Mento's Alternative to E3 Day 2: The Legend Adventure Quest Part 3

It's Day 2 of E3, and things are starting to wind down a bit. I'm hearing there's been some crazy evening shows coming from Giant Bomb, but I'm going to have to wait until this weekend to watch them. I seem to be spending all the time writing these darn Alternatives and monitoring the GS streams in our chat room. I'm certainly getting more E3 than I anticipated, which makes these Alternatives a bit... I dunno, hypocritical? Well, I make 'em for you guys, specifically the ones aren't interested in hearing about games that won't be out until 2015 anyway. We are kindred spirits, you and I.

Today we're going to be looking at a game I knew nothing about going in, and we're moving from dark fantasy and post-apocalyptic superhero satire to good old "hard" science fiction, as Party Down's Roman DeBeers might refer to it. Derisively, probably.

Mission Critical

1995's Mission Critical is a game I'd never heard of before this week. It's Legend's first attempt at injecting some FMV cutscenes featuring live-action performances into their games, the sort of feature that would eventually be everywhere in PC games of the mid-90s (1997's Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is a particular favorite example of mine) but not quite descending into the all-encompassing digitized actor nightmares that adventure games would soon become. Taking more than a few cues from Star Trek (let's just say you might recognize a face or two), Mission Critical is a sci-fi adventure game where the crews of two AFS (The Alliance of Free States) ships -- the command ship USS Lexington and the science vessel SV Jericho -- have had to kill themselves to prevent a distant planet's mysterious contents falling into the hands of the enemy (which I believe the game refers to as the UN? I guess they suddenly got evil. And competent. Not sure which is more "sci-fi"), hatching a plan that would leave a single person behind on the USS Lexington to complete the mission. That person is you, naturally, and most of the early puzzles involve fixing the damage done to Lexington during the intro battle and getting everything working again. The handful of other actors only appear during the prologue and occasionally on logs and other video/audio recordings.

As before, I've captured highlights of the intro as a "Part 0". The game itself begins with Part 1, right after. The acting's not actually all that bad, kind of unfortunately because that means there aren't too many fun goofy B-movie moments to capture. It's more like a regular episode of Babylon 5. Or, well, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Part 0: Hey, At Least People Listen to Him in this Sci-fi Universe

We open on a big spaceship moving through frame, which is sort of how you want to start any sci-fi related property if you ask me. Importantly, the USS Lexington is where most of the game is set, so it's neat we get to see it in all its glory up front.
A bunch of actors sit around a fancy future age vector display, looking at green wireframes fly around. But what manner of actor, I hear you ask?
How about Michael Dorn? The actor best known for the ornery and often injured Klingon Starfleet officer Worf here plays Captain Dayna, who spends most of his time looking concerned at a computer console and giving orders. So, playing to his strengths.
The other major role is XO Jennifer Tran (kind of an unfortunate name, really), who is played by Patricia Charbonneau. Charbonneau is for the most part a TV actor like Dorn. She was in RoboCop 2 (as a lab tech) and Manhunter as well though, if you're trying to place her face.
So anyway, eventually the plot kicks into gear and the two ships are ambushed by an enemy UN vessel. It's considerably better-armed than the Lexington, it turns out.
Not-Amanda Tapping gives us a report that the drone fighters we sent out are getting their asses kicked.
The Lexington and Jericho take a few hits each too, before Captain Dayna decides to call for an unconditional surrender.
So here's where the plan comes in. Dayna excuses the rest of the bridge crew to the escape shuttles, intending to hand them over to the UN ship. He confides to Tran that he intends to destroy the enemy vessel by bringing an active warhead along with them, which will kill everyone on board the UN vessel, including the ASF's own crewmembers. A single unnamed officer will be left behind to complete the mission.
Because they need to give Dorn something dramatic to do, he records a personal message for his daughter before leaving the ship.
Everyone vacates the Lexington and Jericho, and...
I guess that just leaves us now.
Subtle choice of typeface there guys. Well done.
Title drop!

Part 1: Breaches of Privacy. And Hulls

Sounds like another Satur[MOD EDIT: Sexual assault jokes are never funny, kids.]
Welcome to Mission Critical! You'll notice that while the usual Legend text box and inventory slots are here, there's no longer a sidebar of commands cluttering things up. Also, every screen transition is fully animated in fancy 90s CGI, because this is the future.
There's also a Help option for those who only bought this game because they heard Michael Dorn was in it. It's been built to be far more forgiving to newcomers as a result, up to and including letting the computer play the game for you.
Each deck has a handy map to help you avoid getting lost. I kind of like the schematics-style look to them, though unfortunately there's no text to tell you what everything is.
We wake up with a note that looks like a seven year old wrote it. Hey, I don't blame Dayna one bit. I've been typing on computers for so long that my handwriting looks like a chicken drank some espresso and attacked a piece of paper in its caffeine-fueled rage. He's given us a code to his stateroom and some basic directions.
First, though, we might want to do something about this alarm and worrisome whooshing noise. There's a microfracture somewhere on this deck that threatens to destabilize the whole ship. Fortunately, there's a terminal on each deck that tells you if there's any problems, though I can't yet access the central computer and get info on the ship itself.
Named for the most dangerous animal of the Serengeti, Condition Zebra is reserved for "fix this or we're all dead, you idiot" problems. Starting to think this hull breach might be a priority.
We're told that they keep these patch kits near every terminal in cases like these. Most of the items in the game have these fancy close-ups. It's all pixel-based, unlike the ship environs, and they look pretty nice.
We find the Captain's Quarters nearby, but for as much as I want to rifle through Worf's stuff, I think we'd better grab the manifest he was talking about and go fix that puncture.
The whooshing gets louder as you approach the crew quarters, but it takes some checking before we find the right door. I'm using my keen detective skills to deduce that it's probably this one.
Probably best I read the instructions for this patch kit first. Knowing my luck, it'll be the first thing sucked out into space once I get in there.
I'll also need to check the crew manifest I just grabbed for the right override code. This first page is kind of interesting: Poole and Aguilar are new commissions for this mission, while the Supply Officer only joined after this manifest was created. Presumably I'm whoever that is, then. Makes me wonder why the guy charged with looking after the pantry is the one left behind to accomplish this vital mission, but I nitpick. It would at least explain how I'm able to keep my inventory items in order.
Excusing the typo, here's a list of the nine most important officers on board. We'll be rummaging through most of their staterooms for useful items, so it's only polite to know the names of the corpses we'll be robbing.
The very back page of the manifest, which I didn't bother capping because we have enough document images already, provides the Captain's scrawled notes explaining which room has which code. We only have a handful, but fortunately one of them fits the room that's currently depressurizing.
Man, it's a good thing it hasn't sucked out (or blown out, I guess) all the oxygen in here. Probably best I fix this while I can still breathe.
So the instructions say to spray around the fissure, releasing a gel that magnetically seals itself to metal.
And then all I need to do is add the patch and voila. No more imminent death. From this source, at least.
Now that all the books and items have stopped swirling around, I can check them out. This one seems like a real page-turner.
If I try to pick up any book unrelated to the mission, I get this snippy reply. Oddly, the weight of the book is different for each one, suggesting that I'm somehow able to tell an item's weight in grams just by picking it up. Man, I must be the best Supply Officer in the universe.
Now this is more like it! Swedish Bikini Team gag? I mean, without the bikinis. Let's just find a holodisc player and-
Aw dammit. 23rd century space porn will have to wait, then.
Holy shit, Dr. Anton Fujikawa throws blue. This is the Science Officer's quarters, obviously enough. Besides goofy 3D artwork and not-so-inspirational quotes, it's empty.
Dr Michael Dahl, the Medical Officer, has an interesting looking safe in his stateroom. It only responds to a retinal scan though, so whatever's in there will have to wait. Maybe Doc left his eyes somewhere on the ship?
This is my room. I already know precisely how useless all my stuff is, so I quickly depart. At least I didn't have to remember an override code for this one.
Deck 2 also has the ship's Communications Center, which I'll no doubt be needing once I get the main computer back online. Then again, this is supposed to be a classified mission...
Also here is the spare parts room. Every one of these items has a different six character codename, which probably means I'll need to replace a part and have to remember what its number is. This does seem like a "have a notebook handy" sort of game.
So back to the Captain's Quarters. There's nothing else here besides an audio log. Dayna doesn't go into too much detail about the mission, but he does talk about how foreboding it was. We also know it has something to do with the planet we're orbiting, dubbed Persephone.
The only other room here, and one we were directed to in the Captain's note, is the wardroom. We're here to find Tran's final message, which should tell us the state of the ship and our next objectives.
But first, I get distracted by a miniature model of the ship inside the ship. I always wondered why Picard had one of these. So did Commander Shepard, for that matter. Maybe they were fans of the Droste effect?
XO Tran, who I unfortunately captured mid-snarl, has left me with two chief objectives based on her damage report: the first is that the ship's engines are about to overheat and explode due to a problem with the coolant tanks, which is probably something we should fix sooner rather than later, and the second is to get the ship's computer back online. Well, time's a-wastin'.

Part 2: Irradiation, Irrigation and Irritation

The wardroom monitor farts out a keycard, insinuatng that we're now able to leave the deck via the elevator.
It's a proper cylindrical spaceship elevator too. With wall ridges. I wonder if it will play the TNG theme when I close the doors?
So the spaceship's pretty big. That's nine decks, each with presumably some purpose within the game. I'm a little spoiled for choice, but while a meltdown of the ship's engines is nigh perhaps we ought to head to engineering first.
Ah. We can't go there yet because of a potential radiation hazard. I mean, that's what the computer lady just said. I guess we're heading to Reactor Spaces instead.
So here's a puzzle: there's four rooms and two tunnels in each leading up and down. Any one of those tunnels might be filled with a lethal dose of radiation. As I have no protective suits or a Geiger counter, I'm saying to hell with this.
Instead, I go exploring the other decks for something that might help down there. I'm not eager to lose all my hair and grow flippers any time soon. Here's Deck 3, which I visit first because I still have some override codes to check out.
First though, we're checking out the Mess Hall. Besides crappy astronaut food, there's not a whole lot here to see. We can, however, access the VR computer here. Let's hope they don't have Dreadhalls or Kraken on this thing.
There's two programs loaded up: the first is a tour of the USS Lexington, which describes each of area of the ship in detail, explaining their function. It's yawn city, though I can't help but feel I ought to listen to it anyway. Might be hints.
The other program is a historical documentary on the war we're involved in, and why and how it started. It's interesting, but a bit wordy, so I'll just summarize: The UN clamped down on all technological progress after it was clear that we were developing technology that might lead to a nuclear war that would annihilate mankind. The Alliance of Free States, which included the most technological nations like the US, Western Europe, Japan and, uh, Canada seceded from the UN because they were all like "Nah son, we ain't stopping this progress train until we get our hoverboards" (paraphrased).
Both entities believe they are in the right, so the war's been waging almost non-stop for decades. Both sides are exhausted, have very little resources and people left and clearly something needs to put an end to it. Hence why we're here in the middle of nowhere looking for I'm only guessing will be an alien superweapon. Just a hunch.
So after that history lesson, it's time to check out even more staterooms. Hopefully one of these crewmembers had a radiation suit fetish. Then again, I'm not sure I'd want to wear it, knowing why it was there.
We find Lt. Falcon's quarters. We find a note with another override code from a person Falcon was knocking boots with. From the crew manifest, above a few dozen screenshots, we know Falcon was a woman. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean anything if we're looking for her partner. All we have is an initial: J. Going by first names of officers from the manifest and the staterooms we don't already have codes for, it's either James Poole or Jennifer Tran, the XO.
Apparently it was pretty serious?
Hideki Miura, who wasn't on the first page of the crew manifest, was the resident hacker around here. I'm half expecting Neuromancer posters and a black trenchcoat. I took his gold necklace, because he wasn't using it. I also took his code, even though it seems to be a C++ routine to display Pi. I'm sure it'll be useful.
Ah, the gossipy Mary Quan left a physical journal behind. Not only does she solve this little mystery for us, but casts all kinds of aspersions on Poole being a villainous UN agent. I suspect this info might come into play after I'm done fixing the ship.
Poole's quarters has this suspicious spaceship model in it. I'm not sure what it contains, but let's carry it with us. It's probably not going to be an explosive or anything.
Deck 3 was largely a wash, at least as far as finding something to help us with those irradiated tunnels, so I decide to start searching the rest of the ship. First off, we head to the bridge to sit in the Captain's chair. Should've been the first thing I did after getting that elevator keycard, frankly.
Deck 4 is all crew quarters, and I don't have override codes for any of these. Moving on.
Deck 5 is potentially interesting, though this particular room looks like a no-go. Not unless I want to eviscerate myself on space age polymers.
In the other direction, though, we have the Medlab. Surely I can find some manner of anti-radiation gear here?
Yeah, yeah, I love you too, game. Great. Besides some hint about using the Autodoc table to stun someone, which I'm sure I won't need, there's nothing much here.
The Science Lab's got all sorts of interesting doodads and test tubes lying around.
Including, importantly, this hand scanner and Geiger counter. Success!
Ah, so this ought to tell me the elemental composition of anything I use it on. Might come in handy. Actually, we do have this strange model we're carrying around...
Ah, okay, so it actually is a powerful explosive. Might as well keep carrying it around then. I'll make sure I don't leap off a ladder too hard or something.
So this is an interesting puzzle, and the first instance of a puzzle that requires some thought beyond regular adventure game inventory deductions.
The Geiger counter can only tell you if the area's clean, or if both ladders lead through irradiated areas, or if one ladder leads through an irradiated area - but doesn't say whether it's up or down. There's five floors too. It's a process of elimination, where in the cases where only one ladder is deadly, you can sometimes figure out which direction it is. Say if the A room on the first floor leads to a deadly descent, and you get a message in the A room on the second floor that only one passage is irradiated, you're safe to go down the ladder there because you already know the one above is the deathtrap. It's sort of neat, but not too challenging.
Finally, we make it to the engineering deck. Thankfully, and kind of strangely, there's no radiation whatsoever down here. That might've been unfortunate.
The nearby computer gives us two issues to sort out. The first is the coolant issue we're already aware of, that continues to be ever more pressing.
This one doesn't seem quite as important. These systems are working, but no longer have back-ups in case they fail. I assume if they ever go down, it'll be for story reasons some time later on.
The engineering room's pretty impressive-looking. Kind of wish we could get a better look at the core, but I don't think it's one of those ones like in Star Trek where there's a big wibbly thing in the middle of the room. I suspect the actual engine-y parts are underneath that dome.
Oh man, i know what this is starting to sound like.
Yep, it's a variation on Pipe Dream. I've already messed up here, though, because those big yellow clasps need to be opened manually.
That means going up to the top floor of the engineering deck and crawling into one of these Jefferies Tubes. We can only turn on one auxiliary coolant tank at a time, so I hope it's not one of those cases where only one will work.
The game explains that the tank needs to be fed through the main reactor, through a heat sink and then back into the coolant tank to complete the circuit. It's a lot less annoying than I anticipated it might be, though it also took me a while to get my head around what I was supposed to be doing. Maybe I was just panicking too much.
Heck yeah I did. I'm a hero! Hey everyone, I- oh... yeah.
Well, I think this is the perfect time to save and quit for now. Doesn't seem like anything's seconds away from blowing up. Except maybe that bomb in my pocket.

So far, Mission Critical's been kind of dull, but I've certainly appreciated the level of detail in the game. That VR orientation video on the ship goes on for like fifteen minutes, describing every section and its role, and much of the written material and audio logs have been quite extensive. There's no shortage of worldbuilding here, which would be impressive enough in a game like Death Gate where there's a whole novel series to draw from, but Mission Critical is entirely original. Well, insofar as it was written by Legend employees, not that it's a particularly innovative sci-fi setting in its own right (hey, but then neither was Mass Effect, and that does all right). I've read that this game gets a lot crazier once you finally get off the ship, so maybe I'll revisit it at some point. Any interest in seeing these LPs continue? Please feel free to leave some feedback.

Regardless, you are all very much welcome to stick around for the fourth and final game tomorrow. I did want to squeeze in a bit of info on the other three Legend graphic adventures too somewhere, so maybe something on those will show up (in a far less exhaustive context) after E3's over. Until then, farewell from the worrrrrld of tomorrrrrow.

< Back to Part 2.

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Mento's Alternative to E3 Day 1: The Legend Adventure Quest Part 2

Welcome to day two of this Alternative to E3 2014, replacing day one of the expo itself. I realise that's confusing, but I figure it's their fault for insisting on this "day 0" nonsense in the first place. You'll all be glad to know that today's game -- from the decent, sadly decedent and Infocom-descendant Legend Entertainment -- is a heck of a lot funnier than I am. I might as well not have to worry about the jokes today. Thank you, Legend, for allowing me to even lazier than usual.

Superhero League of Hoboken

Straight out of post-apocalyptic New Jersey (though you can barely tell the difference), it's the Superhero League of Hoboken, an original superhero parody written in-house by Steve Meretzky: a legendary figure within adventure games (on par with Al Lowe and Ron Gilbert, if in talent but not renown) who made his big break at Infocom and became the guy behind many of Legend's earlier Interactive Fiction games. SLoH, in a novel twist from the usual graphic adventures, is also a turn-based RPG of the Dragon Quest kind. The player's team of superheroes are often forced to tangle with random encounters in the ruined New Jersey landscape between key locations, taking down goofy and vaguely satirical monsters that wouldn't be out of place in a Shigesato Itoi joint. We're talking classic 90s humor for the most part, so the humor skews a little closer to The Tick or Freakazoid, helped considerably by the not-so-incredible Superhero League and their meager powers.

But hey, don't take my word for it. I took the liberty of screencapping the amazing intro for this game, which also doubly serves as exposition and a general sense for how the game is played. Check it out:

Part 0: With Minor Power, Comes Minor Responsibility

Oh, I get it. Actually, let's not do any subs for this intro, it's all fairly self-explanatory. I'll see you in Part 1, I guess?

Part 1: The Superhero League of Hoboken: Some Assembly Required

So now we start in earnest. If you recall back to Death Gate, a lot of this GUI should be familiar to you. The arrows are for navigation (the center two for are ascending or descending floors), we have a set of default commands and there's a handy Undo button for dumb mistakes.
Even the inventory system is the same, though you'll notice our hero's chiseled physique has replaced Death Gate's magic spells symbol. That icon is used to talk with your party members, and the lightning bolt underneath allows you to employ their powers to solve puzzles.
Man, I love the writing in this game already, even for minor shit like this background sign. Periodic table jokes, that's the calibre we're dealing with. The lunchroom it leads to is where we can access the party screen, adding or removing members as we see fit. We can only have four right now, but that number will grow (as will the stock of superheroes to choose from) as we complete missions.
The storage is where everything goes when you switch heroes. It stores inventory items and equipment both, because of course this game is also an RPG. You can see on the left what I'm holding, and anything with a plus is currently equipped. You can have up to ten pieces of armor (one for each part of the body, though unfortunately there's no paper doll to make it easier to track) and two weapons, one for ranged and one for melee. The game uses a row system, with ranged attacks only for those at the back, but it's a little strange. We'll get to that in the next part most likely, what with the amount of time I'm spending here.
Here's a closer look at our hero, The Crimson Tape. As the protagonist and leader of the Superhero League of Hoboken, he's the only character you're forced to use the entire game. His superpower of creating organizational charts is effectively useless, but he's a good all-rounder stats-wise.
We're taking with us the Iron Tummy, as a secondary fighter with a potentially useful skill. Well, maybe. The most I can say is that I'm envious of it.
RoboMop's another good brawler and an awful pun, but superheroing can be messy work and we'll need sentient household cleaners out there.
Mademoiselle Pepperoni is more of a ranged mage class, and we need someone to fill out the back row as we're already stacked with melee fighters. That superpower though... the endless possibilities.
Once they're with you, you can interact with anyone in your party. It's usually Elder Scrolls type commands, like "eat this thing" or "use your power", but you can sass them as well. You can also give items to anyone you want just by using them too.
There's a weird museum in the basement, which holds all sorts of Hoboken-focused historical memorabilia.
In particular, we have this creepy waxwork Frank Sinatra.
For some reason he has a compartment in his butt that houses a Sinatra mixtape. Might as well bring it with us.
Aw man, I wanted to ride the train. At least I stole that painting. No idea if I'll need any of this, but the game let me take them, so...
Upstairs we bump into our equivalent of the Bat Computer, or I guess the Watchtower if we're going the whole hog with this "Superhero League" stuff. There's various tools every hardworking superhero needs up here: a supercomputer that dispenses missions, a news console and a couple of maps of the area.
We actually have to fill in the maps as we explore and, as you can see, it's a pretty big world out there. Each section holds different locations to visit, but the further you go away from HQ the harder the monsters will get. It's an effective way to stop you wandering into territory you don't need to visit yet. The "Chaos" function tells you the strength of the enemies in each sector, once you've added said area to the map.
Oh man. Rorie, look away now. (The news ticker doesn't seem to have any purpose, at least not yet.)
So each "chapter" of the game is split into groups of five missions. Once I beat these five, which are usually linked in some way (I might need an item I find in one mission area in another, for instance), I'll be "promoted" a class and be allowed more heroes in my group. I'll also get another five missions.
Any mission can be accessed for more information including, ideally, where I'm supposed to go to accomplish it. This precarious Limburger Bomb scenario is actually one space away from HQ, but that doesn't mean I'm at the point where I can resolve it. Defusing a bomb made out of a giant block of cheese won't be easy.
Dr Entropy, as the introduction explained, is our Dr Doom. In fact, their names are pretty much synonymous. He'll pop up every so often with a new supervillain scheme we'll have to thwart. There's no priority rating for any of these missions, nor an actual time limit from what I can tell, so I'll stop that fiend in the fullness of time. You know, eventually.
Oh hey, it might just be we have a hero with us that can help with this. A lot of the game's puzzles rely on the talents of your team, so it's best not to dismiss their skills. No matter how seemingly trivial.

Part 2: We Actually Leave the Damn HQ

Rather than moving straight to the next location, there's an overworld to cross to reach the various locations described on the mission computer. The reason?
So we can bump into random encounters. The battle system is relatively simple -- it was purpose-built to be straightforward, so as not to scare off pure adventure nuts. This means the player can usually spam the first two icons (melee and ranged) and dispose of these early monsters. We can also use our powers, but only some powers can be used effectively in battle, and only for certain enemies. For instance, there's a hero that knocks animals asleep, but his power doesn't work so well on humanoids.
After defeating the "Terrible Two" beasties and a random lawyer, we get the usual XP and cash rewards. There's a good chance at getting a completely random item too, sometimes ones that can permanently boost stats.
While checking in on the injured Iron Tummy, I accidentally get involved in a conversation about Scoville units. What is this, Hot Pepper Gaming?
Whenever you reach a critical location on the map, we get this little screen asking if we're sure we want to enter it. It's not often you meet one of these screens and refuse to go in, since we kind of need to explore these places to move on with the game.
The marketplace has a cheese bomb in this dilapidated car. There doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it right now. I didn't see a superhero with any sort of anti-cheese powers.
There's also stores in any marketplace you come across, though I have no idea what's going on with the shopkeepers. Probably high on whatever it was they just flushed.
Every weapon has a simple rating, so it's just a case of switching up whenever you find something with a higher number. Characters automatically equip the strongest weapons they're carrying.
Ditto with armor, which you buy from the hardware stores. It's usually a good plan to keep any armor, because there's so much you can equip (you can always sell them too, but you won't earn much).
We get into more fights while exploring Neo New Jersey's picturesque ruins. These Hell Chickens can hit pretty hard sometimes.
The Supermoms aren't quite as formidable however. The good thing about this game's random encounters is that they eventually run out, similar to Zeboyd's games. It means you can't grind too much, but nor will you have to put up with constant easy monster encounters in low-level areas.
Unless you want to leave this particular sector (not advised early on, as the enemies in the other areas are harder), you can purchase a ferry ticket to get to the mainland. As all the other objectives are over on this side, it's a small price to pay.
We find the rabid sheep, though again there doesn't seem to be much we can do here. Pour a Nuka Cola out for that poor baby.
Now we're getting accosted by furniture, the dreaded Bureau-crats. If your party gets injured, they can rest in any area that provides the option (most places where you have access to your inventory, including clearly dangerous areas like the above and the sheep marketplace). Resting restores all health immediately, including those of fallen allies, but you can only rest so many times until your food supplies run out and you need to return to HQ. It's remarkably kind, and quite elegant.
Because I'm a monster, I've OCD completed the rest of this area's map. Certain regions, like water, are currently impassable.
Visiting the walled-in city Newark takes us to an enclosed area with a higher chaos level, meaning strong enemies like this Marketoon. Fortunately, most of them just wander off eventually.
Radioactive Nixon is a particularly tenacious foe. And yes, he does repeatedly insist that he's not a recidivist.
Finally, after scouring Newark and it's strong monster encounters, we find a location we can visit.
Actually, it's just a metro station. When the game opens up a bit and we have to go further and further afield for missions, we'll find keycards to use the New Jersey area's color-coded subways. We only have a blue pass, so this grey-stripe (and the red-stripe downstairs) is currently inaccessible.
We do eventually find the other location in Newark, where a massive stack of jalapenos await us. The Iron Tummy's up to the task though.
The superpower menu is a little... no-frills, but it gets the job done. None of our heroes have "Really Good at Treading Water" as an inherent skill; rather, there are isotopes in the game that the heroes can drink that permanently gives them a weaker version of a new power. With more isotopes, the power becomes strong enough to use, and more effective in battles. They're pretty rare though.
I rested at the rabid sheep enclosure (they didn't seem to mind), but I'm running out of supplies. I'll probably need to return to base anyway to go report that successful jalapeno mission. Gosh, this game is silly.
So here we are back at base, our stocks replied and our team back to full health. This seems as good a spot as any to give this game a break for a while.

Well, we didn't accomplish much, but there's a few heroes here we haven't used yet. It's possible that completing some of these other missions just requires solving a single adventure game puzzle involving superhero powers. Still, I decided -- entirely motivated by largesse and not my own incompetence -- to not solve all these puzzles and ruin the game for anyone reading.

Anyway, that'll do it for Day 1. No doubt you're all enjoying all this hot new Nintendo coverage and are perhaps wondering if Jeff got attacked by a Yoshi as a child to inspire all this hatred. See you tomorrow for the third part of this feature, with another characteristically odd Legend game to demonstrate.

The Giant Bomb blogosphere is now safe, but... for how long?

Day 0Death Gate
Day 1Superhero League of Hoboken
Day 2Mission Critical
Day 3Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
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Mento's Alternative to E3 Day 0: The Legend Adventure Quest Part 1

As E3 rages on around us and games are getting announced left, right and center that they're being delayed until 2015, that can only mean that it's time to hit the big red button that summons a merciful distraction to all the unnecessary hype and posturing of the biggest video games event of the year. It often feels as if the no-longer-burgeoning Indie market and an ongoing lack of faith in traditional games media outlets (hey, how about that cancelled Last Guardian, IGN?) are conspiring to marginalize an already marginalized expo event, forcing it to one day vanish into myth and legend like a proverbial Kentia Hall, but as long as the Bomb Crew find dozens of fun guests to shoot the breeze with every year the Electronic Three won't stop being a treat for fans of this site any time soon.

Talking of legends though, I've been inspired by the adventure game top-heavy Steam feature to which I just subjected you all to cover the games of the much-missed Legend Entertainment, which went effectively defunct ten years ago this January. Legend Entertainment was an American company funded by ex-Infocom employees that developed adventure games just when the genre was beginning to pick up, evolving from state of the art interactive fiction to join the golden era of graphic adventures of the mid-90s with their own specific brand of point and clickery.

Legend Entertainment has effectively three "ages":

  • The early years of 1990-93, when they resumed creating the deep, rich fiction that made Infocom a household name, adopting a windows system that was reminiscent of the ICOM MacVentures series. These were mostly standard text adventures, of the kind where you'd type in sentences and hope to Zork that the game understood what you were trying to do. While I have some affection for text adventures, my absurd tendency for typos made the "point and click" graphic adventures that followed infinitely more preferable.
  • Which brings us to Legend's second age: their (IMO) creative peak of 1993-98, when they created a series of seven games with their own persistent, point and click interface that were based on various contemporary fantasy and sci-fi novels of some repute, though there were a few entirely original stories in there too. The games of this era are usually sadly overlooked compared to the Sierras and LucasArts classics, though were still remarkable for their writing and imagination (helped considerably by their various source materials), as well as some truly clever puzzles. We'll be exploring four of these seven games in detail with some of my patented "Brief Jaunts" for this year's Alternative to E3, and I'll see if I can't squeeze a bit of info on the other three in somewhere too.
  • Legend's third age, subsequent to being bought out by Unreal Tournament developers GT Interactive -- which would itself be bought the following year by Infogrames and turned into Atari SA -- was an interesting time for the company, though one that would step away from the thoughtful adventure games and assume more action-oriented fare. They developed the disappointing Star Control 3, but also The Wheel of Time which -- despite being an early Unreal Engine shooter -- managed to remain as faithful to its literary source as many of Legend's earlier works. The financial tumult surrounding its father company and its father company meant that Legend Entertainment would go defunct in 2004, with Unreal II being its final project. It was almost merciful.

Death Gate

1994's Death Gate is based on The Death Gate Cycle, a fantasy series from Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman: authors best known for their Dragonlance books. The game approximates the events of the first four books, expediently and without many of the major characters. It also creates its own ending independent from the series, because the final book hadn't yet been released when the game was published. So it's sort of like the Game of Thrones TV show adaptation, fidelity-wise.

Here's where we get the backstory out of the way, so I don't have to spend half the image limit of this post to cap its in-game description: The Death Gate setting is one where a superhuman race named the Sartan sundered the Earth to halt a conflict that threatened to destroy every living creature (or so they claim). From this sundering came four separate but symbiotic worlds each based on an elemental force: one for air, one for fire, and so on. In addition, a fifth world was created: The Labyrinth, an interdimensional corrective facility into which the Sartan deposited their powerful rivals the Patryn. The Labyrinth was designed to teach the destructive and individualistic Patryn how to work together to overcome obstacles and reach the same level of community-focused serenity that the Sartan exhibited. Unfortunately, the Labyrinth's magical self-awareness mutated into pure hatred for the Patryn, and would constantly wage psychological war on its overwhelmed prisoners. Patryns died in the thousands trying to escape, befalling diabolical tricks and insurmountable challenges.

The game features one of the few Patryn to ever escape the Labyrinth, Haplo, who is sent by Lord Xar (the first Patryn to escape, and self-appointed Lord of the Nexus) to the other worlds to discover what happened to the Sartan. The Sartan were meant to stand guard at the exit to the Labyrinth, ready to welcome the newly converted Patryn to their society. Instead, The Nexus facility that connects the worlds is completely abandoned. The game, like the novels, involves Haplo travelling to each world to find clues behind the Sartan's disappearance and to occasionally fix whatever's wrong with that world's "mensch"- the three lesser races of the humans, the elves and the dwarves that the Sartan were supposed to protect.

The novels are a great read. It's a somewhat unique fantasy setting full of some really grim shit at times, which certainly helps, but there's also the palpable anger and distrust of the main character Haplo and his leader Lord Xar that's been honed after years of fighting against an incredibly powerful and hateful force that's tried its best to kill them since birth. If anything, it's made their individualism and resentment of the Sartan even stronger. Haplo's a great anti-hero as a result, only ever helping people if it benefits him or the Patryn race in some way, and who is considerably more powerful than everyone he meets thanks to his race's innate magical powers and the brutal trials that have shaped his development. At the same time, he isn't just some brooding prick protagonist that seemed to be everywhere in the 90s, and there's times when the humanity he was forced to put aside to survive in the Labyrinth bubbles up to the surface. In the history of this world, the Sartan were the good guys and the Patryn the bad guys, but it's obviously never going to be that simple. Still, Haplo and Xar are both very aware that were there more than a handful of Patryn loose in the Nexus, they could easily take over the worlds that the Sartan left behind. As well, they're deeply invested in finding some way to undo the sundering of Earth, if only to free the rest of their race from the Labyrinth.

My particular favorite is the second book, Elven Star, concerning the fire-based world of Pryan which has an inverted globe (like Terranigma, or Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne) with several small stars in the center that are meant to also provide power to the other worlds. There's a lot of secondary characters from the mensch races that the book introduces before it moves onto the tytans: an innumerable race of colossal monsters that slowly destroy the jungle world of Pryan as they march across its surface, causing mass deforestation and the death of anyone unable to keep one step ahead of them. The book does an incredible job of making the reader aware of just how dangerous these creatures are, and how irreversible and inevitable their slow doomsday march becomes, at least until it becomes evident exactly what they are, why they were created and what they are marching towards. It's very Attack on Titan, long before that series ever transpired.

Anyway, enough yapping about the books and onto some pictures. I promise the other introductions will be less wordy (I still need to read most of the novels they pertain to):

Part 1: Kickstarting This Patryn Adventure. Go Go!

We're introduced to the Sartan in the opening cutscene. Like their GI Joe namesake, they're all cloaked and mysterious.
Here they are being dicks and sundering the World Glyph, separating the Earth into several smaller worlds and giving some unlucky sod a bunch of hexagonal McGuffins to find millennia later.
Welcome to Death Gate! This title drop happens right after you see the Earth explode. If you're going to drop a title after any occasion, that's probably the best one.
We get our introduction, and a brief look at the wonderful Labyrinth. It's a place that wants to murder you horribly the moment you step inside. Sort of like London.
I don't even know what nightmarish scene we've stumbled onto here, but the game's still automatic at this point. No colossal vine monsters for us today.
And here we meet Xar in the Nexus, the region after the Labyrinth, and the game begins proper.
The way contextual commands work in this game is that many hotspots, like our pal Xar here, have their own specific options relating to them. If one of the seven defaults up there is insufficient, the game makes one up for you. Usually it's the one you want, but not always. I like that they never spell it out to you too often.
So yeah, Patryns have a thing called a Heart Rune. Patryns (and Sartan) are separated from the lesser races with their mastery of Rune Magic, which is one of those "controlling the essences of reality directly" sort of deals. Not too dissimilar from Jedis, if I'm being reductive. The other difference is that all Patryns have black hair with white tips, and all Sartan have white hair with black tips. As far as I know, frosted tips come with the territory. The 90s, am I right?
The voice acting in this game is excellent. The amount of vitriol Xar pours onto "They made it for us" and "we were supposed to be docile, rehabilitated" really helps to sell just how pissed this dude is at this whole situation. It's understandable.
So the first conversation with Xar is meant to be a huge info-dump. There's a lot of backstory to get through, which is why I deigned to get it out of the way earlier. However, most of the exposition is optional (you can skip through the dialogue as well, if you want, though it's well-written and acted so why would you?)
The only vital question to ask is the penultimate one, about Xar's plan. He then goes on to explain that he intends to reform the world, studying the various tomes left behind by the Sartan. Not sure why they'd leave vital information like that lying around, but then there were supposed to be more of them here. Like, more than zero.
In case you hadn't been paying attention, he'll give you this summary whenever you ask about your mission. We're to find the Seal Pieces we saw in that intro, as well as learn about the disappearance of the Sartan and try to learn some magic. Haplo can cast any spell as soon as he sees the runes for it just once, such is his talent, but he has very little knowledge of them right now.
Before we leave, we'll need a glowlamp. The ship is pitch black, so this is like the first minor puzzle of the game. As was the case with many early Sierra games, you earn points for solving problems. Some of them are optional, of course, so there's a very good chance you might make it to the end without solving everything.
More interface stuff: The arrows to the bottom left give you all the available exits. It's essentially a graphical representation of that hoary "available exits are North, East and Dennis" interactive fiction trope. You can also hit "Map" and just walk to any area you've visited automatically, provided nothing's blocking the route. We went Northwest instead of West on the previous map, so here we are at the Labyrinth. We... we don't want to go back in there.
Here's our airship. Unlike Final Fantasy (well, excluding X-2 I guess), they just give us one of these from the offset.
We have a regular steering wheel and a steering stone. The stone is for interdimensional transport between the different worlds, while the wheel's for navigating locations within each world. So, warp speed and impulse speed. I guess. Why do I keep comparing this fantasy game to sci-fi?
Welcome to the magic system. This is used for a number of puzzles, and it involves dropping those six runes at the top (you get more as you learn new spells) into the center and creating spells with it. There's a way to automatically cast any spell you've learned too, but there's a few spots in the game where you have to create a new spell by using your noggin.
Xar gave me the spells of "Identify", which allows me to figure out how a magical item or effect works (useful for hints), and "Rune Transfer", that allows me to transfer runes from tablets to our Steering Stone here. Xar gave us the first rune tablet, for Arianus the Air Realm, but we'll need to find the runes for the other worlds before we can visit them. It's almost always the last thing you need to do in a world before you can move on.
Whoo portals! Space galleons! Remember when fantasy used to be cool?
And he were are on the first world of Arianus. We've had to touch down over on the bottom right continent down there, and that's where our adventures here in the Air Realm will begin.

Part 2: You Winsey Some, You Kicksey Some.

So we've landed in dwarf country. Dwarves are, of course, one of the "mensch" races who are usually subservient to us all-powerful Patryn. Or they would be if I had any spells. For now, let's just talk politely to this one.
Well, I say politely, but there's usually a few sarcastic or outright dickish things we can say that usually quits you out of a conversation early. Fortunately, it's nothing game-breaking, as you can just start over by talking to them again. "Selective Memory Loss" is one of my more convenient spells.
I wonder if her other names are Jean-Michelle? Anyway, we're getting our first hint that the dwarves might be getting scammed by someone more dickish than I.
Exhausting all the dialogue options, generally the smart thing to do in any adventure game with NPCs, brings us to these tidbits about how the dwarven kingdom operates. The zingers (lightning rods, in other words. There's no Jay Leno business going on) are used to collect power for the Kicksey-Winsey, the ridiculously named machine that powers everything on this continent which can be seen in every screenshot via one pipe or a panel or another. Though the dwarves don't know it, it was created by the Sartan centuries ago for the purposes of assisting other worlds. We don't yet know what kind of assistance, though.
So yeah, the dwarves just bought the "gods'" story because they were glowing. They aren't given a lot of credit in this universe, are dwarves.
So once the talkin' is done, the stealin' (and prankin') begins. We begin by stealing some bread, the marmalade (we're told the dwarf next door, Limbeck, loves marmalade on bread), the white shirt on the wall and, sure, the elbow pipe used to hang it up. I'm sure this stuff is all useful. I mean, that's how these games work, right?
Here's Limbeck. He's a bit of a fop, working tirelessly on speeches to help convince others that the gods aren't real.
Limbeck knows for a fact they aren't real, because he actually saw them use their magic to turn themselves glowy, as well as spotting several that weren't yet incandescent. Given the descriptions he's giving us here, they're very clearly elves, the second of the three mensch races. Elves are assholes in this particular world, as we'll come to learn.
But we're done talking. What else is there to pilfer? To purloin? To appropriate? Hey, speech guy, you getting any of this high-falutin' vocabulary down? Well, I decide to steal the cork and then dip the white shirt into the ink because why not. Fuck your laundry, tiny person.
The path through the caves splits three ways here. This crossroads room happens to be completely pointless, so I'm not sure why it's even here. For flavor, I guess.
The left tunnel (Northwest on the compass) brings us to Grawple Rockdigger, an ornery dwarf with hearing problems and our first "comic relief" character. We'd best get this out of the way, then...
Haplo's been stuck in a hellish nightmare landscape for the entirety of his life. I'd like to see how personable you'd be after all that. Then again, this guy did call us "Flappo".
So the dwarf, in his hundreds of years upon this floating rock, has seen many a thing including the possible resting location of the Seal Piece for this world and/or the rune that lets us go to the next. He wants us to fix the part of the Kicksey-Winsey he's guarding though, which will require five pipe pieces. We got one from the first room and a second from the box in this room. He gives us the third, his "hearing aid", when we ask for it. Just two more to find, and eagle-eyed viewers might've already spotted one of them (currently unobtainable).
The center path brings us to this panel and one of the glowy elves. We don't want to attract their attention, for reasons that aren't clear yet but will become clear later (I guess Haplo's just the cautious type?) but we've been told the hearing of this guard is particularly sensitive.
So we have our first magic-based puzzle. Given the information in this scene, we know this machine has a heat sensor and what appears to be a loud alarm behind the sleeping dwarf. Let's see if we can't set that alarm off, shall we?
Haplo only truly begins with two spells: Heat and Cold. Neither is sufficient to melt or freeze an object, but we can raise or lower the temperature to uncomfortable levels all the same. You get the sense that they're basic survival cantrips more than anything.
Success! An irritated elf rushes to turn off the alarm that's driving him crazy, and I can sneak past to check out the elven airship.
These figurines, as Limbeck already informed us, are generating the glowy effect for the three elves currently in the caves. We daren't wake this elf wizard up while we're here (we could, actually, but it leads to an early game over. Fortunately, there's an "undo" button) but we can always steal his wine jug.
Ah, dammit. The black shirt will fit over the figurines, but it's not enough to completely block out the effect. We'll need to do something more here, later.
First though, we visit the slave galley underneath. Here's the reason we can't fuck with the elves: Patryns resemble humans too much, and these humans are at war with the elves. If the elves catch us, it's either death or slavery. Of course, we had no way of knowing any of this beforehand. Maybe Patryns have clairvoyance on top of everything else?
Gee, I wonder if one of these slaves is an important person. Like a noble, maybe. The Duke here gives us a signet ring and the location of his cousin, King Stephen. This adds a new location to the Arianus map we can go visit.
First though, we'll just check out the last tunnel at those crossroads. These are the other two glowy elves and, again, Haplo hides in the darkness. There's not a whole lot we can do here with those glimmering dickwads in the way, so back to the ship.
First though, I suddenly recall a puzzle from way back when I played this game originally. I have no idea why we need the document Limbeck's writing on, except that we do need it, so I put too much marmalade on his bread and hand it to him.
This has the effect of him spilling it on his document, which he then throws away. I'm sure it'll come in useful for something. At least I'll have a gross sticky thing in my pocket, if nothing else.
Before I wrap up part 2, let's have a quick glance at the map function. Since I want to get back to my ship, I could simply backtrack using the compass arrows, but doing it this way is far quicker.
All right, we're off. Surely the humans will be friendly and helpful, right? We Patryns deserve respect, darn it. Can't have the lower races going around thinking they're equals. (Yo, this might be why no-one likes the Patryns or the Sartan.)

Part 3: Damn Elves!

I wonder how useful walls are when there are airships everywhere, but whatever. I don't have to worry about it. A man's home is his castle, and my home tried to murder me as a baby.
There's choosing the helpful option, and then there's choosing the fun option.
This smug a-hole is the king. He's decided we must've stolen the ring and snuck here to... I dunno, brag about it? Between all the threats to decapitate me, I explain why I'm there and what his ol' cousin the Duke's been up to. He's not keen on helping unless I can get the elves to vacate the dwarven lands tout suite. The Dwarven lands are out of reach of his forces, but the elves have to pass through human space to get home.
Anyway, I didn't get too far with that conversation, so I decide some larceny is in order. Eh, makes me feel better at least. This is one of the game's annoying pixel hunt situations, since the only object I can use this shear on is this tiny sliver of grey next to the wooden window flap (it's the iron bar keeping it shut).
Oh my, they really record these cutscenes at a much lower resolution don't they? Well, here we see the court wizard cast a spell on a painting and enter it. It's a pretty good spell, so I make sure to learn it. I'm sure I'll find a thousand uses for it too.
I've learned the spell, so now I can use it any time.
As you can see, they get added to the list of spells I can cast. But of course, I need a relevant target for them. This one only works on realistic paintings, I guess.
While I'm stealing items in the wizard's bedroom (including a candlestick. Did you see where that extra pipe was? Check part 1 again. Or don't. This isn't Where's Waldo?)
Anyway, we meet another haughty jerk. This is the first elf that doesn't try to kill or enslave you, if only because he's currently unable. He won't talk to you unless you ply him with libations.
See? Now he's a lot friendlier. I mean, still a speciesist dick, but what do you expect from *elves*? Oh, now I'm doing it.
Anyway, you can talk about why he's in chokey, but eventually he'll talk about the glowlamp in his room not letting him sleep. He'll then explain how the spell works to you. Hey, a black cloth, eh?
These fucking elves, I swear, man.
But hey, two new spells for the price of one. I get let out eventually, and the human wizard isn't even all that bothered. He was holding the elf without the King knowing apparently. I... don't ask.
So the first thing I do is go back to that elven ship and drape my new cloak of darkness (previously known as "some dwarf's shirt I got all inky") over the figurines. Realizing they're stuck with a bunch of angry dwarves who are looking for a reason to tear their annoying "gods" a new one, they scamper.
Of course, they're scampering in my direction, which isn't ideal. Unless I want to get my heart stopped by the elven wizard, I'd better make myself scarce.
The correct path to take is through the slave galley and into this store room. When the elves take off, they dim the lights so that the humans can't see them. Well, fuck that. I don't want to be on this thing when it touches down in Elfland.
Fortunately, the idiots stole one of the dwarf's zingers, so I decide to light it up and it goes off on a little light show.
Apparently a Pink Floyd concert going on inside a tiny ship was subtle enough for the King's forces to notice. Looks like the elves are done. Let me find a tiny violin to play for them.
See, now I'm not sure if this is actually sarcasm or not. This guy was threatening to chop my head off a moment ago, so it's hard to say how I should play this.
Well, one thing leads to another and I reach Skurvash inside the elven ship, led by a few of King Stephen's men. This place is apparently a dive, full of assassins and whatnot, but it's also where the Seal Piece most likely is, along with any other Sartan artifacts. Once more into the fray, I suppose. Or it would be, except I think I've shown off enough of this game for one day.

That's going to do it for Death Gate. It's a bit goofy in parts but full of great ideas and a pretty cool universe to mess around in. It's more than a little like that Book of Unwritten Tales game I played recently, in fact (the Death Gate books are way more serious, honest).

So hey, thanks for hanging out. Hope you enjoy the rest of E3 Day 0. I mean, unless people actually read these things because they hate E3 so much. In which case: Welcome! I'll be back tomorrow with another Legend adventure to show you all.

Day 0Death Gate
Day 1Superhero League of Hoboken
Day 2Mission Critical
Day 3Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
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The May Madness Melange Aftermathness

As is also now customary, we're following up the crazy time that was the May Madness Melange (here in its entirety) with an addendum of sorts in The Aftermathness. When the madness passes, I usually go back and finish off the featured games that were either particularly worthy or, at the very least, particularly close to completion before moving back to the safe confines of console shooters and anime RPGs for a while.

Here's five games (well, six, kinda) that I've returned to since concluding May's month-long feature, though I certainly intend to revisit more of them as the Summer goes on. What's interesting, to me anyway, is how my initial impressions have fallen way to a very different lasting opinion for most of these five.

It's a curious case of momentum: traditionally an exceptionally difficult aspect of game design to get right, especially with longer games, and those that do manage to pull off an arc that remains just as compelling from beginning to end (and, ideally, into a second playthrough) are very well designed indeed. There's no game design course or Unity tutorial that can reliably instruct you on how to solve problems like sustaining longevity or maintaining player interest or a proper difficulty curve that doesn't crap out at any given tangent; being able to solve these conundrums is ultimately what separates the true game designers from the thousands of wannabes presently filling Steam's library with mediocre dreck.

Anyway, enough kvetching about Steam's quality control, or lack thereof. Let's go back to a few Melange entries and see how I feel about them now, shall we?

Primordia

(Originally featured in May Madness Melange: #5 - Pointin' Clique)

Turns out, I was exceptionally close to beating Wadjet Eye's Primordia. There's three big "puzzles" in Primordia and, without giving too much away, they each tend to concern one central directive that requires lots of little, usually independent puzzles to be solved before said directive can be met and the story drifts into some expository dialogue for a while. I left the game most of the way through the second of these three instances, and so I only had a few hours left to go when I resumed the playthrough at the end of May. Fortunately, because the game's fairly self-contained, I was easily able to pick up from where I left off.

SCRAPER: The most sinister mailbox you'll ever meet.

My feelings on Primordia haven't changed, for as much of a furore I made about shifting sentiments in the introduction. It's a very solid little adventure game that may well have been made in the mid-90s, which -- as I explain in my review for Wadjet Eye's earlier Resonance -- is a statement intended as a compliment to a group of developers who clearly feel that period of time was the apex as far as graphic adventure games are concerned and have stuck closely to many of its time-worn conventions. Primordia has a great setting and a lot of interesting number-related logic puzzles working in its favor too. It's a throwback that makes no intent to evolve the genre in any way, like so many Indie games happy to dwell in the past, but it's still crafted with a lot of detail and care for the era it venerates.

The Book of Unwritten Tales

(Originally featured in May Madness Melange: #5 - Pointin' Clique)

Likewise, The Book of Unwritten Tales has four chapters (there's a fifth, but it's really just more of the fourth) and I was partway into the third when I suspended play to focus on the other games being featured that week. The Book of Unwritten Tales actually gets better as it goes along; while the first two chapters concerned themselves with giving you a big laundry list of criteria to meet and items to find from the offset, the last two are a little looser with goals that change as the story suddenly shifts focus. Again, I can't give too much away about what exactly I'm doing during those final chapters in case I spoil it for someone, but there's a clever little twist with some of the puzzles and a lot more great, memorable character moments. It also gives the third playable character, a Han Solo-esque privateer called Cap'n Nate, his own chapter to help establish what had up until that point been a throwaway character. There's also a fourth playable character who is his weird Chewbacca-like sidekick (though he looks closer to one of those "yip yip yip" muppet aliens), who apparently has his own spin-off in The Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter Chronicles.

Presented without comment (or context).

I think this game's fantastic. It's my favorite of all the recent throwback adventure games I've had the pleasure of playing in the past few years, thanks to both a resurgence of interest in the genre and how digital distribution services means there's now a lot more freedom for international developers (specifically in this case Germany, since they're easily the largest exporter of quirky point and click games) to distribute their games anywhere in the world without worrying about finding regional publishers. Since I hear the second game's close to completion and will be out in the early months of 2015 (alongside a certain other sequel from a European studio that I'm highly anticipating), I'm now pretty psyched about it.

Oh hey, I also found out that this game has a hotspot button too -- I believe I mentioned that it was a sorely desired missing feature in my original Melange entry -- so now it's almost flawless. Well, except for some of the dumber jokes and direct Simon the Sorcerer lifts (they even brought back those annoying termites!).

Legend of Grimrock

(Originally featured in May Madness Melange: #4 - A Misbegotten Youth Revisited)

Ah, Legend of Grimrock. I explained how a few games actually lost their sheen the deeper into them I got, and Legend of Grimrock is unfortunately the case I'm specifically referring to. It begins strong, and the middle floors have some interesting ideas -- there's a recreation of the third floor of Dungeon Master (let us never forget that Grimrock is an extended homage to that 1987 classic) where there's multiple different areas to explore connected to a hub -- but it starts getting a bit, well, dumb towards the end. I'm directly referring to the final boss and its build-up. Pure idiocy.

Hell yeah she did.

But I'm not going to let a crappy ending sour my overall experience. I certainly didn't hold it against Mass Effect 3 sufficiently enough to keep it out of my top ten for that year. Grimrock's pure joy for someone like myself who was raised on the games it venerates, and hearing some of the feedback in the original thread about how tricky it was to kite enemies while casting spells, and how searching every wall for hidden switches was something they weren't able to easily adjust to, makes me realise how well Grimrock managed to pull off its nostalgic aspirations. It has plenty of great new additions and evolutions necessitated by the fact that the original is over 25 goshdarn years old, though they don't all work -- the basic "XP = level" system seemed a bit too simplistic a way to adapt Dungeon Master's "get better by doing" progression, though it seems like an odd thing to consider that a much older game is the more sophisticated. With the exception of the final three floors, which are all linked and constitute the end-game, I was having a lot of fun throughout Legend of Grimrock. Some of those secret areas were particularly well hidden, and I certainly didn't come across all of the game's super-secret golden treasures via my own ingenuity alone. I'm going to assume this imminent sequel will take a lot of what worked and didn't work with players to heart and become an absolute belter. (Well, I suppose "hope" is the verb I should use there.)

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes

(Originally featured in May Madness Melange: #8 - Quick Look Champions)

For whatever reason, Daedalic's Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes gets super rough after the first chapter. Gone are the humorously macabre "accidental" deaths of many secondary characters and replacing it is a sort of aimless wandering around the outskirts of the convent before finally heading to the asylum (from the first game, I'm to understand) for the game's abrupt ending. While there's still plenty of interesting puzzles left in the game's second and third acts -- I especially liked one where you had to configure the pizza topping choices for a group of very picky, color-blind mental patients, as convoluted as that whole puzzle was -- there wasn't really a connecting thread beyond gradually undoing all the mental blocks that were placed on you via hypnosis at the conclusion of the first act.

Shing!

The blocks, I explained further in the Melange entry, requires that your main character Lilli fall into a trance and solve a little self-contained puzzle in her dreamscape to "slay" the monster that represented her repressed desires. Nothing too Freudian, they were mostly along the lines of a large fanged dragon that represented "playing with sharp objects" and a wendigo (weird bestiary pull) for "playing in dangerous areas". There's an interesting, if half-baked, logic puzzle where you convince a blind Lady Justice creature that lies are actually moral and godly, and another where you fight all the mental blocks simultaneously in a strategy RPG free-for-all which seemed like a considerable mechanical departure from the rest of the game.

Unfortunately, when I say that the game gets super rough, I'm referring to the multiple bugs that reared their ugly heads further into the game. Many times the game simply froze on a screen, or automatically skipped pages of dialogue, or turned the dialogue volume down to mute for some reason. The subtitles occasionally reverted to their native German for a few lines too. It's not like this was Daedalic's first ever game either -- I actually played one of their earlier ones in the same month, The Whispered World, which I fully intend to return to as well -- so these multiple weird bugs just struck me as unnecessarily amateurish. So while Edna and Harvey is a fine adventure game with a lot of dark humor, charm and imagination, it lets itself down as it gets closer to its finale. All the same, I'd love to watch Vinny and Alex see it through to its conclusion one day, continuing from where the QL left off. That incredibly dark first chapter was just so much fun to watch play out.

Eleusis

(Originally featured in May Madness Melange: #10 - Miscellaneous Marvels)

I briefly stopped by to check to see if Eleusis was still bullshit. The first puzzle I encountered upon resuming involved breaking into a mansion from the top window via a jumping puzzle, finding a locked door and then reading online (after a few fruitless minutes of searching the manse top to bottom for a key) that the solution was to take a pair of wirecutters, snip a few wires from an old bike outside the house (?), take those wires to the opposite side of the map where the blacksmith's house was (??), use the table vice in there to turn the two bits of wire into a twisted together lockpick (??? Why would I need a vice to do that?) and then use it to open the locked door. At that point I'd get a map telling me where all the buildings are, despite the fact I would've already had to have found them all to reach this point of the game. So yes, still bullshit.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

(Originally featured in May Madness Melange: #1A - Master (of Magic) Blasters)

Rounding off the first week of catch-ups was finishing my ongoing campaign in Ino-Co's Warlock: Master of the Arcane. When I last left that ethereal land, I'd already conquered one of my three peers and subsequently had a considerable territory advantage over the other two. Almost two turns after resuming, the guy I'd completely cornered with units stationed outside his capital decided to wage war and was quickly snuffed out. The fourth wizard, the wily Rat King, had moved a considerable army into my territory while entreating for peace throughout, only to suddenly demand a hefty tithe once he felt like my balls were well and truly in a vice (though he wasn't so vicious as to put that vice in a house a mile away). Unfortunately for him, I decided to call his bluff, annihilate his entire invading army in a single turn thanks to a lot of fort tower defenses, shift my various high-level wizards and rangers over to his home base to the north and eradicate what was left of his defenses.

Nice try, guys.

I would've liked to explore more of the world and do more RPG stuff, which is generally how I like to play Master of Magic once all the rival wizards have been figuratively declawed and are no longer a concern, but Warlock's not really big on getting treasure and beating up monsters. Those aspects exist of course, but they're truncated and simplified in the way that they are in Civilization, with the empire-building and diplomacy features emphasized instead. I don't find battles where two units sit on two opposing hexes on a map and just trade blows to and fro particularly compelling, which is why I usually lose interest in any given Civilization campaign fairly quickly and try to aim for a cultural/technological win instead. So I simply stomped the Rat King, my final rival, and took the victory. If I play it again, I might consider moving up to the standard difficulty. It's hard to get the balance right between effortlessly trouncing your foes and making them far too smart and resourceful for their own good (or outright cheating, which was usually the case for Master of Magic's higher settings), so I might be tempted to see if Warlock can pull it off. Honestly, though, for as competent and fun as Warlock is I... just kind of want to play Master of Magic instead.

Everything Else

So here I make all the lofty promises that I'll get back to this May Madness game or that May Madness game at some point as well, but for the time being the only remaining Melange games I can really say with any sincerity that I'll return to are Zeno Clash II, Toki Tori 2, Eador: Masters of the Broken World (I'll have to restart this island I'm on though) and The Whispered World.

Playing Zeno Clash is one of those experiences you'll unlikely ever see replicated in any other game, for as occasionally unwieldy and chaotic as its combat can be, and the Toki Tori sequel's gone full SpaceWhipper in addition to its already addictive and maddeningly precise puzzles, which is like taking pizza and adding steak to it. I don't even care that steak pizza isn't technically a thing, because I still want it regardless. The Whispered World didn't turn me off entirely with its oppressively grim tone, and I did just reach a new area I want to explore, but after three adventure games I think I might just give it a few more days.

As for the rest of Summer, well, I'm picturing a huge desert plain stretching out ahead of me. Which is to say, uncomfortable heat and very little of anything else going on. I've just added to my backlog of JRPGs (Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, to prepare me somewhat for its spirital successor Bravely Default), so I'm definitely looking to knock out something from that pile. Probably the highly accalimed Ni no Kuni or The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, if I decide to go by a "first come, first served" system. Yakuza 3 and Deadly Premonition have been white whales of mine for longer than I care to recall as well, and what better than a long, empty summer to see out some 50 hour plus beauties? Meanwhile, I hope to keep you all regaled with some of my regular blogging BS over the summer months, starting with the standard "Alternative to E3" series, made somewhat more difficult to wrangle together with the reality that I'll need to stick around for a lot of the streams as part of my duties as a moderator. Maybe I'll find something stupid to LP again. Those are always fun.

Thanks for checking in, as always. I'll leave you with some not particularly prophetic E3 Predictions for each of the five conferences:

  • Microsoft, after some careful consideration from the positive feedback received after removing Kinects as standard from Xbox Ones thereby allowing it to level the playing field price-wise with the PS4, decides to do a little more spring-cleaning. "Remember when we said Xbox One would be an all-in-one entertainment system? Screw that. We're taking out the TV functionality, the apps, the Twitch streaming, the disc drive, most of those five billion transistors, the graphics cards, the storage, the CPU, the case..." They're hoping the new Xbox None, priced at a reasonable 99 cents and sold as more of a concept than an actual physical object that exists in the corporeal world, will end up winning the console war on the basis of sheer value alone.
  • EA has an exciting conference full of sports athletes playing the newest barely functioning shooters and barely functioning war veterans playing the newest sports games. They're also looking to take back the mantle of "Worst Company" from Comcast, just so they can put something back in their trophy cabinet, and is looking to create DRM that beholdens players to work in EA's underground sugar mines should they renege on the agreement to never let another human being within five hundred yards of their copy of Madden 2026, the sequel to Madden 25 they hope to announce at E3 this year. Indeed, 2014 should prove to be very sweet indeed for EA's shareholders.
  • UbiSoft has hired Aisha Tyler to once again use her impressive acting chops to sound enthusiastic about another three annual Assassin's Creed games, to be sold either with or without Ezio's iconic cowl depending on the Collector's Edition. Beyond Good and Evil 2 will also be announced, presenting a newer, even more kickass Jade thanks to her new array of firearms and the ability to cooperate and converse with thousands of other Jades in her vicinity, most of whom will send messages calling her "a dumb green bitch who should've died when that moon exploded lol fuckin pig guy is the best" in broken English.
  • Sony will announce TV Tycoon, a new management game series that hopes to "The Last Starfighter" the first player to get all the achievements by putting them in charge of Sony's TV division. They're getting pretty desperate.
  • Nintendo reveals that "Mario Maker", far from being a fun level editor tool being sold to consumers for a moderate fee, is actually the generic software they use in-house to create all the New Super Mario Bros games. With the latest version of the Mario Maker development software, they hope to automate the process almost entirely (humans are still needed to figure out when everyone's meant to dance to the "wah wah"s in each music track) and create a new New Super Mario Bros game every forty five minutes.
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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jul-Dec 2010)

Yep, you didn't think I'd forget about the Commish did you? We only have a few hours of May 2014 left, but I can't move into June with a clear conscience without providing the next monthly entry in this series of comic adaptations of the best games of the previous generation. As always, this goes out to my Gold membership amigo @omghisam and the Giant Bomb staff for providing so much great Premium content that makes that membership all the more valuable. Well, I guess now that I'm a mod that acknowledgement is starting to read more like shilling than gratitude, but hey, it's not like the mods ever see a penny of it. You can trust me! Sorta!

Anyway, today we're looking at the latter half of 2010. I've actually had to start narrowing these lists down because there's so much to get through. I guess I must've been busy back then.

Jesus, E3's Just Over a Week Away. In 2014, I Mean. (This Time Travel Shit's Messing With My Head.)

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale (EasyGameStation/Carpe Fulgur, PC, Sep)

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale sort of appeared out of nowhere for a lot of people, as is generally the case with quality Indie games lost in the Steam crowd, but those of us who had tried out the demo beforehand were anticipating it. Recettear is from initial appearance a cheap-ish anime real-time dungeon crawler RPG, and is to some extent, but the core of the game is in the mercantile wheeling and dealing of the deceptively shrewd Recette and her all-business fairy friend Tear. Taking a cue (and a down payment) from Torneko Taloon of Dragon Quest IV, who had his own chapter in that game about procuring RPG goods from wandering monsters and selling them at inflated prices at his store, Recettear is about being a cutthroat businesswoman in a world full of adorable slimes and guileless adventurers with more money than sense.

Recettear's two modes: manning the store and being escorted through dungeons to find extra stock, are both a lot of fun individually, but are made far more enjoyable by alternating every so often. As was the case with nonpareil PS2 RPGs Dark Cloud 2 and Persona 3/4, in which the dungeon crawling serves to create a traditional RPG experience to prop up the slightly less conventional city-sim and dating sim aspects, Recettear would be a little less remarkable without that balance of classic RPG gameplay and a compelling and fairly unusual haggling, advertising and storefront management sim.

The game also weaves in story elements in a naturally occurring way; though it only moves the story along meaningfully once a dungeon's boss has been defeated, there's a lot of little ongoing side-stories with the various adventurers you befriend (and can later hire) and other NPCs you meet. The constant ticking clock -- there's bills that need to be paid at the end of every month -- keeps the player focused on turning a profit, but they're also free to pursue various smaller goals like filling in gaps in the "item log" or figuring out to how best to sell super powerful equipment to the adventurers under your employ, so they can start the next expedition on a stronger foot. CarpeFulgur does a great job with the game's localization too, humorously conveying the heroine's ditziness and the incongruously brutal dog-eat-dog commercialism of this brightly colored fantasy anime RPG world.

Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian, 360/PS3/PC, Oct)

Obsidian's known for a lot of things: creating RPGs both interesting and buggy, working on sequels for other developers' franchises, hiring notable canophiles as producers. Their most positive distinction, however, is for spinning exceptionally well-written stories and crafting pleasingly dense RPGs. Fallout: New Vegas, their take on the Fallout world, comes shortly after Bethesda's 2008 sequel to the venerable 50s-inspired post-apocalyptic open-world RPG series originally conceived by Black Isle, and yet is remarkably stronger than its predecessor despite crashing almost twice as often.

Fallout: New Vegas moves far west of the original Fallout 3's Washington DC setting, dropping the player -- an unnamed courier left for dead after the story's opening -- in the harsh deserts of a post-apocalyptic Nevada with the beckoning nearby neon lights of New Vegas. One could say that reimagining Nevada as a ruinous, deserted landscape in which compassion and hope are in short supply is not a particularly huge leap of imagination, but Obsidian do a fine job creating a world that feels as if it conforms perfectly to the pre-existing lore and quirks of the setting devised by its Black Isle forbears: for instance, you can hire the daughter of a particularly memorable recruitable NPC from Fallout 2, and you get to hear how the New Californian Republic has been getting on in the decades after that game as well. The plot doesn't depend too heavily on the past though, as much of it revolves around a charismatic if particularly right-wing and slavery-friendly Ancient Rome-inspired coalition from the central US states known as Caesar's Legion. Their eventual march west threatens to bump up against the powerful and relatively more civil New Californian Republic, with New Vegas as the epicenter of an inevitable conflict.

Otherwise, the game's just a slightly tweaked Fallout 3 with a few welcome conveniences, additional emphasis on the V.A.T.S. feature, lots of new weapons and weapon modifications, a variant of the The Elder Scrolls' alchemy system and a special Hardcore Mode which is far stricter on food and water requirements, as well as making injuries far more life-threatening and having NPCs die for good if they drop to zero health. It's intended as a realism mode that greatly increases the difficulty in a game in a far more intriguing way than simply giving all the enemies more health and even deadlier aim. Ultimately, the game is a version of Fallout 3 with iterative improvements and a much better story, and considering how good Fallout 3 was already it's fair to say that New Vegas is not a bad package whatsoever.

Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 360/PC, Oct)

Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen's and Tommy Refenes's visceral ode to the 2D platformers of their youth, had something of a long and troubled development history, expertly detailed in the slightly melodramatic but otherwise excellent documentary film Indie Movie: The Game. What became quickly apparent to the game's early players was just how highly polished the game's jumping and running mechanics were, outclassing games with ten times the budget and staff.

McMillen's scatological visual style is an acquired taste, and the prospect of guiding a skinless boy through a maze of deadly buzzsaws and lethal (to a skinless person, anyway) salt deposits might not be everyone's cup of tea, but there was no denying how finely tuned the game's mechanics were. Stages were created in such a way that, were you to hit the ground running and with perfect timing, you could feasibly dash through every timed obstacle and threat between Meat Boy and his kidnapped paramour Bandage Girl without skipping a beat. Death becomes even less than a penalty than it usually is, but also far more of an inevitability, as the player simply respawns instantaneously without necessitating a screen wipe or even the music resetting. As a result, every stage had this natural flow to it where a single misstep would be so monumental, yet paradoxically entirely inconsequential, as Meat Boy would already be attempting the jump that previously killed him within seconds after reforming.

Enough's been written about Super Meat Boy at this point, and how successful it ended up becoming for McMillen and Refenes, but it's worth noting that it has yet to be surpassed by any Indie platformer (or, indeed, any big studio AAA 2D platformer) ever made in sheer mechanical perfection. It may have a simple story and a lot of dumb jokes that veer a bit too close to meme humor for my liking, but there's no denying the quality of its core platforming or the masochistic joy derived from trying to beat its harder Dark World stages.

Revisited

Just in case you thought I was working overtime in MS Paint, the following comics were all created some time ago back when I was attaching them regularly to blogs. Since I wanted to talk about the games they pertain to, I might as well dust them off and re-use them. There's no five-second rule with MS Paint, after all.

Limbo (Playdead, XBLA/PC/PSN, Jul)

Limbo's not a particularly deep game in terms of what you're expected to do to proceed. It's a bit like an adventure game in parts, where you're having to locate a box to stand on to reach a ledge, or a way to dodge a spider, but for the majority of the game you're simply walking to the right trying to overcome the occasional obstacle. Where Limbo sticks out is with its oppressively dark atmosphere and tone, and the macabre nature of the young male protagonist's journey through the most dangerous places on Earth to track down his missing sibling.

Borrowing a few cues from the deceptively harrowing Heart of Darkness (the game, not the novel), Limbo is one of those games you play for the art and the setting and the world and the disturbing deaths and sounds and sights. The gameplay's adequate but not the draw; rather, it's the dreadful anticipation of the new dangers yet to emerge from the coming darkness that compels the player to see it through to the end.

Metroid: Other M (Ninja Team, Wii, Aug)

Metroid: Other M has a lot of problems, most of which pertain to the script, but it's a fairly faithful pseudo 3D recreation of the classic Metroid games, and focuses much of its new additions on making the combat even more dynamic and reaction-speed intensive to match Team Ninja's earlier work with Ninja Gaiden, another NES mainstay that's had to evolve with the times to stay relevant.

While the narrative reasons for exploring yet another big space station full of escaped monsters and deadly Federation secrets are the flimsiest and least justifiable yet, there's still very few games that can match Metroid's sense of exploration, danger and solitude, even if there is a platoon of cliché Aliens-ish space marines somewhere just off-camera. Exploring each possible path, remembering where to come back to once the right item's been found, trying to vainly outlast each boss encounter with a rapidly dwindling missile and energy tank count: these elements all still here and accounted for, and at Other M's core is still the same Metroid we know and love. Just don't focus too hard on Samus breaking down and crying because a big mean space pteradon squawked at her too loudly.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, PC, Sep)

Amnesia: The Dark Descent's a wonderful throwback to horror games like Clock Tower, where discretion is always the better part of valor, especially when the monsters can kill you without a struggle. Hiding around corners, avoiding anything that can negatively impact one's sanity (protip: don't stare at the abominations. They're not going to make any more sense the longer you look at them) and making judicious use of the sparse light sources and finite amounts of lantern oil are all concerns that lie in the back of the player's mind as they absentmindedly search rooms for hints and items they need to progress further through the game's setting of a creepy castle in a godforsaken Prussian forest, while also trying to recall the memories of the forgetful protagonist's past of sordid misdeeds.

It's hard to put into words just how terrifying this game is without playing it yourselves. That fear largely comes across by providing a lot of visual feedback of the protagonist's own fraying nerves, and that feedback is then passed onto the player by proxy. Vignetting, weird ambient noises, motion blur and other familiar visual tricks are used to great effect in Amnesia, and there's a real sense of dread whenever one of the enemies is skulking nearby. As an entirely powerless hero, any given encounter with those creatures usually boil down to "run and hope you remember where to go" or "hide and hope the thing doesn't find you". As you'll come to learn, hope will not get you very far in Brennenburg Castle.

Super Scribblenauts (5th Cell, DS, Oct)

The original Scribblenauts had the kernel of a fascinating idea; a text parser that could identify and recreate in-game a huge number of nouns, which could then be used to solve logic puzzles. Unfortunately, the puzzle design of that originator couldn't talk the talk, and many instances boiled down to getting an object from A to B, and almost always by creating a vehicle and a rope that could be tied to the object and question and making one's way across the map with some truly dire platforming mechanics. It was pretty bad, let me tell you.

Super Scribblenauts purported to turn the whole Scribblenauts world on its head by introducing adjectives that could change the properties of the objects you summoned, but what really mattered was the greater focus on puzzle set-ups that simply required the player create an object suitable for the task at hand. No wrestling with the game's awful physics and platforming and no lugging an item across a map every other mission, just a bunch of thoughtful puzzles that required a bit of lateral thinking and resourcefulness to solve. It was the perfect realization of that original kernel, and the series would become successful enough to spawn god knows how many sequels full of DC characters and whatnot. Just goes to show, there's no great and original game idea that can't be driven into the ground with endless iterations. See Katamari Damacy for further clarification.

The Others

Couldn't be bothered making comics for these games, because there's way too many of them. Enjoy some words instead!

  • Dragon Quest IX (Level-5, DS, Jul): Dragon Quest IX is, like every game in (Square-)Enix's venerable comic fantasy RPG series, a very traditional turn-based JRPG. The player builds a party, fights monsters, follows a plot thread that moves them all over the world, bump into a lot of characters with bizarre British accents, gets accosted by grinning amorphous blobs and creatures with pun names so terrible I could've come up with them and eventually take down some Toriyama villain with big pointy ears and a green complexion and a smug attitude, more likely than not. DQIX and its developer Level-5 also added a heck of a lot of side-content though, perhaps more than any RPG has ever seen (well, outside a Nippon Ichi Software SRPG at least), and the various randomized grottoes that the player can go delving into for rare items and new bestiary entries can threaten to derail the adventure entirely if the player allows it to. If you wanted a portable RPG that could potentially last you a thousand hours (and that's not hyperbole, from what I've read of people trying to get everything), there aren't many out there can boast this level of content.
  • Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics, XBLA, Aug): The XBLA Lara Croft game reimagines the British adventuress's newest Mayan expedition as a top-down isometric puzzle-platformer action game of the like that were once the mainstays of British home computers. However, this new format does nothing to diminish the parts of Tomb Raider that are actually fun: kiting enemies while unloading entire clips into them, nailing sequences of tricky jumps and solving interesting puzzles that require some amount of mechanical and spatial awareness. The change in perspective might make everything seem like a game developed in the early 90s (though graphically it's quite sharp), but it's done so effectively that nothing of the core design (so to speak) of Tomb Raider is lost. That's not even mentioning how much better and smarter the game becomes with a second player helping out cooperatively. It's a darn sight better than those janky GBC/GBA entries at least.
  • Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (Level-5, DS, Sep): We're now on the third Professor Layton game that we've covered in these Commishes, and we're starting to feel some franchise fatigue. The presentation is as delightful as ever, and the game's outlandish plot of time machines and future Lukes is a bit of a conceptual stretch that Layton wastes no time in debunking, but we still have the same types of puzzles as ever. Sliding blocks, matchsticks, moving knights around chessboards and other ubiquitious set-ups have less of an impact than they once might've had, and many of the puzzles just seem so familiar and stale by this point. Still, the actual storytelling parts of the Layton series continue to improve, so it's not like the series is in a downward spiral of any kind. It's highly recommended to pace these things out though, all the same.
  • Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Ninja Theory, PS3/360, Oct): Enslaved has a lot of imagination and interesting ideas that it doesn't always manage to capitalize on in the most effective way possible. A retelling of ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West, about a disgraced demi-god and a task entrusted to him by the Buddha to keep a monk safe for his (or her, in some versions) holy pilgrimage from China to India, is reimagined here as a post-apocalyptic tale of two survivors making their way across ruined landscapes to fight a nebulous authority busy capturing the last few free human beings that remain with its legion of robotic minions. There's platforming, timing-based combat, driving and surfing sequences (kinda, anyway, as Monkey's hovering "cloud" device is a versatile tool) and stealth, but no one section really excels and the game feels like its stretched a bit too thin. It may not be the most fun, but there's certainly a lot of interesting facets to the game that you simply don't see too often. I remember playing Remember Me recently and thinking how similar a case to Enslaved that was: an imperfect game to be admired for its fanciful notions.
  • Kirby's Epic Yarn (Nintendo/HAL, Wii, Oct): Though my disc of Kirby's Epic Yarn requires some cleaning before it'll stop crashing, Kirby's Epic Yarn seems every bit the traditional Kirby experience. Changing abilities by swallowing enemies has given way to many different transformations that occur when a stage requires it, and there's a lot of variation from level to level. There's also a whole mess of collectibles out there to find, and the game's presentation is so goshdarned adorable you'll be lucky to walk away from the game without incurring diabetes. I could almost swear I've seen a PSA where Wilford Brimley condemns this game for "all its sugary pink fluffball sassafrass, goddammoot".
  • Vanquish (Platinum Studios, PS3/360, Oct): Platinum Games started making a name for themselves in the absurd character action genre with MadWorld and Bayonetta, but it was Vanquish -- their take on third-person shooters -- that really piqued my interest. Vanquish exists in a world where Japanese developers have noticed the success of franchises like Gears of War but aren't particularly pleased about having to follow suit, so they create something completely off the rails that only vaguely resembles the cover shooters that have dominated the charts for the past decade. Rather than depending too much on cover, Vanquish instead gives the player a tremendous amount of speed as their chief offensive and defensive tool, allowing them to rocket slide past an entrenched enemy and come up behind them for a conclusive takedown. It also helps that the game has an out-there plot about a terrorist attack on a futuristic colony that seems to be based on a page of Kojima's Metal Gear Solid notebook that was torn out for being too crazy to work.
  • Donkey Kong Country Returns (Retro Studios, Wii, Nov): The Donkey Kong Country series remains a childhood favorite for many, and Retro Studios's next project after of the warmly received Metroid Prime trilogy was to find a way to reinvent Nintendo's ape like another western studio -- that would be the sadly departed Rare, finally taken off life support earlier this year -- had done almost two decades previously. DKCR still frames the action as a 2D side-scrolling platformer full of animal buddies, hidden secret chambers, alternate exits and collectible knick-knacks. Most telling though, is the return of the original trilogy's high level of difficulty, made infamous by their various mine cart levels and explosive barrel hopping. Some of the inadvertent difficulties come with Retro's sense of cinematic style, where the game becomes almost impossible to predict due to insane set-pieces like a rolling egg that steadily breaks apart as Donkey and Diddy ride around inside it. There's minecart levels too of course, because it wouldn't be Donkey Kong Country without them, but at least the frustration is mitigated with some great looking visuals and fantastic remixes of David Wise's already superlative soundtracks from the SNES originals.
  • Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft Montreal, PS3/360/PC, Nov): I talked about franchise fatigue in the Layton games, but nowhere is that phenomenon more pronounced than in Ubisoft's annual assassination adventures. Brotherhood is considered by many to be the peak of the series, a sequel to 2 that managed to add something substantial and incredibly fun with the junior assassins that Ezio can take under his wing like so many collectible feathers. Taking part in the side-quest that sends your protégés all over Europe for tasks that directly benefit the Assassin Order, or keeping them around to take out a few troublesome guards that won't budge from their post, makes for a lot of easy money and satisifying solutions to problems that have plagued any players wishing to stay low-profile. Brotherhood's plot, involving the Borgias and intrigue across Rome, is ever so slightly more engaging as well, due to the insane revelations revealed at the end of the story (which the immediate sequel, ironically called Revelations, couldn't hope to follow). The series isn't faring too badly with the recent well-received Assassin's Creed IV, but I can't imagine it has a whole lot of steam left now that it's all but abandoned the vaguely apocalyptic storyline that was tying the series together. (It's not sounding like Watch_Dogs is necessarily going to fly as Ubisoft's replacement flagship open-world series either.)

And that's your lot for this month. Next time, we take on 2011 and the various treasures it has in store for us. Until then, thanks for stopping by.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #10 - Miscellaneous Marvels

Well, here it is: the final entry for May Madness Melange. It's been one heck of a steamy season, and to go out on a high note I'm covering five games today instead of the usual three. Five relatively short games, I'll hasten to add, because there's no easier way to burn yourself out on games forever than to stuff five incredibly dense RPGs, or what have you, into a three day period.

Instead, we have five games that I've been meaning to try out for a while and seemed short enough to be stacked together in succession like this. A little bit of spring cleaning to make way for the bundles and Steam sales to come (though I seem to buy less and less each year...). In other words, this is an ending expended on examining extra eclectic electronic ephemera.

Darkout

The game: Allgraf's Darkout, a 2D sci-fi crafting/sandbox platformer game.

The source: Bundle Stars' The Toxic Bundle.

The pre-amble: Darkout is a 2D open-world survival game in which the player must craft equipment and tools in order to stay alive on a harsh planet covered in perpetual darkness. While light sources are of paramount importance, the player must also build a shelter and a means to craft more complex items while attempting to find a way off the planet by setting up distress beacons and the like.

Darkout is essentially a sci-fi Terraria, sort of an intermediary between it and its successor Starbound. Similar crafting, combat and randomly generated biome features and systems.

The playthrough: There's essentially two ways to create clones and get away with it. The first is attempting to feign ignorance, or by claiming that you and the other guy independently arrived at the same idea but the release times are spaced apart due to development periods of different lengths. The second is to just go full steam ahead and attempt to reiterate on the idea, creating a product that manages to be different not purely because the developer was consciously trying to avoid too many parallels in case they got litigated, but by working in a lot of ideas they conceived to improve on the original while playing it.

I'm going to know a hell of a lot about wall dirt before I'm done here.

Darkout's not a particularly good Terraria, but it is iterative in many ways, rather than simply a rough copy with a sci-fi paint daub. There's a lot of little improvements: a single action bar slot that automatically selects the right tool for building (which may have been added to Terraria or Starbound after the fact); a separate action bar that corresponds to the right mouse key which allows the player to use multiple tool combinations in tandem; a function key that changes a single digging/mining/chopping cursor to three to expediate tasks; ways to discover new recipes naturally from looting data nodes and finding new minerals and components; ores glitter intermittently whenever they're on the screen, making it far less bothersome to hunt them down; the inclusion of various futuristic elements such as snazzy modern metallic shelters and guns; a "research point" system that works like experience and can be spent on generating new blueprints for crafting for which a small amount is earned by killing enemies and collecting resources but much larger rewards come from making new discoveries, finding new items and exploring new biomes. There's even a handy logbook system that records everything you've discovered.

However, despite all these interesting additions to the Terraria format, it doesn't play nearly as well. This is in part due to the game's weird 3D aspects that it possibly integrated to distance itself from Terraria's blocky pixels and Minecraft's even blockier blocks by having terrain that appears to be more analog but actually conforms to the same grid as its peers. This just leads to a lot of unnecessary visual confusion when scanning the lay of the land. In addition, there's a sort of 90s CGI ugliness to most of the character/monster models, and the GUI leaves a lot to be desired (I'm not a particular fan of how the game hitches for several seconds every time it auto-saves, with a big "WE ARE SAVING YOUR GAME" type message sprawled across the middle of the screen. Hints of Castlevania II's "What a horrible night to have a curse."). I was also left without any kind of directive and a list of blueprints I cannot make without resources I don't know where to find shortly after the game begins, but I suppose that's where the game's core of exploration and discovery steps in to take over. There's both an enemy-less sandbox creation mode and a main story mode, the latter of which has populated the randomized seed world with journals and logs that tell you more about the universe should you be able to find them. I'm tempted to pick a direction and just start looking for stuff to do and new resources to find, but the rough combat and presentation isn't making for a compelling argument. Maybe I'll dig down instead...

Well, it's not much, but it's home. Fortunately, you don't have to build that big glowy power plant thing.

The verdict: It's a weaker game than Terraria overall, despite its many iterative improvements, and I imagine it's even weaker still compared to the thematically similar Starbound too. However, there's some semblance of that same itch to go exploring and see what can be discovered. If there's a deeper narrative to chase down too, all the better.

Dear Esther

The game: The Chinese Room's Dear Esther, a first-person exploration adventure game.

The source: The Humble Indie Bundle 8.

The pre-amble: Dear Esther is a first-person game without guns, combat or enemies of any kind. It's just one man, walking across an unknown island in the Outer Hebridean chain off the shores of Scotland, either thinking or discussing things which may or may not be pertinent to the game's story. If indeed there is a story.

If that seems like a short and confusing pre-amble, then the even shorter and even more puzzling amble that constitutes the game might shock you.

The playthrough: Dear Esther is an interesting experiment. An experiment it most certainly is as well, because there seems to have been deliberate attempts made to minimize the amount of interactivity involved. While slowly walking from one landmark to the next, the narrator will talk unprompted about various subjects which include but are not limited to: a woman (maybe) called Esther, a travel writer and cartographer called Donnelly who apparently wrote about the island the game is set on, a coarse goat shepherd called Jakobson who once lived there and build some of its structures, a guy named Paul who the narrator knew in the past, a drunk-driving incident on the M5 which may have taken the lives of any of the previous, something about the Syrian city of Damascus and the grim folklore surrounding the island itself.

I like my women like I like my Scottish islets: cold, barren and pretty. Wait...

Sometimes you'll get a curious new piece of information that helps to contextualize the present journey -- at a particular point the narrator reveals that he broke his leg during an earlier exploration of the island and has allowed it to become infected, and only remains coherent due to a supply of painkillers emancipated from the medical kit of one of the few shacks on the island, which also helps to explains the languid gait of the protagonist and the lack of any sort of "run" option. There's also chemical symbols and bizarre graffiti everywhere, as well as candles and pieces of car wreckage. Highly symbolic stuff, for the most part.

Overall though, Dear Esther is really more about raising questions about the whys and wheres and hows regarding the narrative and the game's journey and then suggesting that the player attempt to decipher them, if they wish to do so. At several points the linear path branches, and at the end of these branches are optional bits of voiceover: at times these seem like rewards for the adventurous, but none of them seem to offer much in the way of additional clarification. Rather, the game's more about the interpretation of the person playing it. At least, "open for interpretation" is how I've chosen to interpret Dear Esther's story. I think it's fair to say that the game was experimenting with miminamlist narrative and minimalist gameplay both. At least it looked and sounded good. Very good, even.

On a final note: It's curious also how closely the game parallels the notoriously poor Trespasser: Jurassic Park -- you start at a beach on an abandoned island, pass through many dilapidated structures as a classically-trained British actor's words echo through your head, and concludes on a mountain top next to a large radio antenna. Artistic, my ass.

For all the game's heady artistic aspirations, it still manages to put the danger warning on the wrong side of the fence gate.

The verdict: It took me exactly one hour to complete the game and there's nothing more it can really offer me. The conclusion definitely didn't make any decisive explanations. I think I can walk away from this one as confused as I was when I went in. Still, an admirable attempt at something very different, and one has opened the way for more compelling "walking simulators" to come. (Here's a hot Dear Esther ending spoiler anyway.)

Eleusis

The game: Nocturnal Works's Eleusis, a first-person spooky adventure game.

The source: Groupees' Be Mine 8.

The pre-amble: Eleusis is a first-person adventure game with horror elements. The player character crashes his car near a remote village and looks for a way to get back on the road, but is sidetracked by a mysterious cult operating in the now mostly abandoned village and an imperiled young woman that seems to be their target.

The playthrough: Aw jeez. I suppose we had to run into a clunker sooner or later. Eleusis is not a particularly good game. It's slow, its locations are all placed far too distantly apart, it's very tricky to find the right items and the right hotspots to use said items because of how dark and far apart everything is and there's a whole mess of UI problems. For instance, the game allows you to change key bindings in a pre-game configuration screen, but fails to reflect these new bindings in-game. The game also refused to take Steam screenshots for whatever reason. The load times are egregiously bad, to use an egregiously over-used term. It's also just kind of dull; much of the early half of the game is simply walking from one abandoned home to the next, looking for paths in the surrounding hills that takes you to some remote location that you need to just happen upon to move the game forward. There's a house up a hill on a path that's hard to spot that simply has a screwdriver in a crate in the back that you need for another house half the map away. It's not the sort of adventure game that just dumps you on a screen with a bunch of pertinent hotspots to check out; it's more like finding needles in a haystack.

For example: This key-owning skeleton wasn't buried in the cemetery, which is what the expository note intimated. Rather, he was buried just outside the cemetery's walls behind a few bushes off a path that's impossible to see in low light. Eleusis in a nutshell.

The story of Eleusis isn't particularly inspired either. "Car breaks down outside of spooky zone" is about the least imaginative opening there is in horror fiction next to "Gee whizz my fellow promiscuous teens, you ever hear about the serial murderer that vanished 100 years ago tonight?". There's very little craft in the writing of the game too, from its risibly pragmatic journal entries to the awful VA work. I appreciate that English might not be the developers' native tongue, but adventure games like these rely so heavily on their narrative elements that it's kind of super important to do right by them. The (apparently Greek) village is pretty enough, considering you're only ever seeing it at night, but all the stone buildings look very similar and it's easy to get lost. I guess you can't fault a game for location verisimilitude, even when it runs counter to more important mechanical aspects of the gameplay, like knowing where the hell you are and which buildings belong to whom.

Perhaps the worst part during my playthrough is suddenly spotting a wolf in the distance, starting to run in the opposite direction and getting mauled by presumably a second wolf (clever girl). As previously stated, the load times in this game are horrendous, and having to sit through a minute-long loading screen only to be placed in the same situation and meet the same wolfy demise but a brief moment later because I still had no idea which direction I was supposed to go to escape the creature puts a kibosh on me ever wanting to get deeper into the game. However, as soon I reloaded the game to grab a few more screenshots (you know, because the game didn't save the first lot), I noticed there was an "NPC threat" toggle on the main menu. They actually shoehorned in these little chases apparently last second to give the Steam version of their game a little extra oomph. It's audacious is what it is; a completely unnecessary (though thankfully apparently optional) inclusion that greatly diminishes what little appeal the game already had.

Check out this passionate prose. It reads like a grade schooler's holiday report. Also, the woman pronounced "in vino veritas" to rhyme with "fajitas", which made me wonder if she was talking about a Mexican wine bar.

The verdict: Ugh, no. On the other hand, I don't think I have much left to go and I've unticked the "NPC threats" box little caring how unscary as that might make the rest of the game, so maybe... no.

Little Inferno

The game: Tomorrow Corp.'s Little Inferno, an incendiary puzzle game. Sorta.

The source: The Indie Humble Bundle 8.

The pre-amble: Little Inferno is an experimental puzzle game, which is to say a puzzle game that relies on experimentation. Not experimental in the sense that it's completely weird or something. Well, all right, it's that too. The player is a pyromaniacal rapscallion in a Gorey-esque world that appears to be suffering a nuclear winter of some kind brought on by too much pollution. A considerable proportion of this pollution appears to be the result of the extremely popular Little Inferno Playset from a fictional Tomorrow Corp that presumably isn't the same as the actual Tomorrow Corp that developed the game. That would be nuts.

Essentially, Little Inferno boils down to buying items from a catalog, waiting for them to arrive in the mail and then burning them. Each item relinquishes slightly more money than it was worth for some reason that's never made entirely clear. To progress and earn more mail order catalogs, the player has to burn multiple specific items in tandem as outlined by a series of "combo" hints. "Bike Pirate Combo" for instance, refers to burning a pirate and a wooden bicycle simultaneously. The rest get increasingly more abstruse, and most of the game's actual game-ness is in deciphering these hints, throwing shit into a big pile and watching it incinerate. It's a fun game for kids!

The playthrough: I'm kind of a fan of Little Inferno. It has iOS game written all over it, of course, but it takes advantage of the platform in that way that the few highly successful iOS/Android games -- the ones that go on to get Quick Looks, like Year Walk, The Room, 10,000,000, Threes and Ridiculous Fishing -- actually pull off without being another horrible Angry Birds/Flappy Birds/Birdy Turds/Tower Defeces clone or a free-to-play game that politely asks you to patiently wait for days at a time before you're allowed to have fun.

You've done grand, laddie. Well, you know what you have to do: Burn the house down. Burn 'em all!

Unfortunately, inexplicable time delays are one of the few flaws Little Inferno shares with its avaricious iOS brethren. (I usually end with the negative so I'm putting it first today.) There's very little justifiable reason why you need to wait up to three minutes for some of the items to arrive, and even the many "instant delivery" stamps given out for successful combo discoveries and through general play can't mitigate the amount of waiting entirely. Oddly, this design decision doesn't seem to have been spurred by anything in particular: there's no bilking here, no demanding that the player buy-in to speed everything up (unless there's an option I didn't find). Just a gameplay mechanic that decided to double down on this "waiting for items to come in the mail" aspect of the game's premise to its ultimate detriment, as the more expensive items always have longer wait times attached to them and it's tiresome when you need to order several and wait for each one to arrive just to test a few combinations.

Overall though, I really liked the game. The trial and error (though not entirely so, as a finer mind than mine could've deduced the solutions from the hints quicker) puzzle gameplay reminds me a lot of Doodle God, and how I'd spend hours trying to figure out the game's internal logic to make certain combinations work and create new ideas. Each item burns a different way too, and there's a delightful casual aspect to the game in just watching how each new item reacts to being set aflame. The visuals are great too -- as I said, they're largely inspired by the works of Edward Gorey or Charles Addams (or via their protégé Tim Burton) and the game has a similarly macabre satirical edge to it, frequently bumping up against the fourth wall and making all sorts of pointed implicit statements about rampant consumerism and the soulless modern world. It's a bit dark in spots, but it's also nothing you wouldn't see on a subversive kids' cartoon like Ren & Stimpy or Grim & Mandy. It's full of goofy references and shout-outs too, but that's nothing new in an Indie game.

I can't stop! Now I'm burning all my previous May Madness Melange entries!

The verdict: I've beaten the game, or at least its core story. I don't know if there's any way to keep going where I'm at, so let's just say "ashes to ashes" to Little Inferno. This was a fun one, though maybe more ideal for a mobile device.

Samorost 2

The game: Amanita Design's Samorost 2, a (mostly) wordless point and click adventure game.

The source: The very first Humble Indie Bundle.

The pre-amble: Samorost 2's story follows a little white-capped man and his quest to recover his dog, who was dognapped by a pair of aliens while they were out stealing his food. His quest takes him back to the aliens' home planet and a journey through the core of their world to find his dog. But the game doesn't end after the dog's been emancipated, oh no.

Samorost 2, like Amanita's future works, is a game that largely depends on clicking things around the screen and seeing how they react, and then forming an idea of how they can interact with each other to solve whatever immediate problem needs dealing with. For instance, clicking a creature to knock it over (kinda harsh) distracts its mother from siphoning water from a hole in a pipe for a few seconds, while elsewhere the player can click on a cork to pick it up. Once both these hotspots have been discovered, it's simply a matter of combining the two.

The playthrough: Samorost 2's one of the first games to ever appear in my Steam library, and there it has sat unplayed for what has felt like almost half a decade (it's actually been four years this month since the first Humble Bundle). This spot was originally meant to go to Botanicula, the most recent game from the same developers (Czech team Amanita Design) but I discovered to my non-horror that I actually only own the GOG version, and featuring my GOG library on a Steam blog feature seemed like the most fallacious (and hellacious) crime against humanity a guy could possibly make. (But man, maybe I should put a month aside for my GOG stuff...)

I love how there are art elements that resemble both Botanicula and Machinarium in this game, allowing one to accurate surmise that Samorost 2 is the common ancestor to both.

Anyway, the game. If you've ever played an Amanita game, like the aforementioned Botanicula, or Machinarium, you'll know that they tend to involve mostly text-free point and click puzzles with stunning hand-drawn graphics and the occasional brainteaser a la Layton or Puzzle Agent. They're adventure games that rely far more on whimsical, vaguely eastern European storybook presentations with narratives driven by contextual ideograms rather than on a sharp script or a lot of jokes about rubber chicken pulleys. Samorost 2 is no exception, and it (and presumably its forebear Samorost 1) have a lot of early potential that the two games the studio's better known for would eventually capitalize on.

Actually, besides a particularly bad puzzle at the end involving fart gas, Samorost 2 is a fun little Flash game. It certainly has no business looking as good as it does, given Flash's limitations, and the sound design is wonderful too (lots of ambient sounds which occasionally add to the puzzles but is more often just there for atmosphere). That said, it's a fairly standard example of what I usually call a portfolio booster: the type of ephemeral, "best foot forward" demonstrations that should be freely given away to increase one's profile and help build up hype for the far more substantial games yet to come. It's very short, is what I'm saying, and feels like the aperitif to Machinarium's main course.

All right, I have no idea what the deal is with this guy. Seeing a real person's face in this context just freaks me out a little.

The verdict: It's complete. Took less time than Dear Esther did, in fact. Still, no complaints here. Great little game.

The Moment of Truth

Huh. Hmm. There's a difficult choice here between potential (Darkout) and curiosity (Little Inferno). The other three games were of an obvious quality (well, besides Eleusis) but were a bit too short and artsy-fartsy for their own good. I'm going to go with Little Inferno I think, because I had more fun playing it than Darkout. And isn't that why we're here?

Speaking of which, thank you all for joining me for another month of madness. It's always a rewarding struggle to maintain this pace for a whole four weeks, and I hope you've enjoyed all these half-baked musings and maybe have a few new wishlist items as a result. As for me, I've got a Commish to catch up on before May's over ("ne'er cast a Comic Commish till May be out", or something), and then it's E3 and banner contests and all sorts of fun nonsense throughout June. Maybe I'll finally start to appreciate that busy hypefest of an expo and all its embarrassing conferences. Maybe I'll make more jokes about the identity of the new Giant Bomb Senior Editor that'll get quoted out of context by clueless NeoGAF users as genuine scoops. Maybe I'll play more Legend of Grimrock after this is over (well, I'd say that was more of a definite).

Cheers everyone, and see you next time.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #9 - Obligatory Puzzle Platformers

Well, there's no escaping it. If I'm going to write a month-long feature about a whole bunch of Indie games on Steam, I'm going to have to feature some puzzle-platformers eventually. It's just the law of averages. Just like how the last May Madness Melange was a sequel to the one I did earlier about point and click adventure games, this one's a sequel to the challenging platformers I covered back in May Madness Melange #6 (some of which might've had more puzzles in them than I was otherwise letting on).

I don't mind puzzle-platformers, by the way. It's just when you're inundated with the things it becomes much harder to get excited about playing a new one. I've still got Closure, Vessel, PB Winterbottom and The Swapper sitting in my list of installed games, and almost no desire to go back to them regardless of their high quality. It's just... bluuuurgh.

And that's why they call me the Wizard of Words. (No-one calls me that.) (They should, though.)

Gateways

The game: Smudged Cat Games's Gateways, a puzzle platformer with portals gateways.

The source: Groupees' Holiday Helpings bundle.

The pre-amble: Ed's an inventor that wakes up in his trashed lab without his memory. He decides to head to the control room to ascertain what happened to the place while he was unconscious, though his immense, dilapidated workshop is not the easiest place to traverse right now. If only he had his gateway guns...

Gateways is a 2D side-scrolling platformer game with an open-world SpaceWhipper approach and various puzzle rooms that may or may not require additional gear to solve. Said gear can be found by exploring, usually in the direction that the game is indicating, and each new item allows the player to explore a little further. The most important pieces of equipment are Ed's gateway guns, which create pairs of portals with all sorts of applications.

The playthrough: While I'm still largely undecided on how I feel about Gateways, I'm erring on the side of positive, and that's not just because of my predilection towards SpaceWhippers. Though it initially begins as a flagrant 2D Portal clone, Gateways' initial impressions belie a lot of hidden depth and some truly diabolical late-game puzzles, due in part to a lack of a proper difficulty curve towards the end. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Hmm.

Initially, your Einstein-esque hero finds a "gateway gun" that allows the creation of two portals that are linked to each other: going through one spits you out of the other and vice versa. So far, so Aperture Science. You then find another gateway gun soon after that creates tiny and big portals, and in this case you come out of the other portal either a lot smaller or a lot bigger than when you went in. Already, we've shifted beyond Valve's sardonic computer-thwarting odyssey, and have emerged somewhere entirely new and fresh. Then you get a gun that lets you travel in time and create echoes of yourself to interact with, and this point the game starts getting really effin' cray-cray.

Every puzzle set-piece in the game has a beacon that tells you (for a price, in collectible orbs found scattered all over - there's an achievement if you get all of them, and another for never spending any) if the puzzle is currently possible with the upgrades you've found so far. If not, it'll stay marked on your map as unsolvable until the right piece of kit has been found. This is a wonderful touch for a SpaceWhipper game to include, as it never gives away too much about the solution (it's not just a matter of having the right tools like it is with Guacamelee's color-coded walls, for example -- you've still got the puzzle itself to solve too) but prevents any frustration when trying to beat a puzzle that leads to an optional upgrade that you don't have the means to solve quite yet.

ijustwanttodie@comcast.net

The downside to Gateways is that it gets super convoluted fast. Once you've found the gun that allows you to operate all four previous gateway guns simultaneously, the game's already 90% over. The final gauntlet of challenges before the game's ending is a test of everything you've learned so far, but also includes scenarios where you need to use multiple pairs of portals at once. The already high level of difficulty of these puzzles combined with the player's lack of practice with using multiple guns to solve a puzzle makes them prohibitively challenging. For instance, there are lasers which can be redirected via classic mirror/beam puzzles, but there's only one prior instance in the game (and it's optional) that teaches you how to "split" the laser: it's a process involving sending one laser beam through a time portal and having the past and future laserbeams exist simultaneously. If your head just asploded simply from reading that sentence, I'm sure you can imagine (or could, before all the brain matter violently vacated your cranium) how easy it is to work around it in practice. But still, a minor gripe about a sudden difficulty spike towards the end still isn't enough to diminish Gateways cleverness. Just, uh, don't be afraid to look up the solutions to the last few puzzles. I'm going to have nightmares about some of them.

The verdict: It's complete, so I'm all done with it. Gateways gets a recommend from me, though; there's far more to it than pixel graphics and Portal plagiarism.

Nihilumbra

The game: Beautifun's Nihilumbra, a linear 2D platformer with elemental puzzles.

The source: A Daily Royale sale.

The pre-amble: The protagonist is a piece of The Void, a nebulous entity that has destroyed much of the world and is busy absorbing the last few corporeal bits of the landscape. Your character is spontaneously formed from deep within the Void's abyss and decides to escape it to find answers across what little world is left. The Void pursues you relentlessly through forests and deserts and volcanoes, while the player continues to evade it by acquiring new abilities and outwitting its minions.

Upon entering each world, the player can find a new color that provides a new means of traversal. The player simply paints the walls, floors and ceilings of the environment with the colors they've found to give it properties: blue makes it icy and slippery (which can allow the player to build momentum for longer jumps), green makes it bouncy (to make taller jumps), red makes it flammable (kills enemies), and so on.

The playthrough: Nihilumbra's one of those games where you keep moving forward while a narrator keeps yapping on about life and fate and all sorts of philosophical nonsense, usually when you're trying to solve a puzzle. I suppose a similar case would be Thomas Was Alone, which featured a garrulous Danny Wallace who would repeat himself endlessly as the player died or messed up and refreshed each little segment over and over. At least that game had better writing though, as Nihilumbra's is kind of dour and tends to reiterate its same points about the Void and loneliness and despair over and over. It also has to provide hints constantly, rarely trusting the player to figure out puzzles entirely on their own.

I'm glad I play games to have fun and be happy.

On the other hand, it's a good looking game (they forked out plenty for the animations on the protagonist and the other monsters, at least), and some of the abilities can be pretty clever -- especially when the game finds ways to combine them. The tutorial-heavy, not-particularly-difficult nature of the core game is mitigated somewhat by an additional, harder "Void Mode" that unlocks once the main story is complete, which ups the challenge level considerably and presumably (didn't get too far into it) leads to a more decisive "true" ending.

Nihilumbra's just okay, really. The trouble with some of its harder instances is that there's a lack of precision with the painting tools: unless you're an artist and can paint in straight lines without even concentrating, it's very possible to paint a surface with a color and then miss little bits, which can often lead to problems. There's a few bits of randomness which can upset the best laid plans of mice and shapeless voidmen too, usually involving the automated turrets that somebody left all over the place. These frustrations boil down to a player's enduring desire to be in control of any given situation, especially when puzzles are involved. When a puzzle's solution has been gleaned, there ideally shouldn't be any hassles with executing on said plan because the fun part (the ratiocination) has already concluded. For a solution to fail due to a player's lack of reflexes or skill (beyond the mental skill used to ascertain the solution, that is), it's frustrating enough. When it fails because something didn't happen like it ought to have done -- a bullet ricochets in the wrong direction, or a power line doesn't quite connect properly -- it's excruciating.

Eep!

The verdict: I've beaten the regular story mode, and considering the much more challenging Void Mode depends far more heavily on precision and completing multiple difficult sections consecutively before hitting the next checkpoint, there's all the more opportunity to run afoul of the frustrations outlined above. Thanks, but no thanks.

Q.U.B.E.

The game: Toxic Games' Q.U.B.E. (Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion), a first-person puzzle-platformer. With cubes.

The source: Groupees' Holiday Helpings bundle. (It's also in the currently-ongoing Indie Royale MIxer 4 bundle, if you want in on it.)

The pre-amble: QUBE is a first-person game in which you're running around a sterile white environment solving tests for the benefit of an unknown, possibly malevolent force. At some point the pristine, sterile white walls fall away to some dilapidated ruins and puzzles that become increasingly abstract as more of what you're seeing around you is called into question. Now, I know Portal was a big deal and all, but we could have a few puzzle-platformers that aren't trying to fabricate their cake and eat it too?

Most of the puzzles in QUBE revolve around manipulating colored blocks in the environment. These hued objects stick to a specific theme: red blocks can be extended and retracted, blue blocks retract into the floor and spring out when passed over, yellow blocks always pop out in trios, etc. (I don't how I picked two games that use color-coded physics properties in a row. I'm just lucky, I guess.) The goal is to simply keep moving, though this usually means solving a puzzle before a door will open to the next part of the level. There are nine "sectors", at least according to the possibly unreliable governing system of this complex, and it can only be inferred that freedom awaits anyone smart enough to pass through them all.

The playthrough: I actually like this game. First-person physics platformers like this are a dime a dozen thanks to a certain little game called Narbacular Drop, but QUBE at least respects your intelligence without going overboard with its difficulty. The primary colors used for puzzles are striking when surrounded by their gleaming white confines, and the game makes excellent use of sound to provide feedback whenever you make correct steps or need to follow something outside of your cone of vision. The music's mellow-ass puzzle-solving music, which isn't remarkable save for the fact that it's yet one of many smaller details that QUBE gets right.

I love the block glove. It's so bad.

Which segues neatly into what I like most about the game: Because QUBE is entirely text-free there aren't any overt tutorials, which is appreciated. Instead you have that set-up where the game slowly introduces its mechanics by throwing an easy introductory puzzle the player's way, leading to much harder and more complex variants. With each new mechanic (magnets, rolling balls, redirecting light beams), there's usually a simple instance that allows you to get a firm grasp of the idea which is then followed by a few trickier ones that take full advantage of the new feature and give you a bit of a challenge to overcome. It's pretty much the ideal way you want to go about creating puzzles like these, rather than just dropping a big text box on the player about how some new element works thereby breaking both the pace and the immersion in one fell swoop.

If there's issues I have with QUBE it's with its originality (oh hey, this looks like Portal a little) and its lack of any form of cogent narrative. You aren't told anything about who you are, why you're in some enormous testing chamber, why everything suddenly breaks around the halfway point or anything else about the world. QUBE feels very sterile as a result, like a version of Portal in which the developers decided the relationship between GlaDOS and Chell was entirely immaterial and got in the way of the puzzles and excised them completely. I was invested enough in solving the game's many varied puzzles to see it through to the end, but I could also easily conceive of a scenario where I would get bored early and decide to play something else. That might not be a fair complaint, given that very few puzzle-platformers bother to spin a narrative (and those they do create don't tend to be particularly compelling fiction), but the game does have a skeleton of a story of sorts with a twist ending that doesn't feel earned and really doesn't explain a whole lot besides. There's no point in flipping the script if there hasn't been any trace of a script so far, after all. I felt a little this way about Antichamber (another stark white colored block-manipulator) too, and how its black anti-cube end game nonsense failed to resonate with me because there had been nothing to set it up. Just an odd design decision, I suppose. You gotta end your game somehow, and a black "Congratulations! You are a Qube master!" screen after the last puzzle wasn't really going to cut it.

Check out that sweet neon insanity going on down there. This game would look amazing were it more than a bunch of cubes.

The verdict: I've beaten this one too. It's not a long game, but it's certainly not bad and my reservations with it are largely trivial. Just kind of forgettable, I guess. I mean, unless you're really into cubes.

The Moment of Truth

Well, each of these games has some inherent flaw that stopped me from appreciating them fully, so we're talking a close run thing here. I think I liked Gateways the most, followed closely by QUBE.

