Indie Game of the Week 163: The Hex

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It's been a while since I last visited Daniel Mullins Games with Pony Island (IGotW #10) and after playing his most recent game, 2018's The Hex, I have to wonder how draughty that dude's house is with every fourth wall missing. As in Pony Island, The Hex is a predominantly game about creating video games, and an imagined tumultuous relationship between a creator, his creations, and the player caught in the middle. Opening up on a creaky, crumbling tavern where a selection of has-been video game characters are drinking away their woes, the elderly proprietor gets a phone call warning them that one of the patrons is planning to murder someone later that evening. With this central mystery, the player bounces from one patron to another, reliving their glory days and downfalls via flashbacks that each pertain to a different video game genre (platformers, fighters, turn-based RPGs, etc.), and moving the central mystery along while creating no end of additional threads that weave in and out of everyone's backstories. The games of this world are all created by a central "The Gameworks" utility, a stand-in for the Unity engine (which was used to make this game), and each character runs afoul of the administration of this toolset in turn, becoming blacklisted or corrupted in the process. It's the universe of Wreck-It Ralph reimagined as an oppressive system where bootlickers succeed and dissidents are punished with dissatisfying genre changes, exile, or worse.

I really enjoyed the layered plot of the game, its deep dives into each character's interiority, and the hints - later made overt with a deliciously knowing self-centered "developer's commentary" during the game's inevitable "walking simulator" chapter - of the type of noxious, short-sighted, and arrogant personality behind their creation. It's definitely a game like Fez or Undertale or, indeed, Pony Island where the developers have hidden lots of secrets and "forbidden knowledge" in the margins of the game's code, and reading the achievement list (which I'd recommend waiting to do until after completing game, just for the sheer amount of "I could've done that?!") gives you a clear sense of how much the developers were hoping meticulous players would take the time to find and later disseminate what they'd learned. If you've played any ARG-heavy video game with an elaborate "mythos", The Hex is very much wading through those same Byzantine waters.

Ideas like
Ideas like "this game is currently being livestreamed" start off as obnoxious as you'd expect, but when the "chat" starts giving you solutions to riddles you have no other way of figuring out it becomes a pretty clever addition. Gotta feel for MODERATOR_JOSH though...

However, as might reasonably be expected given the amount of genre-crossing going on, The Hex falters most when it actually has to be a video game. Most of the time the gameplay is perfunctory but unexceptional - the goal for each chapter's chosen genre visit isn't so much to provide a mechanically rich experience, given that it'll only persist until the story moves onto something else - but will occasionally demonstrate bursts of meta brilliance. An example of the latter would be the Waste World chapter, where the game becomes something like a Fallout or The Banner Saga tactical RPG, except the in-universe lore is that this game was never completed by its procrastinating, resources-light developer and was finished with the help of community mod support, which drops the quality of the writing immensely, disrupts the continuity, and introduces a cheat engine that the player can use to give their units infinite movement or damage. It's a chaotic chapter where the gameplay and story (or rather, the overarching meta story, as opposed to Waste World's story) are in perfect unison.

Then there are the more action-oriented cases like the dull platformer Super Weasel World or the awful shooter Vicious Galaxy, the latter of which was literally broken for me and necessitated skipping ahead using a built-in chapter select feature. (It's another case of the Unity engine not working properly on weaker systems, which seems to happen more frequently these days: not only does this produce lag and create visual glitches, but the programming itself appears to mutate and generate warped scenarios the developer never intended. Given how the narrative frequently deals with glitchy, incomplete, or unoptimized games-within-a-game, it was kinda difficult to parse which of these issues were on purpose.)

Ignore Rorie's review, this particular chapter's not all that exciting.
Ignore Rorie's review, this particular chapter's not all that exciting.

If I was forced to liken this game to another, it'd be last year's Horace from Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn. Horace had a wonderfully deep storyline and frequently crossed genre barriers for an unpredictable free-flow narrative that could lurch into a new side-plot or flight of fancy at any given moment, and was also somewhat let down by the parts where it was supposed to be a video game with a lack of optimization that made it a real challenge to progress through at times. Despite my frustration with both, I feel inclined to let them off the hook for the ambitious stories they're trying to tell. In both cases I persevered because I wanted to see where they would go next and how everything would shake out.

It isn't without its problems, but if you played Pony Island and were bowled over (in a good way) with some of the decisions it made and the ideas it explored, The Hex is every bit a worthy follow-up. The frequent genre switches can make for an uneven experience, and if you really struggled with Pony Island's "coding puzzles" expect more of those here too, but I'm honestly glad that games like this continue to explore what it means to make games and the responsibilities and obligations, if any, a successful developer has to their fanbase (and to their own characters, for that matter). And even if meta "media about making that kind of media" stories are a little too self-indulgent a topic for your liking, the game's twists, intrigue, dark sense of humor, and flashes of inspired game design should be sufficient incentive instead.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Timesink, Inc.

There have been certain games from which I've had to ween myself off because it was affecting my productivity, as limited as it already was, but given the current circumstances I find I have a little more free time to fritter away on an endless cycle of Skinner box mechanics and little dopamine kicks.

What follows are some groupings of games I could happily play forever, or at least until I eventually ran out of things to do many weeks later. Some of these already have hundreds of hours recorded on whatever client app trackers are there to measure my chagrin, and not a day goes by when I don't think about booting them up again to keep chasing that digital dragon. It's only because I have a sizeable enough backlog of enormous unplayed games to keep me going that I'm not more tempted.

Since I'm somehow less shameful about enabling others, I've thrown a list together of the games that should hold you over this tumultuous and stressful period, in case the one hour of Animal Crossing: New Horizons per day doesn't suffice. These aren't just long games; they're games built to be played almost indefinitely.

(NB: I should probably add a disclaimer somewhere to suggest not burning yourself out on video games too early in this self-isolation process, and perhaps enjoy a few other avenues of passing the time concurrently. Pfft, disclaimers.)

(NB2: For the sake of keeping this list manageable, I've excluded MMOs because I don't know enough about them and which ones tend to charge through the roof on a monthly basis, and effectively endless session- and skill-based games like fighters, sports, or online shooters where a player's level of retainment is based on their desire to improve.)

Builders

Sometimes you just gotta put a block on top of another block and keep going.

  • Terraria: The Nostalgic Man's Minecraft, Terraria is absolutely the kind of game I could, and have, sunk hundreds of hours into, between its robust treasure library, varied biomes, potential construction projects, colossal boss fights, and an impressive list of crap to do that the devs have continued to expand for nearly a decade. (Availability: Get it on Steam - it's cheap, you can mod it, and no-one's PC is so awful that they can't run it (though it may chug when zoomed out).)
  • Minecraft: Since I included Pepsi, I should probably mention Coca Cola. Minecraft's more or less the grandfather of this format (if we momentarily forget Lego exists) and easily the most popular. If you've never tried it, now might be a good time? There's only ten million grade-schoolers who'd be further behind on the curve. (Availability: Everywhere.)
  • Dragon Quest Builders: It took Dragon Quest for me to finally "get" Musou, with Dragon Quest Heroes, and a similar thing could be said about the two Dragon Quest Builders games and this genre. (Availability: PlayStation 3 and PS4 and Vita and Switch for DQB1 / PS4 and Switch and PC for DQB2.)
  • Starbound: Despite featuring space travel and an orbital ship hub it's still a lesser Terraria, but it's also seen constant updates since its 2016 release and is assuredly better now than the last time you tried it. (Availability: PC, Xbox One, and PS4.)
  • Rust/ARK: I know so little about these games beyond their notable popularity. Seems like if you were going to take the time to figure them out, now's that time. (Availability: PC seems to be the way to go.)

Warlords

If only we could command our own white blood cells as easily and effectively as all these virtual armies.

  • Stellaris: Paradox's space-faring sorta-spiritual-successor to the Master of Orion games is an extremely deep game that might take a lifetime to master. Or, well, several weeks spare. Looks we have those, though. (Availability: Steam, but there was a semi-recent console version for PS4 and XB1 that's supposedly adequate.)
  • Civilization IV/V: The original Empire Sim, modernized several times over. Depending on who you ask, Civilization IV is either the unmatched peak of the series or Civilization V has finally caught up to it with its many expansions. Doesn't feel like you can go too wrong with either, though. (Availability: PC only. Make sure to grab as many expansions as possible.)
  • Master of Magic: An oldie but a goodie, while MoM is busted in some significant ways (don't expect savvy AI decisions) the sheer versatility of its magic system and multiple fantasy races gives the game a longevity that's still hard to beat today. (Availability: PC only. Previously exclusive to GOG, there's a Steam version too now and it has some bonus content I'd be curious to see.)
  • Endless Legend: The only self-described Master of Magic pretender that has come close to living up to that claim in my view, hewing close to modern Civilization games with its multiple scenario approach and hexagonal town development. Warlock: Master of the Arcane isn't too bad either. (Availability: PC only.)
  • Total War: Not too acquainted with these, but they seem to be the best armchair general games around if the Paradox grand strategy stuff is a little too intense. Pick your poison: Rome, China, Japan, UK, and wherever the hell Warhammer is set. Diecastia, maybe. (Availability: PC only.)

Astroprivateers

Perhaps you'd like to escape to the one place that hasn't been corrupted by the coronavirus... SPACE!

  • No Man's Sky: I'm not kidding when I say this game is almost unrecognizable compared to where it was two, three or four years ago. A giddying array of things to build, or shoot, or photo, or mine, or... (Availability: PC, XB1, and PS4.)
  • Elite: Dangerous: The modern incarnation of the first and best space trader game there ever was. (Availability: Also PC, XB1, and PS4.)
  • Rebel Galaxy Outlaw: For those who want to do all their space truckin' to an appropriate soundtrack. (Availability: Just PC for right now.)
  • EVE Online: I feel like NASA has dedicated servers towards figuring this game out. Maybe you can beat them to it? Maybe you already have. Maybe you're an economist for the Icelandic government and are very happy that I'm bringing it up. (Availability: PC only. I'd love to see what a simplified console port looks like though.)
  • Star Citizen: Look... we don't know how long this current situation will last. Star Citizen might be out before the quarantine ends, but there's really no promises either way. (Availability: Maybe 2023?)

Farmers

Throw your food garbage into an area. They get all rotty. A fly has a baby. Dirt is born. Share this moment with me.

  • Stardew Valley: The game that swallowed a lot of peoples' 2016, my own included. Now its insidious powers of compulsion can be put to good purposes. (Availability: Everywhere.)
  • Rune Factory 4 Special: If you wanted to sound all superior to the Stardew Valley kids, might as well grab this recent remake of the franchise Stardew borrowed most of its ideas from. (Availability: The "Special" version of RF4 is Switch-only, though there's also Rune Factory 5 sometime later this year. Oh, except I think that's Switch only too.)
  • My Time at Portia: Like a 3D Stardew Valley, kinda. Just came out of Early Access last year, if you were waiting for a completed version. (Availability: Everywhere.)
  • Farming Simulator: Of course, you can dispense with the cutesy sim-people and optional socializing and crafting and just go for pure farming nirvana. It might not hurt to learn how to grow our own food... (Availability: FS19 came out on PC, XB1, and PS4. FS20 was a mobile and Switch only thing, and didn't review as well.)
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons: There's more to AC than just farming, in theory, except my entire Twitter timeline the past week has been people trying to find fruit trees to plant in their town. The entire timeline. (Availability: Switch only.)

Cooperators

You're probably going to want to play the online versions of these...

  • Deep Rock Galactic: Watching the Giant Bomb guys play this made it seem like a fun, hectic time with friends. Partly the Horde mode of every online shooter, partly a cooperative treasure-gathering excursion. The latter's more compelling to me, but I guess there'd be no conflict without the former. (Availability: PC and Xbox One.)
  • Divinity: Original Sin II: I'd love to see Giant Bomb take on a multiplayer co-op playthrough of this enormous and excellent strategic RPG, perhaps with someone seasoned in the lead (like Rorie). It wouldn't be easygoing, but I think everyone would get heavily invested into their characters and their plights by the end. Of course, you could try it yourself with your own group of CRPG diehards. (Availability: As of last September, it's out on every current system.)
  • Overcooked! 2: Cooking is a relaxing pastime, though not with all the hazards and obstacles in these kitchens. Admittedly, the truest hazard is one's own incompetence. (Availability: Everywhere.)
  • Heave Ho: Of course, if you wanted to like the people you're trapped inside with even less... (Availability: PC and Switch.)
  • Apex Legends: I figured I should include one free Battle Royale game, and I liked this more than Fortnite. Get a couple of friends together to slay some fools, or annoy some randos by pointing out every landmark with your ping tool. "Look over here!" "Is it ammo?" "No, it's a cloud shaped like a muffin!" (Availability: PC, XB1, and PS4.)

Commanders

If you're in charge of these paramilitary squads, I might suggest practicing some social distancing just so they don't all get taken out by the same grenade.

  • XCOM 2: War of the Chosen: I've been meaning to get back into XCOM proper, and this expansion to the sequel sounds like the way to go. Man, if the Martians can be taken out by a common cold, they're shit out of luck right now. (Availability: PC, XB1, and PS4.)
  • Wasteland 3: I get it, enough of the apocalyptic stuff. If you can't hold on two more months for Wasteland 3, there's always Wasteland 2. (Availability: In May 2020, for PC, XB1, and PS4. Wasteland 2 is also out for those systems, as well as Switch.)
  • Into the Breach: Fight a neverending time-loop war against monstrous bug kaiju in this clever roguelike take on grid-based strategy games. I said no roguelikes, but I can have one. (Availability: PC and Switch.)
  • Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall: My personal favorite of the three Shadowrun Returns games (followed by Hong Kong and then the original); get all your cyberpunking out of your system in this distinct hybrid sci-fi/fantasy setting before you-know-what gets delayed again. (Availability: PC only for all three.)
  • Disgaea: But if we're here to talk strategy RPGs that might actually take you forever, Disgaea is really the only game in town. Disgaea is to time what Cookie Monster is to cookies. (Availability: Disgaea 5, the most recent one, is available for PC, PS4, and Switch. There was also a recent remaster of the first, Disgaea 1 Complete, for PS4 and Switch.)

Workers

My commiserations if your job is presently on hold, but below are some ways you can emulate hard labor without getting paid for it. Enticing prospect, right?

  • Viscera Cleanup Detail: Cleaning space marine brain off the ceiling is a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it. (Availability: PC only.)
  • House Flipper: A fixer-upper game for the fixer-upper careerperson, put off spring-cleaning your own place by working on someone else's. Could be worse, you could be one of those Airbnb flippers who are really facing the music right now. (Availability: PC, XB1, and PS4.)
  • My Summer Car: There's a few games where you're putting a vehicle together piece by piece, but this one seems to have the most personality. Is it the '70s or the present? Is this Finland or the Deep South? Why are there so many hotdogs in the kitchen? (Availability: PC only.)
  • Satisfactory: Vinny and Giant Bomb have done a better job selling an audience on this early access multiplayer ode to relentless capitalist industry than I could ever do. Just don't drive the trucks off a cliff; the corporation's not likely to spring for a new one without garnishing your paycheck. (Availability: PC only. No clue when the finished version is out.)
  • Hardspace: Shipbreaker: Sorry, it's another game that's not quite out yet, but the premise - (carefully!) deconstruct obsolete spacecraft without them or you exploding - sounds absolutely riveting in the weirdest way. (Availability: Out "Summer," unless they decide to release an EA version early.)

Looters

Sometimes the classics are best, and the classics want you to descend into a musty dungeon over and over and steal everything that isn't nailed down.

  • Diablo 3: No idea when Diablo 4 is out, so might as well go back to the well (of souls) and keep smacking that big red dude around. (Availability: Everywhere.)
  • Path of Exile: PoE's skill tree makes the FFX Sphere Grid look like Baby's First Lite-Brite. If your secret passion isn't looting but deciphering the indecipherable, this seems like the best alternative to Diablo. (Availability: PC, XB1, and PS4.)
  • Grim Dawn: Yet to play this, but it sounds like a very serviceable clone for those who played the former two games to death. Made by the Titan Quest guys, so try that series out too if Grim Dawn's your bag (of loot). (Availability: PC only.)
  • Victor Vran: Another top-down vaguely gothic looty-shooty, but with a bit more dexterity involved. You can jump! You're not allowed to jump in loot RPGs, what the heck?! (Availability: Everywhere.)
  • Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem: This is still new and prone to no small amount of issues and bugs, but it might be fun to get in on the ground floor now with an enthusiastic community. (Availability: PC only. No idea when it'll be "complete.")

Onion Knights

You know what else are long-ass games just in general? JRPGs. Fuss your hair until you have a perfect ahoge, and flop-sweat your way through a few of these longer-than-most anime adventures.

  • Xenoblade Chronicles 2: I'm playing XC2 right now and I could let this thing absorb my entire life if I let it. I'm penning another blog about its extracurricular opportunities for the near future, but suffice it to say all three of these games are a lot. If you have systems set up that can play the earlier two, be sure to try those as well. (Availability: Xenoblade Chronicles 1 is Wii and 3DS (though a Switch remake is coming this year). Xenoblade Chronicles X is Wii U only. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is Switch only.)
  • Dark Cloud 2: One of my favorite gaming comfort foods, DC2's mix of dungeoneering, town-building, photography, fishing, golf, and a bunch of other stuff is a potent mix that will last and last. If you actually do finish it, grab Rogue Galaxy or Fantasy Life and start over. (Availability: Digitally on PS4, as is Rogue Galaxy. Fantasy Life is 3DS only.)
  • Yakuza 0: Pick a Yakuza, preferably the most earliest chronologically you've yet to play (that'd be Yakuza 0 for those coming into it fresh), and let yourself become immersed in an urban world very unlike the one we currently know: Japanese food outlets, violent gangs, mahjong and shogi parlors down shady back-streets, Sega arcades, and areas where multiple people are allowed to be in the same place. (Availability: The whole series is on PS4 in one form or another, along with its spin-off Judgment. For PC players, currently it's just Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, and Yakuza Kiwami 2. Xbox One will also get those three, but right now just has Yakuza 0.)
  • Persona 5 Royal: Had your misgivings about P5 or just didn't get around to it? Its enhanced sequel is just around the corner (as in, a week away) and might be the perfect replacement for a suddenly vacant social calendar. (Availability: PS4 only.)
  • Trails in the Sky FC: The localized version of the eighth game in the Trails mega-franchise just came out, so what better time than now to start from Trails in the Sky FC and work your way up? No guarantees that when you eventually leave your house after the credits roll on Trails of Cold Steel III it won't look like the end of Army of Darkness out there. (Availability: OK, here we go... IN ENGLISH, Trails in the Sky 1 and 2 are available on Steam and PSP only, and on Steam only for Trails in the Sky 3. Trails of Zero/Azure have not been localized, but have fan patches for their PC versions. Trails of Cold Steel 1 and 2 are on Steam, PS3, Vita, and PS4. Cold Steel 3 is on Steam and PS4 and soon for Switch too for some reason. Cold Steel 4 hasn't been localized yet, but will eventually. Phew.)

Anyway, that's enough to get be getting on with. Stay safe out there? There are many avenues through which to wait these tiny pointy bastards out, so go do that and don't give up hope. (And let me know what your own preferred gaming black holes are in the comments below.)

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Indie Game of the Week 162: A Short Hike

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I think we all need to slow down, cool off, and chill with a pleasant stroll somewhere remote, and that's what A Short Hike both promises and delivers. As melon-headed bird-person Claire, A Short Hike is not too dissimilar from Animal Crossing beyond some parallels with the character design: it tasks you with doing as much or as little as you feel like doing on its easygoing island, either chasing around collectibles, angling for valuable fish, playing mini-games with some friendly NPCs, or just climbing as high as possible and taking in the view when you get there. The game's only upgrade system are golden feathers: collectibles usually found in challenging locations to reach or given by NPCs for certain tasks. Each one expands the amount of time you can climb walls, or gain altitude while gliding, or running around the island; in effect, a similar steady progression of more impressive physical feats that Breath of the Wild's upgradeable stamina affords you. A certain amount of golden feathers are necessary for climbing to the very top of the island, which is more or less the game's only goal.

A Short Hike builds this sizeable island (and a few smaller isles nearby) for you to freely explore, but doesn't really track much in the way of completion or progress. There's no in-game total for shells and feathers, there were no achievements in the version I played as a list of possible secondary objectives to pursue, and I ceased finding anywhere to spend my growing stack of cash after buying a stylish ranger hat, so instead it seems more like a "explore until you feel like you're done exploring" situation, at which point you can return to your aunt's cabin where you started the game and have a nap, causing the credits to roll.

I played the Epic Game Store version, which meant no achievements, no screenshots, and no compatibility with this Steam Controller doorstop. At least it was free?
I played the Epic Game Store version, which meant no achievements, no screenshots, and no compatibility with this Steam Controller doorstop. At least it was free?

On the one hand I'm put out by not having a bunch of numbers and progress trackers constantly growing and feeding that lizard brain part of my whole being like a carrot on a stick dangling in front of me, but on the other I respect the game's unhurried and relaxed attitude towards not worrying about it extending even as far as the meta gameplay. I'm sure I didn't find nearly every golden feather or area of note or NPC that needed a task doing, and once I'd reached the top I felt like I was ready to call it a day and play something else. Maybe that's a knock against the game for lacking the usual staying power of collectible-heavy platformers, or maybe that feeling of ephemerality and non-commitment was part of the game's mission statement from the outset.

Instead, if I think about this game again it'll be to recall the distinctive, slightly fuzzy cel-shaded aesthetic, the wit of its wholesome script, and soaring through the air looking for the next point of interest to collect or dig up or fish or explore. In fewer words, simply a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. My time with the game may have been brief, but then it's not like they called the game An Interminable Hike.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Indie Game of the Week 161: Downfall

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I realize there's been something of a lugubrious global mood of late, and I've gone on record before in saying that since games tend to be effective emotional metronomes I generally stay away from any that cause more depression than I can handle, but despite all this I've nonetheless found myself booting up another game from the delightfully twisted minds at Harvester Games, they behind the (mostly) monochromatic supernatural horror point and click adventure game The Cat Lady. The Polish developer has been tweaking their particular formula for emotionally deep and bleakly stark horror fiction for a while now, starting with The Cat Lady in 2012 and most recently with last year's Lorelei (which I've wishlisted for some future IGotW). I say The Cat Lady was their first, but from what I've been able to ascertain with a little research their actual first game was a prototypical version of this game, Downfall, which had a character or two that later made their way into The Cat Lady as some disquieted specters. This 2016 release is a more confident remake of that freshman effort, utilizing the experience the studio garnered from their commercial debut.

Downfall concerns a married couple - Joe and Ivy Davis - whose marriage is on the rocks. Joe impulsively books them a weekend retreat at the Quiet Haven hotel to see if he can salvage what they once had, but wouldn't you know it? The hotel's haunted by some malicious spooks who kidnap Ivy almost as soon as the pair arrive. The denizens of the hotel range from explicitly hostile monsters to deranged visitors who are possibly allied in your goal to escape the accursed place, requiring that Joe be careful about what he says around whom. Beyond that, the game has a familiar adventure game structure where Joe finds new floors and rooms to roam for items and hotspots, using the former on the latter to solve puzzles and progress the story. Though there's no real "action" in the gameplay sense, at least none I've found so far, the game still has a few staples of survival horror: sometimes you'll activate something and produce an unexpected result, sometimes you'll suddenly get trapped in a flashback or nightmare hallucination, and sometimes you have to run and hide from entities beyond your ken, but it's all mostly dramatic flourishes to serve the narrative than anything too gameplay-intensive.

