Iron Crypticle

The guys at Tikipod clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to freshening-up moldy oldies. Hot off the heels of my infuriating time with ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove, my next game in my Backlog from Hell was another revival of a long-lost game. Here, Iron Cryticle is a tribute to Smash TV, which isn’t exactly a classic that withstands the test of time. I got it for Xbox Live Arcade in the late 2000s and was not a fan at all. The game show theme was inspired, but the actual gameplay was overly long and very bland. During my #IGCRetroBlitz (the # is part of the name) for Midway Arcade Origins back in January, Smash TV was part of the lineup and I was reminded just how awful it was. Rooms that seemed to last forever. Uninteresting weapons. Bosses so spongy that players might be better off just hanging out and waiting to see if they’ll die of natural causes. It’s a terrible game, and if not for the game show gimmick, nobody would remember it today. Want proof? Ever play Total Carnage? No? Well it’s the sequel to Smash TV and it doesn’t have the game show theme. Told you.

Crypticle’s got spongy bosses, but only “barely to the point of annoying” spongy. Not “we soak-up firepower to such a degree that you have to wonder if the developers really just had contempt for you” spongy.

But, people do remember Smash TV, and twin-stick shooters are a perfectly fine genre. The failure of Smash TV to hold up is based around the fact that it was designed specifically to rob quarters from bored teenagers in the early 90s. But the idea of a twin-stick shooter with a series of single-screen rooms, branching paths, waves of enemies, bonus rooms, and tons of pick-ups is solid. Tikipod and co-developer Confused Pelican (who is presumably not Alvin Gentry) had a perfectly good road map to make the ultimate Smash TV tribute. Actually, the means to improve the formula are self-evident. Just remove the quarter-thievery objective and focus on a great experience for players. And they’ve done it.

The biggest hurdle Confused Pelitiki had was keeping the experience fresh. In Smash TV, even the first room overstays its welcome. For Iron Crypticle, gameplay is sped up and rooms are shorter and offer a lot more variety than just relying on enemies and landmines for the challenge. Rooms have different themes with pros and cons depending on if you want to rack up points or stockpile weapons. There are online leaderboards, so points might matter to you. There’s a lot more going on than just moving towards bonus rooms like there is in Smash TV.

By the power of Grayskull!

It helps that the enemies are more varied and that you can unlock more guns and more power-ups with each play-through. There are magic spells you can save up to clear out enemies. There’s a dash move to aid in escaping tight jams. There’s a satisfying variety of guns that spawn with relative frequency. Hell, they even threw in a Bubble Bobble-style letter-collecting thingy where if you spell B-O-N-U-S you clear a room automatically and get tons of goodies. They even went the extra mile and made collecting points more fun by having them stack for bonus multipliers. It’s like Tiki-elican did forensic analysis on the carcass of Smash TV and said “why is part boring and what can we do to unboringfy it?” Smash TV had two players. Iron Crypticle has four. Smash TV lacked in variety. Crypticle breaks up the levels with shops or arcades where you can earn bonus points playing a very decent side-scrolling platformer called Castle Crushers. If Iron Crypticle had a game show theme, it’d been exactly the Smash TV update that people have wanted for thirty-years now.

It’s not perfect. I really hate that, even on easy mode, you’re limited to five continues and once they’re gone, it’s back to the beginning with you. Shouldn’t that type of game-over condition be reserved for higher difficulty levels and people who are looking to challenge themselves? I think so. Even on easy, Iron Crypticle isn’t a slouch, especially when playing by yourself. You can buy extra credits in the stores but they’re relatively expensive and you’ll probably have to skip on upgrading your stats to be able to afford them. Crypticle gets teeth late in the game and I wasn’t able to finish the primary quest. Usually this is a deal breaker for me. I mean, I lost my shit when Cuphead gated me out of the final bosses even though I accomplished more than over 90% of other Cuphead players. Surely that should apply here? Especially when Tikipod whispered to me what happens after the final boss and I ended up giving them a black eye just for THINKING of doing what they apparently did.

Okay, I wish the game wasn’t so darkly lit, and I wish some traps stood out a bit more. I lost track of how many times I took damage because I just didn’t notice I was moving next to something deadly.

Well, it probably would have killed the game. Maybe even should have killed the game. But once you play Iron Crypticle once, you unlock a “bonus mode” that’s just one single “endless” room. Kill waves of enemies, reach the second wave, etc, etc. It basically turns Medieval Smash TV into Medieval Robotron 2084. But here’s the nutty part: I actually like this mode more than the normal mode. It’s pure, scoring-driven, white-knuckle action. All the cool weapons and upgrades from the normal mode thrown into a single-roomed non-stop killathon. I loved it. And, even better, you can still unlock new items and weapons in this mode that become available in all modes. That is such an inspired decision, and it changes the dynamic of the game completely since Endless mode is no longer just a tacked-on time waster. And that, my friends, is what puts Iron Crypticle over-the-top and makes it one of the best action indie games I’ve ever played.

What I like best about Iron Crypticle is what it represents. It reminded me that many developers fundamentally get it. Pay tribute to the *spirit* of the original while revamping and modernizing everything you know it did wrong. It might not carry the same theme, but Crypticle feels like Smash TV, only a version of it fully-realized, fleshed-out, polished, and modern. It’s a throwback that nobody my age can possibly get bored with. One that even the most stuffy, hardliner retro fan has to concede does right by original. It succeeds as a tribute, and soars on its own merit. There is no better way to show how much the classic meant to your life than making a better game inspired by it. It sure beats getting a tattoo!

Iron Crypticle was developed by Tikipod & Confused Pelican
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$3.99 (normally $9.99) recommended against using Joycons because they SUCK for twin-stick shooters in the making of this review.

Iron Crypticle is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

 

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove

I consider Greg Johnson to be a friend. We’ve got a good rapport with each-other and I was one of the few who was positively gaga over Doki Doki Universe. Nobody bought Doki Doki. Hell, most fans of ToeJam & Earl don’t even know about it. It’s a lot like TJ&E, but it’s not exactly the same game the developmentally stunted among us played as children in 1991, and thus they had no interest in it. But, I like Greg and I like his team. So this wasn’t the most fun review for me to do. Consider this a trigger warning for all you old people who have ventured to my blog: the following review will, in no way, harm the memories of your childhood spent being a latchkey kid raised by a Sega Genesis. It’s perfectly reasonable and logical that I, an individual who was two-years-old when the original ToeJam & Earl came out, would not be swayed by nostalgia for a game that meant nothing to my childhood. And trust me, in the case of Back in the Groove, that nostalgia is absolutely necessary. You know how sometimes I wonder out-loud “who exactly was this game made for?” Not here. I know exactly who TJ&E: Back in the Groove was made for: fans of the original. And only fans of the original. I really feel like an uninvited party-crasher here.

I do like the idea of Back in the Groove and what it represents. Here’s a game from a franchise that failed over and over again to maintain or cultivate a substantial audience and claw its way out of cult-status. One where the fan base is rabid enough and starved enough that they can raise half-a-million via crowd-funding, but not on big enough to justify a revival on its own merit. There is a sect of snobs out there who believe Kickstarter should be reserved only for new developers bringing new ideas. Nuts to that, says I. In fact, I would say that Kickstarter is tailored specifically for these sort of comebacks, where the angry and demanding fan-bases can step up to the plate, pony-up their dosh in advance, and assume all the risk that a publisher would have to be off their rocker to take. ToeJam & Earl, dare I say, is quintessentially a crowd-funding project. Fans can buy the creators a truckload of shovels to dig up the corpse, tie electrodes it, blast it with lightning, and then admire the unholy abomination they brought back from the dead together.

Back in the Groove feels like a game that’s been in a coma since 1991, and consequently is oblivious to the whole concept of being “woke.” Tons of fat-shaming present. I’m not outraged or anything. It’s just sort of jarring to see a new game in 2019 not give a shit about political correctness. Earl can eat anything, even toxic food. Why? Because he’s the fat one. And, as we all know, conventional wisdom tells us fat people can and will eat anything. That’s how they got fat in the first place, right? It’s almost refreshing how out-of-fucks to give it is.

Credit where it’s due: Back in the Groove feels just like the Genesis original. For fans of series, that’s probably all they need. It’s best to think of Groove as a remake. You walk around sprawling randomly-generated maps looking for parts of your ship. Along the way you run away from enemies, engage in lots of item-hunting, and, if you’re me, ask yourself what all the fuss is about. ToeJam & Earl was certainly ahead of its time. It was released in 1991, years before games like Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie popularized adventurous collect-a-thons. But, besides a misguided Xbox release in 2002 that honestly wasn’t that bad, the series has been dormant ever since a 2D platform sequel that I personally liked more when I played both games as part of Sega Genesis Classics. Panic on Funkotron had a weird Dr. Seuss quality about it and felt like a polished product. 1991’s ToeJam & Earl felt like a proof of concept that hopefully someday would see its potential fully realized.

That’s not what Back in the Groove does. Combat, for instance. Back in the Groove, especially in later levels, spams the screen with enemies that move faster than you and take a LOT of health off (or steal the goodies you’ve collected). You get things like tomatoes or slingshots that you throw at enemies to fight back with. But, in order to call them up, you have to bring up a menu of all the “presents” you’ve collected. And the game doesn’t tell you what the presents you collected are. They’re labeled with question marks, and the only way to find out what they are is to either open them, thus using them, or find a character to pay a relatively large amount of resources to tell you what they are. You’re basically reliant on luck to be able to get the right present that allows you to fight back. Oh, and while you’re fumbling through menus hoping to find something defensive to use, the game doesn’t pause. The enemies are still coming at you. The ones that already moved faster than you and were at a major advantage to begin with. You can skip that and run, but in many levels the only means of escape is jumping into water. Water which will, itself, start to drain your health. Yeah. Combine this with the fact that the mystery presents might not help but themselves spawn even more enemies or bullshit to deal with, and you suddenly have a game that is just outright fucking with you.

Why is it like this? Because that’s what the original was like.

The fact that half the items will absolutely fuck you over is infuriating. Games are supposed to be fun, right? But at one point I opened three straight presents which, in order: spawned more enemies, put a giant neon sign above my head that drew the enemies to me, and then put a rain cloud above me that caused lightning to strike down upon me and warned me I couldn’t go back into the water to hide. Fucking really? I know the running gag with me is I have bad luck with RNG, but COME ON! How is this shit supposed to be fun?

When I complained about this, fans of the series were aghast. “How dare you complain that this unfair, clunky shit is unfair and clunky? That’s what we wanted! It’s what we paid to make!” And you know what? They’re right! This is exactly what they asked for. They wanted all the cheesy, crappy mechanics that made most people abandon the series decades ago to return intact and unaltered. They got their wish. Consequently, ToeJam & Earl is the perfect remake. It was shitty and borderline unplayable in 1991 and it’s shitty and borderline unplayable in 2019. Bravo.

And that makes it hard for me to discuss it. Sometimes I say a game wasn’t made for me, but this time it’s specifically true. I can’t remember a Kickstarter project that has been made just for one core set of gamers to this degree. Even Shenmue III looks like it aspires to evolve past its deeply-flawed origins. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove rejects progress and advancement. It plays and feels like an early 90s project that was too ambitious to work as desired, but hey, at least it’s ambitious. And if this were 1991, that would be fine. But it’s 2019, and it’s not. Bringing all the problems back, deliberately this time, would be like a family bragging about how webbed toes are passed through the generations like they were a priceless heirloom.

Take the levels. They’re randomly generated, so we shouldn’t expect too much. But there’s a very limited amount of set pieces. A normal grassland, a desert, a snowfield, and levels that are dark where you use a flashlight to see. I played through 19 levels and that was the extent of the variety. The themes repeated over and over again. Because the levels are randomly generated, they all feel samey and very, very bland no matter what the theme is. Sometimes the elevator would spawn in a screen that was absolutely saturated with enemies, like the men in black that zap you with a cattle-prod and steal all your presents. Or sometimes a level would begin with a screenful of enemies AND a hula-dancer that stun-locks you, because apparently you can’t resist doing the hula with her even if there are enemies chasing you and eating you right at that moment. I’d go so far as to say ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove has the worst randomly generated levels for this kind of game I’ve ever seen. They’re never interesting, which completely undermines the whole “never the same game twice” shit that random levels are supposed to assure. Who cares if it’s never the same twice when it’s dull at best to begin with?

Greg Johnson is a cool dude. One of the classiest acts in gaming. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Doki Doki Universe, his unsung magnum opus that never got is due. The weird thing for me is that ToeJam & Earl is one of the more remembered duos in gaming. Not Mario & Luigi level, but not obscure either. Yet, unless you play co-op, there’s no interplay with them at all. Meanwhile, Doki Doki Universe turned even the most stonehearted of owners into mush with the genuine and moving relationship between a robot and a sentient balloon. Because of that game, I know this one phoned it in. Over the course of Doki Doki, its stories are fleshed out, its characters get development and arcs, and we, the players, form a personal connection to them.

ToeJam and Earl, on the other hand, get no development at all. Besides an opening cinematic that shows them to be so stupid that they’re practically mentally handicapped, they are defined entirely by their character models, not any writing or story or interaction with other characters. They’re aliens. They like music. They fart. But the thing is, after Doki Doki I know Mr. Johnson is capable of better than this. These aren’t characters. They’re cynical, lazy brand mascots designed to appeal specifically to children from 1991, at the height of Nickelodeon and Ninja Turtles. Again, I can’t help but wonder if the reason this game forgoes character development and an actual story is because the original didn’t have it. The only reason this bothers me above all else is I fucking know Greg is better. This shit is beneath him.

When I was whining about how the enemies are faster than me, the solution given to me by fans was “don’t pick Earl.” Yea, what was I thinking? Picking one of the main characters in a game that bears his name? Well, I’ll have you know I picked Earl because it seems like half the food you find is spoiled, which makes all the characters but Earl take damage and throw up. In my last run, I counted the rotten food v non-rotten food. It was 12 for fresh, and 14 for rotten. That’s just how this shit works. It seemed like most of the bushes I shook led to either spawning more enemies or dropping bowling balls on me.

So why isn’t Back in the Groove better? There’s so many buttons on game consoles today. Each of the major three platforms has two rows of shoulder buttons. Why not let players shuffle through the presents with the triggers while they’re trying to run from enemies? Because the original didn’t have that. Why does seemingly most of the shit you can uncover while searching the world turn out to be a trap? Because that’s how it was in the original. Why was almost no effort made to tighten the controls and make the exploration and combat more comfortable and responsive? So it would feel more like the original.

You know what? Why didn’t you fucking people just keep playing the original one? If you wanted to pretend that thirty years of design innovation or gameplay conventions didn’t spring into existence since ToeJam & Earl came out, why even bother asking for a remake, let alone raise $500,000 for one? So you can play the same game with fancier graphics? Wait, aren’t you the same generation that completely lost their shit when Lucasfilm added CG clutter to the original Star Wars movies? Will you make up your mind on what you want? Same old shit with a fresh coat of paint or a real sequel that fully realizes the potential of the game that was important to your childhood? The best remakes are ones that pay tribute to the spirit of the original while righting all the wrongs that were a result of technological limitations. Look at the Resident Evil 2 remake. Part of the reason for the fixed camera angles was to “direct” players and create more effective jump-scares, but the bigger reason was the technology wasn’t there to give players full control without too many compromises being made. By 2019, the tech was there and had been perfected for over a decade. Now imagine if fans said “that’s cool, but you better bring back the horrible fixed cameras, or else.”

I didn’t even realize that you had to talk to a guy in a carrot suit to level-up. That’s another issue: you can’t tell good things from bad things. Dude in a carrot suit = good. Hula dancer = bad. Update: you can tell because good characters have a very subtle sparkly effect. I double checked and yea, it’s there.

So, while I’m genuinely happy that ToeJam & Earl fans had their successful campaign and got exactly what they asked for (that’s not a joke, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’m always happy to see long-suffering gamers get their day in the sun), I question whether this is really what they should have asked for. If I had been a fan, I’d wanted to see the series catch on with gamers of all stripes, sell a ton of copies, and finally be here to stay. Isn’t that the best way to show your love for something? To want it to be successful? Not that I think ToeJam & Earl fans want it to fail. They clearly love the series. But they only want it to do well on their own terms. I’m sorry, but that’s not reasonable at all. Those are not the type of fans who should be catered to, Kickstarter or not. It’s no different from music fans who discover a band, fall in love with them, and brag about them to everyone. It’s their band. Until they get successful, have their albums go gold, and get big gigs. At that point, they’re sellouts, and you spend the rest of your days telling people how they used to be cool. No, you used to be cool. They’re still cool, mostly because they’re making more than just a small group of disloyal people happy. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove could have been a good game, but “fans” didn’t challenge Greg Johnson and the development team to bring the concept to its fullest potential. They wanted a remake. They got a remake. They’re happy with it.

And it assures ToeJam & Earl will always be just their thing, and theirs alone.

Well, they can have it.

ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove was developed by HumaNature Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 challenged Greg and crew to do DLC with *hand-designed* levels in the making of this review.

Treasure Stack

I never really liked Wario’s Woods. When I was still fawning over NES Remix, the moment I realized the series was running out of steam is when the Wario’s Woods shit started during NES Remix 2. Now, considering that the Remix series turned chicken shit like Urban Champion, Clu Clu Land, Baseball, Tennis, and Ice Climber into chicken salad, that really gives you an idea just how bad Wario’s Woods is. It’s horrible. Cynical too. Nintendo had struck gold with Tetris but they didn’t own it and wanted a Tetris-like to call their own. They had Dr. Mario, which was a big hit for reasons I’ll never understand because Dr. Mario is fucking boring. Yoshi’s Cookie is fucking boring. And Wario’s Woods is clunky as all hell AND fucking boring. It’s the worst of that initial Trilogy of Not-Tetris. It was the second-to-last Nintendo-published NES game, with only StarTropics 2 coming out afterwards. Not exactly a riveting send-off for the console that made them famous. If you told me an indie developer would make the Wario’s Woods formula somewhat compelling, I’d say you must be high. But here we are: an indie tribute to one of the worst “major” puzzlers ever, and it’s not bad.

Treasure Stack isn’t great either. For those unfamiliar with the concept: multi-colored treasure chests rain down from the heavens into a well, two boxes at a time. You’re a little dude or dudette at the bottom of the well who has to platform around, grabbing and stacking the chests. Occasionally keys will come down with the treasures. If you match a key to the right color chest, it detonates the chest and all chests of the same color connected to it. The platforming guy/gal controls smoothly and has a grappling hook they can use to grab blocks from high up in the well and quickly bring them down to the base, which is what sets Stack apart from Woods. It’s clever and it works. And there’s special items that automatically clear blocks out. It sounds great, and it would be.. except the garbage blocks.

I’m guessing color-blind players will not enjoy this one as much.

I don’t know why the game needed garbage blocks. The formula for Treasure Stack wasn’t exactly something that lends itself to fast-paced action-puzzling. Without them, the game would still be difficult enough once the chests/keys start dropping faster. Especially since you’re left up to the whims of chance as to whether the game will generate the right color key you need to set-off the elaborate combo you’ve been preparing without having to rethink the whole thing if it doesn’t come fast enough. And even the keys you often can’t count on to be your salvation because I swear to God they constantly come down paired with a treasure chest of the same color, which means the key and the chest that are falling will detonate upon landing and thus you can’t do anything with them. It happened to me all the time and was annoying. They really should rig it so a chest and a key of the same color NEVER come out together. It would make the game ten-fold better. But really, the garbage is the big issue here. Everything about the garbage blocks saps the fun from Treasure Stack. The meter for triggering them fills up too fast. When they activate, they blanket the top spot of each column in the well. Just a couple of minutes into the game, the meter starts filling up quite fast, while the colored chests/keys rain down even faster. It’s just not reasonable to be able to keep up with them even if you had four hands and two brains. And I don’t have four hands.

Even worse is that death is instant if you reach the top of the well. A game like this really called for a Tetris Attack/Pokemon Puzzle League style grace-period where you have a couple of seconds to fix the problem before being declared KOed. You can have a relatively comfortable three-space gap from the top of the well and end up dead a moment later. Hell, I’ve had better conditions and not survived the next ten seconds. And because your character can only leap one block, recovery is next to impossible once you reach a certain point. By five minutes in, Treasure Stack’s action is so fast that it’s well beyond the point of reasonable management. If the blocks fell horizontally instead of being stacked on-top of each other, you’d have a lot more time and the stacks in the well wouldn’t become insurmountable instantly. Treasure Stack, more than any well-based puzzler I’ve ever encountered, feels like it’s designed specifically to smother you.

I can’t remember a well-based puzzler where you can go from feeling nice and relaxed to overwhelmed and defeated in such short order. And not in a good way, either. The tide turns so quickly that you can’t even process how you failed. It just sort of happens.

This probably makes it sound like I didn’t like Treasure Stack at all. And for solo play, I really didn’t. It just does too many core gameplay mistakes to be enjoyable. But Treasure Stack is designed with multiplayer in mind. There, the rules are a bit different and the game absolutely shines. Playing online, you get a lot less garbage blocks, and they only come as the result of your opponent racking up combos and other assorted puzzling shenanigans. I wish it were more clear which actions trigger more garbage blocks so I could try focusing on that. Sometimes I would set up very elaborate combos only to see but a single garbage block drop on my opponent. But still, the way multiplayer is oriented allows for Treasure Stack to be appreciated. You actually have time to experience the thrill of very elaborate combos, something I feel is next to impossible to pull off in solo play.

I won this match. It wasn’t quite the same thrill as winning at Tetris 99, but still, in your face person I beat.

I can’t help but wonder if Treasure Stack released a bit too early. Some fixes have already been done. I bought the game on Friday, and at that time there was no option to play another round of solo play. You had to go all the way back from the starting menu to get another game going. That’s already been fixed, less than a week later. But there’s a lot more patches coming. Maybe Treasure Stack needed a bit more cooking. Especially since the game is so dependent on online multiplayer. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and players who are turned off by the initial batch of problems might not return after their first play session, thus hurting the game’s online player pool. This is the type of stuff developers should think about but don’t. I get that it must be an exciting and anxious moment to see your game on the marketplace, but if you’re multiplayer focused, remember that multiplayer indies die a miserable death if they can’t cultivate and maintain a sizeable user-base to support the game. If your title is buggy when it comes out, which is when you’ll get most of your sales, you’re handicapping your chances right out of the starting gate. I genuinely believe that Treasure Stack will be good as a solo game eventually, but as of this writing it wins my Seal of Approval strictly for the multiplayer, which is awesome. Whether it’ll ever succeed as a fun and frantic single-player experience is possible but not a certainty.

It’s hard to gauge potential in a game. When something is wrong, we know how much it hurts it, but we can’t know how much the fix of it will improve the overall experience. I do believe the foundation of something really good is here, but how good can it be? I don’t think Treasure Stack will ever have the cerebral elegance of Tetris, the white-knuckle action of Pokemon Puzzle League, or the combo-heavy frenziness of Puyo Puyo. It’s going to be somewhere between those even if it peaks. But, I would have guessed Wario’s Woods was beyond salvaging and that’s clearly not the case. It shows how inspired the development team is that they polished that turd to a golden shine. There’s something here with Treasure Stack. Multiplayer proves that. Get a four player local game going and you’re going to have a blast. There’s cross-play with online multiplayer, which as of this writing has a lively user base. Those modes make Treasure Stack worth a look. Single player might be awesome at some point, but right now it doesn’t, ahem, stack up.

Treasure Stack was developed by Pixelakes
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 noted “why aren’t there power-ups for the character? Stuff that lets him jump higher? Come on, if you’re going to have a platformer in your puzzler with jumping, you gotta have power-ups for the character!” in the making of this review.

Treasure Stack is Chick-Approved.. Christ, that’s five in a row, maybe I’m going soft.. and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Farm Together

I feel really bad for Farm Together. It was set to be my new zen-like gaming addiction. My substitute for Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, which I used to and play half-engaged while the other half of me thought about work stuff. And, for a few days at least, it was just that. Then Tetris 99 sunk its fangs into me and Farm Together fell completely off my radar. Granted, the two games have nothing in common besides their addictive, veg-out potential. Still, choosing Tetris 99 over Farm Together is like selecting your drug dealer based on which one has the most teeth.

Developed by XBLIG all-star studio Milkstone (whose game Little Racers STREET was featured in my 2013 Indie Royale bundle), Farm Together is a remake of their Xbox Live Indie Game it Avatar Farm. A glossier, more polished, souped-up version of it. It’s not so much a game as much as just a grind-for-the-sake-of-grinding time waster. But hey, those have a place in the big tent of gaming. Basically, you plant crops, wait a while, and then dig up those crops for slightly more resources than you put into planting them. Then you buy and unlock slightly more expensive crops that you plant, wait, and harvest for slightly more resources. Rinse and repeat about two-trillion times, and that’s Farm Together. There’s no real goal or end-game. You just plant, wait, and harvest. You can also buy cattle, birds, and fish that you feed, wait, and harvest. The wait times vary, but the basic concept never changes: place object, tend to object, harvest object. Sometimes the objects are permanent investments that you eventually make a profit on (the cattle, trees, the flowers, or fish). Sometimes they’re a one-time thing (most of the veggies). But the crux of game is grinding to get resources to grind more.

If they start singing, I’m packing my shit and getting out of here.

It’s a fucking grind, and nothing more. But, I kind of admire it. There’s no micro-transactions that speed up the wait times, which probably was very tempting to include because drooling addicts such as myself would have caved in and bought them. And because there’s no ultimate end-goal, you’re free to go about things at your own leisure. I focused on slowly getting permanent resources to blanket my farm. Trees are a permanent investment that will slowly result in a net-profit. Veggies are one-and-done. Flowers are also permanent but require constant watering to yield the best results. Raising animals seemed unbalanced and too expensive, so I avoided it unless it was related to a challenge in the game. I had no interest in watching them just stand around asking for food. I already feel like a monster for letting my Nintendog go 15 years unloved and unattended. OH GOD MUDDY, I’M SO SORRY!

It’s a simple, arcadey/mobiley setup, but one filled with gross limitations. For example, there’s no way to set up an irrigation system to tend to veggies and flowers. Or at least an efficient way. There’s a sprinkler you can purchase, but the sprinklers only tend to two squares. Mind you, your tractor services nine-squares at a time. And that sprinkler, instead of costing a reasonable resource to purchase, costs the relatively rare and valuable pink medals. Having to give those up just to be able to let two squares linger without needing to micro-manage them like the world’s fussiest baby is ridiculous. Given how much emphasis is given to decorative shit to purchase (which you usually spend diamonds on), why aren’t the sprinklers more cost efficient? Hell, they’re listed alongside the fencing items and are, as far as I can tell, the only thing in their category that actually does something besides sitting there. I didn’t even realize they were there at first.

Trees were my primary method of making money. They’re permanent, don’t require watering or any tending to, and some of them bear fruit multiple times during a “year cycle.” If you plan to be playing the game long, they’re the way to go because they’ll eventually be net-positive after a week or so with no effort required. All the crops “level-up” which basically just makes them give you more money. And hey, trees are pretty and they make air and stuff for us.

And that’s where Farm Together fails: it seems to want the grind to be the central focus and does nothing to take the edge off that. For me, one of those “ta-da!” moments in games like this is when you no longer need to grind. What limited options there are in Farm Together for that in theory work, but they’re too expensive and not efficient. I hired a farm hand. The section I marked him for barely clipped the edge of where I kept llamas. What did the farm hand do? Ffed the ffucking llamas. Over and over and over and over and over, completely draining my money. And maintaining him didn’t save me any time or money compared to just doing the work myself. As for the sprinklers, they do the job, but two squares for one medal is not remotely reasonable a price. Really, the sprinklers should cost diamonds, not medals. But that’s the story with Farm Together in general. It seems like whatever option would lead to the game being less tedious is the option that was declined in favor of enhancing the grind.

And there’s so much more missing. You can’t upgrade your tractor, and doing everything nine-squares at a time is too slow and clunky. You need to fill it up with gas, which thankfully doesn’t cost money. But it drains quickly, requiring you to dash back to the pumps every minute or so of harvesting. And the first pumps you get actually are too slow to fill back up themselves, which is a real kick in the ass for impatient types such as myself. Eventually you’ll get a gas station for 25 pink medals, but even a full tank won’t last you very long when you have a LOT of stuff to harvest (which you will because that’s, you know, the point of the fucking game) keeping you dashing back to the gas pumps like they have the only bathroom on the place and you just won a binge eating contest at Taco Bell.

And you never can get the tractor to do more than nine-squares at a time. Why not? I mean, it’s a game about farming. Give me a god-damned combine harvester as opposed to dry-humping my crops nine-squares at a time. Fine, maybe Farm Together aspired to be slow and grueling like real farming is. But I’m not sure that excuse flies. When you place an animal down, they will stay in the square you dropped them in. No fencing required. I wasn’t aware animals operated on the honor system like that. Certain types of crops that you can’t plant side-by-side in real life (such as tomatoes and sunflowers) can be done with no consequence here. You can put predatory fish in the same body of water as the shit they would normally eat with no apparent drawback. I think realism was thrown out the door. Farm Together doesn’t at all present itself as a farm simulator, so to hell with saying “real farming is hard work” and let me have more shortcuts.

I came to dread seeing those little water-needed symbols. Annoyingly, it sometimes rains in the game but the rain doesn’t actually water the plants. Apparently flowers are quite snooty about the water they drink. What am I using? Fiji Water or something?

Which brings us to the big hook. The one that I kept forgetting was the main selling point despite it being in the fucking title: online play. You can go to other farms to help harvest their crops for extra experience points. Whatever you dig up goes to their bank account instead of yours, and safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. My friend MJ was the one who couldn’t wait to get me playing this, but for me, I guess I’m weird because I wanted to take on the responsibility of harvesting all the stuff I planted myself. I mean, what’s the point of going to all the effort of planting the stuff if you’re not the one getting to see how much your own hard work paid off. If I set up a domino rally, I’m not inviting someone over to push the first block over. That shit was hard work! I want to be the one to do the fun part! Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people are enjoying visiting other farms. For me? When I saw the effort others made it make their farm look like a.. you know.. farm, I felt like a kid who just presented a formless clump of Legos to her mother and said “look, it’s a Transformer!” or something. One dude I visited basically made Seaworld, and here I was thinking my shit looked good because I finally smartened-up and started putting things in clumps of nine for even-harvesting with the useless tractor. I was so embarrassed that I never turned on the ability for others to visit my stuff. My farm wasn’t good-looking. Others have full resorts going. I just shoved shit wherever I could find room. Story of my life. I never was good at decorating cookies during Christmas, either. I just would slather on a large clump of frosting and eat it. That’s basically what I did here.

This dude had a full seaside resort thing going. My cleverness began and ended with me naming my farm “50 Shades of Hay.” And then it turned out there really was no particularly useful hay in the game and I felt like an idiot.

But, for all the bitching I’m doing, I’ll give Farm Together this: it’s cathartic. Farm Together is NOT a game. It’s a Slinky that you shuffle the coils back and forth from one hand to the other because it’s the only activity that’s keeping you from grabbing an automatic rifle, climbing a water tower and taking out the entire town. It’s bubble-wrap that you sit there, slack-jawed, popping one air-pocket at a time like a fucking psychopath. It’s the adult version of that children’s toy with the colored pegs and the hammer that you sit there smacking the pegs down, then turn the thing over and smack them on the other side. I don’t know what that’s called but it’s always my go-to gift for people I hate because their kid will make a lot of noise with it and drive them insane, which makes me happy because fuck them, am I right? What Farm Together is not is Sim City for rednecks. It’s a mobile-style resource grinder, like Clicker Heroes with a farmer’s tan. Those obviously have a place in gaming. That someone as jaded as me can easily lose themselves in something like this has to be indicative of something with merit, or at least I’d think so. And yea, maybe it’s a bit over-priced at $20 and the DLC is lame (it’s just accessories that change your appearance but otherwise accomplish nothing). And there is something undeniably satisfying about completing a mission in the game (which is just harvesting X amount of resources) or reaching the point where previously expensive items can be bought in bulk. I don’t know if I’d call it “fun” or “compelling” but it’s certainly endearing. When I thought I had enough playtime to do this review, I kept turning the game back on to get screenshots and inevitably would put another hour or two into work every time I did. That seems like it’s important to note. So yea, go ahead a try it. It’s dumb and it’s a bit lazy at times, but it’s a perfectly fine time-waster. Certainly better than bubble wrap.

Farm Together was developed by Milkstone Studios
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 ♪♪ Farm Together.. right now.. over me ♪♪ in the making of this review.

Farm Together is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

*A friend purchased a copy of Farm Together for me. Because I chose to do a review of it, I purchased a second copy out of pocket. All games reviewed at IGC are paid for by me.

The Adventures of Elena Temple

The Indie Gamer Chick Paradox: not being nostalgic for older games, but being drawn to neo-retro games. It’s a strange phenomena, but one I’ve noticed in myself, especially lately. When browsing console or PC marketplaces, if a game is all pixel-arty in a convincing way, I’m much more likely to want to try it. I find that strange, because I’m not exactly telling kids about the glory days when all Mario needed was two buttons, a D-Pad, fireballs, and a flagpole at the end of each stage. Frankly, some of those type of gamers are kind of creepy. Like the ones who say they won’t let their kids play any modern games until they play the games of their childhood and learn to like them, or else. That’s not teaching your kids appreciation. That’s brainwashing. Really unnerving shit that turns what should be a beautiful event into something more like indoctrination into a cult.

Still, if I see something that looks like a lost older game that’s been rediscovered and released again for a new audience, it sticks out to me. The Adventure of Elena Temple takes that a step further: it’s presented to us like it really is a lost game from 1982. One that never found its audience because the hapless developer kept porting their work to generic, off-brand game consoles and personal computers nobody owned (like the Nintengo Some Toy or the Maple Computer, a Canadian Macintosh clone that sold 31 units), thus screwing themselves out ever getting recognition (or payment) for what is actually a decent little game.

I wish I was joking when I say I played XBLIGs that didn’t sell that well.

It’s a cute idea, but one that doesn’t factor into the gameplay at all besides changing the shading of the graphics. That’s a shame, because the meta-joke has legs and probably could have been worked into the concept. Like maybe each port of Elena is busted by era-specific limitations or something along those lines. What could have been a truly inspired gag becomes little more than flavor text for different color palettes of the same game. You can’t even change schemes on the fly. You have to exit out to the main menu, which is frankly inconvenient if you’re someone genuinely looking for what style is the most comfortable to use. And to be honest, because of the comedic framing with the dense creator getting conned into releasing on the wrong platforms, I actually thought each different graphics style was going to be a completely different map or even version of the game. They’re not. There is exactly one map and one map only for Elena Temple that plays the same no matter which version you use. That’s fine, but I wish it had been a bit less ambiguous. Sort of like my last home pregnancy test. It’s surprisingly difficult to interpret whether a tiny line is blue or not when you’re stressing over the effectiveness of condoms.

Also, I had to fixate on that stuff because I really don’t have very much to say about the actual content of Elena Temple. It’s fine. There’s only fifty rooms to explore and gameplay is kept very limited in order to stay true to the 1982-developed-game theme. Exploring is limited to hoping around on platforms, occasionally hitting a button or firing a gun to break jars or knock down walls. I asked myself why she had to shoot jars instead of, you know, just kicking them or picking them up and dropping them or anything really besides busting a cap in them? Who shoots a jar unless you’re a Branch Davidian or something? In fact, guns are the solution to almost everything in Elena Temple. It’s like the NRA’s wet dream. Nearly every puzzle requires shooting it, and sometimes I found myself shooting buttons I could have pressed, but you only get two bullets at a time. There’s refills scattered around the map, some of which respawn without having to leave the room and come back in it. It does work, but it never gets more involved than base-level puzzle elements. You can shoot enemies too, but there’s seriously only two types: snakes and bats, both of which can be plugged with a single bullet. It contributes to the consistent theme of Elena Temple: everything works but there’s not enough of it.

You can zoom in for a closer view if you wish, but then you can’t admire the off-brand equipment you’re playing the game on. Come to think of it, maybe Elena Temple is a scathing commentary on cheapskates buying generic brands. Fair enough, though my father insists that Soni televisions are just as good as the real thing.

To developer GrimTalin’s credit, everything that’s actually here is fun. Each room is over and done with so quickly that you don’t have time to ever get bored despite many of the rooms feeling kind of samey having very little in the way of actual content. It wouldn’t be out of the question for a first-timer to knock the game out in an under-an-hour with a 100% completion. It controls good enough to never be annoying. Jumping takes a bit to get the hang of, especially with the rooms being as claustrophobic as they are, but after ten minutes it becomes instinctive. There’s a few hidden secrets that shows the location of the eight diamonds you need to finish the game, or whether a room is finished (never found that one) or secret passages (never found that one either) but otherwise what you see is what you get. The framing device actually covers for the generic setting, traps, and enemies, which does work in the same way Microsoft claiming bugs are actually features does.

But, what’s here is actually so well made that I can’t help but think almost anyone will walk away feeling a bit unsatisfied. Elena Temple is one of those games that strives for authenticity, achieves it, and it’s not entirely to the game’s betterment. It’s too simple and too straight-forward and doesn’t have enough going for it. And clearly GrimTalin understands that gaming has come a long ways, because without the one modern concession it does make (unlimited lives and thus no game-overing), Elena Temple would have certainly been too frustrating. You know, like 99% of all the games it’s paying homage to. Maybe that’s as far as GrimTalin could take it without betraying the theme, but I don’t know. The most randomly strange thing I could “complain” about in the game is that the Elena character is perhaps too tall. Hear me out: she’s roughly 1/5 the size of the playfield, with the spikes, coins, snakes, etc being half-as-tall as she is. If she was shorter, along with things like the spikes and coins and traps and enemies being smaller, rooms could have been bigger and thus been made more elaborate. I don’t know why, but it’s something that was in the back of mind nearly my entire session with it. Or maybe I’m off my rocker and it just needed more rooms. Probably just more rooms would work. And enemies. And traps. And weapons. And.. really it just needed more.

This is what a sucker I am: I actually found a blue/yellow color scheme to be the easiest on my eyes, but played in the gross Game Boy mock-up because my fans liked the authenticity of it. That’s how it starts. Next thing you know I’ll be dancing on command.

But it doesn’t need more to be fun. Elena Temple already is fun. The stuff I’m suggesting is merely to push it to a higher level. And, while the stages are basic, they’re not exactly crap either. Elena Temple never bores, and is inexpensive enough that you don’t feel ripped-off by the length. Unlike some other shorter titles that have little in the way of innovation, like Sigi, it feels like what we do have here is fully fleshed out. Like a gourmet chef took bland ingredients and made something very delicious with them without resorting to seasoning or other culinary trickery. When I went to determine Elena’s leaderboard position, I was actually taken off guard by how high it ended up. So if I came across like I didn’t like it, it’s only because what was here was so good that I realized Catalin Marcu’s only sin was not aiming higher. Hardly a sin at all, really. What do you call something that is close to a sin but not? I was going to say “a blowjob”, but I looked into it and it turns out that actually is a sin. I didn’t know that! Well, my next confession on Sunday just got awkward.

The Adventures of Elena Temple was developed by GrimTalin
Point of Sale: Switch, Steam

$2.99 (normally $4.99, really $2.99 should be the permanent price) asked why explorers in all these games break the priceless antique vases instead of, you know, gathering them to donate them to a museum in the making of this review?

Elena Temple is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

kuso

Welp, so much for my pledge to update daily in 2019. I did make it a week, but then dealing with the stupid epilepsy thing, running the hugely popular and scene-changing #IndieSelect, working behind the scenes as a community advocate and advisor, creating a social-media movement to help under-the-radar games to be found and played, and oh yea, I have my own game collection coming out in 2019/2020 for all consoles. With my name on it and everything. Yea, things got busy. But, my passion will always be my work as a critic. And if you want to know why, look no further than this guy.

Adorable, isn’t he?

Doesn’t he look nice? His name is Fred Wood. And he is nice. At least outwardly. But Fred has a darkness about him. We know this because he made a sadistic punisher in 2014 that was littered with blind jumps and living or dying based on pure luck. And he called it “Love” because of course he did. Look at that dude. How can such a nice person make such a cruel game? It’d be like finding out Mother Teresa moonlighted as a taxidermist. One that didn’t wait for the animals to be dead first.

Anyway, I didn’t like Love. It didn’t win the IGC Seal of Approval. But it wasn’t as if I hated it. It had one of the most clever and innovative gameplay mechanics I’d seen up to that point: the ability to place checkpoints anytime. In my book, that’s a hall-of-fame innovation right up there with the ring system in Sonic or the mushrooms causing you to grow in Super Mario. I just didn’t like the unfair level design. For me personally, I want to know that when I die in a game, it’s my fault. I knew Fred was capable of better. So I wasn’t nice to Love and I challenged Fred to step it the fuck up.

He did.

That’s why I’m a game critic. The ones that listen and improve are what makes it worth it.

Levels feel more like a series of exhibits. It’s seriously one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever felt playing a game. It almost defies description, because the levels ARE levels, but they don’t feel like any levels from any game, ever.

Kuso (I absolutely refuse to call it “kuso” with a lowercase k) is the sequel to Love, and it’s one of those rare sequels that rights every wrong with the original. There wasn’t a single blind jump, or any moments where I needed luck to survive. Oh I got lucky a few times, but raw skills could have carried me to victory. I swear. Stop staring.

I suspect I’ll be pointing at Kuso for years to come as an example on how to properly make a punisher. And yeah, that has a lot to do with the fact that Kuso is overflowing with a wide variety of obstacle types, traps, platforms, and room concepts. It never gets old or boring. That stuff matters, but the biggest reason by far is Kuso has some of the most rock-solid play control any game in the genre has. It’s a breeze to control. Movement and jumping physics feel like they were fine-tuned in laboratory conditions. I try not to use the term “perfect” because I used to believe that perfection was unobtainable. But kuso controls perfectly. I can’t stress enough how important that is. If you think of any game as a guided sight-seeing tour, controls are the tour guide. A good one allows you to appreciate everything so much more. If you get a bad one, all you can think about is how much they suck, to the point that you stop paying attention and end up giving it a half-star rating on Yelp. You’d tip your Kuso tour guide. Every death you experience.. and it will be a lot.. will be on you. And you’ll know it.

I have no clue how it pulls this off, since really the stuff that kills you is often just redrawn/reskinned versions of stuff that already killed you, but each Kuso stage feels fresh from what came before it. At least until the last few levels that serve as a montage of all the shit you just got past.

Kuso’s stages are brief and usually focused on one or two types traps. It made me feel like I was running through a series of vignettes more than levels. A weird feeling for sure. Actually, that’s what makes Kuso stand out to me. It feels different from any other game I’ve played. It even looks like the type of game that doesn’t really exist that’d you’d see the charters on a sitcom or movie playing. It’s so stereotypical that it seems unreal. Which is bizarre because it looks and plays almost exactly like Love. But Love’s level design tended to go a little off-the-rails at times, like having to jump from an above platform blindly to one far below you that had a long line of spikes with one and only one safe spot that you didn’t know where it was until you hit it. Well that’s shit design because surviving your first time will come down to luck. It’s “gotcha” gameplay. There’s NO gotcha shit in Kuso. The craftsmanship of the levels, where every single portion of them feels like it was worked and reworked until it was both challenging but fair is exemplary.

There are some complaints. Kuso is the first ever game where I feel you respawn too fast. Often death is such a surprise that you respawn while still holding the direction you were moving when you got killed, leading to you spawning and walking off a ledge and to your death. I guarantee every player will experience at least a dozen “two deaths for the price of one” moments over the course of their first play-through. And even though Kuso is longer than Love in terms of stages, the levels feel a bit shorter. Fred, cool guy that he is, included a remake of Love with Kuso’s tighter controls in the Kuso package. You can even play all 16 of Love’s stages and Kuso’s 25 stages in a row if you wish, but I still don’t love Love. Kuso is the main reason to buy this one, but it falls just short of feeling like it’s the perfect length. It’s the classic issue I’ve had all my life: having guy’s things climax before I’m ready.

I often just straight-up didn’t lay down enough checkpoints. I can’t explain why, since I’m not a speed-runner or even a particularly skilled platform player. I just felt like the game was judging me every time I threw one down. Well, actually it DOES judge you on that once you’re finished. I got an F. Thanks so much, Kuso. There goes my self-esteem.

I must really not like punishers. Because Kuso is near perfect, and yet it doesn’t carry a higher ranking on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard that a game as good as it should. It has perfect controls and, with the clever checkpoint system, is as challenging as you want it to be. With this review, Kuso debuts #13 on the board. That means it’s the thirteenth best indie game I’ve ever reviewed, and this was review #583. That’s really high up there. It’s an astonishing moment in my site’s history. But it’s also weird that a game that I’ll be pointing at as near-flawless for probably the rest of my life doesn’t go higher. Maybe for me, Kuso is the limit of what a game like this can achieve. I don’t get why people like games with high user body-counts. I’ll never understand the appeal in it. But hey, fun is fun, right? And Kuso is really fun. But Kuso still feels like it’s more about the dying, and not the surviving. Perhaps in that sense, it’s one and only flaw that matters reveals itself. SEE! I TOLD YOU FUCKERS I DON’T HAVE THE PERSONALITY OF A DOMINATRIX!

kuso (goddamn people capitalize your titles) was developed by Fred Wood
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$0.99 (normally $4.99) cussed Kuso cautiously constantly in the making of this review.

kuso (grumble) is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Gris

The first level of Gris is a boring, frustrating, annoying slog that overstays its welcome. Gusts of wind hold you back and stunt your progress. You eventually get the ability to turn into a block so that you don’t get thrown backwards and have to wait for the wind to die down. By this point, it was already clear that Gris had more care given to it than your typical art-house symbolism title. The first time I messed around with the jump button, I felt a weight come off me when I realized “oh hey, they actually made sure jumping feels good. That’s a relief.” And then I got to the gusts of wind and was like “oh dear.” This just was not a well-designed section.

Fuck this stage. Fuck it in its ear with a rusty garden rake.

I led off the review talking about that, because if not for that level, Gris might have become the new #1 game on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. For the rest of this review, it’ll be the elephant in the room. The part where I think, god damn, was there nobody at Devolver Digital who could have taken the Gris team aside and said “you know, that first section really sucks. You should dump it or at least shorten it significantly”? For all the people who think I go too negative on games that I like, I wanted to get that part out-of-the-way. It’s literally the only major complaint I have about this: an absolute indie masterpiece.

