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Friday, December 3, 2021

Some More Indie 3D Platformer Recommendations, Part 2: Blue Fire and Toree

Today brings the second part of my round-up of indie 3D platformers, in order to keep both halves more manageable in length. If you missed the first part earlier this week, where I looked at Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight and Here Comes Niko!, check it out here. Once you’ve read that, we can jump right into the second half:

Blue Fire (Robi Studios)

Of all of the games I’m covering in this two-parter, Blue Fire might be the one I went into with the least idea of what to expect? I wasn’t too familiar with anyone involved, I just saw a trailer and decided that it looked interesting. And in that regard, I was pretty pleasantly surprised!

Blue Fire is the debut work of Robi Studios, and it’s a pretty strong opening statement. It’s by far the one here with the deepest lore, so that’s another plus (although it’s also the type of game that gives out said lore via exploration, so don’t expect a big explanation right off the bat). To not give too much away, you play as Umbra, a mysterious figure who wakes up in a ruined lab deep underground. Upon a little exploring, you learn that you are in the depths of a floating castle called Penumbra, built to protect the remnants of the world from an encroaching mass of shadows that long ago engulfed the earth below and now tries to infect the castle. You guide Umbra to learn the causes of these shadows, and to see if they can be stopped.

I’ve seen some compare the game’s world and story to Dark Souls, and I can’t really comment on that, as I haven’t played them. The other comparison I’ve seen is The Legend of Zelda series, and that one I have experience with, and can definitely see. The darker, 3D games stand out as influences, particularly Majora’s Mask* and Twilight Princess; if you played them and dug their surreal melancholy, supernatural gloominess, and generally off-kilter eldritch vibes, Blue Fire has got you covered.

*Also, Umbra’s design seems to echo Deku Link’s, with the small body and large, round head. This is likely because it is peak character design. 
From the Blue Fire WikiFrom the Zelda Wiki

It makes for a stark contrast with the tones of Tasomachi and Here Comes Niko!, but it is a rather overwhelming and immersive sense of place all the same, so I figured it made for a nice comparison on those grounds, for those who like the idea of 3D platformer worlds with strong identities, but want something a little different. Of course, there are a few other stark differences in how these games are structured as well.

Most notably, Blue Fire does away with the levels of the other two, in favor of a much larger, interconnected map, sort of Metroidvania-style. New paths open up with new abilities, shortcuts appear, backtracking to find items become important, the whole shebang. There still aren’t too many 3D Metroidvanias, despite the genre’s overwhelming presence in the 2D scene, so it’s nice to see a game that pulls it off well.

And as you might have guessed from “upgrades”, there are a whole lot of things to do. It definitely has the widest array of movement options of the games I’m covering today, with your standard plot-required upgrades that are needed to explore the whole map, as well as a ton of collectables tucked away in nooks and crannies that get you bonus perks. Kind of standard business for a good Metroidvania, and again, Blue Fire does a nice job of making these bonuses worth the exploration.

It also means the widest variety of movement options, of course. Again, a lot of them are required for reaching the final boss, but the optional ones sometimes give you fun and crazy things like an extra jump or added height, which in turn opens up exploration to areas that don’t at first seem reachable. It’s a little like Mario Odyssey in that way, where there are nice rewards tucked away in high spots, so you start trying to reach more hard-to-reach spots partly for the challenge and partly to see if there’s a prize. Once you have a few things unlocked, you get access to some crazy moves, which you can chain together in fun ways and use to really comb every corner of the world.

Some of those highest spots, plus some of the challenge levels (platforming gauntlets in a void dimension, which really have weirdly become a staple of the genre since Mario Sunshine, and here provide heart containers) will really test your skills. You can beat the game without doing the hardest of them of course, and even for those who want to see everything, some of the stronger abilities you’ll find can help mitigate the difficulty somewhat.

