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!

Dungetris (Review)

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

Dungetris is not, sadly, a game you’re going to be playing for enjoyment. To pass time, yes. To see an interesting idea, yes. But sadly, the creativity extends only so far, making this… Not a bad purchase, per se? But one where purchasing with awareness and acceptance of its flaws is perhaps wisest.

This is what victory looks like. It will look something like this from about Act 2 onwards. It looks a little like this in Act 1 too.

So let me help you there. The basic concept is an interesting one, balancing turn based roguelike elements (You take a step, time passes) with building the dungeon as you go in a manner similar to, but not quite like Tetris (Not all the blocks are tetronimoes, there’s no rotating them or slotting them, and unfillable spaces are filled in.) It’s fairly accessible, with clear UI, simple controls (WASD to move, mouseover for tooltips, right mouse to enter build mode, and left mouse to either place blocks or interact with chests/gubbins/cards, although the arrow keys are sometimes usable), and everything is mostly explained.

But problems become apparent fairly quickly. There is precisely one music track, and the sound can best be described as “Blah.” It’s there, but that’s about all I can say. Similarly, there are unlockable characters, but… They don’t seem to make a huge difference (Death is somewhat dodgier, Loic is somewhat tankier), as most of the tactical considerations come from block placement, getting the drop on enemies (Sometimes as simple as placing the next tile in the right way, others as annoying as hitting space to wait until they step next to you), and on card usage. It doesn’t help that, while experience is persistent per character, it is per character, so properly levelling up means replaying the levels, and…

…Here we come to the core. There’s that basic idea. And it’s good. Okay. Fine. But at something like a third of the way through Act 3 (81% complete, if steam achievements are any arbiter), it’s been “Kill X of Y” nearly all the way through. Sometimes that’s been relatively easy (Kill X Enemies, full stop.) Sometimes that’s been a bit finicky (Kill X Enemy Type Y, not guaranteed to spawn in any tile.) Sometimes, it’s just a pain in the arse (Kill X Elite Enemies, which, as the screenshot below shows, was the time I stopped to write this.)

Kill things again? But daaad, I’m *tired* of just killing things!

What do these have in common? Padding. I have all the cards, so there’s no sense of progression there. I have all the characters, and progression of more than one means more of the same. New tiles and enemies stopped appearing somewhere near the beginning of Act 2, and, due to the way the tiles work? I’d killed the boss of Act 2 in… Pretty much every level. So when I was asked to kill the boss at the end of the act?

I sighed.

Act 3’s first level, and the Rescue Smith level (allowing you to reach the smith early to upgrade cards), have been the only major difference so far, and… I wasn’t terribly impressed with either, sadly. The first required you to beat the boss before finding the Smith tile (Either that or continue to place tiles after the boss one until you hit the Smith tile), and the second required placing 200 blocks.

If you guessed, while reading that paragraph, that it feels like padding? You win an imaginary cookie. Stuffed with padding.

Death is usually a result of either being underlevelled because you switched characters, or poor planning. That’s… About it, honestly. Note: Both Space and R kick you back to the main map rather than R restarting the level. This may get fixed in the future. Maybe.

So, in the end, I can’t really recommend Dungetris, as it doesn’t have much going for it except grind, but I can’t say it’s bad… Just shallow, grindy, and padded out. For £4 , though, if you want to take a look, it’s still fairly accessible, and a good time waster, but that’s about the extent of its good points, sadly.

The Mad Welshman hefted another oddly shaped brick with a monster in it. He was hoping for a chest piece, but you know how it is with these brick sets… Can never find the one you want.

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?

Slayaway Camp (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £5.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I’ve always had an odd relationship with slasher movies. On the one hand, they sometimes do interesting things with horror, and I enjoy some of them for interesting ideas, but on the other, they tend to suffer really badly from sequelitis (How many times has “Jason” died again? Or Freddy Krueger?), unnecessary remakes/reboots, and their formula is often, in some ways, still stuck in the early days of the subgenre (OH NOOOO, THOSE TEENS ARE HAVING SEX, THEY’RE GOING TO DIE BECAUSE SLASHER MOVIES!)

Slayaway Camp, on the other hand, I’m fairly unambiguous about, as it’s a sliding puzzle using slasher movies as a theme, and not a bad one at that. Warning: There is voxellated gore and murder.

Pictured: Voxellated Gore and Murder.

Pictured: Voxellated Gore and Murder.

Anyway, mechanically, what can I say? It’s a puzzle about murdering unwary teens in a series of slasher movies, all loosely linked, and each with a theme and added mechanic, such as SWAT cops , who are unkillable unless either you drop something on them or you flank them in the dark, or cats… A common ruiner of murderous plans in movies, and not to be killed because… Well, for the same reason a lot of the puzzle elements are the way they are – Because it at least used to be a thing in slasher movies. Due to the fact that you can only move in one of the four cardinal directions, and keep moving until you hit something (Be it an obstacle, a usable thing, an unfortunate teen, or something that’s going to kill you or make you Break The Rules), there’s only a limited number of possible solutions, so the puzzles can be brute forced, but most of the time, the gimmicks are visible enough, and the rules clear enough that you don’t need to, and successfully completing levels or the murder minigame gives you the opportunity to buy a hint and a solution, in that order.

Everything here has a clear function: Pits to fall into (or scare folks into), cupboards to be pushed, walls to bump into on your way to murderous victory.

Everything here has a clear function: Pits to fall into (or scare folks into), cupboards to be pushed, walls to bump into on your way to murderous victory.

Okay, so mechanically, it’s clear, it’s intuitive, and fuckups are definitely your fault. So far, so good. It becomes a little bit grindy if you want to unlock all the skins and murders, but I’m willing to give it a pass on that because a) It’s cosmetic stuff , b) Finishing each level unlocks “Deleted Scenes” (Some of the same levels, but with added features… Not always more difficult, but definitely more of them) and finishing all the movies earns even more puzzles, and c) The grinding minigame is effectively the murder scene minigame, and this becomes a little more visually varied with the aforementioned cosmetic stuff. There’s some nice cutscenes with parodies of slasher movie trailers and some amusing murders (A thing you rarely hear outside of the context of slasher movies, which sometimes go for creative and/or ironic deaths), it’s visually quite clear, and I had no colourblindness issues (Some issues with gore covering pits, but that goes away with something like 30 seconds of waiting, which again, gets it a pass), and my only real issues with the game are that it starts immediately the first time you play it, rather than do the video store menu thing, which was a tadge confusing, and that some of the humour’s a little forced (Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it… BIG LETTERED. Ho de ho ho.)

Confirmed: This game is TOO COOL FOR CANADA (Nah, actually it's a running gag.)

Confirmed: This game is TOO COOL FOR CANADA (Nah, actually it’s a running gag.)

Nonetheless, I like Slayaway Camp. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, and it doesn’t need to. It’s not a big game, but it’s got charm. If you like puzzle games, this isn’t MENSA level stuff, but it’ll make you scratch your head for at least a bit, and I can respect that.

The Mad Welshman cowered in the bathroom… Shower? No, too dangerous. Brushing teeth? Not while the cat was nearby to fake scare him before he gets murdered. Living in Slasherworld is tough.

Caves of Qud (Early Access Review 2)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It:

It perhaps says something, whether about me, or the design of Caves of Qud, that I hadn’t actually noticed it was still in Early Access. “Oh, I haven’t gotten to this fellow yet!”

“That’s because we hadn’t put him in yet.”

Before you go thinking this is a bad sign, I’d like you to take a look at this map. This map is, as far as I am aware, entirely explorable, although certain areas are more deadly than others. It’s just, right now, there’s only a few quest lines, and you have to explore to find more than two of them, or, indeed, some of the other odd sights of the game.

Pretty much all of this is explorable. Each "tile" here appears to be about three screens wide/high. That's a lot of screens.

Pretty much all of this is explorable. Each “tile” here appears to be about three screens wide/high. That’s a lot of screens.

Good example, on my last run, I was curious about a fish, just sitting there in the open. Turns out it was a trader, and a pretty good one at that. So yes, this is emblematic of how Caves of Qud is meant to be played: Carefully, and with attention paid both to the in-game manual and the surroundings. Especially since even the starting areas are a threat. So let’s talk about the various early-games of Timot, Mutated Human Tinker.

Timot, in all of the universes we are about to discuss, knows how to move, has a stinger on his back with paralyzing venom, glows in the dark, and is strangely muscled for one of his slight stature. He has learned a secret of the ancient mechanisms of Qud (Usually, it must be said, some form of grenade or other easily understood weapon), and can make them if he has the materials (Again, he usually has enough to make at least one.) His story always starts in Joppa, a small village with a food problem, a Zealot of the Six Day Stilt (an anti-machine cult… The Zealot seldom survives), an irascible tinker named Argyve (Who Timot invariably makes friends with, by trading some of his gear with), a trader of the Dromad people (Camel like merchants), and several chests (Which Timot loots. So don’t feel bad about his many deaths, Timot is not a nice person. So few are in Qud.)

A Qudzu field. Qudzu, in this game, is even nastier than normal. It rusts things. And it *wants* to rust things close to it...

A Qudzu field. Qudzu, in this game, is even nastier than normal. It rusts things. And it *wants* to rust things close to it…

Even here, there is potentially death. In some universes, Timot is interrupted in his thievery by Ctephius, a glowing ray-cat, and the villagers’ justice is swift. Rarely, the Zealot is triumphant, and Timot’s corpse feeds the water giving vinewafers. But Timot soon sets off, either to the Rust Plains, to gather copper wire for Argyve’s communication device, or to the caves to the north, to deal with Joppa’s food problem.

To the east, canyons and caves. To the north, however, the universes diverge more readily. Sometimes, a road bisects the vinewafer marshes Timot tramps through. Sometimes, Timot encounters ruins of the ancients, with their defenses still active, and larger, nastier creatures. All too often, Timot has cried “I have found this ancient device, and divined its meaning, it is a fine weapon, and no-URK” , as the Chitinous Puma he hadn’t noticed, or foolishly ignored, eviscerated him. Yes, even on the way to one of the first quests, creatures vastly more powerful than you can be encountered, and you can’t always run away in time. Other things only look tough, thankfully.

In another set of universes still, a vast fungus or slime field lies between Timot and his goal of Red Rock. These also have potential for good or ill, as the Weeps of the fungal fields, long forgotten biological tools of the ancients, create many substances, whether water-spoiling salt, black welling oil, life giving water, and sometimes, stranger substances, such as acids, cider, wine, honey, and even, in one case, lava. But guarding those Weeps are the fungi themselves, infecting any who dare to come close with their own unique brand of fungal infection, from the relatively benign Glowcrust to the more annoying Azurepuff.

An extremely good example of the more dangerous Weeps. That creature is about to learn that no, dousing yourself in a river immediately after dousing yourself in lava is not a solid survival strategy...

An extremely good example of the more dangerous Weeps. That creature is about to learn that no, dousing yourself in a river immediately after dousing yourself in lava is not a solid survival strategy…

This is all before Timot even reaches Red Rock, although he could bypass a lot of this by virtue of quick travel. But then, why would he, when the rewards can be so grand? Admittedly, a lot of the time, it’s food, or basic weaponry to trade in exchange for items, trade goods such as copper nuggets, or that combination of lifegiver and basic currency, water. But a single Water Weep, especially early on, is the stuff of mercantile legend, and the canny (or lucky) explorer can find lost technology, from grenades of various sorts, to utility devices like those poorly understand teleportation devices, the Recoilers, all the way to the truly strange, such as symbiotic fireflies, spheres of negative weight, or the fabled gaslight weaponry, elegant and lethal symbols of forgotten glory.

Of course, death also comes in many forms to the unwary, and the game is not the friendliest to begin with. It’s definitely a game where reading the in-game help is highly recommended, and, while the alternate overlay mostly reduces clutter, I find it far more useful to use the older stat/message overlay, turning it off to reduce clutter when I’m not in a dangerous situation, and holding ALT to more clearly see certain terrain features (Trash, mostly.) Sadly, the alternate button overlay is somewhat cluttered itself, obscuring several portions of the screen.

Still, that there’s enough in the game already to explore and wonder at that I completely missed the fact an important NPC hadn’t been introduced until last week speaks well of the game, and roguelike fans may do well by themselves for checking it and its mostly readable tileset out. They’ll certainly find quite a few stories waiting for them.

...Stories such as Morookat, The Spiteful Thief and his Fiery End.

…Stories such as Morookat, The Spiteful Thief and his Fiery End.

The Mad Welshman looked around after he closed the door. Nobody, good. He opened the Joppa villager’s chest, grinning as he saw steel and water. And then he heard it. “Mrow?”

Fuck. The Cat had found him.