Shrouded Isle (Review)

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

I’m going to get this out the way right now, so as to weed out those reading this: Shrouded Isle is mechanically very simple. For three years (12 seasons), you, the high priest(ess?) of a lovecraftian cult, must keep the noble houses that support you happy, while encouraging “Virtues” like Ignorance and Penitence, and also sacrificing one of your advisors each year. Apart from a few somewhat spoilery details, that’s yer lot.

Find a sinner, kill ’em dead. Got it… But… Who’s a sinner again?

Now let’s get into why the game is still interesting, and not a little disturbing. Let’s talk about evil. Evil is not a single entity, no matter how much we sometimes wish it would be. Nor, funnily enough, is Good. They’re values, not people. Even within a group, there is difference. Even within a group that seems unified, there is dissonance, sometimes prejudice. Shrouded Isle, despite its fantastic setting, does a good job of putting this into play, synergising mechanics with its world.

Ivan Efferson is a Flirt. He’s bad for discipline. Problem is, I know from watching the Virtue levels that he inspires even more Obedience than usual. It’s a sin, it’s true, but forgivable considering his good work for his house. The family would be angered if I sacrificed him, and, honestly, so would I. A good advisor makes a bad sacrifice.

His daughter Fania, on the other hand, I recently discovered was exactly what I was looking for. My Lord had told me to seek a Swindler, and lo and behold, there she was. A prime sinner. She’s not even very virtuous (Although I have yet to determine what her virtue is.) But there’s another factor: If I let her advise, I will have to use her skills, because I’ve already sacrificed one of Ivan’s daughters, and I’ll need to counter the sheer outrage from the bias in selecting from the same family twice. I could wait a year, but she’s sabotaging me behind the scenes.

Sin… SIIIIIIN!

To win, I have to manipulate. I have to put useless people in positions of power both to maintain the status quo, and to ensure my relationship with this advisor’s family remains cosy. They may all be sheep, to be fed to my Lord once he Awakens, but even sheep can, in panic, turn on me. They may not even do it for reasons “Good” people would consider “Good.” There’s another person who’s undermining my perfect… Controlled… Society. And they’re doing it because they’re a massive pervert, blaspheming even before my eyes.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Because it sure as hell does to me. Like many, I’ve seen it played out, the scapegoat thrown to the wolves, the inner conflicts that can rend a group apart, the search for purity. As such, it blackly amuses me to note that victory not only involves invasion of privacy and deception, it involves satisfying overall goals while… Keeping little bars of Virtue between two poles. Poles that shift as the Lord demands focus on a virtue.

Of course, it also adds nuance. Chernobog may consider Ignorance a virtue… But Liars and Swindlers alike are just as high on his list as the secret Librarians and Kind folk. The soundwork is subtle and unnerving, and, while the colour schemes at first seem unsubtle as all hell, they’re picked for their high contrast, although recently a more muted grey (Cremation Ash) is available in the options. I’m thankful for that, as, while I appreciate that the original colour scheme is picked for its subtly nauseating effect, it’s not something I want to play for long.

…Listen, buddy… There’s only *one* narcissist allowed in this cult, and that’s ME.

I kind of like Shrouded Isle. It’s taken around 2 hours, 2 games, to get to the win, but the game has multiple bad ends based on which “Virtue” was found lacking, and I find myself curious. I also wouldn’t mind replaying, as the game randomises virtues and sins, and it’s simple enough that I can see myself coming back. The game is pretty accessible, it does what it says on the tin quite well, so my main “not recommended for” group would be folks who are not up for a game in which you are definitely bad folks sacrificing your fellow human beings to summon an elder god.

Secret Spaces (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: $8 USD (Approx £5)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

Secret Spaces is, in creator Heather “Flowers” Robertson’s own words, a game about being gay and in a hole. These things are true. It’s also a game about being in a strange, low-polygon world, moving ever deeper into the rabbit hole to, hopefully, find your girlfriend and get the hell out of this strange place.

It’s kinda dark down here, Elaine. I know sometimes we feel the need to hide in a deep, dark, hole, but… Literally?

At first, the game seems extremely simple: Finding notes and going downwards progresses things, cutting and growing ropevines to climb down safely, using berries to heal damage you’ve taken from falling too far (Although falling far enough will, as with any human being, kill you stone dead.)

The thing is, the more you take from this place, the less it will give. You’re almost in a relationship with the space itself, and working with what it gives you tends to give the best results. Take very little, and the Secret Space will give you help, in the form of seeds and berries. Take a lot, and the vines thin out, the berries don’t arrive as often, and you will need, more and more, to either be very skillful in climbing downwards, or plant the vines you have in the hope that it will make life easier down the road. It’s subtle, and being someone who prefers not to waste things, I didn’t notice this on a first playthrough.

Huh, that *is* odd. Some mysteries, unfortunately, are trumped by the immediate.

Aesthetically… Well, it’s cuboids and notes. The light (and thus the colours) change as you get deeper, giving it a little flair, but it’s a quiet place, and some might say a bare place, but, with this game, that feels just fine. I liked the character of Elaine as noted in the notes (Although, that dad joke… I make dad jokes all the time, and I loudly groaned at that one… So props!) , I liked the writing, and, from word one, I’ve been struggling with the fact that the developer has summed up the game a heckuva lot better than I have.

Secret Spaces is about being gay, and in a hole. It’s approximately £5 , takes around an hour to play through once, and my main “Do not recommend” here is if a very low-polygon world turns you off a game. If you like games where there’s something subtle going on in the background (The Hole is procedurally generated, yes, sometimes walls do move, and how easy you find it depends on whether you are, in game, a taker, or someone who works with what’s there) , then you may well like Secret Spaces.

Whoah… The plant… It wiggles. Kinda reminds me of you, Elaine… Hehe.

The Mad Welshman thinks love is cool. No snark, just… Passion is good.

Conarium (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (OST £1.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

Conarium is a… Look, it’s a horror game, and it uses Lovecraftian imagery. So cyclopean structures, Shoggoths, Elder Things, stars and fishies, and things wot man was not meant to know. It’s also a first person horror adventure game, and there is where its flaws lie.

The Plants Have Vines, a new horror film by Wes Craven!

If there’s one accusation that is often levelled at first person horror games, it’s that their pacing and reliance on documentation can be a problem. In the case of earlier first person horror games, there’s also problems of pixel hunting, timed puzzles, and the like. It’s a difficult balance, horror against frustration against the possibility of boredom. Conarium goes the whole spectrum. But how you feel about it really depends on how completionist you feel.

If, for example, you just want to get things done, you’ll ignore the documents, and occasionally hit brick walls. Some of these walls are against your patience, as evidenced by the difference in the amount of time it took for me to trigger a literal cat-scare (At least a few minutes), compared to somebody who’d played the game before (who triggered it in under a minute), while others are “Secrets” (More on that in a bit), and at least one is a “Gotcha” death, solved by… A non-obvious handle for something else you have that you probably spent time hunting for things to use it on.

You may recall I have a dim view of “Gotcha” deaths. Even one telegraphed by something like ten seconds of reading.

This is a secret.

If, like me, you’re somewhat of a completionist, you run into an entirely different kind of frustration. If there’s telegraphing of where to find documents, I have yet to notice it, and some of the documents I’ve missed… Have been hidden in an annoying fashion. Ah yes, the one hiding on the shelf you can’t quite see, behind a bunk. The one hiding in a cardboard box that, like many computer game cardboard boxes, cannot, in fact, be moved, and is facing the wall. The one in the pile of other documents that, somehow, are not as interesting.

And sadly, some of these things are “Secret.” Hidden behind brute force puzzles, or knowing when to use your Conarium gizmo, or when to use another item, at least some of them are more unsettling and interesting than the main plot itself. Pictured, for example, is something that claims to be your character. Something well animated, definitely not human, and more unsettling in motion than it is in a screenshot. And yet… It’s a secret. Meanwhile, a lot of the stuff that’s visible? Kind of lessens the horror. Oh… It’s, er… A blob. Yes. And this thing is what it is, I can sort of guess how it… Oh. Not… Too scary. Damn.

