Shadowhand (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, the noble highwaypeople, secretly nobles or derring doers! Oh, wait, no, that wasn’t quite the way it went, generally speaking. But there is a vast literary tradition of the noble turned criminal for Good Deeds, and this, generally speaking, is what Shadowhand is about. Also Solitaire.

See? Corruption. ‘Sright there, and we’re gonna fight it, as Lady Cornelia Darkmoor, aka… SHADOWHAND.

Shadowhand is an odd mix, and one I’ve only seen occasionally in the past: A solitaire game, with RPG progression, inventory, and special abilities, and, because RPGs do, generally speaking, need a story, a story about a noblewoman who, at first, dons a highwayman’s costume to find her maidservant, but then gets drawn into deep intrigue, fraternising with the criminal element, mystical ladies in caravans, and grave-robbing, to name but a few moments.

However, enjoyment of the game will really, really depend on how much you like Solitaire, that card game of trying desperately to beat random chance by putting a card 1 higher or lower than the card you have drawn into the deck until there are either no cards left in the layout (Go you, you won!) , or no cards left in the deck (Aw, boo, you lost!) Because it is very much the core mechanic here. There are elements that make it easier, harder, or more interesting in those aforementioned RPG elements, like Luck, a double edged stat that presents a percentage chance of any move you make getting rid of a second, random card that you could have picked, but it remains a little bit chancy that any layout is solvable.

That’s less of an issue with combat, as combat is effectively “Try to get chains while preventing your opponent getting chains, so you can wallop them harder than they wallop you.” A thing which becomes more of an issue when the hit-points and defense keep going up, the weapon damage keeps going up, and when a chain really hits, it hits… Either way. Attacking ends a turn, but that, also, becomes a consideration when items that give extra turns, or punish you with bleeding for taking your turn come into play.

This, er… Fine gentleman managed to get me to hit the retry button something like 4 times. This was near the end of the second.

So… There’s depth to this whole Solitaire shebang, but it’s depth that becomes rather frustrating early on. Yes, okay, I can infinitely retry pretty much any segment of a chapter until I ace it. But, the further I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been hitting that retry button (and, occasionally, taking advantage of the bit I’m thankful for, being able to change my equipment before I actually start each combat, search, or gimmick level.)

You might be thinking, at this point, “Wow, he really doesn’t like this!” Not… Exactly. What I’m trying to get across here is that, yes, it’s a solitaire game with depth, some nice, relatively static visuals (Combat has short animations, and cards have short animations, but character dialogue is the static image of a character and textbox we know and love from Visual Novels and the like), some okay music (It fits the theme, it doesn’t get in the way, but it’s not terribly memorable, either), and a story (Which we’ll come back to in a second), but Solitaire, however it’s dressed up, given depth, or the like, remains a game that frustrates the hell out of even those of us who enjoy Solitaire from time to time.

Which, finally, brings us to the story, such as it is. It is not, strictly speaking, a bad story in the broad strokes. In fact, it’s one we’ve heard a few times: A noble accidentally ends up a highwayperson, finds some corruption (In this case, her family fortune is being embezzled in some larger scheme), and decides to lead a dual life in order to halt this corruption. It’s mainly that, as sometimes happens, the story takes a backseat to the game, and the tone of the story thus suffers. Oh no, dark deeds are afoot in the graveyard, and our heroine must find a treasure map by graverobbing, while also defeating Thug, Other Thug, and the boss of the area, mean ol’ gravekeeper Doug Hole! This is kind of a shame, as, like I said, the broad strokes are the bones of a good yarn. But it’s a yarn that doesn’t flow, tonewise or in terms of pacing, and that makes me kind of sad.

Never let it be said that Lady Shadowhand doesn’t take advantage of the finest of the Regency Roguery line!

Overall, as I’ve pretty much been saying the whole time, it really depends on how much you like Solitaire, whether you like this or not. If you accept Solitaire’s flaws for what they are, then you have a perfectly fine Solitaire game that adds depth to the basic formula, wraps a story around it, and has some interesting additions. Myself, I’m not that big a fan, so I only see myself coming occasionally back to this.

The Mad Welshman would like you to step down from the carriage gently and hand over your valuables. He also thanks you for your custom.

