Dead Cells

Before I get to the review, I want to take Dead Cells to task on how it promotes itself. Dead Cells calls itself a hybrid of a roguelike and a Metroidvania, or a “RogueVania” to be specific. Apologists for it will say that it’s NOT trying to invoke a Metroidvania, despite that term being thrown around everywhere. And I take it issue with that, because it’s just not true. Oh, the roguelike part is. The difficulty is high, the randomness is, well, random. Especially the level design, which can be so nonsensically assembled that you’d swear the game is set in the Winchester Mystery House. Doors open into empty rooms. Hallways can wind around only to lead to a dead-end. Chains and vines lead to nowhere. It never really gets as absurd as Spelunky’s “damsel behind ten feet of rock when you can’t possibly have enough bombs by this point to get to her” stupidity, but the algorithm leaves a lot to be desired. Still, Dead Cells is quintessentially roguelike. Nobody would deny that.

But saying or suggesting this marries that genre to Metroidvanias is utter hogwash. All runs in Dead Cells are fully linear, with no back-tracking. You can unlock runes that permanently upgrade your character, but once you have them you can’t go back to the stuff you missed in previous levels unless you die or finish the game. Dead Cells has levels, not one big, sprawling map. Some stages have more than one exit, but once you’ve used that exit, you continue on a linear path and can’t take a mulligan if you don’t want to play the stage you exited to. Calling the levels “interconnected” seems intellectually dishonest. It’s factually true, in the sense that if you beat level one, you play level 2 next. But going by that logic, you’re saying Super Mario 1 is a Metroidvania. Its levels are interconnected, after-all. Beat level 1-1, move on to level 1-2. Doesn’t get more connected than that, right?

I can’t possibly imagine where they got the “Vania” part from.

I’m fine if they want the “Vania” part to mean “in the NES sense of things”, because Dead Cells feels an awful lot like the Castlevania games of yore, where you would play one linear level at a time and there was no gigantic map to explore. The protagonist even looks like a Belmont, sometimes uses a whip as a weapon, and fights the undead. Really, it’s the closest an indie game I’ve played has come to feeling like a modern twist on a 2D Castlevania, especially Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse on the NES. Replace switching between different characters with switching between different weapons and make the game a roguelike and it would fit right in. But that’s clearly not what the implication is behind the “rogueVANIA” thing, and I find that to be a bit dirty. It’d be like saying the Chicago Cubs are essentially a basketball team. I mean, they wear uniforms and they play a game with a ball and the team with the highest score wins, so it’s pretty much indistinguishable, right? Well, no. Of course not. And it’s shitty of Dead Cells to imply in any form that it’s a Metroidvania.

Got that?

Good. Now onto the review.

Dead Cells is the best indie game ever made.

Yep. As of this writing, I’ve been Indie Gamer Chick seven years, three months, and twelve days. I’ve previously reviewed 568 indie games, and played thousands more that I never transferred my opinions over into review form. And Dead Cells is the one. I have never put more time into a game before I sat down to write the review. I’ve never cussed a game I intended to review more. I’ve never had an indie utterly own my psyche to the degree it has. When I thought I had played enough to write this, I deleted the game from my Xbox One and Switch in a futile attempt to force myself to sit down and start typing. But then I decided I “needed more media”, reinstalled it, and ended up tripling my time-in. I took my Twitter followers on a roller-coaster of eutrophic glee and bitter contempt, wondering out-loud if Dead Cells was the best indie I’d ever played or unworthy of my Seal of Approval at all. I’ll give it this: it was never uninteresting.

Magical Source, Mystic Force!

A big part of the reason I had trouble beginning the actual writing process was because I honestly don’t know where to begin. By this point, I’m sure anyone reading this review has heard of Dead Cells, gets the gist of it, and is here to figure out exactly why I enjoyed it more than any indie game I’ve ever played.

Would you believe I don’t fully understand it myself?

