Emily Is Away (Review)

Source: Free
Price: Free (Donations accepted)
Where To Get It: Steam Itch.IO (The latter has details on donation)

Emily Is Away is a game that can make you uncomfortable. In fact, as I’m writing this paragraph (I don’t write these things all in one go), I’m staring at the login screen for the third chapter, after 15 minutes, thinking very hard about what’s just transpired. I’m not entirely sure I want to continue. But obviously, this is a review about a game that isn’t “fun”, but needs to be talked about, so… Later.

"Nothing much" is going on. And yet...

“Nothing much” is going on. And yet…

[Later] Damn, that was just as harrowing as I thought it would be, two chapters in. Time to talk about it. Because talking is the core of the game, in a sense. In another sense, it’s about not talking. About the things you don’t say as much as the things you do. About pain. And, to me at least, a reminder of what an asshole I was in university (College to american readers.)

If you’re expecting something flashy, something glitzy in this donationware game, think again. This is set in the age of AOL Instant Messenger, and shitty icons and blocky text are the order of the day. And it’s all messenger. It’s all talking, and hitting the keys to type the words that your avatar in game actually types. And I find it both very clever, and harrowing, to type myself to make those words appear. It makes me feel complicit. And I don’t mean that in a good way. I am responsible for those words, even in that fictional world, and it hurts. Theoretically, I could play this multiple times (It took me just over half an hour the first time), and there are multiple things that could change the story, but I want to talk about it as it stands. And I’m going to do it by talking about relationships.

...Why did I say that? Why didn't I say what I was *going* to say?

…Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say what I was *going* to say?

Relationships can seem easy to many, but they’re not. Even keeping a friendship can involve a surprising amount of work, but it’s work we do gladly because friendship is, in a very real sense, its own reward. But this applies even more so in bad times. In bad times, we may find ourselves asked to give more than we receive in a friendship, and sometimes to do so in a way that, in the short term, risks losing the friendship. Sometimes we’re not strong enough, for whatever reason. Sometimes, Things Happen. And Things Get Awkward. And trust is broken. Trust is important in relationships, especially if you genuinely wish your friends and loved ones the best.

This, folks, is a game filled with the pitfalls of real relationships. And what you say may have little bearing on what happens. Eventually, either Emily will be Away… Or you will. And it’s only the voice of experience that told me how bad things would be so early, and that knowledge, unfortunately, makes this game more affecting. In this case… I was the one who left. The words that needed to be aired never were. And I won’t play again (Although I’m sure regret over my fictional avatar’s situation will force me to play “What If?” later), not because this isn’t a well written gutpunch of a game, but because I want to hold on to that feeling, despite the fact I’ve experienced it personally before, on both ends. The same feeling my fictional avatar seemed to be afflicted with toward the end, where he wanted to say things… But didn’t, instead writing inconsequentialities while the elephants in the room (Multiple elephants) stared fixedly into his brainpan, before awkwardly saying that he had to go. Wondering where it went wrong. Wondering why he can’t say those words. Wondering, while secretly knowing, whether things will ever be the way they were.

...Of course, by the time it's reached this point... It's too late to say *anything*

…Of course, by the time it’s reached this point… It’s too late to say *anything*

They won’t. Something potentially valuable has gone from this world, because two people did stupid shit at the wrong times, because they didn’t know how to say what they needed to say, or to hear what they needed to say. And it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I won’t recommend this game to people just seeking “Fun.” It’s not. As soon as you realise the threads that simultaneously bind and tear apart these two people, the feeling of losing control, you know, instinctively, that Fun isn’t on the cards. But if you want a well written, emotionally affecting game that, in its way, talks about not talking, and bad relationships (Whether starting bad or going bad), you have a winner. If you want a game that makes your heart ache, and think very seriously about how lucky you are to have the friends you do… This game is worth playing, and very possibly worth a donation so the creator can make more.

Okay, that’s the end of this review. Goodbye.