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Reigns: Her Majesty (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £2.09 (£2.09 for the soundtrack, 79p for the Book of the Queen, £6.99 for a bundle of both this and the original Reigns, with all the mod cons)
Where To Get It: Steam

I can say, having played Reigns: Her Majesty, that I have been a lesbian queen torn to shreds by the adoration of her populace. I’ve also been a bisexual queen burned by the church along with the unborn heir to the throne, a heterosexual queen who had a dalliance with her hunter, then turned off the sun, an asexual queen who burned the treasury on pretty things, but, in all of these stories, there has been a common thread.

Uggghh… The worst part about Queen PLC is the bleedin’ Marketing Department, I swear.

Some incredibly shifty (and often shiftless) men trying to tell me how to live my life. Not to mention a couple of folks, men and women, trying to tell me what is proper for someone of my station. Even if, as it turns out, a lot of that “proper behaviour” was bollocks. It even got me killed, in one early case. Reigns: Her Majesty has things to say, about medieval perceptions of gender, pagan faiths versus state religion, all sorts of clever stuff under the surface.

I’m loving every minute of it.

Much like its predecessor, Reigns, you are a monarch, destined to die and live again, until something happens. Instead of being cursed by the Devil, however, you are an Archetypal Queen, seemingly created by the Lady of the Wood for… Reasons. Although there is an amusing nod where you ask your pet cat Rex if they’re the Devil in disguise. Any which way, your reigns are generally short and brutal, due to the balancing act you have to make with binary choices (Swipe left, swipe right.) You can’t be too popular, or not popular at all. You can’t have too powerful a military, or a nonexistent one. Obviously, there has to be money in the treasury. And you can’t piss off the Church too much. There are goals, but more than baby steps are unlikely, due to just how fragile the kingdom really is. The crown and Church battle. The King can’t be bothered with most administrative tasks. You’re not, in a very real sense, allowed to be yourself. You have to be The Flawed Queen, not perfect (Because you’ll die), not terrible (Because you’ll die), just… Walking the tightrope.

NARRATOR: As it turned out, no, she wasn’t good. She had, in fact, been deemed Very Bad by the Church…

If you can’t find parallells there with the modern day, with celebrity, women, and the like, trust me, they’re there. Visually, it’s as tidy, as interesting, and clear as its predecessor, and the soundtrack is quietly menacing, eerie, and sometimes ridiculous, as it needs to be. The writing’s damn fine, and, as with Reigns, the further in you get, the more there is to do, narrowing again toward the inevitable progression toward… Well. Let’s leave that for you to find out… My Queen.

NARRATOR: …And so, the Queen and her unborn heir were invited to a lovely barbecue, where she was the guest of honour, and the Church forgave her.
Oh, wait, no they didn’t.

The Mad Welshman never did get the hang of the tightrope…

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Oriental Empires (Review)

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

A key to good 4X design, I’ve often found, is understanding. That seems like a simple thing, but sadly, we’ve seen it proven time and time again over the years that it’s not. Oriental Empires is a strategy game set in ancient China, and its UI is… Not the friendliest.

The latest heir of my empire, being annoying and blocking my authority/culture meter.

In fact, the game as a whole isn’t very friendly. Considering that games don’t exist in a vacuum, this… Is kind of a big deal. Small text, smaller tooltips, and further information behind easy to miss subtabs left a bad taste in my mouth.

A bad taste that, sadly, only worsened when I found out about Local Factors. Hidden behind about three layers of interaction (Click banner, click unrest icons for general unrest details, click Dissatisfaction) is a number, contributing to your chance of revolt… That cannot be directly affected, and changes over time because… Well, to all practical intents and purposes, because reasons.

There’s not so much a tutorial as “A 40+ page in-game manual and an advisor that will tell you about things after you’ve worked out how to do them.” The actual effect of buildings and research (Outside of combat related improvements, it generally boils down to “Gives Happiness”, “Gives Authority”, “Unlocks a resource exploiter”, and “Makes some bad events less bad.” ) are hidden under popups (The wee texty bars lookin’ icon shows or hides that.) Occasionally, those popups will obscure information that you need, such as when an Heir comes along, randomly, and covers up the Authority and Culture meters you need to, for example, judge how many settlements you can build without added resentment (A brief irritation, but one of, as noted, quite a few.) Does it play well?

