Pharmakon (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £7.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Pharmakon is a game I want to like because, goodness me, it tries to experiment. It even tries to make its own experience less frustrating. Let’s talk a little bit about what it is, first, before we deal with why, sadly, I’m not its biggest fan.

Thankfullly, this is a wee beast, and of an element I’m fully prepared for.

Pharmakon is a turn based combat game in which you, an Elemental Agent, are sent to a remote world filled with aggressive, equally elemental monsters, because… Well, as it turns out, mostly to die. You think you’re the first Agent to be here, are rapidly disabused of this notion, and then things get a bit odd, story wise. To the developer’s credit, although English is not their first language (Visumeca hails from France), they’ve done okay in localising, although some of the speech is a little stilted. In any case, you fight these creatures with your drone, the power of which depends on three things: First, what elemental tetrominoes you’ve plugged into its awkward casing. These tetrominoes, in turn, can be destroyed if you think you don’t need them (You only have a limited storage space, after all) to add to your repair stores for their respective elemental damage values. Secondly, the number of times you’ve fired, charging up a skill meter, and finally, those skills. Unlocked by progression through the story (More on that in a bit), levelling up involves firing lasers of various element through skill icons, from four different directions. Opposing elements block each other, and this elemental interplay resides throughout the game.

This, on the other hand, is big trouble. I’m *not* going to come out of this well, and will probably die in the next phase.

So… Having explained the basics, let’s go into why I’m not its biggest fan, although it does try. Let’s start with dying. Dying does not end the story. What happens when you die is that a new Agent is sent, with their inventory filled with one element. The monster progression, however, doesn’t change, which means that, once you’ve started dying, odds are high you’ll keep dying, because you don’t have the elemental variety to keep up. It’s only mildly less annoying to note, again, that dying does not stop you from progressing in the story. I have been informed that a theme of this game is perseverance, but, unfortunately, despite being told so, it doesn’t show very well in the game or the story, as Agents will say the same thing in the story no matter who they are.

Visuallly, the game is very clear, and although the angle doesn’t show it too well, a lot of effort has gone into making a variety of beasties to fight. You quickly ascertain what things do, although the first few fights are an extended tutorial, just to make sure. The sound and music are okay, nothing special, but they set the mood, and they don’t feel out of place, which is what’s needed.

Elements that don’t react with each other, thankfully, work well. Each extra icon I grab lowers the cost of a special ability.

As such, Pharmakon is not a bad game, and it does do interesting things, but the killing of monsters and the levelling up is pretty much all there is to it. If you’re okay with that, if you want to check out something that experiments, and has a few flaws that make it drag on, then I’d say give it a go.

The Mad Welshman is of Element Moustache. It has no weakness, only strength. Well, that’s what it tells you, anyway. Muahahahahaaa.

Zafehouse Diaries 2 (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £4.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Zombies. Zombies never change. Wars. Bigotry. History… But zombies… Zombies… Never change.

Okay, maybe they do. Fast zombies, big zombies, little zombies… There’s a lot of zombies out there, but Zafehouse Diaries 2, like its predecessor, pretty much sticks with our shambling, flocking, endlessly moaning dead folks. It also tries to update the “Bunch of bigoted assholes are the only ‘survivors’ of a zombie apocalypse” formula Screwfly used in their very first game, Zafehouse Diaries 1, and…

Mark, like many of his ilk, is dancing around the fact that he judges books by their covers, or, more specifically, the *colour* of their covers. Redemption is possible, but I foresee head noms in his future…

…Honestly, Zafehouse Diaries 2 is one I feel conflicted about, because while there’s undeniably more to the game than its predecessor, there’s also more confusion. The Investigate/Snipe/Breach interface, for example, has become a little less clear. Click on the little icon to customise what you’re doing. This is kind of important, because that involves taking things with you, just one example of things you could be doing.

In any case, it’s a turn based strategy game in which you marshall a bunch of survivors, trying to feed yourselves, deal with internal conflicts, and, in at least some cases, try to get the hell out of town. Folks can work together on tasks, but, as in many zombie media, the survivors come from all walks of life, including howling bigots. Timothy, a middle class musician, doesn’t “like the look of” Dana, because he’s a racist. Jeffrey doesn’t like women. Dana, meanwhile, has beef with older folks (like Timothy, funnily enough.) Spreading rumours once a day can improve the mood, but it can also backfire horrendously. Heck, you can do it deliberately, if you really want to.

Not gonna lie, I kinda blinked a bit at this rumour. The options are racists and foreigners, and while it makes sense after thought… It did make me blink for a bit.

