Tanglewood (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam

It’s an interesting world we live in, right now. A time where the oldest computer systems are starting to die, and parts to fix them have become short in supply, due to the simple fact that nobody really makes the chips any more. So when I heard about Tanglewood, a game which was developed for the Genesis (or Mega Drive, if you prefer) using the devkit, and, indeed, was also produced in cartridge form, I had to take a look.

I would, on the face of things, be perpetually angry if this was my purpose in life too.

And you know what? It isn’t bad. Emulated on its PC/Steam release, it works fairly well within its limitations, to create a somewhat minimalist puzzle platformer about a fox… Living in a supernaturally cursed forest. And this fox’s only friends are rocks… and fluffy balls called Fuzzl, who grant Nymn, the lost little fox, special abilities if rolled back to their nests.

So let’s get the bad out of the way first, because, thankfully, it’s somewhat brief. Movement has a fair amount of inertia, and not all the platforms have that extra bit of jumping room most platformer players are used to, so it’s better to jump slightly earlier than you think you’re meant to. Also, if you’re pushing something, and an enemy is coming for you, it’s quicker to let go of the controls, then jump, than let go of the push button while still moving, and trying to jump. Finally, the early Djakk (Big, quicker than you beasties with big teeth) chases can be a pain in the ass to nail due to water screwing with your jump timing. End of things I don’t like.

RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!

Otherwise, it’s tough, but fair. Eight chapters, split into relatively short segments, and each introduces its concepts quite well. Chapter two, Act three, for example, has lightning as its primary antagonistic element, and this is shown very early on with a Hogg directly showing the consequences of being out in the open (IE – Nothing above you.) Clear, quick, direct. No lives system, so while there are stakes, you’re not pressured into perfection first time, and checkpoints are, for the most part, very sensible, being at the start and end of each “puzzle.” With three buttons, each with a clear function, and a nice in-game manual available in the ESC menu, it’s also fairly accessible, and I didn’t have any trouble distinguishing between visual elements. So… That’s fairly nice!

Aesthetically, the game is somewhat minimalist, but in a pleasant way. Each chapter has a day, an evening, and a night theme to it, with some ambient noise every now and again, and small musical stings for each area. Otherwise, it’s fairly quiet, and for this, it works, because often, you’ll hear enemies and Fuzzls before you see them, and, considering death is mostly by contact, this is a good setup. It also fits the mood well, as the feel of threat is increased by the silence… Well, for anyone who’s been to a forest and understands why that’s a bad sign, anyway.

As such, the good outweighs the flaws in Tanglewood, and I feel pretty comfortable recommending it for folks who like platform puzzlers. For those interested, there’s also a brief interview with Matt Phillips, head of Big Evil Corp, on the site as well.

On the one hand, pushing drastically slows you down, be it a big or small object. On the other, most of the time, it’s pretty low pressure.

The Mad Welshman is somehow surprised he was caught off guard by the death-squirrels. He already knew they were… ogoshsocuteARGHMYFACE.

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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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La-Mulana 2 (Review)

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

Being an Archaeologist is, in many senses, about being observant. Clues can be as subtle as a passage in a book, the curvature of glacially moulded hillscapes, or the precise composition of a flint arrowhead, and it’s important to be able to see, to understand what you’re seeing. Being a Ninja, if we go by popular depictions or otherwise, is about being observant. Being a covert agent is all about what you perceive, about how quickly you can sense danger, and, equally, about seeing opportunity where others merely see a surly major-domo (for example.) In both cases, livelihood (and sometimes, your life) depends on being able to clearly see the clues set in front of you by circumstance.

“Do not pursue Le-Meza!” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but yes, the protag’s dad always seems to be near the most devlish traps. I’m in the *POISON LAVA* on the left. Terrible parent, I swear…

And so, funnily enough, it is with La Mulana 2, a game that does explain its puzzles… It’s just not always in the places you’d expect. This is less surprising when you consider that the only family line to have successfully explored the La Mulana ruins (and, with your control, hopefully explore the Eg-Lana ruins that seemingly coincide with them) is a family of… Archaeologist Ninjas. Lemeza and Shawn, from the last game, and, the main protagonist of this game, Lemeza’s daughter Lumisa.

So, for those just catching up, La Mulana was, and is, a love letter to the MSX (One of Microsoft’s early attempts at “A computer on every desk” , an 8-bit system that found popularity in quite a few places, but most notably Japan and Brazil), and the action adventures that could occasionally be found on the system. It’s an action platformer, but with puzzles of all stripes, some of which will kill the unwary instantly, a variety of enemies, and, of course, bosses… Some of whom will kill the unwary instantly. Save early, save often, and investigate things. Oh, except that tablet. They told you not to read that tablet for a reason, don’t do that. That’s the Hard Mode Tablet.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Or that the game didn’t.

Bosses and NPCs alike take from a variety of mythological sources, from the Aztec, Mayan, Norse, and Celto-Gaelic cycles. Ixtab, for example, is the Mayan goddess of… Well, you can probably guess. 😐

Overall, La Mulana 2 is a more focussed, somewhat improved version of its predecessor. Awkward to no air control has become “A little air control” (and jumping puzzles designed around this), the early game is less punishing (You can, with just a little prep, take on all the minibosses and boss of the first area without serious weapon upgrades), the writing’s improved a little, and the art style is about the same as the remaster of La Mulana 1 (Solid pixel art, combined with some amusing hand-drawn characters for the conversations.) It controls relatively well (although the keybinds take some getting used to, and, even as an 8-bit kid, it took me a short time to figure out that F2 is for inventory, settings, and apps, and F1 is for conversation, the area map (if you’ve found it), and the area teleport interface. Swimming is still somewhat painful, alas, but we can’t have everything.

Thing is, La Mulana 2 does exactly what it sets out to do: Be a tough, but mostly fair adventure platformer, with a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic setting where not only were all myths real, they all had a single source, a progenitor who, as it turned out, just wanted to go home… And the world ending threat she represented. So, on the one hand, this review is very much a “Does what it says on the tin”, and, considering the Kickstarter campaign was on the platform of “Back this, and I will make a game that kills your character repeatedly” (not the exact words, but close enough), and the first game worked on exactly this notion… Yes, it does what it says on the tin. But I thought I’d finish up this review by describing the core loop of gameplay, because most people who get turned off by the game get turned off by the second part of the loop, and maybe hearing it will help.

At first, everything is very simple: You’ve opened doors, you’ve got the map to the area, you’ve remembered to ensure you can teleport to the area (by scanning the holy grail you normally save with), and you’ve killed pretty much everything you can kill that stays dead, such as minibosses. Good on you… But of course, the game isn’t over, and the question then arises… Well now what?

Once you’ve figured out part of the puzzle, the rest tends to fall into place. Which, let’s face it, is a good feeling.

Well, now you need to go somewhere new, solve some new puzzle, obviously. And sometimes, it seems like there’s no way forward. One optional example here is the chain whip. It’s a useful weapon, like your whip, but does double the damage, which is just enough not to hear the dreaded “tink” of “Haha, nope, this enemy didn’t even feel that.” But getting it involves observation, and the fact that you have water (poisonous), ice water (poisonous and cold), lava (hot), and poison lava (hot poison, and no, I’m not joking. Poison lava. Just for added “Screw you.”) All I will say is that identifying which is which is very valuable in determining whether a path is suicidally impossible… Or do-able, providing you know how to deal with the swimming. This is one example of where the way forward is there… You’re just not seeing it. Drawings on tablets give you hints to what these cryptic texts are talking about. Tablets tell you about things… Walls can look different, maybe crumbly, maybe hollow.

And then you find a way forward, and it probably kills you, because of something you hadn’t seen before. Sometimes it’s a miniboss. Sometimes it’s a new enemy. Sometimes, it’s gotcha traps, which, I’ll grant you, are a turn off (although even these mostly give clues to their presence… Even if the clues, sometimes, are bait.) But you know a way forward. Due to the relatively nonlinear nature of the game, it doesn’t even have to be the same path your friend took (I got two sigils before my friend did, but had to look at his footage to see where the hell the chain-whip was, for example.)

