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:

 

Tom vs. The Armies of Hell (PC) Review

Developer: Darkmire Entertainment | Publisher: Burgoon Entertainment || Overall: 8.5

Every now and then a game supersedes its intent to be “simply” a game, and illuminates itself as more of a personal sarcastic journal of one person’s journey through life.  While Tom vs. The Armies of Hell is a well-designed, fun, twin-stick shooter with the sensibilities of a traditional 3rd person action beat-em-up game, it’s biting cynicism and lighthearted humor are by far its most shining aspect.  I thoroughly enjoyed this game, and the only thing holding it back were its annoying bugs.

Through six levels, you’ll take control of normal office employee “Tom” as he deals with a situation gone awry at his office.  While workplace violence is something to be mindful of, workplace-sinking-into-Hell might not be.  The beginning of the game, which is also the game’s story trailer (as seen below), is actually quite hilarious and really sets the mood for what’s to come.  While the cinematics and character portraits have a “Flash movie” art style to them, the in-game characters replicate their animated counterparts quite well, keeping a cartoonish look through most of the enemy designs that are quite unique.

The comedic point of the adventure really comes with using a normal everyday white dude who has a white collar job going around and killing hordes of demons with a gun that is powered by souls.  You’ll be accompanied by Hell’s seeming-antagonist Beezle and Tom has no choice but to do what he says since he can’t go anywhere else (much like his normal office job).  Tom vs. The Armies of Hell is full of ironic situations and comparisons to the real world like this, and is also full of inside jokes.  The game became an outlet for the developer to unleash his experiences onto the world, and due to the comedic execution of the writing, it is all very funny.  There is only voice acting during the cinematics, and not during the actual gameplay, however.

Tom vs. The Armies of Hell is actually quite difficult at times.  If you aren’t lucky or don’t figure out the exact way to beat a boss, you’ll be attempting it over and over until you do.  I personally encountered some game-breaking bugs that forced me to either restart the level or restart the game.  It extended the play time considerably for me, but it was usually not that difficult to get back to where I was considering I knew how to kill the bosses up to that point.  Enemy layouts are also randomized, but you’ll usually see the same ones pop up in particular places.  There was only one or two times where the set of enemies spawning made it a lot harder than the second time through where the more annoying enemies didn’t spawn.  Health is hard to come by, even on the easiest difficulty.  I didn’t see much nominal difference between Normal and Easy, but the game was difficult enough on Easy for me.  The last boss of the game can also be pretty cheap, and depending on if you have any upgrades available you’ll be in for a lot of “learning.”

Because the game is so short (I’d say max four hours without bugs ruining your day), you don’t earn many permanent upgrades like you may in a longer-form game.  Temporary upgrades are found in chests and are an assortment of buffs, like bigger ammo capacity, more damage, armor, etc; these are lost on death/respawn.  The one permanent upgrade is found on the second level where you are able to store a second type of ammo to switch to.  Your main modes of attack are your gun and your demon arm given to you by Beezle.  You’ll have to capture souls released by enemies with your gun and you’ll gain a limited amount of ammo to use that type.  The gun ammo is quite diverse, including but not limited to a rapid fire gun, shotgun, flamethrower, frost, penetrating plasma, lightning, and the most unique being a radioactive explodey-laser.  The demon arm is used for melee and as you hit more enemies, you’ll juice up your Energy bar.  Holding the melee button after a combo will unleash a large hit, expending your Energy, and is your best way to kill enemies fast at the risk of getting hit.  Finding purple demon shards (the game pretty much blatantly tells you it is demon’s fecal matter) will allow you to transform into a Demon and beat the crap out of everything around you while regaining health for the duration.  Energy drops and health drops are also common sights, but Health drops are quite a bit rarer.

