Shelter 2

This is a weird little art game, but it doesn’t make an impact, and in trying to be more (a skill-oriented survival game on top of the artistic narrative stuff), it flounders somewhat. You play as a mother lynx and are tasked with raising your spawn into adulthood. By the time you’ve caught your first rabbit and delivered it to your four mewling cubs, you’ve seen about all the game has to offer, mechanically, but you’re made to tediously keep doing this as they grow up and follow you around and eventually hunt for themselves. They seem to suck at this, though, which means that at no stage of your life do you get to take it easy. Very toilcore.

In ludonarrative terms I sometimes amused myself while thinking about the trade-off between wanting to eat my catches for myself to keep my irritating stamina meter as full as possible, and wanting to feed my cubs as much as I could in the hopes that it would advance the not-fun-at-all game to the next stage sooner. In some sense this is a very real exploration of “Do I feed my hungry kids in the short term, or do I feed myself so I can get the energy to work to bring in more food later?” Only, it’s approached on the most annoying terms possible. Just like real life!

At one point one of my cubs was eaten by a wolf. Getting into the primitive mindset, my only real thought about this was, “Welp, I guess that’s why I had four of them.” The game ended with me encountering a single phantom lynx, though, which I think was supposed to be my own end of life and reuniting with my dead child in the afterlife. “Art Games Gonna Art Game,” for sure, but considering how little of an emotional connection I had, it only seemed mawkish or maybe funny in an ironic sort of way.

Of course, I’m only assuming that’s what was going on there, and that there would’ve been two or three phantoms in that scene if I’d been an even shittier parent. But how should I know?

…Look, I’m not heartless or anything. They just didn’t pull it off.

The game allows you to play again as one of the surviving cubs as it in turn raises its children, and you can view the family tree from the main menu. You can keep doing this, and you also get to name each cub, ostensibly allowing you to branch out down the family tree a dozen generations with cubs named Goku and Hitler. But there’s no incentive to do this. Names only show up on the tree, not in-game, which means I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if the last cub to get eaten by a wolf had been Weedman, or Anime Dragon God. In any case, I don’t think naming them would get me to become more attached.

It’s not terrible. It’s not a huge studio game, it’s got a cute art style, and its ideas are interesting–they’re just not taken far enough to really work. If they wanted to focus on the mechanics they had, taking the generations thing further, they might have sped the game up and added some kind of choice in inherited traits or something–like, of my two cubs that made it to adulthood, do I want to continue to the next round with the stronger one, or the faster one? All the while with some clear endgame goal for however many generations down the line, like Massive Chalice. On the other hand, if they wanted an art game, they might have dropped all the open-ended hunting with its shallow mechanics and just set up a series of five or six pre-designed hunts instead, each with some kind of obstacle and narrative component to coincide with the different stages of life.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

The Real Texas

I really love The Real Texas, and I’m amazed that it was all made by one guy (apart from the soundtrack). It’s not a genre where that sort of project seems all that likely to pan out, as the scope and interdisciplinary talent needed are some kinda immense challenges. It’s very much to my tastes, too: very Ultima-inspired, with moveable objects, NPCs that act out day-to-day lives (following the village path to work at 8:50 AM, hanging out in this building on the weekends, etc), and it even uses the same keyword-based dialogue system where you can pointlessly, humorously ask your mom what her name is, or a toddler what her job is–Ultima’s very same awkward divisions of human beings into how they’re forced to sell their labour, all the more affecting here, in a game centered around themes of capitalism and greed.

It’s not quite as free as Ultima 7–you can drag items around all day (including containers, once again) but you can’t exactly build a staircase out of crates. Yet it more than makes up for that with its incredibly charming world and dialogue, which someone else compared to Earthbound’s charm (and I’d note that Mother 3 also had a lot to say about some of the same themes). In a different game I might lament the restrictions on freedom in not being able to just shoot any NPC on sight like in Fallout: New Vegas, but despite that generally being an exciting angle in the genre, it’d be absolutely stupid here: the characters are the draw.

