MidBoss (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Kitsune Games || Overall: 5.0/10

Not every game can be a winner.  MidBoss kind of stinks, and that’s unfortunate because the concept was interesting on its outset.  I’m a sucker for taking over your enemies or learning their abilities, and MidBoss is all about doing just that.  The idea being, that you slowly work your way up in possessing stronger and stronger enemies — hey, that’s cool!

Unfortunately, it isn’t very cool.

MidBoss lands in the range of “playable.”  Considering the array of games available nowadays, you can’t get away with a game simply qualifying as such.  The foundation is there, but the key thing that is missing is VARIETY, especially when you’re talking about a roguelike.  The map you play on never changes, the diversity of monsters is very low (nor are they very exciting), and the roguelike element itself leaves a lot to be desired.  MidBoss tries to be a loot game, but the loot sucks; half of the stats don’t make much perceivable impact on how you play.  It is also a turn-based game, but the controls are wonky at best; controllers can’t even be used!  I don’t really enjoy holding down my mouse click for 90% of the game, and using the keyboard is even more frustrating than that for some reason.  It sort of boggles my mind why turn-based grid movement that is Isomtric is 4-sided rather than hexagons.  There’s also practically no animation — though the art is okay, it is boring except for a few stand-outs.  It also reminds me mostly of a DOS-era art style, straight out of the early 1990’s.

You hit a ton of crates, shelves, and chests to find crap, equip the crap, then try to find more crap to swap out.  For some reason you have to identify loot in this game, but none of the loot is very exciting to begin with so it isn’t even worth the extra clicks to unlock useless stats.  You find a vendor, eventually, where you can unload your awful gear for Balls of Yarn (the game’s currency), which is pretty funny to do… but only to a certain point.  That’s when you realize you just want to vendor everything you came across.

The roguelike mechanics are perhaps the only moderately-well executed part here.  They revolve around the concept of “Death Cards” in which each run (after you die) is memorialized in a screenshot of you dying, along with a snapshot of all of your gear and abilities.  You can share this card with other people so they can play your seed and with your equipment, if you are so inclined.  When starting a new game, you can also take one item from each of your previous deaths (up to six individual cards) one time.  So, let’s say you play from scratch six times and were able to get one legendary item in each run — in your seventh run you’d be able to pick all of the best items from the previous six runs and start out with them.  This improves your chances to get further in the game, but if you die you’ll lose all but one of these pieces of gear.  Other than this, there is no meta game — no way to improve, collect, or slowly rise in power to be able to get further.  There are a limited number of floors, so it’s not like it goes on endlessly.  Of course this shows how there isn’t really a need for a grander meta game, but that’s besides the point.  Most of all there isn’t really a “different” way to play the game, or extra variations on the formula to keep it fresh; you’ll be in pursuit of trying to perfect your runs using what you’ve already been introduced to.

The story is a bit humorous, but barebones.  You play as an Imp named “Boss” and along with his chatty tutorial companion “Mid” you’ll work your way through all of the heels in the dungeon after your face turn.  I guess health insurance premiums just got too outrageous in the dungeon business, so “Boss” goes on a workplace violence rampage.  And since Boss is no longer willing to accept the role of beginning-experience-fodder, his goal is to possess stronger and stronger enemies and to eventually become the actual Boss of the dungeon.  This sounds a lot like a normal work atmosphere, doesn’t it?  Just wait until you get to ogle the hot chick while you are getting coffee.  And then jerking it in the bathroom to keep yourself from spontaneously ejaculating in the middle of the office and into your fresh coffee.  You better hope the copy machine has a technical issue, am I right?  …I don’t know where I’m going with this anymore.

Since it seems like updates are planned for MidBoss in the future, a few of these concerns might pan out and the game could become more interesting, but as of right now it is pretty boring and actually tiring to play.  While it’s unfair to completely characterize the game as “Early Access,” it isn’t far from it.  I can appreciate completing initial development of a game and saying “this is our vision,” but when you are severely lacking content and have to hope whatever comes down the pipeline in updates remedies your initial issues, there are consequences to be had by that.

 

Mighty Monster Mayhem (PC/HTC Vive) Review

Developer/Publisher: Rank17 || Overall: 3.0/10

It’s a Monday night, and I’ve got my Vive on my hip; Soup Tyrant is on the prowl! Reeoww!

Tonight I’m playing… let’s see here… glasses… “Mighty Monster Mayhem” by Rank17. It’s a VR monster game where players get to smash stuff up as a big ol’ hulking brute. Hard to fuck up what’s essentially Rampage in VR, right? Anyway, here’s what the Steam store page says:

As an outcast-scientist-turned-mutated-monster, seek vengeance against those who rejected your research! In Mighty Monster Mayhem, you can tear down buildings, make entire cities crumble, and munch on unsuspecting pedestrians. Choose from a variety of creatures, and battle with (or against) friends, wreaking havoc in multiple campaign modes – unleashing fury on everything to increase your score! How much mayhem can you cause?”

First thing’s first: the unskippable tutorial. You’re not allowed to play the main game or multiplayer without being a big boy and/or girl and playing along with the voiceover’s lesson plan, so I figured I’ll just jump through the hoop. I appear to be a big fishy monster with a big ass watch on my left arm. It’s not super clear from the narration, but from the store page description you can piece together that this annoying dude in your ear is yourself. They teach you how to walk, and then explain some basic monster techniques at your disposal: punching, grabbing, throwing, climbing and jumping.

The controls aren’t bad in theory. The locomotion alone is kind of neat. Locomotion is activated by squeezing either controller’s grip button and then swinging your arms. The rate that you swing dictates the rate that you move, from a tiptoe to a sprint. It works pretty well, and it’s one of the better thought-out aspects of the game.

Punching is what you think it is. You ball up your first by holding the trigger on the controller, and then swing around to punch. Swinging your arm around without holding down the trigger doesn’t do dick, so swatting things doesn’t seem to be an option. Grabbing things is done by moving your hand close to something and holding the trigger down. You can grab a bunch of things, but what I’ve found is that if you grab things that are too close together, you destroy the thing you’re holding along with whatever you’ve “collided” with that was next to it. If you’ve managed to pick something up, congrats: you can now throw it at something by doing a throwing motion and releasing the trigger. Throwing has weird physics to it. Either something flies off into the horizon, like shitty Pokemon villains, or it flops a few feet ahead of you straight into the dirt, like my hopes and dreams do. It’s also your only ranged attack. More on that in a bit.