This, on the other hand, is a cat scare waiting to happen.

I want to like Conarium. It’s definitely got some interesting ideas, and some unsettling set pieces. But, oddly, it hides many of its best away, seemingly unrelated to the overall picture in many places. Then again, it is, on the face of it, a somewhat linear game with two endings, and a variety of non-standard game overs, usually due, funnily enough, not reading things. Give it a go if you like Cosmic Horror, chase sequences, rune puzzles, the odd inventory puzzle, and, like many horror games, hoovering up pieces of paper somewhere in the mess, you know where you left it, you’re sure, it’s got to be –

The Mad Welshman has no smart aleck comments at this time. He prefers to say them in 1877.

Syberia 3 (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £29.99 (£39.99 deluxe, £9.99 deluxe upgrade)
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

The Syberia series has always been interesting to me, with a charming alternate world, interesting art direction, and some haunting melodies. You may think this is a prelude to a positive review. Alas, it is mainly an informative review, because Syberia 3 is an example of how certain design choices should, perhaps, stay in the past.

Giant furry ostriches, somehow not knowing where their own ancestral mating ground is. Still charming as heck.

Syberia 3 is the continuing story of Kate Walker, a lawyer turned adventurer, and currently the White Saviour of the Youkol tribe, whose migrations are being disrupted by racists in the town of Valsembor. As such, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, writing wise, as the Youkols are very interesting, and the focus of the story is meant (As in the previous two games) to be on natural conservation, but, in adventure game fashion, they are oddly helpless. As, as it turns out, is Kate Walker, at the mercy of the adventure game protagonist’s natural enemy: Awkwardly placed objects.

While there is no fail state for the game as far as I am aware (So no Sierra style deathtraps, or Dead Man Walking scenarios), there are puzzles that rely on finding things that are hard to spot, even with the addition of context sensitive dots that fade into existence when you are close to a thing you can interact with. Some of them, alas, also rely on adventurer kleptomania, and talking to the right individual to change the situation somehow. When the very first main puzzle (A shifty psychiatrist presents Kate with a key that’s meant to set her free, but it’s deliberately damaged… And no, there’s no way to see this beforehand that I know of) involves not only stealing a key from a sleeping patient, but to enter an area that it’s not that clear you can enter, take a mechanical parrot to lure a rather odd owl… It gets a bit nonsensical at times, and as such, you will sometimes find yourself more blundering on the solution than having thought of it.

You, er, don’t want to maybe close the door behind you, Kate?

The control scheme is mouse for interaction, keyboard for walking, although the controller is not only an option, the game recommends it, and it’s not hard to see why. While not actually tank controls, Kate Walker has a bit of a turning circle for a lithe adventurer, and it’s fairly clear that the game’s interface was designed with controller in mind first. This is a shame, as there’s elements to the controls I quite like, such as shifting objects or opening things (occasionally) by moving the mouse, but to page through the inventory for the one thing I can use on an item gets somewhat annoying.

This is a real shame, as the voice acting really isn’t bad, the music is still pretty damn good, and the aesthetics, if they cleared up some problems where consistency of location has overruled both the principle of leading the player’s eye to places they can go or things they can do, and the one where you might want to help colourblind folks see a little clearer. Yes, you can be stylish and still colourblind friendly, folks, there’s certainly enough games I’ve complimented on this in the past to see this.

Pictured: An obviously Not-Good Person.

In any case, while it definitely has some style going for it, the substance is somewhat wonky, and I would only really recommend this either to folks who really want to see where Kate Walker has ended up, or adventure gamers well used to the foibles of the genre.

The Mad Welshman, it should be mentioned, really likes that key at the beginning. It makes next to no sense, but it’s a very pretty key.

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.