Rusted Moss Demo

Ed Note: The Steam Next Fest had a massive variety of demos, and I couldn’t get to all of them. Fortunately, I’m not not alone. Today’s review comes from my friend Kyle.

The Rusted Moss demo has pretty much sold me on the game. I’ll do a full writeup on it when the game comes out. I’m really hoping it lives up to the demo. Let’s start with the plot.

The story starts out with a protagonist named Fern. Fern’s a changeling who appears human, and has a shadow named Puck. Your overall quest is to gather shards of Titania to return Fae (fairies) to the world.

The true spice that sets this game apart is the grapple hook you get at the start. It offers exhilarating movement as you swing through maps and combat. You can grapple enemies closer to you to blast, or hitch a ride from certain enemies to ascend to greater heights.

Hanging from the roofs while you rain down bullets on enemies is fantastic as well, and just feels amazing. Many Metroidvanias give you the various movement powers over time, with much of the fun traversal coming later on. Getting the grappling hook early simply feels good.

Gameplay features all the typical stuff from a modern Metroidvania. It’s a non-linear platformer, with progression through weapon or mobility upgrades to unlock more of the map. There’s also trinket system that allows you to customize your character’s playstyle. These vary from charged shots doing more damage, to doing more damage at low or full life, as well as damage over time effects, shields and more.

I’m hoping there are more than just damage modification trinkets. Those were all I found in the demo. However, since this was just a demo, it’s more than possible this is just a vertical slice.

One gripe I have with the game is that bosses at the start felt a bit bullet spongy. You can do some trinket combos to nearly double your damage, (Giant Chambers, Thorny Rose, Erosive Bullets) but this comes at the price of being only able to take a single hit.

In the demo there’s a really fun speed climbing challenge to get to the top of a mountain, as well as a mini-boss boss rush with a two minute timer. Both of these have leaderboards for fastest times.

Overall, I’m very excited for Rusted Moss. I’m looking forward to the full game, and hoping it lives up to the promise of the demo.

Top 3 Games To Watch

With Steam Next Fest completed, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about demos I played. My personal favorites were actually pretty different from what ended up on the most popular list!

Super Raft Boat Together describes itself as a multiplayer roguelike shooter. Technically, Super Raft Boat already exists, and the new part here is just the “together.” But I never played the original, so for me, the whole thing is new.

It’s a fun little multiplayer roguelike. Is it hugely innovative? No. Did I have fun playing it? Yes.

I’m going to fail to describe Inkbound correctly, but I still want to try, so here we go. Inkbound is a multiplayer roguelike. Its primary innovation is a turn based, real time combat.

Here’s how it works. In combat, all human players have an individual pool of action points, and can use that pool to move and take actions independent of other human players. These actions are resolved in real time, as they are taken. When all humans mark their turn as finished, all the enemy NPC’s take their turn.

Then the process repeats.

It’s a really cool system, and there are a bunch of other neat ideas and innovations here, that I don’t quite have time to cover or describe. The short version is “Inkbound might have something really special mechanically.” I’m very excited to see the finished game.

Deceive Inc is very interesting. I think there’s a non-zero chance I end up sucking at or hating the finished version of this product. That said, I played over 8 hours of the game, and I wanted to play more when the demo ended.

It’s a blend-in game that at least initially appears to be in the style of something like Perfect Heist 2. You’re a secret agent infiltrating a map, trying to ultimately collect a briefcase, and make your escape.

What the game doesn’t really tell you is that, in some ways, it’s more of a skill based shooter than a blend-in/deduction game. The time to kill is very high, and many guns’ mechanics are so intricate that they have a skill ceiling that I didn’t so much as scratch during the time I spent playing.

There are two opposing gameplay directions that the developers could take the game’s mechanics. Neither is a bad choice, but they represent two very different games. One is to lean heavily into the blending in, cautious stealth, and sneaking approach of something like Perfect Heist 2. The other (and current) direction is to lean into the gunplay/combat-based mechanics. This would result in a game that is closer to something like Hunt:Showdown. I don’t know how to recommend this game, without knowing the direction it will take.

The other reason I’m a bit hesitant on Deceive Inc is that I’m not sure how long the game will be up. Everything about it screams “Live Service” game. The history of interesting, but ultimately (financial) failures of live service games is documented pretty well, even just on this blog.

Quantum League. Knockout City. Darwin Project. Okay, I never did a writeup on that last one, but the point still stands. These were all interesting, creative games, with cool mechanics.

