I picked up this game on the recommendation of my friend Caelyn, and the game’s own descriptor refers to it as an anti-adventure game. The game advertises itself with about as much story as you’re going to get: You play as the Janitor, an Alaensee girlbeast with a municipally-subsidized trash incineration job, who dreams of leaving Xabran’s Rock far behind her. In case you were wondering about whether or not she does, she does not, and the game instead focuses on the narrative of that being.
Here’s a game that kinda wound up being nothing I wanted.
Videogames do a lot of work automatically, which means that there’s a lot of ways that two very similar games can be meaningfully different, and so exploring them is challenging. What’s more, communicating that difference can be challenging, too; I could tell you that Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2 are both followups to successful games with alternative movement schemes and a buddy that becomes part of your mission flow, with a setpiece level including alternate timelines, but if you know videogames, you know those points of similarity are way less obvious than the points of difference. After all, in one of those games, you’re running around with a gigantic mecha and the other is a steampunk stealth game.
This is because there are layers of systems and hardware that sit between you, the player, and the game you’re playing, layers that are not only not under your control but are very specifically developed and defined by someone who isn’t in the room with you. This means that videogames get to be very complex in a way tabletop games aren’t when it comes to the immutable, consistant set rules of the game. Tabletop games get to be way more sophisticated on all the levels of players playing them, though, because the rules are dynamic, and under the control of the players all agreeing to play the game the right way, together.
Been a while since I just straight-up gushed about a good game I liked, hasn’t it?
Dixit is a 2008 card game where players take turns trying to connect a chosen word by the active player (the storyteller) to one of a number of cards with dreamlike images on them. Complicating things is that the storyteller starts by picking their card in secret, then announces the word, then each player contributes a card of their own in secret. The cards are shuffled, then revealed, and the players have to choose which of these cards they think is the storyteller’s chosen card to represent the chosen word. If you’re the storyteller and everyone picks your card, they all get points and you don’t; if you’re the storyteller and some but not all the players pick your card, you get points and they do too.
Hey friends! I’m really sorry about this! There was going to be a video here, but thanks to Audacity being Audacity, I lost two and a half hours of audio that was going to be the foundation of our video. That’s a super bummer, and maybe we’ll get it next month.
For now, here’s a video. It’s not much, but it is an apology, an explanation, and a game!
(The game is the Swindle)
You know if this had been what the Quake wars were about I’d have actually have had a lot more fun.
I talk about games a lot. Sometimes, I use games to talk about books. Sometimes, I use books to talk about games. Sometimes I use games to talk about culture and about art and about poetry and about history. Games, in essence, get to be a lens through which I can talk about all sorts of other things, even as I talk about the games.
Make no mistake, though. Just because I find games interesting as lenses for other ideas doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes play games because they rock socks. And you know what rocks socks? Steamworld Heist rocks socks.
Steamworld Heist is a squad-based turn-based tactical shooter game. You know your high-profile X-Com style games? Well, take that basic idea, and make it in a 2d platformer game. You’re commanding a rag-tag group of thieves – though ‘thieves’ is kind of the wrong term. You’re more like bandits and rebels, opposing an oppressive state but also your heists are less about stealth and avoidance and much more about boarding an enemy vessel and shooting them in the hat.
I think Steamworld Heist is a really good game, and it’s definitely a videogame videogame – this isn’t something that could be implemented better in some other way. It’s available on Steam (haha), the Switch, iOS, and PS4, and it’s priced very reasonably for the amount of game you get for it.
Released in the year 2000, on April 27, Majora’s Mask is a Legend of Zelda game. Preceeded by Link’s Awakening DX, it’s generally seen as a followup, or maybe-sequel or sort-of-related game to The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. This is already a sentence that other types of games writers would navigate a lot faster but here I am, being deliberately picky to avoid saying something that’s generally accepted as true, but I don’t want to be part of reinforcing.
One reason to be careful about the wording is to just try and avoid someone nitpicking. After all, I don’t know anyone who’s likely to point out well actually, the DX release of the gameboy Zelda game came out between Ocarina and Majora’s, but somehow, going that extra mile keeps me extra safe, right?
