Subnautica (Early Access Review 2)

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

Subnautica is life’s way of saying “It’s okay that Endless Ocean doesn’t have a PC port.” Even down to the occasional punctuation of chill undersea times with pants wetting terror.

How… How long was I out?

So, it is the far future. Utopia has been achieved, and nice, not animal-killing humans have spread to the stars, exploring and spreading the word of peace and love. Except where you happen to be, because your ship got exploded in orbit around a watery world, and to survive, you will have to… shudder… Eat fish. Also survive, explore the world, and perhaps find out what happened, both to the Aurora and your fellow crewmates who at least managed to escape the ship.

Ohhhh yeah… *Ohhhhhh* yeaaaahhh… The mooon is beautiful…

The first thing you’ll notice, once you begin the game, is how beautiful this alien world is. Schools of fish swim, with many different kinds, plant life abounds, and even the moon is lovingly rendered. It’s also a relaxing experience, swimming, collecting resources, and slowly, but surely, learning more of the world around you.

But then the game enters its second phase, and things become… A little more fraught. For all that this world is a beautiful one, it’s also a dangerous one, and, beyond a survival knife, the protagonist comes from a pacifist society that doesn’t really do weapons. And so, you will find things that want to kill you, and your best policy… Is avoidance. Permadeath, thankfully, is not part of this game unless you wish it to be, so being eaten by one of the more dangerous residents, or running out of oxygen, merely results in being plonked back at the nearest base you’ve built, without the things you collected since you last left (But, crucially, the blueprints you gather will still be gathered, so you can still, in a sense, progress… A nice touch!)

The Reaper Leviathan, as seen from a *relatively* safe distance. Loss count on the current save to this … Thing? 3 deaths and a SeaMoth.

I won’t pretend, however, that this isn’t annoying at times. In my current save, for example, one of the most dangerous creatures of the ocean, the Reaper Leviathan, is plonked right next to one of the richer seams of materials and blueprints, the crashed ship Aurora, and every visit so far has resulted in either death, or the very expensive loss of a minisub (the SeaMoth), and then death. But, fair traveller, this is a temporary phase, and there are other places, other ways to gain the materials you need to improve, and make this world a little safer. You can build bases, waypoints in the deep, and travel between them. You can grow fish, or farm plants, once you find the means to do so. You can create current generators, devices that can very forcefully push the more dangerous fish away from your home of choice. And when you spread your wings, able to explore in relative safety?

Crystalline forests. A strange island, seemingly the only landmass in sight. Mushroom trees, stretching almost to the surface. Swimming among the reefbacks. It’s not often I say a sandbox survival game is a beautiful, calming experience, but once you get over a few resource humps, that’s exactly what Subnautica becomes. And always, always, the mystery of the planet… Awaits. For in one of the most recent updates, the planet now has plot… And mysteeeerious ruins!

Mystery! Excitement! Danger! All of these can be found… In a videogame!

Yes, somebody has heard the Aurora’s SOS, but at the same time… Do you really want to leave, considering there are alien ruins, and teleportation technology, maybe other useful things, and maybe, just maybe, the off switch for whatever the heck blew up the Aurora? I certainly wouldn’t. For £15, the game is highly reasonable, and is only becoming more reasonable as time goes on. Check it out if you like mysteries, living under the sea, and exploration.

The Mad Welshman grinned as he looked at the alien ruins. Triangles… Why was it always triangles with these aliens?

Early Access Review: Downward

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam
Version Reviewed: 0.47

“It’s facing downward!” Yes, like the last twenty times. I think I get it now.

You know what I really loved about Prince of Persia 2008? Collecting lightseeds. That was, hands down, the best part of that game. Sod smooth platforming, sod weird not-deaths, the lightseeds were totally the best part of PoP2008. Followed closely by the backtracking to get those powerups I need to progress.

That preceding paragraph is, of course, complete bullshit unless you replace “best” with “worst.” So you can imagine how I feel about the Skypieces in Downward, a game that tries to take the nigh effortless free running of Prince of Persia or Mirror’s Edge, the collectathons from a lot of platformers of my youth, and the posthuman mystery elements of modern science-fiction/fantasy.

It achieves the collectathon, I will give it that. So let’s start with the story!

“As you can see Bob, Wormwood, Great Cthulhu, *and* The Giant Meteor have a really good platform this year!”

It is the year 1125AD. Except it clearly isn’t, because there’s technology, and the world has split into weird shards, ala Gravity Falls, and somehow people survived. Except they didn’t, because they killed each other off. I would like to think, in the interests of black comedy, that the AD stands for “After Donald” (or, if you’re a Brit like me, “After David”), and it’s days instead of years. You are an artefact hunter, who suddenly finds himself talking to someone who is clearly not an AI in a crystal lattice, I want to make that clear right now, and begins collecting things because this will solve the mystery of what happened to humanity. Somehow.

The protagonist shows his colours by exclaiming what useless things the mysterious KeyCubes are, or just expresses confusion, after he has already collected something like 30 of them, from jumping puzzles, angry, highly pattern based golems, and just general fucking about. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

Ooooh, mysteri- Oh, wait, not really. Sigh.

See, I’m not opposed to story justifying games. I’m not even necessarily opposed to bad story justifying gameplay. I am, however, opposed to jank. And jank, my friends, is what currently inhabits Downward. The Not-Lightseeds are used for unlocking powers. A good 90% of them are simple quality of life stuff, and the other 10% is the strangely thought out ability to trade the cost of Arbitrary Powergem Usage for placing teleporters, and teleporting to them for free, with the cost of sod all for placing teleporters, and costing Arbitrary Powergem Usage to teleport to them. Hrm. Infinite teleports to a limited number of places between refills (via fountains, which replenish health, gems, and stamina), orrrrr just four straight teleports, but I can choose where to place the endpoint infinitely…

…Already, I’m getting “the Not-Lightseeds can largely be ignored” and “I wasted 290 of them when I could have got more teleports.” Of course, by the point of this realisation, I had also realised that the space bar, used for most jump mechanics, doesn’t always chain like its meant to, and level placement of the parkour-able walls, some too low, some too high, some at awkward angles, meant that I couldn’t trust that chaining anyway.

Pretty. Disconnected. It… Kinda looks how the game *feels*

I want to say “Hey, it’s Early Access, at least some of this will be fixed by release”, as it’s at version 0.47 at the time of writing, but… It’s not going to fix how arbitrary, how hollow it all feels. Whither golems? Wherefore strange crystal turrets? To what end Skypieces? I don’t feel I’ll get answers, I don’t really feel motivated to explore these (sometimes pretty) not-quite-Arabic, not-quite-Medieval worlds, to interact with the few characters that exist, or to grind my brain and fingers, time and time again, against a world that isn’t dragging me in, only pushing me away with mocking removal of Skypieces when I die, itself hollow because, as I’ve mentioned, they largely don’t matter.

What I’m basically saying is: The platforming is currently finicky and unfun, the story feels arbitrary, and the protagonist is a tabula rasa that has somehow gained the power of speech… To his detriment. I’ll take a look again at release, but for now… I’m not impressed.

The Mad Welshman picked up his trusty keyboard, the eldritch symbols of power etched upon its slabs. “Hrm, what’s this for?” he mused, as he used it to write these words.

Going Back: Dungeon Hack

Goodness me, that rhymed. Lovely. Well, anyway, once again, it’s time to set the Wayback Machine, and the interesting game for this outing to the groggy times of yore is Dungeon Hack, the only official, licensed Dungeons and Dragons roguelike. Which is highly amusing when you consider how much early roguelikes (And even some modern ones) have been influenced by 2nd Edition DnD.

Dungeon Hack, released just after another title I’ve briefly dealt with, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, uses an interface very similar to the Eye of the Beholder games. Similar enough, in fact, that I’m halfway convinced it’s the same engine, despite being developed by Dreamforge (Who, like SSI, created strategy and roleplaying titles, and did not survive 2001.) Nonetheless, it’s not the engine, so much as the visual style that impresses. There are several different level themes, all of them have a variety of different locks, tapestries, paintings, and gewgaws, and, if it weren’t for the rest of it, I would say that every run is a refreshing and different experience.

