The Hive Continues (Master of Orion)

Last week, the update I had been waiting for arrived for Master of Orion. Not updating AI. Not a balancing patch. Just bugs.

…Okay, firstly, that sentence sort of needs context. And secondly, robots and bad humans too. Specifically, the bugs are the Klackon, one of the beloved original races from the game, the robots are the Meklar, another series staple, and the bad humans, the Terran Khanate, are welcomed not only for their voice talent (Robert Englund, the face and voice behind Freddy Krueger, as the Khan; Sumalee Montano, the voice of Arcee, as his adjutant. Both add their years of acting experience to a game already chock full of Big Names), but a bit more tonal balance, and a possible subtle nod to the story within the original games. You see, the Orion Sector is, if the backstory is preserved, an experiment. And the varying alien races are the bacteria on the petri dish. And a common element in Space Opera is… Humans transplanted to other places, to evolve independently. Along with other races (For example, did you know the Darlok and Sakkra are technically related? Well, now you do!)

But while the Terran Khanate is a fascinating mirror of the Utopian ideal represented by the Human Republic, that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to talk about how it feels to play my favourite faction, the Klackon Hive Mind.

The Klackon may have a face... But that is merely how they *look*

The Klackon may have a face… But that is merely how they *look*

Surprising nobody, the Klackon are not Good People. They don’t think like us, quite literally, and that creates a race that is, by our standards, automatically “Evil.” They don’t care about individual Klackon, except in terms of a loss of resources. They seem more human for a variety of reasons (Including, I suspect, the need to give a “human” face to all the factions, in terms of player experience), but, like the Meklar, have a different enough mindset that even the beginning narration has to acknowledge that their core priorities are inimical to everything in their way (Spread The Hive and Optimise The Universe, respectively.) Both the Meklar and the Klackon, it seems, are perfect for a game of MoO, which has the “problem” (if you see it that way) of an endgame where nearly any goal becomes possible once you’ve hit a certain point (Making the concept of end goals more a personal preference than anything else.)

But I just like the bugs more. Not only out of nostalgia (They were my first win in both of the first two Master of Orion games), but because I’m not so hot on the OS Memery that spews forth from the Meklar advisor (Your mileage may vary there, obviously.)

One of the things that some folks see as a problem is that the early game and end game for Master of Orion are very similar. You always start on the same kind of worlds (Terran Abundant, for the majority of races), and you often end with a massive superiority, and the universe before you. But it’s often the fun you have crafting your own narrative around this that helps. And with the Klackon, that’s nice and easy.

The Hive starts small. Confined. It longs for the stars, but the resources are not yet there. So it reaches, steadily. Small steps. This time, this Orion Sector, it gets a bit of luck. There are worlds nearby, and it isn’t bothered by anything except small fleets of Space Pirates, the flotsam of the universe as it expands.

...By the mid to late game, even worlds inimical to all life are open to The Hive.

…By the mid to late game, even worlds inimical to all life are open to The Hive.

While weaker than other races militarily, The Hive still has enough materiel to consume flotsam. And so it grows. It reaches three systems before an element of the Not-Hive is encountered. The Human Republic. Quickly, communication is established, and it is decided that eliminating the Not-Hive is a waste of resources. Gestures are made, using a tool of communication: The Embassy, where the Not-Hive is presented with The Hive’s action, in a manner the Not-Hive understands.

Meanwhile, expansion continues. Worlds produce until pollution becomes an impediment to production, and then The Hive focuses on curing the pollution. In short order, a fleet of ships to collectively defend The Hive is created. It is, for now, limited, again by resources, but as resources improve, and tools are discovered, they are quickly added to The Hive.

A world is protected by a lifeform that is dangerous to The Hive, but the system is valuable. The Hive waits. It deals with the threat when force is overwhelming, and quickly colonises the system. By this time, The Hive’s defense fleet is larger and more powerful than all but one Not-Hive being.

The Orion System holds that Not-Hive. Nothing else.

The two most successful life forms in the Orion Sector.

The two most successful life forms in the Orion Sector.

As time goes by, The Hive is improved. The Not-Hive also improves, and soon, there is something else. Something Almost-Hive. The only difference is that it is mechanical, electronic, and not made of plasm and living cells. It is more populous, and is the only direct competitor to The Hive.

