Friday, 11 June 2021

Love live the...Humans?: XCOM 2 Blogger Succession Game - Mission 7

Regular readers of the Leaflocker may be wondering what is happening in the communal game of Civilization VI that I've been reporting on every couple of months since May 2020. If that's you, then I'm glad to announce to you the almost two-month-old headline that Her Majesty's English Empire has successfully completed a cultural domination of the world. Yes, everyone is now wearing our blue cardigans and drinking our tea. You can catch up on a summary of the whole endeavour over at the blog of our fearless leader Naithin.

Having learnt absolutely nothing from our year-long attempt to complete a game many folks would have finished in a day or so, no sooner had the dust settled on that the company resolved to set out together on a communal game of infamous unfinished savefile producer XCOM 2, and given my own long history with the series, there was no way that I could sit out, so we all made alien-hunting super-soldier versions of ourselves and some of our buddies and set out to save the world from the aliens. 

Well, the other players made themselves super-soldiers, my own avatar was a bit of a bumbling buffoon who got himself blown up when a nearby truck exploded on his second day-trip out of the cosy home base. Some of us are just not made for the soldiering life, I suppose. If you'd like to catch up on all the good stuff so far (something I heartily recommend rather than just diving in blind like I did this time around!), a summary of the game so far and links to all the other blogs can be found here.

I recorded my game (stuttering graphics card at all), so those of you who prefer the live experience can check out the video above as long as you can deal with a low frame rate, high pixellation, bad audio and all the usual traps that come from a very inexpert streamer just pressing 'record' on their installation of OBS and hoping, but I'll also try to summarise the events here for those who prefer their video game experiences in text and distilled into the medium of the traditional After Action Report. I'm afraid the screenshots aren't much chop either, but at least my computer managed to make it through the mission without overheating and shutting down, which is a better result than last time I tried to play X-COM 2, so as far as I'm concerned we're calling it a win.

I began my stint as the Commander trying to find my feet by assigning a promotion to a newly acquired soldier and distributing weapon modifications, but quickly realised that with our first weapon upgrade just around the corner, using up all the cool loot on our base-level weaponry might not be the best plan and it might be more sensible to save the good stuff to strap onto the bigger guns.

Make sure you get my good side for the screenshot.

The mission, codenamed Gasping Shroud, saw the fireteam dropped into enemy-occupied downtown Chicago to abduct an alien collaborator from their place of business, which if you ask me seems like a questionable call when we're in a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity, but when the council gives an order, it's up the grunts to get the job done. Given that the enemy presence was expected to be light, I elected to blood a couple of new recruits in while keeping a backbone of what is already becoming the core squad.

It's just like shooting snakes in a barrel.

The team quickly met and snuck up on the first pod of enemies, an ADVENT trooper and what my X-COM brain will forever call a Snakeman, which feels like a bit of a misnomer given that the XCOM 2 version, in what seems like an unusual design decision given how reptiles usually work, has prominent breasts. Positioning our sniper Endalia in a position on top of a two-story building with a good overview of the battlefield and guarding the rookie's flanks, the team prepared and then triggered a crossfire. Despite a good first hit by Endalia, the aliens were able to duck immediately behind cover in relative safety when the shooting started, so SilentDeath was forced to resort to a grenade to destroy their position. XCOM 2. Aliens 0.

This wasn't part of the plan.

Perhaps feeling a little overconfident after that first encounter, rookie "Bookah" Nerk extended a little too far by moving to the window of the target's office building, triggering a second pod consisting of an enemy stun trooper and a scary-looking mech. Though the rest of the team tried to provide covering fire and the team's other recruit "Naithin" Nihilin succeeded in landing a heavy shot on the mech, the choice to send in the team without a unit carrying a medkit was beginning to look like a serious mistake when Bookahnerk took a stun lance to the gut. Thankfully the damage wasn't critical, leaving the team's Grenadier Ramblin' Red to take out the trooper and the rest of the team to set up the defensive positions while giving the previously unspied Autoturret on the roof a wide berth. 

After the mech exploded in a crossfire from Bookah's rifle and Endalia's pistol, and the turret came face-to-face with SilentDeath's shotgun, the rest of the team looked out for any incoming Advent while Naithin entered the building and introduced the target to the butt of his rifle. XCOM 5. Aliens 0.5. Enemy reinforcements were slow to arrive, however, so when they finally landed they were met with a veritable hailstorm of munitions. The poor guys never had a chance. War is hell for alien-human hybrid creatures too, I suppose. The team extracted, Naithin lugging the VIP all the way, leaving Chicago behind them they took to the skies once again, leaving only six alien corpses and two piles of mechanical rubble in their wake as proof that they'd ever been there at all.

