Everybody knows that indie gaming is where all of the really interesting innovation and invention is right now, but for every break-out classic there are a hundred well-meaning but no-hope options clogging up Steam, PSN and Xbox Live.
That makes sorting the wheat from the chaff a little tricky, but some games stand out more than others. Volume, for example, is both strikingly, minimalistically beautiful, and developed by indie darling Mike Bithell - the chap behind Thomas Was Alone.
But while you might download it for the glowing labyrinths of fuschia and scarlet, you'll keep playing Volume for the fiendishly clever design contained within.
Volume’s premise is simple: sneak your way through a series of holographic simulations guided by an AI, avoiding the hostile guards known as ‘pawns’ along the way.
Every level requires the player to collect a series of diamonds in order to open up the exit but, of course, in action it's far less simple than that sounds. The route is always littered with a series complex challenges and Rob, the game’s masked saviour, has no offensive capabilities.
Instead, maneuvering past the pawns requires a mixture of brains and swift sneaking.
The latter is obviously inspired by the likes of Metal Gear Solid: every pawn has a field of vision that Rob must avoid, otherwise out come the digital semi-automatics.
You’ll find yourself crawling beneath low walls, timing your tip-toe from pillar to pillar carefully, and more often than you’d like, standing, impotently, with a gun pointed right at your face.
One game, many faces
But this is more than a simple homage to Metal Gear Solid - before long Volume starts to reveal its many other personalities. Sometimes Rob is Solid Snake, sometimes he’s Pacman, sometimes he’s Portal’s Chell.
This variety is facilitated by two factors: Rob’s non-combative toolset and the shape of the environment. In addition to simply crawling past enemies Volume requires players to distract them, disable them, and think spatially about the problems they’re facing.
A good example is the bugle, a tool that allows Rob to fire a noise burst that bounces off four surfaces before then attracting any pawn in the vicinity. Placing yourself and then aiming and timing the bugle call must all be executed with absolute precision.
Add this to the range of different pawns (some can see in all directions, some snipe from a distance, and some run extremely fast at you with an alarmingly large truncheon) and the increasingly varied environmental obstacles such as keys that must be collected to deactivate unbreachable barriers, and Volume soon reveals itself to be a gigantic logic puzzle rather than a run of the mill stealth game. Some puzzles require three or four different elements to work in conjunction, and in perfect order.
By the time you approach the last of the game’s 100 levels, Volume is spinning dozens of plates to create an impressively multi-layered experience.
Very occasionally during this journey the game takes a sideways step by repeating something, but sustaining constant progression for 100 levels must be rather difficult, and I certainly wouldn’t want to criticise the game for offering too much content.
And overall Volume manages to maintain a fairly consistent sense of momentum right through its unexpectedly vast journey.
What's perhaps most impressive here is the economy of the design. It's clean, simple, even bare, and that leaves the game's core construction exposed. That core, though, is exceptionally solid, and really doesn't need distracting from with glitzy baubles.
It's only a shame that the one nod to more blockbuster-like gaming is a bit of a flop - the story, both in terms of plot and script, is an homage to fromage. The delivery is poor, too, especially in the case of the actor playing Rob, whose monotone drone was enough to prompt me to mute my telly at least a couple of times.
But these are minor flaws for an indie game that will set you back just S$33. The meaty puzzling and sparse visual splendour on offer here is worth way more than that.