Opus Magnum (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Opus Magnum is, as you might expect from a Zachtronics game, clever, mildly frustrating at times, but overall very good if you like puzzles that use programming logic as their core element. This time? The logic of an alchemical machine, used by a recently graduated alchemist who very quickly gets way, way over his head. Solid stuff.

Anateus, as you might have guessed, is a slovenly genius.

So what’s clever about this? Well, it encourages tight, simple designs with fewer moving parts. Sometimes, this is positive reinforcement, like the warm glowies you get when two arms, a special kind of bonding machine, and a glyph to turn elements into salt take the element of Fire, and make it… Well, more fiery. Not that you’d see that, but rest assured, you’re making explosives, there is story to it, both before and after, it’s written well, and it makes sense (More bonds, in chemistry = More energy when they break. KABOOM.)

Sometimes, this is more restriction than anything else. The robot arms (your means of manipulating the elements) can’t be programmed until you place your element sources and the output down, and no, these sources are the sources you have to work with. Move them around, shuffle them for optimisation, but when it gives you one Water Sphere, and you have two waters to bond, then you just have to deal with it… And it’s fun to do so.

This took about an hour to program (including checking everything), and was slow, expensive, *and* taking up a lot of space. Don’t do this, kids.

Finally, there’s the negative reinforcement. The more complicated the machine you’re making, the more it costs, the more area it takes up, and the longer it’s going to take to program to work right (Although I really do feel a “Start from a certain place in the program” option would help there.) Two of those are things you’re scored on, compared with other folks… And this is the other joy of Opus Magnum… Different designs having different efficiency, efficiency that often comes at the sacrifice of other qualities. The game makes this pretty damn easy to make these designs, with multiple design saves per puzzle possible, so for some puzzles, I have designs that are quick (because I threw lots of arms in… Arms can overlap, even if collisions with their bases is not allowed. This is a useful tip) , and for some, I have compact and cheap (but sloooow) designs. Somewhere, you’re going to compromise.

The ability to make your own puzzles, puzzles not related to the story, but part of the world, a little side game… There’s a fair amount to Opus Magnum, and all this, combined with the good music and visuals? Makes it a good choice for folks who like puzzle games with a bit of bite. I would also recommend this to folks who liked previous Zachtronics games, but… Well, they probably already have it. While it is in Early Access, the game is pretty much complete, save for balancing.

The side-game, an interesting take on matching puzzles, with commentary by the two main characters.

The Mad Welshman likes the GIF record feature. It lets him gloat when he has a reaaaaally good machine. Or horrify people with overly complex creations. That too.

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Secret Spaces (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: $8 USD (Approx £5)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

Secret Spaces is, in creator Heather “Flowers” Robertson’s own words, a game about being gay and in a hole. These things are true. It’s also a game about being in a strange, low-polygon world, moving ever deeper into the rabbit hole to, hopefully, find your girlfriend and get the hell out of this strange place.

It’s kinda dark down here, Elaine. I know sometimes we feel the need to hide in a deep, dark, hole, but… Literally?

At first, the game seems extremely simple: Finding notes and going downwards progresses things, cutting and growing ropevines to climb down safely, using berries to heal damage you’ve taken from falling too far (Although falling far enough will, as with any human being, kill you stone dead.)

The thing is, the more you take from this place, the less it will give. You’re almost in a relationship with the space itself, and working with what it gives you tends to give the best results. Take very little, and the Secret Space will give you help, in the form of seeds and berries. Take a lot, and the vines thin out, the berries don’t arrive as often, and you will need, more and more, to either be very skillful in climbing downwards, or plant the vines you have in the hope that it will make life easier down the road. It’s subtle, and being someone who prefers not to waste things, I didn’t notice this on a first playthrough.

Huh, that *is* odd. Some mysteries, unfortunately, are trumped by the immediate.

Aesthetically… Well, it’s cuboids and notes. The light (and thus the colours) change as you get deeper, giving it a little flair, but it’s a quiet place, and some might say a bare place, but, with this game, that feels just fine. I liked the character of Elaine as noted in the notes (Although, that dad joke… I make dad jokes all the time, and I loudly groaned at that one… So props!) , I liked the writing, and, from word one, I’ve been struggling with the fact that the developer has summed up the game a heckuva lot better than I have.

