It’s fascinating to unpack what is necessary for a great game, and it’s usually less than you think. Stone Story, an RPG made from punctuation, letters, and numbers, achieves something deep and involving almost entirely with text, rarely using more than two colors.
When the right systems are there, very little else seems to matter. Let’s dive in with this week’s picks.
ASCII and you shall receive
There’s a fairly long stretch at the start of Stone Story where I felt like the whole thing may be a cute gimmick, and not an interesting game. Built entirely from ASCII characters, Stone Story is a side-scrolling RPG with crafting elements, and at first it feels extremely, well, flat. And then, almost without warning, it blooms into something great.
The actual side-scrolling sections are essentially non-interactive, and this goes on for a bit too long. You choose your weapons, and then your little ASCII dude chops his way through the enemies on his own, before collecting the loot at the end if he’s not killed. I almost moved onto the next game at this point, but then I collected an object that let me change weapons during the runs. And everything changed.
Stone Story’s true complexity lies in its elaborate crafting system. Items can be combined, and, if they’re identical, they’ll grow in level. Items that are different but share the same level might combine into something brand new. I quickly learned this intricate system of matching wands with runes, pairing those until they match the level of the sword I want to enchant, and then working on a second version of the same item so I can combine them into something even better.
The side-scrolling runs get tougher as you progress, with new areas opening up, new runes required to combat new enemy types, and more effort spent loading up your ten different weapon and item combinations that you can switch in and out on the fly as you keep moving to the right, fighting to survive. It’s simple, but effective.
Stone Story gets even more complicated and interesting the further you get, with later levels offering even more crafting opportunities. What I thought was too simple to be fun ended up feeling like a baroque, but approachable, strategy game.
Stone Story is available on Mac and Windows PC via Steam for $19.99
There’s life in tile puzzles yet
Here’s the problem puzzle games often struggle with: They become boring if they don’t grow more difficult, but they stop being fun to play if that difficulty proves frustrating. Some games get around this by evolving the nature of the challenge, rather than the straight difficulty. But the best puzzle games are always about perfecting that learning curve, teaching the player as they go along while constantly making them better at the skills they need to succeed. Puzzle games can constantly raise the difficulty as long as they can bring the audience with them, and OXXO is able to do both.
It’s not really possible to say what sort of puzzle game OXXO is, because it keeps changing. At the very start, it’s about simply sliding tiles across a grid to match shapes. Then you’re connecting bespoke tiles to merge images, after rotating them on spinning platforms, having already maneuvered them into place using hinged machines operated by tiles you’ve already matched ... and after that, it may get a little complicated.
It really is quite superbly crafted. Each time I start feeling as though it’s about to tip over to the point where just beginning to unpack a puzzle seems like too much, it changes gear again, introduces a new element, replaces the grid with slidey-glass puzzles, has the tiles firing laser beams, etc. And then with each new idea, it starts to weave back the older ones to join in, until you’re somehow able to methodically approach puzzles that, if seen in isolation, would look absolutely impossible.
There are a couple of moments that feel incorrectly paced — a few super-hard puzzles appearing before that section gets simpler again. And the game rather unceremoniously loops back to the starting level on finishing its 103rd puzzle, which is a bit of an anticlimax. But it more than makes up for this with splendid presentation, lovely sound and music, and some really effective use of dynamic background colors that respond to your actions. It’s a cleanly presented game, never ambiguous despite being completely wordless, and kept me properly entertained for a pleasant few hours.
OXXO is available on Mac, Linux, and Windows PC via Steam for $1.99.
Apsulov: End of Gods
Norsey, but nice
“Future Viking horror game” might sound tautological, but it’s an accurate description of this game. Apsulov takes Norse myths based on recently discovered but ancient stone tablets, and puts them into a science-fiction setting where everything is spooky and probably trying to kill you.
And it achieves a great deal with this bizarre setup! A team of five developers somehow created a first-person experience that feels close to AA quality, complete with cutscenes, voice acting, complex animations, and some extremely fine audio work.
Your character begins the story being experimented upon by a sort of male GLaDOS, before being given a special form of sight that basically allows you to see clues. You then escape with the help of ... some dude? ... and the robot arm he gives you.
Apsulov is a little all over the place with its storytelling. While the narrative works hard to sell its Asgardian tale of tablets and Yggdrasil as you explore, the developers make the rather fundamental mistake of forgetting to tell you who on Earth you are, why you’re there, or how you got there. But you can forget about that complaint, because the weeping figure with the deer horns has noticed you, and he’s started screaming, and YOU NEED TO FUCKING RUN!
There’s more of a focus on simple puzzle solving than you might normally expect from a run-’n’-poop-your-pants type of game, especially once you’re quite literally armed with a robotic prosthetic where your right forearm was supposed to be. You can gather an increasing number of charges for a burst-like ability that allows you to trigger switches from afar, or manipulate the internal mechanisms of doors. But there’s also plenty of crawling down tiny corridors while spooky music tells you something terrible is coming.
The result isn’t something that’s going to be worrying classics like Soma, but it remains a very solid, jump-scary, and tense endeavor, with impressive production from such a small team. If you want a new horror game, this may be it.
Apsulov: End of Gods is available on Windows PC via Steam for $19.99.
All three of this week’s games were reviewed using final retail downloads, via a Steam press account.