Released in 1995, Yoshi’s Island is a classic Nintendo platform game on the SNES and subsequently released on almost every online platform they made. It’s really good and I like it, so here’s half an hour of me playing it, and talking about games, empathy, and fluttering.
Ace Attorney Investigations is a 2011 Nintendo DS game, best described as a Narrative Adventure game. See? I told you I needed it. Building on the success of previous Ace Attorney games, Investigations gives you space to wander around, all floppy-cravat style, and Investigate, as an Attorney would, or as you might imagine one would, if you had a very active and extremely silly imagination.
First things first, before we go anywhere.
The gamebook I’m going to discuss here is shot through it with a bunch of stuff that’s just going to fall under the category of what I call ‘content-warningy.’ The Infernals is a book marinated in a needless ‘edgy’ nastiness that means a perfectly normal seeming paragraph about negotiating for barley can break out with a random reference to sexual assault.
It’s not even a single enclosed space – no singular concept, no page section. This isn’t like there’s one super horrible character, or one terrible scene. It’s worse than that, it’s that throughout this entire guidebook, there is a non-stop constant and oppressive threat that the book will bring up something unnecessary and gross, mistaking mentioning taboo things as wielding them well.
I have beeves about this book and yet also loves, but I want to warn you against reading it at random, because in its attempts to be horrifying and edgy with its ‘villainous’ content, there’s a lot of this book you kind of have to ignore. Normally, I’ll warn you about a thing, or a type of thing in a work, but in this case, I just want you to know up front I don’t think you should read this book. As a general rule.
I will not be talking about that stuff, except in a broad sense to criticise the thoughtless way this book uses these subject matters. I’m not going to trot out specific examples of things just to criticise them, but I am going to mention:
- Abuse and Abusers
- Sexual Assault spoken about callously
- Mental health and identity issues
- Anger and revenge
- Public executions
If you want to go elsewhere today, I am okay with that. Here, go somewhere else, look at something nice.
Exalted is a tabletop roleplaying game of mythic fantasy that positioned itself as the counterpoint to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, made first by White Wolf and later by Onyx Path. Onyx Path have faithfully carried on the legacy of White Wolf’s work, and by that, I mean, Exalted started out bad and has maintained being bad.
Bad is a hollow word for media criticism, I know, but it’s good to set a tone. I want you to bear that in mind, because there’s going to be a lot of things that make this game sound awesome. This game has a faction of communist revolutionary furries who are gay for the moon. See? Right there, that’s something that’s either awful (kinda) or amazing (also, kinda).
This presents part of the problem of discussing Exalted: A list of things in Exalted sounds like praise for it! In a way, that’s amazing! It’s got a sentient stealth bomber that lives in a volcano! See? Just like that, you react with what and want to know more!
Plus, there will be pretty pictures, because Exalted has always employed some excellent artists who sometimes do amazing work, and if Bioshock Infinite has taught us anything, it’s that really excellent aesthetics can make it very easy for people to take you seriously even if your game is actually really bad.
Hold to that truth. No matter what it sounds like I’m saying, I’m also saying that Exalted is bad.
Exalted is amazing.
This month’s video is an experiment! Continue reading
And right now, it’s amazingly actually timely, kind of, because unlike how I wrote about Wonder Boy 3 just in time for the announcement of the remake, I had this plan lined up just as Keen Dreams dropped on the Switch.
On the Switch.
What the hell?
Who was seeing that coming!?
Released in 1991 under the Softdisk label, Keen Dreams marked a turning point in Commander Keen design. The first Keens were made as an exercise in smooth scrolling video on a PC – an attempt to replicate the movement of Mario Bros kind of games, and which wound up being – you know what, just go read Masters of Doom by David Kushner (no relation to that one) and learn about the arc that takes from Commander Keen and Softdisk to literally the entire modern landscape dominated by team-based multiplayer shooter games. Suffice to say this is legitimately one of the stepping stones on that path.
If I was a fairer writer, I’d tak about Commander Keen 3: Keen Must Die!, and I guess, here, bonus Game Pile: Keen Must Die is an afterthought of a game and makes the moral weirdness I mentioned about Commander Keen 2 both front-and-centre and obvious. Like it’s pretty much impossible to finish Commander Keen 3 without shooting someone’s mum, which is pretty bleak as a story beat to put in a videogame.
Keen Dreams is a… decent game. It’s fine. It’s alright. It’s definitely weaker than Keen 4 and a little bit better than Keen 3. There’s less game here than you’d think, less spectacle, less fun exploration, and there was a point where this game was entirely available for free, but it’s certainly worth more than nothing.
Braid, the 2008 videogame by Jonathan Blow, widely heralded as the first Xbox Arcade indie game and the dawn of a new era of artistic expression in videogames and the newly democratised marketplace, is in an uncited claim on its Wikipedia page, in contention as ‘one of the best videogames of all time,’ which suggests that this little indie game is very important and smart and deep, like other best videogames of all time on the wikipedia list, like Ninja Gaiden.
For obligatory game-as-game-context, Braid is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer game with your classic runny-jumpy-climby, a beautiful hand-painted art style and puzzles that focus on an engine that can do endless, smooth rewinding of every game entity all at once. This has a lot of clever design in it, and thanks to the endless rewinding, you can design the whole game around really challenging puzzles knowing you can always reset them and try again.
It’s regularly quite cheap, and it definitely isn’t overpriced.
Spoilers for Braid, ahead.
This isn’t about Peggle.
I found this game in a skip.
DoraKone is a stretch goal kickstarter game that came out in December 2018. When I say it’s a stretch goal, it’s literally a throw-in made for the kickstarter of another, different game, by Apple Cider games. You follow a protagonist named Dulce as she plays an ARG Phone game for exactly one summer, and the people she meets because of it.
This game is an unabashedly self-indulgent, short, easy and breezy little game. There’s no ‘suddenly, you are dead’ in any of the routes I played through, and the game you get is pretty much just Cute Lesbians Start Dating, culminating in a big grand kiss graphic for your trouble. There’s multiple endings and conversation choices, you know, all the classical Visual Novel stuff.
DoraKone is beautiful, just breathtakingly good looking as a visual novel goes. If you’re very familiar with how Renpy works, you know what to expect – the game never busts out a surprising mini game or asks you to do anything I’d consider ‘challenging.’ In the landscape of the modern English Language Visual Novel it’s a very pure, very approachable little nugget of Lesbians.
You can get DoraKone on itch.io for the low low price of No Dollars.
Hustle Cat is a 2016 Visual Novel by Date Nighto, which might normally get put in the ‘otome’ game category, except it’s kind of deliberately not using that particular trope set. The story follows Avery Grey, a pronouns-of-your-choice (they for this review) human form that, as seems to be a trend so far, interrupts their life of Not Doing Anything at home by getting a job at a cat cafe. This cafe is staffed entirely by painfully cute people, and you wind up smooching one of them (or dead, or worse).
Did I say dead? Don’t worry about it.
As with most games of its type, talking about plot specifics would involve digging into narrative spoilers, which I’m normally happy to do, but in the case of a Visual Novel is pretty much the content you turned up for.
You can get Hustle Cat on itch.io and Steam. It’s a more expensive title here in Australia – $30, and the US price is $20. This puts it in the higher price bracket of visual novels, comparable to a Danganronpa game, which have voice acting, animation and mini-games. Without those other ‘game’ bits to recommend them, Hustle Cat offers itself to you as a very pure experience of here are hot characters, you can smooch them.
Some folk like Visual Novels because being a fan of Visual Novels is cheap. There’s a bunch of good free ones, there’s a few that are good and cheap, and there are some – very few – that actually crest into this space. For me, the VN has always been an entity of the affordable, and that means part of me recoils at paying that much for it. What if I don’t like it? the fear creeps in the back of my mind. Visual Novels, more than other games don’t have much to engage you except characters and story, and that means that this not-small purchase has to live or die on whether or not those are good.
