Premium Fire

This weekend I was at CoxCon in Telford (helping out with selling early copies of Uncomfortable Labels with Laura Kate Dale) and I got a chance to go hands-on playing firefighting “un-simulator” Embr by Muse Games.

If you’re the kind of Silicon Valley tech type who thinks things like “what if there was a private security force that kept just my neighborhood safe?” Or “what if we made an Uber but for transporting you to hospital?” Or “what if there was a premium, for-profit fire and rescue service, which was available 24 hours, and staffed by anyone aged 18-85 who signed up?” Well, do I have news for you?

I do, in fact, have such news.

The gig economy called and there’s a capitalist system that needs oiling with the blood, sweat, and tears of the working class. Woo! (You probably say, because you’re a parasite (unless you’re not actually the hypothetical tech type I proposed earlier (in which case, welcome, help yourself to one of the guillotines, we march at dawn to overthrow capitalism))).

How about, instead of trained, professionals, we have (probably self-employed, so we don’t have to offer any kind of benefits) Respondrs™? A Respondr™ can hire equipment from us, and we connect them with contract holders who are in need of fire fighting services. We’ll have a clause in the contract that says we get to keep any money or valuables (with a cut to the Respondr™) and the Respondr™ will have to rescue a percentage of the contract-holder’s household.

Whoever though of that probably had some equally insidious tech friend who turned to them and called the “a fucking genius”. To which they likely replied, “I know”, because they’re like that.

Anyway, enough of the plot, what about the game itself?

I only played one level of Embr, but it was a lot of fun and had a certain dark humour. There I was, a bespectacled, elderly person known only as Granny, dropped off on the lawn of a burning house. According to my choice of load-out I was a hero (*blush* I’m just doing my job a Respondr™) with the axe being my first port of call.

With a comforting cry of “Here’s Granny”, I turned the door turned to kindling and set about rescuing at least three out of the five people living there. Stopping only briefly to look for any money they might have lying around the place that I could rescue (can’t be leaving cash about, it could get hurt in the fire, and Embr are very against such things).

With flames rising higher, I had to disable electrical supplies to avoid getting shocked, and engage ventilation to avoid poison gas clouds. At one point I found that an upstairs floor had collapsed, so I thought to bridge the gap with my ladder. Happily, this was a viable option (always nice when games let you improvise like that). No way a little thing like there being a lack of flooring was going to stop a cunning octogenarian like myself.

As I pulled out the third person from the blazing remnants of their home and hurled them into the designated safe zone I had to ask myself “do I want to just reel up my hoses and pack away my ladder, or can I earn myself a few more pennies by running back in and looting the joint?”

In this gig economy, the answer had to be “yes”.

Braving a further trip inside I found things were really heating up (yes, yes I am pleased with myself). Beams had started to fall, the floors, wall, and ceiling had been hurriedly redecorated in a charming shade called Raging Inferno (I checked the colour chart). I figured it would be worth hosing some of the hot stuff with wet stuff. Even deploying the odd water grenade (refillable at a sink) to make my way through the most aggressive parts of the blazing domicile.

While doing so, I did encounter another resident so I guessed they had to be rescued too (*sigh* I didn’t have all day. Ethel and I were due at the new action movie at 4 so I’d have to wrap up quickly). As I was upstairs, the quickest option was to deploy a trampoline and yeet my client out the window, as you do.

It was about this time I was starting to find all the fire a bit much. Despite having thrown water grenades into the heart of the hottest part of the flames, it was clearly well out of control at this point, and since I wouldn’t get paid if I died, I decided to head home. I briefly considered calling an Embr to deal with it, but who has that kind of money?

Embr is pencilled for release Autumn 2020 and will feature solo or up to 4 player, cross-platform, online co-op modes. Use cash to lease better equipment and take on the biggest jobs for the biggest payouts.

A Steam Page is already up so adding to your wishlist will keep it in mind come release date.

And remember, whatever you do, rescue Pim!

Games For All… But Not All For You

Games For All… But Not All For You.

There’s a lot of noise in recent years about who is a “real” gamer. I’m used to this kind of rhetoric – as a trans person and a kinkster, I’ve spotted truescum in many communities. Gatekeep-ey fuckers that think there way is the best or only way to be or do a thing. Ultimately though, it’s all bullshit and the vast, silent majority just get on being how they chose to be and doing things their own way, without hurting anyone.

What can be harmful is when someone with a budding interest in gaming is beaten down and chased away by capital “G” Gamers. It doesn’t stop there though. There are people who love games and have played for years who walk away from what could be a fascinating community of vastly different people, united by their love of gaming because they didn’t meet some arbitrary standards.

I’ve been playing video games since I was about 8 years old, when (thanks to a few well-off uncles and a very generous granny) I saved up enough to get a Commodore 64 home computer.

If you’re under 35, the chances are that you’ve never experienced the glory that is the C64’s SID sound chip and the stunning tunes that musicians like Martin Galway, Rob Hubbard, Ben Daglish, et al managed to get out of it. You may not have tried the wonderful Dizzy games, the quirky Jet Set Willy, possibly the most strained and horrifying port of Street Fighter 2 to ever be shat out onto any system, the frustration of puzzling through Split Personalities, or whatever the fuck was going on with the odd little gnome that hosted in Trivial Pursuit.

