The Best Free Games of the Week
This week sees the grand return of Space Email, the ambitious, if a bit naïve, indirect messaging system that was taken down due to technical and moral reasons – namely the sort of harassment that tends to emerge when people are granted a degree of anonymity. Its creator, Shelby Smith, has now brought Space Email back under a more robust system with a more stringent filtering system. I've only had time to explore it a little this morning, but so far so strange, and moving, and worrying, and sweet. Elsewhere this week: forest-based horror, train-based sleuthing, the goddamned heartbreaking Bottle Rockets, and a couple of games to help you recover from that. Enjoy!
If the Blair Witch Project has taught us anything, it's that snot sells, but also that trees are bastard harbingers of doom and should be turned into tables at every available opportunity. Anywhere with more than a handful of wood-pillars lurking around - say, a forest, a wood or a copse – seems guaranteed to attract evil spirits. I'm not sure what's haunting Heartwood – if indeed 'haunting' is the right word – but thanks to some stark visual design and masterful sound design, it's clear that it's not a safe place to be. Crunching across the dark forest bed in a brightly lit room was terrifying enough for me; I imagine I'll look like one of the victims from Ring if I ever try the in-development Oculus Rift version.
I love this whodunnit genre that seems to have emerged on the back of various game jams over the last year or so, even if I struggle to remember most of the names. Grim Express is the latest I hope sticks in the memory, which shouldn't be too hard seeing as it's the most fleshed-out indie murder mystery I've played. Conceived for the YYA Jam, Grim Express takes place, well, on a train. You're a detective who happened to be sitting next to the victim at the time of his murder, and you soon learn that there are a few people on board who had the motive to do him in. Investigate the murder by interrogating suspects, questioning passersby and digging up clues, in a relatively cramped yet detailed environment. After piecing everything together, I managed to surmise the correct answer, but I was doubting myself at every step – the sign a well-designed mystery, I feel.
Bottle Rockets is a short gut-punch of a game set in outer space. I don't want to spoil any more than that, so I'll stick to the mechanics: i.e. the nifty rotating screen that makes the game's otherwise simple platforming a troublesome affair. This is joined by cleverly shifting gravity values and – oh hell, just play it already. And when you're done, the next couple of games might act as a nice pick-me-up.
Space Dad has a sweet and silly premise. Two girls are sitting on a doorstep discussing their dads' professions – the resulting game takes place either in the imagination of one of them, or as a funny aside showing the fantastic reality of Dad A's seemingly boring job. The actual 'gameplay' bit is slight – you drop plushies on things' heads as you fly by in your space truck – but the wonderful pixel art and sweetly sad dialogue are why you'll see it through. The same team recently gave us the similarly lovely how do you Do it, which is well worth a play too.
Sometimes all you need is a good endless runner, and Try Harder fits that bill nicely, even if it runs about as fast as treacle on my machine. Power-ups are the big gimmick here, and to double-jump or float or temporarily turn invincible you'll need to snaffle the relevant pickups first. Even in a sea of endless runners, Try Harder sticks out – it's polished, it's fast, and it approaches the genre in a slightly new way.