Under Leaves (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam, iTunes App Store

A long while ago, I stated that games for younger children don’t get a fair rap, critically speaking. They’re considered lesser by virtue of… Being kid’s games. Edutainment, especially, is viewed under this lens. So you can imagine my pleasure when I was approached to take a look at Under Leaves, a hidden object game aimed at young children, and the parents thereof.

A clean, simple UI allows for easy access to levels holding a variety of animals living in the world today.

Aesthetically, Under Leaves is colourful and good looking, with hand painted assets that are fairly accurate to their subject matter, which is a variety of animals, the environs they live in, and a single food of each animal’s preference. The music is pleasant, and not overwhelming, and the sound effects are very well chosen. So, aesthetically, the game does pretty well, although I have raised the point that the game falls to a common flaw with some hidden object games (Not taking into account colourblindness in some of the level designs, most notably for me, the oceanic levels.)

The game can, by an adult, be played relatively quickly. In less than an hour, I had discovered many things, and each time I’d found and clicked all of the chosen food item (From nuts to clams to earthworms), I was rewarded with an animation, and a Steam achievement named after the Genus or genera of each animal in question (Such as Chamaeleo for, funnily enough, an African Chameleon – Chamaleo Africanus.) It helped that the help system consists of solving a 3×3 sliding block puzzle with the game’s title card as the image, although another minor criticism is that, on the larger areas, the help circle moves a little quick to catch up to if, say, an object is the other side of the levels.

In later levels, this hint circle can move at quite a clip if something’s across the area.

So, honestly, I somewhat like this as an edutainment game. It shows animals, not just in isolation, but sharing an expanding ecosystem in areas, the achievements are a subtle nod to things parents and children can look up together, and it’s moderately entertaining for me, a jaded thirty something grumpus wearing a reviewer mask. It has replay value (In fact, one can reset the game’s progress quite easily)and isn’t too long to completely go through. Win all round.

Did I mention how gorgeous the illustrations were? I think I did, but it bears repeating.

The Mad Welshman loves animals. Such variety! So many interesting things they do to live! So many things that can be put in tanks for do-gooders to fall into!

Bomb Squad Academy (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £4.99
Where To Get It: Steam

In a somewhat different state of affairs than is usual for reviewing, let’s get the bad out in the first paragraph of this review: Bomb Squad Academy doesn’t currently have good windowed mode support, or a volume slider.

Bam. Thank you, Systemic Games, for making that part of my job so pleasant.

Cue They Might Be Giants playing “Now I Know” in the background.

Bomb Squad Academy is, in essence, a game about basic electronics and electronic logic, under the guise of possibly the nicest fictional bomb defusal school I’ve ever come across. The final bomb for the second actual puzzle category (Including the dreaded OR gate) has little LED displays connected to the correct defusing options that read, on completion, “CONGRATS YOU ARE LEGEND.” The instructor encourages you to experiment, and is even occasionally seen to be trying positivity when you screw up, the screen goes white, and presumably you are small meaty chunks. “Well, you might not need that arm!”

Thanks, bomb instructor. Thanks a bunch for being understanding, and giving me a second chance in this educational setting. No, really! In any case, the game is very simple to control. Left click interacts with things. That’s it. Wires get cut. Buttons are pushed (and sometimes held down), switches get flicked or rotated… And through it all, I get to relearn the things I learned in Secondary School Electronics (that’s High School, to non-Europeans), such as the behaviour of logic gates (AND, OR, XOR, and the like), capacitors, switches and buzzers, in carefully planned puzzles that never feel overwhelming.

Each category is explained quite well, with good tutorialisation that means you never feel *overwhelmed* . Only tense.

Tense? Yes. The time limit is real, and sometimes it can be tight… But, much like real and good instruction, it’s at a pace you’re fairly certain you can handle. Concepts are introduced, then tested, and those tests slowly increase in complexity, bringing older elements in, and, since everything is visually clear, you’re never overwhelmed… Just occasionally pushed into not noticing things. Like how cutting that wire probably wasn’t the good idea you thought it was, or how you failed to account for that one AND gate.

