In the Indie area of EGX in September 2017, I spoke to an engaging and enthusiastic Gareth Jenkins about a new project soon to be published by his studio Odd Chamber.
Gareth’s been a long time graphics developer, but after migrating to Unity decided that his latest concept, Lorsbruck 1978 merited publication. The early demo was available to play, so I had a good run then discussed his plans for the game with him at some length. The demo was even listed by Alphr on their roundup of games to watch from EGX .
Five months later, on the 9th of February, the game was released onto Steam, so I was interested to see how it had evolved from his early concepts.
The game bills itself as a low-poly, retro, frustrating downhill skiing game. The original scope and idea around Lorsbruck was extremely tempting: To have a game which modeled a downhill skiing team season, allocating rest periods, training sessions and food for each of your skiers to get them ‘ready’ for the events that you’d ski.
Unfortunately the team management has been dropped from the scope. When asked about it, Gareth was kind enough to respond, telling me:
…it was on the schedule at EGX but people responded better to the hard/hardcore skiing and it didn’t really fit very well with what’s become a score-chasing game so we dropped it…
So, the game has become a more casual simplistic score-chaser instead which, in all honesty, will probably will appeal to more people.
Meet the team
Your team consists of four skiers; The all-rounder, the slow-and-steady-one, the fast-one, and the twitchy-one. The aim is to place all four in the top six on every run in the game, of which there are ten in the main game.
The skier models are rudimentary with simplistic animations. Lorsbruck uses a flat-looking “human cutout” shape, bending it in an ‘S’ shape to create poses. The algorithm to determine the right pose reverts you to standing bolt upright in a crash, this can result in bizarreness as a rigidly-upright gingerbread skier tumbles or leans over at bizarre angles when hitting a rock, landing horizontally, or sliding along with their skis pointing straight downwards.
When tumbling, your centre of rotation (i.e. gravity) feels suspiciously low and far back, giving the rotation an unrealistic feel to me. Recognising this, Gareth responded…
…The models were a stylistic choice so there may be some tweaks (particularly to one or two animations)…
So the skier designs may get a tweak to look more lifelike at some point.
The courses are pleasantly designed, with nicely placed gates, big rocks to avoid and interesting slopes. Some of the ‘black run’ courses remind me of the dangerous switch-backs and ice-bridges of games like SSX, so at times it feels more like a snowboarding game than skiing.
The game makes heavy use of anti-aliasing, bloom and fogging effects to give a very dreamy misty-landscape even on modest hardware. Often the player’s eye is fixed on the skier right in front of the camera, but looking into the distance can give a lovely sense of scale, with distant mountains, buildings and trees faintly in the background.
The gates do require some skill, a modicum of luck and good memory to hit each one. When you fluff a gate, the game allows you to reset from the last gate or start the course over. Allowing you to go from the last gate allows you to retry a section, but so much time is lost, it’s very hard to get into the top 6, so its main use is when learning.
Controls and Gameplay
Like driving games where you need to slow for some corners, Lorsbruck requires the same kind of speed control tailored to each team mate, so practice is key. Turning while holding the “faster” key is a much slower affair than turning without your foot on the gas pedal. Slamming on the brakes to correct an incorrect turn, however, can result in the controls becoming even more twitchy, so the controls take some time to get used to.
Each team-mate has a description of their strengths and weaknesses. On the ground, each feels slightly different, and even feels different at different speeds. But in the air, the skiers rotate and pivot like a spinning top. This massive difference in agility can really catch you out if you’re mid-turn and you hit a bump.
If your skis leave the ground, landing again, the physics engine seems to have a problem calculating the resultant effect on heading, often resulting in your skier taking an abrupt turn, falling over or just becoming wildly uncontrollable.
On some small humps the skier will leave the ground and just start pitching to the left or right with no input, so you have to make adjustments in the air, knowing that the moment you land, your interference could result in the end of the run. If you accidentally hold the “W” for too long after a take-off, the skier will start a forward-roll with invariably ends up going badly wrong also.
Because of these, the controls often feel imprecise and unpredictable. This, I think, adds about 50% to the frustration. I’d say 25% comes from the fact that after you land from a larger jump the skier’s response to the controls can vary wildly as they bounce around leading to some really aggravating failures on an otherwise spotless run.
This leads to the last quarter of the frustration: The blind turns and jumps. Given that you have to make fast blind jumps, if you land ever-so-slightly wrong, correction will result in a crash. You must always aim to land either 100% spot-on target, or somewhere where you don’t need to touch the controls for a few seconds, and let the landing stabilise out.
The camera tracking is slow and relaxing, smoothing out corners and giving a nice wide-field shot. However it lags behind the player’s moves when you need to make a few very fast corners, which can leave your skier off-screen for a vital second or so. It also makes lining up a jump hard when the jump comes after a turn.
The difficulty of control is also exacerbated due to the fact that due to the simplistic graphics you’re often unable to gauge your height in the air from the ground.
Regarding the handling and the skier models, Gareth was very kind to respond to my question about whether the game would be tweaked:
… The handling is a core part of the game, the entire mountain was built around the handling of the skiers, so although I appreciate it takes some getting used to, that definitely won’t change. If we were to add additional courses they would also be built around the same handling and per-skier variation…
So long as your feet remain on the ground, the skiing simulation feels mostly authentic, the moment you get to rough terrain, or do a jump, the handling goes all kinds of unpredictable. Although I admire him for sticking with his vision for a simplistic score-chaser, unfortunately, because the handling is so unpredictable, I find myself less and less inclined to chase those top spots in the more difficult courses.
The game has some nice ambient music. Skiing downhill to the relaxing music in the dreamy visuals can almost make up for the simplistic models and tricky controls. The swish-swish of the skis and the bing of passing through the gates is also satisfying watching your position on the leaderboard improve as you take a better line through the gates.
I would prefer a wider variety of songs, though, and a little more ambience and level-sounds, like animal sounds, crowds. Also, since it’s 1978, some crowds lining the track, ringing cow-bells like on “Ski-sunday” might have added a little ‘free’ ambience.
To me, Lorsbruck 1978 feels like a 3D version of Ski-Free, (from the Best of Windows Entertainment Pack), a nice little app which just let you do a bunch of skiing things, but doesn’t pretend to be a full-on ski simulator.
It doesn’t ask for hours of your time in one sitting, so fits into the “casual” section of the games library. It’s a fun little score-chaser toy where you have to practice how to make the little skiers get the best score.
Because of this, the game feels like it would find a more forgiving home at a slightly lower price point on a mobile platform than on PC. Given the competition from other higher-budget skiing sims on Steam, there’s a certain expectation on the physics and handling which the game sadly fails to deliver.
I found myself immensely frustrated by a few levels, feeling like I passed them more out of luck, than skill. It’s a shame really, because the rest of the game is quite well put together. Just the frustratingly unpredictable handling lets it down, and will no doubt reduce some players to smashing their fists off the desk in annoyance, or giving up.
I’m not into masochistic score-chasers, so my mind will always return to the impeccable handling in other Skiing and snowboarding sims currently around, and I just find myself thinking I should play those instead. If Odd Chamber improved the models (at least let the skis stay on their feet!), and ironed out the most frustrating parts of the handling, especially when leaving the ground for a moment, this would score much higher.
You can find out more on their website, on Twitter or on Steam: