ZIQ (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Deiland (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deiland is can be purchased on Steam.

 

City of the Shroud (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Slam Land (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Graveball (PC) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose the music is fine.

 

Dream Alone (PC) Review

Developer: WarSaw Games | Publisher: Fat Dog Games || Overall: 4.0/10

Note: This review was written before I went to get a sandwich.

Dream Alone is coined as an ultra difficult classic 2D platformer with a dark story.  While this is technically true, the difficulty doesn’t come from things being hard, it comes from being cheap.  Very cheap.  The kind of platformers that force you to die to figure out how to get through levels are the worst, and it becomes an exercise in patience more than anything else.  There’s nothing particularly difficult about what I played, it’s just annoying.

I try to give games a fair shake, but sometimes they’re just so bad, I don’t want to continue to torture myself.  I played the game for just under an hour, it wasn’t getting any better, so I stopped.  The real issue here isn’t necessarily the gameplay, or even the gothic art, which is kind of on the creepy/ugly side — I could deal with it.  The story was sort of nonsensical, but I didn’t really get very far to be able to judge it fairly.  The real issue this game has is the visual effect clutter — it is beyond bizarre.  Not only is the game very dark to begin with, using a black and white color scheme, the developers thought that it would also be a good idea to make the game look like it is from aged film stock off a projector, with a black frame blink every five seconds.  This is headache inducing, because it is hard to see what is going on; you have an overlay of a film grain/black lines, “projector” noise, and that fucking black frame blink that disorients your timing of jumps. This is supposed to be a video game in 2018, not a video game in 1910. I can’t tell what I’m looking at half of the time as a result, and often fell into a pit, or killed by something else, not being able to see it.  This forces you to actually memorize where things are rather than react to what you are seeing — this takes skill out of the equation completely, in my opinion.

The gameplay is technically pretty simple.  You jump, move stuff, jump some more, and also go into alternate realities to get past obstacles you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.  You get this alternate reality spell non-ceremoniously and this little manchild thing that you are controlling seems to master this ultradimensional ability with no issue.  He can also make clones of himself later (not that it makes much sense why) to be able to get past more complex puzzles/obstacles.  This is probably personal preference, but it would have been nice to have some sort of context for these strange abilities rather than just attaining them from a random potion bottle.  Otherwise, why not just have it from the beginning of the game?

When you die, there is a checkpoint system that is forgiving in that it doesn’t put you back to the beginning of the level.  The checkpoints seem to be right after harder obstacles, or just before a string of them.  I didn’t get too annoyed with having to repeat any particular puzzle after I had done it, but again, it was a lot of “learn from dying” which got stale real fast.  Dying 100 times in less than an hour of gameplay will do that.

There’s a few bugs in the game that are game breaking as well.  After the first level, another cut scene was supposed to play, but instead the game decided to crash in spectacular fashion, while it played the audio for the cutscene.  So that was a little creepy, I guess.  You can use a controller to play, but for some reason the menus don’t react to anything other than the analog stick, so to confirm anything you have to press the enter key on your keyboard — the “A” button doesn’t work.  Not sure what is up with that.  There was also a really annoying obstacle where if you fell into the swamp and were waiting to die, if the moving mountain thing touched you, you would be ejected out of the swamp.  You would then still be in the “dying animation” and can’t move, but since you don’t hit the bottom of the swamp, you don’t die.  So, you basically have to quit the game (can’t use the A button to select “Back to Main Menu”) and then start again from the beginning of the level.  This happened to me a few times and after the fifth or sixth time, I was done wasting my time.

To drill down more on the visual and audio aspects of the game, the art is technically satisfyingly creepy.  The little manchild that you control looks like a weird marionette with his big face and big eyes, and he jumps like one too.  The first level, which is a forest, is full of people lynched and/or impaled for some reason.  Don’t ask me why.  I guess it’s creepy looking, but you would think before whatever plague occurred, the people would be more concerned about the reason why everyone ended up in the forest like that.  Or at least clean it up!  Sheesh.  There also seemed to be enough nightmarish creatures running around that they’d eat the carcasses, but I guess they are too busy running around in predetermined paths that they don’t have time for that.  The music is pretty good and matches the atmosphere they are going for.  Sound effects are okay, but the grunts for the manchild sound like it is coming from a 30 year old person rather than a little boy, so I don’t know why they thought that was a good idea.  At least put some sort of filter on it to make the main character sound younger.

If you like difficult platformers, this could be a game for you.  However, I’d classify this as a game that wants to torture you for the sake of its artsy style.  Sadists who want to skip a meal at Subway to pay for 21 levels of misery need only be interested.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat a sandwich at Subway because I’m hungry.

 

City of Brass (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Uppercut Games || Overall: 8.5/10

Welcome to Brass City.  Please, take our shit.  We don’t need it anymore.  WE’RE ALL DEAD!  Actually, that poodle statue is mine — don’t touch it, you asshole!

City of Brass is a roguelike that puts you in the first person perspective of some dude who has found a long lost city, rumored to have riches beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  While slicing your way through cuddly and adorable undead skeletons, you’ll loot lots of what I guess is brass, and maybe some gold.  There must be some sort of recycling plant nearby that will buy your brass for top dollar.  Really, though, you don’t even want to keep the money you find.  You want to give it to genies who will give you equipment and blessings — thus the roguelike experience comes alive.

As you trek through Brass City, humming a parody version of Tyga’s Rack City (“BRASS CITY BITCH BRASS BRASS BRASS CITY BITCH”), you’ll use your trusty whip and sword to smack and cut down enemies that come before you.  The undead citizens of Brass City are protecting their chests full of riches, as well as statues of the phenomenally popular “man,” “horse,” “box,” and “ash tray.”  As the theme of the game is based on the “Arabian Nights,” you’ll see a lot of decorative items you notice from your local hookah bars, such as abandoned hookahs, heat lamps, and large plastic pots.  Other features from your local hookah bars that show up are trap doors, secret rooms, and large spike traps.

