SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

Disclosure time: Image & Form top dog Brjann Sigurgeirsson (a name that sounds like someone began to sneeze mid-pronunciation) is a friend of mine. But I’m not sure what that does for a developer besides giving me a direct line to let them know all the numerous ways they fuck up their games. Brjann and I have an understanding: he makes the games, I review the games. No matter my opinion, our friendship remains unchanged. And since I take my critic duties seriously, I don’t talk about their projects still in development with him. I think it’s sort of unethical for a critic to get too hyped for a game that they’re going to cover. It’s not fair to the game. So I didn’t know all that much about today’s game until very recently. I think maybe he might have told me they’d be following SteamWorld Dig 2 with an RPG, but if he did I forgot. When I saw SteamWorld Quest unveiled, I was like “oh, well that’ll be different.” But I didn’t find out about the card-based attack system until right before I started playing it. When I heard about that, my first visceral thought was “well, they were due to have a game suck anyway.”

Nostradamus I ain’t. SteamWorld Quest is the most fun I’ve had playing an indie RPG. You know Brjann, it’s hard to test the legitimacy of our friendship if you don’t make a game I can dislike.

My cynicism was based their chosen combat scheme. I hate card-based attack systems in games. I loved Kingdom Hearts, but hated Chain of Memories. As a teenager who had just gotten hugely into RPGs and was starving for games for it, I couldn’t even like Baten Kaitos. I think I was the only one who didn’t. Before it, I tried Lost Kingdoms on the GameCube, was bored sick, gave the “improved” sequel a try and thought they made it worse. I even tried Eye of Judgement (the gimmicky PlayStation AR game) because, hey look, real cards! It sucked. If any card-based game had potential to hook me, it was the Metal Gear Acid games, but it turns out I was hoodwinked and they’re actually a series of load screens interrupted by a brief card-based tactical RPG snippets. The series was actually fine. Clunky, but fine. But seriously, I think the second level of Ac!d is still stuck loading.

And yes, for those who follow me on Twitter, I play Magic: The Gathering and enjoyed the Steam version of it. Do you know what the difference is? It’s based on the actual physical card game. That does make a difference, ya know?

It doesn’t help that SteamWorld Quest gets off to a start so slow that the jump from prokaryotes to eukaryotes looks tame in comparison. Part of that has to do with the writing, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, those card mechanics. The idea is you construct a deck of eight cards for each hero you have. When a battle begins, you’re randomly dealt a mixture of six cards from all the heroes. Each turn, you pick three of them to use. They might be attacks, or defensive maneuvers, or special moves that will come into play later in the fight. The real novelty is that each card either comes free or at a cost. If the card has no cost, it adds a counter to a charge meter that you spend on the priced, more powerful cards. It’s clever and works well, but SteamWorld Quest goes the extra mile by including cards that cooperate tag team-style with each-other. Or, if you use three of a single hero’s cards, you get a bonus 4th card separate from the ones included in your deck with a desirable special effect or attack. It’s a rich, satisfying combat system that never gets boring and can be adapted to anyone’s play style. Well, at least after an hour or so.

See the blue bars in my health meters above? That’s probably the most over-powered tactic in the game. See the chick in the witch’s hat in the center? That’s her special combo card when you use three of her cards when she’s equipped with certain weapons. It essentially renders damage to all your characters null and void for a few turns. In fact, she was, to me, the true star of the game. I stacked her with no-cost cards, including one that allowed me to draw extra cards my next turn, and absolutely annihilated battles. I had to voluntarily nerf her by switching to a different weapon (which changes the bonus combo card you get) just to create my own challenge on normal difficulty.

The truth is, I was bored at the start of Quest. The combat system’s eventual wealth of complexity is nowhere to be seen at the start of the game, and what you do start with gives no sign of the greatness to come. You don’t even get a taste of the potential until you open the third and especially the fourth character of the game, at which point you can dump main character Armilly and her boring ass moves. You’ll also have acquired more cards by this point and the ability to create even more. It turns what feels like a gimmicky system into the world’s most entertaining combat laboratory. I remember when playing Hollow Knight that fans kept assuring me that I’d be “opening up the game any minute now.” Well, that really does happen in SteamWorld Quest.

I don’t know if the slow start could have been fixed. Maybe if you started with three characters instead of two (and really, there’s no reason why Galleo coudln’t have been part of your party at the start of the game instead of about thirty or so minutes in). In truth, you can probably “open the game up” in an hour, give or take fifteen minutes. Once you do, you’ll find a combat system that is deceptively deep, allowing for multiple strategies and mad-scientist levels of experimenting. I had just as much fun tinkering with loadouts one card or one accessory at a time as I did opening up new levels. That’s no joke. I’d change a single card in a deck and get positively giddy at the thought of seeing how it worked with the other twenty-three cards. And it’s super easy to grind because you can use save stations to refill your health at a “cost” of respawning all the enemies (besides sub-bosses) in a stage. SteamWorld Quest is a rare game that I enjoyed that feels like it’s going to bore for the first hour or so, warms up, and takes about three hours truly hit its stride. Once it does, I honestly can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with a no-action-prompt, turn-based RPG’s combat system. It might be my favorite ever, indie or otherwise.

If there’s a problem with Quest’s combat, it’s the rewards for beating enemies just aren’t plentiful enough. Leveling up is not the issue. You’ll do it a couple times a chapter. There’s safeguards in place to prevent screw-grinding. The issue comes from enemies not dropping enough resources to craft or upgrade cards. Especially the upgrade part, which requires tons of materials to go all the way with. My strategy for upgrading was to start by focusing on the common, cost-free attacks that most of decks consisted of. But, once I had those beefed up, I realized that I had to go get more materials for the rest of the cards, but getting enough to make meaningful upgrades took forever. It requires you to replay previous chapters, now with a presumably overpowered party, hoping against hope the enemies will drop the stuff you need. Not until very late into the game do resources seem to start to become abundant. I don’t know if I was upgrading cards ahead of schedule or not. Probably not, since some of those upgrades require you to get rare materials that don’t appear until the late game. So you do have to grind, but in the mid-late game, it sort of becomes a chore. Though even flattening enemies doesn’t completely bore. Just remember to hold the right trigger down to fast forward though attack animations.

Balance isn’t too much of an issue (besides Cope’s team-shield thing she does). Really, that they had so many cards without screwing up the balance is remarkable, especially given the rock-scissors-paper nature of enemy types.

What they should have done was had the enemies upgrade alongside with you. Quest is broken up into four acts with a few chapters in each. You’re not exploring big, open worlds. You’re playing relatively tiny levels, most of which you should be able to comfortably knock out in under 20 minutes. The bite-sized stages works, but comes at a cost of having to replay entire chapters, with all the original dialog, cut scenes, and boss fights intact, in order to do the grinding and find the treasure chests that could contain new, valuable cards that you missed before. There’s a “skip” option during cut scenes, but our definitions of “skip” seem to differ greatly. When I press “skip” I expect the cut scene to end and the action to start. For Image & Form, “skip” means “end this sentence, begin the next.” It could take over a minute of slamming the B button to finally “skip” past all dialog you’ve presumably already heard once and thus want to, you know, skip, and start playing the game. I hate it when games do this. I call it “Going Pony” because in some chapters, you’ll be screaming “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” until you’re a little hoarse.

The two self-evident fixes (maybe having the option of beefing up enemies when you replay chapters and being able to skip the cut-scenes entirely when you replay chapters) would have taken any sting out of grinding. Because the combat never gets boring once you start to build up your heroes and their card collections. I joke all the time about “minimum indie badness” but here that was potentially the difference between the best RPG combat system I’ve ever played and just a very, very good one.