MoOGalacticCouncil

The Greater Hive meets to decide among itself who will lead The Greater Hive. The Greater Hive is without consensus.

At points, it even surpasses The Hive. The Hive knows this is a temporary state. Meanwhile, the Not-Hive connect to each other, connect their worlds, in much the same way The Hive does. In a way, they are becoming like The Hive.

The Hive is not amused, or bemused. The Hive knows that this is inevitable. However, all is not well in The Hive, as The Hive has discovered that there is now a Greater Hive: The Galactic Council. It is a strange Hive, a Hive that is Not-Hive, but can be led by those who both have the greatest numbers, and who talk most efficiently to the Not-Hive.

The Almost-Hive, just a few solar cycles after this, loses ground in materiel, and gains it in Greater Hive Currency (Votes)

The Almost-Hive, just a few solar cycles after this, loses ground in materiel, and gains it in Greater Hive Currency (Votes)

The Hive does not react when it finds its grip on this Greater Hive slipping to the Almost-Hive, these… Meklar. It merely notes that it has the resources for a goal that will allow it to thrive by another means: The destruction of the Orion Guardian, and the consumption of its technology, still beyond The Hive’s resources to achieve.

The battle is hard, and tools of The Hive are lost. But tools can be regained. The Guardian does not have that luxury.

The battle is hard, and tools of The Hive are lost. But tools can be regained. The Guardian does not have that luxury.

The Hive is not incorrect. The Hive is never incorrect. The Orion Guardian falls. A colony ship is sent, and The Hive grows. By this point, it cannot be stopped. It will allow the Not-Hive to live, as they no longer threaten The Hive. The Almost-Hive will soon come to the conclusion that it no longer threatens The Hive.

The Hive continues, as it always has. And always will.

This, in essence, remains the strength of a good 4X: That you can tell a story, with only a little nudging. What I just related to you was me basically steamrolling the AI as the Klackon. Said like that, it’s somewhat dull. But the story can be changed. Perhaps to the story of The Human Republic’s quest for Unification, where All Are Friends. The Terran Khanate’s rise to dominance over the Lesser Species. The Mrrshan’s rise to the title of Ultimate Hunter.

That’s the real magic. I just thought I’d share.

Stardew Valley (Review)

Source: Birthday Gift (From family, to clarify)
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam, GOG, Humble Store

Hoo boy. When you spend time on a game knowing you have other things to do, important things, you know you’re onto a winner. On that note, I need to eat. Both of these things are fitting for Stardew Valley, and I will elucidate more once I’ve got some food in my belly.

Morris is our Capitalist moustache twirler for the game. Also our ex-boss. And yet, the choice is there to side with him.

Morris is our Capitalist moustache twirler for the game. Also our ex-boss. And yet, the choice is there to side with him.

Stardew Valley, by Concerned Ape, is quite obviously inspired by Harvest Moon and its fighty cousin Rune Factory, as you are an office worker who has decided he wants to get out of the rat race, and, er… Into farming, which is a whole different kind of rat race. Pastoralism, Ho! So he moves to the village of Stardew Valley, and starts a whole new life, with backbreaking labour, and never enough time in the day.

Or, like me, he could largely ignore the farm the moment he got a fishing rod and a sword, beating up slimes and catching new and amazing fish. It’s the sort of game where yes, Farming is a focus of the game, but by no means the be all and end all. There’s the social aspect of the town, the collecting, and… I need a wiki to keep track of everything I might possibly want to do. Which, strangely enough, is a problem. Either you’re going to go to a wiki to know “How do I do thing?”, or you’re going to be playing more than once. Part of the reason this review has come out so slowly is that I took the latter option. The game does some tutorialising well, but expects you to learn other things on your own.

The game does try its best to add teaching as it goes along, with TV shows and books to teach you various aspects of the game.

The game does try its best to add teaching as it goes along, with TV shows and books to teach you various aspects of the game.

But the thing is, it’s also a good thing that there’s so much to do. The world is relatively small, but you don’t feel that, because it’s jam packed with interesting decisions and interactions. It has character, from the visual design (Friendly and cartoony), to the sound design (The music is lovely, and the sounds support your actions.) I even enjoy the collectathon of the Community Center, despite normally hating such game measures, because it feels part of the spirit of the game. Essentially, it’s pretty cohesive, and even some of the bugs are amusing, such as Abigail’s seeming desire to eat Quartz (“Oh, how did you know I was hungry?”.) Also helping is, hey, relationships aren’t limited by your gender, and there’s a lot going on there, too! As such, I find myself drawn in, because there’s that “Just one more ho- Wait, it’s 5AM?” factor to the game.

Of course, the final problem with so much to do in Stardew Valley is… How can I cover it all? I could give you lots of examples of both good and bad (The well, for example, seems largely useless to most players in the early game… But it is useful if you’re farming extensively), but all I can really say is “It is mostly good, and enjoyable, if you liked Harvest Moon, Rune Factory, or Recettear, this game may well be worth laying down your money for.”

Oh, and there are events that happen, like the Flower Dance. Or the Egg Hunt. Or the Luau. And birthdays. There's a fair bit.

Oh, and there are events that happen, like the Flower Dance. Or the Egg Hunt. Or the Luau. And birthdays. There’s a fair bit.

There. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a budding geologist to woo, and a dungeon to fully explore, and all the fish to find, and –

The Mad Welshman was not found for several days after this review, whereupon somebody realised that what they thought was a duvet was playing Stardew Valley.

Let’s Talk “Tough”

Okay, so this past month has seen, seemingly, the unwelcome return of “Oh, but this is challenging!” to the Mad Welshman’s hearing. And I’m getting rather sick of the phrase, because it often disguises just plain bad design. So let’s talk about some common pitfalls here.

It Gets Better Much Later!

"It's okay, it'll get better later!" "Well, that's a shame, because it's dull, repetitive, and shitty *right* now, and I'm tired."

“It’s okay, it’ll get better later!”
“Well, that’s a shame, because it’s dull, repetitive, and shitty *right* now, and I’m tired.”

This is what we, in the criticising/design end of things, like to call a “Difficulty curve problem” or an “Interest curve problem.” If you are having to tell me that the game gets better later to keep me playing now, then something has gone wrong. And usually, it’s not understanding what makes a challenging fight challenging, or an area/encounter interesting.

A challenging encounter is one where you are given time to understand the rules of engagement, but will still get your shit wrecked if you don’t have the skill. The Asylum Demon from Dark Souls is a good example of this, as you can run away quite effectively for some time (In fact, the fight is optional the first time through.) He swings. He butt stomps. He telegraphs. That last bit is important. Equally important, even though it doesn’t seem it, is that you know what effect you’re having.

An uncomfortable encounter would be one where there are wrinkles that you would be unaware of until the fight is underway, causing problems down the line. A good example of this would be from the Persona series, where a specific encounter, Nyx/Night Queen, will charm your healer, who then… Heals said encounter up to full health. Because it’s relatively pattern based, it can be planned for and countered, but it’s an unpleasant surprise that can lead to a slow death and frustration the first time round. Hope you saved!

A bad encounter is one where nothing is telegraphed, or there’s something for which you have no counter beyond memorisation and/or flawless execution. An example of this would be Mind Flayers from the original Eye of the Beholder, whose awesome powers are represented by… An invisible ranged attack that can cause an all party paralyse, aka “Might as well be a game over.” Not even a late game enemy needs something like this.

Interest, unfortunately, is much harder to gauge. Even an engagingly written Wall-O-Text(TM) is going to turn some people off, whereas a five minute cutscene might have people sitting on the edge of their seats. But there are some things that aren’t recommended, and I’ll go into some of them a little further on.

The Last Place You’ll Look

Pictured: Literally the Heat Suit in the Lava Place.

Pictured: Literally the Heat Suit in the Lava Place.

This one can especially be a problem for exploration games, like Metroidvanias, but some people just don’t get that many players will do anything, anything rather than look somewhere they’ve been discouraged to. This is one where I’m not going to name names, but give a possibility, to show you what sort of things you really want to avoid.

