The Narrator Is a DICK, Hikikomori No Chuunibyou, and Hiiro

The Narrator Is a DICK is a punisher, the hook being humorous commentary designed to take the edge off the brutal difficulty. This is the second game this year I’ve reviewed where the main draw is a running audio commentary. But, unlike Deadly Tower of Monsters, Dick’s commentary just plain isn’t funny. I was hoping for it to be similar to the classic Looney Tunes short Duck Amuck (which was later turned into an incredibly overlooked Nintendo DS title that’s worth tracking down). Instead, it’s just snarky “gotcha” type of quips while you die unavoidable “gotcha” deaths. The controls are too loose. The level design is based on surprise deaths. Because of this, you would think the game would have more lines and jokes than it does, but you’re almost certain to hear the dialog repeat again and again. Difficult to the point of boredom. A game that almost is defiant in its lack of entertainment. I can’t think of anything nice to say about it. The Narrator Is a DICK is one of the worst games I’ve played at IGC.

The Narrator Is a DICK

The Narrator Is a DICK is an exaggeration. More like the Narrator Is Mildly Annoying. $4.99, available on Steam.

Hikikomori No Chuunibyou is an acrobatic platformer from the developer of samurai_jazz. While I didn’t hate that title, it had abysmal control and boring combat that I felt sunk a game that had a lot of potential. Here we are, 18 months later, and Hikikomori.. has abysmal play control and boring combat. Sigh. What really kills the game is the awful wall-jumping, which is the primary gameplay mechanic. It’s unresponsive (at least with an Xbox One controller) and never feels smooth. The horrible controls immediately render Hikikomori unpleasant to play. I’m not a fan of any game where the challenge comes primarily from fighting with the controller, and this is no exception.

That's my corpse being juggled by enemies in

That’s my corpse being juggled by enemies in Hikikomori No Chuunibyou. To the game’s credit, the combat is better than in samurai_jazz. It mostly works this time, though it’s incredibly boring. $1.99 (I paid $1.69), available on Steam.

Normally I wouldn’t have bothered to review either of these games, since I quit both of them fairly early in. Neither was fun and didn’t really have potential to suddenly be entertaining without heavy patchwork. I have nothing particularly insightful to say about them. But, I played a third platformer around the same time called Hiiro that made me think about how fine a line between success and failure can exist in Indieland.

Hiiro is a death-free, combat-free exploration platformer where you search a large map for trinkets. It’s minimalist to a fault, where there’s no stakes or driving motivation to keep you going. The double-jump is a bit touchy, but otherwise there’s really nothing wrong control-wise. It’s short and simple and whimsical. The layout is (mostly) rudimentary, with simple puzzles that make it more suitable for young children than cynical, blood-lusting adults. As someone who thinks minimalism is code for “no vision or creativity”, I probably shouldn’t have liked Hiiro at all since there’s really nothing here to like. Yet, it’s actually pretty okay, enough for me to recommend it to those who don’t really want much in the way of challenge.

I'm holding out for a Hiiro 'till the end of the night. He's gotta be red and he's gotta be bland and he's got to beaten by night.

I’m holding out for a Hiiro ’till the end of the night. He’s gotta be red and he’s gotta be bland and he’s got to beaten by night.

So why does Hiiro succeed while the other two fail? It just comes down to playability. Hiiro works. The wall-jumping in Hikikomori is bad from the start. The brutal difficulty, repetitive dialog, and awful controls of Narrator make it bad from the start. There isn’t a whole lot to Hiiro, but at least you can immediately begin appreciating the work put in, instead of saying “this probably wasn’t ready to be released yet.” Hiiro is fine but bland. The other two games had a significantly higher ceiling, but defy enjoyment. Hiiro allows you to appreciate the vast world created, and the sense that it’s developer will be someone to keep an eye on. Hopefully he learns how to include shortcuts next time. And plot. And stuff to do.

headerHiiro was developed by Ben Harvey
Point of Sale: Steam

igc_approved1$2.54 (normally $2.99) Barely stayed awake writing this in the making of this review. Sorry.

Hiiro is Chick Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. The other two games are most certainly not.

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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

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.

Kill the Plumber

Kill the Plumber is the latest “turn the tables” game. Turn the tables is typically a smoke and mirrors genre in the sense that it’s really just the same kind of games you’ve played before and only gives the illusion that they do something different. Take Default Dan, which appears to twist the Mario platforming formula by doing things like making coins and items kill you, while making enemies and spikes help you. In reality, it  just reskins the formula, changing nothing but the appearance. A moderately skilled ROM hacker could do the same thing to Super Mario Bros. on the NES, swapping the mushrooms with the goombas, or the coins with stationary fireballs. It would still be Super Mario Bros, a perfectly fine game, but the novelty would wear off quick. That’s why Default Dan was just alright as a game. Once you got past the novelty of good = bad and bad = good, the game had to stand on its own, and in the sense, it was just okay. Of course, in game reviews, people associate “just okay” with “likely to resurrect Hitler.” You guys do realize it’s okay to be okay, right?

