Zanki Zero: Last Beginning (Review)

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

CONTENT WARNING: It should be mentioned that Zanki Zero deals with adult themes like abuse (sexual or otherwise), gaslighting, and murder, so… Yeah, be warned, this game deals with squicky subjects.

It’s an interesting exercise, to tot up the thematic elements of a developer. And for Spike Chunsoft, there’s a fair amount to pick from. Sins of the past. Just about believable pseudoscience made believable. Big twists. And attacking the heartstrings with comically large pliers.

This… Isn’t going to end well. I want it to… But I know it won’t.

And Zanki Zero definitely goes in for all of these, along with a bit of cringe early on. If I had a nickel for every time a “wacky” cartoon character was just groan inducingly gross, I’d have enough to whack said cartoon characters with a small sack of nickels. Thanks, Zanki Zero, for the unnecessary addition that one of your MCs is proud of pissing themselves on camera. I’m only grateful that’s told, not shown.

Iiin any case, once the game gets going, the cringe seems to die down (somewhat, although content warnings for abuse, sexism, violence and murder definitely apply throughout), and the game gets interesting. A survival RPG/Visual Novel hybrid, Zanki Zero follows eight protagonists, and… Seven sins? Ah, one of them is secretly an architect of this whole mess where humanity is extinct, and eight (?) clones of people are asked to rebuild a cloning machine to resurrect humanity, despite the fact that they, as clones, cannot breed. I’m sure this’ll at least try to make more sense down the line, but at the beginning, mysteries, gribbleys, failed human clones, and ruins abound, with various systems unlocking as you go. Building elements of your base. Cooking, crafting, upgrading. And, through it all, the clone mechanics.

There are, thankfully, lighter moments, and the game paces itself well overall.

At first, as described, it’s stressful, and the game makes sure to kill off a character to get the point across, but, while death isn’t the end, and can be beneficial in certain aspects (Dying in Adult life, for example, extends Adult life by 1 day), it costs to resurrect someone, so care must still be taken, as there’s a lot that can screw you up. Traps, monsters, the threat that some of the gifts you get from the EXTEND Machine have strings attached. You know, losing what’s left of your humanity, that sort of thing. I’ve been playing it on the second difficulty setting, and this honestly seems reasonable for me, since my only party wipe was through overconfidence. It’s only later, with the introduction of various traps, that it starts to get properly mean. God-damn bird…

Ohhh, this feller. I have feelings about this feller… And all of them are associated with flipping tables…

The game’s pace is, honestly, pretty good, and, some odd keybinds aside, it tutorialises pretty well. This, plus the interesting way combat and “survival” plays out (The bars, equally, decrease and increase at sensible rates, so I rarely felt I was nannying) means that, overall, I quite like Zanki Zero. Sho, the cringier of the two Extend TV hosts, is a different story, but thankfully, his segments are quite brief. If you want to explore a VN/RPG hybrid which adds depth as it goes on, Zanki Zero is definitely an interesting one to check out.

The Mad Welshman doesn’t have anything clever to say here. How can he, when Humankind is long gone?

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Yuppie Psycho (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £16.66
Where To Get It: Steam

One element of good horror is to take the normal… And bend it. Make it unwelcoming, emphasises what’s frightening about it, and emphasise its isolation. And there is little that isn’t already terrifying to the initiated than… A corporate office, or other appendage of a large company.

“3) We get 5000 resumes…” is how this segment begins. The Company gives no shits about YOU.

After all, a company often already has a friendly face, but behind that face, the lies are revealed for what they are. Ohhh, yes, we get diversity, but there’s no need to make emotional decisions. We understand that people get sick, often in arbitrary ways… But you have taken quite a few sick days working for us, and I’m afraid that we can’t employ someone who’s sick more than once every few months. That overtime? Oh, no, it’s not mandatory, you can… Ahaha, you want to work normal hours? That’s going to look bad on your performance review compared to the rest of us!

And that’s without me trying to think of examples. Oh yes, the Company can be a terrible place. The addition of some nameless “Witch”, corrupting the company from within for decades, causing insanity and mutation… Well, that just makes the horror all the more clear. Cue our protagonist, Brian.

You have to take the book… But of course, Archives is very zealous about withdrawals…

Brian, despite being a low grade member of society (and judged, right from the beginning, to be scum because of this) is, somehow, hired by Sintracorp, the most prestigious company on the planet. Although one has to wonder how this has happened, considering that, in a blackly fitting symbolic twist, the company is a meatgrinder of psychosis, supernatural mutation, murder, and paranoia. And, honestly, a part of why this works so well with the way it plays is because, on some level, it echoes the worst excesses of a corporation gone wrong.

Here, the milling, endless crowd of Induction, forever stuck in the limbo between internship and actually getting paid. There, the Archives, a system so archaic it has taken on the aspect of a Resident Evil puzzle lock, and the Library is overseen by horrors long forgotten in the dark by its parent organisation. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover, later in the game, that the office cougar met early on is a literal man-eater, as opposed to a figurative one. And the employees are, relatively speaking, okay with this, because eh, it’s a living… Horrifying.

And, in the middle of this all, Brian, who has been hired as a Witch Hunter, despite having no qualifications for this, to fix a problem that, in all likelihood, Sintracorp created in the first place. This is one of the reasons it works so damn well. It helps that it’s a pretty accessible game, with its horror well paced against its lighter moments. Aaand then right back, as some of the light hearted things show their grue-filled core.

Oops. Somebody’s soul needs a little more toner…

Besides a few hitches in early cutscenes, funnily enough, it works pretty well. The exaggerated art style of the characters works well to express both the light and dark sides of things, and adds that needed clarity for puzzle elements. To be both expressive and clear is a good look, especially when darkness is also a core element of the game. Puzzle wise, I’ve come across nothing cruel in the puzzles, with there always being something to help ameliorate it.

A good example: Early on, you’re left in the dark by a Mysterious Asshole Coworker, in the vicinity of some quite nasty, and ever exploding “Mines.” Thankfully, the mines light up when you’re near them, only arming when you’re closer, and exploding when you’re close, so the puzzle is, interestingly enough, made a little easier by the very things that will kill you if you screw up. You still feel cool for having survived, and you knew that the little helping hand was by no means a guarantee of safety.

Yuppie Psycho is, overall, a clever and interesting horror game, using its environment well both metaphorically and literally. Like other survival horror titles, it does have a single, limited save system (Requiring a photocopier, ink in that photocopier, and some Witch Paper to photocopy your souuuuuul… Oooowooooo!), but these seem reasonably placed, and I’d definitely say that this is one of the good horror titles of the year.

The Mad Welshman wants to stay the heck away from the Hell Offices. You can help do that via the support links. This has been your company memo.

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Death Mark (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £32.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Ghosts, it seems, are sexist. Either that, or they’re creeps. This is the impression I get from Death Mark, a visual novel/RPG with an interesting premise, but fanservicey art choices that don’t gel well with their horror narrative. So, more accurately speaking… Death Mark’s got a gender-bias problem.

I wanted at least one male horror, for comparison’s sake.

Let’s back up a bit. Death Mark tells the tale of an amnesiac protagonist, where it’s quickly established that they are amnesiac because of a death curse from a vengeful ghost. And so, with a living doll, a mansion that belonged to one of the victims, and the help of other Marked individuals, you attempt to find the spirit that cursed you to die in terror, forgetting more and more.

Let’s appreciate what’s good. The soundtrack is atmospheric and tense, and the sound design is pretty good. The UI is clear, except for the character menu (Which, apart from the END that leaves the game, can be explored just fine.) The art is good, except for some of the ghosts. The story beats are interesting, and the game sells its odd, urban legend inspired world. Similarly, the characters are interesting, and each has something going for them, where even the unlikable ones have some sympathetic aspects to them.