The first, and best, would be the Heat Suit in the Lava Place. Okay, so on the one hand, props for thematic placement… But I’m not talking about the edge of such a place. Oh, no. We’re talking at the edges of your health requirements. We’re talking a case of “If you have X health powerups, and pass the obstacles along the way well (or flawlessly) while taking the damage over time from over heat, you’ll be able to get the Heat Suit, which stops that damage over time effect.” A perfect example of this was provided by one of my twitter followers, where, in La Mulana, the Ice Cape (Which reduces lava damage) is at the end of the Inferno Cavern (Which not only has lava, but fireballs that will often knock you into the lava.)

Don’t do this. Don’t ever do this. First off, what the heck is it doing all the way there? How did the normal schmoes get it, before everything went to hell? How did it get there? How will anybody know? And this applies to a lot of things, because players can be easily discouraged. Let’s say there’s something that jams your minimap. Let’s say knowing where you are is kind of important. Players won’t want to explore that jammed area until they know how to deal with it. If the thing you need to deal with it is in that area, then congratulations, you have basically created an old-school game maze, a piece of artificial padding that’s been despised since… Well, a long damn time.

While we’re on the subject…

The Maze. Because.

Welcome to the Brain Maze. This is something like what you'll be seeing for the next half hour. Enjoy!

Welcome to the Brain Maze. This is something like what you’ll be seeing for the next half hour. Enjoy!

That “Because” is kind of important. Putting a maze in your level design for no good reason is going to annoy people. Especially if it’s a teleporter maze, where there’s no frame of reference. Especially if you can’t leave some sort of breadcrumb trail. Especially if you can’t pick those “breadcrumbs” back up again, and need them.

Realms of the Haunting, for all that it had a strong, interesting early game, suffers really badly from this in the latter half. At least two hedge mazes, at least two cave mazes, and a couple of maze puzzles. That game suffered because of that. Yours doesn’t have to. Yes, there have been clever mazes (And clever pseudo-mazes.) That doesn’t change the fact that often, it’s a lazy puzzle.

The Random Chance of Instant Death

This one mostly applies to RPGs, but there’s an analogue in some strategy games. Essentially, sometimes, monsters in games have a random chance, if they hit you, of straight up killing you. Often, this goes along with random encounters, or scripted, yet invisible encounters. So you walk into a fight and… Oh, bad luck, hope you saved before that fight!

Yeah, nobody’s going to ever claim that was fair. Or much of a challenge on either side. Either the insta-death doesn’t proc, and the monster wastes its life trying to kill you, or it does, and you’ve got nothing left but to reload an earlier save. I could point to an absolute multitude of early RPGs that do this, including… Er… Most of the CRPGs of the 80s and 90s.

Thing is, this applies to pretty much any game where you can be dicked out of a victory by nothing more than chance. Need to roll seventeen sixes on 20 d6 to win a game? That’s bad. On a related note, you have the…

Gotcha PowerUp

Oh, that extra life looks really tempting, doesn’t it? Shame that if you try and get it, you’re going to die. Well, chalk that up to learning a lesson abo- What, you thought you didn’t have to go through that tough segment it’s at the end of again? Ahaha no. Go directly to checkpoint, do not pass go, and do not collect your extra life. To make it worse, sometimes it’s not an extra life. Sometimes, it’s not even a real power up. When you just can’t reach it, ever, that’s lacklustre design. When you can, but can’t get anywhere without dying? You’ve been Gotcha’d, and it’s bad design.

Gotcha Enemies/FUCKING BATS/Gotcha Spikes

Fucking. Bats. There are four conveyor belts like this. Not pictured are tanky turrets too.

Fucking. Bats. There are four conveyor belts like this. Not pictured are tanky turrets too.

There is a reason Castlevania bats have mostly gone out of fashion… Because everybody knows they’re difficulty padding. For those who don’t know why bats (or birds, or spiders, or medusa heads) are considered such a bane, let’s consider a jump. If you are skilled, you will make that jump. Okay, that’s fair.

Now add knockback on a hit from an enemy or obstacle. Put that enemy in the middle, and make sure it dies in one hit. Okay, now it’s challenging, because there’s a timing element too.

Now replace that enemy you know with bats. There is never one bat. They either move toward some point on you (Often below or above your weapon’s hitbox), or they move in a predetermined fashion across the screen from a random point. Congratulations, you’ve just gotten pissed off at the fifth time you’ve been knocked into that pit, and very possibly died.

Another variant of this is the Gotcha Enemy, the one that is either on your target platform in an obstacle course, or appears just as you’re about to land. Unlike the other examples, it can’t be killed in one hit. So you’re going to get knocked back unless you have some other resource to deal with it… You know, into that pit. Which kills you.

But let’s say it doesn’t kill you. This gives us an example of the Gotcha spikes! You fall, and, holy of holies, there’s a platform, you’re not going to die!

Except you are, because you can’t control your movement while being knocked back, and you need to go right, not left to land on it. Everywhere else is spikes. For extra dickmovery, let’s imagine that platform is actually where you need to go to complete the level.

You’d think this was me making things up. But no, these are things that have happened in older games before. Mostly in the Mega Man and Castlevania series, both of which are well known for their equivalents of FUCKING BATS (Which, in Castlevania’s case, is where the term came from.)

Read My Mind.

This one is particularly bad with adventure games and RPGs, because it’s long been accepted that both genres can have puzzles, and maybe should have puzzles… But the art of designing a puzzle is a tricky one, because not only do you have to know the solution before you write it, you have to think really hard about whether you would, in the situation your character is in, arrive at that solution too. We even have a name for it, based on a game by Jane Jensen (Who normally writes much better puzzles, to be perfectly fair): Cat Hair Moustache. Of course, this includes a multitude of sins, including bad signposting, bad logic, and lack of clarity.

Gobliiins, by Coktelvision, has entertaining animations, endearing characters, and only got better with the addition of music and cheesy VA. However, it suffered from all three of these problems, and it was only made worse by a health bar system that would lose you the game if you screwed up enough. Hey, maybe punching/magicking/using this thing would he- Oh, wait, no, it dropped our health bar because it was secretly full of snakes/spiders/a possibly undead gribbley. One of those things, by the way, was an integral part of a puzzle, but if not handled in exactly the correct way, would give you a game over quite quickly.

Some of the hidden rules behind Gobliiins you learn quite quickly (Never ask Dwayne to use a stick shaped object on anything but the thing he’s meant to, or he will bash himself on the head.) Others, you can never be certain of.

And so it becomes a game of trial and error, because there is only one solution (Sometimes two), and sometimes, it involves moon logic (Such as opening a cupboard by throwing a dart at a picture of its owner) or just guessing which one is right (Which apples are safe to make big and carry to fill a gap in a bridge?)

I’m Not Going To Tell You

Sometimes, you don’t actually have the information you need to make a solid decision. This one comes in several varieties, but the core question in each of them is “Should I, as my character, know what I don’t know?” If the answer is “Yes”, then you have correctly identified the game padding its difficulty. Unfortunately, part of the problem here is that, a lot of the time, you don’t know it’s there to be important. For example, ally kills in Disgaea bar you from the best ending, but the criteria for it? It’s somewhat picky.

Now, I want to be completely fair here, and mention that, in one particular case, it’s because of factors outside the developer’s control. Specifically, copyrighting of sanity meters. That’s right, that whole “Your vision gets fucked up when looking at a creepy thing” comes from designers having to get around paying extra money because they can’t give you a number to tell you how scared you are.

Checkpoint: Failed

Not actually a *terrible* example of what I'm talking about. But there's lots of them out there, even today.

Not actually a *terrible* example of what I’m talking about. But there’s lots of them out there, even today.

Hoo boy. This is a really common one. From the multi-stage boss without a checkpoint, to the one button runners without a checkpoint, ignoring checkpoints if your game is already challenging (or just plain difficult) takes it to a whole other level of fuck you. Let’s take the one button runner example. There is a game, that I will not name, which has a cool soundtrack, some great customisation, acknowledges that colour blindness is a thing, and has some cool set pieces within its limited repertoire. But none of this is very useful, because, since not a single level has checkpoints. In game, I’m hearing the same thirty seconds to a minute (On a particularly bad day, 15 seconds) over and over again, I’m not seeing most of the set pieces, and due to this, I have a playtime of… An hour, gained in ten minute dribs and drabs once in a blue moon, since I bought it two months ago. I have beaten two levels. Is it because I’m bad at the game? No, it’s because a one-button runner is already a challenging genre, and having not a single checkpoint in a five to ten minute level requiring quick input and pattern memorisation pushes it from “Challenging” to “No, fuck you.”

Things To Keep In Mind

A clever designer can make these things not seem so bad. Well, most of them. Hidden stats, for example, are pretty much “flavour” in many racing games, and you don’t need to know the hidden stats to play Pokemon. Sometimes, they’re limitations. But they can nearly all be taken out of your game, if you make one, with just a little forethought.

Ask questions as you design.

Ask folks to test your game, and watch folks playing your game. They will surprise you.

Look at older games, and learn from their mistakes.

Don’t blame me for any complaints if you don’t.

Gremlins Inc (Review)

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

The satirical computer board game of being a capitalist douchebag (and Gremlin) released earlier this week, and I finally got a chance to properly give the multiplayer a go. As it turns out, I’m an evil, evil man. But you knew that already. So let’s talk about the game.

Ahahahaa... I'm going to win, and they can't stop me. Well... Maybe...

Ahahahaa… I’m going to win, and they can’t stop me. Well… Maybe…

Gremlins Inc, essentially, is a tactical race for points, where the cards you use don’t only affect other players and give you points, they’re also the way you move. As such, you have to change your plans on the fly quite often, as while you could try holding on to that lovely card with all the victory points, you might need to get to a more immediate reward in a hurry… You know, before others do to you what you would do unto them. Despite being competitive as all heck, ranked multiplayer seems pretty relaxing, although due to one of the reasons it’s relaxing (Chat is mostly just emoticons and some stock phrases), it can be hard to tell sometimes.

Either way, playing against players is a very different experience than playing against the AI. Because the players are less likely to dick you over. Which segues nicely into one of the “problems” of Gremlins Inc. : Challenge mode is tough, because the AI is good. Or, more accurately, because the AI is aggressive. I have yet to gain three lamps in any of the challenges, despite them mostly being longer games than ranked. Because the AI players take every chance they get to dick you over if it looks like you’re winning.

Some cards are secret, or illegal. They're useful, and powerful... But exposure of your plans is dangerous, and can come at any time.

Some cards are secret, or illegal. They’re useful, and powerful… But exposure of your plans is dangerous, and can come at any time.

In a way, though, this is still revealing, because it shows how the entire game is built around threat perception. And there are lots of threats to perceive, from a player having lots of money (Used to buy cards, especially ones that give you those sweet, sweet victory points), lots of votes (Meaning they’re going to become governor, get a victory point, and become immune to bribe or police search tiles, letting them keep their money in places you wouldn’t want them to), lots of EEEEEVIL (An indicator of how many “selfish” cards they’ve played, such as Robbery… 350 easy money, but also lowers everyone’s income), and even the not often seen Prison Experience (Which establishes how much of a threat they can be if you’re in the Jail with them.) The computer is good at establishing this, whereas in multiplayer? It’s much less certain. You could slip by unnoticed for many turns, not considered a threat until BAM, one Infernal Machine and an instant jump to the top of the board. Or, of course, you could be heading toward the Astral Plane, somebody will say “Aha, they are about to play a good card” , and slap you down for your hubris.

I haven’t had this much fun playing ranked since Bad Company 2. And the game is cunning in that your rank slowly goes down for each day you don’t play, allowing newer players a chance to climb the ladder when others get tired of playing. The game also tries to keep the interactions friendly by limiting them, and it seems as though that’s working. Seems. It’s kind of difficult to tell, but I’m pretty sure most people are being friendly, gasping at others’ misfortune, asking if they’re alright, and cheering each other on as somebody makes a canny play.

I'm not going to pretend everything's happy, however. Sometimes, someone puts the boot in when you're already down... :'(

I’m not going to pretend everything’s happy, however. Sometimes, someone puts the boot in when you’re already down… :'(

Overall, this is a tightly designed computer board game whose main flaw is the same flaw of any board game… Once you become familiar enough with it, the entertainment lessens. But nonetheless, I’d recommend it as a good example of computer board games, and a game at a reasonable price.

(Other reading: The Early Access Review)

The Mad Welshman smiled as the gremlins told him he’d be “Right at home in Clockwork Town.” As another failed experiment due to lax safety measures (They cost money, after all!) exploded, he smiled. Yes… He was… Home.

Soul Axiom (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I didn’t really want to take a look at Soul Axiom before release, as it was a puzzle adventure, and game fatigue would possibly have made me forget this one was being released. I’m sort of glad I didn’t, and sort of frustrated. Oh, and it’s by a team of Welsh developers, specifically Wales Interactive. Let’s see how my countryfolk have done, eh?

Elysia, it seems, can be a pretty nasty place sometimes.

Elysia, it seems, can be a pretty nasty place sometimes.

Soul Axiom is a sequel of sorts to Master Reboot, an earlier game, but knowledge of what happened there isn’t strictly required, as the digital afterlife has gotten a 2.0 upgrade… One which has, as you might expect, gone horribly wrong. So it’s up to you to, er… Solve puzzles using contextual abilities like deleting/repairing things, blowing things up, and a sort of object-rewind feature. Also collecting PEMO data (Memory documents shaped like the creepiest banging cymbal monkey I’ve seen in a long time) and the eyes of G.O.D (Acronym deliberate for plot reasons) to expand the story. With them, you get a more complete picture of how exactly everything went wrong, and without them… It stays pretty confusing for three quarters of the game. Which is a problem.

Why is it a problem? Because I’m spending more time looking for monkeys than I am moving the story forward, and, while it’s possible to go back and get monkeys, I have one shot at it, because… One save.

I thought I was free of you, colour matching puzzle... It tasks me. It tasks me, and I shall *solve* it...

I thought I was free of you, colour matching puzzle… It tasks me. It tasks me, and I shall *solve* it…

So, nice things: It has pretty good colour blindness support for the actual puzzles. Thank the Holies, somebody listens when the word “Accessibility” is used. The soundtrack is fairly emotional, from the melancholy bells of the Lighthouse area to the beats of the aztec monkeyland (Although, as a Welshman, I’m confused. Why all the talk about food in the jungle song? I mean, they are saying “Bwyta”, aren’t they, Wales Interactive?) Once the story gets going, it’s okay, with a four character tragedy unfolding that affects the very concept of death itself. Dr. Davies, who discovered Deus Energy; Solomon, a politician and ex-soldier; Dana, a movie actress; and Anastasia Strazh, who had previously worked with Dr. Davies.

Of course, it’s balanced out by the bad in this case: The story is pretty hammy at times, and until you realise one of the characters is a movie star, their “Memories” will make absolutely zero sense. Many of the puzzles seem there for the sake of puzzles (The “Move the skulls to match colours” puzzle is possibly the most egregious so far), and that single save thing is a real git, considering there are three possible endings, one for three of the characters, and the trigger isn’t obvious as to which you’re going to get. The paths genuinely don’t have any differences I’ve noticed except for the end, although getting all three leads to something extra. Just as, y’know, collecting everything does.

AAAAA, STAY AWA- it... It's... A collectable? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! [Screaming fades to distance]

AAAAA, STAY AWA- it… It’s… A collectable?
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! [Screaming fades to distance]

This, in essence, is my core problem with Soul Axiom: Whether you think you do or not, not collecting everything is a lesser experience, while collecting everything… Sometimes requires either a guide, or doing everything to everything you can. For example, in the museum… Look up from time to time. Most people I know don’t do that so much. The game is often fun (With the possible exception of the drones in the War Zone. I hate timing puzzles with instafails), and death doesn’t seem to have much of a consequence except for achievements, but it’s constantly reminding you that it is a game, and a potentially interesting story suffers as a result.

I’d still say give it a go if you like first person puzzle games with FPS style movement, just be aware that… Well, the collectables might not be as optional as they first appear.

The Mad Welshman edited his memory of this article after writing it, but he keeps finding creepy cymbal monkeys in his apartment as a result. The IT Helpdesk at TMW has remained unhelpful in solving this problem.