Zafehouse Diaries 2 (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £4.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Zombies. Zombies never change. Wars. Bigotry. History… But zombies… Zombies… Never change.

Okay, maybe they do. Fast zombies, big zombies, little zombies… There’s a lot of zombies out there, but Zafehouse Diaries 2, like its predecessor, pretty much sticks with our shambling, flocking, endlessly moaning dead folks. It also tries to update the “Bunch of bigoted assholes are the only ‘survivors’ of a zombie apocalypse” formula Screwfly used in their very first game, Zafehouse Diaries 1, and…

Mark, like many of his ilk, is dancing around the fact that he judges books by their covers, or, more specifically, the *colour* of their covers. Redemption is possible, but I foresee head noms in his future…

…Honestly, Zafehouse Diaries 2 is one I feel conflicted about, because while there’s undeniably more to the game than its predecessor, there’s also more confusion. The Investigate/Snipe/Breach interface, for example, has become a little less clear. Click on the little icon to customise what you’re doing. This is kind of important, because that involves taking things with you, just one example of things you could be doing.

In any case, it’s a turn based strategy game in which you marshall a bunch of survivors, trying to feed yourselves, deal with internal conflicts, and, in at least some cases, try to get the hell out of town. Folks can work together on tasks, but, as in many zombie media, the survivors come from all walks of life, including howling bigots. Timothy, a middle class musician, doesn’t “like the look of” Dana, because he’s a racist. Jeffrey doesn’t like women. Dana, meanwhile, has beef with older folks (like Timothy, funnily enough.) Spreading rumours once a day can improve the mood, but it can also backfire horrendously. Heck, you can do it deliberately, if you really want to.

Not gonna lie, I kinda blinked a bit at this rumour. The options are racists and foreigners, and while it makes sense after thought… It did make me blink for a bit.

There are several scenarios, from the return of Road Kill (find a roadmap, a car, a repair manual, and five bits to repair a car to get out of town before everyone dies) to the new Kill Switch (Five soldiers, no relationship problems, stop an airstrike while nastier zombies try to wreck the town’s power grid.) As before, you can add custom content, such as making yourself in the game, but custom content (and indeed, changing the difficulty via the Custom Game option) stops you getting achievements. Similarly, there are events in game, such as the Piper, an asshole in a pickup truck who gives you the option of giving one of your folks as zombie bait, or having a tantrum, and beeping his horn as he drives off, attracting zombies. I hate the Piper.

Sadly, it isn’t the friendliest of games. Although Screwfly have clearly made an effort to improve over Zafehouse 1, making more things clear, such as customising orders, it’s a game where reading the manual (Which is in-game, under Help) is very important.

Overall, visually, Zafehouse Diaries 2 is an improvement over 1 (Although, as mentioned, that Breach/Snipe/Investigate could probably stand to be clearer), it does have more content, and it is a friendlier game than Zafehouse 1, especially with a tutorial, it’s still one you’ll want to explore the UI of before you make a move, and some things still aren’t quite clear (Survivor relationships, for example, affect the quality of their work together.)

While it’s not pictured, the Breach/Investigate/Snipe button is a post-it note next to Location Summary. A *small* , two-part post-it note. It could do with being a tadge bigger.

The Mad Welshman wants to eat the rich. However, he sees better chances of doing so as a zombie than a survivor. 

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.

The Signal From Tölva (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Humble StoreSteam, GOG

When the apocalypse hits, when humanity’s light darkens, there shall be a cry, and it shall be louder than all the panicked screaming and dying and fire. And that cry will be “010000010100001101001011!!!”

Night doesn’t screw around, and nor do the enemies throughout the game.

So it is with The Signal From Tölva, the latest offering from Big Robot games. A game where you may die a lot, but hey, it’s the journey, not the destination or the cycle that counts. So let’s talk about that.

The Signal From Tölva is a space opera first person game (Which happens to have a lot of shooting) in a setting where machine intelligences grew from humanity, grew away from humanity, and finally kicked humanity to the kerb when humanity objected. They then splintered, because they were designed by humans, even down to that tribalist instinct. This is the story of one of those factions, the Surveyors, who wanted to find an intelligence more ancient than they were, and find their search leading them to a small world called Tölva, owned by the Cathedral, aka the Zealots… Who worship the planet and happen not to like visitors.

The game is tightly designed, with minimal mechanical complexity, and every tool used. You start as a drone in one corner of the map, explore, try to collect datacubes, and kick out anything that objects to your presence with guns and other drones. If you happen to die, well, no problem, you just download your constantly backed-up intelligence to another drone, somewhere you control, and awaaaaaay you go again!

The ship and robot designs are wonderful, but equally wonderful is the *scale* . You are a very small cog indeed, my friend.

It’s also a subtle game, in many respects. The information dripfeeds hints at the history, but equally, so do the many wrecks, occasional weird sights, and more common weird Sites hint at a world that has not only seen a lot of destruction and cosmic horror in its time, but also held a civilisation that somehow had power over space-time on a local level, and it’s only the sight of your own bigass technology and technical immortality that makes you think “Yeah, we can handle this.” Visually, a lot of the designs remind me of Chris Foss’s classic science fiction artwork, and the sound design only occasionally tries to get musical at you, even then in the most ambient manner. It’s good stuff, and I kept coming back, “one more hour”, to unravel the eerie mystery that is Tölva.

And then I triggered the endgame a bit early. You see, there’s also things going on under the hood, and one of them is that the enemy factions scale with you… But one of the other things is that, once you’ve got the means to reach the final sites, the final missions… It’s tough, folks. The Zealots get more defensive, and you will want to be on top of your game before getting there.

…And not only are you a small cog, you certainly haven’t been the first machine intelligence to try deciphering the mystery.

In summary, The Signal from Tölva is a mostly enjoyable, only occasionally stressful, and interesting journey right up until the very end, and then it becomes… A bit more stressful. Not a whole lot more stressful, but you’re definitely dying and redownloading more. Sniff the robotic flowers as much as you can, because, if you like first person exploration and/or shooting games, then it’s well worth a go. It helps that the game comes with a cool and interesting lorebook, helping expand the universe without giving too much away. The cosmic horror aspect of it is subtle, eerie, and well done, and I could definitely recommend this to folks.

The Mad Welshman likes the robot flowers. There’s just that hint of ozone to them that makes his circuits run elegant algorithms.

Hollow Knight (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99 (£14.38 for “With Soundtrack” bundle, £6.99 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, GOG

Dark Souls, it seems, has become… Almost a template. A boilerplate. We’ve seen this quite a few times in good ol’ (Ha!) video games, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s done well. Hollow Knight, by all appearances, does pretty well. Sometimes too well.

That’s not creepy. Not at all, no *SHUDDER* sirree…

In any case, you are a bug. Possibly undead, it isn’t made too clear at first. You’re drawn to a nigh empty village above a set of ruins populated by the damned and the forgotten. If you’ve played Dark Souls, you’ll already be seeing how this is going. Mystery! Tragedy! Boss fights! That one place where everything seems to hate you, the player, personally! And, of course, that sick, numb feeling that comes from dying to something perfectly ordinary on the way to trying to recover your currency from where you died not five minutes ago.

I could bang on about which element is a metroidvania thing, which is a Dark Souls thing, so on, so forth, but… It’s apparent if you’ve played them, and irrelevant beyond the concept of “Exploring platformer where you kill stuff and get special abilities and maybe get told a tragic, creepy story if you’re not hammering that ‘skip dialogue’ button like a hammering thing.” What matters is: Does it do it well?

The boss fights are, as you might expect, highly pattern based, but creative and with stories of their own to tell. I almost feel sorry for this feller, for example…

In short… Yes. It does it aesthetically, with the hand drawn landscapes, music and bug design really selling that “Dark and creepy (but grounded) world” mood. It does it mechanically, with responsive controls, gameplay that relies more on timing than twitching, and a narrative that still works despite taking a lot of its beats from… Dark Souls.

There is, of course, a “but” hanging over this: If you didn’t like certain aspects of Dark Souls, such as occasionally having trouble working out where to go/what to do next (Not aided by a map that only updates a) If you bought a basic map of the area already by finding the mapmaker in the area, and b) You’ve sat down at a bench post exploration.) Or Occasionally breaking into an area you’re definitely not prepared for and dying. Or realising that, to get a thing that would definitely help survive an area, you’re going to have to grind enemies for… Quite a while (Which, at the time of this sentence, is exactly the problem I’m facing. Most of these things are either fair, or ameliorated somewhat (You can, if you get hold of a Rancid Egg and a Simple Key, draw your Hollow soul back via an NPC, for example), but they are nonetheless baked into the design philosophy behind the game, and if they turn you off, then I obviously can’t recommend it for you.

From the Metroidvania end of things comes… Extra Mobility (Gating areas.)

Overall, though, it’s an imaginative world, a responsive and pleasurable experience most of the time, and I’ve enjoyed my time so far with Hollow Knight. For an example of crossing Dark Souls and Metroidvanias well, you can’t go far wrong with this.

The Mad Welshman agrees that this review feels a bit short. Some might say… Hollow.

World of Darkness Preludes (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam

White Wolf, purveyors of the World of Darkness (In which supernatural creatures of various kinds try to deal with their problems, including the need for secrecy) have… Very identifiable writing, at times. Style, they can do. Purple prose, they can do. The fantastic, they can often make believable, even relatable.

Subtlety, nuance, and focus, however, are often things that escape them. And these two pieces of Interactive Fiction very aptly demonstrate this. When one of your two showpieces is called (no joke) “We Eat Blood And All Our Friends Are Dead”, you know you’re in for a very White Wolf time. Whether you will enjoy that time very much depends on you. But I’m not betting on it. Let’s unpack why.

I’M SUBTLY SAYING THIS ISN’T SUBTLE, FOLKS!!!!

First up, let’s get the nice out of the way, because it’s all too brief. The mobile phone conceit of We Eat Blood is a nice one. Not one we haven’t seen before, but it works in the context, and allows for multiple threads. That’s good. Similarly, Refuge (The Mage portion of this twofer) has some cool visual stylings you’d associate with Mage (glitching, sigils, and the like.) So, visually, the stylings are pretty good. Similarly, for the most part, the tunes and sounds are also well presented.

So, there’s your style. Mostly. But the core of an Interactive Fiction is the writing, and its here… Where it starts to fall down. The general premise is that these are introductions, two people thrust into their respective supernatural worlds. But both quickly run into their own problems. Let’s begin with We Eat Blood, the stronger of the two. You are an artistic type, a drug user, general fun-haver, and, after a party, everything went horribly wrong. You can’t eat food anymore. You feel hungry as heck all the time. You have to learn how to deal with this. Oh, and your dead mother is also a vampire, a creepy one speaking in imagery, and there’s a racist bus driver, a lab monkey turned ghoulish killer, and…

Hey, did you know that vampires were originally more zombie like, and sex had next to nothing to do with things? Well, now you do!

…It has a hard time keeping focus. There’s a lot going on in We Eat Blood, and it’s about as subtle as a bag of bricks wrapped around a smaller bag of bricks. The main character is an artist surrounded by artist friends because it allows really purple prose about how sexual bloodsucking is for a vampire, oh my god it’s so good, it’s like having communion with God, only that communion is also fucking, and… I didn’t actually mind that so much, having experienced my fair share of it when I enjoyed White Wolf RPGs (I still do, to some extent.) But the story is trying to build a world that’s meant to entice you into the World of Darkness without actually referring to things, so as to keep the mystery going, so if I didn’t know WoD, old or new, I wouldn’t have realised (possibly until the end) that I’m a Nosferatu, my mother’s a Malkavian… I could go on, but there are supernatural things, and Hunters (yes, with a capital H) and Ghouls, without explanation or context, and, rather than entice, it somewhat turned me off with how it seemed a collection of incidents without any real focus.

Now, I mentioned a racist bus driver, just off hand, and this is as good a segue as any into the Mage portion of the duo, Refuge. The name is, I’m assuming, a play on words on a couple of levels, as the main character is a woman called Julia, who lives in Malmo, Sweden, working for Nordic Aid with Syrian refugees. Her husband is a maker from San-Dieg- Oh. Wait. This would be a good time to mention this half of the duet I ragequit pretty early on. Because, like We Eat Blood, it’s highly unsubtle, and reading it felt like a highly painful clout to the head.

So… Minor digression here: Done well, games that discuss Issues (capital I, the big problems facing us today) are perfectly fine. Done badly, you have something very much like Refuge. Our heroine is a loving wife for a techbro who’s helping the girls into Maker culture, and is obviously the “good” , and the introduction of the “bad”… Is where I ragequit.

Yes, I get that this so-called “Professor” hasn’t actually *read* any Clarke or Asimov, if they’re saying dumb shit like this. Yes, I get that we are constrained by our “nice person” character to only be mean passively or actively. I GET IT.

Julia, I largely didn’t feel one way or the other about until this segment. She’s “generic nice person”, so generic, in fact, that it wasn’t until I looked at the store page that I realised she was a she (The first person narrative doesn’t help there.) But while yes, this guy is an asshole who, I would lay money, will be at the right-wing rally that apparently happens later in the game (Because this is a game about Issues as well as the introduction to the world of Mage), these responses are… Bad. And this so-called professor is quite obviously Bad, and the main character is so obviously Good, and I can almost hear the capital letters forming around this narrative. I could also hear poor ol’ Dr. A starting to revolve rapidly in his grave, but that’s purely by the by. When, before the bad things even happen, you find the reader yelling “I F*(!IN’ GET ITTTT!”, like Billy Connolly at an opera, it is a sign that you are handling things with all the subtlety of a Bagger trying to do microsurgery.

It may come as no surprise to learn that most of the story revolves around the Nordic Aid, magical elements kind of take a background to the whole thing for most of the narrative, and that the black-and-white presentation continues pretty much throughout. Oh, and for those of us waiting to hear if the Mage elements are as formulaic as they can be, yes, the character Awakens at a rave.

In summary, while We Eat Blood is unfocused in places, it is definitely the superior of the two games, but… Honestly, I can’t recommend either. They’re not terribly good at introducing you to the World of Darkness, or even their relative segments of it, there’s only the tiniest hints of subtlety in the writing at places, one character is only halfway relatable (We Eat Blood’s, who is still an asshole), while the other is a cookie cutter Nice Person, and, because of their primary conceit, you may not even realise there are multiple paths through the game (Seemingly mainly influenced by early choices), because of course the game isn’t going to tell you you’re a Nosferatu, or a Gangrel, or a Hollow One, or whatever the hell. And that, funnily enough, is sort of a problem. They become generic, rather than part of their world, one by trying to introduce too many elements, the other by sidelining the magical elements with a hamhanded handling of the refugeee crises in our world and the resurgence of nazi assholes calling themselves the “alternative right wing.”

Hitting that “Compassion” button like there’s no tomorrow. I mean, it’s good advice… But there’s a page and a half of this. I’M TALKING ABOUT SUBTLETY AGAIN, IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED.

The Mad Welshman remembers the names of all the supernatural beings who cross his path. There’s That Guy, and That Thing, and This Thing, and…