While the game wasn’t super difficult, it can be a bit of a challenge.  The bugs are also strange; it feels like the game “forgets” to allow any Health drops at times, or a wall that stays up until you kill all enemies still stays up after you kill all enemies.  If you somehow manage to bug the game out in a different way, you’ll also have to restart the level.  For some reason when I continue a game from one of my older saves it doesn’t let me continue to any levels.  This is quite possibly the worst thing that can happen as you’ll have to restart the whole game again if you don’t play in one go.  While the developer appears to be quashing as many bugs as he can, this is an unfortunate side effect of a game that only has one person behind it.

Taking into account that Tom vs. The Armies of Hell is made by one person, the game is quite a marvel.  The art is great, the gameplay is decent-to-good throughout, and the bosses/enemies are designed well and are diverse.  The story is really funny and all of it makes for a quick, enjoyable experience.

 

Bear With Me (PC) Review

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

Bear With Me is a horror fantasy Noire point-and-click game that puts you in control of 10-year-old girl Amber as she tries to find her missing brother.  Assisted by the gruff, retired private investigator Ted E. Bear, Amber also sets out to solve the mystery behind “The Red Man” and how it relates to her brother’s disappearance and other disturbances across Paper City.  You’ll have to inspect, have conversations, find items and combine them to solve puzzles to advance the story.

When it comes to point-and-click games, it can be hard to quantify the amount of “challenge” required to be enjoyable.  In general, the game isn’t very challenging as a lot of the puzzles are mostly logical and item-based (rather than clue-based).  You’ll sometimes acquire items through dialogue trees, but most come from the scenery, and by combining them in unique ways.  The puzzles require multiple steps and aren’t that quick to solve, so you will still need to experiment occasionally.  With all that said, the puzzles are still pretty enjoyable.  Most of the items in the scenery can be clicked on so you can hear Amber describe it with her tongue-in-cheek humor (more on that later).  Of course, being able to click on tons of things is very important to the genre and the detailed environments satisfy the impetus to click on everything you can.  Depending on certain choices or conversations you may actually affect things later on, and that may impact motivation to replay to see the different outcomes.  Since only one episode will be available on August 8th, your actions may not show much result until the game rounds out further with more episodes.

Art is an important part of how you enjoy Bear With Me.  The animation itself is nice and fluid, and while the color is primarily black and white (to fit its Noire motif), the color red is used in very particular ways.  While the game takes place primarily on the second floor of Amber’s house, the different rooms are diverse and full of elements you’d expect a house that was “lived in” to have.  You are more or less contained in one or two rooms at a time as you progress, and its always exciting to see what the next room will present itself as.  The art style reminds me of anime-influenced animation, but with a unique flare to it.

While most of what the game has to offer is of a very good quality, there are some serious problems with the story delivery.  The biggest of all is there is no visual emotional reaction from characters.  It loses a lot steam in the impact of the story to not see the characters visually distressed, yet their voices are conveying the correct inflection you would expect.  For the whole game, Amber has a stoic face no matter what she is saying and what scary thing might be happening.  Tongue-in-cheek humor is littered throughout the description of random items you click on, including “other game” references.  These jokes/references really pull you out of the mood of the story and feels like something that should have been left for an “Easter Egg” version of the game.  Not to mention the fact that the tongue-in-cheek jokes that a mid-20’s/early-30-year old would make are coming out of a 10-year-old.  Some of the most baffling things I encountered was a lamp that was referred to as a “sandwich” and a funny recording of a “developer of Bear With Me” asking for help as if he is in a basement torture chamber prison.  I get the joke that you are inspecting lamps and there isn’t much to say about them, but it feels like they are putting more effort into making these jokes than immersing you in the story.  Taking the jokes out of the context of the game, however, they are mostly clever and funny.  I would have just liked it for an “alternate” version of the game to play afterwards instead of during the first playthrough, or at least keep these jokes for something hidden.

The disjointed narrative also comes as you are thrust into the beginning of the game, with just a cryptic cold opening.  It was super weird to click on a living character and have it be referred to as “my toy Giraffe” — there is nothing introducing our suspension of disbelief to this world and why something that is obviously alive in the context of the game is being called a “toy.”  It throws the narrative off completely as you have to automatically make assumptions that the girl you are playing as might be insane or she’s making things up in her head and nothing is actually as it seems, which heartily cheapens the seriousness and experience you are supposedly supposed to build up due to the scenario presented.  A little less of a blunt admission that half of what is going on is make believe on the outset would have done a lot of favors to getting you into the world the game creates, even with the jokes.