The most horrifying woman’s death CG in the game. And still shibari. SIIIIGH.

But, as mentioned, the game has a definite “Targeted toward the horny white male” vibe to it, as men are invariably murdered horribly, while the portrayal of women is… Well, this is the least sexy “Dead/about to be made dead” CG in the game apart from the intro. Inventory can be a bit of a pain, especially in Chapter 2, where the bottles of Nite Nite are not grouped, and yes, there are items of technically no use. Finally, while I could say the deaths/game overs for fuckups are annoying, the main reason this is so is because saves are restricted to the mansion, as, for the most part, puzzles do have clear hints (Sometimes in notes, sometimes inventory, sometimes conversation.) And finally, the monsters being in a different art style, while I can understand why (To emphasise their otherness), it doesn’t really land for me.

While Lee Chaolan has fallen on hard times, he’s still cheery as ever…

Nonetheless, overall, I enjoyed Death Mark, having completed the good route over the course of the weekend. I enjoyed its twist at the end of the main story, I somewhat enjoyed the DLC chapter, but would warn folks that the game contains mentions of abuse, child abuse, suicide, prostitution, rape… Heavy subjects. If that doesn’t turn you away, then Death Mark is pretty solid horror, and I do, overall, recommend it despite the reservations above.

The Mad Welshman says “Kill men sexily in horror games 2019!”

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The 7th Guest: 25th Anniversary Edition (Review)

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

25 years it’s been, since we first visited the house of Stauf, the serial-killer toymaker who lived in a devilish House that Jack Built. A game that sold many a CD-ROM back in the day, but nowadays receives either quaint chuckling or ear-shattering rage, depending on when somebody experienced the dread Microscope Puzzle.

Oh, and anniversary editions that are actually ports of mobile editions. That too.

Complete with translation errors. Well, at least this one’s amusing. What, who HASN’T eaten at least one fair?

For those who haven’t seen The 7th Guest, it’s a spooky puzzle adventure in which six guests (that you know of) have been invited to the mansion of Stauf, a mysterious and murderous toymaker. They all vanished, long ago, but you see their ghosts as you, a man with no memory, explore the house, solve puzzles, are taunted by Stauf, and eventually discover the mysteries, like… What happened to the other 6, why children died when they bought Stauf toys, and… Who the 7th guest was… It was interesting stuff, and most of it’s aged fairly well. Normally, anyway.

In case that first pair of paragraphs hadn’t clued you in, The 7th Guest 25th Anniversary Edition’s value mostly lies in its extras. The rejiggered graphics are, indeed, rejiggered in the technical sense, but in the technical sense of “Upscale, smoothing filter applied.” The audio’s alright, but the “totally new” control scheme is… Well, it’s actually clunkier than the original, which is a thing to behold. Rather than smooth shifts between contextual controls, there’s a giant mouse cursor (For lo, the game has no windowed mode, and resolution changes happen twixt menu and game… Even menu to menu, in some cases) that shifts between “Big pointy thing” to the beckoning skeletal fingers and eyeballs we know and love (Some of which stay on screen blinking for a bit after you’ve moved selections.)

“Winking in and winking out… Hey Guest, don’t try this out!”

Sooo… In general, the nicest thing I can say is “The map looks a bit clearer, and the sound’s a little cleaner.” Not a good start. But how about the dread Microscope Puzzle?

Well, apparently that’s a third somewhat nice thing. It has been retooled, somewhat, to the point where opinions actually differ on whether the thing’s an utter bastard to finish. But that, essentially, is about it. A clunkier interface and smoothed upscale doesn’t make for a great experience, and, while those can be removed (Along with the nicer map, by choosing “Original” graphics), it ends up with either money I’ve already spent on The 7th Guest itself, or a port of a port that feels less pleasant to play.

And he’s going to carry on waiting. The 1.04 version doesn’t even get past the menu for me, hence all these screenshots being early game…

Neither are a particularly pleasing choice to me, and so I leave by repeating what I said earlier: Unless the extras interest you, this is probably one to avoid.

The Mad Welshman normally doesn’t disapprove of ports. But, here’s the thing… They have to be decent ports.

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Lovecraft’s Untold Stories (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Even grudgingly admitting that Lovecraft’s Untold Stories has improved in some aspects, this is one that remains poorly paced, difficulty spikey, and… Well, not drawing me into its world, because its world isn’t all that interesting in the first place.

Game number 1: From this screenshot, try to guess where, offscreen, the necromancer who keeps summoning these zombies has run to.

Okay, let’s back up a bit. A Lovecraftian twin-stick shooter with RPG elements (keys, inventory, special items, events, and, at least once a level, puzzles), Lovecraft’s Untold Stories starts you as a private dick who has been called upon by Raymond Legrasse (The inspector who formed a cameo in The Call of Cthulhu, the “iconic” Lovecraft tale.) From there, things rapidly get weird, from Lovecraft and the King In Yellow as shopkeepers, to a Yithian sanctum as your home base…

…Honestly, I can’t really carry on with that sentence without getting into why it feels wrong to say all that. Lovecraft’s Untold Stories is Lovecraftian in the same way that Ready Player One is Cyberpunk, or an Olde English Bar in America is, in fact, Olde English. Oh, it’s got surface elements, to be sure. Star Spawn and Mi-Go and what I’d finally worked out were meant to maybe be Colours from Space. But they fill much the same space as zombies and cultists with machine-guns: As things you shoot to leave the room. Similarly, books are not gateways to knowledge that man was not meant to wot, but one of the two forms of currency in the game (The other being money, most often obtained by collecting treasure.) Elements of horror fiction, distilled into enemies and powerups. Ye Olde English Yawn.

This… Is about as interesting as that gets.

“But come now, that’s not terribly fair. What about that old chestnut about going mad from said knowledge?” Ah, yes. The thing with little to no seeming effect on play beyond being a second, less readable health bar that partly obscures the actual health bar. If lots of purple gunk over the top left, maybe eat a bar of chocolate or three, and avoid pretty much any interactable event you don’t know the “safe” interaction with (At the cost of not finding secrets and earning less Information currency.) Bam, the unknowable has become the known.

“Okay, okay, so it’s not very Lovecraftian. What about the twin-stick elements?” Well, those have slightly improved, in that now you have mouse-aim. The first area has also become less of a pain in the ass, with seemingly none of those murderous (and inexplicable) cultist gun turrets to be seen, only cultists and gribbleys. This, of course, is assuming you’re playing as the Investigator, as there are other unlockable characters, unlocked by reaching the right area, and solving a certain puzzle.

Each one has their own starting area, and their defensive abilities take different forms. The investigator has a dodge roll and explosives. Whoop. The scientist has a high-explosive shot that is as likely to impact something you weren’t sure was an obstacle (or a rushing enemy) and kill you as not, and a defensive shield. I haven’t unlocked the rest because… Well, when a game feels more like a battle of attrition than a tense conflict in which worlds are at stake, and madness lurks around every corner, you know something’s gone wrong.

Game number 2: Spot the arbitrary spikes. Before you run into them, and inflict a long bleed status and damage.

Is it the darkness hiding increasingly arbitrary damage/status traps? Is it Chapter 3’s obsession with “Hunt the guy running away, otherwise you’ll never clear the room”? Is it that the puzzles either feel like arbitrary key/item hunts or things that don’t make sense even in the context? Yes, yes, yes, it’s all of these things, plus the endless… Interminable “spooky” rendition of “Three Blind Mice.” No, really, it’s main motif is the three keys of a children’s song.

It isn’t the only music in the game, and the intro narration is very nice, as is the pixel art. But the pixel-art is often obscured by darkness, and stylistic goodness is more than counterbalanced by what a tedious slog this feels.

The Mad Welshman has seen many things. Perhaps too many. Over many games, the monicker has become more and more accurate. IA! IA! D’Signu B’et’a!

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