I had such high hopes for Owlboy. I didn’t necessarily think I would finish the game, mind you, but I thought I’d get further than I did. I’m trying to gently ease myself into more platforming games, but the big appeal for me with this title was that I expected to not have to worry about the persnickety jumping parts. I was playing a character with wings. Although I also sometimes have problems with flight in games, Owlboy is 2D, so I was sure I could handle it.
I did struggle a bit with the combination of flying and shooting at stuff, but I worked my way through the first dungeon area without too much trouble. However, upon exiting, I was greeted by a mechanic I hadn’t even considered – a segment of the game where you were expected to be stealthy.
But flying around avoiding the lights wasn’t too bad! In fact, for almost the first 90 minutes of the game, it really felt like something within my capacity. Until, in the Owl Temple, I encountered gnomes.
If you guessed it was another stealthy bit, well, you’d be spot on. Gnomes have terrible eyesight (meaning they only see a tiny circle of space around their bodies), but really excellent hearing. What that means from a gameplay perspective is you cannot fly. They will run as fast as their little gnome legs can carry them to the sound of flapping wings.
And did I mention that touching any of those vision orbs lead to being one-shot killed? No? Well that’s exactly what happens. And since Owlboy is a checkpoint-based save game, rather than a save anywhere game, I got very frustrated very quickly.
Of my just-shy-of-two-hour playtime, I’d say probably a quarter of that was spent trying to get through the god-awful gnome area. I have no idea if I was ever even close to escape. I’d figured out a good chunk of the path, but it felt like sometimes, when I just barely tapped the button to jump, the game registered it as a longer press and there were my wings, and then I was gnome-food.
Really, it’s too bad, because I was having a lot of fun with it up until that point. Maybe there was something I missed that would have made it easier? I don’t know, but I tried long enough to make me want to shelf the whole game. Chances are this wouldn’t be the last area with this kind of frustrating (at least for me) gameplay.
Here I am, sneaking in my thoughts on LIMBO on the next-to-the-last day of the month, when I actually played the game on the very first day. I kept thinking I would go back to it, and play some more. I didn’t quit because I was frustrated (thanks to keeping a walkthrough open on my phone while I played) but clearly, I also didn’t find the game compelling enough to return to.
Maybe it’s just that as I get older, it gets harder for me to get invested in games outside of my preferred genres. I’m still a huge fan of pure puzzle games, and I keep trying to convince myself that puzzle-platformers are adjacent enough I should be able to play and enjoy them. I think the key difference – for me – is that puzzle games almost always give you all the information you need about how the game works, even the ones which keep adding mechanics to increase the difficulty as you go. Puzzle platformers often rely on the mechanic of having to figure out how the game works as part of the puzzle part. You have to fail in order learn, and I’m not a big fan of forced failure.
I did think the art style was amazing; it’s truly impressive what can be done with a grayscale color palette. Otherwise, I was pretty lukewarm on the whole experience. I gave the game a little less than an hour, and in that time I made it just shy of the 1/4 mark. I just … I wasn’t having fun. The puzzley bits I managed to figure out myself felt super obvious and easy, and the ones I needed to consult a walkthrough for felt, in comparison, to be needlessly obscure.
And sometimes, games just don’t hit for me. This is a well-loved game, and I’m certainly not going to try to say that the more than 25,000 people who gave it a good review on Steam are wrong. It just wasn’t the right game for me at this point in time. Will I try again? I may. There was enough that intrigued me that I might blitz through the entirety of the game when I’m in a different state of mind.
Full disclosure: Here Comes Niko!is a game I never would have purchased (and certainly not at its asking price of $24.99). It’s a rare platforming game that draws me in as I’m not very proficient in the genre, but this was in a bundle I bought around the holidays, and I always at least look at the descriptions of bundle games to see if they’re something I might like.
The store page description of Here Comes Niko! definitely made it sound like it was right up my alley, despite the genre. And it is indeed cozy, but I’m not entirely sure I would have classified it as a platformer, myself. Instead, it felt more like a collectathon puzzler, which just happened to have some platforming mechanics to it, which just made it all the more appealing to me.
You play as Niko, the only human in an anthropomorphic animal world, and you’ve just started a new job as a professional friend. What does that mean? It means everywhere you go, you find someone who needs help, and help them. On each island you visit, there’s a handful of folks who have a problem, and also, have a coin burning a hole in their pockets. Collect enough coins, and you’ll be able to ride the train to the next island.
