Dead Cells (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Itch.IO

For a bundle of ooze, condemned to murder and drain the genetic information of magical weapons and experiments just like itself, the titular Dead Cells are quite an expressive character. They sort of have to be, as they can’t say anything, and that’s easily explained by the fact that they’re an oozing thing with one burning eye and no mouth. But hey, they understand folks fine, what’s the problem?

Ahhh… Soon, I will have *aaaall* the goopy vials… And maybe then, I can rest.

Anyways, Dead Cells is a game about dodging blows from various enemies, leaping about frantically, slashing and murdering frantically, and occasionally dying frantically, before your little pile of ooze is piped into another headless corpse to begin the whole palaver again for the nefarious purposes of a Necro-Alchemist. It’s a simple game, and pseudo-random level generation means that while I know roughly what to expect from a level, I don’t know the full ins and outs.

Design wise, it’s pretty tight so far. It’s one of the first games where I haven’t found a subweapon I haven’t found a use for, the weapons, similarly, are solid. Enemies telegraph things well enough that I’ve quickly worked out how to dodge, say, the venom of the scorpions in the old sewer. You start with only one path, but unlock more by getting far enough (You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road… And I will be murdered by scorpions!) , you have a fair few weapons already (From main weapons like the electric whip and the BLOOD SWORD, to subweapons like the Meat Grinder, or my personal favourite, Ice Grenades), and, obviously, a bevy of monsters.

What’s that coming out of the ground, is it a Scorpion, it is a scorpion!

It must be said that, if you can’t play twitchy games, Dead Cells is sadly not for you, because it’s twitchy as hell. In fact, one of my current criticisms of the game is that Elite enemies following you gives you absolutely no chance to heal (Which takes time), and sometimes, the fight goes so quickly that you’re not sure what actually killed you (Each individual fight tends to take between 1 and 3 seconds, and, at the end of that time, either they’re dead, or you are. Unless they’re Elites, in which case the fight lasts either too long, or a painfully short time.)

But the sound design is good (The slish and squish of your ooey-gooey body shlorping into your next headless host is… A thing to behold), the visuals are good (Pixellated gore, goo, and viscera is the order of the day… The game revels in its griminess, but everything except the pipe ladders in the sewer levels are clearly differentiated), and even getting past the first level means you improve, albeit slower than if you get further each run, so the difficulty evens out over time. Overall, Dead Cells is already looking promising, and, along with Drifting Lands, is currently my go to for a quick, fun game. The tunes are good, and my only grump right now is that Elite enemies are, if anything, too elite.

Are you… Are you *Bratting* on me, Cursed Chest? Goodness me, I’d almost be tempted if I didn’t already *know* you’d bite me and inflict a death curse!

The Mad Welshman grimaced, if a pile of sentient goop could be said to grimace… This zombie looked… Different somehow. “Is it your hai-URK.”

Welp. Time to start over.

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Endless Space 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £34.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Endless Space 2 is big. I mean really big. I mean, you may think it’s a long walk down to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to Endless Space 2!

Joking reference aside, Endless Space 2 is, as far as turn based strategy where you eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate other alien races, most often while playing an alien race yourself, actually quite good. Even if I’m somewhat salty about Amplitude following the current “stance” of “Who even plays hotseat?” (Hi! I do! And so do quite a few of my friends!)

Making this clear right now… The Sophons are totally not my… Adorkable, irresponsible, space babies. Nope.

So let’s get that out the way right now: Multiplayer is online only, none of the playing-with-yourself or risk free theorycrafting shenanigans you’d be used to in some other… Well, quite a few other strategy games, up till relatively recently. If that’s a turnoff, I understand. Let’s get on to the good stuff.

In Endless Space 2, there are eight races, and they all play somewhat differently. This has pretty much been the charm of Amplitude games since the studio arose in 2011, and it’s a skill they’ve been steadily honing through their company life. The Unfallen, for example, with their “branch” system of colonising, are extremely interesting. They can only colonise in lines from the homeworld, and instead of sending a ship full of people, they send a ship that lures space-vines from the homeworld, entangling a system, and then they send the first colonists through the space-vines. On the upside, this means they can stretch out a web of influence, and colonise systems quickly once they have the technology to actually live on the bloody things. On the downside, if somebody happens to conquer a system along that branch, whether there were nice treemen living there or not, everything further down the branch is lost, and, unlike every other faction except the Vodyani, if you lose your homeworld, that’s it. Game over. Caput.

But interest comes in many flavours. A returning faction from the first game, the Sophons, are my dear little science babies, not because they have a different colonisation method, or because they’re game breaking, but because they have accepted that Science is a verb, a noun, a preposition, and… Look, they really like science… Often to their own detriment. And I love them for it, which leads nicely into the narrative end of things.

