Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption (PC) Review

Developer: Dark Star | Publisher: Another Indie || Overall: 7.5/10

Personally, I have very little interaction with the “Soulslike” genre.  I know what Dark Souls is, but never had a chance to play the series.  Games that pride themselves on being hard aren’t necessarily my thing, but I will dabble and see how far I can get sometimes.  Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption is a boss-rush “Soulslike” that feels like you started playing right at the end of a game and missed about 20 hours of gameplay.

Since Sinner has been designed as a boss-rush, it relies heavily on the gameplay of its bosses, how they look, and what skill set you are given.  As the title of the game implies, each of these bosses are influenced by Biblical references.  Since I know nothing about any of it, it may as well have been based off the Wikipedia page about the seven deadly sins.  All I know is that the bosses are all very interesting to look at, and a big pain in the fucking ass.

All together there are 8 bosses, two of which I gave two hours to exclusively. I tried the others to see what they looked like, but decided to commit to the two I thought I could beat.  One boss I thought I beat, but she ended up turning into a new boss with full health, so fuck that.  The other guy I beat, but the game allows you to reverse your progress and now it’s like I didn’t even beat him.  Even though it says the boss will recover, it didn’t explicitly explain I would have to beat him again to progress, so I fucked up there.  Additionally, each boss has a little lore piece that is a bit interesting, and you can kind of piece together a greater narrative that is going on.

Each boss will require a “sacrifice” of your stats or equipment to enter and try to beat the boss inside.  This is a “leveling-down” system that will layer these sacrifices as you beat more bosses.  Though beating a boss also gets you stats, you’re inevitably going to be trading off stuff you have for unknown prizes.  This demands you to plan out your boss progression and figure out which bonuses or stats you need to beat certain bosses before giving them up; you can’t just beat what you think is easy now.  So, in this context, it makes sense why they allow you to have a boss recover; you can gain back stats to beat another boss, then go back and beat the original boss, though this may make it more complicated depending on what other debuffs you have gathered since then.

I would say the graphics are pretty. Though much of the game is very gray, it is an obvious design choice to make it look this way to have more of an ancient/religious context.  The main character is essentially a blank avatar without a personality, and the areas you fight in lack detail outside of their functional level design.  The bosses are very creative-looking as the emphasis focuses on them.  It is unfortunate other artistic aspects of the game seem to have suffered, though the music is okay as well.

I had some personal problems with how the gameplay works in general.  It takes a while to remember which buttons do what since there is absolutely nothing other than bosses to practice on.  There is one pack of enemies that spawn to help you get acquainted with the controls, but they are only around for a few minutes.  The bosses killed me about fifty times before I even learned there was a run button; previously I was just using the dodge button over and over to get out of the way.  There’s something to say with having filler in a game; it helps you learn how to play and get familiar with the controls before a difficult challenge.

The character has a sword and shield or 2-handed sword option for melee attacks, and a spear/fire bomb for range attacks.  The range attacks don’t do much damage, but the spear can be used to stumble a boss at the right time.  My biggest problems are with the bosses’ hit boxes.  You have to get right into a boss’s asshole before your sword will connect, and it is endlessly frustrating to be swinging 3 times an inch away from where you need to be and make no hits.  Many of the bosses have cheap abilities or deal extra damage at times which require you to run away or hide behind something, and this can add to the strategy, frustration, or both.

I would be remiss to not comment on the release of the title and the “controversy” around it.  Initially this was to be released on Steam, but the developers made a deal with Discord, who opened up their own storefront recently, to give an exclusivity window.  As one would now expect, the Steam version got delayed into next year, but it is currently available through the Discord store.  I don’t personally have a problem with this as it is something you see on consoles all of the time.  It is a new ripple in the PC field, as there isn’t much of a competition between Steam or any other non-publisher-specific storefront.  Inevitably I think it is a good thing for developers, but probably a wash for consumers… unless you hate Steam.

While I technically like this game, I don’t really want to keep playing it.  Games that make me yell “what the fuck!” or grunt and groan don’t often stick around.  I can only enjoy pounding my head against a wall for so long.  If you like this sort of experience, Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption may be up your alley.

 

Gardens Between, The (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: The Voxel Agents || Overall: 9.5/10

The Gardens Between is one of the most beautifully crafted games I’ve ever played.  Creating games that can be appreciated as art can be a bit of a challenge, since it has to be a full package.  The graphics, music, story/symbolism, gameplay — every little part of the game needs to be paid attention to, or the risk of not being taken seriously as art becomes a possibility.  The Gardens Between accomplishes this very well and only in the way an interactive medium, such as gaming, can.

Each aspect of the title ties into the story, giving you a certain emotional feeling as each level is completed.  You’ll soon realize that each level is based on an event, shared between the two female characters “Red Jacket Girl” and “Glasses Girl.”  While they technically have names (Arina and Frendt), according to the Steam description page, there is no formal identification of the two girls in-game, nor does it really matter.  There are no voices, no text bubbles… the story is told through visuals alone and you get the sense that something happens in their relationship that forces them to take this trip through surrealistic memory lane.  After completing each set of levels, you are treated to a more direct reference to what the elements of the level refer to, which builds the relationship between the two girls further as you journey along.

