Episode #23 of Connecting to Host is now available in which John and I discuss salty sea-based shooter Splatoon 2:
In this episode we get fresh an take to the front lines with our splattershots and curling bombs in an effort to ink as much turf as possible. A Nintendo Switch exclusive, Splatoon 2 is a team-based third-person shooter where the primary game modes feature 4v4 matches where the goal is to ink as much of the stage as possible in a short 3-minute match. Splatoon 2 also introduces a new co-op “horde mode” like experience called Salmon Run where you team up with up to 3 other friends in order to fight off waves of Salmonids and steal the bosses eggs before the time runs out.
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Episode #22 of Connecting to Host is now available in which we discuss the wibbly wobbly gravity wavity game of ibb & obb:
Released in 2013, ibb & obb is specifically designed as a two player cooperative platformer game set in a puzzle filled world where gravity goes both up and down. You need to work closely together in order to succeed and you can play in either local co-op or online co-op with a friend.
ibb & obb travel through a world divided by a horizontal line - above the line gravity goes down like normal, but below the line gravity is reversed and pulls you back up. Momentum is conserved and the world is filled with enemies and objects, which leads to a number of interesting puzzles and scenarios for ibb & obb to work through.
Tune in to find out what we thought of ibb & obb so you can decide whether it’s something you to pick up.
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Episode #21 of Connecting to Host is now available and is a review of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe:
We don our racing suits and hop into our go karts as we race alongside Mario, Wario, Samus and Toad through Haunted Mansions and Rainbow Roads in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Whether kicking back in front of your TV or enjoying lunch in the park, it’s easy to pick up the latest Mario Kart installment on the Nintendo Switch and enjoy a race or two around a bunch of familiar tracks with familiar faces.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe offers 48 beautifully crafted tracks and 42 characters. You can play local split-screen in your living room or relive the Nintendo Switch adverts by playing with up to 8 players in wireless mode. You can also play online and invite your friends to join you as you race against others playing Mario Kart around the globe.
We evaluate our highs and lows from a co-op gaming perspective, so download this episode to find out what we thought of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
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Episode #20 of Connecting to Host is now available and is a review of our most anticipated games showcased at E3 2017:
From Far Cry 5 to Sea of Thieves, we were excited to see a good range of co-op and multiplayer gaming at this year’s E3. On top of that, there were some really interesting looking fresh ideas - ranging from split-screen only prison break action in “A Way Out” to using mobile phones for local players to vote on how the story should advance in “Hidden Agenda”.
We discuss the following co-op and multiplayer games from E3 2017…
Star Wars Battlefront 2
A Way Out
Far Cry 5
Sea of Thieves
State of Decay 2
Mario and Rabbids Kingdom Battles
Deep Rock Galactic
Grab a coffee and enjoy!
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Candle continues a trend of mine recently in playing through a game and then discovering at the end that it was a delayed Kickstarter project. In this case, the game was originally pitched as being ready for January 2014 but actually launched in November 2016. It had been on my wishlist for a while as the handmade visuals grabbed me instantly and the indie-developed "adventure with challenging puzzles" is one of my favourite genres.
You play as Teku, an apprentice shaman who goes on a journey to rescue his master after his village is razed by an opposing tribe. During the process, you'll uncover a fairly creepy backstory as you go through a couple of differently themed areas such as a swamp, aztec temple, and city.
The interesting mechanic for Teku is that one of his hands is the titular candle; you use this candle in several places to solve puzzles by transporting fire although you can't just summon a flame when you want it, you have to light it from another source first. Whilst this seems similar to using a Deku stick during the early levels of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the difficulty increases over time with things like rain to contend with in later stages. There is also a light burst that can be performed when your candle is lit which affords you a quick burst of light that is necessary to complete some puzzles; I'd forgotten this action was available after the brief tutorial and wound up getting stuck for a long time during an early part of the game.
The movement system has garnered some negative reviews on Steam with a lack of good mouse and keyboard controls being particularly onerous. I played using my Xbox One Elite controller but I did find that jumping was not as easy as it could be. Holding a direction and pressing "a" will jump in that direction whilst just pressing "a" will jump upwards; if you hold the right trigger and move then press "a" you'll do a running jump. This is a fine scheme in theory but in practice I'd often end up jumping too far or too short (or not at all in some odd cases). Needless to say there are some tricky timed platformer elements and so a jump button that doesn't always act as you expect it to can be frustrating. This is doubly frustrating when there are only fixed save points so you'll often find yourself going back quite a ways should you fall and die.
The other slightly odd movement choice is that there are several areas of the game where you have to press "x" to walk to an area as the movement system doesn't really support going backwards or forwards, only left and right. Whilst this is fair enough for some of the more complex bits of scenery (such as walking up a spiral staircase where you would be hidden from view), it is a little peculiar in places where there is just a slight ramp. Some of the scenery also looks like it should be navigable but it isn't leading to a little bit of time walking back and forth in front of it thinking that the button prompt might show up.
At its heart, Candle is a hybrid of a point-and-click and a platforming game, think something like Abe's Odyssey meets Machinarium. There are plenty of head-scratching moments and these are tempered with timed platform jumps or traversal mechanics such as jumping up and down on a surface to break it. There is a basic inventory system that lets you pick up items but unlike a point-and-click you don't get to arbitrarily use them; instead there are specific prompts that let you pick an item from your inventory making it fairly obvious that you need to use an item at this point. There aren't any "red herring" items that I found so again it tends to be obvious what needs to go where.
In addition to puzzles and platforming, there are numerous minigames that need to be played in a similar vein to Machinarium. These vary from an interesting play on the Jacob's Ladder puzzle with a toy box featuring a dragon and a warrior to a pipe dream style game that requires you to rotate and place tiles of pipes in a specific order to allow water to flow. Aside from the Jacob's Ladder, none of them were particularly taxing instead being more time consuming. This isn't necessarily a negative though as it was a nice change of pace from other puzzles throughout the game.
One of the key things that attracted me to Candle was the handmade art style they had gone for. It is highly reminiscent of Machinarium but the lengths they went to in order to get that style are extraordinary:
"We paint the entire graphics of the game with watercolors and ink, and then we scan all that stuff in order to build the sprites of the environments, items, menus, etc. Also, the animations of every character and animal in the game are not digital, instead we draw and paint them frame-by-frame, then we scan every single image and build the spritesheets for the animations. Once we have all this working in Unity 4, we set up each level, each scene and each character and so we get a nice handmade look for the visuals" — Candle Kickstarter page
This looks like a painstaking process but it really pays off with a beautiful art style that is unmatched by other games that fake this digitally. It is well worth watching the short video they put together to show off how they produce this style.
You'll notice that I've bought up the point-and-click genre several times despite there being no actual pointing and clicking within Candle. The reason I've done this is because of the feeling the game evokes, not just from its puzzle-based roots but due to the music that has been composed by Pascual Gállego. Due to budget, an orchestra wasn't used so everything was synthesised with MIDI leading to a soundscape that is highly reminiscent of the point-and-click games of the '80s and '90s. There were several sections which took me straight back to Discworld II to the extent that I thought it might be the same composer (it isn't).
Another area where my ears reminded me of another game was with the narrator who sounded an awful lot like the narrator in the Trine series. In this instance, this is more than just a similarity as it is the same voice artist, Terry Wilton. His narration is spot on with a great voice for telling the increasingly unsettling story.
There were a few areas of Candle that I felt could be improved. First of all, the resolution setting didn't stick between play sessions and defaulted to a low 1280x720 on my ultrawide monitor. It wasn't a huge hardship to switch it to 2560x1440 after opening the game but it was mildly irritating. I also noticed a lot of the UI was fuzzy at 1440p as it looked like some buttons or assets had been designed only at 720p or were being stuck at that resolution. Whilst the majority of the game ran at a smooth 60fps, there were a few juddery instances when transitioning between scenes, especially in one complex transition early on where you go through a cave and the background zooms into the foreground.
I've mentioned a similarity to Machinarium several times and this extends to dialogue in the game which is generally conveyed through thought bubbles that show concepts in the form of icons. For example, a character you are speaking with may appear in a bubble with a question mark next to an item that they need. This works well from a user point of view but is also clever from a developer perspective as it means you don't need to localise the content. Except, after these nice little vignettes the narrator then pops in and basically tells you what you've just watched which is very odd and makes me wonder why they didn't just go for one or the other. This sort of thing also bleeds into the cutscenes which are far too long and can't be skipped leading to large amounts of time being shown the slowly unfolding story rather than discovering it through play. This isn't a huge problem in the grand scheme of things as the narration and the story are excellent but there are times when you do just want to get on with the game.
The biggest problem for me is that some of the puzzles required you to find completely hidden areas which are almost impossible to see. There were two points in the game where I spent ages trying to work out what to do before turning to a guide and finding out that going behind a particular bush would then reveal an item I needed. This is massively frustrating as it isn't relying on you working out a puzzle, it is just hiding things in an art style which already heavily blurs the difference between something that can be interacted with and something that is just scenery. I hate having to use a guide in games like this but I especially hate it when the solution is due to a flaw in the design rather than being an obtuse head-scratcher.
The final thing to mention is that the game has been announced as coming to the Wii U:
"Also, we have recently been approved as official Wii U developers, so we are designing exclusive features for Candle on that platform. We love Nintendo platforms since our childhood has been full of them, so it was natural for us to go for it. We are already thinking about dedicated gameplay on Wii U - we are not doing any kind of quick port. We will design specific gameplay features for its gamepad: all the menus, inventory and minigames will be tactile-controled on the touchscreen, as well as other unique actions concerning Teku's candle." — Candle Kickstarter page
Obviously the Kickstarter was formed in 2013 but the premise of having a slightly different version of the game that is optimised for the Wii U's second screen experience is really interesting to me. As of May 2016 the development team said that it had been put on hold in favour of the PC version but they'd be working on it after release. I haven't seen any more communication on that front but I would assume they would be ditching the Wii U version for the Switch instead. If that were the case, I can definitely see myself playing this again on the Switch in future.
I massively enjoyed the 7-8 hours I spent playing Candle even though some of the timed jumps and hidden puzzle areas caused frustration. I normally consider around 3 hours of game time from a £15 indie title to be good so to get almost 8 hours from an £11 game is exceptional. Pairing this with the delightful soundtrack, professional narration, interesting story, and a beautifully crafted art style and I can throughly recommend this to anybody who enjoys platformers and puzzles.
Last year I recorded an episode of The Divide in which we discussed crowdfunding, a modern phenomenon I equated with begging (and which I still don't really like). Whilst preparing for some follow-up in the next episode, I went through some games on Kickstarter and ended up backing quite a few including Pinstripe which was described as a "bizarre and beautiful 2D adventure about a minister in Hell made by a one-man team". Whilst it was slightly delayed from its ambitious release schedule, the game did arrive in April and I had a pleasant evening playing through it three times.
Yes, three times. This is not a long game by any stretch but one that almost demands multiple playthroughs so you can fully appreciate the bizarre world that Thomas Brush has created.
You play as Ted, an ex-Minister who begins the game on a train with his daughter Bo before she is kidnapped by the shadowy Mr Pinstripe. You are then dropped into a snowy fantasy world to explore, solve puzzles, and try and find out why your daughter has been taken and how you can get her back. Throughout the short story you'll come across a myriad of characters (who will either try and help or remain ambivalent to your plight. There are also a few enemies to take care of although these are relatively easy to dispatch once you find a slingshot that will serve as your primary weapon. Killing an enemy will reward you with currency that is required for an item half way through the game; whilst it was a bit of a grind to reach that first milestone, your currency is maintained in subsequent playthroughs instantly shaving 20 minutes or so from your second run.
The primary driving force for the game is definitely its puzzles which aren't terribly difficult but remain enjoyable. These vary from basic button pressing and timed platform jumps to physics based hoop games and a shooting gallery. One interesting type of puzzle that was used frequently (and isn't usual in a platformer) was "spot the difference" in which you needed to select the areas where something was different between two paintings. Whilst my initial thought was that it was a little odd and far too easy, later versions did become much more difficult; the downside, of course, is that they are only small screens so you could spam the reveal button over the entire area until you got through. It also doesn't really make sense in the world as why would this be a mechanic to open a door?
The real draw of the game isn't so much the story or its puzzles, but the story of its development. The entire game has been built over a 5 year period by one person, Thomas Brush, in which he has developed every aspect on his own. This extends not only to the graphics and game engine, but also to the soundtrack which he recorded himself and that he discussed in a fascinating article on Gamasutra. As a backer, I was always impressed with his timely updates on progress and the care and attention he took to each aspect of the development which can clearly be seen from the meticulously crafted visuals. On a personal note, he also seemed like a nice person with frequent shout outs to other Kickstarter projects of which I backed a few (such as Knights and Bikes and A Place for the Unwilling). I have had many bad experiences with Kickstarter and I disagree with many developers who use it to fund their development, but this was a case in which it worked really well.
Whilst the majority of the game was a solo effort, special mention must be made of the voice actors who lended their talents to Pinstripe, especially those that voiced Bo and Mr Pinstripe. One of the interesting aspects of this is that the majority aren't professional voice actors but Youtubers such as Pewdiepie, Jacksepticeye, Dan Avidan, and (my personal favourite) Egoraptor. Regardless, they really help sell the world especially when it is coupled with the beautiful "Tim Burton-esque" art style and haunting soundtrack.
I massively enjoyed my time with Pinstripe but I did have a couple of issues. Firstly, ultra widescreen monitors are not supported but it looks like they are when you start the game. The resolution can be selected and things don't seem off until you get to the forest level and you realise that everything on the left and right is clippings and off-screen content you shouldn't see. Interestingly, the physicality of the world is correct so whilst there might be a pit or a cliff in those side areas, when you get to them you continue to climb or descend the rolling scenery as you would if the proper level was being displayed. This was a minor issue and easily remedied by switching to a 4:3 resolution (leading to black bars) but it did confuse me for my first 20 minutes or so.
Another issue is the achievements. There are only 12 of them (including one for speed running the game in under an hour which is actually surprisingly easy) but none of them unlocked for me on my first or second runthrough. I eventually remedied the problem by verifying the integrity of the game in Steam but it was a shame to miss out on them as you really need two or three runthroughs to collect all of them and it is unlikely I'll play that many times again.
The final issue is related and is that the game is incredibly short, even by indie game standards. My first run through was completed in just under 2 hours and that included a fairly substantial grind for currency; subsequent run throughs took around 45 minutes each and I'm really not the speed running type! Whilst I'd hate for something like this to be ruined by unnecessary padding, it did feel a little short compared with other indie titles especially as there isn't a huge amount of new things to find on subsequent playthroughs beyond some special Kickstarter credit areas and an alternative ending based on how you respond to people throughout the world.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time playing Pinstripe and the final few seconds of my first play got me right in the feels. Thomas Brush has managed to build a believable world with some imaginative characters and an interesting story whilst also building and designing everything himself. Whilst it could have been slightly longer, the amount of love and effort that has gone into this project is worth the entrance fee alone. If anything, this is a motivational project that shows just how much a single person can do.
Episode #19 of Connecting to Host is now available and is a look at the first racing game available on the Nintendo Switch; Fast RMX:
We suit up and hop into our anti-grav vehicles as we race through sci-fi landscapes at breath-taking speeds. In this episode we take a look at Fast RMX, an F-Zero / Wipeout inspired track-based racing game that’s available on the Nintendo Switch. Find out what we think of this high-octane racing game that does a great job at showing off just what the Nintendo Switch can deliver with a solid 60fps in both handheld and TV mode.
Fast RMX offers up local or online play for up to 8 players. The game is built on top of FAST Racing NEO, so if you’ve yet to get your hands on a Switch you can still pick up a very similar experience on the Wii U.
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When I moved house, one of the key things I wanted to do was wall mount my 34" ASUS ultrawide monitor as the stand was taking up a colossal amount of space on my desk. Coupled with that was an idea to wrap a Philips Hue Lightstrip around the back to create some form of ambient lighting. I've now gotten around to doing both and I'm really pleased with the results.
I used to have a Lightpack PC on the back of my iMac and my original hope was to transplant this to the back of my gaming monitor when I purchased it last year. Unfortunately it broke during movement and I was never really that pleased with it anyway; whilst it could show different colours around the entirety of the monitor (i.e. red one end, blue the other) and work these out from what was on display, the brightness was pretty low as was the number of colours it could actually display. The Lightstrip doesn't let you change colours along its length nor can it work as a true ambient light based on HDMI passthrough but it displays a much better range of colours, is much brighter, and can be controlled via the excellent Hue apps and open API. Due to this, my initial thought was that I would use it as a basic ambient light and then maybe have some presets for certain games like Rocket League i.e. have a Flic button on my desk so I could switch between an orange or a blue depending on which team I was on in a given match.
After playing a few matches like that, I started getting into the realms of fantasy wondering if I could build an app to either pluck the score from regular screenshots or sniff through the memory of the game in order to automatically switch between orange and blue depending on which team was winning. My friend and Rocket League partner John had heard of somebody linking their current boost level to the brightness of their backlit keyboard and so it definitely seemed possible.
Eventually, though, I found ScreenBloom, a free app for both PC and Mac that approximates a Philips Ambilight TV by taking an average colour sample of the screen (with optional saturation boost) and then changing the backlight to that single colour. Whilst there is a little latency due to the capture and wireless communication, it is perfectly usable even in a fast-paced game. The release notes for the app say that it can only be used for gaming when in fullscreen borderless windowed modes but I've found it works just fine in true fullscreen at least on my G-Sync enabled setup.
Depending on your setup, ScreenBloom will take up ~16MB of RAM and anywhere from 3-15% of your CPU. I haven't noticed any ill effects from using it in the background whilst gaming and even without being able to change the colour of the strip at different points the ambient effect is very compelling. I dropped the animation time from 0.7 seconds to 0.3 seconds and that made it feel a bit snappier without having it flash when changing between colour extremes.
One of the nicest features is the ability to use multiple Hue products and divide your screen into different zones. For example, you could have a Hue Bloom on each side of your monitor and divide them into the left and right of the contents of the screen for a better ambient effect. I have two spotlights in my study pointing at the desk so I'm very tempted to replace the current white Hue bulbs with colour ones to make use of that feature.
If you've ever wanted an ambient backlight but have been put off by the high prices of bespoke solutions like the LightPack or Ambiscreen (or their lack of support for anything other than HDMI) then I can definitely recommend the Hue Lightstrip even without the ScreenBloom app. Coupling it with ScreenBloom definitely leads to a better look though, especially if you have multiple Hue products for a full room effect.
And so ends the five-month run of games I already own when Dark Souls II is the primary game in the bundle next month. Of course, it isn't a game I'll play as it would shit me right up but at least it will be something different! In the mean time, there are several good looking titles this month...
The primary game of the bundle and one that was gifted to me by their acting engine lead a while back; this means that I won't be righting up a proper review but I have currently spent around 30 hours playing and I absolutely love it. I ended up gifting this copy to a friend who loves both 4X games and space... seemed a good match!
Plague Inc. Evolved
I've played a lot of Plague Inc. on the iPad as infecting people by air is the perfect game to play when you have a cold on a plane. Whilst the PC version is obviously very similar, I hadn't noticed that it now has co-op and competitive multiplayer modes so whilst I might not play it much in solo I can definitely see enjoying a few rounds in co-op.
I picked up SUPERHOT on launch day which happened to coincide with the launch of The Flame in the Flood. Unfortunately there were all kinds of launch issues with both games so it wasn't until a month or two later that I came back and completed it. Whilst I loved the core gameplay, the story, the lack of Xbox 360 controller support on Mac, and the annoying SUPERHOT SUPERHOT SUPERHOT over the in-game replay has meant that I've never really gone back to it. I gave this copy to somebody who had it on their wishlist for a while so it has gone to a good place - I may jump back in to it if I pick up a VR headset or if they release the free DLC expansion that was announced a year ago.
Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation
Allegedly the creator of the first 64-bit RTS engine, Ashes of the Singularity looks to be a space-based RTS with some good visuals and a lot of great reviews. It hasn't been on my radar previously (although I recognised the name somehow) but I'm a sucker for a decent RTS so this is definitely going on the "to play" list.
Brigador: Up-Armored Edition
I wasn't sure about this from the artwork on the Humble Monthly website but the Steam page shows it to be an isometric game that looks a bit like the old Command & Conquer games. This isn't an RTS though but a roguelite with 100% destructible environments and 'Overwhelming Positive' reviews on Steam. I did't think this would be for me but I'm certainly going to give it a try.
I was really excited to try this when I first read about this as the idea of running an adventurers shop seemed like a nice twist on the standard dungeon crawler. Instead it looks like a mid-90s 3D game which the developers have abandoned in favour of jumping on the VR bandwagon. The number of negative reviews means it is highly unlikely I'll even boot this one up - a shame!
This game pretty much had me with its description — "Maize is a first-person adventure game about what happens when two scientists misinterpret a memo from the U.S. Government and create sentient corn" — but they also get bonus points for the "cornucopia" pun on their Steam page. I'm always a fan of a short adventure game so I'll definitely give this a try.
I swear that the Humble Original titles have been more interesting than the other games in the bundle over the past few months. This is a beautiful looking game that looks like it should be a cartoon from the '90s. Couple that with some puzzles and a chilled soundtrack that make it reminiscent of Machinarium and it looks like a winner!
Episode #18 of Connecting to Host is now available and is a trip down memory lane with Borderlands 2:
When is it not fun to loot, shoot and level-up with friends? This week we’ve gone back in time to revisit the classic co-operative FPS/RPG game: Borderlands 2. Whether you somehow missed it back in the day or you just want to reminisce about a game you know and love, drop in and join us. We talk about our highs and lows from our favourite in the series, discuss the epic DLC, and keep our fingers crossed that Borderlands 3 will one day deliver more of this classic action.
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