Vagante (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam , Humble Store
Version Reviewed: Build 59i

When things are this close to release, and the nicest things I can say is “Mages seem to work better, and bows are sort of viable now”, you may be able to figure that I am, as before, distinctly unfond of Vagante’s particular flavour of difficulty. I will, grudgingly, admit it has improved a little. But it still has many of the same issues.

Yup. He died, and so did I. WELP, RESTART.

To recap, Vagante is a procgen platform action dungeon crawler, where you pick a class, attain gear, try to defeat bosses and levels, and level up with each level you beat. Healing is very scarce, and if I felt the game were well balanced around that, it wouldn’t be a problem.

Unfortunately, bosses can best be described as “Absolute arses.” In more technical terms, even the first area bosses (Of which you will encounter all of them: A goblin warlord, a dragon, and a poisonous worm) are battles, not of tactics, but of attrition. Not all classes have an active defense (and those who do, only attain it through levelled abilities) , so taking damage is, in most cases, pretty much a certainty, as options with any sort of decent range are, to put it bluntly, crap. Bows don’t do a heck of a lot, Magic Missile doesn’t do a heck of a lot, wands have cooldowns and the same problems as any spells they own. The reason I found the Mage had improved somewhat as a class? Eleclance (One of the few spells with infinite charges per level, and a consistent, relatively high damage rate) by default.

Of course, this is all talking about the first area. Once the second area is hit, all bets are off, as bosses not only have vastly increased hit points, they also have some seriously beefy attacks and defenses. One boss, for example, has a ring of damaging projectiles circling it, and it can phase through walls. Good luck running away. Good luck getting close enough to hit it. Good luck surviving long enough to plink at it from range. I can’t tell you about later areas, because I haven’t gotten to them. I’ve beaten Spelunky. Heck, I’ve beaten LaMulana, and this game not only resists being finished, the kinds of deaths I’ve encountered make me, honestly, not want to finish it.

The Woods, the second area, is somewhat lighter. Still dark enough that you can’t tell what’s going on with a thumbnail.

I’ve fatfingered jump, very lightly, and died on spikes from a tile high. I’ve been lovetapped to death by misjudging a bat… After having beaten all three bosses of the first area. Heck, at times, I’ve known, before I’ve even found the boss, that I’m not going to win the damage race, because a goblin got lucky, or the aforementioned bat misjudging happened, or I came across a situation where I was going to take damage, be that due to unfortunate enemy configurations, or an enemy blindsiding me that I was sure I’d be able to murder (Explosive moths, for example, are best avoided, rather than attempting to attack them. Their movement is only technically predictable.)

Is there good? Yes, and that, really, makes how I feel about this game worse. The music is good, fitting mood pieces for the areas. The sound isn’t bad. The enemy designs, while not all new creatures, are still interesting. The skills are more clear. But if a weapon isn’t of at least Normal speed, odds are high it just isn’t worth working with timing (and some weapons have minimum ranges, less than useful when any melee enemy just wants to get right in your face), the first area is very dark, making it an eye straining and awkward experience to play… And, considering that all content is now in the game, bringing it fairly close to release? All these little frustrations, these decisions that seem more based on arbitrary difficulty than challenge, don’t make me confident that I’m going to be changing my mind about not liking Vagante on release.

Skills being more clear. Note: The shield blocks *physical* damage. So 2 out of the 3 bosses in the first area can still hurt you.

The Mad Welshman was correct in his last Early Access review: He’s already sick of the damn caves. Also the dagger remains what appears to be the best option.

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Battle Chef Brigade (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Battle Chef Brigade is charming. Its art style is clean, consistent, clear, and cool. Its music is very fitting and well crafted. It even fuses platforming combat, match 3 gameplay, and the tension of a real competitive cook-off. Although it at first didn’t seem to appeal much, it did grow on me, and part of that is how it introduces its mechanics.

So much talent, all in one place… Oh, so jealous of the judges!

Before we talk about that, though, let’s talk about aesthetic. Battle Chef Brigade is hand drawn, thin lines and flats making for a tight construction, with some good takes on fantasy designs, and similarly tight animations. Varied character design, good music, mostly good voice acting (some a little flat, but mostly good), and it ties into a world with something that I always enjoy seeing, because it’s a subject not often covered: How life changes in a fantasy world. Okay, so there are monsters, and magic. The former is deadly, the latter is potentially deadly. How do you apply the latter (and hunting) to the former, and still have a society that doesn’t have the dread Adventurer?

Battle Chefs. Complete with a cultural touchstone of an Iron Chef style cookoff, with preferred tastes and signature ingredients. It’s a simple idea, but the entire story of Battle Chef Brigade revolves around making it both plausible and interesting. Here, the Orcs Thrash and Shiv, from lineages that peacefully united the Orc tribes through a shared love of cuisine. There, Ziggy, creating a new and very possibly unsafe (but tres cool) method in Haunt Cuisine. Necromantically prepared? Hit me up with those dark aftertastes, my friend!

So, it’s an interesting world, its characters are engaging, but what about the play and main storyline? Well, here’s where it takes a bit, just a bit, to get going. If you recognise variations on the Hero(ine)’s Journey, you’ll recognise Mina Han. At first selfish, wanting to see the world, but still with promise (after all, she wants to improve a creative skill, I can applaud that), she learns hard lessons, faces a tribulation that affects both her and the world (I won’t spoil it), and becomes a better person along the way. Okay, so it may not win awards, but it has charm, and I like it.

The dishes come in many types, and they’re all *eyewateringly* nice looking.

Similarly, the basic idea of using Match 3 mechanics with a cook-off makes immediate sense once you see it in action. Hunting down monsters in a themed arena area off to one side, gathering ingredients at first seems pretty basic: Wallop monsters, they die, they drop stuff, you can carry so much, run back and forth to gather ingredients. Ingredients have different gem types and shapes, three gems make one better gem, and you can do that twice before you have the best gem. How the heck does that fit with cooking? Well, there’s only so much room in the pot, and you can’t rotate the ingredients before placement. So, if you want to make the best dishes? You want to learn the ingredients, learn the biomes.

As you go along, however, new mechanics, items, and explanations get introduced, pretty much all the way through the normal story mode. At first, this put me off, but it must be kept in mind that not only is there a New Game+ of sorts in Hard mode, there’s also two challenge modes, and a Daily Cook-Off, using fixed items. The story mode won’t take a terribly long amount of time, but it’s still enjoyable, and I did come to like the fact I’m learning new things every time I get further. Oh, wait, you can do that? The birds aren’t just assholes, but have a little ecology going? Ohhhhhh!

Overall, I have a soft spot for Battle Chef Brigade. It’s tightly focused on an aspect of its world that it’s made central, but it’s also made it believable, and not only believable, but charming. Thumbs up!

Oh, y’know, just another day hunting for cooking ingredients in a cook-off!

The Mad Welshman would, in a fantasy world, want Haunt Cuisine. Oh heck yes he would. Also he would order from the Flambe Warlocks.

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Tower 57 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.29
Where To Get It: Steam

I make no bones about the fact I loved the Amiga and Atari ST (The latter more than the former, mainly due to exposure.) This was a period when pixel art was going very strong, and designs went in interesting directions, even if they didn’t always work. Nowadays, of course, pixel art is going very strong, and designs go in interesting directions, even if they don’t always work. How things have changed!

This, of course, is a nice segue into Tower 57, a game where its greatest strengths and its biggest flaws tie directly into wanting to recreate the feel of old Amiga twinstick shooters. It’s pretty obvious where its main inspiration comes from (The Chaos Engine, Bitmap Brothers, 1993) , and…

Yes, it involves a dystopia. But this, surprisingly, is a relatively light moment, and a good example of the visual storytelling in the game.

…Well, let’s get the good out the way first. Visually, the game is good, and consistently so. It’s solid, clear, and with some good visual designs in the more complex beasties and mechanical creations. Music wise, the tunes also work well, fitting, pumping, and dramatic when they need to be. The writing is mostly pretty good (Being about “Agents” sent to break up a worker’s strike, and, as it turns out, something stinks almost from the word “Go”), and, overall, it’s a solid, linear game with some of the goodies I quite liked from the Days of Yore, like secrets hidden behind walls that, since the game is a linear, curated experience, I can remember and go back to, replaying with different characters. It even has some interesting minigames in the main level hub, and the six main characters do have their differences and uses. Levels, again, are interesting, with some good setpieces.

Where it starts to fall down, though, are the bosses. The difficulty curve on the bosses varies immensely, from “Oh gods, how the hell am I going to get out of this segment without losing a life” to “Ho-hum, circle strafe and murder, circle strafe and murder.” Although one of them would probably have been a lot harder if I ditched the anti-toxin trousers you can get in the very first level. Keep those trousers.

Oh, I just *love* me fights against turrets and beefy chasing drones in a confined space! Oh wait, no, love… HATE. Yes. Hate.

