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.

 

Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch) First Impressions

Every time a new Zelda is announced, Nintendo manages to light a collective fire among their diehard fans. Almost immediately, there are more questions than answers about the newest installment featuring our favorite wielders of the Triforce of Power, Wisdom and Courage. Most important of all, among this tizzy of emerging fan theories and confirmed features from Nintendo, the simple question of “Will it be good?” reigns supreme. With that in mind and with about 10 hours of gameplay under my belt, I can still say with certainty that this game is one of the best in the series.

The best way to describe Breath of the Wild is to say that, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” While a lot of the elements are a major departure from recent installments in the series, many also harken back to more classic elements of the franchise. Working together, all of these features give a fresh feeling to the game entirely, while still being a thoroughly Zelda-like experience; ultimately a mixture of old and new turns into a great game.

With that in mind, here’s a few of the features worth noting.

The World is Your Oyster

Taking a note from the first game of the series, Breath of the Wild begins with an open world and a generous old man. Once what serves as a tutorial is put out of the way, you are given freedom on how you want to approach things and a litany of distractions to prevent you from getting anywhere. Among the main quest and side quests, there are a number of shrines that serve as mini-dungeons to explore throughout the world. Each provides a puzzle or battle to overcome and serves as a worthwhile distraction. Beyond that, the world is littered with things to do. Enemy camps, collectible items, and materials populate the world around the player. More often than not, I found myself far and away from my original goal as I pursued one distraction after the next.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Variety comes in many forms in Breath of the wild. Unlike previous iterations, Link has a more robust assortment of weaponry than the typical sword and shield. Things like heavy blades, hammers, and spears are available and have their own properties in combat. While the standard sword still swings in a half circle arch, heavy blades and hammers possess a heftier swing that can also knock a shield right out of an enemy’s hand, and spears have a far more reach but don’t swing nearly as far. The arrows also come with their own assortment of choice, each possessing moves that can shock, sizzle, freeze or even explode enemies on contact. Though where the variety really shines is how the world lets you tackle every encounter and puzzle. Every enemy can be beaten traditionally by hitting them with whatever weapon you have equipped, but it’s far more fun to use the environment against them. Big rocks, flammable grass, and exploding barrels are some of the many ways you can turn the environment against Link’s enemies. Beyond that, puzzles can be treated the same way. While most of them have a standard way to solve them, many allow for the player to deviate from the norm and find their own way to solve them.

Broken Beyond Repair

New to the series, (unless you count the Giant’s Knife from Ocarina of Time) every weapon, bow and shield in the game has durability. What this means is that those items will eventually break, and that they will break often. It’s not too uncommon to have an item break after one or two encounters, or to have several weapons break during a particularly hard battle. While a mechanic like this could easily verge on the annoying, Nintendo has done a good job at making the loss only minor. There are so many weapons, bows and shields throughout the game that finding a replacement is almost instantaneous.

Prepare to Die

Shockingly enough, Breath of the Wild can be difficult at times. Since the world is open to explore that also means that it’s entirely likely that the player will encounter an enemy they have no business facing. Every so often, I would be one-shotted by what seemed to be a common enemy only to later find out that their weapon far exceeded my current hearts or armor. That said, the enemy AI also got a boost. They no longer run blindly into danger, and seek cover when attempting to shoot them from afar. They no longer attack one at a time, but instead seek to surround link and hit him from all sides if possible. Overall, this reminded me of A Link to the Past and the many times when I was either surrounded by enemies or fighting one that was far beyond my current experience.

Everything Old is New Again

Despite all the changes to the core gameplay, Breath of the Wild still feels like a Zelda game. The story is filled with a cast of colorful characters, the sense of adventure reigns supreme, and many other elements return to define this as a Zelda-experience. While the execution may be different, there’s enough here to make any diehard Zelda fan fall right back in love.

 

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.