That, in the end, is the core of La Mulana 2: Explore, probably die a lot, save often so the deaths set you back less, find clues, find cool items and mythological beings to talk to (or fight), solve those puzzles, beat those bosses, eventually save the world, hopefully have a good time doing so. Despite being horribly stuck, I’m having fun, and I hope folks who get the game (if they do after reading this) enjoy it too, because while it’s sometimes old school, it’s a lot more fair than the old-school I’m used to. Looking at you, old text adventures… BITE LIP… Who the hell thinks BITE LIP is the proper solution to a puzzle, I ask you…

Even returning characters get some impro-H GODS, ALRIGHT, I’LL BUY SOME WEIGHTS, JUST DON’T HURT ME!

The Mad Welshman will draw the curtain on this review, to save you from a rant about the bullshittery of old text adventures… For now.

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Dead Cells (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £21.99 (+£4.04 for the soundtrack)
Where To Get It: SteamHumble StoreItch.IO

If you’ve looked at my past coverage of Dead Cells, you’ll know that I’ve been quite positive, and, over time, seeing things that I’d thought of as mild flaws within the game corrected, almost as soon as I thought of them. Motion Twin, as it turns out, have their heads firmly in the game, and now that Dead Cells is released?

It’s pretty nice! On the one hand, the game is a sort of deliberate twitch, in which you can hang back, but, in many situations, the best option is to get in there with one finger firmly controlling your dodge rolls, and the other on the weapon options. Combat with an enemy is never impossible, but the less you’ve found, weapon and power up wise, the more fraught it becomes.

Reminder: It’s not cowardice if your HP is this low. Even when it isn’t, it’s *being cautious* , and cautious goo blobs live longer. (But they probably won’t get the speedrun reward, booooo!)

In the Ossuary, for example, I never quite feel comfortable without some damage over time weaponry, like the Blazing Torch or Bleeding Sword, because the creatures that live specifically there are meaty, often quick, and their general theme is to punish both the close and unwary. Considering I am occasionally the latter, and often the former… Well, something where I can throw it, hide away for a second, then throw it again in order to get through relatively safely is my touchstone.

Part of the fun of Dead Cells, however, is that you don’t always get what you want, and adapting to the various weapon styles the game throws at you is important. Which makes it equally nice, then, that they’re easy to understand. Simple combos for each weapon mean that you very quickly “get” the weapon’s deal, and, equally, you can clearly see where there’s something you’ll be wanting to try and find later down the line. Somewhere. Somehow.

Example: There are doors. They don’t open right now, but they’re numbered. I’m not worried. Sooner, or later, I’ll work out what they’re there for, on the routes I have available. Similarly, I see areas only reached with a walljump, and I say to myself “Aha… I have to get further to get that.” The more you play, the more, seemingly, there is to find. Although that will, no doubt, have its limits as the end approaches.

This wasn’t here pre-release. And I’m okay with it being here, because I know, sooner or later, I’ll find the key(s) I need. Sooner… Or later…

It even has an interesting world, where, in the release version, Motion Twin have added something that was always subtly in the background, but is now available in a lot of the explorable lore of each area: Humour. This is, yes, an ooey-gooey game about smashing enemies into bits, before being smashed yourself, hopefully getting further each time, before being brutally killed and doing it all over again, from the beginning. But, as it turns out, our protagonist is a bit of a fish out of water. “Huh, all those bodies look a bit like… Me” , they think, examing what is presumably… Well, them, dead, over and over again. They do make the connection, but the subtle animation, the scratching of their slimey goop head, adds charm to it. The bratchests remain, just as bratty, just as into the act of being violently opened, and just as into punishing the player as they have been, but there are little bits where the protagonist lampshades the seriousness, such as the statue of the king. How did he see out of that helmet? Weird.

So, it’s got humour, and subtle humour at that. It’s got charm, it’s got good visuals, clean menus, and excellent sound design. What it also has is its core game loop, and this, fellow readers, is going to be your make or break with Dead Cells. Are you, the potential player, okay with the fact that, no matter how many shortcuts you do or don’t unlock, no matter what new toys you successfully get (You have to complete a level to keep them, complete more levels to attain them, after all), you are, upon death, going to be sent straight back to the beginning, albeit with some things retained?

Pile of oddly reminiscent corpses may or may not reflect number of deaths in game. Looks a little short for my playthrough so far…

Personally, the answer is yes, because it’s an interesting world, and I want to see more. But I can perfectly understand players who’d be put off by this, because, until a shortcut is unlocked (and you know roughly how to get there, and through it), every new area, every new miniboss, every elite enemy or even new enemies, are potential run enders. Many give visual clues to their function, but, in the end, how much you like Dead Cells depends on how comfortable you are with being sent back to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Okay Fine You Can Keep This Much Gold.

As mentioned, I’m fine with it. But it is a core part of the design, and I highly doubt it’s going away any time soon.

The Mad Welshman has died many times. But each time, he oozes back, because the Editors of Reality demand he keep up. Damn their galaxy-filled eyes…

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Haimrik (Review)

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

Haimrik is a game with an interesting concept. What if you had the ability to take words, and use them to change the world? Not in a “Saying powerful things”, but literally picking the word Sword up, and bam… Sword. It’s a cool idea, and not having those words be entirely under your control (some words, after all, bite back, or are just hostile to you, personally) is also a neat touch.

It’s a shame then, that Haimrik feels so very constrained. Understandable… But also a shame.

I mean, to be fair, being attacked by an ice wizard on a day I was planning to write things for you wasn’t exactly expected for me either…

Protagonist Haimrik is a writer. Well, a scrivener. He writes books, in the hopes that they sell, and the only person who even reads them is his landlady (whom he has a thing for), while he’s behind on his rent, and a corrupt king supported by his Word Warriors rules tyrannically over the land. Enter The Book. Drop some blood onto it, and the narrative of the world can be changed. An artefact, and a power, that immediately gets him into trouble.

Nice concept, yeah? Unfortunately, less than an hour in, its prescriptive approach gets my goat. There are a couple of puzzles where there are multiple solutions, but a lot of the time, no, it’s just the one. And not always a terribly interesting one. Okay, yes, we plant the SEED (run to seed, hold down) in the FERTILE SOIL (Hold F, plant seed), and then we call for some RAIN (run to RAIN, hold down), and… Oh, crap, do we use FERTILISER or POISONOUS FUNGUS to grow the plant, considering the obstacle we can’t control, the SWARM OF LOCUSTS? Which, as a bonus to losing us the seed we need, will gruesomely kill us, just as we’ve gruesomely killed (and been killed by) several soldiers, some goblins, a rat, a snake, a crocodile, and an ice wizard by this point.

Ohcrapohcrapohcrap CODE VERMILLION TALON, I REPEAT, CODE VERMILLION TALON!

As you might have guessed by the description of this puzzle, and the accompanying screenshot, it’s pretty much an inventory puzzle of sorts, with nouns being the inventory in question. Occasionally, it becomes more interesting, such as the fight with Murdock the Ice Wizard, or the Dragon, which are… Well, they’re boss fights, with the twist being in the sentences they display. It’s a fairly good twist, to be honest, counterbalanced by Haimrik being… Kind of crap at fighting. Aiming is a somewhat slow affair, jumps in a couple of boss fights are tight, and, even with the fact that death leads to a scene restart, it can get frustrating quickly.

Narratively, it’s a story seen quite a bit before. Cruel king, young man raised in a rural town in obscurity, family and town gets brutalised very soon after he gains a magical ability… It’s not helped by the fact that, even toward the very end, Haimrik, as a character, is basically a punching bag, and so their Hero’s Journey seems… Flat.

But then, the game is trying to do several different things. It’s trying to be an old-school adventure game (Complete with “Ha-ha, what fool uses LEECHES without a BUCKET? Eat a death!”), a difficult platformer (Complete with deathpits), a gore comedy, and a traditional fantasy romp. But it doesn’t quite have the speed of many difficult platformers (Haimrik can best be described as “trundling”, even when his life depends on it), it doesn’t have a lot of charm behind its comedy, and part of that is because it’s also trying to go through the Serious Hero’s Journey In Fantasy checklist. Also, it doesn’t help that a lot of the comedy comes from “Ha ha, you died.”

See if you can spot which word would have saved me from YAHGD (Yet Another Horrific Gotcha Death)…

One of the few upsides is that it has a solid, consistent aesthetic, but that hasn’t stopped me from putting this game down again… And again… And again, out of frustration with the gotchas and sometimes nonsensical solutions.

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