Mega Coin Squad

You’ll forgive me for being skeptical of Mega Coin Squad. Adult Swim Games has a wonderful track record of selecting indies for publication, but their last title is currently my choice for worst game of 2014. Also, the primary focus of the game is local-only multiplayer. For a PC game. No online. Not even LAN play. Local-only. I’m not so pissed about that. At this point, I’m used to indies not stepping up to the challenge of incorporating online play in their games. What ticks me off is that you can’t even whisper a hint of disappointment about an indie that is local only multiplayer without douchebag indie fanboys bitching at you for having the utter NERVE to complain about the lack of online play. They treat you like you’re naive at best, or ignorant at worst. Yes, I get that online is difficult to do. Do you know what else is difficult? Making a good game. If you get to the point of making a good game (like Mega Coin Squad is), why not go that extra mile? And do you know who shares some of the blame for that? The same douchebag indie fanboys who see a preview of a game and then hound the developers every week with “IS IT READY YET? WHEN IS IT GOING TO READY? CAN I PLAY A BETA OF THE GAME? IS IT READY? IT’S READY ENOUGH! WHEN ARE YOU BRINGING IT OUT? IS IT READY?” You guys with your impatience are the reason why they feel the pressure to release it right now instead of taking the extra time to get online play in.

Local-only multiplayer games on PC sounds suicidal to me. Yeah, Sportsfriends has become a staple of Saturday morning meetings at the Vice household, but that’s a casual-driven CONSOLE game. A neo-retro action-shooter-partier on PC is going to be a tough sell to convince friends you’re better off playing that over something like Gears of War.

And then there’s the name. “Mega Coin Squad.” It’s so generic. It sounds like what a 70-year-old scriptwriter for a bad sitcom would call a game. “Timmy, what do you want for your birthday?” “I want Mega Coin Squad!” “I don’t know Timmy. We’re a bit strapped for cash now.” And then the parents try some wacky get-rich-quick scheme to raise the money for the present, get it somehow, and the kid gets bored with it quickly as the punchline to end the show. That’s what Mega Coin Squad sounds like. I mean,  you can practically hear a soulless game design committee stamp this name out, can’t you?

“What’s something you collect in games?”

“Coins!”

“Okay. And what’s a way of describing a group of people participating in an event?”

“A team!”

“No, no. That’s too lazy.”

“Um, squad?”

“Perfect! And finally, we need a modifier. Something dynamic!”

“Super?”

“Nah, too Nintendo.”

“Ultra?”

“That’s not bad. But we better save that for the sequel.”

“How about Mega?”

“Excellent! Mega it is! Mega Coin Squad! Someone call Fox Kids and tell them to we’ve got the cheapest animators in Korea working on the cartoon right now. Oh, someone make sure to actually make the fucking game while we’re at it. Gentlemen, to cynicism!”

By the way, I pictured that being done with J.K. Simmons’ voice. If you didn’t, go back and read it that way.

"Use pixel-art. Kids these days love pixel art. It's retro and hip."

“Use pixel-art. Kids these days love pixel art. It’s retro and hip.”

The thing is, it wasn’t a soulless corporation or some lazy sitcom writer coming up with the name. It was an indie studio. I’m sure the name was chosen on a satirical, sarcastic level. Fine. But, once the joke stops being funny (it takes just under two seconds), you’re stuck with a boring, generic name. When I see games with names like this, I always brace for the worst. I mean, if they phoned in the name, it’s typically safe to assume they phoned in all other aspects of development. That’s not the case with Mega Coin Squad at all, but going off the name, I can’t tell that.

I’ve had a lot of fun with Mega Coin Squad’s single player stuff. The basic idea is, you’re a dude (or a dudette, or a robot) that has to hop around a large room with coins scattered around. There’s also a giant piggy bank. You have to collect a target amount of coins and deposit them in the piggy bank. It’s an original (I think) concept that works wonderfully. You can also throw fireballs, pick up weapons, or hop on enemies to defeat them. Every few seconds, the platforms blink out of existence, only to be replaced with different platforms and more coins. The fast-paced collect-a-thon mechanics are a lot of fun to play with.

There’s up to three random upgrades available between the first three stages in every world. You get one by never taking damage, one by banking all the coins at once instead of banking a few here and a few there, and one by banking all the coins within a target amount of time. One of the upgrades is a double jump, which I recommend you try to get as soon as possible. You can also upgrade your own fireball a few times. Eventually, the fireball gets so powerful that I actively tried to avoid picking up guns. Even as I was upgrading them, they were never as useful at killing enemies or clearing out large sections of blocks like the max-upgraded fireball was. It would pass straight through solid blocks, killing all enemies and destroying all breakable blocks in its path. I started cursing myself every time I accidentally stumbled into picking up a gun and spent the next couple seconds trying to unload all the ammo out of it so I could go back to my good old fireball. By the way, why would someone who can create fire with their hands and nothing else ever even look at a gun? If I could, I wouldn’t. I would hang one of those “gun on premises” signs on my door, only it would say “person that can create projectile fiery death on premises.” I would have the safest house on the block and be the go-to person if you had trouble starting your barbeque.

All quiver in front of the might of a fully-upgraded fireball, which renders all the carefully crafted guns in the game worse than useless. It makes them obstacles to be avoided.

All quiver in front of the might of a fully-upgraded fireball, which renders all the carefully crafted guns in the game worse than useless. It makes them obstacles to be avoided.

The frenzy of pace is also one of the major problems in the game. Some stages have springboards, which launch you quickly to the upper parts of rooms.. and often into an enemy that you couldn’t have possibly seen. I lost count of how many times I brained myself against an enemy with no reasonable way of avoiding it, but over ten or so hours, it had to have been over a hundred times. And the controls aren’t always responsive. Especially the double jump. I would often land, jump, then try to jump again and nothing. This happened a lot, and I talked with other critics who it happened to. It never really caused me to take damage, but in a game where you have a limited amount of time and need precision jumping, everything working spot-on at all times without failure is completely necessary.

Finally, I hated that every world finishes with a stage where you just have to kill a lot of enemies. I can’t believe they made it through development without anyone standing up and saying “compared to the coin-grabbing stuff, these stages are incredibly boring.” Maybe someone did. If that happened, that person was ignored and the game is at least 25% less fun because of it. Bravo. I’m sure those stages were there because indies have an unwritten rule that they must be at least 25% horrible, or else they’re not indie anymore. Whatever the reason, I still enjoyed the majority of my time with Mega Coin Squad. Well, what I played of it. Again, I wasn’t able to enjoy the mulitplayer stuff, which is the game’s primary focus. Probably the best compliment I can give to this title is it’s the first multiplayer-focused indie I’ve played where the single-player stuff doesn’t feel like it was tacked on as an after-thought. Not even close. I’m actually skeptical that the multiplayer stuff could eclipse the single-player campaign. Also, I’m trademarking Ultra Coin Squad. It’s for Big Pixel Studios’ own good. It’ll force them to put three full seconds of thought into the sequel’s name.

Mega Coin Squad LogoMega Coin Squad releases on August 15

IGC_ApprovedMega Coin Squad was developed by Big Pixel Studios
Point of Sale: Steam
$14.99 ($11.99 first week sales price) has a father that always said “do you think I shit money?” Well, I’ll show him the rainbow-colored coin in this game and say “if you had one of these, you would. Can I have my Porsche now?” in the making of this review.

Mega Coin Squad is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

A review copy was provided by Adult Swim Games to IndieGamerChick.com. A full copy of the game will be purchased by Cathy when it releases on August 15.

Papers, Please (Cathy’s Take)

There will be spoilers here. But really, this review is being done for the benefit of people who have already played the game and just want to hear my opinion on here and see where Papers, Please lands on the Leaderboard. Assuming it does.

Former IGC writer Jerry, aka Indie Gamer Guy, tackled today’s game nearly a year ago. By that point, I was still mostly focused on XBLIG and hadn’t even done a single PC review yet. I did play a little of Papers, Please but it didn’t grab me immediately, and since Jerry did it, I figured I had no reason to go back to it. Then I did my first Steam review a few weeks ago, and with it, instantaneously, dozens of readers started pestering me for my opinion on Papers, Please. People were using terms like “nobody would have ever tried a game like this before indies” or “it uses video games as a medium for social commentary like no game ever has.” While they did that, I’m thinking to myself, we’re talking about a fucking paperwork simulator, aren’t we?

And yeah, we are, but that grossly oversimplifies thing. If you’ve been living under a rock, the basic idea is you work as an immigration inspector for a fictionalized version of a cold-war era communist dictatorship. You never see your character’s face, or learn his name. One by one, people come up to your booth presenting their immigration papers. Just a few documents per person at the start. A passport and an entry pass for foreigners. A passport and ID for locals returning home because they’re fucking idiots and Glory to Arstotzka! There’s no tutorial, just some less than thorough static instruction screens that originally left me feeling unimpressed. I had to rely heavily on a rule book that had a map of all the local countries and their cities. Basically, the game revolves around checking all the paperwork for spelling mistakes or inconsistencies. For example, a city may be called Bumfuckistan, but on the paperwork, it’s listed as Bumfuchistan. Or sometimes they’ll be missing a document altogether. If the paperwork is good, you send them through. If not, you don’t.

What's happening is we're going to take you into that back room and introduce you to the science of ballistic propulsion.

What’s happening is we’re going to take you into the back room and introduce you to the science of ballistic propulsion.

And while this is going on, a revolutionary group occasionally drops in soliciting your help in undermining the system and over throwing the regime. The regime which you really never see, and can only assume is evil because they keep adding more paperwork for you to sort through. Going by that standard, California must be barely a step below Nazi Germany if the amount of paperwork involved in ANYTHING here is any indication. That’s what disappoints me about Papers, Please: every motivation and menace is simply implied to exist, and mostly left to your imagination. And the worst case isn’t always as bad as it seems.

I’ll give you an example: there’s a dude that shows up frequently in the game named Jorji who is, for the lack of a better term, a fucking moron. He shows up at first without any papers, so you reject him. Then he shows up with a fake passport that looks like it was made with a set of crayons. This is before you’re given the option to detain people. Eventually, he does get the right paperwork, but his listed weight is different, which implies he’s smuggling something on his person. Upon scanning him (which includes full-frontal nudity if you turn the option on, though for you pervs out there, it’s not exactly erotic) you confirm that he’s trying to sneak drugs across the border. At this point, I was simply playing the good employee, not letting ANYONE sneak in for any reason, even when the game clearly implies that you’re supposed to. So I had him arrested, and figured he was about to be shot. Thought nothing of it. So long Jorji.

Seems legit.

Seems legit.