Folks who come in expecting a tight platformer are going to be outrageously disappointed by this title, however. The platforming is super floaty, unpleasantly floaty even. However, for players who are more interested in a cozy, combat-free collectathon experience, Here Comes Niko! just oozes charm. Each island is full of folks to chat with, puzzles to solve, and minigames to beat.
There’s plenty of things to collect on each island, and exploration is delightful, but some of the activities feel a little rough around the edges. The fishing quests, in particular, are outrageously irritating, and although I completed the one on the first island, I can see myself skipping them going forward if there are enough other coins to be earned. And normally, I love fishing in cozy games.
I feel like you get a pretty solid idea of what you can expect in the first few minutes, and if that gameplay loop works for you, you probably have a fun 6-8 hours ahead of you. Personally, I liked it more than I expected to, but that’s really because it leans heavily into the cozy and not very much into the platformer. On one hand, this is absolutely a game I can see myself going back to in short bursts until I’ve completed it, but it’s also not the type of game I feel compelled to fire up every time I have a few free minutes.
I don’t believe that one has to really understand art to appreciate it. Ephemerid: A Musical Adventure is definitely more art than game. Despite being interactive and having a few true gameplay elements, for the most part, it seems to be designed as a pretty backdrop for a rather epic soundtrack.
Completing the game is simple. There seems to be no true fail state, although there are at least a few spots where interaction is required to advance. In fact, if there’s a point where you’re unsure what the game requires of you, hints come early and often. Which makes sense, the game has an agenda, a certain amount of story it wants to tell accompanying each track.
Players that come into this looking just to experience it will probably have a fine time. The art and the music are pure joy, and despite the lack of text, there is a clear story happening. However, if you really hate bugs, or have severe arachnophobia, you probably won’t have the best time. Yes, there’s an antagonist, and it’s a big ol’ spider with a boombox.
The entire game took less than an hour from start to finish. I didn’t struggle with any of the adventure game / puzzley segments, and the game didn’t seem to penalize me for being downright awful at the rhythm parts. I was, however, surprised that after the credits, I had only unlocked one solitary achievement. Achievement chasers should be aware that the only other non-hidden achievement requires perfection in all 7 of the rhythm game sections.
There is definitely more game here if you want to look for it, but for me, I was satisfied just to have played through to the end. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of a music video or a laser light show, but I didn’t find any of the game play elements compelling enough to play through it multiple times. For the scant asking price of $3, I didn’t even mind the short play time.
For me, Changeling was a bit of an off-brand pick for #DatingSiMonth. I have very limited experience with visual novels, and I’ve found them to be very hit or miss. However, the few I have really enjoyed have not been romanced-focused; it’s just not my genre. However, when looking through some of the games I’ve picked up in Itch.io bundles, Changeling caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, being about high schoolers was a fairly good indicator that it would be light on graphic sexual content. Secondly, while romance is part of the story, and the final choice you make in the common route locks you into a single romantic interest, each route you play through gives you more and more information about the overarching mystery surrounding the protagonist.
Still, I wasn’t too sure that I’d get invested, but I figured I’d dedicate an evening or two and see at least one story arc before I decided whether or not to continue. I went in completely blind, so the path I ended up taking was not the one I would have chosen if I had realized the decision was one about which boy I’d be spending time with, but I just went with it.
Despite coming to a very dismal end with Corvin’s Route, I was undeterred. I figured I’d try one more route, and see how much the story changed. Now understanding which decision determined the storyline, and having gotten to know the characters better during my first playthrough, I was better prepared to choose a love interest with whom I might actually be inclined to make “best ending” sort of choices.
I did not – in fact – make best ending choices, but I got a better ending with Elliot than I did with Corvin. More importantly, I learned so much more about my character and about what was going on around her. I wanted to see the rest of the stories. I was hooked.
Normally, however, I don’t have the patience to get through all the repetitive clicking to get back to a choice point, and when I started out, I hadn’t yet mastered the visual novel pro-tip of saving often. Very often. On the upside, Changeling‘s skip feature is phenomenal – it takes you to each decision point quickly, and without a whole lot of manual clicking.
