Archive for the ‘Game Reviews’ Category:

The Church In The Darkness (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (OST+ BTS £7.19)
Where to Get It: Steam

I can’t really lie, but when I looked at Church In The Darkness, I was… Wary. A game about cults, especially American ones, can be… A widely variable experience, in terms of narrative quality. Often, cults are enemies, generic or otherwise. Sometimes interesting things are done with them. And, at worst, they can be games with an odd poltical slant while the company in question vehemently denies there’s any politics… Despite the fact there clearly is.

They get across well that this is a cult of charisma as much as… Well, it varies, but it pretends to be socialist, every time.

But, I’m happy to say, there are interesting things about The Church In The Darkness, even if I unfortunately couldn’t tell you everything at the time of review. After all, the cult in this game can have multiple possible actual motives. But I can tell you how it presents this cult, and how it plays, without either hitting spoiler territory, or ignoring its themes.

First, let’s begin with it being the late 1977s. Conservatives were in power (Specifically, Gerald Ford, but Watergate only having been three years previously was still in people’s minds), and were pushing back at rights movements and welfare programs alike. Vietnam had only ended two years previously, which, even today, has left its psychological scars on people. And, while there were fights for women’s rights, and the blaxploitation film movement, it was mostly a time of rising conservatism, and a bigoted focus on “Traditional Values.” And this could be argued to be one of the points from which conservatives pushed harder for using “Socialism” as a dogwhistle for everything progressive they hated in America.

…Which is why folks of colour in the game, mirroring the real world, and their exclusion… That’s appreciated.

Enter… The Collective Justice Mission, a radical (by 1970s standards) group, charismatic leaders and all, who’ve relocated to South America to found what they consider their ideal society, under a regime they think will support them. And enter you, Vic, a man asked to find your friend’s nephew, Alex, and try to get him away from this group. Now… Enter nuance. Enter narrative and choices.

Overall, the game is a stealth game. Vision cones, distraction tactics, going loud, going silent, going nonlethal, and procuring on site. It’s visually clear, the voice work is great, and has a few stars like Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie, playing Rebecca (Cult Leader 1) and Isaac (Cult Leader 2) respectively. The controls and play are easily understood, and it’s actively recommended you try it on easy until you’re comfortable with the idea of extra handicaps. But this, honestly, isn’t the most interesting part of it to me. And I feel that was the intention.

What was interesting, to me, was the discoveries, and the narrative. I did say it was nuanced, and I stand by that. Alex is latino. Other characters are folks of colour. Rebecaa and Isaac are… Well, they’re white, and, since their motives can differ from playthrough to playthrough, you don’t notice, at first, what kind of radicals they both are. Because, for the early game at least, they’re emphasising that this is their home, their paradise in which they’ll show America that they are wrong, and that they are right. And they’ll mention injustices, historically accurate ones, from gripes to serious matters.

It’s a big community, and… Well, there’s a lot to rummage through. Sometimes to the point of padding.

And the people walking around, the wooden huts, the rural life… At first, it all seems so bright and cozy, with the exception of, you know, people shooting you when you’re detected, then locking you in an increasingly difficult to escape situation each time, with one of the cult leaders telling you that your imperialist ways won’t stop them, that no-one can stop them. And they are convincing, full of fire and brimstone when it comes to enemies, sweet and caring (at first) for their devotees. When you find Alex, no matter who you were sent to consult who is at least neutral to your presence, he’ll tell you that the cult, genuinely helped him, emotionally and physically, out of a bad situation, and he’ll even be confused by the fact his family is looking for him, considering they had previously ostracised him.

But, the more you explore, the longer it goes on, and… You start noticing there’s trouble in paradise. Alex may tell you that food is scarce, and others who let you talk to them may also tell you troubling things (Or they’ll deny that there is a problem, because the cult had, seemingly, genuinely done good things for some of its members.) But this is a cult with guns, and firing ranges. Sometimes (often) you’ll come across corporal punishments and shaming, from a public haranguing session, all the way to people being stoned and locked in cages. There are relatively few farms, relatively few people fishing.

Such as this… Or caged people… Or… Well, there’s quite a few sights that let you know that something is definitely badly wrong…

And, over time, the tone of the respective cult leaders… Changes. In the playthrough where I’d gotten the furthest (Yes, you can, once you’ve found Alex, just book it, but I didn’t take that option once), Isaac started sounding more tired, talking like a divorced husband trying not to let the children know how bad the fights had gotten, while Rebecca… Her fire and brimstone tone got louder, talking about her allies in the South American military, and more emphasis on not being stopped. Even the documents, scattered around, show that this paradise is rotten to the core, unbeknownst to its members who form the peel.