But it’s okay. The instructor understands, and so, the fun is preserved, and you feel pretty smart when you look, trace around, mutter a bit, and, with less than thirty seconds on the clock, push a few buttons, cut a single wire, and flick a dial just so to defuse the bomb. Complete with a triumphant tune.

Simple. Elegant. And with a difficulty curve smooth as butter, rising just so for enjoyment with the occasional shock. Definitely recommended for puzzle fans, and folks looking for an entry level puzzle game.

Many bombs in the game *look* complex… Until you see what’s going on. Take a breath. You’ve still got a minute to cut some wires, it’s all good.

The Mad Welshman is looking forward to the possibility of a circuit editor in this game’s future (No promises.) After all, it appeals to his villainous side more than the defusal of bombs.

The Signal From Tölva (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Humble StoreSteam, GOG

When the apocalypse hits, when humanity’s light darkens, there shall be a cry, and it shall be louder than all the panicked screaming and dying and fire. And that cry will be “010000010100001101001011!!!”

Night doesn’t screw around, and nor do the enemies throughout the game.

So it is with The Signal From Tölva, the latest offering from Big Robot games. A game where you may die a lot, but hey, it’s the journey, not the destination or the cycle that counts. So let’s talk about that.

The Signal From Tölva is a space opera first person game (Which happens to have a lot of shooting) in a setting where machine intelligences grew from humanity, grew away from humanity, and finally kicked humanity to the kerb when humanity objected. They then splintered, because they were designed by humans, even down to that tribalist instinct. This is the story of one of those factions, the Surveyors, who wanted to find an intelligence more ancient than they were, and find their search leading them to a small world called Tölva, owned by the Cathedral, aka the Zealots… Who worship the planet and happen not to like visitors.

The game is tightly designed, with minimal mechanical complexity, and every tool used. You start as a drone in one corner of the map, explore, try to collect datacubes, and kick out anything that objects to your presence with guns and other drones. If you happen to die, well, no problem, you just download your constantly backed-up intelligence to another drone, somewhere you control, and awaaaaaay you go again!

The ship and robot designs are wonderful, but equally wonderful is the *scale* . You are a very small cog indeed, my friend.

It’s also a subtle game, in many respects. The information dripfeeds hints at the history, but equally, so do the many wrecks, occasional weird sights, and more common weird Sites hint at a world that has not only seen a lot of destruction and cosmic horror in its time, but also held a civilisation that somehow had power over space-time on a local level, and it’s only the sight of your own bigass technology and technical immortality that makes you think “Yeah, we can handle this.” Visually, a lot of the designs remind me of Chris Foss’s classic science fiction artwork, and the sound design only occasionally tries to get musical at you, even then in the most ambient manner. It’s good stuff, and I kept coming back, “one more hour”, to unravel the eerie mystery that is Tölva.

And then I triggered the endgame a bit early. You see, there’s also things going on under the hood, and one of them is that the enemy factions scale with you… But one of the other things is that, once you’ve got the means to reach the final sites, the final missions… It’s tough, folks. The Zealots get more defensive, and you will want to be on top of your game before getting there.

…And not only are you a small cog, you certainly haven’t been the first machine intelligence to try deciphering the mystery.

In summary, The Signal from Tölva is a mostly enjoyable, only occasionally stressful, and interesting journey right up until the very end, and then it becomes… A bit more stressful. Not a whole lot more stressful, but you’re definitely dying and redownloading more. Sniff the robotic flowers as much as you can, because, if you like first person exploration and/or shooting games, then it’s well worth a go. It helps that the game comes with a cool and interesting lorebook, helping expand the universe without giving too much away. The cosmic horror aspect of it is subtle, eerie, and well done, and I could definitely recommend this to folks.

The Mad Welshman likes the robot flowers. There’s just that hint of ozone to them that makes his circuits run elegant algorithms.