The Mad Welshman Is Away.

On Games Journalism – Problems With Investigation.

This is a tough one for me to write, because it’s not only an admittance that not all is well with Games Journalism (The easy part), but I have to make sure this doesn’t sound like making excuses (The tough bit.) But let’s begin with why this article exists. It begins with a common accusation levelled against Game Journalism… Even by fellow Game Journalists.

“Why do folks repeat stories, and not do the digging on their own? Why aren’t there more articles probing the industry?”

It’s worded in many different ways, but that’s the general gist of it. And I’m going to break down for you why this is so. Keep in mind, this is going to be acknowledging multiple problems, in many different places, not all of which are in the province of Games Journalism specifically. Let’s begin.

Access, Access, Access

It is no secret that developers and publishers do not like bad things printed about them, especially if they are true. In fact, it’s true about everybody. It’s a thorny problem, and it’s compounded by the fact that, when it comes to examining things going on within the industry, they are the primary source. In fact, if it weren’t for employees wishing to anonymously come forward, and the occasional hint of a lawsuit, they would be the only source. They are certainly the only source that has final say on whether an outlet gets the review copies without having to put it on the expenses part of their budget, and interviews that would be on the record.

In fact, this is one of the major problems facing a game journalist who knows damn well something is rotten in the state of Devmark… The Eerie Silence. At least one outlet (Rock, Paper, Shotgun) has, in the past, directly noted that this is a tactic commonly used with awkward questions (The Silence: An Update, by John Walker), and many others have (for various reasons) had to write the words “We have reached out to the [developer/publisher] for comment. [End of sentence, no mention of a reply]”, or some variation thereof.

As much as I want developers and publishers to feel unafraid to talk to me, this will never really be the case, especially with the ones who know (As a collective) that they have practices or attitudes that are less than stellar. Making this worse is the fact that, when a developer or publisher blacklists you, you are most likely the last person to know, although you will suspect quite early on. Sometimes, you will never get confirmation unless someone reaches out. And that is generally unlikely.

Another fun thing with access is that, for the best investigation, you need to be on the ground floor. You need to be there. That’s not something that magically happens. You don’t wave a Make-Nice-Wand and an invitation magically appears. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved, sometimes a little luck, and a lot of struggling. The article on attitudes at the DigiPen Institute (Sex at a Four-Year Video Game College, by Jagger Gravning for Vice), for example, was not a case of “And Lo, The Writer Was Invited To See Stuff.” Considering the subject matter, it takes little imagination to see ways this article could have disappeared between “plan” (Not all of these investigations are planned, per se) and execution.

And, of course, they had to go there, where the story was… Which leads us nicely to another problem… One I’ve talked about (At length) before…

That ABBA Song… That Fucking ABBA Song.

I hope you know the one I mean… Many of you will, because for a while, it was quite fashionable to bawl out “MONEY MONEY MONEY… IT’S SO FUNNY… IN A RICH MAN’S WORLD!” when properly lubricated on a Saturday night. But now that I’ve made it clear, let’s explain, for the privileged and stubborn thinkers, why this is a problem.

I would love to write things examining nice workplaces. I would love to hold up examples of companies that succeed, and do so because of their progressive practices. It would help convince people that yes, you can make money, and not have to crunch, and not have to be an Old Boy’s Club. But there is a problem. A big one, completely unrelated to the problem of whether a company or institution wishes to talk to you in the first place.

You have to get there. Now, if you are working for a larger group, there is a higher chance that you will have the scratch to do such a thing… But for the majority of folks, including commissioned writers (As opposed to regular staff writers)… That isn’t the case. So you have two options. Only one of them is practical for many, only one of them is preferable. They are mutually exclusive.

The first is to be invited, all expenses paid. This, you may think, is the preferable one. But this is the practical one. Why would that be? Well, let’s remember the most common put-down for a review or preview that a reader disagrees with:

“THIS WAS A PAID FOR ANNOUNCEMENT”

Or some variation.

It’s blackly funny, actually. I’m pretty sure there are developers and publishers out there who’d love to show such things off, to as many people as possible, because it gets the word out. But what good is a message, however positive, that people don’t trust? That people don’t feel was earned by blood, sweat, and tears that, to be quite honest, isn’t really necessary? The preferable one would be to have the scratch or support beforehand to be able to do this… Oh. Wait. I know I don’t have that kind of bloody dough. And nor, in fact, do the vast majority of games writers. Funny, that.

And yes, there will be folks out there who shit on such sentiments regardless. I think we’ve covered that already (and will again). Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help when many of us, due to the inconsistent demands of our reader base, don’t feel confident accepting the promise of “Transport paid, food and drinks offered” type press events. Regardless of whether we are actually swayed by such things… I won’t, and can’t speak for everybody, but I know at least a few of us laugh, sarcastically and evilly, whenever someone says being paid by someone else to do our jobs biases us.

I’ll let you in on something that I will admit is not particularly nice of me. When Tim Willets was making his “Lineage of Awesome” speech at Eurogamer 2011, about Rage? I couldn’t help but snicker behind my hand. The speech was hype, pure and simple, and, in its way, hilarious considering I had been shooting largely identical masked blokes who were all voiced by perhaps two cockneys in a ruined building of the type we’ve all seen before not half an hour previously. Hype. I have a long held distrust of hype (Since before I became a games writer, in fact), while accepting that yes, it’s a thing all media have to do to get heard in this modern day of information overload and the fatigue and distrust of advertising, and it’s a thing that I am just as complicit in as the rest of the games industry.

Is that undiplomatic? Hell yes. Is it something that may not endear me to the folks at Id Software? Ohhhh yes. Equally, I’m not going to endear myself to fans of Rage. And I’m not going to endear myself to people who didn’t like Rage, but pre-ordered it, by pointing out that you fell for the hype. In a sense, that’s okay. It was, in its way, well crafted hype. It talked about what Id knew best, and them showing that they did certain things very well… Specifically, they are very good at making the experience of shooting mans a technically impressive one. Note I said technically impressive. All the MegaTextures in the world aren’t going to help you if the person buying your game gives not a single fuck about that, and instead gets pissed off that you didn’t actually put a real ending in.

PS – There are good things about Rage. There are good things about Tim Willets, who was a funny guy who said funny things that were intentionally funny in said speech. There were reasons why Rage didn’t have a proper ending. I am using this as an extreme example of how little other people paying for me to see supposedly shiny things matters compared to what you actually produce.

But this talk of inconsistency allows me to mention the Human Factor here.

You, The Reader. Yes, You. No, Not You.

Hoo boy. This part’s tough, for a lot of reasons. In a sense, my privilege (Being a white dude who is currently the same gender wot he was born as) “protects” me from this. Not making it so easy as typing some angry, ill considered words and hitting “THIS COMMENT FUCKING OWNS YOU (Regardless of whether it actually does)” also helps. But it never works forever, and sooner or later, someone pays the piper for saying things that aren’t popular (Or, more accurately, do not appear popular), but need to be said. And there’s not always a rhyme or a reason behind it either.

So, let’s mention a simple thing. Let’s see how far people get along this chain of thought before they start forming a “But, but, but…” in their minds. Sexism is bad. In fact, thinking someone’s opinion is worth less because they’re different than you is, in general, bad. They can be wrong, sure. But there are good reactions to someone being wrong, and there are bad reactions to someone being wrong. There are also incredibly bad, illegal, and/or highly fucking stupid ways to react.

Female Technology Journalists Report Abuse Is Still The Name Of The Game
Racist Groups Use Computer Gaming To Promote Hate

Those are just two pieces of writing, among a large pool, of prejudice in “our” industry. There are others, and they are pretty easy to find with only a tiny amount of Google-Fu. Especially in the past year, where these issues have come to the forefront of public attention because… Of the defensive reactions of the very same people who see nothing wrong with this, or ignore that this is happening, after they have done these things, and continue to do these things.

Part of this, sadly, is precisely because people care so much about video games. I’m writing this, fully expecting a huge fucking tidal wave of hate from haters who don’t want it generally known that they are haters (Who, bee tee dubs, generally reveal what haters they are by doing that. Something that doesn’t appear to have gotten through to at least some of them), with another wave coming from another direction of people who are afraid they could be lumped under this category, and think I’m talking about them, when, in fact, I’m not.

And it can apply to things that seem inconsequential to people who don’t play video games as well. Give a “pretty number” that’s seen as “too” low, or “too” high (Make no mistake, part of the reason I dislike “Pretty Numbers” is because reviewing is subjective), and people who seem to think it’s their god-given duty to defend their viewpoint that it’s the best thing since sliced bread (Until, you know… It isn’t anymore) will swarm from the woodwork with such well crafted satire as “BEST TITY 0/10 [negative review]” or insight like “You, [sir/madam/git] have completely misunderstood what [collective group of people who the writer of the comment has largely never met] were intending with what was obviously a masterpiece because [sometimes useful disagreements go here, but don’t lay money on it over, say, missing what was being said versus what they heard].”

Remember that thing about a common refutation of a review people disagree with being “Oh, you were paid to say that by someone”? Yup, that one’ll come out too, especially if it’s positive. If it’s negative, it’s usually something silly like “Doing it for the clicks.”

Misunderstanding criticism, and the goal of criticism, is a pretty common damn thing. When people say “You can like a thing, but not all of a thing”, they roll their eyes. Let’s give you an example.

I like Jonathan Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain.” You may think that this song is the best thing since sliced bread. Or you may go the other way, and say that it is saying some things about relationships that are p. fucking terrible (IE – The song contains forced consent, which is a Bad Thing, leading to Bad Relationships and potentially Bad Times In Court if you copy the bloody song.) I agree with both these points. And I am, funnily enough, not being a hypocrite for doing so. Because both viewpoints are right. I appreciate the artistry behind the song, because it was intended to be a song about a Bond Villain pursuing a dysfunctional romantic relationship in the way they would (Because many characters in a Bond story, including James Bond himself, are misogynist fuckhead assholes). But that doesn’t change the fact that it is not a good song for people who have experienced any form of forced consent to hear, and that assuming this is a healthy attitude to emulate is capital-B Bad.

Explained like that, most of you will nod, and be perfectly fine with me continuing to enjoy the song, because I am aware of the shitty side of it. Some of you, however, will take an extreme position on this for or against. This is human nature. We’re all different. And we have different reasons for doing things.

You may be wondering what this has to do with investigative gaming journalism, the type meant to drag into the light the less than stellar aspects of the Industry that, if we want to do better, we should generally try and stop and/or make folks aware of.

Tell you what, go look at those investigative articles again. For or against a thing, and including the ones you found with your Google-Fu. Look at the comments section. Then think about how easy it is for people to yell at you about something on Twitter. Directly. Or bitch about you behind your back. Or make death threats.

Then realise that this is not a new story. Go look at other socially charged things, past and present. Look at how people reacted.

…The people who dare to write about these things are generally either really fucking brave, or think “Hey, I’m fucked anyway, why not go the whole hog and get it out before some fucker tries to knife me over it.” Sometimes both.

This leads us, quite nicely, onto the final point

Baby Steps, Folks… Baby Steps

Cultural and social change is not a sudden thing. Make no mistake, many problems in the games industry have their roots in larger social and cultural problems or attitudes of varying shittiness and usefulness. Something can be shitty and good at the same time. It’s a difficult concept to swallow for many, I know, but bear with me here…

…And humanity doesn’t like, as a collective group, being told that something is wrong until they feel good and ready to admit it’s not working. We even have a name for it: Cultural Inertia. We even have a name for what happens when this doesn’t happen when maybe it should: Cultural Stasis, also known as Stagnation. We even have examples of when this happened in the past. For all that someone will inevitably make the “What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?” joke from Life of Brian, Ancient Rome, as a culture, died, at least in part, because it couldn’t accept, as a culture, that it should move on from things it was doing that weren’t working. It’s not the whole story, as, much like everything we humans do (As a group), there’s messy bits, complicated bits, and both good and bad in there at the same time. But it’s nonetheless commonly accepted that this was something that definitely, without doubt, helped fuck over the Romans. One example of many, at least some of which we are either doing again, in the modern day (Oh, hello, Austerity!), or are doing over something that has never come up before.

We are, funnily enough, at a point where games can do good. But, equally funnily enough, there are shitty attitudes that hold it back. And they feed back on themselves unless folks try very hard to break the cycle. Here’s a seemingly innocuous example: Edutainment. Kid’s Games. Done well, that’s a thing that makes learning fun, that improves skills, and can change attitudes at a time where we human beings are most likely to change our attitudes (When we don’t have any, as such.)

Even games not designed with this specific attitude in mind can do this… Something I argued, quite persuasively, at an education expo when I was in Primary School, about King’s Quest IV and Mixed Up Mother Goose. Even if that was because I wanted to justify playing them… Y’know, right thing, wrong reasons (Another thing we humans do.) But it’s a segment of gaming, and games reviews, that is often ignored, and often shat on more heavily than “Games As Art.” It’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find them represented at Games Wales, because I sure as shit didn’t find any at Eurogamer when I last went, and I never hear about them at E3, or any of the other gaming events of the year.

There are things people can do about that. But it’s not something that you, the individual reading this, can do alone. Doesn’t matter who you are, social and cultural change is a group activity. I’m not going to pretend that talking about these things, or shouting at them, is going to do everything magically, be a band-aid that makes it all better. Because it isn’t. It’s my contribution to a group effort. It’s what I can do, and, considering I am a Games Journalist (Underpaid, good at writing words, talks to lots of people at once), it’s the most logical thing for me to do. If you’re a politician, you could be reading this and thinking “Huh! maybe I could talk to some folks I know and see if we can’t try and deal with X problem.” If you’re a developer or publisher, you could be thinking “How can I do a thing with development or publishing or PR that is better than I’ve been doing before?” If you are an educator, you could be thinking “How do I work this into my lesson plan?”

And you, the reader who, like me, probably can’t pay any of these people to help, or pay me so I can carry on doing my bit? All you need to do is listen, and think, and, as civilly as possible, discuss the things I’ve said with folks you know are also interested in such things, think about them, digest them. Spread the word, help raise awareness, as safely and constructively as you feel you’re able.

It would be nice if you spent a bit of your disposable scratch on helping me continue to write these things, because it helps me do my bit.

It would be nice if you helped campaign against harassment, and bad industry practices, because it helps those lawyers, and teachers, and politicians do their bit. It would also be nice if folks did more to keep ’em honest.

But I do not expect it of you because I cannot , reasonably, expect it of you. We all have our limits, and it would be dishonest to say that those limits are all equal, all high. In fact, part of the problem is that they aren’t, and those of us who are repeatedly told things need to be done feel that we aren’t doing enough.

My job is to say things about games and the games industry, and to not break laws or the social contracts of the culture to which I belong (Within limits) while doing so. Nothing more, nothing less. It is also my job to spread the word about such things, and sometimes that involves saying much the same things someone else is saying.

Your jobs are many, and varied, but the only one everyone is expected to do is learn, and grow as people, while acknowledging any limits you may have, and their sources.

 

Going Back: Black Dahlia

Mention the Black Dahlia murder, and many games players will point at LA Noire. Mention the game of the same name, however, and most often, you will get a blank stare. The rest of the time, a scream of sheer, unadulterated rage.

Black Dahlia, you see, is a game that, while mostly forgotten unjustly, had one element to it that angered many of its players beyond measure: The puzzles. Which, for an FMV adventure game at the tail end of the FMV heyday (1998, to be exact), was a sales killer.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I was one of those original sales. Now, before we begin talking about why this is worth a Going Back, let’s mention just two numbers. Eight CDs. 4.6 Gb of game. In 1998. Of course, even a “full install” back in the day would be under 500 Mb. But it’s still a pretty mind boggling number. Now let’s go into why it’s mostly a game that should be recalled.

Firstly, for its silly premise (Involving the Thule Society, the Torso Murders, the Black Dahlia murder of Elizabeth Short, and, as you might expect, occult shenanigans linking them all), the writing and the acting sells the game. It was a selling point of the game that Dennis Hopper and Teri Garr were both acting in it (And, in a relative rarity for productions like this, even the extras are named in the manual), and they were supported by actors who, while relatively unheard of, were definitely not unskilled, such as Dan Frezza (Utah Shakespeare Company), Bradley Moniz, Daniel Whelan, and Colette Schreiber. You forget its silly, because, for the majority of the game, the actors and actresses are playing their roles very well. All I’ll say about the story is that it starts with you as a new investigator for the underfunded and underdeveloped COI, checking out a somewhat dubious report of Fifth Columnists in the area, and ends with the fate of the world in your hands.

Darren Eliker really sells the role of Jim Pearson. Poor feller.

Darren Eliker really sells the role of Jim Pearson. Poor feller.

Secondly, it had an interesting system where you could not only examine objects, but move them around in their containers, such as a notepad in your desk that can be shifted back to reveal a service revolver (Itself able to be opened.) It had quite a few locations, and used not only hotspots, but items in conversation.

There are, however, two mood killers for anyone wishing to play the game today: It’s difficult to run on modern systems (and, in fact, nigh impossible if you want to run it flawlessly), and the game’s difficulty could best be described as hellish. Here’s some examples to give you some idea, all from the first chapter (Disc 1 of 8).

You’ve talked to everybody, including the irascible Henry Finster, your superior (Walter Donovan, head of the COI at the time, and later OSS), the detective working on the Torso Murders cases (Peter Meryllo), and a smarmy FBI agent called Winslow. But you’ve run into a brick wall. The game’s given you enough clues that you have a blacklist of possibly less-than-loyal German-Americans, but, due to the rivalry between Donovan and then head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, the damn thing’s encrypted and nobody’s given you the key. The key to cracking the code is in your office. But to get there, you need to find the gun in your desk drawer (Which you won’t find unless you’re clicking and dragging everything that you can interact with), open up the handle (Which, again, you won’t find unless you realise you can do that in your inventory), use the key to open a locked cabinet in your room, and copy the notes written down on paper, because the in-game note system isn’t going to help you here, buddy.

Infamously, not only is this puzzle not meant to be solved, a bug means the game is unwinnable if you try before you're meant to.

Infamously, not only is this puzzle not meant to be solved when you find it, a bug means the game is unwinnable if you try before you’re meant to.

The code is quite simple, once you realise what it’s doing. But the game doesn’t exactly help in letting you know what it’s doing, as the two sheets cannot be read together, and both have their red herrings. This one puzzle is the gatekeeper to… The rest of the plot. Equally innocuous is the shadow on your office light, only seen when you flick on your office lights, and look up. That shadow… Is important, and checking that is vital. There aren’t, to my knowledge, any truly silly puzzles (Along the order of the infamous Cat Hair Moustache of the Gabriel Knight series), but many of them are exactly this tough to discover, let alone solve. Of course, the manual helps you with a few of these early (but vital) tasks, but who reads the manual, eh?

Strangely, despite this? I’d still say the game is worth it, and due a re-release on GOG or the like. But who would be the ones behind such a game? Who would be the ones who made this intriguing, if sometimes maddening game? Why, it would be Take 2 Interactive.

I remember my reaction to this scene. "Is she flirting with him? She's flirting with him! ... She's flirting with him, and he's not noticing. Idiot."

I remember my reaction to this scene. “Is she flirting with him? She’s flirting with him! … She’s flirting with him, and he’s not noticing. Idiot.”

But you’d know them, in the modern day, as 2K Games.

The Mad Welshman also sees spies everywhere. Fifth columnists, trying to ruin his sense of fun by sending him derivative AAA games. It’s a menace…

Going Back: Musaic Box

Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures, in my considered opinion, are mostly creatively bankrupt. I’ll save the rant as to why for another time, but one of the main elements is that there is little to no consideration of where the puzzles fit. I’ve seen Memory puzzles in churches and “secret doors”, I’ve seen evil lairs guarded by the amazing security system that is… A brute forcable colour matching puzzle. The story, similarly, is often formulaic, and often has a “Tell” that conflicts with its “Show.”

Five rooms, each filled with bits of music trivia and puzzles for your puzzle box.

Five rooms, each filled with bits of music trivia and puzzles for your puzzle box.

But I have actually found a good HOPA. And I’d completely forgotten about it. Let me correct this injustice, and show people why it works, when so many others make me groan and grumble. Let me tell you about Musaic Box.

Musaic box is the tale of a woman of somewhat indeterminate age, who has an explorer grandfather with a taste for music that was passed down. She comes to visit her grandfather, on the promise of a very special birthday present. But first, she must solve the riddle of the Musaic Box, and the clues are left around the house. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? It even takes around the same time as your average HOPA (Two or so hours.) However…

You didn't really think I'd show you a completed puzzle, did you? For shame!

You didn’t really think I’d show you a completed puzzle, did you? For shame!

It’s tightly focused. One house, six rooms, and every room has something to do with music or musical history. Within each room is a collection of patterns for the Musaic Box, hidden in places like on the shade of a lamp, or on a printing press stamp, and those patterns lead to the core element of the game: The puzzles. The descriptions for the puzzles are from the character’s perspective, so we know that she was called ‘Little Figaro’ for singing the Barber of Seville at an early age, that she used to do ballet, that she skinned her knee while climbing trees… The puzzles round out her character in a way that supports her sometimes bemused commentary on Grandfather’s collection. In its small way, the story supports the game. And, because it’s in a small way, it doesn’t over-reach itself. There’s no moment to moment supernatural drama that falls apart after a slight examination here, just a young lady playing a game on her birthday. But, as I mentioned, the puzzles are the core element to the game. Let’s go into those.

Not only the core of the game, but where we get character backstory. Not a whole lot of it, but the game doesn't contradict itself.

Not only the core of the game, but where we get character backstory. Not a whole lot of it, but the game doesn’t contradict itself.

Musaic is a portmanteau of “music” and “mosaic”, and, essentially? That’s the puzzle right there. It’s a jigsaw, but a jigsaw that involves music. There’s usually (But not always!) one instrument that you can hear, and you’re supposed to piece together the short tune, making sure that matching colours of symbols aren’t on the same column. Sometimes there’s no lead instrument to listen to, sometimes there’s patterns to match up instead, but for the majority of the game, it goes like that, leading to one of my two criticisms of the game: It’s only moderately challenging until near the end. Otherwise, it does everything it sets out to do, it entertains, and everything fits together as a well designed game should. Of course, finishing the game nets you the birthday present, an “Atlantis amulet” (sic) that allows you to rearrange the tunes in the game any way you want (Which sounds horrible, for the most part: My second criticism of the game) , but then you realise “I spent a third of what I would spend on Hidden Secrets: The Horrific Jumble Of Items” , and you remember that the game has some pretty good short arrangements of classical tunes (Including a surfer rock version of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean”, and a properly swinging “When The Saints Go Marching In”.) And you smile. You may not play it twice, but you have had fun.

HOPA devs could learn from this example, which goes to show that “more complex” doesn’t necessarily mean better.

The Mad Welshman smiled as he slotted the last part of the Musaic into place. Victory, as it turns out, sounds like The Entertainer.

Circuit Breakers (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Unbeknownst to many, there are four elements of projectile based murder: Rapid fire, Burst shot, Splosion makers, and Lasers. Circuit Breakers, an arcade score attack shooter, understands this. Even if it doesn’t understand some other things.

It starts pretty simple...

It starts pretty simple…

So, I’m going to ask you, the reader, how much you like 80s buttrock (You know, the kind of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sonic game or an 80s teenage hijinks movie.) Because if you don’t subscribe to the church of BIG HAIR, the music is going to annoy the hell out of you. Fortunately for me, I ooze Glam, which is close enough to count. In any case, the game’s idea is pretty simple: Pick one of four characters, each specialising in one of the four elements of murder (Machine Gun, Shotgun, Missile Launcher, and Laser), murder everything in a room while not getting hit, move on to the next, rinse and repeat with the occasional Big Boss thrown in.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, for two reasons. First, weapon upgrades are tied to an energy mechanic: Short, controlled bursts, or you’re going to be staying with the level 1 whatever-the-hell you picked. I’ve had the best luck with Samson (The rocket-man), but after room 4 or 5 it gets a little tough not to just go hog-wild. Conversely, the hardest time I had was with Tay, whose powerful shots still require you to line folks up before firing if you want her weapon upgraded to its fullest destructive potential.

...Then it starts ramping up.

…Then it starts ramping up.

The other thing is the base key bindings. Being a twin stick shooter, it’s perfectly sensible to have WASD and arrows as moving and shooting respectively, but… E is ‘accept menu choice’ , Q is back, and Enter is start and… Look, the bindings don’t make a whole lot of sense beyond the basics. They’re rebindable, and the game is just as enjoyable on keyboard as it is on gamepad, but it is a strange decision. Finally, there’s some minor readability issues with some rooms that mean you can’t clearly see the pits of “Can’t walk here” when things get hot and heavy (Most noticable in Score Attack)

Apart from that, it’s a workhorse of well worn design… Simple AI, relatively simple rules, simple unlocks, and nothing more complicated than score attack, with potentially memorisable enemy patterns, different approaches depending on your character chosen, and a fair variety of enemies and bosses. Of course, it’s a tough game, but considering how easy it is to get back in, I don’t really find it annoying, and I can quite clearly see how it’s my fault when I die. A good example of this is my playstyle with Tay.

...Then there's tanks...

…Then there’s tanks…

“Okay, wait for them to line up, I want those bonus Energium chunks so I can murder better, and… Hey, wait, those guys spawned behind me? Crap, change appr-OW. Okay, still got this, I still got this, there, loads of peopl-OW, how was that guy not? Oh, he was slightly below the laser, sod, I can stil-OW… Welp, new life time!”

It’s also multiplayer, and I can definitely see the entertainment value there. Alone, it’s challenging. With friends, it’s an orgy of destruction. It can be played locally or online, and supports multiple controller types for each player, so there’s less faffing around if you decide to play locally.

So, apart from the keyboard binding being a little odd, it seems like it does exactly what it sets out to do, and the difficulty means that yes, if you don’t get frustrated by not getting past Room X, it seems like the enjoyment is worth the £6 that’s being asked here. It’s very specifically aimed at fans of swarm shooters like Robotron or Smash TV, and probably won’t interest anyone who isn’t into topdown shooters for very long. It should also be mentioned that, at the time of writing, Circuit Breakers has a competition for a specially designed arcade cab with Circuit Breakers on it (and Steam), and it’s pretty simple to enter.

Obviously, being a member of the press, I haven’t. But you definitely can. 🙂

The Mad Welshman ran pell-mell through the house, seeking, searching, destroying. Why were these robots around? And where the hell had his coffee gone? He had the feeling the answers had to be related.