I’ve heard tell of the Spectrum vs Commodore vs Amstrad rivalry which was apparently a thing back in the 80s, but I never personally encountered it. With the few people I talked to at school, it was very much “hey, you have a different system to me, you want to come try out my games and mebby I could come try yours some time”? That’s it. No hate. No rage. No arguing that someone wasn’t a real Gamer because they hadn’t broken at least two joysticks playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, or World Games. No one called “scrub” or “filthy casual” because they preferred Toobin’, to Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It was just “hey, different games, cool”, or “I’m not a fan of Maniac Mansion, but Mayhem in Monsterland rocks”.

A lot of games back in the 80s were nails hard. this was mostly due to the fact developers were locked in the mindset of arcade games which relied on people pumping tons of change into machines. As such ramping up the challenge to ridiculous levels made good, financial sense. The harder the game, the more money you can squeeze out of players (watch this space for news of Electronic ActiSoftWorks selling extra lives as microtransactions).

However, when arcade games were ported to home consoles, it often wasn’t as easy as pressing to add extra credits. Most games gave you a set number and basically told you to “git gud, scrub”. While this could lead to hours of honing your skills until you found those credits to be enough, a lot of games just went unfinished. And to be honest, that was probably for the best. A lot of end credits screens were little more than a freeze-frame with some text saying “well done”, or just looping back to the first level again (or even worse, they just made the game so difficult that it was impossible to reach the final level and therefore they never bothered coding it).

Gameplay design wasn’t always kind either. Even games I adored, like Treasure Island Dizzy, very often resorted to “you took a wrong step, in a way you couldn’t possibly have predicted, start again”. While this method of gentle progress, through exploration, trial and error (after error after error after error) was fun at first, the combination of a music track that loops every minute and a half and the idea that one misstep 40 minutes in could put you all the way back to the beginning, is horrendously frustrating (3 decades later and I can still hum that music pretty accurately). Then more frustration would arise at the last minute, when that guy was all “hey, I need 30 coins” and you realise that basically you should have been clicking on every rock, wooden railing, hut window, and plant in the hope of finding a hidden coin (what do you mean “bitter”, I’m not bitter. You’re bitter!) and the less said about that coin hidden at the bottom of an invisible maze that you get to by jumping through a box (or was that Fantasy World Dizzy… anyway, fuck that whole bit).

I am, and have always been, bad at video games. Of the many budget games I picked up from my local corner shop for a couple of quid each, as a child, I’m not sure I finished any of them (I don’t count Trivial Pursuit). That’s never stopped me though, and never made me love gaming any less.

When I first got a Sega Mega Drive (Genesis), I tried and tried for yeeeeearrrrrrs to get through the original Sonic The Hedgehog. It wasn’t until about a decade later I even managed to get past the Labyrinth Zone, without doing the level select cheat. That didn’t stop me playing Sonic 2, 3, & Knuckles, and 3D Blast (incidentally, I’ve still only ever finished 1 and 3). A lack of skill has never stopped me wanting to enjoy the experience and I don’t believe I’m alone in that camp.

Anyone who’s watched my Twitch streams (most Tuesdays and Thursdays, come say hi (plug plug plug)) knows that while I can get through a point and click with a little nudging, I’m very bad at anything that involves faster action. The truth is, I just struggle with a lot of fine motor control, and in the moment decision making. This basically means that I die… a lot. Like, a lot a lot. And while I do get frustrated, it’s never stopped me gaming on the whole. I have got better, but I never got gud.

Back in the 16-bit era, you’d often find that easy modes, were just a taste of the real game. A bite sized sample, that teased you then told you to get lost. You’d get maybe 4 levels in, only to have it greet you with a message like “game over, now play the real thing”. That’s it, no more game for you, and if you don’t get better at playing, you’ll never see the True Ending(tm). The alternative was perhaps an ending which didn’t include the whole epilogue. Sadly, this was before YouTube gaming was a big thing and those of us not deemed worthy of the full story could just look up a video online.

In recent years, more developers have started putting in a more fair difficulty selections, where difficulty is what you’re actually changing. It’s been nice to be told by friends that I don’t have to just play normal mode and give up half way through, I can play on easy and still experience everything. Every carefully animated enemy, each exciting level, every enticing world, every moment of the epilogue (which could hook me into a sequel).

From older gamers, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how games these days are too easy, that there’s no challenge, that younger gamers are coddled with their saves and checkpoints, and regenerating health, and difficulty settings, and meh-mehneh-menehmeh *devolves into childish whining sounds*. To these people I say, “Hush! If you like old games so much, play them, or, I dunno, I Wanna Be The Guy.” They still make games for people who want a hardcore challenge, Soulsborne games are a thing, but not everything has to be for you personally, and that’s ok.

From younger gamers, there’s a lot of talk about what games actually count as games. It’s too casual, it’s not a Real Game(TM). You’re not Real Gamers (please just imagine it in a really whiney voice).

Friends, when you’ve delivered papers, trapped enemies in bubbles you then pop, connected pipes before they leak everywhere, mowed lawns, jumped between travellators while beating people up, used warming Ready Brek to survive the cold of space, guided suicidally dozy rodents around Egyptian ruins, chowed down on every pill in sight, and been grilled by a weird little gnome about general knowledge, you get to realise that a game can be an awful lot of different things. Many fit into specific genres, some create new ones. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, if it’s called a game and people enjoy it, let them get on with that. It does you no harm.