Gris is ostensibly about mourning, with the main character going through the five stages of grief. But I’ve got to be honest: a lot of the symbolism was lost on me. And trust me, it’s not because I’m unfamiliar with loss. On Christmas morning in 2017, my service dog of eleven years passed away. I’m sure for some people they think “a dog? Seriously?” Yea, a dog. One that spent eleven straight years by my side. That saved my life multiple times. That made me realize my own capacity to love. You can’t just take that shit away from someone and not have it hurt. In Gris, mourning is symbolized by a loss of voice, and this is the one form of symbolism I can relate to. Because it’s hard to articulate exactly how much you’re hurting. It’s as if your voice has been taken. That part I connected with.

The statues and the returning of color to the world being part of the healing process? Not so much. In fact, I found humor in the idea. I’m sorry to anyone who gets offended by this, but the first color you return to the world of Gris (which is literally the French/Spanish word for “Grey”) is red. And it’s supposed to be this profound, first-step-in-recovery moment in the game. In reality? It totally looks like the girl just had her period.

I’m not joking.

Maybe they should have started with a different color.

Now, at this point in the game, the mourning aspect hadn’t been clear to me. I honestly wasn’t sure if the idea was supposed to be a demented adult version of Rainbow Brite menstruating color back into the world. Your mileage may very on how much the symbolism works for you. It really didn’t do a whole lot for me. I don’t feel any better about Cherry’s death than I did before. I’ve heard from some people who say Gris did help them feel better about a recent loss they experienced. I wish I was with them, but I’m not. So for me, Gris has to make it entirely on its gameplay merit.

And it does.

Gris is a truly special game as a game. And I think that’s getting lost in the discussion. People are obsessing over the gorgeous graphics, the pantheon-level soundtrack, and complex symbolism of the crushing sensation of being in mourning. All those things matter, but if Gris had been your typical artsy platformer, nobody would get to appreciate those things. Trust me, I’ve played a lot of games that aspire to be what Gris pulled off. They don’t do it because they rely on the visuals and the metaphors and forget that they’re supposed to be a video game as well. Gris never forgets what it is, and that’s to everyone’s benefit. It means we get to take in the whole of the experience without the distraction of that vision being horribly executed. Nobody will ever need to make up excuses for Gris because Gris is really fun to play. You know, like a game is supposed to be?

This is supposed to represent “depression” but all I could think of was “who left that banana peel there?”

Controls are a big part of that. Gris is rock-solid in every single aspect of movement. You feel one-to-one with the lead character. Even the clunky joycons of the Switch manage to cease to exist in your hands, allowing for total immersion in the game’s world. Based on my track record with art-house games, I wasn’t expecting that. That for me was the story of Gris from start to finish. My expectations based on the graphics and the concept were low. A swimming section happened and I cringed upon realizing I was in water. Around thirty-seconds later, I realized Gris had the best swimming controls maybe in the entire history of video games. Like.. huh.. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to be rocketed up into the sky like Superman using butterflies that help you super jump, but I really didn’t expect it to control so naturally that I never once messed up any of those jumps. Gris might be the best controlling 2D platformer of its kind. Good controls don’t make a game, but bad controls absolutely will break your game. Gris figured this out, and because it did, we get to appreciate the level design. Aspiring indie devs: this is a game you’ll want to play while taking lots of notes.

If you think of Gris as a 2D version of thatgamecompany’s Journey, you’ll enter Gris with the right mindset. Having said that, I liked Gris more, and people who don’t like Journey at all are digging Gris a lot. That’s because it shows off a lot more creativity. The basic gameplay idea is you walk around collecting stars (Christ, even in indie art-house shit, it is always stars isn’t it?) to form constellations that help guide you to the next section of the game. There’s no fail conditions in Gris and no way of dying. This often ends up meaning “slow-paced and sloggy.” But, besides the first area, Gris is positively brisk and almost perfect in pacing. There were two instances where I realized I wasn’t on the right path, one of which was on me, and one of which I think is a split between being my fault and bad design: an underwater temple has a pathway that takes you to fish that you need to super-jump, which to me implies that you’re supposed to take the fish through that tunnel. But you’re not. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason for that tunnel to be there. Weird.

This is the part mentioned above. I thought I was supposed to take the fish through this extremely twist-and-turny pathway and jump from the right side of the screen up to that column, then hop from it to get to the star. Nope. Actually, you take the fish an entirely different route and get the star by falling from up above onto it. And it begs the question: why is there even a secret tunnel that takes you to the red fish hidden under the middle of the under the center of the underwater building? Because it serves no function. You can get to the red fish that give you the super-jump via a much-more straight forward means. If not for that, I’d never spent 30+ minutes trying to make that (seemingly impossible) jump. Also, can you even see the character in this screenshot? She’s there, I assure you, but visibility becomes an issue many times in Gris.

But otherwise, Gris really just kills it in terms of having some of the best uses of classic gaming conventions. There’s an underwater section. I hate those. But Gris has one of the best ones ever. There’s a section where you lead an NPC creature through a series of platforms. I hate those, but Gris has one of the best ones ever. There’s a section where you switch gravity and have to do everything upside-down on the ceiling. I hate those, but Gris has one of the best ones ever. It feels like the developers set out to take every single crappy gaming cliché and right the wrongs of them to show they can be done in a fun, fresh way. I’ve never seen a game that is this ambitious and yet still feels like it manages to overachieve.

If I want to get nit-picky.. and I sort of have to because, you know, that’s my job.. sometimes the camera pulls too far back and combines with the colors to completely wash out where you are on the screen. At least one time I got a star without even seeing where I was or how I got it. And there’s a section with a giant eel that feels like it could have been an intense, white-knuckle action beat.. but actually it’s a glorified cut-scene and you have as much control over the girl as you do the cars at the Autopia at Disneyland. And I’m not totally in love with the Gris character model, which has spindly appendages that reminded me of a Daddy Long Legs and kind of creeped me out a little bit.

The world has this Ico/Shadow of the Colossus architecture vibe to it and often gave me a wonderful sense of vertigo.

Otherwise, Gris is a masterpiece. I know I used that word already, and it’s a word I normally try to avoid using because it feels overplayed. But, there’s really no descriptor that fits Gris better. Masterpiece. The rest of the game speaks to how bad that first stage is. It just sets a really bad tone for the game. It’s the anti-Limbo. The first stage is the least memorable, and it’s all uphill from there, whereas for Limbo (another game that was about loss and symbolism.. maybe), everyone remembers the spider in the first act, and then it was all downhill from there. If there’s any justice, Gris, a better game that actually has symbolism that means something as opposed to being just pretentious, abstract garbage, will dethrone Limbo as the top artsy indie platformer in the minds of the public.

And when fans of the game spread the word of Gris, sure, talk about the graphics and the sound and the emotions.. but remember to tell people the game is really fun too. It’s the part of the equation nobody is talking about. And they probably should, because it’s the best part of Gris. It’s a tremendous video game, and isn’t that why we’re all here?

Gris was developed by Nomada Studio
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam

$16.99 asked “how fucking stupid are you Facebook?” in the making of this review.

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

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