Wide Ocean Big Jacket

I think Wide Ocean Big Jacket is very good. It might be great.

I’d like to open this writeup on Wide Ocean Big Jacket with a long series of paragraphs discussing the definition of games, what it means to be a game, and just general thoughts on interactive media.

I’m not going to do that because it would be a tremendous waste of time, and take away from actually talking about the Wide Ocean Big Jacket.

I think Wide Ocean Big Jacket is very good. It might be great.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket is not something I would have played if I wasn’t trying to force myself to step outside of my comfort zone. If you’ve read my other reviews, it’s pretty easy to figure out that I prize interesting mechanical gameplay over just about everything else.

That’s not really what Wide Ocean Big Jacket is about. The game itself has more in common with a visual novel than any other genre. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any major branching decisions, and the whole experience is fairly linear.

The thing is, the game absolutely nails almost every aspect of the writing and the setting. I would rank it up there with Night In The Woods in terms of being accurate to what human beings are actually like, and also nailing what going camping is actually like. There are very few games with writing this good.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Generally speaking, it feels like a slice of life style thing. It’s about going camping in the woods and relationships. And that’s all you really need to know.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket is $8 on itch.io. It’s not a long game by any means, but I don’t think that’s a valuable tool to measure it by. It was also part of the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle, so if you own that, you can download it and play it now. And I think you should.

Oh, and if you’re on the fence, there’s a demo! It’s an entirely separate set of extra chapters of the game. You’ll have to scroll down a bit on the page to find it.

Wheels of Aurelia

An interesting attempt at combing visual novels and other mechanics, but I didn’t like it.

I have mixed feelings on Wheels of Aurelia. On the one hand, I don’t like the game enough to play more of it. On the other hand, I keep thinking about it. It was going to get a section in “Didn’t Make the Cut,” except I think I have more to say about it than any of the other games that didn’t make the cut, so it gets its own article.

So what is it? Wheels of Aurelia describes itself as a racing game set in Italy in the 1980’s. I’d describe it as a visual novel with a light driving element set in Italy in the 1980’s.

Potayto, potahto.

For those of you with busy lives, here’s the five second summary: I think it’s very interesting, but I did not like it very much.

There are some really strong parts to Wheels of Aurelia, but these parts (usually the writing and the setting) feel somewhat disconnected.

The big one is the setting of 1980’s Italy. One thing the game has made abundantly clear to me is that I don’t know shit about 1980’s Italy. And while the game does link to some sections of text from Wikipedia, this wasn’t enough for me to understand a lot of what was being referred to in the writing. Which brings us to the second problem.

The writing shifts tone rapidly to the extent that it feels almost non-sequitur, with the result being that parts of the story just don’t make any sense whatsoever because of this tonal shift. For example, characters that have barely been named suddenly become relevant.

The main character goes from losing their car in a race to a molesty creep (and being understandably fucking pissed), to buying a 3 wheeled tractor cheerfully from a farmer, to chasing fascists for some reason. The end result was that I had a harder and harder time following the plot as it went on.

However, this doesn’t characterize the entire game. There’s a well-written and interesting dialogue with a hitchhiker about a football club. And sub-sections of the game are fine. It’s how they connect that sucks. At first, I thought this might be related to the game’s localization or translation, but the game’s credits don’t actually list an English translation. So I’m honestly not sure what happened with the writing. Sub-sections of it are fine, the but the overall arc feels janky.

In either case, enough ragging on. Let’s talk about what the game does have going for it:

  1. A solid soundtrack. I actually kind of want to re-listen to a few of these. (Wait until 1:00 minute in for it to go crazy.)
  2. Strong art design. Both the characters and environments are well done. They’re fairly minimal, but I’d consider that to be a good thing.
  3. A solid attempt at combining standard game mechanics with a visual novel. I wouldn’t say it succeeds 100%, but it’s interesting, and trying to drive while also deciding how to respond to prompts is neat.

And yeah, that’s about it. Wheels of Aurelia is $10 on Steam, Epic or itch.io. And it’s also in the itch.io racial justice bundle, so if you purchased that, you already own it.

It wasn’t for me, but maybe it will be for you?

Hunt: Showdown

The little Battle Royale that wasn’t

Ed Note: The screenshots in this article are from the Hunt: Showdown press kit. Getting good screenshots of the game is kind of tricky, because any time you’d want to get a screenshot of something cool, it’s usually trying to kill you. With that said, in my opinion, the game doesn’t look as good as its marketing material, but I also don’t care because the gameplay is what sells it.

Today, I’m gonna be talking about Hunt: Showdown, also known as “That Other Game Crytek Made” and “Wait, Crytek Makes More Than Engines?” I like Hunt: Showdown. A week ago Steam said I’d played about 70 hours, and I’ve played another 15 or so since then, so I feel fairly confident in that recommendation.

If I was forced to stuff Hunt: Showdown into a neat little box to characterize it, it would probably go in the “Battle Royale” box, with Fortnite/Warzone/PUBG. You can play with a squad of up to three folks, you want to shoot people, and you start on a massive single map. I don’t think this is entirely fair and accurate, though, because while the general intention of Hunt is similar to those other games (forcing interesting FPS based fights on a massive open map against other players), the way it goes about making this occur is pretty different.

For starters, there is no “looting phase” or “drop phase.” Instead, you create a loadout of items and weapons prior to starting a hunt, and once the hunt begins, you just spawn with your team on a random edge of the map. While you can pick up additional ammo and supplies from caravans around the map, and also other dead players, you don’t get to choose what you get from these, and so you mostly just have to make do with what you brought with you. Generally speaking, you’ll bring things like bolt action rifles, six-shooters, shotguns, and sticks of dynamite.

Also, unlike most Battle Royales, your goal isn’t to wipe out all other players on the map. You can leave more or less whenever you want by getting to an exit point, and waiting out the escape timer. And if you want to save your character (we’ll get into why you might want this in a bit) escaping like this can be the smartest choice.

Behold, the zombies. Stupid, slow, and not a problem until one that you miss stabs you with a meat cleaver.

Instead, the goal of a round of Hunt is to escape with a bounty token, an item that you get from either killing an AI boss monster, or prying it from the from cold dead hands of someone else who did. You locate the boss by picking up clues. Each time you pick up a clue, a section of the minimap gets closed off, letting you know the boss isn’t in that zone. After 3, you’re given the boss’s location.

And this is where things get interesting, because you’ll note I said “Boss.” See, Hunt’s map is fully populated with AI enemies, fairly basic trash mobs. And while these enemies are dumb as bricks, if you’re not careful, or a little too gung-ho, they can easily get you into trouble. Not because they do massive amounts of damage (they don’t) or can kill you quickly (most of them can’t), but because they force you to spend time or ammunition dealing with them.

It’s a spider made out of people! And yes, it looks just as horrifying close up as you might expect.

Okay, so I’m bored of writing about the general mechanics. This is enough to explain the general tension and what makes Hunt: Showdown interesting. In brief, all of the game’s systems are built to force you into fights, and the lower player count means that you only need to win 1-2 of these fights in order to “win” a match. The boss objectives mean that despite starting at different locations, players are funneled together, while the game’s sound design and AI means that if you find yourself using non-silenced weapons against monsters, enemy players can quickly locate you. The bounty mechanic puts a target on your head once you’re trying to escape, but it also gives you dark sight, a very minimalist wallhack sort of thing that lets you spot folks trying to ambush you, and make those end game engagements more even.

The one big thing I haven’t talked about yet is how loadouts and perks work, and while I don’t have too much to say, here’s the five second version:

Your “Hunters” have a level from 1-50, and whenever they successfully extract from a hunt, they get some more experience based on how they did (mob kills, boss kills, bounties, player kills). Each time they level up, they get a skill point that can be used to unlock passive perks, things like walking quieter, taking less damage from falling, that sort of jazz. If your team wipes in a mission, your Hunter is permanently dead, and there’s no way to bring them back, and you lose all the gear they had on them.

Gear is somewhat similar. Various actions during a match will pay out Hunt Dollars, which you use to buy gear. Different types of gear are unlocked as you level up your bloodline, and when you buy hunters they come with some of their own gear.

While you always have access to a pool of Hunters that includes at least one free Hunter to recruit, this free Hunter has random weapons and equipment, and no perks.

