Spooky Action At A Distance – Man Of Medan

I used to watch a lot of horror films, not sure what happened, perhaps I just caught a lot of really bad ones in a row. Regardless, I’ve not had time for horror much of late. Gore doesn’t really do it for me. I’m not averse to it, I just don’t think that it makes a movie better. I like a creeping sense of dread. The idea that this horrifying thing is becoming more than 90 minutes in the dark with popcorn. Something that gets into your mind and gives you a moment’s pause in the dark, when you’re alone.

Some time early this year I finally got a chance to play Until Dawn with my fiancée. We shared time on the controller and made any decisions, that didn’t require split second timing, between us. It was a nice couple of evenings sharing moments of panic through quick time events, moments of surprise, and the all important moments of quiet in between, to build the tension. This was good horror.

Around the same time, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man Of Medan was announced from the same studio as Until Dawn. The plan was to take all the photorealistic character styling, decision making, quick time events, and exploration of the original game and create an anthology series of slightly shorter stories that can be played solo or with others in a number of different ways.

First up, there’s standard solo play. See all the things, from your currently controlled character’s perspective, explore, decide, try to keep everyone alive while you unravel the mystery of the decaying military vessel where most of the game takes place.

Next there’s couch co-op. Choose your number of players, and which characters each person will play as. As you move through the story you’ll get messages between scenes telling you who should be on the controller for the next section. Where as in Until Dawn, we made pretty much all decisions relating to the protagonists together, here we played our own characters, to our own tastes. Something very much encouraged by having the characters divided among us.

Lastly, there’s online co-op, and here’s where things change in a really interesting way.

There are sections of the game which happen simultaneously. As such, one player can be talking to another character in one area, while another person is exploring another section of the ship. Consequently you can have a moment very near the beginning of the game where two groups of characters are having entirely different stories told.

Those below the waves are finding interesting artifacts and trying to understand how a plane came down. Meanwhile above, a group of pirates are harassing those on the boat, eventually leading to an explosion, which the others see from underwater. This, in turn leading to WTF moments from the divers, which the characters can decide to discuss, or not. It’s up to the players to decide if they’ll share that information with each other or keep all explanation within the game itself. There’s a few other moments where this is used really well, but I won’t spoil you on it. Suffice to say that playing solo or in movie night (couch co-op) mode, the game takes around 5 hours to complete. Whereas online co-op is closer to 3 because of the overlapping sections.

The basic plot of the game sees two brothers, Alex (kind of a jock) and Bradley (an adorable, shy, nerdy type) preparing to take Julia (whom Alex is dating and seems like the type to ask to speak to your manager), and her brother Conrad (goofy alcoholic rich boy who seems like a total liability) out for some diving around a crashed plane they have located. This is a previously unexplored wreck and there’s excitement about what they’ll find, and in what condition. The last member of our merry band is Fliss, the boat captain (absolute badass, if a little shady) who’ll be taking them out on the ocean.

Things start off pretty gently through a flashback featuring a couple of naval soldiers on shore leave. The game uses this time to gently introduce the controls and game mechanics in a no-stakes environment. Flash forward then, to the present and we see our main cast loading their boat up for the proposed dive. Before long though, it’s all diving to the crashed plane, hearing rumors of lost gold, the aforementioned pirates showing up and dragging everyone off to and older and decaying, but still familiar ship. All aboard is very quiet and our protagonists are in over their heads. And that… is all I’m saying. You’ll have to play it for yourself if you want plot. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it a lot, on multiple playthroughs.

Just like Until Dawn, characters can die and this will very much change how the remaining characters interact and what options they have going forward. This gives the game a lot of replayability. Do you want a horror film with a lone survivor of the group? Do you want to try and save everyone? Maybe “accidently” fail a few quick time events to off that one character you don’t like? The options are all there.

