Drifting Lands (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99 (£18.78 with soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

The continued existence of the scrolling shoot-em-up is a minor pleasure to me. There’s just something cathartic about holding down a button, and spaceships blow up. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but blowing things up is definitely the most relaxing part of the experience. And, spoiled 30 something brat that I am, I sometimes think I want more ways of blowing people than I’ve gotten.

Pictured: A fairly killy, speedy ship, which certainly won’t get into trouble around Grade 3/10 with my fat fingers. Nope, definitely not…

This is definitely not to say that Drifting Lands is a bad game. It’s actually quite good. I just wish there was more to it in some places. So, what’s different about the game? Equipment slots on your ship, each of which have pretty numbers that may help or hinder you. You want most of those numbers to go up as you go along, such as more Damage Per Second on your guns, more Armour, Health, Shield and Health Regeneration, and other such things. And you want certain numbers, such as “Chance for [item] to Break on [Manual/Automatic] Retreat” or “Chance for Cargo to be Lost [even if you win the ‘mission’]” to stay low. It’s a credit to the game that this is nowhere near as intimidating as I perhaps make it sound. It’s not the only different thing about Drifting Lands compared to other shmup type experiences, but that, and the fact that waves of enemies are picked from a list for each level and area randomly, that the game helpfully tells you how many waves are left at the top, and that the difficulty slowly increases as the game goes on with the addition of mechanics like revenge bullets (The ship you shot releases bullets on exploding, usually straight at you), are all interesting features.

There’s quite a bit of variety in the kit, and while I’d like to say “Go for the weapon you like the pattern of, and stick with it”, the game disincentivises that by virtue of the fact that some weapons will always have a lower damage among peers of their respective levels (Shotguns and Lasers, for example, suffer, compared with the Trident and Double Cannon, which, relatively consistently, outdamage them.) Also, y’know, that weapon you want to get the next hotness of might not have your +X Navigation, meaning its Damage is even lower than you’d think.

Pictured: Ignonimous defeat.

Still, once you get into the missions, it’s joyously simple again, although it becomes more bullet-hell like as you rank up in grades: Shoot things, use your special abilities to kill more things, dodge bullets, maybe fight a boss or a Convoy Mission (Kill X enemy type before the end), and don’t die. My current favourites, ability wise, are a ring of fire, a back and fore blast that kills things in a straight line, another kind of blast that kills things in a circle around me quicker than the fire ring will, healing, the chance to get more money the bigger the kill streak I can line up, and the thing I’ll probably never ditch, the Automatic Retreat, stopping you from losing your ship if you die, at the cost of the things you picked up during the mission, and maybe some of your niftier equipment.

There’s also a story to the game, and while it’s a little cliché (The Ark, sole independent survivors, fight religious zealots, corporations, robots, etc, while their main pilot (that’s you) seem to make poor decisions), it’s fairly well written and characterfully voice acted cliché with a moderately diverse cast. The music’s good, the art is very good, so honestly…

You can almost *see* the slime dripping off this guy. You can definitely *hear* it when he talks.

…If you don’t mind twitch gameplay, where your reflexes will save the day, if you can get along with the fact that your favourite weapon types won’t always be available, if you can get along with the fact that the game’s enemies start throwing serious bullet, laser, and explosive shit at you by Grade 3 out of 10 (And it presumably gets nastier), then this might very well be a game you want to check out, for experimenting with the shmup formula in interesting, if not always fun ways. I still like it, flaws and all, so thumbs up from m-

EEEEEE, DAMN YOU, THIRD BOSS, DAMN YOU AND YOUR WAVES OF FURYYYY!

Diluvion (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99 (£18.99 for Fleet Edition)
Where To Get It: Humble StoreGOGSteam

The sea is a harsh mistress. She is also, in Diluvion, a strangely empty one. Unless you count pirate ships, of which there are plenty.

Thankfully, at this range, it’s almost impossible to miss. The day is mine!

Let’s step back a bit: Diluvion is a submarine adventurey simulation type thing, in which you pick one of three ships, eventually upgrading to better ones that can go deeper, picking up crew and having adventures as you go.

There’s just one problem: It’s not very intuitive, and it doesn’t feel all that rewarding. It is, without doubt, pretty. When you find an ice block, several times bigger than your sub, or an abandoned research station surrounded by mines, you can’t help but wonder at the stories. But, even with the landmarks, those stories are mostly one liners, and most of what you’ll be seeing, even if you work out how to efficiently use the faster currents to get around, is murky dankness, filled with the bacteria and dead flesh of the ocean, the marine snow.

Not the shiniest landmark. But still an *impressive* landmark, considering…

The main thing that comes to mind with Diluvion is that yes, it’s a fairly open world, but it’s an open world without a whole lot to do. The first main quest (Upgrading the sub) is effectively an extended fetch quest, asking you to find scrap (Which is the easiest, being common, and ammunition for your main guns aside), reinforced plates (Seemingly only found in a minefield, because this is a post-apocalypse), engine parts (Seemingly, again, only found in certain areas), some blackberries (God knows how they’re grown, but I’ve also found Ferns and Daisies, so… Good job?), and a morse radio (Again, found… Somewhere. Somewhere I haven’t been yet.) Meanwhile, most of what this entails is docking with abandoned research stations, Loot Spheres (No, really, that’s what they’re called), pirate ships you’ve attacked, hunting around a hand drawn 2d representation of the thing you docked with for chests, and looting the buggers. Occasionally, there will be a crew member to hire (Including, weirdly, in the pirate ships you cripple with your scrap cannons), a trader, or an event hidden behind a door, itself gated by whether you have a crew member (Who you will potentially lose) and a crowbar (Which you will definitely lose, regardless.)

Again, these… Just blend into each other, to be honest, the majority not even being noticeable, let alone memorable. Crazed crewman to calm down was the most common one I saw, along with “There is a loot chest here, but it’s dangerous to get, maybe a crewman will help!” Meanwhile, Lady with Party Hat seems to get about a lot faster than I do, being seen in multiple places, at multiple times, sometimes even in the same building. Sometimes she’ll be running a bed and breakfast. Sometimes, she’s got absolutely nothing to say. Sometimes she’s a crafter of charms, which, due to the strange world, actually have an effect. But she is Lady with Party Hat, and unfortunately, you can tell me no different.

Good Heavens, they’re *multiplying* o.O

There is an over-arching story to this, by the way, something about a treasure, with everything unknown but its rough location (Very Deep Underwater), that apparently will make Everything Alright… But, for all that there are excellent ship designs, and the buildings are interesting, the sameness of a lot of the ones you encounter dulls the overall experience. It’s interesting, in its way, how a first quest can really mess up an experience. There are interesting things to find, and I’ve mentioned a few (Another would be the Angry Captain. Poor feller’s driven himself into an electricity pylon, and needs to make the cash to get towed), but despite seeing these things, I’m bored, and this big ol’ fetch quest is a big part of that.

It doesn’t help that, as mentioned, it’s somewhat unintuitive, and a little bugged to boot. When entering the settings, mouse sensitivity and the window size aren’t remembered between sittings (Occasionally causing swearing as Apply resizes beyond what I was comfortable with), the crew end up being pretty numbers, and applying them is odd, combat depends upon you remembering turret position, and just because something is a landmark, doesn’t always mean its a checkpoint. To be perfectly fair, dying is not a big problem, as you can reload from the last checkpoint just fine, but switching between 2d captain mode (For talking to crew, boarding ships, etc) and the main 3d mode is annoying at best, and, even with the addition of a slowdown function to switch crew between stations in combat, frustrating at worst.

Tonnesburg is, so long as you look around, a surprisingly lovely place. You will be coming back here. A fair bit.

I can see Diluvion being perfectly fine if you go into it with the right mindset, aware of the grind and just wanting to chill out, spend some time. It does, as noted, definitely have its pretty side. There was obvious attention paid to the aesthetics, there’s obviously a world out there. But it’s not really for me. If you want a chill submarine time, then I don’t think you could go far wrong with Diluvion. But if you want something a little spicier, quicker, and a little less grindy, I definitely wouldn’t blame you.

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.

Caves of Qud (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It:
Steam


It perhaps says something, whether about me, or the design of Caves of Qud, that I hadn’t actually noticed it was still in Early Access. “Oh, I haven’t gotten to this fellow yet!”

“That’s because we hadn’t put him in yet.”

Before you go thinking this is a bad sign, I’d like you to take a look at this map. This map is, as far as I am aware, entirely explorable, although certain areas are more deadly than others. It’s just, right now, there’s only a few quest lines, and you have to explore to find more than two of them, or, indeed, some of the other odd sights of the game.

Pretty much all of this is explorable. Each "tile" here appears to be about three screens wide/high. That's a lot of screens.

Pretty much all of this is explorable. Each “tile” here appears to be about three screens wide/high. That’s a lot of screens.

Good example, on my last run, I was curious about a fish, just sitting there in the open. Turns out it was a trader, and a pretty good one at that. So yes, this is emblematic of how Caves of Qud is meant to be played: Carefully, and with attention paid both to the in-game manual and the surroundings. Especially since even the starting areas are a threat. So let’s talk about the various early-games of Timot, Mutated Human Tinker.

Timot, in all of the universes we are about to discuss, knows how to move, has a stinger on his back with paralyzing venom, glows in the dark, and is strangely muscled for one of his slight stature. He has learned a secret of the ancient mechanisms of Qud (Usually, it must be said, some form of grenade or other easily understood weapon), and can make them if he has the materials (Again, he usually has enough to make at least one.) His story always starts in Joppa, a small village with a food problem, a Zealot of the Six Day Stilt (an anti-machine cult… The Zealot seldom survives), an irascible tinker named Argyve (Who Timot invariably makes friends with, by trading some of his gear with), a trader of the Dromad people (Camel like merchants), and several chests (Which Timot loots. So don’t feel bad about his many deaths, Timot is not a nice person. So few are in Qud.)

A Qudzu field. Qudzu, in this game, is even nastier than normal. It rusts things. And it *wants* to rust things close to it...

A Qudzu field. Qudzu, in this game, is even nastier than normal. It rusts things. And it *wants* to rust things close to it…

Even here, there is potentially death. In some universes, Timot is interrupted in his thievery by Ctephius, a glowing ray-cat, and the villagers’ justice is swift. Rarely, the Zealot is triumphant, and Timot’s corpse feeds the water giving vinewafers. But Timot soon sets off, either to the Rust Plains, to gather copper wire for Argyve’s communication device, or to the caves to the north, to deal with Joppa’s food problem.

To the east, canyons and caves. To the north, however, the universes diverge more readily. Sometimes, a road bisects the vinewafer marshes Timot tramps through. Sometimes, Timot encounters ruins of the ancients, with their defenses still active, and larger, nastier creatures. All too often, Timot has cried “I have found this ancient device, and divined its meaning, it is a fine weapon, and no-URK” , as the Chitinous Puma he hadn’t noticed, or foolishly ignored, eviscerated him. Yes, even on the way to one of the first quests, creatures vastly more powerful than you can be encountered, and you can’t always run away in time. Other things only look tough, thankfully.

In another set of universes still, a vast fungus or slime field lies between Timot and his goal of Red Rock. These also have potential for good or ill, as the Weeps of the fungal fields, long forgotten biological tools of the ancients, create many substances, whether water-spoiling salt, black welling oil, life giving water, and sometimes, stranger substances, such as acids, cider, wine, honey, and even, in one case, lava. But guarding those Weeps are the fungi themselves, infecting any who dare to come close with their own unique brand of fungal infection, from the relatively benign Glowcrust to the more annoying Azurepuff.

An extremely good example of the more dangerous Weeps. That creature is about to learn that no, dousing yourself in a river immediately after dousing yourself in lava is not a solid survival strategy...

An extremely good example of the more dangerous Weeps. That creature is about to learn that no, dousing yourself in a river immediately after dousing yourself in lava is not a solid survival strategy…

This is all before Timot even reaches Red Rock, although he could bypass a lot of this by virtue of quick travel. But then, why would he, when the rewards can be so grand? Admittedly, a lot of the time, it’s food, or basic weaponry to trade in exchange for items, trade goods such as copper nuggets, or that combination of lifegiver and basic currency, water. But a single Water Weep, especially early on, is the stuff of mercantile legend, and the canny (or lucky) explorer can find lost technology, from grenades of various sorts, to utility devices like those poorly understand teleportation devices, the Recoilers, all the way to the truly strange, such as symbiotic fireflies, spheres of negative weight, or the fabled gaslight weaponry, elegant and lethal symbols of forgotten glory.

Of course, death also comes in many forms to the unwary, and the game is not the friendliest to begin with. It’s definitely a game where reading the in-game help is highly recommended, and, while the alternate overlay mostly reduces clutter, I find it far more useful to use the older stat/message overlay, turning it off to reduce clutter when I’m not in a dangerous situation, and holding ALT to more clearly see certain terrain features (Trash, mostly.) Sadly, the alternate button overlay is somewhat cluttered itself, obscuring several portions of the screen.

Still, that there’s enough in the game already to explore and wonder at that I completely missed the fact an important NPC hadn’t been introduced until last week speaks well of the game, and roguelike fans may do well by themselves for checking it and its mostly readable tileset out. They’ll certainly find quite a few stories waiting for them.

...Stories such as Morookat, The Spiteful Thief and his Fiery End.

…Stories such as Morookat, The Spiteful Thief and his Fiery End.

The Mad Welshman looked around after he closed the door. Nobody, good. He opened the Joppa villager’s chest, grinning as he saw steel and water. And then he heard it. “Mrow?”

Fuck. The Cat had found him.

Duskers (Release Review)

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

Erik Johnson, one of the Misfits Attic team on Duskers, stated When I created Duskers it was really around a feeling: of being alone in the dark, of isolation, of being surrounded by old gritty tech that could only give you a partial picture about what’s going on around you, like the motion sensor that goes off, but doesn’t tell you exactly what’s out there. I like the idea of needing to rely on that tech, and the claustrophobia and isolation that would cause.”

Every single one of these ships is devoid of its original crew. Every one is deadly.

Every single one of these ships is devoid of its original crew. Every one is deadly.

He’s not wrong, and Duskers is an interesting game that somewhat defies easy genre labelling. But hot-damn, am I grateful the difficulty is so customisable, because with all the options on, it’s tense, and death, or rather, being left without your drones, is quite easy.

Storywise, it’s simple: You are possibly the last human being left alive, and you want to both survive… And know why, how it happened. All you have is a small drone salvage ship, with a (mostly) full complement of drones, and your wits. Good luck with that!

What this means, however, is that you are controlling a variety of drones, none of which see overly clearly, through an easy to learn text interface and HUD. You can directly control the movement of a single drone with the arrow keys, but for everything else, it’s commands like “Navigate 2 r4” (Move drone 2 to room 4) or “Motion 1” (Use drone 1’s motion tracker, because another drone I brought along also has one), with some easter egg messages available using the “Run” command (For example: Run twirlygig)

Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, and the game is like a puzzle. But the older the ship, the larger the threats that loom, and the less time you have to react to them. And often, it presents you with tough and interesting decisions. For example, spacing threats is, especially with radiation turned off, an option… Once you’ve discovered them. And there are three and a half ways to discover a threat: Motion trackers, which don’t always work; Sensors, which require you to place them; Stealth, which doesn’t always work; And, of course, them discovering you. Which is bad. Very bad.

The red blinky is bad. But a bad I *know* about. And thus a bad I could *possibly* deal with.

Map view, where we see some sensors, the sensors picking up someone bad, and the remains of one of my drones. SOD.

At the beginning of the game, you will have, at most, two and a half of these options. And maintaining all of them once you get them is asking for a “Reset”, which, on the one hand, keeps your objective progress and logs collected. On the other, it puts you back in the original ship, with starter drones, and the threats discovered remain as well.

If a ship is cleared of enemies, it can be commandeered, sometimes allowing for greater Scrap storage (The currency of the game, and the only means of keeping your upgrades active for more than a few missions at a time), more ship upgrade slots (Which give you more responses to situations), a few ship specific upgrades (Such as the Military Ship’s cannon, which will kill everything in a room… At the cost of permanently opening it to space), and better fuel storage (Allowing you to travel further without jumping to another system.) There’s also a lot of options, and all of them have a help command that explains their function. It makes for a lot of choices when you get a good run going, and it’s interesting to see the developers do a lot with a little.

However, that doesn’t mean the game is perfect. I’ve often said no game is, and there are things that could possibly be worked on. The reset option takes a lot of the sting out of failing a boarding, losing nearly everything, and that’s a good thing… But it, along with the procedural nature of the universe, means the game slows down a fair bit when you get to the third or fourth sets of objectives in the various disaster questlines, due to needing specific tools or places. Right now, for example, I have to find a specific class of ship, with at least the “pry” or “teleport” tools, preferably a turret and some mines, and destroy all threats within it without turning the ship’s power on. Even if the ship is found, that’s a fair bit of setup, and you can only visit a ship once.

...I can't see where I'm going. Crap.

…I can’t see where I’m going. Crap.

Similarly, there is no colour blind support for this game, as, while most of the drone colour schemes are thought out nicely, some make the drones unplayable, perhaps even to folks who see colour better than I do. Dark brown on black, for example, is a terrible idea, and dark red on black, similarly, isn’t great. Thankfully, those are relatively rare, but it would be nice if they’d vanish entirely in a later patch, for the sake of everyone’s eyeballs.

But, while you may be thinking that graphically, this doesn’t look like a whole lot for £14.99, there’s a lot under the hood, and I find myself coming back to it, wanting to know… What red button did they push? Was it machinery out of control? A super AI? A galactic war? Maybe they found something that somehow killed us all on its lonesome? What’s the real secret?

So if you like procedurally generated games, mysteries, puzzles, and a little bit of existential horror, perhaps give this one a go. It seems barebones at first, but there’s definitely some interesting things being done with this game, such as allowing you to continue the story even if you “died.” And, when you think the mystery’s been solved with this one, try a clean save, see if it’s any different. I ruled out Grey Goo, for example, let me know if you did too!

Tim took out its electronic frustrations before a security bot did the same.

Tim took out its electronic frustrations before a security bot did the same.

The Mad Welshman sighed as Abby’s microphone picked up the telltale synthetic drone… Checking his shipscan, he grinned. The room was worthless, and bordered on an airlock. “NOT THE BEES”, he cried with glee as he violently flipped the “LOCK OVERRIDE” switch.