War for the Overworld Review

One of the earliest games I remember throwing hours into on my first PC was Dungeon Keeper. I had played other games of course, but something about Dungeon Keeper just grabbed me. Back in the days when I couldn’t pick Peter Molyneux out of a crowd, or paying to dig a block would ruin everything.

Nearly 20 years ago! Time really does fly doesn’t it? Now, we cannot trust a word that Mr Molyneux says and the Dungeon Keeper name has been completely destroyed by some really immoral pay to play ethics. A return of Dungeon Keeper should have been a glorious thing.

Thank the Devil then for Subterranean Games and their title War for the Overworld which is the true sequel to Dungeon Keeper and Dungeon Keeper 2, in fact it takes its name from the subtitle of the cancelled Dungeon Keeper 3.

Let us call a spade a spade here, this IS Dungeon Keeper 3 in all but name, a quick look at the history of the development of both this and the cancelled DK3 will make that blatantly obvious and oh what a joy it is.

For anyone who has played a Dungeon Keeper, you will feel right at home, the core concepts remain faithful to what you will remember, the controls are like riding a bike and overall the game feels like putting on your favourite pair of lounge pants and sitting in your favourite armchair. It just has that comforting feeling that everything is right with the world.

You know the drill. You start with a core dungeon, that you then dig out to expand…all in real time, not having to pay for the pleasure to do so, or wait 165 days, or whatever you’d need to on the EA mobile release. You then build your dungeon out further, attract more minions, build rooms, prisons, training areas, etc to make your disciples better, stronger, faster.

You use them to build out yet further, whilst at the same time trying to take down enemies who dare to advance on your creations. It plays properly in real time, so you need to be thinking on your feet at all time, making split second decisions that can make or break your game at any one time.

Look, it is Dungeon Keeper, so just jump in and settle into the underworld and have fun!!

A few things to add, which are the reasons this has taken a while to come to a conclusion about the game. It is constantly being updated and improved, bugs are being ironed out, things are being balanced and much, much more.

Now whilst this is nice to see, a developer supporting their game in such a way after launch, it does feel like it should still have an Early Access label to it. Game crashes have ruined many a play session, but thankfully these are becoming less and less frequent. The UI is a bit of a mess and there are still a lot of placeholders all over the place.

There are also a fair few parts that are locked out right now, with things like Survival Mode coming later down the line. Now credit to Subterranean Games, they are honest about this, but to the outsider this is a game being sold on Steam as a finished product. If it still had the Early Access tag and was being worked on in the way it is, then I’d be screaming from the rooftops about how you should be getting this…RIGHT NOW!

As it is, I feel the game should come with a warning. It is everything you want from a true successor to Dungeon Keeper, but for most people, you may be better off waiting until it is finally finished. I can only really say that if you are that desperate to get you some Dungeon Keeping action, then pick it up.

There is a lot of potential here and when it is finished, it will be absolutely essential, but as it is? It is for those who REALLY need a game like this in their life and want to show support to the developers.

Chainsaw Warrior: Lords of the Night Review

Chainsaw Warrior was originally released as a solo board game back in 1987 which has been revamped as a budget title (£4.79rrp) dice rolling card game on Steam. It sees the player fighting against hordes of Aztec Zombies, as well as a 60 minute timer, to save reality from Darkness.

Character statistics (health, resistance to venom and radiation, melee and ranged damage as well as reflex) are randomly generated at the beginning of the game. Players are then given a random number of equipment points  depending on your statistics to spend on weapons/armour/gadgets before launching into a bit of backstory behind why you a raiding an Aztec pyramid.

The main game screen is clearly laid out with your statistics across the top, the card to be drawn on the left and a text box on the right which details dice roll information. The middle section is left clear for you to deal with the current card in play.

Each action or card drawn takes 30 seconds from the 60 minute timer allocated to players to clear the three decks of cards making up the Aztec pyramid, and prevent Darkness from winning. So essentially it works out to be 120 turns to clear 75 cards.

Turns are taken by clicking the card in play to see what fate befalls you – which in my experience was nearly always a zombie/crocodile/jaguar/warrior that wanted to eat my face. Combat is simply deciding what weapon to use based on the blurb given for the enemy at the base of the card and rolling 2D6 (or two six sided dice) for the amount to add on to their reflex to see if they block. If they do, you retry until you destroy it or if they don’t block, you destroy the card and carry on your way. This continues until one of four things happens – you run out of health and die, you run out of radiation resistance and die, you run out of time and fail, or you beat the cards.

This game is simple to pick up but relies totally on random number generation (your basic stats, deck order and battle encounters) and if you are unfortunate enough to roll some high numbers for the enemies and low for yourself then you can waste a lot of time on a basic mobs.

Subsequently, there are minimal choices to make through the game and each playthrough felt like a chore trying to get to the end where generally you failed and there was little you could do about it anyway.

Titan Souls Review

What if a game removed all the fluff? What if it decided that going through hours of grind beating away various minions with ease was a pointless endeavor? What if that same game decided that leveling up your character, finding new and improved weapons and armour, was all…well, pointless? What if it was you and the bosses?

Welcome to Titan Souls!

That is exactly what this game is, you vs 20 different bosses, no fluff, no upgrades, no leveling, just you and your single arrow vs 20 different mighty Titans.

It may sound like yet another Indie trying to be different for the sake of being different, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, if anything this is an homage to games such as Shadow of the Colossus, where it wants to create a spectacle and make each encounter a memorable one.

Unlike Team Ico’s epic, this is on a much smaller scale and seems to focus more on a trial and error system and for the most part it works and it does it with next to no handholding whatsoever. You are dumped into a world and you have to just work stuff out on your own.

At no point does the game explain to you that you just have a single arrow that you must retrieve each time it is fired, nor does it tell you what you need to do to progress, or what you might encounter next. It sets you into a level and turns its back on you.

This means one thing…you will die and you will die A LOT! You thought you die often in the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne? Well this takes it to another level. Because even when you think you may have worked out what is coming, or how to take on a Titan, something will surprise you, or blindside you when you least expect it.

Now I half expected this mechanic to frustrate the living hell out of me, but it is so well designed that you can and you will learn from every death. You go back to the same encounter armed with more knowledge, you find other ways in which you can use your solitary arrow and after many tries you can finally beat your current nemesis.

 

Now 20 Titans with no other enemies may sound very little, especially when many can be killed in a single shot, but I defy anyone to make their way through the game first time in just a couple of hours. This is a game that requires patience and rewards perseverance. You don’t get in-game rewards, but you do get a sense of accomplishment for having beat a game that has set out to beat you.

It is also a game that is set up for not only beating it, but ideal Twitch and Youtube fodder for those speedrunners. To see someone get through Titan Souls in one sitting and going for speed records will be something to behold because to myself, it will require a special amount of effort to get that good and to learn all the various Titan patterns and not fail at any of them.

Titan Souls is a game that will leave you feeling beaten for the most part and at times it may not always feel enjoyable, but at the very same time, it is so well designed and crafted that you accept that and you take on the difficulties as a challenge you must beat, which makes this a must have game.

Bloodsports.TV Review

As a born again PC gamer, well I think that is what I am anyway, I am only just finding out about a genre of games that has passed me by somewhat. The MOBA! What confuses me more than anything is that there are MOBA games and then there are games that are a bit like that, but not.

This is where Bloodsports.TV comes in. It shares a lot in common with the MOBA, namely in the control scheme, click to go here, click to attack this, press this button to allow that and so on and it is an Arena Battle game in many respects.

However, it also plays like an action oriented tower defense, much like an Orcs Must Die, but still maintaining the top down view you’d expect in titles such as DOTA2 and Heroes of the Storm.

Now I am not going to lie to you, I started this game in a very skeptical manner, because as far as I could tell, it was going to be a poor man’s take on a DOTA2, it has a look to it that is inspired by Borderlands, which is putting it mildly and in all honesty it lacked that immediate charm, it didn’t seem like it had that hook to draw you in.

Even going through tutorial missions, it still lacked that something, as they are very restrictive and plod along at a very slow pace, often finding yourself wanting to take the next action, but waiting for the tutorial to catch you up. I found myself remonstrating with the game more often than not. “Yes, yes, I get it! Now let me perform the action.”

I almost wanted to give up and put this down to a bad job, give the game a 4 out of ten and move on to something else but that would be unfair on my part; because this is a game that the developers say is best played in co-op and the tutorial is a single player experience to bed you in.

So with that I got a partner and started playing through the various missions whilst chatting away and something happened. The time flew by, this was a rather enjoyable experience and the initial negative thoughts I had faded away.

Myself and my gaming partner made our way through numerous levels and missions, enjoying taking down the enemies that dared advance on us, even the missions we failed didn’t bother us too much, as going again didn’t feel like a chore, but more an act of determination. Knowing what we did wrong and how we can approach it next time.

Bloodsports.TV also does a very good job of handling progression. You will start at level 1, but the various unlocks and perks that allow you to take on later levels are drip fed at just the right pace, meaning that each mission feels well balanced. You never feel like you are just grinding to level up, nor is the game forcing enemies on you that are stupidly overpowered.

Sure some levels are more difficult and some are a little easier, but this is by subtle amounts, which feel logical. Those levels that seem that bit easier are like a reward and slight respite and those that up the difficulty are there as though they are trying to get the best from you. Like a movie based drill sergeant from the the likes of Full Metal Jacket.

This isn’t a perfect game, as the earlier issues still ring true, making it one that isn’t easy to get into, whether you are an expert or a newcomer. It still looks like a bit of a spinoff from Borderlands and it is awful to play on your own.

That being said though, when played with a friend or two, this is something else. It isn’t as hardcore as some MOBA games and it doesn’t require that long term dedication to get the most out of it. It is a nice game to have sitting on the hard drive, just ready when you are. Plus, at the £6.99 being charged you will find plenty of value for your hard earned money.

The Spatials

The Spatials is a multifaceted indie game which combines the laid back Sim-esque fun of building a space station with a real time combat system and exploration game.

The overall aim of the game is to explore the 30 randomly generated subsystems, with over 100 planets in total, to conquer them and gather resources. This enables you to upgrade your space station, which is conveniently located on an asteroid, and satisfy the guests who visit.

The game is very colourful and simplistic, which is positive as it runs very smoothly and due to the random generation of the planets for exploration and conquering means that nothing is ever the same. Missions themselves, in most cases, are basic “find the pirates and kill them” which involves click-to-move navigation and action buttons 1 through 5 for your intrepid explorers’ abilities (1 and 2 for dps, 3 is crowd control, 4 heals and 5 regenerates energy) to vanquish your foes – these take approximately 5 minutes to do. Interestingly, there is no permanent death for the explorers and should you fail they are returned to your space station and enter stasis until you return, where they are automatically revived. If you complete the area you are rewarded with resources which are used for building up the space station, credits which are used for everything as the in-game currency, and experience (and possible ability upgrades) for your explorers. Once you’ve conquered an area you can also use credits to excavate resources on a set time duration (12, 6 or 3 minutes based on how many people you have in the embassy).

