Chess Evolved Online

Did you ever look at Chess and think “Wow, I really wish Chess was more complicated, and that you could power up your units?” Well boy do I have the game for you.

I think Chess Evolved Online (or CEO as I’ll abbreviate it) is neat. If you like Chess, it’s worth checking out. If you don’t like Chess, you can save yourself the time of reading this article by closing your web browser and doing something else. Okay, lede dealt with. Time for a diatribe.

I write this blog about games at least in part because I consider myself pretty good at them, though in retrospect, “Experienced” might be a better word. I play a lot of games. There are many things that I’m not very experienced with, and so I don’t really comment on them, such as international relations, and agricultural policy. I still have opinions on them, but I don’t think they’re valuable to share.

I mention all of this because CEO has reminded me of something I forgot: I really, really suck at Chess. Or at least I really suck at it relative to people who play Chess at any level of actual competition or play.

I bring this up because after playing 12 hours of CEO, I couldn’t tell you if the game is balanced, or fair, or a good Chess equivalent or what. I could probably play 100 more hours, and I still wouldn’t have a good idea.

So instead of talking too much about that aspect of the game, I’m just gonna quickly list a few of the mechanical innovations CEO makes vs an ordinary Chess game, talk about the game’s meta progression structure and my thoughts on that, and then wrap up with a link to the game. I’m not gonna talk about balance or fairness, or whatnot, because I don’t think I’ll get any of it right. I’m also going to assume anyone reading this knows how Chess is played, and if you don’t, allow me to link you to the Wikipedia page on the game.

I did not win this.

So, new mechanics. Unlike in Chess, CEO has a different set of win/loss conditions: Morale. Each of your pieces has a value associated with it, which as far as I can tell, generally scales to its power/utility. The queen is worth 21 points, a bishop is worth 12, a rook is worth like 13. You get the idea. When your piece gets taken, you lose that much morale. If your morale hits zero, you lose.

Your king, on the other hand, is special. When your king gets taken, you lose an immediate 25 morale, and then an additional 3 morale per turn. The fairly obvious result of this is that while losing your king will eventually lead to a loss, unlike in standard Chess, it’s not an immediate loss. This has some interesting implications, like being able to trade kings, and also ending up in situations where you have to decide if sacrificing your king might be worth it.

The other special factor controlling the game is “move decay.” After turn 50, each player loses 1 morale at the start of their turn. This effectively puts a cap on how long games can go, and also means that in a game of attrition, whichever player can take a take an early advantage is likely to win. As far as I can tell, there are no draws in CEO.

There’s one last big mechanic in CEO: time. I’m not familiar with professional/semi-pro Chess, but a few quick google searches make it look like the game is limited is to about 90 minutes for your first 40 moves or so.

As you might guess, CEO doesn’t really go in for that. Instead CEO has two formats: CEO Blitz and CEO Standard. Standard gives you 30 seconds a move, after which you have a pool of 4:00 minutes. Blitz gives the same 30 seconds but with a pool of 2:00.

The result of all of these changes, at least to me, is the game feels far faster paced and bloodier than standard Chess. At the same time, the fact that losing your king isn’t a loss means that games can turn into brawls far faster than standard Chess.

So, those are the general changes to the game’s structure. Now let’s talk about the army building. Yes, CEO has army building.

There are a few factors that go into army building. The game has two types of pieces: champions and minions. In general terms, you can only place minions in the front row, and only place champions in the back row. Minions are weaker than champions, and usually (but not always) have a promote ability. This is where another interesting change comes into play: pawns always promote to bishops. This opens up some interesting space for weaker minions with stronger promotions.

Pieces also have a supply cost, and your army has to be under your supply limit. You increase said limit by reaching a higher rank. I don’t love this too much, but I’ll talk about why later.

Everything else about the game feels like a fairly unique attempt to fix some of the problems that Chess has. But how you obtain and upgrade pieces for your army feels fairly standard. Because, of course, pieces can be upgraded.

The game has two currencies, gold and gems. You earn gold by playing games, and you earn more by winning. You get gems by either exchanging gold for gems, completing various objectives, or opening random boxes.

Or spending real money.

And this is why I say it feels standard: The game loop becomes a pattern of grinding for currency to either buy units straight up at a in-game shop, or buy random booster boxes of units in the hopes of getting something you want. At the same time, you use duplicate units to upgrade your existing units.

Tell me this doesn’t look like a mobile game UI.

And this is where the game started to annoy me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not great at Chess, but all of a sudden the game starting feeling like a mobile game. I was no longer logging on to build unique armies or try interesting strategies. I was logging in to open daily boxes, playing ranked for currency to try to grind more boxes, and just generally playing the game solely to get more units. Instead of trying to build unique armies and innovate, I played the standard Chess army because I was more familiar with it, and I cared more about winning than experimenting.

Now, if I was better at Chess, this might not be true. Perhaps if I was a stronger player, I would find it easier to win, and as such be more interested in some of the other systems that make up the game. As it was, though, I ended up feeling like I wasn’t playing for fun, or to use the game’s unique systems, but to just grind to get more pieces. And this is where I stopped playing.

In summary, CEO’s actual gameplay containes a bunch of massive changes to the core structure of Chess, to try to make it more exciting and interesting, while also speeding up the pace of the game. But the meta-progression structure that exists around the gameplay feels like a standard mobile game, and it feels bad. If you end up matched against AI or players with higher ranking than yourself, in addition to likely being better at the game than you, they also have a larger supply pool to pay for their army. Even if you’re both playing identical armies, if they’ve upgraded their pieces, they have access to options and moves you don’t.

And that doesn’t feel great. And while I suspect that the actual mechanics of things like supply/value on units are probably balanced, it still feels bad to get decimated by someone with a unit you just don’t have.

Ed Note: The poster child for this particular experience is the ninja, a unit that feels like a knight on steroids, with the ability to take pieces in all directions that are adjacent, while also having a unblockable jump.

This just feels like bullshit.

Chess Evolved Online is free on Steam, with in-app purchases to buy additional rubies, which in turn get spent on buying units/random booster boxes of units. The game makes a bunch of really interesting mechanical changes to the base game of Chess, but it makes them parallel to a meta-progression structure that, for me, made the game feel like a grind. I still think it’s interesting enough that folks should check it out, but I feel like without a strong interest or background in Chess, you might end up having a similar experience to me.

Racial Justice Bundle – Didn’t make the Cut

Wow, it’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, huh? I finally dug back into the ol’ backlog of games this weekend, looking for more treasure in the large pile of…. stuff.

Stuff that people probably worked very hard on, but still wasn’t actually all that fun or interesting.

Or (at least in my subjective opinion) wasn’t “Good.”

As always, I encourage readers to download and play these games yourself. Don’t just take my word for it if I call something stupid garbage! Experience it yourself. Join me in the digital equivalent of dumpster diving, because as they say, one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure.

Babysitter Bloodbath

I’m not sure what to say about this game, other than: it has surprisingly nice polish and production values, but I still didn’t care enough to want to keep playing it. The whole thing gave me a super old-school Resident Evil vibe, and frankly, I don’t much like horror. So after the second time the controls bugged, and I couldn’t turn left or right, I was more then happy to put it down, and pick up something else.

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a game about being a spaceport janitor. You burn trash, try not to vomit everywhere from eating garbage out of a vending machine, avoid getting shaken down by cops who eat your money, and also search for a way to remove a giant weird skull that perpetually floats behind you screaming.

Okay, so my description sounds kind of cool, but the game just feels boring. You wander around, trapped in a loop of never having enough money to buy anything, within a maze-like city zone, all the while just generally having everything be shitty and sucky. Oh, and while torching garbage.

Maybe the intention of the designers was to create an atmosphere of boredom and fatigue, caused by doing the same thing every day, and feeling like a hamster trapped on a wheel. I don’t know. Apparently the giant floating skull is a metaphor for depression? Not sure I really connect with that one either. Point is, if the intention was to make something that feels boring and dreadful, they succeeded. I am bored, and I would dread ever playing this thing again.

Some neat art and a little bit of neat worldbuilding though.

Tonight We Riot

Unfair enforcement of laws in regards to minorities, and those with sexual or political orientation differing from the mainstream are a big issue. Lack of police oversight and accountability are serious problems. Capitalism has significant flaws that are having lasting impacts on our society.

I don’t think the proposed response of Tonight We Riot, which appears to be murdering riot police with cinder blocks, and torching bankers with molotov cocktails is a great solution to either of those problems.

So yeah. I don’t love the theming. And I also don’t love the controls. Many of them feel fairly wonky, and the targeting on things like ranged weapons, and controls for moving your fellow workers also don’t feel great. I played through the first big boss and called it a day.

Dorfromantik Demo

Dorfromantik ends up in a “Didn’t make the cut” article not because it’s bad, but because it’s a very barebones demo that while nice, didn’t compel me to rush to buy the full game. If there was any single item on this list right now that I would actively encourage other people to check out, Dorfromantik would be it. Given that the full game sits at 2400 reviews with an average of overwhelmingly positive on Steam, I think people other than me might like it.

Just a hunch, y’know?

Legion TD 2

The gameplay is really interesting, even if everything else is a bit lackluster.

I like Legion TD 2. As of writing, I’ve played about 84 hours of it, and I haven’t quite burned myself out yet.

Ed Note: In the time between starting writing this article, and finishing this article, that number has moved up to 120.

Legion TD 2 is a sequel to Legion TD in the same way that Dota 2 is a sequel to DotA, which is to say that it isn’t. If that last sentence didn’t make any sense to you, I can put it a different way: “Legion TD 2 is a remake of Legion TD in a new engine, as a standalone game, with better graphics and support.” So if you’ve ever played the Warcraft 3 mod that was its predecessor you already know the structure of the game.

If you haven’t, here’s a quick crash course in the general flow and structure of the game.

Legion TD 2 is a competitive unit placement/builder. It’s not really a typical tower defense, at least in the standard way of thinking about things. Instead, you spend gold to place and upgrade units onto a grid, before each wave. At the start of each wave, your placed units turn into actual units, and go to fight the incoming wave of units. Units have a damage type, an armor type, and the game has a somewhat Pokemon style matchup for what beats what. So in order to do well, you need to know in advance what wave you’ll be facing.

If all your units get killed, the remaining enemy attackers go and fight any units that your teammates might have had remaining after clearing their own set of waves, and then go and attack your king. If your king runs out of health, the game is over and your lose. If your opponents’ king runs out of health, you win.

There are two big things I haven’t mentioned yet that provide a lot of the meat of the game. First off, the units you can build in any given match are semi-random for that given match. So unlike most other tower defense games you can’t just make a perfect build and roll with it; you have to be able to look at your choices, and make judgements about what you’ll need, and when you’ll need them.

The second is a mechanic called sending.

Sending is when you spend a resource to add additional units to an enemy wave that is attacking one of your opponents. The resource in question is called mythium, and you get it over time based on the number of workers you have. Workers cost gold, the same resource you use to buy and upgrade units, which means money spent on getting workers is money that isn’t spent on upgrading your actual defensive line. Sending also gives you permanent gold income based on the units you sent to attack, so holding all your mythium just to blow it at once can actually end up costing you money.

There are a few other mechanics I won’t go into too much right now, but this is the general gameplay a match of Legion TD 2. The game is about keeping a balance between investment and long term economy. On waves when your units are having a bad matchup, you might need to commit more to building up your forces, and on waves where you’re strong, you choose to sink money into workers instead.

At the same time, you’ll be trying to read your opponents’ builds, and make guesses about when they’ll be weak, or when they’ll decide to apply pressure. If I have any gripes with game, it would be that once you fall behind, it can feel very difficult to fight your way back in. There just aren’t any comeback mechanics. “Leaking,” or allowing waves of attackers to get your king, means you’ll have less gold to work with for future waves. As a result you can end up in a situation where if you overspend on building units, you can’t scale in the long term, but if you don’t build enough units, you just die.

Legion TD 2 appeals to me in the same way that a game like Dota does. Like Dota, in Legion TD 2 you play the game in short matches, and over a match, you feel the fun power curve of playing a longer RPG or tower defense game. It feels fun to finish and build up some of the bigger towers, and to watch them wreck incoming waves, at least for a bit. At the same time, there isn’t really any out-of-match progression. Each match you restart at nothing, and go through the whole process again. The main power progression lies in learning about mechanics and edge cases, trying different strategies, and just generally improving bit by bit.

Legion TD 2 is surprisingly relaxed for a fairly competitive game. You can’t exactly play it and do something else at the same time, but as far as games go, it doesn’t require require massive amounts of micro or clicky clicky. Instead, it just requires focus, and a bit of patience. It’s far more mellow than something like Underlords or TFT.

At this point I’ve played a lot of Legion TD 2, and while I really like it, it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. It’s highly competitive, and while the toxicity isn’t as bad as what I’ve seen in other online games, it is present. Everything that isn’t the gameplay is fairly underwhelming, with art and music that feels very “generic fantasy.” But the mind games and push-and-pull resource management are unique—if what you’ve read interests you, and you have $20 to spare, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Click to go to the Steam Page!

Eximius: Seize the Frontline

Today, I am the fifth dentist.

I like Eximius, and generally speaking, I’ve enjoyed playing it. I think at $30, the price feels high, and I’d have a much easier time recommending it if it was like $10, or had some sorta bulk pack for multiple copies, because it is most definitely a game that is way better with friends. On the other hand, given what it took to get the game finished, I kind of get why they’re charging $30 for it.

My summary for this game is, “Today, I am the fifth dentist.” In my group of friends that I roped into playing the game I am the lone dissenter, the only one who enjoyed the game.

Like, the only person.

I’ve attached a video of about an hour of gameplay from a Twitch stream. I was gonna grab screencaps and stuff from the stream, but the quality at 720p felt too low. If you’re on the fence about the game, you’ll most likely get a better opinion of watching me play for a bit than from screencaps. Unfortunately, I also forgot to unmute my mic while streaming, and didn’t mute my friend, so you’ll get to listen to his lovely voice performing half a conversation.

Whoops.

My friends disliked this game enough that, at first, this article was gonna be about why you shouldn’t buy Eximius. But this is my article, and until one of my friends offers to write their own, telling you why you why they regret buying the game based off my stupid opinions, this article will remain the sole source of Gametrodon truth.

Okay, so let’s start by talking about Eximius actually is, for starters: Eximius is a combo RTS/FPS, played between two teams. There are five players to a team, with one player taking the role of the commander, with the ability to build structures, command AI troops, and get a top-down view of the battlefield, like a classic RTS. The remaining 4 are officers, with the ability to run about, shoot people, and generally cause all kinds of chaos. These other four can also have AI troops of various types assigned to them, and can give said troops fairly limited commands. (Gripe #1: I really wish you could actually order your troops to either stand in specific places or leave them somewhere to call them in later.)

You can assign general infantry troops to your officers, but you have to control special troops yourself. There are two factions in the game, AXE, and GSF, which stand for something I can’t remember, but all you really need to know is that the GSF are your typical generic future military dudes, with access to mortar and machine gun squads, infantry and engineers, and a few fairly typical vehicles. (Gripe #2: Vehicles can’t be manually controlled or ridden in by players, and have a tendency to get stuck between various things, due to questionable AI parking. On one notable occasion, I saw a tank sort of leap across the map after clipping into terrain.)

AXE, on the other hand, are more of your “future tech” faction, complete with outfits that make them look like something from Warframe, with smooth Exo-skeletons, and crisp weapons. They also get Ironguards, which for all intents and purposes you can just read as “T-1000 Terminator Units,” massive hulking exo-suits equipped with miniguns, that can just mulch 90% of unencamped infantry they come across. They have a selection of vehicles as well.

Let’s talk about one more thing before we get into why I like the game, and why my friends do not: the general structure of a game of Eximius.

There are two ways to win a game of Eximius. The first is to destroy the enemy base. This is easier said than done, because even if you’re crushing your opponent, their base is surrounded by 7-8 very high powered cannon encampments.

The second is to run your enemy out of supply points. More than likely, this is how you’ll actually win. Both teams start with a predefined amount of these points, and you take points from the enemy team by killing their units while they control less Victory Zones than you do. Different types of units are worth different amounts of supply.

In addition to the Victory Zones, there are also Resource Zones, which give either money, ammo, or power. Money is your base resource used for buying most units, with power used for buildings and other higher tier stuff. Ammo is used for activated abilities, like airstrikes, repair drones, and troop drops.

The end result of all of this is that you spend a lot of the game either holding points, trying to hold points, or pushing in to hold points. What I heard from other folks was that the game felt like Battlefield in that respect, except again, minus a lot of the polish you get on something like Battlefield. It’s not always the most thrilling thing in the universe.

And I don’t disagree with them. The hitmarkers that show up when you get shot are really subtle, and not necessarily enough to figure out where you’re being shot from. There’s also no difference between being shot with shields (HP that regenerates over time and out of combat) vs unshielded. There’s also no tracer rounds on most weapons, meaning that if an opponent is hiding in a bush, you can die before figuring out where they are.

They also had issues with some of the games economy system and power division, with the commander role feeling far more impactful to then the officers. And I can’t really disagree with that either. Officers really only have the ability to run around, capture points, and shoot stuff. You can’t use extra money you get to do things like call in buildings or extra ammo, so it’s fairly easy to get to a point where you are effectively just burning cash as an officer because you can’t have more than your cap.

And on the subject of the commanding/commanders UI. It’s not great. I would mark it as passable. I suspect my friends would go with awful. It disregards a lot of standard conventions for RTS controls (No shift queuing actions,), the action bar isn’t standardized across units, (infantry has an attack move, but vehicles don’t) and it can just be a pain to use. (You can’t assign officers to control groups for example.)

So the end result if you feel the same way they do is that it’s a game where you spend a lot of time either trying to hold a given location, getting into unclear gunfights, and being shot or blown up by encamped morters half a mile away when you round a corner.

On the other hand, I actually like trying to figure out how to break defenses, hold points, and stall for time. The fact that you can have gunfights with “winners” where neither person ends up dying is interesting to me. The mechanics of death, having to buy up your loadouts each time you revive, along with being able to use AI troops as cannon fodder/distractions is neat.

The big differentiator for me is that every conflict in a round has costs associated with it. While the moment-to-moment gameplay might feel similar to other shooters, the gunfights themselves feel more meaningful in the bigger picture.

Sneaking into a back line to capture Resource Points and harass the enemy’s economy, or trying to hold a point while fairly outnumbered until resources arrive are things you can do in other games, but in Eximius they have meaningful impacts on the rest of the war taking place, instead of being separate skirmishes. Where and when you choose to take fights is just as meaningful, if not more meaningful, than winning them. It’s not another shooter where if your K/D is greater than 1, you are a credit to team.

And that’s why I like it. There are a lot of elements in the game that could be improved, but they haven’t stopped me from enjoying the gunfights, trying to be sneaky, or desperately rushing in to try to salvage a win. The game does a really good job of creating organic set pieces and exciting clutch moments, and the fact that you’re playing against other humans makes it that much more fun. When you get to the end of round, it’s possible to look back and figure out what you needed to do differently, or what you could have tried instead.

Eximius is an ambitious indie game, when all is said and done, and more importantly, I find it fun. I might not be in the majority here, and there are definitely a lot of areas that the game could either use some improvement, or some hardening. But even in its current somewhat janky state, I enjoy playing, and I’m likely to continue playing it. I do wish I had more people to play it with, but y’know. Taste is subjective.

What are we playing? – March 2021

We got up to some shit this month…

I’ve been playing a surprisingly large number of games over the last two weeks, so I figured I’d just toss out what I’ve been playing recently. Some of these might get longer writeups, some might not, as there have been a lot of duds as of late.

Here’s the run down.

Magic: LegendsTLDR: It kinda sucks.

Possibly the highest profile game that’s gonna be on this list, and also the biggest dud, in my opinion. I saw someone describe it as “More fun to watch other people play than to play yourself” and I disagree. It doesn’t seem particularly fun to play or watch.

The whole thing just seems cheap and plasticky. If nothing else, it kind of made me want to play Path of Exile again. I’ll give it credit for having exactly one interesting mechanic, in that it is an ARPG where you build a deck of cards, and after you use an ability it goes away until you get it again. In theory, this forces you to play around your hand. In reality, of the few hours I played, I didn’t really feel it.

Armello – TLDR: I wish the gameplay was as good as the collectible in-game dice.

Steam says I’ve played like 12 hours of Armello over the last few weeks, and I’m gonna be honest, I know exactly why that is. See, Armello has what I’d consider to be hands down the best digital dice that I’ve ever seen, and I want them. And the game rewards you with random lootboxes that give you dice after you play multiplayer games. So I tend to log on, try a multiplayer game, not get any super cool dice, and repeat.

For anyone wondering why I haven’t talked about any Armello mechanics, it’s because I can’t say that I love the game itself. It feels really random, and also seems to have a massive kingmaker problem in the late game, which ends up being pretty unsatisfying.

Eximius: Seize the Frontline – TLDR: I like it. None of my friends do.

I like Eximius, and my friends don’t, and more on that when I do the full writeup on the game. But yeah: it’s an RTS/FPS hybrid that’s kind of janky, and maybe doesn’t have a lot of the polish it needs. But I still like it.

Move or DieTLDR: It also sucks.

On the one hand, I think Move Or Die is garbage. On the other hand, it cost three dollars, and friend bought it for me, and said friend was in the group of folks that I convinced to drop $30 on a indie FPS/RTS hybrid shooter which they did not like. So yeah. We played Move or Die for an hour. I don’t think it’s very fun.

Legion TD 2TLDR: $20 Warcraft 3 Mod, but I like it.

I just keep playing this game. A “campaign” mode just got added, but given what campaigns have been in other games, calling it a “single player tutorial” seems more accurate, or maybe a “challenge mode vs the AI.” Legion TD 2 is sorta like Dota for me, I just play it, enjoy it, and it’s purely on the moment to moment decisions you make in game, nothing else.

Shovel Knight: King of CardsTLDR: It’s the best. And $10.

Easily the most fun game on this list. I feel like King Knight might have the best controls and movement of all the characters in the Shovel Knight series, but that might just be me. This mode also has a card game, with collectible cards that you can win, and unlock. So… yeah. If you want to know more about Shovel Knight in general, you can read our writeup here. But King of Cards is just great, and honestly might get its own article in the future at some point.

That’s all for now. If you’ve been playing something interesting you think we should check out, feel free to hit us up on Twitter, or more likely given that anyone reading this blog knows us personally, hit us up on Discord.

Shovel Knight – Treasure Trove

Shovel Knight isn’t a frosted brick.

Ed Note: This writeup is based on finishing the Plague Knight and Shovel Knight campaigns, but not King of Cards, Showdown Mode, or Specter of Torment.

Shovel Knight is great.

The sentence above pretty much sums up my opinions on Shovel Knight, and part of me is really tempted to just leave it at that. The other part of me thinks that a little more explanation is needed. The problem with said extra explanation is that I’ve been having a really hard time trying to put my finger on why Shovel Knight is so good.

Yes, Queen Knight. Normally it would be King Knight. The game has gender swap options which I turned on for this save file, along with custom pronouns that aren’t linked to the selected body type. I don’t think I have anything valuable to say on this feature, as I’m the most cis straight white wonderbread looking motherfucker you’ll ever meet, but it’s cool to see that it’s there.

Okay, so while I stall for time on that, let’s talk briefly about what Shovel Knight actually is: it’s a platformer styled like the platformers of yore. The game itself has a structure similar to Mega Man, where you’re given a set of levels to pick from, and need to clear them all to continue to the next set of levels.

There are some optional mini side levels, and also some enemies that show up and roam on the map, kinda like Hammer Bros from Super Mario. The levels themselves are all pretty varied, with each one having a general theme, and about 3 or so different mechanics regarding the platforming itself. At the end of each level, you’ll fight a boss: an enemy knight and member of the Order of No Quarter. Levels also have hidden treasure, relics, and other good stuff in them.

These GIFs are way more laggy than the game is. Shovel Knight actually runs silkily smooth, and I never experienced any slowdown while playing. At least the GIFs give a good look at the style and palette of the game, I guess. Honestly not sure if I should keep them.

This is just for the Shovel Knight and Plague Knight campaigns, by the way. It looks like the Specter Knight campaign is like a separate sort of thing? And King of Cards has an entire extra board game that you can play? This game has a lot of stuff in it…

Oh, right, I’m still supposed to be writing a review. Well, through the magic of “writing,” in the time between the block of text above, and this one, I went back and played a bunch more to try to put my finger on why the game is so much much fun, and I think a lot of it comes down to movement.

See, everything about Shovel Knight is pretty great. The music is banging, the art feels incredibly fitting and clean, the story is simple but really good, but to me, a lot of those elements are just window dressing. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, but they’re the frosting on top. Even if you frost a brick, it’s still a brick.

But Shovel Knight isn’t a brick because the art, music, and story are all built on top of a solid core of movement, and equally importantly, levels and areas that utilize that movement effectively. Bouncing from enemy to enemy, digging up piles of treasure, and dodging and reflecting projectiles all feels fun and responsive. And the levels are all laid out in ways to give you both tricky platforming challenges, and satisfying instances of pulling them off.

Okay, so unrelated: if this game had come out in like the 2000’s, would tons of folks have Knightsonas on their Deviant Art pages, instead of “X The Hedgehog” sonic recolors? It’s interesting to think about. Like, the game provides built in sprites, recolors, etc, for each of the characters in the game. And the gender swaps mean that you could make just about any Knightsona you’d want.

And this is the cake under Shovel Knight’s frosting. It’s not particularly flashy or obvious, but it’s the base of everything else in the game. It’s what makes the boss fights fun and enjoyable instead of slogs, it’s what makes the platforming fun instead of frustrating, and it’s what makes it so that when you fail, you want to go again.

And, dear reader, let me let you in on a little secret: I called Shovel Knight a bit of a throwback up above, but I’m not sure that’s entirely honest, and that’s to Shovel Knight’s credit. While the game mimics the style of older games, it doesn’t copy their mistakes. There is no traditional game over, and while dying makes you lose money, you can always try to get it back. You can reset levels if things go too incredibly wrong and you end up strapped for cash. The game’s hidden items are purchasable with the gold you find if you’re unable to actually discover them in the level they’re located in, albeit at a slightly higher price.

This, I think, is the best thing I can say about Shovel Knight. It embodies the heart and feeling of those older games, without committing their sins. It mimics their style, without aping it, or being a cheap copy. And it manages to stand out and be joyful to play in a genre with countless competitors.

To just play through the base game won’t take you very long, but it has a lot of potential for speed running, mastery, and secret hunting. Personally, if you think you might like the game I’d suggest buying the Treasure Trove edition, which has all the campaigns and such in it. If you want to try it cheaper, you can buy the base game for $15.

Shovel Knight is six years old at this point, making me perhaps the last person to write a review of it. But I hope I’m not the last person to play it, because it deserves a lot more than that.

P.S. Okay, still thinking about the idea of Knightsonas. I kinda love the idea of an alternate universe where instead of people wearing fursuits, we have an entire subculture of folks who dress up in a pixel art style heavy plate mail and helms, with ridiculous weapons.

Kunai

It is a video game that you can play, and some of the art is good. This is the end of the nice things I can say about Kunai.

I don’t love Kunai. I wouldn’t recommend it. But I played 8 hours of it, so I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try to get a review out of it. And yes, that was enough to finish the game.

Okay, so this bothers me even after finishing the game: are the helmets just made to look like monitors? Why do robots and humans look so similar in this game?

If I was asked to summarize Kunai in a sentence, it would be something like “Kunai is fine.” That wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though, because if I tried to make it longer, it would be something like “Kunai is on average fine, or slightly mediocre.” The key word there is average, because there are a few areas of the game that take advantage of Kunai’s strongest point: the expressive and expansive movement of the player character, Tabby.

See, Kunai is a platformer/roguelike, or at least that’s what it wants to be. It never quite feels like that, though. When you revisit zones, it’s because you’re required to backtrack through them. There are no items that you find that aren’t clearly in the main story path. Many of the zones feel fairly linear, and don’t actually require much exploring.

What Kunai does do well are your actual movement options. Between the titular Kunai, a late game dash, rockets, SMGs that can be used to gun float, and otherwise just fairly solid controls, Tabby is a lot of fun to run around with. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t play into this as strongly as it could, and many of game’s zones either don’t take advantage of it, or feel like they actively punish it. Moving too quickly gets you killed, and outside of one area, you never really get to just ricochet around.

Zen Mountains, one of the few really good areas in the game, has lots of small platforms and big open areas to jump around in.

There simply isn’t anything that Kunai does that I haven’t seen other games do better. It would be easier to recommend Kunai if the sum of its parts was greater than its whole, or if it collected a bunch of different mechanics into a game for the first time. But there are other games that take everything Kunai does, story, exploration, movement, art, music, and knock it out of the park, whereas Kunai just limps along. Like, if you want to play an expansive indie metroidvania, just go play Hollow Knight. The gameplay is much better, the game is longer, and Hollow Knight actually has a good story.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the story briefly: Kunai has a story, but it feels rushed and incomplete. There are plot points that feel straight up skipped over, for example a relationship with the villain that’s hinted at, but almost completely ignored the entire game. Nothing ever comes together or makes sense.

We’re part of a rebellion against something, but it’s not clear what we’re rebelling against? Or why? Or why the villain is doing any of this? It’s frustrating because much like Tabby’s movement, the game sets up a very interesting-looking situation, only to never quite utilize it fully.

Swinging your sword to bounce bullets back at an enemy is cool… but gets boring kinda quick.

The game feels like it had heavy cuts to its intended gameplay. For example, there’s a bit where you help power up a giant mech. You put in the power core, see it turn on and… all it does is fly you to a new area, where you do a gauntlet of enemies, then fight the final boss. It’s an incredible letdown.

I feel bad for tearing into Kunai this much, but the only reason I have so much to complain about is because the game feels like it has untapped potential. There’s a fantastic movement system handicapped and hamstrung by mediocre zones and levels. There’s a story that starts out interesting, kneecapped by too little explanation in some parts, and far, far too much in others. Combined, the game just isn’t satisfying to play, and can actually be rather frustrating.

I hope the game makes back its development budget. I hope TurtleBlaze gets to make a second game that doesn’t feel as rushed. There’s a lot of potential here, and a few things that are done quite right.

But there aren’t enough of them for me to recommend this game. If this review didn’t turn you off, you can find Kunai on Steam, and on a few other consoles.

Ed Note: Images are taken from the Steam Store Page. I just don’t have anything really valuable to add with screenshots of this game to be honest.

Atomicrops

A solid top-down roguelite, sharing more in common with something Binding of Issac than, say, Stardew Valley.

I like Atomicrops. I have played quite a bit of it, done quite a few cleared runs, a bit of achievement hunting, and I’ll probably keep playing it even after I write this review for a bit. Like the synopsis says, it’s a really solid roguelite. There are a few areas of the game’s design I disagree with, but they feel more like choices, not flaws, and if you like games like Binding of Issac, or presumably, Enter the Gungeon (Okay, I haven’t actually played much Enter the Gungeon, but that’s what it reminded me of), I feel like you’ll enjoy Atomicrops.

Cool, so now that I’ve put the lede first, let’s actually talk a bit about the game.

I’ve tried and failed to write this article about Atomicrops several times now, all with the intention of having it out and ready this Wednesday Thursday Friday. Given that I started it writing it about a week, you would think this would have been easy. And it would have been, except for a tiny problem called “I thought Atomicrops was going to be high paced twitchy version of something like Stardew Valley, and not a roguelite.” Second disclosure: I’ve never played Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon. Slime Rancher is probably the closest I’ve ever come to a traditional chill farming game.

So yeah, I went in expecting an entirely different genre of game. In both you can acquire farm animals, grow plants, and get married, but what that means in terms of actual mechanics is incredibly different, as are your goals. In something like Slime Rancher, you’re free to play at your own pace. Even if you lose all your health, there really isn’t a game over in any traditional sense.

Dating consists of giving a character roses, a secondary currency you earn from… harvesting roses. Also, all the pairings are gender irrelevant, which is neat. Also, Atomicrops is the first game I’ve ever seen where polyamory is an actual item/upgrade.

In Atomicrops, if you lose all your health, you die, and you’ll have to start fresh. There is a secondary currency used for small, permanent upgrades called cornucopias, but most of said upgrades are pretty minimal.

Here’s a brief overview of the anatomy of an Atomicrops run. The goal of an Atomicrops run is to simply survive all 4 seasons, and then to beat the final boss in the nuclear winter season. Each season consists of three days. Days have a day/night cycle. During the day, crops you’ve planted are invincible, and cannot be harmed. At night, they can be eaten/attacked by various enemy types, and waves of enemies will spawn in to try to attack them. On the night of the last day of a season, you’ll have to fight a boss.

What you’ll notice, though, is that I haven’t described anything that would require you to actually engage in agriculture. With one fairly big exception, “winning” doesn’t technically require you to farm crops for Cashews, the game’s currency. You could, in theory, just spend every day doing nothing to run out the day timer, fight through the waves at night, and rinse repeat your way to victory. This would theoretically mostly work.

So why go into the trouble of growing serpentine roses, potatoes with more eyes than most monsters from the Cthulhu mythos, and excessively overexuberant peas? Well, growing and harvesting crops gets you Cashews and score, but it also feeds into your end of season meter. And secondly, it lets you buy and upgrade weapons.

Based on how much you harvest during a season, you’ll get various items and boosts. Just surviving might not be enough to keep a run going. It’s also how you get the outside-of-run progression currency, cornucopias.

Let’s talk about the weapons in the game for a second, because one of my big gripes relates to them. Almost all the weapons are cool, powerful and fun. They have single path of upgrades that give them more damage, and also boost their utility. (For example, the flamethrower can water crops after getting enough upgrades.)

They also have a chance to break after you complete a day, requiring you to get a brand new one. And when I say chance, I’m talking about a something like a 98% chance by default on most characters. There is a character that can bring it down to a 48% chance, which is still pretty high. (This decreases as you unlock post-run carryover upgrades. Regardless, break chance is never a happy number.)

So here’s why I consider it a gripe, and not necessarily a flaw: having powerful weapons to take on the end of round bosses isn’t strictly speaking necessary, but it does make them much easier to fight. Trying to take on giant mechs, UFO’s, and a spider the size of a house with a literal peashooter is incredibly difficult. So you’re motivated to save up a pile of cashews to buy and upgrade a weapon prior to a day in which you’ll fight a boss, which means you’ll need to farm, which means you’ll need seeds, which means you need to explore, but harder areas have tougher enemies, so you’ll need a better weapon for that, too….

You get the point. Weapons breaking is a core part of the loop of the game, forcing you to go fight for seeds, upgrades, and farm animals, along with one-use powerups (pigeon scrolls). You do this by leaving the central area near your farm, and clearing out camps of marked enemies. Once you clear a camp, you get a reward.

Once you gun down all the bunnies, you get to pick an upgrade from the locked boxes.

The point is, though, if you could just upgrade a single weapon, and keep it through a whole run, the system would fall apart pretty quickly, and kill a lot of the pressure that the game generates.

Outside of that, I really don’t have any big gripes about Atomicrops. The game also does one thing really well, though kind of subtlety. So I wanna call that out, and talk about it a bit.

Atomicrops handles item effect stacking and resolution really well. A variety of the passive pickups you get have effects like “When X occurs, Y occurs,” and the game handles it super gracefully. As an example, there is an item that causes weeds to do a blast of damage to nearby enemies when cut down. There’s also an item that causes killing enemies to cut nearby weeds. If you end up getting these together, shooting and killing a nearby enemy can turn into a wonderful chain reaction of exploding weeds and shredded enemy packs.

From what I’ve seen, this works for almost every item combo that you would expect it to in the game. Farm animals can trigger items that would proc based off their respective text, and so on. And it’s what makes Atomicrops such a good roguelite. You’re given a limited amount of items to choose between during your run, and spotting and knowing about various synergies can make or break a run. Some items can seem lackluster at first, such as the ability to harvest weeds for small amounts of cashews, but combined with rapid weedcutting, tractors, or chickens, can turn out to be incredibly useful.

Atomicrops is an incredibly solid run and gun roguelite. It’s not perfect. There’s a fairly limited number of bosses, and the game’s controls can be frustrating at times. But the fantastic way that synergies are handled, the number of builds that can be created, and how weapons that are just fun to use (even if they break way too easy) make it sort of sleeper hit for me. It’s not the game I was expecting, but it’s honestly probably more fun than what I thought I was getting into.

(Oh, and the art for each of the irradiated fruits and veggies is also great. Weird without being Binding of Issac levels of discomforting.)

Atomicrops is $15 on Steam or the Epic Games store, and a bunch of other consoles I won’t list here. This review is based on the PC version. Friendly reminder that even if you do loath Fortnite and the stupid dances it has made the youth partake in, EGS gives a higher percentage to developers than Steam.

Loop Hero

Whelp, this is gonna hurt.

Ed Note: We received a review copy of Loop Hero prior to release. The only condition we were given was not to release the review until after the embargo for the game.

So I mentioned a while back that I was gonna try to get a copy of Loop Hero to review. And to my surprise, the whole thing actually sorta worked. I’ve been playing it for just under about two weeks at this point. And right now I wouldn’t recommend it.

That probably sounds kind of strange, so let me give a little bit of context here: I’ve played about 30 hours of Loop Hero. After about hour 25, I said “Fuck It” and modified a few configuration files to give myself effectively infinite resources, bought out the rest of the tech tree, and went back to playing the game.

So when I say I wouldn’t recommend Loop Hero, it’s not that I haven’t had a good time with various parts of the game. The opening few hours from the demo were very good, enough to make me want to get the game. The last few hours after cheated to unlock everything were also much better.

The middle 25 hours were one of the most painful, grindy slogs I’ve ever tried to push through, and I ultimately gave up, and cheated. I would not have even tried to power through them if I hadn’t been given a review copy, and felt like in order to actually write a review, I needed to see the entire game. I would have just uninstalled the game, and called it a day.

So let’s talk about the game’s mechanics a bit, in order to explain why I struggled to enjoy myself.

I’ve seen Loop Hero described a lot of different ways, including: idle game, auto-battler, and rougelite. I’m not sure any of these labels quite sticks for me, but it is a game where combat happens automatically, and you as the player don’t have any input over what your character actually does.

What Loop Hero does give you input on is the items your character wears, and the the world they travel through.

As the name might suggest, a Loop Hero run consists of, well…. loops. Each run starts with a blank world map, as pictured below.

And as a run proceeds, you’ll get two types of drops from enemies. Gear, which works exactly how you think it would, and cards.

We’ll quickly talk about gear first. Characters have a limited number of gear slots, and the three classes each use slightly different types of gear, with a few things in common. This doesn’t actually matter, because once a run starts you’ll only get gear that you can equip.

All in all, there isn’t anything in the gear that feels super special or innovative. It isn’t bad, by any sense, it’s just nothing that you haven’t seen if you’ve played an ARPG before. Vamp, attack speed, crit chance, crit damage, etc. Higher rarity gear has additional stat rolls, again, much like a traditional ARPG. Unlike a traditional ARPG, once you put a piece of gear on, you cannot take it off, and any new piece of gear replaces it.

One of my few minor gripes with the game has to do with the fact that the UI display for gear isn’t fantastic, and it isn’t additive. This is fairly minor though, and not actually a big deal.

My second gripe with gear is that as far as I can tell, it’s completely random. I couldn’t find a way to influence the rolls that I got, and as such, it turns into a crap shoot. You either get gear with stats you want, or you don’t. A string of bad luck early can absolutely ruin a run, even if you make all the right decisions, and it’s one of the things that makes the game feel like less of a rougelite to me. So since you can’t influence gear, the extent to which you can do anything with it is just making quick judgement calls on if you should swap your current gear for something new.

So let’s talk about the part of the game you have a bit more influence on: the cards that make up the map.

Cards are (mostly) all from a pool that you choose beforehand. This is the deckbuilding aspect of the game.

Of the different categories, you’re required to have at least a certain amount of cards selected. And while this is purely a guess from my side, it at least feels like the cards have different drop rates.

Individual cards have rules about their placement and effects. I want to look at two cards, the Mountain and the Grove, as examples.

The Mountain is a fairly straightforward card. The more you play of them, the more HP your hero gets. One thing the mountain also does that the game does not tell you, is that after you play 10 mountains or rocks, it will spawn in a goblin camp at a random location near the road. So, after you’ve played 9 mountains, you may want to reconsider playing a 10th unless you want to add another problem to the map for yourself. In addition, you can only play the mountain on spaces at least two places away from the road.

The Grove is even simpler. Every 2 in-game days that pass, the Grove will spawn a Ratwolf enemy, which will either stay on its current tile, or move left or right. It can only be placed on the road.

Now how do these cards interact with each other?

Well, uh. Actually, they don’t.

In fact, a surprising number of the cards in the game don’t interact with each other, or at least don’t interact in interesting ways. And this brings me to my first big problem with the game: Basic Terrain Tile configuration isn’t actually all that interesting or exciting. At the same time, it’s what you’ll be spending a majority of a run doing.

The game has about 26 cards to build your deck , and almost none of them interact with each other in particularly interesting ways. In fact, only one of them really has a large number of interesting interactions: the River card. It’s also one of the very last things you’ll get access to.

And I think this is my primary problem with the game: the “Loop” of Loop Hero isn’t one of interesting runs, where you have to solve tile placement puzzles. It’s a game of perpetual grind, where you make tiny amounts of incremental progress via upgrades, gear and other small stuff, while hoping this is the run where you get the gear you need to kill the boss.

I have some other gripes with the game as well, but they’re ultimately much smaller things, and changing them wouldn’t change how I feel about the game.

There are a lot of good things about Loop Hero. The art is gorgeous, the game has a bunch of text display options, including a dyslexic setting, and the soundtrack is solid.

The core gameplay, though, of a roguelike auto-battler never really clicked for me. The game felt far more like an idle game by the very end. And that’s not what I was hoping for from the demo. I was hoping for a different type of roguelite, one where you build the world instead of just fight it, a game where learning about the interplay of mechanics, and not just farming and numbers was the key to success. And while Loop Hero might be one of the more complex idle games out there, it’s not quite the roguelite I was hoping for.

Loop Hero is available here on Steam. I should mention that at time of writing, the game has been rated “Overwhelmingly Positive” by other people who’ve played it. So I may just be the odd-man out here. But right now, unless you’re looking for an idle game, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Stone Story RPG

Stone Story RPG is great, with some really neat mechanics, but it ends a too abruptly.

Disclaimer: Photos of this game are from the Steam Page, as I was having some issues getting photos in game without spoilers. I highly, highly doubt this will bother anyone, but just putting it out there.

Overall, I like Stone Story RPG. I had fun with it. It does a bunch of really neat stuff I haven’t seen a game do before. At the same time, though, after around 40 hours in game and 10-15 hours played, I think I’m done with it for the moment. So let’s talk about why I like it, why I’m done with it for the moment, and what it would take for me to come back.

Stone Story RPG is kinda hard to pinpoint genre-wise, but I’d say it shares the most in common with idle games. However, I think calling it an idle game would be inaccurate. While you can get to the point where you run the game in the background or even play with the game closed, it doesn’t really utilize what I’d consider to be two of the big mechanics of idle games: restarting the game to go faster, and logarithmic scaling of difficultly clicky numbers. Fundamentally, the game mostly feels like it respects your time. There are a few instances where it doesn’t, but they’re super minor, and we’ll get to them later.

Stone Story has two main sections to playing the game. One is effectively the hub menu, where you craft items, select areas to visit, and do… other stuff. More on that in a bit. Then there are the locations you visit, and these are the actual meat of the game. Once you enter a location, your little dude proceeds forward, fighting enemies until they either get to the end of the area, or die. When you first play a location, your goal will be fairly straightforward: get to the end, kill the boss, and collect one of the titular stones that Stone Story is named for.

I want to talk about those stones now, and as such, from this point on, this review is going to tread into spoiler territory. You have been warned. If you want to experience what Stone Story RPG has to offer on your own, now would be the ideal time to turn back, buy the game, and play yourself.

Go! Be free!~

So lets talk about the Stones. I’m giving them a capital S to emphasize their importance, and also to differentiate them from stones which you just pick up off the ground. There are quite a few of them, and they do far more then the average McGuffin, with each one generally either unlocking an additional system to use, or having some sort of property when held as an active item, or both.

So why are we talking about the Stones under spoilers? Well, some of them fundamentally change how you play the game, along with one other item that you craft. These are the Utility Belt, the Orobourous Stone, and the Mind Stone.

The Utility Belt isn’t a Stone, but once you craft it, you’ll unlock the primary meat of the moment to moment gameplay of running levels. Prior to crafting the pouch, you can only bring in a single set of items, a left hand and right hand slot. Once you unlock the pouch, you can bring in up to 10, binding them to the 1-10 keys, and switching between them whenever you please. This becomes necessary very quickly, as taking advantage of elemental matchups on your weapons is required at higher difficulties, and each item in the game serves a different purpose. Wands can do splash damage to clear packs. Hammers shred armor. Shields give you what amounts to slowly regenerating HP, and crossbows let you shred threats before they get close. And that’s before discussing the other aspects of crafting.

Later, you’ll get the Ouroboros Stone. This Stone makes it so that when you complete a level you’ve beaten before, the level loops around again. You’ll keep your current HP, but everything else will be reset, meaning that if you can create a build that can clear a level without taking damage, you can just loop and farm them to your heart’s content. Now it probably sounds like this would work badly with the above system where you have to actively monitor and switch items all the time. And it will. For a little bit.

And then you’ll get the Mind Stone, at which point the entire game cracks wide open. You see, the Mind Stone unlocks a scripting language.

No, really. Here’s the documentation and here’s the tutorial.

Ed Note: You can just skip these next few paragraphs if you know how to program or know the difference between high and low level programing languages. The writer got a bit too enthusiastic with this section, and I simply don’t have the heart to cut the entire bit. TLDR: high level does NOT mean complex. They actually tend to be simpler a lot of a time. So don’t be scared off by the idea of writing code.

If you’re not familiar with programming or terms used to describe programing languages, either because you’re a luddite who fears the future and lives under a rock, or your a strong independent person who thinks that maybe the precious gift of life should be spent on something other then sitting in a chair, moving their fingers, and staring at a glowing rectangle then:

1. Why are you on this blog?

2. Here’s a brief summary of what is meant by high vs low level. It’s a bit counterintuitive.

Generally speaking, low level programing languages refer to languages that operate closer to the machine. These languages require you to do things like be very specific with defining logical types, allocating memory, and other stuff.

High level languages tend to hide all of that, and just require you to understand general logical operations.

Ed Note: We now return you to your regularly scheduled writing about video games.

This is where the game really starts to open up. With Stonescript via the Mind Stone, you now have the ability to write switching macros, activate potions and items, and just generally speaking automate the game to play itself, and to do so with a level of skill that a human player cannot.

This is where I think a large majority of my time spent “playing” Stone Story RPG was actually spent: in running the game in the background to farm areas and zones, while planning out how to automate and script the other zones of the game in a text editor. It’s also where a large number of the game’s systems finally come together: the crafting, grinding, and planning. Tweaking levels until you get your clear script working exactly as you want is very satisfying. Many of the bosses also have gimmicks or cheesy strats that can be discovered, and are easy to exploit when you control things manually, but can be much harder to script around.

And this is where I just ran out of things to do. The game has a story that I was surprisingly curious about by the end, as it’s primarily told in snippets of lore on descriptions of various boss monsters you fight. But the story “ends” right at a point that feels like it would be about to really kick into higher gear. For a world made purely of ASCII, I’m incredibly curious to learn more about it, but when I learned there wasn’t much else to do but farm and craft items, I lost interest. It’s not that the systems are bad, but by the time I had seen all of them, I was more curious about seeing new content, and subversions of various mechanics to try to program around, than I was about farming harder versions of the same areas.

Now, the game is still being updated, and the developer did say on Discord they’re planning a story expansion at some point in the future. But until then, I think I’m done with Stone Story RPG. I’ve beaten what it has to offer, and I’m more curious about the world the game takes place in than I am in a pattern of farming, optimizing, and farming again.

Stone Story RPG is available on Steam. It’s like $20. I liked it. Perhaps you will too.

P.S. If you do, here’s a link to my script that I wrote for the game, designed to farm a few of the first few levels. Sharing is caring after all.