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.

 

Infinity Wars: Reborn (PC) Review

Developer: Lightmare Studios | Publisher: Lightmare Studios/Yodo1 Games || Overall: 8.0/10

Infinity Wars: Animated Trading Card Game is an online free-to-play game that has its roots in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign.  After being in Early Access since 2014, its official release at the end of 2016 is known as “Reborn.” Featuring a unique lore, an amalgamation of all sorts of different sci-fi and fantasy tropes and tons of interesting cards, Infinity Wars is an enjoyable experience even if you never play against another player.  Considering the subtitle, yes, every single card in the game is animated, of which there are hundreds available.  PC trading card games are not a usual go-to for me and Hearthstone is the only frame of reference I have to the genre.

The standout feature of Infinity Wars certainly comes with its art.  It is a lot of fun seeing all of the great (and some not so great) animated cards.  While many of the cards are simply characters breathing heavily and moving their shoulders up and down or things flailing in the wind, there are certainly many others that have a lot more going on.  Considering the amount of cards available, I spent a good two hours or so browsing through the collection that is offered, just to see it all.  While browsing the collection doesn’t sound enthralling, it felt worthwhile just to see the standouts and the unique vision that goes into the art direction.  Many cards have story text on top of them, giving you a glimpse into a specific piece of lore; figuring out how all of the bits work together in the larger narrative is also part of the fun.

There isn’t a whole lot of actual story to read through, but you eventually are able to piece things together as you are exposed to the different cards and the single player campaign.  The basic idea is that there are multiple dimensions and due to some event, portals open up and the inhabitants are now able to cross back and forth freely between different versions of the world.  The factions are all unique in some form, whether they are hypertechnological, nano-machine zombies, a magical death cult, or Asian-inspired monks, among others.  Most of the factions are at war with each other and have their own unique cultures/events that shaped their reaction towards what is happening with the portals.  Not everything is super serious, however, as there are humorous aspects and one faction in particular, called Genesis, can be a little crazy with the kinds of technology they produce.  There are a few important characters, but they are mostly self-contained in their own faction campaign.  Each of the worlds introduced have their own version of a character named “Aleta” who is immortal and has taken on extremely different roles depending on each of the dimensions; she usually takes a lead in the factions she is a part of.  There’s a bit more going on in the universe than just the portal event(s), but it’s an interesting set-up nonetheless.

The single player campaign will take you through the six different faction’s plight through the game’s scenario and the encounters they have.  While the game actually has eight factions at the moment, you’ll be able to play around with a few different configurations in the six that do have campaigns.  Up until the last mission for each faction you will play with pre-constructed decks and you’ll learn about the mechanics that are unique to that faction.  In the last mission you’ll be able to use a constructed or previously-earned deck to beat it and earn a set of cards for the faction you just completed for the campaign mode.  Since most of the campaign levels are pre-constructed, you basically have to figure out the “puzzle” that the encounter is posing and play correct enough to beat the AI.  It is essentially an elongated tutorial mode at the end of the day.

There are a few aspects of Infinity Wars that are noticeably different from my experience with Hearthstone.  For instance, nearly every card does something unique; it is rare to see a card that does “nothing.”  Both players take turns at the same time so you have to anticipate the moves that your enemy will or will not take and you are even able to undo your actions before you lock them in; spells will typically be cast first before character cards are placed, but initiative swaps between players on who’s spells go first.  While constructing your deck, you can have up to three cards assigned to a “Command Zone” which is useful mostly for Hero cards.  They can be put into battle at any time (as long as you can pay their cost) or you can pay for the card’s on-use ability to buff existing cards or do something to your enemy’s cards.  The Grave zone is also where all of your discards go, but due to a number of different mechanics you can pull cards out of it again.  If a card is completely removed from the game, the card usually says so and they aren’t put into the discard pile — they just go poof.

There are three zones to place your cards in during play that force you to tactically consider your options as you plan your turns: Support Zone, Assault Zone, and Defense Zone.  The Support Zone is a bit unique as it is used as a waiting room as well as an area to use cards that have on-use abilities.  Cards in the Support Zone can only be targeted with certain spells and are out of reach from anything in your Assault/Defense zones.  The Assault Zone will fight only against your enemy’s Defense Zone, and vice versa.  If you break through the defense, the opponent’s Health (aka Fortress) will incur damage, of which they have 100.  When character cards get killed, you will lose the Morale cost associated with the card, of which you also have 100 Morale.  While Health of your fortress is more straightforward, Morale offers an extra layer of strategy, whether it be defensive or offensive.  It is usually more effective to focus on one or the other since your opponent will be trying to do the same to you.

The “business” parts of Infinity Wars are a bit more open in comparison to Hearthstone.  Since Hearthstone‘s single player modes are always paid, it is nice to see the single player campaigns added to Infinity Wars are an incentive to play and learn the game.  Log-in bonuses are also awarded and increase for sequential log-ins per day.  There are also missions available that allow you to earn “Infinity Points” which can then be used to buy more cards.  The missions don’t stick around until you finish them, though, as they will reset everyday and a new set of three is given.  Free constructed decks that anyone can use are revised weekly to give a fairer base to work off of as you build your own collection.  These decks are mostly intended for player combat as you can only play against the AI so much.  It takes a couple of minutes to find an appropriate game, but once you are in it is a whole different level of difficulty as players are able to strategize much better (just like in almost any multiplayer mode) and bring uniquely constructed decks with them.

Unfortunately to get a true feel for the PVP aspect of this game, you’ll have to spend a lot of time researching what the best cards are and how to construct effective decks due to the complexity of how cards can potentially interact with one another.  A quick look at the community you’ll have to rely on shows a lot of griping about overpowered cards and the like.  For me, I was satisfied enough with the PVE challenges up to a point, but to be able to build out a respectable collection you’re going to have to grind points quite a bit.  On the plus side, every single card is available by way of playing and using in-game currency to purchase (even if it might take you a long time).  PVP matches can also take a little time to get going since the user base is smaller.  There are Constructed and Draft modes, and each come with the typical caveats you would expect if you have experience with the genre.

Audio isn’t particularly a standout here.  Music isn’t awful, but the variety feels lacking.  It would have been nice, for example, to have unique soundtracks for each faction as you play through the campaign.  Voice acting is also a bit amateurish, some bits of dialogue seem to have been skipped completely, and often times you’ll see typos across a variety of dialogue windows.  None of these things necessarily take away from the card game itself, and I can respect an indie game studio trying to get a diverse-sounding cast for all of the characters that have lines.  With that said, there is definitely room for improvement.

Infinity Wars: Reborn is an interesting trading card game that can help broaden your knowledge of the genre.  I found it to initially be easy to get into and understand and the complexity comes later as you hit up the more competitive modes.  Updates come on a regular basis, so if you decide to take a break or come back to it at a later time you’ll see something new you didn’t see before.  Infinity Wars: Reborn is available on Steam now.