X-Morph: Defense (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows (PC) Review

Developer: Witching Hour Studios | Publisher: Ysbryd Games || Overall: 8.5/10

One thing I’ve always had an interest in was creating lore from scratch.  I’ve got a couple of projects that I’ve worked on but never got too far in fully fleshing them out into a self-sustaining, interconnected, and intellectually interesting universe.  Masquerada: Songs and Shadows accomplishes this feat while telling an entertaining story and even some gameplay to boot.  While its hard to make all the connections to this and that unless you really pay attention, the developers at Witching Hour Studios really did an amazing job in crossing their Contadini’s and dotting their Regenti’s.  Oh, excuse me, I meant T’s and I’s; sometimes its easier to just make up words and hope you remember what they mean.

The immediate takeaway of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is that it is uniquely themed.  The buildings, words, and the way people dress are considered “Venetian” — to better put it into context, think 17th century Europe.  All of the terms, people’s names, and frankly just about everything is finely crafted in giving this “Venetian” feel.  This is in spite of the game taking place in a fictitious country named Ombre, and obviously not taking place in “Earth’s history” either.  The centerpiece of the lore is the magical masks, called Mascherines, and how their use brings out magical powers that its user would otherwise not be able to have.  From this simple concept grows the impressively detailed political situation of the country of Ombre, with upwards of twenty different factions, groups, organizations, and government entities, all vying for power in the world… and a place in your brain.

In fact, the game is so lore rich that I’ve spent what feels like half of the game time reading rather than playing.  This can be fine to a point, and it is definitely “optional” but if you want the full experience of the narrative, its necessary to take a 10-15 minute break every time a bunch of new lore entries open up in the Codex.  As the story progresses, you’ll unlock one of the grayed out squares in non-sequential order (they are also ordered by categories), and since there are made up names for just about everything and it can be hard to keep track of it all; it’s going to test your patience.  One Codex entry opened up about the relationship between the main character and a good friend of his, and it was probably about two pages worth alone; I didn’t care that much and I just said fuck it!  Sometimes it’s a huge pain to break up the gameplay flow to take these “lore breaks” and is the one obvious flaw of this title.

Obviously, there’s no way they could have included most of what is in the Codex into the actual game, since most of it has to do with everything other than what is immediately going on.  It would have been nice to have been able to experience as side stories or extra quests or something more involved like that.  By my fifth hour, the game felt exclusively just reading/watching an interactive story.  Not to mention, they hide many of the core lore entries on the map and you have to find them by exploring a little bit; this means you can potentially miss them.  The business of the story delivery is cumbersome, but the story is interesting, so I can give them a pass up to a point.  They made up so many fucking terms it’s like I’m reading a different language and its hard not to glaze over terms if you’ve forgotten their meaning.  In the end, the effort on their part and your part go hand in hand.  If you skip over the lore, you are doing yourself a disservice in playing the game.  But it would have been nice if they gave us a Venetian diagram (get it?) or a geographical map at least.

So I’ve talked about the story up until now, and while it is the center feature of this title, there is a battle system.  I would quantify the battle system as “light” — there is no experience grinding and skill points unlock after certain story events.  The talent system is varied enough where you can make different builds or choose different elements (fire, air, water, or earth) for your main character.  You can also set up tactics for your AI teammates, or take direct control of them if you so choose.  The battling takes place mostly with melee attacks and elemental-themed spells.  A group of three or four enemies will spawn and then you just try to kill them before they kill you.  Healing is mostly passive, and attached to other spells that go off, so it isn’t a mechanic that requires a lot of attention.  If an AI teammate falls in battle, you can revive them Call-of-Duty-style by hovering over their body and pressing a button.

Presumably you would replay the game with different builds if you wanted to experience the different intricacies of this battle system, but I can’t say I would personally be interested.  The battles aren’t really that hard on Normal — there is a difficulty slider including “Story,” “Normal,” and “Hard.”  I don’t know why anyone would really want to waste time potentially wiping with a Hard difficulty considering the only reward the game has to offer is more story.  There is no character progression or gameplay elements that motivate you to do well in the battle you just fought or take on a harder challenge for that matter.  Only a few encounters demand elevated knowledge of the battle system and tactics, which is unfortunate.  There’s also not a whole lot of exploration involved; you are basically going down corridors and running around in circles to make sure you pick up any codex entries before you move on to the next area.  Since the story is so heavily scripted I can appreciate that it would be hard to allow freedom of discovery, but nonetheless the beautiful art, music, and professional voice work try to paper over any of these particular faults.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows will hit the “story RPG” itch you might be yearning for.  With its unique Venetian theme, there’s not much that can really compare.  Being overwhelmed with lore words aside, the experience is not as daunting as I may have made it sound like, and while particular points kind of grate my soul, presentation-wise with the Codex entries, I am still well entertained.  Considering the story gets more and more interesting, it’s hard to not want to see the adventure through.  There is also a recently released New Game+ mode that actually adds more content, so you can think of it as a “director’s cut” of sorts with expanded features, dialogue lines, and a couple more boss encounters.

 

Bowling in Culture

Bowling is a sport that consists of throwing a heavy ball down a long impasse, called an alley, toward bowling pins.  There are a few different types of bowling, which vary in how many bowling pins are in place.  Ten-pin bowling, which is prevalent in the United States, consists of ten pins.  Ten-pin bowling evolved from Nine-pin bowling which is played in Europe.  Ten-pin bowling, however, is played around the world in championships and other amateur activities, making it the more common form of bowling around the world.