I really didn’t have strong feelings about the art style, which may be a make it or break it for some visual novel fans. The writing was solid throughout, which is perfect for me as a plot-first reader because the world building and story is really interesting. The romantic scenes – at least the ones I’ve encountered – are sweet rather than sexy, which I very much appreciated. If I had any complaint, it’s very minor – the side characters (non-love interests) seem to fall neatly into the boxes of either being sympathetic and likeable, or are kind of broadly painted with the antagonist brush. That wasn’t really an issue for me, though, it might read a little dramatic but who among us wasn’t dramatic in high school?
Probably the strongest praise I can give to Changeling is this: after losing access to my original save file, I went back, and manually clicked my way through to be able to start all six possible love interest routes. I’ve found the Steam guides to all the best endings, but I don’t know that I’ll necessarily use them. I kind of want to find out just how bad I am at dating sims, and admittedly, I’m in for the story more than I am for the boys.
I don’t know yet if I will play them all, but I also pretty sure I want to know what happens on the other four routes. I’ve played for about six hours now, reached two of the god only knows how many endings, and I’m still eager to read more. I expect future progress will be somewhat slower since I’ll no longer be able to play on my Steam Deck in bed, but I don’t doubt there will be future progress.
(Bear in mind, I do read rather quickly – the developers estimate most people will need about 4-6 hours per route to reach an ending!)
I don’t know how this stands up againt games loved by visual novel enthusiasts, but if you’re curious about visual novels, and you are interested in a YA supernatural drama with a side of cute boys, this might be a good one to try out. Changeling was part of the Itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality back in June of 2020 as well as the Itch.io Bundle for Ukraine from March of 2022. It is also available on Itch.io and Steam for $19.99.
I picked up Strange Horticulture almost a year ago, on the strength of the demo I played back in October of 2021 during one of many Steam NextFests. Originally, I had planned for it to be one of the last games I covered for the #JustOnePercent project, before I decided to stick to only games that actually released in 2021. So, in reality, I could have played this anytime over the last year! Thankfully, I decided to get back onto the Community Game Along train, and January is #PuzzleGameMonth, so it was a good excuse to stop putting it off and actually play the damn game.
You have inherited a botanist’s shop from your uncle, and the game dumps you right in the middle of a story in progress. Your customers will come to you asking for plants, sure, but they will also be dropping tons of news and gossip over you counter as well. However, none of the specimens in the shop are labeled, so you’ll need to closely examine the plants and compare them to the notations in your herbalism book to figure out how to fill customer requests. You’ll also have ample opportunities to explore the wider world to acquire even more plants for your shop. Some hints will come directly from your clients, but you’ll also get your share of instructions by mail to help you find every strange plant that can be found.
Although the plant-identifying puzzle makes up the meat of the gameplay, it’s not the only kind of puzzle Strange Horticulture has to offer. Make too many mistakes, and you’ll be tasked with a reassembly puzzle or a key matching puzzle. Sometimes, your directions for exploration are straightforward, but many of them require figuring out what that scrap of paper someone pressed into your hand could possibly mean.
In the early days, your book is fairly small. Completing orders or talking to people out in the world will often reward you with new pages. It is possible to – sort of – soft lock your progress if you get stuck on one of the map puzzles; more than once I had a customer come in and ask for a plant I didn’t yet have. Since there’s no way to refuse a customer order that I could find, you may need to either break your mind (which seems to restart the day, and open up the possibility of a different customer order) or water the plants you do have until you get enough Will to Explore to go out and try again. The hint button can be useful if you’re not sure if you already have a plant in your possession, but it certainly isn’t going to figure it out for you.
It took me just over four hours to play through and reach one of the possible endings. A not insignificant portion of that time was spent rearranging my plants in hopes of having a more logical order to things, which would quickly be undone by the discovery of new plants. When you pick up new plants, they’re tossed somewhere on your shelf, and with 77 plants to find, it doesn’t take long for any organizational system to fail. Thankfully, you are given the tools to label each plant as you figure out what it is, or if you prefer, there’s a setting to auto-label any plants you successfully identify. It’s an opt-in system though, which I am happy to report I discovered before I’d manually labeled more than half a dozen plants.
Once you reach an ending and get credits, the game isn’t quite over, however. No, one of your regulars comes in for a post-game opportunity to obtain any remaining plants and identify them all. It gives a nice bit of completion to the game, and I appreciated the opportunity to “officially” identify everything.
The only part of the game that – at least to me – felt a little half baked was the making of elixirs. The ability doesn’t unlock until about halfway through the game, and even once it does, you only have occasion (and the recipes) to do so a few times. It wasn’t that it felt out of place, so much, as sort of unfinished. However, it also really took nothing away from the game play experience to only have it matter a few times, so it’s a small gripe in an otherwise really solid game.