And it definitely isn’t because they acknowledge as objective fact that Science is a Verb.

Endless Space 2 has race specific questlines. The Sophons, for example, have found themselves in the unenviable position of having created the universe’s first (known) Super-AI, called ENFER, have plugged it into everything they can, and now have to answer a very difficult question: How the heck do we keep it happy? Everybody has their thing, and nobody is very nice. The United Empire, under very Stalinist propaganda, are influence wielding warmongers, the Riftborn just want to live, their perfect, ordered universe having been destroyed by our chaotic, quantum-fuckery filled one (Which, if you think about it, is very much Cosmic Horror), the Horatio (A race of clones) want to make things perfect (IE – All Horatio, because Horatio is perfection), the Cravers are perfectly happy being hungry murderbugs designed to devour entire planets (or are they?) , and…

…Look, there’s a lot of stories here. Not just the eight racial stories, but the stories of individual heroes, the universe (The fallout of a war between two ideologically opposed Super Races who appear to have killed each other, but may not actually be dead, is one familiar to science fiction fans, but is excellently implied), and even of specific worlds, come together in a well written and engaging universe that’s well worth looking at on its own. The UI is mostly friendly and clear (The research “circle” is a little confusing at first, as is how to get to ground force management), the ships have real polish and difference to them, and the music… Electronic heaven, whether its somewhat ambient, as in the title screen, or the more “Ohcrap, things are happening” of the combat tuneage.

Both ground and space combat, for returning Endless players, has had some improvement, with extra choices and tactics at the beginning, but remains “You make choices about range and tactics, then watch the pretty lights and explosions.” Or don’t.

Essentially, if you want to eXplore space, eXpand into new worlds, and eXploit and eXterminate new civilisations, Endless Space 2 is another good one to go for. Like Master of Orion 2016, its difficulty is fairly adjustable, and, as noted, my main bitch with the game is the same one I have with this genre all over in recent years… I just want to have a chill time smashing spaceships and aliens together, by myself, and nobody’s letting me.

The Mad Welshman can’t actually pick a favourite faction. They’re all moustache twirley in their own way, and he loves them all equal- AHAHA SCIENCE FOR THE WIN, YOU CAN’T OUTFIGHT ME IF I OUT-TECH YOU EVERYWHERE!

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The Sexy Brutale (Review)

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

It’s no exaggeration to say that The Sexy Brutale, by Cavalier Games and Tequila Works, has been the high point of my month. Not least because it’s so pleasurable to see a game so delicately planned that the keyboard and mouse control scheme, while a little clunkier than controller, has a neat little touch that made me chuckle.

Hokay, Blood lady!

Reversing time is bound, on keyboard, to F1. I’d like you to think about that for a second, and chuckle with me. It’s nice and subtle, and a good segue into the rest of the game.

The Sexy Brutale can best be described as a stealth puzzle adventure with almost Metroidvania elements, in that solving the puzzle (Which, funnily enough, involves using your time travel and stealth powers, gifted to you by a lady made of blood) gives you extra abilities that will unlock new areas, new people to save from a devilish casino and its employees that, all of a sudden, has stopped fulfilling dreams, and is now murdering folks in blackly fitting ways. Ways that range from the mundane (Poison drinks, a stabbing… It was the 8 of Diamonds, officer, in the Church with the Rifle!) to the bizarre (This is a good time to mention that the game has something that arachnophobes may want to steel themselves for: A giant spider. Just the one, as far as I know, but… Be warned)

The game has Content Warning: Arachnophobia. Thematically appropriate, considering the mask, but yeah, you have been content warned.

But I’m not saying any more about the plot, as this is a moderately linear game, and instead, I’m going to try and persuade you by telling you just how accessible it is, and charming to boot.

First up, aesthetically, the game is beautiful. While the models are not hand-painted, they are stylised in such a way that you could almost believe they were, and the exaggeration helps make this game keep a somewhat light hearted tone despite the fact that, y’know, it’s a supernatural murder party. Similarly, the swinging music helps the mood immensely, from when it’s jazzy and breezy, to the tense tunes when time… Is running out. Everyone is a character, even the Playing Cards, the murderous henchmen, and it says a lot that I was perfectly fine with both watching the demise of the characters for their speech, and spending a lot of time making sure I knew everyone’s route, rewinding the clock to get collectibles, story, and the like. It’s a game where, thanks to the time mechanic, and the usefulness of a map that tracks characters you’ve seen during the day (As long as you’ve seen them, that is), I don’t feel bad about taking my time.

Clear. Concise. USEFUL.

The game encourages me to explore as a result, and that’s a good thing. Similarly, the differing control schemes of the game are both understandable, from the mouse and keyboard’s Dungeon Siege like “Hold right mouse to move, left click to do things, and then keys” to the controller’s “Right stick to move, face buttons and trigger to do things.” So it’s an accessible game too. Things are highlighted, the consistency of the UI is a delight…

…It’s very rare I can say that I don’t have anything negative to say, but I’m quite happy when it happens. The Sexy Brutale is one such game, as it’s accessible, charming, and the clues to its puzzles are uncovered organically. Recommended, and gladly.

The Mad Welshman wears a wolf mask. Well, he would, if the damn thing wasn’t using american shipping. He really wants a nice wolf mask. A red one.

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Flinthook (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99 (£14.99 for Deluxe with artbook, music, and other nice gubbins)
Where To Get It: Humble StoreSteam

Flinthook, a game about a ghost headed pirate with time-slowing powers, an anchor that he uses to effortlessly hook his way around, and, of course, a blaster, begins in an extremely fun way. So many possibilities! An interesting cartoon universe, hinted at in scraps of lore and relics and enemy designs! Good sound effects and a consistent, action-cartoon aesthetic I can’t help but love!

Alas, that first bloom has faded. Let me tell you, folks, about my own White Whale. Let me tell you… about the Midgame.

Your choice of ships to raid is, for the most part, clearly explained, and it’s easy to remember what does what. This, as it turned out, was a Poor Choice.

Currently level 39, I am, at the time of this review, about halfway through. And I feel like I owe my victory more toward grind and luck than skill, without feeling bad about it. Why? Because, from about level 20 onwards, from about three skulls onwards, the game starts throwing some distinctly unfair rooms at you. Rooms where I have yet to figure out if there even is a way to get through without taking damage. And it starts playing tricks that, honestly, I’m not on board with. Here, screenshotted, is a pretty good example: The Bird Room. While exploring the procedurally generated ship-dungeons of the game, you may come across the bird room. The birds are invincible. No, those bubbles, unlike the others you may encounter (including in boss encounters) cannot be popped with your hook. And they will poop similarly invincible bombs at you until you leave. How not to be damaged? Don’t be under them. Don’t touch them. Good luck!

Thank you, Flinthook, for very briefly wanting me to replace my cries of FUCKING BATS with DAMN BOMB POOPING SPACE PARROTS

Similarly, combat rooms start getting, for want of a better word to describe them, dickish. And a lot of this fuckery comes from one enemy in particular: The bubble wizards. As long as these robed assholes live, everything else is invincible. And often, these same lizard wizards are hiding… behind the invincible enemies. Oh, never in such a way as to completely block them off, it must be said… But nearly always in a way that getting to them has a much higher chance of you needing to damage sponge your way to them.

Adding to this is that half the subweapons… Feel much more situational than the other half. Spinning Skulls are a finicky subweapon to hit folks with, and don’t do a whole lot of damage, the bomb barrels are for when you want an enemy heavily damaged or dead right damn now, whereas, by comparison, the freeze globe is a “Get out of miniboss/dickish trap room” card, or at least something that helps, and the Fighting Bell is temporary invincibility, which… Is also a “Get out of miniboss/dickish trap room” card. I often forget subweapons as a result, or end up with Giant Robot Crab Syndrome, where I don’t want to use my freeze globe on the trap room because I might need it for another room.

Poor Bad Billy Bullseye. This is the fifth time I’ve done this to him out of frustration I’ve died on the way to the Baron so much.

The bosses, by comparison, are… Well, actually somewhat easier. Bad Billy Rex, the unlockable upgraded form of the first boss, felt like a victory lap, since his base pattern doesn’t really change: Hook his ride’s glowy bubble butt, shoot it, and a new glowy bubble butt appears, shoot his tumbling starfish brethren that he adds each time, repeat until there are no bubble butts to pop, his centipede-buffalo pal is dead, and poor Bad Billy is left crying like the Rancor trainer in Return of the Jedi.

Is Flinthook a bad game? Not really. It uses all its abilities, makes them pretty accessible, and teaches you their use very well. But it’s a game that expects you to grind out to reach the endgame, and it’s a game where the levels, not particularly the bosses, are the real enemy. It’s pretty twitchy from even the midgame, so I sadly can’t recommend this to folks who, for various reasons, can’t play that sort of game. For everyone else, the pixel art is consistent, the UI is good and clear, powerups are explained when you get them, the music is brilliant, and the sound effects are also good. It took me about 4 hours to hit the midgame, and I expect it will be at least a few more before I’m ready to tackle the endgame. It’s a “few more hours” I’m not entirely sure I’m willing to invest, myself, but your mileage may vary, so if you like arcadey platforming and shooting hijinks, perhaps this is for you.

The Mad Welshman loves universes like this. Even if, in said universes, he’d probably end up with a glowing weakpoint.

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