Kingdom

Kingdom, the first of 2016’s challenge-reviews from Indie Game Riot (they select a game they think I’m unlikely to select for myself, I purchase and review it, and they match my purchase price as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation) is one of my favorite indies ever. It didn’t start that way though. It’s follows the recent trend of giving players very limited instructions and almost no tutorial. Because, you know, “back in the day we didn’t need no stinkin’ instructions!”

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn't read?

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn’t read?


The idea is you play as the ruler of what looks like an abandoned KOA who must recruit people to help you build-up and defend the land, while you ride around on a horse and look stylish while wearing your crown. At the start of the game, you’re given a handful of coins, one of which you must spend to start a campfire that becomes the center of your kingdom, two of which you’ll need to recruit the first two guys at the camp you seemingly commandeer from them, and the rest you’ll spend assigning them their jobs. There’s only two available jobs at the start: builder and archer. Archers (poorly) hunt animals during the day to nab you coins, and (poorly) defend you from monsters at night. Builders (slowly) construct stuff for you. What kind of stuff? You have to figure that out on your own. The stuff you can assign them to build has no label identifying what it will eventually be. It’s mostly defensive in nature, but still, it assures that you’ll spend your money unwisely and die quickly your first few go-arounds.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins. I find this comical for some reason.

I’ll never understand the “figure it out” mentality of some developers. I think the idea is supposed to be “tutorials are boring.” Yea, they can be, but so can aimlessly wandering. Solving the tutorial problem by such an extreme measure as not having one at all seems a bit drastic. Not to mention you might fail to hook people outside of your target audience. Like me. Imagine if you could spring one person from North Korea, and then give them $2 to buy one of our delicious American soft drinks. But then you unleash them in the soda aisle and give them no clue what are the good ones and what are the bad ones. You run the risk, even likelihood, that they’ll select something disgusting like a Dr. Pepper and be soured on carbonated drinks forever. I was hoping Steam starting a refund program would slow down the volume of them, since most gamers don’t have the patience I do when it comes to games like this. Sadly, it hasn’t. I would be curious what the refund rate is for Kingdom. That opening hour can be pretty demoralizing, and actually, really boring too. The only games that should have players repeatedly mumbling “oh, I get it” are puzzlers. Kingdom is a world builder/strategy/roguelike without the faintest hint of puzzles.

For what it’s worth, once you figure stuff out, the game genuinely is exhilarating. Not the “ta-da” moments where you figure shit out. There’s really nothing all that fun about that. But, once you get going and you start making progress, every extra day you survive is cause for celebration. I settled for starting with two archers, using the first coins they nabbed me to recruit a builder (you find more people at campgrounds), and spending everything else on the first two basic defensive walls. From this point, I fell into a good rhythm and went from only making it to day five to making it to day ten, upgrading my home base a few times, building a decent army, and having a sprawling land that is actually too big for anyone to reasonably expect to maintain on their own. Given the frankly so-absurd-it’s-practically-sarcastic difficulty spike that happens every fifth day when a blood moon causes a large army of monsters to attack, I was fairly proud of myself.

Kingdom’s main problem is that those spikes in difficulty completely throw the pacing out the window. They’re not remotely balanced or fair. Intentionally so, as it turns out. The trailer for the game is centered around its extreme difficulty, how little progress you’ll make, and how often you’ll die. It’s one of the worst trailers for a good game I’ve seen. It turned off at least one friend who I raved about Kingdom to, because it’s about as inviting as fence made out of urine-soaked barbed wire and rabid rottweilers.

That’s one thing even the smartest developers, indie or otherwise, fail to grasp. In games where you die a lot, the dying part isn’t what’s fun. It’s surviving that keeps players coming back. Take my best run thus far. I finally made it to the dreaded day fifteen, which I had been warned was a roadblock for many people who were satisfied with Kingdom, but not in a happy-glowly kind of way. I had never made it that far before, but I had poured my resources into a defensive strategy AND had buffed-up my archers. Additionally, I had a large bag of coins and I knew that if you drop the coins, any enemies who pick them up leave the current raid. I was ready.

Ha.