Now they’re all dead, and it’s not because they were bad games. It’s because their entire business model was based on getting a large playerbase and a level of revenue they never achieved.

Pokémon Scarlet

When I was in highschool, I had to write essays. These essays were graded on a rubric with a certain percentage of points for various categories. One of these categories was what could be considered writing “technical skills.” Things like grammar, sentence construction, and spelling mistakes as a whole contributed to about 20% of the essay’s grade.

As a result, I would never get higher than 80%, because regardless of how good any of my points, ideas, or concepts were, my writing was a complete technical failure.

In that respect, my high school essays have a lot in common with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.

The Worst Performing Switch Game I’ve Ever Seen

Pokémon Violet’s miserable technical performance is omnipresent across the entire game. Miserable pop-in, levels of detail so low that you can see polygons getting added onto character models, poor framerates, and slowdown are present in virtual every area of the game. Almost every object is also subject to animation-frame culling as well.

My personal breaking point for this was the game’s credit sequence. This game is so unbelievably scuffed from a technical level that it fails to smoothly display scrolling text on a screen.

I’m not going to harp on the technical problems of Violet after this paragraph, except for when they become relevant to other portions of the game. Games are made up of multiple components, and worked on by multiple teams.

Some teams did their job very well. Some of these teams may have done the best they could under extreme time pressure. Or maybe they’re just incompetent! I don’t know which one it was. My conclusion is the same.

Despite liking and enjoying Pokémon Violet, the game’s technical issues are so widely spread that I just can’t recommend the game.

Core Mechanics

I did a large writeup on Pokémon as a series a while back. If you’re not familiar with Pokémon games at all, I suggest you read that writeup before the next bit. It included a overview of structure the games follow, along with general coverage of the series’ mechanics, and some suggestions for where a new player could start.

Scarlet and Violet mark the series transition to a full open world from the previous linear routes and narrative path. Instead, the world is shaped like a large donut. Difficulty scales as you travel up either side of the donut, with the game’s finale taking place in the center.

In Legends: Arceus, the battle and catching system was very simple. In Scarlet and Violet, those systems have been rolled back to their more complex previous forms, and are still very good and very compelling. There’s no more tall grass. Instead Pokémon spawn into the world in packs, and running into them will start a battle.

Node-Based Story Structure

The story structure is also fairly different. Because of the game’s open world nature, there’s no single series of events, or path that’s really required. Instead, each story event is sort of a self-contained mini-event. There are three main routes for these events. Two routes have 5 events, and the gym route has 8.

I think these story nodes can be completed in pretty much any order. I’m not sure that’s the case, though, because I did all the ones that gave me travel upgrades first. It certainly didn’t feel like there was a required order to me.

That said, these events don’t dynamically scale. I left what could be considered the 2nd or 3rd gym fight to do last one. There’s something amusing about showing up with a team of level 60 Pokémon for a gym battle against level 25s. But it’s also a little disappointing that the game doesn’t utilize the nonlinear story structure to give different players a different experience based on the order they complete story battles.

Also, before I switch topics, the games story arcs are surprisingly good. From a purely story standpoint, Scarlet might be my favorite Pokémon game. Is it the greatest story ever? No, but it’s memorable and unique.

Thematically Vast, Visually Bland

The Paldea region is one of the areas where the game feels like it’s been held back by the technology. There’s an early moment where a character is supposed to be introducing the stunning majesty of the Paldea region, and we get treated to a set of panning views of… various green-grey plains.

It’s sort of sad-funny that sets the tone for what we’ll see in the rest of the game.

The game has a variety of areas, but outside of Pokémon variety, the areas never felt different. Looking back, I remember dry desserts, a large cave, some icy mountains, ocean-side towns, and a coal mine, but they all felt identical. The only area that left any sort of impact was a large cave that I wandered into under leveled, swiftly got pulped, and then booked it out of.

The Pokémon Cave Experience

I think the biggest issue is that Pokémon games have often been light on visuals. Instead, the tone of the zones was sold by the Pokémon themselves. Caves full of Zubats spring to mind. Lunatone and Solrock in Meteor Falls, or Skarmory in the ash covered zones.

However, because of how Pokémon spawning works, and the fact that it’s possible to ignore pretty much every encounter I didn’t want to fight, most areas ended up feeling empty. I could rush through them, and interact with nothing but story events if I so chose.

Some thoughts that don’t fit anywhere else

Pokémon is a broad franchise, and has its own subtypes of players just like other complicated and broad games. As such, there are some things I can’t comment on. I don’t know how well the game is balanced and plays for multiplayer activities, such as competitive tourneys, or the end-game raids. I also didn’t do much with the breeding post-game/shiny hunting.

Many of the gyms in this game have their own mini-game or side mode associated with them. One of the more standout moments for me was a game mode where you’re supposed to collect Sunflora, and bring them back to a central area. This puzzle was very clearly designed before being tested, because it required collecting such a large number of Sunflora, that they would lag the game, and pop-in if you ran too far ahead of them. The town with this gym challenge also had a windmill that had ridiculous animation culling. Both of these combined to make the whole area incredibly immersion-breaking.

The new Pokémon designs generally felt quite good, as did much of the general world design and writing. The Jiggypuff with sharp teeth that screams and bites you is one of my favorites.

Again, though, it’s things like the carefully crafted in-world advertisements and logos that end up feeling like they’re in sharp contrast to the generally poor technical quality of the rest of the game.

Friendly reminder that the Fairy Pokémon type is based off old-english fairies, and those things were public menaces.

The vengeful fairy with a giant hammer that just beats the shit out of you is also great.

In Conclusion

Pokémon Scarlet is a 7/10, but it gets that score, much like my high school English papers, for a sheer lack of technical polish.

If this was an indie game, I’d excuse a lot of these issues. But this is the largest media franchise in the world. Yes, Scarlet makes makes changes in story, structure, and world, but they’re all hindered by those technical issues.

There have been some rumors that Nintendo/Gamefreak are working on patches to improve performance, but I’m not holding my breath. And I’m not betting on these issues being fixed for the next game either.

Did I have fun? Yes! Would I play it again? Probably. Will I buy the next entry in the franchise? In the immortal words of Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe, “I am a consumer whore.”

Of course I will.

But I don’t recommend you buy it.

Demon’s Tilt

Authors Note: Demon’s Tilt has ridiculous number of flashing lights and graphical elements. My friends described it as “making their eyes bleed”. So, photosensitivity warning: if you’re photosensitive, don’t play this game. This writeup doesn’t contain any of those flashing images, but the Steam page likely does.

I generally like Demon’s Tilt. That’s not to say that I don’t have a bunch of complaints about it. But the more I play it, the less some of the minor issues bother me. It also might be because I’m writing this on an endorphin high from finally getting a Wizard Mode start, after playing for 8 hours.

Okay, let’s back up a bit. Demon’s Tilt is a digital pinball table for PC. Pinball has become something of my comfort food game for me over the last several months. My pinball obsessions was kicked off by a friend bringing me to hang out at an arcade bar that had several pinball machines. (You know who you are. I very much appreciate the visit.) Pinball has served to distract me significantly from the mild dumpster fire my life has been over the last few months.

I’m not going to go too heavily into explaining pinball as a game. I think it would take too long, and I wouldn’t necessarily do a good job of it. That said, I want to cover the basics and define a few words so I can use them later.

Pinball Basics

First off, basics. Pinball is a game where you try to keep a small ball in play, usually by hitting it with a pair of flippers on a large board (the table) of obstacles that the ball can interact with. Flippers are controlled with buttons, and control is typically binary; the buttons can only be pressed or released.

Letting the ball drop down between these flippers results in losing or “sinking” the ball. Losing all your balls results in losing the game, but you can usually earn a limited number of extra balls during play.

Finally, a few more general notes. It’s often possible to catch the ball by holding down a button, and letting a ball come to standstill in the clutched area between the lane and the flipper. This is called cradling. In addition, it’s often possible to smack the table, and force the ball to move in ways that it otherwise wouldn’t. This is called titling. If you tilt or mess with the table too much, too rapidly, the table will shut down, turn off your control of the flippers, and sink your ball. This is called tilting out.

Anyway, back to Demon’s Tilt

The big difference between Demon’s Tilt and most pinball is that Demon’s Tilt commits to being a truly “digital” pinball, as opposed to a digital simulation of a physical pinball table. It has a bunch of mechanics and designs that simply could not physically fit, or work in any reasonable way on a physical pinball table.

I respect the effort to create and implement these mechanics. Some of them are interesting and work well, and some do not.

The first big difference between Demon’s Tilt and a physical pinball table is it consists of what would traditionally be three separate tables linked together, and you can shoot the ball between them. Only losing the ball on the lowest set of flippers actually drops the ball from play.

Each of the three subsections has its own set of missions that can be completed for score, and to ultimately advance to Wizard mode. I found each sub-table a bit plain. It usually only has one main interactable element outside of the primary missions. There are plenty of interactable objects, but none of them felt meaningful unless they had a jackpot active, or were part of the currently active mission.

This isn’t helped by the fact that as far as I can tell, missions aren’t dynamic, and will always be started in the same order. This means that unless you’re moving between sub-tables rapidly or by mistake, you’ll complete all missions in the same order.

There are two other main digital elements in Demon’s Tilt that wouldn’t be possible in a physical table. The first is a wide variety of small pack minions and mobs that swarm and float across the table. You can remove some of these just by tapping them. Others actively interact with or block the ball. These are generally fine, but don’t feel hugely impactful.

The other is the bullet system.

Demon’s Tilt’s bullets are probably the most unique digital-only mechanic in the game, but they’re also my least favorite. Some table elements can emit bullets, usually in two colors: pink and gold. When the ball hits a pink bullet, it counts as hitting any other physics object, and the bullet disappears. Hitting a gold bullet does the same, except then all existing pink bullets are cleared.

I don’t think the idea of moving temporary obstacles is a bad thing. It’s an innovation that could only work in digital pinball. But the implementation here follows more of a shoot-em-up or bullet hell pattern. That doesn’t’ work because those games are based on having exact and precise control at all times of the player, which is almost the exact opposite of pinball. For many of these patterns, it’s best to just wait them out, rather than to try to push through them.

As a result, I end up just cradling the ball, and waiting for bullets to pass. Waiting like this felt bad. It didn’t feel as bad as hitting the ball into a set of bullets I didn’t see, and having the ball sink because of that. But still bad!

Some quick thoughts before I wrap this up.

Demon’s Tilt has a ridiculous amount of visual clutter. My friends described it as making their eyes bleed. Between flashing lights, effects, bullets, and other junk, it can be easy to lose track of the ball. And that’s with the screen shake turned off, and the table zoomed out. In multi-ball modes, it’s effectively impossible to keep track of balls on different tables.

The ball’s bounces and physics behavior are a bit unusual. The physics isn’t inconsistent, but the ball often behaves in ways that didn’t feel intuitive, at least for the first several hours. The top-down 2D view also requires learning the table a bit, as it’s not clear where certain lanes will go on first glance.

The music is quite good. I think there are only 3-4 songs, but I still enjoyed them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Demon’s Tilt, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t already into pinball, and who isn’t also willing to experience some weird shit. The attempts at implementing digital-only mechanics are respectable, but don’t always pan out. There’s a lot of visual clutter to the point of impairing gameplay, and the game’s physics model can feel janky.

Demon’s Tilt is $20 on Steam. There are some interesting mechanics worth experiencing, but the price is a bit steep for a single table. Still, if you’re looking for an interesting pinball experience, it might be worth checking out.

Isle of Arrows

Isle of Arrows offers an interesting take on the tower defense genre, but a dependence on good RNG to survive pulls it down.

I don’t hate Isle of Arrows, but I can’t recommend it. It has a nice art style, and interesting core mechanics. But the reason the game took me 12 hours to beat is that randomness plays too heavy a factor. Having good runs is difficult, and having satisfying runs almost impossible.

Very minor quibble: the situation present here in the game’s Steam banner can never happen in game. And now you will share in that suffering with me.

Isle of Arrows is a tower defense tile placement game. You start with a single pre-placed arrow tower, a few pre-placed road tiles, a bomb and a bridge.

Your job is to turn this.

Into something like this.

Game Mechanics and Systems

You have 4 resources: Life, Gold, Bridges, and Bombs. If enemies reach the tiny gold octahedron at the end of the route, you lose a life. Enemies themselves will always spawn on the last road tile on a path to your octahedron.

Gold is the only real spending resource. Each round, you’re given a tile for free that you can place. You can either place that tile, or skip it. Then you can spend 2 more gold to draw the next tile. Repeat until you’re out of gold. For example, if I had 10 gold, I could place my current tile, then advance choosing to place or skip up to 5 more tiles.

It’s important to note that you can only ever see the next single tile that you’ll draw. While enemies can drop gold, your primary source of gold is income. It’s almost interest: each round, you’ll get 1 gold, plus 1 more for each 10 gold you have stored. (Up to a max of +4 at 30 gold banked.)

The tiles you draw have placement requirements, though. Tiles must be connected to another tile you’ve already placed, they can’t overlap with existing structures, and they have to be placed on ground.

Which brings us to the last two resources: Bombs and Bridges. They both serve a similar purpose in allowing you to break some of the rules. Bombs can be spent to place a tile on an already existing tile, and bridges can be spent to allow you to build out into the air. While there are ways to get more bombs and bridges, there’s no way to guarantee it.

There are a few more tile types. There are roads that can be placed to expand the path to your shiny defense shape, and there are towers that can be placed to shoot enemies as they travel along the roads. There are also traps, which have some effects on enemies placed along the road, and non-combat tiles such as water that often come attached to other tiles. Finally, you can place economy tiles to generate resources, usually as a one time effect based on where you place them.

Isle of Arrows has a beautiful isometric look. It’s fun to watch your island expand! But Isle of Arrows has a big fundamental problem: the randomness.

The Problem

At its simplest, the problem boils down to a question of DPS. There’s no guarantee that you’ll draw enough towers with tiles to have enough damage to clear late game waves. But more importantly, there’s no guarantee you’ll see any specific tower. So it’s hard to strategize. You can’t build or plan with the expectation of “Eventually I’ll get X.” You can play 40 rounds, and never get a ballista. Or you can get 3 sniper towers in the first 10 tiles, and zero in the next seventy.

As a result, I couldn’t set up and build to do anything clever. Sure, I could try to to build a long straight road that would be cleared with a boulder tower, but I’d often never see one. I could set up a winding route that would be perfect with ballista, but if it didn’t show up, that route was just a waste of space.

As a result, my strategy was pretty much always the same: pool gold until I got to 30 banked. After that, I’d just place tiles wherever they provided maximum utility in the moment. There was no grand strategy, or clever synergies. Instead, it was just a fight stay ahead of the curve.

I think this is why my brain feels a bit melted after playing Isle of Arrows. I never really changed up my core strategy. Instead, I just tried to have any tower I placed cover as many tiles as possible, and hoped for the best.

I think a peak example of this randomness was visible in my clear of the game’s final level, Burning Embers. Burning Embers has a fire theme, and a tower called the cluster tower. Cluster towers get a damage bonus for each other cluster tower they’re linked to. But they’re fairly rare, and in my first several attempts, I saw either one or zero of them.

But on what would be my final run, I lucked into an early cluster tower, and then several more later on. Those cluster towers made the difference, bringing down the final tanky enemies, because of that cluster damage bonus.

But there was no way to build or plan for this. There was no grand strategy. It was just “Hey, you got lucky on the rolls, here’s some good stuff.”

And more irritatingly, there are no systems to compensate for the inverse happening, and just getting screwed by RNG. Random draw is the only way to get towers and tiles. You can’t choose to spend an exorbitant amount of money to buy a single specific tower. You can’t choose to modify the pool you’re drawing from. You can make all the right choices, and still lose.

Getting Kobyashi-Maru’d isn’t fun, but it’s made even less fun by the fact that there is really only one strategy. As I mentioned before, it boils down to just getting as much value out of tiles on the turn you draw them.

Isle of Arrows is nicely polished. I want to like the random tile system for an interesting take on tower defense. But the randomness and capriciousness makes it feel like there’s no point to trying out multiple strategies, or trying to be clever.

Give me ways to mitigate being screwed by your system! Let me pay a premium to bring in certain towers if I can pool the money. Or do something akin to Loop Hero, where certain arrangements of tiles and towers morph into a larger super tower structure. Give me some form of decision making that isn’t just pushing my luck, or maximizing current utility.

Isle of Arrows is $13 on Steam, at time of writing. Any desire I have to continue playing the game is mostly out of a sense of spite, and to vindicate my own opinions. I’m confident I can clear all maps with all factions. After all, I’d just need to get lucky.

I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide if that constitutes a endorsement.

Author’s Note: I didn’t really mention the faction mechanic. There are five factions outside the starter faction, they all change up the gameplay slightly. They usually make it harder. Architects don’t get flags to expand the island, but gets bridges after each wave. Cannoneers don’t get flags, but convert any extra life or bridges into bombs. Pathfinders can build roads both ways, but get swamped with road tiles. I’ve got two problems with factions. First, the general high level strategy doesn’t change per faction. Second, each faction is usually more difficult than the preceding one. As a result, clearing each map with an additional faction just feels like grindy busywork instead of an interesting choice of challenge, or a fun variant to try out on a map.

TLDR: There’s a faction system, but it feels like it exists to pad playtime, not make it more fun.