One of something like… An absolutely *silly* number of potential locks.

Unfortunately, I’m not saying that. Every run is, in fact, a tedious nightmare that often ends on dungeon level 2, due to the mechanical aspects of the design. Procedural generation has come a long way since the days of rogue, ADOM, and the like, and Dungeon Hack shows one of the weaknesses of early experiments… It’s predictable, and the difficulty curve is not so much a slope as one of the cyclopean steps of Great Cthulhu’s abode. As is often the case with roguelikes, there is a single, playable character.

But many of the monsters in AD&D are, in fact, balanced around groups taking them on. A perfect example of this is the main monstrous feature of the second dungeon level: The humble Ghoul. The Ghoul is normally a cowardly eater of the dead, picking on things it thinks it can eat, and making corpses when… Well, the corpses it normally feeds on are scarce. To aid it, it has a paralytic venom in its claws and fangs. Now, to be perfectly fair to the developers of Dungeon Hack, unlike in Eye of the Beholder, when your character is paralysed, they can still move (but not attack or use items), whereas if a mass paralyse from a Beholder hit in EoB 1’s later levels, you were pretty much dead.

The problem arises, then, from the fact that it’s corridors… And rooms. And corridors predominate. Corridors in which the other monster type that always inhabits the second level, the Troglodyte (in 2E, a stronger, but less intelligent relative of the lizardman) are very likely to ambush someone who hasn’t cleared the way behind them, and, even then, may get surprised by a respawn. As a Mage, you may just about have fireball at this point (Requiring a rest after every cast to regain it… We’ll come back to resting), as a warrior, you don’t really have any recourse except that old first person RPG technique of the sideways shuffle (Exploiting the AI in… Er… A room… To, er…Well, crap, that sort of invalidates it in a large set of situations, doesn’t it?), and it’s only as a Priest that you get… Turn Undead. Which, on the one hand, you have an infinite supply of. On the other, it’s not guaranteed to work, and you’re not guaranteed to hit on the attack that will break the Ghoul out of its “OhGodsAHolySymbolRunRunRun” mode Turn Undead tends to put it in.

Ghouls. There are many words I have to say about a lone adventurer fighting even small groups of ghouls. The vast majority of it is unprintable, even here.

So yeah, the difficulty’s a little sharp. Adding to this tedium is the predictability of monsters. Yes, you will always encounter Ghouls and Troglodytes on level 2. Just as you will always encounter Goblins and Orcs on level 1, with only the occasional Out of Depth monster to liven things up… Usually in a rather fatal manner.

And then, there are the keys. I mentioned before that there are a variety of different locks, and hoo boy, does the game use as many as it can. Each locked door has a specific key type. I’ve never encountered a situation where the key was behind a door, but each level becomes a case of three things: A sweep and clear, not unlike those annoying missions in Hero Quest and Space Crusade (Remember those?) where the victory condition was “Kill everything”; A hunt for various keys (Ice keys, flower keys, gold keys, chrome keys, platinum keys, bone keys, missing bull horns… The list is quite large); And, another staple of first person games and DnD RPGs of the time, either being a Dwarf, able to sense secret doors, or looking at the map, noticing large empty spaces, and wondering which of the walls you’re going to try and walk into will, in fact, turn out to be illusory.

Fun! It’s interesting to look at a game like this, because it has a lavish (if overacted) introductory cutscene (Involving the sorceress/demigod/secret deity… I forget which… Who sends you on the quest, and Sir Not Appearing In This Game, possibly the biggest, dumbest adventurer I’ve seen since Lands of Lore’s Conrad “The Scones Are Still Intact” McAdventurerson), a lot of thought put into a lot of locks and tapestries and statuary and fun things that mostly don’t have any bearing beyond looking pretty (Which I approve of), and yet… Once you get past that, there’s almost no balance, a steep difficulty spike on the 2nd level, and even less context than Angband or Nethack, relative contemporaries (1990 and 1987-2015.)

…I smell a cutscene, VO so fine!

Would I recommend playing it for enjoyment? Oh, Mystra, no! Would I, however, encourage budding developers to look at it critically? If you’re into procgen, licensed RPGs, and step/tile-based first person RPGs, yes. Because it is, to me, interesting to examine. Even if the examination can be… Rather painful.

I’ll get you, Ghouls. And your little frogs, too…

Early Access Review: Delver

Source: wanna say bought? It’s been a while… @.@
Price: £5.59 (or thereabouts)
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Site

After my experiences with Barony, way back when, I felt somewhat burned out on dungeon crawling. But, of course, with a new year comes new updates, and one that happened while I was away was a content patch to Delver, a procedurally generated first person dungeon crawler that, like Barony, takes at least some of its inspiration from Ultima Underworld and their ilk… Along with a teeny bit from old Roguelikes such as Angband or Nethack, in which you, an adventurer, enter a supposedly shifting dungeon complex near a wizard’s tower that’s suffered a bad case of subsidence, to retrieve an orb attributed great magical power.

Okay, so it’s not *the* orb of great power… But, y’know, it’s a skullball, and it floats!

That, and potions not having a known effect, are basically the main nods to the genre Delver comes from. The rest is pretty much its own thing, and, despite some niggles it can’t really help but have, I’m… Okay with it! So, let’s get the niggles out of the way first: Equipment, and predictability.

Equipment, specifically weapons, degrade over use. And, of course, you never know when you’ll get the next one. I’m telling you this now, because… The game doesn’t, and it comes as a somewhat nasty shock when you look in your inventory and happen to notice that your Peachy Keen Sword of Being Quite Quick (Previously Excellent, doing 9 to 12 damage) has now become The Blunt And Cracked Whiffle Bat Of Still Being Fairly Quick (Doing 1 to 4 damage.) If armour suffers the same way, I have yet to notice, thankfully (THAT’S NOT AN INVITATION OR REQUEST!) Similarly, while the most recent patch went a long way toward controlling your ranged ammunition shortage (What with recoverable arrows, sometimes even from corpses), this, too, is a major concern you should keep in mind while playing: Save your wands and ammo for ranged enemies.

See that skelly in the background? That’s the *real* threat.

As to predictability, this is somewhat of a double edged sword with Delver. On the one hand, you know what to expect in each of the (currently) four or five types of dungeon you encounter, and so you know, for example, to save ranged stuff for the Caves/Dwarven Mines, in which Eyebeasts can ambush without a whole lot of warning, then scoot rapidly out of your range to throw fireballs. On the other, it becomes a case of “Yes, okay, Ruins, good fine, let’s get onto those orc type fellers down on Sewers 1 and 2, eh?” , and that can… Well, get a little bit dull at times. The door behind the fireplace in the underground bar is like an old friend, and I view the unstable ground over the lava pits of the Ruins to be the cackling rival, occasionally trapping me in a pit with no way out but death and reincarnation outside the dungeon despite the fact I know they’re there, god-dammit…

Still, there’s a fair bit that’s good about the game, and it is still in development. The tile based, pixellated look works quite well for Delver, each weapon type has at least a couple of swings, easily memorised, and each run takes anything up to an hour (Depending, obviously, on caution and skill), so it’s not a time demanding game (Something I, as I grow older, grow a little more grateful for each day), and the music is pleasant, fitting, and at times, quite dramatic.

Even the campground has… Y’know, *some* drama. That dang bard, hiding things and playing sad tunes… >:|

So, is Delver worth a gamble? Well, let’s think. Less than £6, for a start, does have story (in the form of notes, which I won’t spoil, because although it’s as simple as the game right now, there’s still some good, short reads in there about the poor sods who came before you), and, while it has been called shallow (It is, a little), that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you know it’s not going to have you poring over loreposts in forums. It’s fun, it’s somewhat challenging, and it doesn’t demand you Get Good… Only mildly suggests it while stressing you’re there to have fun and relax.

…And I’m okay with that.