Ashen (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £30.99 (Definitive Edition £38.18 , Soundtrack £5.19, Nightstorm Isle DLC £7.19)
Where To Get It: Steam

And so the dark age passed into an age of light, a… Wait a minute, I was promised Dark Souls, not… Okay, fun aside, it’s actually nice to see some legitimate hope in a game with the “Go out, bash things with an input system that encourages only hitting the buttons you need to, not mashing them, die, spend money on improvement, hopefully get further this time” formula that has been called “Soulslike.”

I wanted to focus on the beauty for this review. For the combat, imagine a small circle in the middle of an enemy, as I slam that giant axe into its smug midsection.

In Ashen, you are, obviously, a voiceless Chosen One, who, along with two friends (and the others you meet along the way), must protect the Ashen, a bloody great bird made of light and life that sat on the World Tree, died (its three breaths creating three ages, which passed, and elements of the three civilisations still lived through the dark age), and is due to be reborn. Gosh, my throat’s a little bit norse from that short bit of exposition, lemme back up a bit.

Essentially, this is a third person action RPG, in which your low poly protagonist wanders through a map, directed by both the needs of currency/items gained from enemies, and the quests, side or main, from the people of your small, new township. This actually deserves a mention right now, because it’s a fulfilling aspect of the game: The further along the game you get, the more sidequests you do, the more your town hub (Well, more of a “start point on the journey”, really, as you travel along a narrowing spiral toward the end, unlocking Ritual Stones, your travel points, along the way) builds up and grows, starting as this near barren, ramshackle set of ruins, and, by the end of the game? It’s a thriving village, with each of your fellow characters having their own cohabitation with various people attracted to this glowing beacon of hope.

Early in the game, but I like the image of Batarn, the giant one armed smith, helping to build what will be a beautiful village toward the end, an enduring legacy of hope.

Even if the game weren’t good, this would have to be mentioned, precisely because it’s almost unheard of in this genre (or indeed, quite a few.) But the game is good. It doesn’t give you fast travel until a few main quests in, but the progression feels natural, and I only died once or twice in the early game, mostly due to either overconfidence or stupidity. Especially as you have a friend, always (whether a co-op partner, or one of the companions you meet, each with certain styles of weaponry), and so long as one of you is alive long enough to resurrect the other, you’re okay.

And the world is pretty. Even in the bleaker areas of the game, there’s a sense of beauty, fallen or otherwise. From the parts of the world so far reclaimed from the Ash, to the almost tundra like ruins of Sindre’s View, to… Ah, well, that would be spoiling things, but suffice to say, there’s a lot of environments, including, yes, dark areas. And the difficulty does ramp up, with some of the underground segments, in particular, making for a large difficulty spike. Still, it’s also a world where the developers want you to try clambering over it, to see what you can do, and want you to see it, and this, also, is appreciated. Finally, the music is, for the most part, calm, relaxing. This is a world you’re meant to take in.

Even in this bleak, ashen wasteland, there is beauty.

Are there complaints? Well, yes. The game very much overloads you with stuff early on, and it’s somewhat resource hoggy, with slowish loading times, and, outside of challenge runs, why wouldn’t you give your companions their quest items? But… There’s a lot it does right, over its compatriots, a lot it does differently. The game doesn’t really bar you that much, so you can engage or not as you like, explore as much or as little as you like, although it is highly encouraged you do those side quests before tackling a main one. As such, it’s more guiding than holding back or pushing, not holding your hand, but showing you the way.

So, in summary, I would say that this is a better introduction to the subgenre known as “Soulslikes” than… Well, Dark Souls, the game which popularised the term! It’s pretty, it’s interesting, its characters are cool… Yup, I like it.

The Mad Welshman appreciates beauty, bleak or otherwise, as much as he appreciates bearded handaxes. Which is to say, a fair bit.

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Blink: Rogues (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £5.79
Where To Get It: Steam

There is a common misconception among folks relatively new to vertical or horizontal shooters (or shmups, as they’re called) : That the Japanese ones are more difficult than the Western ones. While this certainly can be true (Hello Gradius, Hello Touhou!), there are still Western Shmups that are, for want of a better phrase (haha, not really), “Bastard Hard.” Jamestown. Raptor: Call of the Shadows. Xenon 2. They’re slower paced, for the most part, but enemies can be nasty.

Hrm, now how am I going to murder all eight of these enemies efficiently?

