Following Freeware: February 2017 releases

Following Freeware: February 2017 releases
Following Freeware: February 2017 releases

This month you can engage in a variety of side quests as a disgraced fantasy hero or a famous science fiction luminary. Or you could help two bands to succeed, one by simply getting them on stage for a concert and the other by arranging the demo recording they need to hit the big time. You might travel to Venus on a test flight, out into the deep reaches of space in search of resources, or to the mysterious forest of Dancing Trees. Alternatively, you can become a zombie detective searching for lost property, a young girl missing her brother, or a tanner in search of some rare materials. Perhaps you may just want to help an old man get back memories of a happier time. All these choices await you in this month’s jam-packed round-up of releases from the freeware scene.

Steve's Selections

Parco Azzurro

Young Pablo is excited to find that the band Nudi tra I Musicanti (N3M) will be playing at Parco Azzurro school tonight. But when he arrives, he finds that the band are inexplicably not taking to the stage as planned. When his assistance is sought by their tour manager, Pablo sets out to find the individual band members and persuade them to take their places for the concert. With gangs of wild fangirls, incorrectly adjusted equipment and bubbles of zen meditation to contend with, that might not be as easy a task as it sounds.

Whilst promoting their music is a central theme, N3M's Parco Azzurro proves an enjoyable comedy adventure as well. The developers admit up front that the television show South Park is a major influence, which can be seen immediately from the look. The backgrounds have the same bright 2D appearance of the cartoon, though with plenty of detail, and all the characters are squat with round heads and large eyes. The characters are animated in a similar way too, bobbing along with facial expressions largely carried by eye movement. Events all take place in and around the school, including a computer lab, a store room and the concert stage. The action is mainly backed by a mellow guitar and percussion piece. This changes for some areas, such as an Asian tune that plays in the school dojo, and there are a handful of sound effects as well, including Pablo’s footsteps. There is also a collectible CD of an N3M track that can be played on an in-game stereo, along with several live pieces available when you complete the game.

Control is handled through the mouse, using right-click to look and left-click to interact. Labels appear when you point at a hotspot, and the cursor also changes to indicate the available interaction. The game is gently comedic, with some direct references to South Park, though there is nothing that could be considered adult humour. Your main objective is to get all four band members on stage, a task you can handle in any order you wish. Each musician has a problem or two to solve before they will take their place in the concert hall. These range from setting up an unorthodox video link to creating a "convincing" fake band member. You will need to talk to everyone extensively to find out what they need and carefully scour the area for useful items. Inventory puzzles are plentiful, but there are a handful of standalone puzzles as well, such as a wiring task. If you are not sure what to do next, the band's tour manager will provide hints if you speak to her. Completing certain challenges also provides codes which can be entered on the game’s website to play N3M tracks.

Parco Azzurro can be downloaded from the developer's website.


The Adventures of Commander Shepard

The universe is in terrible danger. The Reapers, a race of synthetic beings, are poised to wipe out all organic life. Only if all the other races come together will it be possible to counter this threat. Commander Shepard, hero of the Alliance, knows exactly what he must do. Wasting no time, he leaps into action and heads out in search of side quests. Because, as every hero knows, if you want to save the universe, you need to build up experience by doing a whole bunch of favours for random strangers first.

In The Adventures of Commander Shepard, Kung Fu Circus Games has produced an effective spoof of the prevalence of side quests in role-playing games, particularly in the Mass Effect series. The graphics are done in a highly detailed and semi-realistic cartoon style. The lead character is a slightly exaggerated recreation of BioWare’s default male version of Shepard, and other various alien races from the series also appear. The entire adventure takes place on the Citadel, with recognisable locations including the lake side and embassy area. The characters are smoothly animated, both within the game and in the opening and closing cutscenes. The cinematics are also fully voiced to a high standard, though dialogue in-game is text only. For the most part, the action is backed by ambient crowd noise to reflect the bustling life of the Citadel. This is supplemented by sound effects such as the Commander's footsteps and the beep of equipment. The title screen features a specially written song extolling the virtues of the hero.

Mouse control uses right-click to look and left-click to move and interact. Dialogue trees have been laid out like the conversation wheels from the Mass Effect games, though for most options their position on the wheel does not count as a Paragon or Renegade choice. Where a dialogue will affect your status, a red or blue symbol appears next to the choice. You will need to talk to everyone at the station to find out what they need. Tasks range from reconciling lovers to finding fish in the lake for a Krogan. The latter matches a quest from the main series, though previous solutions won't prove effective this time around. To fulfill the quests, you will need to explore thoroughly, often revisiting conversations as you get more information. You must also make extensive use of your inventory, more than once mangling priceless collectibles to achieve a mundane task. If you get stuck, Avina, the Citadel VI guide, can provide hints. The whole experience is presented in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, with the action hero treating these mundane challenges as deadly serious. There are extensive spoilers for the Mass Effect games, so it is recommended that players complete the originals before trying this.

The Adventures of Commander Shepard can be downloaded from the developer's website. A valid e-mail address is required to get the download link.


Trader of Stories: Chapter 1

Many years ago, two young sprouts discovered a woman in the forest of the Dancing Trees. She had lain unconscious for days, and could remember nothing of her history, not even her name. Though the elders were divided on the matter, given what her kind had done to trees in the past, it was agreed that she would be taken in. Years later, given the name Little Willow, she lives in the branches of old Egunda and works in the nursery raising little seedlings. But a guest is coming to visit who will change Little Willow's life forever. Before she leaves the forest behind, however, she must learn the history of the Dancing Trees, a story she may already know more of than she realises.

Trader of Stories: Chapter 1 appears to be taking a step back in time for the Rudowski Brothers’  ongoing series of tales of a travelling storyteller. (Whilst not stated outright, it is heavily implied that Little Willow will become Myosotis, the lead character of the previous games.) The graphical presentation is a beautiful slideshow format with a detailed painterly style. The main events take place in the forest of Dancing Trees. The younger trees are almost humanoid in shape, though with leafy accoutrements, and walk around freely. The older plants have taken root, resulting in vast trees with huge faces in their bark. These graphics are unanimated, with movement shown by items and characters fading in and out of the scene. Full-body illustrations of the characters are shown during conversations, though these are also still pictures. A slow and haunting piano piece with soft choral humming provides a soothing background. This is supplemented by ambient noises like bird song and the buzzing of bees.

Only left-clicking is required, with a menu showing available interactions appearing when you click on a hotspot. These options include the chance to give or use an inventory item, though you will still need to select an appropriate object. There is an on-screen button that highlights all available hotspots, if you are having trouble spotting them in the detailed scenery. Dialogue plays a key role in proceedings, as there is a lot to learn about the inhabitants of the forest and your place amongst them. It is also important to pay attention to what characters say, as there are some challenges that test you on the knowledge you should be acquiring as you go along. Interspersed among this text-heavy gameplay are a handful of inventory puzzles. You will also engage in a game of hide-and-seek with the nursery children, and have to open a complex lock mechanism. The tone is one of straight fantasy drama, with this chapter providing some closure whilst opening the way to a longer story.

Trader of Stories: Chapter 1 can be played online at the developer's website.

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