I think Nihilumbra gets the "biggest bummer" award, though that's certainly not because I was disappointed with it. It just feels like the video game version of listening to Radiohead, which is to say that it makes want to lie down in the street until the void takes me.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #8 - Quick Look Champions

Today I'm checking out three games that were brought to my attention due to memorably funny Giant Bomb Quick Looks. At least that's the official stance I'm taking. Off the record, I'm trying to clear out some of my stupider adventure games, so think of this as a sequel to Melange #5 if you'd prefer.

I feel I'm probably like most of you (but not all, I can appreciate) in that I view the site's Quick Looks as entertainment first, education second. I've been around this big virtual world of ours enough times to be able to tell within a few minutes of video (or heck, images from the back of the box, if we're going further back prior to the internet age) whether or not a game is for me, and so I spend most of a QL's runtime hoping for some chuckles with some of the funniest duders the industry has to spare. While I like the following three games plenty as is, as far as I'm concerned they justified their existence with the priceless QL moments they spawned.

Angelica Weaver: Catch Me When You Can

The game: MumboJumbo's Angelica Weaver: Catch Me When You Can, an hidden object adventure game.

The source: Groupees' Be Mine 9.

The pre-amble: Angelica Weaver is a detective with the Chicago police, with one particular trick up her sleeves: a mystic power that allows her to see into the past and observe murders as they happen. By using this gift, she is able to gather evidence and find the identify of the Cicero Slasher serial killer, even if it means occasionally hopping back a century or so to look for clues.

Angelica Weaver's one of a very, very large crowd of "casual" hidden object adventure games. When I say hidden object, there's a specific set-up that springs to mind: a static screen filled with junk and a shopping list of items to find, with each one getting ticked off the list once found in the scene. Those scenarios only comprise around a third of Angelica Weaver's puzzles, however: most are the usual inventory puzzles we've seen in adventure games since time immemorial, and there's even a few Layton-esque brainteasers thrown in for good measure.

Here's the Quick Look.

The playthrough: Well, if you remember the Quick Look as vividly as I do (or just watched it via the link) you might recall how ridiculous this game is, from its high-concept premise down to its imbecilic puzzle contrivances. Though these games usually provide some farfetched reason for why you'd want to run around picking through a hoarder's bedroom, a detective that can go back in time with the power of, oh, I dunno, dreamcatchers I guess, might require an unassailable suspension of disbelief. The Quick Look got a lot of mileage in particular out of the extremely goofy jump scares, such as that brick flying in through a window from nowhere, and the various dumb means the game had for giving you a required item after solving a puzzle, such as an industrial loom in someone's garage that just inexplicably burps up another brick. These bricks are then, of course, required for a sudoku puzzle that the murderer painted on the wall in ultraviolent ink. Because why wouldn't they?

The fuck does that even mean? (Also, Angelica's Chicagoan-by-way-of-Boston accent is something to behold. The bahdy!)

So yeah, it's another hidden object game, albeit one that isn't just an egregious waste of time thanks to its preposterous silliness. Its earnest attempts at being a bit eerie and mysterious are where most of the inadvertent hilarity comes into play, but the parts that are just straight up adventure game shenanigans are actually all right, if unremarkable. The game's far too easy for its own good, except for the few occasions where a giant leap in logic is required, and the game's happy to provide as many hints as you need via collectible dreamcatchers. I beat it in an afternoon, if that tells you anything about how straightforward most of it is (or how unwisely I'm choosing to spend my afternoons, for that matter).

I dunno. I generally don't like railing against hidden object games because they're very clearly not built for me, but for casual gamers who want to spend a bit of time with something breezy and uncomplicated for a few minutes before going about their day. It's also worth noting that because I play so very few games of this type, there's no way for me to tell how Catch Me When You Can might stack up in comparison. It's not going to compare with games like Primordia or The Book of Unwritten Tales, given the cursory narrative elements and simple item hunt puzzles, but it's not like I wouldn't have found a way to waste those hours some other way. I'm sounding overly dismissive, but Angelica Weaver is just inoffensive, garden-variety point-and-clickery with a few absurd gimmicks that are worth a chuckle or two. It's not bad, but it's probably not worth adding to the ol' Steam wishlist either.

I swear, this game is like three or four "30 Rock" parodies rolled up into one.

The verdict: I beat it, so there's no need to go back. Indeed, everything in this scene has been found.

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes

The game: Daedalic Entertainment's Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes, a macabre adventure game.

The source: I... oh, I bought this one off Steam directly in a sale? That's unusual for me.

The pre-amble: Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes is a story about a well-behaved little girl at a convent school, Lilli, and the various people in her life that make her miserable. The one person who brightens her day is her best friend Edna, and after Edna discovers that a menacing psychologist from her past is coming to the convent school, she pleads with Lilli to help her escape. Lilli, being as polite and good-natured as she is, can't say no, even if it does result in a little collateral damage...

Edna and Harvey is a fairly traditional adventure game: you grab items, check hotspots, solve puzzles and progress the story by any means possible.

Here's the Quick Look.

The playthrough: Wow, is this game dark. It's definitely got a few Grimm's Fairy Tales vibes, and a big helping of the Addams Family in addition (some of its music seems eerily reminiscent of the Addams Family movie's soundtrack). The Quick Look stops shortly after your fellow student "Freeman" mysteriously vanishes after playing near the well, and you're quickly introduced to a whole school full of colorful characters (like the anime-obsessed popular girls, and the local mean boys) that you go about systematically murdering completely incidentally. I hesitate to even call it a spoiler, because this is only the first chapter of the game.

Holy moley, game.

Honestly, and I'm making this sound more incredible than it actually is, the game starts becoming more interesting after you're done annihilating schoolchildren. The Harvey of the title, he of the new eyes, is actually a malevolent stuffed rabbit that the antagonist of the game, Dr Marcel, uses to hypnotise Lilli into being a good girl or otherwise suffer psychological torment. Each of these hypnotic suggestions are fairly common rules for children -- no playing with fire, no playing in dangerous places, no disobeying adults -- that, at some point or another, the player is going to have to contravene in order to solve the next puzzle or reach the next part of the story. In each case, you're sent into a trance-like dreamworld created from Lilli's own psyche and required to complete a little self-contained puzzle that allows you to overcome that specific mental block, after which you are freely able to ignore it and complete any goals it was impeding. It's a novel little system that creates some really bizarre scenarios in Lilli's mental scape. The game goes out of its way quite a few times to suggest that Lilli might not necessarily be entirely sane.

I'm enjoying this one. Like Daedalic's other game that I've played this month, which would be The Whispered World, the game has a handy function key that highlights every hotspot in the area, and it's adopted the now standard contextual cursor, which changes to two possible functions (usually "examine" and an interaction of some kind) that correspond to the two standard mouse buttons. Holding it over an item, say, will transform the cursor to look like a hand on the left and an eye on the right, making it obvious which button you're meant to click for which effect. It's a considerably more streamlined process than The Whispered World's little menu of options, and I'm finding I'm enjoying this game's dark humor more than The Whispered World's dark... well, everything.

Look at this perfectly normal situation we're in.

The verdict: It might mean adding yet another half-finished adventure game to the pile of games to get through once May Madness has concluded, but I want to see where this game goes. These mental block puzzles (which thankfully have nothing to do with sliding block puzzles) seem like an interesting addition, and so far I'm really liking the game's truly sinister sense of humor.

McPixel

The game: Sos's McPixel, a comedic trial-and-error puzzle adventure game. Kinda.

The source: Huh, bought this one too. For like a buck.

The pre-amble: McPixel almost defies definition. It certainly defies sense. The player is the rugged, bemulleted, psychotic adventurer and secret agent McPixel, not to be mistaken for McGruber, who in turn should not be mistaken for McGuyver. In each unlikely scenario, McPixel has to find a ticking bomb (or some sort of imminent explosive catastrophe) and defuse it before it goes off, killing vaporizing slightly singeing everyone in the vicinity.

Because it's largely a satirical take on point and click adventure games, and their often pervasive sense of illogical randomness, here's not much more to the game than simply clicking on hotspots in the environment and seeing what happens. Sometimes you'll end up defusing the bomb out of pure luck, sometimes you'll fail but get some kind of idea about what might be the correct combination of hotspots to interact with, but most of the time a complete non-sequitur happens and everyone dies. After each stage, successful or no, the game moves onto the next in a series of six, eventually looping back to the ones you didn't beat over and over until all six scenarios are clear. Once this is accomplished, the player has "saved the day" and can move on to the next sextet.

Here's the Quick Look.

The playthrough: One of the hardest forms of comedy to do right is "randumb", that oft-maligned merging of non-sequitur absurdism and being stupid for stupidity's sake. So many of its practitioners -- The Mighty Boosh, Tim and Eric, anything that considers monkeys and/or bacon and/or goofy hats to be intrinsically hilarious -- simply fall flat because they don't quite realize how this form of comedy is meant to operate. For randumb to truly work, you have to establish some expectations first with a mundane or cliché setting, and then subvert those expectations. Crucially, this must be done with enough speed that the viewer can subconsciously infer the obvious outcome but has not yet consciously deduced that, logically, something unexpected must happen for the humor to emerge. In a sense, you have to get in there and make the joke happen quickly before the viewer can fully figure out what's going on, like some sort of comedy ninja. What's equally important is that you don't just create bizarre scenario after scenario with no basis in reality because that just leaves the viewer in a constant state of confusion, and therefore can't appreciate the actually funny part when it finally occurs. It's why the jokes a movie like Airplane! hit so much harder; it has that bedrock of a very dry, overly dramatic disaster movie premise and some deadpan acting with which to expertly subvert.

At least he has something to be grouchy about now. Besides living in a trash can.

Anyway, the purpose of that little rant is so it can lead to discussing what I most admire about McPixel: how adroitly it manages to take advantage of a form of comedy that is so easy to get wrong. In fact, almost every Indie game I've played with this sense of humor has managed to blow it one way or another, and if I end up enjoying those games it's usually in spite of its dumb humor rather than because of it. I'm not going to claim that every joke in McPixel is a winner either (in fact, many are just awkward non-jokes), but there's so many thrown at you in such a short amount of time that it's hardly worth going into the laff-to-gaff ratio. This goes a long way into explaining why I found the Quick Look so amusing as well, as it gave the duo (Ryan and Patrick in this case) a lot of goofiness to work from.

McPixel's not just good for a few chuckles though, as there's also a little bit of method behind the superficially random madness. The way the game reveals hints about each scenario even when you're unsuccessful, such as showing where the bomb is and what effects occur if you try to use certain items on nearby NPCs, can actually lead to some promising results if you follow those implications to their logical conclusion. That said, it's every bit as common to discover the solution via a complete stab in the dark, or that the solution ends up being so simple that you don't even initially think to try it (the amount of puzzles for which all I had to do was click the bomb...). The game also extends its lifespan by tasking players to earn gold ranking on each stage as well; this is done by finding EVERY possible outcome in a stage, most of which still result in an early explodey demise. It's an inspired form of longevity, because finding all the alternate paths is every bit as challenging as trying to ascertain the correct solution, while also being a subtle way for the developer to kindly ask the player to find all the jokes they carefully crafted for them.

McPixel in a nutshell.

The verdict: I've beaten several chapters so far and intend to beat all of it, including the "free DLC", before moving onto the next trio after this blog goes up. I'm hooked. The next lot can wait, trust me.

The Moment of Truth

I want to say McPixel for the hell of it, but I'll probably still be playing Edna and Harvey for a long time after McPixel's done and dusted. What the hell, I'll just underline both for separate reasons. I've never particularly liked the argument that a good game that takes ten hours to beat will always trump an equally fun game that takes five hours to beat. Running time doesn't generally work as a factor when comparing and contrasting because it depends so heavily on the game(s) in question; all you can say with any authority is whether each individual game outstays its welcome or is over far too soon.

Oh, and so she doesn't feel left out, here's a special reward for Angelica Weaver as well: I'm going to reveal the ending.

She's a ghost.

Yeah, fuck you too, game.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #7 - JRPG Jibes

If there's one genre of game that dominated my pre-teen years and onward, it's the humble and occasionally not-so-humble JRPG. Though the majority of my fellow UK RPG fans got on board the JRPG train for Final Fantasy VII -- the first core Final Fantasy to actually make it over to Europe -- I managed to book my ticket early with the SNES game Secret of Mana. I've delved into my JRPG past often enough before now though, so suffice it to say it's the one game genre that's closest to my heart and the one that I've always championed for better or worse. Currently worse, if I'm being honest, though things seem to be turning around with games like Xenoblade and Bravely Default leading the counter-assault.

But I'm not the only one to have grown up with bleepy anime teenagers saving the world, and it would be fatuous of me to suppose that pre-FF7 console RPGs were a niche thing that few Western gamers ever appreciated. There's been a remarkable presence in the Indie gaming industry for games that deliberately recall the 8-/16-bit era of JRPGs, choosing those older aesthetics to tell stories of their own. Most of these are earnest efforts from fans that come about due to (relatively-)easy-to-use game creation software like RPG Maker, though it seems like the few that make a name for themselves are games that are in some way warmly satirical of that era: their often poor translations, their clichés and tropes and their occasionally absurd stories and settings. This is quite clearly evinced by the success of the Zeboyd games, or Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, or Half-Minute Hero or, hell, even the recent South Park: The Stick of Truth.

So here's three games I checked out that use old JRPGs as a base for something all together strange and different (and somewhat amusing to an extent). I guess in a sense this is me giving my usual May Madness Zeboyd shout-out -- I covered Cthulhu Saves the World for May Madness More -- even if I don't actually have any Zeboyd games to showcase this year.

Hero Siege

The game: Panic Arts' Hero Siege, a twin-stick shooter top-down RPG.

The source: The Indie Royale Debut 8 Bundle

The pre-amble: Hero Siege is an action RPG like Diablo that borrows the twin-stick shooter format to make things a bit more chaotic than normal games of its type. The player selects one of several hero types and strolls through arenas trying to kite enormous groups of enemies around picking them off, perhaps even leading them through traps in the environment to eliminate them faster. The game's packed with numerous roguelike elements to boot.

The playthrough: So right from the offset it's apparent how rough this game is. The pixel art is adequate but not exactly sterling on the blown-up, low-res settings that the game seems to use as default (you can really tell it's a iOS/Android port). The voice acting is beyond awful, though there's a certain B-movie charm to it as well. The game is plagued with glitches both minor and significant, from visual bugs to stuff like the level-up screen occasionally having an obfuscating pop-up that won't go away and enemies with one HP more than they ought to for whatever reason. It's also got a lot of slow-down and the slightly slanted top-down view occasionally makes it hard to accurately line up shots for some of the ranged characters - you have to aim at a monster's feet more often than not, especially when they start becoming enormous.

Truly a dark day for Clan Assface.

But honestly? I had fun with this game. It doesn't demand a whole lot, and isn't overly complicated, but it's managed to get that frantic twin-stick shooter part down pat and the RPG-ish additions only serve to enhance the twitch gameplay. There's been a few games of this genre that include leveling up skills and spending money to purchase power-ups (I dare say the grand majority of recent ones, excepting those that are explicitly Arcade-based like Geometry Wars), but the game adds a few interesting roguelike wrinkles as well. For one, you can occasionally visit dungeons which tend to feature slightly different configurations than the usual big arena with monsters pouring in, and the many traps you can lead monsters into can be your undoing as well if you aren't careful. There's that old Roguelike favorite of having multiple colored potions with unknown effects that change every playthrough. There's statues and relics that can give you permanent bonuses, though there's often a risk involved.

Moreover, Hero Siege feels like one of those games that you kinda have to study a little before you get good at it: Dungeons are generally bad news if you aren't a high level (or a good player) -- I played as a Viking, a Marksman and a Pirate, deciding I had a preference for ranged units, and they all got wiped out by daring to descend into the dungeons that would occasionally appear and encountering tough boss characters at the end; certain heroes work better with certain tactics, and require some min/maxing before they start to shine -- a ranged attacker doesn't need as much defense stat, for example, because if you're playing them properly you'll be staying out of everything's reach; kiting enemies into traps is a far more effective way of eliminating them than depending on your own weak weapons when starting out.

Why does that tree have so much dead? Woodn't you know it, I died again shortly after this screenshot.

Hero Siege isn't going to be a game that will keep your interest for more than half an hour at a time, and due to the way its built would probably be a lot more preferable on a mobile device, but it's not quite as shoddy as initial impressions might suggest. As backhanded as that compliment is.

The verdict: I think I got a decent idea of what this game is already. It's a short bursts type of thing, so I doubt I'll be playing it extensively at any point in the future.

One Way Heroics

The game: SmokingWolf's One Way Heroics, a roguelike RPG.

The source: The Indie Royale Debut 8 Bundle. Again.

The pre-amble: One Way Heroics is a standard turn-based roguelike with a twist: rather than descending various floors of a randomized dungeon, the hero is pegging it across a randomized landscape that, every turn, falls into an all-enveloping darkness shifting in from the left. The player has to make their every step count, making decisions such as whether it would be best to head to a dungeon in the north or a town in the south for supplies. Enemies, treasures, mysteries, NPCs and obstacles lay in every direction.

The player can generate their own map by either creating their own "seed" code or letting the computer generate one for them. After every adventure, the player can spend the "heroic points" they earn for doing well on new classes and perks in the character creation screen, as well as drop off priceless items they found in the dimensional vault for the next hero.

The playthrough: I really like this game. A lot. It's hard to find a roguelike I'd like to drop any amount of time into, but this game scratches the same kind of itch as Rogue Legacy did before it. Though entirely a classic roguelike in most senses of the term -- it's graphically perfunctory rather than remarkable (the anime portraits aren't bad though), everything only moves when you do, there's items you can't always identify without a scroll and there's hunger and stamina and equipment durability meters to keep an eye on -- the game's emphasis on doing well enough to create enough advantages for the next hero to come along makes every quest (even the unsuccessful ones) feel like it's heading towards something, and there's a lot of tips and lessons you can piece together by remembering past experiences (especially deaths) or asking your fairy guide for advice. For instance, you'll start to get a good feel for each terrain, including the kind of items you can expect to find, the enemies you'll face, the frequency of dungeons and towns and the scarcity of healing/food items.

Look at this information overload! I'm in micromanagement heaven.

Though it has very little in common with the game from a mechanical perspective, One Way Heroics reminded me a lot of Half-Minute Hero - it has a very goofy and self-aware sense of humor, especially regarding the weird gimmick that drives the whole game, and the top-down JRPG 16-bit-esque veneer is clearly chosen to homage the game's venerable inspiration sources as much as it is a conveniently low-tech means for a less artistically-enabled Indie development team to still create a fine-looking game.

Honestly, I kind of feel like this game popped out of nowhere and just killed it for me. It may run out of steam further down the road (I've already beaten it and spent the points I've earned on what seemed like half the unlockables), but I suspect that it contains a hell of a lot of features that will slowly trickle out as the player gets better at the game and discovers more about how it works. I've actually managed to beat it, but only once and only on the lowest difficulty. With all its unlockables and the near-endless number of dimensions one could generate with an eight-digit code, One Way Heroics is beginning to look a bit like A Valley Without Wind or Disgaea for sheer depth; there's this unshakable feeling that I still have a long road ahead if I want to see everything the game has to offer. Time will tell if that feeling pans out, of course.

Your dimension ain't shit, Coolbaby.

The verdict: Another one of those "short bursts" types of game, I suspect I might visit One Way Heroics again. I just unlocked a class/perk combo that makes me way better at unlocking chests, so I can't wait to see what I can find.

Two Brothers

The game: Ackk Studios's Two Brothers, an action RPG/adventure game.

The source: Groupees' Retro Groupees 2 bundle.

The pre-amble: Two Brothers is a top-down RPG adventure game that has chosen to present itself as a Game Boy game, complete with greenish monotone (but not always?), tinny sound and small viewing window, though still graphically sharper than those games ever were. It's a throwback with a lot of affection for the Game Boy era, but has a considerably deeper emphasis on its unusual story than the often rudimentary RPGs it venerates and seems to be a lot more than just a simple nostalgia trip.

The player assumes the role of Roy Blocker, inventor, explorer and adventurer, and his fascination with the afterlife after he dies unexpectedly on his most recent expedition that (probably) also took the life of his doting wife. Roy becomes obsessed with the intense colors and sights he saw of the next world, while also digging deeper into the mysteries of the land of the living he still inhabits.

The playthrough: So immediately upon starting the game, I got trapped outside the world and couldn't do the prologue sequence with Roy and his wife that leads on to the rest of the game's plot. What's even more telling than the fact that the game glitched out the very first sequence is that I assumed it was all deliberate. What little I recall from Giant Bomb's QL back when this game was added to Steam sometime last year was that it was almost oppressively weird and un-user-friendly, and having a trippy intro sequence where I was outside of everything seemed all too apropos to the game's core peculiarity. Nope: the game just messed up and I had to start over before it began working properly.

A rare moment where the game goes all "Game Boy Color" on you.

Two Brothers is kind of a mess, but in the same sort of deliberate, knowing way that The Real Texas was (which I covered a little while back for Desura December and came away from equally perplexed). There's something to be said for an Indie game developer choosing to recreate a very specific feeling of being young and playing a particularly strange JRPG and reaching a point where they become completely lost and bereft of purpose. I can also understand why memories like that would endure longer and harder than any other. It's easy for me to recall back to all the times I've gotten stuck in SNES RPGs in the past (Terranigma's a good example, and EarthBound never really went out of its way to make itself explicable either) and the few Game Boy JRPGs that saw Western translations -- Final Fantasy Adventure, the Final Fantasy Legends series, Sword of Hope -- were somehow even less fathomable. So when I play Two Brothers, I'm not seeing a game being deliberately abstruse for the hell of it like I am with The Real Texas, but rather I see a game that's trying to revisit what it was like for a young gamer vainly trying to come to terms with an enigma of a game that probably didn't make all that much sense in its native language, let alone the resulting Engrishy text of an ineffective translation.

Of course, I could be reading way too much into this stylistic choice and this could all just be the result of having some rather strange individuals behind the world-building of Two Brothers. Maybe it was intended to be more straightforward than this, to have more of a message about RPG tropes like the meaningless of death in a world where the player can always rewind time and try again or what would happen to a world should it suddenly shift from 8-bit monochrome to 16-bit full color, which is what I've read from other reviews and impressions about the game. I've spent a lot of time following what I believe to be the correct path, paying rapt attention to whatever tutorials and lessons the game imparts so that any lack of comprehension is not necessarily of my own unobservant doing, as is so often the case with LPers who ignore instructions for the sake of expediency or being entertaining. And so far, there have been flashes of a Final Fantasy Adventure in there, and its relatively novel mix of Zelda puzzles and RPG combat that made it so engrossing back when I was a JRPG-fixated youth. It just feels as if the final barrier to overcome before I can start truly enjoying Two Brothers in earnest is deciphering what the hell its deal is. Not even Anodyne was this weird.

You can check out of Hotel Panda any time you like...

The verdict: At this point, understanding this game is going to become a special project of mine, to paraphrase Josh Brolin's character in No Country For Old Men. I'll put it aside for now, but eventually -- just like I plan to do with La-Mulana -- I'll put a big block of time aside to try to figure it out. Surely there's some sense behind all this fish and color and giant panda and pelican bar nonsense? I'll make sure to post a follow-up at some point if I do play more of it. Spending just an hour or so to solve the mysteries of Two Brothers ain't going to cut it, not even close.

The Moment of Truth

Definitely One Way Heroics this time. I was pleasantly surprised, given that it looked like another RPGMaker game with a gimmicky premise to set it apart. It's never clear from screenshots with games like those (in which I also include the aforementioned Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden) just how well-considered its mechanics are. Plus, I'm already liking its Disgaea-levels of customization madness and how the denizens of that world takes all the contrived weirdness in stride. It seems like a game that could potentially keep my interest for hours, for as poor quality as some of its graphical aspects may be. A rinky-dink timesink, even. (I think that last statement means we're done for today.)

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #6 - Platformurder

Though I'll get to the more overtly puzzle-platformer types eventually, because Gabe knows I'm not running out of those any time soon, I thought I'd set the proverbial Stage 1-1 with a trio of -- if not exactly masocore -- quite challenging platformer games that demand a little more from the player than just some quick reflexes and an eye for shiny collectibles. I suppose I've already broke that seal with Giana Sisters, but here's three more platformer games where the player needs to pay attention and be a little more methodical than usual.

But not in a puzzley way, necessarily, because we'll be getting to those. Good golly, do I have a lot of those sitting around.

Ethan: Meteor Hunter

The game: Seaven Studio's Ethan: Meteor Hunter, a side-scrolling platformer with physics puzzles.

The source: Groupees' Holiday Helpings bundle.

The pre-amble: Ethan is an anthropomorphic mouse who is hunting down fragments of a meteor that destroyed his house. There's not a whole lot more plot than that, as this is a fairly traditional 2D platformer that's all about running though stages quickly gathering many shiny trinkets as possible.

As well the regular running, jumping and sliding down slopes (which builds up speed needed for larger jumps), Ethan can also manipulate items in the environment by pushing/pulling them, or by using his meteor-given telekinesis (think Rob Townsend "gem" The Meteor Man) to shift obstacles around the environment to help him reach other areas or grab sparkly meteorites. So I guess this is actually kind of a puzzle-platformer, but that's not generally the focus. Rather, getting killed a lot seems to be the focus from what I can tell.

The playthrough: Ethan Meteor Hunter has the aspirations of a Super Meat Boy, with its various sawblade encounters and fast, challenging platforming sequences, but is really another instance of a much larger throng of also-ran Indie physics platformers. A French platformer starring a cheese-loving rodent ("Banjo-Ratatouille"?), there's some early promise with Ethan: Meteor Hunter during its initial stages, but everything soon starts to fall apart. The pacing, usually so zippy with all the rapid sliding and jumping, grinds to a halt whenever there are blocks in the environment to be shifted around in minutes-long physics manipulation puzzles. The jumping, which is quite satisfactory when there's not much accuracy required, becomes too unwieldy and prone to accidentally overcompensating when a vertical-scrolling pogo-stick sequence requires some absolute precision in order to make it all the way to the end in the one perfect run the game demands of you. The physics puzzles are intriguing, but the player has a finite number of times they can freeze time, and screwing up can mean resetting to the last checkpoint. The idea is that you pause the game, start moving any number of blocks to where they need to be, and then unpause. If a single block was in the wrong place (or, as was frequently the case for me, Ethan himself) it meant undoing everything and starting over. As these puzzles will no doubt become ever more complex further into the game, it'll just mean even more frustrating cases of "almost, but not quite, so do the whole thing again".

To explain how these traps work would require too much time and effort. Suffice it to say, you're going to have to play the game to figure out how they could possibly be a deterrent.

It doesn't really help that Ethan: Meteor Hunter looks like it was made one of those basic freeware game development programs, with some very plain (and occasionally ugly) art design and blocky models. I'll always hunt after any collectibles going, but the game also rates you on the amount of times you had to use the pause feature (which you'll almost always go over if you're trying to get all the collectibles) and the amount of time it took to beat the stage (ditto). It seems the game wants you to hit all three targets with the same playthrough though, which is kind of ludicrous.

Perhaps worst of all, though, was when I discovered a sequence with homing missiles (yes, yes, let's just throw every Super Meat Boy obstacle in here somewhere) and the things not only moved so quick that they always caught up to you as soon as your momentum dropped after the initial bit of hill sliding, but they would inexplicably spawn directly on top of you whenever you respawned at the checkpoint. Unless you were fast enough to jump out of the way the moment Ethan reappears at the checkpoint crystal, he'd just get instantly killed by missiles that shouldn't be there over and over. It's at this point when I invoked my corollary to Wolpaw's Law: If the designers, coders and QA didn't give enough of a shit about their game to fix a bug this major, then there's no reason I ought to give a shit about playing it any longer.

Curse you physics! (And yes, you have to remember to jump and then pause in order to shift the blocks around beneath you.)

The verdict: Nope. Just as well really, since I've already got enough of these games to get back to once May's done. Thank you for not adding to the backlog, Ethan: Meteor Hunter.

La-Mulana

The game: Takumi Naramura/Nigoro's La-Mulana, an archeological SpaceWhipper filled with mysteries.

The source: I actually bought this one from the Steam store directly, for like $2.

The pre-amble: La-Mulana's a side-scrolling 2D platformer that -- from the offset -- looks an awful lot like a Spelunky-themed SpaceWhipper. In actuality, La-Mulana's a callback to an era of SpaceWhippers before SpaceWhippers were even officially a thing. I'm talking old-school non-linear platformers like Knightmare II: The Maze of Galious and Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (a.k.a. Legacy of the Wizard), both of which were released around the same time as the very first Castlevania and Metroid games. The game was originally devised to be a big old love letter to the MSX, Japan's answer to DOS back in the early 80s that existed parallel to the NES and other big Japanese home computer names like the NEC PC-8801 and Sharp X68000. The various software that Lemeza uses in the original version of the game were all shout-outs to big MSX titles, like Konami's Metal Gear.

The Steam version has been updated by Nigoro with a significant graphical facelift: though many of the sprites remain the same, the backgrounds have been reworked and look kind of stunning. It's the same sort of makeover that Cave Story received for its WiiWare/Steam debut as well and -- as was the case with Cave Story's enhanced version -- this also marks the first time La-Mulana has been officially localized into English (though Aeon Genesis has a perfectly serviceable fan translation for the original freeware version of the game).

The playthrough: I neglected to discuss the story in the pre-amble, so here goes: you play Professor Lemeza Kosugi, an archeologist dressed in the appropriate attire for tomb raiding, who has traveled to a distant corner of the world to discover the secrets of the eponymous subterranean ruins of La-Mulana. What's immediately apparent about this game is that it's far from the standard SpaceWhipper in terms of having some clear idea of what the heck you're supposed to be doing. There's a few tips to begin with, and it's evident you need to raise some money to buy a glyph reader, a translation device and a mapping device, but beyond that the game just kind of drops you off at La-Mulana's entrance and says "have fun at school, kiddo" before driving away.

Quit breaking the fourth wall and just tell me it's "dangerous to go alone" or something, old man.

As such, I've spent the first few hours just gamely poking every nook and cranny for some answers. There's a lot of cryptic hints about what you're supposed to be aiming for, and a few instances of puzzles that required a bit of lateral thinking to solve, but I'm already starting to feel like I have no sense of where to go. Some areas are too high-level for me right now (there's an area full of poisonous water that's easy enough to reach, and way easier to die in), and some rooms obviously require items and devices that I simply don't have yet. There's supposedly a lot of hidden stuff in the background that I'll probably have to scan inch by inch before I discover something that will allow me to continue, but the prospect of having to do that is not a compelling one.

Despite all this, I like La-Mulana a lot. It's clearly not meant to be a walk in the park, and given what little I know of its MSX inspirations, I don't doubt there'll be a lot of fatally unfair situations further down the road. But it's one of those games like Fez or Dark Souls that demand you shape up, pay attention and earn your fun. I definitely feel like there's a place in this modern gaming world for such experiences like La-Mulana, though I'm afraid just dedicating a single afternoon to it isn't going to be anywhere close to sufficient.

La-Mulana in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen.

The verdict: I haven't gone too far in yet, so I don't imagine it'll be too hard to pick up from where I left off. All the same, this is going to require a bit more focus than I can afford it right now. Maybe someday later, when there's not much else on my plate games-wise.

Mark of the Ninja

The game: Klei Entertainment's Mark of the Ninja, a 2D stealth action game.

The source: The Humble Bundle 9.

The pre-amble: Mark of the Ninja is a stealth action game that's all about cones of vision and using light and sound to one's advantage. It's able to do this effectively by having the whole game be a 2D non-linear platformer, albeit the Thief or Dishonored or Deus Ex type of non-linear where there's always a clear destination to head towards and various optional paths one can take to get there.

The player is a "marked" ninja, empowered by mystic tattoos that will eventually drive him insane, who is sent on a mission to eradicate the enemies of the enigmatic Hisomu ninja clan. Successfully clearing optional objectives, finding hidden scrolls that detail the history of the Hisomu, staying quiet and concealed and finishing off enemies as stylistically as possible (or avoiding them all entirely) net you bonus points which can be spent between missions on improving your skills.

The playthrough: I don't really know how I feel about Mark of the Ninja. That's unrelated to how much I've played of it -- I both have and haven't seen enough, in that I've gotten the gist of how the game operates after two whole stages, while also sure that the game's going to start racking up the difficulty with new complications before too long -- but rather how certain aspects of it appeal to me very much while others do not. I don't think "ambivalent" is fair, because we're talking pretty big peaks and valleys in my enjoyment level. So I'll just start by listing those, then.

Peaks: Stealth games of this sort are extremely satisfying when the player has a decent handle on their limitations, and the limitations of the guards around them. In a stealth game, you ideally want to be able to predict what a guard does almost all the time, though in such a way that defeating them silently isn't always a complete pushover. If there's a guard looking your direction with a spotlight behind him, he's going to be very tough to kill regardless of how accurately I'm able to anticipate his behavior. Mark of the Ninja does an excellent job of providing that sort of sensory feedback, which means that getting spotted or thwarted is almost always the player's own dumb fault for their lack of situational awareness. That has a number of intrinsic frustrations too, of course, but none one could feasibly lay at the game's feet with a reproachful look.

This might be the best means of handling gamma correction I've ever seen. Any other takers?

I actually kind of like the animation style too. It's expressive and stands out compared to most of the pixelly or more overtly anime cutscenes of other Indie games. If anything, it's closer to one of those modern Nickelodeon action cartoons about spies or aliens or whatever, though with considerably more blood splatter than I imagine Nickelodeon would allow.

Valleys: However, it's not always as responsive as I'd like. This probably boils down to once again making the somewhat unwise decision to use a keyboard. However, I actually find the keyboard controls to be entirely acceptable, and the game always gives you a list of context commands for any given situation so there's no excuse for pressing the wrong key at the wrong time. The unresponsiveness comes from situations like dropping a body down a grate, where you're given two "drop body" commands - one of which drops him down the grate and the other just drops him on the ground above the grate. It's never clear which command is which, and it's almost impossible to intuit. Other situations where two commands might overlap include dragging a body behind an open door and having two simultaneous commands that use the same key to shut the door or drop the body. For occasions where time is of the essence, it's a pain to mess up one of these commands, because it's one of those cases where the game's UI is at fault than my own lack of alacrity.

"Here, you've got something on your mouth, let me just... oh, whoops".

For as much as I like Mark of the Ninja's artwork, I don't really appreciate the entirely self-serious tone of the game. It's meant to be badass, I guess, but it's like Samurai Jack without that cartoon's self-aware winks to all its ludicrousness. It comes off as sounding like it was written by 14-year-olds (quite eloquent ones, mind). Maybe that was the idea, given how I've already equated the animation style to a cartoon created for pre-teens, but I'm having a hard time not rolling my eyes at every mention of how awesome ninjas are and at the many over-the-top animations of the stealth kills. I like goofy, but there hasn't been a single hint of irony so far. Lastly, as someone who can be a bit of a perfectionist about this sort of thing, having the checkpoints spaced out so far apart isn't always appealing if I felt like I could've pulled off that last kill just a little bit better. It comes down to a choice of redoing the last fifteen minutes of methodical light-smashing and stealth-killing, or just saying "fuck it" and moving on. Both of those options are surefire ways for me to lose any motivation to play any further. Why would I want to beat a level with imperfections? Why would I want to go back and redo what was four perfect kills because of a fumble right at the end? Why bother?

The verdict: Stealth games that pull off their mechanics this well are a rare breed, but at the same time I've never been a particular fan of the genre. I mean, I guess I have played through Gunpoint and Dishonored relatively recently, but I just get so stressed out trying to perfect games like these. It's not like I'm at all invested in the Mark of the Ninja's overly sincere story about tattoo ninjas either. I'll stick this in the maybe pile.

Moment of Truth

Hard to say, as I don't feel all that close to any of these games, but I'll give it to La-Mulana. For as painfully abstruse as that game has been so far, I did get a few bursts of that rare breed of satisfaction one can only receive from figuring something out and getting past a roadblock. Once I start finding items that open more paths elsewhere and get a better sense of the game's tricks, I'm supposing that I'll enjoy it a lot more.

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