Nightshade (Review/Going Back)

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

1992 was in a period of interesting experimentation in video-games. Not a whole lot was pinned down, and the hardware limited things in oft frustrating ways, so cool, yet clunky solutions were found… And not all of the lessons of these past games have been relearned. Nightshade is, I’m going to get this out of the way now, a difficult, and occasionally frustrating experience. It’s an adventure game that was on the NES, for a start, with action elements. And yet, now that it’s been re-released in emulated form by Piko Interactive, it’s somewhat easy to see why it was picked.

It is perhaps safe to say they aren’t tubular or radical. Just snotty.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this game definitely has some annoyances. Fights, for example, are pretty gimmicky, fairly common, and are going to be the biggest source of game overs. More than other adventure games, the advice “Save early, save often” works pretty well. Select lets you choose what you want to do in adventure mode (Also pausing while this happens, which can buy you some time when a hostile is nearby), although you have to be close to objects to interact with them, and while the main character and world are well sprited, the other portraits are… Well, they clash, quite a bit.

Anyway, those aside, let’s talk the interesting things. First up, this is an action-adventure game, on the NES, in 1992. The select-action thing gets around a lot of the potential problems this could have caused, and the writing, while a little odd in places, generally has a light, humorous tone. The story’s a little hammy, but then, it’s a pulp superhero story, where a librarian becomes a trenchcoated crusader after the previous hero (Vortex, a proper cape) was captured and murdered by Sutekh, egyptian themed crimelord. Equally unfortunately, the game starts with your capture. Whatever will Lampsha- er, Nightshade do?

Hrm, they’ve tied me up pretty good… How the heck am I… Ah, LEVERS. We’re off to a great start!

Funnily enough, this is a good tone-setter, as it’s a scenario many a pulpy hero has faced. Tied to a chair, bomb, candle, wall nearby… All the elements are there, and if you happen to “die”, well, the other clever thing about the game comes in: Lives are replaced by similar escape sequences to this, as Sutekh is the gloaty, easily-escapable deathtrap type. I mean, he learns from his mistakes, and the deathtraps escalate in difficulty until the fifth one is impossible to escape, but… I actually kinda like this. Suitably villainous, one might say.

Now, the important question here is “Is Nightshade any good?” , and the answer is “If you are somewhat used to how old adventure games pull things, yes, it’s definitely interesting. Or if you remember that this is emulated, and that save-states will allow you to explore without so much frustration, sure.” It’s an interesting look at how console obstacles for adventure gaming were gotten around (and, honestly, the villainous deathtrap/lives thing is a choice I’d like to see more in media involving supervillains), it isn’t, as far as 90s games go, unresponsive or bad, and £4 for trying a mostly forgotten, and interesting piece of gamedev history is not a bad price at all.

Lose, and Sutekh… Well, I’m sure this is just metaphorical… Isn’t it?

Nightshade isn’t one of those forever-classics. But it’s definitely worth a look.

The Mad Welshman, you may have noted, appreciates experimentation. And the 90s is a treasure trove of it.

Become a Patron!

Unheard (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £5.19
Where To Get It: Steam

I love me a good mystery. Or three. Or five. I also love me some weirdness. So when Unheard popped up on my radar, I was intrigued. Ghost voices? Solving cold cases via audio recordings with movements of characters on a map? Deduction? Hell. Yes.

At the successful conclusion of each case, a short recap showing where the main clues were plays out.

And, overall, I’m not disappointed. I might as well get the niggles out of the way first, because they really are, honestly, niggles, little things. Firstly, it’s perfectly possible to just cows and bulls your way to the answer once you’ve identified everybody (You have X correct, no, X-1, ah, that one’s right, cool, next), and secondly, achievements are slightly borked in that it seems to give you the achievement for solving the case only with the play button… Even if you actually do use the recording progress bar (Rewind and Fast-Forward still fail the achievement.) And… That’s pretty much it, because the cases themselves get interesting pretty quickly. It starts nice and simple, with a twin identity case, moves on to an art theft where not all is as it seems, a terrorist bombing that also cleaned up the terrorist’s loose ends… Each one has something where the twist makes repeating the recording from different perspectives important, and each gives its clues well, for the most part (I say the most part, because case 3’s first question’s biggest clue is a surprisingly subtle one)

As you might be able to appreciate, I have to pick my images very carefully. I don’t want to spoil it for you…

The premise at first seems simple: You are someone being assessed using a new system of solving cases, all involving sound recordings of cold cases taken from places. Sounds unreal, and the game does a lot to make it seem more so, but, within its word, it feels real. On the one hand, it’s a short game, taking about three or four hours to complete, but it’s a well written experience, and the one mystery it does leave unsolved, it does so for a reason. Again, though, certain evidence deeply implies the solution, and I like that. Equally, I like the sound design, making the conversations with your assessor seem strange (you never see her face, for example), and the visual design very clearly lays out what’s needed.

