Dead Cells (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £21.99 (+£4.04 for the soundtrack)
Where To Get It: SteamHumble StoreItch.IO

If you’ve looked at my past coverage of Dead Cells, you’ll know that I’ve been quite positive, and, over time, seeing things that I’d thought of as mild flaws within the game corrected, almost as soon as I thought of them. Motion Twin, as it turns out, have their heads firmly in the game, and now that Dead Cells is released?

It’s pretty nice! On the one hand, the game is a sort of deliberate twitch, in which you can hang back, but, in many situations, the best option is to get in there with one finger firmly controlling your dodge rolls, and the other on the weapon options. Combat with an enemy is never impossible, but the less you’ve found, weapon and power up wise, the more fraught it becomes.

Reminder: It’s not cowardice if your HP is this low. Even when it isn’t, it’s *being cautious* , and cautious goo blobs live longer. (But they probably won’t get the speedrun reward, booooo!)

In the Ossuary, for example, I never quite feel comfortable without some damage over time weaponry, like the Blazing Torch or Bleeding Sword, because the creatures that live specifically there are meaty, often quick, and their general theme is to punish both the close and unwary. Considering I am occasionally the latter, and often the former… Well, something where I can throw it, hide away for a second, then throw it again in order to get through relatively safely is my touchstone.

Part of the fun of Dead Cells, however, is that you don’t always get what you want, and adapting to the various weapon styles the game throws at you is important. Which makes it equally nice, then, that they’re easy to understand. Simple combos for each weapon mean that you very quickly “get” the weapon’s deal, and, equally, you can clearly see where there’s something you’ll be wanting to try and find later down the line. Somewhere. Somehow.

Example: There are doors. They don’t open right now, but they’re numbered. I’m not worried. Sooner, or later, I’ll work out what they’re there for, on the routes I have available. Similarly, I see areas only reached with a walljump, and I say to myself “Aha… I have to get further to get that.” The more you play, the more, seemingly, there is to find. Although that will, no doubt, have its limits as the end approaches.

This wasn’t here pre-release. And I’m okay with it being here, because I know, sooner or later, I’ll find the key(s) I need. Sooner… Or later…

It even has an interesting world, where, in the release version, Motion Twin have added something that was always subtly in the background, but is now available in a lot of the explorable lore of each area: Humour. This is, yes, an ooey-gooey game about smashing enemies into bits, before being smashed yourself, hopefully getting further each time, before being brutally killed and doing it all over again, from the beginning. But, as it turns out, our protagonist is a bit of a fish out of water. “Huh, all those bodies look a bit like… Me” , they think, examing what is presumably… Well, them, dead, over and over again. They do make the connection, but the subtle animation, the scratching of their slimey goop head, adds charm to it. The bratchests remain, just as bratty, just as into the act of being violently opened, and just as into punishing the player as they have been, but there are little bits where the protagonist lampshades the seriousness, such as the statue of the king. How did he see out of that helmet? Weird.

So, it’s got humour, and subtle humour at that. It’s got charm, it’s got good visuals, clean menus, and excellent sound design. What it also has is its core game loop, and this, fellow readers, is going to be your make or break with Dead Cells. Are you, the potential player, okay with the fact that, no matter how many shortcuts you do or don’t unlock, no matter what new toys you successfully get (You have to complete a level to keep them, complete more levels to attain them, after all), you are, upon death, going to be sent straight back to the beginning, albeit with some things retained?

Pile of oddly reminiscent corpses may or may not reflect number of deaths in game. Looks a little short for my playthrough so far…

Personally, the answer is yes, because it’s an interesting world, and I want to see more. But I can perfectly understand players who’d be put off by this, because, until a shortcut is unlocked (and you know roughly how to get there, and through it), every new area, every new miniboss, every elite enemy or even new enemies, are potential run enders. Many give visual clues to their function, but, in the end, how much you like Dead Cells depends on how comfortable you are with being sent back to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Okay Fine You Can Keep This Much Gold.

As mentioned, I’m fine with it. But it is a core part of the design, and I highly doubt it’s going away any time soon.

The Mad Welshman has died many times. But each time, he oozes back, because the Editors of Reality demand he keep up. Damn their galaxy-filled eyes…

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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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Jack B. Nimble (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £1.99
Where to Get It: Steam

Sometimes, you get a pitch that you just can’t ignore. “Canabalt meets Castlevania” is, let’s face it, one hell of an elevator pitch, and that’s precisely how Jack B. Nimble was presented to me. An endless runner, but with a Castlevania-esque, whippy twist.

Why yes. I would like to hear more.

Ahh, good old Londinium, capital of Roman vampires, werewolves, and assorted succubi. Good party town.

And so I did. And… While it mostly works, that “mostly” is slightly annoying. So, let’s mention the good, because there’s a fair amount of it. The game can be played with one button (space) , one button (left click on the mouse), or, if you’re a smart aleck like me, played with two buttons (space and the left click.) Pressing it once while on the ground either hops or leaps, depending on the length you press, while pressing it in the air whips. This is important, because both the number of candles whipped, and the accuracy of your whip cracks figures into your score. The game’s help screen quite helpfully shows the formula as Distance x Number of Candles x Accuracy Percentage. So, for example, surviving 1040m, and whipping 22 out of 24 candles would get me 20973 points (1040 x 22 x 91% and some change.) Speed goes up over time, some things slow you down, some things speed you up, missing a jump kills you dead, hitting an obstacle kills you dead. Nice and easy.

Visually, the game is on point: A four colour palette, similar to the Game-Boy it’s so obviously inspired by, clear pixel visuals, and the stages look, apart from the fact there’s no stairs, and only one… cough… BAT (Restraining myself there) that flies by when you lose, like Castlevania stages. Add in unlockable characters, most punning on either Jack or Jill (Jack Frost, Jack O Lantern, Jill Nimble, as early examples) , and visually, the mood is spot on.

It may not look it, but… Nailed it.

So, it’s accessible while also being challenging, as Endless Runners generally are. So far so good. Now come the bits that aren’t gamebreakers, but are annoyances and niggles.

Musically, the game sticks to its chosen theme of “Castlevaniaesque” for two of the six stages for sure, and then goes for more generic, arcade platformer tunes for the third and fourth. As noted, it’s not a gamebreaker, but it’s a tonal shift that messes with the mood, and I’m not the biggest fan, even though the tunes for the third and fourth stages are not, in and of themselves, bad chiptunes. Alas, I can’t tell you about the fifth stage at the time of review, because, at the time of writing, I have yet to beat my current scores on any of the four stages (sub 500k with the exception of the first stage, in which I have 600k and some change), and, to unlock the fifth, I need to earn 500k minimum per level. For the sixth, that rises somewhat, to 800,000 per stage (for a total of 2 million and 4 million respectively.) So, unfortunately, I can’t really tell you if it gets that mood back.

Similarly, there are some niggles mechanically and visually, in that it the controls are precise enough that my run most commonly runs into two problems: Whipping because I hadn’t precisely landed on the floor, and thus faceplanting into whatever the pit of death is for the stage, landing on a crate and not being able to jump because I landed wrong… Cue faceplant, and, most heartbreaking of all, whipping as I try to leap off a crate, still successfully leaping, but knowing that I have to work harder to get that higher score. Again, not a dealbreaker, but it does happen, and it is annoying.

WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO EMULATE THE WONDERSWAN…

Finally, there’s the part I would just like to be a different colour scheme. You see, every now and again, IT IS A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE (Remember that old chestnut?) and the colour scheme is replaced by… Crimson and Black. Aka the colour of the Wonderswan, aka “The Curse of Colourblind Unfriendliness From Satan’s Unwashed Posterior.” I don’t mind curses, but colourblind unfriendliness is, as longtime readers may know, a thing I bang on about.

Otherwise, though, Jack B. Nimble is a lighthearted, pretty accessible game that wears its retro sensibilities on its sleeve, without that retro bullshittery, and with an interesting addition to the otherwise basic formula of the Endless Runner. Which is nice, I like to see more of that!

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, or Jack will never beat his personal best and unlock new colours for his universe. WHIP AND JUMP, PEON, WHIP AND JUMP.

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Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity (Review/Going Back)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £12.99
Where To Get It: Steam

The Touhou series has, even without counting fangames, gone a whole lot of places. Starting as a series of bullet-hell shooters on the PC-98, Team Shanghai Alice and collaborators have created Touhou fighting games and versus shooters, changing gameplay with many installments. With fangames, there’s visual novels, metroidvanias, megaman style platformers, RPGS, and, with Scarlet Curiosity, a collaboration between Ananke Spa and Team Shanghai Alice, there’s ARPGs. All set in a world where it sometimes seems that morning greetings consist of an all-out battle with apocalyptic magic between cute anime girls, some of whom are also Youkai or other folkloric nonhumans.

I mean… This might as well be called Touhou.JPG , for how emblematic this line of dialogue is.

Scarlet Curiosity is an odd beast, in many respects, trying to mix action RPG ideas with the bullet-hell gameplay of the Touhou series with… Honestly, mixed results. This is also technically a Going Back, because while this is the 2018 Steam release, the game was originally created in 2014, and officially localised by XSEED in 2016.

In any case, the general idea is that Remilia Scarlet, ancient and powerful vampire in the body of a young girl, is bored. Considering that she is, canonically, one of the more dangerous residents of Gensoukyo, this is already a recipe for disaster, but add in a Tengu tabloid monster hunt, and the fact that something largely destroys the Scarlet Devil Manor, and… Well, you have all the elements ready for shenanigans to occur.

Takes a while to get going, though, to the point that, at first, I wondered whether this really was a Touhou game, bullet helling and all. Fairies were unaggressive, giant centipedes a case of slashing while circling… This, combined with the game having some large and sprawling maps, and a lack of visual feedback beyond numbers and hit sounds, disguised the fact that, in fact, I was struggling to get through levels. Come the second stage boss, and this lack of feedback revealed itself, as I died again, and again, and again, before finally respecting their patterns. It took until the fourth boss for me to stop thinking that the jump button in the game felt like an unfair advantage (Allowing the skilled… IE – Not me… To dodge most early game bullet patterns entirely.

So… Large, sprawling maps (Each taking about twenty minutes to get through), combined with main level enemies that, like a Touhou shooter, don’t get terribly challenging until a little later on, combined with a lack of visual feedback for hits (and the fact that, like many bullet hell games, many bullet types can be nullified with an attack) doesn’t exactly paint the prettiest picture. In fact, it paints a somewhat clunky one.

I will never take away, however, how spell card effects like this one look… Awesome.

But there is good here. The models are well put together for the most part, the game does get flashy the further in you get, and the stages, while large and sprawling, are definitely not without their interesting features. Loading and saving is separate for the two main characters, Remilia Scarlet and Sakuya Izayoi, which is a nice touch. Five slots each is generous, and I appreciate this. Similarly, in addition to each character getting different types of Weapons, Accessories, and Armour, following the usual ARPG rule of “Bigger numbers, always bigger numbers” , they also get to switch out their specials and skill cards for different types as they level up, leading to a fair amount of variety that I appreciate. Heck, there’s even some difference to their basic styles, with Sakuya being a tight, melee focused character, whose jump attack is just that: An attack in the air, and Remilia being a more loose, more aggressive character, who has a hard to master, but very satisfying ground dive as her aerial attack. Despite some light value issues making the lighter enemies hard to see well at times, the game visually works, and musically… Well, the Touhou games have always been known for good music, and Scarlet Curiosity is no exception.

In the end, Scarlet Curiosity is an interesting addition to the series, but an acquired taste that is not without its flaws. Longtime Touhou players may find it slow to start, while folks new to the series may well find it frustrating, but I can definitely respect the experimentation with genre mixing going on here.

Alas, pink on translucent grey is, as a colourblindness accessibility sidenote, not a good pick.

The Mad Welshman feels, apart from the whole “Being a dude” thing, that he would fit in well in Gensoukyo. I mean, Death Rays, Death Ray Spell Cards… What’s the real difference?

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Fighting Fantasy Legends Portal (Review)

Source: Gold Coins from Captain Skully Bartella.
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, the majority of which were written by tabletop legends Steve Jackson (NOT THAT ONE) and Ian Livingstone, were an interesting part of the tabletop scene, although early books in the series were well known for gotcha traps, instant death paragraphs, and some highly frustrating collectathons. Looking at you, Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and your god-damn keys.

Ah, the heady days before “Mimic” became common parlance for anything pretending to be a chest…

They were also experiences that, like your linear, curated experience in a game, could be successfully completed on replaying… Through the notes you took last time, reducing the challenge of future runs.

Fighting Fantasy Legends Portal reduces the latter to a certain extent with its adaptations of the Deathtrap Dungeon trilogy (Gamebooks 6, 21, and 36, all written by Ian Livingstone), while… Faithfully preserving the gotchas, instadeaths, and collectathons.

As such, it can best be politely described as “An acquired taste.” Less diplomatic descriptions are usually long strings of vulgar language, interspersed with terms like “Garnet” , “Infinite Unwinnable Fights of Padding”, “Gotcha”, and “Black Imp.”

To be fair to the developers, they have taken steps to palliate this, with multiple difficulty levels and a lives system, allowing you to take multiple runs without losing your progress… To a point. Default difficulty has 9 lives, and, unless you are supremely lucky on those die rolls, and know exactly the path to take through the game… You will lose at least a couple of those lives. We’ll get back to that.

The Fighting Fantasy Experience, Part 1.

First, there’s something we’ve been missing this whole time: How have Nomad Games and Asmodee Digital adapted a set of Choose Your Own Adventure books? As a sort of top-down, tabletop like experience with dice and cards, with random encounters to both spice up the emptier bits of the dungeon, and replace one-off events that you’ve already dealt with. It looks pretty nice, with some good artwork, definitely nice looking maps, and music that doesn’t, generally speaking, outweigh its welcome. Menus are clear, and, while I would have liked some of the map segments to look a bit less muddy, clear icon signposts for direction choices and doors helps with this a lot. Text is in neat boxes, choices are clearly highlighted… It isn’t bad, in this respect.

But, amusingly enough, part of the problem is that it is a mostly faithful adaptation of the Deathtrap Dungeon trilogy. A trilogy which has some rather painful moments, such as, early in the Trial of Champions gamebook, six fights in a row, with minimal healing every two fights. Oh boy, I hope your skill rolls are good, my friends, because otherwise, even the generous checkpointing for this particular part (So notable because it’s more generous than, say, the entirety of Deathtrap Dungeon, which has precisely one checkpoint), you may well lose a few of your precious lives here! Add in some difficult, if not unwinnable fights with meager rewards in some paths, gotcha traps in both set and random encounters (Take 2 Stamina Damage. No, just take it, this isn’t a Skill or Luck roll like the others, you Just Take Damage), and some places where only memorisation will save you from unpalatable options there’s precisely no signposting for. Looking at you, rat staircase and arena fight in Deathtrap Dungeon! Looking… Right… At you!

It is, however, nice in that you do get to keep your items, and setpieces you’ve completed remain completed, even if you die.

The Fighting Fantasy Experience, Part 2. Albeit without the part where you skim through the book to find the paragraph number where you succeed.

Overall, Fighting Fantasy Legends Portal is, as noted, an acquired taste. So long as you’re okay with the fact that this digital adaptation only slightly pulls the punches of CYOA gamebooks from the 80s, with arbitrary game design moments to match, then you may well find joy and interest in this title. If this isn’t your thing, then y’know what? I don’t entirely blame you, as going back through this trilogy, swearing at various elements, and then thinking “Oh… Yeah, this was roughly how I felt the first time” was quite the experience. The game is also, at the time of writing, somewhat crash prone, although I’m sure that will be dealt with in time.

Still… It’s not often I both congratulate and curse a developer for correctly emulating the feel of an old property… Not often at all…

The Mad Welshman still remembers how his first experience with another CYOA series was the Deathlords of Ixia. He feels this may have had lasting effects…

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