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Game Night: It’s Casual Friday with ‘Sokomage’ and ‘Hive Jump 2: Survivors’

I had to switch horses mid-race this week. I started playing a game for the column, but it rapidly became obvious that I didn’t have enough time to cover it in the detail that it deserved. Instead, let’s swap over to a couple of shorter games that I pulled off the top of my stack.

2006’s The Burning Earth is one of about fifty shovelware games that’s based on Avatar: The Last Airbender. The only reason why Burning Earth hasn’t been forgotten is that the Xbox 360 version of Burning Earth might still have the easiest achievements of any game on the platform. You can unlock all of them in under 2 minutes.

That gave Burning Earth a weird sort of popularity as a must-play for achievement hunters, to the extent that It’s on the official list of backwards-compatible 360 games. (Somebody had to write an actual emulator for that.)

That’s also made Burning Earth one of the primary influences on a peculiar underbelly of Xbox games. Ever since achievements were introduced, there have been players who take them too seriously, which has led to a few smaller developers who specifically try to appeal to that crowd. Microsoft cracks down on the practice occasionally, but there’s still a whole vein of Xbox indies that are only there to offer cheap gamerscore options.

Speaking of which: Sokomage is a top-down block-pushing puzzler from Afil Games, a prolific Brazilian publisher/developer that focuses on casual, kid-friendly releases. It’s been on Steam for a while, but is scheduled to make its Xbox debut this weekend.

If I were to put together a “boot camp” for general video game skill, I’d make sure to have a block-pushing puzzle in the introductory courses. Sokomage is a solid, easy-to-grasp take on the concept. You’re a wizard. You use magic to shove around blocks of ice to create makeshift bridges. The end.

The first few levels of Sokomage aren’t much of a challenge, but it gets more complicated by level 10. It’s also got a nicely open design where many of its puzzles have multiple viable solutions. Sokomage was made to do one thing, and it does it well.

Well, two things: it’s also a firehose for gamerscore points. You can unlock 13 of Sokomage’s 16 achievements in maybe 20 minutes, then finish the game to get the last 3. If you’re looking to boost your score in a hurry, Sokomage has you covered.

If you like puzzles, Sokomage isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours. It’s got a calming retro aesthetic that reminds me of the SNES, and it’d be a decent game to play with a little kid. You could do a lot worse with $5. At the end of the day, though, it’s hard to shake the impression that this was made as catnip for achievement sickos.

In the wake of the success of Vampire Survivors, “bullet heaven” is becoming an increasingly popular subgenre for indie teams. Given the flooded state of the market, what impresses me is that I’ve yet to play a game that just cloned VS and called it a day. Time Wasters is more than “Vampire Survivors in spaceships”; 20 Minutes Till Dawn is more than “Vampire Survivors but goth”; Brotato is more than “Vampire Survivors but for people who have over 1,000 hours in The Binding of Isaac” (or vice versa).

Hive Jump 2: Survivors, which hit Steam Early Access at the end of May, keeps that streak going. It’s a sequel to a 2017 2D shooter that’s a little bit like the original Helldivers mixed with Contra. That makes the switch to bullet heaven both a big swing and surprisingly natural: both Hive Jumps are about deliberately unfair levels of difficulty, but in slightly different formats.

Each level in Survivors sends you into a cramped cave system with an infinite horde of bugs, a gun, and a dream. What sets it apart from other bullet heaven games is your access to a jetpack, which lets you reposition yourself on a whim. You can’t really get cornered in Survivors; you can always fly over a pack of aliens or hop the nearest wall to safety.

As you level up, you can assign several extra bonuses to the jetpack, like boosting your fire rate while you’re in flight or adding a small heal to its activation. It’s a handy, all-in-one emergency button that adds a nicely dynamic element to Survivors gameplay.

As of version 0.5.1310, Survivors is a solid shooter. It’s got a decent overall flow, it runs well, and it feels like a complete experience even at this early stage.

Obviously, Survivors isn’t complete, so this isn’t a full review. The game that exists at time of writing, however, has some unique balance issues that you don’t often see in the bullet heaven subgenre.

Specifically, Survivors features one of my big video game pet peeves: it treats basic functionality like it’s a reward. When you first boot it up, many of its relics and weapons are locked behind various achievements. You end up having to fumble through a couple of rounds until you gain access to equipment that should’ve been available from the start, like guns that are actually capable of meaningful crowd control.

You also initially have only 3 weapon slots to choose from. This would be fine, but you’re going to fill one of those slots with the Overshield, which is the best defensive option in the game. It’s so good, in fact, that it feels like the rest of Survivors is balanced around the assumption that you have it. The difference between a normal build and a “glass cannon” in Survivors is essentially down to whether or not you’re running Overshield.

Due to the interaction between those issues, it’s easy to hit “dead levels” in Survivors, where you shouldn’t or can’t take anything you’re offered: guns you can’t afford, stats you don’t need to boost, useless weapons, etc. This feels bad in any game, but it’s compounded in bullet heaven, where you’re always scrambling for any edge you can get.

Once you farm up enough resources to buy some permanent upgrades, Survivors gradually loosens up. The better guns open up some nicely degenerate character builds, like the gamma-ray blaster that microwaves anything it hits, and its developers have put some real thought into the player’s overall road map. Even then, it still has its dead-levels issue, and that initial run up from zero is rough.

For right now, Hive Jump 2 has solid bones, but needs some tweaking to smooth out its overall progression. It’s not that you start out in a hole – that’s part of the appeal of bullet heaven games – but that the hole’s initially too deep, and makes you dig sideways before you can climb up.

I didn’t start out with a planned theme, but I think I ended up with one.

Sokomage is simple, cheap, and does what it set out to do. It also might very well have been made as pay-to-play for people who care way too much about their TrueAchievements ranking. Hive Jump 2 is an absorbing bullet heaven game with uniquely janky progression.

One of the things that bothers me about game criticism is that it often falls into a good/bad binary. There’s a lot of value in discussing games that take big swings that don’t connect, or which make unusual mistakes. That’s the point of media criticism as a whole: it’s not meant to simply be a buyer’s guide, but a way to move the medium forward.

As far as Sokomage and Hive Jump 2 are concerned, I had fun with both of them, but their flaws are (currently) more interesting than their successes.

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