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… 

Clockwork Empires (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page

Clockwork Empires is meant to be a survival management game (Like Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, or the like, where orders are indirect and resource/building management is important) set in a lovecraftian, jingoistic steampunk world based on a satire of Victorian Britain. Unfortunately, not all of that satire on drudgery and misery is intentional. So… Let’s talk about housing. And cabinets.

Pictured: A sensible decision - Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Pictured: A sensible decision – Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Mood is an important factor of Clockwork Empires, as happy labourers and overseers will work an extra shift, whereas despairing ones will slack off, and fearful or angry ones will be actively counterproductive. Obviously, this at least partly means housing them, and making that housing appealing. The workplace must also be prettified, or production will suffer.

There’s just one small problem with this, and the game doesn’t bother to inform you of it: Cabinet Tax. Let us assume, for a moment, that you have 2 labourers, and give them a 3×3 house with 2 windows, a door, and a bed. They aren’t happy with it, they aren’t unhappy with it… But you may have noticed the population count go up by 6. Because each of those houses can add population. So, when those labourers inevitably turn up, you build 6 more of these houses. And now you have many more labourers than you know what to do with, eating your food. Each building has a Quality Level, and this is, effectively, based on cabinets (and shrines for houses) in the early game. So, building individual housing? That’s… 12 cabinets to build to make them happy. The situation then becomes more clear when you turn to the workplace. Let’s use the carpenter as an example. You need a workstation (for cutting wood, making paper, etc), an assembly station (To build other workstations), and a décor station to build wood decorations. Y’know, like cabinets. But each of those workstations beyond the first reduces the Quality of a building, making workers unhappy. And when you try and build your first labourer housing more efficiently (7 beds, for the two workers you have, and the 5 you’ll eventually get.) you realise that this applies to houses too (For lo, the bed is a workstation as far as quality goes. I can understand why, few folks enjoy bunking long-term.) So your efficient solution still requires 12 cabinets for maximum happiness (6 for the extra beds, 6 for max Quality)

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don't have enough cabinets.

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don’t have enough cabinets.

So, for a good, efficient first labourer house, you’re looking at at least a 14 x 10 building (Space for beds, and space for at least two windows, and 12 cabinets/shrines. After that, it’s a little easier, as you’re only catering for 4 or 5 labourers at a time, but as it is, you have a minimum “happiness tax” on all your buildings of 1.5 logs x (Number of Workstations/Beds -1) , and, obviously, the extra time and labour to make them. And no, you can’t just make more work buildings of the same type to get around this, due to the Overseer system, limiting both your number of workshops, and the number of job types you can do at any one time. Labourers just allow for more of the same job type once assigned, or, in the case of single jobs like mining or farming, doing it quicker. And yes, individual farms count as a job.

The in-game help hints at some of this. Specifically, the overseer job limitation, the fact that mood is affected by decorations, and that houses have conditions (That you won’t know until you build them) on extra population counts. Gee, I hope you found some sand, or can trade for it, because otherwise you’re in big trouble later on!

…Or, of course, you could not know this, and play for several hours, and an in-game month, and watch as your labourers and overseers become less efficient, before you realise what’s going on. It’s not very intuitive, and it may take quite a while for you to realise how badly you’ve made mistakes. Considering that a month of in-game time took me something like 3 or 4 hours to play out, it’s the kind of unfriendliness that turns me off playing for the long periods of time the game obviously wants me to play.

This is what happens when you don't have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* ... Can't blame communism on the means of production, friend!

This is what happens when you don’t have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* … Can’t blame communism on the means of production, friend!

And this is a damn shame, because the game is visually kind of nice, the music fits the mood very well, changing with events. Unfortunately, the game is best described as “plodding”, “unintuitive”, and “frustrating.” I can’t select things behind buildings, even with the walls visually turned off. If I want to know what kind of mine I can build on a survey point, and there’s anything in the way, well… Good fucking luck without clearing the obstruction, mate!

And eldritch things and events. Oh, how those make me sad. Just before release, I had played a full month, and, while some eldritch things did happen, such as an invasion of moon-balls, another of eldritch cuboids and polyhedrons, and at least seven or eight obviously occult things dug up, the one death was from… Bandits. And that was because I hadn’t switched to my better weaponry because I hadn’t properly understood that 1 set of stone pellets equalled about 100 rounds. Meanwhile, the entire time, said eldritch gewgaws, such as a canopic urn that was actually a klein bottle, sat happily vibrating or lurching awkwardly in spacetime in between the maize chowder, some planks, and some coal that had eventually been put there by my heavily depressed people.

It's such a shame that their normal reaction isn't "Try and break it" or "Try and worship it", but "Put it next to the paperwork." On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on...

It’s such a shame that their normal reaction isn’t “Try and break it” or “Try and worship it”, but “Put it next to the paperwork.” On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on…

When the game goes well, it goes really well, and you can build up some serious cities in the limited space allotted to you, researching cool things, arming your soldiery with lightning guns (Leyden Weaponry) and clockwork armour, oppressing the fishy natives, and generally being the colonial asshole you may have dreamed you are. But to get there, you have to struggle with odd limitations, an AI that isn’t entirely sure if it’s coming or going, and a UI that makes the increased busywork from more colonists more and more a matter of hitting pause and checking things, slowing the game’s pace even when things begin to get interesting. And I’m really not certain I’m up to that.

The Mad Welshman liked his new Shining Trapezohedron. It set off the Crystal Egg, the Green Soapstone bookends of unknown providence, and the Eldritch Tomes he’d been collecting from the book club. Just another day…

Slayaway Camp (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £5.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I’ve always had an odd relationship with slasher movies. On the one hand, they sometimes do interesting things with horror, and I enjoy some of them for interesting ideas, but on the other, they tend to suffer really badly from sequelitis (How many times has “Jason” died again? Or Freddy Krueger?), unnecessary remakes/reboots, and their formula is often, in some ways, still stuck in the early days of the subgenre (OH NOOOO, THOSE TEENS ARE HAVING SEX, THEY’RE GOING TO DIE BECAUSE SLASHER MOVIES!)

Slayaway Camp, on the other hand, I’m fairly unambiguous about, as it’s a sliding puzzle using slasher movies as a theme, and not a bad one at that. Warning: There is voxellated gore and murder.

Pictured: Voxellated Gore and Murder.

Pictured: Voxellated Gore and Murder.

Anyway, mechanically, what can I say? It’s a puzzle about murdering unwary teens in a series of slasher movies, all loosely linked, and each with a theme and added mechanic, such as SWAT cops , who are unkillable unless either you drop something on them or you flank them in the dark, or cats… A common ruiner of murderous plans in movies, and not to be killed because… Well, for the same reason a lot of the puzzle elements are the way they are – Because it at least used to be a thing in slasher movies. Due to the fact that you can only move in one of the four cardinal directions, and keep moving until you hit something (Be it an obstacle, a usable thing, an unfortunate teen, or something that’s going to kill you or make you Break The Rules), there’s only a limited number of possible solutions, so the puzzles can be brute forced, but most of the time, the gimmicks are visible enough, and the rules clear enough that you don’t need to, and successfully completing levels or the murder minigame gives you the opportunity to buy a hint and a solution, in that order.

Everything here has a clear function: Pits to fall into (or scare folks into), cupboards to be pushed, walls to bump into on your way to murderous victory.

Everything here has a clear function: Pits to fall into (or scare folks into), cupboards to be pushed, walls to bump into on your way to murderous victory.

Okay, so mechanically, it’s clear, it’s intuitive, and fuckups are definitely your fault. So far, so good. It becomes a little bit grindy if you want to unlock all the skins and murders, but I’m willing to give it a pass on that because a) It’s cosmetic stuff , b) Finishing each level unlocks “Deleted Scenes” (Some of the same levels, but with added features… Not always more difficult, but definitely more of them) and finishing all the movies earns even more puzzles, and c) The grinding minigame is effectively the murder scene minigame, and this becomes a little more visually varied with the aforementioned cosmetic stuff. There’s some nice cutscenes with parodies of slasher movie trailers and some amusing murders (A thing you rarely hear outside of the context of slasher movies, which sometimes go for creative and/or ironic deaths), it’s visually quite clear, and I had no colourblindness issues (Some issues with gore covering pits, but that goes away with something like 30 seconds of waiting, which again, gets it a pass), and my only real issues with the game are that it starts immediately the first time you play it, rather than do the video store menu thing, which was a tadge confusing, and that some of the humour’s a little forced (Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it… BIG LETTERED. Ho de ho ho.)

Confirmed: This game is TOO COOL FOR CANADA (Nah, actually it's a running gag.)

Confirmed: This game is TOO COOL FOR CANADA (Nah, actually it’s a running gag.)

Nonetheless, I like Slayaway Camp. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, and it doesn’t need to. It’s not a big game, but it’s got charm. If you like puzzle games, this isn’t MENSA level stuff, but it’ll make you scratch your head for at least a bit, and I can respect that.

The Mad Welshman cowered in the bathroom… Shower? No, too dangerous. Brushing teeth? Not while the cat was nearby to fake scare him before he gets murdered. Living in Slasherworld is tough.