Reviews

Fractured or Whole?

#review #southparkthefracturedbutwhole #southparkthestickoftruth

The Stick of Truth was a surprise hit in 2014 when, after several delays, Obsidian Entertainment gave the world a South Park game that felt like an episode of the show. At just under 8 hours in length and with a fairly light combat mechanic, the game was really more about the story and the number of things Matt and Trey could and couldn't (in certain countries at least) get away with. The Fractured But Whole looked to follow this trend albeit with a switch from the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit style fantasy setting to the current trend for superheroes; gone are the pointy ears and sticks to be replaced by capes and lasers. There was a similar delay of almost a year and whilst there were rumours of a larger script I was generally expecting more of the same.

Even now, I'm struggling to decide if this is really a sequel or if it is more akin to a DLC expansion. There is a huge amount of refinement to the game both in terms of combat mechanics and inventory management whilst also clocking in at over double the length of Stick of Truth with it taking me around 18 hours to finish the main campaign. Yet I also can't shake the feeling that this feels all too familiar, a natural byproduct of having a fixed amount of game world (the same town) along with the majority of the characters from the original.

Improved combat mechanics are the main draw for this sequel
Improved combat mechanics are the main draw for this sequel

The main area where there is a substantial difference from Stick of Truth is in the combat. Whilst the first game had a fairly basic turn based system limited to two controllable characters, The Fractured But Whole has a full movement grid with four controllable characters which increases to even more at certain key points. The first game saw you choose from four different classes whereas here you have ten classes available to you with options to multiclass becoming available as you progress. Thankfully there is no longer a Borderlands style weapons inventory but instead each class has three attacks and a special move when a meter is filled based on successful blocks and attacks. This means that you aren't constantly changing your weapon as you find something with a 1pt increase but instead getting to use the same moves every battle; the fact that you have three constantly changing companions from a roster of ten keeps things fresh along with the fact you can swap out a move you don't like for one from another class later in the game.

All of these things lead to a much richer battle system and actually make it feel more like a game rather than a series of quick time events as the first one did. Whilst I worried the game was going to be too easy at the start, those fears were erased once the difficulty started to climb half way through with some of the final battles being particularly challenging. I also appreciated that not every battle was a "kill all enemies" affair with some needing you to reach a specific point or destroy certain items on the board.

Making a return from Stick of Truth are summons, powerful beings that can help turn a battle. There are only four to find in The Fractured But Whole and they also have a finite limit as you need to use certain collectibles to call them. They can also only be used once per battle so you can't constantly summon Moses to heal your party even if you do have enough macaroni pictures to do it.

There is a huge amount of cosmetic outfits to choose from
There is a huge amount of cosmetic outfits to choose from

As you no longer have weapons, the way in which you level throughout the game had to change slightly and is now achieved through artefacts. These are essentially patches added to your character that increase your rating in three key areas; brains, brawn, and spunk. Each of your abilities will be based on one of these types. For instance, boosting your brawn stat if you do a lot of physical attacks will increase your damage whilst boosting spunk will improve your healing abilities. These artefacts go into slots on your character sheet (of which more are unlocked as you level your character) and total up to a "might" number which is a good way of seeing if a quest is going to be too hard for you or not as you will be able to see the average might of your opponents. In addition to artefacts, there is also DNA which is a single slot that wildly alters your stats. For example, you might choose a strand that boosts your brains by 30% at the cost of a 20% reduction in hit points. All of this combines to making inventory management simpler as you are no longer going through a long winded process of swapping minor patches on weapons every battle in order to gain an extra point or two of damage.

The changes to inventory management go slightly further though. The first game was notorious for having a "junk" section which was literally just references to items from episodes of the show that didn't actually do anything. This is now an ingredients section broken down into a few types that can then be mixed together in a simple crafting mechanism for creating certain artefacts or consumables like health potions. Crafting has its own levelling system which allows you to make better and better recipes; this led me to be a bit too powerful at the start of the game (as I'd found loads of ingredients) but it all balanced out around half way through.

Other collectibles in the game include clothing items which are now purely cosmetic rather than having offensive or defensive properties. There are entire costumes to find with challenges granting extra XP should you find a certain number. There are also quest based collectibles such as finding Big Gay Al's missing cats or collecting Yaoi depicting Tweek and Craig's romance. Finally, as in The Stick of Truth, you need to collect followers by propositioning the townsfolk but this is done via selfies within the "Coonstagram" app on your phone in which you can pose and change your facial expressions to suit your feelings.

There are ten allies to choose from and you'll cycle through them all during the course of the campaign
There are ten allies to choose from and you'll cycle through them all during the course of the campaign

The plot continues exactly where Stick of Truth left off but you quickly switch from the fantasy setting to the superhero one. Coon & Friends want to try and start a franchise with multiple movies and a Netflix series but an argument over the franchise plan means that some of the boys end up forming a rival superhero franchise named Freedom Pals. You as the unnamed 'new kid' are working for Coon & Friends trying to find a missing cat so you can claim a $100 reward to kickstart the franchise but all the while strange things are happening in the town. It's about as far fetched as usual for South Park and there are definitely some huge twists and turns throughout the adventure that will delight longtime fans of the series whilst also bringing it up to date with the more recent series with the inclusion of characters such as PC Principal and locations such as SoDoSoPa and Historic Shi Tpa Town.

The dialogue and writing throughout is top notch with all the correct voice work. This isn't a surprise after Stick of Truth but it is always nice when original cast are used for video games as it happens so rarely. South Park do better than any game I've previously seen though with a vast amount of dialogue for such a small game. Every character interacts not only with others but also based on certain plot points throughout the game. There is constant bickering between your superheroes as you fight and even the enemies you might only see for a couple of minutes may have many different lines of dialogue just in case you take your time making your next move. I particularly enjoyed characters that were just in the background making themselves known such as the cinema attendant telling you that he's seen better costumes in 1980's Doctor Who if you battle in front of the cinema. It is these little moments and the endless hours of dialogue that must have been recorded that make the game what it is and make you feel like you are actually in South Park.

Praise should also be given to the excellent soundtrack that manages to keep up with the constant twists of the script be that providing a stirring superhero backdrop, a Joker-style funfair ensemble mixed with Mexican music, or a poppy soundtrack for the Raisins girls. There is as big a variety in the soundtrack as there is in the vocal work which is to be highly commended.

Flappy Bird meets Only One in this Kanye West spoof
Flappy Bird meets Only One in this Kanye West spoof

On a related note, the sound effects are horrific which is to say they do their job incredibly well. One of the points I've neglected to mention so far is that you have certain powers related to your farts that come in handy around the "overworld" between battles. These vary from a way to clear lava to a way to reach high places. Each one is graphic and has some of the more puerile sound effects you can imagine; it is incredibly childish, but even after my 30th time of shooting a hamster out of my anus I still couldn't stifle an adolescent snort. This also goes for the toilet based minigame which sees you performing rock band style quick time events in order to evacuate your bowels.

