Dream Alone (PC) Review

Developer: WarSaw Games | Publisher: Fat Dog Games || Overall: 4.0/10

Note: This review was written before I went to get a sandwich.

Dream Alone is coined as an ultra difficult classic 2D platformer with a dark story.  While this is technically true, the difficulty doesn’t come from things being hard, it comes from being cheap.  Very cheap.  The kind of platformers that force you to die to figure out how to get through levels are the worst, and it becomes an exercise in patience more than anything else.  There’s nothing particularly difficult about what I played, it’s just annoying.

I try to give games a fair shake, but sometimes they’re just so bad, I don’t want to continue to torture myself.  I played the game for just under an hour, it wasn’t getting any better, so I stopped.  The real issue here isn’t necessarily the gameplay, or even the gothic art, which is kind of on the creepy/ugly side — I could deal with it.  The story was sort of nonsensical, but I didn’t really get very far to be able to judge it fairly.  The real issue this game has is the visual effect clutter — it is beyond bizarre.  Not only is the game very dark to begin with, using a black and white color scheme, the developers thought that it would also be a good idea to make the game look like it is from aged film stock off a projector, with a black frame blink every five seconds.  This is headache inducing, because it is hard to see what is going on; you have an overlay of a film grain/black lines, “projector” noise, and that fucking black frame blink that disorients your timing of jumps. This is supposed to be a video game in 2018, not a video game in 1910. I can’t tell what I’m looking at half of the time as a result, and often fell into a pit, or killed by something else, not being able to see it.  This forces you to actually memorize where things are rather than react to what you are seeing — this takes skill out of the equation completely, in my opinion.

The gameplay is technically pretty simple.  You jump, move stuff, jump some more, and also go into alternate realities to get past obstacles you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.  You get this alternate reality spell non-ceremoniously and this little manchild thing that you are controlling seems to master this ultradimensional ability with no issue.  He can also make clones of himself later (not that it makes much sense why) to be able to get past more complex puzzles/obstacles.  This is probably personal preference, but it would have been nice to have some sort of context for these strange abilities rather than just attaining them from a random potion bottle.  Otherwise, why not just have it from the beginning of the game?

When you die, there is a checkpoint system that is forgiving in that it doesn’t put you back to the beginning of the level.  The checkpoints seem to be right after harder obstacles, or just before a string of them.  I didn’t get too annoyed with having to repeat any particular puzzle after I had done it, but again, it was a lot of “learn from dying” which got stale real fast.  Dying 100 times in less than an hour of gameplay will do that.

There’s a few bugs in the game that are game breaking as well.  After the first level, another cut scene was supposed to play, but instead the game decided to crash in spectacular fashion, while it played the audio for the cutscene.  So that was a little creepy, I guess.  You can use a controller to play, but for some reason the menus don’t react to anything other than the analog stick, so to confirm anything you have to press the enter key on your keyboard — the “A” button doesn’t work.  Not sure what is up with that.  There was also a really annoying obstacle where if you fell into the swamp and were waiting to die, if the moving mountain thing touched you, you would be ejected out of the swamp.  You would then still be in the “dying animation” and can’t move, but since you don’t hit the bottom of the swamp, you don’t die.  So, you basically have to quit the game (can’t use the A button to select “Back to Main Menu”) and then start again from the beginning of the level.  This happened to me a few times and after the fifth or sixth time, I was done wasting my time.

To drill down more on the visual and audio aspects of the game, the art is technically satisfyingly creepy.  The little manchild that you control looks like a weird marionette with his big face and big eyes, and he jumps like one too.  The first level, which is a forest, is full of people lynched and/or impaled for some reason.  Don’t ask me why.  I guess it’s creepy looking, but you would think before whatever plague occurred, the people would be more concerned about the reason why everyone ended up in the forest like that.  Or at least clean it up!  Sheesh.  There also seemed to be enough nightmarish creatures running around that they’d eat the carcasses, but I guess they are too busy running around in predetermined paths that they don’t have time for that.  The music is pretty good and matches the atmosphere they are going for.  Sound effects are okay, but the grunts for the manchild sound like it is coming from a 30 year old person rather than a little boy, so I don’t know why they thought that was a good idea.  At least put some sort of filter on it to make the main character sound younger.

If you like difficult platformers, this could be a game for you.  However, I’d classify this as a game that wants to torture you for the sake of its artsy style.  Sadists who want to skip a meal at Subway to pay for 21 levels of misery need only be interested.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat a sandwich at Subway because I’m hungry.

 

City of Brass (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Uppercut Games || Overall: 8.5/10

Welcome to Brass City.  Please, take our shit.  We don’t need it anymore.  WE’RE ALL DEAD!  Actually, that poodle statue is mine — don’t touch it, you asshole!

City of Brass is a roguelike that puts you in the first person perspective of some dude who has found a long lost city, rumored to have riches beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  While slicing your way through cuddly and adorable undead skeletons, you’ll loot lots of what I guess is brass, and maybe some gold.  There must be some sort of recycling plant nearby that will buy your brass for top dollar.  Really, though, you don’t even want to keep the money you find.  You want to give it to genies who will give you equipment and blessings — thus the roguelike experience comes alive.

As you trek through Brass City, humming a parody version of Tyga’s Rack City (“BRASS CITY BITCH BRASS BRASS BRASS CITY BITCH”), you’ll use your trusty whip and sword to smack and cut down enemies that come before you.  The undead citizens of Brass City are protecting their chests full of riches, as well as statues of the phenomenally popular “man,” “horse,” “box,” and “ash tray.”  As the theme of the game is based on the “Arabian Nights,” you’ll see a lot of decorative items you notice from your local hookah bars, such as abandoned hookahs, heat lamps, and large plastic pots.  Other features from your local hookah bars that show up are trap doors, secret rooms, and large spike traps.

The maps are procedurally generated, so you’ll never see the same map more than once.  The procedural generation is pretty good in this instance and keeps the game relatively fresh despite replaying the early levels over and over, as what typically happens in a roguelike.  The whip is a very unique tool in this game, as it is used as a ranged weapon and grabs items from far away.  The whip can be used to stun, blind, disarm, or drag your enemies over traps.  There is also a mobility use, in which you can grab onto rings that are floating in the air, and move quickly across the room.  The whip is so much fun that I actually would have rather just used the whip the whole time instead of other melee weapons, but there are some cool melee weapons that do a variety of things.

As you progress through the game, you’ll notice it is segmented into different sub-themes within the city.  At first you’ll be in the Outskirts, make your way into the Marketplace, then you’ll be in the Garden, and so forth.  As you make your way into the center of the city, presumably where the biggest payload of recyclable brass will be (good thing you brought your friend’s pickup truck), you’ll see different enemies, different fauna, and different traps.  Every third level, there will be a boss character to defeat that will unlock the next level, adding a unique challenge to your progress.  To prepare, you’ll want to collect as many buffs as you can manage to afford by collecting items and opening chests for currency.  Once you eat the sand, you’ll start over again from scratch.

City of Brass is also pretty liberal in how it allows you to play the game.  There are a number of modifiers, called Burdens & Blessings, that can make the game either more difficult or easier.  There are specific things like, “more loot,” “more health,” “respawn enemies,” “more enemy health,” etc.  There are 8 Burdens and 8 Blessings, and some are unlocked through particular tasks done in-game.  There is also a daily challenge that has everyone playing on the same map and ranking on leaderboards.  You only have one attempt at the Daily Challenge, however.

The graphics and sound are pretty high quality, as well.  I wouldn’t say there’s anything that is particularly pretty, as you’ll see a lot of the same assets used over and over.  There’s probably an overuse of falling streams of sand coming off roofs, like there’s an infinite amount of sand on top of these buildings.  The art style definitely gives you the “Arabian Nights” feeling, down to the skeletons wearing fezzes and other obviously Middle Eastern clothing.  Some skeletons just run around naked and yell, which I guess is also a Middle Eastern thing?  The only downfall of the procedural generation in regards to how the art works, is that most of the rooms don’t feel like things that would have been designed for a practical use, so they retain a “fake” game design feel to them.  There probably isn’t a use for several warehouse-sized rooms in the middle of the city that are full of nothing but bookshelves.  This hardly takes anything away from the game proper, but sort of downgrades the idea that you are visiting an actual city.

City of Brass is pretty enjoyable if you get really into the weeds of learning every aspect of the gear you find.  While its not a particularly complex game on its surface, there is a lot of challenge to be had and having the inclination to learn the most efficient way of progressing through levels is a reward in itself.  Allowing for an experience that is custom to the player allows for a lot less frustration if you just want to have a nice time smacking skellies in the head, or if you find yourself wanting a bit more of a challenge, letting the skellies bonk you on the head instead.  Look for City of Brass on Steam, or perhaps your local Hookah bar.