But the game will push you in its hardest spots, and you might start to see the seams of the experience a little bit as a result; like, a complex string of moves will need exact execution or go to waste and force you to start over, or you might pull off a really smooth set of jumps to try and reach an area only to discover it’s out of bounds or that your character interacted in a weird way with the surface. It’s really the basic trade-off of this kind; it’s far tougher and more punishing than the first two games I’ve mentioned, but those games also never become power fantasies at their best moments, where you zip across the screen in a series of five jumps that carry you over an entire room-sized chasm. For players, it mostly comes down to a personal question of which style is more your speed.

Combat is kind of similar (another big difference, given the other two are combat-free). It mostly relies on learning parries and looking for openings. Enemies can be punishing, especially in the early game (and towards the end, you might want to just zip by opponents when you can just to keep things moving fast), but it largely works. And again, searching for upgrades can open up some fun and exhilarating scenarios (I think I beat a later boss while almost never touching the ground? Just alternating jumps and slashes and dash attacks?)

There are a few other things worth mentioning, that are all varying degrees of “neither here nor there”. The game uses a minimal soundtrack, which really accentuates the lonely, gloomy atmosphere. But it did lead to me noticing that there was a pretty constant white noise going on in the background? I think it was an intentional sound mixing choice, although I’m not positive, and it did bug me a little (enough to stand out, at least). On the positive side of things, if you do decide to play Blue Fire, the developers have made a full, official-looking strategy guide (currently hosted over on their publisher Graffiti Games' site). As someone who grew up with them, it’s a really cool bit of nostalgia.*

*Do they still publish these? They certainly seem less common than they were back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thanks to the abundance of free online resources for this type of thing, but I don’t believe they’ve vanished entirely. But the most common modern versions that come up in searches seem very different from the kind I remember from my youth.

And as another note, it’s worth noting that the developers are still actively working on the game! In fact, it’s seen an update or two since I finished playing, with more on the way, all as updates to the base game rather than new additions that you need to pay for. My understanding is that the base game is still more or less the same (and you actually need to beat the final boss to see at least some of the new things), so my analysis should hold up there. I obviously can’t offer up analysis of the new parts at the moment, other than to say Robi Studios did a good job and I am curious to go back and see what all they have added when I have time in my backlog.

Toree 3D & Toree 2 (Siactro)

These ones are a little different than the last few. I’ve mentioned “the vibes” for each of them, what it’s like to just exist in their little worlds for a while. The Toree games feel a little less like immersive little worlds; instead, they feel more like throwbacks to the quirky little 3D platformers you might see in the heyday of the Playstation 1/Dreamcast/Nintendo 64. If you have some nostalgia for that era, check them out, and even if you don’t, they’re both only a dollar, so it’s still worth checking out!

From Siactro, a solo developer who I covered the last time I did a 3D platformer round-up, the Toree series represent a bit of a shift in gameplay since their last release. While MacBat 64 was more about exploring, the Toree games are platformers in the truest sense, with you guiding the titular bird across obstacle courses built on floating islands, rooftops, temple ruins, the tops of cars on congested highways… anything involving the traversal of gaps. Plot is fairly minimal, although the story that does exist carries its own sense of humor and bizarre weirdness (particularly with series antagonist Glitchy).

And while there are things to collect (including a fun cameo in both games for picking up every star on every course), the bigger focus is on speed, with the game awarding letter ranks based on how fast you complete each level (like the Sonic Adventure games, if you need a point of comparison). And for those who want to pursue an A-rank in every course, they’re actually pretty tricky to get!

The second game does what you would want out of a sequel, with improvements in most ways: a wider design of levels, a few more mechanics, a new set of world designs, and even a final boss to cap it all off. Plus, like with Blue Fire, there is still more in the works here (the first game already received a few new bonus levels, too; I missed their release, but discovered them when I went back to play it while researching this).

Neither game is terribly long or deep or anything, but at the same time, they both cost a dollar. Shoot, if you get the Switch version of either, you might already have that much built up in rewards from past eShop purchases. If they seem at all interesting to you, they’re definitely worth checking out!

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