ESSENCE (Early Access Review Fin)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15
Where To Get It: Steam

ESSENCE, by OneVision Games, is big. ESSENCE is sprawling. ESSENCE is mysteeeeerious. If these were the main qualities a videogame could be judged by, then yes, ESSENCE could be considered good.

One of the prettier areas, lighting and foliage wise, in the game. It has a single exit somewhere. That exit is the entire point of this area.

However, they are not. ESSENCE feels directionless. ESSENCE is very low on interaction. ESSENCE’s world is one where I find myself saying not “Gee, what a grand civilisation I wandered into the post-downfall of”, but things like “Gee, they sure did build some massive and largely pointless seeming architecture without consideration for living space” or “Gee, I sure do hope this large gateway leads me to the next McGuffinyBob that I’m looking for out of X McGuffinyBobs to progress… Wait, no, it’s a wall of some kind, invisible or not. Bugger.”

Even at the times I’ve found the mysterious, diamond shaped McGuffinyBobs, or their buckyball like containers, or their lighted buckyball guides, I find myself saying things like “Gee, how will I be bruteforcing this movement puzzle?”

ESSENCE is a game that disappoints me. But it took a while to disappoint me, because the scale, combined with slow movement speed (I often found myself holding shift and jumping, just to get somewhere faster) is at first misleading. But no, I find myself looking at that “3 hours of play” and thinking not only “Well, if I had a chance at a refund, I’d have no chance now”, but “Wow, that felt a lot longer.”

Oooh, this is big and MYSTERIOUS! Shame it’s not the exit. The exit’s to the right, and some jumping is required to reach it because it’s not a clear pathway like the rest of the area.

Now, don’t get me wrong, visually, these vast, pointless megastructures are pretty. The lighting is pretty good, and I like how it subtly changes (and sometimes not so subtly.) The ambient soundtrack is indeed ambient, chill, yet with segments that make me think “Gosh, I feel alone.” But, after a certain point, very early on… That’s all it seems to have going for it. In Genosa, the second (I want to say second) hub world, I found myself transported via the aforementioned Necessary McGuffinyBobs of Arbitrary Door/Obstacle Opening (Which is, with the lack of worldbuilding, basically what they are in mechanical terms) to a lush meadow, crisscrossed with vaulting arches, and there were lamp-posts. Getting close to one arbitrarily made a noise, and I remembered back to the first hub-world, where, in a vast, starry seeming glitter-desert of obsidian, I got close to some gusty gate of some sort, and it arbitrarily made a noise. “Ah,” my brain thought to itself “This will prove to be where I’m meant to follow these lamp-posts toward an eventual gate of some sort, but one or the other will be obscured and, due to the open area being a square of some description, I will, eventually, find the gate with or without the lamp-posts, go through it, and I will have solved the puzzle!”

Lo and behold, I got through the area without following all the lamp-posts, because, inevitably, one wouldn’t signpost me very well to the next one, so I just wandered to whatever lamp-post I felt like, and, lo and behold, I found a gate somewhat similar to the one in the obsidian glitter desert, albeit smaller, and went through it. Back to Genosa, McGuffinyBob disappears, only some number that I think is less than 3 left before I can progress, considering I saw a McGuffinyGate with six McGuffinyBobs active, and I’d dealt with three.

It’s a MYSTERY… Whether the sphere door is wrong somehow. I took the cone, and my McGuffinyBob vanished. For some reason, I don’t particularly have a desire to replay the game to find out.

I don’t know how any of these McGuffinyBobs do the thing they do. I don’t know what this terrible thing this grand civilisation that doesn’t appear to know what living space is was defending against (I was told, sort of, near the beginning. But I’ve already forgotten.) I don’t have any context for the actions I do, and so it doesn’t feel fun, or interesting, so much as going through the motions that are arbitrarily set, often getting lost because hey, in a big open area, you’re going to get lost without some obvious signposting. And redundancy in that signposting.

As this is part of Act One, considered finished… I think this is the time where ESSENCE and I part ways.

Sometimes, The Mad Welshman has to be hard on a game. It is, thankfully, rarely a mystery why.

Secret Spaces (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: $8 USD (Approx £5)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

Secret Spaces is, in creator Heather “Flowers” Robertson’s own words, a game about being gay and in a hole. These things are true. It’s also a game about being in a strange, low-polygon world, moving ever deeper into the rabbit hole to, hopefully, find your girlfriend and get the hell out of this strange place.

It’s kinda dark down here, Elaine. I know sometimes we feel the need to hide in a deep, dark, hole, but… Literally?

At first, the game seems extremely simple: Finding notes and going downwards progresses things, cutting and growing ropevines to climb down safely, using berries to heal damage you’ve taken from falling too far (Although falling far enough will, as with any human being, kill you stone dead.)

The thing is, the more you take from this place, the less it will give. You’re almost in a relationship with the space itself, and working with what it gives you tends to give the best results. Take very little, and the Secret Space will give you help, in the form of seeds and berries. Take a lot, and the vines thin out, the berries don’t arrive as often, and you will need, more and more, to either be very skillful in climbing downwards, or plant the vines you have in the hope that it will make life easier down the road. It’s subtle, and being someone who prefers not to waste things, I didn’t notice this on a first playthrough.