And, well, shooting stuff isn’t too great in The Real Texas. Aiming is already a little finicky in the engine, as is clicking on many objects’ hitboxes to pick them up or otherwise interact with them. Combined with the very short range of the gun–and you don’t pick a direction to fire in, you pick an exact place to aim and your bullet stops there–plus recoil, which can push you out of target range after you’ve missed, and it’s sort of an awkward recipe. It’s quite alright, all things considered, and I enjoyed the challenges, but I was rather pleased that Cellpop, the DLC expansion, didn’t have any combat whatsoever, instead diversifying the dialogue-and-investigation gameplay with some food and energy mechanics which would probably seem quite tedious if virtually any other developer were behind it (it’s probably a bit tedious in Cellpop as well, especially without using an exploit I found to duplicate my food, but it was at least interesting, because it served as more than just an impediment to gameplay).

The thing is, this game isn’t exactly high-profile. It has a following in some critical circles, which was how I found out about it (a few years ago before its Steam release), but just look at how many games come out on Steam in any given week nowadays and it’s not terribly surprising that the overall playerbase is still small. But with the keyword-driven nature of the game and the ease with which something can be hidden, it’s to the point where I suspect there are still some things that literally nobody apart from the creator himself actually knows about. When I would find something in Cellpop, I would honestly wonder if I might have been the first person to ever find it. And that’s not something many other games can offer.

For example, at the end of a conversation with a robot character, they said, “Please don’t go, I’m so lonely,” so I talked to them again and manually typed “lonely”. The amount of dialogue that this hidden keyword kicked off was staggering. And when you factor in that you don’t actually have to say “bye” to people–how it’s just as easy to exit out of a dialogue window without using a keyword and thus bypassing their closing text if you aren’t really thinking about it–it’s remarkable just how small the playerbase is that would find such a thing. (And then there’s the fact that the expansion was released without any game testers apart from the creator himself, doing future patches when people encountered bugs, which as a consequence meant nobody really could’ve found these things through insider knowledge.)

I suspect there’s more hidden, too, because I finished with a number of unsolved questions, even after following an NPC around as they moved through their late-night routine, which required a bit of plotting with caffeine and sugar intake so my character wouldn’t automatically pass out after a certain hour.

Most games have long-abandoned the very secret-conducive typed-keyword dialogue system as something awkward and easy to get stuck on, but there was one use I thought was remarkable: you can type “steal” to steal something. It’s hugely useful to get things for free–obviously–and yet it’s absolutely unnecessary and never taught to the player. In a genre where stealing is so immensely incentivized if it’s allowed at all, a player of The Real Texas might never think to do it if their mind isn’t already thinking that way. At one point when I was wondering how to do something (killing the big bad wolf with a silver bullet is a little broken) I loaded up a Youtube Let’s Play and ended up watching a bit more of this other guy play the game. And I noticed that, possibly to his credit, it seemingly never occurred to him that he could steal at all. I just found that remarkable.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Titan Souls

This is a very simple and well-made game. It takes a top-down style reminiscent of the SNES Zelda, but there are only two buttons apart from movement: one for rolling and running (if held), and the other for the only weapon you have: an arrow which can be shot out and magically recalled. There are no enemies apart from the game’s 19 bosses. No dungeons or puzzles (well, the bosses are the puzzles). And you die in one hit.

The name is obviously meant to invoke everyone’s favorite challenging game series, Dark Souls (or Demon’s Souls if you’re older-school than I am), and I would’ve been more excited for something with all the NPCs and open exploration and item-based progression that are a part of the real Souls games, as well as the existing Zelda comparison. According to the credits, Titan Souls was made by roughly 3 people, with a couple dozen other names from publishers and recipients of special thanks, so something of that scope might have been a pretty tall order–and an unfair comparison–but with the name and visual style being what they are, the game is asking for it.

It falls into the “easy to learn, hard to master” category. The player has to stand still while recalling their one arrow after firing it, so attacks can’t be spammed. With good positioning, enemies can be damaged as the arrow flies back as well, though the arrow has to be far enough away to build up some momentum first. There are bonus achievements for killing bosses in special ways, an under-20-minute speedrun, as well as unlockable modes including a hard mode, iron mode (permadeath), and even a no-rolling mode.

The regular mode seems intimidating enough as it is, but you find out two things soon enough: One, bosses die about as quickly as you do, requiring a single accurate and well-timed arrow to kill and optionally a couple more hits at most to knock away some defenses first. Two, a boss doesn’t even have any choice in their attack patterns, and given the simplicity of your own setup–no slow heavy armor option, no dozen weapon types each with their own moveset that will change where you need to be and how the boss will react to you being there–this means you can easily predict everything the bosses will do as they move toward you. Part of the reason Dark Souls is so tricky is that even though it’s very important to bait specific moves from enemies, you can’t just rely on rote memorization to know how to get the boss to show their big glowing red spot in exactly this corner of the map exactly 4 seconds after the battle starts, and have an arrow already lined up to fire when it does.

