Even though kids everywhere are sitting on their hands for months with nothing to do, summertime is a slow season for blockbuster video games. And 2010 has been no different. We had “Red Dead Redemption,” “Alan Wake” and a trio of racing games back in May, but the release calendar for June, July and August has been pretty barren for those of us who don’t play “Madden” and lack a good gaming PC for “Starcraft 2.” While there have been a few noteworthy second-tier releases, summer’s largely a great time to play catch-up on games from the first half of the year and laugh off the guys at GameStop when they ask if you’d like to preorder anything.
But it’s important not to forget that summer’s also a great time for downloadable games. Recognizing the dearth of great new titles at retail, publishers have stepped into the breach the past couple of years with games priced at $10 to $15, available mainly over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.
The best of the summer downloads, for me, has been the Microsoft-published “Limbo” (rated T, $15 on Xbox 360). The two-dimensional, platform-jumping game oozes artiness but distinguishes itself from the field with simple controls and minimalist presentation.
There’s no tutorial. You’re just a boy who wakes up in a field. The only things to do are run and jump. Occasionally, you can use the B button to grab or otherwise interact with objects, but that’s all there is to do. In a way, “Limbo” is simpler than even “Super Mario Bros.,” as there are no power-ups or bosses to defeat, only peril to jump over and puzzles to navigate.
The black-and-white, film noir-influenced visuals are augmented by a sparse soundtrack, which relays occasional cues such as a saw blade, a buzzing insect or dripping water. At key moments, a few seconds of music enhance the game’s persistent sense of foreboding . The simple controls and lack of any sort of “attack” make the boy feel painfully vulnerable amidst a world filled with murderous older children, a giant spider and spinning saw blades.
Like a soldier marching off to war with only a sack lunch and a kazoo, it’s easy to feel overmatched. By the time you make it to the game’s sudden, stark ending, it’s almost cathartic.
Perhaps the biggest complaint that can be leveled against “Limbo” is that it could use a couple more hard puzzles. The relatively easy early-game portions, which consist mainly of walking and jumping, go on for a bit too long. Not long after the game introduced more complex physics-based puzzles and level-rotating shifts in perspective, it abruptly ended, leaving me wanting just a bit more.
After you’ve finished “Limbo,” cleanse your palette with “DeathSpank” (rated T, $15 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3). The hack-and-slash, dungeon-crawling game is reminiscent of PC classics “Diablo II” and “Torchlight.” You’ll walk through a level, hack up enemies with your weapons and collect lots of loot, which you’ll use to customize your character so that he can equip more stuff.
It’s a proven formula for success, but “DeathSpank” stands out among a crowded field by mocking some of the conventions of its chosen genre, and mixing in a healthy dose of oddball wit. It’s written by Ron Gilbert, who worked with Sonoma native Tim Schafer on LucasArts’ hilarious “Secret of Monkey Island” games.
In one early example, the title character regales a witch with a tale of the time he fought off an army of mermaids. Or were they salmon?
Lastly, I’d be remiss in my duties as video game columnist for The Official Newspaper of Snoopy™ if I didn’t steer players toward “Snoopy Flying Ace,” an aerial dogfighting (heh) game that’s $10 on the Xbox 360.
“Flying Ace” (rated E10+) tasks the famous canine with a number of missions that should feel familiar to anyone who played the cult classic “Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge” on PC or Xbox. You’ll shoot down planes with a turret, defend strategic locations and bring down a zeppelin, using a number of period inappropriate power-ups like homing missiles and shotguns.
Though the missions are a great way to get a handle on the game’s fairly forgiving controls, there’s more fun to be had in online matches, which support up to 16 players over Xbox Live.
Despite its violent-sounding arsenal, “Flying Ace” is devoid of death. Vanquished foes can be seen parachuting to safety, although it’s worth noting the game refers to downed planes as “kills.” Regardless, “Flying Ace” features a split-screen mode that lets two players on one console team up to tackle the various missions, making it a great title for an adult gamer with a kid who’s not quite old enough for co-op, first-person shooters.