The Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace is mostly full of games you wouldn't want to buy.
The self-publishing service allows start-up developers to create games and sell them with little oversight. Many of the 2,500 or so games available on the Indie store play like tech demos, of more interest to the independent developer community than casual consumers who want a fun, complete game to play.
Every once in a while, an indie game seems polished enough that it stands apart from its amateur peers. The graphics are a little better, the controls a little tighter. Frankly, it's just more fun.
Then, occasionally, you stumble across an indie game that goes a level beyond that, a game that not only is good compared to other indie titles but stands toe-to-toe with Microsoft's downloadable A-listers, such as Geometry Wars or N+.
That, firmly, is where I place Compromised, a $3 game from Lexington-based developer Super Soul, available now on the Xbox Live Indie Games store.
Compromised is a twin-stick shooter, like Geometry Wars, where one analog stick steers your ship and the other independently controls your weapons.
You play as a tiny spaceship defending its robotic homeworld of Se-Da by blasting away at BIOCS, an invading army of enemy ships and vespers. The story is minimalist — told through short cut scenes before each level starts — but it creates an engaging atmosphere reminiscent of countless desolate scenes from science-fiction movies and novels.
Many indie developers opt to create a twin-stick shooter as their first title, so Compromised loses a few points for originality. But calling the title simply a "twin-stick shooter" belies its depth. Most twin-stickers place you on a square grid and task you with shooting wave after wave of enemies; unlike them, Compromised is more than just a test of reflexes. (Though your reflexes will be tested, make no mistake.)
Compromised sees you exploring a desolate landscape, traveling down narrow corridors, fighting off ambushes and blasting away rubble to expose secret areas full of collectible goodies.
The game lets you customize your playing style. As you destroy enemies and unlock secret areas, you'll often see a smattering of red and blue energy cubes left behind. By collecting the blue cubes, you can access powerful special weapons, such as a shield that reduces damage, a shockwave to push enemies away from your ship and a lethal missile barrage.
After you finish each level, you can spend the red cubes you've collected to increase your ship's base statistics. It's up to you whether to increase your ship's health, allowing it to take more damage before blowing up, or to increase its fire power. If you find yourself having trouble against a powerful boss, you have the option of playing the levels you've already beaten, collecting a few more red cubes and leveling up your ship to even the playing field. The ability to "grind" is sure to please fans of role-playing games.
Compromised also aims to please stat nerds, telling you after each level how many enemies you've destroyed and how many energy cubes you've collected. Simple touches like that raise Compromised above its indie brethren.
The game isn't without faults. The environments are sometimes a little too dark, making it difficult to understand your surroundings. I frequently found myself running into crimson bombs dropped by enemies because I thought they were red energy cubes.
Also, the difficulty level seems a little sporadic. I found the first half of the game to be relatively easy; then, without warning, the second half kicked my butt repeatedly. I enjoy being challenged; I just wasn't expecting the game to get so hard so quickly, without warning.
However, once I got used to the difficulty, the second half quickly became my favorite part of the game. It is reminiscent of the "bullet hell" shooters I played in my youth, in which the screen sometimes is filled with hundreds of enemy projectiles that you have to dodge before even thinking of returning fire.
In fact, the entire game has a retro flair that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's the huge bosses that require planning and reflexes to take out. It also could be the two-dimensional graphics, which have been lovingly rendered for high-definition TVs.
Regardless, the game exudes style and atmosphere that makes it a fulfilling modern game and a nod to days gone by.
The campaign is a little short — it took me about 2½ hours to beat — but the developers are planning to release free downloadable content that adds a competitive multiplayer mode and a survival mode. Buyers certainly will be thankful for the added replay value.
Compromised stands not only as one of the best indie titles, but one of the best values on the Xbox Live Arcade service, period.
Even more impressive, it's the first game ever released commercially by the fledgling Super Soul, and I, for one, can't wait to see what comes next.