Backlog Adventures: Badland

The Sisyphean task of working through a backlog of yet-to-be-played videogames requires a certain amount of strategy.  There is, of course, the matter of playing all the games, but you also have to stop the backlog from growing.  Getting through Skyrim won’t do much for my backlog if I end up buying five other games in the interim.  So I have, for the most part, conditioned myself to ignore all those great deals on the dozens or hundreds of games that I’ve missed over the years, and to try to buy games one at a time, right before I play them.  Getting past – if not necessarily through – the backlog is going to require letting some of these games die on the vine, and that’s a lot easier when you don’t own the games in the first place.

One of the big exceptions, though, is indie games.  The market is overflowing right now with fun, quirky, unique indie games that can often be had pretty cheaply.  A lot of these games only take a few hours to get through, so it seems pretty harmless to stockpile a handful of them for a rainy day.  Or so I tell myself.  Taking advantage of a few deals on little indie games isn’t the same as grabbing a cheap copy of Mass Effect Trilogy is what I’m saying.  So when Badland: Game of the Year Edition (normally $11.99) went on sale for six bucks during an ID@Xbox Spotlight sale, I grabbed it and threw it on the pile.

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Badland was first released in 2013 for iOS and Android (and then a year later for Windows Phone, as is tradition) and won Apple’s iPad Game of the Year award.  A GotY edition was then released in 2015 for various consoles and other platforms.  It only takes a quick look to understand the game’s appeal as an impulse purchase.  It has the kind of look that feels unique in a very familiar way, a cross between In Limbo and Ori and the Blind Forest, casting a silhouetted foreground against a colorful, painterly forested background.  It’s of a type that jumps out from a screenshot and promises a dose of adorable fun.  It references a lot of other games and styles that seem to pop up in every other indie game, but, on the other hand, its appeal is irresistible.  It is a puppy, basically.  It looks like all the other puppies, but it is a puppy, right in front of you!

The six-dollar gamble with Badland was that it was going to be a shallow, generic game whose only accomplishment was managing to look cute for the few minutes it took to buy it.  As it turns out, Badland is actually a pretty great game.  It does feel somewhat familiar, but it does enough things right that it feels fresh at the same time, or is at least fun enough that you don’t care how original it is.

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Mechanically, Badland is incredibly simple: you press the button to make your character(s) fly up, and release the button to let gravity pull them back down as, all the while, they fly to the right through an auto-scrolling world.  Along the way, you’ll grab various power-ups to make your little flying fuzzballs bigger or smaller, faster or slower, sticky or bouncy, and so on, navigating obstacles until you’re eventually sucked up by a vacuum at the end of the level.  And you’ll bounce off of stuff.  Constantly.  The mechanics are charmingly, perfectly clumsy, and it’s one of the many details the game absolutely nails.  The way you drunkenly lurch through the world, the way you bounce off of obstacles with a metallic thunk, the squishing sound you make as some boulder crushes you like a grape – it’s all far more satisfying than it has any right being.

You will die a lot in this game, but that’s half the fun.  One of the primary mechanics is cloning; you at times assemble a horde of several dozen flying fuzzballs, just to pilot them through a field of buzz saws, offering most of your doppelgangers up as a squishy sacrifice.  The success of the group is the only thing that matters here; however many clones come and go in the process, all that matters is that at least one makes it to the end.  And when your last clone meets its fate, you’re treated to an instant respawn at one of the generally abundant checkpoints.  The speed with which you respawn – which you can also trigger manually – and the abundance of checkpoints keeps even the most challenging sections from becoming too frustrating.  You can knock out dozens of attempts at a nasty obstacle in a couple of minutes.  Even haphazardly throwing your clones into a gauntlet of saws, explosions, and lasers and hoping for luck to guide you through isn’t a bad strategy at times.

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What’s most remarkable about this game is its ability to wrest so much variety out of such simple elements.  There are a hundred levels in the GotY edition – two 40-level campaigns and two 10-level bonus sets – and they manage to keep surprising you with fresh ideas.  Just when you think you’ve figured out the game’s playbook, it throws a new challenge at you, forcing you to rethink your approach.  And there are also co-op and multiplayer modes, with redesigned levels that at times require your friends to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team.

When I finally cleared the final level, at which point I had also been through seventy of the hundred levels in co-op, I had only unlocked 29% of the game’s Achievement points.  Each level offers three missions – objectives like “collect every power-up” or “save X clones” – that range in difficulty from hard to “how in the hell?” and offer a surfeit of replay value.  Tackling those missions will keep you busy for quite some time, to say nothing of the various other tasks involved in collecting all the Xbox Achievements or PS Trophies.  This is a game that certainly earns your twelve dollars.

With how easy it is to jump in, knock out a few dozen attempts at a level, and jump out, Badland is an ideal game to keep on your hard drive and play for five minutes before or after spending a few hours on the latest AAA epic.  As often as not, though, my five-minute Badland sessions turn into half-hour or longer Badland sessions.  Such is the game’s addictive nature, and its spot-on balance of challenge and reward.  It’s a game that begs you to try just one more time, to spend ten more seconds in its world.  It’s a great way to spend a few minutes, but also a delightful rabbit hole to fall down.

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