Subnautica (Early Access Review 2)

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

Subnautica is life’s way of saying “It’s okay that Endless Ocean doesn’t have a PC port.” Even down to the occasional punctuation of chill undersea times with pants wetting terror.

How… How long was I out?

So, it is the far future. Utopia has been achieved, and nice, not animal-killing humans have spread to the stars, exploring and spreading the word of peace and love. Except where you happen to be, because your ship got exploded in orbit around a watery world, and to survive, you will have to… shudder… Eat fish. Also survive, explore the world, and perhaps find out what happened, both to the Aurora and your fellow crewmates who at least managed to escape the ship.

Ohhhh yeah… *Ohhhhhh* yeaaaahhh… The mooon is beautiful…

The first thing you’ll notice, once you begin the game, is how beautiful this alien world is. Schools of fish swim, with many different kinds, plant life abounds, and even the moon is lovingly rendered. It’s also a relaxing experience, swimming, collecting resources, and slowly, but surely, learning more of the world around you.

But then the game enters its second phase, and things become… A little more fraught. For all that this world is a beautiful one, it’s also a dangerous one, and, beyond a survival knife, the protagonist comes from a pacifist society that doesn’t really do weapons. And so, you will find things that want to kill you, and your best policy… Is avoidance. Permadeath, thankfully, is not part of this game unless you wish it to be, so being eaten by one of the more dangerous residents, or running out of oxygen, merely results in being plonked back at the nearest base you’ve built, without the things you collected since you last left (But, crucially, the blueprints you gather will still be gathered, so you can still, in a sense, progress… A nice touch!)

The Reaper Leviathan, as seen from a *relatively* safe distance. Loss count on the current save to this … Thing? 3 deaths and a SeaMoth.

I won’t pretend, however, that this isn’t annoying at times. In my current save, for example, one of the most dangerous creatures of the ocean, the Reaper Leviathan, is plonked right next to one of the richer seams of materials and blueprints, the crashed ship Aurora, and every visit so far has resulted in either death, or the very expensive loss of a minisub (the SeaMoth), and then death. But, fair traveller, this is a temporary phase, and there are other places, other ways to gain the materials you need to improve, and make this world a little safer. You can build bases, waypoints in the deep, and travel between them. You can grow fish, or farm plants, once you find the means to do so. You can create current generators, devices that can very forcefully push the more dangerous fish away from your home of choice. And when you spread your wings, able to explore in relative safety?

Crystalline forests. A strange island, seemingly the only landmass in sight. Mushroom trees, stretching almost to the surface. Swimming among the reefbacks. It’s not often I say a sandbox survival game is a beautiful, calming experience, but once you get over a few resource humps, that’s exactly what Subnautica becomes. And always, always, the mystery of the planet… Awaits. For in one of the most recent updates, the planet now has plot… And mysteeeerious ruins!

Mystery! Excitement! Danger! All of these can be found… In a videogame!

Yes, somebody has heard the Aurora’s SOS, but at the same time… Do you really want to leave, considering there are alien ruins, and teleportation technology, maybe other useful things, and maybe, just maybe, the off switch for whatever the heck blew up the Aurora? I certainly wouldn’t. For £15, the game is highly reasonable, and is only becoming more reasonable as time goes on. Check it out if you like mysteries, living under the sea, and exploration.

The Mad Welshman grinned as he looked at the alien ruins. Triangles… Why was it always triangles with these aliens?

Clockwork Empires (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page

Clockwork Empires is meant to be a survival management game (Like Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, or the like, where orders are indirect and resource/building management is important) set in a lovecraftian, jingoistic steampunk world based on a satire of Victorian Britain. Unfortunately, not all of that satire on drudgery and misery is intentional. So… Let’s talk about housing. And cabinets.

Pictured: A sensible decision - Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Pictured: A sensible decision – Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Mood is an important factor of Clockwork Empires, as happy labourers and overseers will work an extra shift, whereas despairing ones will slack off, and fearful or angry ones will be actively counterproductive. Obviously, this at least partly means housing them, and making that housing appealing. The workplace must also be prettified, or production will suffer.

