Entering a spooky cave in The Gems, an action adventure game.

The Gems is an Action-Adventure game made by sharpfives, for the Github Game Off. In a world being taken over by demons, a ghost has lost his magic gem-stone, which has broken into fragments—23 to be exact. Your job as the hero is to collect these gem fragments and return them to the ghost. Equipped with a bow and arrow, you travel about the world and recover gems from demons you encounter.

The silly ghost that loses his gem, in a cutscene when you first meet him.

The game puts you up in various action-filled scenarios, like rescuing campers—who are just trying to enjoy their time in the forest—from scores of demons, or shooting a one-eyed beast who tries to jump on you.

One of the best encounters on this adventure is your quest with the dude sitting on a log, who is obviously quite stoned. This dude asks you for five mushrooms—and upon delivery, he gives you a magical shell, which provides you with the ability to talk to animals. Far out, man.

You really can talk to animals in the gems, the mushrooms dude just gives you a shell.

The game reuses space quite well. After getting the zoolingualism shell, you can travel back to other areas and interact with animals and the world in ways you couldn’t before, like exploring new corners and caves or going on a race.

The Gems is a great, well-styled action adventure that you can sit down and enjoy in about a half-hour of your time. It’s available on itch.io for play on the web, Windows, Linux, and macOS.

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A screenshot of the fool riding a tarot card in the Apple Arcade title Sayonara WIld Hearts

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pop album video game developed by Simogo, known for their previous titles Year Walk and Device 6. Featuring a half synth-pop, half EDM soundtrack from Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, Sayonara Wild Hearts is like no rhythm game you’ve ever played. It’s probably fairer to say that this is a playable animated music video.

A screenshot of the first level of Sayonara Wild Hearts, Clair De Lune

Let’s Pop

The musical immersion of this game is outstanding. Each track is a different level of the game, revealing a bit more of the story of our heroine, a masked biker we know as The Fool. There’s driving and flying bits of the game, where you steer to pick up hearts and collect points. There are also quick time events—like striking at enemies with a sword. There’s also teases of shooting and bullet hell mechanics in some levels.

Tapping to and playing along with beat feels good—especially when it gets tricky, like tapping offbeat to emphasize bits of the melody. It’s the best version of tapping your foot to the beat, except you get a score for it.

The album itself is incredibly catchy and stands alone as an excellent album outside of the game. It’s got a dreamy, atmospheric vibe to it that calms you down despite the high-BPM of some tracks. It became the soundtrack I put on while preparing dinner last night, and I’m listening to it while writing this.

A screenshot of Sayonara Wild Hearts, showing the the Dancing Devils

Hearts & Swords

This game is astonishingly clever, and each level brings something new to the table. My jaw dropped more than once, completely inverting my expectations for what this game is.

Parallel Universes is a level where you play against the twin-like allies, Stereo Lovers. As the Stereo Lovers snap and clap along to the beat, you’re flipped between two parallel game universes, each one with bits to pick up and obstacles to avoid. The goal is to foresee what’s coming up in your path in both worlds and avoid it. I’ll be honest, I struggled a bit in one segment this track, but there’s no severe penalty for actual failure: the game never sets you back far, and will let you skip a small chunk if a segment is too hard. I stuck through it, and I am glad I did. (And, if you can’t swipe fast enough, turn up the sensitivity in settings.)

You’re chasing scores in each level, with different benchmarks for bronze, silver, and gold. You’re likely not going to get gold in many levels on your first playthrough, and that’s okay. I doubt anyone playing will feel that the music or visuals are repetitive. After you complete the game for the first time, there’s even an Album Arcade game mode that unlocks—you play the entire game/album front to back, and earn a score from that. (Probably a perfect game mode for a long flight.)

The Stereo Lovers swinging their swords in Sayonara Wild Hearts

The World We Knew

The aesthetic is something else too. It’s punchy and purple in the best way. It leans on bright and minimal thin lines for key artwork, which provides a sharp contrast from the quiet, dark blues and purples of the backgrounds. If you’ve read my previous posts, I might have mentioned “vibrancy” of color a time or two on this website, but holy hell, this game is in your face with its über-colorful aesthetic, and boy, it’s on point at all times.

The game uses tarot lore to tell parts of the story. The heroine is the fool, which is one of the cards in a tarot deck. At times, you’re riding along a level on a tarot card. The tarot base becomes the driving backbone of this dreamy spiritual and really glam vibe of the game.

Oh yeah, Queen Latifah is the narrator for the game too. (Who would have thought?) I didn’t realize it was her voice until I hit the credits the first time, but it’s excellent casting. Her voice brings such poise and confidence to the narration and is the right choice to deliver the narrative through-line of the story.

Riding a motorcycle in Sayonara Wild Hearts, in the level Begin Again.

Wild Hearts Never Die

Sayonara Wild Hearts is published by Annapurna Interactive, which seems to be winning my heart “best publisher” feelings, for the sheer number of indie titles that I love they’ve published in any capacity this year. (Telling Lies, Journey, and Donut County come to mind.)

Sayonara Wild Hearts is available for free with an Apple Arcade subscription. It’s also available for PS4 and Nintendo Switch for $12.99. Each stage only takes a few minutes so that you can play in discrete chunks, but a typical front-to-back playthrough will take just over an hour of your time.

This game is so chill, and I probably would have had this post up a few hours earlier if I didn’t get completely immersed playing it again while taking notes for this post. Let Sayonara Wild Hearts steal your time (and heart) too.

A screenshot of a replay of John Wick Hex, showing John Wick and an enemy pointing their guns at each other.

John Wick Hex is an action strategy game developed by Bithell Games. Billed as a prequel to the John Wick film series, it's a timeline-based action game that puts you deep inside the tactical mind of John Wick.

Who is the Baba Yaga?

So, John Wick is the "Baba Yaga," a title loosely inspired by a Slavic term for an old chaotic witch. But here, it more or less means that "even the Boogeyman would be scared of him." And boy, there sure are Boogeymen here. Hex, an antagonist, developed for the game, kidnaps Winston and Charon. Each new map area is a "scene" set up for you to face a powerful enemy from John Wick's past, before the first movie.

A top down view in the first level of John Wick Hex, showing off the vibrant game style.

This game is heavily stylized in a vibrant and flashy cyberpunk style. The UI is bright, and enemies die in sprays of neon pink blood.

True to the name, Hexes are everything in John Wick Hex. You move about the on a hexagonal grid. Because the levels are designed on a hex grid, but our everyday world on hexes, you don't exactly flow through spaces cleanly. When you first encounter John Wick ping-ponging and serpentining through a hallway, initially it's jarring but later becomes a bit endearing.

Even the final battle against Hex, a mob boss who prefers to stay out of sight, takes place in a Hex shaped room.

A screenshot of John Wick Hex, showing the timeline and game UI, with a the menu of potential actions open.

Watch the timeline

This game is essentially chess, but with guns and melee attacks instead of knights and rooks. You're always thinking about your decisions, and how it'll affect your timing for other incoming attacks from enemies. Mechanically, it's a bit of a cross-breed of the precise action dynamics of Superhot coupled with the tactical calculations of XCOM.

Playing as John Wick, you've got a limited set of actions—like "shoot" and "push"—that dictate how you interact with the world around you. You're free to move about, but every action—including movement—takes time. The timeline auto pauses when your queued action completes, or when there's a new interruption.

When you're scrapping it out against enemies, some actions are faster than others. A takedown is usually pretty useful, but it's a bit slow and needs melee proximity. A push against one enemy might get you out of the range of gunfire from a 2nd attacker. Parrying is an effective rapid response to a close enemy that's attacking, which generally enables you to edge in before their attack fires. You know the drill. On deck is the need to anticipate the moves of the people in the world—and sometimes it's better to wait.

A cutscene screenshot of Osborn, one of John Wick Hex's bosses in the Elysium level of the game.

It's a bit janky

Some parts of the game feel a bit off, though. In particular, the replay mode—which is available after you complete a level—stands out as having the most significant room for polish. Animations feel stilted and stuttery; there doesn't seem to be blended movements at play here. The dynamic camera also picks shots that are relatively uncinematic, occluding John or the enemy you're attacking from view, like behind an object or wall. It doesn't feel like a perfectly orchestrated cinematic action experience like the movies portray, but if you can look past that it's still an effective reflection of how you conquered a level.

Also at times, John Wick Hex has some tight difficulty pinch points which can make it a bit of a brutal game, much like XCOM, so you should get used to dying. I got extremely stuck in the Osborn level of Elysium and was frustrated because I felt like I was close but not quite to getting Osborne. I'd just get overwhelmed by a mire of enemies, even if I swept the place before entering Osborn's room. Part of me wants a lower difficulty I could flip on for that level, so I could advance forward and then flip it back to normal. It was worth it to stick with it, though—the level after Osborn introduced new enemies and weapons in the world that refreshed the tactical feel of the game after that tired boss fight.

A screenshot of John Wick Hex, showing John Wick in a spot of trouble against a boss.

Give it a shot

This game is a total departure from some of Bithell's past narrative-heavy games I've played, like Thomas Was Alone and Subsurface Circular. Even though it takes place in a story filled universe, the narrative takes the side seat to the tactics here.

If you're a John Wick series die-hard looking for the next dose of John Wick canon, there's no excuse to not pick up this game. The game is tightly associated with Lionsgate, featuring voice acting from the actual actors of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (Lance Reddick). If you're just looking for a good indie tactics game, but the cost ($19.99 at the time of publishing) is too much to chew, wait and give this game a shot when it's on sale.

John Wick Hex is available on the Epic Games store for Windows and macOS. The game's publisher provided a review copy of this game.