The gameplay itself is an interesting mechanic, as you are dealing mostly with the concept of “time.”  You can rewind and go forward, performing certain tasks in a certain order to get through the obstacles at hand.  The main mechanics consist of Red Jacket Girl (aka Arina) holding a lantern, lighting it, and using it to get through obstacles.  She can place it on certain items to activate them/complete the level, or leave it on little jumping cubes.  The pursuit is typically to get the lantern lit when it needs to be, and make sure it isn’t lit when you don’t want it to be.  Glasses Girl (aka Frendt) has the ability to toggle certain objects, some of which are simple binary toggles, or manipulating the construction/deconstruction of a portion of the level so that a pathway can open up.  These mechanics are used in all sorts of combinations, making for an interesting challenge, but there was never anything that I was stumped at for too long.  There were one or two puzzles I had to look up, though; I would never have thought to complete them the way I needed to.

The graphics, and music are beautiful and match each other very well.  These two elements also tie into the story quite well, and really sell you on the emotional aspect of the girls’ relationship with one another.  There are also nice touches in their animation, where they are visibly frustrated, curious, or affectionate (such as holding each other’s hands for a few seconds as they walk through the level), which gives the girls a lot of personality.  The types of things they did also might remind you of an earlier time in your life when you listened to audio cassettes, watched VHS tapes on terrible TVs, and had a household printer that used feed paper.  Of course, most people below the age of 25 are probably not going to be very nostalgic for those things, but the aspect of having a best friend when you were younger is a timeless reference.

I really enjoyed The Gardens Between.  With about 4 hours of actual gameplay, this is a quick title that deserves another replay just to pay attention to all of the little details one more time.  While not everyone may relate to the events that are being relived, the gameplay is unique enough to entertain anyone for the duration.

 

Midnight Sanctuary, The (PC) Review

Developer: CAVYHOUSE | Publisher: UNTIES || Overall: 8.5/10

Note: This is a non-spoilery review.

The Midnight Santuary from CAVYHOUSE and Sony Music Entertainment’s game publishing arm, UNTIES, is not unlike a very long anime movie.  At the beginning I sort of thought “why isn’t this a movie?”  By the end of it, I discovered the subject matter tends to be a bit “mature,” the story muddled at times, and the art style quirky; this is really the only format that suits it.  It is obvious that the way the story is presented and experienced, it wouldn’t really “work” as a movie.  What The Midnight Sanctuary ends up feeling like is if you took a Japanese RPG and sucked all of the “game” parts out of it.

While the storytelling is linear, there are portions that are non-linear.  You experience a major plot point, then the story splinters into multiple points, allowing you to “explore” Daiusu Village as you see fit, and then finally culminating in another major story point.  Rinse and repeat and you have the flow of the visual novel.  There are no puzzles, quizzes, or anything of the sort.  You’re really just experiencing the story at your pace and having a little “freedom” to experience what you will.  In this sense, it can hold your attention, as it gives a little interactivity in discovering the mystery that lies beneath the “happy” atmosphere of Daiusu Village.

The general story is in regards to the village itself inviting the main character Hamomuru Tachibana, a pastor from a larger city, to document the history of the village.  The village is unique in that it was built by Christians, but their form of Christianity splintered, observing the “Crane Wife” as a Saint who will one day return to rapture them, not unlike a female version of Jesus Christ.  While the story isn’t really about actual religion, there are references to scripture and events in the Bible.  Mix in some good ol’ Japanese “anime stuff” and you’ve got an interesting story that will clock in at about 2.5 hours or so.

The most readily apparent thing about the visual novel is its art style.  Much of it is very simplistic and stylized to look like something that didn’t get out of an early phase of development.  Most noticeable is that many elements of characters or items are transparent.  Behind the scenes at all times is a complex mural of the Crane Wife and some other textures, that changes filters and colors depending on when and where the story takes you.  The mural is very complex and it is hard to focus and see what you’re looking at; I often just gave up, but generally assumed it was a person or something utilizing those transparency effects.  The symbolism of using this effect to begin with was lost on me if there was any particular reason for this choice.  Many of the generic villagers shared the same model, but had a different bandana to signify who they were.  There are several “non-transparent” people who look like a “normal” anime 3D character, though most expressions are vapid and they move around like puppets.  A couple of characters look a bit alien with their lanky arms and huge hands.  The girl Eku also had one of her eyes half closed like she hadn’t slept for a couple days, which accentuated the weirdness.  Additionally, whenever she turned around she would almost pirouette; this is just one example of the odd animation that is seen in this title.

The voice acting is exclusively Japanese, but there are subtitles.  The voice acting is very good from what I could tell, but since I couldn’t understand it, I would just read ahead in the story really quickly and skip a lot of the talking.  Understanding the emotion of the story is more likely if you listened to lines the whole way through, so its definitely an important factor of enjoyment if you’re going to stick with it.

