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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Finding a happy mushroom in the Good Time Garden.

The Good Time Garden is a surreal environment exploration game by James Carbutt and Will Todd. That says everything yet nothing at all. I have no clue how to describe this game, even though that’s kind of what I do here. The Good Time Garden is one of those surreal things that you have to let happen to you. But, let’s still take a stab at it:

You play as a naked flower guy—dick and all—that’s bloomed out of a plant in the ground. Unashamedly bare-assed, you walk around and explore this world. You’ve got your hands to slap and pick up things, and using your nose as a fountain to water things.

Feeding the blob in the Good Time Garden.

The point of the game is to bring food to this sort of big throbby mouth creature—that’s probably your mom or something of the sort. (The creature sports the same kind of head and hair as you, but has a distinct lack of legs.) You walk about the world and find new bits to interact with until you can pick up and carry some food back for it. Rinse and repeat.

There’s a tiny bit of Rube Goldberg style interactivity to this game (which heightens the surrealism). For instance, watering a flower can convince a giant frog to unroll its tongue, allowing you to cross a river.

A modest bird and a fully grown apple tree in the Good Time Garden

The allure of The Good Time Garden is its fantastic art direction. It features hand-drawn scenes and characters that could be described as “Adventure Time but pink.” (But, it’s perhaps a bit more NSFW, considering the cartoonish dicks and butts). It’s also got a tremendous ambient soundscape that perfectly fits the wet, naked, grassy world.

The Good Time Garden is a cute, pink, surreal experience, that’ll take about 20 minutes of your time. It’s available for Windows, Linux, and macOS on itch.io. Happy feeding.

The title screen of Afterparty, depicting Hell with a close up shot of of a bottle of alcohol.

Afterparty is a Hell-based narrative adventure by Night School Studio, known for the acclaimed mystery adventure game, Oxenfree. You play as Lola and Milo, two recently deceased friends who find themselves in Hell—mistakenly, or so they think. Soon after arrival, they learn of a loophole: outdrink Satan, and he’ll let you return to Earth.

Celebrating Charlies bachelor party in Afterparty.

The Abyss

If you distill it down, the point of this game is bar-hopping: drift from bar to bar, order new drinks, and chat with different people as you take on the various puzzles and situations in the game.

This variant of Hell isn’t all that bad of a place. It’s a darker and slightly more tortuous facsimile of Earth. It eschews what could have been a grim horror setting, and instead brings a casual levity to Hell. Satan really could be your friend—and not in a “satanist” way; “hail satan” is used sarcastically in this game.

That said, you’re here after hours where everyone—humans and demons—are off the clock. The allusions to Hell while on the clock sound much, much worse.

One of the vignettes with Wormhorn, your demon.

Your Own, Personal Demon

There’s a wide variety of characters that you encounter in your romp through Hell. You’re assigned a personal demon, Wormhorn, who is responsible for a lot of non sequitur interruptions in your story—she drops in at inopportune moments to offend you. There’s also a demon nicknamed Fela—short for, uh, Fellatio—that requisitions you to help investigate some odd happenings at one of the bars.

One of the highlights is Sam, voiced by the inimitable Ashly Burch, who is your taxi driver throughout the lava rivers of Hell, ping-ponging you from place to place. She’s your friend, and also there for a lot of the exposition, giving you tips and background information for each new situation you’re soon to land yourself in.

Naturally, Satan is the center of the party. Hell is his domain, after all, and you find yourself at his home several times throughout the game. It turns out the big guy isn’t having that good of a time—he’s a bit of nice guy, but can’t keep his right friends and family around him. So maybe you’re not showing up at the best of times, but you’re not going to back down from the opportunity to make your way back to Earth.

The drink menu at the Schoolyard Strangler, a bar in Afterparty

The Schoolyard Strangler

The drinks—Hellcohol, harder stuff than on Earth—are pretty smart, and add a delightful punch of flavor to the game. Each different drink mixes up the game by unlocking new dialogue options tailored to the drink you’ve had.

You take a sip of your drink to unlock the new dialogue associated with your drink. If you don’t take a sip, you limited to default options, or you can say nothing at all. Not every choice is wise, though; mentioning romance to Asmodeus—a club-hitting monarch going through a rough breakup—might earn you some ire.

Even though there are some generic drinks like Bloody Stool give you a punch of confidence, some of the drinks shake up the dialogue. The drink The Grand Exhibitionist makes you talk like a vaudeville villain. Bluebeard’s Last Wife makes ye talk like a pirate—shiver me timbers! Oh, yeah, there’s even a drink that’s advertised as acid. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Encountering Satan in Afterparty

After, Party

Afterparty falls in my sweet spot of narrative games where you feel like you’re in control of the story. Night School committed to an actual branching narrative here; your choices take you down substantially different paths where you meet different characters and have different dialogue, even though you’re still going to wind up a drinking game with Satan at the end. There’s enough content for multiple playthroughs here.

