For publishers like EA, the spring release calendar is like a second Fall — a time for the big games that didn't come out at the end of the previous year to scoot in just before the end of a financial reporting period. But given a day spent at Microsoft's event space in San Francisco last week, that doesn't seem to be their plan for first party exclusives early this year. Instead, they seem to have a slew of potential sleeper releases on their hands. I didn't see anything likely to set the world on fire or break sales records, but I did see three games with a lot potential to be memorable, fun, and distinctive.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Despite a debut at last year's E3 and a couple of other event appearances, I hadn't yet spent any time with Moon Studios upcoming Xbox One and PC action-platformer Ori and the Blind Forest. From what little I'd heard and seen of it, I always assumed something a little quieter, something a little more ... gentle.
I did not expect to use the word "fuck" as often as I did.
Ori and the Blind Forest is beautiful, make no mistake, with a distinctive sense of place and otherness established by great character art and animation. The narration is in the game's own made-up language, which also helps, and it subverts the platformer vocabulary in some subtle ways. You can attack using your little floating orb friend, but it's not a simple strike or shot — instead, light lances out in alternating arcs.
This application of unfamiliarity to genre tropes is, according to Moon, the whole idea, which was demonstrated in a later level in the game that featured a world's worth of hazards. Touching any of these unprotected will quickly kill Ori, but picking up an artifact allows you to traverse these spaces and even defy conventional gravity. Each stage iterates on the game basics in this kind of way.
I did not expect to use the word f**k as often as I did.
There's more to it than the fun but easily comprehended wall walking it starts with. Eventually I learned that jumping off the edge of one of these stretches would reset gravity, letting me fall "sideways." It added new axes for platforming and made me think out and experiment — read: die over and over, hence the swearing — more than many of its contemporaries.
Even its save system paints Ori as something separate from the pack. You can deposit spirit points throughout each level, a fancy framing for what are essentially quicksaves. But quicksaves require energy, which must recharge over time. It's a clever nod to accessibility while providing another avenue of consideration and strategy to play. Paired with the gorgeous art and sweeping music, Ori and the Blind Forest seems like something more than just another side-scrolling action game. It will launch on Xbox One and PC on March 11 (for $19.99).
State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition
State of Decay is the latest and certainly not the last compendium/re-release of last gen software for next-gen platforms, but it might be one of the most welcome, speaking strictly personally.
When it released in 2013, I was stunned at State of Decay's ability to walk the painfully well-worn ground of a zombie apocalypse with something new and worthwhile to say and do, bringing survivor management and base upkeep to a brutal survival scenario. In fact, its only real problems seemed to be how hard it pushed the aging 360 hardware it launched on, with technical hiccups, an uneven framerate and visuals that featured some fantastic lighting but a lot of jagged edges to go around.
For existing State of Decay owners, there's some good news
The upcoming re-release on Xbox One (and PC) fixes pretty much all of this. I spent my time with it driving around the fictional Trumbull Valley in the "Lifeline" campaign — one of two pieces of post-release DLC for the original game included with the Year One Survival Edition for its $29.99 asking price (with their additions folded in to the original campaign as well) — which all proved a much smoother experience than its 360 counterpart, with no particular performance issues even as I smashed into errant zombie hordes. The extra horsepower has also allowed developer Undead Labs to amp up the gore, which I'll leave to your imagination.
Think Romero's Day of the Dead.
For existing State of Decay owners, there's some good news with Year One: a 33 percent discount on the new release. For the price, there's a hell of a lot of game there when it launches on Xbox One and PC on April 28, along with my favorite zombie-related thing of the last few years.
When I walked into Microsoft's event, ScreamRide was the game I was the least interested in playing. Since I walked out, it's the game I've spent the most time thinking about.
ScreamRide is being developed by Frontier Developments, who most recently brought Xbox owners the single most distinctive Xbox One launch title in the form of Zoo Tycoon, and many of whom previously worked on the RollerCoaster Tycoon series that ScreamRide evokes in so many ways. Fans of that series — of which there are more than 10 million based on the last proper installment's sales — will see a lot of familiar ideas in ScreamRide's coaster construction, which Frontier has worked to make function intuitively on a controller.
In practice, coaster creation looks like a sophisticated take on the creation modes in the Halo's forge and other shooter series, but not in a bad way. Parks are incredibly customizable, from landscape to coaster design, with robust layout options and even hugely useful copy and paste functionality.
But apparently what rollercoaster game fans care about is destroying all of that hard work, which Frontier has not only included, they've made an entire game mode out of it. There are actually three "campaigns" in ScreamRide, including one devoted to riding the coasters, an almost-racing game that didn't seem terribly deep but had some fun arcade game hooks to it.
But really, the next-gen technology behind ScreamRide is pushed the most in its destruction mode. Rather than simple demolition, you're tasked with destroying increasingly complicated parks through means that the producers reductively — but accurately! — compared to Angry Birds. There's an impressive and immensely satisfying level of Rube-Goldberg physics-based chaos at work in ScreamRide.
At least, there is on Xbox One. While ScreamRide is releasing on Xbox 360 along with Microsoft's newer system, the destruction has been scaled back considerably due to CPU constraints on the older platform. But both feature the same concepts of approachability that make me interested in ScreamRide despite my apathy towards the subject matter.
OK, actually I'm terrified of rollercoasters, but still. My brief time with ScreamRide was a hell of a lot of fun, and while I doubt it will be mine, it feels like it could be someone's favorite game, the thing they get lost in when it's released on March 3 for Xbox One and 360 (for $39.99 and $29.99, respectively).
Note: this story originally listed the price of State of Decay: Year One Survival Edition at $19.99. We regret the error.