Clockwork Empires (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page

Clockwork Empires is meant to be a survival management game (Like Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, or the like, where orders are indirect and resource/building management is important) set in a lovecraftian, jingoistic steampunk world based on a satire of Victorian Britain. Unfortunately, not all of that satire on drudgery and misery is intentional. So… Let’s talk about housing. And cabinets.

Pictured: A sensible decision - Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Pictured: A sensible decision – Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Mood is an important factor of Clockwork Empires, as happy labourers and overseers will work an extra shift, whereas despairing ones will slack off, and fearful or angry ones will be actively counterproductive. Obviously, this at least partly means housing them, and making that housing appealing. The workplace must also be prettified, or production will suffer.

There’s just one small problem with this, and the game doesn’t bother to inform you of it: Cabinet Tax. Let us assume, for a moment, that you have 2 labourers, and give them a 3×3 house with 2 windows, a door, and a bed. They aren’t happy with it, they aren’t unhappy with it… But you may have noticed the population count go up by 6. Because each of those houses can add population. So, when those labourers inevitably turn up, you build 6 more of these houses. And now you have many more labourers than you know what to do with, eating your food. Each building has a Quality Level, and this is, effectively, based on cabinets (and shrines for houses) in the early game. So, building individual housing? That’s… 12 cabinets to build to make them happy. The situation then becomes more clear when you turn to the workplace. Let’s use the carpenter as an example. You need a workstation (for cutting wood, making paper, etc), an assembly station (To build other workstations), and a décor station to build wood decorations. Y’know, like cabinets. But each of those workstations beyond the first reduces the Quality of a building, making workers unhappy. And when you try and build your first labourer housing more efficiently (7 beds, for the two workers you have, and the 5 you’ll eventually get.) you realise that this applies to houses too (For lo, the bed is a workstation as far as quality goes. I can understand why, few folks enjoy bunking long-term.) So your efficient solution still requires 12 cabinets for maximum happiness (6 for the extra beds, 6 for max Quality)

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don't have enough cabinets.

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don’t have enough cabinets.

So, for a good, efficient first labourer house, you’re looking at at least a 14 x 10 building (Space for beds, and space for at least two windows, and 12 cabinets/shrines. After that, it’s a little easier, as you’re only catering for 4 or 5 labourers at a time, but as it is, you have a minimum “happiness tax” on all your buildings of 1.5 logs x (Number of Workstations/Beds -1) , and, obviously, the extra time and labour to make them. And no, you can’t just make more work buildings of the same type to get around this, due to the Overseer system, limiting both your number of workshops, and the number of job types you can do at any one time. Labourers just allow for more of the same job type once assigned, or, in the case of single jobs like mining or farming, doing it quicker. And yes, individual farms count as a job.

The in-game help hints at some of this. Specifically, the overseer job limitation, the fact that mood is affected by decorations, and that houses have conditions (That you won’t know until you build them) on extra population counts. Gee, I hope you found some sand, or can trade for it, because otherwise you’re in big trouble later on!

…Or, of course, you could not know this, and play for several hours, and an in-game month, and watch as your labourers and overseers become less efficient, before you realise what’s going on. It’s not very intuitive, and it may take quite a while for you to realise how badly you’ve made mistakes. Considering that a month of in-game time took me something like 3 or 4 hours to play out, it’s the kind of unfriendliness that turns me off playing for the long periods of time the game obviously wants me to play.

This is what happens when you don't have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* ... Can't blame communism on the means of production, friend!

This is what happens when you don’t have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* … Can’t blame communism on the means of production, friend!

And this is a damn shame, because the game is visually kind of nice, the music fits the mood very well, changing with events. Unfortunately, the game is best described as “plodding”, “unintuitive”, and “frustrating.” I can’t select things behind buildings, even with the walls visually turned off. If I want to know what kind of mine I can build on a survey point, and there’s anything in the way, well… Good fucking luck without clearing the obstruction, mate!

