Hacktag (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Last time, on Hacktag

“You’re a loose cannon, Hacktag! Competition and co-op play in the same game? Hand me your badge!”

And now, we return you to… Hacktag

People forget, I think, how many possible ways there are of making a multiplayer experience single player. They also forget that sometimes this can be quite tough. AI companions require extra code, extra thought. A checkpoint based auto companion can feel very samey, but cuts down on the work.

Updated skills and lobby interface? Yes, please!

Hacktag has gone for something a little more old fashioned, but it’s interesting to note how it changes the game: Split-screen, swappable solo. One keyboard, two characters, and you’re switching between the perspective of both. How is it?

Challenging! With multiplayer, the other player is able to spot and avoid threats just fine on their own. The only times you worry about them is when they screw up and get caught, when you screw up and need to be rescued, or when you both need to be at the same place for the dual hacks. With singleplayer? Ahh, there’s the rub. Because whether you’re on split screen or full screen perspective for each character, once you switch characters, the other is helpless, and so, timing becomes much more important. As do safe zones. As such, it’s both a more challenging, and, at the present stage at least, frustrating experience. In the middle of a dual hack when bam, guard. Stealthing to the next safe point, but… Crap, antivirus. It’s got a lot of planning to it, that’s to be sure.

AAAaaaaAAA! There are also new objectives. Now… AaaaAAAAaaaaAAa!!!

Nonetheless, if that were the only change at this stage, rough as it is, I’d be happy. But the general experience has improved as well, with more types of event, rejiggered minigames for hacking and stealthing, and… Traps. Sometimes, it’ll be the standard “There is an alarm, get to it and disable it before it goes off.” Sometimes, it’ll be a laser grid, to be avoided in either hacker or stealth mode until the timer runs out. What’s nice about that one is that it varies depending on who triggers it, a clever touch that swings things a little back toward parity between stealth and hacking play.

The competitive score with co-operative play remains (And seems to now firmly be a part of the vision), but skills and cosmetics have also been improved, so levelling up gives a broader depth of rewards, and now, should your heart desire, you can be one of a small multitude of anthropomorphic animal cat burglars. Go you!

So, on the whole, the potential of Hacktag is really shaping up. Good co-op play can tough out even the meanest of missions, be it local or multiplayer, solo play is there for those of us who like planning (and also acknowledge that a plan never survives contact with the enemy), and, even aesthetically, there’s a little more variation. There are still some bugs and glitches, but they are, at the present time, relatively minor, so, overall, I guess I’ll leave you with the denouement of this episode of Hacktag.

Solo *does* have the option of switching between fullscreen perspectives, but… Nah, not risking it!

KOFF, I never shoulda cancelled my laser-grid insurance!”
“No… Don’t say that… You’re Gonna Live.”

The Mad Welshman recommends this and many other games… Because they’re video-games. And all your friends are playing them.

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Dimension Drive (Review)

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

Dimension Drive is a good shmup game that I have a love-hate relationship with. A total of 26 levels (13 in normal, 13 in NG+) spread over three worlds, with an interesting story, a good aesthetic, and it’s mostly clear. It does interesting things, it’s pretty cool.

My brane hurts just looking at this representation of the multiverse.

But oh boy, am I bad at it. Which both amuses and frustrates me, because I can quite clearly tell it’s not the game’s fault. It’s giving me all the clues, but I can’t save myself from, for example, bashing into a wall. Because, where I’m looking, there isn’t a wall, but where I should be looking, there is.

Oh. Yes. That probably needs a bit of explanation. Dimension Drive is the story of the pilot of a multidimensional space fighter, the best in the multiverse, trying to save said multiverse from a nigh immortal conqueror who’s had millennia of experience at conquering entire dimensions (And, naturally, the resources of several of those dimensions.) This interesting twist further extends into gameplay with two screens of play. One is one dimension, the other’s another, with different walls, enemy patterns, and powerups. Flipping between the two is essential, both for bringing up that score multiplier, and avoiding what would be seemingly inescapable obstacles if we were limited to one or the other dimension.

Killing lots of things dramatically and having fun, about five seconds before I crash into that square outcrop on the left. Foolishly.

It’s interesting, because, difficulty wise, the individual screens are about on par with your average western coin-op (It doesn’t get into bullet hell territory until much later on), with relatively simple bullet and enemy patterns. But together? Together, they weave a web that has you nervous. Making mistakes. Clever stuff. And while it doesn’t truly take the gloves off until later on, it still has segments where care is very important. Like level 3’s trench run through a collapsing and exploding space station.

Considering this, considering the score attack nature of the game (with leaderboards and all), and considering the New Game + , the game at first seems short, but what it’s doing is using limited tools to great effect. Switching worlds. Flipping round. Picking good weapons for the level (as later weapons aren’t always more useful, they just expand your options), or trying something new.

I like Dimension Drive, its music, an at least okay story with some twists, and, of course, its own clever twist on gameplay. But boy, I wish I was better at it!

Another incentive to come back to earlier levels is that some tools make earlier bosses easier.

The The Mad Mad Welshman Welshman Loves Hates Multiple Multiple Dimensions Dimensions. They They Are Clever Do His Nut In

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Tower 57 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.29
Where To Get It: Steam

I make no bones about the fact I loved the Amiga and Atari ST (The latter more than the former, mainly due to exposure.) This was a period when pixel art was going very strong, and designs went in interesting directions, even if they didn’t always work. Nowadays, of course, pixel art is going very strong, and designs go in interesting directions, even if they don’t always work. How things have changed!

This, of course, is a nice segue into Tower 57, a game where its greatest strengths and its biggest flaws tie directly into wanting to recreate the feel of old Amiga twinstick shooters. It’s pretty obvious where its main inspiration comes from (The Chaos Engine, Bitmap Brothers, 1993) , and…

Yes, it involves a dystopia. But this, surprisingly, is a relatively light moment, and a good example of the visual storytelling in the game.

…Well, let’s get the good out the way first. Visually, the game is good, and consistently so. It’s solid, clear, and with some good visual designs in the more complex beasties and mechanical creations. Music wise, the tunes also work well, fitting, pumping, and dramatic when they need to be. The writing is mostly pretty good (Being about “Agents” sent to break up a worker’s strike, and, as it turns out, something stinks almost from the word “Go”), and, overall, it’s a solid, linear game with some of the goodies I quite liked from the Days of Yore, like secrets hidden behind walls that, since the game is a linear, curated experience, I can remember and go back to, replaying with different characters. It even has some interesting minigames in the main level hub, and the six main characters do have their differences and uses. Levels, again, are interesting, with some good setpieces.

Where it starts to fall down, though, are the bosses. The difficulty curve on the bosses varies immensely, from “Oh gods, how the hell am I going to get out of this segment without losing a life” to “Ho-hum, circle strafe and murder, circle strafe and murder.” Although one of them would probably have been a lot harder if I ditched the anti-toxin trousers you can get in the very first level. Keep those trousers.

Oh, I just *love* me fights against turrets and beefy chasing drones in a confined space! Oh wait, no, love… HATE. Yes. Hate.

The minigames, similarly, while being fun, are also somewhat necessary if you want to be upgrading as much as possible, as the amount of money is largely set, and you will, for the sake of easing your travails with some of the nastier bosses, want double healing upgrades on all three of your characters. Oh, and extra stuff on the guns, only purchasable in the hub. As to the characters…

…Well, they vary in usefulness, and follow a similar function to lives in any other game, except if the lives then changed how the character played, the usefulness of their special ability, and… For example, for the boss that’s currently proven the biggest roadblock (Unsurprisingly, pictured), I went with the Cop, the Don, and the Diplomat. The Don survived the longest in this boss battle, due to having range on his gun. But eventually, they all went down, and while I could continue from a checkpoint (with all three characters) , I didn’t particularly feel like that this time around. Maybe later. In multiplayer, of course, you have double the firepower, a second player, but regardless of whether you’re playing alone, or with a friend, you won’t be changing characters too much unless they die, due to the lack of opportunities to do so. After all, it requires a closet, or one of the characters dying, and so… You tend to forget those other characters exist, by and large.

Finally, there’s things that were added, either for flavour, humour, or just interesting mechanics, that fall flat in various ways. A red light district, complete with sex workers (One of which you can attempt to chat up. Badly.) Limb damage, temporarily losing you weapons, tools, or moving at more than a crawl, until you fork out the dough to repair them (A forced tutorial example removes your legs… And indeed, leg removal remains the most irritating of the bunch.) The tools, funnily enough, also fit into this category, being mostly forgotten because you can get by a lot of the game without them. There are barks from the main characters, but they often feel either superfluous or odd, and I could, for example, definitely do without the Cop bemoaning possible drug addiction and testing each time she picks up a health pack.

Hrm. Would it be diplomatic to mention Electric Six at this point? Probably not, but that won’t stop me *thinking* it.

I still enjoy parts of this game. The levels are mostly interesting, apart from the odd set piece that doesn’t work so well. The news, mostly, paints an interesting picture. I’ve already mentioned some other good bits. But, overall, there’s enough that falls flat, or feels like difficulty for the sake of difficulty, or “Gotcha!” that, overall, this honestly doesn’t feel like something for me.

The Mad Welshman has also changed over the years. He’s got better textures now.

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Oriental Empires (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam

A key to good 4X design, I’ve often found, is understanding. That seems like a simple thing, but sadly, we’ve seen it proven time and time again over the years that it’s not. Oriental Empires is a strategy game set in ancient China, and its UI is… Not the friendliest.

The latest heir of my empire, being annoying and blocking my authority/culture meter.

In fact, the game as a whole isn’t very friendly. Considering that games don’t exist in a vacuum, this… Is kind of a big deal. Small text, smaller tooltips, and further information behind easy to miss subtabs left a bad taste in my mouth.

A bad taste that, sadly, only worsened when I found out about Local Factors. Hidden behind about three layers of interaction (Click banner, click unrest icons for general unrest details, click Dissatisfaction) is a number, contributing to your chance of revolt… That cannot be directly affected, and changes over time because… Well, to all practical intents and purposes, because reasons.

There’s not so much a tutorial as “A 40+ page in-game manual and an advisor that will tell you about things after you’ve worked out how to do them.” The actual effect of buildings and research (Outside of combat related improvements, it generally boils down to “Gives Happiness”, “Gives Authority”, “Unlocks a resource exploiter”, and “Makes some bad events less bad.” ) are hidden under popups (The wee texty bars lookin’ icon shows or hides that.) Occasionally, those popups will obscure information that you need, such as when an Heir comes along, randomly, and covers up the Authority and Culture meters you need to, for example, judge how many settlements you can build without added resentment (A brief irritation, but one of, as noted, quite a few.) Does it play well?

Okay, so I want you and you to flank so as to cut off retr- Which part of “Cut off Retreat” did you not understand, soldiers?

Honestly, not really. Outside of combat largely seems like an afterthought, especially in the early game, where resources are rare, and you are both encouraged to land grab and, er… Not exceed your Authority (which controls how many cities you can own without dissatisfaction) for fear of rebellions. Buildings have a high upkeep, so you’re rarely dealing with that, conquering things is a bad idea, due to that aforementioned Authority issue…

It makes the early game painful, in more senses than one. It doesn’t really help that combat, also, doesn’t feel like you have all that much control over it. Simultaneous turns means that you may well have trouble pinning down your opponent for a fight, and when you do get in a fight? Well, enemies will escape, so you have to start the whole palaver again, having multiple battles in a single round with a single force if you’ve preset your movement right, or fighting over multiple turns if you don’t (The correct method, generally, seems to be “Into the enemy and past them in the direction you think they’re most likely to run for as many movement points as you feel you can manage.) It doesn’t particularly feel engaging, especially as multiple fights are likely to break out in a single turn, and combat tactics are limited. Why did my units mill about aimlessly for most of a combat with a charge, but efficiently (if extremely widely) flank when I asked them to? No idea. I’m not told. Oh, and no, cutting off retreat with just the units you have is not an option. The enemy will retreat. Multiple times.

Really, these problems, these lack of clarity, kill the game for me, and it doesn’t particularly help that, visually, it doesn’t feel all that interesting either. The music is fitting, at least, but it doesn’t really redeem a game that will sometimes tell you useful things after you need them, sometimes just not tell you, and has many a turn passing with… Well, nothing of note happening. Kind of saddening, really.

This rain turned red as blood, and almost caused a rebellion. Funnily, most bad things seem to be “Causes unrest.”

The Mad Welshman finds no happiness here. 

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Freaky Awesome (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99 (£8.78 w/soundtrack, £3.99 soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Freaky Awesome is one of those ideas that looks fun on paper, but alas, the execution is a little lacking. The idea? A silly, twin stick melee and shooting romp, in which a badass action star who has a soft spot for his dog goes to the abandoned Chemical Factory to find them, only to find… Gruesomeness.

