Subnautica (Early Access Review 2)

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

Subnautica is life’s way of saying “It’s okay that Endless Ocean doesn’t have a PC port.” Even down to the occasional punctuation of chill undersea times with pants wetting terror.

How… How long was I out?

So, it is the far future. Utopia has been achieved, and nice, not animal-killing humans have spread to the stars, exploring and spreading the word of peace and love. Except where you happen to be, because your ship got exploded in orbit around a watery world, and to survive, you will have to… shudder… Eat fish. Also survive, explore the world, and perhaps find out what happened, both to the Aurora and your fellow crewmates who at least managed to escape the ship.

Ohhhh yeah… *Ohhhhhh* yeaaaahhh… The mooon is beautiful…

The first thing you’ll notice, once you begin the game, is how beautiful this alien world is. Schools of fish swim, with many different kinds, plant life abounds, and even the moon is lovingly rendered. It’s also a relaxing experience, swimming, collecting resources, and slowly, but surely, learning more of the world around you.

But then the game enters its second phase, and things become… A little more fraught. For all that this world is a beautiful one, it’s also a dangerous one, and, beyond a survival knife, the protagonist comes from a pacifist society that doesn’t really do weapons. And so, you will find things that want to kill you, and your best policy… Is avoidance. Permadeath, thankfully, is not part of this game unless you wish it to be, so being eaten by one of the more dangerous residents, or running out of oxygen, merely results in being plonked back at the nearest base you’ve built, without the things you collected since you last left (But, crucially, the blueprints you gather will still be gathered, so you can still, in a sense, progress… A nice touch!)

The Reaper Leviathan, as seen from a *relatively* safe distance. Loss count on the current save to this … Thing? 3 deaths and a SeaMoth.

I won’t pretend, however, that this isn’t annoying at times. In my current save, for example, one of the most dangerous creatures of the ocean, the Reaper Leviathan, is plonked right next to one of the richer seams of materials and blueprints, the crashed ship Aurora, and every visit so far has resulted in either death, or the very expensive loss of a minisub (the SeaMoth), and then death. But, fair traveller, this is a temporary phase, and there are other places, other ways to gain the materials you need to improve, and make this world a little safer. You can build bases, waypoints in the deep, and travel between them. You can grow fish, or farm plants, once you find the means to do so. You can create current generators, devices that can very forcefully push the more dangerous fish away from your home of choice. And when you spread your wings, able to explore in relative safety?

Crystalline forests. A strange island, seemingly the only landmass in sight. Mushroom trees, stretching almost to the surface. Swimming among the reefbacks. It’s not often I say a sandbox survival game is a beautiful, calming experience, but once you get over a few resource humps, that’s exactly what Subnautica becomes. And always, always, the mystery of the planet… Awaits. For in one of the most recent updates, the planet now has plot… And mysteeeerious ruins!

Mystery! Excitement! Danger! All of these can be found… In a videogame!

Yes, somebody has heard the Aurora’s SOS, but at the same time… Do you really want to leave, considering there are alien ruins, and teleportation technology, maybe other useful things, and maybe, just maybe, the off switch for whatever the heck blew up the Aurora? I certainly wouldn’t. For £15, the game is highly reasonable, and is only becoming more reasonable as time goes on. Check it out if you like mysteries, living under the sea, and exploration.

The Mad Welshman grinned as he looked at the alien ruins. Triangles… Why was it always triangles with these aliens?

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Skulls. Why’d it have to be skulls? Of all the spaceports, in all the universe, there had to be skulls on this one insignificant rock in the asscleft of the galaxy. God-damn, I just wanna get off this stinkin’ rock. Such is the main, stated goal of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor: Get rid of Cursed Skull, maybe get off the planet.

One thing I like about this game is that the tutorial is relaxed. Take your time... You'll need to.

One thing I like about this game is that the tutorial is relaxed. Take your time… You’ll need to.

And how it does it is interesting, if not for everybody: Grind. It’s quite clearly deliberate grind, and in its way, it’s soul crushing. Get rubbish. Maybe find a better deal on rubbish. Incinerate other rubbish, until you can’t anymore. Maybe have enough money to eat, or pay for the gender shifts (Including that most well known of gender choices, Susan Sarandon) so you can sleep and be well. Generally don’t eat garbage. Propitiate all the deities of this alien world so you can get their idols. Sleep to recharge your garbage incinerator, and get paid a pittance.

Meanwhile, you don’t really know your way around, and even getting home can sometimes be a struggle if you’ve gotten turned around. Everyone’s got some kind of angle, from the container obsessive next to that dungeon that kicks everything off, to even the Cat-vangelists that hang out and sing loudly and cheerily every now and again in service of their goddess. But to get anywhere, you have to find those important clues and details from people. And every day, you’re going to go home bone tired, and feeling less lucky than you were before.

The environments make use of the low fi aesthetic very well.

The environments make use of the low fi aesthetic very well.

Welcome, in short, to being an alien on a low paid job in a capitalist society. The cursed skull is just rubbing it in at this point. And the game does a good job of keeping that mystery, that sense of being out of place, and largely unwanted. The police will occasionally hassle you, for no good reason beyond the sense of their own power. Nobody will lift a finger to help you without something in return (Something that, often, involves rooting through garbage.) And you’re sometimes too poor to even get healthcare or food when you get sick… Better work harder, because there’s no handouts in this alien spaceport.

But, surprisingly, the game is pretty chill. Walking through the lo-fi environs (The developers even reference this in their graphics settings, which are Bad… and Worse) , until you hit one or more triggers (Night-time makes you sleepy, for example, and running out of garbage incinerator energy seems to bring this on faster), you can wander to your heart’s content. You can start to get a feel for the spaceport, where the shrines to various gods are (Including your patron deity… Mine being the enigmatic Orb of Curses, Sprence. I mean… Orbs!), and, most importantly, where various food and gender shift boxes are.

At the time of this screenshot, I still had no idea where the shrine to my own deity was. Turns out it was just around the corner.

At the time of this screenshot, I still had no idea where the shrine to my own deity was. Turns out it was just around the corner.

But of course, it takes time. Everything is going to take time. And a lot of hard work, of scrimping and saving, avoiding the attentions of the constabulary, avoiding ill health… Welcome, in short, to a game about being the underclass, the marginalised. That’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor.

The Mad Welshman felt like a change. Actually, he needed a change. But he couldn’t remember where the nearest Gender Shift booth was, he was out of money, and he was sleepy. Shame, he really wanted to identify as Cary Elwes. Just for a bit.

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.

Kumoon (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Oh, Kumoon. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s getting SteamVR support, so I thought this would be a good time… and I am amused. For those who never heard of Kumoon, it first looked very different. For example, it didn’t involve a cute robot, but a cute baby chick. The game is no less fun for this, however, and I’m quite happily bouncing my balls.

...Okay, so I'm not getting this trick shot. Who cares, I already won this one!

…Okay, so I’m not getting this trick shot. Who cares, I already won this one!

Wait, maybe that came out wrong. So let’s talk Billiards for a bit. Billiards has often been touted as the mathematician’s favourite ball game. The Billiards table has no pockets, unlike pool or snooker, and less balls, but this is because the object of the game is to hit both the sides of the table and at least one “object” ball, then the target ball. There’s at least a few variations, but the basic idea is that, the more things that you hit before successfully hitting the target ball, the more points. It’s tough.

Kumoon is both more and less than that, in a sense. Much like Billiards, if you can somehow consistently hit the targets with a minimum of three bounces, you’re world class. But you have to do it in 3 dimensions. And the “cushions” aren’t always on the outside. Oh, and there’s often more than one target. Usually lots. It’s not, it must be said, a game which is terribly difficult. So long as each target you hit is, on average, 3 or 4 bounces, you’ll defeat everything, and you have a lot of balls to work with. The real challenge, and indeed, the real fun, is in trying to set up those perfect shots. Not the two or three bounce hits… The nines. The tens. That all too rare fifteen bounce hit. It’s a game where most of the challenge is the one you set yourself.

Your avatar, while not as cute as a chick, still glories cutely in the chaos they've caused.

Your avatar, while not as cute as a chick, still glories cutely in the chaos they’ve caused.

And when you manage it? It feels good. Okay, liiiine ‘er up, and… Off the sloped wall (+1), into the air, on top of another sloped wall (+1), off the back wall, thankfully a score wall this time (+1), onto that green ball I find so hard to use just right, but feel so happy when I do (+2), just skimming off another sloped wall (+1), and finally, into the stack I was aiming at… 5 target bricks, all knocked over with the same blow, each worth 6 sweet points each. 30 god-damn points, hell yes!

Of course, even when you don’t, it can be amusing to just fire those balls off, just to see where they go. Phunk, phunk, phunk, phunk… Within a few minutes, you’ve got balls lying all over, at least a few bricks are knocked down, and whether you’ve scored enough (or even hit anything) or not, there’s a quiet amusement to watching the balls fly all over. Meanwhile, pumping electronic beats… Actually kind of conflict somewhat with the cute aesthetic of the main character, and the somewhat unserious game, but hey, you can’t have everything!

Sometimes, you just need to get things done by shooting balls *everywhere*

Sometimes, you just need to get things done by shooting balls *everywhere*

In summary, it’s amusing, it’s somewhat short, but it’s £4, and if you like setting challenges for yourself, the playtime can be extended a fair bit. If you don’t like physics puzzling or score attack, this may not be for you.

The Mad Welshman chuckled as he bounced a steel ball off one of his robotic henchmen. “That isn’t a valid cushion!” , they cried… Wait, who was worrying about valid? He was having fun!

Going Back: Antichamber

Regardless of your position on the worth, correctness, or validity of Art Games, Antichamber is a game I would defend as “An Art Game” to the death. It is, in its sense, art. It is most definitely a game, with challenges, obstacles, and mechanics. And it is a utopian game.

Wait, what the hell is a utopian game when it’s at home? Read on, and I’ll try to explain.

There's a lady who knows... All these puzzles are gold... And she's sung in the title of the puzzle.