 

 

Huntsman: Winter’s Curse (PS4) Review

Developer/Publisher: Desert Owl Games, LLC. || Overall: 6.0

There are things in life that just seem inevitable. First and foremost are death and taxes, but, besides that classic example, the list doesn’t end there. A clear runner up would be emotions like happiness, sadness and anger, which are things that nothing short of a specific lobotomy or mental condition could prevent. Then we have other people, which are impossible to avoid because, according to how I know babies are made, we all start out coming out of a person. There is also disappointment that often comes when the starry-eyed optimism of youth gets a dose of the cold hard reality of adult life. Just like your very next breath, there are just some things that cannot be avoided… like movie tie-in games…

As inevitable as me mentioning Thor in this article.

As inevitable as me mentioning Thor in this article.

In the long tradition of movie tie-ins, Huntsman: Winter’s Curse sets its sights on your PS4’s storage data. Taking place in the Huntsman universe and serving as a sort of side-story to the events in the film, Huntsman: Winter’s Curse describes itself as a “adventure RPG with collectible card game elements” and for the most part gets that right. Though whether it can avoid the curse of a terrible movie tie-in game is another thing entirely.

Huntsman: Winter’s Curse quickly establishes a rhythm and then staunchly refuses to change it. Every bit of story is followed by an encounter, every encounter is then followed by a change of location, and every change of location then brings about more story. Along the way, a boss fight occurs and eventually after a few repeats of the established sequence, the game will end. While this may seem like the standard structure of most RPGs, it’s not so much that it uses a fairly common structure, it’s how Huntsman: Winter’s Curse handles it. The whole process is far too structured and leaves very little room for player agency. Every location has a set number of encounters and doesn’t allow for any exploration on the player’s part. Visiting a different location only requires scrolling over the desired location and then pressing “X” to go there. There is no actual walking or exploring to speak of. To add to that, all loot is tied to those encounters and there is no real way to get more. There are a few side quests, but even those are structured in the same way, where the encounters and loot are predetermined. If there is any attempt at giving the player agency, it can be seen in the choices the player is allowed to make throughout the story, but even those seem inconsequential in the long run. More often than not, the story ends up taking the same route regardless.

Don’t worry about what choice you pick, you’ll end up at the same place regardless.

Don’t worry about what choice you pick, you’ll end up at the same place regardless.

As far as the story goes, Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is a fun little side-adventure that isn’t too bogged down by the details of the movie. This makes it something that a person who has never seen the movie has a possibility of enjoying the story. Mentions and some cameos do exist, including a battle with the title character himself in all of his Chris-Hemsworth-Playing-Not-Thor glory (Inevitable!), but this story exists as a standalone within the universe.

The story is a familiar tale that pits our plucky and strong female protagonist and her roguish male companion on a quest through the Huntsman universe in search of her brothers. Of course, things are never that simple and she quickly finds herself on the opposing end of a powerful witch. This same fairy tale esthetic also bleeds into the presentation. The characters are drawn much like they were in some elaborate picture book and each part of the story is separated into a “book” that denotes each story arc. The characters speak in a fancy tone that can feel like they are hamming it up at times, but overall fit their character and circumstances. There are also enough twists and turns to keep the player interested, as long as they are able to get past the feeling of being led along by the wrist at every turn.

Another positive point is the combat. The system closely resembles the Active Time Battle system used in some Final Fantasy games but with the added benefit of having actions that can alter a character’s turn. Turn order is displayed above the action with a line that scrolls forward with the combatants represented by a portrait on it. Once the portrait reaches the end, that character is allowed to act. Where it gets interesting is in the cards that let you push back your opponents turn. Some allowing you to push a certain character’s action several turns back to either land a few hits or set up another combo with your cards.

Unfortunately, the way the combat looks isn’t exactly inspired.

Unfortunately, the way the combat looks isn’t exactly inspired.

Though, no matter how much fun I found the combat, it did nothing to make parts of the game feel any less half-baked. There are a number of bugs that I encountered, ranging from the annoyingly constant button lag to a frustrating glitch that didn’t allow me to change the equipment on my second character unless I exited the game. There is also a lack in variety among the cards available. I found myself with the exact same card across multiple equipment more often than you would think. Lastly, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing a glorified mobile game. Everything from the combat to the way you change locations and even the presentation screamed that this was originally intended for the mobile market instead of being a full-fledged console release.

All in all, Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is a noble attempt at a movie tie-in game that fails to impress. The combat and story is intriguing but the way the game handholds the player through the story can be annoying. And that still fails to address that the ample number of bugs in the game are grating, and the lack of variety when it comes to the cards can be no less a detriment to the experience. If you are interested in a game set in a Huntsman universe and don’t mind a bit of linearity, give it a try. On the other hand, if you are looking for an open experience with more variety, I’d recommend something else.

 

Livelock (PC) Review

Developer: Tuque Games | Publisher: Perfect World International || Overall: 8.5

Google needs a new name. As our eventual AI overloads, the name Google doesn’t have the required menace for when the program finally decides to go rogue and that mankind can no longer be left to its own devices. It’s just a hard name to respect as our robot betters. Imagine being gunned down by the “Google Drones” or being forced to work for the “Google Internment Camp”. Wouldn’t you rather a name like “Ocelot Corp” or “Gigadyne” be the starting point for the age of machines and the fall of mankind? This is where Cyberdyne Systems had a good idea and stuck with it. They knew that if their program ever decided that mankind worked better as target practice, it had the proper name to take them down with. A name that could be feared and also respected; not a name that could qualify as a toddler’s first words.

terminator-52

To be fair, the T-800’s searched for Sarah Conner would have been optimized if it was powered by Google.

It’s a robot-on-robot war for the fate of humanity and you’re smack-dab in the middle of all its top-down shooter glory. Publisher Perfect World and Developer Tuque Games are set to bring the robotic apocalypse to your PC with Livelock. Livelock sends you on a mission to shoot your way through hordes of robots to save humanity. With its guns locked and loaded, it hopes to not shoot any blanks.

Livelock takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity is a distant memory and robots have taken their place as inheritors of earth. To that end, the world of Livelock is wonderfully realized. Most stages are barren wastelands where the remnants of humanity mix in with the discarded corpses of other robots that have fallen in the robot wars that followed mankind’s destruction. A fact that can be commonly seen in the way the art style treats the robots and the world they live on. The newer robots shine with a metallic brilliance while the rest of the world is diluted by dull hues to give a clear distinction on what’s old and new. To that effect, the weapon effects and explosions also light up the screen with a dazzling pop as the player violently weeds their way through their enemies. All this makes it clear to me that Livelock took some care when developing its art-style and graphics.

No joke here. I just really like the weapon effects.

No joke here. I just really like the weapon effects.

The story in Livelock continues to play with the duality of old and new. Mankind was given ten years before their eventual destruction, three human minds were downloaded into brand new robot bodies in the hopes of resurrecting humanity at a later time. Though the plan seems perfect, mankind fails to properly gauge the destruction and the time-table is set back by a few hundred years. Our three robot saviors are then resurrected by a satellite AI and are introduced to a world where three robot factions are fighting for dominance over the Earth. With the world in turmoil, the satellite AI informs them that the only way to save mankind is to stop the current war. This sends the player and the robots with human minds on a path of destruction for a chance to bring mankind back. It’s an intriguing narrative that blends the lines between robot and man to bring you a tale about perseverance and survival. Overall, it is a competent story with a satisfying ending even if it can be a tad predictable at times.

The gameplay can be best described in one word and, thankfully, that word is “fun.” At any moment there is a variety of things that can be happening on the screen and it’s the player’s job to properly balance out all the robotic bits. There may not always be a constant stream of enemies on the screen, but when Livelock decides to ramp up, it doesn’t really hold back the carnage. The player is almost constantly besieged by a variety of enemies both weak and powerful that require skillful uses of each robot’s three primary weapons and its varied abilities to survive. Furthermore, there are upgraded versions of every enemy that are beefier, stronger and, oftentimes, bigger than their normal version and require their own strategies to defeat.

