I didn’t have much time to play new games this year, honestly. Prior to joining the RPS Treehouse in late October, I spent much of the year organising a massive international move with my family from the US to the UK, which meant that many of 2023’s fresh releases – aside from the few that I’ve highlighted in this year’s advent calendar – remained in the unplayed depths of my Steam list. Now that it’s December and life has settled somewhat, I had to wrack my brain to come up with three entries for this Selection Box. After much deliberation, I realised that there were a few indie gems that I managed to crack open amidst all the chaos of arranging 60+ boxes for shipment across the Atlantic.
Kowloon’s Curse: Lost Report
I lived in Hong Kong from 2012 to 2018 and spent quite a bit of time in Kowloon. But the Kowloon I knew is a far cry from the one featured in Kowloon’s Curse: Lost Report, which isn’t so much concerned with the realities of Hong Kong’s most populous urban area as it is with the feeling of the place as exemplified in late ’90s and early 2000s Japanese adventure games. Kowloon’s Gate, a Japan-only Playstation title from 1994, perhaps best exemplies this niche genre, which usually featured unsettling visuals heavily influenced by Kowloon Walled City, the densely-packed enclave that once housed 35,000 residents and was demolished in 1993.
If it wasn’t obvious from the title, Kowloon’s Curse: Lost Report is a direct descendant of cult games like Kowloon’s Gate. The prequel of a longer project that was successfully Kickstarted back in 2021, this game stars Tony, a guy living in an unearthly version of Kowloon where fish float through pipelines and the streets are full of creatures peddling wares that must be purchased with hell money. Tony and his pal Sergio work for a Mafia organisation, and over the course of this short game, they embark on surreal missions and encounter twists and turns reminiscent of the loneliness of Wong Kar-wai films and the magical realism of Haruki Murakami novels.
I have some issues with how Kowloon’s Curse: Lost Report – and by extension the Japanese adventure games that inspired it – use Kowloon for window dressing. Kowloon Walled City was a very real place where Hongkongers lived very real lives, and this game, which was primarily made by a dev from the Netherlands, somewhat appropriates elements of the city for what amounts to an aesthetic that’s part cyberpunk, part vaporwave, and occasionally more reminiscent of Japan than Hong Kong. But as a former HK resident myself, I’m undeniably drawn to this phantasmagorical take on an infamous portion of the city as distilled through the lens of a foreign developer. At the very least, Kowloon’s Curse: Lost Report is worth a play if you’ve never experienced the games that inspired it, and since it’s free, it won’t cost you anything beyond perhaps a few weird dreams.
Flashback: The Quest For Identity and Prince Of Persia were both games that I played countless times in childhood. I loved the pixel-perfect rotoscoped animation of protagonists Conrad B. Hart and the Prince, and I delighted at how these so-called cinematic platformers featured excruciatingly deliberate controls to a degree that wasn’t present in any of the other run ‘n jump titles of my youth. These were also two of the only games that compelled me to become obsessed with the idea of speedruns and “perfect” playthroughs, and I’d attempt to sprint my way through each level without wasting a single step or leap. Since I don’t have a true speedrunner’s blood in me, I’d often only get really good at the first level, but it was nevertheless a lot of fun.
Lunark captures much of what I remember about Conrad and the Prince’s adventures – and is in fact a better spiritual successor to Flashback than any of the actual sequels and remakes that Flashback’s received over the years, from Fade to Black to the recently released Flashback 2. Made primarily by talented pixel artist Johan Vinet of Canari Games, Lunark focuses on a fellow named Leo who acts as a courier with a gun in a sci-fi galaxy full of aliens, artifical intelligence, and a whole bunch of people living on the moon. Following the blueprint that Flashback perfected, Lunark sees Leo framed and on the run, and you’ll have to dart over obstacles, hang from ledges, and shoot mooks from across the screen throughout a bunch of tightly-designed levels that feel like they’re straight out of 1992 – in a good way.
Cinematic platformers were relatively rare in the ’90s and are even rarer today, but with its gorgeous little mix of PICO-8 style graphics and platforming nostalgia, Lunark’s a must-play if you’re familiar with either of the games that I’ve mentioned here. (Those of you who prefer Another World/Out of This World and Heart of Darkness – both of which I still need to get around to playing someday – should also take notice.) Best of all, immediately after booting Lunark up, I immediately wanted to replay the first level over and over again in search of the elusive perfect run, which is proof that this game nails a very special feeling that I rarely feel like entertaining nowaways.
Wizordum is a little bit of Catacomb 3-D, Heretic, and Ultima Underworld mixed in a gumbo pot with the colourful spice of Commander Keen and the original Duke Nukem games dashed on top. (Oh, look at who published this thing – Apogee Entertainment themselves!) I owe it to our lovely preview article written by Edwin for alerting me to this one, which I fired up with gusto after watching the trailer even though nearly all of its inspirations gave me motion sickness in the ’90s.
Thankfully, while the gameplay of Wizordum is just as fast-paced and furious as any of Apogee or Id Software’s output back in the day, there’s a decent FOV slider to accomodate folks like me who struggle with first-person games. What you won’t find present are modern concessions like a mini-map, since Wizordum is all about blasting away two-dimensional bad guys in a massive area with nothing but your mind to keep track of the many alleyways, corridors, and doors you’ll come across. You play as a lone mage battling the forces of chaos in a plot that isn’t terribly important and reminds me of how the protagonist of Catacomb 3-D, Petton Everhall, was just John Carmack’s D&D character. But you don’t expect a game like Wizordum to deliver with a story – what you do expect it to provide are rings and rods that respectively allow you to shoot a constant stream of fire and ice at incoming goblins. And thankfully on that front, Wizordum does not disappoint in the slightest.
Wizordum might not be as impressive if you’ve played Cultic or any of the other new boomer shooters out there, which I haven’t touched. But with its brighter visuals, Wizordum will probably attract a wider audience than some of its darker peers, and I’m looking forward to seeing what folks get up to with the robust level editor included in its early access package. For cartoony action that’ll make you wish Raven Software could give us a properly licensed sequel to Heretic and Hexen instead of endless Call Of Duty spinoffs, you really can’t go wrong with this neat little game.