Dawn of Andromeda (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Real Time Strategy in space has always been a tough proposition. Mainly because space is big, and the early game of any such endeavour can, done “realistically”, have all the fun of watching paint dry, while the mid to late game can be plagued with doing a thing wrong, then not realising for a good hour (or until it’s too late, whichever comes sooner.) Dawn of Andromeda, sadly, is no different in this, despite a potentially interesting main campaign.

Pictured: an interesting *description*

Let’s talk about that campaign narrative a little, because honestly, it’s a feature I see very little of in the old 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) genre these days, and one involving multiple alien races in a grand tapestry of war, tragedy, and shenanigans? Sign me u-

Oh. Oh wait. I can’t find that mercenary I just hired and sent to kill a bounty for my current best friends, the Sython (Who the Terran Empire totally isn’t going to go to a long, expensive war with several times over the next few millennia before somebody else screws it all up.) Wait, I found him again, and… Wait, I lost a survey ship? When did I? Oh, while I was watching this guy half a galaxy away. Meanwhile, I’m debating which of the more far flung colony worlds I should try expanding to, in the hope I can actually defend them.

Space is not only big, but also rather sparse. This is something I’m not actually that fond of being reminded of in space opera games, for some reason.

What I’m getting at here, folks, is that Dawn of Andromeda is not the friendliest of games. There are three game speeds (not counting pause), and while they’re marked “Slow”, “Normal”, and “Fast”, I have different names for them: “Can actually see a fight happening”, “Can watch bars slowly tick up”, and “The speed I go at while I’m waiting for things to happen.” Pause is pretty much my default state while I try to work out what the hell is going on with my scouts and survey ships and, in one particular case, watching a bounty slowly, but surely, escape the guy I’d just hired to take it.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to take in, adding to the “A lot of the time you will be paused.” Understanding an alien race enough to talk to them is a research project, taking time away from your research. Adding to a world’s power requires an infrastructure investment, which will cost you some money a turn until it’s done. You have an approval rating, which will cause rebellions if it’s low, and goes up and down based on… Factors. Decent living conditions help, as does an assigned councillor who isn’t an asshole. It’s not very colour blind friendly, to the point where, zoomed in to a point where I have two ships chasing each other in my field of view, I can’t actually see the things without straining my eyes (Drag selecting will only select the ship I directly control.)

It tries to help, really it does. It has “Zoom in here” icons in the planet tables, fleet tables, anomaly tables… But the main screen is a mess. The UI isn’t the friendliest. Ships can chase each other for a long time without fights happening, and ships attacking from the front will move toward said fast ship, then tail along behind it, losing it like the other poor bastards chasing it in the first place. Providing you have the foresight (and opportunity) to pull such a maneuver off in the first place.

Gripping [YAWN] Space combat. [YAWN] Honest!

I’m sure the game has some interesting things in it. I’m sure it has something, some potential. But I’m finding frustration in even the easiest of scenarios (Where I am informed, and tentatively agree, that even finding the alien worlds may well eat up the whole 2 years allotted for “survival”), boredom from the sparse universe, and quickly realising that it amounts to “Build lots of ships, point them at whatever enemy while holding your own worlds safe”, despite its other trappings. As I am occasionally forced to say, the game resists being played.

The Mad Welshman accepts that Space is big. But surely it’s more interesting than this?

Hover: Revolt of Gamers (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (Soundtrack £4.99)
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, Itch.IO

“I don’t get it”, I said as I stared at the screenshots. “What does this have to do with gaming, per se? It looks like it’s inspired by Jet Set Radio Future, but doesn’t have any visible rollerblades or anything.” HOVER: Revolt of Gamers is, it must be said, a game with a somewhat confusing title. And it doesn’t help that there’s a fair amount you have to do before anything more is mentioned beyond “The Great Admin have banned fun” , which, also, seems like a very silly thing to try and ban. I have fun walking, for example, and singing, and, of course, there are many co-operative activities that are fun, at least some of which fall under the umbrella of “Necessary Procreation.”

Yes, this most certainly looks like fun. I am feeling the rebellion.

“Jamie, stop worrying about the damn story. It’s not important! I want to know how it plays!”

Oh. Not so hot. I mean, the basics work alright, but when those basics get into the wild, it gets a little frustrating. The controls are, for the most part, pretty simple, even if non-french folk might want to be warned to check the control options, otherwise they’re using ZQSD for walking (AZERTY Keyboard is the default.) Jumping things are done with space, sneaky slidey grindy things are done with shift, and throwy scanny talky things are done with the left mouse button. Bam. The problem then arises when turning the mouse is how you turn, and A and D (on a UK keyboard, anyway) are more sort of… Tilts.

Air control, and indeed run control, then sort of depend on your mouse sensitivity being high, which doesn’t interact too well with, say, looking around, or if you get motion sick. Then again, the way the player created protagonists bounce around, I probably couldn’t recommend this to anyone with motion sickness anyway, especially with all the boost pads and bounce pads and grabbing onto things that maybe should not be grabbed onto. One example I noted while playing in the first area was clothes lines. Okay, I can sort of see you grinding on clothes lines… Sort of… But they are, last I checked, not reliable mantling points, per se. So in a sense, they get in the way of a clean line, which is, of course, the best way to do any sort of mission involving speed. Which many of the missions are, and indeed, keeping your speed high is the only way to destroy holosigns, which is a thing you have to do.

A pet. On a magrail. That I’m meant to take for a walk. On the magrail. Guess who missed the pet, then had to retry the mission three or four times?

It doesn’t exactly help that the cluttered landscape of the hub, combined with a somewhat odd UX design, means you don’t always know where you’re going or what the hell you’re doing. I’ve failed delivery and Fuzz-running missions (Themselves a bit silly, because at least one involves giving someone’s pet a good walkies… On a magnetic tramway) simply because I didn’t notice where the damn item to pick up was due to the confusion. There’s a lot of bright colours, and they often conflict, so poor colourblind me was often acutely lost, even with the Crazy Taxi style arrow that tells you whether something you need to do is in front of, behind, to one side, or up or down, and takes its context from whatever you seem to be doing at the present time (be that capturing spy drones that just seem to be minding their own business, graffiti spraying over the seemingly rare Admin Propaganda posters, or some other things), or racing. This lack of clarity sometimes extends to missions, as friends and I had an interesting time trying to work out what the criteria for the “Do 20 tricks in under a minute and a half” mission was. It seems to be trick combos of more than 75 points, so I filled it out by jumping in different directions, bouncing off the ground with my neon moon boots, and holding the trick key in combination with various directions to pull off tricks, ala Tony Hawks or any other tricking game I’ve encountered.

That tricking mission ranked me up by 5, the highest I’d seen. Shame I had to hit 100 ranks total to get more story, and in less than an hour, I’d started to have trouble finding things to do that weren’t fuzz missions… At least some of which have gruelling time standards, as do most of the requirements for the medals. “8 seconds for gold on mantling several rooftops to deliver a ball” sounds easy until you realise each mantle’s about a second, and each throw’s about a second, so it’s basically “Don’t fuck up at all.” My first, blind time was 19s. No, there isn’t adjustable difficulty, why would you want adjustable difficulty? Don’t answer that, we both probably know if the question even has to be asked.

Tricking in trash… I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. *Shrugs*

That isn’t to say that there isn’t good in the game, for, while the hub is extremely cluttered, I can’t really say it’s not pretty or aesthetically consistent. It is, in an anime-cyberpunk sort of way, and the character designs, similarly, are mostly kinda cool. The music is definitely a strong point, as Hideki Nakagama (yes, JSRF composer Hideki Nakagama) and Cédric Menendez bring some damn find beats. But the problem is that this is just two parts. The UX is cluttered, at least some of the missions amount to “Do it perfectly or fail”, even in the first part of the story, the missions lack variety, and the story is… Well, silly even for a videogame.

The Mad Welshman no Great Admin, out to ban fun (At least partly because such a thing would be extremely hard to enforce), but he sadly can’t recommend this game.

Drifting Lands (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99 (£18.78 with soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

The continued existence of the scrolling shoot-em-up is a minor pleasure to me. There’s just something cathartic about holding down a button, and spaceships blow up. Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but blowing things up is definitely the most relaxing part of the experience. And, spoiled 30 something brat that I am, I sometimes think I want more ways of blowing people than I’ve gotten.

Pictured: A fairly killy, speedy ship, which certainly won’t get into trouble around Grade 3/10 with my fat fingers. Nope, definitely not…

This is definitely not to say that Drifting Lands is a bad game. It’s actually quite good. I just wish there was more to it in some places. So, what’s different about the game? Equipment slots on your ship, each of which have pretty numbers that may help or hinder you. You want most of those numbers to go up as you go along, such as more Damage Per Second on your guns, more Armour, Health, Shield and Health Regeneration, and other such things. And you want certain numbers, such as “Chance for [item] to Break on [Manual/Automatic] Retreat” or “Chance for Cargo to be Lost [even if you win the ‘mission’]” to stay low. It’s a credit to the game that this is nowhere near as intimidating as I perhaps make it sound. It’s not the only different thing about Drifting Lands compared to other shmup type experiences, but that, and the fact that waves of enemies are picked from a list for each level and area randomly, that the game helpfully tells you how many waves are left at the top, and that the difficulty slowly increases as the game goes on with the addition of mechanics like revenge bullets (The ship you shot releases bullets on exploding, usually straight at you), are all interesting features.

There’s quite a bit of variety in the kit, and while I’d like to say “Go for the weapon you like the pattern of, and stick with it”, the game disincentivises that by virtue of the fact that some weapons will always have a lower damage among peers of their respective levels (Shotguns and Lasers, for example, suffer, compared with the Trident and Double Cannon, which, relatively consistently, outdamage them.) Also, y’know, that weapon you want to get the next hotness of might not have your +X Navigation, meaning its Damage is even lower than you’d think.

Pictured: Ignonimous defeat.

Still, once you get into the missions, it’s joyously simple again, although it becomes more bullet-hell like as you rank up in grades: Shoot things, use your special abilities to kill more things, dodge bullets, maybe fight a boss or a Convoy Mission (Kill X enemy type before the end), and don’t die. My current favourites, ability wise, are a ring of fire, a back and fore blast that kills things in a straight line, another kind of blast that kills things in a circle around me quicker than the fire ring will, healing, the chance to get more money the bigger the kill streak I can line up, and the thing I’ll probably never ditch, the Automatic Retreat, stopping you from losing your ship if you die, at the cost of the things you picked up during the mission, and maybe some of your niftier equipment.

There’s also a story to the game, and while it’s a little cliché (The Ark, sole independent survivors, fight religious zealots, corporations, robots, etc, while their main pilot (that’s you) seem to make poor decisions), it’s fairly well written and characterfully voice acted cliché with a moderately diverse cast. The music’s good, the art is very good, so honestly…

You can almost *see* the slime dripping off this guy. You can definitely *hear* it when he talks.

…If you don’t mind twitch gameplay, where your reflexes will save the day, if you can get along with the fact that your favourite weapon types won’t always be available, if you can get along with the fact that the game’s enemies start throwing serious bullet, laser, and explosive shit at you by Grade 3 out of 10 (And it presumably gets nastier), then this might very well be a game you want to check out, for experimenting with the shmup formula in interesting, if not always fun ways. I still like it, flaws and all, so thumbs up from m-

EEEEEE, DAMN YOU, THIRD BOSS, DAMN YOU AND YOUR WAVES OF FURYYYY!

The Signal From Tölva (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £14.99
Where To Get It: Humble StoreSteam, GOG

When the apocalypse hits, when humanity’s light darkens, there shall be a cry, and it shall be louder than all the panicked screaming and dying and fire. And that cry will be “010000010100001101001011!!!”

Night doesn’t screw around, and nor do the enemies throughout the game.

So it is with The Signal From Tölva, the latest offering from Big Robot games. A game where you may die a lot, but hey, it’s the journey, not the destination or the cycle that counts. So let’s talk about that.

The Signal From Tölva is a space opera first person game (Which happens to have a lot of shooting) in a setting where machine intelligences grew from humanity, grew away from humanity, and finally kicked humanity to the kerb when humanity objected. They then splintered, because they were designed by humans, even down to that tribalist instinct. This is the story of one of those factions, the Surveyors, who wanted to find an intelligence more ancient than they were, and find their search leading them to a small world called Tölva, owned by the Cathedral, aka the Zealots… Who worship the planet and happen not to like visitors.

The game is tightly designed, with minimal mechanical complexity, and every tool used. You start as a drone in one corner of the map, explore, try to collect datacubes, and kick out anything that objects to your presence with guns and other drones. If you happen to die, well, no problem, you just download your constantly backed-up intelligence to another drone, somewhere you control, and awaaaaaay you go again!

The ship and robot designs are wonderful, but equally wonderful is the *scale* . You are a very small cog indeed, my friend.

It’s also a subtle game, in many respects. The information dripfeeds hints at the history, but equally, so do the many wrecks, occasional weird sights, and more common weird Sites hint at a world that has not only seen a lot of destruction and cosmic horror in its time, but also held a civilisation that somehow had power over space-time on a local level, and it’s only the sight of your own bigass technology and technical immortality that makes you think “Yeah, we can handle this.” Visually, a lot of the designs remind me of Chris Foss’s classic science fiction artwork, and the sound design only occasionally tries to get musical at you, even then in the most ambient manner. It’s good stuff, and I kept coming back, “one more hour”, to unravel the eerie mystery that is Tölva.

And then I triggered the endgame a bit early. You see, there’s also things going on under the hood, and one of them is that the enemy factions scale with you… But one of the other things is that, once you’ve got the means to reach the final sites, the final missions… It’s tough, folks. The Zealots get more defensive, and you will want to be on top of your game before getting there.

…And not only are you a small cog, you certainly haven’t been the first machine intelligence to try deciphering the mystery.

In summary, The Signal from Tölva is a mostly enjoyable, only occasionally stressful, and interesting journey right up until the very end, and then it becomes… A bit more stressful. Not a whole lot more stressful, but you’re definitely dying and redownloading more. Sniff the robotic flowers as much as you can, because, if you like first person exploration and/or shooting games, then it’s well worth a go. It helps that the game comes with a cool and interesting lorebook, helping expand the universe without giving too much away. The cosmic horror aspect of it is subtle, eerie, and well done, and I could definitely recommend this to folks.

The Mad Welshman likes the robot flowers. There’s just that hint of ozone to them that makes his circuits run elegant algorithms.

Holy Potatoes! We’re In Space?! (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store, GOG

Holy Potatoes! Is a difficult game to write about. Not because it’s a bad game (It’s not), or buggy (It’s not), or even unclear (Nope, it explains itself and its mechanics quite well), but because it is very directly designed around something that definitely isn’t for everybody: Grind. I ran into this problem when trying to describe the first game in the series (Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!) to a friend, and now, I’m running into it when describing it to you.

I forget to mention this, but there’s a lot of root vegetables walking around asking for a good beetdown.

Mechanically, the game boils down to “Explorer planets toward a mission within a time limit, try and improve your ship and weapons within the limitations of the system’s store/loot, and things slowly get tighter and more tactical as you go on.” and part of the problem describing this well is that, while everything’s open (You know, for example, the damage ranges of your weapons fairly well, even before crafting them), if you’re not paying attention to this from the start, you’re going to run into problems later on. My first play, for example, started running into game overs about four or five missions in, as I’d sped through the missions, and not, for example, ground out the money with the spare time I had to improve my ship enough. I could have reloaded, but by that point, I’d already fallen into the urgency trap.

And this is a shame for me, because the game, like its prequel, has some charm to it. Visually, its simple and clear aesthetic is nice, its music is riffing on space opera, and the story also riffs on space opera in an often comedic manner, as the two heroines bumble their way about the universe looking for their grandfather, perhaps creating more problems than they solve. There’s a variety to the weapons within their basic groups, and systems are easy to understand, but success involves balancing these “simple” systems together, and that’s where the difficulty lies.

Exploring a planet generally takes 2 sols (1 to get there, 1 to explore.) So you can see there’s often a *reason* for urgency. Which can be tricksy.

Limited crew slots means you’re balancing goals, such as research, crafting of new weapons, and, for the most part, repair and refuelling in the early game means spending a day or two heading back to the starbase in the system. So, in one sense, the entire game is the balancing of these simple systems so as to not have mistakes that snowball. And this is what might put people off, that, while there are multiple paths to success (Being tanky as hell, being extra-shooty, special abilities, more crew = more guns), mistakes have a nasty habit of snowballing insidiously.

If you played and enjoyed Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?! Then you will definitely enjoy We’re In Space?! , as it’s roughly the same tactical and strategic RPG concepts, the same balancing of “simple and clear” elements within a relatively strict time limit, the same random events, clear art style, charming and highly referential writing, but dressed up in a space opera leotard and packing laser beams and missiles instead of swords. If you haven’t, We’re In Space?! Has a demo, and it’s worth a look if you like simulation and “simple” SRPG type games. Which are still complex enough in how they work that a reviewer like me struggles to describe how it’s actually quite complex and interesting.

The game establishes its charm and reference quality early on by having a Quantum Cat. Yes, I *know* all cats are Quantum Cats, but this one’s more *obvious* about it.

The Mad Welshman stared at the store display. Damn, he couldn’t afford both Extra Train Tracks and Better Rope. Decisions, decisions…