Wednesday 22 December 2021

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon (Steam/Switch)


Written by Thomas G.J Sharpe

The titular shovel-wielding warrior returns in a block-puzzle-rogue-lite hybrid that I found I fell in love with a bit In a tightly designed, densely artistic, and joyful puzzler, Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon manages to straddle casual and challenging game types which will cater for a broad range of tastes.

There is something ineffable, something contradictory about the fresh-vintage-ness of the Shovel Knight games. Pulling from a timeless past of games, I’d like to believe the Knight abandoned their post in Link to The Past (as a Hyrule soldier) and made their own weird way in the world. In this latest iteration, there’s the plinky tones of the track “Atropos” playing from Columns, harbinger of the opioid crisis Dr. Mario (not a real doctor), and harpoon propaganda Bust-A-Move. Shovel is stuck in a puzzle-centric kingdom beset by absurd amounts of cracking assets. There is such a bevy of characters, very few lazy blob types, that populate the world that it is genuinely impressive to witness. World-building in such contained venues is a true skill.

These little venues are block puzzles which hurl enemies, pickups, and obstacles onto a grid that Knight has to survive long enough in to reveal an exit. Moving onto an enemy will cause damage to be taken and delivered, forcing tactical movements between enemies and health potions. Chains of similar types will prompt bigger rewards, adding an organisational level to the puzzle. Shops and side routes reveal themselves, chests and additional skills can be accessed for currency and powers. Bosses with unique skill sets appear after a bunch of stages, and the defeated characters are added to a playable roster back at base camp. Each of these knights have a different feel, expanding game approaches and styles. I was reminded of Nuclear Throne, where the characters shape the feel of a repetitive game to something fresh almost every time. Much like Throne, these knights are full of character, from only a few sprite frames and lines of dialogue.

To further bust open this title for all to enjoy there are a bunch of mutators for the difficulty of the game. Set your puzzle handicap and jump in, and it has you hooked. Ordinarily, puzzlers of this ilk with their strategies and mastery summon strict ceilings for me. I resent mastery of systems as a requirement as (what I feel I am) a pragmatic and low-attention player. These game settings help me dial in, more specifically, a way in to enjoy a game that I would otherwise perhaps have bounced off of.

There is something to be said in the actual, and also the impression, of just-making-it. When in the shovelly block-boxes, feeling close to the edge of failure is a big part of the experience for me. And I don’t much care whether it is suited to my ability. Pocket Dungeon is invitational and accessible to me where other puzzle games are clumsier with their delivery, whatever their core loop.

Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is a game that has managed to capture something special for me in the puzzle genre (much like my gushing adoration for the Kingdom Rush series in the tower defence world). There is scope for a casual experience, but also a more devilish time, in an energetic, exciting world that is seeped in a clever and engaging sensibility. And all in a block-puzzle game. A ‘lil piece of fantastic.

Overall 9/10

Monday 20 December 2021

6Souls Review (Steam)


Review by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

 6Souls is one of the many, many, many products offered by publisher Ratalaika. Between their games, ports, emulations, and visual novels listed on their website, there is a baffling array of styles of art, game, story and heritage. 6Souls, developed by BUG Studio in Russia, is sprung from a solid bed of platformers, notably Celeste, and (a personal hidden gem of mine) Quora, yet sadly doesn’t stand as tall.

Jack, and his little mutt Butch, find themselves in a castle with a magical story. And that’s exposition over with. There is an attempt at jovial characterization, and the developer does rightly label it a “jaunt”. And a jaunt it is; light-hearted, a little silly, gentle adventuring. The characters are given non-linguistic voice to give some texture to the interactions, and most of the writing is functionally fun. As they delve deeper into the castle, they are on the search for the titular six souls. I restrain myself from outlining why or how, as it is largely forgettable.

Importantly, the souls you collect provide Jack with dash abilities to navigate the platforming puzzles. This makes the game succeed and fail on it’s scaled puzzle design. From the simplest, pre-dashing, jumping sections, to the multi-dashing elongated puzzles, the levels are solidly and entertainingly designed. There is the ability to switch to Butch to access places Jack cannot reach, but these provide no real imagination or creative puzzle-solving. These are purely one-route, linear puzzles. New items become available and there are collectibles and all that jazz.

None of this is done poorly, but 6Souls never quite draws itself up to a point that I’m thrilled, or amused, or exhilarated. Pathway and Dandara had unique mechanisms to interact with more intriguing worlds. Caveblazers had more thorough combat-platforming. Quora had a delicate, charming, odd story (seriously just get it, its lovely). Aesthetically, Jack and Butch traverse levels that look ok, but the colours don’t seem to pop and where atmosphere is at a minimum. Adversaries are generally ok, with only a couple quite thoughtless amorphic blob style creatures. The characters themselves are great, with good spirit to them.

Where 6Souls excels, however, is precisely where it matters for itself. The controls are solid, responsive, and worked well (even for a platforming dunce like me). Word to the wise, however; play with a controller. The default keyboard controls are simply awful, and despite my resistance to controllers, I did switch over and had a much better time. Despite being very few actions in the game (it’s the opposite of Il Sturmovik 2), they just sit better on a pad. Perhaps there was some ill design choices when even including a block combat action, as it expands your move set in what feels like a pointless direction. I feel they should have stuck to the platforming, rather than trying to blend in a block-attack system. That is a small gripe, and in the round, it is these small gripes that add up to a slight sense of un-remarkability.

If you get kicks from solid platformers, this is a challenging and charming title. There is nothing wrong with it. If you ask for anything to blow your cape off in 6Souls I would manage your expectations at the castle door, but at the price point currently (£4.99 on Steam), it’s not bad.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Beyond a Steel Sky Review (Switch)

When we first reviewed Beneath a Steel Sky way back in the nineties it never really occurred to us that a sequel would arrive more than twenty years later. There have of course been rumours and previews of a sequel for years, but they always seemed to come to nothing. Finally, we now have the second instalment of the comedy cyber punk adventure.

The game starts ten years after the events of the original with the same protagonist (Robert Foster), living with a tribe in the vast wastelands (known as the gap), outside of Union City. After a child is kidnapped by a strange spider-like machine you find yourself drawn back once again into the corporate run mega city looking for answers.

The general look of the game works well to keep the spirit of the original alive and well. The cartoon style graphics are reminiscent of some of the telltale games and follows many of the traditional point and click adventurer tropes. Instead of moving a cursor around a screen, players now take direct control of Foster. As he moves around the 3D environment points of interest will pop up that can be interacted with once you move close enough. It’s pretty much the system we have come to expect from the many 2D point and click games that have made the jump into 3D worlds, and it works competently enough.

As well as the general wandering and picking up items the main gimmick of BASS is a hacking element. Most of the things that block your progress need tampering with in order to get them to do what you want. This takes the form of moving shapes around on a virtual circuit board. For instance, some machines will have instruction such as ‘Refill’ or ‘Empty’ written inside a shape such as a circle or diamond. Swapping the same shape around can then change the behaviour of the machine. Much of the game is then spent trying to get the machines with the right instructions that you want to swap within range of each other.

The general puzzle design is good but perhaps lacks some of the magic of the original. The dialogue and characters though are excellent throughout and feel right at home. The humour works and the game moves between darker satire and comedy smoothly, meaning nothing is ever too serious or too dark for the story being told. It also performs very well with nothing strikingly problematic in either docked or handheld mode. We were a bit worried about how the game would run on the Switch but it seems we had nothing to fear.

Overall, Beyond a Steel Sky is a welcome return for one of the most iconic point and click franchises of all time. It is clear Revolution have taken this sequel seriously and worked hard to make sure it fits in with the style and world of the original. It isn’t likely to become as iconic as it’s forebear but there is more than enough here for adventure fans to enjoy. Maybe even more importantly though it takes nothing away from the original game and stands on its own as a well-rounded experience that fans both new and old will enjoy immensely.

Overall, 7/10

Monday 13 December 2021

The Bitmap Brothers Collection 1 Review (Evercade)


The Bitmap Brothers are undoubtedly one of the most iconic British game developers ever. They created unique and iconic experiences that remain largely unmatched in terms of their originality and style. However, they were predominantly seen as an Amiga developer – A system not currently running on the Evercade. This means that the first collection we get for the system is drawn from the companies console ports of their classic games with mixed results.

You only get five games on this first collection thanks to a couple of licensing issues and the big fat file size of a PS1 game. On here we have Speedball (Master System), Speedball 2 (Megadrive), Speedball 2100 (PS1), Xenon 2 (Megadrive) and The Chaos Engine (SNES). It looks a little light on paper and if it had been possible to add Gods in or change Speedball 2100 for Z things would look much better all round. We suspect a second collection will be on the horizon though.

There’s no hiding the fact that two of these games are simply not very good. Speedball is a great game on the Amiga. The Master System version of it is not even comparable. It’s slow, it’s ugly and you will likely play it once. Speedball 2100 isn’t much better and has to be one of the ugliest PS1 games ever. It’s also incredibly slow and lacks the flair of the other Speedball games.

The bad and the ugly out of the way with, we are left with three games. Xenon 2 is a vertical shooter which is about as Amiga as it can get in terms of its core. Big, colourful graphics and quirky design are the order of the day and it is good fun. The Megadrive version is a touch slow but it is certainly a solid port of the game. The biggest issue is the music with the original Bomb the Bass track reduced to a terrible Megadrive sound chip rendition. The combination of the slower speed and loss of music means it’s simply ok rather than the thrill ride it once was.

Speedball 2 also suffers in terms of sound. The game is still as lively, colourful and stylish as ever but you certainly lose a ton of sound effects moving from the Amiga to the Megadrive. It’s not as noticeable as with Xenon 2 though and it is still excellent fun. The violent game of cyber handball still stands out as original and despite being copied many times it has never been bettered. There’s a ton of stuff to play through here as well with tournaments and a league. Those not familiar with the original version may well not notice but that missing ‘ice cream’ sound bite is a killer for some of us who have reached a certain age.

The Chaos Engine is the game that has suffered the least in its transition to console. The SNES version is pretty much identical to the original apart from a name change of one of the characters. We are also really glad they picked the SNES version as the Megadrive one chugs badly. For those yet to experience it be prepared for a tough as nails top down maze shooter. Players pick two from six characters who have to make their way through four worlds blasting all manner of mutated monsters. The iconic look and soundtrack of the game has stood the test of time excellently and this really is a big deal for the Evercade.

Overall, this is a bit of a strange one. What you have here is really a three game collection. Xenon 2 does suffer from the version chosen but even then the sheer greatness of Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine make the cart worth picking up. We would love to see a proper Amiga collection in the future though because the Bitmap Brothers and the games deserve to really show off how great they are.


Game Ratings -

Speedball                         2/5

Speedball 2                      4/5

Speedball 2100                2/5

The Chaos Engine            5/5

Xenon 2                             3/5

Monday 6 December 2021

Gynoug Review (Switch)

Days after Retro101 published its GleyLancer review – at the end of which was a request for a re-release of the Mega Drive’s Gynoug – Ratalaika went and announced they were porting it to modern consoles. So, is it a case of “ask and ye shall receive”, or “be careful what you wish for”?

Anyone familiar with Ratalaika’s recent reissues will know what to expect - a straight port with a few quality-of-life features - and Gynoug is no exception. Where their port of GleyLancer featured a full script translation for the game’s surprisingly decent story, Gynoug requires nothing. There is a story, but it exists in the original Mega Drive manual for the game, my copy of which is sadly long gone. It’s scant on details, and I could only find it via a PDF of the US version’s user guide. The short version is that the residents of the planet Iccus have been mutated into horrible monstrosities. As always, the answer is to destroy everything. It’d have been nice to have the manual included in the game’s options for completeness, but let’s be fair; you’re here to shoot stuff, not read.

It’s a fine shooter, too. Your winged avatar (named Wor, at least he is in the Genesis version), utilises various shot types and magics to take on scores of hideous enemies (and, er, seagulls). This is where the game really stands out. The boss designs (which appear midway through and at the end of levels), are truly bizarre and hideous. The end of the first level presents a massive steam train melded with a giant green bloke in some sort of steampunk-meets-body horror motif that continues throughout. As the game progresses, the difficulty builds well and doesn’t really spike. Levels are long and varied, and the bosses offer a stern challenge.

The power ups on offer change shot type, offer additional support (lightning bolts, guardian angels and the like), or increase your movement speed. The latter is initially helpful, but if you manage to avoid dying (or just spam the rewind feature), this can be more of a hindrance, as you will likely send Wor racing towards scenery or into the trajectory of enemy fire.

Gynoug is a snapshot of console gaming as it was at the time; arcade gaming brought home, testing reaction and reflexes, twitch responses and dogged determination to progress. Thankfully it still stands up as a solid example of the genre some 30 years later. While its 6 levels seem short, the length of them and the challenge of the game provide some length, and it will keep you coming back again and again to destroy its grotesque bosses. It’s a good port, and we can’t wait to see what Ratalaika will be bringing back next.


Wednesday 1 December 2021

Clockwork Acquario Review (Switch)

Written by Dan Gill

Many argue over what should be considered the golden age of gaming. Some would say the 80s since it spawned so many classics, while others may praise the pinnacle of the 16-bit era for its refinement of 2D gaming, others, the late 90s for the absorption of gaming by the mainstream, and the dawn of the Playstation. Each camp has its points, but then there are the gaps between generations, the transition period where some titles won’t quite fit the zeitgeist. That window narrows as each console generation moves on, but in the early 90s the shift from 2D to 3D left casualties.

Wonderboy developer Westone was working on Clockwork Acquario around the time people were being wowed by Virtua Racer and the like, and the game was never finished. By 2020 ININ games had managed to acquire the unfinished game from Sega, and managed to complete it with the help of some of the original development team, and in 2021 – almost 30 years later – it's finally being released.

CA is an arcade game, and it shows. It’s all about linear progression as opposed to Wonderboy’s backtracking, and it channels some aspects of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Mario and Alex Kidd, but it doesn’t feel like a tribute act. The chunky, colourful sprites look great, there’s a choice of three characters to pick from, and there’s the option for another player to join in for some co-op.

Attacking enemies consists of jumping on them, hitting them from below or smacking them. This leads to them being stunned which allows them to be picked up, and then thrown at other enemies, helping you to rack up a higher score (especially if you “bank-shot” multiple bad guys). Once the system clicks, you’ll find yourself looking for the best route to a high score. It’s a satisfying hook, and requires the player to understand it in order to take on the boss battles throughout.

Each of the three characters offer no noticeable difference in playstyle (or at least if they do, those differences are subtle). There’s plenty of personality in their sprites though, and the enemy design is shot through with anime cuteness. The graphics on the whole are nice, kind of like a Mega Drive game but beefed up, which is to be expected of a game originally designed for Sega arcade hardware.

Unfortunately, the level design is a bit lacklustre. While we have no problem with the linear level progression, the layout of each stage is pedestrian, but the backgrounds are nice enough. The focus here is on combat over platforming – which is fine – but more imaginative level layouts would’ve been nice.

Minor gripes aside, Clockwork Acquario is a charming game. It’s not the most ground-breaking and most likely won’t be as highly regarded as the big names of the genre, but it is an enjoyable game. The combat mechanic is thoroughly enjoyable and will entice you back for more, the boss battles are fun, and the co-op is a great way to have a friend join in with the retro arcade fun (scuffed pool table and stale cigarette smoke optional). It’s great to see Clockwork Acquario finished and released after all these years, and perhaps it could only feasibly be released in the time of digital downloads and an appreciative retro gaming audience. Maybe we’re in the golden age of gaming right now.