I’ve focused mostly on the game play, because it’s nearly impossible to talk about the story without spoilers. It’s dark, it’s gritty, and at times, it’s delightfully cryptic. Even the dialogue with the less important customers is interesting, and also? You can pet the cat pretty much whenever you like. There are a handful of times where you’re given a choice to make, and those choices do affect the endings you’re eligible to receive on that playthrough. Although there are several different ways for the game to end, I don’t see myself replaying this one anytime soon, but there’s definitely lots more to do if you’re a completionist.
Overall, I enjoyed Strange Horticulture a lot, and played the entire game over a single sitting. This was partially because I was so captivated, but also in part because I was worried that if I didn’t get back to it right away, I would be completely lost. Your mileage may vary on that one, but it was definitely a concern for me. Still, a four hour playtime isn’t unreasonable for a single sitting game, and what a fascinating sitting it turned out to be.
For someone who has literally thousands of unplayed games in her library, I find I still am concerned about the longevity and/or the replay value of games when I’m shopping. So although I enjoy escape-room style puzzle games, I rarely buy them outside of bundles because I feel like more than most genres, these are one-and-done kind of games, and they’re usually fairly short as well. When a triple pack of escape room games from mc2games showed up in Fantatical’s Holiday Diamond pick-your-own bundle alongside a couple of other titles I’d been meaning to pick up, I figured getting three of these games for roughly $5 seemed like a good deal.
I’ve now played one of the three – Palindrome Syndrome – to completion, and although I enjoyed the game for what it was, I would have felt 100% ripped off if I’d bought it at its retail price of $10. I played on the Steam Deck over two sessions, and it took me just under two hours to complete the game. Calling the story of the game mediocre is probably a bit generous, but if you’re playing an escape room style puzzle game, you’re probably not in it for the story.
Full disclosure: I needed to look up hints twice during the game. Once to figure out what the puzzle was asking me to do, and the other because I was totally flummoxed. Both of these were in the last of the six game areas. Up until that point, I made steady, non-frustrating progress through the variety of puzzle types (although most are recycled a time or two throughout the game). The game does give you all the information you need to solve every puzzle it puts in front of you, however, sometimes, doing things out of order will leave you feeling like something was left out – just keep looking. It’s all there.
Instead, any frustration the game might have earned comes from design and user interface decisions. This was maybe made a little worse by playing on the Steam Deck, but it felt like the interactable areas were very small, and oddly placed. More than once, I only discovered something was interactable on my third or fourth lap around the room. I wouldn’t quite call it pixel-hunting, but the experience definitely could have been improved by increasing the size of the interactable areas. There are also a couple places where color is integral to solving a puzzle, and the color choices definitely could have been handled better – in one memorable place, there’s a purple and blue that look very similar, and in another, the clue is yellow, but the choice in the solution is much nearer to a green.
The other gripe I had was with the way notes were handled. Several times, you’ll pick up bits of written information that go into a notebook you can open to refer to them. However, you cannot open the notebook while actively attempting to solve a puzzle, so if you need to refer back to the information that the game has given you, you have to close out of the puzzle, open the notebook, find the correct document, and hope you remember everything when you get back to the solving part.
While I wouldn’t call Palindrome Syndrome a good adventure game, as a pure puzzler with some set decoration, it’s worth a playthrough, but certainly not at full price.
Finally, not just a new month, but an entire new year! As someone who doesn’t really do New Year’s Resolutions, it probably means even less than it might, but I’m still glad to be putting 2022 behind me. While it’d be more than a bit of hyperbole to say that it was – for me personally – the worst year ever, there was still a lot of things I’ll be glad to be able to say were so last year.
World of Warcraft
Now that the new expansion thrill is mostly over, and I’m settling into a more reasonable cadence, I’m not entirely sure what’s next for me in World of Warcraft. My guild will be stepping into normal Vault of the Incarnates in a few days, but with only five hours of scheduled raiding in January, I’m hesitant to set much in the way of goals in relation to raiding. I still have professions – I mean, characters, of course – to level, but we’re probably still about 6 weeks out from any significant new content. On the other hand, I still have enough to poke at that I’m not quite ready to dive back into old content either.
To keep me at least a little on task, I think I’ll set my goals for two more characters to level 70 and Loremaster of the Dragon Isles on a second character.
