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.

 

Bear With Me: Episode 2 (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Exordium Games || Overall: 7.0/10

For my previous review on the first Episode of “Bear With Me” please click here.

Approximately five months ago, the first episode of Bear With Me was released.  Setting the foundation with an interesting cast of characters and an intriguing storyline, Amber and Ted E. Bear sought out to solve the mystery of Amber’s missing brother by venturing into Paper City.  Like Amber’s House, Paper City is similarly full of interesting characters with a smattering of unique locales; however, it turns out to not be as “intimate” as the previous entry, and by the time you’re done with Episode 2 you’ll feel a bit bewildered as to what did and didn’t happen.

As stated earlier, Episode 2 is not as “intimate” as the previous entry.  Despite meeting a lot of characters, you’ll only see most of them one time and never need to again once they’ve served their purpose.  The same goes for the varied locales, and while it is exciting to visit a lot of different places trying to solve a mystery, the charm of venturing through a child’s house is somehow lost when entering a city constructed in her attic.  Paper City is for all intents and purposes an actual city, and suspension of disbelief is amped up to its extreme.  It wasn’t as cumbersome to visit different parts of the city due to a world map mechanic introduced with Episode 2, but perhaps part of the charm of the first episode came with being forced to walk to different parts of the house and not allowing the narrative to feel like it is getting broken up.

This leads into the length of the game — I would guess that they are approximately the same in game time, but depends on how well you are able to grasp the puzzle solving.  I spent a lot of extra time in the first fucking around trying to figure out several puzzles I hit a roadblock on, whereas this one had maybe half of the amount of puzzles in general, but almost every other puzzle became a severe issue for me.  The pacing of the story wasn’t bad, but it feels like there was a missing act here, and there was little to no interaction with the main antagonist of the story.  Other villain-types make a quick face turn with practically no catalyst, simply just “changing their minds” with no input from the characters themselves.  There also doesn’t seem to be any impetus to explore consequences to decisions you make in the first episode or the second for that matter.

The quality of the voice acting and art is kept up, which is a big plus.  While Amber is still as stoic as ever, they at least have her animating a laugh a couple of times, which gave a little more liveliness to the character.  The jokes have been reined in severely, and makes the game a lot more sincere and focused in its story-telling instead of making it all seem like a big joke.  There are still jokes, but they are more tastefully placed as part of the narrative and a bit more “hidden” as it were.  There are a few chuckles here and there.  The jokes are a lot more in tune with the story and didn’t feel out of place, though there are a couple odd ones left in, such as a tiny Salt n Pepa “homage” (a ten year old is supposed to know and like them why?).

Unfortunately, it felt like there were not nearly as many items to click on.  An important part of a point-and-click is the amount of things to actually click on and to get extra bits of story if you put the effort into it; the second episode simply lacked some of the detail the first had.  The puzzles are also a lot more frustrating than in the previous episode, a lot of logical leaps that were hard to grasp, and there are still no hints available if you are on the right track but just didn’t go through a step.  An example of an early puzzle was using a swiss army knife on a fishing pole to get the line which would then tie to a magnet — no explanation or hint as to why I can’t just use the fishing pole as is on the magnet; I just kept dragging the fishing pole to different elements of the puzzle and the game just kept telling me “no” with no help.  I was definitely on the right track, but the game wouldn’t throw me a bone.  This is the same issue I had with the last episode, and unfortunately they seemed to go further along the “strange logical leaps” route.  Explaining it plainly the way I did may make sense for the puzzle, but when in-game there are little to no hints and it can be frustrating if you think you’ve already tried something but didn’t.

Episode 2 is essentially a different game completely from the first episode.  There is no interoperability between the two, so the decisions you make in the first mean nothing.  There are maybe one or two decisions you make in this game that can result in a different story point, but they also won’t matter down the line either and never have an effect on the ending.  The episodes are treated as “DLC,” so while they are functionally different games, you’ll have to own at least the base game it seems, but since the games are not episodic and are meant to be a continuing series, there wouldn’t be much point in independently packaging them.