The sound design and music is spot on. With great effects and cues that are well used, to enrich the experience. Graphically, the game is on par with Until Dawn. Which is to say, beautifully rendered and animated character with really uncanny teeth (why do all of these games do that?). The lighting is great and the locations are wonderfully grimey in just the right way. That said, I did experience some minor slow down in a few areas and a couple of momentary glitches, though this may be patched by the time of release.

One thing I was really happy to see was the number of accessibility options. I have a number of sensory processing issues which can make a game like this frustratingly difficult at best and unplayable at worst. First up, you have the ability to remove time limits from QTE button prompts. As long as you hit the correct button, you won’t fail. Additionally, there’s the option to replace button mashing sections with just holding the button down. Next up, there’s options to change how subtitles appear. Do you want the subtitles on a background rather than just overlayed straight onto the action? Do you want to change the colours for a more manageable contrast? Those options are here for you. Lastly, there’s the sidebar, which will put text from the various documents you find lying around into a more legible format, in a pop-up sidebar. These are all great considerations that I hope to see making their way to other games of this type in future.

The Dark Pictures Anthology has the potential to be to the interactive horror genre, what Telltale Games were to, well, all the many many genres things they worked on (though hopefully, it won’t end up collapsing like an incorrectly assembled deck chair as TTG did).

Pros:

  • Stunning graphics and sound design
  • Lots of replayability
  • Great story to unravel

Cons:

  • Some minor slow down in a couple of places
  • Pirates are mean
  • I’m struggling to come up with my usual 3 of these.

Final Score: 9/10

Hammer Time – Dragon Quest Builders 2

Well, it happened again. I sat down with a Dragon Quest Builders game and lost a month or so. In many ways, that’s probably a pretty glowing review on it’s own, but why don’t I gush on for a few paragraphs anyway.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 takes the third-person, action RPG, with voxel-based building fun of the original game, and tweaks it in just the right ways to make it vastly superior. You start the game as a trainee builder – one of the few people who can make anything in the world. You’re abducted and set to work on a ship of monsters. Just when it looks like your fate is sealed, the ship springs a leak and you’re washed overboard. Your time on the ship is a nice little introduction to the basic mechanics of the game (block placement, combat, camera controls, conversations, etc).

Next thing you know, you’re washing up on the Isle of Awakening. This will be your hub world for DQB2, replacing the old freeplay island where you could build whatever you wanted, outside of the story. Initially, there’s not a lot to do, apart from find shelter for Lulu, Malroth and yourself. In a case of dramatic irony, you’re made aware that the Lord of Destruction is also called Malroth in early cinematics. As such, the ever boiling temper and desire to break things by your black-haired, broody companion isn’t so strange to you, the player. As such, you’re left wondering just when things will come to a head in that department.

Soon after arriving on the Isle of Awakening, you’re sent off on your first mission, to learn all about farming. Heading to the dock, you’ll meet Brownbeard the pir-sailor (definitely just a sailor) who offers to take you around the local islands on their boat.

Your first excursion takes you to Furrowfield, an island of farmers who’ve lost the skills needed to ply their trade or feed themselves. The islanders are initially unhappy that a builder has arrived, because they follow the teachings of the Children of Hargon, who say that building is blasphemous and wrong. However, once they see your skills for building fields, bedrooms, kitchens, diners, and most importantly: a toilet, they soon come around to the ways of building.

One problem that I often found in the first game, was that when enemies randomly attacked your town, that they’d ruin chunks of it. While random attacks are still an issue, the monsters mostly go for your crops, and do no more than dig up the seeds. While the second island did see some enemies who could smash an adobe wall down, for the most part I didn’t have to worry about rebuilding half of my town.

In addition, when facing larger enemy attacks (triggered by talking to a townsperson who has a crossed swords icon above their head) it was nice to see that once the dust of battle had settled, the townsfolk announced they would put things back as they were before. A quick fade to black and everything was pristine again. The damage to my carefully made towns was one of my biggest complaints with the previous game. As such, this made a very welcome change.

On the subject of quality of life improvements, my biggest gripe was having to find everything I needed to make a large storage chest. Every. Single. New. Area. (*hours of screaming noises*). Luckily, this has also been fixed. Early on you get a big bag that gives you seven pages of storage space that you always have on you for the rest of the game (even if some of the contents gets stored away before you head to a new mission area). This is brilliant and stops a lot of unnecessary frustration for finding space to store all your carefully collected crap.

Most of the way through the first main island, you’re given a giant project to construct something. While your character is the one who designs each of its three huge sections, the townspeople are keen to do most of the building themselves. First off you have to collect a few items, and lay them out according to the blueprint. Once you’ve got that down, the villagers will get on with most of the rest themselves – just as long as there’s a chest nearby which has the items they need, many of which they will gather themselves. While I was initially a little unhappy to have this huge project taken out of my hands, some of the more fiddly bits seemed best done by my new helpers. Also, there’s always the option to just take their chest full of bits and do all the building yourself.

With Furrowfield restored to full glory, you return briefly to the Isle of Awakening, along with a number of the islanders. Here you can catch up with a strange glowing creature called the Hairy Hermit, who shows you the first stone tablet and teaches you how you can complete tasks to earn medals – which in turn unlock new tools: the trowel (for replacing one type of block with another from your inventory), the pencil (for creating blueprints from any scenery you find and want to replicate), and the chisel (for carving blocks down into other shapes, great for fancying up your grander builds); as well as new cosmetic items.

Initially, you’re charged with restoring a river and waterfall, and restoring the fields and woods, using tools, equipment, and assistants you gained in Furrowfield. While there’s some argument between a number of the island’s residents over what the place should be called or who’s in charge, none of it gets too heated and soon enough you’re being pointed back to the docks to explore elsewhere.

At this point you have access to a few other islands. The first two Explorers Isles can be unlocked for a few gratitude points (earned by building and farming on IoA) and the next major story island, Khumbul Dun.

The Explorers Isles are interesting little scavenger hunt areas where you can check various blocks, farm animals, rocks, and plants off of a list to earn an infinite supply of certain resources. Each island has two scavenger hunts and completing each of the major story areas will unlock two more of these islands. The ability to gain infinite amounts of some of the most basic resources is such a time saver in the long run, and the fact that carries over to the main story islands was a lovely surprise.

Additionally, you can often find new seeds for various crops on these islands. Just the thing for filling your farms on IoA and keeping everyone well fed and happy.

Up to this point, I’d been enjoying the story, even if I wasn’t keen on all the characters. However, heading into the second major island, I was somewhat squicked by the way a lot of the men in the village talked about the only woman living there. Entitled fuckboys. Entitled fuckboys everywhere. Each of them feeling entitled to her in some way. All of them trying to get her to become a dancing girl at the bar, and dress like a bunny girl. It wasn’t until a little later, when she revealed that, actually, she really wanted to dance, that that feeling eased any. Not that the men-folk got any less letchy in general.

Following this excursion to a mining town, you’re briefly back to the Isle of Awakening. At this point I was all ready to start using all my new recipes and start work on expanding my own island (I medically required a train system around my island). However, you’re quickly whisked off to a whole new chapter, set in a prison, that doesn’t really add much to the game as a whole (apart from making me really want the recipe for guillotines, so I can warn any would be capitalists off of my home island).

You are eventually allowed back home after about 90 minutes of side story, but at this point I’d kind of lost heart for getting on with bringing the desert mining town home and just wanted to press on with the story a bit.

The final big story island mostly takes place in a constantly warring castle town. The Children of Hargon have managed to convince the humans that to build is forbidden, to win the war is forbidden, and to be completely defeated is forbidden. As such, you’re shown to the last few crumbling walls of the once great castle and left to get on with it while people bicker about whether they should be doing much at all. There’s also a plot involving a traitor in your midst, which leads to one of the most irritating moments in the game.

Your character is a silent protagonist, meaning that you are unable to just have a simple conversation that could have avoided all or at least most of the distress another character was feeling. I get that the plot needed to eventually work round to a couple of specific things, but it really took a lot of agency away from the player at this point.

There’s no way to go into a certain area via walking in there, you can’t dig through into that area either because of sudden invisible barrier syndrome. The game just says “nope, we need them to be pissed at you so we’re going to block any attempts to make amends so our flimsy plot works. I knew there and then that while I’d left each other island intact when I left this castle – only taking a few volunteers with me to the IoA – this time I was taking everything that wasn’t nailed down. Every chest was emptied, every trap, weapon, and special item was coming with me. To heck with this hole!

There’s a final, mostly plot-based area after this which leads to the final boss, but it’s a shorter area than most of the main plot islands. After which, you’re treated to the credits and given the opportunity to head back to IoA to try out all your newly unlocked recipes and rooms on your home base, now with an added vehicle for getting around at high speed. Woo!

You may have spotted that DQB2 also has a season pass available (currently £18.89 GBP) on the eshop. This contains 3 pieces of DLC (which can also be purchased for £8.99 each for the Aquarium & Modernist packs, and £5.39 for the Hotto Stuff pack). I’ve had a look through what’s available and to be honest, it’s not super impressive. Each pack contains a number of new recipes and an island you can head to to gather pack specific items.

The available packs are the Hotto Stuff pack (retro Japan), which features more than 40 new recipes design and decorate buildings in the style of the Hotto Steppe region (Traditional Japanese/Dragon Quest XI); the Aquarium pack (wet and fishy), which gives you a new fishing island, a fishing rod tool, more than 40 fish to catch, a short story section, and a number of new character customisation items; and the Modernist pack (IKEA catalogue), which includes more than 70 recipes to make modern structures, and a bunch more character customisation items.

Outside of the paid packs, there’s also the Knickknack pack, which adds 3 new items to celebrate New Year in a traditional Japanese-stylee. The pack contains a paddle, soup, and an ornate decorations.

Finally, if you do own the original DQB (and still have a save file on your system) you can access a recipe for stackable slime decorations and a chance to wear the hero’s outfit from the first game.

You may have heard that this game features a multiplayer aspect, and that’s kind of true, but not at all what I was hoping for. Once you get to the Isle of Awakening, you find a cave with a teleportal in it. This will allow you to access the MP mode. First off, decide if you’re playing online or over local wireless. Then invite friends or go visit someone else.

For receiving visitors, you can change settings which will stop any potential trolling. Additionally, once you’re in multiplayer mode, a large chest appears by the telportal containing medical herbs, some basic armour, and a cheap weapon. However, as it’s not great armour or weaponry, I’ve put a small chest of guest equipment of my own down.

Once you’ve got everyone together in MP you’ve a few options. Obviously you can show off your builds, but beyond that you can also head out and do the Explorer Islands together. This makes the scavenger hunts a lot less work, and the boss monsters on those islands a lot more manageable.

I had hoped that you could just go through the story missions with another person, but this just isn’t an option. A real shame, since that’s what I really wanted from the sequel. Maybe next time.

Despite a few issues with the plot, some of the characters, and the minimal multiplayer, I really enjoyed DQB2. I’d say if you’re looking for Minecraft with a story, this is probably the one for you. It doesn’t require that you’ve played the first game and the quality of life improvements have made the original basically obsolete.

Pros:

  • Fun gameplay
  • Guillotines to build (and threaten anyone who tries to claim leadership of my glob damn island)
  • Lots of quality of life improvements over the first game

Cons:

  • Disappointing Multiplayer
  • Annoying plot decisions on the third island
  • Expensive expansions that don’t add enough value.

Final Score: 9/10

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 them “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