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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Mento's May Madness Melange: #5 - Pointin' Clique

Of all the unplayed stuff I have sitting in my Steam library, the clear majority of them are Indie graphic adventure games that I've gone out of my way to track down. We've had a recent resurgence of these types of narrative- and puzzle-driven games, because it would appear that there are plenty of Indie devs out there who grew up playing Day of the Tentacle or Gabriel Knight or King's Quest and are rather indignant that this genre was left to rot after the FMV generation lobotomized it, with the wider PC gaming industry subsequently then mercifully smothering it, smashing a window with a ceramic console and running for the hills to pursue extremely dry strategy and simulation games instead.

Anyway, I have more than a few of these things, as someone who is as equally attached to the genre as the many devs who are even now creating new ones for a modern audience. I've been meaning to devise some sort of recurring feature where I cover the ones I have in depth on a weekly/monthly basis, but the issue with that is that discussing them in too much detail would mean giving away the puzzles or major elements of the story and that would only serve to diminish their appeal for anyone wanting to try them themselves.

Instead, here's a short and spoiler-free look at a trio of point and click adventure games that I've been curious about for a while, and May Madness seemed as opportune a time as any to give them a gander.

The Book of Unwritten Tales

The game: King Art Games' The Book of Unwritten Tales, a fantasy parody graphic adventure game.

The source: The Humble Weekly Sale: The Adventure Company and Friends

The pre-amble: The Book of Unwritten Tales is a classic graphic adventure game, complete with NPCs with long dialogue chains, icons that tell you how to interact with the hotspots in the environment, inventory items that are used to solve puzzles and a lot of really, really nice looking screens to stroll though while you try using every item on everything in the vicinity. (Just so I won't have to copy/paste this paragraph, this also applies to the other two games today.)

The Book of Unwritten Tales also has a self-aware satirical streak a mile wide, starting with its contradictory name and then moving onto almost every other puzzle, event and character in the game. It's not so heavy to be too cloying or precious, however, and the game manages to be pretty funny when it's not leaning too hard on reference humor. The game also frequently switches protagonists from a naive little gnome with great aspirations of heroic wizardry, and a considerably more worldly elf princess who gets caught up along the way.

The playthrough: So far I'm really enjoying this game. It's sometimes hard to describe how a graphic adventure might be better or worse than any other, because they all use a similar blueprint and the real differences come down to how abstruse the puzzles are and how well the game's script is written by its designers and performed by the voice artists. TBoUT looks incredible, especially given how relatively old it is (five years might not be the eternity in technological game advancement time it once was, but it's still smack dab in the middle of the last generation of consoles). The 3D models for the characters might seem a bit dated (I still love the attention in Wilbur, the gnome character, and his facial animations), but the environments are as striking now as they presumably were back then.

I have no idea how my PC is able to put out images that look this attractive (the whole scene, not just the scantily-clad elf). It's as confused as I am.

But what really makes Book of Unwritten Tales shine, and how it makes itself so accessible to the many fans that have long since abandoned this genre for demanding too much illogical mental gymnastics over the years, is that certain hotspots in the environment will simply cease to exist once it's established that they have no further use. A character might get a few remarks out of an immaterial piece of background art, and then the contextual "examine" symbol will stop showing up for it. Likewise, once an inventory item is surplus to requirement, it's summarily abandoned. This greatly diminishes the amount of wandering around and vainly performing trial and error tests with everything currently within arm's reach. If a hotspot is still active or an item still sitting around, it's more than likely it's because you still need it for something. Many other conveniences such as clicking to skip walking animations to new areas, a single icon that changes depending on the context rather than a list of commands and maps that let you warp around when there's multiple locations to visit are all present and accounted for, and very welcome.

For full disclosure I'm partway through Chapter 3 and quite a few hours into the game, and there's been a lot of instances of being given a list of items to search for in order to achieve a goal and move onto the next part of the game: a menu of ingredients for a potion, for example, or a list of "military equipment" that Wilbur's grandfather asks him to procure before he'll allow him to head off on an adventure. It's fine to an extent, as this is supposed to be a satirical take on this genre as much as it is riffing on fantasy universes and hokey RPG clichés in general, but I'm sure they could go to a little more effort than returning to the same set-up over and over. The writing's also of an overall high quality, but there's still a few unnecessary reference gags of the type where "saying a thing that was a quote from another thing" is the whole joke. It also skews a bit too close to stealing from a few of their inspirations outright - a group of NPCs playing an "exciting" accounting and bureaucracy role-playing game to escape their "dull" fantasy world was lifted right out of Simon the Sorcerer II, for one, even if they switched the format from table-top to MMOs in order to make jokes about "buggy servers" (which is to say, you put literal bugs on the monkey servant running the MMO). Given how big the Simon the Sorcerer games were in Germany, and how a German studio went on to create the last two games in that series after the original developers wisely abandoned it after the abjectly terrible Simon the Sorcerer 3D, the strong influences don't surprise me.

Ohhh buddy. Someone clearly wasn't around during the Sierra period.

So it's a bit lazy in parts, but these are minor gripes and there's certainly enough charm to keep me hooked for the time being. Now that I have both the protagonists in the same place and can switch between them, I expect some more interesting puzzles will be coming my way.

The verdict: Yep, I'm going to stick with this one. I've gotten pretty far already and wouldn't mind seeing how it concludes.

Primordia

The game: Wadjet Eye Games's Primordia, a bleak post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure game. Wadjet Eye also created Resonance and Gemini Rue.

The source: Double-dipped with this one, first with the Indie Royale Hammerhead Bundle and then with Groupees' Be Mine 8. Both bundles happened almost concurrently as well.

The pre-amble: Primordia is an adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic world where only robots remain and mankind has long since passed into mythology as benevolent creators. An android named Horatio and his sarcastic floating companion Crispin are attempting to fix a colossal machine they recovered from the wastelands, but are attacked by a monolithic robot which then steals their priceless power supply crystal. So begins a series of quests to find another power supply for their enormous machine, known only to them as "Unniic".

As for the presentation, Wadjet Eye continues to focus on creating games that look like they were made in the 90s. This isn't a pejorative, but rather a deliberate decision on their part to call back to that era of 2D sprite-based adventure games when the genre was on top. Like Gemini Rue and Resonance, their previous two games, Primordia is a classic point and click adventure game with a few tricks up its sleeve, but mostly relies on its clever puzzles and writing. Real "back to the genre's roots" kind of stuff.

The playthrough: I said bleak earlier, but Primordia can be just as goofy and satirical as The Book of Unwritten Tales. Your little robot buddy is always cracking wise (though he's useful for broad tips on what you ought to be doing next as well), "b'sod" is frequently used as an expletive, and the game's packed with knowing references to sci-fi pop culture. They're a little more incidental here at least, prompted by examining background details of minimal importance to the story.

Case in point. Between this and Tesla Effect, how many more adventure games can fit in a Tom Servo reference? Hopefully a lot more to come.

It's fairly widely regarded that the period between when 2D adventure games were given full voice acting and when they went completely FMV is the "golden era" of the genre, whether it's Sam & Max Hit the Road or Full Throttle or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Wadjet seems determined to carry on as if nothing happened in the intervening years between then and now. It's not a bad strategy, honestly, and helps bring in an audience who loved the adventure games of that period and have drifted away since. I can't fault them for shrinking the resolution to something "Windows 95"ish, because they still focus on filling their games with a lot of really good pixel art. Animation and sprite scaling is a little more rudimentary, but that just adds to its retro appeal.

I'm liking the setting a lot too. While Gemini Rue owed a few of its narrative elements from Blade Runner, Primordia seems to have been inspired strongly by Beneath a Steel Sky, Machinarium and possibly the movies AI: Artificial Intelligence and Metropolis for flavor (the capital city is simply called "Metropol"). Its homages are legion though, and Primordia does a fine job in not aping any one of its sources too closely, creating a familiar but distinct whole. As with the other Wadjet Eye games I've played, it may look like much but it's got it where it counts. Great, now I'm dropping sci-fi references everywhere too.

It's a little messy at high res, but this is a great shot. So much of this image is giving me Narshe flashbacks.

The verdict: I'm sticking with this too. I feel I'm at least halfway through the game, though there's little indication of progress. Man, I'm really leaving a lot of half-finished games in my "to do" pile for next month.

The Whispered World

The game: Daedalic Entertainment's The Whispered World, another fantasy graphic adventure game. Daedalic also created the Deponia series and the Edna & Harvey series.

The source: Groupees' Be Mine 9 bundle.

The pre-amble: The Whispered World is set in the kingdom of Corona and its outskirts: a land that has seen better days, and is slowly falling apart as it reaches the natural end of its life. Sadwick, a lugubrious, diminutive clown whose heart is not really into pratfalls and slapstick, finds himself involved with an artifact known as the Whispering Stone and is pressed into finding some way to prevent the world's destruction, despite his prophetic nightmares divining the opposite. Though there's a few gags -- Daedalic's probably best known for their goofy humor, with games like Deponia -- the game and its characters can be quite moribund.

The playthrough: I figured this and Book of Unwritten Tales looked similar enough for a decent showdown. They really can't be much different tonally, though.

I talked about the modern conveniences offered in The Book of Unwritten Tales, and to a lesser extent Primordia since that's meant to be more of a throwback, but The Whispered World doesn't boast nearly as many of these features. Hotspots still remain even if they're inconsequential, and the player is still required to use a menu icon system similar to The Curse of Monkey Island's little dial of options rather than a simple singular contextual icon (though to be fair, there's only the three limited options of talk/eat, pick up/use and look). However, this game does have in its corner a function key that highlights every hotspot on the screen, which is an aid I've always appreciated. It completely eliminates that common complaint of "pixel hunting" for smaller items. As for the puzzles, they strike a balance between "what the heck am I supposed to be doing?" and "all right, here's a list of things to get, so just go find them", which I think is ideal for a game like this. You don't always want to be hunting down every item on a shopping list, after all, though it's also nice to have a stronger sense of purpose in one's clicking and pointing with transparent goals to chase after.

Even the game's circus is miserable looking.

Graphically, the game uses some attractive static artwork backgrounds and some gloriously animated 2D sprites, with the overall animation style resembling a Rankin and Bass production. It can look a little cheap occasionally, but there's a lot of craft and attention to detail that makes The Whispered World seem more like an animated feature than a video game at times. The writing's spotty and the subtitles/documents are full of typos, but then the game was originally in German and it shows. It hasn't negatively impacted on my enjoyment or understanding of the game's story too much, however. The voice acting... well, I don't mind the other characters, but Sadwick's disconsolate yet squeaky voice (it sounds a bit like the voices Adam Sandler would adopt for his goofier characters) can be a pain to listen to for extended periods. Sadwick's a fine contrast to the legion of optimistic heroes of graphic adventure games old and new (though I'd say far more have at least some kind of cynical, sardonic streak to them), but listening to someone so emphatically miserable all the time can start to become contagious. It's why I got so enervated and depressed while playing The Stanley Parable: that negative, nihilistic tone can just weigh on you after so long like a ton of bricks. But hey, at least I don't have a sarcastic buddy in this one: Spot the caterpillar's just this big goofy ball of dumb whose versatile shape-shifts can be used for a few of the puzzles.

I'm actually starting to get a little angry at how good all these games look. Why did we invent 3D graphics, again?

The verdict: It's my least favorite of the three games I've played for today's May Madness, but I may just stick with this one as well. As much as its tone seems to be disrupting my mood chemistry, I am curious about any game that sees out the end of its world. Some of the best moments of Majora's Mask and Super Paper Mario were when they were tackling the existential dread that is the end of everything.

The Moment of Truth

Hmm, this is a tough call. I'm going to give it to The Book of Unwritten Tales, because I was genuinely having trouble putting it away to play the two others for this feature, but I'll also award Primordia the consolation prize for "most interesting setting". I don't think The Whispering World is all too bad either, if a little lacking in comparison. Definitely no bad apples in the barrel this time around.

It sounds like we'll be getting sequels to The Book of Unwritten Tales and The Whispered World (so I guess the world doesn't end?) early next year too, so that's even more reason to get their precursors out of the way with.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #4 - A Misbegotten Youth Revisited

Today's May Madness is a little closer to my heart than usual. Each of the three games examined today are loving homages to an ubiquitous part of my childhood. We have a game based on an Atari ST/Amiga classic (maybe I should use scare quotes there), we have a game strongly inspired by one of the first computer games I ever played and a game based on a board game I played endlessly with friends (and alone, but not necessarily in a saddo way) in my elementary school years.

Of course, beyond the sappy reasons, there's also some interesting questions to be answered here: how have these throwbacks managed to adapt game blueprints that are close to 25-30 years old to befit the modern gaming era? Is obstinate accuracy to the source material better or worse than modernizing them to be considerably more playable, or can a developer be talented enough to bridge the gap? Can new generations of video game players find something to enjoy in the outdated genres and conventions of old? Can I delay the feature any longer with rhetorical questions? Where did I leave my keys?

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

The game: Black Forest Games' Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, a traditional 2D platformer.

The source: The Humble Bundle XI.

The pre-amble: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams takes its inspiration from a very old Atari ST/Amiga game called The Great Giana Sisters, a shameless Super Mario Bros. clone created for the European computer market. Like that game, the emphasis is on running around collecting gems and avoiding death at all turns. The game does feature a few mechanical additions to keep things interesting: the protagonist, a girl named Giana, can switch between a "cute" version and "punk" version of herself, and each version has a different ability for getting around the world: Cute Giana has a flutter jump, like Yoshi's, while Punk Giana has a dash that works like Sonic the Hedgehog's spin attack. Switching between these two versions of the same character also shifts the world in subtle and less subtle ways, similar to Guacamelee! or Outland.

The playthrough: I gotta say, I'm already liking Twisted Dreams. For one thing, my lack of PC oomph isn't quite a detriment this time around, as the game seems to chug along just fine on its default settings despite some impressively dense graphical work for a lot of its backgrounds. It plays all right too, despite a bit of floatiness to the jumping that makes some of the precision stuff a bit of a chore. Fortunately, it's a game that goes quite easy on you, at least at the offset. While you are sent to the last checkpoint whenever you die, you do get to keep all the collectibles you found and there's no real penalty besides getting a crappier score at the end of the stage. There's always a lot of collectibles, a considerable number of which are well-hidden, and a lot of the fun is in exploring each stage thoroughly for breakable walls and hidden passages. WIth no time limit to worry about, at least for the normal story mode, it's a very methodically-paced game.

Punk Giana does not appreciate your Disney heart benches, world.

The girls' abilities make for some interesting platformer scenarios, especially when you're required to switch between the two on the fly: Neither of the two versions of Giana can use each other's ability, but if one were to switch in the middle of Cute Giana's flutter jump, Punk Giana would still keep the flutter going for as long as the player keeps the button pressed. Various parts of the topography fall away or reform after a switch, and obstacles vanish and reappear. Many of the game's more clever instances require figuring out the effects of world switching and which version of Giana is better suited for a particular instance. The game helps out in this regard too by creating collectible variants that only one sister can get (yellow gems for Cute, red gems for Punk), and their presence is usually a contextual clue that a particular Giana is required for the next platforming puzzle. It's hardly incredibly complex stuff, but for a platformer that hearkens back to the figurative Bronze Age of games it's more than sufficient as a device to keep things interesting.

I especially like the look of the two worlds: a sinister one for Cute Giana and a bright and colorful one for Punk Giana, which I'm guessing is the world shifting to a nightmare version for whomever is in control (I figure Punk Giana is not all that into fluffy owl monsters and happy sunshine). It's impressive how the worlds morph into one another between each switch, as you see radiant flowers transform into venomous mushrooms and vice versa via some very convincing tween animations. Likewise, benches become coffins, and skulls and bones become shrubs and tree branches. It's a neat effect that applies to almost every piece of the game's busy background to some degree. The music follows a similar suit: it's gentle and melodic for Cute Giana, but then rocking guitar riffs come out of nowhere for Punk Giana (and is largely the reason I spend most of my time as her when possible).

Oops, I took the same screenshot twice. I think? Something seems off with this one. The aspect ratio, perhaps?

So far, up until the end of World 1, it's been breezy fun. Yet... I don't doubt that it's all primed to pull the rug out from under my feet and start getting serious. Serious about rug-pulling.

The verdict: Yeah, I'm liking it. Certainly a lot more fun than Mutant Mudds at least. I don't have to worry about grabbing all the sparklies again if I die, which is a relief and a major frustration reliever.

Legend of Grimrock

The game: Almost Human's Legend of Grimrock, a throwback first-person dungeoncrawler RPG.

The source: Humble Indie Bundle 7

The pre-amble: Legend of Grimrock is a throwback dungeoncrawler RPG that tasks players with escaping an immense mountain full of traps and monsters to the exit far below. The player can take four stalwart adventurers, either pre-generated or created from scratch, and attempt to take on the dungeon's challenge. As with the many old games it homages, such as Dungeon Master, most of the difficulties the player will face lie in figuring out the game's diabolical traps and puzzles, more so than hacking and slashing their way through the legions of monsters.

The playthrough: Legend of Grimrock takes painstaking steps through the archives of old dungeoncrawlers of lore to create a game that not only brings out the best in those venerable corridor runners but merges it with a whole host of modern ideas and design advancements. The resulting game seems to be a masterful bridge between old and new, alleviating or diminishing many of the more troublesome and archaic features of the hoary genre while keeping the heart and soul of what made those games so appealing intact. It's a pretty impressive example of taking something old and modernizing it in a way that doesn't end up disappointing the old fans of the Dungeon Masters and Eye of the Beholders of the late 80s/early 90s, nor does it alienate a new generation of RPG players willing to take a chance on it.

"Hey, don't we at least get a ladder or someth- WHOAKAY!"

I'm quite enamored with the game so far. It takes everything good about Dungeon Master, one of my old favorites, and de-emphasizes the few aspects of that game that have become horribly aged in the 27 year interim. You still have to eat to survive, but food is plentiful and hunger meters move very gradually. You kill things for experience to level up, rather than the bothersome task of simply practicing your skills over and over until they eventually increase. The adventurers' health regenerates slowly so there's no need to sleep it off in non-hostile areas, but the option's there if you're into the idea. There's a big crystal every now and again that resurrects fallen party members and heals everyone. There's a map feature (Thank Lord Chaos! And take that Etrian Odyssey. You fixated on the wrong damn thing) but you can turn it off if you want a more "traditional" experience. It's a game that keenly knows its audience, but isn't so niche as to potentially exclude anyone not already familiar with this type of sub-genre.

I'm currently on the third floor, getting wrecked by arachnida. The game's started to produce some tough monsters, but I'm glad to see my old system of kiting and circling an enemy is as effective as ever; more so, as enemies now have to take a moment to turn around and focus on you, providing more opportunities to get a few hits in. Heck, running around the dragon in Dungeon Master and stabbing it in the arse repeatedly is how I managed to beat that game in the end, even if I did have to bribe the bards to keep the finer details of that battle out of their ballads. The game's got a pleasing focus on finding secrets as well, giving you a little jingle and some powerful gear if you're attentive enough. Looking at walls for misshapen rock buttons was how I spent a lot of my pre-teen years on the Atari ST, alongside evading space pirates in Elite and tolerating godawful Arcade brawler ports.

Eep. (I love how purposefully these skeleton legionnaires march around.)

The verdict: I figured Toki Tori 2 would be the one game I'd immediately jump right back into once May Madness is over. It won't be. It'll be this. (And on a semi-related note, if anyone's already a big fan of Grimrock, might I suggest checking out my Dungeon Master Brief Jaunt to marvel at the similarities between the two games? It seriously impressed me how well Almost Human nailed the same feel.)

Talisman: Prologue

The game: Nomad Games' Talisman: Prologue is a video game adaptation of the venerable Games Workshop (they of Warhammer 40k fame) board game, which plays like a cross between HeroQuest and Monopoly. It's... a little weird, I'll get into it more in the pre-amble.

The source: The Indie Royale Pancake Bundle.

The pre-amble: Talisman's an adaptation of a board game, but this particular Prologue version is only one-player. The game is built in such a way, like HeroQuest, that a single player can play by themselves but... I dunno, it doesn't really seem like in the spirit of a board game. But a single-player video game RPG based on a board game? That I don't feel quite so pathetic about.

The goal of Talisman is to walk around a cyclical board (well, it's a square, but the spaces are arranged like Monopoly in that you go around the board a lot) activating adventure cards, and completing the quests the game assigns you. These adventure cards can be anything: gold, objects like weapons and armor, followers, events or, most likely, a monster to fight. The player has stats depending on their class: Warriors have more Strength and can roll two dice when attacking and keep the highest, for instance, and there's a whole bunch of others that range from leprechauns, minotaurs (sensing a theme with playable minotaurs of late), amazons, druids and vampire hunters that all begin with different stats and abilities. Defeating monsters allows you to increase your parameters, making future battles easier, and collecting objects and followers greatly increases your chances of survival.

The playthrough: So Talisman's one of the board games I used to play excessively as a child, along with HeroQuest and Kings & Things: they were basic board game variants of the sort of RPGs I enjoy today, and were surprisingly replayable with the amount of permutations you could potentially create in any one game. Because it was originally made in the 80s it's not particularly complex, not like the board games of today, and about on par with one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that required you keep track of your stats. As such, this video game adaptation had no problem getting it as close to the real thing as possible.

The board. You can see what I mean about the circles. Square circles. Whatever.

It also gives a few of the more beginner-friendly classes a few bonus quests to perform, whereas in the real game the only goal is to reach the Crown of Command in the center of the board. Each area of the board, from the green outer circle to the sandy middle circle to the Mordor-esque inner "Plains of Peril" circle, get increasingly harder to breach and harder still to survive once in there. The player has some freedom by selecting which direction around the current level they wish to move (or to move out of the current circle where applicable), so if there's some bad news in one direction it's probably best to go the other way, even if it moves you further away from your goal. Killing monsters, finding items and recruiting friendly NPCs all gradually increase your power, and this is how you eventually grow strong enough to make it towards the center of the board. Ideally, you want to balance roaming around a bit for a few upgrades with getting to the center as quickly as possible: in the real board game, this is because you want to beat your opponents to the center square but in the video game, you get awarded bonus points on how quickly you complete each quest.

Because of how this board game is set up, it's entirely playable on your own, but more fun with others competing against you. Players leave hazardous (and occasionally beneficial) adventure cards behind wherever they go, and resources dry up fast as everyone chases them down. Certain tiles require that you roll and suffer the consequences, from lost health to lost turns. Because everything is decided with dice rolls, it can seem a bit arbitrary and unfair at times, but not in a way that can really be blamed on the game. If a quest is too hard, it's more likely you were just unfortunate with the rolls that time. There's something to be said for how luck-based gameplay isn't the most compelling variant out there, but at least there's never any guarantee that it will always kick your ass. I got turned into a toad on the last game I played, which turned out to be a death sentence given how weak and unprotected (and divorced from one's items) the toad form is, but I don't suspect something that unfortunate will befall me on the following playthrough.

Well, this isn't going to end well, is it?

As for the quality of the adaptation, it'd be hard to mess up a game as straightforward as Talisman, and Nomad Games certainly haven't. For better or worse they have perfectly recreated a 1983 board game, from its pieces and cards to its sense of fair play and adventure. The Prologue variant doesn't allow for multiplayer, sadly, but future versions of the game will. Though the enjoyment is greatly diminished without the multiplayer element, you could still feasibly get a lot of fun out of Talisman if you like your RPGs basic and short, and occasionally brutally unfair due to a number of uncontrollable misfortunes. Given everyone's recent proclivity towards roguelikes, perhaps this was a seredipitous time for this relatively ancient board game to finally see a video game adaptation.

The verdict: I probably won't play much more of Talisman, as it's kind of basic compared to other video games I want to get around to. Then again, these bite-size adventures only take around 15-30 minutes, so I might just keep it around for those time-restricted occasions. For that reason I might recommend trying the iOS/Android version.

The Moment of Truth

The clear winner of today's trio is Legend of Grimrock, but I can say I was pleasantly surprised by all three. You might call confirmation bias considering today's topic is about games based on games I used to love, but there's no telling how well any old game has aged nor how well a modern game has adapted their archaic mores for a contemporary audience. I feel safe in saying that all three of these games are successful in that regard to varying degrees.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #3 - Hide and Sequels

The reason I put myself through this rigmarole every year is partly due to the joy of discovery: having an excuse to go into that inexplicably immense library of mine and pick a few games I've somehow never heard of despite owning them, just to see what their deal is and to share it with everyone. Occasionally, though, playing too many Indie games in a row can be hazardous to one's sanity. There's never any guarantee that what I'm loading up is actually any good, or even runs correctly.

So today, we're looking at three sequels to big name Steam Indies; games that I very much enjoyed back when I played them. The idea being that I can feel moderately assured that I'll enjoy these bigger and improved sequels to a similar if not greater extent than their predecessors. After three years of picking through bundle scraps and gambling on unplayable curios, I kinda feel like I need this.

Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

The game: The sesquipedalian Bit.Trip Presents... Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien from Gaijin Games. It's a musically-empowered endless runner 2D platformer.

The source: The Humble Bundle X.

The pre-amble: Bit.Trip Runner 2 is the sequel to the original Bit.Trip Runner, which in turn is one of several games under Bit.Trip's funky umbrella. Every game in the series emphasizes rhythm-based gameplay in some manner: whether you're platforming, playing Pong or flying through a bullet hell shooter, there's a persistent rhythm to your actions that complements the background music and helps you concentrate. As a result, keeping to the beat isn't always of the utmost importance, but doing so will make the game's challenges far more approachable. Bit Trip Runner 2 is notable within the Bit Trip franchise for breaking free of the series's distinctive pixel aesthetic and adopting a far more whimsical dreamscape art style more reminiscent of a Double Fine game, or perhaps Might & Delight's Pid.

The playthrough: Sigh. Where to start? (You might want to skip to the next game if you're not a fan of griping.)

It's far too pretty. In most game franchises, suddenly getting a budget and sprucing up your sequel to look gorgeous is a huge plus. For a game like Bit.Trip Runner, in which minimal lag and latency is of paramount importance to the gameplay, adding a bunch of fancy frou frou graphics is enough to slow down any computer that isn't a fairly decent gaming PC. For a standard office PC like my own (I'm perpetually broke), it's a death knell. Even with a tiny bit of latency, this game becomes so unbearably frustrating to play that it isn't even worth getting invested enough to play through those breezy early levels where such pinpoint accuracy isn't quite as vital.

The game does look amazing. I'm not disputing that at all. Just wondering why it needs to look this good, you know?

You might point out that the game's entirely playable if you aren't trying to grab every single gold bar and speed power-up, but even if I weren't a huge completionist nut whose happiness with a game involves collecting any and all shiny things they might have lying around (which worries me far more than it does you, I can assure you), getting everything on the stage is almost entirely the point of Bit.Trip Runner: You're constantly being reminded of the value of collecting gold by how frequently it's required for opening new levels, and how your friends' highscores are only assailable with perfect runs. On top of that, collecting the gold adds extra notes to the music, and you're only getting the true benefit of the game's fantastic soundtrack by yoinking them all in time with the beat.

In addition, the game manages to not only shit the bed but takes those poor abused sheets with them to their first dinner with their girlfriend's parents by adding more things the player has to remember to press beyond "jump" and "slide". These are unnecessary complications meant presumably to cause even more frustration that the little melody cannot be followed accurately; something that the original Bit.Trip games - paragons of fun rhythm games with simple gameplay mechanics and minimalist graphical styles - managed to convey so much more effectively. If you don't have a controller hooked up, then I'm afraid you'll want to move that cursor over to your Steam library and uninstall the game tout de suite because it is not interested in your scruffy, keyboard-only custom, good sir. The game doesn't quite go so far as to place a bouncer at the door that turns away nervous-looking people clutching keyboards to their bosoms, but the message comes across loud and clear when all these additional mechanics require various function keys spaced randomly across the keyboard: You need to hit Space (or J) to jump, the down arrow to slide, the W key to use high-jump springs and the K key to kick certain obstacles you cannot duck or jump over. Here's a fun little exercise for all of you reading this on a PC or Mac: try finding a comfortable position to put your hands that gives you easy access to all four of those above keys simultaneously. Now keep those hands in place while you hypothetically assume (because there's no reason why the game wouldn't do this) that you'll eventually need to reach the P key - to Parachute slowly down long gaps perhaps - and the Z key - to "Zap" enemies in your way with Commander Video's space blaster that cannot be kicked or avoided - and then measure how quickly your motivation to play this game dissipates into the ether. If you're using a stopwatch, you might want to find one that can count in milliseconds.

These split paths in the stages are fun, until you spot a priceless collectible on the path you didn't take.

Runner 2 looks and sounds amazing. The backgrounds are full of fun, goofy little details, the various characters with their new models are a far cry from the rudimentary pixel-based heroes of the Bit.Trip universe of prior games and Charles Martinet's voiceover, thankfully devoid of any xenophobic stereotypes, is both charming and silly. As previously established, however, none of these graphical advancements are warranted nor, I can't imagine, sorely desired from the fanbase, excepting perhaps a gaggle of idiots who have no idea how video games sometimes require a bit of minimalism for their core mechanics to work at peak efficiency. It puts rhythm game developers in an unenviable position caught between rock and roll and a hard place who have to then cater to said idiots or go bankrupt when the game refuses to sell well enough to pay for all of Martinet's gourmet spaghetti he demanded up front as payment for his voice acting services. Man, that sentence ran on longer than Commander Video through one this game's marathon stages.

I don't hate Bit.Trip Runner 2. Actually I do, but I don't want to hate it. It's super charming. I suspect a large proportion of my gripes will go away once I buy a PC that can handle it without incident (or just pick up a console version somewhere so I don't have to worry about optimization messing me up). For now, though, it's getting uninstalled and left in a dusty sub-folder in my Steam library named "Nuh-uh". Hmm, that's what happened to the first Bit.Trip Runner as well, for as much fun as I thought that one was too. I guess I never learn.

The verdict: I can't see myself playing it for much longer, at least not without upgrading the PC so I can be totally sure that I'm responsible for all my fuck ups. Might help if I get one of those dongles that lets me use a 360 pad on the PC too.

Toki Tori 2+

The game: Two Tribes' Toki Tori 2+, an open-world exploration puzzle-platformer game.

The source: The Humble Weekly Sale: Two Tribes.

The pre-amble: Toki Tori 2+ is the sequel to one of the best puzzle-platformer games to hit Steam in its early days (and was oddly enough originally a Game Boy Color game), and one that required very precise timing and accuracy in order to achieve some of its extremely challenging puzzles. Toki Tori 2, while still maintaining a degree of challenging brainteaser sequences, is an open-world game in the SpaceWhipper vein.

The player is free to go in any direction, and there's no upgrades to worry about. All you have at your disposal is a tweet button (as in melodic bird noises, not one of those things that sends your progress to a social networking site) and a stomp move, and almost everything in the game has a distinct reaction to both of those techniques, as well as their own place in each puzzle. There's also a few songs which you learn early on and can activate by tweeting notes in a certain Morse Code fashion, but they provide non-essential boons like a fast-travel system, a way to detect treasures in the vicinity (a group of little cog collectibles of some importance to the end game) and summoning a camera bird that will log the enemies and important objects it snaps in a "Tokidex" as part of an optional sidequest reminiscent of that long photography sidequest in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.

I know, it sort of looks like a really good looking iOS game. Like some kind of 1080p Candy Saga. This is with some of the settings turned down and everything.

The playthrough: I'm about halfway through, but I'm still marveling at all the little details and how different this game feels compared to the previous now that the whole world is contiguous instead of stage-based. The game's also stunning; the original Toki Tori had a very colorful and simple aesthetic that relied on a lot of particle and lighting effects to make it pop out, and Toki Tori 2 appears to have doubled down on this aesthetic philosophy. There are points where the game zooms out to focus on enormous background details like a distant mountain, and there's plenty of attractive uses of light and shadow with the cave/underground sections. The game has a very approachable sensibility to it as well, even in spite of how tough some of its puzzles have been so far: there's not a whole lot of dialogue or text in-game beyond the menus, just various context clues and a few telltale elements in the background to watch out for. It's a bit like how Fez would relay information to the player in a very non-intrusive manner, to the extent that it was occasionally easy to miss finer details. Because you don't acquire any new abilities at any point (or at least I haven't yet), every obstacle can be overcome with a little bit of ratiocination and experimentation, despite seeming apparently impossible. The songs are helpful, but are never essential to progression with perhaps the one exception of the "rewind song" which drops you off at the last checkpoint should you get stuck.

The game's never lacking for an impressive sense of scale.

I think it's fair to say I adore this game so far. I'm always going to be predisposed towards an Indie SpaceWhipper despite my best intentions of approaching every game with a somewhat objective open mind. I enjoyed the original Toki Tori's very deliberate and slow-paced (well, for the most part) puzzles, and they've managed to transfer that style of gameplay to this open-world environment quite comfortably. If I had to compare it to another game, I'd say it scratches the same itch as Nifflas' Knytt Underground: a largely pacifistic, non-combat oriented exploration game with a lot of diabolical puzzles, even more charm and some stunning looking environments. But yeah, it's worth mentioning that I haven't beaten it yet. Maybe it starts to really sucks after the halfway point. There's that objective open-mindedness for ya.

The verdict: Currently still playing it. It's definitely on my list of games to go back to and finish off once May Madness has concluded.

Zeno Clash II

The game: ACE Team's Zeno Clash II. A first-person brawler adventure game, like the first, but this time with a more open-world angle to it.

The source: The Humble Weekly Sale: ACE Team, Atlus and Tripwire Interactive. (Man, the Humble Bundle representing hard today.)

The pre-amble: Zeno Clash was an extremely odd game in more ways than one. Though its odd world of colorful (if nightmarish) creatures and bizarre geometry were unusual enough, so too was the fact that the game was a first-person brawler. With the exception of a Condemned or two, there weren't many serious fighting games (by which I mean combos, blocking, dodging and the like) that used that perspective and seemed to revel in the chaos that ensued whenever you were fighting multiple opponents at once while being surrounded on all sides.

Despite these barriers of incomprehension, Zeno Clash managed to pull off a fun, layered game with a fairly intriguing plot of a large, possibly hermaphroditic creature that stole and raised a bunch of children as her/his own, and a young man's journey to the end of the world to find answers. Zeno Clash stopped just short of those meaningful answers, but Zeno Clash II appears to continue briefly after where the last left off.

The playthrough: So already, we're seeing what we've seen twice before for this particular chapter of May Madness: an interesting and enjoyable game does well, creates a sequel with a bigger budget and far more going on under the hood, and I'm left with a PC that can barely run it. It feels kind of like that small band you liked to visit in bars suddenly becoming huge and selling tickets for a prohibitively high price; sometimes that old gag of hipsters "liking something before it was cool" has a kernel of legitimacy behind it, especially if it means those hipsters can no longer enjoy that thing as easily as they once did.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you had to half-hobble, half-slither into mine...

But anyway, there's no point in me making any protestations about not being a dirty hipster, seeing as I'm covering Indie games for a whole month. So instead let's focus on the game itself: It certainly looks better, but most of the graphical improvements are entirely of the technical kind. The environments and character models look the same as ever, and I'm extremely glad the game didn't feel the need to get less weird now that's all high and mighty with its fancy shadow effects and bloom and light shafts. It's the same old Zeno Clash we all love to get weirded out by, and many of the game's areas appears to have been lifted wholesale from the original game, with many more brand new ones branching off from areas previously inaccessible. It's kind of neat to expand a world in this way; not making everything different for the sake of needing something new for a sequel, but still adding more content in a way that makes sense.

The fighting's still a lot of fun too, but it feels as if the game's becoming a little more serious by adding so much more to its system of blocking and combo attacks. The game's provided a lot of new defensive options, it feels, and expects you to use them by making it far more necessary to avoid damage. Damage can be healed with pick-ups between battles (or during, if you feel bold enough to turn your back on your opponents and run for the nearest item chest), but it's in the player's best interest to simply avoid getting hurt whenever possible by using the evades, dodges and blocks at their advantage. Fights can have opponent numbers in the double figures, and while the player is able to summon help before a fight starts, this ability is not something they can rely on too often - for one thing, your companions get battered easily and frequently have to sit future battles out. This results in fights that require a bit more finesse and strategy, rather than swinging wildly into a big Andy Capp-esque ball of smoke and fists and hoping you're the last man standing. It's probably for the best that this system is a little more involved, but at the same time there's something to be said for the mad chaos of an all-out brawl you can barely follow from the first-person perspective. At least having companions around makes the fights more interesting to watch on the periphery.

I don't even know where to punch this thing. The teats? That doesn't seem very "Queensbury Rules".

Anyway, Zeno Clash II looks like a lot of the same but with a bit more non-linear freedom and a few new RPG systems adding a bit of depth to the original's admittedly light mechanics. I've not gotten too far yet, having just freed FatherMother and escaped the city of Halstedom to look for my scattered adoptive siblings, but I'm liking that the game's already building up the mystery behind the enigmatic and intelligent Golem entity and setting up a plot that seems like it'll be a little more significant to the world of Zeno Clash. I might have to put it on hiatus until I get a computer that can run it better, but it's certainly not leaving my backlog any time soon.

The verdict: I'm going to keep playing it. Just... not right now. Later. When things aren't spinning around quite so jerkily.

The Moment of Truth

Well, my favorite game of this batch is easily Toki Tori 2+, but I don't feel like I've given any one of these games a fair shake due to how much of a toll they're taking on my poor, crappy system.

I will say that there's a few changes to Bit.Trip Runner 2 that I was not a fan of, and the same's true of Zeno Clash 2 to a lesser extent. Toki Tori 2's changes, however, I'm absolutely in harmony with. It doesn't seem like it's puzzles will necessarily be easier, but it's been a lot more forgiving so far in terms of accuracy and timing. I also like SpaceWhippers a whole lot, so if that tiny yellow bird wants to run around a non-linear world looking for collectibles who am I to stand in its way?

Anyway, I feel I can still easily recommend all three of these, my misgivings of a few aspects notwithstanding. They do all feel like they've kept the spirits of their ancestors alive, at least.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #2 - Spookin' With Smento

Welcome to Part 2 of May Madness Melange, and today we're establishing the format for the rest of this month: I'll look at three games with a common theme or genre, go into detail about my time with each one and then do a big ol' compare and contrast at the end to give everyone an idea of which one they should be spending their hard-earned Steam Trading Card/Dota Hat resale money on.

Today we're looking at three first-person horror games. These are becoming increasingly popular in the Indie market, possibly due to how much Indie developers grew up appreciating games in the survival horror genre back when the big studios were still making them and wanted to take a leaf from all the Silent Hills and Fatal Frames out there by crafting their own beguiling horror narrative that operated on user interactivity. Either that, or because they felt assured that a horror game would generate a lot of sales thanks to the histrionic efforts of some shrill Swede on YouTube. Hard to say.

Anna: Extended Edition

The game: Dreampainters' Anna, a horror-themed adventure game from 2013.

The source: The Kalypso Humble Weekly Sale.

The pre-amble: Anna's set in an abandoned sawmill, to which the protagonist travels after seeing it in numerous nightmares. The protagonist believes that a woman, Anna, resides in the building somewhere and is the key to understanding his missing memories. Beyond that, the plot gets increasingly ambiguous.

The game is in first-person and features physics puzzles as well as jump scares, creepy visual tricks and other well-established horror game tropes. An obvious comparison can be made with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but while that game emphasized exploring a huge mansion, Anna's more about solving puzzles in a smaller enclosed space. There are texts everywhere that provide hints on what sort of rituals need to be performed to progress further into the sawmill, and by finding the right items and using them in the right way the player can unlock new rooms and keep digging deeper into the player character's past, the history of the sawmill and the nature of Anna.

The playthrough: Most of the puzzles in the game involve collecting items lying around the place, finding a book, either reading the book in full (there's a lot of text in the game) or checking the protagonist's notebook for an abridged version of what the book suggests, and then working out how to make what it asks happen with the items in your inventory and the various interactive hotspots in the vicinity. Every so often and occasionally at random, the game will suddenly shift menacingly, throwing one of its many "events" at you to creep you out. As you progress further, the building stops resembling a regular dilapidated sawmill and looks more like Se7en's John Doe and Poltergeist's... the poltergeist got together to make one of those TV shows about interior decorating, as the lighting becomes an ominous red and occult iconography and blood starts appearing all over the walls. The further you progress with the game and the more you probe into its secrets, the less wholesome it all becomes. It's an effective tactic, and one that goes counter to most game progressions with its multiple endings: they get progressively more grim the longer you spend with the game and the more you discover. Last time I saw a feature like that was with Drakengard, and I don't really want to discuss how Drakengard concluded. I'm still working up the courage to buy the third one when it comes out this month.

Anna's protagonist spends a lot of time thinking about his enigmatic eponymous ladyfriend. Actually, I think he's just talking about the house.

The game doesn't have health limits or any manner of combat, but it does have a sanity meter with a clever if not quite mechanically sound player interaction component. The meter drains whenever one of the game's spooky set-pieces happens and refills whenever the player solves a puzzle (again, a bit like Amnesia), but the most frequent instance of incurring a meter penalty is when the player spots one of the many girl wood (no, not the Aisha Tyler kind) mannequins who have a disturbing habit of appearing directly behind you if you stand still for too long. If the player's camera spins around or makes any sudden movements while looking at one of these mannequins, the protagonist takes a sanity hit - the idea is that such rapid motions would indicate that the player themselves has recoiled in horror, and with a touch of verisimilitude the game registers it as the in-game character freaking out in turn. Unfortunately, if you're stuck on a puzzle, you'll end up running around a lot searching for a solution or hints and end up activating this mannequin sanity hit inadvertently quite often, and once that sanity gauge empties the game cuts to a premature game over as the protagonist flees the sawmill in terror. It's a neat idea, but in practice is kind of annoying and ultimately detrimental to the game's investigative adventure game core. It doesn't help that the puzzles get progressively more obtuse as the game goes on, with previously explored rooms actually completely changing their contents due to how unrecognizably warped everything eventually becomes. At a point towards the end, you're chasing down the ingredients to about three or four simultaneous rituals with a huge area that you need to explore carefully for all the necessary items, all the while getting spooked every few minutes by those damn mannequins. It's enough to make one throw their hands up in the air in defeat and slink off to find an online guide.

Bugs - the computer kind, so don't worry entomophobics - actually somehow improve the horror aspect, which was unexpected. It's kinda rare that something as unfortunate and unintentional as a few glitches can build creepy tension more effectively than the game's actually deliberate spooky set-piece moments, some of which require a bit of exploration to find thus making their implementation somewhat questionable. Without getting into too much detail lest I start spoiling parts, there are mannequins (both male and female) that apparently have a configurable model with joints and the like due to how frequently you'll encounter them standing in different poses. They'll actually go so far as to shift their postures while you're standing near them, provided your gaze is temporarily elsewhere - they'll never budge an inch while you're looking directly at them. That is, except for when you enter an area where mannequins are in view, in which case you see them all briefly animate from a neutral position into the ones they're supposed to be stuck in. Seeing that happen for the first time out of the corner of my eye was one of the biggest scares in my playthrough. Another weird glitch is how certain sound effects would accidentally play while the game was loading between area transitions, and these noises were usually both terrifying and inexplicable, like animalistic screams or an ugly foley of a bone snapping. But then they'd suddenly cut off and the area would finish loading as normal. It all added a (probably unintentional) level of eeriness. Maybe the coders spotted these issues during playtesting and just kept them in, after noting how scary they were. Stranger things have happened at C++.

Torsey, the burning torso! Touch it and your wishes come true.

Anna's not too bad, though only in the context of a horror game. As an adventure game, it's far too obtuse and difficult, with too many instances of "how the heck was I supposed to figure that out?" and even more instances of "there was [item] there? I didn't find that. Could've sworn I passed by that bookcase around seven or eight times." The game also has an optional "intuition" aspect where the player can acquire and then merge together various clues they've discovered to deduce elements of the plot - at no point does the game explain how this feature works or why it's there, however, leaving it as one of those many things you're supposed to just "know" if you intend to get the true ending. Though the game's quite manageable initially - there's a few neat puzzles before you can even enter the house, and the entire ground floor is at least limited enough in places to look to easily figure out its puzzles - it's when you get to the attic level with all its weird elements and then subsequently discovering the ground floor has changed and somehow been refilled with unfamiliar oddities that it all starts getting overwhelming. The bizarre imagery and dark ambient lighting is excellent for setting the mood, but not so excellent when it's obfuscating what you're supposed to be searching for.

Don't remember seeing this wallpaper when I came in. Wish the decorators would leave a note whenever they stop by.

The verdict: I've beaten Anna- wait, that didn't sound too good. I've reached the ending of Anna (mildly better phrasing?) so I won't be returning to it. It has some interesting ideas, and is definitely quite spooky if not necessarily always in the way it intends to be, but as an adventure game its issues are legion.

Serena

The game: Senscape's Serena. A brief, one-scene adventure game with dramatic and psychological horror elements.

The source: It's free on Steam.

The pre-amble: Serena is about a man sitting alone in a rustic cabin, pining for a woman named Serena. Who is Serena? What relation does she have to this unnamed protagonist? The picture on the desk is blurred, symbolically suggesting that the man has been waiting so long that he cannot even remember her face. By walking around the cabin, looking at items that hold all sorts of memories of their time together, the man is able to remember Serena and the time they shared. As more flashbacks are recalled, a story slowly forms in the present day and the game ends on a twist.

The playthrough: Serena's a hard game to discuss both because it's so brief and because of how focused it is on its narrative arc and the tricks it plays on the player. There's very little in the way of overt gameplay, as you literally walk around a small cabin clicking on things and listening to voiceovers of a man talking about a woman named Serena. The game's an exercise in creating an interactive narrative that's far more weighted towards the "narrative" part of that equation.

I'm honestly not grabbing all these images with intensely creepy subtitles on purpose. Well, all right, maybe I am a little.

That's not to be too dismissive of Serena, though. It's easy to deride this type of low-key exploratory adventure game as "walking simulator"s and "not-a-game"s, but it's really an evolution of what some first-person adventure games have been doing since Myst: engaging an audience of book readers who write off (as it were) video games as noisy wastes of time just as quickly and as fallaciously as the hardcore gaming crowd write off barely interactive adventure games like these as far too quiet wastes of time. What we have here is a bridge between a short story novella and a video game, and as time goes on Indie developers will discover new ways of tweaking this format to allow for some truly incredible stories that can only be told with a protagonist controlled by the person experiencing the story.

Another feather in Serena's cap is its excellent writing. Though the game is short in length, it's packed with descriptive prose and some moderately good voice acting. While it can be a bit purple at times, it's clear that the lion's share of the developers' efforts went into its script. The cabin, too, is impressively detailed, if a little drab. Its drabness is partly by design, however: for the first few minutes of Serena, it seems like a very muted, humdrum drama filled with unnecessary pathos, but it's when the psychological horror elements start creeping in that it becomes more effective at what it's trying to do. However, its greatest trait, from a purely pragmatic standpoint at least, is that the game is entirely free on Steam. You could all go and download and play it right now if you so choose. It's a masterful little thing that you could beat over a lunch break.

Uniquely, this horror game is set in a cabin in the woods.

The verdict: Suffice it to say I've seen Serena to its conclusion and can put it away. Not bad for a free game.

Master Reboot

The game: Wales Interactive's Master Reboot is, surprise surprise, another first-person horror game with a creepy female antagonist.

The source: Groupees' Clash of the World: UK bundle, from their regional Clash of the World series. Gotta support the local side.

The pre-amble: The game's specifically about a Matrix-like computer world that is able to store the "souls" of dead people by transferring various memories and personality traits into something called a Soul Cloud. Soul Clouds can be visited by living people who wish to spend time with their deceased loved ones, but only for a set duration: after which they die and become part of the Soul Cloud themselves. An unnamed female protagonist finds herself trapped in a Soul Cloud created by the memories of a woman named Madison Jones, the very person who created Soul Cloud technology. Much of the game is spent wandering around reliving various moments of her life, with the player attempting to decipher who the protagonist is, witnessing events in the lives of Madison and her closest friends and discovering the identity of a spooky little girl with glowing eyes who refuses to leave the player alone.

The playthrough: As with the two other games featured today, Master Reboot is all about solving a grand mystery and running around doing puzzles to get closer to that goal, all the while nefarious and eerie forces conspire to stop you, or at least make you jump out of your seat occasionally. Master Reboot is paradoxically a very experimental game and a very generic one: it's experimental because each memory "node" features a different method of completion and a different style of gameplay. While many of them drop you in a small area and ask that you solve that area's inventory puzzles, there's a few sequences where you might be dodging traffic in a fast-paced arcade-y section reminiscent of the Atari 2600 game Night Driver, using stealth to hide from antagonistic security programs, searching for clues in the dark with nothing but a flashlight, leaping across first-person platforming sequences (oh joy...) and other offbeat instances that generally only pertain to the memory node you're in, after which you'll probably be doing something entirely different. Unfortunately, and this is where the "generic" part comes in, very little of the gameplay is particularly compelling, and there's a few sequences that are outright terrible due to some very amateur game design (perhaps my biggest pet peeve related to the realm of video games, after the grammatically unsound "Super NES").

Welcome to the Game Grid, program.

For instance, there's a sequence in an airplane where the player must avoid being seen by a constantly patrolling antagonist: the only way to do this is to hide down one of the aisles which isn't currently lit up by the overhead lamps. However, the actual lighting during this entire section is completely even, with the center lit up and the sides all uniformly dark - the only way you'd be able to tell which overhead lamps are lit is if you actually looked up and saw that the texture was that of a dark lightbulb instead of a lit one. This was almost impossible to intuit, and I got caught and killed so many times while skulking in what felt like pitch darkness squeezed right up next the plane's windows. I tried not moving the camera in case the enemy responded to motion; I tried switching aisle sides depending on which direction the antagonist was walking just in case she patrolled closer to one side; I tried crouching and not crouching and not looking in her direction in case she felt my gaze somehow. She would also spot me from halfway down the plane compartment occasionally as I was walking around, then running directly to my location no matter where I hid. All the while, I had to scour the rows looking for three golden tickets (who's flying this plane, Willy Wonka?) before the door would open and let me continue, and getting caught at any point reset the search. Following this is a tense sequence in an air duct where you're supposed to run for the last leg (you don't realise this until the enemy catches you a few times, nor was it clear (or even physically possible, if we're being technical) that you can sprint while crouching) and then a long run down a narrow walkway to the end point with tumbling pillars taking out parts of the walkway which required some very precise jumps at just the right moments, despite the fact that said walkway was consistently too poorly lit to see clearly which parts of it had collapsed.

The developers had the temerity to award an achievement to anyone who did all of the above without getting caught or dying once. Almost as if to highlight their own incompetence, though maybe now I'm just being needlessly petty.

I dunno, I think this looks kind of incredible. Just imagine this scene with indistinct figures in the mist, flicking past your field of vision and giggling malevolently.

The in-game art is striking; an effective adaptation of that cuboid sort of "we're in a computer, howdy howdy howdy" aesthetic. Everything's suitably blocky and the lighting effects are some of the best I've seen in an Indie game, especially in a the game's few forested areas as is the case with the above screenshot. However, the art created for the cutscenes and various paintings in the game is kind of terrible, excepting the striking "virus" artwork that make up one of the two collectible sidequests in the game. The other collectible series - a bunch of neon blue rubber ducks - provide a lot of documents and hints that are fairly instrumental for understanding the context behind the game's frequent cutscenes and piecing together the larger plot. The story's not too bad overall, and kept me guessing throughout (I incorrectly deduced the protagonist's identity, and only had it figured out fairly close to when the game just flat out reveals it for the sake of all the slower children in the class).

But man oh man, do I feel I need to vent some more about how bad this game could get at times. Not all the time, mind, just sometimes. In a way, that's even more aggravating because Master Reboot has a lot of great ideas and a pretty neat aesthetic, but it just poops the bed one too many times for anyone's liking. If you were a team of Indie developers, would you make the final boss of your tense cyberpunk adventure horror game a series of tough first-person jumping puzzles that needed to be performed within a very strict time limit? Does that sound like a good idea to anyone who's ever touched a game development program? Or has played a video game? I don't mean to sound so harsh, but it's like garnishing a fine if unremarkable cut of steak with a sprig of "oh why the fuck even". I've... I've never been good at food analogies.

Perhaps the most terrifying notion of all: having to learn Welsh. Heck, I imagine just living in Wales is torture enough. (Hey, it took a tremendous amount of willpower to get this far into the review without disparaging the Welsh. I'm only human, dagnabbit.)

The verdict: I've beaten Master Reboot (though it certainly didn't make a compelling case for wanting to do so towards the end), so I won't be returning to the Soul Cloud anytime soon.

The Moment of Truth

So which of these three games did I prefer? Well, let's at first stretch this out a bit longer and employ the well-worn cop-out method with some individual awards:

  • Scariest Game: Anna, probably. It managed to get me a few times, and at points I was kind of despairing that I couldn't solve a puzzle because it meant something was going to jump out at me sooner or later. Master Reboot piled on the unease early and often, but you kind of get used to that cute little AI after too long. One can only become so terrified of a little child, glowing eyes or no.
  • Most Competent Game: That would be Serena, for as short as it was. Looked great, sounded fine, nice little self-contained story and ended on a fun headscratcher of a note.
  • Most Interesting Game: Master Reboot. Anna certainly goes to some dark and intriguing places, but for a game so packed with lore and so filled with weird moments it gets a little too abstruse for its own good. Serena's simply too straightforward a game, though it does have an interesting approach to storytelling. Master Reboot is never a dull ride though, and even if you hate, hate, hate a certain section, the chances are the next one will be utterly different and more tolerable. Perhaps even enjoyable.

Overall Best Game: Odd to say this about a game you can beat in less than thirty minutes, but I'd have to give it to Serena. At no point in its short run did it make me want to detach the monitor and hurl it across the room after being presented with some manner of obnoxious bullshit. To all you horror game devs out there: Fear. Fear is the emotion you want to instill in your players, not anger or revulsion. Protipz.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: Intro

Welcome everyone once again to another month-long feature covering the various Steam games I've allowed to accrue in my library like so much plaque build-up wonderful gaming happiness I've yet to discover. I'm mixing things up a little this year, though, taking a cue from last year's Desura December format: Instead of the "one game, one blog" per day approach, I'm going to play three thematically similar games across three days and write a larger summation blog that weighs each of the three games against one another, as well as discussing their own individual positives and negatives. I figure a Battle Royale type showdown might help the poor, desperate souls who come to these things for purchasing advice to make a decision, and also give me a better idea about which of them I might want to pursue further once this feature has concluded.

As stated, each trilogy of games will be linked -- occasionally tenuously -- by a recurring theme or genre. I'll add each new May Madness Melange blog to the list below throughout the month, to spare you all from searching them out. Might as well make it easy on ya, right?

May 1st

The Master (of Magic) Blasters

A trio of games that purport to be influenced by Master of Magic. How do they compare to the original? Or each other?

Part 1A, Part 1B, Part 1C.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Disciples II: Rise of the Elves

Eador: Masters of the Broken World

May 4th

Spookin' With Smento

Hec-aitomix may have been stopped by a combination of uncanny coat physics and terrible pathfinding, but the war on terror never ends. Here's three horror games for the sinisterest of chopping blocks.

Anna

Serena

Master Reboot

May 7th

Hide and Sequels

Eager for some respite, I look at three games that are direct sequels to highly-acclaimed Indie titles. Do I catch a break for once?

Bit.Trip Runner 2

Toki Tori 2+

Zeno Clash II

May 10th

A Misbegotten Youth Revisited

Time to get sentimental with a batch of games based upon classics from my salad days. Do these games hold up? Are the homages accurate? And just how old am I making myself sound right now?

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Legend of Grimrock

Talisman Prologue

May 13th

Pointin' Clique

I have too many adventure games in my Steam backlog. This is an excuse to play three of them.

The Book of Unwritten Tales

Primordia

The Whispered World

May 16th

Platformurder

As is the case with the point and clicks, I simply have too many platformers to get through. Here are three of the harder ones I've been putting off.

Ethan: Meteor Hunter

La-Mulana

Mark of the Ninja

May 19th

JRPG Jibes

A few games that remember old 16-bit JRPGs as fondly as I do. Well, and make fun of them to some extent as well. But in a loving way.

Hero Siege

One Way Heroics

Two Brothers

May 22nd

Quick Look Champions

I love Giant Bomb. It's been my internet home for many years, and with good reason. Here's three games I chose to play after being inspired by three particularly fun Quick Looks.

Angelica Weaver: Catch Me When You Can

Edna and Harvey: Harvey's New Eyes

McPixel

May 25th

Obligatory Puzzle Platformers

Fuck Indie games.

Gateways

Nihilumbra

Q.U.B.E.

May 28th

Miscellaneous Marvels

A quintet of random, smallish games to see off May Madness Melange. Bye everyone.

Darkout

Dear Esther

Eleusis

Little Inferno

Samorost 2

Thanks for all your views and comments this year! Don't forget, you can check out 2012's original May Madness and 2013's May Madness More for even more Steam musings.

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Mento's May Madness Melange: #1C - Master (of Magic) Blasters

(This is Part Three of a three-part opening salvo for 2014's May Madness Melange. If you're looking for Part One, try here. If you found this page looking for cute videos of kittens or your email, I don't know what to tell you. Blame Google?)

Finally, we now move onto our third game, bringing this special feature to a close. Once again, let's bring up the big ol' list of Master of Magic facets that we'll be using to judge this new game worthiness. A more elaborate breakdown can be found in Part One of this three-part mini-series. Of a much larger series. That is itself a sequel to a bunch of other blog features. I'm sure you're all glad I make these things easy for everyone to follow.

  1. Spells, and lots of 'em.
  2. A set-piece tactical combat system with strategy n' shit.
  3. Ruins and dungeons to explore.
  4. Hero and army customization.
  5. An extensive city building system, that allows for various different types of city layout depending on its location and resources.
  6. An array of races and magic disciplines to invest in.
  7. That wonderful feeling of late-game invincibility, usually the result of breaking the game in some way by gaining too much power.
  8. I didn't find it boring.

What's beyond door number three...?

Eador: Masters of the Broken World

The Russia-based Snowbird Game Studios's Eador: Masters of the Broken World is an unusual idea for a fantasy strategy game, and its conceit is a little closer to the obscure-ish 16-bit god sim Mega-lo-Mania than to Master of Magic. Instead of a single world to conquer, there are several floating around as independent entities in a large cosmos-like ether that you take over independently from whichever Lords are currently inhabiting them. It's a little more RPG focused, but still retains a lot of city-building elements. It also very much drinks deeply from the Master of Magic well, with many allusions and systems borrowed from my favorite PC game. I didn't play its immediate precursor, Eador: Genesis, but it looks as if Masters of the Broken World is a better realized version of that original.

It's a really stunning looking game in spots. I had to turn down the settings a bit, so hopefully these screenshots turned out all right.

In Eador: Masters of the Broken World the player is some manner of sentient ethereal being that is able to inhabit and take command of mortals. His task is to bring together the shattered world of Eador, currently a plethora of disjointed rocks floating in an astral cosmos, by jumping into each "shard" and removing all opposition to your rule. In doing so, the player discovers new technologies and concepts that can be carried over to the next playthrough (though nothing else seems to transfer, like heroes or existing inventories), such as new troop types, new building blueprints and new spells.

Master of Master of Magic?

  1. Eador's got quite the multitude of spells, but access to them is limited. The player must construct buildings in their stronghold (the only truly customizable city in each scenario and the hub of their empire) that provide the use of magic, and then their heroes are able to cast them in the field similarly to those of Heroes of Might and Magic. The player also has global "rituals", which provide a boon to any hero on the map for a few resources but also require cooldown periods before they can be used again. There's also one-off spells that can be used from scrolls that a hero might come across while looting. There's no big emphasis on magic, unless the character has a mage hero, but it's there.
  2. Eador's combat is pretty involved. There's topography to consider, with benefits gained from high ground and dense cover, and the two sides can have more than a dozen units each. They don't stack, fortunately, but there's still the potential for pretty big skirmishes. While it's definitely glitchy in parts, it's quite substantial and enjoyably dense. (Just like me? Oof. I oughta curb this self-effacement a little.)
  3. Where Eador perhaps shines the most, even in comparison to Master of Magic, is how every province in the game has a huge amount of unexplored content that you can set a hero on checking out in lieu of doing anything more important. Each turn while exploring, the player might find a new dungeon with its own assortment of defenders and treasures, or activate a random event that might help or hinder the player's side. It feels like you could spend hours just exploring each square, hoping to come across something lucrative and intriguing. It's worth noting that due to the game's severe difficulty, even on the easiest setting, most dungeons aren't worth the trouble unless you get a good scout report and an even better army of units on your side.
  4. Eador's hero customization is extensive, almost to the extent of an actual RPG. There's a lot of equipment slots from armor and multiple weapons to those for individual belts, cloaks and rings. Each hero has a basic focus, whether they're a scout or a commander or a wizard, but (as with Disciples II) each level up brings a new decision for how to advance the character. A scout, for instance, can focus on combat aspects like the power and capacity of their bow and arrows or their ability to dodge blows, or they can focus on non-combat skills such as increasing their loot intake, the speed at which they explore a province or their diplomacy with NPCs. Likewise, each unit levels up and has a few options to level up their various stats, and occasionally acquire special class skills or even earn medals that boost their stats at the cost of a slightly higher per-turn upkeep.
  5. Though the game only lets you develop one city per shard, the sheer number of different buildings and upgrades you can construct is enough to make one's head swim. And this isn't even considering the number of extra structure blueprints one might earn as rewards for completing other scenarios. It can be prohibitively expensive early on, but ensuring there's many unit training buildings and various population and unrest controlling fixtures is vital for the success of the scenario.
  6. I didn't see too many playable races, but it seems like there's various dwarven, elven and goblinkin settlements with their own types of troops and abilities. It's possible future scenarios will allow you to play as one of them instead, but I cannot say for certain. There's no limitations on magic disciplines: all types of spell seem to be available eventually, though as I said earlier they require a bit of work before they can be accessed.
  7. As for the invulnerability feeling, well... I'll go into more detail in the Additional Info section below. Suffice it to say, this is the part where the game kind of falls apart a little. You'll see what I mean.
  8. Honestly, it's not a boring game. It has everything I want from a Master of Magic-inspired fantasy strategy sim. At this point, though, I'm strongly considering adding a few cheats to make it at least a little less brutal. It's also highly possible that by taking one's time and simply taking the critical path through most of these nodes, rather than trying to explore dungeons and fight optional areas that are simply way too difficult, I might earn a few crucial upgrades and make the rest of the game easier. Somehow I doubt it though. For the time being, I'll just mourn getting so close but not quite finding what I was looking for, like a dimension where everything's normal except for the fact that everyone eats food with long lizard tongues.
Man, look how much is going on with these hero stats! All sorts of fun armies, equipment and numbers galore. But there is trouble in paradise, my friends...

Additional Info

Now, so far, Eador is everything I ever wanted out of a modern Master of Magic. It doubles down on the fun RPG stuff, while still allowing for a considerable amount of warmongering and city building. Running around, searching for new dungeons to plunder, with gold, equipment and powerful artifacts lying around to acquire for my war coffers is pretty much my favorite part of Master of Magic. However, much like those Earth-like planets in Mass Effect that produce too much toxic pollen for human habitation, there's something that's just not quite perfect about this game. Specifically, its obscenely high level of difficulty. Even on its easiest difficulty setting, you'd be lucky to walk away from any battle where the game didn't assure you beforehand that victory was certain (and even with that assurance, I've gotten wiped out a few times). Troops are expensive, don't ever seem to heal between fights without hiring a healer at cost to do it manually in combat, and units grow increasingly more ineffective the more they're injured. Then there are the random events with multiple choice outcomes, which are so indescribably unfair that I'm having to break from this format briefly to present a hypothetical example of the shit I'm having to put up with:

You encounter a small puppy on the side of the road during your travels. It looks up at you with a friendly and guileless smile, its tail wagging.

> 1. Murder it in cold blood as various children from the local village look on in horror.

> 2. Ignore it. Ignore everything. If we ignore it maybe it won't hurt us this time.

> 3. Pet the cute puppy.

So let's explore our options here:

  1. The village children tell their elders of the horrible puppy-murdering tyrant that even now bears down on their tiny hamlet. Their disposition towards you plummets, making it extremely difficult to negotiate with the village mayor for their allegiance. Eventually, you're forced to murder a whole horde of torch-wielding villagers, taking several casualties of your own. Though you capture the province, the villagers continue to despise you and revolt the first opportunity they get. A nearby orc battalion marches in while the village people are distracted burning familiar-looking effigies, giving the nearby Orc Empire close access to your capital city.
  2. You ignore the puppy. The puppy then transforms into Gamblor, the God of Fortune, and sadly ascends back to his astral home rather than granting the party an obscenely powerful artifact for what it assumed would be their good natured happy-go-lucky approach to life. Instead, it believes the player's empire is too dour and decides to make life more fun for them by transforming all the gold in the treasury into chocolate coins.
  3. The puppy bites the player's hero hard on his hand as he reaches down to pet it, infecting him with a particularly virulent strain of rabies that soon spreads to the rest of his army, the province, the stronghold, the shard and, inevitably, the rest of the universe. There are no survivors. No survivors, that is, but for the puppy who is currently busy trying to chase a butterfly around a meadow filled with bodies. It trips over a bone cropping out of the ground, tumbling head over heels in such an adorable fashion that, had there been anyone left alive to witness it, they'd be all like "aww, shit's cute".

Grousing about a game's difficulty is one thing, but a lot of the time it feels as if the game is deliberately stacking the odds against me for no appreciable reason. I don't mind a challenge (I'd prefer an easier time of it initially though at least, if only to get my bearings) but there's a point where a game crosses over from challenging to obnoxiously, aggressively punishing. Punishing isn't fun. In fact, it's the antonym for fun. But as this is the only point against it in my eyes, I'm not even sure how I'm feeling about this game as a result. It's like the core is busted but everything around it is just peaches and gravy. Or... wait, what?

I like the combat in this game! A lot! That archer at the bottom can do way more damage and shoot further while standing on those little hills. That's the sort of deeper tactical stuff I love! It's a crying shame this difficulty issue puts a dampener on the whole experience.

Anyway, I played through the relatively brief tutorial, and then about 25 turns into a new scenario on a "tiny" sized shard. I've got plenty left to do here, should I want to keep pressing my luck with some of these dungeons, or I can try and make for the opposing warlord's stronghold and hope I can overpower them. I suppose I could also hire a new hero, but my cash supply is always on the cusp of running out entirely and raiding dungeons is all I can really do to keep me in the black. The game is at least generous with the auto-saves, letting you roll back to up to five turns ago. You also can't lose any heroes, though it costs a lot to resurrect them. Though I speak of harshness, it's worth keeping in perspective the number of outs it affords you in case you screw up, and most of the harder challenges I've faced were entirely of my own volition (though honestly, I didn't expect to get wiped out by a fairy glade after my hero proudly boasted he could put the whole enchanted forest to the torch with few casualties. Funny how a pegasus that can fly right across the map and kill all my archers and healers had a different opinion on the outcome).

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