The space station UI is very easy to navigate, and simple touches like the builders grid make it easy for you to design your spaceship to look exactly how you want and quickly fix any building placement errors. There are lots of neat little touches like the arcade, bar and library which are a welcome change to the typical format and are accessible by upgrading the technology tree. The simplistic UI also helps when viewing visitor’s cravings to increase your standing with visitors and staff at the space station. However, as with most games of this ilk the beginning is a little slow and very dependant upon credits to enable you to upgrade or progress which meant redoing a few missions for quick resources.

There are very few negative points I noted in my playthrough aside from that there isn’t much to actually challenge the player – as mentioned there is no penalty for failing a mission apart from having to redo it (which is fine by me!), there are no environmental dangers when carrying out missions (call me weird for hoping the big lava pit would have actually done something horrid to my whiny scientist guy Branson Gold…) or any enemies coming to trash your space station to slow your progress like similar games.

Due to the random generation of the worlds and resources there is a great amount of replayability and the simplistic nature of the game makes it great for dipping in and out of when you have a spare 15 minutes.

Zombie Army Trilogy Review

If you read the internet, everyone is sick of zombies. Sick and fucking tired of their pasty, shambling arses. If you read different parts of the internet everyone loves zombies. Everyone loves them to DEATH.

Opinions, eh? People said the same thing a few years ago about games set during World War II.

So Zombie Army Trilogy is probably the result of developers Rebellion going “Which two overplayed yet profitable tropes can we mash together to make a game that will overjoy some and boil the piss of others?” and someone piping up “World War II and zombies!”

Then Clive the tea-lad might have pointed out that people will be sick of both of those, to which Rebellion went “Ah, but you’ll be SNIPING the undead bastards! With gratuitous gore! And slow motion replays showing the vertebrae shatter!”

They then all had chocolate bourbons and tea while nodding to themselves at a job well done. Maybe.

To be perfectly honest there isn’t anything about the premise of Zombie Army Trilogy I don’t like, because I’m that kind of shallow prick that laps up remasters, shooting games and anything with zombies in it. So seeing as this has all three I should be in hog heaven. But I’m not.

The problem with Zombie Army Trilogy (or Nazi Zombie Army as it was known in it’s two separate incarnations on PC) is that its tight budget shows through on almost every level.

The game looks fine as it goes, although everything has a wrapped-in-plastic shininess to it, and the levels feel like a series of various sized boxes with a smaller variety of boxes skinned and acting as scenery, all of which are recycled extensively through each game.

The selection of playable characters all have a dead eyed look and absolutely no voice acting at all. The music is budget Carpenter synth, but thankfully used sparingly.

Not only are the protagonists dead eyed robot looking cretins, the cut scenes show four characters (like in Dead Island) even if you’re playing single player which would ruin the immersion if it wasn’t for the fact the game is ridiculously <relevant> preposterous and the plot paper thin bunkum.

But who cares about story and visuals, right?! It’s got a low RRP! It’s a remaster of budget PC games! You’re here to eradicate the undead in the most satisfyingly violent way you can; i.e. with high velocity lead encased in brass projected through the eye socket! Well…

The central mechanic of the game, the sniping, is lifted from Rebellion’s Sniper Elite series, and as such is solid and entertaining for a while. Perform what the game deems a particularly excellent shot and it will cut to a cinematic camera angle and follow the bullet in slow motion where it then enters the target and gives you a super gorey x-ray shot of their bones shattering and a gout of blood more gratuitous than a congealed cadaver should eject. And it does this a lot.

It’s a good job they put an option to turn down/off the frequency of the slow-mo as waiting 5 seconds for the shot to run it’s course after every 3 bullets fired took any shine off the moment. It’s good to still have on as it’s one of the few things in the game that provides you with any semblance of satisfaction.

It’s a shame that the rest is a shambling abomination of appalling game design. It breaks so many spoken and unspoken rules that it becomes a teeth grinding, pad throwing, soul crushing exercise in frustration.

The biggest problem with the game is that trying to make sniping entertaining for the running time of each game (about 4 hours apiece) is incredibly difficult, so Rebellion have slotted in sections where you’re required to dispatch hordes of the undead that lay siege to a closed location. You’ve got trip mines, landmines and dynamite to lay beforehand in the hope it’ll stem the tide somewhat, but all it really comes down to is you running around like a loon hoping to stay far enough away from them so you can get them in the sights of your rifle or so you can lob a stielhandgranate in the middle of a mob.

You have secondary weapons for close encounters, but they’re not very effective for crowd control. The shotgun is especially weak. You’d expect it to dismember a small group of zombies with it’s spread, but it pretty much just takes out one at a time.

There are a few variations on the siege, but they all boil down to the same thing; hold out until you manage to kill every zombie the game throws at you. This happens with alarming frequency and after the first 5 or 6 of them they get very tedious indeed, especially the ones with a turret to use as you’d have better luck eradicating them with an effing spud gun for all the damage the gun emplacement does.

In amongst the regular zombies there are some special ones with different powers to mix it up a little, and in the main they’re a decent stab at making you apply tactics but there’s still too many poor design choices, like the bullet sponge bullshit in the form of Super Elites. These big buggers just keep coming at you taking headshot after headshot after headshot while mowing into you with their LMG and being a royal pain in the arse. It’s less pronounced after the first game but it’s like they went “Oh, er, we need something to make the game more difficult. I know! A big zombie that takes like 7 headshots to kill! Ace!”, not realising it was an awful idea.

The reasons why Zombie Army Trilogy doesn’t really work are as numerous as the dead shuffling through the levels. It’s a horde game designed around a mechanic which doesn’t work with large volumes of enemies. Zombies are legion, there are thousands of them, and the idea is to make you feel overwhelmed by the tide of corpses looking to rip your head off and suck on the stump, but the challenge only comes from finding a way around the ravening horde to get far enough away to pick them off.

Between inconsistent checkpoints, awful forced horde-mode battles, repetitive one-note gameplay and generally low production values it’s just not worth the time or effort to put Hitler and his armies back in the ground.

NOTE: at this time the co-op mode hasn’t been tried out, as the game has sucked my will to live/the desire to give it a go. I will try it out and if by some miracle it drags the main game out of the mire I’ll put a review up for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Pillars of Eternity Review

“Oh, where to begin?” Jonathan looks nervously at his computer screen as he contemplates something, then looks like he has as idea. “Perhaps with a brief history…” His posture relaxes as he takes a deep breath.

“Pillars of Eternity is an RPG from Obsidian Entertainment in the vein of Infinity Engine games such as Baulder’s Gate, and is the first new franchise they have worked on since 2010’s Alpha Protocol. So instead of covering someone else’s creation they have created their own world, full of choice and incredibly detailed.”

“You begin, as is often the case, by creating a character. To be honest I normally slide a couple of bars about – it’s no longer the default character if I do that – and get through this stage quite quickly.” It appears that Jonathan is thinking of a recent experience, and because in this narration you are slightly psychic, you know this to be Bloodborne. “Thinking of a name is another matter entirely though, as Stacey, my wife, will attest.”

“Pillars of Eternity, on the other hand, provides almost an excess of choice at the beginning, and it comes across as though each choice matters. Initially you pick one of six races, with the standard tropes present such as human, elf and dwarf, but there are also some curveballs with the Godlike particularly standing out. You then flesh out your character with things like origin, backstory, appearance and voice. Most importantly is the class selection. There is a healthy mix of skill and magic-based characters, with the cipher and chanter being fairly unique. As the former had an ability to charm opponents temporarily this was, naturally, my choice.” Jonathan pauses for a moment and collects his thoughts before continuing.

“Anyway, after spending half a lifetime in the character creator,” he exaggerates “it is time to begin the adventure. Your avatar is a foreigner as part of a caravan looking to settle in a new land yet things quickly go wrong. Strange things start occurring to your character and your aim is to discover what that is and try and fix it. It quickly transpires that bad things are happening in this land and that you’re now involved. There’s a surprise.”

“The game handily provides tips as you progress, yet given the complexity of the game these never become overwhelming. Conversations are nicely presented, with a surprising amount of voice over work, yet given the amount of text in the game not everything is spoken to you. Given that the game takes place from an isometric perspective and the screen is fairly static while conversing, Obsidian have seen fit to interlace the dialogue with descriptions of the speaker’s body language that add extra depth to the chat.” Jonathan winks knowingly. “I should probably stop this farce of a review format now I’ve reached the punchline, yet I’m going to stick out out. Your choices in conversations are clear, and it is always explicit if the response is trying to be clever or aggressive, etc.”

“Outside of talking, Pillars of Eternity takes place in real time, except you can pause and issue commands at any time. You can also, at will, halve or double the speed the game runs at too – making travelling quick when needed, and ensuring you do not miss anything in combat. The game also features a customisable list of when it will automatically pause, such as on spotting an enemy. Apart from when fighting the very weakest of foes you will be pausing a lot, assessing the situation, and issuing orders accordingly. Your party, of up to six, is very versatile with a number of available abilities with weapons and armour not limited by class. If you want a priest to wield a longsword and be on the frontline of every fight that is an option.” Jonathan pauses. “Maybe not a very good option, but a possibility nonetheless. You can gain companions as you travel the world yet the game further accommodates differing play styles by giving you the option to recruit extra people into your team by visiting an inn, which takes you back to the character creator.”

“Both long and short term damage is represented in the game, via health and endurance respectively. Endurance is the one you’ll check most as this conveys the damage taken in each battle and can be replenished through abilities and items. If a character’s endurance runs out during combat then they are out of the remainder of that fight. Health gradually goes down over time, more so through damage taken in fights, and can only be replenished through using a campfire to rest or visiting an inn. Characters can die permanently by running out of health. Abilities are generally classified as either ‘per encounter’ or ‘per rest’ with the more powerful ones saved for the latter. The game can be difficult and your party can get taken out quite quickly if you’re not paying attention or have an unbalanced party set up. This can be quite punishing as Stacey was originally going to review this yet after a fairly frustrating 8 or so hours on a Saturday was about ready to throw her laptop through a window. I took the review on instead and I’m certain you will be please to know that the laptop was saved. For now at least.”

“On initially discovering a type of enemy your information regarding it is limited to precisely bugger all. After felling it several times you can see its statistics but cease to earn experience. Instead the majority of the experience points comes from completing quests, deactivating traps, and picking locks. Pillars of Eternity is accommodating to different play styles and you can often talk your way out of a situation or avoid it completely. This is best demonstrated by an example of one early side quest . I’ll avoid outright spoilers although your outcome may be entirely different.”

