16 hours ago - 2:14 PM on 05.03.2015
Prior to deciding I wasn't really into numerical scores in reviews, Endless Legend was the only game I ever scored ten out of ten. I did this only because I loved it so, not from any objective perfection on the part of the game. In particular I lost hours to Endless Legend's knack for taking familiar threads and spinning them in unique ways. The first DLC offering, titled Guardians, treads a familiar trail. Each addition it brings to the game is Amplitude Studio's take on one strategy trope or another.
So let's cover the titular Guardians first then. There are five in total, four corresponding to ubiquitous fantasy elements fire, earth, air and water. The fifth is the Dust Guardian, Dust being the Endless universes answer to magic all-purpose super-substsance. Designs for each are really sweet; I particularly like the Flame Guardian Fotios, who looks positively tortured, lumbering around a writhing tentacle of arcane flame. Each Guardian is as cool as you've come to expect from Amplitude Studios excellent aesthetics, but the Earth Guardian is a little dull.
Each Guardian has unique strengths and weaknesses, though strength is the emphasis. They're all immensely powerful. For instance the Flame Guardian works as a one-ancient-demigod army, spraying flames and death wherever he steps. They also possess more subtle abilities, like releasing a flare to reveal tiles around them, or causing a flood to destroy tile improvements like extractors and watchtowers. Subtle may not have been the best term, but you understand.
The Guardians are a cool addition, and it's nice to see the Amplitude versions of strategy mega-units. It's amazing fun to have them stalk from city to city absolutely crushing multiple units at a time on their own. It's like harnessing your own personal titan, however it's the very harnessing of them that I have an issue with. The process of acquiring them is suuuuuuper uninvolved and kind of tedious. It's as simple as reserching them on the tech tree and then pumping resources into them to build them. I do like that you have to select a tile in your city to build them on; it feels like your performing some mighty summoning ritual or something. It's just I'd like so much more of that. I want to have my hero find ancient texts in abandoned Endless ruins, to follow the breadcrumb trail of arcane scribblings and inhuman knowledge, only to finally unearth one of the great monsters from it's monumental prison. We get none of that, just boring old research. You can sometimes get a quest to defeat and control a neutral Guardian wandering Auriga but even that is uninspired as hell.
I'm also not totally convinced they're worth it. They are very expensive to produce, costing a large amount of research you could be spending on other things, and following that a massive amount of production or Dust to actually build. The first game I had in the Guardians DLC was a cakewalk where I was lucky in my starting position and was left free to develop a ridiculous economy. In a four-fifty turn game I was making enough Dust per turn by around turn two hundred that I could literally have rush-bought one Guardian per turn if I wanted. I used the Guardians in that game and they were very effective under those circumstances, but I found it difficult to justify the cost in more closely matched games. Why spend the industry on one unit when I could spend it on five? Or ten? Or several city improvements. It seems that the quest to capture one is a less risky prospect, and a little more exciting.
Other additions in the pack include legendary buildings (wonders) and legendary deeds. These are actually much cooler to be honest, and I'm a very big fan of how they change up the gameplay. I'm an economically minded strategy player. It's more interesting to me to win through leverage, diplomacy, and finely ground Dust than it is to achieve victory through conquest. These buildings and challenges provide a myriad of bonuses, some incredibly powerful, that can give a player like me the edge. I've always felt that while certainly viable in Endless Legend, economy and influence tend to fall behind when compared to the snowball potential of just steamrolling over the whole map after an early military lead. These go a long way to help. Plus one hundred percent Dust when a city is happy you say? Don't mind if I do. A building that gives a twenty percent boost to both science and Dust? Why of course.
There could do with a lot more though if I'm honest. I think there's one wonder per age which is disappointing. It would also have been nice to have some unique wonders for each faction, that were a little less powerful but played to their unique quirks a little. Guardians is a little disappointing by virtue of association with Endless Legend. It's a good pack that garnishes the base gameplay in some interesting ways, but there could do with just a lot more of everything really. I'd have especially liked a bit of lore on the Guardians beyond what we have on their unit descriptions. I liked this pack but I am sad for what it could have been. It's good, but if I still did review scores, it certainly wouldn't be a ten like it's mummy.
3:00 PM on 04.19.2015
Westerado is basking in style. It's a pixel-art spaghetti western featuring a mysterious masked bandit, shady wild-west business deals, and a whole lot of six-shooter shootouts. It's absolutely gorgeous and is accompanied by a cowboy soundtrack that at least sounds incredbily authentic. You're set loose in a free-roaming western sandbox to exact vigilante justice on the killer who wronged you, with nothing but the scrap of a clue, and your trusty revolver. It sounds great, but for all of its presentational flair it's a shallow pool when you stick your head below the surface.
There's a great game hidden in here. It provides you with a huge amount of agency and never presumes to move beyond pushing you in the right direction with the hunt for your nemesis. You can buy clothes, guns and hats (hats hilariously function as hit-points) at your leisure as soon as you have the cash. You help the cast of cowpokes, ranchers and sheriffs with their problems, and are awarded clues that will narrow the search for your target. The questlines are actually pretty good fun, and there's a cute sense of humour at work in Westerado. One quest charges you with delivering a shipment of hats to a US army fort because they're running out of precious armour. Another sequence allows you to get involved in your very own affair with the wife of a public official. It's in the mechanical meat of the quests however that the game falls flat.
The favours you do for the good folks you encounter almost invariably involve shooting. The gunplay at first is smart and satisfying. You have to manually cock your gun between shots, and reload each bullet individually like a real revolver leading to methodical firearm exchanges and careful use of ammunition. The weapons have real impact and look great to use. The trouble is that you can only shoot left or right, and so can everyone else, necessitating a lot of weird up and down strafing that looks as awkward as it feels. There's no cover to speak of, bullets pass right through almost all terrain, which makes reloading in a big gunfight tricky and most large encounters are so much vertical dodging as you look for an opening to get a shot off. This is compounded by low difficulty with the base character as he can wear three hats. Each hit you take is one hat, and if you get hit with no hat it's death, but they drop off of enemies frequently. I'm so terribly disappointed by the combat in Westerado. Eight-directional fire and the ability to hide behind terrain for cover would have absolutely turned this one around. Even just the ability to fire up and down would be a vast improvement. I have visions of frantic dashes from gravestone to gravestone in a sandy cemetary as you gun down bandits in all directions one by one with bullets whizzing by, but I'm stuck with what feels like a side-scrolling shooter on an isometric plane.
There's stuff to like in the way Westerado deals with consuequence however. It's clearly meant for multiple playthroughs with the story unfolding in different ways each time. Each decision and quest takes you down varied irreversible paths. I love the way the game deals with failure as well. Though there's no permanent death, there are permanent fail states when you lose. Many sequences can be attempted only once and defeat carries permanent changes to the world. Rather than punishing you for your failures, the narrative incorporates them, and they become fixed events in the ongoing tale.
The world is lovingly realised and each corner is a gorgeous work of environment design. The towns feel alive with the hustle of activity, and the open plains are filled with wildlife and vegetation. It's just such a shame that a dearth of interactivity leaves much of what you do feel like skimming the surface. That said side-quests are abundant and inventive at least in premise. The horseback shootouts break things up a little and actually the mounted sequences are actually much better suited to the two-directional fire.
Unlockable characters and multiple story threads will maybe do something to increase your mileage a little, but a few hours play should leave you satisfied here. I liked this game, but the restricted and awkward combat is a shame. I'd love to see the same team make another pass at a similar type of game with expanded scope and more dynamic gunplay, but I think that despite it's problems Westerado has enough character and unique ideas to be worth your time.
1:53 PM on 04.11.2015
This is more of a 'thoughts on' than a review and assumes a level of familiarity with the base game.
So I love Dark Souls. I played through the first game five or six times in a row, and while it didn't have quite the same impact, I really enjoyed Dark Souls 2. Mechanically it's more or less the superior game as far as I'm concerned. The ability to power-stance weapons, meaningful dual-wielding, viable archery and more engaging casting all conspire to a more satisfying experience even if the plot and setting aren't quite so memorable. DS2 definitely suffered from unfavourable comparisons to its older sibling, the shadow of which obscured some of the second games charms.
From Software have been steadily polishing up some of the sequels shortcomings over the last year, with expanded content and lore in the DLC, and now with Scholar of the First Sin. I was entirely skeptical at the notion of the HD version from the start, but at the discounted price for repeat buyers it costs the same as the DLC bundle, so for someone like me who hadn't bought the expansions yet, it's actually a great excuse to dive back in. If you have the aleady DLC however, I'd stick to the free patch. The visual improvements are lovely, especially lighting, but not at all worth almost the price of a brand new game.
So how's the new stuff? It's pretty good thusfar; I haven't worked through everything yet and if I did I'd be writing this two weeks hence. I like the new enemies placements, especially nearer the beginning. It's nice to see Heide Knights in places that actually make sense. It also doesn't hurt that returning players will be in for a few surprises. There's some moments that can only be adequately described as 'cheeky' on the part of From Software. It's cool to see them toying with player expectations and dropping some completely unexpected ambush at an area you remember being a daudle. I'd say the best part of all this is a smoother diffuculty curve. Vanilla DS2 had a fancy for crazily fluctuating difficulty throughout that has been smoothed over here.
What a lot of you will be most interested in though, is the new lore and ending, the latter of which I haven't seen. Eh, well Aldia's cool anyway. His voice is spot-on for how I'd imagine it and his weird sort-of-encouraging-but-in-a-way-that-makes-it-seem-like-he's-a-little-too-into-watching-you-suffer shtick is intriguing. You get the sense he's just sort of... interested in you, and holding his cards close to his chest, and getting them severely burnt in the process.
I'm into the expanded options for Fragrant Branches of Yore, and I can say with pride I only consulted the wiki for a total of fifteen seconds before deciding it wasn't sporting to check what the got me. For me though the Crown DLC's have been the main attraction. I've played through Crown of the Sunken King and Crown of the Iron King, and I can say in a tone brokering no argument that Sinh is the best boss in Dark Souls 2. Absolutely loved it although I thought the Squalid Queen fight was pretty bullshit. The difficulty was very arbitrary, because she summons either a squad of easy goons, or another bloody boss, and it seemed to be totally random which she'd choose.
The environments in both are top quality as well, echoing the maze-like loops and shortcuts found in the first game. Sunken King in particular has an oppressive feel that I love to get ground down by. Both packs have a sense of discovery, no investigation, to them, like you've just missed something momentous and you feel compelled to piece together the events. I am disappointed by the lack of NPC's in the DLC though, it would have been nice to meet the doomed inhabitants of the dead kingdoms like you got with Drangleic.
On top of this the new weapons are a rea treat. My favourite is Yorgh's Spear, a huge stalactite looking lance with a crazy moveset. I can't really speak to how the patch and DLC affect PVP as I'm more interested in the PVE aspect of the game but the expanded armoury of rings, armours and magic swords seem like they'd shake things up a bit. The ring that deflects spells looks like a useful ward against one-hit-horror casters.
I enjoyed Dark Souls 2 in its vanilla state a whole lot, and the DLC or patch probably won't sway those who were disappointed. In fact, I reckon pretty much everyone has made their mind up and I'm just rambling into space, but if you're looking for a reason to get killed over and over again I'd say this is just the thing. It's an odd sort of feeling, it's like coming back to an MMO you knew every inch off and finding the world changed. It's been huge fun for me just seeing what's different, and the enitrely new to me DLC is holding my interest without much effort. It's definitely worth it if, like me, you're crying yourself to sleep pining for Bloodborne.
Also, if you're a representative of the Bell Keeper Covenant, two of you bastards owe me forty thousand souls.
10:50 AM on 04.03.2015
Some games are expansive, engrossing, and deep as a well. Others are pure popcorn; cheap and shallower than my now cold coffee. Rampage Knights falls into the latter camp in much the same way as an anvil falls onto Wile E. Coyote. It's as simple as games get really, which is no surpirse as it's pretty firmly a beat 'em up. It is however a lot of fun, especially with a friend.
You pick a class, from a roster of four, and then you set off to hit guys over the head until they die. What helps Rampage Knights stand out amongst the shambling early access masses however, is its flattering nods to The Binding of Isaac. Loot can dramatically change the way you hit guys over the head. For example, you might get a lightning rod, a magical item that allows to hit guys over the head not with your sword, but with the power of Zeus. You might get the bomb stick, which fires out bombs when you hit someone over the head particularly hard. Combine that with an item that makes you immune to explosions, and you're in for a good laugh, especially if your multiplayer partner doesn't have immunity to explosions.
Of course I'm being unfair; simple though the game is the number of hilarious item combinations is impressive and, like The Binding of Isaac, you can stupendously overpowered by the end. Rampage Knights is actually pretty hilarious in general. Cartoon visuals combined with some great item concepts make for consistent laughs on your first few runs. My favourite is the 'Ass Potion,' which when drunk will always give you 'Ass Disease.' There are two variants of 'Ass Disease,' one which will morph you into a human-donkey hybrid with associated benefits, and the other...
Here I am modelling 'Ass Disease' variant two.
There are a few issues with hit detection which can hopefully be sorted further into the development of the game. I'd say there's a big issue with classes at the moment as well. There's two that are obviously by far the best. The Assassin can become invisible and insta-kill downed opponents, seriously tenderising tougher enemies. He can also run and attack much faster, and loses a paltry twently health to offset his strengths. It's by no means enough and don't even get me started on the Barbarian class, who gains a ton of free strength and a little health for good measure. Marry this to increased size which negates many of the hit-detection issues and it allows you to stun-lock around six or seven enemies at a time.
The main issue however is the lack of content. The core experience is great fun, but the game is far from finished. There's more items to be added, more enemies, more levels and right now there's no progression system in place for levelling classes. All of this will be added over the coming months but it's frustrating to see such a well-polished game on early access. It's basically like if someone showed you their amazing oil on canvas landscape and you noticed that there was a suspicious white void to the east where all the rolling hills should be. I actually really wish they'd held off on release because just a little more to do would have gone a long way to increasing the life-span of this one. When you reach the end there's nothing to do except jump in a hole and die, because there isn't actually a proper end. Couple that with no progression system and it's hard to find reasons to jump back in at this point.
Multiplayer though is the guardian angel of Rampage Knights. It's absolutely hilarious. While you can't actually directly hurt your partner, you can still hit them as if they were a normal enemy. I played Barbarian one run with my mate and annoyed him to no end by doing nothing more than standing swinging my massive sword at friend and foe alike. It's also much harder as they up the enemy count significantly and the challenge is welcome as the game is pretty easy in single player. There's just too many strong items that you can simply stack into yourself. Again this is likely a problem with content, as later levels will obviously test your build more rigorously.
It may be shallow, it may be unfinished, but if you're looking for a cheap laugh with a friend you could do a lot worse. You may want to leave off for a few content patches though.
3:00 PM on 03.23.2015
Ori and the Blind Forest really has one of the most engrossing openings I've ever seen. It's beautifully coloured, masterfully animated, and dramatic, adorable, or mournful as the occasion demands. It doesn't so much as pull on your heart strings quite so much as it has your heart pulled apart by horses. It draws you into its Ghibli-esque world, acquaints you with its whimsical inhabitants, and introduces the central conflict in around five minutes. It's legitimately brilliant. Whether it was through skillful storytelling or gorgeous visuals I couldn't really say for certain, but it blew me away.
So when the actual gameplay started I was quite frankly underwhelmed. It's the first real misstep the game makes. It's jarring after an introduction I could only really describe as a sucker punch. It's like watching a villain just walk away when he has the hero at his mercy. I was left disoriented by how little danger I was facing. Of course this is the tutorial section of the game, but it would have fit better to introduce more basic mechanics in the intro, rather than nail stabilisers to our wheels once the plot got rolling. This slow patch is a minor speed bump however, and Ori very quickly shows its true colours. It looks at first like a standard (if gorgeous) 2D platformer, but complicated platforming soon arises out of simple mechanics, and what at first appears to be an incredibly lazy combat system soon reveals something very engaging.
You start with little more than a jump, and a basic attack. Combat is dominated by the use of a little spirit orb, called Sein, who follows Ori and fires auto locking ghost lasers when you hit the attack key. At first it produces an overwhelming sense of 'that's it!?' as every enemy is dealt with by simply spamming attack. As enemy diversity increases and their attack patterns become more problematic however, the combat really shines. It's hectic trying to avoid as much damage as possible with Ori, whilst Sein unleashes spirity death upon your foes. Ori has free movement whilst Sein attacks allowing for some very interesting encounter design with enemies on walls, ceilings and in mid-air that you'll have to deftly avoid whilst getting in as many attacks as possible.
Where Ori really hits its stride is when you get the confusingly named 'Bash' ability. It functions like a sort of kick-flip parry. Any enemy or projectile in range when you hit the appropriate key will cause time to freeze as you line up a direction to hop spritely off of them in. It has the double effect of knocking your reluctant stunt-prop in the opposite direction from you, which as you can imagine leads to some very fun puzzle and battle design as you redirect projectiles to activate mechanisms and kick enemies to their thorny doom. This ability is absolutely essential for navigating basically the entire second half and I think it truly makes the game. It's an incredible mechanic that stands head and shoulders above some of the more cookie-cutter platforming tools at your disposal. It makes backtracking an absolute joy as you chain kicks between enemies and hanging lanterns, deftly eating up sections that gave you trouble earlier in mere seconds.
On the subject of backtracking the game clearly wants to be metroidvania, but falls a little short. Aside from a few dungeons you enter as part of main story events the whole thing takes place in a sprawling, open 2D world, but there's little reason to return to many areas unless they're on the way to an objective. As mentioned before though the backtracking is actually great fun. I found myself appreciating the sense of familiarity with the forest I had gained by the end. It's just that much of the game world becomes redundant once cleared. It's never hard to tell which way you're meant to be going, so exploration is purely for those that want to glimpse every sumptuous frame, though for that I couldn't possibly blame you.
