Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £39.99 plus BOODLES OF DLC
Where To Get It: Steam

It speaks volumes that, when attempting to talk about the FATE universe(s), I end up using a lot of jargon, and a lot of things get capitalised. So let’s try and keep that to a minimum, because I want you to understand why I’m okay with FATE/Extella, and its rather… Odd universe…s.

Yes, it’s a JRPG/VN/Musou game, so there is the obligatory “Ohhhh *Japan* ! o.O” character.. Well, a couple.

Essentially, every now and again, regardless of universe, a war is fought over the Holy Grail. Yes, that one. That one which has also been a Cosmic Horror in disguise, is pretty much always the asshole kind of wish-granter that twists your wish in the most evil way possible, and somehow, keeps tempting people to summon spirits of heroes past, be they digital avatars with souls (as in the Extra/CCC/Extella universe), or literal phantoms of the past, drawn from their time to fight in a thematic cage match with one nominal winner. I say nominal because damn if the winner doesn’t nearly always get the shaft somehow. Like I said, the Holy Grail is an ass.

Anyway, the Grail War is over. SE.RA.PH, the amazing moon computer, has become peaceful, united under the rule of Nero Claudius, who is a woman, and of the “Oh, my brave love!” type. Iiiiit’s pretty obvious it’s written for the dudes, it must be said, even though the option of playing a woman is there (An option I took. It doesn’t make the romance dialogue any less awkward.)

EXCEPT THINGS, UNSURPRISINGLY, ARE NOT WELL! When are they ever, eh? Anyway, with a band of supporting heroes, a cast of villains, and robot/AI mooks aplenty to beat up, you… Wait, this sounds… familiar.

Yes, it has many of the same elements of Senran Kagura. Visual novel sections, broken up by sections where you wallop the shit out of mooks, defeat bosses, and, in a more traditional twist, have to successfully control portions of the map and do objectives before you do so. Things that add depth, like having to keep an eye out for Plants, which spawn enemy attack forces if you don’t murder them, get rid of thematic elements like Medusa’s Blood Fortress, and that most dangerous of tasks, Pursuing Lu Bu.

Luckily, like any Shounen Musou character, Nero Claudius (Who is a girl, yes) not only has her Noble Phantasm, she also has a Shitkicker Mode.

If you saw a lot of capital letters and jargon there, yes, this is largely unavoidable. Keeping it simple, the majority of the game is “Beat up mooks in rooms until larger mooks appear, beat them up, rinse and repeat until you control a room. Oh, and watch out for that other stuff like Plants, objectives, or the fact you have allies, and them getting beaten down makes your situation worse.” And then there’s the story bits, where the right choice when talking to your main Servant nets you better Bonds, those, in turn, net you scenes where you bond with that individual (romantically or otherwise), rewards…

…This is the first problem with FATE/Extella: Even though the game does its utmost to explain things, it’s one of those examples of a long running, multi-continuity series that feels dense to the outsider. I know some of it from the various anime (Yes, it’s a multimedia franchise too), but other bits feel a mystery, even if there’s an in-game Encyclopedia to try and explain it. It’s the same with a lot of the universe stuff. Players who’ve played the other games, or seen some of the anime in the Extra/CCC/Extella continuity, may well be ooohing and aahhing, but as someone who hasn’t? I’m mostly confused, except for the bits transplanted from other continuities or series. Nameless? Oh, yeah, that’s that guy! Meanwhile, why is Elizabeth Bathory an Idol Singer, and… Well, a bit of a joke character, to be honest?

Nero is somewhat exuberant, and… There was a word for her character, but I forget it. Answers on a postcard…

Despite my recommending a controller is used, the default keyboard controls aren’t actually terrible… But it does make for a lesser experience, as the camera is controlled with the arrows, the movement with WASD, and basic attacks and jumping lie awkwardly in the middle, so you sometimes have to awkwardly shift to… Well, see what the hell’s going on. The musou gameplay is alright, but the Bond system feels a little bit arbitrary sometimes. Not with the VN segments with each character, you’re playing to their mood to get on better with them, but with the side mission mechanic, which is taken from a pool of choices including things like “Eat 4 Yakisoba Bread in a single mission.” I’m not even sure I’ve seen a yakisoba bread, let alone 4. Similarly, unless you really, really need it (and you won’t, at least until the midgame on normal), do not use the Command Sigil thing, as it resets your bonds.

I could, in essence, say a hell of a lot more, because there’s a lot of mechanics, but the game tutorialises fairly well, and, although I grimace at the awkwardness of some of the VN writing, the overall idea is quite interesting, I like the world, and the musou beat-em-up segments have interest and variety to them. It’s still a shame it’s a later game in the series that’s translated, because you get that word salad that you’re already expected to know, but Fate/Extella does not appear to be a bad game. Just somewhat opaque to newcomers lorewise, and, as mentioned, a controller is highly recommended.