Senran Kagura Estival Versus (Review)

Source: Review copy
Price: £29.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Review – Senran Kagura Estival Versus

Senran Kagura, in a single phrase, is clunky and internally inconsistent. It wants to be humourous, and also to be a grim tale of women ninja fighting against yomi (Evil spirits.) It wants to be a Musou game, but also an eroge with what I’m assuming is meant to be women who are comfortable enough in BDSM to be completely open about it with each other (While also freaking each other out, another level of inconsistency), and also having RPG elements that, to be honest, only add grind and reduce clarity. It’s a game where even people who have noticed I disliked the game along the review process have been inconsistent in where they defend the game… From saying it’s “light hearted” to “surprisingly dark”, to saying the comedy’s bad, but it is a comedy (but it also isn’t), and giving me varying points at which it “Gets Better”, all of which, funnily enough, start about four or five hours into the game.

This is one of the points at which the game allegedly “Gets Better.” I wish I was joking when I said this.

Enough. Senran Kagura is inconsistent. Its combat flow is often broken up by the Shinobi Transformations (Which enemy named characters can do while you’re in the middle of a combo, throwing off your combo because hey, there’s a fifteen second animation playing in between your blows… It can be skipped with the Start button, much like the sometimes cringey cutscenes, but that doesn’t really solve the problem that it breaks gameplay flow), it has trouble telling you about your new moves, and the writing…

…When you have a game with several characters (At least twelve, it’s somewhat hard to keep track), you can’t help but either pad out the story (Which runs the risk of you forgetting what the hell is up with anyone) or painting characters as simple caricatures (Which runs the risk of those caricatures being, put bluntly, a bit shit.) As far as I can tell, both are happening here, with two chapters seemingly devoted to our heroines winding up on a beach world because… Reasons (Which aren’t made clear, even three hours in) and deciding “Hey, let’s do beach things, disregard these resurrected (Also all women) ninja that are trying to beat us up, and let’s… Beat each other’s clothes off, teehee!”

This is the *core* of the game, but… Everything else fights with this core for prominence. To the detriment of the whole.

Oh, did I forget to mention that, like Akiba’s Trip, the objective is to beat the clothes off fellow women ninja, while not losing your own clothes? Unlike Akiba’s Trip, though, this is dressed up in shallow BDSM talk that, at times, just makes me cringe. And I say that as a dom. Ryona, the extremely unsubtle hyper masochist, and Murasaki, the self-hating shut-in, are perhaps the worst offenders here, as something that I’m pretty sure is intended to be “funny” not only falls flat, but makes me say “WHOAH, CALM THE FUCK DOWN, SENRAN KAGURA, THAT’S NOT ON!”

But, of course, it “gets better”, as unlocks range from several varieties of clothing (mostly underwear) to beat off, special arena defeat cutscenes that range from the “Blah” to the “Oh, for the love of… [Facepalm] “, and, of course, the groping game. There’s a helluva lot of missions, and more in DLC that’s free or otherwise, but it seems that they all boil down to “Beat up everyone as quickly as you can while getting hit as little as possible”, and many of its mechanics are either explained in flow breaking, unskippable text boxes, or not explained outside of loading screen hints.

There *is* a reason this happens. The tone *does* change somewhat. But this, trust me, is in the middle of a *lot* of teeheeing.

As such, I really can’t recommend Senran Kagura Estival Versus, as it just has too much bad design, inconsistent writing, and, to be honest, cringey writing that just leaves me, not even chuckling, but coldly judging. Oh, and for those curious, this game might as well be controller mandatory, as the base keyboard binds make this a very difficult time on base KB+M (I’m sure a gaming mouse would help somewhat, but naw, stick to controller.) It’s not that good an eroge. It’s not that good a musou game. Its design elements conflict with each other, and honestly? I’m glad to be shot of it, now this review’s out.

The Mad Welshman is free. He can move on. His spirit is lightened. And he is grateful for this.

