Going Back – Dungeon Manager Zombie Vital 1 and 2

Ahhh, the dungeon management genre, how I love it so. Defeating those righteous do-gooders with the promise of treasure, and maybe even a fellow dungeon owner that doesn’t agree with my platform of Mine, Mine, Mine. Which makes Dungeon Manager ZV 1 and 2 somewhat interesting, as the two games take very different approaches to, effectively, the same subject.

One problem for a reviewer is that it can sometimes be hard to get timing down. For example, there *was* a King Slime, and a powerful one, in that middle square. There isn’t now. And soon, those red dots will reach my boss. Dammit.

Dungeon Manager Zombie Vital Edition (to use its full name) hit the Western world in October 2015 (It had originally been developed in 2004), and… Well, it’s a game where the options expand as you play, but you’d be forgiven, for playing the game for an hour or two, to think that there was little beyond building rooms, watching heroes come in, and then they go and do whatever the heck they want, occasionally dying, occasionally leaving, and always, always aiming for the final treasure in your dungeon and the death of your boss monsters. If the last treasure in the dungeon goes, whoops, you’ve lost.

Thing is, there’s actually a lot more that can be done than the first, near-surface level game implies, and here comes both the draw and the problem of DMZV in general: Because it isn’t terribly clear at times, you’ll make mistakes on your first run, mistakes you won’t always be able to correct, and won’t always be made clear as mistakes until hours later, when the Big Boys of herodom come and play. Although there are multiple saves, that’s a lot of either work or faffing around that’s going down the drain.

This is a very un-optimal first level. Although, to be fair, those two slimes are the only two to have survived past heroes achieving level 3 to date.

Equally, there is an optimal play considering you always have a 3×3 grid to play with on each floor, and any room connects with every other adjacent room: One long path filled with your heavier monsters, nastier traps, and the like… And one, very short path, filled only with monsters beneath the notice of the groups you encounter, leading straight to your final boss. And you have to make it clear the difference in difficulty from the first room, as groups only judge where to go by adjacent rooms. The more heroes you kill, the more you let some vital few escape to tell the tale (having been satisfied by murdering some of yours, or defeating your traps… All the better to lure bigger, better heroes in), the more you can do. At first, it’s only traps, capped at the dungeon level you’re in, and some simple monsters. But once those monsters level up, you can merge them, making new, nastier monsters. You can change the elements of floors, giving advantage to certain types. You find Dragon Eggs. And, of course, treasures can change things up too.

Unfortunately for DMZV1, there is somewhat of a flaw: Very quickly, certain monsters are outpaced, so it becomes tougher to level them up so you can get them to be able to meld with other monsters. Also, time will proceed unless you’re holding down the CTRL key or have set it to Freeze, so keeping track of everything, even on slow, can become a slog. As such, while DMZV1 is interesting, it’s also a deeply, deeply unfriendly game.

Ah, how right you are, random Dungeon Invader. [finishes another review, sits back with a smile]

DMZV2, on the other hand, changes the formula. It’s still, at its heart, a tower defense game, but now it has puzzle elements, sprites and tiles, and a friendlier interface. The general idea is still the same: Monsters, it seems, are getting a lot of stick, and the Lord of Dungeons is beseeched to create a dungeon so deadly, so alluring, that it will bring even the king of the land to it, to be murdered horrribly as vengeance for all those cute slimes being murdered. Dungeon features are unlocked in a main campaign mode consisting of, well, puzzles. How do we stop the adventurers from taking the objective in the time allotted to us? With fireballs, traps, and a succubus who is not terribly good at hand to hand, but can summon zombies (Remember, the ZV stands for Zombie Vital!), and shoot rather nasty magic, so long as the ghostly power of heroes who were satisfied until we killed them horribly lasts out (Obviously, we get that ghostly power by satisfying their needs, then murdering them horribly before they can leave. Priorities, folks, priorities!)

It is, so far, my favourite of the series, because, although the unlocking of features to use in the Create A Dungeon mode is through the campaign, that extension of DMZV1 and Resurrection’s “You get more things to play with the more you play”, it has selectable difficulty (indeed, Easy is mandatory the first time), the ability to go back, and the sound and visuals are less straining on a nice long game. It’s also, to my mind, the most characterful of the three, with at least some heroes introducing themselves, the sprites having their own character, and, sometimes, the black humour in levels. One of the early easy levels has you doing… Well, exactly nothing. The dungeon’s set up pretty much perfectly, and it harms your ability to murder folks to interfere with a trap setup that catapults heroes in laps round the dungeon until they die from impact damage.

And it’s not about you adventurers either, that go round and around and arou-

Finally, to my knowledge, this is the only game in the series with an expansion, released earlier this year. A fairly cheap one, too, with extra puzzle dungeons, 10 extra items, and second sets of transformations of monsters into better, nastier forms for, around £3. In fact, both of the first games and the expansion comes to just over £13 for all three in a bundle. It’s pretty reasonable, although DMZV1 and the newly released (and separately reviewed) Resurrection both involve making mistakes that you may not notice for an hour or two. Try them out if you like to see interesting experiments with dungeon management games.

Dungeon Manager Zombie Vital 1 is available on Steam here, and DMZV2 here. Both pages have a link to the bundle.

Princess Maker 3 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99
Where to Get It: Steam

Well, this is technically a Going Back, but, since the game has now been released in the West, localised where previously it… Wasn’t, it’s in one of those interesting grey areas. Which, honestly, is a good segue into how I feel about Princess Maker 3 compared to Princess Maker 2. In places it giveth… And in others it taketh away…eth.

The Fairy Queen, both plot device and save/load feature.

Princess Maker 3, while by no means the most recent title in the series (I’m pretty sure we’re at 5 right now) is once again the tale of a single parent father figure who is given a small child by supernatural agency, and told to make them a Princess… Or at least, do the best they can. Just like the rest of the series, you do this by assigning study, work, and rest periods, buying things for your child, talking to them (Greeting to talk normally, Gentle to be uplifting, Strict to be stern), and generally really trying to earn that #1 Dad Coffee mug. Or pulling a Gendo Shinkicker, and raising your child badly. And yes, like other Princess Maker games, there are Bad Ends.

Beyond that, though, it feels very different, and, in some ways, a lesser game. Some of it, I’ll freely admit, is purely my own feeling. I don’t like the fairy butler, I’m used to Cube, the demonic butler. But other things are a lack of clarity. Wait, that’s the calendar? I added an entire year’s worth of study before I realised that what you’re actuallly doing is setting a week or two (hitting the B key to see how it affects your Budget in the calendar screen), swapping between the three categories, before finally hitting right click, watching it play out, and occasionally stopping things to have a heart to heart with my dear daughter. Who became a spoiled teenager. Although the achievements assure me she’s going to make a fine Southern Fairy Princess… Er, if I do some things it’s not told me about. Meanwhile, I liked that I could customise said Dad to more of an extent (now giving him a profession.)

Oh, damn, I missed the boat on a second Summer vacation!

Meanwhile, no more adventuring. It’s just working, studying, talking, and the addition for Princess Maker 3… Rivals. My darling girl is quite right to be weirded out by these individuals, one dimensional nerds whose only goal in life is to pick someone who seems to be about to best them in classes, pick on them until they either give up or are bested, and then, as a result of being bested, they… Become besties with my daughter? It’s very confusing. Part of this is because the game is less clear in how it presents information, part of it a general problem with lifesim games in general, which have not received as much designer attention and learning as other genres. And this is, after all, an older example of the genre.

It’s taken several years to build this building, but by god, we did it!

Is it a bad game? Not… Really. It does its job okay, it is, in some ways, a more focused game than Princess Maker 2, and in others, it’s a less clear game than the previous installment. I honestly hope that we see the rest of the series hit Steam, as, from a design standpoint, it is definitely an interesting game, in a largely underexplored genre. But it is definitely a game of its time still, and it shows, in accessibility issues such as hard to read text and unclear tooltips. So pretty much a straight port. As such, if you’re interested in lifesim games, go in with the caveat that this is, pretty much, a straight port of a game from 1997, with all this implies.

Academagia (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.99
Where To Get It: Steam

When it first came out, Academagia wowed people in the lifesim world with ripping yarns about life in a magical school. Now, the Steam version of Year 1 has hit, and the question has to be asked: How the heck is it?

Well, let’s get a thing out of the way first: If you do not like reading, then Academagia is not for you. Reading is, in fact, the majority of what you do in Academagia. And when you aren’t reading, you’re thinking of ways to have adventures while not skipping class, or what the heck to do. Because there’s a lot to explore, and considering a single playthrough can easily take a night away, it can at first be difficult to get into. It is not, it must be said, a terribly friendly game in a sense, as, while the character creation tries to explain things, it can often involve going back and forth between elements before finalising your character.

A swotty swot planning how to swot swottingly.

So this review is going to take the form of advice, if you like reading, how Academagia can be played a little more enjoyably.

Firstly, yes, you can go back and forth on character creation steps. You have points to spend on backgrounds and things, but you can go right back to stats if ideas present themselves. I often go for the Gift of Libraries, because I’m a swotty swot wot swots n wots, but you can be the child of a pirate, an athletic nobleman, the school gossip… There’s a lot of options, and at first it may seem like a mountain. Pick a path, get comfortable with it.

Read what things do as soon as you know about them. Academic success, for example, isn’t always dictated by the subject, but also by general exam discipline, knowledge in a secondary subject (Forging things, for example, is considered useful by Enchanters), and, of course, the odd spell to help you bone up.

The Steam version lets you resize and move panels. This is not advertised, but can be incredibly useful, especially when your specific resolution means that occasionally, it looks like you have a 0 in a subject, when actually, you’ve maxed it out.

He’s a *sneaky* little swot too, you can tell by the fact he’s maxed out his Glamour (Illusion) magic!

You have more options in dealing with a situation when you have a clique of friends (Kinda like a school gang, in a sense), but it’s by no means the only way forward, so if you feel like playing a loner bookworm (Hi), you can do so.

If you’re not a big fan of classical music, you can turn it off. Sadly, faces are pretty much set, and by college.

When it comes to skill chances, green text is good, blue is okay, black is 50/50, red is less than good, and purple is almost-no-chance. But just because it’s green… Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good choice. Sometimes a green choice is a “Get out of event” or “I choose to fail”, rather than a good thing.

So, essentially, that’s Academagia: There’s a lot of reading, but if you take your time with it, you can read a mostly charming, branching story involving a boy or a girl at a magical public school. I’ve fought pirates, settled arguments between ghosts, survived innumerable prankings (Including some jerky jerkface casting a love spell on someone I’d never met in school before… Asshole) , discovered the real history of the Day of Dragons, and, every now and again, seriously broken school laws and somehow gotten away with it. I’ve always had an exotic familiar, and sometimes, that’s been… Awwwh, not Craig!

Thankfully, my little swot’s familiar is Clarisse this time, a classy winged lady.

It’s okay. I’ll learn to appreciate him over my year in Academagia. I always bond well with my familiars. <3

Going Back – Adam Wolfe

Source: Review Copy
Price: £4.79 for Episode 1, £14.99 for all 4 episodes.
Where To Get It: Steam

It may come as a surprise that this is a going back, considering my long held opinions on the state of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures (Often bad with colourblindness, puzzles that make no sense in the context, extremely thin story that doesn’t have a great track record with treating women well, despite being marketed to said women for the most part), but this one, I feel, deserves it for, at the very least, being less egregious about it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the game is enjoyable. So let’s unpack that.

This is, surprisingly, not quite how it seems. And a reason why I’m somewhat fond of Episode 1.

Adam Wolfe is an episodic hidden object puzzle adventure game… Which seems to tend more toward the adventure end than the hidden object end. Why? Because every puzzle I’ve seen so far has context, even if the puzzles, on closer examination, can seem a little silly, and a few have colourblindness problems. Can’t win ’em all. The final episode was released in November 2016, and I was approached to review it last week.

Episode 1 is a pretty strong start in many respects. The only traditional hidden object puzzle is, amusingly enough, when Adam tips out the junk from moving (Including, for some reason, a pizza box… For shame, Adam!), and this is somewhat less traditional in that it has a strict order, as Adam recalls various things. Still keep only one item, but fine, like I said, can’t win ’em all. The rest are more like forensic puzzles, in which Adam uses a mysterrrrrious watch to try and recreate crime scenes. He doesn’t even get all of them right, in the end, which is a nice touch.

There is a reason, later on, I say this should have been spotted before release. No other episode does this. Also, the file is above the lockbox. See if you can spot it.

But Episode 2, sadly, brings things back to form with a hidden object puzzle where not only are objects, unlike the other episodes, clearly a little glitched (“I’m looking for a %FILE% to do the thing”), there is a puzzle where Adam Wolfe finds a variety of objects to try and open a small lockbox, before eventually settling on the only one that works, a hammer. Adam’s an ex-cop. Which makes this hidden object puzzle, again with its strict order, all the more heartbreakingly stupid and obvious padding. Oh, and that file wasn’t visible without a guide, another common problem with HOPA puzzles.

The rest of the episodes, though, seem fine, for a HOPA… And this is where I go back to a macro-view of the game, because it’s more important to clarify what goes well, what goes the same, and what’s flawed, to highlight that, for all its flaws, Adam Wolfe is a step forward in terms of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures. Firstly, the story, while another supernatural mystery, is specifically patterned after supernatural mystery shows, taking the episodic pacing cues from the genre, along with a more action based story which makes sense in the context. The cast gets less diverse from Episode 2 onwards, sadly, but considering how often HOPAs don’t really write characters well at all, especially women and folks of colour? I’m actually okay with this. I liked that the villains are all white men, effectively. I liked how most of the characters feel like people, and not just “Plot Device X” (I’m not saying all, but most. Some really are just there to be obstacles or exposition.)

Yes, there are still highly silly puzzle locks like this. But, again, they’re less egregious, and more often, this kind of symbol hunting is restricted to, for example, a ritual binding.

Similarly, it’s a step forward to limit the magical protagonist power that all HOPA protagonists seem to have (Never explained, never given context) to the magical end of things (Rituals, spectral signatures, bindings.) The puzzles still feel a bit silly, but they’re less silly than “Oh, hey, a drawing of a bat, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!” It’s good to see this experimentation, like “I need to collect things that make up one object”, rather than “I am going to collect all these things, and keep one object” (Which, sadly, still happens in Adam Wolfe too, but is at least sometimes given context. Baby steps.) Equally interesting to see are the QTE segments. Now, yes, QTEs can be good or bad, and Adam Wolfe’s are mostly in that middle ground of “Clunky, but entertaining”, but, again, this is a step forward. This is something new, being tried in a genre which, as a whole, prefers to crank out three a year of the same kind of thing.

Again, some of these puzzles could have been more clear (There’s rarely consequence for failure, but it does lead to some irritable clicking or mouse moving when no, you’re not told what to shoot, or you’re shown glowies when you’re actually meant to continue to shoot the bad time-wizard, or the like) and hints aren’t always helpful, but, in the end, here’s my summary of Adam Wolfe: For all that it still has some flaws of the HOPA genre at large, it experiments, it tries to emulate a genre of media and mostly succeeds, it tries to give puzzles context and change up the puzzle format and at least half succeeds, and it does enough interesting things that I am perfectly willing, despite my dislike of the HOPA genre’s stagnancy, to say that this game both deserves a playthrough, and this Going Back article. It’s not an amazing game. If it weren’t for episode 2’s highlighting of flaws and bugs that should have been noticed before release, I would say it was a “Highly enjoyable” game (In-between Good and Great, if you’re curious.) But it is by no means a bad game, and I would say that other HOPA developers, current and prospective, would want to look at Adam Wolfe and consider…

I couldn’t really leave this review without a screenshot of one of the fight sequences. Okay, yes, it’s not quite Super PunchOut. But it didn’t *feel* bad to play, and I am content with that.

“…Hey, this guy who dislikes HOPAs is saying the word ‘like’ more, maybe we should ask why?”

The Mad Welshman cannot peel hamburgers off adverts to feed his constant hunger, why should a HOPA protagonist have it any easier?

Going Back: Dungeon Hack

Goodness me, that rhymed. Lovely. Well, anyway, once again, it’s time to set the Wayback Machine, and the interesting game for this outing to the groggy times of yore is Dungeon Hack, the only official, licensed Dungeons and Dragons roguelike. Which is highly amusing when you consider how much early roguelikes (And even some modern ones) have been influenced by 2nd Edition DnD.

Dungeon Hack, released just after another title I’ve briefly dealt with, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, uses an interface very similar to the Eye of the Beholder games. Similar enough, in fact, that I’m halfway convinced it’s the same engine, despite being developed by Dreamforge (Who, like SSI, created strategy and roleplaying titles, and did not survive 2001.) Nonetheless, it’s not the engine, so much as the visual style that impresses. There are several different level themes, all of them have a variety of different locks, tapestries, paintings, and gewgaws, and, if it weren’t for the rest of it, I would say that every run is a refreshing and different experience.

One of something like… An absolutely *silly* number of potential locks.

Unfortunately, I’m not saying that. Every run is, in fact, a tedious nightmare that often ends on dungeon level 2, due to the mechanical aspects of the design. Procedural generation has come a long way since the days of rogue, ADOM, and the like, and Dungeon Hack shows one of the weaknesses of early experiments… It’s predictable, and the difficulty curve is not so much a slope as one of the cyclopean steps of Great Cthulhu’s abode. As is often the case with roguelikes, there is a single, playable character.

But many of the monsters in AD&D are, in fact, balanced around groups taking them on. A perfect example of this is the main monstrous feature of the second dungeon level: The humble Ghoul. The Ghoul is normally a cowardly eater of the dead, picking on things it thinks it can eat, and making corpses when… Well, the corpses it normally feeds on are scarce. To aid it, it has a paralytic venom in its claws and fangs. Now, to be perfectly fair to the developers of Dungeon Hack, unlike in Eye of the Beholder, when your character is paralysed, they can still move (but not attack or use items), whereas if a mass paralyse from a Beholder hit in EoB 1’s later levels, you were pretty much dead.

The problem arises, then, from the fact that it’s corridors… And rooms. And corridors predominate. Corridors in which the other monster type that always inhabits the second level, the Troglodyte (in 2E, a stronger, but less intelligent relative of the lizardman) are very likely to ambush someone who hasn’t cleared the way behind them, and, even then, may get surprised by a respawn. As a Mage, you may just about have fireball at this point (Requiring a rest after every cast to regain it… We’ll come back to resting), as a warrior, you don’t really have any recourse except that old first person RPG technique of the sideways shuffle (Exploiting the AI in… Er… A room… To, er…Well, crap, that sort of invalidates it in a large set of situations, doesn’t it?), and it’s only as a Priest that you get… Turn Undead. Which, on the one hand, you have an infinite supply of. On the other, it’s not guaranteed to work, and you’re not guaranteed to hit on the attack that will break the Ghoul out of its “OhGodsAHolySymbolRunRunRun” mode Turn Undead tends to put it in.

Ghouls. There are many words I have to say about a lone adventurer fighting even small groups of ghouls. The vast majority of it is unprintable, even here.

So yeah, the difficulty’s a little sharp. Adding to this tedium is the predictability of monsters. Yes, you will always encounter Ghouls and Troglodytes on level 2. Just as you will always encounter Goblins and Orcs on level 1, with only the occasional Out of Depth monster to liven things up… Usually in a rather fatal manner.

And then, there are the keys. I mentioned before that there are a variety of different locks, and hoo boy, does the game use as many as it can. Each locked door has a specific key type. I’ve never encountered a situation where the key was behind a door, but each level becomes a case of three things: A sweep and clear, not unlike those annoying missions in Hero Quest and Space Crusade (Remember those?) where the victory condition was “Kill everything”; A hunt for various keys (Ice keys, flower keys, gold keys, chrome keys, platinum keys, bone keys, missing bull horns… The list is quite large); And, another staple of first person games and DnD RPGs of the time, either being a Dwarf, able to sense secret doors, or looking at the map, noticing large empty spaces, and wondering which of the walls you’re going to try and walk into will, in fact, turn out to be illusory.

Fun! It’s interesting to look at a game like this, because it has a lavish (if overacted) introductory cutscene (Involving the sorceress/demigod/secret deity… I forget which… Who sends you on the quest, and Sir Not Appearing In This Game, possibly the biggest, dumbest adventurer I’ve seen since Lands of Lore’s Conrad “The Scones Are Still Intact” McAdventurerson), a lot of thought put into a lot of locks and tapestries and statuary and fun things that mostly don’t have any bearing beyond looking pretty (Which I approve of), and yet… Once you get past that, there’s almost no balance, a steep difficulty spike on the 2nd level, and even less context than Angband or Nethack, relative contemporaries (1990 and 1987-2015.)

…I smell a cutscene, VO so fine!

Would I recommend playing it for enjoyment? Oh, Mystra, no! Would I, however, encourage budding developers to look at it critically? If you’re into procgen, licensed RPGs, and step/tile-based first person RPGs, yes. Because it is, to me, interesting to examine. Even if the examination can be… Rather painful.

I’ll get you, Ghouls. And your little frogs, too…