Ashen (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £30.99 (Definitive Edition £38.18 , Soundtrack £5.19, Nightstorm Isle DLC £7.19)
Where To Get It: Steam

And so the dark age passed into an age of light, a… Wait a minute, I was promised Dark Souls, not… Okay, fun aside, it’s actually nice to see some legitimate hope in a game with the “Go out, bash things with an input system that encourages only hitting the buttons you need to, not mashing them, die, spend money on improvement, hopefully get further this time” formula that has been called “Soulslike.”

I wanted to focus on the beauty for this review. For the combat, imagine a small circle in the middle of an enemy, as I slam that giant axe into its smug midsection.

In Ashen, you are, obviously, a voiceless Chosen One, who, along with two friends (and the others you meet along the way), must protect the Ashen, a bloody great bird made of light and life that sat on the World Tree, died (its three breaths creating three ages, which passed, and elements of the three civilisations still lived through the dark age), and is due to be reborn. Gosh, my throat’s a little bit norse from that short bit of exposition, lemme back up a bit.

Essentially, this is a third person action RPG, in which your low poly protagonist wanders through a map, directed by both the needs of currency/items gained from enemies, and the quests, side or main, from the people of your small, new township. This actually deserves a mention right now, because it’s a fulfilling aspect of the game: The further along the game you get, the more sidequests you do, the more your town hub (Well, more of a “start point on the journey”, really, as you travel along a narrowing spiral toward the end, unlocking Ritual Stones, your travel points, along the way) builds up and grows, starting as this near barren, ramshackle set of ruins, and, by the end of the game? It’s a thriving village, with each of your fellow characters having their own cohabitation with various people attracted to this glowing beacon of hope.

Early in the game, but I like the image of Batarn, the giant one armed smith, helping to build what will be a beautiful village toward the end, an enduring legacy of hope.

Even if the game weren’t good, this would have to be mentioned, precisely because it’s almost unheard of in this genre (or indeed, quite a few.) But the game is good. It doesn’t give you fast travel until a few main quests in, but the progression feels natural, and I only died once or twice in the early game, mostly due to either overconfidence or stupidity. Especially as you have a friend, always (whether a co-op partner, or one of the companions you meet, each with certain styles of weaponry), and so long as one of you is alive long enough to resurrect the other, you’re okay.

And the world is pretty. Even in the bleaker areas of the game, there’s a sense of beauty, fallen or otherwise. From the parts of the world so far reclaimed from the Ash, to the almost tundra like ruins of Sindre’s View, to… Ah, well, that would be spoiling things, but suffice to say, there’s a lot of environments, including, yes, dark areas. And the difficulty does ramp up, with some of the underground segments, in particular, making for a large difficulty spike. Still, it’s also a world where the developers want you to try clambering over it, to see what you can do, and want you to see it, and this, also, is appreciated. Finally, the music is, for the most part, calm, relaxing. This is a world you’re meant to take in.

Even in this bleak, ashen wasteland, there is beauty.

Are there complaints? Well, yes. The game very much overloads you with stuff early on, and it’s somewhat resource hoggy, with slowish loading times, and, outside of challenge runs, why wouldn’t you give your companions their quest items? But… There’s a lot it does right, over its compatriots, a lot it does differently. The game doesn’t really bar you that much, so you can engage or not as you like, explore as much or as little as you like, although it is highly encouraged you do those side quests before tackling a main one. As such, it’s more guiding than holding back or pushing, not holding your hand, but showing you the way.

So, in summary, I would say that this is a better introduction to the subgenre known as “Soulslikes” than… Well, Dark Souls, the game which popularised the term! It’s pretty, it’s interesting, its characters are cool… Yup, I like it.

The Mad Welshman appreciates beauty, bleak or otherwise, as much as he appreciates bearded handaxes. Which is to say, a fair bit.

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Tower Hunter: Erza’s Trial (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99 (Soundtrack £1.69)
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Early Access

Tower Hunter, the somewhat procgen action platformer, has hit release. And how do I feel about this game, after Early Access?

Wow, I can actually… See this guy this time.

Well… Okay. Some improvement was made. Let’s recap, before we get into that. Tower Hunter is a procgen action platformer, in which you, the titular Erza, must clear a magical tower, defeating its inhabitants, for… Nope, still haven’t remembered. In any case, there are five main weapon types, with you randomly getting a possibly different weapon before each run (and being able to find other, better versions of weapons, if not the one you started with sometimes, in the dungeon), and, should you die, you start over again, losing some of your powerup “chips” and money (gems) in the process. Which… Usually isn’t that bad, to be honest, because you’re usually spending gems on upgrades for much of the game, and the chips are in plentiful supply, so it’s only if you’ve lost some seriously good ones that it’s a setback, and it’s very much a temporary one.

Last time I looked at this, the mechanical aspects were somewhat interesting, such as a large bevy of upgrades, multiple unlockable special attacks, the powerup chips being replaceable in play if you find others, recycling of items you don’t want or need into gems, and an improvement of your abilities should you beat the increasingly difficult requirements (Bronze, Silver, Gold for each of the five or six stages, themselves broken into two levels, and, another relatively recent upgrade, an actual boss of a stage. We’ll get to that shortly.)

And while the mandatory spike segment of the first area annoys me, this? This never gets old.

But the visual flair was somewhat lacking, the seams of the level blocks very clear, and the animations… Well, so so, for the enemies. Oh, and the poor translation into English, which, while I could deal with it in general (It’s not the most plot heavy of deals), is, admittedly, a turn off. Sound alright, music alright…

Well, the animations have gotten a little better. And the bosses do have some visual flair to them, more attention having been lavished on them than, perhaps, the bread and butter of the basic enemies (Who, nonetheless, feel a little more organic in their movement. Not consistently, alas.)

So, mechanically, it remains interesting, rewarding speed and exploration. And it has, to be fair, improved visually somewhat (The levels themselves remain… Well, a bit blah. You have to work harder to make procgen 3D areas fit nicely, and harder still to make them look… Well, not like it’s a collection of single assets.) And now… Actual bosses. I haven’t faced many so far (two of the five or six), but so far, they have been both unique, somewhat of an improvement over the basic enemies (Admittedly, uniqueness is a part of that, I feel), and… Somewhat frustrating.

This guy. This… Frickin’ … Guy…

The game, as is, has a battle of attrition in the levels before a boss. Most enemies can be stunlocked to oblivion, or murdered quite quickly, but ranged enemies are introduced early, and some enemies are frustrating to hit because their preferred attack vector is… Well, out of reach unless you hop. Add in traps, status effects like blinding (thankfully, only a restriction of your vision, rather than total blindness), and the occasional time your character just doesn’t seem to respond properly (uncommon, but it does happen), and… Those health potions you have to help cope go relatively quickly, even with resting areas between each of the two levels and before a boss. And then you get to the boss…

…The first is not so bad: The Cockroach King is clear, you can dodge all of his attacks just fine, and, apart from the boss thing of breaking stunlock (and being immune to it after 50% health, with desperation moves being added), he’s a decent fight. Also one I was glad to beat, because he was a braggart asshole, and possibly skeevy to boot. The Centaur Knight, on the other hand… Is mean. Jump the dash, don’t try to dash dodge it, because it plain doesn’t work. Shields often, doesn’t always telegraph too well, and while your attacks don’t seem to do anything to an offscreen enemy, his definitely can affect from offscreen. He is, to put it bluntly, a big ol’ pile of dicks. I’ll beat him, eventually, I’m sure. But he is definitely quite the spike, compared to the first boss.

An apt metaphor, I feel.

So… Do I recommend it? Its core ideas remain interesting. It has shown some improvement on the aesthetic front, although not as much as I’d like. And, apart from those odd glitches (Which I’m sure are being worked on), it’s a solid, if still not-so-visually appealing procgen action platformer. So… A tentative yes.

The Mad Welshman, alas, is a Vaudevillain, and so the very definition of a Pattern Based Enemy.

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Noita (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £13.99 (£3.99 soundtrack, £17.98 game and soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Even at this relatively early stage, there’s a fair amount to say about Noita. It simulates every pixel (Although this mostly applies to fluids, fire, and particulates like spurting blood, smoke, steam, and even flammable gas), has an interesting core weapon mechanic, is, at the current stage (and probably later too) hard as balls… And, for some reason, it quits and restarts after every run. Don’t take that as a criticism as in “This thing is bad.” The game still works just fine. It’s just odd.

In the beginning…

So, right now, this is a somewhat plot light game (who knows, maybe it’ll get more, maybe not.) It’s implied, the first time you play it (and never again afterwards, because it’s a first play cutscene) that the universe came from a great phoenix’s three eggs. One created the land and sky, one the stars and sea, and the other… Life, both the usual kinds, and the inimical kinds. You are a wizard, entering a mine which appears to be some sort of trial, or at least having temples between levels that conveniently give you useful things… Like filling your health back up, because there is no health regen.

Funnily enough, I don’t particularly see that as a bad thing, because, while the economy gets annoyingly sparse later on (requiring enemy murder to get gold), if you’ve played your cards right, or simply gotten lucky, you’ll have something powerful enough to deal, even if the enemies, unless you’re tactical, can most definitely do unto you as you do to them. The nastier foes in the early levels, for example, are acidic spitting eyeballs and your fellow wizards, corrupted into elemental forms (I’ve only ever seen fire and lightning wizards, but these three alone are an immediate “nope!” on low health, and a pause for thought as to whether you really want to do this otherwise.)

Ahhh, it burns so prettily. Of course, I had gold down there, gold I can’t get before it disappears.

So, how do you get better? Well, sometimes, you can use your environment. Kicking things that can be kicked. Destroying convenient explosives, gas canisters, toxic goo canisters and the like. Setting off oil pools. Firing lightning into steel beams to murderize anything standing on them (Caution, this includes you!) Perks got between levels, like the ones that allow you to ignore elements, the ones that cause you to bleed poison, or slime, or be able to survive a single hit if you had more than 1 hitpoint (Does not apply to fire or acid, for obvious reasons.) Potions, like Beserkium (gives you Beserk status), Blood (Useful for folks with the Vampire perk), and Invisibilium (Guess.) Protip: And empty bottle can be used to store other liquids. And, finally, wands, and the spells contained therein.

You start with just two of these: A weak magic missile wand that fires two (capacity of three spell effects) before needing to recharge (relatively quickly), and a bomb wand, that, obviously, makes a bomb. Of which you have three. But you can find wands, and spell effects, or you can buy them between levels, with the gold you’ve earned… And, once you have those spell effects (You can even take them out of a wand completely before levels, to store for later), you can swap them between any wands that can cast them. And some effects, obviously, combine. So, if you wanted, and found the right elements, you could have a flaming projectile… That leaves a trail of gunpowder behind it. Or two at once. Or three. Some wands even have a spell built into the wand itself.

You’d think this is powerful. And it is. But it is less powerful than about twelve enemies at once. So I died a little bit later.

Aesthetically, it pretty much works. The environments themselves aren’t amazing, but it’s a whole thing to see pixellated clouds of flammable gas wisping its way upwards from where, below, the acidic gribbley you’ve just murdered is spewing it’s blood all over the ground, eating into it. Or how pretty a massive oil fire looks in game, licking over and through the wood… Before you realise “Wait, shit, I’m too clo- AAAAA HOT HOT HOT!” Remember what I said about potion bottles being filled with liquids? This is but one good reason why. Soundwise, the enemies themselves make few sounds, but the music is good, the sound effects for the various wands work.

But, honestly, the biggest draw here is how it works mechanically, the interactions of the world. And I find this very interesting, and pretty cool, so… Yeah, promising, as mentioned, hard, although it’s still, as far as I’m aware, relatively early days… I like it!

The Mad Welshman points out that drinking and wanding is not recommended. Especially if one of your spells is Fire Breath.

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Last Days of Tascaria (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

This has been a week for odd decisions with games. Like Noita, Last Days of Tascaria seems to be unloading and loading different windows, and… Doesn’t have a windowed mode. Which would just be a niggle, a wagging of the finger and “Come on, you can add that), if it weren’t for the game… Not being very fun to play.

On the one hand, wizardess’ hair is goals. On the other, these two… Eesh.

The general idea is one of a warrior and a wizardess, recruiting others, exploring a map in a turn-based fashion, skilling up, and engaging in pausable real time battles against groups of enemies, occasionally fighting a boss, on their path to… Destroy a heroine who’d turned evil, raised an army of the undead, because it was a relic, and now she’s resurrecting a lich king for some reason… Look, maybe she thinks being almost invincible due to her relics, while having an army that grows stronger with every victory isn’t enough or something. Any which way, that’s what you do.

And the combat is, in a word, tedious. There’s a rock-paper-scissors style thing going on with the combat (axes are best against armoured enemies, while dodge has to be countered with swords, so… Hit dodgy and armoured enemies once with sword, switch to axe, start over when they regain dodge) The wizardess, meanwhile, also has a rock-paper scissors thing with elements, but is pretty good ranged support. Them’s your basics.

Yes, never turn your back on an enemy. But guess what, wizardess lady has to get relatively close to cast her beefiest spell, shield doesn’t last forever, and… Suffice to say, this didn’t go well.

But the heroes don’t so much fling themselves into combat as stroll, swinging weapons with little impact behind their blows, flinching often from ranged enemies… And oh boy do they like their ranged enemies. The warrior (look, I don’t even care about learning their names) has a shield, but it’s directional, doesn’t last long, and enemy groups are, best case, double your size early in the game. You have to kill half of them to win the battle, and healing opportunities are… Not common.

What results is a slog. When I wasn’t looking on with a sigh, I was hitting that quit button with an irritated grumble. So… What about events? Well, those aren’t terribly interesting either. The problem with a game with turn-based walking around, and turn-based events, is that you somewhat have to care about the rest of it, and even then, dull writing can still be a turn-off. And this is… This is almost as generic as high fantasy can get. Aesthetically, it’s okay, but the animations don’t have much impact, or character, the music is about as generic as the world…

Honestly, I prefer orcs when they’re hot. And these ones… So generic.

I’m not ashamed to say I checked out pretty early. If the combat later was anything like the combat earlier, then no, it doesn’t really get better later. It feels generic, tedious, and its tactical options are, on the face of things, pretty limited, a time your cooldowns and use items well style affair that I wasn’t the biggest fan of in the first place.

The Mad Welshman repeats: More hot orcs.

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The Surge 2 (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £43.99
Where To Get It: Steam

What is it with posthuman cult leaders and bad fashion sense? Yes, I know, if you’ve heard about The Surge or played it, you know that’s the least of your worries, but… It nags at me. Anyway, about the game.

This is very me: “Mmmhm, yes, Posthumanism, yes… [You look like a bloody dork in that]”

So, let’s get the spoilers out of the way niiiice and early: Burke lived, and you find that out in the first area! Warren lived, and this is pretty heavily implied by the mysterious stranger you meet just outside the first area! Shit’s gone to hell, which is exactly what you’d expect for a sequel! There, we’re done. That wasn’t hard now, was it?

In any case, The Surge is a science-fiction… Deep sigh, because I hate saying this… Soulslike. You have checkpoints, which you return to when you die, minus what money you’ve earned. Combat is based upon pattern recognition, good dodging/parrying skills, and managing your stamina. The Surge even added its own touches, such as rewards increasing the longer you spend between returns to a checkpoint (an interesting risk/reward system, which I have not taken much advantage of because I’m a coward), and the ability to target specific limbs, something you need to do for specific rewards, such as a blueprint of the opponent’s exo-limb.

Oh, and the online functionality, which introduces revenge enemies (Enemies with more health who killed another player, but drop lots of resources if you kill them), tags, the occasional battery drop where a player died, that sort of fun stuff. You can play offline, but these additions do add a bit of spice.

And with the slo-mo… My god it’s satisfying! Gimme your arm, y’bastard!

Controller is recommended, because while the keyboard/mouse controls are okay, and remappable, parrying appears harder to do well in kb/m. Okay, base mechanical stuff done with, let’s get into what I like and don’t like.

Aesthetically, the game is good, and, if your rig can handle it, it can look beautiful. Some facets are a little confusing, such as targeting, or the very small “You can backstun this fool” prompt, but it, and the sound, are pretty good. Also, while the protagonist isn’t voiced, the others are pleasant to hear, fairly well acted, and it made my day to hear a proper South Wales accent in the game… It was tidy, you might say. Motion Blur as a default is… Annoying, to say the least, but having the amount of it as a slider, along with a couple of other effects? That’s a good move.

I’m also quite fond of the combat, being meaty, pretty well explained, and having a nice back and fore rhythm… Well, if you take the advice of timing your blows, rather than being a button masher like me. Still, I parry well, and I dodge okay, so I’m finding it pleasing to fight. Master one of these skills, and be at least okay with the other, or you’re going to have a hard time. Encouragement to use at least a partial set through partial and full set benefits is also a pleasing bit of incentivising styles of play, and that the first armour heals you a little when you finish off an enemy? That’s a good starter. There’s a few new weapon types, and, while I haven’t experimented with them much, they seem pretty cool, with nice tricks on the charge attacks.

Pictured: You must be this levelled to wear a full suit. Well, more levelled, obviously. It took a fair bit of grind to get the full set.

I am, however, less fond of the levelling system. Not the actual levelling itself, which is reasonable, but the Core Power being tied to your level. It’s about ten, maybe fifteen levels until you can properly equip a full set, and it was a little annoying to have to grind up to my first full set.

I could go on for quite a bit about all the quality of life improvements, but, essentially, if you played The Surge 1, it’s an improvement in many respects, and, if you’re starting out with The Surge 2, well… Going back to The Surge 1 may be a little tougher, although the basics remain the same. It feels pretty good, exploring this new, more open world with its diverse locations, it feels good to fight, and I would recommend this, even as someone who got very tired of games taking elements from the Souls series pretty quickly.

The Mad Welshman remains pretty easy to make in the majority of games. And he looks good in an exosuit. Nanomachines, son!

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