Branching Paths (2016) Review

branchingpaths

Branching Paths (2016), directed by Anne Ferrero

Production Company: Assemblage | Length: 83 min || Rating: 9/10

Branching Paths is a documentary that follows the director’s in-depth examination of the Japanese indie game scene.  Throughout the documentary, which spans over the course of 2013 to 2015, you’ll see just how diverse it really is; all sorts of different people are introduced in Branching Paths.  Of course most are of Japanese nationality, but there is a swath of internationalism that makes its way into the documentary, with westerners creating a foothold in Japan and becoming part of the diverse fabric that makes up the Japanese indie game scene.

The director takes a low-key narrating role when needed.  Much of the narrative is pushed by the interviews and text that pops up on the screen saying what event we are at and what the purpose of it is.  A series of indie game events occur in Japan during the time span of the documentary, and we revisit the same events in different years, which shows the subtle changes, recurring faces and recurring games to see their progress.  Games we are introduced to pop-up throughout the different events: Million Onion Hotel, Downwell, and TorqueL among others.

Much of the interviews focus on the culture and market of Japan as a whole and how North America is the biggest market for their indie games despite developing them in Japan.  Because the PC game market in Japan is so small, it is important for developers to make their games available on mobile or consoles, whereas to appeal to the North American market they almost always need to be on PC.  Many games are crowdsourced or find their success in the North American market before being able to become successful in Japan.  We also see the progression of the promotion of indie games by big publishers such as Sony and Microsoft, carving out spaces at the Tokyo Game Show, and creating an event just for indies in the form of BitSummit.

Interviews with higher profile Japanese indie developers such as Keiji Inafune of Mighty No. 9, Lucas Pope of Papers Please, Dylan Cuthbert of Pixel Junk (Q-Games), and IGA of Castlevania fame also make their way into the documentary.  It is interesting to learn a little bit about the similarities between indie developers no matter their origins.  There are many other lesser-known/locally known people who add to the composition of the documentary.  A segment of the documentary also explores the blurring of the lines between traditional “doujin” (self-published) media like comic books and the indie game market.

We don’t really get to know much about the director herself other than she was born in France, and grew up on Japanese games.  It would have been nice to learn a little more about the director during the first part of the movie, but it was obvious they didn’t want to lose focus from what the actual subject of the documentary was.  The director is possibly on screen one or two times but her personal journey feels more like a disembodied journey as a result.  She narrates two or three times and the last part of the documentary she doesn’t make any other narrations.  The quality of the cinematography is quite good, and I was only frazzled by a couple of weird shots they kept re-using, such as focusing in on a person’s top half of their head and not seeing their mouth, or people’s fingers.  B-roll like this probably could have been better replaced by more video about that developer’s game or something.

Another thing to note about Branching Paths, is that it is subtitled about 90% of the time.  The documentary is interestingly multilingual as you’ll see most interviews in Japanese, a few interviews in English, and the bits of narration done in French.  If you aren’t a fan of subtitles, it might not be for you, but you’d have to be gifted in language to enjoy this without subtitles.  It would have also been nice if the documentary spaced out interviews a bit at times so as to not have to read subtitles while also having to read titling about events/dates.

Branching Paths is an interesting look into a niche market in the overall gaming industry.  A lot of focus has been put on indie gaming and mobile gaming in the past few years, and focusing on this area is a unique subject.  Most of what is learned in this documentary may be more interesting for people who aren’t particularly sensitive to the nuances of gaming culture/markets, but even I learned a few things from this documentary.  It held my interest throughout and didn’t really drag at any point.  Branching Paths is available on Steam for $9.99.

A trailer for the documentary can be seen below:

 

Huntsman: Winter’s Curse (PS4) Review

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

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

As inevitable as me mentioning Thor in this article.

As inevitable as me mentioning Thor in this article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Livelock (PC) Review

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

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

terminator-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “variety of things” I talked about.

The “variety of things” I talked about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nebulous (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Namazu Studios || Overall: 7.5

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

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

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

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

 Okay, sometimes it can be easy.

Okay, sometimes it can be easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heart&Slash (PC) Review

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

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

Social Security Benefits claim form

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

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

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

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

The game is fair… I promise…

The game is fair… I promise…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tom vs. The Armies of Hell (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bear With Me (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Exordium Games || Overall: 7.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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