Dome Keeper

Dome Keeper is a small and solid game, but didn’t offer enough variety in runs to keep me hooked.

Author’s Note: Not big on reading writeups? Why not just watch me play the game here?

Dome Keeper is a score-attack mashup of Motherload and Space Invaders. I think it’s a good game. I don’t really recommend it, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. I know that sounds weird, calling a game good, and then not recommending it, but I promise it will make sense in a bit.

Anyway, back to Dome Keeper. You have a Dome, which functions as your little base, and venture out from it into the earth to mine minerals. And this dome as needs to be Kept. Specifically it needs to be kept from being shattered into a million pieces by various spooky shadow monsters that show up in waves on timed intervals. This is the games core tension: mine resources, drag them back to your dome, and try not to get caught at the bottom of the mineshaft right as you as the next wave comes in to smash it.

Defending the dome is done with it’s weapon systems. There are two dome weapon base sets, the Laser Dome, and the Sword Dome. The Laser dome plays somewhat like a turret defense game, you have a big laser, you can rotate it alongside the outside of your dome, and you press another button to fire. The laser moves slower when fired, so it’s faster to move it into position, and then fire the beam. It has various upgrades, including moving the laser head faster, having the laser deal more damage, etc. Honestly, outside of a double laser upgrade, there’s not too much here that’s very exciting.

The Sword Dome is unlocked later. Instead of having a projectile weapon, it has a large sword that can be swung back and forth across the dome. It can also be launched like a harpoon to skewer long ranged projectile using enemies, or even to just tap melee enemies a bit before they reach the dome.

Personally, I very much think the game was designed with the sword dome in mind instead of the laser dome. My reason for believing this is that certain enemy behaviors and patterns interact in a much more interesting way with the dome then with the laser. As an example, one of the earlier enemies is a small bat like creature that does the following: It flies on the screen cloaked and unable to be hit, flies to an area on either the left or right of the screen, uncloaks, shoots a few projectiles, then recloaks and flies to the other side. Rinse repeat.

With the Sword Dome, there’s an element of skill to this. It takes the same amount of time to uncloak every time, and it can be one shot after just one damage upgrade, so there’s a sort of elegance to predicting where it’s going to be, pre-launching the sword, and steering it into the bat right as it uncloaks.

Another good example can be seen in the later game enemy, the launcher. It’s a large blobby snake that swarms out of the ground, waits for a moment, and then launches a large shadow projectile through the air. With the laser, there’s no real option other then to just blast it down, but hitting it with the sword before it launches the projectile will stagger it and force it back down into the ground.

However, both of these have the same problem, that sort of feeds into the back of the game: Despite having multiple options for upgrades and changes, there’s no real reason to experiment on any given run. Enemies just show up randomly over time, so instead of building for a certain encounter or fight, it felt better to just do the same build each game, and play through. The end result? The fights kind of just feel all the same. Ramping intensity and difficulty, sure, but not changing how things feel mechanically between runs, unless you choose to take a risk and force it.

That’s only half the game though. The other entire half is mining and digging for resources from under the dome. If you’ve ever played Motherlode, this will feel somewhat familiar. If you haven’t it works like this. The keeper is controlled with cardinal directions and will automatically mine walls/blocks if they’re pushed into them. Different dirt has different strengths, but as you get deeper, the strength just increases overall. This means that it can be easier to mine deeper into weak dirt, then to try to dig out stone at your current level, but generally you’ll need to get upgrades to go much further.

The goal of all of this digging is to get resources, of which there are three. Sulphur, Water, and Iron. Sulphur is used to repair your domes health, and buy a single set of special resistance upgrades, and is the rarest. Water is used in small amounts for most non-primary upgrades, IE, anything that isn’t your shield, weapon, or keeper suit. Iron is used for pretty much everything else.

One thing I haven’t talked about yet is the win condition of Dome Keeper. There are two modes, the primary mode, Relic Hunt, and the secondary Prestige. Relic Hunt is just a standard “Dig deep, find a special relic, and bring it to the surface to win”. Prestige is the primary mode, and effectively a score attack mode.

I’m personally of the opinion that Relic Hunt is effectively an extended tutorial/relaxed mode, and Prestige is intended to be the primary game. Which is a bit unfortunate, because I’m personally not interested in prestige very much. High scores are not particularly motivating to me as a factor, unless the entire game is designed around that as a core component, ala Hazelnut Hex.

In Prestige Mode, you get points based on spending resources to increase a score multiplier, and a score total, and you get points after each survived wave. So it’s beneficial to spend resources early on increasing the score, at the risk of not spending those resources on upgrades. It is a interesting tension, but it’s not one that I’m very compelled by.

There are a few systems I’ve not covered here, like the semi-random relics and the upgrades they offer, but I think I’ve covered enough of Dome Keepers system to explain my problem with it.

Dome Keeper is a good game, but any single run can often feel indistinguishable from another run. There’s only a single unique relic that modifies combat, with every other relic modifying resource acquisition. The end result is a game that felt the same each time I played it. It was interesting, but it wasn’t fascinating, or ever really felt like it scratched the itch of something like Inscryption or Spelunky. It never really forced me into a situation where I had to really rely on an understand of game mechanics, or systems to pilot my way out. Instead, it was just more about “Oh, I should have just done X instead of Y”. There was no adapting, just learning, and some small improvements.

This is why I don’t really feel like recommending it. It’s good! It’s well made, it’s polished, and it has some clever mechanics. But I don’t get that vibe of it being a unique or super rich experience that stuck with me.

Anyway, if you think my opinion is stupid, or you really like games like Motherlode, you can find Dome Keeper on Steam for $20.

Author Note 2: I played most of my 20 hours of Dome Keeper before the update that added a second playable character, with a different mining style. It’s a neat update, but I didn’t really like playing the Accessor. It’s also entirely possible that Dome Keeper becomes a much richer games with updates, but that’s not what was available when I bought the game on release day.

Rubber Bandits

Rubber Bandits’ one good game mode, Heist, can’t carry the weight of the other seven.

I don’t like Rubber Bandits very much. I don’t recommend it. Before I get into reviewing Rubber Bandits, though, I want to talk about party games in general a bit. I’ve written about this here, but I’ll go into some more detail on why I do not trust the party game genre.

Doing virtually anything with friends can be a good time, or at least a good memory, assuming everyone makes it out unharmed. I spent a lot of time in college playing Magic, and I remember it somewhat fondly. I also remember the time I convinced folks to follow my example and run a lap outside around an area near our dorm with almost no clothes on and no shoes after a winter storm.

While freezing my feet off wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, it was definitely memorable. Playing around and doing ridiculous things is just like that. The value isn’t from doing dumb shit, it’s from doing dumb shit with friends. Something can be dumb, questionably made, and only mildly amusing and still be a good time.

Which brings me to Rubber Bandits.

Rubber Bandits is an up-to-4 player party game, with 8 competitive game modes, and 1 cooperative arcade mode. The game modes all share the same controls. You can jump, you can move with WASD or the controller, you can pick items up, throw them, and “use” them. The use function varies from item to item. Using a grenade pulls the pin, using a pistol shoots the gun, and using a chair beats someone over the head with it (just like in real life).

I have two important notes about these controls. First, characters control in a sort of wibbly wobbly way. I’ve had weapons I’ve picked up seemingly clip behind my character making them impossible to swing. There’s a jello-like feel to movement. Second, the game has a VERY heavy auto-aim system for projectile weapons. If you roughly point at another player and try to shoot them, you will likely hit. Not because you lined it up well, but because the auto-aim just works like that.

The result is a “combat system” that is fairly unsatisfying to actually fight with. Long range attacks are almost automatic hits, and short range attacks are a wobbly unfortunate melee. I’m not saying that a system of weird and wonky controls can’t be fun, but it doesn’t work here because the combat is so unwieldy. Now that we’ve covered controls, let’s talk about game modes.

First, you have the “Just Beat People Up” ones. These are Brawl, Team Brawl, Dodge Bomb and Snack Panic, and Carnage. Then you have Pork Pursuit (Hold the object) and Bomb Panic (Don’t be left holding the object). Finally, you have Heist and the co-operative game mode. The co-operative game mode isn’t very fun or interesting. It’s effectively just a reskinned version of the Heist game mode with extra NPC’s. Points are awarded after each round, and the first player to 21 points is the winner. Scoring is a bit weird, but I believe it’s 5 for a win, 3 for second place, 1 for third, and none for fourth.

