I'm going to be picking away at the Itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality for some time to come yet, having already appended my Indie Game of the Week backlog to account for some 70+ new games. However, the bundle has many more items of a smaller and/or freeware nature that I'd have trouble building a whole IGotW blog around but fits quite nicely in a group setting like this. So here's another five games you can try yourselves if you have the bundle (and if you missed out, they're not all that expensive - two of them are even free).
A mini-explormer, made for the 2015 GBJam (a Game Boy-focused Game Jam; not to be confused by our own "GB Jam," Giant ROM) by a three person team. I assume Indie devs, especially those pressed for time, gravitate towards the Game Boy aesthetic because it means a smaller canvas for pixel art (160x144 typically) and not a whole lot in the way of in-depth color coordination seeing as there's only the four tints. Cuckoo Castle's kinda cute, but like other micro-sized explormers (e.g. Xeodrifter) there's not a whole lot of what normally makes explormers compelling and it's of course very short. I also didn't care for the combat too much, especially the way that zombies would keep appearing beneath your feet and how little room you had to work with.
Cuckoo Castle manages to couch the usual explormer formula (or explormula) of acquiring traversal upgrades to expand where you can visit via a character switching mechanic. By warping back to town (via any of the pig statues, which double as save/restoration points) you can change to a witch character with ranged spells and a double jump, or a bugman character who can fly and attacks by spawning these little pillbug followers. You also need to unlock the witch first by saving her from the game's first boss, whom in turn is the only one capable of finding and rescuing the bugman. The ultimate goal of the game is to rescue ten missing villagers (though there's supposedly more) and defeat Dracula, who frequently finds his way into games of this genre. Took me about an hour, and while I didn't always have a great time I respect the precise level of craft put into this compact thing, which I imagine is akin to building a ship in a bottle. It had a half-decent soundtrack and the graphics, though limited, had the occasional visual flair like some flickery torchlight or rainfall hitting the ground as you ran by. As an explormer it's probably not entering the upper echelons of the already packed Indie hall of fame, but as a Game Jam product made in a couple of weeks (with a little bit of post-deadline patching) I think it's worthy of accolade.
You can play Cuckoo Castle for free on Itch.io even if you missed the bundle, either by downloading the executable or playing it via your browser of choice.
I picked up Spelunky in the Summer Steam sale, just because Rorie's been playing a lot of it for the site and I was tempted to start getting into those daily challenges to see if I could keep up with the Boss of Bosses, and while I've no intention of getting so deep into it again that I'm challenging Yama every other day I did notice something about this particular puzzle game while browsing through the Itch.io bundle. Specifically, the blocky, vaguely Central American protagonist of this puzzle game very strongly reminds me of those asshole trap "Thwomps" from Spelunky's late-game temple levels. Could it even be possible to sympathize with these smushing villains were I in their slidey non-shoes?
Inkanians's premise is a simple one: slide around the screen and collect all the gems, avoiding hazards like skull blocks along the way. If you've ever seen one of those puzzles where you push blocks across ice where the block won't stop until it hits something, that's pretty much what this game is in its entirety. Naturally, my head started spinning about 35 stages into its 60 stage total, in part because the game has a lot of mechanics to introduce (including a clone that mirrors your actions and is fatal to you if you should collide) and juggling multiple of those simultaneously makes an already challenging proposition even more so.
Inkanians also has this striking visual style, which uses a monochrome color scheme (many shades of gray at least) but an oddly intense amount of detail for such a functionally simple premise. Some realistic torchlight flickering (which is starting to become a theme this week), effective lights and shadows when applicable, and whenever your Thwompy hero hits a wall it produces small dust clouds from the neighboring blocks. No music, but plenty of loud "thonks" as your Incan deathtrap pounds against the walls which, honestly, can get a bit cacophonous if you're quickly retracing steps to get back to where you messed up on the last attempt (or, at least, a little before). Overall, I don't think you could do a whole lot more with this premise that Inkanians doesn't provide you, and while my interest was piqued by the totally incidental Spelunky comparison I'm not really a fan of this type of puzzle set-up. To me, it's like Sokoban or those light beam refraction puzzles: something I probably could do having less of in general in action-adventure types like Zelda.
Inkanians can only be bought from Itch.io. A demo version, featuring 25% of the levels, can be tried for free.
I've no real interest in the sport itself, but something about video game golf (especially mini-golf) has this relaxing, almost soporific effect on me where I just hit this zone of Absolute Geometry. I suspect it's because the game physics always boils it down to something akin to a puzzle game, where you can reliably work with constants - your little golfer guy unerringly hits their yardage with each shot, provided the player does their part in hitting the various power gauges at the right intervals - and then figure out the minimal number of shots at the right tangents to sink the ball. Theoretically, pool games put me in the same state, except I've never been able to intuit the correct deflection angle when the cue ball connects so I just end up getting annoyed about bouncing the same ball off the cushions for ten minutes straight.
Little Comet's whole aesthetic and premise immediately reminded me of two pieces of media: the first is perennial SNES favorite Kirby's Dream Course, the connection largely due to how exasperatingly cute the two games are, and a 1991 episode of Red Dwarf named "White Hole" where slobbish everyman hero Dave Lister takes it upon himself to play pool with planets, forgetting that the variable gravity wells of celestial objects makes planning such a proposition the exclusive domain of hyperintelligent AI (in fact, he wrests control from one such AI to make the shot himself, which miraculously still works). Little Comet's conceit is mini-golf with the added wrinkle of planetary gravity wells and other space phenomena, with each course sometimes requiring extra steps like hitting a button or knocking a soccerball into a goal for whatever reason.
While this is a fun idea in practice, as a means of setting up a bunch of unpredictable courses, Little Comet isn't a whole lot of fun to play. That's no fault of the interface, which uses an intuitive slingshot motion where you hold away from the direction you want your starry protagonist to move towards and hold it further away the further you wish them to move (I particularly liked this control scheme in The Game Bakers's Squids, which used it in a more combative action-strategy format). Likewise, all gravity wells and their effective ranges are clearly demarcated by a dotted circle to let you know where and when they'll apply. However, navigating these gravity wells for the sake of slingshotting around a planet or moon very rarely goes the way you'd hope, and sometimes it becomes a struggle just to escape a planetoid once you're trapped within its gravitational influence, let alone then go on to reach the hole's par score. When you start finding courses with multiple gravity wells to maneuver past this particular star-crossed mini-golf format goes from mild frustration to a very strong sensation of not wanting to continue.
I feel like this has been the end result of any puzzle game (or puzzle scenario within a game) that decides to incorporate gravity wells: I recall my spotty time with Osmos (one of the earliest Humble Indie Bundle games), or more recently with the deeply flawed Outer Wilds and trying to land on that damn solar platform, and deciding I'd rather be doing anything else than trying to contend with the unpredictable nature of the endless cosmic ballet. Well, at least Little Comet is adorable; if you collide with a planetoid too hard you give it a boo-boo!
Little Comet is available to buy on Itch.io and Steam. It can also be bought for iOS and Android (via the Google App store).
I wasn't going to include Marie's Room because I discovered that it isn't optimized for lesser video cards, and thus unplayable for me, but it caused such a bizarre problem that I figured it'd be just as interesting to discuss that as it would be hearing about my adventures rifling through the belongings of some girl in a similar vein to Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch. Given that the game is freely available on both Itch.io and Steam both and will likely take about an hour to complete, there's no lofty investment here so there's really no need for any written pre-amble from this guy about whether or not to try it out. Hope you have a better time with it than I did.
So, back to that issue. Turns out, on lesser graphics cards - mine's some integrated piece of Intel HD crap that came with this laptop - the game is almost pitch black. None of the extant light sources work and there are no in-game illumination options as far as I can (not) see. There is sticking the gamma way up on the menu, but that just turns the pitch blackness into something closer to pitch navyblueness. While you can still interact with the various journals, photos, and other keepsakes strewn about Marie's titular room it's sort of moot if you can't actually see where they are. The dev(s) were in the Steam forums trying to collate some dxdiag files to narrow down the problem last year but apparently gave up, so we have yet another case of an Indie PC game that simply isn't compatible with older/lesser tech. I could stick it on the same pile as the others I've come across while doing the Indie Game of the Week feature, most notably The Bard's Tale IV, Obduction, Cradle, The Witness, and the more recent The Room ports or Stories Untold (both of which still had IGotW reviews, though in retrospect I probably should've skipped them given they weren't working right).
But hey, since I'm almost certain the game is about some dead kid, maybe the devs were making a point however indirectly about leaving the past in the dark, and that exposing them to the warm light of day might only serve to cause more heartbreak and regret. Now that an effort was made at an interpretation, I feel I can probably move on. (For disclaimer's sake, I also tried The World Begins With You, mostly because I'd just bought The World Ends With You: Final Remix and thought it fitting, but ran into a similar graphical compatibility problem.)
Marie's Room is free to download on Itch.io and Steam. The Steam version has achievements and paid soundtrack DLC.
The last game today is a puzzle-platformer, the genre that would define the Indie development scene for many years. Perspectrum uses the traditional elements as a means of transforming the surrounding environment, and through that mechanic the player is able to traverse a series of locations all branching off a hub village. The goal of the game is to collect spirit fragments, which are used to open a door that leads to the endgame.
These spirit fragments are scattered across the overworld itself and its many side-areas, and navigating this world can be a bit of a chore due to the way its world is built upon multiple doorways that lead to different areas. Some zones, like the library, make it easy for you: the central library area has about a dozen books, each of which either leads to a puzzle with one or more fragments to collect or an NPC who dispense with a bit of lore about the setting (a mountain) and the story (the mountain is sick, and the spirit that once resided within has gone missing). Other areas, like the cistern, are a massive maze of passageways and doors, some of which link up in smaller nexuses or just lead to dead-ends with fragments. With no map, it was a little tricky to navigate. The catacombs, meanwhile, have these floating ghosts that carry elements with them: the goal is to use their influence to make elemental pockets to proceed, but I could never figure out how to move beyond a certain point involving an underwater door surrounded by bracken (the bracken is removed if a ghost with the green/toxic element touches it, but there's no way of getting it down there without running afoul of the toxicity yourself).
There's also the matter of the visuals, which are evidently the result of a phenomenon widely known as "programmer graphics". I'm generally not bothered by a lack of graphical finesse if the gameplay core is fine, which is more or less the case in Perspectrum, but it's definitely not winning any beauty contests. Most NPCs and details are far too small to leave an impression, leaving mostly barren dirt tunnels and flat water bodies as your primary settings. I liked the soundtrack, which was melodic and atmospheric if a bit xylophone-heavy, though the sound design was rough: no sound effects whatsoever, besides a very discordant mic scratch whenever you died and were reset to the last entryway. Presentation is not Perspectrum's strong suit, then, though I can't say I disagreed too much with the game in the middle. Bit fiddly with wall jumps (especially where there's an overhang, since squeezing through vertical gaps with the walljump's wide clearance is like pulling teeth) and I'm definitely missing a tutorial or something on how to deal with those catacomb levels, but otherwise a fine little game that could be the precursor to something greater, or at least something more substantial and attractive.
Perspectrum is available to buy on Itch.io and Steam. Itch.io has a free demo version to try.
Whenever I see a 16-bit pixel JRPG on Steam I'm often hesitant to dig any further, knowing that every new edition of RPG Maker always brings with it a host of zero-budget games from well-meaning hobbyist developers that are looking for their start on the platform. The few exceptions tend to come from established developers like Zeboyd, who not only know how to modernize the genre but deliver on its strengths with some exceptional encounter design and many quality-of-life innovations, and now I can safely add Stegosoft Games to the same whitelist if Ara Fell is any indication.
Set on a picturesque floating island - recalling Baten Kaitos, Granstream Saga, Skies of Arcadia and many others - known as Ara Fell, the game follows teenage ranger Lita as she gets caught up in an ancient conflict for the beleagured aerial landmass between the vampires and the elves. She eventually acquires a party of allies and embarks on a world-encompassing journey to collect vitally important shiny trinkets, as per the usual, though the game's writing is at least capable enough of injecting some welcome humanity and wit into this otherwise clichéd plight. Lita herself reminds me of Trails in the Sky's Estelle Bright: an outgoing young woman who is quick to bring the hammer down on obnoxious behavior, but allows herself moments of vulnerability and immaturity befitting her age. The rest of the cast isn't quite as nuanced, but still likeable enough.
The true star of the game is just how meticulously designed it all is. That's immediately evident by the striking visuals of Ara Fell, which are full of detail and color and little animated flora and fauna everywhere you look. It's one of a few pixel-based games that managed to cause my PC to slow down just from the sheer number of objects on-screen. Each scenic area is full of resources to gather, secret entrances to uncover, treasures hidden behind every nook and crevice, and incidental side-quests around so many corners, even if broadly speaking the world itself isn't enormous. The battles, too, have undergone the Zeboyd treatment where so much rides on mastering the individual team-members' skills to control the battlefield; I almost wished I'd played on a higher difficulty setting just so I'd be forced to more carefully consider every move. All this said, the game isn't incredibly sophisticated or all that long in length from what I can tell; it is an Indie project, after all, so we're not talking the butt-numbing 50+ hour playthroughs of the SNES and PS1 eras it hearkens back to. Probably for the best, since I had other games to play this week.
I'm a sucker for good game design, and Ara Fell has it pouring out its pointy elf ears. Enemies all visibly wander the environment and won't actively attack you unless you prompt a battle, allowing you to easily skip past them if you feel you're already levelled up enough. Equipment isn't bought but instead upgraded from what you're wearing already: you can still shell out for the upgrade materials or simply come across them naturally while exploring or after combats, but most of these components won't be available until the game progression is ready for your team to power up. Skills all have alternative paths to suit the player's ideal team build and the special stones needed to power them up are rare on the ground, and often well hidden to boot if not prohibitively expensive, creating a distinct sense of value and necessitating tough decisions regarding what to prioritize. The gauge needed to cast spells and special abilities regenerates every round and starts at its maximum, so there's no need to hold back against regular mobs, and likewise your party replenishes all health after a battle (something I've noticed has become the norm rather than the exception in modern RPGs). Optional mini-boss encounters are everywhere and usually warn you first in case you haven't saved in a while (though there is an auto-save, of course), side-quests are as likely to drop valuables and XP in your lap as they are to unlock a character's higher class abilities, and there's a series of items called "Relics" that do nothing but sit in your inventory and provide permanent passive boosts to your party. It's been a joy just exploring each area of this highly-detailed world seeking out these treasures and making the next story boss encounter that little bit more manageable (though, as I said above, I may have been better off going for a higher challenge level given how much easier I've inadvertently made things).
I'm still only partway through the game, but I've finally gathered a full party and now feel more confident to take on some of the optional encounters I'd been passing up before. I've also acquired a new means of traversal, which should permit passage to some treasures I wasn't able to reach before, so now I'm eager to double-check the previously visited regions of the game's vaguely open-world setting before I press on to the next story destination. Ara Fell's definitely opened my eyes to how many smart developers there are out there who grew up loving these games as much as I did, and it has me wondering if I should stop turning my nose up at those Steam games with this overly familiar aesthetic.
You know that scene from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey where they're falling into an endless dark void and screaming the whole way, and then they eventually get bored of screaming and play 20 Questions instead? I'm around there.
OK, but how about in terms of games?
Well, I don't play a whole lot of new stuff and miss out on the zeitgeist frequently, which so far this year hasn't been as much of an issue as it has been in the past (Animal Crossing: New Horizons and The Last of Us: Part 2 felt like two undesirable extremes on the Mood-o-meter spectrum). I've got a few 2020 releases I'd like to pick up eventually, but between some Steam/PSN sales and that enormous Itch.io bundle I'm set for video game purchases for quite a while. However, I have been availing myself of my monolithic backlog as per usual, so this year's been a busy mix of slightly aged games I've long been meaning to get around to. Like the following:
Luigi's Mansion 3
Back when I still doing my monthly round-ups, which were getting so bloated with random pop culture observations that I figured I should stop foisting them on this poor website, I talked about my expectations for Luigi's Mansion 3 going in after burning out spectacularly on Dark Moon, the second game. Dark Moon's chief issue was one of heavy repetition: to complete each of the game's many discrete mansions, you had to complete the first little area, and then get kicked back out to Gadd's hideout, then complete that first little area again and move on a bit more, then get kicked back out to Gadd's hideout, and so on in such a manner that every mansion took three times longer than it ought to. Cynically, I assumed this is because there wasn't enough content for Nintendo's liking. Oddly, this is a deterioration that hampered a completely different horror-themed franchise: Tecmo's Project Zero/Fatal Frame series, which started declining around Fatal Frame III with its frequent revisits to the same locations.
Anyway, Luigi's Mansion 3 was a return to form, fortunately, focusing once again on a single mansion with a whole bunch of thematic variation. I enjoyed my time with it, even if it felt a little more disconnected with the way its floors worked. The first Luigi's Mansion had that Resident Evil vibe with the way you might be deep within the Spencer Mansion and suddenly open a freshly unlocked door to find yourself back in the foyer, with quick access to the earlier parts of the game; I kind of missed that interconnectivity in LM3, even if this new system probably made it more convenient to get around and revisit previous locations for collectibles and whatnot.
I feel like the best way to summarize how I felt about Luigi's Mansion 3 is by doing something very unfair to it, which is to compare it to Two Worlds: a duo of CRPGs that once referred to itself as "Oblivion killers" that turned out to be anything but. The first had some... rough edges, to put it mildly, that the sequel buffed out until it resembled something you could actually compare to The Elder Scrolls without laughing. However, without those rough edges, that sequel didn't have much of an edge at all. Two Worlds II won't sit in the memory in quite the same way even if, overall, I probably had a better time with it with fewer irritations borne from its bizarre game design decisions. Luigi's Mansion 3 is the same: way slicker, way more imaginative and varied with its level and puzzle design both, and obviously a lot better looking... and yet I'll probably forget everything about it by the end of this year.
The Outer Worlds
I'm sure I went deep on The Outer Worlds in some previous monthly check-in also, but The Outer Worlds definitely had a sense of a smaller but more complete package. Something devised by a smaller team with less time to work with that instead dedicated their schedule to creating a very solid but relatively short game in lieu of something crazy ambitious and barely functional. "Barely functional" has been a persistent challenge for Obsidian Entertainment in particular, who have always had this reputation of delivering on deeply flawed (purely in the technical sense of being buggy) masterpieces.
The Outer Worlds, to its credit, ran almost perfectly throughout, and I attach this to how it had fewer moving parts than most big first-person open-world RPGs of its ilk, especially those from Bethesda. It had a fully realized late-stage-capitalism-infested zeerustic aesthetic, some well-defined companions that were equally fun to shoot the shit with as they were to shoot at shit with, and enough RPG bells and whistles to make progression entertaining enough to seek out ways to boost your XP in whatever small ways you could. It always felt like they were doing a lot with a little though, between the limited number of foes and locations to visit, like it was the prologue to something far greater that Obsidian could create with the same engine if this one did well enough.
I'm generally in two minds when it comes to this approach (though maybe "approach" should be in quotes, since making a game smaller in scope is often a financial reality rather than a conscious decision) of making more compact games out of engines that could allow for much more. This was the case with Saints Row the Third and Pikmin 3: sequels that you could argue benefit from having way less of everything for a more focused playthrough that won't demand 50+ hours from the more obsessive players who need that 100% completion accolade, though could also be said to have suffered from the reduced scope and ambition. If you cut Skyrim's content by a third, would it still be as good? You'd have less to see before you were finally done, but that would also mean having... well, less to see. As an adult with ostensible adult responsibilities to draw me away from gaming time, I'm appreciative of more compact video game experiences on the whole. However, when said compact games feel like smaller and lesser versions of bigger competitors it almost feels like I'm missing out. Obsidian's never going to be the kind of company that can throw many millions at a project the same way Bethesda can (though maybe that'll change now that they're property of Microsoft) and I definitely prefer the outlandish notion of an Obsidian game that actually works at launch, but despite offering a universe of infinite potential it instead felt... finite. Very finite.
Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter
I'm not sure when the tides began to turn on Falcom's humble Trails franchise (itself a self-contained series within the lengthy and venerable The Legend of Heroes franchise) but I started hearing a lot more about it in recent years, to the extent that we now have honest-to-goodness Trails in the Sky content on the Giant Bomb website. Granted, it appears to be just the one video of an aborted full playthrough of the trilogy that starts the whole Liberl-Crossbell-Erebonia Trails arc, but I'm thankful we got even that much.
It was due to this sudden rise into the zeitgeist that I finally opted to continue from where I left off with my Trails in the Sky FC playthrough way back in 2014 with Trails in the Sky SC (or Second Chapter). Despite a six year gap, I rejoined Estelle, Joshua, and their bracer friends having missed nary a beat, picking up on its deeply tactical turn- and grid-based combat system, its elaborate element-focused Orbment Grid character development, and mission-based structure that affords an episodic approach to the central story arc and plenty of humorous asides and tough optional encounters. Within moments I recalled who everyone was, from party members to antagonists to major NPCs, and where their characterizations and personal arcs had advanced to by the end of the first game. I attribute this to how the writers (and localizers) did such a good job fleshing out these characters and this world.
One big secret to Falcom's modest success, besides how superbly written these Trails games are, is how it's never shy about a challenge. Falcom diehards will regularly tell you to play on the next hardest setting after normal, and then tackle the unique NG+ bonus difficulties for "the true experience", and Second Chapter was where the gloves came off for this specific franchise. Because it starts where the previous game left off, it means you begin around level 30 and have full access to the range of techniques and "limit break"-style ultimate attacks you were using to clobber the last game's final boss, so Second Chapter happily tosses you into the deep end from the get-go and continues to ramp up from there. Some fights require such a specific strategy that it's easy to find yourself overwhelmed until you suss it out. Even when that's not the case, there's a lot that rides on how well you control the battlefield, and the turn order as well. The latter is a factor not only in managing how frequently you attack compared to your foe(s) - some are very fast, and you need to address that before they stomp you - but in managing certain bonuses that appear in the turn order. If there's a bonus that boosts critical damage or heals a moderate percentage of that character's health coming up on the turn order bar, you want to make sure to jiggle the turn order around any way you can so that one of your characters receives that bonus and not the enemy. One great way you can do this is by activating a character's ultimate attack, since you can do this at any point in the battle and it'll interrupt whomever was going to act next. There's a wealth of tactical options that First Chapter spent a long time building up to, for the beneficial sake of slowly acclimatizing the player, that you have full access to as soon as Second Chapter begins. For that reason, Second Chapter feels a whole lot more engaging right out the gate.
The rest of Second Chapter's strengths reside in its storytelling, and how that narrative proceeds from the first, so I'm loath to get too deep into all that for the sake of spoilers. I'll just say that the first game gives you a very strong reason to want to jump immediately into the second, while the second feels like it ends on just enough of a final note that the third game in the game series, Trails in the Sky the 3rd, will instead mostly consist of tying up loose ends and setting up arcs for the later Trails games to pursue. I've still got a while before I reach Trails of Cold Steel III - the most recent (localized) entry, and the eighth overall Trails game where Trails in the Sky Second Chapter is, of course, only the second - but I intend to keep plugging away at this franchise for the foreseeable future. Ys will always be my sword-slashy and metal-thrashy first Falcom love, but I can't deny that there's vital RPG elements that Trails delivers on far better than Ys can.
God of War
I somehow managed to hop on angry pop just before the news broke out that the next Assassin's Creed would go from Spartans and sandals to a more Norse source, taking a route previously followed by Titan Quest (and its Ragnarok expansion) and, of course, this widely acclaimed, non-numbered God of War sequel. As one of the few remaining PS4 exclusives that isn't in the process of making its way to Steam either explicitly or in rumor only, God of War boasts an impressively detailed open-world filled to the brim with mythology based on the Jotun, Aesir, Dark Elves and many other supernatural entities that Kratos can pull apart at his discretion, and is buoyed in this by, well, a boy, but also a combat system heavily focused around Kratos's new magical returning axe. It's such a simple idea that it's a miracle that it hasn't been used to this effect before, excepting perhaps Link's boomerang, that you have a singular weapon that never leaves your side and can do damage on the throw and on the return if you time it just right.
What makes God of War such a stark comparison and contrast both to The Last of Us Part 2, to suddenly get all topical, is in the ways both try to paradoxically decry and glorify violence, especially as a last resort. It's clear the two studios are close associates in philosophy and game design both, if Cory Barlog's championing of Druckmann's pushback against both the critical response to TLOU2 (or rather, the very few outlets with anything actually critical to say) and to the growing public disdain for exploitative crunch periods alike, and both seem very set on the idea of allowing players to have their murder cake and eat it too. I realize it's a little unfair to compare the two, especially given the two year gap, but there's something about the fantastical violence of God of War and the increasing reluctance of Kratos and his part in it that rings far more palatable than the melancholia of TLOU2's world on the turn, even if mushroom zombies aren't really all that less extraordinary than draugr. I'm still not sure if I want to play a second of TLOU2, and that was before its chief designer started brigading any and all vocal critics on Twitter to shut them up, but I'd jump at another God of War in this vein in a heartbeat.
Digressions regarding more contemporary games aside, I feel like I'm always on the cusp of giving up on open-world games entirely. They all suffer from having so many different collectibles and bonus objectives strewn about their enormous maps, and I can never seem to stop myself from finding each and every one before I'm sated with the playthrough, so there's almost this feeling like I'm partaking too much in the "vice" aspect of video games where I'm only doing something out of obsessive habit and not because I'm enjoying it. Yet games like God of War or Sleeping Dogs or Marvel's Spider-Man or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain come along so regularly, where such huge exciting strides are made with how these open-world games choose to interpret the player's freedom to go anywhere and accomplish so many different objectives, that I can't find myself dropping my association with the genre. By many metrics, it's the most important - if sadly ubiquitous - format of high-budget game development out there right now. I think I can happily excise anything coming out of Ubisoft though; they're not so keen on innovating with this genre, it seems, so much as delivering the same content to a legion of undemanding fans who want the next AC or Ghost Recon to be just like the last one so they don't have to exhaust themselves learning anything new (I'm excepting Rorie from this, because while he is the only Uplay+ subscriber I have ever known he is also way deep in that Magic: The Gathering hole and I've never been able to figure the rules of that game out). I might have a Ubisoft game coming up further down this blog though, so I'm one to talk.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Yo, speaking of open-world games that just go on and on, have you fine folks heard about Xenoblade Chronicles 2? The first Xenoblade Chronicles reinvigorated my passion for JRPGs of a certain scope. While smaller and more niche-happy JRPGs had certainly done their job keeping my interest, and the industry in general, on life-support throughout the late '00s after the end of the PS2's JRPG Silver Age, Xenoblade was the first game to come along in a while to make me feel like the genre could keep on evolving and reaching ever new heights, and not just tread water to deliver the same old familiar fanservice. That's being reductive of the handful of JRPGs actually innovating at that time as well, but they were few and far between and fairly esoteric.
Of course, for a time Xenoblade was relatively obscure too. For a long time it was a Japan-exclusive RPG for the Wii, despite being produced by second-party Nintendo studios and with an enormous budget, until the hardworking weebs of Operation Rainfall convinced Nintendo to first publish it in Europe, which is more or less the global game industry's testing grounds for weird shit, before an eventual North American release. Since then it's been a premium item for Nintendo fans, and I know a lot of folk were excited for its recent Switch remaster. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, meanwhile, could skip all that grassroots petitioning and become one of Nintendo's flagship properties in various Nintendo Directs. It was frequently in the conversation when it came to the Nintendo Switch's early library, along with Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (if perhaps hyped to a lesser extent). Turns out Xenoblade 2 wasn't quite the masterpiece that the original was, but still exhibited many of the same qualities. Those include an expansive open-world that the player could explore at their leisure, revisiting to take on higher level mobs in riskier areas for the treasures to be found there, and taking on dozens of side-quests that they could resolve at any time. The suite of quality of life features crossed over, including changing the time of day and instantaneous fast travel, and some very involved character progression systems to get lost in for hours at a time.
However, it also felt like every new addition had some kind of caveat attached. The Blades, for instance, which combined character weapons with personalities you could build story arcs and dialogue scenes around were an ingenious invention; however, the method with which the game doled these Blades out often relied on gachapon mechanics which have no place in games in general (in my view) but especially those that don't have any kind of commercial "free to play" aspect that might warrant boosting the rarity of desirable loot. Having many different titans to visit instead of just the Bionis and Mechonis of the first meant more variation with the scenery and with their denizens, but I missed being able to stand in a field and spot a different part of the same colossal creature ahead or below, or another titan eerily looming large across the horizon. I might even prefer the "black sheep" Xenoblade Chronicles X to XC2, just because it had so much sci-fi weirdness going on and a soundtrack that was less orchestral than it was intensely stupid Japanese synth hip hop. XC2 isn't bad at all - I wouldn't have dropped almost 160 hours into it if it was - but it certainly didn't capture the same sense of playing something crucially reinvigorating to the ailing JRPG genre that the first did.
Strap yourselves in, because The Surge protector has logged on. The Surge is part of a mini-series of game picks I've been playing this year, or will play, because their sequels have since come out and are approaching a reasonable price. (Another 2020 example is Wasteland 2, since Wasteland 3 is due to launch sometime in August.) The Surge, for the uninitiated, is an action-RPG built very deliberately in the FromSoftware Souls style and comes to us courtesy of Deck13, a German developer who had tried their hand at this format before with the mediocre Lords of the Fallen. Changing venues and thematic genres from a grim medieval kingdom to the smouldering remains of a technology and engineering focused corporate headquarters gives them a bit more of an edge in the wider market of these "Soulslikes," as does a few intriguing tweaks to the usual character progression formula which, in some cases, directly tie into the new opportunities presented by the setting.
In Souls games and most like them, you build your stats by collecting a resource dropped by enemies which you can lose if you happen to die and then fail to recover them from where you died. This resource is used to pump up stats, from damage-dealing variables like strength and dexterity to life-preserving vitality or magic-enabling intelligence and "arcane." The Surge eschews a lot of that traditional character-building for what turns out to be a very versatile system of power-ups called "implants", some of which can be switched on the fly but the majority only assigned at rest points (instead of bonfires, these are heavily signposted "Operations Rooms" - there's one per region, and each map has ample shortcuts to get back there in a hurry). What you are buying with your level up resource is simply a higher cap for these implants, allowing you to equip stronger versions of them and - though you need to upgrade your cybernetic "rig" to accommodate them - more slots for implants in general. While it means that your character never really gets stronger in the conventional sense, the diversity in which they can improve their fighting prowess or survival abilities is truly vast, and there's no end of optimal combinations to find and work towards.
The other aspect of your build that your "Core Power", as this upgradeable limitation is called, is to equip stronger armor. Armor with higher defense usually means suffering a few setbacks, like slower attack speeds and higher power costs. If you wanted to tank it, which is a viable strategy here as it was in the Dark Souls games, you'd be decreasing your ability to recover quickly or the number of healing items on hand (as they too are part of the implant system). It's a pretty decent risk vs. reward system that sacrifices the complexity of an advanced character build in the standard sense of stats and numbers for the sake of one with more skills, both passive and active, and more agency in how they prioritize for certain situations. For general exploration, for instance, I'd equip implants that boosted how much tech scrap (the souls/currency equivalent) I earned from enemies as well as increased movement speed and a really handy gizmo that bleeped when hidden items were in the vicinity. When it came time to gear up for a boss, I'd go all in for defensive skills and health items; I'd usually need about two or three times the amount of the latter than I did for general exploration.
I could go on and on in this vein, as The Surge proved to be deceptively in-depth with its systems. I could talk about an infinite-use healing implant that instead draws from your "energy" bar: a stat that usually governs finishers and special attacks, and only builds up when you hit enemies. I could also talk about the way you could have character builds based around absorbing a lot of energy fast and holding onto it for the sake of these energy-based heals. I could talk about how you acquire a drone and can fit yourself with tons of drone damage-boosts, moving them from what is the equivalent of a thrown rock (basically no damage, but will distract an enemy and pull them away from a pack) to a weapon that can reliably clobber even bosses and, again, runs from your easily-manipulated energy reserves. There's the large amount of audio logs and environmental storytelling; the game is less dependent on item descriptions for its mostly hands-off narrative and instead feeds it in through these logs and looping video screens instead. There's of course the most famous aspect of the game back when it was still getting shown around, which is how you acquire new cybernetic limbs by severing broken versions of them from enemies with brutal finishers, and then spending crafting resources to build your own. I was surprised by how quickly it drew me in and I'm looking forward to trying The Surge 2, hearing about how it fixes a lot of problems folks didn't like about the previous (despite its many innovations, it can be a bit buggy and awkward at times). Sometimes when a non-Souls Souls game comes out and people are talking about it, it's only because they're starved of that sweet loop of death and more death and willing to try any alternative, but in The Surge's case it's a legit piece of software, definitely on the same tier as a Nioh or a Salt and Sanctuary.
Picross S and Picross S2
Jupiter's Picross S series, which is simply what they call their Switch picross games to distinguish them from their Picross E series for 3DS eShop, finally went on sale for the first time a few months back. Granted, it was a modest 25-30% off, but I took the opportunity to grab a couple of them to see if they were as slick as they appeared.
The thing with picross games is that they only demand a certain low bar of competency for how they control and the UI, and then beyond that it's more about the gimmicks and puzzle variations they present. A new picross game that offers some 100 or so standard puzzles isn't all that exciting given that this is an industry that has existed in Japan for over 30 years (or about 25 years in terms of video games, starting with Mario's Picross and Mario's Super Picross for the Game Boy and SNES respectively).
Unfortunately, Picross S doesn't have much in the way of frills. It might not need them, granted, but the sole uncommon addition of Mega Picross - which uses a ruleset wherein numbered clues might cross over to two lines instead of one - is marred by the fact that the Mega Picross set is identical to the standard one, the only difference being the clues you're given. Picross S2 fares slightly better due to adding what they call "Clip" Picross: much larger images comprised of multiple smaller puzzles. However, there's only five of these jumbo-sized picross puzzles and they're not all accessible from the outset: you have to complete several pages of the regular puzzles before you unlock all the Clip Picross components.
That these puzzles are all the usual pictures of animals and flowers and household items is disappointing too; I guess at some point Jupiter dropped the pretense of including puzzles based on Nintendo characters for the sake of their console exclusivity. I don't know if I'll ever pick up Picross S3 and Picross S4, or even that newly announced Sega-focused one, though I may change my tune when they drop in price in some far-flung year and I find myself bitten by the nonogram bug once again.
Tokyo Xanadu eX+
Falcom, the developers of Ys and Trails, has been around for a very long time. At least, in terms of a video game company: they started at some point in the early '80s and have been developing weird action-RPGs for as long as I've been alive. One of their earliest was Xanadu from 1985: a game that was the second in their Dragon Slayer anthology series (which also includes the first The Legend of Heroes game), and one of their first big hits. As a way of honoring their past, they've taken to creating a new Xanadu reboot every ten years since. I go into more detail on this ritual of theirs in this retrospective from last year (when E3 was still a thing, even. Remember E3?) but Tokyo Xanadu is the most recent iteration of this process, having originally launched in 2015 for the PS Vita, and was later enhanced (as "eX+") for PS4 and PC/Steam. I'd also never played it before.
So it's immediately obvious what Falcom chose to do with this particular version of Xanadu: make it a Persona game with some Ys-style twitch action-RPG gameplay. Set in Tokyo and following the usual somehow universally-adored but half-asleep self-insert dipshit Kou Tokisaki (who I kept confusing for the similarly nothing-hero Aoi Itsuki, from Tokyo Mirage Sessions, another Persona-like that invokes Japan's capital that I played this year), the game is split between its dungeons - the game has a lot of terminology about these inter-dimensional labyrinths and how they unerringly seem to target future party members by preying on their insecurities - and life-sim elements including hanging out with friends and helping the local citizenry with their problems.
For the social sim aspect, Tokyo Xanadu eschews Persona's calendar/day-planning for a more streamlined "free time" block every chapter, during which you can buy and upgrade equipment, pick up side-quests, and spend a finite number of "Affinity Shards" getting to better know your party members and major NPC allies. Kou even has three stats based on his personality - wisdom, courage, and virtue - that increase with certain accomplishments, though you fortunately don't have to go out of your way to study your ass off ("wisdom" instead increases when you read books, or answer the occasional multiple choice question correctly in class or during investigations). This part of the game feels very "Persona-lite" in that there's no real challenge involved trying to balance a social schedule and is more to do with establishing the world and its characters and giving you some breathing room between what I'll admit are some kinda intense dungeons.
Let's talk about those: Tokyo Xanadu's combat and dungeon exploration is definitely styled on their Ys franchise, which are real-time action games that move at a dizzying pace and require some fast reflexes to quickly take down enemies and evade their attacks. The latter involves a dodge roll with very generous i-frames, while the former is done through melee attacks, ranged attacks, flying attacks (basically just an air dash, which also comes in useful for the platforming (oh yeah, there's platforming in these dungeons too)) and at least three different types of special which all run off their own individual gauges. What's more is that Tokyo Xanadu is based on the more recent Ys games, each of which allow for three-person teams and are built towards exploiting elemental superiority. When fighting through dungeons, it's prudent to switch to the character that has an element superior to the enemy you're engaging, and to keep switching like that for every combat encounter. It eventually becomes part of the rhythm of dungeoneering, quickly switching and attacking and switching again to take on any other nearby enemies. Not only do characters embody an element (and, eventually, two elements each to make it easier to build a suitable team for the immediate dungeon and its inhabitants) but they'll also prioritize certain approaches: Kou's the all-rounder, deuteragonist Akira is more magic-focused and better at a distance, their karate prodigy underclassman Sora is a glass cannon who is very agile and great at flying attacks, hacker otaku shut-in (and male Futaba) Yuuki is an excellent defensive ranged-attacker due to the way he can fire while moving, and so on.
The real bastards are the bosses, which start exceedingly strong and very capable of handing you your own ass with their large-range AoEs and fast movement, and grow increasingly deadlier throughout the game until it oddly plateaus around a certain witch antagonist around the mid-point of the story. I don't mind admitting that these guys caused a number of premature game overs even on Normal difficulty, and were the one obstacle in the way of raising the difficulty as per some recommendations I got from others who had played the game; after all, it's the case in Ys too to play as high difficulty as you feel like you can tolerate because the challenge is often key to the appeal of these games. If I ever decide to take on my NG+ run, which will be on the highest difficulty setting for the sake of the few remaining trophies I've yet to earn, I'm sure I'll be hitting some serious brick wall bosses in no time. Even so, the normally abrasive "git gud" attitude certain character action games seem to have - Tokyo Xanadu rates on the success of each dungeon run based on time taken, the amount of damage taken, and the % of treasure found and monsters slain, for the maximum result of a "S-Rank" - is somehow oddly compelling here in a way that, I think, was Falcom trying to address Persona's and SMT's legendary high challenge levels in an arcade-ish format more germane to what they're all about.
One last odd little thing about Tokyo Xanadu: while the standard gameplay is derived from Ys, the majority of its mini-games (fishing, swimming races, an addictive card game named "Blade") come directly from the Trails series, and Trails of Cold Steel 1-3 in particular. I guess I've got them to look forward to in the near future?
Final game update, and one that I'm still playing, Watch Dogs is - like The Surge above - something I only picked up because of its sequel. I realize the two Watch Dogs games don't share a lot in common besides the prominence of a hacker collective known as DedSec and the general open-world gameplay and its focus on remotely operating electronic systems, but I have that same brain thing Vinny has where I don't like to jump into a series anywhere except on the ground floor.
What I've noticed about Watch Dogs is that I actively dislike about half of it, but really appreciate (if not fully love) the other half. A very strong sense of ambivalence has followed me in this playthrough, as I despair of the overly dour tone (another TLOU2 parallel this year) and the way the driving and stealth are complete ass, to put it diplomatically, but I enjoy the little wire-tracing puzzles involved with the collectibles and jumping between camera feeds to find the right angle on whatever I'm searching for. I sort of like the personalities of the world and major characters around protagonist Aiden Pearce, if not the man beneath the Iconic Cap™ himself, and it's amusing the way the game randomizes its Chicagoan citizens and their various personality quirks as determined from your "Profiler" app that automatically targets random passersby for phishing scams and other hacks. It does this odd thing where it challenges your sense of empathy: would you steal from a guy who was undergoing chemo? What if it was something as banal as watching anime or having a stamp collection? If you've answered no so far, what about fundamentalist Christians or people who post on eugenics websites? The game is ever probing for your moral event horizon, and you're going to need some kind of income to buy the better guns the game has to offer. Personally, I had no problem whatsoever stealing from Aisha Tyler, even if I didn't think her work hosting Ubisoft E3 conferences was all that bad.
But yeah, I've heard a lot about how grim and cynical this game becomes in its later chapters and I fear for the safety of many characters that aren't called Aiden Pearce, so I'm taking it slow and enjoying the open world before I get too deep into the story missions. That said, I don't intend to be playing this for more than a week because I've got plenty of better and more recent games I'd like to jump into, one of which is another major open-world game: Yakuza 6. As long as it doesn't demand too much of me with its driving missions - there seems to be a lot, alas, and the skill tree upgrades for driving can only improve it so much - I'm looking to see the credits roll on Watch Dogs, even if I might be ready to bail at any moment.
That's going to do it for this mid-year check-in. I'm sure I'll keep myself distracted from many more big titles I'm late to the party for, and of course the usual weekly Indies, and I'll try to do these rundowns more regularly so they don't all pile up like this. I just bought Danganronpa V3 and Timespinner, so I'd like to have an excuse to write about those before the year is out, as well as more Falcom stuff (I've been eyeing Trails in the Sky the 3rd on Steam for quite a while) and maybe a few other older games that didn't see much coverage by the otherwise meticulous staff of this website. Until then, just... hang in there everyone. Second half of 2020's gotta be better than the first, right?
I figured it's high time I get started on all these Itch.io games that landed in my lap recently. For disclaimer's sake, I was going to look at Serenity Forge's The King's Bird this week but decided last second that I didn't want to be playing a very challenging platformer in 30 degree heat, and so made a lateral switch to Vertical Reach's Tangrams Deluxe: a relaxing puzzle game that explores the spatial awareness fun of tangrams.
I first encountered tangrams, or at least the video game version, with the excellent Neves for Nintendo DS. A tangram is a puzzle consisting of seven shapes - two large triangles, one medium-sized triangle, two smaller triangles, a square, and a parallelogram - which can be rearranged to form a wide variety of images. Puzzle games based on the idea tend to give you the outline of these images first, and then task you with inserting all the pieces so that the outline is completely filled and none of the pieces overlap each other. It's one of those types of puzzles your brain is either adept at solving or isn't, though it does get remarkably easier with practice as you notice certain repeating solutions and learn the relationship between the pieces. For instance, the square, parallelogram and medium triangle all have the same area as the two smaller triangles combined, so the latter can be used to create any of the former in a pinch. It's also best to start with the larger triangles, because there are fewer places for them to fit, and then work from there.
As such, though Tangrams Deluxe has over 200 puzzles, you move through them at a relatively brisk pace. Once you've placed a few pieces it's usually obvious where the rest of them will fit, and the game's straightforward mouse-driven (or touchscreen) interface makes it simple to quickly orient and place them. It's also fairly lax about filling the image outline perfectly: usually, the shapes will click into place as soon as they're all in close enough proximity. However, where Tangrams Deluxe falls apart for me is in the myriad smaller choices behind this UI which, though relatively minor gripes, collectively add to a more irksome whole. These include: giving every individual tangram piece their own drop shadow, which is the same gray color as the image outline and creates a bit of visual confusion whenever you place a piece; whenever you win, you get this obnoxious soccer whistling chant remix of the main music, and its noisy discordance goes counter to the usually serene BGM ambience of puzzle games; and the game sorts all its image puzzles into broad categories (rabbits, boats, houses, etc.) so that, when moving through the puzzle list in the default order (there's a "next" button after every puzzle if you don't want to go back to the menu each time), generates a lot of repetition. It just feels like the game got the essentials right and botched it with the small finishing touches surrounding them.
Still, a puzzle game that I could master almost immediately was appealing in a sort of lazy summer exercise sense where I'm really not in any state to take on anything more advanced right now (grateful that I didn't try to get way into Sokoban or something). I'll chalk this up as a vacation week and maybe attempt something a bit more demanding next time. Or I'll just play another easy explormer and have a grand old time looking for the double-jump or ground pound. Not like y'all can't stop me.
Like many of you, I was fortunate and privileged enough to drop down some money for Itch.io's recent Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality: not only a worthy cause in aid of those protesting the murder of George Floyd and several others, but a cause that attracted an unprecedented number of contributors from larger, well-known Indie teams to passionate hobbyists: 1,391 contributors to be exact, who collectively put forward 1,704 video games, table-top rulesets, asset packs, and other media for charitable souls to enjoy.
Needless to say, that's a lot, and many of us have been spending the past week or so gingerly picking through this heap of treasure for anything that piques our interest. I've personally added about fifty new games to my "Indie Game of the Week" backlog - enough for an entire year of blogs, so look forward to those - but there's many more that were either too small or too weird for a full review. That brings us, laboriously, to the point of this series: each of these entries will look at five games that will probably go unobserved by most as they'll understandably gravitate towards the established hits instead, and see if they're worthy of more attention.
"The Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold," or so its Itch.io page explains. A short, simple game that is functionally similar to a jigsaw, and perhaps more specifically to the glassware-themed Glass Masquerade, in that you simply assemble pieces of broken ceramics together so they fit in the right places, at which point the game fills in the gaps with gold resin to hold the new construct together. Easy to a fault - the game has the items fall apart in front of your eyes, so it's not like you won't know where all the pieces go - but with a deliberate sense of catharsis between its chill BGM and the Zen aphorisms that accompany each completed puzzle.
There's only five of these puzzles total, so the game's about ten minutes long if that, but it's a cute little thing that highlights the oddly rewarding calmness and determination that comes with rebuilding after a catastrophe, even if said catastrophe was as relatively minor as dropping a ceramic duck on the floor.
Mobility is a pint-size masocore platformer that's sort of riffing on Super Meat Boy and N++ with its tight controls, minimalist look, and frequent emphasis on building and controlling momentum. The goal of each of its stages is to hit every platform at least once, which are collectively framed as you fixing a ship by tinkering with its systems (it's not clear if these platforms represent programs inside a computer or something less abstract). Part of the puzzle of these levels, then, is intuiting a route first and then executing on that course as quickly as possible.
The game's masterstroke is how it presents its difficulty system: there are four tiers, and each of them subtly changes the dynamics of the platforms to make the level easier or tougher: on the easiest setting, you merely have to get close to the platform to activate it, and this includes hitting it with your head; on the second setting, which is the default, you have to stand on a platform or touch it while sliding down its side to activate it; on the third, platforms will vanish after a second or two upon leaving and there's no longer any checkpoints; on the hardest, the platforms electrify instead of vanishing, and present a hazard if you need to get past them to more platforms. These challenge settings will also slightly modify your route: you can't double-back with the last two, and the electricity might mean going out of your way to hit a remote block early so you won't have to do so later on when it's more dangerous about.
Like any good masocore, most of the focus is around time trials and the post-game records reflect this. You'll score better on a ship by lowering your overall time across all its levels, and you'll incur a penalty for finishing it on anything but the harshest setting. There's some longevity to it - there's about twenty-seven levels total, which took a couple hours total to beat - though it's still a bit too short for a full IGotW blog. I really started to resent some of its challenges towards the end also, especially the final boss and a particular level that focused around momentum-building "acceleration fields" that I could never reliably use right. Kind of a pain, honestly, but only in the same way ever other masocore has been. I think it definitely rates if games like the above or Celeste are the type that can keep you hooked, even if it's only through sheer frustrated stubbornness.
I've encountered a few games like Islands: Non-Places before, but I stopped covering them frequently with the Indie Game of the Week series as these are the types of Indie games, or perhaps interactive experiences, that don't really suit a beat-by-beat review of its mechanics and features because there aren't a whole lot of either. What Islands: Non-Places does - along with the likes of Windosill, GNOG, Hohokum, and most of Amanita Design's catalog - is give you a tableau with a handful of interactive hotspots and lets you watch how the space slowly transforms with each click, sometimes in the aid of the critical path and sometimes for the sake of an immaterial (in terms of progression, at least) surprise. They're also deconstructions of how interactivity can play a part in the player's relationship with an environment, taking all the jumping, climbing, pushing, pulling, sliding, and other verbs a game's control scheme and mechanics might allow for and instead replacing them with a single all-purpose tap of the mouse button which can produce any number of unexpected effects.
Islands: Non-Places in particular feels like it was borne of the concept of being in a relatively quotidian and mostly urban space (a parking lot, a hotel foyer, a convenience store fridge, an ATM, etc.) and letting your mind wander after a busy day, fantasizing that this everyday object or environment is some small part of an incredible, unseen ecosystem or mechanism. By tapping the lit-up parts of each of Islands's initially unexciting and dimly-lit settings, the scene might suddenly become submerged underwater, or a plant pot in the middle of a circle of chairs might rise to reveal a massive subterranean root system, or an entire apartment complex emerges from the ground like the dwellings in Neon Genesis Evangelion. The interactivity of these scenes is always rudimentary and limited - there's usually only a handful of things you ever need to press, and the game has them pulse to indicate when they're ready to go - but watching the myriad ways in which the scene might transform is kinda cool. There's ten (or eleven?) of these scenarios to see (the game takes about an hour total) and there's something about the hazy low-lighting and uniform color palettes that is always striking, evoking a sense of reaching the end of an exhausting work shift and hovering between the realms of the waking and the dreaming. It's not much of a video game as we understand the term and all its associations, but still rad.
Being a writer, or at least playing one on the internet, I have a deep love for word games like Sidewords which prioritize a player's vocabulary as well as their puzzle-solving prowess. With Sidewords, you have a relatively simple premise: by using the letters on the horizontal and vertical axes, the goal is to fill a grid with words. You can use as many of the letters as you want, though you need to use a mix of the vertical and horizontal letters to complete the parts of the grid where they intersect. The other important rule is that you can't use the same combination of horizontal and vertical letters twice: once you fill in part of the grid with a word, you can't overlap any part of it with the next. That might mean taking apart a larger word that filled in 80% of the grid in one go, because there's nothing you can do with what remains. Vowel scarcity is a common issue.
I guess I said simple and then launched into a bunch of obfuscated nonsense, but it's far more intuitive than I'm making it sound here. It also gets much tougher as the axes grow in length the further you go, requiring longer words or multiple shorter ones: the former is what you strive for for the sake of keeping the screen tidy and using as few "moves" as possible, but the latter makes itself present more often as you struggle to fill in those remaining blanks.
I also didn't anticipate how long this game would take. I'd completed the first set of thirty-six, just about managing the last few, only to find that there were seven more groups of puzzles of the same size. While the ruleset is relatively simple, I can't imagine the game will get any easier from here on out. Unfortunately, at the higher levels it's less about wordplay and more about finding all those semi-obscure Scrabble words to use to fill in tiny gaps, and you frequently have to finish a puzzle with an assortment of random three- and four-letter words (it won't allow two-letter, alas) that you've maybe never used or never seen before, but was happy to accept when the in-game word-checker gave you the go-ahead. I wish there were more occasions where you could slay the board with a single huge word, but those are preciously few and far between (though their scarcity means you don't often consider if there's one available).
Well, here's something odd. Another one of those "interactive installations" (that I ironically didn't need to install first) where the gameplay boils down to clicking on things, and sometimes certain things in a certain order, before it moves onto the next scene and a new set of hidden objectives. Kids is a little too abstract to describe with a plot summary, as all you do is corral a group of little white blobby dudes into holes, through passageways, deeper underwater, settle arguments between them, and choreograph the occasional Mexican wave. The whole affair is depicted in stark black and white with a hand-drawn animation style and takes about thirty minutes to see in its entirety.
Clearly, it's one of those games with A Message. Not the usual kind of A Message seen in video games either, where the action has to stop every five minutes to tell you that racism is bad (doy) or that we need to treat each other better and not jump to pessimistic conclusions (doy) or the military-industrial complex might not be something we want to help flourish (doy, doy). No, this is A Message that feels a little more subtle in its delivery and a little more open to interpretation. Are these "Kids" because they're getting mindlessly fed through these systems and hardships, symbolically represented as abyssal pits and esophageal tunnels, that we adult generations are purposefully building for them to suffer through (a la Pink Floyd's The Wall)? Are they "Kids" for their desire for the comfort of conformity in these large interchangeable groups, even when that conformity is regularly deleterious to their burgeoning individualism and creativity, and even their well-being? Are they "Kids" because they embody that curious mix of innocence and cruelty that comes from operating mostly on instinct instead of precedent, until they're taught otherwise by the role models in their lives (represented here as the person behind the mouse clicks)? Or are they "Kids" because they keep being dumbasses and jumping into holes, like a dumbass kid might?
Anyway, I thought this game was interesting but I sure am glad I'm not playing it for the sake of a review because I definitely feel like I have the wrong set of skills to properly expatiate what it's going for. Tap dudes, make them fall down holes, have fun.
That's it for what may end up being the first of many blogs of a similar size and scope. It's going to take a long time for any of us to process the full extent of this incredible bundle, and I know many folks out there have been tossing out recs and kudos for hundreds of games in this collection. Just to add to that outpouring of affection somewhat, I want to quickly list the games in the bundle that I've covered in past Indie Game of the Week blogs if you wanted some more convincing:
Oxenfree (IGotW #8): A leisurely-paced supernatural mystery adventure game where you set the emotional tempo, picking dialogue options to tune the protagonist and her attitude to your role-playing preference. Loved the atmosphere.
2064: Read Only Memories (IGotW #13): A point-and-click detective adventure game designed in a Japanese style, specifically that favored by Kojima's Snatcher and Policenauts. Featuring the voice of Dan Ryckert and many others.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch (IGotW #53): Can't say I loved grappling with this game's infamously strange controls, but with the right audience and the right frame of mind I don't doubt it can be hilarious.
Hidden Folks (IGotW #73): Absolutely charming Where's Waldo type of enormous hidden object game. It's worth scouring each of its enormous tableaux to see all the little animations happening. It's like an always surprising ant farm, almost.
Puzzle Puppers (IGotW #81): A cute and unassuming tile puzzle game about hungry, stretchy doggos. Gets increasingly elaborate, but never too difficult (for better or worse).
Celeste (IGotW #98): While I don't think I'll ever like masocore platformers, Celeste made the most concerted effort out of any of them to win me over with its beating heart and hearty beats.
Minit (IGotW #99): Get as much done in your many minute-long lifetimes as possible in this cute monochromatic adventure game. If nothing else, this game helped me focus on one task at a game, something I often trip up on in big open-world games and RPGs.
GNOG (IGotW #150): Namechecked this above. You spin these little dioramas around, clicking buttons and pushing sliders until everything opens up. Sweet and satisfying.
A Short Hike (IGotW #162): The perfect summer vacation game - warm, relaxing, good sunny vibes, no particular goals in mind, and it's over before you know it or wish it.
The Hex (IGotW #163): From the twisted mind behind Pony Island comes another game focused on the meta surrounding game development. Very hard to predict where it's going at any moment.
Anodyne (May Madness 2013): A curious Zelda-like puzzle game with a personal story to tell and some gnarly visuals to take in, raising it above the usual imitators. The sequel's even better (and weirder somehow).
Pikuniku (Go! Go! GOTY! 2019): A puzzle-platformer physics-y game made in the same kind of brightly expressive cartoonish style as the LocoRoco games. I thought it had some pretty funny dialogue.
Thanks for reading, and have fun finding some buried treasure yourselves.
Finally, a game emerges to answer the age-old question of "what if Zelda was a girl?". Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is about as straightforward a Legend of Zelda clone as you could conceivably make, though without necessarily feeling all that stale or uninspired. This is opposed to games like Ittle Dew or The Binding of Isaac, which repurposed the iconic top-down dungeoneering format of the original The Legend of Zelda to create something familiar but given over to its own unusual directive: Ittle Dew wanted to be a puzzle-focused Zelda game that minimized its other facets, while Isaac concentrated on the combat and built itself a procgen run-based frame to go around it. A few more (Oceanhorn, Treasure Adventure World) have even tried to adhere to the blueprint of The Wind Waker, with its more ambitious 3D exploration, cel-shaded visuals, and ocean sailing mechanics. I guess what I'm saying is, it sounds like just aping the original Zelda or the improved but still archetypal A Link to the Past wholesale sounds like the most obvious idea in the world for an Indie game, but there's actually very few Indies that have gone that fundamental with their imitations.
Yet, even closely following in those footsteps as it does, Blossom Tales ain't half bad. It controls well, it offers a pretty decent challenge (healing items seem way too plentiful, but then that's always been the case for Zelda too if you're patient enough to keep running around for potion refills and new fairies to bottle up), it has cute graphics and an even cuter framing story of an old man reading his grandkids a bedtime story - the commentary from the grandfather and kids will occasionally interrupt the game's narrative, Princess Bride style - and despite feeling like I've seen all its tricks and puzzles many times before, I can't say I'm not enjoying my time with it.
Blossom Tales has you control Lily, the newest yet already the most competent recruit of the Royal Knights of the Rose. Everything is flower-themed in this kingdom, including the special treasures you're eventually sent out to procure to awaken the titular sleepy monarch from his enchanted coma, and I'm getting the sense that this a game designed for younger girls without talking down to them or underestimating their video game skills; though the inclusion of a young boy as one of the children, who is just as enthralled with the story as his sister, also suggests that this is an adventure anyone can enjoy. An example of how it creates this tone: the central Rose Kingdom is absolutely filled with colorful butterflies that flutter around each screen, giving the place a tranquil vibe that gives no hint to the tumultuous events to come. Until Lily acquires her sword at the castle's knighting ceremony, these butterflies are peaceably left to their own devices. After she gets her sword, she can mow down as many as she wants; they'll drop the same cash and health refills any enemy or patch of grass might, so it's not like the game discourages you at any point. Likewise, though Lily is introduced as the bastion of purity and grace, she can immediately start robbing people's houses of their useful treasures and Grampa will be quick to amend that to his telling of the story. It's hardly the most subversive example of this genre, even if you're just sticking to the core Zelda games, but it's quick to turn Grampa's idealistic romantic fairytale into a world regulated by some kid-ordained pragmatism.
I'm about two dungeons in and all I can say so far is that there's some impressive meat to this, even if said meat isn't always filling. There's a half-dozen collectible side-quests going on, always some new upgrade or tchotchke to buy, lots of hidden caves and holes to find or treasures to dig up, and the dungeons are remarkably long (though at the moment they all exist on the one plane, rather than the multiple floors of most Zeldas) and filled with plenty of tough traps and encounters to overcome. It also adopts A Link Between Worlds's intelligent feature of an energy bar that slowly regenerates on its own and governs weapons that usually require their own inventory stocks like bombs and bow/arrows, encouraging you to use these items liberally while fighting and exploring without also letting you spam them like crazy. It just feels like a solidly made game in this specific format, if not one that has a deep supply of innovation of its own to draw upon. I'm curious to see where it goes and to keep following that loop of finding heart pieces and fighting bosses and so on, though I hold out little hope that it'll find a way to surprise me. Fingers crossed, I suppose.
Sega's war on Nintendo in the 16-bit era was largely won by persuasive marketing, at least outside of Japan, but there was always an undercurrent of technological one-up-manship. The Sega Genesis came roaring out of the gate with a "does what Nintendon't" promotional campaign, highlighting the difference in power between itself and the NES when it released. After Nintendo answered with the much beefier Super Nintendo Entertainment System in '90-'91, Sega looked to the fledgling CD-based peripheral of its other Japanese rival, the PC Engine/TurboGrafx, and determined that would be the next battlefield. In the holiday season of 1991, Sega of Japan released the Mega-CD: an accessory that would not only allow the Mega Drive to play CD games, but offered some much needed hardware boosts to even the playing field.
Unlike the Sega Mega Drive, the Sega CD (its North American name) is a totally unknown quantity to me barring the occasional Giant Bomb Make My Video sighting (and shoutouts to @brad, as I know he's been delving through this library of late). While I had friends with Mega Drives (I wouldn't buy my own until many years later) none of them seemed willing to shell out for this expensive peripheral, and I think by the time it was coming out over here in the spring of 1993 there was already a lot of skepticism surrounding it. Most, though not all, of the prominently featured games for it were sketchy FMV titles like Night Trap and Sewer Shark, and I want to say that Sega was already considering pulling the plug on new Mega-CD game development by the end of that same year. I may be speaking with the benefit of hindsight though: it's just as likely that everyone I knew was hyped for it and simply didn't have enough allowance saved up to grab it.
Well, hey, working on this feature and these wiki pages seems as good an excuse as any to finally try this thing out. For this inaugural feature on the Sega CD, we're covering the fourteen games released between December 12th 1991, when the Japanese Mega-CD launched, up until the middle of 1992 where the Mega Archive is at, presently. Something very notable here, and rare for a console launch even if said console is a peripheral, is that the majority of these games are third-party. Sega produced just three games for the Sega CD in these seven months, while most of the rest came to us courtesy of Wolf Team, Game Arts, and Telenet Japan: companies who had already found a home on the Mega Drive. There's a few highlights in this first batch, but overall it's some meager offerings for a device that cost 49,800Y (~$500) at launch.
The standard Mega Archive feature will return after a much longer break, but when it eventually resumes with the second half of 1992 I'll be tossing in the occasional Sega CD-focused entry like this to make sure it's keeping up with its brother.
I realized I've waxed poetic enough already but before we start, there's the small matter of three Mega-CD games that have already been covered on the Mega Archive, as all three later received cartridge versions:
(Heavy Nova and Sol-Feace were also Mega-CD launch games. Of these three, only Sol-Feace saw international releases. In the future, any game that debuts on Sega CD will be covered by this sub-series instead of the Mega Archive.)
Premise: The good ship Nostalgia has been damaged by an explosive, and is no longer what it used to be. Can the protagonist get to the bottom of this terrorism mystery before the ship gets to the bottom of the ocean?
Availability: Nope. Various contemporary computer ports, all Japanese.
Preservation: Our first Sega CD exclusive game is... OK, not actually exclusive to the Sega CD. Nostalgia 1907 was originally a Sharp X68000 adventure game about an imperilled boat, not too subtly riffing on the Titanic disaster of 1912. However, instead of icebergs, the Nostalgia is threatened by a criminal bomber who is looking for a priceless artifact hidden somewhere on the ship. If it's not provided within a certain time limit, they intend to sink the ship and kill everyone on board. It's a bit wordy and interminable with its unskippable voiced lines, making the problem of a language barrier even more challenging, so I couldn't tell you much more than that. Seems to have garnered a cult following at least. Takeru (and their label Sur dé Wave) is also new to the Mega Archive: one of their few other games was the excellent (and incredibly rare) NES platformer Little Samson.
Premise: The Funky Horror Band has rolled (beamed?) into town, and someone needs to run around fetching them Danishes and hooking up their amps. Could that someone be you?
Availability: Nope. This was Sega published so it didn't turn up elsewhere and for several reasons nobody thought to localize it.
Preservation: This was a fun game to research. Funky Horror Band was a stop-motion puppet musical show created by Japanese music giants Victor Musical Industries (they sometimes published games too, but oddly enough not this one) that featured a band comprised of bizarre alien creatures: sort of a combination of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas and GWAR. Near as I can tell, this is a traditional turn-based JRPG with a generic anime protagonist where the Funky Horror Band inexplicably turn up as NPCs and ask you to complete quests for them, and has a musical theme throughout: instrument cases instead of chests, enemies named after American rock bands, and so on. It's apparently nothing to write home about as a RPG, but as a vehicle to show off the Sega CD's redbook audio chops you could do worse than getting a real band with real music involved. Well, "real" in a very tenuous sense.
I'm just going to post a music video of these guys, because this shit is kinda wild:
Premise: Those dastardly daimyo are at it again, taking over Japan while no-one's watching.
Availability: Nope. It did, however, see a 1995 SFC remake/remaster with a new title (Sengoku no Hasha).
Preservation: It didn't take long for the Sega CD to have its own Sengoku strategy sim. Created in the image of Koei's Nobunaga's Ambition series - "Tenka Fubu" was Oda Nobunaga's own credo, and translates to "rule through military force" - Eiyuutachi no Houkou ("Roar of the Heroes") is as impenetrable as the rest of its ilk. One notable trait of Tenka Fubu is that it was the first Sega CD game developed by Game Arts: one of the few developers who would find great commercial and critical success with the system, though not with this game in particular. We'll see them again in just a little bit.
Premise: The WonderMega is here, and with it is a bunch of crap Sega found in a desktop folder somewhere and threw together onto one disc.
Availability: Nope. It's a pack-in title for a semi-obscure console SKU that wasn't sold separately, so it might be hard to find.
Preservation: The WonderMega was the first hybrid Mega Drive and Mega-CD console unit released in Japan (it was called the X'Eye in the States), and for the pack-in Sega thought it might be an idea to toss a few of those Sega MegaNet Game Toshokan downloadable games together in a bundle. As opposed to, say, actually good Genesis games like those found in the later Mega Games compilations. Included here are Flicky (previously seen in Mega Archive Part VII, entry #102), Paddle Fighter (Mega Archive Part VII, entry #112), and Pyramid Magic (Mega Archive Part X, entry #146) as well as newcomer Quiz Scramble which would soon be sold separately as Quiz Scramble Special (see below). In addition to those, the disc also has four karaoke numbers on it which you access via the Sega CD's music player, once again taking advantage of the platform's redbook audio. Not much of a collection, but then the Mega-CD hadn't yet found a worthy enough killer app to be "pack-in material".
Premise: I honestly have no idea. Rescue the princess?
Availability: Nope. No localizations, no ports, no interest in either from what I can tell.
Preservation: Wolf Team were no strangers to RPGs, though they're still a few years from the one that launched them into the stratosphere (1995's Tales of Phantasia, which I seem to bring up every time we cover a Wolf Team game). "Fhey Area" is I think meant to be something like "Fayaria", as in a generic fantasy kingdom name, but the game case itself has "Fhey Area" written down the spine so who am I to argue. Notable for having voice over and animated cutscenes, like most CD games of this time, but only for the opening cinematic. I don't like to call any game half-assed, but Wolf Team did release this in the six month gap between two other games (Earnest Evans and Aisle Lord) so either they had the interns handle development or the alpha disc fell out of a truck and they decided to stick their names on it. (Thanks to @pepsiman for helping me figure out the weird title!)
Premise: What if Phantasy Star but with boobs? That's more or less what Cosmic Fantasy promises, and Sega CD owners could get in on the ground floor of this franchise with this enhanced remake of the first two games.
Availability: Nope. The original TurboGrafx-CD version of Cosmic Fantasy 2 was localized by Working Designs, but none of the others were (at least officially).
Preservation: The Mega-CD is already shaping up to be a decent console for RPG fans, especially as the CD format could allow developers to tell stories as lengthy and as cinematically as they wanted, thanks to all that extra storage space. It is, after all, one of the major reasons why Square went to Sony's PlayStation with Final Fantasy VII. The raunchy and goofy Cosmic Fantasy games were fairly well liked on their native PC Engine platform, and getting both in the same package like this with much needed improvements to the combat engine probably struck its many fans as a good deal. It's also a cynical means of siphoning away the install base of the only other CD console racket in town, but Sega didn't get to where it was by playing nice. Too bad for all those Cosmic Fantasy fans who chose to jump ship: future sequels remained PC Engine exclusives.
Premise: Death Bringer is the world's shittiest Santa Claus. Maybe don't open any of the presents he left under the tree.
Availability: Nope. Well, you could buy some untranslated, less feature-rich PC versions of the game through Project EGG if you wanted to go the trouble.
Preservation: All right, I love RPGs and all, but this might be too many all at once. Especially as they all seem to be coming from the same developers. Death Bringer is the first of two first-person dungeon crawlers released in a row, designed in the classic Wizardry/Might and Magic style, and is modern enough to include an auto-mapping feature for those of us who get lost easily. Unlike Telenet's other Sega CD games, this was a pre-existing title that had already graced the major Japanese PC platforms of the era, but it's not the same Death Bringer that came to Amiga and Atari ST. The Sega CD would not be a stranger to this typically western style of RPG: as well as Aisle Lord, next on the list, it'll also eventually see ports of Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra, Eye of the Beholder, and Dungeon Master II.
Premise: They're gonna need a clean up on aisle five once your band of rampaging heroes are done tearing up the place.
Availability: Nope. Contemporary review scores don't seem glowing, so I don't know if anyone's in a rush to restore this "lost classic".
Preservation: Oh Lord, they're teaming up now. Wolf Team and Telenet/Riot really putting the work in for the Sega CD's first few months, certainly more than the one joke game and half-hearted compilation Sega themselves put forward for the first six months of their new baby's existence. Aisle Lord's another first-person RPG as I mentioned above, but Wolf Team took a slightly different approach to the UI: your team is visible at all times while exploring and fighting, the latter using a real-time/turn-based hybrid system where you can pause and direct the action as often as you want or just let your characters handle things automatically (depending on, perhaps, the enemy's strength). It's all very like Drakkhen, oddly enough, which isn't the sort of accessible game that typically engenders imitators. It also features the rare combination of both anime and FMV cutscenes, so... get you an Aisle Lord who can do both.
Premise: Relentless trivia! In Japanese! Probably based around the current events and pop culture of early '90s Japan! Good luck!
Availability: Nope. There's a lesser version included in the WonderMega Collection (above).
Preservation: It's odd, I really expected there to be more trivia games around after the success of HQ Trivia, but besides the occasional You Don't Know Jack there's not a whole lot coming out any more, at least in the major console/PC spaces. Japan's always loved this genre and there's plenty of quiz games to be found on any given platform; the Sega CD will see many more in the future. Quiz Scramble Special's story is... not easy to ascertain, and I imagine that would be the case even if I could understand the language. Suffice it to say, Japanese literacy is a requirement for this one.
Premise: Silky Lip must balance schoolwork with her double-life of being a powerful sorceress living in a magical alternate dimension. Man, relatable.
Availability: Nope. There's a 2008 remake of sorts, but... well, read below.
Preservation: Ah jeez. Look, there's nothing too salacious about this magical girl anime-inspired adventure game starring an elementary school student, but there are some visual choices with regards to shot angles - especially during the intro cutscenes - that perhaps should've been reviewed by a committee of social workers and cops from the sex crimes division. While it isn't an RPG, strictly speaking, it does have some aspirations towards hybrid status with what I believe are some rudimentary character building and combat mechanics. I think the goal is to increase your magical girl value to outperform your rivals in some big contest, but I couldn't get too far through it. Sadly, like her big sister Valis, Silky Lip was eventually sold off to unscrupulous pornographers after Telenet Japan folded. I sincerely hope they at least aged her up first. Ugh, moving on.
Premise: Young Alex dreams of being a legendary Dragonmaster like his hero Dyne, and gets his break when he wakes up one day as the protagonist of a beloved JRPG. Usually a good sign.
Availability: The Silver Star's been remastered and remade a few times, first as Silver Star Story Complete for PS1 and Saturn (the former was localized), and then more recently as Lunar Legend for GBA in 2002 and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony for PSP in 2009. Silver Star Harmony is probably the one to buy, unless they decide to remake it again.
Preservation: OK, so it's evident Lunar means a lot to many, though to my chagrin it's one of my biggest JRPG blindspots. Unfortunately, The Silver Star, Silver Star Story Complete, and Silver Star Harmony are all priced in excess of a bajillion dollars most places, so it doesn't look like I'm going to get my shot any time soon. While the rest of the above list of early Mega-CD RPGs were experiments creating narrative-driven games with the new capabilities of the CD format, The Silver Star was probably the first to truly take advantage of what the format could do, with a level of presentational craft and focus on storytelling that is still appreciated to this day. While I'm no Lunar-tic, I do have a fervent appreciation for Games Arts's follow-up of sorts, Grandia, and how that really delivered on an infectiously fun, swashbuckling atmosphere. It's clear the developers believed that RPGs should feel more like big escapist fantasies, and less like accountancy spreadsheets where numbers continually go back and forth. (Also, how wild is it that it took this long to find another Sega CD game that released in North America?)
Continuing a mini-series within IGotW I could pragmatically name "free shit I got from the Epic Game Store," Sundered is one of the only games I'm aware of that defines itself as a "roguevania". That is, an explormer game that procedurally generates the majority of its map after every session (or, more accurately, every death). For the record, I've seen this specific hybrid a few times before, albeit without the distinctive genre moniker: Rogue Legacy, for example, will gate you off areas of its dungeon until you've sorted out bosses elsewhere, and randomly generates its hazard-filled fortress every time you move down a generation. However, Sundered's structure is such that it's only partially randomized: certain rooms will always exist in their designated areas on the map, though they're linked together by these larger "blank" map areas that have a random assortment of rooms and pathways through them, including dead ends. Your destination is usually clear, especially as the map helpfully indicates "ability gates" (if not the specific ability you need to surmount them) for you to return to, though the actual routes to them are ambiguous and frequently perilous.
Right off the bat, there are aspects about Sundered that I like and others I like less. We'll cover the former first, since it's the smaller of the two lists. Sundered's combat engine is complex enough that stats play a significant role, though not quite to the extent of an RPG: you can upgrade your total health, armor, stamina, the number of curatives you can carry at once, the number of "perks" you can equip at once, and others. The way you do this is by returning to the hub area of the game and feeding currency - earned from defeating enemies and destroying jars and chests - into an expansive skill tree, with new nodes increasing in price the more of the tree you unlock. Additionally, most of this skill tree is locked away until you have acquired additional traversal abilities, which isn't so much serving to put limits on how powerful you can grow between game milestones than it is to keep this huge skill tree at least somewhat manageable to navigate. While you can walk back or warp to the sanctuary, where this skill tree can be accessed, you're most likely to revisit it immediately after being killed while exploring. As a bit of serendipitous timing, where you're suddenly given the means to greatly enhance your fighting chances after a defeat, it's a neat masterstroke of the game's sense of pacing. You could, theoretically, be so good at the game that you rarely ever have to visit the sanctuary and upgrade, in which case there's no real urgency to do so, but the moment the game starts getting a little unmanageable and finally overwhelms you, the option to make things easier is promptly presented to you. I also think the game looks gorgeous, with a hand-drawn realistic animated style carrying an Asian flair that, as a package, almost resembles Avatar: The Last Airbender. I had to turn down some of the more ostentatious settings, like particle effects, to maintain the stable framerate an action game like this demands, but it's still picturesque as heck and character animations flow beautifully. Likewise the sound design is decent, with the calm ambient background sounds replaced by sirens when shit's about to hit the fan, and a spoken language I'm not entirely sure I can identify (and I suspect is invented for the game).
Then there's all the elements I'm either still gradually warming to, or don't ever see myself appreciating even with more time spent with the game. Naturally, most of this is tied into the game's more roguelite-focused mechanics. Most prominent is the way the game handles enemy encounters: these maps are generally devoid of enemies until you hear that aforementioned siren in the background, at which point it's time to stop whatever exploration or platforming you were doing and stand around clobbering hordes of a very scarce number of enemy types for several minutes. Enemies just flood whichever areas you happen to be standing in when the time arrives, and will persist in chasing you across the zone until you eventually decide to deal with them, which you'll want to do because it's hard to focus on the game's moderately challenging platforming - a whole lot of wall-jumping and trap-evading in particular - when you're getting swamped with very persistent mobs who can all traverse the local environment far easier than you can. Though the combat itself isn't so bad (I appreciate any combat system that has dodge rolls with ample i-frames) it's not all that exciting either, and I find I appreciate it more when the game lets me take in its levels without the interruptions, as tranquil as they are. It reminds me of how Castlevania II for the NES would regularly interrupt whatever you were doing for a dialogue box about curses before making the game a much tougher battle for survival until the morning mercifully arrives: that dialogue box always felt pushy and rude in a weird way, and an unwelcome harbinger of harder times ahead. Really, it's the jarring way that the game goes from a leisurely stroll to this staggering, frantic fracas at the drop of a hat, rather than maintaining a steady mix of combat and platforming throughout like other explormers. I'm also left cold when any procgen is used for level design like this, where environments just come off as samey and nondescript because there aren't any specific level design decisions being made barring those rare templates where they might hide a chest behind a fake ceiling or a floor tile you can jump down. I think back to my time with Bloodstained, and how rooms might have certain little areas that I can't yet reach that I make mental notes to return to, and how satisfying it is to fully chart a specific part of the castle once I have the means to do so. When most of the map is wiped upon death, it feels a little dispiriting to keep starting over, even if I've little reason to return to those early areas.
I can't blame Sundered and its devs (Thunder Lotus Games, also behind the equally pretty but only so-so gameplay-wise Jotun) for doing what it wants to do, which is introduce procgen to explormers in a slightly less intrusive way than it's been done in the past. That there are these "fixture" rooms on the map to head towards, many of which have icons to indicate that a new traversal ability can be acquired or that I've since found the key to get past the obstacle there, means I can still appreciate some sense of progress, as does filling out more of the skill tree when I inevitably lose track of how my health is doing in the midst of a chaotic melee and get booted back to the sanctuary. One smart notion for exploration's sake is how you have a small amount of shield that regenerates after a few seconds; it's usually not enough to rely on to brute force your way past dangerous trap rooms or take a lot of punishment when you're completely swamped with enemies, but it's enough that you don't feel like the game is whittling down your health bar constantly. If you're cautious enough, and use the dodge roll judiciously, you'll probably emerge from most enemy encounters without a scratch, and the shield is one of many aspects of your character development that you can improve through the skill tree. I haven't died nearly as much as I make it sound like I do, and the first time it happened was only because I accidentally triggered that most debilitating of status effects: Windows's regrettable "Sticky Keys" tool that booted me out of the game to deal with it, which I've since finally disabled for good. Other issues, like the difficulty of getting any controller to play nice with the game, is mostly on me and my lack of resourcefulness when it comes to solving technical issues. I don't think I'll throw in the towel on Sundered just yet as I feel I've almost matched the beat of its peculiar rhythm, but I can't say I'm fully sold on its approach to hybridizing these two popular Indie genres either.
All right, I've seen this phenomenon often enough that it's time to come up with a terrible name for it. "Truncapable." There you go. An adjective that describes any Indie game inspired by big-budget RPGs that must truncate many aspects out of necessity due to less resources and a smaller development team, while still capably delivering on the layers of complexity and enjoyment those originals offered via some resourceful game design. In other words, an Indie-fied spin on a classic that makes serious cuts, and yet feels fresh and playable due to some smart choices.
We've seen this previously in this feature with Aarklash Legacy (IGotW #92), Victor Vran (IGotW #137), and most recently Death's Gambit (IGotW #170): in each case, there's an accompanying major budget (if somewhat old) game or series by which they're influenced. Aarklash is riffing on the Infinity Engine series, in particular the way they balance tactical real-time action with turn-based planning, and focuses less on elaborate D&D character builds and systems that would be a nightmare for a smaller studio to implement or balance and more on last-second dodging of enemy projectiles and maneuvering to make the best use of circle and cone AoEs; Victor Vran is a loot RPG that offered a slimmed down version of Diablo with fewer possible builds, instead focusing on strong weapon diversity, more defensive options by way of evasive dodging and jumping, and challenging bonus objectives to pursue; and Death's Gambit is a stripped down Dark Souls that retains the gothic vibe and corpse runs while reducing the size of its world, switching to 2D to incorporate some explormer elements, and making the classes feel more specialized including one that operates on Bloodborne's "press the retaliation to recover lost health" mechanics.
Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark is the newest Indie game I've played to use this sort of approach, as it's evident after the initial battle that the developers have more than a fondness for venerable PS1 SRPG cornerstone Final Fantasy Tactics. Characters progress by earning "ability points" for their current class, spent between battles, and mastering these classes eventually unlocks new classes for them to explore. Units add to their versatility by combining their primary class with a sub-class - incorporating the ability tree of a previous, currently inactive class to bolster the current - as well as passive skills and counter abilities, some of which are more effective with the right class/build. The Job system is frequently lauded as one of the Final Fantasy franchise's greatest innovations, and it's heartening to see an Indie try their hand at it, albeit in a somewhat truncated (or truncapable?) fashion.
Fell Seal's story follows Kyrie the Arbiter, a position analogous to a sheriff or federal agent, who goes around enacting the will of the country's ruling council of Immortals: seven powerful, near-ageless heroes who now occupy an administrative role in keeping the peace. A chance encounter with a murderous noble sets Kyrie on a course to uncover corruption in the Immortal council and the Arbiters they command, ever accompanied by her roguish stepbrother Reiner and wide-eyed protégé Anadine. She's also followed by any number of player-made mercenaries, and these footsoldiers are given more emphasis in Fell Seal than they ever were in Final Fantasy Tactics, where they were regularly eclipsed and replaced by the many more talented story characters Ramza accrued as the game went on.
Playing the game, it feels like a slightly less mechanically-rich Final Fantasy Tactics. (Or, to put it another way, like a Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.) Flank and rear attacks do more damage, but a superior height difference doesn't. You can push enemies off cliffs for additional fall damage or into water to drown them, but you can't, say, hit a partially submerged unit with electricity magic for more damage than usual due to the added conduction. It's a little bit of a shame but a totally acceptable compromise given just how complex FFT was, and remains even to this day. Instead, Fell Seal finds its innovations via some clever convenience and accessibility routes. A few examples: instead of a stockpile of items that you're ever cautious about burning through, items in Fell Seal operate like Estus Flasks in that they all refresh after a battle but their usage is still strictly limited. This gives you ample reason to toss out anything you might have if it'll help without worrying that you'll need it for a future boss fight, but conversely prevents you from spamming potions and instead encourages you to rely on healers (or someone with a healer sub-class, at least). Items also cannot be bought, only upgraded with the game's crafting system - this means you can eventually earn stronger versions of consumables and/or use them with more frequency, but only if you're diligent about obtaining spoils. Another player-friendly concession is in how Ability Points are earned: characters not only gain AP if they're not part of the battle, albeit in smaller amounts, but earn AP in their allies' classes in addition to their own via "vicarious learning". This not only allows you to progress towards unlocking classes without temporarily forcing, say, a magic-focused class to switch to a combat role (which they'll be weaker at due to their stat distribution), but also encourages you to develop a team of diverse talents so all those vicarious learning AP bonuses get spread around less-used classes like rangers and druids. There's also an injury system that replaces permadeath (unless playing on a higher difficulty setting) in that a fallen unit will receive a stat penalty in future battles unless they sit one out to recover. This again has the double application of a suitably harsh punishment that won't undo hours of character development put into some expendable merc, as well as a reason to keep a larger team of back-ups around to step in for those who might need a break.
Fell Seal is doing its best Final Fantasy Tactics impression for both the combat and story, and bless it for trying even if it occasionally feels like an amateur production re-enactment of the War of the Lions, but for all the ways it simplifies things for the sake of a more streamlined and Indie-approachable product, it smartly compensates for those shortcomings with its intelligent ideas. Its character models, though they might resemble the avatars of some long-forgotten social media MMO, allow for a great deal of visual customization to help personalize your team (though you cannot change the appearances of the main characters, which is probably for the best). The pixel graphics are so detailed that I might recommend having a hefty resolution before playing, as anything less than 1050 pixels on the vertical axis makes the action feel way too zoomed in unless you choose to scale down the graphics and lose some of the image quality. I can't say I've ever faced that particular problem in a pixel-based game before, but it's probably a sign of the times more than anything else.
I'm only five hours in, but I'm going to stick with Fell Seal for a while longer. I'm invested in the story, such as it is, and in seeing what the more elaborate classes are like once I've addressed their demanding prerequisites. While its not quite as well-written, exciting, or as complex as Final Fantasy Tactics it's the best approximation I've seen of the Squaresoft nonpareil outside of a Tactics Ogre or Nippon Ichi Software title, which is all the more impressive given the limited means these developers must have had. I don't think "truncapable" will catch on as a term, but the Indie RPGs it describes definitely have a future if they're all as carefully considered as this.
It wasn't that far past the previous blog when I remembered why I stopped playing loot RPGs. The constant influx of treasure and character progression micromanagement is a fetching enough Skinner box but the wafer-thin story and combat encounters can make these games drag on for infinity, and it doesn't help that there are systems in place to ensure it can keep going for another loop or twenty. I don't mean to decry Iron Lore's Titan Questspecifically for this, though it does tip its hand during its unexpected final act - one that begins immediately after completing the Titan quest that the title refers to - in how it makes the finishing line stretch on and on into the far distance. They then further exacerbate these final act doldrums by designing all the checkpoint fountains and teleporters to be much further apart than they are in the three previous acts, adding nothing to the long treks back to your gravestone to reclaim the XP you'd lost upon death given that enemies don't respawn unless you quit the game.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though, jumping to the end-game when then there was plenty more between then and when I posted the Titan Quest Intro blog. As I predicted, the Greece chapter is but one of several, the others taking place in Egypt - and, like in Diablo II, a region that featured a lot of sand and at least one occasion in which you had multiple tombs to explore but only one had the critical path forward - and "the Orient", which encompassed Babylon (presently Iraq) before moving across Nepal, Mongolia, and China. The aforementioned final act takes you back to Greece before embarking on a thorough exploration of the land of Hades, passing by Styx, Erebus, Elysium, and taking the fight directly to the wayward Lord of the Dead. I'll say that this final chapter was at least visually arresting, as any depiction of the underworld usually is, but it was already long past the point where I wanted to be done with the game.
What also didn't improve was the game's general stability and quality level. Glitches abound, from the major (crashes, stuck on geometry, treasure falling through floor) to the minor (visual glitches like ragdolls collapsing into boneless beanbags, or special effects turning into a bunch of unrendered squares before fixing themselves), but they were all ubiquitous and unrelenting. It strikes me as very possible that little was done to patch up the console ports of this remaster, presumably as there was an anniversary-based deadline to keep and THQ Nordic wanted to bring back some of that sloppy THQ magic from beyond its well-deserved grave. Other annoyances include inventories that don't sort on their own - when you get the "inventory's full" alert, you can usually go in there and hit "sort" a bunch of times to miraculously find some space - and the marvelous way the game half-assedly integrates the Ragnarok DLC content. I'll elaborate: Ragnarok added a few new items to its roster, particularly thrown weapons like boomerangs and chakram as options for a ranged warrior who doesn't care for the languid attack speeds of bows. However, it doesn't remove it from the core game if you don't have this DLC, so these weapons sit in stores where they remain unpurchaseable, taking space away from weapons you could potentially use, and these weapons will also regularly drop from chests (again, removing something usable from the treasure pool) where they cannot be picked up. There aren't any text pop-ups, but the models can be plainly seen (along with a colored "shine" that indicates the rarity) if you zoom in around the chests. It's an obnoxious way to reduce the overall quality of the core game experience for everyone except those willing to fork out extra for the game's additional campaign.
I've slammed Titan Quest enough for its mistakes, but there are moments of design brilliance that help rise it up among its loot RPGs peers and make it a little more bearable to play. The first and most significant of these are the extra inventory bags you earn after major milestones in the story. Going from one inventory page to four means far less travelling back to the nearest vendor hub, and that goes double if you eventually decide - as I did - to leave all the white-tinted "common" treasure behind. I had much longer, uninterrupted periods murdering my way through a rogue's gallery of mythical beasts with this convenience. I feel like the game could've badly used a dodge roll of some kind - perhaps it's available in other skill trees - but you can just about evade most enemy projectiles before answering with your own in the brief window between their shots, which made some of the ranged elites and bosses a bit more exciting to tussle with. I also liked the game's relic and artifact system, and not for the reasons you might expect: relics can be constructed by combining specific enemy drops, and these relics can be combined with equipment to improve it or combined with other relics to create artifacts, should you have the right recipe. The scant likelihood involved with finding the right relics and recipes meant that actually making an artifact felt like a big deal, even if its bonuses were fairly nondescript. Towards the end of the game you starting finding recipes for Greater Artifacts, which required combining several of the lesser ones you may have already built. I sadly didn't have the means to make any of those, but it's the sort of hook that someone might want to chase if they intend to play through several cycles (and there's a means of sending equipment to your other characters via a transfer feature from the storage NPC, good both for sending half-finished artifacts as well as powerful equipment that's non-applicable to your current build). These are perhaps standard features for most modern loot RPGs, but I was still glad to see them in the more antiquated TItan Quest regardless.
Other features like a day/night cycle seemed at first like a novel way to highlight the passage of time, especially when you enter a dungeon during the day but emerge at dusk, but it only served to make certain areas - especially swamps and thick forests - almost visually impenetrable in the dead of night. Perhaps with a means to illuminate yourself and your surroundings in a simple, unobtrusive way (no reserving inventory space for torches, for instance), or at least the option to rest until morning, this feature would've made more sense. The side-quests were a handy way to make some cash and XP on the side, but I generally didn't have to go too far out of my way for most of them: they usually boiled down to fetch quests and mid-boss hunts. Still, the few that actually gave me stats or skill points to use were worth seeking out and completing.
I don't think Titan Quest is a bad game by any stretch (though I might advise folks stay away from the console ports and stick to the PC version) but it does make it clear to me if it wasn't before that I've lost my verve for this particular sub-genre of action-RPG. I suspect playing Ys might've spoiled me somewhat, since no loot RPG I've played has matched its sense of speed and tactical maneuvering (though the closest in recent memory was the excellent Victor Vran: a game that popped out of nowhere to surprise me).
That's also going to do it for May Millennials this year as well. Spending half this month on Gothic II was not my intent setting out, though it was easily still my favorite of the three games covered in this year's May feature. I think if we do all this again, I might leave off the slightly bulkier CRPGs like Titan Quest and Gothic and look for some more truncated adventures for a bit more variety with these blogs. I kinda miss the days when I ended up playing over 20 games in a single month, albeit rarely to completion: there's still a lot out there I want to see, from this century and previous, and I can't be letting slogfests siphon away what game-playing time I have left.