In case it wasn't clear, The Fractured But Whole is on a scale of lewd to massively offensive depending on where your own sensibilities lie. It is full of toilet humour but also has a scathing critique on gentrification, microaggressions, immigrant labour, and gender fluidity. There is also the matter of helping Seaman get a gay fish's mother into heaven by means of a flappy bird game aimed squarely at Kanye's recently cancelled Only One game. Oh, and the lap dancing minigame.

This is the sort of thing that was banned in The Stick of Truth in certain countries...
This is the sort of thing that was banned in The Stick of Truth in certain countries...

I did run into a few issues whilst playing The Fractured But Whole although most of them are relatively minor. First of all, there is no ultrawide screen support which is disappointing especially as many of the battle boards don't fit on a single screen and have to be panned to see certain enemies. I did also have one battle where the game would get stuck in an endless loop until, bizarrely, I took a screenshot at which point I could use my controller again. Finally, everything goes through UPlay so even on Steam you'll need to install that and have it sync your saves and pop up with extra notifications about achievements, etc. I don't really mind this but it is annoying to see items of clothing in the game that require you to purchase them with UPlay points. There are less achievements than in the first game but they are also less bullshitty; the Chinpokomon in Stick of Truth were notoriously easy to miss requiring a restart of the game but I've not seen anything like that here. The addition of Steam trading cards was also a pleasant surprise.

There is a season pass available with several big DLC packs due to launch over the coming months starting with Doctor Timothy's Danger Deck this December and then two new story-based content packs in 2018. A couple of minor bits of DLC are available already as they were used for pre-order bonuses. This includes a cosmetic pack containing outfits from Stick of Truth and "Towelie: Your Gaming Bud" which sounds a lot better than it is. I received that as a pre-order bonus and it is just Towelie popping up occasionally to tell you obvious tutorial things; it does get a bit funnier towards the end but it is something that should have just been included (I was expecting it to be a unique summon).

Little moments like this whereby your battle is interrupted due to a car driving down the street are wonderful
Little moments like this whereby your battle is interrupted due to a car driving down the street are wonderful

In conclusion, this is a bit of a mixed bag depending on your point of view. First of all, if you are not a South Park fan then there is nothing here for you; the story and humour lean too heavily on a knowledge of the series and you simply won't enjoy it for the game mechanics alone. For fans though this is definitely a gold mine in terms of content. An 18 hour campaign filled to the brim with dialogue and nostalgic references including possibly some of the most offensive content that you won't see in the programme (and that is saying something!). Pair that with an improved combat system and reduced inventory management and you should be onto a winner. I haven't even mentioned the subtle details that make the difference such as Toolshed's entrance animations, Cousin Kyle's many interruptions, Wendy as "Call Girl", Cartman's flashback sequence for teaching you new class moves, collecting memberberries, the Half-Life references later in the game, Jimmy's superhero character being "Fast Pass", or the wonderful fact that Mr Garrison isn't anywhere to be seen.

I still have a nagging feeling about recommending it too highly though. It is a great game but the reliance on Stick of Truth for the plot, the fairly repetitive puzzles, and the limited environments means that I'm in two minds about how much I actually enjoyed it. This is definitely not just an expansion to the first game but it doesn't quite feel like it has grown enough to be a true sequel either. Instead it is stuck inbetween; fractured, but not quite whole.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole is available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. I played on my gaming PC with an Xbox One Elite controller and occasionally streamed it to an Nvidia Shield TV (although that was more trouble than it was worth... as usual).

Titanfall: Assault (on your wallet)

#review #titanfallassault

I am not usually one to play freemium games. Having run my own for many years, I know all of the psychological tricks that are designed to part the player from their money. It is incredible to me, then, that I've managed to put over 20 hours into the one-armed bandit that is Titanfall: Assault.

I can only think that this is due to the Titanfall wrapping that has been applied to this Clash of Clans style mobile game in which the usual freemium tricks of timers, login bonuses, and clan rewards are par for the course. There is little that is innovative here but I am a sucker for anything with the Titanfall logo on it as my 700+ hours on the core games on Xbox will attest.

Titanfall: Assault is a mobile-only freemium game in which you battle against other human players (or AI if you want to practice) in a game of hardpoint domination. As with the 'proper' Titanfall games, hardpoint is a collection of 3 points on a map that your soldiers must capture and then defend; for every 3 seconds that you hold a single point you'll gain 1 point. If enemy soldiers capture the point, then they start to gain its benefit. The first player to 100 points is the winner. To add a different tactic to the game, you can also destroy the opposing players base turret for 100 points instantly winning you the match although this tends to be significantly harder.

As with other competitive games of this ilk, you don't actually control individual units as you do in a RTS such as Command & Conquer or Cossacks so much as drop them at a specific point and hope they do the right thing. They rarely do. Given a unit the choice between fighting a pyro pilot from a distance or up close within his fiery surroundings and the grunts will go for the fire every time. Poor fools.

Your squad is made up of pilots, titans, and... miscellaneous
Your squad is made up of pilots, titans, and... miscellaneous

The game is fundamentally based around a concept of cards of which you use 10 to build up your squad; 3 pilots, 3 titans, and 4 burn cards which will be things like sentry turrets, single use missiles, or grunts that can be dropped in to secure a hardpoint. I found this card-based system to be rather ironic bearing in mind that Titanfall 2 dropped this from the original Titanfall formula.

Each match is played through in phases with the first half being mainly pilot and burn card based whilst the second half will lead to your burn cards mainly being replaced with titans. You are randomly given cards from your stack of 10 to play with and each one has a supply value that must be met before you can activate it; a supply meter fills up through the match and there is a single supply drop a couple of minutes in which gives you a sudden influx for a quick burst of action plus a 30% speed increase in supply for the rest of the match.

You collect cards by opening caches that are earned from winning a match or by opening the app every 3 hours. The caches you earn typically have a timer of 2-10 hours that it takes for them to open but you can of course pay extra to speed up that process; you can also pay to buy a cache of cards that you can open immediately and be fairly sure of their contents. Collecting multiples of a single card will lead to it being levelled up to a total of 20 levels although getting to that level with a single card would take hundreds of hours or hundreds of pounds - your choice. You can join guilds to get an objective every so often that will net you a few extra cards and there are daily goals that will usually give you a cache of something fairly decent.

In addition to the cards, you yourself have a player level that increases the more games you play which unlocks extra maps and AI commanders to fight against. I also feel this is the core item that is used for matchmaking (so you are likely to always be playing people similar to you in terms of time played). There is also a trophy rank which is a fairly standard ranking system of gaining lots of points if you win a match and losing a few if you lose. This is likely also used for placement and increasing up the ranks will give you new rewards and unlock new types of cards. For example, getting to Silver III will unlock the Ronin and Arc Ronin titans whilst Gold I will unlock the drones that were added in a recent update - you don't just get them, you'll have to find them in the various caches, but they at least are added to that lottery pool.

It should go without saying that there are two currencies within the game that can be used and help obfuscate the amount you pay should you go down that route. Credits are the soft currency that you get fairly frequently and are used to buy cards from the market (that increase in price the more you buy) whilst tokens are the hard currency that can be converted to credits, used to speed up timers, or can be spent on specific caches of cards. Finally, there are fixed price caches that have a theme such as defensive turrets, fire titans, or shield-bearers that will generally give you a shit-ton of specific cards and some credits and tokens.

