Donut County (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.29
Where To Get It: Steam

Donut County is one of those most pleasant of games for a critic: A game where, on its surface level, it’s tight, accessible, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, although I freely admit I wouldn’t have minded more.

I mean… [looks at library] He’s not… Wrong?

Just below that, however, only slightly concealed, is a fun little bit of political allegory that I can’t help but appreciate. How a donut hole, “driven” by a raccoon to cause chaos for, essentially, selfish reasons, symbolises a large part of what is wrong with capitalism. That’s the kind of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.

On its face, there’s an enjoyable game. You are a raccoon, directing a donut-hole around a map with the mouse, exploring a well styled low-poly world as you drop it all… Into the hole. Why are you doing this? Well, partly it’s to get revenge on people who annoyed your friend. Partly it’s because it’s a game, and it’s a fun thing to do in a game. But mostly, it’s because you’re almost a Level 10 employee, and when you hit Level 10? You get a cool quadcopter of your very own. That’s a good enough reason to drop large portions of a small town into a deep, hungry donut-hole that expands the more it’s fed, right?

It helps that often, filling that hole is, itself, a pleasurable and amusing activity.

Even if it didn’t go the extra mile narratively, you’ve got a fun game with a delightfully subversive message. The more you throw into the hole, the bigger it gets. You’re filling it, but the hole always gets bigger, because there’s bigger stuff out there to throw into your bigger hole. And, each level, you’re only satisifed when there’s nothing left… But the hole. And you’re told what a good job you’ve done as the person you’ve dropped down the hole is endlessly falling, and a little bar puts you ever closer to that quadcopter, the cool thing you’ve been promised if you only keep filling the hole.

But it does go that extra mile, and, inbetween every level, there’s a little segment, at the bottom of the hole, where the survivors (including the friend of main protagonist BK the Racoon) call BK out on the fact that he destroyed the entire town… To get a cool quadcopter. And, at first at least, he’s not the slightest bit guilty. He’s too busy being pissed that his supposed best friend, who he did this for, broke his quadcopter. He was only doing his job! He nominally did some good along the way! It’s totally not his fault!

There’s other things, too, later down the line, but this… This is some well crafted allegory. We like stuff! We want more stuff! But there’s only so much stuff, and a lot of it is, put bluntly, junk. But that’s okay, we’re playing a trashpanda, and what does a trashpanda like? Junk. They don’t necessarily understand it (as the Trashpedia humorously shows), it’s… It’s junk! You get junk, and getting junk is good! It’s better if it’s cool junk, sure, but it’s stuuuuufff! Some of that stuff was better off where it was, serving a useful function. Some of that stuff was distributing other stuff. But nope, hole’s gotta be filled, we have to have all the stuuuufff!

Legit creepy, sometimes, when you’re subtweeted by a literal Trash King.

I could go on, but it’s delightful, it’s clever, and it can be played in an afternoon. Then, if you feel like, you can do the completionist stuff, collect all the trash and do interesting things. And I would recommend that, because it’s fun, it’s simple, and it’s a balm in this stuff filled world we live in.

The Mad Welshman is sometimes a raccoon. He likes stuff!

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Heaven Will Be Mine (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39 (Soundtrack £7.19)
Where To Get It: Steam

Heaven Will Be Mine is one of those visual novels that packs a lot into its relatively tiny frame. Like the mechs it pilots, existential warriors in both space… And phase space, its core is super dense. And if this seems like pretty, poetic words, to lull you into buying into it… Well, they are and they aren’t.

You know you’re in for a wild ride when ship specs have you reaching for your fan.

See, it’s hard to describe good, sensual writing without a little bit of poetry getting into the informational. And notice that I said sensual, not sexual. More than one way to peel a banana, friend. So let’s get the purely informational out of the way, get to the fun stuff.

As noted, Heaven Will Be Mine is a visual novel. You make choices, and those choices lead toward an ending. How? Well, that depends on both your choices, and which (if any) of the three factions you favour. Which of the pilots you choose affects the story, sure… But which ending you choose doesn’t necessarily depend on the pilot. After all, this is a game where the war is mostly a battle of ideas, and sometimes… The best way to win is to lose. Read chats, get into the heads of three flawed and interesting pilots, each with support staff, and mails, and world, and context…

…It seems complex, but it really isn’t, and the game makes it clear that it wants you to experience it, whether you pick the events that are “wins” or “losses.” Will it end in war, or something else? Well, that’s up to you, and I wouldn’t dream of giving you hints. Visually, the game is clear, with an interface that draws you in, fitting well, and musically… Musically, it shines, every track fitting the mood.