But even when I met Isaac, snuck into his home base (notably, separated from Rebecca’s), he was loudly denouncing me as an enemy, someone who would murder him, kill his great dream… Even as I just… Stood there. Hell, I don’t think I even had a gun, at that point. And this was jarring, until I realised… Oh. Yeah. To him, I’m the Great Satan, aren’t I? No matter what I do, I want to take away one of his flock, and see what’s really going on, and that’s anathema to him. Well, shit.

…And then it outright tells you what you’ve already worked out (to an extent.)

Now, in the interest of balance, I will say this is probably one I want to come back to, not just because I find the narrative as presented so far interesting and pretty well presented, but because I want to see if it stays that way. It isn’t the easiest to sneak around, and I have to do a lot of sneaking around, with the rare villagers’ clothing not being as big a help as you’d think. Which, again, makes mechanical sense, as everyone here knows each other. Clothes or no, get close enough, and they’ll recognise you as an outsider, as other.

But, overall, I feel it goes interesting places, and I do want to explore its multiple motivations, its multiple potential endings. And that’s a good sign.

The Mad Welshman believes in giving interesting narrative its fair due. And there’s… A lot to unpack here.

Age of Wonders: Planetfall (Review)

Source: Hard parted with Cashmoneys. Worth it though.
Price: £41.99 (Look, there’s DLCs and a Season pass…)
Where to Get It: Steam

Space Opera is, in a way, a high fantasy all of its own. Want space elves? You can have space elves. Want space dwarves? Sure, no prob. Want a monolithic evil empire? Well, we all have those days. So Age of Wonders: Planetfall is not, strictly speaking, that big a leap from the fantasy shenanigans of previous games. Spells are now Tactical Operations, roving monsters are often NPC factions (Not all of which have a player faction equivalent), and overall? There’s a lot of interesting changes here, all of which seem to improve that AoW experience.

I get the distinct feeling we’re naming them, rather than using their names…

For those who don’t get the fuss about Age of Wonders, it’s a long running 4X franchise which has boasted many factions, asymmetric gameplay elements in later instalments, and some cool worlds of high fantasy. Well, now it’s science fiction. Turn based, with a hex based combat system when you get into it with units, and… Well, let’s talk systems.

As noted, there’s a lot of changes, but the two biggest, to my mind, are the Mod system for units, which extends the utility of units, especially Tier I units, quite a lot, and allows a fair amount of customisation, and the ability to research both your military and social researches at the same time, which… Really streamlines play, and I like that! In addition, factions and classes further mix things up both in the unit and research side of things (Species who choose the Voidtech class, for example, get Void Walkers, beings who can clone themselves before a seemingly unwinnable fight, and if they die? Well… Their clone is now them, because they were time travelling, and you had the bonus of doing damage to a creature outside of your current strength)

There’s many enemies, always enemies. But they will fall before the superior meld of biology… And technology

The system of base building has also been rejigged, and I also quite like this. Before this, it was done in a slightly more traditional 4X manner, with building cities, expanding them, and the main difference was in Outposts (to extend your territory without building another city) and Watchtowers (Extend the vision range of whoever owns them.) In Planetfall, it’s a collection of territories, and expansion is through exploiting a sector within range (preferably connected), and then building an exploitation on that point. Forward Bases can pre-emptively claim a territory, although anyone who wants to either destroy that or take that claim for their own can certainly try, so defending forward bases is… An interesting dynamic, since the game doesn’t generally encourage hordes of units, overall.

It’s somewhat refreshing, after the hullabaloo (enjoyable hullabaloo, but hullabaloo nonetheless) of Age of Wonders, to see the turns just… Glide by, relatively speaking. And it helps that, aesthetically, Planetfall is very much on point. The UI remains the same, and is mostly readable and well organised (occasionally, there’s a button or two that confuses a little, but it’s easy to learn), the music is fitting and gets the mood going along with things, and the worlds are, again, clear about what’s what. There is also hotseat, always a favourite of mine, for anything up to 12 players (Which is a fair bit more than the current number of factions, but the existence of a DLC Season Pass implies, as with Age of Wonders 3, that more is planned.)

I do enjoy a good warrior woman. Almost as much as my queer readers do.

So… I don’t really have any gripes about Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Some folks might get turned on by the extra login (as they might have done with Age of Wonders 3), but many a 4X or Grand Strategy player already has a Paradox account, so… Overall, it gets a recommendation for 4X players, with the only advice for those new to AoW being “Save often, but especially before fights, so you can learn how it all works without as much frustration.”

The Mad Welshman is torn between factions. So he spends most of his time with Planetfall banging his toys together and making “pew pew!” noises in Hotseat. He absolutely will not apologise for this. More 4X’s need hotseat.

