Dead Cells (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Itch.IO

It’s funny, sometimes, the things you have to think about in a game like Dead Cells. After all, sooner or later, the player’s going to have trouble getting new blueprints, or collect them all. Thankfully, I have discovered that yes, Motion Twin have thought of both aspects, while continuing to improve a game that I’ve already been liking so far.

See… I *told* you I’d get closer to that goal of getting all the lovely bubbly vials of cool things! Soon, my pretties. Soon.

When last I looked at Dead Cells, quite a few months back, it was already shaping up to be a characterful, clever 2d platforming slash-em-up with a lot of depth, paths, and ooey goo to enjoy. And since then? There’s been a lot of changes. And you know what? They’re good. The new levelling system, for example, balances a concern that the older system had, where you could go for damage, health, or ability, but could level yourself into a corner. This time around, every upgrade path gives you some health, and there’s good reasons to take any particular level up, from damage boosts on killing enemies, to improved parrying with shields. Similarly, some upgrades allow for selling things you don’t want on the spot, reshuffling the shop (for a price), a Daily Challenge mode where you try to balance getting through a level quickly with murdering the Best Monsters, and new areas galore.

For first time players, the level design hints at things that you can achieve, or get. Glowing sarcophagi. Weird blobs, strange sigils… Where I’m currently at, ability wise, I’m looking at walls too tall for me to climb, and I’m not thinking “Oh boo, an area blocked off”, I’m thinking “Hrm. Somewhere, currently out of my reach (but not forever), there is someone I’ll defeat to get wall climbing or jumping. And then, my pretties… Oh yessss, theeeennnn…”

When a plan comes together, and enemies go SQUISH, it’s a good feeling…

It encourages with its blockages, rather than feeling like a limitation. Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but somehow… It works. Similarly, Elite enemies are a thing you can choose not to engage. Hit ’em, and you fight ’em. Avoid them, and, okay, you miss out on some lovely Cells for unlocking new weapons and abilities, but you wouldn’t be avoiding them if you didn’t think that maybe they’d be too much for you right now.

The things I’ve said previously, about the cool, disgusting sound design, the goo, the interesting visual design, and the twitch, remain the same. The aesthetic is awesome, the game mostly lets you deal with it on your own terms, while encouraging weapon experimentation with synergies and special abilities, and… Well, I liked it then, and I still quite enjoy it now, even where I am, pretty late in the collection game and hunting for the next step forward.

The briefest of glimpses of an area recently added, the Clock Tower. Suffice to say, it was brief because I was murderised shortly thereafter.

The Mad Welshman is running and running to stay in place, oh, what a mixed up world this is!

Become a Patron!

Midboss (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99 (£14.98 for game and soundtrack, £3.99 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam, Itch.IO

It has always been the position of TMW that experimentation is good. It’s good to try new things, because by trying new things, exploring new possibilities, games as a whole improve. Unfortunately, while Midboss experiments, it also falls prey to the problems of genre past, and feels somewhat humdrum and unfriendly as a result. Let’s unpack that.

The game, essentially, is a turn based dungeon hack, where you play that most maligned of any Dungeon Lord’s denizens, the humble Imp. Except the Imp, rather annoyed at being the punching bag of all those skeletons and zombies, decides to finally use its power of possessing creatures to work its way up the hierarchy. Viva La Impvolution!

Alas, La Impvolution often ends quite quickly. Imps are not the beefiest revolutionaries.

And this, in the end, is its core gimmick. You have an ability in Imp Form, to mark an enemy for possession. Kill it, and you become it. Kill other creatures with it, and you unlock its powers. You then have the option of using those powers in imp form, and, if you’ve got all the skills, mastering the form, you can also gain their stats. It’s clever, it’s understated, and that understatement, along with the unfriendliness of the traditional roguelike, forms the main problems.

Yes, it’s nice to be a high damage skellington, for example. But animations are light on the ground, so combat is mostly “Bash self into enemy, numbers happen, enemy bashes itself into you, numbers happen.” It is more involved than that (Speed factors into how many turns you get to move and hit people versus them hitting you and moving, for example), but it rarely feels more involved than that. Similarly, you hit crates, cratefish (Normally a subject for a joke, but here, it’s just A Thing That Happens), yarn, and maybe items pop out. The items, except for potions, blend somewhat into the floor, it’s not always clear what kind of item they are due to this colourblind unfriendly problem, and, of course, in roguelike fashion, you don’t know what they are until you pick them up.

The game has “Retro modes” , shaders that appear mostly accurate to older graphical modes. Here’s the VIC-20, one of the *less* eye-searing ones.

There is a lot of vendor trash, so improving yourself equipment wise becomes an exercise in tedium, itself not helped by the fact that there is, as far as I am aware, one vendor, who is a cat, and may exist on any given dungeon level. See, again, potentially interesting and amusing thing, made humdrum. They accept balls of yarn as currency, and, for some reason, this Dungeon Lord keeps lots of bundles of yarn. No, I don’t particularly know either. There’s one kind of scroll that I’ve seen (Identify), a variety of potions, and skill/spell books, which let you use abilities without having the form equipped (A limited number of times.)

Even with the turn based nature of the game, odds are high you’ll forget that you can go into your inventory, right click a book or a potion, and lo, your odds of survival/damage/stunning/whatnots have improved… Because yes, you have to do this.

There are some nice touches to this game, don’t get me wrong. When you equip a form on top of another form, your palette changes to reflect this (So a vampire bat/skellington is a red skeleton, while a lightning bat/skellington is pale blue), and there are unlockable “Retro Modes”, basically palette accurate shaders of days gone by, from the eye-searing CGA palette (Pictured), to the more reasonable tones of the VIC-20 or C64. They don’t help the colour blind problems of the game (In fact, CGA makes it worse, because CGA was always a fucking terrible video mode), but they are somewhat nice.

When the majority of items are vendor trash, and there is only one vendor… Problems arise.

Overall, though, Midboss places me in an awkward spot. It’s not quite friendly enough to be a starter for folks wanting to get into Roguelikes, beyond its core gimmick, it isn’t quite interesting enough to recommend to Roguelike fans looking for something new… I could maybe recommend it to folks looking at game design and gimmicks that change gameplay, but otherwise… It just doesn’t really seem to get me going, and I don’t feel like I’m doing more than going through the motions when playing.

The Mad Welshman sighed as he watched the Imp. Soon, he would have to reveal himself, and he was getting really tired of saying “Yes! I WAS that sheep!”

Become a Patron!

Dead Cells (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Itch.IO

For a bundle of ooze, condemned to murder and drain the genetic information of magical weapons and experiments just like itself, the titular Dead Cells are quite an expressive character. They sort of have to be, as they can’t say anything, and that’s easily explained by the fact that they’re an oozing thing with one burning eye and no mouth. But hey, they understand folks fine, what’s the problem?

Ahhh… Soon, I will have *aaaall* the goopy vials… And maybe then, I can rest.

Anyways, Dead Cells is a game about dodging blows from various enemies, leaping about frantically, slashing and murdering frantically, and occasionally dying frantically, before your little pile of ooze is piped into another headless corpse to begin the whole palaver again for the nefarious purposes of a Necro-Alchemist. It’s a simple game, and pseudo-random level generation means that while I know roughly what to expect from a level, I don’t know the full ins and outs.

Design wise, it’s pretty tight so far. It’s one of the first games where I haven’t found a subweapon I haven’t found a use for, the weapons, similarly, are solid. Enemies telegraph things well enough that I’ve quickly worked out how to dodge, say, the venom of the scorpions in the old sewer. You start with only one path, but unlock more by getting far enough (You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road… And I will be murdered by scorpions!) , you have a fair few weapons already (From main weapons like the electric whip and the BLOOD SWORD, to subweapons like the Meat Grinder, or my personal favourite, Ice Grenades), and, obviously, a bevy of monsters.

What’s that coming out of the ground, is it a Scorpion, it is a scorpion!

It must be said that, if you can’t play twitchy games, Dead Cells is sadly not for you, because it’s twitchy as hell. In fact, one of my current criticisms of the game is that Elite enemies following you gives you absolutely no chance to heal (Which takes time), and sometimes, the fight goes so quickly that you’re not sure what actually killed you (Each individual fight tends to take between 1 and 3 seconds, and, at the end of that time, either they’re dead, or you are. Unless they’re Elites, in which case the fight lasts either too long, or a painfully short time.)

But the sound design is good (The slish and squish of your ooey-gooey body shlorping into your next headless host is… A thing to behold), the visuals are good (Pixellated gore, goo, and viscera is the order of the day… The game revels in its griminess, but everything except the pipe ladders in the sewer levels are clearly differentiated), and even getting past the first level means you improve, albeit slower than if you get further each run, so the difficulty evens out over time. Overall, Dead Cells is already looking promising, and, along with Drifting Lands, is currently my go to for a quick, fun game. The tunes are good, and my only grump right now is that Elite enemies are, if anything, too elite.

Are you… Are you *Bratting* on me, Cursed Chest? Goodness me, I’d almost be tempted if I didn’t already *know* you’d bite me and inflict a death curse!

The Mad Welshman grimaced, if a pile of sentient goop could be said to grimace… This zombie looked… Different somehow. “Is it your hai-URK.”

Welp. Time to start over.

Become a Patron!

Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam

If it weren’t for my party, I think I would have given up on Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon long ago. They’ve revealed dungeons to me, told me about buttons, and, in at least one case, showed me where a puzzle was that I absolutely needed to progress (And hadn’t found in any of the previous updates.) But I can’t help but think a middle ground between “Tell me where things are (occasionally)”, and “Give me one line in dialogue and another in a book to clue me into a puzzle’s existence” would be helpful. That this is true for more than one aspect of Dungeon Kingdom is, sadly, damning with faint praise.

Ninja, Warrior, Priest, Wizard... Where have I seen those before... *Think*

Ninja, Warrior, Priest, Wizard… Where have I seen those before… *Think*

For all that a lot of effort has clearly gone into the environments themselves, with lovingly rendered caves, temples, and towns, and again, work has clearly gone into the various character portraits we encounter, a game is the sum of its parts, and what fills these environments and character portraits is less than impressive. My last session was a couple of hours, but in that time, I had progressed from a kitchen knife to… Er… A slightly bigger kitchen knife, wailed on rats and bees for what seemed like hours, gained four spells (Three of which I had discovered simply through experimenting), and kicked myself as I missed out on a bashable wall, before reminding myself it took several swipes to knock it down.

I’d also met a high priestess Bavmorda, who was obviously up to no good. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the naming seems to be geek reference heaven. The priestess Eilistraee, taking a break from being the deity of Good Dark Elves and Hunting. The dark knight Astaroth, in no way a duke of Hell, honest! The list goes on, and… This reminds me of how the game goes on. And on. And on.

This is the oddest problem… A step-based RPG that feels too slow. And it’s obvious there’s time pressure, as the developers have taken leaves from the Dungeon Master book pretty much wholesale… Character recruiting is the Recruit/Resurrect mechanic from both Dungeon Master games, the classes are exactly the same, the emphasis on puzzles is exactly the same… And both food and water meters are present. Oh joy. Oh joy of joys. And yes, that was an incredibly tired and sarcastic “Oh joy”, because, outside of a setting that demands it (Dark Sun, for example), I do not like water meters. I haven’t seen a desert, and don’t think I’m likely to. In any case, that’s your time pressure, as while water is largely unlimited (Making it just added tedium), food isn’t. I have yet to see a “Create Food” spell. So the game is, much like Dungeon Master, very much a case of “Save Early, Save Often” (And use different saves, obviously.) At the very least, you’ll want to save before hitting the inn to avoid the long walk into town.

No, really. Bavmorda. Luckily, we're all pigs anyway, by virtue of being adventurers!

No, really. Bavmorda. Luckily, we’re all pigs anyway, by virtue of being adventurers!

This, in essence, is my main problem with Dungeon Kingdom right now… That there is potential, but it’s also got a lot that has me saying “Meh.” I hit things, and honestly, only the bashable walls react. Throwing things, oddly, involves physics where good placement is often important. The music is generic, and what voicework there is, is often flat or poorly directed (“Big… Trouble…”) There are awkward moments where it’s not very clear what to do, even with very simple instructions (Stand facing the entrance, and I will come back. What this means is “stand in the next tile along for a little while, which is facing the entrance of the place you have to go, and I will come back. Nowhere else counts, nor does any other direction), and the story… If I didn’t know Bavmorda was evil, or at the very least suspicious, I would have to find confirmation in… Everyone’s private quarters. There’s no consequence for looking at them, there’s no challenge in looting them, but you have to know, ahead of time, that this is old school enough to expect you to do this. The game also assumes the main hero(ine), chosen by being… The first character you pick is a man in the intro. Whoops!

Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon is undeniably pretty. Some of its puzzles are actually quite good (Which races don’t bow down? Oh, I get what you mean there, haha!) and the developers have made strides in making the game somewhat more accessible with the aforementioned Party hints, a map system, making the food and water meters go down more slowly (Yes, I did notice, and am grateful.) But it feels slow, it seems to progress quite slowly, and it seems to be learning the wrong lessons from Dungeon Master and its ilk.

Monsters will attack, but not always consistently. They generally won't respond to being hit until they die.

Monsters will attack, but not always consistently. They generally won’t respond to being hit until they die. Also this is a ghost bat. I thought I’d best mention that.

The Mad Welshman peered myopically at the scroll… Damn these fantasy worlds and their lack of Opticians!

Become a Patron!

RPG Worlds Can Do More

Some say that games are a limited creation, only able to replicate certain experiences. Indeed, this was a core argument behind the “Games cannot be art” statement: They were believed (Although contradictory evidence has existed since the early days) unable to speak to experience, or make statements, or do many of the things art can do. Indeed, as time has gone by, we’ve had to invent new genres to talk about new games, and not a year goes by without me looking at something and saying “Ah, that’s pretty innovative!”… And meaning it. Unlike many times I’ve heard the word (That’s no doubt an article for another day…)

But games do have a limiting factor, and it’s a limiting factor that doesn’t promise to go away: The creativity of its makers. I’m going to pick on DnD games in this case, because there are interesting facets of Dungeons and Dragons universes past and present that RPGs, as my chosen example, just don’t replicate. And it’s not that it’s impossible… Tell a particularly stubborn or creative game designer something is impossible, or even “hard to make entertaining”, and there is a strong possibility that you will find, some time later, that they’ve proven you wrong. Pacifist games. World Simulations. Multiple path murder mysteries… I could find you examples of these, and quite a few more out there ones. There’s a game about the dangers of assuming simulations can give clues to historical events (Opera Omnia, by Increpare). There’s at least two games about jobs of crushing futility (Papers Please and Cart Life). There are procedurally generated murder mysteries (A small, but fun example is The Inquisitor, from ProcJam 2014). But let’s get back to DnD. Specifically, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and (briefly) Forgotten Realms.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

The only Ravenloft games to be made, to my knowledge.

There are two Dark Sun games, two Ravenloft games, and several Forgotten Realms games, but each setting has elements that games struggle to replicate. Let’s start with the most interesting one, Ravenloft. Ravenloft was TSR’s attempt at horror, and one of its core supplement series are Van Richten’s Guides. Van Richten’s Guides, much like Trollpak, many 90s RPGs, and countless race supplements have done (or at least attempted), attempted to make monsters we normally fought as fodder interesting, unique, and, because horror monsters have to be more powerful than the protagonists in some fashion, harder to dismiss as Just Another Kill. It explores it from the perspective of a premiere monster hunter, all the ways they could be wrong, all the ways they have been wrong, and what it cost. They’re pretty good reads, and, for good or for ill, are also good examples of how tabletop RPGs deal with making threats interesting.

And then you play the two games and… It’s set pieces, a series of fights and puzzles. They’re limited, not only by the technology of the time (The Ravenloft games, and the one FR game using the same engine, Menzoberranzan, were notoriously picky to run for the time, and are still technically tile based, first person view games), but by game design thinking of the time. RPGs must have a BOSS MONSTER… So for the first game, they picked the most iconic, Strahd Von Zarovich, Darklord of Barovia… A character who can never actually be defeated, due to the way Ravenloft works. And the means of defeating him is, of course, a McGuffin. Along the way, you can cure a werewolf of his affliction. Sounds like an average day for the adventurer, right? Oh, and they make it horrific by having endlessly respawning monsters.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

Pictured: A dull, uninteresting fight with a dull, uninteresting monster.

What results is a tiresome slog. But, within their limitations, they try to be atmospheric, in the sound design, the speeches by (rare) scared peasants, gypsies, and, of course, Strahd’s Vampiric Monologue… But what it amounts to is a Dungeon Bash By Any Other Name, complete with Helpful, But Oddly Powerless Deity that gives you the knowledge that you need the McGuffin of Vague Holiness, the Potion of Protection From Arbitrary Obstacle (Obtained by making sure you collect every coin in a certain dungeon, and giving them to the local Vistani Wise Woman), and, of course, the RPG equivalent of an 80s Training Montage (Grinding on monsters until you have the right level to safely proceed in the story. Not helped by the fact that some monsters drain experience levels. Have fuuuun!)

Now let’s compare that to the experience in tabletop. Strahd as a direct enemy is usually right out. He has Cursed Plot Armour (No really, he’s cursed to forever make the same mistakes, to never outright be killed, all for the giggles of cosmic entities who hate everything nice and fluffy). On top of that, he’s somewhat boring, precisely because of this. It’s a common problem with making Ravenloft a campaign setting: As soon as you actually involve the Big Bads, or the players try to get out of Dodge, it’s a rapid downward spiral. And, due to the way DnD works, eventually you will.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten's Guides had interesting ideas.

While each concentrates on a single type of monster, each of Van Richten’s Guides had interesting ideas.

But the setting takes a great effort to keep things interesting. Yes, McGuffins are still involved, to some extent or another, but they most often take the form of symbolic weaknesses. Certain things nearly always work, such as a stake to the heart and decapitation in the case of vampires, but other things depend on the vampire. In fact, a big part of a monster hunt in Ravenloft is recognising the monster for what it is. People are disappearing in the area? Not good enough. That could be quite a few things. There’s investigation, both in the sense of becoming aware of the type of threat, and investigating how to defeat it, with real consequences for fucking up. And, competently told, this story is suspenseful, can be heartbreaking and entertaining, and has the potential for an interesting game. There’s lots of variation possible there, too. For example, curing a werewolf of his affliction could, due to the way it works, take a small campaign and still fail, whether due to the person not wanting to be cured, or not having correctly gone through all the steps, and, even when things are done right, it involves an immense effort of will on the part of the afflicted. Keep in mind, even failure can be made interesting if you do it right.

Meanwhile, back in the computer game world, Strahd patiently sits in his castle and waits equally patiently for you to jack him up. He’s mentioned as the owner of all he surveys (Which, as an aside, gets around the vampire weakness of not being able to enter a home. He owns all the homes in Barovia), but… He’s a glorified boss monster.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they're a monster with some ranged attacks.

These beetles actually have brains. And mind control. But here, they’re a monster with some ranged attacks.

Dark Sun, also, is an interesting setting. Magic is harmful to the world’s well being, relying on life force to flourish. Water and metal are scarce, and survival is considered more important than trust. Even in the desert, there’s a flourishing (and lethal) ecosystem, and unwise magic or decisions can make an area barren forever. There are entire cultures, with their society dictated by the world they live in, but when you get to the computer games… Again, due to a limitation of beliefs and mechanics of the time, it’s… Once again, mostly a series of fights and puzzles. The closest you come to any of this interesting stuff is that defilers aren’t allowed as characters, only enemies (But become less effective as enemies in the second game’s fights as less and less foliage becomes available as fuel), a few sidequests where you can be betrayed, or help a village or person survive (Occasionally involving water, which you’ll otherwise never use), and the fact that the endgame is easier (Although still a massive, painful battle) if you’re not a dick. Oh, and sometimes weapons break, if they’re not steel.

You could have a Thri’Kreen (Mantis person) in your party, and never be aware of their customs, their culture, their language, or their psychology (It’s interesting stuff, and the book you want to read there is “Thri-Kreen of Athas”, from 2E AD&D… TSR #2437). By the end of the game, you’ve got metal plate armour for everyone who can use it, steel weapons for everyone who can use them, and you’re quite happily roaming through scorching deserts with all this on, giving nary a single fuck about the consequences. Equally, the plant life, the ecology… They’re just monsters to beat up.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

For all that the artwork appears goofy, this is a *good* book.

Seriously, for all that both settings got silly, the computer games really don’t give you much of a clue as to how much effort went into each setting. Even Forgotten Realms, a world where the gods literally depend on belief for their survival, and can act directly in the world, in a setting with enough computer games to fill a small bookshelf (If you so chose), don’t really give you as much support between the setting and mechanics as you may like. Yes, not even Baldur’s Gate 2, widely considered to be the best Forgotten Realms computer game around. There’s an excellent and informative VideoBrains talk on the subject of religion in games by Jenni Goodchild here, and even though Dragon Age is the main example, it applies equally well to Forgotten Realms.

Now, you may be saying that size, or complexity, is an issue here. And in a sense, you’d be right. Previously, this was the case. But it’s much less of a problem now, and size, or complexity, aren’t the main issues here. The main issue is one of how well games sync up with the things they’re trying to talk about or portray. We talk about The Last of Us because of how it deals with survival, and relationships, and responsibility. We talk about Bioshock because of how it deals with choice, and the degradation of ideals. We talk about Analogue: A Hate Story because of, again, relationships… But also how the known past can be misleading, and about societal expectations, toxic or otherwise. These games, while they are by no means perfect, are held up as games that do the job they aimed for particularly well. We don’t have as many problems with authorial intent in these examples as otherwise, because it’s more often the case that the game laser focuses on these specific issues.

Sometimes, you just want to make or play a dungeon bash, and that’s cool. Done well, it’s entertaining, and it’s all good. But that is by no means the only kind of game you can make, and I think it’s time that more people realised that. I wouldn’t mind seeing an Eberron game about being an Inquisitive. Or a Dark Sun game about a tribe’s survival, or the ecosystem of the world. I wouldn’t mind, in short, seeing more games that explore their settings. And I pick on RPGs, because, very often, we’re too focused on The Hero’s Journey, or on pretty numbers going up and Big Bads. There are games out there that do more… And there can be more. While this article picked somewhat on licensed RPGs (For the simple reason that licensed media often vary widely in quality), it’s true of pretty much any setting or genre… How you show an aspect of your setting is important. And you can completely miss aspects that people might find more interesting than you’ve actually shown.

Become a Patron!