Desolate (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99 (£22.30 for game and soundtrack, £4.79 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It:
Steam

It’s always dangerous on the Island, and it’s important to know when to creep, when to crawl, when to duck, when to jump. People have nice words for all the things that happen on the Island, pretty words like “Gravitic anomaly”, “Anomalous Localised Weather Phenomenon”, and a whole bunch of others, most of which translate to “Watch out for this, it can kill the unwary.” The traders are Uncles and Aunts, familial names for the vultures who claim to watch out for you while taking the lion’s share of your spoils, and eager scientists want to add to their store of pretty words… But not at their own risk. No, that’s for the Volunteers.

If there’s anything Victor Ognin’s gonna pay for, it’s this. Damn him.

If this is all sounding a bit like the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, then you’ve correctly noticed this is a heavy inspiration for Desolate. Although STALKER would be a closer comparison, considering that the disaster on this island, the strangeness… Is at least partly the fault of scientists being over-eager about Things Man Was Not Meant To Wot. Specifically a man called Victor Ognin. So, a scientist to hunt, strange abominations, bandits and madmen, anomalies… All the while worrying about the strange effects of the Island, keeping yourself alive.

It’s such a shame then, that it feels more hollow than its inspirations. There have been moments, it’s true: A camp, surrounded by Zapper anomalies (electrical anomalies, that, like most anomalies except the “Black Hole”, hurt, but, like all anomalies, can mostly be seen just fine, especially during the day) made for a tense few moments (Although throwing rocks wasn’t really needed), and some of the enemies (From the not-dog Dorg to the whatever-the-hell-vaguely-quadruped Sapsy) are visually and aurally well designed (Others, such as the Wanogah, just made me sigh gustily. Really? Naked vomitting teleporting zombie lady with an oxygen reducing cloud of flies? Bit cliché, wot?) Sometimes they fight among themselves, which is interesting, although sometimes comical (A Dorg, for example, failing to catch a fleeing Gorlan (Some kind of prey/food animal that got changed by whatever the Event is of this world)

He’s permanently angry. Although, to be fair, nearly everyone seems to be.

But this is a Zone that, moments aside, doesn’t really feel that alive. Nor does it feel that desolate, as you can’t go twenty or thirty feet without running into a Dorg or some other beast, immediately crouch or run away, and… Well, back to scavenging. But, for all the subtle worldbuilding (Here be a bunch of zealots holed up in a church. Here be the Basecamp of Uncle Misha, from where you’ll be spending a lot of your time foraging and questing. Here be the spooky ghost who may have a big role in the plot, but mostly pops up to give you jumpscares), it’s lacking… Something. Maybe it’s that the enemies have very predictable AI, or are relatively easy to hide from (or run from) in the early game. Maybe it’s that there’s not a whole lot of conversation going on, beyond plot requests and the occasional bit of dialogue (most trading, for example, is simply “Hit E. Start trading.”) But quests don’t seem to have that same spice, being mostly of the “find X things to fix Y thing” or “Go to X potentially interesting place to kill Y thing” variety.

I will indeed find the dome once the moon co- oh, no moon? Well, when morning comes.

When night comes, it’s black as pitch, and, while your flashlight never runs out of battery (Oh, thank the heavens for this!), it nonetheless… Ends up detracting from what is actually some interesting scenery. The radar domes, the inexplicable pod of beached whales, and other such sights just kinda vanish (Not literally, I mean they’re so much harder to see and appreciate), without, due to the aforementioned “Relatively easy to hide/run from” thing, upping the tension significantly. The game, meanwhile, runs on a single save system with options for “Open” play (Haven’t tried it, not a social Volunteer, thanks) or solo, and death… Well, death is mostly an annoyance, because it means you have ten minutes to reach all that equipment you gathered (Be it in a dangerous area or no), or… Well, it’s back to trying to regain some semblance of the equipment you lost, perhaps a bigger frustration.

