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.

Going Back – Adam Wolfe

Source: Review Copy
Price: £4.79 for Episode 1, £14.99 for all 4 episodes.
Where To Get It: Steam

It may come as a surprise that this is a going back, considering my long held opinions on the state of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures (Often bad with colourblindness, puzzles that make no sense in the context, extremely thin story that doesn’t have a great track record with treating women well, despite being marketed to said women for the most part), but this one, I feel, deserves it for, at the very least, being less egregious about it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the game is enjoyable. So let’s unpack that.

This is, surprisingly, not quite how it seems. And a reason why I’m somewhat fond of Episode 1.

Adam Wolfe is an episodic hidden object puzzle adventure game… Which seems to tend more toward the adventure end than the hidden object end. Why? Because every puzzle I’ve seen so far has context, even if the puzzles, on closer examination, can seem a little silly, and a few have colourblindness problems. Can’t win ’em all. The final episode was released in November 2016, and I was approached to review it last week.

Episode 1 is a pretty strong start in many respects. The only traditional hidden object puzzle is, amusingly enough, when Adam tips out the junk from moving (Including, for some reason, a pizza box… For shame, Adam!), and this is somewhat less traditional in that it has a strict order, as Adam recalls various things. Still keep only one item, but fine, like I said, can’t win ’em all. The rest are more like forensic puzzles, in which Adam uses a mysterrrrrious watch to try and recreate crime scenes. He doesn’t even get all of them right, in the end, which is a nice touch.

There is a reason, later on, I say this should have been spotted before release. No other episode does this. Also, the file is above the lockbox. See if you can spot it.

But Episode 2, sadly, brings things back to form with a hidden object puzzle where not only are objects, unlike the other episodes, clearly a little glitched (“I’m looking for a %FILE% to do the thing”), there is a puzzle where Adam Wolfe finds a variety of objects to try and open a small lockbox, before eventually settling on the only one that works, a hammer. Adam’s an ex-cop. Which makes this hidden object puzzle, again with its strict order, all the more heartbreakingly stupid and obvious padding. Oh, and that file wasn’t visible without a guide, another common problem with HOPA puzzles.

The rest of the episodes, though, seem fine, for a HOPA… And this is where I go back to a macro-view of the game, because it’s more important to clarify what goes well, what goes the same, and what’s flawed, to highlight that, for all its flaws, Adam Wolfe is a step forward in terms of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures. Firstly, the story, while another supernatural mystery, is specifically patterned after supernatural mystery shows, taking the episodic pacing cues from the genre, along with a more action based story which makes sense in the context. The cast gets less diverse from Episode 2 onwards, sadly, but considering how often HOPAs don’t really write characters well at all, especially women and folks of colour? I’m actually okay with this. I liked that the villains are all white men, effectively. I liked how most of the characters feel like people, and not just “Plot Device X” (I’m not saying all, but most. Some really are just there to be obstacles or exposition.)

Yes, there are still highly silly puzzle locks like this. But, again, they’re less egregious, and more often, this kind of symbol hunting is restricted to, for example, a ritual binding.

Similarly, it’s a step forward to limit the magical protagonist power that all HOPA protagonists seem to have (Never explained, never given context) to the magical end of things (Rituals, spectral signatures, bindings.) The puzzles still feel a bit silly, but they’re less silly than “Oh, hey, a drawing of a bat, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!” It’s good to see this experimentation, like “I need to collect things that make up one object”, rather than “I am going to collect all these things, and keep one object” (Which, sadly, still happens in Adam Wolfe too, but is at least sometimes given context. Baby steps.) Equally interesting to see are the QTE segments. Now, yes, QTEs can be good or bad, and Adam Wolfe’s are mostly in that middle ground of “Clunky, but entertaining”, but, again, this is a step forward. This is something new, being tried in a genre which, as a whole, prefers to crank out three a year of the same kind of thing.

Again, some of these puzzles could have been more clear (There’s rarely consequence for failure, but it does lead to some irritable clicking or mouse moving when no, you’re not told what to shoot, or you’re shown glowies when you’re actually meant to continue to shoot the bad time-wizard, or the like) and hints aren’t always helpful, but, in the end, here’s my summary of Adam Wolfe: For all that it still has some flaws of the HOPA genre at large, it experiments, it tries to emulate a genre of media and mostly succeeds, it tries to give puzzles context and change up the puzzle format and at least half succeeds, and it does enough interesting things that I am perfectly willing, despite my dislike of the HOPA genre’s stagnancy, to say that this game both deserves a playthrough, and this Going Back article. It’s not an amazing game. If it weren’t for episode 2’s highlighting of flaws and bugs that should have been noticed before release, I would say it was a “Highly enjoyable” game (In-between Good and Great, if you’re curious.) But it is by no means a bad game, and I would say that other HOPA developers, current and prospective, would want to look at Adam Wolfe and consider…

I couldn’t really leave this review without a screenshot of one of the fight sequences. Okay, yes, it’s not quite Super PunchOut. But it didn’t *feel* bad to play, and I am content with that.

“…Hey, this guy who dislikes HOPAs is saying the word ‘like’ more, maybe we should ask why?”

The Mad Welshman cannot peel hamburgers off adverts to feed his constant hunger, why should a HOPA protagonist have it any easier?

World of Darkness Preludes (Review)

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

White Wolf, purveyors of the World of Darkness (In which supernatural creatures of various kinds try to deal with their problems, including the need for secrecy) have… Very identifiable writing, at times. Style, they can do. Purple prose, they can do. The fantastic, they can often make believable, even relatable.

