EARLY ACCESS: Enter the Darkest Dungeon

The darkness is growing ferociously as you cautiously take yet another step into the unknown and sacred ruins. You have lost track of place and time, and supplies are running low. In fact, the last torch has just burned out, and visibility as well as morale and courage has diminished beneath what you considered sanely possible. Yet you cannot abandon the mission. You have gone through too much. You have sacrificed too much and too many.

Your team was flawed. You are flawed, but yet you and your team managed to leave relentless battles against twisted and unimaginable bizarre foes alive – although mentally vulnerable and heavily affected by the increasing psychological stress and paranoia. You are verging on a mental breakdown, and struggle to stop your natural survival instincts of abandoning your team and your mission, but you manage to find the last bit of courage, the last bit of hope, and take yet another step. The darkness thirstily inhales your fears as you approach the next door…

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Darkest Dungeon features an astonishing hand-drawn atmosphere.

The roguelike-genre has experienced a major renaissance the past few years with hundreds of games released last year alone, and every so often, a game stands out. This is one of them. This is Darkest Dungeon, a challenging roguelike turn-based RPG with innovative and highly intriguing game mechanics by developer Red Hook. It is hard to properly compare the game to others, but in all its essence, Darkest Dungeon remains a visually stunning dungeon-crawler similar to games such as Legends of Grimrock, but with clever and very innovative game mechanics.

The player must lead a team of four flawed heroes through twisted forests, crypts and ruins (the game currently has three completed dungeons, but more dungeons have been announced). Unlike traditional RPG games, all heroes experience psychological pressure as well as their subsequent side effects. The system does not necessarily interfere with the progression nor development however, but when the stress-factor becomes too high it will heavily affect the heroes. Whilst most side-effects are negative and mostly temporary, some effects are positive and will benefit the hero through all future endeavours. Character progression and development thus largely depends on the outcome of the psychological-dice roll.

Character progression is due to the affliction-system highly unique and very interesting.

Character progression is due to the affliction-system highly unique and very interesting.

Players will moreover manage a small village which functions as your party’s headquarters. The various buildings allow the heroes to reduce their stress through either drinking, gambling, medieval treatment, prayer or meditation. Though, every stress-reducing activity is expensive and with the party heavily relying on gear (torches, rations, medicine and bandages) for the next mission it becomes a matter of priorities. Additionally, players need money to fund the heroes’ personal equipment and skills. The many needs for money ultimately encourages the player to take further risks in an attempt to obtain more gold to secure further adventuring.

Darkest Dungeon is still – perhaps quite surprising – in early-access despite feeling like a near-complete game. The graphics and atmosphere is stunning and engrossing, the narration and voice acting is well-made and the gameplay feels reasonably balanced. The combat system is turn-based and heavily relies on positioning and picking the right heroes, skills and items. Failing to do so properly results in a brutal death which due to the roguelike-elements means, worst case scenario, permanently lost heroes (though, the player may abandon a mission, but doing so generates no gold to cover the restoration of the remaining heroes’ physical and mental health). With an announced six months of early-access-mode and dedicated developers, the game is bound to receive plenty of updates which only strengthens this recommendation.

Buy Darkest Dungeon (EARLY ACCESS) on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/262060/

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

Please note that this is an early-access game and that everything thus remains subject to change depending on the feedback provided by the community – if you wish to submit feedback please check the dedicated forums

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.

A brilliant love-hate relationship

Playing a game usually means having and following a comprehensive and at times complicated recipe; but Fenix Rage by Green Lava Studios shows that the recipe may be as simple as making cookies. Unfortunately I cannot make cookies. Instead, I must accept fate and cope with a slowly boiling rage and frustration as I enter the inevitably lead to death the thousandth time.

Fenix Rage appears relatively simple at first glance with easy and very responsive core-mechanics. The player is given the ability to use infinite double-jumps and a special quick-dashing technique – each action may be cancelled by moving differently, should the player wish to do so. However, with the intriguing and highly challenging map design the controls are very hard to master accordingly.

Fenix Rage

The charming graphics are merely a cover for the inevitable death and perilous environment.

Surprisingly, the gameplay itself is even simpler than the controls as the charming platforms are loaded. The game offers two approaches on each map – the player may either choose to go for speed and thus optimize their run flawlessly and compete on the leaderboards, or they may attempt to collect all cookies at the cost of time. I say two approaches because attempting to do both successfully simultaneously is, more or less, impossible – something which undeniably teases you to complete each map more than once to obtain both things. Naturally, the maps furthermore get increasingly more complicated as more hazardous puzzles are introduced as well as unforgiving bosses being unleashed.

The different puzzles moreover introduces some very interesting and unique gameplay as coordination and positioning suddenly becomes a crucial part of completion. Similar, each boss (and there are many!) is unique and forces the player to develop different strategies to defeat them. Failing to do any of the above means death and a complete restart of the map – there is no health bar, start-from-where-you-died or anything slightly forgiving.

Fenix Rage

A range of new puzzles are being introduced as the player slowly progresses through the maps and worlds. All maps are furthermore unique and requires their own, specific approach.