Ten days medical leave for a near-electrocution seems pretty reasonable, honestly.

Back at the Avenger, while engineers began excavating another room and SilentDeath rushed the newly appointed Specialist Bookahnerk to the sickbay with a grievous wound that is likely to put them out of action for ten days or so, the rest of the team were busy training their newly acquired skills: Naithin joined the Ranger corps, Ramblin' Red learned Supression, and Endalia, encouraged by that headshot on the mech earlier, became even more deadly with pistols. I spent our hard-earned supplies from the mission on a few Guerilla Training School projects, and then immediately regretted it when our scientists finished their current research project and demanded a bit pile of cash in order to equip our soldiers with their newly-developed Magnetic Weapons, so I set the Avenger to collecting up a few supplies from various sources around our communications network, but only managed to scrounge up enough to equip the squad with Magnetic Rifles before the alarm was sounded for the team to scramble to their next mission.

Humanity's last hope? Or an Auton all along?

That's my cue to sign off, so I'll leave the Avenger to the command of Naithin and will look forward to seeing how those new guns do in his capable hands. The save file is here. Good luck, Commander.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

IMHO - Boomerang Fu

This is game number six of games that are part of the February 2021 Humble Choice bundle. The original depressinglna├»ve version of this opening paragraph crowed that I was on track to finish the February bundle before the March one is due to be released. That's no longer even close to being true, but lets see if we can't get that monkey off our back by finally sitting down and writing about Boomerang Fu.

Boomerang Fu is a cute little three-button party game from a first-time Australian studio in which pieces of food try to slice each other up for fun and profit, causing them to die in various amusing ways (the coffee mug smashes, the milk carton spills, the avacado stone pops out, etc.). As someone who grew up sitting patiently waiting for my turn to play pretty much anything, any game that allows for a bunch of players to jump on the couch and duke it out it okay with me. As far as I'm concerned, couch multiplayer is the peak video gaming experience, nothing quite gets near the emotional rollercoaster of the near misses, drama and wiping the smirk off the face of the guy that's killed you three times in a row. It's practically sports, except that I don't need to go lie down as soon as it's over.

It's just as well that I like couch multiplayer, though, as this little title doesn't have online multiplayer at all, which particularly for a game released in 2020 in the height of a pandemic seems like just a little bit of an oversight. There is also the slight problem that there's no chance in hell of convincing Mrs. Owl to play a game like this, so I guess at the moment the only person that I have to play this with are the bots, who are pretty stupid even on the highest difficulty level, even if they're dead shots with a boomerang. The more I think about it, though, the less this omission it feels like an oversight, because I think the developers could tell that Boomerang Fu just isn't the kind of game that people are going to play online.

Will this powerup be awesome, like telekinesis, or a liability that will cause me to blow myself up?

There are three modes, free-for-all, teams and golden boomerang, but they are all pretty much the same idea. The whole game is extremely simplistic, able to be picked up in a few moments. It's a perfect party game to have on in the corner, letting players jump in and out: each level has different obstacles to overcome and it cycles through levels fast enough that nothing gets boring, and it even has a nice little catch-up mechanic or two, giving trailing players an extra life. It's just not the sort of game that people are going to be raving about so much that they want to play it online with their mates. This game just isn't worth the hassle of jumping into the group chat and herding the cats in order to play it.

 There's also the small matter of the price: Boomerang Fu, a party game that feels like a souped-up early 00's flash game, retails for £11.93 in a world where the big games that everyone is playing right now are Valheim (£15.49) and Loop Hero (£12.49). Are all your friends really going to shell out for it? If I were a cynic I'd wonder if this game wasn't picked for the bundle just so that the Humble Choice could have a retail value of £201.38.

Extra points for including my personal killer feature, the .GIF capture button.

I'm also in two minds about the name. On one hand, the name instantly told me exactly what this game was going to be, a dumb fighting game with projectiles. On the other hand, it frustrates me a lot that the phrase Boomerang Fu doesn't...mean anything. Big opportunity missed to at least call this Boomerang Fu'd (because they're food, get it?), that's all I'm saying. 

