Yoku’s Island Express

Obviously I like Metroidvanias. Two of the top three games on the IGC Leaderboard as of this writing are just that. It’s probably my favorite genre. “Tell us something we didn’t know” you’re saying. Fine, how about the fact that I love pinball? Those who only know me through my reviews and not my Twitter probably wouldn’t guess that. I mean, I have photo-sensitive epilepsy. Pinball isn’t exactly the most epilepsy-friendly pastime out there. It probably ranks just below celebrating the 4th of July on stupid things I do. I don’t even really use fireworks. I just light my parents’ bed on fire. But anyway, pinball. I shouldn’t play it. I do. And yea, we remove the strobe-lights and mute other lights when I play (I have my own collection. Going to something like the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas isn’t optional), but still, sometimes I’ll be out and about, run into a pinball table, and have to use every fiber of restraint to not pop a few quarters in and play. If it wasn’t obvious from the cigarettes, the multiple daily energy shots, the frankly absurd amount of soda I consume, and eating habits that would embarrass a five-year-old living out of a candy store, I was apparently born without any survival instinct. So, yea, I play a lot of pinball.

Oh, video pinball? Forget about it. Those are NEVER epilepsy friendly. Oddly enough, the one and only game I’ve ever contributed to a Kickstarter for was The Pinball Arcade, and I got *nothing* out of it. I just felt it was the best way I could contribute to preserving pinball for those out there who can’t afford $4,000 for a used, routed table that the dude selling on Craig’s List SWEARS has been shopped but really he just gave it a quick waxing and it’s ready to fall apart if someone hits a flipper twice on it. Trust me, the pinball enthusiasts reading this review know what I’m talking about and are banging their heads on their desks as we speak. But really, it sucks to be me because it’s a golden age of video pinball and I can’t play the fucking things. (By the way, don’t harass them over it. I’m really good friends with people at Zen Studios of Zen Pinball fame, and I don’t take it personally at all I can’t touch their pinball stuff.)

Well, someone finally made a pinball game I can play.

And it’s a Metroidvania. You bet your sweet ass I came when I heard about this one.

This was pretty much my reaction when we signed Kevin Durant.

Yea, you heard me right. Yoku’s Island Express is a Metroidvania and a pinball game. Which is funny because there’s been a Metroid pinball game and it was NOT a Metroidvania (though it was probably the only video pinball game I ever liked). And it’s mostly epilepsy safe (the bosses weren’t, so I had to take extra-precautions) so, hey, I should like this right?

And I did, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In Yoku’s Island Express, you play as a dung beetle tasked with becoming a postman. I have to say, as a child I wondered what it would be like to put a dung beetle on a pinball table, and now I know without being straight-up evil. Anyway, you traverse the world of Yoku via flippers and kickbacks. No plungers, oddly enough, or at least I didn’t find any. As you make progress you’ll gain a few special abilities like a lasso type thing that lets you swing around specialized pegs, or short-cuts around the sprawling map. Despite being a genre-salad that seems risky on the surface, Yoku’s Island Express (God I hate that name, it makes it sound like a stripped-down mobile version of a bigger game) is shockingly basic.

When I saw what Yoku was, my first concern was the physics. With no jump button and all platforming done via pinball shit, bad physics would kill this game dead. Thankfully, that was never once an issue. Don’t get me wrong: it never feels like real pinball. But it didn’t need to. This wasn’t meant to be a pinball game that plays like a Metroidvania. It’s a Metroidvania that plays like a pinball game. Or wait, should that be reversed? You know, you’re jumping straight to the next sentence, but I spent a solid hour wondering about it. My point is it’s an adventure game with a pinball gimmick. And it works. I never once felt I was screwed by momentum or physics or glitches or anything that the pinball stuff might lead to. Mechanically, it’s the perfect marriage of two concepts, like peanut butter and jelly, or Poptarts with melted garlic butter. Hey, don’t wince until you try it.

Having said all that, it never gets fully exhilarating. That mostly owes to the fact that the level design is very basic. I was never once floored by any section of Yoku’s Island. It feels like they put all the risk in the concept itself and didn’t want to experiment too much with layouts. The purely pinball “stages” play and feel like 60s era electromagnetic tables. A few bumpers, a few chutes, with the only advancement over that style of design being video-gamey pick-ups or enemies that move around.

To be clear: the levels are never boring. Just a bit bland. And it never gets too complex no matter how much progress you’ve made, which means the basic table design takes the zing out of the inspired concept after a while.

I get it. Nothing like Yoku’s Island has been done before (NES fans, no, Pinball Quest couldn’t hold Yoku’s dungball) and they just had to get the damn thing working. Everything connects well and it’s never a full-on chore to navigate it. Still, the truly pinball-based parts of the game feel so limited and safe that it makes Yoku’s Island Express feel like a really good proof of concept instead of something mind-blowingly inspired. I’ve never wanted an indie I’ve played to become a franchise more. That includes SteamWorld or Shovel Knight games. Those were pretty much amazing right from the start. Yoku’s Island feels like its potential is still somewhere off in the distance, waiting to be realized.

And the areas to improve are self-evident. The shortcut system is overly complex and even required me to grind up money for it a few times. It costs too much to use and slows the pace down too much. The writing is bland and the big plot twist final boss would have been a bigger surprise if the game hadn’t fucking outright told me it was going to happen. It hints the chosen one would be betrayed by someone on the adventure with you, and there was literally only one thing that was on the adventure with you. Gee, I wonder who is going to betray me? It was either the thing that did it or the non-sentient ball itself was going to go rogue.

Actually, the coolest part of the game is also its biggest short-coming. Yoku reminds me of an N64 era Rare Ltd game. Like, this is the type of weird, experimental genre mashup they would have cranked out along with Blast Corps or Jet Force Gemini back in the day. It even looks like a Rare game, with lush settings and PBS-ish friendly character designs. And that’s awesome. It totally took me back to being that giggling nine-year-old playing Banjo-Kazooie on my 9th birthday. But, all the warts of a Rare-inspired game are along for the ride, with far too much emphasis on collecting for the sake of collecting. Unlike something like, say, Axiom Verge, where I got excited to stumble upon new guns or weapons, or complete side missions, I was soured on the fetch-questiness (that’s a word now, write it down) of Yoku quickly.

I’ll give you an example: at one point you get three big packages that you have to take from the central hub town and deliver one at a time. I pick up one of them and have to take it to a guy on the left side of the large world map. I get it to him. The dude simply did not want to open his door to take it. It looked like maybe I could try to go through a back door or something, but every time I tried to make my way around, I fell all the way to the bottom of the map, and it took a LONG TIME to work my way back to it. Now, at this point, I was doing that thing I do with a game I’m loving where I knew I was about to finish everything and I was stalling for time because I was enjoying things so much. But after that one bad experience, I was like, fuck it, I’m ready to be done with this game. I instantly lost all interest in all other hidden trinkets and I’m never going back to get them. About twenty minutes later, the end credits were rolling and I was satisfied and happy with the experience. If the developers wanted me to actually have fun finding all the frankly insane amounts of hidden content, I don’t know what to say. Next time actually try making it fun to do it? And not a chore? Just maybe?

Insert Saved by the Bell joke -here-.

Everything else I could say is nit-picky. But fuck it, it’s my job so here we go: the game is too easy (I never died once and as far as I know I never came close to it either), I thought every multiball section was crap, I never once felt a sense of tension or awe in any aspect of exploration, and the explanation for how to use the slug vacuum was so poorly written I almost had a rage-quit trying to get the hang of using it. Having said all that, Yoku’s Island Express is never boring. It only teeters on being a slog when you’re supposed to be high up on some platform, fall down, and have to make your way back up to it. And despite the flaws probably out-numbering the good stuff, Yoku’s Island Express is just plain fun. I want a sequel that goes all Twilight Zone pinball on the layouts and focuses more on clever world building, but what’s here is perfectly entertaining for six hours. And yea, they left a lot on the table, but we can’t expect them to show extra balls on something this different, so I tilt my hat to them.

Seven years writing these things and it’s come to this: closing a review with puns. Why does anyone read me again?

Yoku’s Island Express was developed by Villa Gorilla
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch

$19.99 honestly asked “wouldn’t the dung beetle have been squished by the flippers?” in the making of this review.

I purchased and played the Xbox One version of the game. Villa Gorilla supplied review copies for members of Indie Gamer Team for XB1, Switch, and PS4. We’re not done talking about Yoku’s Island Express yet.

Yoku’s Island Express is Chick Approved (with the brand-spanking-new Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval designed by Kevin Willingham) and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

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FOX n FORESTS

Hi there, Fox n Forests. Take a seat please. We need to have a talk.

First thing’s first: the name. Do you know how many times I accidentally called you Fox & Friends? The name is basically begging for mockery or to be botched when spoken by sloppy wordsmiths such as myself. Also, the name is technically FOX n FORESTS, as if it were being screamed by a narcoleptic that briefly nodded off after the first syllable. What is with that “n” anyway? It’s so clumsy and distracting. You have a gorgeous sixteen-bit era game with magic spells and upgradable weapons and treasure chests that sometimes have traps designed to unfairly screw the player and..

Oh, I get it.

You were trying to dress up like Ghouls ‘N Ghosts huh?

It’s okay, you can tell me.

As far as I can tell, the dialog with the checkpoint critter has no payoff and is just supposed to be an “LOL, this character collects games, just like the majority of Kickstarter backers did judging by the end credits” joke. Also, whoever is the person shown in this picture, I want to thank you oh so much for the nightmares I’ve been having these last few weeks, you fucking monster, you.

Well, that makes things awkward. You see, I’m a child of the 2000s. I’m not nostalgic for the type of game you aspire to be. Oh, I don’t really care if a game is neo-retro or not. Take a look at the two games I hold up as the best two indie games ever developed: Axiom Verge and Shovel Knight. Both of them aspire to invoke the era you dress yourself in. So when people will inevitably say I had it out for you from the start, obviously that’s not the case. Truth be told, I haven’t followed your story at all. I had no idea you raised over $125K USD on Kickstarter. I had never heard of the studio that birthed you. I just said “hey, neat looking game.”

And you are neat looking. Authentic SNES look and feel. Of course, that’s where the issues start. Like having melee and projectile attacks mapped to the same button. Why? Because “back in the day” games had fewer buttons? Well, you see, I don’t really buy that. The SNES had four face buttons, just like the PS4 and Xbox One controllers I used playing you, plus two shoulder buttons, select, and start. Why do you have the same attack mapped to two different face buttons, when ranged attacks and melee cause different damage and are upgraded separately? So, in order to do a melee attack, you must either be in the act of jumping (when you can’t fire your projectiles) or you must be ducking.

Now, I’m not an anthropomorphic fox. Hell, I’m not even foxy. I’m sultry at best. But if I were an anthropomorphic fox, I would think that I would be able to comprehend that if my melee ability caused more damage than my ranged attack and an enemy was within close proximity, it would make more sense to just bonk them with my magical club thing without going through the effort of ducking or jumping to do it. It is so unbelievable that you can’t just swing your weapon while standing still that I kept checking the control screen to make sure I wasn’t missing it. I did this the entire length of the game, because it is that unfathomable.

It’s not even an exaggeration to say, as I uploaded this screenshot, I gave it one final glance over to make extra, extra, EXTRA sure I wasn’t missing something. I’m not.

That was pretty much how I felt about the entire Fox n Hannity experience. For every step forward, you stepped backwards into a cow patty. You have eight levels and five boss fights, one of which isn’t even really a boss fight. Of the eight levels, six of them are platformers and two of them are shmups. I’ve never understood why platform games do that. Oh, don’t worry Fox. I mean, even Nintendo did it with Super Mario Land, a game that came out in the United States exactly three weeks after I was born. Incredibly, in the nearly twenty-nine years since then, nobody has realized mixing these two completely incompatible genres is a combination surpassed in stupidity only by teriyaki-flavored soda.

Anyway, your shmup levels are bad. Like, bad-bad. Like, seriously, go put your nose in the corner for the next ten minutes. What were you thinking? No matter how much effort I put into building my health bar up, everything in those levels is a one-hit death. Even touching floor or ceiling. It’s a jarring, cringey gameplay shift, going from a very slightly above-average platform experience into a very mediocre Gradius-type of one. Cuphead did this too, and while I hated Cuphead, at least those shmup sections felt inspired and not out-of-place. YOUR shooting stages feel so lifeless and generic that they come across more like filler. And given how much you were already dipping your toes in the lake of blandness, that type of filler is like adding sawdust to bread and then chowing down on it. Not good for you, Fox n Forests. Your poop will be all pulpy, now.

See that itty-bitty little orange plant in the bottom right corner? Yea, the tip of my bird’s feet brushed up against it and I died. These stages are brought to you by Valium because you’ll need it to get all the rage you’ll feel playing them under control.

But let’s talk about the platform levels since that’s your bread and butter here. They’re not bad at all. Mostly nice design. Cool variety. The difficulty-scaling is a bit off since I had more issues beating stage 1-2 than I did stage 4-2. That could be because I had upgraded my offense significantly by that point. But otherwise they’re fine. They’re the best part of you. And while you’re not the first game to use the “change the level on the fly” mechanic (represented here by changing the seasons), what’s here mostly works. I mean, it was kind of annoying that there’s a pause every single time the main character raised his weapon up and was frozen while he was doing the “THUNDERCATS, HOOOO” pose every time you change the season but NOT when you change it back. But even then, while it’s not exactly original, it keeps things interesting.

Or, at least, it does the first time you play through a stage. Unfortunately, you relied heavily on forced-replays of levels to pad-out your length. I’ve tried padding myself to make up for my own inadequacies, so I get it. But nobody bought that my boobs had grown four sizes overnight, and nobody is going to believe you’re actually longer than your eight stages no matter how much gauze you stuff into your shorts.

Each of your stages contains five hidden acorns. If you do not find enough of these acorns, you won’t have access to the later stages. And I don’t mean the bonus stages for each game’s world (worlds consisting of two levels and a boss fight) that you unlock by finding all ten acorns in a world. Oh no. I mean actual levels that you need to finish to, you know, beat the game. Well, that fucking sucks.

