Quick Look – Lake (#JustOnePercent 80/100)

Developer: Gamious
Release Date: September 1, 2021
MSRP: $19.99

Generally speaking, I like short games, and I like storytelling that’s not too heavy-handed, so Lake should be a perfect fit for me. How Long To Beat estimates you should be able to everything the game has to offer in less than 8 hours. Considering this game – at least the first hour of it – is super light on mechanics, I was surprised to find myself wishing it had less, rather than more.

The year is 1986. You play as Meredith Weiss, a computer programmer who is visiting her tiny hometown for the first time in 22 years – at least that’s the impression I get from the reaction of the townsfolk who I’ve met thus far. It seems like you’re doing a stint as a volunteer mail delivery driver, taking over for your dad who is on vacation. Casting aside the ludicrousness of this as a premise, it seems to be a pretty charming conceit.

Unfortunately, the majority of your game time is going to be spent driving your postal truck around. Sure, there’s interactions with the townsfolk, and some (mostly expository) time spent in the evenings, but mostly, you’re driving. In Lake, small town is an attitude more than a geographical reality – the houses are pretty spread out, and for me, the driving made what should be a very chill game kind of stressful. Sure, there doesn’t seem to be any real chance of hitting other cars or any kind of penalty for parking in the middle of the road, but I would have really loved some sort of autopilot mechanic, so that I could just watch the scenery go by and listen to the radio instead of worrying about keeping all my tires on my side of the road.

Now, this isn’t surprising, as I’m not a fan of driving in video games to begin with most of the time. While I appreciate that there’s a message here of how sometimes, it’s good to just slow down, I was finding myself wishing for any way at all to speed through the majority of the game play so I could get to story, and despite liking a lot of the game’s aesthetics, I knew I wasn’t going to to be able to power through the irritating parts of this one.

Edited to add: Apparently, you can “autopilot” via the map, or utilize fast travel. I didn’t notice either of these options in my time playing, but just knowing that it is possible is encouraging and might push me to revisit the game.

SteamDB estimates that Lake has sold between 42,000 and 115,600 copies on Steam. Thankfully, most players didn’t dislike driving a mail truck nearly as much as I did, and the reviews have been very positive overall, although even some of the recommended reviews include the word “tedious”. It is ranked 828 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Cloud Gardens (#JustOnePercent 79/100)

Developer: Noio
Release Date: September 1, 2021
MSRP: $17.99

When you have a library as large as mine, you sometimes (read: almost always) forget when you bought a game. I had assumed that I bought Cloud Gardens around the time of its release, however, when I went into my account details to confirm that (and find out how much I paid for it), I discovered that I was only sort of correct – I picked it up in 2020, shortly after the early access release for just over $5. The game spend just under a year in early access, going into a full release in September of 2021.

Now, I did play a bit of the game when I first bought it – about 16 minutes, according to Steam, and what I remembered from that experience was only that I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand the game, and I remember feeling like I had to be missing something. Even in EA, people loved this game. I should have loved this game. The idea of making little dioramas with growing things in them sounds delightful.

Unfortunately, two years later, and I still don’t get it.

On each level, you start with a seed. Plant the seed, and then place debris around it to encourage it to grow. As you progress through the levels, you unlock different sorts of placeable objects for the sandbox mode, and different types of seeds. Once your plants reach a certain growth level, you can harvest the flowers, which allow you to purchase even more seeds. In the lower right hand corner of the screen, there’s a percentage indicator to let you know how much more growth you need to progress to the next level.

I think that the game expects you to keep adding seeds each time a new one become available, making objects placed further into the level effect the growth of multiple seeds, but I often found myself so caught up in trying to oh-so-gingerly place the objects so they wouldn’t fall off the edges of the world, or crush my already growing plants that I wouldn’t notice my seed availability indicator light up. This often resulted in need to restart levels, as I would run out of placeable items long before I achieved the required amount of growth.