Obviously, Ori and the Blind Forest is obscenely beautiful. A sideways glance at literally any screenshot would tell you that, but it's a different thing to experience it in motion. The forest of Nibel, though of course two dimensional, is filled with layers of subtle animation and compositional nuance. Shadowed branches dart across the foreground obscuring the layer of play, whilst ancient woodland stretches off into the background. It's a genuine feat as far as I'm concerned; a true visual achievement. There are few games as stylishly presented as this, probably the only thing as close is Klei's Mark of the Ninja.
There are a few problems with the platforming. I feel like some of the earlier puzzles are pretty obnoxious considering the tools you have at hand in the beginning. In particular the wall jump ability feels very imprecise to me, but thankfully it's quickly superceded by more efficient means of travel. The several escape sections can be frustrating too, and you'll almost certainly have to rely on trial and error to get through them. Often there's little indication of what you're meant to do before a rock or icicle crushes your adorable head, often hazards will appear without telegraphing at all in these sections and they gave me a lot of grief. They force you to make the whole thing in one go as well, meaning the exhilaration of these adrenaline-fuelled runs is quickly spent.
I had a lot of fun with Ori and the Blind Forest. It's got a great thing going with the bash mechanic and it's best moments are in hopping from enemy to enemy to reach your goal. It's got a sweet story that delivers an appropriately warm ending. It's all very bullshitty power of hope type stuff but it gave my heart a twinge so hey-ho. Honestly it could get away on presentation alone, but it doesn't hurt that its gameplay delivers all the fun of being a nature spirit as well.
6:44 PM on 03.15.2015
Not much about Hotline Miami 2 is easy. It isn't easy to play, it isn't easy to understand, it isn't even easy to look at. It's lurid, sweaty, and grimy. The closest thing it seemed to have to a proper protagonist is a self-righteous and hypocrytical police detective. That doesn't do the game proper justice however; that's only the immediate feeling I got as murdered my way through it's technicolour drugscape. There are over ten playable characters in total, all of whom seem to be one shade or another of asshole. Anybody looking for something approaching a digestible, or even satisfying, conclusion to the Hotline saga will be disappointed. This isn't a bad thing. It's just like I said; Hotline Miami 2 isn't easy.
This isn't a true sequel. The game jumps from events before, during and after the original. Like its predecessor it's equally interested in events that don't occur at all, and the boundary between reality and fantasy is hazy. It feels like more of a post-script, albeit one much longer than its main body of text. What story there is in Wrong Number is focussed on cause and effect, the chaos set in motion by the violence of your actions in Hotline Miami. All of the 'protagonists' are implicated in the original slaughter-fest in one way or another. A struggling writer looking for inspiration, the son of a murdered mobster, and a quintet of copycat killers make up just half the roster of maniacs. There's something in the Miami air, and it's driving people off the rails in droves. You can feel the fever emanating from the screen as you play.
Mechanically it plays almost identically to the original, but there is a greater focus on complex level design for this outing. Spaces are larger, and more labrynthine. In much the same way as the narrative takes a wicked glee from playing with your expectations, so too does the gameplay. The range of playable killers all have their unique advantages and quirks. Some are quicker to aim, some can dodge-roll, others spawn into a level with weapons already on them. One character doesn't start levels with the same bloodthirsty rage the others seem to, and with him you must work the bloodlust up by punching enemies faces to a pulp before you can even use a firearm. This makes his levels tricky as there is generally a greater focus on gunplay in Wrong Number. It's these design decision, along with an expanded variety of enemy types, that keep the slaughter fresh over it's lengthier run time.
It's aesthetically fascinating too. I say fascinating because it's rarely ever very pretty or appealing. It's garish and overbright to match it's drug-fuelled soundtrack. It's hypnotic in the way a gruesome slice of body horror is. Trapsing back through the massacre after the level is done and the music has stopped is just as affecting here as in the original. It feels odd to say, but it's almost like the empty space you sometimes feel after an orgasm. That sudden lull where you're brought back to reality. I don't think this is by mistake. One of the acts is named 'Climax' after all. It's a grimy game through and through, and often left me feeling unpleasant. It's only through morbid fascination with what directions I'd be taken by the disjointed, fevered narrative that I sat for hours at a time hacking and shooting my way through human bodies. This isn't to say that it isn't fun. the thrill of pulling off a flawless set of kills using nothing but the weapons to hand and your split-second decision making is still present, it's just that Wrong Number isn't easy to swallow. It's a series of cruel bloodbaths leading up to an act of unspeakable destruction. It should make you feel conflicted.
Music is as mind-blowingly excellent as in the first game. Here, in the soundtrack, is to be found the one friendly component of Wrong Number. The music is infectious and catchy as hell, easing you through the havoc you wreak, and through the frustration of failure. This is what makes it so arresting when it is cruelly yanked away from you at the conclusion of each spree, and you're left to wade back through the human cost of fun gameplay. Even I feel pretentious writing that, but this is a story about repercussions, and fallout. It seems appropriate that I was consistently unsettled by the slaughter, and it's a testament to Dennaton Games' mastery over tone that I can switch from gleefully eviscerating hordes of pixellated mobsters in one moment, to trudging through the broken remains of fathers, sons and friends the next.
Hotline Miami 2 is an ambitious game. I'd say it runs the risk of alienating it's audience with it's sudden tonal shifts and it's shattered narrative structure, but I think that's sort of the point. It's an experience if nothing else, with one of the most straight up fucking insane 'on drugs' sequences you'll ever see in a game, and a truly bold ending. I had a blast with this one, even if it did make leave me a little disturbed. That's fine though, not every story is supposed to make you feel nice.
11:06 AM on 03.09.2015
The strength of many adventure games lies in building familiarity with a densely packed game-world, and getting a sense of how that world works by touching and tinkering your way across it. The world of Tormentum is particularly, even uniquely, well suited for this, because it's a place that is begging to be poked, prodded, and messed with. It's boney, fleshy, wet, and there's a compulsion to reach out and stroke it. Having no memories other than the faint image of a female statue, you awaken suspended in a cage above a comet-blasted wasteland in an airship. A rat the size of a man is in a cage across from you, and both of you are headed to an alien castle whose walls seem to be made of cartilage and flesh. I could go on narrating the opening but I won't because for crying out fucking loud just look at it.
Deposited in your cell by a very metal looking fellow in a horned helmet, you're now free to get stuck into this mutated hellscape. I was a little put off at first by how your character doesn't actually move as you interact with the environment; they just stand there hooded and solemn. I missed the animations initially, but soon found that their omission streamlined gameplay very nicely. I can't say I blame OhNoo Studio for not fully animating the game as every pristinely painted object in it must be an absolute nightmare (har) to bring to life. The world isn't static however, and it's commendable how much motion there is. Full body motion from characters would have been amazing but the game doesn't by any means suffer for their absence. A lot of people are pointing to H. R. Giger's work with reference to Tormentum and...
Puzzles are pretty standard and often quite simple. It's very much the art style that carries this one, which isn't to say the obstacles are boring or unengaging. Look, put it this way, there was a few moments throughout that I was hit by the realisation that I was solving a sliding block puzzle, but the presentation is so slick, and I do mean slick as in moist aswell, that I didn't care. From obtaining mutant spider venom to poison a worm-beast, to returning a soul to it's skeleton using necromantic machinery, everything is so deliciously morbid. I even giggled at the cursor turning into a boney little hand when you browse over an interactable object.
Tormentum is pretty light on narrative, presented in tasters through letters and dialogue. This is probably for the best as what writing there is seems a little functional in comparison to the visuals, with none of the alienating weirdness present in the environments. The mystery is intriguing though, and I found it difficult to stop playing as I kept wanting solve one more puzzle in case I was given another snippet about what the hell is supposed to be going on. Whilst characters aren't amazingly written they look as fantastic as the world does. Humanoid insect guards, grey birds that look like elongated babies, and all manner of screaming, crawling horrors are to be found in the gloomy world of Tormentum.
The soundtrack is uncharacteristically subtle and it works in Tormentum's favour. There's everything from soft, spooky synths, to ominous plainsong. Tying it all together is clear fascination with all sounds gothic, and I love it. The sound effects are a joy as well, just as icky as the visuals, though there is no voice acting. As voice acting can be a big hit or miss for indie game budgets, I'm not too disappointed.
I've experienced a few crashes, but nothing too disastrous because as far as I can tell everything you do is saved. I never even lost one screens worth of progress, always being dropped back into the world exactly where I was. Apart from that the game runs very smoothly, which is to be expected. The crashes I had were all involved with bringing up the Steam overlay so if you do buy Tormentum watch out for responding to friends messages, although I'd probably recommend playing offline for maximum immersion. This game demands your full attention.
If you're into metal album covers I imagine Torumentum will rub you up in it's grim way. Seething, biomechanical landscapes and tortured eldritch beings are super cool in my book, and it's even got binary moral choices that aren't absolutely awful! Some will find it a little easy, and the some of the more eye-rolling puzzles would grate in a game that doesn't look as unique as this. Fortunately, it is as unique as this, so hop on the horror-train to torture city with me.
7:48 AM on 03.03.2015
I'm a defensively minded player. I tend to turtle in strategy games, in shooters there's no greater joy for me than holding a chokepoint and gunning down foolishly aggressive opponents, and yet tower defense has never really appealed to me. It seems a perfect fit, as tower defense games are basically nothing but defending a position, but they all have a very stagnant feel to me. There's no sense of impetus, progression is often little more than incrementally greater firepower. There's something a little flat about tower defense to me. At the beginning of this year, Amplitude Studios shocked new life into 4X strategy for me with Endless Legend, and now they've managed it with something I never liked it the first place.
The game is Dungeon of the Endless, the third game in Amplitude's Endless universe. This time it's a more intimate experience, taking place in the claustrophobic confines of a twelve floor dungeon filled with denizens and specimens that will be familiar to players of Endless Legend. We're on Auriga, after our escape pod crashed underground. You pick two heroes from a small selection with more unlockable later, and you're off. In truth this isn't a tower defense, but tower defense does make up the bulk of gameplay. The objective is to find the exit on every floor, and then move your escape pods power crystal to it so you can carry it to the next floor, because you'll need the precious energy it provides to operate the turrets and traps that will see you to the surface.
You generate most of the same resources you do in Endless Space and Endless Legend. Industry is used to build resource replicators and turrets, Science is used to upgrade them and research new ones, whereas Food is used to heal your heroes and increas their level. Resources are gained each turn, but the twist here is that a turn won't end until you open a new door, into a new room, a room potentially filled with all manner of skittering creatures, and and failed, screaming experiments. Or it could be a new piece of gear, or enough precious Dust to power a new room.
Every time you open a door, any rooms that are left unpowered have a chance to spawn a wave of monsters that will then do their best to wreck your day. It's these two really quite simple decisions that alleviate the stagnation that I feel in tower defence. Opening doors is tense, it's dangerous and it's very often the last thing on earth you want to do if things are looking rough. It's all that, but it's also a sense of agency and progression. Every door is a room closer to the exit, it might be the exit. It's active. Where most tower defence is about waiting for waves of cannon fodder to run at you, DotE is also about dungeon-crawling, exploration and squad based combat.
The squad in question can be four strong, with new heroes found in the dungeon hired with food to expand, or replace, your original two. There's around twenty heroes at the moment, and they're all very colourful. There's a dapper two-legged insectoid, there's a walking riff on Duke Nukem, and there's even a woman occupying the same physical space as a demonic war god from an alternate dimension. I like her the best out of those three. Naturally they all have their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, and building an effective team is a fun meta-game in itself.
It's also a gorgeous game. It's reasonably standard pixel art, but the design is amazing in everything from the dungeon itself, and it's inhabitants, to the individually striking heroes. It's recognisably Endless despite the vast visual gulf between it and it's sibling games. I love the way that Amplitude have chosen to aesthetically interpret the shared universe of the Endless games differently with each release. It's like seeing the same world through a seperate filter, with differing levels of magnification. Music too is excellent, it's palpably anxious when things are doing badly, and quietly tense, though equally lovely, in the games more muted moments. I'm an especially big fan of whatever trickery they've pulled to make the lighting so absolutely beautiful, and with lighting playing such a major role in gameplay it's great to see such attention to detail.
I'm struggling to find problems with this game to be quite honest, most of my complaints are to do with multiplayer funcionality. Whilst playing with others is a great deal of fun, there are some strange decisions such as players having seperate researches, meaning that when you research or upgrade a module only the player who did the research gets it. This can lead to some needlessly frustrating coordination between players. Thankfully I've been playing multiplayer with friends using voice chat so it's as easy as asking to keep track of who has what, but even then sometimes I've instinctively placed down a module that a friend has a better version of. With a game that demands efficiency, this can be very frustrating and I'd like to see research applied on a team level. There's also no way to save an online game, meaning you have to complete the game in one run. It can take well over an hour, or even two and not everyone has that luxury, though for all I know it could be there are technical limitations that don't allow for saving online.
Replay value is also high. By beating the game and fulfilling certain conditions you can unlock new escape pods which affect the game in various ways. One causes no weapons to drop at all, but makes your heroes smarter, and increases resource generation, forcing you to utilise turrets and traps to far greater effect. Another let's you start with a full compliment of four, heavily armed heroes, and there's even one that makes the dungeon infinite for those that want to test just how far they can get.
If you like rogue-likes, get this game. If you like tower defence, get this game. If you like RPG's, get this game. If you like games, get this game. If you don't like games, there are worse places to start. I'm beginning to really like Amplitude Studios.
10:07 AM on 02.22.2015
The Mount and Blade series has eaten far more of my time than any other except perhaps The Elder Scrolls or Civilization. All of the installments are currently on sale on Steam for around twenty-four hours at the time of writing, so get on it if you like medieval chopping and shooting and riding. Also trading if that's your thing... nerd.
Mount and Blade is a weird franchise and by all conventional logic it really shouldn't work. The games are janky, buggy and really kind of repetitive, but they're so ludicrously addictive, and it stems from hugely satisfying core gameplay. Core gameplay here assuming that you're the sort of player that fights for a living in the world of Calradia, and not one of the aforementioned mercantile inclined nerds. Combat is sweet as heck and revolves around a directional strike system combined with timed counters with attack damage heavily influenced by the speed you are moving when you hit, making mounted combat incredibly advantageous. It's difficult to fully describe why the combat is so enjoyable because it has a certain floaty feel that initially put me off, that is until I found out you can play in first person, and things took the hell off. You can look down at your body in M&B and it's genuinely very immersive. All the animations are the same, it still has exactly the same system, but for me, first person transforms battles from a confusing floaty mess, into a gloriously chaotic, gory bloodbath of a floaty mess. It's exhilarhating watching your blade (and mount, heh) turn gory with the innards of your foes as you ride to and fro amongst them reaping your red harvest. It's fucking sweet.
One thing I feel like bears mentioning is that M&B should only really appeal to those looking for an RPG experience alongside the combat. You can recruit and upgrade your own personal army drawn from the peasantry of six fictional nations each with their own cultural flavour. That's five fictional nations if you buy the original game but categorically do not do that because Mount and Blade: Warband is the same game just with more stuff, so skip the original entirely. You can also upgrade your own character and become an unstoppable plate-mailed warmachine, or a charismatic business focussed trader and diplomat if that's your thing, neeeerd. I feel I should mention this so crucially because if you just want the gory first person combat you should probably just get Chivalry; you can play it with people, and it's got nicer graphics. For those, however, that love the smell of progression pick up M&B. You can rise up the ranks in any of the nations vying for control and eventually even become king of that nation, and if that faction becomes strong enough, you can take over the whole map. My favourite factions are the guys that let you basically be the Dothraki from Game of Thrones and the Italian city-state dudes. I forgot their names sorry folks. You can even take over the whole map as an independant but it's pretty hard and you'll probably get beat the hell up.
You can also pick up Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword in the sale which is a standalone game set in Eastern Europe rather than the fictional Calradia in the prior two games, with the added treat of gunpowder weapons such as flintock rifles, blunderbusses, and primitive grenades. It's not as good as Warband and has far less mod support but it is a fun little diversion and I did particularly enjoy becoming a lord and buying my own custom black plate-mail and double barrelled riding pistol. Speaking of mod support, M&B really has one of the best modding communities out there and many of the mods are absolutely huuuuuuge conversions adding a whole bunch of content and mechanics to the game world. My favourite I played was the Floris mod pack which let me roleplay a savvy adventurer who joined the army and spent all his wages on land investments and after becoming a veteran of many battles moved onto landed lord and tourney champion.
I have a combined two hundred or so hours on these games clocked up across all installments so if my words have failed to sway you, let my numbers do the work for me. That's not even a lot compared to a great many enthusiastic players. I don't think you're a nerd for playing a trader by the way, I think it's fucking dope you can play the game as a sort of medieval simulator without being a bloodthirsty mercenary. Also, Rhodoks, pretty sure the Italian city-state guys are called Rhodoks. Also also, it's like twenty-three hours or something by now. Get going.
12:35 PM on 02.14.2015
Darkest Dungeon has been a delicious, poisonous suprise for me. I remember seeing it on Kickstarter a long time ago and thinking how much I physically needed it in my life to truly feel complete. I absolutely adore a well crafted atmosphere and anything that bleak and gothic rubs me up in spooky ways. Naturally, as is always the case with games we can't wait for, I completely forgot it existed about three days later. So seeing it on the Steam front page in early access was a pretty sweet surprise and I picked it up immediately.
Conceptually Darkest Dungeon is about whether delving into the blackest pits of ancient cyclopean terror is particularly good for an adventurers mental health. You might think the answer to that question is 'no.' Darkest Dungeon disagrees, leaving little doubt that the real answer is 'NOOOOOO!' scrawled in human blood in a nameless forgotten tongue upon an antediluvian altar swirling with eldritch energy.
The framing for this nightmarish query is that you come from a noble family, and one ancestor of yours in particular, growing bored of earthly pursuits, decides to use the family fortune to unlock what appears to be a gateway to a realm of mind-shattering cosmic horror that just so happens to be hidden underneath the family home. Despairing at the terror he has unleashed, he sends you a letter begging you to travel to your ghastly inheritence and cleanse the now poisoned countryside and ultimately stop the nameless forgotten evil he has unleashed. No pressure boys and girls.
Mechanically this amounts to splitting your time between tense, sidescrolling dungeon crawling and XCom: Enemy Unknown style base management. In fact the game reminds quite a lot of Xcom in that the heart of the gameplay is focussed around levelling up an expanding roster of soldiers whilst dealing with an ever increasing 'alien' threat. Just like it's sci-fi cousin death is permanent for your troops, except here there can be no save scumming as the game simply autosaves every time you do anything with no option to play with manual saving only. It's also far harder than Xcom because there are fewer opportunities to turn the odds in your favour. Competent players will consistently walk away victorious, but the random number generator in Darkest Dungeon is far less pliable than in similar games. Critical hits can be absolutely devastating for example, and you're just as likely to be crit for seventy percent health as for thirty.
The challenge is compounded further by the effects of stress and mental illness, which your veterans will have in spades by just a few hours in. What happens when an older soldier you've relied upon since the start develops a crippling fear of the ruins, and so they become a detriment to any expeditions there? Or what will you do when one of your group reaches breaking point and starts verbally abusing other party members as a coping mechanism? Is it worth foregoing the saftey of torchlight because one particularly valuable hero fights better in the dark? These are the questions you'll be constantly asked in Darkest Dungeon and it's rare to find an answer that really feels 'right.'
Expeditions are four strong, and currently can be lead into one of three dungeoneering zones, with the final two, including the titular 'darkest' dungeon, to be added later. Each zone comes with it's own set of environmental hazards and creeping voidborn terrors. The Ruins, which seems to actually be some sort of family crypt, is crawling with skeletons, spiders and the occasional mad cultist. The Warrens on the other hand is a toxic maze populated by hordes of squealing pig men where the very stones feels diseased. Heroes build up stress when on an outing and, unlike health which will be healed to full for every new expedition, stress will carry over from mission to mission unless dealth with. This can be done by say, paying for a hero to have a night on the town, or a visit to the brothel, but doing so will make the hero unavailable for the next mission. Sometimes your hero will develop a quirk that is simply too problematic to deal with and you can send them to the sanitarium to be cured of it, but doing so will again make the unavailable and will relieve no stress. The macro level choices here that can so often be just as tense as the dungeon crawling and that's much to the credit of the atmosphere of doom and helplessness cloaking the whole experience.
Everything is engineered to be as grim as possible, and to this end, Red Hook have worked in one of the best narrations I have ever heard. Spoken from the perspective of the ancestor who sent you the fateful letter, the performance and writing here are just spectacular, drenching the whole affair in deliciously self-aware gloom and doom. Mirroring the cartoon cynicism of the narrator, all the heroes look beaten and battered, downtrodden and weary. The art direction is excellent, it feels a little like Sin City but in full, gory colour.
So you can guess then that it's a very well presented game for early access, but it's not perfect and any potential buyer should obviously be aware that all balancing is subject to change, and there are a great deal of bugs being reported. I should also mention however that I haven't experienced any bugs myself for the most part. My biggest gripe really is that I want more, the game isn't necessarily light on content, but without crucial end game encounters and story I'm actually holding off on playing it too much to avoid burning myself out as progression for the moment is quite grindy. I've clocked around fifteen hours and I'm still having a blast, but until I can visit the Darkest Dungeon itself I'll be pacing this one out.
Bottom line: It boils down to your tolerance for unfinished games, and your patience for some samey content whilst we wait for more to be added. Personally I'm going to watch this one develop with my thousand maddening eyes before I dive too deep, but that's not for lack of quality. I'd rather wait and play this gem when it's been cut, though it's looking like quite a rock for the moment.
7:17 AM on 02.02.2015
I went into The Night of the Rabbit expecting something a little different than what I got. I expected whimsy, fantasy and hints at a darker heart than the game's face would imply. I got all of that, but I did not expect it courtesy of an episode of Doctor Who. I was all set on the idea that the rabbit of the title would evoke the famous white specimen of Alice's Wonderland. While he serves the same purpose in the story as a catalyst for the adventure he's no pompous time obsessed suck up to a monarch. He's an eccentric man from another world, seemingly centuries old and not quite human, who's looking for a companion to take on a fantastic journey. He also basically implies he has power over time as well world hopping. He's basically a Time Lord, except a rabbit, and that's cool.
The companion he finds is Jeremiah (Jerry) Hazelnut, a twelve year old boy living an improbably idyllic life in a woodland cottage with his improbably perfect mother. Jerry only has two days left of summer vacation (they insist on using American terminology despite everyone being VERY OBVIOUSLY ENGLISH) and he wants to spend them honing his imaginary magician abilities. His play is interrupted by a magic letter which gives you a really nice introductory puzzle in which you have to conjure the rabbit of the title in a summoning circle. As it turns out as well as being the titular character, he has a title of his own. He's called the Marquis de Hoto and he whisks you off through a portal to Mousewood where you'll spend the majority of the game.
It's here the game really begins to shine as you're given your first proper task that will take you out into the world. You're pretty much left to your own devices and like the last adventure game I reviewed Primordia you're allowed plenty time throughout the game to familiarise yourself with the world which will slowly expand as the story rolls on. It's refreshing once you reach this stage as it's the first freedom after an exposition heavy opening that was hard to sit through. Mousewood is absolutely gorgeous and I think I must have dropped an hour or two of playtime just exploring when I got to finally just roam around.
The game hails from the items scattered everywhere school of adventure game design for the most part, encouraging exploration as it's rare that all the tools you'll need will be found on the same screen as your obstacle. The sections where you are given a task and then have to go off own your own to complete them are the strong point. Thankfully the majority of game time consists of these sections. The mid game in partcicular was excellent. Here the world of Mousewood is allowed to simply breathe and exist and it's delightful. It's not all quaint gentility from the animal residents of Mousewood however.
Puzzles are inventive and for the most part fair and obvious. I had to consult a guide a couple of times but only to find out the precise order of actions. There was never a point where I felt like I was left with absolutely no clue as to what to do though in the instances where the specifics where hazy could be a little frustrating. There's a spell system which has abilities like hearing the whispering of rocks and causing things to grow at an accelerated speed. These are necessary for some of the puzzles and are a nice thematic addition to your typical arsenal of items in adventure games.
This is a game about thresholds; between worlds, between day and night, between magic and reality, between life and death and most of all about the line that seperates man and boy. When given it's own space the story is ocean deep. Adulthood creeps like tendrils into every corner of the world. Jokes Jerry doesn't understand, an elderly owl who appears to be having a wet dream, a cabal of masked reptilian social predators and more all contribute to the feeling that Jerry's childhood is breaking apart at the seams. This mirrors closely the waxing and waning walls between worlds at the centre of the plot. It's a thematically rich game, but it's the finer points of the metaphysical narrative that threaten to collapse the tale under it's own weight. This is particularly evident towards the beginning and end when we get critical levels of needless exposition and redundant dialogue chucked at us as characters explain things that need no explanation and much of what was better left as mystery has the curtain pulled back to reveal something far less interesing than you had imagined. Where the game's obsession with how the world of Mousewood actually operates was it's strength earlier, the overbearing fixation on explaining the mechanics of the plot smothers what could have been a far better ending. Top it off with a shitty boss fight with entirely new mechanics and much of the goodwill the game banked earlier is well on it's way to spent.
I like it though, it's skillful in crafting a world that can be enjoyed by both adults and children and it plays the character game deftly. So many adventure game worlds can live or die by their inhabitants and The Night of the Rabbit doesn't disappoint here. A mole radio presenter, a frog mailman a mouse on roller skates who runs a coffee shop inside a tree trunk, a senile old squirrel and a hippy magician in a poncho are just some of the cast you'll encounter. My favourite character is the story teller woodland sprite, a little man made of twigs and rocks who can be found by night in secret places.
Bottom line: It's a delightful adventure with some sinister tones woven throughout. Requires a little more patience than most adventure games. Not for the easily bored but those that love a well crafted game world should have great fun with this one.
4:59 PM on 01.22.2015
I haven't played many point and click adventure games but recently I've been warming to them at a quite alarming rate. I'm finding that puzzle solving and interesting character interactions are a welcome reprieve from the grim-dark-shooty-stab that's the norm in a lot of modern games. So recently I had a playthrough of a game that I picked up a long time ago but never really sank much time into until now. It's still pretty heavy on the grim-dark, but refreshingly lighter on the shooty-stab. So, you know, baby steps and all. It's Primordia, and it's frickin' sweet.
Released by Wadjet Eye Games in 2012, Primordia is something of a little darling in some circles, but I've not seen as much love for it as I think it deserves. The game is set at an unspecified time in the future, and humans are no longer kept in much high regard by either the radioactive wasteland of future Earth or the machine inhabitants of the same, unless you happen to be Horatio Nullbuilt v.5, which in this particular game you very much do happen to be. A devoutly religious robot, Horatio spends his days fixing up his ship The Uniic and studying his 'Gospel of Man;' a sort of robot bible that seems to paint humans in a similar light to how the actual Bible paints God. He has a sarcastic sidekick (because of course he does) named Crispin, a floating metal ball who serves as an excellent foil to Horatio's more stoic and somber lead. All of a sudden a big nasty fridge looking robot with an assortment of lasers and claws steals Horatio and Crispin's power core, leaving them without the precious energy they need to continue living, and it's this event that is the impetus for the game's post-human tale.
So begins the tale, and you spend a little time with some relatively simple puzzles to ease you in to the particular quirks of Primordia's puzzle solving. I particularly like the thoughtful pace of the introduction, and the way it gives you time to really inhabit The Uniic and the surrounding terrain, before fate forces Horatio and Crispin further afield to get back their power core. The game world expands slowly as it goes on, and the puzzles make very economic use of the various boards you travel through, scattering plot and puzzle items here and there. The later areas in particular are great for their verticality, with items thought lost being found again in relation to where they dropped higher up, really giving you a sense of how the different backgrounds fit together to form something more than just painted landscapes.
I'm being a little sparse on details here to be quite honest and that's deliberate as with these sort of games the plot, puzzles, and exploration are the gameplay, so to allude to the story and locales too much would ruin the experience. The puzzles themselves are on the whole very well crafted, requiring very few leaps of logic unlike some other games in this genre. Very rarely did I ever feel cheated by a problem. I did feel like one puzzle involving an information kiosk in particular was a little arcane and only then did I do a very quick dip into a guide to point me in the right direction, though if I'm honest looking at the problem after I probably should have managed it without. There's a tremendous sense of satisfaction from getting the answer right in this game and as mentioned before it's really only simple logic and problem solving with no obfuscation or 'how the hell was I supposed to know that?!' moments. This is no small part helped by a great deal of puzzles involving fixing broken machinery, the mechanics of which are often quite familiar and easy to get a handle on. If you should find yourself stuck the hint system is very skillfully woven into Crispin and Horatio's dialogue, with the former coming out with lines that are so just enough to put you on the right track without ruining the fun of solving it yourself that it's just downright impressive.
The story is great fun and there's a lot of very interesting characters to meet along the way, some favourites being a pair of stuck up robots arguing over who had a greater role in the building of their robot dog. Or a badass robotic lady Judge Dredd type. The world building too is very impressive, with plenty of allusions to to the origin of the robot society that exists, and what happened to get it to the sorry state it's in. It's very Dark Souls in it's breadcrumbs of lore and dust trails of past conflicts and the atmosphere is artfully crafted.
I really don't have much to say against this one. You probably already know if you're the type of person who likes point and click adventure games, but if you happen to be on the fence I really couldn't recommend a better place to start. With sound puzzle logic, a beautiful art style, surprisingly affecting voice acting and a kickin' synthy Blade Runner soundtrack, there's a lot to recommend here. Very happy with this one.