Subtlety, nuance, and focus, however, are often things that escape them. And these two pieces of Interactive Fiction very aptly demonstrate this. When one of your two showpieces is called (no joke) “We Eat Blood And All Our Friends Are Dead”, you know you’re in for a very White Wolf time. Whether you will enjoy that time very much depends on you. But I’m not betting on it. Let’s unpack why.

I’M SUBTLY SAYING THIS ISN’T SUBTLE, FOLKS!!!!

First up, let’s get the nice out of the way, because it’s all too brief. The mobile phone conceit of We Eat Blood is a nice one. Not one we haven’t seen before, but it works in the context, and allows for multiple threads. That’s good. Similarly, Refuge (The Mage portion of this twofer) has some cool visual stylings you’d associate with Mage (glitching, sigils, and the like.) So, visually, the stylings are pretty good. Similarly, for the most part, the tunes and sounds are also well presented.

So, there’s your style. Mostly. But the core of an Interactive Fiction is the writing, and its here… Where it starts to fall down. The general premise is that these are introductions, two people thrust into their respective supernatural worlds. But both quickly run into their own problems. Let’s begin with We Eat Blood, the stronger of the two. You are an artistic type, a drug user, general fun-haver, and, after a party, everything went horribly wrong. You can’t eat food anymore. You feel hungry as heck all the time. You have to learn how to deal with this. Oh, and your dead mother is also a vampire, a creepy one speaking in imagery, and there’s a racist bus driver, a lab monkey turned ghoulish killer, and…

Hey, did you know that vampires were originally more zombie like, and sex had next to nothing to do with things? Well, now you do!

…It has a hard time keeping focus. There’s a lot going on in We Eat Blood, and it’s about as subtle as a bag of bricks wrapped around a smaller bag of bricks. The main character is an artist surrounded by artist friends because it allows really purple prose about how sexual bloodsucking is for a vampire, oh my god it’s so good, it’s like having communion with God, only that communion is also fucking, and… I didn’t actually mind that so much, having experienced my fair share of it when I enjoyed White Wolf RPGs (I still do, to some extent.) But the story is trying to build a world that’s meant to entice you into the World of Darkness without actually referring to things, so as to keep the mystery going, so if I didn’t know WoD, old or new, I wouldn’t have realised (possibly until the end) that I’m a Nosferatu, my mother’s a Malkavian… I could go on, but there are supernatural things, and Hunters (yes, with a capital H) and Ghouls, without explanation or context, and, rather than entice, it somewhat turned me off with how it seemed a collection of incidents without any real focus.

Now, I mentioned a racist bus driver, just off hand, and this is as good a segue as any into the Mage portion of the duo, Refuge. The name is, I’m assuming, a play on words on a couple of levels, as the main character is a woman called Julia, who lives in Malmo, Sweden, working for Nordic Aid with Syrian refugees. Her husband is a maker from San-Dieg- Oh. Wait. This would be a good time to mention this half of the duet I ragequit pretty early on. Because, like We Eat Blood, it’s highly unsubtle, and reading it felt like a highly painful clout to the head.

So… Minor digression here: Done well, games that discuss Issues (capital I, the big problems facing us today) are perfectly fine. Done badly, you have something very much like Refuge. Our heroine is a loving wife for a techbro who’s helping the girls into Maker culture, and is obviously the “good” , and the introduction of the “bad”… Is where I ragequit.

Yes, I get that this so-called “Professor” hasn’t actually *read* any Clarke or Asimov, if they’re saying dumb shit like this. Yes, I get that we are constrained by our “nice person” character to only be mean passively or actively. I GET IT.

Julia, I largely didn’t feel one way or the other about until this segment. She’s “generic nice person”, so generic, in fact, that it wasn’t until I looked at the store page that I realised she was a she (The first person narrative doesn’t help there.) But while yes, this guy is an asshole who, I would lay money, will be at the right-wing rally that apparently happens later in the game (Because this is a game about Issues as well as the introduction to the world of Mage), these responses are… Bad. And this so-called professor is quite obviously Bad, and the main character is so obviously Good, and I can almost hear the capital letters forming around this narrative. I could also hear poor ol’ Dr. A starting to revolve rapidly in his grave, but that’s purely by the by. When, before the bad things even happen, you find the reader yelling “I F*(!IN’ GET ITTTT!”, like Billy Connolly at an opera, it is a sign that you are handling things with all the subtlety of a Bagger trying to do microsurgery.

It may come as no surprise to learn that most of the story revolves around the Nordic Aid, magical elements kind of take a background to the whole thing for most of the narrative, and that the black-and-white presentation continues pretty much throughout. Oh, and for those of us waiting to hear if the Mage elements are as formulaic as they can be, yes, the character Awakens at a rave.

In summary, while We Eat Blood is unfocused in places, it is definitely the superior of the two games, but… Honestly, I can’t recommend either. They’re not terribly good at introducing you to the World of Darkness, or even their relative segments of it, there’s only the tiniest hints of subtlety in the writing at places, one character is only halfway relatable (We Eat Blood’s, who is still an asshole), while the other is a cookie cutter Nice Person, and, because of their primary conceit, you may not even realise there are multiple paths through the game (Seemingly mainly influenced by early choices), because of course the game isn’t going to tell you you’re a Nosferatu, or a Gangrel, or a Hollow One, or whatever the hell. And that, funnily enough, is sort of a problem. They become generic, rather than part of their world, one by trying to introduce too many elements, the other by sidelining the magical elements with a hamhanded handling of the refugeee crises in our world and the resurgence of nazi assholes calling themselves the “alternative right wing.”

Hitting that “Compassion” button like there’s no tomorrow. I mean, it’s good advice… But there’s a page and a half of this. I’M TALKING ABOUT SUBTLETY AGAIN, IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED.

The Mad Welshman remembers the names of all the supernatural beings who cross his path. There’s That Guy, and That Thing, and This Thing, and…