Yea, I got FUBARed something good, losing roughly 80% of my total resources. Most players told me they would just quit and start over when this happens. Me? I’m no quitter. I persevered. Low and behold, I not only survived, but by day 18, I was actually in better shape than I was before I lost almost everything. “Bring it!” was my motto. Which the monsters did. On day 20. This time, they were flying. I was so not ready to fight flying things. Eventually, every person I had was dead and all that was left was me getting my crown knocked off, which is half of the fail-condition for the game, the other half being if one of the monsters picks up the crown. But, I kept recovering the crown just enough that the sun started to rise and I finally completed level 20, earning an achievement and literally dying a second later.

It was fucking awesome.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it's in the top tier. I only wish the characters & enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it’s in the top-tier. I only wish the characters and enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top-notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

The good stuff is really good. Once you figure it out, at least. Another problem with the lack of explanations is you could be having a killer run only to stumble upon something new that costs coins. Since you don’t know the effect of the new thing, it’s a gamble on whether you’ll benefit immediately or if it’s something you shouldn’t invest in at the stage you’re at. This is a roguelike. Making the wrong guess (and really, it is a guess,) could cost you hours of playtime investment. I found something that looked like a fancy outhouse and couldn’t resist the temptation to put money in it. Honestly I’m not sure what benefit I got out of it, but the result was my run went to crap. Which, in retrospect, I should have anticipated.

Kingdom frustrates me, but not in the way it wants to. It’s so intentionally unintuitive and unfair that it’s practically pretentious. But, despite that, it’s a really fun game. I mean, I’m going to get back to playing it some more as soon as I finish typing this. In fact, as of this writing, it’s one of the ten best indie games I’ve ever played. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. I’m not. That’s why I’m so annoyed. Because I love spreading the word on understated, unsung indie gems. As someone who isn’t a fan of games that take joy in high body counts or throwing players in the deep end on their first day of swimming lessons, Kingdom was not a game made for me at all. And I love it. For all the muck I just raked up, every moment past the first hour or so had me dazzled AND on the edge of my seat. Amazing. Imagine what it could have been if it found a healthy middle ground. Maybe adjustable difficulties, or an optional tutorial that could be skipped by the type of sadomasochistic dweebs who get off on stuff like this. “Oh yesssss, I’ve been a naughty, naughty little twat. Whip me more you sexily aggravating game.”

headerKingdom was developed by Noio and Licorice
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$9.99 wants to know when someone will port the board game Key to the Kingdom to digital form in the making of this review?

Kingdom is Chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Thanks to Patrick Scott Patterson and his Video Game Media Archive for the instruction book pic.

Kill the Plumber

Kill the Plumber is the latest “turn the tables” game. Turn the tables is typically a smoke and mirrors genre in the sense that it’s really just the same kind of games you’ve played before and only gives the illusion that they do something different. Take Default Dan, which appears to twist the Mario platforming formula by doing things like making coins and items kill you, while making enemies and spikes help you. In reality, it  just reskins the formula, changing nothing but the appearance. A moderately skilled ROM hacker could do the same thing to Super Mario Bros. on the NES, swapping the mushrooms with the goombas, or the coins with stationary fireballs. It would still be Super Mario Bros, a perfectly fine game, but the novelty would wear off quick. That’s why Default Dan was just alright as a game. Once you got past the novelty of good = bad and bad = good, the game had to stand on its own, and in the sense, it was just okay. Of course, in game reviews, people associate “just okay” with “likely to resurrect Hitler.” You guys do realize it’s okay to be okay, right?

It looks the part, no question about that.

Kill the Plumber: the name of this game, not Sega’s unofficial corporate slogan circa 1991.

Kill the Plumber genuinely does turn the tables, in the sense that you control the bad guys and legitimately do attack Not-Mario like enemies in real Mario game do. It still feels more like it’s done for novelty value than being a truly inspired concept, but at least the foundation is set properly. Unfortunately, everything past that crumbles once the game starts.

Say it with me, everyone: controls. Having good play control will not make your game, but having bad control will almost certainly break it. The controls for Kill the Plumber are atrocious. All movement feels like you’re underwater. Even worse, the controls can be very unresponsive. This becomes especially annoying with levels where you have less than one second at the start of the stage to begin moving. Like this one:

I should also note that, because the screen flashes white when you die, and because you will die instantly on this stage and immediately restart, I had to have someone else complete it for me because of epilepsy risks. I quit shortly thereafter. If no effort was made to make the game good, I don't really feel the need to suffer through it.

I should also note that, because the screen flashes white when you die, and because you will die instantly on this stage and immediately restart, I had to have someone else complete it for me because of epilepsy risks. That this could happen again was enough of a worry for me that I decided to walk away before finishing it. No regrets for that, it’s awful and kept getting worse. Thankfully, there’s a cheat code (type “warpzone” on the title screen) that unlocks all the levels, so that I could sample later stages and see if they got better. For the most part, they didn’t.

(For those who played my Mario Maker stages, I’m perfectly aware of the hypocrisy.)

You will die in just under one second if you don’t move to the correct spot immediately at the start of this stage, and that’s BEFORE you take the sluggish response into account. How sluggish? You can PAUSE THE GAME and the response time to that is slow enough that not-Mario can still be moving while the game is in the process of pausing, leading to you getting killed while the pause menu fades into existence. Holiest of all shits, that’s inexcusably bad design. This is hardly the only level with this problem, too. “Think fast” is a great mindset for a punisher like 1001 Spikes, but for a game that feels more like a puzzler submerged in liquid nitrogen, it just makes the whole thing boring.

The final boss fight (where you control the boss) is remarkable: the gravity is too heavy while the jumping is too light AT THE SAME TIME!

The final boss fight (where you control the boss) is remarkable: the gravity is too heavy while the jumping is too light AT THE SAME TIME! Credit where it’s due: Kill the Plumber kept coming up with new ways to annoy me.

Which is not to say Kill the Plumber does nothing right. Again, this is a genuine reversal of roles. Playing as not-Mario baddies who behave reasonably close to their real counterparts isn’t the worst idea a game has ever had. The concept is eye-catching and serves it purpose: you see it, you want to play it just based on the premise. That’s why I’m so frustrated with it. It’s sold brilliantly, but the execution misses in every way a game can. Awful control, some of the worst I’ve experienced for a game like this. Incredibly irritating levels of unfairness. Even the scoring system seems clumsy, and because of the tedious gameplay speed, you probably won’t want to replay stages to go for three-stars. The levels are short enough that it could be an enjoyable quick’n’quirk experience. Instead, it’s just a slog. There’s nothing wrong with Kill the Plumber that couldn’t have been fixed with more time and care, but as it stands, I really hated this game. Kill it indeed. Kill it with fire.

headerKill the Plumber was developed by Keybol
Point of Sale: Steam
Also available to play for free on Newgrounds

$3.99 (normally $4.99) said “too late, it’s already dead” in the making of this review.

Zero Punctuation: Hatfall – Hatters Gonna Hat Edition

Two game critics were important inspirations for me when I started Indie Gamer Chick. One was Jim Sterling, whom I became friends with when he stumbled upon my Indie Ego editorial. The other was Yahtzee Croshaw, who is playing hard to get. I found both of them to be insightful, uncompromising, and hilarious. I hold both in high esteem. They’re what a game critic should be: informative but entertaining, and just egotistical enough to be adorable without obnoxiousness.

Someone pass me the vaseline.

Really adorable. Someone pass me the vaseline.

Both also moonlight in game development itself. Jim is a critically acclaimed voice actor. Yahtzee has made a series of free-to-play indies that inspired his Yahtzee persona. Given that I just reviewed a game Jim acted in, the hugely disappointing Volume, I figured I should check out my other idol’s work. Low and behold, he just happened to have two games release on Steam. One of them is a survival horror game, a genre typically as compatible with my epilepsy as a housefly is with a rolled up copy of the New York Times. So I chose Hatfall, the Zero Punctuation-based game. It’s actually a mobile game converted to Steam with a few upgrades. Which actually makes me wonder how dull the mobile version must be. Butter knife dull? David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives dull? BluRay special edition audio commentary on the David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives with special guest Ben Stein dull?

The core game is you move left and right catching hats one at a time. The further you make it, the more stick-figure lookalikes crowd the screen, forcing you to quickly figure out which one is you before the hat hits the ground. Sometimes the game also drops deadly projectiles in addition to hats, and it takes a little bit of practice to be able to tell the difference. Stages fly by quickly, eventually spawning a wizard event that has an additional effects challenge that earns you a present if you complete it. Presents open up mini-games. And that’s about it.