Cloud Gardens is features a pixel art style and a color palette that’s both relaxing and really beautiful, and the sound design in phenomenal. The physics of placing objects feels realistic, but I often wished it was a little less so – the maps are small, and I struggled with the camera both with a controller and with the mouse, so often an object I though I was placing just right would topple over. Placeable objects come in groups, but I couldn’t see anything that indicated how many groups you had left to assist with planning.

While it’s lovely to look at, and watching your plants grow out of the wreckage is very satisfying, for me, it lacked the a-ha! moments of a puzzle game, and was too nitpicky to feel like a really good sandbox. Which is why I think I still just don’t get it – I feel like this is meant to be a relaxing puzzler, but nothing to me felt puzzle-y enough.

SteamDB estimates that Cloud Gardens has sold between 33,600 and 92,300 copies on Steam. Although it may lack the wide appeal of more traditional games, its target demographic has really liked it, and reviews are almost universally positive. It is ranked 116 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Game Over – The Big Con (#JustOnePercent 78/100)

Developer: Mighty Yell
Release Date: August 31, 2021
MSRP: $14.99

I’m not sure what exactly is driving this wave of 90s nostalgia, but The Big Con is here for it, and goes all in. Full of neon colors, and almost-but-not-quite point-and-click adventure tropes, you play Ali, a high school student who is supposed to be on her way to band camp, but instead embarks on a crime-spree road trip to save her family’s small video store from a mobster who wants to sell it to a big corporation. You and your new partner have just a few stops to come up with nearly $100,000, which is an awful lot of money for a teenager just learning to pick pockets.

I’ll be honest, as far as mechanics go, The Big Con is nothing special. There’s the pick pocket mini-game, where you need to click when the indicator reaches the small colored section of the bar. Hit it at the wrong moment, or take too long, and you get caught. Get caught three times, and you’re going to be rewinding video tapes. Yes, you read that right. The punishment for failure is having to rewind. Unfortunately, this doesn’t clear anything – anyone you failed to steal from is still going to be suspicious of you, and if you want that loot, you’re going to need to find a disguise and try again.

You can – however – turn on an option to auto pickpocket, which relieves the game of a bit of tedium and annoyance, but also the only real game play mechanic in the whole game. Everything else is rummaging through trashcans, talking to people to find out what they want, and figuring out how to get it for them. The puzzle elements are not particularly challenging, and most of the time if you just touch everything you can, you’ll eventually get what you need to move forward.

The game isn’t overly long, if you aren’t trying to do absolutely everything. All in all, it took me about four hours, and even that was perhaps a bit long for the story it’s telling. And make no mistake, the story is the reason to stick around. Sometimes I’d get a moment or two of feeling very clever when I managed to find the thing I was looking for, and use it to extort the maximum amount of cash from my mark, but mostly, I was routing for Ali to foil the mobster and save the video store.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the entire premise gave me big Empire Records vibes.

All in all, The Big Con is a charming little heist story, albeit not a very challenging one. If you like light puzzles, neon colors, and the vibe of the mid-90s, you will likely enjoy this one. Completionists might find the single save system to be a bit frustrating, as if you miss something in an early level, your only recourse is to delete your save data (which you can do from the options menu) and start a fresh playthrough. I enjoyed the game, but not enough to want to replay the entire thing for nerdpoints.

SteamDB estimates that The Big Con has sold between 6,100 and 16,700 copies on Steam. It’s a niche title, but because the description is pretty upfront about what to expect, there’s been almost no negative reviews. It is ranked 175 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Tinytopia (#JustOnePercent 77/100)

Developer: MeNic Games
Release Date: August 30, 2021
MSRP: $14.99

City builders were one of my go-to game genres for a lot of years, but for awhile now, I’ve been really struggling to find one that scratches the itch of the early iterations of the Tropico series, or going even further back, the old Impressions city builders. It seems like either they’re far too casual (like Polyville Canyon), or they’re laser focused on realistic infrastructure and traffic issues. When I do find something comfortably in the middle – and Tinytopia definitely falls into that category – it seems like the developers can’t resist adding a quirky mechanic that sucks the fun right out of the concept.

