ESSENCE (Early Access Review Fin)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15
Where To Get It: Steam

ESSENCE, by OneVision Games, is big. ESSENCE is sprawling. ESSENCE is mysteeeeerious. If these were the main qualities a videogame could be judged by, then yes, ESSENCE could be considered good.

One of the prettier areas, lighting and foliage wise, in the game. It has a single exit somewhere. That exit is the entire point of this area.

However, they are not. ESSENCE feels directionless. ESSENCE is very low on interaction. ESSENCE’s world is one where I find myself saying not “Gee, what a grand civilisation I wandered into the post-downfall of”, but things like “Gee, they sure did build some massive and largely pointless seeming architecture without consideration for living space” or “Gee, I sure do hope this large gateway leads me to the next McGuffinyBob that I’m looking for out of X McGuffinyBobs to progress… Wait, no, it’s a wall of some kind, invisible or not. Bugger.”

Even at the times I’ve found the mysterious, diamond shaped McGuffinyBobs, or their buckyball like containers, or their lighted buckyball guides, I find myself saying things like “Gee, how will I be bruteforcing this movement puzzle?”

ESSENCE is a game that disappoints me. But it took a while to disappoint me, because the scale, combined with slow movement speed (I often found myself holding shift and jumping, just to get somewhere faster) is at first misleading. But no, I find myself looking at that “3 hours of play” and thinking not only “Well, if I had a chance at a refund, I’d have no chance now”, but “Wow, that felt a lot longer.”

Oooh, this is big and MYSTERIOUS! Shame it’s not the exit. The exit’s to the right, and some jumping is required to reach it because it’s not a clear pathway like the rest of the area.

Now, don’t get me wrong, visually, these vast, pointless megastructures are pretty. The lighting is pretty good, and I like how it subtly changes (and sometimes not so subtly.) The ambient soundtrack is indeed ambient, chill, yet with segments that make me think “Gosh, I feel alone.” But, after a certain point, very early on… That’s all it seems to have going for it. In Genosa, the second (I want to say second) hub world, I found myself transported via the aforementioned Necessary McGuffinyBobs of Arbitrary Door/Obstacle Opening (Which is, with the lack of worldbuilding, basically what they are in mechanical terms) to a lush meadow, crisscrossed with vaulting arches, and there were lamp-posts. Getting close to one arbitrarily made a noise, and I remembered back to the first hub-world, where, in a vast, starry seeming glitter-desert of obsidian, I got close to some gusty gate of some sort, and it arbitrarily made a noise. “Ah,” my brain thought to itself “This will prove to be where I’m meant to follow these lamp-posts toward an eventual gate of some sort, but one or the other will be obscured and, due to the open area being a square of some description, I will, eventually, find the gate with or without the lamp-posts, go through it, and I will have solved the puzzle!”

Lo and behold, I got through the area without following all the lamp-posts, because, inevitably, one wouldn’t signpost me very well to the next one, so I just wandered to whatever lamp-post I felt like, and, lo and behold, I found a gate somewhat similar to the one in the obsidian glitter desert, albeit smaller, and went through it. Back to Genosa, McGuffinyBob disappears, only some number that I think is less than 3 left before I can progress, considering I saw a McGuffinyGate with six McGuffinyBobs active, and I’d dealt with three.

It’s a MYSTERY… Whether the sphere door is wrong somehow. I took the cone, and my McGuffinyBob vanished. For some reason, I don’t particularly have a desire to replay the game to find out.

I don’t know how any of these McGuffinyBobs do the thing they do. I don’t know what this terrible thing this grand civilisation that doesn’t appear to know what living space is was defending against (I was told, sort of, near the beginning. But I’ve already forgotten.) I don’t have any context for the actions I do, and so it doesn’t feel fun, or interesting, so much as going through the motions that are arbitrarily set, often getting lost because hey, in a big open area, you’re going to get lost without some obvious signposting. And redundancy in that signposting.

As this is part of Act One, considered finished… I think this is the time where ESSENCE and I part ways.

Sometimes, The Mad Welshman has to be hard on a game. It is, thankfully, rarely a mystery why.

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Hacktag (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Hacktag is an odd beast, all told. And beast is quite apt here, as it’s a hacking/stealth arcade game set in a corporate world of anthropomorphic animals. Lions, does, panthers… It’s a cat eat deer world out there, and yet… It feels a little bit empty at the present stage.

For future notice, screenshots show usernames, so the black bars are to protect player identity, not actually part of the game.

That’s not to say that it is empty, but some decisions feel odd, considering 90% of the game right now is procedurally generated missions that can only be played multiplayer (in pairs, one stealth agent, one hacking agent.) Let’s start with how it is a co-operative game, but… Is scored competitively. Not gonna lie, this doesn’t entirely make sense for a whole bunch of reasons. The hacker, for example, is nearly always going to get, if you’ll pardon the pun, the lion’s share of the computer thievery done, and whoever gets started on a computer first, unless they get caught, pretty much has the points from hacking. But this conflicts with the fact that, to complete the mission, you do have to co-operate. And yes, this has an influence on your XP (+1 XP per 100 points scored)

Still, that need for co-operation is an interesting feature, and I honestly like it. Yes, a hacker could race past doors that the stealth agent can’t get through (because they need the hacker to unlock them), but the hacker is also barred by firewalls, and there are some doors that require both players to progress. Now, some of this is done with holding a button and waiting, and some via recognisable minigames such as “Hit the right arrows in sequence” and “Both players scroll through a code-list, match the codes.” These are mainly made tense by guards and online watchers, neither of which can be defended against, only avoided, distracted, or, in the case of the watchers, temporarily trapped in a single computer node by the stealth agent, and, should you be captured? You’ll be herded into a holding cell, and the other partner will have to get you out. If both players are captured, or you can’t get them out in time, then whups, run over!

The hacker’s view is at once more colourful, and, in a sense, more empty. They also move a *lot* quicker without having to worry about noise.

The emptiness, mainly, comes from a combination of sameyness, and the fact that there’s just the teensiest bit of bias toward the hacker (Beyond what we’ve already mentioned, there is, overall, more the hacker can deal with than the agent.) For all that different corporations are being raided, there will be the same sort of rhino guards, the same amorphous blob of the watchers, and, indeed, many of the same threats. The pre-mission conversations, optional as they are, also feel a little samey, with the brief following a formula, and the responses ranging from “professional” to “Extremely unprofessional.” As such, they feel somewhat superfluous. One feature I’m not so fond of is that rooms in the newer maps can randomly trigger alarms. Yes, I get that challenge has to be added, but I don’t really feel RNG is the way to go there, and I hope future releases replace this “feature” with something else. It is, if that’s not your thing and you still want to play the game, only on the newer maps as of the Sept 15th release.

Is this to say the game doesn’t have promise, or doesn’t work in and of itself? No, and no. What’s in the game works (The hacker cannot stop once they’ve taken a path, but this is explained, and merely requires more care), and the single player tutorial ran me through the concepts just fine, although I’ll freely admit I often forget I have a holographic distraction device (and mainly do alright without.) But right now, for all that there are unlockable bonuses (Such as being able to screw up certain minigames some of the time, or having less options to choose between on co-op minigames), and customisation options, it feels like the game needs to build its world, its character somewhat. If you have a co-op partner handy, you can quite happily complete a mission or two in an hour. If you don’t, well, alas, this game is currently multiplayer only, and I am uncertain if there will be any SP content beyond the tutorial. Either way, the game is currently only in the 0.1s, so there is plenty of time to see change.

There’s a lot of friendly highlighting going on, and I definitely respect this feature. Capture radii, timers, unhacked computers being white highlighted… This is definitely a positive feature.

The Mad Welshman is perfectly willing to give stealth co-op games like this their chance to shine. As noted, it’s early days yet, and I wish Piece of Cake well.

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All-Stars Fruit Racing (Early Access Review)

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

Fruit is, pizza toppings arguments aside, a pretty inclusive thing. Five fruit a day is recommended for most folks, it’s often kink friendly, and at least some of it is endorsed by Donkey Kong. So when it immediately leaps out at me that a game with a variety of fruit from all around the world in a Mario-Kart style racer with a twist is… Very, very caucasian, when it comes to the current driver set, I get very sad. And not a little irritable.

While Rebecca definitely has the power that synergises with my style the best, she is also, to my mind, one of the most boring *designs* , sadly.