 

Fox N Forests (PC) Review

Developer: Bonus Level Entertainment | Publisher: EuroVideo Medien || Overall: 8.0/10

In southern California, we experience something called “June Gloom.”  It is sort of a mid-season switch from the “Cold” (aka Less Hot) season into the Hot season, and basically everyday feels like my heart — cloudy, overcast, and named something stupid.  I would be hard-pressed to tell you what the “opposite” of June Gloom is, other than simply “a normal day.”  Why did I bother giving you this useless trivia since you’ll never be in southern California or my heart?  Fox N Forests, an otherwise typical platformer, takes the idea of “swapping seasons” to heart and creates a unique gameplay gimmick that feels like it was ripped out of the late 90’s to early 2000’s.

While it’s easy to assume the intended throwback of the title is to the Super Nintendo era, it feels more like a Game Boy Advance platformer, which was an extension of 16-bit games past the year 2000.  This is mostly due to the game feeling different than what you may normally get from the Super Nintendo in regards to level design, controls, as well as the ability to upgrade stats or unlock abilities.  There is also sarcastic dialogue that gives the game a feeling of being more “postmodern.”  The graphics are great, and pixel art is beautiful at times, but the resolution is purposely very low to emulate playing on a classic platform, which is not usually something I would be a fan of, but in this case it works.  The main gameplay hook is an interesting one — changing the season you are currently in so that it changes the terrain or adds elements to get you through obstacles.  This ability uses mana, and as there is a limited amount of it, this ability is on a timer essentially.   There are also mana crystals littered throughout levels, allowing you to replenish your mana bar quicker, or keep the season change in effect as long as your timing is right.  Logically, changing seasons is a curious mechanic, because it seems you are actually time traveling, yet all of the enemies are in the same place as you go back and forth through time.  Baby birds instantly turn into asshole crows that drop shit on you, fire tornadoes coming off burning windmills are replaced with angry lightning clouds, large leaves coming from space float down, etc etc.  It all sort of just doesn’t make sense in that context, but you roll with it as the game has a lot of fun with this mechanic in interesting ways.

As a platformer, the main thing you do is progress through a level by jumping and getting through obstacles.  The levels are purposely very long and can take upwards of 30 minutes or so to complete one run, including deaths.  While games in this genre usually have a high quantity of levels that take 5 to 10 minutes each to get through, Fox N Forests has a lot less individual levels and crams the already sprawling levels with secret paths and areas.  The gameplay never gets a break because they set you back to a checkpoint without restarting the level from a menu; this is a nice quality of life consideration, but the side effect is your Del Taco fries will go cold if you were planning on eating “after this level.”  The enemies add to the texture of a level, keeping it somewhat fresh depending on your problem-solving skills.  The enemy variety can also feel a bit lacking, with some enemies just getting a pallet swap or appearing over and over.

As you play an asshole fox named Rick, you’re promised something or other by a large tree-face-thing and an adversarial wise-cracking bird.  They want you to help save the forest from the “Fifth Season” by collecting Magic Bark from ridiculously large, equally assholish bosses — it’s basically something you’d expect in the genre to have to go and collect shit to save something you have no emotional attachment to.  The Magic Bark could very well be tree-face-thing’s shit for all you know.  The large tree-face-thing gives you a bow that has a bayonet on it, allowing you to only shoot straight. Sad!  All of the other directions can only use the bayonet, which has a very short range but is powerful.  Useful!  You eventually get magic arrows to change your firing pattern and along with your ability to change the seasons, you’re on your way to killing tons of evil forest creatures and stealing their money.  Additionally, there are also shoot-’em-up levels to break up the platforming; they feel out of place, honestly, but are still fun since they rely on the season-changing mechanic heavily.

A big “feature” of this game is the secrets.  Going back and playing levels to find all of the nooks and crannies in pursuit of obtaining collectibles is going to be the main time sink here.  The collectibles are actually pretty hard to find and there are only a few of them, so when you find one it is actually meaningful.  As all of the collectibles directly relate to upgrades or unlocking levels themselves, you’re definitely motivated to go back through them over and over.  Upgrades to health and mana are similar to what you could expect in a platformer.  Fox N Forests is also said to have “RPG elements,” but there’s no experience or progression necessarily, so you’d be hard-pressed to qualify any game system as an “RPG element.”  I would say the only “RPG element” is the fact you have to grind gold and replay levels over and over (SICK BURN!!!!!!).

Each level has 5 magic seeds and a couple of other collectible items, with four “seasons” containing 2 levels and 1 boss.  To enter a level for the “fifth season” you have to collect all of the seeds for a particular season, and then you get to enter the level.  Since the seeds are pain in the ass to find, I haven’t been able to get into one just yet, and I have no idea what to expect since it’s hard to imagine what a “fifth season” would be.  Boss levels are also unique challenges, but since their challenges haven’t been introduced at any point before you attempt the boss, you’ll always die on your first attempt.  An odd decision on the game developer’s part is that they add a “help” text box after you die to the boss, basically telling you exactly what to do to kill the boss the next time you attempt it.  There is no consequence to dying in the game, so you are allowed to attempt bosses as many times as you want.  This feels a bit fourth-wall breaking, and doesn’t really make much sense why they blatantly tell you how to beat a boss like this, considering there isn’t an arrow pointing you to all of the collectibles in a level.    Usually a boss is supposed to utilize at least some sort of skill you learn beforehand in a more advanced way, rather than being completely independent of what you had previously seen.  Otherwise, the bosses can be a fun challenge.

Fox N Forests is a pretty enjoyable title, and with pretty graphics, responsive controls, and a simple upgrade system, you’ll find there to be a unique challenge with the large levels full of secrets.  Exploration is not typically something you see in platformers, so it feels like something different despite being an obvious throwback.  If you can somehow change the season to a Steam sale, consider this an option to spend your money on.

 

Last Encounter (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Exordium Games || Overall: 6.5/10

Last Encounter is a bit of a puzzling game for me.  The gameplay itself is fine, but the game is a chore.  You’ve got a space-themed twin-stick shootery game wrapped in a roguelite progression system, but the progression is so metered, it’s as if there isn’t any at all.  What it comes down to, is that being stingy in a roguelite just does not work.  Upgrades are few and far between, health drops are practically non-existent, and never mind the amount of enemies that want to blow your face off.

For a roguelite, there’s hardly any progression to be had and one of the major road blocks is that you research weapons you find by using Credits.  Credits are found only by killing stuff, and you lose half of it every time you die.  You can only research when you are back at the base, but you are unable to return to base until you die; this makes it hard to research or buy any weapons at the home base for a better run.  Credits can also be used to purchase weapons in a level where there’s a shop, so there’s probably going to be even less of it by the time you’re back at the base — if you even get the opportunity to spend it.

The one very positive and unique feature this game has is the weapon system.  You have three weapon slots, one being the base weapon, and the other two being modifiers.  The modifiers can change the way your base weapon behaves, either increasing its strength, changing its firing pattern, or making it fire faster.  The different weapon changes are actually pretty fun, but unfortunately there isn’t enough of these drops occurring to keep the cadence of the game itself fun; they are also finite as you’ll use up an energy allotment unless they are a yellow-colored upgrade.  There is also a lack of information regarding if you’ll replace a slot already occupied by another weapon, so you may downgrade or get something you don’t particularly want because you haven’t exhausted your previous upgrade.  There are additional kinds of upgrades laying around the levels that will provide a small boost to your ship’s stats, but these stats are only permanent for the run, and will disappear once you die.  The boosts are practically inconsequential and don’t appear very often, so it feels like they should have just been permanent forever.

If you are somehow able to get through a set of levels, called a galaxy, you enter a new galaxy where the theme changes and enemies become different and more difficult.  The themes are actually quite nice and unique from each other, and since the challenge increases significantly from one galaxy to the next, you won’t have much time to enjoy any of it before you’re dead again.  The graphics and art are a real selling point here since it’s easy to say it all looks pretty high quality and not-so-generic for enemy designs.  The level layout and enemy count is all procedural, so you’ll never see the same level again per se.  Using a controller is unfortunately a pain, though.  I opted for keyboard/mouse and it was a much more pleasurable experience.

The story is sort of interesting, but there’s hardly any focus on it, and it gets cheapened by a wise-cracking scientist.  Earth is under attack by aliens and they’ve lost the war.  So it’s up to you to go through the portal as a last ditch effort to close it and go back in time or something — I don’t really remember since there’s hardly much story flying around.  While in-game, you try to find out what happened to the previous excursion of battleships into the portal only to find they’ve all been destroyed, and you try to track down any survivors.  So, it’s up to you and your dinky ship to destroy all of the alien ships that are doing nothing but waiting for you to come and blow them up.  Rinse and repeat until you’ve lost interest, and you’ve got Last Encounter.