Huh, that *is* odd. Some mysteries, unfortunately, are trumped by the immediate.

Aesthetically… Well, it’s cuboids and notes. The light (and thus the colours) change as you get deeper, giving it a little flair, but it’s a quiet place, and some might say a bare place, but, with this game, that feels just fine. I liked the character of Elaine as noted in the notes (Although, that dad joke… I make dad jokes all the time, and I loudly groaned at that one… So props!) , I liked the writing, and, from word one, I’ve been struggling with the fact that the developer has summed up the game a heckuva lot better than I have.

Secret Spaces is about being gay, and in a hole. It’s approximately £5 , takes around an hour to play through once, and my main “Do not recommend” here is if a very low-polygon world turns you off a game. If you like games where there’s something subtle going on in the background (The Hole is procedurally generated, yes, sometimes walls do move, and how easy you find it depends on whether you are, in game, a taker, or someone who works with what’s there) , then you may well like Secret Spaces.

Whoah… The plant… It wiggles. Kinda reminds me of you, Elaine… Hehe.

The Mad Welshman thinks love is cool. No snark, just… Passion is good.

Conarium (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (OST £1.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

Conarium is a… Look, it’s a horror game, and it uses Lovecraftian imagery. So cyclopean structures, Shoggoths, Elder Things, stars and fishies, and things wot man was not meant to know. It’s also a first person horror adventure game, and there is where its flaws lie.

The Plants Have Vines, a new horror film by Wes Craven!

If there’s one accusation that is often levelled at first person horror games, it’s that their pacing and reliance on documentation can be a problem. In the case of earlier first person horror games, there’s also problems of pixel hunting, timed puzzles, and the like. It’s a difficult balance, horror against frustration against the possibility of boredom. Conarium goes the whole spectrum. But how you feel about it really depends on how completionist you feel.

If, for example, you just want to get things done, you’ll ignore the documents, and occasionally hit brick walls. Some of these walls are against your patience, as evidenced by the difference in the amount of time it took for me to trigger a literal cat-scare (At least a few minutes), compared to somebody who’d played the game before (who triggered it in under a minute), while others are “Secrets” (More on that in a bit), and at least one is a “Gotcha” death, solved by… A non-obvious handle for something else you have that you probably spent time hunting for things to use it on.

You may recall I have a dim view of “Gotcha” deaths. Even one telegraphed by something like ten seconds of reading.

This is a secret.

If, like me, you’re somewhat of a completionist, you run into an entirely different kind of frustration. If there’s telegraphing of where to find documents, I have yet to notice it, and some of the documents I’ve missed… Have been hidden in an annoying fashion. Ah yes, the one hiding on the shelf you can’t quite see, behind a bunk. The one hiding in a cardboard box that, like many computer game cardboard boxes, cannot, in fact, be moved, and is facing the wall. The one in the pile of other documents that, somehow, are not as interesting.

And sadly, some of these things are “Secret.” Hidden behind brute force puzzles, or knowing when to use your Conarium gizmo, or when to use another item, at least some of them are more unsettling and interesting than the main plot itself. Pictured, for example, is something that claims to be your character. Something well animated, definitely not human, and more unsettling in motion than it is in a screenshot. And yet… It’s a secret. Meanwhile, a lot of the stuff that’s visible? Kind of lessens the horror. Oh… It’s, er… A blob. Yes. And this thing is what it is, I can sort of guess how it… Oh. Not… Too scary. Damn.

This, on the other hand, is a cat scare waiting to happen.

I want to like Conarium. It’s definitely got some interesting ideas, and some unsettling set pieces. But, oddly, it hides many of its best away, seemingly unrelated to the overall picture in many places. Then again, it is, on the face of it, a somewhat linear game with two endings, and a variety of non-standard game overs, usually due, funnily enough, not reading things. Give it a go if you like Cosmic Horror, chase sequences, rune puzzles, the odd inventory puzzle, and, like many horror games, hoovering up pieces of paper somewhere in the mess, you know where you left it, you’re sure, it’s got to be –

The Mad Welshman has no smart aleck comments at this time. He prefers to say them in 1877.

Cyber Utopia (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £1.99
Where To Get It: Steam

“Wait… A Wolfenstein 3d style, raytraced first person shooter, in 2017?” I asked myself, as I looked at Cyber Utopia, a game with some lovely stylings on its splash screen, but, alas, once you get into it, there’s a failure to understand that what made the Wolfenstein games and their successors so annoying at times should maybe, just maybe, have stayed in the past.

Enemies are, until the third level or so, unlikely to drop ammo.

The story, such as it is, is meant to be revealed in game, but what you’re immediately told is that you are Naomi, an amnesiac in some kind of cybernetic prison. You start… In an extremely similar position to the original Wolfenstein 3d, with a knife, the first enemy type entering the room, and bam, here you are. Kill the guy with your knife, get his gun, get to the exit of each level by finding keys, hopefully not dying to folks on the way.

But already, we’re seeing problems. And they’re nearly all quality of life stuff. Let’s start with the window, a lovely, er… 512×384. This is your only option. There is no full screen. There are no options to upscale (Which is perfectly do-able in GameMaker Studio, which is what this game was made in.) As in the oldest Wolf3D engine type games, you can only pick a pickup up if you’re facing it (Which is sort of a problem when you’re trying to grab medkits while avoiding enemy fire) , and universal ammo means that you also have to be holding the right gun if you want to fill ‘er up. Which you inevitably will, because in at least the first couple of levels, ammo is relatively scarce. While enemies are not, for the most part, hitscan, the game moves at a blistering enough pace that they might as well be… And there is no map.

Okay, here’s the door…

I get wanting to recreate that oldschool feel, really I do… But Wolf3D had mostly linear, understandable maps, and Blake Stone, which used a modified Wolf3D engine, had maps when it changed things up. Catacomb3D had a radar. So yeah, getting lost is distinctly unfun, as is trying to work out where the damn key is. Similarly, the spritework, while detailed, while obviously trying to set a scene and a mood, makes it damn hard to work out what you can interact with. Blue gates are impassible. Red ones can be shot down. Doors vary from area to area, and are mainly only recognisable because you’re forced to open at least one at the beginning of each level.

As mentioned, there are attempts to set a scene… From a prison, to what I’d have to assume is the medical wing (or maybe a torture wing? Not sure), to… A garage? It’s kind of hard to tell. Meanwhile, I really should have mentioned this by now, but mouselook, a small window, and the speed of the game make for a motion-sickness inducing experience.

…But I *appear* to have killed everything, and don’t have the key. WELP.

Cyber Utopia is, to take an old phrase, a good bad example. It’s not even really that hot on the streaming/YT crowd who have a nostalgic bent, because, from experience, the game is a sod to record. On the up side, it’s £2 , so if you really want to confirm this for yourself, then it’s perfectly do-able.

Slime Rancher (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Steam

There is, on the face of it, not a lot in Slime Rancher. You would think this was maybe a bad thing. But cute slimes, exploration, and expanding seems, honestly, to go a long way. And Slime Rancher is one of those games where a somewhat humdrum early start… Opens up.

Ah, look at all these slimes, frolicking together in a pool. Better leave before one of them becomes a Tarr… 🙁

Considering the start, however, I certainly wouldn’t blame you, as, at the very beginning of the game, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot to do. You encounter four slime types (Plus their Largo variations, and a few massive Slimes), can capture three, and once captured, it’s feed, collect, rinse, repeat. Pink Slimes, being the most common, rapidly drop off in value, so until you get some cat and rock slimes, you’re in a rather grindy situation. And, funnily enough, many of the options for cages, farms, and the like is to reduce that grind. Higher walls so you don’t have to keep an eye on the slimes so often. Music boxes so they don’t try to escape so much. Auto collectors and auto feeders (the latter reducing feeding.)

It’s an interesting comment on the game, really, that I’ve started to have real fun with the game once the farming aspect is toned down somewhat. Because then, I’ve been able to experiment with mixing slimes, fighting Tarr (the dread result of Slimes mixing and matching themselves too much, and common in any area where there are three or more slime types co-existing… until they eat all the other slimes, then starve, anyway), unlocking Slime Gates to new areas, and encountering new and even more interesting slime types, from Gold Slimes (can’t be caught, run away, but can be fed for GOLD PLORTS) to Boom Slimes (The clue as to why they’re dangerous, friends, is in the name.)

Some slimes are extremely dangerous to keep. Just for giggles, I’ve mixed two of the more dangerous varieties, just to add a bit of spice to it all…

This, in a way, is why the game definitely isn’t for everyone. “Omigod, how cute!” gives way to “Grumble mutter feeding time is it you sneaky gits?” gives way to “Hrm, I wonder which of these huuuuge slimes unlocks the way to an area where the Big Money is so I can get this Lab thing?” , and progress is gated behind… Well, exploring and trying things. Feeding Gordo Slimes to get Slime Keys to reach new areas. Earning enough money to open up the Ranch and its features. Getting a jetpack, and extra energy. And, finally at the present version, unlocking the Lab so you can build stuff, open those Treasure Pods that have been annoying you all this time, and capture rare and huge slimes.

Is it cute? Oh gods yes. But whether you enjoy it or not really depends on how far exploration, finding snippets of world lore and conversations that don’t necessarily make sense at first, and the cycle of feeding slimes, collecting their diamond shaped poop, and selling it in order to find better slimes with better poop will take you. For me, it works well in small to medium bursts. But I won’t pretend I don’t hope to see something that will keep me going once I’ve found everything.

Still some slimes to collect. C’mon, Beatrix, we can do it, and please Harry and the others too!

Yes, The Mad Welshman is somewhat conflicted about Slime Rancher. As noted, cute slimes go a long way… But not all the way.