This month you can play as a young boy trying to enjoy time off school in a strange town or a father trying to rescue his son from the effects of dark magic. Alternatively, you can try to thwart a conspiracy with its origins in history, or simply seek to survive as a young girl in a horrifying predicament. All these await you in a slight but sweet month’s round-up of releases from the freeware scene.
In a rural Argentinian town, the winter holidays are just about to start. However, having destroyed his report card, one young student is finding it difficult to get off the school grounds. And this is just the start of his problems, as not all is well in his local town. The nearby lake seems to have been poisoned by something (different than the usual, anyway) and some of his neighbours are acting most oddly. Perhaps Sol705, a student club dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial phenomena, can help him find the answers.
With Sol705, Patoland has created a science fiction adventure in a mundane remote setting. The graphics are highly detailed, from the barbed wire-topped walls of the school to the gravelly beach at the lakeshore. The protagonist is a puffy-haired teenage slacker trying to hide his bad grades. He is not the only one with a distinctive hairstyle, as the supporting characters include a pink-streaked punk girl and a professor with white spiky locks. All are smoothly animated throughout. The game is also fully voiced to a decent standard, including the protagonist’s smug over-achieving brother and a cranky old woman running the school tuck shop. The soundtrack is a mix of psychedelic and prog rock, fitting in with the music-obsessed youth that make up most of the cast.
Mouse control is performed through simple left-click, the default cursor changing to indicate anything you can interact with. Clicking on a hotspot opens up a simple verb coin with two actions. The left one is always Look, whilst the right-hand one changes according to what you are pointing at. Clicking on the satchel in the corner of the screen opens up the inventory. Collected items can be interacted with like normal hotspots, but they can also be dragged to use on other things. Even getting out of the school takes some ingenuity, requiring you to improvise a tool to access a sealed area and take a less-than-honest approach to a shortage of cash. Once outside you’ll explore the town, with your initial quest being to find a bassist for your brother (who will tell your parents your grades if you don’t). This introduces you to the strangeness of the town’s inhabitants, kicking off the main story.
Sol705 can be downloaded from the game’s website.
A young girl named Enri wakes up in a nightmarish situation. The underground room she finds herself in is full of dismembered bodies, with blood covering the floor and running down the walls. Making her way through this slaughter to the only door, she soon discovers that she is in a sprawling complex of tunnels and rooms. But she is not the only living thing in this subterranean labyrinth, and none of the the other occupants are on her side. With nothing to her name besides the clothes she woke up in, can Enri avoid their deadly attentions, or is she destined to become just another victim?
Created by Nama and translated into English by MemoriesofFear, Purgatory is not a game for the faint-hearted. Whilst moderately low-resolution with an overhead retro role-playing style, the opening room is a horrific sight, and the scenery does not get much better from there. Where not smeared in carnage, the walls appear to be plain grey breezeblocks. This uniform look is occasionally broken up by some machinery and grills, but the drab and muted tones do a lot to add to the oppressive atmosphere. The music is a slow tonal piece that also serves to set the player on edge. Some machinery generates noise, such as the rattling of industrial shutters opening. The protagonist’s footsteps also sound on different surfaces, with a particular unpleasant squelch when wading through gore.
For the majority of the game, you’ll explore on your own using the cursor keys to navigate, with Z or Enter interacting with whatever hotspot you are facing. You can acquire a handful of items, mostly consisting of keys and weak melee weapons. When an interaction involves the potential use of an object in your possession, you will be offered the choice of whether to do so. The way back to the surface is blocked by a series of shutters, and you will have to search diligently for the means to open them. You will also periodically meet hazards, most notably the Butcher. It is impossible to fight, so fleeing is the only answer. This is made more difficult by the movement speed being considerably slowed when passing through the all-too-common gore. Whilst some dexterity is required, escaping is usually more a case of using your brain to pick a sensible escape route. There are a number of places you can die, but generally these are at least partially signposted, though it is advisable to call up the menu and save regularly regardless. Choosing whether or not to solve an optional puzzle later on will determine which of the two endings you get.
Purgatory can be downloaded from the RPG Maker website.