A few days later, Jorji  shows up, alive and well. He claims he has cops on the take. Yeah right. The fact that this grade-A nincompoop survived being detained really took the oomph out of the whole detaining process for me. I went from thinking I had been sending people off to their deaths to thinking I had been sending people off to have their afternoons mildly inconvenienced. At this point, the stakes felt significantly lower. Hell, the meter maids were probably making more life and death decisions than I was. But then again, Papers, Please isn’t really consistent with pulling players into the experience emotionally. At one point, I seem to have become buddies of sorts with one of the armed guards. And by buddies, I mean we chitchatted a couple of times and that was it. One day, out of the blue, he hands me a locket of his dream girl, tells me she’ll be coming to the booth sometime soon without the right papers, and asked me to let her in. Anytime you let anyone in without proper clearance, someone else catches it (someone who is WAY better at their job than me, so I’m not sure why they even need me), you get a citation. Every day you get two warning citations, and then you start getting fines. So I had to eat a citation to let his girlfriend through, but I’m a sucker for crap like that. True love conquers all and what not. You get to watch them hug, and it’s really kind of beautiful.

A couple of minutes later, a terrorist got over the wall, I was slow on drawing out my gun (you get a gun later, because of course you do) and my guard buddy was fucking killed. Of course he was. Now, considering how fucking minimalistic the game is up to this point, this shouldn’t have affected me, but it actually did. I teared up a little. No joke. And then I cheated and restarted the day, making sure to save him. So bravo game, you got me there.

BUT, you didn’t get me in most other aspects. You have a family to take care of, but you never actually interact with them. Ever. Eventually, you get a picture of them to hang on the wall of your booth (which actually will land you in jail if you do it), but that’s not exactly a deep emotional moment. Their only real significance is they cost extra money at the end of each day. They’re checklists at the end of each level. At some point your unseen, previously completely unheard-of sister gets arrested for something (you’re never told what) and you are given the option of adopting her daughter or not. You never see your niece either. Your son’s birthday comes up and you have to choose to buy him crayons for his birthday or not. If you do, you get a drawing from him. Yea? And the game reminds you constantly that if you get in trouble with the regime, it could land your family in the gulag as well. So fucking what?

That’s my biggest problem with Papers, Please. Your personal stakes just aren’t high enough. Who gives a shit if your family lives or dies? I didn’t. I never was given a chance to make an emotional connection with them. And it’s a shame because the developer was clearly capable of manipulating players emotionally. With MINIMAL interaction and animation, I felt a desire to help let my buddy’s girlfriend through the border, and was devastated when he got killed. When I retconned that and saved him, I was really happy to learn they would name a child after me. And hell, even fucking around with Jorji, I felt some kind of connection with him, annoying as he was. I never felt any of that to my family, and considering how keeping your family fed and warm is considered the main objective of the game, leaving them completely out of it feels like a cut corner.

Look on the street and you can see the couple hugging. That one teeny tiny moment was very emotionally satisfying. But there are few such moments in Papers, Please, and that's a crying shame.

Look on the street and you can see the couple hugging. That one teeny tiny moment was very emotionally satisfying. But there are few such moments in Papers, Please, and that’s a crying shame.

Oddly enough, the developer did get the aspects of the job right. My father, who is tickled pink by this whole Indie Gamer Chick thing, actually knows a cold-war era immigration officer, who currently works as a tech incubator here in the Silicon Valley. When Daddy saw what I was playing, he put me in touch with him. Granted, the guy he knew worked for the American side of things, but after asking him to try Papers, Please, he confirmed to me that creator Lucas Pope was pretty much spot-on about the bureaucracy of the job and the ways people try to get past you. Cities with the wrong spelling. Really easy ones that typically involved spelling out a city’s name like it sounds phonetically. For example, spelling “Iraq” as “Irack” or Russia as “Rusha”. Seals that are incorrect, or the wrong flag. Bribery. Begging. And the awareness that, in many cases, rejecting someone’s admission could lead to them being put to death in their home country. And he worked FOR US! He had so many stories for me that I told him he ought to write a book. But, and this is important, he said the game felt authentic. He also couldn’t believe anyone would even think to make a game like this, and was super impressed when he found out it was popular. His only gripe? He said the people being rejected didn’t ply on the sob-stories enough. I felt the same way. The interaction with those passing through your checkpoint is very minimal. This is probably for two reasons. First, because the game is randomly generated, outside of scripted events (some people always pass through the checkpoint on certain days in a certain order), and thus having to write that much dialog would have been time-prohibitive. Second, it would eat up the game’s already too fucking short daily time limit. After nearly 500 games reviewed, Papers, Please is the only indie I’ve played where I would embrace a “special edition” that adds dialog and new story arcs. Not because what’s here is so good, but because what’s here simply isn’t enough.

If it sounds like I didn’t like Papers, Please at all, you’re totally wrong. I was utterly sucked into the experience. I figured I would put five to six hours into it like any other indie. Over thirty hours later and I’m still unlocking endings, branching different paths in the story, and generally having a good time doing it. I’m not totally sold on the idea that Papers, Please has revolutionized gaming as a story-telling medium. Emotionally, it strikes out far more often than not. But, on those rare occasions when it’s a hit, that hit is a home run. No, overthrowing the regime wasn’t part of it. Frankly, that’s another spot where the game lost me. Why would the rebels have selected me? The first time I played, I was very much doing my job, gleefully sending people into a room to be shot. I would have been the LAST person they would have sought the help of. But they kept asking for it again and again. Sure, one of the endings involved them trying to kill me for rejecting them, but it wasn’t much of a payoff, because I never felt intimidated by their presence. Quite frankly, if they were centering their plans around my cooperation, they were doomed to fail. I spent half the time unable to tell guys apart from girls or properly remember how St. Marmero was spelt.