No one has a right to say that Pat, who plays Black Ops 4 for over 100 hours a week is more of a gamer than Sam, who just *really* likes Animal Crossing and Tetris. Just as no one who’s played their Spectrum every day since the 80s is more of a gamer than someone who’s first system was a PS4. Sure, maybe you’ve played more games or for longer, or more difficult games, or more obscure games, but ultimately our hobby is about playing (together or alone) and enjoying an experience.

The angry tribalism of Gamers (capital “G”), has led to some truly horrific actions. Can we not just each enjoy what we enjoy, without bullying people who don’t do things quite the same way we do? There have been so many games made at this point that no one could play through them all in a lifetime. So many art styles, gameplay styles, so many ways of playing and experiencing and exploring, and so many yet to be explored. By making gaming more inclusive and welcoming, we can see amazing growth and innovation as new people come to the hobby. Games should be as diverse as those who play them. Not everything has to be for you, and that’s absolutely fine.

Scythe Had Enough – Staxel

I don’t quite know how it happened, why I let it happen, or if it could happen again, but fuck me, I got rinsed.

The other day a shiny trailer popped up somewhere or other, licked a finger and started stimulating the Lisa Frank receptors in my brain with bright colours and cute characters. That was the launch trailer for Staxel, a voxel-based farming game with crafting and building mechanics. There’s full controller support, it announced. There’s cat people, I discovered. It looks like a unicorn puked on it, I noticed. So, I checked the reviews and found them to be mostly positive. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but then neither am I, so I can relate. I had the cash spare so I grabbed it.

Here now are my findings after too long to request a refund for Staxel.

You begin your journey by designing a character using a fairly basic set of prefab parts. You can be all sorts of adorable and have most of the important styles of anime hair. You can be a cat person, which naturally, I chose.

Having fashioned a green-haired, purple-clothed, cat girl with a side fringe, I headed out into the world.

I found myself in a run-down house, with an awesome, nerdy looking person called Farm Fan, ready to show me the ropes. While I usually prefer to be the one using the ropes on others, I was taken enough with her style that I was willing to hang out and talk shop *ahem*.

For the next bit it was all pretty standard farming sim stuff. Learn to prepare the earth, plant seeds, water them. At this point, it’s basically a first-person 3D Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon, very familiar and easy to manage, but explained well enough that someone new to the genre could find their way in.

After a while, you’re escorted off to town, to meet some of the residents and learn how crafting works. And this, for me, is where cool idea, became frustrating annoyance.

You’re charged with building a barn, so that you can adopt some cows. First off you’re given a sign post, which states what the building is and what it’s requirements are. The only real requirement for a barn is that it mostly fits inside some sparkling 3D guides (toggled from the signpost), and that it contains some specific items (a roof and some troughs for animal feed). You can confirm that a building project is complete by checking the sign, which will tick off items as you add them.

Well that sounds simple. Oh bless you, my sweet summer child.

The fundamental thing about Minecraft is that you build stuff out of blocks. Largely, these blocks are easy to make. Or at least the most basic ones are. Staxel chucks all that in the bin, sets fire to the bin and then laughs in a terrifying fashion. Too loud, and too long. Is that a tear in Staxel’s eye as it laughs and laughs while smashing its genitals into a Lisa Frank binder with a rainbow cat on it? Hard to say, and I don’t want to get too much closer.

Rather than clicking on a crafting object, entering a simple GUI and throwing things from your inventory in set shapes to fashion the things you need, Staxel wants you to put things on the crafting tables by hand. Need wood? head out, find a tree, cut it down (at least cutting the bottom will make rest collapse, rather than defying gravity like in Minecraft). Take your raw wood (*snigger*) off to the building centre in town and use their saw table by putting wood from your hand, onto the table and then activate the saw. From here it will keep going until it runs out of wood or you stop it and grab your freshly hewn lumber. Because the saw table is good and the others – which make you craft one unit at a time – are awful and should learn by saw table’s excellent example.

Now we need some blocks of wood, to do this we’ll need 2 x glue, 1 x nails, and 4x lumber we made and pop it on the tiling table (not the assembly table, that’s different). You’ll need to buy the glue and nails from the building centre (so luckily you’re already there). Once they’re in place, just click the table and it will fashion you 10 blocks of wood for building. It’s not exactly punch tree, wood into crafting slot, pop out some lumber to use for building.

During this process, it becomes apparent just how clumsy and unhelpful this method of putting things from your hand onto the tables is. First off, if something’s in your main inventory, rather than your hot bar, you’ll have to move it there first, so you can put it on the table. This makes the whole process unnecessarily laborious, in a game that is already plodding along.

Tutorial’s over, fuck off.

With the barn built, I was awarded two cows and a tool for milking them. From this point, the explanation is over and it’s up to you to work out what you do (or not). Sure, fellow cat person asked me about building a fishing spot, and the mayor wanted me to build a house so someone new could move into the town. Given how I was already hating the crafting, I was hoping I could enjoy the farming for a while instead.

The problem here was that I didn’t have much money, I didn’t really understand what how to sell things for cash, and at some point my hoe just went missing, and I have literally no clue where it went.

Back to the shop, back to buy another hoe. Hopefully I can keep my cat and cows fed while my crops grow, or else find some way to sell the one thing I do have lots of (wood/lumber).

The problem is that in a farming game, selling your crops should be super easy. It’s been easy from the dawn of farming sims. There’s a bin on your farm, that you throw stuff in and someone grabs them in the evening and gives you cash. Not so here. Staxel wants you to get your saleable goods in your hand, put them down on a ‘sell’ bin in the market, in town, and then move down slightly and click on the bin to sell the item. Here again, this becomes a pain, when you have lots to sell. It’s got to come out of your inventory, onto your hot bar and then into the bin and then click sell. I guess it will stop you accidently selling too many things, but still, it’s annoying as hell and only bringing me closer to giving up.

One thing I’ve always struggled with in these games, from a stress perspective, is not having time to get everything done before the sunsets and stamina runs out. Luckily, Staxel doesn’t do short days (they’re almost twice the length of Stardew Valley’s), or a stamina meter, or mobs. All this should lead to a more calm and cheerful experience, but it’s not. Staxel is just frustrating in so many little ways that make me want to give up in despair.

(I know I’ve mentioned Stardew Valley a lot in this review, but it’s the gold standard of modern farming games so it’s going to have to come up some more. Soz not soz.)

SV starts you off with the humble parsnip. You clear some space, turn the earth, plant seeds, and water them. Four days later, you have something to sell.

Staxel starts you off with a beetroot, just one. In the tutorial, you’re told to find a clear space, hoe the ground, plant the seed, and water it. However, the tutorial then says that for the sake of understanding the process, they’re going to give you a magic jar of stuff to make it grow instantly, so you can learn to harvest. While I get the need to show the whole process early on and shortening it can be a good idea, what’s not clear until you start farming for yourself, is that these things take 8 days to grow normally(about 2.5 hrs of game time). That means that – while you should always give these things a decent amount of time before saying, “this isn’t for me” – by the time you’ve finished your first harvest, you’re already outside the refund window for the game on Steam. Furthermore, that’s 8 days of trying to make money to do something else while your crops grow so that you have to find something fun to do.

Until you get your first couple of harvests out of the way, you’re going to have to spent a lot of time pottering about the farm, then running to town to sell, talk, buy essentials to make things, or use the crafting tables in the building centre to process items. While town isn’t far away, it’s just such a constant need that it becomes a massive pain in the bum. Especially if you forget something at home.

Speaking of leaving things at home, I’d best mention storage. Chests are a common choice to both MC and SV. However, Staxel favours shelves and tables. Luckily there’s a starter shelf at home for you to dump things on, but once again, it’s a case of needing things on the hot bar to put them on the shelves in the first place *wails like an injured penguin*.

Something that I didn’t notice anyone in town explaining, was that there are special events. Not only did they not mention them before they happened, they weren’t always clear what they were about when they happened. My first encounter was seeing a bunch of what looked like partially built houses suddenly appearing in the weird field of storage bits (it looks like an abandoned market that’s fallen into disrepair) on the way to town. The first day, I assumed they were maybe going to be finished building’s later. However, further inspection revealed that they were actually portals to other worlds/areas.

I’ve been through each of these portals and while the change of scenery is nice, I’m a little wary of touching too much, as it’s been made clear by the villagers that if you take things from them that don’t belong to you, they’ll stop using the spaces/buildings. So, do I start taking the cool looking scenery for my home? Do I enjoy it as a weird new place to explore? Does anything happen in here or is it just there for the sake of being a different place? I have no idea, and as you can probably tell, I’m reeeeeeeally struggling to care at this point.

Staxel has just left early access and I’m not sure what it looked like before, but as it stands, it feels like a very pretty, but ultimately empty experience. Maybe if the crops were a little quicker to grow, if the days were a little shorter (or you could go to bed early to skip some time early on), if the crafting was less of a chore, if I had some idea where to look for fetch quest items, of if the quests could provide more info about where to find critical recipe ingredients (“you need two of these beetles, they hang out up trees and look like this” or something so you’re not just wandering round grabbing every innocent insect in the hope this is the one), I’d be writing a more glowing review, as it stands, it feels like unfinished, unintuitive, technicoloured unicorn shit.

I tried, but I’m done.

Maybe they have a roadmap for their future and a year from now it will be good, but right now it’s annoying shit that doesn’t even have a proper wiki to explain itself.

No, I don’t know where your blue socks are. If that’s your whole life ruined, fellow townsperson, you have bigger problems than cold feet.

Pros:

  • Colourful.
  • Cat people.
  • Mod and steam workshop support.

Cons:

  • Lacking substance.
  • Took so long to fully show its colours, I missed the refund window.
  • Needlessly obtuse at times.

Final Score: 4/10

No Sign Of A Towel

I’ve played a lot of Clank! in the last year. I originally picked up the base game as a Unicorn Dance Party gift to myself. This year the festive unicorn has whinnied happily at me again, because a special someone (not me this year) bought me Clank! In! Space! (which I say in the classic Lost In Space way, every time).

Clank! and CIS are deck-building board games, for 2-4 players (or single player with the app. More on that later) by Renegade Game Studios. While the former is high fantasy, the latter is some sweet sci-fi goodness. Whereas Clank! features a double sided board for different difficulties, CIS is made up of seven parts: the cargo bay (where you start, escape, and monitor player health), the clank area (for keeping generated clank before it goes in the bag), the command section (what would be the deep in the original), the corridor (which the hyperlift runs through), and 3 double-sided modules. The 3 modules can be placed in any order on either side and will make a big difference how you move through the ship.