The voice-work is above average.  Amber’s voice definitely grows on you, but at first doesn’t mesh with the fact that the girl is supposed to be a 10-year-old.  At first I assumed the girl was around 18 or 19 with her smart tongue-in-cheek quips about every odd thing in her room, not to mention there are a few references to “drinking” from Ted E. Bear, as well as some harsh language (not something you’d expect a 10-year-old to make-believe a Teddy Bear is saying to her).  The voices for many of the other characters are a lot better match and are pretty good, to boot.  The voice cast is important in delivering a pleasurable experience and seeing the story unfold.  The sound effects are also great and helps to enhance the atmosphere.

While Bear With Me isn’t at the forefront of the point-and-click genre, the foundation it has set for its characters, setting, and fantasy holds potential for a neat series.  As it will be an episodic game, the story will continue in parts.  If they rein it back on the tongue-in-cheek jokes everywhere, keep it a little more grounded in the fiction that is set up, it could be very enjoyable in the coming episodes and well worth playing the first.  It is definitely aimed at people in their mid 20s to early 30s with all of the references and script content.  Not to mention the horror elements, that are quite creepy would have given me nightmares if I was playing this game as a 10-year-old.

 

Infinium Strike (PC) Review

Developer: Codex Worlds | Publisher: 1C Company || Overall: 6.0

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Freedom Strike. Its continuing mission: to not really explore anything, to seek out the Wrog, and to boldly blow the buh-Jesus out of them.

What do you get when you combine Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and a tower defense game?  Infinium Strike ::echo::.  Infinium Strike sounds like one of those random cool names you’d expect a sci-fi game to be.  One part “Infinity” and the other part “-ium.”  Don’t ask me what an Infinium is, but its the resource you gather in the game.  Thinking about it, I’m not entirely sure why the game isn’t just called Freedom Strike, since that’s the name of the ship you actually commandeer.  Freedom Strike’s goal is to hunt down a bio-mechanical race of aliens that have all but pushed back human civilization and space exploration back to its last line of defense.  Freedom Strike dives right into the thick of it and seems to be a magnet for humongous portals that the Wrog come through in endless droves.  That’s your cue to start lasering everything you can see.

Infinium Strike’s hook is its 360 degree tower defense layout.  Albeit, very unique from a tower defense standpoint where enemies typically follow a predetermined path and get laid into by tactfully-placed towers, enemies in Infinium Strike just barrel towards your ship and try to blow it up.  You have four platforms to build towers on, each with a limited amount of spots.  Depending on the enemies that spawn you’ll have to be aware of what sort of towers should be placed in each quadrant.  Each tower has the capability of shooting things within a certain range, known as Sectors.  There are three sectors total, and each tower can shoot one, two, or all three sectors in different combinations.  Some enemies will start way back in Sector 3 and make their way to Sector 1, while others always stay in Sector 3.  There are about as many different combos of enemies as there are towers to build, and if they begin to overwhelm your defenses, you’ll begin to lose Shield and Armor.  When Armor gets down to zero, you’ve lost.

Infinium Strike’s unique feature is also its greatest flaw.  Once you have to maintain all four quadrants there can be way too many things happening at the same time.  Monitoring one or two quadrants is not that challenging but when all four begin to have enemies spawning like crazy you’re going to be going a little bit out of your mind.  You will suddenly realize your Shield is taking a pounding because Quandrant 2 didn’t have enough towers that shot into Sectors 2 and 3, while Quadrant 1 has enough for all Sectors, but not for shooting projectiles… etc etc.  Its very hard to keep track of your capabilities due to the fact there are four different tower defense games going on and none of the platforms help each other while they are idle.