The origins of bowling can be traced back to places like Finland, Yemen, Germany, Egypt, and India (Tenpinbowling). Popularization came during the feudalism era in England, where there are records of King Edward III restricted his soldiers from playing bowling in favor of working on their archery skills instead (Tenpinbowling).  As bowling became more popular, it spread to the other countries of Europe, and propagated into the rest of the countries where the game is played today.  Variations of bowling play with the concept of how many pins are to be knocked down, or modifications to the score sheet.  (Wikipedia)

Bowling also takes place in other parts of our culture, like film and television.  Movies like The Big Lebowski and Kingpin incorporate the sport into its story, but in different ways (Findarticles).  The Big Lebowski portrays the game as an aside, more like a hobby that characters share in common while events greater than themselves are happening around them.  Kingpin is all about the game itself and the competition involved in it.  The bowling ball is infamous for its weight, and is featured as a “weapon” in Mystery Men.  The Hanna-Barbera cartoon “The Flintstones” also featured many occurrences where the main characters of the show would be bowling at various times during the series.

Even though bowling may not be a defining piece of world culture, it is one of the underlying aspects that create it.  Bowling is a sport that many people can get involved in, whether it be for professional league play or just hanging out with friends during a session of Nitro Bowling.

             Works Cited

“The Game History.” Tenpinbowling.org. November 4, 2007. http://www.tenpinbowling.org/view.php?page=the_game.history

“Bowling.”  Wikipedia.org.  November 4, 2007.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling

“Our List of the Best, uh, Top … Well Here Are Some Bowling Movies – Brief Article.”  Findarticles.com.  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FCK/is_1_19/ai_71821872

 

FAQ About Australia

These are from potential visitors to Australia. They were posted on an Australian Tourism Website and the answers are the actual responses by the website officials, who obviously have a snide sense of humor.

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, so how do the plants grow? (UK).
A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (USA)
A: Depends how much you’ve been drinking.

Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney – can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)
A: Sure, it’s only three thousand miles, take lots of water.

Q: Is it safe to run around in the bushes in Australia? (Sweden)
A: So it’s true what they say about Swedes.

Q: Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in Australia? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane, Cairns, Townsville and Hervey Bay? (UK)
A: What did your last slave die of?

Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)
A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not… oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Q: Which direction is North in Australia? (USA)
A: Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we’ll send the rest of the directions.

Q: Can I bring cutlery into Australia? (UK)
A: Why? Just use your fingers like we do.

Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys’ Choir schedule? (USA)
A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is…oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the hippo races. Come naked.

Q: Can I wear high heels in Australia? (UK)
A: You are a British politician, right?

Q: Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? (Germany)
A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers. Milk is illegal.

Q: Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)
A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca which is where YOU come from. All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets, especially The Taipans.

Q: I have a question about a famous animal in Australia, but I forget its name. It’s a kind of bear and lives in trees. (USA)
A: It’s called a Drop Bear. They are so called because they drop out of gum trees and eat the brains of anyone walking underneath them. You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.

 

Dave’s Notes: Millions of Cats

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Dave's Notes

So there was this old crazy man and an equally old and crazy woman who lived together but weren’t married.  Friends with benefits, let’s call it.

Unfortunately, they got screwed by social security because of their marital status and were miserable all the time.  They were also terrible company to each other because they both had terrible personalities.

So, the woman tells the man she is lonely and wants a cat.  What that actually means is she wants to fuck other 120 year old men.  She was into older guys.

So, since the old man didn’t want to lose the only vadge he’s ever had the opportunity to service, he went on a long trek to the pet store to get a cat…or a million cats.  Did I mention he was nuts?

So he got to the pet store and the pet store said the only place that has a million cats is Cat Hill.  It was a refugee camp for cats that had been created by the Croation government in Southern California.

So the old man goes to Cat Hill and, since he can’t see very well, thinks every cat is as pretty as the next.  He can’t pick just one, so he becomes a Moses for kitties and leads them to the promised land of Van Nuys, CA, back to his apartment.

Along the way, the cats, like a plague, drank up whole water reservoirs and ate all the grass that managed to grow in the SoCal desert.

When he got back home, Jerry, the next door neighbor climbed out the window just before he came.

In her sexy nighty, the old woman was seemingly unsurprised that the old man would bring a million cats back with him.  Did I mention he was nuts?

So, the lady said they could only keep one because housing refugees doesn’t get any tax breaks.  So, the old man asked the cats (did I mention he was nuts?) which one was prettiest.

After some civil deliberation, a white cat shot a black cat and everyone started eating each other.  They were hungry, after all.  So the old man and woman went inside the house and didn’t watch the slaughter taking place in front of their apartment — they opted for a different type of slaughter:  A Raider’s football game.  Then they watched Fraiser, cause they’re old.

When they came back outside, the only cat left alive was a small, thin, and scraggly kitten.

So, they took in the cat and kept it.  Little did they know, the cat was a mastermind feline felon (get it?) that had planned the genocide of his cat brethren without being tried for a war crime.  So he lived with the old man and old woman until they died (read: got murdered by a cat) and then the cat inherited all of their shit, went back to Eastern Europe and resumed his tyrannical rule of Purrrrrrsia.

 

Joke #5243: Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

There was once an American man who took a long vacation to Europe, leaving his cat at home with a friend. About a month into the trip, he got a call from his friend telling him that his cat had died.

 

“WHAT?!?!” asked the vacationing man, shocked to hear the news. “I loved that cat! You can’t just call me and tell me that it died! You have to ease me into it. First maybe call and tell me that the cat’s on the roof. Then call again and tell me that the cat fell, but you’re doing everything you can to save it, and then tell me that the cat has died.”

 

The American agreed and the vacationer went on with his trip. About a month later, the vacationing man got another call from the American, saying simply, “Your mother’s on the roof.”