Of these game modes, Heist is the only one that does something I haven’t seen before. If you’ve played Mario Party, Pummel Party, or honestly any mini-game based party game, you’ve already played something similar.

Heist is the only game mode with any sort of interesting tension. All players are dropped into the map. The map has a set of valuables to steal, and an exit. The exit only opens once all valuables are picked up. The goal is to get as much loot as you can, and then escape.

It’s a fun idea. Heist is the best Rubber Bandits gets. Most of the maps have some sort of switch or activatable object that changes up the play area. Grabbing all the money and running usually doesn’t work, because another player will just drop the floor out from under you. So even once you get the cash, you need to incapacitate your fellow players long enough to make your escape.

Even at its, best, though, it doesn’t always work. Some maps only have a single gem instead of multiple pieces of loot, so only one player gets any points. Some maps are just kind of janky and unfun to play, like the map where almost everything is dark. Other maps have the start of a good idea (the map where you need to mine down with pickaxes) but don’t really execute on it.

I’ve already made it clear I don’t recommend this game. Now I want to quickly run across the border from the land of opinion into the unoccupied territory of speculation. So if you want, you can stop reading this article here. Rubber Bandits is $5 for a copy, and it’s available on PC and Console.

The Land of Blatant Speculation

Anyway, now that we’re safely located in speculation, I want to share a theory I have about Rubber Bandits and how it ended up this way. There are a lot of little things that to me suggest Rubber Bandits was developed as a different experience, and that the 7 game modes that suck were sort of tacked on after the fact to fill space.

The first one is the camera. Rubber Bandits uses a locked camera that keeps all players in frame, instead of just focusing on your character. This would be fine for couch co-op or versus, but in internet multiplayer it’s pretty awful. In addition, because the camera has to always keep everyone in frame, it cuts down on a lot of the design space available for creating maps. Everything always has to face the player, there’s virtually no space to hide behind anything, and maps are a sort of “3D but only in one direction” affair.

This brings me to the second point about the game and Heist. When I was reading Steam reviews to find justification for my own opinions about the game for investigative purposes, one review stood out. Actually, it was one genre of reviews: a group of players who enjoyed an earlier demo the game had, but were disappointed by the full product. From what I could glean, that demo only offered Heist, but also offered an alternative scoring system. Remember when I mentioned different placements give amounts of points? Well, in the demo, apparently points were awarded based on how much money you escaped with, not your placement. To me, that feels like it would shift things up quite a bit in terms of both where the player pressure is, and where the player reward is.

I don’t have any evidence for this theory, but given the game’s whole theme around stealing money, jailbreaking, and robbery, it all makes me feel like Heist was a primary game mode. But then Heist got sidelined when the other modes were added. If that’s the case, I think it’s a bit of a bummer. Heist isn’t some world shaking innovation, but at least it’s interesting and different. Every other game mode available is something I’ve played before in a different game, and burying Heist under all the crap is just unfortunate.

Neon White

Neon White is a FPS Puzzle Platformer with fantastic guns and incredible movement. I’d mention the story, but I want you to want to play it.

Neon White by Angel Matrix is a puzzle platformer FPS with some lite visual novel elements, and it’s brilliant. And while it might sound like a sort of game salad of multiple genres, that’s purely because I’m bad at describing things. The key point here is that I like it.

I think the easiest way to explain Neon White is to describe what a level looks like. So let’s start with that. You maneuver using traditional FPS controls around a stylized environment, and you have two goals to complete the level: kill all the demons, and reach the end. However, these aren’t Doom-style demons. These are more like… potted plants. They’re all immobile, and while they shoot projectiles, they’re not hard to dodge. They act as obstacles more than enemies, and each enemy type drops a different gun.

Oh, we haven’t talked about guns yet, have we? Guns reset between levels, and are represented as cards. You can carry two types of guns at once, and 3 copies of a particular gun/card (I’ll explain in a moment). Guns are dual purpose. You can shoot with them, and you can also throw away a copy to use a special movement ability. The shotgun lets you do a dash. The pistol has a double jump. The rocket launcher is also a grappling hook, making it one of the greatest weapons in any game. And if that sounds like I’m ripping off Zero Punctuation… well. Not deliberately. It’s just a fantastic weapon that’s incredibly fun to use.

Dear god I love this rocket launcher so much.

These are the core ingredients of Neon White, but the one thing I haven’t mentioned is that everything is timed. Not in a “countdown” sort of way, but a speedrun timer ticking up. In order to unlock more levels, you need to clear a set of levels from the current pool with a gold rank or higher.

While this might sound intimidating, the timing for getting gold medals is very generous. The same is true of the crystal rank medal, and it isn’t until you go for the secret red clear times (which don’t even show up until you beat them) that things get really challenging.

And while we’re talking about gold medals and clear times, we may as well talk about Neon White’s story. The short version is that you’re an assassin in the afterlife called in to hunt down demons for a chance at redemption. And while the story gets interesting in the last 25% of the game, much of what precedes that moment feels a bit cringey. Not bad, but I heard someone describe it as an independent webcomic from the early 2000’s, and I’d say that sounds about right.

This would be a great place to include a picture of story content. I’m not going to do that because I want you to buy this game.

Outside of the story, pretty much everything in Neon White is perfect. I saw almost no bugs in my playtime, and even the boss levels worked well. The game does a fantastic job with its progression and introducing new weapons and concepts as it goes. That said, it’s not a massive any means. A lot of the value comes from replaying levels multiple times for better clear times, and hunting for shortcuts and skips within those levels.

There is one more thing I want to talk about before I wrap this up, and that’s writing this article. This is version 7 or so of my Neon White writeup. Not “draft 7.” I have written and thrown away 6 earlier versions of this, because Neon White isn’t a super easy game to describe in a compelling manner.

So if you’re not convinced, I suggest watching either Zero Punctuation’s video on the game, or maybe Dunkey’s? I think they both do a better job of selling the game in certain aspects, and it deserves better than my somewhat poor writeup. But I legitimately can’t describe this game well. I’ve tried, failed, and now I’m going to write about other games, without this draft glaring at me judgingly while I write about something else for the eighth week in a row.

If you were convinced by this writeup, then, uh. Wow. You can get Neon White on Steam or Switch. It’s $25, and it’s a good use of that money.

Hazelnut Hex Review

Hazelnut Hex is a fantastic shoot-em-up that knows exactly what it’s doing and executes on it perfectly.

Hazelnut Hex is brilliant. The game is a to-the-point shoot em up that knows exactly what it’s doing and executes on it perfectly. Some folks might call the game minimalist; I’m calling it precise.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Hazelnut Hex, it’s a shoot-em-up/shmup¬†for the Switch. In terms of tone, it feels like a pastel colored version of Touhou. Also like Tohou, the music goes far harder than it has any need to. This is track 4 from the game, Bite After Dark. Do me a favor and listen to that while you read the rest of the review.

But what I want to talk about is the gameplay, because to me this is where the brilliance of the game lies. I wouldn’t ever describe myself as a shmup¬†person. I haven’t even played Touhou.

The core rules of Hazelnut Hex are simple. Shoot the enemies, and don’t get hit with projectiles. Do that, get to the boss, and beat the boss to win. After all, it is a shoot em up. But Hazelnut Hex isn’t random. Instead, each level follows a predictable pattern. And while you can restart if you die, you lose your score. I think this is a nice balance. Even if you’re terrible, you can still play the entire game.

Every subsystem in the game feels perfectly designed. Let’s start with lives. You start with 3 lives (or 5 if you turn the value up because you’re bad like me) and getting hit costs you a life. Get 500,000 points and get another life. This is one of the very few times a game has actually made me care about points. Sure, you can get points for just blasting enemies, but you can get more by waiting for your shots to charge and hitting chains of enemies with more powerful blasts.

In addition to getting more points, charged shots also destroy enemy bullets, and build your special meter. You can use specials to shoot a massive blast that gives you invulnerability frames and clears bullets off the screen. But at the same time, it also gives points based on the number of bullets on the screen. It can function as a panic button if you find yourself trapped, but it’s also a scoring tool.

All of sudden, instead of just blasting non-stop to clear the incoming waves, I found myself actually looking at enemy patterns, and trying to spot moments when they lined up for clean charge shots, so that I had extra lives going into tougher spots. I’d describe it as the difference between button mashing and trying to actually understand what’s going on in a fighting game.

And pretty much every subsystem feels like this. There’s a set of end of level scoring bonuses that include one for having your squirrel Sam with you when you clear the level. It’s 20,000 points which is a fairly large amount. Why is it so high? Because you can only pickup Sam before the boss fight. This isn’t just a bonus for keeping Sam alive, its a bonus for clearing the boss fight without getting hit! Other score bonuses are only applied when you clear a level. This makes it so you can get large payouts, but the level keeps you from getting them too early, and getting easy bonus lives.

Hazelnut Hex can be played through without understanding any of these systems. That’s how I beat it the first time, after all. But if you want to master it, the game also provides the ability to do so. You can start any level with any combination of weapon, weapon power, and health. Want to practice a boss fight without playing the first half of the level? Go right ahead.

Other people might criticize the game for not being very long, since you can play through the whole thing by just continuing after death. I don’t think that’s actually a problem. Hazelnut Hex doesn’t include any bloat. It’s not trying to be anything else other than an expertly crafted shmup. And playing it gave me, terrible as I am, a bit more of an appreciation for the brilliance of the genre.

Hazelnut Hex is $8 for Nintendo Switch. You can buy it here.

Ed Note: Images in the article are taken from the Nintendo Store page.

Dead By Daylight: Hooked On You

Constraints are an interesting thing. For example, I am trying to write this review in 27 minutes. Why? Because I am under the constraint of this article going up tomorrow. And to do that, it needs to be done by midnight-ish.

Of course, that’s not the only constraint I’m working under at the moment. In all the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve tried to write about one new thing each week. It turns out that playing a new game every week to the point I feel comfortable talking about it for several paragraphs is difficult. Forget playing through something ‘fun,’ even finding something just ‘interesting’ can rough.

The interesting thing about constraints, though, is that they lead to making choices you otherwise might not make. In this case, that choice was playing a visual novel where you date serial killers.

Hooked On You is a spinoff dating sim based somewhat on the Dead By Daylight world. Dead By Daylight is a game about either being a murderer, or trying to escape murderers, and Hooked On You is a game about trying to make out with them. So yeah, there are some differences.

I’m not really a visual novel person, but I did find Hooked On You interesting enough to finish (at least through the one route for the character I decided to pursue). That playthrough took about 3 1/2 hours to finish, but it’s worth noting that time also included me reading every line out loud. There are a total of four characters, so presumably, I could go back and play through the routes for the other three.

As this is a visual novel, I won’t go heavily into the plot, because that sort of spoils the whole point of the game. Instead, I’ll just give my thoughts on the tone and my overall feelings on the game. Also, if you hate reading, you could just watch me play through it here.

Since I’m not really into this genre, I don’t have too much to compare it with. For me, the strongest parts of the story were the interactions between the various in-game killers, and also the few moments where the game takes itself seriously.

Unfortunately, while those moments aren’t ‘rare,’ the game spends a fair amount of time leaning on the fourth wall. It tries to be funny, poking fun at a number of visual novel tropes, including a limited art budget, and has a narrator who talks far too much.

For me, those were the weaker sections of the narrative. They tended to distract from the rest of the experience, and often felt forced to pad out run time. I’m not saying I expected the game to be serious. But swapping between “look how meta we are,” and “Which person do you want to get to know better?” never really clicked.

This is a fairly pure visual novel. Most of what you’ll be doing is reading text. There’s no real erotic content or art in the game, even if some things are heavily implied. The tone of the whole game is far more tongue in cheek, even for the only implied sex scene that I encountered. There was a single mini-game sequence that gets repeated several times, where you have to stop a circle as it goes over an object. It’s pretty much a simplified version of mainline Dead By Daylights skill checks.

So what’s my overall take? Well, Hooked On You is interesting, but I don’t think you’ll get too much out of it if you aren’t already into Dead By Daylight. The game is fairly short, with most options and decisions being pretty clearly telegraphed. The the reward for completing sections isn’t erotic art/text, just more details about characters. As it turns out I do like Dead By Daylight, and thus have at least a passing interest in its lore, so I got something out of this game.

If you don’t have any curiosity regarding Wraith, Hunter, Trapper, or Spirit, and what sort of people they are when NOT gutting folks like fish, there isn’t too much here for you. This is a tie-in product. Maybe it’s more than just a gag game, but it’s also not really much of a standalone item.