Hot Lava! (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

Saying the words “First Person Platforming” is, in the majority of cases, a phrase to make one shudder. It’s rarely replied to politely, and, while there have been good games with first person platforming and movement elements, they’re rare enough that, for the most part, they don’t go down well.

Not pictured: The fifteen other attempts to get the sub 5 minute star, the buckets of sweat dumped over me, the grunts of EFFORT and the Body English. Also that this is a still of the middle of a series of jumps that take about a second, maybe a second and a half.

So it’s perhaps a good start for me to say that the most shudderworthy part of Hot Lava, a game that entirely revolves around first person platforming, was its attempt at a Saturday Morning Cartoon theme, and the lampshady humour about SatAm writing. Also the really thin poles, but we’ll get to those.

From what I can tell, the story of the game, such as it is, is that you’re a child with a highly active imagination (Who, as in my childhood, seems to be going through an “Imaginary self” phase), who is playing “The Floor Is Lava” , that game where the whole point isn’t to touch the carpet or flooring, because if you do… If you doooo… You’re sooooo dead. Because the floor is lava!

Now add in a score mechanic, collectibles, fake loot boxes bought with in-game currency, character customisation of your Action-Man jointed avatars, time-trial leaderboards, a pogo stick for some challenges, and a whole host of tricks and traps that could conceivably be how a child would imagine the danker and hidden parts of the school (like the ventilation being filled with deadly fans and crusher traps), and you have Hot Lava in its present, Early Access state.

Guess who gets the Boy Aquaman(TM) Short End of the Stick? #GiveSueNamiAChanceHackWriters

Aesthetically and accessiblity wise, insofar as a game about, basically, speedrunning a first person platforming level is pretty good. I never outright failed to notice something I could (in theory) jump to, there’s a checkpoint marker that is, unfortunately, not often all that useful, but it is there, and clear to boot, I had no problems with menu options or colourblindness issues, and things that can be swung from or grappled are highlighted well. The controls are, at their basic level, pretty simple: Tap space to jump, WASD to move, you control your jump mainly by mouse direction, rather than strafing, and you automatically grab anything that you can grab and have successfully reached.

Of course, for the “Pros” (ARGH) , there are tricks like perfect jump timing, a variation on Quake Bunny Hopping (If you jump, and both strafe and turn in a direction, then jump with the right rhythm, alternating directions, your momentum increases. A lot), and other such shenanigans. Oh, and a hidden comic and golden pin somewhere in the level, further cementing that one of the inspirations here (Beyond the child-to-tween-hood of a 30-40 something) is the Tony Hawks series. Or maybe Dave Mirra Pro BMX…

Scratch that, I have very unfond memories of playing the latter. In any case, the game, overall, feels alright, and you quickly get into the rhythm, except for the times you’re lost (The game relies on replay, so that’s less of a sin than you’d think), the times the way forward is awkward (Such as in the Ventilation Tunnels Of Crushing and Fanblades) , and… Thin rods that you have to jump on. The first person equivalent of “Pixel perfect platforming”, I despise them so, and am grateful that their somewhat easier to deal with cousin, Thin Rods You Can Jump On And Run Across, don’t have a tightrope or grind balance mechanic to – that is not a suggestion, Klei Entertainment… koff… Just to clarify.

Unlike either 80s playsets or loot boxes, the playsets of Hot Lava don’t ask for your blood, soul, money, or grandparents. All you need is to play. Plaaaaay. Plaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy!

As much as it feels odd to say this, Hot Lava… Looks promising. And this, funnily enough, is why I didn’t delay this review until the second area (Billed for about a week after the review hits) arrived… Because, even at this early stage, it’s oddly fun. With the exception of the SatAm theme… Sorry, folks, I know some SatAm themes were abominable, but that’s no excuse, dammit!

The Mad Welshman, overall, recommends this. The lava has told him it will eat all his favourite socks if he doesn’t. Joke’s on the lava, he likes the game anyway, and never mastered the art of wearing matching pairs.

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Yoku’s Island Express (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Pinballtroidvania. That’s a word I never thought I’d use… And yet, here we are, with Yoku’s Island Express, which, in essence, is just that: Pinball, mixed with the design ideas behind the “Metroidvania” genre.