I mean, there’s 13 drivers left to put in the game, but right now, that’s definitely not an encouraging sign for inclusivity, folks. Which is even stranger when it also takes great pains to tell you how fruit are pretty much a worldwide thing, with awesome Fruit Facts (Which are, in fact, awesome. Props for that.)

Aesthetically, apart from that not-so-wee problem mentioned, the game is on point. The visuals are gorgeous, the tracks appear fairly well signposted, the music is funky and bouncy and cool. I like this. This is good. Equally good is that yes, this is a spin on that old family favourite, Mario Kart, in which you are in buggies/karts, and you’re racing around a track using powerups. There’s even variety in the modes. Do you randomly juice that fruit, taking the traditional route of random powerups? Do you mix your fruit, getting powerups due to the combo of fruit you have? Do you maybe have a selection, chosen with the arrow keys between Summer, Spring, Fall, and Winter, that you power up by collecting the right season? Maybe you like time attacks? Maybe you like drag races, one lap, winner takes all?

Playing catch-up can be a stressful time. Even on a 5 lap race.

Any which way, you have power ups, including the special of each character (Rebecca’s Strawberry Wing, for example, is a super-turbo, while Giselle’s Avocado Bite is your very own chompy plant, knocking back anyone who dares to be in front of your suddenly extended and quite bitey bumper), you have drifting (and drifting just right also gives you a small boost, although it must be said the AI seems to try drifting even on straights, and it seems to work.) You have jumps and boost pads, and it all works pretty smoothly. Apart from racer special abilities, however, the cars act exactly the same, compensated for by a moderately wide range of visual customisation of the vehicles, with more unlocked as you complete tournaments in career mode.

Track design wise? Even early on, you will come across tracks where the shorter path is required for first place, and some tracks feel earlier than, honestly, they should be. For all that, yes, the snaking tube track that finishes the first gear Banana Cup, for example, is an interesting track with the difficulty modifier that the blue stripe acts like a river (slowing you down greatly), it feels less challenging, for its single lap, drag style race to the finish line, than a preceding track, which involves minecarts that, if they run over you, flatten and drastically slow you, and a final stretch where there’s not just one longer path, but a longer path that splits into another, longer path.

“Look at her, Miller. Isn’t she beautiful?”

Beyond the mentioned lack of variety in racers (not mechanically, but in terms of being all white girls), a need for some form of tutorialising or reference on fruit mixing (I get by on winging it, but while I know I can mix winter, summer, autumn, and fall for things, I’d also like to know, y’know, what mixes what, even if it’s some kind of Fruitopedia. Which, to be fair, could also add some flavour to the world), a clearer sense of what each tournament contains, and perhaps the option for a slightly less vicious AI, it seems promising. The game does not currently have multiplayer, but it’s quite clearly on the roadmap, and, these problems aside, it seems like it could make a good, family friendly and fairly accessible arcade racer.

The Mad Welshman wouldn’t mind at least one villainous fruit monster in the roster. I don’t know, maybe a moustache twirling gooseberry? Obviously not suggested for selfish reasons. Obviously.

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D&D Lords of Waterdeep (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99 (£3.99 each for Undermountain and Skullport modules)
Where To Get It: Steam

There should be a word, perhaps, for when a game feels emptier and cheaper than it, in fact, is. That word would work very well with Lords of Waterdeep (Full title: D&D Lords of Waterdeep, to differentiate it from Waterdeep, Ohio, I guess.)

It is important to note that your avatar has no bearing on which lord you get. That’s down to *faction* . This screen also serves as a handy guide to what the expansions add.

Before we get into that, the basic idea of Lords of Waterdeep is that you are one of the titular Masked Lords of Waterdeep, rulers of the city who are, for the purposes of this game, at odds with each other. Each Lord (Chosen randomly from a faction pool) has special abilities, preferences, and goals, and winning the game involves making maximum use of your cards, and limited agents per round, in order to get Victory Points. It’s got a lot to it for something with such a simple base concept, and not for nothing was it, and games that follow a similar vein, quite lauded in the board game industry.

Part of the problem is, quite frankly, that it’s a direct iOS port of a game where the most effort has clearly gone into making sure the game itself works. The art is servicable, but the UI is iffy, and has trouble handling more than 6 buildings in a game (It is highly recommended to play the tutorial, to get used to the UI.) The music, I turned off rather quickly. It’s a single song. What you’re meant to mainly be enjoying here is the game itself, and play with others.

