FrenchCows Review Bonanza!
7.0our score

So if I understand it right, FrenchCows (genuinely French, which is why I’m a little tentative about my understanding – my French is rusty and shit, in all honesty) is a gaming collective site that helps support indie developers. You pay four Euros a month to get access to their catalogue of games, as well as unparalleled access to the developers and thus the development of the games.

And those lovely Gallic Bovines sent us some guest passes! Which meant we were honour bound to play everything possible and then write about it afterwards.

Some of these games are in alpha, some are beyond that. Brevity is going to be the soul of my wit for this, because there’s a lot to say. And as a bonus, it’s not just me mouthing off this time – gaming collectives get a collaborative effort! The excellent Thryn is also going to be giving her two cents.

So what about the games?

As the FrenchCows games roster changes frequently, take these reviews as an indication of the sort of things you might find should you subscribe! These were the available PC games at the time we experimented with their service - no full review scores here, just an indication as to whether we think the game’s got legs or not.

Lavapool

Kraken:

You’re a crab. You need to collect pieces of some kind of mystic portal to escape from the fiery hell you’ve somehow gotten yourself trapped in. 25 pieces. So you run a maze, in which various brainless baddies patrol. Easy enough, right?

The announcer yells various crab-based encouragements as you progress through a level. Nice touch.

The announcer yells various crab-based encouragements as you progress through a level. Nice touch.

Yes, like Pacman was ‘easy enough.’ One or two baddies, no problem. More than that and it gets tougher. This is of course before you factor in the fact that the maze has no walls, just insta-death molten lava.

Quick and simple, this one – good concept, nicely realised. Hellishly frustrating, because even one slip means you start the level from scratch. Completing a level opens up new ones. I’d have to say it was nothing groundbreaking, if I was feeling grouchy. Which I am, because I just fell in the lava again, 2 fragments away from completing a level.

Thryn:

Lavapool is almost an arcade level of frustrating, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing or not. The aim is to scuttle your tiny crab legs around avoiding falling into lava, saw blades and critters (as all 3 are an instant death). Once you’ve collected enough tokens without dying horribly, you get to progress.

I enjoyed playing well enough, but it did feel like it started off a little too demanding – collecting over 20 tokens on the first level led to me running the same circuit over and over through the spawn points. Even with saw blades whizzing past and the apparently hyper dangerous bats, it felt repetitive. Do give it a try though. The gameplay was the fun kind of frustrating, and I loved the pixel art style. It felt reminiscent of Super Meat Boy both in soundtrack and rising anger levels, so if you’re into walking that fine line between ‘challenging enjoyment’ and ‘self-punishment’ you’ll do just fine.

Worth a look?

Well, it’s fun. Probably not for long, though. It’s just too simplistic and frustrating to offer more than brief pleasure. Still in alpha, however. I should find out where the devs intend to take it before passing a full judgement.

Scrolling Survivor

Kraken:

The screenshot says almost all you need to know. If the title hadn’t already done that, at least. It’s a scrolling platformer; you’re a little dude who can jump, wall jump and (if you’re fast enough on the draw) cancel out your last death to survive a little bit longer. As the level scrolls out ahead of you, can you dodge all the pits, platforms and punks in your way and grab all the bonuses for a record-breaking level completion time?

You're the little jumping beanbag guy. Sometimes you drive a car. Because.

You’re the little jumping beanbag guy. Sometimes you drive a car. Because.

Initially, I was a bit meh. Then the chiptunes hit, and I was transported to the 80s, when I learnt to game and this kind of stuff was all we had. This is a good game, sweetly difficult and yet forgiving at the same time, with the resurrection mechanic offering a valuable anti-frustration device.

Thryn:

Scrolling Survivor is pretty much exactly what you’d be expecting. It’s a sidescroller wherein the aim is to survive. The art is as basic as its concept, a greyscale pixel outline style that is actually quite sweet, and works well with the chiptune music. The overall feel is very old-school DOS game, and brought me back to my childhood playing Dizzy games in my parents office. There was something comforting about it, and I found it captivating.

The design is simple but that’s all it needs to be. Obstacles are introduced one at a time, and you have time to figure them out before you get to them. The ‘save’ points of each level are well spaced and usually right where you want them, and the learning curve felt just right. Even when I forgot to change the language from French I was capable of figuring out what the game wanted me to do with no problems. Scrolling Survivor is good clean fun, with a retro stylish feel and some real body to it!

Worth it?

Yes. Retro platformy goodness.

Yrminsul

Kraken:

There’s a nicely put-together backstory here, told in comic form, that explains why you’re commanding a tower defence network in a fantasy world. It’s all a bit Norse myth meets Final Fantasy for me – I felt a little bit at sea to begin with.

Bright and colourful, despite the overarching narrative being about an evil spirit trying to corrupt the world.

Bright and colourful, despite the overarching narrative being about an evil spirit trying to corrupt the world.

Persevere, though. All tower defence games need a gimmick these days, and this has quite a good campaign of map conquest behind the straightforward gameplay, with a sort of tech-tree idea in it that’s well implemented. The cartoony art is good too. Again, there’s nothing ground-breaking here – played one tower defence and despite gimmicks, you’ve played them all. At the end of the day, I didn’t see anything to make this really stand out. I’d go back to see how the story, clearly a big deal to the developers, pans out.

(Tower defence, just in the remote possibility you’ve never played one, means swarms of enemies approach your base along obvious attack routes. You place automated defence towers down to kill them, and earn points to build more of or upgrade your existing towers in order to defeat later, tougher waves of attackers. But seriously, you’ve never played one? What do you do with your time?)

A treasure map! No, not really. Just good artwork for the campaign screen.

A treasure map! No, not really. Just good artwork for the campaign screen.

Thryn:

Of all the games available, Yrminsul stood out to me as the most ambitious project. There are layers of complexity to this tower defence. Alongside your standard towers and powers, you have to manage: ability tree choices, skipping or taking a turn during time periods (depending on whether you want to gain more resources or maintain your hold over one of your islands), level ups that take a number of turns to complete, some sort of power-up system powered by seeds (yeah, okay), and there’s also the story to keep on top of. It feels a bit like someone shaved off parts of a TBS and glued them onto a tower defence, and you’re flooded with information at the start.

That was the biggest issue I ran into. Between all the game instructions and the comic panel story interludes, Yrminsul is very wordy – but without enough narrative style to hold attention. I found myself drifting off a little as I was playing, rushing through information I probably needed to read because I was already saturated. Bearing that in mind, if you’re mentally geared up for it there’s a lot of gameplay in here. There are some reasonable micromanagement game mechanics that you can really sink into if you have the patience! The visuals of the game are a nice perk too; each map is detailed and beautiful, and the comic sections are colourful and stylish.

Worth it?

Yes, it’s a good and well-designed game. It isn’t reinventing the wheel, though. If you’ve played tower defence before, you’ll get what you expect.

Radical Dungeon Sweeper

Kraken:

This is Minesweeper meets DnD. Pure gold as an idea, unexpected enough to seem ridiculous but surprisingly compelling.

Instead of mines, monsters lurk in each level. You may know they’re there, but most of the time you can’t mark them, just occasionally using a special power. At least they won’t kill you instantly – instead, they chip at your health bar. Can you find enough health potions, keys and treasure to upgrade yourself all the way to the other side of the dungeon? That’s the challenge here.

Oh for a clairvoyance spell right about now.

Oh for a clairvoyance spell right about now.

Nice art that gives good old Minesweeper a long-overdue new twist, and it’s just as simple yet compelling as it used to be. There are unlockable hero classes, new abilities that open up as you level up, and the constant feeling of irritated stupidity you get when you work your tells out wrong and click on a bomb. Sorry, orc.

Thryn:

I have mixed feelings about this one. I was never much of a Minesweeper fan, and that may have unfairly coloured my initial opinion of Radical Dungeon Sweeper, which is basically Minesweeper dipped in an RPG. Although I still find the core game mechanic a bit lacklustre and monotonous, the RPG elements really have added something to the game. In fact, I did play for longer than I thought I would!

It’s not a case of one shot death if you click a wrong square, but more about managing the resources available on the board (potions, weapons, chests full of items) to clear out a path to the other side. Maintaining your health is just as important as figuring out which squares hold monsters, and having various hero classes, skills and levelling make sure there’s a positive to clearing a level above just “great, now I can do it again!” It’s certainly a unique idea, and I applaud its creativity.

Worth it?

We both like this to varying degrees, so it’s a yes from us.

The Blob Minute

Kraken:

You’re a dude in a spacesuit on some kind of dysfunctional space station. Blue slime blobs are on the loose, the safety doors are all over the place and various electrical fields are wreaking havoc. Working against the clock, can you puzzle your way through the switch-and-door based mazes, platform your way past the hazards and turn a big key in a big lock to help sort everything out?

There's the titular blob on the right, or one of them at any rate. Yes, it is terrifying.  I know. Try not to scream.

There’s the titular blob on the right, or one of them at any rate. Yes, it is terrifying. I know. Try not to scream.

It’s pretty slick, to be fair to it. The difficulty curve in early levels ramps up steadily, enough to give you a sense of challenge. A pleasant cartoony look, this is probably better for a much younger gamer than I am. I found the level design repetitive; the puzzles were all in the standard ‘drag this, unlock that’ format and without much presentation of the back story, I got bored fast.

Thryn:

I guess I’d have to describe The Blob Minute as a puzzle platformer, although the puzzle and platform elements are both fairly tame at the moment. The game has a cute cartoonish style to the character design and animation, with the potential for some fun puzzles with the currently implemented elements. Unfortunately, it needs some tweaking to the levels to give them a little more challenge and a lot more fun. While I enjoyed the floaty-space-jump mechanic and the idea of solving radical space-puzzles, it started to feel repetitive and unadventurous very quickly. As it’s still in alpha I’ll reserve judgement for now, as the game mechanics are all working wonderfully and utilising them in a more complex way could lead to some great levels.

Worth it?

Not yet, although perhaps in time.

81

Kraken:

This plays a bit like one of the logical sequencing parts of an aptitude test, beloved of corporate skill set profilers. Nine blocks made up of eight shapes randomly selected from a set appear. All you need to do is click on a block that contains at least one of each of the three random shapes against a time limit, and repeat until you reach the allocated points for the level. This is a lot easier to understand when you do it than it is to explain, believe you me.

This level proves you'll end up a tree surgeon.

This level proves you’ll end up a tree surgeon.

The trick is that if you click wrong, that block is removed from play. The other blocks will refresh once you’ve used all nine on the screen, but not the one you screwed up, you idiot. And the three random shapes you’re looking for? Well, they may have been present at the start of the round, but if you’ve already clicked mistakenly on the only one that contained three red letter Es, then you’ve just started a landslide of error.

The sound and art style are both lovely, very slick and appealing. Not so much the game itself for me. Failing feels solely down to having clicked the wrong block without knowing what random request is coming. Still, it’s got the old ‘one more turn’ appeal in there, with new sets to unlock on challenge levels and even a head-to-head multiplayer. I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s telling my old careers advisor my scores, though. Despite the great look and sound, I didn’t find enough in the game to really hook me.

Thryn:

Basically, I love puzzle games, so I went into this one with high hopes. 81 is a time based matching game at its most basic level – find the 3×3 block that contains all 3 of these icons before the time runs out. I liked the premise, the flat icons and the guitar and drums sound effects peppered through the play. However, 81 has a drawback in that it is utterly unforgiving.

To add to the timing element there’s another setback to your goal - if you pick wrong, you put that block out of play for a while. Fine, that seems reasonable right? However, come to the end of the round where you only have one block left, and with horror you’ll realise that it doesn’t contain one of the symbols you need. You have to choose it, even though you know it’s wrong, and unless you’re gifted with The Sight then you’ll struggle to avoid this fate.

Although I loved the slick animations, the sound effects and the puzzle premise (which is at heart rewarding and addictive), it feels like there’s slightly too much punishment for situations out of your control. 81 could use a little game balancing, but I’ll probably still go crawling back to it.

Worth it?

Beautifully presented, but harsh. We say yes with mild reservations.

Get Well Soon

Kraken:

This is clearly still in alpha. Five minutes of wandering round the buggy hospital environment, catching on unseen floor glitches and watching the textures pop in and out, was more than enough for me. I suppose it’s possible I’m missing out on a developer gag, and the buggy state gets fixed as you solve puzzles. If so, congratulations on finding the stupidest gimmick for a game yet created. Although I guess releasing broken games works for a lot of the big names these days, eh, EA and Creative Assembly?

Why am I spouting sparks? Where did the oil painting texture vanish to? Why can't I move? So many unanswered questions, such mystery. Much wow.

Why am I spouting sparks? Where did the oil painting texture vanish to? Why can’t I move? So many unanswered questions, such mystery. Much wow.

I got the impression this will be some variant on the inevitable hospital amnesiac puzzle game, where you piece together your backstory from clues found in the environment. That alone would turn me off the game even if it was playable. It’s been done to death so often I can only assume the current rash of zombie games are populated by the multiple corpses of the idea. Until later builds, I’d avoid this one. Maybe even then, if I’m feeling cruel.

