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Our Interview with Catalin Marcu from GrimTalin

SGR: Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, what do you do at GrimTalin?

CM: I’m a solo indie developer, so I kind of am GrimTalin. I do almost everything I can, design, code, art, sounds, marketing, sales, and so on. When I need something that is outside my skills range, especially on the art and audio side, I usually license assets. In the future I’ll likely work with some freelancers on specific things, like music and cover art.

Getting back to more about me, I’m 35 years old, husband, father of two little boys. I’ve been in this industry for about 13 years and I started my indie adventure two and a half years ago.

SGR: Where did you come up with the name GrimTalin?

CM: It’s actually my gamer name. When I was thinking how to name my company, which I knew it was going to be only me for a long while, I figured might as well use my alias, since the company would be me and I’d be the company. Talin is short for Catalin, my name. And GrimTalin because I tend to be a bit dark, sometimes grumpy. At least I was when I was younger. Now I’m a bit more relaxed until I’m not and I start stressing out about everything.

I’ve always thought of my “business” as something small, where I make games from my heart. I don’t have dreams of growing it into a big team. I’ll collaborate, but I want the games I make to come mainly from my heart, my experiences. I guess I’m a bit self absorbed. But I like personal things and sometimes in bigger teams that personal stuff tends to be lost.

For example Elena Temple would never have come to life in a team, because nobody would think it’s a good idea. :))

SGR: Working in the Gaming Industry for 13 years how many titles have you worked on? And what did you do for the other games? (art, coding, game, or level design)

CM: I honestly lost count. I’ve worked for 10 years in a mobile games company and we made a lot of games. Definitely in the tens. I started out as a programmer, then I added game designer, then producer (project manager).

Our biggest commercial success was Frozen Free Fall, made in collaboration with Disney. I was the producer, lead game designer, and one of the coders for that game.

After the company shut down, I took a few months break, then started working on Elena Temple.

A bit of extra insight regarding my tendency to work mostly alone. We were working on a indie-like game before the company shut down. I was helming it, it was very personal, a narrative driven first person game about love and loss. And then it ended up lost, so I decided that for as long as I could, I’d make games where I would be in control of everything, where I wouldn’t put my heart into something only to see it go away for various reasons.

SGR: I can see why you chose to be a team of 1 and will contact others if/when needed.

CM: Yeah, I guess it’s mainly like a scar rather than arrogance. 🙂

SGR: What was the Inspiration for the game? and the name?

CM: I always remember fondly the old games I played as a child. I remember how fascinated I was with some of the early ones I tried, even if their visuals were very simple. So I wanted to try to recreate that feeling, where the fun you had with a game was primarily from its gameplay, not the visuals, not the story. You played because it was fun. And I wanted to recreate that vibe that those early games had. Plus I had to make something with my limited skills in making pixel art, so there’s also that. I guess I always wanted to be a part of that early generation of game makers, but was born too late and on the wrong side of the world, so this was as close as I could get to that. It’s just my love letter to those early days of gaming. She’s named Elena because that’s my wife’s name. I also wanted something that sounded kind of like Lara Croft, so I decided on Elena Temple.

SGR: You did a really good job recreating the feeling. I know I spent about 20 minutes each time I played it going back and forth changing the look.

CM: Thank you!

SGR: What influenced your choice of Music / Art style for the game?

CM: Since I wanted that old school feel for the game, pixel art and 8-bit music was mandatory. The reason why I went with black and white pixel art is that I always had so much respect for the visuals in games like Prince of Persia and Dark Castle on the Macintosh and GameBoy games in general. Some of those games looked so awesome. Now I don’t have the skills to make something as beautiful, but I tried to recreate that feel.

SGR: What are your Favorite moments from the game? (As the Creator and as a Player)

CM: The “boss” room in the original dungeon, Chalice of the Gods. The snake puzzle in a lower room, where you need to figure out that you have to shoot the snake, but first you must open a gap through which to shoot it. Finding a secret room, with that specific music. 

In the second dungeon, The Golden Spider, using that platform with two buttons on it to navigate through arrows shooting from the ceiling. And the rearranging of the room past the coins guardian. 

And in the third dungeon, The Orb of Life, coming back to this chest that you can see early on but can’t access it. Also getting chased by ghosts.

I guess those count on both sides, Creator and Player. If I had to choose one as the creator, it’d be the boss room. It’s really hard, but I had fun making it and balancing it. It really tests all the skills you acquired up until then.

Also as the creator I loved adding more vegetation to the third dungeon, making the rooms more dense and better looking – at least in my eyes, not sure if anyone else would describe them so. :))

SGR: Are there any Easter eggs in the game? Are there any Easter Eggs that have not been discovered yet?

CM: Yes, there are 5 Easter eggs in the Definitive Edition, one of which is a secret game modifier. A too powerful one actually, but I wanted everyone to be able to experience the game how they see fit. And if you find the game too difficult, you can just search for help online and you’ll surely see guides on how to get the modifiers easily and then you can adjust the game to your liking. You can make it silly easy or crazy hard. For example you can have Limited Lives with no Campfires, so no respawning at a checkpoint if you lose all lives – that means that when you lose all lives you lose all progress and start from scratch. I don’t know if anyone will play like that, but it’s there. There’s also kind of a souls-like approach if you want, with Campfires on but no Limited Lives. That means that when you get hit you respawn at the last campfire you visited and lose all progress since your last visit. It makes for much more of a challenge, if you want it. All the Easter eggs have been found, the secret modifier and the four hidden messages.

SGR: Are there any parts that got cut that you wish could’ve been kept and if so what got cut and why was it cut? (length of game time etc?)

CM: I didn’t cut too much, I think the biggest feature I scraped was a thoughts system, where Elena would comment on some of the things happening in the game. Like if you died a lot, she’d say something supposedly funny. But I cut that because I wanted the game to be as close to pure gameplay as possible. So if it didn’t support the gameplay or the nostalgia of the eighties, it didn’t make it in the game. I think it was a good decision, both for the result and for my time budget. Maybe I’ll revisit this feature in a future game, but for The Adventures of Elena Temple I’m very satisfied with the result and wouldn’t want anything else added to this game.

SGR: What inspired the achievements/trophies/steamies (Cold Heart, I got 99… and Useless Junk)? What is your favorite and why?

CM: I try to make little jokes or word play when I name some of the achievements. I can’t help it. They’re either references to movies, music, literature, memes, internet jokes and so on. Some are bad or too obscure, some are probably funny, but it’s a part of who I am. So expect achievements for my future games to be named in the same manner. My favorites are “Chest master” and “Don’t rest in peace”.

SGR: I noticed that the gaming community found an exploit (letting you jump over the wall) and let you know about it and that you reached out the same community to see if you could remove it or keep it in the game. Why did you choose to reach out to the community and let them make the choice? 

CM: I think it’s best to have a dialogue with your community. I ran a poll on twitter, so it wasn’t targeted just at the achievements hunters, but they were the main voice answering and asking to keep it in. And I didn’t see the harm in it. If it made some people happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why not? It ultimately comes down to your choice as a player. Do you want to experience the game as intended or do you want to find your own fun? I’m ok either way, as long as you’re enjoying yourself.

So it wasn’t that they made the choice, it was still my choice, it was just that the way they felt about it really helped me understand where they were coming from. It did get some people upset, but the huge majority were very grateful for letting it stay in.

SGR: As a part of the gaming community I really appreciate that you gave us the option and let us use it if we wanted to.

What do you hope gamers come away with after playing your game?

CM: I hope they have this moment like “Man, games were so simple back then, but still so fun!” To remember the time when they weren’t playing for visuals and story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But a lot of times today games use shiny visuals and a decent story to hide some very bland and repetitive gameplay. And I wanted to take those away and to make a game where the gameplay would have to stand on its own, where the level design is there to enforce new gameplay ideas or combinations. I don’t know how well I did that, but that’s what I tried. And many indies are trying that, I’m not saying I did anything unique, this was just my take on it.

SGR: I know I had a few of those moments while playing Elena Temple

Any plans for more DLC for The Adventures of Elena Temple?

CM: The Adventures of Elena Temple: Definitive Edition is aptly named, so it’s final, no more updates for it, aside from the possible bug patches, if something bad comes up. I’ve moved on to work on my new game, Long Ago: A Puzzle Tale, plus I have two more games that I’m publishing, Buddinpals and Last Days of Lazarus. After all these are done, I’ll see if I’ll come back to Elena Temple for a sequel or a spin-off, or do something else. Time will tell.

SGR: Can you tell us a little about Long Ago: A Puzzle Tale? or Buddinpals and Last Days of Lazarus?

CM: Long Ago: A Puzzle Tale is a puzzle game with 3D graphics in isometric view and with a fairytale like story told in rhyme. You can check out a few details here:

SGR: Long Ago looks pretty interesting and colorful

CM: Buddinpals is a Steam game that I’m helping to bring on Nintendo Switch, it’s a pet game with a twist. It felt so unique and quirky when I first played it. And the developer @dungeonation is adding more content to the game, so the Switch version will be packed with all the new stuff.

As for Last Days of Lazarus, it’s a horror adventure game set in post soviet era, heavily inspired by Eastern European communism. It intertwines politics, religion, mental health and supernatural elements. It’s quite an awesome experience from what I’ve played so far – the perk of publishing a game is that you get to play early builds. And I’m also helping out with story, texts and a bit of game design, so it’s a bit more than just porting and publishing the game. The developer, @darkaniaworks is also from my city, so we meet up quite often to discuss the game.

Going back a bit to Long Ago, while it definitely uses more modern techniques and visuals, I think it’ll still feel a bit classic in game design. I’m going for sort of a AAA puzzle game that could’ve been made in the nineties when puzzle games could still have AAA releases.

SGR: Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for others that want to get into game design or development?

CM: If you want to get into game design, you need to get away from thinking that all you need are game ideas. You need to know how to make stuff. You can use paper prototypes, design board games, if you don’t have any technical skills. But there are so many tools today to start actually making game prototypes.

If you want to get into gamedev, but don’t know what area you should work on, the best way to find out is to make something yourself, a whole tiny game. Try to make everything, or at least to find everything by yourself, all the sounds, the visuals, the story and so on. Then you’ll know what you’re most attracted to. And then just keep on making more and more of that thing you feel is right for you. Draw more art or code more prototypes and so on. Build a portfolio, keep the best few things in there and keep showing it to people.

If you want to go indie, and this applies even more to professionals than to newcomers, be sure you have enough funds to support yourself in case of a few failures. It’s tough out there, so if you want to do this for the long run, it’s best to be covered. Spending time on a regular job to gather those funds is a sacrifice worth making, especially if it’s a job where you get to hone your game making skills.

But the most important advice is that there isn’t a right way to make games. You have to find your way. What works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for you, so just keep trying until you find your way. This industry changes so much so fast that the ability to adapt is likely the best skill you can develop. Not sure if any of this made any sense!

SGR: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for sharing from your insights and experience and for joining us today for the interview.

You can read our review of The Adventures of Elena Temple: Definitive Edition Here

Music Racer Review

Music Racer From AbstractArt and Sometimes You

A futuristic driving rhythm game and light show.

You select your vehicle, the music track, the game mode, and the level. Your objective is to collect the notes by driving over them while avoiding red obstacles. At the end of the level you’ll see how many notes you hit, your combo, your score, and how many stars you earned out of 3. 

The controls are simple. You only use the d-pad or the left thumb stick to move left or right on the road while driving. There is no acceleration or braking. You could play this game one handed if you wanted to. 

It has retrowave style graphics with a lot of neon. The levels are extremely colorful and the game has a photosensitivity warning before you start the game. This warning is well deserved. If you have any issues with bright or flashing lights you should stay away. While our reviewer doesn’t have any issues with photosensitivity they did find that they could only play for a maximum of an hour at a time due to the eye strain from the light.

The audio is good and the soundtrack is enjoyable. The game has a large track list with 23 songs you can pick from. 

There are 14 different levels you can choose from and you can choose any song to play on the level. You can also choose from any of 25 different vehicles; one of which is a giant bird.

Most of the cars will look familiar. They feature the Delorean from Back to the Future, KITT from Knight Rider, the TRON bike as well as a bunch of other well known vehicles. You can customize the color of the car and rims which adds to the enjoyment of the game.

The game has 4 different modes to fit your mood. 

  • Standard: You drive over the notes and try to avoid the red obstacles. Hitting obstacles breaks your combo, reduces notes collected, and slows you down.
  • Hard: Same premise as Standard but with a greater penalty for hitting an obstacle. Instead of just breaking your combo it ends your run.
  • Zen: A more relaxed game mode without any obstacles to worry about. You can freely “zen-out” collecting notes and enjoying the music.
  • Cinematic: Puts you in the passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat allowing you to move the camera around and enjoy the scenery. There are no notes to collect. Just a relaxed audiovisual experience. It reminded us a little of the experience of watching the visualizations on media player or winamp in full screen.

We did wish that there was an option to create a playlist for the Cinematic mode as it would be a great addition to have playing in the background of a party. It would also be nice to be able to upload your own music and extend your playtime.

Sadly there is no leader board or any sort of internal tracking that shows what songs you have or haven’t played or what your current high score/star count is. Score is only used as ingame currency to unlock some of the cars and levels. Fortunately, you can replay the same levels and songs over and over and continue earning more currency.

A very bright audiovisual experience. Good music selections to choose from. You might need sunglasses.

Music Racer is available on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch. A digital copy of this game was provided to SimpleGameReviews for the purposes of reviewing the game.

Williams Pinball: Volume 5 Review

Williams Pinball: Volume 5 From Zen Studios

A DLC pack of 3 Pinball Tables for PinBall FX3

This is a classic pinball game that harkens back to long hours spent at the arcade. All of the tables let you toggle between a snazzy animated landscape and the original version of the tables at any time. Seeing the tables in the original version really adds to the nostalgia and captures the feel of playing the tables in person. The animated versions are fun and provide more interaction than their more static counterparts.

Each table has a great animated LED Score screen. They also each have a skippable intro that gives you history on the table.

No Good Gofers

A golf themed table that reminds me a little of the Caddyshack film as you are harassed by a pair of gophers. The table is really colorful and has a cartoonish look and the animated golfer freaking out breaking his clubs and tossing them around was nicely done and fit the table.

Out of the 3 tables in the pack this table seems to be the simplest and is the only table to have a 3rd flipper. That’s right, a 3rd flipper. It’s on the right side in the upper part of the table and is tied to the traditional right flipper. It’s nice having the assistance getting a little more oomph out of your shots but requires some quick reflexes to take the best advantage of it.

Cirqus Voltaire

This table has a Circus theme. You have the option to change the color of the neon lights and the ball before you start the table. The table is very colorful and has more lights on it than the other tables in this pack. 

One of our favorite things about this table is the Greenfaced Ringmaster. In the animated version he taunts you and dances around on the side talking smack everytime you make a mistake. In both the animated and physical version of the table his head pops out at the back of the table and opens a target for you to shoot with your ball. After all that taunting it’s rather satisfying to knock him in the noggin a time or two when you get the chance.

Tales of the Arabian Nights

This table takes us through several of the Tales of the Arabian Nights. There is a huge Genie, a flying carpet, and fireballs in the animated version. The original version has a physical genie and both versions of the table have a magic lamp that spins around on the table when you hit it with the ball. The lamp is an interesting twist that introduces some extra challenge to the table. Depending on the position of the lamp, different pathways are either open or blocked. This introduced a much higher level of challenge for scoring but also a really fun mechanic. 

With the addition of the extra obstacles on this table it requires a lot of skilled shots to make it through the challenges or to successfully complete any of the stories from the Tales. 

Whether you’re a pinball wizard or not, this expansion offers something fun and can help you while away many hours.

Williams Pinball: Volume 5 is available on Android, Mac OSX, PS4, Switch, Windows, Xbox One and iOS. A digital copy of this game was provided to SimpleGameReviews for the purposes of reviewing the game.

Don’t Die, Minerva!

This review is based on a Preview copy of the game that was provided to us for the purpose of reviewing the game. The final version may have differences from what we experienced.

Don’t Die, Minerva! From Xaviant

A Rogue-lite, twin stick shooter, with RPG elements.

You play as a little girl named Minerva along with her stuffed animal companion, who finds a group of haunted houses. You have to make your way through 3 different buildings, clearing the rooms by defeating evil ghosts, collecting gold, and stopping the Master who is the boss character on the top floor of each of the buildings. 

The game has a Luigi’s Mansion feel with the way you go into the rooms to clear out the enemies by using light. The primary difference is that here you aren’t vacuuming up the enemies. 

The gameplay is pretty simple and becomes a little repetitive as there is no story element included at the time of this writing. Once you complete the game you are able to replay it on a harder difficulty while keeping all of the upgrades you unlocked during your first playthrough (New Game+). 

They made an unusual choice with the soundtrack. There is only music while the enemies are on screen after that it fades away and you are left with nothing but the sound effects of your character walking around. The musical selections seemed incongruous. Sometimes it was what one would expect it to be, a little eerie and combat appropriate, while other times it was upbeat and just felt weird. 

One of the most fun mechanics is the stuffed animal companions. They were a lot of fun to use, had good variety in their area attacks, and were my weapon of choice simply because of how much I enjoyed using them. They do have a cooldown period but it’s fairly quick to recharge, especially with the right upgrades.

They’ve also combined stamina and mana together into one gauge so dodging/rolling and attacking with your stuffed animal of choice or flashlight will all deplete your blue energy bar. Fortunately your energy regenerates automatically. Your health, however, does not. But they do give enough health pickups as well as energy boosters throughout the levels to help keep you moving in the right direction.

You get loot drops from defeating enemies and looting chests or breakable items. You also have the option to purchase items from the store; more on that a little later. You can use these items to swap out your flashlight, equipment, and stuffed animal companion for more powerful versions. Each item has base abilities/powers and the option to add a stone to add an elemental damage attribute. They also have a rarity mechanic that keeps things interesting and almost scratches that “loot collecting” itch of always trying to find better and more powerful loot. If you do an excessive (some might say obsessive) degree of looting and upgrading you might feel a little overpowered at some stages but it’s absolutely required in order to be successful against some of the more powerful enemies you encounter in later levels.

Each of the buildings has its own groups of enemies that you will kill over and over again. Every once in a while a new type or variant of the same enemy is added. Some of them can only be attacked a certain way as they are able to block damage. This adds a bit of variety and challenge to the combat and helps save it from what would otherwise feel rather stale and monotonous.

There also appears to be a limit on the amount of enemies that will spawn in the room at one time depending on the size of the room. This will be helpful during the harder difficulties or for younger players. 

The whole map is procedurally generated. Each floor of the building is considered its own level. Each level has multiple rooms, a fountain, and an elevator that takes you directly to the next floor. You have one opportunity per level to return to the courtyard and buy items or upgrades. To do this, you’ll toss a coin into the fountain and open a portal. You return via the same portal and from there your only option is finishing the level by finding the key and reaching the elevator. The procedural generation adds some variety to the game. Each room has a unique look and feel. This also adds some degree of replayability to the game since it won’t be exactly the same every playthrough. Because of the limitations on returning to the courtyard to purchase upgraded items or skills, it’s important to loot the levels so you don’t end up underpowered. 

The courtyard is where you can interact with the friendly ghosts associated with each tower you’ve unlocked. The ghosts have unique skills you can unlock by purchasing them from the ghosts using the “essence” you’ve collected. There is also a shop area in the courtyard where you can spend your coins on new equipment and stones. There is a good balance between the cost of items and the amount of coin you’re likely to have after completing the levels. 

We have run into a few issues with the controls not responding for a few seconds here or there, clipping into fountains and getting stuck, and some audio issues. We know the game is currently in Game Preview and is not completed at this time so hopefully some of those issues will be resolved in the final version.

A simple and fun twin stick shooter. Sometimes feels like the game isn’t sure what genre it wants to be.

Don’t Die, Minerva! will be available on Xbox One and Windows. A digital copy of this game was provided to SimpleGameReviews for the purposes of reviewing the game.