Summer cleaning game review special #4: A Short Hike

A Short Hike is another game I dug up in the pile of 1,000+ games in that itch.io bundle. I didn’t know it at first, but this game seems to have gotten a lot of attention for a small indie title since it was released last year. Makes sense: it has a lot more polish on it than most of the others I’ve played, with nice graphics and music and a small world to explore.

You play as Claire, a bird girl in a world of Animal Crossing-looking characters, on vacation on an island popular for its hiking trails. There’s not much direction at first; the only stated goal is to climb up a difficult trail that turns out to lead to the top of the mountain in the center of the map. Since she’s a bird, Claire can fly and glide, abilities that will help her get up the mountain, but there are also items that will improve those abilities. The key items to look out for are the golden feathers sold by a couple of characters and scattered around the island; these give Claire the added ability to climb up steep surfaces and to jump multiple times in midair.

Halfway up the mountain

In addition to the main objective of “get up the mountain” there are a bunch of fetch quests, races, and other challenges you can take on by talking to NPCs. The game doesn’t demand you do any of this stuff, though. If you feel like leisurely exploring your surroundings, you can just do that. There’s no way to die; Claire doesn’t take fall damage or drown or anything like that, and there’s no time limit. And the controls feel very natural, so it’s fun to just run around aimlessly in this world finding new characters and items.

A Short Hike feels like it was made to be approached this way. Maybe I’ve played a few too many indie games that looked innocent and fun at first but then had a big plot twist and turned into psychological horror or broke the fourth wall and started talking directly to me. So for a while part of me was bracing for something weird to happen, but nothing ever did. As much as I like some of those games, it’s fine that I could take this one at face value. A Short Hike isn’t trying to shock the player or make any big statement; it just feels made for relaxation, especially in the way the background music changes as you run and fly around the island to suit the mood of each area.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a big deal

A Short Hike goes for eight dollars on itch.io. Admittedly I didn’t pay that price, but it doesn’t seem like such a bad one considering what you get for it. I think it’s the kind of game I might just load every so often to run around in for a bit. If that’s not your thing, then you should definitely avoid it, because there’s not much else to do beyond the various side quests and exploration. But it might be therapeutic for you, especially in these shitty times.

Summer cleaning game review special #2: WitchWay

Starting this series off with a negative review doesn’t seem right. So let’s fix that today, because I only have good things to say about today’s subject. WitchWay is another one of the games I found in that massive itch.io bundle I bought last month, and it’s definitely one of the more interesting ones in there. The premise is very simple: you play as a nameless witch girl, or maybe a student at a magic academy (she is wearing a school uniform-looking outfit after all) who falls down an extremely deep well. Somehow she manages not to break her neck or any bones and still has a lot of energy, so your goal is to reach the surface again. That’s all the plot you get, or at least all I’ve discovered so far. Because this isn’t any normal well: it’s full of chambers, doors, platforms covered in spiky plants that will kill you if you touch them, and lasers that will also kill you if you touch them. Just what the hell kind of well is this exactly?

The central map. That’s a damn complicated well

Luckily our protagonist soon finds her wand, and with that she’s able to remotely control movable blocks that she can use to press switches that open doors and remove obstacles in her way. WitchWay is divided into separate chambers containing progressively more difficult puzzles to solve to reach the exit and make it over to the bucket on a line that acts as an elevator to higher levels and eventually to the surface again. Some of these puzzles force you to get creative in your control of these blocks — after the first few chambers, simply moving them around won’t cut it. The game gives you all the tools you need, however, and it relies on you to use those to find your way out.

All this spiky shit will kill you, but you can ride certain blocks around to avoid traps and carry you to higher platforms

It’s not too difficult to get out of the well — you can even skip a lot of chambers and breeze your way out of there. You can also go the completionist route and find every secret the well has to offer. There are a few artifacts to collect as well as eight rabbits also trapped in the well that you can rescue by collecting them in your hat. All of these are naturally trapped behind walls of spiky plants and lasers that need to be blocked, avoided, or redirected, so a 100% run of this game will naturally take quite a bit longer than a straight play through, probably a few hours in total.

You probably won’t be able to bear leaving these poor rabbits trapped in this well anyway

I enjoyed my time with WitchWay. The puzzles were pretty rewarding to figure out, and there’s a lot of polish on the game — a good-looking pixel graphic style that reminds me of early 90s 16-bit platformers and nice background music. It only sells for a few dollars on itch.io as well, which I think is a good value for what you get here. If you need a plot in every game you play, you might be disappointed, but I don’t think this sort of game really needs one. Though the developers probably could have easily added one. But if you really want one, you can make it up yourself. Maybe you’re a Harry Potter fan and this is a background character from the series having her own adventure. Or maybe you’re a Touhou fan and any blonde witch girl character makes you think of Marisa Kirisame, and she’s been dropped into this well by a bored Yukari and needs to find her way back to Gensokyo. It would certainly explain how she can fall hundreds of feet onto a stone floor and not be hurt at all.

