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!)

Gris

Yep, I’m still here. I have just woken up from a 5-month Fire Emblem induced coma, having done what I said I wouldn’t and finishing all three routes (the fourth I am saving for a Girls Only stream to come in the near future). But 400 hours later I awoke to the stark realisation that other video games still exist and, somehow, my backlog has grown by about 15 titles. And so I played Gris.

I struggle with artistic media, games included. The sort of thing that is open to interpretation and has occluded or indefinite meaning, or is steeped in metaphor and tells not a narrative story, but an emotional one. There is, of course, absolute merit in such productions, I just often struggle to interface with it- I’m a very literal person and, while I’ll happily enjoy a story told to me, expecting me to infer the story via emotive gestures will often fail to find its mark.

Gris is a story about grief, and starkly so; even I can pick up on that. It feels deeply personal and tells, without words, a journey through an emotion that often defies written description.

The game is absolutely gorgeous, every frame of the animation coming as though being hand-painted directly onto the inside of my screen, and ultimately there’s the rub; I found myself wondering why I was playing video game Gris, instead of watching short animated film Gris.

The story unfolds largely through background elements that pass by as
Gris walks in one direction or the other, sometimes for minutes at a
time.

During these passages my only purpose is to hold the direction button down and watch the world pass as Gris processes her emotions. Occasionally the path is interrupted by a gentle platforming section, and every so often there is a non-functional collectible hidden behind a small challenge. The art and story are such that these gameplay sections feel truly discordant with the narrative being told; sweeping vistas that change and break and create as Gris moves through them are a metaphor for- no, wait, sorry, I have to go back over that bit again, I just saw a sparkly thing and I need to figure out how to get it.

Fin or Bin:

Indeed, the collectibles feel like they were placed in order to justify Gris’ existence as a video game, but it doesn’t need gamifying to be a game; I feel the end product would be much stronger without the achievement-bait and with just the mild platforming elements in place to present Gris with hurdles to overcome. That said, it’s a very impactful piece of art, and regardless of its videogaminess is an experience worth Finishing.

(Steam)

Yooka-Laylee

A controversial game to be sure- many complaints from the people who got exactly what they asked for. The Monkey’s Paw is dangerous, indeed.

A quick summary for anyone not in the know- Yooka-Laylee is pretty much a reimagining of the Banjo-Kazooie games from the late 90s, made by the same team of people who made those games. They are a very specific flavour of platform game often called collect-a-thon (although I personally consider that to be a derisive term for games that have collectibles only for the sake of having them, while B-K managed to make collecting it’s thingies fun). Y-L was sold as a warts-n-all spritual successor made with exactly the same game design ethos in mind. And, that’s what we got.

Problem is, it was marketed towards people nostalgic for Banjo, who played the game back when such things were fresh and new and hadn’t been done before. Y-L was targetting a nostalgia that cannot be recreated by anything; nothing except the original can ever scratch that itch, and so people played a basically-fine game expecting it to reinvigour childhood whimsy, and cursed its name when it failed to deliver. Meanwhile, people without those specific memories played a game that was dated by design, and felt unimpressed as a result.

It’s a weird No Man’s Land that Yooka-Laylee built for itself, where no party will quite jive with it. Deliberately eschewing modern conveniences and evoking even the negative parts of oldskool design that no one misses is, at best, a unique direction, and one that doesn’t always pay off.

I do enjoy games of this type, though my patience for them has severely eroded over the years; suffice it to say, getting 100% in a game that has intentionally made some of its mini-games tedious or over-difficult is not something I have time for any more, ancient and decrepit as I am. And it is intentional! The dialogue makes too fine a point on it for it to not have been intentional. Their effort to reach maximum authenticity is striking, and the game is worthy of praise even just for that.

From a modern perspective, one opinion I see often and agree with wholeheartedly is that the game worlds are too big. Much too big. There are only five stages, a fact that surprised me at first, but they’re so expansive that I can now understand why they kept it to such a low number. Large worlds to explore may sound like a positive, but in a game that encourages (or indeed, requires) exploration of every nook and cranny it only serves to dull the experience. There are always so many directions to go and every path goes on for such a long time that you quickly lose sense of where you are and where you’ve already been, and it’s hard to figure out where to backtrack to. It would have been better served having 10 stages of half the size each.

