Mystery Castle

When I started Indie Gamer Chick in July of 2011, I figured I’d be playing a lot of new ideas and experimental concepts. Ha. Silly me. Most of indie games take their inspiration from games of yesteryear. This is fine, especially when those muses are properties that have long since been abandoned. Take the Adventures of Lolo, for example. Here’s a franchise whose last American release came when I was two-years-old. A series popular enough that it had three full releases for the NES, and even more globally, but has gotten no love since. Hell, the Smash Bros series is by HAL, the studio behind Lolo, and yet it can’t even get so much as a trophy in the series. Yea, him and Princess Lala were villains in the Kirby series, but that isn’t much comfort. That would be like Fox saying “yea, we cancelled Firefly, but hey, you can see Captain Mal flipping off Jack Bauer in the background of an episode of 24 so it’s fine!”

Working title: The Adventures of No-lo.

Working title: The Adventures of No-lo.

I hadn’t played Lolo until I found an XBLIG called Aesop’s Garden, and someone said “well it’s just a Lolo clone.” It’s not, though the inspiration is clearly there. Since then, I found another Lolo-inspired indie gem, SpyLeaks, which I liked so much that I included it in my Indie Royale bundle back in 2013. While those games expanded the Lolo concept, people who wanted just a straight re-imagining of franchise might not have liked them. For those unambitious types, Mystery Castle is probably their best bet. It holds the distinction of being the only Ouya game I ever finished. I liked it just fine, but never bothered to review it on account of it, well, being an Ouya game. My reviews of puzzle games here are already as well received as a diagnosis of Gonorrhea, and the double whammy of being on a platform only owned by people who hate money made it seem like a waste of time to write-up. But now it’s on Steam and Xbox One, so here’s what I have to say about it: it’s fine.

I mean, you’re not going to be enthusiastically singing the praises of it to anyone. Mystery Castle’s gameplay is as forgettable as its name (one fan of mine mistook it for a remake of an NES game called Milon’s Secret Castle, which I guess is known for being horrible), but it’s solid. The idea is you’re a gnome. You have to puzzle your way through rooms, collecting diamonds to open up an exit. The formula is somewhat adjusted by having things like warps to push boxes through, lanterns to light invisible paths, or keys that only work on certain doors. The controls are a little too floaty, which is common for the genre because you sort of have to be able to move one-half-space at a time, or else it would be too hard to maneuver blocks into the correct positions. Veterans of Lolo will get used to it quickly.

I do appreciate that the boss fights are still puzzles, as opposed to Lolo 3 where you just basically Care Bear Stare the bosses like a shooter.

I do appreciate that the boss fights are still puzzles, as opposed to Lolo 3 where you just basically Care Bear Stare the bosses like a shooter.

So is it fun? Yea. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had played it only a couple of stages at a time instead of trying to plow through it as fast as possible. Puzzlers can be exhausting to attempt in one sit-through, something that I’ll fully admit is unfair for game developers since their genre doesn’t lend itself to the review process. Especially when the game has a lot of needless dialog and explanation. Really, the only part I truly hated were the ice stages, which feel closer to a game called Starzzle that I reviewed a week after launching IGC. I’ve given up on developers ever figuring out that most gamers would rather lick rust than play ice stages. But, whatever. There’s enough new ideas to keep things relatively fresh from start-to-finish, enough so I think anyone wanting a game like this will be satisfied. While I still prefer Aesop’s Garden and Spyleaks, Mystery Castle is really good for what it wants to be. Really, this is closest in feel to a direct sequel to Lolo you’ll probably get anytime soon. If you like that series, you’ll enjoy this. If you don’t, you won’t. Easiest. Review. Ever.

Mystery Castle logoMystery Castle was developed by Runestone Games
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox-One, Ouya

igc_approved1$9.99 (I think, not sure what I paid for the Ouya version) said “Thank you to all my readers for five incredible years of support. Here’s to the next fifty!” in the making of this review.

Mystery Castle 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 it’s 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.

Kingdom

Kingdom, the first of 2016’s challenge-reviews from Indie Game Riot (they select a game they think I’m unlikely to select for myself, I purchase and review it, and they match my purchase price as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation) is one of my favorite indies ever. It didn’t start that way though. It’s follows the recent trend of giving players very limited instructions and almost no tutorial. Because, you know, “back in the day we didn’t need no stinkin’ instructions!”

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn't read?

Does anyone else find it disturbing that an entire generation of gamers brags about all the books they didn’t read?


The idea is you play as the ruler of what looks like an abandoned KOA who must recruit people to help you build-up and defend the land, while you ride around on a horse and look stylish while wearing your crown. At the start of the game, you’re given a handful of coins, one of which you must spend to start a campfire that becomes the center of your kingdom, two of which you’ll need to recruit the first two guys at the camp you seemingly commandeer from them, and the rest you’ll spend assigning them their jobs. There’s only two available jobs at the start: builder and archer. Archers (poorly) hunt animals during the day to nab you coins, and (poorly) defend you from monsters at night. Builders (slowly) construct stuff for you. What kind of stuff? You have to figure that out on your own. The stuff you can assign them to build has no label identifying what it will eventually be. It’s mostly defensive in nature, but still, it assures that you’ll spend your money unwisely and die quickly your first few go-arounds.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins.

You recruit people by throwing coins at their feet like street urchins. I find this comical for some reason.

I’ll never understand the “figure it out” mentality of some developers. I think the idea is supposed to be “tutorials are boring.” Yea, they can be, but so can aimlessly wandering. Solving the tutorial problem by such an extreme measure as not having one at all seems a bit drastic. Not to mention you might fail to hook people outside of your target audience. Like me. Imagine if you could spring one person from North Korea, and then give them $2 to buy one of our delicious American soft drinks. But then you unleash them in the soda aisle and give them no clue what are the good ones and what are the bad ones. You run the risk, even likelihood, that they’ll select something disgusting like a Dr. Pepper and be soured on carbonated drinks forever. I was hoping Steam starting a refund program would slow down the volume of them, since most gamers don’t have the patience I do when it comes to games like this. Sadly, it hasn’t. I would be curious what the refund rate is for Kingdom. That opening hour can be pretty demoralizing, and actually, really boring too. The only games that should have players repeatedly mumbling “oh, I get it” are puzzlers. Kingdom is a world builder/strategy/roguelike without the faintest hint of puzzles.

For what it’s worth, once you figure stuff out, the game genuinely is exhilarating. Not the “ta-da” moments where you figure shit out. There’s really nothing all that fun about that. But, once you get going and you start making progress, every extra day you survive is cause for celebration. I settled for starting with two archers, using the first coins they nabbed me to recruit a builder (you find more people at campgrounds), and spending everything else on the first two basic defensive walls. From this point, I fell into a good rhythm and went from only making it to day five to making it to day ten, upgrading my home base a few times, building a decent army, and having a sprawling land that is actually too big for anyone to reasonably expect to maintain on their own. Given the frankly so-absurd-it’s-practically-sarcastic difficulty spike that happens every fifth day when a blood moon causes a large army of monsters to attack, I was fairly proud of myself.

Kingdom’s main problem is that those spikes in difficulty completely throw the pacing out the window. They’re not remotely balanced or fair. Intentionally so, as it turns out. The trailer for the game is centered around its extreme difficulty, how little progress you’ll make, and how often you’ll die. It’s one of the worst trailers for a good game I’ve seen. It turned off at least one friend who I raved about Kingdom to, because it’s about as inviting as a fence made out of urine-soaked barbed wire and rabid rottweilers.

That’s one thing even the smartest developers, indie or otherwise, fail to grasp. In games where you die a lot, the dying part isn’t what’s fun. It’s surviving that keeps players coming back. Take my best run thus far. I finally made it to the dreaded day fifteen, which I had been warned was a roadblock for many people who were satisfied with Kingdom, but not in a happy-glowly kind of way. I had never made it that far before, but I had poured my resources into a defensive strategy AND had buffed-up my archers. Additionally, I had a large bag of coins and I knew that if you drop the coins, any enemies who pick them up leave the current raid. I was ready.

Ha.

Yea, I got FUBARed something good, losing roughly 80% of my total resources. Most players told me they would just quit and start over when this happens. Me? I’m no quitter. I persevered. Low and behold, I not only survived, but by day 18, I was actually in better shape than I was before I lost almost everything. “Bring it!” was my motto. Which the monsters did. On day 20. This time, they were flying. I was so not ready to fight flying things. Eventually, every person I had was dead and all that was left was me getting my crown knocked off, which is half of the fail-condition for the game, the other half being if one of the monsters picks up the crown. But, I kept recovering the crown just enough that the sun started to rise and I finally completed level 20, earning an achievement and literally dying a second later.

