Shadowhand (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the noble highwaypeople, secretly nobles or derring doers! Oh, wait, no, that wasn’t quite the way it went, generally speaking. But there is a vast literary tradition of the noble turned criminal for Good Deeds, and this, generally speaking, is what Shadowhand is about. Also Solitaire.

See? Corruption. ‘Sright there, and we’re gonna fight it, as Lady Cornelia Darkmoor, aka… SHADOWHAND.

Shadowhand is an odd mix, and one I’ve only seen occasionally in the past: A solitaire game, with RPG progression, inventory, and special abilities, and, because RPGs do, generally speaking, need a story, a story about a noblewoman who, at first, dons a highwayman’s costume to find her maidservant, but then gets drawn into deep intrigue, fraternising with the criminal element, mystical ladies in caravans, and grave-robbing, to name but a few moments.

However, enjoyment of the game will really, really depend on how much you like Solitaire, that card game of trying desperately to beat random chance by putting a card 1 higher or lower than the card you have drawn into the deck until there are either no cards left in the layout (Go you, you won!) , or no cards left in the deck (Aw, boo, you lost!) Because it is very much the core mechanic here. There are elements that make it easier, harder, or more interesting in those aforementioned RPG elements, like Luck, a double edged stat that presents a percentage chance of any move you make getting rid of a second, random card that you could have picked, but it remains a little bit chancy that any layout is solvable.

That’s less of an issue with combat, as combat is effectively “Try to get chains while preventing your opponent getting chains, so you can wallop them harder than they wallop you.” A thing which becomes more of an issue when the hit-points and defense keep going up, the weapon damage keeps going up, and when a chain really hits, it hits… Either way. Attacking ends a turn, but that, also, becomes a consideration when items that give extra turns, or punish you with bleeding for taking your turn come into play.

This, er… Fine gentleman managed to get me to hit the retry button something like 4 times. This was near the end of the second.

So… There’s depth to this whole Solitaire shebang, but it’s depth that becomes rather frustrating early on. Yes, okay, I can infinitely retry pretty much any segment of a chapter until I ace it. But, the further I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been hitting that retry button (and, occasionally, taking advantage of the bit I’m thankful for, being able to change my equipment before I actually start each combat, search, or gimmick level.)

You might be thinking, at this point, “Wow, he really doesn’t like this!” Not… Exactly. What I’m trying to get across here is that, yes, it’s a solitaire game with depth, some nice, relatively static visuals (Combat has short animations, and cards have short animations, but character dialogue is the static image of a character and textbox we know and love from Visual Novels and the like), some okay music (It fits the theme, it doesn’t get in the way, but it’s not terribly memorable, either), and a story (Which we’ll come back to in a second), but Solitaire, however it’s dressed up, given depth, or the like, remains a game that frustrates the hell out of even those of us who enjoy Solitaire from time to time.

Which, finally, brings us to the story, such as it is. It is not, strictly speaking, a bad story in the broad strokes. In fact, it’s one we’ve heard a few times: A noble accidentally ends up a highwayperson, finds some corruption (In this case, her family fortune is being embezzled in some larger scheme), and decides to lead a dual life in order to halt this corruption. It’s mainly that, as sometimes happens, the story takes a backseat to the game, and the tone of the story thus suffers. Oh no, dark deeds are afoot in the graveyard, and our heroine must find a treasure map by graverobbing, while also defeating Thug, Other Thug, and the boss of the area, mean ol’ gravekeeper Doug Hole! This is kind of a shame, as, like I said, the broad strokes are the bones of a good yarn. But it’s a yarn that doesn’t flow, tonewise or in terms of pacing, and that makes me kind of sad.

Never let it be said that Lady Shadowhand doesn’t take advantage of the finest of the Regency Roguery line!

Overall, as I’ve pretty much been saying the whole time, it really depends on how much you like Solitaire, whether you like this or not. If you accept Solitaire’s flaws for what they are, then you have a perfectly fine Solitaire game that adds depth to the basic formula, wraps a story around it, and has some interesting additions. Myself, I’m not that big a fan, so I only see myself coming occasionally back to this.

The Mad Welshman would like you to step down from the carriage gently and hand over your valuables. He also thanks you for your custom.

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Sunless Skies (Early Access Review)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £18.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Forever Live The Queen! The Empire, In Its Infinite Wisdom, Has Replaced The Traitor Sun With A Clockwork Marvel. More Inside, Along With The Scandalous Dealings (And Deals) At Magdalene’s!

Although this screenshot is from an earlier version, how could I not include the talented melding of Terry Thomas and David Suchet as a dastardly bureaucrat? So good!