The “variety of things” I talked about.

The “variety of things” I talked about.

The only real shame here is the fact that Tuque Games didn’t decide to diverge from the three most common classes when it came to the core robots. Putting it in MMO terms, the three robots fall into DPS, Tank and Support roles (or as I like to call them Shooty McShooterson, The Big Guy and The Red Cross). Though what they lacked in creativity, they make up for in execution as each gain an enjoyable number of weapons and skills to do away with the machine menace. Those skills can then be equipped, along with a variety of weapons, to build different setups for your robot. This means that there is a low chance that two robots would end up the same way, even if the same one is chosen.

And you’ll get plenty of chances to see those builds with the multiplayer. Overall, it’s pretty great. Any lag is hardly noticeable and the difficulty ramps up to a point where it is necessary to use your team to its full advantage. Thankfully, they also fixed the earlier connection issues and the multiplayer seems to run fine now.

Lastly, the variety of enemies is worth mentioning. Each robotic cluster has its own theme and the enemies you face play to them. Whether it is the hive-like structure of the Noesis cluster or the human-like appearances of the Praetorian cluster each robotic faction the player faces come with their own design and strategies. This not only keeps the player on their toes but also lends to the world building of the story. Each faction harbors its own desires and they play out throughout the course of the story to lend some life to the dead planet the story takes place on.

Livelock seems to have a bullet in every chamber. The story is competent, the gameplay is fun, the multiplayer works great and mixing and matching the different abilities and weapons is a treat. It’s also obvious that the developers took care and effort when developing the graphics and art-styles to fit the game’s setting. As of right now, Livelock’s chamber is full and locked and loaded for some fun.

When not implanting his human mind into a robot body as Unnamedhero, Eduardo Luquin can be reached at Unnamedheromk13@gmail.com.

*This review has been edited to reflect that multiplayer has been fixed upon launch.*

 

Nebulous (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Namazu Studios || Overall: 7.5

Space has always been of interest to man. Back when we could only look at the stars, we still dreamed of someday reaching out and touching those twinkly little objects in the sky. Then those dreams were subsequently dashed when we later learned that those beautiful night lights were actually exploding balls of hydrogen and helium that would burn our bodies to a crisp if we ever got anywhere near one. Still, that endless sky continues to capture the hearts of man to this day, whether it is in a galaxy far, far away or aboard a starship in some far off Stardate. Our eyes still fill with wonder and our hearts still yearn to explore a place many haven’t and hardly ever think of the danger that comes with it. Neither does Nebulous, it pokes fun at the whole “lost in space” bit.

 Though it’s hard not to with how meme-able Star Trek can be.

Though it’s hard not to with how meme-able Star Trek can be.

Nebulous is the latest puzzle game to leave Steam Early Access and vie for your attention. Developed and published by Namazu Studios, Nebulous takes the horrible prospect of being lost in space and makes it a lighthearted puzzle game instead. With space as your backdrop, the player must drop, bounce, push and pull the lost astronaut to safety in a number of complex levels to eventually complete the game. That being said, it’s not easy.

 Okay, sometimes it can be easy.

Okay, sometimes it can be easy.

Stop me if you heard this before, Nebulous is a simple concept with a complex design. The simple part is getting the astronaut, Dash Johnson, from point A to point B, and the complex part is all the stuff they put to hinder that. At the end of every puzzle, there is a blue wormhole that takes Dash from one level to the next, from there the player has to avoid touching the outer walls of the course and the hazards set throughout it. These could be anything from electricity to even lasers, but touching any of these hazards makes Dash explode into a shiny green light. To avoid his explode-y demise, each level grants several items to guide Dash to safety. There is quite the assortment too, including objects like ramps, simple walls and even object that bounce Dash. They’re also well needed because the game is quite hard.

A lot of the difficulty comes from the repetition. Especially in the later stages, it may take several tries to finally land Dash on the exit point. Even the slightest miscalculation can send him careening off course and right into a hazard or the edge of the map. It may take several readjustments before you land anywhere near the target zone. There is good reason for that too, the stages can get pretty complex. Often the stages are composed of several screens, each linked via multiple worm holes that can be flipped through with the WASD keys. So, not only is the player responsible for a single puzzle, but they have to keep track of several smaller puzzles that all combine to form Voltron… err I mean a giant puzzle with many layers. Add to that several other mechanics like switches, altered gravity (meaning that you may fall up or even sideways), and conveyer belts that run Dash either right or left. That doesn’t even take into account the grading system…

Stages are graded on a 3-star grading system, spilt into three categories based on the number of attempts, the time it took and if all the collectable stars scattered throughout the stage were claimed. For every objective you either meet or go under, the game offers a star for that course upwards to a complete three. While a pretty standard grading system, the problem lies in the fact that the first two grading points I mentioned are nearly impossible to get on the first try. A lot of this game requires both pre-planning and repetition to beat a stage and more often than not, you’ll go way past the limit on time and attempts very easily. It doesn’t help that the limits are pretty strict too, sometimes giving as little as half a minute and only one try to complete a course. At points, it almost seemed like the only way to get all three stars would be to do the course normally and then quickly mimic the placements on the subsequent attempt to achieve the time and attempt limit. They really weren’t joking around when they set up the grading system.

Alright, figure this out. You got a minute and two tries.

Alright, figure this out. You got a minute and two tries.

Thankfully though, they weren’t joking around when it came to the humor of the game. To put it bluntly, Dash Johnson, is a pompous ass who is so full of himself that it wouldn’t be surprising if he were a living and breathing Matryoshka doll. With a slight resemblance to Sterling Archer in attitude alone, the Astronaut will berate your intelligence with every failure and pump up his own ego with every bit of hot air that leaves his mouth. It would almost be too much if it weren’t for the fact that his fate is entirely in the player’s hands, giving them plenty of opportunities to kill him. Though, it is hard to feel bad for him and his plight, considering he seems to deserve whatever bit of bad luck that came his way. Regardless, if you don’t mind a bit of deprecation on your part, his quips are enjoyable.

The sound effects are also enjoyable. The music is a mixture of a fittingly sci-fi beat with the same repetitiveness of the Jeopardy theme; so it serves as pretty good thinking music. The sound effects are also fitting, especially the painful grunts and groan of Dash Johnson as he bounces around each level. The graphics aren’t all that fantastic but the simple designs are more than enough for this game. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said about both of those subjects.

Though, amid all of the talk about the game mechanics, difficulty, sound and graphics, what needs to be said is whether or not the game is actually fun. For that, it’s a resounding “Yeah, sure…” Nebulous is a neat distraction but it never really gets to the point of an addiction. Nebulous supports VR functionality through the Oculus Rift and I imagine that would make the experience all the more engaging, but I have neither the rig nor the equipment to test that out. Overall, Nebulous is fun enough without the bells and whistles of VR technology, but it’s isn’t quite amazing either.

Nebulous is a complex, difficult and humorous game that can be quite the fun timewaster but it is not much more than that. If you enjoy complex puzzles and can take a joke, this might be worth picking up to idly play between other games. Otherwise, it might not be engaging enough for other players. It doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of space, but it can still ground a few people with its gameplay.

When not guiding a spaceman through treacherous puzzles as Unnamedhero, Eduardo Luquin can be reached at Unnamedheromk13@gmail.com.

 

Heart&Slash (PC) Review

Developer: AHEARTFULOFGAMES | Publisher: Badland Games || Overall: 8.5

I need more money. I don’t mean the type of money that’ll help me in the short term, I mean the type of money that will prevent me from being a Walmart greeter when I’m old and gray. I constantly hear that the economy is in the shitter and that Social Security was a fairy tale they told good little boys and girls so they’ll have something to look forward too when they grow old. Now as an adult I fear that I won’t be able to simply put on a VR headset and lose myself in a virtual world for the duration of my golden years like I first dreamed of when I was a child. Instead, I’ll probably be picking up odd jobs here and there just to stay… y’know… alive. Think people would fund a Kickstarter that won’t give them anything back in return?