While the game can be fun at times, overall it is pretty dull.  It seems like the game is pretty short insofar as how many levels there are to go through, so maybe that’s why the progression is so significantly metered and doesn’t really exist as part of the gameplay loop.  If there were more themes, and possibly even having randomized themes, it might be a bit more thrilling to restart the game over and over.  Local co-op might be a pretty fun excursion if you’re looking for something, but the visual clutter is already an issue as it is.

 

X-Morph: Defense (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: EXOR Studios || Overall: 8.0/10 | Note: Review includes the “European Assault” (DLC)

I’m a big fan of the tower defense genre, so whenever I get the chance to review a new game in the genre, I get excited.  Unfortunately, there’s not usually a whole lot of variety, as a lot of it relies on how well the levels are designed, what kind of towers are available, and if there’s anything particularly charming about the game.  The hook for X-Morph: Defense is that it mashes the tower defense with a “twin-stick” shooter, turning the player into a very important and active participant in defeating the waves of enemies.

Back in high school, I used to play Starcraft quite a bit — but I seldom played the game as it was meant to be.  I always played the “Use Map Settings” customized maps, and there were a lot of different iterations of tower defense, among other “new” genres.   On its face, X-Morph: Defense feels like a fully realized version of those old Starcraft tower defense maps.  The idea of forcing your enemies to move around your towers and build barriers was one of the strategies you’d employ to make those maps easier and get the most kills, whether it was intended or not.  Since X-Morph: Defense is designed with this aspect in mind, this leads to putting way more emphasis on the placement of towers and terrain manipulation, rather than the tower configuration.  The path of your enemies to the core requires significantly more player agency than most tower defense games offer, and that’s one of the shining aspects of the game design.  Where the tower placement gets complicated, is that enemies come from multiple directions, and even more directions are added as the map expands.  This forces your strategy to change between waves, and you’ll have to re-evaluate your previous tower placements.  Each wave demands you to pontificate to see if you can improve it even slightly; the freedom to do so comes from not “losing” resources for selling or moving your towers.  Unfortunately, the tower weaponry variety feels intentionally basic, because the main emphasis in gameplay is with the player-controlled character.

As the titular “X-Morph” defender, you will eventually be able to switch between four different weapon sets on the fly (pun intended), depending on the situation.  You’ll constantly be encountering helicopters or jets trying to shoot you out of the sky, and combine that with the ground units shooting projectiles at you, you’re almost in a bullet hell game.  The towers become a secondary thought in the heat of the battle and you just kind of hope everything is working out… until it doesn’t.  I’m not very good at bullet hell games, so it sort of takes the enjoyment away from the tower defense for me.

There are 14 levels in the original game and three more levels that are introduced in the DLC, which is called European Assault.  There’s a lot of game, with approximately five to seven waves in each level.  The story is an interesting take as you are the alien invader against a highly technologically-advanced human society who make giant mech bosses.  The power fantasy of being an advanced alien seems a bit softened when the measly humans bring out these huge machines, but I digress.  The boss battles are really unique challenges and have a more traditional twin-stick shooter vibe.  While towers are still important during this phase, depending on the boss, it definitely becomes a game of skill rather than strategy.

As you complete each level, you’ll gain more skill points to put into a tech tree, which unlocks things like weapons, more health, or other buffs. You are mostly free to create your own strategy, but eventually you’ll unlock them all so there’s not a lot to strategize around when that happens.  What you do notice is if you don’t have certain tech unlocked that matches the challenge of the map, you’ll just be fucked and have to start over.  There are several difficulty levels, and it is pretty difficult on normal once you progress past the first few levels.  I even put it on easy and it was still hard!  I think I mostly suck at the shooting part of the equation, which isn’t surprising.  Very Easy is a lot more in my wheelhouse, but it’s not like the game is going to play itself, you’ll still have to make sure to pay attention to what is going on.

I enjoyed X-Morph: Defense quite a bit until I realized that it was the same sort of challenge for the non-boss waves.  It also becomes daunting when you see 8 different lines heading toward your core, you’ve already got a bunch of towers manipulating 4 different paths your enemies are taking, and now you have to worry about 3 different airborne enemies, and I don’t even know where the last line is coming from.  After the 8th or 9th level of dealing with crazy lines, I just lost interest.  I think there needs to be more depth in the way towers worked for me to really see this as a tower defense game first.  There’s only so much fun in spamming the same tower without being able to improve them in some way within the confines of the level itself.  Instead, I feel like it is a twin-stick shooter game first and that’s not particularly my cup of tea.

Despite my personal misgivings, I think there’s plenty of value to this game, it’s well made, and it has fun terrain physics.  Once you get through the trash waves, the fun boss fights really throw in a unique aspect to the gameplay.  If perhaps there were some smaller bosses sprinkled around it’d break up the gameplay and make it a bit more engaging since the trash waves take a long time to get through.

 

Solo (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Team Gotham || Overall: 7.8/10

One part 3D puzzle game and the other part online personality test, Solo asks a lot from you.  It asks you to bear your soul about Love.  It also asks you to arrange a lot of boxes so you can solve puzzles, which I suppose is another metaphor for love, especially after you move in together.  There’s a lot of boxes.  There’s also a lot of strange alien-like fauna, like elephants that eat cheese, cat-things that eat bananas, and some other cute creatures that you can pet.  You can also play guitar.

The most obvious thing you’ll notice about Solo is its elaborate art style.  While it has that disgusting Unity “marshmallow” look, it makes it its own by creating a unique atmosphere.  Each puzzle takes place on a little island in a greater archipelago; solve the puzzle on the island and a new one will pop up from under the water.  Interacting with the myriad of inanimate objects, cutesy creatures, and ghostly characters adds to the experience.  The fauna and the general aesthetic of the world feels very “not Earth-like” which leads to the feeling you are either in some sort of dream or on an alien planet of some kind.  You’re referred to as a “sailor” but there is very little actual sailing going on other than moving from one archipelago to the next.  Additionally, the name you put in as “your love” ends up being the name of the ship…  QUITE EMBARRASSING!

As far as the puzzle aspects go, it uses a system in which you re-use a set of blocks in continually different configurations, rather than using said blocks one time and leaving them there.  You’ll have to design your solution to a puzzle, of which there are multiple solutions (depending on your ingenuity), and then you get to answer an overly personal question about your love life.  Rinse and repeat, and you’ve essentially got the whole experience.  The types of boxes you’ll encounter are normal boxes, boxes with fans in them (that allow you to glide in your parachute), boxes that stick to walls, and boxes that extend a platform from them.  Using the boxes to create platforms is your primary pursuit; you can use these boxes in different configurations as you can rotate them and whatever works, works.  You also use terrain (no jumping), your guitar (occasionally), and other elements in the immediate area to solve puzzles.  They also let you take pictures with a camera, but considering your character looks like a horrendous sack of potatoes, no thanks.  And there doesn’t seem to be a functional reason to making animals happy other than to get them to shut up.

The theme of Love is pretty heavy-handed.  The first thing you do in the game is choose your gender, including giving you a non-binary option.  They also ask what gender you are romantically attracted to, which non-binary is also an option.  At this point they give you a choice of avatar to represent yourself in-game, which is only three white characters.  It’s odd that the game seems to strive for some sort of inclusivity, but only so far as it matters directly to “love.”  I suppose race wouldn’t fall into that category per se, but it seems out of place that these options are presented and then you can only choose white characters.

The writing itself is pretty good and gives a feeling that there was a lot of care for what is being said so that it doesn’t sound too sappy or too ridiculous.  In theory, there seems to be different writing depending on your choices regarding your relationship status and the like.  Interestingly, despite the game looking like it is “for kids,” the subject matter of love, relationships, and even sex, is definitely not for kids.  This is just my paranoid side speaking, but you have to wonder if there is some sort of collection of data with the answers to these love questions — it seems generally out of place in the manner they present it since they make it about “you,” the player, rather than an in-game character.  They say to get the most out of it, you should answer truthfully as much as possible.  It also wouldn’t surprise me if this was all a disguised recruitment tool for some box-fetish cult.  “Only the ones who can solve these box puzzles need apply.  10 Inch dicks or DD+ boobies only.”

