Return of the Obra-Dinn (Review)

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

It says a lot, either about my own media consumption or the Obra-Dinn, that nary an eyebrow was raised at its sharp turn into the more supernatural. I was too busy worrying about how to identify the crewmen, and whether what was sticking out of them was swords… Or spikes shot from demon crustaceans.

Sometimes… There just isn’t that much of a corpse to see… Eep. o.O

Just another day in 1800s insurance, using my Memento Mortem watch to wince at the gruesome deaths of almost an entire ship of people, then ticking off boxes like “Was Murdered By A Grue” or “Mutiny Related Causes (Not Covered By Policy, Fine Their Estate For Criminal Charges).”

The Return of the Obra-Dinn is, in essence, a mystery game, in which you, the unnamed insurance agent with a watch that can relive the last moments of the dead, attempt to discern precisely what went on during the ill-fated voyage of the Obra-Dinn. And you do it by reliving the story of the Obra-Dinn (Tragic and foolish as it is), one death at a time. From these final moments, and a couple of clues (Such as uniforms, the objects people hold, the language they speak in, and who works where, to take some examples), you have to piece together not only who is who, but who did what to who, and how many, if any, survived.

Okay, you get a big clue in that respect from the beginning, which can trip you up later if you forget it, but still… There’s approximately 50 crew, and at first, it seems a daunting task. Then, as you build up more information, context, and clues, it becomes easier, until late in the game, where it becomes hard again because the clues are more subtle. Fortunately, once you know the fates of three people, they’re locked in, although it’s important to note that it doesn’t change any misidentifications you made elsewhere (That one tripped me up very late in the game.) It’s a subtle kind of interactivity, while it can be a little annoying in the late game until you realise you can use the bodies revealed in a scene, in the scene, to teleport between parts of the chapter. But, overall, it’s a clever one. How did this man die? Well, it’s a little unclear, isn’t it? But… Goodness me, that’s bright. It could be, you know, that giant tentacle, but why is this bit so bright?

I mean, bad enough he’s so far up, but the actual *cause* of death could be… A couplea things, yeah…

Oh.

Ohhhhh. [scribblescribblescribble]

Aesthetically, the game has an amazing 1-bit shader, which is to say, everything is either a colour (defaulting to Apple Macintosh green), or white. It’s a lovely effect, and it works well with the game’s mostly ambient noise. Once you’re in the thick of things, however, nautical or dramatic music can happen, which is nice, but more often, it’s a soundscape, crafted to both give clues, and obscure those clues under as much information as they can get. It’s well done.

As noted, if you’re looking for the “best” ending, where you get the full story, it can get a little irritating, as the clues become more subtle to folks’ identities as time goes on, and, honestly, I’m not really sure why the chapter that’s locked off is the one locked off, as it’s fairly easy to deduce the root cause behind a lot of the misery, even by the mid-game, and anyone familiar with nautical horror and myth would have already predicted it. Still, there’s more than enough interesting mystery to go around, and the Return of the Obra-Dinn is recommended for both aesthetic reasons, and for a well put together mystery.

Not pictured: A whole bundle of screaming, shouting, shattering wood, things thumped about, and, hidden, the guy who *actually* died here.

The Mad Welshman appreciates games that use a clever idea for their mystery solving. So that definitely helped.

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60 Parsecs! (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99 (£14.38 for both this and 60 Seconds)
Where To Get It: Steam

Sometimes, even the smallest things can have long term consequences. That was the core idea behind 60 Seconds, the first game in this series, and now, in 60 Parsecs (A joke title based on a common nitpick with Star Wars Episode IV), that same question is asked… But in SPAAAACE!

DIVE DIVE DIVE! Each character has their own animation for getting the heck out of about-to-be-nuked Dodge.

It also saves a little time, because it means I can say that if you liked 60 Seconds, odds are high you’d like 60 Parsecs, because the core is the same: You have 60 seconds to pick up as much survival gear as you humanly can, from tins of soup, to crewmembers, before your alternate 50s space station gets blown up, and from there… Hopefully find and survive in space, long enough to get rescued… Or for something else to happen. It depends on both luck of the draw and your choices.

I never thought, for example, of the many potential uses of the humble sock puppet. Morale booster, sanity keeper… And apparently, very useful for dealing with aliens who want to steal my soup? Huh, better write that one down then.

One thing that immediately leaps out about the writing (for lo, writing is a lot of what you’re going to see in the game, along with the slowly changing faces of your ever more haggard crew) is that its humour rarely, if ever, punches down. It could have been a mean game, considering its subject matter, but at no point did I feel belittled or groan at a line… Mostly, in fact, I was chuckling if not outright laughing. For a game about an apocalypse, and surviving in extremely hostile (and cramped) conditions, it’s light hearted, and pulled me in. When Baby Bronco, the buff, but not very smart crew member fell in love with me, it was over positive reassurance, a reminder that he was valued. That was kiiiinda undermined by my dying of rats the next day, but it was sweet, and I appreciated its presentation. Even if I didn’t quite appreciate the whole “eaten by rats” thing.

I mean… We went together, that’s gotta count as a romantic no- No, it doesn’t, does it? Welp…

So… Writing’s good, sound’s good, art style is good (unlike 60 Seconds, which tried 3d models for the “OHCRAP GRAB THINGS” portion, 60 Parsecs has a nice, consistent style throughout, well animated and presented) … What’s not so good? Well, it’s a core thing, and, as such, this is more of a “Be warned” than a thumbs down. Not having the right item in some situations kills you. Failing certain events kills you. You will die, and sometimes it’s for the silliest of reasons (The rat thing, for example, was because I’d sent Baby Bronco out with the very item I needed to deal with the rats… The day before.)

I’d say, for the most part, the charm of the game gets around this, but it should be noted that getting to the end of either of the 60 [time units] games is hard. A lot of the enjoyment is not so much in the destinations (Of which there are multiple, some hidden), but in the journey.

Overall, I kind of like 60 Parsecs. It does the thing it does quite well, it’s got a lot of charm to it, it tutorialises fairly well, and, when I find myself even chuckling at some of the gruesome ends I and my crew have fallen prey to, I feel like, tonally, it’s hit a good mark.

“LET ME IN, EDDIE!”
“I’m sorry, I can’t quite do that, Cap’n! I have *no* idea why, and it *certainly* isn’t sinister, nosirree!”

The Mad Welshman would probably not make a good captain. I mean, both Captains and Vaudevillains often have rocking moustaches, but that’s nowhere near the amount of similarity needed…

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428: Shibuya Scramble (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £39.99
Where To Get It: Steam

It is, in its own way, a glorious thing when, amid a high tension kidnapping story with more twists and turns than a conger eel, with terrorism, and assassins, and Super-Ebola, that I am having the biggest emotional rollercoaster ride with the story of a young woman trapped in a mascot costume, working for a terrible conman. Terrible, that is, in the sense that all of his schemes seem destined to go wrong.

Funnily enough, one of the reasons this review took so long was picking screenshots. There are so many screenshot worthy moments…

Poor Tama. Still, it highlights something interesting I find about 428: Shibuya Scramble, Spike Chunsoft’s latest Visual Novel offering – It’s cruel, but in a way that still entertains. A visual novel with a silly amount of Bad Ends, jumps and hints hidden in its text, and several plotlines that have to be progressed to the next hour toward an ending, although whether that’s the “best” ending depends on a number of factors. Including the fact that everybody is, to some extent or other, not very good at what they do.

Considering that at least one of these people is an investigator in the kidnap case, and another a freelance journalist… You might appreciate it’s a bit of a struggle to keep the story moving sometimes. But farce, as has been said, must be played with a straight face, and, for the first fifteen minutes or so of most of the stories, you’d be forgiven for thinking you weren’t in for this kind of wild ride. A wild ride, sure, as the kidnapping is the very first part of this storyline, but not… Everything else.

As a visual novel, its choice to go with live action (photographs and movies alike) works pretty well, as the actors have gone all out with their expressions, working well with the sound design of the game. And it contrasts well with the ridiculousness of the situations. Here, light music contrasts with the hopeless situation of Tama. There, rocking, overdriven guitars point out the heroism of the freelance journalist Minorikawa, while the text… Paints an entirely different story. It’s artful, whether it chooses to support or contrast, and it’s hard not to appreciate both that and the accessibility. Choices are clearly presented, and one of its core mechanics (Blue text for further explanation, red for “Jump” choices, which shift the timeline to another character to get around plot blocks) equally so.