Now, the mechanic in Tinytopia sounds great in theory. As you proceed through the levels, you unlock more basic buildings, and you use blueprints to upgrade them to better versions. Place down a single store block for a level one store, but place two next to each other, and you’ve just made a level two store. For the first couple of buildings, this actually is really fun. It’s a neat idea, watching your buildings snap together and turn into something new and different.

At least for me, it got old real fast. You only “learn” blueprints after you initially create them, and the interface which shows you how to build the next level of something is less than idea. You get a little ghost outline of what you need to add, and even if you have the “snap to object” setting turned out (which apparently needs to be turned on again each time you move between scenarios – please just give me a toggle!), it isn’t always as simple as it’s made to look.

So I figured maybe I’d just jump into sandbox mode for a bit, and just play around with how pieces fit together until I felt like I really got it. Unfortunately, that idea was foiled rather quickly.

Of course there’d be unlocks. Why wouldn’t there be unlocks?

I managed to fail a handful of scenarios by getting caught up in the loop of wanting to figure out all the evolutions of the buildings, and failing to consider, well, anything else. There’s a nifty “move building” button, but there’s a price every time you use it. There also doesn’t seem to be any sort of undo button, which I feel like this game really could have used.

In time, I probably could have learned my way around the quirks, but as a new player, it all just felt very frustrating. Which is too bad, because I really liked the aesthetics of the game – I found the cutesy art style delightful. It’s probably a title I will revisit if I really have a hankering for something a little off the beaten path in the city building genre, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was more than a bit disappointed that I didn’t find it more intuitive.

SteamDB estimates that Tinytopia has sold between 3,300 and 9,100 copies on Steam. Although I didn’t fall in love with, reviews have been very positive. It is ranked 1128 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – In Sound Mind (#JustOnePercent 76/100)

Developer: We Create Stuff
Release Date: September 28, 2021
MSRP: $34.99

Sometimes, things just seem to all fall into place.

In Sound Mind is one of the games in the August 2022 Humble Choice Bundle (available to purchase through 9/6). It was already on my list for the #JustOnePercent Project after it was given away by the Epic Games Store back in March, but I rarely turn down the opportunity to get a Steam copy when I can, and I rarely pass up the Humble Choice even when I am not sure about any of the games in it.

Then, on August 4th, UnwiseOwl asked the #Blaugust2022 community if we might be interested in doing a group review of the bundle. A little bit of fiddling with my blog calendar later, I was penciled in to take a quick look at In Sound Mind, which I was planning to do anyway. Always good when I can knock off multiple goals with a single post.

Pickup Group – This one is gained by playing a game or joining in an external event with other Blaugust participants. We have the “Gaming-Together” channel and sometimes groups come out of that, and there was some discussion about someone hosting a one-shot pen and paper game. The whole goal here is to get you mingling with other members and building permanent bonds.

Ahem. Now, we return you to your regularly scheduled Quick Look.

I really want to like horror games. I keep buying horror games. I sometime even install and attempt to play some horror games. But the truth is, I’m a giant wimp. It’s rare that I make it much past the first jump scare.

Which is to say, at least for me, In Sound Mind is pretty damn creepy, right from the opening shots of a town half under water. It’s dark and eerie and would almost definitely benefit from being played in a dark room, if you’re far far braver than I am. For the record, I also played on the easiest, story-mode difficulty, so I’m not sure if everything I’m saying is also true in the higher difficulties.

After the intro, you wake up in the basement of a building that looks like it’s probably seen better decades. It’s still dark, but you can kind of see what you’re doing. My first impulse was to scrounge around for some sort of weapon, but there wasn’t anything I could interact with until I found my first note. There are a lot of notes in this game, and they range from the mundane to the very very creepy indeed.

