Jack B. Nimble (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £1.99
Where to Get It: Steam

Sometimes, you get a pitch that you just can’t ignore. “Canabalt meets Castlevania” is, let’s face it, one hell of an elevator pitch, and that’s precisely how Jack B. Nimble was presented to me. An endless runner, but with a Castlevania-esque, whippy twist.

Why yes. I would like to hear more.

Ahh, good old Londinium, capital of Roman vampires, werewolves, and assorted succubi. Good party town.

And so I did. And… While it mostly works, that “mostly” is slightly annoying. So, let’s mention the good, because there’s a fair amount of it. The game can be played with one button (space) , one button (left click on the mouse), or, if you’re a smart aleck like me, played with two buttons (space and the left click.) Pressing it once while on the ground either hops or leaps, depending on the length you press, while pressing it in the air whips. This is important, because both the number of candles whipped, and the accuracy of your whip cracks figures into your score. The game’s help screen quite helpfully shows the formula as Distance x Number of Candles x Accuracy Percentage. So, for example, surviving 1040m, and whipping 22 out of 24 candles would get me 20973 points (1040 x 22 x 91% and some change.) Speed goes up over time, some things slow you down, some things speed you up, missing a jump kills you dead, hitting an obstacle kills you dead. Nice and easy.

Visually, the game is on point: A four colour palette, similar to the Game-Boy it’s so obviously inspired by, clear pixel visuals, and the stages look, apart from the fact there’s no stairs, and only one… cough… BAT (Restraining myself there) that flies by when you lose, like Castlevania stages. Add in unlockable characters, most punning on either Jack or Jill (Jack Frost, Jack O Lantern, Jill Nimble, as early examples) , and visually, the mood is spot on.

It may not look it, but… Nailed it.

So, it’s accessible while also being challenging, as Endless Runners generally are. So far so good. Now come the bits that aren’t gamebreakers, but are annoyances and niggles.

Musically, the game sticks to its chosen theme of “Castlevaniaesque” for two of the six stages for sure, and then goes for more generic, arcade platformer tunes for the third and fourth. As noted, it’s not a gamebreaker, but it’s a tonal shift that messes with the mood, and I’m not the biggest fan, even though the tunes for the third and fourth stages are not, in and of themselves, bad chiptunes. Alas, I can’t tell you about the fifth stage at the time of review, because, at the time of writing, I have yet to beat my current scores on any of the four stages (sub 500k with the exception of the first stage, in which I have 600k and some change), and, to unlock the fifth, I need to earn 500k minimum per level. For the sixth, that rises somewhat, to 800,000 per stage (for a total of 2 million and 4 million respectively.) So, unfortunately, I can’t really tell you if it gets that mood back.

Similarly, there are some niggles mechanically and visually, in that it the controls are precise enough that my run most commonly runs into two problems: Whipping because I hadn’t precisely landed on the floor, and thus faceplanting into whatever the pit of death is for the stage, landing on a crate and not being able to jump because I landed wrong… Cue faceplant, and, most heartbreaking of all, whipping as I try to leap off a crate, still successfully leaping, but knowing that I have to work harder to get that higher score. Again, not a dealbreaker, but it does happen, and it is annoying.

WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO EMULATE THE WONDERSWAN…

Finally, there’s the part I would just like to be a different colour scheme. You see, every now and again, IT IS A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE (Remember that old chestnut?) and the colour scheme is replaced by… Crimson and Black. Aka the colour of the Wonderswan, aka “The Curse of Colourblind Unfriendliness From Satan’s Unwashed Posterior.” I don’t mind curses, but colourblind unfriendliness is, as longtime readers may know, a thing I bang on about.

Otherwise, though, Jack B. Nimble is a lighthearted, pretty accessible game that wears its retro sensibilities on its sleeve, without that retro bullshittery, and with an interesting addition to the otherwise basic formula of the Endless Runner. Which is nice, I like to see more of that!

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, or Jack will never beat his personal best and unlock new colours for his universe. WHIP AND JUMP, PEON, WHIP AND JUMP.

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Hot Lava! (Early Access Review)

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

Saying the words “First Person Platforming” is, in the majority of cases, a phrase to make one shudder. It’s rarely replied to politely, and, while there have been good games with first person platforming and movement elements, they’re rare enough that, for the most part, they don’t go down well.

Not pictured: The fifteen other attempts to get the sub 5 minute star, the buckets of sweat dumped over me, the grunts of EFFORT and the Body English. Also that this is a still of the middle of a series of jumps that take about a second, maybe a second and a half.

So it’s perhaps a good start for me to say that the most shudderworthy part of Hot Lava, a game that entirely revolves around first person platforming, was its attempt at a Saturday Morning Cartoon theme, and the lampshady humour about SatAm writing. Also the really thin poles, but we’ll get to those.

From what I can tell, the story of the game, such as it is, is that you’re a child with a highly active imagination (Who, as in my childhood, seems to be going through an “Imaginary self” phase), who is playing “The Floor Is Lava” , that game where the whole point isn’t to touch the carpet or flooring, because if you do… If you doooo… You’re sooooo dead. Because the floor is lava!

Now add in a score mechanic, collectibles, fake loot boxes bought with in-game currency, character customisation of your Action-Man jointed avatars, time-trial leaderboards, a pogo stick for some challenges, and a whole host of tricks and traps that could conceivably be how a child would imagine the danker and hidden parts of the school (like the ventilation being filled with deadly fans and crusher traps), and you have Hot Lava in its present, Early Access state.

Guess who gets the Boy Aquaman(TM) Short End of the Stick? #GiveSueNamiAChanceHackWriters

Aesthetically and accessiblity wise, insofar as a game about, basically, speedrunning a first person platforming level is pretty good. I never outright failed to notice something I could (in theory) jump to, there’s a checkpoint marker that is, unfortunately, not often all that useful, but it is there, and clear to boot, I had no problems with menu options or colourblindness issues, and things that can be swung from or grappled are highlighted well. The controls are, at their basic level, pretty simple: Tap space to jump, WASD to move, you control your jump mainly by mouse direction, rather than strafing, and you automatically grab anything that you can grab and have successfully reached.

Of course, for the “Pros” (ARGH) , there are tricks like perfect jump timing, a variation on Quake Bunny Hopping (If you jump, and both strafe and turn in a direction, then jump with the right rhythm, alternating directions, your momentum increases. A lot), and other such shenanigans. Oh, and a hidden comic and golden pin somewhere in the level, further cementing that one of the inspirations here (Beyond the child-to-tween-hood of a 30-40 something) is the Tony Hawks series. Or maybe Dave Mirra Pro BMX…

Scratch that, I have very unfond memories of playing the latter. In any case, the game, overall, feels alright, and you quickly get into the rhythm, except for the times you’re lost (The game relies on replay, so that’s less of a sin than you’d think), the times the way forward is awkward (Such as in the Ventilation Tunnels Of Crushing and Fanblades) , and… Thin rods that you have to jump on. The first person equivalent of “Pixel perfect platforming”, I despise them so, and am grateful that their somewhat easier to deal with cousin, Thin Rods You Can Jump On And Run Across, don’t have a tightrope or grind balance mechanic to – that is not a suggestion, Klei Entertainment… koff… Just to clarify.

Unlike either 80s playsets or loot boxes, the playsets of Hot Lava don’t ask for your blood, soul, money, or grandparents. All you need is to play. Plaaaaay. Plaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy!

As much as it feels odd to say this, Hot Lava… Looks promising. And this, funnily enough, is why I didn’t delay this review until the second area (Billed for about a week after the review hits) arrived… Because, even at this early stage, it’s oddly fun. With the exception of the SatAm theme… Sorry, folks, I know some SatAm themes were abominable, but that’s no excuse, dammit!

The Mad Welshman, overall, recommends this. The lava has told him it will eat all his favourite socks if he doesn’t. Joke’s on the lava, he likes the game anyway, and never mastered the art of wearing matching pairs.

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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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