So… Here we are again. Failbetter, from browser game Fallen London, to Sunless Sea, to today, have created an interesting world, a dark, funhouse mirror world of the Victorian, Lovecraftian Empire. Cosmic Horror, Dunsanian Phantasy and Afternoon Tea, if you will. And now? We’re in the railways of space. Yes, you heard me right. Flying trains. Through space. But, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For example, resource management remains important, as you have limited cargo space (Even with improvements), and the very fact that running a space train is kind of expensive immediately throws you into the politics and mysteries of the area. The Company will keep you in fuel and money, so long as you regularly supply them with Port Reports, and don’t deal overmuch with those violent blackleggers and revolutionaries, the Tacketies. Which is amusing, when you consider that in the Station of New Winchester (The capital of the first area of the game, and currently the only available one), Victory Hall (One of the homes of the Tackety Movement) is quite near, in fact, to Company House. But such is life here.

Each area, each floating township and station has their own feel. Their own mysteries…

Right now, while there may not seem like a whole lot (And the developers, ever cognisant that you might have trouble paying the bills, give a generous starting payment to get you going), the stars of Sunless Skies are still intriguing. It’s a living, breathing Space, with the fungal remains of vast creatures, singing bees, and, of course, various Fallen Londoners in space. The most recent update, accessible by beta branch, is something well known to Sunless Sea players: The world having segments that are, themselves, static, but placed procedurally. So, sometimes, Port Prosper is, as the main branch would tell you, far to the Northeast. Sometimes, it’s to the Southwest. Sometimes, it’s to the NNW. But it will always be a tough prospect to reach without having some supply stops in that middle ring to help ensure you don’t die in what is, despite the Queen’s meddling, the cold of space. You’re rewarded with experience for finding places, filling out that map, doing tasks, but, in the end, the Sunless Skies will swallow your character whole.

Of course, if you die, at least some of your knowledge gets passed on to the next Captain, some of your goods, some of your wealth. Perhaps all of it, if you reach what’s currently the first goal of the game’s lineage based RPG fun: Having a home that isn’t the Cab of your (admittedly glorious) space train. The controls are simple, explained well by the game, and from there? Well, the choices are out there, ripe for exploration. I quite enjoyed Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies is looking to be an improvement on that formula, and I look forward to seeing where this looking glass leads.

Those who are impressionable may feel that this is an eldritch sigil, rather than a path of exploration along common trade routes. Please ignore the howling winds from the ground itself and tentacled beastie behind me, thanks in advance.

The Mad Welshman would, for obvious reasons, prefer to be referred to by his proper title: Captain D’Urbin of Her Majesty’s Windward Company, 4th Merchant Fleet. Thankew.

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Reigns: Her Majesty (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £2.09 (£2.09 for the soundtrack, 79p for the Book of the Queen, £6.99 for a bundle of both this and the original Reigns, with all the mod cons)
Where To Get It: Steam

I can say, having played Reigns: Her Majesty, that I have been a lesbian queen torn to shreds by the adoration of her populace. I’ve also been a bisexual queen burned by the church along with the unborn heir to the throne, a heterosexual queen who had a dalliance with her hunter, then turned off the sun, an asexual queen who burned the treasury on pretty things, but, in all of these stories, there has been a common thread.

Uggghh… The worst part about Queen PLC is the bleedin’ Marketing Department, I swear.

Some incredibly shifty (and often shiftless) men trying to tell me how to live my life. Not to mention a couple of folks, men and women, trying to tell me what is proper for someone of my station. Even if, as it turns out, a lot of that “proper behaviour” was bollocks. It even got me killed, in one early case. Reigns: Her Majesty has things to say, about medieval perceptions of gender, pagan faiths versus state religion, all sorts of clever stuff under the surface.

I’m loving every minute of it.

Much like its predecessor, Reigns, you are a monarch, destined to die and live again, until something happens. Instead of being cursed by the Devil, however, you are an Archetypal Queen, seemingly created by the Lady of the Wood for… Reasons. Although there is an amusing nod where you ask your pet cat Rex if they’re the Devil in disguise. Any which way, your reigns are generally short and brutal, due to the balancing act you have to make with binary choices (Swipe left, swipe right.) You can’t be too popular, or not popular at all. You can’t have too powerful a military, or a nonexistent one. Obviously, there has to be money in the treasury. And you can’t piss off the Church too much. There are goals, but more than baby steps are unlikely, due to just how fragile the kingdom really is. The crown and Church battle. The King can’t be bothered with most administrative tasks. You’re not, in a very real sense, allowed to be yourself. You have to be The Flawed Queen, not perfect (Because you’ll die), not terrible (Because you’ll die), just… Walking the tightrope.

NARRATOR: As it turned out, no, she wasn’t good. She had, in fact, been deemed Very Bad by the Church…

If you can’t find parallells there with the modern day, with celebrity, women, and the like, trust me, they’re there. Visually, it’s as tidy, as interesting, and clear as its predecessor, and the soundtrack is quietly menacing, eerie, and sometimes ridiculous, as it needs to be. The writing’s damn fine, and, as with Reigns, the further in you get, the more there is to do, narrowing again toward the inevitable progression toward… Well. Let’s leave that for you to find out… My Queen.

NARRATOR: …And so, the Queen and her unborn heir were invited to a lovely barbecue, where she was the guest of honour, and the Church forgave her.
Oh, wait, no they didn’t.

