20xx (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

20XX is a game with a laudable goal: A platformer heavily inspired by the MegaMan X games with random level generation. All the ideas, all the replayability! It’s just a shame it doesn’t really work out that way, for a variety of reasons.

Pictured: Ace and Nina’s unscrupulous creators don’t take failure kindly.

Aesthetically, 20XX has come a long way from when it was under a different name. It’s clean, it’s got good tunes, it’s got moderately good sounds. The enemies are visually distinct, and so you quickly learn what type is what, whether you can get nice things out of them, and what they do. That’s good.

Not so good is the fact I have little to no incentive to play Nina, the Not-megaman of the pair of Nina and Ace (who is Not-Protoman/Zero.) Equally not so good is the fact that the stages, very often, are more lethal than the bosses. And some of the bosses, honestly, are eh, even in their difficult forms. Let’s get into that a little more, starting with the linked problem of Nina and the levels.

The game features two characters: Nina, who shoots bullets, and has a piercing charge shot (with the option to change this basic attack to a variety of directional bullets or a wave-beam if you find the right powerup.) , and Ace, who has a sword, which he can charge, but, honestly, doesn’t need to (and, like Nina, can switch out for a variety of melee type weapons of varying utility, damage, range, and speed.) Both can dash jump. Both can use the same boss weapons, in the same way. Both can use the same permanent and per-run powerups that are unlocked by gaining one of the three types of currency in the game.

FUCKING BATS. Although thankfully not over a deathpit, or between two platforms, or any of the innumerable situations they just ANNOY THE HELL OUT OF ME.

When playing as Nina, to deal with hordes of bats, I need to waste a second or two charging my weapon, and lining it up. Without an alternate weapon, I have no means of dealing with enemies above me. When playing as Ace, most of my weapons can attack at least a little upward by default, have a wide area, and can chump hordes of bats with a few quick taps of the attack button. It’s not even a subtle difference. I have little incentive to play as Nina.

Meanwhile, one of the elements of the game is random level generation, using native enemy types, bats (Which are everywhere, and are annoying obstacles just as with videogame bats everywhere), and native trap types. Agnisort, the fire area, has conveyor belts and fireball launchers, with welding flames on the walls, belts, small pits… Anywhere they would fit, and a couple of places they shouldn’t. Vaculab, meanwhile, has that MegaMan staple, Yoku blocks (blocks that appear and disappear on a timer) and deadly vines. Skytemple relies on lasers, conveyor belts, and bottomless pits to kill you, while Frostor has spike shooters seemingly everywhere, even in places that are meant to be considered safe. It’s all generated according to a rough plan, it’s true, but I can almost guarantee you’re going to take, especially toward the end as the frequency of the traps increases, more damage from the stages than you are the bosses. Occasionally, the game will even generate a big ol’ middle finger, like the time my only path to progress was blocked by a pair of vertical lasers, each perfectly bisecting the platforms I needed, and seemingly timed to go active while the platforms were accessible.

Suffice to say, I didn’t appreciate that one tiny bit.

This jerk has gone through multiple iterations. He’s *less* annoying in the final release.

While we’re here, let’s talk about the bosses and their weapons. Bosses are, with only two exceptions, larger versions of the level enemies, with their highly pattern based gimmicks. Rollster is a robot hamster in a sawblade monowheel, and he bounces and fires sawblades. The Astral Twins are fireball spewing robot gorillas who will resurrect each other if you don’t kill them both within about ten seconds of each other. As the boss order is also randomly generated, both levels and bosses are meant to get harder the further you get. This is very true for the levels, but the bosses? The stages consistently seem to do more damage, and their weapons vary wildly in use. One, Skydragon’s, is essentially there as a reference to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. It’s a big, slow moving cuboid bullet. Yes, whatever it hits will take heavy damage, and it has some piercing, but it’s also easily blocked, and, just like the sketch with the Mooninites, it moves slowly enough that you might as well not bother with it.

In the end, one of the biggest problems with 20XX is that it’s trying to recreate the feel of a game series that mostly relied on tight level design with procedural generation, and so many of the obstacles and “set-pieces” feel arbitrary. Oh look, six bats. That I have to wait for, watching them crawl across the screen, because if I don’t, I’m going to screw up the timing of this conveyorbelt/fireball/welding torch “puzzle” that’s also going on.

Occasionally, the procgen will just outright screw you. Just quit to the menu at this point, you’re going to die.

BATS ARE BAD, DO NOT USE BATS. BATS ARE BAD, DO NOT USE BATS.

Immortal Planet (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I’m getting really tired of the word “soulslike.” I’m not ashamed to say this, because, like many game development fashions inspired by at least okay games, it can vary widely. Immortal Planet, sadly, is one of those that just doesn’t gel with me. Partly because it is as slow as advertised… And partly because it isn’t.

The game has an inventory, built up as you go through the game, weapons with multiple modes, and, of course, skulls and masks. A fair few of them.

The story is relatively simple: There is a planet, filled with folks who just won’t die (The justification for respawning enemies whenever you rest/level up.) It’s mysterious, and you, one of the big, hulking masked folk that populate this world, are a prisoner. Tromp and stomp and murder your way through the 5 bosses and 52 rooms. I know it’s 5 bosses from the achievements, and I know it’s 52 rooms because, for some odd reason, the room graphics are right there in the game’s directory (Found as I tried to get windowed mode to work. Which it still doesn’t seem to.)

Problem is, the game is frustratingly grindy, and, while the walk speed is slow (and the run isn’t a whole lot better), the combat is quick exchanges. And, like a Souls game, everything appears to be made of bricks that are made of bricks until you level up. Slash slash backstep to recover and let this fool get his two attacks off slash slash dead. This guy’s near an edge, haha, wait block dash the sod into the black ether and get the XP so much easier. Slash slash sla- dammit I’m out of stamina, backstep get hit get hit dammit now I have to use a healing item. So yes, it’s slow in one sense, but the fights are, comparatively, quick, twitchy exchanges. And then you meet the first boss, and realise another area the game is slow.

Block, slash, ohgods I barely scratched him, and even through my block that hurt. Slash, wait, he’s got a melee punish move, ohgod I’m almost dead, try to ba- aaaaaand dead. Lose all my XP, lose my healing items, reset, restart.

This enemy is about to be punished for having a dash-two slash combo that’s easily avoidable. His compatriots can be a lot more challenging.

Immortal Planet is not the friendliest of games. Funnily enough, though, most of this is feeling. On leaving a session, I was surprised to note that three loops around the first hub, combined with two deaths (one my fault, one due to somehow dashing off a cliff to my death when I’d intended to push someone else off the opposite cliff) took around 20 minutes. It felt like a lot longer, not least because while the game has sound (and some quite meaty sounds for the weapons too), it doesn’t have music, per se. Snatches, here and there, like when you die, but mostly, it’s silent, with that tromp tromp tromp tromp tromp of walking around the main punctuation for a lot of the time.

Eventually, I got used to the combat, which involves being as risk averse as humanly possible, and taking advantage of the fact that the enemies’ charge attacks are, for the most part, easily dodged, and well telegraphed. Now, I mention being risk averse, and you may be saying “Dark Souls also encourages risk aversion” , but this is not quite true. It involves calculated risk. While a single loop around the first area and level up purely into Strength (Damage) will ensure two of the first three enemy types will be chumps (Taking around 5-10 minutes) , the third enemy type (and the first boss) will punish you heavily for a mistake, and no, there is no option to just level up. You can level up and rest, resetting all enemies and any items you may have found beyond your basic allotment, or you can not level up. Bosses have multiple health bars, and, despite the fact it doesn’t actually take all that long to play, the grind and seeming slow pace makes it feel much longer than it is.

This exchange will take only a few seconds, but at this point, he’s already dead. If I’d misjudged, it would be *me* who was close to death.

In the end, Immortal Planet is very much a deal of “Your Mileage May Vary.” Myself, I prefer a different pace, and find elements of the game feeling iffy for me, but I can see how someone who wants a bit more challenge might enjoy this game. Aesthetically, it’s very clean, it has a moderately interesting story, but, alas, it’s not for me.

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.

Downward (Review)

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

I could, in essence, repeat what I said in my Early Access review. I could. But that wouldn’t be fair to the fact that the developers have attempted to change things up (Planets happen earlier, some other things happen later, change in voices, some writing differences). So let’s go through things.

Pretty. Disconnected. It… Kinda looks how the game *feels*

In some unknown time, humanity is kind of doomed, thanks to three planets. Except for a runny, jumpy artefact hunter who finds themselves near the ruin of a posthuman human outpost, a hermit trying very hard to be both mysterious and Yosemite Sam, a mysterious woman-voice, a skull that used to be an astrologer (astronomer? Who knows!) and mysteeeerious devices. There’s just one small problem: You’re not really given a reason to care. Since our protagonist is a confused young man, and meant to be some sort of tabula rasa for us, let’s do this from my viewpoint.

I start in a dream. I can escape the dream by parkouring my way through things, with knowledge that I have, but I also don’t (Oh, that’s an Anomaly? What kind of… Oh, a jumpy anomaly… Well, good thing I knew that… Somehow!) Having escaped my dream, I find that… It probably wasn’t actually a dream. I’m not sure. All I know is I’m somewhere else, and mysterious lady is urging me onwards. Well, onwards I go, picking up some old relics of human civilisation because, well, that’s me, I’m a relic hunter… Oh, wait, nothing to really piece together here, they’re gears and canteens and things, I know how those work. But wait! Also, there are skypieces! These aren’t Lightseeds from Prince of Persia, that’s a totally different game, except… Wait, they are. They’re for unlocking abilities, only a few of which will help me progress. Also, there are crystal buttons. I don’t know what they do, but an equally mysterious thought in my head from outside tells me something will happen if I find them all. I shrug, and move on, ringing the Ancient Bell of Life Saving Through Mysterious Means.

Crystal turrets. I know how to deal with those. I just have to push the equally mysterious Crystal Disc that’s somewhere nearby, and they’ll fall apart. Mysterious. Okay, I can see evidence of civilisation, that’s intere- Wait, Golems? Where?

“It’s facing downward!” Yes, like the last twenty times. I think I get it now.

Oh. Rocks held together by some cube or other. I can’t take the cube off them until they’ve “phased down”, which involves staying out of their way until they do some form of mega attack, after which I can pluck them, and if I don’t, I have to go through all this again. This takes an average of about five minutes. Each time. And some Golems have more than one cube. Where’s the exit again? Oh, it’s locked by… Those cubes. Which also whisper to me, because mystery. Also, an intrusive thought from outside interjects, because it makes finding them somewhat easier, because at some point I’ll need to have grabbed at least 150 of the damn things just to open a door. Possibly more.

A statue! I can use the Not-Lightseeds to buy powers here, most of which I don’t care about that much right now. Fast Travel sounds good, whatever that may be. Louder whispers from these cubes also sounds good, but the rest is health and stamina and things, eh. Quality of life stuff, my other mind interjects.

A fellow human being! He was kind of hard to see, but I can certainly hear him, and he’s not from where I (or the lady) am, that’s for sure! I’m a puppet? How mysterious! Nah, he’s just Crazy. I live in a time where there’s not enough humans left to give a shit about ableism, let’s go with that. Oh, but he buys our stuff for Not-Lightseeds, I… Don’t really need those that much, interjects my other self.