So, while the game is generally a positive experience, it’s really not that engaging.  The puzzles can be fun to figure out, but they can also be fairly frustrating considering the controls.  You’re also constantly fighting against the camera which doesn’t seem to allow you to zoom out at all.  Placing the boxes in a 3D space depends on the angle of your camera, and even though there is an “aim assist” for placing the blocks, sometimes the cursor will disappear and is fifty miles away.  Holding the left trigger and clicking it over and over can also be a bit taxing on your finger and it feels like there should have been an easier way to do all of the stuff you’re doing without having to constantly hold it or trigger it.  Otherwise, the performance of the game had no issues outside of random frame drops, and the sound/music is quite good.

Giving a score to this game was hard to do.  It’s definitely an enjoyable game, and I’d recommend it if you are into 3D puzzle games, or at least interested in having your privacy violated by unknown data gatherers.  If it weren’t for the controls and camera frustration, I’d probably score it in the higher 8 range, but when a game makes my fingers hurt for no good reason, it’s getting docked.  It is perhaps a bit pretentious as well, given the subject matter being matched with it’s cutesy art style, so it makes me question possible ulterior motives of Solo.

 

Keeplanet (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: BiggameIncubator || Overall: 5/10

It’s often that I’ll play random games and discover that I like them or hate them.  It’s quite another experience to play a game that brings the question of “why does this exist?”  Keeplanet is more of a game that confuses me more than anything else.  I don’t hate it and I certainly don’t like it, but mostly I just don’t “get” it.  There’s some sort of design philosophy to this title, but the end goal didn’t seem to be “fun.”

Keeplanet‘s concept rides on the principal of “balance.”  You are the “World Commander” of a set of planets in a solar system, your role being to develop the new home for humanity after Earth got blowed up.  Your goal is develop your world by placing objects on the outer rim of the planet and keep the balance of all of the objects such that the world keeps spinning and isn’t dragged down by being too heavy on one side.  You can balance the world on the fly by placing more objects down and hoping you are “calculating” correctly before your world’s inhabitants are killed off from the lack of rotation.  Gravity seems to have taken a vacation from the rules of physics, but there’s stranger things happening in quantum mechanics so anything is possible, I suppose.

There’s nothing that’s inherently fun about the concept of randomly placing objects on the extreme edges of a planet, though.  Not only is it a pain to actually see where you’re placing things, but the planet will get “bigger” as more objects are placed and you put down even more objects between those objects.  Some levels require putting down a hundred or more of these “objects” so you’ll really have to be paying attention to what the hell is going on.  Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really provide you with the tools or information to help you in this manner.  There is a weight scale that defines the weight of the planet’s “left” and “right” (whatever that means) and as the world rotates on its axis and more objects are built, these numbers change constantly.  The goal is to keep these numbers as balanced as possible and the world will rotate.  If it stops rotating, then your population will start dying out from heat and cold and once it reaches zero, it’s game over.

The user interface leaves a lot to be desired.  There’s a large “Play” button on the menu screen that you only use one time, but stays there after you click it.  Selecting your level beckons you to click a WORD that says “Play” not the big Play button that becomes a quick way to close the entire menu and put you back to the Title Screen.  Like, why the hell do I need to go back to the Title Screen at that point?  Just hide the Play button or use it as the level selection.

The information provided regarding objects is basically nonsensical and I just don’t care about the numbers when I have to plop down 300 objects quickly — otherwise I’d be here for 30 minutes for one of these levels and that ain’t happening.  Of course, I die over and over regardless, so I’m stuck playing that long anyway!  I also really don’t get why the outer edges of the planet are the only thing being used; when the planet becomes bigger it becomes impossible to see all parts of the planet without zooming out, which makes the objects you are placing much smaller.  Where’s the joy in placing some stupid ass mountain on a planet if I can’t see it????  Or those dumb trees, for that matter.  There’s no agency here where I can pick which objects I want to place and create a strategy to overcome the task at hand — it’s more of a Tetris with objects being served to you and you dealing with it.  So, some World Commander you are.  Who is building these unwanted mountains for you?  Why not some big speakers that play Spanish music to liven up the place?  There’s also a big wasted space in the center of the planet which I feel could have been used for the user interface information in a more creative way, but instead the UI elements get in the way of the game play, and you mostly just stare at blank space on your screen.  The graphics are generally inoffensive, otherwise.  The sound isn’t that annoying, but there’s a siren that will go off when your population is dying, which can be a bit annoying.

The only real positive aspect of this game is that it is really cheap.  It is currently $1.99 on Steam at full price, so you can probably get it with some Steam balance and check it out if it interests you.  There are probably about twenty levels including the “Challenges.” It’s not particularly impressive, but it works and you can play it.

I don’t really understand why the title of the game is “Keeplanet,” but it probably goes along with the translation errors that can be picked out in the text.  Maybe it’s as simple as “Keep your planet alive.  Keep.  Planet.  Keeplanet.”  ::facepalm::

When it comes to the store’s page, it’s almost comical how weirdly it is worded at points.  Two quotes from the Store page and my analysis:

Develop the planet
In Keeplanet, you create your own history – there’s no right or wrong way to play! Become a world’s landlord, spread out trees, mountains, houses and other objects to make the planet rotate around its axis. Remember, the most important thing is not to let the planet stop. Otherwise, all inhabitants of the planet will die out from sunburn or freezing.

Except there is a right or wrong way to play.  You get game overs when you don’t play the right way!  It says it right in the same paragraph that if you let the planet stop you lose, that’s the definition of having a wrong way to play!

Fight for the humanity
Universe is a dangerous place, protect people from external hazards – meteorites, meteor rains and vigilant aliens are waiting for your mistakes.
Don’t let them break you!

Fighting for “the” humanity = fighting for our morals?

External hazards from outside of the universe?

The vigilant aliens just ram your planet, similar to meteors.  Meteorites are also meteors that have hit the Earth, so are meteors that hit Earth, flying off of Earth across the universe and then hitting your new planet?  What a bunch of assholes.

The same sort of thing happens with the in-game text, but there isn’t nearly as much writing, so there’s less to fuck up.  Some of the English is so broken, they are just words on screen with no association to each other.

 

Bombslinger (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Mode4 || Overall: 7/10

Bombslinger?  Looks like roguelike Bomberman.

::plays it for 5 minutes::

Yeah, it’s roguelike Bomberman.

I’ve never been much of a fan of the Bomberman series, but I got the point of it.  In fact, Bomberman is a lot more fun than the evolution of the game into roguelike territory.  Bomberman‘s appeal was using the map in such a way to kill the other enemies that were running around while not blowing yourself up.  All of these concept carries over, but considering you are in a roguelike, you’ve got procedurally generated room layouts, dungeons, and bosses.  Except, in Bombslinger, the game intentionally slows down the pace significantly by adding obstacles you have to blow up.  In doing so, Bombslinger becomes much more like a strategy puzzle game than an action game where you go around and put down a bunch of bombs and run around hoping you don’t blow yourself up.

As always in a roguelike, there is loot and powerups you can unlock.  Killing enemies nets you gold most of the time, but they can also drop Spirit, which allows you to use the special abilities you find.  You also gain XP to earn levels; leveling up allows you to choose one of three bonuses, depending on your need at the time/gameplay style, usually being health, bomb, or spirit-related.

Without bonuses, you only have one normal Bomb and three Hearts.  It is very easy to get hit by your own bombs if you’re not paying attention.  In general, it can be a bit annoying if you don’t already have a lot of practice in anticipating when bombs will explode, and if you don’t really like “Bomberman” gameplay, you’ll lose the will to play pretty quickly.  Especially since you get hurt by your own bombs, and always have to move out of the way, it becomes tedious having to blow up fucking corn stalks one at a time when the map is full of them.

The whole reason Mr. McMean (your character) is on a rampage is because his wife dies in the opening cinematic.  I suppose it can be ironic that you also die over and over, and I suppose your wife dies again every time you start over as well.  The first level is the main character’s house, known as “McMean’s Ranch.”  You’ll be spending a lot of time here as you start playing, and it seems to be an unfortunate choice because the music gets annoying and the map is boring, despite the nice pixelated style.  When you get to the second map, you trade the “desert ranch” map with corn stalks and old men in thermal underwear, for “traditional desert” with chickens and bandits.  There’s also goats.  I’m not entirely sure why you are killing old farmers when it is your old bandit gang that killed your wife, but they look mean so it’s time for murder.  I suppose the story really doesn’t matter, but if they’re going to bother setting something up, at least have it make sense in the context of the story created.

The boss rooms are more traditional Bomberman grids, but the first boss, a goat, can charge you so you have time your bombs correctly.  They can also push the bombs away which can change the calculation of being in a safe area.  Stuff like this is probably where the game shines the most because it doesn’t veer too far away from the original Bomberman formula.

In general, the roguelike improvements seem fun enough for the confines of wanting to play a more “modern” take on Bomberman.  There are what seems to be about thirty or more unlocks and power-ups.  You can also buy the same items from the randomly appearing shop that you would see in chests.  Some chests can be only opened with money, whereas most need a key to open.  There are occasionally timed chests that will blow up if you don’t reach it in time.  The rooms are randomized and all of the enemies must be cleared out before moving to the next room — this again loops back to being a slow process since you have to clear out map elements to get to the enemies.

At the end of the day, Bombslinger is serviceable.  It isn’t terrible, seems to work okay, looks good visually, the controls are fine, and also has a local multiplayer mode that could be fun.  It’s about as standard as you could get for a little game like this, and depending on your love for the Bomberman series, your mileage may vary on how much enjoyment you get out of this title.

 

Super Daryl Deluxe (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Dan & Gary Games || Overall: 9.5/10

I often wonder what a “perfect” game would be for me, as a gamer, rather than a reviewer.  There are merits such as admirable game design, interesting story, fun game mechanics, but what do **I** really want to play.  I like things that are strange, humorous, and keeps me guessing, among other things.  Super Daryl Deluxe is one of those odd times that I could potentially say “I want something like this” and it actually exists.

Set during the post-apocalypse of a seemingly “libertarian” self-help renaissance society, Super Daryl Deluxe is what I would call a “post-modern fantasy”-themed Brawler RPG.  It integrates a lot of famous historical characters, LARPers (known as the Dwarves & Druids Club), and other popular science fiction elements thrown in to make things even more weird.  There’s also a lot of cultural references, like the Paranomal Club based on the “Ghost Hunters” TV show, or “Skrillex” (known as Little Johnny) being an antagonist.  There are plenty of original characters as well, and the mish mash of all of these different crowds makes for a packed game.  The world-building reveals itself as unexpectedly deep for this genre, and you never know who or what you’re going to see next.

Lots of satirical jokes are found throughout and a lot of attention to detail to the humor really shows.  As a literal silent protagonist, the titular, spaghetti-limbed character, Daryl, never speaks or reacts to people when they talk to him; they react to him, thinking he is an idiot, or just filling in the blanks themselves — its an obvious parody of silent protagonists in RPGs. The story itself starts small, then grows bigger, as you are tasked with a simple thing like “get a can of spray from the janitor’s closet” which then leads you into a surreal adventure across time and space and air vents large enough for a space ship, located in the bowels of a high school that is itself breaking through into different dimensions.  Surrealism is the key word of this game as you go ever-deeper into the craziness, and all of the characters being “okay” with it all just makes it that much more bizarre.  Parallels can be drawn to the game Frog Fractions in this sense, but there aren’t any abrupt genre switches.

There is a retelling of the game’s satirical story in an in-game journal that satirically retells it — what shows up in the journal is never quite what actually happens.  This becomes a bit of a fourth wall breaking experience as the Journal “writer” feels like an observer who is talking to you directly.  Normally, most of the story is communicated through dialog, which never seems to outstay its welcome, but can get a bit winded at times.  The way the writing is structured, it would probably not work if it was all completely voice acted, however, there is voice acting for the handful of cut scenes.  The introductory cut scene is strangely unnerving, and while it doesn’t exactly explain what is going on in the story, it does set the “mood” for what is to come.

The art is absolutely the most appealing aspect of the game. Everything exhibits a hand-drawn quality and colors are used intentionally to bring important details out on the characters.  With so many little touches and details to the art, the result is a high production value that is reminiscent of a television cartoon show.  Enemies have fun designs and despite the theme shifts from one area to the next, all of the characters feel like they belong in the same universe.  Music is also a high point where most of the tracks integrate the name “Daryl” into the song. I never would have figured that “Daryl” could work across so many genres.  Other sound effects are good and add to the overall experience, especially when it comes to the abilities you use and landing hits.

As Super Daryl Deluxe is a “Brawler” RPG game, you’ll find a lot of variety and a build-your-own combo system. You can choose what works for you instead of being relegated to a set of abilities, with around 20 or so to choose from.  Many abilities are also humorous or cartoony, which fits nicely with the art style.  Equipment is also a thing, which gives a lot of depth to the overall gameplay.  The inventory system is very easy to manage and offloading equipment for “lunch money” allows you to buy textbooks, which allow you to buy more abilities.  Lunch money also drops from monsters as you kill them.  The currency system feels very balanced, so even as you gain exponentially more money, the cost of items you buy also go up.  There is also some simple crafting which is really just purchasing equipment with the required materials.

There are a wide variety of maps to visit, with very elaborate room layouts and fun themes, such as Science, Arts & Music, History, the Air Vents, and a couple of other smaller areas.  There are a lot of secrets to unlock and leveling certain abilities allows you to unlock chests or other special rooms.  As you progress in the game you’ll be able to go back to earlier areas and get into rooms you weren’t able to previously.  Some new formats to play also pop up, such as the Dwarves & Druids questing, or re-summoning old bosses for exclusive loot.

The game is very long for this genre but it stays fun. I’m already at fifteen hours and have no idea when the game will end, but I would guess I’m getting close. But, I’m still only in “Part 1” and supposedly there are five parts.  Fifteen hours is what they are advertising, so I suppose your mileage may vary.  A small amount of grinding is also necessary to level up so you don’t just skip through all of the areas with enemies — monsters have levels and will get harder as you go along.  If you do all of the side quests, it helps you with the grinding, but it really isn’t that bad if you’ve found a good set of abilities to quickly defeat enemies with.  While I wouldn’t classify the game as difficult, I had fun experimenting with all of the different abilities and finding out what worked the most.  I died only a handful of times, and the bosses are unique gameplay challenges that mix up the logic of beating the crap out of everything to something more strategic.  Occasionally, I didn’t read something or forgot what I was supposed to do, so I would run around aimlessly trying to do things to progress the story cussing and getting frustrated about not knowing what to do.  But this happens to me in almost every game.

That’s really all there is to it.  Super Daryl Deluxe is an experience in and of itself, and a unique one at that.  There’s nothing bad about it, really — so what prevents it from getting a full 10/10?  The lack of a really engaging game loop that makes you want to come back for more is probably what holds it back from that.  The game is also very linear, and while you can visit older zones, they aren’t made relevant again — though you spend a lot of time in each of the zones while you are there.  Presumably there are reasons to revisit as there is a locked mysterious blue door in each of the main areas, with no explanation attached.  I could also see playing through the story once and just being done.  Despite that, a lot of personality and love went into this title and it shows.  The art is great and a real treat.  If a sequel ever comes around, I’d like to see what direction they take it in.

 

ARK Park (PC/HTC Vive) Review

ARK Park

Developer/Publisher: Snail Games || Overall: 2/10

You’d think a Jurassic Park sort of experience would be a shoe-in for a decent VR experience, right? Go to a park, see huge dinosaurs, maybe run away from some. What’s that, you say? “But what about crafting and collecting bullshit“? Sure, why not? “What about terrible voice acting and jerky animations“? I dunno, man. This is starting to sound like a crappy game. “What about spelling errors, wrong dinosaur scale and aimless gameplay“?

ARK Park is a VR game using assets from another game with a similar name, ARK: Survival Evolved, which is a sandbox game where players wake up on an island, harvest resources, build bases and tame and fight dinosaurs. The parent game is a decent title with some kind of annoying DLC practices and constant feature creep; there is very little in common in the ARK Park flavor of digital entertainment, besides dinosaurs and the models used to represent them. Not a problem in itself, but to avoid confusion I think it’s important to point out that this is not ARK: Survival Evolved in VR. Also, be aware: though somewhat standard (though unimpressive) for VR, the game only makes use of teleportation for player movement. There are no free movement options, nor is there comfort options for teleporting, outside of moving around in room-scale.

The tutorial has you battling the ambient loud sounds to hear some robotic dragonfly (with some terribly robotic voice-acting) bark some commands to you. As you step out of some shuttle, you’re asked to get into a tram while dolphin noises, that must have been recorded from a TV, play over the tram’s loudspeakers. Some unnecessary dialog is thrown at you as you watch a mosasaurus jump out of the water. Finally, you get to the park where you’re greeted with a loading screen as you go up the stairs. In the next area, a lobby of sorts, there is holographic stuff you can bore yourself to tears with as the robot forces you to pick up and throw small holographic dinosaurs at a display, or just around a map, before being guided to command and feed some more of them. As an educational experience, there’s minimal here aside from a display that’ll narrate a small selection of descriptions on some choice dinosaurs. Not a lot going on besides that.

Eventually, you make your way to a camp where you grow a dinosaur and feed it, and are given a crash course on the inventory and storage. Before long I was “riding” on top of my triceratops through some section of forest (an “on rails” section) while some bullshit happens to the mind controlling devices that make the dinos slothful and passive. Someone commandeers my annoying robo-dragonfly cohort and tells me I’m an idiot and I should risk my life to save the park by repairing the brain washing devices. Why one exploded isn’t really delved into, nor the fact that dinosaurs are routinely aggressive to each other. I mean, how effective are they if you can see two huge gorillas fighting over a cliffside, or a T-Rex chasing some fat pig thing around? Anyway, I’m instructed to go to another area and use some sort of DNA sequencing gun (Isn’t this a park? Didn’t they make these things? Why don’t they have the DNA on file?) to collect genes in order to make a pistol. For materials, I’m entrusted to use gloves that make my hands monstrous to collect berries and grass, and a pickaxe to collect wood and other materials.

I craft a gun, presumably from the berries, and go to the practice range, where I proceed to bullseye all the targets while the robot follows me around telling me that she hopes I shoot better when my life is on the line (seriously, the tutorial is just crammed so fucking full of bad writing that most of it isn’t even memorable). I warp to some contraption that the robot needs to fix while I shoot dinosaurs. Despite the strange reload mechanics, which is shake to reload or suffer a painfully slow auto reload, I manage to kill everything without an issue. We win, and she pulls out some fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins line from the mid 2000’s in an attempt to undermine my accomplishment. Someone at Gearbox probably finds this shit funny and engaging, but I’m already looking forward to taking off my Vive.

The main game has much less in terms of guidance or goals. Considering I don’t really give much of a shit about dinosaurs, since I can proudly say that puberty only left “space pirate” behind in my list of interests during the transition to adulthood, those goals are still a mystery to me. I don’t get why I’d want a Triceratops, or why I’d want to spray paint graffiti (no seriously, it’s part of the tutorial) or what I’d want a machete for.

After you’ve created a player with an eclectic assortment of clothing ranging from “generic cowboy” to a ghillie suit, you’re dumped in to the same area of the park where the game began: the tram. These sequences are exactly the same on the second pass in, by the way. I use what I learned from the tutorial to skip all the monotonous parts of the park and go back to the “exploration” areas of the game. These areas are places where you collect resources, scan dinosaurs and sometimes throw a rock at something. The scanning mechanic is really stupid — the gun needs to be aimed at the head of whatever is running past you or whizzing by your face as it flies through trees or over obstacles. Scanning these animals will give you “genes” which are used to unlock things like a machete, a bow, a torch, or other tools. Your guess is as good as mine why they landed on this mechanic.

Now, I know this game’s plot is paper-thin, but for all this talk about making dinosaurs docile using mind control stuff, I think it’s important to note that the dinosaurs sure fucking fight a lot in the wild. It just seems weird to have the tutorial hinge so much on that aspect and have there be no discernible link between that idea and the dinosaur’s behavior when you’re out exploring areas. Maybe it’s because you’re not fixing them, but it’s still odd.

I’m not sure if the hot-air balloon was rideable, but there was a section where I could ride in a jeep with the most canned fuckin’ one-liners hurled at me every few seconds. Dinosaurs of varying sizes and temperaments would block the road while the driver complained each time, as if I had unknowingly signed up for a VR ride-sharing program. A carnotaurus would slap the jeep and he’d whine about how annoying they are, when he should be complaining about how small they were. He’d zip between a bronto’s legs, slicing off mounds of cheese before unloading a jar of cheez-wiz when the gigantosaurus flopped for ten seconds, presumably to give me a spook. Honestly, this shit belongs in Disneyland with all the other crappy, over-acted attractions with no interaction.

I spent some time digging around my inventory and crafting station, and found that because I didn’t have a better copy of the game, there was an item that I couldn’t remove, bitching at me to buy the deluxe version of the game to use it. Thanks. Good to know that ARK is becoming more saturated with this kind of annoying bullshit. Meanwhile, it had no problem promptly accepting the other egg I was given into the trash, rather than my inventory slot that was near it. My fault, sure, but I didn’t pick where the inventory spots spawned over, nor did I think it would just go right through into the trash. You never know, I may have wanted to grow that thing.

I gave a “battle” level a shot, which was much like the tutorial: I guarded a machine while dinosaurs rushed at it. It seems just getting close to the machine is enough to damage it, so I intended to blow everything that moved away the moment I saw it. It was pretty easy until a Megapithecus came, stomped me, and three-shot the tower. This was the “easy” level, by the way. I’m not even entirely sure what I should have done differently, as he jumped down, towering above me, slapped me into submission, and took out the tower while I was out of play. This game has multiplayer, but it wasn’t clear if I’d come back from that or not by myself. VR wave shooters are really, really common. It takes a particular level of polish or ingenuity to get a pass for this, and ARK Park just doesn’t deliver.

The game is rife with spelling and grammar errors at every turn, from frogs that are a “Titanboa’s favorite desert” to an error in some machine that claimed “Species data that can not be loaded.” Even their Tek Package ad calls the Mech T-Rex “Iron steal.” This game’s not very deep, it’s not hard to come across all of these. With added things, like the comically large “gloves” used for harvesting bushes, jerky animations on some dinosaurs and “pulling” vines, strange dinosaur scale and crappy gameplay, I’m convinced this went through a limited QA run and was shoved out to appease the folks that were waiting for this, all four of them at Gearbox that were really waiting for that “.333 repeating chance” of success joke to land. This is what passes for writing these days. Speaking of which: hire me and fire your writers. I could use the dough, and the mess you’ve got here is bordering on needing FEMA relief (side note: unlike FEMA I’ll actually deliver).

Why this is an ARK game eludes me. If anything, they should have dropped all the crafting and pointless stuff and focused on being even remotely educational with some mini games around that. At least then it’d have some merit of its own. This doesn’t really play like an ARK game, it doesn’t have the same goals as one, and it’s much less fun than the game that it is based on, but has shoehorned in crafting and gathering ’cause “that’s what the real one does”. It’s painfully and obviously forced. In fact, if they just added VR support to ARK: Survival Evolved, even as limited as HMD support with mouse/keyboard or controller, there would be something considerably more enjoyable to toy around in.

If you’re looking for a dinosaur game, play ARK: Survival Evolved instead if you can stomach the semi-rough experience. Otherwise, save the $40 you’d waste here and go buy scratchers or something.

 

Trailmakers (PC) Early Access Preview

Developer/Publisher: Flashbulb || Outlook: Seems Promising

My generation, like a couple of other generations, had access to physical toys, such as building blocks or “LEGOS.”  You could build spaceships, castles, cars …or at least something that could pass for them.  In many ways we see that “idea” of creation in many of the most popular games today, but getting back to the basics of “creating a car” with building blocks is what Trailmakers attempts to do.

Now this particular concept isn’t new to gaming, but since I’ve never played Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, it’s new to me.  I’ve seen videos and heard awful things about that game.  So, to me, Trailmakers, seems like someone had a part in developing that game, thought they could do a better job in retrospect, and from that comes this Early Access title.  Flashbulb, the developer, is apparently made up of Rare and IO Interactive veterans, so the scenario is entirely plausible.  Obviously at this point, the game doesn’t feel anywhere near complete, but there is plenty of foundation built into it, and is seemingly waiting for the content to make it “fun.”  There have already been a couple of updates that add different modes, so the focus of the game has already changed since I initially began playing.

In Expedition Mode, your character arrives to this “racing planet” full of hazards, ramps, and lots of annoying shit to collect along the way.  The more things you collect, the more things you unlock to customize your vehicle.  You can save as many versions of your creations as you like, modify an existing blueprint, import blueprints, or start from scratch just to get through one hazard.  Once you have more pieces unlocked, your creations will obviously get more complex, with engines, wheels, different size blocks, doohickeys, gizmos, dildos, and an assortment of other random things I don’t know how to use correctly.  This might be fun for some people, but unfortunately if you’re impatient and don’t really find the enjoyment in tinkering around using a mouse/keyboard (or a controller) to build vehicles, it becomes a tedious task.  The builder itself is about as good as it can be, but since you are building in a 3D space, it can get annoying to see where things are being placed without moving your camera multiple times for each piece.  It just isn’t the same as holding blocks in your hand and putting things where you want them to go.

The driving isn’t necessarily that much fun, and the map is full of forks and different paths that lead to the same end point.  There’s also a lot of empty space, but considering you’re meant to drive around, its probably not that big of a deal.  Outside of collecting shit, there’s not a whole lot “to do” other than get past hazards and get to the next zone to collect more things.  More plainly, the gameplay loop is lacking severely; there’s just basically no reason to play unless you really enjoy making new things in the builder.