There are several scenarios, from the return of Road Kill (find a roadmap, a car, a repair manual, and five bits to repair a car to get out of town before everyone dies) to the new Kill Switch (Five soldiers, no relationship problems, stop an airstrike while nastier zombies try to wreck the town’s power grid.) As before, you can add custom content, such as making yourself in the game, but custom content (and indeed, changing the difficulty via the Custom Game option) stops you getting achievements. Similarly, there are events in game, such as the Piper, an asshole in a pickup truck who gives you the option of giving one of your folks as zombie bait, or having a tantrum, and beeping his horn as he drives off, attracting zombies. I hate the Piper.

Sadly, it isn’t the friendliest of games. Although Screwfly have clearly made an effort to improve over Zafehouse 1, making more things clear, such as customising orders, it’s a game where reading the manual (Which is in-game, under Help) is very important.

Overall, visually, Zafehouse Diaries 2 is an improvement over 1 (Although, as mentioned, that Breach/Snipe/Investigate could probably stand to be clearer), it does have more content, and it is a friendlier game than Zafehouse 1, especially with a tutorial, it’s still one you’ll want to explore the UI of before you make a move, and some things still aren’t quite clear (Survivor relationships, for example, affect the quality of their work together.)

While it’s not pictured, the Breach/Investigate/Snipe button is a post-it note next to Location Summary. A *small* , two-part post-it note. It could do with being a tadge bigger.

The Mad Welshman wants to eat the rich. However, he sees better chances of doing so as a zombie than a survivor. 

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!

Morphblade (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I could write a single paragraph, and sum up Morphblade’s mechanics and concept. That’s how simple it is. I could sum up how I feel about it in a single sentence, if not the single word “Pleased.” That’s how uncomplicated it is to review. I could write a tiny essay on the tactical complexity the game’s simple rules and simple and easy to identify enemies provides, further fuel for my platform of “All games are made of simple rules, it’s what you do with them that counts.”

All games of Morphblade start something like this. There is, at first, one move.

I am going to do one of those things. Okay, maybe two. But first, I’m going to say it’s a short game where the pleasure is in playing. Unless you’re good, a single game will last all of two to five minutes. And then it will ask you whether you want to play again.

Instead, I’m going to use 264 words (counting this sentence), to ramble briefly about niches, and how “Short” and “Simple” are not dirty words. People seem to have this weird idea in their heads that if they have a short and simple game, they’re going to play it, get bored, and oh gosh, they’ve wasted… What’s currently the equivalent of two, maybe three bottles of Dr. Pepper. Oh no.

See, here’s the thing about short and simple games… Sometimes, you don’t want a long game. Even the people who say they want long games will find themselves, at 5AM (Coincidentally, it is 05:16), unwilling to touch their Torments, or their Age of Wonders. They’ll find themselves not wanting to stress out over their Overwatch rankings, or their Bulletstorm combos, or the inner complexities of a Hearthstone or whatnot. They’ll want something where they know what they’re in for…

As you can plainly see, tiles and enemies have their function explained, and it’s easy to remember (Not pictured: With right click)

…And Morphblade will be waiting for them. Silently, it will be reminding them that all its rules are explained… As you play. That all its symbols are open to it. That it won’t need you to quit in the middle of a game, because the end is always just around the corner. Just a couple of false moves (Rarely one. Usually two. At worst, three), and it’s all over. And it is definitely your fault, but it isn’t a problem. It doesn’t judge. In fact, it wants you to play it, and you can tell because it’s highly accessible, with an easily deciphered and colourblindness friendly palette, simple, easily deciphered shapes. It fits its niche excellently.

I bet a friend a tenner I couldn’t write more than 500 words about Morphblade, but not only am I going to win this bet, I’m going to finish the review by showing you some simple steps as to how to see for yourself how simple, deadly simple, the game is.

First, you look at the top of this review. There’s that price, less than £4. There’s also a Steam Store page link. Go click that. A video will autoplay (Or, if you have autoplay off, you can click play), and Tom Francis of Suspicious Developements will spend less than 3 minutes demonstrating the game (The length, funnily enough, of a normal game)

I can take one hit, so both of these enemy bugs are effectively dead. If one of them had been armoured, I could have run away. PLANNING.

I’ve now won a tenner, and am 6 quid up on my purchase. Which I can then use to buy Morphblade for a friend. Because I’m almost certain, based on play, the game, and Mr. Francis’ explanation of the game, that they will at least like it enough to come back to it.

It won’t mind. How can it, it’s a video game. Video games don’t judge. Only people do. I judged “Yea” on this one. You might too.

…Oh yeah, and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. Truly, I’m blessed.

Inevitably, you die. The only thing the game doesn’t *tell* you is that the turn counter is also the menu button.” Which is a tiny niggle, honestly.

The Mad Welshman smiled. Wave 19 isn’t so bad. We’ll see if we can top 20 later on. Or… Maybe now. Yeah, nothing urgent going on.

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?