It's great when a game comes from somewhere just far enough outside your cultural sphere to be tinged with strangeness as well as familiarity. Alter Army is a 2D action-platformer that looks a lot like plenty of other indie games in the same vein (its creators cite Risk of Rain, Hollow Knight, and Nuclear Throne as inspirations), where you pick from one of four characters and then jump through levels bashing enemies. It's a game about deciding when to use your big charged-up attacks and when to enable the mode that lets you cause more damage and also regenerate, which is the only way to get back health.
But one of those four characters is a big lump of meatyboy named Hmm. Another has a guitar for a weapon, and the soundtrack blasts sick riffs whenever he's powered up. Place names are evocative in a way that suggests quirks of translation, like "The Last King's Broken Statue". Outside a temple, I bump into a huge guy peeing blood. It's strange.
Alter Army is the first creation of Vague Pixels, an indie studio that is actually just two teenageers from Jaipur in India named Mridul Pancholi and Mridul Bansal. They've been working on their game since 2016, when they were about 14 years old. Bansal tells me it wasn't easy for the two of them to make a game in their spare time while also attending high school. "We used to have a hectic schedule," he says, "like we used to come home from school at two in the afternoon and then we just used to start working on the game till somewhat like three the next morning and then we used to sleep for like three or four hours and then back to school again and sometimes sleep in school during the classes."
Their teachers weren't impressed, and their parents weren't super supportive either. "Our parents don't understand this kind of game development thing so they used to like tell us that this is all a waste and we should focus on our studies. Our teachers also used to mock us in the class that if we can't even do our homework properly how can we make a game?"
And yet, they have. Their game was released on Steam last week, though that doesn't mean they're finished yet. "We are still committed to Alter Army and will be making regular updates," says Bansal. "We are also planning to add Steam achievements as soon as possible."
As for why Alter Army features a guy peeing blood on the wall of a ruined temple, Bansal gives me a very straightforward answer: "That guy has hematuria so that's why."