You'll want to play this minigame over and over again when you're trying to slay the evil hat God. Or just don't buy the game. Because it sucks.

You’ll want to play this minigame over and over again when you’re trying to slay the evil hat God. Or just don’t buy the game. Because it sucks.

Call me crazy, but I sort of figured a game based on Zero Punctuation would be more satirical of gaming. I also figured it would involve some sort of fast-talking commentary by Yahtzee himself. But nope, there’s none. My family was elated. “Oh, so we won’t have to hear that awful man’s voice that sounds like the Micro Machine Man did twenty years in the Tower of London for doing terrible things with cattle? Oh um, what a shame, Cathy” they said while high-fiving each-other between toasts of champagne. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only voice overs from Yahtzee are two words. Sometimes he says “WRONG!” and other times he says “noooice!” That’s it, unless I missed something. The running gag of misspelled words in the background continues from his reviews, but none of them are funny without the context of his commentary. All the humor is limited to the minigames, which have a couple of laugh-out-loud gags in them, especially one based around insurance fraud. Maybe because of the Zero Punctuation title I was expecting a more scathing and self-aware satire on games and gaming culture, like the Beginners Guide if it was narrated by a fast-talking, British-born Australian psychopath. Hatfall is just sort of lazy. This feels like a game Yahtzee would shit on himself if he hadn’t made it.

Hey look, an almost satire on one niche aspect of the gaming scene: anime dating sims. Except that scene is such a parody onto itself that it's really not funny here.

Hey look, an almost satire on one niche aspect of the gaming scene: anime dating sims. That’s topical, right? Except that scene is such a parody onto itself that it’s really not funny here.

Worst of all is the game isn’t remotely fun to play. Progress is slow. Items are too expensive. Scoring is low and grindy. There’s a multiplier you get at random from the wizard that could either double the points you get the next game or earn you another life during your next round. These only serve to make every round you play without those items feel like a slow waste of your time. You have to go to the game’s achievement page in Steam to view leaderboards (I currently rank #30 globally, which as far as embarrassing achievements go ranks up there with the time I watched the entire season of Power Rangers Samurai without getting up to use the bathroom). This is a shitty, shitty game. One that is occasionally funny, but not funny enough (especially when the awful Rondo stuff starts) to justify spending real money on it. There’s an old saying: never meet your heroes. For aspiring game critics, add to that “and especially never play your heroes’ games. Ever.” Well fuck, so much for the wedding. We could have made beautiful, horrible children together, Yahtzee.

Zero logoZero Punctuation: Hatfall – Hatters Gonna Hat Edition was developed by this asshole.
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.99 (normally $4.99) asked why, if he could make looking at Mega Man cover art so funny I nearly choked on my own tears, how come he couldn’t make this funny in the making of this review?

Downwell

No, I don’t hate punishers. I’m actually quite fond of them, when they’re done right. Where the point isn’t a high body count or angering the player with tedious trial and ERROR gameplay, but rather the possibility that, yes, the odds are against you, but you might live. Downwell mostly does it right. The idea is you’re falling down a  randomized well. You have guns. Shoot the shit in your way so that you can fall further. You fall,  you shoot. That’s less complex than “avoid missing ball for high score.” Which I always found confusing anyway. If the ball is missing, shouldn’t it be particularly easy to avoid it? Wait. Ohhhh, yea, I get it now. That makes more sense.

Where was I?

Downwell is a lot of fun. I played the Steam version with an Xbox One controller and I thought it worked just fine. I never felt the controls screwed me into taking damage. I never felt my actions werent responsive. In a game like this, you can’t ask for better. There’s a nice variety of weapons and unlockable colors schemes and modes, and the random nature lends itself to addiction potential like a schedule II drug. This is a really good game.

Like, really good. Go buy it now before I talk you out of it.

Like, really good. Go buy it now before I talk you out of it.

But..

