Microsoft's annual Summer of Arcade series has been a launching pad for some of the best downloadable indie games in recent memory, including 2008's Braid -- a time-bending meditation on broken relationships swooned over by critics and fans alike -- and last year's Limbo, a haunting platformer that sees a dead boy wandering through a nightmarish purgatory.
This summer's series hasn't produced anything quite so memorable or affecting, but it has nonetheless introduced several distractions capable of helping humidity-averse gamers while away hot summer days in air-conditioned comfort.
Bastion (SuperGiant Games/Warner Bros; Everyone 10+)
The heart of SuperGiant Games' arty action RPG can be found in its ever-present narrator, whose soothing, late-night deejay cadence chronicles our every action. Defeat a tough enemy? He'll sing your praises. Find a new path? He'll describe it in detail. Fall off a ledge to your death? He'll step in with an amusing remark explaining how the story continues.
The action is fun, too. Colourful, magical platforms spring into existence in front of our hero with each step forward as he quests to discover how his floating realm came to ruin. And the diverse and challenging foes we face force us to frequently shift tactics, switching between a healthy variety of attacks and defensive moves.
Still, it's the raconteur you'll remember. His reliable presence and witty observations lend the proceedings a storybook-like atmosphere that's fresh, endearing, and unlike anything else in the world of games.
From Dust (Ubisoft Montpellie; Everyone 10+)
This unusual god game sees players become nearly omnipotent idols to tiny tribesmen trying to spread across harsh, inhospitable lands.
With simple button depressions we can move earth to create dams, use molten magma to fashion tsunami-blocking seawalls, and even perform the occasional miracle, like gelling water to help our wee worshippers walk across raging rivers.
The physics at play -- H2O acts just like the real thing, swelling when blocked and spreading to find the path of least resistance -- are immediately engaging, and beg players to experiment with their geological powers. Sadly, it turns out to be a bit of a tease. Most missions hem us in with rigid objectives and leave little room for sandbox-style play.
I had fun, but wished I'd been given freedom more befitting a god.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Fuel Cell/Shadow Planet Productions; Everyone)
Players take the helm of a versatile flying saucer in this vividly named side-scrolling action/puzzler, which is set in an enormous maze of winding caverns filled with exotic and aggressive aliens.
The hook rests in our saucer's toolset. At our disposal is a handy scanner that can identify obstacles and suggest potential solutions, a grabber that can pluck rocks and other objects from the environment to help create new routes, and weapons and shields invaluable to the purpose of fending off the inky extraterrestrial menace.
This problem-solving gear, which is found scattered throughout the game, combines with a large, free-to-roam labyrinth to create an experience oddly akin to classic Metroid games. However, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet's unusual aesthetic -- the world is presented in craggy, misshapen silhouettes set against dark blue, copper, and green backgrounds -- give this alluring indie a flavour all its own.