Monday 30 January 2023

The Excavation of Hob's Barrow Review (Switch)

It is warming to see point and clicks still burbling along, and even more heartening to see them being chucked around with some degree of excitement.
 The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow had a trailer that was almost specifically targeted for my tastes. Folk horror, period English setting, that look, sinister synth soundtrack. It looked great, and for the most part did not disappoint. Hob’s Barrow manages to capture something really special in its narrative, aesthetic, and pace, that makes up for sort of light puzzle experience.

You play as Thomasina Bateman, a barrow archaeologist whose skepticism drives much of the story forward. Much seems to be reminiscent of Lovecraft here; a protagonist who is steadfast in a no-nonsense scientific empiricism, slowly broken down by the relentless inexplicability of other-worldly horror. There is also something similar to Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space here; a subterranean mystery that has seeped up to the surface to ruin lives and challenge sense. To describe Thomasina in more relevant terms, she felt like a wonderful, charismatic mash-up of both Indiana Jones and Sophia Hapgood from The Fate of Atlantis. Through her, you interact with a bevy of Derbyshire (presumably) characters. A luddite local resistant to the new railway connection; a sad but well-meaning drunk somewhat lost in his own tangled memories; a chirpy, unconcerned barman; a stoic, restrained blacksmith. They’re all fully voiced superbly and uniquely, especially notable as it is largely a Yorkshire accent being used.

Thomasina’s arrival in the town, with this population of variously mysterious individuals, is spurred on by an invitation to excavate Hob’s Barrow. The farmer on who’s land it is situated, however, won’t grant you permission to dig it up. This, amongst many other obstacles, must be overcome to reveal the story. The locations are vivid, in a classic style. Especially noteworthy is the town square at night, which aches and creaks with atmosphere, with the fog fighting the glow from the pub’s window. Navigation across the locations is easy and accessible, as is all the user-interface. There’s even a fast-travel system, which is quite fortuitous as some progress is made really by checking out all the locations to see if something has changed. This is one of my few gripes with Hob’s Barrow, as I felt like I needed to run the list of places rather than solve anything. The developers do emphasise that this is a narrative-driven adventure, so I understand that the puzzlin’ might be a bit “lite” for some.

Much of the point and click puzzling is immediately quite straightforward. If you have the items, they are rational and fitting solutions which drive the plot forward. I never felt like I was doing something absurd (aside from the more supernatural settings, where it is understandably reality-bending). I had a couple of stumbling blocks, but it turned out I just hadn’t checked out an area.

Barrow is a short game but has enough time and space to do what it needs to. You may well spot the trajectory of some of the story beats if you’re familiar with folk horror, or creepy Victorian stuff, but despite its clear influences, the journey to the outcomes is really something special. The time spent in the dialogues is a joy, the music is eerie, the cutscenes are sublimely weird, and there are just enough puzzles to keep you engaged.

I have since found some more work by the developer that I can’t wait to play. While I would have loved to have had a deeper point and click experience, this just speaks to how much I loved being in the village of Bewlay with Thomasina. The attention given to some folklore is brilliant, and there is even a goat that felt like a nod to Broken Sword. At the close of the game, I was hoping that Cloak and Dagger Games make some sort of point and click version of Turn of the Screw or Hardy’s Desperate Remedies. They’ve got the eye for this sort of atmosphere, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Overall 8/10

Monday 23 January 2023

Chained Echoes Review (Switch)

The Switch isn’t short of RPG’s with most of the big hitters prominent on the system. The Persona games were one of the last hold outs but even they have no succumbed to notion of hand held levelling. Amid the big boys though is this indie RPG which has somehow sprung from the mind of a single person. Indie RPG’s are nothing new of course, but one this detailed certainly is. Indeed, Chained Echoes is here to really give the big guns a massive run for their money.

Perhaps the one area that the game lacks is in fact its plot. It’s a fairly tried and tested formula, and not one a million miles away from another of the big RPG’s of 2022 in Xenoblade 3. Basically, there are different nations, a big cataclysm type thing happens and then various heroes from each nation decide they don’t want to fight and band together to save the world. We’ve seen it a lot in the past but it works as a solid framework for the story.

Chained Echoes has a retro top down style to it. It looks somewhere between Chrono Trigger, the early Breath of Fire games and the recently revived Live A Live. It would certainly fit in with the look of all the SNES games of the past. It does look lovely as well with pixel art working to really convince you this is some long lost gem.

What is more unique is that the story does not follow the ‘chosen one’ or a sole hero. This is very much about the group and seeing the world through their different eyes. Of course, the characters you have at your disposal vary widely and range from knights to thieves with you needing to be pretty sharp at utilising their skill sets in order to proceed.

This isn’t the only break from the norm as Chained Echoes does a fair few things differently to the standard template. First of all, you are automatically healed at the end of each encounter. This means skills and magic are much more in play and using your standard attacks should be left as a last resort. This does mean though that even standard enemies have a hefty health bar to knock down. This isn’t helped by the colour of it being almost impossible to discern for anyone remotely colourblind.

Another difference is that you only level up at certain points in the game. After defeating bosses you get points you can use to select from a pre-existing list of buffs and skills picked for each character. This means you’ll have to think carefully about the sort of character and team you are trying to build as you can’t just level yourself out of trouble. This can be a problem as we found ourselves stuck at various points of the game with no real way to make our characters stronger in order to progress. You can still level up individual character skills in the more traditional way but these are expensive to buff so be prepared for grinding if that’s the route you want to go.

The real unique selling point though is the attack system. As you carry out attacks a meter builds which eventually will move you into ‘Overdrive’. When in this state you get buffs to your attack and defence. Keep going though and you will move into ‘Overheat’ which then dramatically improves the odds for your opponents. In order to keep the meter in the sweet spot you need to keep and eye on which skills move the meter up and down and use the correct ones accordingly. This can mean swapping characters in and out or having to use a skill you really don’t want to so you have think ahead. On top of this characters can also build up a special attack meter to unleash much like Final Fantasy’s limit breaks.

If this wasn’t enough to get your head around there’s also a whole host of other stuff going on. You can craft and enhance weapons, join an adventures guild for side quests or go on Monster Hunts. There’s also a reward grid that plays out like a sort of board game where as you undertake certain feets you can claim rewards. There really is a lot to do and see and that’s before you consider that simply wandering off the beaten path will normally end up with some kind of hidden boss fight or treasure.

Overall, it is remarkable that a game of this size and ambition has come from such a small team. It’s in danger of being overlooked but fans of RPG’s should go out of there way to make sure to check this out. It holds up against some of the best games in the genre and will give even the most experienced of players something to get their teeth into.

Overall 8/10

Monday 16 January 2023

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition Review (Nintendo Switch)

After having success with Mutant Blobs Attack, Drinkbox Studios reurned with this Mexican wrestling themed Metroid style platform adventure. Those who lack imagination may not see the obvious potential of this mix of styles but it helps to create a unique take on a genre now dominated by identikit Samus and the Castlevania clones.

Starting out as a Mexican villager named Juan, players are soon caught up in a strange tale of the supernatural when a long dead Mexican wrestler tricks the devil into turning him into a chicken. He then returns to merge the real and super natural worlds together. Killed while trying to save the girl he loves, Juan is resurrected thanks to a magical luchadore mask and heads off to rescue the girl and save the world.

Graphically, the game does a good job of putting across the Mexican theme with a heavy Cinco de Mayo influence giving it its own unique and macabre atmosphere. The villages look straight out of a western and are coloured to look sun scorched and dirty in the way they do in all the best Western movies. There are also numerous references for gamers to find with our favourite being the 'missing' poster on one building featuring a picture of Manny from Grim Fandango. As you explore the world an enthusiastic mariachi band plays over the adventure, though it might have been nice if they had learned a few more songs. It all ends up creating a world that feels vibrant and new and is likely to draw players in quickly.

In classic Metroid style our hero starts out with only a handful of moves and then gradually acquires more as he progresses. These moves can then be used to access more areas and continue the quest. Most of these are given out by breaking statues placed around the world (which themselves reference Metroid). Most are standard things such as granting a double jump or the ability to break a certain colour block. The one which raised the biggest smile was when we were granted the power to turn into a chicken. In effect this grants the same power as the morph ball in Metroid, but that never allowed you to peck enemies to death.

You are also granted the ability to shift between the real and supernatural realms at will. This becomes an intricate part to solving problems as pillars may exist in one realm but not the other. Things like water can also often turn to lava in one of the realms and the switching offers up some satisfyingly complex puzzles to negotiate.

Away from the platforming the other big focus of the game is the combat. Our hero being a wrestler means he has to grapple and punch his way through enemies. Some of the powers granted to reach new areas also act as new moves and a selection of throws and grapples can also be purchased with gold coins found around the world.

Moves can be strung together to create big combos and it feels tactile and satisfying throughout. Pummel on a monster enough and you can then execute a throw which can be aimed at other enemies to continue the chain. As the game progresses enemies become covered in different colour shields which need specific moves used to break. It can be difficult to remember which move breaks what (and not the easiest if you are colour blind), but we rarely came up against anything that stopped us dead because of this.

The enemies may not be that tough but some of platforming certainly is. Even early on players not used to super quick button presses and timing may become stuck. Often you are required to link at least three special moves together to reach a platform and it only gets tougher. At one point we had to jump block through spikes, double jump, uppercut and then dash to reach a small platform with only tiny margins for error. We didn’t come up against anything insurmountable but more casual players may well struggle in places.

Luckily there are plenty of save points so large areas don’t need to be repeated. The game asks players to pull off short bursts of skill and is very reminiscent of titles like indie darling Within a Deep Forest - in that once you have done the difficult bit it saves soon after to try and counteract frustration.

The Switch version seems even more vibrant and colourful and the pad is surprisingly robust when it comes to those super-fast controls. The difficulty may put some off but we would highly recommend you give it a go as it is undoubtedly one of the best games available on the Nintendo eshop. This is also a decent sized adventure clocking in at around five to six hours with further scope for finishing side quests and searching out hidden chests should you so wish. The Switch version also comes with extra levels, all current DLC and extra moves for the playable characters.

In summary, Guacamelee! Comes highly recommended by us. It manages to take elements that should be well worn by now but turns them into something that seems fresh and new. It’s a great example of the type of creative flair being shown by indie developers and can proudly stand next to the Metroids and Castlevanias of this world.

Overall 8/10

Monday 9 January 2023

Nintendo Switch Roundup 9: Oddities


The Switch is home to a huge amount of high quality indie games that cover every genre imaginable. Among them are a host of games that are trying something a little bit different. In this roundup we take a look at some of the wonderful oddities that have found a home on the console.  


A platformer at heart, the key selling point of Gris is its utterly stunning artistic design. The game is presented in the style of a delicate water colour as you play a women as she explores her way through the visual embodiment of various stages of grief. It’s quite short and the puzzles are not the most taxing but the overall experience is exceptional and offers up something refreshing and beautiful in a genre long in need of new ideas.

If you are looking for something to get lost in for a few hours then there is little out there as effective and emotionally engaging as Gris.

A Short Hike

The premise of A Short Hike is simple and follows a bird named Claire trying to make it to the top of a mountain to get phone reception for an important call she is expecting. The hike occurs in an open world park and players are free to explore how they want with the only restriction being that you can only go as high as the amount of feathers you have collected.

There’s a fair few distractions along the way and a host of other animal characters to stop and chat to. The story is also far more touching than you may be expecting.  It’s a very gentle game at heart with lots of great surprises and is guaranteed to be the most relaxing thing on your Switch.

Kentucky Route Zero

Perhaps the strangest game in this round up, Kentucky Route Zero follows a group of travellers as they encounter all sorts of interesting strangers on a hidden route running through caves beneath Kentucky. It’s a dialogue driven adventure game with a heavy helping of surrealism on show. It’s both very arty and very strange but the tale it tells is interesting and thought provoking.

Much of the journey is spent cycling through dialogue choices but these do effect what happens in the game and also act to allow players to project their own fractured personalities onto it. Those looking for a tradition point and click experience may be disappointed but the locations you visit and characters you meet are such a highlight that it should keep you engaged.

It’s certainly not a game that everyone will ‘get’ but for those that really connect it will no doubt prove to be something that they remember for a long time to come.

Katamaria Damacy

The original oddball game, Katamari Damacy is still as much fun now as it was when it first appeared back on the PS2. The basic premise is that you need to roll up stuff in order to create new stars and planets after the king of the cosmos accidentally destroys them. Think of it as an intergalactic dung beetle simulator.

In order to do this you start small, picking up tiny objects that gradually expand your sphere bigger and bigger until you are eventually rolling up people, cars and houses. This is done against a time limit with the king of cosmos often berating you after each level for doing such a bad job.

There are extra characters to unlock and some different takes on the rolling formulae such as having to get a ball as close to a certain size as possible but the basic premise remains the same throughout over the wide range of courses. If that sounds like your thing then look no further.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

If you’ve ever wondered what a concept album turned into a video game about a young women’s heart break would look like then wonder no longer. The game changes constantly as you progress with some levels being as short as 30 seconds. One level might have you flying through the sky while the next may see you riding on a motor bike or shooting lasers as the neon tinged stages twist and contort to the mood of the music playing.

It’s a game designed to be played through in one go in order to get the best experience and offers something truly unique. Sayonara Wild Hearts may be brief but it’s also a brilliant and highly replayable ride.

Thimbleweed Park

An 8-bit throwback to the days of Maniac Mansion, it’s fair to say that there isn’t anything out there quite as odd as Thimbleweed Park. The town is a strange place to visit with a host of oddball characters to meet and the X-files-esque FBI investigation that takes place goes off in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. It may not quite be up there with the classics of yesteryear but fans of the point and click genre will find much to like here.

We took a more detailed look at Thimbleweed Park here -