Project Warlock (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10
Where To Get It: Steam

Project Warlock, a retro styled first person shooter, is a game where my biggest criticism, after consideration, is its first level. Beyond that, it gets more reasonable, but its first level… Well, we’ll get to that.

Enemies vary from episode to episode. Which is also a nice touch…

In the retro stylings corner, we have pixellated enemies, deliberately low-resolution wall textures, and an in-game UI that wouldn’t look out of place in an early Doom clone, and difficulty settings where only the “Casual” equivalent has infinite lives. On the modern end, we’ve got a menu that looks decent-ish (if busy), some good painted art on the loading screens and title, mouselook, RPG styled between-level mechanics, and interesting weapon quirks. For example, the axe can, if you GIT GUD (or lucky) bat projectiles back at an enemy.

Equally, though, the retro stylings also mean that there are monster closets and enemy spawns in cleared areas at fixed points, and it’s around here where we talk about how the first level gives you such a taste of what you’re in for that it’s actually kind of off putting.

Ohhh yes. There’s also this ambush. I’d forgotten about that ambush, in among the others.

Starts fine, but in very short order, you’re dropped into a pit into a small room filled with enemies. Then you get a key, only to be ambushed by several enemies. Then a weapon, where you’re ambushed again, then a lift, where you’re frontally ambushed in a tight corridor by two big fellers who have large tower shields (requiring good aim, good “getting past enemies who really want to hem you in and smack you with aforementioned shields” skills, or… ???) and their ranged support. Funnily enough, later levels actually ease off on this, although some retro game annoyances do occur from time to time (Such as picking up dynamite from a random drop immediately before being ambushed in a corridor. Hope you noticed you just picked up the dynamite, or you are very, very dead.)

A large difficulty spike in the first actual level is, perhaps, not the best of difficulty spikes to have. But, as noted, once past that first level, the power curve very rapidly catches up, especially if you’re getting the secrets, which tend to come in two varieties: Walls that look different and can be opened, and walls that don’t necessarily look that different until you shoot them, at which point they’re revealed to be walls that take a fair bit of shooting to open up. Each weapon has two possible upgrades, stats get upgraded, skills get upgraded… And there are spells. But, of course, unless you’re doing particularly well, you don’t get to play with all of those, and the first, the Light spell… Is very similar to the original Doom 3 flashlight, in that you can’t use it and a weapon. So, er… Good luck in dark, confined areas?

Honestly, this screenshot felt the most emblematic of the issues I have with Project Warlock.

Finally, we have the fact that you have to get through a certain number of levels in a row before clearing a “stage.” This seems to be, at worst, 4 levels in a row. Die, you lose a life. Leave to the workshop before you’re done, lose a life. As noted, only on the lowest difficulty setting do you have infinite lives. In medium difficulty, you have three, with pickups very sparsely scattered around. At the highest difficulty… Well, I hope you’re good at Doom style games.

It is not, overall, a terrible game. I’ve had some enjoyment out of it, now that I’ve gotten over some of its biggest hurdles. But that was on the lowest difficulty, with the full awareness that I’d have eaten about twelve game overs, four of them in the first level of the first episode, and I have to conclude that this game is too much in love with its difficulty-as-feature. Its modern additions don’t really feel all that much of a boon, and, as such, I can’t, personally, really recommend Project Warlock to many folks.

The Mad Welshman is no stranger to Monster Closets, but, unlike shooter-protagonists, he likes them firmly closed.

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DUSK: Episode 3 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15 (£23.79 for all bells and whistles, £7.19 for soundtrack, graphic novel, and Intruder Edition upgrade)
Where To Get It: Steam

After a wee while, DUSK Episode 3 has released, and the game is now… Complete. A love letter to the late 90s 3d shooter boom, DUSK is somewhat twitchy, sometimes stealthy, and sometimes has THE DARK MAZES OF ULTIMATE ANNOYANCE, but, most of the time, it’s over the top, shooty fun.

Oh hellll no…

I’d already covered Episodes 1 and 2 previously, and Episode 3… Well, it continues the same trends. The same love letter to 90s 3d shooters, with fast movement, varied enemies, and memorable weapons. The same bizarre nostalgia tingle from the chunky whirring of a hard drive (Present not just in the loading screen, but heard every now and again in the rare quiet portions of the game.)