Even THAT wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been possible to get all the acorns on your first run through each stage. But you had to be a dick and not allow that. Sometimes you won’t be able to access them until you have special arrows that you acquire only from beating bosses. Stages have bullseyes of different colors scattered around them that you must shoot with the matching color arrow to unlock access to different areas of each stage. That sounds fine, but the areas you’re unlocking are teeny-tiny. It might just be an extra platform or two that gives you access to the acorn, and that’s it. So you forced myself and others to fully replay the entire stage to get to these sections, and then finish the stage to keep them. If we were unlocking vast new areas of levels that contained new and innovative gameplay mechanics, maybe this would be justifiable. But we’re not. This is one of the worst instances of forced-level replaying I’ve ever seen. It’s like being forced to sit through a rerun that promises you never-before-seen deleted scenes that are really just 20-seconds long and add fuck-all to the plot. There might be an entire extra section to the game if you get all 40 acorns (it does unlock something), but I would have to care enough to get them all to find out. And I don’t.

Actually, I only enjoyed five of the platforming stages. This vertical level (or was this the vertical non-boss boss-fight?. Meh, both are boring) is hampered by some spotty collision detection and became such a chore that it’s where I declared my status as a wuss and started the game over on easy mode, just to finish it. Which is another issue: no on-the-fly difficulty switching. Fuck that noise. And I REALLY didn’t want to have to replay this one to grab the stuff I missed the first time around. So I didn’t. Because it was boring the first time.

Fox N Forests, you have fine level design, but not so fine that I want to play the exact same fucking levels again and again. There was nothing more agonizing for me than to play a stage for the third time, get to the end of it and STILL have a missing acorn. “WELL FUCK ME” I screamed as I hit the teeter-totter to end the level and then start over AGAIN, this time making sure to push up against every single fucking wall or making blind jumps off every platform, constantly switching between seasons while looking for the hide-and-seek champion of acorns. Yea, this was adding to the game’s run-time, but it long ceased being fun. This was busy work. Fox N Forests, you would have been SO much more enjoyable if finding these things hadn’t been forced upon me and I could just play the levels one time in sequential order and only go back if I wanted to grind up money and resources for better upgrades. An optional grind is always preferable to a forced one. Your parents, Bonus Level Entertainment, apparently never got that memo.

I hated you, Fox N Forests. I really and truly hated you. Mostly because it was frustrating watching you throw away so much potential. There’s a running gag I use about “minimum indie badness” that games must achieve for their indie cred. In your case, it’s like you were worried about not meeting your quota and overcompensated. Your levels are creative (except the shooting stages, which can go fuck themselves), but get boring when you forced me to replay them. Your controls are good, except the nonsensical button-mapping. Your bosses are well designed, except one encounter with a giant spider that is more of a copy of Metroid’s escape-the-shaft finale, only longer and less interesting. Your weapon upgrades are nifty, but I only bought one of the potion-weapons, used it once, never bought another, and was no worse off for it. Plus upgrading the weapons required even more forced replays of stages to find hidden mana-cores and stone wheels, to the point that I never even got all upgrades. Everything you did right is immediately nullified by something you did wrong, to the point that I didn’t like my time with you at all.

And the Children of the Forest approached the First Men and said “on second though, you can cut down SOME of the Weirwood Trees.”

So yea, you’re grounded Fox n Forests. Go to your room. I’m not your parent or anything. But fuck it. Go to your room, think about what you’ve done, and make some DLC that rights all the wrongs you just did. Be the first indie game I’ve ever played where the DLC is better than the main game. Because you have so much potential, and the fact that THIS is what you ended up being? You’re better than this. Way, way better than this.

Even your story was bland and predictable. During the open intro, the framing plot device made the finale so easy to guess that I wrote it down on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope. When the final boss battle began, I told Brian he could open the envelope. He shrugged and said “did you expect something better?” Yea, I was completely right, but it wasn’t exactly impressive. Helen Keller could see the big twist coming a mile away, and she’s not even a platforming game fan.

Fox n Forests was developed by Bonus Level Entertainment
Point of Sale: Steam, PlayStation, Xbox (Coming Soon), Switch

$17.99 (normally $19.99) accidentally called the game “Fox & Friends” 8 times for those who were taking bets in the making of this review.

Pre-release review copies were supplied to Cathy by Bonus Level Entertainment. She purchased a copy of Fox n Forests upon the game’s release. All games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are paid for by Cathy out of her own pocket. For more on this policy, read the FAQ.

Developers who receive review copy requests from Indie Gamer Chick: make sure you’re really getting them from me and not someone pretending to be me.

Check out Indie Gamer Team’s Obscure Games and Consoles review for an alternate take.

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

I love making my readers feel old. There’s something satisfying on a primal level about sending them to their bathrooms to cry and check their hairlines when I mention things like how I was only ten-years-old when the Sega Dreamcast released in North America. In that spirit, here’s me reviewing a remake of Wonder Boy III, a game which released for the Sega Master System in July, 1989. Do you know what else released in July of 1989?

Me.

Into the world.

From my mother’s vagina.

Yep, you’re old. I’m not. Suck it.

Of course, it’s kind of bizarre that I’m reviewing a game that was, at the time of its original release, clearly not an indie. It was a major tent-pole console exclusive. Sega’s answer to Super Mario 3. Not only am I reviewing it, but I’m counting it as an indie game. For my new readers, I have a rule: for the rare non-indies that I cover here (South Park: Stick of Truth, The Simpsons Arcade Game, or Peggle 2 among others), win or lose, I don’t count them towards the IGC Leaderboard’s percentile rankings. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap will count, and spoiler alert, I’m giving it my Seal of Approval. But wait, you say: how can a major first-party game (it was published by Sega for the Master System) that was their best weapon in their war against Nintendo before the Genesis possibly be an indie today?

I’ve been doing Indie Gamer Chick for six years. I’ve reviewed over 550 games. I was, and probably still am, the defacto face of an entire indie gaming platform (rest in peace, XBLIG). If anyone would know what exactly makes a game “indie” or not, it would be me. But the truth is, I would have an easier time defining the meaning of life than defining an indie. (By the way, the meaning of life is that cream cheese mixed with powdered sugar makes a delicious frosting. Everything else is meaningless.) At one point, the gang at Zen Studios protested that I denied their Chick-Approved genre-smörgåsbord Castlestorm a spot on the Leaderboard on the basis that they made video-pinball games using the Star Wars IP. Star Wars clearly is not and never would be considered an indie game, and I felt at the time any studio big enough or reputable enough to be selected to develop for that license shouldn’t be considered for indie status. Zen Studios challenged that and convinced me otherwise. So while their work with the Star Wars IP wouldn’t qualify, Castlestorm certainly did.

I often complain about action-adventure indies that forget to make the hero “blink” long enough after taking damage. That’s not an issue with Wonder Boy. Actually, it goes to the other extreme: sometimes you blink so long it could take as long as a minute before you stop being juggled by enemies and regain the ability to, you know, move and fight back. But at least you’re not taking damage during that shit. This is the final boss, and I spent more time recoiling from damage during it than actually fighting it. Look closely to the right of it and you can see me stun-locked.

Which brings us to Wonder Boy III’s remake. The new one, not the old one. Uh, yea, in case you didn’t know, it’s already been remade once. Because of ambiguous rights issues that practically require a flow-chart (the original Wonder Boy was remade as Adventure Island for the NES and THAT spawned a completely different series, making it the Power Rangers of video games), Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was released a year after the SMS version on the Turbo Grafx 16 (PC Engine in Japan) under the name “Dragon’s Curse.” This is the version I bought on Wii Virtual Console in 2007, so I was already familiar with it. And I quite liked it back then. I mean, the controls were so slippery that it felt like someone had buttered the floor, and this was also around the time my epilepsy developed and I had to look away from the screen quite a bit. But still, really nice game. As someone who grew up in the PlayStation era, it was one of my favorite lost classics the Virtual Console allowed me to rediscover.

This remake is actually reverse-engineered from the SMS original. So, yea, it’s a $20 ROM hack. Only there’s never been a ROM hack like this. The guys at Lizardcube painted absolutely gorgeous facades over the original graphics. While I’m fairly sure that all the original collision boxes were retained, the effort is so admirable and so striking that you have to tip your hat to them. You can switch back and forth between the original graphics and the 2017 remake on the fly, and sometimes I found myself doing it just so I could be gobsmacked by how much work they put into it. Here’s what the game looked like in 1989.

And here’s the exact same shot, only with the 2017 graphics.

Wow.

Of course, being a ROM hack that aspires to faithfully recreate the original means all the warts are along for the ride. Wonder Boy has terrible platforming controls. Floaty, loose, laggy at times. The weird thing is, the developers did fix a few things, including the most obvious flaw. In the original game, you needed to acquire and equip a sword to break some of the stone blocks. Pausing the game to equip this killed the pace and was just tedious busy-work, especially when you acquire a sword that lets you create breakable blocks that you then have to switch back-and-forth with. Even for its time, it’s such an obviously stupid design choice that it’s astonishing it took nearly thirty years for someone to fix it. In the remake, they’ve eliminated the block-busting sword. Instead, the stone breaking thingy is a charm that, once you have it, is always equipped regardless of what sword you’re using. But besides adjustable difficulty (very welcome since the bad controls made the original a maddening experience), the block-breaking issue is the only major fix. It’s like a dermatologist saying “well, you’ve got a lot of moles, but we’re only going to remove the one on your nose. Because it’s cancerous. And also, we’re going to need you to pay in cash from now on.”

I can’t really blame the developers on some of the more glaring issues with the original. But, because they clearly recognized that some aspects of the game hadn’t aged gracefully, I can’t give them a pass on them either. While the concept of switching between different animal forms was, and still is, inspired, Wonder Boy III didn’t use the idea to its fullest. The level design varies from decent to atrocious. Each animal-form is acquired by completing a dungeon. The mouse’s dungeon is repeating a series of identical zig-zag rooms on the left side of a giant pyramid, then dropping to the bottom of it and doing a repeating series of identical zig-zag rooms from the right side of a giant pyramid. Click the link. See that? Repeat that six trillion times, or at least it feels that long. Only the enemies might change, but otherwise it’s exhausting in its dullness. But that’s not even the worst level! The lion’s stage is series of flat rooms without platforms or puzzles or anything but ninjas (random). It’s incredibly lazy and uninspired. It feels like the original developers just gave up or lost their will, or surrendered to writer’s block. I don’t know the story on it, but Wonder Boy III came out after Super Mario 2, a milestone title in the realm of level design. Even for its time, these stages are the rice cake of game design: better than tofu and edible, but certain to leave you wanting something more. It’s a stripped-down Metroidvania, and it shows its age.

The lion’s animal power is being able to swing its sword in a top-to-bottom slashing motion, allowing you to break blocks above you. So the lion’s power is awareness that “up” is a thing.

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Grinding up money is fun (assuming you don’t outright cheat the game by opening a treasure chest in the town, returning to the title screen and going back to the now full-again chest, which I, ahem, most certainly would not do, cough), the different animals are a blast, and the variety of weapons is nifty. I just wish instead of doing an artistic upgrade, they had just remade the whole game with new levels and new dungeons. In fact, LizardStation did add new dungeons called “The Unknown”, but they’re hidden and I didn’t find any in the three hours it took me to finish. I only discovered them because the final one unlocks after the credits and features you playing as the human Wonder Boy (or, optionally, Wonder Girl, which changes nothing but allows the game to be listed under the “female protagonist” tag on Steam, a tag which in no way feels like it’s mostly used as a cynical way of monetizing political correctness and equality. No sir or ma’am) and shows you where’s it’s located. There’s one of these new “Unknown” dungeons for each animal form, but I didn’t know they even existed when I played through it, let alone where they were hidden at. I tried to play the Human dungeon but literally the first screen was so poorly designed, requiring precision movement from a game infamous for shitty controls that I immediately lost interest in trying more. It felt like one of those, well, ROM-hacks.

When I first started playing it, I told Indie Gamer Team that this felt like a fan project that got noticed by the IP holders and made legitimate. As it turns out, that’s what 2017’s remake of Wonder Boy III actually is. That’s really cool. When we think of the nature of what makes something indie or not, something like The Dragon’s Trap doesn’t make things easier for us. It’s a fascinating anomaly that both suits and defies nearly every label. A former marquee console headliner that went on to become one of the most unsung indie gems three decades later. Just, weird. While I liked it, and I would love to see more remakes along these lines, I would have preferred Lizardbox fix the control issues and the stuff that actually matters to gameplay over painting over the problems, even though they were very good at painting. It would be like buying a 2017 Porsche 911 that has the option to transform instantly into the original 1964 Porsche 911. That would be fucking sweet, right? But what if it turned out the car’s specs, no matter which version of the Porsche it looked like, were the 1964 model’s, with the only modern concession being a CD player instead of a radio? I’m not sure that’s something most people would want. Hell, maybe not even fans of the original would want it. It’s why I have to give the nod to DuckTales Remastered as the better remake. It remembered that it had a chance to right every wrong, not just the really obvious stuff. Whereas DuckTales was a trip down memory lane for retro gamers but still modern and slick (granted over-produced to the point of annoyance), I don’t think Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap 2017 will be that for gamers of all ages. I showed it to my Godfather’s 10-year-old grandson C.J. and it didn’t hold his attention. His father said “it would have probably made a good rental from the video store back in the day.”

Then C.J. asked “what’s a video store?”

What’s a video store? Why you little twerp, a video store is a place that people used to go to..

OH GOD, IT’S HAPPENING TO ME TOO NOW!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was developed by Lizardcube
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Switch

$19.99 just won a $100 bet that she could work in the phrase “from my mother’s vagina” seamlessly into a review in the making of this review. Pay up, Dad!

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Debate if should be eligible in the comments.

SteamWorld Dig 2

Full disclosure: I met some of the people working behind the scenes at Image & Form in 2013, and over the last four years its grown to be one of the studios in Indieland that I admire the most. It’s safe to say that I consider their lead developer, Brjánn Sigurgeirsson, to be a good friend. I love to shoot the shit with Brjánn and debate on a wide range of game design topics. Brjánn and his team are a really remarkable group of developers.

But being friends with me doesn’t mean a developer gets a free pass to my heart. Actually, in a lot of ways it’s worse for them. It means I have a direct line to them when stuff about their work annoys me. There’s a developer named David Walton that did a game called Wyv & Keep. It was originally on XBLIG but after monkeying around with it for a couple of hours I realized it wasn’t ready for prime time. So did he, pulling it from the marketplace and saving it for Steam. Eventually it found its way there, but when I fired it up I realized the map system was unsatisfactory. At this point I, to put it delicately, blew a fucking gasket and got him on the horn to cuss him out for over an hour. And mind you, I didn’t even write the review for the game. And this is my friend. You developers who think I’m a little overly harsh, hey, it could be worse. You could be on my Christmas Card list.

I was all set to ask which member of Image & Form was going to volunteer to be sent to the gulag for re-education as punishment for water levels, but those are kept thankfully small. Aww nuts.

When I first fired up SteamWorld Dig 2 and started gawking at the graphics, my social media followers were taken back. “Um, yea Cathy, they changed the style. Where’ve you been?” Well, I’ve been here. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch trailers for games. Trailers are about creating awareness and, most importantly, hype.

Hype.

You know, that thing that game critics shouldn’t get for games. Because it’s not our fucking jobs. I know that you’re probably accustomed to critics behaving like cheerleaders or salesmen. Some of them will have small complaints about games but choose not to include them in their, sarcastic airquotes, “reviews” because they’re afraid that might hurt the game’s sales. Hopefully you realize that’s not the way things are supposed to be. Critics are supposed to evaluate, not talk you into a purchase.

Sure, some trailers are unavoidable. Over the last five years it’s been hard to not catch trailers for Cuphead (yes you pushy fuckers, I’m reviewing it next). But when Brjánn told me they were sequelizing SteamWorld Dig, I told them “great, let me know when it’s out.” They might be my friends, but I have responsibilities as a game critic. I already liked SteamWorld Dig. I already liked SteamWorld Heist. It’s safe to say my enjoyment of their previous efforts already moved my expectations for their future games past neutral. It’s thus my responsibility to make as much effort as possible to not further engage in activities that might contribute to further expectations. Such as watching trailers. Or getting blown by them. That’s one you might want to write down, Gamespot.

So why did this end up, as of this writing, #4 on the IGC Leaderboard? A big decider for it not competing with Axiom Verge (and it didn’t, not even close) was there wasn’t enough new stuff when you backtracked. Every time I ran back to a previous section in Axiom Verge, it seemed like there were several new items I was only able to reach with the latest items I had picked up in the previous stage. In SteamWorld Dig 2, such instances are rare. And even when I did find new hidden sections, it was far more common that I could have accessed them the first time around and simply missed them. Lesson learned: if you’re making a Metroidvania, backtracking should be every bit as fun and exciting as fronttracking. Wait, is fronttracking a thing?

So yeah, I wasn’t aware that they updated the graphics style. Which is nice. Hey, I can actually tell the different robots apart now. That puts them one-up on Michael Bay if nothing else. I also wasn’t aware that my chief complaint about Dig and Heist had been addressed: ditching the randomized levels. Now, I’m not a total hater of the idea procedural generation. But the type of genres it lends itself to tend to be faster-paced. Spelunky, for example, would not be as good or memorable if it had hand-made stages. Among other things, what would I be able to blame for my complete and total ineptitude at it? A gypsy curse? I’ve blamed my height on that, my epilepsy, the 2016 NBA Finals, and Red Dead Redemption 2’s delay. Really, that dog just ain’t hunting anymore.

And while randomized levels aren’t always a good idea for fast paced action-platformers (looking at you, Cloudberry Kingdom), at least the claim that it adds “endless replay value” is something a developer can slap on a marketing blurb without their pants catching fire. And my friends at Image & Form know something about that, presumably while putting out each-other’s eyes with noses of incrementally increasing lengths, the big liars. They claimed with a straight face that the previous SteamWorld games “were never the same game twice.” Well, that’s true in the sense that no game of solitaire is the same game twice either. Really, it’s the same fucking game everyone else is playing, only the stages are determined by the invisible computer lottery. Cute novelty, don’t get me wrong. But in the process Image & Form gave up something. No, not their soul. I’m pretty sure Nintendo got that in 2013 when Dig released on 3DS. No, what I’m talking about is they lost a certain elegance of design.

Let’s face it, the adventure games that stick with us the most tend to do so not because of characters or plot or items or weapons or bosses or soundtracks or any other universal gaming variable. Level design is the X factor. A game can be good but not remotely memorable, and it comes down to the level design being less than spectacular. It’s why people talk about Ocarina of Time to this day, but the mechanically evolved Twilight Princess barely makes the discussion. It’s why I enjoyed my time with SteamWorld Heist, but my brain had deleted the reasons why about ten seconds after I finished my review. Because it’s a game that created really good parameters to be shuffled about randomly by the AI, and did so probably better than any game ever had done so, but that’s still not as good as finely designed hand-crafted stages. For all the flaws we humans have, we’re still more creative than computers. Take comfort in that the next time IBM is laying waste to dorks on Jeopardy!

As often as you’re forced to return to the town to cash in your loot and buy upgrades, there really should have been more to it.

The Image & Form guys had to hear me bitch about this for years. The thing is, I fucking knew they were capable of better. And with SteamWorld Dig 2, they proved me right. Every section is hand-designed and I’m completely blown away by how well it was done. It’s been about a week since I finished it and I’m still marveling at the expansive, labyrinth-like worlds and the cleverly designed rooms found therein. This is spectacular level design, the best ever seen in anything that can be considered part of the mining game craze. Now granted, mining is merely the framing device. Dig 2 is a Metroidvania that replaces whips or guns with an axe. But every single nook and cranny of the setting is polished to a mirror-shine. It makes exploration such a joy. Hell, it makes grinding a joy. Grinding. That thing that makes lesser games feel more like second jobs that you have to pay for. In over fifteen hours, I never once felt bored. I never once felt lost. Sure, there were times I was fairly certain I had managed to access areas I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to be in yet but that’s fine. Even the most tasty meals leave you belching, right?

So yea, I guess I need to offer kudos to Image & Form on the whole level design malarkey. But when I get their attention I’d probably ask them why the variety of enemies leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a striking lack of variety, with each world only featuring a very small handful of enemies. Some are cool, don’t get me wrong. Many of them can be used to chip away at the surrounding environment to help with the mining, and most are worked into at least one puzzle at some point. But come on, Image & Form! You’re creative people! Surely you can come up with more than this! Hell, maybe you should devote your now defunct randomization software towards making more baddies for your games. You might as well get some use out of it.

Come to think of it, I never once was killed by a single enemy or boss, with one exception. There’s a section where, with no warning, SteamWorld Dig 2 went off its medication and suddenly became a survival horror game. It was jarring, it was unexpected, it was legitimately frightening, and it was fucking awesome. Suddenly, I went from carefully plotting my pathway to running for dear life. Well, after I paused the game to change myself, that is. I figured this was the climax of the game, but then the section ended and those enemies never showed their faces again. The fuck? What the hell was that? Maybe they were fans of the Smooth Criminal music video, where everything just stops for a minute for absolutely no fucking reason, only this wasn’t stupid. But otherwise, I found the bosses and enemies to be mostly toothless, even on the normal difficulty setting.

Oh, I died. Quite a few times actually. But I owed that to my own carelessness. I was crushed by more rocks than Giles Corey and became so paranoid about it that my left thumb developed a small twitch in anticipation of more to come. Of course, the occasional environmental death was offset by the dozens of times that entire sections of enemies would kill themselves before I even saw them on my screen. At one point, I scooped up over 20 (!) pieces of ore off the ground that presumably had been blown out of walls by enemies that blew themselves up before I had a chance to fight them. I would like to think they saw me coming and decided to die with dignity rather than be humbled by me and my mad skills. Stop laughing.

I caught word that one of the reasons Image & Form moved away from randomized levels was me, be it my reviews of their work or the numerous handfuls of solidified poo I threw through their windows. A lot of people don’t understand why, if I love certain games, am I so critical of them? Ain’t I worried that my critiques might turn more people off than they turn on? Well, no. Because my job isn’t to convince anyone to buy a game. It’s to share my opinions and let you, the reader, decide if that sounds like something you want to buy. If you have to be talked into it, I doubt any one writer will be enough to sway you one way or another. Love the site or hate it, there’s a reason why Rotten Tomatoes is so big.

So when I say that SteamWorld Dig 2 is a really great game with amazing level design, not enough enemies, and is easier than stubbing your toe in a house of mirrors after the power goes out, really, is anyone choosing to buy the game based on that? Probably not. The dirty little secret of game reviews is that most people who read them already know what they think about games and are either looking for different takes than their own opinion, or looking for affirmation that their opinion is shared by others. But in Indieland, reviews are more than just food for thought. Many developers use them as a guidepost for what they can do to improve. That’s why a critic should hold nothing back. Because any developer worth their salt strives to get better, no matter how much acclaim or awards they get. Look at Image & Form. Two games that won universal praise, and yet, they yearn for more. And that’s why I value my relationship with them. Not because they care what I, as Cathy Vice: fan of their work, can say nice about their projects. It’s what I say as Indie Gamer Chick: Game Critic, that they can do better, that catches their attention. I’ve spent four years spamming their inboxes telling them all the many, many ways they’ve fucked up their stuff and should have known better. Who knows, maybe they’re better today because of it.

If I wasn’t free to do that,  I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. But I am, and I’m grateful for that. And my readers deserve to know that and weigh that against my opinions.

End of disclosure.

So yea, SteamWorld Dig 2 is pretty good.

SteamWorld Dig 2 was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4/Vita

$19.99 noted that this is one of those awkward sequels so good it sends the original plummeting several spots down the Leaderboard despite having done nothing wrong in the making of this review. In this case, it would have been in the #11 position but fell to #21 by its sequel being that much better and consequently the original being harder to recommend now.

Review copies of SteamWorld Dig 2 were provided for PS4 and Steam. On September 26, 2017, Cathy purchased a copy of SteamWorld Dig 2 to assure she had paid for a copy. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for out-of-pocket. For more on this policy, check the FAQ.

SteamWorld Dig 2 is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters

Growing up the daughter of a cinephile (that’s someone who loves movies, not someone who has to stay 1,000 yards away from schools), I’ve seen my share of 1950s B movies and exploitation flicks. And I don’t mean in the form of Mystery Science Theater riffs. I mean sitting there, actually watching the original film with someone so deluded that he sees the movie as a work of art instead of a cheap, quick, badly acted, horribly scripted, cynical piece of shit created by and starring people who wished they were dead.  Which is not to say *every* movie of that era was without merit, but there’s nothing inherently sacred about B movies. To be frank, sometimes I don’t even like Mystery Science Theater that much, because it’s the low-hanging fruit. Fish in a barrel. “Oh come on, they’re campy! Camp is charming! Old B movies are camp!” Bullshit. Being old doesn’t necessarily mean being charming. Fred Phelps was pretty old before he was dead, and he had all the charm of a backed-up toilet.

So yea, old movies aren’t my thing. Yet, I’ve always wondered why that era of films haven’t been used as source material for more video games. Sure, you have Destroy All Humans, It Came from the Desert, and Zombies Ate my Neighbors. But, no hit games, except maybe Destroy All Humans and even that got ruined with the sequel. I’m guessing you can add The Deadly Tower of Monsters to that list, since its ceiling is probably “cult hit” at best. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the most clever games in years. You’ve played games like it, like Gauntlet Legends or the Dark Alliance series: a (mostly) top-down sword and gun button masher. DToM should be tired and tedious right out of the gate. However, a novel framing device immediately freshens it up and keeps things interesting from start to finish.

They have pills for dick malfunctions these days.

They have pills for dick malfunctions these days.

The idea is, you’re actually listening to a DVD audio commentary from the director of the “movie” that you’re playing. The director is a hilariously out-of-touch sexist prick with passive-aggressive disdain for every person who he’s ever worked with. The gimmick works, making this a rare example of a comedic video game where the joke doesn’t become stale before the credits roll. The B-Movie setting works too, with bad “special effects” such as clearly visible strings on cheesy enemies. The “actors” are talentless hacks that have no charisma and deliver every line without any sense of emotion. The “plot” is laughably thin and random (apes! dinosaurs! brain creatures!). The trees look plastic. Deadly Tower of Monsters was clearly made by a team with actual fondness for 50s Sci-Fi movies. And a big twist at the end of the game that I didn’t see coming at all works wonderfully.

The setting feels almost authentic, but there are a couple of things that take me out of it. The director sounds too young, for one thing. I don’t mean in terms of vocabulary, but literally he has too young sounding of a voice. I sort of wish they had hired an actual B-director like Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman. I mean, come on. Those guys would have taken one look at the script and asked how soon they could do it. I also wish the game had focused more on really bad stereotypes of those cheap films. Flubbed lines, actors bumping into the set, props falling over, etc. There are a couple of gags like those, but not nearly enough. Heck, even the game’s attempt at cheap stop-motion animation with some of the creatures wasn’t close to right. The movement was too fluid and not jerky enough, though I appreciated the effort. Finally, while I hate to bust on this in any game, the graphics are not really that good at all. The theme doesn’t cover-up for that either, because the issues that ruined my immersion were decidedly “video gamey” instead of failing the spirit of the B-Movie angle. UPDATE: The PS4 version has much sharper graphics and a better sense of vertigo, though at a trade-off of some minor slowdown issues that I didn’t experience on Steam.

I'll be honest: I was in need of a good fisting at this point.

I’ll be honest: I was in need of a good fisting at this point.

As for the game, it’s a lot of fun. For the most part. While combat and shooting feels button-mashy (again, it reminded me of Gauntlet Legends in feel, not quality. Because this game is fun, and Gauntlet Legends sucks), there’s a wide enough variety of weapons (both short and long distant) and upgrades to keep things relatively fresh throughout. I do wish the game had a wider variety of moves though. What’s here is certainly not perfect. Deadly Tower of Monsters often relies too much on spamming the screen with enemies, and with no block-system beyond an awful rolling move, you’ll be subjected to more cheap shots than a $5 bottle of off-brand whiskey. Meanwhile, enemies can be too spongy, upgrades can require too much trinket-collecting to unlock, I really wish you could switch between the three-characters and their different moves on the fly instead finding pods to do it in, and boss battles can drag on too long without checkpoints. There’s also an AWFUL mechanic where you have to lean on a ledge and shoot down at enemies coming at you from below. The cursor is too small, too hard to see (and I can’t imagine how colorblind gamers will be able to use it), too loose, and staying “glued” to the mode is hard because even slight movements can pull you back to the normal mode of the game. Even when it seemed like I was only moving left and right, sometimes the shooting would end and I would go back to the normal game mode. This mechanic alone was the fatal flaw that prevented Deadly Tower of Monsters from becoming a top-five game on my leaderboard. It’s clunky, it’s ill-advised, it’s frustrating when combined with enemies in “normal” view that you can’t really defend yourself against while shooting at the “ledge-enemies.” It pissed me off so bad because Deadly Tower of Monsters is really fun, but I guess it had to include its legally-mandated percentage of indie badness.

Hopefully nobody stopped and said “sounds like a shitty game” after that last paragraph, because Deadly Tower of Monsters is genuinely fun. One of my favorite indies ever, in fact. While the combat is nothing special, the pace of acquiring new weapons is damn near perfect, and there’s so much hidden stuff to do that it never becomes a slog to progress through. Plus, the script is very funny. It’s what I call a “snicker ‘n smirk” game because while none of the gags are roll-on-the-floor funny, the jokes hit consistently enough that the smirk and the sound of a faint snicker will never fade throughout the game. And the creativity isn’t limited to just the concept. The gameplay centers around climbing a gigantic tower. While I was disappointed by the lack of a sense of vertigo, I was very satisfied with a neato play mechanic that allows you to BASE jump from the tower and fall to the bottom. This stuff reminded me of Pilotwings 64, in a good way. It’s the Yin to the ledge-shooting’s yang, with the only sour point being the same issues with the crosshairs in the ledge-shooting are present for the free-falling. I actually might go back and jump off the tower more, just for kicks. It’s that fun.

I'm sure some humorless white-knight types will be offended by the incredibly chauvinistic commentary from the director. I hope not, but in today's environment the thin-skinned fly off the handle for any slight. Hell, I'm sure calling someone "thin-skinned" is a micro-aggression. Like, it would be "dermatology shaming" or some such bullshit.

I’m sure some humorless white-knight types will be offended by the incredibly chauvinistic commentary from the director. I hope not, since the point is he’s supposed to be out-of-touch and a relic of a long-gone era. But, in today’s environment, the thin-skinned fly off the handle for any slight. Hell, I’m sure calling someone “thin-skinned” is a micro-aggression. Like, it would be “dermatology shaming” or some such bullshit.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters now holds a rare distinction in my gaming history book: it joins Portal 1 & 2 as the only comedy-centric games that stayed funny after multiple hours. There are so many wonderful gags here that complaining about the lack of other B-movie tropes seems nit-picky. I only did it because ACE Team (the studio behind Rock of Ages, an unsung multiplayer favorite of mine) clearly has the talent to pull it off. Yea, I’m sure budget limitations played into some of the nits I picked here until they were scabby. I also didn’t get to play it with multiple players, which I think probably would have taken the sting out of some of the more annoying aspects of combat. But, make no mistake, Deadly Tower of Monsters is a damn good game. Original, inspired, and hilarious. Do you know what annoys me most? It should have been a contender for the top spot on the IGC Leaderboard, but the flaws piled up so high that it instead barely missed the top 10. Regardless, it’s worth your purchase. Ironic, isn’t it? This tribute to B-movies is an A-quality title. Now, someone get cracking on a Robot Monster game. Hey, it’s in the public domain!

headerThe Deadly Tower of Monsters was developed by ACE Team
Point of Sale: Steam, PS4

igc_approved1$9.98 (normally $14.99) said “Simon is from the 70s, not the 50s you fucking numbskulls” in the making of this review.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Square Heroes

My apologies for this review taking forever. I haven’t felt well in the last few weeks. As it turns out, my gallbladder was causing issues, and possibly committed suicide thanks to me viewing Terminator Genisys for a second time. This is sort of a trend with me. When I was a teenager, I had my appendix removed the night after I watched the two Mortal Kombat movies back-to-back. Last night, Brian and I watched Taken 3 and I woke up this morning thankful to not be coughing up blood.

Anyway, Square Heroes. It’s an online arena-brawler/shooter that supports up to six players, or four locally. Players control squares that can move freely in all directions. At the start of the game, you’re armed only with a clubbing weapon. Enemies spawn on the map that drop coins when you kill them. Early in matches, in addition to killing opponents, you have to kill the enemies to acquire coins. The faster you collect coins, the faster you gain access to weapons. Games can be straight up death matches (by kill count or on a timer) or territorial control, with team options for both. A few of my fans said “oh goody, another Towerfall clone” when they saw screenshots of it. It’s not remotely like that. There’s no platforming. You just move around the stage. It’s also not nearly as deep, frantic, as full of options, or as fun. But hey, it has online play!

Decent enough looking game, but kind of bland in overall artistic design.

Clean enough looking game, but kind of bland in overall artistic design.

Actually, Square Heroes is decent enough for a budget online title. The team at Gnomic Studios sent over a ton of copies for me to distribute to readers to assure that I had a full slate to play with. We all had fun to varying degrees. Especially early on, when we had no concept of strategy, ammo conservation, or the power of the weapons you acquire over the course of the match. We were quick to engage each-other. Early scuffles where you use the starter weapon to club at each-other with all the desperation of freezing arctic explorer who just stumbled upon an abandoned seal pup were hugely satisfying and even a little thrilling. We all more-or-less acquired the second and third weapons at the same time. Most of the players agreed that the third gun (a sniper rifle type of deal) is too slow and clumsy to be reliable. Still, we had a few fun shootouts and everything was fine. She said as ominous music gets cued up in the background.

AND THEN, some asshole got the fourth weapon, a rocket launcher, and made an astonishing comeback when previously down by a few points. Suddenly, matches became less frantic and slowed to a crawl while players focused on gathering coins and AVOIDING combat so they could be the first player to get the balance-crushing rockets. Square Heroes, no matter what mode we played in it, degenerated into a plodding race for that fourth gun. While it never became outright boring, I missed those insane early matches. We had enough people waiting that when someone quit, a new player joined in. The newbs would briefly liven things up, until they caught on to the concept and the action slowed down. With only a few exceptions, the first player to get the rocket launcher (or grenade launcher if they leveled up enough, though I thought the rockets worked better), typically won. I wish Square Heroes had options that either locked that gun, or just made it more accessible, since the race-for-it aspect caused almost every issue I had with it.

Didn't play much of the single-player stuff, but from what I did play, the AI was pitiful.

Let it be said: in the very first match we played, I got the first kill on my friend Cyril of DefunctGames.com.

Another problem is that there’s unlockable weapons that are based on experience points. I’m spoiled by Rocket League, an online-centric multiplayer title which anyone can jump-in and play without the need to grind up experience. Granted, the second big gun you unlock (the grenade launcher) was almost unanimously declared by the players I was with to be “not as good”, but just the presence of an experience system potentially spoils the “anyone of any skill level can play” nature of the game. I’m sure the developers included this to keep players invested in the game, or to give them a reason to play through the boring single-player stuff. But really, they should have focused on refining the gameplay itself instead of throwing more weapons and items in. The thing is, all the first weapons of each type you get are perfectly fun. Even the balance-adverse rocket launcher, provided you’re the one who gets it first. Gnomic should have left these as the only weapons, and focused instead of creating more gameplay modes or making the maps more interesting. Heck, even a “run” button would have been appreciated, especially since the game degenerated into a dash for the coins and an emphasis on running away from fights instead of picking them. A digital version of Ding-Dong-Ditch perhaps.

Square Heroes certainly lays the foundation of a pretty fun online game. We all enjoyed it, which is all you can really ask for. Of course, with any online game, it’s up to whether there will be a robust lineup of players a year from now. It’s just past 1AM on a Wednesday, about a month after the game came out, and there’s enough players to get at least one match going as of right now. Will that last? Who knows. Assuming enough players are there, you’ll have fun. Not an astonishing amount of fun or anything, but enough that the $4.99 price tag doesn’t feel like too much. It could use better maps that have interactive aspects instead of just caverns and nooks to hide in. It could have used a run button. It doesn’t live up to its potential at all, but hey, fun is fun. So Huey Lewis was right: it’s hip to be square!

HEY GNOMIC!
Square 4
Square 5Square Heroes was developed by the corpse laying on newspapers in front of me.
Point of Sale: PlayStation Store, Steam
This review only covered the PS4 version.

igc_approved1$4.99 couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with the third “sniper” style gun in the making of this review.

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

Multiple review copies were provided to Indie Gamer Chick by Gnomic Studios. The copy played by IGC was paid for out of her own pocket. For more information on this policy, read the FAQ.

Volume

Quick disclosure: I’m buddies with both Volume creator Mike Bithell and actor/critic/celebrity mime Jim Sterling.

Disclosure over. Yea, I didn’t like Volume. But not because it doesn’t stack up against Thomas Was Alone, Mike’s previous game. Anyone who went in expecting something like that is probably being a bit unfair. I should also disclose that I’ve never played the NES Metal Gear, which is what inspired Volume. I’m not quite sure why you would want to mimic a nearly 30year-old game’s mechanics, especially in a genre like stealth. I’m sure the retro fans will hate me for saying this, but being like something old isn’t necessarily a good thing. Metal Gear isn’t inherently better because it’s older. You only think it’s better because you played it at an age where video game stimuli caused your body to generate higher levels of dopamine than playing games today as an adult does. When you look at one of your childhood favorites, those memories alone could possibly trigger something close to that desired effect but not quite there, which essentially renders the experience the gaming version of chasing the dragon.

By the way, that whole dopamine rant I pulled it out of my ass for comic effect not knowing the science probably backs me up on it. Also, put down the pitchforks, retro fans. Tongue firmly in cheek. I’m not suggesting old school gamers would turn to heroin because they can’t get their copy of River City Ransom to boot up.

Okay, fine, maybe Patrick Scott Patterson would.

The dogs in Volume can alert the guards to your location but can't actually attack you. Oh COME ON, this totalitarian regime couldn't afford a couple angry Dobermans?

The dogs in Volume can alert the guards to your location but can’t actually attack you. Oh COME ON, this totalitarian regime couldn’t afford a couple hungry Dobermans with a taste for human flesh? Because if not I know a guy..

I actually like games inspired by the legendary titles of yore. Inspired being the key word here. Actually being like them is sort of the pits, since gaming has come a long ways. That’s why Volume fails. It’s married too much to being like old school stealth games. You know, the ones where actual stealth wasn’t required. It also wants to be a puzzle game. And an action-arcade game. These three styles really aren’t compatible, and some aspects of them also get in the way of delivering an in-depth story that tries to be a modern take on Robin Hood. The hero’s name is Locksley, while the villain is Guy Gisborne. Also known as the Robin Hood villain nobody gives a shit about. Given the totalitarian regime angle, the bad guy should have been named John Prince. Guy Gisborne sounds like he would be a back-up drummer for Winger.

So why didn’t I like Volume? You can break it down into three parts.

1. I like my stealth games to be sneaky and tension filled.

Volume is neither. The enemies are so fucking brain-dead that I was able to set global record times on dozens of stages just by ignoring the stealth stuff and making a run for it. Right in front of the enemies. Sometimes I would be walking up against a wall, in full view of one of the guard’s line of sight, literally wiggle my body to try to get caught, and nothing happened. I made a mix tape to demonstrate everything I’m talking about. Take a look.

Dimwitted guards operating like they recently had a full frontal lobotomy might have been a staple of gaming’s past, but why not smarten it up today? Wouldn’t that be the best way to pay tribute to those past games, by improving on their original intent? The lack of anything resembling intelligence really takes the oomph out of Volume. There’s no tension at all. That would require a fear of getting caught by the guards. But I often walked into tiny, dead-end rooms from which there was no possible way I could escape, have the guards follow me, peek into the room, and give up the search. If they worked there, surely they would know of the room and know I had no place else to go.

This was also the primary reason why I couldn’t get into the story. The idea is you’re simply running a simulator that’s teaching others how to break into these guarded buildings and loot treasure. I was sort of hoping the big plot twist in the end would be showing Locksley the pile of bodies the dictatorship had racked up due to his horrible advice on thieving. “Surely Locksley you didn’t expect us to hire guards that don’t know the layout of the building they work in you stupid fool!” A+ writing there, by the way. I’m for hire.

2. I like my puzzle games to be brainy.

You can certainly see the logic of Volume’s levels. Some of them might have offered some downright brain-bending moments. They would have, if you had to solve them the way Mike envisioned. But you don’t. I had pretty much figured out how to exploit the guard’s behavior only a few stages into Volume and was able to just plow through stages with total disregard for the elaborate puzzles set up for me. Two guards that I need to whistle for to distract and slowly move away from the diamond sandwiched between them? Yea, I could do that. Or I could just walk up, take the diamond, occasionally hug the wall to restart their aiming mechanic, turn a corner and sprint to the exit. I never repeated any level more than a couple of times. There’s no punishment for being caught by the guards, and because the global leaderboards reward fast times, you’re actually rewarded for ignoring that point of the game. I wasn’t just beating high scores, I was annihilating some of them by thirty seconds or more on my first attempt at those stages.

This cracked me up. Many stages in and the game just alerted me that new, dumber guards were added. As opposed to the guards from before? Ha.

This cracked me up. Many stages in and the game just alerted me that new, dumber guards were added. As opposed to the guards from before? Ha.

3. I like my arcade games to be fast-paced.

Volume’s moderately interesting story is told with a mixture of voice overs and text boxes that are placed in stages. Whereas Thomas Was Alone’s fairy tale-like narration was in perfect sync with the happenings of the game, Volume has a much more complex plot that requires your full attention to process. Then it throws you in a game where your attention will be anywhere but on the plot. When this isn’t happening, you might stumble upon a text-box that pauses the game (and thankfully the timer) so you can get more plot points that my brain processed as gibberish because it had broken my flow of not-giving-a-shit running from guards while cackling the whole time. Really, the text boxes should have more often been envelopes that you could read at your own leisure between the stages. I don’t want my not-a-stealth-or-puzzler-or-arcade game interrupted in the middle of a chase. Do you? Volume probably does a lot better as a fast-paced action/arcade title than it does anything else, but it still feels too slow and dull for that without the story interruptions.

Volume has some neat moments. I like how you’re still getting new items even after 90 stages, and the items are mostly fun to use. The voice acting is mostly fine, even though I can’t pick one British voice apart from another besides Jim’s, who I’d like to think has some sort of dolphin-like ultra-sonic thing going for him. The graphics are okayish. It controls fine. But, Volume just plain isn’t fun. Too dumb to challenge. Too long to say “at least it was quick.” And to those who say I’m not being fair because I didn’t play it the way it was intended to be played, I say this: it’s up to the developer to tighten the game to prevent me from doing that. Look, if you give an asshole a flamethrower and unleash them in the Jiffy Pop factory, I’m sorry but you’re an idiot if you don’t think there’s going to be a mess of popcorn at the end of the night. And in the case of Volume, I was given moronic guards and non-puzzles. I took the path of least resistance and said “fuck this, I could go for some popcorn right about now.”

Volume logoVolume was developed by Mike Bithell
Point of Sale: PSN, Steam
Only the PS4 version was played for this review.

$19.99 pumped up the Volume like it was a Fygar in the making of this review.

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