The Mad Welshman never did get the hang of the tightrope…

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Going Back (?) – The 8-Bit Adventure Anthology, Volume 1

Source: Review Copy
Price: £5.79
Where To Get It: Steam

Adventure games have quite the history, and it’s one with a lot of branches, and, interestingly enough, more than a couple of roots. For example, while it’s commonly accepted that CAVE, which was eventually renamed Colossal Cave Adventure, was the progenitor of Interactive Fiction (Due to the fact that anything earlier has been lost to time, it’s intriguing to note the history, as adventure games with graphics cropped up as early as 1980 (With Sierra’s Mystery House), and games with a point and click cursor (Controlled by the keyboard) came around 1983, with Project Mephius for the FM-7, a computer that released only in Japan. Indeed, part of the reason the timeline of game design is so messy is that European, American, and Japanese markets had their own home grown items that none of the others saw (Until later.)

Okay, so I’ve uncovered this… But how the heck do I open this door to the left? HRM.

Why all this preamble? To establish two things. That the adventures comprising this remake anthology are not, strictly speaking, firsts in the genre. Influential games, yes, but not firsts. But also that it’s fascinating to see changes and shifts, not just on the purely international level, but within individual nations. We’ll be briefly coming back to this, but first, the games!

The three games that comprise this trilogy were originally created in the mid 80s (1985-87) for the then humble Apple Macintosh, and, as such, were known as the MacVentures: Deja Vu, a noirish tale about an amnesiac detective down on his luck; Uninvited, a haunted house tale with the main character searching for their younger brother; and Shadowgate, a fantasy yarn that, despite the comparatively higher difficulty of the former two games, has a reputation for its gotchas and deathtraps. They had a graphic user interface, a selectable parser, and an icon based inventory, all of which were not, strictly speaking, new… But they might as well have been to the European and American audiences.

They did pretty well, well enough that a company called KEMCO ported them, with permission, to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989 and 1990. These are the games remade and presented in this anthology, and this, also, is interesting because the UI was changed, a controller led pointer was introduced (as in Project Mephius, several years previously), and Nintendo, a family friendly company even then, asked for… Changes. Some of these changes, I’m sure people are very grateful about: As far as I’m aware, the ten minute timer for one of Deja Vu’s “Solve this or die” puzzles (finding a cure for your amnesia) was gone. Yes, ten real time minutes. The interface was made tighter due to platform limitations, pentagrams were replaced by stars, and crosses by chalices, and, in an odd decision, it’s not the younger brother you save in Uninvited, but an elder sister.

Yep. That is indeed a greenscreen terminal filter. Yessirree.

In any case, that’s where we are today: Reviewing a port of a port of a trio of adventure games from the 80s. How do they hold up? Not that bad, actually! The Nintendo versions were not only notable for their changes, but a solid soundtrack that still holds up to this day, distinctive spritework, and an interface that, thanks to the fact we’re using a mouse rather than the NES controller, is highly accessible and a delight to use. Each could be played through over the course of an afternoon, perhaps less if you follow the ancient adventure game maxim of “Save Early, Save Often” , and only a few of the puzzles don’t have some signposting to their solution (There’s no clue, for example, that a certain ghost is afraid of spiders, sadly.) Be warned, however, that garbage items with no actual use in game abound. Old adventure games loved to do that, partly for realism’s sake (Yes, even then), but also partly to obscure solutions.

Being able to keep saves, and switch between them with relative ease? Oh yes, this is good. Having… Old monitor filters? Well, I guess it’s there? (Not gonna lie, if I wanted more eye strain, I’d just dig out my old BBC Micro and its CRT monitor. But they are nice filters.) And the writing of the games, for the most part, holds up. Deja Vu, being both a game of the 80s, and being inspired by the pulps, is perhaps the one that has aged most poorly, but there’s still some solid design there.

Also, the achievements. Ah ha ha yes, the achievements! It somewhat tickles me that the achievements for this trilogy all have to do with something you would either, unaware of this game from its heyday, stumble into, or, if you’re like me, a person amused by the death states of old videogames, actively seek them out: The deaths. Wait, you mean that lady wasn’t friendly? Gosh! And my shield could only take a few puffs of molten, superheated death spewing from a dragon’s mouth? Golly!

Well, we know we’re a dude. This much, we can be sure of.

As pieces of relatively faithfully preserved games history, this isn’t bad at all, although the “Volume 1” confuses me a little. After all, there were four MacVentures in total, so… Where would you go from here, General Arcade and Abstraction? Although it must be said, this trilogy did seem to inspire a wave of graphical adventure innovation in the West, from the Legend Entertainment games, to the Magnetic Scrolls series, each of which contributed, somewhat, to the eventual rise of the point-and-clicks we know and love today.

So yes, give these a go if you feel like experiencing some relatively solid 80s game design, and perhaps it might inspire you to check out other bits of adventure game history (Or, indeed, some of the other ports existing out there.)

The Mad Welshman enjoys older adventure games. Things tend to happen when he BITE LIP, however. Terrible things.

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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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