In this particular case, more of the same is… Pretty good, overall. More heavy, atmospheric tunes to lay on the pressure. The Sword, a melee weapon that does heavy damage, is a silent kill for unaware enemies (Video games, eh?), and can, with skill and Morale (the game’s armour equivalent) block. More imaginative setpieces using the low-poly visuals combined with some more modern techniques to create memorable moments.

I was at 20 health when this ambush triggered, and died taking screenshots for you. You’re welcome.

Of course, it’s not all roses. Being a 90s style 3d shooter, the run speed is… A thing, and I found myself rapidly disoriented with what would normally be a safe strategy of “circle strafe while trying to hit things.” Climbing is necessary in certain portions, and, while it’s nice that you can’t have a Dead Man Walking situation, climbing also gets finicky pretty easily (If you didn’t land facing the wall, holding the walk button may not work in the intended manner.) The most dangerous situations are not, as you might expect, bosses, but large groups of mid-tier enemies (such as the frozen church in level 2.) And, of course, being a 90s style shooter, secrets aren’t only badges of pride, but some can give you that much needed leg up… And, considering how the health and armour can bounce back and forth in a level, “Much needed” is very much the right phrasing. The physics objects, similarly, can be finicky. Yes, it’s funny that soap instantly kills a filthy enemy (Evil, as it turns out, is weak to Hygiene), but damn if that soap can sometimes be a git to handle…

The Crystals of Madness are another interesting facet of DUSK. Weaponised “Make enemies attack each other” gasbombs, in a nutshell.

Still, DUSK, as a whole, does a lot of things well. It tickles the nostalgia gland, while also adding more modern touches that make life a little easier. It takes advantage of being story light to concentrate on making its areas evocative and interesting, and while the flaws are there, and I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone unfond of twitchy shooters (or the easily frustrated), it does exactly what it sets out to do with style. It feels good to see the crossbow gib not just the enemy directly in front of me, but several of its friends. It felt tense as hell to see a multi-tiered river of lava, despite the fact the encounters along it weren’t that tough, because it sold the tension. In a way, it’s a bit like its grungy world: A little battered in places, but feeling tight, tense, and… Unreal.

Okay, I should probably go to pun jail… Again… For that one. But still, DUSK is mostly fun and interesting, and that’s cool.

The Mad Welshman refuses to apologise for his puns.

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Infinite Adventures (Review)

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

“You don’t have to fight over me” cries Rufus the Mendicant, as saucily as he can. And every time he does, I quietly wish for the sweet release of death. Welcome to Infinite Adventures, a game which is currently the closest thing to Etrian Odyssey on the PC right now (giving and taking some things), and, despite being a relatively solid game, it’s a somewhat painful experience in an aesthetic sense. Especially if you have anyone in the party with a “Flirty” voice.

You know… Like Rufus, default starting Mendicant.

“Ha! I think that enemy got… The point!”

Okay, that’s not the best start, so let’s explain what I mean gameplay wise. Infinite Adventures is a dungeon crawler, step based, automapping, based around a single, fairly long dungeon, and the nearby town which bases its economy almost entirely on your questing. As with its inspiration, chests are floating boxes, there are harvest points for produce, minerals, and animal goods, and, not-at-all secretly, the dungeon hides a DEEP SECRET. There is also a story, through which our amnesiac protagonist finds themselves awakening from a coma, forming an adventuring guild, and finds out this DEEP SECRET after many travails. Everything is turn based, and there are classes, skill-trees, and items galore, with tactical thought going into most of your moves.

Sounds cool, yeah? Even better, on the normal and easy (Story) difficulties, you can turn random encounters off for a time, although that’s mostly useful for being able to gather items safely, rather than finish dungeons.

But, here’s the thing. Just as a game can be pretty as heck, but have poorly thought out or tedious gameplay, so too can the reverse be true: A game can have solid gameplay, and have inconsistent or poorly chosen aesthetics. Both are equally a turn-off, and, naturally, most games that have both never see the critical light of day. In the case of Infinite Adventures, it’s the aesthetic that’s the turn-off.

Like Etrian Odyssey, it’s cel-shaded anime characters, over painted backgrounds, with workmanlike UI, with low-poly dungeons. Problem being… It’s nowhere near as cohesive.

Block puzzles move the blocks at a meaty pace of 3 frames a tile… Over about a second. Richly painted landscapes and rooms outside the dungeons contrast with cel-shaded characters, contrasting with a workmanlike interface (Itself having problems like colour choices, transparency interfering with text, and insufficient outlining), contrasting with low to mid-poly 3d dungeons. Voices range from “Adequate” to “Kill the ‘Flirty’ Characters On Sight.” The writing has the general plot beats of an Etrian Odyssey game, but is a blunt instrument with some awkward tonal shifts. Aesthetic consistency… Just plain doesn’t exist here.

And this, put bluntly, is a big problem. Not because the game is mechanically bad, or unplayable. It’s using tried and true mechanics, and while it takes some features people were fond of in its inspiration away, it gives others back. No, it’s because quite a few text-boxes hurt the eyes to read portions of, or because of that godawful “Flirty” voice (The “Absent-Minded” one is almost as bad), or because several different artstyles, each fighting for their place, distract from the gameplay, overpower it, and because the writing can’t save that.

This is perhaps the first time where I can’t recommend a game, not because it’s mechanically bad, but because it’s aesthetically painful. And that makes me sad, even if it’s an object lesson that no, you really can’t let go of one or the other.

It should be noted that comparisons to Etrian Odyssey are made, not just because of game similarity, but *plot* similarity.

The Mad Welshman is not a 4K 60FPS Always Photoreal kinda vaudevillain. However, consistency is a big sticking point.

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Return of the Obra-Dinn (Review)

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

It says a lot, either about my own media consumption or the Obra-Dinn, that nary an eyebrow was raised at its sharp turn into the more supernatural. I was too busy worrying about how to identify the crewmen, and whether what was sticking out of them was swords… Or spikes shot from demon crustaceans.

Sometimes… There just isn’t that much of a corpse to see… Eep. o.O

Just another day in 1800s insurance, using my Memento Mortem watch to wince at the gruesome deaths of almost an entire ship of people, then ticking off boxes like “Was Murdered By A Grue” or “Mutiny Related Causes (Not Covered By Policy, Fine Their Estate For Criminal Charges).”

The Return of the Obra-Dinn is, in essence, a mystery game, in which you, the unnamed insurance agent with a watch that can relive the last moments of the dead, attempt to discern precisely what went on during the ill-fated voyage of the Obra-Dinn. And you do it by reliving the story of the Obra-Dinn (Tragic and foolish as it is), one death at a time. From these final moments, and a couple of clues (Such as uniforms, the objects people hold, the language they speak in, and who works where, to take some examples), you have to piece together not only who is who, but who did what to who, and how many, if any, survived.

Okay, you get a big clue in that respect from the beginning, which can trip you up later if you forget it, but still… There’s approximately 50 crew, and at first, it seems a daunting task. Then, as you build up more information, context, and clues, it becomes easier, until late in the game, where it becomes hard again because the clues are more subtle. Fortunately, once you know the fates of three people, they’re locked in, although it’s important to note that it doesn’t change any misidentifications you made elsewhere (That one tripped me up very late in the game.) It’s a subtle kind of interactivity, while it can be a little annoying in the late game until you realise you can use the bodies revealed in a scene, in the scene, to teleport between parts of the chapter. But, overall, it’s a clever one. How did this man die? Well, it’s a little unclear, isn’t it? But… Goodness me, that’s bright. It could be, you know, that giant tentacle, but why is this bit so bright?

I mean, bad enough he’s so far up, but the actual *cause* of death could be… A couplea things, yeah…

Oh.

Ohhhhh. [scribblescribblescribble]

Aesthetically, the game has an amazing 1-bit shader, which is to say, everything is either a colour (defaulting to Apple Macintosh green), or white. It’s a lovely effect, and it works well with the game’s mostly ambient noise. Once you’re in the thick of things, however, nautical or dramatic music can happen, which is nice, but more often, it’s a soundscape, crafted to both give clues, and obscure those clues under as much information as they can get. It’s well done.

As noted, if you’re looking for the “best” ending, where you get the full story, it can get a little irritating, as the clues become more subtle to folks’ identities as time goes on, and, honestly, I’m not really sure why the chapter that’s locked off is the one locked off, as it’s fairly easy to deduce the root cause behind a lot of the misery, even by the mid-game, and anyone familiar with nautical horror and myth would have already predicted it. Still, there’s more than enough interesting mystery to go around, and the Return of the Obra-Dinn is recommended for both aesthetic reasons, and for a well put together mystery.

Not pictured: A whole bundle of screaming, shouting, shattering wood, things thumped about, and, hidden, the guy who *actually* died here.

The Mad Welshman appreciates games that use a clever idea for their mystery solving. So that definitely helped.

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Hot Lava! (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £7.19
Where To Get It: Steam

Saying the words “First Person Platforming” is, in the majority of cases, a phrase to make one shudder. It’s rarely replied to politely, and, while there have been good games with first person platforming and movement elements, they’re rare enough that, for the most part, they don’t go down well.

Not pictured: The fifteen other attempts to get the sub 5 minute star, the buckets of sweat dumped over me, the grunts of EFFORT and the Body English. Also that this is a still of the middle of a series of jumps that take about a second, maybe a second and a half.

So it’s perhaps a good start for me to say that the most shudderworthy part of Hot Lava, a game that entirely revolves around first person platforming, was its attempt at a Saturday Morning Cartoon theme, and the lampshady humour about SatAm writing. Also the really thin poles, but we’ll get to those.

From what I can tell, the story of the game, such as it is, is that you’re a child with a highly active imagination (Who, as in my childhood, seems to be going through an “Imaginary self” phase), who is playing “The Floor Is Lava” , that game where the whole point isn’t to touch the carpet or flooring, because if you do… If you doooo… You’re sooooo dead. Because the floor is lava!

Now add in a score mechanic, collectibles, fake loot boxes bought with in-game currency, character customisation of your Action-Man jointed avatars, time-trial leaderboards, a pogo stick for some challenges, and a whole host of tricks and traps that could conceivably be how a child would imagine the danker and hidden parts of the school (like the ventilation being filled with deadly fans and crusher traps), and you have Hot Lava in its present, Early Access state.

Guess who gets the Boy Aquaman(TM) Short End of the Stick? #GiveSueNamiAChanceHackWriters

Aesthetically and accessiblity wise, insofar as a game about, basically, speedrunning a first person platforming level is pretty good. I never outright failed to notice something I could (in theory) jump to, there’s a checkpoint marker that is, unfortunately, not often all that useful, but it is there, and clear to boot, I had no problems with menu options or colourblindness issues, and things that can be swung from or grappled are highlighted well. The controls are, at their basic level, pretty simple: Tap space to jump, WASD to move, you control your jump mainly by mouse direction, rather than strafing, and you automatically grab anything that you can grab and have successfully reached.

Of course, for the “Pros” (ARGH) , there are tricks like perfect jump timing, a variation on Quake Bunny Hopping (If you jump, and both strafe and turn in a direction, then jump with the right rhythm, alternating directions, your momentum increases. A lot), and other such shenanigans. Oh, and a hidden comic and golden pin somewhere in the level, further cementing that one of the inspirations here (Beyond the child-to-tween-hood of a 30-40 something) is the Tony Hawks series. Or maybe Dave Mirra Pro BMX…

Scratch that, I have very unfond memories of playing the latter. In any case, the game, overall, feels alright, and you quickly get into the rhythm, except for the times you’re lost (The game relies on replay, so that’s less of a sin than you’d think), the times the way forward is awkward (Such as in the Ventilation Tunnels Of Crushing and Fanblades) , and… Thin rods that you have to jump on. The first person equivalent of “Pixel perfect platforming”, I despise them so, and am grateful that their somewhat easier to deal with cousin, Thin Rods You Can Jump On And Run Across, don’t have a tightrope or grind balance mechanic to – that is not a suggestion, Klei Entertainment… koff… Just to clarify.

Unlike either 80s playsets or loot boxes, the playsets of Hot Lava don’t ask for your blood, soul, money, or grandparents. All you need is to play. Plaaaaay. Plaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy!

As much as it feels odd to say this, Hot Lava… Looks promising. And this, funnily enough, is why I didn’t delay this review until the second area (Billed for about a week after the review hits) arrived… Because, even at this early stage, it’s oddly fun. With the exception of the SatAm theme… Sorry, folks, I know some SatAm themes were abominable, but that’s no excuse, dammit!

The Mad Welshman, overall, recommends this. The lava has told him it will eat all his favourite socks if he doesn’t. Joke’s on the lava, he likes the game anyway, and never mastered the art of wearing matching pairs.

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