It was fucking awesome.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it's in the top tier. I only wish the characters & enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

I avoid talking about graphics for the most part at IGC, but I should point out that, as far as this particular style of pixel-art goes, I think it’s in the top-tier. I only wish the characters and enemies were slightly larger and more distinct looking, but otherwise, top-notch atmosphere and effects. See, I can be nice.

The good stuff is really good. Once you figure it out, at least. Another problem with the lack of explanations is you could be having a killer run only to stumble upon something new that costs coins. Since you don’t know the effect of the new thing, it’s a gamble on whether you’ll benefit immediately or if it’s something you shouldn’t invest in at the stage you’re at. This is a roguelike. Making the wrong guess (and really, it is a guess,) could cost you hours of playtime investment. I found something that looked like a fancy outhouse and couldn’t resist the temptation to put money in it. Honestly I’m not sure what benefit I got out of it, but the result was my run went to crap. Which, in retrospect, I should have anticipated.

Kingdom frustrates me, but not in the way it wants to. It’s so intentionally unintuitive and unfair that it’s practically pretentious. But, despite that, it’s a really fun game. I mean, I’m going to get back to playing it some more as soon as I finish typing this. In fact, as of this writing, it’s one of the ten best indie games I’ve ever played. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. I’m not. That’s why I’m so annoyed. Because I love spreading the word on understated, unsung indie gems. As someone who isn’t a fan of games that take joy in high body counts or throwing players in the deep end on their first day of swimming lessons, Kingdom was not a game made for me at all. And I love it. For all the muck I just raked up, every moment past the first hour or so had me dazzled AND on the edge of my seat. Amazing. Imagine what it could have been if it found a healthy middle ground. Maybe adjustable difficulties, or an optional tutorial that could be skipped by the type of sadomasochistic dweebs who get off on stuff like this. “Oh yesssss, I’ve been a naughty, naughty little twat. Whip me more you sexily aggravating game.”

headerKingdom was developed by Noio and Licorice
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$9.99 wants to know when someone will port the board game Key to the Kingdom to digital form in the making of this review?

Kingdom is Chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Thanks to Patrick Scott Patterson and his Video Game Media Archive for the instruction book pic.

SteamWorld Heist

SteamWorld Heist is the long-awaited fourth entry in the Ocean’s Eleven movie series. This time, George Clooney’s ragtag group of professional thieves break into Valve’s headquarters to steal Gabe Newell’s tankers full of bacon grease. Okay, so the actual story is a ragtag group of space robots looting other space robots, but really, the first idea needs to happen.

I’ll give this to Image & Form: they have balls. Big, huge, brass balls that go “clank clank clank” like you’re listening to James Harden practice 3-pointers. SteamWorld Heist is not a sequel to their critically acclaimed mining time sink SteamWorld Dig. It’s a completely different style of game, with a new set of characters and new gameplay mechanics. It’s set in the same universe and features a quirky cast of sassy robots, with the same graphics style and same smooth play controls. Once again, if I played the game in a vacuum with no knowledge of indie gaming and was asked “who made this?” I would have guessed Nintendo without hesitation. The guys at Image & Form are very, very good. And this time around, they took even more care (this from an indie developer who has imposed a strict “no releasing games needing patches” policy) to provide a longer, more layered and complex experience.

Huge thanks to Image & Form for only providing screenshots with QR codes, branding, and the duel screen stuff. We wouldn't want anyone to get a good view of what the game looks like, would we?

Huge thanks to Image & Form for only providing screenshots with QR codes, branding, and the full view of the 3DS. We wouldn’t want anyone to get a good view of what the game looks like or be able to tell what’s going on, would we? At least this picture has the robot I nicknamed “Ron Howard” on the right.

So why didn’t I like Heist as much as Dig?

Before I continue, I should note that SteamWorld Heist is one of the best indies of 2015 and goes far to stake SteamWorld’s claim to the most unsung awesome indie franchise award. Heist stands on its own as a good game, and if I had never played Dig, I wouldn’t be so weirded out by the radical departure Heist makes from the established formula.