“So after completing an early quest the party was approached by a mysterious stranger who urged them to dispose of the ruler of that part of the land. After some questioning the deed was afoot. Travelling to the target’s castle one of the party commented that surely they were not just going to walk through the front door. Agreeing, an alternative way was found, whereby everyone scaled a wall and snuck in – yet were a little fatigued by the climb. Stealthily progressing (with just 2 senseless murders) I conveniently found six sets of clothing that would allow my group to blend in. Popping these on, the party started wandering around trying to work out where to go. Along the way they were questioned as to why they were not where they were supposed to be, and the main character managed to talk his way out of it. Until I discovered, the hard way, that a red cursor means you’re stealing. I learned this after Steve (the barbarian, obviously. I did say I was terrible at naming things) helped himself to the contents of a cupboard and suddenly the four other people in the room turned hostile.” Jonathan looks a little embarrassed at this. “One quick bloodbath later, the disguises were ditched. I then found an old man to talk to who was willing to help in the quest if his favourite pupil was rescued. Given the amount of effort the party had been through the old man was convinced to stand guard for eight hours while they rested to regain their strength. Waking up I noticed lootable objects and thinking the old man wanted our help he would be happy to lend some supplies too. Nope, he turned hostile and was swiftly dispatched. At this point diplomacy was out of the window and so the party murdered their way through the dungeons where the pupil was found. He thanked us, told us to let his master know (oops!), and ran off. I’m hopeful he will never discover the truth.To cut an already long story short, the group made their way to the throne room (on the way killing a couple of guards who were minding their own business), and had a revealing chat with the ruler. After deciding not to join his side he and his guards were slaughtered to. Stealth, diplomacy, and outright massacre all in one mission. If I were any better at either of the former two a lot of lives could have been saved. It is situations like this that really make Pillars of Eternity stand out.”

“As well as trying to emulate the conversation style of Pillars of Eternity, this review also features one other similarity. Both have a lot of text, although I’m willing to wage that the game has a lot more. If you’re turned off by a lot of reading this may not be the game for you but you’re also unlikely to be reading at this point. Maybe you’ll notice it thanks to the proximity to the score.”

“Pillars of Eternity provides a deep, open experience. The combat is satisfyingly difficult but if you don’t like micromanaging the party it will soon grate. The story had me grabbed and the amount of detail and lore is dumbfounding. Choices in conversations can affect future events, and you can kill,” Jonathan stops for a second “attack, I should say, anyone you come across. Or you could just wander as a stealthy near-mute who tries to avoid everyone. In fact I might give that a try now…”

Ironcast Review

I am a sucker for Match 3 type games, I mean I am totally infatuated by them. Whether it be the cream of the crop such as Bejeweled and Treasures of Montezuma Blitz, to even finding it difficult to stay away from Candy Crush Saga. I love them and and all the various types of spinoffs they create. Ironcast is no exception, therefore I jumped at the chance to review it.

Ironcast is an RPG Match 3 title, the sort that has been finding more and more popularity over the years, where you match tiles to level up and beat enemies, before moving on, leveling up some more and progressing the story. It is a mechanic that tends to work really well, as it does here.

Unlike a Super Puzzle Fighter, or Puzzle Quest, instead of matching 3 tiles by swapping them, you draw a line through adjacent tiles to fill up a meter that allows you to perform separate actions. If you’ve ever played the excellent mobile game Dungeon Raid, then you’ll already have a handle on the matching mechanics.

Each player has an overall turn that is made up of two options. The matching stage, which gives you 3 opportunities to make matches and fill the meters and then the action stage. Here you choose to level up defenses, attack and fix any damage. You can choose to mix up how you approach each turn, so you’re not forced to do the match stage completely, then attack, then finish.

You can choose to make an attack, or fix some damage to a weapon, etc. then make a couple of matches, increase defenses, maybe attack again, then do your final match and then maybe take another attack attempt, all before ending your turn. The fact that there is some wiggle room really adds to the tactical nature of the game and does make you think about your approach.

How you do this can depend on a number of things, a strong enemy type might see you needing to constantly manage your defenses, whilst chipping away with attacks, or you might have a collection mission which sees you needing to just stay alive whilst matching special tiles, or you may even need to concentrate an attack on one part of your opponent, so as not to damage a certain part.

Why? Well because you can also collect blueprints, which allow you to equip upgrades, whether this be to your main and secondary weapons, your defense or other attributes like your evasion. All of this will cost money, which is earned through winning battles and beating objectives. Money can also be found by making matches of coin tiles too.

It can’t all just be spend on upgrades willy nilly though, as it also costs to fix any damage you have at the end of a battle, which again means you need to carefully plan ahead with how money is spent.

This isn’t a simple progression based RPG styled game though, as it is more Roguelike in fashion, because once you die, you die. You will need to start again from scratch, which is something you will be used to by now if you have ever played a Roguelike title.

What happens here, is that when you die, the XP you’ve collected is then added to a ‘global pool’ which grows after every death, once you hit a new level, you are rewarded with new starting weapons, boosts, machines, characters, etc. all designed to make your life easier and carry you forward in the game.

It is a system that works really well and rather than being frustrated by death, you almost look forward to it, just to find out what you may unlock next. There is a wonderful balance to Ironcast and it is a game that lends itself well to playing in small bursts, or for longer sessions.

If you have even a passing interest in puzzle games, then Ironcast is a must play title, as it is easy to approach but rewards dedication. The level of polish that the game has too is just the icing on a very well made cake.

Etherium Review

Let me admit something to you my friends, before I even get into this review. The last game that even comes close to Etherium that I played was Command and Conquer back in the mind nineties and I was awful at it, I had no talent at all for managing squads, or building resources. I was a platformer guy and I am fine with that.

The problem is, as I get older my reactions are getting slower and I struggle to beat games on a more consistent basis. So when I saw Etherium I decided that now might be the chance to have a look at the 4X type game again. I am a lot more experienced now and I am happy to sink time into this sort of game…

Etherium is an odd game for a newcomer really, because it is a very streamlined approach to the RTS which makes cracking the usual tough exterior a lot more manageable when it comes to commanding units and building up resources before moving on to attack and take over the enemy areas.

The problem here though, is that there is a pretty big assumption that anyone playing this has knowledge of the genre which makes it very difficult for a newcomer to get to grips with things. Now I am all for games not hand holding and making the user work, but in a game like this, I feel it needs a complete idiot’s guide type introduction.

Whilst the information is there, it fails to break it down enough to ease new people in and in an age where gaming is opened up to more and more new people it should be a choice at the beginning about the type of experience you are after. I felt though, that maybe I was being overly harsh, but I took advice from a friend who loves this genre and even he felt it wasn’t simplifying the tutorial enough for newcomers.

Anyway, I am a newcomer and I shouldn’t focus on that alone, I also have the task of reviewing this game, thus I push through and learn as much as I can and on the whole the streamlining works well to keep the action flowing whilst allowing you to easily identify and manage the various aspects of the game.

Everything is laid out on a hexagonal style grid, where you expand out and build your resources. Claim a hexagon and you control that area, meaning you can build a base on it, farm resources, set up various important structures.

These will allow you to build more units, improve your tech, defenses and much more. The UI does a pretty good job too of presenting you with all the information you need, such as informing you that an attack is happening, or you may be short of units, that you may need to upgrade a certain aspect and more.

After a few hours it starts to click and you do start to feel like a commanding general or some such other important war leader type. You almost enter a zone and start taking actions based on logic, based on what your ultimate goal is, rather than what may make sense based on early tutorials. You start to realise how you can use the expansion path to your benefit. Forcing enemy units into a bottle neck allowing you to take them out in a controlled manner, whilst having turrets and other defense systems managing other areas, allowing you to build more before expanding out further.

What started of as a rather frustrating experience turned into one that I happily lost hours to as I commanded my armies, created alliances with other factions and took down my enemy with precision and force.

But, being an RTS and 4X style game, one simple mistake can turn the entire game on its head and the same is true of Etherium. This is a game that is very quick to punish and 45 minutes of progression can be undone in a few short moments. Instead of becoming angered by this, you learn and you come back stronger. Hell, you can even learn how to adapt to those mistakes and turn them into advantages.

It is this subtlety that shocked me the most, as with most games in other genres, you screw up, you die, you respawn at a checkpoint and you just try again. But in Etherium and other such games, you learn to think on your feet and do some damage limitation, before trying to turn the tide back in your favour. Etherium does a fantastic job of giving you that feeling of a war being broken into smaller battles all on the same screen.

There is a lot I like about this game and its one I will be spending time with, visually it is impressive with so much going on, especially when zoomed right in. Even zoomed out it is pretty easy to identify what is going on and which of your units is involved in which battles.

However, one thing that did feel a little off, was the movement across the map. Many of the UI elements are to the side of the screen, which is great as it doesn’t obscure the action, but the limits of the UI elements and the screen edge seem to be too small and it is easy to accidentally move the screen away from where you were originally focused, meaning you then need to re-adjust before then completing an action. It is one major annoyance on an otherwise decent package.

It is hard for me to say where this sits compared to other games in the genre, but as a newcomer going in blind I felt like it was a game that can be a good introduction to the genre and one that I can happily recommend if you wish to test the waters.

Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas Review

Seriously, Oceanhorn: Monster of the Uncharted Seas may as well have started with that famous quote and dressed its main character in green, such are the clear influences from a certain series. What’s more, this is a port of an iOS game, which should lead me to a rant about how awful this game is and how it doesn’t deserve any of your hard earned money.

But beyond all my expectations, I couldn’t help but love Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas, because if you are going to make a game that sits in the same genre as a Zelda game, then you may as well go all in. Zelda is the best game at being Zelda, there is no doubt about that, there is very, very little you can do to change the format and still be good and the developers at Cornfox & Bros to their credit know this and run with it.

What stands out is that despite the clear influence, Oceanhorn has a charm all of its own; the characters are their own style, the story differs enough from the Zelda games, the worlds, whilst similar, also feel like their own thing and rather than feeling like a ripoff clone, it feels like a game made by a team who loved the Zelda games and wanted to show how much by making something themselves and you know what? They only went and nailed it.

The other fear I had was knowing this came from an iOS background, that is something that really did set alarm bells off in my head, because my past experience with iOS adventure games ported to consoles and PC has never been great. But aside from a few UI instances that feel built for mobile, the overall experience works wonderfully with both keyboard & mouse and a controller. It feels like a console or PC quality Indie game, so once again huge kudos to the devs there.

It almost feels like a pointless exercise going over the various game mechanics, because you will immediately feel at home with them. Certain actions are bound to certain keys; from melee attacks, shields, range attacks, potions, items, etc it feels very familiar and adds to the experience exceptionally well.

The length and pacing of the game is spot on too, there is around 10-15 hours of content here depending on how much exploring you wish to do and the sense of discovery and progression is finely balanced so that you never once feel bogged down in a certain area, or that you might be missing something.

