Kero Blaster

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Cave Story is a wonderful game that I reference often on this blog, holding it high in my esteem as a paragon of indie games borne from a single mind. Developer Pixel released it free of charge and translator group Aeon Genesis produced a superb English version with his blessing. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to explain why, but you absolutely should NOT purchase the Steam version- Pixel won’t see a penny of your money ((EDIT: according to Tumblr user inexplicably-spookified, this is untrue, and Pixel does indeed receive a cut. Thanks for the correction I appreciate the lookout. However, given Nic*lis’ business practices in general, I still believe you shouldn’t give them any of your money.)) If you would like to support his work, the best way is to play the free version of Cave Story, and purchase-

Kero Blaster comes from Pixel in the wake of Cave Story’s success, and his fingerprints are all over it. From the graphical style (pixel art, as you might expect) to the instantly-identifiable soundfont used to produce the music, it’s clear even two games in that Pixel just has a certain way of doing things. This is my favourite kind of indie project- just one voice creating everything they can, rough-hewn edges still visible and some questionable idiosyncratic decisions made without committee approval; I adore the individuality and personal earnestness that projects like Cave Story, and Kero Blaster, and Iji, and Momodora, and Undertale exhibit, and I miss it from the far more produced indie scene we have today.

Anyway, my nostalgia aside, Kero Blaster tells what seems to be a personal story of feeling overworked and underappreciated, something that I’m sure will resonate with many. Less likely to resonate is being a custodian with a machine gun, but our unnamed frog protagonist is so-equipped as he travels from remote office to remote office, destroying shadowy badniks and restoring power to the office teleporters. Teleportation sure makes working overtime a breeze!

Fin or Bin:

Where Cave Story took an approach likely to be called a Metroidvania in today’s lingo, Kero Blaster is a far more procedural affair split into distinct levels. While I prefer the former, this is still a strong display of level design and thoughtful enemy placement making good use of the frog’s full arsenal of weapons. Behind the irreverent exterior beats a heart telling a darker story; I only hope I can Finish it before clocking-off time…

(Steam)

Final Fantasy Adventure

Originally branded under the Final Fantasy license, this is actually one of the Of Mana games. That license didn’t exist at the time of its localisation, and while later games dropped the Final Fantasy moniker, this one has held onto its mixed lineage through rereleases. This odd assortment of circumstances made the Collection Of Mana seem quite bizarre to those unfamiliar with the history, but I suppose Squeenix were mostly targeting nostalgia-cash with that release.

Despite being a separate beast, FFA wears its lineage with pride; a great many of the graphics are lifted wholesale from Final Fantasy 3 (another game with a complicated history); the aptly-named Dark Lord, our antagonist, uses the dark knight sprite, ‘Man’ is a repurposed red mage, and even deuteragonist Girl is FF3’s Elia in greyscale.

The similarities end with the graphics however, as the gameplay is more akin to a prototypical Link’s Awakening; protagonist Boy swings his bladed weapon of choice in a 90-degree arc roughly corresponding to the direction he is facing to beat monsters and gain experience points. I say ‘roughly’ as there is no way to target the lower right quadrant on his range, a fact which repeatedly screwed me over. This, along with many other odd annoyances and retroactively-bizarre design choices give the game a distinct “first steps we don’t really know what we’re doing” feeling; niggles that would be ironed out in generations hence are here in their roughest form, forgivable in a time when no one knew better but very chafing to go back to.

Fin or Bin:

Ultimately I found the experience more frustrating than fun, a theme which seems to run through the whole series. Seems like the Of Mana series just isn’t for me. Still, the OST is splendid as ever, even rendered through the Gameboy’s dinky little speaker. I’ll hold onto that while I place the rest in the Bin.

Milo And The Magpies

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Some important housekeeping before I start the review proper- I was given a key for this game by the publisher, Second Maze, in exchange for streaming it. I haven’t written up a sponsor policy yet because this is the first time it’s happened, so for now please know the following: I will always state very clearly and as the first point in a review if I am given a copy of a game by an interested party. No money changed hands in this instance, and I will always declare if a game is featured as a result of a paid sponsorship. I have not and will never accept any kind of compensation in exchange for a guaranteed Fin.

With the boring stuff out of the way- gosh, what a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Milo the cat is menaced by a squawking mob of magpies as he tries to go about his usual cat business, ultimately winding up seven gardens away from his house. It’s down to the player to provide a series of distractions, interferences, and manipulations in order to clear a path for our intrepid hero to find his way back home.

The adventure is presented in an utterly lovely storybook aesthetic that reminds me of the wonderful Puddle Lane books of my childhood. The puzzles, too, are not outrageously difficult, many being solved simply by finding the correct element to click on. It all comes together to create something that is just thoroughly nice; it’s a light blanket, cup of tea, toasted cheese sandwich, cat on your lap kind of game.

