Desolate (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99 (£22.30 for game and soundtrack, £4.79 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It:
Steam

It’s always dangerous on the Island, and it’s important to know when to creep, when to crawl, when to duck, when to jump. People have nice words for all the things that happen on the Island, pretty words like “Gravitic anomaly”, “Anomalous Localised Weather Phenomenon”, and a whole bunch of others, most of which translate to “Watch out for this, it can kill the unwary.” The traders are Uncles and Aunts, familial names for the vultures who claim to watch out for you while taking the lion’s share of your spoils, and eager scientists want to add to their store of pretty words… But not at their own risk. No, that’s for the Volunteers.

If there’s anything Victor Ognin’s gonna pay for, it’s this. Damn him.

If this is all sounding a bit like the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, then you’ve correctly noticed this is a heavy inspiration for Desolate. Although STALKER would be a closer comparison, considering that the disaster on this island, the strangeness… Is at least partly the fault of scientists being over-eager about Things Man Was Not Meant To Wot. Specifically a man called Victor Ognin. So, a scientist to hunt, strange abominations, bandits and madmen, anomalies… All the while worrying about the strange effects of the Island, keeping yourself alive.

It’s such a shame then, that it feels more hollow than its inspirations. There have been moments, it’s true: A camp, surrounded by Zapper anomalies (electrical anomalies, that, like most anomalies except the “Black Hole”, hurt, but, like all anomalies, can mostly be seen just fine, especially during the day) made for a tense few moments (Although throwing rocks wasn’t really needed), and some of the enemies (From the not-dog Dorg to the whatever-the-hell-vaguely-quadruped Sapsy) are visually and aurally well designed (Others, such as the Wanogah, just made me sigh gustily. Really? Naked vomitting teleporting zombie lady with an oxygen reducing cloud of flies? Bit cliché, wot?) Sometimes they fight among themselves, which is interesting, although sometimes comical (A Dorg, for example, failing to catch a fleeing Gorlan (Some kind of prey/food animal that got changed by whatever the Event is of this world)

He’s permanently angry. Although, to be fair, nearly everyone seems to be.

But this is a Zone that, moments aside, doesn’t really feel that alive. Nor does it feel that desolate, as you can’t go twenty or thirty feet without running into a Dorg or some other beast, immediately crouch or run away, and… Well, back to scavenging. But, for all the subtle worldbuilding (Here be a bunch of zealots holed up in a church. Here be the Basecamp of Uncle Misha, from where you’ll be spending a lot of your time foraging and questing. Here be the spooky ghost who may have a big role in the plot, but mostly pops up to give you jumpscares), it’s lacking… Something. Maybe it’s that the enemies have very predictable AI, or are relatively easy to hide from (or run from) in the early game. Maybe it’s that there’s not a whole lot of conversation going on, beyond plot requests and the occasional bit of dialogue (most trading, for example, is simply “Hit E. Start trading.”) But quests don’t seem to have that same spice, being mostly of the “find X things to fix Y thing” or “Go to X potentially interesting place to kill Y thing” variety.

I will indeed find the dome once the moon co- oh, no moon? Well, when morning comes.

When night comes, it’s black as pitch, and, while your flashlight never runs out of battery (Oh, thank the heavens for this!), it nonetheless… Ends up detracting from what is actually some interesting scenery. The radar domes, the inexplicable pod of beached whales, and other such sights just kinda vanish (Not literally, I mean they’re so much harder to see and appreciate), without, due to the aforementioned “Relatively easy to hide/run from” thing, upping the tension significantly. The game, meanwhile, runs on a single save system with options for “Open” play (Haven’t tried it, not a social Volunteer, thanks) or solo, and death… Well, death is mostly an annoyance, because it means you have ten minutes to reach all that equipment you gathered (Be it in a dangerous area or no), or… Well, it’s back to trying to regain some semblance of the equipment you lost, perhaps a bigger frustration.

Maybe it’s something that will grow on me. Maybe, somewhere over the next hill, I won’t feel like trudging halfway across the island to kill another hellbeast or investigate an anomaly for masters ignorant (deliberately or otherwise) of the danger is more than “Just another day.” Maybe that’s the point, and I’m missing it. But DESOLATE, unfortunately, doesn’t scratch my itch. Next time, Stalker, next time!

The Mad Welshman doesn’t have a lot to say here. The Island kinda speaks for itself, one way or the other.

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Thea 2: The Shattering (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Survival 4X. Not words you generally hear, those. And a big part of that is that a 4X, itself, isn’t easy to balance. Adding survival elements, narrative elements, and quest elements can make that process more painful.

Such, so far, is the case with Thea 2: The Shattering. A sequel to Thea 1, which had similar mechanics and themes, Thea 2 is a 4X where your small group must survive, grow, and survive as long as possible, hopefully to find some solution to the Shattering, the death of the world.

Yeah, about that… Good luck with it. See, there are two mandatory types of resource for survival, and if you do not have those anywhere within range, your options are fatally limited.

The upside is that this is potentially a pretty good site. The downside , however, is that one of my four team-members is already dead, and morale is so terrible some of the others won’t help. WELP.

You start with some food, and surviving for enough turns on Normal difficulty will earn you God Points, which can be used to get extra benefits on start, but even with those… Currently, surviving even the early game is a painful, frustrating slog. Sometimes, it’s because you can’t find a good camp-site anywhere nearby, and have to subsist, while the world and its inhabitants do their best to wear you down through random events (often hostile), wandering monsters and lairs (most hostile at night), and events that you want to complete for better resources, but not winning those events will likely lead to the death of group members, which, considering how few events give you group members (even fewer if you are all of one gender, as sometimes happens), is a lingering death sentence all of its own.

Find somewhere to camp, and, on the one hand, you now have somewhere to stay, that can support you within its (limited) range as you scavenge and adventure. The downside being that you still have the hostile events, beasts, limited replenishment, and whatnot, with not being able to take everybody adventuring, and… Well, should you lose adventurers out of range, well, that’s a different kind of slow, lingering death.

Both of these tasks are difficult. And even “Choose not to participate” may have results. Choose very carefully (and make sure you know your stats and abilities early on, otherwise you probably won’t choose wisely.)

There’s a lot of slow, lingering death here, is basically what I’m getting at. And part of this feels like conflicting directions of play, neither of which, at the present stage, feel balanced or complete. Quests demand that you wander, as does diplomacy with the other factions present, but once you settle down, your ability to complete those quests safely drastically goes down, even as you have achieved relative safety for your camp. At the same time, proper crafting and gathering, cooking, researching and rituals all demand a campsite, but that diminishes your ability to further the storyline. The game wants to deal with a small group, that much is clear. But it also wants you to roam free, which is only do-able after a lot of safety ensuring at the campsite to start with.

In essence, each play direction (both necessary for completion) brings down the other. And the frustrating part is that I’m sure there could be a balance between the two that changes it from what it currently is (Slow, frustrating, and often involving slow deaths where it’s much easier to cash in what few God Points you have, if any, before the game finishes its slow descent into “Everyone has died.”) to something genuinely interesting.

Tooltips are very helpful here, but the main thing you need to know here is that everyone except the house demon is dead, Dave. Everyone.

And, make no mistake, there are hints of something interesting here. There’s an interesting, Russian myth inspired fantasy world. There’s some solid hand-painted visuals, and, aside from the camp screen being a little cluttered and hard to decipher at first, it tooltips well. Its controls still have some issues (Mostly movement/selection frustrations, and the practice of making a second group a little more tedious than it needs to be), and, being an early access title, there’s been some particularly odd bugs (such as scavengers vanishing from trying to harvest a resource that simultaneously exists on the map, but presumably doesn’t in the code somewhere), but it shows promise. The problem being that the promise is currently obscured by imbalanced play goals, “Normal” difficulty still being a pretty harsh early game (Once the early game is passed, it gets somewhat easier), and nothing that prevents or even ameliorates a death spiral that I can see.

As such, Thea 2 is currently a game I want to like. But it’s not really letting me.

The Mad Welshman doesn’t really have much to add, unfortunately. It’s interesting, but distinctly unfriendly right now.

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God Eater 3 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £46.49
Where To Get It: Steam

The God Eater series has always been an interesting one, even if aspects of that interest are more akin to watching a trainwreck than anything else (HI ROMEO, YOU SKEEVY ASS.) A series in the relatively small genre that is Monster Hunting (Wandering through limited arenas, hunting monsters, collecting items, and crafting better weapons so you don’t get stomped by the latest monster), God Eater has also been known for dramatically pulling the rug out from under its characters time and time again.

Combat is bombastic, chaotic, sometimes hard to parse, and finicky at times… But hot-damn, do I love a lot of it.

So… It’s actually been a pleasant relief to see the first three acts have mostly been an upward arc, narratively, from child-soldiers imprisoned and experimented on, to valuable members of a crew. I know there’s a rug pull incoming, but it wasn’t the one I was expecting, and I’m glad of that.

Okay, so, a little narrative backgrounder: God Eater is a monster hunting game where, essentially, Mother Earth has gotten so tired of Humanity’s shit, she decided to try and evolve them out of existence with the Aragami, horrific monsters that were, at least in the first game, originally human, but changed into various monsters. Humanity, somehow, has survived through at least two apocalyptic events (At least partly self inflicted), but things are grimmer than ever, with Fenrir (the organisation of the previous two games) mostly destroyed, and Gleipnir (No, not Sleipnir, totally not going with a Ragnarok themed naming, why would you think that?) being the “big” organisation this time. You can tell things are bad, because not only are the Aragami going Gray Goo on everything (the Ash Storms, and, theoretically… the totally-not-going-to-happen Ash Tempest), they’ve evolved again. Cue our protagonist, and their friends.

That’s me in the mid-ground. You may be wondering how I got here…

While I have not been able to get as far as I would like in God Eater 3 (The pressures of reviewing, sadly, wait for nobody it seems), I already have a pretty good idea of how the game has improved, how it’s added things, and how its writing seems to be on upward progression from the last outings. Some things remain, annoyingly, a bit of a problem, such as subtitles not properly distinguishing themselves from the background, the fact that, as a Monster Hunter type game, there are a lot of buttons and button combos, so a controller is heavily recommended (both controller and keyboard/mouse can be redefined, but, as mentioned, a lot of buttons), and step attacks, especially the new Burst Art step attacks, remain a pain in the arse to land properly (Locking on doesn’t help that much.) Mook missions remain mook missions, you will end up grinding earlier missions for upgrade materials and money (especially if you want to experience all the weaponry), and some enemy types remain more annoying than others. Specifically shielders, flyers, and ranged-focused enemies (Of which there is at least one who represents all three in Rank 3.)

Yes, this review is pretty long for me, and a big part of that is that there is a lot that has changed, been added, or improved. For example, I mentioned Burst Arts, and now there are not only Burst Arts (Requiring you to fit the Devour move into your combos to use, although Devouring your enemies remains a vital core function you won’t risk forgetting), but Engage mode (Essentially, linked abilities that trigger when two characters fill up their attack meters, such as sharing item usage or improving attack), and Acceleration Triggers, which, like Burst Arts and Engage mode, buff aspects of your fighting style, although some feel more useful than others. Wait, I need to Engage five times to… Improve the speed of that devour move I don’t really use, because quick devour is right there? HRM. The two new weapons, similarly, are new, and the Heavy Moon, a sort of Chakram/Heavy Axe combo, is definitively my favourite, threatening to depose my love of the lance and its pokey, chargey stylings.

From my stream save, the Heavy Moon, in all its implausible, yet chunky and exciting glory.

Visually, the game is an improvement on previous titles, without busting your GPU. Enemies glow, give good visual tells (for the most part), feel like believable creatures… Well, as believable as murder-monsters based on a hive-mind of single-celled hate amoeba can be, anyway. Characters remain relatively simply rendered, although the clarity does help when combat, and its heavy particle chaos ensues, and, despite seeming like a really unfriendly game, it tutorialises moderately well. Not really well, just moderately well, but it teaches most of its base concepts, even if it stumbles a bit by leaving weapon specific training to practice modes and database entries on their unique moves. The voice acting’s solid, the writing seems, as noted, to be on an upward arc from the last outing’s skeevelord inclusions (Although I may well have to write a going back or something once done, because, as noted, God Eater is well known for its dramatic rug pulling), and, overall, God Eater 3 seems to show quite the improvement, remaining a solid entry in the relatively small genre that is “Hunt monsters for kit and profit.”

jThe Mad Welshman always enjoys getting the drop on things that want to destroy Humanity. After all, that’s his job…

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Uagi-Saba (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Uagi-Saba is one of those games I really want to like. An interesting, if bleak world, technically doomed. Music and aesthetics that match its dim dankness quite well. A relatively simple upgrade tree.

“You are 20 degrees short of the necessary heat to safely raise a Mystic and falling…”

One of its biggest problems, however, is that “doomed” part. See, a procgen world, made of discrete blocks with resources where you have to carefully balance whether you want the resources within, or a room with important functions, is, on paper, a great idea. But it’s something where you have to have some reassurance that the player will spawn vital things at appropriate times, or its a long, slow death that doesn’t entertain.

The visual style is simple, but arresting. Well, of the world, and its Inhabitants.

For me, this problem comes in the form of heat. More specifically, the fuel I need to get that heart up to levels where I can actually progress. It’s not the only time I’ve come across resource scarcity leading to a Dead Man Walking scenario, but it’s certainly the most egregious, as opening rooms lowers the temperature… But to find fuel sources (Smog vents), you have to… Open rooms. And heat is vital for both the third stage of the game (Raising a Mystic, one of the leaders of the community), and for staying in that second stage (Keeping Inhabitants, who require a lower, but still higher than ambient temperature to stay comfortable.)

This, to be honest, is a basic flaw. Add in that, while the visual style and workmanlike HUD are fairly good accessibility wise, the HUD’s size makes things busy, the tooltips do not stay around long enough to remain useful, and windowed mode is a fixed size… Make for added flaws. It’s a game that goes at a relaxed pace, but, unfortunately, that also makes a death spiral such as this that much more tortuous.

Typo aside, I actually quite like this introduction.

As such, as much as I want to like Uagi-Saba, I really can’t recommend it. Great on paper… But sadly, the implementation just doesn’t stick.

The Mad Welshman sighed, and shivered a little. It’s cold, out there…

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Vilmonic (Review)

Source: Supporter Gift
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Vilmonic is, at heart, a sandbox. If you had, perhaps, let your sandbox get wet, in a marsh, and then let millennia pass it by, with the ruins of civilisation just barely holding onto coherency, and strange, fungal creatures giving way to strange, fungal animatroids.

Welcome to Vilmonic, I hope you like fungus!

Looking at an animatroid gives you hints as to what it’s going to do… If you know how to parse them.

Okay, that’s simplifying things a heckuva lot, but the basic premise, while simple, hides a lot of complexity, and a lot of fellow nerds nerding out over that (mostly unseen) backstage fun. You are a being that is trying to kickstart new life. You’re the only one who seems to want to do this, as the rest of your compatriots are corrupted, shambling versions of themselves, that want to spread their infection as far and wide as possible.

However, your fungal friends are not nearly so united, and so what plays out is, essentially, a Game of Life. Some fungaloids are aggressive, attacking all comers (including you.)

The Drone is never a good sign. It means your “Friends” are looking for you. Luckily for me, everything nearby is aggressive. And I have the power of WALLS.

And it all plays out with a minimalist, pixel art UI, both a blessing, and a curse. On the one hand, there’s not much to distract you, except the passage of time, and lots of things are clear. On the other, that minimalism hides complexity. I had, in my own world, a relatively easy time by leaving things mostly alone, and get to enjoy wandering around, looking at the various species that have cropped up on my world, but, behind this, there are sensory priorities, urges, genetics, and all sorts of odd stuff going on that, if you didn’t have an easy time of things at the beginning, or you have a goal you want to work towards (Say, carnivorous desert dwelling animatroids), it’s going to take wiki-play to understand how to get there, because even the information needs information the game doesn’t straight up give you to understand.

Vilmonic is interesting. It’s a game that does cool things. And if you like a game where your goals are mostly self imposed, where you can wander through the herds of beings you’ve created (or, just as likely, observe from a safe distance), maybe try and play God and find it’s not as easy as all that, then Vilmonic is worth a look.

Genes, urges, diet… It’s pretty comprehensive!

Cymrus Villainous is a carnivorous animatroid. It is highly aggressive.

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