The timeline, as in other Spike Chunsoft offerings, is easy to navigate, although it doesn’t truly show the complexity on offer.

Similarly, as a visual novel, it lives or dies by its writing, and the writing, is, as I’ve been mentioning quite a bit, excellent. I never thought I would say that tonal whiplash could feel good, but… In this particular case, it somehow works. Each character has their own voice, and, even with the contradictions the world keeps throwing their way, it’s hard not to get sucked in to their own presentation of the world. Kano, and his Dick Dictums (That’s private dick to you!) Tama, and her childlike demeanour. Even the side characters have interesting places in the story, so it’s hard not to see the Shibuya district as it is: A living, breathing place filled with interesting folks. No, really… Filled. The population density of Japan is no joke, as a sobering note about the rail system’s capacity shows.

As such, it would be quite hard not to recommend 428: Shibuya Scramble. Its digressions in blue text are as often illuminating about the Shibuya district and Japanese culture as they are amusing (and, in at least one case, hide progress by way of a JUMP point… Ohhh, you cheeky devils!), its tutorial was one I didn’t mind, even though it deliberately sets Kano, the detective, up for a Bad End right out of the gate, and it’s kept me playing where other games of its sort quickly lost my interest.

Choices have an effect, not only on the character you’re playing, but others too. But sometimes, even bad ends provide information you might find useful later on. Cunning…

The Mad Welshman thinks it a sign of quality that he didn’t want to spoil story beats here.

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Lucah: Born of a Dream (Review)

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

When you’re the sole reviewer, it becomes ever more important to separate not liking something for genuine problems, and not liking something because you’ve grown tired of certain genres and their conventions. While, normally, a writer can just recuse themselves, occasionally, something interesting comes along that requires, partly, putting aside that dislike.

Lucah: Born of a Dream is one such game. A deliberately lo-fi adventure, with a top-down false perspective, and… Soulslike combat, levelling mechanics, and saving via specific resting points. The latter of which I have, over time, become somewhat tired of.

YOU DIED [Your Corruption Has Risen]

Narratively and aesthetically, the game is bleak. Corruption, or, just as accurately, depression is a core theme, and this is aptly portrayed in a number of ways. Methods of “salvation” often turn out to be nightmares in waiting, the world is unrepentantly hostile, and, when the NPCs aren’t outright despairing, they have a bitter edge to them, such as the shopkeeper who tells you how many times you’ll see them. 2 if you do well… Another one if you don’t. None of the lines are voiced, but I can almost hear a sneer there.

Maybe that’s viewing it through the lens of my own depression. The world is mostly black and “not-black” , harsh, scribbled tones, and its moderately plodding tone outside of combat emphasises that this is a world seen on its way out, a world that’s… Keeping on, rather than thriving. It’s clever, and while it hits a little close to home for me, I can appreciate the artistry behind it. Similarly, the game has a sort of time limit on each “run” , as Corruption is slowly building (quicker the more you die, slowing as you beat fights), and when it reaches 100% ? Well, back to the beginning, you failed. Sorry.

It’s just… The way things are. Give in.

Combat, meanwhile, is also deliberate, but less plodding. In fact, it can get downright hectic at times, and it’s here that I have to separate my more generalised dislike from the few actual problems it contains. You see, for the most part, it works, and is clever. Two loadouts you can quickly switch between, each containing three elements: Your light attack, your heavy attack, and your support option, meant to buy time for your stamina to regenerate. Attacks lock you into their animation pattern, and, as you progress, you gain more abilities, some of which require using limited skill slots ,Virtues, and some of which you can turn on or off as you feel, the Tech… Turning these off appears mostly to be a challenge thing, as it includes things like the dodge parry. Speaking of…

When it works, it works well… Enemies clearly telegraph their attacks, there’s a variety of ranged and melee attacks that keep you on your toes, and the spaces range from large to confined, so there’s a lot of tactical variation. Changing your Mantras and Familiars for different loadouts of attack is definitely encouraged, as is experimenting with them to see what fits your style best. But it’s at this point that I have to mention some jankiness.

Sometimes, although I don’t fully understand why, my attacks will lock onto a specific enemy (I may have fatfingered a lockon there), and this leads to frustration as… Dammit, I was aiming for that one, not that one! Similarly, dodge timing takes a little getting used to for parries, because while often, enemies will telegraph their attacks, the telegraph is not the moment you dodge toward the attack.

Boss battles definitely live up to their name, and each has a different, interesting touch.

The actual attack is, and it’s at this point that I mention a controller is probably a good idea for Lucah, since I’ve found, on keyboard and mouse, dodge parrying a little too finicky, because yes, you do have to dodge specifically into the attack to trigger it, and that’s easier to handle with the more granular nature of an analogue stick.

The rest of my gripes with this game, quite honestly, you can simply note as gripes with the Soulslike formula, and more to do with genre weariness than any actual fault of the game. As such, it overall gets a recommendation, because it does interesting things with the genre, and has a somewhat unique aesthetic and narrative that, overall, works. Definitely one of those cases where, even weary as I am of the You Died bullshittery, I appreciate the artistry the Lucah team have brought to bear here.

Eesh. Only way to progress, huh? Chilling.

The Mad Welshman must rest. He is tired.

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Ghostly Matter (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Ghostly Matter is one of those games where, with its retro stylings and cool ideas, I want to like it. Mixing old action adventure titles (Not the modern definition, but essentially, platformers with adventure game elements), pulp horror, and survival horror.

Two professors, both alike in dignity…

But a common problem, it seems, with retro games is that they also take the less laudable elements of retro design, and Ghostly Matter, for all that it has an interesting world, won’t particularly let me get into it because it wants to be retro hard.

The general story is, admittedly, nice and pulpy. Two professors, both alike in dignity, work in the burgeoning field of ghostly research, but they split over an argument about whether something that lets you look into the abyss that is the realm of the dead will also let the abyss look into them. Years pass, and Dr. Penderghast, the protagonist, receives a mysterious message from beyond the grave that seems to be his old professorial friend. Cue horrors and hijinks.

I’d love to tell you more about those hijinks, about the direction the game goes, but, unfortunately, I can’t. Because there is a lot of dying in this game, and checkpoints… Are not terribly helpful. Fixed life with few healing items contrasts with contact damage, rapidly firing enemies, the fact that your Spectroscope is necessary to see certain enemies, but also drains your health at a rate of knots (and needs batteries) … Before we even get into things like the gotcha that opens up a shortcut in the second level, where you open up said shortcut, jump down, and… Are immediately assailed by four skeletons arising in very close proximity. Whups, opening this shortcut is going to cost you health, no matter what you do. What’s that? Your health is in short supply? Better remember where the nearest checkpoint is, then!

In game design philosophy, there is the problem of Schrodinger’s Monster Closet. When the waveform collapses, you either take damage or have an item (its usefulness also determined by a waveform.)

There are other, better weapons that, unfortunately, but I can, at least, tell you there are three different types of enemies, and certain weapons work better than others. But when maps are large and sprawling, health items are few and far between, checkpoints are equally pretty far… And the enemies like to be invisible (use the spectroscope to hit them, lose health anyway, because the spectroscope is a gateway to death), or pop up from the ground (with some being easy to spot, others not so much) or just have hard to dodge ranged options, I found myself hitting brick walls pretty often, to the point where I’m writing this review without having gotten nearly as far as I’d like.

Oddly, narratively, everything fits together well. The supernatural world is tough (enemies are bullet spongy) , the spectroscope drains life with use because it’s basically a gateway to the spirit realm (but is necessary for puzzles, while health items are rare) , and you can’t exactly have a horde of evil in a small room (maps are large, with only a few navigation aids.) Mechanically, as those little asides note, it doesn’t work so well, with a lot of factors contributing to the difficulty, while less factors ameliorate it. The controls are also a little tough to get into, sadly, but this is not a huge issue when a lot of the time, what you need is move, jump, and shoot, all of which are simple enough.

Still, it is an interesting story, and while I have a lot of trouble with it, if you’re fine with games being tougher than usual, this may be one to look at.

Even in the areas I’ve been able to struggle through, there’s at least some variety. From a normal house to… This. Cool!

The Mad Welshman loves him some horror. It’s part of why he’s often so harsh with horror titles, it must be said.

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