Now for the weirder things. For climbing, you grab a part of a building and pull yourself up, repeating the process with your other arm. Moving around the building isn’t very difficult, but doing things on the building is kind of annoying. Punching the building requires you to move your hand far enough away from the building that you don’t grab it. Otherwise, you can grab and twist the part you’ve grabbed to rip it off, which sometimes happens unintentionally when you’re climbing frantically. Jumping rounds off your skillset, which you control by holding both triggers down, raising your hands in the air, and then throwing your hands toward your feet while releasing the triggers. Jumps are, for the most part, uncontrollable catapults into the air. You can control direction and power, sort of, but most of the time I felt like a fly without wings. There is no method of controlling your descent, so often times you will just have to hope shit works out.

Monsters can interact with the environment, picking up people (and eating them for one hit point), cars, you name it. Most things you can pick up, most things you can smash. Most of them share use, though; you either want to break something, or throw it at a building or enemy. Nothing you can pick up is functionally different from anything else, aside from humans, which you can eat, and powerups, which are used rather than grabbed and thrown.

There are a few monsters in the game, but the change is cosmetic as no monster has a unique ability or function. I unlocked “Toni the Oni” twice in two different levels. I’m not sure why I did, but when I used Toni, the change was of no real significance, at least none that I could find or had any explanation. I’m sure this is more geared toward multiplayer, as the game does offer drop in/drop out four player coop.

“My fitbit says I’m behind on smashing. Excuse me, officer.”

The meat of the game, single player or otherwise, is in a quasi free roam environment. The player’s goal is to look at your watch and figure out how many buildings you have to smash. There’s some side objectives, too, like eating scientists, smashing mailboxes and some other dumb shit, but it only seemed to add to score and ended up being more trouble than it was worth. Buildings are felled by doing damage to them, but for some fucking reason the way you take down a building is via “structural supports”, which are random, unmarked bits of building that have to be destroyed to take the building out. The only way to see them is with a powerup called “x-ray”, which outlines them in red. It ends up being more like a game of “needle in the haystack” once you get to later levels, since players have to take out about 6 or so buildings before the level’s finished. Building chunks are huge, by the way. It’s like the pentagon built all these fucking things. Each building is layered with several feet of concrete, to the point where pulling out chunks obstructs your vision and clutters the damn place.

As the player ruins the city’s shit, things change a bit. At first the city is a vibrant environment, with like 5 guys walking around and a few dozen parked cars, but when players start breaking shit it goes into chaos, with up to 5 guys walking around, some of them soldiers! Soldiers shoot these slow blue shots at you as they clip through buildings out of view, or into the assload of debris on the ground that doesn’t disappear. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Nah, they fire through buildings and debris. If players take out a building or two, they start sending these fucking weird looking cars at you. They have a few miniguns on them and rocket launchers, but only shoot the same blue bullets the little soldiers fire out of the middle of their hoods, rotating perfectly with you as you move around them. This makes more sense with the treaded tanks that come later, but cars? C’mon. It’s not like there’s a lot of detail in anything else. Could it have killed them to at least have the projectiles come out of the guns?

So, on top of all this, the game doesn’t run particularly well. The recommended specs for this game are at (unspecified) i5 and a GTX 980 or better. Even on superior hardware, this game has a bunch of issues rendering buildings without chugging. This is problematic, as it seems some physics and most player movement is tied to it. It becomes harder to eat people or pick them up. Throwing things is a crapshoot. Jumping becomes hopping. It’s just not a very pretty or busy game to be having these many problems.

Mighty Monster Mayhem is still indeed playable, but it’s a frustrating experience that can’t be carried by its novel approach to player locomotion. The game suffers from such a textbook case of, “great idea, terrible execution,” that it would make No Man’s Sky blush. It feels like Early Access, even though it isn’t. It feels like a tech demo, and with a heapin’ helpin’ of polish and some expansion of the “break buildings to win” formula, it could be a great game. Mighty Monster Mayhem may truly, one day, be the VR monster game to beat, the benchmark, defacto “you are a giant monster” game.

As it stands, though, as of June 2017… pass. There are other VR experiences more worthy of your $14.99 right now.

 

Rocking Pilot (PC) Review

Developer: Gungrounds | Publisher: Mad Head Games || Overall: 8.0/10

I’ve always been a bit soft on bullet hell shmup games.  I mostly get frustrated at how cheap some of the elements can be and well, just the ridiculous amount of <curse in Xartraxian> flying around never screamed “fun!” to me.  Rocking Pilot is a top-down twin-stick shooter that nestles right in with others in the genre.  The titular character is a sarcastic romp through a futuristic war story that has the appropriate amount of tongue-in-cheek and rockin’ tunes keeps the pace up, the adrenaline flowing, and the decibels rising!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  YEAHHHHH!!!!!

Rocking Pilot is a pretty simple concept.  You shoot stuff and stuff blows up.  However, the unique feature is using your helicopter’s propellers as a weapon as well.  You can consider it a “melee attack,” going right up to the enemy, mowing them down, or enabling Overdrive, which makes you temporarily invincible and empowered to kill and deflect everything.  Besides that, using Overdrive tactically is a necessity, otherwise you die, so you cant really use it on cooldown.  Many enemies also require you to use Overdrive to kill them, so having a limited amount of Overdrive charge becomes an important resource to manage.

Game progression is interesting, taking its cue from mobile game trends.  There are four worlds to unlock, each with about 10 levels.  When defeating a level, you’ll earn an assortment of awards, each independent classification (such as “Keys,” “Crowns,” and “Skulls”) unlocking their own string of levels and/or weapons.  Eventually, unlocking all of the weapons available makes your helicopter the most badass helicopter in all of history and all of the upgrades work in tandem.  Power-ups will show up on the board and you’ll temporarily use one of your unlocked weapons; there isn’t much agency here to “choose” which weapons you want to use, but you take what you can get and use it all up.

There’s not much more to the game, but there’s a lot of gameplay to be had.  I had spent about two hours and beat the main storyline, but there were still quite a few levels left to unlock, and most of the upgrades had yet to be discovered.  Once you acquire upgrades it’s well worth going back and trying previous levels you left uncompleted to see if you can earn even more upgrades.  The upgrades definitely make things easier for you and also keep things fresher.  The Score Attack mode available seems to be based on leaderboards, and challenge you to get higher on the board before awarding you, which can be quite an ask.  You can also restart your progress by deleting save data, so if you pine for the half hour where you only had a minigun, no missiles or shotguns and <curse in Xartraxian>, then it’s there for you.  Also, since you die a lot, having to wait a few seconds and physically confirm two times between each retry can get a bit tiresome, and breaks up the fast-paced feel the game tries hard to sustain.

The art is not too bad; it starts out generic at first then gets a little bit more wacky.  Eventually you start fighting aliens and that’s when the art begins to please.  There are some talking-head characters which are very nicely drawn, but this creative look doesn’t seem to carryover at all into the actual game for some reason.  The helicopter is also just some generic-looking helicopter, but maybe that’s the point there.  The sound is also very important in creating the experience of fast-paced craziness.