The challenge of Titan Souls isn’t in quick reaction times but instead in learning for yourself how to exploit each bosses’ movements and behaviors, and while the 19 bosses killed me 412 times in total according to my endgame save file, I think it would be pretty easy to kill each boss within a couple attempts if I were interested in playing again, no special practice required. The bosses are really cool, but I can’t think of another action game that could have its difficulty trivialized to this extent just by watching an expert’s run first.

While it could be said that it’s important to the character of the game to journey through various maps to reach each boss door, I found having to navigate a couple screens from the nearest respawn point to rechallenge a boss to be somewhat frustrating, given that I could spend 20 seconds rolling along without any dangers on the road only to lose the boss fight within 2 seconds. Though the fights themselves were fun and didn’t feel frustrating at all even in failure, it bugged me to have my time wasted. One area stands out: A copy of Zelda’s Lost Woods, where you navigate by trial-and-error through a series of short maps, sometimes doubling back into the map you just exited to paradoxically arrive somewhere else. In Zelda, you might be made to fight small trash mobs in these rooms or use an item to reveal a secret, but in Titan Souls, where there isn’t so much as a jump button, much less any mechanical purpose for exploration, it’s easy to find yourself wondering why they didn’t just put the door to the boss right outside of the previous boss, or respawn you at the arena entrance. Some might call this cynical, but I think the romance of exploration isn’t suited for the gameplay.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Gods Will Be Watching

I was expecting a point-and-click adventure, but I tried not to hold my false expectations against it. What GWBW is, I guess, is a “turn-based balance maintenance” game. Each level (there are about 8, give or take) involves pushing one variable in that aforementioned balance without throwing off another. Tell this person to dig for the next half-hour, but keep an eye on his stamina. Stall for rescue during torture without confessing to everything, but give away enough that you don’t die before rescue comes. Sacrifice your crew’s morale by having somebody forego sleep to hunt for food at night, but don’t let it drop so low that crewmates freak out and run off into the woods to die.

I’m not crazy about it. It’s heavily RNG-based, which I’ve never been fond of. To me, good game design centers around the idea of incentivization, and in my experience having less control over an outcome causes players to fail to adapt meaningfully to challenges, to feel less responsible, to be more frustrated and to experience less satisfaction upon victory. A later update to the game added difficulties which remove elements of chance, although the exact nature of the changes is poorly explained. While this is an admirable thing to do, the game was still envisioned with those elements, and gameplay feels unsatisfying and simple at times… even though the game doesn’t necessarily become easier.

For example, instead of attempting something when the success rate reaches 60%, you would have to wait for the full 100% success rate to even try. In terms of difficulty alone, this is usually balanced out by the disappearance of random failures, but it also reduces the design complexity. When playing with RNG you can allow yourself to be caught in a lie during torture and still waste some time, but without RNG, you can’t even choose to lie until you’ve spent some time getting your teeth pulled while thinking out the particulars of the story you planned to spin. It becomes very simple trial-and-error, and the optional challenge goals are made unavailable (think FTL‘s achievement system, but without getting cool new ships). I found myself switching the difficulty a few times, doing some levels with it and others without.

FTL was random as well, and to some extent there is a place for randomization. You don’t want to know the correct antidote ingredients when you start, or there’s no point to working out how to synthesize it. And look at other games: in Minecraft you don’t want to have one seed where you know where all the diamonds are already. If the outcome of a dice roll is that you have to adjust to a new variable, like one of five equally-difficult but differently-handled problems springing up, that can be interesting, but if there’s a fifty percent chance of something great happening and a fifty percent chance of something that immediately ends your run, that’s pretty awful. If every good or bad bit of fortune is significant enough to matter to players but not significant enough to guarantee failure, and the challenges run long enough that the “law of large numbers” comes into play and the good and bad balance out, that can be passable, which could perhaps be said of something like dice rolls in Dungeons & Dragons. I still don’t think that’s a perfect system, but GWBW also has some longer-term challenges and in its case that essentially only leads to more opportunities for instant failure and frustration.

