LOCALHOST (Review)

Source: Cashmoney
Price: $4.99+ (Approx. £3 , with the option to donate more)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

“It’s just a self defense mechanism.”

Androids and Gynoids are, in a very real sense, a way to treat dehumanisation. The feelings are invalid because you’re constructed. You are a made thing, not a born thing. And LOCALHOST plays on that pretty well. After all, you’re not being paid to care. You’re being paid to erase drives. Data. Nothing… More…

Oh, don’t worry, that’s just *simulated* pain/shock/fright they experience on waking, part of the boot-up process!

A little context here: LOCALHOST is a visual novel by Aether Interactive, set in a grim, dystopic robotics shack where your boss has informed you, a new hire, that you have to wipe four drives. Of course, very quickly, you realise a problem: They don’t particularly want to be deleted. And, having personalities (An uploaded human personality; the original host, LOCAL, a troublesome model line that keeps achieving self-awareness; A network admin AI, and something else), they argue their case. They have personalities. They have histories. Although the final determination is up to you, what seems to matter is that all the drives are both wiped… And not broken.

As such, the game is more about the journey than the destination. Do you try to explain love to an AI that thinks it knows what love is? Do you try to understand how a human upload is meant to have mistakenly arrived in this workshop, or what connection it has to LOCAL? Or do you simply take the seemingly most efficient route to convince them to unlock their own drives for deletion?

“And yet, you know this LOC-192 model. Please, tell me more, and remember that this conversation is being recorded for monitoring and training purposes.”

It’s interesting to note how much attention has been paid to making things seem just a little bit off. The music by Christa Lee varies depending on the situation and the personality you’re talking to, but they all have some subtle dissonance, something that doesn’t seem to quite fit, even if I can’t put a name to what it is. The visuals, by Penelope Evans and Arielle Grimes, are dirty, but subtly evoke different personalities in the single, broken gynoid body you see throughout. Sophia Park and Penelope Evans, meanwhile, give the idea, through the writing of the dialogue and characters, that it’s not just these drives that are dysfunctional. Assisants are Gynoids, and Workers are Androids. Such a simple phrase, but the matter of fact way in which this can be stated implies a society where yes, gender roles are firm, even if they don’t fit, and even if they only apply to the droids in question, it’s pretty grim.

Overall, I’d recommend LOCALHOST, and, since a single playthrough can be completed quickly, to play it through more than once. Maybe you’ll break everything. Maybe you’ll just do your job… Maybe… Just maybe… You might end up doing something at least nominally good in a dystopian world.

Er… Yes. There’s no false standard here, friendo, it’s just the rules. We put “Droid pain doesn’t actually matter” next to that bylaw about chickens.

The Mad Welshman broke a drive. It was an accident. He is simulating sadness nonetheless.

GRIP (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.99
Where To Get It: Steam
Version: 0.1.2.6

Ahhh, GRIP. A spiritual successor to Rollcage with much promise, but it does seem to make the oddest mis-steps sometimes. Nonetheless, I will begin by saying that the GRIP team are slowly, but surely, pushing the game to better heights, and I highly respect the fact that they aren’t going to be taking the game out of Early Access until they’re sure it’s good enough. Even with critics like me pushing, and occasionally moaning and bitching.

Pleasure, thy name is a missile up the jacksie of the racer in front.

Needless to say, there is going to be some moaning and bitching. But less than there was, and in different areas. So let’s start off with what’s good, and what’s improved.

Aesthetically, apart from something I’m going to touch on a little later, GRIP is good. Gritty industrial elements counterpoint well with pretty vistas, blend well into the landscapes they’re built on (Except where it’s obvious they’re the paving over of said landscapes with ugly metal), and similarly, the soundtrack is pumping, industrial, and decidedly cool. The various GRIP vehicles stilll have character, despite the constraint that they have to be boxy, and their wheels big enough to fit the main motif of the game (They have high downforce, so it doesn’t matter which way up they are) , and that the steering becomes less responsive the faster you go, so slowing down is important is good. Similarly, the new weapons appear cool, and my previous complaints about the blue-shell nature of the Assassin missile appear to have been dealt with somewhat. The AI appears to be somewhat less vicious, and this, too, is good (I spent all of the last session on Hard, and felt like I was earning my podium place without feeling cheated on all of the tracks I was familiar with.)

Atoll is *very* lovely, as is the wont of a sandy beach…

So far, so good. Equally good, it’s still early days, and the devs do have a quick response to considered critique. Cool. Now for what is currently less good, or needs some work. Starting with the dramacam, and signposting. Essentially, a bit of colourblind support, or making signage and the path more clear, would be very helpful in the WIP tracks, as the game has now started putting in tracks with some devilish features, and more attention to the signposting thereof would be very helpful indeed. Features like uphill to downhill U-turns, and quite sharp ones too on Atoll, or the 90 degree turn with little warning and no rails on the fittingly named Acrophobia track. Combining with this was the drama cam, which, when I have a sharp impact, or I’m moving very slowly, decides not to focus on where I’m going, but… Well, this screenshot from Atoll is emblematic of the sort of thing I have to deal with, and I will also add the disclaimer that, most of the time, it works, and adds all sorts of dutch angles and funtimes that make the experience quite visceral, working well when I suddenly have to flip between track elements. Finally, the Primer is quite intrusive, and I find myself heavily disagreeing with the decision that either the game pauses, or heavily slows down (while still requiring control) every time it wants to take up the screen to tell me what to do… Especially as, if I’m not quick enough, it’ll do it again until I’ve done the arbitrary goal that, in 90% of the Primer, is “Use this basic weapon on somebody” if I’m not quick enough to do so.

…Alas, it is also one of the places where DramaCam hampered me more than pleasured me. Yes, I am aware the beach is pretty… But the way forward is IN FRONT OF ME.

Overall, though, GRIP definitely looks like it’s improving, the addition of multiplayer is nice (Still in testing, and the game, as with all WIP content, politely informs me is WIP both in menu and game, and, in the case of Multiplayer, embargoed until it’s more polished. Which is perfectly fine), and I feel a lot better about recommending this to future racing fans who still want some wheels.

Vroom vroom.

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.

Cyber Utopia (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, here’s the door…

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

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

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

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