Rocking Pilot is mostly a challenge waiting to be had.  Once you get through the main story, you’ll have to go back and clean up what you didn’t do the first time around, and then some.  There isn’t anything in the way of a “free play” mode other than the Score Attacks, but those aren’t available on every mission anyway.  You’ll be heading into each mission with particular objectives in mind, most of them fairly unique.  The price tag is also very reasonable and if you are looking for a simpler, contemporary shmup, Rocking Pilot might be your <curse in Xartraxian>.

Rocking Pilot is available on Steam.

 

Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Rice Cooker Republic || Overall: 7.5/10

“Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion” is like one of those game titles that screams at you.  You don’t know what the fuck it is, but it is loud, and your first inclination is to run.  Peel back the layers of potential pretentiousness and in essence, the game is about space, in more ways than one.  Space in the literal sense, the metaphorical sense, and I guess even the hard drive sense.

Cutting to the chase here, Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion is a puzzle game with “exploration” elements.  I suppose most of what you do could be described as exploring, but the world(s) you visit are barren with puzzles sprinkled throughout.  Your real goal in exploration is to learn about the story(?) and solve the puzzles you do eventually find.  Solving puzzles unlocks some more puzzles and eventually you would presumably get to the end of the game.  When you reach the “Epilogue” it seems you are mostly left with a traditional collect-a-thon with orbs strewn about the huge world.

The actual gameplay elements are essentially Minecraft.  You can build, cut, push, and erase blocks on the field in the pursuit of solving 3D puzzles.  The 3D puzzles I was able to encounter were “fill in the monolith,” “fill in the other monolith,” “bounce the line to the rock,” “construct blocks in this manner,” and some other things.  Most of the time the puzzles are done once or twice and you don’t need to do a lot of heavy thinking.  I’m not usually a fan of the whole “make your own fun” genre, but when similar tools are thrust into a constructed experience like Bokida, you get something a lot more freeform within its boundaries.  There isn’t a whole lot of explanation initially about why you are able to do the things you do, at least from what I’ve seen.  Despite what the screenshots convey, you never have to make buildings, though I have no idea if the world is a blank canvas on purpose so that you can fill it in with your creations or what.

The art design, sound, and use of colors are all part of the very intrinsically artistic experience.  This game is equal parts presentation and gameplay, with not much left in the middle.  This would be fine if you actually enjoy this sort of genre of puzzle game that attempts to achieve high art by being purposefully abstract.  Personally, the game just didn’t appeal to me after a couple of hours and I got really bored.  I made it to the “Epilogue” and there wasn’t much more to motivate me to continue exploring further.

Here’s the thing — it’s not awful, buggy, or annoying.  It is very competent and well-designed; I just didn’t like playing it very much.  I liked the way the game made you question how you move through space in a way that only a video game can present it to you: going through a door, turning around and seeing the door no longer there.  Or falling off the edge of a room and landing into the room you just fell from.  I’ve also figured out that falling upwards is annoying as hell and gliding through the air like a jet-propelled feather is an exercise in decision-making rather than physics.  Whatever details you can glean of a story are basically just all proverbs and metaphors and I unfortunately wasn’t really inclined to try and figure out what any of it meant.  The intro cinematic I guess is about a lonely planet trying to find its binary pair that got lost in another dimension, and there’s some Yin & Yang metaphor shit going on.  I suppose the story could just be a puzzle within itself, or it’s possibly just heavy on the religion thing and that all went over my head.

So, I could recommend the game to someone who likes 3D puzzles, high art indie games, or even just to play something out of the ordinary.  It’s just not something that ever clicked with me.  I just didn’t get why I was playing something that frustrated the hell out of me, spending 30+ minutes trying to get the line to the rock.

 

Adam Wolfe (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Mad Head Games || Overall: 8.5/10

“Excuse me, sir.  Are you a Point and Click?” I ask.  A man slowly turns around, obviously annoyed.

“Don’t… assume… my… GENRE!!!”

Adam Wolfe isn’t simply a P&C, bro.  It’s a HOPA and definitely not just an IHOG.  In researching the different acronyms in this apparently expansive puzzle subgenre, I began getting confused.  It’s almost as bad as sexual identity, and depending on who you ask they mean different things.  IHOG means Interactive Hidden Object Game, whereas HOPA means Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game.  It all has a lot to do with “finding things” and doing things in a particular order, like a normal puzzle game would demand.  The “adventure” part is where it gets really fun, though, and you are essentially playing what amounts to an intense Point and Click game.  But fans of this subgenre would probably take that as an insult — it’s much more complicated than that.

“Point and Click doesn’t accurately describe the intricate distinctions that I associate my game playing with.”

Adam Wolfe probably has its design origins in those large puzzle books full of miscellaneous games that you would take 30+ years to go through.  I have like six of them on my shelf and never ended up finishing them since many of the pages didn’t make sense to me (I was in elementary school), and also because I had better things to do.  But besides that, most people would actually have interacted with the kinds of puzzles you see in Adam Wolfe if you went out to family restaurants a lot.  You’re basically going to be getting flashbacks of Denny’s or Coco’s when you have to find the differences between two pictures, or find all of the objects in a stationary picture, among other things.  But if you wanted to integrate a paranormal story filled with murder and gothic imagery, well I’ve got news for you…

Essentially what Adam Wolfe is, is a story about a precariously famous “paranormal detective” who investigates things that are just below his expertise level.  Nothing Adam encounters is particularly surprising, challenging, or amazing to him, but he deals with it in such a manner that he’s definitely “dealt with some shit” in the past, and what he has to do now in his day to day is small potatoes.  Although, the greater narrative, and challenge for Adam himself, is finding his missing sister.  If you’ve ever seen the Sci-Fi Channel show “Dresden Files,” combine that with the “X-Files” and you’ve essentially got the set-up for the story.  While we deal with supernatural content, it isn’t so mature that the story screams “for adults” — its about appropriate for older teenagers, and I was enjoying the story for the most part, despite being much older than a teenager.

Four episodes are available, with each about one-to-two hours long.  While the first episode seemed more or less unrelated to the greater narrative of finding Adam’s sister, Episode 2 gets more involved, with a direct continuance into Episode 3 and 4.  Unlike a few episodic games I’ve played in the past, this one definitely seems a lot more “planned out” in introducing us to the character and then developing him and the story over the course of the next episodes.  There also is a further development of the types of puzzles you’ll encounter, keeping things fresh and interesting.  Challenge is also very flexible, and the game has built-in hints and tips, as well as modifiers to help you have an enjoyable experience.  While I didn’t want the game essentially solving things for me, I know that I get easily frustrated trying to find things when it comes to P&Cs in general, so I chose something in the middle.  At any time you’re able to “skip” the puzzle you’re currently on by reading the guide, or clicking the recharging hint button; the narrative is a lot more fluid as a result and your interest in the game is less likely to wane due to frustration.

