Dark Souls II: Bosswatch (Part 3)

Greetings, all Curse Bearers and Bear Cursors, to the final part of Dark Souls II: Bosswatch: a tour guide to the bosses of Dark Souls II as delivered by a tiny, bitter man wearing Jester gear who should've either stuck with a Dex or Str build instead of half-and-halfing it like a scrub. It's been quite the journey so far: when I last left you, I had just taken down the Looking Glass Knight of Dranglaic Castle and was preparing to bash out the rest of the game when Go! Go! GOTY! happened. Now that I have my free time back, I speared and sliced my way through to the game's conclusion. Was I whelmed? Or decidedly un- so? Is that even a sentence? If a rhetorical question falls in the woods, does it land on my character mere feet away from the next bonfire?

As before, there are spoilers here aplenty, now in new "end game boss" flavor. Don't read if you want Dark Souls II's many foes to be a surprise to you (but man, you might be barking up the wrong ancient tree full of elderly firekeepers if surprises are what you're after).

Royal Rat Authority

I must've missed this guy when going through the Doors of Pharros the first time. I actually didn't realize there was more to this area until the game mysteriously hinted at all the missing bonfire locations after talking to Nashandra in Dranglaic, presumably this game's equivalent to Dark Souls's Princess Boob Window herself, Gwynevere. Most were behind illusionary doors before boss fights I'd already done (that'll teach me to be thorough), but this one in particular was a whole new section of Doors of Pharros with a boss at the end. And oh man, what a boss. The Royal Rat Authority is essentially the Great Wolf Sif battle, only you aren't hesitating to strike the final blow from pangs of regret and sympathy for your enormous canine foe. There's absolutely nothing likable about this enormous rat-like mongrel, nor how its gang of smaller rat-dogs can quickly give you the Toxic condition before the big one deigns to drop in and kill you in two swipes.

There's a very specific strategy here, one that closely resembles how best to fight Sif, and that involves staying the fuck away from its mouth. Most of the attacks are charges and paw swipes, so you're technically safe behind it or, if you don't mind getting peed on, directly underneath. I hacked at its back legs while it was busy swiping at nothing with its front. That is, on one of the brief occasions when I wasn't immediately (and literally) dogpiled on by its very fast pack of venomous vermin. That's a good way to turn a very memorable boss fight from your previous game into an obnoxious free-for-all with zero emotional attachment. I mean, beyond the satisfaction of butchering the ugly jerk.

Shrine of Amana

Hey everyone! Welcome to the worst part of the game! I didn't think anything would top Amazing Darkness Treehouse Pit or Pea Soup Poison Nightmare Land, but I think Bottomless Lake of Magic Snipers and Hidden Leapers might have just pipped it. The Shrine of Amana rests between the Undead Crypt, the game's next story destination, and Dranglaic Castle. It's a quiet, reflective area of holy significance and the home of the Milfanito, an unfortunately named and unfortunately cursed group of singing sisters who sits in this swamp sending monstrosities to sleep. It's actually a very attractive area of the game, irrespective of the singing milfs, though it certainly doesn't make me feel welcome.

Best part of Amana though? Jeff Green has just entered this area on his always entertaining stream. It'll be fun to see how his compromised depth perception fares with a lake with no bottom.

Demon of Song

Now this is a proper Dark Souls boss. Pure nightmare fuel. The decaying face and arms of a woman, jutting out a frog's mouth like someone trying to put on a turtleneck like an idiot. I can't tell if it's all supposed to be one creature or if the frog skin is the protective coat for the entity inside. Truly, the greatest amphibious costume mystery since Frog Suit Mario. Most of its attacks appear to revolve around its long arms, including a hilarious grapple that continually rams you against the floor, though it does charge around, leap and spit hexes at you too.

I figured out how to avoid all its attacks in the first fight, though I misjudged one of the leaps and ended up dying at full health. Yeah, one of those situations. My bad, I had all the time in the world to roll away, but you want to be as close as you can afford to get as much stabbin' in as possible before they recover. The second time went off without a hitch. Didn't even need to heal. So while the fight wasn't all that exciting, I'm super on board with more creature designs like this. Dark Souls II does have a spark of originality here or there, but you have to dig deep for it.

Undead Crypt

The last stop on the Dranglaic Castle path, the Undead Crypt is where the former King of Dranglaic is interred. He's protected by both the crypt's usual deterrents for would-be thieves (that would be some badass wraiths and zombies that summon same) as well as the King's own personal guard, which includes a dozen or so Syan knights from Dranglaic and the following boss. The Undead Crypt isn't as bad as something like Dark Souls's various crypt areas, as there's no regenerating skeletons to worry about, but there's still plenty of traps here. The zombies that ring the bells to summon the wraiths are the worst, because they'll just crawl out of the ground and make a bee-line for the nearest bell before you even know what's happening, and there's usually a dozen gravestones to smash apart between him and you. Still, though, it's the sort of trap Dark Souls excels at: You'll fall for it a few times, but then you'll learn and adjust your tactics accordingly. Can't fault it.

Velstadt, the Aegis

Sigh. It's not that there's anything wrong with fighting giant suits of armor all day, it's just I wish there was a little more variation than "we gave this one a mace, and maybe he'll cast dark magic once or twice". Velstadt is the last in a defensive line of guards between the player and what remains of King Vendrick, an apparently insensate and near-indestructible zombie stomping around his tomb. Why anyone would want to protect an eight foot tall beef jerky skeleton is anyone's guess. Annoyingly, you have to fight past the rest of the King's guards to get back to the boss room each time, and there's like six of them plus whatever wraiths got accidentally woken up.

As stated, Velstadt just kind of swings his big mace around, most of these blows deplete stamina completely if they connect and thus require evading if you hope to capitalize on the brief counterattack window. However, despite taking chip damage the whole fight, the asshole then drops to his knees to cast some kind of buff that appears to double his defense, as well as slightly increase his speed and damage. It took me three tries overall: the first time he surprised me by casting some nasty offensive hex bolt after I figured he was re-applying his buff after dropping to one knee again. The second was pure carelessness. The third was the money melon, so to speak, but it could've easily been the first given how he had a handful of different attacks that took seconds to memorize. A boss with neither interesting attack patterns nor interesting visual design. Entirely milquetoast. Even his name is kinda boring and overdone: vaguely Germanic knight name with a title meaning "shield" that's been seen in a thousand other pieces of fiction? Sure. Memorable.

Aldia's Keep

The game goes a little off the rails here. Finding the King's Ring in Vendrick's articles of clothing, which he left in a pile to go walking around in a loincloth (hey, enjoy your retirement while you can), a few new areas open up. One is the scary sounding Throne of Want, which sounded a bit final to me, and another is a door in the Forest of Fallen Giants that lead to a few items but not a whole lot else. The third and final King's Ring door was at the crossroads in Shaded Forest, and led to this Keep area. It's quite short, but interesting too. Lots of caged creatures, and kind of gave me that same uneasy feeling Duke's Archive did. Turns out there were two crazy scientist Dukes in Dranglaic, and Aldia was putzing around trying to figure out how to bring the Ancient Dragons back. The ones from the intro of Dark Souls 1. Interesting idea, at least. I won't spoil much more of this place, because it has a few nasty secrets, but for as minimal as it was it did pack in a lot of lore, and a lot more questions that the lore didn't feel like filling in.

Guardian Dragon

Ah, yes, the classic dragon fight, though it's really more of a wyvern. The trick to this battle, not that there really is much need for one, is to not use the lock-on. The erratic flight of the dragon, and how it'll often be directly over your head or, at the very least geographically speaking, be closer to you laterally than vertically means that the lock-on will have the unfortunate effect of sending the camera below your feet and into the cage floor looking straight up at the boss, which makes it easy to focus on what the dragon is doing ("breathing fire" is the answer to that query nine times out of ten) but not so much on what your character is doing. Without the lock-on, it then behooves the player to use the manual camera controls to keep track of the dragon, but it fortunately doesn't move too much. At least, not when it's about to strike. It'll frequently be jumping, launching into a hover and occasionally latching onto a wall, but then it'll stay in that position for a second or so before breathing fire or stomping on you, giving you ample time to adjust the camera and prepare for an impromptu roasting.

I died the first time because I underestimated the damage the breath was doing when sustained for several seconds (though I still had my fireproof gear from the Smelter Demon fight if push ever came to shove), but the second shot was a cinch. If you're quick, and its on the ground, you can get to its legs and tail before it does its firebreathing and score around five or six hits as it completes the long animation, using the relentlessness of its stream of fire against it in a way. Since there's very little point to a shield if it doesn't have amazing fire resistance (the dragon's only other move I saw was a stomp that ignored my shield completely), double-handing the weapon for all those free hits just made things worse for the poor lizard. I think I healed once during that whole second encounter. Like the Demon of Song, it wasn't a particularly tough encounter nor did it involve a lot of strategizing and pattern memorization, but at least it looked cool and gave me something to worry about other than strafing around some big knight guy. I will continue to take what I can get in that regard.

Memories of Giants

There's not much to say about the rest of the dragon path. At least, not in terms of bosses. The Dragon Sanctuary is kind enough to not give you a (compulsory, anyway) boss fight, because in order to get to the end you have to fight a lot of really tough Drakekeeper enemies, which are sort of like the Heide's Tower giants only these guys don't mess around. Anyway, the Ancient Dragon at the end gives you a weird misty artifact that lets you access the memories of the various Giants you can see in the Forest of Fallen Giants. What follows are three interesting "invasions" that took place in the Forest of Fallen Giants before it became a ruin, and you have a limited amount of time to fight a specific dead Giant and claim its soul. I believe the story-reason for these souls is to grow more powerful, but they're also necessary for doing any damage to Vendrick. Yeah, I had to look that one up. Anyway, one of those three memories puts you up against this next boss:

Giant Lord

Well, what can I say? It's another big dude with a sword. He actually feels a lot like a remix of the first boss of the game, The Last Giant, and could well be the same entity given the odd memory-travelling aspect of this part of the game. It's gotten a little Remember Me around here, to put it another way. Like the Last Giant and all those Guardian Dragons I've been fighting, the trick appears to be simply sticking around near his feet and hacking away, watching out for the handful of moves he'll do to knock you away to a more advantageous (for him) distance. Essentially, a stomp and a leg sweep that seems to be part of a sword swing that doubles as an attack for either close- or mid-range. Feels kind of cheap to attack a boss where he can't hit you effectively, but given the alternative is the reverse scenario, well, better him than me.

Throne of Want

The last region of the game. Like the Kiln of the First Flame from Dark Souls, it's essentially a long dash to the final boss's arena. It's actually fairly unremarkable besides that, other than getting the biggest plot dump of the game from the Emerald Herald, who finally spills the beans on what's happening around here. Nashandra, the Queen who's been telling you where to go for the latter half of the game, is actually the big bad: the one who brought both Vendrick and Dranglaic to ruin, and the one eager to gain more power by taking control of the first flame. Gee, I wonder if that giant cursed painting of her in Dranglaic Castle wasn't a big tip-off. There's no enemies here, just an absurdly long jog to the following boss fights:

Throne Watcher & Throne Defender

Yay, two more knight bosses. That resurrect each other. I almost want to just leave it at that, such is my spite for these two. There's really nothing to this fight: they're the same enemies we've been fighting throughout the entire game. Both will enchant their swords when low on health, but besides the Watcher being slightly faster and the Defender being slightly stronger (or vice versa? I wasn't really paying attention), it just seems like another pair of large knight enemies. In fact, they were probably less trouble than the knights at the Dragon Sanctuary were: at least these two never broke my guard in one hit. Being able to resurrect their friend once they were down was annoying but hardly elevated the difficulty of the battle, just kind of extended it unnecessarily. I guess I might've been a little overpowered for them, what with the extracurricular trip to the aforementioned big lizard palace and all the Giant hunting I'd been doing.

Lore-wise I'm sure there's some interesting backstory here. I mean, they were guarding the Throne of Want, the most powerful position in the entire kingdom. They aren't the final bosses (though that comes immediately after if you were an idiot like me and grabbed the right quest item first) but I'm sure they're significant. More significant than some husband and wife knight team at least. Then again, maybe not. Maybe they really were just glorified night security watchpeople. One of them did try to pepper spray me for loitering, come to think of it...

Nashandra

So here she is, the game's primary antagonist. Apparently a fragment of the thoroughly destroyed Manus/The Furtive Pygmy that went off on her own to seek power, her backstory is mirrored by that of the Emerald Herald: both were created from the ether to serve a purpose, and Nashandra's was to spread the dark introduced to the world by Manus and grow ever stronger while the Herald's job was to somehow transfer the powers of the Ancient Dragons to a worthy Undead vessel? Hence the leveling? I dunno. I guess since I've beaten the game now, I can refer to the big YT groupthink for what the many tiny offerings of lore that this game provides may or may not mean.

As a boss, Nashandra's a lot like a cross between Dark Souls's Nito (big dead thing, minions, dark magic) and Priscilla (tall lady thing, scythes), but more annoying. I guess that's a given, right? I've decided not to Ctrl-F this master document for the term "annoying", largely for the sake of my own sanity. She starts the fight by summoning four hardcore versions of those curse jars, the second most annoying entities in the game after the poison-spitting statues, and then just kind of swings her scythe around a bit whenever you get close. Easy enough to avoid those scythe attacks, and I figured out early that she can only have four wisps around at once: if you remove the one closest to you and then coax her towards a different region of the boss arena (which is fortunately quite big, but of course has a giant pit that I fell into a few times) then the wisps are no longer an issue. There's a big hex laser that's easy to avoid if you can see it coming, though you're pretty much dead if it hits you, and a big AoE hex that will surprise you exactly once. After that, it's easy street. I did like the visual design at least: Nashandra can be added to the likes of the Demon of Song where I might not have thought much of her predictable tactics (though she did switch it up a lot) but I can enjoy that creepy giant corpse queen look she has going on. It was almost like fighting the skeletal form of Persona 4's Izanami again, but in real-time.

Vendrick

Had to happen eventually. I mean, there's an achievement for it and everything. Sure, it's another tall guy with a sword, but it's THE tall guy with a sword. The erstwhile King of Dranglaic and this game's Gwyn equivalent, albeit in the form of a totally optional fight. Vendrick doesn't have a whole lot in his repertoire except sheer stats: he has more health, does more damage and has more defense (until you find all the souls of Giants, one of which requires a debatably tougher fight with a friendly NPC which I'm not up to, largely because getting there is too much of a hassle) than any other boss in the game, barring perhaps this following optional guy I've been putting off. He doesn't need more than a few swipe attacks and a vertical strike with all that going for him.

I see parallels with Vendrick and both the Hollows and the Undead hero in particular. He looks, moves and acts just like the weakest of the Hollows you meet, with a slow zombie-like gait and a few all-or-nothing desperate swings with whatever big chunk of metal he's holding. It's kind of like those secret superbosses in JRPGs where it's just a way bigger version of the weakest enemy (usually a Dragon Quest slime, or some kind of hyper Prinny) and insanely tough. He also has a similar moveset to the hero, just the regular light or heavy attacks and a running jump variant. Kind of plays into this whole "every King was a former protagonist who grew old and feeble and corrupt after thousands of years" cycle of destiny thing the Dark Souls games have going on.

But man, you gotta imagine what this guy was like at full power and fully armored. Gwyn too, for that matter. You get the impression they'd have zero problem with any other foe in the game. Raises the question of how they got this way in the first place, I suppose. Still, I can take away one thing from this fight: Vendrick looked tired and defeated. After all these samey, unimaginative and often terribly-conceived bosses, I'm right there with him.

Dark Chasm of Old

Bonus time! The Dark Chasm of Old are a series of small bonus dungeons available to a specific covenant, which requires some searching to find. There are three big circular daises scattered around the world, and each is a portal to a different "Dark Chasm of Old": essentially a boss rush against a bunch of very tough NPC phantoms, which you have to defeat without exception before lighting a sconce and falling down a specific hole to exit. I believe the multiplayer trailers for Bloodborne are suggesting something similar will be in their game, though this time procedurally generated.

Darklurker

The final foe (well, besides DLC nonsense), and one I'd been putting off because I hear these optional covenant dungeons are no joke. Still, I'm not eager to wipe the slate clean just yet, and acquiring all the hexes is one of the few magic-based trophies that don't require two-and-a-half playthroughs or hundreds of online invasions (kudos to whoever on the development team decided "forced NG++" was a fun requisite to add to the achievement list again).

It's around now I start describing what this boss is about and his tactics, but given how asinine these dungeons are and how it requires a priceless item just to attempt one, I'm going to leave this guy a mystery. There are tough games out there that require 100% effort which I'm am happy to provide, so that I might see it through to the end despite the many hardships. Dark Souls is this. Then there are games I eventually become entirely apathetic about and can no longer drum up the enthusiasm when it gets super hard like this. Dark Souls II is that, I've discovered. Might just be I'm burned out on the Souls formula, but fighting effin' Havel on a thin bridge over an abyss while his backstabbing friend Ricard could pop around the corner at any moment is not something I intend to spend any more of my finite time on this Earth partaking in. Up with this I will not put.

Darklurker's big and scary. Probably. Bye.

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The Mento Game Awards: 2014 in Review

Welcome everyone, to the Mento Game Awards! This should be a fairly compact award show this year, given that I didn't play a whole lot of new games, but there's always a handful I need to commend and others to decry, and that means handing it over to my favorite incompetent hacker and... oh man, did I leave @vinny's Dark Souls character in the final MVGX comic I did last year? Uh-oh...

Best 2013 Game of 2014

Top Eleven:

  1. Pikmin 3
  2. Gunpoint
  3. Remember Me
  4. Super Mario 3D World
  5. BioShock Infinite
  6. Toki Tori 2+
  7. SteamWorld Dig
  8. Warlock: Master of the Arcane
  9. The Starship Damrey
  10. Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe
  11. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Well, I threatened to put together an entirely incidental top-ten list for 2013 games I played this year, and there it is. Obviously, if you were going to be a consumer that waits for price drops, you're going to be around six months behind the curve, which means a lot of worthy titles bleeding over to the following year. I still have copies of plenty more 2013 games left to try too, including The Swapper, Assassin's Creed IV, Tales of Xillia and others, so we're not done with that year by a long shot. Nor, I suspect, will I be done with 2014 for quite some time to come, despite being generally lackluster comparatively.

Let's just briefly touch on this alternate top ten: Pikmin 3 goes first, because I love the Pikmin series to bits, and though it felt a little underwhelming compared to 2 it still looked gorgeous in HD and still had more or less the same level of craft and ingenuity. Switching out purples and whites for rocks and flying didn't make a huge amount of difference, but the absence of dungeons and what felt like a major scaling down of items and areas was a bit more of a bummer. Gunpoint was a little Indie game that got in, did its job and got out with a great deal of finesse and little to criticize. Remember Me I enjoyed quite a bit in spite of its flaws, because it had creativity for days and in an ideal world might've received an amazing sequel that ironed out all its problems, sort of like what happened to the original Assassin's Creed. Super Mario 3D World is another charmer from Nintendo's flagship series, though is again another Mario off-shoot facing diminishing returns from figuratively hitting the same POW Block one too many times and despite 3D World's charm, it began to lose me towards the end with its unwarranted difficulty spike. BioShock Infinite was like Remember Me, in that it had plenty of great ideas and looked amazing but I didn't so much care for the repetitive execution nor the relentless racism (I get it! They're bad guys! They like owning people of color and doing mean things to them!). Toki Tori 2+ and SteamWorld Dig were great, compact open-world puzzle-platformers that often required some deeper thinking, Warlock: The Master of the Arcade was a serviceable if not quite superior attempt to reboot Master of Magic, Starship Damrey was an interesting first-person horror game for a system that usually hosts nothing of the sort and Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe was a major nostalgia boost for me that kept me hooked on air (space) hockey for longer than I'd care to admit. Finally, because I did play it last year, we have Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons following up the rear at 11th place. Hey, don't look at me, it just happened to land there.

Bucket List Tick Off of 2014

Nominees: Deadly Premonition, Wizardry 8, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Tales of the Abyss 3D.

Going further back, deep into the pile of shame that somehow continues to grow faster than I can deplete it, we have the Bucket List Tick Off of 2014 for games that I've been meaning to try for many years now, and finally knocked out.

Deadly Premonition is the clear winner, because it allowed me to finally experience the site's second longest running series (collectively speaking). That meant a whole bunch of new (for me) Ryan content too, and the value of that cannot be overstated. Wizardry 8 is a CRPG heavy-hitter that felt like a gap in my moderately dense CRPG history, like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines and Planescape: Torment were last year. Metal Gear Solid, which I preferred over its sequel, introduced me to a series I'd stayed clear of for far too long, and I was beginning to feel like that guy who's never seen Star Wars. That also meant more great site content I'd finally allow myself to watch too, so due credit there. Trails in the Sky and Tales of the Abyss are just two JRPGs I've been meaning to play for ages, and I so rarely find the time for super long anime adventures these days. Man, do I miss being a teenager with a PS1 and a summer that went on forever. That's probably the oldest old man thing I've ever said.

Best Soundtrack of 2014

Nominees: Shovel Knight, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Dark Souls II, Jazzpunk, Magicians & Looters. (Hon. Mention: Super Smash Bros., which is disqualified for being mostly remixes)

Slim pickings this year. Either that or I wasn't paying much attention. Most VGM continues as it has in the past, fitting their respective games well but not really going out of its way to be memorable or unique. Shovel Knight's was uncommonly good, with composer Jake "virt" Kaufman using something close to the NES's sound chip to create a lot of jams that are too darn earwormy. Clearly the guy learned a thing or two about catchy NES music when revamping the DuckTales soundtrack for WayForward's recent reboot. Wolfenstein: The New Order's "Metal with a capital M" soundtrack just demands your attention, even over all the gunfire and bombs and colossal Nazi war robots, and it makes the softer stuff stand out all that much more during the game's handful of quiet moments. Dark Souls II is, again, sort of doing what Dark Souls did but slightly worse, in this case because without the lore there's not a whole lot to link the (otherwise fantastic) orchestral tracks to their respective boss fights. With almost all of Dark Souls's bosses (excepting the few random monsters put in there for flavor), I got a sense through the music of the sort of entity I was fighting, whether it was mournful (Sif or Gwyn), angry (most of the demons) or grimly duty-bound (most of the knightly types, like Ornstein and Smough). Jazzpunk's soundtrack was a lively and espionage genre-congruous salsa/electro and I respect the hell out of it even if it's not my kind of bag, and Magicians & Looters surprised me with how much I liked some of its music later in the game.

Here's a short YT sample of what you can expect to hear in these five games. I'll look forward to other best soundtrack lists from GB users who played a lot more new titles this year (looking at you, @majormitch):

Weirdest F'n Game of 2014

Nominees: Jazzpunk, Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Sayonara Umihara Kawase, NES Remix 2.

A Mento Game Award staple, I give a shout out to the game that confused and bemused me the most, either due to an off-beat visual style, a bizarre script, or anything else that could make a game stand out from a crowd, albeit by yelling the loudest about how the CIA was stealing its brainwaves. Despite some competition from Go! Go! Nippon!, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Sayonara Umihara Kawase and NES Remix 2, all of which were weird but in a manner that anyone familiar with where those games came from could expect, Jazzpunk is the winner here. Every non-sequitur joke made a twisted kind of sense, but so rarely could you anticipate what that joke was until it happened. You could talk to a box and expect it to say something about the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo in a growly voice, but probably not something backwards in Japanese about hair-curlers. Yet it never got so absurd for the sake of randumb, pulling just short of the "Tim and Eric line" into pure pointless idiocy that so many others of its comedy Indie ilk collapse into. These were actual jokes, and they were good ones. But, you know, weird as well.

Of course, the real answer here is Metal Gear Solid 2, despite technically not being a 2014 game. We'll be coming back to that one with a different award, so don't you worry.

2014 Game With The Most Knight Bosses

Nominees: Dark Souls II, Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight, a game about knights where every major NPC boss but one is a knight, had less knight bosses than Dark Souls II. Just saying.

We'd better run the list down, in case you think I'm exaggerating or something. Rules: I'm including recurring boss fights and multiple opponents. "Knight" refers to any heavily-armored humanoid, preferably with one of those badass slit helmets like what my avatar's got. There's spoilers for both the above games, naturally:

Shovel Knight: Black Knight (x3), King Knight, Spectre Knight, Treasure Knight, Plague Knight, Mole Knight, Tinker Knight, Polar Knight, Propeller Knight and, hey, let's throw in Mr. Hat and The Phantom Striker too = 13.

Dark Souls II: The Pursuer, Dragonrider, Old Dragonslayer, Ruin Sentinels (x3), Flexile Sentry, The Smelter Demon, Twin Dragonriders (x2), Looking Glass Knight, Velstadt, Throne Watcher & Throne Defender = 14. Doesn't account for DLC.

Game I Had the Most Fun Being a Huge Jerk About

Nominees: Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid, Dark Souls II, Deadly Premonition, Go! Go! Nippon!.

This is a new category this year, but I'm thinking of making it a regular one like Weirdest F'n Game. In the past few years I've gone from writing blogs about larger subjects generally connected to the games I played that week, to screenshot LPs, to essentially a bulletpoint list where I'm jus' sassin' 'bout what I see. What's alarming is that these "reaction blogs" have been some of my most commented-upon this year, far more than the LPs or the daily review blog series. I'm starting to appreciate the fact that the youth of today prefer brevity to long-winded explication and ratiocination, though I'm not quite at the point where I'm MST3king a video in real-time like the big YouTube names of today. Maybe that will change, but I'll need a better computer first. Would anyone read the sarcastic subs of an annotated video, I wonder?

Anyway, the above list includes a reaction blog for Metal Gear Solid and two (1, 2) for Metal Gear Solid 2, written in response to Dran and Dew's MGS misadventures, a couple (1, 2) for Deadly Premonition which began this whole new lo-fi format of being snarky about weird games. Go! Go! Nippon! saw a fairly horrifying multi-part LP series and Dark Souls II an ongoing critique of its boss fights (though the previous award summarized that whole blog series pretty neatly). MGS 2's was the most fun to write, and I continue to partition it to match Metal Gear Scanlon 2's episodic progress because, darn it, the La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo can't suppress what I have to say about how dumb that game gets. No doubt it'll be followed next year with MGS3 (and maybe 4?).

Best Game for a Babby Console

Nominees: Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart 8, NES Remix 2, Sayonara Umihara Kawase, Tappingo.

Another series staple, wherein I judge the best Nintendo game I played out of an increasingly irrelevant loyalty to a developer that helped define my youth. Honestly, though, Nintendo had a great year irrespective of any pity awards, pushing out a lot of incredible 3DS and Wii U exclusives that, naturally, I didn't get around to because I'm cheap and Nintendo games never seem to drop in price. I did play enough 2014 games on those platforms to scrape five nominees together though, and I suspect (well, know, since I already published my GOTY 2014 list) I'll be discussing my abusive relationship with Super Smash Bros. in more detail elsewhere.

As for the others, well, Mario Kart 8 is also on that GOTY 2014 list with more elaboration if you're curious. NES Remix 2 was an improvement over the original, thanks in part to a better selection of games, but Jeff makes the inescapable point that there's way more they can do with that concept than the few, largely tame unusual mix-ups they have already. On the other hand, I've always felt the point of these Remixes is to introduce a sort of "Cliff Notes for NES Games" to younger generations so they can appreciate how those old NES games played and how they would inspire modern game design (if you've seen that viral vid of teenagers playing Mega Man, they could use the help, though they seemed to be catching on fairly quick). Indies zero, the third-party developer Nintendo hired to produce the series, began with the Retro Game Challenge (a.k.a. GameCenter CX) franchise, creating retro-style games that were meant to invoke an era of being a kid with an NES, a spare afternoon and a bunch of Nintendo Powers for hints (or a 30+ year old comedian with a bunch of 20-something assistants, as the case may be). NES Remix is really more of an extension of that idea, just with some extra silliness thrown in. Sayonara Umihara Kawase was a minor coup for lovers of obscure Japanese games, a niche market Nintendo's getting better at courting (though they could go one better and localize Fatal Frame IV and V already), as the Umihara Kawase series had been exclusive to Japan for twenty years now; this new one was an anniversary release, in a sense. It's too weird to explain in brief, so look up some videos. Finally, Tappingo was a neat variant on Picross that might interest anyone who has exhausted the Picross e series on 3DS and wants something new. Tappingo already has a sequel out, in fact, though I've yet to try it.

Best New Character

Nominees: Vella (Broken Age), Glory (Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall), Shield Knight (Shovel Knight), Vienna (Magicians & Looters), Joy (Murdered: Soul Suspect).

Always contentious, the Best New Character award goes to whatever collections of polygons and pixels that somehow let me forget, however briefly, that they aren't just polygons and pixels. Obviously a well-realized character with clear motivations and personality helps, but I'm also fond of creativity and maybe a heaping helping of badassery too. I mean, who wants to play as, or alongside, someone who can't take care of themselves?

Broken Age's Shay's a bit wishy-washy and passive for my liking, even if he is attempting to thwart an omnipresent and potentially malevolent computer in much the same way as Chell did before him, but Vella is a far more proactive agent of her own escape from the bizarre rules she is forced to live by. Refusing to be some hideous monster's lunch, she defies tradition to attempt the impossible and kill it so no-one ever has to dress up in a ludicrous cake dress to be Cthulhu's afternoon snack. She's courteous and kind to those she meets, but is driven by her goals to the extent that she has little time for BS like hylophobic lumberjacks. Maybe a little less goofball than most people want in their point and click protagonists (she's no Guybrush), but I like a no-nonsense protagonist in my adventure games. Dragonfall had a bunch of great characters, from aging German punk rocker turned shaman Dieter to the gruff female orc commando Eiger, but I liked Glory most. Presented as a taciturn gothy mystery, Glory's various skillsets--she has short-range shotguns and bionic claws on prosthetic limbs, but is also adept at healing--are almost at odds with each other. It's when you dig into her traumatic past that things start to make sense, and she was one of the most fun new characters to explore in terms of backstory. Warning: it gets super dark. Shield Knight is the driving force behind Shovel Knight's quest, and also the source of the game's best story moments, including Shovel Knight's uneasy dreams about leaving her behind. That she turns out to be the damsel in distress, the big bad and the badass combat partner simultaneously is a pretty great twist. Vienna's one of three apathetic, detached and somewhat psychopathic teen protagonists in Magicians & Looters that the player can switch between, but is presented fairly early on as an athletic Bruce Lee type who becomes the default choice for people like myself who go into SpaceWhippers with a focus on exploring every nook and cranny. Her martial arts make her a fun character to fight as, but it's her acrobatics and higher jump that really appealed most. She even has a dive kick. As for Joy, well, I thought Murdered: Soul Suspect wasn't too bad in story terms, and while Joy is essentially Ellie Mk. 2 as yet another streetwise ingenue who doesn't particularly care to follow the advice of any adult, she's a better character than Tortured Tattoo Cop Ronan. She also runs rings around him in their conversations, rolling her eyes at his attempts to be some slick noirish gumshoe.

Best Octurbo Game

Nominees: Lords of Thunder, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Ys IV: Dawn of Ys, Dungeon Master: Theron's Quest, Dungeon Explorer II.

I spent a whole month playing TurboGrafx-CD games, so I might as well pick one out as the best of the bunch. While I certainly respected the quality of Rondo of Blood, enjoyed my brief time with Ys IV, was completely weirded out by Dungeon Master: Theron's Quest's reimagining of a classic childhood staple of mine and was impressed with the much improved Dungeon Explorer II, I think Lords of Thunder and its unforgettable metal soundtrack is what resonated with me most. Should I ever find myself in the unlikely position where I can buy a TurboDuo, Lords of Thunder will be the game I'll get to show off the system to people. It'll be easier than trying to find a TGCD copy of Rondo anyway, since that's Japan-only.

2014 Game of the Year

Winner: Super Smash Bros. for 3DS

This, I realize, is a hard Number One to justify even with 2014's meager offering for the new console generation-impaired as well as underwhelming headliners in general. Especially since I never got around to playing it with other people, or trying the supposedly superior Wii U version. It speaks to my psychology as a gamer, someone who loves a game where I can: explore a wide depth of content; discover new options and make constant alterations and evolutions to my playstyle; have many short-range goals to chase after; build towards an eventual state of completion instead of having my interest eventually burn out; and never get too boring or slog-like along the way. My favorite games of all time, Dark Cloud 2 and Master of Magic, had all these aspects in spades, and so does Smash Bros to perhaps a lesser extent.