I can’t stress enough: the combat is awesome. Eventually. But this is an RPG, the one genre where a game needs equal parts compelling story to go along with interesting and novel gameplay. SteamWorld Quest follows Armilly, lowly daughter of a grocer and fangirl of legendary hero Gilgamech. She wishes to join the hero’s guild, can’t, but ends up having a wacky adventure where she eventually teams up with a ragtag group of misfits and outcasts, including the former sidekick of her idol. It’s a good story. Suitable for all ages. There was even a nice twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming. There’s just one problem: Armilly is written horribly.

One last game design nitpick: I wish the levels felt less like glorified sidewalks. There is some hidden stuff, but it’s done via just covering chests or switches with foreground objects. It makes the environment feel like a facade or a set, instead of a big, thriving world. Like a bunch of kids LARPing at Disneyland.

Let me preface this section by noting I’m not some kind of student of literature or creative writing. I’m an investor by trade who dabbles in game criticism as a hobby. But, I’m familiar with the concept of the hero’s journey. SteamWorld Quest seems to want to take Armilly on a fairly standard hero’s journey path and checks all the boxes for it. But the dialog takes the oomph out of her adventure because she’s just too much of a smart ass with no reason to be. She also has this gee-golly-shucks way about her, especially when she goes all slobbering fandom on retired Gilgamech sidekick Orik when they meet up. The smart assery and the starstruck fangirl delivery of her dialog aren’t compatible. Usually when characters are wise asses in fiction, it’s to make up for an inadequacy. When Buffy gets smart-alecky with Giles, it’s a defensive mechanism. If Bart Simpson mouths off, it’s for attention. When Archie Bunker says something bigoted, it’s because he’s insecure. Unless you’re doing a full-on comedy, sarcasm should always be grounded as a coping mechanism. Backtalk or sass without foundation is sort of dull because instead of flavoring a character’s idiosyncrasies, the sarcasm becomes what defines the entire character. And Armilly, who is the center of attention, among friends, and the leader of her group, has no reason to be non-stop sarcasm and quips. It’s the same flaw I found with the Peter Venkman character in Ghostbusters. Perhaps the only flaw in the entire movie. He’s unlikable. And I’m sorry to say it, but Armilly is unlikable.

Plus it doesn’t help that her sarcasm isn’t remotely funny. It’s just kind of awkward.

I wasn’t sure if this direction was done because the game is meant to be lighthearted and semi-satirical. But, while it’s true that there’s a bit of Paper Mario-esq tomfoolery about SteamWorld Quest, the plot is simple and engaging, and Armilly is the only character that really feels like she betrays the gravity of the situation with her dialog. The “wannabe heroes become heroes in an unexpected way” trope usually works because you see them grow into the roles. I don’t feel a sense of growth in Armilly and wish she was written a bit more sympathetic. Imagine if Luke Skywalker had been a slobbering Jedi fanboy who fawned all over Obi-Won with bad sitcom quips when it was revealed he was a former Jedi Knight. Who could get someone behind that? These traits need to be tempered with flaws and insecurities, or else they’re just someone who is the hero because they’re the main character. Thankfully, the other characters and even the villains have relatively sharp dialog and for me were the real stars of the game. Hey Image & Form: give us a spinoff or DLC with just the twins. Make it happen!

I complain because I love. And in the case of SteamWorld Quest, I truly love this game. But, the scary thing is that it could have been even better, and the ways it could have been better are so self-evident that a transcendent game is potentially in play for the sequel. I’d be curious how it might work in a more open, less linear format. And while I wish it had a stronger lead character, everything else is either good enough to satisfy or downright inspired. I keep going back to the balanced, joyful combat. It’s a game that relies on luck of the draw, and yet it never once felt like my battles were failing because of bad luck. It always felt like it was on me constructing bad decks. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun tinkering in menus, outside the core gameplay than I had with Hand of Gilgamech. I’d scurry back and forth between looking at the cards I had for one character and then another and ask myself which ones complemented each other. I reverted back to being that ten year old whose parents went a little overboard getting her Magic cards in an attempt to get her to do social stuff, but the social stuff never happened because I was so busy constructing decks. For me, that’s the ultimate high a game can achieve: make me fee like a kid again. It gets off to a slow start, sure. You know who else got off to a slow start? Einstein. You’re in good company, SteamWorld Quest.

SteamWorld Quest was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$24.99 said seriously Image & Form: spinoff with Tarah & Thayne or I fart into an empty coffee can and mail it to you in the making of this review.

A review copy of SteamWorld Quest was supplied by Image & Form. Upon its release, a copy was purchased by me. All indie games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for by me out of my own pocket. Even when friends pay for a copy for me when I tell them I have to buy my own copy because that’s how I roll. For more on this policy, check my FAQ.

SteamWorld Quest is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Death Coming

Have you ever picked up a Where’s Waldo book and wanted to massacre all the extras? No? Just me? Scary? Okay. Well, Death Coming is basically that. You take the role of an assistant Grim Reaper, specifically targeting three people per a level. But hey, you also have quotas to fill, and look at all the fleshy people just walking around, being all quota-like. Each stage requires you to kill a certain amount before you can move on. On the Switch, you can use a cursor or a touch screen. My brain has bad wiring and for some reason I kept alternating between the two, but in a nutshell, you click objects and if you click them at the right time, people die. And if that’s all Death Coming had going for it, it’d be fine. Not memorable, but a decent little time waster.

You get to pull off such kills as locking someone in a room with radioactive material and let them die of radiation poisoning. It’s the feel good game of the year!

But, Death Coming has a lot more going on for it. It’s all the proof developers need that it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Developer NEXT Studios was smart enough to give the NPCs personality and character. Don’t get me wrong: the NPCs follow strict parameters and aren’t exactly subject to free will despite what the game says. But at least it feels like they were given enough heart to be a bit more than just a body count. An ongoing story during your reaping shenanigans is a series of heists that you inadvertently foil through your death-dealing duties. Some NPCs carry on torrid love affairs, complete with scootilypooping (censored behind giant hearts, aww isn’t that sweet). Even alien invasions go down while working. None of this has anything to do with you being a Grim Reaper, though your presence certainly can work out for and against them. You just simply take souls while these cannon-fodder go about the (last moments of their) lives. It makes Death Coming fun in a fly-on-the-wall kind of way. If that fly were armed and wanted you dead.

You don’t directly kill anyone in Death Coming. Rather, you click objects and hope they do the deed for you. At its most base level, this means waiting for an NPC to walk onto a single square of the playfield that a trap will catch them on, like having something fall and squash them, or having them fall down a manhole. The more puzzlely aspects involve using various objects as complex series of rube-goldberg antics in order to free the meatbags from the mortal coil. Like there might be a target character lounging by a swimming pool. You close the umbrella above his head, wait for him to get into the pool, then click an electrical wire above the pool, frying him and all the other NPCs in the pool with him. I don’t know what is says about me that I found the gameplay so satisfying. Nothing good. Or, according to my increasingly terrified family, surprising.

But, as cathartic as it is to resurrect a tyrannosaurus and send it on a rampage, I take issue with some of Death Coming’s design choices. In order to add “challenge”, the game employs “angel police” that feel you’re just a little too blood-lustful. In order to activate any trap, you have to click it twice. The angels only catch you if they spot you between the first and second clicks of an object. If they spot you three times.. I’m honestly not sure what happens since it never once happened to me. I mean, it’s a point and click game. There’s no avatar that has to avoid detection of the angels. The only time I got spotted was when the camera auto-zoomed in because I triggered some event and I forgot to zoom back out afterwards. Death Coming didn’t need this shit. All it does is slow the gameplay down, making me have to wait longer to kill NPCs because I had to watch an angel slowly fly by. And it’s not like Death Coming was fast paced to begin with. It’s one of those “minimum indie badness” decisions that seems so obviously unnecessary in retrospect and makes me wonder if there was anyone along the way who told the devs “no”. It gets really out of hand in the last level. You’re given a chance to activate weather-based events, but doing so spawns an angel. It’s not optional to do this, but the game also spawns even more angels as you go along. I don’t know if this was done to feel climatic or to pad the run time, but it grinds the level into something resembling a slog. The Indiana Jones theme is so fun for that level too. It doesn’t ruin it, but it comes close.

The angels spotting your finger does absolutely nothing. As long as you zoom out, you shouldn’t get spotted at all. It’s like someone spent a day with the world’s least threatening hall monitor and said “this pussy man would make a great video game antagonist!”

The bigger problem is how many replays you’ll need to get a feel for the traps. Sometimes they’re not so predictable, but once they’re used (or used X amount of times), they can’t be reused. If the word bubbles that appeared above the traps had been more descriptive, maybe you could more accurately predict what way they’ll fall or what part of the current rube-goldberg puzzle they’ll activate, and what path that will take once you do. In each of the six levels, I would find myself restarting them several times each, which I found necessary to figure out how the traps are used and how many characters you can take out in each. The only time I didn’t was in the sixth and final stage, where I put over an hour into it before realizing that it’d probably be in my best interest to start over. Once I did, I finished it in about fifteen minutes. In fact, I realized late in the game that you don’t even need to kill the three “target” NPCs featured on each stage to advance to the next level. You just need to fill your quota. I honestly don’t even know what the point of it was. Maybe it’d make sense if it were a different three characters every time you started each stage again and getting all three was necessary in addition to reaching your quota. But it’s not. Strange.

And I always hate to say this stuff, but the current Death Coming release is a bit unstable. The game skipped a bit sometimes when events would be triggered or when I scrolled around, or zoomed in or out. The skip never went away, but wasn’t a deal breaker or anything. I think one time it messed with my timing of activating a trap. A bigger worry is that I crashed the game a couple times in the final stage, once loading it, once when I went to take pics for this very review, uploaded them, then returned to the game only for me to code out to the Switch main menu. I’m sure it’ll get patched out eventually, but I hope the irony that a game about the Grim Reaper kept dying on me isn’t lost on anyone.

This is fun an all, but getting high scores would require keeping track of so many things that really you can probably chalk all the top people down to blowing lottery-levels of luck on a $7 Switch game instead of a lottery ticket. Only they know if it was worth it. Probably not.

Being a puzzler, once you finish Death Coming, in theory you should be done. Thankfully, NEXT came up a novel solution: a scoring system with online leaderboards. I figured there must be an absolute max score and the boards would be filled with multiple identical numbers. As of this writing, they’re not. None of the six levels feature the same person or same score in the top spots. That’s promising, and makes me think that the potential for higher scores might be on the table. So, Death Coming is more than your run-of-the-mill puzzler. But I wish it realized that. The angels and the arcadey scoring I think might have come at the cost of more of the more complex, multi-phase traps that made me giggle like an sadistic five year old who just discovered what you can do with ants and a magnifying glass. But hell, even a single-phase kill, like dropping an anchor on a boat, made me smile and feel warm inside. Death Coming isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s the exact sort of pick-me-up you want to play when you’re suffering from the flu and have pondered whether you’d welcome the loving embrace of death. Can you tell what kind of week I’m having?

Death Coming was developed by NEXT Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam, iOS, Android

$6.99 didn’t fear the reaper in the making of this review.

Death Coming is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Homo Machina

This also makes an effective diagram on the best places to shoot someone.

Big time educational video games are a thing of the past. But, their fade into oblivion wasn’t exactly based on lack of sales. In a nutshell, by 1999 a publishing company called Softkey had most of the more well-known educational games like Reader Rabbit or Carmen Sandiego or Oregon Trail. Softkey was led by my dear friend Kevin O’Leary. Yes, THAT Kevin O’Leary. Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank. But what happened was, Kevin and the Softkey guys were bought by Mattel for 4.2 *billion* dollars, even though they really weren’t worth that much and Mattel could never in a million years hoped to recoup on the deal. At least in a time frame most people would consider reasonable. This was around the time of the Dot Com gold rush, and Mattel probably had big plans for these properties related to that. But $4,200,000,000? Yikes!

It startled people at the time and later went down as one of the worst deals ever. But, people didn’t really stop buying educational software. What happened is, Mattel had to try to get back what they paid for it, so they overspent on the production of the games, then over-manufactured them. The inventory outweighed the demand and what had been relatively low-cost to produce products suddenly had too much money being spent to create them. This led to Mattel posting losses on the Learning Company.. you know, the thing they massively overpaid for.. and it was thought “well shit, if Mattel can’t make money on these types of games, who can?” Absurd, but that’s how it works when short-sighted, overly-reactionary people are in charge. The industry decided that the bottom had fallen out on educational software, even though there was no other evidence of that besides Mattel’s losses. Bye-bye educational software. Oh, and Mattel fired Kevin. Kevin was so crushed he could barely muster up the enthusiasm to sit and count his millions by the fireplace, with a glass of fine wine, probably cackling. I picture cackling. And he’s naked when I picture it. I need help.

It’s a little more complex than that and more than a few heads at Mattel rolled over it, but that was the downfall of educational-entertainment in the game industry. Based on nothing but an obviously bad, reactionary, short-sighted deal going about as well as expected. When business gets dumb, it gets real dumb.

One of the minigames is really just a stripped down, no-fail version of Hang-Man. The answers were a garbled word-salad. Maybe the human’s date involved showing her the Oh…Sir games.

Those IPs are rotting on vine, and honestly the new Carmen Sandiego on Netflix wasn’t for me, but that there’s no reason for edutainment to be dead. Hell, if a group of plucky modders can save Sonic The Hedgehog (at least before Hollywood and Jim Carrey drive the final stake through his heart), why can’t indies do the same for educational games? Take this idea: Homo Machina. Which is Latin for “Man Machine.” But I’m sure some particularly dense and hateful parents won’t know that and forbid their kids from playing the game they think is about gay robots. Homo Machina is a game that aspires to educate children on the human body. This way they’ll  understand the mechanics of all the things people on Xbox Live are saying they’re doing with their mothers.

The real kicker is they based the game around the art of Fritz Kahn. You might not know the name, but you for sure know his work. He’s the one who drew the human body like a giant factory or machine populated by human workers. He’s considered the Godfather of Infographics. And, if you want to talk about someone who lived a fascinating life, look no further than Kahn. Homo Machina uses the basis of his work to teach children and adolescents about bodily functions. Frankly, it’s not the worst starting point for an edutainment game I’ve ever heard. But what do I know? I’m inching towards the big 3-0 in two months. And, despite the Power Rangers / Super Sentai fandom, I’m fairly sure I know how the human body works. In the immortal words of Jaime Lannister: “the first time you cut a man. Realize we are nothing but sacks of meat, blood and some bone to keep it all standing.” Not that I’ve ever cut a man. Flame throwers don’t cut.

So, I recruited my nephew (age 13) and niece (age 7) to give the game a try. Homo Machina is broken up into a series of short vignettes. Holding the Switch vertically, like a tablet, you’re presented with puzzles based around getting the human machine to work properly. Stuff like focusing an eye to see, an immune response to a cut, tuning into a song, etc. Each of us made one complete play-through, which takes under an hour or so. The “puzzles” are rudimentary touch-screen stuff with no fail conditions. They’re all short and simply, with the only one giving me issues being the two hearing mini-games. One requires you to pluck cords in your eardrum in sync with a noise coming through, while the other asks you to tune into the frequency of the music. The final tuning bit took me forever to get everything to line up and was insanely frustrating since the touch controls throughout the game can be imprecise and fickle. The little people inside me were activating my cussing mechanism. The struggle with this game was the only of the minigames that all three of us couldn’t quite get right, and in fact I had to solve it for the 7-year-old. Hah, showed her. Psssh, newb.

They could have included extra modes and challenges after the game. Like with the heart one, you just took a speed ball. Keep your heart from exploding and live long enough to say “I’M NEVER DOING THAT AGAIN!”

The short run-time (though at a low price) of Homo Machina didn’t really take the edge off for me. I have to confess: I got really bored quickly with it, and never really stopped being bored. The minigames are too simple and the art style and presentation did nothing for me. It’s not actively bad, but the inspired setting didn’t really lead to inspired gameplay. But, Homo Machina wasn’t really made for 30-year-olds. So the question is, what did the kids think of it?

The answer: they liked it. Mostly. The base problem is the framing of a human body as a factory with business people and a board of directors running the show didn’t really connect with them. Both are fans of Pixar’s Inside Out and that made more sense to them, at their ages, than a boardroom did. But, they loved the actual gameplay mechanics. Through those, without the story or dialog, both got immersed enough that they felt they were contributing to the life of a real person. That’s important. It’s the edutainment secret-sauce that the top games like Carmen Sandiego had going for them. The sense that the tasks are important and are building to something bigger. Both were disappointed that the game ended when it did. Hell, the ending took me by surprise too. The last mini-game is about lining fingers up with a possible love-interest and doesn’t feel climatic at all. It ends with the people inside the human machine celebrating and dancing. It felt like we were just starting and the first chapter was over. But nope, credits. I think it says a lot about Homo Machina’s potential for young people that they were both crushed that the game was over. Meanwhile, I silently did a fist-pump.

One universal complaint, besides the bleh touch input, was that the games come with almost no instructions and it’s not always clear what touch motions you’re supposed to be using to achieve what effect. In a game that requires you to mix chemicals to activate your adrenal glands, there’s no instruction that you need to shake-up the beaker. I spent a few minutes poking at the screen trying to figure out what the next step was, including botching the puzzle by turning the heat on before the mixture was ready. None of this stuff is a deal breaker, nor particularly challenging, but what you’re supposed to be interacting with and how you’re supposed to are common questions during Homo Machina that you get no answers to.

This is the music game I was talking about. See the graph on top? Well, the game is quite anal about getting it just right, since I spent almost as much time trying to get that right as I would listening to an actual song. I pictured Homer Simpson stun-locked after Carl told him he was slow.

The real real question is: does Homo Machina have educational value? For thirteen-year-olds, probably not. My nephew already understood things like respiration and nerve signals. At least he still had fun playing the game. But, my niece now knows that her body makes chemicals that help her run and knows the basics of how nerves work (she got very wide-eyed when she found out her body used electricity and asked if she would ever become a super hero). So yeah, there’s something here, but no means to quantify it. Then again, did kids really learn all that much about the Manifest Destiny from Oregon Trail? Over thirty-years after it came out and really, what people older than me learned from it is that dying of projectile diarrhea is fucking hilarious.

Still, I like what Homo Machina represents. I was literally just talking to developer Red Vonix (who was such a good sport with my Santa’s Special Delivery review) about the gaping hole left by the lack of educational games. Think about it: the generations that came before me still talk warmly about Oregon Trail and it’s hilarious death-by-dysentery lessons, while even the most cynical of millennials develop a subtle phosphorescence when talking about Reader Rabbit. That’s something current generations don’t have. Indie developers should take note, because it could be your work that gets the fondly-remembered meme treatment 30 years from now. Homo Machina might end up being that game for my niece and nephew. Sadly, I found it too boring to award my seal of approval to. I spent a solid week going back and forth on whether or not I should, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. If the kids don’t like it, they can start their own blog. But seriously parents, you could do worse than spending $3 on Homo Machina. For example, you can force your kids to play your generation’s educational games. Just remember, if you do so your kids will wonder what they did to piss you off.

Homo Machina was developed by Seaven Studio
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

$2.99’s niece thinks static electricity makes her Raiden in the making of this review.

IF I could award my seal of approval based on how RJ’s kids liked Homo Machina, I would have done it. So parents, take note.

Cuphead: The Final Review (At Least Until the DLC)

I’ve already reviewed Cuphead twice, once when it first came out in 2017, and again in late October of last year. I didn’t like it. This is no secret. The problem is, a fairly large section of gamers that need people to like the games they like because they subconsciously look at it as affirmation for their own self-worth said my opinions didn’t count because I didn’t beat the game. Mind you, some of them.. most of them probably judging by the percentages.. didn’t beat it either. But they plan on it. It’s on their increasingly yellowed, tattered to-do list, right under games like Battletoads or Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Which they will get to any day now. When they get some free time and Netflix has nothing good on. And hey, since they say they’ll eventually find the time to beat these things, it’s totally cool that they white knight for them, while not cool that you point out the flaws in these games or their argument. It’s not a double standard at all. Apples and oranges. Totally different, as anyone can see.

I wasn’t sure what “gitting gud” or beating Cuphead would change about the stuff I primarily disliked about it. The cheap shots. The lack of checkpoints. The fact that there is a simple mode for the first seventeen bosses (though not for the Run ‘N Gun stages, which are technically optional as long as you don’t want to buy any upgrades), but using the Simple option gates you off the final two boss fights. Proponents of the Headed Cup say that the enjoyment and fun is when you finally triumph, and that getting to that point isn’t necessarily meant to be fun because the point is the challenge. By giving up on that challenge, they say my opinion is voided and nothing I say about the game counts because I played it wrong, I guess? By not failing enough? Or getting bored with failing? Even though they say the point is to fail? I think? Wait, what is their argument again? That it couldn’t have the easy modes that it already fucking has.. why? And my opinion doesn’t count until I beat it, why? I don’t get it. It’s like saying you can’t be grateful for airbags until you’ve hit a deer doing 80mph.

I mean, you can just say what you really want to say: “I can’t handle you not liking this game because I base all my self-esteem on the success of games by developers who would find me Steven Urkel levels of annoying if they knew me.” Whatever, my reviews for Cuphead don’t count unless I beat it.

Fine, I’ll play it their way.

I just beat Cuphead. Here’s a playlist of me beating all 19 boss stages. I also beat three Run ‘N Gun stages so I could get the 15 coins out of them plus all the hidden coins so I could buy all the guns.

My friends thought I’d lost my mind. Why would I subject myself to hours upon hours of a game I didn’t like? Because, out of fairness, the critics of my criticism might have had a point. While I was fairly certain, based on my nearly 23-years of gaming experience, that I wouldn’t have liked Cuphead even if I forced myself to sit down and beat it all the way through, I couldn’t know for sure.

I’m a moderately well-known indie game critic. But who am I to double-down on every single review I make and say that I know the stuff I’m guessing is right? Doing so makes me no better than the fans who sent me hate mail for these reviews. How can I expect anyone to try to see it my way when I myself am unwilling to try to see it their way? So, I decided to take that complaint off the table, permanently and put the ball in their court. And really, the only way to do that was to finish the game.

My goal was to get all seventeen “contracts” from the bosses of Cuphead’s first three worlds, giving me access to the final stages against antagonists King Dice and the Devil. And I took it very seriously. I spent over a week studying videos of “professional” Cuphead players, learning the tactics and strategies, then attempted to apply what I learned and see if I could watch the credits roll and add the finished game achievement points to my account. Originally I was going to do it one hour at a time once a day, but I shit canned that when I realized that I’d need at least that much time to warm-up every day. And some days, like Thursday evening to Friday early morning, I was doing insanely good.