Okay, so I want you and you to flank so as to cut off retr- Which part of “Cut off Retreat” did you not understand, soldiers?

Honestly, not really. Outside of combat largely seems like an afterthought, especially in the early game, where resources are rare, and you are both encouraged to land grab and, er… Not exceed your Authority (which controls how many cities you can own without dissatisfaction) for fear of rebellions. Buildings have a high upkeep, so you’re rarely dealing with that, conquering things is a bad idea, due to that aforementioned Authority issue…

It makes the early game painful, in more senses than one. It doesn’t really help that combat, also, doesn’t feel like you have all that much control over it. Simultaneous turns means that you may well have trouble pinning down your opponent for a fight, and when you do get in a fight? Well, enemies will escape, so you have to start the whole palaver again, having multiple battles in a single round with a single force if you’ve preset your movement right, or fighting over multiple turns if you don’t (The correct method, generally, seems to be “Into the enemy and past them in the direction you think they’re most likely to run for as many movement points as you feel you can manage.) It doesn’t particularly feel engaging, especially as multiple fights are likely to break out in a single turn, and combat tactics are limited. Why did my units mill about aimlessly for most of a combat with a charge, but efficiently (if extremely widely) flank when I asked them to? No idea. I’m not told. Oh, and no, cutting off retreat with just the units you have is not an option. The enemy will retreat. Multiple times.

Really, these problems, these lack of clarity, kill the game for me, and it doesn’t particularly help that, visually, it doesn’t feel all that interesting either. The music is fitting, at least, but it doesn’t really redeem a game that will sometimes tell you useful things after you need them, sometimes just not tell you, and has many a turn passing with… Well, nothing of note happening. Kind of saddening, really.

This rain turned red as blood, and almost caused a rebellion. Funnily, most bad things seem to be “Causes unrest.”

The Mad Welshman finds no happiness here. 

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Slay the Spire (Early Access Review)

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

Slaying a sentient tower with all sorts of gribbleys living in, parasitising, and, to an extent, defending its ancient heart is, as it turns out, a difficult endeavour. Although it must be said that, at least some of the time, that’s definitely my fault. For example, spending lots of energy on a multiple attack card to try and kill something that reflects more damage than I’m handing out? That wasn’t a wise move.

Reading an ancient and maddening book when I was low on HP, and I already knew I didn’t have the HP to read it? My fault.

Ughhh… I will forever doubt if this grinning snake really was just giving me money.

Taking this path absolutely filled with monsters, and not a lot of healing or mystery options, because reasons? Yep, that bit me in the ass.

Still, Slay the Spire is, for all these things that were definitely my fault, a tough, turn based, choose your own path RPG brawler with a mechanic we seem to be seeing more of: Cards for skills, attacks, and powers, with what you can do limited by both hand size and Energy. And, you know? It’s got a fair few options spread among the 2 characters currently available.

The Ironclad, for example, specialises in defence, but also has nasty little tricks like Armament, a card that not only adds defense, but upgrades either a single card, or your whole hand. Or perhaps trading HP for strength, healing through murder, or Rampage, a card that slowly accrues damage with each use. Healing a little after every fight, he’s the long hauler.

The Silent, by contrast, has poison, and can quickly build up a deck where she builds up silly amounts of Energy and cards in the hand, for murderous barrages and a host of status effects. Sure, she doesn’t have a lot of defense, but when she gets going, things die very, very quickly.

Pictured: A lot of options, from the relics I’ve obtained, to the cards in my hand. How will I deal with this goshdarn ghost?

Add in the Relics, items that change up how things go the entire run, and the “Colourless” cards, available to all characters if they can find them, and you have a game with a lot of tactical options… If you can get them. After all, this is a procgen game, and there is no guaranteed route to a single build. The only thing that doesn’t really change… Is enemy patterns. Thieves gonna thieve, Priestesses gonna buff, and thorny orbs are only gonna get thornier the longer you leave them.

Visually, I’m quite fond of it. It’s simple, but it’s also very clear. You know what’s what, from the enemy intent, the tooltips are solid, and only with extremely silly builds do the cards become a little hard to distinguish. A little. Musically, the game’s orchestral tunes really set the scene, the drama, and fit well.

