Wednesday 29 March 2023

Legends of Kingdom Rush Review (Steam)

 

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

I recall a period of time I spent unemployed and found myself on Newgrounds playing Ironhide’s flagship series Kingdom Rush. I know some stand by Bloons TD, but the best tower defence for me was Kingdom Rush. I whiled away the expanses of a few days between job applications and the inevitable wall of silence that prospective employers feel entitled to supply. The light-hearted world building, comic cutscenes, and accessible learning curve scratched all the itches. It was good casual gaming done with style. Ironhide have started to branch out into new territory after testing a non-fantasy setting with Iron Marines, a “casual RTS” as they put it. With a follow-up to this and some sort of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type title coming out, the towers seem to be receding into the background.

Legends of Kingdom Rush is set in the world of KR but is a strategy roguelite that takes an X-Com angle on it’s gameplay. While fun and seated firmly in all the trappings of what we can expect now from Ironhide in the way of tone, aesthetic, fun, and accessibility, LoKR falls slightly shorter than the good times of the tower defence titles. A hard standard to maintain, if I’ll be honest, and the Steam reviews do reflect that this hasn’t quite hit the same mark.

With a light, story that lines each run, you accrue a motley band of familiar heroes to fight the current evil of the day, encountering different events along the adventure. Sort of like the things you’d meet on the road in the euphoric silliness of Death Road to Canada. Do I want to rest at the campfire or search the area? Go fishing or tell a story. That sort of thing. As expected, there isn’t the depth of the encounters of Darkest Dungeon, but the characters till develop and level up as you go. It is an enjoyable process to customise these heroes, and it isn’t overwhelming. None of LoKR is, and this is a strength, broadly speaking.

The combat, between encounters, makes up much of the game. Little hex-arenas that pit your squad against some wee beasties and some not-so-wee beasties. The learning curve is ok, the difficulty is just ahead of you. Using your various spells from mages, cleaving strikes from knights, and volleys of arrows, you must consider positioning, thinking (a bit) ahead, and item usage to survive the day.

The first knock against this is the sheer amount of time the runs take. I almost would have preferred a full little RPG-lite, rather than a roguelite system. The characters are enjoyable and well-written enough to carry something like that, I would offer. Further, once you start to realise that certain playstyles expose a lack of balance, the scope to want to try other combinations feels a bit uninviting. A couple of goes through, I’d settled into what I learned to be a bit of a cheesy strategy, and this always feels underwhelming. I just didn’t really have much desire to go back to it, however much I enjoyed it.

The developer, however, is up-front with players about being a primarily a non-desktop, casual and accessible game. I read some opinions of the GUI being quite clunky on desktops, and I must say that this was on my mind, but certainly wasn’t game breaking for me. I’ve always quite enjoyed Ironhide’s big clunky buttons, but perhaps there are some inelegancies to the clicking you have to do.

All in all, I enjoyed LoKR, but I think not for as long as the game was designed to be enjoyed for. I’m going to mark this one down, for myself, as an interesting foray into another bit of KR-world fun, but one that I won’t return to over KR tower defence titles. This may land better with more patient players, however, and especially those who are looking for a touch more of the gorgeous comicky world filled with detail and joy.

Overall 6/10

Monday 27 March 2023

DREDGE Review (Switch)

 

Originality is pretty much a  thing of the past in the video game industry, but I don’t think we’ve ever come across a boat based Adventure RPG before. So it’s a good thing that DREDGE has come along to try and fill that nautical niche for those out there wanting to spend their time floating through the mirk and sea mist of a collection of mysterious islands.

DREDGE puts players in the wellies of the captain of a beaten up trawler who finds himself docked at a run down old fishing village. While here you’ll soon hear tales of curses and mysteries that most are too scared to explore.

The first thing to say is that the game looks amazing, and the art style perfectly sets the foreboding loveocraftian-esque vibe that the developers were clearly going for. It’s remarkable how as the sun begins to fall the dread quickly sets in as you find yourself edging through the dark and mist hoping to avoid horrors and rocks. It is definitely spooky, and this is backed up by some great sound and music.

The towns also help to keep the mysterious vibe going with the locals you meet being weird enough to keep you on edge while you go about sorting out their various requests for fish, materials and other investigations. There’s also a decent amount of environments to chug around – even if the constants of open sea and rocks can make the game look a little familiar at times.

The bulk of your time will be spent out on the ocean fishing or dredging up materials. When you try to bring something up from the deep different mini games have to be completed with each fish and material having it’s own variation of what is a spinning circle with obstacles you have to avoid or sweet spots you have to hit. It’s a sort of quick time event/puzzle hybrid that does that the job effectively enough. One you have brought your catch on board you have to try and fit it on deck amongst all the rods, nets, engines and anything else you might be carrying in something reminiscent of the Resident Evil inventory system.

Once your boat is full the best thing to do is head back to one of the ports to unload. While here you can sell fish and anything else you have found and store important materials safely. You can also upgrade your boat (once you have found enough wood, metal etc), research new items, fix your boat or talk to the locals for information and quests. Of course, the more you upgrade the further you can sail and the more hardy you boat becomes and this forms the basic gameplay loop of the title.

It’s not as simple as looking for different fish though. Stay out until dark and various horrors start to stalk your ship. Giant ghost fish, tentacles and other creatures start to appear and damage your vessel. It also becomes very difficult to see rocks and other objects. Getting hit means you not only take damage but also lose things off the deck. Damage needs to be repaired and losing fish means loss of income so you can get into a nasty spiral of getting stuck without money to fix your ship while it moves at a snails pace after having taken damage. Take enough hits and you’ll sink which brings about a straight game over screen.

Unfortunately, the gameplay loop doesn’t quite work to hold your attention. It’s a really nice concept but your boat is slow through the water and you can go long stretches of time without making much progress. This in the end makes it just a bit too uninteresting to keep hold of players. As strange as it sounds, the destruction of your boat also doesn’t really add anything to the experience except annoying you. There aren’t levels, so dying generally means just losing your catch, meaning you have to just go out and do it again and this can become frustrating when all you want is a piece of wood for an upgrade.

Overall, DREDGE is a good concept that isn’t quite as compelling as it should be. The adventure elements are interesting but you can have long stretches between them while you grind away to upgrade and this just isn’t fun enough to warrant the time. It’s certainly one for adventure fans who want something rich with atmosphere. But be prepared to be very patient to get the most out of it.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Sokobos Review (Steam)

 

By Thomas G.J. Sharpe

 I’ve now expanded my vocabulary on a genre inglenook that I didn’t know anything about. Admittedly, I probably know little about Sokoban, and its multitudinous progeny, as puzzlers boil my spleen. Sokobos is a mythic Greek iteration of Sokoban, which in its traditional incarnation was themed around warehouse logistics. Not in a Wilmot’s Warehouse hoarding-organising way, but in a space-limited sequencing way. You’ve to move items around an area in certain sequences to get them to the desired location, be it a crate on a dot or (in the case of Sokobos) Grecian architectural components in the manner that pleases the Olympian sex-pest himself, Zeus.

Most Sokoban puzzles can be stripped down to the simple format of shove item in right order, but various mutations have appeared in the genre since it’s first incarnations. A reasonable assumption is that the inspiration for Sokoban would be a sliding or tile puzzle, but changing properties of items is something that extends the formula from it’s non-digital roots. Sokobos has colour-changin’, water-crossin’, far-travellin’, and even tellin’ a story, while its all going on. This is a neat package that is bigger than it appears, challenging (I own that I am terrible at these sorts of games), and feels satisfying. Most significantly, the feel of moving Aeschylus (your character) around has more connection than a casual-retro puzzler it may appear. There are some fun feedbacks with screen shakes, effective audio, and a great soundtrack. The writing is strange, bleak, and poignant. I don’t know how the story ends (as I do not have the abilities to finish this), but the use of a classic Greek tragedian as the protagonist gives some idea of the tone of Sokobos. I got sort of connected to the world and it’s dream-like, void-y atmosphere. There is almost the shards of threat, or something sinister wrapping everything together.

For dedicated puzzle fans, this could be either just too familiar or just the ticket, I’m not sure. Not being a frequent visitor of the pushing-blocks around scene, there was enough to keep me engaged, but was too frustrating for me to last. I’ve looked longingly at games like Escape Goat, for example, and wished myself more patience. I found the process much like a Sudoku, in that it is a process of elimination that had vastly more routes to eliminate. Sokobos hits enough of a mark to have an impression on its non-target audience, but did eventually bounce off. An interesting and effective little game, if you’re down with that sort of thing.