Some quick numbers 

  • Time played: 1.35 hours (7 or 8 games)
  • Maniacal laughs when flipping the switch squished all my opponents: 2
  • Times I blew myself up with explosive boomerangs: 9
  • Bots required to make it a fair fight: 4
  • Rating: 5 diced doughnuts out of ten

The rankings so far

It's not that Boomerang Fu is a bad game. It's not. It's well executed, everything works, and it feels good to play. It's a good addition to my collection that I'm glad I own, but I definitely wouldn't have bought it, because it feels like every one of these party-style brawl games I've ever played. Which is strange, because when I stop and try to name a game that it's like, my mind has been drawing a blank all week. I guess it feels like...Bomberman? Multiplayer Nidhogg? There's nothing in my memory just like this title, and yet somehow every part of me is yelling out that I've seen everything Boomerang Fu has to offer before, and that's not in it's favour.

Let's try it with humans instead of bots some time

  1. Trine 4
  2. The Wild Eight
  3. Boomerang Fu
  4. Valfaris
  5. Werewolf: The Apocalyse - Heart of the Forest
  6. Train Station Renovation

Six down. Six to go. Seven if I mean to intend the Humble Trove title, which I totally do. Next up the dice have declared that we must play game number 9, Valkyria Chronicles 4.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

IMHO - Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest

Next up in our quest to play all of last month's Humble Choice bundle, we have the visual novel that you can tell is going to be a visual novel because the name has a colon AND a dash, Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest.


Ah, the visual novel, the 21st century answer to the Choose Your Own Adventure story, where instead of 30 Different Endings! you have an unspecified number, but they're probably all pretty much the same. It's hard to quantify exactly how many of these there's been in the Humble Choice lately, as what counts as an adventure game and what is just a straight up VN is a bit of a grey area, but having a game in the same series, Vampire: The Masquerade - Shadows of New York just last month after also having Vampire: The Masquerade - Coteries of New York back in September is honestly just a little on the nose. Truly the Paradox Interactive promotional department is earning their paycheques.

As you might have guessed from the glowing introduction, I'm not much for the visual novel as a genre, which might seem a little odd as I grew up devouring CYOAs, and have played my fair share of MUDs and text adventures. I don't think I want that much, my criteria for what makes a decent visual novel is pretty basic: it has to tell an engaging story, it has to be enhanced by the medium, and the player needs to be able to make choices that matter.  Maybe it's a symptom of being a basic format with a low barrier to entry, making them essentially the fanfiction of the gaming world, but for my money most VNs just seem to fall short of these goals. Or maybe I'm just an old man, not ready to deal with all these new-fangled computermagadjets. Could go either way.

Surprise!

Anyways, how does W:TA-HotF measure up against the aforementioned criteria? I gotta say that the mystery of the protagonist finding out about their family history is kinda spoiled with the word Werewolf in big letters in the title. In the storyline I clicked through the characters felt like they made sense and most of the pieces hung together okay, but I didn't feel like there was a enough narrative drive other than the whole werewolf thing to properly hook me. The pacing was weird too, even more than the usual that you might expect to be brought about by branching storylines, and for a game allegedly about being a werewolf, the whole actually being a werewolf thing was...pretty much irrelevant. By the time I reached an ending I felt like I'd used a character creator, wikied an environmental protest in regional Poland, and read the lore page in the guidebook for an role-playing game rather than actually enjoyed a story, which given that Werewolf: The Apocalypse is mostly a tabletop RPG and that this is a spin-off more geared at building enthusiasm for the main game, actually makes a lot of sense. I'd wonder if this was intended as the first part of an episodic release game, but the whole business model of squeezing these titles out every few months seems to suggest that's not the case.

I also have a small nitpick about how a game that is all about the text probably needs some better copyediting. It wasn't plagued by the google translate problem that so much of the cheap end of Steam is, but it do things like use 'draught' instead of 'drought' throughout, which makes me crazy. I was unsurprised to see the usual suspects in the steam reviews complaining that the protagonist is a woman and the game won't let you play as a proper fascist werewolf, so it at least gets points for that, I guess.

Extremely memeworthy names for varieties of wolf people

The soundscape is unobtrusive but suitably moody, and the distinctive sketch/photo hybrid art style works well to enhance the story without detracting or distracting from it and isn't quite as reliant on various shades of blood red as the screenshots I've grabbed here might indicate, so the sensory elements of this one work well. The RPG-style character sheet functions well enough to help you track things and give hints about what routes you might want to explore, too. I kind of wish there was a way to keep that info on the screen all the time instead of having to click into it, but I don't know it's worth sacrificing the space devoted to artwork to get there. All in all, the VN format suits the story well, and is well executed, so it gets marks in that category.

