Summer cleaning game review (?) special #7: Super Radical Solitaire / ART SQOOL

It’s time for still another double feature, because I don’t have enough to say about either of these games for as full a post as I’d like. I did manage to fit them into a theme, however, so you can’t say I’m not trying here at least. This particular post also doesn’t have any proper reviews because I didn’t play enough of the games to actually review them, but said games are also weird enough for me to want to write about them, if only to relieve my annoyance. Maybe you’ll see something you like, or if you’ve played these maybe you can tell me if I’m missing something here.

Super Radical Solitaire

Remember Radical Solitaire? Developer Vector Hat has created a new version of its bizarre Klondike/Breakout hybrid, and it’s even weirder than before.

If you haven’t played the first one, the idea behind it was that you could win any game of Solitaire you started by dragging a useless card to a pile called “GET RAD”. GETTING RAD entailed playing a game of Breakout in which you attempt to hit the card behind the blocks to flip it, changing it to a hopefully useful card before your Breakout game ends. It was a novel concept, at least to me, though the presumably intentionally eye-destroying color palette gave me a headache.

Breakout, but this game calls it something else. It’s Breakout though.

Super Radical Solitaire features the same old Klondike Solitaire game, but now with two new mini-games added: a version of the extremely addictive Japanese gambling game Pachinko, and a Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move clone.

The image saved as a jpg and the colors were muted; it’s actually brighter than this.

There seem to be other, secret mini-games according to the game’s itch.io page, but I didn’t play long enough to find them. Because this game is even more eye-scraping than before, with flashing bright colors (which it does warn you about in the opening screen — the photosensitive should stay far away from this game) and the addition of a screeching robot voice that reads out each new card you play and makes a few other announcements. So now it’s ear-destroying too!

In the plus column, unlike its predecessor, Super Radical Solitaire is free. So credit to these guys for not charging for this game, but I still question what the fuck they’re thinking with these design decisions. I think this game is a meme or something, but I don’t even want to guess. Try it for yourself as long as you’re not prone to seizures from flashing lights. It’s certainly unique — I can’t accuse Vector Hat of making generic-looking games at least.

ART SQOOL

And now for a game that’s very different in style but equally confusing in execution.

And also just as hard on the eyes!

This is ART SQOOL. All in caps, apparently — fair enough. The gameplay in this one consists of walking around this school’s “campus” consisting of floating, mostly disconnected platforms while collecting art supplies, including different colors of paint and tools, and then drawing something that hopefully makes your AI professor happy enough to give you a decent grade. FROSHMIN as your character is called has their damn work cut out for them, because it’s not that easy to get a good grade. Or else I’m way too shit at drawing (this is the real reason, I’m sure.)

I didn’t know what “something wiggly” might involve, so I tried a sandwich, but I didn’t really have the tools or paint for it. Mustard is my favorite condiment. I deserved an F, but the professor was too nice to fail me.

Among the many games in the itch.io bundles (ART SQOOL was featured in both the racial justice and Palestine relief ones, so you have it if you bought either) this one was talked up quite a lot. Developer Julian Glander seems to be a known quantity, because one of the reviews on the itch.io page calls ART SQOOL “characteristically Glander.” It also mentions a lot of references to other artists in the game. If you’re deep into the visual arts then you’ll probably get some of them — if I even came across them, I’m sure I didn’t recognize them myself.

I do appreciate the use of Wingdings though; we had a lot of fun fucking around with this crazy Word font when we were kids. Can anyone translate these signs?

This game also hurt my eyes because the whole damn thing is a pastel nightmare (there’s the theme I mentioned at the top — it’s “eye-destroying” this post.) But some people really seem to like it, and maybe you’d be one of them? Feels a little too “lol random” for me, but then I wouldn’t get the inside art jokes anyway, whatever they are.

ART SQOOL promises five or six hours of gameplay, so there’s probably a lot more here than I found in my approximate 45 minutes of dicking around in it. If you own either last year’s or this year’s bundle, anyway, you own this game, so try it out and either enjoy it or be utterly baffled and annoyed by it like I was. Just like Super Radical Solitaire, this game gets the “unique” stamp, but with the qualification that it’s not my kind of unique.

That’s all for now. Next time in this series, I’ll look at something better suited to my uncultured dumb ass. Until then!

 

Summer cleaning game review special #6: Baba Is You

Yes! Summer is back, the worst of all the seasons, and even worse this year because of the heat wave we’re going through. So I thought I’d drag this post series back out as well. It’s especially relevant since just like last summer, I’ve picked up a new massive batch of over a thousand games from itch.io in a bundle, so now I have — well, a lot. There’s some overlap between the two, so I’m not sure how many are in both together, but certainly more than I can ever play in my life.

In this resurrected post series, I’ll again be covering smaller games that I don’t have as much to say about as I would in a typical review. I can use the break from the massive epics I’m working through anyway. Atelier really took it out of me last spring, and I need to gather my energy again.

So why not start with a game everyone’s already heard of? As usual, I’m late to the party, but for those in the same situation, here’s the puzzle game Baba Is You.

This game was released in 2019, when I first started hearing a lot about it but for whatever reason never bothered checking it out. But I should have, because it’s pretty damn close to the perfect sort of puzzle game: easy to learn but hard to master, and one that either lets you or forces you (depending on your mindset) to use unorthodox solutions. The object of each stage in Baba Is You is to reach the goal, which is initially marked by a flag, and your player character is Baba, the white rabbit-looking creature seen above.

But not always. All that can change, because in many cases the player has the power to alter the rules of a stage by moving the text blocks that create said rules. So Baba is you, except when it isn’t. Maybe something else can be you. Or maybe the flag doesn’t have to be the goal — maybe it can be something else entirely. Is a wall or some other obvious obstacle stopping you from proceeding? Maybe you can get around it — or maybe you can change the rules to break straight through that wall.

Is this the solution to this stage? I guess not.

Baba Is You encourages you to try all kinds of stuff that might seem fruitless or even silly at first — if it doesn’t work or results in failure, hitting the z key lets you rewind your actions step by step. And in some cases, an action that might seem silly or unthinkable can be exactly the solution you were looking for.

This game reminds me of nothing so much as the logic game section of the LSAT, the standardized exam that American and Canadian law schools require all applicants to take. I had to take that bullshit exam three times before I got a score I was halfway satisfied with, and those logic games were the bane of my fucking existence for months.* These games were essentially very complex word problems that operated according to logic rules, most of which you’re required to piece together yourself. Here’ are a few good examples of such games. You can see if you play with some of the rules in these problems how the different elements in it can change. The exam does this in some of the questions under each problem, forcing you to quickly factor in those rule changes to find their solutions.

I think this is where I discovered the connection in my head

While the LSAT is a hateful, miserable exam, however, Baba Is You is a fun puzzle game. Probably because it doesn’t impose a time limit upon you or grade you on a curve, and certainly because being bad at it or taking a while to solve its problems doesn’t subject you to shame among your peers and anxiety about your career prospects (unless your desired future career is as a speedrunner, maybe.) But it operates on similar principles, like understanding what rules can and can’t be changed, how multiple rules fit together to create other rules that aren’t obvious at first, and how changeable rules can be broken up or added to. Not every idea is going to work — most of mine were failures, but that’s part of the fun. Even discovering some of the bizarre ways in which you can fail these stages is interesting.

So this one comes highly recommended. Try out Baba Is You for some good brain exercise, because we can all use it.

 

* Of course, now the Law School Admissions Council is getting rid of that section, only after so many of us had to suffer through it. I support that decision, but couldn’t they have made it sooner, preferably before I took the god damn test? Thanks for nothing, assholes.

Listening/reading log #20 (May 2021)

Damn, 20 of these posts. This feels like a landmark somehow, though that should really be marked at 24 instead, shouldn’t it? I don’t have anything special planned anyway — just the same old great writing from around the communities and a look at some of the music I’ve had on recently. On to it:

Sunshower (Taeko Ohnuki, 1977)

Highlights: Kusuri wo Takusan, Tokai, 振子の山羊

Hey, it’s more city pop. This smooth Japanese style has been winning me over a lot lately. Well, it already had me ever since hearing “Plastic Love” like everyone else, but I’ve been listening to more lately anyway, probably to help with de-stressing. And it does the job. Sunshower is the perfect title for this album, because it sounds like the sort of music that goes along perfectly with driving along a coastal road in the summer breeze with the top down, or maybe hanging out at a rooftop pool in the middle of a city thirty stories in the air. One day with nothing to do and nothing to worry about, that kind of feeling.

Taeko Ohnuki’s singing contributes a lot to that feel — she has a really nice voice, soft and smooth, that goes along with this style well. Most of the songs are catchy as hell too — “Tokai” is the one that pulled me in, and I can see why both this song and “Kusuri wo Takusan” were put out together on a single in 2015, nearly forty years after the album’s release. There’s also a very obvious strong fusion influence here I really like (and maybe even a bossa nova one as well, though that might just be me.) And apparently a lot of these upbeat-sounding songs deal with dark subjects, like “Kusuri wo Takusan”, about the overprescription of drugs — and this was in 1977! Not much has changed, apparently.

My only problem with Sunshower is that it indulges a bit in some stupid synth tones. For example, about 20/30 seconds in the middle of “Tokai” unfortunately has a dumb as hell sounding synth gooped onto it that wrecks that section for me. Maybe you don’t mind those wacky synth tones, in which case you’ll be fine. I mind them, but I still like Sunshower a lot.

Octopus (Gentle Giant, 1972)

Highlights: The Advent of Panurge, Raconteur Troubadour, Knots (yes, really)

Shit, have I really gone 19 of these posts going on about prog and not bringing up Gentle Giant at all? Today I fix that. This English prog band didn’t quite reach the commercial success of colleagues like Yes or Genesis (and they tried but failed to make that leap into 80s pop those bands managed) but they had their own unique style — as far as I know, no one else came close to even trying to sound like Gentle Giant. Understandable, because it wouldn’t have been easy. These guys were really talented, some of them playing a load of instruments each, combining rock sometimes with a kind of medieval or Renaissance European sound, sometimes with orchestral or dance hall music, and occasionally with… Gregorian chanting or something? I know that probably sounds weird, but I can’t think of a better way to describe Gentle Giant than that.

Octopus seems to be considered their peak by some fans, and I can see why; it’s pretty damn out there while remaining grounded enough to enjoy. The opener “Advent of Panurge” combines those rock and folk styles really nicely, and I’m a big fan even if I have no idea what they’re singing about (I think Panurge and Pantagruel are characters from some Renaissance-era novels or plays; shows you how far back these guys go for their influences.) “Raconteur Troubadour” is more old folk/medieval-sounding but still a great time, and I’m also partial to Dog’s Life. Just a nice song about a dog and his owner, and who can’t like that? Though I’ve never had a dog, so I can’t exactly relate. And come to think of it, this song has some out-of-place synth fart sounds in the middle too (or maybe it’s some obscure old instrument? Probably, knowing these guys.) Maybe that’s the hidden theme to this post, irritating sounds in sections of otherwise good songs.

And then there’s “Knots”. This seems to be a controversial one — some really hate this song, and I can’t blame them for feeling that way. But I like it. At first it sounds like a complete fucking mess, but it does come together at times in a satisfying way, and I get the feeling that even the messy-sounding parts are extremely precisely and purposely written. As for the lyrics, God knows what they mean or if they mean anything at all. The song could be an avantgarde retelling of Macbeth for all I know. But it could just as easily be nothing more than a weird joke on the listener. Either way, “Knots” does have a practical use as someone in the comments of the video mentions — it’s great for clearing out a party when you want those annoying stragglers to go home.