Secret Spaces is about being gay, and in a hole. It’s approximately £5 , takes around an hour to play through once, and my main “Do not recommend” here is if a very low-polygon world turns you off a game. If you like games where there’s something subtle going on in the background (The Hole is procedurally generated, yes, sometimes walls do move, and how easy you find it depends on whether you are, in game, a taker, or someone who works with what’s there) , then you may well like Secret Spaces.

Whoah… The plant… It wiggles. Kinda reminds me of you, Elaine… Hehe.

The Mad Welshman thinks love is cool. No snark, just… Passion is good.

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Academagia (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.99
Where To Get It: Steam

When it first came out, Academagia wowed people in the lifesim world with ripping yarns about life in a magical school. Now, the Steam version of Year 1 has hit, and the question has to be asked: How the heck is it?

Well, let’s get a thing out of the way first: If you do not like reading, then Academagia is not for you. Reading is, in fact, the majority of what you do in Academagia. And when you aren’t reading, you’re thinking of ways to have adventures while not skipping class, or what the heck to do. Because there’s a lot to explore, and considering a single playthrough can easily take a night away, it can at first be difficult to get into. It is not, it must be said, a terribly friendly game in a sense, as, while the character creation tries to explain things, it can often involve going back and forth between elements before finalising your character.

A swotty swot planning how to swot swottingly.

So this review is going to take the form of advice, if you like reading, how Academagia can be played a little more enjoyably.

Firstly, yes, you can go back and forth on character creation steps. You have points to spend on backgrounds and things, but you can go right back to stats if ideas present themselves. I often go for the Gift of Libraries, because I’m a swotty swot wot swots n wots, but you can be the child of a pirate, an athletic nobleman, the school gossip… There’s a lot of options, and at first it may seem like a mountain. Pick a path, get comfortable with it.

Read what things do as soon as you know about them. Academic success, for example, isn’t always dictated by the subject, but also by general exam discipline, knowledge in a secondary subject (Forging things, for example, is considered useful by Enchanters), and, of course, the odd spell to help you bone up.

The Steam version lets you resize and move panels. This is not advertised, but can be incredibly useful, especially when your specific resolution means that occasionally, it looks like you have a 0 in a subject, when actually, you’ve maxed it out.

He’s a *sneaky* little swot too, you can tell by the fact he’s maxed out his Glamour (Illusion) magic!

You have more options in dealing with a situation when you have a clique of friends (Kinda like a school gang, in a sense), but it’s by no means the only way forward, so if you feel like playing a loner bookworm (Hi), you can do so.

If you’re not a big fan of classical music, you can turn it off. Sadly, faces are pretty much set, and by college.

When it comes to skill chances, green text is good, blue is okay, black is 50/50, red is less than good, and purple is almost-no-chance. But just because it’s green… Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good choice. Sometimes a green choice is a “Get out of event” or “I choose to fail”, rather than a good thing.

So, essentially, that’s Academagia: There’s a lot of reading, but if you take your time with it, you can read a mostly charming, branching story involving a boy or a girl at a magical public school. I’ve fought pirates, settled arguments between ghosts, survived innumerable prankings (Including some jerky jerkface casting a love spell on someone I’d never met in school before… Asshole) , discovered the real history of the Day of Dragons, and, every now and again, seriously broken school laws and somehow gotten away with it. I’ve always had an exotic familiar, and sometimes, that’s been… Awwwh, not Craig!

Thankfully, my little swot’s familiar is Clarisse this time, a classy winged lady.

It’s okay. I’ll learn to appreciate him over my year in Academagia. I always bond well with my familiars. <3

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Going Back – Adam Wolfe

Source: Review Copy
Price: £4.79 for Episode 1, £14.99 for all 4 episodes.
Where To Get It: Steam

It may come as a surprise that this is a going back, considering my long held opinions on the state of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures (Often bad with colourblindness, puzzles that make no sense in the context, extremely thin story that doesn’t have a great track record with treating women well, despite being marketed to said women for the most part), but this one, I feel, deserves it for, at the very least, being less egregious about it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the game is enjoyable. So let’s unpack that.

This is, surprisingly, not quite how it seems. And a reason why I’m somewhat fond of Episode 1.

Adam Wolfe is an episodic hidden object puzzle adventure game… Which seems to tend more toward the adventure end than the hidden object end. Why? Because every puzzle I’ve seen so far has context, even if the puzzles, on closer examination, can seem a little silly, and a few have colourblindness problems. Can’t win ’em all. The final episode was released in November 2016, and I was approached to review it last week.

Episode 1 is a pretty strong start in many respects. The only traditional hidden object puzzle is, amusingly enough, when Adam tips out the junk from moving (Including, for some reason, a pizza box… For shame, Adam!), and this is somewhat less traditional in that it has a strict order, as Adam recalls various things. Still keep only one item, but fine, like I said, can’t win ’em all. The rest are more like forensic puzzles, in which Adam uses a mysterrrrrious watch to try and recreate crime scenes. He doesn’t even get all of them right, in the end, which is a nice touch.

There is a reason, later on, I say this should have been spotted before release. No other episode does this. Also, the file is above the lockbox. See if you can spot it.

But Episode 2, sadly, brings things back to form with a hidden object puzzle where not only are objects, unlike the other episodes, clearly a little glitched (“I’m looking for a %FILE% to do the thing”), there is a puzzle where Adam Wolfe finds a variety of objects to try and open a small lockbox, before eventually settling on the only one that works, a hammer. Adam’s an ex-cop. Which makes this hidden object puzzle, again with its strict order, all the more heartbreakingly stupid and obvious padding. Oh, and that file wasn’t visible without a guide, another common problem with HOPA puzzles.

The rest of the episodes, though, seem fine, for a HOPA… And this is where I go back to a macro-view of the game, because it’s more important to clarify what goes well, what goes the same, and what’s flawed, to highlight that, for all its flaws, Adam Wolfe is a step forward in terms of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures. Firstly, the story, while another supernatural mystery, is specifically patterned after supernatural mystery shows, taking the episodic pacing cues from the genre, along with a more action based story which makes sense in the context. The cast gets less diverse from Episode 2 onwards, sadly, but considering how often HOPAs don’t really write characters well at all, especially women and folks of colour? I’m actually okay with this. I liked that the villains are all white men, effectively. I liked how most of the characters feel like people, and not just “Plot Device X” (I’m not saying all, but most. Some really are just there to be obstacles or exposition.)

Yes, there are still highly silly puzzle locks like this. But, again, they’re less egregious, and more often, this kind of symbol hunting is restricted to, for example, a ritual binding.

Similarly, it’s a step forward to limit the magical protagonist power that all HOPA protagonists seem to have (Never explained, never given context) to the magical end of things (Rituals, spectral signatures, bindings.) The puzzles still feel a bit silly, but they’re less silly than “Oh, hey, a drawing of a bat, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!” It’s good to see this experimentation, like “I need to collect things that make up one object”, rather than “I am going to collect all these things, and keep one object” (Which, sadly, still happens in Adam Wolfe too, but is at least sometimes given context. Baby steps.) Equally interesting to see are the QTE segments. Now, yes, QTEs can be good or bad, and Adam Wolfe’s are mostly in that middle ground of “Clunky, but entertaining”, but, again, this is a step forward. This is something new, being tried in a genre which, as a whole, prefers to crank out three a year of the same kind of thing.

Again, some of these puzzles could have been more clear (There’s rarely consequence for failure, but it does lead to some irritable clicking or mouse moving when no, you’re not told what to shoot, or you’re shown glowies when you’re actually meant to continue to shoot the bad time-wizard, or the like) and hints aren’t always helpful, but, in the end, here’s my summary of Adam Wolfe: For all that it still has some flaws of the HOPA genre at large, it experiments, it tries to emulate a genre of media and mostly succeeds, it tries to give puzzles context and change up the puzzle format and at least half succeeds, and it does enough interesting things that I am perfectly willing, despite my dislike of the HOPA genre’s stagnancy, to say that this game both deserves a playthrough, and this Going Back article. It’s not an amazing game. If it weren’t for episode 2’s highlighting of flaws and bugs that should have been noticed before release, I would say it was a “Highly enjoyable” game (In-between Good and Great, if you’re curious.) But it is by no means a bad game, and I would say that other HOPA developers, current and prospective, would want to look at Adam Wolfe and consider…

I couldn’t really leave this review without a screenshot of one of the fight sequences. Okay, yes, it’s not quite Super PunchOut. But it didn’t *feel* bad to play, and I am content with that.

“…Hey, this guy who dislikes HOPAs is saying the word ‘like’ more, maybe we should ask why?”

The Mad Welshman cannot peel hamburgers off adverts to feed his constant hunger, why should a HOPA protagonist have it any easier?