Social Security Benefits claim form

I imagine the other side of this form will say “Pysche!” in big bold letters by the time I get old enough to fill it out.

Straight out of Kickstarter and with all of the confidence other people’s money can give it, Heart&Slash is set to invade your computer with its button mashing goodness. Published by Badland Games and Developed by AHEARTFULOFGAMES, Heart&Slash is an attempted love letter to the beat’em-up genre of days past. Not only that, but it’s also an unforgiving Roguelike that demands the utmost concentration and ample amounts of manual dexterity to play. This exquisite combination lends to Heart&Slash’s unique style.

Originally advertised as Bayonetta meets the Roguelike genre, shadows of the former are obviously present in the combat. Heart (one of the game’s titular character) is quite the formidable little bucket of bolts. He’s equipped with a double jump and a control scheme that focuses on a two-button combat style that fans of Dynasty Warriors (or any of its derivatives) will quickly understand. Combine that with the ability to quickly switch weapons with the press of a button and the massive amounts of weapons available, each with their own combos and style, and Heart&Slash becomes quite the sandbox for said combos. Though, while not as deep as Bayonetta, it is a wholly satisfying system that isn’t a stranger to over the top combos.

It’s also just as punishing. The game demands a keen eye, the ability to multi-task, and dexterous fingers to play. A momentary lapse in either could result in the loss of health, or even worse, death, and in Rouguelike fashion that sends you right to the beginning of the game to do it all over again. Thankfully, Heart&Slash isn’t completely unforgiving.

The game is fair… I promise…

The game is fair… I promise…

Even if it isn’t in an overly-obvious way, Heart gets stronger. The formidable little robot doesn’t come back a completely clean slate after every death. He is allowed to bring any unused experience with him in the form of the bolts he collects from defeated robots. With these he can immediately upgrade any equipment he comes across. Heart also unlocks further equipment every play through giving it a plethora of combat options both weak and strong, as well as a few support abilities like a wall jump and displaying the health of every enemy. At that point, you just have to pray that the random number generator gives a good set of equipment.

Unfortunately, there are some things that the RNG cannot fix. There is quite the number of environmental bugs that plague the post-apocalyptic world that Heart lives in. It wasn’t all that rare for me to jump right through walls and for enemies to find themselves stuck into the floor. In some instances, that only proved a minor disturbance, and other times, I suddenly found myself falling into a vast sea of white and losing a fair bit of health in the process. Then there is the case of the camera. Like the 3D platformers of yesteryear, it can be clunky and unresponsive at times. This can be quite a problem especially in a game that requires as much careful planning and movement like Heart&Slash. I wouldn’t say it happened so much that it was excessive, but it was still quite off-putting when an enemy landed a lucky shot because the camera flickered away.

Now what Heart&Slash has an excess of is… well… heart. The developer seems to have a put quite a surprising amount of care into many small things about this game. The soundtrack rings with an upbeat retro track that easily becomes an earworm. The enemies you encounter are not only diverse, but also are as colorful as the protagonist; each requiring a different strategy to defeat, especially when they gang up on you. There are also plenty of little references besides the allusions to the beat’em up genre as a whole. If you take the time to look you’ll even be able to catch a Mario and Zelda references among all the other ones in the game. This all leads me to believe that the developers not only loved this game, but video games as a whole.

I’m pretty sure this is a Zoids reference, if anyone remembers that show.

I’m pretty sure this is a Zoids reference, if anyone remembers that show.

Heart&Slash may be plagued by a few bugs and a wonky camera, but it is a great experience overall. If you enjoy beat’em ups, high difficulty, or just quirky games overall, you should give this game a shot. Maybe then the TV-headed robot protagonist of this game will worm its way into your heart too.

When not coming back stronger after every death as Unnamedhero, Eduardo Luquin can be reached at Unnamedheromk13@gmail.com.

 

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.