There’s just one small problem with this, and the game doesn’t bother to inform you of it: Cabinet Tax. Let us assume, for a moment, that you have 2 labourers, and give them a 3×3 house with 2 windows, a door, and a bed. They aren’t happy with it, they aren’t unhappy with it… But you may have noticed the population count go up by 6. Because each of those houses can add population. So, when those labourers inevitably turn up, you build 6 more of these houses. And now you have many more labourers than you know what to do with, eating your food. Each building has a Quality Level, and this is, effectively, based on cabinets (and shrines for houses) in the early game. So, building individual housing? That’s… 12 cabinets to build to make them happy. The situation then becomes more clear when you turn to the workplace. Let’s use the carpenter as an example. You need a workstation (for cutting wood, making paper, etc), an assembly station (To build other workstations), and a décor station to build wood decorations. Y’know, like cabinets. But each of those workstations beyond the first reduces the Quality of a building, making workers unhappy. And when you try and build your first labourer housing more efficiently (7 beds, for the two workers you have, and the 5 you’ll eventually get.) you realise that this applies to houses too (For lo, the bed is a workstation as far as quality goes. I can understand why, few folks enjoy bunking long-term.) So your efficient solution still requires 12 cabinets for maximum happiness (6 for the extra beds, 6 for max Quality)

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don't have enough cabinets.

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don’t have enough cabinets.

So, for a good, efficient first labourer house, you’re looking at at least a 14 x 10 building (Space for beds, and space for at least two windows, and 12 cabinets/shrines. After that, it’s a little easier, as you’re only catering for 4 or 5 labourers at a time, but as it is, you have a minimum “happiness tax” on all your buildings of 1.5 logs x (Number of Workstations/Beds -1) , and, obviously, the extra time and labour to make them. And no, you can’t just make more work buildings of the same type to get around this, due to the Overseer system, limiting both your number of workshops, and the number of job types you can do at any one time. Labourers just allow for more of the same job type once assigned, or, in the case of single jobs like mining or farming, doing it quicker. And yes, individual farms count as a job.

The in-game help hints at some of this. Specifically, the overseer job limitation, the fact that mood is affected by decorations, and that houses have conditions (That you won’t know until you build them) on extra population counts. Gee, I hope you found some sand, or can trade for it, because otherwise you’re in big trouble later on!

…Or, of course, you could not know this, and play for several hours, and an in-game month, and watch as your labourers and overseers become less efficient, before you realise what’s going on. It’s not very intuitive, and it may take quite a while for you to realise how badly you’ve made mistakes. Considering that a month of in-game time took me something like 3 or 4 hours to play out, it’s the kind of unfriendliness that turns me off playing for the long periods of time the game obviously wants me to play.

This is what happens when you don't have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* ... Can't blame communism on the means of production, friend!

This is what happens when you don’t have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* … Can’t blame communism on the means of production, friend!

And this is a damn shame, because the game is visually kind of nice, the music fits the mood very well, changing with events. Unfortunately, the game is best described as “plodding”, “unintuitive”, and “frustrating.” I can’t select things behind buildings, even with the walls visually turned off. If I want to know what kind of mine I can build on a survey point, and there’s anything in the way, well… Good fucking luck without clearing the obstruction, mate!

And eldritch things and events. Oh, how those make me sad. Just before release, I had played a full month, and, while some eldritch things did happen, such as an invasion of moon-balls, another of eldritch cuboids and polyhedrons, and at least seven or eight obviously occult things dug up, the one death was from… Bandits. And that was because I hadn’t switched to my better weaponry because I hadn’t properly understood that 1 set of stone pellets equalled about 100 rounds. Meanwhile, the entire time, said eldritch gewgaws, such as a canopic urn that was actually a klein bottle, sat happily vibrating or lurching awkwardly in spacetime in between the maize chowder, some planks, and some coal that had eventually been put there by my heavily depressed people.

It's such a shame that their normal reaction isn't "Try and break it" or "Try and worship it", but "Put it next to the paperwork." On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on...

It’s such a shame that their normal reaction isn’t “Try and break it” or “Try and worship it”, but “Put it next to the paperwork.” On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on…

When the game goes well, it goes really well, and you can build up some serious cities in the limited space allotted to you, researching cool things, arming your soldiery with lightning guns (Leyden Weaponry) and clockwork armour, oppressing the fishy natives, and generally being the colonial asshole you may have dreamed you are. But to get there, you have to struggle with odd limitations, an AI that isn’t entirely sure if it’s coming or going, and a UI that makes the increased busywork from more colonists more and more a matter of hitting pause and checking things, slowing the game’s pace even when things begin to get interesting. And I’m really not certain I’m up to that.

The Mad Welshman liked his new Shining Trapezohedron. It set off the Crystal Egg, the Green Soapstone bookends of unknown providence, and the Eldritch Tomes he’d been collecting from the book club. Just another day…

Planet Explorers (Review)

Source: Regretted Cashmoneys
Price: £18.99
Where (Not) To Get It: Steam

I’ve never seen a first person survival game where doing beginning quests in the wrong order can kill you before. Now that I have, with Planet Explorers, I can say that I find it an unpleasant experience. Not to mention the rest of the experience, which, for me, is equally unpleasant.

Yep, it eventually killed me. After following me for *miles* and mostly whiffing. Oh, should I mention the next village is about forty minutes walk, realtime, from the first?

Yep, it eventually killed me. After following me for *miles* and mostly whiffing. Oh, should I mention the next village is about forty minutes walk, realtime, from the first?

So, let’s begin with the difference between “Story” and “Adventure” mode, where the first has quests (Some of which are stupidly lethal, with no real indication this is the case), a story mode, and cutscenes, and the second… Has quests, a story attached to each village that doesn’t seem to change, and no cutscenes. Adventure mode’s first village nearly always has one asshole whose only function is to lead you to a slaver ambush, which provides an easy segue for me into combat.

There is, of a sort, combat AI in this game. For humans, this nearly always involve rushing you as soon as they spot you with their melee weapons if they’re hostile, and shooting from a distance if they have a gun. And y’know what? That works. Shame it works because your starting weapons are incredibly shit, and so combat with even one enemy is a case of having more medical tools and attempting to dodge. Or, y’know, doing quests in the first area in such an order that you have a handgun before taking on six slavers… Because otherwise, respawning where you are will just rapidly get you killed, while respawning back in the village will… Get everyone killed, including you. Or, you can do quests in the arbitrary “Right” order, and get a nice shiny handgun, which does the job better than your melee weapons. It even nets you a set of sentry guns, if you want a nice easy sta-

Pictured: What happens if you do Adventure Mode quests in the wrong order, then respawn in the village.

Pictured: What happens if you do Adventure Mode quests in the wrong order, then respawn in the village.

-Oh, did I forget to mention that Adventure mode has a means of randomising your procgen world, but doesn’t seem to account for the fact that you might have a different biome which doesn’t have “Tulips” , or, in at least one case, places a quest marker for putting down turrets to hunt a beast… In the middle of the ocean. Good. Fucking. Job. Because hey, while there are procedurally generated quests, usually of the MMO style variety of “Collect X shit for me”, “Oh noes, protect me from Y Angry Space Ogres” or “Please go into this conspicuously out of place dungeon and kill everything in it”, the village quests will always remain the same. Which is pretty damn awkward when you have an island in the middle of nowhere.

I could go on, and on, and on, about various things going on with this game, from the cutscenes with odd audio desync, to the fact that it was apparently decided to be a good idea to have a Cliff Racer equivalent in this open world game (A griffin-mouse combination, oddly), to how mining is somehow more of a slog than Runescape (Ten minutes to even get to an Iron Ore seam somewhat close to the surface… I gave up on getting more iron a few minutes later, not least because design schematics are linked to… Drumroll please… Quest Completion. That’s right, the ones which don’t seem to have much difficulty balancing, or sense of placement, or… holds head .)

Pictured: Both the pop in (egregious) and a quest I can't complete because I can't put turrets in open water...

Pictured: Both the pop in (egregious) and a quest I can’t complete because I can’t put turrets in open water…

But instead I’m going to say that it looks kind of okay visually (We’re talking late PS2 level here, but mostly consistent in this), and it has a kind of sweet-sounding (In the saccharine sense) theme tune. Both of which you would probably be better off appreciating from screenshots and a youtube video of the opening, respectively. I have no idea why this was approved as a release candidate, to be perfectly and brutally honest.

Oh, it’s moddable. There, that’s maybe another nice thing.

The Mad Welshman sighed as his pick struck once more. You do sixteen minutes, and whaddya get… Painful blisters and hungry and wet…

Clockwork Empires (Early Access Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page
Version: Beta 54.

I love me some Lovecraftian fiction. Yes, he was racist as hell, and a lot of his horror stories were based on that, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless. Similarly, I love me some fictional jingoism. Real life jingoism? Sucks. I mean, you only have to turn on the news to see sabers being rattled to see that. Finally, I love me some Steampunk, despite the fact that, often, it’s classist as hell. You rarely see the working man in such settings, only the rich idle going on adventures. But it’s an interesting aesthetic done right.

As such, your first instinct, considering Clockwork Empires contains all three, would be to say that I like this game. Eeeeeehhhhh…. Sort of. It’s like a banana-curry-chocolate cake, in that it contains things I like, but the whole? Not so much. Let’s start with the fact it’s somewhat unfriendly to new players.

There's a lot going on here. Not a lot of it is explained well.

There’s a lot going on here. Not a lot of it is explained well.

Now, yes, before you say anything, it’s a survival strategy game, those tend not to hold your hand, but while the tutorial does indeed teach well (This is your early game order, etc, etc), the UI… Needs work. For example, you may wonder, if you play the game, how to stop seeing a farm’s statbox. Farms are, apparently, offices… So it’s the office button next to “Work Crews.” Some things work just by mousing over, such as the population and food button, others stay up until you left click the “Cancel” button that appears at the top, and there don’t appear to be keybindings in the Beta of Clockwork Empires.

Basically, it’s busy, it’s not very well explained, and as such, it makes a game in a genre that’s already quite slow even slower with all the pausing I’m doing. On the upside, the people are fairly readable. If they’re clomping around, they’re particularly annoyed. If they’re doin’ the Strut, they’re happy, if their heads and arms are down, they’re sad, and if their arms are waving and they’re on fire, something has probably gone wrong. Y’know, as it often does in such games. Of course, all that stops when they actually start a job, which is a shame… But at least you have some warning.

Visually, it’s much like the UI: Busy, lovely to look at in places, but not overly readable as a result. This, by the way, is nothing to do with the colourblind function (Which is a nice touch), but just the sheer amount of things and textures on view, and how a fair amount of it actually is useless. Add in the houses and workshops, and the fact that you can’t click on colonists “behind” them even if you have the walls off, and you start to have problems. Happily though, the music is fairly calming, and helps lower the irritation factor. Somewhat.

"We need Graveyard Space [But we decided to stop flattening terrain because we're workshoppers now...]"

“We need Graveyard Space [But we decided to stop flattening terrain because we’re workshoppers now…]”

In any case, as you might have guessed, the game is all about tough choices. Day 4 of my colony saw a bandit group incoming, and I was several days away from a Barracks for soldiery. I was a few weeks away from giving them decent weaponry. So I decided to let them raid a little. In other games, I made friends with fishmen (Which is bound not to go sour when home finds out, eh?), discovered an ancient idol, and had a meteor from the moon disgorge… Something. Which thankfully, was beaten off by a warlike Overseer with a stick.

Of course, being a complex game in Early Access, bugs are bound to happen. One to watch out for currently is the infinite workshop job bug, where having more than one workstation in your workshop with the same job can mean that one job correctly registers the job being done, while the other… Doesn’t. In the case of “Minimum X of items”, this can mean you’re building planks forever and ever, whether you need them or not.

I feel kind of sad, actually, because there’s a lot of interesting events, and yet… Bureaucratic bumf and a flawed system bar me from getting to those interesting things. For example, I currently have a bandit corpse lying in my kitchen (Most unsanitary, I think you’ll agree), and yet… I can’t build a graveyard because it has a set space requirement, and nobody seems to want to flatten the terrain. Being a pastiche of Victorian Brits, the workers take a break at tea-time, do not burn the candle at both ends, and, once assigned a job, seem to pursue it with a single mindedness that bars common sense. And, of course, when it rains, it pours, as a day later (Corpse still there, ground un-flattened), the grass and rocks start singing eerily, which may have nasty effects if I don’t clear the ground nearby (A different job in and of itself.) This, basically, is to do with the Overseer system. Rather than have jobs be individually between workers, there are Overseers (Who pick what job there is) and Labourers (Who are assigned to Overseers.)

Bandits and Selenians. The only time I've ever seen a colonist attack something rather than gesture angrily at it.

Bandits and Selenians. The only time I’ve ever seen a colonist attack something rather than gesture angrily at it.

It’s a very management heavy game, even for a strategy survival game, and, honestly? It’s leaving a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, as everything appears to be going wrong. A little late, I realise… Oh, yes, becoming a Workshop Overseer disables all other jobs. A rhythmic “Whud… Whud… Whud…” floats across the colony, mixing with the sound of flies buzzing around a corpse, and the eerie singing of rocks and grass. It’s the morning of Day 8.

In the afternoon, a bandit raid occurs. In the evening, a grimoire is uncovered while trying to make room for the graveyard. Ohhhh boy…

Right now, Clockwork Empires, sadly, feels clunky, unintuitive, and unfriendly rather than challenging. Which is a shame, because I’d like to see more of these strange events and cool things, but the game itself seems to be resisting any pace above plodding with some very hard limits on what can be done, and a lack of useful explanation for many of its systems and trees. It doesn’t help that some systems appear to have more than one “method”, and it’s unclear which works (Is hunting via the Naturalists’ Office, or via the Hunting labour? And are we not able to hunt before we achieve some sort of iron ranged weapon and the ammunition at all? I wasn’t able to find a clear answer.)