The actual kinds of puzzles you’ll be encountering is more or less standard point and click fare, with some notable exceptions.  There will be extra challenges such as “Hidden Object” puzzles where you’ll have to find a series of objects in a pile of stuff in your pursuit to open a tool box or something like that so you can use that tool on a later puzzle.  There’s also matching games, a derivative of the “what’s missing?” comparison between two pictures, and regular jigsaw-type puzzle games where you put pictures back together.  The variety of different games are quite interesting, albeit not so horrendously challenging that you need to try over and over again.  Presentation with the art, sound, dialogue, and voice overs is executed almost perfectly, with stylized graphic novel panels and animation style. If you take the puzzles out of the equation, you are basically involving yourself in a one-to-two hour long episode of a TV show, and the work you do makes the pay off of the story all the more invigorating.

Adam Wolfe is a good time.  It is fun, interesting, and unique if you don’t usually venture into this genre.  The story is the main draw, and has some pretty good writing involved, which is always a concern when you’re dealing with heavily-story based, episodic games.  It also gets pretty intense when you pull out a gun and start shooting monsters, not something you’d normally expect for a “puzzle” game.  It takes a while to get to the conclusion of the story, but like most episodic games, there’s always room for more down the line.

 

Symphony of the Machine (PC/HTC Vive) Review

Developer/Publisher: Stirfire Studios || Overall: 6.0/10

I met the boss in a dark internet alley. Real cloak and dagger stuff. He slips me a message shortly before he passes along a key. I was tasked with an important mission: review Symphony of the Machine.

My qualifications, you ask? I’m the only one with a VR headset.

Symphony of the Machine is a puzzle game that is something of an atmospheric experience. You start out as a druid of some sort, struggling against a mid-life crisis, waking up after a bender in the desert. Your character comes to, at dusk, precariously close to the fire they had been presumably sleeping next to. At first, you’re unable to do anything, but by picking up a ball on a pedestal and placing it inside of this thingy next to it, the player is able to teleport. It was at this point that the real game began, and I stepped into the projected life I’ve illustrated.

A gold ring appears on the ground, inviting me to teleport to it while my the objects in my hands whine at me to touch them. I touch them, not understanding how to satisfy them. As I look at the mural on the rock near me, I decide to figure out what the deal is with my hands. I rotate in place with a few taps of the touchpad, but the cries persist. The gold ring remains as I move on without understanding what it was trying to convey in the hopes to shut up my damn hands.

I pass through a small trench and make my way to a modest clearing with a tower. As I approach the tower, it appears that a control panel has had a button removed, with the button clearly visible next to it. I picked it up and placed it where it belonged. There was an up arrow and a down arrow, with the up arrow clearly the one to press in this situation. I did so, was rewarded with a nice song while I slowly raised up the tower.

On my way up the tower, I noticed the land was very barren – a desert-like mountainous area – and there was a very purple beam shooting toward the heavens from the tower I was currently ascending. The elevator reached its destination, I was free to walk around the area within the confines of the tower’s traversable platform. In the middle of this platform was a beam coming out of the floor, shooting right out of an opening at the tower’s apex. I moved to the next gold ring on the ground, just next to the beam, as I noticed a bundt cake-looking terminal with a hand floating above it. I placed my hand near it and clicked the trigger, bringing it to life. What happened next was the most surprising thus far.

This noisy thing sprung to life, bobbing around as it floated around. It moved toward a green glyph before looking back toward me and nodding. Then it moved to a purple one, a yellow one, and finally a blue one, repeating its incessant chirping and nodding, pausing before each glyph. It approached me, a big blue oval now pouring out of its head, a silver pane appearing within. Two graphics appeared near the area that was considered its face: a picture of a pane and a hand, and the beam bouncing off of the pane.

My purpose was to bounce this light, so I did. I shot it into a green glyph, basking in my achievement before the robot came to beep at me some more while the clouds began to blow around in the background. A bunch of transparent, green-edged hexagons popped up, obscuring the purple glyph. The robot’s obviously disapproving looks were tinted blue through the obstacle. “I meant the yellow one, asshole,” I imagined him tooting out as the graphics next to its head changed to show the yellow, eye-shaped glyph. I corrected my transgression, aiming at the yellow glyph by adjusting the pane. The green-edged hexagons vanished, yellow ones appearing in front of the blue glyph; dusk rolled back to reveal the sun and blue skies. The floaty bot happily bleep blooped as it moved over to a green pipe at the edge of the tower’s area.

The robot sucked up a bowl of dirt, doing the equivalent of an aerial saunter as it mosied over in front of me. It hovered expectantly in front of me, beckoning me to grab the grubby bowl, some pictures near its head to reinforce the duty. I attempted to outwit it by inaction. When that didn’t work, I picked up the bowl, the robot instantly spiraling back to its pipe to rummage for other things. I attempted to drop the bowl, but it hovered in place to spite me. The little robot returned with a seed, chirp, beep, whatever. You got the picture by now.

My purpose was now clear: it was my duty to place this seed in the bowl I was given. Such a duty was not wasted on me. I grabbed that seed and placed it into the bowl without so much as looking at the graphics that had appeared by my only friend’s head. It plopped in, the robot now implying that I had to grow it. I had been assigned as this tower’s guardian gardener, as decided by the fates and this little fucking noisy robot.

The robot had now become silent. I decided to lose myself in the plant I was now charged with, and to my surprise it had expressed, in the form of a graphic, that it desired something. I had come from a land where plants desired varying amounts of sun and water, but this plant had other needs: wind. “That’s weird,” I thought, “Not sure why a seedling would want to be blown.” I decided to help this budding plant become an adult, regardless of its strange fetishes.

I adjust the beam back to my original target: that stupid green swoosh that originally wasn’t “okay” to shoot at. I move the beam off the yellow glyph, which causes all these yellow hexagons that appeared in front of the blue one to vanish. I once again direct the beam to the green glyph. Hexagons reappeared where they originally had been the first time around, the wind began to blow as before. I had understood several times over at this point that each active glyph blocks clear access to another.

Something new occurred this time, though. Much like those weird stones in The Fifth Element, the thing I didn’t fully understand in my hand moved, ever so slightly. I had progressed in my career, heights unheard of: I was an accessory in the blowing of a vegetable. I had become a hooker at coma ward.

You wouldn’t believe the fucking nerve of this thing, though! This plant now got thirsty – thirsty, of all things! Now it demanded I make it rain, but not like a hooker at a coma ward. I turned around and the robot surprised the shit out of me. “BOOP BEEP??” it blerped as it passed through my corporeal self, violating the space I considered my own. “NO ONE FUCKING ASKED YOU!” I politely replied.

