La-Mulana 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Being an Archaeologist is, in many senses, about being observant. Clues can be as subtle as a passage in a book, the curvature of glacially moulded hillscapes, or the precise composition of a flint arrowhead, and it’s important to be able to see, to understand what you’re seeing. Being a Ninja, if we go by popular depictions or otherwise, is about being observant. Being a covert agent is all about what you perceive, about how quickly you can sense danger, and, equally, about seeing opportunity where others merely see a surly major-domo (for example.) In both cases, livelihood (and sometimes, your life) depends on being able to clearly see the clues set in front of you by circumstance.

“Do not pursue Le-Meza!” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but yes, the protag’s dad always seems to be near the most devlish traps. I’m in the *POISON LAVA* on the left. Terrible parent, I swear…

And so, funnily enough, it is with La Mulana 2, a game that does explain its puzzles… It’s just not always in the places you’d expect. This is less surprising when you consider that the only family line to have successfully explored the La Mulana ruins (and, with your control, hopefully explore the Eg-Lana ruins that seemingly coincide with them) is a family of… Archaeologist Ninjas. Lemeza and Shawn, from the last game, and, the main protagonist of this game, Lemeza’s daughter Lumisa.

So, for those just catching up, La Mulana was, and is, a love letter to the MSX (One of Microsoft’s early attempts at “A computer on every desk” , an 8-bit system that found popularity in quite a few places, but most notably Japan and Brazil), and the action adventures that could occasionally be found on the system. It’s an action platformer, but with puzzles of all stripes, some of which will kill the unwary instantly, a variety of enemies, and, of course, bosses… Some of whom will kill the unwary instantly. Save early, save often, and investigate things. Oh, except that tablet. They told you not to read that tablet for a reason, don’t do that. That’s the Hard Mode Tablet.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Or that the game didn’t.

Bosses and NPCs alike take from a variety of mythological sources, from the Aztec, Mayan, Norse, and Celto-Gaelic cycles. Ixtab, for example, is the Mayan goddess of… Well, you can probably guess. 😐

Overall, La Mulana 2 is a more focussed, somewhat improved version of its predecessor. Awkward to no air control has become “A little air control” (and jumping puzzles designed around this), the early game is less punishing (You can, with just a little prep, take on all the minibosses and boss of the first area without serious weapon upgrades), the writing’s improved a little, and the art style is about the same as the remaster of La Mulana 1 (Solid pixel art, combined with some amusing hand-drawn characters for the conversations.) It controls relatively well (although the keybinds take some getting used to, and, even as an 8-bit kid, it took me a short time to figure out that F2 is for inventory, settings, and apps, and F1 is for conversation, the area map (if you’ve found it), and the area teleport interface. Swimming is still somewhat painful, alas, but we can’t have everything.

Thing is, La Mulana 2 does exactly what it sets out to do: Be a tough, but mostly fair adventure platformer, with a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic setting where not only were all myths real, they all had a single source, a progenitor who, as it turned out, just wanted to go home… And the world ending threat she represented. So, on the one hand, this review is very much a “Does what it says on the tin”, and, considering the Kickstarter campaign was on the platform of “Back this, and I will make a game that kills your character repeatedly” (not the exact words, but close enough), and the first game worked on exactly this notion… Yes, it does what it says on the tin. But I thought I’d finish up this review by describing the core loop of gameplay, because most people who get turned off by the game get turned off by the second part of the loop, and maybe hearing it will help.

At first, everything is very simple: You’ve opened doors, you’ve got the map to the area, you’ve remembered to ensure you can teleport to the area (by scanning the holy grail you normally save with), and you’ve killed pretty much everything you can kill that stays dead, such as minibosses. Good on you… But of course, the game isn’t over, and the question then arises… Well now what?

Once you’ve figured out part of the puzzle, the rest tends to fall into place. Which, let’s face it, is a good feeling.

Well, now you need to go somewhere new, solve some new puzzle, obviously. And sometimes, it seems like there’s no way forward. One optional example here is the chain whip. It’s a useful weapon, like your whip, but does double the damage, which is just enough not to hear the dreaded “tink” of “Haha, nope, this enemy didn’t even feel that.” But getting it involves observation, and the fact that you have water (poisonous), ice water (poisonous and cold), lava (hot), and poison lava (hot poison, and no, I’m not joking. Poison lava. Just for added “Screw you.”) All I will say is that identifying which is which is very valuable in determining whether a path is suicidally impossible… Or do-able, providing you know how to deal with the swimming. This is one example of where the way forward is there… You’re just not seeing it. Drawings on tablets give you hints to what these cryptic texts are talking about. Tablets tell you about things… Walls can look different, maybe crumbly, maybe hollow.

