Developer: Recoil Games
Platform: Playstation 3 (PSN), PC (Steam), Mac (App Store)
Difficulty Setting: Normal
And now for something completely different. Well, maybe not completely different… Rochard definitely has that Valve-ian (Valvian?) feeling to it, but it also has something unique. Something that makes me hopeful for the future of gaming: it seems there are still developers out there who know how to strike a good balance between the production values of big AAA titles and the creativity of the smaller indie games.
John Rochard is an astro-miner down on his luck. He and his team have been scouring the ass-end of the galaxy in search of
unobtanium tiberium turbinium, but haven’t come across any for ages. Just when it seems all hope is lost and John faces a permanent lay-off, they stumble across a large deposit of turbinium. And something else. Something big… What follows is a chase around the galaxy, from abandoned mines and small ships, to a flashy casino and big corporate headquarters. It’s a neat, if slightly unoriginal little story that carefully unfolds during the course of the game.
The gameplay very clearly takes precedence over story, though, and key in Rochard are the gravity-based physics puzzles. Stealing the show is John’s G-lifter. Not unlike Half Life 2‘s Gravity Gun, the G-lifter allows you to pick up boxes and the like with a simple click of a button. Okay, we’ve seen that before. But while the G-lifter isn’t that special on its own, things get much more interesting as the game adds new mechanics. For instance, when you press Shift, you can (in most situations) lower the gravity of the environment you are in. This does not only allow you to pick up heavier objects and jump a lot higher, it basically changes the entire game. (Laser)bullet trajectories, enemy movement, object behaviour — a gravity shift doesn’t leave much unchanged. This opens up some interesting puzzles. Boxes in your way? Just lower or even reverse the gravity and walk past! Can’t reach a ridge, even in low gravity? Use the Recoil Jump, which involves you firing an object with your G-lifter away from the direction you want to go in, using the inertia to propel you further! Combat is also affected by changes in gravity; picking up a heavy box in low gravity and then switching back to normal gravity so it squashes an enemy soldier is addictively satisfying. Add to that things like a variety of forcefields (some block objects only, some block organic matter only, etc.) and you have the ingredients for a great 2.5D side-scroller. It all works like a charm, and you’ll quickly get used to the tight control scheme.
There’s only one thing about the controls that caused me a little bit of grief. Rochard will only jump when his feet are on the ground. When the gravity is low, Rochard tends to bounce a bit more, meaning his feet are not always on the ground. This makes executing a jump in low gravity a little finicky, at times. I’ve only tested the Steam version, so I don’t know if this problem exists on the PSN version. In the end, though, you won’t be bothered much by it.
Visually, Rochard looks pretty good. Powered by that lovely Unity engine, the game manages to lay down some interesting visuals. The physics are up to spec, as is to be expected from a game like this. Particularly switching from normal to low gravity will have an interesting effect on the models, which seamlessly transit into their new walk cycles. Everything runs as smooth as a baby’s bottom, even on some older machines. Frankly, it’s probably the best use of the Unity engine I’ve seen to date. Thumbs up to the programmers and modellers!
Speaking of character models: the minimal, cartoony art style is slightly reminiscent of Team Fortress 2, but it’s definitely not a rip-off — just a very good use of the technique. The backgrounds are appropriately stuffed with all kinds of props, making the levels look alive without creating too much visual noise. The
Skyrim Skyrig hangars have plenty of machinery in the deep background, the mines are eerily empty save for some drilling material, and the casino is stacked with flashy furniture and neon-lit bars. I thoroughly appreciated the generous usage of full and warm colours, as supposed to the bland “realistic” colouring used in so many games today. The effects, like the gravity field from John’s G-lifter, are extremely bright and eye-popping. Another proof of how you can achieve that science-fiction feel without instantly turning to that cold, icy-blue colour scheme.
The combat is very basic but works well. However, I think the game could have done without the Rock Blaster (read: laser rifle). I was having a lot of fun just knocking enemies unconscious with boxes, or ripping turrets from the walls and letting them explode in the enemy’s face. Adding a shooting mechanic takes away some of that fun. Yeah, you can still choose not to use your Rock Blaster (Steam Achievements, ahoy!), but you will have to use it eventually, as enemies come in greater numbers later in the game.
One of Rochard‘s most defining features is the music. Man, this game has a badass soundtrack! Composed by Markus Kaarlonen of Poets of the Fall, the blues-rocky music paints a perfect picture of the grind of deep space astro-mining and loneliness of being hundreds of light-years away from home, not to mention the dangers of being chased by a group of insane mercenaries, of course. Just listen to that southern guitar in the 2011 E3 trailer! Mmmm, that’s some good stuff!
All of the above is expertly sewn together into a delicious little game that is just a lot of fun. The puzzle gameplay is very tight, has a great pace and gradually gets more complex without overshooting the target. You’ll be challenged, but not frustrated. While the story is not exactly an epic tale of adventure, it’s also not merely a narrative wrapper for gameplay mechanics either — they put more effort into its execution than most games in the genre. Clocking in at about 5 hours of gameplay, this downloadable is an incredibly enjoyable and complete little experience. For me, the title came out of nowhere, so I was pleasantly surprised. The ending strongly hints at a sequel, and I can’t help but vigorously encourage Recoil Games to keep this spaceship a-floatin’!
I suspect its creators put a lot of love into Rochard. You can feel it in just about every aspect of the game; playing it just made me happy. It’s got that innovative indie feel, with the finesse of a big AAA title. Yet, it’s priced as a downloadable, so there’s really little reason not to purchase it. If you like side-scrolling action and gravity/physics-based puzzling, coated in pretty visuals, good writing and a supremely awesome soundtrack, this game is for you!
Have you played Rochard? How do you feel about it? Let me know in the comments!
- Press to Play © 2012