I moved the metal pane and jumped through the hoop, moving the beam from green to blue. More hexagon trading. Wind to light rain. Sprouting. Finished, right? WRONG. The damn plant had more damn demands! Now it wants clouds. CLOUDS. What backwards ass plant wants some clouds? Shade? I’ll give you some shade.

I move the beam from the blue glyph, dragging the beam over the robot and plant to no avail. After a few minutes of that I decided to do as I was told and shoot the purple glyph, fulfilling the cycle and my role as custodian gardener. I’ve done you proud, father.

The plant had evolved into a healthy bowl of grotesque vegan-food. Atypically “salad” and a far cry from the barren dirt bowl it had previously been. I’ll probably never understand why it desired cloud cover, or why my machine was driven by glyphs I had to shoot beams at, rather than a lever or buttons or something. I do know, though, that my journey had ended. I had saved the day, providing this plant with care that it needed for an unknown – probably inordinate – amount of time. The robot, who had be crowding my every goddamn step, booped at me, expressing its desire to become a receptacle for the plant. I grabbed a metal pane and beat it aside, cursing its ancestors before placing the plant into it’s overtly oval and blue head cavity. It was satisfied, and for some reason wanted me to take the plant back.

I took the plant as it directed me to place my life’s work in the corner, across from the green pipe it constantly plumbed for things to fill my time with. I did so, trying to throw the plant on the ground in protest while it dandily floated in place, hovering in front of the cloudy backdrop. “BLEEP,” the robot interjected, ruining my moment.

The robot had some sort of weird t-shaped part. I picked it up out of its head, thinking it was a reward, but I quickly realized it was another tool to do my fucking job. It was a beam splitter, which, when placed in front of a beam, split it at two 90 degree angles. The robot had fucked off during my examination of the object, but it returned, prodding me with another empty dirt bowl. I raised my hands up. “Look, I know where this is heading,” I said, “I’ve done my thing and I’ve helped you. I know I-”

“BLOOP, BLEEP?”

I let out a long, exasperated groan. I took the stupid fucking bowl out of his head. Oh, you’re getting a seed for me to plant again? How surprising! Bring it here then, you stupid fucker! Here it goes, oh, look – a plant. What’s this floppy one need? Windy and sunny? Sure, why not?! I split the beam, overcoming the simple puzzle and bouncing it around the hexagonal obstacles that appeared. It’s now windy and sunny, the tower’s weather reflecting my changes. The plant grows, not unlike the first one.

Thus far, I had done it four times. Seventeen more times and I will have finished the game, along with this narrative. Just imagine that I copy and pasted a bunch of times and changed some words around.

Now, make no mistake, though; Symphony of the Machine gets slightly harder in difficulty despite the repetition. You are given access to another pane and another t-shaped splitter, along with two things that alter the beam to blue, which is cold, and red, which is hot. Using the hot and cold modifiers makes extra hexagons show up that you have to avoid, but they always appear in the same place. If you set up your light path in just the right way, you can avoid all the hexagons that can appear and just slightly move panes and t-shapes to activate and deactivate glyphs as needed.

Presentation wise, I don’t think there’s much to complain about. The music was fitting. Graphically it was fine, and the weather effects were actually pretty good, but there is a minimal amount of content here with very limited replayability. There are only seven plants in the game, with three stages each. After that, you unlock sandbox mode, where you can use the maximum amount of parts (three each, and one of the fire and ice modifiers) and solve all the plants you’ve already completed with no variation in difficulty. This is problematic, considering the high bar to play this game on PC and the distinct lack of replayability for a $20 game.

I think adjustments could be made. Considering all variation is tied to what glyphs are required for the puzzle and where hexagons show up, I figure a randomized mode could really make things difficult, or at least just more puzzles. The included content isn’t even difficult, so the trip is abnormally short. The only thing I didn’t accomplish in about 30 minutes of play time was experience every type of weather, at least according to the achievements.

Now, I’m not saying no one would enjoy a sort of causal laser puzzle game, but there’s already competition in this genre in VR, and I’m not sure if what Symphony of the Machine offers is more deserving of your time than those similar games considering its shortcomings.

 

Deer God, The (PSVita) Review

Developer: Crescent Moon Games/Blowfish Studios | Publisher: Level 77 || Overall: 4.0

Gods come in all shapes and sizes. Humanity’s search for a higher power has led them through several representations of godly beings. Whether some be literal god beasts that are as fearsome as they are mighty, or a more humanized expression that wields similar power in the same feet, hands and body that we are familiar with, our search for the answers that the universe fails to provide us have come to the conclusion that some higher power exists somewhere and in some place. With this in mind I present to you Zoamelgustar. He is the Monster Lord of some unspecified dark dimension and some unspecified domain that only ask for zealous devotion and the occasional live sacrifice from his followers. In exchange, he offers you his divine protection from errant demon lords. Act now and he’ll even throw in a spiffy looking talisman!~

Most people wouldn’t waste a whole paragraph to set up a reference to some 20+ year old anime. I am not most people.

Karma comes around full circle in The Deer God. With nature as your enemy and with all the powers of a magical deer at your disposal, publisher Level 77 and developer Crescent Moon Games is set to bring the unlikely tale of a hunter turned deer from the PC to your PlayStation Vita. With a haunting backdrop and a procedurally generated level design, does this platformer have what it takes to survive in the harsh wilderness of the PS Vita’s dying market?

No… No, it does not.

Sorry to disperse all the mystery so early, but to be honest, I didn’t quite enjoy my time with The Deer God. While the game seems to be a tribute to nature, the Kickstarter inspired by childhood memories of playing in the woods, it works better as tribute to those memories than a video game. The Deer God is marred by a series of unfortunate gameplay elements and some glitches that make the game frustrating to play. It’s a shame that such earnest inspiration can be brought down by poor gameplay decisions and bad programming.

While enchanting at first, the procedurally generated levels quickly lose their charm once the patterns become noticeable. It is only a matter of time before scaling the same cliff, jumping over the same pitfalls and encountering the same landmarks becomes as monotonous as my use of the word “same” in this sentence. This sense of monotony is only further instilled by the predictable patterns of the artificial intelligence. Each enemy is programmed with a strict set of patterns. While they are sometimes fun to exploit, having forced a few to jump to their own deaths, they quickly become another part of the repetitious nature of the overall game, and sometimes even ruin the game’s climactic moments. By chance, I managed to trap a boss underneath a tree branch because their AI wasn’t programmed to handle it.

Among animals like cougars, foxes and bears, other common wildlife like ghosts, zombies and witches attempt to stop you.

Unfortunately, the main quest line doesn’t do much to help offset the gameplay. While the story sets you off on a grand adventure to redeem yourself and reclaim your human body, the actual steps to doing so are pretty bland. Featuring a series of fetch quest, simple puzzles and even simpler bosses, it’s a saving grace that most of them can be done quickly; the few that take longer to complete are more of an annoyance because they require you to find a specific place among a repeating set of level designs. It’s hardly fun to run through the same environments looking for a particular spot you may have missed.

