Volume

Quick disclosure: I’m buddies with both Volume creator Mike Bithell and actor/critic/celebrity mime Jim Sterling.

Disclosure over. Yea, I didn’t like Volume. But not because it doesn’t stack up against Thomas Was Alone, Mike’s previous game. Anyone who went in expecting something like that is probably being a bit unfair. I should also disclose that I’ve never played the NES Metal Gear, which is what inspired Volume. I’m not quite sure why you would want to mimic a nearly 30year-old game’s mechanics, especially in a genre like stealth. I’m sure the retro fans will hate me for saying this, but being like something old isn’t necessarily a good thing. Metal Gear isn’t inherently better because it’s older. You only think it’s better because you played it at an age where video game stimuli caused your body to generate higher levels of dopamine than playing games today as an adult does. When you look at one of your childhood favorites, those memories alone could possibly trigger something close to that desired effect but not quite there, which essentially renders the experience the gaming version of chasing the dragon.

By the way, that whole dopamine rant I pulled it out of my ass for comic effect not knowing the science probably backs me up on it. Also, put down the pitchforks, retro fans. Tongue firmly in cheek. I’m not suggesting old school gamers would turn to heroin because they can’t get their copy of River City Ransom to boot up.

Okay, fine, maybe Patrick Scott Patterson would.

The dogs in Volume can alert the guards to your location but can't actually attack you. Oh COME ON, this totalitarian regime couldn't afford a couple angry Dobermans?

The dogs in Volume can alert the guards to your location but can’t actually attack you. Oh COME ON, this totalitarian regime couldn’t afford a couple hungry Dobermans with a taste for human flesh? Because if not I know a guy..

I actually like games inspired by the legendary titles of yore. Inspired being the key word here. Actually being like them is sort of the pits, since gaming has come a long ways. That’s why Volume fails. It’s married too much to being like old school stealth games. You know, the ones where actual stealth wasn’t required. It also wants to be a puzzle game. And an action-arcade game. These three styles really aren’t compatible, and some aspects of them also get in the way of delivering an in-depth story that tries to be a modern take on Robin Hood. The hero’s name is Locksley, while the villain is Guy Gisborne. Also known as the Robin Hood villain nobody gives a shit about. Given the totalitarian regime angle, the bad guy should have been named John Prince. Guy Gisborne sounds like he would be a back-up drummer for Winger.

So why didn’t I like Volume? You can break it down into three parts.

1. I like my stealth games to be sneaky and tension filled.

Volume is neither. The enemies are so fucking brain-dead that I was able to set global record times on dozens of stages just by ignoring the stealth stuff and making a run for it. Right in front of the enemies. Sometimes I would be walking up against a wall, in full view of one of the guard’s line of sight, literally wiggle my body to try to get caught, and nothing happened. I made a mix tape to demonstrate everything I’m talking about. Take a look.

Dimwitted guards operating like they recently had a full frontal lobotomy might have been a staple of gaming’s past, but why not smarten it up today? Wouldn’t that be the best way to pay tribute to those past games, by improving on their original intent? The lack of anything resembling intelligence really takes the oomph out of Volume. There’s no tension at all. That would require a fear of getting caught by the guards. But I often walked into tiny, dead-end rooms from which there was no possible way I could escape, have the guards follow me, peek into the room, and give up the search. If they worked there, surely they would know of the room and know I had no place else to go.

This was also the primary reason why I couldn’t get into the story. The idea is you’re simply running a simulator that’s teaching others how to break into these guarded buildings and loot treasure. I was sort of hoping the big plot twist in the end would be showing Locksley the pile of bodies the dictatorship had racked up due to his horrible advice on thieving. “Surely Locksley you didn’t expect us to hire guards that don’t know the layout of the building they work in you stupid fool!” A+ writing there, by the way. I’m for hire.

2. I like my puzzle games to be brainy.

You can certainly see the logic of Volume’s levels. Some of them might have offered some downright brain-bending moments. They would have, if you had to solve them the way Mike envisioned. But you don’t. I had pretty much figured out how to exploit the guard’s behavior only a few stages into Volume and was able to just plow through stages with total disregard for the elaborate puzzles set up for me. Two guards that I need to whistle for to distract and slowly move away from the diamond sandwiched between them? Yea, I could do that. Or I could just walk up, take the diamond, occasionally hug the wall to restart their aiming mechanic, turn a corner and sprint to the exit. I never repeated any level more than a couple of times. There’s no punishment for being caught by the guards, and because the global leaderboards reward fast times, you’re actually rewarded for ignoring that point of the game. I wasn’t just beating high scores, I was annihilating some of them by thirty seconds or more on my first attempt at those stages.

This cracked me up. Many stages in and the game just alerted me that new, dumber guards were added. As opposed to the guards from before? Ha.

This cracked me up. Many stages in and the game just alerted me that new, dumber guards were added. As opposed to the guards from before? Ha.

3. I like my arcade games to be fast-paced.

Volume’s moderately interesting story is told with a mixture of voice overs and text boxes that are placed in stages. Whereas Thomas Was Alone’s fairy tale-like narration was in perfect sync with the happenings of the game, Volume has a much more complex plot that requires your full attention to process. Then it throws you in a game where your attention will be anywhere but on the plot. When this isn’t happening, you might stumble upon a text-box that pauses the game (and thankfully the timer) so you can get more plot points that my brain processed as gibberish because it had broken my flow of not-giving-a-shit running from guards while cackling the whole time. Really, the text boxes should have more often been envelopes that you could read at your own leisure between the stages. I don’t want my not-a-stealth-or-puzzler-or-arcade game interrupted in the middle of a chase. Do you? Volume probably does a lot better as a fast-paced action/arcade title than it does anything else, but it still feels too slow and dull for that without the story interruptions.

Volume has some neat moments. I like how you’re still getting new items even after 90 stages, and the items are mostly fun to use. The voice acting is mostly fine, even though I can’t pick one British voice apart from another besides Jim’s, who I’d like to think has some sort of dolphin-like ultra-sonic thing going for him. The graphics are okayish. It controls fine. But, Volume just plain isn’t fun. Too dumb to challenge. Too long to say “at least it was quick.” And to those who say I’m not being fair because I didn’t play it the way it was intended to be played, I say this: it’s up to the developer to tighten the game to prevent me from doing that. Look, if you give an asshole a flamethrower and unleash them in the Jiffy Pop factory, I’m sorry but you’re an idiot if you don’t think there’s going to be a mess of popcorn at the end of the night. And in the case of Volume, I was given moronic guards and non-puzzles. I took the path of least resistance and said “fuck this, I could go for some popcorn right about now.”

Volume logoVolume was developed by Mike Bithell
Point of Sale: PSN, Steam
Only the PS4 version was played for this review.

$19.99 pumped up the Volume like it was a Fygar in the making of this review.

To the Moon

I generally don’t like games made with RPG Maker and I really don’t like visual novels. So, it was a bit puzzling to me that To the Moon became one of the most requested reviews I ever had. Not requests from people on the fence about whether they should buy it or not. These are all requests from people who finished and wanted to know what I thought because of one plot element. So, I have to go heavy on the spoilers again. Before I get there, what did I think of To the Moon?

Great concept, good plot, annoying main characters, bad script, boring gameplay. In that order. I don’t recommend it for the same reason I didn’t recommend All the Bad Parts. Because, no matter how interesting or worthwhile a story is, when it’s put in a video game it has to be at least equally as interesting to make it unfold. At least in my books.

Alright, spoiler time.

So, yea, I probably got a lot of requests for this one because I’m autistic. My diagnosis is atypical, or “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified” or “PDD-NOS.” Which isn’t really used all that much anymore, but I don’t feel like going in for an updated diagnosis. Why bother? I’m at peace with myself and my life. We have a system in place to help me live with autism. It’s something I happen to live with. I do understand why people would be interested in what someone on the spectrum thinks of a game with autism as a central plot point, but really, all the worst parts of To the Moon have nothing to do with it.

They named the lighthouse "Anya" and filled it with bunnies. I have no words.

They named the lighthouse “Anya” and filled it with bunnies. I have no words.

To the Moon is a story about a widower on his death-bed who has paid a company to alter his memories and make his final wish “come true.” The autism thing comes from the fact that River, his wife, had Asperger Syndrome. Unless my memory is failing me, it never outright comes out and says that’s her diagnosis, but it does refer to the writings of Tony Attwood, who is one of the foremost experts on the condition. People who meet me and learn I have autism often assume that’s my diagnosis. It’s not, but PDD-NOS is so broad in an already haphazard diagnostic process that I could very well meet experts today who would call it that.

So the requests for To the Moon mostly come from people wondering if I felt the game depicted autism accurately. The answer to that is yes. River, the old dude’s deceased wife, is shown in flashbacks repeatedly making origami rabbits or having difficulty talking and expressing herself to others.  There’s even a scene where John and River go horseback riding as part of her equine therapy. Yes, that’s a real thing. Really, if you’re going to depict someone on the spectrum in a 2D not-a-game game, this is probably as good as you’re going to do.

Well, except this: before the not-a-reveal reveal of River’s condition, there are scenes where John is talking to friends and doctors about what’s wrong with River in hushed, ominous tones. I do my best to keep myself in the dark about story elements or gameplay mechanics at IGC, so I had never heard that one of the subjects of To the Moon was autism. So, before the not-a-reveal reveal where they name dropped Tony Attwood, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was River had. It didn’t help that all the characters used the pronoun game. “She has THAT?” “Yea, THAT!” What the fuck was “that?” She was obsessed with origami rabbits and the clocks in the house didn’t tick. That was all I had to go off of. Judging by the way the characters seemed frightened of what she had, I was thinking it was something either terminal or mentally degenerative. A brain tumor. Early-onset Alzheimer’s. Something that would have her friends and loved ones speaking in whispered tones as if they could shit their pants in terror at any moment.

Asperger Syndrome? Really? They were talking about her like they thought John might wake up with his bed on fire because River had Asperger Syndrome? Terrible handling of the plot. I assure you, people with autism don’t light your beds on fire because they have autism. They do it for the same reason anyone does: because it’s fun.

I wasn’t offended by it. Frankly, the writing in To the Moon is just horrible enough at times that nobody should be able to be that offended by it. Though I should point out that a friend of mine with Asperger Syndrome asked me to note that he didn’t like both the way other characters spoke of River’s Asperger Syndrome or the way one of the other characters, written to also be an Aspie, was just part of the “proud asshole with Asperger syndrome” media trope. The male scientist, Dr. Watts, has dialog like someone binge-watched Big Bang Theory and told the script writer “make him like that asshole named Sheldon.” Sheldon is held up as a poster child for Asperger Syndrome by Autism Speaks, but apparently many Aspies say he’s simply a lazy stereotype of the public perception of it. Noted.

This picture should not have been on To the Moon's marketplace page. This isn't even a real battle, nor are there any battles like this in the game. To the Moon is tagged on the Steam page as an RPG. This image implies that there might be traditional RPG battle mechanics in To the Moon, instead of it just being a visual novel. Like a steel-wool tipped dildo, it rubbed me the wrong way.

This picture should not have been on To the Moon’s marketplace page. This isn’t even a real battle, nor are there any battles like this in the game. To the Moon is tagged on the Steam page as an RPG and as an adventure, when it’s really a visual novel. This image implies that there might be traditional RPG battle mechanics in To the Moon, when there’s not. Like a steel-wool tipped dildo, it rubbed me the wrong way.

I wasn’t bothered by either the depiction or the inclusion of autism as a story plot. It wasn’t handled well, but really To the Moon doesn’t handle any story element well. One pivotal scene near the end of the game has Johnny’s twin brother, Joey, get run over by a car. This was supposed to be a heart-wrenching, traumatic moment. Except the writer of To the Moon botched how the character was introduced, and then went so over the top with killing him off that even I was starting to question whether this was a satire or not. It just appears to be a boy that looks kind of like the main character, who is playing soccer on the street when his mom backs over him with a car. But not before the game started doing dramatic cutaways, super-slow-motion started up, and the screen faded to black and white. It was FUCKING HILARIOUS. I started laughing to the point that my eyes became puffy with tears. Given the fact that Joey, Johnny’s twin brother, hadn’t been introduced as a plot element yet, this really should have been something that was heard but not seen.

That’s why To the Moon never fully had me. The concept is incredibly creative. Two people traveling through the psyche of a dying person to alter their memories so that they can die happy? Awesome. There’s an incredible movie or novel in there somewhere. Even the general plot of To the Moon is pretty good. The actual story structure, the unlikable player characters, and the script are where it fails. The scientists speak like stock characters in a bad sitcom. Non-stop sarcasm, pop-culture references, or digs at each-other. Their tone is at odds with a dramatic and urgent setting. Johnny is literally on his death-bed and can die at any moment, yet neither doctor has any sense of propriety or urgency to move forward finishing their work. There’s even cutaways where they’re screaming at each-other at a tense moment when it appears death could happen at any moment. I’ve never seen a game that had me from a concept and a plot point of view but lost me simply because the writing was so poor.

Speaking of steel wool tipped dildos rubbing people the wrong way..

Speaking of steel wool tipped dildos rubbing people the wrong way..

It reminded me of the Phantom Menace, which had a horribly mangled ending that cut between the dramatic final stand of a hero and a three-stooges routine starring a cartoon rabbit. The two tones were not compatible. That’s what the 4 to 6 hour grind of playing To the Moon is like. Where the fundamentals for a good story are all there. You even have a dramatic plot device, the pending death of Johnny, to give it a sense of dread and urgency. It should be great. But instead, the creator inserted two utterly unfunny, unlikable douchebags to shout sitcom quips at each-other for six fucking hours and it totally ruins the entire feel of the game. I hated To the Moon, and I hate that I hate it, because it should be awesome. It’s not. It’s boring and disconnected. I want to see this concept redone with restraint for the characterizations. More emphasis on the nature of memories and how they relate to happiness, and less stock characters who are “funny” because they’re making references to the same shows and movies I have seen. I know the writer has the talent to do that, because 50% of To the Moon is good. The other 50%? I just compared it to the Phantom Menace. That’s never a good thing.

To the Moon logoTo the Moon was developed Freebird Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$2.49 (normally $9.99) wondered if this is really the indie version of Heavy Rain. Think about it. Slow pace. Uneven tone. More visual novel than a game. Child getting run over by a car. Origami everywhere. Slog to make the story progress. Damnit, now I’m pissed that there was no scene where I get to make Watts cut his finger off in the making of this review.

There Was a Caveman

There Was a Caveman is one of the most remarkable games I’ve played for IGC. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good game. It’s a fairly bland platformer that is sort of a punisher, but kind of too easy to be that as well. There’s very limited genuine “challenge” here, since most things that kill you are of the out-of-nowhere, “ha, GOTCHA!” variety. If dodging an obstacle isn’t reasonable, all you’ve made is really just a tarted up version of Ralph Baer’s 1978 electronic game Simon. Memorize the location of one obstacle, die on the next, memorize the location of two obstacles, die on the next, memorize the location of three obstacles, etc, etc.

Now, for those calling me a Bristol Palin-sized-hypocrite because I made three ultra-hard Mario Maker stages, hey, guilty as charged. But I did have a point to them: it takes no talent or creativity to make such stages. I proved that myself. I did discover one thing when making those stages though: it’s very cathartic to create punisher stages. Like, I felt better about myself for all the times someone made fun of me as a kid. “Oh yea Becky, well let me add a few more fireball-spitting piranha-plants to this stage. NOW WHOSE SWEATER IS UGLY YOU BITCH??”

The problem is, while I had fun making those stages, I’m guessing they weren’t all that fun for most people playing them. Each has under a 2% completion rate (two of them are at under 1%). I also got sent dozens of extra hard stages and I really didn’t feel compelled to beat any of them. Really, if you’ve played one “get revenge on world” based-level, you’ve played them all.

What does any of this have to do with There Was a Caveman? Because what’s here has all the potential to be something better than it is. It looks fairly nice. The caveman theme is eye-catching and fun. But what really stood out to me was how it plays like the role-call of an all-star game of dick moves. Think of just about any unfair, annoying design choice a platformer can have in its level design and chances are it’s probably in here somewhere. Not over-done or anything. Just enough to be remarkable. And it also doesn’t really start to ramp-up until two very dull opening stages (hey, at least it scales!). If there was a dick-move platforming trope drinking game, you would die of alcohol poisoning before game’s end. Here’s some of the highlights.
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Out of place shmup section, though this one moves really slow and doesn’t put up much of a challenge besides staying awake. Take a drink.

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Underwater swimming stages complete with NES Ninja Turtle-like lethal seaweed (or possibly coral in this case). Take a drink.

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Don’t forget the insanely tight squeezes you’re expected to make with the swimming controls. Take a drink.

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Insta-kill acid buffered by spikes that you have to overcome using double jumps or air dashes that control just fine instead of perfect. Just fine sounds fine, but if just one time the controls seem to not respond, the game kind of screws you. A few times I’m almost certain I didn’t get the extra jump that I still should have had. Take a drink.

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Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you. Take a drink.

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Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you with an out-of-sight skeleton raining projectiles on you from above that you can’t possibly anticipate or reasonably be expected to dodge on your first attempt. Take a drink.

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Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you with an out-of-sight skeleton raining projectiles on you from above that you can’t possibly anticipate or reasonably be expected to dodge on your first attempt next to disappearing/reappearing platforms (the blue things in this pic) straight out of Mega Man with insta-kill spikes beneath them you DICK HEAD! Take a drink. Oh and not pictured: at the end of this section there was an enemy hidden in the grass on a platform you couldn’t see when you began the jump that you would inevitable bounce off of the first time and fall back to the start of this section. Dog food manufacturers who specialize in bully sticks don’t make dick moves this large. Take another drink.

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Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you where you have to make a blind leap-of-faith jump not knowing where a safe landing spot is, with insta-kill slime waiting for you if you miss, which of course you likely will at least once. Take a drink.

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Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you where you have to make a blind leap-of-faith jump not knowing where a safe landing spot is, with insta-kill slime waiting for you if you miss AND THEN putting the safe zone directly below the starting platform, which nobody in their right mind would ever have anticipated? Okay, now you’re just fucking trolling. Take a drink.

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Stages in the dark except one little tiny circle showing you and a little bit of the level around you where you have to ride a slow-moving platform across an insta-kill river of slime while dodging slimeballs (as in balls made of slime, not lawyers. Sorry Reggie). Take a drink.

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Ice stage. Take a drink.

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Make it two drinks. Fucking ice stages.

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Stage called “GUTS” that doesn’t feature an Aggro-Crag. This is more of a cock tease than a dick move, so no drink.

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Auto-scrolling “falling” stage with very slippery controls and lots of insta-kill spikes scattered about. Take a drink.

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Hard to spot thanks to noisy background projectiles. Can you spot the projectile that causes damage to the player in this screenshot? Look closer.

Fuck this shit

Quick note: in motion, it’s slightly easier to spot the objects when they move. However, telling what is the deadly projectile and what isn’t that easy. I have to admit that I was initially dodging the other debris that turns out was non-lethal. While I appreciate a developer went out of his way to add some nice touches like the crumbling rocks, they look just like the other rocks and come from the same location, making it unclear if they’re to be avoided or not. So take a drink for that, and then take another drink for the other rock (the one that actually does hurt you) not standing out enough.

That’s just a sampling. Really, nothing here is terribly offensive or anything. It’s just boring, samey punisher-type stuff that’s been done to death with nothing particularly original. It looks fine. Better than fine in fact, other than the noisy background causing some visibility issues. And it controls fine. Occasionally clunky but better than average. It certainly stands out too. Again, no game I’ve played represents the kind of level designs that drive people like me nuts quite like There Was a Caveman. I wish I could say everything between the dickery was fun, but it’s really not. I like retro platformers, but this one is too much like a, um.. one of those prehistoric people.. name is escaping me at the moment.

headerThere Was a Caveman was developed by Nauris Amatnieks
Point of Sale: Steam

$6.29 (normally priced $6.99, aka TOO MUCH) said “ugh ugh I’m dying you idiot” in the making of this review. Gotta love me!

Tiny Galaxy

Update: Apparently Tiny Galaxy did get a lot of play testing and feedback, with the developer being made aware of many issues that I brought up in this very review. The problems with the game can be chalked up to a first time developer. Being made a first time developer doesn’t change the quality of a game, so I’ve edited out my (mistaken) belief that developer Arcane Pixel got no proper feedback in the making of this game, and left the rest of the review up.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hunt bad games for the sportiness of it. Why would anyone these days? The novelty of saying “this game sucks” fifty-different ways gets old quickly. A bad game is almost never entertaining in the same way a bad movie is. There are exceptions but most really awful games are just painful to try to squeeze any entertainment value out of. I also recognize that there are real people with real feelings behind every bad game. Take Tiny Galaxy for Wii U. Developer Taylor Hajash is a really nice guy. He was one of the developers who gave copies of his game to people who donated to the Epilepsy Foundation on my 26th birthday back in July. Nice guy. Big heart. To know him is to like him. Not the kind of person anyone would want to tell “your game isn’t very good” to.

I get no pleasure at all saying that I could not think of a single game I’ve ever played on a Nintendo platform worse than Tiny Galaxy. This game is atrocious. The idea is you walk along round planets and jump between them to locate three stars that open up an exit. So, maybe like a 2D Mario Galaxy mixed with a Super Meat Boy-like punisher that is full of lots and lots of saws. Sounds fine, I guess. But, Tiny Galaxy fails in nearly every way a game can. It looks ugly. It controls badly. The camera (in a 2D platformer mind you) sometimes can’t keep pace with the action. The camera is slow to switch positions when you jump between planetoids while the controller’s transition is not, and trying to keep track of that is like trying to rub your head and pat your belly at the same time. The camera’s spinning makes the game legitimately nauseating to play. The menus seem to have no visual indication of what levels you’ve finished. The levels are at best bland. At worst they’re infuriating and unfair. There’s no checkpoints so when you die, you have to start the stage over. I couldn’t even bother trying to make it out of the first world of the game. Not for a lack of effort. I put about an hour into this, but my will to subject myself to this became non-existent as my anger grew that this game made it to the marketplace.

Even images from the marketplace infuriate me. Don't put branded pictures on the marketplace page. Put them anywhere else, but on a page that has the game's title, don't cover up anything, even a black blank screen, with branding!

Even images from the marketplace infuriate me. Don’t put branded pictures on the marketplace page. Put them anywhere else, but on a page that has the game’s title, don’t cover up anything, even a black blank screen, with branding!

And finally, Tiny Galaxy costs $5.99 That’s $1 more than even the most expensive Xbox Live Indie Games. That price actually got me a little angrier because I could see a parent confusing this for a child-friendly game and instead it’s a punisher that feels very rushed (which likely wasn’t the case here) and, frankly, very lazy. I mean, how fucking hard is it to make it so a completed stage has a checkmark on the level select screen? Edit: Apparently the developer would have had to start over from scratch to do this. Then start over from scratch I say.  Tiny Galaxy feels unfinished. It should never have been put up for sale in this state, especially at $5.99. Not that any price would be good for Tiny Galaxy. A price really doesn’t make a bad game better. It just makes it cheaper.

There were no bad intentions with Tiny Galaxy, and I find it heartbreaking that Taylor is throwing in the towel. I usually try to be funny and keep it light, but here I just feel very unhappy with this whole mess. Unfortunately, I can’t just not review it. It’s a game that costs real money. More money than many other indies that had a lot more effort put forth. It’s not that Taylor didn’t try hard, but it certainly feels as if corners were cut. Perhaps he expected to hit a home run on his first game. Game development usually doesn’t work this way.

It’s not up to game critics to soften the blow. We only owe developers fairness, and nothing else. If we aren’t completely straight with how we feel about a game, it’s our readers that we screw. I saw this when I played Super Comboman last year. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of people playing it, who clearly hated the game, had NOTHING positive to say about it, used dodgy weasel-words to describe the flaws, and then told people with a straight face that they should go buy it. Who the fuck does that help?

Game critics are obligated to give their personal opinions straight to their readers. If you’re a good critic who cherishes the readers or viewers you have, that sometimes means being a little heartless. Not malicious, and I do admit that when I first started IGC and I had no clue what I was doing, I could be mean. But sometimes, there’s just no nice way to serve your readers while being fair to developers. If I used weasel-words to soften the blow for Taylor, people might walk away from my review under the mistaken impression that I was on the fence about Tiny Galaxy’s quality. I’m not. I tried to find something nice to say about Tiny Galaxy, and I went blank. It didn’t crash, I guess. It didn’t become sentient and crawl out of my TV like that girl in the The Ring and try to eat me or something. That’s literally the best I can say about it. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone enjoying it on any level. Since this review was first published, I’ve had people say “I did like it!” Yea, well some people like to self-mutilate too, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that either.

Taylor: don’t quit. Imagine how awesome a story it will be if you create something spectacular, after Tiny Galaxy. Imagine the inspiration you could serve to developers who have struggled. Besides that, you’re a nice guy. And gaming could use more of those these days.

Tiny GalaxyTiny Galaxy was developed by Arcane Pixel Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo eShop

$5.99 was the Swawp Thing Pixel to the Arcane Pixel in the making of this review.

The Beginner’s Guide

Spoiler Warning. This review is pretty much a giant spoiler since I want to talk about what I got out of The Beginner’s Guide. As strictly a game to be played, I thought it was probably the worst I’ve ever experienced. As something more meaningful? Well, play for yourself and then read below.

The Beginner’s Guide is popular, and despite not remotely liking it, I get why. People like to feel they connect on some kind of philosophical level with a game. I’ve always said this stuff is in the eye of the beholder. I fall into this too. I spent a night with my boyfriend one time trying to spin every possible interpretation of Journey’s meaning, then searching online to see if anyone else came up with the most outlandish ideas I had. When something is left up to interpretation, it’s kind of fun to find out if what you see is what someone else sees. That’s why people stare at clouds looking for shapes. Like, if you see the dog’s head in the cloud that I see, we’ve connected somehow.

A lot of people are connecting in this way with The Beginner’s Guide. Or, at least they think they are. This follow-up by developer Davey Wreden to his hit The Stanley Parable is sort of like a gaming take on the found-footage genre. The idea is Wreden was obsessed with the small, unassuming (and often incomplete) personal projects of someone named Coda. Wreden found deep meaning in this person’s work and narrates for you the insight he extracted from them. The thing is: all these little vignettes presented to you are the most fucking boring, shallow, uninteresting “games” ever made. None of them show anything remotely creative, or even potential for creativity if they had been completed. They’re just bad, with symbolism on par with what you would expect from a thirteen-year-old who fancies him or herself as “deep.” To say that Wreden sees them as something much more meaningful is an understatement.

I was going to make a joke about "the signpost up ahead, your next stop: the Twilight Zone" but really, the Beginner's Guide genuinely is a lot like the Twilight Zone. Like, one of the bad ones from season 4.

I was going to make a joke about “the signpost up ahead, your next stop: the Twilight Zone” but really, the Beginner’s Guide genuinely is a lot like the Twilight Zone. Like, one of the bad ones from season 4.

The Beginner’s Guide is really about how scary some gamers can be with the titles they love. There’s a section in an early stage where Coda had designed a story element that would ask the player to commit self-sacrifice. When you step into this light, the game glitches out and you rise out of the stage and see a view of the world. Just the type of glitch you would expect in games like this. Only Wreden (an exaggerated fictional version of him, at least I hope so) sees it as anything but a glitch. He starts to look for depth, noting that he wasn’t sure exactly what Coda was aiming for with this glitch. Does it reflect the final journey to heaven, or surveying what you’ve accomplished? He never once considers that Coda has no fucking clue how to do anything and the glitch was just a glitch that he couldn’t fix. You know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

From here, the stages get more and more stupid and pretentious, while Wreden’s take-aways become more and more delusional and raving. As the game draws to an end, Wreden has reached the point that he feels ownership and accomplishment from Coda’s work, which he has absolutely nothing to do with. The Beginner’s Guide is essentially an indictment against the creepiest gaming fans. That some people can become pretty weird, possessive, and clingy with how they view someone else’s work. In my Indie Ego editorial, I wrote about how J.R.R. Tolkien had no allegories at all in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings and spent his twilight years telling anyone who would listen as such, to no avail. The Beginner’s Guide is saturated with points like this. There’s a door puzzle that repeats constantly through-out the game. Wreden becomes obsessed with the symbolism of this very rudimentary door puzzle, to the point that he comes across like a borderline-dangerous stalker. It never occurs to him that the puzzle keeps repeating because that’s as creative as Coda is capable of being, or that his ability (or will) as a programmer to create anything more complex is non-existent.

The point of the Beginner’s Guide is that Coda was simply screwing around with Source, not really aiming to accomplish anything or tell anything, and then along comes this wide-eyed creeper who sees depth and complexity where none was ever present. For Coda, the meaning of his work was killing time. For Wreden, it was the meaning of life. These two views come into conflict when Coda just wants to keep fucking around and enjoying his own process, while Wreden wants him to keep making stuff for his consumption, so that he can feel better about himself. A sense of entitlement that is fully unearned and unjustified. Developers owe their fans nothing. The Beginner’s Guide is a scathing look at gaming’s sense of entitlement, hardcore fanboys, critics, and the general mindset that there must be meaning to everything. That a cigar is never just a cigar. So, in a way, the Beginner’s Guide is kind of brilliant.

A lot of critics who dislike the Beginner’s Guide feel that the narration forces an interpretation upon you, instead of leaving it up to yourself to figure it out. But, that it’s not up to you how you interpret intent seems to be the point of the game. Which is funny because I’ve read no less than a dozen variations on what exactly the point of it was. I just contributed my theory to this. I think it’s the right one, obviously, but statistically speaking it’s likely not. You know what I really think? I think Davey Wreden is having the last laugh somewhere. I mean, this game fucking sucks and look at the response to it! Maybe the Beginner’s Guide doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it just means cash in the pocket for Davey Wreden at the expense of people who will find depth in his work whether he places it there or not. The fuck if I know.

You said it, bro.

You said it, bro.

The problem is, The Beginner’s Guide is still a game. And, in order to utterly blister the scene like I think it does, it sort of requires the actual gameplay to be bland, uninspired, lacking complexity, and just boring in ways that nobody in their right mind could ever read anything more out of. Where the “depth” is the type of depth that anyone else would laugh at if it was tweeted verbatim by Jaden Smith. That’s both the point of it and the problem with it. Maybe the message has value, but the game itself is so fucking boring. Ninety-minutes of pure, relentlessness boredom to be told “you know, some gamers can be kinda douchey” seems like overkill. The $9.99 price tag to get that message stings quite a bit as well. Even the $7.99 on-sale price feels wrong. This is one of those rare games where I don’t think the developer can justify any price point besides free. It gets people talking, for sure. There’s already dozens of theories about what the point was. Maybe by throwing in my two cents, I’m both a hypocrite and part of the problem. All I know for certain is this: the 90 minutes I spent with The Beginner’s Guide was the most unenjoyable game experience of my life and I would never recommend anyone else go through it. But that’s just one person’s thoughts. Remember, it’s all eye-of-the-beholder. Unless you’re Davey Wreden, in which case it’s money in the bank. And he earned it. Every dime. I salute you, sir.

Beginner's Guide logoThe Beginner’s Guide was developed by Davey Wreden
Point of Sale: Steam

$7.99 (normally priced $9.99) think the name itself is also just awful in the making of this review.

Adventures of Pip

A good rule of thumb for making an indie game is “have a gimmick.” Something about it that stands out against the crowded indie field. Especially if you’re a retro-platformer, a genre with roughly the population of China and the GDP of Grenada. Even if your game does stuff that other games have done, you can make it far by dressing that up in different, novel ways. Take today’s game, the Adventures of Pip. There are a lot of games that allow you to switch between characters on the fly, going back to Castlevania III nearly 25 years ago (or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if you want to count a crappy game). On the indie scene, Trine is probably the most prominent example. It’s been done so many times that it frankly should be a little stale. Pip isn’t stale at all. It’s a perfectly decent platformer that brings nothing new to the table. But it does what it does with so much charm and happy moments that you would swear you’re sitting at an entirely new table.

So the idea is you have a kingdom where the wealthy are fully developed 16-bit characters, the middle class are 8-bit characters, and the poor are single pixels. That whole point is mostly unexplored, though. Probably a good thing, since most games that try in earnest to tackle class-based subject matter do so with subtly on par with that delivered by the Enola Gay. Really, the plot is evil queen kidnaps princess. To Pip’s credit, the writing is sharp and almost immediately laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, it’s so good that I feel the developers sort of blew it in a different way. It’s one of the few traditional platformers where I actually gave half-a-squirt about where they were going with the story direction, but the setting itself never receives enough consideration or a satisfying payoff. It’s not fair to do that. Imagine if other stories were told like Pip’s is.

“And then Dorothy landed in a magical land of Oz, which was populated by magical scarecrows, talking humanoid lions of questionable fortitude, and witches who react to water even more dramatically than your cat does when you try to bathe it.”

“Wow! That sounds exciting! And then what happened next?”

“Um, they walked somewhere. The end.”

Maybe the developers realized that nobody really plays a platformer for plot and just filled it with absurdity for their own laughs. It’s possible. I’m not really prone to cynicism so I would never say something totally baseless like the whole haves-and-have-nots thing was tacked on to give some sense of topical relevance and lure in more delicious Kickstarter money. That would be irresponsible. I’ll just say the writing is funny and the setting has no point and goes nowhere.

That's........... racist? I think it might actually be racist.

That’s……..… racist? I think it might actually be racist.

Pip’s gameplay centers around fairly routine platforming tropes. The hook is switching between the three different forms of Pip, each with unique traits. The single-pixel Pip has a floaty jump, launches higher off springs, and can get under narrow passages. 8-bit Pip is much faster, can swim, and can wall-jump. And by-fucking-God does the game milk that to the point that all that’s left of the wall-jumping cow is dust, blood, and swollen udders. 16-bit Pip can’t wall-jump, can’t swim, can’t jump off the springs, moves slower than shit.. seriously, was this some passive-aggressive retro fan’s way of saying they think the 8-bit era was vastly superior to the 16-bit one? Oh yea? Well, 16-bit Pip breaks blocks with his sword. So that counts for something!

Oh wait, you can later buy the block-breaking ability for 8-bit Pip from the shop, leaving the 16-bit version unique in its ability to push blocks. Ooooh, he can push blocks while the more primitive versions can do more way cool things. At this point I’m surprised the main villains wasn’t named “Queen GeniSnes” or something.

It’s actually all cooler than it sounds on paper, and the way the transition is handled between forms is a little clever and lends itself to some above-average level design. Nothing particularly noteworthy, mostly due to uninspired enemy design and world themes. Come to think of it, that’s another area where the story sort of fails the gameplay. The idea was the Queen has stolen the ability to “de-rez” the population, turning some of the rich 16-bit jerks into pixels. Which, again, if the idea is poor people = hardworking and noble, while rich people = worthless and entitled, shouldn’t that technically mean the evil witch is the hero? Yet, the stages themselves seem like they’re supposed to look 16-bit through-out. It never actually dawned on me while playing the game, but really, how come the stages and enemies themselves didn’t take advantage of the whole classic gaming v 8-bit v 16-bit stuff? For fuck’s sake, the villain’s name is Queen DeRezzia! There’s an old saying: in for a penny, in for a pound. I’m not entirely sure Tic-Toc-Games was all-in with the gimmick. They didn’t even work it in to the boss fights. They could have done it two ways with them: start the bosses at 16-bits and have you beat them back to Atari-like levels of detail before ultimately slaying them. Or, they could have gone the opposite route, with the bosses starting primitive and becoming more sophisticated as you did more damage to them.

The end of the game has an over-reliance on wall-jumping, which is where it starts to feel they ran out of ideas. This is one of the few indies I've played where removing levels would have almost certainly bumped it up the Leaderboard.

The end of the game has an over-reliance on wall-jumping, which is where it starts to feel they ran out of ideas. This is one of the few indies I’ve played where removing levels would have almost certainly bumped it up the Leaderboard. Despite all that, this was probably the easiest time I’ve had earning every available trophy in years.

Yea, I’m sure that would have been a lot of work, but it would have made Adventures of Pip a lot more noteworthy and memorable. And it sort of needed it. Because what’s here, while fairly fun and well executed, is a little bland and generic at times as well. There’s nothing in Pip you haven’t seen in a platformer before. I can’t stress enough, the game plays really well. Good controls, good level design (except a single dick move supreme hidden villager placement worthy of a slap upside the noggin for some smug developer), and good writing. It’s a little long. I think Tic Toc could have safely shaved off ten stages and lost nothing, but otherwise Adventures of Pip is a good game. Fans of platformers will like it. So why does it feel like it’s less than the sum of its parts?

I think it’s because the best thing Pip does that no other game does is purely aesthetic. That it had this idea about a world where three different eras of gaming art lived together, but left it all on the player character. Really, you could have inserted any gimmick besides the 8/16-bit stuff in its place and Pip would have been no different. Change it to Pip is a human (8-bit) who switches between a penguin (single pixel) and, I don’t know, a dragon or something (16-bit) and it’s still the same game. A very good game, just like it is now, but nothing changes. If the environment, the enemies, the stages, the puzzles, and the bosses also continuously shifted between the different resolutions, I guarantee you the game gets more word of mouth than it does now.  It becomes unique and noteworthy. As it is now? It’s just a decent game that has a neat idea that’s under-realized. If the developers hadn’t shown any talent, it wouldn’t bother me so much. I almost never call out a game for being under-ambitious, but I sort of have to here. To not do so would be an injustice to those who made the game, because I think they left something on the table. You guys are way more imaginative than this. I want a sequel that proves me right. Adventures of Pip is fun, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. Which, according to my father, makes it the me of video games. Oh thanks Dad.

headerAdventures of Pip was developed by Tic Toc Games
Point of Sale: PSN, Steam, Wii U eShop, Xbox One

igc_approved1$14.99 brushed her teeth with a bottle of jack in the making of this review.

Adventures of Pip is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Gon’ E-Choo!

Gon’ E-Choo, with characters based on some web comic, is a tribute to the 1982 Nintendo arcade classic Popeye. And by tribute, I mean the type of tribute that usually ends with a star-struck fan appearing in front of a judge and being told not to come within 1,000 yards of their idol. I’ve played a lot of tribute games since starting IGC, and Gon’ E-Choo is by far the closest to the original without resorting directly to plagiarism that I’ve seen. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, if I knew nothing about this game or  Nintendo coin-op history and someone told me that Shigeru Miyamoto and Genyo Takeda had created an unreleased sequel to Popeye with the same core gameplay mechanics, only they lost the Popeye license so they had to use original characters, I would completely buy this as an authentic lost game. That could very well be the highest praise I’ve ever given a game.

No, shut up haters. I'm pretty sure they can't sue over this. Why would they if they could? It gives relevance to a game that has had literally no relevance for twenty-three years now. If anything, Nintendo should license THIS and release it as a first-party game.

No, shut up haters. I’m pretty sure they can’t sue over this. Why would they if they could? It gives relevance to a game that has had literally no relevance for twenty-three years now. If anything, Nintendo should license THIS and release it as a first-party game. Especially since it doesn’t seem likely they’ll pay the licensing fee to put Popeye on Virtual Console anytime soon.

Don’t mistake that for me saying Gon’ E-Choo is an astonishing, must play game. It’s not. Your enjoyment of it will be fully dependent on how nostalgic you are for those early 80s Nintendo games. The graphics and play control are spot-on, with only the sound effects coming very close but not-quite right at the whole mimicry thing. I’m a child of the PlayStation era that only knows Popeye through MAME. I liked it enough, but I wouldn’t exactly pay Virtual Console prices to own it if it ever got released on those platforms. Mechanically, Gon’ E-Choo plays out pretty much exactly like Popeye. Instead of hearts or music notes falling from the sky, paper airplanes do. Instead of being chased by Bluto, you’re being chased by a crocodile. Instead of the seahag throwing whatever at you, little electric sparks (or possibly bees, I couldn’t tell) come out of the sides. Instead of a can of spinach, its a can of soda. The stages are laid out different so as not to totally rip off Popeye, but otherwise, this is so close to the original that it’s creepy. I mean, impressive, don’t get me wrong, but creepy.

This whole virtual interface thing only served to annoy me. Eventually it will include Oculus Rift support, which I'll never be able to use. One of the keys to avoiding seizures if you have epilepsy is having proper distance from the screen, and Oculus Rift is essentially like strapping a monitor to your eyeballs.

This whole virtual interface thing only served to annoy me. Eventually it will include Oculus Rift support, which I’ll never be able to use. One of the keys to avoiding seizures if you have epilepsy is having proper distance from the screen, and Oculus Rift is essentially like strapping a monitor to your eyeballs.

There’s only three stages as far as I can tell, which start to repeat after you beat them. There’s a cabinet that you can look at, which is also sort of Nintendo coinopish, but not quite. There’s also online leaderboards, which is the only thing that offers replay value. My biggest complaint is that Gon’ E-Choo is so married to being a tribute that it didn’t bother to improve the biggest problems of those early 80s Nintendo games, IE having tighter play control and more stages. So what’s here is just alright for me. I can’t really complain too much, because I was not this game’s target audience. Even if I was, I think the game should only cost $1. That’s the typical price to play a coin-op today, and so that feels like a good price for what is, let’s face it, a glorified novelty experience. Because if Popeye never existed, Gon’ E-Choo! wouldn’t really appeal to anyone. Credit where it’s due, because it achieved what it aimed for, and it did so without burning its name into Miyamoto’s lawn. At least I hope it didn’t.

Gon logoGon’ E-Choo! was developed by Marc Ellis
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$1.69 (normally $1.99) have a father still bitching four years later that no indie dev has remade the 1978 Atari “classic” Fire Truck in the making of this review. Daddy, I played it. I don’t think it holds up as well as you probably think it will. Let it go.

Gon’ E-Choo! is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

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