Disgaea 4 Complete+

God I love this game.

Ed Note: Images for this writeup are from a combo of the Disgaea 4 Complete press kit, and my own save file.

Disgaea 4 is, somewhat strangely enough, the first Disgaea game I played. Specifically, Disgaea 4 Complete+ for the Switch. As far as I can tell, the “Complete” part just means that they opted to include all of the additional DLC and scenarios that were added to the game after its initial release in… 2011.

10 years ago.

Okay, so we might be a teensy bit late on this one.

One of the best things about Disgaea is the ability to customize your hub world and move all the NPC’s you actually care about next to each other.

In any case, like the other games, Disgaea 4 primarily takes place in the Netherworld. The main focus of the story is Valvatorez, a previously incredibly powerful vampire and also arguably total idiot, who never breaks promises he makes. One of these promises involved an agreement to not consume human blood ever. Pretty much all the other side characters are great as well, including Fenrich, Valvatorez’s second in command, who feels like an inverse version of the traitorous vizier trope, and Fuka, a elementary school child who dies, goes to hell, and then proceeds to determinator her way through the Netherworld by refusing to accept her death.

Valvatorez, the vampire who doesn’t drink blood, and Fenrich, his loyal servant who would really like it if maybe he would again.

These games can be kinda weird.

The general arc of the game is Valvatorez’s staging of a coup against the current President of Hell, in an attempt to fix the problems the Netherworld is having, including lack of energy, an inability to handle the influx of guilty souls, and just general failure to… well, be hell.

Behold, the… grid that I don’t remember the name of.

Mechanically, this comes in with the Corrupternment and building placement map. As you advance through the game, you’ll unlock political titles, buildings, and other elements that give benefits to units placed within their area of effects on this grid. You can also pass bills and policies to boost yourself, your rate of EXP gain, unlock new units, make friends, and also just shake down senators for cash.

The general structure of the rest of the game is fairly straightforward, with both the Item World and Chara World in Disgaea 4 following a similar structure of being procedurally generated combat levels where you need to clear all enemies, with a few additional minor changes between them. The game also has Magichange, the ability to turn monster characters into weapons temporarily for your other characters to use (don’t worry, they get better), and monster fusion, which lets you fuse monsters into larger versions of themselves with better range and damage.

Is it really a Disgaea game if the stats aren’t measured in hundred thousands?

Overall, Disgaea 4 is currently my favorite of the games story-wise, if not mechanically. While the game’s art style and mechanics haven’t aged terribly, many of the UI elements and menus do feel a bit outdated at this point, and some of the connectivity features, like fights and pirate ship leaderboards, feel a bit dead. Despite all of this, though, the fights are still interesting, the grind is nice and grindy, and story and characters are still funny.

Okay, so maybe I’ve played a bit too much of this.

You can get Disgaea 4 Complete+ here for Switch, and here for PC if you’re interested.

Disgaea Franchise Week – Kickoff

Here we go dood!

This post inaugurates what I’m calling Disgaea week. Some of you may be wondering why we’re doing this. Is it blatant pandering? Is it because America NIS approved my press credentials? Is it because I love Disgaea and really want them to send me a review copy of Disgaea 6?

The answer has two parts. 1. How dare you question my journalistic integrity, and 2. Yes.

Yes to all of the above.

On the flip side, it also gives a good opportunity to talk about some of the things that are similar between the games, without having to rehash them each time I write about the series.

So lets talk about Disgaea. If I had to summarize the game series in one sentence, I would say: “Disgaea is a tactics game about unleashing your inner mechanics munchkin.” Of course, this ignore the great art, the really solid writing, and skips over all the actual mechanics. But I only had one sentence, so we’ll get to that in a bit.

If you’re not familiar with the series, the Disgaea games don’t necessarily have any continuity between them. Instead, it’s a franchise more in the form of something like Final Fantasy, where each game is a separate cast of characters and goals, but certain elements remain the same, such as the primary combat mechanics, character classes, and Prinnies. Prinnies are the souls of the damned, doomed to pay for their sins in the afterlife by being sewn into a penguin shaped costume and used as the servants/cannon fodder/meat shields/target practice dummies for everyone else in the netherworld.

I’m expandable, dood!