With that in mind, I’d like to tell you why Hustle Cat is really good.
The Blind Griffin is a NanoReNo game from 2015, an otome game set in a fantasic version of 1920s America, made by Asphodel Quartet. The story follows ????, a nameable protagonist as she follows magical signs that pull her towards a convenient job at a speakeasy called The Blind Griffin. There, she gets a job as a bartender, meets a trio of boys as well as some lovely ladies, and gets to spend a few months learning about magic, history, love, and whether or not she wants to smooch someone.
Telling you about deep specifics in this game would be a bit tricky, because it really is quite short. Like, action movie short. Like, an episode of a drama short. You could probably blur through your first playthrough in an hour if you weren’t taking notes like I was and then replay it again doing different things in half that time. With that in mind, you’re not going to get a lot of spoilery stuff in this review – there just isn’t the time.
You can get The Blind Griffin for free on itch.io, and it’s definitely worth the time to play through. There’s no need to be particularly specific about it – this is a good little game.
But now, let’s talk about form.
For anyone who doesn’t already know the vital statistics, Portal 2 is a first-person perspective puzzle game, the sequel to Portal, that was released in 2011, by People Valve Software Pays. Saying Valve Software made it is possibly overstating the role Valve Software, the organisation, has in things Valve does.
The game is centered around a non-speaking protagnist with a special tool that lets you create portals between two locations. It does this at range, so we call it a gun, because our brains and reference pool is pretty weird. These portals let you connect two points in space – and so much of the rest of the game is just built on exploring that idea. Puzzles become about how much freedom of movement you can get by folding two bits of reality together. It’s also fun because the human brain really isn’t built to deal with that kind of perceptual shift – it’s literally something our brains resist doing.
Filling in the rest of the space of the game is an evil AI that’s literally running you through the puzzles, as tests of your mental acumen, and the helpful AI that’s trying to keep you alive so you can escape. You’re followed not by bodies but by voices – old audio logs of a long-lost inventer, and the responses of your two AI companions. The game is stark and empty, but uses that emptiness to fill it with a dilapidated ending, and the story you get is made up of two fascinating parts: it tells you what came before the last story, and what comes after.
Taken as its own entity, Portal 2 is an enormous game, with a single-player campaign that’s very good, then a cooperative campaign that’s pretty good, and then an absolute massive amount of DLC and fan-made levels that range from pretty good to oh well. It’s a lot like Little Big Planet, where there’s some tailored content that sets a very high bar, and then a huge swell of player-driven content that tries to meet it.
You can get Portal 2 on Steam, and statistically, if you’re reading this, you probably already have it.
One of the hackneyed games journalist points these days is to compare things to Dark Souls, which is usually done by people who want to evoke a comparison to a control scheme and fixed animations, and maybe some exploration. Who am I to fight a perfectly good trope, then?
Dark Souls is kind of like La-Mulana.
La-Mulana is a single-screen platformer puzzle adventure game where you explore an enormous ruin with a whip in your hand, using a retro computer and your wits to pick up upgrades, unlock routes, overcome monsters with increasing ease, and die. A lot.
An innovation Dark Souls brought to this formula of exploration and death was relatively convenient reloading, dispensing with a classic limited-slots save-game system. In La-Mulana, as a nod to pre-1990s computer technology, you can only save at specific key points, and this makes the game much less forgiving than the otherwise fluid Dark Souls. There’s also an ‘experience’ mechanic in Dark Souls, where you can spend resources to get better at dealing with the enemies you face, and every time you save the game, it refreshes your resources. Not so for La-Mulana.
For some context, as I go on: I’m not good at La-Mulana. I didn’t finish it. I’ve put a few hours of work – and it was work – into this game, and didn’t feel I was making any headway. Also, the person who gifted me this game is very good at this game.
Up front, though, despite not liking this game, I want to say that La-Mulana is not a ‘bad game.’ It’s vast and there are people for whom its particular movement and mystery are exciting and interesting. There’s a ton, a ton of stuff going on, bosses are varied in a lot of different wild ways, there’s a deep lore, riddles and NPCs and a True Ultimate Boss that – I assume – rewards thorough exploration and mastery.
Really wasn’t for me, though.
So let’s talk about colonialism.
Risk of Rain is a platform game where you play an alien dropped on a planet. It has procedurally generated levels, a huge variety of characters, and a core, highly rewarding gameplay loop. The game modes can be customised with a bunch of unlockable buffs called ‘artifacts’ that reward you exploring each level you get into. Each level has boss monsters of a particularly large scope, and the game’s difficulty ramps up on a timer. Time spent exploring will typically reward you with more stuff, but more stuff makes the eventual waves of enemies that spawn towards the end of the level harder.
The game has playable characters that eat enemies and gain powers, it has rolling and tumbling movement, it has ranged attackers and melee attackers, and despite playing it for a few years now, I haven’t even managed to plumb its full depths. It’s an excellent, responsive, fast game, whose biggest problem is probably a steep difficulty curve and its camera positions you somewhere around low earth orbit, making the delightful chunky pixel art kinda tiny.
Risk of Rain is really good! It’s a good game, and I like it a lot, and I recommend that you check it out. It’s on sale regularly and it’s not expensive when it’s not on sale. You can get it on Humble or Steam, and the developers are making a sequel, called helpfully, Risk of Rain 2.
And that’s it as a game review. I mean, you don’t need that much space to know this game is pretty damn cool.
There’s more to say, right? There’s always more to say.
One full year of game reviews down, with 51 articles written, refined, processed and posted. If the actual size of The Game Pile as it relates to my Steam library has been of concern to you, well, this year marks the point where the Completed category on my Steam Library has sharply overtaken the Uncategorized. I’m at 294 completed games, 275 uncompleted.
Still, it has been a whole year. What’s changed? What’s improved? Continue reading
This game, Axiom Verge, is a Metroidvania. Do you know what that term means? Do you know that term in a way that makes you use it instead of the term ‘exploration platformer?’ Okay, cool, good. If you don’t, there’s this great genre of interesting platform games and I’ve covered a few of them in the past; particularly, I really like Shantae, if you can handle a game that’s pretty horny and Cave Story, if you can handle a game that’s pretty hard.
I’m not saying that Axiom Verge is a bad game by bringing up these other, more approachable games. Axiom Verge is really pretty damn good. But as a game it feels to me that you probably need to have experience playing a Metroid game specifically to get your head around the way this game handles its spaces, enemies and resources. You want to know how videogames can glitch, about how things can fail in a way that games largely don’t do any more, except when it’s done deliberately. And you want to know how big a world can be, how to remember seeing things you can’t quite make work yet. It’s not even assumed knowledge – it’s just that Axiom Verge builds in a genre like few games I’ve ever played.
Axiom Verge is, as a game, a game for people who like Metroid games, and I feel like it’s pitched at the kind of player who can appreciate what this game does differently. It feels like a game that wants literacy in what it’s doing, because it can’t explain itself to you the same way other games in the genre do.
So, there’s your Videogame Review spiel. Axiom Verge is a videogame/10, I’ve mentioned Super Metroid and maybe implied that the game has enemies and resources and such. You can go buy it here, if you want to.
I have a sympathy for the death of a game.
History happens so fast, these days.
It took a lot to get me out of 4ed D&D.
I’ve been playing D&D 4th edition since 2008. Our playgroup has a two-DMs policy, so the DM doesn’t have to wear out only ever playing; so we have two campaigns running side by side. This year, I sat down in the heat of a summer night with my friends, pulled out some printed sheets, and asked if we could give Blades in the Dark a try.
I’ve been running this game now for a year. My players’ crew, the Six Towers Station, a gang of daring smugglers, who I sometime tease for their lack of interest in smuggling. They have pulled off bank heists, woken up in a shipping container, relocated the bodies of ghostly lesbians, sold a soul in bits to the eletrical grid, created the myth of a refugee goddess, and ensnared in their web of crime a tanner’s and an undertaker’s.
I planned exactly none of this.