Starbound (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase, Way Back When
Price: £11.99 (£35.99 for a four pack, £3.99 for the soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Well, hot damn. Not only has it been a previous interwubs incarnation that I last reviewed Starbound, it’s changed. And I mean “From the last stable update” changed. So well done, Chucklefish, for keepin’ such changes as “The plot is now there, and somewhat important” and “Oh my sodden underthings, I don’t have to tramp halfway across the system to see a bloody Stargate?”

TENTACLES DESTROY EARTH: In other news, look at this cute space puppy!

TENTACLES DESTROY EARTH: In other news, look at this cute space puppy!

I already kinda liked Starbound, and came back to it at various points during Early Access, from the early “UGH, CAVEMAN TIER” whiny days, to the days when you vaguely had things to do and all the biomes were in, to when quests happened and bosses made a vague sort of sense… To this. It’s been a three year journey, let’s check out how things have gone with a brand spanking new character, the lady Hylotl Hachiro (Yes, it’s a boy’s name, shut up and stop judging, asshole! Hachiro does what she wants, and she’ll science you if you disagree!)

Hachiro started her in-game life on a high note… Graduating from Protectorate University, to be part of the peacekeepers of a shiny age of intergalactic harmony. Which is then immediately screwed up by tentacles that destroy Earth. Go figure. Hachiro manages to escape, but finds herself on a lost world, with a pet to feed, herself to feed, and a StarGate Teleporter of some kind right where she lands. She then moved into a ruin nearby, set up her various crafting tables, a campfire, and (eventually) a bed, dug down to the core before she even had iron armour, and did two obstacle courses. Now she can dash and double jump.

Oooh, that's a big momma, alright! Thankfully, I have a gun, and patience. It has neither.

Oooh, that’s a big momma, alright! Thankfully, I have a gun, and patience. It has neither.

Compare this to the previous update’s “Bobbert”, the Glitch, who escaped without any prologue, dug down to the core after many travails, upgrading to Iron armour so he could fix his engines so he could schlep to the edge of the system to get a quest. Which he needed the iron armour for. As you can see, we’re off to an improved start. But, as the update giveth, it also taketh away. Unlike Bobbert, Hachiro has yet to give an assassin a cake, can’t cook proper food yet, needs more and different things for even iron armour and weapons, and Survival mode now means “You drop most of your inventory when you die.”

Which is definitely a reason to play cautious. For example, places I have dropped all my shit:

  • Halfway across the planet from where I beam down.
  • Halfway across the planet from where I beam down, next to a Big Monster.
  • Near the core of the planet, in a pool of lava.
  • Halfway across the planet, deep underground, next to twelve bats.
  • Halfway across the planet, deep underground, at the bottom of a deep, steep sided pit.

    This was actually the *least* problematic of my many equipment recovery missions...

    This was actually the *least* problematic of my many equipment recovery missions…

So, I like the changes. I like the story. I love the friendly tooltips. But I’m probably not playing Survival again unless it’s with friends. I just get too frustrated at losing most of my stuff, and dying several times as I trek halfway across a planet to find it. Also of note is that the mod scene, having developed over the three or so years of development, is alive and well, so the experience can be heftily customised via the Steam workshop. The soundtrack is great, the visuals are finely honed (I have little to no colourblindness problems here, always a good sign!), and…

Basically, there’s a heckuva lot of game here, a little grindy in places (As survival exploration games can be), but it’s got charm, it’s got story, it’s got a lot of cool things, and I would recommend it quite highly.

Of course, since it’s been in Early Access for most of its development cycle, I have the strong suspicion most of the people reading this already know that. But it’s nice to see a game come out of Early Access this strong.

The Mad Welshman set his matter manipulator to “Underground channel” and grinned. Oh, he’d show that lava what’s wha…

…And then the bat behind him knocked him into the lava.

On Game Design: Optional? (SPOILERS)

We’ve all seen games where there is “optional content that adds to the story.” Similarly, there are games where playing again introduces new things. But there are times when the execution of these features can harm perception of a game. For this mini-essay, I’m going to be picking on two games: Arkham Knight, and Zero Time Dilemma. In both cases, I’m going to be presenting a before and after seeing this. On the Arkham Knight front, we’re dealing with “optional content” , and for Zero Time Dilemma, it’s a second playthrough thing. Let’s start with that.

Zero Time Dilemma: Before

Omigod, how annoyed I was when Delta got revealed. “It was me all along, the pretend deaf, blind man in a wheelchair I don’t need, who’s been watching you and controlling your every move! All for the best of motives, of course, and all this pain and suffering you’ve personally experienced? Means jack shit because I, personally, didn’t do anything. It was all those other Deltas in other timelines!”

This man lies at the root of both the story... And the problems.

This man lies at the root of both the story… And the problems.

I was all ready for a rant about ableist writing. I was all ready for talking about how the reveal was poorly foreshadowed. Here, we have a deaf and blind man who’s ignored, who you have no clue about his existence before a certain scene involving twins being copy-pasted through time-space, and then it turns out it was all a cheap trick. Even when we get to the “After”, Delta is an asshole. But this rant? Technically unjustified.

Zero Time Dilemma: After

TW1

As a side note, the sound design in this scene is extremely gruesome. Kudos.

Because then I looked up signs for Delta’s existence. Oh, they’re there alright. But many of them are super ambiguous, and only a few am I kicking myself for missing (The Q-Team death shower, for example, has three puddles of flesh. Except Sean is a robot, and doesn’t have flesh. Then again, there’s no wires or electronics either.) Shadows on the camera that are actually Q/Delta/Zero and his wheelchair. That one scene where Sean and Eric look like they’re talking to the dog (via a cut between Eric and the dog, Gab), but are actually talking to Q/Delta.

There’s just one problem. A lot of these require a second playthrough, or even a third, if you’re even halfway good at Zero Escape games. I finished the game in one solid block, one night, all achievements. And that hurt my perception of this particular plot point, because, with ZTD, there are no other outcomes. It is a Visual Novel in the purest sense because you get all the Bad Ends along the way, and there is one, True End. So, for many, the question would be “Why go back?”

He's not looking *down* . There's your clue.

He’s not looking *down* . There’s your clue.

There’s your answer. You sort of have to to properly understand how you’ve been led by the nose. And there’s no incentive to when you think you’ve had a Not Twist pulled on you. It wasn’t. It’s just a lot of the foreshadowing was ambiguous enough that you thought it was.

Of course, it doesn’t stop Delta being an asshole, in any of the timelines he’s in. He’s not a hero for what he does. He’s not an antihero for what he does. He’s a villain who, in his world (and only in his world), technically won. We’ll leave aside the question of “Well, how the hell does Delta exist in all those timelines when he was only born in one and copied to one other?” , because the narrative does leave room for saying he was copied to a lot of timelines, not all of which we’d see.

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it's *perfectly fine*

Reminder: Things like this happened. But in different timelines, so it’s *perfectly fine*

So what about Arkham Knight?

Arkham Knight: Before

Ohhh boy. Arkham Knight kicked up one hell of a stink, not only for its shoddy PC port, but for its treatment of women characters in the games. Of particular note would be Barbara Gordon, whose suicide raised many an angry cry of “FRIDGE FRIDGE FRIDGE!” , and, in the DLC, Francine Langstrom, wife of the man who would become ManBat, who is just… Dead. Before the story even begins. Now, for those who don’t get what the cry of “FRIDGE!” means, it refers to a somewhat sexist piece of comics writing called “Women in Refrigerators”, where the death of a woman character is used purely to motivate the hero or otherwise affect him. If you guessed that the original, trope naming example was of a woman being hacked up and placed in a hero’s refrigerator, you’d win an imaginary cookie.

Yeaaaah... Not lookin' good...

Yeaaaah… Not lookin’ good…

It’s not the only example of writing perceived as shoddy in Arkham Knight, and not the only shitty character treatment. Poison Ivy, despite being a Chekhov’s Immune Person, spends most of the game in jail. She doesn’t, to my knowledge, plead with Batman to be let out, and, until a pivotal scene, she doesn’t mention how her plants, the supposed core of her character, will also die if Scarecrow releases his fear toxin. After this pivotal scene, she sacrifices herself for Gotham. These treatments were bad enough that even male writers, such as myself, Evan Narcisse (Kotaku) , and Elijah Beahm (Gameskinny) noticed.

Of course, things could get missed. And they do. But does it make it any better?

Arkham Knight: After

In the case of Barbara Gordon, the words “It gets better later!” have been used often, in one form or another. Barbara didn’t really die, it was a Fear Toxin hallucination. She saves her dad, Batman, and distracts Scarecrow, throwing herself off a building because she knows the Bat will save her. She helps in one of the final fights, hacking an army of drones.

"It gets better."

“It gets better.”

But, as AnnotatedDC (Among many others) points out, this doesn’t change the fact that she spends the majority of the game either a captive (Damselled) or with Batman and Gordon both being manipulated into distrusting each other, leading to this “It gets better later!”, by said fake suicide, which, sorry to say, “Gets Better” crowd, still makes it a Fridging. Similarly, Francine Langstrom, if you go back to the Langstrom lab after doing the Manbat quest, has vanished, leaving a message behind in blood that deeply implies she has become a (Wo)ManBat also. Batman is still emotionally affected into doing the thing. Batman still does the thing. And, to make things even more fun, this is an example of something you most likely will miss, because you’re given no reason to go back there that I’m aware of.

Oh, and Poison Ivy may not have actually died, because there’s a plant where she fell. That one you at least have a chance of spotting without knowing that it’s there… But it’s extremely ambiguous whether that’s a good sign, or a monument to the sacrifice that, unfortunately, doesn’t make the writing of that arc any better. Nor does it make her design in Arkham Knight any less sexualised. People have seriously said to me that the design in Arkham Knight is less sexualised than The Animated Series. Here’s the two side by side for comparison. One of them is slightly better.

One is a Victoria's Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let's not forget the crossbow.

One is a Victoria’s Secret model. The other wears a leotard and leggings. Oh, let’s not forget the crossbow.

Catwoman, who you may have noticed wasn’t talked about until now, does, genuinely, get somewhat better. She’s freed somewhere around the halfway point, and, providing you get all the Riddler Trophies, gets her own back on Mr. Edward Nygma. Of course, you only get the “freed” part unless you do get all the Riddler Trophies (And not even that until you do a certain proportion), and, while the trophies are easier to get, and in smaller numbers than Origins, it’s still a collectathon task that not every Arkham Knight player has done.

So, Arkham Knight: Not quite as badly written as folks say, does have its high points… But still not great.

It’s important, when designing a game, to be aware that tying your story to optional content, or a second playthrough, may not necessarily be a good thing, because if it’s something important to that story, like Dr. Mrs. Langstrom not actually being dead, then perception of your game can become somewhat negative.

Daily Cthonicle: Editor’s Edition (Early Access Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £1.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Itch.IO (also contains the freeware demo), Official Homepage (Contains donation link if you wish to support the developer directly)

I like a developer who keeps tabs on things. I like a developer even more when they take feedback and criticism well and fix the things that are broken. Matija Kostiya (Sinister Systems) is definitely the first, and may well be the second… Time will tell. But of course, we’re here to talk about Now, and The Daily Cthonicle, a game where you are the editor of the aforementioned paper, an Occult and Paranormal Broadsheet. This may seem strange, until you realise that in the world of the Daily Cthonicle, the paranormal is very much real. It’s you, and your six journalists, against the horrors that lurk Beyond.

Vampires: Even Fledglings are Jerks.

Vampires: Even Fledglings are Jerks.

It is safe to say that you don’t always succeed. In fact, in the case of certain monsters, I’ve found, it’s very safe to say that you don’t always succeed. Vampires, in particular, are jerks. I’ve never lost more journalists, or racked up a bigger expense account in any other situation. I don’t entirely know why.

And this aptly leads to one of my main criticisms of the game as it stands, and, thankfully, at least partly a goal of the Early Access: Clarity. Certain things in Daily Cthonicle are not clear, and don’t consistently work. For example, scrolling down on documents can be done with the mousewheel… But not all documents. The UI sometimes obscures things. Some combat items can be used in Investigation events (Such as the Crowbar), and it is only made clear in the manual that, if you have equipment that could be used in combat… Say, a Gatling Gun you really wanted to save for the final chapter… It will be used, and vanish from your inventory. Some of this is explained in the online manual, but more isn’t. Yes, artefacts don’t get explained… But you also don’t really get an idea of what they do even once you’ve used them. At best, “This was very helpful [in this specific encounter]”

On the successful completion of a chapter, you print a Special Edition. As you can see, the text is somewhat barebones, but imagining how it all went down can be fun. ;)

On the successful completion of a chapter, you print a Special Edition. As you can see, the text is somewhat barebones, but imagining how it all went down can be fun. 😉

Now this may give the impression, so far, that I do not like Daily Cthonicle. This is by no means true. I think the base idea, and some of the game ideas (The EVP minigame, for example) have merit. I like that more advanced features, such as laboratory work (Crafting better potions, and divining information about the things and people the samples were taken from) are not necessary in the two lower difficulties. I like that it has both a normal game mode, and a “Skirmish” mode, where you have lots of money up front, and the goal is to eliminate all threats, rather than uncover the web of mysteries. I like that the difficulty balancing appears to have been considered, and appears to be under revision based on feedback. There’s quite a few things I like.

But the game isn’t very new player friendly, it isn’t very clear at times, and while I have confidence this will change somewhat, it’s very much a case of “If you like the idea, and you want to support the developer in refining it, please do so.” at the present time. I think it has a lot of potential, but obviously, time will tell.

The EVP: A recent feature that's still being refined somewhat.

The EVP: A recent feature that’s still being refined somewhat.

The Mad Welshman gritted his teeth as he saw this month’s Sanitarium bill. Sighing, he flipped the “Last Eldritch Horror In The Work Environment” counter to 0.

Zombie Night Terrors (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.99 (£13.59 for the Special Edition, £4.79 to upgrade to the Special Edition)
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Green Man Gaming

I was tired of zombie games. So very tired. But that’s all in the past now, as NoClip, developers of Zombie Night Terror, seem to have found a formula that works with those washed up symbols of capitalist greed… By learning lessons from the past. With only a few quibbles so far, I am suitably impressed on both counts: Making me like zombies again, and learning from game design history.

Aaaaah, look at 'em scream and run. It warms my... Okay, that's a lie, but it *does* make me feel hungry...

Aaaaah, look at ’em scream and run. It warms my… Okay, that’s a lie, but it *does* make me feel hungry…

Which game? Lemmings (1991, Psygnosis.) After all, Zombies are much like the lemmings of that old classic, in that they keep going, singlemindedly, and, left unguided, would probably fall off tall things, stride into the Marianas Trench with nary a care, and mindlessly wander into soldiers’ kill-zones. Which, of course, is where you come in… Zombie Overperson. Or Queen, Lord… Pick a suitably macabre title. I definitely won’t judge, as High Zombie Human Resources Overseer.

Ehehehe. “Human resources”

Now, what I find interesting about this game is that it tutorialises quite well, while still remaining a challenge, and having a fair difficulty curve… In the first chapter. Each time you learn a new power (Or new combination of powers), you get a short intro to them, just to show you what to expect, with unsuspecting victims. It was a little disingenuous not to allow me to break down doors on the first level (As normally, that’s what you can do), but that’s a minor quibble, and part of the challenge for the first level in any case (Make sure you infect everybody… A laudable goal for a zombie horde on any rampage.)

There’s no shame in screwing up a level, by the way, as restarts are easy, and you’re going to be learning things in any case. A good example would be the Subway of the first act, where the challenge is to kill everyone. This is pretty tough, as there are lots of fatal drops (Even for zombies), and blowing up the wrong zombie at the wrong time is going to lead to a restart (Because it’s so early, I’m going to helpfully illustrate this.

See this? This is not quite the smart move you may think it is.

See this? This is not quite the smart move you may think it is.

It’s a challenge I haven’t beaten yet, although beating the level itself only took two tries (One where I cocked up in a similar fashion to the screenshot above, one where I got a zombie to the end, finishing the level.) Of course, from Chapter 2 onwards, the gloves are off, and the Lemmings inspiration shows itself more clearly. Along with some of its problems.

I like that the hitbox on the Overlord (Your main combo zombo) is large, because, due to the fact that selecting zombies in a horde to do things can be tricky (Just like Lemmings), getting someone facing the right direction to do the thing can be difficult. I also like that they’re highlighted, as that eases (But does not eliminate) the problem.

I don’t like that using certain abilities unpauses the game. No, folks, I do want to select several zombies as runners beforehand without unpausing, because timing is kinda important. Oh, speaking of which, timing and micromanagement become important from Chapter 2 on, and that can be a pain, especially with that unpausing.

See those zombies in the lower left? I got things slightly wrong, and now they're all dead instead of across the way. BOO.

See those zombies in the lower left? I got things slightly wrong, and now they’re all dead instead of across the way. BOO.

Finally, I don’t like that the menu is unclear. Subtitles on mouse over would help me know that yes, the brain is the options, for example. It’s clever, but it needs to be a little more clear. (EDIT: It’s actually the statistics screen. See? SEE?!?)

Anyways, if you’re looking for a puzzle kick, Zombie Night Terror is a good choice. It’s got good visuals, good music, eases you in before baking your brain, and the cutscenes are blackly humorous. If you don’t like the idea of, essentially, leading brainless minions to nom on brains, this probably isn’t for you.

Braaaaaaaaaaaainsssss (Translation: The Mad Welshman endorses this game. No, not because he is a zombie now, but because he likes it. Now bend your head just a little, please!)

Killing Time At Lightspeed: Enhanced Edition (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Itch.IO, Humble Store

It is a fact that, the faster you go, the slower time goes by. This phenomenon is often noted with drivers of 80s muscle cars, who are often amazed to find that they had been “Out all day” when they only intended a small dri-KTAL1

-Wait, I’m being informed by my editorial crew that this is for a different reason than time dilation at lightspeed. Which, in part, is what this clever, lo-fi visual novel is about. The rest? Becoming a stranger in a strange land, that land consisting entirely of the river of Time. Which is, I think you’ll agree, an awkward place to live, except that we somehow do it by not thinking about it too often.

As a visual novel, there are concessions to story and game. For example, you don’t have 50,000,000 social media messages to scroll through, rising as the game progresses, but much more managable, almost curated numbers, split into your social circle in FriendPage, and the news on Skimmit. Being a VN, there isn’t a time limit, and you go through the 30 minutes of interstellar travel at your own pace.KTAL2

Of course… You’ll nearly always be left behind. By the time you’ve left, Augmented Reality has finally hit. By the time you get there… A lot more has happened. Some might argue a bit too much for a single VN to cover. But it’s well written in its simplicity, and I felt a tiny tear or two trickle down my cheeks as, while I fulfilled my promise to never forget my friends, they forgot me. Some found happiness. Some just found new social media platforms. Others… Were never found again. Spending the last four or five days just clicking “refresh”, hoping for a message, an update that wasn’t failing ebooks accounts… Anything… Was just heartbreaking.

At least I was relatively certain they’re not dead. Relatively.

If you want a somewhat poignant game, with some good futurism behind it, Killing Time At Lightspeed is a good choice.

...Okay, I couldn't resist putting this one in. I'm moderately sure it's a joke. :P

…Okay, I couldn’t resist putting this one in. I’m moderately sure it’s a joke. 😛

The Mad Welshman doesn’t understand qubits. He was never In The Cloud. He feels terribly old.