Conarium (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (OST £1.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

Conarium is a… Look, it’s a horror game, and it uses Lovecraftian imagery. So cyclopean structures, Shoggoths, Elder Things, stars and fishies, and things wot man was not meant to know. It’s also a first person horror adventure game, and there is where its flaws lie.

The Plants Have Vines, a new horror film by Wes Craven!

If there’s one accusation that is often levelled at first person horror games, it’s that their pacing and reliance on documentation can be a problem. In the case of earlier first person horror games, there’s also problems of pixel hunting, timed puzzles, and the like. It’s a difficult balance, horror against frustration against the possibility of boredom. Conarium goes the whole spectrum. But how you feel about it really depends on how completionist you feel.

If, for example, you just want to get things done, you’ll ignore the documents, and occasionally hit brick walls. Some of these walls are against your patience, as evidenced by the difference in the amount of time it took for me to trigger a literal cat-scare (At least a few minutes), compared to somebody who’d played the game before (who triggered it in under a minute), while others are “Secrets” (More on that in a bit), and at least one is a “Gotcha” death, solved by… A non-obvious handle for something else you have that you probably spent time hunting for things to use it on.

You may recall I have a dim view of “Gotcha” deaths. Even one telegraphed by something like ten seconds of reading.

This is a secret.

If, like me, you’re somewhat of a completionist, you run into an entirely different kind of frustration. If there’s telegraphing of where to find documents, I have yet to notice it, and some of the documents I’ve missed… Have been hidden in an annoying fashion. Ah yes, the one hiding on the shelf you can’t quite see, behind a bunk. The one hiding in a cardboard box that, like many computer game cardboard boxes, cannot, in fact, be moved, and is facing the wall. The one in the pile of other documents that, somehow, are not as interesting.

And sadly, some of these things are “Secret.” Hidden behind brute force puzzles, or knowing when to use your Conarium gizmo, or when to use another item, at least some of them are more unsettling and interesting than the main plot itself. Pictured, for example, is something that claims to be your character. Something well animated, definitely not human, and more unsettling in motion than it is in a screenshot. And yet… It’s a secret. Meanwhile, a lot of the stuff that’s visible? Kind of lessens the horror. Oh… It’s, er… A blob. Yes. And this thing is what it is, I can sort of guess how it… Oh. Not… Too scary. Damn.

This, on the other hand, is a cat scare waiting to happen.

I want to like Conarium. It’s definitely got some interesting ideas, and some unsettling set pieces. But, oddly, it hides many of its best away, seemingly unrelated to the overall picture in many places. Then again, it is, on the face of it, a somewhat linear game with two endings, and a variety of non-standard game overs, usually due, funnily enough, not reading things. Give it a go if you like Cosmic Horror, chase sequences, rune puzzles, the odd inventory puzzle, and, like many horror games, hoovering up pieces of paper somewhere in the mess, you know where you left it, you’re sure, it’s got to be –

The Mad Welshman has no smart aleck comments at this time. He prefers to say them in 1877.

Unreal Estate (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £1.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Unreal Estate is kind of emblematic of tiny games that work, in that while it’s undeniably perfectly fine on its own, you can play with friends, and it’s easy to learn, there’s really not much to say beyond that. The art is nice, the fonts are kinda eh, and the sound and music, similarly, is there, and that, beyond it being a mere £2, is, uh… Largely it.

The card art is nice.

Essentially, it’s a turn based card game, in which, on your turn, you either grab a card for your hand, or play a card that matches the ones on the right for the card’s value times the number of matching cards on the right. If you have more than one of that card, it counts for more, and once all players (from 2 to 4) have picked up or played a card, the rest go to the right. Rinse and repeat, until all the cards are gone or nobody can play anything, and the one with the most points wins.

Similarly, the criticisms are small: It doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have a windowed mode, nor does it have volume sliders (just sound/music on/off.)

Cue perhaps the shortest review I’ve ever written.

Cyber Utopia (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £1.99
Where To Get It: Steam

“Wait… A Wolfenstein 3d style, raytraced first person shooter, in 2017?” I asked myself, as I looked at Cyber Utopia, a game with some lovely stylings on its splash screen, but, alas, once you get into it, there’s a failure to understand that what made the Wolfenstein games and their successors so annoying at times should maybe, just maybe, have stayed in the past.

Enemies are, until the third level or so, unlikely to drop ammo.

The story, such as it is, is meant to be revealed in game, but what you’re immediately told is that you are Naomi, an amnesiac in some kind of cybernetic prison. You start… In an extremely similar position to the original Wolfenstein 3d, with a knife, the first enemy type entering the room, and bam, here you are. Kill the guy with your knife, get his gun, get to the exit of each level by finding keys, hopefully not dying to folks on the way.

But already, we’re seeing problems. And they’re nearly all quality of life stuff. Let’s start with the window, a lovely, er… 512×384. This is your only option. There is no full screen. There are no options to upscale (Which is perfectly do-able in GameMaker Studio, which is what this game was made in.) As in the oldest Wolf3D engine type games, you can only pick a pickup up if you’re facing it (Which is sort of a problem when you’re trying to grab medkits while avoiding enemy fire) , and universal ammo means that you also have to be holding the right gun if you want to fill ‘er up. Which you inevitably will, because in at least the first couple of levels, ammo is relatively scarce. While enemies are not, for the most part, hitscan, the game moves at a blistering enough pace that they might as well be… And there is no map.

Okay, here’s the door…

I get wanting to recreate that oldschool feel, really I do… But Wolf3D had mostly linear, understandable maps, and Blake Stone, which used a modified Wolf3D engine, had maps when it changed things up. Catacomb3D had a radar. So yeah, getting lost is distinctly unfun, as is trying to work out where the damn key is. Similarly, the spritework, while detailed, while obviously trying to set a scene and a mood, makes it damn hard to work out what you can interact with. Blue gates are impassible. Red ones can be shot down. Doors vary from area to area, and are mainly only recognisable because you’re forced to open at least one at the beginning of each level.

As mentioned, there are attempts to set a scene… From a prison, to what I’d have to assume is the medical wing (or maybe a torture wing? Not sure), to… A garage? It’s kind of hard to tell. Meanwhile, I really should have mentioned this by now, but mouselook, a small window, and the speed of the game make for a motion-sickness inducing experience.

…But I *appear* to have killed everything, and don’t have the key. WELP.

Cyber Utopia is, to take an old phrase, a good bad example. It’s not even really that hot on the streaming/YT crowd who have a nostalgic bent, because, from experience, the game is a sod to record. On the up side, it’s £2 , so if you really want to confirm this for yourself, then it’s perfectly do-able.

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.

Pathfinder Adventures (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £18.99 (£29.99 for Obsidian Edition, £3.99 each for a cosmetic DLC and a “Some good cards and nice dice” DLC)
Where To Get It: Steam

You lose a lot of stuff when adventuring, it seems. Sometimes, in the most dickish of ways. “Get hit before the fight even begins, Discard 1d4-1 cards (Unless you have armour, which won’t always work)”, “Permanently lose this card to close this location (Which you need to do to win the adventure)”, “Permanently lose this thing to pass this other thing.”

“If you didn’t have a weapon, or have and roll low, become slightly more screwed. Oh, and it goes back into the location deck for you to encounter again later.”

If it weren’t for getting new cards, and not having to pay money for all but the best cards, I’d probably have quit Pathfinder Adventures (a tablet port of a collectible, co-operative card game that has now hit Steam) long ago. As it is, getting those new cards introduces its own irritations. But we’ll get to this in a bit. First, the general idea.

The general idea is that you play a party of adventurers (modelled after the Pathfinders, the mascot group of Pathfinder, which, itself, is off brand Dungeons and Dragons) , each with a limited hand, trying to fulfil quests where both time and hand size are against you. Run out of the Blessing deck (ticking down 1 per each character’s turn, more if you encounter the villain of each adventure early and let them get away), and you lose. Run out of cards to draw from your adventurer’s hand, and they die, making it harder to win the adventure (and dying permanently, losing you a lot of hard work, if you’re foolish or brave enough to turn Permadeath on.) There’s a lot more to it than that, and the tutorial feels quite heavy because it has to introduce a lot of concepts, pretty quickly, but that, in essence, is the core of it. You draw cards at a location until you hit either a henchman or a villain, and, depending on which it is, you either fight them to “close” the location (IE – “The Villain Ain’t Here, Boss, And They Can’t Run Here”), or you encounter the Villain, and try to make sure they can’t go anywhere else while you finish them off. Failure to do so, as mentioned, screws you, as the villain escapes and takes valuable turns to deal with said villain with them, to a random location you didn’t manage to close in time.

I have four or so locations to close. I *can* close three of them. Maybe.

This, in essence, is a lot of my problem with Pathfinder Adventures: It’s very adversarial, and, even in victory, most of your rewards (whether added to each characters deck in play, or via post adventure rewards) are going to be thrown away, sold for the pitiful in-game currency sum of 1 Gold Piece per card, seemingly regardless of rarity or use. To give some idea of how insulting this feels, a generic blessing sells for the same price as either a better blessing, or a spell that adds 1d10+1 (big numbers, for low levels) to a wizard’s normally quite shitty combat skills, a quest generally rewards you with 100 GP for completion, and a chest that allows you to add four random cards (and sometimes dice, a cosmetic item) to your Unclaimed pile (which, thankfully, you get to keep until you “claim” them, at which point they become subject to the same “Most things get thrown away” rule) costs 500 GP.

Generally, your progression will be upward, to better, more damaging and more roll increasing cards, but any adventure that involves a lot of banishing cards is going to reduce that trend, and there is, like very old school Dungeons and Dragons, the occasional “No, fuck you, you just take damage” that makes the adventure more difficult in entirely frustrating ways.

Just in case you thought I was joking. “Damage taken cannot be reduced.” Damage = Discard cards from your hand. The one saving grace is that it isn’t *Banish* cards from your hand (Permanently lost.)

Visually, it’s quite nice, even if some UI elements (like that Blessing counter that determines whether you run out of time or not) get lost in the crush, and the sounds are okay. But I got tired of the music (especially the wailing violin of the theme tune) very quickly, there is no multiplayer that I’m aware of (Unlike the card game itself, which you play with friends), and honestly? The adventures have started annoying the hell out of me with the aforementioned “No fuck you, things get worse” pretty early on. It has a fair bit of depth, it has a fair few strategic elements that help minimise the luck based elements (Such as adding dice via blessings, changing the skill used to one you have better dice in via other cards, etcetera, etcetera), and I will, in its defense, say that it currently keeps Pay 2 Win and microtransaction fuckery to an absolute minimum, but otherwise, if I wanted to be told “Rocks fall, you lose 3 cards” , I’d join a Pathfinder game without asking what kind of DM was running things.

The Mad Welshman hastens to add that, if you like Pathfinder, you may have a more enjoyable experience. Emphasis on “may.”