The story was a lot longer than I thought it would last, but I suppose that is part of the value in this title.  It didn’t feel like there was much that needed to be cut out, but the major plot points could maybe have been skipped to in order to leave out the filler.  While the story gets a bit gruesome at times, it doesn’t get gory nor really crazy, though it seems like it easily could have.  Most of the locations in the town are visited several times, so there’s no lack of re-use of assets.  The story takes a few “interesting,” if not shocking, turns.  Another curious aspect is that you are actually given a character who is referenced as “The Watcher,” but outside of a few scenes you are entirely attached to the hip of Hamomuru.  There’s also not much of a conclusion for The Watcher, though they explain the character a bit at some point.

My foray into the “visual novel” genre is very cursory, but it seems like something I could get behind if it were on my iPhone.  There’s very low effort involved in controls and it seems like it would be a nice thing to pick up for a few minutes to kill.  However, on a PC it feels like a bit of a waste of time since I have to be sitting in the chair at the keyboard controlling it.  As of now, it is only available on PS4, Switch and Steam.  A VR version is coming out later on Steam, and is already out on PS4.  While I wouldn’t suggest this title for children, teens/young adults will probably get a bit spooked out with it.

 

Exorder (PC) Review

Developer: Solid9 Studio | Publisher: Fat Dog Games || Overall: 8.0/10

Exorder is a completely serviceable, old-school-feeling, fantasy turn-based strategy game.  Most turn-based strategy games nowadays seem to take a lot of liberty with the narrative structure, artwork, and other fringe elements; this often results in gameplay struggling as a result.  Exorder is a solid throwback to a time when turn-based strategy games presented a unique challenge and using your smartitude to figure out the “puzzle” of the level and complete it.

While there is a fairly interesting story, it is a bit on the thin side and really only serves as connective tissue between the levels.  Each level has a prologue, story elements that affect strategy during play, and an epilogue. The story doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the fantasy cartoon art style compliments the story to a degree.  The units you control have good art design and personality on an individual basis, but since you’ll spam produce them (more on this later), they kind of lose that unique touch.  The art is far and away the best production value the game has to offer.  The voice acting is so-so.

A large part of the gameplay in Exorder that makes it unique are the elements it “borrows” from real-time strategy games.  Most turn-based games will set you off with the units it assigns to you and that’s it.  However, a major part of the strategy is unit production, which costs gold at a Castle or Tavern.  Gold is produced by capturing other buildings, namely Houses, or defeating enemies.  Playing correctly typically means managing/protecting your resources and then flooding the map with your expendable units.  This all plays out in slow motion, but gameplay feels faster since they speed up through enemy turns when possible and most units will counter against melee attacks for half their normal damage.  Units health will fall a lot faster due to the counterattack design, which means the gameplay progresses faster as a result.  You can typically see the writing on the wall a lot quicker this way and can restart the level to figure out where you went wrong.  The trial-and-error aspect is a bit like tower defense in a way, where there is a strict order of operations that you should follow depending on your strategy.

Additionally, most of the units are designed in unique ways to serve their own niche.  Some are obvious, such as ranged units being able to attack two squares away, or the big armored guy having a lot of health.  An interesting mechanic that I hadn’t seen before, is the “Push” skill by the “Architect” unit, who can push any unit a certain amount of squares away.  This costs the Architect his action, but the pushed unit, if friendly, can use this to their advantage and move several more squares than they would have previously.  It can also be used against enemy units for defensive or even offensive reasons.  Another unit can extend their mobility and “Jump” up to two squares if there are an even amount of its type of unit on the field.  Touches like this are nice and separates Exorder from other turn-based titles.  Levels will also require you to keep a character alive to complete, which adds another layer of difficulty.

There’s not actually a whole lot that is bad per se about the game.  Once I “got it,” it became less fun and wanted to take a break from it for a long while.  The story actually gets in the way occasionally, and not every line is voice acted so you may not be aware someone is talking when they are.  Dialogue shows up at the bottom of the screen instead of over the character, which seems like a strange decision.  I’d rather have just seen the dialogue floating above the character instead of trying to remember which character is named what and reading it at the bottom of the screen.  And while the developers did what they could to speed up the pace of gameplay, it still takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to finish a level, including retries.

There is quite a bit of game to play with 12 missions and 8 additional challenge levels added recently.  I’d say that if the pace of turn-based gameplay is for you this title is worth a shot.  There’s no progression or experience system so you’re really just going to be focusing on the mechanics of individual units and how well you can manage your army on a strategic basis.

 

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (PSP) Review

Developer: Raven Software | Publisher: Activision || Overall: 8.5/10

(This review is more just a compilation of my notes on the game as I never got around to making a full review about 10 years ago when I was playing it.)

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a hack n slash, beat-em-up action RPG.  In the same vein as X-Men Legends II for PSP. Plays pretty much the same except its full of ridiculous cameos and super heroes I don’t really care about too much.

There are diverse levels with unique bosses.  It is a lot more interesting than X-Men Legends II, but the graphics aren’t spectacular, it is about on par with it, even though it was a launch title.  Loading is bearable and infinitely more improved, but still room to do better.  Since its basically a port of a console game, it isn’t exactly optimized for the PSP to begin with.

It’ll hold over any marvel fan’s interest for at least a while since its shameless fan service allows you to play with a wide ranging amount of heroes and beat the crap out of all of the different supervillains.  Only on PSP, there are 4 additional heroes and a couple of bonus gameplay modes.  The additional heres are Ronin, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, and Hawkeye.  There is online stats tracking while you are playing.  PSP-specific community web site with leaderboards and other statistics to look at about how you play.

Story lacks any real substance as it seemingly borrows heavily on pre-gained knowledge about characters.  If you don’t know shit about the heroes, you’re just going to get tired of seeing yet another new idiot in spandex.  Th storyline is sort of interesting, though, and keeps the gameplay going.

You can play co-op through the whole story or a specific mission with a friend online or over ad hoc.  The menu takes way too long to load to make it worth turning off auto-character management.  There is good voice acting, and most characters are voiced.  There is a “quiz machine” where you can test your comic book knowledge.  There is also a training simulator that allows you to complete extra “comic book missions” to build up character’s levels and acquire a costume.

Throughout most of the game, you are just going to be pressing X over and over.  There’s a weird sound bug that occurs when saving, and for some reason it needs to save two different files.  Why couldn’t they just store it all in one?  Rare bugs can make the game crash or act weird.  It even froze my PSP.

 

Every Extend Extra (PSP) Review

Developer: Q Entertainment | Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment || Overall: 8.5/10

(This review is more just a compilation of my notes on the game as I never got around to making a full review 10 years ago when I was playing it.)

Every Extend Extra is a fleshed out remake of the freeware PC game.  It is more like a “musical shooter.”

The loading is fine, but only prominent waiting time is during the beginning of starting a new game mode.  Retries are thankfully almost instantaneous with no loading.  There are several gameplay modes:  Arcade (normal, go through a series of stages), Boss Attack (boss rush to take on one or all bosses you’ve beaten so far), Caravan (play through a single stage), Original (contains the Light and Heavy levels from the freeware version).  It is not very clear on how to unlock levels for the Caravan mode.  I beat Arcade mode but only three are availablee.  Also, I have no idea how to access the Omega and Alpha levels or bosses.  There is autosave.  VS Mode – 1 on 1 over Ad Hoc.  Game Sharing shares a demo of EEE, which also contains a Lumines II demo.  Training Mode gives you the basics on mechanics but does little to teach you about what the game is all about and how to unlock levels and do better.

To play, you explode your bomb to create as many chain reactions as possible.  You collect the green diamonds for points, and more points extend your “Stock” allowing you to continue playing.  Red diamonds, called Quickens, give you more speed to move your bombs around.  You can change your bomb for a large blast radius.  Mini-bosses come along and try to kill you.  Yellow diamonds add more time and appear after defeating a mini-boss.  Bosses appear when you have around a minute left on the timer.  Bosses require a series of chain attacks before ultimately needing a certain amount of hits to be defeated.

The game can be hard to excel at.  you can trudge through with low scores, but getting “A’s” would unlock more levels… I think.

Music is very nice, speeds up with more Quickens you have.  Menu screen is a little less than exciting, including its music.  Graphics are great colors and eye candy that show off the PSP’s screen.  A pretty short game compared to Q’s other puzzle game offerings.  It is still worth having.

 

Destination Primus Vita – Episode 1: Austin

Developer: Epsilon Games | Publisher: Green Man Gaming Publishing || Overall: 8.5/10

Destination Primus Vita – Episode 1: Austin is one of those games you’ll always have to copy and paste their full name because it’s too long.  When you have to have a dash AND a colon, you know you’re in for a “trip.”  Destination Primus Vita aims to be an episodic series of introspective analyses of characters who are off to fight the good fight against water-stealing rock aliens.  But enough about those aliens.  The real point of the game, at least with this episode, is the surrealistic simulation that our first character Austin is put through during cryosleep on a 4 year space trip.

While there are puzzles and exploration involved throughout, some fairly complex and unique, the main focus is obviously on the story.  The story is actually written pretty well, to my surprise, and is leagues ahead of the game I reviewed earlier this year, called The Station.  I was fully expecting it to go full ham or make some stupid political point, but it ended up just being a nice story wrapped in a science fiction foil.  The characters we were introduced to were all unique and also written very well.

At times, the puzzles were actually pretty complex and really made you sit and think about how to complete them.  There is also a nice variety of the type of tasks you have to do, even with some being timed.  As you complete certain rooms, you are introduced to memories in Austin’s past.  This changes the pace of the game as you take “breaks” from the main task at hand of researching armor to fight the “Shattered.”  During these interludes you’ll have to “make sense” of the memory by discovering details.  Some details do not appear until others are found, which can make these parts feel a little more linear.