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Mandagon (Review)

Source: Free
Where To Get It: Steam

Let’s begin this review with the most important facts of all: Mandagon is free. It takes, on average, less than an hour to play. Also, it is meant to represent Bardo, which is described as “Limbo” in the game’s description.

This is, presumably, a good thing. Also, proof the game is somewhat pretty.

This is, presumably, a good thing. Also, proof the game is somewhat pretty.

These are important things to note, and indeed, look up, because the last one is pretty much going to be the focus of this review. So let’s get the mechanical and visual stuff out of the way first: There is no death, it’s just exploration. It tells a story of a man who has sacrificed himself for the sake of his daughter. It’s visually pretty, and the music and sound are all chill as heck. Also there is a not-bad representation of Palden Lhamo, who you may confuse for Kali (Indeed, there are some schools of thought stating that she’s an emanation of Kali.) The controls, as such, are simple, although the “maps” do not seem to show where you’re meant to go… Although the six sacred tablets do show you where they’re meant to go if you activate them in your inventory.

Bam, mechanical, visual, and aural stuff over with. Let’s get to the meat of things, and why, despite the game being free, I’m being a bit critical. Not of the game mechanically, but culturally. It should also be noted that I am not, myself, a Tibetan Buddhist, so my own criticism should be taken with a grain of salt. All that being said, let’s start with the elephant in the room: Cultural Shoehorning. We see this a lot, even within Europe (Wales, Brittany, the Scandinavian nations, pretty much anything that’s been shoved under “Faerie”… The list is a pretty long one), and to be honest, it annoys.

Bardo is not Limbo. Heck, this is only one sixth of what Bardo appears to be (Chönyi Bardo , the Luminosity of the True Nature, commencing in between the final breath and the transmigration of the mindstream to its next existence, going back to the first Bardo, Kyenay bardo, which encompasses a person’s life.) Making it worse, not even Limbo is Limbo as most folks understand it, and yet the term continues to be used for a transitional state between lives (A concept that mainly came into the consciousness via Dante’s Inferno, which was, itself, a sort of discussion of the theological concept), despite being… Er… Not really a transitional state.

As you might have guessed, this is a game world. The map is showing me where I am.

As you might have guessed, this is a game world. The map is showing me where I am.

Yes, I know that’s some heavy shit to lay on you this early. Stick with me. Anyways, Chönyi Bardo is when those who have finally died experience visions, and the nature of those visions depends upon how they practiced and/or understood Buddhism during their life, and whether they recognise this in the first place. Spoilers, the main character of Mandagon must have been someone spiritually buff as hell. I mean, we’re talking enlightenment muscles out the wazoo.

Not that, you know, enlightenment is like muscles. Or maybe it can be. Enlightenment’s odd like that. Anyway, the point is, that only if you are a spiritually aware person will you have the chill as heck experience as you do in game. Otherwise, to simplify things a little, you terrify and delude yourself, adding this baggage to your next existence because you didn’t prepare to shed said baggage. However, that they do not get reborn is perhaps another sign of this, as adherence to the precepts of Karma allow one to escape the beginningless cycle of rebirth that Buddhism calls Samsara (In many forms of Buddhism, a less than ideal state, as opposed to a state of acknowledging unbeing or non-self.)

This may seem like grumping, or nit-picking, but it’s actually kind of important to note, because too often, we simply accept a thing for what it seems to be, rather than what it is. A good example of this would be the Steam discussion on what actually happened in game, where there’s a sadly unsurprising lack of awareness of a lot of this, even with the individual who appears closest to “Getting it”, as it were. Games abstract things, sometimes to the point of misrepresentation, and Mandagon, while very pretty, very chill, and having some great moments, does this by its very simplicity.

Palden Lhamo. Kind of important. ;)

Palden Lhamo. Kind of important. 😉

So this isn’t so much nit-picking, or grumping, as helping you be aware that yes, while this is a pretty game, a chill game, a short game, and a free game, it’s also a game referencing a thing that’s a lot more complicated and interesting than the game presents it as. So go enjoy it, it’s all good, it’s free… And then do what I did, and look at the bigger picture. Otherwise, it’ll end up like that Bill Bailey line about the Gandhi Pinball Machine, where you have to light the three Magic Naan-Breads to… Oh, you get the picture!

The Mad Welshman is a long way from breaking out of the cycle. And he likes it that way.

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