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.
I’ve talked about lawnmower language when it comes to talking about games. It’s the idea that sometimes we talk about games as if we’re talking about products for a task and sometimes we talk about them like they’re art for consideration. Normally, I don’t do that here – even the games I really love, I tend to love with caveats, big asterisks that tell you hey, I may like this game, but don’t go thinking you should. Sometimes, some game reviews are basically advertisements for the game.
In this case, I don’t mind advertising this game because it’s very easy for me to tell you how much you should want it. Hell.
This… will be short.
I rarely hold up Dungeons and Dragons books as being good books for general gaming purposes. They’re all very much books about Dungeons and Dragons, and even Elder Evils, last weeks’ offering for campaign-ending threats, was a book jammed full of systems for explaining weather, big dungeon designs and complex fight mechanics. When you bought a book for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you were often getting a book that was some 30%-50% system information, information that’s dead weight if you’re not using that system. Some of my favourite books from that time, like The Tome of Battle and Races of Eberron are absolutely steeped in mechanical information, and if you’re not using it, you really aren’t getting enough book for your investment to be worth your time.
But let me show you a book that I want to recommend to anyone making or playing with horror even if you don’t want to use D&D or even fantasy settings, that also has the on-theme matter of being a spooky book about spooky stuff. I don’t mean Heroes of Horror, which devotes a lot of its space to trying to systemitise horrifying things, no. I want to talk to you about a book about putting things in your world that are horrible.
I want to talk about Lords of Madness.
That said, I would issue a content warning, beyond the typical this is a book about spooky stuff. This book has a lot of humans being eaten, brain parasites, descriptions of people being seen as prey, but all that stuff is very passe for D&D monsters. Here be tentacles, goop, puppeteering and meat.
The other content warning is that if you’re Dissociative or plural or have DID or any of the related fields of mindset complication, Lords of Madness attempts to write numerous ‘alien’ psychologies that may look familiar to you, imagined as alien othered.
I’m personally reluctant to use the term ‘saneism’ because I don’t feel qualified to make that call, but there’s a lot of language in this book that assumes a very simple mental health binary and puts things like plurality or low-empathy living in the ‘bad’ bucket. Note that this doesn’t really take into account that most D&D adventuring parties are composed of homeless murderers.
Part of the challenge in finding horror topics for this month has been finding game related things that I found actually legitimately horrifying. Things that I found creepy, things that I found that were capable of giving me that prickle on the skin, rather than just wearing the trappings of the horrific. There are lots of horrifying videogames, lots of games that want to be horrifying, but so few of them really make me feel it.
Let me show you then, the book that heralded the end of the world for 3.5 D&D, and went out with a howl.
You wake up one morning and find tragedy has struck. A member of the village, someone you know, a family member perhaps, is dead, laying spread out guts and all in the town square. The savagery and the ferocity of it, coupled with the signs of a struggle point to one horrible cause.
There’s a werewolf in town – at least one.
And now, you have to do what you can to stop it killing again.
You don’t know who you can trust. You know you’re okay. So you point fingers. You watch who reacts. You demand people explain themselves, justify themselves, watch who aligns quickly, or not quickly enough. There’s arguments. Rage. Recrimination. Indignation. In the end, the whole village pick someone, and string them up, hanging them by the town square.
And then, in the night, the werewolves rouse, and claim another victim.
Board games are, for me, mostly, an element of a loaf. Friends are around, we have board games, test and see what people are into and then we go for it. Sometimes my board games go into a bag and travel with me to my parents’ place and they don’t get played and that’s okay. Usually ‘board games’ mean playing a few different games in one spot. Very few games I own really qualify as the kind of thing it’s worth making into any kind of event.
I have one that can, though.
And it’s one of the best games of its type to get you into playing board games.
One day, everyone was all about Heat Signature.
God, you people.
Sometimes when you talk about a game, it’s easy to fall into the same model of examining the thing based on what it’s trying to do (like with Deus Ex) or its place in history (like with Ziggurat). You can sometimes examine a game based on its themes or its story, and those are all valid ways to examine a game.
Yet I have made the case that games are too large to have single defining characteristics. That I found Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hollow and dull isn’t the same thing as saying that the game was bad, not really, not in any kind of definitive way, it just tells you that I found it kinda dim and if you care about things I care about in games, you will probably find it unsatisfying. Anyone could find something in the work and take that perception in its own direction and so on and that’s the glory of media criticism and games journalism.
When examining Fallout 2, not only is that game now far too large to have a single defining trait, it’s also part of a piece of gaming history, a legacy that also destroys the ability of the critic to meaningfully give a truly broad perspective of it in a meaningful context. To write about Fallout 2 comprehensively would be a book, not an article.
Instead, what if we focus on something in a game?
What if we dug down into just one thing about a game?
Let’s talk about The Highwayman. Continue reading
Okay, I’ve burrowed down on some specific points in games. Like how I used Hyrule Warriors to discuss hyperintertextuality, which sucks, or how I’m going to use Skyrim to talk about Rick Astley (that’s a teaser). And I’ve done a bit of a historical thing on Commander Keen 1, based on the video about stimulated recall, and if you get into it, Commander Keen 2 isn’t really a tangibly different game.
If I wanted to explain to you how Commander Keen 2 worked, or what it was doing or its values, I’d have to really pull out the shovels and get into it, to dig deep, to really go out of my way to pick at some seriously tiny nit, and you’d have to be pretty weird, and pretty obssessive about the details in old videogames to care about that kind of thing. I mean, you’d have to be a real dork and isn’t this just overthinking, isn’t this the kind of obssessive detail-oriented comma-fricking that we disdain when people do it of high-faluting fancy academic books and frame-by-frame movie analysese.
Anyway, so I’m going to do that.
You know what Wolfenstein 3D is. Probably. if you don’t, here’s your basic rundown.
Wolfenstein 3D is a classic first-person shooter game that was both pretty good and thanks to shareware, widely distributed. One of the games made by id Software, as part of their arc of changing the face of PC gaming, Wolfenstein 3D was a spiritual successor to an old stealth game on the Apple II and other platforms, Castle Wolfenstein. The game started with you trapped in a dungeon full of nazis, with a limited toolset to escape that was, basically, killing nazis.
There, okay, we all done with the basics? Don’t need me explaining graph paper and stuff? Cool. Moving on!
This is an experiment. I explain it in the video, but the basic gist is this: There’s this idea called Stimulated Recall. The idea is that in research, you often want a participant to do something, then you ask them questions about that something. Stimulated Recall involves recording the task, and then getting the participant to watch the video and explain what they’ve seen on the screen.
This is a small experiment in doing this solo, and we’ll see if I have more to do in this vein. But we’ll come to that later.
Pokemon games are honestly pretty perfect.
One of the funny things about reviewing board games versus computer games is that computer game reviews tend to be about describing what a game lets you act like you do, and board games tend to be about explaining how the game works. It’s an interesting conundrum, where the process of trying to explain why you should play a board game, you’re often taught, in a general way how to play it if you already own it.
I’m personally a fan of a model Tom Francis proposed in How To Explain Your Games To An Asshole, a model that includes one of my favourite ways to start talking about a game: Tell us about the fantasy of the game.
Hey, That’s My Fish is a game about playing a team of penguins trying to stave off starvation and maroon other penguins on ice floes where they’re probably doomed. It’s also a really neat little state machine that duplicates a bunch of computer game tropes with some really simple, elegant rules.
Also, since the game is a board game, most of the pictures for it have been taken by other board game sites, and I’d feel a bit crap taking pictures from them for the write-up. I can’t take my own pictures right now, so rather than scoop up other people’s pictures of their counter tops, instead, I’m just going to use some public domain pictures of penguins. Continue reading