Interactable items are visible from a good distance due to the weird eyeball indicator that marks them. I’m a fan of when games are clear about what you can and cannot touch, because I am not a fan of pixel hunting, but for some players, they may find this dilutes the exploratory experience.

The first actually useful thing you’re likely to find is a flashlight, and you’ll need to be pretty constantly collecting batteries until the end of time, or at least, the end of the game. Early on, it’s all just ambiance and puzzle solving as you try to figure out where you are, how you got here, and what the hell is going on, exactly. I was starting to think this might be the rare horror game that’s all aesthetic and none of the “stuff that’s forever trying to murder you”.

Flickering lights and cryptic phone calls I can handle. Then I found a note telling me where to get the pieces of a pistol, and I knew I’d be fighting something sooner or later. However, about an hour and a half in, the conflicts that you must resolve with violence seem to be few and far between.

You didn’t have to call me out so hard here, game, you really didn’t.

The game drip-feeds you information in some really neat sequences in which you listen to the audio cassettes you’ll find while exploring. This is the main mechanic of moving the game forward, and it’s definitely impactful. Plus, since they’re the story-bits, you are basically pretty much safe during them, which I appreciated.

Probably my biggest gripe is that In Sound Mind doesn’t let you save whenever you like – there are periodic autosaves, and that’s all you get. You can, however, pause anywhere at least as far as I’ve played. This is helpful if you might be called away from the game for a few minutes, or if, y’know, you need to take a break and let your heart rate return to something resembling normal.

As expected, I’m rubbish at the game’s combat, so even though I’m invested in the story, I realize I might not be able to complete it. Ammunition for your pistol is scarce, and if you’re prone to shooting wildly, like I am, you will likely find yourself having to rely on melee for the conflicts where you can’t just run away. Personally, I am a big fan of the “just running away” strategy whenever possible.

Since the scare-factor is just about spot-on for my taste, I expect that true horror game aficionados might find this one a little bit tame for them. I’m definitely more likely to bail on this one because I can’t deal with the fighting rather than because I scared myself silly playing it. However, I do intend to continue playing it, which is notable in itself.

Although I’m guessing we can all agree that mannequins that move on their own and give you a thumbs up are horrifying, right? It’s not just me, is it?

How Long To Beat estimates that In Sound Mind can be completed in under 10 hours, so for me, the purchase price is a little steep. It has been given away by Epic, and was recently marked down by 85% to just over $5. Given all that, I’m not sure that this is the game that you’d pick up the August Humble Choice for, but if you’re already leaning that way based on some of the other games included in the bundle, I’d say that In Sound Mind is definitely worth giving a whirl. I mean, provided you like games that are weird and scary (but not too scary), because this one is most definitely both of those things.

SteamDB estimates that In Sound Mind has sold between 26,700 and 73,400 copies on Steam. While those aren’t super impressive sales numbers, it’s very well liked. Being given away so close to release likely impacted its sales figures, but I’m guessing that this developer will see much more interest in whatever they put out next. It is ranked 205 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Twelve Minutes (#JustOnePercent 75/100)

Developer: Luis Antonio
Release Date: August 19, 2021
MSRP: $24.99

Rarely has my interest in a game been such a roller coaster ride. I heard about Twelve Minutes shortly before its release last August when it was announced that it was going to be a Day One release on XBox Game Pass. Seeing as I tend to prefer to not spend a lot on games that lack inherent replay value, I figured that would be a perfect way to play it. I downloaded the game as soon as it was available, even though I knew I wouldn’t have time to really dive in for a few days. In that short window of time, I managed to spoil myself on the ending.