It looks the part, no question about that.

Kill the Plumber: the name of this game, not Sega’s unofficial corporate slogan circa 1991.

Kill the Plumber genuinely does turn the tables, in the sense that you control the bad guys and legitimately do attack Not-Mario like enemies in real Mario game do. It still feels more like it’s done for novelty value than being a truly inspired concept, but at least the foundation is set properly. Unfortunately, everything past that crumbles once the game starts.

Say it with me, everyone: controls. Having good play control will not make your game, but having bad control will almost certainly break it. The controls for Kill the Plumber are atrocious. All movement feels like you’re underwater. Even worse, the controls can be very unresponsive. This becomes especially annoying with levels where you have less than one second at the start of the stage to begin moving. Like this one:

I should also note that, because the screen flashes white when you die, and because you will die instantly on this stage and immediately restart, I had to have someone else complete it for me because of epilepsy risks. I quit shortly thereafter. If no effort was made to make the game good, I don't really feel the need to suffer through it.

I should also note that, because the screen flashes white when you die, and because you will die instantly on this stage and immediately restart, I had to have someone else complete it for me because of epilepsy risks. That this could happen again was enough of a worry for me that I decided to walk away before finishing it. No regrets for that, it’s awful and kept getting worse. Thankfully, there’s a cheat code (type “warpzone” on the title screen) that unlocks all the levels, so that I could sample later stages and see if they got better. For the most part, they didn’t.

(For those who played my Mario Maker stages, I’m perfectly aware of the hypocrisy.)

You will die in just under one second if you don’t move to the correct spot immediately at the start of this stage, and that’s BEFORE you take the sluggish response into account. How sluggish? You can PAUSE THE GAME and the response time to that is slow enough that not-Mario can still be moving while the game is in the process of pausing, leading to you getting killed while the pause menu fades into existence. Holiest of all shits, that’s inexcusably bad design. This is hardly the only level with this problem, too. “Think fast” is a great mindset for a punisher like 1001 Spikes, but for a game that feels more like a puzzler submerged in liquid nitrogen, it just makes the whole thing boring.

The final boss fight (where you control the boss) is remarkable: the gravity is too heavy while the jumping is too light AT THE SAME TIME!

The final boss fight (where you control the boss) is remarkable: the gravity is too heavy while the jumping is too light AT THE SAME TIME! Credit where it’s due: Kill the Plumber kept coming up with new ways to annoy me.

Which is not to say Kill the Plumber does nothing right. Again, this is a genuine reversal of roles. Playing as not-Mario baddies who behave reasonably close to their real counterparts isn’t the worst idea a game has ever had. The concept is eye-catching and serves it purpose: you see it, you want to play it just based on the premise. That’s why I’m so frustrated with it. It’s sold brilliantly, but the execution misses in every way a game can. Awful control, some of the worst I’ve experienced for a game like this. Incredibly irritating levels of unfairness. Even the scoring system seems clumsy, and because of the tedious gameplay speed, you probably won’t want to replay stages to go for three-stars. The levels are short enough that it could be an enjoyable quick’n’quirk experience. Instead, it’s just a slog. There’s nothing wrong with Kill the Plumber that couldn’t have been fixed with more time and care, but as it stands, I really hated this game. Kill it indeed. Kill it with fire.

headerKill the Plumber was developed by Keybol
Point of Sale: Steam
Also available to play for free on Newgrounds

$3.99 (normally $4.99) said “too late, it’s already dead” in the making of this review.

Tiny Galaxy

Update: Apparently Tiny Galaxy did get a lot of play testing and feedback, with the developer being made aware of many issues that I brought up in this very review. The problems with the game can be chalked up to a first time developer. Being made a first time developer doesn’t change the quality of a game, so I’ve edited out my (mistaken) belief that developer Arcane Pixel got no proper feedback in the making of this game, and left the rest of the review up.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hunt bad games for the sportiness of it. Why would anyone these days? The novelty of saying “this game sucks” fifty-different ways gets old quickly. A bad game is almost never entertaining in the same way a bad movie is. There are exceptions but most really awful games are just painful to try to squeeze any entertainment value out of. I also recognize that there are real people with real feelings behind every bad game. Take Tiny Galaxy for Wii U. Developer Taylor Hajash is a really nice guy. He was one of the developers who gave copies of his game to people who donated to the Epilepsy Foundation on my 26th birthday back in July. Nice guy. Big heart. To know him is to like him. Not the kind of person anyone would want to tell “your game isn’t very good” to.

I get no pleasure at all saying that I could not think of a single game I’ve ever played on a Nintendo platform worse than Tiny Galaxy. This game is atrocious. The idea is you walk along round planets and jump between them to locate three stars that open up an exit. So, maybe like a 2D Mario Galaxy mixed with a Super Meat Boy-like punisher that is full of lots and lots of saws. Sounds fine, I guess. But, Tiny Galaxy fails in nearly every way a game can. It looks ugly. It controls badly. The camera (in a 2D platformer mind you) sometimes can’t keep pace with the action. The camera is slow to switch positions when you jump between planetoids while the controller’s transition is not, and trying to keep track of that is like trying to rub your head and pat your belly at the same time. The camera’s spinning makes the game legitimately nauseating to play. The menus seem to have no visual indication of what levels you’ve finished. The levels are at best bland. At worst they’re infuriating and unfair. There’s no checkpoints so when you die, you have to start the stage over. I couldn’t even bother trying to make it out of the first world of the game. Not for a lack of effort. I put about an hour into this, but my will to subject myself to this became non-existent as my anger grew that this game made it to the marketplace.

Even images from the marketplace infuriate me. Don't put branded pictures on the marketplace page. Put them anywhere else, but on a page that has the game's title, don't cover up anything, even a black blank screen, with branding!

Even images from the marketplace infuriate me. Don’t put branded pictures on the marketplace page. Put them anywhere else, but on a page that has the game’s title, don’t cover up anything, even a black blank screen, with branding!

And finally, Tiny Galaxy costs $5.99 That’s $1 more than even the most expensive Xbox Live Indie Games. That price actually got me a little angrier because I could see a parent confusing this for a child-friendly game and instead it’s a punisher that feels very rushed (which likely wasn’t the case here) and, frankly, very lazy. I mean, how fucking hard is it to make it so a completed stage has a checkmark on the level select screen? Edit: Apparently the developer would have had to start over from scratch to do this. Then start over from scratch I say.  Tiny Galaxy feels unfinished. It should never have been put up for sale in this state, especially at $5.99. Not that any price would be good for Tiny Galaxy. A price really doesn’t make a bad game better. It just makes it cheaper.

There were no bad intentions with Tiny Galaxy, and I find it heartbreaking that Taylor is throwing in the towel. I usually try to be funny and keep it light, but here I just feel very unhappy with this whole mess. Unfortunately, I can’t just not review it. It’s a game that costs real money. More money than many other indies that had a lot more effort put forth. It’s not that Taylor didn’t try hard, but it certainly feels as if corners were cut. Perhaps he expected to hit a home run on his first game. Game development usually doesn’t work this way.

It’s not up to game critics to soften the blow. We only owe developers fairness, and nothing else. If we aren’t completely straight with how we feel about a game, it’s our readers that we screw. I saw this when I played Super Comboman last year. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of people playing it, who clearly hated the game, had NOTHING positive to say about it, used dodgy weasel-words to describe the flaws, and then told people with a straight face that they should go buy it. Who the fuck does that help?

Game critics are obligated to give their personal opinions straight to their readers. If you’re a good critic who cherishes the readers or viewers you have, that sometimes means being a little heartless. Not malicious, and I do admit that when I first started IGC and I had no clue what I was doing, I could be mean. But sometimes, there’s just no nice way to serve your readers while being fair to developers. If I used weasel-words to soften the blow for Taylor, people might walk away from my review under the mistaken impression that I was on the fence about Tiny Galaxy’s quality. I’m not. I tried to find something nice to say about Tiny Galaxy, and I went blank. It didn’t crash, I guess. It didn’t become sentient and crawl out of my TV like that girl in the The Ring and try to eat me or something. That’s literally the best I can say about it. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone enjoying it on any level. Since this review was first published, I’ve had people say “I did like it!” Yea, well some people like to self-mutilate too, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that either.

Taylor: don’t quit. Imagine how awesome a story it will be if you create something spectacular, after Tiny Galaxy. Imagine the inspiration you could serve to developers who have struggled. Besides that, you’re a nice guy. And gaming could use more of those these days.

Tiny GalaxyTiny Galaxy was developed by Arcane Pixel Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo eShop

$5.99 was the Swawp Thing Pixel to the Arcane Pixel in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

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

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

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

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

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

SPOILER WARNING – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID

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

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

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

END OF SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

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

Flem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flem 1

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

Flem 2

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

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

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

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

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

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