Of course, the problem with saying much more, is that there are five cases, and to say much more risks spoilers… But it fits all the criteria of a good mystery game. It allows you to solve the case on your own, with the tools provided. Equally, it doesn’t hold your hand, instead allowing you to make notes. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaves just enough mystery to stay interesting all the way through, and, while it doesn’t appear like it ties up everything, it does, and that’s really cool. If you like mystery solving, give this one a look.

Case 3, pictured, is where things really start kicking off.

The Mad Welshman has to toodle off. Something about a new system where correcting contradictions in a manga short reveals who coded the cool tricks in games…

Become a Patron!

Heartbeat (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.39 (£14.92 for game + soundtrack, £5.19 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Heaaaart beat.. Why do I miss… Oh, wait, no, this is not, in fact, the TV show starring Nick Berry, but an RPG Maker game inspired by monster capturing games (Although to pick just one it’s inspired by would perhaps be a disservice.) A game that, while definitely interesting, is… Not without flaw right now. So… Let’s get this out the way right now.

BOULDERS. WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE BOULDERS?

If you are not fond of puzzle elements, especially, for example, block pushing puzzles, Heartbeat will probably turn you off within the first hour. It’s stylistically very fitting to its inspirations, it tries to do interesting things with its narrative of a world that lives with spirits (Mogwai.) It has a good soundtrack. Its combat is relatively quick and pleasant, and, while this isn’t something that would interest folks other than gamedev enthusiasts, I appreciate how the RPGMaker MV engine has been tweaked to good effect. It’s even pretty accessible.

But I freely admit I’ve found myself struggling to get very far, because of that combination of my own desire for completionism (CHESTS CHESTS CHESTS), and because the game frontloads about nine or ten block pushing/ball rolling puzzles in its first major segment, the Sol Tunnels. And, honestly, this is a bit of a shame for me, both in the sense of being a little ashamed, and feeling sad that this is so, because some of the puzzle elements are, in fact, quite cool.

Ahahaha. Oh, you sweet summer child…

With a tap of the Q key, you can select which party member leads, and each one has something that helps explore the world. Rex, for example, is a lightning cat Mogwai who can jump small gaps and fences. Klein, the protagonist’s primary companion as a Conjurer (Someone who makes pacts to share their souls with Mogwai, as diplomats and defenders of the uneasy truce), is small enough that he can fit through catflaps, and, being a Cait Sith, can talk to cats. The dialogue is a little cheesy in places, but it’s characters definitely have their charm, and it hits that right note between SatAm Pokemon, and a more serious monster training world.

Rex… So good, but they really need to stop rubbing their fur all over my nylon carpet…

Sometimes, alas, while you can see the charm about a game, something turns you off, and, in my case, it’s the front-loading of a puzzle type I have never been fond of. I would still say that monster hunting and JRPG fans check this out, because it does do interesting things, playing with the formula, but… It is, unfortunately, not really for me.

It happens sometimes. Still, I can appreciate the art. <3

Become a Patron!

From Beyond: Prologue (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £2.09
Where To Get It: Steam

Yup, it’s a NESVenture style game alright. As if the interface wasn’t a big enough clue, the deaths, the inventory loss moments, and… Ear piercing noises definitely clued me in. Those last, in particular, are worthy of note. And not in a pleasant manner.

Also from the inspiration, blood. A fair amount of blood and horror.

So, for those not aware, the NESVentures is a reference to adaptations of a series of adventure games called the MacVentures by a company called Kemco, who simplified the multiple window interface into something tighter: A map window, a picture window, an inventory window, and the verb/save/load window (TAKE, USE, OPEN, LOOK, etcetera.) They were known, just as the MacVentures were, for what we now call “’Gotcha!’ Deaths”, where opening a door, taking an item, or otherwise fiddling with something you didn’t know was dangerous… Turned out to be fatal.

In the case of From Beyond: Prologue, it is a NESVenture style game set as a prequel to the Lovecraft tale of the same name, and you play as… The antagonist of that story, Crawford Tillinghast, on his quest to see what man was not meant to wot. Alas, we are meant to shepherd him toward the doom he’s meant to suffer, not all the other dooms along the way, such as being eaten by wolves, falling down a crevasse in the dark, or not having the right item on him when something horrible inevitably does appear.

If you were unfamiliar with the NESVenture style, you would probably not know to OPEN the car door, and TAKE the bag inside.

It is, then, perhaps unfortunate that, along with the tight interface of the NESVentures, the developer has also introduced many of the flaws. Thankfully, the Gotcha Deaths are of a much lesser degree here, being telegraphed in one sense or another (The snow is loose, the floor looks weak, it is dark… So on.) But, even with this, it is a point and click adventure where you have to LOOK in the picture window to note any items you may need, and most useless interactions are marked with nothing. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if that also weren’t the reaction when you’ve missed the hitbox of the thing you’re trying to effect. I mention this because of an apple on a branch in the second act, which, so far, has resisted all efforts to effect it, both through its relatively small hitbox, and seeming lack of items that will get hold of it.

So, utility issues aside, it visually achieves the style it’s going for. Similarly, its chiptunes and most of its sound effects also achieve the style it’s going for, and your tolerance and enjoyment of these really depends on how much you like NES style chiptunes. That being said, that high pitched squeal whenever The Entity contacts you, or something weird related to it happens, is, as noted, piercing. Even with the sound turned pretty low, it’s annoying, and, due to its comparative volume, I would definitely recommend turning the sound low.

This man did not Save Early, Save Often. It is no excuse that he doesn’t have the capability to…

While it is not a terribly long game, as most NESVentures were not, it is a game where you’re going to be pushing your 5 save slots to their fullest if you try it out. Would I recommend it? Not… Really. It’s an adventure game emulating an old adventure game’s style pretty well, but that means old adventure game rules, and that means that, unless you’re really into the “Save early, save often, oh wait, 5 save slots” style of play, it’s going to be more frustrating than enjoyable, and no commitment to aesthetic is really going to change that.

> FINISH REVIEW
That is not an approved command. Your blood pressure rises.

Become a Patron!

Mutant: Year Zero (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £29.99 (£47.99 for Deluxe Edition, £18.99 for Deluxe Content DLC if you already have the base game)
Where To Get It: Steam

A good post-apocalypse is equal parts absurd and terrifying. Myths arise from casual misinterpretations, nomenclature is taken more seriously than perhaps it should, and yet, this is because death waits around every corner, just itching for the unwary. Why, then, would you not be afraid of something called a “Boom Box” with a red button on it?

“What are ya, survival-inept? DON’T TOUCH THE RED BUTTON!”

And that, apart from maybe a tale of tactical combat gone horribly wrong, is perhaps the best introduction to Mutant: Year Zero, a tactical RPG that moves relatively seamlessly between realtime isometric exploration, and turn-based tactical combat. A game where myths of survivors, that Safe Haven, put an already established community in danger. Perhaps more than even it’s aware of.

Mutant: Year Zero is also an interesting game, because, underneath all the glitter, there’s… Not actually a huge amount, mechanically speaking. There are relatively static shops at the Ark, your homebase. The turn based tactical combat is easy to get your head round if you’ve played anything with turn-based tactical combat… Two actions a turn, shooting ends your turn (generally), special abilities have kill based cooldowns, and ensuring enemies die quickly, and in a good order is the key to victory. A lot of it is writing, and mood, and aesthetic, all of which it pulls off… Quite well.

Reality: Probably were out for Brewskis when the crap hit the fan. What we see? People who couldn’t hack it in this dangerous world.

For example, the map and loading music reminds me very much of the iconic theme to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and, for those who haven’t seen that movie, its understated bass line, simple and rhythmic, has associations. Of death, of horror, of tension and mistrust. And it mostly plays that tense theming throughout, to good effect. Similarly, the two main characters, while ridiculous if you sum them up by their base concepts (A warthog and a duck. They stalk the Zone for the good of The Ark), are grounded, played straight to good effect. They sound like they’ve lived their concepts, and that suspends disbelief enough that you care about these two irascible, but otherwise alright folks. The world has enough to make it feel alien, while the familiar is seen through both our own eyes (Awwh heck, those poor folks, dying while camping), and the funhouse mirror of how the world sees them (Not understanding it wasn’t as threatening back then, the campers are derided for camping in a now-dangerous area.)

While relatively short, the game packs tightly, and if I had one critique, it’s that the relatively small seeming improvements can give an unwarranted sense of complacency. I hadn’t even realised I was halfway to a sensible level for taking on the next leg of my main quest at one point, and, at another very soon after, cursed that I hadn’t gone back to the ark to get those seemingly unimportant single damage points. Those seemingly unimportant single damage point armours. Just one extra heal. Those single points don’t seem to matter, but, as it turns out, they’re the difference between a stealthy kill of an outlier… And an extended firefight in which everyone dies. It’s a finely tuned game, but this also means that yes, those upgrades are important, although there’s obviously a little leeway.

Scoping out the area before you go hot is a good idea. I thought I was being smart, starting with a grenade. See that little arrow to the left? That’s the medbot who screwed it all up.

Finally, there’s splitting up. Mutant: Year Zero emphasises stealth, the picking off of outliers, because you’re always outgunned in some fashion in a straight up fight, and it’s an interesting risk-reward calculation to leave someone in a better position, micromanage outside of the enemy’s view, so you can ensure the best outcome.

So, an interesting world, seen through a funhouse mirror of post-apocalypse confusion. Solid writing, good music, a good aesthetic… And doing interesting things with genre mixing and the rote formulae we know and “love.” It’s tough, but it’s also fair tough, tutorialises well, and I’ve been having an enjoyable time, in the “Tense gripping of mouse and very quiet swear words when things go wrong and I know it’s my fault” sense. Well worth a look.

The Mad Welshman would probably be a top-hatted Corgi if he was a post-apocalyptic mutant. Cliched… But also CLASSY.

Become a Patron!