Some time ago, Psychochild mentioned his friend, Dave Toulouse, and his crazy awesome indie game development ways. He runs a blog over at Over00, where he writes about his efforts. I’ve been following them both on Twitter, and a couple of days ago, they announced Toulouse’s latest project, Bret Airborne, which he has written about a few times on his blog that I totally have been neglecting. I’m so bad at keeping up lately.
Anyway, I gotta say… I like it. A lot. Like, enough to play it and write this post about it instead of working on my steampunk poker stuff like I probably should be doing.
Y’see, I’m a fan of Puzzle Quest. And Puzzle Kingdoms. And Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. And Gyromancer. And I’m a huge fan of Puzzle Pirates. Muckbeast’s Tower of Elements is similarly sweet. I’m a gamer, have been for decades, but I never did pick up the attitude that “match 3” or other simple puzzle games are unworthy of attention. I like puzzle games, and though they may be “light” gaming fare most of the time, that’s not a bad thing. I also happen to love RPGs, so splicing in some RPG DNA into puzzle games is a Good Idea in my eyes.
Bret Airborne is definitely a mutation of the Puzzle Quest school of design. This is an expression of praise, at least as far as I’m concerned. It uses some of the standard match 3 game design elements, with swapping items, new pieces dropping in from above, that sort of thing. It is basically PvP puzzling, like Puzzle Quest is, complete with special attacks (using energy from matches you’ve made) that you can use to make the experience a bit more strategic. It’s pretty simple to understand, and the learning curve is kind.
It builds on the Puzzle Quest design in a few important ways (that I’ve seen, there may be others), though. First, the playing field is split between the two players, though it’s still technically a shared space. If you get matches of 4 at a time or more, you can push your zone of control of the shared space into the opponent’s territory (that bar in the middle scoots over, opening up a new column to control), messing up their plans or using their resources. At first, I thought this was too constraining and potentially too swingy, but it actually plays very nicely. I thought the scoot was persistent, silly me. It actually resets at the beginning of each player’s turn. It certainly penalizes bad luck and bad defensive play, but it just feels right, like my own play is more important than luck. This is a Good Thing.
Second, and I can’t emphasize how much this made me happy, you’re not constrained to making moves that create matches. You can make a move that sets things up for the future, though if you don’t make a match, the opponent gets a boost to their zone of control on their next turn. I have always loved Bilging in Puzzle Pirates for exactly this, the ability to shuffle things around without the necessity of matching every time you make a move. In that game, you do take a scoring penalty, but if you play smart, you can set up big combos that more than make up for the penalty. This freedom is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome to see it in Bret Airborne. This also means the board will never reset itself if it gets into a locked position, which again facilitates planning over randomness. This is a subtle thing, perhaps, but it’s something that makes the game a joy to play for me, rather than the frustration that the persnickity prototypical Bejeweled clones tend to offer.
It also has a few of what I call “quality of life” improvements. One that made me smile was that matching two sets of three in an L or T shape doesn’t just register as two threes, it registers as five at a time matched, with the concurrent zone increase bonus. Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it really helps me enjoy the game. No longer do I have to choose to match a four in a row (to get the zone bonus and extra move) and leave a bit of clutter with that fifth piece as the odd man out. If the gems are in the right formation, I can play with an eye to keeping the board cleaner, which enables further tricks down the road and still get the bonus for matching more than the baseline three. Maybe this is “easy mode” to purists, but I love it. The suite of tricks that you can learn to make combat more interesting are excellent, too. There isn’t quite the array of abilities that Puzzle Quest has, but then, it doesn’t have the class system, either, so it’s nice and flexible. One other, simple thing… it lets me click over to my second monitor without freaking out, crashing or nuking my computer. No Alt-Tab necessary. This is a little thing, but I love it. It’s like Star Trek Online in that regard… and it’s something that WoW, in all its pomp, still fails at sometimes. (Alt-Tabbing out of it crashes the game half the time for me. It’s a jealous game.) Bret Airborne runs in full screen mode nicely on one monitor while I do my thing on the other, like writing this post, and it doesn’t try to wreck my workflow. It’s a genial game. Again, simple quality of life improvement, and it’s a shame I have to mention it as an aberration, but I appreciate it.
Oh, and it’s Steampunk themed. This also makes me smile. The art is fairly simple, but it’s clean, readable and stylistic. It won’t compete with Bioshock Infinite (since y’know, that’s important or something), and there are some things I’d do differently (I’m an artist, after all), but that’s just me nitpicking. The play’s the thing, and Bret Airborne is simply a joy to play. Maybe it’s a little “plain Jane” to look at, but it’s a beauty in action.
Go get the demo. Play it. Buy it. It’s worth it. I’ve been picky with what games I buy lately, mostly because I don’t have time to play, but this is one that I’m happy to have found. I recommend it highly.