Ghostly Matter (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Ghostly Matter is one of those games where, with its retro stylings and cool ideas, I want to like it. Mixing old action adventure titles (Not the modern definition, but essentially, platformers with adventure game elements), pulp horror, and survival horror.

Two professors, both alike in dignity…

But a common problem, it seems, with retro games is that they also take the less laudable elements of retro design, and Ghostly Matter, for all that it has an interesting world, won’t particularly let me get into it because it wants to be retro hard.

The general story is, admittedly, nice and pulpy. Two professors, both alike in dignity, work in the burgeoning field of ghostly research, but they split over an argument about whether something that lets you look into the abyss that is the realm of the dead will also let the abyss look into them. Years pass, and Dr. Penderghast, the protagonist, receives a mysterious message from beyond the grave that seems to be his old professorial friend. Cue horrors and hijinks.

I’d love to tell you more about those hijinks, about the direction the game goes, but, unfortunately, I can’t. Because there is a lot of dying in this game, and checkpoints… Are not terribly helpful. Fixed life with few healing items contrasts with contact damage, rapidly firing enemies, the fact that your Spectroscope is necessary to see certain enemies, but also drains your health at a rate of knots (and needs batteries) … Before we even get into things like the gotcha that opens up a shortcut in the second level, where you open up said shortcut, jump down, and… Are immediately assailed by four skeletons arising in very close proximity. Whups, opening this shortcut is going to cost you health, no matter what you do. What’s that? Your health is in short supply? Better remember where the nearest checkpoint is, then!

In game design philosophy, there is the problem of Schrodinger’s Monster Closet. When the waveform collapses, you either take damage or have an item (its usefulness also determined by a waveform.)

There are other, better weapons that, unfortunately, but I can, at least, tell you there are three different types of enemies, and certain weapons work better than others. But when maps are large and sprawling, health items are few and far between, checkpoints are equally pretty far… And the enemies like to be invisible (use the spectroscope to hit them, lose health anyway, because the spectroscope is a gateway to death), or pop up from the ground (with some being easy to spot, others not so much) or just have hard to dodge ranged options, I found myself hitting brick walls pretty often, to the point where I’m writing this review without having gotten nearly as far as I’d like.

Oddly, narratively, everything fits together well. The supernatural world is tough (enemies are bullet spongy) , the spectroscope drains life with use because it’s basically a gateway to the spirit realm (but is necessary for puzzles, while health items are rare) , and you can’t exactly have a horde of evil in a small room (maps are large, with only a few navigation aids.) Mechanically, as those little asides note, it doesn’t work so well, with a lot of factors contributing to the difficulty, while less factors ameliorate it. The controls are also a little tough to get into, sadly, but this is not a huge issue when a lot of the time, what you need is move, jump, and shoot, all of which are simple enough.

Still, it is an interesting story, and while I have a lot of trouble with it, if you’re fine with games being tougher than usual, this may be one to look at.

Even in the areas I’ve been able to struggle through, there’s at least some variety. From a normal house to… This. Cool!

The Mad Welshman loves him some horror. It’s part of why he’s often so harsh with horror titles, it must be said.

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The Miskatonic (Review)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £4.79
Where To Get It: Steam

The Miskatonic, to get the things that turn some folks off right now, is a no-choice visual novel (click the right things to proceed, click everything else for more world/dialogue) with some body horror NSFW, and a lewd adjacent tone for most of its Post-Lovecraftian shenanigans (That’s a nice term, thanks RPS.) It takes about 2 hours to play through.

I don’t know *where* I got the idea it might be lewd-adjacent for a lot of it. Not. A. Clue.

Okay, has everyone who’s turned off by that gone?

Good.

The Miskatonic is an interesting visual novel, built in TyranoBuilder, because of all the subtle messaging we’ve got going on here. “Oh hey, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice, let’s be nice and try to make the world nicer.” is the core philosophy of the main character. People who have been mutated in this strange, Miskatonic world aren’t irreperably disabled by it, but are folks who… Well, just get on with their lives, and are still people. There’s even some not-very subtle lewd adjacency and QUILTBAG+ imagery. And, at a certain point, it points out that when people reach extremes of an ideology, they become gatekeepy assholes. It tries to create a world, in the relatively short time available to it, that has not only met the Great Old Ones, but just… Dealt with it, and moved on.