Having only played through this once, it's hard to judge how much the player choices really matter. Certainly in the storyline I played through I made some pretty suboptimal choices and there didn't really seem to be any consequences in meandering towards a vaguely positive ending. I got my character 'killed' twice, once on purpose to see what would happen, which I would have thought would have some kind of bad outcome, but that didn't seem to put the brakes on either. You are given a couple of status bars to maintain and are told when you're given choices that are due to your character status or relationship with particular groups, which is a good feature that helps helps to make the choices feel less arbitrary, but I can't help the feeling that the game would have ended up pretty much where it ended up if regardless of most of my decisions, and that's a frustrating feeling. 

The art grows on you. The story...

Story: nope. Format: sure. Choices: not so much. I guess one out three ain't bad? Like in The Wild Eight, I'm sure there's more good stuff to discover here, but what I've met so far doesn't encourage me to look any further and I've already spent a bunch more time on this post than I did playing the game.

Some quick numbers 

  • Time played: 1.75 hours
  • Named characters met that didn't turn out to be werewolves all along: 2
  • Times I was told I was the chosen one: 3
  • Friends murdered and dismembered: 1
  • Rating: 4 trippy dream sequences out of 10

The rankings so far

I can imagine that folks that love the Werewolf: The Apocalypse RPG could be super into this in the way of fans the world over, and it doesn't do all that much wrong; it's a perfectly serviceable visual novel. I guess I still don't like visual novels that much, though.

And then I woke up and found it was all a dream... Or was it?

  1. Trine 4
  2. The Wild Eight
  3. Valfaris
  4. Werewolf: The Apocalyse - Heart of the Forest
  5. Train Station Renovation
We have played five games and it does not bode well that Valfaris is still number 3 on this list. Next up, the dice have decreed that we will play game number 1...Boomerang Fu.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

IMHO - Trine 4

Forget the metrovanias, survival games and simulators that have made up this series so far, it's puzzle platformer time! When I cut my gaming teeth on Super Mario Bros. and Commander Keen, then refined my palate on Oddworld and Heart of Darkness, is it really surprise to anybody when I say that a physics-based puzzle platformer like Trine 4 is very much my jam?

In Trine 4, the player takes the role of three fantasy heroes, the object-summoning wizard, grappling-hook-wielding thief and good-for-hitting-things knight, and must switch between them to progress through various obstacles in a generic fantasy world, searching for a missing generic fantasy prince. Sure, the storyline isn't going to win any awards for originality, the writers were fine with hanging that lampshade and just letting the gameplay, the characters and the art speak for themselves, but when the game looks and feels this good, I'm more than willing to cut them some slack in that department.

How much desktop wallpaper bait can one game feature?

The art is definitely the first thing to mention. I'm not so used to this blogging thing, and normally screenshots for the posts are a bit of an afterthought, but while playing through this game my screenshot folder quickly filled up as I encountered new areas and took the time to soak in the lovingly-rendered 3D backgrounds to this otherwise 2D game. The world feels fun, not realistic but definitely inhabited, and despite so much attention being given to the art it doesn't detract from or confuse the gameplay at all, which is an impressive feat and shows that the art directors at Frozenbyte seriously know their stuff.

Give me more puzzles like this one where I have to use all my characters

The artists are definitely the stars of the show, though. The puzzles which are the meat of the game feel good, the characters react well, the mouse and keyboard control scheme is perfect and the physics system just works, but I can't help feeling just slightly underwhelmed by the challenge provided. In some ways the progression works well, the characters receive a new ability in most levels to put a new spin on the gameplay and the complexity slowly ramps up, but it all feels just a little bit stretched out and a little bit repetitive. This could have been due to the need to make a noticeably longer game after Trine 3, a game that was universally panned for being too short, but I haven't played any of the series before, so to me it just felt like the game started with extremely trivial puzzles and that ones that actually caused me have to stop and think rather than instantly knowing the solution (even if the execution took me a few goes and a few unnecessary deaths) were few and far between. That's possibly even more of a concern given that I didn't already have a couple of essentially identical games under my belt, and I can't help but feel like as well as much as this is a polished title that just works, maybe this series has pretty much shown us everything that it's got in the warehouse and deserves a well-earned retirement. That's a real pity, because the puzzles that do require a new and interesting combination of the character abilities to complete are really very satisfying indeed, I just wish there were more of them.

Now just to work out this last step...

That said, the nature of the linear progression storyline means that getting that balance right is admittedly a difficult problem, and I think Frozenbyte have landed on the right side of it by letting me  finish the campaign without completely grokking the fine details of how all of my abilities worked (the dream rope is weird, man) ,as if a player runs into a puzzle that they cannot solve, they're locked out of the rest of the game. Perhaps in this age of easily accessible Lets Plays and walk-throughs that's not such a bad thing as it used to be, but as a player that steadfastly refuses to use such crutches, my Trine 4 experience could easily have been cut short by any puzzle room too opaque for me to be able to solve just by throwing all my tools at the wall and seeing what sticks.  The designers have made the right choice by putting most of the harder puzzles in optional extra areas, gating bonus goodies rather than quest progression, even if it means many players will miss out on them.

Experience already grabbed shows up as blue drops, so you can tell where you've already been

To encourage players to return an revisit areas they missed, Trine 4 features a handy tracking system that lets you see where you missed the bonus areas and return there instantly later on to collect the goodies, which is super handy. Unfortunately, if you return after collecting the abilities gained during the game, many of these once challenging puzzles become trivial, so even then it's hard to present truly challenging puzzles, except right towards the closing stages of the game. Still, it's enough to make me want to return to this title (maybe after I've gotten a little further ahead in this monthly blogging thing), try to get that elusive 100% and unlock that tempting door in the starting screen, that I hope hides a final set of more difficult levels.

Of course, it's not completely fair to criticise the puzzles just yet, as I'm not playing the game as it's meant to be played. Though single player like I've played through it is an option, Trine 4 is truly designed to be played by a team of two or preferably three, with each player acting as one character and each of them having to be able to support each other to traverse through each level. Apparently the multiplayer version of each level is slightly trickier and the puzzles are inherently more challenging when you can't just cheese them with lucky timing, so I'd love to try it out as it was intended some time. If you've got the game in the bundle this month as well (or if you bought it, I guess) and are interested in giving multiplayer a try, do drop me a line. There's also an 'unlimited' mode for up to 4 players where everyone can be any player at any time, and that just sounds like giggles all round.

I guess it's been a couple of minutes. Time to fight some more...goat people?

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the combat, which serves its function of breaking up the puzzles and giving poor Pontius the knight something to do other than stand by while Amadeus and Zora do most of the heavy lifting puzzlewise, but isn't otherwise anything to write home about. It works, but it's definitely the ugly cousin. The first main boss fight of the game was just a puzzle challenge, and while the later ones had some puzzling elements, I can't help but wish that they all had a little more of the platforming and ability interaction and a little less of the 'hit things with your sword' stuff going on.

Some quick numbers

Plenty more where that came from
  • Time to finish the main campaign: 9.2 hours
  • Completion bar percentage: 61.2%
  • Chasms dropped into: A multitude. Some many times.
  • Walruses rescued: 1
  • Rating: 8 solid 7's out of 10.

The rankings so far

See you next time, heroes of Trine

Another easy one to rank, at least against the competition so far. Even after finishing the game I still feel a compulsion to go back and 100% it, which is a good sign. Perhaps not an all-time favourite, but definitely a solid title worth a few hours of your time.

  1. Trine 4
  2. The Wild Eight
  3. Valfaris
  4. Train Station Renovation
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The dice roll came up with 2, so next up we're playing Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest.

Monday, 8 March 2021

IMHO - Train Station Renovation

Well, if we were going to try and play all the games in the month then we were going to have to get to it sometime, so we may as well get Train Station Renovation out of the way.

If you're thinking a game called Train Station Renovation doesn't sound all that interesting, then you and I have that in common. It is yet another of these clunky first-person simulator games that Humble in their wisdom appear to have decided that people are clamouring to add to their libraries every single month. Since September, the last time we had a simulator-free bundle, we've had Fantasy Blacksmith, Rover Mechanic Simulator, Tabletop Playground, PC Building Simulator, and now Train Station Renovation back to back. To be fair to these games, they could secretly be amazing and really mix up the formula, I really wouldn't know, as the only other one I actually even tried was Rover Mechanic. But to be fair to me, there's only so many hours in a human life.

The phenomenon of simulation games is a fascinating one. That people will happily spend hundreds or even thousands of hours flying planes through empty skies, trucking or training cargo across the landscape, plowing and seeding and reaping the same field is endlessly astonishing to me, but at least for those sort of things I can see some attractions; perfecting a skill, getting up close and personal with expensive specialised machinery, imagining what could have been had you lived in a different time, place or in different circumstances, or just a little mindless catharsis from an otherwise hectic life. I guess what all these things have in common with model railways and other similar hobbies is the sense of realism, simulating as closely as possible is the name of the game.

Then, of course, there's the spoofs of this genre. The ironic games. The Surgeon Simulators and Goat Simulators that take that idea and make something utterly absurd. I can see the enjoyment of taking a silly idea absolutely as far as you can push it, milking it for all that it's worth.

Access to a dozen tools and more in the truck, but here we are installing a light switch with a spanner

But if you're going to make a simulator, especially one in the very generic first-person mould, you really have to sit in one of these camps, either the realistic or the absurd, and to be honest, the absurd has probably done its dash. Train Station Renovation is trying to be the former, but not trying very hard. It sets the player the mind-numbing, repetitive task of cleaning up abandoned railway stations (surprising, I know) and then asks you to complete it while dealing with a clumsy control set-up with a level of inconsistent realism that is frustratingly jarring. The player can tear out weeds and vines with a single click, but sweeping small areas will take many repetitions. A whole wall can be instantly repainted, but any graffiti will need to be carefully and painstakingly scrubbed away. The player can instantly destroy some debris with a whack of their crowbar, but other types will need to be dragged to the dumpsters and then painstakingly sorted for recycling, and all of them can be instantly replaced by clicking away on your virtual ipad. As a guy who's done my fair share of train station renovation in my time, let me tell you this is just not a very realistic experience. And once you're done with your menial tasks, you're not even rewarded with a train rolling into the station. I'd do a lot for a train rolling into the station.

The satisfaction(?) of a job well done

Basically, I found the whole thing incredibly frustrating. Which is pretty much exactly what I was expecting from a game called Train Station Renovation, so at least the player is getting what they paid for. If you get really excited about making sure every single thing in the world is just perfect, or if even the mention of trains makes you drool and being near digital train tracks makes you drool, go ahead and get it and you'll probably be very happy, like the overwhelming number of Steam reviewers, but personally I think you'd be better off looking for something with a little more meat on its bones. The developers are currently working on Builder Simulator, which looks pretty similar but will allow you to build whole houses brick by brick, maybe you'll want to try that.

Me, I've got other things to do.

Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 1.2 hours
  • Train Stations Renovated: 2
  • Mixed waste skips filled: 4
  • Toilets exploded: 2
  • Rating: 3 mildly amusing pieces of graffiti out of 10
My suggestion: skip it

The rankings so far

I'm confident that this'll be the lowest-ranked title of the month. Even Valfaris absolutely knew what it wanted to be and went all-out for it:

  1. The Wild Eight
  2. Valfaris
  3. Train Station Renovation
Next up, the dice have determined that we shall play game number 6, Trine 4.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

IMHO - The Wild Eight

Snow makes for some great polygons, doesn't it?

Next up in our mission to actually play all the games in this month's Humble Choice bundle, the roll of the dice selected The Wild Eight, a wilderness survival game originally by Fntastic that was acquired by HypeTrain Digital. I'm not typically the kind of player that notices who the developer of a game is, but in the case of this game it's hard to ignore the fact that this game was clearly abandoned and left unfinished, and honestly, that's a real pity, because given a little bit of love, there might just be a germ of something pretty neat here.

Ah, food in a can. My favourite.

The game allows single or multiplayer options, which is neat, and begins with the player(s) waking up in the wreckage of a plane deep in a snowy wilderness and then being pretty much left to their own devices. There's a minimalist tutorial that explains the basics of the interface, though is a little too light on any actual detail on how you might actually go about surviving, meaning new players can expect to die due to cold, starvation, angry wildlife or just falling off a cliff a few times before they work out how to more effectively manage the various threats with their extremely limited inventory. That's fine, though. Die and you'll respawn with all your previous skills, and if you are able to retrieve your corpse you'll be able to regain your stuff as well as a tasty human steak or two. Can't be too picky about the food supply, I suppose.

I'm going to need all those skill points for running away.

The interface is simple enough and workable, the world looks great (I am generally a sucker for anything low-poly), and there's a real sense of there being a lot to do and explore, even if the crafting is pretty basic and the combat in particular leaves a lot to be desired. On first starting out, I definitely got the feeling that this would be a fun game to load into with a couple of friends and see how far we were able to go across the vast landscape, certainly more my pace than Let's Starve Together (pretty much the only game I've ever tried in this genre), but very quickly it became clear that beneath the promising skin was...not very much.

Yes, it's brutal. Your meters run down terribly fast and you're constantly looking for more food, weapons, sources of warmth, and running from wolves and bears that want to eat you among the ruins of civilisation where something has gone very wrong. I'm fine with all that. It's very atmospheric, very cloying, it feels right. What frustrates me is the lack of story. And yeah, I suppose we're probably getting into spoilers from here, so if you'd rather experience it yourself, the short version is that this is a title that, for me, just couldn't deliver what the tasty packaging promised.

Giant purple death cloud. That seems like a good sign.

Still here? Okay, let's dive into what frustrates me about The Wild Eight. Right at the very beginning, the first quest takes you straight to a mysterious high-tech underground bunker. You haven't just crashed in the middle of nowhere, you immediately discover that you've crashed precisely alongside the ending of Lost. The very next step of the quest takes you straight to a radioactive werewolf that wants to eat you, so...that escalated quickly. The next step takes you to a bridge possessed by a giant demon that blows up the bridge, stopping any progress further into content that was never made when the game was abandoned. Yes, really. In three steps, a new player has come straight to the 'end'. That's it. Are there other interesting side quests and mysterious things out there in the darkness to explore and discover? Yes, absolutely. And some of it could even be good. But now that you've taken me to a dead end so quickly (quite literally killing my character in the process), I am utterly uninterested in going any further. It's like seeing the last 2 minutes of a long-drawn out nil-nil draw soccer match and then being asked if I want to go back and watch the whole thing. No thanks! I've got better things to do. 

If I was writing this game, there'd be a cinematic at the start to set the mood. A crash in the middle of nowhere, the fear, the fire. The player character(s) wakes up in the ruins of the plane, scared and alone. They have to find out how to survive while they wait for a rescue. They scrounge while familiarising themselves with the mechanics, they consume their supplies faster than they can replenish them, they meet wildlife and a few abandoned buildings in this vast empty world. It becomes clear no-one's coming to rescue them, so they strike out further, they begin to find some old settlements, fresh graves, corpses in the cold silence. Something weird has happened here. It might still be happening. They find the mysterious bunker and eventually the weird experiments, adding more layers to the basic conceit. The bridge could be out there somewhere, gating new content that might never happen, but don't lead the players straight to it as if you're happily advertising that you forgot to get around to finishing the game. Let finding it and wondering what comes next be a reward to those who explore, those who've experienced a good chunk of the skill trees and the stories strewn around the world, rather than just following the markers set down right at the beginning.

It takes a lot to not like a game that looks this inviting

It's just so frustrating because the elements are all there already, and if they were just spaced out a little, if the tension was allowed to build, if the players were sucked into the narrative, this could have been something really special; a game to suck players like me into a survival genre I wouldn't normally touch with a ten-foot pole, and instead it's a game that was abandoned as soon as it left early access that no-one really cares about.

Which brings me to my next gripe. The Wild Eight (rubbish title, by the way, but maybe it's funnier in the original Russian) was clearly abandoned. It happens to early-access titles by small teams all the time. That's fine. We get it. It sounds like it was a bad situation at the developer that caused the publisher to step in and take over, promising to continue as planned. That's worrying, but it could work. The publisher, HypeTrain Digital, continued to promise that there'd be new content, though, and removed the game from Early Access, got those Day One sales on October 3rd 2019, and released a flurry of bug fixes, with the last one on October 19th. Sixteen days after PC release, as far as I've been able to work out, they disappeared, leaving the game at version 1.0.13. That's it. Leaving an unfinished game full of bugs with a $20 price tag. Then nothing. Until a PS4 release on October 27 2020, more than a year later. And an Xbox One release last month. Gotta get more release-day sales, after all. And all this time not a single update for the PC version, with the Steam news feed for the game only used to advertise their other titles. Frankly, that's no way to treat your customers (many of whom backed the kickstarter that funded the original development), it's transparently exploitative and shows how little you care about the customer after you've sold them on an admittedly shiny trailer, and if I ever actually bought games I'd absolutely be refusing to buy another title from HypeTrain Digital. 

It makes me wonder. What are Humble doing promoting and distributing a game with this sort of track record? Why are Humble, a company that talks up their contributions to charity and their support of 'awesome' games, sullying their reputation promoting a publisher that are just in it for a quick buck? I know it's absurd to expect a big corporation to care about such things, and I know I'm just an old man yelling at cloud for all the good it will do, but I, for one, would much prefer a smaller bundle of better-quality games from developers that actually care about their product and their customers, and for Humble not to put their backing behind publishers that don't deserve to have their game in my library.

Killed out of the blue just as I was setting out from home. Seems appropriate.

Some quick numbers

  • Time played: 3.6 hours
  • Trees punched: 16
  • Polar bears butchered: 2
  • Player deaths: 5
  • Rating: 6 jars of chilled peanut butter out of 10

The rankings so far

Well, that was quite a rant, wasn't it? Sorry about that. Time to rank the games, and despite all my complaints, when it comes down to sheer personal enjoyment, this is definitely going above Valfaris. It's just that that enjoyment comes with a sense of frustration over what could have been. If the developer ever releases the rights to allow fans to build something actually good out of this, I'd probably play the hell out of it.

  1. The Wild Eight 
  2. Valfaris
On to the next one then. The next dice roll is ... 7 - Train Station Renovation?

Monday, 1 March 2021

My Humble Opinion

I've been subscribed to the Humble Monthly bundle for a few years now. As someone who never shells out for games it's been a great way to pick up a random selection of slightly older but excellent titles to play, many of which I'd never have picked up for myself but don't mind trying out, and through it I've discovered some real gems that have occupied far too much of my time and brain space.

In theory this should help me from falling into a pattern of playing the same old games, but lately I've been finding that I'm back in that rut a little, only now I have an ever-increasing pile of unplayed games in a pile and the monthly subscription is starting to feel a little wasteful. I've played very few of the titles from the last few months, and honestly, I'm not sure I'm missing out on all that much.

So I thought it might be fun to set myself a goal for March of forcing myself to spend a little time, let's call it at least an hour, with each of the games in the February bundle, write a little about my thoughts, and hopefully decide if the monthly bonanza is still worth my hard earned $12 a month. For some reason this month's bundle dropped a little early, though, so I guess I have March-and-a-bit to try out the games.

Both my fellow Blaugustine humble connoisseurs Magi and Naithin had good things to say about this bundle in their previews, so hopefully this'll bode well for the monthly selection. Without any further ado, then, let's roll the dice and see what comes up...

Oh dear. It's Valfaris. What a start.

Conan the Barbarian. In Space. In Neon. In Neon Space.

Just from the cover art I can tell exactly what this is going to be, and that it 100% isn't going to be my thing. Bright flashing lights. Blood everywhere. Heavy Metal soundtrack you Can't Turn Off. Looks like it might have the tagline "Not your daddy's castlevania", but since it apparently is a castlevania-type platformer at least they've got the branding spot-on to attract the people that like this sort of thing.

Yes, even the spaceship is covered in blood.

Once I got through intro video featuring our mysterious hero out for revenge deliberately crash-landing his revengeship on the revenge planet to do some revenging, it turns out Valfaris plays a little bit more like a Metal Slug game than I was expecting. I like the Metal Slug games, they know that they're ridiculous and play that for laughs. Valfaris appears to revel in the madness in an earnestly fullthroated way that just exudes heavy metal. The bottom half of enemies you dismember continue to walk around spraying blood all the while, the soundtrack does not let up (it turns out you CAN turn it off, but if this game is your scene I suspect it'd be better cranked up to eleven instead), and the difficulty ramps up extremely quickly. I must have died 10 times in my first ten minutes of play, distracted by the throbbing lights and general intensity of my surroundings.

And the headbanging, the headbanging...

Valfaris is a game that knows what it is and leans into it hard, and I have to admire that, but I'd prefer to admire that from a safe distance, if that's all the same to you. I managed about a half-hour and a couple of mini-bosses into this hypermetalfest before I gave up, quit, and uninstalled, happy to never think about this one ever again. Does that count as a fair showing? Well, I've given it a go and I am pretty confident I've seen everything I have any interest in seeing, so that will just have to do. If I were to give myself a minimum time spent on each game then too many hours of games like this one might make my head explode, so let's quit while we still have braincells. I guess I'm just not very metal, to the surprise of everyone who knows me, I'm sure.

I only ticked off one Steam Achievement for this game, the one for successfully dying. Seems about right.

Well, that wasn't a great start. On to the next game, I suppose...