And eldritch things and events. Oh, how those make me sad. Just before release, I had played a full month, and, while some eldritch things did happen, such as an invasion of moon-balls, another of eldritch cuboids and polyhedrons, and at least seven or eight obviously occult things dug up, the one death was from… Bandits. And that was because I hadn’t switched to my better weaponry because I hadn’t properly understood that 1 set of stone pellets equalled about 100 rounds. Meanwhile, the entire time, said eldritch gewgaws, such as a canopic urn that was actually a klein bottle, sat happily vibrating or lurching awkwardly in spacetime in between the maize chowder, some planks, and some coal that had eventually been put there by my heavily depressed people.

It's such a shame that their normal reaction isn't "Try and break it" or "Try and worship it", but "Put it next to the paperwork." On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on...

It’s such a shame that their normal reaction isn’t “Try and break it” or “Try and worship it”, but “Put it next to the paperwork.” On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on…

When the game goes well, it goes really well, and you can build up some serious cities in the limited space allotted to you, researching cool things, arming your soldiery with lightning guns (Leyden Weaponry) and clockwork armour, oppressing the fishy natives, and generally being the colonial asshole you may have dreamed you are. But to get there, you have to struggle with odd limitations, an AI that isn’t entirely sure if it’s coming or going, and a UI that makes the increased busywork from more colonists more and more a matter of hitting pause and checking things, slowing the game’s pace even when things begin to get interesting. And I’m really not certain I’m up to that.

The Mad Welshman liked his new Shining Trapezohedron. It set off the Crystal Egg, the Green Soapstone bookends of unknown providence, and the Eldritch Tomes he’d been collecting from the book club. Just another day…

Clockwork Empires (Early Access Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page
Version: Beta 54.

I love me some Lovecraftian fiction. Yes, he was racist as hell, and a lot of his horror stories were based on that, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless. Similarly, I love me some fictional jingoism. Real life jingoism? Sucks. I mean, you only have to turn on the news to see sabers being rattled to see that. Finally, I love me some Steampunk, despite the fact that, often, it’s classist as hell. You rarely see the working man in such settings, only the rich idle going on adventures. But it’s an interesting aesthetic done right.

As such, your first instinct, considering Clockwork Empires contains all three, would be to say that I like this game. Eeeeeehhhhh…. Sort of. It’s like a banana-curry-chocolate cake, in that it contains things I like, but the whole? Not so much. Let’s start with the fact it’s somewhat unfriendly to new players.

There's a lot going on here. Not a lot of it is explained well.

There’s a lot going on here. Not a lot of it is explained well.

Now, yes, before you say anything, it’s a survival strategy game, those tend not to hold your hand, but while the tutorial does indeed teach well (This is your early game order, etc, etc), the UI… Needs work. For example, you may wonder, if you play the game, how to stop seeing a farm’s statbox. Farms are, apparently, offices… So it’s the office button next to “Work Crews.” Some things work just by mousing over, such as the population and food button, others stay up until you left click the “Cancel” button that appears at the top, and there don’t appear to be keybindings in the Beta of Clockwork Empires.

Basically, it’s busy, it’s not very well explained, and as such, it makes a game in a genre that’s already quite slow even slower with all the pausing I’m doing. On the upside, the people are fairly readable. If they’re clomping around, they’re particularly annoyed. If they’re doin’ the Strut, they’re happy, if their heads and arms are down, they’re sad, and if their arms are waving and they’re on fire, something has probably gone wrong. Y’know, as it often does in such games. Of course, all that stops when they actually start a job, which is a shame… But at least you have some warning.

Visually, it’s much like the UI: Busy, lovely to look at in places, but not overly readable as a result. This, by the way, is nothing to do with the colourblind function (Which is a nice touch), but just the sheer amount of things and textures on view, and how a fair amount of it actually is useless. Add in the houses and workshops, and the fact that you can’t click on colonists “behind” them even if you have the walls off, and you start to have problems. Happily though, the music is fairly calming, and helps lower the irritation factor. Somewhat.