Oxygen Not Included (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £18.99
Where To Get It: Steam

When you can tell a release candidate is a big step up from its Early Access, it’s not only a pleasant feeling, it’s a relief. A game you can point to and say “Nice, I enjoyed this!” And Oxygen Not Included, having rebalanced and added More Stuff to the usual Klei brand of “Games I Love, But Seem To Dislike Me (While Being Enjoyable To Play)”, is definitely one of those kinds of games. What interests me most about it is that it also retains that feeling of a slow fight of attrition against a difficult situation (Being trapped in the middle of an asteroid, with Oxygen in limited supply, and the means of making it in potentially limited supply, and… Look, there’s a lot of things I could affix “In limited supply” or “Of limited effectiveness” to, from food to water to power, and beyond.

“Wait, whose idea was it to import fish to flop around?” [answered only by angry squeaking]

But it’s not insurmountable, although it definitely feels that way in the early game sometimes, and the game rewards you for that struggle, that fight for survival, with cool things to find, and more information about why you, for some reason, are squeaking, honking clones, finding yourself in a tiny space at first, with absolutely no context beyond “Hey, you’ll die if you don’t work at the whole staying alive thing! Chop chop!”

And a part of what it’s added, although part of that may well be me having gotten better at things (With the exception of wiring… Le sigh) is that you get to see it more, before it starts pulling the gloves off. And, for players who want a challenge, or just a change, there are several different types of asteroids to be trapped in, from your bog standards, to your boggy standards, all the way to “Oh heck, why did someone even do this, putting us in this hellhole to die?”

Speaking of “Why would you even?” Jean… Ellie… WHY WOULD YOU EVEN?!?

Now, overall, it’s indirect management. I can’t say all of it’s good (It still, oddly, has the speed settings as a sort of throttle, so to go from “somewhat fast” to “normal” is two taps, but I can somewhat forgive that, especially as the sleep period seems to go by quicker), and reading tooltips is a must, but… Scalable UI. That’s good. Clear fonts. Cool. And very little that seemed to affect colourblindness, with the tooltips aiding in letting me know “This is coal, this is granite, and this is a chlorine filled mess you’ll probably have to go into with insufficient protection, because there’s useful things here. Hope your air plan is gooood, LOL!” Finally, there’s been some streamlining. Research is more clearly delineated, and levelling up a Duplicant is now at the base duplicator, rather than a thing requiring its own research. Nice!

And it’s these things, these seemingly small (But actually kind of big) changes that make the game friendlier, without, obviously, being too friendly. You’ll still, eventually, have to do dangerous things, overstretch yourself, and bar some duplicants from using machinery just to cut down on their commute. And you’ll still, occasionally, be yelling at them, despite a priority system, to “Argh, fix that, fix that, you’re going to be in trouble if you don’t AAAARGH.”

Pictured: The transcendent experience of education. Not Pictured: My electrical systems shorting and my coal generators slowly making the air worse.

But, for the most part, outside the really early game, that AARGH is a slower process, a process you can come back from, if you keep your head together. And, since Oxygen Not Included was already interesting and charming, not pretending to be anything other than it is, it remains highly recommended to fans of these indirect management survival games.

Just don’t come crying to me if your wiring overloads and starts a fire. Not least because I won’t be able to help you either.

No, really… The Mad Welshman sometimes has trouble remembering whether CHA FAN is a usable motherboard socket for… A fan. Don’t ask him about wiring.

Iratus: Lord of the Dead (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £18.99 (£25.25 for Supporter Edition, £7.59 for upgrade to Supporter Edition)
Where to Get It: Steam

Iratus: Lord of the Dead has, very often, been described to me as “Darkest Dungeon, but you’re the villain.” This isn’t, on the face of it, a wholly inaccurate statement. But it is, in many respects, its own, shambling beast. In a good way.

So, as you might expect from the title, you are a necromancer. One who almost managed to conquer the world, until those pesky heroes shot you down. For a long time, you were locked in a casket (Normally a prelude to insanity, but, let’s face it, that’s Tuesday to a necromancer), but now you’re free, and… Have to escape a four level dungeon complex that was built over your tomb.

Good thing you can create undead, huh?

Things rapidly begin going south. We lost our Zombie. Along with his BIG CANNON.

So, combat wise, yes, the game is quite similar to Darkest Dungeon. You have four slots, they have four slots (not always filled), and you have class abilities based on what undead you are. Where it begins to differ, however, is that units have three potential base damage types instead of two. Beyond the “Magic” and “Physical”, you have… “Dread.” And this is where the comparison mainly comes in, as some units specialise in causing sanity damage to enemies, who, after a certain point, will either have some form of insanity (although sometimes, that is a benefit in disguise), or are inspired (get a buff, regain all their sanity, very annoying.) Mixing and matching the two for maximum synergy is highly encouraged, especially as… Not everything has sanity. Lookin’ at you, Golem that wrecked my Dread based party the first run through.

My lord, we can’t scare it… WE CAN’T SCARE IT!