Fin or Bin:

With a runtime of 60-90 minutes, I Finished this one on stream, and we all came away from the experience with our hearts warmed. Hidden object games can be pretty divisive, but even if you are one to sneer at such things, you may well find Milo puts a smile on your face.

(Steam)

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i hate this game

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I’m going to be very careful to avoid all the obvious jokes, here.

Harkening back to the days of flash games (RIP), the goal of each single-room puzzle in ihtg is as simple a concept as it gets- get your unnamed hero from the left side of the screen to the door on the right side of the screen.

But no one could hate such a simple game! And this is where ihtg bares its fangs; for each chamber has a specific rule that must be met before that door will open- each one more dastardly than the last. All one hundred rooms of the base game will have you thinking laterally in order to solve the one-word clue given. A chamber might need you to find numbers hidden in the background, or change a series of blocks to fit a pattern, or move the walls around to create platforms. Now it’s upside down, now it’s in first person, now the window is tiny, now you have to- you get the idea.

It’s frankly astonishing how different each room feels, with 100 (plus bonus levels) puzzles to solve, but no two rooms were quite alike and the constantly changing pace made for a very interesting playthrough. It also, of course, makes the game very hard to talk about, as attempting to describe any of the cooler challenges will only spoil the fun of discovering that, yes, the game really does want you to do that.

Fin or Bin:

My total play time came in at around 90 minutes, with all the bonus levels and extra challenges cleared. None of the levels are too taxing and a hint system will help you through the odd one or two that leave you scratching your head. Coupled with a superb chiptune soundtrack, this is a great game to Finish in an afternoon.

(Steam)

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Turok (Steam Re-release)

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Not going to be able to review this without stepping on some peoples’ toes. Let me start by saying- it is entirely valid to enjoy a game purely based on nostalgia. Whether you have fond memories of playing it back when it came out or it’s a game you return to once a year, it doesn’t matter at all how objectively good that game is- it only matters that you love it, and continue to have fun with it.

I genuinely believe the above, and I’m certain I have some old faves myself that no one in their right mind could possibly have fun with in a modern light. This medium changes and grows and adapts at an incredibly rapid pace, far moreso than any other media; it’s okay to drag your janky old fave along for the ride.

So. That said.

I do not have any nostalgia for Turok’s first adventure on the Nintendo 64. The closest I came to it was passably positive mentions in old games magazines. I wasn’t able to make the purchasing decisions at the time and the person who was didn’t care for games like this, so it never crossed my path. I played it, therefore, with an entirely fresh palate.

It’s fair to say that between the poor signposting, wonky jumping physics, uninspiring combat, teleports sending me to a position in front of and facing away from enemies who are immediately able to attack me, and an awful checkpoint system that sent me back to a previous level, I didn’t have any fun here.

Fin or Bin:

These are, of course, all trappings of the time, or so I’m led to believe. Regarding it with modern sensibilities, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. For my nostalgic fix of older-skool FPS, I’ll fire up Half-Life; Turok, unfortunately, is going back in the pre-owned games Bin.

(Steam)

Ninja Pizza Girl

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Commissioned by the Australian government as part of an anti-bullying campaign, Ninja Pizza Girl carries with it an important message. Having never been an Australian teenager, and certainly not in today’s technological climate (camera phones only becoming the norm a few years after I left that environment) I am not qualified to pass judgement on it’s effectiveness in this regard, and so any commentary made below is only in regards to the game itself, rather than its cause.

That said, then, it’s an unusual combination of endless runner and platformer, offering multiple paths through a level so long as you do not stop moving, ever. Gemma, a Pizza Girl who is also a Ninja (sadly not a Girl who delivers Ninja Pizzas) has to deliver her precious cargo within a strict time limit while actual ninjas try to stop her. I’ve got no idea what’s happening in Australia but bloody hell.

Getting knocked down by a bully interrupts Gemma’s flow and also subjects her to their harassment and jeers, sapping away at her self esteem. If it gets too low, she can’t function and needs to spend precious pizza-time psyching herself up, usually ending in a failed mission and a cold pizza. The theme of bullying runs through the story and dialogue in a fairly gentle way, and psyching Gemma back up is as simple as mashing the jump button or buying her some chocolate for self-care between missions.

One mis-step I identified is in the way the game handles difficulty. There’s sliders for how hard you want the game to be, and if you slide it all the way to the easiest mode, an achievement pops up stating “no judgement here”… which kinda felt like a judgement. While it’s absolutely correct that people should choose whichever difficulty they are going to have the most fun with, calling attention to someone choosing the easiest mode feels patronising at best and mocking at worst. “Hey, no judgement here, you can play on loser baby mode as much as you want!” doesn’t seem to line up with the game’s overall message.

Fin Or Bin:

The movement is fun once you get going but there is a tremendous amount of momentum to contend with when you turn around or start moving from zero, with Gemma accelerating at the pace of a truck. Ultimately it’s got a good message behind it but not one that will resonate with me, and the game itself isn’t my cup of tea. Recycling icons appear throughout the game as collectible pickups, but this one’s skipping the recycling and going in the Bin.

(Steam)

Nimbatus- The Space Drone Constructor

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I’m one of the small minority who actually really enjoyed the Gummi Ship parts of Kingdom Hearts. Yes, the interface was clunky and there was basically zero benefit to building anything beyond the standard design, and after a certain point in the story you never needed to use the ship again as you could just teleport between places. Still, for this Star Fox veteran, the chance to build your own ship (yes, entirely out of guns) was too much to pass up, and I always left the experience sad that there wasn’t more to it.

Ostensibly a roguelike, Nimbatus’ main game mode sees you traversing the galaxy gathering resources with which to build bigger and better drones, all while being chased by the Corp, who inevitably will catch you and kill you and you’ll have to start all over with nothing to show for it. Normally that’d be a Bin by itself, but it turns out Nimbatus’ developers are super cool people who also included a Sandbox mode with huge customisability, which essentially lets you play the main game while removing the permadeath mechanic. The breadth of options available in sandbox mode are praiseworthy and let you tweak pretty much every facet until you find the game you want to play. You can, of course, also play in full sandbox mode, with every item and upgrade available to you immediately with no cost or penalties, for those of us who just want to build the biggest scariest spaceship imaginable.

Drone building is fun, but there needs to be a purpose to it, and that’s where Nimbatus lets me down. All the planets and missions are procedurally generated, which I typically dislike. It’s used in games like this to ensure no two planets are the same, but in practice it often results in every single planet feeling the same. The story is no different here- when you’ve recovered one black box, you’ve recovered them all, and there just isn’t enough variance to engage me.

Fin or Bin:

But the planets aren’t the fun part, building a giant spaceship entirely out of lasers and rocket engines is the fun part! And that’s what I did, for the last 20 minutes of my hour. I did enjoy it, but I’ve done it now, and I don’t really see much reason to come back and do it again. For a player who enjoys receiving scraps and putting together the best machine they can out of the scatter there’s a lot of fun to be had here, but for me it’s time to disassemble all the parts and put them back in the Bin.

(Steam) (Comic – Awkward Zombie “Gunship”)

Zwei: The Arges Adventure

Despite being in the industry a good thirty years at this point, Falcom games always have a wonderfully indie feeling to them. The term ‘indie’ has become somewhat nebulous of late, so for clarity, my definition of indie is rooted firmly in the mid-2000s, with titles such as Cave Story and Iji being quintessential examples. Not quite janky, but certainly rough-hewn; carved squarely by a single vision rather than being smoothed over by the waves of dissonant voices, caught in the middle of designer and corporate interests. Entirely unafraid to defy convention, for good or ill, and try something new even if it doesn’t pan out.

Falcom’s flagship is surely the Ys series, of which I am a fan, but they also have plenty of smaller projects, among them previously-featured Gurumin and now Zwei, an RPG where you do not gain Exp from defeating monsters but by eating food, and every single environment was drawn by hand.

Pipiro and Pokkle are step-siblings (yes, alarm bells rang out for me too, but apparently the game doesn’t go there) who live a pastoral life in a pastoral village. It’s about as JRPG as it gets, as indeed one day the village is beset by a mysterious stranger who steals the items of plot significance, and so our intrepid duo must go and get them back.

No prizes for originality there, then, but XSeed’s typically-entertaining localisation does a lot to alleviate the sameness of it. The opening scenes took up the bulk of the hour, in some amount due to poor signposting (instructions to talk to a specific villager with no indication of where said villager might be found, for example), but the dialogue is fun enough to retain engagement.

Combat and dungeoneering… is less so, and although I didn’t get to experience a lot of it I don’t have particularly high hopes. While in the beginner dungeon I encountered several switch puzzles whose solutions could only be divined by trial and error, and along one linear pathway (the only route I had available to me) I came up against a monster who could kill me in two hits and survived anything I tried to throw its way. Whether that was supposed to be cautionary or just the way this game goes, I’ve yet to discover.

Fin or Bin:

The experience in the dungeons certainly left me questioning where Zwei should go, and reading up about the levelling system similarly worries me- many people saying finding the right foods is a grindfest that quite often results in simply no reward from fighting monsters at all. Despite all this however, I trust Falcom to deliver a fun if not praiseworthy game that is worth seeing through to the Finish, whether or not its rough edges give a few splinters along the way.

(Steam)

REVOLVER360 RE:ACTOR

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The vertical shooter is my bread and butter. Ikaruga, the Touhou series, and former BBacklog Challenge title eXceed 3rd are all games I regard highly, and have sunk many many hours into each. I always get excited when one comes up on the BBLC (Mushihimesama is on there aaaaaa). You would think this fervour would survive a 90-degree spin clockwise, but somehow horizontal shooters always leave me cold.

I’m not sure why. My best guess, having moderate experience with both, is that vertical shooters tend to focus more on bullet patterns, while horizontal shooters are more about enemy placement. The difference is narrow on the surface, but greatly change how the game is approached. A game focused on bullet patterns is played far more defensively, while one focused on enemy placement needs an aggressive approach.

Sorry, Revolver360, for using your entry to muse on the minutiae of game sub-genres; the truth is, I just don’t have much interesting to say about you. Thankfully, as I’ve said many times before, this is a blog more than it is a review site, so I’m allowed to do that.

Because, yes, Revolver360 looks like it should be 120% up my alley. A shooter with a gimmick (the entire game world can be revolved around the X axis to move impassable bullet patterns out of the way in three dimensions), but I just could not get into it. I had similar feelings for it as I did for Astebreed, in that most of the time I was just holding down the various attack buttons and moving around and the rest of the game seemed to play itself, although thankfully R360 keeps the anime nonsense to a minimum.

Fin or Bin:

My own leanings aside, Revolver360 succumbs greatly to the trap of style over substance. It’s visually very striking, entirely in shades of blue except for vital enemy bits, but that comes at a seriously high cost- I very often lost my own position on the screen and everything else was just kind of a blur of Things Happening. I was quite disappointed by Binning this one, as I fully expected to love it, but unfortunately it just wasn’t meant to be. 

(Steam)

Hades

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Auuugghghghhgghuguhghgughhhguaghughuaghgugh

It had to happen eventually, didn’t it? Famously- infamously by this point- roguelikes and I do not get along. Every time I encounter one on my backlog journey I enjoy it for about 30 minutes, and then I die and have nothing to show for my time, and I remember how much I hate roguelikes. And that is still the official line- I hate roguelikes.

Supergiant have never made a wrong step in their catastrophically excellent career, and so I took it personally when they said their next project was a roguelike. Because I knew, if anyone could make me add “except Hades” to that sentence, it was going to be them. So having played it…

I hate roguelikes… except Hades.

There, I said it. Goddamn, I said it. It wasn’t enough for Supergiant to make me full-on ugly-cry over a sports game, now they’ve gone and ruined the one constant in my life. I have to append “except Hades” to every roguelike post I ever make from now on. I hope they’re proud of themselves for making a rich, sublime, entertaining, fun game that I enjoy a lot. The bastards.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t get hugely frustrated at playing for an hour only to encounter a new boss fight, get absolutely mullered by it because I don’t know its patterns, and have to play that entire hour of random combat again before I get another chance to practice against those patterns (and lose, again, because the only way to learn how to avoid attacks is to fail to avoid those attacks). It’s not to say that rolling useless boon after useless boon doesn’t make me want to scream. And it’s certainly not to say that those bloody archers deleting 90% of my healthbar immediately before a boss fight doesn’t make me question every choice I’ve ever made.

But damnit, I’m 36 hours in and no matter how frustrated I get, 30 seconds later I’m back in Tartarus taking another swing at it. A significant part of this is simply that combat is hugely fun; zipping around volleying off shots and pulling slick dodges is just a rip-roaring good time and feels great. The moment-to-moment gameplay is exemplary, and I’d say damn-near faultless. Supergiant have honed this craft to a diamond tip and Hades’ combat is the culmination of the best bits of its forebears.

But for me personally, the biggest hurdle to my enjoyment of a roguelike is the sense of (or lack of) progression. Every single run of Hades is useful, somehow; even if you just come home with a few gemstones in your pockets, that’s a small step towards the next permanent unlockable which will in turn aid and assist your future runs. This is what killed FTL for me; having reached the final boss in that game and losing because RNG decided every single one of my attacks was going to miss, I was left with- nothing, absolutely nothing. Not even a new unlocked starting ship. In Hades, every run starts a little stronger than the one before it, and by reframing the expeditions as resource-gathering trips rather than considering each one an escape attempt, I’ve come to almost love the start-die-repeat cycle inherent to the genre.

Fin or Bin:

Listen, at this point, if Supergiant announced their next game will literally set its players on fire, I’d be willing to try it. I trust them implicitly. I understand that escaping the Underworld is in fact only the start of Hades, and I have no idea what constitutes as Finishing it… but I’ll find out.

(Steam, also on pretty much every other platform! With cross-saves!)

(I’ve been streaming Hades on my Twitch channel Mon/Weds/Fri 3:30pm EST and probably will continue to do so for a couple more weeks at least, feel free to follow and join in!)