The pyro pilot is a good choice for an opening gambit
The pyro pilot is a good choice for an opening gambit

The first issue you'll run into with Titanfall: Assault is the size of it. Whilst the initial download is 125MB, once you open the app you'll be stuck with a loading indicator which downloads another 1GB of data. Beyond that, the largest issue by far is the constant reminder that everything you do is being sent to a server. If you open a cache there will be a brief pause as the server explains what is inside; if you try and edit your squad there will be a pause as the server checks what you have available; if you try and look at what objectives are available, the game will hang as the server checks your guild. These are all excusable although there are a number of "smoke and mirror" tricks the developer could use to make these transitions less jarring.

The second issue is the sheer number of connection problems and failed matches you'll try to start. In the beginning I just assumed this was teething problems as unexpected demand led to their low server number being overwhelmed but even weeks after launch I only end up connecting to a game one in three times and that can take over a minute to start! This is not what you want from a mobile game that you are likely to dip in and out of. Compounding the problem is the ridiculous timeout that is allocated to match connections; the screen will literally be locked out to you whilst matchmaking and it typically takes 2-3 minutes before it gives up and returns you to the main menu. On one memorable evening I had 12 of these in a row before I gave up.

The biggest issue is the fundamental nature of a freemium game; the more you pay, the better you'll do. I gave in and spent £5 to get a beginners bonus of a few tokens, credits, and caches in order to get some decent titans. This then put me at the same level as the other people I was up against who had similarly spent around £5 to get various bonuses that simply aren't available to the non-paying player. There were a few matches that I'd describe as fair – pitting similar squads together – but the majority of them were either uneven in my favour or in my opponents favour. If somebody has several level 8 rare titans against your level 6 titans then you are likely going to lose. Similarly, if they have high-level shield grunts and bombardments, your regular grunts and turrets aren't going to do much damage. There isn't really a way around this; if you've played the game for more than 10 hours then you are likely not going to mind spending a few pounds to make yourself much better and that is really the trick in a game like this. It's a parlour trick where you are always being goaded into spending more rather than a game of real skill.

Unfortunately a very common sight
Unfortunately a very common sight

In summary, Titanfall: Assault is a standard freemium clan-based player vs player game with a Titanfall veneer applied replete with ways to make you part from your money and a complete dependency on a solid internet connection. Despite this, I still enjoyed over 20 hours of gameplay (of which only 5 hours was probably matchmaking errors) which I can't quite square with my recollection of that time.

Was I overtired and in need of something to sooth me to sleep? Was the lure of the Titanfall brand too much to resist? Am I more susceptible to the wiles of the freemium casino owner than I thought? I'm not sure. What I do know is that this would be an incredibly good single or multi-player experience for a fixed price without all of the timer-based freemium bollocks that is unfortunately synonymous with mobile. Had this been available as a standalone game on Xbox for £15-20 then I would have snapped it up. As it is, I've had my fill and don't think I'll be returning to this particular Titanfall game. A pilot can only suffer so many connection errors and prompts to part with his cash before he instead loads up Titanfall 2 on a real gaming device.

Titanfall: Assault is available on iOS and Android for free. I spent most of my time playing on my iPhone 7 Plus although I did play a few matches on my 12.9" iPad Pro.

Beating the streets... and the crims

#beatcop #review

Beat Cop had been on my radar for some time as a somewhat Papers, Please-like pixel-art game in which you perform a menial job replete with a branching story and multiple endings based on your decisions and performance. I finally picked it up on Steam and completed it in around 8 hours over several sessions. Whilst I don’t remember watching cop dramas in the ‘80s, my consciousness seems to know all the tropes and common lines thanks to the parade of parodies that were available in my formative years; this should be viewed like those, a conglomeration of the various tropes and ideas of that time rather than trying to be an accurate simulation. The developers (who made popular survival game This War of Mine) even go so far as to put a notice at the beginning to explain that this isn’t meant to be a historically accurate piece but rather a game based on their memories of watching cop shows as kids.

You play as Jack Kelly, a homicide detective with the NYPD who gets demoted down to a beat cop after a failed attempt to stop a robbery ends up with one man dead and a large number of diamonds stolen from a powerful senator. Your goal is to get back to the life you once had by solving the mystery of who has the diamonds whilst also having to work the streets issuing out tickets for various violations. Throughout your working day, you’ll have to make decisions which can alter the plot and affect you later in the game.

There are lots of tasks for you - nearly all are optional
There are lots of tasks for you - nearly all are optional

The core game is set on the street that Kelly patrols, a long pastiche of ‘80s life with multiple apartments, shops, and restaurants. Every building can be entered often leading to a snippet of conversation with the locals who will come to you with their problems. On the street itself, you are generally tasked with issuing a certain number of tickets per day for parking violations or vehicle malfunction in the form of poor tyres or broken lights. Occasionally someone will try and perform a robbery at which point you can give chase and cuff them; sometimes you’ll be allowed to go for your gun rather than your cuffs leading to a quick shootout.

At the end of each day you’ll be given your salary so long as you hit your quota. If you go under, your pay is docked; if you double your quota, you are given a bonus. When issuing tickets, it is fairly common that you’ll be offered a sly $20 to turn a blind eye; doing so can net you a quick boost to your cash but if you don’t end up hitting your quota you could be docked more than the bribes you took. It is also possible that the undercover cops are patrolling the streets and you’ll be fined for taking bribes.

Your money typically disappears fairly quickly as you can use it for food, to get a better resolution of a particular quest, or it’ll get taken in the form of alimony payments to your ex-wife. Quite often you’ll start your day being told that you owe a certain amount within a few days time which may either make you take dubious deals with people on the street, take more bribes, or try and double your quota for that precious bonus. I also saw a quest which would allow me to collect a large amount to then flee the country.

Your rating with each faction goes up and down throughout each day
Your rating with each faction goes up and down throughout each day

In addition to your money, there are also three meters which will adjust depending on the actions you took throughout the day to reflect your standing with the police, the crew (a local gang), and the mafia. Whilst I played fairly straight and kept a good ranking with the police whilst maintaining a careful balance between mafia and crew, I imagine different quests and endings will appear if you let your ranking fall to far with any faction. Whilst there isn’t a clear numerical meter for it, your standing with the people on the street is also important and will affect which quests come to you. I managed to maintain a good relationship with them throughout my playthrough but if you always take the side of the crew or mafia or you never let people get out of their tickets then the relationship can sour very quickly.

There are numerous individuals across the street who you’ll get to know whilst also teasing out the story of their pasts. The main people you’ll talk to are the shopkeepers and restauranteurs including one memorable mission with the owner of the sex shop that sees you making a porno on the cheap. There is also a local drug dealer and a prostitute who can improve your mood for a few dollars. You’ll need to eat regularly at the various food outlets in order to keep your stamina up; if you don’t, you’ll find you can’t run far without needing to take a breather and that can be fatal during a shootout.

The trickiest part to all of this is the slow march of time. In the same way that you are constrained in Papers, Please by the looming clock, so you are constrained in Beat Cop. In fact, it is slightly harder as some actions will eat up your precious time such as stopping to have lunch or waiting for a patrol car to come and pick up a perp you’ve busted. Such delays are part of the continuous battle between trying to be a good cop but needing to cut corners in order to hit your quotas and costs.

The quests you are given tend to be fairly simplistic; tear down some posters around the neighbourhood by interacting with them, call in at a certain apartment to tend to a mad old lady and her dog, or inspect the trunk of a car to find a package of drugs. Some, though, are more complex with an individual you need to tail around the street and call in to central whenever he does something suspicious. There is also a huge amount of detail to the game with the ability to manually inspect the tyres, lights, and trunk of every car or to literally be able to buzz any of the 10 flats in each apartment complex.

Every morning starts with a daily briefing. They are awesome.
Every morning starts with a daily briefing. They are awesome.

In a way, it is almost a shame it is so detailed as there is a sense of rushing that forbids you the opportunity to look at the world in any real detail. You are always having to push forward for the next ticket or to crack a case at the detriment of just enjoying the world. Thankfully, conversations freeze time and so you can enjoy some of the wonderful writing that permeates the street from the wise-cracks of your team in the morning briefing to the bizarre ramblings of the local priest.

Whilst I didn’t experience any major issues, there were a few areas that caused frustration. The first (forgivable as a US-centric game) is that I didn’t realise there were parking meters on the street that turned red when the time was up for each car. For the first couple of days, the only parking tickets I was giving out were for those cars in no parking areas when I’d probably missed 20-30 expired meters. The only specific bug I encountered was that cultist members had black bounding boxes around them for some reason; this made it fairly trivial to spot them in a section where it should have been much harder. More generally, the difficulty gets fairly brutal towards the latter stages of the game with “game over” messages triggered if you don’t speak to the right person at exactly the right time; this was made all the more frustrating by the lack of a save system so if you lose towards the end of the day you have to do the entirety of the day again. These are generally minor gripes though and didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much.

On the positive side, Beat Cop comes with lots of achievements based on both the story mode and some of the optional bits and pieces you can do. There are also Steam trading cards available and I was pleasantly surprised when everything bar cut scenes worked at my full ultrawide resolution of 3440x1440px.

Do you side with the mafia, the crew, or the police? Tricky...
Do you side with the mafia, the crew, or the police? Tricky...

Whilst I played for just over 8 hours, it seems like I’d been in the world of Beat Cop for a lot longer. The amount of detail and the wonderful dialogue stuck with me long after I finished the main story. That said, even though I didn’t get the ending that I particularly wanted, I don’t think I’m ready to jump back and try for a different ending again mainly due to the save game issues. If I could quick save or have multiple pieces of progress I’d likely try a few variations (make deals with the mafia or the crew, play as a crooked cop who takes all the bribes, etc) but without that it can quickly lead to frustration.

I’m mainly left thinking that this would be a great experience on the iPad. Touch controls would work well with the UI that exists and I could see myself enjoying this on a long-haul flight. It also seems like a game that could easily accommodate some extra DLC or even a spin-off about a different cop. If you enjoy games like Papers, Please or you’re a fan of ‘80s cops, this is certainly a hard experience to beat.

Beat Cop is available on PC and Mac for around £13. I played on my PC with keyboard / mouse and was pleasantly surprised by the ultrawide monitor support.

Point-and-Wick: A puzzling adventure with Candle

#candle #review

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.

There are minigame-style puzzles throughout
There are minigame-style puzzles throughout

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.

The animation on this character is quite something...
The animation on this character is quite something...

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.

I don't think I want to milk that...
I don't think I want to milk that...

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.

Candle is available on PC, Mac, and Linux. Whilst a Wii U version is meant to be in development I think it likely this will be ditched for the Switch. I played on my PC with an Xbox One Elite Controller.

Going through Hell with Ted, Mr Pinstripe, and Pissy the Piss Snake

#pinstripe #review

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.

No reason you can't have a little fun during this dark adventure
No reason you can't have a little fun during this dark adventure

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?

I wasn't expecting
I wasn't expecting "spot the difference" puzzles

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.

Welcome to... wait... what?!?!
Welcome to... wait... what?!?!

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.

That's a little bit creepy
That's a little bit creepy

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.

Pinstripe is available on PC, Mac, and Linux. It has recently been announced that it will be coming to PS4 later this year and a mobile version is being worked on as per one of the Kickstarter stretch goals that was reached. I played on my PC with an Xbox One Elite Controller.

The Rare-vival of the 3D platformer: A review of Yooka-Laylee

#review #yookalaylee #yookalayleetoybox

Back in the '90s, you couldn't move for 3D platformers that featured colourful characters, tricky jump mechanics, and tons of collectibles. The best games of this genre were all made by Rare and included one of my all time favourites; Banjo-Kazooie. By the late '00s, nobody really made those games anymore apart from Nintendo with its series of 3D Mario games. Banjo and Kazooie were still around in the form of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, a completely new style of game (which I also loved) developed exclusively for the Xbox 360, but I'd still go back to playing the HD remakes of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie when I wanted an old-school 3D platforming fix.

Fast forward to 2015 and Playtonic Games (made up from Rare staffers) put up a Kickstarter for a modern version of these games entitled Yooka-Laylee. It was the fastest game to reach $1m and ended up with almost 12x more money than they originally asked for netting just over £2m. After being delayed from an October 2016 launch, Yooka-Laylee launched earlier this month and I've managed to get to 100% completion after 24 hours of gameplay.

The Banjo-Kazooie similarities are pretty clear...
The Banjo-Kazooie similarities are pretty clear...

The first thing to note is that this follows the trend of Kickstarter games being called "spiritual successor" when they actually mean "walking a very fine line of copyright infringement". If the characters were a bear and a bird instead of a chameleon and a bat, this would just be a new Banjo-Kazooie game. That isn't a complaint — it's exactly why I backed the game! — but don't go into this thinking that it is a new fresh IP with a completely different style; this is almost a carbon-copy of those mechanics just written in a modern gaming engine rather than for the N64.

You have your buddy duo, a hub world which requires collectibles to unlock each new world, a quiz to get to the boss fight, and characters that talk in grunts and gurgles as the text scrolls across the screen. You also have a wonderful soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that really sells the fact this is a Banjo-Kazooie game in all but name. Rather than a witch that has stolen your sister, the main villain is Capital B, a bumble-bee who slightly resembles Gru from Dispicable Me who has stolen a magic book that you had for some reason. Your quest is to go through the five different worlds to collect enough missing pages from the book so that you can then fight him and stop him from stealing all the books from the world (the reason for which is never fully explained but looks like it is building up to a sequel).

The hub world is vast and contains a number of its own collectibles. The main game, though, is contained within five worlds that range from tropical ruins to a massive casino. Each world contains 25 'pagies' (rather than jiggies) that you need to collect in order to open further worlds. An interesting new mechanic is that each world can also be upgraded (for a pagie price) which adds more detail and more quests; its a fun way to make you go back and forth between worlds although I ended up pretty much doing each world in sequence and upgrading them before even entering. The quests are pretty much what you expect from a 3D platformer with basic fetching, puzzle solving, and racing with nearly all of them given by the bizarre characters of the world from talking shopping trolleys to racing clouds.

There are many colourful characters in the various worlds. This is an urban trolley.
There are many colourful characters in the various worlds. This is an urban trolley.

The real bread-and-butter of the game is in collecting and there are no shortage of shiny items to pick up as you traverse through the large open worlds. Quills are the new notes and there are 200 to collect in each world; you'll use these later to purchase moves from Trowzer the snake (ah that '90s humour) and they are often the hardest item to collect as they can be so easily hidden on little platforms and the various nooks and crannies of the worlds. Each world also contains both a heart and an energy extender which take the place of the unified honeycomb pieces from the previous games. More interesting are the 'ghost writers', five ghosts that appear on each level and require different methods to catch; one might require you to feed it first whilst another requires a sonar move to reveal it. Finally, there is secret pirate treasure hidden on every level that will net you an achievement although they don't show up in the totals screens for each world.

The other two items to collect relate directly to quests that happen on every world. The first of these is a play token for Rextro's arcade, a mini-game that you need to complete to earn a pagie, and then complete again beating a specific high score to earn another. These mini games range from a top down racing game to an infuriating Flappy Bird clone and the one thing that all share is that they outstay their welcome. The games from worlds four and five are particularly long and frustrating with the added requirement of having to complete them a minimum of twice making them more a chore than fun. It would been nicer had the games been half the length and if you could have earned two pagies by beating the high score on your first playthrough.

The second item is a 'mollycool' that acts much like the mumbo tokens from Banjo-Kazooie with the difference being that these power Dr Puzz's DN Ray rather than Mumbo Jumbo's shaman magic. Each world will have one of these tokens that allows the Dr to transform you into something that will help solve some quests be it a pollentating flower or a pirate ship. One disappointment I had is that there were no quests that required you to take your new form out to the hub world or a different world and the number of quests that related to each transform was fairly minimal (especially on world three).

Some of Rextro's arcade games are frustratingly difficult
Some of Rextro's arcade games are frustratingly difficult

In order to earn all of these collectibles, you will need a range of moves that can be purchased from Trowzer both in the hub world and in each of the worlds. Many quests and items can only be earned from moves you'll pick up later in the game so sometimes you have to evaluate a puzzle and wonder if you are being stupid or whether you need something later on. The moves begin in fairly standard form with the ability to ground pound, glide, roll, etc but later develop into more powerful techniques such as flight, sonar explosions, and higher jumps. A particular favourite of mine is the ability to use Yooka's tongue to eat various items that will give you a projectile or environmental effect for a short period of time; for example, you might eat a small bomb to gain the power to fire wall-smashing projectiles or you could lick a honey pot to gain the ability to stick to slippery surfaces. This seems better than the ammo collection that was prevelant in Banjo-Tooie whereby you had to collect various different eggs and feathers to use as projectiles but it does also mean that it is fairly obvious when you need to use each ability (i.e. a tree with frozen berries on it probably means you need to freeze something nearby). Most of the abilities will require a certain amount of energy taken from a stamina bar that refills slowly over time or can be filled by touching pink butterflies that permeate the worlds. I was pleased that the rate at which you earn moves is fairly steady resulting in a genuine sense of excitement as you realise what areas of previous worlds you can now access thanks to your new abilities; it is exactly the same experience I praised in Hollow Knight.

In addition to the moves you can also visit Vendi, a '50s looking vending machine who dishes out special tonics when you reach certain milestones such as killing 10 enemies or collecting a certain number of pagies. These tonics act as an always-on buff and you can only swap them when you are with Vendi similar to the charms in Hollow Knight although you are limited to having just one active at a time. The tonics generally fall into the camp of giving you a bit of extra health, letting you use a move more frequently, or some minor tweak to the game such as helium voices for characters or giving Yooka a pair of blue shorts. The most useful is definitely the 'hunter' tonic that causes a small whistle (I'm convinced it is the Jinjo sound effect) whenever you are near a sufficiently difficult collectible such as the mollycool or one of the last few quills in a world. It is just enough of a boost to stop you going to a walkthrough guide when searching for the last few collectibles on each level.

Yooka-Laylee is definitely one of the best looking Unity games
Yooka-Laylee is definitely one of the best looking Unity games

I didn't have any major problems or breaking issues with the game but there were a few minor frustrations:

  • One of the quests put me in a room that was filled with fog but it was so thick I could barely see anything including the way out; I spent 10 minutes trying to escape before just massively increasing the brightness on my monitor to see the wall edges.
  • Rextro's games, as I mentioned earlier, were a major frustration especially as you had to beat them twice.
  • There is no clear delineation between what quests require a particular move and which ones don't. This was far more like the open world of Banjo-Tooie than the more "one world at a time" methodology of Banjo-Kazooie.
  • Whilst some dialogue could be skipped, a lot of it (including during the boss fight) couldn't.
  • The game would always crash when quitting using the GameStream with the NVIDIA Shield TV (a minor issue but meant I had to always go back to my PC to turn it all off properly).
  • The entire game worked perfectly on my 21:9 monitor (aside from cut-scenes having black bars at the sides) but when purchasing from Trowzer it wouldn't show me how many quills I currently had as it had been cut off at the bottom of the screen.
  • Much like Thimbleweed Park, there were a few too many knowing jokes about it being a game and little winks to the user about things that would come in the sequel. Once or twice is fine; doing it more than that becomes tiresome.

All of these are fairly minor issues and I didn't have any problems with the camera or the controls as some earlier reviewers experienced although a lot of this was fixed by the day one patch.

There is still quite a lot of content that has yet to arrive as it was postponed in order that they didn't need to delay the game further. This includes a 64-bit retro mode which will be available as a tonic, an orchestral soundtrack (more like Nuts and Bolts which was fantastic), and a developer commentary. There was also an intriuging clue about a secret if you reached 100% in the Kickstarter-backer exclusive Toy Box that was released last year; I followed that clue once I'd reached 100% completion in the game and it unfortunately results in the INEPT robot telling you to be more patient. I expect this will arrive in the same patch as the other content above.

It took me exactly 24 hours to get 100% completion
It took me exactly 24 hours to get 100% completion

I had fairly low expectations for Yooka-Laylee prior to launch. I didn't really enjoy the Toy Box that much and felt it looked a little bit too much like it was made from stock Unity objects. The pre-release reviews were also fairly mixed and so I figured I'd play it for a bit and then move onto something else.

Instead, it has turned out to be one of my favourite 3D platformers of all time probably because it doesn't stray far from what made those games great; it took me around 24 hours to reach 100% completion and it never felt like a grind. Those that were looking for something more modern or that played in a different way would be better served by Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts or by the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey. This is a truly modern take on the old classics in that it is just updating the graphics, not changing the gameplay in any major way. Whilst I didn't like the look of the Toy Box, I can honestly say this is one of the best looking Unity games I've played with some absolutely beautiful texture and lighting work running at a smooth 60fps; I'll be very impressed if it retains that when it launches on the Switch later this year.

If you are not a fan of collectibles and 3D platforming or if you wanted a modern take on Banjo-Kazooie with some huge gameplay twist, this game is not for you. For fans of the '90s 3D platformer though, you'll be hard pressed to find anything better. I didn't like the characters going on about appearing in future games, but I really hope to see Yooka, Laylee, and even Trowzer again in the near future.

Yooka-Laylee is available on PC, Mac, Xbox One, and PS4 with a Switch version arriving later in the year. I played on my gaming PC on a 21:9 monitor with an Xbox One Elite controller and also using GameStream to my NVIDIA Shield TV.

The Deformers Disappointment

#deformers #review

Deformers is a game I raved about in my preview earlier this month. A simple physics-based brawler similar to one of the Mario Party minigames, it charmed me with its polished graphics, fun gameplay, and the unique rendering of Pug butts.

This is pretty accurate
This is pretty accurate

I mentioned that the launch price was £23 and specifically said:

The bigger potential problem is what I have come to call "the VIDEOBALL effect". As John and I discussed on the last episode of Connecting to Host, an online competitive game is nothing if nobody is playing. It's difficult for me to say Deformers is charging a high price at £23 when it is much cheaper than AAA online shooters on PC or something like Splatoon 2 on Switch; however, its closest real comparison is probably the Rocket League type PC games which are priced around the £15 mark and this is where I expected Deformers to land. Time will tell if this sticks or if a permanent price drop will occur but my feeling is that it would be better to price low and have more players (who you can monetise via the workshop) than to price higher than your closest competitors.

Also, I predicted that In-App Purchases would be used for gold strips alone:

The Steam store page description lists "In-App Purchases" so I'm going to assume that there will be a way to buy the gold strips so you can instantly unlock whatever forms you want (the presence of a gold strip to silver coins conversion suggests that only the strips will be available for purchase).

The game launched last week and on all accounts appears to have utterly failed. I tried to play it for almost 2 hours over the 24 hour launch period and ended up with just under five matches of which four were with the same person.

Yes, person singular.

There was hardly anybody online to play the game and if you ended up with 2v2 (which is half the size it should be if there were more players) inevitably people would drop out leaving it as a 1v1 which is not a great experience. With nobody online, it was disturbing to have server issues and big lag warnings emerging on the left hand side especially when three open beta weekends and a two month launch delay should have ironed out those teething issues. This may have been a consequence of few people being online though as it was almost forcing me to user servers in Russia as they were the only ones with players available.

The launch price was £23 which was definitely too high and that coupled with In-App Purchases coming in at £2.34, £7.80, and £15.61 obviously spooked people who wondered what you could possibly be purchasing. I was correct that those purchases were for the gold strips (for purchasing forms) and that they could be used to convert to silver coins (for purchasing outfits and accessories). Unfortunately the purchases were using the typical psychological trick of an intermediate currency to disguise the price you are paying; for example, the pug form costs 15 strips which means either earning 5 and paying for 10 or buying 40 strips for more money and having change. A better strategy would have been to have all the forms unlocked and then monetise by buying unique forms separately (without an intermediate currency) in a similar way to Rocket League's car packs.

After constant server issues and bad 1v1 matches, I decided that as I'd played for just shy of 2 hours I'd request a refund from Steam as £22.99 is above my threshold for "wait and see if this improves". The refund was granted pretty quickly and will likely go towards something in the next inevitable Steam sale.

Inexplicably, the developers increased the price to £30 just a few hours after the launch. I can only imagine this is to maintain parity with the Xbox One and PS4 versions but it seems a ridiculous price for what is actually a very shallow game. It is very easy for me to say "it should be half the price" as it isn't my money; however, one has to imagine there would be much better reviews and more players online had they gone with a lower price. Instead there are server issues and no players leading to what can only be described as a massively disappointing launch, at least on PC. The Steam Store page is awash with negative reviews mainly around pricing and server issues although the lack of a tutorial system (aside from some YouTube videos) is also called out.

I can honestly say that this has been the most disappointing launch for me as a gamer. I loved the game during the preview period and was prepared to pay the original asking price as I wanted to support the developers for what seemed a very polished brawler. The online issues and lack of players caused that opinion to change but the price increase means it isn't something I'd even try again in the future. I really don't want to see Deformers fail but something is going to have to give; either they need to drop the price (which will outrage those that paid in full) or they are going to be doomed to the VIDEOBALL effect. Perhaps they'll find enough players to sustain it from a free release on Humble Monthly; that will likely be the only way I'll pick it up again.

UPDATE: SteamSpy is showing that the peak number of concurrent users is around 17 per day and that the number of copies sold is going down as more people request refunds. It seems to be doing slightly better on Xbox One and PS4 although this is an absolute disaster on the PC.

Deformers is available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. I played on my gaming PC with an Xbox One Elite controller.

There's indium, silicon, thorium, and thallium: a review of Fast RMX

#fastrmx #review

The Nintendo Switch launched with what could be described as a microscopic number of launch titles; Zelda, 1-2-Switch, and Snipperclips were at the top of the list direct from Nintendo whilst other titles such as Super Bomberman R, Just Dance 2017 and I Am Setsuna rounded out the lineup from 3rd parties. However, buried inexplicably at the bottom of the eShop (underneath all the shitty NeoGeo games) is Fast RMX, a racing game in the mold of F-Zero series that serves as the only racing game available until Mario Kart 8 Deluxe appears next week.

The weather effects are both beautiful and massively distracting
The weather effects are both beautiful and massively distracting

The comparison with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a good one as this too is a Wii U game with all the DLC included plus some extra courses and a bit of polish applied. Specifically, this is an expanded version of Fast Racing Neo with 6 additional courses. It is also capable of running at 60fps in both 1080p (console mode) and 720p (handheld mode).

The controls were slightly peculiar to me coming from more traditional racing games on the PC and Xbox. To accelerate and decelerate you use the A and B buttons respectively rather than the triggers; these are instead used for strafing a short distance to the left or right with the smaller right hand trigger being used for boosting. Motion controls are available if you prefer and there is full support for HD Rumble although I disabled this in handheld mode as it was far too powerful.

The unique feature for this game is the ability to shift (with the X button) between two 'phases' denoted by having your car glow in orange or blue. These phases line up with coloured strips on the ground that will give you a boost if you enter them in the correct colour but will slow you down otherwise. This gets more complex later on when there are jumps that require a specific colour; going over these in the wrong phase will inevitably lead to you missing the jump and your vehicle being destroyed.

Of course, you don't leave the race if your vehicle is destroyed but are instead placed back a little ways and have to resume from a standing start. This is fortunate as later courses have plenty of hazards from giant sand worms and rotating fans to death defying jumps and rock slides.

You'd better use the blue phase when going through that tunnel...
You'd better use the blue phase when going through that tunnel...

The main meat of the game is a 10 cup championship spread over 30 courses. Each cup is named after a metal and consists of 3 courses with the winner being the driver who accrues the most points over the races. There are also 3 difficulty levels for the championship — subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic — which have the same cups but tougher opponents and even faster speeds.

As you race through the championship, you'll unlock extra vehicles (with 15 in total) and, if you rank in the top 3, further cups and courses. These courses also open up in the Hero Mode (with similar difficulty levels) which lets you do single races with the caveat that you must come 1st and that your boost meter also acts as a shield similar to games like F-Zero X.

Whilst there is a huge amount of content within the single player, the game really shines in multiplayer thanks to the large array of supported modes. You can race online with 2-8 players and in split-screen with up to 4 players. You can also race with up to 8 players using local communication with multiple Switch's with 1-2 people per console. I've tried all three modes and came away impressed with how quick and easy they were to set up with minimal lag in the case of the online and local communication modes. Particularly notable was the ability to use multiple Switch consoles even when there was no WiFi network available.

Multiplayer is easy to set up, either online or with local Switch consoles
Multiplayer is easy to set up, either online or with local Switch consoles

During my time playing the game, I've encountered very few issues. Occasionally there are issues with the re-spawning placing me further in the race than it should and the AI for the championship means I can sometimes still win despite ranking maybe 3rd or 4th in each race. These are minor issues though and could be fixed in the various free updates which are scheduled; the first of these updates arrived this week including a new Time Attack mode (in all 3 difficulties and all 30 courses) and some improvements to the multiplayer mode when joining your Switch friends online.

Whilst the soundtrack isn't as catchy as anything from the F-Zero series, the announcer certainly is; this is no coincidence as it is voiced by Jack Merluzzi, the announcer in F-Zero GX.

Being a Nintendo Switch game, there are unfortunately no achievements or leaderboards. I say this in nearly every review I write for a Switch game but it frustrates me that such a basic system has yet to be implemented.

There are lots of fatal hazards on these tracks!
There are lots of fatal hazards on these tracks!

It would be easy to joke that this is the best racing game on the Switch (being the only one) but that would be a disservice to Fast RMX. It is a great racing game, period. The variation in the courses and the amount of animation and depth in the backgrounds of each race shows a level of polish that is rarely seen. That they have managed to get such an insanely fast racer to run smoothly at 60fps and 1080p is impressive, especially when you consider the various particle effects that have been layered throughout. It is the best looking game on the Switch so far.

Add to all of this a tight racing game full of challenge, additional modes, and the wonderful ability to switch seamlessly between console and handheld mode and you find an easy recommendation, especially at the bargain price of £18. I expect that the number of players online will dwindle when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe appears but this will certainly scratch that F-Zero itch in single player for the foreseeable future.

Fast RMX is available on the Switch as a download-only title. I played in console mode with a pro controller and in handheld mode with the joy-cons.

Some people use thimbles, others miss the point (and click)

#review #thimbleweedpark

I've been a sucker for a good point and click adventure game since the release of Discworld II in 1996. Whilst I came to the genre at the end of its heyday, I eagerly went back and tried some of the classics like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, and Simon the Sorcerer. This, then, is a return to the genre by Ron Gilbert, creator of some of the most beloved LucasArts adventures.

The first thing to note is that whilst some of the mechanics have been modernised slightly, the art style is decidedly retro to fit in with the '80s setting. Some concessions have been made to those new to the genre with a choice between "casual" and "hard" modes, the latter including a few extra puzzles and red herrings. Whilst other modern point and clicks such as Kelvin and the Infamous Machine give casual players a heat map to show what things in a scene can be interacted with, there is nothing like that within this game.

The controls are much the same as the LucasArts games of old including the beloved action wall featuring 9 different ways your character can interact with their surroundings. New to Thimbleweed Park is a highlight on the most appropriate action; if you are pointing at a person, the "talk to" action will be selected. There is also a completely different set of non-standard actions for one of the characters...

Each character has an inventory and items can be picked up, given to other characters, looked at, and used. Some of them are just red herrings intended to throw you off a puzzle solution whereas some really need you to look at them to catch some detail you might otherwise miss.

Movement is controlled with the mouse via a single click but a double click will increase movement speed. Early on in the game you'll find enough maps for all of your characters at which point they can use this to fast travel to locations around the fairly vast town.

You start the game with two characters that you can switch between; Detectives Angela Ray and Antonio Reyes who bear a striking similarity to Mulder and Scully. Later on, you'll unlock the ability to play as three other characters; Delores the aspiring adventure game developer, Ransome the offensive clown, and Franklin the ghost. There are points throughout the game where you may be locked to a subset of the full character roster but usually you can switch between them at any point with a character picker in the top right hand corner (at which point you are instantly transported to their location).

Each character has their own inventory and whilst you can give items to other characters who are stood next to you there are some items they refuse to part with. There are also certain things or people that can only be interacted with by a specific character. Whilst a nice mechanic, it can quickly become irritating if you are trying to solve an obtuse puzzle and you need to cycle through every character to do it (especially as it can be difficult to get them to the same location or have access to similar items).

One of the more interesting pieces about the characters is that each one has "to do" list that clearly shows what their current objectives are. I felt this was too much hand holding and should have been limited to the casual mode especially as later in the game it doesn't really serve much of a purpose as you already know what you are working towards.

The story finds the two detectives coming to the town of Thimbleweed Park in order to solve a murder but quickly derails into investigating some of the mystery surrounding the pillow factory and its charismatic founder and hero of the town, Chuck. This story is told through 8 different chapters which have a specific goal that needs to be reached before they will end (i.e. "solve the murder"). There is often an amount of time that has passed between chapters so you'll need to revisit locations to make sure that nothing has changed significantly.

In addition to the main story, each character has their own reason for being in the town which is generally explored through a flashback sequence before you unlock them as a character.

I felt that the story started to drag a little towards the end and the final resolution wasn't what I had hoped for. That said, the bulk of the game has excellent writing with a number of amusing moments. Whilst I didn't roar with laughter as I did whilst playing Kelvin and the Infamous Machine recently, I did enjoy some of the more bizarre moments and the slapstick style that is employed in these kinds of games.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent voice acting throughout Thimbleweed Park. Every piece of dialogue has been recorded and this adds up, especially as every item can be looked at and tried with the various actions by every character. Special mention should be given to both Delores and Ransome who really sell their characters through the voices. Whilst you can turn this off and enable text for the more classic feel, I preferred to enable both allowing me to skip dialogue after reading it if I wanted to.

In terms of extras, Thimbleweed Park has 8 collectible Steam trading cards and a number of achievements split between milestones in the story and interactions with specific items in the game. It was a shame that completing the game in "hard" mode didn't unlock the "completed in casual mode" achievement as most other games tend to, especially as I missed a few hard achievements so I'll need to reply in both modes if I want to get everything.

Whilst there wasn't support for my 21:9 widescreen, this is generally expected in these kinds of games. There is full support for controllers mainly due to the game being available on Xbox One; I didn't use one as it would seem to be a much slower experience than using the mouse (and the single button on the keyboard to skip dialogue).

I've purposefully tried to avoid talking about the puzzles in the game as even a slight mention of an item, location, or character could be enough to reveal a puzzle solution; case in point, I was stuck at a particular point and then listening to a review of the game on the PC Gamer UK podcast unfortunately, and inadvertently, gave me the solution. The puzzles are fantastic mainly striking a good difficulty balance; there wasn't anything massively obtuse but the fact that some characters won't do basic things with an item (so you assume it isn't possible) can be infuriating when you needed to use a specific character all along.

My issue with characters extends slightly deeper as whilst I really like the mechanic it has been implemented a little sloppily. There is no reason for most of the characters to talk to each other yet (to take a random example) Ransome the clown can happily give an item he has found to Delores to hold and use for no reason whatsoever. This could have been improved simply by letting characters use the "talk to" action on each other in order to tease out more backstory and reasons for them to work together; instead you have an odd situation of characters helping each other with no dialogue.

The only other negative I had was the sheer amount of adventure game jokes. Whilst Rob Gilbert games have always broken the fourth wall, this one goes a little too far for my tastes with near constant talking about adventure game puzzles and design. In many ways this is a symptom of it being a Kickstarter project — fans want this kind of fan service after all — but it felt gratuitous by the end.

I really enjoyed my time in Thimbleweed Park over the course of 14 hours and whilst I'm not desperate to replay it immediately to get all of the achievements it is definitely something I can see myself returning to. If you loved the adventure games of the '80s and '90s then it is a no-brainer; if you found them to be too obtuse and obsessed with themselves, then you'll find that little will have changed to improve things.

Thimbleweed Park is available on PC, Mac, and Xbox One but is coming to iOS, Android, and "other platforms" (read PS4 / Switch) in the future. I played on my PC using the mouse and keyboard.

Snipperclips: a cut below the rest?

#review #snipperclips

Snipperclips fills an interesting role in the Nintendo Switch lineup; originally meant to be launched towards the end of March, it was bumped up to a launch title likely in response to some of the negative first impressions of the expensive 1-2-Switch which was the only other multiplayer Nintendo game.

You play as two characters (allegedly named Snip and Clip) who can cut each other into different shapes to solve puzzles. Whilst originally in a shape reminiscent of a Bullet Bill, intersecting with the other character will allow you to either cut the exact intersection out of them or them out of you. The only other mechanics are the option to rotate, jump, and control your height in a manner similar to the robot in Machinarium (with a low squat on the floor or standing on tip toes).

Cogs and indentations will allow you to capture the fish
Cogs and indentations will allow you to capture the fish

Each of the 66 levels is locked to a single frame and will have a specific goal to achieve; get a pencil to a sharpener, put a fish in a box, or stop liquid from touching some screaming single-celled organisms (that's a weird one).

Solving each puzzle requires a bit of experimentation as you discover buttons that will cause things to reset, find cogs or screws that need specific shapes to rotate, or as you try to discover what you actually need to do. There is no text within the game so doodles on the background will try and point you to your goal but these can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.

If you are playing in co-op mode, there will now be a discussion about how you are going to cut each other which will invariably lead to you both cutting at the same time in different places. If you cut out the majority of a character, they'll disappear and then respawn in the level usually leading to a game of chase as you try and cut each other up. Fortunately there is a reset mechanism whereby you can hold down the left button on the joy-con to restore yourself to your former glory. Tapping this button also allows you to toggle between your full state and your cut state which is absolutely crucial in later levels when you may need to be cut to a certain shape and then go back to your original self to cut your partner.

The cuts and rotation of your characters correspond to the birds beneath
The cuts and rotation of your characters correspond to the birds beneath

The game has three separate modes that have specific player requirements: the main campaign world can be played with 1-2 players and is spread across 45 levels split into 3 thematically different notebooks. The party mode and blitz modes, however, require 2-4 players so you'll need some friends or to hold a joy-con in each hand.

The party mode is pretty much exactly the same as the campaign world albeit with 21 unique levels and you have 4 characters instead of 2. This is particularly interesting as the puzzles are the same layout regardless of if you have 2, 3, or 4 players; there are always 4 characters but some or all of you will control multiple characters by tapping the top button on the joy-con to switch between them. This is the same mechanic that is used to control 2 characters if you choose to play the main campaign solo.

Blitz mode is a completely different experience with three different minigames; basketball, hockey, and dojo. The rules are the same when it comes to movement and cutting but you'll be either playing basketball or hockey in the way you'd expect or trying to cut the other person out completely in dojo mode which really comes down to who can tap the cut button quickest, just like any other fighting game (*Ha!*). This is the mode that I spent the least time in as it doesn't have enough depth or skill to make it more than a 2 minute play to make sure you aren't missing anything.

The liquid puzzles can be incredibly difficult
The liquid puzzles can be incredibly difficult

The art style and graphics are simple but charming; it is probably the sort of thing the word twee was created for. Despite this simplicity, I did notice some considerable lag in console mode on one particular level involving strands of DNA. This was peculiar as it should have been less taxing than some of the levels involving real time movement of liquids but the entire puzzle felt like it was running at around 10fps. Thankfully this was not a recurring problem.

The real fun of Snipperclips is in the characters and their expressions. As you cut each other up, they'll make approving or disapproving noises, sometimes laughing at the gaping hole you've just cut into your friend. When you cut too far, a little cry is heard before they unfold like origami out of the ether. As you squat, their eyebrows raise and pushing heavy objects leads to squinting. This makes it an amusing experience, especially with friends, and the catchy background music adds to this by being unobtrusive yet memorable.

My biggest gripe is that you are limited to the joy-cons even if you have other controllers. For example, you wouldn't be able to have someone use a pro controller whilst the other uses a joy-con and this is particularly frustrating if, like me, you have the pro controller and you thought you could play with 3 people; you'll need a new set of joy-cons if you want to play with more than 2. It should also come as no surprise that Snipperclips is a couch co-op only title; there is no online multiplayer nor local multiplayer with multiple switch devices.

Four player mode requires a fair amount of patience
Four player mode requires a fair amount of patience

My general rule of thumb is that I want to get an hour of gameplay for every £2 spent; this increases to £5 with indie titles that tend to be shorter. I finished Snipperclips (with a friend) in just under 3 hours so it falls short of both metrics at a price of £18; I personally would have expected slightly more from a first party launch title especially as the game isn't really replayable. It feels like this could have been either a bit smaller and bundled with the console for free or that it should be a lot larger.

That said, if you have a friend nearby who wants to play then Snipperclips is a great example of how every Switch is automatically equipped to do local co-op thanks to its 2-in-1 controller design. It is the only game on the Switch currently to have a free downloadable demo so I'd definitely recommend you give that a try to see if it is something you want to actually purchase; alternatively, you could wait for them to... wait for it... cut the price.

Snipperclips is available on the Switch as a download-only title and I played using the joy-cons as I had no choice. A free demo is available on the eShop. We recorded episode #13 of Connecting to Host on the co-op and multiplayer elements of Snipperclips.