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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Subnautica (Early Access Review 2)

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

Subnautica is life’s way of saying “It’s okay that Endless Ocean doesn’t have a PC port.” Even down to the occasional punctuation of chill undersea times with pants wetting terror.

How… How long was I out?

So, it is the far future. Utopia has been achieved, and nice, not animal-killing humans have spread to the stars, exploring and spreading the word of peace and love. Except where you happen to be, because your ship got exploded in orbit around a watery world, and to survive, you will have to… shudder… Eat fish. Also survive, explore the world, and perhaps find out what happened, both to the Aurora and your fellow crewmates who at least managed to escape the ship.

Ohhhh yeah… *Ohhhhhh* yeaaaahhh… The mooon is beautiful…

The first thing you’ll notice, once you begin the game, is how beautiful this alien world is. Schools of fish swim, with many different kinds, plant life abounds, and even the moon is lovingly rendered. It’s also a relaxing experience, swimming, collecting resources, and slowly, but surely, learning more of the world around you.

But then the game enters its second phase, and things become… A little more fraught. For all that this world is a beautiful one, it’s also a dangerous one, and, beyond a survival knife, the protagonist comes from a pacifist society that doesn’t really do weapons. And so, you will find things that want to kill you, and your best policy… Is avoidance. Permadeath, thankfully, is not part of this game unless you wish it to be, so being eaten by one of the more dangerous residents, or running out of oxygen, merely results in being plonked back at the nearest base you’ve built, without the things you collected since you last left (But, crucially, the blueprints you gather will still be gathered, so you can still, in a sense, progress… A nice touch!)

The Reaper Leviathan, as seen from a *relatively* safe distance. Loss count on the current save to this … Thing? 3 deaths and a SeaMoth.

I won’t pretend, however, that this isn’t annoying at times. In my current save, for example, one of the most dangerous creatures of the ocean, the Reaper Leviathan, is plonked right next to one of the richer seams of materials and blueprints, the crashed ship Aurora, and every visit so far has resulted in either death, or the very expensive loss of a minisub (the SeaMoth), and then death. But, fair traveller, this is a temporary phase, and there are other places, other ways to gain the materials you need to improve, and make this world a little safer. You can build bases, waypoints in the deep, and travel between them. You can grow fish, or farm plants, once you find the means to do so. You can create current generators, devices that can very forcefully push the more dangerous fish away from your home of choice. And when you spread your wings, able to explore in relative safety?

Crystalline forests. A strange island, seemingly the only landmass in sight. Mushroom trees, stretching almost to the surface. Swimming among the reefbacks. It’s not often I say a sandbox survival game is a beautiful, calming experience, but once you get over a few resource humps, that’s exactly what Subnautica becomes. And always, always, the mystery of the planet… Awaits. For in one of the most recent updates, the planet now has plot… And mysteeeerious ruins!

Mystery! Excitement! Danger! All of these can be found… In a videogame!

Yes, somebody has heard the Aurora’s SOS, but at the same time… Do you really want to leave, considering there are alien ruins, and teleportation technology, maybe other useful things, and maybe, just maybe, the off switch for whatever the heck blew up the Aurora? I certainly wouldn’t. For £15, the game is highly reasonable, and is only becoming more reasonable as time goes on. Check it out if you like mysteries, living under the sea, and exploration.

The Mad Welshman grinned as he looked at the alien ruins. Triangles… Why was it always triangles with these aliens?

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Endless Space 2 (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £26.24 standard, £33.73 Digital Deluxe
Where To Get It: Steam

Since the inception of Amplitude in 2011 (An event I remember with some small fondness), the studio have experimented with 4X genre constraints with their Endless series of games (With a little side trip into the roguelike/tower defense genre with Dungeons of the Endless.) They’re an interesting studio, with an interesting model, and, as a result, their games are often interesting. Not always standing the test of time, but often putting new ideas into the game development community.

Political Parties, new to Endless Space 2!

Endless Space 2, so far, is shaping up to be no different in that respect. As such, it’s already a somewhat different beast to the original Endless Space, taking what they’ve learned from Endless Legend to fiddle with the space 4X formula. And the five factions currently available, a mix of the rejiggered old, and completely new, demonstrates this quite aptly.

It also demonstrates that sometimes I don’t get on with aspects of the experimentation, as the first new faction, the Vodyani, demonstrates.

