Ghost 1.0 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price:
£9.99 (£3.99 for the Soundtrack, which definitely ain’t bad)
Where To Get It:
Steam 

When I got the email that the developers of UnEpic were making a new game, I was both excited and nervous. Excited, because UnEpic did interesting things. Nervous, because it was also referential as hell, dumb in places, and stupidly hard and grindy in others.

This, er... Makes slightly more sense as a joke once you've played UnEpic and seen the bits before this... :/

This, er… Makes slightly more sense as a joke once you’ve played UnEpic and seen the bits before this… :/

For good or for ill… Little has changed. The references are somewhat less forced, the story veers wildly between pulpy silliness, philosophical discussion, and blatant referential humour, and the grind?

Oh yes. The grind remains. And it remains my problem with Ghost 1.0, because, to me? It’s just not fun to repeat alarm lockdowns for Energon-Cubes-As-Currency, so I can get better weapons that, really, I should be earning more organically. And this is a damn shame, because, for all the bitching, there has been improvement over the UnEpic formula, with fluid movement, a better overall story (Involving the enslavement of androids by an evil corporation… Hey, I said better, not amazing), and some cool stuff hidden in there… But, even past the halfway point, I’m not sure it feels worth it to continue. Boss with nigh unavoidable paralyzing shockwave, making it a damage race? Check. Instant death laser segments that, while using the cool idea of controlling robots with cyber-psychic powers, uses it for tedious, “Do it right or do it again” segments involving scientist robots with no offensive abilities (Read: Forced puzzle-stealth segments.) Check.

Not cool, Fran, I totally made my Dexterity Check!

Not cool, Fran, I totally made my Dexterity Check!

There’s fun in there. Really, there is. The second boss, for example, is fun. The first boss, once you figure it out, is fun. The interplay between Ghost, Boogan, and Jacker (The latter two technically making a return from UnEpic) is fun. But it’s buried beneath a game that feels like it’s run by an adversarial GM who still thinks OD&D is the best thing since sliced bread. And this is such a core problem, and obviously deliberate, that I unfortunately can’t get past it.

So, when it comes to the question of “Is Ghost 1.0 worth playing?” , two questions have to be asked. The first is whether you like metroidvanias. A simple enough question, but the next is harder: Do you find grind and “death makes things harder on you” fun? Because, regardless of the good voice acting, the fair animation, the interesting toys (Once you’ve earned them), and the story that definitely has interesting elements, if the answer to that second question is “No, not really”, or some variation thereof, I really can’t recommend Ghost 1.0 to you.

The first boss, about to get a schooling from an awesome cyber-psychic merc lady. Who still died five times while getting the cash for the gun she's using... >:|

The first boss, about to get a schooling from an awesome cyber-psychic merc lady. Who still died five times while getting the cash for the gun she’s using… >:|

The Mad Welshman is hacking Ghost 1.0 to provide a “Less Grindy” mode, but he’s hit Alarm Level 9, and the respawns are getting a bit tiresome. 

Defragmented (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

The dark future, it seems, involves pretty numbers going up. Also shooting people in the face, sometimes nauseating camera, and strange facial proportions. With Defragmented, the time comes to play a reviewer/critic’s game called “What am I deliberately ignoring?”

I love the expressions... It's just the odd facial proportions that turn me off. And yes, that probably isn't what you want to hear today, Mai.

I love the expressions… It’s just the odd facial proportions that turn me off. And yes, that probably isn’t what you want to hear today, Mai.

This is a pretty simple game, although not how it sounds. In this game, you note down what features you didn’t really need to use, and which ones you didn’t want to use, and why. Then you ask how it differed from what appears to be the intended experience. So let’s talk about the intended experience in Defragmented first.

Defragmented is meant to be a cyberpunk Hotline Miami, where death is quick, restarting is just as quick, and you’re scored on how quickly you killed your targets, how little you died, and how thoroughly you looted everything. There are, however, problems, and one of them is that it also expects you to use special RPG abilities, level up, switch inventory, and read a plot that doesn’t appear to change with your class.

Oh, did I mention there are classes, with different abilities, different starting weapons, and this… Doesn’t seem to really matter in the long run? Silly me! Yes, you shoot with left click, throw grenades with right click, open things and push things with E, hit things up close with, er… Q… And abilities on F. This would sound fine, if it weren’t for the required action time. Specifically, the moment an enemy sees you, they’re going to fill the screen with tracers, and odds are you’re going to die. Other reasons you might die include “The enemy spotted me from a long way away” , “My ability/gun didn’t do as much damage as I thought it would” , and “Something was blocking the use of my ability/gun that I didn’t quite see because it blends with the wall/floor.”

Pictured: Just some of the confusion that's going to arise. That's just one shooting. Go in the front door, and anything up to three folk will do this.

Pictured: Just some of the confusion that’s going to arise. That’s just one shooting. Go in the front door, and anything up to three folk will do this.

Why doesn’t it matter in the long run? Because most of the abilities are very, very situational, whereas a) Having a gun with bigger numbers, and b) Shooting them repeatedly before they see you nearly always works. Nearly being the operative phrase, because guns have accuracy, which means… Sometimes they won’t hit. Meanwhile, loot is procedurally generated, which… Isn’t terribly useful. Similarly, perspective camera isn’t terribly useful because it then moves around your mouse pointer, and aiming becomes somewhat different, which… Is not recommended when you have maybe half a second to kill the other person before they kill you. Or when there’s an open elevator pit in the near vicinity.

So this, in essence, is the core problem. The only thing that’s really reliable are enemy positions. Loot is procedurally generated, so you could go several levels without a decent gun, the offensive powers don’t seem to scale with the enemies, and melee is… Largely ignorable, due to a similar unreliability. Special abilities, similarly, can be decidedly iffy, to the point where relying on them is a bad idea. It’s a game I want to like, because it has some cool ideas, some interesting designs, and a moderately entertaining story in which the Via Ascensio, home of Cyber-Psychics, is trying to overthrow the Ascended Council, who are corrupt conservatives. Okay, it sounds a lot better in the game, as does the music, but… The game’s got a bit of a conflict going on between its need for twitch, and the more thoughtful end of things, and this is leading to difficulties. Perhaps if the enemies didn’t react immediately, that balance would be a little bit more in favour. But while it’s entertaining, and tuneful, I’m not a fan of either enemies who can shoot you from off screen (Mission 1-2, even with the camera changes in a recent patch), or the uncertainty that any of my plans beyond “Shoot it a lot” will actually work.

I definitely don't grudge the simple visuals, but the camera (And the neon) takes getting used to.

I definitely don’t grudge the simple visuals, but the camera (And the neon) takes getting used to.

But who knows, maybe you’ll do better than I, or see what I’m missing here. After all, for all that it’s hard as nails, and the dying in the same places can get frustrating, death doesn’t really have a consequence (You just restart the mission instantly), so it can definitely be completed. I just wish it didn’t feel like difficulty for the sake of difficulty.

The Mad Welshman can always count on Deal-EO. Powers, politics, safety… None of these things could be trusted. But Deal-EO gave him the other thing he trusted. Guns. Lots of guns.

Read Only Memories (Review)

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

This review is mostly going to sound like gushing. And, in a sense, it will be. Because most of the flaws with Read Only Memories are in questions unanswered, and in flaws with the interface. But the core of the game… That induced a different type of gushing. But I can only talk about that in general terms, because… I don’t want to spoil things for you.

Turing is adorable, if somewhat... Logical at the beginning. He definitely develops, though.

Turing is adorable, if somewhat… Logical at the beginning. He definitely develops, though.

In any case, Read Only Memories is an adventure game, similar in style to older games such as Cobra Mission, Snatcher, and the MacVentures, in that you have a first person view, and interact by clicking on things, then clicking on icons to do things with them. The inventory is a pop-up box menu, and dialogue runs across the blackspace at the bottom of the screen in JRPG fashion (Y’know, typing letters individually with the option to left click to hurry the words along already). It’s got its problems… For example, the dialogue clicking can lead to missing information if you want to hurry things along (A fast mode helps, but only somewhat), and your interaction icons will sometimes require you to move the mouse away from the thing you clicked, and then back, before you can do the thing you were planning to do.

But this is the thing: Those are niggles, and an adventure game lives or dies on not just whether fans like it, but the story, the aesthetic, the themes, and how it deals with them. In this, Read Only Memories does a good job. Visually, it’s going to remind you of Snatcher. Simple, pixel graphics, anime inspired, and most of it looks like a Syd Mead vision of the future rather than grim and gritty. But make no mistake, the story is a grim one. Turing, a self aware robot, breaks into your home to ask you for help in finding his creator, who had been assaulted, possibly kidnapped. Things snowball from there to corporate intrigue, felonies that would make Gabriel Knight or the cast of Day of the Tentacle wince, and… Not gonna lie, you may well cry at portions. Don’t be ashamed of that, it’s both a testament to your empathy, and to the creators’ solid narrative design.

Conservatism. Conservatism never changes. Pompadours, fringe-lines, fashion... But Conservatism... Never changes...

Conservatism. Conservatism never changes. Pompadours, fringe-lines, fashion… But Conservatism… Never changes…

For all that the visuals don’t match perfectly, they match well enough that you believe in this future, where conservatives aren’t worried so much about the colour of your skin as to whether you want to look like a cat or want to improve on the human design with technology, and where robots, for common convenience tasks, are both common and believable in their functions. It’s cyberpunk as hell, in its way, because you’re not a powerful person (A media/hardware journalist, in fact. 😛 ), and it explores themes of consciousness, and privilege of the future, in a very succinct manner.

Perhaps a little too succinct in places (You may never understand why assuming that a feline person might be the TOMCAT you’re looking for is offensive, and the game won’t tell you unless you’re prepared to fuck up more than you already did), but the writing is tight, the music is fitting (I can’t think of a single track that didn’t fit the mood). The sound design is again mostly reminiscent of games like Snatcher, and what rare voice acting there is (The cutscenes) is fitting. What I particularly like, however, is its accessibility. It’s easy to understand, easy to get into, and, while the cutscene sorta assumes a gender for your character at the beginning, that’s not quite true (That cutscene is another niggle), as you can not only state your name, but your preferred pronouns as well (including custom pronouns). Since you never see yourself, and the character is mostly a tabula rasa (within the usual limits of games with dialogue choices), this is a good design choice. I went with they/them/their, and my own name… I don’t particularly know why, but… It felt right.

You may not think this makes sense. But it does. In context. ...Why yes, this is a subtle way of my saying "play the game", why do you ask?

You may not think this makes sense. But it does. In context.
…Why yes, this is a subtle way of my saying “play the game”, why do you ask?

Read Only Memories can be completed in around 4 hours, but multiple paths and endings mean that this is definitely a replayable game… Yes, including bad ends… Most of the cheevos are hidden, another good design decision. As such, I would recommend this to quite a few folks out there, as it’s a simple enough adventure game (mechanically) that it would be a good entry point for folks who have been scared off adventure games before, adventure game fans will find the puzzles mostly well designed (I don’t know if there was a quiet way to do some things. Maybe I’ll find out later), and cyberpunk fans… Yeah, this is cyberpunk as hell. I definitely feel good about my £10, and I think (Don’t take my word for it, obviously!) that many of you will too. Even if, y’know, you get sniffly and tear up like me.

I’m not going to tell you what end I got, but… Folks who know me and my writings won’t be surprised about it, I’ll say that much.

The Mad Welshman sighed as he read news of another zaibatsu dealing with corruption in the ranks, sipping his Strawberry Power Hassy and brushing his long, dark mane. Sodding business news, he thought.

Going Back: Syndicate

Considering I was going to be reviewing Satellite Reign, this was a no-brainer. But it’s also a no-brainer because it was, in its way, quite interesting. For all that people have compared SR to Syndicate (Released in 1993, by Bullfrog, who also gave us Populous and introduced us to Peter Molyneux), the two are very different experiences.

On these dark streets, a civilian is about to undergo a mandatory promotion...

On these dark streets, a civilian is about to undergo a mandatory promotion…

Both, for example, use four team members, who can, with the right equipment, do pretty much anything. They can be replaced. They can be upgraded. They’re facing off against other corporations. The world is grim and gritty. But here, the similarities end. Syndicate, you see, is strictly level based, as opposed to the sprawling open world of Satellite Reign. Skills don’t really exist, and your agents are easily replacable, not because they can be cloned, but because, to the corpsicles of Syndicate, grabbing a joe off the street, brainwashing them, and hooking them up to cybernetics is considered cheaper and more effective.

The goals, also, are similar, but in its way, Syndicate is broader in scope. Each mission is a step along the way to complete global domination, starting in Europe in the main game, then jacking up the difficulty with the additional “American Revolt” missions. And other things make the game easier as well. The Persuadatron, for example.

Nothing is safe from a truly determined team of Syndicate Agents.

Nothing is safe from a truly determined team of Syndicate Agents.

The Persuadatron was a wonderful device, although its usefulness declined in later missions. Effectively, you put it on, bumped into a civilian, and they were then yours. Get enough civilians converted, you could convert a police officer. Get enough officers converted, you could even convert enemy agents. Of course, that led to its own flaws, with one possible mission path being “Hoover up everyone on the map before going to the objective”… But it was only one possible mission path. Others would open up to you.

Stealth, for example, was do-able. Difficult, but do-able. Going loud, equally, was an option, and as the game progressed, you could move from destroying people (including the agents of enemy Corps) and civilian vehicles, to destroying entire buildings. Target you want to kill in a building? Right, gauss rifle and flamethrower time! But equally, equipping badly for a mission is a bad idea. Bringing a shotgun to deal with a scientist’s personal bodyguard? Well, that’d be fine, except you’re meant to Persuade the scientists, Agent, not Eliminate them. Access Cards could not only open doors, but convince police that you’re meant to be there (Although not, alas, guards.) And, of course, your agents have performance enhancing/reducing drugs and cyberware, which have various effects (Want to carry two miniguns? Improve your arm mods to hold them, and eye mods to shoot in a tighter pattern)

A busy street, circa 20XX, circa 1993.

A busy street, circa 20XX, circa 1993.

As an older game, the difficulty curve ramps up moderately quickly, and the final mission of the main game involves seven corps working with their kill teams against you in less than ideal conditions for your agents, but, even today, you can see little things that make this a classic. The AI isn’t terribly complicated, but it knew how to use its weapons, it gave the impression of a populated (Albeit not densely) city block, and for all that the mechanics, aesthetics, and music are relatively simple, they’re all geared toward the same experience. The experience of being dystopian enforcers of a terrible New World Order. Bullfrog would return to the theme with the expansion pack, American Revolt, in 1994, Syndicate Wars, in 1996, and, of course, Dungeon Keeper, in 1997.

Satellite Reign (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £22.99 (£29.99 for Deluxe Edition)
Where To Get It: Steam

‘Satellite Reign is similar to Syndicate.’ I’ve been seeing this phrase a lot, unsurprising, because the game was billed as a spiritual successor to that second game, made by developers who worked on it, and it does, indeed, have similarities. But it’s not a terribly useful phrase. Let me try and do things a little better for you. For extra comparison, I’ve also written a Going Back on Syndicate.

The intro to the game is quite interesting, and quite fitting for a corporate overlord surveying the situation.

The intro to the game is quite interesting, and quite fitting for a corporate overlord surveying the situation.

So, let’s go back to basics: Satellite Reign is a game where four corporate “Specialist Staff” (That’s a nice, corporate way of saying “Wetworks Operatives”, itself a nice way of saying “Professional Killers and Saboteurs”) are sent on various missions to ensure that your corporation is the one that gets to continue doing business. If you guessed this involves murder, assassination, property damage, and general mayhem, you would not only win an imaginary cookie, you’d also win a visit to [insert corp]’s wonderful Human Resources Department… Specifically the Attitude Adjustment centre, because you’ve quite clearly got the wrong idea about how the Glorious Corporation works.

It is, however, somewhat loadscreen heavy. Once the game actually begins, there’s less, but with my setup being less than optimal, three loading screens is a significant time investment once the game begins. And then the fun begins.

See all those dots in the minimap? People. Many of them more important than you realise at first.

See all those dots in the minimap? People. Many of them more important than you realise at first.

Except… Once you leave the tutorial, the openness of the world works against you. The game, in a sense, resists being played. The camera refuses to move from a certain angle, despite tall buildings getting in the way, and you will be spending a fair amount of time paused in the mission control screen, poring over what you know of the map. It’s also pretty resource intensive, so it’s more important than usual to meet more than the minimum specs, or else you’re going to be waiting longer, and reacting more slowly to situations as they develop.

I have to admit, although I love me a good cyberpunk game (And, importantly, Satellite Reign remains cyberpunk until you get some serious kit. For all that you’re a rival corporation, and clones exist, you’re still only four folks), I’m not so fond of Satellite Reign. The game clearly colour codes and highlights the sorts of things you want to keep an eye on, the music is quite tense, and very fitting, but you’re in an information overload from the word go, and it’s difficult to filter that.

Do I go for ATMs? Do I rob a bank or three? Get researchers? Try and level up my agents by hacking, murdering, sabotaging and hijacking? I don’t knooooooooow!

Security is no joke, even at the beginning of the game. Most of the reason I prefer stealth.

Security is no joke, even at the beginning of the game. Most of the reason I prefer stealth.

I do like that there are multiple paths through a situation. For example, the first mission, you can sneak in the back door and avoid two thirds of the security, in and out if you’re quick enough. Or you can go in the back door, gun everyone down, and leave as you came in. Similarly, you can level your agents in interesting ways, and there’s leeway even within their roles. But personally, I’m feeling lost, torn between several directions, and while that sort of fits the mood of the game, it’s not really for me. It’s a game that seems to requires multiple losses to truly master, but, unlike a roguelike, which follows the same philosophy, losing isn’t a case of “straight back in”, but loading screens and the tutorial mission. Or reloading the save.

I also like that there’s a lot going on, in a sense. Civilians, police, drones, cars… They’re all constantly moving, making for a living tapestry, and the dystopian vision is quite clear every time you turn down a side road and see rubble, and the city’s dispossesed (Who you can take advantage of). Alas, I sadly don’t think this game is for me.

If you like open worlds with lots to do, skill options, are good at squad level micro play, and don’t mind a lot of info being thrown at you, then being left to your own devices, this is probably a good game for you. If you don’t feel that real time squad combat and stealthing is your thing, then you’re probably better off with something more focused.

The Mad Welshman sat on his corporate throne, head in his hands. The synthesised voices of his agents rang in his ears, and he thought very hard of the Bahamas HR Centre.