The driving controls are floaty as hell, but I’m unsure if this is part of the design or not.  The point of collecting better upgrades and designing a vehicle that works well aerodynamically and with the types of engines you are using seems to be part of the challenge, but it isn’t structured very well.  There are no early-on upgrades that can improve your controls very much, and its a constant struggle considering they intentionally make them worse if you aren’t designing your vehicle correctly according to the in-game physics.  Another annoying aspect is that the camera isn’t able to be controlled while driving, at least with a controller.

I think the fact that it is an open world with no other “racers” to race against is a large part of what makes the game feel boring outside of building.  There isn’t any motivation to continue dealing with the crappiness of the controls or tediousness of having to build something to just get through one hazard. Redesigning everything from scratch over and over becomes an exercise in “doing the bare minimum” to get past whatever is stopping you.  You might be able to stumble through hazards with your same vehicle, but you’ll be dying over and over.  There’s a lot of things that will clip your vehicle or make you blow up, so you’ll constantly be respawning at the last checkpoint over and over.

The Race Island mode, which was recently added, allows you to more fully tinker around with the game’s systems as everything will be already unlocked.  You’ll only be doing “time trials” as there are still no other racers to race against, but it is more satisfying to be able to mess around with a large array of items from the beginning — it doesn’t feel like you’re “missing” anything.  However, without proper tutorials you’re going to be building some really wacky things that don’t work the way you think they should, and all of a sudden you have a helicopter that flies upside down and goes directly up.

Trailmakers will probably appeal to a certain set of gamer that really enjoys fiddling around with mechanical engineering concepts.  Seeing what works and what doesn’t work in a real physics-driven world is pretty cool considering the amount of freedom you’re allowed to build things.  I would have really appreciated some sort of generic base blueprint archive of some sort so that I could just click it and go with a new vehicle once I had everything unlocked and then modify it as I saw fit.  As of now, there’s plenty more that needs to be added to the game to make it more appealing to someone like me, but with the existing foundation already included, it seems promising that a worthwhile game could be made out of this.

 

Battlecursed (PC) Early Access Preview

Developer/Publisher: Codex Worlds || Outlook: “NOT FUNCTIONAL”

Man, I don’t know how the fuck I get stuck with these things.

…Alright, I kind of do. Dave provides a list, I do a bit of Google or Steam store searching, make a decision off of ten seconds of research and give a thumbs up or down. What a magnificent way to fuck myself.

For this piece of fluff, I’ll be reviewing Battlecursed. Oooh! Spooky name! Battlecursed, like many games, had a review embargo. February 5 at 7:00 AM PST, to be specific. It’s Feb 19th at the time of me writing this, and probably much later in posting, but I bet you Battlecursed will be in the same state as it was the first time I played it about a month ago: shitty. Really, really shitty.

One of several samey dungeons you’ll yawn your way through as you quietly chant to yourself that this is how you spent the last $10 to your name.

Battlecursed is a “dungeon crawler with roguelike element” where “a single player directs a four-hero party through real-time first-person battles”, which, in text, sounds like Legend of Grimrock “with roguelike element.” Not a terrible idea, but I don’t understand why the fuck they want reviews for this. This thing is obviously not ready, plastered with “NOT FUNCTIONAL” as if I couldn’t tell from the “Lorem ipsum” and lack of response to clicks and key presses. You pick from eight heroes of four classes (using the same portraits) and form a party. Each party member has two passive abilities, two active abilities, and ultimates, which don’t fucking work anyway at this point. You’ll spawn in a dungeon, have some menial task, like destroy all monster spawners, and then a key will spawn which allows you to go to the next dungeon. It plays much like DOOM in the 90’s played, only your weapons are on cooldowns and everything is bland. There’s loot, but it’s not working, so I can’t talk about it. There’s guilds, but they don’t work, either. There’s a bunch of stuff that’s supposed to be here that isn’t here, so all I can comment on is the very bare-bones, lackluster dungeon crawl that has none of the properties of a game I would consider “good” or even “okay.” Abilities have strange hitboxes that sometimes work, sometimes don’t. Enemies are sluggish and can be kited easily. Everything is brown, unless it’s a spider, an enemy portal, an exit portal, or some sort of magic skeleton. Even the fucking menus are brown.

Yeah, yeah. Early access. The “Get out of jail free” card for shovelware that’s trying to make sales based on promises. Sure, not all titles or developers abuse this, but enough do. Battlecursed sure as shit isn’t ready for any kind of sales. There’s nothing redeemable here. What this game is setting out to do isn’t even complicated, I don’t understand why they’d push out the concept in to storefront territory without having even the basics work. Eventually you’ll go through enough floors where you’ve finished your run. There’s no loot to have at this point, no fanfare, not even a comical whistling fart to commemorate your pointless journey into the bowels of brown.

Now, after playing The Forbidden Arts, I felt bad for shitting on someone’s work. They’re trying. To Stingbot Games’ credit, though, their shit actually works. Maybe not well, but it does anything at all. So, there we go. “NOT FUNCTIONAL” out of 10. Review’s over.

Does the fun ever start?

“NOT FUNCTIONAL” /10

 

Forbidden Arts, The (PC) Early Access Preview

Developer/Publisher: Stingbot Games || Outlook: “.5 /10”

Today we’re reviewing… The Forbidden Arts… which… I don’t know where to start. That’s a lot of ellipses (that’s the plural form, get off my case), but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it runs when you start it. Everything about this is a mess, even conceptually. It was an excuse to make a character anime-ninja-run around getting their shit ruined by wolves and elves.

First off, the writing. You’re a young man having a hot-flash-inducing dream where someone says “It’s time” but in a manner that doesn’t convey urgency. I guess you’re supposed to be a guard in town, even though you don’t look anything like the other guards, and being asleep at the job isn’t really kosher. You get kicked awake by a “I have it worse” guard that recommends an ice cold glass of whiskey to beat the heat (what?) and instructs you to see the local druid (what??) because the store is closed for the afternoon. The dumb guard claims that bears and wolves are no match for my pair of daggers (what???) despite my lack of any armor, including bare arms. He was wrong, by the way: wolves in this game will two-shot you and spin on a fucking dime. Before I leave, I get to see the wimsey of the world my character lives in, including blocking outcroppings of rock everywhere you go. Seriously, here’s the first town:

I don’t know why everything is so square, or why the well is in such an inaccessible place for most folk. After you walk out of the town, you’re sent to the overworld map area, a concept that goes as far back to Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. In The Forbidden Arts, the overworld map looks like this:

It looks like some sort of half-assed Super Mario 64 level. The town is represented by this huge-ass tavern or shop or something. The forest is a tree. That water in the screenshot will kill you, by the way, and the field of view is all sorts of fish-eye when moving around. It’s not pleasant. This alone needs a revamp, as it doesn’t feel like an overworld. Anyhow, time to go to the forest to talk to this druid, Elia. A forest makes sense for a druid, in that this is what a forest looks like in The Forbidden Arts:


Blocky, square caves? Well, not caves; those tend to not bask in the sun. I don’t know what the hell is going on here. That wolf, by the way, is no joke. I beat Cuphead on fucking expert, and these things make me want to find some expire ipecac to guzzle. Movement is mushy, even after some supposed improvements way after the initial release. Sure, I know this is early access, but even the basics are fucked. There are dozens of examples for “good” side scrolling and platforming mechanics, even outside of the metroidvania genre itself.

Moving on.

After climbing on some vines I made it to the druid. Now, there’s a way to handle silent protagonists that doesn’t come off hammy or juvenile. Does this exchange pass? I’ll leave it up to you. There are six frames, you can follow the conversation by following the number in the lower corner.

I don’t know how they could make this any more happenstance, even with the injected random flashback for her. You just happen to have a dream, guard just happens to send you to her, she just so happens to know what your thing is, and it just so happens that the guards that spoke to her earlier (Why is she out here? She’s not a part of the village. She’s in the “woods.”) are dealing with the thing that you just so happen to need a feather from. Yeah, I took a stab at this quest, but I didn’t enjoy it. I gained the ability to suck up camp fires to shoot fireballs, which didn’t really seem that handy in practice.

I get it, making your first game is tough. I’ve made a few on my own in BASIC back in the day, I’ve toyed around with a few projects, but as soon as you start selling it you open yourself up to criticism. This game should never have been sold. It lacks the foundations of what make gaming a hobby that’s enjoyable or even addictive for some, and that’s not that hard to do. Set up some rules and don’t change them, give the player a goal, and give the player an avatar with a level of control appropriate for the challenges you’ve set forth. There’s more to it than that, there’s gameplay design, level design, and even, these days, in emergent gameplay design in games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I think, however, that even with the basics down something can be honed into an enjoyable experience. I don’t think this game has a grasp of that.