The one influence that does feel a little cheap though, is the sailing sections, which are right out of Windwaker and Phantom Hourglass. It is both this and the reveals of opening chests where I sat back in my chair and thought to myself…”This is going a bit close to the sun”

Where the rest of the game feels like a loving homage, these two things come across as a straight ripoff and despite being well done, it does put a minor downer on things.

However, it is only a minor downer and if you are a fan of Zelda games but don’t own a Nintendo console, then pick this up instantly, it really is a fine game in its own right. If you do own a Nintendo console and love the Zelda games…well pick this up and enjoy something you already love!

Dungeon Of The Endless Review

Recovering magic amulets or defeating Balrogs, that sort of thing. Flimsy pretexts for facing almost certain death and food poisoning from eating goblin corpses to fend off starvation. Dungeon of the Endless takes a different tack. Your spaceship has crash landed 12 floors deep in a dungeon and your only hope is to lead your squad of heroes to the surface, carting your stricken vessel’s power crystal with you. The type of everyday scenario we can all relate to.

Amplitude are a developer with a penchant for tabletop gaming rules and systems so it’s no surprise that Dungeon of the Endless (DOTE from here on in) looks and feels like a dungeon crawl board game. Gameplay is a compulsive mix of turn based exploration and tower defence. Each turn you open a door revealing another room in the dungeon, generating resources and potentially triggering a wave of attacking monsters. Combat plays out in pausable real time, you rush your heroes from room to room, triggering skills and placing defensive modules in an effort to keep the hordes from reaching and destroying your crystal.

Key to your survival is “dust”, a resource found through exploration and defeating monsters. The more dust you have, the more rooms in the dungeon you can power and build defences in. Since monsters can’t spawn in powered rooms it’s vital for both exploration and planning your escape route to the next level. Dust is stored in your crystal and any damage it takes depletes your supply causing the lights to flicker out across the dungeon, powering down your defences and providing more areas for enemies to spawn. Powering the rooms around your crystal, setting up your defences and chain of production and establishing a safe perimeter is an oddly comforting activity. Watching in horror as that security crumbles around you is hugely compelling. Once the elevator to the next floor is located it’s time to reconfigure your power grid, uproot your crystal and make a thrilling dash to the exit while swarms of enemies descend on you from the darkness.

In addition to dust you can generate industry, science and food points, either through building resource modules or exploring the dungeon. Industry is vital for modules, science for levelling those modules up and food for healing and levelling your heroes. The relationships between the four resources aren’t immediately clear but given time you start to suss the subtleties of DOTEs economy. Further depth is provided by dynamics within your squad. You start with two heroes of your choice but quickly discover other stranded space travellers and natives who’ll join you. Some are team players, bolstering allies when fighting side by side. Others are loners reducing the overall effectiveness of heroes in the same room. On top of this each hero has a range of passive and active skills that skew towards different specialities; exploration, module operation, defense, support etc. Each layer of the system is paper thin but they all serve to add shades of complexity to team management.

Visually DOTE is spectacular, drawn in gloriously blocky DOS era style pixel art. Environments are suitably dank and atmospheric, high fantasy and sci-fi themes mashed together with great enthusiasm. Rooms are packed with spot effects and tiny details like cardboard tiles from a tabletop game come to life. Your heroes stride around with animations reminiscent of Treasure classic Guardian Heroes and the monsters slither, crawl and ooze with character. All this is accompanied by a moody soundtrack, one part John Carpenter to one part Mass Effect, which ratchets up in intensity when the action gets manic.

There’s a vein of daft humour too. Guns fire hails of projectile rice and equipping hipster scarves draws aggro from enemies. The text based dialogue occasionally strays too far into wackiness but I grew to appreciate the rogues’ gallery of flawed, oddball heroes and find my own personal favourites. Wrapped up in all this is a subplot of conspiracy and betrayal revealed slowly through scribbled comments in the game’s art gallery and snippets of dialogue that unearth character relationships and background lore. It’s no Dark Souls but it’s a welcome layer of intrigue that fuels the urge to play again after each traumatic defeat.

Traumatic because the difficulty level is utterly merciless. I’m not ashamed to admit that after the 20+ hours I played I failed to beat the game on “easy” mode, normal being locked until you’ve successfully navigated your way to the surface. The closest I managed was a crushing defeat on the final level. Dozens of less successful attempts saw me subjected to dramatic reversals of fortune, slow declines from level to level and heroic last stands. There’s a snidely titled “Too Easy” option for players with the strength of character to swallow their pride but I couldn’t bring myself to use it.

Where DOTE falls just short of classic status is its lack of the vast range of moment to moment interactions a traditional roguelike provides or the domino effect systems of modern titles like FTL and Spelunky. The stuff of anecdotes and unforgettable play sessions. Amplitude’s knife edge balance of team and resource management seemingly has no room for such dynamic storytelling. It excels as a game of long term strategy and short term gambles, complex interplay between your heroes and resources, countless dilemmas and tough calls. Mechanically it makes for an oddly dry take on the genre despite the high production values but still an addictive and unique one.

République Remastered Review

Fundamentally a cross between a point and click adventure and a stealth game, République Remastered has one main goal: to tell you its story.

A PC conversion of a mobile game, you would be forgiven for immediately hearing alarm bells, however République Remastered has updated the graphics and adapted the controls to work superbly with a keyboard and mouse. As an episodic game, the PC version currently grants you access to the first three episodes, with the final two scheduled to be released this year.

République Remastered begins with you answering a phone call from a distressed young girl, aptly named Hope. Fearing being erased, which sounds like a bad deal, she begs you for help and the action picks up from there. You soon learn of a totalitarian society, ruled by The Headmaster, also known as the Overseer, where anything that threatens his ideal is banned and everything is monitored in order to maintain the order of the place.

I should point out that you are, essentially, playing yourself in this game, or at least a version of you that has hacked into the security system. In your position of an interested observer you are free to use and control any camera, and switch between them at will. This is performed via a mode known as OMNI view and this is also your primary tool for gathering more information about the world via the collectables strewn about. Unfortunately this exposition usually involves looking at a static picture of an item while a voiceover, be it a description or a conversation, plays out. Your options here are to sit through it or skip the entire piece of dialogue. Whilst I was engaged in République’s narrative, I couldn’t help sighing on reaching a new area and seeing three or four of these together – knowing that I would be listening, and not interacting, for a while.

Your aim soon becomes to aid Hope in escaping from the facility she lives in, however she is not an action hero so stealth is paramount here. To guide Hope to the next destination you use your position as a fly on the wall to scout ahead and learn the guard’s patrol routes, before moving her through the area, hopefully undetected. Hope’s movement is, for the most part, intelligent, naturally hiding behind objects and she has some subtle behaviours that make her feel a little more alive, for instance peeking round a corner, or shuffling slightly away if a guard gets too close. However there were a couple of occasions where this did not work, and in one instance Hope stood up from the perfectly safe hiding spot and walked directly into a guard. This was only a minor annoyance as Hope will defend herself if she has the tools to do so, and the penalty for being caught is to have any items confiscated and be slowly escorted to the nearest confinement cell. Getting past the guards isn’t difficult with a little patience and I only let Hope be caught once. As luck would have it this was during a rare backtracking period, and the guard ushered Hope straight through the area. More stealth sections would not have gone amiss yet this means that they have yet to outstay their welcome and the odd puzzle breaks up the wandering.

République is good looking, with small details supporting the place you have found yourself in. Some well-known voice actors have been brought on board to provide the dialogue, which is of an expected high quality. The Headmaster is particularly enthralling to listen to, which accentuates his character as a likeable, alluring leader. The sound design is also good, with small details such as replicating the electronic interference noise when a mobile phone rings.



Each episode has been better than the last so far, which bodes well for episodes 4 and 5 when they are released. So far each episode has ended on a cliffhanger, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The result of all this is a polished and thoughtful stealth game which takes a backseat to the contemporary, cautionary tale, with strong characterisation. I’ve tried to avoid talking too much about the story and setting, as it was these that piqued and held my interest, and the best experience of the game is one where you discover this for yourself.

The Deer God Review

Whilst we are somewhat taken aback by this development, we have naturally hired the skills of an Animal Communicator, Dorothy Buckingham, to ensure the review is delivered in a timely fashion.

 

DOROTHY: So, I understand you’ve been playing The Deer God, a 2D platform game, prior to your transformation?

[The deer joyously nods]

 

DOROTHY: Excellent. I assume you’ve found that more difficult since you became a deer?

[The deer forlornly nods, raising his hooves one by one]

 

DOROTHY: Yes, I can see that holding a joypad with…

[The deer bristles]

 

 

DOROTHY: What’s that? You had problems with the joypad before? Wait a second…you found it pre-configured for a 360 pad, but you were using a different pad which spoiled the button prompts?

[The deer appears confirmational]

 

DOROTHY: Apart from that, what struck you early on with your experiences with the game?

[The deer appears to move into a monologue, pacing around in squares, sighing happily at the sky]

 

DOROTHY: You appreciated the 3D-based voxelly-pixelly art, the sense of tranquility? You thought the art was impressive, the animation smooth?

[The deer runs and hides behind a tree]

 

DOROTHY: Andrew, come back.

[The deer jumps out from behind the tree, landing slightly awkwardly]

 

 

DOROTHY: You found the foreground objects made it difficult to judge certain jumps in the game?

[The deer appears tranquil again, but then runs away rapidly, performing a series of agile, carefully measured leaps]

 

DOROTHY: So, despite the feeling of tranquility and nature, you found that the game encouraged you to sprint, taking the platforming as it comes?

[The deer frowns at a spider, then jumps over it and sprints again]

 

DOROTHY: You found the combat functional, albeit uninspiring, so it was better to avoid it where possible?

[The deer jumps on an owl. And a stag. And an eagle. And a monkey. And..]

 

DOROTHY: There’s lots of combat then? Much too much?

[The deer nods and eats some berries]

 

DOROTHY: Ah, you also didn’t really understand why the game required constant eating? That like the combat it didn’t really seem required in the game?

[The deer shrugs]

 

DOROTHY: Oh. You were just hungry. Fair enough. But that does apply to the game too?

[The deer nods]

 

 

DOROTHY: And what about development throughout the game? Is it a simple platformer?

[The deer goes into elaborate charades, pretending to wield a whip and then rolling into a ball and through a narrow hole in the wall]

 

DOROTHY: Metroidvania aspects then?

[The deer nods, although with an air of confusion]

 

DOROTHY: But you didn’t find those aspects particularly well communicated?

[The deer nods, lets out a relaxed sigh, then looks confused again]

 

DOROTHY: You feel the atmosphere and the setting were prioritised over communicating the minutiae of the game to the player, generally to the detriment of the game as an experience?