Maybe it’s something that will grow on me. Maybe, somewhere over the next hill, I won’t feel like trudging halfway across the island to kill another hellbeast or investigate an anomaly for masters ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of the danger is more than “Just another day.” Maybe that’s the point, and I’m missing it. But DESOLATE, unfortunately, doesn’t scratch my itch. Next time, Stalker, next time!

The Mad Welshman doesn’t have a lot to say here. The Island kinda speaks for itself, one way or the other.

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Thea 2: The Shattering (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Release

Survival 4X. Not words you generally hear, those. And a big part of that is that a 4X, itself, isn’t easy to balance. Adding survival elements, narrative elements, and quest elements can make that process more painful.

Such, so far, is the case with Thea 2: The Shattering. A sequel to Thea 1, which had similar mechanics and themes, Thea 2 is a 4X where your small group must survive, grow, and survive as long as possible, hopefully to find some solution to the Shattering, the death of the world.

Yeah, about that… Good luck with it. See, there are two mandatory types of resource for survival, and if you do not have those anywhere within range, your options are fatally limited.

The upside is that this is potentially a pretty good site. The downside , however, is that one of my four team-members is already dead, and morale is so terrible some of the others won’t help. WELP.

You start with some food, and surviving for enough turns on Normal difficulty will earn you God Points, which can be used to get extra benefits on start, but even with those… Currently, surviving even the early game is a painful, frustrating slog. Sometimes, it’s because you can’t find a good camp-site anywhere nearby, and have to subsist, while the world and its inhabitants do their best to wear you down through random events (often hostile), wandering monsters and lairs (most hostile at night), and events that you want to complete for better resources, but not winning those events will likely lead to the death of group members, which, considering how few events give you group members (even fewer if you are all of one gender, as sometimes happens), is a lingering death sentence all of its own.

Find somewhere to camp, and, on the one hand, you now have somewhere to stay, that can support you within its (limited) range as you scavenge and adventure. The downside being that you still have the hostile events, beasts, limited replenishment, and whatnot, with not being able to take everybody adventuring, and… Well, should you lose adventurers out of range, well, that’s a different kind of slow, lingering death.

Both of these tasks are difficult. And even “Choose not to participate” may have results. Choose very carefully (and make sure you know your stats and abilities early on, otherwise you probably won’t choose wisely.)

There’s a lot of slow, lingering death here, is basically what I’m getting at. And part of this feels like conflicting directions of play, neither of which, at the present stage, feel balanced or complete. Quests demand that you wander, as does diplomacy with the other factions present, but once you settle down, your ability to complete those quests safely drastically goes down, even as you have achieved relative safety for your camp. At the same time, proper crafting and gathering, cooking, researching and rituals all demand a campsite, but that diminishes your ability to further the storyline. The game wants to deal with a small group, that much is clear. But it also wants you to roam free, which is only do-able after a lot of safety ensuring at the campsite to start with.

In essence, each play direction (both necessary for completion) brings down the other. And the frustrating part is that I’m sure there could be a balance between the two that changes it from what it currently is (Slow, frustrating, and often involving slow deaths where it’s much easier to cash in what few God Points you have, if any, before the game finishes its slow descent into “Everyone has died.”) to something genuinely interesting.

Tooltips are very helpful here, but the main thing you need to know here is that everyone except the house demon is dead, Dave. Everyone.

And, make no mistake, there are hints of something interesting here. There’s an interesting, Russian myth inspired fantasy world. There’s some solid hand-painted visuals, and, aside from the camp screen being a little cluttered and hard to decipher at first, it tooltips well. Its controls still have some issues (Mostly movement/selection frustrations, and the practice of making a second group a little more tedious than it needs to be), and, being an early access title, there’s been some particularly odd bugs (such as scavengers vanishing from trying to harvest a resource that simultaneously exists on the map, but presumably doesn’t in the code somewhere), but it shows promise. The problem being that the promise is currently obscured by imbalanced play goals, “Normal” difficulty still being a pretty harsh early game (Once the early game is passed, it gets somewhat easier), and nothing that prevents or even ameliorates a death spiral that I can see.