Also, for such a long game, the writing sure holds up. You don't get bored of the comedy. Milo and Lola are realistic, flawed characters that you can certainly relate to in some way or another. It’s a testament to the writing that the dialogue stays consistently funny and doesn’t get dreary or fall apart during the game.

Afterparty is your perfect Halloween weekend game, and it’s available on PS4, Xbox One, and the Epic Games store for Mac and PC.

The Title Screen of Card of Darkness by Zach Gage

Card of Darkness is a card game by Zach Gage, Pendleton Ward (of Adventure Time fame), and Choice Provisions. Card of Darkness is like a game of solitaire mixed with distilled roguelike elements and a vibrant atmosphere. But don’t let this game’s sweet colorful aesthetic deceive you; this game is trying to wind you up. You’ll be seeing cards for days—they’ll even haunt your dreams.

Pick up a card

The game is relatively simple. Each game starts with a few cards face up. A card can be anything: a wide variety of monsters that will attack you, a chest that gives you gold, potions to heal yourself, various weapons to attack—you name it.

Here’s the catch, when you’re attacking with most weapons, you need to match your weapon’s even/odd parity with the monster card. So, if you have a sword with a value of four and the enemy has six, you’ll take two damage and keep your sword. But if you have that same four value sword against an enemy with five, you’ll be hit with one damage, and your sword will break. So this game isn’t always about picking up the heftiest sword—you might lose it with the very next card you have to pick up.

You progress through levels by picking up enough cards to reach the stairs or volcano at the top of the screen. If you pick up a card from a pile, you can’t leave that pile unfinished before advancing. You also need to keep careful watch of your health and try to forecast what will happen with the marked cards that you need to pick up before proceeding to another level.

A flavorful adventure

Considering that Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time, is behind the art of Card of Darkness, it’s exactly what you can expect—colorful and silly, yet with a marked sense of adventure. Each region you visit presents a different flavor of game design and art, like new monsters and weapons with varying mechanics with increasing complexity.

For example, Fearfoxes lose three value every time you pick up a monster, so you try to pick up others first. A Potion of Patience is a regular portion, but its value goes up by one each turn. Later, there are beefy fire swords, Burning Steel, which damage you by one each turn while equipped. Further still, you encounter Horrors; they’re monsters that do enough damage to leave you with one health. They’re pretty, well, horrible, until you realize that killing one horror can kill all the horrors on screen.

Strategy and well-balanced randomness

Card of Darkness is an RNG heavy game, and the randomness of the game is not your friend. That said, the randomness does bring balance and depth to this game. It softens the difficulty when you’re just starting, and also deemphasizes the need to min/max the game for advanced players. And in that sense, the game feels well-tuned. It usually feels like you can figure your way out of a tense scenario, but if you do fail, a restart of the level might be the run where you squeak through. I love how this feels—it gives you a euphoric feeling of “oh god, I just barely made it through with one health.”

The fun of this game is the problem solving to get ahead of the randomness. How do you tailor your Cards of Darkness for each level? It’s chasing the thrill of steamrolling a level because you found a buildout of Cards that’s a bit busted. (If you’re not changing your Cards of Darkness on most levels, you may be getting stuck for longer than you need—especially boss levels.)

Sure, the game is hard, but it’s not unfair. You might get the occasional level with brutal RNG where you give up immediately, but the game wants you to finish it. There’s no penalty for failure—if you have poor luck, it’s as fleeting as bad a hand of poker. And You’re coming out ahead every time—you’re bound to pick up some coins from each level, enable you to get more tokens or slots for Cards of Darkness that give you an extra advantage when you may be quite stuck.

Fall in the deep deep end

Card of Darkness is probably the best idle game on Apple Arcade so far. Like many other Zach Gage games, it’s a great game to pick up in idle moments, like waiting in line at a grocery store or trying to multitask while listening to a podcast.

I’ve played for several hours so far, and while I’d like to say I’ve finished the game, it looks like I still have a bit more to go—I’m presently battling my way though The Baxlan Delves as I write this (which is level six of eight). Based on my experience, I can say it’s a game just for “hardcore gamers”; it’s relatively accessible for anyone to pick up—with persistence, you’ll make it to the end of the game.

Card of Darkness is available for iOS and tvOS with an Apple Arcade subscription.

Marketing artwork for Link's Awakening, dramatically composed to depict Link's drive and determination in this adorable new 3d world.

Okay, okay, I know. This isn’t an indie title at all. But bear with me, I’m trying something new.

The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening for Nintendo Switch is a remake of a classic 90’s era Gameboy title. The remake clings onto the classic gameplay of the original but adopts a retro-modern 2.5D tilt-shift aesthetic.

There’s really a lot to say about how good this game is. There have been ample positive reviews, in both the 90s and 2019. But, that’s to be expected—Nintendo wouldn’t have remade this game for the Switch in 2019 if it wasn’t a good game to start with.

A screenshot showing Link attacking an enemy with a sword in the overworld.

