An undead beat ’em-up marathon

I dare you.

I dare you to stand face-to-face with some of the most iconic, obscure and frightening horror monsters in an unforgiving, rouge-like 16-bit environment packed with zombies and no easy escape. I dare you to play a game in which the difficulty only increases until the inevitably and permanent death occurs… unless, of course, you against all odds manage to survive twelve days of horror and complete the game. Welcome to Devil’s Dare by Singaporean developer Secret Base – a beat’em up game heavily inspired by classic and beloved mid-90s arcade games.

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16-bit simplicity and an otherwise minimalistic interface greets the player.

The essential mechanics of beat’em up and side-scrolling games are very simple, and whilst Devil’s Dare delightfully maintains that simplicity, it also introduces a range of new elements through six playable classes and plenty of weapon upgrades. The game initially offers four playable characters and two unlock-able characters; all four main characters being strongly inspired by games and comics such as Legend of Zelda, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Golden Axe to a degree where they may be considered as tributes. Unfortunately the otherwise well-polished characters feel much alike due to utilizing the same attack techniques and controls. This ultimately means that when the player has mastered one class, they have, with the exception of the different movement speed, mastered the rest.

A very interesting aspect to Devil’s Dare, and quite unique from other beat’em up games, is the implementation of the rouge-like permanent death. Similar to how old arcade games ended upon death, and required you to throw another coin in the slot, Devil’s Dare requires the player to either purchase a new life with the collected cash, or, if they can’t pay, wipe the save and restart. This strongly encourages and motivates the player to play more strategically than they usually would in similar beat’em up games; it’s highly rewarding to lure multiple enemies together for a good blow, for instance. Though, doing so is not entirely without risk, and with the steep and constantly increasing difficulty dying becomes both inevitably and very expensive. However, with every attempt the player refines their skills slightly and discovers new tactics and thus gradually progress further and further in the otherwise lethal maps.

All levels features an iconic and, if you have watched any cult horror movies, recognizable horror character.

All levels features an iconic and, if you have watched any cult horror movies, recognizable horror character.

The aforementioned simplicity is especially present in the combat system where only two buttons are utilized during the actual combat – Z and X. This would under normal circumstances appear very limiting and restricting for a game solely about combat, but Devil’s Dare has greatly improved the traditional beat’em up gameplay beyond just implementing the permanent death. By placing blows and hits correctly whilst mastering the movement, players can rack up fatalities (somewhat similar to the classic K.O’s) and achieve mana-, food- and large(r) cash drops. The more fatalities the player perform, albeit at a higher risk, the more mana and thus special attacks become accessible.

Furthermore, the more money the player collects, the bigger chance they stand to complete the game as money unlocks weapon- and character upgrades (i.e. attack speed, defence, health..) and, most importantly, more lives. The significant role of cash can in other words be simplified to a matter of either living or dying – an importance which the permanent-death feature simply stresses even further. The above elements are unfortunately only applicable for single-player sessions as playing the local (no option for online matchmaking) two-four player co-up significantly changes the game. The enemies are not particularly stronger, faster nor more frequent – something which ultimately makes the game significantly easier with just two players playing locally. Devil’s Dare should thus not be bought for its co-op-option, but rather for single-player gamers interested in a truly hardcore challenge.

Devil's Dare

Oh dear… again.

Devil’s Dare is in many ways a nostalgic trip to the 90s arcade games, on drugs. The game introduces the player to a highly challenging world dominated by unforgiving zombies and iconic horror monsters. It features simple gameplay and combat mechanics, but by borrowing rouge-like elements and implementing character- and weapon progression, Devil’s Dare manages to deliver an interesting and fun beat’em up experience which both newcomers and veterans alike can enjoy.

So.. do you dare?

Purchase Devil’s Dare on Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/279580

A press copy for reviewing purposes was kindly provided by the developer.

Refined Tower Defense

Greetings, Commander!

The Awakening happened roughly six years ago and introduced a stunning replayability accompanied with an impressive simplicity and challenging gameplay – ultimately setting the scene for a very solid game in an otherwise seemingly stagnated Tower Defense-genre. Today, after more than half a decade, a humble Kickstarter-campaign and Counter Strike: Global Offensive, developer Hidden Path Entertainment is once again ready to unleash the endless and lethal waves of aliens unforgivably. The only thing left to ask is whether or not the sequel manages to deliver the same way the original did.

Welcome, or rather, welcome back to Defense Grid 2.

Simplicity is often the road to success, and Hidden Path Entertainment seems to have found their very own path. Separated defense grid systems on the verge of invasion welcomes the player.

Simplicity is often the road to success, and developer Hidden Path Entertainment has undeniably found their very own path as separated and isolated defense grid systems on the verge of invasion welcomes the player.

