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.

Amazing Cultivation Simulator

I’ve really been struggling with how to review Amazing Cultivation Simulator. I usually open these reviews with a “I Liked It” or “I didn’t like it.” But while Amazing Cultivation Simulator is firmly in the “I liked it” group, every time I try to get screenshots or play more to refresh my memory, I boot the game, look at the menu screen, and then close it again. Not inherently because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it feels like too much effort.

Okay, so enough yammering. Amazing Cultivation Simulator starts out as a settlement management game. In this sense, it’s not unlike something like Dwarf Fortress, RimWorld, or Odd Realm. Unlike Dwarf Fortress and Odd Realm, you can only build on the X/Y Axis, so everything you make will be at most one story tall. This won’t be a big issue in the early game, but it can be become a problem for some reasons later on.

I’m not even showing the menu for making structures and its UI in this screenshot.

The thing that makes Amazing Cultivation Simulator different than any of those management sims is that while it has the typical, “Get food, get water, how did that guy break his leg trying to cook dinner?” sorts of problems and moments, the game is… well, it’s a cultivation simulator. This is a game where you will repeatedly burn down your kitchen and give people permanent disfiguring burns because your kitchen has bad Feng Shui. It’s a game where you will make someone’s dick fall off because you had them learn the wrong magic technique. For those of you who haven’t heard the term before (like me before playing this game), let’s talk about what “Cultivation” is, briefly.

No really. I’m not joking about the dick thing.

“Cultivation” is a term used to describe a type of novels and stories, generally referred to as “Wuxia” stories. I think of “Wuxia” as a setting kind of like “high fantasy” is a setting. If I say something is high fantasy, there are some assumptions you can make about it. Elves will live a long time, and live in forests. Orcs will be violent and brutish. Humans will be a mix in between. In short, Cultivation is a set of story elements/general world building tropes that are consistent between a lot of the stories written in this genre.

An example of the trading menu. There are quite a few different items, and I have no idea how to even get like half of them. For anyone wondering what a “Fortuitous Treasure” rod is, here’s a hint: it’s related to that magic art that makes your dick fall off if you have one.

The rules for Cultivation worlds are completely different from traditional western high fantasy. As part of writing this review, I asked a friend to recommend a web novel that followed general Cultivation themes, and read 50+ chapters of it. I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t love it (sorry buddy). But it was incrediblely useful for understanding the sort of world Amazing Cultivation Simulator is trying to simulate. So let’s talk about these general rules.

  1. People in the world have the ability to train, practice, and meditate to get what effectively amounts to magic powers. These powers are varied, but generally function kind of like spells in the 5E Player’s Handbook. They often require Qi (mana) to use, have specific names and effects, etc.
  2. Different schools of Cultivation have sects that form around the people practicing and studying them. Sects have power structures with practitioners who are strong at the top, and weak at the bottom. The sects also tend to give different abilities / access to different magic spells.
  3. Cultivating and gathering Qi requires sitting really still for a while, so that you can have more mana.
  4. Dragonball Z levels of power scaling. Low tier cultivators get the shit kicked out of them by magic animals that just happen to have magic powers. Mid tier cultivators can paralyze your entire body with like 2 punches. High tier cultivators can just obliterate cities.
  5. Powering up to higher tiers requires you to either have a breakthrough or pass a tribulation. A breakthrough happens when you successfully surpass your own limits, but you will fail a lot while trying to do it. A tribulation is something like literally being repeatedly attacked by lightning clouds or whatever, while you try to survive.
  6. There are also magic artifacts. They range from “neat,” to “secret pocket dimension” levels of bullshit. There are also magic pills and drugs. You need these to get to higher ranks of power, and they follow the same levels of bullshit, except they’re even harder to make. You make these pills and artifacts out of dead monsters, and really old plants.

Okay, so now that we have that all out of the way, let’s get down to talking about video games again.

If we try to assess Amazing Cultivation Simulator in the light of the Cultivation genre, how does it do? My answer would be, “Pretty well.” The game has pill crafting, artifact crafting, ascension to divinity, formations of power structures. There are multiple schools of Cultivation, each with their own unique abilities and quirks.

I want to stress that the game is constructed like a simulator, not like a casual sim game. It shares more in common with Dwarf Fortress than it does with the Sims, in terms of asking you to both learn a billion things, and a cheerful willingness to punch you in the mouth if you don’t.

For example, lets take a look at a what amounts to the stat screen for a single character.

Well that’s not too ba-
Oh.
Oh dear.
Last one.
Psych. Also for reference, that small stats drop down on the side? It scrolls.

Oh, this isn’t even considering the skill menu, for actually selecting passive and active skills for your dudes. Cause that shit looks like this:

There are like 20 of these skill trees, and some can’t even be used together. There is an entirely separate school of Cultivation called Body Cultivation that uses an entirely different interface with options to select individual bones that you want to modify.