"We need Graveyard Space [But we decided to stop flattening terrain because we're workshoppers now...]"

“We need Graveyard Space [But we decided to stop flattening terrain because we’re workshoppers now…]”

In any case, as you might have guessed, the game is all about tough choices. Day 4 of my colony saw a bandit group incoming, and I was several days away from a Barracks for soldiery. I was a few weeks away from giving them decent weaponry. So I decided to let them raid a little. In other games, I made friends with fishmen (Which is bound not to go sour when home finds out, eh?), discovered an ancient idol, and had a meteor from the moon disgorge… Something. Which thankfully, was beaten off by a warlike Overseer with a stick.

Of course, being a complex game in Early Access, bugs are bound to happen. One to watch out for currently is the infinite workshop job bug, where having more than one workstation in your workshop with the same job can mean that one job correctly registers the job being done, while the other… Doesn’t. In the case of “Minimum X of items”, this can mean you’re building planks forever and ever, whether you need them or not.

I feel kind of sad, actually, because there’s a lot of interesting events, and yet… Bureaucratic bumf and a flawed system bar me from getting to those interesting things. For example, I currently have a bandit corpse lying in my kitchen (Most unsanitary, I think you’ll agree), and yet… I can’t build a graveyard because it has a set space requirement, and nobody seems to want to flatten the terrain. Being a pastiche of Victorian Brits, the workers take a break at tea-time, do not burn the candle at both ends, and, once assigned a job, seem to pursue it with a single mindedness that bars common sense. And, of course, when it rains, it pours, as a day later (Corpse still there, ground un-flattened), the grass and rocks start singing eerily, which may have nasty effects if I don’t clear the ground nearby (A different job in and of itself.) This, basically, is to do with the Overseer system. Rather than have jobs be individually between workers, there are Overseers (Who pick what job there is) and Labourers (Who are assigned to Overseers.)

Bandits and Selenians. The only time I've ever seen a colonist attack something rather than gesture angrily at it.

Bandits and Selenians. The only time I’ve ever seen a colonist attack something rather than gesture angrily at it.

It’s a very management heavy game, even for a strategy survival game, and, honestly? It’s leaving a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, as everything appears to be going wrong. A little late, I realise… Oh, yes, becoming a Workshop Overseer disables all other jobs. A rhythmic “Whud… Whud… Whud…” floats across the colony, mixing with the sound of flies buzzing around a corpse, and the eerie singing of rocks and grass. It’s the morning of Day 8.

In the afternoon, a bandit raid occurs. In the evening, a grimoire is uncovered while trying to make room for the graveyard. Ohhhh boy…

Right now, Clockwork Empires, sadly, feels clunky, unintuitive, and unfriendly rather than challenging. Which is a shame, because I’d like to see more of these strange events and cool things, but the game itself seems to be resisting any pace above plodding with some very hard limits on what can be done, and a lack of useful explanation for many of its systems and trees. It doesn’t help that some systems appear to have more than one “method”, and it’s unclear which works (Is hunting via the Naturalists’ Office, or via the Hunting labour? And are we not able to hunt before we achieve some sort of iron ranged weapon and the ammunition at all? I wasn’t able to find a clear answer.)

 

Cue nothing happening as a result of this. No, really, it's still there, in the graveyard, an in-game fortnight later.

Cue nothing happening as a result of this. No, really, it’s still there, in the graveyard, an in-game fortnight later.