All in all, this episode feels very middling, no questions are really answered, and it simply feels like an extension of the introductory arc of the story.  Nothing too conclusive happens, and we are left with less direction as to where the next episode will take us than we did at the end of the first episode.  The story still holds my interest, so I remain optimistic that the next episode will pick up the slack left by the first two episodes.

 

Phoning Home (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: ION LANDS || Overall: 9.0/10

Occasionally when reviewing games I have the opportunity to play a genre I am not familiar with at all.  The survival genre never really interested me enough to actively seek differing experiences; I had a stint with No Man’s Sky… but I’m not going there.  Phoning Home became the perfect entry point for me: a single player, story-focused exploration game with light crafting elements.  A fun cast of characters and an interesting science fiction story creates a unique experience that is tailored to fit the genre.

Phoning Home starts out with the large-eyed robot named ION crash-landing on an unknown planet with the ship named TR2.  The design of ION instantly reminds you of Wall-E (or Johnny 5 from Short Circuit), instantly appealing to you as a protagonist.  After assessing the situation, you will explore the forest area you landed in, searching for materials to help repair the ship in pursuit of communicating back home for help.  The first few objectives in the game slowly introduce you to the crafting system and laying down the structure for the story to come as you learn more about where you have crash-landed.  Eventually you will find a companion, by the name of ANI who you’ll escort and care for as you search for a way off the planet.

The gameplay elements are simple enough, and mostly revolve around exploring, gathering, and crafting.  At its basic progression, Phoning Home is primarily exploration with smaller “challenge” portions, such as platforming or shooting, breaking up the flow.  As you continue the story, you’ll unlock more of ION’s abilities which will be used during particular situations as they arise.  Crafting will allow you to unlock abilities, gain health, and get past certain story points among other things.  While the crafting isn’t too complicated, you’ll have to smartly manage the resources you come across.  If you play it smart, the crafting portion won’t be too stressful, but if you waste resources on frivolous things instead of keeping a stockpile you’ll be in for some long laps around the map trying to find what you need.  There also isn’t a map to actually look at, so you’ll have to rely on a compass for any resources you are interested in finding.

There is plenty of time for the story to be told as you traverse the forest and desert areas, slowly absorbing the atmosphere of the planet you are on and seeing the elements of a small, abandoned, alien civilization.  At its core, the story is about the meaning of life, told through different angles, such as the history of the robot culture, the robots themselves, and the planet they are all stranded on.  The writing is good enough where none of it seems too ham-fisted.  While the relationships between the characters aren’t that important, the game mostly is a character study on ANI, and the planet itself which takes a role as the antagonist.  Since ION is relegated to being a silent protagonist (due to a malfunction in his communication equipment), ANI is inserted into the sympathetic role as she has a very charming look and a peculiar personality.  Voice acting is also great, and isn’t overused.  Though ANI talks a lot, she only communicates via robot squeaks and squeals forcing you to read what she says, whereas the two ship AIs in the game are voiced.  While ION “himself” doesn’t talk, all three of the other supporting characters progress the story and keep it all entertaining.  There is very little in the way of cutscenes, but they do happen occasionally.

Phoning Home is also quite beautiful.  While the models, animations, buildings, or even items aren’t particularly that great on their own, the beauty comes from the terrain, the atmosphere, and the sheer scale of the areas you traverse.  The execution of the soundtrack is superb and makes a big impact on the feel.  While much of the gameplay is serene and slow, there is a steady tension level that is created, and the mood is controlled throughout by the music.  The mystery of the planet you are on is possibly the most interesting thing going on, and there are several points at which the sound design plays an important part in ramping up the “oh shit what the fuck is that!” factor that is present every now and then.

Phoning Home is worthy of a lot of praise in its execution as an indie title.  While I got lost and confused a few times, I mostly chalk it up to me being an idiot rather than a flaw in the game design.  There were a few times I really wanted to look up a guide, but since I was playing before it was officially released, I was left on my own with no one to answer my calls for help.  In some way, I suppose my experience with the game in real life mirrored that of which I had in the game; I questioned life a few times as I wandered around the same area in a circle for the umpteenth time with no idea of where to go.  Hopefully you won’t have to endure that trial when you play.

Phoning Home is available now on Steam.

 

Siegecraft Commander (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Blowfish Studios || Overall: 6.5/10

Note: This is a review based on playing with normal-ass PC controls, not VR.  Play experience may be significantly different if you choose to play in VR.

Build stuff, blow stuff up, spawn little guys with swords, and watch it all come together in the hectically-paced Siegecraft Commander.  Your quick reactions and propensity to spam the map with your buildings will get you through almost any challenge the game has to offer.  While it is technically a real-time strategy game, strategy is not usually what is rewarded, single player or otherwise.  Since the game mechanics are pretty easy to understand, the title can appeal to a broad group in the strategy genre, mostly for beginners or people who never play RTS games usually.

The basic idea of Siegecraft Commander comes with placing towers on your map, and using them as stepping stones to travel across the map as you maneuver to vanquish your enemy.  To place one of your buildings, a slingshot mechanic is introduced.  Rather than simply clicking on the map where you want to perfectly place your building, you will have to gauge whereabouts you want to build by aiming with your previous building.  You can’t spawn buildings everywhere, however.  Terrain, other buildings, and seemingly-random obfuscations will prevent you from placing buildings down.  What can make the gameplay chaotic at times is that buildings are hierarchical — meaning your buildings are reliant on its parent building existing for itself to exist.  If Outpost A spawns Outpost B and Outpost C, and then Outpost A is destroyed, all three go down in flames (and all of the buildings attached to Outpost B/C as well).  You’ll have to keep an eye on your earlier buildings for any dangers heading their way, since you could lose 10 or even 20 buildings when an important node falls.

With those basicalities explained, you’ll have a number of different buildings available to build.  Due to a tech tree, you’ll need some buildings as a prerequisite for other buildings.  There is typically no hard limit to the amount of buildings you can spawn from one, but there is a limited amount of space around the existing buildings before you need to branch out further.  Buildings cannot criss-cross, as they lay down a straight line to their parent building, so you’ll need to plan out how you spread across the map in different lines.  Outposts are the most important building, as they extend your keep and can allow for the eventual building of all other towers.  You can make Barracks, which spawn infantry that auto-attack ground enemies and buildings, with no input allowed from you.  There are also other sorts of towers that shoot projectiles, but typically require manual control — the Barracks are usually the strongest tower since there is no micromanagement involved and you can spend more time brute forcing into your enemy’s territory with your regular Outposts to launch explosives from them while your infantry back you up.  The more advanced buildings are powerful in their own ways, but there’s not much impetus to bother with them due to cooldowns of their abilities or construction.

Unlike most RTS games, there is no resource-gathering.  There is a blue and an orange resource on the map that is required for the more powerful buildings — all you need to do is build an Outpost on them to acquire it as a binary value.  Construction is regulated by cooldowns, so if you accidentally launch your building onto an area that can’t be built on, you’ll be waiting for 30 seconds or so for your second try.  The goal is always to eliminate your enemy, and in the single player campaign you will always start out with just your initial Keep while the computer will start with all of their buildings down already.  They will sometimes expand or rebuild lost buildings, but it seems to depend on the level itself whether or not they are told to do anything.  I’ve had a couple of levels where they have a lot of buildings but don’t try to advance on your position other than with spawning enemies or projectiles, and others where they don’t do much but defend.  There are two single player campaigns, sixteen levels in all.