But I really liked Papers, Please. A lot. Hell, I haven’t even started the endless mode. Before epilepsy kicked the shit out of me for three straight days, I had just unlocked it, and I’m going to dive in as soon as I publish this. The play mechanics have all the workings of a time-sink, and the lack of properly anchoring the story on an emotional level should contribute even greater to that, yet it never once feels like one. That’s nothing short of a miracle. Let’s face it, this is essentially “Bureaucracy: The Video Game”, but it manages to be very compelling and a lot of fun. For all the people who bitch and complain about the lack of risk or creativity in gaming, even with indies, Papers proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how bright all of our futures are. If this review sounded too negative, it’s only because all the ingredients were here for this to take the top spot on my Leaderboard, but too many seemingly important story elements were completely ignored. Otherwise, I’m in awe. I made a meter maid joke above, but just now, I’m thinking someone could probably make a compelling game about it. Why not? I just put 30 hours into a game based around a job that I would rather fucking die than have. There are a lot of games that are glorified jobs that you have to pay for. World of Warcraft, the Sims, EVE Online. Papers, Please is a game about one of the most redundant jobs on the planet and it is a very entertaining game. Meanwhile, someone out there right now is a filing clerk stuck in the basement of an office building, bored out of his or her skull. Chin up, whoever you are. Some day, some enterprising indie developer will turn your daily grind into a transcendent video game, and it will be fucking awesome.

Papers Please LogoPapers, Please was developed by Lucas Pope
Point of Sale: Steam

IGC_Approved$9.99 could have lived its life content without seeing Jorji’s tiny old man schlong in the making of this review.

Papers, Please is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Shutshimi

With my last two reviews landing in the top ten on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard, I’m now worried that my readers will think I’m going soft. Or possibly that I’ve been replaced by my nicer, goatee wearing Mirror Universe counterpart. Neither is true. As far as you know. But really, I have a reputation to maintain here. So what I need is a game from a genre that is my least favorite. Something that looks like it’s been done a zillion times before. Something I can rake over coals and murder with my malicious words. I need a shmup.

So I picked Shutshimi, and it’s one of the ten best indie games I’ve ever played. Well, fuck me.

I should have known better. As many of you are aware, the original Wario Ware on Game Boy Advance is my personal choice for the best game ever made. Probably a sign that I have ADHD or something. But other games based around time crunches have also owned me, such as Pac-Man Championship Edition, Bejeweled Blitz, NES Remix, or XBLIGs Orbitron and Minigame Marathon. I’m wired for shit like this. And Shutshimi is essentially the Wario Ware of shoot-em-ups. Stages last ten seconds. Sometimes less, but never more. Between stages, you enter a store where you have a choice of three different items. The items have overly-long, elaborate descriptions (that are often not very helpful) and you have exactly ten seconds to make your selection. You fight a boss every few rounds, but only ten seconds at a time. And that’s pretty much the entirety of the game. And I call it a game only because it might be slanderous to call it what it really is: a drug.

Hell, it even looks like how you picture being on drugs.

Actually, going off this picture, maybe I’m on to something with the whole drug thing.

And an addictive drug at that. I have no love for this genre. I find the majority of shmups to be boring, samey, typically unambitious, and designed strictly to target those that are nostalgic for shooters. I’m certainly not nostalgic for them, and thus I’m not these games target audience. More over, shmups are the most high-risk genre for my epilepsy triggers, something I honestly haven’t minded up to this point. I don’t want to sound like I’m milking my condition.. even though that’s exactly what I’m doing.. but it’s a genre I do go out of my way to avoid. I skipped this one for weeks. I only gave it consideration to begin with because it came via Anthony Swinnich, a long-time Indie Gamer Chick fan, and because he put “The Switch” in it. In other words, they included an option that made this game more epilepsy friendly.

Ten hours. That’s how long I played Shutshimi the first time I booted it up. Shock doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about this. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. And it did it the same way Wario Ware did: simplifying the play mechanics, and then weaponizing them by throwing them at you in fast-paced, bite-sized chunks. Because the game is randomized, you really can’t count on anything. An item that does one thing will do a different thing the next time you see it. No two play-throughs are the same. The lightning-fast approach is only detrimental because the writing is so damn funny, you’ll want to read it all and simply can’t.

Oh, that’s not the only fault here. Shutshumi is one of those games that is so good, the mistakes it makes frustrates me to a greater degree, because they’re so fundamental they shouldn’t exist. The top of the list for me is the lack of variety of enemies. The opening enemies, the sharks and squids, are too easy to dispose of. It takes too long for newer, more challenging baddies to appear. It’s also too easy to get a feel for enemy patterns. I wish the ordering of enemies had been every bit as random as the items. If Shutshumi had gone for full-on random wackiness like Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, I think it would have made the game stronger. Despite the awesome randomness of the items (which often determine the effects of the next stage instead of giving you a power-up), because the levels unfold more or less in a linear way, Shutshimi almost becomes too easy.

Not that I know how good I am. There’s no online leaderboards as of yet. When the game gets Greenlit on Steam, they’ll come, but that’s no help as of yet. My top score is in the 9,000 point range. I’m not especially skilled at this, but I don’t have to be good at stuff to enjoy it. If that were the case, I wouldn’t still be golfing. But without those leaderboards, the ceiling of addictiveness for Shutshimi is significantly smaller. I’m also annoyed that only the PC version contains the epilepsy switch, meaning I couldn’t play the XBLIG version. Me, Indie Gamer Chick! If you look up XBLIG in the dictionary, there’s a picture of me urinating on Sententia. I mean, I appreciate the switch’s presence, but why did only one platform get it? Epileptics play consoles too, you know.

The lack of variety in enemies (along with the lack of online leaderboards) is the only thing that finally got me to put the controller down. As Brian pointed out, maybe that's a good thing.

The lack of variety in enemies (along with the lack of online leaderboards) is the only thing that finally got me to put the controller down. As Brian pointed out, maybe that’s a good thing.

My other concerns are nit-picky. There’s no variety in the backdrops, except stuff caused by random item pick-ups that result in party effects or for the game to be shrouded in darkness (I’m guessing with epilepsy mode turned off, there’s lightning flashes for that section). And some of the items are just stupid. One of them eliminates enemies altogether for a single stage. Technically that helps you advance an extra wave for free, but it also means you score no points. Just a really bad idea. I also think the shotgun weapon is now my choice for least favorite item in a good game. Fucking thing is worthless.

I’m sure shmup fans will be appalled that this game, which is admittedly overly simplistic, is the only game of its breed to capture my imagination. But it did. For all of its flaws (most of which, oddly enough, seem to be due to lack of ambition), it’s the first game in a long while that I had trouble putting down. It took me an extra couple days to get this review up because I would go back to check something about it and end up putting in an extra hour or two of playtime. Shutshumi is such a breath of fresh air. A great idea, something that will hopefully kickstart a new era of creativity for a genre that often lacks it. It also proves that the best ideas are often the simplest. Shutshumi has not a single mechanic that hasn’t been done before. Every part of it is tired. But it’s how it used its mechanics that makes it special. They should show it off in game design classes. I commend the developers at Neon Deity Games. And I only call them developers because I think it might be slanderous to call them what they really are: a drug cartel.

Yep, I ran that joke into the ground.

xboxboxartShutshimi was developed by Neon Deity Games
Point of Sale: Xbox Live Indie GamesIndie Game StandHumble Store

IGC_Approved$1 noted that “the wacky smoking animal” stuff is getting tired. First the pipe smoking cat from Aqua Kitty and now a cigar-smoking goldfish? Give it a fucking rest, guys in the making of this review.

Shutshimi is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

 

 

Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge

Petty revenge, my favorite.

Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge is a SHMUP/platformer (SHMUP-former? former-SHMUP?) where you play as Serena, heroine of the universe, who is out for revenge after being trolled on Spacebook by the Space Prince. After crash landing on his planet, you have to make your way through a number of stages to reach his castle so you may exact revenge.

A normal start.

A normal start.

The game pulls its looks from PC games of the mid-90s—classics such as Jazz Jackrabbit and Duke Nukem. It looks great and the animations are fluid. Regarding animations, the game does have some…suggestive assets that may turn some users onto or off from it. The heroine is quite voluptuous, and the opening sequence takes particular care to emphasize this. She also runs around in a barely-there space suit as she makes her way to the final castle. I felt it was done in a humorous manner, but I can see it being a problem for some.

I want to point out the controls because, to me, they are one of the most important aspects of any game. Ultionus takes time to get used to. The opening stage is your standard space SHMUP, but once you’re on the planet’s surface, things change drastically. One of my largest complaints with this game is also one of the most common complaints I read online, it’s that you can’t fire while moving. The game does try to use part of one stage to get you used to the idea but it’s still jarring once the action starts. If you do stop, you’re unable to keep up with the enemy spawns as you try to clear a path. Most players probably stop at this point but if you master jumping while moving, an action that doesn’t slow you down, you’ll be fine.

She stopped to shoot. Bad idea!

She stopped to shoot. Bad idea!

I played through Ultionus on Normal, and while there were some portions of the game where I died a lot that gave me some trouble, overall the game didn’t feel terribly difficult. You get nine lives and unlimited continues, which makes beating the game a venture that takes maybe a couple of hours your first time.There are a handful of vehicle stages where you are rewarded for how fast you can smash the Fire key which will kill your wrist. I had to take a day’s break to recover after one such stage.

One part of the game made me question the design of its absurd art style the first time I saw it: The Game Over screen depicts a “bad end” scene with the main character bent over, drooling and ass in the air. (NSFW-ish, triggering pic) It caught me off guard and left me feeling awkward.

All in all, I would not recommend this game. I did enjoy parts of it and the ending was satisfying, but the overall length of the game and easy patterns in boss fights left much to be desired.

ultionuslogoUltionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge was developed by Last Dimension. It may also be found on Ouya

$for 9.99 you’ll be able to share this dish served cold.

Reunion

Review contains some spoilers.  A spoiler warning is given beforehand.

Reunion is a 2D survival horror game developed during a four-day game jam known as GameZanga (a Pan-Arabian jam hosted by Arabian game site GameTako). The team members included Maan Ashgar (Artist), Ahmed Al-Haddad (Designer), and Abdullah Konash (Game Design/Programming).

They describe their game as a “short, shocking horror game”, with a warning in the intro screen that “The game contains violent scenes and scary sounds” and that the player is encouraged that the “Usage of headphones is recommended”.

intro-text

Now that the cold hard facts are out of the way, let’s get this review going.

Reunion does one thing extremely well, and that’s sound design. At first I thought it was going to wow me with its aesthetics as well, since you are first treated to a beautifully illustrated title screen with what appears to be a small child holding a stuffed animal, lost in a purple hued wooded area. Unfortunately the aesthetics take a nose dive as the first cut scene (a child running from their home into the woods) has the look of a rough storyboard and has absolutely no animation. Once you are dumped into the game you see that the game has very basic aesthetics, almost cartoon and childlike, that you might expect from a quickly put together game created during a jam.

aesthetics-chart

Mind you, that’s not to say the actual in-game aesthetics are bad. They have a very beautiful charm to them. The character you control is a slightly disheveled man, the father of the child from the intro. The art style is very distinctive, with the father’s head being over sized, which allows the player a chance to see what seems to be a very worried look in his eyes, and the colors and lines are very soft… so there’s an almost pleasant, water-color like atmosphere to the visuals.

The father is surrounded by darkness and as you begin to move him around you see trees and rocks that are created in the same soft water-color style. My first impression was that the aesthetics looked too pleasant for this game to live up to its claim of being a shocking horror game, but people on Game Jolt (the indie site the game is hosted on) seemed to be raving about it, so I decided to persevere.

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It wasn’t the hype that drew me, but rather the wonderful sound design. From the very beginning you are treated to one of the more impressive soundtracks I have heard in quite some time in an indie game (or in some AAA games for that matter). Not only was the music wonderful, but it was nice to hear actual voices as the father and child, both of which have speaking parts in the game with the father being able to call out to his child, as well as the child’s breath and footsteps being heard as he appears to run deeper and deeper into the forest.

It’s very interesting how the simple combination of hearing a real person’s voice alongside a moving soundtrack can help enhance the aesthetics (and gameplay, which I will get into in a second) of a game that I think otherwise would not be very engaging.

As you begin to move the father around, searching the woods for his child (whose direction is indicated not only by sounds, but also an arrow that appears every time you have the father call out his name), one of the first sounds you will hear is that of a hissing snake. The closer you get to the snake the more intense and menacing the sound, until finally you will most likely stumble upon the source of the noise, which no surprise, is a snake.

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This is where the game mechanics are revealed, as once you are too close to the snake, a jarring noise rings out, the camera centers on the snake, and you are returned to a predetermined start position to try again. Pretty simple, right? Go through the forest, using your ears and the ability to call out to the father’s child to reveal the directional arrow… avoid creatures in the woods and presumably save the father’s son.

Once again, the best thing about this game is the sound design, but in my humble opinion, everything else falls short. While the jarring sound that is associated with seeing that first snake and the sounds of a slithering creature along with the moody soundtrack is definitely something that may get you a little spooked, the stylized cartoonish graphics are enough to take me out of the immersion. The snake is as stylized as anything else, but is equally as static as the rocks and trees. As you move the father deeper into the woods you will also come across bears which are equally cartoonish and project equally spooky sounds.

When you begin to get in the rhythm of “listen for sound, avoid sounds, follow directional arrow”, the game quickly loses its charm and the immersion is utterly broken. Not only that, but while the game developers attempt to do a decent job of creating directional sound in the game, they opt for the growls and hisses and the child running through the woods to be more expressionistic and ambient, sometimes confusingly panning around the stereo field in a way that is hard to get a fix on where to move the father. On the other hand, the confusing nature of the sound design and the inability to see much around you in the game (they obscure much of the screen with a ring of blackness, typical of creating “darkness” in a 2D game) does a fantastic job of obfuscating the very simple nature of the level design.

Though the level design is technically very simple, and it’s nice to feel like the forest is larger and more complex than it actually is, the fact that it’s hard to get your bearings every time you are reset can lead to the game sometimes feeling more frustrating rather than immersive. Thankfully as you get deeper into the forest, the game warps you to trees that have numbered “DANGER” signs so that you begin to realize you are making progress.

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[ WARNING : Spoilers below! ]

An interesting thing happened to me while playing the game. About half way through (mind you it is very short, probably 10 minutes at the most if you are doing well), and I once again credit this to the wonderful sound design, I actually became somewhat immersed in spite of how silly the cartoonish snakes, bears, trees, and rocks were.

Somewhere between the somber music, the sounds of the child running through the forest, the father calling out in desperation for his child, and the anxiety of having to avoid the dangerous forest creatures…. somewhere between all of that, I actually began to get into the mindset of what it would be like to be a parent running after their kid who is lost in a dangerous place.

It was right about that time that the game kicked the tension up a notch. Instead of the familiar sounds of animals, I began to hear more alien noises. Psychedelic warbles and shifting that reminds me of heavy experiences I’ve had on LSD. The kinds of sounds I always associate with really good sound design in horror games and moody psychedelic rock.

But the alien noises aren’t just arbitrary, they pulse and flow as you get closer to a new enemy, an eery silhouetted figure of the father with empty glowing eyes.

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I’ll admit, the first time I saw one of the silhouetted figures and the camera jumped, and the jarring noise of being seen played I got a bit freaked out.

This was the one moment where I feel like they did well with the aesthetics of the game, as the contrast between the cartoonish looking father and the eery dark silhouette really drew me in. I want to stress that I’m not saying the art style is bad, and I truly believe the illustrator did a great job of creating a wonderful look of concern on the father’s face… but if it weren’t for the incredibly engaging sounds I don’t think I would have been as shocked or immersed by the middle point of the game.

Something about the weary looking eyes of the father in contrast to the dead glowing eyes of the silhouetted doppelgänger along with the unnerving noises truly made the middle section of the game worthy of a horror title.

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Now let’s talk about the ending.

It’s hard for me to talk about the ending.

I’ll just tell you what happens and we’ll go from there. After a short but challenging period of having to avoid the silhouetted doppelgängers, you finally come to what appears to be a bunker or mine shaft that leads underground.

I’m sure you can imagine what may or may not happen next. I mean, the game promised violent scenes after all, and while there have been some “shocking” moments, nothing violent has happened.

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Once you approach the underground entrance, the game takes control away from you and dumps you once again into a very low quality storyboard style, non-animated, cut scene where you see the child with their stuffed animal and as the camera pans to the right, you see a gun. Then it cuts inexplicably to the more cartoonish style once again, of the father pointing a gun directly at the screen, as though you are looking from the perspective of the child. The screen goes black, a gun shot is heard.

twist

A twist worthy of the master himself.

Here’s the thing. I’m okay with a game like this. A game where you play as a deranged lunatic who is so off their rocker that they would chase their child down into a forest and then mercilessly murder them. I think we need more games like this. More people should be unafraid to tackle tough subjects involving the nature of violence in humanity as well as other challenging subjects most people are afraid to confront through the interactive medium of video games.

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But, the game didn’t end there. The very next thing you see after the gun shot and fade to black, is the following statement.

“Mental illness is a fact, and those who are ill think, but they think in an unpredictable way.”

Well fuck you very much, but as someone who struggles with mental illness (I’d argue we all do), this statement is absolutely the most ridiculous thing I have ever read in a video game, and I play a lot of thoughtlessly made, culturally subversive piece of shit video games.

It then follows that up quickly with…

“Click on the Wiki button for more information on (Schizophrenia).”

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imageOooooohhhh, well in that case, yeah, that’s totally cool, because people who deal with Schizophrenia are all violent psychopaths who can’t be trusted and will more than likely bring harm to their loved ones. I’m glad that this game is getting the word out there that people need to remain diligent and afraid of people dealing with mental illness, especially extreme mental illness such as Schizophrenia.

Paint the walls with my brain and don’t tell anyone I was the head of MKULTRA because fuck all of that noise.

Seriously. I’m the first to defend a game for having flawed depictions of women, men, queers, cultures, babies, robots, whatever in the name of artistic freedom, but making factually incorrect statements, and literally preceding them with “FACT”, specifically in a game that creates a correlation of irrational violence and something as broad as mental illness and Schizophrenia (fun FACT : Schizophrenia is a spectrum of mental illness which they would have known if they followed their own wiki link)…. is either incredibly ignorant… incredibly manipulative (see : Oscar bait)… or just plain malicious.

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I’m more disappointed in the droves of people who bought into it than I am of the creators themselves. I can deal with some ignorance on their part, but the hype that was built up around this game (it has tens of thousands of plays with many people expressing at how moved they were by the experience)… it just makes me a little depressed (FACT : depression is a mental illness that many people suffer from and don’t get treatment for because of FACT: the stigma of mental illness).

bandicam 2013-10-06 18-12-00-944Reunion was developed by Maan Ashgar (Artist), Ahmed Al-Haddad (Designer), and Abdullah Konash (Game Design/Programming).

FACT : This game is free to play on Game Jolt.

Cosmic Predator

I chose to play Cosmic Predator to end my short-lived SHMUP September.

This shooter follows the traditional SHMUP format: you pilot a ship (or alien being in this case), fire at enemies, upgrade your ship, and either finish the end boss or die in a blaze of glory.

Killing creatures as a creature while in another creature.

Killing creatures as a creature while in another creature.

In Cosmic Predator you are a creature of some kind, hurtling through space as you try to get the Life Stone back to save what’s left of your people (“the last of your people,” another trope of this genre). As a sort of “fuel” game mechanic, while you’re taking down the evil corporation that took the Life Stone, you are constantly bleeding or something because in order to stay alive you not only need to dodge bullets and scenery, but also drink the blood of your enemies. If your health bar empties completely, your little dude passes out and dies, left floating alone in the cold darkness of space.

The other twist in this game is that upgrades happen at the end of each mission; you get to choose from regular bonuses such as a ball of protection that hovers around you or a powered up shot that is rather self-explanatory. You cannot alter these upgrades one you have selected them, so your decisions will affect gameplay in later stages. There isn’t anything that will outright ruin the experience, though some areas would be easier depending on which upgrade you pick. One of the best quality of life improvements is an upgrade that pulls the blood of enemies you kill to you rather than making you chase it down. When this is your main way to keep being not dead, this is huge.

One major downside to the game as a whole is that there is no native controller support. The keyboard works okay, but until this I hadn’t played a full-fledged game without a controller, unless it was a first-person shooter, in ages; it felt odd to not have this as a built-in option in this day and age. I talked to a friend about this game, and the instant I mentioned the controller thing, he lost his interest in playing.

The game is funny if you look for it.

The game is funny if you look for it.

There are times, particularly during boss fights, when you know that there is no way to defeat a boss before your health bar fades into nothingness and you’re helpless to prevent this. It’s frustrating because the action moves fast enough to where you don’t watch your health meter all that closely and your character stops responding to your movements because he died at some point. Some additional enemies to refill the health meter would be an amazing improvement.

Spoiler alert?

Spoiler alert?

On the positive side, you don’t have a limited number of lives; you can keep going to your heart’s content. Stages are broken up into sections, so if you die you don’t have to go all that far back to reach where you were. On the harder difficulties you will die a lot. In the later parts of the game you’ll find some good humor here and there on the evil corporation’s signs.

The game isn’t bad, really, but it doesn’t make me want to go back for more. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but fans of the genre will likely have fun with this title.

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Cosmic Predator was developed by Steel River Games.

For a mere $4 you can help save your people by shooting energy weapons out of your nethers.

Papers, Please

There’s a John Steinbeck novel titled The Winter of Our Discontent that reminds me a great deal of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please. That title is borrowed from a line in a Shakespeare play about an abysmal king, Richard III, who was about as immoral as immoral can get. After playing this game for several hours, I now have a newfound appreciation for just what that line means; the whole of this interactive experience is a “winter of discontent” to be sure, and begs the question: Is it possible to be a good man in a thoroughly corrupt society? From my experience here the answer is a resounding, “Nyet, comrade.”

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The title screen reminds me of the C64 classic, Raid Over Moscow. I wonder if that was intentional?

Set in the winter of 1982 against the bleak, grey backdrop of the fictional Communist nation of Arstotzka, the player is cast in the role of a “lucky” lottery winner who wins a job in the big city as an Immigration Inspector on the newly opened Arstotzkian border. It’s your job to inspect the various documents that people present to you to cross that border. If their documents pass muster, they can enter glorious Arstotzka. If not, you can send them packing back to wherever it is they came from. The more people you process in a typical work day, the more money you get. The more money you get, the more “luxuries” (e.g. food, heat and medicine) you can provide for your family, who always seem to be either sick, cold or hungry.

This is where the true madness and/or genius of Papers, Please sets in. Each day, you are saddled with new regulations and requirements that slow down the immigration process because you need to scrutinize each and every shred of information for inconsistencies. When that process is slowed down, you don’t make a great deal of money because you aren’t processing enough immigrants. When you don’t make a great deal of money, you can’t afford the things your family needs and then they’ll start dropping like flies.

Of course, various factions and individuals will offer you money to help their cause or look the other way when shady things are going down, but accepting those kinds of bribes have consequences and soon, the agents of the Arstotzkian government will be visiting you at work with rather pointed questions to ask.

Those stampers make an awesomely satisfying "KA-CHHUNK!" sound when you use them.

Those stampers make an awesomely satisfying “KA-CHHUNK!” sound when you use them.

And this is where my major issue with this game arises: Does what I described above sound like fun to anyone? I’m certain the dictionary definition of “fun” doesn’t include words like immigrationpassportgovernment officials or border in that definition. Of course, there have been morality choices in games before, but none have seemed as “real” or consequential (at least to me) as they do in Papers, Please. I mean, if I made a decision that pissed off Jack in Mass Effect 2, she doesn’t want to be my pal, and then she ultimately dies at the end of the game because of that, should I be upset? I can tell you right now that I didn’t shed a tear because it’s just a game … and she was a temperamental pain in the dick anyway.

What it boils down to, I suppose, is that Papers, Please blurred the line between a fictional game world and reality a little too well for my liking. Making the decisions this game forced me to make made me uncomfortable … perhaps because I remember the Cold War tales of Communist woe all too well and never was (and never will be, unfortunately) the commander of a kick-ass spaceship.

When it comes to overall presentation, I would swear this was a game that I was playing on a Commodore Amiga (or some other computer of that era) emulator. Of course, I know differently, but the graphics and overall gameplay definitely have that late ’80s, early ’90s vibe going on. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; I personally dig games with a distinctly retro vibe, but gamers of the last couple generations may not get it and be put off by that. Something else that should be mentioned regarding the presentation in Papers, Please is the music, especially the theme song, which is a crushingly sad tune, like something ripped from a Kafka-esque nightmare. I don’t know if it has a title, but I took to calling it “The Dirge of Endless Oppression.” It’s not particularly bad; it’s just goddamn depressing.

I have no mouth, yet I must scream...

I have no mouth, yet I must scream…

I played Papers, Please for about 10 hours and I, for the life of me, could not get a “good” ending. I was always going to debtors prison, getting arrested for other infractions, or my whole family was dying on me because I couldn’t consistently feed them, keep the heat on or get them medicine. And maybe that’s the point here. The point being that there are no good endings in this life…it’s just a relentless winter of discontent. I know that’s a very desolate outlook on things in general, but that’s the mindset this game put me in and, in case I haven’t made that clear, I don’t really like that. Ultimately, I play video games to have fun and escape the trials and tribulations of real life for a few hours. Being cast in the role of an early 80’s, Soviet Bloc immigration official is not my idea of a cracking good time.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Papers, Please is an important game, much like Gone Home, and it’s one that I think everyone should at least try because it does break some new ground in terms of game mechanics and narrative structure. It reminds me of some of the movies I had to watch while taking film theory courses in college: interesting in a classroom environment because you are seeing and learning different things, but not something I would seek out and enjoy on my own time.

If you think of Papers, Please as this generation’s Oregon Trail, but with intensely depressing Communist bureaucracy in the place of dysentery, you’ll do just fine. People should play this game more for its educational and historical value, but since many of today’s gamers don’t have the perspective someone of my age and/or generation has, they may enjoy it simply as a piece of entertainment, whereas I have a rather difficult time doing that. As an extension of those thoughts, I think both Papers, Please and Gone Home should be shown to all the asinine, irresponsible media types who constantly assail video games as over-indulgent, blood-spattered-kill-festivals, to let them see (and hopefully understand) that there are thought-provoking games out there. Alas, these thought-provoking games never have the marketing budgets that the over-indulgent, blood-spattered-kill-festival games have, so they tend to fly under the radar of the general public, which is obviously unfortunate for all of us who love and cherish the gaming lifestyle.

pp11Papers, Please was developed by Lucas Pope.

This game cost $9.99 in American swine dollars; I wonder what that works out to in rubles, comrade?

Papers, Please is available on Steam.igg 2

Papers, Please is Indie Gamer Guy approved and now hold the fifth spot on the Leaderboard.

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