VVVVVV

VVVVVV is one of my most requested reviews. It came out a year before I started IGC, and it’s one of those games that come up every time I review a punisher, along with Super Meat Boy and Spelunky. Usually it gets name-dropped in the form of a question, like “how does this compare to VVVVVV?” or “why can’t punishers be more like VVVVVV?” I hadn’t played it, so I couldn’t comment on it. I meant to play it because people wouldn’t shut up about it, but I just never got around to it. Then it came out on PlayStation 4 this last week, and I finally got to see what all the fuss was about. And see it I did. Understanding the continued love for it? I still don’t.

Maybe VVVVVV was special back in 2010 when punishers were starting to become a thing. The problem is, standards have changed a lot since then. VVVVVV has a nifty play mechanic where, instead of jumping, you reverse gravity. It has an open map that be explored at your leisure, since then are no upgrades you’re required to find to unlock areas. Some of the stages are clever, and there’s a genuine sense of thrill when you make progress. So trust me when I say, I wish I could like VVVVVV. Especially considering that people get really mad when others don’t like it. It would spare me a lot of angry responses that usually end with “go back to Call of Duty you pinko casualtard.” Well, I never.

The V's in the title represent spikes. Which, I assure you, there are more than six of.

The V’s in the title represent spikes. Which, I assure you, there are more than six of.

VVVVVV has horrible play control, at least on PS4. I had people insisting to me that the PC version, or the 3DS version, or the iPad version were better. I tried the demo for the PC port, and it felt pretty much the same. Very slippery and imprecise. Unfortunately, space-age technology like analog control doesn’t exist except in the realms of fiction. So even the act of moving forward is risky because it’s tough to judge just how far a press of the pad will take you, often leading to you walking into a spike. VVVVVV relies heavily on precision platforming for level design and “difficulty”, but really, can you still call it difficulty when the challenge is more about fighting shoddy movement? And it’s not like it can’t be done better. Many, many games from this genre have controls good enough that if you die, it’s your fault. Platformers have been capable of better control than VVVVVV for at least three decades now, and indies consistently get it right too. Maybe VVVVVV wouldn’t be as hard if it was more precise, but it’s not as if it would be a cakewalk. You can see thought and mastery of design with some of the stages. It’s a shame that instead of being able to admire that effort, all I could think about was “oh goody, I just barely nudged the stick and walked into a spike. Again.”

To VVVVVV’s credit, the developer got the absolute maximum potential out of the gravity gimmick in terms of level design. I wasn’t expecting a five-year old punisher that inspired many of the games I’ve reviewed at IGC to surprise me with clever design that holds up relatively well, but it still did. And it is for that reason that I can’t give the bad controls any leeway. Because VVVVVV shouldn’t have any relevance remaining after this long, but it retains it to a large degree. Smooth, responsive controls would have unquestionably cemented it as an all-time classic. More importantly, it would have served as much better inspiration for the next generation of indie developers. Now, I can’t help but wonder if some of those bad punishers I played failed because their devs said “well, VVVVVV got away with crap controls, so fuck it, my game can too.” I would love to see developer Terry Cavanagh challenge those he inspired to do better than he did. I mean, there is a pair of stages called “Do as I say, not as I do” in VVVVVV. He’s trying to send you guys a message! What does he have to do, wink at you and nudge your ribs with his elbow? Because I might be willing to pay his expenses to go wink and nudge you guys in ribs with his elbow if you don’t get it. Terry, you’re about to get a lot of frequent flyer miles.

♫Come and fall on on our floor. Suck the spikes like a whore. Save some face and quit you disgrace, three's company too! ♫

♫ Come and fall on our floor. Respawn and die a little more. Save some face and quit in disgrace, three’s company too! ♫

The map isn’t perfect by any means. Much like the EA clearance bin at Wal-Mart, there’s a lot of dead space present. VVVVVV also isn’t consistent with checkpoints. Sometimes they’re so abundant that it feels almost like the game is mocking you, and sometimes you’ll scream “WHY ISN’T THIS ROOM SATURATED WITH CHECKPOINTS LIKE ALL THE OTHERS?” while your family begins moving breakables out of controller-throwing distance. And not all the ideas work. There’s a section where you have to sort of steer an NPC through a few puzzles. The NPC is so worthless and inconsistent in its responses that it makes Yorda look like a fucking genius. During this section, I got stuck on one particular room, had three rage quits during it, wrote a full review for this game, uploaded a pic of the stage I was stuck on, realized I had not been playing the room right, had a run-on sentence like this one only much more swear-filled, and finally finished it. About an hour later, I finished the game properly. I had to think really hard whether I liked VVVVVV more than I disliked it.

I finally came to the conclusion that I didn’t. But it was close. If I had an anti-leaderboard for games I didn’t like, VVVVVV would be at the bottom of the list, or the top, or.. damnit, I’m trying to say that it was the best game I’ve played that I didn’t award my seal of approval to. I just couldn’t get over how badly it controls. I don’t deny VVVVVV’s historical significance. But like many classic games, the formula has just been replicated with better results too many times to ignore. Now granted, I’m not a huge fan of games where the point is you die a lot, but I think it’s safe to say that there are better options these days. Games where failure is unquestionably your fault. I do appreciate that VVVVVV includes an option to reduce flashing/flickering special effects, which makes it significantly safer to play with my epilepsy (if you have epilepsy, DO NOT attempt to play VVVVVV even with the effects turned off before first consulting your doctor). That was classy on the part of creator Terry Cavanagh and he has my eternal gratitude and respect for including it. Yea, he forgot to stop a giant elephant from strobbing that literally became the elephant in the room for my play session, but he’s thankfully pledged to fix that too. So yea, Terry is a class act. I just wish his game hadn’t controlled like shit. No, VVVVVV isn’t in one of my most beloved genres, but the idea that I was predisposed to not liking it is about as far-fetched as Adam Sandler or Peter Dinklage being retro-gaming champions. But hey, I did finish the game, so that makes me different from Sandler. I did progress.

VVVVVV logoVVVVVV was developed by Terry Cavanagh
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4
This review only covers the PS4 version.

$7.99 loves how Sandler went out of his way to stress how he never got good at the games featured in Pixels, so that his fans would know for sure he’s not one of those loser video game players in the making of this review.

 

Rocket League

Rocket League combines cars and soccer. It’s such a simple concept that seems like it would be better suited as Mario Party minigame. Or a sport played by Wuzzles. Funny enough, and this is a true story, one of the first sketches my boyfriend showed me when he got me into Top Gear was soccer with cars. They did it a few times, and I distinctly remember saying “they should make a game out of this.” Which is a risky thing to say, frankly, since I never remember to be more specific and say “they should make a good game out of this.” Somewhere, deep down in the darker parts of my psyche, I still blame myself for not saying “good game” with the Matrix. Damn it.

My bad.

My bad.

Thankfully, the fates were less cruel this time around. In fact, Rocket League is one of the best online indies of all time. When I heard the concept, my initial thought was “it’ll probably control like shit or have massive lag.” I know there are some networking issues, but the overwhelming majority of games I played (and I put a whopping 60 hours into this) ran smoothly. And Rocket League controls really well. Using the turbo boost to pull off air-based strikes and blocks has a learning curve to it, but there’s no complex combos to pull off. The controls are responsive and instinctual.

It’s sort of tough to get more in-depth while reviewing Rocket League, because what’s here is the closest to being perfect as any game I’ve ever reviewed, even though there’s not a lot to it. There are some weird anomalies. Like playing single-player league on easy and watching my AI teammates seem to forget what team they’re on. More than once I saw them take the ball the full length of the field to own-goal themselves. I wasn’t sure if this was just happenstance until I saw the ball start to drift away from my own goal, only for them to casually dribble it back towards it before bumping it in. This happened frequently, perhaps in protest of me being a sissy and picking easy mode. I would have made a joke about it being passive resistance, but my AI teammates physically cleared me out of the way far more often than opponents did. None of this happened on the normal difficulty. I can sum up easy mode by noting that I averaged 20 goals a game during the jump balls, and a couple more a game for when I would miss. Normal difficulty was much more realistic, in the sense that I was eliminated in the semi-finals the first time I played it and won the title despite a losing record the second go-around.

#Splash

#Splash

The biggest problem with Rocket League is out of the hands of the developers: the quality of online players. Now don’t get me wrong, most Rocket League players are awesome. But, just often enough to be annoying, a game would happen where the other team will score the first goal and my two randomly assigned teammates would immediately vote to forfeit the remainder of the game. In about a third of such games, when I refused to vote with them, they either just quit out or they started own-goaling me in an attempt to force my hand, all while bitching at me for wasting their precious time. Rocket League certainly isn’t exceptional in this regard. Anyone who has ever played any team-based online game deals with this. Rocket League is only remarkable in how damn fast people are willing to quit. I had a game where we led 2 to 0, the other team scored a goal, which meant we were still up by one, and a teammate voted to forfeit. I figured there must have been some kind of achievement he was going for based around shutouts, but no such achievement existed.

Eventually I got pretty decent at Rocket League. Not great or anything, but I could hold my own. And, all credit to the quitter brigade, because they led to a couple of the most exhilarating moments I’ve had as IGC. I scored a couple moral victories by preventing shutouts by myself against full teams after I had both teammates quit after just one goal. And then there was the game where we started the game 1 to 0, had the other team tie it up, our teammate voted to forfeit and then quit seconds later, and myself and the random dude I was paired with proceeded to win the game when down a player by a score of 5 to 1. And it wasn’t like our opponents were slouches, which made our blowout so satisfying. Later, I played matches against some of my readers, and it was awesome to get to finally play a game where I could play and interact with so many of them. A couple of them hopped into ranked games with me, where we went on an extended winning streak. Which we immediately followed up with a losing streak that no one in particular was to blame.

It was me

Rocket League’s biggest successes from a design point of view come down to what the game doesn’t include. There’s a large variety of cars, but besides slightly different collision boxes, there’s no differences in performance in them. All unlockables and the DLC are purely superficial changes, which levels the play field. It makes Rocket League one of the most accessible and enjoyable games of its type in recent memory, since newbs can hop right in and not spend the next several weeks grinding up in hopes of competing with early adopters. Yea, I wish the league play had more options (and more stats, since I would have liked to know how many goals I personally scored), but otherwise, isn’t it more important to refine and perfect what you’ve built? I’ve heard it suggested that Rocket League is a glorified minigame. Fine, so be it. Because I’ve seen games ruined by leveling systems. Castlestorm‘s online mode could have solidified it as an all-time classic, but instead I found myself being matched against players 150 levels more advanced than me, with all the upgrades that are earned along the way. While you’ll still need to put time into Rocket League to get good, when you are good you won’t need to grind away an extra fifty hours just to compete. There’s something to be said about that. Restraint is perhaps something more indies need. Rocket League doesn’t do a lot, but what it does is phenomenal. By the way, if this review sounds to lovey-dovey, I should note that the next teammate of mine who bumps me out of the way of an open shot is getting a foot upside the ass, and I have Bob Lanier and his size 22s on retainer.

UPDATE: Actually, the game does keep track of stats in the Extras menu, but this doesn’t improve things. Single player stats are added to online stats, and thus it appears like I’ve scored 685 goals (ha!) when in reality I think roughly 600 of those came in one 27 game easy league season. This is a massive oversight on the developer’s part, and it ought to be changed.

Rocket League logoRocket League was developed by Psyonix
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4
igc_approved1
$19.99 said the “damn women drivers” joke from opposing players NEVER GOT OLD AT ANY POINT OVER THE COURSE OF 60 HOURS YOU CLEVER CLEVER PEOPLE in the making of this review.

Rocket League is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Adventure in the Tower of Flight

Ugh, what an unwieldy name. It flows about as well as a small creek overrun by giant-sized mutant beavers. Which, actually that sounds like a bad ass idea for a game. Perhaps a tower defense title? It’s all yours, indies. I hate harping on names, but Adventure in the Tower of Flight has “in the” and “of” in it. “Adventure” and “Tower” are also gaming staples, making the title that more forgettable. It’s not just a title that rolls off the tongue about as well as a sugar cube (which is both sticky and cube shaped and thus rolls poorly), but it’s generic and bland. And that’s a shame because Tower of Flight is a decent game that doesn’t seem to be finding its audience. I posted screencaps with smart-assed captions on my Twitter feed while I was playing it and was besieged with questions about this nifty looking NES tribute that I was playing. Nobody had heard of it. Everyone wondered how they could have missed it. Maybe it’s because it just sounds like it’ll be a bad game, or boring. I don’t think you can legally speak the title out-loud while operating heavy machinery. Names are important, and indies often seem to give less than top consideration for this. It would be like opening a restaurant and naming the place Spitty’s. Who gives a shit how good the ribs are at a place called Spitty’s?

Classic gaming call-backs are abundant in Tower of Flight. The bats here behave almost exactly like those annoying Medusa heads from Castlevania. Which you'll note is something nobody has ever wanted to see in any game, ever. Why do people paying tribute to these classics insist on using the worst parts of games? Granted, everyone remembers those parts, but still..

Classic gaming call-backs are abundant in Tower of Flight. The bats here behave almost exactly like those annoying Medusa heads from Castlevania. Which you’ll note is something nobody has ever wanted to see in any game, ever. Why do people paying tribute to these classics insist on using the worst parts of games? Granted, everyone remembers those parts, but still..

AitToF (It doesn’t even abbreviate good!) isn’t a bad game at all. I found it to be a decent neo-retro platformer that you’ll get a few hours out of (and more levels are coming soon!) and forget about soon after finishing. They’re enjoyable hours though. Think of Tower of Flight (Christ, even a shorter version of the name sucks) as a linear Zeldavania, with a heavy emphasis on Zelda looks and a Castlevania feel, with a small helping of Kirby mixed in. There’s a thin plot about trying to reach the top of a tower, but it feels tacked on and needless. The hook is instead of a standard 2D jumping mechanic, you have the ability to fly for a short distance. That’s the Kirby part. Think of it as Kirby if the flying mechanic had a limitation to it. You gain a couple special moves along the way, upgrade your sword, gain extra hearts, fight a few bosses, and that’s pretty much it. You certainly don’t want to mistake this for a Metroidvania. Tower of Flight is mostly linear, with few opportunities to deviate from the set path.

This is a tough one for me to review. There’s not a whole lot to talk about, because every aspect of the game is average. Graphics? Very convincing in an 80s sort of way, but average. The level design? Mostly without fault, but average. Enemies? Too limited in variety, and whats here is average. Controls? Maybe slightly above average, though I hated having to manually map everything to my Xbox One pad. Maybe that’s what Tower of Flight aimed for. A decent, convincing 80s NES tribute that plays it safe. Hey, kudos for pulling it off. And I’m sure NES fans will like it a lot more than I did. I just wish it had messed with the formula a little more. I guess that Tower of Flight could seamlessly pass for an undiscovered NES game is remarkable enough, but after games like Shovel Knight, Super Win, and Axiom Verge, I’m too spoiled to get too excited by a game that simply feels like a game from a different era.

The only art in the game that made me cringe. This boss looks like the unholy off spring of Kang and or Kodos and a Hungry-Hungry Hippo.

The only art in the game that made me cringe. This boss looks like the unholy offspring of Kang and/or Kodos and a Hungry-Hungry Hippo.

Actually, there’s one thing that bugged me enough to mention. There’s a town section with a fetch quest stuck in the middle of this game that feels insanely out-of-place. Not only does it channel the giant mutant beavers and break the flow of the game, but it’s mechanically a little broken. The game’s engine makes it so that when you go through a door, it locks behind you. Thus, navigating is a tack-like pain in the ass (measured by amount of pain, not by the size of the source of pain). I think the developer’s goal was to make the town a puzzle or maze of sorts, where you had to figure out which doors led to which parts of the town. Both myself and the only other person I talked to who has actually played the game simply kept making loops until we stumbled on the douchebag who completed the fetch quest. It was boring, it was clunky, and it was pointless. I honestly have no idea what the developer was thinking. At least it was short, I guess. But  even admitting that section is short feels like telling a condemned prisoner “It’ll be over with quickly.” Not all that comforting.

Of course, for fans of that era, you really didn’t need this review at all. The only information of relevance I can provide such fans is that the game works fine and is an authentic NES style game. It was made for children of the 80s, not a smart assed millennial. I have no doubt that Adventure of the Tower of Flight hit all the marks it needed to for its target audience to walk away very satisfied. This is a quality game with true craftsmanship displayed. I just hope the developer mixes it up a little next time. Take some risks. I usually try to end reviews with a joke, but for this review, I’ll instead end with a thought: There are a lot of games that can do the “Like an NES game” thing. But only truly inspired can make people say “like an NES game, but..”

tower logoAdventure in the Tower of Flight was developed by Pixel Barrage Entertainment, Inc.
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$14.99 (probably too much) admits that the indie scene is likely to be picturing a different kind of giant mutant beavers than me in the making of this review.

Adventure in the Tower of Flight is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a screen warning that it doesn’t “hold your hand.” So many games make this claim anymore that it’s starting to come across as kind of snotty and condescending. Ethan Carter’s lack of hand holding isn’t in the difficulty sense, like Bloodborne or 1001 Spikes. You can’t die, and there are no real stakes besides extending the delay of the unfolding story. Instead, it doesn’t hold your hands in the sense that you’re given no instructions at all. No tutorial, no hints what the game’s primary mechanics are, or what your end goal is. So, in my first attempt at playing Ethan Carter, I ended up missing the first four of ten “puzzles.” The fifth one is neither a puzzle nor possible to miss (I think). The first one I actually stumbled upon and solved was the sixth one. Of ten. This is the kind of not-hand-holding that a sadistic swimming instructor with a growing body count would believe in.

Ethan Carter is an aimless wandering simulator that occasionally gets interrupted by an interesting plot. I’ve never been into Lovecraftian type of horror, so when I found the story to be good, I was a bit surprised. However, I missed nearly the first half of it, so I decided I would break a personal rule of mine. I try to avoid using walk-throughs when I review games. Now, I had stumbled upon a couple of the puzzles, but I didn’t realize they were puzzles or would unlock the plot. The game doesn’t imply any of that. When I solved the graveyard sequence, I decided to just start over from the beginning and have someone send me a list of the general locations of the puzzles. Just having that list and the knowledge that there were puzzles to complete totally changed my enjoyment of the game. It was okay. Okay is better than “God I’m bored out of my fucking skull.

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

I hate doing this with any game, because it’s 2015 and nobody should give a shit about graphics anymore unless they are mind-blowingly awesome. I don’t know if the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite that good, but it’s probably the most gorgeous indie up to this point. To put it in perspective, my mother walked into the room while I was making my way through a forested area and asked what movie we were watching. Movie. Until she said that, I hadn’t stopped to appreciate how damn good-looking Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. Now, that story wouldn’t have happened if I was in many of the areas of the game, especially ones that take place in a mine, or ones where there’s rushing water. The cave section looks like any other cavern level in a first-person game, and rushing water has that creepy uncanny valley effect, slightly life-like but undeniably off. Probably the most off-putting thing about the presentation is you don’t feel even close to a real person. You feel like a camera hovering six above the ground. The lack of humanity in the player-character made it nearly impossible to ever feel immersed. Which is a shame because the world created is photo-realistic at times and that kind of goes to waste.

I’ll go spoiler-free on the plot as much as possible. It’s pretty obvious early on that some kind of twist ending was coming, but Ethan Carter still manged to fool me with it while still feeling like I wasn’t cheated by the context. It wasn’t like Braid’s “deep” twist ending where, spoiler alert on a game eight years old: the main character of Braid was part of the Manhattan Project and felt guilty for creating nuclear weapons, with the world of Braid being his escapism to alleviate his guilt. Yea. I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t blurt out “where in the fuck did that come from?” when they experienced that ending. But Braid is popular and pretentious allegories pulled out of thin air are all the rage in Indieland, so I expected Ethan Carter to end on one. It didn’t. The ending was satisfactory in a Twilight Zone sort of way and felt real. I guess you can’t ask for anything more.

SPOILER WARNING – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID

Not that the story doesn’t occasionally devolve into raving lunacy. The most random happening involved an encounter with an astronaut. I think it was meant to be a jump scare when it first appeared, but it was so random that all I could do was laugh. This eventually led to a section where I was floating through space in a scene I swear was ripped straight from that God awful piece of shit movie Contact. Even after finishing Ethan Carter, I’m not entirely sure what the point of that part was. The studio behind this game is named Astronauts, so maybe this was meant to be an in-joke for them. Another failed attempt at scares occurred in the cave area, where you’re being stalked by a ghost while searching a maze for five dead bodies. I wasn’t aware that this was considered the most terrifying section of the game by most people due to “jump scares” that happen during it. This is because I found all five dead bodies and solved the puzzle in it without ever having the ghost catch me. In fact, I only caught a glimpse of it once and heard it two other times. Given that Ethan Carter’s form of horror is based more on atmosphere and characterization, I’m surprised it would even try to do jump scares. I think I enjoyed the experience more than others did as a result. Jump scares are something anyone can cause with a plastic bag full of air and a floor that doesn’t squeak when you try to sneak up behind someone. Lowbrow and easy. Creeping people out with an unnerving atmosphere takes skill, and Ethan Carter pulls it off.

They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

END OF SPOILERS

The writing is not bad at all. The cut scenes have pretty decent voice acting. Ethan Carter does almost nothing wrong in terms of plot and storytelling. It’s the method of delivery that I feel doesn’t serve players properly. It goes back to the “hand holding” thing. What is so wrong with pointing players in a direction? Shadow of the Colossus is similar to Ethan Carter in the sense that you have a vast open world with specific areas you need to discover. You’re not told how to discover them, or what to expect when you get there. You hold your sword up and it points the direction, and that’s it. Nobody would accuse that of being an example of hand-holding. So that opening “we don’t hold hands” bit almost feels accusatory against players. “Oh, you didn’t find the stuff we obscurely hid? What, you expect directions? What kind of pussy-whipped casual gamer are you?”

Maybe the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a glorified tech-demo, as some of my readers on Twitter suggested. While there are a couple creative puzzles, most of them come down to finding items and returning them to their locations. A few times you’ll be required to look at a few different dioramas and place them in sequential order. If the puzzle design had matched the art quality, Ethan Carter would have been something very special. I do reject the notion that Ethan Carter is an “experience” more than a game. It’s a game, and a perfectly fine one. I don’t think it will withstand the test of time, or be particularly memorable. As technology gets better and games that look like this become more common place, its relevance will fade. Ultimately, I did enjoy it when I played it “my way”, with general instructions to the locations of the ten puzzles. Others enjoyed it without those, liking the sense of discovery. Others still got sick aimlessly wandering around without any clue what they were doing and quit. I can’t help but wonder if Ethan Carter would have benefited greatly by giving players two options: to play the game with or without direction. If they had done that, all discussion of the game would have been centered around its merits instead of its abstraction. Ethan Carter can stand on its own merits. It’s a quality game, even if it’s so militantly against holding hands that it comes across like a six-year-old afraid of catching cooties.

Ethan logoThe Vanishing of Ethan Carter was developed by Astronauts
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$19.99 walked away from Ethan Carter feelings like her eyeballs were gently massaged by the graceful hands of God himself in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Plague Inc.: Evolved

It’s been over two years since I tackled Plague Inc. on iPhone. You’ll want to read that review to get my thoughts on the gameplay of Plague Inc, since I won’t be discussing it much in this review. Cliff notes: I quite liked it. Not only was it a fast-paced, fun little simulator, but the look my family had when I would excitedly declare “HOORAH! I JUST KILLED ALL OF HUMANITY!” was priceless. A bit of quiet terror mixed with cautious horror. To compound it, I would triumphantly pump my fist and then make some kind of statement like “I can’t wait to be President someday!” But, I have to admit that while making my parents contemplate whether that one night 26 years ago when their condom failed might someday bring about the end of the world is pretty enjoyable, Plague Inc. didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. It’s not a bad game at all. It’s just so sterile in its presentation and minimalistic in its play mechanics that it didn’t lend itself to “owning” me, like Clicker Heroes or even OMG Zombies did.

Plague Inc. has since “evolved” onto PC, via Steam. It’s a perfectly fine game. Of course it is. It was perfectly fine already. But, like visitors to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, I’m apparently too dense to see any evidence of evolution. There is a free Planet of the Apes tie-in that doesn’t need to be unlocked, but it’s just a barely-modified version of the game’s zombie mode. Otherwise, the same stages and unlockables are present. Maybe the “evolved” part is specific to the graphics. They’re more detailed, sure, but this is one of the few games that really doesn’t benefit at all from a more fancy presentation. Compare the following two screens. Here’s from the iPhone version circa 2013.
Plague 1
And this is from the Steam version, today.
Plague 2
It looks okay. So this should be a really easy review for me, because that’s the only change I could spot.

And that change comes at a cost of $15. That’s $14 more than the mobile version. That’s the most absurd price hike for what you actually get I’ve ever seen in gaming. While it technically meets my criteria to win my seal of approval, I couldn’t possibly recommend it over the cheaper but nearly identical-for-now mobile versions. I can’t even recommend it at this time for the $11.24 I paid for it when it was on sale in June. On the off-chance you don’t own an iOS or Android enabled device, I would still probably recommend waiting for a sale, or until the game exits its current Early Access build. New features that might justify the price hike, such as Multiplayer, still haven’t arrived well over a year after the game released (which could be as much as $6.99, not including future expansions that the game’s FAQ implies will be free to Evolved owners, maybe). All that’s left is scenario creator, which I have to admit, didn’t really hold that much interest to me. Plague Inc. Evolved is fun, make no mistake. But it’ll be equally as fun when it’s out of early access.

I know, I know. I once again didn’t realize I was playing a game in early access and now am bitching that it’s not finished. What can I say? I keep forgetting that early access is only fun when you’re talking about cats and dogs. Because kittens and puppies are awesome and cute. Unfinished indies are just fucking aggravating, and they don’t need to chew up your shoes and piss on your couch to accomplish that. Well, look at the bright side: if I told people I was playing a post apocalyptic bubble popping simulator on my phone, I would be dismissed as a typical “casual” gamer. All hail the PC master race!

headerPlague Inc.: Evolved was developed by Ndemic Creations
Point of Sale: Steam
$11.24 (normal price $14.99) welcomes our new brain worm overlords in the making of this review.

igc_approved1Plague Inc.: Evolved is Chick-Approved, sorta. My rule for earning my seal of approval is to enjoy a game. I did, so it wins it. I’ll give it a more hearty endorsement when the game is finished if the multiplayer is fun. Also, Plague Inc.: Evolved will share a spot on the IGC Leaderboard with its mobile version.

NOT A HERO

Two things annoy me about NOT A HERO, this month’s (well, technically last month’s) challenge from Indie Riot. First off is the all-caps name, which implies that you’re supposed to scream it out. “What are you doing, Cathy?” “NOT A HERO!” “What are you screaming?” “NOT A HERO!” “Um, yea Cathy, we sort of figured that out when after you pissed yourself when that spider crawled on the wall ten feet in front of you.” More annoying is NOT A HERO has an insane amount of potential, and although it can be really fun, it’s nowhere near as good as it could be.

NOT A HERO feels a lot like a mid-late 80s coin-op action title. Not any game in particular (though I did get some Elevator Action vibes from it) but one that would blend in mechanically from that era. Of course, it also has the required-for-indieness gratuitous violence that used to be awesome but is now expected and bordering on passé. And I say that both as a fan of violence and a practitioner of it, much to the dismay of my boyfriend, who is sick of having the whip marks washed out with rubbing alcohol. My point is, I think your average gamer is too desensitized by this point. The novelty of a violent 8-bit game wears off faster than a sneeze. And not the kind of sneeze where you have to roll up a piece of tissue into a spear and wiggle it around your nose to make yourself sneeze, because sometimes that takes a quite a while.

I laughed, then I cringed, then I laughed some more.

I laughed, then I cringed, then I laughed some more.

Which is not to say the violence in NOT A HERO isn’t awesome. There’s one point where you have to lead Bunnylord (the rabbit-man thing calling the shots) through a level to meet with a guy who responded to his peace-offering by decapitating the cake he presented him, because quirk. When you get the mayor to him, he starts to beat him in a way that’s funny and satisfying. Then it goes on too long and becomes awkward, like the game is trying too hard. THEN it goes on even longer, to the point that it starts being funny again. I love gags like that when they work, because it’s so rare when one is pulled off correctly. While the humor is hit-and-miss, when it works it’s amusing in a way many games with the retro-paint job often fail to grasp. NOT A HERO misses more than hits, but the hits are genuinely funny.

Nobody can accuse NOT A HERO of lacking personality. Or restraint. The humor can be very funny and the violence can be very spectacular. But, as a game, NOT A HERO struggles quite a bit. First off, the cover-based shooting mechanics quickly become boring. Enemies take cover, poke out and shoot. Getting enough quality shots off slows the pace down far too much. The game has a ton of different weapons, so why does the action feel so samey with every new floor of enemies and every new mission objective? Even worse, I can’t imagine a single player making it through the game without giving up on shoot-outs altogether and using the tackle / finishing-move option to dispatch nearly every enemy. It’s faster paced, relatively easy to pull off, and ultimately more satisfying. There’s probably a blowjob joke in there somewhere but after an hour of trying, I couldn’t find it. Anyway, the action initially sounds fine, but when the best option for dealing with the mechanics is to do the stuff that allows you to clear it as fast as possible, you might want to consider if a mistake was made along the line.

And then you hit the parts where you have to wonder if enough play-testing was done. The absolute worst part of NOT A HERO is jumping out windows, which in later stages becomes essential to clearing stages. Some objectives require puzzle-like planning and strategy, so it gets especially annoying to reach the end of a long stage and die because you intend to hop out a window and crash through the one directly below it only to fall to your death for the fifth mother fucking time. When exiting a window, you’ll often want to go through the window below you, but instead the game will launch you straight forward in a free-fall to the death. Even trying to heel-toe it at the base of a window doesn’t work all that great, because you’ll just end up dashing back into the room you just tried to exit. Mind you, many objectives in the game are based around a tight time limit, so having to fight a control mechanic that succeeds and fails almost seemingly at random takes the joy and fairness out. It was as if NOT A HERO was trying to bring the Hokey Pokey back, only it’s more like the Brokey-Croaky. You try to inch out the window, inch back in, and inch back out, do the brokey-croaky as your character falls, that’s when you start to pout.

Imagine your character doing the Goofy "YAAAAAHOOHOOWEEEE" noise as they fall to their death. At least that makes it somewhat tolerable.

Imagine your character doing the Goofy “YAAAAAHOOHOOWEEEE” noise as they fall to their death. At least that makes it somewhat tolerable.

If you think my hammering on this window thing seems petty and nit-picky, maybe you’re right. Especially when the rest of the play control isn’t that bad. I mean, other niggling little annoyances happen, like trying to slide out of danger but instead getting stuck in an animation where I’m capping someone with my finishing move and taking cheap damage as a result. But the window thing really sticks out to me because it’s such an essential part of the gameplay and there was no excuse for it to not be done better. Crashing through windows is a fun idea. I push my family out windows all the time and envy them as they roll off our roof and into our poison-oak bushes, because it just looks so damn exciting. And I like the concept and mission objectives for NOT A HERO a lot. The way levels are laid out makes some of them feel like surprisingly deep puzzles. I like puzzles, and it’s rare when a satisfying shooter has them. I’ll agree with other critics that the lack of variety in graphic design can be a bit exhausting, but I played NOT A HERO in shorter sessions, so it took the edge off that a little bit.

All those little control issues that pop up, one big one and several much smaller ones, make me think that NOT A HERO really could have used some more honest feedback from playtesters. To be clear, NOT A HERO is a lot of fun. Even exhilarating at times. That’s why I’m so annoyed by it. I hate games that don’t live up to their fullest potential. Clean up the play control and I think you would have the kind of indie that catches on like wildfire and goes down as something other games should aspire to be. Instead, NOT A HERO is simply a solid, fun title that people will enjoy for a few hours and forget about a week later. I could live with that if I was a cynic looking only for a temporary distraction. As someone who dreams of finding games that maximize their talent to the fullest, I really feel I have no choice here but to award NOT A HERO my seal of approval.

And then shoot it in the kneecap.

And then saw off its pinky fingers with a rusty hacksaw.

And then tie its testicles to a car battery and playfully zap it for a few hours.

And then dip cotton swabs in pepper spray and shove them in its ears.

And then take a smoke break because this torture shit is exhausting.

And then do the old thumb and screw method, because that always looked fun in the movies.

And then introduce it to my pet grizzly bear, Fluffy. Watch out, she’s horny.

And then load a buckshot with pellets of uranium 238 and take out the other knee.

And then make it drink Clamato, because fucking gross.

And then see how many times you can vivisection an arm using only a chainsaw.

Oh don’t get pissy with me, NOT A HERO. You started it!

Not a Hero logoNOT A HERO was developed by Roll7
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$12.99 is exploring the viability of running for office on a platform cleaning up the city using old ladies packing heat in the making of this review.

NOT A HERO is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Dyscourse

Early on in Dyscourse, after your plane crashes and you’re stranded on an island with a “quirky” cast of survivors, you salvage a yellow and black hexagonal disk from the wreckage. For some reason, they name it “Disky” and proceed to treat it like Wilson from Castaway.

I don’t get it. That’s not funny.

See, the Wilson joke worked in Castaway because (1) Tom Hanks cut his hand and left a bloody hand print on the volleyball that looked like a face (2) the ball’s brand name was Wilson, which is an actual name real people have (3) Tom Hanks was alone and had nobody to talk to, so he had conversations with the ball.  Disky doesn’t look like anything, even a disk. There’s no face on it, or anything remotely resembling a face. And there’s nobody on this planet named Disky. And there’s six people to talk to. Nothing about this joke works. It’s just dumb. Dumb isn’t really funny just by itself when you use it in dialog. A video of someone doing something stupid is funny, but in writing, you need a punchline. In most of the story paths I took in Dyscourse, there was no payoff to the joke. It’s just, hey, let’s pretend Disky is a person, because QUIRK! However, in one of the story paths, an attempt is made to pay it off by making the group treat Disky like a deity. At this point, the writing transitions from clumsy to trying too hard.

See that little yellow and black circle on the right? That's Disky. In the immortal words of Edna Krabappel: pretty lame, Milhouse.

See that little yellow and black circle on the right? That’s Disky. In the immortal words of Edna Krabappel: pretty lame, Milhouse.

There’s really not a ton of things wrong with what little there is of Dyscourse’s gameplay. In fact, it’s done exactly the way I like choose-your-own adventure games to be. Once you finish the game, you can go back to any the previous days you’ve finished so that you can choose a different option and have the game play out a different way without starting all the way over at the beginning. Where the path deviates is always very clear, so you won’t have to replay one spot multiple times until you figure out the winning formula for getting a different version of the plot to open up. If you’re going to do a game like this, that’s the way you should do it. That doesn’t actually mean the story is told properly, though. Sometimes characters die whether you’re around them or not, leaving you to feel like what little control you have isn’t really enough. If it’s not that, it’s the characters are all stereotypes who don’t really get a chance to develop. In my first play-through, I had no idea Teddy was a weird conspiracy theory-type. But then the end credits implied that he was. Teddy died quickly when I left him to drown while trapped under a tree, but still, there should have been enough time to allow this characterization to come through. So in my next play-through, I tried to get to know him better. The only good that came from this was I stumbled upon the one gag in the game that made me laugh: Teddy spent decades trying to gain access to military secrets to discover what happened to his long-lost brother, eventually getting a job in.. the mail room!

I said he got a job IN THE MAIL ROOM! Get it? No? Eh, fuck it. You had to be there.

The gameplay is fairly limited. Talk to people, click on things, choose an option from a menu, and see what happens. Games like this are dependent on sharp writing to carry them. For what it’s worth, the majority of critics seem to disagree with me about Dyscourse’s writing, which makes me wonder if stuff like Disky is some sort of reference to a deserted island show like Lost or Gilligan’s Island that’s going over my head. But it’s not just the jokes that I felt don’t work. All the transitions from story beat to story beat felt clumsy.

"Damnit guys, Piggy broke his glasses! Would you get away from that fucking hog's head and give me a hand over here?"

“Damnit guys, Piggy broke the glasses! Would you get away from that fucking hog’s head and give me a hand over here?”

For example, in one section, it starts raining and you have to decide if the group will bail in search of a cave or stay put. I chose to look for a cave. But, before the search, I also had to choose whether or not I would grab the supplies, which at this point consisted of two bags of pretzels and a signal flare. Members of the group hastily shouted at me that WE HAVE TO LEAVE NOW! WE DON’T HAVE TIME! Which was mind-boggling. Why did we have to leave right then? What was the rush? I could have bought the sense of urgency if the game had presented us with something to be nervous over. It didn’t. Not only that, but those supplies? They were right FUCKING there, just a couple of feet away from where I was standing. You could see them! It’s so logically brain-dead that I’m wondering if this is another possible joke that went over my head, or some kind of social commentary on mob mentality. I felt that way every time the plot started to move forward, the motivations and dialog feeling tacked on and rushed through.

Dyscourse is a tough game to review, because this is one of those eye of the beholder games. You’ll either be charmed out of your socks or you’ll be bored. You’ll either laugh your ass off or you’ll cringe. There’s not a lot of middle ground. A lot of people like the art style. I didn’t. I thought main character Rita looked like an anamorphic scarecrow made of wood. I thought Teddy looked like 1910 Frankenstein. The character models were just bizarre. To put it in perspective, my boyfriend created this picture. Can you tell which is a character that’s actually in the game and which is a Garbage Pail Kid that he photoshopped in?

One is Teddy from the popular game Dyscourse. The other is Trash-Can Ken from Garbage Pail Kids. Give up? The one of the right is the Garbage Pail Kid.

Um, can I use a lifeline?

Again, eye of the beholder. Given the sheer number of satisfied backers Dyscourse has (even holding the scroll button down, it takes quite a while for them to finish up in the end credits), obviously this style has its audience. The gameplay does too, though if you’re expecting something like Don’t Starve, keep looking. Dyscourse is a choose-your-own adventure title. Rudimentary fetch-quests and often meaningless point-and-clickery. The stock characters are dull. The Animal Crossing style gibberish they speak gets annoying really fast. I never found myself invested in their plight, and as anyone who has read my Walking Dead reviews knows, when that happens I get a little homicidal. I successfully killed off a couple of members of the party, sometimes without trying, but even that felt oddly unsatisfying. You can sum up my experience with the fact that I eventually decided to commit suicide by giving up a spot in a sleeping bag to the two other survivors while trekking up a mountain, because she was that fucking boring, and the people I was with were boring. Really, if I had actually been stuck with two people like this in a survival situation, starving, freezing, beaten-up? Yea, I would have rather been dead. But even that didn’t work. I survived the night, though one of my hands had frostbite and fell off. My first play-through ended shortly after, and I’ve been struggling to work up the willpower to unlock other story paths ever since. It’s nearly 2AM as I write this, and I’m kicking myself for not grabbing a screencap of Disky when it first popped up, because that means I have to go back and play some more, and I don’t want to.

Dyscourse isn’t terrible. I didn’t hate it. Not even close. I don’t like to use the term “not for me” because it sounds like a huge cop-out, but it really wasn’t for me. I wouldn’t have even bothered playing as far as I did, but it was this month’s charity challenge game from my buddies at Indie Game Riot (the good news? $14.99 will be donated to the Epilepsy Foundation by them for me reviewing this). It comes back to the writing. Some critics have called it witty or sharp. I thought the jokes fell flat, the dialog was Death Valley levels of dry, and the concept as a whole was pretty tired. Mileage on that seems to vary greatly. Throw up a YouTube video of the first chapter. Did you laugh? You might like the game. Did you not? It doesn’t get any better the further you make it in. Meh, I don’t know what else to say. Most people liked it. I didn’t. Please don’t burn my house down, fans of the game. After all, Dyscourse is about discourse, the implication being polite is the way to go.

What’s that? You liked the game but also arbitrarily murdered members of the surviving party, the same way I did? Well shit.

Dyscourse logoDyscourse was developed by Owlchemy Labs
Point of Sale: Steam

$14.99 kept holding out hope we were stuck on the same island with Green Arrow in the making of this review. That way we could have killed and eaten him.

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