Quick Look – The Almost Gone

There will probably never be a time when I’m not tempted by a game that is described as a narrative puzzle game, which is strange, because more often than not, I find them way too heavy on the puzzles and a little bit light on the narrative. I picked up The Almost Gone back in May when it hit 80% off, so I only spent a couple of dollars on it. Still, I wish I had liked it more than I did.

The Almost Gone is a story told in five acts of escape-room style puzzles. You’re granted small bits of narrative while examining your surroundings, and although it’s pretty likely that everything is going to come together in the end, completing each act left me unsatisfied. The majority of puzzles I encountered through the first three acts were logical, but there was definitely a lot of tedious back-tracking that needed to be done in order to figure some of them out without resorting to a walkthrough. In fact, the time I did need to resort to a guide, I was greeted with this:

For me, the progression just felt off. The puzzles didn’t really feel harder as I moved through, just more arduous. It bugged me to no end that the game only allowed you to zoom in on certain slivers of the dioramas, whereas I would have much preferred to control the zoom on my own. Mouse control also felt somewhat clunky, and I think the game is probably far better played on a touchscreen device than a traditional PC (although I can’t even fathom trying to play on a tiny screen, so that would be an issue).

The art and sound are both fantastic, and there was a moment when something seems to be straining to escape from the fridge that I found to be very very creepy. What this game gets right is the atmosphere, the mystery, but at least for me, the pacing was so bad, I couldn’t overcome it, and I usually really enjoy a non-linear story. This one was just a little too darkly tragic, a little too convoluted, and there wasn’t enough there for me to get invested enough to want to transverse seven or eight screens repeatedly to double check for whatever I might have missed that would have allowed me to move forward.

I’m not 100% sure I won’t return to it – it’s a fairly short game, and I bounced off in the middle of the fourth of five chapters. I kind of want to see how it ends, which I guess makes it interesting, but there wasn’t anything making it feel fun for me.

Bonus Blaugust prompt idea: Do you enjoy narrative puzzle games? Have you played a good one – or a bad one – recently you want to write about? What’s your favorite narrative puzzle game of all time?

Quick Look – Persona 4 Golden (#JRPGJuly)

I’ve been playing so many shorter titles over the past year or so, it feels a little bit weird to be doing a quick look when I’ve already put more than ten hours into the game. But that is, of course, the good news – I’ve stuck with Persona 4 Golden for over ten hours now, which means I may just have broken my long streak of bouncing hard of JRPGs in general. The bad news is – at least for me – there’s still a lot of game left to go. Using the game play length estimate from How Long to Beat, I figure I’ve gone through approximately 15% of the game.

I do feel like I’ve finally gotten a handle on why JRPGs generally don’t work for me: one thing they all seem to have in common is the pacing of the early game is painfully slow. I would estimate that I wasn’t given a meaningful decision or bit of game play for about the first three hours, and that’s a long time to expect a player to hang in there to find out if they even like the gameplay loop.

Thankfully, this time, my patience was rewarded because I do (mostly) enjoy the game play here, both the life-sim style and the turn based combat of the dungeons. You will spend quite a bit of time with the former, where you build friendships (which are referred to in game as Social Links) and improve your character’s stats. The combat sections are firmly tied to in game dates, so you cannot jump into them until certain story beats are met. However, there are a lot of other things you can (and probably should) be doing, so it rarely feels punishing to need to wait. In fact, due to some early game blundering around, I have felt a little rushed from time to time, and that’s even considering that there are parts of the game I’ve either completely ignored or have yet to figure out.

The visuals on the boss designs are absolutely delightful so far.

I still don’t actually expect to get through the entire game this month – but I’m starting to lean towards the idea that I will finish a play through of the whole story. I am playing through on easy, and am consulting a walkthrough to make sure I’m not irrevocably screwing up my save file, so I don’t think I’m going to run up against a point where I just cannot continue. Thankfully, save points are abundant enough that – for the most part – Persona 4 will work for me to fill in some of the smaller bits of gaming time I have.

