MUCK

Muck isn’t great, but at least it’s free.

Muck is worth playing as an example of how compelling various roguelike elements and open-world survival games can be, even when done in a mediocre context. With that said, I think Risk of Rain 2 is a better 3D roguelike, and Minecraft is a better open-world crafting game. Maybe because Muck was made as a joke. Okay, let’s step back for a minute.

Despite the fact that we live in 2021, people apparently still write rude YouTube comments. I’m not sure why they do this. There are only two possible outcomes when you write a rude YouTube comment:

  1. No one sees your comment, no one cares, and you scream into the void.
  2. Someone sees your comment, and they feel bad for a moment.
  3. Someone sees your comment, and decides to dunk on you as hard as feasibly possible.

Muck is an example of #3.

I’m going to link the video here, all you really need to know is that Muck was made quickly, mostly to make a silly video, and now has been played a whole bunch.

I’ve only played about 5 hours of Muck, but I’m still going to write about it, because I’ll be damned if I don’t get something out of those five hours.

I don’t think Muck is bad, it’s more that it just isn’t very polished in any respect, which all things considered, kind of makes sense. To my mind, the game has more in common with roguelikes than crafting/open world survival games. I say this because in my experience, you don’t actually spend a lot of time building bases or structures like you might in say, Valheim.

Instead, you’ll toss up a few walls, build your crafting stations, and then desperately scramble around looking for food, supplies, and powerups before night falls, and enemies attack. If you’re playing multiplayer, there might be some division of labor on who exactly is trying to find what, but it’s basically a non-stop rush to get lumber to craft a workbench to craft a pick to mine rocks to make a furnace to smelt ore to…. you can probably see where I’m going with this. In any case, at some point, you’ll notice the sun has gone down, and you’re being mauled by goblins. Or wolf-shaped things. Or what appears to be a flying anemic dragon.

If you manage to kill them, they’ll drop some gold, which you can spend to open chests containing permanent buffs, similar to Risk of Rain. If I had any actual complaints, it would be that these buffs tend to be fairly dull, such as faster move speed, faster attack speed, more damage, etc. Nothing about them really lends itself toward being build-defining, or letting you choose a playstyle.

At some point you’ll either die, and restart this entire process (or just quit), or you’ll build up enough weapons and armor to start actually trying to beat the game. Unlike many other games in this genre, Muck actually does have an ending. You win by beating a few bosses, collecting some gems from them, repairing a boat with said gems plus a bunch of other supplies, and choosing to leave. Then there’s a final boss fight, which might just utterly shred you if you get unlucky.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about combat in Muck, and that’s because it’s as barebones as it feasibly could be. You have swords, you hit people with them, and you move away from them when they do an attack to dodge their backswing. Some enemies shoot projectiles.

And that’s pretty much everything that makes up Muck. I don’t have too much to say on it. Its a free, incredibly barebones randomly generated survival game with roguelike elements. It doesn’t do anything incredible, but it’s also not trying or claiming to do anything incredible. There are worse ways to spend your time, and all the better ones cost money. If you’re really bored, and everyone in your friend group refuses to buy new games ever, consider grabbing Muck for free on Steam.

Luck Be A Landlord

I wish it was as easy to write about this game as it was to play 20 hours of it.

I like Luck Be A Landlord. Fin.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t good enough to qualify as an article, but I’ve been trying to write about Luck Be A Landlord for quite a while and failing completely.

This might be because there is only one aspect of being a game that Luck Be A Landlord does well, but it’s also the only thing about games that actually matters to me: the gameplay. Luck Be A Landlord is an incredibly unique take on a deckbuilder, where instead of building a deck, you assemble a slot machine.

And this leaves me in a bind, because I can’t faff around about other things in the game that I like, such as music, animation, art, and story for several paragraphs like I normally would. All of those elements are pretty mediocre, but it doesn’t matter, because Luck Be A Landlord is mental crack.

The general gameplay loop is pretty simple: you have a slot machine, and a certain number of spins. At the end of those spins, you have to pay up a certain amount of cash. After each spin, you choose from one of three symbols to add to your pool, meaning it can now show up on future spins. Each time you have to pay rent, your rent goes up, and you have to pay more rent the next time.

And this probably doesn’t sound super enthralling, but I think it’s worth pointing out that a summary of Bejeweled’s mechanics would be something like “You have a grid of jewels, and you swap them, this removes them, so you can match more jewels.”

Let’s use this run as an example of why Luck Be A Landlord is so interesting to me.

At first glance, this probably looks like a fairly boring setup. I’m only using 3 different symbols. So why is it satisfying at all?

Well, the effort to get to this point was fairly massive. The symbols in question that I’m using are the Amethyst, the Dame, and a wildcard.

The Amethyst is part the Gem family of symbols. These symbols include Diamonds, Pearls, Emeralds, Sapphires, and a few others. The primary thing that’s unique about them is that they’re a family of symbols, much like the Fruit family, that are far easier to get by having symbols interact on the board, than by drafting them.

The Amethyst’s gimmick is that it’s the only symbol in this family that scales, and it does it in a fairly unique way. Each time another symbol would increase the value of an Amethyst prior to the end of a round, its score permanently increases.

The second symbol, the Dame, is from what I tend to think of as the humanoid family. The Dame buffs up any Gem family symbol she’s next to, meaning that when next to an Amethyst, she makes it worth more both in the current round you’re scoring, and in addition triggers the Amethyst’s unique ability, making it worth more permanently.

At the same time, the Dame also destroys and scores points for Martinis, making them an effective symbol to use in combination with Bartenders and Dwarves, as part of an alcohol removal engine.

I’m rambling a little bit here, so I’m just gonna try to get to my thesis: Luck Be A Landlord does a really good job of balancing moment to moment tension, and longer term play. Choices that might get you through your current rent cycle might not be ideal for you build, but choices that could be better for your build might mean you’ll never complete it in the first place. Most symbols have at least 1-2 meaningful interactions with other symbols, or symbol families.

The end result is a game where it’s just a lot of fun to try to build different types of engines, from Cultist based builds, which rely on having a bunch of the same symbol on the board, and then transition into eldritch horrors, to pearl harvesting builds, to pirates cracking open treasure. Watching a build come together is incredibly satisfying, and having one fall apart is frustrating, but not frustrating enough to keep you from doing just one more run.

Luck Be A Landlord is a video game. You can buy it on Steam. It is $10, and it is in early access. Oh, and there is a free demo, if after all of this you’re still on fence.

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.

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.