Steamworld Dig 2 (Review)

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

It’s not so bad, being a robot miner whose uncle left you some kick-ass robot powers strewn around the very place where he’s gone missing. Well, y’know, apart from all the times you got disassembled because you got too curious… Or found yourself further on the path toward finding your Unc than you were maybe prepared for. But, generally speaking, being a robot miner isn’t bad.

…Yes, that is a Post-Facts reference. Yes, I’m wincing just as hard as you are.

A wee backgrounder before we continue: Steamworld Dig was the story of Rusty, a mining droid who dug deep, discovered an ancient, electronic evil, and put paid to it via digging, selling ore, gaining and using special abilities from lost technology, and buying ladders just in case he screwed up and dug too far. It was an interesting game, but also a somewhat grindy one at times.

I can happily state that this sequel, while still having the digging and the exploring and the selling ore and finding whatnots, is a tighter, less grindy game. Gone are purchasing teleports, replaced with a (mostly) handy pneumatic tube system that serves as checkpoints, and an ability you can earn later on that allows you to teleport to the surface anywhere that isn’t a cave or a plot-important area. Ladders, similarly, exist in a sense, but the game relies more on the more traditional mobility powerups to speed getting around and gate progress. For example, one particularly clever segment has you using a hookshot to cross a very windy segment of desert, with the most difficult segment involving timing your walljumping to coincide with very short periods of lower wind speed, and, importantly, very little of it feels frustrating.

Here, we see the hookshot being ohgodwhywon’tthelavarobotsgoaway…

Well, except for one feature, but that’s pretty much a personal preference: I really, really don’t like bosses who are invincible for the majority of their pattern, and there are a couple of those. Nonetheless, overall, Steamworld Dig 2 trades a lot of its procgen for something that, in the context, works better… tight design. From the very first, you are taught to use your powers until they feel natural, and then asked to think of them in slightly different ways. Hookshot as means of climbing. Hookshot as means of passing an impediment. Hookshot as means of clearing nuisances. Hookshot as boss avoider. A lot of the time, while there is a difficulty curve, it’s mostly only when the game seriously changes up the formula, or introduces something you’re not prepared for that you notice that. So yeah, props on that. Anything bad?

Well… Not… Really. The game isn’t going to win any awards for writing, with most characters being both functional and one-dimensional (Here’s the cowardly greedy mayor, and his long-suffering mother. There’s the shy mechanic, surprised and pleased when you actually want to hear the tutorials or them nattering about the tech you’ve gotten. Merchant. Archaeologist. Most folks are defined by their role, more than anything else.) But beyond that, it’s a well designed action platformer with clear direction, clear visuals, and some cool powerups. Honestly, that’s all it needs to be.

See, this *looks* intimidating… But thankfully, it’s a lot more chill than it *looks*

The Mad Welshman took quite a few screenshots. And then he realised a lot of them are spoilery as heck. Consarnit.

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.

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.

Ghost 1.0 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price:
£9.99 (£3.99 for the Soundtrack, which definitely ain’t bad)
Where To Get It:
Steam 

When I got the email that the developers of UnEpic were making a new game, I was both excited and nervous. Excited, because UnEpic did interesting things. Nervous, because it was also referential as hell, dumb in places, and stupidly hard and grindy in others.

This, er... Makes slightly more sense as a joke once you've played UnEpic and seen the bits before this... :/

This, er… Makes slightly more sense as a joke once you’ve played UnEpic and seen the bits before this… :/

For good or for ill… Little has changed. The references are somewhat less forced, the story veers wildly between pulpy silliness, philosophical discussion, and blatant referential humour, and the grind?

Oh yes. The grind remains. And it remains my problem with Ghost 1.0, because, to me? It’s just not fun to repeat alarm lockdowns for Energon-Cubes-As-Currency, so I can get better weapons that, really, I should be earning more organically. And this is a damn shame, because, for all the bitching, there has been improvement over the UnEpic formula, with fluid movement, a better overall story (Involving the enslavement of androids by an evil corporation… Hey, I said better, not amazing), and some cool stuff hidden in there… But, even past the halfway point, I’m not sure it feels worth it to continue. Boss with nigh unavoidable paralyzing shockwave, making it a damage race? Check. Instant death laser segments that, while using the cool idea of controlling robots with cyber-psychic powers, uses it for tedious, “Do it right or do it again” segments involving scientist robots with no offensive abilities (Read: Forced puzzle-stealth segments.) Check.

Not cool, Fran, I totally made my Dexterity Check!

Not cool, Fran, I totally made my Dexterity Check!

There’s fun in there. Really, there is. The second boss, for example, is fun. The first boss, once you figure it out, is fun. The interplay between Ghost, Boogan, and Jacker (The latter two technically making a return from UnEpic) is fun. But it’s buried beneath a game that feels like it’s run by an adversarial GM who still thinks OD&D is the best thing since sliced bread. And this is such a core problem, and obviously deliberate, that I unfortunately can’t get past it.

So, when it comes to the question of “Is Ghost 1.0 worth playing?” , two questions have to be asked. The first is whether you like metroidvanias. A simple enough question, but the next is harder: Do you find grind and “death makes things harder on you” fun? Because, regardless of the good voice acting, the fair animation, the interesting toys (Once you’ve earned them), and the story that definitely has interesting elements, if the answer to that second question is “No, not really”, or some variation thereof, I really can’t recommend Ghost 1.0 to you.

The first boss, about to get a schooling from an awesome cyber-psychic merc lady. Who still died five times while getting the cash for the gun she's using... >:|

The first boss, about to get a schooling from an awesome cyber-psychic merc lady. Who still died five times while getting the cash for the gun she’s using… >:|

The Mad Welshman is hacking Ghost 1.0 to provide a “Less Grindy” mode, but he’s hit Alarm Level 9, and the respawns are getting a bit tiresome. 

The Aquatic Adventure Of The Last Human (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99 , £10.99 for the deluxe edition, which includes the map they didn’t really put in the game.
Where To Get It: Steam, itch.io, Humble Store

I liked the Souls games. I loved Shadow of the Colossus. I like me some Metroidvanias (I 100%ed Symphony of the Night at least once, which was… A thing.) I don’t mind me exploration. But Aquatic Adventures of The Last Human feels, to me, like it didn’t really learn from them. It tried. Bless it, it tried. But I feel like core lessons weren’t learned. Let’s go into that.

Where's the Upper Harpoon, you say? Only once you find enough upgrades, cabrone!

Where’s the Upper Harpoon, you say? Only once you find enough upgrades, cabrone!

First up, the first weapon. I found it, was led into a room that looked suspiciously like a boss arena, and lo… It was. This would all be well and good, if the first weapon wasn’t the thing it was. But the first weapon was a harpoon. That only fires from the bottom of your craft, because reasons. Not just that, but a really slow to charge harpoon. We’re talking a good three or so seconds between max charge shots. Which, as you might expect when the boss is an annelid around 100 times larger than your ship, about as useful as a wet fart in a diving suit. Let’s compare that for a second with, say, the Souls games and SotC, shall we?

In the souls games, similarly, you start with utter tat, and similarly, the bosses feel more like you’re giving them a tattoo than actually harming them, the first time through. But firstly, that changes rather rapidly, and secondly, no matter what you’re doing, you’re quite obviously giving it your all. There’s a sense of effort to connect with, a struggle for life, that shows in every grunting, snarling, huffing movement you make. Similarly, in Shadow of the Colossus, once you find a colossus, the fight does take ages, but you don’t mind because the entire struggle is visceral… You have to hold on for dear life, jump on something that could squash you like a bug with a mis-step, and when you do manage to do something? Oh my, the accomplishment!

The story of humanity is apparently a struggle between Terrorist BluePeace, and an increasingly authoritaria- Wait, where are you going?

The story of humanity is apparently a struggle between Terrorist BluePeace, and an increasingly authoritaria- Wait, where are you going?

There is none of that in the early fights of Aquatic Adventures. What there is is “wokawokawOkAwOkAWOKAWOKAWOKAWOKA- CHUNK”, except for the times when certain attacks occur, when it becomes “brmbrmbrmbrmbrm ch-ch-ch-ch.” Those are the sounds, specifically, of charging up your harpoon to attack at its highest damage and range (piddling), and the sounds of avoiding projectiles of some sort while firing your harpoon at its weakest as quickly as you can (About twice a second, at an estimate.)

In other fights, in other worlds, other games, I at least feel something. But in the early fights of Aquatic Adventures, I feel, at best, like some brigadier calmly calling “Chap with the flukes, five rounds… Er… As rapidly as you can manage, private.” And then, occasionally, something will kill me that I didn’t even see coming. Because the other thing this game doesn’t do well is readability.

Make no mistake, it’s pretty. I appreciated how different strata of this underwater world feel different: From the top, which is relatively simple outposts, the last remnants of a now dead humanity, to Settlement Seven, media dominated, with generators and television screens that have somehow survived several millennia of saltwater corrosion (Somewhat optimistically), to Central, the dark, authoritarian part of our slow descent into extinction. But navigating these areas, and more, are somewhat of an annoyance, as many are dark, and all of them are somewhat hard to read. Similarly, the majority of underwater creatures (In the beginning at least) aren’t hostile, but I spent the first thirty minutes shooting inoffensive fish because… Well, I couldn’t be sure. As it turned out, the thing I didn’t even see coming was one of the second boss’ attacks. Which is a good point to mention the bosses.

The Tranquil, about two minutes after it started annoying me...

The Tranquil, about two minutes after it started annoying me…

I thought, after the first few fights, that it would become less tedious. It didn’t. Even with charge upgrades, and a saw to get me new areas, my choices of boss were a fish that constantly healed itself unless I destroyed, er… The bits of itself it was shooting out, then eating to heal; An octopus which required slowly weaking limbs, chopping them off… Aaand they came back completely for the second half. No, you don’t get a checkpoint, and no, at no point do you feel awesome for doing it. Mostly, you just get annoyed when a segment you thought you’d damaged enough wasn’t as damaged as you thought, or you got damaged despite having the saw, and that kills you, forcing you to do the whole tedious mess… All… Over… Again. Oh, and while it would be spoilers to mention where a certain useful utility power up would be, suffice to say, it’s in the very last place you would look.

This is the worst part. The music is good. The visual aesthetic (once you ignore what the nice gamma slider person says) is okay. But this is a game about the end of humanity (Apparently through several terminal cases of stupidity), and I… Don’t feel anything. When a boss kills me, the “You died” and restart to checkpoint just makes me sigh a little. When the messages from Blue Earth Alliance (Think Greenpeace, but definitely terrorists) turn up, I feel no reason to care. Everything I’ve come across in this game is emotionally detached, and strangely devoid of anything beyond surface detail that I can really get to grips with. That, at least, triggers an emotion or two: Sadness and feeling awkward.

This used to be above water. Now, it's simply a curiosity.

This used to be above water. Now, it’s simply a curiosity.

The Mad Welshman looked at the Tranquil. The Tranquil gazed back with its giant yellow eyes. And The Mad Welshman started singing “I Crush Everything”, for no good reason he could name.