Quick Look – Robothorium

I’ve selected 15 games that I’ve never played from my Steam library and committed to playing each one for at least 45 minutes this month. Robothorium is the fourth game I played from this project.

Robothorium – at least when you look at all its component parts – should be a really enjoyable game. It’s got a cool sci-fi plot, casting the player in the role of an AI fighting for robot independence from the people who wish to keep them enslaved. It’s got plenty of loot, and a decent variation in potential party members right from the outset. There are a handful of factions which will like you (or not) based on decisions you make throughout the campaign. There’s even crafting – or so I’m told, because an hour into the game, I haven’t unlocked the crafting system yet, although I’ve accumulated a whole lot of materials in my seemingly endless inventory.

My biggest problem is that it plays painfully slow. You will spend a lot of time moving from room to room, rolling the dice as far as dealing with traps & other interactables. The game lets you know the chance of success, but gives no real indication of why that percentage is what it is. While it’s possible I could have missed something, the game gives you a lot of icons indicating … something … but never really explains what they mean. This wasn’t really an issue for me, as I was playing on the lowest difficulty, but I could see myself being really annoyed by it if I were coming up against any real challenges.

I could even forgive that if the combat felt really satisfying, but it’s more of the same feeling of dragging oneself through molasses. Most of your available abilities add to your heat, and if you hit or pass 100 heat by using an ability, that party member will be forced to skip a turn to cool down. While this system is very effective at preventing you from just spamming each party member’s best ability, it also means that combat drags on forever.

It feels a bit ironic that I started this project because I was finding myself impatient with new games, and now I’ve played two back to back which were unusually tedious. I spent just about an hour with Robothorium, and I don’t see myself going back to it. An intriguing plot with interesting factions isn’t enough to make me push through overly long missions with unsatisfying combat, especially since there’s no way to save mid-mission.

Quick Look – Terroir

I’ve selected 15 games that I’ve never played from my Steam library and committed to playing each one for at least 45 minutes this month. Terroir is the third game I played from this project.

I know absolutely nothing about wine; I’m not even a wine drinker. But I do a bit about tycoon games & other simulations, and I’ve never really struggled with those even when I know nothing about the business they’re simulating. Not so with Terroir, but I’m not sure that more wine knowledge would have helped.

My first major gripe was that all the tutorials on offer are just text. While it’s great to have written information you can refer back to, there’s a reason most games teach you by having you do things, even if sometimes they hold your hand too much. I probably spent the first 10 minutes in game reading tutorials, and I retained almost none of the information contained within.

Thirty-one is a LOT of lessons before you’ve even started the game.

Going with the default settings, the game has a very very slow start indeed. You only have one field in which you can grow grapes, and during the growing season, there is very limited interactivity. Without any in-game guidance, you might miss your first harvest completely, but even if you don’t, your grapes are likely to be terrible. You start with extremely limited processing options, so bad grapes are really difficult to salvage, and unless you’re really good (or really lucky), your vineyard is going to be running in the red for several years until you manage to get yourself established.

It took a few years, but I managed to get a five star wine shortly before I would have bankrupted myself, but even still, I couldn’t see a point where I’d be able to turn a substantial enough profit to actually be able to do anything like improve my estate or accrue additional growing land. All of the figures seemed way off from a game play perspective, and when you add to that the fact that the actual game play loop wasn’t all that engaging, I knew my time with Terroir was just about done.

Still, I had to check out the chance & circumstance I earned from making a five-star wine – imagine my disappointment when I received less from this bonus than a single month’s maintenance fees! I do enjoy a very slow-paced game on occasion, but this one wasn’t just slow, it felt like I wasn’t moving at all.

Despite the fact that I ended my play session a mere five minutes short of my stated goal, I have absolutely no desire to fire this one up again.

Quick Look – Undead Horde

I’ve selected 15 games that I’ve never played from my Steam library and committed to playing each one for at least 45 minutes this month. Undead Horde is the second game I played from this project.