A large part of the challenge in a tower defense game usually comes in placement of towers, which can inspire you to replay or retry learning what you failed at.  Infinium Strike unfortunately rips out a large part of what makes tower defense fun by only having about eight spots in a horizontal line.  Most of the towers you’re going to want to rely on are laser-based, since they are the cheapest to place and upgrade, which lessens variety.  Towers upgrade their damage only by paying an increasingly exorbitant cost, but while you may opt to do that, you have to upgrade your base several times to get some vital buffs that allow you to live longer when the going gets tough.  Upgrading your base is kind of a no-brainer but at the same time you’re going to have to spend millions of Infinium to get it to its max level.

A fun mechanic that helps you reinforce one of your quadrants temporarily is the use of your drone Fleet.  There are three types of drones to use, all doing different things, and have a life span of about 30 seconds unless you upgrade.  You can summon a few here and there, but they cost a portion of a bar that maxes out at 250; the bar recharges at one unit per second.  Using your Fleet effectively is a must as you’ll always have at least one quadrant being overrun and you want to make sure they are all in a manageable state as much as possible.

Unfortunately despite turning the genre around on its head a bit, Infinium Strike is dull.  The actual action of things blowing up isn’t very satisfying and kind of gets downgraded to a fireworks show.  The graphics are fine, but the alien designs aren’t that great.  The ship you are in charge of is an okay design but the tower defense platforms are kind of an eye-sore on the design of the thing.  It could remind you of the ship Battlestar Galactica, but only if they glued some rectangular boards on top of it.  Through the 10 missions, you’ll be treated to a little Captain’s log voice over that gives more info about the Wrog (the aliens) and the conflict that is going on between them and humanity.  There are also different difficulty levels and extra objectives to meet if you are particularly inclined to complete them.  Another itchy point is that despite going through the motions of upgrading your base over and over and building towers, you always start the next mission with nothing.  There is no explanation about why you lost all of the progress you made in developing your ship in the last fight.  Considering there is no meta game where you are upgrading your ship through the campaign, it of course makes sense gameplay-wise why you start with a clean slate each mission.

Infinium Strike doesn’t have a whole lot going for it.  Other than its interesting tower defense scenario and a light sci-fi story to go along with it, there won’t be much enjoyment to find in the dredges of space.  I guess we know now why the Wrog want to destroy all of humanity, and its because one of them played Infinium Strike.

 

Defect: Spaceship Destruction Kit (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Three Phase Interactive || Overall: 6.0

Occasionally a game comes along that reminds me of something that I used to do as a kid.  I was very much into building my own custom LEGO spaceships or random things and having them fly around and shoot at each other, making up a story in my head about all of the cool shit that was “actually” happening.  Indeed, I was just waving plastic around in the air and making noises, but it was fun to me, dammit!  Defect: Spaceship Destruction Kit harks back to my earlier days, giving you a litany of neat spaceship parts to assemble and construct, then take it out for a spin through the universe.

The concept is great.  The shipbuilding is fun.  The game design is okay.  The controls, though… holy shit are they frustrating.  When you get out of the shipbuilding menu and into an actual mission, you’re going to be fighting against the user interface as much as you do enemies.  The game controls exactly as you would expect an Asteroids-floaty-space-combat game to be, and that’s not an especially great thing.  Because there are some micromanaging aspects in the arcade gameplay, it is hard to be able to control your ship during intense action as well as make use of the “Direct Control” options.

Your crew will automatically use weapons, but they don’t hit your target very often.  When you put weapons under “Direct Control” your weapons are a lot more effective, but it becomes painfully obvious that it’s a lot harder to kill anything than it should be, especially at the beginning of the campaign.  Your projectiles usually don’t have a very long range, or are slow-moving and dissipate before they hit the moving target (these are alleviated as you progress).  It would be a lot more satisfying if anywhere near half of the shots you are shooting hit something, but in my experience it was more like 25% unless I was right on their ass.  Considering your ships start with awful engines and awful maneuverability, that wasn’t very often.  You can also use Direct Control to buff another piece of your ship and also to repair them as they take damage.  There are plenty of weapons that will one-shot you, so you’ll have to be careful.  A major impact on your performance is how well you execute building a ship that is able to move fast, have enough weaponry, and have enough armor to accomplish the task at hand.  Not an easy feat, typically.