As such, Thea 2 is currently a game I want to like. But it’s not really letting me.

The Mad Welshman doesn’t really have much to add, unfortunately. It’s interesting, but distinctly unfriendly right now.

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Subnautica: Below-Zero (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Ahhh, sunny Subnautica, where the equatorial ice shi- wait, what? Equatorial region… iced?

Yes, folks, welcome to Subnautica: Below Zero, sequel to Subnautica where it appears either the world is stranger than first appears, or the crash of the Aurora was a major boo-boo that affected the climate drastically. It’s still a beautiful world, but now… It’s a beautiful, cold world, eyeball penguins and everything. And, like me, the player avatar is very excited to be there, being a xenolinguist who finally has a job.

“If you find useful tech, we’ll pay you less than it’s worth, and buy out your rights. If you find cultural items, we’ll just take ’em. Alterra, BECAUSE WE CARE [More about what you reap than you]”

Unfortunately for her, the Alterra Corporation is still a dystopian futurist hellscape, the alien artefact shenanigans are due for a repeat, but, like me, Robin Goodall loves the heck out of the world of Subnautica, even in the deepest of Arctic winters. Even when it really seems like she’s going to have a terrible time.

Right, quick refresher: Subnautica was a first-person survival adventure set on an oceanic world, where things started a little annoying (Grab X Lea- where the heck do I get lead? Oh, near the HELLBEAST. Great), but was able to shift its focus very quickly toward a more exploration based playstyle, with a moderately strong narrative about the sole survivor of a star cruiser being shot down, and their encounters with the lost technology (some of it very self-destructive) left behind by a now seemingly extinct alien species. There was a lot of swimming, submarining, and, while your goal was to leave the planet, many, myself included, felt the world was too pretty to really leave. Below Zero is, effectively, more of the same.

Since the MYSTERY starts earlier, I can post the obligatory MYSTERY screenshot now, yay!

There isn’t a whole lot of story in the game as of yet, but what Below Zero currently has going for it is that the main conflicts are established within the first couple of hours: An unfriendly remnant of the alien race that (indirectly) caused all the trouble in the previous game, the Alterra corporation (Who would want to exploit the alien tech that… Caused all the trouble in the previous game), and, of course, the world being colder, and somewhat different to the world we knew. Oh, still mostly oceanic, still beautiful as hell… But, for example, gigantic mantis shrimp are now a problem you didn’t have before, and the bubbling filter plants of the previous game have given way to other filter plants, that give a burst of oxygen, then deflate for a while. Cold hasn’t yet been implemented, but if the heating pads or strange, radiator like eyeball flowers (Which burn you if you stand too close to them) are any indication, it probably will be.

Subnautica’s world remains beautiful, and feels alive as heck. Example: This little Pengling is catching fish. Like a Penguin would. D’AWWWWW!

And there’s two parts to why I’m fine with this. In Subnautica, Unknown Worlds proved their mettle in making demand meters that add some challenge, without overriding their core exploration and narrative focus, and they appear to be bringing those same lessons to Below Zero. Good. Secondly, Robin Goodall is a bubbly, lightly snarky character who refuses to let her situation (Boring, then very suddenly rather dangerous) get her down. Just like me, she loves the world, and wants to explore it, wanting to know what’s going on, and demonstrating a fairly strong moral compass early on.

It is, as before with Subnautica, a relatively promising start.

The Mad Welshman, never having left Subnautica in the previous installment, is presumably to be found somewhere out here. Either as a popsicle, or drinking coffee and smiling at penglings playing from his vast underwater base.

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Warhammer Quest 2: The End Times (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £17.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Warhammer Quest has always been an odd one, for me, even among the many, many adaptations and games Games Workshop has put out over the years. A series they supported fairly well (From its earliest days as Hero Quest, to Advanced Hero Quest, to Warhammer Quest), it showed an aspect of the setting you’d think they’d have dealt more with, outside of some of the fiction, the groggy Fantasy Roleplay, and… I suppose Talisman counts: Adventurers.