Okay, so I played the game for 65 hours. Why am I putting so much into stressing this stuff? Well, because game is incredibly system-dense. And while I suspect this usually wouldn’t be a problem for many of my readers, there’s a situation where your ability to learn things in game breaks down.

And that would be the localization and translation.

Sometimes the translations work well. Sometimes they do not.

This is probably my biggest issue with Amazing Cultivation Simulator that I consider to be an actual problem (as opposed to a “I don’t like how things work” sort of complaint. Don’t worry, we’ll get to those later).

The game has an incredibly dense set of systems for almost everything, from the materials you make your house out of, to the items you craft, to crafting legendary artifacts and drawing talismans.

Did I mistakenly turn my incredibly valuable demon hide into an umbrella? Yes. But is it a great umbrella? Also yes.

But the combination of translations that don’t always hit the mark, genre-specific vocabulary, and systems that just aren’t really localized (looking at you, combat formations) means that the game can become very frustrating to play at points. I suspect that some of this would be mitigated if I was already familiar with the rules of the genre, but I’m not. I had to talk to a friend familiar with the genre, read a sixty-five-ish page guide, and read the aforementioned webnovel to even understand some of what was going on.

I don’t want to be overly down on the game. I think it’s successful at a lot of what it’s trying to be. And compared to many other entries in this genre it does great; I never lost characters to incredibly stupid pathing, and there were no game-breaking bugs that shredded my save file. There’s a lot going for it. But the fact that past a given point you basically have to join a Discord server (or at least follow a guide) takes away some of the joy of discovery for me. Now, to be fair, I could just die and make a new save file, and perhaps that’s how you’re supposed to play the game. Losing is fun, after all. But it feels bad to lose 40 hours of progress because one of the folks in your sect turned into a giant snake after being struck with lightning bolts.

Again, this is a thing that happens.

Okay, so now with all of this done, I want to spend some time complaining about a few specific systems, before I praise the game a bit more, and hopefully wrap up this incredibly fucking long review. It’s a bit rambling, so if you want, you can stop reading here.

No really, you can stop.

Oh, you’re still here? Okay, so let’s get into it.

I’m not sure the concept of Cultivation lends itself well to a video game in certain aspects, specifically in the type of story that it tries to map to games.

Typically speaking, I think a lot of European stories go a certain way. Smarter people then I have written more things about this, but the point I want to quickly make is that generally speaking, in many games, stories, etc, ANYONE, at least in theory, with enough grit and determination can aspire to reach incredible heights.

Cultivation worlds though, do not follow this rule. And Amazing Cultivation Simulator especially does not follow this rule. If you are not a “heaven blessed talent” or just incredibly lucky person, you will not make it very far. Without having what amounts to way higher than average stats, you simply do not have the potential to become a god. You may not reach Golden Core. You may not have the ability to even cultivate enough power to beat up magic animals.

This leads to a situation where you can stagnate and fail if one of two things happen. First of all, if you don’t go out of your way to roll starting characters with insane stats, or if you just get unlucky, and never have anyone with the potential to be godlike show up. While there are ways to increase base stats, they’re all locked behind various tiers of cultivation which you may not be able to reach, so the whole thing becomes a catch-22.

And this would be fine; it would turn into a game of building a stable sect, and then just running the numbers until you get one of these folks, if it wasn’t for one more thing: the reputation system.

See, you’re not the only group cultivating in this world. There are at least half a dozen other schools, a whole world map with side quests, and whole system for visiting other sects.

Last screenshot of UI, I promise.

Aside from all these incredible features however, there is also a bit of a snag in the reputation system. There is a value called reputation, and the higher your reputation, the tougher the enemies you’ll be attacked by in random events will be. The game is fairly clear about this.

What it’s not clear about is what actions will raise your reputation. Reputation has good/evil/neutral alignment, but all that really matters is score. Are you generous and helpful? Prepare to get attacked by murderous cultivators. Do you turn the souls of visitors to your cult sect into magic gems made out of human emotions, and then reanimate their corpses to sweep the floor? Prepare to get attacked by folks who think that maybe human lives are more important then making a really cool new hat.

The combination of these two systems, reputation and general cultivation, means that if you want to avoid being curbstomped, you are going to have to spend a lot of time waiting around, not attracting any attention, and hoping somebody with godly potential shows up asking to join.

Okay, so that finishes my gripe. Just for the record, let’s summarize what I think of the game very quickly, one last time.

Amazing Cultivation Simulator works as a simulator, or a sort of colony management game. The key difference is it’s management of a group of individuals in a world that has some very weird genre-specific rules. Most of the systems are fairly in-depth and interesting, but the game itself feels hamstrung by questionable localization, and tutorials that don’t always teach enough.

There are a few things I just straight up don’t like about the game, like reputation, and how cultivation works, but those are more system design choices then flaws, if I had to judge. It would be like complaining about how Dwarfs in Dwarf Fortress have to drink to stay happy. It’s deliberate decision about made about how to enforce the rules of the simulated world, even if it isn’t one I like.

I think if you’re big into Wuxia novels, or mildly obtuse colony management sims, this is a game worth checking out. And I feel like I got my money’s worth out the game. It’s just so dense that I’m not sure I’ll return to it unless I have a lot of free time. (And maybe the game gets a few localization patches.)

Another Day, Another Demo – Loop Hero

So I know I already recommended another demo earlier this week, but I just found out about Loop Hero, and it’s incredible. I’m not sure what the best way to describe it would be, except that it’s kinda like an idle game, except with tons of gameplay? And with all the microtransaction bullshit just completely gutted?

I think the easiest way to put it is this: the game more or less plays itself, and you choose how to build up the world that exists around it. So it’s not so much an idle game, but it is a game you idle while playing? I dunno. The point is, the demo is out, it’s really cool, and you can grab it here.

Ed’s Note: I’m gonna try to get a review copy to play, even if I suspect the attempt will fail. When it comes out, I’ll most likely grab it and play it. Word to the wise though, I’m feeling like it might be a bit of a toss up on how good the full game will be when it’s released. This might be a new Slay the Spire, and it might be a flop. I’ll keep folks informed either way. And the demo is really fun. I’m just not sure how representative it is of the full game.

Beglitched

A really good puzzle game with some twists on match 3 gameplay I’ve never seen before.

Ed Note: I did my best to take screenshots that don’t give anything about the game away, but some of the screenshots below might give small peeks at things that aren’t immediately obvious. If you want to avoid spoilers at all costs, just know that Beglitched is good, you can buy it here on Steam, or here on itch.io, and you should play it.

Beglitched might be the first real piece of gold I’ve personally found in the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle. The bundle has a ton of other great stuff in it as well, like Celeste, or Quadrilateral Cowboy. And there’s others as well. But it’s the first really good one that no one else had mentioned to me or told me about beforehand, which at least to me makes it the first real “Find” in the bundle of games. So let’s boot up our OS/HEX and talk about why that is.

Does anyone else miss the adorable little bootup faces on really old macs? Or is that just me?
Beglitched’s Level Select screen. And sorta inventory management screen. And other things.

So why do I like Beglitched so much? The game is a really unique sort of puzzler. While I’ve seen some of the game mechanics before, Beglitched uses those mechanics to do something pretty different by breaking a few of the key rules about how those mechanics usually play out. We’ll talk about that more in a second, but first let’s talk about how playing through a level in Beglitched works.

The little egg icons, for example, indicate that there are 3 small scramblers connected to the block our little cat is on.

There are two main sections to most Beglitched levels, or as the game calls them, “networks.” Each section of a network consists of a bunch of linked machines, as seen above, and plays out like a combo of Minesweeper and RPG exploration. Each computer displays a set of symbols which tells you what is in the computers next to it. Your goal in most cases is to make it to the end of the network by finding the computer with the exit doors, and logging in. However, you can log into the other computers too. They can give you extra resources, like money or health, or also just blow you up a bit, a la Minesweeper. And sometimes, they’re hiding extra enemies. So what happens when you run into these enemies? Well, then it’s time for combat.

I don’t know if the elephants are some sort of elaborate computer pun or something. I don’t think they are? They’re like… the most basic enemy in the game.

Combat in Beglitched is done via a match 3 style grid. Unlike many other match 3 games, however, every single type of shape on your grid has a different property. Some are fairly obvious, like the green cubes that give money, or batteries that give you energy. Where things get interesting is how you actually damage an opponent.

Most enemy hackers have fairly low HP, and only take one or two hits to defeat. The issue is that unlike many other match 3 games that use the size of your combos to do damage, in Beglitched you do damage by detonating bomb squares. The enemy hacker hides somewhere on your board, and you have to activate the compass squares and pink cycle squares to get information about where they’re hiding. So not only do you have to find your enemy, you then need to actually get a bomb sector over, and to detonate it. And each move you make takes cycles, and when that hits zero, the enemy gets to take an action. Most attack you and do something else, but some have their own specialties.

The one other big thing about Beglitched that I haven’t previously seen in a match 3 game is how it handles your board state at the end of a fight. When you defeat an enemy, your board doesn’t reset. Instead, the location of any tiles remain, and can be used in the next fight. It’s also worth noting that some of the better combo pieces, like blue compass sectors, are actually re-usable.

And the game plays into this. It actively encourages you to use weaker enemies to set up to beat tougher enemies by prepping compasses, bomb sectors, and farming money. It’s a fairly unique twist that can mean beating an enemy as fast as possible may not actually be the best move.

In addition, Beglitched is more than happy to subvert and play with these mechanics, and does so through almost every single one of its levels. Every time I thought I had the game solved, Beglitched pulled out another clever twist or trick for me to contend with.

I think this is one of the things it does best, and the reason I’m not talking more about it here is that these moments are best experienced fresh. I don’t want to spoil them.

Beyond the mechanics, Beglitched does almost everything incredibly well. It has a unique and interesting narrative that I actually ended up fairly curious about, and presentation and art is great. The only big gripe I have with the game is the audio, and it’s not even the audio itself. My problem lies in the lack of any sort of audio/options menu. The default audio is incredibly loud, and as such I ended up playing most of the game with it muted.

Beglitched is really good, and on occasion, really hard. It’s a puzzle game with excellent mechanics, and willingness to subvert them and tweak them into interesting challenges, without ever really going too far, or asking you to do the impossible. Other than my minor gripe about the lack of audio settings and sound, it has virtually no flaws. If you bought the itch.io racial justice bundle, you should play it. If you didn’t buy the bundle and like puzzle games or a challenge, you should pick it up anyway.

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

Wrath is good, but it’s not finished. You should wait to buy it for now.

Editorial Note: The images in this article I grabbed from the Steam Page. Usually I take my own screenshots, because independence and other stuff, but I had some difficultly with that, and honestly, the screenshots are accurate. But I don’t want to give the impression that I got all these photos myself.

I really like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. It gives me a wonderful sense of nostalgia for an era of games that I never actually played, that of the old Doom/Quake/Duke Nukem Era. It might be because you will spend most of the game strafing around gothic corridors with a bunch of weapons. It might be because you will use those weapons against monsters that look like they were pulled from a fire sale at low-poly Lovecraft R Us.

The screaming head dudes with multiple faces are legit fucking terrifying.

And it might be because it was actually built on the old Quake engine. I had a ton of fun playing it, which makes me feel a bit bad about what I’m going to say: Even if this is a genre you love, I don’t think you should buy Wrath yet.

My recommendation doesn’t actually have anything to do with the gameplay itself (despite the fact that I definitely have a few gripes with some of the game’s systems), but instead with the fact that the game simply isn’t finished. There are only four levels, and while they’re good and polished, they only took me about 8 hours to play through on the medium difficulty. I actually delayed this write-up a bit because another update was supposed to come out a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, it just got pushed back to this month… so yeah. While I’m sure they intend to do their best to keep their promise, it may be a while before the game ends up in its final state, and as such, I think you can wait on this one. If you’re reading this article after the summer of 2021, you should probably check to see if it’s fully out, as that’s the current estimate for its release date.

Okay, so with that whole thing out of the way, let’s talk about the other simple truth of the game: I had a lot of fun with Wrath. It’s well polished, and very smoothly executed. It’s just fun to run around shotgunning demons and pulping zombies with a stake cannon. I played Wrath because the gameplay was fun. There was no point where I found myself pushing through a boring bit to get back to the story (there really isn’t one right now) or grinding for numbers. Wrath has more or less zero filler.

This doesn’t mean Wrath is perfect by any means. I have some problems, so let’s talk about them.

First of all, while the game is really fun, if you want to actually replay a level, you need to make a brand new save file. There’s no option to just reload a given level, or to skip to a certain point with weapons unlocked. This is annoying. The second part, that wasn’t super frustrating for me mostly because I was playing on the medium difficulty, is the save system. Wrath lets you save by either reaching a checkpoint, or by using an item called a Soul Tether, which you find and pick up as you play through the game. You have a limited number of these, and while this limit caused me zero problems on the medium difficulty, I can see it becoming frustrating super fast on the harder difficulties. Wrath is in some ways a puzzle game of “Connect The Bullets With The Enemies” and it’s entirely possible to get through a section of the game you’ve already solved, only to die over and over again in a specific area. This means you end up replaying the same parts a lot, and if you’re trying to conserve soul tethers, it can take like five minutes to get back to the point you were at previously, just to get another try at something.

Walking in a winter murder landdddddddd

These were my two main problems with the game. Wrath is fun, the levels are well made, and outside of a slight overreliance on “You touched a button, now we’re gonna spawn in 10 enemies in your blindspot” the game doesn’t really have any patterns that are frustrating. I honestly expected to be seeing the same levels over and over again, but the actual layout and design is quite varied.

So yeah. Wrath is fun, but currently it’s not finished, and it’s rather short. I have some gripes with the save system, and how you can’t replay levels, but outside of that, I’m excited to see what the full game looks like. If it maintains the level of polish and creativity that I’ve seen so far, it will easily be worth the $20-30 price tag I expect to see on it.