TMWTalk – Video Reviews, or The Lack Thereof

A question, and a statement, that keeps coming up, if only now and again is: “Why don’t you do video reviews? I’d see you more if you did video reviews!” And, honestly, while I can sort of see the point folks are making (Accessibility, “Seeing the game in action”), I’d like to point some things out.

This Ain’t Exactly Sustainable As Is

Right now, at the time of writing, I get approximately $80-87 USD a month for this. While the writing of each review takes anything up to two hours, the actual reviewing process is a bit longer, and varies wildly by game. I’ve written about this fairly extensively in the On Games Journalism series, but one thing I haven’t covered is video reviews. Below are two images, now somewhat out of date, but still illuminating. Less than a hundredth of the folks who, potentially, look at my work pay for it. On a bad week these days, less than a hundredth of the people who visit the site each week pay for the content produced.

While out of date, this is a nominally “Eh” week, in terms of visitors.

 

Although messy, it gets across the point that… *sings* One of these things… Is not like the others!

Let’s talk about videos a little bit now. Video reviews require recorded footage. They are, in my personal opinion, best done as post-commentary, which means I’m guiding my words. Similarly, it’s often best if they’re at least edited to show what the hell I’m talking about. As such, recording can take a while, anything up to four or five hours. Editing is going to mean recording commentary, slicing and splicing to fit, and extra stuff that, thankfully, only takes a few minutes more to add, less once it’s nailed down. But even that’s an extra hour or three (The latter in the case of particularly difficult to present stuff.)

Considering that, at national minimum wage, that should be earning my ass approximately £60 GBP a video? You can perhaps see why I’m leery of this. You can also, perhaps see, when I point out that just two of those videos a week would ensure I have no safety net, as 16 hours is the point at which state benefits (AKA – The Safety Net) is pulled out from under my ass, which also takes the rent with it.

Two, probably less than 30 minute videos, more often ten minutes for the brevity many folks demand in their reviews would, no joke, have the real potential to make my ass homeless. Hilarious, isn’t it? Let’s use an example from my earliest days, when I was young, and foolish, and got exactly nothing for this task. This review, by the way, led to my editor of the time asking for a re-review, something most games journalist will flat out turn down, let alone their editors.

This one was relatively short to edit, at an hour and a half for recording (Three or four races), half an hour for commentary (I knew exactly what I was going to say), and three hours for editing, encoding, and uploading (I had a bad computer then, but I also wanted to splice footage in a sensible manner.) It’s perhaps unsurprising, considering racing games are among the easier ones to splice footage for. Which leads us nicely to the second subject.

Your Mileage May Vary

Video reviews vary in usefulness by a number of factors. With something like Blur, I can get across the gameplay quickly and consistently. But what about something like Offworld Trading Company, or Crusader Kings 2, or Endless Space 2? There’s a lot more going on in many of those, and it’s not exactly obvious a lot of the time. There is also, sadly, another minefield waiting here: OMG SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’ve already talked about spoilers in reviews elsewhere, and navigating this particular minefield (In which, as ATLUS recently demonstrated, can come from the developers and publishers as well as the audience) is an added risk.

With a written review, I can still be clear, show off some things, talk about things, and, funnily enough, it’s easier to navigate the Spoilerfield, because there’s more than enough going on to focus on. It helps that I don’t like repeating myself. Of course, with videos, it doesn’t help that I don’t like repeating myself. If Gamerfill still existed, you would have seen me make many of the same points in the review that I make in the video (And, indeed, the re-review, which is one of the rare times that happened at all.)

…Did I mention that I really dislike repeating myself?

Anyways, this has been a brief summation dealing with the question of video content for TMW. Want more? Support the writer. Then the writer can pay his bills. He has more time. He spends less time worrying about said bills, and can, potentially, pay other writers, who also have more time and spend less time worrying about bills. If you really, really want video content, then you’re gonna have to be able to reassure me I’m not going to lose out by doing so.

Thank you for your time.