While the non-RNG mode feels too simple on some stages, even guaranteed lengthy trial-and-error can be better than highly randomized lengthy challenges. Doing the desert navigation level with the RNG off, winning was just a matter of making a handful of suicide runs in different directions to map the unchanging terrain, so I would know where to find shelter or an enemy stronghold when the time came to try for real. And yet I sort of enjoyed this busywork more than a lot of the rest of the game, because I could get a sense of my progress by looking down at my map as it became more and more detailed. I couldn’t imagine wanting to throw myself at this mission dozens of times with an ever-changing desert, but looking at some online guides for the level, “extreme frustration” appears to be a recurring sentiment.

I’m a sucker for pixels, I’m not crazy about the art here. It’s not bad exactly, but it has some issues, especially blown up to the large size it expects you to display it at–you either go full-screen–which, with a modern screen resolution, blows up the pixels too much to be ideal–or you try to resize the window by hand, and the relative pixel size ends up all over the place. Good pixel art means having all the blocks on the screen adhere to the same rules, but there are UI features and the like in GWBW that aren’t pixelated and which end up drawing attention. Not having fixed resolution settings also means not being able to draw pixels at perfectly scaling multiples as well, which ends up distorting text and other graphics.

For a game that’s all about survival via number balancing, the UI is also somewhat bad about showing you these numbers. Sometimes you have to go talking to an NPC and clicking through a couple screens of conversation choices to reveal stats like a character’s proximity to death by cold exposure, when these things really should have been shown at all times as bars above people’s heads, or else freely revealed at any time with the press of a single keyboard button.

The story is somewhat interesting, and I like its hook, but right from the first scene I saw its tendency to bloviate with the writer’s meditations on ethics and terrorism and whether ends can justify means. Having written things for years I definitely can see a bit of myself in there, having shared that same tendency. That’s probably why I feel qualified to call the writing juvenile in form; something in need of restraint. It pulls us away from the characters themselves.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Her Story

It’s a little hard to be in a position of reviewing something you still don’t believe yourself to have a solid grasp on, but then, here’s a game that makes an effort to keep itself vague, so that’s where we are. It’s nonspecific by design; maybe frustratingly so. People appreciate a degree of open-endedness, but when nothing is certain, and you can argue for any possibility you want, the explanations become, to a certain degree, meaningless. And what happened for me here was a bit like what happened to me with Umineko No Naku Koro Ni, a game where the audience can only try to solve various mysteries with the understanding that most of the things seen in the game simply didn’t happen, and had no meaning (at least as far as the mysteries were concerned) apart from possible symbolism. After both games I found myself reading fan theories that I thought were idiotic.

It’s an Occam’s Razor thing. Within the wide sea of things we aren’t told or can’t confirm, if we make radical and unnecessary assumptions, we’re being foolish. If we say the women in Her Story aren’t twins, we have to explain why the detective, whom we don’t know anything about, wouldn’t have checked a hospital record to corroborate a testimony, or wouldn’t have checked to see if a tattoo was real. Even if the tale of these twins is on par with stories about amnesia (as far as the degree of required suspension of disbelief goes), committing to that suspension is a natural part of enjoying fiction, and if dissenting from it involves ignoring pieces of context and logical expectation, it’s just far more appropriate to go along with the story we were told. And even if there are little things that aren’t resolved: isn’t it possible that not everything happens for a reason, that the game’s designer isn’t infallible and wrote a few mistakes in, that an indie game wasn’t flawlessly executed?

Considering that you can simply delete the “blank” tag from clips you’ve watched to find new videos by searching for “blank” again, thereby trivializing the entire searching process (which is to say, the only actual game mechanic), I’d say it’s clear that the designer was not immune to blunders.

Where that leaves us is that I can only play along for so long with a game that’s deliberately vague, and not get too hung up on exactly what happened, whether or not I failed to connect a dot or two somewhere. However: while I’ve been pretty cynical in the discussion up to this point, I want to differentiate between “enjoyment of the game” and “interest in determining what happened”. While I would rather slit my wrists than slurp up the dregs of web articles and fansites to get to the bottom of every idea, I had a great time actually playing the game.

Uplink demonstrated that just letting a person mess around with a computer interface is a fantastic way to build immersion, seeing as we’re all doing that already. But I’ve never seen the “FMV game” genre used to positive effect before. The mechanics are really well suited for the chilling feelings it gave me: for example, suddenly loading up a new clip and having the mood take a complete 180 from endearing into creepsville. Or the sounding of background music as I come out of a fresh video clip, which must’ve been tagged as revelatory in the game’s code. The flashes of a woman’s reflection on my screen, and sirens, which were a bit of a red herring for me, but the impact was strong.

It’s also a great game for keeping pen-and-paper notes like a real goddamn detective, an approach that has never backfired for me (oh, wait–I think I said it did in La-Mulana… fine, almost never). Charting your own course through a bunch of random computer files is a unique experience that I liken not so much to any existing video game as to going through unbound and out-of-sequence journal pages I found in a basement, written by my dad thirty or forty years ago.

It could be better. Putting aside the more obviously subjective stuff, I think the keyword searching functions poorly toward the end, when all you have left to find are no-content clips of someone saying stuff like, “Yes, that’s right.” Taking out the “database checker” program would’ve helped with that, as its presence, essentially as a progress bar, naturally incentivized pointless completionism. Though, what I really wanted was to be able to use the database checker to rewatch the clips in sequence once I was done. Unfortunately, that’s not a thing either. But the game is pretty short and has lasting impact, so you’d be silly to skip it.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Starseed Pilgrim

This is an interesting one, out of the same school of thought as Fez and maybe Pixeljunk Eden. Little if anything is explained to you, and it’s more rewarding if you figure out everything for yourself. To some extent this feels like I’m making excuses for an abusive spouse, because you’re telling yourself and others to be way more patient than would ordinarily be expected. But giving Fez like a week of my life–my desk covered in pages of letter frequency analysis, occasionally trading theories with friends–was one of my favorite gaming experiences of the last few years.

The main difference is that Starseed isn’t a puzzle game, and instead of trying to crack a simple cypher and number system (and almost always overthinking it), you’re trying to crack the actual game mechanics and goals. In a way that’s less peripheral to the gameplay, but it’s also more irritating. Fez was also ultimately a lot more engaging and beautiful in terms of the atmosphere and lore uncovered. Starseed doesn’t have a lot supporting it when your patience starts to wear thin.

I played for the better part of a day, stitching together screenshots of my hub world to build a map of my sprawl, until finally looping around. I got some satisfaction out of learning the rules, certainly, but it was ultimately too unsophisticated, frustrating, and randomized to hold me until I beat it. You don’t know how long of a bridge you’ll get from orange blocks, which way the green blocks will spread, or–depending on your character–when you’ll get the block you need in your queue. Features like being able to shuffle the next thing in your queue might’ve helped by giving the player some control back over the randomness. The frustration was mainly in having nothing at all to show for failures–hearts are useless without a key, keys are useless without hearts, and both are useless if your path back to the gate is out of reach. And once you’ve built all your bridges in the hub, it doesn’t matter even if you exit a level with 15 hearts–they don’t seem to serve any other purpose.

I imagine I was supposed to get through those three-key gates in the void areas of each island, probably opening up a final level on that island with nothing on it. But I only made it to one of those gates once, without any hearts, and had to warp out because I was stuck there. So I felt that this was asking too much of me, and made peace with the fact that I sucked at the game.

If I’m being honest about my level of enjoyment with this game, the level of payoff for the time invested, and how much credit I think is really due here for its more original ideas, I give this one a 2/5. While there are other games I’ve really enjoyed that also have little variation or story but require a lot of time because of their difficulty–such as Super Hexagon–I wasn’t nearly as taken in by what Starseed Pilgrim had to offer.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Thomas Was Alone

The narration and other atmospheric details were alright, including the visual design and music, but this is a puzzle platformer, and narration can’t carry it alone. The puzzles are entirely of the “figure it out in a second, physically solve it in two minutes” variety, while the platforming is no Super Meat Boy. The way the characters can’t jump until they’re on steady ground is kind of annoying, and the way they slide off each other when you’re using one to transport another feels like babysitting. I spent most of the game feeling frustrated by the busywork. The humor primarily consisted of memes and people talking about sandwiches (how random!). Number keys for each character varied with each stage, so it was usually troublesome to select the character you wanted. There was even a bit of ludonarrative dissonance: they’d talk about characters splitting up, but you still had to get each of them to their sole exit point. It might’ve been more interesting for the plot if they included variations where you didn’t. Maybe if you could optionally get through a puzzle solely with a good jumper, and without using one of the less useful characters to help them along. As it stands, it’s not very good. I’ll bump it up to a 2/5 to compliment the voice acting and successful characterization of a few simple geometric shapes.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.