The thing with procedurally generated games is that luck of the draw will always factor in to some degree. There’s two ways players can tackle the stages in Downwell. You can ignore finesse in favor of gunning your way to the bottom of the well. It’s not pretty but it’ll get the job done. The other way is to focus on racking up combos, and that’s where luck will factor in. The level lottery won’t always generate a layout that lends itself to high combos. Additionally, the random upgrades you can select from at the end of each stage, plus the random selection of guns, won’t always play to your favor. This is one of the reasons why I wish procedurally generated games with online leaderboards didn’t just list the top scores, but the next four highest scores achieved by those players. I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the people on top of the boards are genuinely skilled or if they got an extremely favorable layout one time. Otherwise, it would be like comparing the salaries of a blue-collar lumberjack with a Powerball jackpot winner and asking the lumberjack “Why aren’t you as successful as the jackpot winner?” Showing each player’s next four high scores, or their average high over the last 20 games, would minimize that.

I just became the latest in a long line of women to feel disappointment when they realize that it's Shia LaBeouf on top of them.

I just became the latest in a long line of women to feel disappointment when they realize that it’s Shia LaBeouf on top of them.

And this is unquestionably a factor in Downwell. My highest combos (which are, frankly, not that noteworthy) came on stages that lent themselves to the combos better. Enemy placement, breakable block placement, relatively straight paths, the right guns, and the right upgrades. I put about 10 hours into Downwell, enough time to realize just how rare optimal conditions can be. Yes, being lucky is never enough, because it takes skill to take advantage of being lucky. Still, I wish the game were smarter about how it generates stages. While it never saps the fun out of, it can be frustrating to attempt combos and then hit randomly generated roadblocks that average or even above-average skilled players couldn’t reasonably be expected to clear. Never mind that some of the guns are dog shit. I’m looking at you, Nobby and Burst. There were times where I was trying to make progress, down to my last tick of health, and chose not to take those guns even though I would have gained health and presumably bought myself some extra time.

I loved the laser. Probably doesn't lend itself well to combos, but it was heavy in FUCK YOU potential.

I loved the laser. Probably doesn’t lend itself well to combos, but it was heavy in FUCK YOU potential.

I still love Downwell quite a bit. It’s one of those throwbacks that mimics white-knuckle action of Golden Age arcade titles, but in a way that feels fresh and modern. Because of epilepsy concerns, I couldn’t finish Downwell. The last boss is apparently quite spongy and strobes when taking damage, making it off-limits for me to try. Disappointing to some degree, though my family was probably rejoicing that I wouldn’t lose weeks of productivity to it like I did Spelunky or Shutshimi before it. But, it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t finish it. I had a lot of fun right up until I had to quit. I think that’s what separates games like Downwell from other punishers: fun in the face of failure. It never feels tedious. It never feels like you’re being trolled. It’s exhilarating to be down to your final health point, barely dodge death, and make it to the end of a stage. Downwell isn’t fun because you die a lot. It’s fun because sometimes you survive, all on your own, and not through trial-and-error. Sadistic, but fun, like playing poker with Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

downwell logoDownwell was developed by Moppin
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$2.99 said IT’S MOPPIN TIME! like a douche in the making of this review. Sorry.

Downwell is Chick Approved (it’s been a while, cue the music) and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Press X to Not Die

I hate FMV games, so I can’t pretend I went into Press X to Not Die completely neutral. They’re something that had novelty appeal before my time. Novelty being the key word here. I can’t believe anyone would reminisce about the glory days of Dragon’s Lair, a title with so little gameplay that you don’t even need a game console to play it on BluRay these days. And, unlike pretty much any other obsolete game format, I can’t put myself in the mindset where anyone would rather play it today than anything else. Saying “I would rather play Space Ace than any modern crap” is just as stupid sounding to me as it would be hearing someone say “I would rather just switch back and forth between the main menu and the chapter select DVD menus than actually watch the movie.” A dull choice for boring people.