Dialogue choices occasionally come up when conversing with other characters, prompting you to choose the correct ones to “progress” Austin with her relationships with them.  There doesn’t seem to be a payoff for getting these answers correct other than hearing what they say.  There might be some sort of point to this system once more episodes are released, but sometimes these things don’t come to pass with episodic games…

The puzzles usually require you to collect a set of clues to help you complete them.  There is always an exploration area that allows you to roam around, find clues, interact with the other characters, and find “mementos” that give information about the lore of the game, which is quite developed.  The developers took the time and care to create an interesting story and think through the aspects of how the events that occurred affected human civilization.   The only laughable thing is that despite rock monsters stealing practically all of the water from Earth, 400 years later the humans are still trying to find them and take back their water… without much of a plan.  It sort of doesn’t make much sense as they’ve been able to survive 400 years, have intergalactic space travel, and probably could just get water from comets or create it by collecting hydrogen and oxygen.  There’s a lot of those chemicals in the universe, by the way.  So it does seem a bit petty so long afterwards to go after the aliens “for the water,” when the goal of hunting down the Shattered should have been a bit more grander than that.  But, I digress.

The art, voice acting, and sound design really compliments everything else that’s going on.  The surreal mind program simulation thing ends up being a really unique storytelling device and a good excuse to just put whatever the fuck they want into the game.  The functional purpose of having Austin experience this simulation slowly reveals itself; it certainly didn’t make sense why they were doing it at the beginning of the story.  Many of the rooms started to utilize 3D space in such a way that walls became the floor and the ceiling would eventually be where the next section of the level was.  I was starting to get a headache with all of the angle turning, which doesn’t usually happen, but if you get motion sickness it can potentially be unpleasant.  As an aside, Austin’s voice actor reminded me of Claudia Christian from Babylon 5, which I am currently trying to get through.

Despite some of the misgivings about where the story may eventually lead, I did enjoy this title quite a bit for what it was.  It was a quick play of about three hours, but your mileage will vary.  It could probably be done in two hours.  I’m really looking forward to what’s coming next and hopefully the writers don’t get lazy along the way, otherwise it’ll be yet another episodic series that should never have been episodic.

 

My Brother Rabbit (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Artifex Mundi || Overall: 8.0/10

My Brother Rabbit is a pretty standard point-and-click Hidden Object game with fun puzzles that have some challenging aspects.  The one thing that is far and away the best part about this title is its imaginative, hand-drawn style of art.  The lack of any dialogue throughout gives you a lot to play out in your head, but the “show don’t tell” aspect of the game is executed well, so you don’t misunderstand what is going on in the story.

While My Brother Rabbit feels and plays like a game for kids, the subject matter of the story isn’t made for them.  I wouldn’t recommend this game for kids under the age of 6 or 7, since some of the imagery is a bit on the surrealistic side with eyeballs and other less-than-friendly looking things. The story is about the Rabbit helping his friend, a flower lady, from the sickness she has by venturing through five different areas which have quite a bit of variety to them.  The “real-life” metaphor that plays out in cutscenes, is about a little girl who is struck by some sickness and the whole time you think she’s going to die due to said unknown sickness.

The game is mostly a treasure hunt; the scenes are packed with multiple collection items that are collected at different steps of the story.  For example, you may see some pearls that are clickable at the moment, but you won’t be able to start that collection quest until you complete another three collection quests.  This gives you a “new” reason to head back into the different scenes and look at them in ways you possibly hadn’t previously.  Most of the collection quests end in a light puzzle, which are variations of common puzzles you may have seen in other games.  I did get stumped a couple of times throughout the game and would usually have to quit and come back a couple days later.  Doing so usually allowed me to finish the puzzles in a way I hadn’t thought about before.

Spending about three hours on this game, it is definitely worth playing if you enjoy this genre.  While it isn’t as “exciting” as other Hidden Object games, such as a HOPA named Adam Wolfe it was still quite a bit of fun.  There are missable achievements as well, so the replayability, while limited, can be there for achievement hunters.

 

ZIQ (PC) Review

Developer: Midnight Sea Studios | Publisher: 3D Realms || Overall: 6.0/10

From 2 guys named Josh and one guy named Joshua, comes ZIQ, the runniest arcade runner you’ve yet to play.  Featuring a snarky, talking… thing, you are his experiment, supposedly named ZIQ, and you run, jump and die hundreds of times getting through a game that feels like it was made for a phone.  The whole point is to rank on leaderboards, I guess, cause there’s not much else to do other than master the challenge put forth.

The idea behind ZIQ is that you get through a certain set of obstacles while changing polarity, between blue and orange, and collecting the correct sequence of colored orbs.  All of the orbs become the color of your polarity, so you are “in control” as far as that goes.  Along with that, you move left, center, right, jump, and perform all of the combinations of those actions you can think of as you progress through the stages.  The pace of the game doesn’t break until you die, at which point you reset the current stage you are in (there seems to be some sort of checkpoints involved, though) and try not to die again.  The stages also seem to be randomized so you’re not progressing through anything that is “designed,” preventing any memorization from occurring.

In one run you have three lives, and your ultimate goal is to score as much as possible.  The speed of the game is actually quite fast so you’ll have to think pretty quick.  After a few tries, I was getting the hang of it and my points began to progressively get higher.  With less than 100 people on the leaderboards, you can get pretty high on the list with minimal effort.

The music is fine, but it feels like there’s only one, maybe two songs that keep playing so it gets pretty redundant.  The voice actor of the guy who keeps saying snarky things every time you die is fine, but there also doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of variety in what he says.  The theme doesn’t change, but new elements pop up every now and then that you didn’t see before, so you’re able to focus more on the puzzle aspects of the running than needing to appreciate a range of locales you may run past.