Community Game-Along 2023
With no big gaming or blogging projects on the horizon, I’ve decided to jump back into the Community Game-Along for 2023, in no small part because there are only a handful of themes all year that take me outside of my comfort zone. The theme for January is #PuzzleGameMonth, and I thought I’d pick out a couple of puzzle games from my library to play around with.
The three games I was most drawn to on a first pass were Gorogoa, Palindrome Syndrome: Escape Room, and Strange Horticulture. Although I’m not 100% committed to these particular titles, I’d like to play at least two puzzle games during January as part of the Community Game-Along.
I think January will probably be a little bit about figuring out how much I want to pre-plan, and how much space I need to leave myself to spend time doing whatever catches my fancy. Goal-setting helps me to keep from getting overwhelmed by decision paralysis, but setting too many goals just turns me into a rebellious teenager who will do just about anything to avoid working on the list I made for myself. It’s a balancing act, and I’ve found that treating my line items as suggestions rather than must-dos helps quite a bit.
That said, I prefer to have something on my content planning calendar, but without tying myself to a single game or group of games that I feel like I must play. So, to keep it sort of flexible without being too flexible (I swear, I’m impossible to please!), I think I’ll try out some repeatable categories.
For example, I’d like to continue participating in UnwiseOwl’s group review of the Humble Choice, as well as sitting down to play and write about something I purchased during the prior month. I have a terrible habit of getting spendy and then forgetting I own something right up until the point I try to to buy it again. I also would really like to start making a point to write about what I’m playing on co-op game night, although we don’t always change games frequently enough for this to be an every month sort of thing.
Otherwise, I’m sticking to a play-what-I-want, write-what-I-want policy for the time being.
I’m fairly sure I want to repeat my goal from 2022 and go for 48 books again this year, in some combination of print & audio. That averages out to four books a month, which feels doable even when I’m not reading a whole lot, and then I get on a kick and I either get way ahead, or totally caught up in a week or two. It’s not enough to stress me out, but it’s highly unlikely I’ll be done by March. It just feels right. Which makes my shorter-term goal four books during January.
In the shortest term, I want to get back into the reading before bed habit, because I have gotten outrageously sloppy with my sleep hygiene over the past couple weeks.
This past year, I was super inconsistent with my media consumption when it comes to television and movies. Either the TV doesn’t even go on for weeks at a time, or I slip into the familiar comfort of perpetual re-watching. Doing Discord movies nights has helped somewhat, but I still find myself gravitating to old favorites and not trying anything new.
Although it’s not really my focus here, my goals are mostly for me anyway. So I’d like to get into the habit of one new-to-me movie and one new-to-me season, series or mini-series each month. I won’t force myself to sit through something I’m not enjoying, but like you do with small children and food, I at least have to try a couple bites.
I am 100% absolutely not ready to start the giant project I’ve been looking forward to for what feels like forever now, and it wouldn’t be terribly satisfying on a “couple hundred stitches every other week” schedule that I’ve been doing for awhile now. I’m in the middle of reworking my crafting desk, and once I’ve finished that, I want to figure out a schedule and / or a goal around number of stitches or completion percentage or something that will motivate me. I have no idea yet what that’s going to look like, but the unfinished projects are just making me feel awful, especially since they were all intended to be gifts for dates that have long since passed.
In fact, I think it’s not a problem so much with the hobby itself, but with larger struggles I’m having around time management in general lately. Unfortunately, I’m never sure which of my polar opposite approaches to this problem is going to be more effective. Sometimes it’s more rigid scheduling and goal-setting. Sometimes, it’s going completely hands off for a few weeks, doing whatever strikes my fancy until I get annoyed with that level of freedom. All I do know is that this tends to happen almost every year around the holidays, and I should have most of the kinks worked out of it all by the middle of the month. I hope.
Make at least 10 blog posts during January.
Play and write about two games for #PuzzleGameMonth.
Get at least two more characters to level 70 in World of Warcraft.
Get the Loremaster of the Dragon Isles on at least one of my alts in World of Warcraft.
Participate in the group Humble Choice review.
Play and write about at least one game I bought during December.
Make a post about co-op game night.
Read at least four books.
Watch at least one new-to-me movie.
Watch at least one new-to-meseason, series or mini-series.
Finish reorganizing my crafting area.
Do at least 2500 stitches on any current project or combination of current projects.