Indie developers are interesting because they build games from the heart while also trying to make money. One could argue the same is true for triple-A developers but the difference would be that more often than not heart wins out over profits in indie games. The problem being that this does not always lead to the best overall gaming experience for consumers. The same can be said for when developers only focus on money but the difference is that enough larger developers are doing the same things in order to make more money thus normalizing the practices. Truant Pixel, LLC is responsible for the recently (5/17/2016) released VEV: Viva Ex Vivo. This is categorized on the PSN store as a puzzle, action game, but really it’s a survival, exploration game. When you think about it in those terms you realize very quickly that it was made well, but wasn’t made for the average, modern gamer. This comes from the fact that it lacks so many of the things that drive gaming practices today.
VEV: Viva Ex Vivo is hard for me to qualify on a visual level. It looks pretty good for what it is, but is doesn’t require too much on a visual level. That’s not a completely true statement, but that’s kind of why this game is so hard to judge when talking about graphics. The game starts with you at a desk in a lab. This looks great. It’s well modeled, highly detailed, lit properly, and appropriately skinned/colored. I was really impressed by the level of realism used to create the desk space of the main menu. There’s subtle things like post it notes that you can actually read and desk knick-knacks that just bring this space to life. It’s done extremely well and sets the tone of the game perfectly. My only problem with it is that you can’t zoom in. There are open books on desks and notes scattered around which you can and should read, but if you don’t great eyesight you will struggle to read a lot of it. But the actual gameplay graphics are a different story in terms of judgement.
You play the game as a synthetic single-cell life form swimming through samples of real life substances such as fresh water, soil, and blood. Your character is slightly transparent but it’s color is affected drastically by it’s surroundings. Because the game takes place at the microscopic level there are a number of objects in the game, but there isn’t much going on and with the exception of other organisms, the environments aren’t too complicated or even that impressive. Most of the environments are just static structures that look like networks or rocks even though technically they’re something microscopic. They aren’t skinned that well but it gets the job done. The little particles you have to collect aren’t anything special looking either. Now I assume that much of these objects are based on the way the real versions of these things look so I’m not necessarily saying that the game looks bad. I’m simply stating the fact that the environments just aren’t that impressive. You can get some really nice screen shots in certain places though because the lighting was done very well and many of the organisms you see in the game look really cool. Again, it’s a hard game to judge when it comes to graphics. It’s not a quality issue as much as it’s a sparseness issue. The game runs very smoothly. Everything is moving at a pretty limited pace because of the nature of the objects in question, but the game doesn’t have any issues with lag or long loading times or anything.
The HUD is ok. It could definitely be better, but the simplicity of it works very well for what is ultimately a very simple game. It’s just two stacked opaque rectangles with blue and yellow san-serif text. It tracks your energy, your location, and the time you have left. There are multiple numbers shown but they all summarize into those three things. For some reason Truant Pixel decided to make the HUD move closer and farther from the screen depending on which speed you’re going. Personally I think they should have just left it constantly in the close view. You have so many moving numbers to keep track of in real-time and when it’s farther away it can be a little hard to read in certain environments depending on the color. All in all I would say that the game looks realistic which makes it great as an educational tool, but it doesn’t necessarily feel strong enough as a game, visually.
The gameplay is very simple. You pilot the synthetic single-cell organism through different environments with the goal of surviving for 30 minutes in each session. That’s really it. Each session has a maximum running time of 30 minutes. You move constantly by expending energy. You start every session with 100 energy. Normal speed costs 0.5 energy per second. Fast speed, which can be done by holding R2, costs 1 energy per second. Slow speed costs 0.25 energy per second. You acquire more energy by locating and collecting particles which can be converted to energy by pressing X. One particle is worth 10 energy, but if you collect multiple particles before conversion you can sometimes get an energy bonus. There are other organisms, many of which will bother you if you get too close to them. Some are very small and others quite large. Competing organisms can do many things to you. Some will simply bump into you and knock you off your trajectory, making you miss particles. Others will latch onto you and suck energy out of you. Some will steal particles that you haven’t converted. Others will ignore you altogether. That’s basically the whole game.
The controls are very easy to learn. The biggest problem you will face is collecting particles. You have to directly run into a particle head on to collect it. Often you will feel like you should have gotten it but the game will tell you the angle was off. At first you will have to use the slow down button to collect all particles. But with practice you’ll be able to pick them up with the normal speed and eventually even the fast speed in certain scenarios.
This is a survival exploration game but there’s not really much to do except survive. You explore but there are no maps or records tracked to let you know what you’ve discovered. You have no way of knowing if you’ve already been somewhere before. The environment is a true open world. There is no up or down or walls or edges. You can just go wherever you want for as long as you want. Or it might just be that you can only get so far in any one direction because you’ll be forced to look for particles or run out of time. But in any case I never felt like my exploration was restricted. But it also was pretty boring. You don’t do anything. You just are. And with the 30 minute maximum session time you can’t even really work to improve your performance. It seems much more like the game was built as a teaching tool for students and then the developers decided it would be more profitable to put it on PSN than give it to schools. I also think the HUD should have an energy to time converter. I spent a lot of time pausing the game and figuring out how much time I would be able to survive on my current energy. Since your ultimate goal is simply to make it to 30 minutes, you can plan how you will play the rest of the round accordingly even with 15 or minutes of time left. It’s actually not that challenging once you stockpile some energy early on. The whole experience could easily be improved with just a few additions, but in its current form it’s pretty boring overall.
The sound was decent in VEV: Viva Ex Vivo, but it could be better. I was very happy with the music. It’s a really nice set of looping tracks (one for each level) that is calming but still catchy. The effects are pretty basic. There are general liquid ambient sounds and a few effects for things like collecting particles and converting energy. That’s basically it. The quality was pretty good, but the volume levels were ok at best. I really would have like some sound mixer options. There are actually no options in the game other than choosing your environment and Y-Axis inversion. The sound gets a decent, but not great score from me.
I was actually really impressed by the writing in this game. Especially in the tutorial. The game is written to a lab worker by his friend. Basically you are a new employee researching microscopic organisms and this new technology allows you to experience their world first hand. It’s written in a very personal way. The desk in the main menu has post-its and open books with highlighted sections scattered across it. The game comes off very realistic. A lot of scientific lingo and justification is used to give the game a real sense of legitimacy. Like I truly could believe everything that I was reading while playing the game. Even the tutorial comes off more like instructions for conducting research than for playing a game. There’s no plot or anything so the amount of writing overall is very minute. But I was happy with literally all of it.
Replay value is debatable in VEV: Viva Ex Vivo. You start off with four playable environments with the ability to unlock three more. Again, each session can only last up to 30 minutes and there’s really no goals to achieve with the exception of most energy collected at one time. There are 12 trophies but they really just come down to surviving that 30 minutes in each stage, unlocking the bonus three, and collecting a certain amount of total energy. Basically you could experience everything the game really has to offer in about 4 hours. That being said, I’m not avidly opposed to the $5 price tag like I usually am with shorter indies. I’m really hoping Truant Pixel throws in some patches to make the game more playable because at base level it’s not a bad game. It just lacks many of the things that make people want to keep playing a game.
VEV: Viva Ex Vivo is an interesting experience. In a lot of ways it’s different from anything I’ve experienced in recent gaming history. It’s also very interesting and at least somewhat educational. But it needs tuning. Someone really needs to just sit down and give it a triple-A comb over. It doesn’t need more levels or plot or anything like that. They just need to add in some goals so that you aren’t just floating around for no reason 30 minutes at a time. I’m giving this game a 5, but I want to qualify that and say that if there was actually stuff to accomplish I could easily push it to a 6 or 7.
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