Not pictured: A long bass thrum, seemingly never ending, which screams “Threat” to the nether portions of the brain.

Now, the meat of the review. You see, despite being lewd as heck, to the point where I spent most of my first run alternating between gnawing on my thumb and my lip, blushing beet red, this not only doesn’t come at the expense of its universe, it also doesn’t come with the expense of being Not Safe For Work. The writing is flirtatious, concentrating more on feelings, engaging the senses to bring you into its mood. While I’m mostly writing this from the perspective of Saturn, each character has their own mood, and it does a good job of getting that mood across. Saturn is out for fun, to do the unexpected, and to have fun. Luna-Terra is, as their commander notes, strong yet fragile, wounded and whole, conflicts working perfectly… And Pluto… Pluto feels all encompassing, awe inspiring and paradoxically merciful in her deadly gravity well. Aevee Bee, as writer, has done an excellent job of making the posthuman both alien… And attractive, and the rest of the game follows this lead very well.

Of course, all of this has been very emotionally described, but, in a very real sense, that’s the point… It’s not a game I could review well by saying “This is good” , or “This is lewd”, or “This doesn’t feel right” , because a lot of it is about feeling, and Heaven Will Be Mine succeeds on this front very well.

While, of the three, I had the most enjoyable time with Saturn, I found Luna-Terra the most interesting.

The Mad Welshman smiles a little, and his e-cig lights up, as he shakes ever so slightly. The future, it seems, is filled with possibilities…

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La-Mulana 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Being an Archaeologist is, in many senses, about being observant. Clues can be as subtle as a passage in a book, the curvature of glacially moulded hillscapes, or the precise composition of a flint arrowhead, and it’s important to be able to see, to understand what you’re seeing. Being a Ninja, if we go by popular depictions or otherwise, is about being observant. Being a covert agent is all about what you perceive, about how quickly you can sense danger, and, equally, about seeing opportunity where others merely see a surly major-domo (for example.) In both cases, livelihood (and sometimes, your life) depends on being able to clearly see the clues set in front of you by circumstance.

“Do not pursue Le-Meza!” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but yes, the protag’s dad always seems to be near the most devlish traps. I’m in the *POISON LAVA* on the left. Terrible parent, I swear…

And so, funnily enough, it is with La Mulana 2, a game that does explain its puzzles… It’s just not always in the places you’d expect. This is less surprising when you consider that the only family line to have successfully explored the La Mulana ruins (and, with your control, hopefully explore the Eg-Lana ruins that seemingly coincide with them) is a family of… Archaeologist Ninjas. Lemeza and Shawn, from the last game, and, the main protagonist of this game, Lemeza’s daughter Lumisa.

So, for those just catching up, La Mulana was, and is, a love letter to the MSX (One of Microsoft’s early attempts at “A computer on every desk” , an 8-bit system that found popularity in quite a few places, but most notably Japan and Brazil), and the action adventures that could occasionally be found on the system. It’s an action platformer, but with puzzles of all stripes, some of which will kill the unwary instantly, a variety of enemies, and, of course, bosses… Some of whom will kill the unwary instantly. Save early, save often, and investigate things. Oh, except that tablet. They told you not to read that tablet for a reason, don’t do that. That’s the Hard Mode Tablet.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Or that the game didn’t.

Bosses and NPCs alike take from a variety of mythological sources, from the Aztec, Mayan, Norse, and Celto-Gaelic cycles. Ixtab, for example, is the Mayan goddess of… Well, you can probably guess. 😐

Overall, La Mulana 2 is a more focussed, somewhat improved version of its predecessor. Awkward to no air control has become “A little air control” (and jumping puzzles designed around this), the early game is less punishing (You can, with just a little prep, take on all the minibosses and boss of the first area without serious weapon upgrades), the writing’s improved a little, and the art style is about the same as the remaster of La Mulana 1 (Solid pixel art, combined with some amusing hand-drawn characters for the conversations.) It controls relatively well (although the keybinds take some getting used to, and, even as an 8-bit kid, it took me a short time to figure out that F2 is for inventory, settings, and apps, and F1 is for conversation, the area map (if you’ve found it), and the area teleport interface. Swimming is still somewhat painful, alas, but we can’t have everything.

Thing is, La Mulana 2 does exactly what it sets out to do: Be a tough, but mostly fair adventure platformer, with a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic setting where not only were all myths real, they all had a single source, a progenitor who, as it turned out, just wanted to go home… And the world ending threat she represented. So, on the one hand, this review is very much a “Does what it says on the tin”, and, considering the Kickstarter campaign was on the platform of “Back this, and I will make a game that kills your character repeatedly” (not the exact words, but close enough), and the first game worked on exactly this notion… Yes, it does what it says on the tin. But I thought I’d finish up this review by describing the core loop of gameplay, because most people who get turned off by the game get turned off by the second part of the loop, and maybe hearing it will help.