I won’t do the same to you here – mostly because it’s been a damn year, and although I can remember that I did, once upon a time, know the big twist of the game, I have long since forgotten what it was. I do know that it turned me off from wanting to play through the game. When I started making my list of available project games, I decided to add this one in as I knew I had been interested in it once upon a time. But I wasn’t really excited about it again until I was reminded by The Forgotten City just how good time loop games can be.


You take the role of the husband, on what should be a romantic evening with your wife.  The night turns into a nightmare when a police detective breaks into your home, accuses your wife of murder, and beats you to death.

Only for you to find yourself immediate returned to the exact moment you opened the front door, stuck in a TWELVE MINUTE time loop, doomed to relive the same terror again and again...

Unless you can find a way to use the knowledge of what's coming to change the outcome and break the loop.

An interactive narrative that blends the dream-like suspense of THE SHINING with the claustrophobia or REAR WINDOW and the fragmented structure of MEMENTO.
The description of the Twelve Minutes from its website drops some pretty big names as inspiration.

As it turns out, the only thing I missed out on by putting off playing Twelve Minutes was a whole lot of frustration. For me, it was like someone took all the worst parts of time loop games and point & click adventures and hired a few big named actors to do the voice-overs and decided that was good enough.

The entire game is from a top down perspective, which I hated almost instantly. Then, as soon as you walk into the door to your apartment, the timer starts. Typical adventure game logic of just trying everything can easily ruin loop after loop. Repeated conversations are not skippable (although there seemed to be a little bit of “fast forwarding” that worked sporadically), and in certain circumstances conversations that you pursued in one loop are completely unavailable in the next one, which then requires you to either ignore that conversational path, or jump directly to a nuclear option, which seemed to make it impossible to get any further information.

But even putting aside the problems with gameplay (and I felt like there were a lot of problems with the gameplay), I think the thing that bothered me the most is that this video game is the polar opposite of a power fantasy. Too often, it just feels like there is nothing at all you can do to avoid your demise, and I think that’s possibly a direct result of being on a tight timer. For some players, this might be an enjoyable tension, but the entire time I was playing, I just wanted to have a goddamn minute to think.

While I didn’t find anything about the game to be scary, watching the seconds directly before the time loop was – for me – pretty damn disturbing. Knowing that continuing on meant watching a scene (or one just like it) potentially dozens more times before I figured out the precise order of events and performed them to perfection just killed the tiny spark of interest I had in the game.

For me, Twelve Minutes was a miss in just about every possible way, and as a result, I can’t seem to find anything at all nice to say about my hour long experience. I don’t feel like I made enough meaningful progress to even guess if there’s a compelling story underneath the mess of mechanics. If you really want to know how it all plays out, I would recommend finding a true ending Let’s Play, especially if you’re at all sensitive to scenes of violence when the victim is powerless.

Out of morbid curiosity, I went to YouTube to find a full walkthrough for the game (which is obviously full of spoilers – link clicker beware), and within the first five minutes, I realized that there was absolutely zero chance of me getting all the information on my own, and it just made me irritated all over again.

SteamDB estimates that Twelve Minutes has sold between 115,600 and 317,800 copies on Steam. Most players would recommend it, but more than 25% felt, like me, that it was a frustrating experience, either due to game play reasons, or for its twist ending. It is ranked 4065 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Game Over – Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery (#JustOnePercent 74/100)

Developer: Silver Lining Studio
Release Date: August 25, 2021
MSRP: $12.99

I find more and more lately that I enjoy games that are a compact & satisfying experience, but I am still struggling to shake off my tendency to value games by the quantity of their content. Knowing that the release version of Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery could be easily completed in under an hour, it wasn’t a title I was likely to purchase unless it hit a really deep sale. However, when I noticed it was available on Utomik, and I still had several months on my annual sub, I figured that would be a perfect time to check it out.

Everything about this game is beautiful aesthetically. The animation is movie-quality, the sound design is immersive, and it leads you through a heartwarming little story. However, if you prioritize gameplay, you may find yourself disappointed. This is definitely a game that wants to take you on a journey – the puzzle aspects almost feel like an afterthought.

