The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

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

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

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

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

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

SPOILER WARNING – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID

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

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

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

END OF SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

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

Plague Inc.: Evolved

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT A HERO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then shoot it in the kneecap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then make it drink Clamato, because fucking gross.

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

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

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

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

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

Dyscourse

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

I don’t get it. That’s not funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um, can I use a lifeline?

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

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

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

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

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

Kerbal Space Program

My misadventures with Kerbals began a couple of weeks ago. Its beta first releasing about a week before I started Indie Gamer Chick, Kerbal has finally “completed” the working-the-kinks-out phase of its existence and is now considered an official release. I actually bought it as a gift for my boyfriend around Christmas time with the intent that the two of us would have our own version of the space race. It was in that spirit that I took the evil approach to things, shoving my Kerbals into the most unspaceworthy of contraptions and telling myself they did horrible, horrible things so that I could sleep at night with a clear conscience.

My first ship, which blew up as soon as I ignited the thrusters. The Kerbal I condemned to death in this hung the toilet paper roll under-handedly. That's a kill'in in my world.

My first ship, which blew up as soon as I ignited the thrusters. The Kerbal I condemned to death in this hung the toilet paper roll under-handedly. That’s a kill’in in my world.

Unlike Brian, who decided he would play the tutorials and missions so that he could know what he was doing, I decided to just spend the next forty hours or so messing around in the Kerbal’s sandbox mode. Just me, an extensive warehouse of parts, and the titular Kerbals. A race of Muppet-looking frog things so cute and innocent that they’re practically asking to be blown up by sadists using the most exotic firecrackers in gaming. The building interface is pretty good, but could use less sarcastic descriptions of what specific parts do. Launch controls and figuring out how the little globe thing you use to track your position in the sky are more complex to learn, though again, there’s a tutorial. Psssh, tutorials. Did Louis Armstrong have a tutorial when he landed on Mars? Hell no. So I strapped some rockets to the cockpit, fired up some Steppenwolf, and in the name of science, I pretty much committed Kerbal genocide.

But, that does grow old quickly. So, after ten hours of doing things like “accidentally” forgetting to deploy the chutes once my contraptions had failed to break orbit (kidding, I didn’t actually include parachutes, but I didn’t want the Kerbals to know that), I decided to actually, you know, make an effort and shit. I still avoided the tutorials. I wanted to see if I could break the barrier of space on my own. It took me several hours to pull it off, but once I did, it was one of the happiest moments of my gaming life. I wasn’t expecting that. The amazing sense of accomplishment, so sincere and authentic that I got a little teary eyed. The Kerbals even survived the trip! See, I’m a Kermanitarian.

Despite this looking like Earth, Kerbal's solar system is not actually an accurate model of our solar system. Earth is now called Kerbin. The Moon is called Mun. They should let you rename all the stuff. Maybe you can. Maybe it's in the tutorial. I'll get to it just as soon as I land on the Sun. Or Kerbol as it's called in the game. Kerbol. Kerbin. Yea, that won't get confusing.

Despite this looking like Earth, Kerbal’s solar system is not actually an accurate model of our solar system. Earth is now called Kerbin. The Moon is called Mun. They should let you rename all the stuff. Maybe you can. Maybe it’s in the tutorial. I’ll get to it just as soon as I land on the Sun. Or Kerbol as it’s called in the game. Kerbol. Kerbin. Yea, that won’t get confusing.

Once that progress was made, I was doing all kinds of neat stuff in no time. I even was able to launch a capsule clean out of the solar system (which, um, yea I totally meant to do that or something), breaking the sun’s hold on it and pretty much leading to a whole lot of nothing. Sort of disappointing. Movies and TV had taught me that if you’re an astronaut and you aim for a planet and miss, you end up in a wacky adventure meeting aliens of improbable humanoid shapes. Here, you just sort of drift away. I left the game on over night to see if a comet or something would hit me. That didn’t happen either. As it turns out, this is a lot like actual space: mostly empty and surprisingly difficult to collide with something on purpose or by accident.

It all culminated for me (at least up to the point where I stopped to write this review) on a mission to try to land on the Moon. Again, I planned a one-way-trip, because I was taking baby steps. And because I’m “an awful person, and you can quote me on that” (thanks Dad). Now, I consider myself a reasonably smart person. So when everyone watching me launch the mission did so with a smirk on their faces, I was assuming they just figured I would miss, like I had a couple dozen times before then. Figuring the problem was my choice of music (I wasn’t creating Warp Drive after all), I switched up to some Sinatra and lifted off. Using the seriously complex to the point that it will intimidate many people right out of trying trajectory system, I finally lined up correctly and was pointed straight at the moon. I was cheering myself. Everyone else still had the weird smirk. Oh well, the joke would be on them.

Sadly for the Kerbals, I found the one place in the universe where there's no Subway for them to eat at.

Sadly for the Kerbals, I found the one place in the universe where there’s no Subway for them to eat at.

Success! I entered the orbit. “That ought to wipe that stupid look off your faces” I said as I watched my descent and prepared to activate the chute. 3.. 2.. 1.. deploy.

“Um, Cathy.”

“Yea.”

“What air do you expect the chute to catch? It’s the Moon. There’s no atmosphere.”

“…………………….. oh right.”

Splat.

So yea, I killed a couple more baby Frankensteins, but I did so in the name of science. And fun. Kerbal is a ton of fun. It’s what you make of it. I put a lot of time into it, and I’m not even close to being done. In fact, it’s one of the most rewarding, and at times exhilarating experiences I’ve had. It didn’t even matter to me if NASA or the ESA says it’s the bee’s knees. Kerbal works as a video game. Just note the following:

1. It’s not intuitive. It makes no attempt at being so. It will take some time and effort to get past the learning curve. This is apparently true even if you’re not a stubborn ass like I was and use the tutorials.

2. It really does aim to be a simulation of space travel. Real space travel is slow, involves precise calculations, and the journey can involve a LOT of downtime. The game does have a form of fast forward, though even this can be too slow once you start venturing to the outer planets.

3. Kerbal has addictive potential somewhere between Tetris and weapons-grade cocaine.

With that, I must venture back to the drawing board, as I do want to put a Kerbal on the Moon. Or, if I want, I also can play the most horrifying version of Missile Command ever conceived with all the failed missions I have now orbiting the Sun.

And thank you all for sticking with me through my first 500 indie game reviews. Here’s to the next 5,000!

Kerbal LogoKerbal Space Program was developed by Monkey Squad S.A de C.V.
Point of Sale: Steam

$29.99 (normally priced $39.99) did the Kerbal Countdown..

Four..

Three..

Two..

One!!

igc_approved1♫♫ Whose that crying while somewhere up in the sky?
Crashing to the Earth with a fiery sigh.
Just when you think I might start care an ounce..
I start to giggle when their bodies bounce.

Do the Kerbal Countdown!
And send their asses to the air!
(And send their asses to the air!)

Just do the Kerbal Countdown!
For science do we dare!
(For science do we dare!)

Don’t be afraid when Cathy blows it from start.
Just take comfort that you won over her heart.

And do the Kerbal Countdown..
FIVE..
FOUR..
THREE..
TWO..
ONE! ♫♫

Um, in the making of this review.

Kerbal Space Program is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

 

 

Flem

In Flem you play as a green clump of either phlegm, snot, or a booger. It sounds gross, but really, it’s just a round ball with two eyes and no other characterization. It could be Kirby’s less-gifted Irish cousin Patrick O’Flem and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. So I don’t get why they took the bodily fluid angle with the game. None of the mechanics feel faithful to the concept. Mucus is sticky, so the inherit ability  to cling to surfaces or walk up walls or anything would have been nice. There are two power ups. One of them lets you inflate and float around, and the other lets you launch forward. You’ll note that neither of these seem like abilities you would associate with stuff you cough up. Only the introductory level (and possibly a finale, I didn’t quite make it that far, though I made it a lot further than most people did before getting bored and quitting) has a setting that fits the idea. It takes place inside your nose, though it ends really quickly. What was the point? It seems slightly thoughtless. Some people will be turned off by the concept of playing as sentient phlegm just because, you know, ewwww. If you’re not going to embrace all-out grossness, why bother with the gross gimmick to begin with? That bugged me.

And actually, why is it called Flem when the game starts off inside a person’s nose? Phlegm is something coughed up from the lungs, not blown out of your nose. “Its definition is limited to the mucus produced by the respiratory system, excluding that from the nasal passages, and particularly that which is expelled by coughing (sputum)” says Wikipedia. And it’s also typically brown, not green. Though if it were brown it might be confused with a sentient lump of shit. Which would be as nonsensical in the setting of the game as sentient phlegm is, since Flem’s developers didn’t take advantage of the idea at all. Okay, I’ll stop whining about that now.

This is pretty much the only part that suggests you're playing as snot. It's such a wasted opportunity.

This is pretty much the only part that suggests you’re playing as snot. It’s such a wasted opportunity.

Flem is a punisher. People wonder why I keep playing these when I typically don’t like them. Well, I do like some of them, and how else will I find the ones I like if I don’t try new ones that come across my desk? Nothing particularly sets Flem apart from other games in the genre. It feels pretty by-the-books, somewhat bland and uninspired. Stages are simple get from point A to point B fare, with no collectables to add additional challenge. In later stages, you’ll get power-ups that allow you to break through certain blocks, float, or pass through other blocks. Eventually you’ll have to switch between the powers. Stages are short, with the average complete time for them being under twenty seconds. Of course, you’ll die a lot on each level before completing it, and there in lies the problem.

With the exception of Spelunky (which hates you and wants you to suffer, with love), the best punishers are really at their best when you live instead of when you die. A lot of start-up indie devs creating punishers get too focused on the dying and the difficulty and not about why people put up with the trial and error to begin with. So instead of making levels designed around novel ways to survive, they just try to kill you a lot. Guys, that’s not really all that fun. Flem takes the “lowest possible margin of error” route for level design. Narrow pathways to victory, spikes above your head that will kill you if you jump your normal height, spikes that will snare you if you activate your dash move on the wrong part of a spot that requires you to use the dash, that kind of stuff. It does have a bit of unfairness too. There are little plant things that spit out projectiles that quickly rain down on you. Sometimes you can’t see the plants at all, but their ability to spit death upon you are still active. So you’ll get to a section and then die out of nowhere because you got killed by one of those projectiles that you had no possibility of avoiding once you see it and never had a chance to know it was coming. How on Earth is that supposed to be fun?

Of course, punishers live and die by their controls, and Flem’s aren’t precise enough to cut it. Jumping has a tinge of lag to it. In a game like this, just a tinge is the difference between fun and frustrating. Movement is fully digital too, which will inevitably lead to you heel-toeing your way through some stage. Check out this screen.

Flem 1

Look at how narrow those passages are. Flem is full of parts like that.

Flem 2

It really comes down to level design. Flem’s primary way of killing you is arranging spikes or enemies in such a way that just normal movement or the activation of an ability will kill you. Use your dash mechanic to clear a gap? Well, you didn’t use it on the right spot, so you die. This might be on me, but I never got a proper feel for judging jumping distance or how far the dash will carry you. Worst of all, movement and landing physics feel slippery. In the above screenshot, the ice setting is window dressing that doesn’t really affect gameplay. All movement in Flem is slightly slippery. Some platformers can get away with that without putting the enjoyability of the game in jeopardy. Punishers can’t. The player needs to feel they are fully in control of the character, one-to-one, you and it. Any control issues in a punisher become magnified, and that’s why it’s not all that fun.

I will say this: late in the game, the level design stops feeling generic. But, by then, you’ve slogged through so much been there, done gameplay that it’s not enough to redeem Flem. I went from being excited by acing a late stage on my first attempt to finally succumbing to boredom and quitting just a few stages away from the finish line. I actually don’t know who this was made for. Fans of punishers want and expect some kind of novel hook these days. There’s just too many games that do stuff like this. Even the novelty of playing as sentient phlegm is meaningless because the character doesn’t look or behave like it. It’s only what it is because the developers say it is. The only redeeming factor of Flem is that there’s nothing offensively awful about it. The game’s developers (total class acts) display a lot of potential here and I wouldn’t bet against them having a bright future. Solid neo-retro graphics, fleeting glimpses of inspired level design, and they’ve proven they can fix stuff that doesn’t work by patching out some earlier control issues. If you think I complained a lot above, you should have seen how frustrated I was before the latest patch. So there’s talent on display here. This is their first game as a team, and even if you have a lot of talent (and I think they might), first games often suck. Flem isn’t a good game. It’s bland, it’s boring, it’s unoriginal. That breaks my heart because I’m a big fan of phlegm. Why do you think I smoke so much? It ain’t for my health.

Flem LogoFlem was developed by Henchman & Goon
Point of Sale: Steam (also on PlayStation Mobile)

$5.39 (normally priced $5.99) noted that phlegm is sometimes green if you have the flu, but it begs the question, why didn’t they include power-ups known to increase phlegm’s potency? Flu, bacteria, cigarettes, etc in the making of this review.

A review copy of Flem was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. A full copy of Flem will be purchased by Cathy with her own money on April 28, 2015 when the game is released on Steam. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ. Update: the copy was purchased on April 29 and was 10% off. The purchase price was adjusted in the review.

White Night

This is the latest challenge from the gang at the Indie Game Riot, who matched my White Night purchase price ($14.99) as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation. I buy the game, they match the price, everyone benefits. Except my brain, because given their selection of games for me, I’m starting to think they hate me.

In the interest of fairness, I should concede that I almost certainly never had any chance of liking White Night right from the get-go. This is for a couple of reasons. I never got into horror games. As a child, my parents didn’t let me play M rated games. I guess they didn’t want me to grow up cussing a blue-streak or making obscene jokes. The results speak for themselves. By time I was an adult, I had epilepsy. Horror games are meant to be played in the dark, with all external lighting turned off. That’s the biggest epilepsy no-no there is. But, White Night was mostly done-in for me by relying on fixed camera angles. I hate those. My first Resident Evil was #4. Also known as the one that ditched the fixed camera angles in favor of, you know, anything but fixed camera angles. You’ll notice almost nobody talks about the first three Resident Evils as the pinnacle of the series. Resident Evil 4 was so good it made the first three retroactively bad. More outdated than natural aging should have made them, and that’s almost entirely on the fixed camera angles. I get the point of them, especially in horror games. Like a theme park dark ride, they direct your attention in a specific direction to optimize the terror when something scary comes into view. The problem with that is, it compromises optimized gameplay for stylized storytelling. Games aren’t movies. Gameplay should always be paramount.

And, in the case of White Night, the graphics style does not mesh well at all with the fixed camera malarkey. This gets proven nearly every time something is introduced that’s intend to drive the plot in some way. There’s a scene in the second chapter where you’re in a dining room (I think it’s a dining room) and the game’s plot takes over: a ghost girl who needs your help. She appears suddenly and then walks through a door. When she does, the cinematics take over so you can see her walk through the door. You then return to the fixed camera you were at, and it’s almost impossible to figure out which door she just went through. The game is drawn in black and white graphics and the gimmick is most of the game is shrouded in darkness.

White Night 2

Here’s an example of how the puzzles in the game don’t work in a logical sense. See the statue casting a shadow on the grave marker? There’s a key hanging where the shadow is. It’s not an Indiana Jones type of thing where moving the shadow of the statue activates a mechanism that reveals the key. No, the key is apparently just hanging there (you can even feel it before you move the statue) but you can’t actually claim it until you move the statue and can see it. Oh COME ON! It’s right fucking there. It’s just so damn silly that it breaks immersion right off the bat. This is literally the prologue to the game and the concept is already ruined. Sigh.

It doesn’t work as a play mechanic or a storytelling device. Hypothetically, the player character saw the ghost and knows which door she went through. That’s why it’s scary. Because holy fuck that was a ghost! But the player can’t tell which door she went through, so the plot grinds to a halt once again while you stumble around slowly, lighting matches to illuminate dark areas and clicking every object hoping to make the god damn slow-as-radioactive-decay story unfold just a sliver more. This breaks immersion, because in a cinematic experience (like White Night strives to be), the guy who, again, just saw a fucking ghost crying for help and walking through a door, would know which door she went through and follow her. In the game, the players are left to stumble searching for the door that the character himself saw. Are we scared yet? No, really, we’re just bored.

Oh, and by the way, the door she went through? It was locked.

Other technical issues get in the way. Even the simple act of clicking on shit to examine wasn’t handled well. The game kicks off with a car crash that injures the main character. I’m not sure if he spends the whole game limping around, but at the point I quit (which, granted, was very early in), he staggers with all the urgency of a murderer being dragged to the gallows. The limping animation leads to making lining up with stuff that you need to click a needless exercise in frustration. I’ve slammed the examine when the magnifying glass appears on-screen, only the dipshit you control was still dragging his leg in the animation and thus by time the game acknowledges that you hit a button, the character is no longer in position to examine the thing in question. Normally I would label this “lag” but it’s not really lag. It’s just bad design.

I don’t want to call it “Style over Substance” because that implies the game’s creators made a conscious decision that the gameplay could be mediocre as long as the art work was striking (and it is). I think White Night is a victim of the development team knowing how to play their own game and forgetting that you develop games for everyone else. Like an expectation that players will play the game the way the game’s creator does. For example, save points are notoriously spread far apart. In theory, this is done to heighten tension, making players practically pray they that come across one so that all the progress they’ve made isn’t lost. In practice, players just make a tiny bit of progress, return to the last save point they found, then venture back to make a little more progress, rinse, repeat until they stumble upon a new one. Thus 10 minutes worth of gameplay takes an hour to complete. I’ve never seen a game where that’s an option and most players opt to just risk making it to checkpoints. That’s especially true with White Night, because the game unfolds so fucking slowly, with miserable play control, that fear of having to repeat the tedious activities is more terrifying than any jump-scares or creepy atmosphere the game can throw at you.

Lighting matches doesn't protect you from the more aggresive ghosts, but they'll be removed as threats by electic lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches "look dangerous" and thus your character won't push them, because of course he won't. I mean seriously, you fucking pussy, you're being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. You're locked in the house. It's just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a "puzzle" is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you're left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

Lighting matches doesn’t protect you from the more aggressive ghosts, but they’ll be removed as threats by electric lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches “look dangerous” and thus your character won’t push them, because of course he won’t. I mean seriously, what a pussy. He’s being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. He’s locked in the house. And it’s just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a “puzzle” is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you’re left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough, and then when you find it, it doesn’t work. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

There’s not a single concept that White Night has that I feel works the way it was probably envisioned. The game gives you matches that you must use to stay in the light. You can carry 12 at a time. If you run out of matches, you die. If you can’t get a match lit in a dark area fast enough, you die. That can be problematic when you’re trying to light a match but the character is either caught in an examination animation or even a movement animation that you can’t even see. I’m guessing it’s done to be realistic, because real people would struggle to light a match in a haunted house where ghosts will fucking kill you if you aren’t able to spark the thing up. THIS ISN’T REAL LIFE! It’s a game! And besides, when the ghosts actually kill you, the death animation looks more like a mildly annoyed person trying to shoo a housefly away, not a scared-shitless person having the life force sucked out of them by a god damned mother fucking GHOST! And why the hell are the ghosts in the game instakills? And why are we even doing the ridiculous save stuff? And why in the blue fuck are matches in limited supplies? White Night has a very old, first-gen 3D horror mentality. It ignores all the major advancements in-game design that have come about over the last twenty years. A lot of people say Resident Evil 1 was scarier than Resident Evil 4. Fine, maybe it was. But horror games control better today than they did in the PS1/Saturn era. Can’t we find a healthy middle ground between good gameplay and real scares?

That’s the real shame here. White Night might actually be a really scary video game. I played it in a room with four grown men and my mother. We all had a couple “fucking game got me!” BOO moments. But typically those resulted in me dying, followed by dying several more times in a row. Then more dying. You die a lot. This is mostly because, for some reason, when a ghost spots you the movement gets even weirder and more limpy than normal. If a ghost catches you, you die. You can run away, but while doing so, you have to compete with horrible play control and the possibility that the fixed camera angles will change. Again, because of the all white and black style and the darkness versus light gimmick, the layouts of rooms are confusing at best. Often, it’s not even worth attempting to runaway.

Going off the percentages of players getting achievements for completing the second chapter, a shocking amount of people quit playing White Night at some point on the second stage, and I’m amongst them. This game is awful. Look, even scary games are supposed to be entertaining. While the game is interesting to look at, a game shouldn’t make it so easy for players to give up and quit. White Night frustrates with archaic fixed angles, clunky movement, bad play control, confusing layouts, a slow, somewhat uninteresting and far too vague story, and annoying instakills that make you replay all the annoying things. No, as someone who completely missed the fixed-camera era of horror gaming and HATES that style, I probably never stood a chance to like White Night. Was this review fair? I feel it was, because if you’re in the same boat as me, with no nostalgic affection for that style, White Night is clearly not for you. Playing White Night is practically a war of attrition, and it is in that sense only that it succeeds. I wave the white flag.

White NightWhite Night was developed by O’Some Studio
Point of Sale: Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

$14.99 said “who’ya gonna call?” like a schmuck in the making of this review.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 416 other followers

%d bloggers like this: