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/

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/