It’s cute, it’s fun, and, oh boy, is the post-game a slog. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Let’s talk about the main game instead for a bit.

Just a small, early sample of the map in Yoku’s Island Express. It’s quite nice, really.

Yoku’s Island Express is the story of a beetle, tied to a ball, working as a postmaster in a world of skullmonkeys, bearngineers, space monks, and great guardians being harmed by an ancient and terrible evil. And how does this tiny creature, held down as they are by a great weight, get around? Well, convenient pinball paddles, bumpers, and kickers. Makes perfect sense.

Needless to say, the world is not a serious one. You’re not going to find deep philosophical questions, and the narrative is very firmly subservient to justifying various elements of its world (such as the Dive Fish powerup, which involves… Wearing a fish friend as leggings) , but, props to the developers, it is internally consistent. Not much of it may be very deep, but it’s clearly considered, well sketched out, and, as odd as the world of Yoku’s Island Express is, it didn’t feel unnatural, and that, in and of itself, is something to praise. So… How does it look, how does it play, how does it feel?

Pleasant, overall. The aesthetic is good, with fitting, often heartwarming and cool music, the difficulty curve during the main story is smooth, and no individual “table” in this world is particularly bad or frustrating. Heck, some of them, especially the bosses and climactic moment tables (such as blocking hot-spring vents to help save the Skullmonkey tribe) are quite interesting, as multiball, in the context of this game, is always assistance from a group against some sort of threat. A sort of “Power of Friendship” thing, if you will. The world fits together well, and some of its secrets and powers (such as the Sootling Hookshot) are cool and interesting. The main game, it must be said, is enjoyable, if somewhat short, with a large world to explore, some funny dialogue, and a surreal world that can nonetheless be taken at face value, explored with that voice that says “This is silly” being relatively quiet throughout.

Oooh, buddy… Heroic or no, blocking a volcanically hot hot-spring like that, you’re gonna need some lotion…

It’s when the story is over, though, and there are still things left to do, that the game falls somewhat flat. Thing is, this has been a problem with troidvanias of all sorts in the past as well, and I’ve never really seen a good solution to finding post-game collectathons involving collecting 100 of a thing, or triggering all of the things… Both of which are examples of the post-game, 100% completion “fun.” Does it have a better, true ending at the end of doing all the scarab marked paddles and shots and ramps, and collecting all the wickerlings, working out how to deliver parcels, and whatever the heck that space-monk thing was? Don’t know, don’t particularly enjoy finding out, never have.

Annoyance with collectathon postgames aside, as noted, the aesthetic is cool, it’s a nice world, and it was fun and interesting enough that I’d recommend it as an interesting variation on an established formula that mostly works… My favourite kind of recommendation.

The currency of Yoku’s world is fruit, a currency I can get behind… Although one has to wonder what the exchange rates are…

The Mad Welshman loves that ancient sport, Pinne of ye Balle, experimentation with genre, and insectoids. He is a marketing anomaly.

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Fhtagn! Tales of the Creeping Madness (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I do love me some Lovecraftian shenanigans. I also love party visual novels. So you can perhaps imagine my pleasure when I saw Fhtagn! (Pronounced Fuh-tagh-un, Fe-Tahh-gun, or Steve), which is both of these things, involving the summoning of Dread Lord Cthulhu (who sleeps and is dead in his island city until the Stars Are Right comes on the telly.)

Ahh, the sleepy town of Arkham, home of scenic Night Terrors and a solid, if mind-bending academic institution!

It is, in its basics, a very familiar formula: There are up to four players in local co-op, eight locations, seven stats, six turns, and eight possible endings in the base game. With two tasks per location, each giving some combo of three stats (Except gambling at Madame Fufu’s), and only one player allowed per location, it’s up to the players to get their stats up to the major and minor requirements of their chosen ritual by succeeding in stat based events and upping stats with their chosen activity, while…

…Ah, now this is where it gets interesting. As I found out when streaming the game, just one of the players succeeding in their ritual isn’t enough for a victory… So there is a co-op element… It’s just, by its layout, you expect it to be competitive. Good trick!

In any case, this is one of those games where the writing is important, and is it good? It is! The humour in this game lands a lot more than it misses, like how a spicy burrito coming back to haunt your cultist can, in some circumstances, actually bring you closer to your goal… Whether that’s by successfully blaming your gastric upset on someone else, or by holding it in and inspiring the cult to greater eldritch dancing by your own tortured contortions. It’s a game aware of, and affectionately parodying its inspiration, while also sidestepping a lot of the stuff that makes liking Lovecraft’s work rather awkward (You know, like the fact that a lot of it is based on racism as well as the limitations of rationalism.)

IA! IA! HOWARDU FHTAGN!

Aesthetically, it also hits the shoggoth on the (nominal) noggin, with some lively, jazzy music to get you into that roaring 20s mood, some good animations, and, in the Mayor’s office, Himself rules over Arkham, perhaps for a Newer, Better Deal… Well, until we wreck the place and summon the Older, Awful Deal, anyway…

As to flaws, I can’t really pick anything out as more than a minor niggle, for two reasons: While the base game itself is quite short (In less than 2 hours, which includes a lengthy stream, I have 5 of the 8 endings), the developers are adding content quite soon to the game, and it has a content creation tool, which some folks have already added things, and you can, too (LINK)

As such… It’s tightly designed, fun to play with friends, got a lot of humour and charm, and you can make new content for it? That’s two squamous appendages up, Fhtagn!

LovecraftianMood.JPG

The Mad Welshman has only two squamous appendages, so this is a hefty endorsement indeed!

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Coffee Crisis (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £4.79
Where To Get It: Steam

Beat Em Ups, as they’ve long been known, have had some pretty interesting subject matter in the past. Failed Sega Mascots. Baseball (in the player sense) robots fighting Baseball (in the ball sense) aliens. Being a bad enough dude to save the president. And now… Two baristas, fighting those dirty custome- I mean, aliens leeching the world’s WiFi.

I’m, as confused as you are, Ashley.

I honestly can’t say I’m not charmed by the concept. It’s just it’s rather odd in places, execution wise. And only some of it I really understand. Let’s go back to basics, though, for a beginning.

As a beat-em-up, it’s a fairly old school setup: Attack, jump, jump attack, grab, and a special that costs health and is, extra damage aside, somewhat underwhelming. There are ranged enemies, who are a pain in the ass, there are tough and weak enemies, there are bosses, there are stages. Heck, there’s even level codes, which I kind of appreciate, even if they’re the older kind that doesn’t, for example, preserve number of lives and the like. It inherits the weaknesses of older beat-em-ups, such as lack of decent counters to ranged enemies, a lack of feedback (It took a level or so for me to notice the healthbar), and wall-locking enemies being the ideal strategy for the majority of encounters, but, as a beat-em-up, at its core, it isn’t bad.

Where it gets a little odd are the “spectacle” additions, Mods and “Special Effects.” Both can be turned off, but the game leaves them on by default, and… Honestly? They don’t really add all that much. Some of the mods change the way the fight works, but not all that many have a noticeable effect, and Special Effects? I’ve never been a big fan of involuntary shader funtimes, and to have fights randomly turn into greenscreen, or all wibbly, or with that “Metal” shader (You know, one of the ones that bears little resemblance to actual metal) is more offputting and artificial than anything else. Nonetheless, they can be turned off in the options, and it merely remains for me to point this out.

Not gonna lie, I had my fill of greenscreen CRT around… Ooh, 1987?

Aesthetically and narratively, it’s hit and miss. Some of it is that there’s obviously some local cultural references I’m just not getting. Some of it is enemies for the sake of enemies (Why are the aliens possessing OAPs?), and, aesthetically, it feels more than a bit chaotic, and the coffee OD level in particular has some eye-searing colour choices. Like… Ouch.

So, overall, Coffee Crisis is in an odd place for me. I’ve had some fun with it. I appreciate the coffee chugging minigame, both as part of the game’s odd world, and a reference to older minigame bonus stages. I appreciate that having a separate “Grab Enemy/Pick the weapon up” button is a damn useful thing to have. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, being short and punchy. But at the same time, I find some of its decisions odd and offputting. It is, I’ll say, worth at least a look if you like old school beat-em-ups.

Yup, this is indeed a beat-em-up. You can tell by whaling on several enemies with one swing of my coffee bag.

 

The Mad Welshman sips his coffee appreciatively, safe in the knowledge that Baristas are deadly brawlers who will forever protect his coffee drinking rights. Or something.

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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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