The Mad Welshman sighed, understanding why the jolly old bureaucrat at the Foreign Office was so delighted to send him on this job. He whiled away his time thinking of synonyms for “Feckless”, “Moaning”, and “Children of Low Breeding” these days…

Daily Cthonicle: Editor’s Edition (Early Access Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £1.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Itch.IO (also contains the freeware demo), Official Homepage (Contains donation link if you wish to support the developer directly)

I like a developer who keeps tabs on things. I like a developer even more when they take feedback and criticism well and fix the things that are broken. Matija Kostiya (Sinister Systems) is definitely the first, and may well be the second… Time will tell. But of course, we’re here to talk about Now, and The Daily Cthonicle, a game where you are the editor of the aforementioned paper, an Occult and Paranormal Broadsheet. This may seem strange, until you realise that in the world of the Daily Cthonicle, the paranormal is very much real. It’s you, and your six journalists, against the horrors that lurk Beyond.

Vampires: Even Fledglings are Jerks.

Vampires: Even Fledglings are Jerks.

It is safe to say that you don’t always succeed. In fact, in the case of certain monsters, I’ve found, it’s very safe to say that you don’t always succeed. Vampires, in particular, are jerks. I’ve never lost more journalists, or racked up a bigger expense account in any other situation. I don’t entirely know why.

And this aptly leads to one of my main criticisms of the game as it stands, and, thankfully, at least partly a goal of the Early Access: Clarity. Certain things in Daily Cthonicle are not clear, and don’t consistently work. For example, scrolling down on documents can be done with the mousewheel… But not all documents. The UI sometimes obscures things. Some combat items can be used in Investigation events (Such as the Crowbar), and it is only made clear in the manual that, if you have equipment that could be used in combat… Say, a Gatling Gun you really wanted to save for the final chapter… It will be used, and vanish from your inventory. Some of this is explained in the online manual, but more isn’t. Yes, artefacts don’t get explained… But you also don’t really get an idea of what they do even once you’ve used them. At best, “This was very helpful [in this specific encounter]”

On the successful completion of a chapter, you print a Special Edition. As you can see, the text is somewhat barebones, but imagining how it all went down can be fun. ;)

On the successful completion of a chapter, you print a Special Edition. As you can see, the text is somewhat barebones, but imagining how it all went down can be fun. 😉

Now this may give the impression, so far, that I do not like Daily Cthonicle. This is by no means true. I think the base idea, and some of the game ideas (The EVP minigame, for example) have merit. I like that more advanced features, such as laboratory work (Crafting better potions, and divining information about the things and people the samples were taken from) are not necessary in the two lower difficulties. I like that it has both a normal game mode, and a “Skirmish” mode, where you have lots of money up front, and the goal is to eliminate all threats, rather than uncover the web of mysteries. I like that the difficulty balancing appears to have been considered, and appears to be under revision based on feedback. There’s quite a few things I like.

But the game isn’t very new player friendly, it isn’t very clear at times, and while I have confidence this will change somewhat, it’s very much a case of “If you like the idea, and you want to support the developer in refining it, please do so.” at the present time. I think it has a lot of potential, but obviously, time will tell.

The EVP: A recent feature that's still being refined somewhat.

The EVP: A recent feature that’s still being refined somewhat.

The Mad Welshman gritted his teeth as he saw this month’s Sanitarium bill. Sighing, he flipped the “Last Eldritch Horror In The Work Environment” counter to 0.

Zombie Night Terrors (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.99 (£13.59 for the Special Edition, £4.79 to upgrade to the Special Edition)
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Green Man Gaming

I was tired of zombie games. So very tired. But that’s all in the past now, as NoClip, developers of Zombie Night Terror, seem to have found a formula that works with those washed up symbols of capitalist greed… By learning lessons from the past. With only a few quibbles so far, I am suitably impressed on both counts: Making me like zombies again, and learning from game design history.

Aaaaah, look at 'em scream and run. It warms my... Okay, that's a lie, but it *does* make me feel hungry...

Aaaaah, look at ’em scream and run. It warms my… Okay, that’s a lie, but it *does* make me feel hungry…

Which game? Lemmings (1991, Psygnosis.) After all, Zombies are much like the lemmings of that old classic, in that they keep going, singlemindedly, and, left unguided, would probably fall off tall things, stride into the Marianas Trench with nary a care, and mindlessly wander into soldiers’ kill-zones. Which, of course, is where you come in… Zombie Overperson. Or Queen, Lord… Pick a suitably macabre title. I definitely won’t judge, as High Zombie Human Resources Overseer.