If you’re looking for a super serious, grimdark game about necromancy, Undead Horde is not that game. This is clear right from the beginning, when your character is broken out of his eternal prison by a wayward chicken, who you then kill, who you then bring back to un-life. It’s that kind of game.

In a world where all the undead have been imprisoned by the good paladins of the land, you are evil’s only hope for restoring the status quo. In the field, anything you kill is yours to raise and send out to do kill more things so you can raise more zombies. It looks like it should play like a fairly traditional ARPG, but the controls have definitely borrowed a bit from twin-stick shooters, which I found awkward using mouse and keyboard.

The graphics are more colorful than you might expect, but the game is also so silly, it works. The upper left shows your health, mana, XP, and a visual representation of how many minions you have in relation to how many you can have active at one time. There are fairly frequent portals which you can use to return to your crypt where you can endlessly summon minions from a series of statues that unlock as you kill enough of those types of enemies in the world.

There is also some loot, but it feels less impactful here than it does in similar games, because your undead minions are usually going to be the difference between successfully murdering a village, and having to run away, tail tucked between your legs. It’s sometimes awkward to make your way through the horde to stab a peasant or two, and at least in the early game, your mana is so limited it makes your non-resurrection magic feel nearly useless in a fight. It may get more interesting as the game progresses, as some of the early quests have you unlocking vendors for your sanctum which might open up more meaningful items.

Overall, Undead Horde is a charming little game that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of depth to it, but it did hold my interest for about an hour before I felt like I needed a break. I’m not sure it’s anything I’m going to return to with a eye towards completion, but as I picked it up in a bundle, I’ve already gotten my money’s worth from it.

Quick Look – The Battle of Polytopia

I’ve selected 15 games that I’ve never played from my Steam library and committed to playing each one for at least 45 minutes this month. The Battle for Polytopia is the first game I played from this project.

First session playtime: 56 minutes. I completed three rounds during this time.

I have played a lot of Civilization across the years (and the iterations of the series), but otherwise, I tend to shy away from 4X strategy games because of the time commitment they usually require. So imagine my surprise when I fired up The Battle of Polytopia and discovered that the default play mode gives you a mere 30 turns to do your worst. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised how well this game scratches that “small bites” gaming itch considering it was originally created for mobile devices.

There are twelve different tribes to choose from in the base game, with another four that can be purchased. Each tribe starts with a different advantage, and on a different type of terrain. It sounds more complex than it is – I chose the Hoodrick tribe for my first game because starting with a ranged combat unit sounded super helpful, but for my remaining games, I went for random tribe. It doesn’t take long to earn stars – the currency you’ll need for terrain improvements, additional units, and technology research, so you can quickly take advantage of whatever tech your starting area seems most suited to.

In my – admittedly limited – experience, other tribes you encounter are pretty focused on the e(X)termination, and once I realized that and also got aggressive myself, I started having far greater success. Every mechanic in the game is super simple, and it’s nearly impossible to lose on the easiest difficulty. However, a big part of what gives this title replay value is chasing higher and higher scores.

The Battle of Polytopia isn’t a game I’m likely to grind away at – chasing high scores has never really been my thing – but it’s fun in short bursts, and I felt like I was getting it a little more with each game I played. There are a whole mess of difficulty levels & game modes that will help keep things fresh, and it does offer multiplayer, although I don’t expect that’s something I’ll ever touch. I expect it’ll be my go-to game for a little while for those times where I don’t have very long to play.

Going Nowhere During #WayForwardMarch

Well, at least I can say I tried, right? Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse looks absolutely adorable, but it’s way too platform-y for me. I tried with the keyboard; I tried with the controller. I thought that maybe – just maybe – I was going to be able to poke my way through at least a bit of the game. And then:

Yes, this was the screen that did me in – I could get up one platform, usually make it to the topmost one, but that jump to the one on the bottom right? That one wasn’t happening. Over and over I went into the water, and former genies apparently cannot swim at all. AT ALL.

So back to my library I went to see what else I could find.