Fin or Bin:

Nonetheless, I’m having fun. These games are still fun, despite their myriad problems, and that’s ultimately what matters. I cannot imagine I’ll get 100% or anything near it, but I’m having a fine time just exploring the levels until I’m fed up of them and moving onto the next. Still, I have to wonder the wisdom of including ‘retro challenges’, arcade-style games that seem to exist only to say ‘haha, old games are actually bad!’; you might want to spend some time thinking introspectively, lads.

(Steam)

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Touhou 18 – Unconnected Marketeers (Trial Version)

I suppose talking about a demo version for a game we all know I’m going to play to death is missing the point, but please be patient with me as I talk about the newest installment of my greatest love.

I am very, very excited for this one. Th17 wasn’t a particularly strong showing, in my opinion, mostly due to the animal spirit mechanic (which I know is bold of me to say given Th12 is my favouite), but there are no bad Touhou games and a new entry in the series is always cause for celebration.

Seems like ZUN’s been playing Slay The Spire recently, as the gimmick this time around is powerup cards you buy between levels from a randomly chosen selection. From extra shot-types to passive buffs, there’s a surprising amount of variety considering this is a shooter, and each is based on a character from the series. Finally, by equipping Sanae with Byakuren’s scroll and Yukari’s border, I can rep all my faves! Just need the full version to have a Spring Is Here card and I’ll be set.

Just about everything in this game feels great, some of ZUN’s best work. The music is, as always, wonderful; even the title screen music made it to my playlist this time, and there’s a surprisingly upbeat, warm song that plays during Stage 3 which is an absolute joy to listen to. Contrasted against Sannyo’s dark, seedy theme, there’s already a real showcase of ZUN’s range on display.

There’s new girls too, each with a signature style of danmaku to run into constantly dodge heroically; the enemy spellcards are super fun and feel completely fresh, an impressive feat given we’re 18 games into the series and new ideas must be running thin.

Fin or Bin:

Every Touhou game is a Fin, but this one feels like a Fin+. The cards mechanic is easy enough to ignore if you just want a pure danmaku game, unlike the gimmicks in previous titles, but each one provides a decent enough buff that it’s also a good title for newcomers to the series to sharpen their teeth on. I’ll doubtlessly be posting another entry for the full version when it comes out (in May!!!!! That’s so soon!!!! Aaaaa!!!!!!!), but for now- very impressed. Touhou 18 stands a chance of becoming a top-tier title.

(Steam (storepage for full version- link to demo is included))

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses

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My in-game clock says I’ve been playing this for 60 hours. I know I’m really stretching the definition and purpose of this blog here, but I still have to write something.

Fire Emblem is a trap I’ve fallen into before, starting with Blazing Sword back in 2006. Compared to 3H, that’s a far, far simpler experience, and I remember watching the Three Houses announcement with some trepidation that the series was becoming a little too complicated, with the addition of Gambits and Batallions and- of course- the whole Professor thing.

But alas, I couldn’t stay away forever; the siren song of grid-based tactics in combination with a cast of characters to fall in love with will always snare me eventually. So my home is in ruin, my sleeping pattern can’t even be called a ‘schedule’ any more, I eat cheeseits for dinner to save cooking time, and I’ve just adopted 8-10 kids whose lives are literally in my hands.

It’s the permadeath mechanic which draws me into Fire Emblem, controversial though I can understand it to be. Other tactics games fail to draw me in anywhere near as hard as FE does simply because I don’t really care if Infantry Unit A dies, but you can bet I’ll be resetting 5 hours of gameplay if Bernie takes a crit.

Three Houses goes in hard on the characters side of things, far moreso than the series ever has. Typically the three-or-so main characters get a story arc, with the supporting cast being relegated to… well, Support conversations. It makes sense, since there’s no way for the writers to know who is still alive at a given point in the game, but the fact they did it anyway for Three Houses really strengthens the emotional attachment. No longer are they 30-odd disparate mercenaries, but a cohesive band of friends and soldiers-in-arms who each have a stake in the world and a history to speak of (or be ashamed of).

Addictive though the battling is, it almost takes a backseat to the schooling aspect; teaching Petra how to cast magic, catching a fish for Flayn’s dinner, and inviting Ferdinand to tea are not just background minigames but an intrinsic part of the experience. I can definitely see why people would be turned off by this, especially series veterans who just want more of that sweet sweet TRPG goodness, but I for one love all of it.

Fin or Bin:

This was already answered in line one of the review, and I doubt anyone is still wondering what my verdict will be by now. With 60 hours of progress so far, I’m almost at the end of the first half of the game, with three other routes to follow once I’m done with this one. Probably not going to play them all back-to-back… but I’ll Finish it someday.