Now for the featured posts:

Itch.io Indies: Jam and the Mystery of the Mysteriously Spooky Mansion (nonplayergirl) — A review of a game that I haven’t yet played in that itch.io bundle I keep going on about. It sounds like a very quick one, so there’s no excuse for me not to check it out. Sounds like a nice time from what nonplayergirl says, especially if you like some irreverent humor, and I’m sometimes up for that.

What I Would Like to See in PlayStation’s Future (The Gamer with Glasses) — I still don’t plan to buy a PS5 (my future console money is still set aside for the Switch alone, which no I still don’t have one yet) but it’s still interesting to read the Gamer with Glasses’ hopes for the new console, including some much-needed improvements and fixes from the PS4 era.

MagiCat – If a Christmas Calendar was a game (Nepiki Reviews) — Nepiki takes a look at MagiCat, a nice-looking old-school-style platformer available on Steam. I’ve never played a game that includes a transcription into katakana of its title on the opening screen that I didn’t like, so MagiCat looks like a safe bet for me.

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons – Episode One: Marooned on Mars (Extra Life) — PC games were a big part of my life as a kid in the 90s, but somehow I never played a Commander Keen game. This is without doubt a historically important series, but how does the first title in the series hold up? Read Red Metal’s review to find out.

East Meets West #5: Vatican Kiseki Chousakan .vs. Father Ted (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — Traditional Catholic Weeb here continues the series in which he examines and compares works from both East and West, this time putting up the Catholic-themed mystery thriller anime Vatican Kiseki Chousakan against the Catholic-themed Irish comedy Father Ted. Incidentally, this is maybe the one time I can say that I’ve seen the live-action show but not the anime.

Fragile Packages Don’t Exist: Totally Reliable Delivery Service Review (The Below Average Blog) — None of these apply to me, but if you have an Xbox Game Pass subscription and a few friends who do as well, Totally Reliable Delivery Service sounds like a great game to pick up. Though the repetitive soundtrack might be a dealbreaker anyway in my case.

Anime Reviews: Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (Lex’s Blog) — People are now going out without fear after over a year of quarantine. I’m continuing my quarantine for as long as humanly possible because I hate the outside and everything associated with it. But if you’re actually a healthy and well-adjusted person who doesn’t feel that way, taking in a movie is a good way to pass time with friends or even alone if you prefer, and Demon Slayer: Mugen Train sounds like a good one to watch if Lex’s review is any indication. (Also, watching a movie in the theater alone is fine and to hell with anyone who says otherwise.)

It Takes Two to Break Me (Frostilyte Writes) — It’s not easy for an artistic work to elicit real emotion, but Frostilyte talks about his experience with the new co-op game It Takes Two and how it manages to achieve an emotional response using elements that are unique to the game medium. Interesting as always — check it out!

Visiting Ureshino, the Cheerful Hot Spring Town from Zombieland Saga (Resurface to Reality) — If you liked Zombieland Saga and you’re in Japan or are planning to visit, be sure to read here about the attractions in Ureshino. One day I will visit a hot spring inn, I swear to God. It’s on my lifetime to-do list.

Rhyme like a Rolling Stone! The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 6(e); Characters-Koromaru, Ken, and Shinjiro  (Lost to the Aether) — Aether continues his excellent analysis of Persona 3, covering one of the worst and one of the best characters in the game in this post. Can you already guess which is which? Neither of them are Koromaru, though he is a good dog (in fact he could easily be the subject of “Dog’s Life” linked above.)

On Writing: Female Representation in Video Games (Meghan Plays Games) — Meghan here takes on the hotly debated issue of female representation in games. I agree with much of what she has to say in general, though not on some of the specifics — her piece might provide some counterargument to the one I wrote on fanservice a while back, but interested readers can judge for themselves. I don’t feel any differently now than when I wrote that post, but it’s still great to read different and well-reasoned points of view. More civil discussion, fewer bullshit kneejerk-reaction fights on Twitter, that’s what I say! Though we’re always civil here anyway from what I’ve seen.

Reflections: Am I too old for anime high school? (In Search of Number Nine) — And finally, Iniksbane reflects upon his feelings towards anime set in high school (i.e. a whole lot of them) at the age of 44, far removed from that stage in his own life. It’s an interesting question to consider and quite a personal one, whether you can (or should?) still relate to characters 20 or 30 years removed from you in life experience — I’ve had some similar thoughts before, but I think different people will come to their own conclusions on it. Either way, a very insightful and interesting post, so be sure to check it out.

And that’s it once again for the month. I’m in the middle of a lot of games at the moment, but a minor but annoyingly slow-healing injury to my hand has forced me to set aside some of the more action-oriented ones (most frustratingly NieR Replicant, which I was really enjoying up until then.) It is healing at any rate, but until it’s all right, I’ll probably be looking at a few of the visual novels I’ve had piled up. It was about time to get to those anyway. You can also expect the usual anime reviews — there’s at least one this month I hope to get to.

Before closing here however, I want to draw attention to yet another massive 1,000+ game bundle being sold on itch.io for $5 or more if the buyer wishes. This is the Indie Bundle for Palestinian Aid, the proceeds set to go to the UN Relief and Works Agency. I admittedly have a personal bias as I owe a lot to UNRWA by extension since they’ve helped a lot of my family out in the past, but they continue to do great work for the sake of Palestinian refugees. I don’t get political here all that often, but this is a major human rights issue and one that I care about a lot, so I thought I’d do a bit more than a simple retweet. (And I certainly have gotten political here before on occasion, so not like it’s unprecedented anyway.)

And of course, you also get a metric fuckton of games if you donate, so there’s that too. If you’re interested, the deal is running until 6/11. As with last year’s bundle, most of the games in here don’t look interesting to me, but a few do, so I’ll be digging through this haul at some point to find those gems. Until next time!

A review of Sagebrush (PC)

I’m generally not a fan of environmental narrative games. These are also known as “walking simulators”, a term that’s meant as a bit of an insult, though one that’s stuck for good reason. Considering how I’ve felt about those I’ve already played, I wouldn’t normally have gone for a game like Sagebrush. However, it was included in that 1,000+ game itch.io bundle from last year that I’ve still barely made a dent in, and lately I’ve felt like giving a chance to something I typically wouldn’t. Open my mind to new possibilities and all that, which is something I usually don’t have an easy time doing.

Well, I’ll just say it straight out — Sagebrush didn’t change how I feel about this genre. Released in 2018 for PC and later ported to the Xbox, Switch, and PS4, this game received quite a lot of praise from reviewers and players, but I found it frustrating, all the more so because the story it tries to tell seems like it would be an interesting one if it were told as it happened. But as is so often the case with these kinds of games, we only get to see the aftermath of that story. Sagebrush does try to justify that with its ending twist, but it still doesn’t work so well for me, partly because the twist itself didn’t work for me either.

Note: I will be spoiling the hell out of this one, so if you don’t want to proceed further, here’s my bottom line: I didn’t like Sagebrush, but its story and characters have potential, and if you like these sorts of environmental narratives I can see how you’d enjoy it. But I didn’t. Now on to the horrifying details, because this isn’t a pleasant story in the slightest.

Good time to turn back if you’re not up to it, and I wouldn’t blame you.

In Sagebrush, you play as an initially unidentified protagonist visiting an old abandoned cult compound, the scene of a mass suicide. The player isn’t let in on why we’re here at first or even about who we are, but we at least know our objective is to explore this abandoned compound and put together what exactly happened here — or rather how it happened, since the game tells us the conclusion of this story at its beginning.

The player is therefore required to piece this story together by working back from the end and seeing how it happened. Sagebrush leaves a lot of clues around for the player to do just this, with plenty of notes, pamphlets, and journals to read along with more physical and visual forms of evidence, all having to do with the head of the cult, a preacher referred to as Father James Israel, and his followers.

Hey, this Father James guy sounds great! I’m sure he had nothing to do with the tragedy we learned about right after the title screen.

The compound is divided into several distinct areas, most of which are initially locked off and have to be accessed with keys and sometimes with other tools you’ll come across during your explorations. This allows the story to build gradually, showing more and more of the true horror behind this Perfect Heaven cult. What first seems to be a strange but perhaps harmless group of ascetics (starting with a few notes in the community hall, including a meal schedule with “fasting” listed two out of seven days) turns out to include a “cleansing” practice involving self-harm and self-mutilation as penance for sin and an “alternative cleansing” method in private with this Father James, which just happens to only involve certain young women in the cult. The inclusion of a schoolhouse and references to children at the compound makes the situation all the more horrific.

The rectory, where Father James lives and commits some of his more despicable deeds.

No one who’s looked into the history of cults will be surprised by any of this. Developer Nathaniel Berens took inspiration from real-world cults, some of the more likely examples being the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas that ended in a deadly standoff with federal authorities, the California-based Heaven’s Gate that ended in mass suicide, and the FLDS polygamist Mormon sect that still hasn’t ended despite its leader being imprisoned for sex crimes. However, the marks of a cult, and especially of this sort of millennial religious cult — fanaticism, militancy, and unquestioning devotion to a leader who claims he has special powers or speaks with God — can be found throughout history. The earliest example I know much about is the 16th century Anabaptist commune that briefly took over the German city of Münster (even if the link wasn’t intentional, Father James surely has some Jan van Leiden in him, especially with his more sexually oriented “revelations”) but there are certainly even older examples.

All this could make for a compelling story, and I had the feeling from reading all the correspondence and journals in the game that the cult featured in Sagebrush might have been a great subject for a game. However, the usual problems of these environmental narrative games show up yet again here. We only see the remains of the story, its characters and conflicts, through the written and physical evidence left sitting around the ranch. These do fill out the story and suggest what some of the characters are like and how they related to each other and especially to the false prophet James, who is about as big of a shithead as you might imagine and maybe even bigger, considering what you find in his journal near the end of the game.

Do not trust a man who hangs multiple portraits of himself in his own house, especially when he puts them right next to religious imagery

But again, I would have liked to see this all play out in real time. That’s always one of the problems I have with these games. Clearly there are people who enjoy this sort of forensic style of gameplay, but I’m not one of them. I have seen Sagebrush described as having a puzzle element along with the exploration one, but the puzzles in this game are the most basic “go to location x and find item y to open door z” sort of stuff you could ever imagine, to the point that I don’t even think you can call them puzzles at all. It’s not all just finding keys to unlock doors to find new keys, but it’s close enough that there’s no real challenge involved.

So all that’s left is the story, which is again told well after it’s happened. And the way it’s told feels a bit cheap. Initially, the player has no idea who the protagonist is or why they’re exploring this cult compound. Near the end of the game, however, it’s revealed that the protagonist is Lilian, one of the former cult members and the only survivor of the mass suicide by fire that puts an end to the cult. After coming to her senses and escaping the flames into a bunker built by Father James to ride out a police/military standoff, Lilian returned to her family and to society. But it’s implied her time at the compound was so traumatic that she’s repressed many or all of these memories, which return to her in the course of her explorations.

I still only vaguely remember who this Athanasius guy was or why he was important from a classics class I took years ago at college. Maybe the reference is relevant to the story? I have no idea.

I know nothing about psychology, so I can’t say anything about how realistic or unrealistic any of that is. However, hiding Lilian’s identity from the player up until that point feels pretty damn cheap. She hasn’t forgotten who she is, after all, and by the end of the game it’s revealed that she came back to the compound specifically to come to terms with what happened there and with her role in it. You’d think we would at least get some kind of internal monologue when we find Lilian’s living space in the trailer park set up to house the cult members, but we don’t. We only clearly enter Lilian’s mind near the very end of the game, when we get a cryptic message about “facing your past” just before entering the chapel, the final area of the game.

The only other clue before this point that the protagonist is Lilian is the old-fashioned tape deck that keeps showing up in various places. These act as save points, but they also play recorded monologues that turn out to mostly be Lilian’s recollections. My read on it is that these tape decks don’t actually exist at the compound but are just representations of Lilian’s thoughts — or it would be if there weren’t also a tape deck in the middle of the game that plays a monologue by Father James. Maybe this is supposed to be Lilian recalling what James told her, since it does take place at the site of one of his creepy as hell sex pervert “alternative cleansings” that it’s implied she took part in. But this also kind of breaks the rule the game set about the tape decks being Lilian’s thoughts alone, assuming it set that rule at all and I didn’t just imagine it in an effort to make sense of it.*

A few of these descriptions might also contain hints, but I might have missed some.

In any case, none of that changes the fact that the game does pull a surprise reveal about the protagonist being Lilian, despite this separation between the player and protagonist not really working. That kind of separation can actually work — I’d give examples but it would naturally spoil those games’ endings somewhat, so I won’t. Some ambiguity like this in a story can be extremely effective if it’s done right. However, I think it’s very difficult to pull off well, and in the case of Sagebrush it simply feels like the game is hiding the ball. Again, maybe it’s just me being dumb or not picking up on something extra-obvious (and if so please let me know what you saw that I didn’t) but I don’t appreciate this approach.

I wish I could be more generous to this game, because I like the basic story it sets up, and I think Mr. Berens treated his extremely sensitive subject with a lot of respect, but as far as I’m concerned it really is just another walking simulator in the end. If you’re into this sort of game, you might like it. Sagebrush has some atmosphere to it and it does deal with some heavy issues, and I can see a cult survivor or someone close to one connecting with and getting something out of the game.

I leave all the theological questions to others, but you don’t need to know much about that to recognize fanaticism when you see it. Stay alert.

But I don’t know. Aside from the narrative issues I brought up, I just like to have more game in my game than I got here. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, since I’ve highly praised stuff like Yume Nikki that’s also essentially a lot of walking around and exploration, but surreal dreamscape games like that are so interesting and weird that I’m willing to give them a break. Sagebrush gets no such break. At least it only takes a couple of hours to get through, so not too much of a time commitment if you plan to try it out.

So no, my return to this itch.io bundle didn’t start so hot, but I will be going back to it for a few more interesting-looking games. Among those I have lined up to play are a visual novel about two girls driving around a desert, a weird-looking meta RPGMaker-style game recommended by Frostilyte, and a few others I might pick out if they’re lucky (or not lucky?) But hopefully it is all good stuff that I can use to break up the bigger games I have going right now. Until next time.

 

* It’s also possible that the whole thing occurs not in real life but in Lilian’s mind, and the entire game is just her sorting through and coping with her own memories. A real-life cult compound and site of a mass suicide like this wouldn’t just have all that evidence left lying around by authorities, after all. Or maybe I’m overthinking it? See, I really don’t mind some narrative weirdness, but the rules set have to be consistent, otherwise it’s just frustrating.

Miscellaneous game reviews from that huge itch.io bundle (pt. 1 of ?)

Remember that summer cleaning series I ran months ago? I still have a ton of games from the huge itch.io bundle I downloaded back then. There are well over a thousand games in that bundle, including a few long titles that I’m currently stalled out in — partly because of my own laziness, and partly because playing one of them is like listening to someone scrape their nails on a damn chalkboard.

Anyway, here are a few games I had planned to write about, but that I felt I didn’t have quite enough to say about to give their own dedicated posts. I meant to write about them sooner, but you know how it is with the aforementioned laziness and all. So let’s finally fix that:

Sonar Smash

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to play a shmup about a dolphin killing its fellow sea life, then there’s a game made just for you. Sonar Smash stars a cute dolphin who has the ability to shoot sonar bullets (?) at its enemies. Using this ability, you’ll need to fight your way through waves of enemies who show up to harass you from the top of the screen classic shmup style. It’s easy to mess up and take hits, but luckily there are also shops you run into between waves that offer upgrades and health refills.

And that’s the whole game — you’re just getting as far as you can using your dodging and aiming skills. There’s not much more to Sonar Smash in terms of gameplay. It has some style on top of that, though, with nice retro-looking graphics and a surprisingly good BGM, sort of an electrofunk thing that I really like. The game is probably worth checking out for the music alone, honestly. The sea life killing is fun too, though.

Cityglitch

Cityglitch is a straightforward sort of puzzle game set on a series of 95 5×5 boards. On each of these boards, your goal is to use your main character, an unnamed being that I think looks like a levitating red-haired girl, to activate every red symbol. Your character can move all the way across the board if not blocked by an object, but only in a straight or diagonal line. There’s no time or move limit to complete a board, but there are enemies who move according to set rules that can either block the red symbols or run into your character and remove her from the board, requiring you to start over. The game doesn’t give too much background about why you’re doing this aside from its main page on itch.io, which states “touch runes to illuminate them / light them all to complete the ritual / release the glitch” but for a game like this I don’t guess you need more explanation than that.

You might wonder how much someone can do with a game board as small as five by five squares, but Cityglitch gets quite creative with the setup. The different enemy types and maze layouts can require the player to use some fancy tricks to maneuver the obstacles and clear the board. If an enemy moves across one of the activated symbols, it will also deactivate it, so you have to factor that in when making your own moves.

The green snot-looking things are stationary, the blue dots appear when you move your mouse around to see your range of movement, and the blue guy in the lower left corner is an asshole trying to stop you from completing your task.

And yeah, I liked this game too. I was surprised how quickly it hooked me, in fact — it’s impressive how much developer mindfungus was able to do with these small puzzles. I also like the blocky style of the graphics. For some reason they remind me of those old games people used to program for those TI-83 graphing calculators we used to have in high school, except those were all in black and white. Did anyone else waste time in class with those games? I can’t be the only one who played Caterpillar during trigonometry lessons. Maybe that’s why I never got onto the STEM path…

I should also mention the ambient synth background music, which fits the mood of the game very well. Again, a little style like this can go a long way towards making a simple game a lot more memorable — see also Helltaker, even though in terms of their looks they are very different (and Helltaker is more interesting, but then it also featured a cute demon girl harem, and how do you really compete with that?)

Siberia

I didn’t grow up in the age of those old-fashioned text adventures, but I think that’s the kind of game Siberia is taking after. The scenario it presents is pretty rough: you’re in a plane flying over Siberia that has engine trouble and is about to crash, so you have to parachute out and try to find help without dying.

As you play, the game presents you with branching decision points that you have to resolve before moving on Choose Your Own Adventure style, and as you might imagine, a lot of these decisions will end up getting you killed.

Siberia really has no mercy — there are a lot of ways to die in this game. Fortunately, if you make the wrong decision, it will either kill you instantly or after only a few more screens. This is a very small game, and each playthrough takes five minutes at most. None of the statistics at the bottom of the screen seem to matter that much, because from what I found while playing, I never actually reached 0 in any of them; I’d either be rescued or dead well before that point.

These guys were definitely going for that old 80s aesthetic here. Playing Siberia on a visible old CRT monitor felt a bit weird, but I liked the simple ASCII art the game used for illustrations. Again, this stuff is a bit before my time, but I do remember making and sharing crude text drawings online as a kid in the 90s. Those really were better times, at least for me.

So maybe the nostalgia angle really did work for me here. Siberia is very short — I didn’t get more than 30 minutes out of it, far less than most typical text adventures have to offer. However, it only costs one British pound, which I think is something like $1.25. Not such a bad price for what this is, though the monotonous background music might also drive you crazy. Considering all that, I can’t give it a definite recommendation, but it’s something to check out if you’re into this sort of throwback game.

And that’s it for the moment. Will I return to this bundle to review more of its games long after the bundle was on sale? Maybe. That ? in the title of this post might be a 1, or it might be a larger number than that. I might also get around to reviewing a few of the longer, more involved games in the bundle if I ever finish them. Even the nails-on-a-chalkboard bullshit one, though I might not have terribly nice things to say about it. If I do, I’ll do my best to be fair as always, though.

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.

Games for broke people, master hunter edition

You might have inferred from reading some of my posts here that I’m not an outdoors sort of person, and that inference would have been absolutely correct. I hate camping, hiking, trekking, kayaking, and being present in or near sunlight. I like the idea of nature, but I prefer to keep a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your perspective) distance from it. So you can rest assured that the closest I’ve ever gotten to hunting was playing Duck Hunt on the NES.  No real-life hunting for me, thanks.

But who needs real-life hunting when we have itch.io? The following free games all involve hunting as a mechanic.  Well, sort of.  One game involves hunting, and the other two games are square pegs I try desperately to pound into the round hole that is the theme of this post.  Did I succeed?  You be the judge.

Foxhunt

Not a literal foxhunt, with hounds and horses and all that stuff, so you know I’m more or less breaking the theme of the post already.  Not that I’d really want to play a game like that anyway.  No, Foxhunt is instead a short surreal puzzle game set in a very small looping area that looks like the middle of the Antarctic Desert.  The object of the game is to solve puzzles by following clues on cards scattered around the few abandoned structures and mechanisms in the environment.  These clues have been left by “The Fox”, who may or may not be the white fox that keeps showing up to check in on you before running away and disappearing again when you get too close to it (see the screenshot on the right.)  Then again, how would a fox write notes like this with its paws?  Maybe I’m overthinking this.

I found Foxhunt to be pretty nice for what it is.  The game was interesting enough to keep me playing through the 30 to 45 minutes it took to solve all of its puzzles, and some of the design elements makes me think Anomalina, the creator(s) of the game, was influenced by old adventure/puzzle games like Mystand Riven.  I also have to mention the piano that makes up the game’s background music; it makes for the perfect atmosphere.

Anyway, Foxhunt is worth checking out if you want to play a short puzzle game set in a tundra.  The last note in the game also suggests that the developer plans to expand on the ideas in Foxhunt, so they might be worth following.

Nonsense at Nightfall

The aptly titled Nonsense at Nightfall is the tale of a man who takes a sleeping pill that turns him into a cat, a fact that he takes very much in stride for some reason, because instead of immediately trying to turn himself back into a human, he decides to start looking for a mouse to eat (hence the hunting aspect of the game.  That’s not too much of a stretch, is it?)  This is another one of those Game Boy-ish games that seem to be so common on itch.io, I guess because they’re probably relatively easy to make and hold a bit of nostalgic value thanks to the old-school aesthetic.

Nonsense at Nightfall is only about half an hour long and consists of a few easy puzzles, a couple of weirdly creative twists, and a conclusion so obvious that it would have made me angry had the game been 1) not free and/or 2) longer than half an hour.  But since it’s a short free game, the dumb fourth-wall-breaking joke ending really isn’t so bad, and to be fair, developer Siegfried Croes does set it up decently.  This one was amusing enough to make me not regret downloading it, and that’s pretty much a thumbs up as far as these free games go.  Nice job, Mr. Croes.  Just, you know – if you make a longer game to follow up on this one, give it a more satisfying ending, okay?

Duck Hunt

It’s Duck Hunt.  Yeah, someone just made a port of the NES classic Duck Hunt (probably only considered a “classic” because it was included on that Super Mario Bros. cartridge that came bundled with every NES ever sold, but that’s another matter) and put it on itch.io as a browser game.  I’m pretty sure that’s not legal, even if you give Nintendo credit for their work.  But since Duck Hunt is 35 years old at this point, I can’t imagine Nintendo caring enough to threaten legal action.  Hell, everyone uses emulators these days, so what’s the difference?

Anyway, this port seems to be pretty faithful to the original game, with two exceptions.  The first is that you’re naturally not playing with the NES Zapper but rather with your mouse, and the second is that the dog doesn’t laugh at you for missing ducks.  At least he never did when I intentionally missed every duck and got a game over.  I know how much we all hated that god damn dog for laughing at us, but leaving the laughing dog animation out of Duck Hunt is like leaving the yeti out of SkiFree.  It’s just not the same game without it.  Or maybe I’m missing something here.  It’s been two decades and change since I last played Duck Hunt, so that’s possible.

Games for broke people, caffeinated edition

Coffee is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.  Indeed, it’s one of the few things that makes life worth enduring.  If a doctor told me that I’d have to give up coffee or else die an early death, I would immediately find a probate attorney and draft my will, because there is no force in the universe that will keep me from my daily cups.

Sadly, coffee is not free, especially not if you’re buying that overpriced brew from Starbucks.  The following coffee-themed games, however, are free.  I downloaded these from itch.io, and they all involve coffee as a central theme, though perhaps not always in ways you’d expect.

Need More Coffee

 

You know how you’ll go out in the morning with no money in your pocket and an empty glass coffee cup in your hand, picking quarters up off the street so you can get enough to fill that cup with coffee at your local café?  And then you’ll run to the next café down the street while evading rabid dogs and weaving through dangerous, unprotected construction sites?

No?  You don’t do that?  Well neither do I, but we’re not the protagonist of Need More Coffee.  This Game Boy-ish title features a nameless man who must run from café to café while drinking coffee to keep his energy up, allowing him to run faster, jump higher, and clear all the obstacles in his way.  Drinking coffee fills up your “battery”, which is constantly draining.  And that’s a bad thing, because when your battery is empty all you can do is shuffle around and hop a little bit.  Unfortunately, this guy is pretty fragile, and even walking on a crack in the sidewalk will cause him to fall down completely incapacitated, which isn’t much fun. The idea behind using coffee as a sort of power-up/fuel in a platformer is interesting, but this game just makes me feel like I’m controlling a Game Boy version of my own out-of-shape self, which I really don’t enjoy at all.  The creator did a pretty good job capturing the look and feel of a Game Boy game, though, so good on him for that.

Cappuchino Spoontforce Deluxe VI: Girl of the Boiling Fury

That’s quite a title. Not only did these guys misspell cappuccino, but they made a title longer to say than it takes to actually play the game. And that’s almost not an exaggeration. According to the info on the developer’s itch.io page, Cappuchino Spoontforce stars Sajiko, a girl taking a bath in a cappuccino. Your object is to get points by adding milk and sugar to the drink with your constantly moving pitcher and tongs while maintaining its temperature by adding coffee. If the cappuccino gets cold, Sajiko gets angry, stands up, and shakes her fists at you as the game ends (don’t worry, she’s wearing a towel – not sure why she’d be taking a bath while wearing a towel, but who the hell takes a bath in coffee anyway?) Complicating matters is the fact that Sajiko keeps moving around, and it is possible to douse her in milk or coffee (ouch) or hit her in the head with a sugar cube, which seriously pisses her off and makes her more likely to quit her coffee bath. The game is pretty damn mean-spirited, though, because it gives you 500 points every time you successfully brain her with a sugar cube. Shit. The protagonists in these games aren’t getting any breaks, are they?

Okay, I have to be honest – I like this game, as bizarre as it is. It’s pretty difficult to keep the game going, trying to drop the ingredients in and around Sajiko to keep the coffee hot while trying not to hit her and piss her off. It’s a novelty, at least, and a pretty fun one for five or ten minutes. Definitely weird, though. But you probably already knew I was weird myself, so does it really come as a surprise that I’d enjoy something like this?

Coffee Physics

 

Coffee Physics is a game about throwing cups of coffee at people.  Or rather at sentient men’s bathroom sign figures who are constantly chasing you for some reason.  Tossing your coffee at these things will knock them over, but the chase continues until your stock is exhausted (that’s a lot of full coffee cups for one person to be carrying, though – maybe they’re all stored in a holster or a bandolier that we’re not seeing.)  You can also run around town knocking over objects, because this is one of those games where everything, no matter how solid you’d think it is, has the density of styrofoam.

I don’t like these kinds of games, but maybe you do.  In any case, it’s free, so if you really feel like throwing coffee at vaguely person-shaped objects, playing this game is probably the easiest and most legal way to do it.

Games for broke people: Momodora II

Yes, it’s yet another free game review.  Sorry about that – I’m trying to be more financially responsible right now, which means that I’m living more or less like I’m broke.  Not forever, though.  I still plan to get a Switch at some point.  In the meantime, I have my backlog, and I also have a bunch of freeware from Steam and itch.io that I’ve culled to weed out the boring and non-functional, leaving only the good, the interesting, and the weird.  At least I hope I’ve done that.  I guess you can be the judge, because I’ll probably be making a few more of these posts this May as I tighten my belt and work longer hours.

Today, we’re taking a look at one of the best free games I’ve found so far.  I typically write short reviews for freeware lumped into groups of two or three to a post, but Momodora II is enough of a full-fledged game that it deserves a post all to itself.

Spoilers: it’s not fucking safe

The Momodora series is one that I’ve known about for quite a while.  In fact, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, the fourth and latest game in the series, is one of those games sitting in my backlog right now.  The first two games are free to play, while the third is pretty damn cheap at just two dollars, and while they’re not as pretty or polished (or probably nearly as long) as the latest installment, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had with them if Momodora II is any indication.  I started with the second title because rdein, the creator of the series, claims on the itch.io page for the game that Momodora I is really unpolished and that we should start with the sequels instead, so sure, why not.  I bet that’s just your typical artistic modesty, though.

Not being very nice to the one-eyed freaks, are we

So what’s Momodora II about?  It has a simple plot: the protagonist Momo, a young shrine maiden, travels to a dangerous temple/cave/dungeon complex near her village to defeat Isadora, an evil demon queen who’s been causing trouble as evil demon queens are wont to do.  For some reason, Momo’s older sister just lets her wander in without helping out, which is pretty weird.  But maybe she’s right to be confident, because Momo is more than capable of defending herself – she carries a magic leaf that she uses as a kind of blade and can pick up some nice power-ups throughout the game, including a ranged attack and a double-jump ability.  As Momo fights through the complex on her way to Isadora, she’ll run into a string of other young women who are also there to take out said evil demon queen, including one who mistakes Momo for an enemy and serves as your first and second act boss battles before she comes to her senses.

Momodora II isn’t all that difficult, thanks in part to the many health regeneration/long range shot drops and the several bells around the game field that act as save points and full heal stations, but it does contain some challenge, mostly in the final section of the game and the final sort-of-bullet-hell-style boss fight with Isadora.  The map is broken into five or six different sections that vary in theme and enemy type and strength, and enemies do respawn once as you move from one section to the next, so you can’t just clear out the entire map, though that also means you have unlimited health and ranged shot drops to use if you’re stuck on a boss.

Even the maids are your enemies, and they’re just cleaning up the place

Even though Momodora II isn’t a very big game, I really enjoyed the exploration aspect of it; the level design is set up so that new sections of the map become accessible once you’ve gained certain powerups.  You’ll also have to hunt around the map for certain items before you can feasibly take on the final boss, including a set of “love letters” that fill Momo with tender feelings when she reads them, giving her an extra heart in her life counter.  At least I guess that’s how it works.  I don’t think those love letters were even addressed to her.  They’re just sitting around in chests in a dungeon; who could they be addressed to even?  Best not to think about it.

I hide my love letters behind rows of deadly spikes

The only real criticism I can make of Momodora II is that its controls can be a little too sensitive sometimes, especially when you’re trying to make jumps in a few areas that require great precision.  It’s not a major problem, just something that comes up occasionally.  If I’d paid more than a few dollars for this game, I’d also be kind of upset that it’s only about 60 to 90 minutes long (though you can get through it more quickly with a guide, but where’s the fun in that) but since Momodora II costs zero dollars, I can’t say anything about that.  This game asks for nothing but a bit of your time, and it delivers some solid entertainment, cool background music, a nice little plot and a few secrets to discover.  What more do you need, really.  Unless you’re allergic to action platformers, you should check this one out.

Games for broke people, procedurally generated edition

I’m still dedicated to writing about games that you don’t have to pay one cent for (or one of whatever sub-denomination of currency you use.)  But the problem is that a lot of free games out there are buggy, boring, and/or unfinished, some of which I suspect are student projects that would otherwise be bound for the trash.  Or they’re MMOs, which I have no interest in playing no matter how well-made.  So I started digging around, this time on itch.io, to find something at least worth the time it would take to download, and I came across a strange sub-genre of procedurally generated games.

Well, the term “game” might not quite fit in this case.  These are more like simulations or art pieces that you can walk through.  Still, that won’t stop me from writing about them.  I’ve already written about a game that consisted entirely of a five-minute boat ride and nothing else, and Becalm is about as much of a game as the following programs are.

Pattern

If you like the general idea of the world of Minecraft but you hate all the gameplay parts of it, Pattern is for you.  This program generates an endless land/seascape featuring forests, beaches, and what are either lakes or different sections of an ocean surrounding a bunch of islands.  It’s hard to tell.  As you run around aimlessly, night turns to day and back to night while the trees, ground and sky change color from green to red and back and a minute-long ambient loop repeats in the background.  There are a few interesting sights that break the monotony, but this describes 95 percent of the experience.

I might have sounded pretty underwhelmed in that last paragraph, but I basically like Pattern.  I find it relaxing.  There’s nothing going on in this world, at least from what I could tell, but that’s okay.  According to Talking Heads, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, so maybe Pattern is what Heaven will be like for those lucky enough to get in?

Wave Function Collapse

If Pattern isn’t a game, Wave Function Collapse really isn’t a game.  It consists of an infinite M. C. Escher-esque city full of staircases, balustrades, and classical-looking columns and arches that you can run over, across, and through, and that’s it. There’s no music, there’s not even sound, and there’s also apparently no way to quit the program other than alt+f4.  This one is kind of interesting just because it really does look like a city designed entirely by a computer – completely cold and inhuman, even lacking color.  Reminds me of the Copied City from NieR:Automata.

I had no idea what the title of this program meant, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, “wave function collapse is said to occur when a wave function—initially in a superposition of several eigenstates—appears to reduce to a single eigenstate due to interaction with the external world.”  So there you go.

SiCoTa N

According to creator Jonathan A. Daley, SiCoTa N is “[a] procedurally generated interactive environment whose movement is driven by the trigonometric functions of Sine, Cosine, and Tangent.”

Now look, I barely know a thing about how to do math beyond everyday business-related stuff.  I do remember studying sine, cosine and tangent from the trigonometry class I took in high school, but I don’t really remember what they are or know how they relate to the insane shit going on in this program, what with the cubes bouncing and the undulating polygons and block towers.  It is possible to jump off the edge of the platform to escape the madness (see right) but that won’t stop the bizarre noise music in the background from playing.  I think the background music is also procedurally generated, in fact.  I get the feeling that I just don’t understand SiCoTa N, but maybe you will if you’re a math major.

Okay, I promise I’ll review real games next time.  Probably.  I do recommend Pattern as a stress-reliever, though.  Works for me.