And then it makes a lot of the characters I previously empathised with douchebags, who had been working with the folks I already thought were douchebags, or just plain creepy. I could probably, given a while, a decent headspace, and a 2000+ wordcount, write quite a bit about… A 2 hour visual novel.

To have an eldritch horror have to tell you this is probably a galling experience, I would imagine.

But, in a way, this is precisely the problem I face with The Miskatonic. It packs a lot into a little, and it leaves the critical brain a little frazzled, because not everything works together (Although enough does that it makes for an interesting narrative.) It’s flirty until it takes a left turn into horrortown. It’s pretty inclusive in messaging, but the majority of the characters are caucasian (When they’re not a plant-being, or a tiny adorable avatar of Yog Sothoth, or a person whose head entirely consists of craters), and wheee that’s a lot of breastage implied there!

What I guess I’m trying to say here is that it works… Overall… But definitely isn’t perfect, and the tonal whiplash doesn’t so much shock, as feel… A little off. Text could use the accessibility option of being larger (Although, not having TyranoBuilder, I’m uncertain how that would be applied.), musically and visually it fits together with its themes and mood, and as such, while I would overall recommend it as an interesting piece of writing (and a good example of relatively well proportioned, thirsty artwork that also manages to, with one exception that’s jarringly deliberate, normalise the body horror elements), I would maybe suggest to the developers they look to add a few accessibility options if that’s at all possible.

The supersonic squeal at the cuteness (and probably Welshness) of this Avatar of Yog-Sothoth broke seventeen windows. Kindly support TMW to pay the bill for that, it wasn’t my fault!

The Mad Welshman sounds confused today because his brain got hit by Shoggoth matter. Moreso than the baseline amount, anyway.

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Lovecraft’s Untold Stories (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.29
Where To Get It: Steam

Lovecraft’s Untold Stories is a narrative, procedurally generated twin-stick shooter, set in, unsurprisingly, the Cthulhu Mythos of the titular author. I want to be somewhat clear that this is something that could work, because, unfortunately… It doesn’t, in this case. And it doesn’t for a variety of reasons. I want to be clear here because, in a very real sense, the game isn’t.

Somewhere, in this room, is probably a clown. They love the dark, y’see. Can’t see ’em in the dark…

It certainly tries, with helpful prompts in its inventory screen, context sensitive ones for the various locks in the game. It even very briefly sets out the understandable control scheme. And then, for want of a lesser term, it goes tits up from the word go, in several senses. And, funnily enough, a lot of those problems manifest in that very first level, colouring the rest of the experience.

And the main problem? That the first chapter has more. More visual effects (Oooh, it is so dark, except where it, uncommonly, isn’t) , more powerful enemies (I died more on the very first level than any other combined), and more lore jammed into it, to the point where it makes later stages feel comparatively bland.

Unfortunately, more, in this case, is actually less. This first, lore choked level is also pointlessly dark, so it’s harder to read, and you’ll need to read the room well, because health kits aren’t exactly common, and the two varieties of shop even less so (To the point where, many attempts in, I’ve encountered the Info shop precisely once, and the shop that, presumably, takes the dollars I’ve also been collecting, only when I went back to test some things just prior to the review. Neither shop’s contents impressed me.) Add in that health can vanish in a couple of seconds if you’re not careful, and that the majority of enemies outrange you (Including the extremely deadly and impractical Cultist Turret), and you already have a punishing first stage.

Now add spikes that can only be dodge rolled. Now make some of those spike rooms puzzle rooms. Make some of the flavour events not flavour at all, but sanity loss, damage, and other roguelike bullshittery, with a hefty dose of keys hidden in a large map, two of which you need to progress to the boss, who is…

Pictured: Mmm, chaser AI, melee… KITES OF DEATH, ACTIVATED.

…An extremely underwhelming melee chaser.

Now, the rest of the levels I’ve encountered so far? Erratic, both in terms of content and balance. Interestingly, it seems like ranged enemies are the biggest offenders here, as, until you get a weapon with a better range (Which, currently, doesn’t seem to happen with Professor Doctor Clawstone, the second character of the game), the more bullet spongey shooters will most likely be your biggest source of character death… Despite the fact that the AI of everything that isn’t a chaser or a turret (both of which unerringly track you until dead) is “Run around like a headless chicken, occasionally shoot in the direction of the character, whether in range or not.”

The cult of the first area gives way to the Mi-Go and zombies of the second, and the zombies with a small side order of necromancers to… Look, past the first area, this game seems to have a very high zombie to lovecraftian creation ratio. And that isn’t exactly promising, considering the zombies of both the second and third levels have a threat level of “Perhaps if you’re not paying attention, something bad will happen.”

Perhaps things will change. Perhaps it will become more enjoyable, and the game, later on, won’t frontload both its difficulty and its content (I got all four of the currently available Detective Weapons by the end of the second level, and, similar, Professor Doctor Clawstone, who currently gets… Nothing beyond his base items, either in terms of interaction or kit.) Perhaps it’ll tie its world together better than “Here are a bunch of Lovecraft references, and he’s the shopkeep too, oh golly gee!” But right now, I find myself distinctly unimpressed with Lovecraft’s Untold Stories.

So, as it turns out, the liquid of the powder, while also atomised and sprayed, has the opposite effect to the original powder. Makes perfect sense, gotcha.

The Mad Welshman, similarly, is unimpressed with old Howard being the shopkeeper. His stock is disappointing too.

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Cultist Simulator (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Cultist Simulator is a little like occult research itself: It’s messy, and offputting and obfuscatory at first, but, as you get deeper, it all becomes simpler, and then… Well, you’re exploring for the sake of exploring, falling deep down the rabbit hole…

The Mansus, this game’s Dreamlands, in all its glory. *Poked from off camera* Oh, sorry, wrong capitalisation. All its Glory!

To unpack this, nominally, Cultist Simulator is a real-time strategy/RPG hybrid where you, a person of some description (be that a doctor, a policeman, a working joe, or other things) get a hint of a deeper world, a world where, if you really, really want, if you work hard, and make sacrifices, you too can become a big player in the world of ancient magics.

Of course… Some of those sacrifices are human, and some of that work is murder, or suppression of evidence that you’re doing all this stuff, and I say “nominally” regarding the game because it isn’t really much like anything that’s come before. The cards, for example, are all on timers. The events are on timers. And, while you can pause and interact with them all, unless you’re doing just that, the event cards can only be viewed individually, so you’re always going to miss things, partly because here, a lack of tutorialising is a deliberate choice. Fun fact: Cult, and occult are words whose Latin roots are two letters apart. Colere, to cultivate, and Celare, to hide.

As such, a review of Cultist Simulator, by its very definition, is a somewhat spoilery experience. Starting only from a card or two, the world expands, with more verbs (that’s the squares as opposed to the cards) unlocking in play, more threats, more opportunities. Teachers are discovered, lore is uncovered. Dreams, strange places, possible cult members, and, of course… Hunters. People who would rather (and with good reason) see these ancient secrets remain buried, even if their methods, their name (The Bureau of Suppression) seems a step too far.

There’s one heck of a narrative here, but interpreting it is as much a learned skill as getting to the point I have.

This is one of the high points of the game, that the world expands, and is explained as you go, in fragments, little pieces. With atmospheric writing, overlays to the board, changes of music, the world is created. This is a game with a lot of reading, and a lot that can only be discovered through experimentation. Wait, you can Study with your Patrons? Damn, didn’t know that. You can get a rough idea of what an event or card wants by clicking the empty slot? Damn, didn’t know that at first.

It’s simultaneously frustrating as hell, and some excellent marrying of narrative to mechanics. You are, after all, always a character unfamiliar with the occult elements of its world, by choice or no, but, as a player, I can’t deny I spent some time angry that progression seemed always a step away. What the hell do I do with this door? How do I deal with the deep, dark Dread in my life? (To be fair, that’s a question I struggle answering in life, as well as this game.) It doesn’t necessarily help that yes, even if you’re so close to earning that goal, that true glimpse that destroys and creates, something simple, something you’d overlooked, can prematurely end your dreams. Since a single run can sometimes last up to 10 hours, you can imagine why that’s so devastating. The cult members and patrons remain the same, even if the story changes, and this, also, is perhaps a flaw.

Cultist Simulator is interesting as all get out, and somewhat unique, both in terms of how it handles events, and how it uses a lack of tutorialising to its benefit narratively. I would recommend it to folks, because, interestingly, it’s using its flaws. Not perfectly, and there are still things that the game does that annoys the hell out of me (such as generating cards on top of other cards, or the magnet slots on events prioritising over events that are already being used, dammit dammit dammit, but it intrigues me with its well researched and written world, its subtle, mostly minimalist aesthetic, and… Not gonna lie, it feels good when you finally achieve your goals.

The writing is excellent, and I mainly chose this screenshot for the folks who already bought the game. Some amusing… Poetic… Justice.

The Mad Welshman loves new aspirants. It’s such a delight to discover how well each goes with Garlic Butter.

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Basingstoke (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £23.79
Where To Get It: Steam

Welcome to Basingstoke, a town filled with sausage rolls, quaint pubs, AND THE LIVING DEAD. We hope you enjoy your stay in the picturesque recycling bins, sewer pipes, and assorted possibly-safe buildings. There is no escape.

My character’s name sounds a bit like Gordon right now. There is no reason I find this fitting at all.

Basingstoke, the latest offering from Puppygames (and not the small English town, although it is set there) is an interesting game. It’s definitely an action game, but avoidance and stealth, rather than killing, is the main focus (Although weapons do exist, only a few are guaranteed a quick kill, and most of them are loud.) It’s procedurally generated, and has older game concepts just kind of strewn about, like save items, level-based gameplay, and the like. It is, in short, a mix of old and new ideas, starting with perhaps one of the older ones: Science going wrong, because a big company delved into things Man Was Not Meant To Know (Never goes wrong in a videogame, amirite?), and so Basingstoke is now a hellhole filled with zombies, mutants, aliens, and death-robots. A hellhole that you, the latest interviewee for Omnicorp, have to escape.

And it works. It works really well. Part of that is that Puppygames is no stranger to adding their own touches to arcade based play, and have a solid grasp of the low-poly aesthetic, with good sound design and occasional music. And part of this is that, most of the time, it feels fair, with the difficulty escalating sensibly, except when you screw up and trigger a loud noise, in which case the sudden horde of zombies is, definitively, your fault.

My last thought was “DO NOT RUN IN THE HALLWAYS”, oddly.

There’s also good variety in play. Myself, I mostly like non-confrontational play, creeping around, distracting enemies with sausage rolls or sandwiches, occasionally setting groups of zombies on fire with a molotov or flamethrower, if I can get hold of the salvage needed to build them. And the game supports this quite well. Get some Instant Coffee (freely available from drink dispensers, relatively common), and you can mix it with a sandwich, kebab, or the like to turn the zombie that eats it on its fellows. Or, y’know, just have a nice cup of coffee. Still, running hell for leather everywhere is, definitely on the early levels, still a valid and workable strategy if you’re clever about it.

And each has their downsides. My stealthy play, for example, is mostly slow, and I don’t get to explore everywhere. As such, my item use suffers somewhat. Running, meanwhile, attracts Tentacles, and even the twitchiest of players will occasionally get caught out by one that spawns either on top of them, or in such a way that it’s going to grab you. And in Basingstoke, one hit is a kill for your player character.

With revolutionary new RECYCLEBIN-O-VISION, you can see exactly how boned you, in fact, are.

There’s a fair amount to like about Basingstoke. For example, I can start from later levels if I really want to, and the Insurance Policy, if I can afford it, means I get to save mid-level (once.) There’s infinite retries on a level. It can turn down the flashing and gore, and it’s largely pretty clear how to play, tutorialising well. It also feels tense, without being aggravating. Yes, I can die at any second. But I know the progress from the previous level won’t be undone, and I can still try again. I know my progress overall won’t be undone. And I find myself, overall, looking forward to whatever evil thing the game is going to throw my way, be that for me, like when I made a proximity mine, or against me, like the large alien carnivores of the Underground. Well worth a look if you like stealth action titles.

The Mad Welshman sprinkled coffee, breadcrumbs, and bean juice over his egg and bacon sandwich, and smiled nastily. Somewhere, some zombie was going to have a very, very Full English day.

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