Enough of my nonsense. I’ll be following the creators, the four listed here — I look forward to seeing what they might come up with next.

A review of Strange Telephone (PC)

I already hinted that I’d review this in a recent post, and here it is: Strange Telephone, a 2D exploration game created by solo developer yuta/HZ3 Software out of Japan.  Strange Telephone was first released in 2017, but it was recently updated and expanded with a few new features and endings.  This version 2.0.1 is my first experience with the game, and true to its title, it was a strange one.

Strange Telephone doesn’t bother explaining much to the player upfront; after a couple of instructional screens about the mechanics of the game it simply starts, with the protagonist Jill waking up in a weird void in front of a giant door that won’t open.  At first, Jill seems stuck here, but lucky for her she has a friend: a flying telephone named Graham who can transport Jill to various worlds that correspond to six-digit numbers.  Most of these worlds contain residents and objects that Jill can interact with, though a few of them pose serious dangers to her.  The object of the game is essentially to solve a bunch of puzzles using items you can find, receive, or create for the purpose of opening that giant door and getting back to your own world.

A friendly ghost gives Jill a very obvious clue to get her started on her quest

If this game seems familiar, that might be because it bears a strong resemblance to another game I reviewed some time back: Dreaming Sarah.  Both are 2D exploration games featuring a pony-tailed girl who is teleported through bizarre dream-like worlds.  They even start in exactly the same way, with Sarah/Jill waking up and finding herself in a strange place.  It’s no coincidence that they’re so similar, though: both developers outright say that they were inspired by Yume Nikki.  The Yume Nikki influence is just as obvious here as it was in Dreaming Sarah: many of the objects and characters Jill runs into during her travels through the extradimensional phone book look like they came out of a dream and occasionally out of a nightmare, and some of the puzzles involve just the kind of dream logic that Yume Nikki and its descendants like to use.

Tell me this fucking thing didn’t come from a nightmare

However, none of that’s to say that Strange Telephone is a copy of Yume Nikki.  Just like Dreaming Sarah, this game uses that inspiration to create something new.  The biggest difference between Strange Telephone and other games like it is how it implements its exploration element.  Instead of having several large worlds to explore, Jill has over a million small worlds that are only a couple of screens wide each.  Walking left or right off of the edge teleports her to the next world over, which will probably be completely different from the one she just left.

The in-game dialing pad

Of course, there aren’t really over a million worlds.  There are more like a dozen or so with a bunch of variations in their residents, objects, and backgrounds.  Fortunately, you can get a device early on that lets you see what sort of world you’re about to enter when you punch in a number but before you dial, saving you a lot of time trying out random numbers.  This is an absolute necessity, in fact, because the game expects you to figure out more or less on your own where to bring each item and how to use it when you get there to advance.  It drops subtle hints sometimes, but that’s about it.  So, for example, knowing how you can trigger the moon rabbit event and where to find the moon rabbit when he shows up is important, because it’s required to see every event and ending in the game.

He needs fuel to get home.  This is why you fill your tank all the way to F before a long trip

Jill’s explorations are complicated by the fact that as she explores the phone worlds, distortion in her connection increases (measured by the circle at the top left) and when it’s full, something happens that disrupts her journey.  So you constantly have to let Jill duck out of the phone worlds back into the central “core” area to start again.  This isn’t a huge problem, though; each world is small enough that you should have enough time to do what you have to do to get the plot moving along.  The game also gives you a book you can use to save specific numbers so you can return to interact with the characters/objects there without having to randomly punch in numbers to find them again.

And yeah, there really is a plot here, even if it’s not that obvious.  Strange Telephone takes the Yume Nikki approach in showing a lot but refusing to tell a damn thing, so you have to piece every bit of information the game gives you together on your own.  Part of that process is getting every ending and finding every secret in the game, which is basically what you’ll be doing anyway as you experiment with different item/character/object combinations in the phone worlds.

Okay Jill, just start throwing shit in the pot and see what happens

If I sound frustrated with that, though, I’m not, because it’s part of what made Strange Telephone interesting.  Jill doesn’t bother giving any exposition, Graham doesn’t talk at all, and most of the other characters you meet in the phone worlds are also mute, even the ones that interact with you.  But I like these games that don’t spell everything out for you and let you roam around and figure things out on your own.  I don’t mind the cryptic story, either, because it fits with the surreal atmosphere of the game.  Strange Telephone does have some sense to it, though it’s still up for debate what some of the endings mean for Jill.  I guess this is where fan theories come in to fill the gap.  Yume Nikki has a ton of them, so it would make sense for Strange Telephone to have some too.