So, is it fun?  Sure, I had fun for a little bit once I got the hang of it, but there’s literally nothing else to do or work towards in this game.  You’re not unlocking any cosmetics or new areas or new game modes or anything.  The game reminds me of a less fun version of Audiosurf, which creates levels out of music you load into it, and I played enough of that.

 

Deiland (PC) Review

Developer: Chibig | Publisher: 101XP || Overall: 9.0/10

Deiland is a fantastic game.  Think 3D Harvest Moon in space, or a more timely analogy, Stardew Valley in space.  Though, not as complex or farm-focused as these titles, Deiland takes a more streamlined and narrative approach to the farming sandbox genre.  An extremely charming and interesting game unfolds as you perform your typical farming/crafting tasks.

The basics of the game are pretty easy to grasp.  You have three plots of land to plant food.  You plant trees to cut them down and gather wood.  You hit rocks and get stones.  You use these resources to build.  Where it gets interesting is that there is actually not that much to worry about when it comes to how to build your farm, or what things to plant, or where to put things.  You can certainly pay attention to those things, but the way the game treats them is much more in the guise of “accomplish these quests/tasks” rather than the “customize it and make it look good” thing that most titles in this genre emphasize.

There is a greater sense of purpose in doing the “normal sandbox tasks” that you see yourself doing.  You’ll meet around ten different visitors/friends to do quests for, making you figure out how to use the tools you have been given in pursuit of completing them.  Nearly every quest teaches you a new item to craft, and as you gather more materials, you’ll learn more about the visitors themselves.  Since they actually “visit” your planet at random times, they can also overlap, which allows them to interact with one another; this gives the little planet of Deiland a much more communal feel to it.  You’ll also visit a couple of different locations off the planet, such as another planet called Ankora, so it gives the game a bigger feeling; though you’ll feel homesick for the quaint life of farming carrots in short order.

By far the most unique aspect is the planet of Deiland itself.  Your entire planet is your “farm.”  The planet is also very small and you can run around it in less than a minute.  You have all of your normal sandbox features, such as a mine, plots of land to plant food in, and a lake to fish in.  There’s plenty of empty space to plant as many trees/bushes as you like.  Your house is upgraded to include more types of items to craft, along with upgrading your tools.  All of the upgrading and new crafting items occur through the story, so as you progress through quests, your planet will develop further.  Meteorites will hit the planet as well, creating a mini-game where you have to rotate your planet so that the meteorites don’t hit anything valuable, or they will get destroyed.  When it rains you can also rotate your planet or the clouds themselves over your plants to make them produce faster.

A much appreciated quality of life inclusion is contextual actions.  For example, if you go over to a tree, you will immediately use your axe to cut it; same with stones, you will immediately use your hammer to hit them.  There is much less fumbling around with selecting tools than in Stardew Valley, and for this reason alone I generally enjoy playing Deiland more, which is a pretty big compliment.  Why this wasn’t an obvious design choice in other games, I can’t answer, but I really do like it.

While most of the quests can be completed by creating something on your farm, you can also buy your way through many of the quests by trading with the different visitors.  Each visitor will buy particular things at a higher price, so it is good to wait to sell certain things until you visit a particular character.  The characters themselves are all interesting in their own way, and about half of them don’t actually have models — they are just character art hiding inside of their spaceship or a building.  This isn’t a big deal for me, but it would have been nice to see all of them have their own models and give more personality to the characters you befriend.

The mystery of the player’s character, Arco, is slowly unfurled as you progress through the storyline.  You find several pages of the Prince’s “story” which alludes to the main villain. The story is a bit dark, with an unknown entity communicating to Arco through his dreams, saying creepy things.  You also learn about previous “Princes” and the fact that your best friend, Mun, may have ulterior motives.  It took about 10 hours for me to complete the main story, but unfortunately the ending is a bit sudden and you don’t expect it to be the end.  Supposedly, there is free DLC planned for December, which gives at least some hope that the story is planned on being concluded in a satisfying way.

As far as the bad things about the game, there isn’t too many, but there is some obviously underdeveloped aspects.  It would have been nice to have a couple more buildings to build on your planet.  After upgrading your house and building the barn there isn’t very much to invest your most common resources, Wood and Stone, into.  The fighting system is also pretty barebones, as your character basically only has one attack animation.  Having to kill enemies feels more like a chore than something fun.  Additionally, a few substantial ability unlocks occur at the end of the game, at which point you’re pretty much done playing, so new magic spells, for instance, have very low use.  For some reason you’re also not allowed to even use magic in the “boss stage” which doesn’t make much sense.  If you aren’t going to use it then, when would you want to use it?  Not that this is required, but there isn’t any sort of “endless dungeon” or meaningful combat progression system, so there’s not as much emphasis on the combat aspects despite being something you have to do a lot.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the game’s story conclude with whatever free DLC is being planned.  While I’m not a fan of releasing unfinished games, Deiland is far from being unfinished — there’s plenty to do and I had a lot of fun for the time I put into it.  It would have been nice to at least know that something more was coming immediately rather than having to research online about it.