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Pikmin 3 Deluxe

It’s been a while! Suffice it to say, around mid-december, real life started hitting real hard for me and my family, and I took some time off streaming or doing really anything fun. And now finally in mid February, we’ve managed to have Christmas, whereupon I was gifted this game partially by someone who wasn’t able to watch me open it.

I’m kinda cheating here since I played the demo before it came out so I already knew I wanted to Fin it. I’m a pikmin fan of old and can remember the discussions of which of Pikmins One or Two was the better title. Back when both would cost a spicy
£40, and you wanted a lot of bang for your buck, the sequel was much longer, but the first title provided superior replayability with trying to get all the treasures in as few days as possible.

Personally, and with the gift of hindsight, I feel the first title is a far stronger package overall, with the impetus provided by the 30-day time limit giving a mild sense of urgency to proceedings that is missing in Pikmin 2 (which has no time limit at all). It’s an argument which probably would cross eras, if not for Pikmin 3′s very neat bridging of the two concepts.

Rather than a strict time limit, Pikmin 3 has you searching for food to sustain your survival while you search for a way to get off the planet. Realistically, there’s very little chance of actually running out of food, with each day’s work usually providing several day’s worth of supplies, but it puts just enough subtle pressure on the player to think about the most optimal way forward.

Fin or Bin:

All the usual Pikmin frustrations remain intact. I dread the day I encounter a burrowing snagret, and I’ve already deftly avoided dealing with a spotty bulbear. I spend most of my time playing Pikmin screaming and crying, but somehow I still enjoy it. I’m sure the Final boss will be just as terrible and awesome as ever.

(No video for this one! I don’t have a capture card for my Switch. Maybe one day I’ll be able to buy one with twitch subs and patreon income, but that’s a long way off lol.)

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The Witches’ Tea Party

Some time ago I played Trick And Treat, freebie RPG Maker puzzley halloween fun game in which maid girl Amelia must find her master Charlotte in a haunted mansion. It’s cute more than it is scary and I recommend anyone who can stomach some light horror to try it out.

Since then, the developer has released a prequel, starring Charlotte this time as she attends a tea party with the other witches in the world. Much like TaT, it’s an explore-and-puzzle-solve-em-up, but the mansion is far more populated this time around.

The other witches are, as you might expect, quite prickly with each other, with proceedings coming to a head as one of the witches curses the mansion and is then murdered for it. Typical family reunion at the Beebs household, so far.

No one really seems to care, so it’s up to junior witch Charlotte to solve the mystery of who did it and why. …Well, not really ‘why’; it’s fairly well established that the victim had it coming.

Fin or Bin:

Theatre-kid midgi got let loose during our stream, giving each of the myriad characters a voice. I don’t think she’d let me Bin it even if I wanted to. But! This dev makes some cute and fun stuff, and TWTP is no exception. We’ll be streaming the full game until we Finish it, first part here!

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Hate Plus

Something of a reunion, this one- back when I first conceptualised BBLC as a forum game instead of a blog, the first game I was told to play was Analogue: A Hate Story, the prequel to Hate Plus. It’s a game I never would have just naturally picked up to play, but one I enjoyed immensely, and my go-to reference whenever I need to talk about how successful this ruleset is in making me actually play the games I’ve bought. That said, Hate Plus is a direct sequel riddled with spoilers, and is 100% reading, so I didn’t record a stream for it.

Making your way back home to Earth with your computer girlfriend/platonic co-investigator/completely illegal harem, Hate Plus is very much more of the same. Analogue had you reading the log files of centuries-old colony ship Mugunghwa, who now drifts through space entirely devoid of life. The log files slowly revealed the events that led to the extinction of its populace, meanwhile creating an incredibly rich and lived-in world; I compared it to stumbling upon a cluster of LiveJournal entries from a group of friends who knew each other, and piecing together the microcosm that they occupied until one day vanishing from the internet. Of course, that mystery is resolved in Analogue, and so I’m not sure yet what exactly I’m solving in Plus, whose logfiles are dated earlier than those found in Analogue… making it a prequel, of sorts? It’s confusing.

It’s sure to be harrowing though, as already we’ve got discussion of a presidential election rife with corruption, voter suppression, the denial of the true winner, claims of fake ballots, violent subjugation of protesters, and the ultimate collapse of democracy directed by those in leadership positions to establish an Emperor who rules over all.

yeah playing this game in mid-november 2020 hits a little different

Fin or Bin:

It’s a tough recommendation. You absolutely shouldn’t start here, for sure; Analogue is a game that I adore and would recommend to anyone who can stomach reading a lot of apparently-unrelated log entries. It’s dense and there’s a lot of worldbuilding to get accustomed to in a short space of time, but it’s worth it if that’s your sort of thing. Hate Plus is lining up to be just as dense, though with the advantage of being set in an already-established world. The writing is top class, and I’d already be playing more if the game hadn’t instructed me I need to wait 12 hours in real time before I can Finish it.

(It’s important to mention- both games handle some heavy topics, including rape, sexual assault, forced marriage, abuse, and PTSD. These subjects are handled unflinchingly, but without glamourisation or glorification; they are discussed in stark tones and perpetrators are roundly condemned. They may be a difficult read for some folks.)

(Steam)

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StarTropics

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No one ever really talks about the game of StarTropics. Usually the first thing on most people’s minds when thinking about it is “that gosh danged letter!”. For the uninitiated-

At some point during the game, the player is instructed to “submerge my letter in water” by the protagonist’s uncle in order to solve a puzzle. There is no letter in the game nor any mechanism by which to submerge it- the game is actually referring to a real, physical letter that came bundled in with the cartridge. Placing this letter in water would reveal a hidden message with the answer to the puzzle.

Now, we in the UK were a little less awestruck by such a break in the fourth wall- so-called ‘feelies’ were a fairly common pack-in with games for the home computers popular in Europe during America’s videogames crash. They were a subtle and fun way to combat the piracy rampant on machines using easy-to-copy cassettes and floppy disks. In the US, though, this cool trick has given StarTropics a somewhat legendary status, infamous especially among those who rented or bought second hand, and in modern times becoming the bane of collectors.

Well, now I’m guilty of being one of those people who only talks about StarTropics the product instead of StarTropics the game, so!

Probably the best (or easiest) comparison is The Legend Of Zelda. Mike Jones explores dungeons and uses a yo-yo to battle enemies in melee range. There’s a much more pervasive sense of humour to StarTropics though; the dialogue and quests give me something of an Earthbound vibe, a gentle surreality that never quite surrenders itself to full-on wackiness.

Fin or Bin:

As part of the Wii U re-release, Nintendo included a digital copy of the letter, complete with hidden code, as part of the game’s online manual. For the Switch version however, the have forgotten to include it in any manner. If you intend to Finish it, as I do, then you’ll need to find the code some other way. Watch my first hour here!

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Shatter

I’d wager pretty much everyone has played some version of Breakout before- whether the original, or Arkanoid, or Brick Breaker, or Korbat’s Lab on Neopets; it’s one of those ubiquitous arcadey classics that is also very easy to replicate in a throwaway manner for practice or for ad revenue.

Given its prevalence, it’s easy to dismiss a breakout clone as being just like the others, and that’s more or less what I expected going in to Shatter. It had some fancy tricks and I’d probably get an hour’s worth of fun from it, but I didn’t expect to be wanting to come back. It’s absolutely one of those games that would have sat on my backlog forever, always being passed over with a “mehhh”.

Well, I’m glad to report that I was wrong and this game is awesome. I certainly didn’t expect an Arkanoid-like was going to be one of the top-tier games of 2020, but that seems to be the way this year is going.

There’s only so much you can do to set yourself apart from the infinite other competitors in the genre, but Shatter does all of them. You can alter the ball’s trajectory mid-flight by Sucking or Blowing it, with a handy indicator showing you exactly where your ball will hit so there’s no guesswork. You can at any time spend an extra life to throw another ball into the arena, allowing the player to skill-gate themselves with as many balls as they feel comfortable managing at one time. Horizontal, vertical, and even circular levels break up the repetition, and a boss fight punctuates each ‘world’, each requiring a unique strategy and careful ball handling.

All of this wrapped up in a tight, breakneck-paced package with exciting transitions and fantastic music make for Breakout perfected. It’s really, genuinely, thrilling to play. When was arkanoid ever exciting before?

Fin or Bin:

I fully expected this to be a technical Fin, inasmuch as I’d play as much as I wanted and then be done with it but not consider it a Bin. I was half right. Shatter is a full-fledged Fin, and I’ll absolutely be playing more of it. I’m only halfway through the Story Mode! (Story mode???) You can watch me play through the first half here!

(Steam)

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