Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Incredible Baron

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The Incredible Baron on Steam

MSRP: $4.99

Platforms: Windows, iOS, Android

Release: 5/27/16


The Incredible Baron is a side-scrolling real-time strategy game that seems to take inspiration from everything from old comedic point-n-click adventures, to tower defense games, to Pokemon. It’s up to you to choose the right creatures and abilities to defeat the enemies and progress through 30 story-based and 60 challenge levels.

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It’s a slow starter since the game uses the first several levels as part exposition, part-tutorial, which makes it ideal for people who don’t play a lot of real-time strategy or tower defense. Having each creature and ability cost both gold and incur a cooldown makes it play a little bit like Plants vs. Zombies.  You’ll have the opportunity to mix up your kit at the start of each level, and the more creatures you defeat, the closer you get to unlocking them for your own army.

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The level of strategy increases as you progress through the story, and have more creatures and abilities to choose from.  In fact, it might turn out pretty frustrating if you try to complete levels on all three difficulties before playing through the story and building up your stable of battle creatures, but if you go level by level through the story before going back for challenges, the difficulty curve feels just about right.  The Incredible Baron might be better suited for mobile devices than the PC; the controls feel like they’d work very well with a touch screen, and there’s nothing here you really need the power of a PC to take advantage of.

Valhalla Hills

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Valhalla Hills on Steam

MSRP: $29.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release: 12/2/15


The only thing worse than spending more than I normally would on a game and not loving it is when I can’t even say that I like it.  It doesn’t happen often – normally, unless I get it for under $5, I do quite a bit of research.  But I spotted Valhalla Hills on a deep discount, and for 80% off with both DLCs, I grabbed in despite the less than stellar reviews.  And let me tell you, that was not the best $8 I ever spent – I’d be livid if I paid $40.

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When it comes to city building games, I can usually get my money’s worth, even when they’re just okay.  I’m even willing to sacrifice some logic in the name of making things more fun.  But when that lack of logic is a big part of what’s sucking the fun out of the game, well, we all have to draw the line somewhere.

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The very first map was an easy trip to victory. I plop down a woodcutter’s hut, open a portal, and I win. Seems slightly inane, but I’ll forgive it in the name of tutorial. However, as soon as I hit the second map, it was not entirely unlike hitting a brick wall with my skull.  The first level taught me that the first thing I need is a woodcutter’s hut, so I dutifully place one.  Then I get a message that a tool is required, so I build a tool shop, and I wonder why the game didn’t teach me to build a tool shop before a woodcutter’s hut. But I can live with that.

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What made me bounce off the game was when I had a military camp with four soldiers, and five axes just hanging out at my tool shop, and no way that I could figure to get them from point A to point B.  The soldiers won’t go get them.  The carrier won’t deliver them.  I even moved the military camp closer, worried it might have been out of logistics range. Nothing. No way were those guys getting axes, and there was nothing in the tutorial text to assist, and that was my last straw.

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I don’t know how long I would have lasted regardless.  Tying the campaign and unlocks to randomly generated maps feels weird to me. The controls to move around the map were super-sensitive; barely touching the mouse wheel had me looking down upon my little vikings from outer space. Lastly, I couldn’t find any kind of status screens that could help me pinpoint logistical problems.  Half the fun of city builders, at least for me, is in the micromanagement, and when you take all of that away, you don’t leave a whole lot of game behind.

Puzzle Agent

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Puzzle Agent on Steam

MSRP: $4.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, PS3

Release: 6/30/10


Puzzle Agent is a point-n-click adventure game with, unsurprisingly, a heavy focus on puzzles of all kinds.  Which is odd because the major type of puzzle associated with point-n-click adventure games is the inventory puzzle, and there’s no inventory here.  Just a weird town full of strange people, and with one central mystery, wrapped in lots and lots of different kinds of puzzles.

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There is definitely a story here, and the characters and setting are well done and amusing caricatures, but there are a couple of pretty serious flaws as well.  The first thing you should know is that the end of the game is not the end of the story – there’s a sequel that’s pretty critical if you really want to understand what’s going on.  The second problem – or not, depending on your point of view – is how insanely contrived it all feels.

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I think the biggest thing for me that detracted from my enjoyment is the fact that you will encounter a huge variety of puzzles.  While that sounds like a good thing, puzzles encapsulate so many different types of conundrums.  Most folks will gravitate to certain types of puzzles – for example, I’m fine with jigsaws, and most language and logic puzzles, but other types that I find frustrating.  Nothing here is skippable, and even with the available hint system, you’re likely to run into a puzzle or two that are just not fun.