You play as a young painter, trying to finish up her submission for an art program, but finding herself distracted by everything from missing paint colors, to feline break ins. You needn’t have any artistic aptitude yourself in order to play – the sections which require you to sketch and paint can be a little fiddly, but you don’t have to be particularly accurate in the details, merely the correct color and approximate location will be enough.

As your character notices things, it is on you, the player, to finish making those connections. You can always check your journal in case you’ve forgotten precisely what you’re supposed to be looking for, and I found myself sometimes opening and closing it repeatedly to compare details I needed to solve puzzles. In the whole game, there was only one puzzle I found to be a little frustrating – most of the time, it’s pretty obvious what you need to do to progress.

The base game has six chapters, and will likely take about an hour to go through them all. It’s a self-contained story, but the developers recently released a free DLC with additional story content. The Utomik version says it has been updated, but I couldn’t figure out how to access the new content, and after fiddling around in menus a bit too much, I somehow managed to reset my progress completely, and could only play through from the beginning again. I elected not to.

Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery is not particularly challenging, even for people who don’t go in too much for puzzle games or point and click adventures. Some bits were a little fiddly, but nothing was obscure enough that I felt like I needed to seek out a walkthrough. However, it’s a great argument for games as art in and of themselves. While I’m very glad that I made time to play it, I’m also not disappointed that I don’t own it, as I don’t see any circumstance in which I would feel the need to play it again.

SteamDB estimates that Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery has sold between 67,900 and 186,700 copies on Steam. Reviews are almost entirely positive – it’s not an easy game to dislike – with the few detractors focusing on its length and lack of challenge. It is ranked 77 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Space Scavenger (#JustOnePercent 73/100)

Developer: Red Cabin Games
Release Date: August 20, 2021
MSRP: $12.99

If I stopped buying new games right now, I could probably spend the rest of my life playing games and still have new-to-me experiences I haven’t tapped into yet when I’m on my deathbed. Yet, I still have nearly 300 titles on my Steam wish list, I cannot resist an incredible deal on a bundle, and at least twice a year, I pick up something that’s deeply discounted that I’d never even heard of before. During the most recent Steam Summer Sale, I decided to buy Space Scavenger for no other reason than it was deeply discounted and it looked neat.

I probably would have gone at least months, possibly years, without so much as installing it, but the first game I originally planned to play for #JustOnePercent during August was not actually a qualifying game – I somehow managed to misread the release date, and it actually came out in 2020. So I started poking to see what I should replace it with, and I noticed that Space Scavenger was already in my library, and it fit pretty perfectly into the hole I had just poked into my schedule.

So far, I have only played in normal mode – you have to actually finish a run in normal to open the higher difficulty, and I am nowhere near finishing a run. You start out with a very basic spaceship and two tasks per map. First, you need to scan all of the available planets. Then, you must kill all enemies on the map in order to open up a wormhole which allows you to open the next stage. A successful run on normal requires you to complete four levels, each with multiple maps, and the occasional rest stop at a repair depot and shop.

The gimmick here is to constantly build and rebuild your spaceship with the spare parts you find in your explorations. Different parts give different buffs, and you need to be mindful of where on your ship you attach these parts to get the results you want. You get a very basic laser with your very basic ship, but you can also find a bunch of different weapon types. Unfortunately, no matter how much firepower you load yourself up with, you can only ever have two active at once (corresponding with the two mouse buttons if you’re using mouse & keyboard, or the trigger buttons on controller by default).

When you are in the ship building interface, everything around you is paused while you tinker. I’d been concerned that you would have to do your ship tinkering in real time, and I was relieved to discover this wasn’t the case.

The hammer attachment is slow, but it’s one of my favorite weapons so far. It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole with space bugs.