Ehehehe. “Human resources”

Now, what I find interesting about this game is that it tutorialises quite well, while still remaining a challenge, and having a fair difficulty curve… In the first chapter. Each time you learn a new power (Or new combination of powers), you get a short intro to them, just to show you what to expect, with unsuspecting victims. It was a little disingenuous not to allow me to break down doors on the first level (As normally, that’s what you can do), but that’s a minor quibble, and part of the challenge for the first level in any case (Make sure you infect everybody… A laudable goal for a zombie horde on any rampage.)

There’s no shame in screwing up a level, by the way, as restarts are easy, and you’re going to be learning things in any case. A good example would be the Subway of the first act, where the challenge is to kill everyone. This is pretty tough, as there are lots of fatal drops (Even for zombies), and blowing up the wrong zombie at the wrong time is going to lead to a restart (Because it’s so early, I’m going to helpfully illustrate this.

See this? This is not quite the smart move you may think it is.

See this? This is not quite the smart move you may think it is.

It’s a challenge I haven’t beaten yet, although beating the level itself only took two tries (One where I cocked up in a similar fashion to the screenshot above, one where I got a zombie to the end, finishing the level.) Of course, from Chapter 2 onwards, the gloves are off, and the Lemmings inspiration shows itself more clearly. Along with some of its problems.

I like that the hitbox on the Overlord (Your main combo zombo) is large, because, due to the fact that selecting zombies in a horde to do things can be tricky (Just like Lemmings), getting someone facing the right direction to do the thing can be difficult. I also like that they’re highlighted, as that eases (But does not eliminate) the problem.

I don’t like that using certain abilities unpauses the game. No, folks, I do want to select several zombies as runners beforehand without unpausing, because timing is kinda important. Oh, speaking of which, timing and micromanagement become important from Chapter 2 on, and that can be a pain, especially with that unpausing.

See those zombies in the lower left? I got things slightly wrong, and now they're all dead instead of across the way. BOO.

See those zombies in the lower left? I got things slightly wrong, and now they’re all dead instead of across the way. BOO.

Finally, I don’t like that the menu is unclear. Subtitles on mouse over would help me know that yes, the brain is the options, for example. It’s clever, but it needs to be a little more clear. (EDIT: It’s actually the statistics screen. See? SEE?!?)

Anyways, if you’re looking for a puzzle kick, Zombie Night Terror is a good choice. It’s got good visuals, good music, eases you in before baking your brain, and the cutscenes are blackly humorous. If you don’t like the idea of, essentially, leading brainless minions to nom on brains, this probably isn’t for you.

Braaaaaaaaaaaainsssss (Translation: The Mad Welshman endorses this game. No, not because he is a zombie now, but because he likes it. Now bend your head just a little, please!)

Sword Coast Legends (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £31.99 (£44.99 for Deluxe edition)
Where To Get It: Steam

This is one of those times where I genuinely wish I could say more than “The developers continue to support the game and continue to introduce nice things.” I want to like Sword Coast Legends. I already like its voice acting, its environments, and how heavily abstracting the 5E DnD system makes it more accessible.

But right now, that’s just a wish. Because it’s clearly not for me as it stands.

Hommett, a wizard who had been thrown out by the Harpells (A Bad Sign)... One of the many characters, with great voice acting, that... Just don't grab me.

Hommett, a wizard who had been thrown out by the Harpells (A Bad Sign)… One of the many characters, with great voice acting, that… Just don’t grab me.