Conspiracy Below Zero
In June 1944, Hitler ordered his scientists to freeze him and a few of his henchmen so they could be revived later. This project was called Below Zero. Now, decades later, an American group of neo-Nazis has discovered the chamber in which Hitler was frozen and wants to bring him back to life. Fortunately, FBI agent Malden is on the case. He first talks to Dr. Otto Gunter, who worked on Below Zero in the 1940s. Gunter sends Malden and his sidekick Leech on a search that takes them to Europe and eventually lands them on an island that is not on any map…
Conspiracy Below Zero is slasher’s newest game, presented on a black screen containing a view window with round corners and silvery trim that makes it look a bit like an old-fashioned television screen. The scenes depicted are quite realistic with a lot of detail (even reflections seem accurate) but the characters look unnatural and move stiffly in a rather comical way. They can also be disproportionate to the settings; in some scenes they are either too big or too small. Malden and Leech will find themselves in a diner, under a bridge, in a hospital and locked up in a boat, to name just a few of the many places they visit. Dialogues are fully voiced but the acting is not very good, which adds to the (perhaps unintended) amusing atmosphere. Alongside an animated head of the person talking, all subtitles are displayed in a special color for each speaker. The sound effects, like explosions, breaking glass and the spashing of water, are at the same level as the voice acting. The only music you might hear is the jukebox playing in the diner, if you choose to play a song on it.
On the left of the viewscreen is a small window that indicates the selected action (Interact, Look or Talk), and the inventory is at the bottom. Right-clicking cycles through the possible cursor actions, as well as an icon of the item you’re carrying so you can use it on something else. Left-clicking executes the chosen action. Unfortunately, it is only possible to change cursors while it’s within the TV screen boundary, which is a bit annoying. An arrow appears when Malden and Leech can go to another location, with a choice of icons when clicked if there are multiple destinations possible. All of the puzzles are inventory-based and extremely easy, so much so that the game basically plays itself, even if you don’t pay attention to the story. Still, I found the experience quite amusing, and the story doesn’t disappoint, delivering a small twist that makes it more enjoyable.
Conspiracy Below Zero can be downloaded from its AGS webpage.
Once upon a Spirit
A mouse is walking through a field with his son when suddenly a crow flies over and knocks the kid to the ground. His father takes the boy home and puts him to bed, but the little guy does not wake up. Suddenly the father hears a voice that tells him the crow took his child’s soul. Papa mouse now has to find the crow and get his son’s soul back. To help him in his quest, the voice gives him the ability to shift to the ethereal world, to see the spirits and hide himself in the ‘real’ world. To find the crow, the little protagonist will need to help repair a boat, feed an evil spirit and help an old lady mouse.
Lucy Fox’s Once upon a Spiritfeatures gorgeous, colorful hand-painted backgrounds, with bright greens and blues prevailing in the living world, and grey in the spirit world. The environment is rather limited, however, as Papa mouse only visits a small house and crosses a lake before reaching the crow’s nest. Beautiful piano and string music accompanies the action and adds to the sad and mysterious atmosphere. There are no voices: all spoken words (except for your mysterious, disembodied guide) are shown in text balloons beside a portrait of the speaking character, which clearly shows their current facial expression. There are some good sound effects occasionally interspersed, like the ticking of a clock, the opening of doors and the crash of objects falling.
Once upon a Spirit is played using the keyboard, with the arrow keys moving the rodent protagonist and the space bar used to advance conversations and interact with animals and objects. All puzzles are inventory-based and require strategic use of both worlds this little mouse can inhabit, switching between them at will. The game ends in a sort of cliffhanger after about 30 minutes of play time, so hopefully Lucy will release a sequel to this little gem soon.
Once upon a Spirit can be downloaded from the game’s itch.io page.
Not all games are created equal, and freeware games especially come in all shapes and sizes. Not to be overlooked, the following list might also be of interest, though these games may be significantly shorter or less polished, more experimental titles than those detailed above, some perhaps only borderline adventures to begin with.
Game of “Thrones” by blazebat – Answering the call of nature proves a tough task for a king in this scatalogically-themed story.
To Do List by Four Quarters – Working backwards through seven days of tasks, a man’s mundane list may not be as innocent as it first seems.
CATFE by Caz, Ocean and marimo – Help a cafe owner and her assistant rescue stray cats and earn money to keep their business afloat.