The whole concept manages to be super straightforward and incredibly finicky at the same time. Every bit of modification you do to your ship changes the way it handles – sometimes in pretty big ways. Some weapons run on ammunition, becoming useless if you run out. Others run on energy, requiring some time to recharge. You can swap which weapons are active on the fly, but if you’re not constantly aware of your limitations, you may find yourself in over your head.

Maps marked with a planet with a little flag on it will allow you to repair your ship (provided you have adequate crystals or are willing to recycle some parts to get them), and will offer a small selection of modules for sale. As you explore the other maps, you will occasionally see planets with blue crystals sticking out of them, and you’ll want to gather those up when you spot them. On some maps there will also be wrecked ships, which you can destroy to nab some scrap (which heals your ship) or an extra module or two.

Modules you don’t want can be recycled into crystals. You also get two cargo spaces where you can hold onto modules you think you might want, but might not currently have space for. During my first couple of runs, I got excited whenever a new weapon dropped. By my third run, I was crossing my fingers and hoping for more body or beam modules to increase the amount of spaceship real estate I had to work with.

After about half a dozen runs, I’m still pretty much rubbish at the game after the first set of maps. I usually hit a game over screen on the first or second map of the second level, and my runs are usually ending in 15 minutes or less, making this a great coffee break game – at least as long as I don’t manage to get good at it.

For someone who enjoys the randomness of roguelites with some shoot’em up style action combat, I could see Space Scavenger providing nearly endless replayability, with an unlockable hard mode and daily challenges.

SteamDB estimates that Space Scavenger has sold between 4,200 and 11,600 copies on Steam. It’s only gotten a handful of negative reviews, with most players are satisfied with how much game they’re getting for the price point. It is ranked 1382 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Life is Hard (#JustOnePercent 72/100)

Developer: Pirozhok Studio
Release Date: August 14, 2021
MSRP: $9.99

I feel like over the last three years here, I tend to complain about the same things over and over. In the case of Life is Hard, that complaint is that the difficulty of a game should not be a result of deliberately obscure systems and poorly explained (or completely unexplained!) mechanics. I will forever argue for a developers’ right to make their game as easy or difficult as they want to, but only when that difficulty is fair.

Life is Hard is absolutely not fair, and while I can see that might be part of the point of the game, it still irritated the hell out of me.

If it’s an option, I almost always choose an easy or story mode difficulty when I first start a game. If it’s easy enough that I find my interest waning, then sure, I’ll go back and turn it up, but there is no shame in my beginner mode game. I made sure to enable the tutorial as well. Games with indirect control mechanics, like this one, are something I tend to enjoy, but the ways of influencing your minions to do the things you want them to do can vary quite a bit.

The UI is something of a disaster. There’s a “quest” panel on the left hand side of the screen, but even when you do what it asks of you, it never seems to change or complete the quest. The tutorial window is on the right, with forward and backward arrows to move around inside of it, but nothing to indicate when you can actually proceed to the next step. Despite being rather wordy, it manages to fail to explain key mechanics, and it can be difficult to figure out how to get certain resources. Hint: it’s very rarely the most obvious way.

My first settlement had everyone die of starvation. Apparently, I did something that overwrote the task of the person assigned to forage berries until the end of time, and in my struggle with the building interface, I failed to get a farm up and running before my meager starter supplies ran out. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea welcoming new settlers while I was completely out of both food and housing. That was okay – I didn’t expect to win on my first try.

My second playthrough seemed smoother, although I still wasn’t really feeling like I really got it yet. I found the mine early, and made sure to assign a miner to start building up my reserves of stone, minerals, and gems. I remembered to equip someone with a rudimentary weapon, and figured out how to make that person the hunter to keep my settlers from dying to bunnies because they were bare-handed punching them*. I made sure to have a farm built & staffed early, and everything seemed to be progressing smoothly. I had food, I was upgrading buildings, and I was starting to work on getting weapons built for everyone.

Then this happened.

Upon restoring a new section of the mine, I stumbled into some kind of necro-nightmare. I didn’t panic. I had a handful of bows and clubs by this time, and I figured we could at least try to fight our way out of this (seeing as there didn’t seem to be any easy way to just re-collapse the mine and leave the nice skeletons alone). So I equipped my miners with weapons, and prepared for battle.

Both of my miners just stood there and let the skeletons punch them to death. I couldn’t make them fight. I couldn’t make them leave the mine. They just took one look at those spooky boys, and must have thought “Welp, guess I’ll just die then.” At this point, I may have rage-quit the game**.

*This is me being overly dramatic. They did not die from punching bunnies. They died from punching deer.

**I most definitely rage quit the game at this point.

SteamDB estimates that Life is Hard has sold between 11,200 and 30,800 copies on Steam, which seems very low considering it had an excessively long period in Early Access (my records show that I played the game originally way back in 2016). It’s garnered mixed reviews, with the most common complaints being poor UI, excessive bugs, and a feeling that the game was fully released in an unfinished state. It is ranked 6602 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Black Book (#JustOnePercent 71/100)

Developer: Morteshka
Release Date: August 10, 2021
MSRP: $24.99

I realize I haven’t been shy about expressing my opinion about deck building games, which depending on the day, will be somewhere between apathy and a genuine distaste. I think that there have been a lot of games over the last year or so to pick up deck-builder mechanics where it felt like the developer was more interesting in making a game to exploit the new hotness than to because card mechanics fit the game. I’m am please to report that, at least for me, Black Book was not one of those games.

You play as Vasalisa, who has chosen to become a witch in order to break the seven seals and save the soul of her betrothed from Hell. As you work towards this goal, you must also perform the duties of your new profession, and aid the townsfolk with their demon problems. While you will be able to talk your way through some demonic encounters, more often than not you need to subdue them in combat, and the way you do that is by casting spells from the pages of your spell book. For me, this doesn’t feel like a reach, but instead a logical reason to have card game mechanics.

For someone who likes deck-building games, there’s already a lot to like here. Spells are classified either as orders or keys, and you can utilize two orders and one key per turn. There seem to be quite a variety of spell effects, although most of what I’ve seen so far focuses on direct damage and shielding, with some heals and status effects sprinkled throughout. You’re given access to new pages fairly frequently, and if you’re not paying attention, it won’t be too long before you’re dealing with the weakness that comes from having a bloated deck.

Your days consist of assigning tasks to your demons and hearing petitions from villagers. Your nights are dedicated to exploration. When evening comes, you are given a map, and you must proceed through to the your goal location at the end. At each of the waypoints, you may or may not have some sort of encounter, and for me, night time was when Black Book was at its most interesting. Each stop on your path could be a battle, or it could be the discovery of something beneficial, or simply an opportunity to gain more knowledge in the form of experience points. There’s definitely some influence of text adventure games, and it breaks up the monotony of battle and really drives home the spooky atmosphere of the game.

Throughout the game, which is set in a Slavic folktale universe, you will frequently encounter terms you might not be familiar with, indicated by orange text. Hovering over the text will give you a brief definition of the term. This is something the developers easily could have avoided, or skipped over, but it definitely allows for the game to have a far stronger sense of place, while still allowing the player to access the information they may not have already been aware of.

For me, the atmosphere really is what sets Black Book apart. The light genre mash-up appealed to me in a way that a straight up card game wouldn’t have, and I loved that the game was spooky without relying on jump-scare style tactics. The game’s story is pretty lengthy, and you could easily spend 20 hours on this game, assuming you didn’t get distracted by the in-game card game and spend even more.

SteamDB estimates that Black Book has sold between 74,800 and 205,600 copies on Steam. It was also included in the February 2022 Humble Choice bundle. The combination of high sales numbers and a large number of positive reviews have made it one of the more successful indie games of 2021. It is ranked 159 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.