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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Blood Card (Review)

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

Goodness me, we’re getting a lot of these card fighters. Unfortunately, they can’t all be good. Take, for example, Blood Card, which, while it has an interesting aesthetic to it, doesn’t really work well despite its interesting idea.

Weeeeeeelp.

And it is an interesting idea, make no mistake. Well, a couple. You see, you are a being trying to escape Death. Y’know, the bony feller with the robes and scythe version, tends not to let people go. And your deck? Is also your health. Much like other card battlers, there’s a limited energy pool from which to play cards, there’s a limited time in each combat before Death appears, and… Honestly, this is where the problem begins. While your hand replenishes (apart from cards which destroy themselves) after each fight, enemies very quickly start ensuring that Death will appear, doing increasing damage for each turn he’s there. Sure, he ends up killing the enemies too, but that race against the clock is definitely not in your favour, especially with elites and the bosses. The objective? To either kill death, or leave the dungeon.

“You could be cool like me!” Yes, er… I see a flaw in this argument…

Aesthetically, the game is odd. Some good pixel art, with some interesting enemy designs, meshes somewhat poorly with the workmanlike, and admittedly more accessible clean sans-serif font, and while the mood is meant to be Dark Fantasy (You know, blood and death and guts and gore and ohgodwhy, that sort of thing), it breaks this mood surprisingly often. Like the barrel guy, or the vampire, whose first thought in “Convincing the hero(ine) they want to be a vampire” is simply “Wouldn’t it be cool?”

Well, yes, but it would also suck, if you’ll pardon the pun. I’ll pass. The brevity of the character lines doesn’t exactly help, as it feels stilted. The music, well, it’s fitting (choirs, bassy brass, that sort of thing), but you’re going to get tired of it relatively quickly, alas.

Well, I mean… The attacks do 4 damage to one enemy, so… Ooh, I’m gonna be here a while…

Now, there is a third idea that normally, I would applaud: Letting you choose what to deal with. You get X rooms before the boss, and Y,Z, and so on of normal enemy groups, Elite enemy groups, shops, and events. But this, also, doesn’t really mesh that well, because the bosses are pretty damn mean, and when even normal enemy groups can delay and debuff you enough to ensure that Death sticks around for at least a couple of rounds (and yes, Death will turn up during the boss fights, making them increasingly more difficult the longer they go on)

Overall, Blood Card feels like it’s tough for the sake of being tough. 3 energy a turn quickly runs out, meaning you don’t often get to play, for example, Finishing cards (Which require you to have 1 card in your hand when played to get the effect), and your base attacks are relatively weak. While the art is quite nice for grimdark pixels, it can’t, unfortunately, mask the fact that the game doesn’t really want me to get very far, or see much of what it has to offer.

The Mad Welshman does appreciate the cape value of being a vampire, but would honestly prefer werewolfdom. Saves time on “Hair of the dog that bit you?”

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Sanator: Scarlet Scarf (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £7.19 (£9.58 w/soundtrack, soundtrack £2.89, assorted goodies £4.79)
Where To Get It: Steam

Content Warning: This game features a mention of nonconsensual sex, and murder.

Visual Novels come in many forms. That’s part of their charm. And seeing different approaches to visual novels, from different places, is, itself, quite a charm too. Which is, of course, a good segue into Sanator: Scarlet Scarf, the first translated work by Ignis Sanat, and winner of the Anivisual 2019, a yearly Russian Visual Novel contest.

A different approach than usual, somewhat reminiscent of a Light Novel. I kinda like it.

It is, let’s get this out of the way, short. But, as we’ve often seen on TMW, short doesn’t mean bad. It simply means short. The prose in Sanator is good stuff, solemn and heavy, as befits its setting, a town beleaguered by a plague that, as it quickly turns out, is of supernatural origin. The art is solid, anime styled, but with its own texture and flair that I quite enjoy. And, while its choices are relatively few, its characters are interesting, and its setting works without needing to look up too many of the Special Fantasy Words.

It should be noted, before I continue, that the demo is, itself, a prequel to the events of the game, a more linear experience, but still with its own charm, and adding nuance to some of the characters through short vignettes. A little extra to the world is always nice, and it does well not to give away key facts.

Too true, I’m often up at them, writing these… SIGH.

Anyway, both the demo and the game have some pretty good music. Heavy, portentous, a fair few chiming bells and choral parts… I enjoy this. And I enjoy the fact that it all works together in this short, tight narrative about a Sanator (Plague Doctors whose shadows can hurt, who fight both normal disease and spirits of plague), faced with the Scarlet Scarf, a malady that causes a deep, bleeding lesion from the neck to the waist, not unlike… A scarlet scarf. And, of course, it’s supernatural in origin.

If I had regrets about Sanator, it is, honestly, that it is tight. It shows the horror of the plague briefly, resolves quickly, and that horror doesn’t really get a chance to linger unless you’re deliberately savouring it. It doesn’t give the indirect antagonists a lot of room to breathe. I also think that the supernatural being’s origin is… A little squicky (Okay, imprisoned and sacrificed by a cult, fine, but, as writers have noted, rape is a very lazy way of establishing someone else as evil. Suggest “Couldn’t unsee the other, failed sacrifices wot were super horrific and stuff.”)

A Sanator’s Shadow is, as it turns out, its own entity. Cool, huh?

Still, overall, Sanator is a tight narrative, and I’ve enjoyed my time with it.

I do love me some good art. And my cup hath overflown this month.

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