Darkest Dungeon (Release Review)

Source: Early Access Backer
Price: £14.99, £18.99 with soundtrack
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, GoodOldGames

Darkest Dungeon is a game I like… But I can’t really recommend. It’s kind of an odd position to be in, really. But then, Darkest Dungeon is pretty much all about oddness, so I guess it’s kind of fitting.

This... Is the essence of "IKR?" in Darkest Dungeon.

This… Is the essence of “IKR?” in Darkest Dungeon.

For those who haven’t seen me talk about Darkest Dungeon before, it’s a gothic Lovecraftian strategy RPG with procedurally generated elements, where you, the inheritor of the [Insert Doomed Family Lineage Here] mansion, must cleanse the dark taint of your now corrupted home with the aid of adventurers who are going to become diseased, raving, and dead in their droves as a result of your relative’s delving into Things Wot Man Was Not Meant To Know. But that’s fine, they’re assholes anyway. Good example, each game starts with Reynauld the Crusader, who is a God-Fearing Kleptomaniac, and Dismas the Highwayman, no longer allowed to gamble in any township he visits because he’s a widely known cheat. There’s some customisation allowed from the get-go, and random chance begins affecting you from the first dungeon, making no two playthroughs exactly the same (I’m playing from the beginning again right now, and, after finishing the tutorial, Reynauld got a -5% to his ranged skills, a much better result than last time, where he became a God-Fearing Kleptomaniac who wouldn’t pray… Making it impossible for me to let him regain sanity until I unlocked the Sanitarium, several forays later.) To make it extra amusing, there is an achievement for keeping these first two the whole way through.

Kleptomania commencing in 3...2...1...

Kleptomania commencing in 3…2…1…

And this is where “I like it” and “I can’t really recommend it” start to conflict. Even in the early stages, Darkest Dungeon was not the friendliest of games, and as time has gone by, it’s only gotten more complex, more difficult… Which is awkward, because it started somewhat challenging, and has proceeded to “Even after you understand the game, you’ve still got a chance of losing enough folks and quests to set you well behind the game’s difficulty progression, leading to a slow, graceless fall into the realisation you have to restart.” But, equally, I can’t deny it’s one hell of a ride down, with the game oozing atmosphere from pretty much every pore. The funereal town music, the heavy inks of the visuals, leading to a grim, Mignola-esque feel to the visuals that… Well, is really praiseworthy, and the narrator… Ahhh, Wayne June as the narrator deserves great things, for making the defining character trait of “Dull Hopelessness” both an entertaining and emotionally affecting experience. You can feel the weight throughout the game, and so the narrative mixes well with the story (Which, hey, is about trying to complete a hopeless, madness inducing task!)

Oh... Yeah, arachnophobes might not want this game. Just sayin' ...

Oh… Yeah, arachnophobes might not want this game. Just sayin’ …

Unfortunately, that weight, that sense of grim restraint, also affects the game in its rules. Some characters do well in the light, some in the dark. Most classes do particularly well in only one or two positions out of the four adventurers who enter a dungeon, and being surprised can ruin pretty much any party’s perfomance. Some items in the dungeon can be neutralised or improved by using inventory items, and they’re often specific to the dungeon type (So locked chests, for example, require keys, which is obvious… But Iron Maidens can give treasure instead of tetanus with the use of medicinal herbs). Afflictions and Diseases change the character, and stress can, if you’re not careful, quite literally kill your characters… Which can definitely be gained more easily than lost. All the while, money is a problem, and the over cautious player must, paradoxically, take greater and greater risks to stay afloat, the larger the dungeons get. Meanwhile, recovery not only depends on those ever dwindling funds, but on whether the Caretaker, that sad, broken soul, isn’t currently trying to drown his woes in the particular brand of solace you specifically needed for one of your better adventurers. This, and much, much more, has to be remembered and kept in mind often if you really want to complete The Darkest Dungeon… Hence why I can’t really recommend it.

I will, however, say that sometimes, its worth it, to see a grand horror surprised by your ultimately futile resistance.

I will, however, say that sometimes, its worth it, to see a grand horror surprised by your ultimately futile resistance.

But hey, even though I can’t recommend folks buying and playing it because, in a very real sense, the game resists it with the sheer amount of things to keep track of that can screw you over with a moments’ inattention (Or lack of awareness), I’d still say to watch a few playthroughs and ask around, because the atmosphere, at the least, deserves to be experienced. Even if the game wants you to suffer when playing it.

The Mad Welshman is aptly named. He has seen things… Things behind the cackling facade we call reality. Entire worlds, between one quad and the next. And behind it all, the RNJesus, bubbling and fluting madly away, uncaring of humanity…

The Aquatic Adventure Of The Last Human (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99 , £10.99 for the deluxe edition, which includes the map they didn’t really put in the game.
Where To Get It: Steam, itch.io, Humble Store

I liked the Souls games. I loved Shadow of the Colossus. I like me some Metroidvanias (I 100%ed Symphony of the Night at least once, which was… A thing.) I don’t mind me exploration. But Aquatic Adventures of The Last Human feels, to me, like it didn’t really learn from them. It tried. Bless it, it tried. But I feel like core lessons weren’t learned. Let’s go into that.

Where's the Upper Harpoon, you say? Only once you find enough upgrades, cabrone!

Where’s the Upper Harpoon, you say? Only once you find enough upgrades, cabrone!

First up, the first weapon. I found it, was led into a room that looked suspiciously like a boss arena, and lo… It was. This would all be well and good, if the first weapon wasn’t the thing it was. But the first weapon was a harpoon. That only fires from the bottom of your craft, because reasons. Not just that, but a really slow to charge harpoon. We’re talking a good three or so seconds between max charge shots. Which, as you might expect when the boss is an annelid around 100 times larger than your ship, about as useful as a wet fart in a diving suit. Let’s compare that for a second with, say, the Souls games and SotC, shall we?

In the souls games, similarly, you start with utter tat, and similarly, the bosses feel more like you’re giving them a tattoo than actually harming them, the first time through. But firstly, that changes rather rapidly, and secondly, no matter what you’re doing, you’re quite obviously giving it your all. There’s a sense of effort to connect with, a struggle for life, that shows in every grunting, snarling, huffing movement you make. Similarly, in Shadow of the Colossus, once you find a colossus, the fight does take ages, but you don’t mind because the entire struggle is visceral… You have to hold on for dear life, jump on something that could squash you like a bug with a mis-step, and when you do manage to do something? Oh my, the accomplishment!

The story of humanity is apparently a struggle between Terrorist BluePeace, and an increasingly authoritaria- Wait, where are you going?

The story of humanity is apparently a struggle between Terrorist BluePeace, and an increasingly authoritaria- Wait, where are you going?

There is none of that in the early fights of Aquatic Adventures. What there is is “wokawokawOkAwOkAWOKAWOKAWOKAWOKA- CHUNK”, except for the times when certain attacks occur, when it becomes “brmbrmbrmbrmbrm ch-ch-ch-ch.” Those are the sounds, specifically, of charging up your harpoon to attack at its highest damage and range (piddling), and the sounds of avoiding projectiles of some sort while firing your harpoon at its weakest as quickly as you can (About twice a second, at an estimate.)

In other fights, in other worlds, other games, I at least feel something. But in the early fights of Aquatic Adventures, I feel, at best, like some brigadier calmly calling “Chap with the flukes, five rounds… Er… As rapidly as you can manage, private.” And then, occasionally, something will kill me that I didn’t even see coming. Because the other thing this game doesn’t do well is readability.

Make no mistake, it’s pretty. I appreciated how different strata of this underwater world feel different: From the top, which is relatively simple outposts, the last remnants of a now dead humanity, to Settlement Seven, media dominated, with generators and television screens that have somehow survived several millennia of saltwater corrosion (Somewhat optimistically), to Central, the dark, authoritarian part of our slow descent into extinction. But navigating these areas, and more, are somewhat of an annoyance, as many are dark, and all of them are somewhat hard to read. Similarly, the majority of underwater creatures (In the beginning at least) aren’t hostile, but I spent the first thirty minutes shooting inoffensive fish because… Well, I couldn’t be sure. As it turned out, the thing I didn’t even see coming was one of the second boss’ attacks. Which is a good point to mention the bosses.

The Tranquil, about two minutes after it started annoying me...

The Tranquil, about two minutes after it started annoying me…

I thought, after the first few fights, that it would become less tedious. It didn’t. Even with charge upgrades, and a saw to get me new areas, my choices of boss were a fish that constantly healed itself unless I destroyed, er… The bits of itself it was shooting out, then eating to heal; An octopus which required slowly weaking limbs, chopping them off… Aaand they came back completely for the second half. No, you don’t get a checkpoint, and no, at no point do you feel awesome for doing it. Mostly, you just get annoyed when a segment you thought you’d damaged enough wasn’t as damaged as you thought, or you got damaged despite having the saw, and that kills you, forcing you to do the whole tedious mess… All… Over… Again. Oh, and while it would be spoilers to mention where a certain useful utility power up would be, suffice to say, it’s in the very last place you would look.

This is the worst part. The music is good. The visual aesthetic (once you ignore what the nice gamma slider person says) is okay. But this is a game about the end of humanity (Apparently through several terminal cases of stupidity), and I… Don’t feel anything. When a boss kills me, the “You died” and restart to checkpoint just makes me sigh a little. When the messages from Blue Earth Alliance (Think Greenpeace, but definitely terrorists) turn up, I feel no reason to care. Everything I’ve come across in this game is emotionally detached, and strangely devoid of anything beyond surface detail that I can really get to grips with. That, at least, triggers an emotion or two: Sadness and feeling awkward.

This used to be above water. Now, it's simply a curiosity.

This used to be above water. Now, it’s simply a curiosity.

The Mad Welshman looked at the Tranquil. The Tranquil gazed back with its giant yellow eyes. And The Mad Welshman started singing “I Crush Everything”, for no good reason he could name.

Energy Cycle (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: 79p. Yes, you heard that right. £1.99 with the artbook and soundtrack.
Where To Get It: Steam

Never let it be said that developers don’t know what works for them, at least some of the time. Once again, Sometimes You creates something cheap, simple, and logical, involving making things add up. But don’t worry, math phobes… This time, it’s colour matching, not equations. And I say that this is okay without a hint of sarcasm.

This is an example of how you start a puzzle...

This is an example of how you start a puzzle…

Essentially, there are rows and columns of coloured blobs. Clicking one of those rows or columns changes the whole row or column, and you want them all to be one colour. Nice, simple, easy to understand. It’s enough to make a critic’s hair come out in clumps. After all, it works, it’s cheap, it’s fun. That should be ideal, right? I can even point to it and say “This is for people who like logic puzzles, don’t need to worry about story… Oh, and digital art of some flavours of sci-fantasy abstract cats of varying quality is in there too, so… Maybe cat fans?”

But we love our words. We love having things to say. What, in the end, can we say about a game so simple, so deadly simple, that if the developer fucked it up, we would feel pity? Oh, they didn’t, by the way. Last time, I talked about aliens and their strange foibles. This time, I think, we shall meditate on colour blindness.

...And this is a particularly nice finish, and a particularly growly cat. Go me. Go cat.

…And this is a particularly nice finish, and a particularly growly cat. Go me. Go cat.

Colour blindness afflicts many of us. It makes certain games unplayable, and developers either know how to deal with it, or they find out they have to learn, quite quickly. Games have lived or died on the colour blindness vote. Energy Cycle, I am happy to say, is distinctly colour blindness friendly. A black background, with swirly bits. The plasma balls that form the puzzles are one of (at the beginning, at least), three colours, all very distinct in terms of hue, all brighter than the background by far, all fairly saturated. The only part of the screen that isn’t terribly clear is the little menu button in the top right, and I fully expect that can be fixed quite quickly. I even trust Sometimes You will do it, too… They seem quite considerate like that.

Musically and visually, the game is, in a sense, dark as heck. The plasma balls aren’t, but the digital cats are all ferocious, the music pumping with square and saw waves, dark pieces of electronica that pulse to a seemingly authoritarian beat. Combined with the swirl behind the level select screen, it seems to cry “OBEY. OBEY YOUR CAT OVERLORDS.” I laughed, when I realised what dirty tricks the designer had put into level 6, which has almost every single little ball affecting both a row and a column, as clicking intersections shifts both by one colour. And I understood the logic behind it. 18 clicks, fuckers. I reckon that ain’t bad. Similarly, there’s a time attack, a level editor, and they’re all really accessible.

There... Really isn't much more than this, so have another cat, this time from the title screen.

There… Really isn’t much more than this, so have another cat, this time from the title screen.

I like Energy Cycle. It’s hard not to, because it’s cheap, it’s simple, it’s accessible, and the developer still had room to put their own little stylistic touches in that I can say, without any fear, are theirs. For its price, for what it is, I’d say the game is exactly right. Fair dos, it’s not often I get to say that.

The Mad Welshman is totally not a front for your secret cat overlords. Meow.

Oxenfree (Review)

Source: Cash, ‘cos, like, I couldn’t not support the developers of this one!
Price: Iunno, it says £14.99 for the game, and, like, £18.99 for the game and the soundtrack and stuff?
Where To Get It: Well, Steam  has it, you should, like, totally check it out… If it’s your thing, y’know!

Okay, so, listen up. This is a game about, like, teens. Also spooky scary ghosts, but mostly teens. Y’know, with the awkwardness, and the sentences that are either, like, way contracted, or run on for ages and ages and ages… You, like, remember being one of those, right? Or maybe you are one? Y’know, when you’d say like, and y’know, and gaaaahd? Or be totally quiet? Oh, yeah, sometimes you’d forget words you totally use all the time, like… Well, totally!

See? Like, teen stuff, like Truth or Slaps, which is kinda like Truth or Dare, but with less butthole licking, like he said!

See? Like, teen stuff, like Truth or Slaps, which is kinda like Truth or Dare, but with less butthole licking, like he said!

I’d like to tell you this is a game about happy endings. But that’s literally up to you. Like, literally. Your choices actually lead to things, because there’s only a small amount of things it can lead up to. And most of it has nothing to do with whether you, like, save the world, or whatever. Because it’s entirely possible you can do that. Although it’s also totally possible that none of it actually happened, or all of it happened, and, like, keeps happening, because timey wimey stuff is involved. Also it hella reminds me of The Fog… Oh, wait, you might not have seen the fog, it involved radios too, and creepy voices, and a shipwreck of some sort… Unless it’s the new one, in which case it was a bit weirder, and not as cool. But either way, things happen, and you kinda have to keep everything together when… Well, things reallyReally aren’t together, do you get that?

Anyway, the point is that there are drama bombs, and if you’re not ready for those, or the fact that, y’know, it starts slow? Maybe this isn’t the game for you. Because these teens, they’re like… Their concerns are what you might call “Boring teen drama”, or you could, like, remember when all of that stuff was super important, I mean, universe endingly important. That’s kinda what I did, and I spent the whole game in various states of “Oh… My… GAAAAAHD!” or “OH NOES!”

This is, like, most of the teens, something like halfway through the night, I guess? I mean, look at how they're tryin' to be brave, and totally sucking at it!

This is, like, most of the teens, something like halfway through the night, I guess? I mean, look at how they’re tryin’ to be brave, and totally sucking at it!

Because the game definitely does a lot to give you a bad case of the Oh Noes. It, like, threatens your friends, or… Well, they’re not your friends, but they kinda are, because you’re a girl called Alex, even if, y’know, you’re not a girl, or a Person of Colour, which Alex also kinda is? Either way, it was really cool to see these teens being treated as… Well, people, not just scream queens or puppy princes or whatever. They make dumb choices, like eating space cakes at bad times, or bring out their drama, and half the drama comes from… Well, maybe they’re not all there in ways that aren’t related to those cookies that make you hungrier the more you eat them, y’get what I’m saying?

The game looks kinda cool, although it’s hard to see things on a big monitor, and the characters look kinda small, but that’s okay, because the island is really cool too, and the music that plays, all the sounds and voices and weird effects are good too, as is, like, how easy it is to work out how to use the radio to, y’know, do spooky things (because there are spooky radios), because when you get on the right frequency for, like, things to happen, something obvious usually comes with it, like a light, or triangles, or whatever.

I’ve only done one run through of the game so far (The game pulls a really, really mean trick to show multiple playthroughs. Like, what the hell, Night School, I was all “NUUUUUUUU!” when you pulled that!), and it took me, like, four whole hours to get through it once, but I liked it, and I’m gonna try and see what happens if I do things differently, because there’s, like, hidden achievements for drama choicey stuff and not-so-hidden achievements for finding letters and backstory and stuff, which would be cool, because your first time through, you’ll kinda be all “Whuuuuuhhhhhh?” for at least the first half, maybe more if, like, you don’t get it?

What Jonas is saying is, like, my reaction through, like, the ENTIRE game. With, y'know, a lot of "Oh cool!" too...

What Jonas is saying is, like, my reaction through, like, the ENTIRE game. With, y’know, a lot of “Oh cool!” too…

Article Translation/Summary: If you like adventure games along the lines of The Cave or the newer Telltale stuff, with well written teenagers being well written (And voice acted) teenagers in a spooky situation that, on your first run through at least, is going to leave you with lots of questions, then this is definitely a good purchase, and well worth checking out. Just be aware that the slow start is just a build up, and stick with it, you might find it worth it. Also please be aware that there is death and teenagers (rightly or wrongly) blaming each other for some of the shit they did, space cakes (That’s “hash” browns, emphasis on hash, to many others), and it is a horror game. Thanks for reading through what I felt was a fitting style of reviewing for the game!