And this is one of the reasons you might choose to extract early: saving your gear and Hunter, and living to fight another day. It might not be worth much, but it can take 2-3 successful matches to get a Hunter to the cap, and losing them feels bad.

The end result is a game with some interesting character building systems outside of the actual gameplay, and solid FPS mechanics with a set of much older weapons. For me, the game feels like it’s built in a way to encourage and cause interesting gunfights, as opposed to being shot in the head by someone hiding twelve miles away in a cornfield, or simply losing because you couldn’t find a gun when you dropped.

This doesn’t mean Hunt is flawless. The loading times are incredibly frustrating and long. There are no death cams, just death views, which make it difficult to learn from your deaths, or if the person who killed you was hacking, which it can feel like even if they weren’t. For me, though, these downsides are annoying, but not enough to make the tense gunfights less fun, and the game itself less enjoyable.

Hunt: Showdown is $40 on Steam, and it’s also on PS4/XboxOne, but it looks like there’s no crossplay between consoles and PC. So if you do want to play it with friends, make sure everyone gets it on the same platform.

Micro Mages

Small. Fun. And I was going to say short, but then world 4 and the world 4 boss happened. So calling the game short would be a lie.

There are a lot of interesting things that can be said about Micro Mages. For example, it came out for the NES… in 2018, which is at least a little bit after that particular console stopped being manufactured. There’s some cool stuff about the game being able to support four players via some trickery and other stuff. It also got physical cartridges manufactured, again, years after the discontinuation of said cartridges.

Of course, having zero appreciation for impressive technical achievements as I do, I don’t really care about any of those things. I’m here to answer a different question: “Is Micro Mages fun?” My answer is “Yes, now, can I go back to bed?” I’m told this is apparently not a sufficient enough answer to count as an entire article.

Okay, so what is Micro Mages? Well, it’s a fairly small vertical platformer. The game has four areas, with three levels each, and a boss at the end. (And two bosses, sorta, at the end of fourth area.) You control one of the titular miniature magi in their quest to get through all the levels, via wall jumping, shooting projectiles, and trying not to die. You die in one hit (if you haven’t picked up any powerups), making avoiding death a bit more difficult than you would think. Once you beat the game the first time around, there is also a hard mode, in which you replay the same worlds, but the enemies get additional behaviors/attacks, and the rate at which the game auto-scrolls up gets faster.

Why yes, I did just take all of my images from their press kit. Except the last one of course.

This is all just so much fluff in describing the game, and the reality is that while Micro Mages is really simple, it’s also quite fun. Everything about how it controls and plays feels well thought-out. A few things of note for me were how fluid and accurate the wall jumping felt, along with the fact that projectiles could be fired in all of the compass directions, and almost always went where I wanted them to go. In addition, the range on said projectiles was generous, avoiding the classic “The projectile despawned right before hitting the enemy and now you’re dead” moment.

The powerups are fairly plain, but they do what was intended. The game only really had one instance of mechanics screw/death is the best teacher. (Looking at you, giant floating skull that speeds up if you hit it with a projectile and can’t be killed.)

I remember there being a really cool article about how the game saved space by using mirrored images to construct the mages and the bosses, but I can’t find. If I track it down, I’ll link it here.

Outside of the final world and final world’s final boss, I would say the game isn’t too difficult, and it’s also short enough to be worth playing. And, like many other things I write about, if you purchased the itch.io racial justice bundle, you already own it!

Did I beat it from world 1 to 4? No. But did I clear the whole game? Technically still also no; I didn’t beat hard mode. But I did beat it in normal, and that’s what really matters.

If you didn’t, it’s $10 on Steam, the same on itch.io, and 45 European Monetary Units for the physical cartridge, complete with game manual, and all that other good stuff. I have no idea if they ship worldwide or anything though.

Ed Note: I was planning on having this article be very short, as part of a meta joke about how small Micro Mages is. Except then the final level absolutely kicked my ass for quite a bit, and I had to abandon that plan.

Ed Note 2: You have no idea how incredibly pleased I am with the phrase “Miniature Magi,” and even though it’s not as clever as I think it is, it fucking kills me that no one will see it.

Legion TD 2

The gameplay is really interesting, even if everything else is a bit lackluster.

I like Legion TD 2. As of writing, I’ve played about 84 hours of it, and I haven’t quite burned myself out yet.

Ed Note: In the time between starting writing this article, and finishing this article, that number has moved up to 120.

Legion TD 2 is a sequel to Legion TD in the same way that Dota 2 is a sequel to DotA, which is to say that it isn’t. If that last sentence didn’t make any sense to you, I can put it a different way: “Legion TD 2 is a remake of Legion TD in a new engine, as a standalone game, with better graphics and support.” So if you’ve ever played the Warcraft 3 mod that was its predecessor you already know the structure of the game.

If you haven’t, here’s a quick crash course in the general flow and structure of the game.

Legion TD 2 is a competitive unit placement/builder. It’s not really a typical tower defense, at least in the standard way of thinking about things. Instead, you spend gold to place and upgrade units onto a grid, before each wave. At the start of each wave, your placed units turn into actual units, and go to fight the incoming wave of units. Units have a damage type, an armor type, and the game has a somewhat Pokemon style matchup for what beats what. So in order to do well, you need to know in advance what wave you’ll be facing.

If all your units get killed, the remaining enemy attackers go and fight any units that your teammates might have had remaining after clearing their own set of waves, and then go and attack your king. If your king runs out of health, the game is over and your lose. If your opponents’ king runs out of health, you win.

There are two big things I haven’t mentioned yet that provide a lot of the meat of the game. First off, the units you can build in any given match are semi-random for that given match. So unlike most other tower defense games you can’t just make a perfect build and roll with it; you have to be able to look at your choices, and make judgements about what you’ll need, and when you’ll need them.

The second is a mechanic called sending.

Sending is when you spend a resource to add additional units to an enemy wave that is attacking one of your opponents. The resource in question is called mythium, and you get it over time based on the number of workers you have. Workers cost gold, the same resource you use to buy and upgrade units, which means money spent on getting workers is money that isn’t spent on upgrading your actual defensive line. Sending also gives you permanent gold income based on the units you sent to attack, so holding all your mythium just to blow it at once can actually end up costing you money.

There are a few other mechanics I won’t go into too much right now, but this is the general gameplay a match of Legion TD 2. The game is about keeping a balance between investment and long term economy. On waves when your units are having a bad matchup, you might need to commit more to building up your forces, and on waves where you’re strong, you choose to sink money into workers instead.

At the same time, you’ll be trying to read your opponents’ builds, and make guesses about when they’ll be weak, or when they’ll decide to apply pressure. If I have any gripes with game, it would be that once you fall behind, it can feel very difficult to fight your way back in. There just aren’t any comeback mechanics. “Leaking,” or allowing waves of attackers to get your king, means you’ll have less gold to work with for future waves. As a result you can end up in a situation where if you overspend on building units, you can’t scale in the long term, but if you don’t build enough units, you just die.

Legion TD 2 appeals to me in the same way that a game like Dota does. Like Dota, in Legion TD 2 you play the game in short matches, and over a match, you feel the fun power curve of playing a longer RPG or tower defense game. It feels fun to finish and build up some of the bigger towers, and to watch them wreck incoming waves, at least for a bit. At the same time, there isn’t really any out-of-match progression. Each match you restart at nothing, and go through the whole process again. The main power progression lies in learning about mechanics and edge cases, trying different strategies, and just generally improving bit by bit.

Legion TD 2 is surprisingly relaxed for a fairly competitive game. You can’t exactly play it and do something else at the same time, but as far as games go, it doesn’t require require massive amounts of micro or clicky clicky. Instead, it just requires focus, and a bit of patience. It’s far more mellow than something like Underlords or TFT.

At this point I’ve played a lot of Legion TD 2, and while I really like it, it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. It’s highly competitive, and while the toxicity isn’t as bad as what I’ve seen in other online games, it is present. Everything that isn’t the gameplay is fairly underwhelming, with art and music that feels very “generic fantasy.” But the mind games and push-and-pull resource management are unique—if what you’ve read interests you, and you have $20 to spare, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Click to go to the Steam Page!

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.

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.

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.