Thryn:

There’s not a lot to say about Get Well Soon, I’m afraid. I can only assume it’s eventually going to be a 3D point-and-click room wandering escape escapade, but I think featuring it as it currently stands was a bit (or a lot) over ambitious. I spent my first five minutes trying to get unstuck from the floor with little to no success, and somehow managed to duplicate all the items in my items menu. Twice. I didn’t see anything beyond the first room as it wasn’t long before I was giving it up as a lost cause. Perhaps it will be worth a try later down the development line, but I’d give it a miss for now. Of course, if you’re into user testing and bug reporting you’ll have a whale of a time.

Worth it?

No.

Cubot

Kraken:

Tranquil to the point of tranquilising, Cubot has a very stark and simple art style that’s almost Japanese in its minimalism. Cubes sit on a grid, hypnotic music plays. You must roll the cubes to their home spaces, one square at a time. The elegance of the puzzles this simple mechanic can generate is impressive. When you’re controlling a standard blue block, a red block that moves two squares for every one you tell it to, and a green one that always does the opposite of what you’re told, and then slip in a few fail states, there’s a fiendishness belied by the chilled tones chiming in the background.

So calm! So peaceful! So why can't I £&$%ing solve it?

So calm! So peaceful! So why can’t I %&$!ing solve it?

Each level has a solution with the fewest moves, and that’s what you’ll quickly be gunning for. Every level you complete gives you a Cubot token, and it costs eight to skip past a particularly infuriating level. Not that you’ll want to. You’ll be gnashing your teeth in fury trying to solve each puzzle yourself without recourse to the temping solution videos dangled in front of you each time you fail. This has a console crossover in mind, so you can use any kind of controller you want – not that it makes any difference. Neatly presented and engaging, I could easily see myself whiling away a long train journey in a puzzle-beating trance with this.

Thryn:

Cubot is a minimalist 3d puzzle game with a goal as simple as its art style – manipulate all the cubes on the board into place. The challenge here is largely that every cube is controlled at once, meaning you need some roundabout manipulation to make sure everything makes it home. Fitting well into the age-old puzzle adage of ‘easy-to-learn, hard-to-master,’ I found it fun to play and intellectually challenging, with a good learning curve that led quickly through the core concepts and ramped up the difficulty at a pace that felt natural.

Alongside the pleasing gameplay, the overall design of Cubot is superb. It boasts an appealingly clean interface that fits well with the game’s feel (as well as helping keep frustration to a minimum), with unobtrusive sound effects and music that helped to keep the mood mellow no matter how hard the level was. If you enjoyed puzzle games such as Stickets or Cogs I’d definitely recommend it.

Worth it?

Yes.

And overall worth it?

Kraken: 

As in “is FrenchCows worth the price of admission?” For Cubot and Radical Dungeon Sweeper alone, I’d say yes. The others – well, still mostly yes, although some need work (and want you to help them) and some may not be anything new or particularly impressive but are still well-produced games in their own right.

I like the overall idea, as well – it’s straightforward, cheap and simple, so I’d say it’s worth supporting. However, it’s hard to pick out what’s so radical or unusual about it in the current market of Greenlights, Kickstarters and so forth. Its indie nature alone, I think, doesn’t really help single it out from the crowd.

If I’m honest, I was also disappointed not to find the selection of games more ambitious in their nature. All of these, even the good ones, draw on familiar concepts from other games. For indie titles, they all seemed a little unadventurous, and I strongly doubt any of them would hold my attention for more than a day or two.

That said, I’d still give the whole enterprise a seven. Get in there before it goes mainstream and loses all its cool, you fickle fickle hipsters.

Thryn: 

Straight off, the idea behind FrenchCows is great; there are games available across all sorts of devices, operating systems and genres, so there’s likely to be something for you every month. The website is easy to use, the price is fair, and I genuinely enjoyed enough of the games that it felt worth it.

Most importantly to me, it’s a great way to be able to support independent developers without breaking the bank, or having to seek them out individually to buy games. Plus, if you ARE a developer, I imagine it would be a useful resource in terms of getting game exposure and feedback on your work, no matter how far along you are. It’s sort of like an online mystery bag, but instead of sweets, a plastic toy, and a sticker, you get something worthwhile!

frenchcows

French Cows is a subscription website, where subscribers have access to 12 games a month, be it early alphas, prototypes or complete games. From the subscription profits, 75% gets split equally between the creators whose games were chosen. The site is French in origin (hence the name, we assume) but don’t be put off by that. The website also comes in an English version too. Be aware that for legal reasons you must be 18+ to subscribe.

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.