In the Endless Universe (Now rebooted, in a sense, for Endless Space 2), the Vodyani are one half of the uplift philosophies of the two “Endless” precursor alien groups that have left their mark on the universe, the Virtual. Virtual beings seemingly made of flame, the Vodyani are slow burners on the game front, due to their core mechanic: Both population growth and colonisation are tied to Essence, which can either be extracted from Dust (Tying up your production queue) or from other life forms (Tying up your military and souring diplomacy pretty much everywhere they go.) They can move from system to system with their Arks (Heavily armed and armoured space Titans), and it’s only when they attach themselves to a world that they colonise it. Or, you can go with their slow as molasses population growth

Dun Dundrrrun dun du-du-du-dun DAA DAA DAA DA DA-DAAAA DA DA-DAAAA!

But when they do, unlike other races, each counter of population applies to each planet they can colonise. They’re this strange mix of strong and fragile, as I discovered when I found the Ark… Couldn’t defend against a ground invasion. Cue one lost game. One of many.

I’ve had a much better time, by contrast, with the slightly more conventional factions: The United Empire, The Sophons, and the Lumeris (I’ve never been good at playing Cravers, but they seem largely unchanged from ES1, in the sense that being penned in is the worst thing that can happen to them, and conquest is the major victory type.) Each one has a different focus (Industry with the UE, Science with the Sophons, and Dust with the Lumeris), and each faction in general has something to bring to the table. For example, the Lumeris buy their colonies, and can trade them if they so desire, while the Sophons research faster if nobody else has the tech yet, allowing their research to… Far, far outpace their industry, if you’re not careful. The main problems right now (I’m almost certain this is subject to change) is that the AI is a little timid once you’ve built up enough force, and doesn’t seem to play the Rock-Paper-Scissors game with beam, energy, and missile weapons so well… Although they’ll still kick your ass on a ground assault without the numbers on your side.

The United Empire: Now much more clearly Not Good People.

It’s entertaining, there’s no doubt about that, as the questline feature from Endless Legend is applied adroitly to each faction (For example, the UE is about the paranoid emperor trying to find and quash dissent), and the new political system, if your economy goes well, can allow for some drastic shifts in focus, although I often find, due to my playstyle and the fact that war empowers them, that the Militarist party is most often in power regardless of faction, although minor races having their own political affiliation helps. The UI is simple and clean, the battle mode has some clarifications and upgrades (Although not full ship control, which I know turns some folks off) …

… But right now, even though I’m finding it fun a fair amount of the time, it’s also oddly frustrating in portions. When a game goes badly, it goes horrifically, depressingly wrong, but when it goes well? I find myself running out of things to do, to build, and so, by about turn 100 on a good game, I’m finding myself hitting the End Turn button twice, once to try, and once to confirm that yes, I’m not building anything in those five or so core systems because my industry has outpaced my research, or there’s nothing that I particularly need at this point. Your mileage, obviously, may vary there. Something that may get fixed before release is that the battles seem to calculate slower as the game goes on, and this can become a bit annoying, and, as the final screenshot shows, some of the faction colours may be a problem for colourblind folks to read.

Still, the writing of the game so far is pleasant, if somewhat stereotypical in places (Space Shark Mafia are quite literally a Mafia, Crime Families and all, for example), the art and ship designs are gorgeous, the music is calming for the most part, and the rebooted universe of the Endless still, somehow, feels fresh.

I just wish I really understood how the Vodyani played, even if I love Sciencing the crap out of people as the Sophons.

The Sophons know, like all good space-dorks, that Science Is A Verb. 8D

The Mad Welshman fully understands the Sophons’ joy. I mean, there’s nothing quite like writing your name on the moon with a giant death laser, is there?

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Master of Orion: Conquer The Stars (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99 (£29.99 for extra lovely stuff, including the first three Master of Orion games, an art book, and the TERRAN KHANATE [Evil Humans])
Where To Get It: Steam, GOG

I’m going to start this review with what will most likely be an unpopular opinion about the older Master of Orion games: They’re dated. Yes, you heard me, I, a fellow 4X player, just told you he thinks one of many games that laid the groundwork for the space 4X genre is dated. Maybe not as good as you remember it. Still good. Still one of the games that laid the groundwork. And I hold this opinion for two reasons.

It isn't *too* likely you'll have this many ships in one fight. But god-damn, it makes for a lovely intro!

It isn’t *too* likely you’ll have this many ships in one fight. But god-damn, it makes for a lovely intro!

Firstly, I’ve played enough of it, and recently enough, to know. Secondly, because comparisons are inevitable, and it seems some comparisons are being played up… And others down. Let’s start with what seems to be played down. Let’s start with how much attention has been paid to the feel of how grand Space Opera should be, and how it tries very hard to be more accessible this time around.