Look, it was a long car ride over here, all right?
Look, it was a long car ride over here, all right?

The game certainly likes its macabre flights of fancy, and the developers went all out courting lesser-known talent for artistic contributions to the game, from the voice acting to the eerie artwork on the Quiet Haven's walls to the many musicians included in the game's eclectic soundtrack. The first of those is easily the worst: any game created in a non-English speaking country is going to suffer trying to find the right intonations and pronunciations of specific words and phrases, but I might attach a silver lining to it by suggesting this linguistic discordance is germane to the game's already disturbed and otherworldly energy (not quite the reverse-talking little person of Twin Peaks, but not far off either). It also doesn't apply to the script itself, which I've found to be fairly decent: creepy and unnerving and coarse and vulgar when it means to be, but sharp enough to understand its characters and the various ills they're suffering. Speaking of which, this game - like The Cat Lady - has some pretty serious themes that it juggles with some degree of tact and aplomb, once again building its supernatural world around the idea of figurative inner demons becoming literal outer ones; a scene early on suggests Ivy has some manner of mental unwellness and has suffered from bulimia in the past, and at least one antagonist of the game appears to be a bloated, infernal, mirror universe representation of that psychosis.

The game also has some odd glitches, possibly relating to the quirks of the Adventure Game Studio engine used to create the game. For one, the game is purely keyboard driven: arrow or WASD keys for movement (except down, which is used to access the inventory) and return to confirm. The mouse is disabled throughout the game including, annoyingly, the in-game shift-tab community overlay. The aspect ratio also appears to be fixed to a boxy 4:3, causing some odd visual glitches at the two margins whenever Steam's UI pops up with a notification. It's nothing that affects gameplay, but does make the game feel a little less tidy and professional, as well as interfering with its immersive potential. I'm glad to say that the game hasn't been overly obtuse as of yet with most puzzles and accessible areas limited to a handful of possible combinations, and even then the solutions I've encountered haven't ever been beyond the realm of logical deduction. Adventure games tend to benefit more when they sacrifice puzzle difficulty for the sake of a more immersive storytelling process, and for now Downfall's been adept at finding that balance (unfortunately, due to other commitments this week relating to a certain pandemic, I've not been able to play a huge amount; I'd estimate I'm about halfway through the game so far). If you enjoyed The Cat Lady, Downfall's been an adequate follow-up from what I've seen; maybe a little less narratively bold and intriguing, as it's hewing close to The Shining (literally, given there's axes involved) than The Crow-esque cycle of resurrection and revenge of The Cat Lady, but every bit as intense and perturbing. Looking forward to seeing how it plays out later tonight - it's Friday the 13th, after all, so there's no better time to scare oneself silly.

Rating: 4 out of 5. (Post-completion update: Nothing much to add, except this might be the ultimate Wife Guy: The Game.)

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in: Systems Shock

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There's a common apprehension against what are colloquially referred to as anime fighters for their surfeit of mechanical complexity, leading to a longer than usual learning curve, that will often have players - even seasoned fighter game pros - running for the hills after one air juggle super cancel tutorial or superfluous charge gauge explanation too many. It's not that these games are necessarily difficult to pick up, but they are initially intimidating and unless you're approaching from the angle of having played several similar games it'll no doubt involve a decent amount of time until you're confident you have at least the basics down, and that's before you start learning individual characters and who best to draw them against.

There could be several reasons for why these games adopt prohibitively high levels of complexity, but a common one is that the genre - due to its popularity - has continued tweaking and evolving based on the mainstays that have come before. Any Guilty Gear or BlazBlue or an Arc Systems Works fighter of your choosing is the result of a fandom with decades of Capcom and SNK fighters and thousands of hours spent in same to master their every aspect. Fighters are fairly niche, so they've long since joined the likes of shoot 'em ups as games that are generally played by those already deeply invested in them and are thus always looking for the next level of challenge. (Of course, there are exceptions, and any game that goes out of its way to be "entry-level friendly" seems to do fine also.)

You could apply the pattern to RPGs, specifically Japanese ones. Though their drop in appeal isn't quite as precipitious as the many hand-wringing "the death of the JRPG" article would have you believe, we've long passed their peak era of the mid-90s to early-00s, around the time when Final Fantasy VII captured the global mainstream zeitgeist like no other JRPG had done before. I'm not going to sit here and claim there aren't newbie-friendly JRPGs coming out every year, but a significant portion of that industry has determined that it makes better business sense to pander to the established base, either through copious amounts of fanservice, a steady creep in mechanical complexity, or both.

All the above is just my half-educated musing about why it is that Xenoblade Chronicles 2, even more so than its already mechanically dense forebears, has so many layers of mechanical depth going on. In a sense, it's not too dissimilar to Bandai Namco's Tales franchise: a series that continues to see tweaks to its core real-time combat system (the legendary LMBS) with each new entry, with these advancements only having significance to the people who buy each new game and maybe less so to an unversed player who maybe only views the series as a homogenous mass of anime tropes. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has its fair share of anime angst also, but I wanted to discuss specifically how long it takes to figure out its battle system and the many approaches and features and menus you need to be cognizant of if you intend to make any serious progress quickly and not get trapped in a series of overly long fights with inconsequential mobs. While the game only beats my ass down when I wander off the beaten path and get attacked by something several dozen levels higher than my party, it's taken a while for me to figure out how to end random battles at a fair clip - and the game hasn't stopped rolling out features yet. I suspect the two types of comment I'll get from this are "what the hell does any of this mean?" and "oh yeah, of course, it's all pretty simple stuff when you get the hang of it, my dear idiot".

The Titans are a little more animate in this game than the colossi were in XC1. It's a little disconcerting to see their gigantic heads bobbing around or their tails wagging in your periphery.
The Titans are a little more animate in this game than the colossi were in XC1. It's a little disconcerting to see their gigantic heads bobbing around or their tails wagging in your periphery.

The Basics, or "I Coulda Done That Blindfolded!"

The Xenoblade series are pseudo-MMOs, so the combat is a mix of real-time auto-attacking and occasional tactical consideration. Characters attack automatically when in range of their quarry, but it's down to the player to decide when to use the stronger "Arts" (which covers both spells and special attacks). Arts regenerate their charge through normal attacks. There are also "ether" attacks that are dependent on the element of the character's Blade.

Blades are an unusual combination of summons and weapons. Characters able to use Blades (called Drivers) will swing weapons based on the type of Blade they're using, and Blades can also have one of three roles in battle: Healer, Tank, and Attacker (or DPS). The type of weapon the Driver uses, the elemental damage they do, and the combat role they perform are all determined by the character's currently equipped Blade. Drivers can have up to three Blades equipped at a time, switching between them in a battle to suit the current foe: for example, if you have a fire-based Blade out while fighting a fire-based enemy, it might be prudent to switch to a water-based Blade for the elemental superiority.

Otherwise, the conceit of the MMO trinity holds true: Tanks soak up aggro, drawing enemy attacks which they can whether through defensive skills or their higher than usual HP and defense stats; Attackers use the distraction to position themselves to do the most amount of damage to end battles quickly; Healers keep the other two alive through curative skills, and can hopefully contribute to damage when no-one is in need of intensive care.

This UI is... well, it's a lot. At least initially. I mostly know what all these HUD icons do/mean now. Mostly.
This UI is... well, it's a lot. At least initially. I mostly know what all these HUD icons do/mean now. Mostly.

The Intermediate Stage, or "Let's Not Lose Our Heads, Though!"

All right, so we've established that combat follows the standard MMO pattern of a trinity of basic classes and explained what Blades are. To speed up battles there's a few avenues:

The first are Blade Arts and combos. Similar to Driver Arts, these are built up through performing auto-attacks, but they can continue building up past one tier all the way up to four. If a character uses a lower tier attack, a different character can follow it up with the next tier, and so on through the group. Each successive tier does more damage, but the level IV Blade Art can also be devastating too if you decide to save up for it. Like the Blades, these Blade Arts are all elemental themes, which also determines which ones can flow into others (a Fire-based Blade Art can be followed by a Water-based one to produce a "Steam Bomb", for example).

Then you have a system brought over from the first Xenoblade Chronicles, where you manage the enemy's condition through a successive process of knocking them down and setting them up to be stomped. This starts with a "Break" condition that makes the enemy unstable and susceptible to being "Toppled". Toppled enemies cannot attack and instead lie there for a few seconds while you drop damage on them. However, you could also follow Toppled with "Launch" - you need a burly Driver/Blade for this - which sends them flying into the air. You then have a very short window to use a "Smash" attack, which brings them crashing back down to earth and completes the series. Smash attacks do an incredible amount of damage, but obviously the difficulty is cycling through all four stages in a relatively brisk timeframe. Worse is that certain stronger enemies seem to be resistant to any of those four states. I've not found anyone with a Smash Art yet, but seeing enemies Launched is already pretty amusing. They really go flying.

Then you have Chain Attacks. There's a three-block gauge, up in the top left corner, that slowly builds in combat and can be used to resurrect fallen party members once per block. However, filling all three blocks allows you to pause the battle for a Chain Attack: this involves all three characters landing a special Art one after the other to create a chain. Chains will end after everyone's attacked once, but there's a way to extend it further.

Then there's some minor but still effective battle tips like cancelling an auto-attack at the right moment to use an Art, maneuvering to the enemy's flank or rear for specific Arts' damage boosts, remembering to kite enemies from afar so you aren't stuck fighting them in groups, and so on.

It's taken some time, but I've just about got the hang of all the above. They do speed battle along somewhat, as you start doing several thousand damage with the right conditions, but you'll still do marginal harm if you haven't bothered to go into your menus for some vital character customization and development. I've been picking up on the importance of the following:

  • Driver Affinity Charts: These are Driver specific passive skills that can significantly boost stats, immediately unlock specific Arts at the start of combat (rather than building up to them through normal attacks), build resistances, and other techniques. These use an exclusive development currency to build up called WP. Drivers can also individually upgrade their Arts (per Blade) via a different currency, SP. SP seems to accumulate for each equipped Blade individually, so there's no need to stockpile it.
  • Blade Affinity Charts: Far more extensive than the Driver charts for some reason, Blade charts aren't increased through spending points but by completing objectives. These might be as benign as talking to people, finding resources, using Blade arts, defeating certain monster types, or using pouch items (more on those in a second). However, upper echelons of the skill tree aren't available until you've gained enough "trust" between the Blade and the Driver (which increases slowly over time, though it goes faster if you complete side-quests).
  • Core Chips and Auxiliary Chips: Blades are like digital computer people, or something, so if you feed them specific computer chips they acquire stat boosts. When used, core chips make significant changes to the weapon associated to the Blade, often vastly increasing damage output and stats like critical chance and block rate. Auxiliary chips are more like accessories that you can equip and unequip.
  • Pouch Items: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a huge amount of temporary buff items, which can range from food and drink to stuff like artwork, musical instruments, books, and textiles (I've no idea why these are consumable, but non-food items will last up to a couple of real-time hours). Blades all have their own pouch item preferences, increasing the gain they get from those specific items. Fortunately, the Blade's affinity chart gives you some hint as to what they're into. I'm usually resistant to worrying about temporary gains - I'm the type of guy who hoards healing items "in case I need them later" - but it's not a system you can afford to ignore here.
The key to Blade development is going out of your way for these mini-achievements. Much is still currently locked until I've spent more time with this big fluffy cat.
The key to Blade development is going out of your way for these mini-achievements. Much is still currently locked until I've spent more time with this big fluffy cat.

The Advanced Stage, or "It's Fine! We'll Get 'Em Yet!"

So a lot of this game is still a mystery to me, even some fifteen hours in. There's an option on the main menu I can't access currently (I'm in Chapter 3) and I've yet to unlock the third Blade slot, meaning my characters can only march into battle with two each - the exception being the nopon Tora, who cannot use normal Blades and had to create an artificial one. From what I've read, the game insists on some strict limits while it's in the process of teaching you the ropes, making every local enemy damage sponges to encourage you to master the above intermediate mechanics to end battles faster.

There are hints of the madness yet to come, however. Crafting auxiliary chips (each needs to be "fed" a bunch of resource items before you can use them), acquiring storefront properties to earn various passive bonuses, playing the salvage mini-game to gain money quickly as long as you're adept at QTEs, completing Blade affinity chart objectives to fast-track their growth, completing side-quests to earn XP, spending bonus XP while resting to earn the lion's share of your levelling (it's an odd system where side-quest XP is stored here instead of given to you directly, but I've read that it's like an honor system to prevent power-levelling - if you're already smashing through story encounters, you can save that XP for a time when you aren't). The game has a massive number of Blades you can acquire, from generic "commons" to special "rares" - the rares all have unique personalities, appearances, and sometimes voice actors.

Economy plays a huge part in XC2, and most population centers seem to have at least a dozen storefronts with distinct stock to sell. By improving the economy by helping the populace and buying stuff, these storefronts gain even more inventory.
Economy plays a huge part in XC2, and most population centers seem to have at least a dozen storefronts with distinct stock to sell. By improving the economy by helping the populace and buying stuff, these storefronts gain even more inventory.

It's an especially deep game that has yet to give up all its secrets, making this blog seem premature given that I'm still in the learning phase. However, my goal here was to demonstrate just how much information XC2 has to throw at you at a turning point in the game where the training wheels are about ready to come off. Unlike fighters, RPGs have the benefit of accommodating a long learning curve into an already long narrative process, so you can spend tens of hours and still be introduced to new systems. Of course, there's a way to bungle this up: Final Fantasy XIII is a fairly excellent game (mechanically, let's say) once it's done teaching you everything, but it's a very long and not particularly interesting road to get there because of how slowly it chooses to dole out those mechanics. XC2's not quite as cautious, but it's also in no mood to drop an enormous infodump on you and instead rolls out what it's got in increments that you can more easily absorb. It's a delicate decision process for a designer who maybe put too much game in their game, but I believe players benefit more when there's more to learn and more to integrate into their playstyles and more viable approaches to challenges in their path. Versatility hurts no-one, though too much all at once will just push players away.

Anyway, I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but I'm loving everything I've encountered so far. The characters are appealing (though I wish the VAs hadn't leaned so hard into nopon characters exclaiming a very Eric Cartman-esque "meeeeh" so much), having multiple titans to explore instead of two gigantic colossi makes for some more varied landscapes, the odd focus on commerce and Blade-raising micromanagement is an overall boon to the series if only because it helps set it apart from its predecessors, and it obviously looks and sounds great as I imagined a HD Xenoblade game would with most of the same production values and talent behind it as the original game. I'll be playing it almost throughout the entirety of March, I suspect, but it's been a fine companion so far.

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Indie Game of the Week 160: Chronicles of Teddy

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It might surprise you all to learn that I played another explormer this week. In my defense, however, it's the sequel to a game that was decidedly not exploration or platforming focused. Chronicles of Teddy: Harmony of Exidus (also known as Finding Teddy II) is a 2D explormer that, in addition to its genre roots, feels part Zelda II (the heroine can perform up-stabs and down-stabs), part Fez (there's a whole in-game language that you learn in pieces, the mastery of which can lead to a lot of goodies), and part an Amiga platformer (the artist loves gradient fills and weird Roger Dean-style colossal creatures in its backdrops, and the synthy ambient soundtrack is reminiscent of that old sound hardware also).

When I played Finding Teddy some seven years back, I remarked that it had a certain distinctiveness. Adventure games don't generally truck with entire fake musical languages - the only other example I can think of is Loom, and it's not quite the same execution - but communication was integral to solving a lot of Finding Teddy's puzzles. Now that the girl's old enough to wield a sword and shield, and the game's become a little more homogeneous as far as what the Indie crowd is into making, I might argue that it's lost a bit of its unique magic. However, it still retains that fictional language mechanic and doles out the various phonemes at a slow rate, hiding them in special treasure chests. Most of the time you're learning new words from speaking to NPCs and then applying it to those few times where you need to (nicely!) tell a guardian - a colossal creature guarding the gates to the local dungeon - to get out of the way. Sometimes you can learn command words that operate the same as traversal upgrades: there are doors and chests covered in crystals, for example, which can be removed by voicing the right command word to a nearby crystal cluster. It's a system marginally less sophisticated than, say, the musical instruments and tunes of the Zelda series but the game still finds some intriguing applications for it, from figuring out door passwords to reciting songs back to fireflies "Simon Says" style as a form of collectible. The story's perfunctory in comparison: in Finding Teddy a nameless little girl is teleported to a magical world when her teddy is kidnapped by a lonely tyrant that the girl eventually befriends, and this game starts a few years later with the slightly older girl fighting the evil wizard that usurped her friend's throne.

I have no idea what this is, but it's very bigh.
I have no idea what this is, but it's very bigh.

Chronicles of Teddy also an impressively large game. The action is split up between a library nexus and four moderately-sized worlds that are contained within its books. Each of these worlds has an overworld area and a dungeon area, and the former has puzzles and challenges that eventually lead to entering the latter, where you defeat a boss and collect a plot-vital magic egg needed to access the final boss. While you can explore any dungeon in its entirety on your first visit - in true Zelda style, you can collect one or more traversal upgrades that give you access to the entire place - the overworlds are full of barriers and secrets you can optionally backtrack to once you have the right gear and knowledge to surpass them. There's a currency in the game, through which you get most of the game's more quotidian upgrades: more health, more armor, more offense, etc. though the game has this unfortunate fail state where it halves your current money total if you should happen to perish. Because the vast amount of the money you find comes from chests - they can spit out anywhere between fifty to several hundred, while most enemies drop around a tenth of that - that also limits how easy it is to make money for some of the pricier upgrades, as chests don't respawn. I've almost cleaned the store out after three worlds though, so I think there's enough slack if you screw up or twice. I've taken to saving before bosses and quitting to the main menu without saving after a death and reloading from there, and that lets me hold onto whatever I was carrying. I don't really think that fail state was necessary, or if they have to insist on some sort of penalty they might've considered Shovel Knight's approach and give the player a chance to recover their lucre with a corpse run.

Honestly, beyond the fictional language thing and the always-welcome Zelda II combat moves, Chronicles of Teddy is - as I said before - not quite as distinctive as its forebear, even if it is considerably more involved and overall a perfectly acceptable explormer game. I'm having my usual fun noting down places to backtrack to and screenshotting my maps, and as the below image attests to the game has some very accommodating navigation tools even if the way the map connects rooms can be a little inexplicable. The platforming's adequate with the usual double-jump and wall-kick upgrades, but the combat can suffer from the incredibly short range of the heroine's knife weapon (upgrades just improve damage, not reach) and obtuse enemy hitboxes that makes bosses especially kind of annoying to hit without taking damage yourself. It rectifies this to some degree with the aforementioned Zelda II mechanics, which in addition to the vertical stabs also has a lot of enemy types that require a bit of finesse to overcome, attacking from an angle that the enemy isn't currently guarding. I've a lot of fondness for the game's art direction and the music, though the main character sprite looks like this hunched over insomniac; possibly an intentional character quirk, as the same heroine in the first game had this sort of lugubrious tiny goth appearance. She's evidently been through some shit either way.

The map system might be regarded as being a little too free with its secrets, but color-coding certain areas based on their content - blue means there's optional chests/collectibles there, gold has more valuable chests containing upgrades or key items - is super handy when backtracking.
The map system might be regarded as being a little too free with its secrets, but color-coding certain areas based on their content - blue means there's optional chests/collectibles there, gold has more valuable chests containing upgrades or key items - is super handy when backtracking.

It probably comes off as damning with faint praise to call Chronicles of Teddy an inoffensive and agreeable game of its very specific and well-represented type, but that is what it is. It certainly deserves better than the "mixed" reviews it has on Steam, which I can only assume came about from the developers publicly decrying anime tiddies or fascism or something else that sets off that particular throng. I've enjoyed my time exploring its worlds and taking down its bosses, and the unusual visuals and language puzzles does put it a little above the truly generic explormer fare out there even if I sometimes wish it played a little better.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Mento's Month: February '20

It's always exciting to have a leap year February, even if it is still the shortest and usually least interesting month, and the game industry has been busier backing out of commitments more than confirming same. That we're seeing 2020's first big releases come out towards the end of March doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, though you could argue that this is the tide going out before the big wave crashes down, i.e. the full new console reveals and launches. It's never a bad idea to take it easy regardless, and I've once again managed to get a lot of backlog headway done this month with nothing else to really distract me. I've even scaled way back on GB content, but that's largely because it's been a little underwhelming and repetitive of late (I'm sure it'll pick up once GBE's new hire happens, whenever that'll be).

As a little bonus extra this update, here's what my 2019 GOTY Top Ten looks like when compared to the Giant Bomb Community tastes (as determined by the recent Community GOTY poll results, which only include the top 100):

GameMy GOTY RankCommunity GOTY Rank
Control1st1st
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night2nd11th
Kingdom Hearts III3rd29th
Baba is You4th17th
Horace5thDNR (Did Not Rank)
Indivisible6th58th
Shovel Knight: King of Cards7th84th
Electronic Super Joy II8thDNR
Glass Masquerade 2: Illusions9thDNR
Gato Roboto10thDNR

What this and previous "Community Comparisonz" suggest to me is that, rather than my picks being all that obscure or controversial (in the "only I seem to like this game" sense), it's more that there's always a huge number of releases in any given recent year that even super worthwhile ones can still drop out of the top 50 or top 100 of the year's most notable/widely-played games. It's no doubt why I still have a list a mile long of games from the 2010s I want to check out, even with the decade itself already fading into memory.

Indie Games of the Month

February comprised the 156-159 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:

Kentucky Route Zero (IGotW 156) did not grab me at all, and I suspect that has more to do with me than the game. A deliberately slow, methodical, abstract, downbeat, and deeply lugubrious episodic adventure game that ably recreates the sort of muted and slow-motion filter that life often takes on in rural areas of the country (and world) where very little happens and no-one has much to do but talk about the weather and watch the tumbleweeds roll by. It's a little incongruous, because a lot of interesting weirdness does indeed happen in Kentucky Route Zero; the titular highway itself is a strange metaphysical chthonic passageway between worlds that the hapless protagonists find themselves rolling down more than once or twice. The game's unremitting depressive tone really did a number on my frequent melancholic moods, and it began to feel detrimental to my health (and my patience, because it takes so damn long to do anything) to keep playing. Checked out after Episode III and I don't regret it.

Mistakes were made, guys, but I don't need this hole-lier than thou attitude.
Mistakes were made, guys, but I don't need this hole-lier than thou attitude.

Donut County (IGotW 157), conversely, still does the small dustbowl township thing but in a fashion where boredom and slow-paced living makes way for a sudden surprising turn when holes start appearing and swallowing up everything. Each level is a vignette told in flashback, as the huddled survivors sit around an underground campfire and share stories of when the hole came to their home or workplace (or both) and left nothing but a huge crater behind. Of course, it's all due to an avaricious band of raccoons fascinated by the "trash" that everyone else generates, and the way they interpret the world around them (via a "trashpedia") is where the game gets a lot of its laughs. The Katamari Damacy style gameplay is perfunctory - with the game's limitations, there's only ever one "route" as you go from a small hole in the dirt to a giant all-consuming abyss - but there's enough bells and whistles to make the brief adventure a compelling one while it lasts.

Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble and Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt (IGotW 158) are a pair of games that Ludosity put out around the time of their breakout game Ittle Dew, and like that game it takes a very specific slice of the early top-down Zelda games - with Princess Remedy specifically, that's the combat - and builds an adventure full of snappy writing and incidental exploration of a semi-open world. Also remarkable is the game's ZX Spectrum aesthetic: a lot of harsh neon against black and a very tiny natural screen resolution. They're slight games, hence my doubling them up, but entertaining nonetheless.

Happiness is a self-charging instant shield-remover. Not feeling so invulnerable now, huh?
Happiness is a self-charging instant shield-remover. Not feeling so invulnerable now, huh?

Heat Signature (IGotW 159) is a roguelike "tactical espionage action" game that I didn't anticipate I was going to enjoy as much as I did, but it does a great job of bringing out the player's resourcefulness and spontaneous thinking with its many procgen spaceship-raiding missions. A steady dripfeed of new gadgets and weapons that can change your fortunes for the better, and an encouragement to keep biting off more than you can chew by picking missions rated as "audaciously" difficult, makes for a ballsy game that is so satisfying when everything goes your way and hilarious when it does not. If all else fails though, you can bust a window open, float off into space, and try your luck elsewhere.

Hey Everybody, It's the Tuesday Slot

Getting Something Off My Chests

A Bracer's Impact

I still have a bunch more of these chest screenshots.
I still have a bunch more of these chest screenshots.

My new blogging focus this year are smaller pieces based on whichever games I happen to be playing, and most of February was taken up by my triumphant return to the Legend of Heroes franchise. Along with Ys, Falcom's been growing a small but loyal fanbase with these slightly dated looking turn-based RPGs that nonetheless manage to hone in on what us long-time genre proponents like most about our chosen games. Specifically for Trails in the Sky Second Chapter, there's an excellent script and characters and some intriguing combat mechanics at its core; the former was a huge labor of love by XSEED, who localized something like ten novels' worth of writing (as well as being a long RPG with a lot of talking, there's a huge amount of conditional script also; dialogue that can be different depending on the player's actions and the order they choose to explore the world and meet people), while the latter takes the relatively crude blueprint of its previous game, Trails in the Sky First Chapter (or FC), and figures out ways to expand on it to add more wrinkles and features that the player must take in stride. It makes the battles that much more exciting and eventful, if also considerably more challenging.

These two blogs cover, respectively: a highlight of how fun the localization with by covering the comments produced by chests the player can revisit after taking their contents, many of which are either meta jokes, references, or passive-aggressive chastisement of the player's loot-lust; and the second looks at the game's distinctive mission-based progression, where main and side-quests are wrapped up in the protagonist's profession as a "bracer" - a community-focused mercenary who keeps the peace, hunts monsters, resolves disputes and crimes, and other matters that require a trained expert. It's an exceptional game that I could word vomit about for months if I was a little less disciplined.

Video Games! That's Where I'm a Viking

Sure, they're vikings, but how
Sure, they're vikings, but how "Norse-y" is this game really?

Inspired by a playthrough of the 2018 God of War reboot, which transplants the angry Spartan deity Kratos into a primeval version of Scandinavia where the Aesir and Vanir and Jotunn are still interfering with mortal lives, I decided to look at other games that take Norse mythology into their world-building. While not an expert on early Germanic belief systems by any stretch, it's obvious to see how faithfully certain games recreate the legends of that culture in games; from simply borrowing the iconography of horned helmets and runes to really doing deep dives into what the ancient Norse believed in and how they lived. Some feel more genuine than others, even to the untrained eye, and it was curious to see how deep into the weeds God of War got with legends of the Giants and the finer details of Ragnarök given that the original games only ever had a tenuous grasp on Greek mythology at the best of times. It definitely felt like the series has matured considerably, albeit without necessarily letting go of the juvenile amount of gory killing animations (how many more times do I need to see severe trauma to something's mandible?).

The Games of February

The Outer Worlds

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I polished off The Outer Worlds in the first week of February, and I don't really have much more to say about it since last month's round-up. I do think it's an exceptional game that plays to Obsidian's strengths, and being unshackled from the Fallout universe probably did them some favors in the long run. When I say "Obsidian's strengths", I'm referring to their capacity for world-building. It's a muscle they've been exercising a lot over the past decade with Tyranny and the Pillars of Eternity series, and I'm thankful that they've grown big enough that they're allowed to play in their own bespoke playgrounds rather than someone else's. The Outer Worlds benefits from their own keen eye for detail and a cynically amusing take on capitalism taken to the nth degree.

Gameplay-wise, I think switching out VATS for the slow-motion rapid-fire mode is an adequate replacement that allows you to command the battlefield to a similar degree, and I adore the increased focus on companions and their contributions - by way of powerful "companion abilities" that you can trigger after a modest cooldown - because hanging around with them listening to their quips is a big part of the experience that, unwisely, had always been treated as an incidental bonus in the Fallout series. It's a little bit of a shame that they're so disincentivized in the game's ludicrous but intriguing "Supernova" difficulty, which in addition to a lot of the survival mechanics from Fallout: New Vegas's highest setting (must eat, must drink, must sleep regularly, can only save on the player's ship), also has permanent companion death that - when coupled with the high enemy difficulty - means they're likely to perish forever the first time you get into a fracas.

I've a lot of praise for the game, but I think on my personal Obsidian rankings it's probably a little lower than the Pillars games (if a little higher than New Vegas, if partly only because it was functional out of the gate). Pillars of Eternity's world feels that much more elaborated upon; The Outer Worlds meanwhile, can feel a bit surface-level as I imagine building a huge 3D universe with as much detail is exponentially more demanding. Still, there are few RPG developers out there operating on the same level of narrative dedication and mechanical finesse as Obsidian, and now they have the resources to make their own IPs and can afford the extra time needed to make sure they're in good shape before shipping out it's an exciting new era for them. Just a shame I won't be able to enjoy any of those future games on PS4.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC

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Talking of spectacular RPGs, I've been blessed by my impulsive decisions this month, choosing to tackle the next game in The Legend of Heroes series after a Trails in the Sky FC playthrough some six years ago. I really shouldn't have waited: not only is The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Second Chapter an excellent evolution of the former, but I've allowed the series to really pile up - there are six "Trails" games available currently, and rumors suggest we'll be getting remastered and localized versions of two more in the near future. Trails in the Sky follows Estelle Bright: a feisty yet vulnerable "Bracer" (an adventurer for hire, sorta) with a close team of compatriots and a straight-shooting yet empathetic attitude that draws people to her. The game's brilliant script makes her strengths apparent to everyone but her, making her an endearing central character who finds her way to completing her arc in this sequel, leaving the third Trails in the Sky in the able hands of a new character introduced here (Kevin Graham, a dorky flirtatious Van Helsing type with a hidden ruthless streak; a character I'm going to enjoy learning more about when I play Trails in the Sky the Third).

Like The Outer Worlds, the ensemble and the interactions between them is what makes the game shine, especially where Olivier Lenheim is concerned. The pansexual libertine pistol-packing bard is a delight from beginning to end, and this game features the perfect arc for his character. As an Erebonian noble, I was happy to learn that he'll continue to show up in the Trails of Cold Steel series (which is set in the same Erebonia), making everyone vaguely uncomfortable with his tunes and flirts. The rest of the team is a little more boilerplate, but still appealing due to the sharp writing and elaborate backstories which, naturally, are tied to a lot of the recurring villains introduced in this sequel.

Secondary to the script, but only barely, is the game's newly tweaked battle system. Trails in the Sky is a turn-based system that relies on character stats and possibly a bit of dice-rolling to determine the turn order. However, a major aspect of this game - as it was in Grandia and Child of Light - is your (and the enemy's) ability to interrupt or delay the turn order of their opponents. A spell, for instance, takes a little while to cast and can thus be cancelled out if you have a character able to do so in the gap between when the spell starts and finishes being cast. Delaying a powerful enemy's turn as often as possible can be key to some of the tougher boss fights; it's usually more worth your while to ensure that turn never comes than to eat its damage and spend the next few rounds healing everyone back up. Then you have aspects like the elaborate "quartz" customization system, where equipping colorful gems confers various effects and also determines which spells you are able to cast - combining earth and water, for instance, allows for resurrection spells while wind and water provide group heals. Finally, you have the versatile "crafts": these are special skills that a character can use with a stat that increases as you fight, so while you can't use them every turn they're available often enough that you should consider using them to quickly finish a battle, or at least quickly take down the most dangerous enemies. One fun new wrinkle is that bonuses randomly pop up on the turn order queue: these can heal you, restore some of your mana (EP) or craft points (CP), add to your strength that turn or ensure that all hits are critical, and other positive effects. The issue is that these benefits can also go to the enemies, and a boss healing even 10% of their total HP can extend the battle another round or two. It's another reason why the player should learn how to manipulate the turn order to their liking.

I realize most people who aren't all that fascinated in JRPGs given the number of recurring tropes and an emphasis on aspects they consider less important - a lot of RPG players prefer creating their own characters and party from scratch, for instance, which is a rare concept in JRPGs - will almost certainly sleep on this series, especially as the newer games coming out are so far ahead in the story - the localized Trails of Cold Steel III launched earlier this year and is the eighth to bear to the Trails name - but these are old-school JRPGs working on an absolute top level. Honestly, even if you're not impressed by what you see, I urge you to check out the original Trails in the Sky trilogy, and to stick with it even if the first game turns out to be good but not great in your estimations. The way the second builds from the first, both narratively and mechanically, is nothing short of incredible. I'm so on board for Sky 3rd, Azure, Zero, Cold Steel, and beyond (and Ys IX, as soon as Falcom finally announces the localization).

God of War

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Sometimes you want an in-depth RPG system that you can slowly master over the course of a 50 hour adventure, but sometimes you just want to throw an axe at monsters and then recall it to your hand in a flash. That isn't to say that this God of War is an uncomplicated hack n' slash action-adventure game like its predecessors, but there's a certain visceral simplicity to its approach to problem-solving that I'm into after a month of carefully considering my next move. God of War is a little more open than its forebears but only slightly; each part of the game involves a linear trek from one destination to the next, with the exception being the enormous Lake of Nine that acts as the game's hub. Kratos acquires new abilities as the game progresses, usually different arrow types for his son Atreus, that will occasionally necessitate backtracking for collectibles and the cash needed for new gear and upgrades, but just following the story it's a similar case of a series of combat encounters linked together by some wall-climbing traversal and mechanical puzzles (levers, gears, traps, etc.).

It's a formula that works well enough, and God of War succeeds largely because every single one of these aspects has been tweaked to perfection. Most of is thanks to the wonderful Leviathan Axe: a frost-powered chopper that can magically return to the wielder's hand, allowing Kratos to hit something with an axe, leave it embedded in some poor dragr's face, and then recall it to violently pull it out of its current holder to do even more damage. You can also throw, miss, and then get the hit as it flies back to you. With two attack buttons (slow and heavy), chains that use a combination of the two, a shield parry and bash, an alternative unarmed combat style that builds up the stun meter (allowing for vicious grapple attacks) faster at the cost of damage, two "runic" attacks that recharge over time and can cause some serious damage, and asking Atreus to lend his assistance with arrows that can also stun - each fight has a dozen ways to approach it, depending on what you're fighting, the skills and gear you have, and your preferred style. When Kratos eventually gets his second set of weapons towards the end of the game's story, it almost feels like when the second course arrives while you're still chowing down on the first.

However, the true strength of this particular God of War is how much more seriously it takes itself, and not in the edgy grimdark way it has in the past with Kratos's rage and various tragedies. There's a stronger emphasis on emotional weight, on characterization, on world-building and NPC interaction, on establishing an atmosphere, and none of it sacrifices the best parts of the older games, such as the spectacle and the ridiculous sense of scale that comes with contending with gods and other colossal entities of unimaginable power. Your first meeting with Jormungandr, the enormous World Serpent, is nothing short of breathtaking, and spotting his enormous head hovering over the horizon whenever you're exploring the Lake of Nine always has a humbling effect. Kratos and his fraught relationship with his half-God son Atreus, his desire to do right by the boy while also finding it difficult to relate to him and harder still to tell him everything he wants to know about Kratos and his past, is one that the whole game was wise to build itself around. I liken this evolution of Kratos as a sympathetic character akin to that of B.J. Blazkowicz of the newer Wolfenstein games; letting the players in on his personal pain and misgivings, even while he spends most of the game in his usual rage-filled silent killing machine mode.

So yeah, that's a big thumbs up for Dad of War from me; an opinion only two years too late to matter.

Other Distractions

Didn't I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?! / Watashi, Nouryoku wa Heikinchi de tte Itta yo ne!

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To commemorate the birth of an official anime forum on Giant Bomb, something I'm sure will give us moderators conniptions for many months to come, I decided to give another Isekai show a shot after a recommendation from genial host, comedian, and professional on-stream model-builder Pat Baer. While not as amusing as KonoSuba (though almost as lascivious somehow), DIStMMAAitNL?! - long titles are apparently a thing with Japanese light novels - still has some funny moments and clever twists. For one, despite being a beautiful and overachieving schoolgirl in her previous life, the heroine of this series is still somehow a huge otaku dork who frequently references things her companions lack the context to understand. The joke is, of course, that despite her perfectly reasonable request to be "average" in all attributes to make it easier for her to be relatable and have friends in her new life, the powers that be decide that means the median average of every entity in the world, making her half as powerful as a near god-like "elder dragon" and thus far exceeding a regular human's abilities several thousand times over. Thus, she can effortlessly win every swordfight with insane speed and cast spells without needing to study, putting her in the same situation she was in before.

These shows always feel a bit meandering - the party is far from the top tier by the end of the first season, to give them an endless number of sequel seasons in which to power up until interest in the show's single gimmick inevitably peters out - and watching several in a row kinda feels like playing the first few hours of a bunch of generic fantasy RPGs with more meta commentary and jokes about bust sizes. I can see why those who consume every new anime that appears are already tiring of the Isekai genre and are drawn more to shows with off-beat themes and aesthetic direction like Eizouken and Promare.

I've also been watching Star Trek: Picard (it's not great) and Altered Carbon Season 2 (which is actually all right so far), and I'll have more to say about those after I've seen them in full.

Looking Ahead

March has a couple of very big, greatly anticipated releases on the 20th and it feels like the rest of the month is holding its breath for their arrival. Still, it's at least far busier overall than January and February has been and there's much coming out in this thirty-one day block that I am personally looking forward to playing:

Why did someone make this? Or maybe the better question is why didn't anyone make this before now?
Why did someone make this? Or maybe the better question is why didn't anyone make this before now?
  • The 3rd extends the fighter-heavy month we had with February with the official English localization of Granblue Fantasy: Versus, as opposed to the Hong Kong also official English localization that almost all of Giant Bomb's science team has imported already. I'm not an anime fighter guy, and doubly so when I've no experience with the original franchise (unlike, say, ASW's Persona Arena games), but this one does seem to be causing a lot of commotion. Be curious to see how much like its predecessor gacha mobile/browser game this fighter offshoot becomes, selling new characters and movesets in lootboxes and the like.
  • The 5th sees the release of the long-awaited Black Mesa, a fan-created modern remake of Valve's Half-Life. I liked Half-Life plenty back in the day - I particularly recall liking the roundabout critical path through vents and across pipes the player had to take, which despite being entirely planned out by the level designers still felt like a hurriedly improvised route - but I'm not sure I care enough to play through a remake of it, especially if they decide to charge money (depends on how involved Valve is, I guess, since they certainly won't let them profit off this).
  • The 5th also sees my most anticipated game this month - sorry Doom and Animal Crossing fans - with the Ace Attorney-esque detective visual novel and picross hybrid Murder By Numbers. There's a chance this game doesn't pan out well, as other picross hybrid variants like PictoQuest were fairly underwhelming, but I have hope it's somehow the sum (or more so) than its two disparate parts. I'm also of a mind to encourage anyone to stick picross in their games somehow; how long will it be until we see an explormer-picross game? Maybe one where you're drawing the world map via picross?
  • Speaking of explormers, the 11th ushers in the new Ori game from Moon Studios. I loved Ori and the Blind Forest for its painterly visuals and fluid, challenging platforming, and I hope Ori and the Will of the Wisps is able to match the same highs and even surpass them. It feels like we've been hearing about this game for a long while now, so it's hopefully polished to a fine sheen. Looking forward to it immensely.
  • With the 13th, Nioh 2 rises from the water like a mischievous kappa for another loot-based Souls-like with a heavy emphasis on weapon types and combat stances. The original Nioh was an intimidating game to learn and more so to get decent enough at it that I could finish it, so I'm hoping my past experience means I can hit the ground running with its sequel. It's definitely one of the more content-rich of the FromSoftware pretender franchises, and this sequel looks incredible to boot.
  • The 20th will, of course, summon from the depths of Hell one of the most terrifying and violent games ready to tear our fragile minds apart like tissue paper: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And Doom Eternal lands on that day as well, along with the revamped Doom 64 which will be included in some pre-order deals with its bigger brother. Truth be told, I'm much more looking forward to Doom Eternal, but I think the surprise success of Stardew Valley was in some part due to everyone jonesing for another super chill "life simulation" game like AC, so New Horizons will get a lot of air time on GB and elsewhere I'm sure.
  • The 23rd will shepherd in the PC port of Trails of Cold Steel III - I'm still a long way from catching up - and the Half-Life: Alyx VR experience as the first official release in that franchise for what must be close to thirteen years. Definitely curious about it, but only so much: VR doesn't interest me in the slightest, as a medium that doesn't record well for demonstration purposes and one that I neither have the cash or space to enjoy myself. Still, though, new Half-Life lore is exciting enough with or without the Freeman.
  • It's an odd coincidence given last Friday's GBE stream, or maybe not since it might explain why it was on Vinny's mind, but there's a new Bubble Bobble game coming to Switch at the end of March (in America at least; it's been out a while already here in Europe). Bubble Bobble 4 Friends revamps the original with new graphics and music but a similar gameplay bedrock, and also includes the arcade original as an alternative mode. I guess if you have a nostalgic craving for buck-toothed dinosaurs blowing bubbles this might serve as a welcome return to the cave of monsters.
  • Along with Bubble Bobble 4 Friends on the 31st, we'll also have the Persona 5 Royal remaster. It wouldn't be a Persona game without some enhanced special edition coming mere months afterwards, as it was for Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden, and likewise this remaster adds a new character and many more scenes to bulk up those days where little seems to happen (along with a special social link for a major story villain). Unless they fixed those late-game dungeons I think I'm good on ever revisiting it, but it'd probably a good excuse to jump in if you've somehow resisted joining the Phantom Thieves of Hearts before now. (In other JRPG remaster news, there's a Langrisser I & II remake for Steam and consoles? If you like your Fire Emblem but wished it felt more like a war with disposable troop units and such, it wouldn't be a bad idea to check it out when it launches on the 10th.)
  • Finally, it looks like we might be getting an early access period for the long-awaited Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord at the end of the month. The original Mount & Blade games had "early access" written all over them even while they were ostensibly finished products so I shudder to think how incomplete this sequel will look, but I can't say I'm not fascinated to see those huge battles with some decent graphics and framerates. If GB gets it running on peak settings through their resident power rig, that might be an Unfinished video to look out for. Just have to hope they remember the game exists without Drew or Dave Snider on staff (Ben seems to have a thing for games of that sort though, if Mordhau is any indication).

Sorry for the long blog this week! It's a rare month where I'm able to get through three games I want to talk about endlessly, and despite the lack of much else happening this month (give or take a vitally important election process and a potentially devastating global pandemic, but those aren't video game related so who even cares?) I managed to squeeze a lot into it. I wish you all a bountiful spring, even if it's looking grimmer by the second. Hug your Isabelles tight and try to power through it, I guess.

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Indie Game of the Week 159: Heat Signature

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"Fuck it, that works."

These four little words, so frequently uttered while playing Tom Francis's excellent sci-fi action-roguelike Heat Signature, really get to the core of the whole experience. The best laid plans of mice and keyboards, after all, never stand up to scrutiny when you're in the thick of an increasingly FUBAR mission and have to think on your feet, or while flying through space, or while teleporting through solid matter, or any other number of dramatic scenarios.

Heat Signature puts you in the space boots of any number of procedurally-generated mercenaries, operating out a newly reclaimed base sitting between several major hostile factions. By completing missions via terminals, you gain more power over these rivals and can eventually start annexing their bases by inspiring their owners to rebel against the oppressive hegemony with your daring feats. Missions usually boil down to infiltrating a ship via a speedy lander craft, making your way to the mission objective with violence and/or stealth, stealing/rescuing/capturing/assassinating the target, and making a break for it. If the lander's airlock is too far away, a nearby window suffices: you can survive in space long enough to remote control your lander to sweep you up. Maybe you decide you want to enter the enemy ship the same way; I haven't figured out how yet, but then I'm probably too much of a wuss to try.

Half a dozen guards with heat-sensors and shotguns, clumped together in groups of three? Pfft, no problem. What is this, Space Babytown Frolics?
Half a dozen guards with heat-sensors and shotguns, clumped together in groups of three? Pfft, no problem. What is this, Space Babytown Frolics?

The ingenuity of Heat Signature - some of which is delivered by the game, some of which the player has to BYOB (Bring Your Own Boldness) themselves - is in how open the game is to improvisation. The core gameplay loop involves exploiting a pause feature to plan your next move - if there's a room full of enemies about to shoot, and it'll take too long to reload your gun to kill them all in time, what else can you do? Swing the wrench you have as a back-up? Throw it instead? Teleport a second gun into your hand rather than wait for the first to reload, and then teleport the next guy's gun after taking him out? You have all the time in the world to consider, as long as there are options available. However, the game's in its element when you have more than a handful of alternatives provided by the gadgets and gizmos you've found: a key-cloner can replicate a guard's high-level key without requiring an encounter; a subverter or crashbeam can take care of a turret or an enemy's shield; a cleverly-placed acid-trap can remove a tough guard's otherwise impenetrable armor; a swapper or sidewinder can teleport you past a clump of guards bottlenecking a vital corridor of the ship; and so on. The longer you play, the more likely you are to find gadgets that recharge every mission - you don't need to be quite as stingy with those - or even recharge mid-assault.

It's with the confidence gained from your experience and new hardware that you start taking on harder and harder missions, knowing your perspicacity is likely to save your bacon even against the harshest of odds. The game duly complies, starting with "hard" missions and working their way up to "audacious," "mistake," (as in, "I've made a huge mistake") and finally "glory." (Glory missions, rather than reward you money, instead rewards you bragging rights on your friends leaderboard.) Each of your randomly generated heroes also has a randomly generated "personal mission"; the completion of which finally allows them to retire, like in a heist movie. Retiring a character, sometimes necessary if they've been blasted out of an airlock one too many times, allows you to bequeath your best item to your successor. Claiming new bases also provides permanent bonuses to your faction rather than your immediate character: these might range from better equipment in stores to stronger starting items and a higher starting cash total. Between these inheritances and base bonuses, the game's "start from scratch" roguelike limitation becomes that much more bearable. If you really get attached to your current character though, you can simply choose to keep them out of harm's way: easier missions, missions where enemies only carry stun weapons, or a special type of lander that can instantly grab your free-floating form, for example.

I love this little guy. Just hold the button down and voila, room full of unconscious people. Like playing Thief with a cheat code. (The knockback is intense though; I gotta be careful that there isn't a window behind them or whooompf.)
I love this little guy. Just hold the button down and voila, room full of unconscious people. Like playing Thief with a cheat code. (The knockback is intense though; I gotta be careful that there isn't a window behind them or whooompf.)

I thought I'd sworn off Indie roguelikes because of how pointless they feel, guiding an algorithm through a series of other algorithms to accomplish yet another algorithm, but I'm glad to have given Heat Signature a shot. It does feel like an evolution of Tom Francis's previous game, Gunpoint, partly because you're defenestrating yourself at every opportunity that arises but also in the way both games force you to jerry-rig new solutions to immediate and unforeseeable wrinkles, exercising a mental muscle that most games can't or won't reach. I retired my first character, Lacerta Singye, after one too many bumps taking on missions I had no business attempting, but her/his successor Cascara Vega is proving to be an absolute monster: thanks to a perk that provides better items from chests, I've now got several rechargeable gadgets that frequently allow me to earn various mission bonuses like bloodless (no kills), enigma (no witnesses), silent (no alarms), and unscathed (no injury to self). Unfortunately, Cascara's a little too good: they now earn less acclaim per mission because they're famous, so if I want to keep liberating new bases at a clip I'll eventually want to switch to a newbie. Albeit, a newbie with the advantage of Cascara's passed-down self-charging shield, their zero-cooldown "Instant Connection" melee baton, or a long-range crashbeam with near-infinite uses. Sky - and space - is the limit, as long as I remember to never bite off more than I can chew; a rule I break as often as I break a space merc's nose or an unusually fragile transparent aluminum window.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Video Games! That's Where I'm a Viking!

Norse mythology has always been a rich - and, more importantly, public domain - vein for a quick and easy fantasy universe to play around in, whether you're writing your own Viking epic based on actual Scandinavian sagas or just need a bunch of bearded gods and weird monsters to populate your mostly original fantasy RPG. Some games are more faithful than others to this source material: you have many cases where a game might be co-opting some of that "mead and axes" flavor even if they're not expressly set in Scandinavia; those that take the middleman route and more specifically Tolkien-inspired; and others still where the various World Serpents and Frost Giants are part of a larger bestiary that's a disjointed chimera of different cultures and mythologies, that may or may not actually also include a chimera. Then there you have the rare (but not that rare) few that are absolutely and deliberately riffing on Odin and pals, frequently putting some Surströmming-scoffing schmuck in charge of averting Ragnarök at all costs.

A typically picturesque scene in ol' Midgard.
A typically picturesque scene in ol' Midgard.

I've been playing a lot of 2018's God of War reboot over the past week, which is very much in the business of hitting giant icy monsters with lightning hammers and frost axes, and I've marvelled not only at the game's general visual quality and combat mechanics - recalling the axe never gets old - but in just how accurately and lavishly they've bothered to portray the world (or nine worlds, to be precise) of its pre-medieval Germanic setting. There's so much to see and explore, and so many lore markers that tell you various legends about the Jotun, the Aesir, the Vanir, the Elves, the Dwarves, and the few not-dead humans in this frosted-over nightmare land in which an older, embittered Kratos seeks his solitude, give or take a little sassmouth godling under his protection.

With all that going on, I've been wracking my noggin (the Nog) for other game developers that adhere to the legacies and myths of the Norse pantheon quite as devotedly as Cary Barlog and his team. There's very few examples that can match it, but we've seen so many games from so many different genres and development regions take a spin at it that I wanted to enumerate a few here. To judge their aptitude with Norse mythology, or at least my admittedly finite understanding of same, I've rated each of these games by how Norse they are, from Norse to Norser to Norsest.

Here's a few scoring criteria:

  • More than five Aesir, Vanir, or Jotun either appear, are mentioned, or referenced via some bootleg equivalent.
  • Odin, Loki, Hel, or Surtr is the final boss. Or any combination thereof, in the case of branching narratives.
  • The game lets you hop on the Bifrost and switch to any of the nine realms besides Midgard.
  • Valkyries. The more heavy metal, the better.
  • Throw in a World Serpent too. Even Final Fantasy VII had one of those.
  • If there's little to no talk of the Norse pantheon and the game's more of a historically accurate secular simulation of viking life, I'm willing to give it an "Ag-norse-tic Bonus" for bucking the trend.

The Lost Vikings

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Maybe I'm just hopelessly stuck in the 1990s, but I'd like to think that Blizzard Entertainment's The Lost Vikings is still the first example people think of when told to name a viking-related video game. The terrible punnery for the sequel's subtitle, Norse by Norsewest, is also in some small part the inspiration for this ridiculous rating system I have going on here.

While the three protagonists are indeed as viking as they come, the games themselves aren't so much entrenched in the mythos of Odin and the Aesir. I think they're referenced a few times, but for the most part the vikings are on their own contending with tomato aliens and time-travel (and, in the sequel, robotic enhancements; not the first game to dabble with cyber-vikings, as we'll soon unfortunately discover).

Rating: Norse.

Völgarr the Viking

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A more recent example of a viking platformer, Völgarr the Viking has its titular berserker fighting his way across a bunch of varied worlds to reach and defeat a dragon. Notoriously difficult, the player is given few chances to upgrade themselves to make the road easier and those upgrades can disappear in a single moment of carelessness. The game can get you so stressed that you might even end up saying regrettable things about a coworker's offspring.

Völgarr is a viking, as the game's title informs us, but his journey of vengeance is more of a Conan-esque tour of generic fantasy races. There is a big snake, but it's not a world serpent. However, it does earn a few points for getting Odin involved, and while valkyries never show up in the flesh (as far as I'm aware) there is a big statue of one that you dedicate all your treasure to.

Rating: Norse.

Prophecy I: The Viking Child

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A blast from my own past, The Viking Child is probably the first time I encountered Norse mythology in any form, video games or otherwise. What I will later come to comprehend as a brazen Wonder Boy in Monster World expy with a Scandinavian makeover, Viking Child is a platformer where your health is always ticking down but the next shop with upgrades and HP refills is only ever a few screens away. I played the Atari ST version, but it was also available on PC and Amiga (and also Game Boy and Lynx?). Some wiseacre even added it to Steam, if you're curious enough to try it.

This is another case where the Norse mythology trappings are largely incidental: Loki's the villain, Odin's the one that comes to you in your moment of need, but beyond that nothing about the enemy selection or mid-bosses you fight suggest a Scandinavian background. The protagonist, Brian, is just this tiny dweeb with a dagger; nary a battleaxe to be found.

Rating: Norse.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

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Now we get into the Norse-a-likes. While The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim isn't set anywhere near a real version of Northern Europe, its titular region on the continent of Cyrodiil is nonetheless steeped in Nordic flavor, from the vague stab at a Valhalla-esque afterlife to the runic iconography found scattered across its dusty, wintry dungeons and bucolic thatched-roof hamlets. Skyrim was an impressive achievement in its day: a fully-realized world replete with natural vistas and creaky ruins that felt more lived-in than any Elder Scrolls game prior. The people even looked like people! Mostly.

Naturally, there's not going to be a lot of direct references to Norse mythology. The Elder Scrolls has its own pantheon of Gods - the Nine, a coincidental number given the number of "realms" in viking lore - and its demons are specifically that of the Daedra, which aren't really based on anything besides maybe heavy metal album covers. The sagas and ballads of the Nords and their heroic deed mirror definitely evoke Norse culture, though, and the idea of a world-ending serpent that the player must thwart is at least somewhere close to the mark. I suppose it's more of a credit to the game's worldbuilders that they managed to make a game feel so very Norse-inspired without letting that subsume or overwhelm the franchise's own bespoke mythos and history.

Rating: Norse-Norser.

Might and Magic IX

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Might and Magic's glory days ended around either entry VI: The Mandate of Heaven or VII: Blood and Honor, depending on who you ask. VIII: Day of the Destroyer was an interesting mix-up that nonetheless did not reach the highs of the prior two games due to some odd design choices, and after that the series went on the decline due in large part to the disaster that was Might and Magic IX. Now, it should be said the game itself isn't necessarily terrible, at least not in its current patched form; it's just that it was clearly hurried out the door in an incomplete state because the developers were close to collapsing from financial ruin, leading to what was less of a swansong and more like the noise a swan makes after getting run over by a motorboat and getting caught in the propeller.

However, Might and Magic IX - in a desperate attempt to find a voice to call its own - did crib a lot from Norse mythology for its concept and world. The player-generated party is given a "Writ of Fate" early on by the local version of Odin, which promises that they will unite the warring Jarls of the land against their sworn enemy: a warlord from the East loosely based on Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. After crashing and burning spectacularly due to a betrayal of a close ally, you find out that this Eastern fellow also has a Writ of Fate that says he'll conquer the world. It all turns out to be a scheme of "Njam the Meddler" (I wonder who this is based on?) to take over the pantheon, whom you must eventually help trap in an everlasting ice prison with the other Gods' help. A fun idea, especially the part where you have to fight your way out of the underworld, but like a lot of aspects about this game it wasn't quite baked all the way through.

Rating: Norser.

Viking: Battle for Asgard

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The Creative Assembly is better known these days as the Sega-owned developer who puts out all those tactical Total War games, most recently Total War: Three Kingdoms. However, back in the mid-00s they occasionally tried their hand at some console-ready action-adventure games, including Viking: Battle for Asgard. As Freya's champion Skarin, the player had to run around a big open map rescuing his countrymen while fighting off the undead forces of Hel. (In a coincidental parallel to God of War, The Creative Assembly's previous action-adventure game - that uses a lot of the same tech - was the Ancient Greece-inspired Spartan: Total Warrior.)

Lots of bonus points to hand out here. Both Freya and Hel are mentioned, as is Ragnarök, Fenrir the wolf god, and the realm of Midgard. You unfortunately never leave Midgard, and the majority of the game is spent hacking zombies apart rather than much in the way of cool encounters with various deities and fantastical beings. It gets the cold and grim tone right, at least.

Rating: Norser.

Heimdall

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Heimdall was one of the earliest games to really do right by this particular mythos, as a 1991 release that has the titular would-be deity Heimdall be sent on a task to recover the weapons of the three major warrior Aesir: Odin, Thor, and Freyr. The game is an odd mix of genres, starting with a few action mini-games that determine Heimdall's stats and follower pool depending on the player's success, before moving onto an isometric action-RPG meat of the game that requires solving puzzles, reading runes, fighting draugr and elves and other creatures, and eventually solving Loki's riddles and recovering the weapons. For this feat, Heimdall ascends to join the Aesir and becomes the guardian of the Bifrost bridge.

Naturally, there's a lot of Norseness to be found here. Heimdall's journey takes him across three realms - Midgard, Asgard, and Utgard - and viking iconography and references abound. However, much of the actual gameplay is incidental to its theme: it feels more like a standard ARPG with a few Norse trappings more than anything. In addition, the game itself is a bit of a slog - it hasn't aged all that well, and like most ealry '90s RPGs it's tough to know what to do or where you should be going - but graphically it's very sharp considering we were barely into the 16-bit era at the time.

Rating: Norser.

Thor: God of Thunder

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The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and presumably that of 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum) meant we briefly saw a number of superpowered character-action tie-in games based on Earth's Mightiest Heroes: I was a fan of the Captain America game myself, which transplanted Arkham Asylum's vaguely explormer structure to a German castle filled with Hydra agents. That run included this 2011 Thor game from Liquid Entertainment (WayForward did the DS port), which I only remember because of the Giant Bomb Quick Look where they kept cycling powers to make poor Chris Hemsworth say "thunder," "wind," and "lightning" in a constant cycle.

I mean, this one's kind of a cheat, but also kind of not. The Marvel universe's take on Asgard's favorite son isn't a trillion miles removed from its public domain source. The Thor comics have always drawn in a lot of characters and settings from that universe too, and this game - unrelated to the plots of any of the MCU Thor movies, beyond the main actors lending their voices - is no exception. Thor starts on Asgard training with Loki and Sif, moves around to Niflheim, Vanaheim and Muspelheim for various objectives, fights Jotun, Vanir, and Infernir, takes on Ymir and Surtr as major boss fights, and eventually saves the day. There's the small issue of these all being distinct characters within the Marvel universe, rather than the Norse originals, but that feels like a nitpick.

Rating: Norser.

Too Human

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Too Human is proof that even if a game flies off the shelves, that's not necessarily a good thing. Despite an impassioned defense by Jeff Gerstmann and his Glock-wielding hoodlums Tico and Sho' Maker the critical response to Too Human was catastrophic to its fortunes, but even this proved to be the least of the game's issues. Due to some licensing/code-stealing lawsuit snafu with the owners of the Unreal Engine that was used to power the game - Epic Games, who I'm sure will add Too Human to their PC digital game store any day now - Too Human had to be removed from all commercial venues. It's reported that any unsold copies were subsequently destroyed, possibly in a burning longboat off the coast of Copenhagen. An ignominious end to a flawed game with a troubled history. Ain't game development grand?

Too Human may have had its downsides, but fidelity to Norse mythology wasn't one of them. Sure, they turned the gods into all into these weird cyborgs who owe their superhuman powers more to nanomachines than they do to ancient magicks, but you can't besmirch Silicon Knights' ability to dredge up every manner of Norse creature (which are all robots now) and Aesir with which to populate this sci-fi universe. Baldur's your protagonist, Thor and Heimdall are your buddies, Tyr and Idunn are vendors, Valkyries resurrect your ass every time you fall (though they're in no rush), ODIN's now a supercomputer, and Loki and his demonic children are the villains. I remember something about the Nirn playing a major part too, but truth be told I've blocked a lot of that game out. I... did not have a great time with this one, though I suppose I had more fun with it than Denis Dyack's lawyers.

Rating: Norser.

Valkyrie Profile

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A rare Japanese take on the Norse pantheon, the Valkyrie Profile franchise - there's two main ones, a strategy spin-off, and a recent mobile game I know nothing about - invariably has you assisting one or more valkyries in their journeys to uncover grand conspiracies revolving around Odin, Loki, Ragnarok, and the einherjar that the Valkyrie are meant to shepherd into the afterlife. In addition to some incredible graphics (pixels for Lenneth, some motion-blur polygons for Silmeria) and a deeply intricate story, the games are best known for their "Soul Crush" combo-based combat mechanics, where all four members of a party attack simultaneously to create air juggles and other functional chains.

VP's mythology chops are fairly legit, taking the basis of the valkyries recruiting the honored dead for Valhalla and spinning that into a game premise that has you cycling out playable champions every chapter as you inevitably send your best warriors to Odin. Speaking of whom, he and his lieutenant Freya (who is less a fertility goddess here and more like the Norse answer to Darth Vader) are major characters and potential antagonists depending on how the game progresses, while Loki and Surtr are your other more traditional villain options. Most of the levels revolve around defeating Norse-related monsters with your team of dead heroes too, and of course Ragnarök and all its concomitant apocalyptic hijinks is an ever-present threat.

Rating: Norser.

Jotun

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This well-animated Indie action-adventure has a great sense of scale, as your tiny viking warrioress is tasked with striking down a series of powerful elemental giants and their throngs of minions in a series of tough boss fights separated by some exploration and upgrades. The titular Jotun are truly colossal, easily twenty times bigger than yourself, and sometimes it's all you can do to evade their massive AoE attacks with the narrowest of margins while you whittle down the adds flowing in from various directions.

Jotun is also venerating with the Norse material, throwing in lots of little references to the world of Yggdrasil and Midgard and the other realms. Odin appears as the instigator of this little quest of yours, as well as at the end for the protagonist's final challenge, though besides the titular Jotun there aren't too many other NPCs. It's definitely a world brought to life through all those ancient writings, hitting places like the Lake of the Nine and eventually Valhalla in Asgard.

Rating: Norser-Norsest.

Ragnarok

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If you don't care about graphics, the '92 roguelike Ragnarok (also known as Valhalla in some regions) has all the ASCII goodness your unrefined palate can handle. Little more than a Rogue or NetHack that is awash with Norse mythology, the game is nonetheless extremely complex and very faithful to its source material. It also had a few conveniences uncommon to roguelikes at the time, like a saving system that only worked after so many steps (to prevent scumming) and a GUI that made it much easier to remember all the different commands you could use. The monsters were all drawn from viking legends also, and there's a huge number of them to memorize; it figures that most can hit you with debilitating conditions (birdlike "kalvins" can eat your eyes, for example, which is never helpful) or outright kill you, given that this is a roguelike.

The player is given multiple tasks to avert Ragnarök, or at least tweak the odds so the Aesir are more likely to win, and they range from recovering Odin's, Thor's, and Freyr's weapons (a common theme in these games), recovering Baldur's soul from Hel, finding Heimdall's horn Gjall so he can signal the start of Ragnarök to get everyone ready (I guess he plays Reveille on it?), and helping Tyr to fight despite losing an arm. These misfortunes are all events prophesized by actual Ragnarök legends, and so what you're doing here is a little bit of "mythological historical revisionism" to ensure these Norse gods, unlike the "real" ones, won't be caught with their breeches around their ankles.

Rating: Norsest.

God of War

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And finally, we have the 2018 God of War: the most recent game on this list and the most recent game I've been playing. Sony Santa Monica has put ol' Kratos through the ringer plenty of times in his native Greece, sowing a strong distrust in the deities who would play around with mortal lives, and giving him an overwhelming anger that propelled him to the titular divine role and even post-losing his powers. Turns out you can get a lot done if you're just angry enough. With this sequel, the world is expanded to be larger than ever before and filled with incidental details and side-questing if the core path proves too challenging or dull. While I love the combat and story, the side-content is what's really making this game for me. I'm inclined to 100% the game over the subsequent week, gabbing with the surly dwarf blacksmith brothers Sindri and Brok, and trying to locate those damn elusive ravens so I can clobber them with a well-angled axe throw.

I have to say the focus on Norse mythology in this game is insanely detailed, and it helps to have Mimir - a human enchanted with vision and genius beyond mortal ken - along to provide context to the ancient triptychs and scrolls that Kratos and his son Atreyus find on the road. There are multiple worlds to visit via Tyr's temple on the Lake of Nine, each of which has its own aesthetic and enemy population, and Kratos' journey takes him all over the place even if all he wants to do is scatter his dead wife's ashes and sulk back in his wintry hovel drinking fermented deer urine or whatever tipple they have out there in the tundra.

Rating: Norsest.

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That's going to do it for now, but I'm sure I've missed dozens of pertinent examples. Be sure to fill my comments section with them, if you so choose. And also don't spoil God of War because I'm not at the end yet. OK BYE.

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Indie Game of the Week 158: Princess Remedy

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It's not often I double up an IGotW slot like this (in fact, this would be a first), but the Princess Remedy games - there's two, Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt (2014) and Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble (2016) - are bite-sized adventures by design and perfect as a twosome. A graduate of some nebulously anime "healing school" (and also a Princess I guess) Princess Remedy is sent out to treat the ails of a diseased and miserable populace with the ultimate goal of defeating the source of this pestilence once and for all. Depicted through a classic Zelda-esque top-down perspective, the games have you moving around talking to NPCs complaining of various illnesses - from tummyaches to moral panics to the debilitating condition known as "being dead" - and then entering a "healing mode" where you cure them of their very specific ailments.

This healing mode is a top-down multi-directional shoot 'em up in the same engine, where Princess Remedy automatically shoots out curative "bullets" at regular intervals as the player moves her around avoiding enemy projectiles. The goal of these sequences is to eliminate every enemy on screen, each of whom has various different movement and attack patterns: one might shoot the occasional bullet your way from a stationary position, some hone in on you for collision damage, others only retaliate once you hit them - the enemies also increase in damage and difficulty as the game progresses, and each NPC has a specific assortment and arrangement of these viruses to deal with. Upon completing a healing mode fight the player is rewarded a stat boost, most of which are hearts (health). In fact, you are gated off from later parts of the game until you have a specific milestone total of hearts from helping those in the immediate vicinity. Other upgrades come in handy too, like having increased regeneration (this becomes "drain" in the sequel, with the change being that you don't regen health automatically but gain life by doing damage to enemies), stronger attack power, and more projectiles per shot. As well as earning these stat boosts from fights you can also find them in chests littered around the environment, some of which are concealed behind (not very) hidden walls and passageways. I found it advantageous to sweep up all these non-battle upgrades first whenever I got to a new area.

The Hype Snake is a man (snake) of simple pleasures.
The Hype Snake is a man (snake) of simple pleasures.

These games are nothing if not simple in their execution, but although each one lasts about an hour there's a certain design efficiency to boiling down the Zelda experience to those tense battles where you had to clear a room of foes moving in from all directions without kicking the bucket. This sort of condensed and concentrated Zelda-lite experience has become something of developer Ludosity's stock and trade: they're perhaps better known for the Ittle Dew series of top-down action-adventure games, which similarly narrowed in on a specific facet of the Zelda games (in Ittle Dew's case, it was the environmental puzzles often found in dungeons). Princess Remedy also benefits from the sharp, witty writing of the Ittle Dew franchise, as the NPC sicknesses become more ridiculous and abstract as the games progress.

Princess Remedy also has an unusually affectionate side throughout: in the first game, you end your adventure by choosing someone to marry, giving you the choice of every healed NPC of any gender you've met so far (or an empty chest, if you prefer). The sequel expands on this further: at any point Remedy can choose to start dating an NPC who then starts following behind you, and this has the effect of upgrading your healing mode special attack (in the first game, and the default for the second, this is a potion flask thrown like a grenade) to a bunch of different variants. You can date people, skeletons, plants, spiders, dark lords, or a particularly apathetic frog that won't help you in any way. It's all part of this cute and goofy world's charm.

The first of the sequel's boss fights. A lot of these reminded me of classic shoot 'em up games. This one? Onslaught, a game I doubt anyone remembers.
The first of the sequel's boss fights. A lot of these reminded me of classic shoot 'em up games. This one? Onslaught, a game I doubt anyone remembers.

The game is also one of the few Indies I've played to go the ZX Spectrum route for its aesthetic, using a lot of stark neon colors on black that tend to overlap whenever sprites cross the contours of an invisible grid. On its native resolution, the first game is barely the size of a postage stamp; the sequel, meanwhile, retains the correct ratio/sharpness of the pixel graphics regardless of the screen size. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the first game is free: it was the result of a Game Jam, while the sequel is more of a commercial fully-featured remake (and regularly drops below a dollar when a sale's on).

I wasn't expecting much from a pair of tiny games with such a lo-fi look, but I should've trusted Ludosity to deliver because both are eminently entertaining ways to spend an hour. The healing mode battles are varied enough not to drag on too much, and the alternative difficulty settings extend the games' longevity a little further if they prove to be on the easy side (I found the challenge level about right on Normal, personally). The micro-sized aesthetic has this cosy appeal to it not unlike Minit or the original The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, and the games' writing made me chuckle once or twice. Both are definitely worth what little investment they ask of you.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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