Let’s go through the similarities to Clank! The crystal caves of the original are replaced with security checkpoints, the shops are represented by yellow spaces and marked with an ‘M’, there’s still an adventure row of 6 random card drawn from the deck, you still have a starting set of 10 cards (which are perfect reskin of the ones in the original), large and small secret tokens scattered around the board, a goblin to fight for cash (it’s now a robot though), and 3 basic cards to buy with action points (mercenary is now FAZR (which looks kinda like the gen 1 Transformer, Soundwave), explore is now boldly go, sacred tome is now a memory core (again, all reskinned from the original), cards generate the three main resources – skill (to buy cards), boots (to move), and swords (to do murders with). There are also some cards/actions which will generate clank (noise that will alert the big bad to your presence). Generate too much clank and it’s all the more likely you’ll end up dead on the floor, your treasures now worthless.

There are plenty of changes though. The shop now contains four items and you can’t buy more than one of each; the key is now a master key card, worth five victory points; medipack gains you two health and is also worth five VP; the teleporter pass allows you to blink around the ship and worth, oh yes, five VP; contraband is worth ten VP and unlocks certain card abilities. Also, there’s no backpack, so it’s one artifact each (you hear that folx who bought two backpacks in Clank! and then grabbed an unbeatable number of artifacts?! Do you hear me now? Fuck you and the magic carpet you flew in on *screams while crying tears of blood*);. The biggest change though, is factions.

There are three factions, each identified by a symbol on the top left of their card. If you’ve used a faction card during your turn, it will allow you to activate abilities on other faction cards. Getting lots of cards of the same faction will help you get a good engine going and more quickly do all you need to without getting caught.

Within the adventure deck there is a single card representing Lord Eradikus (who’s ship you’re pillaging). Once you’ve defeated them, you’ll be awarded a bunch of money and you’ll flip the G0B-L1N. card over. This makes it stronger, but also worth more cash for defeating it.

Last up there’s power crystals. They’re nice little blue and are plastic pieces that I was immediately curious about on opening the box (because apparently I’m part magpie. “Look, look at the shiny that I has found. No, you cannot have them. The shinies are mine!). There’s only 5 available and you can grab them either through card abilities or entering rooms with their matching icon. Enter room *boop* you got a shiny. Success and happiness are yours.

The artwork is great, from the vector art of the program cards, to the parodies of Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, Aliens, etc characters (Cranky Doctor, Dark Jidu, Hubba the Yurtt, etc.), to the board and box art. Renegade have done a really good job once again.

Your first mission is to hack two consoles in different modules to earn a command code. To hack a console, find yourself a room with a green tab attached and pop one of your transparent cubes in there. Each one can only be hacked once, so if someone else if following you around the board, they’ll have to go elsewhere to get their hacks. Each console hack will offer different rewards, some gain you health/cash, others will generate clank.

Once you’ve got your code, head to the command section and grab yourself one of those sweet artifacts, before making your way back towards the cargo bay. Here you have to locate one of the four escape pods and blast off to freedom with your ill-gotten loot.

The game ramps up in difficulty due to the rage track on the right side of the board. A player gaining a command code, finding an archive, or collecting an artifact. The further up the track the marker moves, the more cubes are pulled out of the bag when certain new cards are revealed on the adventure row. In addition, the top four spots on the rage track will release bounty hunters into the bag, and block off a section of the hyper lift (making escape a little more difficult). When a bounty hunter is pulled from the bag, they damage every player at once and go straight back in the bag. Ready to mess you up again at any time. With only ten health points, it’s easy to take a lot of damage late game thanks to these bloody minded assassins, even if you’ve been careful not to generate much clank yourself.

I’d avoided getting CIS because all that I could see from the marketing made it look like a basic reskin of the original (for which I own all four expansions). However, there really is enough in this to make the game different enough from the original that it’s definitely worth it. There’s also the added bonus that anyone who’s played that will be able to pick this up super quickly.

As with Clank!, CIS has a section on Renegade’s companion app (available for Android and iOS). I’ve used this in the past to add a twist to multiplayer games or to play solo. For CIS though the app includes a board generator – to help you pick which modules to use – and a whole campaign mode for single players. This is in addition to the normal mode, to shake up group games.

Played over multiple games, the campaign guides you through setting up the board (a different configuration for each mission), how much clank to put in the bag to start, which artifacts are available, it tells you what will be worth bonus points (be they cards of a certain faction/credits/memory cores/certain major or minor secrets) and off you go. When you finish a move, the app tells you to remove cards from the adventure row (simulating the crushing pain of missing out on a good card to another player). As you move to different sections, you update your position on the app and that may activate missions, or trigger a change in how many clank cubes are drawn per attack.

At the end of the game, you enter your bonuses and total score to receive your rank. Then you can setup for the next mission or put it away until you’re ready to go again. As you progress, the number and value of artifacts will increase, and you may be assigned a secondary mission (e.g. visit a market place to meet a contact). Some of the secondary missions will allow you to search the deck and discard pile for a particular card and add it to your deck. This makes finding some really useful cards super easy. Just the thing for the more difficult missions.

Some of the secondary quests will trigger further side missions (e.g. visit a particular spot and spend 6 action points for a bonus). The more you complete, the more chance for random bonuses/assistance and the higher your overall ranking at the end.

I’d say that the companion app makes CIS worth the money for single player games alone. Even with static missions, there’s still the randomness of the decks to change things up, so there’s tons of replayability here.

Pros:

  • Different enough from Clank! to make it worth it.
  • Plenty of variety in ways to lay out the board.
  • Fantastic single player campaign mode with the app.

Cons:

  • The board pieces are a bit too snug meaning the don’t quite go together properly in some configurations.

Final Score: 10/10

Bulk Smash

For months, most of the big noise online has been about Smash. Smash, Smash, Smash. It’s like the Incredible Hulk has used their bonus action to enter rage and then furiously bashed out their thoughts on – what I imagine must be – a heavily reinforced keyboard. If people weren’t hyped about the latest character announcements they were complaining about the latest character announcements. If they weren’t excited for some feature, they were sending death threats because the skinny, angular-moustached one wasn’t going to star. In many ways, it’s good it’s finally out, if only because it should calm most of the related anger. Oh, and I get to play it. That’s also nice.

If you’ve played any of the previous Smash Bros games, you’ll be right at home with this iteration of the popular fighting franchise. Personally, I needed some time to practice my skills as I’ve not played since Melee, around 15 years ago. As is typical, you have a small roster of characters to start with and the more you play, the more will show up to challenge you. Once defeated, their yours to control. Hurrumble!

New for Super Smash Bros Ultimate, is World of Light mode. A single player adventure in which an angelic (in the Bayonetta sense of the word) entity has captured all the playable characters, with the exception of Kirby – the world’s second greatest pink balloon (Jigglypuff is best cutie pink frond) and is making sinister clones, controlled by the spirits of yet more gaming characters. Your mission is to travel across the land (searching far and wide), defeating spirits to claim them as your own. Primary spirits will align to a particular element and will (mostly) have some slots for secondary support spirits, who will grant you boons in each WoL battle (spirits default to off in normal games, but you can customise rules as you wish).

That’s a lot of word soup so I’ll try to break it down. Say you’re challenge is to defeat Pauline from the original Donkey Kong. The character will actually be Peach, in a red dress. The parameters state that she won’t fight, that your jump height is reduced, that some enemies start with a hammer, and some are giant. The level starts, you’ll have Peach jumping around to avoid you, Mario appears with the classic hammer weapon, a giant Donkey Kong will appear. The boys will try to kill you while you try to take down Peach. If you win the battle, you’ll get Pauline’s spirit (she who possessed Peach) to assist you in future battles.

There are tons of different parameters which can affect WoL battles: inability to swim on watery levels, floor is lava/poison/electrified, high winds, screen/controls will randomly flip, giant enemies, tiny enemies, low jumping height, enemies having increased attack/defence, enemy favours up/down/side smashes, and loads more. This adds a huge amount of variety to the battles and really helps to keep it interesting.

Winning battles will earn you rewards above the spirits you free. This could be snacks of various sizes (food to level up spirits), skill spheres (used to power your main fighters up on a Final Fantasy X style sphere grid), gold (to buy stuff in the main shop – outside WoL), and spirit points (to buy stuff in WoL shops, as part of the cost of powering up spirits with snacks and for taking extra shots in Spirit Board mode).

As you move through World of Light, you will come across various characters which, once defeated, will unlock for use in all game modes. Additionally, you can play normal Smash battles and every ten minutes or so, a new challenger will appear. Again, defeat them to unlock them for use However, characters unlocked outside of WoL won’t be unlocked for use in that mode.

If you’re looking for a really quick way to unlock everyone, because you’ve got a party planned and hoping to have a big ole tournament with everyone, there is a super easy way to unlock everyone:

10 Start a match with one life.
20 Jump off the edge of the map.
30 Get challenged to a fight with a new character.
40 Reset the system.
50 GOTO 10

It’s less fun, but it works, and this way you can unlock everyone in about an hour. Should you fail to defeat a character challenge, an icon will soon show up on the menu to give you the opportunity for a rematch.

As well as spirits unlocked in World of Light, there are others that are unlocked by certain achievements in that mode. Just dip out after a while playing and you’ll be shown the art you’ve unlocked, awarded any spirit points, and unlock yet more bonus spirits. Additionally, you can head to the Spirit Board and directly challenge spirits to a battle. If you’re able to defeat them, you’ll get a chance to shoot them, as a shield, with a single opening circles them. Should you fail to get your shot through, you can either wait for that spirit to show up on the board again at a random time (ergh), or spend spirit points to take another shot (also kind of ergh).

There is soooooo much in this game. Tons of modes, tens of hours of play in World of Light, 76 characters (most of whom need unlocking), 103 stages, beautiful artwork, unlockable music (there’s some great remixes of classic tracks to be heard), abundant weapons and items to enhance or irritate, customisable game modes, tournament settings, replay saving, and more.

That’s all great, but…

My biggest gripe with Smash Ultimate is that it doesn’t explain itself. As I said earlier, it’s been a while since I played one. Regardless, there are going to be people who come to the game as their first Smash. There is a training mode, but it doesn’t really tell you much. Looking up the controls menu wasn’t much better. The only thing I did find was an attract mode demo if you leave the game on the start menu for a while. However, even that is vague and it seems silly not to at least make this a video you can play at will, by going into the menu where the training mode is.

I was 3 hours deep in World of Light mode when my seasoned Smash playing fiancée noted that there was a couple of moves I just wasn’t using (because nothing in the game had told me about them). For a game with so much content, it seems a real oversight on the devs part to miss out such a basic entry point to the enjoyment to their game.

Pros:

  • Huge amount of content.
  • Extensive single player mode.
  • Really pretty and polished.

Cons:

  • Not enough of a tutorial/training mode.
  • Spirit Board mode is kind of annoying.
  • No option to play as Rabbid Peach (see how I managed to type that without using all caps. It’s really that easy).

Final Score: 8/10

Game of the Year 2018

2018 was a bit naff on many levels. Luckily games give us some emotional padding from the horrifying realities of the world. A fantasy buffer zone where we can escape from the seemingly endless injustice of the world at large… unless you happen to be in the middle of those troubles, and the videoed games are not an option for you. *bell rings* Ah, it seems I’ve sufficiently brought down the mood of this piece already. Happy new year everybody, here’s my top five games of 2018.

Let’s get the big names, everyone’s expecting out the door first. This doesn’t mean they were better than the others, or even that I spent the most time with them. They’re just getting their junk licked first so casual readers can get their confirmation bias fix and enjoy the rest of the article in a post-masturbatory haze.

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Super Mario Party

SMP was a solid day and a bit of minigame madness, full of chips, dips, joy-con waggling, and digital high fives. It was the first Mario Party game I’ve played with someone else and the one I’ve gone back to the most after completing everything. I’ve no idea how good it would be solo, but with two or more, it’s great fun in fixes from 40 minutes to several hours.

Pick a fan-favourite character from the Mario franchise, roll dice, move around the board, compete in minigames, collect coins and stars, achieve victory or just have fun trying. Then unlock characters or try another mode. Definitely worth the money and a great way to share time with friends. After all, aren’t we generally social creatures, needing time with our fellow beings. The nice ones who are kind and share our morals, not the shitty friends who only tolerate us, but we hang out with because we think that’s all we deserve. You deserve better than that.

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Hyrule Warriors Definitive Edition

Aww yiss. Smashy, slashy, bashy, the fashy. If you’re like me – someone who feels generally out of control as the world thunders on through space and time, a seemingly unstoppable force, covered in people who generally just want to get on, but are painted to be horrible bigots, because of a vocal few who care for nothing and no one and are pushed to ever more vile deeds by those with a genuine agenda of hate for some group or other, for some reason or other – then perhaps you’re generally a pacifist, but enjoy the odd power trip in a game. If so HWDE may be for you.

Taking the control of one of the Legend of Zelda series heroes or villains, you go through a decently long story, killing hordes of enemies. You are a typhoon of slaughter, with thousands falling in your wake (sometimes thousands per level). While it can be hard to follow plot points that come up during the level, due to the sheer amount of stuff going on (though maybe that’s just me and sensory overload issues), the actual flow of combat is very satisfying, and leaves you feeling kind of a badass.

Once the story is over, there’s also the adventure mode – which is perhaps a full length RPGs worth of content per map. Here you can unlock more characters (not the same ones you had to unlock in previous editions of the game), new weapons, fairies that you can raise like Sonic Adventure’s Chaos, new costumes, artwork (by collecting gold skulltulas), and more.

Having recently played a good amount of Dynasty Warriors 8 Xtreme Legends on Switch, you really can tell that they’ve taken that formula and made it much much better, and generally more satisfying. HWDE is possibly the finest Warriors game Koei Tecmo have made, and looking at Dynasty Warriors 9, it may be the best they ever will. It’s a wonderfully violent romp that’s just the thing for getting out some of the anger you may feel at the world, in a safe and healthy manner.

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Katamari Damacy Reroll

I fucking love this game. It’s more Katamari, and that’s awesome.

Roll around stages, sticking shit to your Bumble Ball looking thing to get bigger. Eventually roll up the whole world. It can all be yours. It’s about working out the best way around a level, to get a huge as possible, as fast as possible (or getting a load of a particular thing (or getting just one of a thing (but fuck those levels, they suck scabby old ball jerky (ahem, Jane honey, you’ve gone off track. Right!)))) *giggles at pair of butts*. What are you waiting for? Go get it now, you need this, you medically need this *stares into your soul, wondering why you aren’t playing it right now, instead of reading this oddly unhinged article*.

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Dead Cells

Are you barely competent at action platformers? Do you dig on rogue-like mechanics, but have a dangerously addictive personality? Then have I got a reason for you to be late to work all month. Dead Cells is the tale of a bunch of cells, possessing a suit of armour, and slaughtering the denizens of a corrupted land, in order to gain profit (cells). More cells = more and better weapons unlocked. Kill all the things, take branching paths through the world, enjoy fascinating and beautiful pixel art scenery, thrill at fluid movement and control, die a lot, try again, and again, and again, and again, forever. There is no life, no work, no friends or family. Only One. More. Run.

Goodness, these games sure were great. Some real stunners there, but which game was greatest? Which game was most fun? Which was punishingly hard, but even I, the quitter extraordinaire managed to keep on bashing away at? Which game had the most tentacles? Which had the cutest death animations? Which left the competition hiding in a bin, surrounded by groaning, glowing-eyed zombles?

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Game of the year – Basingstoke

Oh, hi there. Welcome to Basingstoke, a game far more interesting than the real place I went through on the train the other day (though I’m assured by Twitter that there really are zombies on the high street). Grab your kebab, slather it in sauce, and yeet your spicy distraction towards a group of the most adorable, yet deadly zombies you could ever hope to see.

Basingstoke opens with you going for a job interview, but within 5 minutes, you’re in a toilet while the world falls down around you and is promptly filled with zombies, aliens and gorgeous, writhing, very keenly tactile, beautifully coloured tentacles. Did someone order a self-saucing kebab? No? Ok then. (I’ll finish this article later, I suddenly have to nip off and do… something for a bit, and then take a shower.)

After the downfall of humanity, you’re left wandering the town, gathering crafting supplies, fashioning makeshift flamethrowers, heading to the pub, seeking keys/passcodes, and forging on through the horde and trying to avoid getting turned into the cutest gibs you’ve ever seen (or a pile of sweeties if you prefer).

There’s something about this game that I can’t stop coming back to. It took me too long to work out how to do a bunch of stuff (despite it being really rather clear. I’m just a goof), I’ve taken hours to finish very early levels of the game, I’ve restarted so many times, but I still absolutely love this game and will shout it’s praises for some time to come (and stream me fucking it up on the regular). It’s really tough, but fair. It beautifully lit, it’s gorgeous to look at *winks at tentacles*, builds atmosphere wonderfully, it sounds good, it’s fun, funny, silly, vastly entertaining, and just generally great. A bajillionty gold stars for this one.

Bow to your zombie overlords. Worship your gorgeous, writhing, strong, and sensitive tentacle gods *bites lip*. Give in to the glory of Basingstoke (probably the first time anyone’s ever said that) for it is the greatest game of 2018. Give Puppygames your money for they have fashioned true greatness. It is not a happy new year, for we have fallen away from the year that gave us this masterpiece. What pitiful worms we are now. All is lost. Play Basingstoke

Andrew Ryan Animations

On receiving a letter from ex-colleague, Joey Drew, you head to the old animation workshop to find out what’s new. That’s all you need to get started, you play game now.

You, as Henry, arrive at the animation studio to find it seemingly deserted. The whole building is a sepia tone cartoon from the earliest days of animation. Outlines and minimal shading in black. A few off-yellow lights serve to draw attention here and there. Holes in walls are boarded up, doors too.

Standees of the studio mascot, Bendy the devil, are everywhere. Sometimes even peering out from around corners, before disappearing. Strange black pipes run through most rooms, occasionally dripping ink on the floor. The walls are plastered with artist notes near their drawing boards. Posters show some of the studio’s titles, introducing Bendy, Boris the wolf, and later, Alice Angel (of course, of course you make classic style cartoons about demons, angels and wolves. Of course it’s about going to hell in a handbasket, putting out the hell fires, and darling devils. That seems like jolly good, wholesome entertainment).

The game’s art style works really well. Bendy is about, and in, a classic cartoon. The only problem with making the whole world two colours is that it can be a bit difficult to navigate. As things move on, you will start to see a few areas over again, and this definitely helps you learn the layout, but for someone like me, who struggles with orientation in games, it’s very difficult to navigate some parts. Additionally, you can miss key items because you didn’t directly move your crosshair over them, to make them light up (I’m looking at you axe that I missed for 5 minutes in that boss area. Well, I’m clearly not, because I didn’t spot the damn thing for far too long, but you get the point).

You’ll start out by trying to get through doors, gather items to activate the titular ink machine, and solve basic puzzles to unlock the next area. All this under the watchful eyes of Bendy cutouts, Bendy plushes, Bendy character sheets on drawing boards, Bendy posters, Bendy Statues. Bendy is everywhere, always watching you. Their fixed grin more menacing than jolly or friendly.

Once the machine is active, the dripping ink becomes more prevalent and more… lively. Black creatures born of the ink rise up and swing for you. Their oily bodies somehow fitting with the rest of the art style, but their rendering making them look more realistic than Bendy’s more illustrated style.

Getting deeper into the game, you’ll start to encounter, what I refer to as, the “real” Bendy and Alice. These are inky horrors, parodies of their cartoon forms. These twisted, monstrous beings are of the ink itself, more like the oily ink monsters than their artist’s original designs.

At first the story is only fed to you through Bioshock-esque audio diaries. The various employees tell of their grievances, the story slowly being teased out. Here I will mention a problem. These audio recordings are equalized to sound like they’re being played from fairly poor quality tape recordings. This means that it can be difficult to make out what their saying. They are accompanied by transcriptions on one side of the screen, but the text is so small you’ll need to be super close to read it. On a smaller screen, it would be impossible.

As you move on you will meet Atlus Alice Angel. Should you agree to their requests, you’ll end up on a series of (maybe one too many) fetch quests around the building as they explain some of their woes. This does a lot to flesh out Alice’s story and give some hints about the nature of the ink itself, but larger mysteries remain.

Should you die at any point, you’ll find yourself in a weird swirling tunnel which reminds me of Silent Hill 4’s bathroom hole. Once you’ve crawled out of it, you’ll respawn at the nearest Bendy statue, which is very reminiscent of Bioshock (I know, everything’s been done before. I’m not criticising that, the game’s brought all these things together in its own way very nicely *pats game on head*).

Overall, the mood is really creepy, the world is interesting and keeps you wanting to know what’s happening and where it will lead, the sound design is very good and atmospheric (though sometimes you can hear radios through walls, like you’re right next to them), and the character designs are great. I’d say it’s definitely time and money well spent, if survival horror a la 1920’s animation is your thing.

Pros:

  • Good art style
  • Wonderfully creepy
  • Great character design

Cons:

  • Transcripts of audio logs are hard to read on smaller screens (especially in handheld)
  • Combat can be frustrating with certain weapons
  • Loading times are a little long

Overall Score: 7/10

Bendy and the Ink Machine is out now on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC