Monday 25 July 2022

Parasite Pack Review (Switch)

After having found success through the Indie cartridge on the Evercade the NES developed Flea! And Tapeworm Disco Puzzle have now been bundled together for a very reasonable price on the Switch. It’s an interesting move to see games developed for retro systems starting to find more mainstream releases and these two titles could well see some other high profile indie darlings making the leap across.

Flea! Is basically the (even more), indie version of Super Meat Boy. The Switch screen gives the game a new lease of life and despite the strange colour palette at times it is consistently strong and fun throughout. You do have access to save states, as this is technically running on a NES emulator, which is handy as this thing is tough. Lives are not hard to come by though so as long as you have some decent reflexes you should be able to make it through the 80 or so levels. It’s testament to the strength of the game that it is still worth playing on the Switch among so many competitors.

Tapeworm Disco Puzzle is also great fun. It takes the concept of Snake and turns it into a puzzle game with a serious amount of variety. It starts out in simple fashion by giving you a certain amount of moves with which to collect objects within a single screen puzzle. Later though you’ll be creating platforms to shepherd lemming like fleas to level exits or moving the Disco Worm around without the ability to stop.

It certainly packs a host of clever ideas into its hundred levels and is both addictive and great fun to play. The characters you meet along the way and even the worm itself are charming creations as well and there’s some nice transition scenes to look at.

Overall, the Parasite Pack is likely to be overlooked by many a Switch owner but it really shouldn’t. Both these games are filled with a lot of good ideas and they stand as great examples of how this new wave of retro games developed for retro consoles should be. If nothing else, it highlights a creative talent at the heart of these games who is clearly someone to keep an eye on in the future.

Overall 7/10

Monday 18 July 2022

Shadowrun: Dragonfall (Switch)

Starting out as the first major piece of DLC for the original Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall went on to get a fully functioning solo upgrade of its own soon after.  It changes the setting of our murky world of magic and science to the streets and shadows of Berlin and does things a little differently than before and is all the better for it.

Having fled Berlin after a betrayal, your new character soon finds themselves on a job described as a ‘milk run’ with an old friend. In Shadowrun things are never usually as simple as they seem and predictably things go wrong quickly and keep getting worse. You soon uncover a dangerous secret and by then it’s too late to back out. Just remember – never cut a deal with a dragon.

One of the areas where Dragonfall differs from the original in that you now have a consistent pool of runners to choose before going into each mission. This means that the writers have been given more scope to build up the personalities of your team who occupy the now expanded hub area. More team members can be picked up during missions as well and it means players are rarely faced with situations that they are completely unequipped for. Instead, the missions become more about how you want to go about completing them which removes a lot of the frustration found in Shadowrun Returns where you could find yourself grinding through with a poorly chosen team.

The mechanics themselves are pretty much the same as before. The core rule set of the original game was always decent and here you get to see how flexible it can be as you now have specifically designed characters to use in levels created for their skill set. Level design is also of a higher standard for the most part with more optional objectives and a better way of picking up and identifying side quests that helps to build the illusion of player freedom.

Unfortunately, the matrix sections are still dull and uninspired. These needed a complete overhaul from pretty much the first day of the PC release and have got no better with age. The series really would benefit from taking these sections back to the drawing board though as they seem to drag on endlessly and lack pace and excitement. One other minor criticism is that Berlin looks an awful lot like the Seattle of the first game. It would have been nice to give it more of a visual identity as it’s certainly an iconic city.  People at least talk in a German accent for the most part.

On top of this the Switch version has some quite nasty bugs. From our experience these seem to be mainly restricted to the hub area between missions, but we wouldn’t bet on everyone saying the same. The frame rate skips badly here, and players seem to teleport around. You also lose the lock on information for both objects and people which then involves a little dance as you try and interact with what you want to. The game also locked a couple of times when changing areas and once we completely lost the camera which just refused to follow our movements. We should highlight this was restricted to the hub area, during missions we found this didn’t happen which at least meant we never died because of it but maybe that’s just us. It also suffers a bit from handheld play with some small text and no improvement with regards to colourblind users since the original game, something that was always a bit of an issue.

Dragonfall is basically more of the same but refined and improved in a number of key areas. If you liked Shadowrun Returns then you should love this as just about every aspect from story to mission design is improved. It does need a patch though as the hub area does just about all it can to break the immersion currently. If you can put up with that there’s still a lot to like about Dragonfall, it’s just not the game it was on PC currently.

Overall 7/10

*since this review was written a patch has been issued which does stabilise the frame rate. 

Monday 11 July 2022

The Hand of Merlin Review (Steam)

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Recently, I have re-read a bunch of everyone’s favourite long-faced racist’s stories. Lovecraft doesn’t really do the dark ages as site-specific locations. Odds and sods of lore come from humanity’s past, but there isn’t a bit where you see the Albigensians deploy Bokrug, the Great Water Lizard, to massacre the Cathars at Beziers. Lovecraft kept his stories contemporary. So, it’s good to see some knights having a chop at unspeakable, indescribable horrors. There are other games that have done this, but taking the Arthurian legends and smashing it into cosmic horror is the context for Hand of Merlin.

There are a few working components to Merlin, but at its beating heart is tactical combat. You’ve a squad of heroes knocking about a gridded area with human, and very far from human, enemies. Supporting this is a role-playing system, a resource management slice, rogue-lite running, and an overworld to traverse. All of this is wrapped up in a ludicrous, yet really fun, story of Merlin searching different timelines to destroy the evil that has been unleashed on the world by someone who lost their faith in the goals of Camelot and its circular dining table.

This is a busy, dense game, both visually and informationally. All these moving parts need bits to explain to the player and for the player to operate. As a mild gripe, it doesn’t help that there are a thousand type-faces present, and a few different art styles. Sometimes its hokey and rustic, sometimes it’s clean and crisp. It is at once evocative and ugly, clear and confusing. If you can wade through this, there is a deep game that expands like the fetid iridescence of the Shoggoths.

The overworld map is probably the prettiest part of the game. Nodes trail across the map leading on a world somewhere between Mount and Blade and Dungeon Keeper’s legendary mission intros. Your motley band visit these nodes (different every run) and you have encounters such as straight-up combat, little events with multiple choices to interact, or villages where you can rest, trade or progress the story. The node layout gives it some measurable structure, enabling you to get a sense of how far you’re getting each time.

Hand of Merlin is a hard game. I had to drop it to easy from normal to make decent progress just to see more of the game. It never felt unfair, but there was a lot to learn about how the game works, but also a lot of information to inwardly digest. There is not a great sense of pace, as you spend a lot of time fettling your crew, getting all the bits of the characters in the right place. The combat isn’t as long as other X-Com-a-likes, and also has a more laboured pace. There’s not too much excitement, but I was glad for this as there’s a bit more to track here than the few ‘nades, action points, and positioning systems that are typically present. The result is a less frenetic and more overtly considered feeling. The little characters are nicely made, nothing too flashy happening here, and the environments are sort of grim enough to fulfil the intentions of the setting. Some of the monster horrors are nicely vile, and are by far the most interesting visually.

Outside of combat, progression is made through the map and then explored in a charming book-interface. There’s a choose your own adventure quality to this that really works. I didn’t really miss having a “hub” a-la Darkest Dungeon, nor did I miss wandering about a town looking for the bloody shop in a sparse placeholder location. The book that you interact with is probably the most consistent aesthetic piece of the GUI. The illustrations do the job for keeping the human world in the picture.

There is a robust guide that is well put together, which due to the many aspects the player is juggling, I needed more than I expected. I often find in-game guidebooks to be deeply frustrating (I’m looking at you Factorio), and are sometimes less use than Clippy.

All in all, Hand of Merlin strikes a really unique note. I thought I was going to give this a 3/5, but getting a bit further into it, giving it a little more patience than my darting mind can give things, let it sink in a bit more. It’s depth, especially the RPG systems for the characters, are really satisfying. While not a quick game, it hits a tonne of great notes, which minor foibles about sort of naff visual style choices can’t really muffle. The thoughtful design and unique fusion of gameplay types pulls this up to something to check out if you enjoy tactics, RPGs and enjoy seeing some cousins of Rhan-Tegoth, Nyarlathotep, or even the horror from the hills themselves, Chaugnar Faugn.

 Overall 8/10


Monday 4 July 2022

B.I.O.T.A Review (Steam)

wears four colours on its sleeve. And cuffs. It has the CRT filter and a billion palettes to earn, each one more eye-searing than the last. A lovingly crafted little blaster that gets away with more than it should be able to, B.I.O.T.A. gets under your skin, but maybe not for long enough to lay eggs.

I could tell you the story the game has but I’ve already forgotten it. Something to do with planets, meteorites, alien infestations, and a crack team of teensy soldiers who have to clear up. It is gleefully silly, bombastically throwaway. You can pick a character from the team and dive into a xenomorphic hell, with a half-and-half platforming and shooting adventure. While each soldier plays differently, there is little difference, but they bound along with an energy that is sort of infectious.

You can grip onto walls, leap about, use a unique special ability, avoid environmental dangers and blast an expansive and imaginative array of enemies. The realisation of the world is the selling point here. From the little players to grotesque larvae, betooth’d blobs with extruding eyes, and a bunch of things that jump and ooze. It’s all on the slime-ooze side of the spectrum. Similarly, the levels are sci-fi, bio-horror staples such as mines and reactors. There are layers of detail, moving parts, and atmosphere crammed into very few pixels. It is quite a dense thing to look at and thrilling because of it.

As this has a strong metroidvania leaning, there is a broader navigation task at hand. The shooting gives the effect of it being more run-and-gun than it actually is. While this keeps the pace up, you will be travelling around the various locales, and it is important to keep track. I wasn’t really paying attention to this at first and had to re-orientate myself a lot. The world, however, keeps you engaged and interested, despite the ability to get lost easily and that it is broadly unforgiving. While you can save your progress, B.I.O.T.A. requires a bit of focus. The shards of Risk of Rain or Caveblazers that I felt at first, were wiped away fairly fast. Yet what remains has less speed, it still has an urging pace to it.

The music throbs along in a creepy, driving, tense way, and the dialogue between characters and the little nuances of the “lived-in” world do a lot with very little. It is great to get the back and forth between characters in the rare moments you meet others. I believe this side of it to be so effective, I wish there was much more. Indeed, the style is what keeps the score at four out of five here, but this would be a really solid four if more of B.I.O.T.A.’s parts were developed a bit more.

The controls don’t feel totally right, a little spicy or frenetic. I never felt quite grounded or weighty. In fact, this could’ve been a way to make the characters feel more distinct. Also, the abilities and powerups don’t feel exciting enough. They almost don’t live up to the mad, exciting world that is on offer. B.I.O.T.A. feels, despite these irks and complaints, like a bit of a gem. It has enough depth to have staying power, and when you get on a roll, it has a thrilling little world to be in for a while. I urge you, however, to play this windowed. And don’t stare too long at the CGA palettes on offer as they will sour your eyesight. Sour, I tell you.