The maps are procedurally generated, so you’ll never see the same map more than once.  The procedural generation is pretty good in this instance and keeps the game relatively fresh despite replaying the early levels over and over, as what typically happens in a roguelike.  The whip is a very unique tool in this game, as it is used as a ranged weapon and grabs items from far away.  The whip can be used to stun, blind, disarm, or drag your enemies over traps.  There is also a mobility use, in which you can grab onto rings that are floating in the air, and move quickly across the room.  The whip is so much fun that I actually would have rather just used the whip the whole time instead of other melee weapons, but there are some cool melee weapons that do a variety of things.

As you progress through the game, you’ll notice it is segmented into different sub-themes within the city.  At first you’ll be in the Outskirts, make your way into the Marketplace, then you’ll be in the Garden, and so forth.  As you make your way into the center of the city, presumably where the biggest payload of recyclable brass will be (good thing you brought your friend’s pickup truck), you’ll see different enemies, different fauna, and different traps.  Every third level, there will be a boss character to defeat that will unlock the next level, adding a unique challenge to your progress.  To prepare, you’ll want to collect as many buffs as you can manage to afford by collecting items and opening chests for currency.  Once you eat the sand, you’ll start over again from scratch.

City of Brass is also pretty liberal in how it allows you to play the game.  There are a number of modifiers, called Burdens & Blessings, that can make the game either more difficult or easier.  There are specific things like, “more loot,” “more health,” “respawn enemies,” “more enemy health,” etc.  There are 8 Burdens and 8 Blessings, and some are unlocked through particular tasks done in-game.  There is also a daily challenge that has everyone playing on the same map and ranking on leaderboards.  You only have one attempt at the Daily Challenge, however.

The graphics and sound are pretty high quality, as well.  I wouldn’t say there’s anything that is particularly pretty, as you’ll see a lot of the same assets used over and over.  There’s probably an overuse of falling streams of sand coming off roofs, like there’s an infinite amount of sand on top of these buildings.  The art style definitely gives you the “Arabian Nights” feeling, down to the skeletons wearing fezzes and other obviously Middle Eastern clothing.  Some skeletons just run around naked and yell, which I guess is also a Middle Eastern thing?  The only downfall of the procedural generation in regards to how the art works, is that most of the rooms don’t feel like things that would have been designed for a practical use, so they retain a “fake” game design feel to them.  There probably isn’t a use for several warehouse-sized rooms in the middle of the city that are full of nothing but bookshelves.  This hardly takes anything away from the game proper, but sort of downgrades the idea that you are visiting an actual city.

City of Brass is pretty enjoyable if you get really into the weeds of learning every aspect of the gear you find.  While its not a particularly complex game on its surface, there is a lot of challenge to be had and having the inclination to learn the most efficient way of progressing through levels is a reward in itself.  Allowing for an experience that is custom to the player allows for a lot less frustration if you just want to have a nice time smacking skellies in the head, or if you find yourself wanting a bit more of a challenge, letting the skellies bonk you on the head instead.  Look for City of Brass on Steam, or perhaps your local Hookah bar.

 

Fox N Forests (PC) Review

Developer: Bonus Level Entertainment | Publisher: EuroVideo Medien || Overall: 8.0/10

In southern California, we experience something called “June Gloom.”  It is sort of a mid-season switch from the “Cold” (aka Less Hot) season into the Hot season, and basically everyday feels like my heart — cloudy, overcast, and named something stupid.  I would be hard-pressed to tell you what the “opposite” of June Gloom is, other than simply “a normal day.”  Why did I bother giving you this useless trivia since you’ll never be in southern California or my heart?  Fox N Forests, an otherwise typical platformer, takes the idea of “swapping seasons” to heart and creates a unique gameplay gimmick that feels like it was ripped out of the late 90’s to early 2000’s.

While it’s easy to assume the intended throwback of the title is to the Super Nintendo era, it feels more like a Game Boy Advance platformer, which was an extension of 16-bit games past the year 2000.  This is mostly due to the game feeling different than what you may normally get from the Super Nintendo in regards to level design, controls, as well as the ability to upgrade stats or unlock abilities.  There is also sarcastic dialogue that gives the game a feeling of being more “postmodern.”  The graphics are great, and pixel art is beautiful at times, but the resolution is purposely very low to emulate playing on a classic platform, which is not usually something I would be a fan of, but in this case it works.  The main gameplay hook is an interesting one — changing the season you are currently in so that it changes the terrain or adds elements to get you through obstacles.  This ability uses mana, and as there is a limited amount of it, this ability is on a timer essentially.   There are also mana crystals littered throughout levels, allowing you to replenish your mana bar quicker, or keep the season change in effect as long as your timing is right.  Logically, changing seasons is a curious mechanic, because it seems you are actually time traveling, yet all of the enemies are in the same place as you go back and forth through time.  Baby birds instantly turn into asshole crows that drop shit on you, fire tornadoes coming off burning windmills are replaced with angry lightning clouds, large leaves coming from space float down, etc etc.  It all sort of just doesn’t make sense in that context, but you roll with it as the game has a lot of fun with this mechanic in interesting ways.

As a platformer, the main thing you do is progress through a level by jumping and getting through obstacles.  The levels are purposely very long and can take upwards of 30 minutes or so to complete one run, including deaths.  While games in this genre usually have a high quantity of levels that take 5 to 10 minutes each to get through, Fox N Forests has a lot less individual levels and crams the already sprawling levels with secret paths and areas.  The gameplay never gets a break because they set you back to a checkpoint without restarting the level from a menu; this is a nice quality of life consideration, but the side effect is your Del Taco fries will go cold if you were planning on eating “after this level.”  The enemies add to the texture of a level, keeping it somewhat fresh depending on your problem-solving skills.  The enemy variety can also feel a bit lacking, with some enemies just getting a pallet swap or appearing over and over.

As you play an asshole fox named Rick, you’re promised something or other by a large tree-face-thing and an adversarial wise-cracking bird.  They want you to help save the forest from the “Fifth Season” by collecting Magic Bark from ridiculously large, equally assholish bosses — it’s basically something you’d expect in the genre to have to go and collect shit to save something you have no emotional attachment to.  The Magic Bark could very well be tree-face-thing’s shit for all you know.  The large tree-face-thing gives you a bow that has a bayonet on it, allowing you to only shoot straight. Sad!  All of the other directions can only use the bayonet, which has a very short range but is powerful.  Useful!  You eventually get magic arrows to change your firing pattern and along with your ability to change the seasons, you’re on your way to killing tons of evil forest creatures and stealing their money.  Additionally, there are also shoot-’em-up levels to break up the platforming; they feel out of place, honestly, but are still fun since they rely on the season-changing mechanic heavily.

A big “feature” of this game is the secrets.  Going back and playing levels to find all of the nooks and crannies in pursuit of obtaining collectibles is going to be the main time sink here.  The collectibles are actually pretty hard to find and there are only a few of them, so when you find one it is actually meaningful.  As all of the collectibles directly relate to upgrades or unlocking levels themselves, you’re definitely motivated to go back through them over and over.  Upgrades to health and mana are similar to what you could expect in a platformer.  Fox N Forests is also said to have “RPG elements,” but there’s no experience or progression necessarily, so you’d be hard-pressed to qualify any game system as an “RPG element.”  I would say the only “RPG element” is the fact you have to grind gold and replay levels over and over (SICK BURN!!!!!!).

Each level has 5 magic seeds and a couple of other collectible items, with four “seasons” containing 2 levels and 1 boss.  To enter a level for the “fifth season” you have to collect all of the seeds for a particular season, and then you get to enter the level.  Since the seeds are pain in the ass to find, I haven’t been able to get into one just yet, and I have no idea what to expect since it’s hard to imagine what a “fifth season” would be.  Boss levels are also unique challenges, but since their challenges haven’t been introduced at any point before you attempt the boss, you’ll always die on your first attempt.  An odd decision on the game developer’s part is that they add a “help” text box after you die to the boss, basically telling you exactly what to do to kill the boss the next time you attempt it.  There is no consequence to dying in the game, so you are allowed to attempt bosses as many times as you want.  This feels a bit fourth-wall breaking, and doesn’t really make much sense why they blatantly tell you how to beat a boss like this, considering there isn’t an arrow pointing you to all of the collectibles in a level.    Usually a boss is supposed to utilize at least some sort of skill you learn beforehand in a more advanced way, rather than being completely independent of what you had previously seen.  Otherwise, the bosses can be a fun challenge.

Fox N Forests is a pretty enjoyable title, and with pretty graphics, responsive controls, and a simple upgrade system, you’ll find there to be a unique challenge with the large levels full of secrets.  Exploration is not typically something you see in platformers, so it feels like something different despite being an obvious throwback.  If you can somehow change the season to a Steam sale, consider this an option to spend your money on.

 

Last Encounter (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Exordium Games || Overall: 6.5/10

Last Encounter is a bit of a puzzling game for me.  The gameplay itself is fine, but the game is a chore.  You’ve got a space-themed twin-stick shootery game wrapped in a roguelite progression system, but the progression is so metered, it’s as if there isn’t any at all.  What it comes down to, is that being stingy in a roguelite just does not work.  Upgrades are few and far between, health drops are practically non-existent, and never mind the amount of enemies that want to blow your face off.

For a roguelite, there’s hardly any progression to be had and one of the major road blocks is that you research weapons you find by using Credits.  Credits are found only by killing stuff, and you lose half of it every time you die.  You can only research when you are back at the base, but you are unable to return to base until you die; this makes it hard to research or buy any weapons at the home base for a better run.  Credits can also be used to purchase weapons in a level where there’s a shop, so there’s probably going to be even less of it by the time you’re back at the base — if you even get the opportunity to spend it.

The one very positive and unique feature this game has is the weapon system.  You have three weapon slots, one being the base weapon, and the other two being modifiers.  The modifiers can change the way your base weapon behaves, either increasing its strength, changing its firing pattern, or making it fire faster.  The different weapon changes are actually pretty fun, but unfortunately there isn’t enough of these drops occurring to keep the cadence of the game itself fun; they are also finite as you’ll use up an energy allotment unless they are a yellow-colored upgrade.  There is also a lack of information regarding if you’ll replace a slot already occupied by another weapon, so you may downgrade or get something you don’t particularly want because you haven’t exhausted your previous upgrade.  There are additional kinds of upgrades laying around the levels that will provide a small boost to your ship’s stats, but these stats are only permanent for the run, and will disappear once you die.  The boosts are practically inconsequential and don’t appear very often, so it feels like they should have just been permanent forever.

If you are somehow able to get through a set of levels, called a galaxy, you enter a new galaxy where the theme changes and enemies become different and more difficult.  The themes are actually quite nice and unique from each other, and since the challenge increases significantly from one galaxy to the next, you won’t have much time to enjoy any of it before you’re dead again.  The graphics and art are a real selling point here since it’s easy to say it all looks pretty high quality and not-so-generic for enemy designs.  The level layout and enemy count is all procedural, so you’ll never see the same level again per se.  Using a controller is unfortunately a pain, though.  I opted for keyboard/mouse and it was a much more pleasurable experience.

The story is sort of interesting, but there’s hardly any focus on it, and it gets cheapened by a wise-cracking scientist.  Earth is under attack by aliens and they’ve lost the war.  So it’s up to you to go through the portal as a last ditch effort to close it and go back in time or something — I don’t really remember since there’s hardly much story flying around.  While in-game, you try to find out what happened to the previous excursion of battleships into the portal only to find they’ve all been destroyed, and you try to track down any survivors.  So, it’s up to you and your dinky ship to destroy all of the alien ships that are doing nothing but waiting for you to come and blow them up.  Rinse and repeat until you’ve lost interest, and you’ve got Last Encounter.

While the game can be fun at times, overall it is pretty dull.  It seems like the game is pretty short insofar as how many levels there are to go through, so maybe that’s why the progression is so significantly metered and doesn’t really exist as part of the gameplay loop.  If there were more themes, and possibly even having randomized themes, it might be a bit more thrilling to restart the game over and over.  Local co-op might be a pretty fun excursion if you’re looking for something, but the visual clutter is already an issue as it is.

 

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.

 

Solo (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Team Gotham || Overall: 7.8/10

One part 3D puzzle game and the other part online personality test, Solo asks a lot from you.  It asks you to bear your soul about Love.  It also asks you to arrange a lot of boxes so you can solve puzzles, which I suppose is another metaphor for love, especially after you move in together.  There’s a lot of boxes.  There’s also a lot of strange alien-like fauna, like elephants that eat cheese, cat-things that eat bananas, and some other cute creatures that you can pet.  You can also play guitar.

The most obvious thing you’ll notice about Solo is its elaborate art style.  While it has that disgusting Unity “marshmallow” look, it makes it its own by creating a unique atmosphere.  Each puzzle takes place on a little island in a greater archipelago; solve the puzzle on the island and a new one will pop up from under the water.  Interacting with the myriad of inanimate objects, cutesy creatures, and ghostly characters adds to the experience.  The fauna and the general aesthetic of the world feels very “not Earth-like” which leads to the feeling you are either in some sort of dream or on an alien planet of some kind.  You’re referred to as a “sailor” but there is very little actual sailing going on other than moving from one archipelago to the next.  Additionally, the name you put in as “your love” ends up being the name of the ship…  QUITE EMBARRASSING!

As far as the puzzle aspects go, it uses a system in which you re-use a set of blocks in continually different configurations, rather than using said blocks one time and leaving them there.  You’ll have to design your solution to a puzzle, of which there are multiple solutions (depending on your ingenuity), and then you get to answer an overly personal question about your love life.  Rinse and repeat, and you’ve essentially got the whole experience.  The types of boxes you’ll encounter are normal boxes, boxes with fans in them (that allow you to glide in your parachute), boxes that stick to walls, and boxes that extend a platform from them.  Using the boxes to create platforms is your primary pursuit; you can use these boxes in different configurations as you can rotate them and whatever works, works.  You also use terrain (no jumping), your guitar (occasionally), and other elements in the immediate area to solve puzzles.  They also let you take pictures with a camera, but considering your character looks like a horrendous sack of potatoes, no thanks.  And there doesn’t seem to be a functional reason to making animals happy other than to get them to shut up.

The theme of Love is pretty heavy-handed.  The first thing you do in the game is choose your gender, including giving you a non-binary option.  They also ask what gender you are romantically attracted to, which non-binary is also an option.  At this point they give you a choice of avatar to represent yourself in-game, which is only three white characters.  It’s odd that the game seems to strive for some sort of inclusivity, but only so far as it matters directly to “love.”  I suppose race wouldn’t fall into that category per se, but it seems out of place that these options are presented and then you can only choose white characters.

The writing itself is pretty good and gives a feeling that there was a lot of care for what is being said so that it doesn’t sound too sappy or too ridiculous.  In theory, there seems to be different writing depending on your choices regarding your relationship status and the like.  Interestingly, despite the game looking like it is “for kids,” the subject matter of love, relationships, and even sex, is definitely not for kids.  This is just my paranoid side speaking, but you have to wonder if there is some sort of collection of data with the answers to these love questions — it seems generally out of place in the manner they present it since they make it about “you,” the player, rather than an in-game character.  They say to get the most out of it, you should answer truthfully as much as possible.  It also wouldn’t surprise me if this was all a disguised recruitment tool for some box-fetish cult.  “Only the ones who can solve these box puzzles need apply.  10 Inch dicks or DD+ boobies only.”

So, while the game is generally a positive experience, it’s really not that engaging.  The puzzles can be fun to figure out, but they can also be fairly frustrating considering the controls.  You’re also constantly fighting against the camera which doesn’t seem to allow you to zoom out at all.  Placing the boxes in a 3D space depends on the angle of your camera, and even though there is an “aim assist” for placing the blocks, sometimes the cursor will disappear and is fifty miles away.  Holding the left trigger and clicking it over and over can also be a bit taxing on your finger and it feels like there should have been an easier way to do all of the stuff you’re doing without having to constantly hold it or trigger it.  Otherwise, the performance of the game had no issues outside of random frame drops, and the sound/music is quite good.

Giving a score to this game was hard to do.  It’s definitely an enjoyable game, and I’d recommend it if you are into 3D puzzle games, or at least interested in having your privacy violated by unknown data gatherers.  If it weren’t for the controls and camera frustration, I’d probably score it in the higher 8 range, but when a game makes my fingers hurt for no good reason, it’s getting docked.  It is perhaps a bit pretentious as well, given the subject matter being matched with it’s cutesy art style, so it makes me question possible ulterior motives of Solo.

 

Keeplanet (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: BiggameIncubator || Overall: 5/10

It’s often that I’ll play random games and discover that I like them or hate them.  It’s quite another experience to play a game that brings the question of “why does this exist?”  Keeplanet is more of a game that confuses me more than anything else.  I don’t hate it and I certainly don’t like it, but mostly I just don’t “get” it.  There’s some sort of design philosophy to this title, but the end goal didn’t seem to be “fun.”

Keeplanet‘s concept rides on the principal of “balance.”  You are the “World Commander” of a set of planets in a solar system, your role being to develop the new home for humanity after Earth got blowed up.  Your goal is develop your world by placing objects on the outer rim of the planet and keep the balance of all of the objects such that the world keeps spinning and isn’t dragged down by being too heavy on one side.  You can balance the world on the fly by placing more objects down and hoping you are “calculating” correctly before your world’s inhabitants are killed off from the lack of rotation.  Gravity seems to have taken a vacation from the rules of physics, but there’s stranger things happening in quantum mechanics so anything is possible, I suppose.

There’s nothing that’s inherently fun about the concept of randomly placing objects on the extreme edges of a planet, though.  Not only is it a pain to actually see where you’re placing things, but the planet will get “bigger” as more objects are placed and you put down even more objects between those objects.  Some levels require putting down a hundred or more of these “objects” so you’ll really have to be paying attention to what the hell is going on.  Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really provide you with the tools or information to help you in this manner.  There is a weight scale that defines the weight of the planet’s “left” and “right” (whatever that means) and as the world rotates on its axis and more objects are built, these numbers change constantly.  The goal is to keep these numbers as balanced as possible and the world will rotate.  If it stops rotating, then your population will start dying out from heat and cold and once it reaches zero, it’s game over.

The user interface leaves a lot to be desired.  There’s a large “Play” button on the menu screen that you only use one time, but stays there after you click it.  Selecting your level beckons you to click a WORD that says “Play” not the big Play button that becomes a quick way to close the entire menu and put you back to the Title Screen.  Like, why the hell do I need to go back to the Title Screen at that point?  Just hide the Play button or use it as the level selection.

The information provided regarding objects is basically nonsensical and I just don’t care about the numbers when I have to plop down 300 objects quickly — otherwise I’d be here for 30 minutes for one of these levels and that ain’t happening.  Of course, I die over and over regardless, so I’m stuck playing that long anyway!  I also really don’t get why the outer edges of the planet are the only thing being used; when the planet becomes bigger it becomes impossible to see all parts of the planet without zooming out, which makes the objects you are placing much smaller.  Where’s the joy in placing some stupid ass mountain on a planet if I can’t see it????  Or those dumb trees, for that matter.  There’s no agency here where I can pick which objects I want to place and create a strategy to overcome the task at hand — it’s more of a Tetris with objects being served to you and you dealing with it.  So, some World Commander you are.  Who is building these unwanted mountains for you?  Why not some big speakers that play Spanish music to liven up the place?  There’s also a big wasted space in the center of the planet which I feel could have been used for the user interface information in a more creative way, but instead the UI elements get in the way of the game play, and you mostly just stare at blank space on your screen.  The graphics are generally inoffensive, otherwise.  The sound isn’t that annoying, but there’s a siren that will go off when your population is dying, which can be a bit annoying.

The only real positive aspect of this game is that it is really cheap.  It is currently $1.99 on Steam at full price, so you can probably get it with some Steam balance and check it out if it interests you.  There are probably about twenty levels including the “Challenges.” It’s not particularly impressive, but it works and you can play it.

I don’t really understand why the title of the game is “Keeplanet,” but it probably goes along with the translation errors that can be picked out in the text.  Maybe it’s as simple as “Keep your planet alive.  Keep.  Planet.  Keeplanet.”  ::facepalm::

When it comes to the store’s page, it’s almost comical how weirdly it is worded at points.  Two quotes from the Store page and my analysis:

Develop the planet
In Keeplanet, you create your own history – there’s no right or wrong way to play! Become a world’s landlord, spread out trees, mountains, houses and other objects to make the planet rotate around its axis. Remember, the most important thing is not to let the planet stop. Otherwise, all inhabitants of the planet will die out from sunburn or freezing.

Except there is a right or wrong way to play.  You get game overs when you don’t play the right way!  It says it right in the same paragraph that if you let the planet stop you lose, that’s the definition of having a wrong way to play!

Fight for the humanity
Universe is a dangerous place, protect people from external hazards – meteorites, meteor rains and vigilant aliens are waiting for your mistakes.
Don’t let them break you!

Fighting for “the” humanity = fighting for our morals?

External hazards from outside of the universe?

The vigilant aliens just ram your planet, similar to meteors.  Meteorites are also meteors that have hit the Earth, so are meteors that hit Earth, flying off of Earth across the universe and then hitting your new planet?  What a bunch of assholes.

The same sort of thing happens with the in-game text, but there isn’t nearly as much writing, so there’s less to fuck up.  Some of the English is so broken, they are just words on screen with no association to each other.

 

Bombslinger (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Mode4 || Overall: 7/10

Bombslinger?  Looks like roguelike Bomberman.

::plays it for 5 minutes::

Yeah, it’s roguelike Bomberman.

I’ve never been much of a fan of the Bomberman series, but I got the point of it.  In fact, Bomberman is a lot more fun than the evolution of the game into roguelike territory.  Bomberman‘s appeal was using the map in such a way to kill the other enemies that were running around while not blowing yourself up.  All of these concept carries over, but considering you are in a roguelike, you’ve got procedurally generated room layouts, dungeons, and bosses.  Except, in Bombslinger, the game intentionally slows down the pace significantly by adding obstacles you have to blow up.  In doing so, Bombslinger becomes much more like a strategy puzzle game than an action game where you go around and put down a bunch of bombs and run around hoping you don’t blow yourself up.

As always in a roguelike, there is loot and powerups you can unlock.  Killing enemies nets you gold most of the time, but they can also drop Spirit, which allows you to use the special abilities you find.  You also gain XP to earn levels; leveling up allows you to choose one of three bonuses, depending on your need at the time/gameplay style, usually being health, bomb, or spirit-related.

Without bonuses, you only have one normal Bomb and three Hearts.  It is very easy to get hit by your own bombs if you’re not paying attention.  In general, it can be a bit annoying if you don’t already have a lot of practice in anticipating when bombs will explode, and if you don’t really like “Bomberman” gameplay, you’ll lose the will to play pretty quickly.  Especially since you get hurt by your own bombs, and always have to move out of the way, it becomes tedious having to blow up fucking corn stalks one at a time when the map is full of them.

The whole reason Mr. McMean (your character) is on a rampage is because his wife dies in the opening cinematic.  I suppose it can be ironic that you also die over and over, and I suppose your wife dies again every time you start over as well.  The first level is the main character’s house, known as “McMean’s Ranch.”  You’ll be spending a lot of time here as you start playing, and it seems to be an unfortunate choice because the music gets annoying and the map is boring, despite the nice pixelated style.  When you get to the second map, you trade the “desert ranch” map with corn stalks and old men in thermal underwear, for “traditional desert” with chickens and bandits.  There’s also goats.  I’m not entirely sure why you are killing old farmers when it is your old bandit gang that killed your wife, but they look mean so it’s time for murder.  I suppose the story really doesn’t matter, but if they’re going to bother setting something up, at least have it make sense in the context of the story created.

The boss rooms are more traditional Bomberman grids, but the first boss, a goat, can charge you so you have time your bombs correctly.  They can also push the bombs away which can change the calculation of being in a safe area.  Stuff like this is probably where the game shines the most because it doesn’t veer too far away from the original Bomberman formula.

In general, the roguelike improvements seem fun enough for the confines of wanting to play a more “modern” take on Bomberman.  There are what seems to be about thirty or more unlocks and power-ups.  You can also buy the same items from the randomly appearing shop that you would see in chests.  Some chests can be only opened with money, whereas most need a key to open.  There are occasionally timed chests that will blow up if you don’t reach it in time.  The rooms are randomized and all of the enemies must be cleared out before moving to the next room — this again loops back to being a slow process since you have to clear out map elements to get to the enemies.

At the end of the day, Bombslinger is serviceable.  It isn’t terrible, seems to work okay, looks good visually, the controls are fine, and also has a local multiplayer mode that could be fun.  It’s about as standard as you could get for a little game like this, and depending on your love for the Bomberman series, your mileage may vary on how much enjoyment you get out of this title.

 

Super Daryl Deluxe (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Dan & Gary Games || Overall: 9.5/10

I often wonder what a “perfect” game would be for me, as a gamer, rather than a reviewer.  There are merits such as admirable game design, interesting story, fun game mechanics, but what do **I** really want to play.  I like things that are strange, humorous, and keeps me guessing, among other things.  Super Daryl Deluxe is one of those odd times that I could potentially say “I want something like this” and it actually exists.

Set during the post-apocalypse of a seemingly “libertarian” self-help renaissance society, Super Daryl Deluxe is what I would call a “post-modern fantasy”-themed Brawler RPG.  It integrates a lot of famous historical characters, LARPers (known as the Dwarves & Druids Club), and other popular science fiction elements thrown in to make things even more weird.  There’s also a lot of cultural references, like the Paranomal Club based on the “Ghost Hunters” TV show, or “Skrillex” (known as Little Johnny) being an antagonist.  There are plenty of original characters as well, and the mish mash of all of these different crowds makes for a packed game.  The world-building reveals itself as unexpectedly deep for this genre, and you never know who or what you’re going to see next.

Lots of satirical jokes are found throughout and a lot of attention to detail to the humor really shows.  As a literal silent protagonist, the titular, spaghetti-limbed character, Daryl, never speaks or reacts to people when they talk to him; they react to him, thinking he is an idiot, or just filling in the blanks themselves — its an obvious parody of silent protagonists in RPGs. The story itself starts small, then grows bigger, as you are tasked with a simple thing like “get a can of spray from the janitor’s closet” which then leads you into a surreal adventure across time and space and air vents large enough for a space ship, located in the bowels of a high school that is itself breaking through into different dimensions.  Surrealism is the key word of this game as you go ever-deeper into the craziness, and all of the characters being “okay” with it all just makes it that much more bizarre.  Parallels can be drawn to the game Frog Fractions in this sense, but there aren’t any abrupt genre switches.

There is a retelling of the game’s satirical story in an in-game journal that satirically retells it — what shows up in the journal is never quite what actually happens.  This becomes a bit of a fourth wall breaking experience as the Journal “writer” feels like an observer who is talking to you directly.  Normally, most of the story is communicated through dialog, which never seems to outstay its welcome, but can get a bit winded at times.  The way the writing is structured, it would probably not work if it was all completely voice acted, however, there is voice acting for the handful of cut scenes.  The introductory cut scene is strangely unnerving, and while it doesn’t exactly explain what is going on in the story, it does set the “mood” for what is to come.

The art is absolutely the most appealing aspect of the game. Everything exhibits a hand-drawn quality and colors are used intentionally to bring important details out on the characters.  With so many little touches and details to the art, the result is a high production value that is reminiscent of a television cartoon show.  Enemies have fun designs and despite the theme shifts from one area to the next, all of the characters feel like they belong in the same universe.  Music is also a high point where most of the tracks integrate the name “Daryl” into the song. I never would have figured that “Daryl” could work across so many genres.  Other sound effects are good and add to the overall experience, especially when it comes to the abilities you use and landing hits.

As Super Daryl Deluxe is a “Brawler” RPG game, you’ll find a lot of variety and a build-your-own combo system. You can choose what works for you instead of being relegated to a set of abilities, with around 20 or so to choose from.  Many abilities are also humorous or cartoony, which fits nicely with the art style.  Equipment is also a thing, which gives a lot of depth to the overall gameplay.  The inventory system is very easy to manage and offloading equipment for “lunch money” allows you to buy textbooks, which allow you to buy more abilities.  Lunch money also drops from monsters as you kill them.  The currency system feels very balanced, so even as you gain exponentially more money, the cost of items you buy also go up.  There is also some simple crafting which is really just purchasing equipment with the required materials.

There are a wide variety of maps to visit, with very elaborate room layouts and fun themes, such as Science, Arts & Music, History, the Air Vents, and a couple of other smaller areas.  There are a lot of secrets to unlock and leveling certain abilities allows you to unlock chests or other special rooms.  As you progress in the game you’ll be able to go back to earlier areas and get into rooms you weren’t able to previously.  Some new formats to play also pop up, such as the Dwarves & Druids questing, or re-summoning old bosses for exclusive loot.

The game is very long for this genre but it stays fun. I’m already at fifteen hours and have no idea when the game will end, but I would guess I’m getting close. But, I’m still only in “Part 1” and supposedly there are five parts.  Fifteen hours is what they are advertising, so I suppose your mileage may vary.  A small amount of grinding is also necessary to level up so you don’t just skip through all of the areas with enemies — monsters have levels and will get harder as you go along.  If you do all of the side quests, it helps you with the grinding, but it really isn’t that bad if you’ve found a good set of abilities to quickly defeat enemies with.  While I wouldn’t classify the game as difficult, I had fun experimenting with all of the different abilities and finding out what worked the most.  I died only a handful of times, and the bosses are unique gameplay challenges that mix up the logic of beating the crap out of everything to something more strategic.  Occasionally, I didn’t read something or forgot what I was supposed to do, so I would run around aimlessly trying to do things to progress the story cussing and getting frustrated about not knowing what to do.  But this happens to me in almost every game.

That’s really all there is to it.  Super Daryl Deluxe is an experience in and of itself, and a unique one at that.  There’s nothing bad about it, really — so what prevents it from getting a full 10/10?  The lack of a really engaging game loop that makes you want to come back for more is probably what holds it back from that.  The game is also very linear, and while you can visit older zones, they aren’t made relevant again — though you spend a lot of time in each of the zones while you are there.  Presumably there are reasons to revisit as there is a locked mysterious blue door in each of the main areas, with no explanation attached.  I could also see playing through the story once and just being done.  Despite that, a lot of personality and love went into this title and it shows.  The art is great and a real treat.  If a sequel ever comes around, I’d like to see what direction they take it in.

 

ARK Park (PC/HTC Vive) Review

ARK Park

Developer/Publisher: Snail Games || Overall: 2/10

You’d think a Jurassic Park sort of experience would be a shoe-in for a decent VR experience, right? Go to a park, see huge dinosaurs, maybe run away from some. What’s that, you say? “But what about crafting and collecting bullshit“? Sure, why not? “What about terrible voice acting and jerky animations“? I dunno, man. This is starting to sound like a crappy game. “What about spelling errors, wrong dinosaur scale and aimless gameplay“?

ARK Park is a VR game using assets from another game with a similar name, ARK: Survival Evolved, which is a sandbox game where players wake up on an island, harvest resources, build bases and tame and fight dinosaurs. The parent game is a decent title with some kind of annoying DLC practices and constant feature creep; there is very little in common in the ARK Park flavor of digital entertainment, besides dinosaurs and the models used to represent them. Not a problem in itself, but to avoid confusion I think it’s important to point out that this is not ARK: Survival Evolved in VR. Also, be aware: though somewhat standard (though unimpressive) for VR, the game only makes use of teleportation for player movement. There are no free movement options, nor is there comfort options for teleporting, outside of moving around in room-scale.

The tutorial has you battling the ambient loud sounds to hear some robotic dragonfly (with some terribly robotic voice-acting) bark some commands to you. As you step out of some shuttle, you’re asked to get into a tram while dolphin noises, that must have been recorded from a TV, play over the tram’s loudspeakers. Some unnecessary dialog is thrown at you as you watch a mosasaurus jump out of the water. Finally, you get to the park where you’re greeted with a loading screen as you go up the stairs. In the next area, a lobby of sorts, there is holographic stuff you can bore yourself to tears with as the robot forces you to pick up and throw small holographic dinosaurs at a display, or just around a map, before being guided to command and feed some more of them. As an educational experience, there’s minimal here aside from a display that’ll narrate a small selection of descriptions on some choice dinosaurs. Not a lot going on besides that.

Eventually, you make your way to a camp where you grow a dinosaur and feed it, and are given a crash course on the inventory and storage. Before long I was “riding” on top of my triceratops through some section of forest (an “on rails” section) while some bullshit happens to the mind controlling devices that make the dinos slothful and passive. Someone commandeers my annoying robo-dragonfly cohort and tells me I’m an idiot and I should risk my life to save the park by repairing the brain washing devices. Why one exploded isn’t really delved into, nor the fact that dinosaurs are routinely aggressive to each other. I mean, how effective are they if you can see two huge gorillas fighting over a cliffside, or a T-Rex chasing some fat pig thing around? Anyway, I’m instructed to go to another area and use some sort of DNA sequencing gun (Isn’t this a park? Didn’t they make these things? Why don’t they have the DNA on file?) to collect genes in order to make a pistol. For materials, I’m entrusted to use gloves that make my hands monstrous to collect berries and grass, and a pickaxe to collect wood and other materials.