There's enough nuance to the characters where you can find out certain strengths and weaknesses in their move selections, but are never overwhelmed with button presses and combos to memorize that you only ever end up playing two or three and getting real good with them: anyone can play any Smash character effectively if they use smash attacks and B+Up to recover from getting knocked off, but it takes just a little more effort to see each character for what they're worth. Likewise, each stage is different and has its own characteristics for the savvy player to exploit. The revamped Classic mode always provides some variation, there's hundreds of challenges and trophies to pursue and the 3DS's Smash Run is actually quite enjoyable in the way an action RPG eventually becomes; as you get stronger, you find you can start to stand your ground with bigger enemies and reap some real gains in terms of stat boosts and drops when you finally defeat them, not to mention the satisfaction of defeating foes you've run away from for so long. It's not the perfect Smash experience and I miss the lunacy of Brawl's Subspace Emissary (Smash 3DS could've used more boss fights too), but I always find myself getting giddy when a new Smash is on the horizon. More so than a new Mario or Zelda these days, even. But hey, like I've said in the past, I'm probably just playing it wrong.

Anyway, if you wish to read my full GOTY 2014 list, just go ahead and click that link. I've got a few more blogs lined up for the rest of this year, so I'll see you all again soon. Thanks for reading all my MS Paint squiggles again this year!

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Fourteen~ (Mechanic Escape + Spate)

Day Fourteen

Mechanic Escape's one of your classic masocore platformer types, of a specific sub-sub-genre I'm thinking of dubbing "perfect run" masocores. More a timed obstacle course than an open-ended platformer where you have time to explore the surroundings, the player must dash through a gauntlet of ropes, pits, lasers and all manner of terrors to reach the end, preferably while grabbing a bunch of collectibles along the way. The collectibles occasionally act as detours, especially the larger ones that unlock new costumes for the protagonist, but for the most part sit directly on the optimal path, in a sense guiding players hoping to earn the quickest times.

The timed aspect is generally optional, as you aren't actually compelled to beat each stage as quickly as possible beyond potential bragging rights with whomever else might actually own this game, but maintaining a momentum is built into the level design at a core level, so you tend to find yourself sprinting along the linear path regardless. However, a certain nemesis who makes itself known on every stage (occasionally twice or more) will pursue you through stretches of the level, and it behooves the player to move as fast as possible during these sections to avoid a premature demise. The collectibles, too, are entirely optional, but again this is a game where they've been built into the level design and it feels like missing the point if you end the stage with some absent.

Chased by an evil cloud. Did Darren Lindelof write this?

The unfortunate mistake made by many (if not all) masocore Indie platformers that followed in the wake of Super Meat Boy's success, is that the mechanics involved with the platforming have to be perfect. If not perfect, then at least consistent. Mechanic Escape is fairly fluid and precise, fortunately enough, but there are certain obstacles that make the game very unforgiving when it doesn't need to be. The arc of the jump when leaving a rope can vary too much, and there are gravity switching fields that are too hard to parse when moving quickly; if you jump in the wrong place while in these fields, you end up flying in the wrong direction. Often the game switches to a sort of "automatic mode" for a few seconds, similar to certain sequences in Sonic the Hedgehog, but it never deigns to tell you this, and any interactions you make tend to upset the delicate balance of these "put the controller down a second" occurrences. Minor stuff, but when you're building a game that depends so much on sustaining a perfect speedrun, they add up far quicker than they might in the more common Super Mario derivatives. The other issue is that, because lap times are everything, the game never checkpoints. Super Meat Boy could get away with that because its levels were all so short, usually around 20-30 seconds when you knew what to do (with the exception of its later worlds, where it began to lose me a little), but most of Mechanic Escape's stages are close to a minute long. Again, only a little ways off the optimal design and entirely exonerable were this not a game where every second counts and you're dying frequently. The last and perhaps most problematic issue is that the game appears to have introduced all its mechanics in the first world, leaving nothing for the future worlds besides harder variations and the occasional new look. I've only gotten a little into World 2, but the achievements (which are of the unimaginative "do this x number of times" type) would seem to corroborate this fear.

On the whole, though, Mechanic Escape isn't too bad. It's a slick little Indie platformer with tolerable controls that feels a bit more like the new Rayman games than most others of its Indie ilk, given the emphasis on following lines of collectibles to speedily clear levels. Masocores aren't my thing, largely because they're just so hard to get right, but this one seems fine enough in spite of its aforementioned issues.

  • Game: Spate
  • Source: Groupees's Be Mine 13 bundle
  • Start: 14/12

If Mechanic Escape is an Indie platformer that builds from Super Meat Boy, then Spate is one that builds from Limbo. I'm not sure what you'd call this; a cinematic 2D platformer? Spate is similarly atmospheric as Limbo, but instead of a stark monochrome world it's murky and viridian. The player is a private eye and inveterate drunk, who seems to see the world through a filter of absinthe, which explains the world's green and hazy appearance. He also happens to be exploring a toxic wasteland for a missing person's case, an area designated "X Zone" after some mysterious industrial calamity irrevocably destroyed the natural beauty of the place. You're never quite sure if the environment is the result of the hero's drinking or the chemicals running ramshod over the natural order of things, and this opaque perspective becomes obfuscated further when enormous creatures and visions of your deceased daughter fill the screen.

Hello!

Gameplay-wise, we're firmly in the realm of rudimentary physics puzzles and basic platforming, with the emphasis instead on the narration with the oddly Walken-esque delivery coming from the protagonist as he continues to delve into the deepening mystery behind the case he's working on. Hitting a button to drop a boulder on a seesaw to fling you upwards, that's generally the sort of thing we're talking about. It works fine enough as a foundation, but it's not quite as endlessly clever as Limbo became. The game's lousy with typos too, so it might've used a bit more proofreading.

In the end though, the greatest flaw of the game is that it's currently impossible to finish. This might be endemic to my particular computer, since it has enough trouble loading all the weather effects, vignetting and other atmospheric filters. I found myself attempting to ride a giant floating platform on a pivot: Clearly, the goal is to stand on one side of the lever to create a diagonal bridge to the next part of the level, but each time I jumped on it I simply fell through after a split second and into the bottomless pit below. Didn't seem to matter where I stood either, and simply jumping on the spot over and over only worked for so long. It's a shame, as I was already invested in the mystery, but I suppose that's the way the cookie crumbles. Absinthe makes the floor go yonder, or something.

I think that was a fish that just passed by. Yeah, pretty sure.

Still, if you're looking for a game like Limbo and you're somehow fortunate enough to not have the above snafu happen to you when you play it, it might be worth checking out if you find it cheap or in a bundle. There's a certain Burroughs quality to the game's noir script and surrealism, though I'm certainly not the ideal judge for that sort of literary comparison. My knowledge of Burroughs starts and ends with that Naked Lunch movie where RoboCop's typewriter is a cockroach.

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That's it for Go! Go! GOTY! this year. I think a nice round two weeks is better than artificially extending it out with whatever dregs I have left over, and it gives me some time to put a proper GOTY awards blog together. Thanks for reading this series, and if you're seeking some closure then look no further than this GOTY 2014 list of mine to see what I ended up choosing. Peace.

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Thirteen~ (Kraven Manor)

Day Thirteen

  • Game: Kraven Manor
  • Source: Bundle Stars's Killer Bundle
  • Start: 13/12

Since it's the thirteenth today (though a day off of Friday the 13th), I figured I'd go with the singular horror game on the Go! Go! GOTY! docket. Kraven Manor is a student project made with the Unreal Engine that does a lot with a little. The best horror games keep you guessing, and thus keep you in suspense throughout. Kraven Manor also tries new things with the gameplay, a feature obviously unique to horror games in particular and usually underutilized; the gameplay side of this genre is traditionally fairly weak, usually serving as a foundation upon which to build the horror beats, most of which are common enough features in other horror media. It's easy to think of the genre as being this place where developers throw together some basic first-person exploration and then go nuts with their film studies liberal arts degrees and experiment with presenting horror movie tropes from a first-person/viewer-driven perspective.

"Nethermancy"? I think that's just called urology these days.

Kraven Manor is very much built on the standard "walk around in first-person, get spooked out by things" Indie horror template, the sort of thing that gets cloned endlessly by hacks for the sake of PewDiePie affiliation lucre, but Kraven at least explores a bevvy of ideas before quickly but steadily building to its fairly ludicrous (but still fun) conclusion. The player travels to the foreboding Kraven Manor for reasons that probably exist somewhere, and finds that there's an odd mechanical secret to the manse, as well as a far more diabolical supernatural one. Upon finding dioramas of areas of the mansion, the player can connect them to a model of the main hall to open new areas as parts of the building shift around to accommodate. It's a modular level-building device that I've seen utilized in the barest handful of games, and it's something I'd love to see more often. Each area is a self-contained spooky set-piece, gradually presenting the game's antagonist: a bronze statue that the player spots as soon as they first step into the mansion (though, of course, there's no way they're cognizant of its significance, despite the fact it switches positions to look at you).

The antagonist cannot move unless it goes dark, or the player turns their back on them, after which it moves very quickly and can take you down in seconds. It's very much taking a leaf from SCP Containment Breach's book (or the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who, to go further back), but it's effective, and the game starts to do clever tricks with the premise once it's been introduced. For instance, the game sometimes "glitches" and lets you see the statue animate for a split-second once the player focuses the light on them despite it breaking the "rules"; a very deliberate design decision. Eventually, it starts to ignore this rule all together, as it grows more powerful with the player's inadvertent help.

See? This is sorta neat. I wish I could remember some other games where you could build your own base with models/modules like this.

Most Indie horrors are content to be a pale shadow of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, with the same first-person views and eerie sound and visual effects that do all they can to unsettle the player, but it feels that the developers of Kraven Manor (who I believe were a baker's dozen of university students) are at least eager to try new ideas. Whether it's the modular level-building or its gradual (yet expedited) process of introducing and establishing its nemesis and his burgeoning new "powers", it certainly uses its short running time to decent effect. (If you're not a fan of horror games or, rather, you are a fan of horror games but not a fan of actually playing them yourself, you can either watch 2BFP (one of the few LP teams I can still tolerate) play the whole thing for their 2014 Halloween feature, or drop a line to one @patrickklepek to feature it on Spookin' With Scoops someday.)

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Twelve~ (Dreaming Sarah)

Day Twelve

  • Game: Dreaming Sarah
  • Source: Indie Royale's The Mystery Bundle 2
  • Start: 12/12

I quite like Dreaming Sarah. I suppose I should append "so far" to that, because the game appears to be an Early Access game of the "in-progress variety": rather than everything being buggy and broken with the merest hints of what a finished competent product might be, the game is fairly structurally sound; it just doesn't seem to end right now. Or maybe it does, but I have no way of knowing for sure without looking up the ending (or a lack thereof) without spoiling the game's puzzles. My fault for loading up yet another one of these Early Access types for this feature. I'll stick this in the vault too, I guess. (Though it does strike me as odd that, even though it's Early Access, it has achievements and Steam trading cards enabled. I suppose these days those things are just good promotion and worth interrupting one's dev cycle to implement. As is the decision to give away the game's soundtrack to early adopters. This is how you do Early Access right, folks.)

Hi!

The game is a trippy 2D pixel platformer that does a few of the usual platforming things (there's a scenario where you have to outrun a lava flow, and one where you have to float down a hole where the walls are lined with spikes), but it's far more skewed towards "adventure game" than "platformer". You run and jump around, investigating new areas, solving the occasional environmental puzzle and obtaining new items. These items can be one of two things: simple inventory items that you need to hand off to the right NPC to make progress, or an item that you can toggle that affects the world in some way. For instance, a pair of spectacles that allow you to see hidden doors, or an umbrella that allows you to float like Princess Peach. Obtaining these items and using them in the right situations gets you further along, and the game eventually starts tipping its hand as to who Sarah is and why she's in some bizarro dreamworld. (Hint: she's dreaming.)

No idea what I've discovered here, but... Hi!

I've read that this game is inspired by a far more unsettling doujin game named Yume Nikki, which has a similar theme of a young girl trapped in a literal nightmare, and I'd be happy to see what Dreaming Sarah is like with a bit more polish and, well, an actual conclusion. Like another recent game with similar gameplay and a similarly pixelly visual style, last year's Finding Teddy, it's a relaxed and breezy adventure game that's more concerned with setting an atmosphere than thrills. A fine tonic for the brash and loud zombie nonsense that Steam's become known for. I'll be keeping an eye on this one for when it hits v1.0.

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Eleven~ (The Sun at Night)

Day Eleven

Laika, the unfortunate stray dog that the Russians launched into space with no intention of bringing back (this Achewood strip captures the fucked-up-ness of that particular historical moment of scientific progress), did not die in this alternate timeline version of Earth but descended back to terra firma considerably more intelligent and with a powerful robotic body that is able to equip numerous weapons as well as project a kinetic shield that protects Laika from both enemy gunfire and environmental hazards. The Soviet Union has, in the time since Laika's launch, blown up major parts of the world and conquered the rest, but now has to deal with the fallout (literally, in some cases) of the various environmentally unsound weapon programs that ascended them to dominance. The game does a fine job looking into how the Cold War hypothetically might have proceeded had the Soviets narrowly won by desperate means, dabbling into all sorts of unethical science and explicating the unfortunate living conditions of those few who survived the war. Laika joins a scrappy bunch of rebels of various nationalities early on, and then chooses to help them achieve their goals in defying the Soviets.

My immediate thought when seeing The Sun at Night was that it was somehow connected to A Valley Without Wind: both share a distinctive yet somehow simultaneously dull visual style, like someone built entire level design out of default sprite templates for crates and furniture that came with Unity. The combat's similar too, as is how both games found an unusual means to visualize maps. They both even have what sounds like a Zen koan for a title. Turns out that the two games have absolutely nothing to connect them, however.

(A Valley Without Wind, to digress a moment, seemed like such a great idea on paper: a procedurally generated SpaceWhipper with useful items scattered across randomized zones filled with monsters and other dangers. The player could go exploring in any direction, finding all sorts of necessities out in the dangerous world to bring back to a home base which would continue to expand. I suppose I was hoping for something more like Animal Crossing with randomized dungeons. But hey, I've always got Dark Cloud for that sort of thing, kinda.)

Dare you defy the terrifying might of Cyber-Babar? Man, that is one tiny robotic elephant.

So far the game's been kind of middling. The various characters (both ally and enemy) whizz around so much that it's hard to keep your weapons trained on them, and combat is generally just leading the enemy and watching their health bar quickly drain down, multiplied by infinity. There is some exploration, but besides some notes and other lore (which, to be fair, is quite well-written and does a good job thoroughly expanding on this alt-history setting) and the occasional upgrade gizmo, there's usually not a whole lot to find. The game has a handy feature where you can reduce useless items, like ammo for a gun you don't yet have, into a base resource which can then be processed into any other consumable. Likewise, finding consumables when you don't have room for them means you can simply break surplus items down for resources and never have to deal with that irritating feeling of passing on items you've maxed out on but might find yourself needing some time later. While convenient, it does mean that you never have to go out of your way for hard-to-find consumables, leaving those upgrade points (and the occasional new weapon) as the only viable reason to ever wander off the beaten path.

The Sun at Night has some neat ideas, then, but the execution's a little lacking. Backtracking through all these large and mostly empty areas for stuff to find is a little dull, the combat's both too frenetic and too repetitive and it just doesn't look or sound all that great. Like Magicians & Looters, it has plenty of great notions for a SpaceWhipper (though I guess Laika is closer to a SpaceWhippet?) that I admire and would like to see more often, like a waypoint system on the map screen that tells you the optimal path to take by highlighting which rooms you want to pass through, and a busy upgrade tree that lets you prioritize upgrades of a utilitarian, defensive or offensive nature. The core just isn't quite there though. I might stick with it to see where its unusual story is leading, but I suspect I'll be drained of any enthusiasm by its dull gameplay long before then.

