Donut County (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10.29
Where To Get It: Steam

Donut County is one of those most pleasant of games for a critic: A game where, on its surface level, it’s tight, accessible, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, although I freely admit I wouldn’t have minded more.

I mean… [looks at library] He’s not… Wrong?

Just below that, however, only slightly concealed, is a fun little bit of political allegory that I can’t help but appreciate. How a donut hole, “driven” by a raccoon to cause chaos for, essentially, selfish reasons, symbolises a large part of what is wrong with capitalism. That’s the kind of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.

On its face, there’s an enjoyable game. You are a raccoon, directing a donut-hole around a map with the mouse, exploring a well styled low-poly world as you drop it all… Into the hole. Why are you doing this? Well, partly it’s to get revenge on people who annoyed your friend. Partly it’s because it’s a game, and it’s a fun thing to do in a game. But mostly, it’s because you’re almost a Level 10 employee, and when you hit Level 10? You get a cool quadcopter of your very own. That’s a good enough reason to drop large portions of a small town into a deep, hungry donut-hole that expands the more it’s fed, right?

It helps that often, filling that hole is, itself, a pleasurable and amusing activity.

Even if it didn’t go the extra mile narratively, you’ve got a fun game with a delightfully subversive message. The more you throw into the hole, the bigger it gets. You’re filling it, but the hole always gets bigger, because there’s bigger stuff out there to throw into your bigger hole. And, each level, you’re only satisifed when there’s nothing left… But the hole. And you’re told what a good job you’ve done as the person you’ve dropped down the hole is endlessly falling, and a little bar puts you ever closer to that quadcopter, the cool thing you’ve been promised if you only keep filling the hole.

But it does go that extra mile, and, inbetween every level, there’s a little segment, at the bottom of the hole, where the survivors (including the friend of main protagonist BK the Racoon) call BK out on the fact that he destroyed the entire town… To get a cool quadcopter. And, at first at least, he’s not the slightest bit guilty. He’s too busy being pissed that his supposed best friend, who he did this for, broke his quadcopter. He was only doing his job! He nominally did some good along the way! It’s totally not his fault!

There’s other things, too, later down the line, but this… This is some well crafted allegory. We like stuff! We want more stuff! But there’s only so much stuff, and a lot of it is, put bluntly, junk. But that’s okay, we’re playing a trashpanda, and what does a trashpanda like? Junk. They don’t necessarily understand it (as the Trashpedia humorously shows), it’s… It’s junk! You get junk, and getting junk is good! It’s better if it’s cool junk, sure, but it’s stuuuuufff! Some of that stuff was better off where it was, serving a useful function. Some of that stuff was distributing other stuff. But nope, hole’s gotta be filled, we have to have all the stuuuufff!

Legit creepy, sometimes, when you’re subtweeted by a literal Trash King.

I could go on, but it’s delightful, it’s clever, and it can be played in an afternoon. Then, if you feel like, you can do the completionist stuff, collect all the trash and do interesting things. And I would recommend that, because it’s fun, it’s simple, and it’s a balm in this stuff filled world we live in.

The Mad Welshman is sometimes a raccoon. He likes stuff!

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Tanglewood (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £13.99
Where To Get It: Steam

It’s an interesting world we live in, right now. A time where the oldest computer systems are starting to die, and parts to fix them have become short in supply, due to the simple fact that nobody really makes the chips any more. So when I heard about Tanglewood, a game which was developed for the Genesis (or Mega Drive, if you prefer) using the devkit, and, indeed, was also produced in cartridge form, I had to take a look.

I would, on the face of things, be perpetually angry if this was my purpose in life too.

And you know what? It isn’t bad. Emulated on its PC/Steam release, it works fairly well within its limitations, to create a somewhat minimalist puzzle platformer about a fox… Living in a supernaturally cursed forest. And this fox’s only friends are rocks… and fluffy balls called Fuzzl, who grant Nymn, the lost little fox, special abilities if rolled back to their nests.

So let’s get the bad out of the way first, because, thankfully, it’s somewhat brief. Movement has a fair amount of inertia, and not all the platforms have that extra bit of jumping room most platformer players are used to, so it’s better to jump slightly earlier than you think you’re meant to. Also, if you’re pushing something, and an enemy is coming for you, it’s quicker to let go of the controls, then jump, than let go of the push button while still moving, and trying to jump. Finally, the early Djakk (Big, quicker than you beasties with big teeth) chases can be a pain in the ass to nail due to water screwing with your jump timing. End of things I don’t like.

RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!

Otherwise, it’s tough, but fair. Eight chapters, split into relatively short segments, and each introduces its concepts quite well. Chapter two, Act three, for example, has lightning as its primary antagonistic element, and this is shown very early on with a Hogg directly showing the consequences of being out in the open (IE – Nothing above you.) Clear, quick, direct. No lives system, so while there are stakes, you’re not pressured into perfection first time, and checkpoints are, for the most part, very sensible, being at the start and end of each “puzzle.” With three buttons, each with a clear function, and a nice in-game manual available in the ESC menu, it’s also fairly accessible, and I didn’t have any trouble distinguishing between visual elements. So… That’s fairly nice!

Aesthetically, the game is somewhat minimalist, but in a pleasant way. Each chapter has a day, an evening, and a night theme to it, with some ambient noise every now and again, and small musical stings for each area. Otherwise, it’s fairly quiet, and for this, it works, because often, you’ll hear enemies and Fuzzls before you see them, and, considering death is mostly by contact, this is a good setup. It also fits the mood well, as the feel of threat is increased by the silence… Well, for anyone who’s been to a forest and understands why that’s a bad sign, anyway.

As such, the good outweighs the flaws in Tanglewood, and I feel pretty comfortable recommending it for folks who like platform puzzlers. For those interested, there’s also a brief interview with Matt Phillips, head of Big Evil Corp, on the site as well.

On the one hand, pushing drastically slows you down, be it a big or small object. On the other, most of the time, it’s pretty low pressure.

The Mad Welshman is somehow surprised he was caught off guard by the death-squirrels. He already knew they were… ogoshsocuteARGHMYFACE.

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La-Mulana 2 (Review)

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

Being an Archaeologist is, in many senses, about being observant. Clues can be as subtle as a passage in a book, the curvature of glacially moulded hillscapes, or the precise composition of a flint arrowhead, and it’s important to be able to see, to understand what you’re seeing. Being a Ninja, if we go by popular depictions or otherwise, is about being observant. Being a covert agent is all about what you perceive, about how quickly you can sense danger, and, equally, about seeing opportunity where others merely see a surly major-domo (for example.) In both cases, livelihood (and sometimes, your life) depends on being able to clearly see the clues set in front of you by circumstance.

“Do not pursue Le-Meza!” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but yes, the protag’s dad always seems to be near the most devlish traps. I’m in the *POISON LAVA* on the left. Terrible parent, I swear…

And so, funnily enough, it is with La Mulana 2, a game that does explain its puzzles… It’s just not always in the places you’d expect. This is less surprising when you consider that the only family line to have successfully explored the La Mulana ruins (and, with your control, hopefully explore the Eg-Lana ruins that seemingly coincide with them) is a family of… Archaeologist Ninjas. Lemeza and Shawn, from the last game, and, the main protagonist of this game, Lemeza’s daughter Lumisa.

So, for those just catching up, La Mulana was, and is, a love letter to the MSX (One of Microsoft’s early attempts at “A computer on every desk” , an 8-bit system that found popularity in quite a few places, but most notably Japan and Brazil), and the action adventures that could occasionally be found on the system. It’s an action platformer, but with puzzles of all stripes, some of which will kill the unwary instantly, a variety of enemies, and, of course, bosses… Some of whom will kill the unwary instantly. Save early, save often, and investigate things. Oh, except that tablet. They told you not to read that tablet for a reason, don’t do that. That’s the Hard Mode Tablet.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Or that the game didn’t.

Bosses and NPCs alike take from a variety of mythological sources, from the Aztec, Mayan, Norse, and Celto-Gaelic cycles. Ixtab, for example, is the Mayan goddess of… Well, you can probably guess. 😐

Overall, La Mulana 2 is a more focussed, somewhat improved version of its predecessor. Awkward to no air control has become “A little air control” (and jumping puzzles designed around this), the early game is less punishing (You can, with just a little prep, take on all the minibosses and boss of the first area without serious weapon upgrades), the writing’s improved a little, and the art style is about the same as the remaster of La Mulana 1 (Solid pixel art, combined with some amusing hand-drawn characters for the conversations.) It controls relatively well (although the keybinds take some getting used to, and, even as an 8-bit kid, it took me a short time to figure out that F2 is for inventory, settings, and apps, and F1 is for conversation, the area map (if you’ve found it), and the area teleport interface. Swimming is still somewhat painful, alas, but we can’t have everything.