The Mad Welshman is still rather confused by VN/Musou hybrids, and the seeming need to shove a romance plot in there, but explanations thrown at me tend to make me dizzy.

Downward (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I could, in essence, repeat what I said in my Early Access review. I could. But that wouldn’t be fair to the fact that the developers have attempted to change things up (Planets happen earlier, some other things happen later, change in voices, some writing differences). So let’s go through things.

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

In some unknown time, humanity is kind of doomed, thanks to three planets. Except for a runny, jumpy artefact hunter who finds themselves near the ruin of a posthuman human outpost, a hermit trying very hard to be both mysterious and Yosemite Sam, a mysterious woman-voice, a skull that used to be an astrologer (astronomer? Who knows!) and mysteeeerious devices. There’s just one small problem: You’re not really given a reason to care. Since our protagonist is a confused young man, and meant to be some sort of tabula rasa for us, let’s do this from my viewpoint.

I start in a dream. I can escape the dream by parkouring my way through things, with knowledge that I have, but I also don’t (Oh, that’s an Anomaly? What kind of… Oh, a jumpy anomaly… Well, good thing I knew that… Somehow!) Having escaped my dream, I find that… It probably wasn’t actually a dream. I’m not sure. All I know is I’m somewhere else, and mysterious lady is urging me onwards. Well, onwards I go, picking up some old relics of human civilisation because, well, that’s me, I’m a relic hunter… Oh, wait, nothing to really piece together here, they’re gears and canteens and things, I know how those work. But wait! Also, there are skypieces! These aren’t Lightseeds from Prince of Persia, that’s a totally different game, except… Wait, they are. They’re for unlocking abilities, only a few of which will help me progress. Also, there are crystal buttons. I don’t know what they do, but an equally mysterious thought in my head from outside tells me something will happen if I find them all. I shrug, and move on, ringing the Ancient Bell of Life Saving Through Mysterious Means.

Crystal turrets. I know how to deal with those. I just have to push the equally mysterious Crystal Disc that’s somewhere nearby, and they’ll fall apart. Mysterious. Okay, I can see evidence of civilisation, that’s intere- Wait, Golems? Where?

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

Oh. Rocks held together by some cube or other. I can’t take the cube off them until they’ve “phased down”, which involves staying out of their way until they do some form of mega attack, after which I can pluck them, and if I don’t, I have to go through all this again. This takes an average of about five minutes. Each time. And some Golems have more than one cube. Where’s the exit again? Oh, it’s locked by… Those cubes. Which also whisper to me, because mystery. Also, an intrusive thought from outside interjects, because it makes finding them somewhat easier, because at some point I’ll need to have grabbed at least 150 of the damn things just to open a door. Possibly more.

A statue! I can use the Not-Lightseeds to buy powers here, most of which I don’t care about that much right now. Fast Travel sounds good, whatever that may be. Louder whispers from these cubes also sounds good, but the rest is health and stamina and things, eh. Quality of life stuff, my other mind interjects.

A fellow human being! He was kind of hard to see, but I can certainly hear him, and he’s not from where I (or the lady) am, that’s for sure! I’m a puppet? How mysterious! Nah, he’s just Crazy. I live in a time where there’s not enough humans left to give a shit about ableism, let’s go with that. Oh, but he buys our stuff for Not-Lightseeds, I… Don’t really need those that much, interjects my other self.

Mines! Except they’re slow, the disc to deactivate them is on them, they’re more a nuisance than a threat unless I’m unaware or otherwise occupied. Woo. A Mysterious Artefact! It lets me use those anomalies I was… Using… In my dream. There’s some other anomalies, and the mysterious other mind tells me that yes, those, too, will be unlocked with an artefact, with Progress.

My mind blanks out. Everything goes black. And the other voice takes over.

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

It’s all very well to have mystery, but a mystery without a reason to explore it, or stretched out too long becomes tedious. It’s all very well to have a collectathon, but when the gatekeeping is this transparent, it becomes a tedious duty rather than a joy, not helped by the fact that elements of it (Cubes from Golems, specifically) is tedious. Downward looks pretty. Its music is good. But, like the gears and mysteeeerious pillars (Challenge maps, and also a plot point), the game elements stick out like a sore thumb, only awkwardly fitting with what I’m assuming is meant to be a mystery of the same byzantine look of the architecture and the walls you can use. Overall, a very unsatisfying experience, and a good example of how your mechanical aspects can over-ride your narrative ones.

The Mad Welshman notes that the more things change, the more they stay mysteri- crap, that’s 17 times I’ve said that now, isn’t it?

Children of Zodiarcs (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.59
Where To Get It: Steam

Ebony and Ivory, together in perfect… Oh, wait, no, this is a game with child protagonists, published by Square Enix. One of whom is a White Black Mage, and one of whom is… No, I daren’t even finish that sentence. Nonetheless, this is, some qualifications aside, a positive review about a cool game by Cardboard . Buckle up.

<3 Nahmi. That is all.

Children of Zodiarcs is a turn based strategy RPG which uses cards and dice as its main mechanics. The player moves, plays attacks, heals, buffs, and debuffs, then the enemy does the same. Levelling up gets you better stats, better cards, different cards, and the same goes for dice. Direction matters, because backstabbing does extra damage and doesn’t get counter attacked, cards have different effects, some special, red symbols on the dice do bad things, white ones do good things, and you get to reroll two dice with each card you play. Enemies have different decks, and bam, there’s your mechanical end summarised. In play, it’s actually pretty cool. I find myself thinking about how the players work together naturally, about how if I do this, then THIS, I remove two arrogant, assholish Nobles from my path, and, next turn, another couple won’t even know what hit them. Muahaha.

If it were just the mechanical end, I’d be okay with Children of Zodiarcs. It experiments, the experiment works well, and it’s explained clearly and succinctly. Apart from the red dice (a colourblindness issue), I can clearly see what does what, and, honestly, all I need to know is that Red Dice are Bad. Avoid them.

This guard is, briefly, going to have a very bad day. And then he’s not going to have any more days. Brice stole them.

But it’s not just the mechanical end. Narratively, I care about the characters. They’re young, sure, and, like the young, speak dramatically, bicker, bitch, argue, doubt… But they’re characters. Nahmi’s gruff, bold exterior hides a lonely soul. Brice hates grown ups (and with good reason), but has a hero worship thing going on with Nahmi. Pester, at first seeming like the whipping boy of the group, actually helps hold things together, and Zirchhoff is a laughing, brash Shounen Fagin who no doubt hides dark secrets, but charmed me with his bloodthirsty ways from the start. The Nobles are privileged, arrogant assholes, perhaps the weakest part, but still villains I love to hate, and other gangs are human, from the very first you meet, the Black Fangs. I care about the characters, I care about the world, and as such, I only cringe a little at the pun with Nahmi (a WOC protagonist to boot, miracles abound!) the… Ebony Flame, and Brice (A girl of the Caucasian persuasion), who immediately calls herself… The Ivory Flame.

Ouch. This, funnily enough, is a good segue into the game not being perfect, and, in its current state, not exactly for beginners. Which is slightly saddening, but I’m sure either balancing will happen, or folks will try it for the story. Anyway…

…While the visual design is clear and concise, with a good feel for story through costume and the like, and the music is excellent, the animations… Can best be described as “Servicable.” They could uncharitably, at times, be called “Lackluster”, such as the Ruiner, a line spell that, er… Makes a particle effect on each person. Eh. Similarly, once you’re out of the first three tutorial missions, the gloves are off, figuratively speaking, and you’re thrown into a mission where the objective (Get to the exit) is definitely not to be ignored. A swift death awaits you if you don’t plan, and plan well. It’s almost the same in the second such mission, but with the possibility of lessening the difficulty by… Repeating the first two missions to grind experience. Not, perhaps, the best solution. There are generally three characters in a mission, and, while I like some (the original trio), others are not so hot.

That… That was a Ruiner, huh. Mm. I was expecting something, Iunno… More *Ruiny*

However, the missions are definitely not unbeatable, although you may bang your head against them a couple of times, so while this isn’t a beginner SRPG at the present time, it’s still pretty accessible, charming, and seemingly quite well written. Well worth a look.

The Mad Welshman would like to inform people that the Nobles have been excluded from this year’s VillainCon. Remember, Villains, not JERKS.

Keep It Together (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: $5 AUD (Approximately £3)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

I’d just like to say I’m very honoured to be… Wait, shit, no, umm… This game is quite an interesting one because wait you keep on using that word fuck fuck no bad wrong… I’d like to talk this game up NO, NO, NO, TOO NEGATIVE, AAAARGH!

Omigod, I’m losing containment! THE RATS ARE DESERTING THE SHIP AAAAA!

Keep It Together is a game about social anxiety. Also about being a coat full of rats pretending to be a human. It’s simple, it’s clever, and I like it a lot because of this. Before we go into why it’s clever, let’s talk a teeny bit about social anxiety.

