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.

Sector’s Edge

Sector’s Edge is a fascinating combo of Battlefield and Minecraft, even if the beta still has some rough spots.

I generally like Sector’s Edge. I think I should probably make that point early, because I’m going to be complaining about it a fair amount. But overall, I enjoy the game, and recommend it.

Sector’s Edge is a free to play FPS with fully destructible terrain, and building. On the sliding scale of FPS’s, it plays much closer to something like Call of Duty or Battlefield than Halo or TF2. What this means is that time to kill is low, and getting one-tapped is pretty common.

Let’s also talk about the F2P element real quick as well. I’ve played 10 hours, and as far as I can tell, money only buys you cosmetics. There’s no way to buy more powerful guns in the cash shop.

There’s also a point-based loadout system. The game gives you a bunch of starting loadouts, but you can also build your own. Loadouts consist of weapons, armor mods, throwable items, and your digging tool. These can all be customized with various attachments, and even the digging tool can be upgraded or downgraded to change the number of available points. Sector’s Edge has some of the worst grenades I’ve ever encountered in a video game, but all the other weapons I’ve tried have felt pretty good, so I’m going to call it even.

Okay, now that we’ve covered both of those, let’s talk about the biggest difference between Sector’s Edge and other shooters. The fully destructible terrain and ability to build. Every Sector’s edge map is effectively made up of Minecraft-style blocks, and players can also place blocks.

Believe it or not, not only did the stairs and hole not exist at the start of the game, there used to be an ENTIRE BUILDING.

You can build by placing blocks one at a time, or by putting them down in configurable structures that can be designed in sort of home base area called the Ship.

This means that maps will start out nice and pristine, and depending on how things progress, they will end as combination sunken crater and modern art installation. In one of the most memorable games I’ve played, an entire section of the map ended up being so destroyed that there was a literal air-gap between attackers and defenders, with both sides trying to build across, but also not let the other team cross.

One big difference between Sector’s Edge and Minecraft is that you can’t build floating structures connected to nothing. If a building ends up connected to nothing, it comes down hard, usually leaving an impact crater. These moments are surprisingly smooth (even if the audio can go a bit nuts) and fun to watch. But it does bring me to my biggest problem with Sector’s Edge.

Now you see me.

Not all of the game’s maps are set up in a way that takes advantage of the destructible terrain, or is even fair to both teams. As an example, I’d offer the desert map. It’s a large flat map, with two bunches of smaller houses on opposite sides. If the game mode is capture the flag, one team’s flag starts atop a small house within a cluster of chokepoints, and the other team’s starts in the middle of the desert, with no cover or obvious defenses.

Additionally, because the map’s so flat, and the “houses” are packed with an incredibly hard to destroy material, digging and destruction feels pointless. And while you can tunnel a bit, it often doesn’t help.

Now you don’t.

This is my biggest issue with Sector’s Edge as it is right now. Some maps feel incredibly fun and interesting, and some are boring slogs where individual contribution feels meaningless, and whichever team is better at not running into the meat grinder wins.

I still have some other small issues, which these are the sorts of things that might change in a beta. Let’s go through them real quick.

First, there’s almost no indication you’re being shot except for your health decreasing. Second, the game has a movement system that allows sprinting and then crouching to slide. But since you can’t hit both keys at once, you can’t really use the slide without rebinding keys. Third, and this is just a personal dislike, I wish there was more support options like droppable ammo-boxes available. I get why they made this choice (probably to discourage snipers that never interact), but right now when you run out of ammo, you’re pretty much useless.

Ignoring all of those, though, there’s one really big thing that the game needs: some sort of squad system. The game’s 12 v 12 pacing is pretty chaotic. When I play with friends, I’d like to be able to actually play with them. Right now, it feels like we’re just playing parallel on the same map. And when I’m playing with 11 randos, I’d like to be able to find my friends, squad up, and be able to work with them. To be clear, I’m not asking for the ability to respawn on them or anything. I just want to be able to pick out specific teammates whose location and status are highlighted on the map.

I recognize that I have a lot of complaints here, but I want to stress I still like the game. The main reason I have these complaints is because I played it for 8 hours straight yesterday. It feels like a good game. There are things about it I like (most of the guns, the destructibility) and things I don’t (some maps, grenades being uncookable and on a microwave timer), but overall I enjoyed Sector’s Edge and recommend playing it.

If this got you interested, you can find it here on Steam.

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.

Omega Strikers

To my mind, soccer is one of the world’s simplest games. Put the ball into the net without using your hands. On the other hand, MOBA’s are one of the most complicated. Sure, the general goal is pretty simple: destroy the Ancient/Nexus. But everything else is a complex mishmash of systems, paved cowpaths, general fuckery, and meta-weirdness.

Omega Strikers is effectively a synthesis of these two systems. Score five points (or two more then your opponent in a tie breaker) to win. Score points by hitting the disc into the goal. A nice simple win condition, with theoretically simple gameplay.

But it Omega Strikers also feels a bit like a MOBA. Instead of being a generic soccer player, you pick a Striker in a pregame draft. There’s a not-quite leveling system based on picking up powerups from around the map, and some of your abilities do “damage” to enemy strikers. You can also temporarily knock out enemy players by depleting their health, and also by hitting them into walls.

There’s not too much else to be said for Omega Strikers. It has the same sort of art style as Eternal Return, with the 3D anime and sorta cel-shaded look. It has a battlepass. You can pay money to unlock characters, but it’s not just real life money, it’s funbucks which can only be purchased in random amounts.

Oh, and it has a “Rune System.” You know, that terrible system from League and Multiversus where you have to spend your in-game currency on passive buffs to put onto your character instead of, I don’t know, unlocking more characters to play.

You want my simple opinion on Omega Strikers? I think it’s fine. I think as a game that seems to run fairly well, it was fun to download and play with some friends for a bit. I don’t fully understand the game’s damage systems. I also don’t have any huge desire to return to it. I do think it’s by far the easiest MOBA style game I’ve ever played, and convincing non-gaming folks to try it would be probably be pretty easy.

Omega Strikers is Free* on Steam.
*If you get into its gonna cost you more than a triple A game, so good luck.