There’s a lady who knows… All these puzzles are gold… And she’s sung in the title of the puzzle.

Antichamber is a game without a fail state beyond you giving up. Now before you think that’s boring, let me point out that that doesn’t mean you’re not going to fail to solve a puzzle. But you’re not only always going to be able to have another go, you’ll be able to travel between most puzzles without a care in the world. Nothing is going to kill you. Nothing is telling you you’re shit at the game. In fact, quite the opposite: The game’s signposts are basically life advice, generally quite chill life advice at that. And it’s often pertinent. For example, there’s a bridge of sorts, and the signpost for both crossing it successfully, and falling off it reference a tightrope. The game shows you what happens if you take that bridge too quickly beforehand, and what doesn’t happen if you take it slowly (It won’t disappear from under you unless you deliberately step off it or speed up at the wrong time), so… It’s basically an analogy for tightrope walking, which is generally best done at a relatively sedentary pace. Another has a sheep leaping off a cliff, after you followed an instruction to, er… Jump off a cliff. Something something cliff something something everyone else something? I’m sure, if you’ve even encountered fictional parents, you can fill in the something somethings there. It’s a thing parents like to say.

Antichamber owes a lot to… Well, a lot of things. Life is what the game is an analogy for, but it owes bits and bobs to Portal (As it uses a sort of non-violent, puzzle solving “weapon” with multiple functions unlocked as the game goes by), to M C Escher (As it plays with perspective, direction, and space being a bit bendier than usual), and to logic puzzles (As everything has internally consistent rules, and so you can deduce, reasonably, how doing thing A will affect problem B with at least good accuracy most of the time.) You are… Well, you, really. And you’re in a maze. A maze that is life. You start with no tools, no knowledge, and a fleeting sense that you don’t have enough time (Because, at first, it appears you are on a timer, and it’s not a long one for a sprawling puzzle game.) As the game goes on, you accrue knowledge (Certain walls go away when you do one thing, this part of the maze acts like this), tools (One of four cube guns, each one adding an ability to your arsenal, from the ability to take individual cubes and put them somewhere else, to the ability to make nigh infinite cubes, to the ability to make walls of cubes, moving them around), and, along the way, you discover… That actually, you can take the game at your own pace. Just like life, Antichamber is not a race to the end. Stop. Enjoy the flowers. Or, in this case, a picture of a man with his trousers off, and the associated life lesson.

You may be mistaken for thinking this is an easy puzzle. It still has challenge. Because everything except those crates is lava. To that brick.

You may be mistaken for thinking this is an easy puzzle. It still has challenge. Because everything except those crates is lava. To that brick.

The thing being, of course, that you are, in this game, trying to get to the end. The game tells you what a bad idea it is to try and race there. It shows you little easter eggs, misdirects you, tries to slow you down with increasingly more skill intensive puzzles… But you’re curious. There is something that eats light. Something to which doors are no obstacle. Something which seemingly eludes you at every turn. And… When you catch it… It’s all over. That’s right… The game ends, and oblivion results. That something, that nebulous, slightly ominous thing you’ve been chasing for no reason you can determine beyond the goal… Is death.

It’s rather clever. But it doesn’t stop there. Everywhere you look, there aren’t only puzzles involving perspective, there’s the overriding message that hey, maybe… Just maybe… If you look at things from a different viewpoint than the one you’re used to, think sideways? Things will go better for you. You’ll expand your mind. You won’t only get better at the game, you’ll get better at being you. It’s a positive message. In fact, the only negative messages in the game are that you shouldn’t really hurry (The antithesis of many games), and that you won’t get through things consistently by just bulling your way through (And you won’t.) Like I said, utopian. No danger unless you actively seek it out. No challenge that you have to accept (There’s often another way until near the end, when your choices narrow due to… Well, having solved everything else!), and you can always, always go somewhere else… Maybe play with an old puzzle just for the heck of it. You just have to remember how to get there.

It's kind of clever, really. Normally, this room is actually quite well lit.

It’s kind of clever, really. Normally, this room is actually quite well lit.

Finally, it’s tightly designed. There is no HUD. The options, as well as the map and your collection of signposts are all in a single, easy to return to location, and whenever a new mechanic is to be introduced, you can guarantee something’s going to either be nearby to show you how it works, or you’re going to come across something that teaches you sooner or later. Good example, Eye Walls. Eye Walls are terrible at staring contests, fall asleep, and vanish when you stare at them for a time (The time being dependent on the door.) There’s a crossroads at one point early in the game, a door that won’t open if you look at it, and directly opposite that door? An Eye Wall. Walking slowly backwards, you’re guaranteed to see it close. Or, another, sharper example happens when you enter a room with a tantalising hole in the ceiling. Inside the hole? “Don’t Look Down.”

Well… Whyever no- AAAA EYE AAAAAAA FALLING AAA WHERE DID THE FLOOR GO?

And then you land harmlessly somewhere new. Because the game’s cool like that. And you’ve learned a new thing.

So, Antichamber is tightly designed around a theme. Good. It imitates life (Via analogy). Good. It is, indisputably, a game. Cool.

So it’s an art game. And it’s well worth checking out.