Now, Bloodrayne Betrayal is also more platform-y than I tend to prefer, but it’s the style of platformer that says “Oh, you missed? Try again.” rather than “Oh, you missed? DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE.”

What’s going to kill you here is the combat, which hey, that’s to be expected when people are charging you over and over trying to kill you. At first, it didn’t seem like there were any sort of save points, although thankfully there were checkpoints aplenty for all the times I died. However, I eventually got through the entire first “chapter” in a single sitting only to be greeted with this.

Okay, okay, I get it, I’m terrible. I probably could plow through the game given enough time and patience, but I don’t see a world in which I’d get a passing grade on any of the chapters.

Since I had one more WayForward game in my library (and no, I have no idea how I have come to have so many games that are decidedly Not For Me in my library), and in case the third time was the charm, I decided to give it one more shot with A Boy and His Blob.

And this one is – without a doubt – charming. The opening scene is gorgeous, and both the art and the music are just warm and comforting, but man, this game tells you NOTHING. Not a thing. I kind of wandered around, looking for sparkles to indicate that I was going in the right direction, and trying to avoid the black slime critters that insta-kill you on touch. I found my adorable little blob-friend, and played a bit to try out the jellybean-inspired transformation mechanics.

Unfortunately, although this one leans more puzzle than platformer, I just couldn’t get invested. Cute will only take you so far, and I didn’t even know this was a remake, so no nostalgia for me. It plays slow, and I never was really sure why I was doing anything that I was doing. I didn’t feel clever, and I didn’t really care what was going to happen next.

While it’s possible I didn’t give any of these games enough time (all told, I spent about an hour and a half combined on all three games), my library is vast, and although I can see the appeal of all three games, none of them are the right game for me. I have completely stalled out during #WayForwardMonth, and I’m okay with that.

Quick Look – The Eternal Cylinder Beta

I can only assume the reason I hadn’t heard about The Eternal Cylinder until the day before yesterday is because it looks to be yet another Epic store exclusive title. I’m still in a weird space with the Epic Game Store; I don’t mind picking up their freebies, and I’d consider buying a game from them if I could purchase it at the Humble Store, since I already trust them with my payment information. However, it’d have to really be something I just couldn’t wait to play, because it’s rare I play anything during the first year it’s out anyway.

Still, when I received a beta invite for The Eternal Cylinder, I had no qualms about activating it and downloading it to try out. Not only is it absolutely gorgeous, if you’re into that alien, vaguely creepy vibe, it ticks off a whole lot of my favorite boxes. Exploration and puzzle solving, avoiding predators instead of engaging in combat, and gathering items to enable your creatures to evolve.

There’s a distinct post-apocalyptic vibe here – the game starts when you hatch, and you’re immediately running from a giant rolling cylinder that’s crushing absolutely everything in its path. You’re so small, and it’s so big, and it is honestly a terrifying enemy, and one you can’t do anything but run away from. I definitely ran into some issues early on with not understanding what the game was asking me to do, resulting in getting squashed beneath that giant rolling doom, but once I overcame that hurdle, I was absolutely fascinated with the world I found myself in.

The directions were fine, but my reading comprehension was lacking a bit.

I liked the way that the game teaches you how to play it by making you play, but I also felt a little rushed, trying desperately to find the next thing and just keep moving. Which I suppose is the best way to survive, when you’re a small creature who doesn’t understand their world and can’t fight back. Some of the creatures will eat you if they catch you, but it’s also not terribly difficult to avoid them either. You will find other Trebhum to add to your little family, and you can change between them as necessary to have different active evolutions. There are also places where you can upgrade your group, assuming you’ve been hunting down the required materials to do so.

I spent about an hour and a half in game, and I suspect that wasn’t even halfway through the teaching areas. The current beta runs through March 25th, and I’d like to take another dive into it, this time, taking things a lot slower and exploring more of the environment instead of just pushing through to the next story point. I’m definitely going to keep my eye on this one – I’m not sure how well the conceit will hold up over a lengthy game, but so far, it’s really enjoyable, and moreover, it’s got a damn interesting concept. What is the cylinder? What is happening to this world? And what can a little Trebhum, just hatched, be able to do about it all?

Quick Look – Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (#AdventureGameDec)

I had such good intentions this month.

It wasn’t even a case of not liking the game – Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is great! Early in the month, I played through the first two cases, The Fate of Black Peter and Riddle on the Rails, and I fully intended to get back to it.

But World of Warcraft has really devoured all my gaming time this month, and it’s not like December doesn’t have anything else going on. I just never managed to carve out 90 minutes or so where I could really get deeply involved with a story game after completing the second chapter.

That was, in fact, the only complaint I had about the game. I’m actually really glad it required thinking and paying close attention to the story, but that also made it nearly impossible to take an extended break in the middle of a case. More than a day or two, and I’m fairly sure I would have had to restart any given case. That said, carving out a couple hours to play through a case isn’t at all an unreasonable ask.

I loved that the game allows you to … well, it lets you totally drop the ball. Each case has a right answer, of course, but it’s also really easy to overlook something and end up accusing the wrong person (or the right person for the wrong reason). You also have the opportunity to make a moral decision at the end of each case, and that will effect the way the final scene plays out. As with just about any adventure game, there’s some tedious backtracking and some pixel-hunting, but overall, I found those things mild enough to not detract from the experience.

I absolutely intend to go back at some point and play through the remaining four cases, but this just wasn’t the time for me to play something so heavily story-focused.

Quick Look – Autonauts

I bought Autonauts on at 75% off sale last holiday season, with every intention of installing and playing it right away. Instead, it sat in my library, uninstalled until recently – I had forgotten about it entirely until it showed up in the October Humble Choice. Then, just this past week, it was also in the Killer Bundle 14 on Fanatical, and I guess that was the thing that pushed me into finally giving it a whirl.

It’s an interesting concept – you build generic robots and then train them to copy your actions in order to automate production of your colony. The tutorial is kind of drawn out, and then you are tossed off the deep end without a rope. This isn’t me complaining because I don’t know how to program very well – although it’s true that I do not know how to program very well. I expected a learning curve there. Where I didn’t expect to struggle was in figuring out what the tools do, what kind of items go in what kind of storage, and so on.

I did hunt down a good guide (which actually helped more with the programming fiddly bits than anything else), and a pretty decent wiki, and that might have been enough to slow my frustration to a manageable level, but the colonist mechanic was a huge turnoff.

Colonists in Autonauts are vaguely creepy crying naked people who need you to do absolutely everything for them. In return, they give you “Wuv”, which is the currency you need to feed into the research station in order to unlock new tech. At first, it’s not so bad. Send one robot to feed them whatever you decided to farm for food, and another to collect the Wuv they drop.

But the game is designed around meeting ever more complex colonist needs, and as you level them up by doing so, the Wuv the drop gets larger. Which is great, because research costs also increase exponentially, but annoying, because you need a storage area for each level of Wuv, which means you need a robot to deal with each level of Wuv.

I absolutely hated the colonists almost from the get go. There’s very little in-game indication about what the colonists require at each level, and you either have to guess based on what new techs your unlocking, or look it up outside the game. It’s … not ideal.

It’s unfortunate, because I think there’s a really good game here, marred by some really questionable design choices. The art style is fine, the sound design would be fine if it weren’t for the ever-present sound of crying babies, but the gameplay annoyances are frequent, at least, they were for me. This might, in fact, be due partially (or even mostly) to my weakness in programming efficiently, but I’m not sure that that’s it. Obviously, level one bots need to have weaknesses, or why would you research the other tiers, but I think at the lowest level they have just a bit too little memory, and too small of an active area. It makes the early game drag in ways I don’t feel like it should.

There are three modes, Colonization, Free, and Creative, each of which has progressively less restrictions, and might solve a lot of my problem, but I’m not sure that taking away the need to research techs would make the game any more compelling for me. I’m satisfied with having put in a dozen or so hours for the $5 I paid for it, but I acknowledge that this one just might not be for me.