I don’t want to be too hard on the guy making this. I know it sucks to have someone come and piss on your work, but this needs too much work to be fun, and some of the choices are so bizarre I feel like I’m playing a game version of Birdemic or Sharknado, as in choices so poor that they must have been intentionally poor choices. From the Naruto-run and Sauske stylings of the protagonist to the ho-hum plot and grotesquely cubic levels, all the way down the the mushy jumps, poor voice-acting and interrupted animations. It’s a 3D RPG Maker game with a plot written by SquirrelKing, and it runs. I’ve played thousands of hours of games. I know when something is too flawed to continue pushing through on. This is one of those times.

 

Blasters of the Universe (PC/HTC Vive) Review

 Developer/Publisher: Secret Location || Overall: 8.75 / 10

So we’ve got another VR game up to the plate. This one, Blasters of the Universe, by Secret Location, is something of a mashup.

A vast majority of VR games belong to a genre collectively called “wave shooters,” which pit the VR player against wave after wave of enemies. Sometimes there are mechanics for moving around, but most of the time it’s standing or room-scale. Often the player is taking cover behind something, like a shield, and dodging what they can. Sometimes the enemies are zombies, sometimes they are robots, sometimes they are gangsters.

Blasters of the Universe doesn’t break all the molds of the wave shooter, but like some kind of VR Coldstone Creamery it rolls in a heaping cup of “bullet hell” while spectators watch behind the glass counter thinking, “Are these guys insane?! Who wants Ikaruga in their wave shooter?! Gross!”

Turns out: I do! And I don’t think my tastes are that refined, at least when it comes to VR.

The premise is that some unemployed nerd named Allen was really good at arcade games in the 90’s, or maybe late 80’s. He was only good at games, somehow he was able to get into “VR” and has been living there ever since. Despite how very close the antagonist is to me in the game, the story’s not important. The Grand Master Virtual Space Lord Alwyn will be around to mock you, or even awkwardly praise you, but the meat of the game is blastin’ and dodgin’ with a lil’ bit of blockin’, and isn’t at all story driven. The same basic premise for the wave shooter: enemies will appear periodically while you shoot at them. However, their attacks come at you very slowly, often in patterns or huge fields of bullets. In many games, the player’s hitbox is some amalgam of their head, the area beneath, and possibly their hands. Blasters of the Universe does the unthinkable in most by making only the player’s head the hitbox. That allows for some pretty miraculous dodges, but it also allows the bullet hell mechanic to work without being absolutely frustrating. Your are limited by your own movements, which isn’t novel in VR, but it is for a bullet hell.

There are a variety of enemies with their own patterns of attack that, when they are all firing at the player simultaneously, leads to some interesting gameplay. While the player tries to 3D limbo through all the space in between the bullets while trying to counter attack with their own gun. Less enemies means less things shooting, which means the player won’t have to somersault through death-fields. Occasionally there will be a boss that needs spanking, and they will have their own attacks, telegraphs and “puzzles” (if you can call the process of “how do I kill this?” a puzzle). There are four campaign levels with casual and “hell” modes, and each of those has an infinite mode if that’s your thing.

What’s the shooting like, you ask? Well, that’s up to you. There are a bunch of weapon parts to fabricate your own gun out of. Semi-auto or full auto, magazines or recharging ammo pools, precision or spreadfire, you name it. Players pick a weapon frame, barrel, bullet type, magazine and a gadget to make their own weapon of choice. Along with this, they can pick different kinds of shields that, while unable to block everything that comes at the player, they can provide some relief in a pinch. They vary in size, strength and mechanics, with some changing the player’s defensive tactics entirely. The last thing of note is that each weapon frame has a special ability that charges as you shoot n’ dodge your way through waves. Specials like a super-powered laser that sustains for a few seconds, or having two guns for a short time.

Blasters of the Universe performs pretty well on a 3770K processor and a GTX 980ti, and it took quite a lot going on to get any frame drops, which is somewhat admirable considering some of the garbage I’ve played, which is saying quite a bit. The art style might not be everyone’s scene, but it fits the narrative, and it gets the job done just fine.

I like this game quite a bit. I don’t really dislike wave shooters, but there are a ton of them and most of them have their own “twist” that either doesn’t add anything novel, or complicates something that would otherwise be fun. Blasters of the Universe‘s take is one of the better, more unique spins, and in some ways improves on what “classic” (bare with me, the platform’s a baby) VR titles, like Space Pirate Trainer, laid out in the genre. It’s not what I’d call a relaxing game, but if you’re in the mood to move around and shoot at things, this is one of the better choices I’ve come across.

 

Station, The (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: The Station || Overall: 6.0/10

The dude that brought you the rare flash game “Cat Attack” and the other dude who made a local pizza restaurant’s online delivery form come together to bring you The Station, from developer The Station.  I can’t tell if the company name is just lazy or if they are the gaming-equivalent of a musical supergroup that makes one album/song and that’s it.  This needs as much explanation as the goop that is left over in the microwave after making Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese.  I NEED TO KNOW!

The premise of The Station is that you are a “recon specialist” on your way to find out what has prevented a large traveling space station from accomplishing its mission.  The original mission is to study and observe the first intelligent civilization that is found in the universe — the ripple being this civilization is in the midst of a “civil war” so the home government is unsure of how to present themselves to this new race, or if they present a threat.  Their plan is to send three idiots stalwart members of society without putting them through a vigorous psychological screening process on this important mission, and of course lo and behold something goes wrong.

As the “recon ‘specialist'” you are not-very-urgently trying to figure out what is going on with the lost crew.  No real attempts to communicate occur, as the recon specialist takes their “recon” occupation to heart.  You will walk around, look at things, read things, fiddle with switches, take things out of boxes, and put things in other things.  You’ll also listen in on “augmented reality” conversations that have been left over by the three staffers on board as you slowly realize that none of them should have been sent on this mission.  Oh, did I mention that three people might be dead or dying and there is no sign of them the whole time?  At the end of it all once you figure out all of the ins and outs of the mystery, it’s the most competently underwhelming game story I’ve experienced in a while.  I saw the twist coming a mile away, but I was holding out hope that it wouldn’t be something so obvious, though it was “disguised” cleverly enough along the way.  At the end, it went even further in the direction of “cliche” and it ended up feeling very pretentious with a blunt political message.  The passive aggressive melodrama playing out in audio-only was not particularly enjoyable nor relevant to the greater “mystery” at hand, making me not particularly care about their fates and even hoping for their deaths.  It also didn’t make sense why people’s dirty laundry would be floating around in augmented reality orbs for others to listen in on.

Technically, the game is competent as a “walking simulator.”  Any of the “lack of gameplay” this title exhibits gets a pass since that’s just the genre it’s in; it achieves what it strives for.  The puzzles are not too complex, but can be challenging if you aren’t good at remembering the differences between similar symbols (which by the way is the worst way to realistically organize/configure anything).  Not every puzzle or room needs to be explored to complete the game, and you can easily miss something on the first go around.  There is one small room that I opened up on my second play through, and I was unable to figure out exactly how to get into one of the character’s lockers due to an incomplete puzzle hint.  There’s also another section I was unable to figure out how to get in at all, and still don’t know how to get in.  It’s also possible I missed more and just didn’t “notice” it was something I was supposed to try to get into.

The graphics are a lot better than they have any right to be.  There were a lot of random doohickeys and items to look at before you threw them away to the side.  “Set design” was interesting and varied and the space station felt like one, though small.  The sound design is very well executed, and brought up tension levels when needed or provided the feeling of the ambience required.  The game lasted only about two hours, which can be a drawback if you are looking to spend at least a little more time utilizing the things you learned during the first thirty minutes to an hour.  I spent about half an hour after the game ended trying to get into places I didn’t see the first time around, but lost interest after that.  There weren’t any technical glitches or issues with frame rate that detracted from the experience.  The only way the game could have been longer was if they forced you into every room somehow, though at the same time the parts of the space station you explore feel a lot smaller than they look from the outside.

Despite being really down on how the story turned out, it was a generally pleasurable experience once my expectations were tempered in the gameplay department.  Observing and soaking in a well-crafted atmosphere has its value if you enjoy doing so.  Though I don’t usually play this genre, it really leans on its writing/presentation for the goods.  The story really needed to be executed well, and while you could say it technically was, it felt more like a prologue to an actual story, and not a complete one.  The muddled political message didn’t exactly elevate the story either.