By the above statement and screenshot it is likely obvious for returning fans that Defense Grid 2 hasn’t advanced noticeably from The Awakening; nor reinvented the genre by any means. Aliens are indeed still trying to steal your treasured and life-depending energy cores, and you are once again required (and rewarded accordingly) to defend them best possible. However, whilst the core game mechanics and graphics hasn’t changed significantly, Hidden Path Entertainment has managed to refine their product even further through a range of small tweaks and fixes solely focused on creating and improving a smooth, challenging and entertaining gameplay. They have moreover added a humorous and fully voiced (though, and lets face it, very frivolous to the actual campaign) story as well as twelve (!) different game modes to encourage a whole new level of replayability.

It is evident that Defense Grid 2 utilizes a ton of content originally created in The Awakening. However, it is important to stress that re-using and drawing inspiration from previous games when creating a sequel is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact it can be a very appealing and useful approach. By welcoming veteran players with known and well-loved elements of nostalgia, a developer is able to jump-start the community by having the veterans foster it. Defense Grid 2 is a great example of this, and new players will thus be welcomed by a lively Steam Community Hub, thousands of veteran players and an active developer.

The difficulty drastically increases and will prove a challenge to many veteran players as well.

However, despite the strong parallels to the original game and guaranteed nostalgia trips for veterans, Defense Grid 2 depends on attracting new players to whom all the aforementioned changes means nothing as they haven’t played the original. This ultimately means that if you haven’t played The Awakening, you will experience the game as it is. What new players will find is a game which graphically appears slightly outdated, but nonetheless feels very solid.

A natural question would then be what a solid game is? The gameplay in Defense Grid 2 is arguably very straightforward and seemingly quite simple – but do not get fooled! Whilst the player indeed is required to defend best possible by utilizing up to ten different and unique towers from several waves of aliens, the difficulty increases significantly and almost exponentially. The drastic increase in difficulty is both very motivating and infuriating, but nonetheless greatly improves the replayability as just one wrong tower, a mistimed upgrade or a missed special-attack effectively can result in the game being lost. Furthermore, the towers, aliens and map design seem to have accomplished some sort of harmony with the gameplay and controls as it all works really well together.

Five planets with four missions on each in increasing difficulty welcomes the player. Each map may furthermore be played in 12 different game modes - beyond the story mode!

Five planets with four missions on each in increasing difficulty welcomes the player. Each map may furthermore be played in 12 different game modes – beyond the story mode!

Developing and funding Defense Grid 2 proved quite a journey, but it is evident that the passion towards the series through all these years was kept intact. Developer Hidden Path Entertainment manages to take the best bits from the original and refine them even further to both please and welcome old as new fans. Whilst the game graphically doesn’t meet today’s standards, its challenging and simple gameplay compensates and ultimately provides a very solid game unlike any other in the genre. Defense Grid 2 is currently the game to get if you are looking for a Tower Defense game as everything about the game screams tower defense.

Buy Defense Grid 2, and go kill aliens, on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/221540

A press copy for reviewing purposes was kindly provided by the developer.

 

A gorgeous platformer, patented by Tesla

Heavily inspired by the War of Currents in the late 1880’s, platformer Tesla Breaks the World by developer Archetype Global introduces the player to a gorgeous hand-drawn world with an impressive story covering the extreme rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

An interesting story with an even more interesting and impressive visual presentation. Welcomed by hand-drawn artwork – referring simply to graphics is not justified – inspired by classic cartoons, abstract and modern art and the works of Eyvind Earle, the player is instantly engrossed in the colourful world. Our protagonist and enemies are moreover animated very well and accommodate the overall design nicely – some players might even draw parallels to some of Disney’s newer character-designs.

The artwork is absolutely stunning and very well made. Animations moreover suits the environment very well.

What can possibly go wrong…

Tesla Breaks the World is a traditional 2-D-platformer with the standard controls (jump, double-jump, left and right), but a few elements greatly sets this game apart. In particular the map design which, more or less, is randomly generated. This is great for replayability and ensures that no stage is too alike whilst utilizing a very interesting and innovative approach to the otherwise stagnated 2-D platformer-genre. Furthermore, Tesla’s latest invention, the Micro-Portable Magnifying Transmitter Device (a very fancy name for an equally fancy teleportation-gun) allows players to absorb various elements and enemies and place (or throw) them at desired locations allowing for some interesting gameplay options.

In addition to the above, zombies will spawn depending on how fast (or slow) the player solves puzzles and how often they use their Transmitter Device. This encourages players to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles efficiently as not doing so causes more enemies to spawn. Similar, as the player progresses through the stages, more items are being unlocked – for instance an electric-powered hover-platform which allows Tesla to overcome larger jumps and heights. A narrator is furthermore accompanying the player through the stages; constantly having a witty tone which together with the art exudes the passion the game has been developed with.

…definitely not Thomas Edison going mad and stealing your blueprints! The artwork throughout the entire game is very charming and very well made. Animations moreover suit the environment nicely.