Overall 6/10

Monday 20 March 2023

Grid Force: Mask of the Goddess Review (Switch)

 

Written by Dan Gill

Peanut butter and chocolate are a winning combination. Salty and sweet flavours mingling into one delicious taste sensation are one of life’s little pleasures, yet on paper it sounds like it shouldn’t work. The adventurous may branch out into other hybrids such as cheese and jam, or chips dipped in strawberry milkshake. Flavours at two ends of the food spectrum combining in delicious harmony. Gaming enjoys a similar alchemy thanks to indie developers (for the most part). Slay the Spire’s melding of RPG and deck building mechanics comes to mind, or perhaps Brutal Legends’ combination of action-adventure and RTS (with a dash of rhythm action). So, there’s no reason to expect Grid Force’s melding of RPG with bullet hell shooters to fall short. Maybe it could work?

The game starts with Donna awakening with no memory of her past and being dropped straight into a battle. The player can choose to go through a tutorial or take their chances, being gradually introduced to the mechanics of the game and additional characters. It’s a nice opening and is interspersed with some manga-style exposition. As the game goes on, the story segments get longer, and begin to drag on a little too long.

The game itself plays out on the eponymous grid, your current character on one side, and enemies on the other. Using a combo of light and hard attacks, and knowing when to dodge, reflect attacks and select the right character for the current battle is crucial to success, as the game takes no prisoners. It has several systems that need to be learned in order to succeed, otherwise you’re promptly punished with a game over. There’s also a rock-paper-scissors mechanic regarding enemy element styles in a similar vein to Pok√©mon. There’s a lot to learn, and the gameplay leans more into the shoot ‘em up camp in its testing of reflexes. The RPG elements are more for the levelling up of your team and the story.

The game plays well, even if it’s a little rough round the edges. Enemies require a level of strategy rather than button mashing. Exploiting enemy weaknesses, along with reflecting projectiles and dodging heavy attacks brings a bit of weight to conflict, and the RPG-lite levelling up system allows you to customise your squad, along with the option to equip any masks collected along the journey. Battles are often tense affairs, and you start to feel a little of that bullet hell energy when things get hectic.

The tactical options broaden with the expansion of your core team through recruitable characters. Unfortunately, this is where my biggest issue with the game lies. The characters are all a bit bland. The tutorial briskly assembles your core team of four, breezing through introductions for each through scattershot dialogue. First impressions count, and I was left underwhelmed from the off. Of course, your mileage with this crew may vary, but I was left with little desire to follow the lengthy comic panels to find out what’s going on. Each new character bears some kind of grudge against another for some reason or another, and things just get a bit samey and one dimensional.

Presentation is also a mixed bag. The music’s catchy, the comic book panels look nice, if a little inconsistent in style (which may be deliberate due to the fractured memory of Donna), but the in-game graphics feel like a spruced-up Flash game. It’s pretty enough, but the construction paper style animation left me wanting for a bit more polish.

After the initial adjustment to its quirks, Grid Force offers a fair amount of enjoyment. Its systems work together well enough, and there’s plenty of challenge on offer. It’s let down by a lacklustre story and lack of polish in a few areas, but those looking for something a little different to broaden their tastes may find enough here to tuck into.

7/10

Monday 13 March 2023

Caverns of Mars: Recharged Review (Switch)

Atari’s recharged series continues to mine from the companies rich back catalogue. We’ve covered some of these before with Gravitar proving to be a blast of arcade fun. We’ll admit to not having played Caverns of Mars before so we are coming into this completely blind.

Like most of these arcade recharges, the gameplay loop is fairly simple. You control your spaceship at it plummets, at speed, ever downward. There’s no way to fly back up so it’s all about avoiding obstacles and blasting enemies to survive. When you reach the bottom of the level it’s on to the next one.

You can’t stop yourself falling but you can slow yourself down by firing your weapon. Each shot fired stalls your downward momentum but you are limited to the amount of fuel you are carrying which continually depletes as you fire. If you completely run out you’ll be falling endlessly with no means of defence so it pays to be cautious. You can also upgrade your gun to things like a triple shot or fast blasting to help your descent.

Your main enemy isn’t the other ships in the levels but the terrain itself. Any hit will reduce your health until you eventually explode. You can blast any terrain away but this can take up a lot of fuel and also often doesn’t give you enough room to safely get through, so it’s often best you try and weave through it and just blast bits off the edges.

The main arcade mode is tough as well, only giving you one life to get through all the levels. There’s no checkpoints or level unlocks either so expect to go through all the levels at once in order to beat the game. There are also missions included which are basically individual courses set up for high score runs. But basically it’s you against the walls until you explode.