Thing is, La Mulana 2 does exactly what it sets out to do: Be a tough, but mostly fair adventure platformer, with a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic setting where not only were all myths real, they all had a single source, a progenitor who, as it turned out, just wanted to go home… And the world ending threat she represented. So, on the one hand, this review is very much a “Does what it says on the tin”, and, considering the Kickstarter campaign was on the platform of “Back this, and I will make a game that kills your character repeatedly” (not the exact words, but close enough), and the first game worked on exactly this notion… Yes, it does what it says on the tin. But I thought I’d finish up this review by describing the core loop of gameplay, because most people who get turned off by the game get turned off by the second part of the loop, and maybe hearing it will help.

At first, everything is very simple: You’ve opened doors, you’ve got the map to the area, you’ve remembered to ensure you can teleport to the area (by scanning the holy grail you normally save with), and you’ve killed pretty much everything you can kill that stays dead, such as minibosses. Good on you… But of course, the game isn’t over, and the question then arises… Well now what?

Once you’ve figured out part of the puzzle, the rest tends to fall into place. Which, let’s face it, is a good feeling.

Well, now you need to go somewhere new, solve some new puzzle, obviously. And sometimes, it seems like there’s no way forward. One optional example here is the chain whip. It’s a useful weapon, like your whip, but does double the damage, which is just enough not to hear the dreaded “tink” of “Haha, nope, this enemy didn’t even feel that.” But getting it involves observation, and the fact that you have water (poisonous), ice water (poisonous and cold), lava (hot), and poison lava (hot poison, and no, I’m not joking. Poison lava. Just for added “Screw you.”) All I will say is that identifying which is which is very valuable in determining whether a path is suicidally impossible… Or do-able, providing you know how to deal with the swimming. This is one example of where the way forward is there… You’re just not seeing it. Drawings on tablets give you hints to what these cryptic texts are talking about. Tablets tell you about things… Walls can look different, maybe crumbly, maybe hollow.

And then you find a way forward, and it probably kills you, because of something you hadn’t seen before. Sometimes it’s a miniboss. Sometimes it’s a new enemy. Sometimes, it’s gotcha traps, which, I’ll grant you, are a turn off (although even these mostly give clues to their presence… Even if the clues, sometimes, are bait.) But you know a way forward. Due to the relatively nonlinear nature of the game, it doesn’t even have to be the same path your friend took (I got two sigils before my friend did, but had to look at his footage to see where the hell the chain-whip was, for example.)

That, in the end, is the core of La Mulana 2: Explore, probably die a lot, save often so the deaths set you back less, find clues, find cool items and mythological beings to talk to (or fight), solve those puzzles, beat those bosses, eventually save the world, hopefully have a good time doing so. Despite being horribly stuck, I’m having fun, and I hope folks who get the game (if they do after reading this) enjoy it too, because while it’s sometimes old school, it’s a lot more fair than the old-school I’m used to. Looking at you, old text adventures… BITE LIP… Who the hell thinks BITE LIP is the proper solution to a puzzle, I ask you…

Even returning characters get some impro-H GODS, ALRIGHT, I’LL BUY SOME WEIGHTS, JUST DON’T HURT ME!

The Mad Welshman will draw the curtain on this review, to save you from a rant about the bullshittery of old text adventures… For now.

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Haimrik (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £15.49
Where To Get It: Steam

Haimrik is a game with an interesting concept. What if you had the ability to take words, and use them to change the world? Not in a “Saying powerful things”, but literally picking the word Sword up, and bam… Sword. It’s a cool idea, and not having those words be entirely under your control (some words, after all, bite back, or are just hostile to you, personally) is also a neat touch.

It’s a shame then, that Haimrik feels so very constrained. Understandable… But also a shame.

I mean, to be fair, being attacked by an ice wizard on a day I was planning to write things for you wasn’t exactly expected for me either…

Protagonist Haimrik is a writer. Well, a scrivener. He writes books, in the hopes that they sell, and the only person who even reads them is his landlady (whom he has a thing for), while he’s behind on his rent, and a corrupt king supported by his Word Warriors rules tyrannically over the land. Enter The Book. Drop some blood onto it, and the narrative of the world can be changed. An artefact, and a power, that immediately gets him into trouble.

Nice concept, yeah? Unfortunately, less than an hour in, its prescriptive approach gets my goat. There are a couple of puzzles where there are multiple solutions, but a lot of the time, no, it’s just the one. And not always a terribly interesting one. Okay, yes, we plant the SEED (run to seed, hold down) in the FERTILE SOIL (Hold F, plant seed), and then we call for some RAIN (run to RAIN, hold down), and… Oh, crap, do we use FERTILISER or POISONOUS FUNGUS to grow the plant, considering the obstacle we can’t control, the SWARM OF LOCUSTS? Which, as a bonus to losing us the seed we need, will gruesomely kill us, just as we’ve gruesomely killed (and been killed by) several soldiers, some goblins, a rat, a snake, a crocodile, and an ice wizard by this point.

Ohcrapohcrapohcrap CODE VERMILLION TALON, I REPEAT, CODE VERMILLION TALON!

As you might have guessed by the description of this puzzle, and the accompanying screenshot, it’s pretty much an inventory puzzle of sorts, with nouns being the inventory in question. Occasionally, it becomes more interesting, such as the fight with Murdock the Ice Wizard, or the Dragon, which are… Well, they’re boss fights, with the twist being in the sentences they display. It’s a fairly good twist, to be honest, counterbalanced by Haimrik being… Kind of crap at fighting. Aiming is a somewhat slow affair, jumps in a couple of boss fights are tight, and, even with the fact that death leads to a scene restart, it can get frustrating quickly.

Narratively, it’s a story seen quite a bit before. Cruel king, young man raised in a rural town in obscurity, family and town gets brutalised very soon after he gains a magical ability… It’s not helped by the fact that, even toward the very end, Haimrik, as a character, is basically a punching bag, and so their Hero’s Journey seems… Flat.

But then, the game is trying to do several different things. It’s trying to be an old-school adventure game (Complete with “Ha-ha, what fool uses LEECHES without a BUCKET? Eat a death!”), a difficult platformer (Complete with deathpits), a gore comedy, and a traditional fantasy romp. But it doesn’t quite have the speed of many difficult platformers (Haimrik can best be described as “trundling”, even when his life depends on it), it doesn’t have a lot of charm behind its comedy, and part of that is because it’s also trying to go through the Serious Hero’s Journey In Fantasy checklist. Also, it doesn’t help that a lot of the comedy comes from “Ha ha, you died.”

See if you can spot which word would have saved me from YAHGD (Yet Another Horrific Gotcha Death)…

One of the few upsides is that it has a solid, consistent aesthetic, but that hasn’t stopped me from putting this game down again… And again… And again, out of frustration with the gotchas and sometimes nonsensical solutions.

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Lumines Remastered (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £9.99 (£9.49 for the Digital Deluxe DLC… Which is the soundtrack, some wallpapers, and avatars)
Where To Get It: Steam

Lumines Remastered is, on a basic level, exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the Lumines you may already have if you love the tetromino arcade puzzler, but with a higher resolution, some better menus, and some minor added features such as a versus CPU and multiplayer mode. Not a lot has changed, except that I find this version, oddly, triggers my epilepsy while the previous does not, and, as such, skins that were not colourblind friendly, remain unfriendly to those of us who have colourblindness of some description.

Although this does not look like a problem, the backgrounds are animated, and this seems to make this particular skin harder to differentiate.

So, for those of you who’ve played Lumines before, there’s your paragraph. For those who haven’t, let’s have a chat about feel and difficulty. Because the way Lumines works is quite cool, even if this remaster isn’t something I can recommend to my fellow epileptics.

Lumines, mechanically, works on three main elements. Matching squares with four tiles, of two different colours, into squares of single colours. A wipe bar, which, if you’ve matched a block while the wipe bar’s going across said block? Won’t fully count. And varying the speed of both block falling and the wipe bar to change the difficulty. Early levels are a normal speed for both, but then the block falling speeds up, and, every now and again, the wipe bar… Slows down. Which, considering this follows the usual tetropuzzle rule of “If you fill up a column and try to put a block on that column, you lose” , makes it harder, because matched squares don’t go away until the wipe bar’s fully crossed all the rows.

If you’ve got this many blocks this late, you have a problem.

Clever stuff, and a skilled player, despite being able to take it slower in certain stages, can take advantage of the slower wipe bar to build up some incredibly silly combos, and clear lots and lots of blocks. But mechanics alone doth not a game make, and Lumines also has a solid, clear aesthetic going for it. While, as I mentioned, some levels don’t differentiate the light/dark blocks terribly well, the majority thankfully do, and the music is a good mixture of catchy, dark, pumping, and relaxing. A medley of melodies, if you will. The effects of the game when blocks are cleared pleases my lizard hindbrain, and so, feelwise? It feels good.

Overall, if you already have Lumines Advanced, the only major selling points are the multiplayer/CPU mode and higher resolution graphics, but if you like tetromino puzzlers, Lumines has quite a pedigree, and hasn’t fixed what isn’t broken.

Mmmmm… Parrrrticles…

The Mad Welshman is not, despite the conspiracy theorists, actually a lizard. He’s a werewolf.

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