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And if you’re not enjoying the puzzles, then there’s really not enough here to dig your teeth into. Walkthroughs exist, but using them would be shaving even more time off a game that’s probably already a bit too short.  With a runtime of about 3 hours, and limited replayability (since nothing in the game changes based on choices, and the puzzles are always going to be the same), it’s hard to recommend picking up Puzzle Agent at full price.  If you can get it at a deep discount – especially if you can find it bundled up with Puzzle Agent 2 – it’s good for a few hours of entertainment, but it’s certainly nowhere near the best of Telltale’s offerings.

Epistory: Typing Chronicles

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Epistory: Typing Chronicles on Steam (demo available)

MSRP: $14.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release: 3/30/16


It doesn’t surprise me that typing games are few and far between.  I mean, how interesting can a game be that’s based around typing words with speed and a minimum of errors? Epistory: Typing Chronicles definitely steps it up a notch from your basic online typing tutor games, but at least so far, it falls a little bit short for me.

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Visually, it’s pretty damn delightful.  The idea of everything being made from paper is fantastic, and it does what I believe it’s supposed to do – remind the player that everything is the story.  However, I’m struggling to get invested in the story, which is a little problematic.  I’ve played plenty of games where the story was too heavy handed, and plenty where it really didn’t exist, but this thin wash over everything just isn’t working particularly well for me.  I do love how the words appear on the ground as you explore the world, I just wish there was a little more focus on the story they are telling.

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The entire game is played solely with the keyboard.  Movement keys are not rebindable that I could find, but there are three options (arrow keys, classic WASD, and the game’s recommended scheme of EFJI). I found the arrow keys most comfortable as far as movement was concerned, but it did make it somewhat more challenging to drop your fingers on the home row in a hurry when enemies show up.  Anything you want to do in game other than move, however, is done via typing out random words the game gives you.  Once you unlock different types of magic, you also switch between those by typing.  Clearing obstacles, opening chests, and fighting enemies are all typing-based.

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The story mode offers about five hours of game play, and the game also offers and online arena mode.  There are no difficulty sliders since the challenge is adaptive – the game notices how you type, and increases or decreases the difficulty accordingly. I consider my keyboarding skills to be above average, and I’m still finding it a challenge to clear waves of enemies before they reach me (and it’s important to note that as soon as one reaches you, that’s game over, and you’re sent back just a little bit to try again).

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Overall, I’m finding that although I’m enjoying Epistory: Typing Chronicles, I’m also not feeling an overwhelming tug to keep playing. I’m still not entirely clear on the scoring system, and some of the potential upgrades feel much more compelling or necessary than others. Still, I applaud the effort and the unusual mechanics of the game; I just don’t know that I feel like it’s a $15 game.

Hexderity

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Hexderity on Itch.io

MSRP: $0.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android

Release: 6/9/15


I think you’d be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t, at some point in their life, played Concentration or Memory or another game where the goal is to match face-down cards in pairs by turning them over two at a time.  The challenge of these types of games is to remember where cards are that you’ve already seen. Hexderity is a game for computers and for mobile devices that plays with this classic formula.

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The challenge of Hexderity doesn’t come from the number of cards, but from an extremely punishing timer that doesn’t fully reset upon clearing a screen of all cards.  Each game you play through rewards you with volts, which are a currency that can be spent on upgrades to ease you through future playthroughs.

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There are six multi-screen stages, each with its own set of icon-cards, and twenty possible upgrades that can be purchased.   The further you get before running out of time, the higher your score, and the more volts you’re awarded.  The concept itself is simple, but the execution is excellent, and the quick play times make it ideal for a mobile game.

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There’s really nothing here to complain about.  It’s a good game, it plays well, and the sound design is really nice, although you also could play it without sound without losing any functionality. Unlike many games designed with mobile platforms in mind, there are no microtransactions – a single purchase gives you access to the game in its entirety. Purchasing the game from Itch.io will unlock PC, Mac, Linux, and Android versions, but if you are looking for Hexderity for iPad or iPhone, you’ll need to purchase it from the iTunes Store.

State of Anarchy

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State of Anarchy on Steam

MSRP: $0.99

Platforms: Win, Mac

Release: 4/27/16


There’s two things you should know about the game publisher, New Reality Studios.  The first thing is that they apparently have no quality control – they publish things like Guardians of Victoria, a game that pretty much everyone seems to hate, but that I can’t even make run correctly.  Then they publish things like State of Anarchy, which look like they might be the very bottom of the shovelware pile, and are actually quite charming, especially for the price.

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This is not a game I ever would have bought, if we’re being honest. But the other thing you should know about New Reality Studios is that they frequent run bargain basement deals on The New Reality Games Studio Pack.  Currently, for only $4.99, you get access to all the games and DLC on Steam that New Reality Games has published, as well as all future games when they’re released. If you hate clutter in your Steam library, skip it because there are some stinkers in there.  But every now and then, something new shows up in my library, and it’s like getting a gift, of sorts.

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State of Anarchy is a chaotic top-down shooter. On normal, your progress is saved after each level, and on hardcore, when you die it’s game over.  Every so often, you’re granted a level up bonus, and you can choose to spend it on one of a handful of upgrades.  It’s short, with only 20 levels, but it’s also only a dollar, even at full price, and the from what I’ve seen, each level appears to be either randomized or procedurally generated, so there’s some replay value.

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But really, it’s the style of the game that make it stand out – the entire thing looks like it’s been hand drawn screen by screen in crayon by a passably decent young artist. The contrast of the backgrounds with the mayhem of a shoot’em up is delicious. It’s probably safe to say that you haven’t played anything quite like State of Anarchy, which is, in itself, a reason to give it a whirl.

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An earlier version of the game (called Crisis at the time) was created during the 2015 Global Game Jam, and even though the game has changed since then for publication, it’s impressive to know that the whole concept and basic execution was put together in just 48 hours.  Any story there might have been has gotten lost in the translation, but this kind of game doesn’t need much in the way of exposition. Also, have I mentioned it’s a dollar? If you like top-down shooters, pick it up, or splurge on the New Reality Studio pack instead. Some of what you find might surprise you.

MOAI: Build Your Dream

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MOAI: Build Your Dream on Steam (demo available)

MSRP: $6.99 ($3.99 / iOS)

Platforms: Win, Mac, iOS

Release: 4/7/13


MOAI: Build Your Dream is a time-management strategy game, where you have to proceed through levels to assist the Tapa-Thui tribe in rebuilding their island.  In this type of casual game, the story is never great, it’s just a loose set piece of reasoning – these games really need the play to shine.

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Honestly, despite the fact that the game was successful enough to spawn three sequels, it’s not all that successful in pulling you in while teaching you mechanics.  You build resource-producing structures (all of which require resources to build) in order to meet the arbitrary goals for each level. The challenge here lies in determining the quickest way to do so – you can receive anywhere between 1 – 3 coins based on the time to completion.  Only three coin levels will help you progress in rebuilding the island’s great statues, so I’m not really sure why it isn’t just a pass fail condition unless there are far more levels than work to be done.

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MOAI: Build Your Dream suffers from being a bit too basic – most time management games ramp up in difficulty, with the early levels serving as a tutorial.  There’s just so much structure here; the only choices you have are which resources to pursue in which order. I’m not really a huge fan of time management games to begin with, and without even an option to change the difficulty, I can’t see any reason to keep playing this one. It might be alright as a mobile game or for someone new to the genre, but there are so many better time management games out there, I can’t really recommend this one for anyone.

Eventide: Slavic Fable

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Eventide: Slavic Fable on Steam

MSRP: $9.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android

Release: 1/28/16


True confession: the only thing that keeps me from buying every single Artifex Mundi hidden object bundle I come across is that – at this point – I already have most of the games. For me, hidden object games are my no stress go-tos. Most are short, and can be played start to finish in a single sitting if I want to, but they have fairly low replayability, so I never pick them up without a sale or a bundle.

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Although Eventide: Slavic Fable claims to have 43 hidden object scenes, according to the Steam page, in the first hour of game play, I have yet to encounter more than the one that comes up at the very beginning, so the whole thing tends to play a lot more like a traditional point and click adventure. I was actually getting concerned that I was somehow missing all the hidden object scenes, but since I can keep progressing in the game with the items I’m picking up in the open world, and with the myriad of puzzles that I’m solving along the way, I’m guessing that either this game is heavily backloaded on the hidden object scenes, or the developers and I have a very different definition of what constitutes a hidden object scene.

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The story is out there, even by hidden object game standards. The player character is a botanist who is going to see her grandmother after receiving a letter about the grandmother’s concern over a very important plant. You arrive to discover a giant moth monster, who soon thereafter kidnaps grandma, and that’s when it starts getting really odd. Without getting overly spoilery, prepare to either suspend your disbelief or spend the game giggling at how absurd it all is.

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None of the puzzles I’ve encountered thus far have been overly challenging, and some have been downright insultingly simple.  I’ve actually had more issues with item combining in a few places, but it’s important to note that if I an item remains in your inventory after you use it, you’re going to end up using it again. You get a map fairly early on, which can be used for fast travel, and to show you which locations still have available actions.  I have yet to encounter anything illogical enough to have me searching for a walkthrough.  There are also achievements galore, and two different kinds of collectibles to find throughout.

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Eventide: Slavic Fable isn’t a bad game at all, but it’s a rather simple one, and very light on the key component of this type of game: the hidden object scene. You can expect a total play time of about three hours, although you might squeeze a little more out of it with the bonus chapter and hunting down all the collectibles.  Still, it’s not a great value at the $10 asking price, but it’s currently available as part of the Humble Artifex Mundi PC & Mobile Bundle as part of the beat-the-average tier, which gives access to 6 hidden object puzzlers on two platforms with more games to be added next week, and is currently sitting at less than $5.

Hexoscope

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Hexoscope on Steam

MSRP: $0.99

Platforms: Win, Mac

Release: 8/10/16


I’m sure someone somewhere has said this, but I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for the proper attribution: puzzle games are only as good as their instructions. While that might not be 100% true, when you’re talking about such a game with such a low cost, a lot of people aren’t going to look kindly on the first and most important puzzle being figuring out how things work.  I almost wrote off Hexoscope entirely, because after reading the rules and playing the tutorial level, I still didn’t really understand how it worked.

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The goal is simple enough – move the pieces around the board via swapping to connect the pink power source to the blue power receiver. The pieces can’t be rotated. But the tutorial level is wasted potential as it tells you what to do move by move, but it never really explains why you’re doing it or how the mechanics work.  See, as you connect pieces to the power source, they also turn pink, and in doing so turn the pieces around them blue (more on that in a minute).  What I didn’t get at first is that only blue pieces can be swapped with other blue pieces – the pieces with black backgrounds cannot be interacted with.

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Once I figured that out, the game suddenly made sense.  The chaos conditions – visible at the start of a level or at any time during by opening up the “Briefing” tab on the left – determine how many powered tiles are required to make an adjacent tile blue. You will also sometimes encounter static tiles (indicated by a thicker inner black border) that are unmoveable no matter what their power status is. Some reviewers complain about levels being randomly unwinnable without restarting, but it’s not something I encountered in my brief play time.

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Hexoscope contains six paradigms, each with twelve levels, and offers a timed as well as an untimed mode for each.  That’s quite a few puzzles for a dollar, and certainly more than enough game once you get it figured out.  I really wish there were options to change the colors, rather than just adjust the brightness and contrast, but to be honest, I didn’t really expect it out of a budget title like this.  It’s a clever enough puzzler, I just wish it hadn’t tried to make itself look smarter than it actually is.

 

Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY Edition

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Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY Edition on Steam

MSRP: $19.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Release: 8/25/09 (base) / 3/26/10 (GOTY)


I have absolutely no good excuse for why, despite having owned this game for over four years on two different platforms, I’ve only managed to play it slightly past what I consider to be the tutorial section.  Granted, I’ve started it up several times, but I just haven’t been able to fully commit to it. Which is criminal really, because I’ve loved the parts I’ve played, I’ve picked up the sequel, and it’s still just hanging out, waiting for me to carve out 30 hours or so to devote to playing it through to completion.

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Really, other than my own short attention span, there’s almost nothing here I can complain about.  Sure, save anywhere would be a lovely convenience feature, but I can live with the checkpoint system.  The combat feels good, even considering how clumsy I can be with action combat, it looks great, it sounds great, and there are oodles of collectibles. That last thing is why I really want to have 30 hours to dedicate – I could probably just blow through the main story in about half that, but damnit, I want to leave no Riddler trophy undiscovered.

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The Joker (with a little help from Harley Quinn) has taken over Arkham Asylum, and it’s up to you to put the inmates back in their cages and save the day. Batman: Arkham Asylum is probably most enjoyable for folks who like Batman, but who don’t know every nuance of every story. I have no idea where it fits into the Batman universe as a whole, but I find I don’t much care. Sure, it means I don’t recognize every single bad guy, but it also means I’m low-risk for any potential immersion-breaking flaws in the cannon.

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A word of warning: for a hack & slash title, it starts slow. Very slow. Not story-wise, but you’re going to spend a good 30-45 minutes doing a lot of walking around and very little Batman-like shenanigans. This is how the game eases you into the controls and your abilities (as well as into the universe and the story). Not only did it not bother me, I rather enjoyed it, but I’m also the type that plays on easy because I prefer to spend my time exploring and kicking butt, and not reloading and replaying levels over and over.

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There’s some RPG-influence here – you get quests to keep the story moving (and it’s pretty linear, so don’t think you can just ignore those quests and wander around forever), and you get experience with which you can upgrade Batman and his abilities and gadgets. While I’m sure there’s an optimum upgrade path (because there is always an optimum upgrade path), most of the choices feel like playstyle augmentations more than power-plays.

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There’s a lot of game here, and although it is slightly dated at this point, it’s a game worth playing. It’s not uncommon for people to recommend skipping Arkham Asylum and going straight to the sequel, but considering how often this one goes on sale for a measly $5, I think you’d have to be a little insane to pass it up.