A multiplayer mode is included but unfortunately seems to lag out or become unresponsive at a certain point.  I was lucky and had my very first game continue for about 10 minutes and it was surprisingly a lot more fun than the campaign since you are racing against the other player(s) in a bid to outmaneuver them on the map and then destroy them.  All sides starting with just a Keep also makes it considerably more competitive, as facing against an already-established network of towers always feels like pushing a boulder up a mountain.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of frustrating aspects that don’t make the gameplay enjoyable.  First of all, the slingshot mechanic is a chore to use, and it is the primary thing you’ll be interacting with.  By default, the slingshot will not show you where it is going to land so you have to guesstimate where it might, and even then you’ll be ripping your hair out when it goes half the distance you thought it would for the hundredth time.  Frustration is further enhanced when your building lands somewhere it can’t even be built, forcing you to wait for extended cooldowns and deal with the slingshot yet again.  It would have been nice if there was some sort of flag for noting what terrain could not be built on so you didn’t aim it there.  However, there is a control option available called “Shot Guide” that shows you generally where the thing you are launching is expected to land, but it is for the campaign only.  I get why it isn’t available in multiplayer and is off by default, because it would probably make it not as fun since part of the enjoyment is seeing your opponents fail at hitting their target all of the time.

There’s also a lot of random bugs, the biggest one being that if a tower you are currently controlling dies, you won’t be able to select any other towers unless you open the game menu (via Escape); after doing so, you are then able to select a new tower.  Once, I even saw an infantry soldier die, then the sword came back to life (no person attached) and it started hitting my tower again!  It was kind of funny, but annoying at the same time since I didn’t know if the tower was going to take any damage randomly and the damn thing wouldn’t go away.  Perhaps with future game updates some of these issues will be resolved.

The graphics are pretty good and the cartoonish style of the art meshes well with the idea of the gameplay.  There are only two factions, so there’s not a whole lot of variety in units or buildings.  There is some nice/funny voice acting, but seems to be oddly incomplete.  As I got further in the first campaign, voice overs didn’t play during the story bits — they either weren’t working due to a bug or maybe they didn’t get around to recording them?  I honestly don’t know.  The music isn’t bad, either and also fits the theme well.

Another big feature for this title is that it is also designed for VR play.  While I didn’t get a chance to play this title in VR (I don’t have that equipment available to me), I have played with an HTC Vive for about half an hour or so.  I can see how the experience could be a lot more different, as controls are a significant obstacle for enjoyment here.  Since VR is still a pretty new platform, a game like this might be pretty unique in the range of titles out there.

While there are some interesting points to be had with Siegecraft Commander, I came away mostly frustrated with the experience.  Wrestling with the controls and the lack of information regarding where buildings can be placed is a big detriment to any enjoyment to be had.  The campaign doesn’t feel very exciting, and the stories weren’t too interesting either.

 

Infinity Wars: Reborn (PC) Review

Developer: Lightmare Studios | Publisher: Lightmare Studios/Yodo1 Games || Overall: 8.0/10

Infinity Wars: Animated Trading Card Game is an online free-to-play game that has its roots in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign.  After being in Early Access since 2014, its official release at the end of 2016 is known as “Reborn.” Featuring a unique lore, an amalgamation of all sorts of different sci-fi and fantasy tropes and tons of interesting cards, Infinity Wars is an enjoyable experience even if you never play against another player.  Considering the subtitle, yes, every single card in the game is animated, of which there are hundreds available.  PC trading card games are not a usual go-to for me and Hearthstone is the only frame of reference I have to the genre.

The standout feature of Infinity Wars certainly comes with its art.  It is a lot of fun seeing all of the great (and some not so great) animated cards.  While many of the cards are simply characters breathing heavily and moving their shoulders up and down or things flailing in the wind, there are certainly many others that have a lot more going on.  Considering the amount of cards available, I spent a good two hours or so browsing through the collection that is offered, just to see it all.  While browsing the collection doesn’t sound enthralling, it felt worthwhile just to see the standouts and the unique vision that goes into the art direction.  Many cards have story text on top of them, giving you a glimpse into a specific piece of lore; figuring out how all of the bits work together in the larger narrative is also part of the fun.

There isn’t a whole lot of actual story to read through, but you eventually are able to piece things together as you are exposed to the different cards and the single player campaign.  The basic idea is that there are multiple dimensions and due to some event, portals open up and the inhabitants are now able to cross back and forth freely between different versions of the world.  The factions are all unique in some form, whether they are hypertechnological, nano-machine zombies, a magical death cult, or Asian-inspired monks, among others.  Most of the factions are at war with each other and have their own unique cultures/events that shaped their reaction towards what is happening with the portals.  Not everything is super serious, however, as there are humorous aspects and one faction in particular, called Genesis, can be a little crazy with the kinds of technology they produce.  There are a few important characters, but they are mostly self-contained in their own faction campaign.  Each of the worlds introduced have their own version of a character named “Aleta” who is immortal and has taken on extremely different roles depending on each of the dimensions; she usually takes a lead in the factions she is a part of.  There’s a bit more going on in the universe than just the portal event(s), but it’s an interesting set-up nonetheless.

The single player campaign will take you through the six different faction’s plight through the game’s scenario and the encounters they have.  While the game actually has eight factions at the moment, you’ll be able to play around with a few different configurations in the six that do have campaigns.  Up until the last mission for each faction you will play with pre-constructed decks and you’ll learn about the mechanics that are unique to that faction.  In the last mission you’ll be able to use a constructed or previously-earned deck to beat it and earn a set of cards for the faction you just completed for the campaign mode.  Since most of the campaign levels are pre-constructed, you basically have to figure out the “puzzle” that the encounter is posing and play correct enough to beat the AI.  It is essentially an elongated tutorial mode at the end of the day.

There are a few aspects of Infinity Wars that are noticeably different from my experience with Hearthstone.  For instance, nearly every card does something unique; it is rare to see a card that does “nothing.”  Both players take turns at the same time so you have to anticipate the moves that your enemy will or will not take and you are even able to undo your actions before you lock them in; spells will typically be cast first before character cards are placed, but initiative swaps between players on who’s spells go first.  While constructing your deck, you can have up to three cards assigned to a “Command Zone” which is useful mostly for Hero cards.  They can be put into battle at any time (as long as you can pay their cost) or you can pay for the card’s on-use ability to buff existing cards or do something to your enemy’s cards.  The Grave zone is also where all of your discards go, but due to a number of different mechanics you can pull cards out of it again.  If a card is completely removed from the game, the card usually says so and they aren’t put into the discard pile — they just go poof.

There are three zones to place your cards in during play that force you to tactically consider your options as you plan your turns: Support Zone, Assault Zone, and Defense Zone.  The Support Zone is a bit unique as it is used as a waiting room as well as an area to use cards that have on-use abilities.  Cards in the Support Zone can only be targeted with certain spells and are out of reach from anything in your Assault/Defense zones.  The Assault Zone will fight only against your enemy’s Defense Zone, and vice versa.  If you break through the defense, the opponent’s Health (aka Fortress) will incur damage, of which they have 100.  When character cards get killed, you will lose the Morale cost associated with the card, of which you also have 100 Morale.  While Health of your fortress is more straightforward, Morale offers an extra layer of strategy, whether it be defensive or offensive.  It is usually more effective to focus on one or the other since your opponent will be trying to do the same to you.

The “business” parts of Infinity Wars are a bit more open in comparison to Hearthstone.  Since Hearthstone‘s single player modes are always paid, it is nice to see the single player campaigns added to Infinity Wars are an incentive to play and learn the game.  Log-in bonuses are also awarded and increase for sequential log-ins per day.  There are also missions available that allow you to earn “Infinity Points” which can then be used to buy more cards.  The missions don’t stick around until you finish them, though, as they will reset everyday and a new set of three is given.  Free constructed decks that anyone can use are revised weekly to give a fairer base to work off of as you build your own collection.  These decks are mostly intended for player combat as you can only play against the AI so much.  It takes a couple of minutes to find an appropriate game, but once you are in it is a whole different level of difficulty as players are able to strategize much better (just like in almost any multiplayer mode) and bring uniquely constructed decks with them.

Unfortunately to get a true feel for the PVP aspect of this game, you’ll have to spend a lot of time researching what the best cards are and how to construct effective decks due to the complexity of how cards can potentially interact with one another.  A quick look at the community you’ll have to rely on shows a lot of griping about overpowered cards and the like.  For me, I was satisfied enough with the PVE challenges up to a point, but to be able to build out a respectable collection you’re going to have to grind points quite a bit.  On the plus side, every single card is available by way of playing and using in-game currency to purchase (even if it might take you a long time).  PVP matches can also take a little time to get going since the user base is smaller.  There are Constructed and Draft modes, and each come with the typical caveats you would expect if you have experience with the genre.

Audio isn’t particularly a standout here.  Music isn’t awful, but the variety feels lacking.  It would have been nice, for example, to have unique soundtracks for each faction as you play through the campaign.  Voice acting is also a bit amateurish, some bits of dialogue seem to have been skipped completely, and often times you’ll see typos across a variety of dialogue windows.  None of these things necessarily take away from the card game itself, and I can respect an indie game studio trying to get a diverse-sounding cast for all of the characters that have lines.  With that said, there is definitely room for improvement.

Infinity Wars: Reborn is an interesting trading card game that can help broaden your knowledge of the genre.  I found it to initially be easy to get into and understand and the complexity comes later as you hit up the more competitive modes.  Updates come on a regular basis, so if you decide to take a break or come back to it at a later time you’ll see something new you didn’t see before.  Infinity Wars: Reborn is available on Steam now.

 

Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Whale Hammer Games || Overall: 6.5

Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is a small spin on the world of tactical turn-based strategy games.  Through its unique art style, story takes the forefront with gameplay taking a bit of a backseat.  While the gameplay itself can be engaging at times, its mostly a slow and plodding chore **exasperated whinny.**

We follow the protagonist Tahira, a 20-something-year old who looks like she is in her early 60’s — she has white hair and wrinkles and wears an old lady’s robe.  Tahira, and her friend Iba, will encounter many-a-dangerous situation in the fallout from the destruction of their home of Avestan by an invading army.  Iba, who could be Mr. Ed’s progenitor (or possibly evolved ancestor), is an overly-expressive horse, who apparently loves olives **excited whinny** and won’t let genocide or his friends being murdered keep him from enjoying those damn olives **not-so-remorseful whinny.**  While Iba isn’t a playable character, he makes his appearances occasionally during the story sequences as a minor character.

Tahira: EotAE tells the story of the first night of a war between what is old and what is new.  In a post-apocalyptic (kinda sci-fi) medieval setting, a large army rallies around the idea of the foregone Astral Empire, a once star-spanning empire humans created.  The new Astral Empire decides to invade all other kingdoms/city-states, taking no prisoners in their brutal imperialism.  Tahira, a princess of the city-state Avestan, and daughter of one of the important figures of this planet’s history, must re-assume her role as her father disappears without a trace due to the invasion.  And so unfolds the scenario.

The game will teach you, slowly, about the tactics and abilities of the characters you’ll be using.  Every battle is in advance of the plot and has something new to teach you, so it keeps the levels from being too samey and you’ll never play “extra” missions either.  During battles, turn cycles are interesting as your units are “grouped” together and will take alternating turns with the enemy’s groups.  Since all of the battles are of very large scale, you’ll be taking on 10 to 20 enemies in one battle, and more will keep coming in sequential phases of the same battle.  You will have control over approximately the same amount of characters as well but, other than the Heroes, your ranks will be filled with generic solider-types that mimic the hero unit.  Using the unit groups strategically is important to minimizing your losses, and most of your units are a bit overpowered compared to your enemies.  It becomes necessary to quickly chew through as many enemies as possible to mitigate any future losses.

The tactics aren’t too out of the ordinary or even that complex when it comes to your strategy, but there are some interesting aspects.  Health pools are split into “Health” and “Guard;”  Health is not regenerative, but Guard is and can be recovered by special tiles on the map or by using a special action.  Special actions are limited by a resource called “Will.”  Characters regain Will by killing enemies, and can use powerful abilities to vanquish foes with skills that use Will.  Different unit types have different special abilities and they all mix in to your repertoire of strategy to fell your foes.  Some units are able to string together kills, hit multiple characters in a straight line, stun, do knockbacks, and more.  Possibly the most unique mechanic is Ambush.  Ambush can be used to disrupt your enemy’s plans by popping out your units from an Ambush point and killing the enemy at opportune times.  These are considered “stealth” turns by the game and happen outside of the planned turn cycle.

It can be a challenge to enjoy actually playing Tahira: EotAE, as it primarily tells its story through a cinematic approach and leaves the gameplay elements to the wayside in helping the story along.  The story basically pauses itself for pesky gameplay and you almost feel like you are wasting your time until you get through the battle at hand.  An example of a good mix of gameplay and story to move a game’s narrative along is X-COM: Enemy Unknown — the base-building and gameplay progression actually feeds into the game’s story along the way.  Unfortunately, a missed opportunity comes as there is no overall progression in Tahira: EotAE; no overlying gameplay system that rewards you when you defeat enemies or battles is present.  Your only impetus to do well is to minimize your losses in the beginning phases of a battle so the later phases can have more units, at which point you can more easily continue on with the story.  You feel like you are playing a new game of Chess each battle, and nothing you’ve done as a whole will help you in the future.  Nor is there any sort of talent system for Tahira herself to at least feel like you are taking a part in her gaining power.  Of course, you could just say “fuck it” and literally skip all of the combat by opening the menu and clicking the option to do so — yes, this is actually in the game.

At a few points you’ll enter an “exploration” mode where it becomes a bit of a normal RPG, talking to recurring characters and seeing the finer details of what is going on.  There is also a lot of opportunity for witty banter and interesting story bits, but there’s not a whole lot of different places where this occurs or anything “hidden” to find as far as I could tell.  There are also dialogue trees that seem to have little to no effect on the way the story ends in this episode.  By the way, it is clear to see that the game is meant to be an episodic series with the way the story ends.  There is no final resolution to any of the conflicts set up, and we are left with more questions than answers about what we experience.  All in all, the game will last around 10 to 15 hours depending on how well you do during the fights and what challenge level you decide to play on.  Or it can last about 30 minutes and you can skip all of the battles and just read through the story.

The shining aspect of Tahira: EotAE comes with its atmospheric music and wonderful art and animation.  The art has a very unique look to it and the animation of the units are fluidly motion captured.  The hand-drawn style of the game is a great look that makes it look more like a storybook and in turn more like fantasy.  Character designs are also interesting, more or less.  While voice acting isn’t really needed in every game, I can’t help but feel that since the idea was for the game to be cinematic that it should have paired some voice acting to the characters to get more of an attachment to their emotions.  Also, don’t be surprised when you see a couple of random F-bomb-equivalent words dropped in the dialogue.  They were “intriguing” when they did happen, but just end up sort of being needless since it only happens a few times.  I’m not one to complain about cursing usually, but they shouldn’t have restrained themselves if they were going to jump over that hurdle.  The main character definitely should have screamed “FUUUUUUCCKKKKKK!!!!” at some point.  Why the fuck not?

