Two of this week's free PC games deal with sensitive subject matters, and while one is more successful than the other, both are worth a look for being confident enough to stray into territory that games rarely touch. If you need a bit of light relief after these titles' heavy themes, though, there's a lovely hand-drawn platformer and a high-octane, 2D version of Prototype to get stuck into as well. Read on for this week's picks...
A Closed World
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A Closed World is a simple JRPG-style adventure about what life can be like if you are homosexual. That's quite a rare thing in games, and I could probably reel off an entire column's worth of words on that alone. In this heavily metaphorical game, you venture into the woods to battle demonic versions of those who've caused you trouble in real life: your family, your partner's family, and your partner him/herself. After each face-off a beautifully drawn cutscene plays out, advancing the story as it does.
I'm not sure how I feel about the way that the theme is dealt with, so I don't want to talk too much about that. I'll just say that I'm glad a game has chosen to tackle this subject matter, and that I hope others will go on to tackle it in a more interesting manner. I also hope another, similar game comes along which is A) slightly longer, and B) more invigorating to play. You can get to the end of A Closed World in just a few minutes, even though it feels more epic in scope than a short-form title, and none of the battles are remotely challenging. Perhaps that could work as a statement itself, although I'm not sure it's the statement the game is trying to make.
Wandering around the woods between fights yields very little of intrigue, which is a shame. But this is still worth playing. After all, it's a game about what it's like to be a gay person in a hetero-normative world, and I'm not sure there are any other videogames about that.
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In Thelemite you play as a computer programmer, which is why it's natural that you should end up a mutant superhero who can run at 50 miles per hour, cause explosions with his fists and climb up walls at will. It's all part of a medical test that went awry, you see - but it's fortunate that you turned out like this, as an entire band of mutants has been created too, and they're taking over New York.
It's a high-speed, side-scrolling beat-em-up that's basically Prototype in 2D. Impressively, quite aside from the ludicrous story, it manages to create that same sense of immense power without the need for an extra dimension. Well-timed power-up usage leads to even more carnage: it turns out that there are few things more entertaining than smashing through a whole bunch of enemies on one go, even if there's a bit of - uh - 'collateral damage'. Awesome music complements the game's astonishing pace, and later scenes see you battling enemies that are roughly the size of a million planets piled on top of each other. Huge, silly and supremely satisfying.
VFS Game Design
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This is an action-platformer that's not only rendered in a wonderful hand-drawn manner, but also demands you put your own drawing skills to use. Weapons, equipment and various other game-world items all have to be drawn into Sketch Quest at different intervals, and all can be customised with lots of lovely colours and shapes. I made my sword look like a Christmas tree and painted my hat red, green, blue, black and white.
The game itself is fairly simple, but it's the presentation that carries it. It looks delightful, for one thing, but it's all just so endlessly lovely. Your enemies include killer penguins, bees with frowny faces, and rugby players who charge towards you then stumble backwards, dazed and concussed. And apart from the chiming music, almost all the sounds are made by someone's mouth, and are just brilliant. I played this through with an enormous grin on my face, and I think you will too.
Keys of a Gamespace
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Ludologique, a team at the University of Metz, make 'expressive games'. They believe videogames can be used to tell stories that tap into our minds, and explore the minds of characters. Keys of a Gamespace is an example of what they can do with this idea: a profoundly moving point-and-click adventure game, filled with fresh ideas and creative storytelling methods.
You play as Sebastien, and your partner is not happy. She wants a child, but you're obsessed with your job as a videogame developer. One night she leaves to spend the night at her parents' house, encouraging you to use the time to clear your head. So you do. Each of the game's levels are memories from your past, and as you explore them one by one you begin to piece together the reasons why you're so afraid of taking the plunge into fatherhood.
It is at times an unsettling game, playing with some fairly hard-hitting subject matter in extremely effective ways. The game's tone flits from beautiful to disturbing, and asks you to make some big decisions along the way. I just wish the English translation had been a little less clunky, because at times it snapped me out of what was otherwise an incredibly engaging, gorgeously presented and confidently delivered game.