The mechanics of the games often consist of a few fairly nested systems, but the general core gameplay is pretty simple. You’re given a gridded map, a deploy point to move units out onto the map from, and a bunch of enemies you need to defeat to clear the map. The complexity of these maps ranges based on the game, and how you’re expected to beat the map. Some maps are effectively puzzles, requiring moving boxes/blocks around, or destroying various patterns. Some are just standard “Brawl your way across” fights. And some are a combination of the two, or exist to teach you to understand specific mechanics.

Of course, this is just for the standard levels included throughout the campaign. You can also go to the “item world,” which is a series of randomly generated challenge floors. Clearing each floor levels up the item that you’re currently inside, and you can also collect “Innocents” which are people that can be moved between your items, and equipped to your items. So, you can level up your items that you equip to your characters and also equip characters to your items that you equip and where are you going please come back.

And it’s this sort of systemic and mechanical orgy that defines what a Disgaea game is for me. Disgaea games are games where you can level up everything, and once you hit the level cap, you can reincarnate and do it again. They’re games that let you graft and move skills and Evilities (think passive Pokemon-style abilities) from character to character. They’re games where your skills gain experience separate from your character, where you can tweak every inch, and relevel a character over and over until the number on their stat bar is larger than the GDP of the entire planet.

Oh, and you can also go to the chara world, which is different depending on the game, but lets you adjust additional bonuses, and okay, I promise, I’ll stop talking about the systems for now.

Outside of this smorgasbord of interesting interactions, the other biggest thing I’d say the games have going for them are that they’re actually well-written and have voice acting that doesn’t make me cut the cables going to my headphones.

Most of the characters involved, especially the protagonists, are deeply flawed individuals in a variety of interesting ways. My personal favorite would have to be Valvatorez, the main character of Disgaea 4, who is a powerless vampire who could instantly become extremely powerful if he wished, except for the fact that he absolutely refuses to break his promises.

In either case, the key take away from this article is as follows:

  1. I really like Disgaea
  2. Disgaea is a tactics game about being a complete munchkin.
  3. NIS America please send me a review copy of Disgaea 6.
  4. This entire week is going to be me pandering to try to get that to happen.

So buckle up mother fuckers, because this entire week is about to a roller coaster ride of exploding penguins, exceedingly strange mechanics, vampires that don’t suck blood, and the other weirdness that makes up the Netherworld(s)!

Lets go Dood!

Nuclear Throne

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about Nuclear Throne for like two weeks now, and each time I think that I’ll be able to figure it out if I play more of it. Then I go play more Nuclear Throne, and I don’t generate anything new to say about it.

Okay, so let’s talk about why I don’t think Nuclear Throne is perfect, and why I still think you should play it even though I’m about to complain about it a bunch.

To make a long story short, Nuclear Throne is so fun and I played it so much that I was able to make a list of the things that annoy me about the game. So let’s talk about the parts of this good game that drive me nuts.

  1. The Ammo System
    Nuclear throne has a bunch of fantastic guns that all feel super fun to use and handle in the game’s twitchy, fast paced environment. Unfortunately, the guns have a low ammo cap for how hectic the game can become. And I hate that. Often, instead of playing the game like a dodging run-n-gun, I found myself peaking out from behind corners, popping off a shot, and then hiding behind a corner again to conserve ammo. I just want to shoot things.
  2. HP and Damage
    This is a bit of a weird gripe, but here it is: The game does not telegraph at all how much damage various attacks from enemies do. This can become quite frustrating because it’s entirely possible to have a reasonable amount of health (say, 4 HP), and just die in one shot or by blowing yourself up by a surprise high damage attack. I just… find this very annoying. I feel like if I have 4 health left, I shouldn’t just die in one hit.

The end result is that Nuclear Throne ends up feeling like two different games: one where you run-n-gun-n-dodge, and one where you peak around corners with a crossbow, taking potshots and hoping nothing actually rushes you.

So yeah, I generally like Nuclear Throne. I think it’s pretty good. I don’t think it’s perfect. If you bought the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle, you already own it, so you can just download it from there. It’s also just on itch.io for $11, and that feels like about what it’s worth.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

These are the same games that came out 14 plus years ago, with a better controller, and worse motion based gimmicks. If you liked them before, you’ll probably still like them now.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars has Super Mario Galaxy in it, which is pretty much worth the price of admission on its own. Okay, now to figure out what else to say so that this looks like a real article.

I’m not sure there’s much purpose in talking a lot about Super Mario 3D All-Stars, or at least the games in it. Like, it’s a collection games of which the most recent is 14 years old at this point. You’ve got Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. They’re the same as when they came out, and you can now rebuy them for your Switch for like $60 bucks.

What’s that, small voice in the back of my head? Assuming that everyone has already played these is mildly exclusionary, and maybe I should write about the actual content of the games anyway? Sure, if it keeps you from telling me that I should go fishing for rats with a hook and cheese in the alley behind my house, I’m all for it.

All three of these games are 3D platformers, and with some variations, follow more or less the same structure. There’s a hub world, which connects to side zones, each of which has a series of levels populated with either Stars or Shines, which you need to collect. When you collect enough, you unlock access to the next level. Different stars require you to do different things. Some involving navigating gauntlets of traps, some involve solving small puzzles, some require you to defeat bosses, and some are based on your ability to do one of the three things above as fast as possible before a timer runs out.

There. Voice in the back of my head quieted. So let’s return to the bits I want to talk about: each of the individual games.

I played a little bit of Super Mario 64, and to be honest, I don’t think it holds up well. The camera is wonky. I don’t love the controls, and I don’t have any special nostalgia for it, so I’d say that one is wash. This isn’t a remaster, so the graphics are Nintendo 64 graphics, which is to say they look bad. It might have been revolutionary for the time, but that time was over 20 years ago.

Next up is Super Mario Sunshine. I haven’t played any of it, mostly because I’ve been busy playing Galaxy, and I’m not sure if I’ll play any Sunshine, mostly because I really do not want to sit through the eons long opening cutscene. Also because so much of Sunshine is recycled boss fights against that weird goop piranha plant. Again, not a remaster, so I don’t feel too bad about that.

So, we’ve got two down, neither of which was great, but that’s okay because we still have Galaxy. And Galaxy is still godly.

So far, I’ve played Galaxy the most out of the collection. I’d say it holds up very well all things considered. While there’s some wonkiness at times with some of the sections that use motion controls, none of it was enough to make me want to stop playing the game. The music is still great. The graphics aren’t going to win any prizes for incredible technical sophistication, but they also don’t have to. The level design and worlds are all super fun, even if the movement feels watered down relative to other games.

The reality of it is at $60 for just Galaxy, I probably would feel like I got my money’s worth out of the games. But that’s partly because I never really got to finish Galaxy in the first place. I’m not sure that this collection offers a huge amount of value to anyone who has already played these games to completion before (unless you already love the genre, in which case I’m not sure you’d need this review).

So yeah. This isn’t a remaster. If you already liked Mario, want to play more, and somehow destroyed all your consoles except your switch, I’d say the game is a pretty good deal. If you don’t like Mario or 3D platformers, then skip it. This is the same game that came out 14 plus years ago, with a better controller, and worse motion based gimmicks.

MMORPG Tycoon 2

Lots of bone, not enough meat. Yet.

Okay, so let’s get the core of my opinion out of the way: MMORPG Tycoon 2 as it currently stands can be pretty fun, but it feels more like a creative playground than a simulator/tycoon style game. If you’re like me, and you are seeking simulation/tycoon games for the system interactions, I’d say wait on this game for the moment. If you’re not like me, and you just want a really cool imaginative playground of game, you still might want to wait, because I can’t tell if its going to stay that way, or turn into the heavy sim I was looking for.

Look at this. It’s incredible.

It does have the single greatest video game cursor ever though.

Okay, let’s talk about the game’s systems, before we get into why I don’t want to currently recommend it.

MMORPG Tycoon 2 is, as the name suggests, a tycoon game about making a MMO. You start with a blank world map of zones, and it’s your job to make it into a world that your little fake players will want to actually exist in. And also to not go bankrupt while doing it.

Ah, Kyle Land 2021.

This means installing the sorts of thing that every MMO needs, from quest-givers, to shops for equipment and taverns to log out in, to putting in zones that spawn monsters so that your players can grind to their hearts’ content. You’ll also have to put down paths, and set up bandwidth networks which power everything.

In addition to the world building, there’s also a massive amount of customization available. You have the ability to customize the looks of the player characters and NPC’s in the game, with what struck me as an impressive modular system for building simple character models. Buildings and other objects also have robust tweaking and modeling controls.

