Daily Independent: It Belongs in an Ancient Ruin

The Daily Independent is a recurring feature in which we shine a light into the darkened wilderness of indie gaming, illuminating both the good and the bad of what we find there.

You don’t have to be a die-hard cinephile or an uber-nerd to recognize the reference in this game‘s title. It Belongs in an Ancient Ruin is a parodic play on Indiana Jones’s signature prounouncement, and the game it introduces is heavily steeped in Jonesian humor. You play “Philadelphia Smith,” an adventurer with a striking, albeit pixelated resemblance to Harrison Ford’s iconic hero. Instead of infiltrating temples, removing their artifacts, and adding them to the collections at Barnett College, Smith does the opposite, breaking into museums and taking the artifacts back to the titular Ancient Ruins.

Designed in a decidedly old-school platforming style, the game is comprised of two phases. The first involves sneaking into the museum. There are various security measures in place to prevent this from happening: Spotlights rotate on the walls, deploying lighting effects that are one of the rare concessions to modern game design technology. Guards patrol the hall with flashlights. Spend too much time in the light, and you’ll trigger an alarm, unleashing a flotilla of security bots that will make life difficult. To avoid detection, Smith can swing (with his trusty whip, natch) off conveniently placed hooks, or hide in shrubbery until an inconvenient guard has passed him by. Players will have to trigger well-defended switches before reaching the artifact, and gold coins and collectibles scattered around the level provide an extra incentive to explore. The stealth gameplay is pretty low-impact, but amusing enough.

After sneaking through a museum and retrieving an artifact, the second phase of the game begins: making your way through the ancient temple to put the artifact back where it “belongs.” This section is comprised of much more traditional platforming gameplay, with lava pits and bats swooping down from the ceiling, and it gets frustrating quickly. “Belongs” is a product of the DigiPen Institute of Technology, and it occasionally shows its roots as a student project, particularly once you get to the Ruins. Every mistake means instant death, a problem that the game’s designers tried to solve with frequent checkpoints, which take the form of hat racks upon which Smith can deposit his signature fedora.

The hat racks are, without doubt, a clever gag, but their presence amounts to a game design mistake. Rather than take the time to retune the difficulty, or fix their wonky climbable vines (which are often conspicuously not climbable), Belong’s designers rely too heavily on trial-and-error. I often found myself attempting a jump over and over and over, respawing after every failure right at the ledge from which I had to leap. The aggravating sound effect that the game plays when you die made this process extra-grating.

Fortunately, the game doesn’t last too long. Even a terrible platformer player like myself should be able to complete it in less than an hour. The ending boss fight with the “Curator” was diverting, though it also relied heavily on the game’s “die 50 times” gameplay balance. If you’re looking to support young indie developers, while enjoying some solid Jones jokes, whip your way over to the free download.

Check out the last two installments of Daily Independent, on SpaceChem and Edge.

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