Just a brief look at the IMDB page for this game leaves no doubt that vocal talent was a focus of the game. Michael Dorn narrates, leaders and advisors alike are played by such luminaries as John Kassir (The Cryptkeeper), John De Lancie (Q, among many others), Mark Hamill (Do I even need to say?), Nika Futterman (Asaji Ventress, among others), Kari Wahlgren (The english voice of the Fate series’ Saber), Kat Cressida (Dee Dee from Dexter’s Lab), and Sumalee Montano (Arcee [Transformers] and Katana [Beware The Batman], among other voice roles), and each one seems to be giving their all. Similarly, the music and art direction (David Govett on music, and a talented art team including Bill Willingham… Yes, Fables Bill Willingham) show a deep love of the genre, with gorgeous landscapes, solid, characterful animations, and music that, my first time hearing it, I’m not ashamed to say I happy-cried. So the game is undeniably beautiful, both in sound and visuals. The UI, similarly, is well designed, simple, mostly self explanatory, with few interactions required to get to any one feature, only rare occasions where a tooltip will obscure a thing, and, of course, visual consistency. Similarly, there’s a lot of good writing in there, showing each race both as it is seen, and as it sees itself.

GNN... Bringing you the clickbait for the New Diaspora!

GNN… Bringing you the clickbait for the New Diaspora!

Accessibility wise, on top of the UI, everything is visually distinct, and the game is highly customisable in terms of difficulty and length. Don’t want to spend 10 hours on a game? You can up the tempo. Finding a full medium galaxy too tense in the early game? Knock down the number of opponents, make the galaxy bigger, tone down the difficulty… The choices are there, and they definitely have an effect. Myself, I don’t tend to do well in a crowded universe, so I knock the opponents down to 3 rather than 5, although I tend to prefer a medium universe. As in previous Master of Orion games, you can also create your own race, in much the same fashion as Master of Orion 2. And the tooltips are genuinely helpful, and the advisor interruptions are by no means unwelcome in the clear information they give. These are two factors that open this game up to newer players, and I think that should quite rightly be praised.

Now… I mentioned some things have been played up, and all of them have the same, dubious core idea: That Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (To use its full title for the first time this review… Most folks I know refer to it as MoO2016) is somehow more simplistic or easier than the older games. As someone who has now, since release, been bumrushed several times by races absolutely itching for space, who have obviously been concentrating on the shipbuilding end of things (That, or redlining their taxes), I would quite heartily disagree. In MoO2, I could quite happily spend 60 turns, or even 100, just slowly building up, sometimes without meeting anybody at all. In a Medium galaxy, populated by 5 other races, on Normal difficulty? The early game gets surprisingly tense, and I’ve often had to shift gears quite quickly. Knock the players down a bit, and it calms down a bit. Knock the difficulty down a notch, and similarly, it calms down a notch. As to simplicity? It’s a somewhat refined version of MoO2’s rules. Not a huge amount of changes, not a huge amount of additions or subtractions. Mostly, it’s been refinements, and y’know what? I’m okay with that.

An early game buildup...

An early game buildup…

Finally, there’s the combat system. I don’t mind it either way, as it retains elements of the older, turn based system that MoOs 1 and 2 had (Complete with ship customisation elements), and the rock-paper-scissors of Energy/Missile/Mass Drivers remains, but with the real time strategy elements allowing skillful micro to outplay a superior enemy, or, if you so choose, being able to sit back and watch the combat resolve itself automatically… But more cinematically than just hitting Auto-Resolve itself.

Now… Overall, I’ve been positive, and if you’ve read my work before, you’d know I will always try and balance things out, even if I’m not always successful in doing so. Master of Orion is not without its problems. For example, selection of craft can get finicky at times, as it sometimes seems to want to drag craft as an interaction rather than the old “click select, click [if you want to select a specific ship], click move.” The AI’s primary interaction before you establish embassies is to be extremely aggressive toward everyone else, and production, in Classic pacing, feels a bit of a slog. I’m not going to accuse the AI of cheating with its builds, but I am going to say that their emphasis mostly appears to be on the Conquer side of the Paths to Victory rather than others, especially in the early game. As with many 4X games, once you get to the end game, you will probably be able to pick and choose which of the six paths to victory you go for, rather than having to choose. Those are a select few criticisms.

Overall, though, MoO2016 seems a good introduction to the Space 4X genre, and a well crafted one in the artistic sense to boot. Also, I can confirm that the art book expands a little on the lore of the galaxy, and has a fair amount of cool concept art. 😉

...Followed by an early game beatdown from some extremely irascible Russian Space Bears. I will never mock the Bulrathi again.

…Followed by an early game beatdown from some extremely irascible Russian Space Bears. I will never mock the Bulrathi again.

The Mad Welshman is now idly wondering whether anyone can do a similarly good job with other strategic games set in space such as Ascendancy, Millennium, or, just maybe, Emperor of the Fading Suns.

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