The Mad Welshman is totes a cool dude who, like, isn’t a freak or a… Wait, are we even allowed to say freak anymo-ooooh, these cakes taste so good….

Tharsis (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Sometimes, you have games seemingly designed to encourage us never to leave this green earth again. Games which say “Space is so stupidly dangerous, there is literally no point in going up there.” Tharsis is one such game… And I don’t really think that’s so much intention as theorycrafting over testing.

No, you weren't prepared. You weren't prepared at all, and you're going to die.

No, you weren’t prepared. You weren’t prepared at all, and you’re going to die.

Make no mistake, Tharsis is beautiful. Digital paintings abound, the Tharsis itself doesn’t look bad by any stretch of the imagination, and the UI, while not as helpful as it could be, is laid out well. The music, similarly, hits the right note, with the cutscene music’s mood of “We are fucked” and the main game’s “Okay, but let’s go down working, eh?” It fits. Which makes the game’s core problem of… Er… The core all the more heartbreaking. Essentially, while on a mission to Mars to investigate a transmission, a micrometeoroid shower blows up one of your modules, setting off a cascade of problems, and killing two of your crew, leaving you four crew, and… Well, an ever growing list of potentially lethal problems on your mission. And that, right there, is both the thematic core of the game, and its core problem.

Simply put, there is never, ever enough work to go round. I wouldn’t mind it so much if it were a case of “Welp, I missed saving the ship by one die roll, I can do better next time!”, but it never is. It’s nearly always around 4 weeks in, with an absolute mess of sudden, critical, and life threatening problems. On “Normal” difficulty. And it seems to show how little thought went into the interaction between game elements that I cannot find a single way to get myself through this block. If I somehow had seven dice (out of a maximum of six), and managed to roll every single number on those dice once (Plus a 5) and got the right piece of research, I would be able to manage one out of five critical problems that arise. But this is also assuming, firstly, that I had seven out of six dice (An impossibility), secondly, that none of those six results were Void (Removes dice), Injury (Removes a health level from a crew member), or Stasis (Locks the number rolled), and, last but not least… It would be assuming it’s only one 20 odd dice problem, instead of… Er… Up to four.

Sometimes, your end is as ignominious as this. Others, it's at least mercifully quick.

Sometimes, your end is as ignominious as this. Others, it’s at least mercifully quick.

There are things that can sort of help, but they require dice to use, and usually specific numbers. Want some food to give one of your crew more dice next turn? This requires firstly, that nothing else life threatening is distracting you (Good luck with that), and secondly, that you get… Er… At least two dice with the same number. Assuming, of course, that you have two spare dice to go around. There’s more, of course, but it all comes back to the same core problem: You simply do not have enough dice to even attempt anything but prayer. In a sense, this is fitting with the mood the game is trying to portray. You will not win this game through strategy, because the dice are the true arbiter of whether you survive a turn. On the one hand, it’s relatively quick. On the other, once you’ve won it once, there’s really not much incentive to come back, as the story, and the ship remain the same. All that changes is the crew (Four members, with most choices being unlockable through… Well, grind, basically. Did you research 800 things? Have a crew member choice!) the specific set of disasters you’re going to go through (Which come in flavours of “Will blow up bits of the ship”, “Will turn off those features you rarely use because you’re too busy stopping the ship from blowing up”, “Will take away food”, and “Will take away dice”), and the side projects, combination heal and harm decisions that might give you that edge you need… But it’s generally doubtful, and as the stress mounts, the decisions get worse, and the chance of fuckups costing heavily increases. Oh, just for reference, stress is the bar on the left of the character’s portrait. Research falls to the same problem: You do not have the dice to spare, most of the time.

Do I think it’s well designed in terms of trying to recreate a mood? Yes. Do I think anyone except the masochistic or those who explore thematic design principles will enjoy it? Jesus wept, no. Do I think it could be rebalanced to be less sadistic to appeal to a broader audience? Yes. Right now, however, it just isn’t that approachable. There’s a lot of potential clarity work to go in, there’s grind for questionable results, and this is basically a game about managing luck. Skill will usually get you 4-6 weeks in, but you’re going to need 10, and for that? RNJesus is your only real recourse. For the price it’s asking… I’m not really sure this would appeal very broadly.

There is rarely a good choice here. There is rarely a good choice *anywhere*

There is rarely a good choice here. There is rarely a good choice *anywhere*

The Mad Welshman groaned as yet another monitor sparked in an alarming way. He was six weeks from retirement, dammit, this was meant to be an easy mission, and he couldn’t even get the satisfaction of recreating that one scene from Dark Star at the rate things were going!