Flinthook (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99 (£14.99 for Deluxe with artbook, music, and other nice gubbins)
Where To Get It: Humble StoreSteam

Flinthook, a game about a ghost headed pirate with time-slowing powers, an anchor that he uses to effortlessly hook his way around, and, of course, a blaster, begins in an extremely fun way. So many possibilities! An interesting cartoon universe, hinted at in scraps of lore and relics and enemy designs! Good sound effects and a consistent, action-cartoon aesthetic I can’t help but love!

Alas, that first bloom has faded. Let me tell you, folks, about my own White Whale. Let me tell you… about the Midgame.

Your choice of ships to raid is, for the most part, clearly explained, and it’s easy to remember what does what. This, as it turned out, was a Poor Choice.

Currently level 39, I am, at the time of this review, about halfway through. And I feel like I owe my victory more toward grind and luck than skill, without feeling bad about it. Why? Because, from about level 20 onwards, from about three skulls onwards, the game starts throwing some distinctly unfair rooms at you. Rooms where I have yet to figure out if there even is a way to get through without taking damage. And it starts playing tricks that, honestly, I’m not on board with. Here, screenshotted, is a pretty good example: The Bird Room. While exploring the procedurally generated ship-dungeons of the game, you may come across the bird room. The birds are invincible. No, those bubbles, unlike the others you may encounter (including in boss encounters) cannot be popped with your hook. And they will poop similarly invincible bombs at you until you leave. How not to be damaged? Don’t be under them. Don’t touch them. Good luck!

Thank you, Flinthook, for very briefly wanting me to replace my cries of FUCKING BATS with DAMN BOMB POOPING SPACE PARROTS

Similarly, combat rooms start getting, for want of a better word to describe them, dickish. And a lot of this fuckery comes from one enemy in particular: The bubble wizards. As long as these robed assholes live, everything else is invincible. And often, these same lizard wizards are hiding… behind the invincible enemies. Oh, never in such a way as to completely block them off, it must be said… But nearly always in a way that getting to them has a much higher chance of you needing to damage sponge your way to them.

Adding to this is that half the subweapons… Feel much more situational than the other half. Spinning Skulls are a finicky subweapon to hit folks with, and don’t do a whole lot of damage, the bomb barrels are for when you want an enemy heavily damaged or dead right damn now, whereas, by comparison, the freeze globe is a “Get out of miniboss/dickish trap room” card, or at least something that helps, and the Fighting Bell is temporary invincibility, which… Is also a “Get out of miniboss/dickish trap room” card. I often forget subweapons as a result, or end up with Giant Robot Crab Syndrome, where I don’t want to use my freeze globe on the trap room because I might need it for another room.

Poor Bad Billy Bullseye. This is the fifth time I’ve done this to him out of frustration I’ve died on the way to the Baron so much.

The bosses, by comparison, are… Well, actually somewhat easier. Bad Billy Rex, the unlockable upgraded form of the first boss, felt like a victory lap, since his base pattern doesn’t really change: Hook his ride’s glowy bubble butt, shoot it, and a new glowy bubble butt appears, shoot his tumbling starfish brethren that he adds each time, repeat until there are no bubble butts to pop, his centipede-buffalo pal is dead, and poor Bad Billy is left crying like the Rancor trainer in Return of the Jedi.

Is Flinthook a bad game? Not really. It uses all its abilities, makes them pretty accessible, and teaches you their use very well. But it’s a game that expects you to grind out to reach the endgame, and it’s a game where the levels, not particularly the bosses, are the real enemy. It’s pretty twitchy from even the midgame, so I sadly can’t recommend this to folks who, for various reasons, can’t play that sort of game. For everyone else, the pixel art is consistent, the UI is good and clear, powerups are explained when you get them, the music is brilliant, and the sound effects are also good. It took me about 4 hours to hit the midgame, and I expect it will be at least a few more before I’m ready to tackle the endgame. It’s a “few more hours” I’m not entirely sure I’m willing to invest, myself, but your mileage may vary, so if you like arcadey platforming and shooting hijinks, perhaps this is for you.