The minigames, similarly, while being fun, are also somewhat necessary if you want to be upgrading as much as possible, as the amount of money is largely set, and you will, for the sake of easing your travails with some of the nastier bosses, want double healing upgrades on all three of your characters. Oh, and extra stuff on the guns, only purchasable in the hub. As to the characters…

…Well, they vary in usefulness, and follow a similar function to lives in any other game, except if the lives then changed how the character played, the usefulness of their special ability, and… For example, for the boss that’s currently proven the biggest roadblock (Unsurprisingly, pictured), I went with the Cop, the Don, and the Diplomat. The Don survived the longest in this boss battle, due to having range on his gun. But eventually, they all went down, and while I could continue from a checkpoint (with all three characters) , I didn’t particularly feel like that this time around. Maybe later. In multiplayer, of course, you have double the firepower, a second player, but regardless of whether you’re playing alone, or with a friend, you won’t be changing characters too much unless they die, due to the lack of opportunities to do so. After all, it requires a closet, or one of the characters dying, and so… You tend to forget those other characters exist, by and large.

Finally, there’s things that were added, either for flavour, humour, or just interesting mechanics, that fall flat in various ways. A red light district, complete with sex workers (One of which you can attempt to chat up. Badly.) Limb damage, temporarily losing you weapons, tools, or moving at more than a crawl, until you fork out the dough to repair them (A forced tutorial example removes your legs… And indeed, leg removal remains the most irritating of the bunch.) The tools, funnily enough, also fit into this category, being mostly forgotten because you can get by a lot of the game without them. There are barks from the main characters, but they often feel either superfluous or odd, and I could, for example, definitely do without the Cop bemoaning possible drug addiction and testing each time she picks up a health pack.

Hrm. Would it be diplomatic to mention Electric Six at this point? Probably not, but that won’t stop me *thinking* it.

I still enjoy parts of this game. The levels are mostly interesting, apart from the odd set piece that doesn’t work so well. The news, mostly, paints an interesting picture. I’ve already mentioned some other good bits. But, overall, there’s enough that falls flat, or feels like difficulty for the sake of difficulty, or “Gotcha!” that, overall, this honestly doesn’t feel like something for me.

The Mad Welshman has also changed over the years. He’s got better textures now.

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City of Brass (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £18.99
Where To Get It: Steam
Version Reviewed: 0.2a

The City of Brass is many things. A cautionary tale about wishing for everlasting life. Proof that yes, whips remain awesome, and should be in games more. It’s also a game of twitchy planning. Yes, you heard that correctly: It’s a game that rewards very quickly coming up with ideas, and very quickly executing them.

As such, it’s a tadge tough, and your first hour with it is likely to be one of frustration. But when a plan comes together? Ohhh, yes. That’s a good feeling.

Okay, Guardian 1 tripped? Check. Flaming lantern nearby ready to chuck at both of them? CHECK.

Picture it: A big, open area. Traps, explosive vase, flaming lanterns, and, of course, a variety of enemies litter the area. Each enemy has different weaknesses and strengths, but nearly all of them will die to the humble trap. Then again, the traps also damage you, and, in the case of the spiked pitfall trap, outright kill you if you fall in. Here, a few Cursed Souls, armless, with head cages that prevent you stunning them with their whip. There, a passel of Guardians, more healthy than both the Cursed Soul and the Undead Merchants, but, until they get shields, you have a lot of options.

Okay, here, whip that explosive vase into my hand. Throw it at the Guardians. Whip the Cursed Souls into some spike traps, or trip them, and hit them twice each with the sword. Set the Merchant(s) on fire, and… Wow, yeah, that worked. That felt nice!

Conversely: Engage in a circle strafe sword fight with the Guardians, and… AGH, that Cursed Soul stunned me, a Guardian hit me, run away, pick my options, and… Wait, how did I forget that pitfall, AAAAAAAGH, start again!

Whoops.

The alpha nature of the game, to this point, is mainly showing in the balance. Health is very hard to come by, and item options are slim on the ground. Does that make it bad at the present time? Not really. Your whip has some possible options, but remains a whip, and it’s extremely useful. Your kick never changes, and is situationally useful. Your sword is not for button mashing, because it’s slow to swing, but since not a whole bunch of enemies (Mostly Gatekeepers, the bosses) take more than 3 swings that connect to kill, it still works, and its options can completely change combat style (from a cudgel that does only heavy knockback, not damage, lighter and heavier swords that trade damage and speed, and my current favourite, the torch. Set enemies on fire for damage over time? Yes please!)

It’s also, at the present time, an undeniably pretty game. The city’s gold glitters nicely, from the treasures to the spires, the environments fit well, the visual design of the enemies says a fair bit about them, and nearly everything’s clear enough that you’re only going to miss things while distracted. Which, considering that’s the whole point of traps? Fair. Musically, it works, and the screeches and groans of the enemies give them a little bit of extra character that I like.

I forgot to mention this, but see that ring up there? You can whip-leap from that. Errol Flynn’s ghost is crying tears of joy.

As such, while City of Brass is still in early alpha, it is a promising start, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in the future.

The Mad Welshman would like to add that playing this game while listening to Rainbow’s “Gates of Babylon” is pretty cool.

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YS VII (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I’m somewhat grateful that I don’t need a heck of a lot of context for the Ys games, because there’s a lot of world throughout the series. A lot. Thankfully, one of the first nice things I can say about Ys VII is that, like others, while you’ll get a couple of references and extra context by playing previous games, each Ys game is self contained enough that you don’t need to.

Ys VII is an action RPG in perhaps one of the purer senses, in that a gamepad is useful, and fighting is mashing the hell out of buttons, dodging, blocking, all in real-time. One button for main attacks, four for specials, one for block, one for dodge-rolling, and one for ultimate power. Easy to understand, somewhat twitchy to play. In this particular installment, you play Adol (Who has a bad enough case of protagonism that he is the only character to explain that he is okay rather than just saying “I’m fine”) and Dogi, heroes of a couple of previous Ys titles, as they get embroiled in dangerous and momentous events on the isle of Altago, home of the Five Dragon Gods.

Altago is very pretty.

Originally a PSP game, the port is fluid and easy to play, with the only major sign that it is a port being the save menu. As such, I’ve been enjoying myself immensely, whacking the hell out of monsters, getting and solving quests, and fighting… Titanos.

Effectively, the rough way it goes is this: You get a plotquest, maybe some sidequests if you actually talk to the NPCs (Even if you don’t do this for quests, the dialogue is occasionally interesting, and the world seems quite alive, so I’d recommend it), make your way through the overworld map, fighting as you go (Or, if you can’t be assed, dash-dodging your way past everything… Although this means you miss out on XP, gold, and resources used to craft better gear you’re probably going to need) to a dungeon, solve a few puzzles, and fight… Titanos. A boss by any other name is just as pattern based, and just as bossy. Giant beetles, boars, and stranger creatures abound, and honestly?

Screenshots, unfortunately, don’t do justice to how smooth and quick this is… Or how boned I am about to become.

These are the real skill-gates of the game, compared to the enemies. Until later in the game, yes, enemies have attacks. They give conditions. They have defenses. But they also generally go down to a sustained assault, which is exactly what you and your AI companions are probably doing. Titanos, in the meantime, are definitely both the more intriguing and frustrating end of things. Zeran Fith, the giant beetle, for example, won’t be taking much damage at all until you knock the armour off his legs, letting his almost chameleon-like sticky tongue out and giving you a proper chance to wail on it. And there’s a fair amount it can do to dissuade you (terminally) from this. Turning quickly, webs spit out, poison is shot, prawns with fiery bubbles are summoned… I died twice to Zeran Fith, and he’s only the third Titano you encounter.

Thing is, though, even coming out of that sweating, I’ve been having fun. Every basic mechanic is explained clearly, the world is interesting, the music good, and the world is beautiful. The rock-paper-scissors of bludgeoning, slashing, and piercing damage versus various enemies is clever, encouraging me to get to grips with every character I play as, and each one definitely has character. Adol is perhaps the most generic (Heck, it’s even joked about with that third person narration), Dogi puts his all into what he does (Which, in the overworld, is punching the hell out of armoured enemies), Elk fluidly and rapidly wields his dual bladed staff, almost dancing. And these are just the earliest examples.

Adol thought he should really stop speaking in the third person. But nobody else seemed to notice, so he carried on.

Honestly, there’s not a lot I have to moan about here, because even death is a case of retrying from the start of the fight or loading a save (A quick process), and the experience, overall, is fluid. The writing’s solid, the game’s solid, the difficulty curve is actually pretty good (This is an RPG where Normal difficulty really does mean “To an average player’s skill” , which is very nice.) The only flow breaker I’ve seen is using potions and items, which, due to limitations of the original platform, is effectively a pause menu.

Overall, a good action RPG, well worth its price, and well worth a look.

The Mad Welshman only speaks in the third person for effect, or when he really, really wants to close a conversation.

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