Sometimes, you don’t want a surfeit of back story or lots of fancy game mechanics. You just want a game that is simple, absorbing, and enjoyable to play. “Glare,” a side-scrolling (that is, the player moves across a two-dimensional world, as in the Mario games) indie effort by Phobic Studios that was released a few weeks ago for Windows, Mac, and Linux, is one of those games: a bite-size chunk of sleek, straightforward fun that benefits from a lot of polish.
If I could highlight just one thing about “Glare,” it would be the game’s simple aesthetic, which minimizes clutter and explanation and maximizes crisp, beautiful visuals.
All of the game’s explicit storytelling occurs in a brief intro sequence informing you that “the Ramora” have come to threaten the galaxy’s peace. You are “the Shiner.” “Born of the stars, protector of light, the Shiner must halt the Ramora corruption before it consumes all light in the galaxy. . .”
And that’s that. There are (very) brief animated sequences throughout, but no more story. There’s also no on-screen text, no health-meter, and nothing else to distract you from the gameplay. Just you and the Shiner, leaping around, trying to save the galaxy.
On the one hand, this could be considered a minimalist approach to game design, with no bells and whistles. On the other hand, the game’s graphics are so sharp and lush that there is nothing minimalist about them. One doesn’t usually look to a side-scroller for great graphics — such games don’t feature the same amount of exploration as three-dimensional ones, so it’s harder to show off great visuals.
But Phobic did the graphics and level design in a three-dimensional way, and the results are beautiful. Even though you are restricted to two dimensions of movement, the game’s settings stretch out into the distance behind you: lush trees, icy peaks, and so on. In levels in which you use neon beams to traverse over obstacles, zipline style, the background features other beams shooting off in all directions.
As a result of all this attention to visual detail, it really does feel like the Shiner is traversing a massive, wondrous galaxy — not the usual sense one gets playing a side-scroller.
The gameplay is also quite smoothly done. The one novel aspect to the combat, which is otherwise shooting your gun at various Ramora baddies, is that the Shiner can shine a light at enemies or projectiles, forcing them back whence they came. This doesn’t usually kill them, but merely makes them retreat. So since you can’t fire your gun and shine your light at the same time, when enemies are racing at you from all sides, combat feels surprisingly tactical, a feverish set of attack/defend, advance/retreat decisions.
I was quite taken with the way Phobic sampled from some of the best elements of past side-scrollers. When I had to jump from flying alien to flying alien to get across a chasm, I thought of some sequences from the “Super Mario” series. When I had to “power slide” my way through piles of boulders, I thought of “Mega Man.” Some of the faster sequences were reminiscent of “Sonic the Hedgehog.” This was a game clearly made by longtime fans of side-scrollers, and Phobic borrowed from the best elements of many previous efforts and implemented them impressively, adding new twists along the way.
“Glare” isn’t perfect, of course. For one thing, you fight different versions of the same boss over and over at the ends of levels. And the weapons don’t feel like they pack much of a punch. I actually liked this, and thought it fit perfectly into the game’s oh-so-sleek aesthetic, but I know there are gamers out there who enjoy the satisfaction of powerful-feeling weapons resulting in massive explosions. There’s also little reason, aside from collecting “artifacts” hidden throughout the game, to play “Glare” more than once through.
Now, as is often the case with smaller indie efforts, the game’s price tag is a tricky issue. For $15, you’re getting a game that won’t take very long to complete (I’d say just a few hours for most experienced gamers, though there are certainly a few challenging sequences along the way). That said, it’s the kind of game people should pay a bit extra for. It was made by a small team, but it features a polish and thoughtful level design one doesn’t always see in these sorts of indie games, even otherwise enjoyable ones. Hopefully Phobic will do well enough with “Glare” to make a bigger, even more impressive game next time.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.