At 6:50AM yesterday morning, I beat the Devil and rolled the credits. I can now say I’ve beaten Cuphead. Mic drop.

So, under my authority as someone who gitted gud at Cuphead: Cuphead still fucking sucks. Hell, if anything I have more stuff to complain about now. For those of you who can’t handle hearing people make valid complaints about your favorite games, do yourself a favor and leave now. I promise I’ll return to under-the-radar games you don’t base your self-esteem on in the coming days.

And the shit thing is, Cuphead didn’t have to suck. There is no reason why the game had to be this hard, or at times play as unfair as it did. Having now finished the whole thing (no I’m not playing it again on expert. This isn’t politics, assholes. You don’t get to keep moving the goalposts on me), I did manage to find more fun than either of my previous two sessions, though never to an astonishing degree. What limited fun I did have, we can’t rule out Stockholm Syndrome for either. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 2017, I actually did get all the contracts for Inkwell Isle I. But, I decided to start over from scratch with my project (titled “Vice Versus” which isn’t as clever as I thought, in fact it doesn’t really sound as much like vice-versa as I was hoping when spoken out-loud) and re-collect the Inkwell Isle I contracts. Among other reasons, I knew that the key to success was getting the hang of the parry, something I never got the hang of it my first couple forays. I needed the practice.

And I got it in my first encounter where random elements play a significant role in the battle: a pair of frogs who Megazord-together to form a giant slot machine. Yeah. This was the point where I realized I was in big, big trouble. The slot machine has three primary, randomly chosen attack modes. Unlike most bosses, you at least have a warning of what random element you’re going to face-off with when the reels line up. The one that kept screwing me was a series of inner-tubes that would randomly (double the random!!) have a column of fire going up or down. I couldn’t get the hang of this attack in particular and got right to the end multiple times. Fatigue and nerves began to set in and I started taking damage on phases that I had previously got past with no sweat. I even got killed by the slow-moving coins that it launched at me. After 20 or so attempts, I did beat it with a perfect score. Was I overcome with happiness? No. Relief? Well, yeah. If you fail at something dozens of times and then succeed, you’ll be grateful when it’s over because that means you don’t need to do it again. That’s not exactly entertainment. Well, unless you count Joss Whedon’s career.

But, was any bit of it fun? Nope. Not even a little. BUT, I’m willing to concede that I had a little bit of fun with the other four bosses in Inkwell Isle I, and various other bosses in other worlds. Even the shmup bosses I didn’t hate nearly as much. Or at all, really. Truth be told, I found them nearly enjoyable this play-through, having studied-up on how to beat them. The Blimp Chick (she’s literally a blimp, not fat, please don’t accuse me of fat-shaming) along with the Genie and Giant Bird battles from Inkwell Isle II were actually pretty fucking sweet. I didn’t expect that. Especially since I found these stages so dull the first time. Alright, gentlemen: set your faces to “stun.”

I, Indie Gamer Chick, am willing to admit that I was wrong the first couple times I played Cuphead. The shmup stages, previously a sore spot for me, were probably the most consistently decent parts this time around, and yea, sorta fun. Kinda.

Hell, I even beat the giant robot in six attempts and didn’t hate the experience of fighting it. I only really got annoyed on the 4th lost life because the final phase is far too spongy, repetitive, and lasts so long that the tension is lost and it just sort of becomes boring. It’s simply spams the screen with bullets while electrified poles get in the way. Before this, you had a clever set up with three different body parts to attack, each of which has its own unique moves and patterns. I heard more fans of the game complain about this stage than any other, but I thought it was the most fun of the shmups. Then, suddenly, it became an uninspired, lazy bore. And sadly that section lasts half the fight. Half! One constant thing I noticed in the interviews with the developers is they always go back to using the difficulty as a crutch to preemptively reject complaints. But Dr. Kahl’s Robot, one of the most cool and memorable designs in Cuphead, with one of the best sequences in the entire game, goes down as being one of the least popular stages. Someone involved in the game should ask themselves how that can be? Because it’s mostly boring and the boring part ends the fight. It leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. They don’t remember how clever that intro was. They don’t remember the fun when the head flew off. They remember a lazy, first-year game design bullet-hell effort that closed the fight. What a shame.

It shows that the overall difficulty is hardly the only mistake Cuphead makes. Scaling might be an issue. Yes, bosses can be tackled in different orders, but after needing over one-hundred attempts and three days to beat the Dragon, followed by another couple dozen attempts at beating a giant Queen Bee, something strange happened: I annihilated the remaining six bosses in Inkwell III, needing seven or less attempts to beat each. Did I “GiT GuD?” Perhaps. Or maybe the bosses were ordered wrong. Sally Stageplay I beat in just two attempts. Two! She clearly should have been a stage one boss. The pirate could have been a great intro to stage two. The frogs belonged in stage two, maybe stage three. The Dragon SHOULD have been stage three’s final boss and the gatekeeper of the final level. And God Damn, when I finally got to King Dice, he was a bit of a pussy. After making my way through his mini-bosses (all of which but one are thankfully simple, though in a good way that makes sense from a game design perspective), I beat King Dice in my very first direct fight with him despite completely shitting the bed. He was dead in barely half a minute. THAT was the boss that was hyped the entire game? Yeesh.

But, my main complaint is still with the difficulty. I realized by the end that the truly tough bosses wre tough because of RNG. The Candy Bitch has an assortment of mini-bosses, three of which are chosen at random to do battle with. And during the second and third fights with those bosses, more elements are added to dodge. If I got the Flying Waffle as the third boss, it meant I was dodging its attacks PLUS little jelly bean things running along the ground PLUS the Candy Bitch shooting projectiles at me. In my successful run, the Waffle was the first of the three I encountered. Yea, I won that round, and did so without taking a hit. But I owe that just as much to good luck as I do any skills I picked up.

The same went for The Dragon the Queen Bee. Those fights have auto-scrolling platforms that come out in random patterns. Many times I found myself in a position where I had to jump, but the level stopped spitting out platforms for me to jump to. I won’t complain about needing over one-hundred attempts to beat the Dragon because my epilepsy came into play and the steps I needed to play it (drowning out my game room with lighting to offset the lightning storm strobe-effect) caused visibility issues for some of the obstacles. I mean, they could have included photosensitive options, but truthfully there’s more color-blind gamers than epileptic ones and they get no help with the pink-shaded parry objects. I sort of feel like colorblind gamers are told to get fucked here by a couple of pretentious “our way or the highway” brothers, but what can you do? I stand with the devs on it. I’m giving them bunny ears with my fingers while doing it, but I stand with them.

UPDATE: Colorblind readers alerted me that black & white mode wouldn’t help either. After sharing a full play-through video of that mode with me, they’re right: you couldn’t possibly know which stuff is a parry or not unless you already knew. The Two-Strip mode (which, like Black & White mode, is gated off unless you perform extra-difficult tasks in the game) I guess would work better for seeing the parryable objects, but at a cost of having other important aspects bleed into each-other. Their solution was to add some kind of shimmer, glow, or other subtle visual cue to the parry objects using an effect that is distinctive from other effects used in the game. This could have been an adjustable option, not something that is present for all players. “There’s plenty of design options that could have been used that are true to the vintage aesthetic.” I normally don’t get pissy about this type of stuff, but given this is such a tentpole indie, having visual accessibility options could have set new standards for the entire scene, and instead of the Moldenhauers seemingly gave no consideration at all. 

My question is, if the bosses are as well designed as fans of the game insist they are, why did it need so many random elements that have NOTHING to do with pattern recognition or defensive maneuvering? Of course, I can’t be 100% for sure. I’m not that good. But, I suspect the random elements led to situations where I couldn’t have possibly hoped to not take damage, based on nothing I did but rather on luck of the draw. I’m not the only person complaining about this, either. Guys who do boss-rushes complain about the Mermaid/Medusa shmup battle essentially requiring the luck of good RNG to get a perfect score on Expert. This came up constantly on videos from players much better than I, so I figure there must be something to it. So, are you going to tell those guys to shut up and “git gud” when they’re making world-record speed runs that are screwed not by their own skills but because the game’s lottery spit out an unwinnable situation? That fight sucks enough with stun-locking beams that you have to wiggle-the-stick to be able to move again. That wiggling happens in a narrow corridor with lethal coral, like the dam stage from the NES Ninja Turtles game. God damn, devs: stop copying bad levels from old games. Or, if you insist on doing so, try making them good at least, will ya?

Cuphead is well produced, but don’t mistake that for “well made.” McDonalds hamburgers are well produced. No joke. They’re designed by some of the most highly paid food scientists in the world. But that doesn’t mean their food will be up for Michelin Stars. With Cuphead, there’s just too many little things wrong, where someone should have told the Moldenhauers “have you guys considered that you’ve taken things a bit too far during this part?” Like during the King Dice fight, you might encounter a skeletal race horse that’s challenge comes not from enemy design, but by having a TON of objects in the foreground cover up the actual action. It’s an indefensible design decision. I’m sorry but if someone is playing a game and I stand in front of the TV, telling that person “isn’t this hard? Git gud!” isn’t going to fly. They’re going to ask me why I’m being a bitch. Apparently by that point they were so out of ideas that their only solution to add challenge was to make it hard for players to see. They could have added different enemies or basically anything else. It’s a video game. You’re limited only their imagination. But no, they went with blocking the screen. Does it look like a 1930s cartoon? Yea. But Cuphead, get this, isn’t really a 1930s cartoon. It’s a 2017 video game and that section is one you are expected to play. I was embarrassed for the Moldenhauers during that fight. It was so uninspired. Not the character design or the fight itself. Just the challenge. Let’s block the screen. Maybe they have fond memories of standing in front of the TV while each took turns playing Gradius as kids and this was an inside joke for them. Probably not. It was the best they could come up with to add difficulty. And it was fucking lazy.

So here I am, three reviews later, beater of Cuphead, and I still don’t like the game. I’m in the 7.19% of Xbox One Cuphead owners who have beaten the game. I got good. So why wasn’t it fun? Why couldn’t it be fun? I want Cuphead owners to take me down this road, where Cuphead exists with checkpoints or the ability to play the final bosses whether you beat the first seventeen on simple or not. Why is this game not as good? Because you lacked the self-restraint to beat the game on normal? That sort of makes it sound like you’re who needs to “git gud” if you can’t resist the siren call of optional difficulty. Like, people truly think that if these options existed, there wouldn’t be people playing on Expert difficulty (which is optional) and doing full 19 – 0 perfect boss runs. Or making up their own challenges, like beating every boss using just the pea-shooter or not parrying unless absolutely necessary to open up a gameplay mechanic. Because people are doing those things. They’re all over YouTube. Hell, this week, I saw someone who discovered you could beat Super Punch-Out!! without ducking, blocking, or dodging. The majority of gamers who want a challenge can find it whether forced by the game or not. Why should the rest of society be held back from having fun because you can’t control yourself? If you think Cuphead should only be played on normal, go play it on normal. If you need games to not have optional difficulty, who the fuck died and anointed you the gatekeeper of real gaming?

I can’t complain about Cuphead’s controls. I’ll vouch for them. They’re solid and responsive. I can’t complain about its concept. I like boss rushes and bullet-sprayers. I can’t complain about its soundtrack or appearance. It’s the best looking video game ever made. Cuphead is a game I want to love, because holy shit, has there ever been an indie this fun to watch? It’s in a league of its own in every single regard except being fun to play. Not that it’s never fun, but too many aspects of the game are based around being difficult just for the sake of doing so. It’s why I find the art almost obnoxious. Because fanboys of Cuphead, and even the developers themselves, use it as a deflect-all shield for why they couldn’t make the game easier. Even though they, you know, did include an easier mode. Those fucking sell-outs! What a weird choice for the Git Gud crowd to defend, no? Then again, I don’t recall hearing that Celeste is for pussies all that much.

I don’t feel good about having accomplished something that only 7% of owners did. This wasn’t some special challenge or rare event or extra difficult optional path. This is just beating the game. I know you can’t rely on achievement percentages because so many people (including me most of the time, guilty as charged) buy games and sit on them, but 7%? If that doesn’t hurt your heart, given how much work they put into the game, you need to check and make sure it’s still beating.

By far the worst argument for I’ve heard is “well, what about King Dice or the Devil? How were they supposed to make THOSE fights easier? So, as you can see, they HAVE to gate it off.” Hmmm.. here’s a thought: they don’t. They could have just left those two fights exactly as they are in the standard mode, unchanged. I have no objection to a game’s final bosses being harder than others. They’re the last bosses. Being harder is how final bosses are supposed to work. If they’re too hard for those who finished on simple, I don’t know what to say. Git gud?

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 told the Moldenhauers “Git Fun” in the making of this review.

You Died But a Necromancer Revived You

You Died but a Necromancer revived you (the b in “but”, the r in “revived” and the y in “you” aren’t capitalized for no god damned reason) is proof that I’ll buy ANYTHING as long as the name is silly enough. I’m not even joking when I say the first time I ever bought a DVD for myself, my dad gave me $20 and I ended up picking out Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I had just turned 12 years-old and money didn’t just burn a hole in my pocket, but pretty much napalmed it. I saw Klowns. I saw they were killer. I saw they were from not just space, but outer space. I had to have it. Of course, we bought it at Suncoast at the Oakridge Mall in San Jose, which sold VHS tapes for $100 each (I’m not even kidding) and DVDs cost a multiple of what they cost anywhere else. (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear this, but they’ve since shut down. Who knew $100 for a VHS copy of Saving Private Ryan wouldn’t fly?) I’m guessing that $20 barely paid for the price tag, but Daddy covered the rest, bitching the entire time that I had terrible taste and probably wouldn’t even watch it. He was right. When we got home, I remembered I was scared of clowns and aliens, so the disc went unused for years.

But, come on, Killer Klowns! From Outer Space! What a name!

Seriously, no joke, it’s a lot of fun. Not really that scary, either. I only pissed myself twice.

That was in 2001. Here we are in 2019, and I still can’t resist an absurd name. Hell, my dream project is “Zombie Tyrannosaurus That Eats People and Shits Zombies.” We can change “shit” to “poop” if it becomes a made for SyFy film. Just start making it, whoever. Script? What script? Look at the name! That is the script! What’s Billy Zane doing these days?

The best part of You Died But a Necromancer Revived You (I’m not playing along with the lowercase stuff) is the name. Because, when you get down to it, the actual gameplay is very basic. You’re placed in a top-down 2D, retroy room. You have to make your way to the ladder in the center of it. There are tons of traps to kill you. If you die, you start over from whatever checkpoint you last reached (checkpoints are determined by the game’s difficulty). The primary challenge comes from the speed required to clear each stage. After a few seconds, the floor begins to cave-in behind you. Personally, I’d preferred to be chased by a giant boulder Indiana Jones style, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Interesting creative decision to not go wide-screen and instead have a bezel like an arcade machine. Also, while I have your attention: set the control stick’s deadzone in the options to 90%. I had a whole paragraph of control complaints I had to delete when I discovered the option. It was a sick paragraph too. It had a dynamite Tim Duncan joke I had to shitcan.

You Died is perfectly fine as a quickie time waster. And I do mean quick. My first successful play-through took 22 minutes to clear all the rooms and the boss. If you want to challenge yourself to play on difficulties that spread the checkpoints apart and add more stuff to avoid, you’ll certainly need a little more patience and time to invest. I tried it for an hour, cussed a blue streak, but still beat it on normal. This is actually one of the few games where randomly-generated stages work pretty well, switching up the order and placement of the traps and obstacles to assure you won’t be memorizing layouts. There’s not a whole lot of “gotcha” style deaths, though it does happen. In one stage, you reach the ladder only for the ladder to come alive and chase you towards the real exit. I can’t imagine anyone surviving that on their first encounter with it, but otherwise the cheapness is kept to a minimum.

The real issue is how little meat is on You Died’s bones. There’s a huge variety of characters, but I’m pretty sure they’re just skins without different attributes. Maybe. I swear, the character that looks like the ghost of Sweetie seems to move looser (even after I adjusted the controls), but I can’t be certain on that. But once you clear out the game’s 20 rooms and the boss, that’s really all there is. There’s not a big enough variety of traps, and once you have them clocked, you have them clocked no matter what order they’re placed in. Before typing this paragraph, I was on-board with the random level layouts, but I just realized having them probably limited the variety of obstacles that could be used since the game required them to work no matter what order the RNG spits them out. Maybe there needed to be an endless mode (which there is) alongside a hand-crafted tower with more elegantly, elaborately designed puzzles and traps. It certainly would have added to the value. And this is one of those rare times where the value is probably the biggest problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself..

There’s multiplayer modes, one of which is a co-op sort of deal where you all play together and if one person finishes the room, everyone does. The other is a versus mode where you race to the ladder. It sounds great in theory. In practice, You Died is one of those games where the owner of the copy will inevitably be unbeatable against friends and family since they’ll be familiar with all the ways you die. I won a match 8 to 2, with the two losses coming because the Joycon sucks as a stand-alone controller but I was too lazy to get off my ass and hook up my pro controllers. That’s not a joke, either. In my review of Not Not, the Joycons killed both myself and my Mother more than our own mistakes did. I have extremely tiny hands and even with them the Joycon turned on its side like an NES controller doesn’t work at all. That configuration might be the worst controller in gaming history. And I owned an Ouya. I wasn’t able to play the game with a room full of experienced players, and I couldn’t convince anyone to put the twenty minutes of time needed to GiT GuD needed into Necromancer. That’s more on my family than it is the game. Not holding that against it. It’d be like shaming a cat for shedding on your bed to the point that you have to change your sheets every night. It’s can’t help it. And my family can’t help indifference to retro multiplayer games.

This is the one and only boss in the game. It’s a fun fight with a clever mechanic to inflict damage on the Necromancer. But actually, it’s so good and so fun and so clever that it just left me wanting a lot more.

So, let’s talk value. You Died but a Necromancer Revived You is one of the few games that highlights the biggest flaw in my review system. My rule is that if I like a game 50.1% but dislike it 49.9%, it wins my seal of approval. Nothing else matters. Well, I like You Died a lot more than 50.1%. It’s short, but it’s fun while it lasts. It’s Slam dunk for my seal of approval. But the problem is, I approve of it but I can’t really recommend it either. At least at full price. Necromancer is so light in gameplay and content that I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to buy it for $8.99. It’s far too over-priced. Hell, it’s over-priced at $7.64, which is what I got it for. And no, I’m not advocating a “race to the bottom”, a term that gets abused more than Orange County breathalyzers. But there’s just too many games that offer more for less. Not that it’ll never go on sale. Switch is magnificent for indies going el-cheapo and tickling the impulse-buy sector of your brains. But, when You Died hits that $4.99 range that it should have been all along, it’ll still be competing head-to-head with beefier titles at cut-rate prices. You’re not racing to the bottom, fellas. Keeping it real: you’re a no-name indie game by a no-name developer. You are at the bottom. The race is to get attention and get people playing your games so you can make fans. A name like “You Died but a Necromancer Revived You” will get that attention. A price like $8.99 won’t get you players.

But seriously, it’s fun.

You Died But a Necromancer Revived You was developed by BolHut
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$7.64 (normally $8.99) blue screened but a technomancer revived me in the making of this review.

You Died But a Necromancer Revived You is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Chick Leaderboard.

 

Not Not – A Brain Buster

Well, this one is different. Because Not Not – A Brain Buster (which I was disappointed to learn isn’t a spinoff of BrainSmasher: A Love Story) is the first time in 594 indies played where the person who asked me to give it a try was my Mother. Now, that might not be significant to some, but my Mom isn’t exactly someone who I gamed a lot with growing up. Which is not to say we never played video games together in the Vice household. I’ve written previously about the time a brain parasite called Peggle had us under its thrall. And, like almost any family with a gaming child and non-gaming parents, when the Wii arrived there was a brief but potent Wii Sports period where we’d do the bowling (and sometimes the less fun golfing) every day. And then there was the month where we played Boom Blox for hours every night, usually until someone started complaining their shoulders were hurting. The classic “I’m getting my ass kicked and can’t hit the broad side of a barn today but I don’t want to seem like a total pussy so I’ll claim a non-existent injury” move. In the Bay, we call it “Pulling a Monta Ellis.”

Speaking of Boom Blox.. where the hell is it on Switch? I dare say the Joycons would be better for it than the Wiimotes. We need to bring this series back. It was just so god damned fun!

Beyond that, there was only one significant gaming moment I had with my Mother. A few years ago, we were playing Angry Birds Space on our phones. My Mom was, and still is, deeply into the series. I was stuck on a stage. Well, not stuck-stuck. More like I was casually exploring the nature of the level and searching for deeper meaning. But, before I achieved nirvana, she coldly snatched my phone from me, aced it on her first try, and handed my phone back to me with the most adorable/sickening look of pride on her face. No, I didn’t need her. It’s not like I’d spent twenty minutes on that stage, grinding my teeth and cussing under my breath. But I wanted her to feel like I needed her. I mean, she did give birth to me. Least I could do. I let her have it the moment. Really. No, I’m not willing to pinky swear. If that shit actually works, I’m fond of my pinkies so.. hey wait..

Okay, so gaming isn’t a Vice Family tradition. But my Mom, who spends roughly thirteen hours a day on her phone, found Not Not a while back and wanted me to review it for IGC. I told her “well, I don’t do mobile reviews” in the same tone of voice I have to use to tell her I don’t really want to watch vapid ignoramuses hock their shitty wares when she tells me the Kardashians are on. And then I made a grave mistake a few weeks ago when Not Not hit the Switch: I asked her if this was the game she was talking about. “No excuses now, Miss Indie Star.” D’oh!

It’s best to think of Not Not like it’s a mini-game from the Brain Age series. It’s basically a multiple-choice version of the Stroop Effect Test that is used to test reaction times of individuals. It’s not to be confused with the Schtoop Effect Test, which measures how long it takes for people to begin fucking when sex is offered. During a traditional Stroop Test, a labcoat with a stopwatch times how long it takes you to state the color the word is written in, which is difficult because the word says a completely different color. In Not Not, you’re placed on a cube and must choose to move up, down, left, right, or do nothing based on the directions given in a relatively short amount of time. There’s multiple tiers of levels that add increasingly more complex or roundabout directions to follow, with three levels of difficulty for each. It sounds fairly straight forward. And it is, until Not Not is not.

In fact, the name of the game comes from the fact that Not Not outright starts to fuck with you the further you progress. At first this comes from commands like “Not Up.” In response, you should move any direction but up. But then the game tells you to Not NOT move up. Meaning you should move up. And yes, it throws in Not NOT NOT commands eventually. If it sounds confusing, it is at first. But really, a decent brain should adjust to this quickly. Two nots = go the direction it says. Three nots = one not = don’t go the direction it says. “Ha, this shit is easy. Suck it, smug ass loser devs, bragging to me that only one person in the entire world beat the mobile version on the hardest difficulty. I’ll show them!”

And then, the directions just go completely into “humble this bitch” territory. Like here, for example.

Right and not Yellow. But wait, you can’t move right, because it’s yellow! Well, the game doesn’t really explain this (or, if it does, I missed it) but if it gives you a contradictory direction, you’re supposed to do nothing at all. It becomes really really confusing when it tells you to do things like to go up and down. Because I was used to the “not (direction)” commands earlier, my brain was wired to instead go left or right when these type of commands came up, resulting in a loss of life. And self-esteem. Seriously, you guys made me feel dumb when I was starting to feel smart. Not cool.

For what it’s worth, Not Not actually is fun. But I think the developers are wasting time targeting game critics with it. They should be sending it off to places that do cognitive testing. I like to go the extra mile so I checked around and found out that a testing kit that includes an instruction guide (like a teacher’s edition of a text-book) and Stroop Test flashcards can cost as much as $500. For a book and some cheap cards! A Nintendo Switch costs $300 and a copy of Not Not will run you $2. Gamers can enjoy it, but really, this belongs to academia.

So I guess that’s the only relevant stuff I have to say. Good day!

Not Not was devel..

Wait a second, missy..

Mom? How did you get into my review? And why are you typing in italics?

You skipped the part where I whooped your ass at the game. Tell them.

Really, I don’t think they’d be interested in hearing th..

TELL THEM!!

I.. uh.. yea she beat me at a few games of Not Not’s multiplayer mode, which is the same as the main game but racing against 2 to 4 players. Just a few. I let her win.

You let me win twenty-seven times?

Well, uh.. happy birthday Mom!

I wish that was a joke for the sake of this review, but she really did beat me 27 times to 0. Not fair! She’s been playing it longer!

It wasn’t my birthday.

But really Mom, I just love you so much that I feel like every day should be your birthday.

Also, you left out that the way you unlock more levels is a little out of whack. You have to beat the medium and hard difficulties of multiple levels to unlock the easiest mode on newer levels. Logically, beating the easiest level should unlock the next stage’s easiest level, and the medium for the next level’s medium, etc, etc.

Wow! Mom, that was actually an insightful point to make. Perhaps the one flaw of the game. And, well, the whole “so unforgivingly difficulty that one person in ten million has beaten the final stage” thing. You might want to rethink what you’re trying to accomplish there, devs.

Yea, that was me.

Um.. the developers told me it was an Italian Judge that beat it.

Well, I do have a life outside you and your father, you know.

……. Moonlighting as an Italian Judge?

Yeah.

And you guys thought your family was weird.

You’re just jealous that you couldn’t beat me.

Am not.

Hey Cathy..

Yes Mom?

GiT GuD!

Brian, I know it was you that taught her that phrase. I’m never blowing you again. Hope it was worth it.

Not Not – A Brain Buster was published by QubicGames
Point of Sale: Switch, iOS, Android

$0.99’s (normally $1.99’s) husband failed the Schtoop Effect in the making of this review.

Not Not is Not Not Chick Approved and Not Not ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Safety First

Alright everyone, pack it in. Cancel your ongoing projects. Indie gaming’s highest peak has been reached. There’s now a game on the Nintendo Switch marketplace where a stick figure pees on things. Including other stick figures. Everything that comes after this will pale in comparison on the grounds that it’s not a game about stick figures giving golden showers to each other. Meanwhile, that sound you hear coming from the east is Hiroshi Yamauchi spinning circles in his grave.

They’re trying to cover for the whole “it’s a guy peeing” thing by saying it’s a robot repairing electric cables using magical yellow repair liquid. Which is like a cop getting caught with prostitutes saying that he’s working undercover to bust them. Also I have to censor the dick. Sorry, rules are rules. I can talk about dicks until I’m blue in the face. I can describe the things I’ve done with dicks in ways that’ll assure my parents will never at their little girl the same way again. But I can’t show them.

I’m normally not a fan of the whole rag-doll physics stuff. I never fell under the siren call of QWOP or Octodad. Games that offer all the fun of being drunk, only without the fun of being drunk. I’m almost positive that line came across the way I heard it in my head. What I mean is that I’m such a play-control supremacist that the thought of games that are based around unintuitive controls I find repulsive. In Safety First, an actual game for the Nintendo Switch, you control only the legs of a stick figure using the analog sticks, while the rest of the body is dead weight. Under this premise, your goal is to position your stick figure’s stick-cock to take aim and, well, pee on targets.

Never mind Yamauchi spinning in his grave. He’s doing full backflips in it.

It’s *so stupid* and so immature. But it’s also kind of fun. Of course, a lot of the humor is based around the console we’re playing on. If Safety First was on Xbox One, I honestly don’t know if I would have laughed as hard as I did. Probably not. I thought I was better than this, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it funny that I was playing a game with stages that require you to pee on someone’s head between play sessions of wholesome Yoshi’s Crafted World. I mean, come on! That is objectively hilarious. The company that once willfully risked industry leadership by turning blood into sweat for Mortal Kombat now prominently has a game with stick figures peeing to solve puzzles on its marketplace. This is not a drill, people! The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists played a round of Safety First and moved the Doomsday Clock to one minute before midnight!

I was going to use a pic of the golden shower stage, but honestly I’d have to cover all the fun stuff with Sweeties so here’s this pic where you can’t even see the dick instead.

But, a big part of why I was able to find Safety First humorous is because it’s at least playable and decent enough. If it’d been unplayable, I think I would have actually found it cynical and offensive. Like, the stick figure dick and piss stuff would have been a crutch to hide faulty, lazy game design. That’s not exactly the case, but almost. Just enough to make me wonder if they didn’t phone it in a bit. A big problem is the stick figure is so fragile that the Knicks are planning to offer it a max contract. If you pull the legs too far apart, or if the limp upper-body sways the wrong way, the appendages get severed and you have to start the stage over. The physics seem a bit unstable, and there were times where I would barely lift a leg to aim my stick dick at one of the targets only to have the leg suddenly go flying off for a death. Or sometimes while moving, the torso would tip over and completely snap with a spurt of red blood (oh yes, it’s TOTALLY a robot), like watching a horrible limbo bar accident. Sure, I giggled like a childish twat almost every single time it happened, but it got less funny on stages where I needed twenty or more tries. The physics are just too unforgiving too often. Plus, there’s limited drips of pee per stage and no quick reset button. You’re forced to rip your legs apart in order to start over. Also, congratulations to me for using the word “limp” earlier without tying it to the stick figure dick. I’m glad I’m here.

Safety First has a “drunken, swearing German” mode where the ground sways and your piss is brown. Oh and I’m pretty sure they replaced the normal stick figure head with a silhouette of David Hasselhoff’s head. I have no words.

But, it’s fun regardless. The stages have enough variety that Safety First never gets boring. Similar to puzzle games like SpellKeeper (of which I’m sure its developer will just LOVE being mentioned in the same breath as this dandy), Safety First is best to whip out when you have a few minutes to kill. There’s no commitment really needed. Hell, it’s even fun in failure, which is rare for a puzzler. AND it has novelty value. Tell someone you’re playing a game on your Nintendo where you pee on targets, or possible go the full urolagnia monty, and soak in the faces of those listening. I did it. It’s priceless. Of course, there’s the lingering fear that someone in Kyoto will find out about Safety First and get pissed about it. We’re laughing now, but if that comes to pass, urine trouble, indies!

Safety First was developed by JCO (published by Headup Games)
Point of Sale: Switch, Steam

$2.99 said it’s probably not as funny on Steam in the making of this review.

Safety First is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Yeah this is my jump the shark moment.

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