Tangledeep (PC) Early Access Preview

Developer/Publisher: Impact Gameworks || Outlook: Positive

Tangledeep is the 16-bit roguelike that should be on your radar.  A beautifully artistic, colorful, and lore-based game that will seemingly have much to offer and iterate on when it finally releases later this year, currently planned for December 2017.  Tangledeep pulls deep from the SNES Final Fantasy games in terms of overall aesthetic with music, sound effects, and art but makes it its own with unique gameplay features and iteration.

I can’t praise the games presentation and production value enough.  This is a swell game to immerse yourself in and right down to the text boxes you’ll be hitting that nostalgia bong over and over (nostalgia bong legal for only 30+).  The music is beautifully composed and really sells you into the exploration dynamic of the game’s story.  The lore of Tangledeep is also mysterious and fanciful — it really piques the interest in discovering more about the forest of Tangledeep and figuring out what secrets it holds.  Since Tangledeep is but a snapshot of the rest of the world, you don’t know what visitors you may come upon in the base camp as it seems “guest” vendors are randomized and will sell things that aren’t usually available if you have the money for it.

Obviously, since Tangledeep is a roguelike, there are many roguelike features, and multiple ways to experience the game itself.  The overall progression comes from your town development, although it is a bit sparse in terms of actual benefits to be gained.  You have six plots where you can plant magical seeds that provide food to you at certain increments.  You can also tame beasts using a special item and drag them back to town for later use as a companion.  Many of your first attempts at getting deep into the forest will probably be fruitless as you discover the mechanics and how things work, as well as fiddling around with the different classes (called jobs) available for play and figuring out what works for you.

Gameplay-wise, you’ve got an expansive list of jobs to play with — currently nine.  Each job is unique and actually has a bit of an interesting spin on some of the usual class types, from a lore angle.  “Personal” stories of each of the individual jobs don’t seem to really get in the way of the greater narrative, but the customization and skill-based special actions go a long way in changing up the experience from one run to the next.

Though the game is turn-based, it’s played in real time.  It’s more like a turn-counter with particular actions taking a certain amount of turns to cast or recharge.  There is also an opportunity to pause during hectic moments of combat to plan out what you strategically want to do in case you get in a bind.  You can also progress time without moving, so you don’t need to get out of position.  Levels are procedurally generated, with some side rooms changing up the tileset dramatically, so the game doesn’t get stale at all.  Trying out the different jobs is also part of the fun and each class can be built to focus on different sets of skills depending on you preference, so the iteration just goes that much deeper.

The meta game is always important for a roguelike.  There is an “intended” way to play Tangledeep where you will encounter permadeath at the end of your run, only allowing for any progress in town to stand.  Being called “Heroic Mode,” this gives you the opportunity to switch your job and try out a new spec for the penalty of starting from scratch.  Adventure Mode is another option where instead of encountering permadeath, you will be sent back to town with penalties, losing your unspent Job Points/Money and half of your XP progress.  The penalties are hefty, but much less impactful than a full reset.  “Hardcore Mode” is the same as Heroic Mode, except all progress made with the character is wiped.  Each individual Save Slot is party to as many characters as you think necessary to play with, and you can only “Continue” progress with an Adventure Mode character.

Unfortunately, Tangledeep isn’t exactly the mode user-intuitive when it comes to its menu system.  Menu-hunting is a bit of a pain, and can be confusing at times as to what commands you are telling the menu to do.  Arrow keys don’t work at all, only being able to use the WASD to control a menu (this just feels weird) and using a controller instead also feels clumsy.  When opening the menu, you are not going to the menu you were last in, so if you need to make any tweaks to what you had previously done, its more than one click away when it shouldn’t be any clicks away.  Equipment is also hard to figure out sometimes, since it is hard to compare equipment efficiently and whether or not you are actually equipping an upgrade can be questionable at times.  You have four different weapon slots for changing up your strategy on the fly (ranged vs. melee, for example) — but the inactive ones don’t give you additional stats.  It feels like that there should be more information about equipment in general and how things affect your gameplay but as is it feels too underdeveloped to be satisfying.  You also don’t encounter enough variance or quantity of loot to really have to make interesting decisions as you get by with just equipping whatever has a better rarity quality.  There are also other lesser issues with the logic and layout of the menu that just don’t feel right and needs to be smoothed out before release to make it a more useful tool than it currently is.

Tangledeep has got a lot going for it, and I’m excited to see if more story lives up to my expectations.  I’d really like to see more progression mechanics that allow for strengthening your new characters further as you keep playing.  Refinements to the menu system to be a less frustrating experience is the number one goal in my mind, so hopefully that is on the radar of the developers.  A little more focus on the loot/reward system would also be in order.  Tangledeep is being updated constantly by its developers while in Early Access, so it’ll be an interesting title to watch.

 

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows (PC) Review

Developer: Witching Hour Studios | Publisher: Ysbryd Games || Overall: 8.5/10

One thing I’ve always had an interest in was creating lore from scratch.  I’ve got a couple of projects that I’ve worked on but never got too far in fully fleshing them out into a self-sustaining, interconnected, and intellectually interesting universe.  Masquerada: Songs and Shadows accomplishes this feat while telling an entertaining story and even some gameplay to boot.  While its hard to make all the connections to this and that unless you really pay attention, the developers at Witching Hour Studios really did an amazing job in crossing their Contadini’s and dotting their Regenti’s.  Oh, excuse me, I meant T’s and I’s; sometimes its easier to just make up words and hope you remember what they mean.

The immediate takeaway of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is that it is uniquely themed.  The buildings, words, and the way people dress are considered “Venetian” — to better put it into context, think 17th century Europe.  All of the terms, people’s names, and frankly just about everything is finely crafted in giving this “Venetian” feel.  This is in spite of the game taking place in a fictitious country named Ombre, and obviously not taking place in “Earth’s history” either.  The centerpiece of the lore is the magical masks, called Mascherines, and how their use brings out magical powers that its user would otherwise not be able to have.  From this simple concept grows the impressively detailed political situation of the country of Ombre, with upwards of twenty different factions, groups, organizations, and government entities, all vying for power in the world… and a place in your brain.

In fact, the game is so lore rich that I’ve spent what feels like half of the game time reading rather than playing.  This can be fine to a point, and it is definitely “optional” but if you want the full experience of the narrative, its necessary to take a 10-15 minute break every time a bunch of new lore entries open up in the Codex.  As the story progresses, you’ll unlock one of the grayed out squares in non-sequential order (they are also ordered by categories), and since there are made up names for just about everything and it can be hard to keep track of it all; it’s going to test your patience.  One Codex entry opened up about the relationship between the main character and a good friend of his, and it was probably about two pages worth alone; I didn’t care that much and I just said fuck it!  Sometimes it’s a huge pain to break up the gameplay flow to take these “lore breaks” and is the one obvious flaw of this title.

Obviously, there’s no way they could have included most of what is in the Codex into the actual game, since most of it has to do with everything other than what is immediately going on.  It would have been nice to have been able to experience as side stories or extra quests or something more involved like that.  By my fifth hour, the game felt exclusively just reading/watching an interactive story.  Not to mention, they hide many of the core lore entries on the map and you have to find them by exploring a little bit; this means you can potentially miss them.  The business of the story delivery is cumbersome, but the story is interesting, so I can give them a pass up to a point.  They made up so many fucking terms it’s like I’m reading a different language and its hard not to glaze over terms if you’ve forgotten their meaning.  In the end, the effort on their part and your part go hand in hand.  If you skip over the lore, you are doing yourself a disservice in playing the game.  But it would have been nice if they gave us a Venetian diagram (get it?) or a geographical map at least.

So I’ve talked about the story up until now, and while it is the center feature of this title, there is a battle system.  I would quantify the battle system as “light” — there is no experience grinding and skill points unlock after certain story events.  The talent system is varied enough where you can make different builds or choose different elements (fire, air, water, or earth) for your main character.  You can also set up tactics for your AI teammates, or take direct control of them if you so choose.  The battling takes place mostly with melee attacks and elemental-themed spells.  A group of three or four enemies will spawn and then you just try to kill them before they kill you.  Healing is mostly passive, and attached to other spells that go off, so it isn’t a mechanic that requires a lot of attention.  If an AI teammate falls in battle, you can revive them Call-of-Duty-style by hovering over their body and pressing a button.

