The term ‘cerebral’ encapsulates the latest Bundle in a Box more aptly than I initially thought. Prior to the announcement of the games, I had assumed a puzzle-centric collection – one that would require the manipulation of increasingly complicated pipes, tiles and machinery in order to progress through a somewhat vague (if even present) narrative – but this bundle goes after far more than just the logic centres of your brain.

Nine games and the warm, fuzzy feeling associated with supporting charity and the incredible Indie Dev Grant can all be yours for just shy of $6, But let’s start by taking a look at the five games you’ll get should you fail to beat that average but pay at least the $1.99 minimum:

Vampires:

I grew up at a time when killing monsters was the norm and find myself, rather depressingly, in a world where everyone else seems to be falling in love with them instead. Yet despite these reservations, I found that there was something rather rewarding in helping the vampires in this game get to their crypt before the sun came up.

It is a mechanistically simplistic – you can click on certain tiles to rotate them directing the auto-moving vampires around the maze like levels – but various perils and some interesting variations of vampire and helpful items breathes sufficient life into this undead game. Using cobwebs to slow them down in order to avoid projectiles, making allowances for their different movement tendencies (for example, some turn left whenever they’re able to) and all whilst trying to make as few a turns as take as little time as possible to get the platinum or gold award on the level. It is aesthetically well composed as well, with a solid soundtrack and slight inflection of humour that makes it enjoyable even when it becomes rather difficult.

Vampires

Dinner Date:

Assuming the role of a man’s subconscious whilst he waits for his date to arrive may be a rather unusual premise but the game itself is stranger still. Only a few of the man’s actions are under your control and none of them have any significance upon the 20 minute monologue. Cracking your knuckles, gazing out of a window and drinking yet another glass of wine while you wait are all almost completely inconsequential. As the night progresses, your thoughts become more introspective but piercing self-analysis is often obscured by self-delusional anecdotes and half-forgotten poetry.

There is a conviction to this game that makes it compelling despite the lack of meaningful interaction. I missed much of this on my first playthrough by mistaking the optional movements for discreet puzzles. They are not, and it is only by accepting your ineffectual role that you can fully engage with the tale. I found myself checking the clock when I wondered how much time had passed, cracking my fingers in prolonged gaps between thoughts and dipping bread in soup because that’s how I prefer it – I began to (somewhat pseudo-ironically) embody the ethereal role of a man’s subconscious.

The only problem is that the character’s perspective is simply not universal enough to be reflective or far enough removed to be of any real interest. You will probably share some of his insecurities but you almost certainly will not care about them. It demands very little of your time and is definitely worth playing if you buy the bundle, however, it is more of an experiment in player interaction and investment than it is an entertaining experience.

Dinner Date

Phantasmaburbia:

An RPG with generous save points, some interesting special attack mechanics and a neighbourhood overflowing with ghosts, Phantasmaburbia has a refreshingly restrained approach when it comes to comedy. There are puns, absurdist situations and references that keep the tone relatively light, something that is compounded by the aesthetic and some of the enemy varieties, but it isn’t overdone to the point where it begins to take away from the supernatural threat itself.

The characters share this duplicity of humour and fragility and are arguably written better than they have any real need to be. This includes the helpful ghost companions that may first strike you as dangerous stereotypes – they’re not though they play off it slightly – as well as the first character you play who is basically me distilled down into videogame form. Sure, dark hair and a love of music and playing the guitar don’t an Ian make, but it was reminiscent enough for me to indulge in naming the character after myself. His fellow ghostbusters may have had to endure worse as far as names go – unprintable due to being either offensively crass or embarrassingly immature and pathetic – but each of them were believable and likeable in their own way.

The combat is somewhat akin to Final Fantasy but with special attacks that require you to complete different mini-games in order to make them as powerful as possible. Waggling my mouse, clicking and dragging on orbs and undergoing something similar to a reaction test broke up the combat well, though I would have prefered for combination attacks to form a single mini-game with aspects of the individual ones as opposed to having to complete all four back to back.

Phantasmaburbia

Necrotic Drift Delux:

Necrotic Drift Delux is a survival horror text adventure with pictures, sounds and a strong narrative focus. Alongside the usual navigation and item puzzles, there is a turn based combat system that whilst somewhat distinctive destroys both the pacing and atmosphere that the writing establishes so well. It’s almost entirely unnecessary. Fighting the various monsters is a key element of the game, but it is working out how to exploit their weaknesses with the items at your disposal that makes this an interesting aspect not the attritional, repetitive attacking.

That being said, the game’s narrative manages to save the experience despite much of it being rather unrelatable for someone with no experience or love for Dungeons & Dragons – which serves as the foundation for the game’s own lore. Its focus on characters, in particularly the ailing relationship between the unambitious protagonist and his long-suffering girlfriend, hits upon universal themes and has been written adeptly enough to be believable. The pictures may add a sense of place to the areas described and grant a face to the characters themselves, but they can be quite comical at times and add more to the game in terms of the fact you appreciate the additional effort than they do in terms of anything else. The sound, on the other hand, is far more effective. The occasional wailing ghoul or ear piercing scream may be fairly cheap as far as creating horror goes, but they’re used infrequently enough to only ever add to the experience.

NecroticDrift

Dédale De Luxe:

The traditional puzzle game that I thought the whole bundle would be comprised of, Dédale De Luxe is one of those games that retains your interest largely due to the meditative atmosphere the visuals and sounds create. That isn’t to say that the puzzles themselves aren’t satisfying or challenging, as what starts as simply guiding a butterfly over each of the tiles without backtracking gets progressively more complicated with the introduction of tiles with different attributes and relations to each other, but it’s one of those games you’ll find yourselves playing casually in order to relax as opposed to obsessively in order to complete. Which is a good thing really, given that this exclusive deluxe version of the game includes an infinite amount of levels in the form of a random generator.

DedaleDeluxe

Amidos Puzzle Collection:

Added recently as a bonus, this exclusive collection of five games from different developers are your traditional but certainly atypical puzzle games. Unique, initial baffling but ultimately somewhat ingenious, this is a small and short collection of brainteasers worth playing until you get bored or your brain begins to revolt against the constant challenge… the latter is arguably the more likely but it will probably be somewhat close.

AmidosPuzzleCollectionGames

Beat the average, however, and in addition to the games above you will also receive:

J.U.L.I.A.:

Whilst almost everything I have seen with a computer with an ‘acroname’ (my term for an acronym that spells out an actual name) has been great, I was worried that the Adventure game J.U.L.I.A would be little more than the tropes and cliches associated with such a thing bundled together. Yet despite some minor frustrations, I forsook sleep in order to finish it in one sitting.

It was the combination of the varied mini-games, though some of them did mar the experience slightly by having UI elements that were a little too fiddly or solutions that were slightly too obscure or had unclear help descriptions, and the mysterious air of the narrative that kept me invested. As you explore the various planets you begin to piece together precisely what happened to the rest of your crew and why you yourself were abandoned in cryostasis when they departed. And whilst details are sometimes revealed through direct means such as conversation, it is the environmental clues such as monuments, bloodstains and broken machinery that do the majority of the elucidation.

Some of these planets are rather beautiful despite the lack of moving through the environment the game allows, and cut scenes are infrequent and done well. The main graphical issue is your own face (no this isn’t me having a go at you in a rather childish way) which sits both at the top right of the screen and firmly within uncanny valley. The lack of lip synchronisation isn’t criminal given the indie nature of the game, but a stationary portrait or even a never seen protagonist would have worked with the narrative equally as well.