At first, everything is very simple: You’ve opened doors, you’ve got the map to the area, you’ve remembered to ensure you can teleport to the area (by scanning the holy grail you normally save with), and you’ve killed pretty much everything you can kill that stays dead, such as minibosses. Good on you… But of course, the game isn’t over, and the question then arises… Well now what?

Once you’ve figured out part of the puzzle, the rest tends to fall into place. Which, let’s face it, is a good feeling.

Well, now you need to go somewhere new, solve some new puzzle, obviously. And sometimes, it seems like there’s no way forward. One optional example here is the chain whip. It’s a useful weapon, like your whip, but does double the damage, which is just enough not to hear the dreaded “tink” of “Haha, nope, this enemy didn’t even feel that.” But getting it involves observation, and the fact that you have water (poisonous), ice water (poisonous and cold), lava (hot), and poison lava (hot poison, and no, I’m not joking. Poison lava. Just for added “Screw you.”) All I will say is that identifying which is which is very valuable in determining whether a path is suicidally impossible… Or do-able, providing you know how to deal with the swimming. This is one example of where the way forward is there… You’re just not seeing it. Drawings on tablets give you hints to what these cryptic texts are talking about. Tablets tell you about things… Walls can look different, maybe crumbly, maybe hollow.

And then you find a way forward, and it probably kills you, because of something you hadn’t seen before. Sometimes it’s a miniboss. Sometimes it’s a new enemy. Sometimes, it’s gotcha traps, which, I’ll grant you, are a turn off (although even these mostly give clues to their presence… Even if the clues, sometimes, are bait.) But you know a way forward. Due to the relatively nonlinear nature of the game, it doesn’t even have to be the same path your friend took (I got two sigils before my friend did, but had to look at his footage to see where the hell the chain-whip was, for example.)

That, in the end, is the core of La Mulana 2: Explore, probably die a lot, save often so the deaths set you back less, find clues, find cool items and mythological beings to talk to (or fight), solve those puzzles, beat those bosses, eventually save the world, hopefully have a good time doing so. Despite being horribly stuck, I’m having fun, and I hope folks who get the game (if they do after reading this) enjoy it too, because while it’s sometimes old school, it’s a lot more fair than the old-school I’m used to. Looking at you, old text adventures… BITE LIP… Who the hell thinks BITE LIP is the proper solution to a puzzle, I ask you…

Even returning characters get some impro-H GODS, ALRIGHT, I’LL BUY SOME WEIGHTS, JUST DON’T HURT ME!

The Mad Welshman will draw the curtain on this review, to save you from a rant about the bullshittery of old text adventures… For now.

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Haimrik (Review)

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

Haimrik is a game with an interesting concept. What if you had the ability to take words, and use them to change the world? Not in a “Saying powerful things”, but literally picking the word Sword up, and bam… Sword. It’s a cool idea, and not having those words be entirely under your control (some words, after all, bite back, or are just hostile to you, personally) is also a neat touch.

It’s a shame then, that Haimrik feels so very constrained. Understandable… But also a shame.

I mean, to be fair, being attacked by an ice wizard on a day I was planning to write things for you wasn’t exactly expected for me either…

Protagonist Haimrik is a writer. Well, a scrivener. He writes books, in the hopes that they sell, and the only person who even reads them is his landlady (whom he has a thing for), while he’s behind on his rent, and a corrupt king supported by his Word Warriors rules tyrannically over the land. Enter The Book. Drop some blood onto it, and the narrative of the world can be changed. An artefact, and a power, that immediately gets him into trouble.

Nice concept, yeah? Unfortunately, less than an hour in, its prescriptive approach gets my goat. There are a couple of puzzles where there are multiple solutions, but a lot of the time, no, it’s just the one. And not always a terribly interesting one. Okay, yes, we plant the SEED (run to seed, hold down) in the FERTILE SOIL (Hold F, plant seed), and then we call for some RAIN (run to RAIN, hold down), and… Oh, crap, do we use FERTILISER or POISONOUS FUNGUS to grow the plant, considering the obstacle we can’t control, the SWARM OF LOCUSTS? Which, as a bonus to losing us the seed we need, will gruesomely kill us, just as we’ve gruesomely killed (and been killed by) several soldiers, some goblins, a rat, a snake, a crocodile, and an ice wizard by this point.

Ohcrapohcrapohcrap CODE VERMILLION TALON, I REPEAT, CODE VERMILLION TALON!

As you might have guessed by the description of this puzzle, and the accompanying screenshot, it’s pretty much an inventory puzzle of sorts, with nouns being the inventory in question. Occasionally, it becomes more interesting, such as the fight with Murdock the Ice Wizard, or the Dragon, which are… Well, they’re boss fights, with the twist being in the sentences they display. It’s a fairly good twist, to be honest, counterbalanced by Haimrik being… Kind of crap at fighting. Aiming is a somewhat slow affair, jumps in a couple of boss fights are tight, and, even with the fact that death leads to a scene restart, it can get frustrating quickly.

Narratively, it’s a story seen quite a bit before. Cruel king, young man raised in a rural town in obscurity, family and town gets brutalised very soon after he gains a magical ability… It’s not helped by the fact that, even toward the very end, Haimrik, as a character, is basically a punching bag, and so their Hero’s Journey seems… Flat.

But then, the game is trying to do several different things. It’s trying to be an old-school adventure game (Complete with “Ha-ha, what fool uses LEECHES without a BUCKET? Eat a death!”), a difficult platformer (Complete with deathpits), a gore comedy, and a traditional fantasy romp. But it doesn’t quite have the speed of many difficult platformers (Haimrik can best be described as “trundling”, even when his life depends on it), it doesn’t have a lot of charm behind its comedy, and part of that is because it’s also trying to go through the Serious Hero’s Journey In Fantasy checklist. Also, it doesn’t help that a lot of the comedy comes from “Ha ha, you died.”

See if you can spot which word would have saved me from YAHGD (Yet Another Horrific Gotcha Death)…

One of the few upsides is that it has a solid, consistent aesthetic, but that hasn’t stopped me from putting this game down again… And again… And again, out of frustration with the gotchas and sometimes nonsensical solutions.

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The Miskatonic (Review)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £4.79
Where To Get It: Steam

The Miskatonic, to get the things that turn some folks off right now, is a no-choice visual novel (click the right things to proceed, click everything else for more world/dialogue) with some body horror NSFW, and a lewd adjacent tone for most of its Post-Lovecraftian shenanigans (That’s a nice term, thanks RPS.) It takes about 2 hours to play through.

I don’t know *where* I got the idea it might be lewd-adjacent for a lot of it. Not. A. Clue.

Okay, has everyone who’s turned off by that gone?

Good.

The Miskatonic is an interesting visual novel, built in TyranoBuilder, because of all the subtle messaging we’ve got going on here. “Oh hey, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice, let’s be nice and try to make the world nicer.” is the core philosophy of the main character. People who have been mutated in this strange, Miskatonic world aren’t irreperably disabled by it, but are folks who… Well, just get on with their lives, and are still people. There’s even some not-very subtle lewd adjacency and QUILTBAG+ imagery. And, at a certain point, it points out that when people reach extremes of an ideology, they become gatekeepy assholes. It tries to create a world, in the relatively short time available to it, that has not only met the Great Old Ones, but just… Dealt with it, and moved on.

And then it makes a lot of the characters I previously empathised with douchebags, who had been working with the folks I already thought were douchebags, or just plain creepy. I could probably, given a while, a decent headspace, and a 2000+ wordcount, write quite a bit about… A 2 hour visual novel.

To have an eldritch horror have to tell you this is probably a galling experience, I would imagine.

But, in a way, this is precisely the problem I face with The Miskatonic. It packs a lot into a little, and it leaves the critical brain a little frazzled, because not everything works together (Although enough does that it makes for an interesting narrative.) It’s flirty until it takes a left turn into horrortown. It’s pretty inclusive in messaging, but the majority of the characters are caucasian (When they’re not a plant-being, or a tiny adorable avatar of Yog Sothoth, or a person whose head entirely consists of craters), and wheee that’s a lot of breastage implied there!

What I guess I’m trying to say here is that it works… Overall… But definitely isn’t perfect, and the tonal whiplash doesn’t so much shock, as feel… A little off. Text could use the accessibility option of being larger (Although, not having TyranoBuilder, I’m uncertain how that would be applied.), musically and visually it fits together with its themes and mood, and as such, while I would overall recommend it as an interesting piece of writing (and a good example of relatively well proportioned, thirsty artwork that also manages to, with one exception that’s jarringly deliberate, normalise the body horror elements), I would maybe suggest to the developers they look to add a few accessibility options if that’s at all possible.

The supersonic squeal at the cuteness (and probably Welshness) of this Avatar of Yog-Sothoth broke seventeen windows. Kindly support TMW to pay the bill for that, it wasn’t my fault!

The Mad Welshman sounds confused today because his brain got hit by Shoggoth matter. Moreso than the baseline amount, anyway.

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