Unfortunately Tesla Breaks the World faces some serious issues when it comes to the actual controls. Whilst the initial design is flawless, the game unfortunately executes all commands poorly causing them to feel slow and unresponsive. Tesla almost floats when jumping, and gravity seems to be slightly too low. The main issue overall is the poor framerate – which also appears to be the main reason why the controls feel floaty.

The framerate issues are especially bad when VSync is activated – causing the game to constantly perform under 30 fps despite being capped at 100+. VSync is in general an awesome feature as it synchronizes your frames per second with your monitor’s refresh rate and – if performing correctly – delivers a much smoother experience. Disabling VSync does increase the framerate significantly, but it is still struggles to deliver a smooth gameplay. This is a huge shame, because everything else is really well-made – all from the voiceovers, artwork and story.

Several elements, including weapons and randomly generated maps together with the artwork, makes the game very appealing.

Tesla Breaks the World is the product of both a successful Kickstarter campaign, a successful GreenLit and fourteen months of hard work from the part-time indie developer, Archetype Global. It offers an engrossing story in very appealing and charming visuals utilizing hand-drawn elements and dark silhouettes, but fails at its technical performance. The game is, unfortunately, at current state facing serious issues performing to a bare acceptable level, but this is no doubt something which the developer intends to fix. This review will be updated accordingly to give a very warm recommendation, should a patch arrive.

Buy Tesla Breaks the World on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/314210/

A press copy for reviewing purposes was kindly provided by the developer.

A simple hero with great ethics

As the silence gradually gets filled by creeping and submerged ambient sounds, and as a bright divine-like light slowly emerges in a atmospheric monochrome world surrounded by black silhouettes, you know Hero of Many by Czech-developer Trickster Arts isn’t your ordinary action-adventure game. Without further ado, and followed by a simple, wordless and very powerful opening-cutscene, the player is introduced to the charming world of Hero of Many.

The simplicity of the game experienced in the first few minutes of gameplay is stunning – yet genius and immersive. The player takes the role as a nameless and thus anonymous (this aspect is very interesting upon analyzing the game’s story!) orb-like microorganism on a quest to defeat lethal black counterparts whilst rescuing as many friends as possible.

The silhouettes - seemingly inspired by games like Limbo - are extremely simple but manages to charm and engross players.

The silhouettes – seemingly inspired by games like Limbo – is an extremely detailed world-design (despite the lack of colours and depth) which manages to charm and engross the player.

In good accordance with the wordless story, there is no way of telling which way is the correct way through any of the 26 different maze-like maps. Players may only navigate using their memory, or by the guidance of carefully placed lanterns which gets activated once passed. However, as there is no time limit, exploration immediately becomes the natural first priority. By exploring all caves and corridors the player furthermore ensures to find close-to-all friends – the more friends you collect, the stronger (and exposed) you become.

Whilst the environment may appear peaceful and to a certain degree divine with the ambient sounds and bright light, dangers will suddenly emerge and instantly turn the gameplay into a matter of surviving and guiding your friends wisely and efficiently. Approaching enemies may moreover be done in several ways – a full-scale attack or slowly by luring and taking them out one by one or in smaller groups and thus decrease own losses. However, whilst the initial attack may be launched as the player pleases, the actual battle is automatic and cannot be controlled by the player.

The background colour and enemies gradually  changes and advances as the player progresses through the maps.

The background colour and enemy-force gradually changes and advances as the player progresses through the maps.

very impressive aspect to Hero of Many is the dynamic soundtrack – especially considering the fact that it is a ported-game (something which only the initial interface hints, by the way). In terms of quality, the music is comparable to several high-budget titles and follows the gameplay in perfect order – all from soothing and melodic to intense and motivational battle-music.

However, beyond exploration and semi-automatic battles, the gameplay is somewhat limited as the puzzles presented are extremely simple and straightforward. Instead it becomes a question of keeping as many friends alive by timing the attacks accordingly and exploring everything. This is a minor set-back, but the immersive atmosphere mixed with the great soundtrack makes up for the lack of game mechanics – Hero of Many essentially becomes a story which the player writes and interprets in their own, unique way.

Exploration has several positive effects beyond increasing your army of friends - for instance special energy-berries may be eaten to increase your friends' health and strength.

Exploration has several positive effects beyond increasing your army of friends – for instance, special berries (often hidden in deserted areas) may be eaten to increase your friends’ health and strength.

Hero of Many is an atmospheric-action adventure set in a deep undersea and monochrome world with an immersive design. Packed with friends and foes, exploration and survival becomes a natural aspect of the game, and without words or back-story, the player is allowed and encouraged to create their own story and follow their own paths.

Buy Hero of Many on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/297370/

A press copy for reviewing purposes was kindly provided by the developer.

planetarian -the revierie of a little planet-

Hope.

Post-apocalyptic.

A melancholic environment.