That said, the surreal atmosphere can’t explain away every bit of weirdness in this game.  There are a few things you have to do to beat Strange Telephone that just don’t make any logical sense.  I hit a wall a few times in my explorations and ended up having to shove different objects into a few characters’ hands to see if they’d do anything with said objects to make a new object or to advance my progress somehow.  Most of the solutions to the puzzles in Strange Telephone can be worked out with logic, but a few feel a bit too bizarre and random to be satisfying.

New contractual demand: every game I play from now on must have at least one (1) hot demon girl in it

Still, on balance Strange Telephone was a good enough time for me to recommend it.  The character designs are imaginative, the atmosphere is nice and otherworldly, the background music fits and enhances that atmosphere, and the exploration and experimentation with items drew me in.  I like games that do something different and execute that something well, and Strange Telephone is just such a game.

Since I’m stuck with this dumb rating system I created, I’ll say Strange Telephone gets a 5, which has basically come to mean “it wasn’t amazing or life-changing, but I liked it.”  The two or three hours of Yume Nikki-esque surreal dream logic weirdness I got out of the experience was worth the five dollars I paid for it on Steam.  If you loved Yume Nikki, in other words, Strange Telephone is worth checking out.

The Labor Day update: making adjustments

It’s Labor Day today here in the US, so happy day off of work if you have it. Since I’m sitting at home and not doing much else, it seems like a good time to write a post about the future of the site. I’m not planning to quit or even to slow down my pace here. As I’ve said before, writing here, and writing in general, is one of the few things I do that keeps me sane and connected to reality. I intend to keep writing until the day I die, assuming God is merciful enough to let me go before I go senile. However, my situation is about to change a bit. I’ve been working at a contract job that allows me some flexibility and plenty of time off whenever I need it. The problem is I’m uninsured and have no real opportunity to make much more than I’m making right now at this job, so I’m looking for a regular salaried position again. That most likely means falling back into the endless hell that is litigation.

Or maybe I’m just being my usual pessimistic self, I don’t know

I’ve complained enough about the practice of law already, so I won’t get into much depth about it here. The part of this that’s relevant to the blog is that I won’t have nearly as much time to play games as I’ve had over the last several months. I’ll probably have to start working regular weekends again. And I’ll probably also have to start dealing with clients, which is a special kind of hell in itself considering the fact that the 25% or so of people who are fucking crazy in the world make up 90% of the trouble you end up running into in practice. (I’m including manipulative asshole lawyers in that 25%, by the way.)

So where does that leave my blog? And where does it leave me? As I said, I’m going to keep writing here on a regular basis. However, I’ll have to make a few changes to cope with the new reality I’ll be back in soon.  Here’s my plan:

A greater focus on indie games

I already like playing and reviewing games that are independently developed and funded, made by a small studio or a guy in his basement.  I find them a lot more interesting than some of the big AAA games on the market.  I hope I’m not sounding too much like a video game hipster here (shit, I probably am one already if that’s a thing.)  I just like how unpredictable these games are.  The big developers and publishers usually have to play it safe, whereas the indie guys don’t — in fact, taking risks is a way for them to get noticed.

Games like Strange Telephone, a bizarre Yume Nikki-ish exploration game I’ve been playing

It also helps that these games tend to be a lot shorter to play.  I have to face the fact that I won’t have time to play 50+ hour RPGs anymore.  Though I’ll be making an exception for Persona 5 Royal, and also for Shin Megami Tensei V whenever the hell that comes out.

More anime/music-related posts

Since I have to change the way I get my entertainment, I’ll have to change the focus of the site slightly.  This was always first and foremost a game blog, but since I’m probably about to lose most of the time I had to commit to games, I’ve been getting more back into other media.  I’m going to keep my Seasonal Anime Draft series of posts going into next season and the seasons after that.  I’ve also been listening to a lot more music while at work and stuck in my car and on the train to and from work, and some of it is the kind of game/weeb-related stuff you’d expect, stuff I’d be able to write about here in a hopefully meaningful way.  I’ll never stop writing about games, but it will probably be more of a mix of games/anime/music going forward.

Even more complaining

Yes, even more.  I’m still ready to pull out my soapbox at any time, so if I read about a development in the game industry or a related field that sets me off, I might go into brain-dump mode and post something here that I end up regretting but that I’ll never take down.  Even if alcohol is involved.

I know I’ve used this screenshot from Welcome to the NHK! before but it really fits this time

So that’s the plan.  I hope you’re not too put off by it.  If I win the lottery tomorrow, I’ll quit working as a lawyer and dedicate myself to games and writing and whatever the hell else I feel like doing full time, but as long as I’m living in the real world, I have to accept real world responsibilities, as much as I’d rather not.  Since I don’t find life to be much fun, though, I’ll keep escaping from it as much as I can, and writing here is part of that escape for me.

Spooky RPG Maker game review: Bevel’s Painting

Over the break, I had the chance to play and watch a series of freeware RPG Maker (and Wolf RPG Editor) games with horror themes with a few friends.  (Before I go on, I should note that we weren’t recording ourselves uncontrollably shrieking at the games, like a handful of Pewdiepie imitators hoping to make it big with Youtube ad revenue.  Also, Pewdiepie’s routine is not funny and gets extremely irritating after about three seconds.  Sorry for the digression, but after writing off and on about video and PC games for over two years I finally had to say it.)

Despite technically all being “horror games”, the games we played in our weekend RPG Maker marathon varied pretty widely in theme and approach.  And while it wasn’t the best among the games, Bevel’s Painting was certainly one of the most interesting.

bevel1

Made in 2015 as an entry in an independent game contest by one Maninu, Bevel’s Painting tells the story of Bevel, a young white-haired girl who enjoys painting.  There’s not much in the way of dialogue in this game, and Bevel is a silent protagonist, so a lot of the story is implied, if that makes any sense.  Here, we know Bevel is a budding artist because she starts the game in an art classroom in front of an easel with a painting on it, and also because she wears something that looks like a beret.  Other than that, the game initially gives you no direction or narration, and Bevel’s classmates standing around in little cliques in the hallway outside the classroom won’t talk to her, so the only place to go is naturally inside the painting on the easel.

The great bulk of Bevel’s Painting takes place inside the “world” of Bevel’s painting.  Bevel has to navigate through various puzzles and traps to progress through her world.  While her art world starts out bright and happy (in a sequence that occurs shortly after entering the painting, Bevel is magically decked out in a princess outfit by animals and gets applauded by a crowd of colorful bees, worms, and alien-looking creatures) it doesn’t stay that way for long.  This is a horror game, after all, so it’s no surprise when the initial cheeriness of the game fades away into darkness and terror.  You can also expect to be chased by enemies a few times – and yes, you can die in the painting world if you’re caught or if you fall into a trap.  And like most games of its type, Bevel offers a number of endings – which ending you get depends upon several choices you’ll have to make when deciding how to solve the game’s puzzles.  The game also features a language gimmick: most of its text is in “Bevelese”, which is English with its letters replaced with gibberish symbols (the game helpfully offers a guide in the download file to help the player decode the language.)  The Bevelese thing does come as a surprise at first and can be a little annoying, but we quickly got used to it while playing, and the concept of a made-up language within Bevel’s art world makes sense in the game.

bevel2

Out of all the games I played/watched throughout our marathon horror RPG Maker game sessions, Bevel gives you the least information by far.  The game drops clues about where to go and what to do, but you have to use your mind to make the connections and solve the puzzles necessary to moving forward.  It also gives very little away about the story behind Bevel’s explorations – at least at first.  Bevel is (debatably) the only “real” character in the game, not counting the various creatures and beings you’ll run into during your playthrough.  The game doesn’t provide much in the way of dialogue and provides no narration whatsoever.  However, the game does provide serious hints later on about some of the issues Bevel might be trying to work through.  Without spoiling too much, I can say that the game goes into seriously dark territory near the end – although it never explicitly states anything about its protagonist, her experiences, or her feelings, they can be guessed at by the end of the game depending upon the ending route you’re locked into.  Bevel’s Painting goes far more for ambiguous creepiness and unease than it does for cheap scares, and that’s something I appreciate.

bevel3

All in all, Bevel’s Painting is well worth playing.  The game clearly owes a lot to Ib and Yume Nikki, two popular RPG Maker games that involve exploring mirror-universe painting-worlds and bizarre dreamscapes respectively.  Unlike those games, Bevel is very short – a full playthrough can take less than an hour depending upon your puzzle-solving and being-chased-by-a-monster skills.  Despite its short length and its ambiguous endings, though, there’s enough here to make the player feel that he’s achieved something by the end, at least if he manages to get one of the non-bad endings.  It’s not a terribly big or ambitious game, but Bevel is good enough to get a strong recommendation.  It doesn’t feature a lot of spooky ghosts or JUMPSCARES, but if you’re looking for a bizarre little exploration game with horror elements, Bevel’s Painting is for you.  Maninu’s game was translated into English (except for the Bevelese parts) by vgperson and the English version can be downloaded here.