Boomerang X Review: Nintendo Switch

But what if YOU were the Boomerang?

It must be extremely difficult to come up with a “new” idea for a video game. In an entertainment sector, and yes an art form, that has been around now for over 50 years and grown to be so huge internationally there is a truly massive catalogue of games dating way back to the glory days of dedicated home ‘Pong‘ consoles and PCs that ran on DOS.

This study estimates that there are about 50,000 different games in existence, while video game industry statistics reports that there are 25 new games released on Steam EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that I have played any meaningful fraction of all of the games that have ever been made. But I have certainly played a lot. And I can’t remember the last time that I played a game with a concept so simple, but so well executed as Boomerang X.

Plot

Boomerang X isn’t here to engage us with a deep story. In fact, there really isn’t a story here at all. Basically the game starts with a cut scene of our seafaring ship crashing on an unknown beach. We wander throughs a deserted village and chance upon a strange weapon… A Boomerang in the shape of an ‘X’.

How do you actually catch it without losing a finger?

From that stage of the game there is very little exposition. There are a few occurrences when some residents of the island appear between levels and provide a very small amount of information. However, by the end of the game I didn’t feel that there was any real benefit to these interactions. Certainly there is no real ‘mystery’ here. No real obvious goal other than to get to the next level and reach the end of the game.

This is a game that relies on its gameplay to keep you interested and pushing forward. Fortunately, the gameplay here is excellent.

Gameplay

What type of game is Boomerang X you ask? The game creators at studio Dang! describe it as a single player ‘first-person arena combat experience’.

The structure of the game is quite simple. We are thrown into an enclosed room where we must fight multiple waves of enemies. A certain number of enemies will appear with each wave, but there will be specific ‘target’ enemies that must be defeated to pass each wave. The other enemies can be ignored in the sense that they don’t need to be killed, but obviously they will try to attack you if you ignore them. Once the last wave has been defeated, the exit door is unlocked and we can move on to the next room. This process repeats until you complete the game.

We start our primary battle with only the eponymous Boomerang that can be used to defend ourselves in the first arena of the game. This first arena, as might be expected, is a very basic flat circular level with no obstacles. After each section of the game we are provided with some kind of upgrade. Either a shield buff that allows us to receive one additional hit before dying (up to a maximum of 7 by the end of the game), or a new skill or ability that will allow us to plow through the increasingly difficult waves of enemies that appear in the game’s weird and wonderful battle arenas.

Welcome to the ‘Grave of the Yoran Legion’, AKA the Lava Pit.

Overall there are 13 main arenas in which to do battle. Each of them is unique both in structure and style. They require use of different skills in particular ways to successfully complete the challenging waves of enemies that will appear.

The developers here have done an absolutely excellent job in regard to the progression in this game. Each new ability is earned in a specific order and we are given a basic ‘test’ in how to effectively use each ability in the next arena after it is received. Simple skills such as calling the boomerang immediately back to our hand become so intuitive that by the later levels of the game I found myself doing it after each throw without even thinking about it.

Where the game really shines is the genius concept of the ‘Slingshot’ ability. If the ‘throw’ button is pressed a second time before the boomerang returns to our hand, we BECOME the boomerang and are flung across the screen in the direction of the boomerang and it is immediately returned to our hand in the process. This ability creates a battle movement and positioning mechanic that is an pure joy to use. It is almost like having a single shot Portal gun that can throw you anywhere in the arena… with some decent aim. I was somewhat hesitant to use this ability early on due to the unpredictable nature of the boomerang when it bounces off walls and obstacles. However, as Boomerang X does so well, one of the next arenas shortly after receiving the Slingshot ability begs us to learn how to use this skill to its full potential. Where battles were previously completed on relatively small and flat coliseums, we are presented with a massive multilevel forest with platforms and bridges between the trees – think Kashyyyk from Star Wars, but less hairy. Soon after mastering this arena, the Slingshot became my main method of transition, dodging and surprise attack.

The other skill that I found myself using very often was the ‘Flux’ technique which temporarily slows down time. Flux can only be used for very short periods while charging up the boomerang for a long distance throw, but it CAN be used in mid-air. The combination of Slingshot and Flux in particular was one of the most fun experiences I have had in a game in a long time.

