Vagante (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam , Humble Store
Version Reviewed: Build 59i

When things are this close to release, and the nicest things I can say is “Mages seem to work better, and bows are sort of viable now”, you may be able to figure that I am, as before, distinctly unfond of Vagante’s particular flavour of difficulty. I will, grudgingly, admit it has improved a little. But it still has many of the same issues.

Yup. He died, and so did I. WELP, RESTART.

To recap, Vagante is a procgen platform action dungeon crawler, where you pick a class, attain gear, try to defeat bosses and levels, and level up with each level you beat. Healing is very scarce, and if I felt the game were well balanced around that, it wouldn’t be a problem.

Unfortunately, bosses can best be described as “Absolute arses.” In more technical terms, even the first area bosses (Of which you will encounter all of them: A goblin warlord, a dragon, and a poisonous worm) are battles, not of tactics, but of attrition. Not all classes have an active defense (and those who do, only attain it through levelled abilities) , so taking damage is, in most cases, pretty much a certainty, as options with any sort of decent range are, to put it bluntly, crap. Bows don’t do a heck of a lot, Magic Missile doesn’t do a heck of a lot, wands have cooldowns and the same problems as any spells they own. The reason I found the Mage had improved somewhat as a class? Eleclance (One of the few spells with infinite charges per level, and a consistent, relatively high damage rate) by default.

Of course, this is all talking about the first area. Once the second area is hit, all bets are off, as bosses not only have vastly increased hit points, they also have some seriously beefy attacks and defenses. One boss, for example, has a ring of damaging projectiles circling it, and it can phase through walls. Good luck running away. Good luck getting close enough to hit it. Good luck surviving long enough to plink at it from range. I can’t tell you about later areas, because I haven’t gotten to them. I’ve beaten Spelunky. Heck, I’ve beaten LaMulana, and this game not only resists being finished, the kinds of deaths I’ve encountered make me, honestly, not want to finish it.

The Woods, the second area, is somewhat lighter. Still dark enough that you can’t tell what’s going on with a thumbnail.

I’ve fatfingered jump, very lightly, and died on spikes from a tile high. I’ve been lovetapped to death by misjudging a bat… After having beaten all three bosses of the first area. Heck, at times, I’ve known, before I’ve even found the boss, that I’m not going to win the damage race, because a goblin got lucky, or the aforementioned bat misjudging happened, or I came across a situation where I was going to take damage, be that due to unfortunate enemy configurations, or an enemy blindsiding me that I was sure I’d be able to murder (Explosive moths, for example, are best avoided, rather than attempting to attack them. Their movement is only technically predictable.)

Is there good? Yes, and that, really, makes how I feel about this game worse. The music is good, fitting mood pieces for the areas. The sound isn’t bad. The enemy designs, while not all new creatures, are still interesting. The skills are more clear. But if a weapon isn’t of at least Normal speed, odds are high it just isn’t worth working with timing (and some weapons have minimum ranges, less than useful when any melee enemy just wants to get right in your face), the first area is very dark, making it an eye straining and awkward experience to play… And, considering that all content is now in the game, bringing it fairly close to release? All these little frustrations, these decisions that seem more based on arbitrary difficulty than challenge, don’t make me confident that I’m going to be changing my mind about not liking Vagante on release.

Skills being more clear. Note: The shield blocks *physical* damage. So 2 out of the 3 bosses in the first area can still hurt you.

The Mad Welshman was correct in his last Early Access review: He’s already sick of the damn caves. Also the dagger remains what appears to be the best option.

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Battle Chef Brigade (Review)

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

Battle Chef Brigade is charming. Its art style is clean, consistent, clear, and cool. Its music is very fitting and well crafted. It even fuses platforming combat, match 3 gameplay, and the tension of a real competitive cook-off. Although it at first didn’t seem to appeal much, it did grow on me, and part of that is how it introduces its mechanics.