So, lots of tactical options, with adaptability required due to procgen? Okay, good. Good music? Yup. Accessible visuals, simple controls (It’s all mouse, and turn-based)? Good. Pattern based enemies and bosses being difficult the first time, but once you know the pattern, you at least know what you’re in for, all with interesting visual design? Yup. All in all, a solid game so far, very promising. When the worst things you can say is “Not for folks who hate turn based RPG combat, because it’s at the core” and “Some of the animations are a little lacking (Compensated for by solid soundwork)”, then you know you’re off to a good start.

The Silent is clever. She knows poisons that even affect the dread Slimes.

The Mad Welshman idly wonders about the Hexaghost’s backstory. I mean, was it a bad hexagon in life, or did it just have unfinished business?

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Nowhere Prophet (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: $19.99 First Access (With further donation options)
Where To Get It: Itch.IO

The Scions of the Dreaming Dark surround my people. Their eldritch machines drain their blood, only to make them more violent, more willing to die for their leader. Their people may fall rapidly, but each time one falls, so do many of mine. And their leader… Their leader feeds off their hate, their rage, their death. He takes blows that would slay a normal human like rain off my jacket, shrugging, laughing.

My people are falling. We may never reach the Promised Land. And the longer this fight goes on… The harder it becomes.

Well… This is… Awkward. The combat plays *somewhat* like Hearthstone with the Momentum. But, y’know, without the monetisation. Sweet.

It’s intriguing, isn’t it, how games imply a world with mechanics. And Nowhere Prophet, by Sharkbomb Studio, does this so very well. Even for a game that currently has two areas playable.

The basic idea, storywise, is that you are a latter day Moses, except, of course, I really do mean “Latter” day, as the world has kind of gone to ruin, with some technology still being known, and used, but others, such as the satellite that crash lands near our titular Prophet, mystified and referred to in the simple terms of the day. It talks of safety, and knowledge. Isn’t that enough to make a grand journey for, and to share with others?

But here’s the thing: It’s all very well to promise a Promised Land. But how, in the end, will you lead your people? Praise knowledge? Kindness? How will you keep their hope up, when you aren’t there yet, and the journey seems so long… How will you defend them, in these hostile lands?

Hrm… Possibility of painful death, or Possibility of painfu… New followers? Sold!

While it’s not perfect, the game has this: How do you return hope? Well, the birth of a child can happen, that helps. But mostly, you’re passing round shinies, in the hope that it will distract them. It sounds cynical as hell, but it can’t be denied that yeah, a little luxury makes a journey go faster. Lose hope, and problems arise. Similarly, food. You sort of need that to live, last I checked. And so, tough decisions are made. Do you take that nastier route because it has food, even knowing that it’s going to cost food to get the food, and that said food is probably already claimed by animals, ancient and malfunctioning robots using it as bait, bandits, or an end-times cult? Or do you take the easier route in the hope that something comes along?

Combat, similarly, has options, due to the deckbuilding system. You start with 23 followers, and the clothes on your back, and, no matter how much you want to preserve these people you promised, if you die, everybody loses. Take out the enemy leader, or make them run away. Even here, there’s decisions to be made. Do you keep a lot of weaker followers that synergise well, but might die in droves if the fight doesn’t go the way you want it to? Maybe bigger folks, buying time with your followers. Use them too harshly, and… Well, you don’t have followers anymore.

As you might tell, I like and enjoy this game. That isn’t to say it’s perfect, but what imperfections it has? Well, it’s early days. But the writing is good, the art style really sets the tone for each faction, and my main criticisms right now can be fixed with time. Basically… More. A little more music, to break things up. Obviously, the areas that are already coming. For some of the events with options that require 50 followers or 26 Altruism to maaaaybe not proc in the first area where I don’t see reasonable ways of achieving this? That last one, honestly, is mostly a grump, these events can happen anywhere down the line, but… Yes, I’ve had a lot of enjoyment with Nowhere Prophet so far, and foresee more, because it makes interesting choices, has a cool art style, tutorialises well, and its mechanics sync well with its narrative. So, all in all? Thumbs up.

It’s important to note that not all paths are pre-mapped. There’s nearly always a way forward, even if it’s… Uncomfortable.

The Mad Welshman is a quiet Prophet. Mostly a prophet of interesting design choices that people seem to miss. Ah well, it’s a niche.

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