By Josh Speer / June 1st, 2020
A while back, I promised I would provide some impressions of a few of the games revealed at the USC Games Expo 2020. And though this has taken longer than I was anticipating, I am a man of my word. I had a few hiccups along the way, but eventually settled on the following 5 projects. None were featured in the keynote address, but they all have merit. There’s a variety of genres here, from mystery to platformer to action adventure to SHMUP and even mobile. To avoid bias, I’ll list the games alphabetically, and share what they do well and poorly.
Although The Death Mask is the first USC Games title listed, it’s paradoxically the last one I played. That’s cause originally I was aiming my sights at another narrative game, but had problems installing it. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I found a murder mystery rife with political intrigue! The Death Mask is touted as a mobile mystery game, but it also works well on Mac and PC. You use the mouse to progress, and drag a flower icon to select narrative choices. You can agree with people, dissent, search for gossip and much more. It’s a simple interface, but in a good way.
I was drawn by the aesthetic style of the game. It uses simple but bright colors, and the masks in the game’s main masquerade are all eye catching. While you read and make choices, relaxing ball music sets the mood. You play a guard searching for clues into the disappearance of a ceremonial blade, and do so by questioning those attending the event. As you play, you’ll gain access to different masks, which allow you to get answers out of unwilling guests. For example, early on I put on a Servant mask so that I could get helpful gossip from a worker. It’s a fun little project, and should appeal to many types of gamer. My only minor complaint is that I found some typos during my time with the game. Other than that, it’s a lot of fun and surprisingly well put together.
This next USC Games project also caught my interest due to the art style. It’s very attractive and full of cute details, and it’s called Riscue. This is a game focused on environmental change. You play a squirrel grabbing nuts before the tide crashes in. Basically you just jump your way through stages by pressing the Up key until the timer runs out, leaping over holes and grabbing tasty food. At the end of each well animated stage you climb a tree and count your nuts.
Though I’m totally fine with single button gameplay, and found Riscue fun enough, it does have some issues. First of all, no matter how many nuts I got in a stage, my score was always the same. This immediately killed my interest in playing more. With no story to speak of, and no score system as motivation, it’s hard to find a reason to keep playing. That said, the aesthetic presentation and overall theme of the game still kept me engaged. I think the game could be a great one, it just needs a tighter gameplay focus to match the visual presentation.
The next game was one of the most impressive that I spent time with. Scarlet could easily be from some decently sized studio on consoles, it’s that good. Considering it was made by a small team of USC Games students with limited resources, that’s even more impressive. The demo played very smoothly for the most part, and only had some minor slowdown, though that could be attributed to my computer. I played the titular Scarlet as she searched for someone named Emerald in a large facility. I wasn’t clear what my ultimate intent was, though it seemed I was there to end Emerald’s life. Despite that, she kept welcoming me over intercoms, and this discrepancy made me really interested in the plot of the game.
But it wasn’t all philosophical. As I wandered about what looked like a factory, I came across hideous insectoids that wanted me dead. I won’t lie, they reminded me a lot of the bugs from Starship Troopers, but they were still cool looking and fierce. I fought them back with slash attacks, both light and heavy, and a great dodge move. I was very happy Scarlet was made with controller support in mind, as my 360 controller worked marvelously. More and more clues were unearthed as I explored between fights, and the demo culminated with a boss battle against a gigantic spider beast. It tried to burn me with concentrated beams of light, as well as slashing at me with giant appendages. Even then, I was more than a match for it. Overall, this is a really good proof of concept, and I find myself genuinely curious to see where this game goes.
I’m gonna start with the fact I have never played a mobile game on my phone before. Ever. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sky: Children of the Light. And I’ll admit, I had a bit of inherent bias against mobile games, thinking most to be cheap cash ins or shovelware. Not so here. Sky has shockingly good production values, including truly vibrant music and lush if simplistic art. The entire game is told visually, through various animations and cutscenes. Despite that, you can read the emotion in each part of the game.
As for how Sky plays, you naturally fly around hunting for clue and artifacts in an expansive and magical world. You gradually increase your capacity to soar the winds as you wander. Though it took me some getting used to, the controls are also pretty intuitive in Sky. One finger controls your movement, swiping with another changes the camera angle, and pressing and holding various icons lets you do things like pick up candles and react with emojis. I admit I didn’t care much about the latter, but I was all for exploring this breathtaking world. If nothing else, Sky has totally changed my negative bias against mobile gaming. And considering this is a totally free game, I can easily recommend it to everyone.
Finally, I’ll close things out with Tri-Ger. I love the simplicity and challenge of SHMUPs, so I had to try one at USC Games Expo. It has pumping music and simple yet attractive artwork. Your goal is to match colors when destroying enemy waves to increase your score. That’s it, pretty simple. But that’s not the same as easy.
Honestly I had my ass handed to me by Tri-Ger. The enemy projectiles weave back and forth like snakes, and it’s easy to get hit unexpectedly. Oh and did I mention the enemy waves are procedurally generated? That said, it’s a cool premise reminiscent of games like Ikaruga, and the tunes were very catchy and enjoyable. Sure I might have appreciated features like secondary weapons or bombs, but the core experience here has a lot of potential.
All in all, I was quite impressed by the diversity of talent shown by the students at USC Games Expo 2020. I may have to reevaluate my expectations on the abilities of college students after this. Sure not every game was breathtaking, but they all had a lot of heart and skill evident in them. I encourage everyone reading this to check out the other games available at the Expo, and open your minds up to new gaming experiences.
2020 USC Games Expohands on impressionsMacmobileoprainfallPCstudent projects