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Ten~ (Albedo + Level 22)

Day Ten

Yeah, I'm not sure about Albedo just yet. I should've checked before playing it, but it's currently in Early Access, so this will be a short one. What it appears to be is a first-person shooter/adventure game with physics puzzles and a rather intense blurry filter over everything. It's going for a certain retro zeerust 50s/60s sci-fi B-movie feel, as evinced by the marquee title screen, but I'm not sure that whatever filter they're using to make it seem all VHS-quality is necessarily working. Honestly, it just makes me feel queasy and disoriented, and that's from someone who's played swishy and swooshy first-person games for years without issue.

There, one squished bug. Not pictured: the murky, hazy vision blur that seems to permeate the whole game.

The first room of the game sets up some elaborate puzzle that presumably sets the bar for the many adventures to come. I believe the game eventually becomes a shooter as well, but I can sense that it wants to impart a certain necessity for resourcefulness onto the player in lieu of striding into every enemy encounter guns-akimbo. Perhaps a bit more your Alien: Isolation than Doom, I'm surmising. Anyway, this puzzle requires that you find a temporal widget that reveals what each room should look like post-puzzle as a form of hint--as in, giving you an idea of what you ought to be working towards--which in this case is the corpse of a big alien bug monster in the middle of the room. From using objects in the vicinity (clicking the mouse wheel helpfully highlights all interactable objects with a green sheen), you're meant to smash a nearby vending machine with a brick, find a rat in a packet of snacks taken from the machine (what?), trap the rat with a rat trap close to the machine, tie the vending machine to a rope and then let the alien that then breaks down the door to get to the rat chase after it, while you drop the vending machine on top of it. Voila, big dead bug alien monster in the middle of the room; the future refused to change.

Even so, the nausea-causing swimmy visuals and arbitrary obtuseness so far means it's a little too rough for me right now. Maybe once it's passed through the Early Access process, I'll give it another gander.

Level 22 is a little more straightforward than the obfuscated (in more ways than one) Albedo, as it's a charming little top-down stealth game with some neat pixel visual design that recalls that Tested "Blockhead" T-shirt or the isometric pixel art of eBoy. Like with Braveland a few days ago, there's a distinct feeling that I'm playing an up-rezzed iOS/Android game, in part due to the graphics (the stretching of pixels to fit a resolution worthy of a monitor can be very noticeable, and I say this as someone who frequently uploads enlarged 8-bit and 16-bit images as header images for our wiki) and the fact it was over in a few hours. Honestly, though? I didn't mind its length at all. It knew precisely when to end before wearing out its welcome.

The threadbare plot of the game is to get Gary, who is once again late for work and is one misdemeanor away from losing his job, to his office on the 22nd floor of a corporate skyscraper. Each floor is filled with co-workers, all of which are quick to rat Gary out to the boss despite presumably not knowing who he is or where he's working, as well as numerous other unusual obstacles like conveyor belts and androids. It's one of those games where you tell your protagonist where to go with cursor placements, rather than controlling them directly. You can also command Gary to pick up items or hide in lockers and the like. The goal of every stage is to simply reach the stairs up.

Darkwing Duck's Secret Duckcave. I mean... yeah. Sure. Why not.

The game gets a little more complex than that, of course. There's collectibles to find, a secret safety deposit lockbox on each floor that requires a six digit code gleaned from background details scattered around the stage you're on (though some are frighteningly abstruse, and can require the use of the Periodic Table or knowing the Ancient Greek alphabet), to give you something other to do than to make a beeline for the stairs. it also has a goofy sense of humor, though one seems a little too eager to break the fourth-wall early and often. The previously-fired best friend character, who gives Gary most of his worst ideas via his phone, kind of reminds me of Stu from The Life & Times of Tim, which also kinda fits the "office drone in peril" theme here. Man, I miss that show.

Level 22 has its problems, though not many. It gets particularly brutal later on, the pathfinding can often take you on odd and disastrous routes as it maneuvers around angular level geometry, and the safety deposit clues can require a little too much lateral thinking at times. All the same, the stealth is very fair, and you're given a few seconds to escape the gaze of a co-worker if you're just far enough away. If you're right on top of them when they turn around, however, that's pretty much an instant game over. It also checkpoints frequently enough though, generally whenever you've made progress (acquired an item needed to move on, let's say) and are in a safe spot. Its rules are simple to grasp and it never puts you in a position where you need lightning fast reflexes, though a few boss fights can be touch and go. Literally, if you're playing on a mobile device with a touchscreen.

Imagine that.

It's hardly GOTY material, but it's an enjoyable breezy game that seems to be the norm for Steam Indies, and those that were originally iOS games in particular. Maybe buy it for a buck on your handheld communication device of choice and give it a whirl.

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Nine~ (Year Walk)

Day Nine

  • Game: Year Walk
  • Source: BundleStars's Killer Bundle (still going!)
  • Start: 09/12
  • End: 09/12

It's another iOS adaptation for PC, but a special one. Not only is Year Walk one of a handful of iOS games that Giant Bomb has ever Quick Looked that wasn't some crappy freemium thing, but one of the few games I was actually looking forward to playing when it wasn't exclusive to a $500 paperweight. Year Walk is, and this ties in nicely with another recent release by the name of Never Alone, a game based on actual pagan mythology of a northern peoples that Christianity, in its wisdom, all but scrubbed away and replaced with something they liked better. But whatever, if not that, then something else, right? Fortunately, it's common enough to find preserved specimens in the snow and tundra of rural Scandinavia, and so too has much of their folklore been dug up in a similar fashion. The Year Walk is based on one of these ancient traditions: a ritual fasting period followed by taking a walk into the deeper parts of the forest in a semi-delusional state to learn things beyond mortal ken.

As a game, it's fairly rudimentary adventure game puzzle stuff, but does have a bit of a "how far does the rabbit hole go" feel a la something like Fez. You're never sure if the solution you've found is the complete picture, as there's multiple unexplained elements and iconography scattered around the sometimes confusing map that either means something or it doesn't. It's a neat compromise that Fez pulled off as well, in that you can reach a conclusion and still feel like you haven't found everything. And I don't just mean something as immaterial as collectibles, which this game does not have.

My equine chum the Brook Horse, with all the baby souls he could want. Yummers.

Tonally and artistically the game is very grim and stark and, as Brad himself said in the Quick Look, doesn't shy away from the often brutal twists and endings that came with traditional folklore and fairy stories before they got Disneyfied. The nature of the creatures in the game is left purposefully ambiguous as well, as each one seems neither particularly evil or good but simply an impartial force of nature like the snow under your feet. It's certainly not a long game--I beat it in an hour with zero hints--but worth the few dollars they're asking for it. It's culturally informative, eerily spooky and utterly unique.

But man, if I can just afford a little bit of grousing here, this is the second day in a row where I've been temporarily stymied by a puzzle requiring musical aptitude. Indie musicians should not be designing games, consarnit. Let them sing about how much it sucks that Starbucks keeps getting their order wrong and away from a game engine. Rabble, rabble, rabble.

(Yes, I realize this game came out in 2013, but only for mobile platforms so it doesn't count. So myeh. Man, I'm crabby today.)

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Eight~ (Braveland + Always Sometimes Monsters)

Day Eight

  • Game: Braveland
  • Source: Groupees's Be Mine 15 Bundle
  • Started: 07/12
  • Ended: 08/12

Braveland turned out to be fairly short in the end (though it does end with an ominous "End of Book One" line after the epilogue), but I still enjoyed my brief time with it. I won't go into my antipathy with the Mad Stackz system again, but the game manages to do a lot with a little, which is high praise for an iOS/Android game where resources are generally thin on the ground and a compact but satisfying product is ideal. More ideal still if you don't jam in microtransactions somewhere, which Braveland avoids doing despite ample opportunities for it. (At least, there aren't any with this Steam port.)

As discussed last time, Braveland's a strategy game where the player is an oddly well-built peasant who's tired of all these bandit attacks consarnit, so raises an army of other farmers and scouts before eventually recruiting healers, crossbowmen and knights to their forces. Though there's a scant seven unit types, and only about twice as many enemy units, there's enough strategizing in the form of who to take with you, which units to bolster with new recruits and whether or not to spend that money instead on new equipment which adds passive buffs to the whole army. You can also (and are advised to) make detours to obelisks which boost stats permanently, statues that widen the player's spellbook repertoire which can be activated after enough damage has been received, and new vendors and recruitment locales. I leaned pretty heavily on the HoMM comparison last time, and while you aren't building up some stronghold somewhere, you do go out of your way a lot for nodes and treasures lying just off the beaten path, perhaps with a particularly tough encounter guarding them.

I really didn't find much use for the healers. Best defense is a good offense, after all. Fill that slot with dudes who can hit things.

I actually started to appreciate the level of strategy in the fights too. For instance, I learned very late on that if you leave an enemy stack alive with such a small number that they cannot possibly do much harm to your units, they will still add to the "fury" gauge whenever they ineffectually bat at your armored front-line. This fury gauge is what allows the player to activate the aforementioned spells earned from statues: they range from a relatively strong fire arrow attack on a single unit, to a buff that greatly increases the movement range of a unit (great for cumbersome knights), to a buff that boosts the entire army's morale to a massive firestorm spell that hits up to three enemy units. Finding a way to build up this gauge quickly is a handy way to turn a battle in your favor. Likewise, a judicious use of the "wait" function, used after moving your units almost as far as they can go (moving that last space ends their turn without an attack round), can let you wait for enemy units to come into range so you can whup them on the same turn. Archers can aim for enemy ranged units, but they might also be better used whittling down the front-line so your fighters can quickly get past them and take care of any ranged units themselves: archers are considerably less effective when a melee unit is standing right next to them.

Anyway, there's a lot more to Braveland than meets the eye, though it's worth keeping in mind that it's still nothing as complex as a Heroes of Might and Magic or some other big PC strategy game. Don't expect too much and you'll probably be content with what it has to offer.

Always Sometimes Monsters is interesting. There's footage of Brad playing it on UPF, so that takes away some of the heavy lifting when attempting to explain what this game is, but I suppose the closest descriptor I can think of would be "life simulator". Say, your Cart Life or Papers, Please or social games like The Sims. It looks like a 16-bit RPG, as every other Indie game invariably does, but there's no monster encounters (despite what the title suggests), resources are slim, priorities are of paramount importance and there's a certain sense of desperation and compromise. It's not quite as oppressively grim as the aforementioned duo, but it's certainly not a walk in the park either. The protagonist, who you choose at the start of the game (as well as his/her partner, who can be of either gender as well), is a struggling writer who is given a publishing opportunity during the prologue. However, when the game skips ahead a year, it appears the protagonist has not only squandered this opportunity but has split with their partner as well, both instances happening some brief amount of time after the intro that the game eventually expounds on via flashbacks. The game begins with your near-destitute writer hero(ine) eking out a living in the unfortunately named metropolis of Dubstown, which is where the resource management and hard decisions come into play.

Talking of heroin.

I've only completed a day so far. It borrows a little from the dating sim genre (or, let's say, the non-dungeon parts of Persona 4) in that the player has a certain number of day "segments", during which they need to find ways to raise money for rent, buy food to keep their stamina up and decide how best to spend their time. There doesn't seem to be any other stats to worry about besides stamina, which appears to double as both a tiredness and hunger meter, so you aren't micromanaging your character's happiness and well-being every step of the way a la The Sims.

So far, I've had to set up a band's instruments at the local nightclub (I got docked for switching the guitar and bass placements around, because fuck me if I can't tell two 50x50 pixel guitars apart) and helped at the cloakroom desk, both of which were mini-games of sorts. I suspect other employment scenarios in the game will involve similar mini-games as well. On the whole though, it's not a game that seems too interested in beating you down with a miserable, "can't win" narrative. More that it wants to tell you an unusual story with highs and lows, and has added these gameplay elements to maintain a kernel of interactivity. I might stick with it for now, though I did just get a new influx of games to try so perhaps "now" might be "later in the month if I run out of stuff".

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Go! Go! GOTY! ~Day Seven~ (ESJ: Groove City + Braveland)

Day Seven

Ah, good old ESJ. Though Electronic Super Joy released last year, the psychedelic masocore platformer from Michael Todd Games received a standalone add-on in 2014 that feels sort of like a Blood Dragon or a Peggle Nights: A comparatively bite-size morsel that riffs on its source material, but has its own original story and new ideas that might just make it to a fully-fledged sequel some day. Groove City isn't particularly big (it's the size of a regular chapter from ESJ), but it's more ESJ if you're missing the silly orgasmic checkpoints and the even sillier plots about robot strippers and buttless heroes.

It'd be easier to point to an earlier thing I wrote about the original game and then talk about what's new with this add-on. The game has new music, the original's thumping club mixes being one of the draws for Electronic Super Joy (well, if you're into that sort of thing), and the game also adds in collectibles in the shape of white stars. Collectibles do nothing but add towards the player's score, naturally enough, and it does the risk/reward thing by adding black stars which are worth considerably more but create homing missiles that plague you until you complete the stage (or die). There are rainbow stars too, which replace the well-hidden trinkets from the original that occasionally require you check for false walls and leaps of faith. Usual stuff.

Good reference humor.

The game's also considerably easier than the final chapters of the original ESJ, which seems like an odd choice if you're shipping a game like this for the diehards who have conquered ESJ's myriad challenges and are thirsting for more. There's a few tricky sequences, but nothing I couldn't jump my way past in less than a handful of minutes. I think I hit a record 60 deaths on one stage, which isn't actually as bad as it sounds. Death is not a hunter unbeknownst to its prey, especially in this series. There are a couple of post-game stages that are a bit more devious, but again are fairly short. You'll be done with everything the game has to offer in a couple of hours, if that.

But hey, that simply means the game works as an introduction to the original ESJ rather than a post-game expansion. Play the series backwards if you like, and I don't imagine Groove City will be heinously priced in any upcoming sales. It's an intense and goofy platformer that you'll be screaming at, but in a good way. But not in as good a way as those people announcing the checkpoints. I'll have what they're having?

  • Game: Braveland
  • Source: Groupees's Be Mine 15 Bundle
  • Started: 07/12

Since Groove City was over with so quickly, I put a few hours into this next game as well. Tortuga Team's Braveland is your archetypal iOS port. It's not terrible, not at all in fact, but there's a certain blocky cartoonishness to anything devised for the mobile market that it's instantly recognizable. A strategy RPG, Braveland feels very much like a Heroes of Might and Magic game without all the city-sim stuff. There's a map with branching paths, and each either leads to a fight or to a means to supplement the player's army via recruiting new soldiers or buying new equipment which offers passive buffs to every unit.

I said it was Heroes of Might and Magic specifically, because this game employs what I pejoratively call the "Mad Stackz" means of visual presentation of armies. Which is to say, every unit of the same type kind of sits on each other's shoulders to create a single stack with a number to designate how many of that unit is actually there. So a farmer with a "7" means there's actually seven of that unit, not just one. In larger numbers, units do more damage, but that damage output goes down as the stack takes hits from enemies and the number of units in the stack dwindles. Beyond a certain threshold, a unit becomes useless as they simply won't have enough damage output to contribute to the battle meaningfully (and as every unit in the game will counter the first attack they receive that round, it way well be suicide to keep using them). If you aren't familiar with HoMM or the games it inspired, the Mad Stackz conceit is a little hard to wrap one's head around conceptually at first. It all adds to the strategy, albeit in an abstruse manner.

Bad reference humor. Oh, Diablo Canyon 2, why can't you be more like Diablo Canyon 1?

Beyond that, the game's fairly simple and straightforward, and thus precisely what you'd expect from an iOS game. It proceeds at a brisk pace, always giving you new challenges on the horizon and decisions to make regarding whether you ought to get more units or power up the units you already have, and I can tell I'll need to make a choice soon about which units I want to bring into fights as it appears I'm edging closer to a specific limit. So far I have: farmers, which are weak but stack in great numbers and are cheap to replace; archers, for ranged support; pathfinders, who are fast and deadly rogue-types; healers, whose healing magic become more potent the more of them you hire; and footmen, who are burly dudes who hit hard and take a lot of punishment. The game appears to only allow five unit types, and also limits how many high-level units you bring with you. I can definitely appreciate how layered they made this game, while also ensuring that it's easy enough to grasp and to play.

But man, do I not care for Mad Stackz. I'll keep at it for the time being, as I can't imagine there's too much more, and then move onto something else if I find it gets a little too samey. See you tomorrow, Steam chums.

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