Pictured: Perhaps the least likely group of adventurers. Three out of these four would normally, in the Warhams universe, kill each other on sight… But hey, these are the END TIMES…

I mean, you’d think Games Workshop would understand the appeal. But despite a fair amount of support, Warhammer Quest is one of the lesser lights of the studio. And the times it’s been adapted, it’s been relatively faithful.

Funnily enough, this is another one of those times where that’s precisely the problem. Because Warhammer Quest is a game that loves its random encounter tables. More specifically, hot damn it loves it ambushes. To the point where, very early in the game (approximately the fourth story mission), I was travelling from the dungeon to a town, got ambushed by around 12 Beastmen along the way, killed a few, and… Then got the text that presaged the ambush getting more ambushy with 5 more Beastmen. Considering one of my two heroes allowed for the ambush was downed the round before this happened, I noped the hell out. INJURY: Thankfully no permanent damage.

NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE. NOPE! NOPE!

Yes, if one of your characters gets downed during a quest, there is a chance they will get injured, although this can be repaired by… Levelling up. Healing items are relatively rare, and take time to use. Taking time means more turns for the dreaded AMBUSH. More turns for ranged enemies to plink away at you. And meanwhile, a lot of things are beyond your price range, from better heroes, to better equipment. It does get sort of easier by the end of the first act, but characters will get downed, and the game seems to take glee in arranging this. Yes, I know, games don’t have feelings. But that is the feeling I ascribe to it. It does help that often, side quests have vastly better rewards than main quests, but that… Doesn’t exactly help, considering the main quests are what you’re incentivised to do…

Still, you may note a 2 there, and while Warhammer Quest 2 inherits some of the problems of its predecessor (The aforementioned Ambush fetish, level design which means you’re often choosing between party cohesion before the next door, and the chance of MORE AMBUSH, expensive gear that makes the early game feel a lot more punishing, partly perhaps from its mobile, microtransactiony roots, mostly from the random tables Warhammer Quest was well known for), it would be disingenuous to say that there hasn’t been improvement and change.

“So, er, DM, what the heck’s this shield thing?”
“Here, here’s a card explaining exactly what it is. It’s your quest marker.”
“OHHHHH…”

For example, while there are still some control frustrations (occasionally clicking a space instead of ending your turn, having to remember that the game thinks you’re looking at an enemy instead of shooting it again if you’ve shot it with a ranged attack, then don’t mouse away before clicking again), the UI is a little more clear, and a little more visually interesting… Although the Town UI has taken a slight dip from “Functional” to “Stylistic, but less functional.” Camera movement is a definite improvement, although walls obstinately refuse to get out of the way, meaning that you’re mostly going to be looking downward anyway, and, setting wise, putting the game in Warhammer’s End Times period (When Archaon, Chaos Lord, royally screws things up) helps explain why such very disparate adventurers are banding together. A Dark Elf Witch of Naggaroth, one of your first two characters, is, at any other time, perhaps the worst choice of travelling companion. Once it gets going (about halfway through Act 1), it does feel easier, and, as a result, your group feels more powerful, but ambushes remain at best an irritation or delay, and, at worst, a very unwelcome addition to an already dangerous fight. Finally, not every town has every facility, and this starts being felt once you have to deal with long travels (and thus, random events) every time you want to level someone up, but a town doesn’t have the right facilities.

Those dual colour sets along the bottom are your only not-kit customisations. Them’s the rules, I don’t make ’em.

Model wise, some are better than others (It does seem women get the shorter end of the stick, both in terms of how many women characters there are, and the relative quality of models), but all are at least okay, with the caveat that customisation choices are very limited, and only the first weapon equipped seems to affect visible representation (Armour does vis-rep.) The music’s alright, with some tense violin led numbers, and other, dramatic choral pieces, and the world’s stylisation does give it more character than the previous outing, looking somewhat like a tabletop map, complete with layered bits of terrain.