The remaining skills typically have a requirement to set them up – such as killing two enemies with the same boomerang throw, or killing three enemies while mid-air (without landing). These abilities when charged provide even more alternatives when charging your way through each arena.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzap!

The enemy design here is also excellent. Early in the game we fight simple bugs (spiders and flies) that require only one single hit delivered from any angle. As we progress through there are squid enemies from the Matrix, enemies that can only be hit from behind, the giant storm caller that shrouds the arena in a lightning storm and more. Once again progressing difficulty of enemies and the techniques that are required to defeat them are perfectly paced to provide the learning environment for your new skills early, and the exact level of challenge that you are looking for late in the game.

Is that the thing from Horizon Zero Dawn?

I have no hesitation here is saying that the gameplay here is just great. It is smooth, fast, and just plain fun.

Presentation

As you can see from the screenshots peppered through this review, the presentation of Boomerang X is quite unique. This simple uses a small number of specific colours over a wide and bright palette to bring each area and arena to life. Green forests, blue/white icy caverns and flowing red lava are able to give each region a unique identity. These bright colours are then offset by the jet black enemies that appear with each wave, making them both very easy to identify and quite menacing when up close at the same time.

Hope you aren’t scared of spider…shadow…things

The music in Boomerang X is again minimalistic but does well to match the aesthetic of the game. The combination of soft oriental strings and tribal percussion give an otherworldly or alien feel to the game, which does match the visuals quite well, but do not always give the fast-paced high intensity aerial battles the urgency they deserve. But there is enough here to provide a pleasing backdrop to the action. Sound effects provide good feedback to what is happening on screen

Conclusion

I do need to state that Boomerang X is not a long game. I completed my first playthrough of each area in one (long) sitting of about 4 hours. The game was a good level of challenge and I did die on multiple occasions throughout this first run. Each death did not feel ‘cheap’, and was clearly due to skill error of the player.

This game is clearly built with repeated plays and speed running in mind. In fact, the game comes with an individual arena and overall speed run timer built in. Each wave of each battle starts in the same way (enemies appearing in the same positions), so I can certainly see this game being popular in the speed run community as players try to find the most efficient pattern of mowing down the enemies as quickly as possible.

On completion of the first playthrough, the option of starting a ‘New Game +’ is provided. This allows the game to be started from the beginning with all of the shields and abilities in place at the start of the game. Other gameplay options are provided as well such as a ‘no shields’ mode for extra challenge, and a ‘no gravity’ mode which completely changes the way each arena can be tackled.

Boomerang X also comes with a number of accessibility options such as a ‘high contrast mode’, and an ‘extra-visible required enemies’ mode. I found playing with these options switched on as a completely different visual experience from the base game. Not a ‘better’ experience necessarily, but it does look cool.

Accessibility activated for aesthetic reasons.

I enjoyed my time with Boomerang X immensely. For me the fire burned brightly, but only for a short period of time. Others looking to invest more time into ‘perfecting’ the game, or even speed running it will definitely find something here to get their hands dirty. The art style and the Slingshot mechanic I feel are unique, and definitely worth the investment for gamers looking to experience something new.

So, why should you play it?

  • You want to experience a fresh single player arena ‘shooter’ with tight controls, an interesting art style and a unique mechanic.
  • My last article about speed running tickled your fancy and you want to dive head-first into a new game to get your name on the leaderboard early.

But, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Fast-paced action isn’t really your cup of tea.
  • Games with no storyline leave you frustrated or uninterested in continuing on.

A review code on Nintendo Switch was provided for the purpose of this review.

Death’s Door Preview (PC)

Reaping souls ain’t much for the Crow, but it’s honest work.

UPDATE: we have now published a full review for Death’s Door, so be sure to check that out here if you’d like a comprehensive overview of the entire game. This articles covers only the preview, which is approximately 30% of the game but still a good snapshot of what to expect from the rest.

Devolver Digital have certainly garnered a reputation for being one of the best indie videogame publishers in the business. Their madcap approach to advertising and promotion coupled with handpicked creative and often unusual games has caught the attention of gamers from around the globe since their inception in 2009. And, like a fine wine or a delicious block of parmesan shaped into a game controller, Devolver only seem to get better with age.

Just a few of the excellent games from Devolver.

To add to their already vast library of published titles, earlier this year the team announced a game by the name of Death’s Door, an intriguing hack & slash following the tale of a soul-collecting crow set in a stylish gloomy world. Created by Acid Nerve, the two-person team responsible for Titan Souls, this immediately grabbed my attention thanks to its unique visual style and its avian protagonist and characters. Thankfully, the kind team at Devolver have provided me with a preview build to explore this entrancing world well before its launch on the 20th of July.

So what awaits behind Death’s Door?
Let me open the door a crack and give you a peek into the preview.

Premise

Office work can oftentimes be monotonous, and that’s no exception the Crow, who lives life by the clock, punching in on a daily basis and delivering the harvested souls of those who have died. Every day is much the same in this bleak and monochrome office, but a bird has to make a living, and so he sets off on his usual daily task to collect the next assigned soul on the roster.

*Not an actual screenshot from the game.

However, this routine task doesn’t quite go according to plan…
Upon collecting the next assigned soul, the Crow [STORY DETAILS REDACTED] and when returning to the office, it’s made apparent that the Crow’s own soul may be in danger unless actions are taken to fix what has just occurred. Venturing back into the bleak landscape to seek a solution, he just so happens to stumble upon…

Though inconveniently (but convenient to the plot) the door is locked, and the key to opening it lies in collecting the three Colossal Souls belonging to the Tyrants of the kingdom: a cursed witch, a mad king, and a vicious beast. Only by opening Death’s Door may the Crow complete the mission he has been tasked with. And so the Crow’s journey begins…

Gameplay

The game takes place across a sprawling map that is accessed through doors in the office-like hub world. By entering these doors, the crow is thrust into new locations full of souls ripe for the harvest. In design akin to Dark Souls, maps are vast and intertwined in clever ways, with shortcuts aplenty and secret locations that effortlessly link back to one another. Even though the preview build only showcases 5 of these areas, I was fascinated by each and wanted to explore every single corner to satisfy my own curiosity. Environmental puzzles will hinder the Crow’s progress throughout these area, and while most are simple, they are rewarding and offer more of a challenge when simultaneously trying to fend off hordes of enemies.

After exploring the main area, the map eventually branches off into smaller, more intricate locations that have the feeling of a traditional dungeon and reminiscent of Zelda titles. In the preview build, exploring the Ceramic Manor (the Urn Witch’s Mansion) involved collecting several keys, solving small puzzles in each room, fighting challenging enemies, and collecting the souls of four deceased crows to unlock a door and progress. After unlocking this door, the Crow gains the ability to fling a fireball, allowing access to a deeper area of the dungeon and then to the boss that awaits menacingly at the end. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the dungeons of A Link to the Past or Minish Cap in this design, but this is truly a compliment to the gameplay.

The first dungeon’s puzzles involve lighting fires.

Combat

Harvesting souls is not without its dangers, and as such the Crow is equipped with weaponry to help on this treacherous quest. Three melee weapons were made available in the preview build (sword, daggers, umbrella), and two ranged attacks (bow, fire spell). Attacks can be chained together in swift movements, and when coupled with ranged attacks and well-timed dodges, become a fluid barrage that at times made me feel as if I was playing Hades again. Collecting souls while progressing can be spent back at the office to upgrade the strength of attacks, the speed at which they can be performed, or other stat boosts that assist the Crow during combat.

Though I only played for just over 2 hours, by the end of the preview build I felt proficient in the combat and was able to take down the final boss without taking any damage. Restoring health during combat is not an option either, as the only way to do so is by planting seeds at particular pots and then consuming the bloom that sprouts from them. This means that every enemy encounter must be done with caution to avoid losing health unnecessarily.

Visuals

Interestingly, the game’s design and visual style seems somehow both charming and unnerving. The isometric view and detailed environments occasionally appear like miniatures or scale models, and the design and animations of the Crow are cute and at times juxtaposes with the bleak surroundings. Enemies feature a cartoonish yet grotesque appearance, and the design of some characters is just straight up hilarious, including a cast of characters whose heads have been replaced with pots by the wretched Urn Witch.

I love this character as much as I love soup.

It’s a lovely looking game and its eye-catching environments like detailed dioramas definitely had me pausing to appreciate the Crow’s surroundings on numerous occasions. There’s a lot of attention to detail, and at times this is even incorporated into some puzzles, which will require you to closely analyse for hidden clues. Though this has just been a taste, I’m excited to see the entire world in the full release shortly!

Audio

I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack. So how does Death’s Door hold up in only this short example? Well, the world of Death’s Door is bleak, so too should be its music. Each track in the preview build has a certain sadness to it, mostly featuring piano with light orchestration and ambient background effects. This obviously intensifies during enemy encounters or boss fights, becoming more frantic and fast-paced, but never seems to stray from an overall feeling of melancholy. Here’s a snippet of the music from the Ceramic Manor, the first main dungeon of the game:

What’s next for Death’s Door?

It’s hard for me to pass judgement on a mere preview of the game, but of what I’ve played so far, I’m eager for more. An intriguing world, smooth combat, and attractive visual style definitely make Death’s Door a game you’ll want to keep your eyes on like a hawk (or a crow). It releases shortly on July 20th for PC and Xbox One/Series S/Series X, and I’ll absolutely be playing the full version as soon as I can get my claws on it! Keep an eye out for the full review which I’ll be posting closer to launch.

You can find out more about Death’s Door below:
https://store.steampowered.com/app/894020/Deaths_Door/
https://www.devolverdigital.com/games/deaths-door/
https://playdeathsdoor.com/

Essays on Empathy Review: PC

empathy | ˈɛmpəθi | noun “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”

Deconstructeam – maybe you’ve heard the name? Based in Valencia, Spain, this close-knit indie game developer consists of three key members, known for creating intimate, emotive narrative games, now in collaboration with Devolver Digital. Weaving stories with important messages conveyed through experimental formats, the studio has been widely-recognised for their games, “Gods Will Be Watching” (PC) and “The Red Strings Club” (Nintendo Switch, PC). While many of us play indie videogames on a daily basis for enjoyment, challenge, or entertainment, how often do we truly gain the opportunity to delve deeper into the motivations and thoughts behind the creative minds that concoct these experiences?

The Red Strings Club Nintendo Switch
Cyberpunk narrative adventure game, “The Red Strings Club”.

This is where Essays on Empathy fills a void. Through a hybrid format of videogames and short video documentaries, the player is taken on a journey into Deconstructeam’s past and present through 10 unique, individual standalone experiences. From a game as simple as picking the right book for a birthday present, all the way through to heart-wrenching human relationships and painful emotional experiences, there is one concept that flows through each game in this collection: empathy.

Accompanying each experience is a 10 – 15 minute dissection from the developers, who explain their creative processes, motivations, and most importantly, the messages and challenges behind the game’s creation. When consumed by a gripping videogame, it’s too easy to forget that these are all experiences for which real people are responsible, something Essays on Empathy expertly emphasises.

So what exactly are the games on offer in this captivating collection?
Let me break it down into its ten components:

Underground Hangovers (Genre: Metroidvania/Platformer)

If you had to leave a mysterious planet tomorrow would you: a) go to sleep at a reasonable time to ensure you don’t miss the only rocket off the planet, or b) have a massive party, wake up with a throbbing hangover, and miss the only rocket off the planet? Well in this case, the unfortunate party from Underground Hangovers chose the latter.

Underground Hangovers Essays on Empathy PC
The “Dual-Hook” makes for some interesting (and occasionally frustrating) platforming.

In what feels like the odd game out in the collection (as it’s far more focused on gameplay), you’re tasked with collecting enough ore to rebuild a rocket to make your way off this desolate planet. Though a simple game initially made for a Game Jam in 2015, it features some creative platforming puzzles that feel right at home in the genre.

Supercontinent Ltd (Genre: Cyberpunk/Narrative)

Bold, atmospheric, gripping and clever. Supercontinent Ltd is a narrative-heavy cyberpunk experience that will leave you thirsty for more. Playing as Brandeis (a character who also appears in The Red Strings Club), this game revolves around the use of ancient technology: a landline phone. Through use of a voice modulator (VOMOD), Brandeis makes phone calls to unravel the plot behind a mysterious organisation on the evening of their plan to overthrow the police force.

Supercontinent Ltd Essays on Empathy PC
Landlines really are ancient technology now.

With its engaging dialogue, gloomy pixel-art aesthetic, and ambient synth soundtrack, this game oozes style from every pixel. Impressively, Supercontinent somehow manages to achieve more character development and world-building in thirty minutes than games like Cyberpunk 2077 do in their entire narrative. Thirty minutes well spent.

Behind Every Great One (Genre: Drama/Narrative)

Riding on a high from Supercontinent, I jumped straight into the next game. I was not prepared for what I was about to feel. This game is, at times, mentally and emotionally difficult to play. Interestingly, the developers too discuss how difficult this game was to create. If you’re not in a good headspace, I would approach Behind Every Great One with caution. It will make you feel like absolute shit.

Behind Every Great One Essays on Empathy PC
Victorine’s life is a dull, unfulfilling loop.

You play as Victorine, the housewife to Gabriel, who is a renowned and celebrated artist. Living in his shadow, life has become a monotonous repetition of household chores and meaningless attempts at activity devoid of passion, interspersed with frequent anxiety attacks. The story becomes progressively more depressing as you delve deeper into the characters’ broken relationship and expectations of Victorine. It’s a highly emotive and confronting game that is not for the faint of heart.

Eternal Home Floristry (Genre: Narrative/Flower Arrangement)

An injured hitman loses his arm in an attack and is forced to seek refuge in the house of a florist called Sebastian, with whom he builds a relationship during their short time together. Learning the art of flower arrangement and the messages the blooms convey, Gordon is able to delve deeper into his own emotions and relationships. A highly emotive narrative that explores raw human emotion and the fragile elements that reside within even the most harsh exteriors.

Eternal Home Floristry Essays on Empathy PC
A truly beautiful narrative.

My favourite in the collection. Several times it even had me on the verge of tears. An impressive feat for a game that can easily be completed in half an hour. Though the game may be short, choices based on your flower arrangements will dramatically affect the outcome.

The Bookshelf Limbo (Genre: Point-and-Click)

Simplistic and charming; more of a minigame than a proper standalone title. Pick a comic book from the shelf at a bookstore to purchase as a birthday present for your father! This game was created as a birthday gift alongside a friend of the developers and features amusing cover art, genre stereotypes, and mocking of internet trolls.

The Bookshelf Limbo Essays on Empathy PC
The first game I’ve encountered that’s essentially an interactive birthday card.

Zen and the Art of Transhumanism (Genre: Sci-Fi/Narrative)

Pottery meets Cyberpunk in a genre mash-up I never thought I’d encounter. As a new member of a human improvement workshop, you’re tasked with creating body modifications to fulfil your client’s needs. By handcrafting differently-shaped mods, you’ll be able to enhance certain physical traits and oblige the wishes of the often-selfish humans.

Zen and the Art of Transhumanism Essays on Empathy PC
I need this one!

Another incredibly stylish game with an odd concept – this intriguing pottery-crafting gameplay re-appears in The Red Strings Club as a major gameplay mechanic. But does crafting your body into the ideal traits really lead to true fulfilment?

Engolasters January 2021 (Genre: Sci-Fi/Adventure)

In my opinion the least-enjoyable game in the entire collection. Set in the real life small mountain town of Engolasters, the protagonist (whose son has just run away from home) stumbles across extra-terrestrial life which offers to bestow great power. She must make a choice to save her son, herself, or unravel the secrets that lure her into the unknown. Afflicted by a wound and slowly losing blood, players must manage their life, phone battery, and car fuel while exploring the frosty overworld. The overworld is vast, empty, and lacking in direction, which led me to become easily frustrated.