[The deer is quite impressed that the animal communicator is able to ascertain such a precise opinion]

 

DOROTHY: I am a professional. I’ve worked with a psychic horse, you know. He could communicate with the dead, but then he got famous and left me behind.

[The deer looks incredulous]

 

DOROTHY: OK, I know someone who worked with him. But he could definitely contact the dead.

[The deer looks incredulous]

 

DOROTHY: No, I can’t really back that up. But they said so.

[The deer nods, slowly. Then taps his face on the animal communicator’s watch]

 

DOROTHY: Have you got somewhere to be? Oh, you’re saying that this isn’t a massive game?

[The deer nods, twice.]

 

DOROTHY: Both? So you want to wrap this up then?

[The deer nods. Then suddenly drops dead!]

 

DOROTHY: So you sometimes die in the game?

[Nothing]

 

DOROTHY: Ah, so permadeath? How does that work then?

[The deer shrugs, then looks forlorn]

 

DOROTHY: Ah, for the most part if you avoid combat you can make good progress, often unlocking young deer to reincarnate into, but when death does occur it feels quite cheap and unnecessary, adding nothing to the experience?

[The deer nods once, then angrily bellows]

 

DOROTHY: That when a death is caused by the controls, or the view being obstructed, it’s really rather annoying?

[The deer runs and jumps, appears tranquil, kicks a porcupine]

 

DOROTHY: So when it’s going well, it looks good, the setting is great and you don’t mind occasional bits of combat?

[The deer mimes falling off a cliff on to spikes, then looks bemused at the spikes]

 

DOROTHY: But then it all goes wrong, and when have there even been spike pits in real life?

[The deer starts to dance. It’s quite embarrassing]

 

DOROTHY: David Brent? Ah! Awful bosses. The game has awful bosses.

[The deer dances again]

 

DOROTHY: That bad?

[The deer nods]

 

DOROTHY: Anything else?

[The deer shrugs and looks confused]

 

DOROTHY: You spent most of the game not really knowing what to do, but somehow completed it despite that? But despite that, you recommend it, but it falls short of what it could have achieved?

[The deer nods, lays down, pondering his existence and the nature of life as a concept, but not in a wholly satisfied manner]

 

Andrew The Deer has since been shot and served as rather delicious venison burgers, his antlers hanging on the walls of Gamestyle Towers in memory of his time spent here.

Cities: Skylines Review

So I’ll go for a Journey reference instead…

Just a small town girl
Livin’ in a lonely world
She took the midnight train
Goin’ anywhere
Just a city boy
Born and raised in South DETROOOIIITTT!!!

That’s it, I am happy now. So on with the review!

I’ve grown up admiring the city building genre, but never really getting to grips with them. I loved Sim City, but soon found out I was barely scratching the surface, I extend this to the likes of Theme Hospital, Theme Park, Anno, basically anything that required me to build and then run something over a long period.

I sucked at those games, but they were still fun even for my wretched brain which just couldn’t handle the statistics and attributes that seemed to be changing faster than I could process them. Yet still, I enjoyed these games… then, then something changed, either I was different now, or these games were just becoming awful.

Well with the latest SimCity from EA, named SimCity, not to be confused with the 1989 original which was actually good. the 2013 version made me realise that it was the games that were getting worse and it had little to do with me. But hey, I’m not going to spend a review for Cities: Skylines bitching about EA.

You see Cities: Skylines is without a shadow of a doubt the game that the 90’s versions of these games deserve as a spiritual successor and what is most impressive is that for how fully featured and polished this game is, it was built by a team of just a handful of people, yet it outshines many of these games that have been built by large teams.

The first thing you notice is just how intuitive the controls are, most of the moving around is done on the mouse and with a combination of button clicks and movements, you soon become a pro with the camera.

The building side of things is well thought out. The basics of adding roads is clearly marked as to what can go where, what overlaps there maybe and how much room there is for building around them. This meant that within minutes of loading I had a very basic main central road, which then broke off into different areas for residential, commercial and industrial.

To confirm these areas it is a simple case of marking them with a colour, which again uses various techniques such as painting, filling in, marquee tools and precision painting to colour the area you want your different parts to be.

When you have decided on your layout, you then have to sort out water and electricity and once again the visual clues are clear and concise, showing you where you would need to lay powerlines, where your water pipes should go, etc.

Looking at the waterflow and the areas where wind will have the most affect will help you decide where to put wind turbines, your water pumps and waste pipes.

You start off with a few basics, but as soon as you hit a new milestone you unlock more parts to add to your fledgling town, such as medical centres, schools, refuse collection, emergency services and more. You also get the ability to enforce policies on your world, either overall or on a district by district basis.

What I really liked about all of this, is that it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, it still takes a lot of work and planning ahead on your part, but thanks to an intuitive and user friendly interface, any failings are down to you and you alone, rather than battling the system itself.

Handy little things such as emotion bubbles will alert you to problem areas, such as some districts not getting enough electricity, or that there are water issues, so a quick click to see the issue, followed by a few logical clicks on the interface can clear up any mess you may get yourself into.

Other ways in which the population can let you know about what is going on and how they feel is via Chriper, the game’s own social network, where people may complain about things, or even give a shout out to your wonderful work… they mainly complain.

Even though initially there are a lot of restrictions in place, you soon unlock more and more and the world you get to play with expands and grows and boy does it grow. It can actually get a little overwhelming after a few hours of play as you start to have massive city areas that need to work with farming, industrial, etc. and have a carefully balanced eco-system.

It should feel too much like work but the team at Colossal Order have produced something special with Cities: Skylines and it is one you simply must check out if you have even the slightest interest in the city building genre. This is a hell of a triumph.

Sunless Sea Review

It’s almost tailor-made for me. A steam-punk, alternate history, Lovecraft-inspired, text-heavy, slow-paced, story-based single player Rogue-like game. On paper, it’s perfect. In action, it isn’t. It comes close, but the places where it falls down seem all the more glaring in contrast to the many things it gets right.

It’s 1888. Thirty years ago, something happened and London fell into a vast subterranean cavern. Unlikely as it seems, plenty of the population survived, and got on with their lives in the newly christened ‘Fallen London’. The city is now on the shore of an inky Unterzee in which Lovecraftian things swim and the various islands that dot it move around through some incomprehensible means. You play as the captain of a steam ship, and you will explore the always-changing Unterzee. You’ll try to achieve your main goal (what that is will depend on how you set your character up, but it could be to gain enormous wealth, to find your father’s bones and return them to London for a proper burial, or several other aims). You’ll recruit officers and try to achieve their main goals too. You’ll meet strange and interesting people, and complete jobs for them. You’ll have to keep your ship supplied with fuel, and your crew supplied with food. You’ll try to manage the creeping, building terror that all who explore the Unterzee experience. You’ll desperately attempt to stop your crew going mad. You’ll fight pirates, sea creatures and monsters, and you’ll die. A lot. Sunless Sea is a Rogue-like, after all. It has a slower, more dreamlike pace than many games of its ilk, and it’s possibly a little more forgiving, but death is still constantly around the corner. You’ll be starting many, many new captains in your time with the game.

When you do start a new captain, you’ll get to choose various attributes for them: Their name, what they look like, what their background is, and what their life goal is. Once that’s done, you’ll be in charge of your squat, under-powered little ship. You’ll be given a crew, a mascot and an officer. You’ll have a map, but the only thing that will be marked on it – unless you inherited the previous captain’s map, but more on that later – will be Fallen London. All the rest of the map is a forbidding, featureless black. You’ll also be given a small amount of fuel so that your ship can explore the vast darkness of the Unterzee, and some stores so that your crew don’t immediately have to resort to cannibalism. The rest is up to you.

You set sail from Fallen London, and as you explore, your map is updated accordingly. Your plucky little vessel has a single gun and a light. The gun is used for shooting things, as you might expect. The light is a little more complicated. Your crew, it turns out, are afraid of the dark. They’re right to be: there are hungry, incomprehensible things out there waiting for you. Using your ship’s light allows you to see further, and calms the crew’s fear a little. Their terror still increases when you’re away from port or one of the few light buoys dotted around, but more slowly than if you have your light turned off. The drawbacks to using your light are that it increases the rate you burn fuel at, and it also means those ravenous, hunting things can see you better. Balancing your crew’s terror, your fuel reserves and the need for stealth (especially at the start of the game) is an interestingly delicate mechanic. Let the crew get too terrified, and they go insane, which causes bad things to happen and can end up with you being killed or set adrift. Burn the light too much, and you will be attacked by pirates, giant crabs, living icebergs or something equally bizarre and deadly. You’ll also very possibly get killed. Or if you’re lucky and manage to avoid the horrors swarming the Unterzee, you could run out of fuel, and end up starving to death or killed by the hungry crew….

One way of staving this sort of demise off a little is through developing your officers’ abilities. They offer bonuses to various attributes with such interesting names as veils, iron, hearts and mirrors. Each attribute does something different.  Veils is your stealth attribute: it allows you to hide better in the inky darkness. Mirrors allows you to see more clearly through the black. Iron is how good at shooting you are. Hearts is how good at resisting the terror of the Unterzee the crew are. Upgrade your officers’ attributes and your ship will fare slightly better. It’s a long, slow process though, and you’ll need to do other things too.

Another way to stay alive longer is to visit as many ports as you can. In these ports you can reduce terror by giving your crew shore leave, you can buy supplies and fuel, and you can upgrade your ship if you have the money. You can also, theoretically, trade. However, in my experience, there’s so little money to be made by trading that it isn’t worth attempting.

Speaking of money, there are various ways of making it. The most reliable (but least profitable) is to produce reports on the state of the many ports in the game. The Admiralty back in Fallen London pay for this information, and they’ll pay for a new report each time you visit a location. They don’t pay very much though, so you’ll need to supplement this activity by finding mysterious artefacts for various shady characters, doing ‘favours’ for disreputable sorts, ferrying passengers from one port to another, and several more commercial ventures.

You can also gain supplies and fuel through combat. Kill one of the many different monstrous zee creatures and you can usually gather food from its remains. Attack another ship, and if you destroy it, you can often gain fuel or supplies (or both) from the wreckage. Of course, the downside to attacking zee monsters or other vessels is that they fight back, and you may well end up dead.

Luckily, when one captain dies, the next one you start is their ‘successor’, and you’ll get to choose a ‘legacy’ for the new captain. This could be the old captain’s map (very helpful, as it means the ports in the Unterzee will be in the same place); some of the old captain’s attributes; a weapon and so on. The legacy you choose will be informed by how well the previous captain did – there’s no point choosing a weapon if the previous captain only had the starting equipment, after all – but it does help ease things for your new game, and give you a sense of incremental progress. That’s a good thing, as along with the Rogue-like frequent deaths, there’s plenty of grinding at the beginning of the game, and without the legacy system, it would become frustrating very quickly.

Of course, as with each of the mechanics in Sunless Sea, there’s a downside to every legacy. If you choose the previous captain’s map for example, you don’t have to discover every port again. However, when you discover a port for the first time, you gain ‘fragments’. Discover enough fragments and they form ‘secrets’. You use these secrets to increase your officers’ attributes. So if you’ve already discovered most of the ports you will find it much harder to improve your officers’ skills.

The mechanics all fit together well, with each one having an impact on at least one other mechanic (even if only slightly in some cases). That’s not to suggest Sunless Sea is primarily about the interplay of mechanics though. Stories are the beating heart of this Lovecraftian maritime horror. They’re everywhere: almost every person, port, officer and unknowable uncaring deity has their own story for you to discover. These stories are Sunless Sea‘s real strength, but they’re also where it falls down slightly.

The narrative part of Sunless Sea shares most of its DNA with Fallen London, Failbetter’s previous game. That was a browser-based text RPG with a dreadful free to play mentality, chock full of timers and currencies to buy and interminable grinding. Thankfully, Sunless Sea has done away with most of that, but some aspects still remain, and they’re the weakest part of the game.

The grind, for instance. As I mentioned earlier, it’s too much at the start of the game. The routine of getting the same missions from the same people with the same text every hour or so can get very wearisome. The game’s stories open up the further you get into the game, but in a Rogue-like, where death is pretty common, the opening is far too samey. There’s also a curious bleed-over from Fallen London in some of the terminology, which is unexplained. You’ll occasionally be told about the ‘storylet’ you’re reading, or that one of your ‘qualities’ has changed. You’re never told what a storylet or a quality is or does though.

It can be overly laborious to do simple things at times, too. If you destroy a pirate, you’ll be greeted with a screen full of text saying that you’ve done so, and you’re given a single choice: to scuttle the pirate’s ship. On clicking ‘scuttle’, you’re taken to a new screen where you’re told that you’ve recovered some cargo – “you now have one of the following: a cache of curiosities” – again with only a single choice you can take. You click ‘okay’, and are presented with another screen telling you that you should open the cache. On the next screen you’re told what’s in the cache. That’s four screens full of text to click through every time you defeat an enemy ship before you find out what cargo you got from them. It’s perhaps forgivable that Sunless Sea wallows a bit in text: that text is, for the most part, fantastic. There’s a palpable sense, when you’re reading the reams and reams of text, that Failbetter Games love language. There’s a playful, tactile, sensuous use of words. A sense of otherness is deftly created with a single phrase here and there. A world of shadows populated by half-seen, unseen, unseeable horrors is conjured, and it’s a pleasure to inhabit. As pleasurable as it is, though, it’s slightly inconsistent.

Names, speech and locales are all fantastic, but the overall realisation of the world falls just short. Failbetter occasionally replace ‘s’ with ‘z’ but without any sort of consistency. Sea becomes zee. Sailors become zailors. Soup becomes zoup. Sulphur retains its ‘s’, though, as do most words. I wondered if perhaps the s/z shift was something to do with liquid (sea is a liquid and so is soup…) but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Zee-monsters, for example, swim. Why they don’t zwim, I have no idea. And for all that, the game throws hundreds of thousands of words onscreen whenever it possibly can, sometimes it’s far too vague to be satisfying. For example, you’ll scout round a port and your captain will pick up some rumours and secrets. You, the player, will never learn what they are though. You’ll literally be told that you pick up rumours and secrets, and that will be that. It’s very unsatisfying being informed I know a secret but not what that secret actually is, or at least what it concerns. “You overhear some rumours regarding unrest in the Tomb Colonies” would be far more interesting than simply “You overhear some rumours.”

Another picky problem is that the tone of the game is occasionally at odds with itself, which is unfortunate. Sunless Sea does a fantastic job of creating a dream-like atmosphere of unnamed dread and inexorable menacing disaster, but then the atmosphere will be punctured by a character saying or doing something silly. That’s not to say I want a relentlessly grimdark game. I appreciate a bit of levity. But Sunless Sea doesn’t get it right, somehow. The levity comes at the wrong times. I can’t put my finger on why, or say when it should come instead but it’s an irritant all the same.

Of course, the fact that I’m complaining about something being not quite right in an indefinable way is a sort of backhanded compliment. The game is so well-written for the most part that what wouldn’t even be a noticeable issue in most games becomes one of my big complaints in this one.

Unfortunately, this is the over-arching impression I take away every time I play Sunless Sea. I love my time with it. I delight in the language, I love discovering new places (even if I’ve discovered them in a different place previously) and unlocking more stories. But there’s always a niggle. A slight hesitation; a vague annoyance. A feeling that the game could be better, and that it should be. This isn’t a potentially good game that’s crippled technically, or full of bugs, or badly designed. it’s an extremely good game which just doesn’t feel properly finished. It’s not quite a final draft. It’s still damned good fun though.

 

Total War: Attila Review

A time to be remembered for turmoil, not least for the Saxons. A group of tribes loosely held together under a single banner until the birth of a leader. Surrounded by other disparate tribes banding together, their goal is to expand, financed by raids across the coast of Britain.

Whilst Total War is at heart an intimidating turn-based strategy game with battles that require the management of thousands of troops simultaneously, it’s a game that has put itself in the public consciousness more than most. How many other games have found their combat turned into a Richard Hammond-fronted historic television game show?

Cornwall, not raided but liberated, allows the British people to start to form together. The Saxons continue up the west coast of Wales and conquer Northern Wales and decide to stay there.

Graphically, Attila finds itself in an odd situation. If you were heading back to 1989 to blow minds with what games look like in 2015, this would be a game you’d take back. Impressive enough zoomed out, the simple process of zooming in would thoroughly explode their brains. Utterly useless for gameplay, it’s still impressive enough to occasionally swoop down and watch the slaughter first hand. Despite that, the graphics aren’t a notable improvement on Rome 2, which wasn’t really a notable improvement over Shogun 2. It’s still impressive compared to every other historical strategy game, but Total War is prettified to get a broader audience than other strategy titles, so it would be nice to see a distinct leap forward.

On the continent, things go better. A jab south is successful, until the Romans decide to fight back. Likewise, one small village of Gauls are obliterated, only for the Western Roman Empire to clumsily fight back. Both end in towns being razed.

Perhaps the lack of graphical leap causing a glance over Total War’s shoulder is reason for one of the bigger additions, a true family tree. Best pitched as Crusader Kings Lite, you’ve now got to allocate roles and keep an eye on the happiness of your relatives to make sure they don’t do anything silly like starting civil wars. It’s a good, if small, addition in terms of gameplay, but it does slightly alter the tone of the game from acting for the nation you represent to being more concerned about the individuals ruling that nation.

The Franks are obliterated, thrown from their ancestral home to roam Europe as a horde, sailing first to Denmark and allowing the Saxon empire to now include Belgium. In the distant East, a new leader is born.

The other major addition is hinted at in the title. Factions can now become hordes, able to eschew city maintenance entirely. The idea behind this addition is glorious, massive armies sweeping through leaving a trail of destruction behind them, but the implementation is more prosaic. With any faction except the Huns, it essentially becomes a Moving House Simulator, pack up and move to a nicer area with no real way of sustaining a self-created horde. The Huns have more chance, but still require a vast amount of time spent in encampments which simply slows things down too much to be fun.

To the north, an agreement with the Jutes sees the Angles brought into Saxon territory, whilst the Jutes focus on conquering Britain. That provokes the Danes into attacking with an expensive but poorly trained series of armies, but defeating them riles the Geats. A six thousand man army razes Belgium, the Geats capital in Sweden razed in response. This drives them south to territory on the Mediterranean, out of Saxon hair.

It’s probable that, personal preference for era aside, this is the best Total War game so far. Even the era itself is essentially a blurred middle-ground between Roman and Medieval times, allowing aspects of both. I found it essentially bug free (by Total War standards, at least) and it improves almost every aspect of previous games. The joy of making your own version of history is here, the ability to sink hours into the game without noticing is too. It’s a very good game…

Key territory razed, a strengthening Western Roman Empire to the South. Britain dominating the south of the British Isles, Jutes the north. Things are not going well.

…But that isn’t the whole story. The trouble is, lots of the problems are still there. Battle controls are essentially unchanged since the very first games meaning you still have to set up in the same fashion each time, siege defences still suffer from enemy AI happily walking uphill into unmoving spearmen. Campaign strategy still requires building to be focused on ill-defined multipliers and despite managing that, sudden actions by the AI feel like they could only be defended against properly with a crystal ball rather than reasonable strategy.

This leaves the Saxons with a strong army, but only two towns and a Welsh outpost. What happens next?

As one of the premiere strategy series, this feels like an almost budget expansion pack. Whilst there is plenty of game, you’ve got to wonder about the number of unplayable factions. The fact that post-launch DLC is already being released does make this feel quite a lot like a free to play game that isn’t free. Despite being a fundamentally good Total War game, it’s hard to leave Attila anything other than slightly disappointed at a missed opportunity to make a great Total War game. Where the series goes from here will define it.

Aaru’s Awakening Review

This is somewhat of a first for me. I am reviewing my first official PC game. Now, it’s not the first PC game I have played, but it is the first that I need to write about. What’s more is that it is a game that also saw a day and date release with a console version. Aaru’s Awakening!

Now I am finding it pretty difficult on where to place Aaru’s Awakening, as it isn’t a bad game, but it isn’t one that immediately leaps from the screen and grabs my attention. But before I get into that, I want to take a moment to talk about all the good things the game does.

Most of that comes from the visuals! In recent years it has been the 2D games that have really blown us away in terms of visual style, with some lovely art that makes the most of the technology of today. Rayman, Transistor, Trine and the likes look beautiful and whilst Aaru doesn’t quite reach the heights of a Trine it does look stunning on a high res monitor.

The hand drawn environments give the game a style that just works and works alongside a well constructed musical score to complement things. It also adds in some lovely variety with level design which genuinely makes you feel like you are progressing forward, with each new area feeling different, but still linked to areas you have been previously.

The gameplay feels like a mix of Guacamelee and some elements of Trine, you control Aaru using the mouse which acts as the aim to where he will leap and engage and in most areas it kind of works, but there are many moments, especially with dangerous traps, that using this technique just doesn’t feel right.

It is as though it needs to be pixel perfect movement to get through, which isn’t what the game actually feels set up for, which in turn leads to a lot of frustration. There are things that can be used to counter these moments, such as a charge ability to get a few extra feet out of a jump, or smashing through certain walls, but it still feels a bit disjointed.

There are enemies and the way you get rid of them is by firing your orb, then leaping in to said orb to finish the job, it is interesting and I liked the mechanic here, as you can also use the orb for teleporting yourself to get to other areas and such.

There seems to be a delight in making this game difficult to finish, as Aaru is quite frail and any minor mistakes will see you back to a checkpoint pretty damned fast. Thankfully though, the checkpoints themselves seem quite fair, so not it’s not as disheartening as it could have been.

But this also features in the levels themselves, because as lovely as the artwork is, it can be difficult to judge what is dangerous and what is just harmless scenery. It is something that could have been avoided with a little more care and consideration with blending the stunning art work with the vital bits of a level.

Now it does seem like I am giving the game a kicking, but here is the thing. I enjoyed it and didn’t come away with any of the frustrations that made themselves clear at times during the game. I overcame some of the issues with distinguishing vital parts of a level and pretty soon they became less of an issue. Now that isn’t to excuse this, because that shouldn’t be up to me as the consumer to have to do that.

What I did find after some time away, was that I could think of numerous games I have played that have done this sort of thing much better, which stops it becoming a vital purchase but there is value should you be able to get over some of the short comings.

Dex Preview

If there is one thing Early Access does well, it’s games that have become frankly, personal projects of love. The amount of pixel art on show here is ridiculous, it feels like more effort has gone into a background pigeon than goes into many completed games. If you like pixels you’re more than getting your money’s worth in Dex from that alone.

Dex itself is a 2D open world, thankfully with teleporting so you don’t need to constantly backtrack, and essentially a metroidvania with a very large a dose of RPG, levelling up unlocks skills, gaining quests by talking to characters etc. Apart from a heap of typos, there are whole words missing, everything there is done well.

The setting is pure cyberpunk, with all the good and bad things that brings. The world is breaking down, drugs, guns and sex being sold everywhere. The fact that an enemy is as likely to drop pornography as they are a t-shirt is fairly representative.

As it stands, combat is more of a chore than it should be. Ideally the game would offer a way to avoid combat entirely, but instead enemies appear on screen and attack, leaving your character rolling left and right and either kicking or shooting, then rolling again. There’s little more to it, and anything that can be done in the final stages of Early Access to improve it would be beneficial.

Due to release this quarter, it seems hard to imagine there will be significant changes before release and it doesn’t really need them. This isn’t a game that will appeal to everyone, but if the remainder of the time is spent well those that find the idea of the game appealing will be very happy with their purchase. Come back for the full review when the game exits Early Access!

(And it really is a well-drawn pigeon.)

Carmageddon Reincarnation Preview

Nostalgia is a fickle mistress. Or master, whichever your preference. Especially when it comes to gaming. There’s plenty out there who hanker for a simpler time, and occasionally I do too. The trouble with the desire to throw yourself back to that nebulous grander age universally known as ‘the good old days’ is that it shifts as time marches inexorably on, and so the experience you hanker for is also eternally shifting. The other problem with gaming nostalgia is that sometimes you get exactly what you wished for.

Carmageddon Reincarnation, originally a Kickstarter which funded in June 2012 and aimed for a Feb 2013 release (which was hilariously optimistic in hindsight), has been kicking around in alpha form for a while. It didn’t have a structure as such, but after 3 years in development the recent release into public beta is the full game, ready for us all to hurl ourselves back to 1997 and get knee deep in knob gags, Carry On levels of innuendo and terrible puns. And, y’know, turning pedestrians into a red paste with outlandish vehicles.

Carmageddon Reincarnation (Car Promo Graphic)

Carmageddon Reincarnation is a conflicting beast. For those of you who never played Carmageddon 1 or 2 (we don’t talk about TDR), imagine Destruction Derby with weapons, developed by someone who watched too much Bottom, but completely misunderstood why the knob gags were funny (because Rik Mayall, obviously). The game was a bit one note and the AI incredibly stupid, but there was something fun about it all.

In its fundamentals, much of Carmageddon Reincarnation is almost exactly the same game as Carmageddon 2. The cars handle the same, the humour is the same, the mechanics and power ups are the same and, thanks to some horrific optimisation at this point, it almost looks the same. I had to run the game on the lowest settings to get a vaguely steady frame rate despite my PC being within recommended spec, and even then there were frequent frame lock-ups.

The gameplay has been tweaked so instead of just having to kill peds, destroy all the other players or somehow manage to complete X laps, there are different game types to mix it up, like Stampede where you have to be first to get through 10 randomly spawned checkpoints on a map, Ped Chase where you have to be the first to, er, kill 10 randomly designated pedestrians… OK, so far there’s not much variety. And the humour, while highly amusing in 1997, now seems incredibly crass.

A Carmageddon car splatters some cows.

Or maybe I just got old. A little from column A, a little from column B.

There’s also the issue that the AI is fantastically stupid, to the point of providing zero challenge in any way, shape or form. Turning the difficulty up (to ‘Harder Than Rimming a Rhino’, sigh) makes the AI more aggressive but not much more intelligent.

And yet… and yet there’s something about Carmageddon Reincarnation. Something that makes it fun, in the same way that 80s Schwarzenegger cheese-fest Commando is fun. It’s wonky as hell with a hideous frame rate and draw distance, but smashing up opponents is just as satisfying as it was 18 years ago. Running over pedestrians is more fun than any well-functioning member of the human race should enjoy. Having your car bounce around the level after you hit a bump when the Pinball power-up is activated is cackle-worthy even when it’s the 10th occurrence.

So in its current beta state it needs a lot of work. I doubt the gameplay and structure is going to change very much, but as it stands it’s looking to be what all Carmageddon fans were hoping for. Whether Carmageddon Reincarnation will find an audience that isn’t wearing rose tinted spectacles, however, remains to be seen.

Qora Review

It’s idyllic up here in the mountains. In the distance the contractors are putting the finishing touches on your new home. There’s a festival about to start which is a perfect excuse to meet the neighbours who happily tell you they are richer than you. Or your new house is built on the site of a recent falling boulder tragedy. Or they just want to welcome you to the community by giving you an ugly sweater.

 

Everything is going well until, while admiring the ancient statues on the outskirts of town, you’re struck by a heavenly bolt of light granting you the ability to see into the distant past. Suddenly, exploring the crumbling, cyclopean ruins of the 3000 year old temple on the other side of the valley seems like the most important thing in the world, so you set off into the wilderness.

The world of Qora is a series of flick screen, low resolution, pixel art landscapes. At first glance they look scrappy and amateurish but as you pass from screen to screen it becomes apparent there’s a grand sense of scale under the rough surface. Incidental animations like herds of deer running before you and plumes of smoke rising from chimneys are surprisingly effective at breathing life into your surroundings. The soundtrack is also superb, switching from jaunty electronic folk to washes of delicate, reedy synths and ominous drones as you venture further from the village. Each tiny detail and sparse musical phrase contributes to an atmosphere balanced between tranquillity and unease but it’s the glimpses back in time that truly sell you on Qora’s reality.

 

At specific points, a prompt appears above your characters head and tapping the space bar fades the screen into black and white while ghostly visions of the locations history manifest themselves. The effect is like a digital pop-up book and I’d feel guilty spoiling even a single instance. The tension as you journey through the ruins builds and builds as the disquieting menace of the architecture plays off the strange and haunting revelations your new gift brings you.

There’s a solid Lovecraftian fantasy story to be teased out of Qora, one that finds both horror and wonder in the vast expanses of time, but the onus is very much on the player to piece it together from fragments of the past and present. In the best traditions of weird fiction there are big reveals at the end but enough is left for the player to puzzle out themselves, individual interpretations lingering on after the ending. It’s not perfect, there are jarringly tonal shifts, goofy dialogue and occasional descents into hipster surrealism. It’s a mixture that Capybara’s Super Brothers Sword and Sorcery EP pulled off with far more skill but the occasional joke still hits home and raises a smile.

 

If you hadn’t guessed already it’s important to stress that Qora has no game mechanics other than to continually push onwards. Very occasionally there are brief divergences from the main path but you can’t fail or die in any way and meaningful choices are few and far between. This is a largely ambient experience and it’s no surprise that the excellent soundtrack album is available to download as extra DLC.

Another potential red flag is Qora’s length. It won’t take longer than a couple of hours to reach the end, although there is some scope to play around in the world, teasing out alternate endings and revisiting favourite moments. However, players willing to sink themselves into the story, warts and all, might find it stays with them for far longer.

Warlords of Draenor Review

Over the last few years Blizzard has begun to change the way it structures its expansions to make sure there is content for all of its players whether they are casual, hardcore raiders or PvP nuts.

 

The latest expansion for World of Warcraft called Warlords of Draenor launched in November 2014 and saw a great overhaul of the basics including numerous spells and abilities being removed from the game, allowing players to get to grips with their chosen class easier, as well as modernising and revamping some of the older character models. A new area, Draenor, appeared, which boasts beautiful, impressive sceneries, extremely linear quest lines to ensure you don’t miss any essential parts of the storyline, and the garrison, which is your new hub – providing professions buildings, daily quests, and followers who you can send off on missions to earn reputation and level up, and bring you gold and potential armour upgrades.

Now is a great time for new players, who previously may have been intimidated by such an established MMO, to jump right in with the gameplay fundamentals being simplified, and with this expansion players are granted a free boost to level 90 for one character – meaning that the new content can be seen straight away without having to work through 4 expansions worth of content first. Once the new level cap is hit, gearing up your character is easily achievable through a mix of the profession huts in your garrison allowing for crafted items, and the Looking For Raid (LFR) function, where 25 people take on bosses for armour and weapon upgrades. As well as the current content there is the back catalogue of previous expansions of colourful zones, dungeons and raids which at maximum level are a breeze and allow you to immerse yourself in the rich lore that World of Warcraft has to offer.

 

But what about the experienced player who has been burned by the long gaps between expansions and played all the “old content” as it was being released? Frankly there isn’t much to make it stand out – unlike previous expansions there are no new races or classes around and flying mounts aren’t allowed in Draenor, which not only is a huge step back from the previous expansions but has also devalued the effort gone into collecting this type of mount.

There is now only one daily quest (a massive reduction from about 25) which as a group takes only 5-10 minutes to complete, and gathering faction reputation now mainly comes from killing certain enemies which yield ridiculously low amounts of reputation per kill, resulting in days repeatedly killing the same things in the same area. LFR has been made so simplistic that no one bothers with tactics and each section can usually be completed in around 20 minutes – assuming no one does anything ridiculous like standing in the fire. On the other end of the raiding spectrum the invention of flexible heroic raiding (for 10-25 people) combined with mythic raiding (fixed at 20 people) has all but killed established 25 man raiding guilds, forcing hard decisions about the direction of the group. These fundamental changes mean that many now just log on briefly every 8 hours to complete follower missions or to log on for guild raids.

 

Blizzard appear to have, in their attempt to make the game more accessible to new players, dumbed down the game in such a way that experienced players have lost their love for the game they once knew and trade chat is often filled with woeful comments of nostalgia of prior expansions.

Super Galaxy Squadron Review

So when the Steam store-front dutifully recommended Super Galaxy Squadron who was I to refuse? First impressions were promising. The chunky, plasticky pixel art enemies call to mind the 90s output of genre master-developers Cave, as well as childhood memories of playing with Transformers (or cheap knock-offs…). Vast, cosmic scenery scrolls by with aching slowness reminiscent of the venerable Star Soldier series and the trick of framing frantic action against such tranquil backdrops remains effective all these years on.  Then there’s the explosions – great, lurid bursts of orange and yellow accompanied by deliciously crunchy sound effects that border on white noise and punctuate a suitably catchy soundtrack of chip tunes and power metal guitar solos. Clearly Psyche Studios have done their shmup homework.

Controls are tight and the 14 selectable craft, each with their own firing patterns and unique special attacks, add a welcome dash of variety. Showers of bonus items jettisoned from destroyed enemies that require deft manoeuvring to hoover up and a rudimentary combo system bring a simplistic tactical layer to the chaos. It’s testament to the developers’ art chops that even at it’s most chaotic the swathes of firepower, enemy ships and bonus items never blur into each other. Most importantly it just feels good to blow stuff up.

Bullets everywhere

There’s considerable talent on display here which makes what I have to say next all the more frustrating and baffling. Super Galaxy Squadron suffers from game breaking balance issues at the most basic level. I’m no shmup ninja but armed with little more than a healthy appreciation of the genre I cleared normal mode without dying on my first play through. An overly generous damage gauge and plentiful health pickups completely rob the game of challenge. Switching to hardcore mode lurches to the opposite extreme, a single hit sending you back to the start of the level. It’s admittedly thrilling at first knowing the tiniest mistake will cost you everything but this soon wears off. The end result is painfully exacting rather than challenging, especially as enemy formations and bullet patterns remain identical to normal mode.

Action is fast and frantic

There is some consolation in the form of an “endless” mode, playable on both normal and hardcore difficulties, which throws wave after wave of ships at you with increasing frequency until the entire screen is permanently awash with enemy firepower. It’s ridiculous, broken and hugely entertaining.

[Edit: Updated after feedback showing author made mistake with regards to leaderboards]
Balance issues aside there’s also a general lack of polish – online leader boards hidden away in the Steam overlay, clunky menus and the fact that you can activate your special attack even after your ship has been destroyed all show a general lack of care. Again, confusing in a game that does so much right with such panache and I hope Psyche Studios make good on the promise shown here in future games.

As a snack between more refined shooters or an easy way into the genre for newcomers and rusty veterans, Super Galaxy Squadron is a lightweight, flawed but still enjoyable game. Players looking for something deeper should look elsewhere.

 

Castle In The Darkness Review

Castle in the Darkness is another in a long line of 8-Bit styled bastard hard platformers that seem to grace Steam with increasing frequency. Taking its cues from Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight, Megaman, Cave Story (you get the idea) it’s a bastard hard, nostalgia gland massaging piece of software that many love simply because they hanker for a time before 3 gigabyte day one patches and pads with more than 4 buttons.

And it certainly looks and sounds the part. The graphics are simple but lovely with a muted colour palette, and the soundtrack is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a game such as this. All bleepy bloopy awesomeness, albeit quite a repetitive, bleepy bloopy awesomeness.

castle1
Lovely visuals that throw back to the good old days

The gameplay certainly follows the tack set by the looks and the sound, with tight controls requiring perfect timing to make those jumps and hit those enemies with your oversized sword and navigate those falling, insta-death spikes. Or avoiding and hitting that boss that has no consistent triggers or pattern to learn. Or running into that enemy that drops from the sky each time and you know exactly where it is but the placement makes it difficult to avoid it as soon as you come on the screen. Ah.

You see, the problem with bastard hard retro-styled platformers is that they require a deft hand in development to stop them from being teeth grinding chores, and Castle in the Darkness unfortunately seems to fall on the side of being frustrating rather than fun.

Plenty of skill is required in Castle in the Darkness
Plenty of skill is required in Castle in the Darkness

The first clue that you’re in for some pain is the counter that records your death. It goes to 6 digits. But dying a lot isn’t a problem. Dying a lot is practically the first design choice on the list when it comes to bastard hard retro-styled platformers, but there’s dying a lot because you’re not playing the game correctly (or rather, you’re not learning how to play the game correctly) and there’s dying a lot because the game hates your guts and will do all in it’s power to make sure your dreams remain unfulfilled.

Another peculiarity is the placement of save points. You can save and change equipment at them, and when you pass through them you regain all your health. However, they’re placed inconsistently throughout the game. Sometimes you’ll reach a save point and have to fight through about 10 screens of enemies to get to a boss. And when you kill the boss, you have to fight another slew of enemies to get to the save point. During which, of course, you could die and have to do the boss again.

There’s nothing wrong with the game being difficult, but the inconsistency in the placement of save points just leaves an unpleasant taste. At the very least it makes the game tedious. Repetition through lack of your own skill is fine. Repetition because the game wants to punish you for no reason isn’t.

castle2
How you cope with the difficulty will determine your enjoyment.

There are many more elements that I could list, like the curious instadeath spike placements, or the regular enemies that seem a little too hard to kill without taking damage, but it’s at this point I wonder how much of my dislike for Castle in the Darkness is down to me or the game.

Take the Frog Prince boss, for example. Logically speaking I should be able to trigger when he falls down, but I couldn’t find any consistent way to make him trip over. There’s a long winded way to kill him (which may or may not be the right way), but it took me many deaths to figure that out as I was trying to do it the way that seemed a little more apparent.

So is it me or is it the game? Well, there’s a problem with these bastard hard retro-styled platformers, in that it’s often difficult to tell whether you’re just a cack-handed idiot with all the hand/eye co-ordination of a lobotomized sloth on morphine, or if they’re just not very good.

In all honesty, I think it’s a little of both. I thoroughly enjoyed Shovel Knight and Super Meat Boy, but they aren’t my usual go-to type of game. This game feels off in many ways, like it could have done with a couple of extra pairs of eyes and hands to point out some of the flaws and to tweak some of the gameplay elements; someone else to refine the game from unfair bastard hard to fair bastard hard. It’s kind of telling that of the nine Steam Achievements the game has, one is for dying 100 times and another is for dying 500 times.

It’s very easy to fall into that awful reviewing cliche of “if you’re a fan of the genre, then you’ll enjoy it.” That’s really no way to review games, but it’s the best I can come up with. I didn’t enjoy Castle in the Darkness. It felt mean spirited, harsh and unbalanced. However, if you’re into games that harken back to a time when fun went hand in hand with the notion of being kicked in the spuds by a large navvy wearing hobnails and game balancing was for softies, then please feel free to add an extra couple of points to the score. As it is, even at the undoubtedly bargain price it’s going for, I’d struggle to recommend it.

Battlefield Hardline Beta Preview

Saving Private Ryan? Inglorious Basterds? Platoon? Full Metal Jacket? Battlefield has always been a game about war, and the Dice invented “Battlefield Moments” have always reflected this. From taking out half an army with a well placed C4, to watching a crashing jet rip through a tank just as it’s about to blow up your tiny bike, it’s all the best moments from a million war films summed up in one tidy package. It’s always been a lot of military-based fun, essentially.

Until now.

What did I think of while I was playing the Battlefield Hardline beta? Heat. I thought of the Michael Mann film, Heat. And this can only be a good thing.

Arriving hot on the heels of one of the most famous big budget catastrophes of recent years in Battlefield 4 (despite Master Chief’s best efforts to finish the fight), Hardline is the first Battlefield game by Dead Space veterans Visceral. This, coupled with a delay from last Christmas in order to incorporate fan feedback, leaves Hardline with more to prove than the bastard lovechild of Paul Hollywood and Oscar Pistorius’ lawyer. A lady one… I don’t know.

First impressions were mixed. For starters, it worked! Yes, while Battlefield 4 spent most of its lifespan being about as reliable as a Max Clifford train service, Hardline seems to be genuinely playable on a basic level. Solid work Visceral! I booted the game up with a mate (the only way to play Battlefield, after all) and we went straight into our first game of Heist; one of two new modes in the beta.

Heist involves the robbers having to steal and the cops having to stop them. Be it jewels or cold papery-soft cash, your aim is to get in, grab, and escape on a nearby chopper. It’s a bit like Battlefield stalwart Rush meets Antony Worrall Thompson basically, and once you get used to it, it’s a lot of fun. Those first few games are classic Battlefield in the worst way though, incredibly poorly explained and a real struggle to get to grips with even if you’re from a BF background. I notched up over 100 hours on Battlefield 3 and around the same trying to get into a single game of Battlefield 4, so the slower movement and a new game mode (with pretty poor explanation) were a bit of a shock to the system.

Things improved though and Heist slowly started to reveal itself to be a bit of a winner. Destruction on the whole has been dialled down for Hardline, at least for this beta, but being able to trigger specific areas in the levels to blow through was fun and gives a real Heat style cops and robbers feel to proceedings. New zip lines and climbable ropes add to this, and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying playing as both sides of the coin. A new system of “purchasing” weapons is also great, players earn cash as they play and can pick and choose to unlock items that suit their play style, rather than generically earning the same upgrades as everyone else as they go.

Then there’s Hotwire, which for me is a complete justification for Hardline’s price tag. Played on your own I’d imagine it would be a fun little slant on Conquest, which involves the capture points being driveable vehicles, but with a friend. It’s the world’s greatest Starsky and Hutch simulator and had me laughing like Jimmy Carr’s drain for the two evenings I spent playing it. Despite some issues with cars essentially stopping dead in their tracks if they graze a pebble, the driving feels much more natural than in previous Battlefields, and with 5 command points driving around and everyone else in cars trying to blow them up, it really is a hoot.

Conquest is still Conquest, and will probably be the mode that keeps me coming back to Hardline as it has done every Battlefield since 1942. The maps are great and once you get used to the feel of the controls they’re also fine, even if the default Assault (or Operator here) weapon is ever so slightly shit in every conceivable way. Other weapons are better though and as I’ve mentioned it wouldn’t be Battlefield without it being slightly shoddy at first.

One other niggle is that currently the game looks slightly below par, but we have to assume this is due to it still being in beta. The graphics are currently some way between Battlefield 3 and 4, which is pretty inexcusable for a game that’s had this long in development. They also need to calm the Xbox DVR side of things down, I can’t speak for PS4 but at the moment it seems to record 30 second clips every time an ant farts, and after two nights playing I’ve got more unwanted videos on my Bone than a Leslie Grantham laptop.

Overall a positive beta then, and one that leaves me eagerly awaiting 20th March for the UK release. Hopefully Visceral will iron out the last few kinks and could have a real winner on its hands. It feels like there’s a real possibility this could be the definitive cops and robbers game, at least until those rumours of Lego The Wire are confirmed…