Heartbeat (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £11.39 (£14.92 for game + soundtrack, £5.19 for soundtrack)
Where To Get It: Steam

Heaaaart beat.. Why do I miss… Oh, wait, no, this is not, in fact, the TV show starring Nick Berry, but an RPG Maker game inspired by monster capturing games (Although to pick just one it’s inspired by would perhaps be a disservice.) A game that, while definitely interesting, is… Not without flaw right now. So… Let’s get this out the way right now.

BOULDERS. WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE BOULDERS?

If you are not fond of puzzle elements, especially, for example, block pushing puzzles, Heartbeat will probably turn you off within the first hour. It’s stylistically very fitting to its inspirations, it tries to do interesting things with its narrative of a world that lives with spirits (Mogwai.) It has a good soundtrack. Its combat is relatively quick and pleasant, and, while this isn’t something that would interest folks other than gamedev enthusiasts, I appreciate how the RPGMaker MV engine has been tweaked to good effect. It’s even pretty accessible.

But I freely admit I’ve found myself struggling to get very far, because of that combination of my own desire for completionism (CHESTS CHESTS CHESTS), and because the game frontloads about nine or ten block pushing/ball rolling puzzles in its first major segment, the Sol Tunnels. And, honestly, this is a bit of a shame for me, both in the sense of being a little ashamed, and feeling sad that this is so, because some of the puzzle elements are, in fact, quite cool.

Ahahaha. Oh, you sweet summer child…

With a tap of the Q key, you can select which party member leads, and each one has something that helps explore the world. Rex, for example, is a lightning cat Mogwai who can jump small gaps and fences. Klein, the protagonist’s primary companion as a Conjurer (Someone who makes pacts to share their souls with Mogwai, as diplomats and defenders of the uneasy truce), is small enough that he can fit through catflaps, and, being a Cait Sith, can talk to cats. The dialogue is a little cheesy in places, but it’s characters definitely have their charm, and it hits that right note between SatAm Pokemon, and a more serious monster training world.

Rex… So good, but they really need to stop rubbing their fur all over my nylon carpet…

Sometimes, alas, while you can see the charm about a game, something turns you off, and, in my case, it’s the front-loading of a puzzle type I have never been fond of. I would still say that monster hunting and JRPG fans check this out, because it does do interesting things, playing with the formula, but… It is, unfortunately, not really for me.

It happens sometimes. Still, I can appreciate the art. <3

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Project Warlock (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £10
Where To Get It: Steam

Project Warlock, a retro styled first person shooter, is a game where my biggest criticism, after consideration, is its first level. Beyond that, it gets more reasonable, but its first level… Well, we’ll get to that.

Enemies vary from episode to episode. Which is also a nice touch…

In the retro stylings corner, we have pixellated enemies, deliberately low-resolution wall textures, and an in-game UI that wouldn’t look out of place in an early Doom clone, and difficulty settings where only the “Casual” equivalent has infinite lives. On the modern end, we’ve got a menu that looks decent-ish (if busy), some good painted art on the loading screens and title, mouselook, RPG styled between-level mechanics, and interesting weapon quirks. For example, the axe can, if you GIT GUD (or lucky) bat projectiles back at an enemy.

Equally, though, the retro stylings also mean that there are monster closets and enemy spawns in cleared areas at fixed points, and it’s around here where we talk about how the first level gives you such a taste of what you’re in for that it’s actually kind of off putting.

Ohhh yes. There’s also this ambush. I’d forgotten about that ambush, in among the others.

Starts fine, but in very short order, you’re dropped into a pit into a small room filled with enemies. Then you get a key, only to be ambushed by several enemies. Then a weapon, where you’re ambushed again, then a lift, where you’re frontally ambushed in a tight corridor by two big fellers who have large tower shields (requiring good aim, good “getting past enemies who really want to hem you in and smack you with aforementioned shields” skills, or… ???) and their ranged support. Funnily enough, later levels actually ease off on this, although some retro game annoyances do occur from time to time (Such as picking up dynamite from a random drop immediately before being ambushed in a corridor. Hope you noticed you just picked up the dynamite, or you are very, very dead.)

A large difficulty spike in the first actual level is, perhaps, not the best of difficulty spikes to have. But, as noted, once past that first level, the power curve very rapidly catches up, especially if you’re getting the secrets, which tend to come in two varieties: Walls that look different and can be opened, and walls that don’t necessarily look that different until you shoot them, at which point they’re revealed to be walls that take a fair bit of shooting to open up. Each weapon has two possible upgrades, stats get upgraded, skills get upgraded… And there are spells. But, of course, unless you’re doing particularly well, you don’t get to play with all of those, and the first, the Light spell… Is very similar to the original Doom 3 flashlight, in that you can’t use it and a weapon. So, er… Good luck in dark, confined areas?

Honestly, this screenshot felt the most emblematic of the issues I have with Project Warlock.

Finally, we have the fact that you have to get through a certain number of levels in a row before clearing a “stage.” This seems to be, at worst, 4 levels in a row. Die, you lose a life. Leave to the workshop before you’re done, lose a life. As noted, only on the lowest difficulty setting do you have infinite lives. In medium difficulty, you have three, with pickups very sparsely scattered around. At the highest difficulty… Well, I hope you’re good at Doom style games.

It is not, overall, a terrible game. I’ve had some enjoyment out of it, now that I’ve gotten over some of its biggest hurdles. But that was on the lowest difficulty, with the full awareness that I’d have eaten about twelve game overs, four of them in the first level of the first episode, and I have to conclude that this game is too much in love with its difficulty-as-feature. Its modern additions don’t really feel all that much of a boon, and, as such, I can’t, personally, really recommend Project Warlock to many folks.

The Mad Welshman is no stranger to Monster Closets, but, unlike shooter-protagonists, he likes them firmly closed.

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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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Mad Crown (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £6.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Mad Crown is an interesting roguelike, coming with its own art style and quirks. It’s also a game where having a friend who’s playing the game too can really come in handy, as once you lose your items (due to Total Party Kill), your options are “Share a code and hope someone picks your stuff up” or “Share a code with a friend who’ll pick your stuff up.”

“BOW BEFORE YOUR NEW MASTER. Also give me all your stuff and run back to your camp yelling how great I am. Long live Lamda Omicron Lambda!”

There’s also the third one of “Ask Seggie to pick your stuff up”, but that rapidly goes into silly money territory. My Chapter 3 team, for example, lost their stuff, and that option now costs 3800 gold for them.

The story of Mad Crown is fairly traditional stuff in the modern day. Long ago, there was a crown, created by God, to grant wisdom. Now it’s vanished, and tentacley horrors with about as many eyes as they have teeth abound. Go get that Crown, it totally won’t have been cursed, and definitely won’t be the source of said horrors! But, honestly, it’s not the writing that really grabs me. It’s how it does its difficulty, and its aesthetics, that really work for me. Let’s start with the difficulty.

Essentially, as you progress through the dungeon, you accumulate Fel, a nasty, toxic goop that serves as a danger level. Let it get too high, and traps become more common, monsters get nastier, and you’ll, more often than not, be facing overlevelled opponents. It can be reduced, but you’re essentially balancing speeding through the dungeon (And not quite getting enough levelups or kit for the boss), and going carefully (More items, more levels, but you risk being underequipped.)

Some of the item descriptions, themselves, are quite good. Yes, throw that money, bask in that money, moneyyyyyeaah!

Now add in that, if monsters kill each other (A thing that can happen) … They level up. Significantly. It’s somewhat of a shock to suddenly see a level 7 creature triple its levels, and become your own personal nightmare. Sprinkle in some enemies immune to physical damage later on (The Gellyfish), monsters that steal your gold and run away, a lot of creatures having multiple attacks and status inflictions (Including Confusion), and you have something where thinking tactically is a baseline, and, by the halfway point of the storyline, becomes what is technically known as “Bastard hard.”

Is that a bad thing? It’s a tough call, because, as mentioned, your mileage on this will depend on if you have a friend or two who plays along, and can have your back, rescuing your stuff. If not, it becomes annoying as hell by the “halfway through the main plot” point (Let alone the later dungeons which add things that need to be identified.)

Still, its aesthetic adds just enough to keep it in the Recommended category, as it’s a somewhat unique one. Monsters look somewhat cartoonish, as do the characters, but it’s a style not seen elsewhere, and the music is calm when it needs to be, and hard, driven guitar when fights start. The cutscenes have a cool ink look to them, and, while there’s still a little jankiness in the translation, the Mandarin narration is interesting.

The Gellyfish. He’s an annoying little squib, especially if he’s on the front row. Smack him with guns and magic.

Overall, while Mad Crown’s mileage definitely depends on whether you’ve got a friend to play with you (or how much you like grinding through the midgame, ala Etrian Odyssey or other Nintendo-Hard RPGs), I quite like it. It does interesting things with its difficulty, it makes the threat of the monsters more than just their attack values, and this, combined with a cool aesthetic, make it a relatively solid game. Just… One that doesn’t pretend it isn’t hard.

The Mad Welshman appreciates a good experiment. Whether it fails or not, it adds a little to the phasespace of “What if?” developers can think about. I like that.

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Holy Potatoes! A Spy Story?!

Source: Review Copy
Price: £12.99 (Soundtrack £1.99)
Where To Get It: Steam

It’s that time of year, when potato puns mix with moderately interesting, casual takes on different games. It’s time for more… Holy Potatoes!

And this time, it’s a little hectic, despite being pretty accessible. Because you’re a spy agency, and the clock is ticking. Even worse, your Jeet-kun-do is no use against… This cute puppy, AHAHAHAHAAAA!

Noted pupper-lover, er… Catlady plans to stealth and charm her way through her mission.

Anyway, yes… Holy Potatoes! A Spy Story?! (Let’s just call it Potato Spy Story, shall we?) is a mashup of RPGs, management sims, and spy fiction, that has you play… Potato spies, in a world of anthropomorphic potatoes, having to balance limited resources while avoiding plot missions for as long as is humanly possible… Mainly because, once a mission has been “accepted”, either by taking a contract, or because the story demands, you have a limited time to successfully finish a mission. And no, that timer doesn’t stop running because you started the mission, nor does it care if you suddenly realise you have a hole in your coverage of the four stats (Fighting, Thinking, Stealthing, Charming.) Better plug that hole as quickly as you can, whether through gadgets, fashion, and, a little later, vehicles!

Whiiiich leads to the other balancing act you have to do, that of having limited space in your HQ for buildings, and needing paths to said buildings. Oh, and maybe some nice decorations that make spies better able to work. That can help too.

Me am good at optimisation. Me am good at spying. Me am also Bizarro, trust everything I don’t say!

Aesthetically, it’s got that clean, simple style that has been a hallmark of the series, and, with the exception of some building placements, it’s clear enough that you understand quickly what’s going on. Sound isn’t great, more servicable than anything else, and the writing is… Well, it’s puns. It’s a formula. It’s not going to win any writing awards (Until the industry admits it needs a “Most puns/legally distinct references in a single game” , for which, let’s face it, there are many contenders.)

While it’s not super fast, and has that all blessed pause button and adjustable time, it is a little frustrating that, rather than accepting plot jobs, they’re just… Given to you in spurts, with the main break being that “build something” main quests are not timed. Run out of time, game over, and, even with the generous timing, it does become a little tight if you’re not playing in a faaaairly optimised fashion. Add in special spies, which are their own “One time only” fun, and you’ve got something that toes the line between challenging (fun) and frustrating (not so fun.)

The difficulty curve is still relatively fair though, as, without distractions, I had to *work* to confirm game-overs from this particular mission.

Still, for all that I’m the kind of berk who doesn’t end up playing with any kind of optimisation in mind, I don’t mind Potato Spy Story. It isn’t going to rock socks, and the enjoyability of its puns depend on how dadly you’re feeling on a particular day, but it’s a relatively solid, easy to understand management game with only a few quibbles and flaws to its name. And that ain’t bad.

The Mad Welshman loves a good potato. Alas, he wouldn’t fit in with this world, considering he likes them best sliced, buttered, and baked.

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