Shrouded Isle (Review)

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

I’m going to get this out the way right now, so as to weed out those reading this: Shrouded Isle is mechanically very simple. For three years (12 seasons), you, the high priest(ess?) of a lovecraftian cult, must keep the noble houses that support you happy, while encouraging “Virtues” like Ignorance and Penitence, and also sacrificing one of your advisors each year. Apart from a few somewhat spoilery details, that’s yer lot.

Find a sinner, kill ’em dead. Got it… But… Who’s a sinner again?

Now let’s get into why the game is still interesting, and not a little disturbing. Let’s talk about evil. Evil is not a single entity, no matter how much we sometimes wish it would be. Nor, funnily enough, is Good. They’re values, not people. Even within a group, there is difference. Even within a group that seems unified, there is dissonance, sometimes prejudice. Shrouded Isle, despite its fantastic setting, does a good job of putting this into play, synergising mechanics with its world.

Ivan Efferson is a Flirt. He’s bad for discipline. Problem is, I know from watching the Virtue levels that he inspires even more Obedience than usual. It’s a sin, it’s true, but forgivable considering his good work for his house. The family would be angered if I sacrificed him, and, honestly, so would I. A good advisor makes a bad sacrifice.

His daughter Fania, on the other hand, I recently discovered was exactly what I was looking for. My Lord had told me to seek a Swindler, and lo and behold, there she was. A prime sinner. She’s not even very virtuous (Although I have yet to determine what her virtue is.) But there’s another factor: If I let her advise, I will have to use her skills, because I’ve already sacrificed one of Ivan’s daughters, and I’ll need to counter the sheer outrage from the bias in selecting from the same family twice. I could wait a year, but she’s sabotaging me behind the scenes.

Sin… SIIIIIIN!

To win, I have to manipulate. I have to put useless people in positions of power both to maintain the status quo, and to ensure my relationship with this advisor’s family remains cosy. They may all be sheep, to be fed to my Lord once he Awakens, but even sheep can, in panic, turn on me. They may not even do it for reasons “Good” people would consider “Good.” There’s another person who’s undermining my perfect… Controlled… Society. And they’re doing it because they’re a massive pervert, blaspheming even before my eyes.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Because it sure as hell does to me. Like many, I’ve seen it played out, the scapegoat thrown to the wolves, the inner conflicts that can rend a group apart, the search for purity. As such, it blackly amuses me to note that victory not only involves invasion of privacy and deception, it involves satisfying overall goals while… Keeping little bars of Virtue between two poles. Poles that shift as the Lord demands focus on a virtue.

Of course, it also adds nuance. Chernobog may consider Ignorance a virtue… But Liars and Swindlers alike are just as high on his list as the secret Librarians and Kind folk. The soundwork is subtle and unnerving, and, while the colour schemes at first seem unsubtle as all hell, they’re picked for their high contrast, although recently a more muted grey (Cremation Ash) is available in the options. I’m thankful for that, as, while I appreciate that the original colour scheme is picked for its subtly nauseating effect, it’s not something I want to play for long.

…Listen, buddy… There’s only *one* narcissist allowed in this cult, and that’s ME.

I kind of like Shrouded Isle. It’s taken around 2 hours, 2 games, to get to the win, but the game has multiple bad ends based on which “Virtue” was found lacking, and I find myself curious. I also wouldn’t mind replaying, as the game randomises virtues and sins, and it’s simple enough that I can see myself coming back. The game is pretty accessible, it does what it says on the tin quite well, so my main “not recommended for” group would be folks who are not up for a game in which you are definitely bad folks sacrificing your fellow human beings to summon an elder god.

Sundered (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99 (£6.99 for the soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

I am, most of the time, a pretty calm person. Suffice to say, this sentence has an unspoken “BUT” , and, certainly enough, Sundered is that “BUT.” This is both a good… And a bad thing.

Congratulations, Thunder Lotus Games. You have discovered the edge, the very edge, of my video-game masochism.

While not a mobility or attack powerup, the shield is bloody useful because… Well, you *live* longer, innit?

In any case, while I’ve been jokingly referring to this as a “Soulscraftroidvania” (This is a joke on my more jargon loving peers in the industry) , it is, once you break down the word, moderately accurate. It has a high difficulty curve that is supposed to get better by dying and levelling up from the fruits of that dying. One of its antagonists (who is also your weapon) is the Shining Trapezohedron, and Lovecraft references abound… I would like to add, at this point, that making the main character a woman of colour is both a nice step representation wise, and a nice subversion of Lovecraft’s work, which often had folks of colour as the villains (Sigh.) And, like Metroid and Castlevania, progression depends on getting powerups, not all of which are mobility based, but all of which unlock some kind of skill gate or another. Explore three areas, murder enemies and bosses, get cash, die, repeat, hopefully making some progress. Equally, another core mechanic is that you can, with the Elder Shards dropped by boss and miniboss alike, either empower your abilities, changing them, or get more basic shards with which to improve your skillls.

That’s the absolute basics. Let’s get the good out of the way. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful. Thunder Lotus have a clean, consistent style, they know their UX, they know their animation, and they know their music. The sounds are mostly good, even if one in particular has associations with the mixed bit. The powerups are interesting, and some have some very interesting factors that make them extremely multifaceted.

Wait, tenta- NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE, DIE DIE DIE.

The best example of this is the Cannon. On the one hand, it fires a massive bolt that does at least three times the damage of your best melee strikes, and pierces walls, enemies, and the pots, crates, and gooey blobs you shatter to maybe get money. On the other, it’s slow to fire, takes both a unit of ammunition and stamina (Only one of which regenerates. The other must be found), only fires straight forward, and hurtles you backwards (Funnily enough, that makes it a mobility tool too.) On the third hand, it’s the only way of opening certain locks that exist… In the first area of the game. That is good design.

Similarly, the writing is pretty good. The Shining Trapezohedron is a weapon, an antagonist, and an unreliable narrator. It wants you to kill. It wants you to be better at killing. It hates you when you don’t take this option, and I’m almost certain it’s lying to you.

Now let’s get to the bad bit. Funnily enough, just like the Cannon is a core gameplay element, so is the part that I’m extremely unfond of: Enemies. Not specifically the fact that there are enemies, or the fact that they’re tough (Although some are extremely tough, serving as their own damn skill gates, and some, like the Aberration or… Well, nearly anything with ranged weapons, honestly, are just bloody annoying.) It is, like the Cannon, a multifaceted problem.

They are not in set positions, but rather, come in waves of increasing brutality, each wave being made of “native” enemies (For example, Cultists, Crawlers, and Screamers in one area.) Sometimes, they will be megawaves (signalled by a gong or a klaxon, depending where you are.) The ranged opponents can attack from offscreen… A long way offscreen. This gets worse later on, when some of the enemies get homing bullets. And, due to another facet of the game (Its tendency to zoom out to show you pretty or big things) combined with the number of enemies that can appear on screen at one time, the fact the ranged enemies often force you to hunt them down (While sometimes limiting your mobility) by virtue of firing from way offscreen (Hunters are the earliest offenders here, but not the worst), and, of course, the Endless Horde rooms you have to race through to get perks you will most likely need before the endgame (and, if you’re a completionist, definitely want)… Well, it makes what are meant to be big, epic fights sometimes confusing, often frustrating, and, overall, makes it feel more like difficulty padding than merely challenging. The limited pseudo-random generation of areas (The basic layout remains the same, but the specific paths within those areas varies from game to game, and indeed death to death) is an interesting idea, but also, at times, leads to frustration as a longer way out dicks me out of just a tadge more progress by… Well, having to deal with more waves.

Pictured: A nice game of “spot the protagonist in the middle of a bossfight.” Not pictured: The 50 or so assholes he was going to summon.

Similarly, your mileage may vary with the bosses. Quite widely. All of them are at least moderately pattern based, and relatively easy to understand, but some are exercises in frustration and pain. Funnily enough, all three of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are variations of ranged enemies, based on the Cultist (Creates walls of tentacles and explosions), the Screamers (Tries to keep out of your range, shoots you), and the Aberration (Often keeps out of your range by grappling from wall to wall, fires bullets with moderate homing.) The Aberration boss, in particular, has driven me almost to tears, and, at the time of writing, still hasn’t been beaten.

And this is a damn shame, because, while I normally would only not recommend this game to those who, for one reason or another, don’t like or aren’t able to play twitchy games (Being an action combat platformer, it’s very twitchy, and button mashy a fair bit too), I also can’t recommend this game to those with anger-management problems, because keyboards, mice, controllers and monitors are expensive, and I have no desire to be responsible for the destruction of said items in a frustrated rage that I freely admit I’ve come close to at times with this game. Not for novice players, it definitely has its good points, but the experiment of not having basic enemy placement is one that, unfortunately, I’m not fond of.

Lobotomy Corp (Early Access Review)

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

Lobotomy Corp is, at its heart, a management sim. You control a limited number of agents by assigning them tasks, which they take time to do, and you have perhaps more to do than you can. Manage the results.

You always start with the thankfully easy to please Hundred Sins and One Good Deed. But it quickly ramps up…

Thing is, those “results” are death, madness, and horror. Because what you’re managing is an SCP facility. For those who haven’t heard of the SCP files, it’s a community led horror universe, where the horrors are being exploited and studied (or just held in the hope that they don’t go off) by the SCP Foundation (SCP standing for Secure, Contain, Protect), and they range quite widely from deadly buildings, to monsters and people-as-monsters, to seemingly innocuous objects with secrets. Often deadly secrets. Unfortunately for you, most of the items in Lobotomy Corp are unknown to you unless you either have an encyclopaedic knowledge of SCP files. So there’s a lot of death and screaming and… Restarting.

Lobotomy Corp is not an easy game. Each successful mission (Which involves keeping said objects, monsters, and things “happy” enough to harvest some unspecified energy from them) adds a few more, only some of which are known to you from previous experience, and from the second mission on, it’s very easy to get, say, The Red Shoes, which is an instant no go area for women operatives due to its effect. Making things tougher, when some SCPs are unhappy, they lure the non-playable staff in, causing havoc all on their own. It’s interesting from a world standpoint, and very fitting, but unfortunately, makes the game feel a bit arbitrary until, y’know, you’ve worked out what a thing does and how to keep it happy. Considering each agent has four “skills”, four types of overall approach, and that, in the case of a gender or approach “liking” SCP, that agent cannot be used, it’s hard. Uncomfortably so.

WHOOPS! I DID THE WRONG THING, AND NOW WE’RE AAAAAALLL GOING TO DIEEEE.

Visually, it’s thankfully very clear. You know what things do fairly quickly, the contained things’ happinesses are in clear bars, and the game helpfully informs you, both visually and textually, when things have gone horribly wrong. In between missions, there’s chat between you and an AI, and this seems quite interesting, but the meat of the game is, really, levelling and getting agents, researching things to help your agents survive, and figuratively throwing them to the wolves to see what the wolves do.

Thing is, I’d still say to check the game out if you’re interested in the SCP universe, firstly because it’s certainly different than the various creepypasta games I’ve seen that are inspired by it, and secondly because it’s also a somewhat fitting game. Hopefully, there will be some options to tone the difficulty down some, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy the game. I’m just not fond of the restarts.

So… Many restarts. Damn you, Red Shoes. Damn you to heck.

The Mad Welshman can be found under SCP-[REDACTED]. Just so you know how to greet me at expos.

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.