JULIA

I Get This Call Everyday:

A few moments in the life of its now fired creator David S Gallant, I Get This Call Everyday is an interactive phone call between yourself (a call centre worker) and someone wanting to update the address you have on file for them. It is an exercise in patience, as the stupidity of the caller and the stringency of the security measures collide to form a minefield of annoyance, and a point-and-click dialogue based (mis)adventure that more often than than not results in unemployment. It speaks to the unfulfilled and disenfranchised realities of many of our lives and has a certain impact as a result. It isn’t overly complex either graphically or mechanistically and I struggled to relate some of the praise I’ve heard about the game with the experience itself, but it is honest, humorous and worth the few moments of your time it demands.

IGTCED

Cognition, Ep 1: The Hangman:

Having listened to Jeff interviewing the developers, Cognition was perhaps my most anticipated game of this bundle and may in fact be my favourite. There is a certain jarring contrast between the graphical fidelity of cutscenes and backgrounds and the quality of character models and their animations. It is a minor gripe for any game, Adventure point-and-clicks in particular, but it is a slight disappointment.

Largely though, this can be overlooked due to the quality of the plot which, whilst suffering somewhat from being the first in a series and therefore having to establish everything about the world and its characters, is far better the often seen premise – detective with a supernatural ability that assists them in detecting crimes trying to stop a serial killer – initially suggests. The cognitive abilities in question also give rise to some very rewarding moments and puzzles that makes up for some of the more strained or convenient solutions.

Erica Reed is a well written female protagonist in a world crafted, a few technical limitations aside, with evident care.This is a strong opening act, and should I ever manage to make the time for the remaining episodes I will almost certainly be purchasing and playing my way through them as well.

Cognition

Reversion: The Meeting:

Reversion: The Meeting is in many ways in complete opposition to Cognition; it immediately impresses with its presentation (with fluid animation and a beautiful art style) and fast, action-orientated pace but falls somewhat short in terms of how compelling it is to play. The political aspect of the plot is handled well, with dissent amongst the populous credibly creating the perfect atmosphere for your revolt, but the somewhat predictable and uninspired sci-fi aspect drags it down as do the believable but, as a result, rather boring puzzles.

Many of the characters also suffer from feeling immediately familiar and uninteresting. The protagonist Christian is the exception to this, with the quality of his voice acting also differentiating him from much of the rest as well, but he can’t carry the entire cast particularly amidst the aforementioned problems. Having said that, there is enough here and in the free first episode to suggest that the series may develop into a something great… it just isn’t quite there yet.

Reversion

And what about the extras I hear you ask, callously ignoring my bleeding fingers and lack of sleep. Well here’s a quick run down of what extras have so far been included/unlocked and an additional ramble about the bundle:

Bonuses:

Dédale De Luxe Wallpapers and The Phantasmaburbia Deluxe Box with many more awaiting to be unlocked as more people buy the bundle.

Ramble:

Only one of the games is comes with a Steam code (Dinner Date) with the rest being available on Desura or DRM-free direct downloads. As much as I love Steam, to discredit a bundle purely on the basis of a lack of Steam keys is an attitude I have often seen but never understood. Give me a choice between DRM and no DRM and I will choose the latter every time. Add a shortcut to the library if curation is your thing or, if you are an ardent Steam-only gamer get yourself to Greenlight as, as outlined in this Bundle in a Box Blog post, 6 of the games are currently on the service and if approved keys will be provided to everyone that has bought the bundle.

Conclusion:

Whilst there were clearly some games that failed to win me over, the collection as a whole certainly has. There are some rough aspects to most of the games, but then there is enough in terms of entertainment or uniqueness to counteract those aspect in almost all of them. It is a successful bundle in the only way that I now care about given the oversaturation of bundles in general – it’s constantly surprising. It is a bundle that incorporates a surprising number of genres and contains a few games that individual justify the price. I’d heard of many of these games but simply wouldn’t have purchased/played them had they not been brought together in the form of this bundle, and I’ll take that over massive discounts on popular games that I was going to buy anyway any day. And you should too, so go here, buy the bundle and be sure to vote for the next Indie Dev Grant game as well.