I hate roguelikes. In fact, I generally hate games where the difficulty is the main attraction. I don’t see the fun in it. I’m sure I could tunnel through my bedroom door with a spoon if I wanted a genuine challenge. It’d be dull and tedious and time consuming to do so, but it would be a legitimate challenge. Or, I can just open the door and avoid all that shit, and spend my time doing fun stuff. A lot of developers don’t get that. Many indies look at something like Dark Souls, where the first thing any fan brings up is how damn hard it is, and assume that’s attraction. But it’s not. If Dark Souls wasn’t entertaining, nobody would care about the difficulty. It’d just be another inaccessible game that blowhards use to claim they’re “real gamers” and everyone else is just a “casual”.

Motion Twin got it, and Dead Cells is never boring no matter how far you’re into it. The 2D sword-and-shields combat is exhilarating from the get-go. The initial grind of fighting enemies and collecting enough “cells” to unlock getting a random starting weapon or starting bow could have reduced the opening hours into a hacky slog. Instead, the first three or four hours, where grinding up cells is the focus, might be the most cathartic introduction to a game since Resident Evil 4. Attacking feels like it has an authentic weight behind it, while dodging, blocking, or countering feels like there’s actual urgency behind every move you make. Even low-level zombies can take you out if your mind wanders just a little bit (trust me, I was felled by them more than once, even 100+ hours into the game, just because I got distracted). You feel like there’s stakes behind every encounter. When does that ever happen in gaming anymore?

Combining fire and ice is surprisingly effective. Someone ought to write a song about it or something.

But then, as you unlock more weapons, you start to realize the depth and nuances of Dead Cells. So much time was given to differentiate most of them that utilizing them makes it feel like you’re playing an entirely different game. But, and this is the key, it almost always feels so natural and right and you would swear Dead Cells was meant to specifically be that kind of game all along. If you equip the infantry bow, which scores damage most from point-blank range, Dead Cells feels like it was designed specifically to be a 2D gun combat game where you’re busting a cap in someone’s melon. The heavy bow feels like a shotgun that appropriately scatters baddie-chunks all over the stage. You might pick up weapons like the lightning bolt, frost blast, or fire blast that make Dead Cells feel like it was designed to be a superhero action-platformer that you could believe is a 2D version of Infamous. I’ve never experienced this phenomena in any game I’ve ever played. It’s astonishing how natural it is no matter what you’re wielding. Don’t get me wrong, not all the weapons are satisfying. The broadsword is so slow and impractical that it became the white elephant of the game. I kept succumbing to the temptation of picking it up, especially when super-charged versions of it were dropped by bosses, and always ended up regretting it. I’m not sure why I kept giving it a chance, given how often I died as a direct result of trying to use it. It’s not like I have a penis that necessitates making up for the inadequacy of.

Cloud ought to sue.

The wide variety of unlockable weapons is supposed to help highlight Dead Cells’ “make due with what you’re given” core gameplay. But this can also be problematic. There were a lot of less-than-fun items that I regretted unlocking. Once unlocked, you can’t prevent items from coming up in the randomized rotation. Items are broken up into three different colors: red, purple, and green. Red is brutality (and also grants you arbitrary leadership of the Power Rangers), purple is tactics (and also indicates you stand in support and dignified solitude with the gay Teletubbie), and green is for survival (and prevents you from being pinched on St. Patrick’s Day).

Because the best secondary weapons (IE turrets and traps) are purple, plus the best “mutation” (which shrinks the cooldown time on those traps) gets better the more you boost your purple, I preferred to combined the Ice Bow or Frost Blast (which are purple and freeze enemies) with a colorless melee weapon (colorless/gold weapons have their stats dictated by whatever color you’ve boosted the most), or with the “Frantic Sword” which is the only practical sword-type of weapon that purple boosts. In my early runs on Dead Cells, putting together a reasonable four-weapon combo based around these was relatively easy. But, as the game went on I started to acquire blueprints for more items that I could then unlock. And being the curious type of chick I am, I succumbed to that curiosity and wanted to take the new items out for a spin. Well, my friends call me Cat, so I guess it’s fitting what curiosity did to me.