Overall, Caverns of Mars: Recharged is one of the better games in the series. It’s setup for short bursts of play and it succeeds in giving a pure blast of arcade action. It looks and sounds great and the controls are very smooth as well. As long as you don’t go in expecting a game with lasting depth there’s more than enough have fun with here.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 8 March 2023

IXION Review (Steam)

 

Written Thomas G.J. Sharpe

 I’ve seen a lot of coverage of IXION courting comparisons such as Frostpunk in space. This is true to the same degree that I could describe this as a vacuum ensconced Tropico. There’s a whole fleet of rafts of stuff going on in IXION, which is why I was so keen to try it. It seemed to harken back to games like Fragile Allegiance, and even Ascendancy, but with a colony-sim-management thing going on. Chuck a linear story over the top like a cheap throw (it is a fairly standard story set-up) and I’ve got something hard sci-fi to chew on until Falling Frontier is finally birthed. The result was an ultimately uninspiringly executed set of management systems jostling for the chance to be meaningful, and few of them winning.

In recent years, I’ve read more sci-fi and, in my head, the aesthetic that is closest is stuff from The Expanse or Alien or IXION. I like this robust and lived-in vision than the clean lines and pearlescent wonder of a more magical cosmic design. IXION wants me to know that I’m at the coalface; the administrator of a colonising space ship called the Tiqqun. A big metal donut that is meant to be forging the path toward a new planet for humankind to ruin afresh. Before the big interstellar jump (that goes wrong and initiates the main thrust of the story), you are tutorialised by building structures on the ship. Why the Tiqqun was not constructed properly on Earth before launch seems to indicate to me some reasons why the jump engine caused a solar-system wide cataclysmic event. I do not need clumsy Greek names for menacing corporations to tell a cowboy builder.

Trying to draw on some of the social elements of things like The Expanse, perhaps, there is now a focus on keeping your workers happy in the new, changed, solar system where most life and planets have been reduced to devastated baubles. You require workshops, eateries, residential buildings, service ships, stock piles, and so on, and so on. A tech tree expands your building options, and prospects of occupying other parts of the Tiqqun (again, I have no clue why this ship was not finished before they sent it out as the vanguard of humankind’s final hope).

You settle very quickly into a whack-a-mole problem solving balancing act, which is (in my humble opinion) what a well designed colony-sim/management game should not feel like, even if it is. Frostpunk has an elegant groove it slots into and drives the point home to a crushing climax. Tropico is a careful nurturing of balances. Workers and Resources makes you enrol in Excel courses. IXION puts on a good show, throws a lot of moves, but in the end I felt little of the joy that I get from those other (similar-ish) titles. And I so desperately want to enjoy the gameplay more than I did, as the world looks and sounds so good (bar the pedestrian/robot traffic). It seeps and oozes atmosphere, dread and abandonment to the brutality of space. Sadly, I spent more of my time trying to wrestle with poor design choices that I made out of necessity and then am punished for. I ended up resenting the population of my little metal life raft for humanity.

My first impression was that this would be if some grand sci-fi opera writer did a version of Startopia, the criminally good space station sim. Some de-flabbing of the unfun gameplay systems would’ve served this beautiful looking, but slightly charmless, title better. Nearly a three out of five, so maybe I’ve some personal disappointment going on as I wanted to like it more. Not the worst space management, but unfortunately, not the best either.

Overall 4/10

Monday 6 March 2023

Rogue Legacy 2 Review (Switch)

 

Way back in 2013 we got our first take of Rogue Legacy. Now, some ten years later the sequel has appeared so it seemed we ought to dive into the ever changing castle once more and see how it holds up. It’s still very much a randomly generating and highly difficult game of exploration, loot and beasties. And who would want it any other way?

Right from the start it’s clear that Rogue Legacy has much more going on than many of the other Rogue-like games of recent times. You start off with your hero entering a castle from a 2D, side on perspective and then proceed to hunt around for treasure and the boss monsters that guard each area. When you die your offspring must then take up the reigns and continue the search.

The continual line of offspring randomly generate into a number of predetermined classes. There are mages, knights, lancers and others which can then be expanded out into more specialist explorers such as the gunner and assassin. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses and different weapons and traits that it uses.

You get to pick from three randomly created characters at the start of each adventure and these can be in any of the classes you have unlocked so far. Each individual then also has traits which give them their own strengths and weaknesses. There are a massive amount of different traits and these range from things like Gigantism (makes your character bigger), to dyslexia (can’t read signs) and things such as having an affinity with magic or boosting your speed. There’s no real way to know what you’re going to get so you need to adjust your play style accordingly.