And then you find a way forward, and it probably kills you, because of something you hadn’t seen before. Sometimes it’s a miniboss. Sometimes it’s a new enemy. Sometimes, it’s gotcha traps, which, I’ll grant you, are a turn off (although even these mostly give clues to their presence… Even if the clues, sometimes, are bait.) But you know a way forward. Due to the relatively nonlinear nature of the game, it doesn’t even have to be the same path your friend took (I got two sigils before my friend did, but had to look at his footage to see where the hell the chain-whip was, for example.)

That, in the end, is the core of La Mulana 2: Explore, probably die a lot, save often so the deaths set you back less, find clues, find cool items and mythological beings to talk to (or fight), solve those puzzles, beat those bosses, eventually save the world, hopefully have a good time doing so. Despite being horribly stuck, I’m having fun, and I hope folks who get the game (if they do after reading this) enjoy it too, because while it’s sometimes old school, it’s a lot more fair than the old-school I’m used to. Looking at you, old text adventures… BITE LIP… Who the hell thinks BITE LIP is the proper solution to a puzzle, I ask you…

Even returning characters get some impro-H GODS, ALRIGHT, I’LL BUY SOME WEIGHTS, JUST DON’T HURT ME!

The Mad Welshman will draw the curtain on this review, to save you from a rant about the bullshittery of old text adventures… For now.

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Moonlighter (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

It’s interesting how marketing can change your mind. If I, perhaps, hadn’t been told, by quite a few people, that Moonlighter was “Recettear with the bad trimmed off” , I would perhaps feel nicer about it. As it is, the comparison leaves me distinctly unimpressed, and I can no longer quite be certain that my assessment of it on its own as “Alright, but never really excelling at any one thing, including making me care” isn’t based on this comparison.

Will, bridger of the gap between Merchant and Warrior. Twice the work, half the happiness.

There is a world, a world with a dungeon. As with many worlds with dungeons, people exploit this one, and an economy surrounds it. Or rather, an economy is restarted by it, as Will, a Merchant who owns the dungeon shop Moonlighter, re-enters the dungeons for things for his shop. Cue action RPG with shopkeeping elements.

As with many ARPGs of the modern day, the key to playing Moonlighter well is to know when to attack and dodge, using a variety of weapons, judging enemy patterns. It feels meaty, I’ll definitely give it that… But it also feels frustrating, for several reasons. Inventory limits are a starter. Every trip to the dungeon, only 20 things (plus equipment) can be carried. Items stack to their own limits (usually 5 or 10), and both cursed and uncursing items don’t stack. Why is this system here? Mainly to add something to inventory management. Unfortunately, what it adds is… Inventory management.

Shopkeeping is similar. What gets added when you level up the shop once? Shoplifters. Extra work, on top of the work you’ve got from extra features. You can, eventually, get shop security, but in the meantime… Enjoy chasing thieves to hit spacebar over them, or lose your stuff!

Is enjoy the right word? I’m thinking, and I’m thinking that the answer is no.

“Now remember, this one can only go to the sides, this one breaks if you get hit a bit, this one stops that rule applying for the first thing with rules it…” Please stop. Please.

Similarly, there’s a narrative, and it starts… Well, honestly, it doesn’t start well at all. Will goes into a dungeon ill equipped, gets his ass handed to him by a feature never seen again, gets told “Don’t look into the dungeon” by his Wise Old Mentor, then gets given a sword by said Wise Old Mentor, who continues to tell him not to go into the dungeon. Getting mixed signals here. Meanwhile, something builds up as you explore the dungeon, where it appears the dungeons are not, strictly speaking, dungeons, but parts of other worlds, randomly snatched with their security features still active. Is there a reason for it? Yes. Is it revealed? Yes. Does it, eventually, get resolved? Yes.

Is it particularly satisfying? Not really.

Indeed, this is the main problem, narrative wise, with Moonlighter. There’s little to no pressure, it’s true. But there are also little to no stakes involved, not much of a reason to care about the shop, not much of a reason to talk to any townsfolk outside of the shopkeepers. There’s an economy, but since nothing seriously threatens that economy, there’s no real incentive to keep those wheels turning except… That you need to do it if you want a decent chance of getting to the end of the game. Long before which, due to the lack of either threat or incentive to spend, you will have more money than you know what to do with, because, despite the seemingly silly costs of anything above the second tier, the rewards from the dungeons correspondingly increase.

So, in summary? It somewhat works mechanically, in the servicable, achieves its goals way, but Moonlighter feels uninteresting, at least in part because there’s nothing, good or ill, that properly ends up pushing the narrative forward.

I will give the game this: To be an adventurer is to often perpetrate or be complicit in otherwise criminal activity, and it acknowledges it.

The Mad Welshman is sometimes confused by what his peers consider “With the bad bits gone.”

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Mad Crown (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam

IMPORTANT REVIEW NOTE: The Steam Store page will tell you it is not English supporting. This is an oversight. Second menu button, third tab, bottom drop down menu option, select English. You’re welcome.

This past year, it seems, my cup runneth over with interesting, accessible, yet challenging Roguelikes. And Mad Crown was an especially nice surprise to review, considering the developers hadn’t originally planned to localise it until release. So, thanks for that, S-Game (M-Game?) , and thanks also for making said localisation moddable. Perhaps, with this, I could make a Wenglish translation. Enemy is BLEEDIN’ TAMPIN’ , BUTT.

Three thieves, and a treasure containing monster. I foresee pretty much everything running away this fight, some of it with my hard-earned…

But I digress. Mad Crown is a turn based roguelike, in which a slowly growing group of adventurers try to head deeper into a nether dungeon, to seek an artefact of great power that had gone missing previously. So far, so… Wait, buzzsaw robots? Grinning goblinoids and zombie gangers? Huh. Mad Crown’s world is an interesting and eclectic mix, and the hand drawn art style both stands out and sells it quite well. The music’s good, the UI’s clear, and the game?

The game isn’t bad at all. Difficult, yes. But difficult in a way that can be understood. Enemies debuff a lot, from Chaos (confusion) to Disarming (Removes equipment), and against that, each character has one basic attack, one special attack, one defensive ability, and a passive. Almost everything else is cards, from equipment cards (adding armour, damage, and special abilities), spells (The instant action Heraldries and the all group Upanishads providing an interesting balance: Do you want to attack as well as debuff or hurt a single enemy, or do you want to try affecting everyone with the debuff? Tough call), and items. Each dungeon run starts you at a low level (levelling up as you go), and the longer you take in the dungeon, the more overlevelled enemies get. Add in the other wrinkle, that if an enemy kills another enemy, it levels up, and…

The further into the dungeon you get, the more interesting it becomes. Although, y’know, also the more *lethal* it becomes…

…Look, there’s a lot of depth here, both in the dungeon, and the town. Individual dungeons are relatively short, the game mostly tutorialises well, and it gets a lot of good mileage out of the features currently present in the game. I’ve crowed with delight as I killed multiple opponents in a single turn, and recoiled as what I thought was going to be an easy enemy ate its friends, and suddenly became a miniboss. Said “easy” enemy is now higher on my target list in a fight, precisely because it’s one of the few that willingly attacks its own friends without confusion.

And yet, it remains at least moderately fair, due to its rescue system. Got a friend with the game? Good, because they can save your kit, and you can save theirs, once you get far enough in the story that the rescue of your equipment from your corpses is no longer automatic. Copy a code to your clipboard, give it to your friend, and they rescue your kit. Nice, encourages you having friends playing, and makes the difficulty curve just that little bit smoother in the earlier stages of the game.

Overall, I quite like Mad Crown, occasional frustrations aside. It’s got promise, it’s got a lot to unpack and unlock, and its systems are easily explained and learned in play. I look forward to seeing where this one goes.

Eep.

The Mad Welshman is pleased to be the first english language reviewer of this game. Wooooooo!

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BattleChasers: Nightwar (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £24.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Ahhh, Battlechasers. An interesting comic about a young girl called Gully, who inherited her late father’s magical gauntlets, and now… An interesting RPG mixing turn based combat with real-time exploration. So, with the foreknowledge that I mostly like this game, let’s get the “Your mileage may vary” bit out of the way, shall we?

Er… No, Monika. Although you’re one of the few I *don’t* miss in this game.