Deiland is can be purchased on Steam.

 

City of the Shroud (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Abyssal Arts Ltd || Overall: 5.5/10

When I think of City of the Shroud, I think two words: boring and frustrating.  City of the Shroud gets just a smidgen above “playable” since it tries a couple of new things.  Though these “new things” are executed poorly, there’s a layer of uniqueness underneath that feels like it should have been something better than it is.  Essentially, City of the Shroud feels like two different games mashed into one, and neither part is necessarily fun, and in fact are quite frustrating.

City of the Shroud touts itself as having a real-time, combo-based battle system.  My big problem with the gameplay is exactly that.  What City of Shroud actually is, is your typical turn-based strategy game, except it all progresses in real-time, so it’s all just a giant mess of things happening at once.  The combo-based wheel control system takes up half of the screen, so you can’t see anything, and it is also clumsy to use.  Perhaps this feeling may change later in the game (if your interest holds), but the inputs take way too long for the pace of which the battle is going. There aren’t any special abilities outside of what is being commanded on the wheel, so as long as you are setting up the combos on the nearest enemy, you’re doing what you need to do.  The combos are class-specific and deal a lot of damage, so they are mandatory to use since everyone’s HP values are very high.

Once you are actually past the tutorial levels (which takes about 1.5 hours for some reason) your first legit battle is just a bunch of your characters standing around while you are fiddling with the combo wheel for one of your characters.  The fighting itself is not very satisfying at all, so it doesn’t really motivate you to keep fiddling around with the big stupid wheel that covers half of the screen to see less-than-exciting combat.  This is the default, normal game mode, and there are ways to modify the speed/difficulty of gameplay, but the enterprise is largely the same despite that.  There’s also a multiplayer Vs. mode, but on account that the battle system is no fun, I’m not sure why anyone would want to use it.  There is matchmaking at least, so you don’t have to rely on a friend being on to play.

If you can deal with the combat system, there’s also another big issue.  Enemy variety.  There are a set number of classes and that’s it.  There aren’t even technically enemies, as you are just fighting pallet-swapped versions of the same classes.  The player character is some poor farmer dude in a cloak, but then he is represented by a generic “warrior” class sprite, which looks nothing like the character, or even the picture they use in the dialogue screens.  The reason why it’s like this becomes obvious; at a later point they let you change your main character’s class to any of the other classes, and thus their models.  There are also monsters invading from another dimension, but, again, they are just pallet-swapped versions of the same models we’ve seen, so why are people scared of these “monsters” exactly?  Not really sure.  Eventually, you are able to assemble a four-person team of additional generic characters, and all of them are nothing more than stand-ins to fill out your team.  They have customization options, at least.

The story premise at its core has an interesting set up, as there is a city that people are not allowed to leave once they are in it.  Reason being, the aforementioned monsters are coming through portals and killing/abducting people.  So, what you do is run around town doing menial tasks and meeting poor/rich people, learn about the politics, and eventually figure out which faction you want to become allies with.  The battles that occur in the storyline sort of “interrupt” the story in not-so-exciting ways, like “HEY THERE’S A PORTAL RIGHT NOW OMIGOD GO BATTLE IT” in the middle of a conversation about decorative jewelry for a hat.  This happens a lot, so it feels very lazy.

Anyhow, there seems to be very little reason to actually want to do battle, since there is no leveling system per se. At the end of a battle, you have the possibility of getting gems for character progression.  One set of gems is for the “combos” so you can deal more damage in the battles that are no fun.  The other type of gems are for character stats, which are placed into sockets; there are only so many open sockets of each type, so some decision making seems to occur there.

Additionally, the story sort of doesn’t take itself seriously, with the main character and the main supporting character being goofballs, and everyone else being super serious.  There’s also a lot of politics involved, and they re-use the dialogue pictures for different characters, so it feels yet again like there’s some corners being cut in the presentation. The story will supposedly be influenced by what players do in the game, as far as who they align with and which faction pulls ahead by whatever metrics the developer has in mind.  They intend to craft the story around these decisions and release new story content in four chapters total.  There are a few decisions to make, but they aren’t complex by any means.

The different areas of the map are represented by a single picture and a box in the bottom right corner for whoever you need to talk to.  Eventually you get to a point in the story where they allow you to randomly battle in each of the areas you unlock.  There’s so much useless dialogue, I was getting fatigued trying to keep up with it all, and the story isn’t even that complex.  This is no Masquerada, where you are learning about the ins and outs of your player character and his interactions with others and society, and feeling like you are investing your time into learning about a well thought out universe.  In City of the Shroud, with all of the “extra” dialogue included, it is hard to know what specifically you should be focusing on and why.  Extra stuff needs to be left to optional quests or compendiums.

A quick note about the art style, it is actually interesting at times, such as a “priest” being represented by a machinist with a huge backpack full of spare parts in it.  I’m unsure where all of this imaginative visual storytelling went when it came to the dialogue.  The music is fine, but is repetitive, as it feels like there’s only a few songs and the tracks change depending on what area of the map you’re in.  You hop around a lot, so you’ll be familiar with all of the songs quickly.