Mechanical Language and Accessibility

Link’s Awakening is an exciting modern case study for how game design has changed over time, particularly in terms of game mechanics and accessibility. Yeah, I know I overuse the word “mechanics” on this site—and some jokes have been made at my expense for it—but this post is a deep dive on mechanics.

Even with the ground-up redesign and new style, the actual gameplay of Link’s Awakening is relentlessly classic. In the 26 years since this game was first released, game design has vastly evolved. For example, there’s more understanding around the quality of life and player experience, and how exactly that applies to games these days. Every designer knows fetch quests are busywork, and tasks that require blind trial and error are recipes for player frustration—but, that knowledge only comes with time.

Link attacking a dungeon miniboss with a sword.

Minimal player hinting

For what it’s worth, Link’s Awakening has an immaculate, linear story, and it’s hard to get lost in the narrative. The plot is primarily driven by the owl character. And if you do get lost, you have the telephone booths where you can speak with Old Man Ulrira.

But the primary challenge is the how—the game isn’t shy about telling you your goal at all, but occasionally extremely teasy about showing you how to get there. In one Old Man Ulrira call I got hung up on (about the Yarna Desert), he gives you a tip and ends the call, saying “Hmmm... How much more obvious do I have to be,”—but figuring out how to get to the desert was one of the hardest tasks in the game for me. The game teasingly expects you to try everything until you eventually figure it out.

In today’s games, there’s usually hints to give you a sense that you’re on the right track. Like brighter lighting when you’re on the right path, or scratches and wear pattern textures around frequently used doors. But, in Link’s Awakening, I found myself trekking across the map several times, fully knowing my ultimate destination but not the slightest clue of how to get there.

And, in that sort of way, the game has a relentless difficulty ramp. It’s far too easy at times, which leads to Polygon’s “perfect Zelda for younger fans” review, but also quite tricky when you’re spinning your wheels searching for more solutions.

Inscrutable Boss Difficulty

The dungeon bosses are also a quality example of how player accessibility has changed. While most bosses in the game are rather quite tame, a few have a Dark Souls’y level of difficulty, with just one way to elicit their weakness and deal damage to them.

I’m usually okay with battles give me a specific window of time to get in a hit, or that force me to switch to an appropriate weapon. It’s rewarding to figure things like that out. However, this game offers no hinting to indicate to you that you’re close to figuring them out.

The game doesn’t discriminate between failure here. If your strategy, weapon, or timing is wrong, you’ll get precisely the same block animation in every case. There are no alternate animations to give you an idea that you’re making any progress—even something like a subtly different deflection, or additional shield noise. There’s also nothing like “anticipation” animations in this game—sorts of subliminal hint that indicate certain times are good to get in an attack.

This made me write off too many strategies that were initially correct because I wasn’t getting the sort of reactive feedback I expected—something to hint that I was close but subtly wrong. This only made my returns to these initially correct strategies frustrating and unsatisfying—I knew I was right, but my execution was just slightly wrong.

Oh, and the difficulty curve varies wildly on you: sometimes the boss in the very next dungeon can be a total breeze, like something wide open that can be taken down with three or four arrows with and a complete disregard for precise timing.

Link avoiding a water spider boss

It’s too easy to spoil yourself

This game was built in an era of Nintendo Power magazine subscriptions, Prima strategy guides, and the Nintendo tips hotline sticker on the back of your GameBoy. Now that the internet has superseded these, the nature of information accessibility has changed.

Whenever I hit a brick wall as a kid, I’d usually scour a strategy guide to get an idea of what to do next. And it wasn’t cheating to use these—things like the Prima Strategy guides and Nintendo Power often offered critical worldbuilding and flavor while guiding you on your journey through the game.

Today’s answer, however, is searching the internet. In this world of hashtagcontent and profit engineering, a walkthrough is no longer flipping through a nicely editorialized worldbuilding book for subtle hints on what to do before giving you the right answer. Instead, anything you get is a dry, ordered list that cooly gives you your next immediate action. (This also puts you at risk of spoiling yourself to the next ten or so things you have to do if you scroll too far down the page).

Link happily fising, holding a fishing rod and a recently caught fish.

It’s still a good game

The collective knowledge of how to build games has evolved for the better. This means that more carefully considered gaming experiences do exist these days. (Even though there’s still repressed undercurrents of discussion about the accessibility of difficulty in games.)

A dive into Link’s Awakening shows that games designed these days are far better in handling their difficulty ramp, and giving players enough of a framework of what to do when they’re blocked. That means, we can have games like the Dark Souls series, which are far more difficult than a game like this, because we’ve learned how to teach players how to observe, struggle, and grow through things, like gameplay hinting.

That being said, I massively enjoyed playing this game, and I’m super glad this remake exists. It’s a good dive into nostalgic gaming, and it was interesting examining this game through a bit of a modern lens.

Ocarina of Time remake next, Nintendo?

There's more to be seen!