Hellsign (Early Access Review)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Hellsign is an interesting concept, and one that hasn’t been done in quite this way very often: A paranormal investigator, using kit a paranormal investigator would, in a world where the supernatural threats are real, are dangerous, and are rising.

It is, then, perhaps a shame that the most common sentiment I hear when I’m having trouble in the game, right from the word go, is “Dip your toes into missions you can’t do yet, to get money to get better equipment.”

There is a phrase for that. Well, there’s a couple. Sometimes, it’s called Power-Levelling. When it’s throughout a game, however, it’s generally known as “Balance Problems.”

In the glare of a UV lamp, evidence is found. It's bullet holes... In a book.
The investigation aspect is interesting, using real world tools in a mostly sensible manner. Even if a book is not perhaps the best place to put this specific clue. 😛

Hellsign is, at the present time, a game where only a few of the builds on offer are truly viable without skilled play, even from the beginning. Pistols are openly a last resort, submachine guns require good handling to be useful, and the shotguns… Well, they’re videogame shotguns, alright. High damage, effective range of…A few feet. And currently, the best combat option I’ve seen in the game.

Dark Souls style Dodge Roll? Check. Shit Flashlight, upgraded to Marginally Less Shit Flashlight? Check. Fast, erratic ground based enemies that require specifically targeting the ground to fight as your earliest encounter? Check check checkedy check.

And this is a bit of a shame, as the investigation aspect is nice. Some tools are proximity based (EM Detector and EVP Recorder), some are more for seeing things that would normally be less obvious (UV Lamp, Thermal Imager), and all work in a predictable, solid manner that’s occasionally interfered with (Brief false positives or briefly not working, for example) that adds a tiny bit of challenge while adding to the mood, and fitting the narrative. There are even signs in some cases that the clue is there (Frosted breath for thermal, or quickly turning on the UV lamp to see if the blood spatter has a trail, for example.) It should be noted that some clues are outside the haunted houses you visit, so a perimeter check is advised. Very inconsiderate of those supernatural beasties bound to a location, counting the grounds!

Two large spiders rush an investigator. He has a pistol, and the aiming reticule is smaller than they are.
These little assholes will take away half my health by the time I’ve fixed my tiny reticule on them enough times to kill them.

From the word go, however, combat, and, more specifically, ambushes,are a common feature… And this is where it starts to fall apart a bit. As noted, the earliest enemies are fast, ground based, erratic, and… Oh, before I forget, arachnophobes can nope out right now,because yes, the most common early game enemy are cat-sized spiders in small groups, along with gigantic centipedes. Said beasties have an easily recognisable pattern (Attack, retreat, attack), but their speed, ability to glide under doors (despite their size), and the small combat reticule that, for ground based enemies, requires aiming mode, makes these encounters pretty deadly until you can afford some better armour and guns. It doesn’t help that these ambushes are generally from entering a room, and can spawn in even tiny rooms.

Enemy weaknesses exist, and entries on these can be purchased, but,in essence, most encounters follow this “Ambush, attack, retreat, repeat” pattern, taking advantage of poor light to up the encounter difficulty. Add in that larger creatures become bullet spongey, and that some are essentially immune to normal damage, and a lot of the difficulty comes down to “We don’t know what a thing does when we first meet it, and we have a crap light.” Narratively fitting, in a sense, but only the first few encounters are tense, after which…Well, it’s monster closets. Add in that dodging resets reloading (And anything with serious power behind it is slow to reload), and…Combat is a common aspect of the game, but also the weakest and most frustrating.

"Mate, I'm not gonna pull your dick for money" is not exactly a great dialogue option. In fact, it's kind of shit.
Content Warning: Dickheads.

Finally, we have… EDGY CHARACTER WRITING. Dialogue choices that make the main character seem like a homophobic prude. The main tutorial teacher liberally throwing the C-word around, bragging about having sex with twins, and generally being a loud shitheel. And, even in the intro, it turns out Hell wants to make you its bitch.

Hellsign is an interesting concept. But it has a long way to go before it becomes a workable interesting concept.

The Mad Welshman idly wonders why horror gets so obsessed with EDGE.

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Lucah: Born of a Dream (Review)

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

When you’re the sole reviewer, it becomes ever more important to separate not liking something for genuine problems, and not liking something because you’ve grown tired of certain genres and their conventions. While, normally, a writer can just recuse themselves, occasionally, something interesting comes along that requires, partly, putting aside that dislike.

Lucah: Born of a Dream is one such game. A deliberately lo-fi adventure, with a top-down false perspective, and… Soulslike combat, levelling mechanics, and saving via specific resting points. The latter of which I have, over time, become somewhat tired of.

YOU DIED [Your Corruption Has Risen]

Narratively and aesthetically, the game is bleak. Corruption, or, just as accurately, depression is a core theme, and this is aptly portrayed in a number of ways. Methods of “salvation” often turn out to be nightmares in waiting, the world is unrepentantly hostile, and, when the NPCs aren’t outright despairing, they have a bitter edge to them, such as the shopkeeper who tells you how many times you’ll see them. 2 if you do well… Another one if you don’t. None of the lines are voiced, but I can almost hear a sneer there.

Maybe that’s viewing it through the lens of my own depression. The world is mostly black and “not-black” , harsh, scribbled tones, and its moderately plodding tone outside of combat emphasises that this is a world seen on its way out, a world that’s… Keeping on, rather than thriving. It’s clever, and while it hits a little close to home for me, I can appreciate the artistry behind it. Similarly, the game has a sort of time limit on each “run” , as Corruption is slowly building (quicker the more you die, slowing as you beat fights), and when it reaches 100% ? Well, back to the beginning, you failed. Sorry.

It’s just… The way things are. Give in.

Combat, meanwhile, is also deliberate, but less plodding. In fact, it can get downright hectic at times, and it’s here that I have to separate my more generalised dislike from the few actual problems it contains. You see, for the most part, it works, and is clever. Two loadouts you can quickly switch between, each containing three elements: Your light attack, your heavy attack, and your support option, meant to buy time for your stamina to regenerate. Attacks lock you into their animation pattern, and, as you progress, you gain more abilities, some of which require using limited skill slots ,Virtues, and some of which you can turn on or off as you feel, the Tech… Turning these off appears mostly to be a challenge thing, as it includes things like the dodge parry. Speaking of…

When it works, it works well… Enemies clearly telegraph their attacks, there’s a variety of ranged and melee attacks that keep you on your toes, and the spaces range from large to confined, so there’s a lot of tactical variation. Changing your Mantras and Familiars for different loadouts of attack is definitely encouraged, as is experimenting with them to see what fits your style best. But it’s at this point that I have to mention some jankiness.

Sometimes, although I don’t fully understand why, my attacks will lock onto a specific enemy (I may have fatfingered a lockon there), and this leads to frustration as… Dammit, I was aiming for that one, not that one! Similarly, dodge timing takes a little getting used to for parries, because while often, enemies will telegraph their attacks, the telegraph is not the moment you dodge toward the attack.

Boss battles definitely live up to their name, and each has a different, interesting touch.

The actual attack is, and it’s at this point that I mention a controller is probably a good idea for Lucah, since I’ve found, on keyboard and mouse, dodge parrying a little too finicky, because yes, you do have to dodge specifically into the attack to trigger it, and that’s easier to handle with the more granular nature of an analogue stick.

The rest of my gripes with this game, quite honestly, you can simply note as gripes with the Soulslike formula, and more to do with genre weariness than any actual fault of the game. As such, it overall gets a recommendation, because it does interesting things with the genre, and has a somewhat unique aesthetic and narrative that, overall, works. Definitely one of those cases where, even weary as I am of the You Died bullshittery, I appreciate the artistry the Lucah team have brought to bear here.

Eesh. Only way to progress, huh? Chilling.

The Mad Welshman must rest. He is tired.

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Wayward Souls (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.29
Where To Get It: Steam
Version Reviewed: 8/8 Update.

Wayward Souls is, at the present time, a game with no in between. Not completely, as health is a bar, special abilities are ammo or inventory based, and, even with death, money is accrued which can be put into character abilities. No, I’m mainly talking, at the present time, about one of the core features of Wayward Souls: The enemies.

Swarmed by boars. Cause for concern? Well… Not really.

Enemies, in Wayward Souls, are either light speedbumps, or lethal terrors… And there’s no real in-between to the two. Bats? Well, they’ll hurt you if you’re inattentive, sure. But that’s usually because you’re worrying more about the five fellers throwing rocks and pickaxes, or the big crushy robots that only die when they charge into a wall twice. But pickaxe wielders are never really a problem on their own, despite their aiming. Rock fellers lose most of their threat once they switch to melee mode… Even within enemy types, there are states where the challenge swiftly moves from “Will most likely get hurt if I tangle with this (and I have to, because I’m locked in with it)” to “Will only catch me unawares if I’m literally asleep.”