It has at least some of the right elements. Pumping and threatening bass electronic tunes? Yup. Slime and goo? Core to the game. Good visual designs? Yup. But it’s when it gets to play itself that it starts to feel… Well, not so well thought out. Partly through the procgen, partly through some base choices made. Let’s start with the mutations.

Small room? Check. Dynamite boxes? Check. Headache? Check.

When you first start a profile, you have two mutations you choose between for your character (For lo, he has been mutated by toxic waste, in true 80s fashion.) A one legged chicken-man with a kick and a dodge roll, and the Grub, able to lay worms and whip his head to attack multiple enemies at once. As you get to new zones, you can, with an expenditure of health, coins, and keys, fight a new mutation to keep it, in every stage. But the ideas for mutations run out relatively quickly, and their secondary abilities… Well, of the characters I’ve unlocked (Almost all of them) , only Chicken’s really sees any use at all, because that dodge roll has invincibility frames, and he’s the only mutation that has such a deal. The rest? Either they take long enough that they’re not worth the risk of being hit compared to, say, backing away while attacking, or they’re just not worth it period.

Example: Head. Head has a headbutt, the same way Fish has a chomping charge, Chicken has a roundhouse kick, Scorpion (presumably, not yet unlocked) has a slash. But his alternate ability is… To throw his head across the room, piercing enemies along the way, for… The same damage as if he’d headbutted them. Until the head is retrieved, no attacks are possible. Hrm… Which to go for? A headbutt that definitely hits everyone in melee range (Which, since many enemies are melee and want to get close, is a lot), and is quick… Or throw my head, do one hit, and then have to run away. Oil, with his fiery slime thrower and oil puddles, is a similar proposition. Shoot while running away, or take time to drop a slowing puddle that he can set on fire that doesn’t really work because it relies on chasing enemies not chasing you, and being stuck in the puddle.

Of course, I’m emphasising this “Hit them more often, as opposed to special abilities” because of both the monster and room design. The majority of enemies in Freaky Awesome rely on melee, and chasing you. Some are actually really good at chasing you, such as a three legged beastie that, no matter how fast you are, is probably going to at least be able to start attacking you at least once every second or two if you’re constantly moving. Others have area effect attacks, such as the chompers or big fellers with a ground pound that… Well, here’s where the rooms come in. Those ground pounders will spawn in small rooms. And the first area they’re introduced (Furnace) further restricts those rooms with fire vents in both the floor and the walls, the former of which are hard to spot on your first try (When they’re white, that means don’t step on them, they’re hot.)

This thing… This thing I have rude words about. Unless I have several follower items, in which case I yawn and kite, yawn and kite.

As you might have guessed, this makes some rooms not so much an exercise in not taking damage, but in how much damage you take, and that… Well, that isn’t great. Outside of those rooms? Well, even with a melee character, it’s surprisingly easy to kite most enemies, so the damage you’re going to be taking, with the exceptions of the Furnace and “Final” Organic area, is mostly from inattention to enemies, rather than being heavily restricted by the environment. Bosses, similarly, vary between the “Only take damage if you’re not paying attention” of Spider-boss and the Missile-Bee, to a larger version of the chompers that chases, has his area chomp, and, on “Death”, splits into two, and then again into four smaller versions, each a little faster, with a little less hit points, but more likely to do some damage if you don’t have a very specific kiting strategy to get them all chasing you in an orderly fashion (And even then, it’s risky.)

I could go on like this, but this, honestly, is a problem that hits nearly every mechanical level. Followers can break certain encounters over their knee, or they won’t do damage when they’re meant to. DNA is meant to be an incremental method of improving, as are the Mutation unlocks, but none of the mutations feel like much of a “Must have”, and unlocking them is a grindy process, not least due to the fact that giving Health is a factor in their unlocking. DNA is just grindy, although that grind presumably gets better once you’re not concentrating on mutations, as you can get 2 per zone (One from a shop, one from the boss.)

Not pictured: That third slot for a third benny costs 12 DNA. God knows what the fourth one costs.

As such, while it does have its freakiness, it’s monstrosities, it is, sadly, mostly surface level, and I can’t honestly say I’ve had much fun unlocking anything, or feeling rewarded for doing so. It’s just… Another day in the life. And that, unfortunately, doesn’t look like what the developers were really aiming for.

The Mad Welshman does not mutate. He already has all he wants: A nice, twirly moustache.

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