So much talent, all in one place… Oh, so jealous of the judges!

Before we talk about that, though, let’s talk about aesthetic. Battle Chef Brigade is hand drawn, thin lines and flats making for a tight construction, with some good takes on fantasy designs, and similarly tight animations. Varied character design, good music, mostly good voice acting (some a little flat, but mostly good), and it ties into a world with something that I always enjoy seeing, because it’s a subject not often covered: How life changes in a fantasy world. Okay, so there are monsters, and magic. The former is deadly, the latter is potentially deadly. How do you apply the latter (and hunting) to the former, and still have a society that doesn’t have the dread Adventurer?

Battle Chefs. Complete with a cultural touchstone of an Iron Chef style cookoff, with preferred tastes and signature ingredients. It’s a simple idea, but the entire story of Battle Chef Brigade revolves around making it both plausible and interesting. Here, the Orcs Thrash and Shiv, from lineages that peacefully united the Orc tribes through a shared love of cuisine. There, Ziggy, creating a new and very possibly unsafe (but tres cool) method in Haunt Cuisine. Necromantically prepared? Hit me up with those dark aftertastes, my friend!

So, it’s an interesting world, its characters are engaging, but what about the play and main storyline? Well, here’s where it takes a bit, just a bit, to get going. If you recognise variations on the Hero(ine)’s Journey, you’ll recognise Mina Han. At first selfish, wanting to see the world, but still with promise (after all, she wants to improve a creative skill, I can applaud that), she learns hard lessons, faces a tribulation that affects both her and the world (I won’t spoil it), and becomes a better person along the way. Okay, so it may not win awards, but it has charm, and I like it.

The dishes come in many types, and they’re all *eyewateringly* nice looking.

Similarly, the basic idea of using Match 3 mechanics with a cook-off makes immediate sense once you see it in action. Hunting down monsters in a themed arena area off to one side, gathering ingredients at first seems pretty basic: Wallop monsters, they die, they drop stuff, you can carry so much, run back and forth to gather ingredients. Ingredients have different gem types and shapes, three gems make one better gem, and you can do that twice before you have the best gem. How the heck does that fit with cooking? Well, there’s only so much room in the pot, and you can’t rotate the ingredients before placement. So, if you want to make the best dishes? You want to learn the ingredients, learn the biomes.

As you go along, however, new mechanics, items, and explanations get introduced, pretty much all the way through the normal story mode. At first, this put me off, but it must be kept in mind that not only is there a New Game+ of sorts in Hard mode, there’s also two challenge modes, and a Daily Cook-Off, using fixed items. The story mode won’t take a terribly long amount of time, but it’s still enjoyable, and I did come to like the fact I’m learning new things every time I get further. Oh, wait, you can do that? The birds aren’t just assholes, but have a little ecology going? Ohhhhhh!

Overall, I have a soft spot for Battle Chef Brigade. It’s tightly focused on an aspect of its world that it’s made central, but it’s also made it believable, and not only believable, but charming. Thumbs up!

Oh, y’know, just another day hunting for cooking ingredients in a cook-off!

The Mad Welshman would, in a fantasy world, want Haunt Cuisine. Oh heck yes he would. Also he would order from the Flambe Warlocks.

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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.

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20xx (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

20XX is a game with a laudable goal: A platformer heavily inspired by the MegaMan X games with random level generation. All the ideas, all the replayability! It’s just a shame it doesn’t really work out that way, for a variety of reasons.

Pictured: Ace and Nina’s unscrupulous creators don’t take failure kindly.

Aesthetically, 20XX has come a long way from when it was under a different name. It’s clean, it’s got good tunes, it’s got moderately good sounds. The enemies are visually distinct, and so you quickly learn what type is what, whether you can get nice things out of them, and what they do. That’s good.

Not so good is the fact I have little to no incentive to play Nina, the Not-megaman of the pair of Nina and Ace (who is Not-Protoman/Zero.) Equally not so good is the fact that the stages, very often, are more lethal than the bosses. And some of the bosses, honestly, are eh, even in their difficult forms. Let’s get into that a little more, starting with the linked problem of Nina and the levels.

The game features two characters: Nina, who shoots bullets, and has a piercing charge shot (with the option to change this basic attack to a variety of directional bullets or a wave-beam if you find the right powerup.) , and Ace, who has a sword, which he can charge, but, honestly, doesn’t need to (and, like Nina, can switch out for a variety of melee type weapons of varying utility, damage, range, and speed.) Both can dash jump. Both can use the same boss weapons, in the same way. Both can use the same permanent and per-run powerups that are unlocked by gaining one of the three types of currency in the game.

FUCKING BATS. Although thankfully not over a deathpit, or between two platforms, or any of the innumerable situations they just ANNOY THE HELL OUT OF ME.

When playing as Nina, to deal with hordes of bats, I need to waste a second or two charging my weapon, and lining it up. Without an alternate weapon, I have no means of dealing with enemies above me. When playing as Ace, most of my weapons can attack at least a little upward by default, have a wide area, and can chump hordes of bats with a few quick taps of the attack button. It’s not even a subtle difference. I have little incentive to play as Nina.

Meanwhile, one of the elements of the game is random level generation, using native enemy types, bats (Which are everywhere, and are annoying obstacles just as with videogame bats everywhere), and native trap types. Agnisort, the fire area, has conveyor belts and fireball launchers, with welding flames on the walls, belts, small pits… Anywhere they would fit, and a couple of places they shouldn’t. Vaculab, meanwhile, has that MegaMan staple, Yoku blocks (blocks that appear and disappear on a timer) and deadly vines. Skytemple relies on lasers, conveyor belts, and bottomless pits to kill you, while Frostor has spike shooters seemingly everywhere, even in places that are meant to be considered safe. It’s all generated according to a rough plan, it’s true, but I can almost guarantee you’re going to take, especially toward the end as the frequency of the traps increases, more damage from the stages than you are the bosses. Occasionally, the game will even generate a big ol’ middle finger, like the time my only path to progress was blocked by a pair of vertical lasers, each perfectly bisecting the platforms I needed, and seemingly timed to go active while the platforms were accessible.

Suffice to say, I didn’t appreciate that one tiny bit.

This jerk has gone through multiple iterations. He’s *less* annoying in the final release.

While we’re here, let’s talk about the bosses and their weapons. Bosses are, with only two exceptions, larger versions of the level enemies, with their highly pattern based gimmicks. Rollster is a robot hamster in a sawblade monowheel, and he bounces and fires sawblades. The Astral Twins are fireball spewing robot gorillas who will resurrect each other if you don’t kill them both within about ten seconds of each other. As the boss order is also randomly generated, both levels and bosses are meant to get harder the further you get. This is very true for the levels, but the bosses? The stages consistently seem to do more damage, and their weapons vary wildly in use. One, Skydragon’s, is essentially there as a reference to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. It’s a big, slow moving cuboid bullet. Yes, whatever it hits will take heavy damage, and it has some piercing, but it’s also easily blocked, and, just like the sketch with the Mooninites, it moves slowly enough that you might as well not bother with it.

In the end, one of the biggest problems with 20XX is that it’s trying to recreate the feel of a game series that mostly relied on tight level design with procedural generation, and so many of the obstacles and “set-pieces” feel arbitrary. Oh look, six bats. That I have to wait for, watching them crawl across the screen, because if I don’t, I’m going to screw up the timing of this conveyorbelt/fireball/welding torch “puzzle” that’s also going on.

Occasionally, the procgen will just outright screw you. Just quit to the menu at this point, you’re going to die.

BATS ARE BAD, DO NOT USE BATS. BATS ARE BAD, DO NOT USE BATS.

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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.

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