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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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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Mutant: Year Zero (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £29.99 (£47.99 for Deluxe Edition, £18.99 for Deluxe Content DLC if you already have the base game)
Where To Get It: Steam

A good post-apocalypse is equal parts absurd and terrifying. Myths arise from casual misinterpretations, nomenclature is taken more seriously than perhaps it should, and yet, this is because death waits around every corner, just itching for the unwary. Why, then, would you not be afraid of something called a “Boom Box” with a red button on it?

“What are ya, survival-inept? DON’T TOUCH THE RED BUTTON!”

And that, apart from maybe a tale of tactical combat gone horribly wrong, is perhaps the best introduction to Mutant: Year Zero, a tactical RPG that moves relatively seamlessly between realtime isometric exploration, and turn-based tactical combat. A game where myths of survivors, that Safe Haven, put an already established community in danger. Perhaps more than even it’s aware of.

Mutant: Year Zero is also an interesting game, because, underneath all the glitter, there’s… Not actually a huge amount, mechanically speaking. There are relatively static shops at the Ark, your homebase. The turn based tactical combat is easy to get your head round if you’ve played anything with turn-based tactical combat… Two actions a turn, shooting ends your turn (generally), special abilities have kill based cooldowns, and ensuring enemies die quickly, and in a good order is the key to victory. A lot of it is writing, and mood, and aesthetic, all of which it pulls off… Quite well.

Reality: Probably were out for Brewskis when the crap hit the fan. What we see? People who couldn’t hack it in this dangerous world.

For example, the map and loading music reminds me very much of the iconic theme to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and, for those who haven’t seen that movie, its understated bass line, simple and rhythmic, has associations. Of death, of horror, of tension and mistrust. And it mostly plays that tense theming throughout, to good effect. Similarly, the two main characters, while ridiculous if you sum them up by their base concepts (A warthog and a duck. They stalk the Zone for the good of The Ark), are grounded, played straight to good effect. They sound like they’ve lived their concepts, and that suspends disbelief enough that you care about these two irascible, but otherwise alright folks. The world has enough to make it feel alien, while the familiar is seen through both our own eyes (Awwh heck, those poor folks, dying while camping), and the funhouse mirror of how the world sees them (Not understanding it wasn’t as threatening back then, the campers are derided for camping in a now-dangerous area.)

While relatively short, the game packs tightly, and if I had one critique, it’s that the relatively small seeming improvements can give an unwarranted sense of complacency. I hadn’t even realised I was halfway to a sensible level for taking on the next leg of my main quest at one point, and, at another very soon after, cursed that I hadn’t gone back to the ark to get those seemingly unimportant single damage points. Those seemingly unimportant single damage point armours. Just one extra heal. Those single points don’t seem to matter, but, as it turns out, they’re the difference between a stealthy kill of an outlier… And an extended firefight in which everyone dies. It’s a finely tuned game, but this also means that yes, those upgrades are important, although there’s obviously a little leeway.

Scoping out the area before you go hot is a good idea. I thought I was being smart, starting with a grenade. See that little arrow to the left? That’s the medbot who screwed it all up.

Finally, there’s splitting up. Mutant: Year Zero emphasises stealth, the picking off of outliers, because you’re always outgunned in some fashion in a straight up fight, and it’s an interesting risk-reward calculation to leave someone in a better position, micromanage outside of the enemy’s view, so you can ensure the best outcome.

So, an interesting world, seen through a funhouse mirror of post-apocalypse confusion. Solid writing, good music, a good aesthetic… And doing interesting things with genre mixing and the rote formulae we know and “love.” It’s tough, but it’s also fair tough, tutorialises well, and I’ve been having an enjoyable time, in the “Tense gripping of mouse and very quiet swear words when things go wrong and I know it’s my fault” sense. Well worth a look.

The Mad Welshman would probably be a top-hatted Corgi if he was a post-apocalyptic mutant. Cliched… But also CLASSY.

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Hellsign (Early Access Review)

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

Hellsign is an interesting concept, and one that hasn’t been done in quite this way very often: A paranormal investigator, using kit a paranormal investigator would, in a world where the supernatural threats are real, are dangerous, and are rising.

It is, then, perhaps a shame that the most common sentiment I hear when I’m having trouble in the game, right from the word go, is “Dip your toes into missions you can’t do yet, to get money to get better equipment.”

There is a phrase for that. Well, there’s a couple. Sometimes, it’s called Power-Levelling. When it’s throughout a game, however, it’s generally known as “Balance Problems.”

In the glare of a UV lamp, evidence is found. It's bullet holes... In a book.
The investigation aspect is interesting, using real world tools in a mostly sensible manner. Even if a book is not perhaps the best place to put this specific clue. 😛

Hellsign is, at the present time, a game where only a few of the builds on offer are truly viable without skilled play, even from the beginning. Pistols are openly a last resort, submachine guns require good handling to be useful, and the shotguns… Well, they’re videogame shotguns, alright. High damage, effective range of…A few feet. And currently, the best combat option I’ve seen in the game.

Dark Souls style Dodge Roll? Check. Shit Flashlight, upgraded to Marginally Less Shit Flashlight? Check. Fast, erratic ground based enemies that require specifically targeting the ground to fight as your earliest encounter? Check check checkedy check.

And this is a bit of a shame, as the investigation aspect is nice. Some tools are proximity based (EM Detector and EVP Recorder), some are more for seeing things that would normally be less obvious (UV Lamp, Thermal Imager), and all work in a predictable, solid manner that’s occasionally interfered with (Brief false positives or briefly not working, for example) that adds a tiny bit of challenge while adding to the mood, and fitting the narrative. There are even signs in some cases that the clue is there (Frosted breath for thermal, or quickly turning on the UV lamp to see if the blood spatter has a trail, for example.) It should be noted that some clues are outside the haunted houses you visit, so a perimeter check is advised. Very inconsiderate of those supernatural beasties bound to a location, counting the grounds!

Two large spiders rush an investigator. He has a pistol, and the aiming reticule is smaller than they are.
These little assholes will take away half my health by the time I’ve fixed my tiny reticule on them enough times to kill them.

From the word go, however, combat, and, more specifically, ambushes,are a common feature… And this is where it starts to fall apart a bit. As noted, the earliest enemies are fast, ground based, erratic, and… Oh, before I forget, arachnophobes can nope out right now,because yes, the most common early game enemy are cat-sized spiders in small groups, along with gigantic centipedes. Said beasties have an easily recognisable pattern (Attack, retreat, attack), but their speed, ability to glide under doors (despite their size), and the small combat reticule that, for ground based enemies, requires aiming mode, makes these encounters pretty deadly until you can afford some better armour and guns. It doesn’t help that these ambushes are generally from entering a room, and can spawn in even tiny rooms.

Enemy weaknesses exist, and entries on these can be purchased, but,in essence, most encounters follow this “Ambush, attack, retreat, repeat” pattern, taking advantage of poor light to up the encounter difficulty. Add in that larger creatures become bullet spongey, and that some are essentially immune to normal damage, and a lot of the difficulty comes down to “We don’t know what a thing does when we first meet it, and we have a crap light.” Narratively fitting, in a sense, but only the first few encounters are tense, after which…Well, it’s monster closets. Add in that dodging resets reloading (And anything with serious power behind it is slow to reload), and…Combat is a common aspect of the game, but also the weakest and most frustrating.

"Mate, I'm not gonna pull your dick for money" is not exactly a great dialogue option. In fact, it's kind of shit.
Content Warning: Dickheads.

Finally, we have… EDGY CHARACTER WRITING. Dialogue choices that make the main character seem like a homophobic prude. The main tutorial teacher liberally throwing the C-word around, bragging about having sex with twins, and generally being a loud shitheel. And, even in the intro, it turns out Hell wants to make you its bitch.

Hellsign is an interesting concept. But it has a long way to go before it becomes a workable interesting concept.

The Mad Welshman idly wonders why horror gets so obsessed with EDGE.

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Simmiland (Review)

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

If there’s one thing that God games have taught me, it’s that being a God is hard. So much to manage, so little time, so many plates, just spinning in line… But, more recently, God games like Crest, Reus,and now Simmiland, have brought me to the conclusion that while being a God is hard, it’s not helped by humans. Demanding, contrarian, and often hard to teach humans.

(Citation Needed)

It also doesn’t help when the Manual for Good Godding gets mislaid.

Simmiland is, in essence, a real-time, puzzle God-game. You have cards, most of which have different effects on different biomes of the randomly generated world, and placing cards (Starting with your humans) takes Belief. From there, it’s working out what, placed where, gets the results you want. For example, minerals on grass gives you bog standard rock, useful for setting up. But placing rock in the ocean gets you coral, which, after you’ve researched medicine, needs to be Inspected for better medicine.

I’m not quite sure yet what Plague teaches my little Simmians, but it sure is cathartic when I get frustrated.

Sometimes, nuking something from orbit is the only way to be sure. And yes, there is a reason for this. A confusing reason… But a reason.

Nonetheless, the clock is ticking, and the clock is the size of your deck. So, at first, The End is guaranteed, you harvest belief based on what you managed to achieve, buy more God Cards at the God Shop, look at your compendium…

…And start all over. Aesthetically, the game is simple, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into being accessible. Cards in certain spots in your hand, for example, become a little difficult to select, be that for playing them, or selling them for belief in the tighter moments. The Compendium is the main source of remembering what a card does, and… You can’t see that from in-game. Two windows (Camp, and Wishes) are recommended to be open a fair bit of the time (Wishes all of the time, in fact, as they give you belief), but they clutter up the view. So part of the difficulty comes from struggling to remember what does what on your eventual, ideal path. Achievements at the end do help somewhat with this, giving you goals to shoot towards, but part of the “fun” is in finding out how the heck to get to these rewards.

Thing is, I can’t deny it isn’t interesting, for the same reason I found Reus interesting. Bashing things together to see what does what, building up a picture of the path I want, then aiming for it. But I also can’t deny it can’t be a frustrating experience. Human demands are sometimes very specific, and sometimes include things you just don’t know how to do yet. Heck, sometimes, it includes things that are a little irritating to do, like tropical biomes (Three suns, followed by a rain, presumably in a grass biome),or avoiding locking yourself into some dead ends. Individual games are short (Around 10 to fifteen minutes at most), but getting those achievements, those endings, that progress… That takes time.

Why… Why would you even wish for that? WHY?!?

A cool experiment in doing God Games a little differently, with elements that frustrate, and others that somewhat confuse (Why, precisely, does having a church limit your Simmians IQ to 120?)…Worth checking out, considering its price, but some unintuitive elements do bring it down somewhat.

The Mad Welshman reminds all those who haven’t discovered the secret of fire to Bang The Rocks Together, Folks!

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