Iratus: Lord of the Dead (Early Access Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £18.99 (£25.25 for Supporter Edition, £7.59 for upgrade to Supporter Edition)
Where to Get It: Steam

Iratus: Lord of the Dead has, very often, been described to me as “Darkest Dungeon, but you’re the villain.” This isn’t, on the face of it, a wholly inaccurate statement. But it is, in many respects, its own, shambling beast. In a good way.

So, as you might expect from the title, you are a necromancer. One who almost managed to conquer the world, until those pesky heroes shot you down. For a long time, you were locked in a casket (Normally a prelude to insanity, but, let’s face it, that’s Tuesday to a necromancer), but now you’re free, and… Have to escape a four level dungeon complex that was built over your tomb.

Good thing you can create undead, huh?

Things rapidly begin going south. We lost our Zombie. Along with his BIG CANNON.

So, combat wise, yes, the game is quite similar to Darkest Dungeon. You have four slots, they have four slots (not always filled), and you have class abilities based on what undead you are. Where it begins to differ, however, is that units have three potential base damage types instead of two. Beyond the “Magic” and “Physical”, you have… “Dread.” And this is where the comparison mainly comes in, as some units specialise in causing sanity damage to enemies, who, after a certain point, will either have some form of insanity (although sometimes, that is a benefit in disguise), or are inspired (get a buff, regain all their sanity, very annoying.) Mixing and matching the two for maximum synergy is highly encouraged, especially as… Not everything has sanity. Lookin’ at you, Golem that wrecked my Dread based party the first run through.

My lord, we can’t scare it… WE CAN’T SCARE IT!

Beyond this, there are only a few similarities. Buildings exist, including the healing building, for sure, but they cost minions as well as resources. Your minions aren’t hired, they’re constructed, from parts of your enemies, or bits you dug up. You can make better parts, spec into spellcasting (I haven’t done this, having too much fun with brains, alchemy, and DREAD), refocus your minions using two choices of ability change per ability, and the dungeon itself is procgenned, sure, but it’s a map where you know roughly what’s ahead, ahead of time (Although enemy composition was, until the most recent updates, a mystery.)

So, in short, it’s got a lot of depth, and the game even has little things to help you recover from losses (brains, for example, automatically level up an undead to the same level as the brain, allowing you to quickly get units of comparable strength to the ones you lost onto the field), and I don’t really have any complaints mechanically. Similarly, aesthetically, the game is pretty clear, the music is suitably ominous and villainous, the soundwork is fine, and Iratus… Well, Iratus’ snark game is on point. Okay, maybe one gripe: Every female minion is of the big-breasted, eerily attractive variety. But mileage varies on that gripe, for obvious reasons.

“For a given value of smiled…”

So, what we have here, essentially, is a pretty polished turn-based strategy/roleplaying hybrid, which I quite like, and seems to be well on track to being a fine release.

The Mad Welshman always appreciates villainous snark. It expands his own repertoire, for the next heroic break in of his lair. So much tidying up afterwards…

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Deck of Ashes (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39 (£5.19 each for OST and Print-Ready Posters)
Where To Get It: Steam

At first, I was honestly a little unconvinced by Deck of Ashes. Grimdark world, of grimness and darkness and fire? Hrm. Relatively small deck you have to build up, and if you run out of cards, you lose health to regain some? Hrrrrrm. A limited amount of time in each area before you have to fight the boss? Hrrrrm? Health and cards burned stick with you, and you can only regain a limited amount of them, balancing cards regained versus healing? Aaargh.

Oh dear, out of cards. Time to… Take the pact. Again. The early game is the roughest part.

But then I gave it a serious chance after some unfortunate runs early on, and… While it looks intimidating, only the boss or elite fights take a fair chunk of time, and it’s not nearly as bad as how it seems at first glance (Although yes, the difficulty does ramp up fairly quickly areawise, as you’d somewhat expect from these procgen card fighting titles.) And some of its ideas really play into its idea of a world fighting against you, and that the bosses are powerful, corrupted entities that, given a choice, you’d probably run from.

For example, bosses can, in the later stages of each area, just… Blow up an area, and if it’s somewhere you wanted to go, well… Sorry. The resting is also more reasonable than it sounds, as quick fights rarely req uire more than 5 cards, which leaves you with 20 percent health to recover. Harder fights, obviously, require more than that, and it’s that grind that leaves you worried, but health cards have been pretty good, and a per-turn limit of cards, obviously, helps a little too. Although it would be nice to fry an enemy in a single turn, it honestly works better this way.

I should mention, at this point, that some of the enemies like succubi are nude in some fashion. Just so’s you know.

Aesthetically, well… It’s grim, but not necessarily all that dark, saturated colours really making the enemy designs pop, with at least some impact when cards hit. Status symbols could maybe do with being a bit more clear, though. The maps are fine, the cards are clear, and the controls are all mouse based. Finally, the soundtrack is, as you’d expect, grim horns, violins… You know what you’re in for with grimdark games, I’ll definitely give them that.

While it does need some polish and balance, right now, Deck of Ashes is, as noted, less intimidating than it looks, and isn’t a bad card battler, all told.

The Mad Welshman doesn’t really like pacts. He doesn’t like a devilish deal he can’t wriggle out of villainously, you see.

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Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £22.49 (£7.49 for soundtrack, game available as part of Steamworld bundle)
Where To Get It: Steam

I knew I’d done the wrong thing when the lovely mage Copernica fell. I won the boss battle, somehow, but I knew… I’d done the wrong thing. And the fact that I very quickly caught on exactly what I’d done wrong… Says nice things about Steamworld Quest, the latest in the growing Steamworld franchise, and this time… It’s a turn-based, card battling RPG with some real time elements.

A pair of robot ladies, strolling through the woods to kick ass and take shrooms.

The general idea is this: Some unlikely heroes (More setting wise than anything else, because they very quickly become quite badass) have, after a short adventure picking mushrooms (Which, yes, results in a boss battle, because it turns out a large mushroom doesn’t appreciate this), they return to town to find it on fire, with the heroes kidnapped by an evil army, of the kind that hasn’t been seen in the land for a long time. And then things get interesting.

So, there’s a fair amount to like about Steamworld Dig, starting with its somewhat unique approach to the card-based combat system of the type we’ve seen often lately. For a start, each character has their own deck, but all of these are shuffled into a single deck, from which you get 6 cards. You can play 3 cards a turn, but it’s heavily to your advantage if you play all three cards from the same character. Okay, that’s one interesting thing, but the other is where I made my mistake. You see, each character’s deck is limited (8 cards at the beginning), which come in two forms: Those that build power… And those that use power. Guess which fule put too many of the latter in their deck before Chapter 2’s boss fight? This fule.

“Omae wa mou shindeiru…”

Aesthetically, the game works pretty well: Smooth paperdoll animations for the characters, clear and friendly UX, good and fitting music, and some solid sounds and splashes make up for the fact that the attacks, being of the JRPG style, don’t always connect with as much impact as I’d like.

And then, of course, there’s the humour. The Steamworld games, even when they get dark, have a sense of playfulness about them, and Quest is no exception. In Chapter 3, in particular, we get the distinct impression that the Adventurer’s Guild had been living on easy street up until now (They have their own golf course, the bougie gits), and that the large world… Well, it carries on, even with an evil army on the march… Look for the two robots playing chess in the background. A subtle touch, but an amusing one.

One or both of these frontline mages can completely heal from this single attack. Good thing I’m chaining…

I do have one criticism of the game, but it’s an odd one, because it does tutorialise well: If you do not engage with its core systems (such as, for example, using the redraws you have to maybe make that “Three from the same character” chain), you’re going to have a much harder time. Even early Void Mages can heal each other, or themselves, for definitely more damage per turn than Copernica’s basic attacks, and a little less than what Galeo (the punchy healer) can put out with his… And since they rarely turn up alone, it can make a fight really drag on. Which, considering that the longer a fight drags on, the more you get hurt, and that healing items are not the most plentiful?

Well, please listen to the tutorials. Overall, though, I appreciate Steamworld Quest going for tight play, focusing on managing a small deck with more potential tools as you go on, and even something of an ambush system (Okay, second crit: Since ambushing an enemy means clicking directly on them when you’re close enough, it’s a hassle to get ambushes, and those are that little extra edge that can help a fight a fair bit.) It has style, it has humour, and, as always, I do like a good experiment. Especially when, as with Steamworld Quest, it seems to work.

The Mad Welshman has yet to meet a robot he hasn’t liked. Admittedly, some have been murderous mixes of skeletons, T-Rexes, and lawnmowers, but they were his kind of skeletal murderous lawnmower t-rex robots.

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Blood Card (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

Goodness me, we’re getting a lot of these card fighters. Unfortunately, they can’t all be good. Take, for example, Blood Card, which, while it has an interesting aesthetic to it, doesn’t really work well despite its interesting idea.

Weeeeeeelp.

And it is an interesting idea, make no mistake. Well, a couple. You see, you are a being trying to escape Death. Y’know, the bony feller with the robes and scythe version, tends not to let people go. And your deck? Is also your health. Much like other card battlers, there’s a limited energy pool from which to play cards, there’s a limited time in each combat before Death appears, and… Honestly, this is where the problem begins. While your hand replenishes (apart from cards which destroy themselves) after each fight, enemies very quickly start ensuring that Death will appear, doing increasing damage for each turn he’s there. Sure, he ends up killing the enemies too, but that race against the clock is definitely not in your favour, especially with elites and the bosses. The objective? To either kill death, or leave the dungeon.

“You could be cool like me!” Yes, er… I see a flaw in this argument…

Aesthetically, the game is odd. Some good pixel art, with some interesting enemy designs, meshes somewhat poorly with the workmanlike, and admittedly more accessible clean sans-serif font, and while the mood is meant to be Dark Fantasy (You know, blood and death and guts and gore and ohgodwhy, that sort of thing), it breaks this mood surprisingly often. Like the barrel guy, or the vampire, whose first thought in “Convincing the hero(ine) they want to be a vampire” is simply “Wouldn’t it be cool?”

Well, yes, but it would also suck, if you’ll pardon the pun. I’ll pass. The brevity of the character lines doesn’t exactly help, as it feels stilted. The music, well, it’s fitting (choirs, bassy brass, that sort of thing), but you’re going to get tired of it relatively quickly, alas.

Well, I mean… The attacks do 4 damage to one enemy, so… Ooh, I’m gonna be here a while…

Now, there is a third idea that normally, I would applaud: Letting you choose what to deal with. You get X rooms before the boss, and Y,Z, and so on of normal enemy groups, Elite enemy groups, shops, and events. But this, also, doesn’t really mesh that well, because the bosses are pretty damn mean, and when even normal enemy groups can delay and debuff you enough to ensure that Death sticks around for at least a couple of rounds (and yes, Death will turn up during the boss fights, making them increasingly more difficult the longer they go on)

Overall, Blood Card feels like it’s tough for the sake of being tough. 3 energy a turn quickly runs out, meaning you don’t often get to play, for example, Finishing cards (Which require you to have 1 card in your hand when played to get the effect), and your base attacks are relatively weak. While the art is quite nice for grimdark pixels, it can’t, unfortunately, mask the fact that the game doesn’t really want me to get very far, or see much of what it has to offer.

The Mad Welshman does appreciate the cape value of being a vampire, but would honestly prefer werewolfdom. Saves time on “Hair of the dog that bit you?”

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Deck Hunter (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £11.39
Where To Get It: Steam

The feel, the flow of progression is an awkward line to balance. Give nice things too much, and you devalue them. Punish the player too much, or give nice things not enough, and it feels… Well, not worth the time. This is the line Deck Hunter… Isn’t currently treading very well. And it’s a shame, because there’s a couple of decent ideas in there. It’s just there’s also a rather silly amount of grind, and the requirement for good play… Or no play. Well, no win, anyway.

Disclaimer: Cards must be low level, and this reduces the size of your deck. Terms and conditions may apply.

The general idea is one we’ve seen a fair amount before (heck, even this month): You, an adventurer, use cards as attacks, fighting monsters, defeating bosses, going through areas marked as combats, treasures, spin-to-win, and rest sites. Where it gets a little interesting is that cards upgrade through use, and can also be mixed with Alchemy cards to create new, different cards. Crafting items, two card combos…

It’s such a shame then, that, outside of the combos (a mixed blessing, as we’ll discuss), I haven’t been able to see much of it in hours of play. What I’ve seen… Is the first area, again… And again… And again. And, funnily enough, that palls pretty quickly. So… Let’s talk about the why, as I see it.

Thanks to that Corrosion effect, I am, essentially, just going to take damage. The question was “How much?”

A basic combat is, on its face, pretty simple: You have a five card hand, which, at first, consists of strikes (5 damage, 1 energy), defenses (5 damage blocked, 1 energy), and some other cards like a healing potion (usable once per combat, 1 energy… 3 hp recovered.) You have three energy per turn. Okay. So far, so simple. There are even three combos associated with this. And one of them… Is annoying. Strike, then Defend, as opposed to Defend, then Strike. See, the latter gives you another Defend card (can be useful, if you have energy to spend, and, say, had no other Defend cards.) The former, on the other hand, drains one energy, gives you… 2 defence, and… Well, it’s not worth the hassle.

Okay, now let’s look at our enemies and… Huh. 27 HP and 17 HP, with… 11 attack and 7 attack. And here, friends, is where we start to see problems.You can, if you have 3 Defend cards, defend against this, due to the Defend+Defend combo. 5+5(+3)+5. Cool. If you want to deal no damage. Similarly, if you have three Strikes, you can kill the one with less HP. 5+5(+5)+5. Cool. But you will take damage. The question is: Who’s got the 11 damage attack? And, more to the point, without either of these options, the math is not in your favour. Rarely does any enemy have less than 15 HP (or a Two Strike combo’s worth.) There is no defence against status attacks (such as the shroom’s Corrosion/Piro attacks), some of which do damage regardless of your armour. Sooo… On the Micro level, it’s actually pretty damn hard to avoid taking damage somewhere. Unless you play well, right out of the gate. Even if you do, certain enemy combinations are, essentially, a big middle finger to your desire to keep your HP up. Oh, hey, it’s a mushroom and a thief! A thief who has 34 HP, and the Unloader special skill (reduces your energy to 1 next turn.) Plans? The hell are those, you got none!

My best shot at the boss, in which several cards upgraded during the fight. Not that it helped.

Enemies, in general, seem to scale faster than you do.

Now we add in that, to upgrade a card, it has to be used a certain number of times. And those upgrades… Well, gee, my Defence got upgraded to… A slightly better Defence. As in, 1 point. And it can’t be used in Defence combos anymore, only Improved Defence combos. Thiiiis might not be the best plan unless I have several upgrades in a row real soon. (Narrator: It wasn’t. He did. It didn’t matter.)

And then you get to the first boss. Gee, I sure hope you have a plan which involves 40+ damage and some unblockable damage, 104 HP, and two adds that like to add corrosion, and, more importantly, boodles of defence to the boss!

Overall, right now, Deck Hunter feels more like a losing battle of attrition than a game of skill and tactics. It looks alright, but playing through that first area, with that first area music, and those first area enemies, time and time again, has palled me on it, and I just want to move on.

The Mad Welshman sighs. The Balance has been disturbed…

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