The above are all valid keywords and terms when describing the themes in the apocalyptic visual novel planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~  by Japanese-developer Key – a kinetic novel fast approaching its 10th anniversary in November later this year.

It is important to stress that this is not a game – nor is it an interactive novel, but rather a kinetic visual novel meaning that the player, unlike traditional visual novels, is given no choices in terms of how the story progresses. An approach which undeniably puts a lot of pressure on the story as it needs to be stellar and very solid to both entertain the player and justify the price. My review will thus primarily focus on the story and illustrations rather than the game mechanics. Though, it is important to remember that the game is nearly ten years old, and that the UI and resolution-options thus are limited and clunky due to that.

The world a wasteland with a consisted poisonous and corrosive rain - all a direct result of humanity's warfare on themselves.

The word is a ravaged wasteland which suffers from a consistent poisonous and corrosive rain – all a direct result of humanity’s warfare and inability to forgive and communicate properly.

planetarian introduces the reader to the ravaged remains of an once magnificent and monumental civilization which, due to depletion of limited natural resources, overpopulation and a failed Space Exploration Project, has become the victim of its own biological- and nuclear warfare. Once started, the war wouldn’t end and the bloodshed continued for thirty rough and unforgiving years – well into an era dominated by automated war machines set to kill anyone trespassing their territory on sight and capable of withstanding the now poisonous rain.

Whilst humanity remains present in small, unfriendly and very scattered groups, the story only includes one human-character; a middle-aged soldier and so-called junker (a person who enters dead cities on their own in an attempt to scavenge and track down valuable and undamaged objects) – simply referred to as ‘the junker’. Our main-character enters a derelict city and finds himself in the Flowercrest Department Store, where he unexpectedly is greeted by the ever talkative gynoid attendant, Yumeni. It quickly turns out that Yumeni is completely unaware of what have happened the previous 30 years as the databases she connects to are long gone. She thus welcomes the protagonist like a regular guest and refers to him as Mr. Customer, and proceeds as if nothing is wrong by showing massive loyalty and attentive while sharing happiness.

There are only two characters throughout the entire story, one of them being the talkative robot, Hoshino Yumemi.

In fact, Yumeni welcomes the junker as the store’s 2 500 000th visitor (despite him really being the 2 497 290th), and insists on showing him a special commemorative projection – an offer which he despite his aggravations accepts. Unfortunately the projector device, Miss Jena, is malfunctioning and the junker is required to repair it. As the junker works on the projector, he continues to observe and talk to Yumeni, whose innocence, amazing work ethic and almost childish happiness makes him grow fond of her.

The above ultimately means that a great amount of the dialogues consist of pure small-talk – something which appears subtle at first, however, is the fact that the small-talk perhaps are the most important dialogues. They truly show the differences between the junker and Yumeni, and how the two of them are respectively born and created into two different worlds years apart.

The illustrations are all very well-made with rich colours.

As the story progresses, it is evident that writer Yūichi Suzumoto understands how to play with the reader’s emotions and how to create a unique setting for his story. Mixed with very appealing illustrations, music and dialogues the character development furthermore remains intriguing and charming.

When that’s said, then planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~  is not a game (or story) for everyone. A passion for anime is an absolutely minimum requirement, and an acceptance of the fact that there are no choices or interaction to be made beyond the dialogue speed. However, if you like anime and don’t mind a kinetic novel, then planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ is a great choice for an emotional and solid story.

Buy planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/316720/

A press copy was kindly provided for reviewing purposes.

Reforming the endless-running genre with Velocibox

As a seasoned gamer, I usually approach games with a clear assumption and expectation that I can complete them somewhat straightforward. This illusion was completely shattered and humiliated after just one minute in the fast-paced and unforgiving world of Velocibox. The amount of deaths was nearly proportional with the amount of seconds played, and after just ten minutes I seriously questioned my abilities to even reach level two, let alone complete the game in level eight.

Introducing and completely reforming the endless-running genre, Velocibox invites the player to a very high-paced game with a constant momentum where dodging and twitching once again becomes crucial for survival. Minimalistic and very bright colours welcomes the player upon loading the game, but after a quick tutorial, the aforementioned bright and welcoming colours show their real face together with the controls and game speed.

All four walls may be utilized in the hunt for boxes and never ending struggle of survival.

All four walls may be utilized in the hunt for boxes and never ending struggle of survival.

The endless-running genre has been around for ages, but recently experienced its renaissance through iOS and Android games such as Temple Run and Subway Surfers in the previous years. Though, while they may share the same rouge-like elements (no pausing or resetting), then Velocibox is very unique due to the controls and graphics. Unlike most other endless-runners, you are allowed to utilize the ceiling and walls (in fact, you are more or less required to do so). This means that all obstacles may be completed in different ways – all depending on the next obstacle, certain approaches may be preferred. And with 70 different patterns there are a lot of options – and a lot of frustration when your plan fails miserably.

Additionally, the cubes needed to advance to the next level are rarely placed in line; thus forcing the player to hunt these while spinning and dodging obstacles. The player is required to collect six cubes to advance to the next level, though these may be collected when the player see fit – the level will continue to run until the player catches six cubes or dies. Your score, however, is depending on how fast and how many boxes are collected – the more cubes as fast as possible, the more points. The player is thus encouraged to take chances for a higher score – and with integrated Steam Leaderboards, this becomes very relevant.

The different colours add a very interesting - and challenging - level design.

The different colours add a very interesting – and challenging – level design.

Mastering the controls while comprehending the camera movement and constant speed is a strong indicator that Velocibox indeed is a skill-based game – somewhat similar to games like Super Hexagon. It requires fast reflexes and a seemingly impossible overview – though, with enough tries the player learns how to approach the individual obstacles and master the controls properly. However, once the player finally advances to the next level, the aforementioned colours turn out to be a real enemy; because while the controls are essentially the same, the drastic change in colours means a loss of the vague overview. Similar, each new level introduces new obstacles – something which ultimately means the player is forced to slowly progress as they master each level better and better. The better they master the first level, the easier they may approach the second, and so forth.

Each new level introduces new - and at times unforgiving - obstacles.

Each new level introduces new – and at times unforgiving – obstacles.

Velocibox is an extremely challenging and fast-paced game with minimalistic graphics and a very intriguing gameplay. Advancing through the levels requires patience and a great amount of concentration – and despite the thousands of tries, the game still remains fun, entertaining and extremely challenging. The key is undeniably to master your reflexes and understanding the art of re-orientation, and doing so successfully is highly rewarding. Don’t be put off by the first many failed attempts, but rather try and experience the satisfaction by reaching level two (and three, and four, and…) . Good luck!

Buy Velocibox on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/317710/

A press copy was kindly provided by the developer for reviewing purposes.

Time for breakfast; Toast Time!

Breakfast.

Breakfast is usually an extremely traditional and monotonous ritual which most of us performs every morning. A physics-based and breakfast-themed game, on the other hand, is soon something completely else and, admittedly, very unusual. Yet that is exactly what Toast Time by British developer Force Of Habit is – a game initially created for Android, but recently ported to the PC and released on Steam.

Enter the high-paced, overcaffeinated and nonsensical world of Toast Time as the toast Terry (short for Toast Ejecting Recoil and Reload sYstem) with one, clear mission to complete: Secure your alarm clock and prevent the theft of your breakfast-time from unidentifiable ground- and air enemies by using various bread products such as baguettes, bread pudding or croutons as firearms. Terry shoots plain white toast-slices, but once a box is picked up, his weapon (or, rather, bread product) changes temporarily allowing for a more tactical approach as every weapon is unique and has a unique effect. Alternatively, the player may shoot Terry into the air and slam him to the ground – performing an amazing belly flop. This mechanism is together with the ton of hats and customisations yet another indication that Toast Time indeed is a game made with humour.

Toast Time introduces some very unique - and at times frustration - physics while controlling Terry.

Toast Time introduces some very unique – and at times frustration – physics while controlling Terry.

Though, the player quickly finds that Terry, as any other toast, is bound by gravity and is essentially unable to move on his own. The player must thus use the energy provided by the projectiles to control Terry as he moves in the opposite direction of the projectiles. This ultimately means that not only does the player need to take out all enemies before they reach the alarm clock, but they also have to aim carefully to ensure Terry remains the correct places to defend from the next group of enemies – something which furthermore drastically increases the game speed due to the increased amount of clicking. Aiming carefully while keeping momentum is moreover crucial in order to rack up a high combo and thus increase your final score and rating.

The game does not hide the obvious fact that it is a ported Android/iOS-game, but it does not interfere with the gameplay which undoubtedly proves a challenge.

The game does not hide the obvious fact that it is a ported Android/iOS-game, but the gameplay remains unaffected and does prove a nice challenge.

The special physics and controls also means that some maps require quite some coordination in order to defend them most efficiently. The player will also find that certain locations combined with specific weapons on several maps are significantly better than others – i.e. sliding on the ground back and forth or staying in a top corner. The aforementioned baguette, for instance, may be shot into the ground and effectively create a temporarily barrier. The various maps are furthermore decently varied with an increasing difficulty level, which means the player will find themselves redoing several of the levels to secure three stars on each.

Toast Time does not hide the fact that it’s a ported game – as clearly seen in the screenshots and trailer. And while certain elements in the game (especially the interface) are heavily influenced by this, then the game remains attractive to PC-players as well due to the challenging and unique gameplay throughout more than 50 levels. The smaller screen is essentially not a problem, nor is the mouse control as both effectively adds to the gaming experience. Though players should be aware that there is no option to change this.

The importance of coffee is clear in Toast Time.

The importance of coffee is clear in Toast Time.

We have seen a large and exponentially growing amount of iOS- and Android-games being ported to other platforms such as Steam throughout the past few years – many with mixed to negative results. The process of re-creating a game to another platform is troublesome as many elements – all from interfaces to controls – needs to be re-evaluated and checked accordingly. Most importantly, and regardless of the ported platform, the game needs to provide entertainment and challenges for longer than the average smartphone app-session of around 13 minutes to both justify the new platform and often increased price. Fortunately this is not impossible, and Toast Time is a brilliant example of how humour, challenging and fast-paced gameplay combined with neat monochromatic graphics can make a successful ported game.

It is important to stress, however, that the game may be completed in a few hours, but obtaining three stars in all levels and completing the ironman challenge (finish all levels without dying once) takes significantly longer. It appears as if the developer expects players to be done with everything in around six hours based on the achievement unlocked after roughly six hours gameplay. Players looking for a fun and at times hectic game with challenging gameplay and interesting physics will likely enjoy Toast Time.

Buy Toast Time on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/316660/

A press copy was kindly provided for this review.

Retire, milord?

Imagine a real-time, fast-paced strategy game where you enter the Holy Lands following an unforgiving trail of fifty crusaders – each more difficult than the last; each with different enemies, different resources, different allies and different economies. You discover and master the art of defending and storming castles – planning your every move carefully while controlling armies of men, horses, portable-shields, catapults and more in the hundreds. Now, realize that the game in question, Stronghold Crusader, was released twelve years ago and that a succeeder is inbound next month. In light of the upcoming release of Stronghold Crusader 2, I found it relevant to review the original; despite its age – because who says a game’s age defines how fun it is to play? Other titles from 2002 includes Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Dungeon Siege, Mafia and Neverwinter Nights, for instance.

In comparison to the original Stronghold, Firefly Studios significantly altered the dynamics of Stronghold Crusader in an attempt to increase the game speed – which unforgivably means the first few minutes of each mission are crucial. The changes include the addition of a range of Arabian mercenary units, where especially assassins, fire throwers and horse archers introduces a range of new opportunities upon both defending your own castle and conquering others. The traditional military units are still more powerful however, but takes significantly longer to recruit due to the extensive production line. The player must thus analyze the enemies and starting resources swiftly – the sooner the production line can be started, the better. Similar, if the enemies appear weak during the early stages, a quick and silent attack gently delivered by assassins might be preferred.

Each mission has a unique design which requires different approaches and strategies.

Each mission has a unique design which requires different approaches and strategies.

One aspect is to defend your castle and attack enemies, a whole other layer of gameplay, which appears subtle at first glance, is the actual castle management. Stronghold Crusader introduces a range of buildings and techniques which allows the player to generate more money, extra powerful men or a harder working population, to name a few. Increasing your population’s happiness through religion or ale allows for higher taxes, crowding and even food shortages. Similar, increasing the amount of bad things (i.e. gallows, dunking tools or cesspits) in your castle makes your population work faster and thus generate a faster and more efficient money flow.

Securing a food chain is even more important than it was in the original Stronghold due to the deserted and rocky terrain which greatly limits the amount of fertile areas. These areas are therefore both interesting and important strategic points; take out an enemy’s food supply and you force him out of his castle. The gameplay thus consists of both castle management, fighting and survival throughout 50 crusades, four chapters of historically inspired missions and an extra 30 crusades introduced after the original release – in total well above 40 hours of campaign gameplay, excluding later free- and custom-play.

Resources like stone and iron might need to be mass-produced to fund later warfare against unforgiving enemies.

Resources like stone and iron might need to be mass-produced to fund later warfare against unforgiving enemies.

The RTS-genre has undeniably advanced significantly since the release of Stronghold Crusader on several fronts; including, but not limited to, the graphics (though, admittedly, the old graphics are charming), the audio, the interfaces and the AI. Especially the latter is easily noticeable if you have played any modern RTS-game – the AI in Stronghold Crusader is easily tricked, and once a player reaches a certain point in the map, winning ultimately becomes a matter of time due to the superior human player and the seemingly flat difficulty-level of the AIs. Instead, the game relies on quantity and starting perks such as six AIs with 20.000 gold each versus the player with only 3.000 gold. The aforementioned resources and fertile areas may furthermore be in major favor of the AIs – something which combined does make for a challenging game, where especially the first many minutes are crucial for the player’s survival.

That said then the game unfortunately suffers from a range of bugs and glitches, which unavoidably results in quite some micromanagement of the player’s troops to ensure they indeed are doing the assigned task accordingly. The path-finding system has a tendency to choose some strange routes, and can, on rare occasions, end up getting your men stuck. Though, remembering the age of the game then these issues are minor and certainly not game breaking – merely frustrating due to the higher focus on micromanagement.

A large element of Stronghold Crusader is designing your castle and creating your defenses.

A large element of Stronghold Crusader is designing your castle and creating your defenses.

The freedom in terms of building and designing your castle is intriguing and very unique compared to other RTS-games. Similar, the actual gameplay is extremely simple and straightforward, but due to the many layers of extra options and techniques during both fighting and castle management, the gameplay is yet challenging – and most importantly, fun. Ignoring the minor bugs and glitches, Stronghold Crusader is a solid game for any RTS-fan, and a great option for those who wishes to enter the genre.

Firefly Studios recently updated the release date of the succeeder, Stronghold Crusader 2, to the end of September – specifically the 23rd September 2014. Pre-orders are already available, and in the meantime Stronghold Crusader can provide hours of fun.

Buy Stronghold Crusader HD on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/40970

Buy Stronghold Crusader HD on the Humble Store here:
https://www.humblebundle.com/store/p/strongholdcrusader_hd_storefront

Buy Stronghold Crusader HD on GOG here:
http://www.gog.com/game/stronghold_crusader

Pre-order Stronghold Crusader 2 on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/232890/

Pre-order Stronghold Crusader 2 from the developer’s website here:
http://strongholdcrusader2.com/

 

Papers, Please. Review, Please.

Papers, Please, which celebrated its 1-year anniversary last week, is described as “a dystopian document thriller” – quite an intriguing mouthful for a game description, but nonetheless a very fitting description for a truly unique game. Heavily influenced by the border systems present during World War II, Papers, Please introduces the player to the communist state of Arstotzka, which recently ended a 6-year war with its neighbors and otherwise reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

Winning the lottery would be a nice thing – everywhere but in Arstotzka and in Shirley Jackson’s novel. Unlike Jackson’s novel however, the player gets to live after winning the lottery, but they are forced to take the job as an immigration inspector. And without further ado or formal introduction, day one starts and the player has to face foreigners wanting to immigrate and citizens wishing to return – all with both poor and good attempts to cross the border and (re-)enter Arstotzka.

Papers, Please requires an eye for detail. All papers must be checked properly and the regulations, which are updated daily, must be upheld accordingly.

Papers, Please requires an eye for detail. All papers must be checked properly and the regulations, which are updated daily, must be upheld accordingly.

The gameplay appears extremely simple, but as the game progresses and more regulations are added to the border-security and immigration processes, the harder and more complex the game becomes. The player has to ensure details ranging from name, day-of-birth, sex and passport number to appearance, height and work pass’ are in correct order. Should the player fail to do so, more than three times per shift, a penalty is applied which ultimately hits the player hard as they are under a massive pressure to support a wife, mother-in-law, son and uncle with food, heat, medicine and shelter.

This ultimately introduces a great range of moral choices – should the player bend the rules after hearing some visitor’s heartbreaking stories and let them enter; knowing the consequences? A few achievements are in fact challenging the player’s moral stance – for instance, should an aging woman be allowed to visit her son despite having discrepancy in her papers? Similar, as the entry requirements tightens – following the significant increase in terrorist attacks inside Arstotzka against the oppressive government – more people may be detained. The choice, however, ultimately is the player’s – but as the nearby guard continues to declare his willingness to share his payment, which happens to be based on the amount of detains, the more tempted the player becomes. It becomes a simple matter of survival and thus prioritization.

The player faces several moral choices which directly affects their economy and thus the lives of their family.

The player faces several moral choices which directly affects their economy and thus the lives of their family.

An interesting aspect to Papers, Please is the sound effects, audio and graphics. There are no identifiable voices (in any language), but rather extremely robotic and inhumane voices – something which follows the unidentifiable, gender less and anonymous queue outside the inspector booth. Both elements together with the Kafkaesque, colourless and overall dystopian environment greatly amplifies the alienation between the state and the people.

The lack of human compassion is stunning, but perhaps very fitting for a totalitarian bureaucracy which values the state above everything and everyone. This, once again, introduces the player’s role – no action is inconsequential, and with every coin having two sides nothing is just black and white. Yet the player is ultimately the only one who can question the procedures and do the unexpected and unwanted; show compassion and empathy. The choices will ultimately impact the player’s family directly as illnesses, hunger and cold all follows rapidly though.

No action is inconsequential.

No action is inconsequential.

At first glance the game appears to be completed in just a few hours, and whilst that may be accomplished, then Papers, Please offers twenty different endings – some with very different happenings. The player may find themselves stealing passports for an upcoming escape with their family, disarming a bomb or handing out job-offers for Engineers. It is safe to say that it takes a fair amount of hours to get through all endings, but the game does face some issues when it comes to replayability.

Upon having completed the main endings, the remaining endings appear most attractive for achievement hunters and players who wishes to complete everything. Though it does seem as if developer Lucas Pope (@dukope) made a calculated move in this regard. After completing the game, players are able to re-play the game from any day they wish. Similar, an endless-mode may be unlocked. Both elements help make the game interesting post-completion. This encourages most players to go through all the various endings – something which is very much recommendable.