Tahira: EotAE is probably not going to impress seasoned strategy gamers just on its gameplay alone.  While some interesting aspects are introduced in the gameplay, they are not enough to help you stay engaged in wanting to complete the game “the long way.”  Because the battles are so long and there are so many enemies, you’ll feel like the game is very slow.  With no way to progress your troops, there will be very little reason to put up with any of it.  If a series of games is the plan, we’ll probably get an interesting story but not much else.

 

 

Branching Paths (2016) Review

branchingpaths

Branching Paths (2016), directed by Anne Ferrero

Production Company: Assemblage | Length: 83 min || Rating: 9/10

Branching Paths is a documentary that follows the director’s in-depth examination of the Japanese indie game scene.  Throughout the documentary, which spans over the course of 2013 to 2015, you’ll see just how diverse it really is; all sorts of different people are introduced in Branching Paths.  Of course most are of Japanese nationality, but there is a swath of internationalism that makes its way into the documentary, with westerners creating a foothold in Japan and becoming part of the diverse fabric that makes up the Japanese indie game scene.

The director takes a low-key narrating role when needed.  Much of the narrative is pushed by the interviews and text that pops up on the screen saying what event we are at and what the purpose of it is.  A series of indie game events occur in Japan during the time span of the documentary, and we revisit the same events in different years, which shows the subtle changes, recurring faces and recurring games to see their progress.  Games we are introduced to pop-up throughout the different events: Million Onion Hotel, Downwell, and TorqueL among others.

Much of the interviews focus on the culture and market of Japan as a whole and how North America is the biggest market for their indie games despite developing them in Japan.  Because the PC game market in Japan is so small, it is important for developers to make their games available on mobile or consoles, whereas to appeal to the North American market they almost always need to be on PC.  Many games are crowdsourced or find their success in the North American market before being able to become successful in Japan.  We also see the progression of the promotion of indie games by big publishers such as Sony and Microsoft, carving out spaces at the Tokyo Game Show, and creating an event just for indies in the form of BitSummit.

Interviews with higher profile Japanese indie developers such as Keiji Inafune of Mighty No. 9, Lucas Pope of Papers Please, Dylan Cuthbert of Pixel Junk (Q-Games), and IGA of Castlevania fame also make their way into the documentary.  It is interesting to learn a little bit about the similarities between indie developers no matter their origins.  There are many other lesser-known/locally known people who add to the composition of the documentary.  A segment of the documentary also explores the blurring of the lines between traditional “doujin” (self-published) media like comic books and the indie game market.

We don’t really get to know much about the director herself other than she was born in France, and grew up on Japanese games.  It would have been nice to learn a little more about the director during the first part of the movie, but it was obvious they didn’t want to lose focus from what the actual subject of the documentary was.  The director is possibly on screen one or two times but her personal journey feels more like a disembodied journey as a result.  She narrates two or three times and the last part of the documentary she doesn’t make any other narrations.  The quality of the cinematography is quite good, and I was only frazzled by a couple of weird shots they kept re-using, such as focusing in on a person’s top half of their head and not seeing their mouth, or people’s fingers.  B-roll like this probably could have been better replaced by more video about that developer’s game or something.

Another thing to note about Branching Paths, is that it is subtitled about 90% of the time.  The documentary is interestingly multilingual as you’ll see most interviews in Japanese, a few interviews in English, and the bits of narration done in French.  If you aren’t a fan of subtitles, it might not be for you, but you’d have to be gifted in language to enjoy this without subtitles.  It would have also been nice if the documentary spaced out interviews a bit at times so as to not have to read subtitles while also having to read titling about events/dates.

Branching Paths is an interesting look into a niche market in the overall gaming industry.  A lot of focus has been put on indie gaming and mobile gaming in the past few years, and focusing on this area is a unique subject.  Most of what is learned in this documentary may be more interesting for people who aren’t particularly sensitive to the nuances of gaming culture/markets, but even I learned a few things from this documentary.  It held my interest throughout and didn’t really drag at any point.  Branching Paths is available on Steam for $9.99.

A trailer for the documentary can be seen below: