StarCrawlers (Review)

Source: Birthday Gift
Price: £14.99 (£18.99 for game and soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam, GOG

Being touched by knowledge of the Eldritch Thingumawotsits from The Dark Between The Stars is, it turns out, rather rough. But it does have its upsides. Being able to drain the shields of your enemies, smite them with pure Void… Yup, definitely has its compensations.

The bosses can get quite inventive, including this feller and his robo-dawgies. Git!

And this, funnily enough, is one of the things I like about StarCrawlers: Every class has its ups and downs, and, more importantly, its own flavour. So the temptation to have a save game in each class, so as to explore the story of the game from several perspectives, is definitely tempting. Even if I’m not actually the biggest fan of the Void Psyker due to the whole “Not so hot portrayal of mental health and occult stuff” being a roadblock for me.

In any case, StarCrawlers is a turn based, step based roleplaying game set in a corporate space opera universe, where everything moves when you do, your actions in combat have time costs that need to be considered, but it’s perfectly okay, because time doesn’t move on until you’ve had a cup of tea, a nice think, and then held down the mouse button, selected “MURDER THESE DAMN ENEMIES ALREADY”, and moved on. It does interesting things, like being able to look around while you explore, which you’ll need, as not everything is at eye level. I’ve found security panels and credsticks in some odd places, from next to desks, near the floor, and even, in a couple of cases, just lying, in a planter. Okay, not the security panel, but yeah, the game wants you to look around, and it demonstrates this by hiding things so that looking around nets you maximum loot. It’s also a fairly colourblind friendly game, and the UI is pretty clear.

If you don’t like the psychic darkside, then how about the power… To kill a droid from 200 yards away… WITH MIND BULLETS?!?

So, is there anything bad about the game? Well, apart from the characterisation of the Void Psyker, which is, tbqh, a hackneyed stereotype I’d really rather see less of, my main “complaints” are more like “niggles.” For optimal play, you will want a hacker and an engineer in your party, so as to, respectively, hack terminals and security panels, and fix shit that’s broken. The plot missions require a few level ups to get to, but this is actually okay because the generation of the levels keeps to a theme, and occasionally goes interesting places like the inside of mining asteroids and the like, while still making sure that secret doors aren’t blocked off, that once you know an area’s “theme”, you can quickly find security trip-lasers, secret door buttons, and, of course, the things likely to contain loot.

There’s a lot to StarCrawlers, but thankfully, it’s pretty accessible, from the Black Market to the faction system that can lead to assassins being sent after you by a corporation you’ve pissed off (In my runs, nearly always Chimera Corp, the Umbrella of the spaceways, but you might end up pissing off someone like Horizon Robotics or The Workers Union instead), it has an interesting universe, good sounds, good music, and clear visuals. I’d heartily recommend it to RPG fans, as it’s a good example of making a genre that occasionally gets bogged down in grogginess accessible to folks of all types.

“You don’t think it’s too subtle, Marty, you don’t think people are going to drive down and not see the door?”

The Mad Welshman inspires many a space psychic, being formed of the pure Dark Between The Genres.

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EVERSPACE (Review)

Source: Birthday prezzie
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: SteamGOG

I do love me my first person space shooting games, and I do love me my procedural generation, so EVERSPACE (Capitals intended) continues to ring my bell in a most pleasing manner… With one exception: The story.

“Ye’re a Clone, ‘Arry!”
“You what?”
“A CLONE, ‘ARRY!”

More accurately, the fact that, once I’ve missed the story, that’s it, boom, it’s gone, it’s done, and you won’t see it again. I don’t mind so much that you don’t get new story until you reach the next sector, because honestly, the story is interesting, and takes a few twists and turns. Suffice to say, the strangeness of multiple pilots piloting what appears to be the same ship was indeed, as many players had speculated, that you are a clone. And that’s not a spoiler, because a) It was p. obvious, and b) It gets revealed in Sector 2. Of 7. And is foreshadowed from the start.

It’s kind of hard to write the release review at this point, because my opinion remains largely unchanged: The voice acting is excellent, while remaining down to earth (I especially like HIVE, the fussy, very snarky core of the AETERNA system of the ship you fly), the different ships definitely make for a different gameplay experience, and the dying while levelling up over time mechanic, that we’ve now seen in multiple games this month, let alone this year, remains a fairly decent way of lengthening play while not making it feel like grind (Even though that’s exactly what it is.) The handling is good, the music and sound design pleasing…

This screenshot, taken just moments before death, shows you a Bad Idea: Taking on an Okkar Corvette before you’re *damn good and ready*

… I am, however, the first to admit it’s not for everbody. You don’t get to keep money between runs, so unlocking your first other ship (From your two choices of the Scout or the Gunship) can feel extremely annoying, some of the achievements seem a little forced (No, really, what do I have against floodlights, of all things?), and, of course, space shooters in general are a genre that doesn’t have a great history accessibility wise, being hard to simplify and requiring a little bit of twitch to the old reflexes. Still, it’s got a lot going for it, and having a different ship does make for a somewhat different experience.

The scout, for example, can cloak, and begins with a charged sniping weapon and a beam laser, relying on speed, cloaking, and the limited automatic lock-on of the beam laser to win the day, while the Gunship has a top turret, heavier weapon loadouts, more armour… And begins with no shields, making it a battle of attrition until you get some. There are also skills that don’t depend on a ship, and it’s these I tend to prioritise while playing because… Honestly, who doesn’t want more credits, better resources, and the knowledge beforehand that if they go that way, they’ll encounter a terrifying black hole, and if they go that way, they’ll encounter an Okkar warship?

The Gunship remains my favourite.

Any which way, if you like space flight shooting type games, don’t mind the fact that you (currently) only get the story once, and will be seeing the early sectors a fair bit, then EVERSPACE is definitely worth a go. The story gets very interesting, fairly quickly, it has both 1st and 3rd person modes, an action cam for when you want to take ROCKING SCREENSHOTS, and the ship design is well worth a look.

“I think I’m getting the hang of thi-” is, perhaps, The Mad Welshman’s most common set of last words. TMWr1-46, 58-64, and 128-209 have all said such words before rejoining the star-stuff Carl Sagan said we’re all made of.

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Endless Space 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £34.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Endless Space 2 is big. I mean really big. I mean, you may think it’s a long walk down to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to Endless Space 2!

Joking reference aside, Endless Space 2 is, as far as turn based strategy where you eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate other alien races, most often while playing an alien race yourself, actually quite good. Even if I’m somewhat salty about Amplitude following the current “stance” of “Who even plays hotseat?” (Hi! I do! And so do quite a few of my friends!)

Making this clear right now… The Sophons are totally not my… Adorkable, irresponsible, space babies. Nope.

So let’s get that out the way right now: Multiplayer is online only, none of the playing-with-yourself or risk free theorycrafting shenanigans you’d be used to in some other… Well, quite a few other strategy games, up till relatively recently. If that’s a turnoff, I understand. Let’s get on to the good stuff.

In Endless Space 2, there are eight races, and they all play somewhat differently. This has pretty much been the charm of Amplitude games since the studio arose in 2011, and it’s a skill they’ve been steadily honing through their company life. The Unfallen, for example, with their “branch” system of colonising, are extremely interesting. They can only colonise in lines from the homeworld, and instead of sending a ship full of people, they send a ship that lures space-vines from the homeworld, entangling a system, and then they send the first colonists through the space-vines. On the upside, this means they can stretch out a web of influence, and colonise systems quickly once they have the technology to actually live on the bloody things. On the downside, if somebody happens to conquer a system along that branch, whether there were nice treemen living there or not, everything further down the branch is lost, and, unlike every other faction except the Vodyani, if you lose your homeworld, that’s it. Game over. Caput.

But interest comes in many flavours. A returning faction from the first game, the Sophons, are my dear little science babies, not because they have a different colonisation method, or because they’re game breaking, but because they have accepted that Science is a verb, a noun, a preposition, and… Look, they really like science… Often to their own detriment. And I love them for it, which leads nicely into the narrative end of things.

And it definitely isn’t because they acknowledge as objective fact that Science is a Verb.

Endless Space 2 has race specific questlines. The Sophons, for example, have found themselves in the unenviable position of having created the universe’s first (known) Super-AI, called ENFER, have plugged it into everything they can, and now have to answer a very difficult question: How the heck do we keep it happy? Everybody has their thing, and nobody is very nice. The United Empire, under very Stalinist propaganda, are influence wielding warmongers, the Riftborn just want to live, their perfect, ordered universe having been destroyed by our chaotic, quantum-fuckery filled one (Which, if you think about it, is very much Cosmic Horror), the Horatio (A race of clones) want to make things perfect (IE – All Horatio, because Horatio is perfection), the Cravers are perfectly happy being hungry murderbugs designed to devour entire planets (or are they?) , and…

…Look, there’s a lot of stories here. Not just the eight racial stories, but the stories of individual heroes, the universe (The fallout of a war between two ideologically opposed Super Races who appear to have killed each other, but may not actually be dead, is one familiar to science fiction fans, but is excellently implied), and even of specific worlds, come together in a well written and engaging universe that’s well worth looking at on its own. The UI is mostly friendly and clear (The research “circle” is a little confusing at first, as is how to get to ground force management), the ships have real polish and difference to them, and the music… Electronic heaven, whether its somewhat ambient, as in the title screen, or the more “Ohcrap, things are happening” of the combat tuneage.

Both ground and space combat, for returning Endless players, has had some improvement, with extra choices and tactics at the beginning, but remains “You make choices about range and tactics, then watch the pretty lights and explosions.” Or don’t.

Essentially, if you want to eXplore space, eXpand into new worlds, and eXploit and eXterminate new civilisations, Endless Space 2 is another good one to go for. Like Master of Orion 2016, its difficulty is fairly adjustable, and, as noted, my main bitch with the game is the same one I have with this genre all over in recent years… I just want to have a chill time smashing spaceships and aliens together, by myself, and nobody’s letting me.

The Mad Welshman can’t actually pick a favourite faction. They’re all moustache twirley in their own way, and he loves them all equal- AHAHA SCIENCE FOR THE WIN, YOU CAN’T OUTFIGHT ME IF I OUT-TECH YOU EVERYWHERE!

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Flinthook (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.99 (£14.99 for Deluxe with artbook, music, and other nice gubbins)
Where To Get It: Humble StoreSteam

Flinthook, a game about a ghost headed pirate with time-slowing powers, an anchor that he uses to effortlessly hook his way around, and, of course, a blaster, begins in an extremely fun way. So many possibilities! An interesting cartoon universe, hinted at in scraps of lore and relics and enemy designs! Good sound effects and a consistent, action-cartoon aesthetic I can’t help but love!

Alas, that first bloom has faded. Let me tell you, folks, about my own White Whale. Let me tell you… about the Midgame.

Your choice of ships to raid is, for the most part, clearly explained, and it’s easy to remember what does what. This, as it turned out, was a Poor Choice.

Currently level 39, I am, at the time of this review, about halfway through. And I feel like I owe my victory more toward grind and luck than skill, without feeling bad about it. Why? Because, from about level 20 onwards, from about three skulls onwards, the game starts throwing some distinctly unfair rooms at you. Rooms where I have yet to figure out if there even is a way to get through without taking damage. And it starts playing tricks that, honestly, I’m not on board with. Here, screenshotted, is a pretty good example: The Bird Room. While exploring the procedurally generated ship-dungeons of the game, you may come across the bird room. The birds are invincible. No, those bubbles, unlike the others you may encounter (including in boss encounters) cannot be popped with your hook. And they will poop similarly invincible bombs at you until you leave. How not to be damaged? Don’t be under them. Don’t touch them. Good luck!

Thank you, Flinthook, for very briefly wanting me to replace my cries of FUCKING BATS with DAMN BOMB POOPING SPACE PARROTS

Similarly, combat rooms start getting, for want of a better word to describe them, dickish. And a lot of this fuckery comes from one enemy in particular: The bubble wizards. As long as these robed assholes live, everything else is invincible. And often, these same lizard wizards are hiding… behind the invincible enemies. Oh, never in such a way as to completely block them off, it must be said… But nearly always in a way that getting to them has a much higher chance of you needing to damage sponge your way to them.

Adding to this is that half the subweapons… Feel much more situational than the other half. Spinning Skulls are a finicky subweapon to hit folks with, and don’t do a whole lot of damage, the bomb barrels are for when you want an enemy heavily damaged or dead right damn now, whereas, by comparison, the freeze globe is a “Get out of miniboss/dickish trap room” card, or at least something that helps, and the Fighting Bell is temporary invincibility, which… Is also a “Get out of miniboss/dickish trap room” card. I often forget subweapons as a result, or end up with Giant Robot Crab Syndrome, where I don’t want to use my freeze globe on the trap room because I might need it for another room.

Poor Bad Billy Bullseye. This is the fifth time I’ve done this to him out of frustration I’ve died on the way to the Baron so much.

The bosses, by comparison, are… Well, actually somewhat easier. Bad Billy Rex, the unlockable upgraded form of the first boss, felt like a victory lap, since his base pattern doesn’t really change: Hook his ride’s glowy bubble butt, shoot it, and a new glowy bubble butt appears, shoot his tumbling starfish brethren that he adds each time, repeat until there are no bubble butts to pop, his centipede-buffalo pal is dead, and poor Bad Billy is left crying like the Rancor trainer in Return of the Jedi.

Is Flinthook a bad game? Not really. It uses all its abilities, makes them pretty accessible, and teaches you their use very well. But it’s a game that expects you to grind out to reach the endgame, and it’s a game where the levels, not particularly the bosses, are the real enemy. It’s pretty twitchy from even the midgame, so I sadly can’t recommend this to folks who, for various reasons, can’t play that sort of game. For everyone else, the pixel art is consistent, the UI is good and clear, powerups are explained when you get them, the music is brilliant, and the sound effects are also good. It took me about 4 hours to hit the midgame, and I expect it will be at least a few more before I’m ready to tackle the endgame. It’s a “few more hours” I’m not entirely sure I’m willing to invest, myself, but your mileage may vary, so if you like arcadey platforming and shooting hijinks, perhaps this is for you.

The Mad Welshman loves universes like this. Even if, in said universes, he’d probably end up with a glowing weakpoint.

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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…

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