And so it is with Blink: Rogues, which combines some elements of the older European Shmup style (Slow paced, health bars, enemies are bullet spongey to the basic attack) with other ideas known to the genre, like enemies that can only be murderised with one of the three special weapons you have, flipping your craft to fire backwards, and a feature I haven’t seen outside of one other game (Dimension Drive) : Swapping between two different playfields, both because there are enemies to kill/avoid in both, and there are obstacles in both, some of which can only be avoided by blinking between sides.

Which would make the game more interesting, if it wasn’t for a lack of flair to it all. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like me a low poly aesthetic, I love it contrasting with painted characters and nice, clean text. And I love little touches like parts that come off when you shoot them, even if it makes the enemies that little bit more bullet spongey. But the projectiles, the music, the enemy explosions… They can best be described as “workmanlike.”

I do like a bearded older man with a cigar and a naval uniform sometimes…

Add in that there’s no UX scaling for the main, shooty bits, and no reminder as to what the special weapon keys are. Yes, I forgot. Regularly. Colours? No. Keys? Yes. I’m also not certain as to its colourblind friendliness (being Red, Blue, and Green), so maaaybe different shield animations would help there? In any case, it’s not quite as accessible as I would like, and while the story is reminiscent of old arcade games and the DOS shooters that had story (Short conversations and collectible journals), it’s also somewhat workmanlike.

I don’t know, maybe I’m jaded. In any case, the difficulty ramps up reasonably well, although a big part of that is that death doesn’t lose you the mission, but instead takes you out of the fight for a whole 3 seconds (and, if you were in the middle of a wave, 3 seconds is a loooong time), and lose your multiplier. That’s pretty much it, although it does make reaching the star goals of a level that much harder if you die (Kill 50%, 75%, and 100% of enemies, sometimes with an extra modification like “You have to kill all the red beacon ships!”)

Rocks. Cuboid rocks, but… Well, they are rocks, I’ll give this mission that.

Despite that workmanlike nature, it’s not a bad game, by any means, and a multiplayer mode (local, whether against another player, or an AI with 5 difficulty levels) with several story missions that don’t outstay their welcome (and now, survival levels afterward, presumably on a “One life” basis) helps give it that little touch of replayability once you’re done (Whether that’s “Beaten all the levels” or “All the stars, all of them!”), but… As mentioned, it’s workmanlike and low key, and I can perfectly understand why that would be a turn off to folks.

The Mad Welshman once had a successful 100% run of the Monty Python DOS game. To this day, he doesn’t quite know how.

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GRID 2019 (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £44.99 (Ultimate Edition £64.99, Upgrade to Ultimate Edition £29.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

Ah, Codemasters. Purveyors of racing games since… Well, as long as I can remember. No, that’s a lie, I grew up with them publishing Dizzy games. But for a while, at least. Sometimes a little simulation-like, mostly arcadey, with fairly good music, a fair few licensed vehicles/teams/racers, and this time…

Rolliiiiing START!

Three races before you even hit the main menu for the first time. Three races, and something like five interminable cutscenes. Oh, GRID 2019 is off to a rolling start, and… Wait, what are the keybindings again? Oh… Oh… Suffice to say, even though I understood part of why, I was less than impressed with how my experience started.

Was I impressed with the game itself? Weeeelll… It honestly isn’t bad. The cars are somewhat tunable, and there’s a moderate variety of them, with the most in the Invitational category (presently, at least, as the game has a Season Pass and some car DLCs already… hissssss…) Aesthetically, it looks good. The menu music is solid Racing Game music, of the kind you hear in racing recap segments, or, indeed, earlier Codemasters games (in mood and motif. Not exactly the same music) But when it comes to the races themselves, it’s the cars you concentrate on, and they, also, sound good. A Camaro sounds different to a Mini Metro, and when you’re pushing them to their limit, they sound like they should… Straining and buzzing angrily at the treatment you’re giving them.

When in doubt, I trade paint. Epilepsy aside, this is probably why I shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

The tracks, the racers, the cars… They are, for the most part, the popular ones. Oh, there’s Silverstone. There’s San Francisco. But there aren’t that many of them (although, as with many racing games, extra variation is added with track weather and driving the course in reverse), and… Well, even though I’m sure there will be some free tracks, the purpose of that Season Pass becomes clear.

But this, also, I could somewhat forgive, because what there are are some interesting and technical tracks. And, if you’re not a great racer, one who makes some pretty nasty mistakes, the flashback feature from past Codemasters games is alive and well, on a rechargable basis rather than “You have this many.” These are nice. It even allows you to unlock races without actually winning them. And, of the race styles, there’s a fair few, which, overall, is the most varied part of it for me (With Invitational taking up the most room in terms of both cars and events)

The customisation system is also alright. A limited pattern set, but I wasn’t expecting Picasso, and I managed to make something I’m happy with easily enough.

Hell, the AI is at least alright, reacting to you, playing aggressively if you’re anywhere except in first and speeding the hell ahead, although if you qualify, then get first, you’re going to have a much easier time of it, and some racers… Well, here we get to what’s not so great. Specifically, the nemesis system, and the team system.

The nemesis system, on the face of it, is a clear one: If, like me, you race dirty, and trade paint, or even bits of your frame, to gain advantage, you’re going to piss other racers off. And you have a team member, who can be ordered to attack (try and move up), and defend (try and help you forward.) There’s even purchasable team members, but, to be honest… Neither feature seems to play much of a role. Nemeses (for lo, I often have multiple on any given lap) don’t seem to be more willing than usual to trade paint with you, or screw you over, and team-mate orders don’t really help all that much with your position over, say… Having a good line, and being aggressive.

Okay, okay, so maybe that’s trading more than paint. I got a decent position, alright?

As such, buying team members isn’t really a purchase I’ve bothered with, to, basically, no effect on how I’ve enjoyed the game (which is “Somewhat”) The UX is that understated style you often see in racing games nowadays, and, in and of itself, it’s not bad (although damn, do the visuals on cars seem to take an Ice Age to load in those menus!)

And this leaves me uncertain where I stand, precisely, with GRID 2019. It’s alright, for sure, but it’s made some odd decisions, I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Ultimate Editions, Season Passes, and whatnots, and some of its features seem under implemented, despite being seemingly flagship features. I also can’t deny that it feels like less than its predecessors. And, as such… I’m erring on the side of “Not really.”

The Mad Welshman is not, after experimentation, as bad at arcade racers of this style as he feared. Turns out he’s just aggressive.

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Kind Words (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £3.99 (£2.09 soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Kind Words is a game with the best of intentions: Put simply, you write… Kind words. Sometimes they’re words of encouragement. Sometimes, they’re words of understanding. Sometimes, they’re shared pleasures. Sometimes, if you feel you have the capability to give it, they’re words of advice.

True dat. Men especially, take this one to heart.

So, disclosure time: I’m a depressive. Not as bad as others, but still I have my very bad days, and don’t deal well. So it was actually somewhat nice to see a game like this, where comforting beats are the only music, to send out a few of my problems and receive advice of varying usefulness, kind words, and the sympathy of shared experiences. But… I want to put out a few disclaimers.

This isn’t going to replace a support network, and you shouldn’t go in thinking that. It has some heavy requests, so people who have a lot of empathy aren’t going to be doing themselves any favours. Follow the advice of the devs, in not giving away personal deets. And the advice will vary in mileage, just as it does anywhere else. Remember folks, if you can see mental health professionals, or be prescribed medication/therapy, please do so. Okay, disclaimers over. Let’s talk about what you actually do.

Hugs are not always okay. But I have yet to meet someone who misunderstands a warm beverage offered kindly.

So, essentially, you have 14 lines in which to respond to 7 line requests. You are rewarded for offering those kind words to others, be it advice, clarification on a question they have, kind words, or sympathy, in two different ways: Stickers, and, daily, a musical track offered by your anxious mail delivery deer, who’s building a mix-tape for you to help deal with their own anxiety. That’s… Pretty nice, actually. And everything is anonymous, and there is a report button (sadly, always looking like it isn’t active. But it is, always) if something’s up (So far, the devs have been very good at moderating.)

If somebody likes your advice, they’ll send you a sticker. Anonymously. And likewise, you get to make your own requests for advice or kind words, with that aforementioned 7 line limit. Finally, you get to write more general kind words (7 line limit), and send them off in a paper plane, which then flies past other people’s rooms for them to click on if they so choose.

And, while it has been a criticism levelled at the game, that you don’t see who liked your advice, or get replies back, it’s… Honestly understandable. It’s specifically for these short little bursts of kind words, and, if we’re being honest, the anonymising of names through initials (J wrote this, T wrote that…) means that it would be hard to remember what piece of advice you offered.

Aww, bless you, little Mail Deer. And I’m glad your mixtapes are helping you, they’re legit good.

Aesthetically, the game has a few nice touches. While stickers are limited, each one adds a decoration to your small, isometric bedroom/writing room, the stars of the background are a nice use of the negative space (and I found it pleasing that they form, as you scroll up to the room, the word LOVE. Which is LOVEly.) Musically, it’s chillhop, almost ambient, relaxing beats that put you in the right frame of mood to be calm, and maybe help some folks out.

Overall, while the disclaimers I made are still very true, it has, apart from the odd request that was either silly (not in terms of a silly situation, but a non-question) or emotionally draining to me (part of the devs’ help here is a button linking mental health resources as part of the making and replying to requests UX), been a pleasant experience, and one I return to, for a short time each day (as intended), just… Sending what positive vibes and warm beverages I can. And that’s what it’s there for.

The Mad Welshman approves of more kindness in the world. Don’t fuck that up, please.

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Hot Lava (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam
Other Reviews: Early Access

When I first looked at Hot Lava, I very much enjoyed its first person platforming. I even expressed that it was one hell of a shock that I was, because, generally speaking, first person platforming puzzles are bollocks, and most people remember them unfondly. But no, I stand by that. The first person platforming is fun. I also stand by the GATS theme being bad. Sorry, Klei.

You will perhaps grow to hate this sister. But it’s not, strictly speaking, her fault.

So… Several areas now exist, each with 6 levels to complete, and, in each of them, you are, essentially, trying to get to the end by jumping on things that aren’t lava. Jumping on, or into lava is obviously bad. Falling too far is obviously bad. Being fast is good. And, to be fair, there’s a fair few ways you can go faster, each with their pros and cons.

For example, you can use Hot Lava’s variation on the bunny hop, where you leap, then both turn and strafe in a direction to pick up speed . The downsides of this are that it takes skill to pull off consistently, and it changes your route precisely because you’re going faster. Then there’s the usual thing of a tighter line (can I skip this tiny jump for this slightly bigger one that gets me where I need to go), and the final one that, so long as you know where the final checkpoint is, you can go straight there, skipping checkpoints along the way (The problem being, of course, that it’s longer between checkpoints, or maybe no checkpoints at all, so I hope you got it right!)

The fake loot boxes have, as far as I’m aware, been removed, replaced with “You get customisations for getting stars in missions”, although the collectibles are still there: Cards, both in lava world, and the normal one, and hidden GATS comics and golden pins in the levels themselves. You can even, once you’ve found the mini science-project style mountain, enter the lava world to just explore and get those cards, with no time pressure.

The Gym is, honestly, not a bad place. Especially since the pole collisions have somewhat improved. Ignore the time, I was just here for a collectible.

Still… The mention of the two in-level collectibles reminds me of one gripe about the game: a biggie. Chase the thing levels. Always last in the level order, and always painful, even in Early Access, they’re actually somewhat worse now. Before, if you got too far away, you’d lose, but you could still take routes that would catch whatever you were chasing, or even get in front of them. Now… Well, they have a pretty good route, although they all seem to be your sister, constrained by the same things you are, and catching them because you actually got in front of them? No longer counts. It’s a fail state. Not gonna lie, if I was clever enough to get to a route that actually beat said sister? I want that reward.

Without that objective, it’s basically an endurance match: No checkpoints, do it all well in one try, try and do elements of the characters route well enough that you catch them from behind. And the last one in particular, “Chase the Meaning” , can fuck right off. When I’m shaking from trying to do the same first segment twelve times, and know there’s no checkpointing, I’m not having a good time with your obstacle course.

Global Action Team: Bad Idols To Look Up To.

So… Aesthetics and narrative time… Oh, that’s right, there’s a narrative, of sorts. See, the prologue has you going to bed via… Well, playing the game of “Floor is Lava” with your sister. Except… There’s something horrible. And that something horrible scares you on the very last part of your journey… Which happens to be the balcony over the living room. The Global Action Team comics show them to be failures, misinterpreting situations, being gulled easily… Even stealing. And then… Well, suffice to say, I won’t spoil it, but you can possibly guess.

Aesthetically, apart from the aforementioned theme song, the game works well. Everything is clear, including those bits you wish weren’t, the environments are plausible and well crafted, the character models are fun, and the music shifts pretty well from the playful tones… To darker ones… To hard driving ones… To, in some cases, almost silence. And all of them thematically work with the level in question (Oh, and the music is quieter when you’re not running all willy-nilly, a sign you should maybe get moving, squirt!)

Overall, Hot Lava is good, and I would recommend it. I would, however, repeat that the “Chase the” segments can go to hell, and I don’t say such things lightly.

The Mad Welshman will, one day, get all the stars. That day, however, is a long way off. But he has a fair few.

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