 

Cue nothing happening as a result of this. No, really, it's still there, in the graveyard, an in-game fortnight later.

Cue nothing happening as a result of this. No, really, it’s still there, in the graveyard, an in-game fortnight later.

The Mad Welshman sighed, understanding why the jolly old bureaucrat at the Foreign Office was so delighted to send him on this job. He whiled away his time thinking of synonyms for “Feckless”, “Moaning”, and “Children of Low Breeding” these days…

Starbound (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase, Way Back When
Price: £11.99 (£35.99 for a four pack, £3.99 for the soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Well, hot damn. Not only has it been a previous interwubs incarnation that I last reviewed Starbound, it’s changed. And I mean “From the last stable update” changed. So well done, Chucklefish, for keepin’ such changes as “The plot is now there, and somewhat important” and “Oh my sodden underthings, I don’t have to tramp halfway across the system to see a bloody Stargate?”

TENTACLES DESTROY EARTH: In other news, look at this cute space puppy!

TENTACLES DESTROY EARTH: In other news, look at this cute space puppy!

I already kinda liked Starbound, and came back to it at various points during Early Access, from the early “UGH, CAVEMAN TIER” whiny days, to the days when you vaguely had things to do and all the biomes were in, to when quests happened and bosses made a vague sort of sense… To this. It’s been a three year journey, let’s check out how things have gone with a brand spanking new character, the lady Hylotl Hachiro (Yes, it’s a boy’s name, shut up and stop judging, asshole! Hachiro does what she wants, and she’ll science you if you disagree!)

Hachiro started her in-game life on a high note… Graduating from Protectorate University, to be part of the peacekeepers of a shiny age of intergalactic harmony. Which is then immediately screwed up by tentacles that destroy Earth. Go figure. Hachiro manages to escape, but finds herself on a lost world, with a pet to feed, herself to feed, and a StarGate Teleporter of some kind right where she lands. She then moved into a ruin nearby, set up her various crafting tables, a campfire, and (eventually) a bed, dug down to the core before she even had iron armour, and did two obstacle courses. Now she can dash and double jump.

Oooh, that's a big momma, alright! Thankfully, I have a gun, and patience. It has neither.

Oooh, that’s a big momma, alright! Thankfully, I have a gun, and patience. It has neither.

Compare this to the previous update’s “Bobbert”, the Glitch, who escaped without any prologue, dug down to the core after many travails, upgrading to Iron armour so he could fix his engines so he could schlep to the edge of the system to get a quest. Which he needed the iron armour for. As you can see, we’re off to an improved start. But, as the update giveth, it also taketh away. Unlike Bobbert, Hachiro has yet to give an assassin a cake, can’t cook proper food yet, needs more and different things for even iron armour and weapons, and Survival mode now means “You drop most of your inventory when you die.”

Which is definitely a reason to play cautious. For example, places I have dropped all my shit:

  • Halfway across the planet from where I beam down.
  • Halfway across the planet from where I beam down, next to a Big Monster.
  • Near the core of the planet, in a pool of lava.
  • Halfway across the planet, deep underground, next to twelve bats.
  • Halfway across the planet, deep underground, at the bottom of a deep, steep sided pit.

    This was actually the *least* problematic of my many equipment recovery missions...

    This was actually the *least* problematic of my many equipment recovery missions…

So, I like the changes. I like the story. I love the friendly tooltips. But I’m probably not playing Survival again unless it’s with friends. I just get too frustrated at losing most of my stuff, and dying several times as I trek halfway across a planet to find it. Also of note is that the mod scene, having developed over the three or so years of development, is alive and well, so the experience can be heftily customised via the Steam workshop. The soundtrack is great, the visuals are finely honed (I have little to no colourblindness problems here, always a good sign!), and…

Basically, there’s a heckuva lot of game here, a little grindy in places (As survival exploration games can be), but it’s got charm, it’s got story, it’s got a lot of cool things, and I would recommend it quite highly.

Of course, since it’s been in Early Access for most of its development cycle, I have the strong suspicion most of the people reading this already know that. But it’s nice to see a game come out of Early Access this strong.

The Mad Welshman set his matter manipulator to “Underground channel” and grinned. Oh, he’d show that lava what’s wha…

…And then the bat behind him knocked him into the lava.