One thing I realized when trying to get screenshots of Dead Cells for this review: action-screens are incomprehensible. This COULD be a screenshot of Dead Cells, or perhaps I just dumped paint onto a canvas and then blasted it with a highly-pressurized air-cannon. YOU CAN’T KNOW FOR SURE!

So basically, Dead Cells punishes you for unlocking stuff. The fact that you fuck yourself over for having the unmitigated gall to want to gain new abilities and items is just one of many insanely frustrating aspects, but it’s easily the one that stings the most. I’m to a point now in Dead Cells where I have so much shit unlocked that coming into possession of a truly exhilarating, fun-to-use loadout is rare. Too rare. And this is not helped by the algorithm for weapons apparently having no intelligence at all. During one of my last runs, the random starting bow I was given was the Duplex Bow, which is my choice for the most boring weapon in the game. But that’s okay, because I would certainly be able to change that as I went along, right? Well, I did.. with four other Duplex Bows. I’m not even kidding. The chest I opened in the first level had one, then I got one from a hidden pit in the second stage, one from a cursed chest in Stilt Village, and finally the second boss dropped a hyper-charged one. Each weapon has sub-abilities as well, but those are also based on random chance. Between stages, you can pay gold to randomly switch the sub-abilities, but the cost increases each time you do it and can drain your account fast. At no point during this entire run did I get the desirable “arrows pierce all enemies” ability, or even the “arrows leave a trail of fire” one. It kept assigning me the least useful traits for the most boring weapon, again and again. It was like Dead Cells was trolling me.

“What are you going to do, bitch? Stop playing?”

“Sigh…….. no. You fuck.”

And I didn’t. Nor did I when any of dozens of other issues crept up. Lots of technical ones, especially. Some of them have been corrected, but there’s an annoying one on Xbox One centered around the Daily Challenge. Every day a new pre-set challenge is presented, always a timed-race through a maze where you are given one starting weapon. Beating X amount of these challenges is supposed to unlock new items and abilities. I got one for beating my first daily challenge. But then the game lost the ability to count how many I’d finished. It keeps telling me I need to finish four more to unlock another reward, despite the fact that I’ve beaten the challenge every day for weeks now. Dead Cells released over two months ago, and the fact that this relatively simple glitch hasn’t been fixed yet is beyond shameful.

If you can get the machine-gun crossbow with piercing arrows, man are you in for a treat.

So are the hiccups with movement, where sometimes you’ll seemingly skip ahead several frames from where you should be. The overwhelming majority of the time, this was of no consequence, but I did die more than once as a direct result of this. Finally, sometimes the game would just shit the bed and dumped me back to the Xbox main menu. This screwed over a couple good runs I was having, as I had to start over from whatever stage I was on, but it also gave me a chance to correct a few bad runs, so we’ll call it a wash.

Besides the random weapon fiasco, the biggest issue is by far the cheapness. I’ve had decent runs ended instantly by having enemies juggle me from full health to no health in a matter of seconds. Sometimes its on me, like when I went so heavy on the purple boosts that the last boss was able to take me from full health to dead in under 10 seconds. But sometimes the RNG would spawn enemies who attacked in sync enough to unfairly end my run in a way I couldn’t possibly hope to defend. I’m sure I’d been laughing my ass off if it wasn’t me it was happening too. Hell, one time I opened a cursed chest (which always give you a booster, a colorless weapon, and money in exchange being “cursed” by having to kill 10 enemies in a row without taking any damage, or else you die instantly), certain that I’d have clean, easily sailing to lift the curse. Then I ran smack-dab into shielded enemies who can teleport around. My primary weapons were slow on the draw, so my only option was to leg it. The resulting video was so funny that people were making mix-tapes of it.

Now mind you, Dead Cells unlocks even harder modes when you beat it the first time around. I question whether it really needed to be this unforgiving at all. For anyone that says I suck at games and am a pussy or whatever, hey, guilty as charged. But I was able to beat Dead Cells and even score a few rare achievements along the way. The first time I beat the 1st boss, I took no damage doing it. And when I finished the game for the first time, I still held a “mutation” that brings you back to life if you lose all your health, something 95% of all people never did. Considering that I just named Dead Cells the best indie I’ve ever played, maybe I’m onto something when I say there should been two difficulty options from the start: the one I beat, and an easier version, and let people progress beyond that. I finished the normal difficulty of Dead Cells twice but could make almost no progress on the next difficulty. But hey, I’m satisfied. I just feel bad for those who will pass on the game because of the prohibitive difficulty. They’re missing out, but at the same time, I can’t blame them at all. When I got to the point that I wanted to make progress, the cheap deaths and the outright unfairness that sometimes rears its ugly head made me angry to the point that I questioned whether everything that led to that moment was worth it.

For me at least, answer was “yes”, of course. That’s what separates Dead Cells from something like, say, Cuphead. For all the effort that was put into Cuphead by StudioMDHR, and for all the effort I made to be good at it, I didn’t enjoy my time with it at all. Even as I was being gobsmacked by the presentation, the actual gameplay of Cuphead bored me to death. I was never bored with Dead Cells. Even when I had the most uninteresting items. Even when I couldn’t get into a good rhythm during a run. It was always entertaining. I think that’s because Dead Cells is whatever you want it to be. If you’re craving a fast-paced sword-and-platforming whack-em-up, Dead Cells can be that. If you want a slow, exploration-based adventure, Dead Cells can be that too. Hell, if you’re feeling silly and in the mood to just run around and literally boot enemies in their asses, kicking them off their perch and to their deaths like a Loony Tunes cartoon, Dead Cells still has you covered. It’s a “fill in the blank” game and it adapts to you just as much as you adapt to it. So many games promise to “never be the same game twice” but Dead Cells is one of those rare games that feels like it has the potential to that live up to that promise. If you want it to, that is.

I really should stop posting screens at this point. It looks so much uglier in pictures. Just watch videos. The graphics are more than satisfactory.

I got Dead Cells in August but didn’t truly get into it until September. Or, more accurately, it got into me. I’ve put so much time into it that my friends and family went from joking about me to being addicted to genuine concern that I was. I feel like I’m, at best, a day or two a way from “no, seriously Cathy, put down the controller. This is an intervention.” I’ve already asked myself questions like “if I shoot those who try to take Dead Cells away from me, would the cops let me finish the run I’m on before slapping the cuffs on me? Will they let me take my Switch with me so I can play more Dead Cells?” According to my lawyer, the answer to both questions is no, which is why I have to plan to leave nobody alive and then turn myself in later, after I play more Dead Cells. I’m planning on using the “Your Honor, as you can see, they interrupted me when I had a gold Ice Bow, a gold Balanced Blade, and two gold turrets” defense that’s going to rock the nation.

1,292 days before I published this review, I named Axiom Verge the best indie game I’ve ever played, and its held that title ever since. It’s stood #1 for over 48% of my game critic existence. If you had told me on March 31, 2015 that the game that would finally dethrone it would be a 2D roguelike action-platformer that I only gave a whirl because it erroneously claimed to be Metroidvania-like, I’d thought you were off your rocker. But, here we are. Dead Cells is frustrating, and unfair, and maddening.. And brilliant. And breathtaking. I choked up a bit when I beat the final boss for the first time. I never imagined I’d play games like this when I started this blog in July of 2011. Dead Cells is the best indie game of all-time. And I can’t wait to play the game that will unseat it. It’ll be spectacular.

But seriously Motion Twin, fix your fucking game. You have the word “motion” in your name. You shouldn’t be sitting still on this for this long.

Dead Cells was developed by Motion Twin
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam

$24.99 (really $49.98 since I bought it on XB1 & Switch) noted, and this really shouldn’t mean anything, but Dead Cells also has the single best trailer in gaming history in the making of this review. Watch it below.

Dead Cells is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. I mean, fucking duh. It’s #1. Kind of hard to miss its ranking.

Like the new Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval? It was designed by Kevin Willingham Creative. Hit them up for reasonable rates for your artistic needs.

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Oh…Sir!! The Insult Simulator and Oh…Sir! The Hollywood Roast

I found the existence of the Oh…Sir! franchise to be potentially refreshing. It harkens back to a simpler time when Yo Mama jokes were practically a national pastime. My father pointed out that In Living Color had a recurring sketch called The Dirty Dozens that turned Mama jokes into a gameshow. It’s actually still pretty fun to watch.

The Oh…Sir series is sort of trying to be like that, only they’re framed as fighting games where damage is done by hurling insults at your opponent. To create the insults, the fighters are given a seemingly random selection of parts of speech that you take turns selecting to form sentences out of. It seems like it would be deliciously crass and with the right algorithm it could be really great, right?

Actually, without hyperbole, these are the very worst indie games I’ve ever played. The absolute worst of the worst.

The concept is fine, and if the parts of speech were generated in a way where you could always form something resembling a coherent sentence, they’d be great. But that’s not the case at all. There seems to be no rigging done of the options, and since you and your opponent alternate selections, I found that you were more likely to produce something that sounds like gibberish than an actual sentence that sounds insulting.

So let me show you an example. Here’s the first set of speech options I was given for this match.

Alternating turns, we have to assemble those into “insults”. The two options in the bottom left-hand corner are only usable by me, and I can change them into two different, random options once each word-bank. If there’s a (…) that means you can carry the sentence you’re assembling over to the next word-bank, at a cost of not doing any damage that turn. That wasn’t an option here, so myself and the AI had to assemble an insult using just these meager options. Here’s what the AI came up with.

What.. the.. fuck was that? And that did six points of damage to me! Why? That is not an insult. That’s a person having a stroke. And they’re both British it seems like, so, like, your country smells like my face too, idiot! And why six points? The scoring system seems arbitrary and disassociated from the happenings.

Here was my retort. This was the best I could come up with given the limited options.


Now I’ll be honest: I had no clue what “ruttish” means. I’m an American, so I don’t speak the Queen’s English. But apparently it means “lustful.” Okay. So this was the best I could do, and it worked to the tune of causing ten points of damage, putting me four points up on the AI opponent. But again, I have to ask, why? Maybe this is a cultural thing and this would kill on the other side of the pond, but I don’t get how this is insulting. I’m didn’t say or even imply that the wife was doing anything inappropriate with the fishmonger. And a fishmonger (which is person who sells raw, typically freshly-caught fish) is a perfectly respectable job. Since the female version of “fishmonger” is “fishwife” which is a common insult, maybe the implication is that by working with the fishmonger, the gentleman’s wife is actually a fishwife? But that can’t be, because it completely ignores the “ruttish” part of the sentence. A few people told me that it’s supposed to be like Monty Python and make no sense and that’s what makes it work. Um, I’ve watched Monty Python. The stuff they say mostly makes sense to me and doesn’t come across like someone trying to assemble a script using what they found while emptying a paper-shredder.

And I’m guessing the above paragraph put more thought into the logic of the game’s insults than the developers did during the entire developmental cycle.

That example is not some kind of outlier from an otherwise perfectly logical system. It’s the norm. After spending a few hours with each game, I found that maybe one-in-twenty word banks would allow me to form a coherent, non-gibberish insult that sounds like something an angry person would say to someone else. For the most part, even your best efforts will produce a garbled word-salad that not even the most thin-skinned douchebag on the planet could take offense to. I know this, because I tested it on my own friends, who are all thin-skinned douchebags, the whole lot of ’em. I selected twenty at random and sent them the following verbatim insults that was generated by me or my AI opponent during my play-sessions, all of which scored damage:

Your mother and your hat change into this conversation!

Your Hat changes into Your Sister!

Your Son and Your Husband are not Part of Europe!

A Hamster is this Conversation and wanted to be your husband, Tovarishch!

Your Son wanted to be a Lumberjack and is Getting Fat and is Some Dog!

Your Cousin’s Car Admires Pictures of this Place and was Born in Your Seat and is an Old Bugger!

By the way, the game that produced the above insults? It has 2,000 plus positive ratings on Steam. Yea.

My friends took my attempts at ending our friendship rather well. 4 out of the 20 asked if I had relapsed. 3 asked if had just had a seizure or was recovering from one. The other 13 were just confused. When I explained to all 20 of them that these were insults and asked them to rate how hurt their feelings were on a scale of 1 to 10, seven of them said “1”, five said “0”, two were still too confused to even comment on what they had just read, and the four people who asked if I had relapsed again asked if I had relapsed, and two other people joined them in asking if I was on something. None of the twenty unfriended me, though six were kind enough to take pity on me. That sure was nice of them.

It was ALMOST clever to cross Harry Potter with Dirty Harry. Almost.

The lobotomized dialog is hardly the only problem. If you perform a “combo” by using the same subject-matter in two or more straight insults, you deal extra damage. But because of the random nature of the speech options, you can’t remotely plan a strategy for this. If you choose the person’s hat as the target of your venom, you can’t get a combo if the game doesn’t include “hat” the next go around, or if your opponent chooses it first. I’m notoriously unlucky when it comes to random chance in games, and that was hugely noticeable during my play sessions with Oh…Sir and Oh…Sir Hollywood, where my AI opponents had an uncanny knack of going first and stealing my combos with their first selection on the off-chance they were put on the board. It further removes strategy from the games and reduces winning and losing to luck. And that’s especially true when you play with an actual human who knows what they’re doing as opposed to the often brain-dead AI that would come close to winning only to mess up and fail to enter a proper sentence at all, causing a loss of turn. This happened a lot. It’s how I finished the game on Xbox.

But the way the game reads the parts of speech has just as much potential to fuck  you over. Especially when trying to use the word “and”. The game seems to only let you use “and” to start an entirely new insult and not to compound an existing one by lumping two subject matters together with it. The majority of times the game gave me a score of zero, it was because I misused “and” even though my intent for its use couldn’t have been more clear. Take this example:

And the game even further fails at strategy with character-specific weaknesses that cause extra damage. Like, maybe one is especially insulted by age jokes. A perfectly good idea for a series that aspires to be a fighting game where you trade insults instead of fisticuffs. But again, you’re completely at the mercy of the random word bank, which doesn’t seem to spit out the extra-damage words enough. But it’s logically even worse, because you also have your own extra-damage weakness that you have to defend against. So if you’re playing as a character that hates having his manhood insulted and a word that targets machismo is on the board, you pretty much have to take it or face receiving a disproportionate amount of damage. So both you and your opponent will score lower, in a game where matches tend to be slogs already.

The only fast-paced aspect of Oh…Sir is yet another strike against it: you only get fifteen seconds to read, process, and assemble-in-your-head the parts of speech before making a selection. That sounds like enough time until you remember what an incomprehensible word-vomit you have to work with. If you’re anything like me, you’ll eventually give up on trying to make sentences sound like English and just focus on scoring damage, something you have to rely entirely on random chance to excel at.

I needed a full week of processing and replaying Oh…Sir and Oh…Sir: The Hollywood Roast (which technically I bought first for XB1) trying to find something redeeming to say about the games. Besides the fact that whoever they got to do the Arnold Schwarzenegger impression for the Hollywood Roast is quite convincing, to the point that I wondered if they got the real guy (hey, have you seen how his recent movies have done in the box office? Dude needs a job!), I came up short. Playing the Oh…Sir games is like combing through the rubble of a recently blown-up dictionary factory without the fun of seeing the actual explosion.

Oh…Sir!! The Insult Simulator and Oh…Sir!! The Hollywood Roast were developed by Vile Monarch
Point of Sale for Oh…Sir: Steam, Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Point of Sale for The Hollywood Roast: Steam, Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4

$0.79 (Oh…Sir!!, normally $1.99) and $4.99 asked if the “prepubescent teenage boy” line was really necessary in the making of this review.

Yoku’s Island Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insert Saved by the Bell joke -here-.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOX n FORESTS

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

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

Oh, I get it.

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

It’s okay, you can tell me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deadly Tower of Monsters

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

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

They have pills for dick malfunctions these days.

They have pills for dick malfunctions these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Square Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volume

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

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

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

Okay, fine, maybe Patrick Scott Patterson would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. I like my puzzle games to be brainy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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