Engolasters January 2021 Essays on Empathy PC

11:45 A Vivid Life (Genre: Point-and-Click)

The most interesting concept out of all the games: what if your skeleton didn’t belong to you? This simple point-and-click game explores the topic of body image and acceptance. By stealing an x-ray machine and fleeing to the country, the protagonist discovers more about herself by looking inside. Literally. X-rays reveal implants, evidence of past trauma, and pieces that seem mismatched and out of place. Once located, any foreign body parts must be forcibly removed through the use of pliers or scalpels. Not for the squeamish! Players can choose dialogue that will vary the consequences of the story, weaving an entertaining, introspective narrative with a stylish visual aesthetic.

11:45 A Vivid Life Essays on Empathy PC
Plenty of amusing dialogue in this one.

Dear Substance of Kin (Genre: Horror/Adventure)

For a moment I could have sworn I was playing something straight out of Bloodborne! This title is melancholy, chilling, and is dripping with disturbing atmosphere like a blood-soaked cloth. Exploring a decrepit and dilapidated town, you are the Coppersmith, an immortal artisan who harvests the organs of townspeople in exchange for fulfilling their requests through blood magic. By interrogating the residents, you can perceive their selfish desires and choose to either fulfil or sabotage them.

Dear Substance of Kin Essays on Empathy PC
The colour palette and pixel art create a morbid style.

Dark and brooding narrative alongside macabre art and music make this one of the most memorable titles in the collection, and leaves me thirsting for more. The inspiration behind this title is particularly interesting, as the creator draws upon a method that you’re unlikely to expect. Watch the documentary to find out!

Des Tres al Cuatro (Genre: Comedy/Narrative)

The main feature of this collection, a game that translates to “Three for a Quarter” (e.g. something of such poor quality that you can buy three of them for a single quarter), also the name of the comedy duo that you play as during this game. Garza and Bonachera are two halves of a failing comedy act, two lovers, and two grown men struggling for success, stumbling over the hurdles of their passions and their relationship. The story here is particularly personal to the developers, as it emphasises the harsh reality of making a living off of a creative pastime. Conversations between the characters are deeply intimate and allow the player to dive beneath the surface by revealing the characters’ inner thoughts on a separate area of the screen.

Des Tres al Cuatro Essays on Empathy PC
Many mature themes are discussed between Garza and Bonachera.

Gameplay is incredibly creative and unlike anything I’ve played, combining aspects of deckbuilding games with comedy dialogue, allowing you to attempt to earn coins to improve your deck. Cards will either build upon a joke, execute a hilarious punchline, or fail miserably and embarrass yourself in front of an entire crowd. Not only is it fun to play, but many of the jokes are legitimately amusing and it’s quite satisfying to be able to slowly improve your confidence with each show.

Des Tres al Cuatro Essays on Empathy PC
Easily some of the most creative gameplay you’ll come across.

Des Tres al Cuatro is, in my opinion, the best game in the entire collection, as it offers the perfect balance of innovative gameplay and insightful dialogue, and is an experience that is enjoyable every minute from start to finish. If you’re interested in Essays on Empathy, it’s worth it just for this alone.

Conclusion

A vast amount of passion has been poured into crafting these short but powerful games, which becomes even more apparent while watching the developers discuss each title in their respective documentaries. Thoughtfully reflective, introspective and emotive, Essays on Empathy is 50% videogame, 50% documentary, and 100% heart. If you’re the kind of person who plays videogames not only for enjoyment, but for deep narratives, important messages, or artistic expression, then this is an essential experience. And really, couldn’t everyone benefit from just a bit of extra empathy?

So, why should you play it?

  • You’re a fan of emotive narratives.
  • Looking for creative indie games? Go no further!
  • Gorgeous pixel art and equally gorgeous music.
  • Strong LGBTQIA representation will likely appeal to those within the community.

So, why shouldn’t you play it?

  • Certain games may be best avoided if you’re not in the right headspace.
  • Not a fan of narrative or text-heavy games? Then these probably aren’t for you.

Essays of Empathy is available now on PC via Steam.
Find out more about the game here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1586880/Essays_on_Empathy/

A review code was provided for the purpose of this review.