Nightwar is, as I stated, based on a comic called Battlechasers from Image back in the late 90s. It was written by Joe Madureira and Muneir Sharrief, with a variety of artists, although the pencils were all done by Joe Madureira (Who, not coincidentally, was the art lead on Nightwar.) Even though it ran for only 9 issues, it’s had a cult following, and the art style is very distinctive. Also distinctive are the sometimes implausible costumes that mainly seem to affect the women (His work can be male gazey. Like… Juuuuust a tadge.) This is a good segue into the visuals.

So yeah, while I’m not the biggest fan of the more implausible lady costumes (Which isn’t a huge pool to choose from, and mostly consists of Red Monika, the heavily Red Sonja inspired and largely unsupported rogue of the group… And yes, I was talking about the boob cup), I cannot argue that I like most of the character and monster designs of the game. Gully is perhaps the best example of a teen punchwitch I know of, Calibretto is an interesting and cool design, and there’s a lot of dynamic, colourful, and well crafted art on display here, and not just in the characters and creatures. The overworld map gives the impression of an actual map, with little crosshatches, designs, and other nifty little elements, and the world is both colourful and clear. The battle animations are meaty as heck, and quite a few hours in, I’ve yet to tire of even some of the more basic ones. Soundwise, the game’s a little less impressive, but only a touch, and so, aesthetically, it’s been quite the pleasing experience.

Example of the charm: I genuinely appreciate a Lich who has the brass to try something like this.

Writing wise, well, it’s high fantasy where Mana, the source of magic, is a mineable resource, and technologies both ancient and new have arisen as a result. Our heroes go to a forgotten island, get shot down by unexpected pirates, and get embroiled in deeds that threaten the wooooorld. So, on the surface, the writing isn’t exactly going to win awards. But, with the exception of Knolan, who is presented in barks as quite the unlikable asshole of a wizard (and not much better outside), again, it seems to work. Quest steps are mostly well explained and reasonable, there’s at least a little bit of character in everyone (From the snobbish, jaded alchemist to the Lycelot who believes his tribes have lost their way in following… [DRAMATIC THUNDER] The Dark Lady) , and everything has a sense of place, fantastic as it is. Mana mines that have been abandoned due to some unforeseen taint (Not to mention the fact that they’d almost run dry)? Reasonable. A shanty-town with industrial elements as a bandit stronghold? Reasonable. Heck, not even all the bandits are willing to fight. It’s one of those things where I’d feel silly trying to explain its charm to someone who’s never seen high fantasy of any sort, but it is, nonetheless, pretty well put together.

So… We’ve established that, narratively, there’s charm… What about the damn game, Jamie, what about the gaaaame? Hold your horses, because that, also, is reasonable and with a charm of its own. First up, this is fairly friendly for an RPG. You don’t die, you get knocked out if you screw up, lose some money, and end up back in town. And the difficulty curve is reasonable enough that the only times that’s ever happened are either when I’ve unwittingly disturbed something way above my pay grade (For example, an Elder Elemental Deity. Ohhhh, they’ll get theirs, the rocky, fiery asshole…) or during trap-heavy dungeons (Traps, being in the real-time exploration, are somewhat harder to deal with than, say, a magic/coal powered mechanical device built for ramming people with spiky, speedy violence.) Heck, I haven’t even been grinding that much, and I’ve been Doing Okay. Part of this is that stats are mainly linked to your level, with some boosts from equipment, some from perks that let you mix and match two paths of each character, and some from the Bestiary, which improves your stats the more goals you fulfil… Most of which you’ll be doing organically through play. Kill 50 beasts? Yeah, no prob, thanks for the 1% increase in health! Similarly, each character has abilities that either affect the world (See stealthed enemies, smash secret walls), an impending fight (Inflict bleeding if you hit with Calibretto’s cannon, for example), or both (that smashing secret walls? Also stuns enemies at the start of a fight if you get it off.)

This was 0.1 seconds before EVERYTHING DIED (Also two XP bonuses, possibly three)

What I guess I’m getting at is that Battlechasers: Nightwar, for all its niggles, is a solid, charming, and, for an RPG, a friendly experience overall. I quite like it, and I definitely see myself aiming for finishing New Game+ .

The Mad Welshman would like to know where one can get these self-propelling tanks. Answers at the tradesman’s entrance, please.

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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.

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