Didn’t Make the Cut – itch.io Racial Justice Bundle

All filler, no killer.

Another week, another set of games from the itch.io racial justice bundle. These are primarily games that simply didn’t get their own full article about them, either because there wasn’t really a lot to say (LAZAKNITEZ), I couldn’t play them (Troika), because I refuse to do so out of spite and dislike for the game (Oikospiel). Having said that, let’s get to the games

LAZAKNITEZ – PC/Multiplayer/Singleplayer
LAZAKNITEZ almost works for starting a trend of games with names that are nonsense words, until you boot up the game and realize that it’s just a very 90’s spelling of Laser Knights. And that’s exactly what the game is. You slide around a 2D plain, jousting on the back of your laser horse, and firing from your laser lance. I played this one for a few rounds and then put it down. It’s not bad. Just very light on things to do/see. Once I’d played a bit, and felt like I had seen most of the powerups, I was done.

Oikospiel Book 1 – PC/Singleplayer
I don’t like Oikospiel. I think that it’s stupid. It plays and looks like a fever dream made by someone who just imported every 3D model they could get their hands on into Unity and it should also probably come with an epilepsy warning.

Oikospiel is what you would get if you took Timecube and made it into a video game instead of a website. I have some questions for whoever made this game, and primarily they’re things like: “Are you okay?” and “Do you need help?”

TroikaPen and Pencil RPG
Mechanically, I didn’t see much in Troika that impressed me, but I also didn’t actually run a game. The initiative system seems neat, in which you randomly draw tiles from a bag and then whoever’s tile you drew takes a turn.

The flavor though, is incredible, and I honestly wish there was more of it. It has a very old-timey science fiction sort of vibe, and the closest thing I can think to compare it to is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore, or perhaps the sorta of weird science-magic of The Wizard of Oz.

For example: the book has stats for a sort of snake that doesn’t sneak up on you, but instead offers reassurances and a well placed “It’s alright, I’m here now” in order to get you between its coils so that it might crush and eat you. The starter adventure in the book involves convincing a sentient gas in the elevator with you that you would really like it if it could take up a bit less of the elevator, on account of the fact that it’s drowning you. The stat block for a “Tea Set” gives you a bonus on etiquette checks as long as you have time to prepare tea for the person you’re trying to impress.

The reason that Troika doesn’t get a larger section to itself is primarily that since this is a website for reviewing games, and I haven’t run a game of it yet, I can’t review it. But definitely worth a read.

Wrap-Up

Nothing this week that really jumped out at me. I loathe Oikospiel, LAZAKNITEZ reminds me of the sorts of things I’d play for 20 minutes before switching to something else on sites like Newgrounds. Troika is a fun read, but I feel like it would be tricky to pull off without a party that was really willing to lean into the weird-wonderness. If playing these games is the art of separating wheat from chaff, this week was all chaff, no wheat. Take care, and I’ll put more stuff up as events warrant.

What We’ve Been Playing – October 2020

It turns out that actually writing “reviews” for games when you’re employed full time doing something that isn’t related to video games is actually kinda hard. Who would have thought? In any case, I’m gonna try to start writing these little lists of stuff I’ve been playing, or people around me have been playing. There’s no particular order or anything to it.

For me, a large portion of last week was spent in attempted extraction of wealth in Spelunky 2. Key word is “attempted,” because more time is spent dying painfully than getting gold, gems, etc. I’d love to write a review of some sort of Spelunky, but given that I’ve only ever reached the first boss after 20 hours, I’m not sure I’d give the best feedback.

I may be switching over to Crown Trick though, another game in which you loot roguelike dungeons, albeit not in real time, and also in a different set of two dimensions. I saw the demo for this at PAX Online, loved it, and I want to love the full game more, but the “One More Run, Oh Christ It’s 1:00 AM” of Spelunky 2 has kept me from it for the moment.

In the larger demographic of “People who aren’t me,” it seems like every other person I know is playing Hades, which is apparently pretty good? I’ll see if I can cajole one of those folks to give me a write-up for it. Supergiant made Bastion which I liked, Transistor, which I own and have never played, and then Pyre which I played a demo for, and now Hades. I’m just not sure I need another rogue-lite at the moment.

In terms of co-op-esque stuff, the Genshin Impact is still impacting, and there’s some Monster Hunter World shenanigans occurring, primarily in the Iceborne DLC.

Oh, and I guess Dota 2, and MTG Arena. But, like, we’ve been playing those forever. So yeah, that’s what is currently eating our time, and hopefully we’ll have write-ups for Spelunky 2/Crown Trick/Hades later in the week.

Genshin Impact

Free to play, more expensive then a trip to Vegas if you actually want to buy anything in game.

I’ve been wanting to write about Genshin Impact, but I’ve had a hard time doing so over the last week. This is because Genshin Impact might be the highest quality free-to-play game ever made, but discussing the game without talking about the monetization model would be crazy. It’s like discussing a tiger, without mentioning the teeth or claws, and just discussing its fluffy-wuffy tail. Let’s start with that fluffy tail though.

Genshin Impact is a free to play RPG for everything except your Nintendo Switch. It has cross-play for pretty much everything, and cross-progression for everything that isn’t a PS4. You can actually close the game on your PC, then open it on your phone, and just… keep playing. The same game. From where you left it on your PC. You can do cross-play between phone, PC and PS4. It’s incredible.

And when I say RPG, I mean RPG. You’re presented with a massive world to wander around, search for treasure and do quests in. There are world bosses, and hidden secrets, and all the good stuff. Mechanically, the game borrows a massive amount from Breath of the Wild. You can just climb up mountains and hills and walls, and you also get a glider fairly early on which lets you drift around.

The combat system is also pretty neat. You build a party of 4 characters, and as long as you aren’t in a Domain (Dungeon) or combat, you can swap characters out as you wish. Each character has a weapon type, basic attack, ability, and ultimate ability, all on separate cooldowns. Each character also has an element, and elements interact in various ways. For example, if you launch an Anemo (wind) character’s ability into an area with fire on it, it will Swirl, and create a fire tornado. Put ice onto a character affected by water, or vice versa, and that character will freeze. There are about seven of these elements, and in addition, things like walking through puddles will make both you and enemies wet.

There is a day night cycle as well.

These abilities can be used outside of combat to light torches, trigger pressure plates, and do other puzzly stuff. You can even use ice attacks to freeze and then cross lakes and oceans. Theres an entire quest line that requires you to take advantage of this to get to a hidden island that doesn’t even show up on the map.

Moments like this are Genshin Impact at its best. When you’re just running around, fighting monsters, climbing terrain, and discovering things, you might even forget you’re playing a free to play game, and if I had any gripes with the game as it is, it would most likely be that the climbing behavior can occasionally be a bit funky. You can climb all over every mountain, and every hill in the game, and there is treasure everywhere. Every mountain top has hidden collectibles, there are puzzles in every cave.

Okay, so now lets talk about the bad part.

If the moment to moment gameplay of Genshin Impact is Breath of the Wild, the meat of the game’s advancement system is classic mobile gacha. If you’ve ever played Puzzles and Dragons, Azur Lane, Fate Grand Order, or Dragalia Lost, you’ve seen this sort of thing before. You have Resin (Energy) which recharges over time and is used to collect treasure from world bosses and dungeons. These include advancement materials that are used to increase the max level of your characters and weapons, books that are used to upgrade their talents, and artifacts that can slotted in to give set bonuses, and extra stats.

You can spend in game currency to refill your energy, and honestly, as frustrated as some people are by Resin, I don’t take too much issue with it.

What I do take issue with is the drop rates and costs of the Wish system, the system by which you get new characters, and most of the higher rarity weapons. I refuse to call these micro-transactions, because there is nothing fucking micro about them.

ONE roll of the Wish system is 160 Primogems/Genesis Crystals. A SINGLE ROLL.

These are the prices, and after you buy the first time bonus, they change to this.

$Primogems / # of Rolls
0.9960 / .33
4.99330 / 1.83
14.991090 / 6.06
29.992240 / 12.44
49.993880 / 21.56
99.998080 / 44.89

So if you’re looking at this, and thinking, “This seems a bit expensive,” then yeah. It fucking is. But here comes the kicker: the drop rates are AWFUL.

The Wish system in Genshin has multiple different tables you can choose to roll against, usually called banners. For the featured character in a banner, the drop rate is 0.6%, or 3/500. The drop rate for an weapon OR character of the highest rarity is 1.6% total, or 2/125.

Ed Note: I think fractions do a better job illustrating how low this is, which is why I’ve included them here.

Keep in mind, a single roll costs $2.20 at its cheapest, if you buy the $100 currency pack. This gets you just over 44 rolls.

There’s also a pity system in place in which if you haven’t gotten a weapon/character of max rarity after 90 rolls, you will be given one. I want to point out that the real money cost of 90 rolls is just under $200. At this point, if you’re rolling on a featured banner, you will have a 50% chance to get the featured character. If you don’t, you’ll be guaranteed to get them at the next pity roll. Which means at this point, you’ll have to have spent over $400.

TLDR: If you want a FEATURED character in Genshin Impact, they can end up costing you $400 for a single copy of the character. In addition, the game has system by which characters are powered up for each duplicate you get of them. So getting a character to their max potential requires you to get receive them 6 times.

So yeah. That’s the state of Genshin Impact as of today, an incredible free to play game that is unmatched by anything on the market, with what I’m going to call “Macro-Transactions” that can easily total the same price of a new PS5 to get a single character. Play it. Enjoy the story, the anime bullshit, and the voice acting. Explore the incredible world, scouring every nook and cranny for treasure, and climbing every mountain.

But please don’t spend money on it.

The Case of the Missing Publisher or How Ammobox Studios got their game back.

An Interview with Jeremy Choo, CEO of Ammobox Studios.

Last week, a really interesting Reddit post caught my eye. It was by a smaller game development studio from Malaysia called Ammobox Studios. The post was a warning about how their game had almost been stolen by their publisher, and how the fraudulent publisher was potentially back in business. 

While everyone has heard stories about shitty publishers, one of the surprising things for me was that Ammobox was able to actually recover their game, and continue development. I wanted to know more, so I reached out to Ammobox, and was able to talk to Jeremy Choo, their CEO and Founder. 

(F) John “Fritz” Wallace: Hi Jeremy, just wanted to say thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. To start, can you tell us a bit about yourself and about Ammobox Studios?

(J) Jeremy Choo: Well, I’m Jeremy Choo and I’m the founder and CEO of Ammobox Studios. Ammobox was started back in 2008. My game development background actually started with modding, with stuff like Warcraft and Starcraft. When we were first founded, we started with doing some outsourcing work, and this project [Eximius: Seize the Frontline] has always been a bit of a passion project for us.

It’s a garage project, something we’ve done in our spare time and I’d say we’ve been thinking about it for almost 10 years. Development actually started in an entirely different engine. We started full time production in 2018. And as part of this, we started looking for a publisher. 

So, this is where Eduardo Monteiro and his company, TheGameWallStudios comes into the picture. How did you meet him, and end up publishing with him? 

(J) When TheGameWallStudios first approached us, they weren’t the type of publisher we were looking for. Another member of the team, our business developer, an experienced guy who had worked in industry, was handling our publisher discussions. And one of the people he brought up was TheGameWallStudios and Eduardo Monteiro. 

Our business developer came to me and said, “Look, I’ve found someone we might be able to work with. He’s really keen, he’s got a publishing background, he worked with big companies before, and you can check out his background, his LinkedIn looks good. He’s got funding, they’re doing things bespoke, one title at a time.” It sounded very convincing! But even at the end of his pitch, some of the other co-founders didn’t really like it. So, GameWallStudios was not the type of publisher we wanted to go to. 

Sometimes, because of what happened, I think people will take the wrong message from our experience, which is to never go for a small publisher. I want to go on record and say “That’s not the case!” 

There are small publishers that do really well, even with small teams. I have several friends with teams about that size who do well. I want to mention this because the moral of this story isn’t “Small Publishers are Bad.”

In either case, at the end of the day, I ended up letting our business developer make the call. The thought was, “Since we don’t have another publisher, and this guy is promising a lot, but doesn’t necessarily have the reputation to prove it, let’s structure the contract so if he doesn’t keep his end of the bargain, the contract automatically terminates.” So we got what is called a performance-based contract, and drafted it out with a lawyer over here in Malaysia.

So the lawyer comes back and says “This looks pretty standard”, and we go forward with it. 

It never really occurred to us to think about the ultimate end: “What if this guy just doesn’t care about the contract? What if he just vanishes?”

You’d been careful: talked with lawyers, drafted a contract that would protect, but had trouble finding a publisher. So at this point, you decided to take a risk with TheGameWallStudios. 

(J) In our mind, we had nothing to lose, right? We didn’t have a publisher, and if things go wrong, he takes his cut, we go our separate ways.

This next bit is sort of personal for me, but at this point we’d been rejected by a lot of big publishers. Most big publishers will never really want to take a chance on a first time team. They say things like “there’s too much risk” or “you’ll never be able to execute.” And even if they are interested, they’ll want to wait and see how the game does in Early Access.

So we thought, if big publishers aren’t interested, let’s go after the small guys, let’s find an underdog. Someone like us. We didn’t really tell him that, but we were thinking about it. We thought, “He’s small, but so are we.” 

We were a four man team trying to build a first person shooter/real time strategy hybrid. We were trying to punch above our weight class. And it felt like Eduardo was the same way, in trying to publish and work with these smaller indie games. He was like us. 

In hindsight, we definitely made the wrong choice there. 

Just as a quick aside, do you have any idea why you might have had such a hard time finding a publisher?

(J) So, Eximius was our first major title. We’d published smaller stuff before, but when we met with publishers, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And I think that was kind of a turn off. What we did know is we wanted our publisher to get more copies of the game out and get the word out. What wanted strong Esports support, strong influencer marketing, and tie-ins, people to do write ups on sites like Kotaku, Destructoid, stuff like that. Very cliche stuff and regular stuff. 

I think the Esports support is probably the most unusual thing there. And of course Eduardo did mention that he was very much into Esports competitive gaming, that he knew how to get this and that. It’s all a bunch of lies at the end of the day, but we thought it would all work out.

Back to the story at hand. You have your contract, you’re getting ready to launch into Early Access on Steam. When did it start to feel like something was wrong?

(J) So we were going to try to get a write up from Destructoid, and we were going to reach out to some specific influencers. So, the game launches, we’re expecting to see a write up, some ads, something. And none of these promises are followed through! 

I reached out to the Destructoid employee we were in contact with to ask if Eduardo ever followed up, and he says “No, he never did.” So the game launches, and I find that we have no write ups, no marketing, no ads. And this was when we realized that something is really wrong here. Then all of a sudden, Eduardo starts becoming harder to contact, and starts to disappear.

What do you mean by started to disappear?

(J) Well, I say he disappeared, but it was actually a pretty long time before he fully vanished. So right after we launch, we ask him where the marketing is. And he goes “Don’t worry, it’s coming, it’s coming.” And around the same time, we had a tournament planned with a company called Triforce Tokens, that does some crypto-currency stuff. So we were putting a lot of effort into the tournament, recruiting teams, putting up marketing.

So about two months after release, we’re talking with him, asking for the money, asking for money from sales of the game. He keeps buying time until he can’t anymore. He keeps making up excuses. First he tells us there was a problem with the bank, then he tells us he was in a car accident. At some point I went to my co-founders and said “What’s the contingency if he just disappears?” And then finally, right in the middle of the tournament, he vanishes. 

That sounds pretty rough, to say the least.

(J) When this whole thing took off, it was very chaotic for us. We had a larger team, we were backed up on salaries that we weren’t paying, and we were thinking “Okay, well if we don’t get the money out, we’re gonna be dead.” Like, in a month. We’re still in active development on the game, we’re still running this tournament that we have to pay out prizes for, and we haven’t told the community anything. It was just too much going on all at once. 

And people are still buying the game! But we’re not getting a cent. We’re supporting the game, we’re pushing out bug fixes. People are asking about the price and such, when the game will be on sale, and we’re thinking “We don’t actually have any control over this!” So we had to keep our game faces on.

So at this point, he’s dropped off the face of the earth. You’re in the middle of a tournament, you don’t have access to any of the money from your game. How did you go about getting your game back?

(J) First thing we did was find an indie friendly lawyer in the UK. [Ed Note: Eduardo Monteiro and his company, the TheGameWallStudios does business out of the UK, which is why Ammobox had to do this.] This person tells us to wait for the termination clause in our contract to kick in, and when it does, we’ll send him a letter to terminate the contract. He also gave us examples on how things could go if Eduardo responded. So for a pretty nominal fee we had him send that letter. 

At the same time, we had been reaching out to Steam. We were lucky enough to have had a contact at Steam that we had just met. Steam had just come to Malaysia around the time we launched. So we met some of them and asked “Hypothetically, let’s say all this is happening, what could we do?”

They told us “Well, we can’t actually just take the game from his account and give it back to you, we can only do it if we get a court order.” 

But they did tell us that we could put out a DMCA so that he couldn’t sell the game anymore. Because at this point, not only is he stealing the game, he’s also stealing the money from the game sales. So this Steam contact told us “If you can’t get the money, don’t let him have it.” So that’s what we did. 

A DMCA is pretty easy to do. The content owners are obligated to take the offending content down, and then decide what to do with it. It’s shoot first, ask questions later. It can definitely be abused, but in our situation it was a bit of a lifesaver. Steam had to take the game down immediately. We sent the letter on the 23rd of December, and they took it down from sale at the start of the new year. 

Then I realize that I can see his strategy. He’s trying to get as much money out while he can, so he has the game on sale at other storefronts as well. We had to DMCA them too. And finally we were able to get everyone to stop selling the game. 

Honestly, a lot of the law stuff felt very pay-to-win. If we had the money, we could have gotten an injunction and gotten the bank accounts that the various digital storefronts were sending money to locked. If we had won the case, we would have gotten him to have to pay our lawyers fees. And because he was using his home address as the address for his company, I think it would have been possible for us to seize his assets or something, even if he declared bankruptcy. All the clauses in the contact say he’s in the wrong. He can’t argue his way out. This isn’t a case of “Well, we got screwed by the contract” or something. He just took the money and ran.

I think he probably knew we couldn’t afford the legal fees. 15,000 pounds (Just under 20,000 USD) may not sound like a lot, but it’s two years’ salary for a single artist in Malaysia. 

So, you finally get your game back after talking to Steam, and using the DMCA to block sales of it. This was a while ago at this point. Where is the game now, and what brought all of this back up?

(J) So since then, we’ve gotten much farther. We were lucky to be able to move on. It wasn’t a natural position, I think he expected us to be dead and buried. He tried to crush us to get away with maybe… $100,000? It’s unbelievable to me. But we got out, because of some lucky decisions, and some helpful parties. We got a lot of support from our community, we had some influencers cover it, people bought the game to support us. We did try to run a gofundme to sue him, but we didn’t raise enough money to have it go forward. I think it came in a bit too late, after interest in what was going on died down. 

Alright. So, that’s all the mildly depressing stuff, but the story has at least a bit of a happy ending with you getting the game back. I actually wanted to try Eximius, but it wasn’t for sale on Steam. When is it coming out?

(J) Right now we’re close to our launch date, and we’re aiming for Q1 2021. Hopefully, we’ll finish the game in time. No more sleep for us! [Laughs] But I’m feeling confident we’ll hit our schedule. We wanted to release at the tail end 2021, but I think we’ll have a higher quality product if we release it early next year. Right now we’re focused on getting it to 1.0. We’ve restructured our marketing strategies, to get better results. We want a successful launch, and to put this behind us. 

Few quick questions, and then I think we’ll be done. What sort of game is it, and given your background, do you have any plans for mod support for Eximius?

(J) Eximius is what I would call an FPS+. It’s a first person shooter, with a real time strategy game also added on.

Regarding mod support, we want to, but it will be post 1.0 if it happens. Right now our systems are constantly changing, and every time it changes, it would break any mods that existed. I want to make sure stuff is really solid before we work on that, I don’t want to break peoples mods. And Steam auto-updates means you break stuff easily. We’re all really big into modding, and if it becomes something we can do, we want to. But right now, we aren’t planning for it. 

What are your goals for the game, like after all of this struggle and work, what will make you feel like it was all worth it? 

(J) We want to make something that is timeless. Something like CSGO 1.6, Renegade, or Natural Selection. Something that people will be playing for years. Something that there is nothing else like. 

How much will the game cost?

(J) Releasing at around the same price, maybe a bit higher. I don’t have an exact price yet, but what for 1.0 is more than double what we have in EA [Early Access] now. Our 1.0 is actually on a separate branch that we aren’t pulling into EA, because it’s a semi-separate game where a lot of systems are rewritten. We’ve released maps/weapons, and 1.0 has double the content of EA. Customizations, squad mechanics, etc, stuff people have been asking for. 

Just one last question, one I like to end these interviews with. Anything you want to say to your players?

(J) I would want to say thank you. The games industry and gamers can be harsh these days. 

It’s very easy for someone to just buy the game, decide they don’t like it, leave a bad review, and refund it. But our community hasn’t done that, even as we have struggled. So I’m grateful to the people who bought our game and didn’t just refund it. To everyone who has stuck with us as we’ve been on this journey to 1.0 release. We keep these people in mind, and we want to make a high quality product and not disappoint them.

In addition, there were a lot of people who bought the game just to support us, back when this whole thing started to come out, and when people learned what had happened to us. We had hundreds of people buying it just to support us, not even to play the game. We wish they would play it! But we’re still very thankful for them, and want to thank them from the bottom of our hearts. 

Thanks a ton for your time, and best of luck with Eximius. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes out!

Editor’s Postscript – Eduardo Fernando Teixeira Monteiro is the full name of the scammer mentioned in this article. If you do a few searches, you’ll find that he’s been up to this sort of bullshit since about 2014, and Ammobox isn’t the first group of people he’s done this to. Like any scam artist, he operates at his best when people don’t talk about him, his tactics and what he’s done, so I want to give a huge shoutout to Ammobox for sharing their story, and hopefully making it harder in the future for him to do business. 

Minit

Minit doesn’t utilize its unique mechanic effectively, and with that stripped away, it isn’t anything special.

Minit is well made, but I didn’t actually have fun playing it. The art and music is good, but the actual gameplay never delivers on the presumptive core mechanic. There. With that out of the way, I can now make a random introductory paragraph that only serves to set up the rest of the article.

After all the chaos that has been the last few weeks, I’ve finally returned to the itch.io racial bundle in search of gems and weird experimental stuff. And so I downloaded Minit, played it, and now I’m going to write this article. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t really enjoy Minit, but I need to describe the game’s core mechanic first in order to explain why.

Minit itself feels like it’s 2D Zelda inspired. You pick up a sword, venture around looking for treasure, and slowly get upgrades and equipment that allow you to progress further around the world. Oh, and you can pick up hearts to increase the number of hearts you have.

The unique mechanic, though, is that the game is played in one minute increments. At the end of 60 seconds, your character dies, and you spawn in again at your starting point. However, any progress you made in the world remains.

The minimalistic art style is neat though.

And this is my biggest problem with Minit: it barely ever uses this 60 second loop to do anything interesting. Instead, it just forces you to go fast, and to restart over and over again. There were three instances in the game that I saw where the loop was actually relevant. One is a character that doesn’t show up until the last 10 seconds of the loop that you need to talk to, one is plant that you water to grow between loops, and one is an NPC that talks slowly, so you need to talk to him at the very start of a run to see his full message. And that’s it. Not the most exciting things in the world.

Everything else in the game works completely independent of this 60 second loop, and it can turn things into a bit of a slog. While the loop does help by resetting puzzles that you can accidentally make unsolvable, it means that when you start wanting to explore or search for things, you’re on a timer. When you try to fight anything, you’re on a timer. There was one point where I spent several lives just walking around and dying because I missed a small set of stairs that were visible in the wall, and as such, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

I can’t recommend Minit, and I especially can’t recommend it at its $10 price tag. The game is very short, taking me just about 2 hours to beat. It doesn’t do anything interesting with its unique mechanic, and with that mechanic stripped away, it’s a very simple Zelda-esque title. If for some reason you still wanna buy it, here’s the link to itch.io, and it’s also available on Steam.



Islanders

A game with one mechanic has no right being this much fun.

When I turned 30, I realized that I no longer had nearly as much time to spend on games as I had previously. And like nearly every video gamer, my backlog of purchased but unplayed games is very long. So I don’t need any new games.

Then I saw Islanders on sale and was like “what the heck, it’s $2,” and impulse bought it. I’m super glad I did.

Islanders is an adorable and minimalist city-builder. The game gives you a beautiful low poly island, and asks you build a city on the island using just about a single mechanic: it gives you a set of buildings to place down in the form of cards in your hand. There is no inherent resource cost to playing a building. Instead, you try to place them to maximize the points they return.

Each building has a little radius that is shown when you place it, and when you place it, it scores based on that radius. For example, the Lumberjack building gives 1 point per tree in its radius, and deducts points per other Lumberjack in its radius. The Sawmill gives points per Lumberjack in its radius and deducts points per other Sawmill. Most buildings follow this simple pattern. There are things that they want to be next too, and things they don’t want to be next to.

And… that’s basically it. There’s a little point gauge and when it fills up, you get a choice of different types of buildings to add to your hand of unplaced buildings. If you ever place all the buildings in your hand without filling up the gauge, the game ends and you start over. 

When you place enough buildings on an island you’ll be able to travel to a new beautiful, procedurally generated island, but you’ll keep your total score. There’s probably some scaling here in that it feels like it gets harder and harder to fill the point gauge the farther you go, but I can’t tell quite what the ratio is.

The beauty of this game lies in its elegance, and how it uses the placement mechanic to incentivize (somewhat) realistic and interesting city configurations. For example, mansions and houses get bonus points for being next to City Centers. Both Houses and Mansions also score points for being near buildings of the same type as themselves. However, as Mansions are worth more points, but have a smaller scoring radius then a house, you end up wanting to place them closer to the city center, since you can’t place them as far out without losing the bonus. So the game incentivizes a city configuration where you have a City Center, surrounded by a small ring of Mansions, surrounded by a large ring of houses!

Discovering rarer building types and how they work is also fun. I always get a little kick out of seeing a clever new implementation of the mechanic, like how Shamans are worth points for each flower in their radius, and deduct points for each City Center… but Houses like to be next to Shamans. So initially your Shamans are in these secluded corners of the island, but then little towns spring up next to them.

And the game is chock full of fun little interactions like this! Some buildings can only be built on cliffs. Seaweed Farms can be placed in the ocean, which is otherwise hard to use. Warehouses get benefits from industrial buildings and city buildings, but industrial buildings and city buildings don’t want to be next to each other.

A nice little touch: there are many different island biomes. Each new island is strikingly visually different, and the terrain determines what kind of civilization you’re going to build! Mountainous islands are worse for cities and better for industrial civilizations because industrial buildings tend not to need to be densely packed.

Another thing I really like is the presentation. Whenever you start the game, behind the menu there’s a slowly rotating panorama of a built up island that looks like it was chosen in order to make a gorgeous backdrop for the menu screen… but it wasn’t! The island behind the menu screen is always the one you are currently working on. This just serves as a testament to how picturesque the game is–no matter what you do, your island is going to end up being menu screen material. 

I guess I should try to critique the game, but I could only come up with a couple things I don’t really like.

  1. Between the price point, the gameplay, and the art, Islanders feels like a mobile game. This isn’t actually a problem, it just means I wish they had it for mobile so I could go buy it there too. I felt the same way about Mini Metro, which came out with a fantastic mobile app, so fingers crossed.
  2. Playing and doing well is fun, but losing sneaks up on you. Maybe it’s because I was playing so casually, but I could never tell when I was going to lose. I’d place buildings until I only had 2 or 3 left and then realize “Hmm… I don’t think I’m going to be able to hit the points cap.” Ending with a whimper doesn’t feel great, especially when it’s a long run. And this might be an actual issue with the game if it was more competitive. But as it isn’t, I’d mostly consider it a minor qubbile.

Will I play Islanders forever? I doubt it. But this game is 100% worth its $5 price tag. If you ever want a calming experience to kill some downtime, Islanders is worth picking up. You can find it here on Steam.

Iron Harvest – 1920

Iron Harvest, like its mechs, is cool, but also big, clunky, and frustrating.

Ed Note: This article should be read as a review of the campaign, and not the PvP multiplayer. We haven’t played pretty much any of the multiplayer, just a bit of campaign co-op. Even in the co-op, these issues were still present, but please don’t get the impression that we played enough to know if the multiplayer is balanced between factions and such.

This post was going to be about a different game called Unrailed, but instead, it’s about a different type of steam powered machine. Five second version of the article is this: I like Iron Harvest, but it has too many small problems for me to recommend at the moment, and its core gameplay systems don’t interact with each other well. Maybe it will be patched. Maybe the price will drop. But right now, it just costs too much for the issues it has. You can leave now, or you can stick around and read why I think that.

Iron Harvest is a RTS, more of the Warcraft 3 variety then say StarCraft. I’ve mostly just been playing through the campaign so far, and at about 18 hours in, I think I’m about two-thirds through. The two big parts of the game for me, are the story and the gameplay. So those are the two things I’m gonna talk about. Let’s start with the story/lore.

Look at that. I mean, just look at it.

Overall, the story is solid, if occasionally stuttering. Set in the same universe as the board game Scythe, you play as a variety of forces in a 1920 Europe with diesel-punk tech. This includes the Not-Quite-Germans, the Not-Quite-Polish, and the Not-Quite-Russians. The only real gripe I have about the story is that for all of the emphasis on the value of human life, the actual gameplay will have you blowing up shit from hell to breakfast. Otherwise, I’d say it’s fine, and from what I’ve seen, it does a pretty good job of nailing the “World War 1 was a clusterfuck that should never have happened” vibe.

Then we have the gameplay. You create bases, build units, and generally do RTS things. I want to talk about the units in a bit more detail though, because they’re where I have most of my issues with the game.

There are three types of units in Iron Harvest: mechs, infantry and weapon platforms. Infantry is a single group of up to 5 units, mechs are large single-unit mechanized robots, and weapon platforms are things like mortars, machine guns, and cannons manned by infantry.

All three units share a few things in common. First off, they feel fairly expensive, at least in comparison to say, units from something like Starcraft. You cannot afford to just run them like lemmings to their doom. They also all have an experience system, in which leveled up units get access to more actions/better stats. For some units, this is fairly minor, and for some, the units are more or less useless without leveling up.

All units also feel relatively clunky, albeit in different ways. Infantry is inherently the most mobile and least armored, with the ability to take cover behind fences and walls. This would be fine, except some fences you can take cover behind, and some you can’t, and until you mouse over them, you won’t know which is which. You can’t actually move an infantry squad individually, you can only move the group. This can become very frustrating when you can’t get them all behind your defenses.

(As a brief example, you can order engineer units to build barbed wire, but you can’t control them individually, so it’s entirely possible to build a line of barbed wire, only to end up with half of the unit on the wrong side, and now forced to walk around the map to just get back home.)

Speaking of defenses, let’s talk about mechs, and the terrain deformation system. I’ve included a brief example below.

What a small lovely church. I sure hope nothing bad happens to-
Oh dear.
This isn’t even from attacking or anything. This is from just having that mech move through it.

This is one of the coolest, and at the same time, most frustrating things about Iron Harvest for me. Mechs will just roll over a fair amount of anything that gets in their way. Unfortunately, this applies to your defenses as well. Unless you are very careful with your command move orders, they are more then happy to just stomp through fortifications you just finished setting up. Trying to keep mechs from destroying your own defensive line is a real struggle. And given that your defensive line usually exists somewhere between your factory and the place you want the mechs to go, it happens a lot.

This might be deliberate given that they’re supposed to be these hulking multi-ton behemoths, but it can also be exceedingly aggravating. They control like slugs on crack: hard to get moving, and even harder to stop. Mechs take about double damage from attacks that hit the back of the unit, so you want to be able to put them exactly where you need them, but the game doesn’t always play toward this. Move commands will not always actually re-orient a mech, and the turn speed on many units is very slow. This means you can end up with your forces pointed the entirely wrong direction in a fight.

Finally, the weapon platforms. I only have one real gripe with these, and it has to do with how the game handles attacks. From what I can tell, Iron Harvest seems to have a physics-based projectile system for attacks. This is true for all units in the game, but it’s easiest to notice with infantry-manned weapon systems.

This means that you can actually benefit from cover and high ground, but it also means your mounted machine gun will sometimes fire directly into the defensive sandbags you set up in front of it, instead of into the approaching enemy forces. You might just deploy cannons and later find out that they can’t actually hit anything. And since your troops don’t automatically adjust, they’ll just sit there while a battalion of jackholes with flamethrowers waltzes up to sauté your ass.

I’m going to try to summarize my issues here but it generally works out to this: unit controls are too clunky micro effectively, and interact with terrain, but if you don’t micro, you get wiped out. Not using terrain will mean you have a decent chance of just shooting into a wall. The experience system encourages you to keep your units alive, but scouting the map often requires at least some sacrifices, and again, requires that ever present micro. And you need to be doing all of this at the same time.

This last bit illustrates my biggest issue with Iron Harvest, and I think if I had to summarize it, it would be, “It feels like there are several underlying systems at work that simply do not play well with each other.” The game wants you to build fortifications, but you can’t control units effectively enough to not destroy them. The bunkers you can build that don’t just get destroyed when they get walked over count toward your population cap, as do anti-mech mines if you have access to them. The AI both gives you very little control (you can’t individually position units, just issue move orders until you have them where you want) and at the same time, you’re asked to be as careful as possible with placement, for example taking double damage if you’re shot in the back.

And finally, you have a destructible terrain system feels equally likely to fail you when you try to move a larger mech, and accidentally take out a line of barbed wire, because the AI simply follows orders.

Iron Harvest is full of interactions like this. You can station units in buildings, but you can’t give them hold fire orders. Attack move commands feel more like a suggestion. Units will repeatedly fire directly into walls, because they “see” enemies, but their attacks are blocked. Mortar and ranged units don’t have a “hold and fire” option. You can’t necessarily fire into fog of war.

These issues are less of a problem on the smaller levels, where you control a small number of units. Some of these levels are my favorite in the game, including one where you escort a train with a massive cannon. Another level has you using small sets of infantry to infiltrate and take out defenses, all the while avoiding larger patrols. These missions, where you have the time to focus and micro, where you only have a few units, and where you can really keep them alive, are where the games feels fun. You have the space to plan and watch, and figure out how to use all of these systems in your favor.

It’s when the game tries to have truly massive fights that everything just starts to fall apart. I found myself mostly just face-mashing my way through certain levels. I would try to build diverse unit compositions, but the second I lost a critical unit (longer range siege, anti-mech infantry), I would have to retreat and regroup my forces, as I would eventually run into a problem I didn’t have tools to deal with.

Iron Harvest is just too rough right now for me to see it as worth its price tag. The moments of fun are just not balanced out by the massive slog and frustration some of the larger levels can become. The quality of the campaign is varied, and doesn’t always play to the strengths of the game as a whole.

Iron Harvest is currently $50 on Steam. If you really love the aesthetic, and think you can put up with the issues above, you can buy it there if you want.

PAX Online 2020 – GAME DEMOS – PART 6 of 6

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In what turned out to be Part 6 of 6 of our demo coverage, thus allowing me to go back and enumerate everything else, we take a look at eight more demos. Why not three for each part, you ask? Like all the others? I don’t know either. But here they are, the last eight.

Format is as follows:

GameName of the Game
Demo LengthHow Long it Took me to Finish the Demo
GenreType of game, based on my impressions
Quick Thoughts3-4 sentences based on what I thought of the game
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameMoo Lander
Demo Length14 Minutes
Genre Adventure?
Quick ThoughtsI think I spent more time trying to figure out what to put in the genre box above then I have spent thinking about Moo Lander. It’s not bad… it just didn’t really grab me? It has some nice art, and amusing writing, but nothing about the demo screamed “BUY ME” to me.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameCrown Trick
Demo Length2 Hours (got to final boss, didn’t beat it)
GenreTurn-based Roguelike
Quick ThoughtsI love Crown Trick. Crown Trick does not love me. Crown Trick thinks it’s okay to put you in a room with three fairly massive bosses and just beat you into a ever-loving pulp. I want to play more Crown Trick, and I want to beat it.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameNeon Abyss
Demo Length10 Minutes
GenreRoguelike
Quick ThoughtsNeon Abyss seems to take ideas from a bunch of places, including Binding of Issac, Dead Cells, and Enter the Gungeon. It’s a fast-paced roguelike where you collect stuff and get better. The demo was fun, and it’s actually out already, but there wasn’t anything in the demo that screamed that I had to buy this game.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameNeko Ghost, Jump!
Demo Length1 Hour
Genre2D/3D Puzzle Platformer + Speedrunner
Quick ThoughtsA lot of stuff about Neko Ghost, Jump! right now is very crude, including the art, music, and animations, but the gameplay is awesome. You can swap between 2D and 3D, and it tends to get used in some really clever ways. The most unique platformer I saw at the show, and have seen in quite a while. Worth keeping an eye on.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameEldest Souls
Demo Length5 Hours/2 Hours from a friend who is good at Dark Souls
GenreDark Souls
Quick ThoughtsThe genre is technically called “Soulslike” but if you make a game where I die for three hours in a row to the same single enemy, you’ve made a Dark Souls. I’m not good at Dark Souls style games, and as I learned with this demo, I might be really bad at them. The game is pure boss rush fights, and my friend who likes Dark Souls games liked it a lot. I mostly liked watching him play after I beat the demo, and reminding myself that I’m not bad at video games, sometimes they’re just hard.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameGreak: Memories of Azur
Demo Length40 Minutes
GenrePuzzle Platformer
Quick ThoughtsI liked Greak, but again, not enough for it really leave a permanent lasting impression. The idea of controlling multiple characters is really neat, but I struggled with the controls, mostly because they were set up pre-bound for Xbox controllers, so a lot of the prompts were off. The one mini-boss was the area where I died the most, and trying to do combat with both characters at once never clicked for me. Still, if you like games like Trine, this might be for you.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameLovingly Evil
Demo Length1 Hour (I played really slowly)
GenreVisual Novel/Dating Sim
Quick ThoughtsI don’t really play visual novels/dating sims. I was gonna have someone else play it, and do a write up, but life happened, so I did it instead. Look, I think if you play this sort of game to begin with, you’ll be a better judge of if you’d enjoy it than me.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameWerewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest
Demo Length22 minutes
GenreVisual Novel
Quick ThoughtsIf nothing else, the writing for this game drew me in really quick. I’ve got to wonder how much of the writing is actually variable, and how much is scripted, but if the goal of a demo is try to get me interested in the full release, this one worked.
Play It HereLink to the Demo

PAX Online 2020 – GAME DEMOS – PART 5 of 6

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Format is as follows:

GameName of the Game
Demo LengthHow Long it Took me to Finish the Demo
GenreType of game, based on my impressions
Quick Thoughts3-4 sentences based on what I thought of the game
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameJack Move
Demo Length41 Minutes
GenreJRPG Mechanics with a Cyberpunk Theme
Quick ThoughtsPerhaps the most interesting thing mechanically in Jack Move’s demo is the ability to swap out your spells mid combat. Everything else is pretty standard, but well executed. If you’ve played a JRPG, you’ve seen most of these mechanics before, but the presentation is fun. This could turn out to be really good for folks who already like the genre.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameDrone Swarm
Demo Length28 Minutes
GenreReal Time Puzzler/Strategy
Quick ThoughtsIn Drone Swarm, you control a spaceship that has a drone swarm. The writing is painfully campy, and the whole “Oh no aliens please don’t attack us” thing, where you are then forced to blow them up (even though mechanically, you can pretty easily survive without damaging them) rubbed the wrong way. On the other hand, the actual mechanics are neat, since you do stuff by drawing patterns and shields. If nothing else, Drone Swarm is pretty unique, making this demo warrant a play.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameDestiny’s Sword
Demo Length12 Minutes, but I just Stopped “Playing”
GenreI have no idea.
Quick ThoughtsThe Destiny’s Sword demo does not do a good job of selling Destiny’s Sword as a game. As far as I can tell, it looks like a glorified mobile game with some troop management mechanics. Honestly, this was just such a poor demo that I stopped playing, since it was kinda hard to figure out what you were even supposed to be doing, and you can’t really interact in the battles outside of a few “Tap to activate” abilities.
Play It HereLink to the Demo

PAX Online 2020 – GAME DEMOS – PART 4 of 6

This excerpt space for rent.

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Format is as follows:

GameName of the Game
Demo LengthHow Long it Took me to Finish the Demo
GenreType of game, based on my impressions
Quick Thoughts3-4 sentences based on what I thought of the game
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameMorbid: The Seven Acolytes
Demo LengthJust over an Hour
GenreDark Souls, but 2D
Quick ThoughtsI am not a Dark Souls person; this game is a Dark Souls. As such, it took me forever to beat, and at least 4-5 tries on the final boss alone. Did I like it enough to buy it? Not sure yet, I’m not a masochist. Overall, really good.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameInkulinati
Demo Length1 Hour
GenreTurn Based Tactics
Quick ThoughtsOne of the neatest things I’ve played so far at the show. Art is great, music is great, gameplay is great. Only real gripe I have is that the AI in the demo seems very weak in terms of letting you just shove the enemy captain Inkulinati off the ledge. But, y’know, demo. Worth keeping an eye on.
Play It HereLink to the Demo
GameExophobia
Demo Length39 Minutes
GenreSingle Axis Shooter
Quick ThoughtsI wanted to put “I can’t believe it’s not Return to Castle Wolfenstein” in the genre section again, but then remembered I’m supposed to be professional. Nothing amazing, nothing awful about Exophobia. The opening is very slow. This is one of the demos where I think you can play it and know if you’ll be interested in the final game. This one just isn’t for me though.
Play It HereLink to the Demo