Everything in terms of unlocking or levelling is done with the gold you find around the castle. This can be used to up your stats, buy new equipment or unlock the specialist classes. Upon your death any money or equipment you have is passed onto your next character to use and spend. The kicker is that any money left over after upgrading then needs to be given to the ferryman in order to be let back in. This can create a cycle of not getting very far as you don’t quite find enough to upgrade while being out matched by the difficulty.

Rogue Legacy 2 is certainly not here to treat players with kid gloves. It takes a good few hours to get to grips with and to actually feel like you making progress. Unlike the first game, gold is not the only way to level up so at least you will get something for the all the monster bashing being done. Certain objects and unlocks stay in place as well so while progress can be slow it will come with persistence. There is also a massive amount of tinkering you can do with the ‘house rules’ if you find yourself hitting s brick wall. This allows players to change health, damage and many other things to help make progress easier – should you wish.

Though the castle is randomly generated you can use the architect to lock it down. For the price of a percentage of your gold this keeps the room layout the same and allows you to use the teleport squares you may have found to get you right back into the action. The main benefit of this is when you discover a boss. Bosses are fierce and difficult and will require a number of goes to get the better of. If you decide you character is strong enough then getting the castle locked down allows for repeated characters to simply teleport right to them for another go. Once a boss is downed they stay dead for good.

It’s fair to say this isn’t going to be a game for everyone. It very tough, especially at the beginning and you will need to sink a load of time into it to get you to a point where you feel safe to explore properly. Alternatively, you can of course play around with the house rules. Once you level up a bit and get used to the game it really does start to get going and you’ll be continually drawn back for more. However, many gamers might not make it that far and that’s a shame as this is probably one of the more inventive games of it’s type.

Approach it patiently and with the knowledge that you are going to die and it offers an experience among the best in the genre. It’s a must for fans of the Roguelikes but the more casual gamer should probably get their kicks with something a little easier to handle.

8/10

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Ninja JaJaMaru: The Great Yokai Battle +Hell Review (Switch)

Of all the retro collections and revivals doing the rounds we have to say that the Ninja JaJaMaru series wasn’t one we were expecting to see. This is a brand new game in the series looking to take a sort of Pac-Man Championship approach to the franchise. There are also various versions of the game you can pick up which contain a collection of the original Ninja JaJaMaru console games and even the obscure RPG games. It’s a bit confusing about which collection has what in it so make sure to do your research before deciding. It would certainly have been easier to put everything into one package.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, it’s a sort of one screen arcade game. You, as the ninja, have to clear the level of bad guys as they enter from the various doors around the level. The other games in the series expand the gameplay in different ways but this new game very much follows the formula laid down in the first NES title.

There’s something about a single screen arcae game which adds a level of focus to what’s going on. We’ve seen it recently with Donut Dodo and again here it proves to be exactly the right way to go. The original premise is built upon with much more responsive controls and a more breakneck speed as you zip around throwing shuriken’s at the various demons and monsters. You can chain the kills for high scores and there’s also a host of temporary powerups to help you through. One of which includes turning into a huge version of a character from another of the companies games such as a massive baseball guy who bats enemies off screen or a space ship.

It starts out simple but each level adds in new monsters, which all act in different ways. You’ll also get giant versions of some of them at various points as sort of mid-level boss creatures. There a load of different enemies as well so there’s always something new entering the game. Each of the levels are also have had a lot of thought put into them so players can scout for the best routes to high scores.

At the end of each of the three acts you’ll also take on a boss monster. These can be frustrating as your health from the last level you were on travels with you and bosses are real heavy hitters in terms of damage. It would have benefited from a checkpoint before taking each one on but it’s a small problem with what is a consistently fun and enjoyable game.

As you progress, you’ll also continually gain coins which are then used to unlock a continual collection of music and characters you can play as. There are various coloured ninjas as well as pretty much all of the monsters which will eventually unlock, twenty-five in total. Each character has different health and damage stats and also different attack patterns and other characteristics such as flying or jumping higher. It gives an extra level of depth to the experience as it adds a ton of different ways to try and take on the levels.

Overall, This is a successful return for the franchise and by far the best game in the series. Not only that, it’s also a successful updating of the original format to the modern day. The arcade roots are still very much intact but the added bells and whistles put the game in the same sort of category as Pac-Man Championship Edition in terms of how successfully it’s been updated. It also works perfectly well  for those .who have never played one of the games in the franchise before. An excellent arcade hit.

Overall 8/10

Store Link – https://www.iningames.com/games/ninja-jajamaru