Sundered (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99 (£6.99 for the soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

I am, most of the time, a pretty calm person. Suffice to say, this sentence has an unspoken “BUT” , and, certainly enough, Sundered is that “BUT.” This is both a good… And a bad thing.

Congratulations, Thunder Lotus Games. You have discovered the edge, the very edge, of my video-game masochism.

While not a mobility or attack powerup, the shield is bloody useful because… Well, you *live* longer, innit?

In any case, while I’ve been jokingly referring to this as a “Soulscraftroidvania” (This is a joke on my more jargon loving peers in the industry) , it is, once you break down the word, moderately accurate. It has a high difficulty curve that is supposed to get better by dying and levelling up from the fruits of that dying. One of its antagonists (who is also your weapon) is the Shining Trapezohedron, and Lovecraft references abound… I would like to add, at this point, that making the main character a woman of colour is both a nice step representation wise, and a nice subversion of Lovecraft’s work, which often had folks of colour as the villains (Sigh.) And, like Metroid and Castlevania, progression depends on getting powerups, not all of which are mobility based, but all of which unlock some kind of skill gate or another. Explore three areas, murder enemies and bosses, get cash, die, repeat, hopefully making some progress. Equally, another core mechanic is that you can, with the Elder Shards dropped by boss and miniboss alike, either empower your abilities, changing them, or get more basic shards with which to improve your skillls.

That’s the absolute basics. Let’s get the good out of the way. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful. Thunder Lotus have a clean, consistent style, they know their UX, they know their animation, and they know their music. The sounds are mostly good, even if one in particular has associations with the mixed bit. The powerups are interesting, and some have some very interesting factors that make them extremely multifaceted.

Wait, tenta- NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE, DIE DIE DIE.

The best example of this is the Cannon. On the one hand, it fires a massive bolt that does at least three times the damage of your best melee strikes, and pierces walls, enemies, and the pots, crates, and gooey blobs you shatter to maybe get money. On the other, it’s slow to fire, takes both a unit of ammunition and stamina (Only one of which regenerates. The other must be found), only fires straight forward, and hurtles you backwards (Funnily enough, that makes it a mobility tool too.) On the third hand, it’s the only way of opening certain locks that exist… In the first area of the game. That is good design.

Similarly, the writing is pretty good. The Shining Trapezohedron is a weapon, an antagonist, and an unreliable narrator. It wants you to kill. It wants you to be better at killing. It hates you when you don’t take this option, and I’m almost certain it’s lying to you.

Now let’s get to the bad bit. Funnily enough, just like the Cannon is a core gameplay element, so is the part that I’m extremely unfond of: Enemies. Not specifically the fact that there are enemies, or the fact that they’re tough (Although some are extremely tough, serving as their own damn skill gates, and some, like the Aberration or… Well, nearly anything with ranged weapons, honestly, are just bloody annoying.) It is, like the Cannon, a multifaceted problem.

They are not in set positions, but rather, come in waves of increasing brutality, each wave being made of “native” enemies (For example, Cultists, Crawlers, and Screamers in one area.) Sometimes, they will be megawaves (signalled by a gong or a klaxon, depending where you are.) The ranged opponents can attack from offscreen… A long way offscreen. This gets worse later on, when some of the enemies get homing bullets. And, due to another facet of the game (Its tendency to zoom out to show you pretty or big things) combined with the number of enemies that can appear on screen at one time, the fact the ranged enemies often force you to hunt them down (While sometimes limiting your mobility) by virtue of firing from way offscreen (Hunters are the earliest offenders here, but not the worst), and, of course, the Endless Horde rooms you have to race through to get perks you will most likely need before the endgame (and, if you’re a completionist, definitely want)… Well, it makes what are meant to be big, epic fights sometimes confusing, often frustrating, and, overall, makes it feel more like difficulty padding than merely challenging. The limited pseudo-random generation of areas (The basic layout remains the same, but the specific paths within those areas varies from game to game, and indeed death to death) is an interesting idea, but also, at times, leads to frustration as a longer way out dicks me out of just a tadge more progress by… Well, having to deal with more waves.

Pictured: A nice game of “spot the protagonist in the middle of a bossfight.” Not pictured: The 50 or so assholes he was going to summon.

