Yoku’s Island Express (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Pinballtroidvania. That’s a word I never thought I’d use… And yet, here we are, with Yoku’s Island Express, which, in essence, is just that: Pinball, mixed with the design ideas behind the “Metroidvania” genre.

It’s cute, it’s fun, and, oh boy, is the post-game a slog. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Let’s talk about the main game instead for a bit.

Just a small, early sample of the map in Yoku’s Island Express. It’s quite nice, really.

Yoku’s Island Express is the story of a beetle, tied to a ball, working as a postmaster in a world of skullmonkeys, bearngineers, space monks, and great guardians being harmed by an ancient and terrible evil. And how does this tiny creature, held down as they are by a great weight, get around? Well, convenient pinball paddles, bumpers, and kickers. Makes perfect sense.

Needless to say, the world is not a serious one. You’re not going to find deep philosophical questions, and the narrative is very firmly subservient to justifying various elements of its world (such as the Dive Fish powerup, which involves… Wearing a fish friend as leggings) , but, props to the developers, it is internally consistent. Not much of it may be very deep, but it’s clearly considered, well sketched out, and, as odd as the world of Yoku’s Island Express is, it didn’t feel unnatural, and that, in and of itself, is something to praise. So… How does it look, how does it play, how does it feel?

Pleasant, overall. The aesthetic is good, with fitting, often heartwarming and cool music, the difficulty curve during the main story is smooth, and no individual “table” in this world is particularly bad or frustrating. Heck, some of them, especially the bosses and climactic moment tables (such as blocking hot-spring vents to help save the Skullmonkey tribe) are quite interesting, as multiball, in the context of this game, is always assistance from a group against some sort of threat. A sort of “Power of Friendship” thing, if you will. The world fits together well, and some of its secrets and powers (such as the Sootling Hookshot) are cool and interesting. The main game, it must be said, is enjoyable, if somewhat short, with a large world to explore, some funny dialogue, and a surreal world that can nonetheless be taken at face value, explored with that voice that says “This is silly” being relatively quiet throughout.

Oooh, buddy… Heroic or no, blocking a volcanically hot hot-spring like that, you’re gonna need some lotion…

It’s when the story is over, though, and there are still things left to do, that the game falls somewhat flat. Thing is, this has been a problem with troidvanias of all sorts in the past as well, and I’ve never really seen a good solution to finding post-game collectathons involving collecting 100 of a thing, or triggering all of the things… Both of which are examples of the post-game, 100% completion “fun.” Does it have a better, true ending at the end of doing all the scarab marked paddles and shots and ramps, and collecting all the wickerlings, working out how to deliver parcels, and whatever the heck that space-monk thing was? Don’t know, don’t particularly enjoy finding out, never have.

Annoyance with collectathon postgames aside, as noted, the aesthetic is cool, it’s a nice world, and it was fun and interesting enough that I’d recommend it as an interesting variation on an established formula that mostly works… My favourite kind of recommendation.

The currency of Yoku’s world is fruit, a currency I can get behind… Although one has to wonder what the exchange rates are…

The Mad Welshman loves that ancient sport, Pinne of ye Balle, experimentation with genre, and insectoids. He is a marketing anomaly.

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Catacomb Kids (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £12.39
Where To Get It: Steam
Version: 0.1.4c

Feel is a very important thing, from the feel of movement, to the feel of fairness. Like Vagante, which I reviewed, Catacomb Kids is dark… Has plenty of instant death traps… And mixes roguelike and platformer. But, unlike Vagante, Catacomb Kids feels more fair, more fluid, more fun. And it’s not even finished yet.

A hectic, joyful combat, just seconds before I combat-identify… A potion of flames. MY BAD.

So, how does it feel better? It’s a lot of things, adding up. Combat, for one, is somewhat easier. Yes, there’s rolling, and even bats and rats can harm you, but healing is fairly common, swings are mostly rapid, and there’s a sense of impact to even lighter blows. Magic, similarly, is very common, and can even be used by the most magic averse (with some risk.) More intelligent enemies run away, find friends, and even use potions, which makes it feel like, y’know, a living, breathing place. The traps still kind of suck, but I rarely find myself knocked back into spikes for an instadeath or the like.

No, more commonly, it’s the panic that results from rolling into the “SNAP” of a burning oil trap… Ohgodohgod the oil’s pouring, and if I do-FWOOSH. Dead. It’s quite avoidable, much like everything, and the signposting is there (the ceiling spike traps being the least signposted, the lava and crusher blocks the most.) But it’s a scary trap, and this, too, adds to the feel.

Popcorn also adds to the feel, in a pleasant way.

At the present time, the four classes appear to be locked in: Bullies, who can willingly alert nearby enemies and specialise in hitting things rather hard; Tinkers, who have a mechanical buddy for assistance, and are generally quite smart; Poets, also quite smart, but specialising in magic; and Wanderers, who can get an idea of their surroundings well, and specialise in being quick. Kids in each class are generated by set, and there’s a lot of choice in rolling a new character, from spending a little money to roll a new random Kid, spending a fair amount of money to make a custom kid who maybe, maybe, has the skills and equipment to do better than you did, to spending no money at all, and sending these poor, adventuring young adults to their doom, getting a new set when you exhaust the current one. Since each class is only limited in weapon use by things like wanting to use a weapon they like or have skill with, or not wanting to use a weapon they don’t like, and therefore suck at, there’s a lot of room, a lot of potential depth, in each run. And I like that.

The base tutorial for the game is good, but it should be noted that the character customisation screen isn’t terribly informative right now, so it’s a good idea to memorise those icons, checking what they do in play, before taking the leap of a custom Kid.

Visible representation of kit is pretty good, both in portrait and in the game.

That niggle aside, though, I’m having a lot of fun with Catacomb Kids at its present stage. It’s got a lot of tension, but not so much pressure, a fair amount of toys in the toybox to play with, and to see it so enjoyable, so early pleases me.

The Mad Welshman sometimes feels like a slime. Alas, no takeout in this world offers the good stuff.

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Dungreed (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

Dungreed is an odd game to me, in that it is, in its first hour or two, definitely enjoyable, but, due to the nature of its progression, becomes… Well, a bit of a slog from the middle of it onward. Which is a shame, because some of its bosses are actually quite interesting and amusing.

So, to sum Dungreed’s basics up simply, you are an adventurer, who’s come to rescue a town from a dungeon that’s literally eaten the village. It’s an action platformer shooty/slashy type deal with rooms put together procedurally, and, importantly, at the end of each run, you lose all but your basic shortsword, and most of your money.

Pictured: Possibly the most fun boss in the game so far.

“But wait, Jamie, why would the game do something so cruel?” Well, partly to introduce variety, partly to give you a chance to level up, and partly so you end up interacting with the villagers you save, all of whom add a selection of kit to the dungeon’s random drops, a few random NPCs wandering around, and features that are meant to make your next run just that little bit easier. The Blacksmith, for example, gives you a random item. Could be a weapon, could be an accessory, could be ranged, could be melee. The shopkeeper lets you buy things (for when you’ve not got any NPCs to build village features for), the trainer levels you up (with each 5 points in a stat adding an ability to your stable like double jumping, shopkeepers costing less, or extra damage), and so on.

And then you start from the beginning. Which, funnily enough, is both its problem, and not one I can see much of a win for. See, the bosses are fine, and one, Niflheim, caused me to laugh and cry out to my friend “Wow, I just got killed by a Touhou in a roguelike!” (As her boss pattern, music, and aesthetic are all highly reminiscent of bullet hell shooters, specifically the Touhou games.) But by the time I’ve gotten to Niflheim, I’ve gone through several floors, with much the same preffered weaponry, having consigned much the same equipment to either use, or, more commonly, what can be called vendor/altar trash. Some, like the Matchlock Rifle with its pause before firing as well as a slow reload, more readily than others.

The further I get, the further I have to go, and the less I enjoy the preceding run up to whatever boss comes next, as, until I meet a new boss or a villager, all I’m doing is… Marking time. Time which increases the further I get.

A mix of melee and ranged is recommended, but heck, most of the ranged options are so much fun!

Which is a real shame to me, as the game’s aesthetically consistent, does some fun things with its music (As noted, Niflheim’s boss music is highly reminiscent of its inspiration) , and the enemies do have variety and interest… Just… Not quite enough to keep me going for this final stretch. Fun at first, it’s become, over time… Alright.

The Mad Welshman is a walker by habit, as opposed to a marathon runner.

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Vagante (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam , Humble Store

Called it. I said, in the first Early Access review I did of Vagante, that I would be tired of its shit by release, and lo… Release has hit, and I am well and truly glad to have this off my docket. That may seem mean, but let’s unpack exactly why I so heavily dislike Vagante.

Everything else I’ve been reviewing this month has, in its way, expanded upon the procgen/roguelike formula. Accessibility. Quality of life. Vagante, meanwhile, makes it quite clear that its response to issues I have with the difficulty curve are, essentially, “git gud.” And I’ve made it quite clear in the past how badly I respond to that.

Let’s play a game of “Spot the Character.” Take your time, I can wait…

Let us take, as an example, the bosses of the first three levels of the dungeon. Two of the three have projectile attacks with damage over time, and like to stay out of your reach. Combine this with the rarity of healing items, and melee is either a case of damage racing the enemy (Providing, of course, you have the hit points to do so, as all melee attacks are fixed animations you can’t interrupt, and daggers, previously a go-to, are now slow enough that they are once again a weak option), or timing your attacks just so, over a protracted period of waiting for your single-blow opening, dodging and leaping projectiles, and luring the boss somewhere where you can actually hit them before getting a blow off. Bosses are, naturally, a bundle of hit points, so this can take a while.

Okay, so we can cross the Warrior and Wildling off the “enjoyable to play” list in the very first area (The second area’s bosses seem to actively punish melee users.) What about the two ranged classes, the Rogue and the Mage? Well, as mentioned, while, previously, the Rogue’s dagger could avoid in-level enemy damage a lot of the time, and generally do well in the damage race due to sheer speed, the bow remains, as explored in the previous Early Access review, a case of “Draw for a second, release… Do as much damage as a single sword blow, maybe as much as a heavy axe on a crit. Enemy must be in shortish range from you, good luck avoiding those fireballs/poison globules.” It’s not often I say this, but the Mage, weak as their starting “weapon” is (a staff with a limited number of charges, charging by, er… hitting the enemy with its weak, slow attack), is a good choice, as they have some short range spells that do decent damage, relatively quickly… But, again, your starting attack relies on the enemy being nearby and in front of you, which, with fireballs and the like, isn’t a good idea, and it’s very much potluck if you get, for example, Frost Nova, a spell that has a chance of freezing the enemy for a vital few seconds.

DRAGON uses NOT ON SAME Y AXIS. It’s SUPER EFFECTIVE.

So far, I’ve described something unenjoyable, if not tedious. But wait, it gets better! It’s pretty dark, unless you have certain items (random drop chance), and instakill or damaging traps await, such as spikes (instadeath if you fall, or are knocked onto them, with the saving grace that enemies are also killed by them. Not bosses though), blockfall traps (mostly, thankfully, easy to spot once you know how, but still an occasional killer when, say, concentrating on an enemy), and worms (invincible until they attack, somewhat hard to see at times.) Want a heavier, more damaging weapon? Congratulations, you’ve found an axe, or a hammer, both of which… Are slow as hell, and have a minimum range on their hitbox. With melee enemies pretty much all rushing you as best they can.

In a way, it’s intriguing to me that a game can be so actively designed against its player characters, but alas, this has the side-effect that, for all that there may well be interesting things in the third dungeon area, for all that there may be new things to see, I most likely never will. Because the game is released, and I am so very done with it.

Goodbye, Vagante. I will fondly remember the time you had an option that wasn’t a tedious time.

Hrm. Big open area. 55 HP. Yup, I confidently predict I’m going to die, here on the first level.
And you’re probably as sick of seeing the Dragon now as I am.

The Mage is now seemingly the most viable class. I’d like that to sink in for a second.

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Mercenary Kings Reloaded (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Sometimes, I’ll freely admit, reviewing can get a little odd. But when given the opportunity to compare a game’s experience both before and after a major free update, it’s an interesting window into game updates that would normally be reserved for Early Access releases.

That doesn’t, unfortunately, mean I particularly get along with Mercenary Kings, even after its Reloaded update. But in some areas, I can definitely see improvement, and I see this as a good thing, overall. Let’s get into it.

Big, lumbering… Does a hell of a lot of damage if it hits you though!

Mercenary Kings is a 2D platforming shooter with quite a few elements that are inspired by the gameplay of Monster Hunter and its ilk. Several repeatable missions in areas that expand as you get further toward the end of each chapter, with random drops from a set pool that depends on the enemy or, in the cases of boxes, on the mission itself. Said drops, along with the money reward, goes into unlocking or buying kit, skills, and usable items, which make your pretty damage and defense numbers go up, allowing you to fight bigger and nastier things… With the caveat that really big numbers tend to have a tradeoff, like weapons being heavy enough that you can’t run or jump nearly as well, for example. Mostly, getting through is a combination of knowing enemy patterns, good item usage, and picking your fights.

Thing is, flow becomes very important in such a game, and, before the Reloaded update, the early game flow was painful, at best. Certain enemies (Shield Joes, Pyros, and Drillerillas, for example) felt more like living roadblocks than an organic part of the experience, hard to avoid even with the lightest of equipment, and equally annoying to kill without damage, and, beyond the weapons, early game progress was slow.

Right is, in this case, the safer choice. This drill kills bullets.

Aesthetically, the game was (and is) strong, with the one notable exception being Empress (the original woman character) being… Well, an Escher Girl in her title appearance. Otherwise, the spritework’s good and clear, and the music is reminiscent of quite a few nostalgic treats, mostly platformers and shooters (The camp music, for some reason, reminds me of Blake Stone, an old Apogee published first person shooter. Maybe it’s the sound font.)

Has the Reloaded update improved this? Somewhat. The aforementioned roadblock enemies still feel like roadblocks, and are still somewhat annoying, but the weapon updates and balancing has definitely improved things, even if the early game flow remains a little slow and grindy. The two new characters are a welcome addition, as is objectives clearly being shown on the map (Something I don’t recall before Reloaded. Happy to be corrected if it was the case previously, and I just didn’t see it.) The bosses are mostly pretty interesting, even if I quickly saw the base enemies as a chore, rather than a challenge, or source of enjoyment, and seeing various new knives and guns is always a pleasure to my monster huntin’ mind.

*Sinks to his knees, fists clenched to the sky* GATHERING MISSSSIOOOONNSSSS!!!

As a platformer shooter, Mercenary Kings Reloaded feels a little slow (unless you have the sprinter upgrade), a little grindy at first, but it has taken steps to make its early game a little more friendly, and this is one of the few times where I will say “It Gets Better.” It’s no Contra, no quick, twitchy game this (Although some bosses do require a good handle on movement and dodging), and 4 player multiplayer definitely helps when you have friends to play with… But, as mentioned, despite its influences, it’s sadly not my cup of tea. Regardless of my opinion, though, I will state: The Reloaded update is an improvement. Respect for that.

The Mad Welshman killed 23 CLAW soldiers to make this review. It would only have been 7, but fabric drops were low on the mission he was on.

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