But, if you’re going to do an FMV game today, taking the piss out of it seems like a good way to go. The genre certainly lends itself to satire, on account of its legacy reading like the obituary page. A hilarious idea for a game would be a suicidal game executive trying to destroy his own company by ordering the creation of a new FMV game, so that they can go bankrupt and secure their plot in gaming’s graveyard next to Cinematronics, American Laser Games, and the Sega CD. All yours, whoever wants to actually make a satire. Press X to Not Die really doesn’t do satire too well, nor is it a satire of FMV games. It just names stuff you’ve heard of and swipes running gags from other, funnier people. Even the name itself is taken from a Zero Punctuation running gag, I guess the mindset being “if it’s funny when the fast talking British-born Australian psychopath says it, it’ll be just as funny when done by our terrible actors in front of a cheap video camera.” Comedy for lazy cynics. Hey, did you know Team Edward versus Team Jacob is a thing? You did? You’re supposed to LOL, because that’s the joke!

I too have heard of these movies. Excuse me, my sides seem to be splitting.

I too have heard of these movies. Excuse me, my sides seem to be splitting.

Maybe one or two gags over the course of thirty minutes work. I guess the player-character’s hand gestures that mock first-person games are funny for like two seconds. There was exactly one line of dialog that made me laugh. When encountering a zombie, the girl who tags along with you uses kung-fu to take it out. You exclaim “you know Kung-Fu?” She pauses and says “Apparently.”

Maybe I told it wrong.

When it’s not relying on references for humor (remember how the final zombie in Zombieland was a clown! You do? Well look, our final zombie is a clown too! That’s somehow funny, right?), Press X to Not Die relies on dialog trees to, well, set up further references disguised as humor. “This is just like that M. Night Shyamalan movie!” Ha, because his movies are bad, so that’s funny. Oh and look, the last dialog option is the Little Mermaid. Oh snap, that’s not an M. Night Shyamalan movie, so that’s funny too, because I too have heard that Shyamalan is a hack director and I too know he didn’t direct the Little Mermaid.

Oh, did you not laugh? Don’t worry. Press X to Not Die’s repeats that joke a second time, just to make sure. This is the first game I’ve ever played that feels saturated in flop sweat.

Naming pop-culture stuff without any set-ups or punch-lines is both hilarious and so easy that I don’t know why anyone bothers putting in effort anymore. Frankly, I’m surprised people can read the directory at Comic Con without choking on their own fits of laughter and dying. “5PM: Superman panel. Ha, I’ve heard of Superman! 6PM: Doctor Who retrospective. Oh my God, Doctor Who! I know about that! That’s FUCKING HILARIOUS! 7:PM: Star Wars anniversary panel. Oh God oh God, Star Wars! I know about Star Wars too! Ahahahaha gag gurgling noise bleh!

Oh, and those “gag” answers in the dialog trees usually cue up the women in the game looking at you like you’re a moron and saying nothing. Really, that’s the payoff to them. Guy says something stupid, and character looks at you like this.

Lulz? Please tell me this is lulz.

Lulz? Please tell me this is lulz.

Nope, that’s not funny. Maybe you should try it again.

Sassy female characters looking at men in disgust for saying something dumb. That's something funny people do, right?

Sassy female characters looking at men in disgust for saying something dumb. That’s something funny people do, right?

No, sorry, still nothing. Maybe you should have said “hey, remember Alvin and the Chipmunks?” or something.

As for the game itself, for an FMV game it’s surprisingly lacking in FMVish stuff to do. A few quick time events, some of which are oh-so-“fun” button-mashing sequences, though there’s often a lot of downtime between the sequences. Just a whole lot of nothing to do, the barest minimum of a concept executed as quickly as possible. It’s awful, one of the worst games I’ve ever played.

I can’t even say everyone involved at least looked like they were having fun. The lead actress constantly has a look about her like she’s kicking herself for all the decisions that led her to being in this. The acting is bad, which I’m sure will be said was done intentionally so, because you know, the acting in FMV games of days gone by was bad. The thing is, those people were actually trying to be good, which is why it’s especially charming when they’re not. Trying to be bad isn’t funny. It’s just awkward unless you’re capable actors. When you’re just fucking around and shooting footage of you and your friends, none of whom are exactly up for Oscars to begin with, making an actual effort and failing would be cute and charming. When you try to be bad on purpose, you just come across like you don’t give a shit. Who wants to pay money to play the game by the people who didn’t even try? I don’t.

My apologies if they actually DID attempt decent acting. In which case…………… wow.

Press XPress X to Not Die was developed by All Seeing Eye Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.99 (too much) said these guys could use a seeing eye dog. See, that’s a joke in the making of this review.

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.

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