Presumably you would replay the game with different builds if you wanted to experience the different intricacies of this battle system, but I can’t say I would personally be interested.  The battles aren’t really that hard on Normal — there is a difficulty slider including “Story,” “Normal,” and “Hard.”  I don’t know why anyone would really want to waste time potentially wiping with a Hard difficulty considering the only reward the game has to offer is more story.  There is no character progression or gameplay elements that motivate you to do well in the battle you just fought or take on a harder challenge for that matter.  Only a few encounters demand elevated knowledge of the battle system and tactics, which is unfortunate.  There’s also not a whole lot of exploration involved; you are basically going down corridors and running around in circles to make sure you pick up any codex entries before you move on to the next area.  Since the story is so heavily scripted I can appreciate that it would be hard to allow freedom of discovery, but nonetheless the beautiful art, music, and professional voice work try to paper over any of these particular faults.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows will hit the “story RPG” itch you might be yearning for.  With its unique Venetian theme, there’s not much that can really compare.  Being overwhelmed with lore words aside, the experience is not as daunting as I may have made it sound like, and while particular points kind of grate my soul, presentation-wise with the Codex entries, I am still well entertained.  Considering the story gets more and more interesting, it’s hard to not want to see the adventure through.  There is also a recently released New Game+ mode that actually adds more content, so you can think of it as a “director’s cut” of sorts with expanded features, dialogue lines, and a couple more boss encounters.

 

Squacklecast Episode 32 – “‘Soft’ Reboot”

This entry is part 32 of 32 in the series The Squacklecast

Another year has passed, and for some reason we finally remembered to do a Squacklecast!

Lots of things have changed, and we talk mostly about Wonder Woman, Batman, and Twin Peaks.

 

We talk about MTV, Ryan Seacrest’s dildos, how Carson Daly will share a burrito with you, and a 15 minute long awkward “ending” to this week’s podcast.

Since my old iMac finally was booted from having an up to date version of Skype, I had to record on my new computer with a new configuration.  We might sound a little different than usual, but hopefully it isn’t bad.  It is easier to set up though, so we may once again be able to do these more often.

See ya next time!

 

Doctor Kvorak’s Obliteration Game (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Freekstorm || Overall: 8.0/10

What were you doing seven years ago?  If I remember correctly, I was probably in the middle of watching every Star Trek series on Netflix.  There’s some stuff I was doing on Squackle back then, like posting Jokes and posting some chats I was having on Chatroulette, apparently.  In the mean time, developer Freekstorm had an idea for a space-themed puzzle game that had a game show feel to it and spent the next seven years making it, and eventually releasing in late July 2017.  In the meantime, Squackle still exists and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek — quite an accomplishment for both of us, I suppose.

Doctor Kvorak’s Obliteration Game took seven years to make.  Seven years is a long time to spend on one game, one concept, and a special kind of motivation was required to get it to release day.  This title seethes “passion project” through and through, and with a little research into the title I was able to find some history on its development, including presentations given by its developers, which gives you a nice insight into how the game came into existence.

Filled with puns, and occasionally written in verse, Doctor Kvorak’s game show he runs, making you choose what to do with the universe.

The theme is what kept my interest throughout — a game show taking place in space, hosted by an all-powerful being known as Doctor Kvorak.  “Liberate or Obliterate” is the tagline of the “game show” as you decide the fate of a planet Doctor Kvorak chooses; often times populated by worthless-sounding beings.   You participate as the character Greeboo from the Planet Noo, and later on, eventually find his “friends” whom you will also control.  While Greeboo is just a vessel for you, the player, the real characters of the game are Doctor Kvorak himself and a hen in an astronaut suit named Eggloot.  The titular character Doctor Kvorak is the antagonist, and sounds like some sort of weird German stereotype added with a Japanese stereotype; subtitles are really required to understand every word he’s saying.  Eggloot is not necessarily a protagonist but antagonizes the antagonist, as they go back and forth with strange writing that all rhymes.  Much of the “story” hits on the same points over and over:  Doctor Kvorak is an evil omnipotent being, and Eggloot is the thorn in his side.  There’s not much in the way of story progression, because you’re going through about fifteen levels of the same formula, but it is all funny/entertaining in the context of the game.

The script is oddly clever at times, and a lot of effort went into the rhyming.  There wasn’t a whole lot of lazy rhymes as far as I could tell, so it really kept up the “charm” in a fairy tale sort of way despite all of the space shit going on.  They slip in and out of the verse dialogue, so it isn’t kept up the entire time, which prevents the rhyming from getting old.  Another interesting thing that happens is Doctor Kvorak talks right into the camera most of the time, towards the player, rather than at Greeboo, who is acknowledged separately.  It gives it a strange “breaking the fourth wall” aspect here as if you are an observer rather than a participant, even though you are controlling a character.

Despite the interesting theme, the gameplay itself is basic.  The puzzles are pretty easy, most are solved with little trouble.   Slow-moving characters draw out the length of game despite the easy puzzles, so the easy-to-figure-out steps take like five minutes to execute rather than one or two.  The puzzle variety is a mix of switches, moving boxes, swapping things around, platforming, and avoiding death.  A large part of the challenge is also in collecting items; there are 50 collectible items (for what purpose I’m not sure) and also 10 pieces of the planet you are trying to save — which seems to be the only actually important thing to collect.  Once you find your friends, you will switch off between the characters to work your way through more elaborate puzzles.  They also each have their own unique set of power-ups that are used in that pursuit.

Most of the puzzles are compartmentalized, meaning you don’t want to go too far ahead before you collect or solve the puzzle for the thing you just saw.  Though, there are times where you’ll loop back around, depending on the level design.  It also seems like you can complete puzzles in ways that aren’t necessarily intended, and I’m not entirely sure that was meant to be.  For example, you can “climb” up a box by pushing it and jumping it at the right angle and velocity, allowing you to access higher platforms.  There’s usually some sort of other puzzle piece that allows you to do this a lot easier after doing some other task.  Another example is how you can use a bunch of boxes to block a laser gun and get an item, when what they really wanted you to do was simply find the switch and turn the laser gun off.  It seems too accidental to be intentional, otherwise more puzzles could be completed “in an unintended way.”  There is also optional VR support, and that seems to add something to the formula, but I don’t have that equipment so I can’t try it.

Character animation is not great, but oddly charming since they are “aliens.”  There are some physics-based animations that are triggered when you fall from a high ledge, or somehow trip.  Cosmetics are a curious addition, and you collect a lot of them.  Most of the outfits are made for Greeboo, it seems, but they serve no real game purpose other than mixing up what you are looking at on the screen.  Otherwise, the puzzle elements look okay and achieve a certain style, almost reminding me of American Gladiators or one of those other ridiculous-looking physical challenge game shows, except… taking place in space.

The game runs smooth at the default settings.  I had increased the sliders to the maximum at one point but couldn’t tell much difference except for in the shadows.  I encountered only one crash after I had increased everything to max; when I launched again the settings were back to default, so I left it there.  Otherwise, there haven’t been many other technical issues.

The soundtrack is a notably positive part of the game.  The music mostly goes with the theme and they’re pretty catchy tunes, which is important since you’ll hear them over and over.  It is hard to pick out how many songs there actually are, but there appear to be 17 according to Steam.  They may slowly get put into the rotation as you get further in levels, so it is hard to tell just how many songs I was hearing at any given time.  Since each level was taking me on average thirty minutes to complete, I felt like I was hearing the same songs.

Unfortunately, the theme of “Liberate or Obliterate” is predetermined.  You have to save every planet to eventually progress to the next set of levels.  It would have been more fun to have some sort of long-term consequence depending on how diligent you were in collecting all of the planet pieces.  Instead you’ll have to replay an entire level and do it right when you miss even just one piece of a world.  The “overworld” is split into three segments, with about six levels on each platform.  They also included a level creator which was sort of hard to futz around with, and wasn’t as intuitive as it needed to be to make it worth using.  Seemed like it may have been some sort of default level-maker included within Unity, but I couldn’t be sure since I’m not experienced with the inner workings of the engine.  There weren’t any other Community maps available, or maybe the feature wasn’t working at all since I couldn’t see anything available.

Overall, the game is not awful, and if I was 12 or 13 this might have been a lot of fun if I was playing it as an entry-level puzzle game.  The puzzle elements are light (perhaps the VR support had something to do with that, I’m not sure), the theme is fun, the characters are “unique” and there is some replayability if you so desired to do speed runs.  The novelty of the title doesn’t really wear off, but the puzzles might be too easy for older players to keep their interest.

Doctor Kvorak’s Obliteration Game is available on Steam.

 

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Prideful Sloth || Overall: 8.5/10

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is the unique exploration/crafting game from indie developer Prideful Sloth.  Usually a game doesn’t make itself unique by omitting, but in this case, the fact that there is absolutely NO combat really provides for an interesting experience.  Exploring, unlocking, and collecting are the main activities that you’ll be participating in, and while it is a slow burn at first, once you get into the rhythm of the game its charm will reveal itself to you.

The entire game takes place on a secluded island named Gemea.  As a nameless human vacuum, you’ve come by boat to clean Gemea of its crafting materials.  I call you a nameless human vacuum because you are provided no name, and also because for the first two hours you’ll be doing nothing but picking up rocks, sticks, flowers, and random shit on the ground with no idea what to do with any of it.  You’ll stumble upon a couple of quests that will send you every which way across Gemea, picking up even more rocks and sticks until you realize you have about 200 of each, and then you question the meaning of life and existence.  Is there a reason why Gemea doesn’t have some bureaucratic government agency to do this for them already?  They obviously have some sort of problem with rocks and sticks.  I guess the main threat of the game has libertarian motives.

The quests you happen to stumble upon are very simple, and the quest-givers look the same/animate the same way.  You go around and complete quests for the sake of completing them, sometimes getting useful rewards, but often you’ll get nothing for your efforts.  Each zone has a number of things to do, and as you complete them you’ll be notified.  The main story sees you collecting Sprites, which allow you to unlock blocked off areas, covered by a magical dark mist called “Murk.” While the story set up could have been a bit more impactful and set up the island/scenario in a more elaborate way, it seems like most of this was intentionally left extremely simple and you are forced to “fill in the blanks.”  There aren’t really any charming characters, and most of what you do is by happenstance and not necessarily because you wanted to.  There are at least some important quests that take more effort to complete than others, but most of the unique areas associated with the main quest will only need to be visited once, it seems.

The best way to describe this game is a mix of Dark Cloud or Zelda and Stardew Valley, but removing all combat.  The story sensibilities of a generic hero-type character who has come to save the island by collecting magical Sprites that only s/he can see, reminds me of an old 3D fantasy-adventure game.  Exploration is a big part of this game, and you’ll constantly be finding new nooks and crannies as you accomplish goals across the island.  You’ll also begin to run an assortment of farms, one in each zone, but there is very little maintenance or work that is required to be done on these farms.  You aren’t planting and watering crops, but rather leaving animals in pens and picking up the materials they produce.  Each animal creates different materials, so you’d want to have a variety across the farms.  There is even less maintenance required once you hire a farm hand that will essentially do what you need to do on each of these farms, freeing you up for more of the regular tasks and exploration across the island.

While Yonder is a relaxing game, it is mostly about exploring, and I found myself constantly making detours to suck up all of the random shit I could.  I had no idea why I needed to pick any of them up before I could actually craft with them, but I did it anyway.  Until you learn how to actually craft, you will get by by taking advantage of the barter economy.  It is a bit odd since all of the things you will initially be trading are just strewn about the island so freely, but that fact is reflected in the “Value” of the items you are trading.  Since there is no traditional currency, you’ll just have to fill your bags with everything you don’t want and then trade for something you do want.  The only purpose to trade is to craft or complete quests, at the end of the day.  There are a number of traders in each of the villages and once you meet or exceed the value of what you are trading for, the deal can be completed.  You’ll want to have the value of both sides be as equal as possible so you don’t lose out on materials in a bad trade.

Crafting is a large part of the game, and each profession has its own town where you’ll embark on a quest to learn a few recipes and then become a Master.  Once you actually begin these Master crafter quests, you’ll be wishing you didn’t skip any resources up until this point because you’ll realize you need like another thousand more of everything.  You’ll eventually start taking quests that require you to use your crafting talents to complete, but sometimes its easier to just trade for what you want than going through the motions of crafting.  There are also trading posts which provide a unique material that can only be created there, so you’ll have to bring the prerequisite with you if you need them.

The island of Gemea is a sizeable area to explore.  It is larger than it may seem when looking at a map but it doesn’t take very long to get across it, either.  The transition between each zone is very natural and you almost can’t tell you’re in the next zone sometimes.  The different biomes give enough variety while still being “realistic” in that you could expect grasslands to be next to a forest, and that a desert would be on its own secluded area away from the main island.  Not that they are necessarily needed, but there are no survival mechanics such as getting tired or hungry, despite there being a day/year counter.  You can run around on the island for two years straight and you don’t get tired or hungry.

As with all games nowadays, new additions are inevitable.  If combat were ever introduced, it would be nice to break up the monotony of running around unfettered forever, but I understand why they didn’t include it in the game initially.  It would ruin the main “threat,” which is the Murk and the underlying reason why it has spread across Gemea.  While it doesn’t matter to me that generic puffy people who ask me to do inane tasks are under threat from the Murk, my real connection comes with how beautiful the island itself is, and wanting to see it preserved.

At first I was not a big fan of the art-style, but as I grew accustom to it, it is probably one of the prettiest games I’ve played recently.  Every single part of the island is a joy to be in and I love being in all of the different biomes, seeing what new things I can find despite having already been there.  One of the great things about Yonder is that new things can constantly be found or unlocked due to progression or simply because you didn’t stumble across the thing before.  Fast-travel points are also in only-barely-convenient places and require a quest to be completed before being able to connect to the travel network at that location.  So, sometimes fast travel might be more annoying than regular travel.

No loading screens past the first loading screen is also great for not breaking the immersion.  Cutscenes are used sparingly, as well, but what semblance of a main story there is, often has you listening to a very large Sprite telling you where the Murk comes from and how to fix Gemea’s problem.  The superb sound design really delivers in creating the right mood and feeling for each biome, with the music supplementing the ambient noise.

The only real fault of Yonder is that if you are not intent on giving it a chance, you may not find enough to motivate you to keep going; it is a very slow burn.  It wasn’t until around the six hour mark where the game “clicked” for me.  By the time I had begun writing this review I had put in nearly eight hours of game time; typically I’m able to formulate my opinion about a game way before that.  Because there is so much to explore on the island of Gemea, there is a lot of potential game time, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.  If the game grabbed me earlier in the process with some sort of interesting character to latch onto or being forced into the main story for just a couple of quests, I would have personally had a favorable opinion a lot quicker.  As is, after the introduction they instead dump you in the middle of the first zone where you can have at all of the rocks and sticks you can suck up into the singularity you call your backpack.

As previously mentioned, there’s a lot to explore and do in Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles.  Give it a good few hours before making your mind up on it and you may just find one of the indie hits of the year beneath the “real-life Murk.”  Being a human vacuum doesn’t really go away, but at least you’ll be using the crafting materials for something… eventually.

 

First Strike: Final Hour (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Blindflug Studios || Overall: 6.0/10

Final Strike: First Hour is a real-time strategy game that gives you command of a nuclear superpower.  Your one and only goal is to destroy everyone else in the world and do it before they destroy you.  As a mobile port to PC, it’s lack of content and lack of sensibility for the platform it has *ahem* launched on are the largest drawbacks to the game.  After about fifteen minutes into my first game, I wanted to send a nuclear missile at myself just to end it quicker.

Final First: Strike Hour allows you to take control of a multitude of different countries as a starting point.  While they don’t have much in the way of actual differences, your starting point and concentration of “Nations” to take over will force you to adjust your strategy so that you aren’t immediately wiped out.  If you choose to start in the USA, you are able to more focus on attacking since the “Nation” land masses are much larger and one nuke can only destroy one at a time.  However, if you choose Western Europe, which has a high concentration of countries, one incoming nuke can easily take out three in one go.  The benefit to being in Western Europe is that you basically have easy access to most of the world and can expand much more quickly due to the increased amount of Nations you are able to take over.

Strike First: Hour Final doesn’t have much in the way of resources, other than what you use to attack and defend.  Cruise missiles and ICBMs have to be used tactically to eliminate your enemy to the point they can no longer expand.  Once you tell a Nation to do something, it goes on a long cooldown, at which point it becomes helpless.  If you or your enemy take advantage of these cooldown phases, you’ll be able to make a large dent in their capabilities to further their goal.  If you don’t want a Nation to build missiles, you can have it research, which leads down a tech path to your superweapons, of which you get two.  There are two tech trees and you’ll need to research everything; each research item grants a buff to allow you to get an upper hand (if your enemy hasn’t already researched it already, that is).

Hour Strike: First Final is kind of boring, and very dependent on micromanaging your Nations.  There is no way to select multiple Nations or mass produce your nukes.  You’ll have to click on each individual Nation you currently have and tell them what to do, and eventually it gets to the point of clicking things as fast you can just so that things keep happening, making it difficult to make truly strategic decisions.  Of course since the game is singleplayer only, you’ll be fighting against the computer, who doesn’t need to click shit, so they can just sit back and watch their missiles blow your shit up while you have to click on floating circles and wonder why your nuke won’t launch even though you’re clicking a bunch of times on the map.

Strike Final: Hour First has very little in the way of content.  There is no multiplayer (though, I wouldn’t want it anyway), no “campaign” (it is all essentially free-play), and very little to shake up the formula or do something different.  There’s plenty of countries and weapons to unlock, and there are also achievements to achieve if you so desired.  The look of the game is more-or-less what you’d expect, having a military-war-game-computer sort of feel.  The music is not varied enough, and it felt like I was listening to the same one or two songs throughout, with some shorter interludes weaved in as things occurred in the game.  After one or two games, it sort of begged why you’d want to keep going since you’ve essentially seen what the game has to offer.  If the game as is works for you, there’s definitely a lot of potential to replay, working towards the different unlocks.

All in all, Strike Strike: Hour Hour isn’t a game that held my interest.  Hell, it’s hard for me to even remember what the name of the game is!  It’s a competent piece of software, honestly, no bugs, no real issues with the play experience itself.  There was nothing impeding me being able to play the game as it was designed — it is just too simple to give it much attention.  It’s frankly just your typical example of when a mobile game port doesn’t translate very well to the PC at an intrinsic level.

 

MidBoss (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Kitsune Games || Overall: 5.0/10

Not every game can be a winner.  MidBoss kind of stinks, and that’s unfortunate because the concept was interesting on its outset.  I’m a sucker for taking over your enemies or learning their abilities, and MidBoss is all about doing just that.  The idea being, that you slowly work your way up in possessing stronger and stronger enemies — hey, that’s cool!

Unfortunately, it isn’t very cool.

MidBoss lands in the range of “playable.”  Considering the array of games available nowadays, you can’t get away with a game simply qualifying as such.  The foundation is there, but the key thing that is missing is VARIETY, especially when you’re talking about a roguelike.  The map you play on never changes, the diversity of monsters is very low (nor are they very exciting), and the roguelike element itself leaves a lot to be desired.  MidBoss tries to be a loot game, but the loot sucks; half of the stats don’t make much perceivable impact on how you play.  It is also a turn-based game, but the controls are wonky at best; controllers can’t even be used!  I don’t really enjoy holding down my mouse click for 90% of the game, and using the keyboard is even more frustrating than that for some reason.  It sort of boggles my mind why turn-based grid movement that is Isomtric is 4-sided rather than hexagons.  There’s also practically no animation — though the art is okay, it is boring except for a few stand-outs.  It also reminds me mostly of a DOS-era art style, straight out of the early 1990’s.

You hit a ton of crates, shelves, and chests to find crap, equip the crap, then try to find more crap to swap out.  For some reason you have to identify loot in this game, but none of the loot is very exciting to begin with so it isn’t even worth the extra clicks to unlock useless stats.  You find a vendor, eventually, where you can unload your awful gear for Balls of Yarn (the game’s currency), which is pretty funny to do… but only to a certain point.  That’s when you realize you just want to vendor everything you came across.

The roguelike mechanics are perhaps the only moderately-well executed part here.  They revolve around the concept of “Death Cards” in which each run (after you die) is memorialized in a screenshot of you dying, along with a snapshot of all of your gear and abilities.  You can share this card with other people so they can play your seed and with your equipment, if you are so inclined.  When starting a new game, you can also take one item from each of your previous deaths (up to six individual cards) one time.  So, let’s say you play from scratch six times and were able to get one legendary item in each run — in your seventh run you’d be able to pick all of the best items from the previous six runs and start out with them.  This improves your chances to get further in the game, but if you die you’ll lose all but one of these pieces of gear.  Other than this, there is no meta game — no way to improve, collect, or slowly rise in power to be able to get further.  There are a limited number of floors, so it’s not like it goes on endlessly.  Of course this shows how there isn’t really a need for a grander meta game, but that’s besides the point.  Most of all there isn’t really a “different” way to play the game, or extra variations on the formula to keep it fresh; you’ll be in pursuit of trying to perfect your runs using what you’ve already been introduced to.

The story is a bit humorous, but barebones.  You play as an Imp named “Boss” and along with his chatty tutorial companion “Mid” you’ll work your way through all of the heels in the dungeon after your face turn.  I guess health insurance premiums just got too outrageous in the dungeon business, so “Boss” goes on a workplace violence rampage.  And since Boss is no longer willing to accept the role of beginning-experience-fodder, his goal is to possess stronger and stronger enemies and to eventually become the actual Boss of the dungeon.  This sounds a lot like a normal work atmosphere, doesn’t it?  Just wait until you get to ogle the hot chick while you are getting coffee.  And then jerking it in the bathroom to keep yourself from spontaneously ejaculating in the middle of the office and into your fresh coffee.  You better hope the copy machine has a technical issue, am I right?  …I don’t know where I’m going with this anymore.

Since it seems like updates are planned for MidBoss in the future, a few of these concerns might pan out and the game could become more interesting, but as of right now it is pretty boring and actually tiring to play.  While it’s unfair to completely characterize the game as “Early Access,” it isn’t far from it.  I can appreciate completing initial development of a game and saying “this is our vision,” but when you are severely lacking content and have to hope whatever comes down the pipeline in updates remedies your initial issues, there are consequences to be had by that.

 

They Would Deny It Was Ground Zero

A lone police car drives down the freeway, north bound. It is midday and the air inside the car is stuffy, but the officer doesn’t mind; the cool December air makes his bones ache. Officer Owens had pale white skin, with greying hair. He had an aged face, but looked fairly clean. The officer sighed and shifted in his seat, his stomach growled. He looked up at his rearview mirror and saw the young man he had in his car.  “You know, I could go for some hot dogs right now.” The young man looked up at Owens and their eyes met for a brief moment before Owens shifted his attention back to the road. No response. Owens looked back at the rearview mirror. The young man was looking out the window, his eyes were deep and sullen and his shoulders sagged. He looked as though he was in his mid-twenties, an Asian man, his hair was black and he was wearing a suit. The man’s tie was missing and his top button was undone. The bags under his eyes looked like shadows and his hands were slightly shaking. “I figure you didn’t do it then.”

The young man looked up at Owens, surprised, “What?”

“I said, ‘I figure you didn’t do it.’” Owens’ attention moved between the road and the young man, “I’ve been doin’ this for a while now, babysittin’ criminals, I mean. I’d like to think that I can tell the difference now.” The young man looked down at his feet and back out the window. “Like, there was this one fella,” Owens continued, “he was probably one of the biggest, meanest kind of folk you’d expect to go to jail but he was kickin’ and screamin’ the whole way to the courthouse!” Owen chuckled, “He was cryin’ ‘I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!’” Owens imitated the man reciting the words through fake tears.

There was a pause. “So, did he do it?” the young man asked,

“Did he do it? They caught him red handed stickin’ the knife into his wife!” Owens cried, “Poor bastard… got what he deserved though.”

“They put him to death?”

“Naw, but to spend the rest of your life in prison, might as well be, eh?” The young man sighed and there was another moment silence. “You from around here?”

“Look, would it be alright if we didn’t talk? I have a lot on my mind.”

Owens scoffed, “My car, my rules.” he looked back in his rearview mirror, “I’m missin’ dinner with the wife cause of you.” The young man sighed, he looked up at Owens who was staring at him through the rearview mirror, but his attention shifted towards the man, slowly shuffling across the freeway. “So you have a name?–”

“Look out!”

Owens looked back down at the road, but it was too late. In a flash, a thick mixture of black, red, and gray sprayed onto the windshield as the officer slammed on the breaks. The wheel violently spun to the left as Owens slowly began to lose control of the car. In a panic, Owens uses all his strength to turn the wheel right to gain stability, but shortly after the sound of metal crashing from the passenger side – a force slammed into the police vehicle, flipping it into the air.  The police vehicle landed on its side then slowly tipped over as it went back onto all four wheels.  The black, red, and gray mixture slowly corroded through the window as the police officer groaned from being tossed around in the car.

The young man had a scared look on his face as he looked outside, trying to see who was there.  Looking through the smudged windows, he could only see a few different silhouettes.

“Give me the keys!”

Officer Owens held onto his forehead trying to regain his awareness.  He didn’t understand the request.

“What?  Why?”

“There are things that you don’t understand that will happen.  The only way you’re going to live is by trusting me.  Now, GIVE ME THE KEYS!”

Officer Owens unhooked his seat belt as the windshield completely corroded off the car.  The seeping liquid began to burn through the dashboard.

“What is this stuff?”

“It’s called Red Tar.  It is a biological secretion.”

“BIOLOGICAL??”

Officer Owens retrieved his shotgun from the center divider and smashed the driver side window open.  He crawled through the window and looked around.  There was absolutely no one in sight, and strangely, no cars, either, on the freeway.

“I don’t see anyone…”

“It’s not something I can explain in a minute.  You’re going to have to release me if you want to have any chance of surviving!”  The young man yelled from inside the car.

“I’m not releasing you until you explain everything – not after what you might have done.”

“You said it yourself – you didn’t think I did it – and that’s the truth.  The ones that did it are here, right now.”

Officer Owens tried the door, but it was jammed.  He smacked the window a couple of times with the butt of his shotgun and it smashed open.  He dragged the young man out of the window and on the floor, with one knee on his back.

“You make one move that I think is going to even mess up my hair — you’ll be seeing the ground permanently.”

Before the keys made its way out of his pocket, a figure appeared behind the police car, with an elaborate handgun drawn.  Officer Owens pivoted on his position toward the man and pumped his shotgun.

“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!  DROP YOUR WEAPON!  NOW!”

Officer Owens stood his ground on top of the young man, but without even a word or slowing down the man lifted his handgun and shot Officer Owens in the arm, forcing him to drop the shotgun.  In two more strides, the man kicked Officer Owens in the shoulder, and launched him ten feet away from the police car.  Officer Owens’s shotgun flew off to the side as he launched into the air.

“Hello, Cassidy.  Did you think you’d get away so easily?”

“Jack, don’t do this.”  The young man said.

“Do what?  I’m not going to do anything.  As long as you cooperate…  Like you should have earlier today.”

“You know there’s a reason I don’t want to have anything to do with you and your ilk,” Cassidy rebutted.

“And what would that be, little Cassidy?” Jack pulled in closer towards the handcuffed Cassidy on the floor.

“You have no sense of style!”  Cassidy flipped on the floor, turning his body around and slammed his foot into Jack’s face.  Cassidy’s leather dress shoes left an imprint in Jack’s face as he fell backwards in astonishment.  Cassidy used his momentum to upright himself and run towards Officer Owens to retrieve the keys that fell out of his pocket on the impact to try to unhook the handcuffs tying him.

“CASSIDY!”  Jack yelled in anger as he spat “blood” on the floor.  But it was Red Tar, not blood – it slowly corroded the ground beneath Jack.

Jack stood up and brushed his long hair back quickly before he got ready to begin shooting with his customized handgun weapon.  It was gold, with sharp edges and three short, retractable blades attached to the barrel.  The ammunition chamber was customized to spin at a high rate between each shot to charge energy.

Cassidy quickly unhooked only one of the handcuffs before he was forced to begin dodging the flying charged shots from Jack Smack’s H2SID Inertia Gun.  He pulled Officer Owens and rolled him behind the police car quickly after a couple of shots tore up the asphalt around them.

Jack ran up to the police car and threw the car into the air past Cassidy and Owens.

“What’s the matter, Cassidy?  Are you too scared to let your new friend get hurt?”

“He has no quarrel in this.”

“That’s for you to decide, not me.”

Jack clicked a switch on his inertia gun, and the three retractable blades came out of their sheaths.  The handle on the gun straightened out to allow the gun to have a longer and more flush feel with the intended use of the gun’s mode – to stab and twist.

Jack took two quick steps forward and raised his gun to slash across at Cassidy.  Cassidy maneuvered forward, dodging the slash and slammed his shoulder into Jack’s chest.  Jack stumbled back and Cassidy took a left hook into Jack’s face.  Jack turned around from the force of the punch and Cassidy threw a kick straight into his back, in turn, making Jack fly forward and onto the floor again.

At this moment, it was Crellit Kard that made his entrance — standing on top of the flipped-over police car, slowly clapping the accomplishment of Cassidy.

“Most impressive.  I always enjoy seeing Jack getting outclassed… and outgunned.”  Crellit snickered to himself.

Jack picked himself off the floor and took a few steps away from Cassidy, and wiped away some dirt on his leather jacket.

“It’s not like any of this should be surprising to you, Crellit.”  Cassidy said as he kept Jack in his sights.

“SHAZAM!!” Crellit disappeared and reappeared above Cassidy, smacking him in the face with his elbow.

“HUAH!”  Cassidy let out a surprised yell as he smacked onto the ground.  Crellit landed on the ground after him and picked up Cassidy’s leg.  He threw Cassidy into the air and teleported again to knee Cassidy in the face, flipping him in the air and slamming him on the ground again.

Officer Owens began slowly crawling towards the police car to find cover, his left shoulder obviously not working due to being shot.  “I really need some hot dogs right now…” Owens said coyly as he scraped his uniform across the ground and onto the side of the freeway.

As Crellit kept smashing his knee into Cassidy’s face, Jack walked over to the Officer.  “Excuse me, officer.  I have a crime to report…”  Officer Owens, knowing his life was suddenly in jeopardy tried to get up on one leg.  “….MURDER….!” Jack said as he took out the H2SID and pointed it towards Officer Owens’ head.

At that moment, no one saved Officer Owens.  You would expect that someone would have come and saved him, but no one did.  Officer Owens died, hungry and alone.  His brains splattered across the freeway in front of the police car he had served thousands of hours in.  Jack licked his lips as he scooped up Officer Owens’ brains and began eating them vociferously.

Crellit picked up some dirt and threw it in Cassidy’s smashed face.  “I told you that the cable bill was to be paid by the 15th.  Now look at what you made me and Jack do.  We were your roommates Cassidy.  All I wanted to do was watch MSNBC, but no you had to grandstand and say that Netflix was good enough.  You can’t get news coverage on Netflix, Cassidy!  How many times do I have to tell you I need to be politically informed?!”

Cassidy groaned, but no legible response could be heard from him.  “JACK!  Get over here!” Crellit yelled at Jack.  “Tell him what missing out on current events has done to you.  I don’t think Cassidy understands yet.”

“Umm… Cassidy, it is very important because news is like my porn.  Whenever I hear about some new scandal going on I like to go into my room and think about how relevant it is for my jerking off purposes.”

Crellit begrudgingly agrees with his cohort.  “My purpose is much more academic, but I can’t disagree that there is some sexiness involved with this.”

Cassidy rolls his eyes.  “This is not the way I expected this story to end.”

The End.

 

Rocking Pilot (PC) Review

Developer: Gungrounds | Publisher: Mad Head Games || Overall: 8.0/10

I’ve always been a bit soft on bullet hell shmup games.  I mostly get frustrated at how cheap some of the elements can be and well, just the ridiculous amount of <curse in Xartraxian> flying around never screamed “fun!” to me.  Rocking Pilot is a top-down twin-stick shooter that nestles right in with others in the genre.  The titular character is a sarcastic romp through a futuristic war story that has the appropriate amount of tongue-in-cheek and rockin’ tunes keeps the pace up, the adrenaline flowing, and the decibels rising!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  YEAHHHHH!!!!!

Rocking Pilot is a pretty simple concept.  You shoot stuff and stuff blows up.  However, the unique feature is using your helicopter’s propellers as a weapon as well.  You can consider it a “melee attack,” going right up to the enemy, mowing them down, or enabling Overdrive, which makes you temporarily invincible and empowered to kill and deflect everything.  Besides that, using Overdrive tactically is a necessity, otherwise you die, so you cant really use it on cooldown.  Many enemies also require you to use Overdrive to kill them, so having a limited amount of Overdrive charge becomes an important resource to manage.

Game progression is interesting, taking its cue from mobile game trends.  There are four worlds to unlock, each with about 10 levels.  When defeating a level, you’ll earn an assortment of awards, each independent classification (such as “Keys,” “Crowns,” and “Skulls”) unlocking their own string of levels and/or weapons.  Eventually, unlocking all of the weapons available makes your helicopter the most badass helicopter in all of history and all of the upgrades work in tandem.  Power-ups will show up on the board and you’ll temporarily use one of your unlocked weapons; there isn’t much agency here to “choose” which weapons you want to use, but you take what you can get and use it all up.

There’s not much more to the game, but there’s a lot of gameplay to be had.  I had spent about two hours and beat the main storyline, but there were still quite a few levels left to unlock, and most of the upgrades had yet to be discovered.  Once you acquire upgrades it’s well worth going back and trying previous levels you left uncompleted to see if you can earn even more upgrades.  The upgrades definitely make things easier for you and also keep things fresher.  The Score Attack mode available seems to be based on leaderboards, and challenge you to get higher on the board before awarding you, which can be quite an ask.  You can also restart your progress by deleting save data, so if you pine for the half hour where you only had a minigun, no missiles or shotguns and <curse in Xartraxian>, then it’s there for you.  Also, since you die a lot, having to wait a few seconds and physically confirm two times between each retry can get a bit tiresome, and breaks up the fast-paced feel the game tries hard to sustain.

The art is not too bad; it starts out generic at first then gets a little bit more wacky.  Eventually you start fighting aliens and that’s when the art begins to please.  There are some talking-head characters which are very nicely drawn, but this creative look doesn’t seem to carryover at all into the actual game for some reason.  The helicopter is also just some generic-looking helicopter, but maybe that’s the point there.  The sound is also very important in creating the experience of fast-paced craziness.

Rocking Pilot is mostly a challenge waiting to be had.  Once you get through the main story, you’ll have to go back and clean up what you didn’t do the first time around, and then some.  There isn’t anything in the way of a “free play” mode other than the Score Attacks, but those aren’t available on every mission anyway.  You’ll be heading into each mission with particular objectives in mind, most of them fairly unique.  The price tag is also very reasonable and if you are looking for a simpler, contemporary shmup, Rocking Pilot might be your <curse in Xartraxian>.

Rocking Pilot is available on Steam.

 

Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Rice Cooker Republic || Overall: 7.5/10

“Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion” is like one of those game titles that screams at you.  You don’t know what the fuck it is, but it is loud, and your first inclination is to run.  Peel back the layers of potential pretentiousness and in essence, the game is about space, in more ways than one.  Space in the literal sense, the metaphorical sense, and I guess even the hard drive sense.

Cutting to the chase here, Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion is a puzzle game with “exploration” elements.  I suppose most of what you do could be described as exploring, but the world(s) you visit are barren with puzzles sprinkled throughout.  Your real goal in exploration is to learn about the story(?) and solve the puzzles you do eventually find.  Solving puzzles unlocks some more puzzles and eventually you would presumably get to the end of the game.  When you reach the “Epilogue” it seems you are mostly left with a traditional collect-a-thon with orbs strewn about the huge world.

The actual gameplay elements are essentially Minecraft.  You can build, cut, push, and erase blocks on the field in the pursuit of solving 3D puzzles.  The 3D puzzles I was able to encounter were “fill in the monolith,” “fill in the other monolith,” “bounce the line to the rock,” “construct blocks in this manner,” and some other things.  Most of the time the puzzles are done once or twice and you don’t need to do a lot of heavy thinking.  I’m not usually a fan of the whole “make your own fun” genre, but when similar tools are thrust into a constructed experience like Bokida, you get something a lot more freeform within its boundaries.  There isn’t a whole lot of explanation initially about why you are able to do the things you do, at least from what I’ve seen.  Despite what the screenshots convey, you never have to make buildings, though I have no idea if the world is a blank canvas on purpose so that you can fill it in with your creations or what.

The art design, sound, and use of colors are all part of the very intrinsically artistic experience.  This game is equal parts presentation and gameplay, with not much left in the middle.  This would be fine if you actually enjoy this sort of genre of puzzle game that attempts to achieve high art by being purposefully abstract.  Personally, the game just didn’t appeal to me after a couple of hours and I got really bored.  I made it to the “Epilogue” and there wasn’t much more to motivate me to continue exploring further.

Here’s the thing — it’s not awful, buggy, or annoying.  It is very competent and well-designed; I just didn’t like playing it very much.  I liked the way the game made you question how you move through space in a way that only a video game can present it to you: going through a door, turning around and seeing the door no longer there.  Or falling off the edge of a room and landing into the room you just fell from.  I’ve also figured out that falling upwards is annoying as hell and gliding through the air like a jet-propelled feather is an exercise in decision-making rather than physics.  Whatever details you can glean of a story are basically just all proverbs and metaphors and I unfortunately wasn’t really inclined to try and figure out what any of it meant.  The intro cinematic I guess is about a lonely planet trying to find its binary pair that got lost in another dimension, and there’s some Yin & Yang metaphor shit going on.  I suppose the story could just be a puzzle within itself, or it’s possibly just heavy on the religion thing and that all went over my head.

So, I could recommend the game to someone who likes 3D puzzles, high art indie games, or even just to play something out of the ordinary.  It’s just not something that ever clicked with me.  I just didn’t get why I was playing something that frustrated the hell out of me, spending 30+ minutes trying to get the line to the rock.

 

Adam Wolfe (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Mad Head Games || Overall: 8.5/10

“Excuse me, sir.  Are you a Point and Click?” I ask.  A man slowly turns around, obviously annoyed.

“Don’t… assume… my… GENRE!!!”

Adam Wolfe isn’t simply a P&C, bro.  It’s a HOPA and definitely not just an IHOG.  In researching the different acronyms in this apparently expansive puzzle subgenre, I began getting confused.  It’s almost as bad as sexual identity, and depending on who you ask they mean different things.  IHOG means Interactive Hidden Object Game, whereas HOPA means Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game.  It all has a lot to do with “finding things” and doing things in a particular order, like a normal puzzle game would demand.  The “adventure” part is where it gets really fun, though, and you are essentially playing what amounts to an intense Point and Click game.  But fans of this subgenre would probably take that as an insult — it’s much more complicated than that.

“Point and Click doesn’t accurately describe the intricate distinctions that I associate my game playing with.”

Adam Wolfe probably has its design origins in those large puzzle books full of miscellaneous games that you would take 30+ years to go through.  I have like six of them on my shelf and never ended up finishing them since many of the pages didn’t make sense to me (I was in elementary school), and also because I had better things to do.  But besides that, most people would actually have interacted with the kinds of puzzles you see in Adam Wolfe if you went out to family restaurants a lot.  You’re basically going to be getting flashbacks of Denny’s or Coco’s when you have to find the differences between two pictures, or find all of the objects in a stationary picture, among other things.  But if you wanted to integrate a paranormal story filled with murder and gothic imagery, well I’ve got news for you…

Essentially what Adam Wolfe is, is a story about a precariously famous “paranormal detective” who investigates things that are just below his expertise level.  Nothing Adam encounters is particularly surprising, challenging, or amazing to him, but he deals with it in such a manner that he’s definitely “dealt with some shit” in the past, and what he has to do now in his day to day is small potatoes.  Although, the greater narrative, and challenge for Adam himself, is finding his missing sister.  If you’ve ever seen the Sci-Fi Channel show “Dresden Files,” combine that with the “X-Files” and you’ve essentially got the set-up for the story.  While we deal with supernatural content, it isn’t so mature that the story screams “for adults” — its about appropriate for older teenagers, and I was enjoying the story for the most part, despite being much older than a teenager.

Four episodes are available, with each about one-to-two hours long.  While the first episode seemed more or less unrelated to the greater narrative of finding Adam’s sister, Episode 2 gets more involved, with a direct continuance into Episode 3 and 4.  Unlike a few episodic games I’ve played in the past, this one definitely seems a lot more “planned out” in introducing us to the character and then developing him and the story over the course of the next episodes.  There also is a further development of the types of puzzles you’ll encounter, keeping things fresh and interesting.  Challenge is also very flexible, and the game has built-in hints and tips, as well as modifiers to help you have an enjoyable experience.  While I didn’t want the game essentially solving things for me, I know that I get easily frustrated trying to find things when it comes to P&Cs in general, so I chose something in the middle.  At any time you’re able to “skip” the puzzle you’re currently on by reading the guide, or clicking the recharging hint button; the narrative is a lot more fluid as a result and your interest in the game is less likely to wane due to frustration.

The actual kinds of puzzles you’ll be encountering is more or less standard point and click fare, with some notable exceptions.  There will be extra challenges such as “Hidden Object” puzzles where you’ll have to find a series of objects in a pile of stuff in your pursuit to open a tool box or something like that so you can use that tool on a later puzzle.  There’s also matching games, a derivative of the “what’s missing?” comparison between two pictures, and regular jigsaw-type puzzle games where you put pictures back together.  The variety of different games are quite interesting, albeit not so horrendously challenging that you need to try over and over again.  Presentation with the art, sound, dialogue, and voice overs is executed almost perfectly, with stylized graphic novel panels and animation style. If you take the puzzles out of the equation, you are basically involving yourself in a one-to-two hour long episode of a TV show, and the work you do makes the pay off of the story all the more invigorating.

Adam Wolfe is a good time.  It is fun, interesting, and unique if you don’t usually venture into this genre.  The story is the main draw, and has some pretty good writing involved, which is always a concern when you’re dealing with heavily-story based, episodic games.  It also gets pretty intense when you pull out a gun and start shooting monsters, not something you’d normally expect for a “puzzle” game.  It takes a while to get to the conclusion of the story, but like most episodic games, there’s always room for more down the line.

 

Forts (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: EarthWork Games | Overall: 8.0/10

Forts is described as a “physics-based RTS where foes design and build custom bases.”  Think what happens when you mash Angry Birds with Worms and you’ll get the idea of what Forts actually is.   While there is custom base building, it doesn’t inspire much imagination, and ends up being a means to an end rather than going all Minecraft on it.  Satisfying wins, weaponry, and the humorous single player story make this title a recommendable choice to play.

To cut to the chase, I enjoyed what I played of Forts.  While it isn’t that expansive in terms of number of weapons, the style of combat and the race to upgrade is actually quite a unique blend from this perspective.  The physics are very goofy when you have to deal with them on your side, but are quite entertaining when your enemy’s base is exploding.  Though there isn’t a huge variety, the weapons all feel like they have a purpose, have their own powerful upgrades and base design actually affects how they operate.

Unfortunately the biggest standout is that base design is a clunky mess.  It is very hard to expand your base, and there’s not much to help you with understanding how you should and shouldn’t build.  Your expansions can only attach to ground that is classified as “Foundation,” of which there is very little of.  Otherwise, everything else will be hanging off your previous expansions and if you get too risky, things will break off or in the most catastrophic moments, take other pieces of your base with it.  This obviously is meant to reward the better base-builder since both sides will be rushing to build a better base to destroy the others, but it can be frustrating when you don’t know how else you are supposed to build.

The ultimate goal of battles is to destroy your opponent’s Reactor.  The Reactor is located in different places in the base, but is usually in a protected location.  It is also your objective to defend yours until you destroy the enemy’s.  Most of the single player levels challenge you to think of different ways to build your base/weaponry/etc to defeat the AI before they kill you.  The AI seems competent enough on Normal and can still be a worthwhile challenge.  There are also Easy and Hard modes, if you are looking to tune the difficulty a bit.  Other than Single Player, you can play in Skirmish or Sandbox modes.  Skirmish is essentially an easy way to play a 1-on-1 fight against the AI on a chosen map.  Sandbox mode is essentially a “practice” mode where you can build as much as you like and control both players.  Forts also seems like it would be built for multiplayer, as the game is a competition between two sides.  While multiplayer can be fun, it is mostly hit or miss.

The way to join a game is through a Lobby system, rather than matchmaking.  Teams are set, people chat, and then everyone has to ready-up in the Lobby.  This would be fine as an additional mode if there were a lot of options to consider or modify, but the only impactful factor here is in the map selection.  It seems like the game would benefit immensely from matchmaking as its default to join a game and there would be less downtime in trying to find and join a game, with a benefit of randomizing the map.  There are quite a few different maps, with some that require unique tactics.  All of these maps are available through Skirmish and Sandbox modes as well.

With that said, there are other issues with the way the Lobby system technically works.  People may forget to Ready up fast enough delaying the pace of getting into a game.  If someone disconnects, everyone is kicked back to the lobby without warning, and anyone can pause the game without notifying who is doing the pausing.  If one player quits after pausing, then all players get kicked to the lobby.  Even though there are no stats or any sort of meta game to worry about, people who don’t like losing would probably just quit before letting it play out and it spoils the experience for the other people playing.  Joining a lobby game is also hard because if you don’t connect you just get booted back to the server list with no explanation and you may still see the game you tried to join in the server list.  There also doesn’t seem to be a “random” map option, and the couple of times I tried adding an AI player they just didn’t do anything.  I played a couple of multiplayer matches with Unnamedhero, and while he hadn’t been through the single player mode at all, he began to pick up on a few of the mechanics pretty quickly after a couple of matches.  While the tactics and buildings are generally simple, when you are in an arms race against other players, the mastery of all of the mechanics will make for the ultimate challenge within the confines of this title.

The art and music are generally pleasing, and the sound effects are satisfying, especially when your enemy’s reactor explodes.  The single player mode has some very relevant political/war humor; very tongue-in-cheek.  For example, a reference to “Facts News” is an obvious play on “Fox News” and a biting commentary on the network itself.  Too bad Bill O’Reilly wasn’t a playable character.  Or would it be Phil O’Rightly?  I don’t know.  It probably would have been more fun to have more parodies of political/historical figures but instead we got generic commanders and other characters instead.

Forts is pretty recommendable to anyone who enjoys Worms/Angry Birds or are intrigued by a genre mash-up between the two.  I would not recommend the game to leg fetishists, though.  There are not a lot of legs in the game.  But, there are explosions.  Conciliatory prize to leg fetishists looking for a game?  I Report, You Decide.

 

Death Squared (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: SMG Studio | Overall: 9.0/10

It’s not often that wonderful little games blow my fucking mind.  Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Death Squared really surprised me.  A smartly designed, 3D puzzler with enough content and accessibility to stay enjoyable for a long time is exactly what you’ll get with this title.  There are 80 levels for single/co-op play, and not only that, you can play with up to four people in another 40 levels, and even further, there are “experimental” levels that unlock after defeating the Story Mode.

The basic puzzle idea is to place your colored box on the like-colored circle.  Red Box goes on red circle, Blue Box goes on blue circle, etc.  Along the way, more mechanics will be introduced that will create fun challenges that actually make you feel smart when you solve them, such as switches, moving platforms, colored lasers, movable boxes, and other elements.  The 3D nature of the puzzles also gives an interesting perspective as you move along all three axes to get to your goal.

While some levels are harder than others, you’ll inevitably get stuck trying to figure out exactly what you are supposed to do on a puzzle.  You have to respect the process and order in which you do things; if you get too far ahead of yourself, you may just fail — or you might actually figure out the right way to do something.  What is so fun about Death Squared is that sometimes there are multiple paths to victory, or the order of events isn’t so obvious or linear which means you’ll have to experiment.

The game is primarily designed for co-op, but can be played as single player in both the Story and Party modes.  What is also neat is that you can control all players with one controller if you are playing solo in either mode.  In Story Mode, the Blue Box can be controlled with the left stick and the Red Box with the right stick.  Being able to play as 2+ players simultaneously without having to “switch controllers” or press a button to take over the other “player” gives the game a much higher fluidity and frees up the puzzles to anticipate two or more players being able to coordinate with each other at the same time.  In Party Mode, you’ll have to hold down the left or right trigger while using the corresponding stick to take control of the Green Box and Yellow Box.  Once you are in solo command of four boxes, the puzzles could get overwhelming if you don’t plan out every step very carefully — it is already a challenge being responsible for two at the same time, let alone four.

Death is also inevitable, and you’ll be falling off, getting zapped, blowing up, and maybe even flying into the air as you fail the puzzles.  Each death adds one to the death counter which appears in the right-hand corner every time you die.  The story is a humorous foil that strings all of the puzzles together, and you’ll hear bantering voice overs at the beginning of each stage between the AI assistant Iris and human tester David.  Their goal is to test the “AI” (which you control) to see how far it gets and for what purpose they will ultimately serve in the real world.   The jokes fall flat sometimes, but generally it lightens up the atmosphere and David will chime in with some lines as you keep failing over and over.  Replay value is also there as each level records your death count, time spent, and some even have “secrets” to find.

So, with as much praise as I have for the game, why doesn’t it just earn a straight 10?  It’s nearly a perfect game in most aspects, but there are a couple of things that bring it down in my opinion. The substantive criticism is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety.  Yes, the puzzles are wonderfully designed and I really enjoy what is in here… however, there are a lot of levels and by the time you’re on the 40th it can begin to feel a little too samey, and you’ll want to take a break and play another time.  I got to about level 60 before really wanting to have something that breaks up the formula more, but alas I’ve died nearly 500 times already, so I’m still more or less motivated to keep at it.

Now for the nitpicky criticism: I primarily played with an Xbox 360 controller, but the controls can be a bit non-intuitive — sometimes I accidentally moved the left stick when I wanted to actually move the right stick; the controls were fucking with my brain a bit.  Other than the “eyes” on the front of the box saying they are activated, there’s no outright indicator, such as the light on top of each box’s head that you are “now moving Blue Box” or whatever.  Sometimes it’s too late before you notice, which can be needlessly frustrating; it doesn’t necessarily feel like that is “part of the difficulty” here since a large purpose of the game is to be co-operative.  This is easily alleviated by actually having a friend to play with, of course, but I don’t usually have the luxury of asking my housemate to help me play a game since he’s apparently too busy fucking his ex-girlfriend while posting shit on his current girlfriend’s Facebook wall.  And the other one is an 80 year old man who lives in a literal pile of trash.  But I digress!

Art, music, and sound design are also worth noting here.  The art is pretty minimalist, but the boxes have quite a bit of charm to them despite being, well, boxes.  The obstacles and other elements aren’t too exciting otherwise, though.  Music is great, as it would be stuff I’d probably listen to in my spare time.  The voice acting is also pretty good — they actually hired a voice actor named Ricepirate, whom I’ve never heard of, but sounds like a guy I listen to on NPR on my way to my big boy job everyday.  This signifies that effort was put in to make it not sound like its just some guy working for the developer already, and went a long way in joke delivery.

Perhaps Death Squared’s real lesson is to surround yourself with people you can play video games with.  Death Squared is accessible enough that you’d probably even want to play with your very own Trash Man. Even with your Imaginary Friend(s), Death Squared is a lot of fun, so try it out!

 

FZ9: Timeshift (iOS) Review

Developer/Publisher: Hiker Games | Overall: 7.5/10

When it comes to games, there are few things that make me physically cringe just thinking about.  Genres sometimes just don’t belong on the platform they try to be on, first person shooters possibly being the #1 example of what not to play on your phone or tablet.  The thought of analog controls on a touch screen, and being forced to be accurate in your shots is not an appealing thought in my head.  There would probably be a hundred other things I’d rather do, including writing an article lambasting the very thought of having to bother with it.

Here’s the thing with FZ9: Timeshift.  It isn’t terrible.  In fact, it’s playable, and possibly even enjoyable to people with my mindset going into it!  The gameplay hook of having everything in bullet time alleviates the typical frantic pace you would expect from first person shooters and gives you time to adjust and compensate due to the awful control method.  The worst things about the game aren’t even the gameplay itself, but the same old tired restrictions you typically see in a free to play game: two different types of currencies, one being a premium currency, and a time-based Energy “recharge” that allows you to continue playing until you have no more to spend.  There’s also grinding endlessly for “Battle Points” and “Experience Points” to get further in the game, and while you get something of a progression effect for your efforts in doing so, it feels obnoxiously gated.

Of course, these things come with the territory when you commit to a free to play game, I guess.  There has to be a revenue stream somehow.  The restrictions don’t seem too tight, since every couple hours you’ll be back to full speed and able to play for about 15 to 20 minutes or so.  Depending on your lifestyle this may be just fine for you.  For me personally, it breaks up the kinds of games I normally play on my phone, which are almost exclusively in the puzzle genre.

What is really lacking here is a specific hook to make you want to come back and keep playing.  The story is pretty awful on the outset, so that’s not really a motivating factor.  The designs of the missions are essentially on-rails (you move freely, but no exploration is involved, and you move down corridors), so they don’t offer much in different outcomes or things to do.  The missions get a little bit more interesting once you hit Chapter 2, but any semblance of a story is thrown into the garbage.  The missions cost 1 Energy (out of your maximum 10) to play but would be pretty boring to grind, so you may as well just do the Cycle Mission, which costs 2 Energy.  The Cycle Mission is an assortment of challenges that you will randomly get assigned to and complete in pursuit of grinding Battle Points to unlock more talents.  Those missions are actually designed in a lot more fun way than the on-rails shooting the story mode forces you through.  The talents you unlock are linked to unlocking content, which become more challenging.  Once you complete Chapter 2, you’ll unlock a “PVP” mode in which you’ll try to beat another player by completing one of the solo missions faster than they can.  While it is more exciting to play through the solo missions in this way, it costs more Energy, too.

The music is intense as fuck.  During some levels, it weaves in and out between “level music” and “battle music” which can be kind of annoying since you are constantly reengaging with enemies.  It doesn’t seem to happen all of the time, though, so it just seems to rely on how the level is designed.  I always have my phone on silent, so its not really something that mattered to me in the end.  The graphics are something from early PlayStation 2 days, if that — passable for a phone, but not the best you can see on the platform.  You also kill a lot of dogs, so if you like animals more than humans, maybe you should skip this title.  I suppose the dogs ARE trying to kill you, so maybe it won’t be that big of a deal.

If there’s enjoyment to be had out of this game, it is very limited.  While the bullet time aspect of the game makes a playable title for your phone, it doesn’t make it particularly fun or exciting.  There does seem to be quite a few chapters of single player mode, but again, the story is awful, and nothing is really making me want to come back for more of it or anything else.  But hey, it’s free.

 

Loot Rascals (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Hollow Ponds || Overall: 8.0/10

Loot Rascals is one of the most unique-looking games you’ll ever see.  If for no other reason, play it just to see the art.  The other stuff is fine, but geez man… so much fun is to be had just by seeing all of the “Baddies” the developers at Hollow Ponds were able to think up.  Anyway, enough gushing about the art, I guess.  It’s what is underneath that should really count.  And what is underneath, is a turn-based roguelike loot card game.  There’s a bit to unpack there, but once you get the idea around the game, you’ll need a lot of luck and a bit of strategic-thinking to get far into it.

The story is very basic, but fun.  You are a space theme park employee on your way to make repairs, but what you find is that the planet is full of hostile creatures known as “Baddies” who have completely overtaken the planet-sized theme park.  It’s your job to rescue a machine known as “Big Barry” and after your first death, you will be introduced to a strange pink tentacle monster thing that has an interest in helping you save your friend.  Of course the real motivations are left to question, but that’s the set up for you to play in.  Sound design helps in the world building, including the funny sound effects the Baddies make.  The music is also pretty good, but unfortunately doesn’t feature a whole lot of variety.

Movement occurs in a real-time/turn-based environment.  While always being able to move freely, when you move to other hexagonal spaces on the map you’ll use up a turn, of which you have a limited amount before more annoying Baddies come around.  The turns are important to monitor because every five turns, the time will switch from day to night.  Depending on the Baddies that are around you, you will have to strategically plan out which are best attacked depending on what phase you are in.  If you attack a Baddie while it is your advantage, you will be able to attack first, the idea being that you kill them in one hit, or at least hope to take no damage when killing them.  If you don’t attack at the right time or get caught by a Baddie, you will not have the advantage and you will get attacked first — depending on your luck this may or may not have you meet your end.

Loot drops in the form of cards, of which you have ten open slots.  Loot cards are quite wide-ranging and unique, with different modifiers.  These modifiers can either help, hurt, or give you more flexibility, depending on how you place them on the board.  For example, a card may gain +2 Attack if it is the only one of its type, or if it is placed on an even slot it will add +1 to the card below.  Combining a repertoire of cards together creates a complexity that is fun to mess around with.  Any extra cards can be decompiled for Tokens, which can be used to heal or are spent for other abilities.

Your strategy in moving, attacking, and defending is going to be your greatest help here.  When you advance to the higher levels, drops will become more powerful, and you will presumably be building up the availability of spells and replacing less useful cards.  This progression is satisfying as long as it lasts, but when you die all of your cards will disappear, with a few being “stolen” by Baddies.  These cards will appear in other player’s games, and you may have them returned to you via an in-game mail system.  The same will happen with other player’s cards in your game, and you can choose to use them or return them.  This asynchronous multiplayer aspect to the game has the goal of limiting the slog of trying to progress, since you will be starting from scratch over and over otherwise.  Unfortunately, the “other player’s cards” thing doesn’t seem to be pop-up very much, since presumably people would have to play the game a lot for the cards to populate out in the wild.  But, there is no transparency in regards to any of those stats so who knows what is actually happening behind the scenes.  Other than that, you may just get lucky enough to get the right loadout and get pretty far, but the Baddies scale up pretty fast.  There are also “Card Rockets” that you may find that allow you to sacrifice a card so that you can use it the next time you die, but those are far from assured to find.

Loot Rascals is a fun game, but the roguelike experience can be a bit lacking.  There isn’t that much personal advancement or unlocking to be had.  Your play experience will change depending on the loot drops, but after a couple of hours you’ll probably have seen most of what the title has to offer.  It can be a challenge getting through all of the levels, though.  You can “continue your progress” by saving your current deck as a “Practice Deck” for later use.  Starting a Practice Game will allow you to use your previously saved deck to continue on in advancing through the areas you have yet to visit, but there seems to be little difference in a Practice Game versus a normal game other than having a deck available.  Since the levels are all randomized you’ll see a different map every time.  A Daily Challenge is also available that is mostly only for bragging rights.  And again, since there is no overall progression in the game that influences you to play the Daily Challenge or even a normal game (why not just keep playing Practice Game?), it doesn’t seem like its worth doing.

Recommending Loot Rascals is pretty easy to do, and I had fun while I played.  Content seems to be the biggest gripe in this game, and there isn’t much to work towards that a roguelike typically would include.  No meta game really hurts the title from being something more.  However, being sufficiently weird and humorous is probably worth the ticket price depending on your personality.  I can see myself returning to Loot Rascals once in a while just to see how far I can get.