Sword Coast Legends, developed by N-Space, and published by Digital Extremes, just doesn’t grab me. It is improving, but it’s been almost two months since its release, and I fail to find the motivation to get very far, despite promises of an improved DM mode. And part of this, I feel, is that it’s quite clearly balanced towards a multiplayer experience. Dungeon Crawl mode, for example, has enemy groupings in its “Easy” dungeons that would quickly overwhelm a level 1 fighter, such as a pair of Level 2 Goblins supported by a pair of archers, and a shaman that keeps healing the bleeding lot of them. You don’t want to ask what happens to a level 1 mage, as the answer is nearly always a bitter frown and the word “squish” repeated in a deadpan tone, over and over. DM Mode is currently, and will remain until next month, a random dungeon generator where some monsters and simplistic quests can be added, and Story mode…

Look, I know that the Sword Coast is iconic. I know that Luskan is a hive of scum and villainy. I know that it’s right there, in the sodding title. But I’m somewhat tired of the Sword Coast itself, and I’m definitely tired of a plotline that can be summed up as “You might destroy the world you love because a great eeeeeeeevillll has chosen you to be its host!”

Luskan. Luskan never changes. Religion, Magic, Planar Politics... But Luskan. Luskan never changes.

Luskan. Luskan never changes. Religion, Magic, Planar Politics… But Luskan. Luskan never changes.

An Ancient Evil, if Forgotten Realms material to date is any indication, threatens Northwest Faerun once a week. I’m honestly surprised anything gets done in the setting, the amount of Ancient (and Current) Evils that are hanging around. It doesn’t help that the main players are introduced pretty much in the prologue (A Drowish sorcerer, some do-gooders who may have been tricked, some fanatical worshippers of Helm who may also have been tricked, and, of course, the Ancient Evil itself, a demon from the darkest, yet fieriest pits of the Abyss.)

This is all a terrible shame, because honestly? You can see a lot of love went into this, and the fact that N-Space Games are continuing to improve things says a lot. The voice acting is pretty damn good, and it felt right… Even the Scouse dwarf Larethar Gulgrin, which fits his character very well. The environments are pretty, and clearly abstracting the mess that is the Dungeons & Dragons Feat/Skill system into a series of easy to understand, and well compartmentalised trees? That takes effort, and it does work. The music feels like it could have been transplanted into pretty much any high fantasy game and still worked is more a comment on the genre’s conventions than the quality of the music (Which is also fairly nice.)

But how you feel when playing it is important, and I felt… Like it was busywork. Even with the pause for tactics that makes fights easier, you’re still going to be using the Stabilise (Get People Up Because They Fell Down) command a fair bit, and the items… This game is filled with vendor trash. So. Much. Trash. I have lockets and statues of various deities and rings galore, beer bottles and wine bottles and Luskan Coffee of various types… And I have no idea what might become important, and what’s literally here for flavour. The only things that are truly important to me are weapons, armour, and magical items, and, thanks to a procedural treasure system, beyond fixed drops, I’m never quite sure whether something I grab will be of any use whatsoever. Sorting through it all felt a chore, even with some of the ease of use features in the inventory. Combat never felt real to me, even with grunts and clangs and flashy spells going ZAP and thwaaaaBOOM.

The abilities often have evocative names. That doesn't always improve the experience.

The abilities often have evocative names. That doesn’t always improve the experience.

This, honestly, is a damn shame, and, in the interests of fairness, I am going to give DM mode another chance when the improvements hit in December, because, as Neverwinter Nights proved, you can have a less than stellar story, and still be a game worth remembering because of its other features. Folks who are less critical of high fantasy’s foibles than I am may find this a more interesting game, but… It really does seem to be rubbing me up the wrong way, and that makes me sad for reasons I can’t entirely articulate.

The Mad Welshman examined the statue of Sune Firehair he had found in the Goblin caves. Even with her warm smile, her hair tastefully lined with amethysts and opals, she felt… Lost, somehow. Her gown was cracked, and dust had settled in her blazing hair. Undeniably beautiful. Undeniably precious. But, equally undeniably, another religious icon to place in his pack.