But weirded out I am. Because SteamWorld Dig was a relatively fast-paced title that took the time sink formula of XBLIG top-seller Miner Dig Deep and gave it a point. SteamWorld Heist, on the other hand, is a turned-base real-time action strategy game, or TBRTASG for short. Which is both a crappy acronym and a mediocre opening rack to have in Scrabble, with GRABS, GARBS, and BRAGS being the best words you can make on your opening turn, none of which are really that good. Turn-based games are inherently slower and more methodical, so I wasn’t expecting the kind of thrills I got from Dig. Actually, I’m impressed that Heist lends itself so well to playing on 3DS. Turns go by relatively quickly and stages are short enough that if you only have 10 minutes to kill, you could probably knock out any stage in the game with time to spare. The action revolves around how you aim and fire weapons yourself, giving the game an almost Worms-like feel to it. In fact, I hope Image & From is planning a versus mode for Heist when it hits consoles. It would be like Transformers, only you can tell the robots apart.

Having said all that, being fast-paced for a turn-based game is still relatively slow. The more deliberate pace can be exhausting. Whereas I had trouble putting Dig down, I could only do one-hour sessions of Heist before pretty much any other activity seemed at least 10% more appealing, and I needed a break. Even the promise of opening up new characters, weapons, and upgrades wasn’t enough to give it that “just a little bit further” quality that makes some games so memorable and successful. Like Dig, the story didn’t really stick with me at all. In fact, taking the game from the old west setting and sending it into space comes dangerously close to jumping the shark, and the characters are all of the cookie-cutter “lowest common denominator” variety. Probably great for both little kids and their child brains and also Nintendo fans whose brains are merely stuck in child mode. I kid.

I, of course, am NOT a little kid. Which is why I would never give up on a boss for being too difficult and change the setting to "easy". I swear. STOP LOOKING AT ME WITH THOSE ACCUSING EYES!

I, of course, am NOT a little kid. Which is why I would never give up on a boss for being too difficult and change the setting to “easy”. I swear. STOP LOOKING AT ME WITH THOSE ACCUSING EYES!

Actually, I don’t know if SteamWorld Heist would hold your average kid’s attention. I had a couple of kids who played Dig and liked it a lot give Heist a whirl. It didn’t hold their interest at all, with one outright calling it boring. He’s wrong (and got a lump of coal from me for Christmas, serves him right), it’s certainly not boring, but I can’t stress enough that fans of SteamWorld Dig are by no means certain to love Heist. Whereas I think Dig could have appealed even to gamers who are not fans of the mining genre (which is a rarity given the blind hatred directed at those), I don’t think Heist would be as welcome to people who shy away from turn-based games of any type. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me, and my gut never steers me wrong. It also never fails to remind me when I ignore it, especially when we eat Mexican.

From a gameplay perspective, Heist is a very solid game, and the shooting mechanics are hugely satisfying. Again, think Worms in terms of how damn good it feels to hit those last-chance desperation shots that ricochet a couple of times and manage to find their mark. Heist is full of moments like that, those “I can’t believe I made that shot!” moments that make games like this worth playing. There’s even an incentive to come close but miss, in the form of collectible hats you can shoot off enemy heads that I can already visualize the achievements attached to when this hits consoles. It kind of makes bitter that I played this on achievementless 3DS, since I shot more hats off than failed Abraham Lincoln assassins. And the huge variety of weapons and characters assures that the firefights themselves never become boring. As far as action gameplay in turn-based games go, Heist ranks near the top.

Someone call for a sponge, because Cathy's chair needs another clean-up.

Someone call for a sponge, because Cathy’s chair needs another clean-up.

But, I had a lot of complaints. I don’t like how movement and moves are represented. Instead of using a grid, the game draws color-coated lines (which will probably earn Image & Form the ire of colorblind gamers) to show the maximum distance you can move on a turn, or the maximum distance you can move while still being able to fire a weapon. That works fine for the turn you’re currently on, but I never got a good enough feel for movement, even after 20+ hours, to be able to plan the next few turns out. Since movement stats can change depending on your characters and what you equip them with, stronger on-screen visuals showing spacing would have made the game so much smoother. I can’t help but wonder if Image & Form avoided having a grid because they didn’t want the slower, dorkier stigma grids bring with them. Heist is certainly aimed at all ages, but kids might associate grids with math class or something.

My biggest complaint by far is how bland the levels are. I’m guessing this is mostly due to the levels being procedurally generated. Yes, the system put in place sets limits on how the levels can be laid out, assuring that certain things are in certain spots no matter what, and it’s commendable when a developer creates a really good random generator. As opposed to when they don’t. But, when you rely on randomness, you lose an elegance of design. The action in Heist would lend itself beautifully to levels designed around combos and making the movements and the actions puzzle/logic based. But, because randomness determines a good portion of where enemies are located, where loot is located, etc, you lose that higher-intelligence that I still feel can only be done by human hands. Some games are simply more suited for randomness. Spelunky was. Downwell was. Hell, even SteamWorld Dig was. Heist I don’t feel is. The irony of procedural generation has always been that, because of the limits you need to impose on it to make it work, it ultimately makes all levels feel kind of samey. Which seems to go against the point of making levels random in the first place.

Oh, and by the way Image & Form, I respect the shit out of you guys but you can’t advertise a game as being randomly generated..
Steamworld 1

And then immediately back off that and say “no no, they’re really handmade! Sorta!” when someone like me complains that randomly generated stages are a detriment to a game’s potential.

Steamworld 2Which didn’t really bother me. It just made me laugh, in the same way a desperate used-car salesman says “no no, you don’t understand, it’s supposed to make that horrible noise.”

Of course, the real reason for procedural generation is that with it, you can claim “endless gameplay” and “never the same game twice”, padding out a game’s “replay” and giving gamers “more value for their money.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG!! Because Heist does no such thing. The story unfolds the same, and replay is tied directly to a game’s adjustable difficulty that rewards you for playing on hard, not whether the levels are the same each time you play them or not. Frankly, I didn’t realize the levels were changing during runs where I shot poorly, died, and had to restart. It’s not like Spelunky, where I can say “oh neat, the shop is right by the start of stage 2. That totally makes up for the fact that the damsel was behind seven fucking bombs worth of rock in stage 1!” I’ll take fifty amazing, intelligent levels over endless ones that are good at best, and bland at worst.

The problem is there’s an expectation on how much game a certain amount of money should get you. SteamWorld Heist is $20, and many gamers feel that for that price tag, you should get 40 hours worth of gameplay. But I paid $15 for Journey and got four hours out of it, and it was four of the best hours I had playing a video game. Strip out the random levels and SteamWorld Heist would have been good for 10 to 15 hours, easily. I put over twenty in it. As it is, it’s really fun, but I feel the ceiling was lowered because instead of giving us the best levels human beings can make, Image & Form took a lot of care and effort to create a system that can make the best levels a soulless computer can make. You can get away with that if you’re a fast-paced, white-knuckle score-a-thon, but not something like this. If not for the fact that the action is hugely satisfying, the variety of weapons are so fun, and the game has more charm than nearly any other indie franchise, I think people would remember this as a letdown. I loved SteamWorld Heist. It’s in my top-fifty as of this writing. I just know the potential was here to like it more, and I didn’t. Which is a shame. Then I could have ended this review with a cheesy line like “the only Heist involved stealing my heart.”

Which I just figured out a way to do anyway. HA!

SteamWorld logoSteamWorld Heist was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: 3DS eShop

igc_approved1$16.99 (Launch Price, normally $19.99) noted the irony that I negatively compared Heist’s attempt at doing random levels to better examples like Spelunky and Downwell, yet SteamWorld Heist outranks both of them on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard in the making of this review.

A review copy of SteamWorld Heist was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for in full by Cathy. On December 11, 2016, a full copy was purchased. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.

SteamWorld Heist is chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Zero Punctuation: Hatfall – Hatters Gonna Hat Edition

Two game critics were important inspirations for me when I started Indie Gamer Chick. One was Jim Sterling, whom I became friends with when he stumbled upon my Indie Ego editorial. The other was Yahtzee Croshaw, who is playing hard to get. I found both of them to be insightful, uncompromising, and hilarious. I hold both in high esteem. They’re what a game critic should be: informative but entertaining, and just egotistical enough to be adorable without obnoxiousness.

Someone pass me the vaseline.

Really adorable. Someone pass me the vaseline.

Both also moonlight in game development itself. Jim is a critically acclaimed voice actor. Yahtzee has made a series of free-to-play indies that inspired his Yahtzee persona. Given that I just reviewed a game Jim acted in, the hugely disappointing Volume, I figured I should check out my other idol’s work. Low and behold, he just happened to have two games release on Steam. One of them is a survival horror game, a genre typically as compatible with my epilepsy as a housefly is with a rolled up copy of the New York Times. So I chose Hatfall, the Zero Punctuation-based game. It’s actually a mobile game converted to Steam with a few upgrades. Which actually makes me wonder how dull the mobile version must be. Butter knife dull? David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives dull? BluRay special edition audio commentary on the David Attenborough documentary on the history of butter knives with special guest Ben Stein dull?

The core game is you move left and right catching hats one at a time. The further you make it, the more stick-figure lookalikes crowd the screen, forcing you to quickly figure out which one is you before the hat hits the ground. Sometimes the game also drops deadly projectiles in addition to hats, and it takes a little bit of practice to be able to tell the difference. Stages fly by quickly, eventually spawning a wizard event that has an additional effects challenge that earns you a present if you complete it. Presents open up mini-games. And that’s about it.

You'll want to play this minigame over and over again when you're trying to slay the evil hat God. Or just don't buy the game. Because it sucks.

You’ll want to play this minigame over and over again when you’re trying to slay the evil hat God. Or just don’t buy the game. Because it sucks.

Call me crazy, but I sort of figured a game based on Zero Punctuation would be more satirical of gaming. I also figured it would involve some sort of fast-talking commentary by Yahtzee himself. But nope, there’s none. My family was elated. “Oh, so we won’t have to hear that awful man’s voice that sounds like the Micro Machine Man did twenty years in the Tower of London for doing terrible things with cattle? Oh um, what a shame, Cathy” they said while high-fiving each-other between toasts of champagne. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only voice overs from Yahtzee are two words. Sometimes he says “WRONG!” and other times he says “noooice!” That’s it, unless I missed something. The running gag of misspelled words in the background continues from his reviews, but none of them are funny without the context of his commentary. All the humor is limited to the minigames, which have a couple of laugh-out-loud gags in them, especially one based around insurance fraud. Maybe because of the Zero Punctuation title I was expecting a more scathing and self-aware satire on games and gaming culture, like the Beginners Guide if it was narrated by a fast-talking, British-born Australian psychopath. Hatfall is just sort of lazy. This feels like a game Yahtzee would shit on himself if he hadn’t made it.

Hey look, an almost satire on one niche aspect of the gaming scene: anime dating sims. Except that scene is such a parody onto itself that it's really not funny here.

Hey look, an almost satire on one niche aspect of the gaming scene: anime dating sims. That’s topical, right? Except that scene is such a parody onto itself that it’s really not funny here.

Worst of all is the game isn’t remotely fun to play. Progress is slow. Items are too expensive. Scoring is low and grindy. There’s a multiplier you get at random from the wizard that could either double the points you get the next game or earn you another life during your next round. These only serve to make every round you play without those items feel like a slow waste of your time. You have to go to the game’s achievement page in Steam to view leaderboards (I currently rank #30 globally, which as far as embarrassing achievements go ranks up there with the time I watched the entire season of Power Rangers Samurai without getting up to use the bathroom). This is a shitty, shitty game. One that is occasionally funny, but not funny enough (especially when the awful Rondo stuff starts) to justify spending real money on it. There’s an old saying: never meet your heroes. For aspiring game critics, add to that “and especially never play your heroes’ games. Ever.” Well fuck, so much for the wedding. We could have made beautiful, horrible children together, Yahtzee.

Zero logoZero Punctuation: Hatfall – Hatters Gonna Hat Edition was developed by this asshole.
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.99 (normally $4.99) asked why, if he could make looking at Mega Man cover art so funny I nearly choked on my own tears, how come he couldn’t make this funny in the making of this review?

Press X to Not Die

I hate FMV games, so I can’t pretend I went into Press X to Not Die completely neutral. They’re something that had novelty appeal before my time. Novelty being the key word here. I can’t believe anyone would reminisce about the glory days of Dragon’s Lair, a title with so little gameplay that you don’t even need a game console to play it on BluRay these days. And, unlike pretty much any other obsolete game format, I can’t put myself in the mindset where anyone would rather play it today than anything else. Saying “I would rather play Space Ace than any modern crap” is just as stupid sounding to me as it would be hearing someone say “I would rather just switch back and forth between the main menu and the chapter select DVD menus than actually watch the movie.” A dull choice for boring people.

But, if you’re going to do an FMV game today, taking the piss out of it seems like a good way to go. The genre certainly lends itself to satire, on account of its legacy reading like the obituary page. A hilarious idea for a game would be a suicidal game executive trying to destroy his own company by ordering the creation of a new FMV game, so that they can go bankrupt and secure their plot in gaming’s graveyard next to Cinematronics, American Laser Games, and the Sega CD. All yours, whoever wants to actually make a satire. Press X to Not Die really doesn’t do satire too well, nor is it a satire of FMV games. It just names stuff you’ve heard of and swipes running gags from other, funnier people. Even the name itself is taken from a Zero Punctuation running gag, I guess the mindset being “if it’s funny when the fast talking British-born Australian psychopath says it, it’ll be just as funny when done by our terrible actors in front of a cheap video camera.” Comedy for lazy cynics. Hey, did you know Team Edward versus Team Jacob is a thing? You did? You’re supposed to LOL, because that’s the joke!

I too have heard of these movies. Excuse me, my sides seem to be splitting.

I too have heard of these movies. Excuse me, my sides seem to be splitting.

Maybe one or two gags over the course of thirty minutes work. I guess the player-character’s hand gestures that mock first-person games are funny for like two seconds. There was exactly one line of dialog that made me laugh. When encountering a zombie, the girl who tags along with you uses kung-fu to take it out. You exclaim “you know Kung-Fu?” She pauses and says “Apparently.”

Maybe I told it wrong.

When it’s not relying on references for humor (remember how the final zombie in Zombieland was a clown! You do? Well look, our final zombie is a clown too! That’s somehow funny, right?), Press X to Not Die relies on dialog trees to, well, set up further references disguised as humor. “This is just like that M. Night Shyamalan movie!” Ha, because his movies are bad, so that’s funny. Oh and look, the last dialog option is the Little Mermaid. Oh snap, that’s not an M. Night Shyamalan movie, so that’s funny too, because I too have heard that Shyamalan is a hack director and I too know he didn’t direct the Little Mermaid.

Oh, did you not laugh? Don’t worry. Press X to Not Die’s repeats that joke a second time, just to make sure. This is the first game I’ve ever played that feels saturated in flop sweat.

Naming pop-culture stuff without any set-ups or punch-lines is both hilarious and so easy that I don’t know why anyone bothers putting in effort anymore. Frankly, I’m surprised people can read the directory at Comic Con without choking on their own fits of laughter and dying. “5PM: Superman panel. Ha, I’ve heard of Superman! 6PM: Doctor Who retrospective. Oh my God, Doctor Who! I know about that! That’s FUCKING HILARIOUS! 7:PM: Star Wars anniversary panel. Oh God oh God, Star Wars! I know about Star Wars too! Ahahahaha gag gurgling noise bleh!

Oh, and those “gag” answers in the dialog trees usually cue up the women in the game looking at you like you’re a moron and saying nothing. Really, that’s the payoff to them. Guy says something stupid, and character looks at you like this.

Lulz? Please tell me this is lulz.

Lulz? Please tell me this is lulz.

Nope, that’s not funny. Maybe you should try it again.

Sassy female characters looking at men in disgust for saying something dumb. That's something funny people do, right?

Sassy female characters looking at men in disgust for saying something dumb. That’s something funny people do, right?

No, sorry, still nothing. Maybe you should have said “hey, remember Alvin and the Chipmunks?” or something.

As for the game itself, for an FMV game it’s surprisingly lacking in FMVish stuff to do. A few quick time events, some of which are oh-so-“fun” button-mashing sequences, though there’s often a lot of downtime between the sequences. Just a whole lot of nothing to do, the barest minimum of a concept executed as quickly as possible. It’s awful, one of the worst games I’ve ever played.

I can’t even say everyone involved at least looked like they were having fun. The lead actress constantly has a look about her like she’s kicking herself for all the decisions that led her to being in this. The acting is bad, which I’m sure will be said was done intentionally so, because you know, the acting in FMV games of days gone by was bad. The thing is, those people were actually trying to be good, which is why it’s especially charming when they’re not. Trying to be bad isn’t funny. It’s just awkward unless you’re capable actors. When you’re just fucking around and shooting footage of you and your friends, none of whom are exactly up for Oscars to begin with, making an actual effort and failing would be cute and charming. When you try to be bad on purpose, you just come across like you don’t give a shit. Who wants to pay money to play the game by the people who didn’t even try? I don’t.

My apologies if they actually DID attempt decent acting. In which case…………… wow.

Press XPress X to Not Die was developed by All Seeing Eye Games
Point of Sale: Steam

$3.99 (too much) said these guys could use a seeing eye dog. See, that’s a joke in the making of this review.

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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