would be worth the cost of a port and would make a small profit. Super Meat Boy has sold well on Switch, but it clocks in at maybe 15 percent of its PC debut in 2010. It's not really a fair comparison because of the age of the game, the time of year the game released, etc. Super Meat Boy's first-month PC sales were just nuts. Switch is nuts for an 8-year-old game. [Xbox Live Arcade's] debut was great too but Team Meat made more money off the Switch version day one than it did on the XBLA version day one."
Darkest Dungeon and Super Meat Boy both released on Switch long after they came out on PC, which makes their Switch reception all the more surprising. To get a different comparison, I turned to Steamworld Dig 2, whose PC and Switch versions released just one day apart. Where Sigman and Refenes were pleasantly surprised with Switch, Brjann Sigurgeirsson of Steamworld developer Image & Form was blown away. "On Switch we've sold many times what we've sold on Steam—somewhere between five and 10 times," he says.
So yes, PC indie games are selling quite well on Switch, in no small part due to the Switch's relatively small library. Where PC players have the luxury (or chore, depending on who you ask) of choosing from a seemingly endless supply of games, Switch players are actively looking for games—reasons to play with their new toy—which illustrates one of the major differences between the platforms. There's also another big difference: curation.
The Switch is currently enjoying a honeymoon with indie games, but it will come to an end. Refenes said it best: "The success we are reading about will draw more attention, which is going to make the [Switch storefront] more crowded, which is going to make some of the smaller devs feel like they are pushed aside."
Sigurgeirsson echoed Refene's sentiments, adding that while Switch is a platform open to indie games, it's not necessarily an indie platform, and its storefront "is still very rudimentary."
This is where Steam has an edge. "One of the things I love about the [Steam] storefront is that there is an endless amount of entertainment. You are always missing games that would be perfect for you," Sigman explains. "And one of the things we and other developers love a lot about Steam, and that really changed the whole game over the last years, are the opportunities for re-promotion. In the old model, you launch your game, get a couple weeks of good sales, then you're pretty much dead. We had really good sales on Steam last year and we launched three years ago! I think a big part of that are the sales—the winter sales, summer sales, midweek madnesses. Valve spends a lot of time thinking about how to expose more of the game catalog, and that's going to become critically important on Switch, too."
Every dev I spoke to has experienced remarkable success on Switch and attributes a big part of it to the console's small storefront. But that store will inevitably grow more crowded as more games come to the Switch, spurred on by success stories like these. On the other hand, indies continue to find success on Steam thanks to the structure of its storefront, which regularly reintroduces PC players to good games through big, consistent sales (even as it struggles to weed out the bad and joke games which clog new releases). Both platforms can learn from each other, and as Hope said last year, will likely benefit each other in the long run by nurturing indie development.
Is Switch a preferable alternative to Steam for indie games? For the vast majority of devs, no. It's more that it can be a great home for any game because there are millions of new Switch owners out there who just want games to play, indie or not. It's great to see PC indie games doing well on other platforms, and it's useful to understand where that success is coming from and how it may change in the future as games from both platforms start to share the same space—and, as Refenes puts it, try to solve the same problems.
"The days of one or two games coming out each week and having a store spotlight for an extended period of time are long gone and they aren't coming back no matter how many blog posts we write about it," he says. "We need to accept that it's going to be crowded and figure out how to survive. That goes for all digital storefronts, not just Nintendo's."
Steamworld Dig 2 developer Image & Form is merging with Fe developer Zoink to form a new studio, Thunderful, the pair jointly announced.
Both indie studios are based in Gothenburg, Sweden and have been working together for some time, Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson explained in a statement. This merger is a formalization and natural extension of that relationship, Sigurgeirsson said, and will not hamper their individual operations going forward.
"They've collaborated for a long time and will continue to develop games with existing and new IPs under their respective labels," Thunderful's statement reads.
When we spoke to Sigurgeirsson on the making of the Steamworld universe last December, he hinted that there's more to do with the IP. "I'm sure there's at least one game in between Dig 2 and Heist, and there should be more to come after Heist as well," he said. It sounds like this merger will only have positive effects on the prospect.
Zoink has been making headlines with Fe lately, especially with its PC release confirmed for February, but the studio is responsible for several games—most topically, Flipping Death, a beautiful point-and-click platformer about solving your own murder in a storybook world.
What happens when iron meets steam? In the real world, clothes get smooth. In the games industry, however, they react and create another entity altogether. Image & Form, the studio behind the SteamWorld games, have amalgamated with the creators of upcoming forest adventure Fe (it actually has nothing to do with the elemental notation for Iron, soz) to create Thunderful. It s a new company altogether, co-owned by the two head honchos of its constituent studios. The two studios won t disappear. This new, bigger one will just own them both. (more…)
The Metroidvania is perhaps one of the more tricky genres to nail down. With its very name coming from an amalgamation of two actually quite different Nintendo-based game series – Metroid and Castlevania – quite what qualifies is always up for debate. Hence, we suspect this could be one of the more controversial lists, when it leaves out a favourite game that someone else might argue fits the remit, but we decided did not. The important thing to remember is that we re right. And all of these games are brilliant.
The calendar’s doors have been opened and the games inside have been eaten. But fear not, latecomer – we’ve reconstructed the list in this single post for easy re-consumption. Click on to discover the best games of 2017. (more…)
Nearly a decade before SteamWorld Dig 2, developer Image & Form, or at least the shell of it, was a work-for-hire studio churning out dozens of educational games. It paid the bills, but to hear CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson tell it, "it felt like a slow suicide." Sigurgeirsson and his team were ready to make more creative, challenging games. But they had a problem: 'from the makers of a bunch of educational games' isn't a particularly sexy tagline.
"I was discussing IP and brand recognition with some other people in the industry, probably over a few beers," Sigurgeirsson says. "Someone mentioned that one of their biggest problems when releasing a new game was explanation. Unless your core gameplay is clear-cut, for example an FPS, you have some serious explaining to do. Before people consider buying your game, they usually want to understand what they're about to buy. Not only do you have to make people understand the gameplay, you also must describe the setting, the protagonists and the hardships they're up against. That can be a lot for anyone to take in, and trying new flavors for the sake of trying is typically unlikely.
"I thought that sounded interesting. How can you shorten a consumer's road to a purchase? How do other industries do it? I just mentioned flavors, and that's central. If I like a particular ice cream brand, I probably wouldn't mind trying more than one of their varieties. And if I like them very much, I'd probably want to try any of their new flavors as soon as it arrives."
Image & Form was a new player in a crowded indie scene. They didn't just want a good game, they wanted a good brand. In 2010, they found it with SteamWorld Tower Defense for the Nintendo DS, the game that would be the progenitor of the SteamWorld series.
"I was dying for us to have an IP of our own," Sigurgeirsson says. "It would be so reassuring, a stable place or identity. 'The makers of the SteamWorld games.' That's tangible, as opposed to 'we make really cool games,' which is what I was saying before SteamWorld.
"That's the base of the SteamWorld philosophy. We still have to explain the gameplay of most every game, but we've gained the trust of a lot of players. Many are eager to try whatever new flavors we think up, because whatever it is it'll probably be pretty good. They know and trust the brand, and that's the growing power of an IP that's already pretty strong."
The SteamWorld name got its first big boost with SteamWorld Dig in 2013. The Metroidvania dig-'em-up expanded on the steampunk aesthetic established in SteamWorld Tower Defense and fleshed out the world's robot characters. Critically, it also sold pretty well. A sequel looked like a sure bet, but instead of moving straight onto SteamWorld Dig 2, in 2016 Image & Form made SteamWorld Heist, a turn-based, XCOM-like strategy game.
"I was concerned that if we'd taken 'the easy route,' that is, making SteamWorld Dig 2 immediately after the original, it would've been harder for us to move into other types of gameplay after that," Sigurgeirsson says. "That shift would have been harder to explain, and we [would have] probably followed that one with SteamWorld Dig 3, and so on."
After years of making educational games, Sigurgeirsson didn't want to fall into another rut. So, in the interest of grooming a flexible series, he and his team decided to build out instead of just up. SteamWorld Heist set a precedent for radically different genres fitting under the SteamWorld umbrella. SteamWorld Dig 2 followed in 2017, but Heist's release and subsequent success proved that SteamWorld could conceivably include yet more genres.
"The robot setting opens up all kinds of possibilities," Sigurgeirsson says. "It may seem as if establishing your own world, character gallery or setting and using that over and over again would restrict you, but it's the other way around: it gives you the freedom to experiment with every other parameter. If you yourself know how your world and your characters work, you don't have to think or worry about that aspect too much. And if people are familiar with your idea and have been 'taught' what to expect, they can be surprised by all the other things you've thought up."
Surprise is also central to SteamWorld's reputation. SteamWorld Dig and Dig 2 are great because they put a unique spin on Metroidvania-style exploration. As I said in my preview, digging navigable tunnels makes exploration careful and calculated, certainly more so than in games like Hollow Knight and Dead Cells. The intrinsic focus on movement also makes the items you discover feel less like keys to open sequence-gated doors and more like upgrades to your everyday arsenal. A jetpack might let you access a new area, but it will also change the way you dig and traverse your tunnels. Likewise, while you might think strategic options would be cripplingly limited in 2D, SteamWorld Heist uses manual aiming and a focus on ricocheting bullets to build huge depth. And Image & Form isn't necessarily finished with this design space.
"I'm sure there's at least one game in between Dig 2 and Heist, and there should be more to come after Heist as well," Sigurgeirsson says. "I don't think we're done there yet. But we needed a break from that particular part of SteamWorld history, so right now we're working on something radically different."
Sigurgeirsson couldn't share exactly what's next for SteamWorld, but he did say he's interested in experimenting with shooters, particularly rail shooters and first-person shooters. Which dovetails with the other Big Question: what comes after SteamWorld?
"I think the array of possibilities in SteamWorld is very, very wide," Sigurgeirsson says. "The size—or potential size—of SteamWorld is probably not what is going to stop us making SteamWorld games; rather, it's that we want to make other things as well. We won't have time to make everything we want to try, so I guess the number of efficient hours—the hours we have left—is the real limit.
"It can be exactly anything. But I think we'll keep that—whatever that non-SteamWorld game is—pretty far away from SteamWorld. SteamWorld is big enough for all steambots, all other entities are probably happier somewhere else."