While City of the Shroud has some interesting aspects, it is a complete let down in its execution.  I don’t often yell “I don’t want to play this anymore” out loud, but this is one of those times.  I think I’m more frustrated with what the game could have been if there was a better vision behind it.

 

Slam Land (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Bread Machine Games || Overall: 8.0/10

SLAAAAAAM LAND!! Amaze a giant blue man!!  Poetry comes in all shapes and sizes.  Wait, that doesn’t make any sense.  Poetry is words.  Ummmmmm… anyway.  Just keep saying “SLAAAAAAAM LAND!!!” over and over as you play this game and you’ll get the idea, maybe.  I don’t really know where I’m going with this.

Slam Land, also known as “SLAAAAAAM LAND!!” is basically an ultra-simplified Super Smash Brothers clone.  Your objective is to put things into a hole which, depending on the map, can look like a monster or an open tree stump, or a giant blue man’s face.  Depending on the game mode, the thing you are slamming into said hole will be other players, trash, horse heads, or a peanut.  Each of these different game modes slightly modifies the game formula to make the strategy a bit different.

In the normal mode where you slam other players, they’ll earn you points for each slam.  You’ll have to grab them however you can, and you’ll have a couple of seconds to point them in the direction of the whole to slam them in.  Trash mode is a bit more straightforward where there will be a lot of trash dropping throughout the level, and you’ll want to collect as many of the individual trash items as you can before slamming them.  Horse mode will spawn randomized horse heads with a particular letter in the word “Horse” and the first to complete the word wins; this mode may not always have a letter you need up so it is to your advantage to sabotage other players’ efforts until you can find one you need.  In Peanut mode, the peanut item will gain value the longer it is held by any player, so it is to your benefit to delay slamming it for as long as possible and prevent others from getting it from you.

And, that’s pretty much the game.  It is very simple — no “campaign” mode or unlocking things, or progression.  It is a party game that you’ll want to play with your friends as part of a large variety of other similarly-styled titles.  There are bots (with varying difficulties) to play with if you want to play alone and learn how the game functions, but it is definitely made to be played with three of your friends.  In general, I’d say the game is fun, but would only be so in small doses.  Playing for about an hour by myself, I was able to get a good grasp of just about everything the game offered, so I’d estimate it holding attention in a party for around that unless people really got into it for some reason.

The game’s art is unique, having the sort of ultra-detailed “Adventure Time-esque” style that is popular nowadays.  A few things look weird or don’t “make sense” on purpose to give more of a visual flavor.  The five different characters’ appearances can also be swapped to several different color palettes, so there’s plenty of variety to shift through and find something you like.  However, until you get used to the visual chaos of what is going on on the screen it can be very hard to figure out which one you are, and you’ll often lose tracking of your character.  Since characters basically blow up and respawn elsewhere on the map, it happens quite a bit, and is probably the only downfall of the game.  In other titles there might be some sort of text flying above the character (such as “1P,” “2P,” etc.) to help identify who is who, but I have no idea if that would help at all in this situation.

Generally I don’t try to knock against games that are purposefully simple.  Slam Land is probably a good title to have when going through a bunch of different party games.  It has a unique art style, simple-to-understand gameplay, and most importantly, pretty fun.

 

Graveball (PC) Review

Developer: Goin’ Yumbo Games | Publisher: 3D Realms || Overall: 3.0/10

Graveball is a perfect example of wasted efforts, and it makes me feel bad.  The game is no good, but maybe it could have been better if so much time wasn’t spent on a multiplayer mode no one would ever use.  It is also never a good sign when the freakin’ Tutorial is more fun than your actual game.

Graveball is basically an “alternative sports” game, where the goal is to put the Graveball in your opponent’s zone for more than two seconds.  There’s a smattering of influences from football, soccer, basketball, and hockey, I suppose.  There is also an “arena brawler” aspect where you kill your opponents and if you wipe out the team that’s also another way to score.  For some reason, there’s a loading screen after each score which destroys the continuity of gameplay.

There’s not much point in really trashing the game.  Simply put, it’s bad.  It looks ugly and plays like mashed potatoes.  I suppose it works when you play it, but the gameplay isn’t engaging and there’s only one game mode.  You can play with bots, and probably local multiplayer if you happen to be into BDSM and coax your gimp into playing it with you.

There’s an online multiplayer mode.  You can make custom games, or click “Quick Play” to get instantly matched up with people.  Actually, scratch that “instant” part.  My Quick Play timer is now at 15 minutes and it will never stop counting because nobody is playing this game.

There are customization options for your Goblin character, including masks, hair styles, weapons, and taunts.  You get 25 “Ball Bucks” for losing a game against bots, and 50 if you win.  The prices for new items are astronomical, considering the rate you earn this currency.  Additionally, if you want to unlock another style, it is randomly unlocked from the available list (you can’t even choose), so if you want that Evil Bunny mask you’re probably going to never get it if you don’t get lucky with the first couple “free” rolls you get with the starting balance and shortly before uninstalling.

I suppose the music is fine.

 

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.