Social interaction is, even to those relatively well versed in it, a bit of a minefield. This person doesn’t like pop culture references. This one likes being flirted with, but has an image they feel they have to maintain of being a loner. This writer thinks the first two are assholes, and wonders loudly why the hell you’re trying to be friends with them. This is before we get into things like politics, other mental health issues, other belief systems, whether they smoke, whether they like cats or dogs… Social interaction is, put bluntly, intimidating if you’re not good at it. Even if you are, you may not be able to handle a whole lot of it, because of the fear that you are fucking it up. Which is awful, because having social anxiety doesn’t mean you want to be antisocial, or even to be perceived as antisocial. It’s just that there’s a lot of things that can stress you out just through what many consider perfectly normal social situations.

A perfectly normal social situation. The right approach nets me a sense of well being and more conversation…

Cue Keep It Together, and our colony of rats. They want to talk to people… But they don’t know the cues, people keep coming and going, and every wrong thing said stresses out this bunch of rats just that little bit more. Once a single stress bar fills, not only are you having to literally guess what a person likes and dislikes, response wise, suddenly, you’re also having to hold down a button. And then two… And then three. And it’s not going to get better. Fail to hold these buttons down, and you fail to keep yourself together. Fail to keep yourself together, and you break up, retreat, and the rats are openly described as feeling like a failure.

It’s clever, in short, because it’s simple. Anxiety isn’t a sudden thing, although it can be if you’re already stressed. It’s a mounting pressure, and while you want to stay, you’ve said The Wrong Thing (even if it was not, in fact, that big a deal.)

…The *wrong* approach leads to stress, and a harder time of keeping it together. I KNEW I SHOULDN’T HAVE SAID THAT, CRAP CRAP CRAP.

It’s not a big game. It’s not an expensive game (quite the opposite.) It’s not a complex game. But it’s a very tightly designed game, with a firm grasp on its theme, and as such, I recommend it quite highly. Its music is quite friendly, its visuals are nice and clear… Props.

The Mad Welshman has no smart aleck comment this time. It’s not the sort of thing he mocks.

Pit People (Early Access Review)

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

I’ve been staring at the page for a couple of minutes now, trying to marshall my thoughts. Behemoth’s strange worlds tend to do that to you, and Pit People… Well, Pit People is a doozy, world wise. A strange, disconnected world that somehow still works, both bright and malevolent. But, before we talk about that, let’s talk about the game itself.

Not pictured: Everything is bouncing to the music. The world is very much alive.

Pit People is a game with turn based combat, but real time exploration, where you explore the shattered world to which you belong, doing quests as Horatio the Boring Blueberry Farmer and his cohorts, gathered through accident, capture, and the whim of the malevolent and petty Narrator. It also has co-op and PVP, and it’s hard enough to describe that, for the first time in perhaps ever, I’m going to be putting one of my stream videos here. Warning, there are cries of “What the helllllll?!”

A lot of them. In any case, Pit People is quite accessible (Blue and Red are the main colours), easy to learn (the various character types are fairly well tutorialised, as are weapons and armour), and a little bit grindy (You have a loot limit in exploration, meaning multiple trips or a co-op partner if you want to collect things) , but, thanks in part to the Behemoth art style (simple, clear, characterful), in part to the music (pumping), and in part to the occasional interjection by the narrator (voiced by Will Stamper, the narrator of Battleblock Theater), it doesn’t feel that much of a grind a lot of the time. Enemies can be avoided in the exploration, with cannons or with movement, battles are usually over moderately quickly (And the rock-paper-scissors type elements are easy to understand.)

Yes, I actually quite like how Pit People is going.

Story wise, it’s… A thing. A giant, dying space bear crashed into the world, shattering it and turning it into a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where its malevolent god, The Narrator, malevolently snickers and directly manipulates events. He’s taken an interest in Horatio, a humble Blueberry Farmer, and so a great adventure begins. An adventure in a world where cupcakes are people (and also delicious), Queen Isabella waits to conquer the world, and the evil Helmetites (so called because they wear helmets, you know?) bully the weak. Oh, and there are pit fights, demiclops, medusas, ghosts with keyboards… It’s all very strange. It would perhaps be unbearably so, if it weren’t for the black humour provided by the Narrator’s pettiness, and the charm of how most of the characters speak nonverbally, but somehow clearly. “After giving her half of his remaining blueberries…” , “HUH? HUMEHUHNUH!”, “NO, you GAVE her your BLUEBERRIES.”

Why yes, that *is* a Cupcake Friend. He has waffles. And buttercream…

See? Perfectly clear! Pit People is perhaps the first game where I’d recommend watching the stream video, which covers the earliest moments in the game, then decide for themselves. I happen to like it, but tastes may vary widely.

The Mad Welshman gave his ups to Pit People [HUH? HUHME] YOU GAVE YOUR UPS TO PIT PEOPLE, JAAAAMES.