In the end, while Warhammer Quest 2 gets friendlier a little quicker than its predecessor, enjoyment very much depends on how well you deal with the dominance of the random encounter elements of the game. It’s definitely an improvement, and I can see myself playing it in short stints, but, sooner or later, an annoying ambush happens, or the game drops poor plot rewards once too often, and I peace out.

It is the End Times of the Warhammer universe. Brother fights against brother, the vile publishers seek to bleed the Empire dry. In this dark fantasy world, there is only… Game Reviews.

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Slay The Spire (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.49
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Early Access

Ah, Slay the Spire. It’s charmed us so throughout Early Access, with its simple, but deadly card based combat, three characters, and its surreal, grim world of top-hatted slimes and the Shapes Museum…

…Yes, I said surreal and grim. But not without a touch of humour.

Yes, there is even humour in situations like this. Along with a healthy dose of “Oh sod…”

Since I last reviewed Slay the Spire, waaaay back when, a new character had been added (the Defect, an automaton whose deck revolves around the orbs that he summons, be they damaging lightning, cool, buffing ice, or other, more out there types), Ascension mode (where you can finally Slay the Spire, a living construct with a beating heart), and a whole host of balancing. So much more, on the other, similar looking hand, hasn’t changed, and what hasn’t changed… Hasn’t really needed to change.

It’s still a game where you’re thinking both in the short term (How the hell do I get through this fight with a Snecko without too much damage, despite the fact they’re a git who randomises my once cheap cards to expensive hell?) and the long term (Once I beat the Snecko, do I go ballsy and try the random events, which could lead to worse things than the Snecko, but greater rewards, or do I slog through these… Another boss monster before the final campfire? RANDOM EVENTS IT IS!) is optimal, and the mix of patterns (enemies have very specific strategies they employ) and randomness (drops, money, what cards you get to add to your deck) mean that a lot of the game is, effectively, risk management.

Snecko Eye, also known as the “I LOVE DICING WITH DEATH” option.

And very tense risk management it is, where even seemingly hopeless situations can be won through, only for an unfortunate series of events to bring it all crashing down. An unfortunate series of events that may have started… in the last map. So, while it can sometimes be hard to judge, I’ve rarely felt like the bad end of a run is not my fault.

Of course, just saying this doesn’t really help much, so let’s look at an example run, playing as the Silent. After your first run, so long as you’ve at least beaten the first boss, you get a benefit. From the beginning, I chose… Poorly. Specifically, I chose losing 7 of my max HP (normally fine) for a Rare Relic (normally fine.)

What I got was a relic where, so long as I didn’t play more than 3 cards in a turn, I’d get 3 more next turn. This, along with a few poison cards, actually played surprisingly well, if nerve wrackingly. I was always losing HP, because I was playing much more conservatively with my cards than I normally would as the silent, but when your “Poison everyone a lot” cards keep coming up, creatures still die quickly. I beat the first boss (Hexaghost) with… 8 damn HP to spare, and got the powerup (along with the one I’d previously gotten where enemies would now drop 2 cards instead of 1) where I could get 2 relics for each Elite enemy I successfully fought.

It’s rounds like these that make for glorious war stories… And, very quickly thereafter, tragedies.

And so, in my quest for a kind of power you don’t normally see the Silent possess, I continued to choose… Poorly. It didn’t matter that I’d fully healed, because the very first fight I got into (Three birds, which is normally an easy fight), I chose to fight according to my relics, and lost half my HP. Then I lost some more HP getting my max HP up. Then I came out of an Elite fight with less than 10HP again, merely four encounters in, and the very next encounter was… The Knight and Priestess. A deadly combo even normally, they killed me. Not without me killing the priestess, but, as with those ancient PSAs about knowing, that was only half the battle. Dead. Restart. And a lot of this was my choices.

Still, what with mods, the good accessibility, an excellent score, good aesthetics with a lot of visual clarity, that aforementioned humour breaking up the grim world, Slay the Spire is a tense, yet oddly compelling outing, and has remained so pretty much throughout.

The Mad Welshman goes with Snecko Eye whenever he gets the chance. That’s just the way he rolls.

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