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. 

Unreal Estate (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £1.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Unreal Estate is kind of emblematic of tiny games that work, in that while it’s undeniably perfectly fine on its own, you can play with friends, and it’s easy to learn, there’s really not much to say beyond that. The art is nice, the fonts are kinda eh, and the sound and music, similarly, is there, and that, beyond it being a mere £2, is, uh… Largely it.

The card art is nice.

Essentially, it’s a turn based card game, in which, on your turn, you either grab a card for your hand, or play a card that matches the ones on the right for the card’s value times the number of matching cards on the right. If you have more than one of that card, it counts for more, and once all players (from 2 to 4) have picked up or played a card, the rest go to the right. Rinse and repeat, until all the cards are gone or nobody can play anything, and the one with the most points wins.

Similarly, the criticisms are small: It doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have a windowed mode, nor does it have volume sliders (just sound/music on/off.)

Cue perhaps the shortest review I’ve ever written.

Pathfinder Adventures (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £18.99 (£29.99 for Obsidian Edition, £3.99 each for a cosmetic DLC and a “Some good cards and nice dice” DLC)
Where To Get It: Steam

You lose a lot of stuff when adventuring, it seems. Sometimes, in the most dickish of ways. “Get hit before the fight even begins, Discard 1d4-1 cards (Unless you have armour, which won’t always work)”, “Permanently lose this card to close this location (Which you need to do to win the adventure)”, “Permanently lose this thing to pass this other thing.”

“If you didn’t have a weapon, or have and roll low, become slightly more screwed. Oh, and it goes back into the location deck for you to encounter again later.”

If it weren’t for getting new cards, and not having to pay money for all but the best cards, I’d probably have quit Pathfinder Adventures (a tablet port of a collectible, co-operative card game that has now hit Steam) long ago. As it is, getting those new cards introduces its own irritations. But we’ll get to this in a bit. First, the general idea.

The general idea is that you play a party of adventurers (modelled after the Pathfinders, the mascot group of Pathfinder, which, itself, is off brand Dungeons and Dragons) , each with a limited hand, trying to fulfil quests where both time and hand size are against you. Run out of the Blessing deck (ticking down 1 per each character’s turn, more if you encounter the villain of each adventure early and let them get away), and you lose. Run out of cards to draw from your adventurer’s hand, and they die, making it harder to win the adventure (and dying permanently, losing you a lot of hard work, if you’re foolish or brave enough to turn Permadeath on.) There’s a lot more to it than that, and the tutorial feels quite heavy because it has to introduce a lot of concepts, pretty quickly, but that, in essence, is the core of it. You draw cards at a location until you hit either a henchman or a villain, and, depending on which it is, you either fight them to “close” the location (IE – “The Villain Ain’t Here, Boss, And They Can’t Run Here”), or you encounter the Villain, and try to make sure they can’t go anywhere else while you finish them off. Failure to do so, as mentioned, screws you, as the villain escapes and takes valuable turns to deal with said villain with them, to a random location you didn’t manage to close in time.

I have four or so locations to close. I *can* close three of them. Maybe.

This, in essence, is a lot of my problem with Pathfinder Adventures: It’s very adversarial, and, even in victory, most of your rewards (whether added to each characters deck in play, or via post adventure rewards) are going to be thrown away, sold for the pitiful in-game currency sum of 1 Gold Piece per card, seemingly regardless of rarity or use. To give some idea of how insulting this feels, a generic blessing sells for the same price as either a better blessing, or a spell that adds 1d10+1 (big numbers, for low levels) to a wizard’s normally quite shitty combat skills, a quest generally rewards you with 100 GP for completion, and a chest that allows you to add four random cards (and sometimes dice, a cosmetic item) to your Unclaimed pile (which, thankfully, you get to keep until you “claim” them, at which point they become subject to the same “Most things get thrown away” rule) costs 500 GP.

Generally, your progression will be upward, to better, more damaging and more roll increasing cards, but any adventure that involves a lot of banishing cards is going to reduce that trend, and there is, like very old school Dungeons and Dragons, the occasional “No, fuck you, you just take damage” that makes the adventure more difficult in entirely frustrating ways.

Just in case you thought I was joking. “Damage taken cannot be reduced.” Damage = Discard cards from your hand. The one saving grace is that it isn’t *Banish* cards from your hand (Permanently lost.)

Visually, it’s quite nice, even if some UI elements (like that Blessing counter that determines whether you run out of time or not) get lost in the crush, and the sounds are okay. But I got tired of the music (especially the wailing violin of the theme tune) very quickly, there is no multiplayer that I’m aware of (Unlike the card game itself, which you play with friends), and honestly? The adventures have started annoying the hell out of me with the aforementioned “No fuck you, things get worse” pretty early on. It has a fair bit of depth, it has a fair few strategic elements that help minimise the luck based elements (Such as adding dice via blessings, changing the skill used to one you have better dice in via other cards, etcetera, etcetera), and I will, in its defense, say that it currently keeps Pay 2 Win and microtransaction fuckery to an absolute minimum, but otherwise, if I wanted to be told “Rocks fall, you lose 3 cards” , I’d join a Pathfinder game without asking what kind of DM was running things.

The Mad Welshman hastens to add that, if you like Pathfinder, you may have a more enjoyable experience. Emphasis on “may.”

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!