Mines! Except they’re slow, the disc to deactivate them is on them, they’re more a nuisance than a threat unless I’m unaware or otherwise occupied. Woo. A Mysterious Artefact! It lets me use those anomalies I was… Using… In my dream. There’s some other anomalies, and the mysterious other mind tells me that yes, those, too, will be unlocked with an artefact, with Progress.

My mind blanks out. Everything goes black. And the other voice takes over.

Ooooh, mysteri- Oh, wait, not really. Sigh.

It’s all very well to have mystery, but a mystery without a reason to explore it, or stretched out too long becomes tedious. It’s all very well to have a collectathon, but when the gatekeeping is this transparent, it becomes a tedious duty rather than a joy, not helped by the fact that elements of it (Cubes from Golems, specifically) is tedious. Downward looks pretty. Its music is good. But, like the gears and mysteeeerious pillars (Challenge maps, and also a plot point), the game elements stick out like a sore thumb, only awkwardly fitting with what I’m assuming is meant to be a mystery of the same byzantine look of the architecture and the walls you can use. Overall, a very unsatisfying experience, and a good example of how your mechanical aspects can over-ride your narrative ones.

The Mad Welshman notes that the more things change, the more they stay mysteri- crap, that’s 17 times I’ve said that now, isn’t it?

Lobotomy Corp (Early Access Review)

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

Lobotomy Corp is, at its heart, a management sim. You control a limited number of agents by assigning them tasks, which they take time to do, and you have perhaps more to do than you can. Manage the results.

You always start with the thankfully easy to please Hundred Sins and One Good Deed. But it quickly ramps up…

Thing is, those “results” are death, madness, and horror. Because what you’re managing is an SCP facility. For those who haven’t heard of the SCP files, it’s a community led horror universe, where the horrors are being exploited and studied (or just held in the hope that they don’t go off) by the SCP Foundation (SCP standing for Secure, Contain, Protect), and they range quite widely from deadly buildings, to monsters and people-as-monsters, to seemingly innocuous objects with secrets. Often deadly secrets. Unfortunately for you, most of the items in Lobotomy Corp are unknown to you unless you either have an encyclopaedic knowledge of SCP files. So there’s a lot of death and screaming and… Restarting.

Lobotomy Corp is not an easy game. Each successful mission (Which involves keeping said objects, monsters, and things “happy” enough to harvest some unspecified energy from them) adds a few more, only some of which are known to you from previous experience, and from the second mission on, it’s very easy to get, say, The Red Shoes, which is an instant no go area for women operatives due to its effect. Making things tougher, when some SCPs are unhappy, they lure the non-playable staff in, causing havoc all on their own. It’s interesting from a world standpoint, and very fitting, but unfortunately, makes the game feel a bit arbitrary until, y’know, you’ve worked out what a thing does and how to keep it happy. Considering each agent has four “skills”, four types of overall approach, and that, in the case of a gender or approach “liking” SCP, that agent cannot be used, it’s hard. Uncomfortably so.

WHOOPS! I DID THE WRONG THING, AND NOW WE’RE AAAAAALLL GOING TO DIEEEE.

Visually, it’s thankfully very clear. You know what things do fairly quickly, the contained things’ happinesses are in clear bars, and the game helpfully informs you, both visually and textually, when things have gone horribly wrong. In between missions, there’s chat between you and an AI, and this seems quite interesting, but the meat of the game is, really, levelling and getting agents, researching things to help your agents survive, and figuratively throwing them to the wolves to see what the wolves do.

Thing is, I’d still say to check the game out if you’re interested in the SCP universe, firstly because it’s certainly different than the various creepypasta games I’ve seen that are inspired by it, and secondly because it’s also a somewhat fitting game. Hopefully, there will be some options to tone the difficulty down some, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy the game. I’m just not fond of the restarts.

So… Many restarts. Damn you, Red Shoes. Damn you to heck.

The Mad Welshman can be found under SCP-[REDACTED]. Just so you know how to greet me at expos.