Similarly, your mileage may vary with the bosses. Quite widely. All of them are at least moderately pattern based, and relatively easy to understand, but some are exercises in frustration and pain. Funnily enough, all three of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are variations of ranged enemies, based on the Cultist (Creates walls of tentacles and explosions), the Screamers (Tries to keep out of your range, shoots you), and the Aberration (Often keeps out of your range by grappling from wall to wall, fires bullets with moderate homing.) The Aberration boss, in particular, has driven me almost to tears, and, at the time of writing, still hasn’t been beaten.

And this is a damn shame, because, while I normally would only not recommend this game to those who, for one reason or another, don’t like or aren’t able to play twitchy games (Being an action combat platformer, it’s very twitchy, and button mashy a fair bit too), I also can’t recommend this game to those with anger-management problems, because keyboards, mice, controllers and monitors are expensive, and I have no desire to be responsible for the destruction of said items in a frustrated rage that I freely admit I’ve come close to at times with this game. Not for novice players, it definitely has its good points, but the experiment of not having basic enemy placement is one that, unfortunately, I’m not fond of.

Fate/EXTELLA: The Umbral Star (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £39.99 plus BOODLES OF DLC
Where To Get It: Steam

It speaks volumes that, when attempting to talk about the FATE universe(s), I end up using a lot of jargon, and a lot of things get capitalised. So let’s try and keep that to a minimum, because I want you to understand why I’m okay with FATE/Extella, and its rather… Odd universe…s.

Yes, it’s a JRPG/VN/Musou game, so there is the obligatory “Ohhhh *Japan* ! o.O” character.. Well, a couple.

Essentially, every now and again, regardless of universe, a war is fought over the Holy Grail. Yes, that one. That one which has also been a Cosmic Horror in disguise, is pretty much always the asshole kind of wish-granter that twists your wish in the most evil way possible, and somehow, keeps tempting people to summon spirits of heroes past, be they digital avatars with souls (as in the Extra/CCC/Extella universe), or literal phantoms of the past, drawn from their time to fight in a thematic cage match with one nominal winner. I say nominal because damn if the winner doesn’t nearly always get the shaft somehow. Like I said, the Holy Grail is an ass.

Anyway, the Grail War is over. SE.RA.PH, the amazing moon computer, has become peaceful, united under the rule of Nero Claudius, who is a woman, and of the “Oh, my brave love!” type. Iiiiit’s pretty obvious it’s written for the dudes, it must be said, even though the option of playing a woman is there (An option I took. It doesn’t make the romance dialogue any less awkward.)

EXCEPT THINGS, UNSURPRISINGLY, ARE NOT WELL! When are they ever, eh? Anyway, with a band of supporting heroes, a cast of villains, and robot/AI mooks aplenty to beat up, you… Wait, this sounds… familiar.

Yes, it has many of the same elements of Senran Kagura. Visual novel sections, broken up by sections where you wallop the shit out of mooks, defeat bosses, and, in a more traditional twist, have to successfully control portions of the map and do objectives before you do so. Things that add depth, like having to keep an eye out for Plants, which spawn enemy attack forces if you don’t murder them, get rid of thematic elements like Medusa’s Blood Fortress, and that most dangerous of tasks, Pursuing Lu Bu.

Luckily, like any Shounen Musou character, Nero Claudius (Who is a girl, yes) not only has her Noble Phantasm, she also has a Shitkicker Mode.

If you saw a lot of capital letters and jargon there, yes, this is largely unavoidable. Keeping it simple, the majority of the game is “Beat up mooks in rooms until larger mooks appear, beat them up, rinse and repeat until you control a room. Oh, and watch out for that other stuff like Plants, objectives, or the fact you have allies, and them getting beaten down makes your situation worse.” And then there’s the story bits, where the right choice when talking to your main Servant nets you better Bonds, those, in turn, net you scenes where you bond with that individual (romantically or otherwise), rewards…

…This is the first problem with FATE/Extella: Even though the game does its utmost to explain things, it’s one of those examples of a long running, multi-continuity series that feels dense to the outsider. I know some of it from the various anime (Yes, it’s a multimedia franchise too), but other bits feel a mystery, even if there’s an in-game Encyclopedia to try and explain it. It’s the same with a lot of the universe stuff. Players who’ve played the other games, or seen some of the anime in the Extra/CCC/Extella continuity, may well be ooohing and aahhing, but as someone who hasn’t? I’m mostly confused, except for the bits transplanted from other continuities or series. Nameless? Oh, yeah, that’s that guy! Meanwhile, why is Elizabeth Bathory an Idol Singer, and… Well, a bit of a joke character, to be honest?

Nero is somewhat exuberant, and… There was a word for her character, but I forget it. Answers on a postcard…

Despite my recommending a controller is used, the default keyboard controls aren’t actually terrible… But it does make for a lesser experience, as the camera is controlled with the arrows, the movement with WASD, and basic attacks and jumping lie awkwardly in the middle, so you sometimes have to awkwardly shift to… Well, see what the hell’s going on. The musou gameplay is alright, but the Bond system feels a little bit arbitrary sometimes. Not with the VN segments with each character, you’re playing to their mood to get on better with them, but with the side mission mechanic, which is taken from a pool of choices including things like “Eat 4 Yakisoba Bread in a single mission.” I’m not even sure I’ve seen a yakisoba bread, let alone 4. Similarly, unless you really, really need it (and you won’t, at least until the midgame on normal), do not use the Command Sigil thing, as it resets your bonds.

I could, in essence, say a hell of a lot more, because there’s a lot of mechanics, but the game tutorialises fairly well, and, although I grimace at the awkwardness of some of the VN writing, the overall idea is quite interesting, I like the world, and the musou beat-em-up segments have interest and variety to them. It’s still a shame it’s a later game in the series that’s translated, because you get that word salad that you’re already expected to know, but Fate/Extella does not appear to be a bad game. Just somewhat opaque to newcomers lorewise, and, as mentioned, a controller is highly recommended.

The Mad Welshman is still rather confused by VN/Musou hybrids, and the seeming need to shove a romance plot in there, but explanations thrown at me tend to make me dizzy.

Slime Rancher (Early Access Review)

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

There is, on the face of it, not a lot in Slime Rancher. You would think this was maybe a bad thing. But cute slimes, exploration, and expanding seems, honestly, to go a long way. And Slime Rancher is one of those games where a somewhat humdrum early start… Opens up.

Ah, look at all these slimes, frolicking together in a pool. Better leave before one of them becomes a Tarr… 🙁

Considering the start, however, I certainly wouldn’t blame you, as, at the very beginning of the game, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot to do. You encounter four slime types (Plus their Largo variations, and a few massive Slimes), can capture three, and once captured, it’s feed, collect, rinse, repeat. Pink Slimes, being the most common, rapidly drop off in value, so until you get some cat and rock slimes, you’re in a rather grindy situation. And, funnily enough, many of the options for cages, farms, and the like is to reduce that grind. Higher walls so you don’t have to keep an eye on the slimes so often. Music boxes so they don’t try to escape so much. Auto collectors and auto feeders (the latter reducing feeding.)

It’s an interesting comment on the game, really, that I’ve started to have real fun with the game once the farming aspect is toned down somewhat. Because then, I’ve been able to experiment with mixing slimes, fighting Tarr (the dread result of Slimes mixing and matching themselves too much, and common in any area where there are three or more slime types co-existing… until they eat all the other slimes, then starve, anyway), unlocking Slime Gates to new areas, and encountering new and even more interesting slime types, from Gold Slimes (can’t be caught, run away, but can be fed for GOLD PLORTS) to Boom Slimes (The clue as to why they’re dangerous, friends, is in the name.)

Some slimes are extremely dangerous to keep. Just for giggles, I’ve mixed two of the more dangerous varieties, just to add a bit of spice to it all…

This, in a way, is why the game definitely isn’t for everyone. “Omigod, how cute!” gives way to “Grumble mutter feeding time is it you sneaky gits?” gives way to “Hrm, I wonder which of these huuuuge slimes unlocks the way to an area where the Big Money is so I can get this Lab thing?” , and progress is gated behind… Well, exploring and trying things. Feeding Gordo Slimes to get Slime Keys to reach new areas. Earning enough money to open up the Ranch and its features. Getting a jetpack, and extra energy. And, finally at the present version, unlocking the Lab so you can build stuff, open those Treasure Pods that have been annoying you all this time, and capture rare and huge slimes.

Is it cute? Oh gods yes. But whether you enjoy it or not really depends on how far exploration, finding snippets of world lore and conversations that don’t necessarily make sense at first, and the cycle of feeding slimes, collecting their diamond shaped poop, and selling it in order to find better slimes with better poop will take you. For me, it works well in small to medium bursts. But I won’t pretend I don’t hope to see something that will keep me going once I’ve found everything.

Still some slimes to collect. C’mon, Beatrix, we can do it, and please Harry and the others too!

Yes, The Mad Welshman is somewhat conflicted about Slime Rancher. As noted, cute slimes go a long way… But not all the way.

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.