Furthermore, a few other design choices proved more of a detriment to the gameplay than a benefit. While the foreground and background designs helped make the world pop on your screen, several times the foreground would obstruct an important item, conceal a ledge or hide a dangerous enemy. I lost count of how many times I failed to find an item because it was behind a bush, and found even more frustration when a jump was made all the more difficult because the ledge was hidden behind a tree or an enemy jumped out of seemingly nowhere.

Now imagine if that ledge also had a tree in front of it…

Even without considering the design choices, the game itself has its fair share of glitches. Among graphical bugs like the highly-apparent screen tearing and the occasional stutter, there were also moments that I would die in a pit only to spawn over it again to immediately succumb to the same fate. There were also moments when my character would inexplicably be teleported to a different spot on the screen without the use of the accompanying power. Though, chief among all of these offenders was a bug where food would be invisible in certain environments, which is an important resource to gather.

Part platformer and part survival game, The Deer God has a food meter that must be constantly refilled. If ignored for too long, it begins to slowly drain away at the player’s health until the sweet embrace of death forces the player to restart their life as a fawn. The problem here is that such an essential item is sometimes invisible on some terrain. Mainly in the desert and forest designs, I would find long stretches of land without any food. Death became a common occurrence only to later accidentally press down on the control pad and eat seemingly nothing on the screen. Trial and error later, I found out that the food was there but it was far beyond the capabilities of what my naked eye could perceive. While not exactly game breaking, it was hardly fun to constantly press down in the hopes of finding some invisible pixels.

Oddly enough, caves were just teeming with food.

Among the things that The Deer God does well, the graphics do stand out. Beautiful pixelation brings the characters and environments to life, and the inclusion of various visual elements like good lighting, various weather effects, background and foreground environments give the graphics more presence than is thought possible on the Vita’s small screen. The soundtrack is also a pleasant experience. It is filled with hauntingly beautiful sound effects that wouldn’t be out of place in any forest. Though despite these achievements, they do little to detract from the rest of the game’s monotonous and glitched-filled experience.

No snide or sarcastic remarks here. This game does great things with its pixels.

The Deer God is hard to recommend. If beautiful graphics and a well-done soundtrack are enough to distract you from monotonous gameplay, the game might be worth a look. Though, if you are looking for something with more substance, chances are The Deer God will disappoint. It’s unfortunate that bad gameplay decisions and glitches never allowed this clumsy fawn to mature into a majestic stag.

When making up for past misdeeds as Unnamedhero, Eduardo Luquin can be reached at Unnamedheromk13@gmail.com.

 

 

Forts (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: EarthWork Games | Overall: 8.0/10

Forts is described as a “physics-based RTS where foes design and build custom bases.”  Think what happens when you mash Angry Birds with Worms and you’ll get the idea of what Forts actually is.   While there is custom base building, it doesn’t inspire much imagination, and ends up being a means to an end rather than going all Minecraft on it.  Satisfying wins, weaponry, and the humorous single player story make this title a recommendable choice to play.

To cut to the chase, I enjoyed what I played of Forts.  While it isn’t that expansive in terms of number of weapons, the style of combat and the race to upgrade is actually quite a unique blend from this perspective.  The physics are very goofy when you have to deal with them on your side, but are quite entertaining when your enemy’s base is exploding.  Though there isn’t a huge variety, the weapons all feel like they have a purpose, have their own powerful upgrades and base design actually affects how they operate.

Unfortunately the biggest standout is that base design is a clunky mess.  It is very hard to expand your base, and there’s not much to help you with understanding how you should and shouldn’t build.  Your expansions can only attach to ground that is classified as “Foundation,” of which there is very little of.  Otherwise, everything else will be hanging off your previous expansions and if you get too risky, things will break off or in the most catastrophic moments, take other pieces of your base with it.  This obviously is meant to reward the better base-builder since both sides will be rushing to build a better base to destroy the others, but it can be frustrating when you don’t know how else you are supposed to build.

The ultimate goal of battles is to destroy your opponent’s Reactor.  The Reactor is located in different places in the base, but is usually in a protected location.  It is also your objective to defend yours until you destroy the enemy’s.  Most of the single player levels challenge you to think of different ways to build your base/weaponry/etc to defeat the AI before they kill you.  The AI seems competent enough on Normal and can still be a worthwhile challenge.  There are also Easy and Hard modes, if you are looking to tune the difficulty a bit.  Other than Single Player, you can play in Skirmish or Sandbox modes.  Skirmish is essentially an easy way to play a 1-on-1 fight against the AI on a chosen map.  Sandbox mode is essentially a “practice” mode where you can build as much as you like and control both players.  Forts also seems like it would be built for multiplayer, as the game is a competition between two sides.  While multiplayer can be fun, it is mostly hit or miss.

The way to join a game is through a Lobby system, rather than matchmaking.  Teams are set, people chat, and then everyone has to ready-up in the Lobby.  This would be fine as an additional mode if there were a lot of options to consider or modify, but the only impactful factor here is in the map selection.  It seems like the game would benefit immensely from matchmaking as its default to join a game and there would be less downtime in trying to find and join a game, with a benefit of randomizing the map.  There are quite a few different maps, with some that require unique tactics.  All of these maps are available through Skirmish and Sandbox modes as well.

With that said, there are other issues with the way the Lobby system technically works.  People may forget to Ready up fast enough delaying the pace of getting into a game.  If someone disconnects, everyone is kicked back to the lobby without warning, and anyone can pause the game without notifying who is doing the pausing.  If one player quits after pausing, then all players get kicked to the lobby.  Even though there are no stats or any sort of meta game to worry about, people who don’t like losing would probably just quit before letting it play out and it spoils the experience for the other people playing.  Joining a lobby game is also hard because if you don’t connect you just get booted back to the server list with no explanation and you may still see the game you tried to join in the server list.  There also doesn’t seem to be a “random” map option, and the couple of times I tried adding an AI player they just didn’t do anything.  I played a couple of multiplayer matches with Unnamedhero, and while he hadn’t been through the single player mode at all, he began to pick up on a few of the mechanics pretty quickly after a couple of matches.  While the tactics and buildings are generally simple, when you are in an arms race against other players, the mastery of all of the mechanics will make for the ultimate challenge within the confines of this title.

The art and music are generally pleasing, and the sound effects are satisfying, especially when your enemy’s reactor explodes.  The single player mode has some very relevant political/war humor; very tongue-in-cheek.  For example, a reference to “Facts News” is an obvious play on “Fox News” and a biting commentary on the network itself.  Too bad Bill O’Reilly wasn’t a playable character.  Or would it be Phil O’Rightly?  I don’t know.  It probably would have been more fun to have more parodies of political/historical figures but instead we got generic commanders and other characters instead.