The in-game classes, NPC’s, and monsters also all share a pretty robust customization system that allows you to tweak their abilities, stats, and also make changes to their character models.

People with good taste and thoughtful design ideas can probably use the modeling system to make interesting and neat monsters and characters. I used it to make a 6 story tall hobo-plague doctor with floating arms that just runs around and beats people up.

Okay, so if the game has all of these features, why do I currently not want to recommend it? Well, while many of these systems exist, they don’t yet interact with each other in particularly interesting ways.

For example, take the bandwidth system. It’s completely decoupled from every other part of the game. You just put down bandwidth everywhere you have objects, and if they don’t have enough juice, you add more. There’s no real need to manage spikes based on player behavior, or other activity.

The same thing feels true of the classes and the monster balance. While you have have the ability to make changes to them, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t really influence the fake players’ decisions. While fake players have the ability to request buffs and nerfs, they don’t do much else.

Closer.

Finally, the weakest system in the game by far in my opinion is the versioning. This is effectively leveling up your MMO, and I dislike it for two reasons.

Reason #1. You don’t level up by getting subscribers/money, or by building out more content for your players. You level up just by placing objects down. If you look at some of the screen shots below, you can see that there are areas where I just smashed down a massive amount of objects because I needed to get my level ups. And also…

Reason #2. The benefits of leveling up are almost entirely numerical, i.e., +5 to loot or something. There are a few that give you more interesting and fun powers (Flight paths, PVP), but most are just… more numbers.

Even closer.

And these are the bones with no meat. The level up system is lackluster, but if the numeric benefits were replaced, or added to with a tech tree, all of a sudden they could become far more interesting. If player classes influenced player behavior more, there would be more impetus to balance them and tweak them. And if quest rewards changed a player’s likelihood to complete them, you could use quest rewards to influence player pathing and decisions.

Of course, these are all just the changes I would make, because I’m curious about what the game would look like as a “simulator” as opposed to a Sims-style creative expression toy, with some light simulation elements. And that’s where I run into my main problem with recommending the game in its current state.

Perhaps a bit too close. Yes, the crocodile is a player class.

I can see the game’s design going in one of two different directions, and it’s unclear to me which of the two it will take.

The first design direction that the developers might choose would be the route of a simulator, something with more in common with maybe Cultivation Simulator, or a pure RollerCoaster Tycoon sort of thing, with systems that govern fake player behavior, happiness, willingness to spend, interaction with in-game systems, etc.

The second possible design direction would be for the game to take a tone of something like Animal Crossing or the Sims. This version of the game would have less focus on the simulation aspects, but with more attention paid to your ability to customize and edit your MMO to be exactly the way you want it, much like building up a village in Animal Crossing or the joy of playing with Legos.

Thing is, I’m not sure that it can go both directions at once.

You don’t get anything out of making custom quests, quest names, or NPC’s other then the satisfaction of making something to annoy your friends with. Or crafting a believable mechanical world, but who does that?

The game currently contains more of the features related to the “playing with Legos” situation. Which is fine. But I suspect that the person who wants to craft a beautiful creation of a MMO doesn’t want their fake players to quit en-masse because they died too much to an angry herd of sheep. They don’t want to have to carefully build exact flight paths, and try to understand fake player behavior, or have to deal with managing the underlying data grid. They don’t want to find themselves in a situation where they need to slap together a higher level zone just to make sure they don’t lose subscribers who hit the previous level cap. They don’t want to be punished for building a dingy back alley in their city, just because they used spooky looking buildings in what the game thinks should be a “happy zone.”

The closest comparison I can draw to this is trying to get a highly rated island in New Horizons. Getting a high rating requires that you make a bunch of changes and follow a bunch of rules that may not mesh with the specific look and feel you’re aiming for on your island. And tying in mechanical progression to making those changes feels bad.

On the flip side, I don’t think the person who just wants play with the simulation/ant farm aspect of the system wants to be forced to put down individual cacti to make the desert area more “Deserty” so that players don’t quit over a lack of immersion.

Running won’t save you Inbae. Bob is coming.

And this is why I’m hesitant to recommend the game right now; there’s a lot of potential, but it’s unclear to me what direction this game will go in, so it makes it hard to know who to recommend it to. Will it remain a lite sim where the primary joy is something akin to Animal Crossing, that of building out and creating your own cool space? Or will it become something more mechanically heavy, but less focused on customization?

With that said, the game has a bunch of potential, and I encourage anyone who finds the premise interesting to add it to their Wishlist and keep an eye on it. It’s $25 on Steam, and as far as I can tell, that’s the only place to get it right now.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket

I think Wide Ocean Big Jacket is very good. It might be great.

I’d like to open this writeup on Wide Ocean Big Jacket with a long series of paragraphs discussing the definition of games, what it means to be a game, and just general thoughts on interactive media.

I’m not going to do that because it would be a tremendous waste of time, and take away from actually talking about the Wide Ocean Big Jacket.

I think Wide Ocean Big Jacket is very good. It might be great.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket is not something I would have played if I wasn’t trying to force myself to step outside of my comfort zone. If you’ve read my other reviews, it’s pretty easy to figure out that I prize interesting mechanical gameplay over just about everything else.

That’s not really what Wide Ocean Big Jacket is about. The game itself has more in common with a visual novel than any other genre. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any major branching decisions, and the whole experience is fairly linear.

The thing is, the game absolutely nails almost every aspect of the writing and the setting. I would rank it up there with Night In The Woods in terms of being accurate to what human beings are actually like, and also nailing what going camping is actually like. There are very few games with writing this good.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Generally speaking, it feels like a slice of life style thing. It’s about going camping in the woods and relationships. And that’s all you really need to know.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket is $8 on itch.io. It’s not a long game by any means, but I don’t think that’s a valuable tool to measure it by. It was also part of the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle, so if you own that, you can download it and play it now. And I think you should.

Oh, and if you’re on the fence, there’s a demo! It’s an entirely separate set of extra chapters of the game. You’ll have to scroll down a bit on the page to find it.

Wheels of Aurelia

An interesting attempt at combing visual novels and other mechanics, but I didn’t like it.

I have mixed feelings on Wheels of Aurelia. On the one hand, I don’t like the game enough to play more of it. On the other hand, I keep thinking about it. It was going to get a section in “Didn’t Make the Cut,” except I think I have more to say about it than any of the other games that didn’t make the cut, so it gets its own article.

So what is it? Wheels of Aurelia describes itself as a racing game set in Italy in the 1980’s. I’d describe it as a visual novel with a light driving element set in Italy in the 1980’s.

Potayto, potahto.

For those of you with busy lives, here’s the five second summary: I think it’s very interesting, but I did not like it very much.

There are some really strong parts to Wheels of Aurelia, but these parts (usually the writing and the setting) feel somewhat disconnected.

The big one is the setting of 1980’s Italy. One thing the game has made abundantly clear to me is that I don’t know shit about 1980’s Italy. And while the game does link to some sections of text from Wikipedia, this wasn’t enough for me to understand a lot of what was being referred to in the writing. Which brings us to the second problem.

The writing shifts tone rapidly to the extent that it feels almost non-sequitur, with the result being that parts of the story just don’t make any sense whatsoever because of this tonal shift. For example, characters that have barely been named suddenly become relevant.

The main character goes from losing their car in a race to a molesty creep (and being understandably fucking pissed), to buying a 3 wheeled tractor cheerfully from a farmer, to chasing fascists for some reason. The end result was that I had a harder and harder time following the plot as it went on.

However, this doesn’t characterize the entire game. There’s a well-written and interesting dialogue with a hitchhiker about a football club. And sub-sections of the game are fine. It’s how they connect that sucks. At first, I thought this might be related to the game’s localization or translation, but the game’s credits don’t actually list an English translation. So I’m honestly not sure what happened with the writing. Sub-sections of it are fine, the but the overall arc feels janky.

In either case, enough ragging on. Let’s talk about what the game does have going for it:

  1. A solid soundtrack. I actually kind of want to re-listen to a few of these. (Wait until 1:00 minute in for it to go crazy.)
  2. Strong art design. Both the characters and environments are well done. They’re fairly minimal, but I’d consider that to be a good thing.
  3. A solid attempt at combining standard game mechanics with a visual novel. I wouldn’t say it succeeds 100%, but it’s interesting, and trying to drive while also deciding how to respond to prompts is neat.

And yeah, that’s about it. Wheels of Aurelia is $10 on Steam, Epic or itch.io. And it’s also in the itch.io racial justice bundle, so if you purchased that, you already own it.

It wasn’t for me, but maybe it will be for you?

Hunt: Showdown

The little Battle Royale that wasn’t

Ed Note: The screenshots in this article are from the Hunt: Showdown press kit. Getting good screenshots of the game is kind of tricky, because any time you’d want to get a screenshot of something cool, it’s usually trying to kill you. With that said, in my opinion, the game doesn’t look as good as its marketing material, but I also don’t care because the gameplay is what sells it.

Today, I’m gonna be talking about Hunt: Showdown, also known as “That Other Game Crytek Made” and “Wait, Crytek Makes More Than Engines?” I like Hunt: Showdown. A week ago Steam said I’d played about 70 hours, and I’ve played another 15 or so since then, so I feel fairly confident in that recommendation.

If I was forced to stuff Hunt: Showdown into a neat little box to characterize it, it would probably go in the “Battle Royale” box, with Fortnite/Warzone/PUBG. You can play with a squad of up to three folks, you want to shoot people, and you start on a massive single map. I don’t think this is entirely fair and accurate, though, because while the general intention of Hunt is similar to those other games (forcing interesting FPS based fights on a massive open map against other players), the way it goes about making this occur is pretty different.

For starters, there is no “looting phase” or “drop phase.” Instead, you create a loadout of items and weapons prior to starting a hunt, and once the hunt begins, you just spawn with your team on a random edge of the map. While you can pick up additional ammo and supplies from caravans around the map, and also other dead players, you don’t get to choose what you get from these, and so you mostly just have to make do with what you brought with you. Generally speaking, you’ll bring things like bolt action rifles, six-shooters, shotguns, and sticks of dynamite.

Also, unlike most Battle Royales, your goal isn’t to wipe out all other players on the map. You can leave more or less whenever you want by getting to an exit point, and waiting out the escape timer. And if you want to save your character (we’ll get into why you might want this in a bit) escaping like this can be the smartest choice.

Behold, the zombies. Stupid, slow, and not a problem until one that you miss stabs you with a meat cleaver.

Instead, the goal of a round of Hunt is to escape with a bounty token, an item that you get from either killing an AI boss monster, or prying it from the from cold dead hands of someone else who did. You locate the boss by picking up clues. Each time you pick up a clue, a section of the minimap gets closed off, letting you know the boss isn’t in that zone. After 3, you’re given the boss’s location.

And this is where things get interesting, because you’ll note I said “Boss.” See, Hunt’s map is fully populated with AI enemies, fairly basic trash mobs. And while these enemies are dumb as bricks, if you’re not careful, or a little too gung-ho, they can easily get you into trouble. Not because they do massive amounts of damage (they don’t) or can kill you quickly (most of them can’t), but because they force you to spend time or ammunition dealing with them.

It’s a spider made out of people! And yes, it looks just as horrifying close up as you might expect.

Okay, so I’m bored of writing about the general mechanics. This is enough to explain the general tension and what makes Hunt: Showdown interesting. In brief, all of the game’s systems are built to force you into fights, and the lower player count means that you only need to win 1-2 of these fights in order to “win” a match. The boss objectives mean that despite starting at different locations, players are funneled together, while the game’s sound design and AI means that if you find yourself using non-silenced weapons against monsters, enemy players can quickly locate you. The bounty mechanic puts a target on your head once you’re trying to escape, but it also gives you dark sight, a very minimalist wallhack sort of thing that lets you spot folks trying to ambush you, and make those end game engagements more even.

The one big thing I haven’t talked about yet is how loadouts and perks work, and while I don’t have too much to say, here’s the five second version:

Your “Hunters” have a level from 1-50, and whenever they successfully extract from a hunt, they get some more experience based on how they did (mob kills, boss kills, bounties, player kills). Each time they level up, they get a skill point that can be used to unlock passive perks, things like walking quieter, taking less damage from falling, that sort of jazz. If your team wipes in a mission, your Hunter is permanently dead, and there’s no way to bring them back, and you lose all the gear they had on them.

Gear is somewhat similar. Various actions during a match will pay out Hunt Dollars, which you use to buy gear. Different types of gear are unlocked as you level up your bloodline, and when you buy hunters they come with some of their own gear.

While you always have access to a pool of Hunters that includes at least one free Hunter to recruit, this free Hunter has random weapons and equipment, and no perks.

And this is one of the reasons you might choose to extract early: saving your gear and Hunter, and living to fight another day. It might not be worth much, but it can take 2-3 successful matches to get a Hunter to the cap, and losing them feels bad.

The end result is a game with some interesting character building systems outside of the actual gameplay, and solid FPS mechanics with a set of much older weapons. For me, the game feels like it’s built in a way to encourage and cause interesting gunfights, as opposed to being shot in the head by someone hiding twelve miles away in a cornfield, or simply losing because you couldn’t find a gun when you dropped.

This doesn’t mean Hunt is flawless. The loading times are incredibly frustrating and long. There are no death cams, just death views, which make it difficult to learn from your deaths, or if the person who killed you was hacking, which it can feel like even if they weren’t. For me, though, these downsides are annoying, but not enough to make the tense gunfights less fun, and the game itself less enjoyable.

Hunt: Showdown is $40 on Steam, and it’s also on PS4/XboxOne, but it looks like there’s no crossplay between consoles and PC. So if you do want to play it with friends, make sure everyone gets it on the same platform.

Micro Mages

Small. Fun. And I was going to say short, but then world 4 and the world 4 boss happened. So calling the game short would be a lie.

There are a lot of interesting things that can be said about Micro Mages. For example, it came out for the NES… in 2018, which is at least a little bit after that particular console stopped being manufactured. There’s some cool stuff about the game being able to support four players via some trickery and other stuff. It also got physical cartridges manufactured, again, years after the discontinuation of said cartridges.

Of course, having zero appreciation for impressive technical achievements as I do, I don’t really care about any of those things. I’m here to answer a different question: “Is Micro Mages fun?” My answer is “Yes, now, can I go back to bed?” I’m told this is apparently not a sufficient enough answer to count as an entire article.

Okay, so what is Micro Mages? Well, it’s a fairly small vertical platformer. The game has four areas, with three levels each, and a boss at the end. (And two bosses, sorta, at the end of fourth area.) You control one of the titular miniature magi in their quest to get through all the levels, via wall jumping, shooting projectiles, and trying not to die. You die in one hit (if you haven’t picked up any powerups), making avoiding death a bit more difficult than you would think. Once you beat the game the first time around, there is also a hard mode, in which you replay the same worlds, but the enemies get additional behaviors/attacks, and the rate at which the game auto-scrolls up gets faster.

Why yes, I did just take all of my images from their press kit. Except the last one of course.

This is all just so much fluff in describing the game, and the reality is that while Micro Mages is really simple, it’s also quite fun. Everything about how it controls and plays feels well thought-out. A few things of note for me were how fluid and accurate the wall jumping felt, along with the fact that projectiles could be fired in all of the compass directions, and almost always went where I wanted them to go. In addition, the range on said projectiles was generous, avoiding the classic “The projectile despawned right before hitting the enemy and now you’re dead” moment.

The powerups are fairly plain, but they do what was intended. The game only really had one instance of mechanics screw/death is the best teacher. (Looking at you, giant floating skull that speeds up if you hit it with a projectile and can’t be killed.)

I remember there being a really cool article about how the game saved space by using mirrored images to construct the mages and the bosses, but I can’t find. If I track it down, I’ll link it here.

Outside of the final world and final world’s final boss, I would say the game isn’t too difficult, and it’s also short enough to be worth playing. And, like many other things I write about, if you purchased the itch.io racial justice bundle, you already own it!

Did I beat it from world 1 to 4? No. But did I clear the whole game? Technically still also no; I didn’t beat hard mode. But I did beat it in normal, and that’s what really matters.

If you didn’t, it’s $10 on Steam, the same on itch.io, and 45 European Monetary Units for the physical cartridge, complete with game manual, and all that other good stuff. I have no idea if they ship worldwide or anything though.

Ed Note: I was planning on having this article be very short, as part of a meta joke about how small Micro Mages is. Except then the final level absolutely kicked my ass for quite a bit, and I had to abandon that plan.

Ed Note 2: You have no idea how incredibly pleased I am with the phrase “Miniature Magi,” and even though it’s not as clever as I think it is, it fucking kills me that no one will see it.

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.