This is the first time I will see this card being played. It won’t be the last this turn. Not by a long shot.

Which can, honestly, be a disorienting experience, be it in multiplayer or offline, hotseat mode. On the one hand, I can understand why the decision was made to have every other player’s turn recap for every player, and why it will suddenly jump to another player (Who will also recap what they missed) every time someone has to confirm or choose something as a reaction, but there is not only no way I can see to turn this off (Should, say, you be playing hotseat on the honour system), and you need to go into settings to change the animation speed, that games can, at times, feel excruciating. Yes, I know Arilyn Moonblade did this, this, and this, I saw it happen. I don’t particularly feel the desire to see it four times in a five player match.

The AI in the game is pretty vicious, and even with an “easy” AI, there is a good chance you’re going to have to play pretty well to beat them, and, in the end, the main thing recommending this game is that it’s cheaper than the board game and its expansions. Overall, it feels kludgy, and very much a case of “You get what you pay for.”

On the one hand, thanks to post game scoring, I didn’t lose as badly as I could have done this game. But Mystra, to lose to a Moon Elf playing a Halfling. UGH. (And yes, that is apparently a halfling. CORRECTION: A Halfling replaced by a Doppelganger. THE REALMS, EVERYONE.)

The Mad Welshman is extremely salty that he lost to, of all people, Arilyn bloody Moonblade. Although he supposes it could be worse. It could have been Danilo Thann or Khelben Arunsen.

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Pixel Puzzles Picross (Review)

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

You’d think, after all the times I’ve said “It does what it says on the tin”, that Pixel Puzzles Picross would be that. And you know what? Mostly, it’s true. At its most basic level, P-P-Picross (R-R-Raggy?) is exactly that: You logically deduce what bits should be filled in in a grid made of 5×5 grids, using numbers at the top of each column and the left of each row, and the knowledge that there has to be a single space between each number. Do it right, and you get a pixel picture that the game colours in, and the sweet, sweet acknowledgement of your intellectual prowess. Go you.

LOOK, IT’S A SPOILER, A MASSIVE SPO- h, wait, no, it’s just a fire hydrant. Silly me!

However, this is not quite the whole story, and what’s left… Somewhat confuses me. You see, there are bits of Normal mode that feel like they would have fit better in Hard mode, and bits of Hard mode that would have felt better in Normal mode. Normal mode doesn’t use lives, while Hard mode does. So far, so good. But Normal mode doesn’t properly inform you when you’ve filled a segment in properly, and has a timer, while Hard mode… does tell you, once you’ve done things the right way, that yes, you no longer need to worry about that 2, 1, 1, 3, and only have to worry about the 1, and 1 (To give an example), and has no timer to feed your ego.

This doesn’t really detract from the game, per se, but it does feel off, and I find myself flailing about a lot more in Normal mode than Hard. Beyond this, though, there’s honestly not a lot to say that hasn’t already been said. Normal puzzles and Hard puzzles have separate scores, despite the fact they appear to be the same images throughout, there are only a few tunes, the UI’s pretty friendly, but it’s not recommended to run this maximised unless you like to be annoyed by your steam overlay messages not going away and being drawn over by other steam overlay things (A relatively common draw problem, fixable, but also easily avoided), and the option exists to turn off what I found to be a very helpful feature (Once you’ve held down the left or right mouse button to draw and chosen a direction, it won’t go outside of that row or column until you release it.)

OMGIOD SPO- h wait, no, this is a good illustration of how you play Picross without finishing the image.

Beyond that, well… It’s a Picross puzzle game, it has a fair few puzzles, from ones you’ve probably seen before (Oh look, a heart) to things like space shuttles, pitcher’s mitts, and seahorses, all thematically arranged. It works, niggles aside, and it’s a perfectly serviceable game, all told. Are there better ones out there? Yes. But there’s very few puzzles here that are annoying, it’s accessible, it’s clear, and it’s got a perfectly acceptable price-tag about it.

I’m still somewhat confused about the difficulty differences though, and will probably remain so.

There are quite a few categories, with lots of levels, although, as mentioned, I’m somewhat befuddled by the idea that completing it on hard doesn’t also complete it on normal.

The Mad Welshman loves him some Picross. He will stamp those pixels down aaaaall day when he’s in the right mood.

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