Forts is pretty recommendable to anyone who enjoys Worms/Angry Birds or are intrigued by a genre mash-up between the two.  I would not recommend the game to leg fetishists, though.  There are not a lot of legs in the game.  But, there are explosions.  Conciliatory prize to leg fetishists looking for a game?  I Report, You Decide.

 

Death Squared (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: SMG Studio | Overall: 9.0/10

It’s not often that wonderful little games blow my fucking mind.  Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Death Squared really surprised me.  A smartly designed, 3D puzzler with enough content and accessibility to stay enjoyable for a long time is exactly what you’ll get with this title.  There are 80 levels for single/co-op play, and not only that, you can play with up to four people in another 40 levels, and even further, there are “experimental” levels that unlock after defeating the Story Mode.

The basic puzzle idea is to place your colored box on the like-colored circle.  Red Box goes on red circle, Blue Box goes on blue circle, etc.  Along the way, more mechanics will be introduced that will create fun challenges that actually make you feel smart when you solve them, such as switches, moving platforms, colored lasers, movable boxes, and other elements.  The 3D nature of the puzzles also gives an interesting perspective as you move along all three axes to get to your goal.

While some levels are harder than others, you’ll inevitably get stuck trying to figure out exactly what you are supposed to do on a puzzle.  You have to respect the process and order in which you do things; if you get too far ahead of yourself, you may just fail — or you might actually figure out the right way to do something.  What is so fun about Death Squared is that sometimes there are multiple paths to victory, or the order of events isn’t so obvious or linear which means you’ll have to experiment.

The game is primarily designed for co-op, but can be played as single player in both the Story and Party modes.  What is also neat is that you can control all players with one controller if you are playing solo in either mode.  In Story Mode, the Blue Box can be controlled with the left stick and the Red Box with the right stick.  Being able to play as 2+ players simultaneously without having to “switch controllers” or press a button to take over the other “player” gives the game a much higher fluidity and frees up the puzzles to anticipate two or more players being able to coordinate with each other at the same time.  In Party Mode, you’ll have to hold down the left or right trigger while using the corresponding stick to take control of the Green Box and Yellow Box.  Once you are in solo command of four boxes, the puzzles could get overwhelming if you don’t plan out every step very carefully — it is already a challenge being responsible for two at the same time, let alone four.

Death is also inevitable, and you’ll be falling off, getting zapped, blowing up, and maybe even flying into the air as you fail the puzzles.  Each death adds one to the death counter which appears in the right-hand corner every time you die.  The story is a humorous foil that strings all of the puzzles together, and you’ll hear bantering voice overs at the beginning of each stage between the AI assistant Iris and human tester David.  Their goal is to test the “AI” (which you control) to see how far it gets and for what purpose they will ultimately serve in the real world.   The jokes fall flat sometimes, but generally it lightens up the atmosphere and David will chime in with some lines as you keep failing over and over.  Replay value is also there as each level records your death count, time spent, and some even have “secrets” to find.

So, with as much praise as I have for the game, why doesn’t it just earn a straight 10?  It’s nearly a perfect game in most aspects, but there are a couple of things that bring it down in my opinion. The substantive criticism is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety.  Yes, the puzzles are wonderfully designed and I really enjoy what is in here… however, there are a lot of levels and by the time you’re on the 40th it can begin to feel a little too samey, and you’ll want to take a break and play another time.  I got to about level 60 before really wanting to have something that breaks up the formula more, but alas I’ve died nearly 500 times already, so I’m still more or less motivated to keep at it.

Now for the nitpicky criticism: I primarily played with an Xbox 360 controller, but the controls can be a bit non-intuitive — sometimes I accidentally moved the left stick when I wanted to actually move the right stick; the controls were fucking with my brain a bit.  Other than the “eyes” on the front of the box saying they are activated, there’s no outright indicator, such as the light on top of each box’s head that you are “now moving Blue Box” or whatever.  Sometimes it’s too late before you notice, which can be needlessly frustrating; it doesn’t necessarily feel like that is “part of the difficulty” here since a large purpose of the game is to be co-operative.  This is easily alleviated by actually having a friend to play with, of course, but I don’t usually have the luxury of asking my housemate to help me play a game since he’s apparently too busy fucking his ex-girlfriend while posting shit on his current girlfriend’s Facebook wall.  And the other one is an 80 year old man who lives in a literal pile of trash.  But I digress!

Art, music, and sound design are also worth noting here.  The art is pretty minimalist, but the boxes have quite a bit of charm to them despite being, well, boxes.  The obstacles and other elements aren’t too exciting otherwise, though.  Music is great, as it would be stuff I’d probably listen to in my spare time.  The voice acting is also pretty good — they actually hired a voice actor named Ricepirate, whom I’ve never heard of, but sounds like a guy I listen to on NPR on my way to my big boy job everyday.  This signifies that effort was put in to make it not sound like its just some guy working for the developer already, and went a long way in joke delivery.

Perhaps Death Squared’s real lesson is to surround yourself with people you can play video games with.  Death Squared is accessible enough that you’d probably even want to play with your very own Trash Man. Even with your Imaginary Friend(s), Death Squared is a lot of fun, so try it out!

 

FZ9: Timeshift (iOS) Review

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

When it comes to games, there are few things that make me physically cringe just thinking about.  Genres sometimes just don’t belong on the platform they try to be on, first person shooters possibly being the #1 example of what not to play on your phone or tablet.  The thought of analog controls on a touch screen, and being forced to be accurate in your shots is not an appealing thought in my head.  There would probably be a hundred other things I’d rather do, including writing an article lambasting the very thought of having to bother with it.

Here’s the thing with FZ9: Timeshift.  It isn’t terrible.  In fact, it’s playable, and possibly even enjoyable to people with my mindset going into it!  The gameplay hook of having everything in bullet time alleviates the typical frantic pace you would expect from first person shooters and gives you time to adjust and compensate due to the awful control method.  The worst things about the game aren’t even the gameplay itself, but the same old tired restrictions you typically see in a free to play game: two different types of currencies, one being a premium currency, and a time-based Energy “recharge” that allows you to continue playing until you have no more to spend.  There’s also grinding endlessly for “Battle Points” and “Experience Points” to get further in the game, and while you get something of a progression effect for your efforts in doing so, it feels obnoxiously gated.

Of course, these things come with the territory when you commit to a free to play game, I guess.  There has to be a revenue stream somehow.  The restrictions don’t seem too tight, since every couple hours you’ll be back to full speed and able to play for about 15 to 20 minutes or so.  Depending on your lifestyle this may be just fine for you.  For me personally, it breaks up the kinds of games I normally play on my phone, which are almost exclusively in the puzzle genre.

What is really lacking here is a specific hook to make you want to come back and keep playing.  The story is pretty awful on the outset, so that’s not really a motivating factor.  The designs of the missions are essentially on-rails (you move freely, but no exploration is involved, and you move down corridors), so they don’t offer much in different outcomes or things to do.  The missions get a little bit more interesting once you hit Chapter 2, but any semblance of a story is thrown into the garbage.  The missions cost 1 Energy (out of your maximum 10) to play but would be pretty boring to grind, so you may as well just do the Cycle Mission, which costs 2 Energy.  The Cycle Mission is an assortment of challenges that you will randomly get assigned to and complete in pursuit of grinding Battle Points to unlock more talents.  Those missions are actually designed in a lot more fun way than the on-rails shooting the story mode forces you through.  The talents you unlock are linked to unlocking content, which become more challenging.  Once you complete Chapter 2, you’ll unlock a “PVP” mode in which you’ll try to beat another player by completing one of the solo missions faster than they can.  While it is more exciting to play through the solo missions in this way, it costs more Energy, too.

The music is intense as fuck.  During some levels, it weaves in and out between “level music” and “battle music” which can be kind of annoying since you are constantly reengaging with enemies.  It doesn’t seem to happen all of the time, though, so it just seems to rely on how the level is designed.  I always have my phone on silent, so its not really something that mattered to me in the end.  The graphics are something from early PlayStation 2 days, if that — passable for a phone, but not the best you can see on the platform.  You also kill a lot of dogs, so if you like animals more than humans, maybe you should skip this title.  I suppose the dogs ARE trying to kill you, so maybe it won’t be that big of a deal.

If there’s enjoyment to be had out of this game, it is very limited.  While the bullet time aspect of the game makes a playable title for your phone, it doesn’t make it particularly fun or exciting.  There does seem to be quite a few chapters of single player mode, but again, the story is awful, and nothing is really making me want to come back for more of it or anything else.  But hey, it’s free.

 

Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch) First Impressions

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

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

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

The World is Your Oyster

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

Variety is the Spice of Life

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

Broken Beyond Repair

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

Prepare to Die

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

Everything Old is New Again

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

 

Loot Rascals (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Hollow Ponds || Overall: 8.0/10

Loot Rascals is one of the most unique-looking games you’ll ever see.  If for no other reason, play it just to see the art.  The other stuff is fine, but geez man… so much fun is to be had just by seeing all of the “Baddies” the developers at Hollow Ponds were able to think up.  Anyway, enough gushing about the art, I guess.  It’s what is underneath that should really count.  And what is underneath, is a turn-based roguelike loot card game.  There’s a bit to unpack there, but once you get the idea around the game, you’ll need a lot of luck and a bit of strategic-thinking to get far into it.

The story is very basic, but fun.  You are a space theme park employee on your way to make repairs, but what you find is that the planet is full of hostile creatures known as “Baddies” who have completely overtaken the planet-sized theme park.  It’s your job to rescue a machine known as “Big Barry” and after your first death, you will be introduced to a strange pink tentacle monster thing that has an interest in helping you save your friend.  Of course the real motivations are left to question, but that’s the set up for you to play in.  Sound design helps in the world building, including the funny sound effects the Baddies make.  The music is also pretty good, but unfortunately doesn’t feature a whole lot of variety.

Movement occurs in a real-time/turn-based environment.  While always being able to move freely, when you move to other hexagonal spaces on the map you’ll use up a turn, of which you have a limited amount before more annoying Baddies come around.  The turns are important to monitor because every five turns, the time will switch from day to night.  Depending on the Baddies that are around you, you will have to strategically plan out which are best attacked depending on what phase you are in.  If you attack a Baddie while it is your advantage, you will be able to attack first, the idea being that you kill them in one hit, or at least hope to take no damage when killing them.  If you don’t attack at the right time or get caught by a Baddie, you will not have the advantage and you will get attacked first — depending on your luck this may or may not have you meet your end.

Loot drops in the form of cards, of which you have ten open slots.  Loot cards are quite wide-ranging and unique, with different modifiers.  These modifiers can either help, hurt, or give you more flexibility, depending on how you place them on the board.  For example, a card may gain +2 Attack if it is the only one of its type, or if it is placed on an even slot it will add +1 to the card below.  Combining a repertoire of cards together creates a complexity that is fun to mess around with.  Any extra cards can be decompiled for Tokens, which can be used to heal or are spent for other abilities.

Your strategy in moving, attacking, and defending is going to be your greatest help here.  When you advance to the higher levels, drops will become more powerful, and you will presumably be building up the availability of spells and replacing less useful cards.  This progression is satisfying as long as it lasts, but when you die all of your cards will disappear, with a few being “stolen” by Baddies.  These cards will appear in other player’s games, and you may have them returned to you via an in-game mail system.  The same will happen with other player’s cards in your game, and you can choose to use them or return them.  This asynchronous multiplayer aspect to the game has the goal of limiting the slog of trying to progress, since you will be starting from scratch over and over otherwise.  Unfortunately, the “other player’s cards” thing doesn’t seem to be pop-up very much, since presumably people would have to play the game a lot for the cards to populate out in the wild.  But, there is no transparency in regards to any of those stats so who knows what is actually happening behind the scenes.  Other than that, you may just get lucky enough to get the right loadout and get pretty far, but the Baddies scale up pretty fast.  There are also “Card Rockets” that you may find that allow you to sacrifice a card so that you can use it the next time you die, but those are far from assured to find.

Loot Rascals is a fun game, but the roguelike experience can be a bit lacking.  There isn’t that much personal advancement or unlocking to be had.  Your play experience will change depending on the loot drops, but after a couple of hours you’ll probably have seen most of what the title has to offer.  It can be a challenge getting through all of the levels, though.  You can “continue your progress” by saving your current deck as a “Practice Deck” for later use.  Starting a Practice Game will allow you to use your previously saved deck to continue on in advancing through the areas you have yet to visit, but there seems to be little difference in a Practice Game versus a normal game other than having a deck available.  Since the levels are all randomized you’ll see a different map every time.  A Daily Challenge is also available that is mostly only for bragging rights.  And again, since there is no overall progression in the game that influences you to play the Daily Challenge or even a normal game (why not just keep playing Practice Game?), it doesn’t seem like its worth doing.

Recommending Loot Rascals is pretty easy to do, and I had fun while I played.  Content seems to be the biggest gripe in this game, and there isn’t much to work towards that a roguelike typically would include.  No meta game really hurts the title from being something more.  However, being sufficiently weird and humorous is probably worth the ticket price depending on your personality.  I can see myself returning to Loot Rascals once in a while just to see how far I can get.

 

Bear With Me: Episode 2 (PC) Review

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

Click here for the Bear With Me: Episode One review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for the Bear With Me: Episode 3 review.

 

Phoning Home (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoning Home is available now on Steam.

 

Siegecraft Commander (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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