AI: The Somnium Files (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £49.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Content Warning: Although the article has no representations of this, be aware that this is a murder mystery game while the murders are ongoing, so there are bloody scenes of violent death, and several themes including parental abuse, obsessional behaviour and stalking, and the like are involved.

Spike Chunsoft make wild rides. Pseudoscience made real in the fiction, murder, heartbreaking moments, and time being… Fluid are all hallmarks, and AI: The Somnium Files is definitely no different. And oh, boy, it is indeed a wild ride. And one that may annoy, if you don’t take the old adventure game adage of “Save Early, Save Often.”

Considering the context, yeah, this is pretty accurate.

The general premise, then. You are Date, a Psyncer (someone who can enter someone’s dreams), working for a relatively secret agency called ABIS (Pronounced Abyss, or maybe… Apis? There’s a lot of egyptian deities mentioned, y’see), and a serial killer is on the loose… Perhaps a copycat killer from six years ago. And a lot of things aren’t right. With the case. With your boss. With Date himself. And with Aiba, your AI eyeball friend who’s also… Seems to have the hots for Dante, in the oddest way.

This is part of what… Aiba might think is a dance? Look, things are weird.

Oh, and hidden collectibles and branching paths in a flowchart. Mustn’t forget those. So, anyway: The game is mostly split into two parts: Investigating a scene and talking to people, and the Somnium, the dreamworld of either Date, or… Whoever you’re ordered to PSYNC with, for information relating to the case. And yes, it uses dream logic. The tutorial example has a light switch covered by thorns, and a Winter Iris that cannot be moved nearby, but can still be interacted with because… It’s lit. So you don’t move it. You… Inhale it. Dream logic. But, from this point on, there’s a big catch: You have 6 minutes. The upside is that it only goes down when you’re moving or interacting in the dream world (through your partner, Aiba.) The downside is that understanding the logic of that particular dream may well take a lot of tries, and often, there are multiple solutions that lead to different results.

I… I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question. What the hell?

Aesthetically, apart from some awkward animations, and pink text for Aiba ([check for colourblind options]), the game has a solid visual style, great music, and some good voice acting. The writing is colourful, with a mix of silly references to a variety of things (including other Spike Chunsoft games, The Terminator, and The X-Files), and it drew me in, even when I knew what would come from previous experience with Spike Chunsoft titles, and some solid, foreboding foreshadowing. The humour does fall flat sometimes, and Date’s horniness is… It’s groan inducing a fair bit of the time.

There is a rather sudden shift later in the game, and some paths in the story (Yes, there are branching paths you want to explore to get the honest to goodness ending) are blocked by things you need to get further in the story than I perhaps would have liked, but, overall, I like Spike Chunsoft’s interesting takes on the formulae they work with, and this game is no exception.

The Mad Welshman A unlocked! [Picture of TMW drawn in crayon]

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The Church In The Darkness (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £14.99 (OST+ BTS £7.19)
Where to Get It: Steam

I can’t really lie, but when I looked at Church In The Darkness, I was… Wary. A game about cults, especially American ones, can be… A widely variable experience, in terms of narrative quality. Often, cults are enemies, generic or otherwise. Sometimes interesting things are done with them. And, at worst, they can be games with an odd poltical slant while the company in question vehemently denies there’s any politics… Despite the fact there clearly is.

They get across well that this is a cult of charisma as much as… Well, it varies, but it pretends to be socialist, every time.

But, I’m happy to say, there are interesting things about The Church In The Darkness, even if I unfortunately couldn’t tell you everything at the time of review. After all, the cult in this game can have multiple possible actual motives. But I can tell you how it presents this cult, and how it plays, without either hitting spoiler territory, or ignoring its themes.

First, let’s begin with it being the late 1977s. Conservatives were in power (Specifically, Gerald Ford, but Watergate only having been three years previously was still in people’s minds), and were pushing back at rights movements and welfare programs alike. Vietnam had only ended two years previously, which, even today, has left its psychological scars on people. And, while there were fights for women’s rights, and the blaxploitation film movement, it was mostly a time of rising conservatism, and a bigoted focus on “Traditional Values.” And this could be argued to be one of the points from which conservatives pushed harder for using “Socialism” as a dogwhistle for everything progressive they hated in America.

…Which is why folks of colour in the game, mirroring the real world, and their exclusion… That’s appreciated.

Enter… The Collective Justice Mission, a radical (by 1970s standards) group, charismatic leaders and all, who’ve relocated to South America to found what they consider their ideal society, under a regime they think will support them. And enter you, Vic, a man asked to find your friend’s nephew, Alex, and try to get him away from this group. Now… Enter nuance. Enter narrative and choices.

Overall, the game is a stealth game. Vision cones, distraction tactics, going loud, going silent, going nonlethal, and procuring on site. It’s visually clear, the voice work is great, and has a few stars like Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie, playing Rebecca (Cult Leader 1) and Isaac (Cult Leader 2) respectively. The controls and play are easily understood, and it’s actively recommended you try it on easy until you’re comfortable with the idea of extra handicaps. But this, honestly, isn’t the most interesting part of it to me. And I feel that was the intention.

What was interesting, to me, was the discoveries, and the narrative. I did say it was nuanced, and I stand by that. Alex is latino. Other characters are folks of colour. Rebecaa and Isaac are… Well, they’re white, and, since their motives can differ from playthrough to playthrough, you don’t notice, at first, what kind of radicals they both are. Because, for the early game at least, they’re emphasising that this is their home, their paradise in which they’ll show America that they are wrong, and that they are right. And they’ll mention injustices, historically accurate ones, from gripes to serious matters.

It’s a big community, and… Well, there’s a lot to rummage through. Sometimes to the point of padding.

And the people walking around, the wooden huts, the rural life… At first, it all seems so bright and cozy, with the exception of, you know, people shooting you when you’re detected, then locking you in an increasingly difficult to escape situation each time, with one of the cult leaders telling you that your imperialist ways won’t stop them, that no-one can stop them. And they are convincing, full of fire and brimstone when it comes to enemies, sweet and caring (at first) for their devotees. When you find Alex, no matter who you were sent to consult who is at least neutral to your presence, he’ll tell you that the cult, genuinely helped him, emotionally and physically, out of a bad situation, and he’ll even be confused by the fact his family is looking for him, considering they had previously ostracised him.

But, the more you explore, the longer it goes on, and… You start noticing there’s trouble in paradise. Alex may tell you that food is scarce, and others who let you talk to them may also tell you troubling things (Or they’ll deny that there is a problem, because the cult had, seemingly, genuinely done good things for some of its members.) But this is a cult with guns, and firing ranges. Sometimes (often) you’ll come across corporal punishments and shaming, from a public haranguing session, all the way to people being stoned and locked in cages. There are relatively few farms, relatively few people fishing.

Such as this… Or caged people… Or… Well, there’s quite a few sights that let you know that something is definitely badly wrong…

And, over time, the tone of the respective cult leaders… Changes. In the playthrough where I’d gotten the furthest (Yes, you can, once you’ve found Alex, just book it, but I didn’t take that option once), Isaac started sounding more tired, talking like a divorced husband trying not to let the children know how bad the fights had gotten, while Rebecca… Her fire and brimstone tone got louder, talking about her allies in the South American military, and more emphasis on not being stopped. Even the documents, scattered around, show that this paradise is rotten to the core, unbeknownst to its members who form the peel.

But even when I met Isaac, snuck into his home base (notably, separated from Rebecca’s), he was loudly denouncing me as an enemy, someone who would murder him, kill his great dream… Even as I just… Stood there. Hell, I don’t think I even had a gun, at that point. And this was jarring, until I realised… Oh. Yeah. To him, I’m the Great Satan, aren’t I? No matter what I do, I want to take away one of his flock, and see what’s really going on, and that’s anathema to him. Well, shit.

…And then it outright tells you what you’ve already worked out (to an extent.)

Now, in the interest of balance, I will say this is probably one I want to come back to, not just because I find the narrative as presented so far interesting and pretty well presented, but because I want to see if it stays that way. It isn’t the easiest to sneak around, and I have to do a lot of sneaking around, with the rare villagers’ clothing not being as big a help as you’d think. Which, again, makes mechanical sense, as everyone here knows each other. Clothes or no, get close enough, and they’ll recognise you as an outsider, as other.

But, overall, I feel it goes interesting places, and I do want to explore its multiple motivations, its multiple potential endings. And that’s a good sign.

The Mad Welshman believes in giving interesting narrative its fair due. And there’s… A lot to unpack here.

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Iratus: Lord of the Dead (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £18.99 (£25.25 for Supporter Edition, £7.59 for upgrade to Supporter Edition)
Where to Get It: Steam

Iratus: Lord of the Dead has, very often, been described to me as “Darkest Dungeon, but you’re the villain.” This isn’t, on the face of it, a wholly inaccurate statement. But it is, in many respects, its own, shambling beast. In a good way.

So, as you might expect from the title, you are a necromancer. One who almost managed to conquer the world, until those pesky heroes shot you down. For a long time, you were locked in a casket (Normally a prelude to insanity, but, let’s face it, that’s Tuesday to a necromancer), but now you’re free, and… Have to escape a four level dungeon complex that was built over your tomb.

Good thing you can create undead, huh?

Things rapidly begin going south. We lost our Zombie. Along with his BIG CANNON.

So, combat wise, yes, the game is quite similar to Darkest Dungeon. You have four slots, they have four slots (not always filled), and you have class abilities based on what undead you are. Where it begins to differ, however, is that units have three potential base damage types instead of two. Beyond the “Magic” and “Physical”, you have… “Dread.” And this is where the comparison mainly comes in, as some units specialise in causing sanity damage to enemies, who, after a certain point, will either have some form of insanity (although sometimes, that is a benefit in disguise), or are inspired (get a buff, regain all their sanity, very annoying.) Mixing and matching the two for maximum synergy is highly encouraged, especially as… Not everything has sanity. Lookin’ at you, Golem that wrecked my Dread based party the first run through.

My lord, we can’t scare it… WE CAN’T SCARE IT!

Beyond this, there are only a few similarities. Buildings exist, including the healing building, for sure, but they cost minions as well as resources. Your minions aren’t hired, they’re constructed, from parts of your enemies, or bits you dug up. You can make better parts, spec into spellcasting (I haven’t done this, having too much fun with brains, alchemy, and DREAD), refocus your minions using two choices of ability change per ability, and the dungeon itself is procgenned, sure, but it’s a map where you know roughly what’s ahead, ahead of time (Although enemy composition was, until the most recent updates, a mystery.)

So, in short, it’s got a lot of depth, and the game even has little things to help you recover from losses (brains, for example, automatically level up an undead to the same level as the brain, allowing you to quickly get units of comparable strength to the ones you lost onto the field), and I don’t really have any complaints mechanically. Similarly, aesthetically, the game is pretty clear, the music is suitably ominous and villainous, the soundwork is fine, and Iratus… Well, Iratus’ snark game is on point. Okay, maybe one gripe: Every female minion is of the big-breasted, eerily attractive variety. But mileage varies on that gripe, for obvious reasons.

“For a given value of smiled…”

So, what we have here, essentially, is a pretty polished turn-based strategy/roleplaying hybrid, which I quite like, and seems to be well on track to being a fine release.

The Mad Welshman always appreciates villainous snark. It expands his own repertoire, for the next heroic break in of his lair. So much tidying up afterwards…

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Jupiter Hell (Early Access Review)

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

Doom: The Roguelike was an interesting experience. Not just because I personally find it pleasant to see ASCII renditions of various video game enemies, and enjoy roguelikes, but because it emulated the feel of Doom (swearing as you unload, wondering when the next health pickup will be found, and moving, always moving), while being its own thing.

Every time you die, it helpfully reminds you what killed you a few seconds ago, but also assesses how risky you played, and how many you killed (This is important for certain achievements!)

And Jupiter Hell? Well, those of us who know, know that it is basically Doom: The Roguelike… Remastered. And how does it shape up? Pretty well so far. Let’s get into that.

The basic idea is that, as with most roguelikes, when you act, the enemies act also, and each action takes a certain amount of time (Moving, for example, is the 1.0 to calibrate everything by, while shooting can be slow or fast, depending on the weapon, and some abilities), and the game limits your motion to the four cardinal directions. I mean, you can move diagonally, but that isn’t a single move, but two. The maps use seeds for generation, and they always follow the same set of patterns and general enemy difficulty, although sometimes you get a doozy like coming out of the first area to find seven corrupted soldiers looking at you. And then shooting you to death (In a recent patch, this has been toned down, at least for the first level.)

Ehehe. Ohhh, you poor, undead and demonic bastards…

But, thankfully, I only encountered that once, and I’ve always understood where I’d screwed up overall. Another hallmark of a good roguelike. Your objective? To find out what the hell’s goi- It’s to murder everything, because nothing on any of these godforsaken bases can be saved, and a good chunk of it wants to turn you into good chunks. There is cover, and taking advantage of it, as well as baiting enemies into leaving theirs, is part of the tactics. And there are skills you earn at each level, which increase your power somewhat. And there are level branches, each with their own situations to make you feel either really powerful… Or that this was a bad idea.

So, your goal is pretty clear. Your controls are pretty clear, and rebindable to boot. There are CRT effects (including glitching and tearing of the UI at low health), but they can be turned off in the options. While the game is often somewhat dark, your currently targeted enemy is highlighted clearly, as is the next, automatically, when you kill the first, and you can still, most of the time, see the enemies well enough to shoot them. The menus can be a little odd to get used to at first (Mainly, remember that you can hit left and right to see other information, such as what your boomsticks, generally speaking, do. Beyond a practical test for further clarification, obviously.) And musically?

The wise thing to do would be to run back round that corner. Suffice to say, I was feeling ballsy, not wise.

Well, I did say it’s Doom: The Roguelike Remastered, and the music is reminiscent of, but definitely not a copy of, various iconic doom themes. Little riffs, here and there, and the overall tone clue you in, but they’re hard, they’re driving guitar, and sometimes… Sometimes they’re just downright ominous.

And so far, the only thing that I could really say was a turn-off is exactly the same turn-off for many a roguelike: Until you get the situations you see in later levels, it can be frustrating, as can not finding health kits and armour when you feel you really, really need them right about now. But it doesn’t shame you for picking Easy difficulty (In fact, I’m almost certain the entire Bronze achievements of the game can be completed on any difficulty), it’s aesthetically good, it’s mechanically sound while not feeling incomplete (Just a few minor balance issues), and I would say it’s a contender for being a good “First Roguelike I’ve Played.”

Doom was great, and Id are mostly great. And they were actually cool with this keeping the name. Just a friendly reminder for certain assholes from your local, mostly friendly Mad Welshman.

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Deck of Ashes (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39 (£5.19 each for OST and Print-Ready Posters)
Where To Get It: Steam

At first, I was honestly a little unconvinced by Deck of Ashes. Grimdark world, of grimness and darkness and fire? Hrm. Relatively small deck you have to build up, and if you run out of cards, you lose health to regain some? Hrrrrrm. A limited amount of time in each area before you have to fight the boss? Hrrrrm? Health and cards burned stick with you, and you can only regain a limited amount of them, balancing cards regained versus healing? Aaargh.

Oh dear, out of cards. Time to… Take the pact. Again. The early game is the roughest part.

But then I gave it a serious chance after some unfortunate runs early on, and… While it looks intimidating, only the boss or elite fights take a fair chunk of time, and it’s not nearly as bad as how it seems at first glance (Although yes, the difficulty does ramp up fairly quickly areawise, as you’d somewhat expect from these procgen card fighting titles.) And some of its ideas really play into its idea of a world fighting against you, and that the bosses are powerful, corrupted entities that, given a choice, you’d probably run from.

For example, bosses can, in the later stages of each area, just… Blow up an area, and if it’s somewhere you wanted to go, well… Sorry. The resting is also more reasonable than it sounds, as quick fights rarely req uire more than 5 cards, which leaves you with 20 percent health to recover. Harder fights, obviously, require more than that, and it’s that grind that leaves you worried, but health cards have been pretty good, and a per-turn limit of cards, obviously, helps a little too. Although it would be nice to fry an enemy in a single turn, it honestly works better this way.

I should mention, at this point, that some of the enemies like succubi are nude in some fashion. Just so’s you know.

Aesthetically, well… It’s grim, but not necessarily all that dark, saturated colours really making the enemy designs pop, with at least some impact when cards hit. Status symbols could maybe do with being a bit more clear, though. The maps are fine, the cards are clear, and the controls are all mouse based. Finally, the soundtrack is, as you’d expect, grim horns, violins… You know what you’re in for with grimdark games, I’ll definitely give them that.

While it does need some polish and balance, right now, Deck of Ashes is, as noted, less intimidating than it looks, and isn’t a bad card battler, all told.

The Mad Welshman doesn’t really like pacts. He doesn’t like a devilish deal he can’t wriggle out of villainously, you see.

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