The Mad Welshman loves universes like this. Even if, in said universes, he’d probably end up with a glowing weakpoint.

Mastema – Out of Hell (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

There is such a thing as too faithful. Mastema: Out of Hell, with its homage to the coin guzzlers of yesteryear, very aptly demonstrates that in less than ten minutes. So let’s talk about my mood during that first ten minutes, then what comes after.

See, This is Good…

“Starting option to have CRT effects or not, and it looks like its built around that? HELL YES.” That was my inner monologue. The intro splashes, reminiscent of a game like Splatterhouse, enchanted. The audiovisual assault, a combination of eerie chiptunes, deliciously chunky spritework, sumptuous animations, and some decent, Genesis styled sound effects charmed.

And then I fell in a pit. And discovered Point of No Return dissolving platforms in the second stage of the first area. And then, because it was my birthday, and I had things to do, I quit, mildly peeved.

I came back, and… Unfortunately, the game has also inherited a fair amount of what can best be described as “Jank” and coin-guzzling bad habits. Beyond traps for the unwary, such as the aforementioned dissolving platforms (Not to mention many jumps requiring near-pixel perfection), the larger enemies seem pretty much invincible, while the small ones die in one hit of the sword, leaving the Special Attacks feeling… Largely useless, honestly. It doesn’t help that, when you attain the first of these, there’s essentially one enemy between you and the exit. This all adds up to feeling like… There really hasn’t been much thought put in besides the Aesthetic. You stumble through three or so levels per stage, reach an exit door, and move onto the next. Perfection and collecting enough skull-gems rewards you with extra life. A single fuckup reduces that limited supply, and once those are up, game over, hope you enjoy playing through the game again!

This… Not so much (Especially considering the whirlwind of ULTRA METAL DEATH will… Do nothing here)

The controls are a little unresponsive (Mainly felt while trying to do those aforementioned near-pixel jumps), and you will learn, by the third stage, that the protagonist has the strange, yet sadly common inability to air control his jump when standing right next to a wall. I’d gotten to something like the fourth stage, and had yet to encounter anything that wasn’t in the binary of “Don’t bother attacking” or “Dies in one hit” , or a level that didn’t also have the binary of “This jump is easy” or “This jump requires you to be in the right place first.

As such, I really can’t recommend Mastema. Sure, it’s got style, and I’m informed it’s got boss fights and more interesting levels down the road or something. But to get there, I’d have to suffer through some numbly painful “oldschool” bullshittery that, honestly, I was quite happy to leave behind in my halcyon days of youth, and, honestly, I have better things to do.

You can, no joke, die here. The final jump of this level.

The Mad Welshman likes imaginative gribbleys. But he’d also like that imagination to extend to gameplay dickery, if you really have to have it in your game…

Hollow Knight (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99 (£14.38 for “With Soundtrack” bundle, £6.99 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, GOG

Dark Souls, it seems, has become… Almost a template. A boilerplate. We’ve seen this quite a few times in good ol’ (Ha!) video games, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s done well. Hollow Knight, by all appearances, does pretty well. Sometimes too well.

That’s not creepy. Not at all, no *SHUDDER* sirree…

In any case, you are a bug. Possibly undead, it isn’t made too clear at first. You’re drawn to a nigh empty village above a set of ruins populated by the damned and the forgotten. If you’ve played Dark Souls, you’ll already be seeing how this is going. Mystery! Tragedy! Boss fights! That one place where everything seems to hate you, the player, personally! And, of course, that sick, numb feeling that comes from dying to something perfectly ordinary on the way to trying to recover your currency from where you died not five minutes ago.

I could bang on about which element is a metroidvania thing, which is a Dark Souls thing, so on, so forth, but… It’s apparent if you’ve played them, and irrelevant beyond the concept of “Exploring platformer where you kill stuff and get special abilities and maybe get told a tragic, creepy story if you’re not hammering that ‘skip dialogue’ button like a hammering thing.” What matters is: Does it do it well?

The boss fights are, as you might expect, highly pattern based, but creative and with stories of their own to tell. I almost feel sorry for this feller, for example…

In short… Yes. It does it aesthetically, with the hand drawn landscapes, music and bug design really selling that “Dark and creepy (but grounded) world” mood. It does it mechanically, with responsive controls, gameplay that relies more on timing than twitching, and a narrative that still works despite taking a lot of its beats from… Dark Souls.

There is, of course, a “but” hanging over this: If you didn’t like certain aspects of Dark Souls, such as occasionally having trouble working out where to go/what to do next (Not aided by a map that only updates a) If you bought a basic map of the area already by finding the mapmaker in the area, and b) You’ve sat down at a bench post exploration.) Or Occasionally breaking into an area you’re definitely not prepared for and dying. Or realising that, to get a thing that would definitely help survive an area, you’re going to have to grind enemies for… Quite a while (Which, at the time of this sentence, is exactly the problem I’m facing. Most of these things are either fair, or ameliorated somewhat (You can, if you get hold of a Rancid Egg and a Simple Key, draw your Hollow soul back via an NPC, for example), but they are nonetheless baked into the design philosophy behind the game, and if they turn you off, then I obviously can’t recommend it for you.

From the Metroidvania end of things comes… Extra Mobility (Gating areas.)

Overall, though, it’s an imaginative world, a responsive and pleasurable experience most of the time, and I’ve enjoyed my time so far with Hollow Knight. For an example of crossing Dark Souls and Metroidvanias well, you can’t go far wrong with this.

The Mad Welshman agrees that this review feels a bit short. Some might say… Hollow.

Nefarious (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Oh, Nefarious… You’re kind of villainous, but for many of the wrong reasons. I’d still say you’re okay, but you definitely have your downsides. So let’s discuss that, you and I.

Problem one with screenshotting Nefarious: There’s a fair amount of variety.
Problem two: MY EYES!

I like your idea: This time, it’s the villain. I loved some of the interesting, gimmicky moments you had, and the wry commentary on many moustache twirling habits, like mainly kidnapping princesses rather than princes, and how not all princesses are going to be dainty little flowers. I love your visual design, cartoony, over the top, and yet so clean, and I definitely love your soundtrack, with all the knowing nods, winks, and nudges to a wide variety of things, including Sentai shows. We need more of that, so props where props are due!

But, of course, we need to talk about the other things. You’ve probably heard them before, and you may be tempted to dismiss them. Please don’t, you can improve, twirl your moustache that little bit harder if you listen. Let’s start with your platforming. It’s floaty, and saggy. Part of this is the physics… Yes, I get you wanted freedom of movement in the air, but sometimes, those little boom jump things really would be better if they were fixed path. It would save a lot of players, including me, switching their hand from the mouse to make damn sure we actually get where we’re going, which slightly defeats the point of those boomjumps. Similarly, needing the player to fully go through the landing animation before being able to jump again causes some headaches, especially when you’re required to jump rather quickly and precisely. Not quite sure how to fix that, but it does lead to accidents in the workplace, sadly…

The prince is a nice guy. You did a good job kidnapping this one!

…Soundwise, you’re a little bit lacking. Those punches need a bit of a swoosh to them, add a little impact. In fact, sound in general needs a bit of perking up, and I was rather confused when the protagonist, Crow, spoke in the beginning, and then… Didn’t. I quite liked his voice, but I understand if the budget didn’t allow… It’s just a little saddening, is all.

Beyond that, there’s minor niggles, like how the airship keeps flying back to the first area after each level, or your problem with ramps (A common one with Unity games, but fixable. Take heart!) but I’d like to stress that you have charm, you have a lot of variety, some nice, eclectic references, and even if you’re not for everyone, I know you can improve, and gain a blacker, dapper-er heart.

Don’t worry about the ropes or the train, that’s just my normal way of greeting a fellow ne’er-do-well.

Not pictured: The slightly hollow footsteps.

Wishing you well!

The Mad Welshman

Early Access Review: Downward

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam
Version Reviewed: 0.47

“It’s facing downward!” Yes, like the last twenty times. I think I get it now.

You know what I really loved about Prince of Persia 2008? Collecting lightseeds. That was, hands down, the best part of that game. Sod smooth platforming, sod weird not-deaths, the lightseeds were totally the best part of PoP2008. Followed closely by the backtracking to get those powerups I need to progress.

That preceding paragraph is, of course, complete bullshit unless you replace “best” with “worst.” So you can imagine how I feel about the Skypieces in Downward, a game that tries to take the nigh effortless free running of Prince of Persia or Mirror’s Edge, the collectathons from a lot of platformers of my youth, and the posthuman mystery elements of modern science-fiction/fantasy.

It achieves the collectathon, I will give it that. So let’s start with the story!

“As you can see Bob, Wormwood, Great Cthulhu, *and* The Giant Meteor have a really good platform this year!”

It is the year 1125AD. Except it clearly isn’t, because there’s technology, and the world has split into weird shards, ala Gravity Falls, and somehow people survived. Except they didn’t, because they killed each other off. I would like to think, in the interests of black comedy, that the AD stands for “After Donald” (or, if you’re a Brit like me, “After David”), and it’s days instead of years. You are an artefact hunter, who suddenly finds himself talking to someone who is clearly not an AI in a crystal lattice, I want to make that clear right now, and begins collecting things because this will solve the mystery of what happened to humanity. Somehow.

The protagonist shows his colours by exclaiming what useless things the mysterious KeyCubes are, or just expresses confusion, after he has already collected something like 30 of them, from jumping puzzles, angry, highly pattern based golems, and just general fucking about. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

Ooooh, mysteri- Oh, wait, not really. Sigh.

See, I’m not opposed to story justifying games. I’m not even necessarily opposed to bad story justifying gameplay. I am, however, opposed to jank. And jank, my friends, is what currently inhabits Downward. The Not-Lightseeds are used for unlocking powers. A good 90% of them are simple quality of life stuff, and the other 10% is the strangely thought out ability to trade the cost of Arbitrary Powergem Usage for placing teleporters, and teleporting to them for free, with the cost of sod all for placing teleporters, and costing Arbitrary Powergem Usage to teleport to them. Hrm. Infinite teleports to a limited number of places between refills (via fountains, which replenish health, gems, and stamina), orrrrr just four straight teleports, but I can choose where to place the endpoint infinitely…

…Already, I’m getting “the Not-Lightseeds can largely be ignored” and “I wasted 290 of them when I could have got more teleports.” Of course, by the point of this realisation, I had also realised that the space bar, used for most jump mechanics, doesn’t always chain like its meant to, and level placement of the parkour-able walls, some too low, some too high, some at awkward angles, meant that I couldn’t trust that chaining anyway.

Pretty. Disconnected. It… Kinda looks how the game *feels*

I want to say “Hey, it’s Early Access, at least some of this will be fixed by release”, as it’s at version 0.47 at the time of writing, but… It’s not going to fix how arbitrary, how hollow it all feels. Whither golems? Wherefore strange crystal turrets? To what end Skypieces? I don’t feel I’ll get answers, I don’t really feel motivated to explore these (sometimes pretty) not-quite-Arabic, not-quite-Medieval worlds, to interact with the few characters that exist, or to grind my brain and fingers, time and time again, against a world that isn’t dragging me in, only pushing me away with mocking removal of Skypieces when I die, itself hollow because, as I’ve mentioned, they largely don’t matter.

What I’m basically saying is: The platforming is currently finicky and unfun, the story feels arbitrary, and the protagonist is a tabula rasa that has somehow gained the power of speech… To his detriment. I’ll take a look again at release, but for now… I’m not impressed.

The Mad Welshman picked up his trusty keyboard, the eldritch symbols of power etched upon its slabs. “Hrm, what’s this for?” he mused, as he used it to write these words.