After the first couple of missions, I hit a wall in the difficulty level, mostly because of the controls.  It became frustrating for me to constantly fail despite designing all sorts of ships and doing all sorts of tactics.  Another grating thing on my patience was that the whole level had to load again for each retry, after booting you to the mission select screen.  Considering the game starts you out quite under-powered, your enemies seem to be a lot harder than they should be, and the missions don’t seem to ramp up in difficulty in a consistent manner.  I started out on “Normal” difficulty and once I hit the wall, I knocked it down to “Easy.”  Unfortunately, there was no tangible difference between Normal and Easy that I could see.  After getting through the first few missions, about six different ones become available for play and go into different branching paths for a total of 50 missions.  The mission variety is not too bad, but tend to boil down to “kill the enemies,” and rightfully so.  You are able to replay older missions so you can unlock more parts, but at the same time you don’t want to be stuck in a grind instead of doing new missions — especially since new missions grant you the most new parts.  Not to mention, doing an old mission isn’t an assured win by any means.  To top it all off the camera constantly zooms in and out; this removes you from the action and being left with not knowing who or what is being shot at.  Getting disoriented from the seemingly-random zooms is another obstacle in and of itself.

After defeating a mission, your ship will always be stolen away from you by mutineers.  At the end of the next mission, you’ll fight that ship in a duel.  This is a sort of clever progression mechanic as it forces you to at least have to build a “better” ship than your last and you can’t always rely on your older designs as they use lesser equipment.  The double meaning of “Defect” becomes quite amusing as you have to fix the defects (flaws) in your ships, and your ship ends up being your enemy when your crew stages a defection by mutiny.  As an Easter Egg of sorts, a fun homage to David Bowie is one of the mutineer character designs.

Since the game forces you to constantly design new ships after they are stolen, it is a great way to put focus back on the ship building.  Even though your ship designs are saved, you’ll typically unlock something new after each completed mission, so you’ll want to mess around with the new things you got or try to make something completely different.  Missions usually demand a unique ship configuration, anyhow.

There is a great variety in ship building even from the start.  Your main limiter in building is Power Level, which is dictated by the Power Core you have.  You earn better Cores as you complete missions, and as you have more Power, you are able to have more Crew.  Most pieces require Power Level+Crew, but since Power converts into crew, you’ll eventually hit a point where you can’t add anything more to your ship due to your initial Power Level.  As you equip stronger propulsion engines you’ll need to balance them out with Stability, which forces you to mess around with different combinations of wings and rockets.

Defect also looks great; the enemy spaceships are unique and quite inspired in their designs.  While many pieces of ships are obviously influenced by popular media, the combination of them all together make for some interesting sights.  As you progress and acquire larger Power Cores, you’ll be able to build larger ships.  The graphics in general are pretty good and the sound effects aren’t annoying either.  The ship building user interface is also pretty simple to understand and nothing hinders that experience.  You are allowed to save up to 499 designs and share them with friends, which is also cool.  Using a controller during missions is an option, but most of the game requires a mouse/keyboard, so there isn’t much impetus to use one.

Despite all of the good things I have to say about the game, justifying giving it a low score really comes down to me not being able to derive much enjoyment from the actual usage of the ships I was making.  The controls aren’t intuitive, which leads to the levels being too difficult which leads to the game simply becoming a frustrating experience.  I can’t in good conscience recommend this game to anyone unless you’re great with floaty-space arcade games.  It may be entirely possible that none of the defects (pun!) of the game make no impact on your enjoyment, as it is essentially Asteroids on steroids with ship-building.  And much like no longer playing with LEGO spaceships in the air pretending they shoot lasers, I’ve given up on what could have been.