Not everyone is pleased with the government - but everyone needs to cross the border, one way or another...

Not everyone is pleased with the government – but everyone needs to cross the border, one way or another…

Papers, Please is in truth an unique game which pokes to the player’s moral and human compassion. It introduces the player to a very special and dystopian environment which, if allowed, greatly influences the player. It is not a game for everyone, but those who wishes to find a raw pearl within the ocean of indie-games and for those who treasures great narrative and design, this is the game.

Glory to Arstotzka.

Buy Papers, Please on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/239030

Buy Papers, Please on GOG.com here:
http://www.gog.com/gamecard/papers_please

Buy Papers, Please on the Humble Store here:
https://www.humblebundle.com/store/p/papersplease_storefront

Buy Papers, Please from the developer’s website here:
http://papersplea.se/

Kairo – where am I?

If the words minimalistic abstraction ever had to be used to describe a game, then Kairo, developed by British Richard Perrin, would be the most appropriate game. I originally purchased and installed the game without quite knowing what to expect – or what not to expect for that matter. Kairo starts in medias res; something which naturally leaves the player with a fair amount of uncertainty and second-guesses as to what they are meant to do. Unlike most other games however, the uncertainty gradually increases as you progress through the first few stages of the game – a very unusual, yet intriguing, experience. Unfortunately this also represents the barrier where players either decide to delve into this unique and captivating piece of content, or quit. It is important to stress that Kairo is not like any other game – and it may even be discussed whether labelling as it as puzzle exploration rather than game is more appropriate.

Kairo is in truth an atmospheric-puzzle game.

Kairo is in truth an atmospheric-puzzle game.

The fact that Kairo manages to distance itself from most other games within the first few minutes of gameplay is an accomplishment alone though, and perhaps the word distinct is a keyword when it comes to describing the game as a whole. There is no tutorial, no introduction to the story and no explanation to why you find yourself on top of an ancient stone construction. Alone.

The exploration begins psychedelically as you wander into thin air in an adventurous attempt to make it to the next construction. It is evident that exploration indeed is a big part of Kairo – both to complete the individual rooms, but also to locate the correct path(s). It moreover turns out that mastering scrutinizing for close to every sub-dimensional room is crucial and highly rewarding as players will find hidden runes and unlock achievements for collecting these.

Each new room has its own story and sacred mysteries.

Each new room has its own story and sacred mysteries.

In good accordance with the first few minutes of gameplay, the following puzzles presented to the player drastically increases in difficulty – to the point where taking breaks might become necessary. There are a few, fairly straightforward puzzles, but a majority of brainteasing and frustrating puzzles which, without a guide, can take a very long time to solve and requires a very good eye for details – solving these on your own does yield a certain sense of accomplishment and ignites motivation to continue though. This ultimately means that players looking for a casual puzzler will have to look elsewhere – Kairo is hardcore and does not reveal much, if anything at all. This, on the other hand, is a very positive thing when addressing the elite of puzzle-gamers.

As more rooms are unlocked and more puzzles are solved, the player starts to wonder what the purpose of Kairo is, not to mention what Kairo itself is –  if anything at all. It is evident that the player is reactivating – and sometimes literally fixing – ancient mechanisms within the ruins. At times short glimpses of modern- and present-times are shown, which yet again questions the story. Is Kairo a new beginning, or is it a desperate attempt to fix what has been lost and destroyed – or something completely else?

Most rooms have their own unique colour - but all rooms are installed with the same noise-layer.

All rooms have their own unique colour – but all rooms are installed with the same noise(/blurry)-layer.

All rooms are different – and those which requires a re-visit will change to a new colour every time. This empathizes how each room serves its own purpose, has its own (secret) story and function – it moreover means that each room is unique despite being a fully integrated part of every other room. However, while being in one room it is impossible to see any other room – or anything outside that specific room at all. The rooms are thus representing shattered memories, and the player is meant to collect these accordingly in order to figure out what really happened and why – something which greatly depends on the player’s own interpretation.

Every room has its own, unique function and story, but connecting them all seems to be the greatest puzzle.

Kairo is not a game for everyone, and it is a game which requires determination and a genuine interest in solving brainteasing puzzles. The environment and story (or, rather, lack of story given your point of view) can be very appealing, but that alone is not a reason to purchase and enjoy the game. A strong interest in puzzles is essential, but if a genuine interest is present then Kairo does offer some extremely complex, unique and intriguing puzzles which, without a guide, easily can take longer than eight hours to complete. Kairo is thus strongly recommendable for those seeking a unique and brainteasing puzzler with an interesting plot, but should be avoided by those who prefer more traditional puzzle-games.

Buy Kairo on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/233230/

Buy Kairo from the developer’s website here:
http://kairo.lockeddoorpuzzle.com/