Beyond this, there are only a few similarities. Buildings exist, including the healing building, for sure, but they cost minions as well as resources. Your minions aren’t hired, they’re constructed, from parts of your enemies, or bits you dug up. You can make better parts, spec into spellcasting (I haven’t done this, having too much fun with brains, alchemy, and DREAD), refocus your minions using two choices of ability change per ability, and the dungeon itself is procgenned, sure, but it’s a map where you know roughly what’s ahead, ahead of time (Although enemy composition was, until the most recent updates, a mystery.)

So, in short, it’s got a lot of depth, and the game even has little things to help you recover from losses (brains, for example, automatically level up an undead to the same level as the brain, allowing you to quickly get units of comparable strength to the ones you lost onto the field), and I don’t really have any complaints mechanically. Similarly, aesthetically, the game is pretty clear, the music is suitably ominous and villainous, the soundwork is fine, and Iratus… Well, Iratus’ snark game is on point. Okay, maybe one gripe: Every female minion is of the big-breasted, eerily attractive variety. But mileage varies on that gripe, for obvious reasons.

“For a given value of smiled…”

So, what we have here, essentially, is a pretty polished turn-based strategy/roleplaying hybrid, which I quite like, and seems to be well on track to being a fine release.

The Mad Welshman always appreciates villainous snark. It expands his own repertoire, for the next heroic break in of his lair. So much tidying up afterwards…

Jupiter Hell (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.49
Where to Get It: Steam

Doom: The Roguelike was an interesting experience. Not just because I personally find it pleasant to see ASCII renditions of various video game enemies, and enjoy roguelikes, but because it emulated the feel of Doom (swearing as you unload, wondering when the next health pickup will be found, and moving, always moving), while being its own thing.

Every time you die, it helpfully reminds you what killed you a few seconds ago, but also assesses how risky you played, and how many you killed (This is important for certain achievements!)

And Jupiter Hell? Well, those of us who know, know that it is basically Doom: The Roguelike… Remastered. And how does it shape up? Pretty well so far. Let’s get into that.

The basic idea is that, as with most roguelikes, when you act, the enemies act also, and each action takes a certain amount of time (Moving, for example, is the 1.0 to calibrate everything by, while shooting can be slow or fast, depending on the weapon, and some abilities), and the game limits your motion to the four cardinal directions. I mean, you can move diagonally, but that isn’t a single move, but two. The maps use seeds for generation, and they always follow the same set of patterns and general enemy difficulty, although sometimes you get a doozy like coming out of the first area to find seven corrupted soldiers looking at you. And then shooting you to death (In a recent patch, this has been toned down, at least for the first level.)

Ehehe. Ohhh, you poor, undead and demonic bastards…

But, thankfully, I only encountered that once, and I’ve always understood where I’d screwed up overall. Another hallmark of a good roguelike. Your objective? To find out what the hell’s goi- It’s to murder everything, because nothing on any of these godforsaken bases can be saved, and a good chunk of it wants to turn you into good chunks. There is cover, and taking advantage of it, as well as baiting enemies into leaving theirs, is part of the tactics. And there are skills you earn at each level, which increase your power somewhat. And there are level branches, each with their own situations to make you feel either really powerful… Or that this was a bad idea.

So, your goal is pretty clear. Your controls are pretty clear, and rebindable to boot. There are CRT effects (including glitching and tearing of the UI at low health), but they can be turned off in the options. While the game is often somewhat dark, your currently targeted enemy is highlighted clearly, as is the next, automatically, when you kill the first, and you can still, most of the time, see the enemies well enough to shoot them. The menus can be a little odd to get used to at first (Mainly, remember that you can hit left and right to see other information, such as what your boomsticks, generally speaking, do. Beyond a practical test for further clarification, obviously.) And musically?

The wise thing to do would be to run back round that corner. Suffice to say, I was feeling ballsy, not wise.

Well, I did say it’s Doom: The Roguelike Remastered, and the music is reminiscent of, but definitely not a copy of, various iconic doom themes. Little riffs, here and there, and the overall tone clue you in, but they’re hard, they’re driving guitar, and sometimes… Sometimes they’re just downright ominous.

And so far, the only thing that I could really say was a turn-off is exactly the same turn-off for many a roguelike: Until you get the situations you see in later levels, it can be frustrating, as can not finding health kits and armour when you feel you really, really need them right about now. But it doesn’t shame you for picking Easy difficulty (In fact, I’m almost certain the entire Bronze achievements of the game can be completed on any difficulty), it’s aesthetically good, it’s mechanically sound while not feeling incomplete (Just a few minor balance issues), and I would say it’s a contender for being a good “First Roguelike I’ve Played.”

Doom was great, and Id are mostly great. And they were actually cool with this keeping the name. Just a friendly reminder for certain assholes from your local, mostly friendly Mad Welshman.