The maliciously designed obstacles unavoidably means that the player is going to die. A lot. This aspect requires Fenix Rage to find the perfect balance between frustration, rage and a slight humiliation of the player’s self esteem. There are no excuses whilst playing Fenix Rage – you either understand the map, obstacles and control the movement flawlessly, or you die. Moreover, understanding the map becomes increasingly more relevant as the player advances from the ten-second maps – something which brutally bumps up the difficulty promptly and significantly. Completing a map thus requires either an incredible lucky run or full control of the movement – and rewards both relief and a feel of accomplishment.

And as if completing the levels normally wasn’t enough, the game offers two extra options (Challenge and God). The challenge-mode requires the player to complete the map on limited jumps / dashes – something which often results in having to time each jump perfectly to not waste a single pixel. The god-mode offers a whole new way of playing as the player now is required to touch all obstacles in a seemingly impossible amount of time.

Approaching the levels as an explorer and observer will help generate an understanding of the obstacles.

Approaching the levels as an explorer and observer will help generate an understanding of the obstacles.

If you aren’t prepared, Fenix Rage will tear apart and humiliate your self-esteem and everything you thought you knew about mastering platformers. Fenix Rage is truly testing your skill (and at times what feels like your sanity), but Green Lava Studios understands how to balance the ocean of infuriating moments with the rewarding sense of accomplishment when completing a level. If you are up for a challenge and master anger management as well as platformers, Fenix Rage is a must-have.

Buy Fenix Rage on Steam here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/294460/

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

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.

Fancy Skulls – a procedural death labyrinth

I was super excited back in January when an early-access version of Fancy Skulls from developer tequibo was made available for purchase on respectively the Humble Bundle platform and the IndieGameStand. Arguably the game was still work-in-progress back then, but the Unity-based program already had some interesting and unique elements to offer.

Recently, back in June, Fancy Skulls was released on Steam as an early-access game after being GreenLit by the community. The latter is especially important to bear in mind as this review is based solely on version 0.7.2, and several elements are thus likely still subjects to change in future updates. However, the accomplishment of being GreenLit and the constant flow of updates throughout many months clearly shows a dedicated developer and a game worth writing about.

Fancy Skulls rewards the player for taking their time to aim properly as all enemies have a weak spot.

Fancy Skulls is an interesting, roguelike first-person shooter set in a mysterious, surreal and ever dangerous labyrinth inhabited by a range of monster eggs which comes alive as the player triggers the room. The first thing which strikes the eye is the unique and very abstract graphics – especially the enemies have a very unique and intriguing design, in fact, they stand out as something which you haven’t seen in any game before.

Secondly comes the very straightforward and smooth movement (seemingly inspired by games like Unreal Tournament or Quake) and mouse-control – something which is done very likeable for a game created in Unity. Fancy Skull utilizes the standard WASD-controls, but the player will soon discover that movement and time can be altered and changed. An example hereby is a kite, which instantly changes the gameplay significantly by allowing the player to fly.

Chests and crates are scattered throughout most rooms, adding a treasure-hunter element.

Chests and crates are scattered throughout most rooms, adding a treasure-hunter element.

This brings me to the gameplay. Fancy Skulls has one, seemingly simple and straightforward goal; complete level 1-9. Without dying, of course. Though, after the first few deaths completing all nine levels and all rooms without dying suddenly appears quite a challenge. And truth be told, it is. The different enemies requires an individual analysis – does it move, if yes, how and where is its weak spot. The latter is not always as obvious as you’d like it to be – something which ultimately forces the player to position themselves to get a clear shot – an act which needs to be done flawlessly as each room locks down until all enemies are cleared.

However, the most important aspect the Fancy Skull’s gameplay is the range of items and upgrades gathered from chest and purchased from stores. The different items furthermore appear very balanced as players are forced to wait for mana regeneration before an item may be used again, and since each item and upgrade is done on the cost of another item or upgrade.

Keys, coins or ammo-packs are found in most rooms and rewarding upon clearing a room.

Keys, coins or ammo-packs are found in most rooms and/or rewarded upon clearing a room.

The stores (or, rather, vendors) – which currency is coins picked up after completing a room or gathered from drops – allows the player to upgrade their weapon(s) as they see fit. I found the standard revolver to be very powerful by sacrificing six-shots to just one (but with all six bullet’s damage in one) and purchasing a no-ammo upgrade – effectively creating a sniper rifle. Upgrading weapons does allow for some strategic gameplay as some upgrades are weak against certain type of enemies while some are powerful against other enemies.

A massive difference compared to other similar games is the limited ammunition, required aiming and otherwise strategic planning of weapon upgrades. These elements does all contribute towards making Fancy Skulls truly unique while offering a great replay-ability.

One of the many items ignites nearby enemies.

One of the many items ignites nearby enemies.

Roguelike games have always been a part of the gaming scene, but only a fair few first person shooters are vaguely fitting the sub-genre’s requirements of permanent death and procedural level generation. Not only is Fancy Skulls one of them, but the game is likely to set a new standard and be an inspiration for new games within this genre – especially considering the fact that the game is still being developed!

Fancy Skulls is truly fancy, and it deserves more recognition than it already has achieved. The game is highly recommended with an interesting gameplay, surreal and abstract graphics and hours of re-playability.

Buy Fancy Skulls on Steam here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/307090/

Buy Fancy Skulls directly from tequibo (and get a Steam key as well):
http://www.fancyskulls.com/