I craft a gun, presumably from the berries, and go to the practice range, where I proceed to bullseye all the targets while the robot follows me around telling me that she hopes I shoot better when my life is on the line (seriously, the tutorial is just crammed so fucking full of bad writing that most of it isn’t even memorable). I warp to some contraption that the robot needs to fix while I shoot dinosaurs. Despite the strange reload mechanics, which is shake to reload or suffer a painfully slow auto reload, I manage to kill everything without an issue. We win, and she pulls out some fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins line from the mid 2000’s in an attempt to undermine my accomplishment. Someone at Gearbox probably finds this shit funny and engaging, but I’m already looking forward to taking off my Vive.

The main game has much less in terms of guidance or goals. Considering I don’t really give much of a shit about dinosaurs, since I can proudly say that puberty only left “space pirate” behind in my list of interests during the transition to adulthood, those goals are still a mystery to me. I don’t get why I’d want a Triceratops, or why I’d want to spray paint graffiti (no seriously, it’s part of the tutorial) or what I’d want a machete for.

After you’ve created a player with an eclectic assortment of clothing ranging from “generic cowboy” to a ghillie suit, you’re dumped in to the same area of the park where the game began: the tram. These sequences are exactly the same on the second pass in, by the way. I use what I learned from the tutorial to skip all the monotonous parts of the park and go back to the “exploration” areas of the game. These areas are places where you collect resources, scan dinosaurs and sometimes throw a rock at something. The scanning mechanic is really stupid — the gun needs to be aimed at the head of whatever is running past you or whizzing by your face as it flies through trees or over obstacles. Scanning these animals will give you “genes” which are used to unlock things like a machete, a bow, a torch, or other tools. Your guess is as good as mine why they landed on this mechanic.

Now, I know this game’s plot is paper-thin, but for all this talk about making dinosaurs docile using mind control stuff, I think it’s important to note that the dinosaurs sure fucking fight a lot in the wild. It just seems weird to have the tutorial hinge so much on that aspect and have there be no discernible link between that idea and the dinosaur’s behavior when you’re out exploring areas. Maybe it’s because you’re not fixing them, but it’s still odd.

I’m not sure if the hot-air balloon was rideable, but there was a section where I could ride in a jeep with the most canned fuckin’ one-liners hurled at me every few seconds. Dinosaurs of varying sizes and temperaments would block the road while the driver complained each time, as if I had unknowingly signed up for a VR ride-sharing program. A carnotaurus would slap the jeep and he’d whine about how annoying they are, when he should be complaining about how small they were. He’d zip between a bronto’s legs, slicing off mounds of cheese before unloading a jar of cheez-wiz when the gigantosaurus flopped for ten seconds, presumably to give me a spook. Honestly, this shit belongs in Disneyland with all the other crappy, over-acted attractions with no interaction.

I spent some time digging around my inventory and crafting station, and found that because I didn’t have a better copy of the game, there was an item that I couldn’t remove, bitching at me to buy the deluxe version of the game to use it. Thanks. Good to know that ARK is becoming more saturated with this kind of annoying bullshit. Meanwhile, it had no problem promptly accepting the other egg I was given into the trash, rather than my inventory slot that was near it. My fault, sure, but I didn’t pick where the inventory spots spawned over, nor did I think it would just go right through into the trash. You never know, I may have wanted to grow that thing.

I gave a “battle” level a shot, which was much like the tutorial: I guarded a machine while dinosaurs rushed at it. It seems just getting close to the machine is enough to damage it, so I intended to blow everything that moved away the moment I saw it. It was pretty easy until a Megapithecus came, stomped me, and three-shot the tower. This was the “easy” level, by the way. I’m not even entirely sure what I should have done differently, as he jumped down, towering above me, slapped me into submission, and took out the tower while I was out of play. This game has multiplayer, but it wasn’t clear if I’d come back from that or not by myself. VR wave shooters are really, really common. It takes a particular level of polish or ingenuity to get a pass for this, and ARK Park just doesn’t deliver.

The game is rife with spelling and grammar errors at every turn, from frogs that are a “Titanboa’s favorite desert” to an error in some machine that claimed “Species data that can not be loaded.” Even their Tek Package ad calls the Mech T-Rex “Iron steal.” This game’s not very deep, it’s not hard to come across all of these. With added things, like the comically large “gloves” used for harvesting bushes, jerky animations on some dinosaurs and “pulling” vines, strange dinosaur scale and crappy gameplay, I’m convinced this went through a limited QA run and was shoved out to appease the folks that were waiting for this, all four of them at Gearbox that were really waiting for that “.333 repeating chance” of success joke to land. This is what passes for writing these days. Speaking of which: hire me and fire your writers. I could use the dough, and the mess you’ve got here is bordering on needing FEMA relief (side note: unlike FEMA I’ll actually deliver).

Why this is an ARK game eludes me. If anything, they should have dropped all the crafting and pointless stuff and focused on being even remotely educational with some mini games around that. At least then it’d have some merit of its own. This doesn’t really play like an ARK game, it doesn’t have the same goals as one, and it’s much less fun than the game that it is based on, but has shoehorned in crafting and gathering ’cause “that’s what the real one does”. It’s painfully and obviously forced. In fact, if they just added VR support to ARK: Survival Evolved, even as limited as HMD support with mouse/keyboard or controller, there would be something considerably more enjoyable to toy around in.

If you’re looking for a dinosaur game, play ARK: Survival Evolved instead if you can stomach the semi-rough experience. Otherwise, save the $40 you’d waste here and go buy scratchers or something.