DISTANCE (Review)

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

2018 continues to be a year of firsts for me saying words I never thought I’d say. In the case of Distance, spiritual successor to Nitronic Rush, those words are “Wow, I never thought I’d see a good horror game in the Future Racing genre.”

Grain, spooky thing in the distance, ambience? Yup, that’s… Waaaaaait…

And yet… Here we are. A Future Racing game involving a car that can fly, tumble, and make sharp turns without braking… Also being a game with horror stylings, unsettling the player with strange vistas of a world gone horribly wrong, shining hope transmuted to despair. Without a single human character, only a car, a road that inexplicably seems to want you dead, a teleporter, and a rogue machine… OR IS IT?

Okay, so it gets a little odd and ambiguous at times, and I’m not 100% sure I can give the game props for horror writing when I haven’t completely played through the second campaign, but moodwise, it definitely creates feelings I’d associate with horror: Uneasiness and dissociation, asking myself… What’s really going on?

It also helps that it’s a smooth game. While I would recommend controller over keyboard for Distance, if only because the control scheme is a little odd, the keyboard controls are, nonetheless, quite smooth, and I only ever felt a little put out during the quicker, more difficult segments by the aforementioned control scheme (Quickly hitting SPACE, A/D, and SHIFT in the right timings was a little bit frustrating. Only needed late in the main campaign, and I’m sure rearranging keybinds could help.)

While flying is relatively rare, the cold, deep depths of space aren’t. They’re breathtaking. Well, they would be if cars had lungs, anyway…

Aesthetically, the game is on point pretty much throughout. Good signposting, clear visuals, and a dystopian retrofuturist aesthetic that works well whether it’s ruined or not, I never felt distracted. Musically, it switches well from pumping electronic beats to more ambient, horror styled soundscapes, and the sound effects and voice work well.

So… So far, I’ve been pretty glowing about Distance. And it is a good game. It helps that it also has a track editor and Workshop support, but one thing I will say is that I don’t really feel like the campaign added a whole lot to flying before it’s taken away from you for the majority of the rest. Part of that, I get, flying is hard, and inverting the vertical controls is a bit of a shock if you aren’t prepared for it (My exact words were, as I recall “Friends don’t let friends invert on you.”), but it was somewhat disappointing to see flying under-represented. But other changes from the original formula, such as a “down” thrust (that’s “down relative to your car”) are definitely welcomed, and I did, overall, find enjoyment in doing some of the silly things you can do with your jumping, thrusting, tumbling electronic car before the end of its main campaign.

And that, honestly, is about all I can say, because the game is simple and tight, elegantly tutorialises, and is fairly accessible to boot. It’s got some interesting horror elements that feel natural, and is well worth a look from the Future Racing crowd.

Another improvement over Nitronic Rush… These spikes didn’t want to make me throw my control-device out of a window.

No, for reference, Twisted Metal doesn’t count, because it’s a Combat Racer. Small diff.

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Frozen Synapse 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £23.79
Where To Get It: Steam

The original Frozen Synapse, released in 2011, gave me a new appreciation for AI. A few simple roles, a few simple actions, and a constricted battlefield nonetheless gave appreciation for timing, cones of vision, and action priority, because the core conceit of the game, whether against AI or players, is that turns happen simultaneously, and so, you have to not only think what you’re doing, but also what the other person’s doing.

A fine example of understanding timing from this multiplayer match… Nothing I do will save this assault, because the grenade is perfectly timed.

Okay, so you have to do that anyway in games, but seeing it, explicitly playing out on a map, and understanding both your mistakes and those of your opponents makes clear just how big that phase space of actions could get. It was scary, but thankfully, the community was pretty chill.

Now, after that, a similar concept with Frozen Cortex (Only robot sportsball instead of corporate murderclones with guns), and a few years, Frozen Synapse 2 has come to deliver… Well, more of that. And it brings two somewhat different experiences, depending on whether you tackle the City Mode, singleplayer, or Multiplayer. Let’s deal with multiplayer first, because it’s the simpler of the two, in a sense.

Four players, in two teams, given one of several random, single weapon loadouts. While there are other multiplayer modes, the most common is that, as mentioned, turns are simultaneous, and you don’t know what a player’s doing unless the opponent is in your vision arc. A good example from my multiplayer matches (Where I have consistently been defeated so far) was where a grenadier, unbeknownst to me, was right behind my assault that turn, and slipped into a doorway to grenade one of my folks from where I least expected it.

It was a clever play, because even if they had been seen because my Assault (automatic rifle) had seen them, they would still probably have escaped before I could shoot them, due to the fact that Grenadiers always run when they’re not throwing grenades, but Assaults track slowly when they’re moving, and are at their best when they know roughly where to aim. There are inequalities, built into the classes (Knife, Pistol, Assault, Shotgun, Grenadier, Rocketeer, Flamethrower) that add tactical considerations. Grenades take time to throw, and won’t move until they do, but their explosions last longer than a rocket (Not much longer, but enough that I painfully learned that Grenadiers can run into their own grenades, after the explosion started), Rocketeers blow up all the landscape in the rocket’s AoE, which can work against as much as for, and everything takes time.

A lot of this would already be known to Frozen Synapse players, new roles aside, but the addition of focus fire makes for a new priority to memorise, and a new wrinkle.

Moving quickly means it’s harder to hit you, but you can’t fire. Moving normally means you fire, but you have a penalty aiming. Stopping when you see someone means you shoot quickly, but are a sitting duck. But whoever correctly predicts the small, diamond shape location where an enemy is going to be when they fire, they get an accuracy boost. So, for example, somebody covering a door, from a far corner, may well get the drop on somebody who knows damn well the door’s their only exit, but foolishly stands in the doorway.

The story of Frozen Synapse continues, as this city is essentially built on the rubble of the first game’s story mode.

So it’s tactically intricate, simple rules making for an intriguing tactical game where you’re seeking a maximum area of action, while attempting to contract the opponent’s choices. I almost won one match from near death, due to the last person being a grenadier, who can quickly deny large areas without having to destroy their cover. Alas, they had a grenadier too, and, on the 9th turn of 8, it was declared a draw.

City Mode, on the other hand, is more complex. Not only are there the same tactical considerations, there’s management aspects to it too, such as building permits, a mercenary market, diplomacy… And it doesn’t exactly tutorialise well. Case in point: Grenades are great. Grenades are useful. But you can’t use Grenades unless you’ve signed up for Explosive Ordnance Services in the City. Or rockets. And the first I knew of this was when I’d already sent a Grenadier along with my squad to help clear out some Raiders. All the great aesthetics, the huge map, the soulful music that plays, isn’t going to save single player mode from some heavy flak for bad explanation of complex systems… Or, overall, the fact that accessibility options for the small text are currently nonexistent (There was, apparently, a “4K Supporting GUI” patch over the weekend before writing this, but it doesn’t appear to change tiny text, nor is there an option for this.)

Just a minute or so before I make a mistake that dooms a merc, I appreciate… Oh gods, this is a lot of buildings!

Add in some awkwardness in Multiplayer (If you want to add one of your own matches to Favourites by liking it, you have to search for its ID in the Match Play tab, rather than something more intuitive), and all of that interesting stuff I mentioned… Is less accessible to folks.

So, unfortunately, I can’t really recommend it. Its single player is complex without good support, its multiplayer isn’t for everyone no matter how friendly its community is, and, while it does make some steps in terms of colourblind support, that doesn’t change that a lot of its UI text is painfully small. It does expand on what worked well in the main game, and, apart from the knife, which is… Not something useful to a beginner player, those expansions add depth while still being easily explored. The rest? Not so much.

The Mad Welshman would make a poor mercenary leader. I mean, who gives soldiers orders to shoot without ammo?

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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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Antigraviator (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £19.49
Where To Get It: Steam

As Future Racers go, Antigraviator is an interesting, but slightly flawed one. It’s trying something different, and I appreciate that, but that doesn’t really change that it doesn’t, entirely at least, work well.

I would like to apologise for being good enough at Future Racing games that this is the only mid-pack screenshot I have.

So, it’s a Future Racer, so there’s gravity hovercraft wot go fast, a lot of tracks in varying locales in tournaments of increasing difficulty, a boost start (Gotten by holding accelerate just as 2 vanishes and 1 is about to count), and… No context for any of this. Nope, this is a racing tournament, just a racing tournament, and that’s all good, with no in-game lore. Interesting move.

But, make no mistake, the tracks are very pretty. Even in the first tourney, you go from a “standard” city setting, to racing over the ocean, through a canyon system, and in orbit. It’s lush, and it’s fast, and it’s here we start to see this minimalist future racing game fight with itself, design wise.

It’s fast, and there’s a lot, I mean a lot, of blind jumps and turns, sometimes quite hard ones, sometimes in quick succession. But don’t worry, because only grievous collisions slow you down more than a tadge, and, unless you’ve gone for a low armour craft (more on that later), getting blown up by anything short of leaving the track (an instant explosion if you don’t land on the track, followed, in most cases, by respawn and loss of all speed you’ve built up) is quite tough. Okay, cool, these design decisions appear to have cancelled each other out for an alright, if odd baseline. But then we hit the Deathmatch mode of races, and they’re longer, and harder to lose, precisely because you have so much armour (and so do some of the other racers.) So, how do you blow people up?

Well, instead of weapon pickups, you have, at pre-determined points of the track, traps. Some are near-certain killers (like the reverse controls/magnet trap) , some are, basically, weapons (the missile), and the rest vary between fitting and slightly silly, deadly and slowing. Most require someone to be in front of you to trigger, give you a temporary immunity that usually gets you through the trap yourself, and have the good feature of telling you whether they caught somebody.

The first time playing, it goes straight to the mandatory tutorial. Not sure how I feel about that.

Unfortunately, they also require you and the other racer to be in a specific set of ranges to trigger, which conflicts, somewhat, with the other main mechanic, boost energy. See, going fast by collecting boost cylinders, and then boosting with the up arrow (2 cylinders per boost, and you can chain them pretty quickly) means that, funnily enough, you can end up first very quickly, so most of these traps… No longer mean much to you, especially if you stay far ahead enough that traps mean nothing. Even if, due to the fact the AI racers are fairly good, you’re not in first, you’re going quickly enough that, by the time the icon on the back of your ship lights up to show a trap has gone off, by the time it tells you a trap is ready, and by the time you look away from your real visual focal point of the track ahead of the ship (because you’re going very fast) … You miss your chance. The better a racer you are, the less you get to see or use a feature.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t have good answers for alternatives beyond the traditional, and I can also see why the traditional is being turned down here: It democratises things, to an extent, as the traps are track dependent, not based on loadout, or pre-genned track items, or a semi-random weapon pickup. The higher armour definitely helps ensure you can keep your speed (mostly) in track design that just wouldn’t work if, for example, wall and other ship collisions seriously hurt you, so the developers can use all those blind, sharp corners and jumps that normally, I would be crying hatred for, from the word go… Indeed, the final track of the second tournament, Michael’s Bay, earns my ire for being more hostile than the tracks bracketing it on either side, a solid and frustrating difficulty spike in a game otherwise able to mitigate that.

Finally, we get to the customisation options, and my greatest mystification. Scaling costs, I somewhat understand, but they’re applied inconsistently. Non-body parts, for example, don’t have nearly the steep cost rises that the two other body types (one tankier, one the “hard mode” craft that’s supremely fast, but has far inferior handling and shields), and… The colour schemes?

Accessibility note: The cost of the item should not be below the stat bar, and should be bigger than it is. The cost is 100,000.

No, really… The final colour scheme costs almost as much as the hard mode body part, and each colour scheme is more expensive than the last, because… I genuinely couldn’t tell you. I have no answer here, and it both confuses and annoys.

In the end, with the odder exceptions aside, Antigraviator is actually fun. It manages to be fun despite its design decisions fighting each other like design decisions were a cage match. Its online play has rankings, but remains fun, and the quick race mode means, unless you want to buy from the somewhat limited part set, you don’t have to engage with the tournament structure, just… To have a good time. Doesn’t change the fact it confuses me greatly, but it does make recommending it for what it is slightly easier. Worth a go to see something different being done in Future Racing, a genre that, amusingly enough, has been highly resistant to formula changes.

Spaaaaace. <3

The Mad Welshman likes walls, so he’s glad he’s been given so much leeway to grind against them in racing.

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Fhtagn! Tales of the Creeping Madness (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I do love me some Lovecraftian shenanigans. I also love party visual novels. So you can perhaps imagine my pleasure when I saw Fhtagn! (Pronounced Fuh-tagh-un, Fe-Tahh-gun, or Steve), which is both of these things, involving the summoning of Dread Lord Cthulhu (who sleeps and is dead in his island city until the Stars Are Right comes on the telly.)

Ahh, the sleepy town of Arkham, home of scenic Night Terrors and a solid, if mind-bending academic institution!

It is, in its basics, a very familiar formula: There are up to four players in local co-op, eight locations, seven stats, six turns, and eight possible endings in the base game. With two tasks per location, each giving some combo of three stats (Except gambling at Madame Fufu’s), and only one player allowed per location, it’s up to the players to get their stats up to the major and minor requirements of their chosen ritual by succeeding in stat based events and upping stats with their chosen activity, while…

…Ah, now this is where it gets interesting. As I found out when streaming the game, just one of the players succeeding in their ritual isn’t enough for a victory… So there is a co-op element… It’s just, by its layout, you expect it to be competitive. Good trick!

In any case, this is one of those games where the writing is important, and is it good? It is! The humour in this game lands a lot more than it misses, like how a spicy burrito coming back to haunt your cultist can, in some circumstances, actually bring you closer to your goal… Whether that’s by successfully blaming your gastric upset on someone else, or by holding it in and inspiring the cult to greater eldritch dancing by your own tortured contortions. It’s a game aware of, and affectionately parodying its inspiration, while also sidestepping a lot of the stuff that makes liking Lovecraft’s work rather awkward (You know, like the fact that a lot of it is based on racism as well as the limitations of rationalism.)

IA! IA! HOWARDU FHTAGN!

Aesthetically, it also hits the shoggoth on the (nominal) noggin, with some lively, jazzy music to get you into that roaring 20s mood, some good animations, and, in the Mayor’s office, Himself rules over Arkham, perhaps for a Newer, Better Deal… Well, until we wreck the place and summon the Older, Awful Deal, anyway…

As to flaws, I can’t really pick anything out as more than a minor niggle, for two reasons: While the base game itself is quite short (In less than 2 hours, which includes a lengthy stream, I have 5 of the 8 endings), the developers are adding content quite soon to the game, and it has a content creation tool, which some folks have already added things, and you can, too (LINK)

As such… It’s tightly designed, fun to play with friends, got a lot of humour and charm, and you can make new content for it? That’s two squamous appendages up, Fhtagn!

LovecraftianMood.JPG

The Mad Welshman has only two squamous appendages, so this is a hefty endorsement indeed!

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