The problem being that this feeling of the seemingly arbitrary bleeds over into other areas. Why are some areas of the mine, the first dungeon’s major locale, almost unreadably dark, while others are brightly lit enough that everything is clear? Unknown. Why do I feel absolutely nothing about spending a ramping amount on what may end up 16% crit chance (1,2,4,8,16), and may end up a measly, overexpensive 5% (1,2,3,4,5)? Well, the clue there is that both numbers aren’t exactly big, and spending money on an individual character is an investment you maybe want to feel something about (In the majority of cases, I don’t.) Why was switching healing at the end of the level with, er… Finding a healing fountain you can use once per level considered a change, rather than a restatement of “You only get one heal per level of the dungeon?” I don’t know. All I know is how I feel about them, and I don’t particularly feel great.

Sometimes, there will be ghosts. Who have somewhat interesting things to say.

Thing is, Wayward Souls has some good ideas hidden in the murk of this oddly arbitrary feeling balance. Splitting up dungeons is good. Having different stories for the different characters (some of whom are unlocked via progress), giving different perspectives… That’s good. Being able to pick your playstyle, to a certain extent, with characters… That’s good. And some of the enemy designs are, to be fair, very nice, the music is nice, and the sound works well… Heck, it even has the nice touch that your grave messages can be seen by friends (or people with the friend code), and you can leave gifts with those grave messages. That’s a genuinely nice touch…

…But, at the present time, the core of the game, the fighting of enemies, feels not so much like a gradation, slowly moving upwards, but a chaotic jumble of the easy and the rough, slapped together. I have more trouble with levels than I do the bosses, and even that isn’t a hard and fast rule, and that… That just feels wrong.

Maybe Wayward Souls will improve. But right now, the enemies feel oddly inconsistent, the early levels feel muddy, and the interesting ideas the game is presenting just aren’t saving it.

On the one hand, an amusing message from a bud is its own reward. On the other, the protection buff definitely didn’t hurt either.

The Mad Welshman reminds developers: Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and always consider interesting ideas when you see them.

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Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity (Review/Going Back)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £12.99
Where To Get It: Steam

The Touhou series has, even without counting fangames, gone a whole lot of places. Starting as a series of bullet-hell shooters on the PC-98, Team Shanghai Alice and collaborators have created Touhou fighting games and versus shooters, changing gameplay with many installments. With fangames, there’s visual novels, metroidvanias, megaman style platformers, RPGS, and, with Scarlet Curiosity, a collaboration between Ananke Spa and Team Shanghai Alice, there’s ARPGs. All set in a world where it sometimes seems that morning greetings consist of an all-out battle with apocalyptic magic between cute anime girls, some of whom are also Youkai or other folkloric nonhumans.

I mean… This might as well be called Touhou.JPG , for how emblematic this line of dialogue is.

Scarlet Curiosity is an odd beast, in many respects, trying to mix action RPG ideas with the bullet-hell gameplay of the Touhou series with… Honestly, mixed results. This is also technically a Going Back, because while this is the 2018 Steam release, the game was originally created in 2014, and officially localised by XSEED in 2016.

In any case, the general idea is that Remilia Scarlet, ancient and powerful vampire in the body of a young girl, is bored. Considering that she is, canonically, one of the more dangerous residents of Gensoukyo, this is already a recipe for disaster, but add in a Tengu tabloid monster hunt, and the fact that something largely destroys the Scarlet Devil Manor, and… Well, you have all the elements ready for shenanigans to occur.

Takes a while to get going, though, to the point that, at first, I wondered whether this really was a Touhou game, bullet helling and all. Fairies were unaggressive, giant centipedes a case of slashing while circling… This, combined with the game having some large and sprawling maps, and a lack of visual feedback beyond numbers and hit sounds, disguised the fact that, in fact, I was struggling to get through levels. Come the second stage boss, and this lack of feedback revealed itself, as I died again, and again, and again, before finally respecting their patterns. It took until the fourth boss for me to stop thinking that the jump button in the game felt like an unfair advantage (Allowing the skilled… IE – Not me… To dodge most early game bullet patterns entirely.

So… Large, sprawling maps (Each taking about twenty minutes to get through), combined with main level enemies that, like a Touhou shooter, don’t get terribly challenging until a little later on, combined with a lack of visual feedback for hits (and the fact that, like many bullet hell games, many bullet types can be nullified with an attack) doesn’t exactly paint the prettiest picture. In fact, it paints a somewhat clunky one.

I will never take away, however, how spell card effects like this one look… Awesome.

But there is good here. The models are well put together for the most part, the game does get flashy the further in you get, and the stages, while large and sprawling, are definitely not without their interesting features. Loading and saving is separate for the two main characters, Remilia Scarlet and Sakuya Izayoi, which is a nice touch. Five slots each is generous, and I appreciate this. Similarly, in addition to each character getting different types of Weapons, Accessories, and Armour, following the usual ARPG rule of “Bigger numbers, always bigger numbers” , they also get to switch out their specials and skill cards for different types as they level up, leading to a fair amount of variety that I appreciate. Heck, there’s even some difference to their basic styles, with Sakuya being a tight, melee focused character, whose jump attack is just that: An attack in the air, and Remilia being a more loose, more aggressive character, who has a hard to master, but very satisfying ground dive as her aerial attack. Despite some light value issues making the lighter enemies hard to see well at times, the game visually works, and musically… Well, the Touhou games have always been known for good music, and Scarlet Curiosity is no exception.

In the end, Scarlet Curiosity is an interesting addition to the series, but an acquired taste that is not without its flaws. Longtime Touhou players may find it slow to start, while folks new to the series may well find it frustrating, but I can definitely respect the experimentation with genre mixing going on here.

Alas, pink on translucent grey is, as a colourblindness accessibility sidenote, not a good pick.

The Mad Welshman feels, apart from the whole “Being a dude” thing, that he would fit in well in Gensoukyo. I mean, Death Rays, Death Ray Spell Cards… What’s the real difference?

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Dungeon Stars (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam
Version: First EA release.

Dungeon Stars is one of those games that mostly does what it says on the tin… But what it says on the tin is not really my thing. Because what it says on the tin is “Repetitive, simple game with some minor depth, but mostly pandering to the lizard brain with shiny things and bigger numbers.”

It’s important, with screenshots, to get across what the majority of an experience will be like. Well… This is a good screenshot.

You pick a hero, of one of three elements, and some classes. This element determines who they do more damage to, and who does more damage to them (Fire → Earth → Ice → Fire), and each hero starts with a basic attack (hammering the left key), a slam attack that gets rid of shields (hold the right key), a block for when something swings heavily at you (hold the left key), and a special ability (later becoming two special abilities and a Pet special ability, plus whatever the heck your equipped loot gives you.) You go through dungeon floors from left to right, only stopping to casually murder goblins, trolls, mages, and other assorted dungeon monsters, some of which are bosses. Beat a level, and a nice tune plays, you get some loot, and you maybe get to heal up. That’s… 95% of the game, right there.

And you know, some baffling strain on the GPU aside for its aesthetic, it does all of this perfectly well. It even drops special daily dungeons, one possibly for a pet, one for a hero, if you play long enough. The main problem, for me, is that this, apart from the possibility of seeing new gribbleys to whack by ruining my left arrow key, is… About it. There’s the same music loop, the same end tune, my current crop of heroes differs only in how they look and their special abilities, and…

Fire -> Earth -> Ice -> Fire. Simples!

…For all that it’s meant to pander to my lizard brain desire, I find myself dissatisfied. Maybe it’s the shop, random drops, 25000 coins (or one dungeon trip) to reshuffle the store. Maybe it’s that I don’t really feel that much in control, especially when dealing with mages (Who, due to the “Always runs right unless slamming, blocking, or blocked by an enemy” , often hit with their spells.) Maybe it’s that there’s no real sense of impact to the weaponry, only either quick kills (in the case of the mooks) or a bar whittling down. And I can’t really say those aren’t working as intended, because the design is clear enough that yes, this is basically what it is: A level by level damage race, running from left to right, occasionally getting items, a “secret” dungeon, or loot. It looks alright. Its aesthetic is consistent. But it just doesn’t really appeal to me.

I’m willing to forgive missing descriptions this early in the process. The not being able to see all items when you have more than 4, less so.

The Mad Welshman sometimes wonders. He wonders a lot of things, sometimes.

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